Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction ❯ Hidden Virtues ❯ Section 2 ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
(Section 2)

"Good news Major," McClellan's soft, rough voice announced to Belmont's feet, which protruded from beneath the card table as she helped Toho plug data feeds into a distributor node, "I've got the A7 Mainframe slotted to link the Eva and three other machines."

Raina Stormcloud was at his shoulder, fingering the miniature dreamcatcher she wore at her throat, "And, we've managed to scare up programming for everything in here. We can have a synchrograph from the diagnostic set Toho found, as well as an equipment status monitor and a neural linkage matrix monitor with two of the lap tops."

Belmont wrestled herself out from beneath the card table, brushing her hands off as she came to her feet, "Good."

"McClellan, the major and I scrounged up the linkage nodes you asked for," Toho added, her petite form leaned back against the window of the foreman's booth. The tiny booth, with its associated catwalk, was now strewn with so much equipment that walking had become a trial.

Below them, the Eva was almost as fully garbed in orange and yellow armored plates as it would be in the twenty minutes allotted for the job. From the vantage point of the foreman's booth, Unit-06 seemed to hang its head as the massive shoulder clamps kept it
from tumbling limply forward onto its face.

"That's what I was hoping for. Major," McClellan nodded drearily, turning to Belmont, "Thanks for making sure it got done."

"My technical knowledge is practically useless at the moment," Belmont shrugged, "And, I always hated commanders who just lorded over everything. So," She sighed, "is there anything else that needs done?"

"We're almost ready here, Sir. All we need is an Eva and a pilot."

"Don't remind me," she said to herself, "I've got some other things I have to check up on. When Avery reappears, have him set up to monitor the synchrograph. Toho, you have the equipment status board, and Stormcloud, since you're our Neural linkage expert, you manage Matrix status. McClellan," she continued, turning, "you watch the gateway on the mainframe."

"Yeah, you got it major," McClellan commented vaguely. Stormcloud tipped her head and Toho nodded. They all knew what was needed.

Brushing through the door, Belmont said over her shoulder, "I'll be back shortly."

Moving to the nearest downward ladder, she cinched the volume on her headset until she could hear that Valentine was still rambling in her ear, "... ignore me if you want, but we really, really need you down here, Alexandra."

"I heard you the first time," she replied. "Not like I can just drop everything the instant you need something."

"It might've been better if you had," he grouched.

"Just hold your horses," she said, putting her hands on the ladder to start down toward the main gantry. "I'm on my way."

"Good," he responded shortly, "meet me on the far side of the second level walkway." Then the radio clicked off.

"Pushy bastard," Belmont thought to herself for the zillionth time. She slipped the headset away from her ears; Valentine always tended to talk just a little loudly whenever he was on a comm link. Far away the battle progressing against the Angel crackled and
rumbled. In the past few minutes, the sounds of explosions had grown markedly closer.

Before she managed to actually start down the ladder, Lt. Wise appeared, his face flushed from running. Belmont dropped her gaze as he approached.

"Well?" She asked, as shortly as she could.

"Jane'll do it," he said, a pain in his eyes.

"Very well," she started to turn away, "Valentine has more problems. I have to get going..."

"Listen," he stopped her, "Just wait a second. You know I have to ask."

Still, she did her best to look at her feet, feeling suddenly like a tiny child.

"Please don't put my daughter in the belly of that beast."

"I wish I had a choice," she responded, not attempting to see his expression.

"Just look me in the face for once and say it;" he insisted, "This is my daughter who's life we're toying with." She could hear the quiver in his speech.

"Do you actually want me to use McClellan in her place? You know he wouldn't stand a chance," she could not lift her gaze. "Jane is the only one who might survive it. If she chose to do it, I have no right to stop her."

"You know she would never turn it down. I have to step in for her."

Deeply silent, Belmont had hoped she would not be confronted with this situation. But, as a Deer stuck in a headlight beam, she could not turn away. Distant rolling thunder, the chorus of a spring rain, reverberated delicately through the gigantic chamber. An insistent promise.

"Major... Alex... I can't permit this," He was vehement.

The use of that name stung. At that point her eyes came up, a welling of ancestral duty filling her void, "In which world would you have her living? The hopeless one? She has less to lose than any of us. We have no chance without her, and she follows fate without us. As much as I hate it, I have to guide us down this path. That, or we're ALL dead."

"It would take a miracle to make this work!"

"But less of one if Jane is the pilot," she told him, throat bitter with horrified bile at having actually spoken the words. "You know I feel no better than you about this. Except my hands are tied. I'm damned already -what is there left to save?" Having said everything that would come to mind, she started down the ladder.

"Goddamn it Alex!" Wise began, reading what was in her thoughts, "It was never your fault-"

Her eyes flashing, in a very un-military manner she snapped around, "DON'T CALL ME THAT FUCKING NAME!"

Leaving a bewildered Lt. Wise in her wake, she turned harshly away, trying with a touch of success to quell the reflexive tears. Feeling so tired, only a single drop fell as she descended the ladder, forming a minuscule mote of wetness at her lapel. Her arms and
legs wanted to stop moving, just give up and stop. She felt she wanted to fall, just to give up let gravity take her down. Yet she could not. Despite all else, she had to keep going for everyone's sake but her own. By the time she reached the second level walkway of the gantry, her face was empty of the vague expression she had fought so hard to control just moments before. -The strongest Will on the entire base, and she can only offer solace if
the questions have yes or no answers,- Belmont reminded herself, -if nothing else, I have to trust that her strength is greater than mine.-

Striding with purpose along the catwalk, Belmont centered her eyes on the far end to keep from reminding herself just how close she was to the monster in the scaffold. With a heavy heart and a wavering desire, she could feel it now more than ever; the huge, mute, lifeless eyes casting down on her, boring into her soul as only she could feel. In its silence, she could hear its music as clearly as a sister's voice. More clearly.

Pushing away the leaden feeling, she emptied her mind of a decade's worth of grief, pressing through the busy crowd until she finally found Dr. Valentine. Keets stood next to the doctor, half lounging against the railing of the gantry with exaggerated ease. Valentine himself had his arms crossed and was pacing the width of the grated walkway.

"Yo Major!" Keets called, nodding his head in greeting, "just tellin' Doc how much -06 looked like a fucked up booze hound that crawled out of a yakuza tattoo parlor and into a circus tent. I think the clowns were taking turns..."

"Oh please," Belmont ignored the intentionally abrasive talk, "Haven't you got anything better to do before that angel gets here?"

"He does not," Valentine interjected sharply. "At least until you take a look at my latest problem."

Belmont shrugged, "Okay. What?"

Without saying anything, Valentine gestured with his hand over the railing.

Hanging in space, suspended by cables from one of the automated cranes, -It- brooded darkly. A big black cauldron shape, two men tall, surmounted by a huge hexbolt structure and dozens of vein-like arterioles, the thing cast a shadow over all the other activity in the chamber. Stenciled on its ugly side in bold white lettering were the words, "Type II Prototype S2 Engine Interlock."

"As you can see, Major," Valentine began, "we have a serious power source dilemma, even though installation will take two minutes."

Belmont looked at him in shock, "Are you out of your mind?! You want to put that thing in and complete Unit-06's S2 engine?"

"The RP-2 supplement interlock went back to Germany for reworking. The only thing we have that can channel power from batteries and external sources to the Eva's core systems is that... conduit... there," he pointed at the thing hanging from the cables. "We can't use Eva-06 without it."

"What about Nevada?" She asked.

"What about it? The S2 engine that destroyed Division 2 was a non-integrated design," Valentine shrugged, as if to explain away all past laments.

"I know that. And the core designs are exactly the same! This one might be just as unstable. It was here for testing only. We don't know if it works."

"Most of the S2 was built straight into Unit-06 in order to try out mass production techniques. As you know, nine other units are currently in the infant stages of construction. The guts are already in our girl. Plugging the interlock in just connects it all to the system. You want to abort the operation now?" there was a serious expression on doctor's sweaty face.

Belmont's head reeled. Jane Wise, S2, Eva, everything that was falling on her shoulders jogged around her cerebrum. Finally, she declared softly, "What choice is there? We plug it in and hope it doesn't blow up in our faces..."

"Dude..." Keets exclaimed.


A world the size of a shoe box, four walls, a ceiling and a floor. Five of those surfaces were invisible presences only to eyes that would not turn far enough in their sockets to catch a glimpse. Steady tapping of passing feet located the floor. Those floors were made of tile in the adjoining hallway weren't they? Foot noise reflected off invisible vertical surfaces that corralled on all sides. Those were the walls, surely hidden by freestanding medical equipment. From the overall direction of the people sounds, the shape of a door was readily discernible. It was a familiar door, existing in visual memory as part of a frame seen from a reclined angle. Gurney wheels squeaking, she'd been through the door many times. And then there was the section of ceiling she could see directly above her, illuminated by a single pale fluorescent light. The lonely sun of her cubicle universe.

What a thought: her whole life bolted to a three by three foot patch of an inverted surface. In the middle was her little TV, whose channels she could not change and whose video player she could not operate. Beside it, her Kitten-hanging-from-a-string poster was hung slightly crooked on this latest sky, its edges so often stapled that they were beginning to fray. A single channel TV and an old poster, the extent of her worldly possessions.

-'Hang in there, baby,'- she read from the poster.

Still, there was a reproducible familiarity. Above her head, where she could not see, the heart monitor beeped softly in echo of the repetitive rhythms emanating from the depths of her chest. She could scent the odor of alcohol along with a tangy taste of medications. The plastic shell of her artificial lung clenched constantly at her waist, torso and neck, its hardness beginning to rub bedsores into a slightly twisted shoulder. Through her mouth, breath not her own sighed away in mechanical exactness, each cycling taking precisely five seconds. Five days, ten months, twenty years, she had lost count how long life had been this way.

Such was her corporeal world.

-Last chance to not give it all up,- she thought.

The female nurse spoke again, "Are you ready Jane? Your father instructed that you were not to be moved without your consent."

-There can be no turning back. Is this my last chance?- Jane's eyes flicked up and down, responding a decisive -Yes.-

"Okay," the nurse told her, turning to someone beyond Jane's field of vision, "Bring in the portable respirator. Let's get her ready."

A respirator mask that smelled strongly of disinfectant was lowered over her nose and mouth, its elastic band secured around the back of her head. Bodies moved at the edges of her vision. She could feel the scraping of fingers popping loose the catches on the Plexiglas shell of the artificial lung. Suddenly, the top half of her breathing apparatus was gone, no longer pressing at her sternum. The shell was lifted up away from her, permitting her to see it for once.

She had a moment of controllable anxiety when her lungs did not draw their next breath as scheduled. One way or another, they no longer moved on their own anymore.

-Three bodies,- Jane decided as someone finally turned on the respirator cupping her mouth, forcing her chest to recommence its slow rising and falling. -Two orderlies and a nurse,- she knew, recognizing the sounds of each individual breathing pattern from memory. While the nurse and one orderly stood to her sides, within her visual arc, she could not see the third. She also couldn't see what their hands were doing. Had one been wearing glasses, the reflections there would have been telling. Her ears ever attentive, informing her attendants were all breathing more rapidly than usual. Almost to the point of gasping. Were they afraid? What made them afraid?

Listening to the sounds of the distant battle beyond the voices of the nurses, she tried to decide what element of the situation scared her most. Outside the walls of her minute pocket of comprehension, a war was a formless entity that meant nothing. Jane did not know of Angels and Evas. Did the Angel have big, white feathery wings? Did it wear a halo? There were a dozen questions she wanted badly to ask, but couldn't. The inability to ask questions was the most frightening thing she knew about.

"Let's remove these leads. We have to have her totally disconnected to put on the plugsuit."

Knowing what was to come next, Jane focused her eyes on the ceiling light. Distant cylindrical light, as warm as it was cool, hummed away quietly under the massage of electrical energy. -Casting tiny shadows on the ceiling, I am the light.-

-The light,- a streak of pain lanced down her arm, accompanied by a ripping sound. Medical tape pulled away. -Happy glow, inside and out.- more streaks of pain, abrasive though distant. -Bring light for all.- torching pain, a big wriggling worm bulging out, seeking to escape the crook of her elbow. Slithering from her arm, warm, pulsing the timing of her heart, -Nothing but a distant light.- fingers pressing with bruising harshness at her arms and legs, wrestling things from the inside out. A colony of parasites fleeing a sinking ship.

IVs, monitor leads, blunt fingers on strong hands, Jane's focus was barely good enough to keep the senses distant. Surgical tape holding the tubes that kept her eyes moist was pulled away, ripping several stray lashes from her unblinking eyelids. Tears escaped across her face despite her staunch denial.

Spotting the tears, the nurse leaned close, "Your eyes are drying out already?" Her hand came up carrying a bottle of eye drops.

-No.- Jane tried to say, though the nurse was in too much of a hurry to notice.

-No, Please, no!- The thing came in, hovering like a needle about of be punched into her cornea. -No.- she could not protest, unable to make the nurse understand the misunderstanding. Painful drops of wetness fell down, sending her vision swimming, begging her muscles for the reflex to blink. First one eye and then the other, until Jane's vision was a splash of senseless color.

Staring out into a blur, Jane felt the liquid run out across her face in streams, skirting the edge of the breathing mask. -I forgive you, I forgive you.- she repeated in her silence, trying to believe that the nurse had meant nothing by the act.

Exploring fingers pulled at the ties of her hospital robe, removing her only clothing. Touching her chest and legs, pulling away more tape and sensors. Touching her with rough immodesty where it would be considered a crime with a normal teen. Touching her.

Jane focused away again, once more using her only remaining weapon. -A good memory for a bad one.-

-My god Sport!- her father's laughing voice echoed over the corridors of time. -I got you that video yesterday. How do you know all that?-
She leapt and spun, muscles aching in a pleasant way. Gravity barely holding her to the ground, a six year old in the process of discovery. -Look at me, Daddy!- the Pirouette forming of its own accord, sweeping on into a leap with her hands positioned just right. She did not know the names of the movements, but that never mattered.
-Christ! A six year old performing what took Baryshnikoff years to learn. But honestly,- he teased, -you should probably try focusing on female ballet technique!-
She remembered the big congratulatory hug.

Finally the catheters came out and hands were gone, leaving the open air to touch her naked body. She could feel where the cotton swabs pressed against the wounds resulting from her preparation. Cool drafts caressed against her skin as people circulated around her. She ignored the ache. At least her vision was once again clear.

"Lift her up, let's get her dressed. We don't have much time before the Angel gets here." The nurse instructed.

More gently, hands wrapped mushy gauze over the holes in her limbs, covering where she had been invaded. Finally, they lifted her legs, steering them into a piece of clothing that Jane could not move to see. They lifted her sequentially, gradually pulling the robing up along her waist toward her neck. Her arms were maneuvered through openings in the garb, her fingers gently teased until they fit into velvety gloves. Through the soft fabric, she could feel segments of plastic sculpted to follow the lines of her shoulders, chest, waist, back and legs. Once they fastened the garb along her back and about her neck, somebody lifted her wrist, applying an almost invisible pressure to a bracelet that fit there. With a quiet hiss, the clothing shrank skin tight around her entire body, urging her gently to forget her pain.

"Much better," the nurse commented, "has to feel more comfortable than all that life support gear." Then she turned to the orderlies, "Move her to the gurney, we have to take her to the Cage right away."

Jane was amazed for an instant that what the nurse had said was true; it had been a long while since she felt so free.

-Is this free?-

In an instant, they lifted and transferred her onto the solid cart. Jane could hear the respirator sitting next to her, drawing her each breath with the mechanical punctuality of a Swiss clock. She looked one last time at the Kitten poster hanging over her bed, her domain. -Good-bye Boots,- she bade the Kitten as the orderlies wheeled her

Coasting beneath the door frame, wheels rattling with a soft though persistent squeak, Jane watched the ceiling of her little universe disappear. At once, the familiar equipment sounds and lighting were gone, consumed behind a drone of increased noise. Shepherded by an orderly who hovered above her head, Jane felt the cart nudged hastily along the hallway. -Where is this place?- she asked herself, not a regular patron of the corridor. Only when the orderlies transported her across the ward for her bimonthly MRI examinations did she frequent this foreign vista. To her the experience was akin to what another felt traveling in an airliner, looking down on a familiar world from an open sky.

The ward was in full motion. People in white coats flashed past at the edges of her vision, leaving wakes of air that washed over her like wavelets on an ocean shore. She could hear many different set of lungs, breathing laboriously, connected to bodies that jerked about as sharply as frightened deer. They shouted back and forth across the ward, using opaque jargon terms like, "Stat," "Asap," "Charge the Defib, 200 millijoules!" Jane didn't know what was being said; medical stuff had never made sense. What was worse, in all the time she was bedridden, she had never felt a medical ward so active.

She wanted so badly to sit up for just a moment. Just the tiniest barest second, sitting on her own, holding her head up, to get a quick look to see what was going on. But she remained fixed, despite all impulses and desires, a permanent hostage of gravity. Counting her breaths, she put down the welling of frustration, focusing her attention to a point in her abdomen as the respirator hammered out each cycling of air. She felt the slight locus of heat, wishing that she could directly control her inhalations and exhalations. She could not use the technique to the fullest extent of her ability. Yet, it did keep her sane, despite all else.

"Good luck Jane! Do us proud Jane!" people told her as she was wheeled past. She could not see most of the faces that spoke to her, each one disappearing from the corner of her eye before she could look in the appropriate direction.

-Doing what?- she asked silent, fighting an array of emotions -Luck doing what? How can I help you when I don't have a clue what's happening? You want me to pilot an Eva to fight an Angel. But what exactly is an Eva? What's an Angel for that matter? And, how could I, of all people, be any help? What if... what if the entry plug is like that other place?- She felt anxious and excited with a hint of fear, but mastered it all by focusing her mind elsewhere.

Behind the forbidding wonders, Jane silently envied a high keening shriek of agony that formed the soprano of a spectral choir reflecting along the walls of the hallway. What a pair of billowing leathery lungs that would've taken. To make such a noise. -Wish I could trade you.- To be able to breathe again at her own whim. What a fondly impossible desire screaming was to one who hadn't produced even the slightest sound in almost a year.

For Jane, locked in a permanent torpor, with the beating of her heart and the cycling of her respirator as her only measures, time had no concrete dimension. Morning, noon or night, she sometimes didn't know, sleeping when she grew tired, yearning for a meal beyond the tubes that had pumped nutrition straight into her veins, then cleansed her blood directly. How long was twenty-five minutes? When would the angel finally attack the lab? When did they want her to do whatever it was she was supposed to do?

She managed to control her instinctive dread despite the flash of abysmal darkness.

If nothing else, this ceiling was more interesting than the one above her bed. While she loved the poster of Boots, and probably would never have survived without the constant friend made by her little television, it didn't take long to grow bored of looking at the same three foot expanse all the time. Though her father often insisted that she be moved between rooms on a relatively frequent basis, the ceilings usually looked much the same after two or three weeks of continual comparison. Evidence of the effort on his part made her feel a little happier at times; it was the thought that counted, wasn't it?

-So many lights here, so bright- she thought, watching the florescent ceiling lights flick past one after another, coming from the direction of her feet and leaving well beyond her range of vision above her head. Was it daylight out? Maybe there were windows that she couldn't see. Jane abandoned that thought before it formed; glass sounded different than plaster. There was very little glass here. From her vantage point, she could not gauge the length of the corridor, knowing only that it had discontinuous walls from the echoes she sometimes heard made by the wheels of her gurney. From the broken echoes, she could sense open doorways at intervals. Every so often, the cart would turn, causing the light bars to rotate ninety degrees or so. Then they would be going down another hallway that looked identical to the last.

Gradually, almost more slowly than could easily be perceived,Jane sensed a shift in the people noises gravitating around her. Men and women still shouted jargon around her, but the texture changed. The noises here were less shrieks of pain and more whining of tools. Decor became stale, almost dead. Perhaps they were passing though the morgue?

-I must not be in the medical ward anymore,- she realized. Making five turns and traveling for much longer than expected, Jane was finally wheeled across a thick metal doorway into a vast room where the ceiling disappeared into distant steel rafters lined
with flood lights and thick conduits. To Jane, where the ceiling was always a wall no more than five or six feet away, the cavern rising away from her was like traveling into a separate universe. Spot lights shined down like distant stars. Not that she had seen stars recently.

At once, the ambient noise became spread out across the vast emptiness, hinting at open depth the size of a sporting arena. Or bigger. The cart bumped to a stop on the rough metallic surface.

"Hold on, they're here!"

-Dad?!- Jane knew by the sound of the voice.

"About goddamn time!" someone else called. For a moment, Jane thought it might be Dr. Valentine, but wasn't certain. "Get her up here."

Dozens of people moved about on the metal grate floor. Jane could feel hints of perspiration as they passed, the odors of fear tainted by intense effort. Machine smells were everywhere too; ozone, grease, rusted steel and... something else. She picked out
her father's footsteps as he approached.

"Sport!" he made an effort to smile when he came into her visual arc. She could see how tired he was. His eyes were a little red. "Look at you! All the machines are gone now."

-Is this free?- Jane wondered again, thinking about darkness and robotics labs and places she didn't really want to visit again.

Father bent down and hugged her, carefully watching the respirator with his strong arms. She could feel his pulse racing where the skin of his neck touched her. "You know you don't have to do this," he whispered for her alone. "You know I'm not forcing you to do this."

When he backed away to see her response, she just looked him intensely in the eye, as if to say "Da-ad." But the words would never come.

Whether she wanted it to or not, a tear dripped from her left eye. She glanced down, trying to see where it skirted the edge of her breathing mask.

Father blinked rapidly on seeing it, then reached to brush the droplet away. "You don't have to do this, Sport. You really sure you want to?"

Jane nodded her eyes. -I won't back away, not if I can really be helpful again. I hate lying around all day more than anything in the world,- she wanted so much to say. -Yes,- was all she could manage.

"Dammit, Lt. Wise," someone shouted again, "Get her up here! We haven't got time for this."

To Jane, Father at last nodded, "Okay, but please be careful." He hugged her again before picking her up off the gurney.

"Someone grab her respirator pack for me!"

"Come on, get moving! The Angel's almost here!"

The next few moments were dizzy. In the comfort of her father's arms, Jane saw the huge Eva for the first time. Big, orange, yellow and gray. It was littered with as many curses as a concrete wall in a New York City underpass. It was as sad and helpless as she, held up by enormous hooks and gantries. Deformedly skinny beneath the plates of incomplete armor. Two of a kind.

As they walked past, someone Jane knew very well spoke. "Good luck, Jane," it was Major Belmont.

Jane strained to see the woman, strained to see her familiar blond hair and blue eyes. -Wait!- she wanted to call. But Major Belmont never came within view. All Jane was left with was gentle brush against her cheek by the unseen woman's hand. -Please talk to me!-
never left her mouth.

"Look out, coming through."

Father climbed a ladder onto the Eva's back, carefully maneuvering with his daughter in his arms. Extended from the machine's enormous neck was a bone white tube that had a hatch on the front side.

Darkness flashed; the compartment looked just like the one from all those months ago. Jane wanted to bite her lip to put away the fear. Dr. Valentine stood before it with his arms crossed.

Someone stumbled behind them, causing a light jerking against the hose of her breath mask, "Watch that respirator. If you drop it and hurt my daughter, you will not live to regret it."

"Okay, okay."

Valentine nodded to them as they approached, "We don't have much time left, let's put her in."

"Set the respirator on the side there."

"Like that?"

"Yeah... okay, watch out."

Between them, the three men managed to get Jane maneuvered into the entry plug couch. Dr. Valentine caught Jane's eye, "Everything's going to be fine." She could tell he was lying by the flush of his face and the sweat dripping from his forehead.

"Let's get her strapped in."

"There..." restraints were quickly secured over all her limbs, the belts pulled almost tight enough to hurt.

"That'll hold her," Valentine comment as he stepped back for a moment. With a smile, seemingly out of his sleeve, he produced a pair of silvery tabs. "Watch the birdie, Jane, my girl," he applied the cool probes with deft hands to either side of her forehead. For a moment, Jane wanted to twitch at feeling the cold metal.

"We're running short on time here!" someone called from far away.

"Hold on, we're almost done," Jane's father responded.

"Here," Dr. Valentine pressed several things into her father's hands, "You have to get into the plug with her."

"What are these?" he asked.

"Okay..." Valentine leaned close to Jane and put a radio transceiver in her ear, "That comfortable?"

-Yes- Jane responded.

"You'll be able to hear what we're saying with that." Then he turned to her father, "Lieutenant, that there a mouthpiece to keep Jane from biting her lips or tongue if she gets jarred. That," he pointed to the other object, a computer chip, "is a plugsuit hardware modifier. The major was bitching at me that Jane wouldn't be able to move LCL in and out of her lungs, so that device you're holding makes the plugsuit tense up around her abdomen. Kinda like breathing, but really pretty wimpy."

"What am I supposed to do with them?" her father wondered aloud.

Valentine laughed, "Someone's gotta go into the plug with her and get that respirator off of her when we flood the chamber with LCL. As her father, you're automatically voted to do it. You put the mouthpiece in after you breathe the last of the air out of her lungs. Just use CPR technique. Then you put that chip into the plugsuit to keep her alive."

"Ah... Okay," her father nodded, a look of determination on his face, "let's do it." He stepped into the plug in front of his daughter's seat.

"Comfortable Jane?" Valentine asked from behind her father.

-Yes,- Jane replied.

"She says 'yes'," her father translated.

"Come On people!" Belmont shout across the chamber, "now or never!"

"Is the respirator in the way of the hatch?" Father asked over his shoulder.

"No," Valentine told him, reaching to set the device next to Jane in the space of the entry plug. The little breathing apparatus had not lost time in the entire trek across the base.

"Let's close this thing up," Dr. Valentine looked at a technician. Turning away, he gave an unobtrusive thumb's up that Jane could see just past her father's side. "Give 'em hell Jane!"

With a hydraulic hiss, the cylindrical section of hatch slid down from above, covering the tube's entry. Jane's father huddled against her in the cramped space, his breath rasping in her ear as he hunched close. Whoever built the thing had not intended a full sized passenger standing up. The hatch slipped into place, blocking out all vision of the world, then sealed seamlessly with an ear-popping thump.

At that moment, the tube felt suddenly cold. Secluded after a fashion. All that could be heard were the sounds of breathing and respirator. Father's pulse beat tickled where his wrist pressed lightly at her throat. Her nose wanted to twitch at the alcohol smell of the respirator mask which had chosen at last to make its presence known. Jane wanted to sneeze.

Then, with a soft hum, like the spin of a disk drive, pale fluorescent light illuminated the cylindrical chamber dimly from below. Jane and her dad waited in the shadowy, nearly silent tube.

"We'll be all right," her father said.

-Not quite like that other place,- she thought, relishing in the closeness of her father's warmth. She tried to swallow anxiously, but could not make her muscles attempt the task.


"I can't believe I'm actually relying on a little kid to save my ass..." Teneyl hissed under his breath.


Shaking his head, Teneyl gave Elston self-exasperated glance. "If Belmont wants to save us," he explained, "she'd better do it damn soon."

For every attack the fighter planes made, it seemed one more was removed from the sky. In one case an Angel's gigantic hand-blade flashed open so fast that the targeted aircraft didn't even fall apart for a full second or two. When it finally did, it burst into flaming chunks that riddled an F-22 and a Rafale caught too close. The Rafale lost a section of wing in the cloud of flying debris, which immediately sent it into a tight, smoky, earthbound spiral. The F-22 lasted a heartbeat longer before it shredded its own airframe with loose turbine blades. A half second later, both aircraft flew apart like medieval fireworks. Transformed to so many blistering leaves in autumn, pieces from fighter planes sprinkling from the air, toasted to nothing, pilots and all.

"That's three more losses," Elston told him. On his screen, the casualty report reading more and more like a grocery list, "We aren't slowing them down anymore."

Teneyl nodded stiffly, listening through his headset as fighter pilots called in panic to each other. A second before, screams of horror and pain cut short as a radio ceased functioning. Just one more airman who saw his last seconds coming, only to realize he would never get home again to see his wife and child. Children! All of them Teneyl's responsibility, gradually being stripped away. And one child to do what the best in the military couldn't? Teneyl practically quivered in his boots with dread.

"Keep cutting across their path," he answered finally, his voice condemnably hoarse, "See if we can still draw them off."

"We've just lost another artillery emplacement," Elston didn't glance up.

Biting his lip, Teneyl contemplated the next course of action for more than a passing moment. He clicked on the general comm, "We're going to have to concede some property. All remaining self-propelled artillery pieces withdraw to the north ridge rally point. Abandon emplaced artillery. Evacuate the Airfield."

His mind numbly informed him that the acknowledgments were coming through, but he didn't really hear.

Major Elston was looking at him in alarm, "Sir? Abandon the airfield?"

"We have no choice Major. At this point we're going to have to fall back in order to focus our remaining efforts on the safety of the lab."

Elston's eyes were wide, "But Sir... we've got aircraft up there running out of fuel."

"Ellsworth AFB has airborne refueling platforms on the way north as we speak. At the very least, we can hope that destroying the airfield will take up enough of the target's time that Belmont can get her toy fielded." Teneyl didn't like the strategy for a second, but kept a straight face as he told it to Elston.

"What if the Angels don't stop to destroy the field?"

"After all the threat it's posed," Teneyl began, "_I_ certainly wouldn't pass it up... especially if I considered myself to be an agent of divine retribution."

"Are they giving us retribution?" Elston asked softly.

"Can you think of any better reason why they'd be out here in ass-end North Dakota?"

Holding up his gloved hand, Elston visibly crossed his fingers, then turned back to his display.

-Amen brother,- Teneyl added to himself.

Teneyl had Sgt. Engels remove the C&C vehicle a little more than a mile to the north-east, placing them a mile and a half to the south of the large dirt mountain that marked the main complex of the research facility. Between the lab and the airfield lay two other structures that the Angels might, with luck, pause to destroy. The first was the armored cavalry motor pool, outfitted to park almost seventy tanks. The second was the dirt mound that covered Ft. Tenacity's power plant.

Untroubled by the now sporadic fire as the artillery retreated toward higher ground, the Angels continued on along the plain, each footstep bringing them closer to the air base. For its own part, the air base was a bustle of personnel scurrying for escape vehicles. The massive activity could be considered a good sign, if only all those trapped there weren't faced with imminent annihilation. Many of the remaining helicopters and trucks were taking off, streaming to safety on the open prairie. If they were lucky, all the ground crews would be gone by the time the monsters arrived.

Formed into a rhythmic marching column, the Angels showed no sign of flagging. They didn't particularly pay heed to the aircraft still swarming around them.

"Come on," Teneyl implored aloud, "Stop and take the field. Slow down and stop. Stomp all over everything there. Give Belmont just a little more time."

Dividing into two groups of roughly equal number, the Angels walked to either side of the air base, their heavy foot steps sending vibrations through the ground. Teneyl could see the depressions their feet left behind. For a long breath, he feared they would pass the field by, heading on instead to their obvious ultimate goal. They moved relentlessly until it was almost too late. Then, they suddenly stopped dead still in their tracks.

"They're gonna take it!" Elston said.

"I hope everybody's out of there," Teneyl whispered as he watched a Humvee peel through the open doors of a hanger before darting between two angelic legs in its sprint toward safety. Deliberately, paying no mind to the nuisances that zipped past them, one individual Angel each separated from the opposing groups, moving to either side of the airfield. Both halted at the edges of the runway, with all the other Angels looking on in solemn silence. The two particular Angels raised their arms as if to physically push one another from across the runway. Their gigantic serrated hands unfolded like elaborate radar dishes.

"What are they doing?" Teneyl asked himself, grabbing his trusty binoculars off the head of his Tac board. Through the open side window, he adjusted the focus for a better look. Cranking up the light gain and squinting through the eye piece, he saw nothing but stillness.

It was then that snow began to filter down from the graying clouds, leaving the dry wind to dissipate into an uneasy silence. His heart racing, Teneyl slowly lowered his binoculars. Something made his hair stand on end, some hint, some taste he failed to identify. On impulse, he dropped the binoculars, pulled off one of his gloves and quickly cranked the window closed. He found himself looking on in horrified astonishment as the air between two monsters at the sides of the runway began to glisten with a diffuse radiance.

"What are they doing?" came the awed voice of Sgt. Engels, practically the first the man had spoken during the entire battle. Elston sat dumbfounded.

Shimmering a noiseless silver in the pale luminescence of strange light, snow fell harder, accompanied by a drop in temperature that gripped Teneyl to the core. Elston shivered visibly, despite the standard issue military parka he wore. In the area between the two statuesque Angels, a glowing cloud formed, swirling like a dancing flame. Powerful electric odor -the taste of live battery leads- washed through the Humvee, ripping at the back of Teneyl's throat, causing him to sneeze. Electronic displays around the cabin flickered with broadcast interference. When the burning cloud peaked to a boil, a pin-point of obsidian black materialized at its center.

"Sea of Dirac!" the Elston gasped, having heard the description of the phenomenon from numerous reports.

"All aircraft back the hell off!! NOW!!!" Teneyl shouted into the general comm. Against the light, he could not see if any of the fighter planes were obeying the order.

A Sea of Dirac. Power beyond the imagination, brought straight from quantum nonexistence. The same power that had destroyed NERV division 2. Power humans still barely understood. Fantastic power hovering up in the grim North Dakota sky acting at the focus of an already impressive formation of energy. Destructive force that could not be counteracted by any weapon in Teneyl's arsenal.

Stoked to an impressive level by the appearance of the Dirac Sea, the radiant cloud soared upward in intensity to a blaze of piercing white, drawing sparks of lightning from the two responsible Angels. Seized under its own burning weight, the fire descended downward, consuming everything in a blast of blinding light, reducing all of the angels to unidentifiable shadows against the conflagration. Teneyl covered his eyes with a hand, unable to stand the brilliance. A dampened shock wave passed beneath them, causing the C&C vehicle to bounce lightly on its springs. As though traveling from a very long way off, a low muttering of thunder rumbled past.

Seasons switched suddenly in the cabin of the C&C vehicle, midsummer indoors despite the overcast sky outside.

When Teneyl removed his hand from his face, the Angels were standing just as before. Between the motionless figures, there was a newly formed space of vacant property. Even as a hardened, experienced General, Teneyl drew a breath of pure dread.

With the Angels standing by in the eerie light, the air base had been converted into a huge patch of charcoal. In addition, there was not a sign of the light snow that had begun falling only moments before. As far as his eyes could see, along every ridge between his vantage point and the former location of the airfield, previously frozen brush burned. Hell on earth, sipped from the core of the world and sprayed over everything. Even scrub next to the C&C burned. In addition, the Humvee's windows were scorched on the outside, as if the vehicle had just been driven through a blast furnace. When Teneyl touched the handle on the door, his hand jumped back in reflex as the metal almost burned him.

Using the hem of his parka to grip the already cooling handle, Teneyl opened the door to the open-air oven. The C&C was now a mess, its green-gray paint job singed an even black. The tires continued to burn, though not far enough through to lose pressure.

"Shit," shaking his head in true awe, Teneyl gingerly closed the door again. He loosened his coat collar against the heat, trying rapidly to think of something more that his defense force could do.

Elston was ashen, "If you hadn't... if you hadn't closed the window, we'd all be dead."

Teneyl shook the comment off, trying desperately to think, "What do they intend?"

"By god," Engels added, dabbing his hands gently against the hot steering wheel, "If that was only two Angels, I don't want to think what they can do when all twelve work together."

"Torch everything from here to Kansas, not to mention half of Canada," the Elston put in.

"But why didn't they just do it when they first appeared?" Teneyl pointed out as he shook his head.

"Sir," Elston responded, pointing toward the mountain of dirt that marked the buried research facility, "Maybe they were worried about not penetrating the lab."

The mountain, undamaged, let off a simmer of steam into the overcast sky. At the center of the blast, that Teneyl could see, there was no sign of an impact crater. It was as if the effect had flowed over the surface like a spilled liquid, incinerating everything. The gaze of God scoring this world clean.

"I don't believe it," Teneyl whispered, now understanding what the Angels intended, "the only defensive measure constructed into the lab and the Angels need to be standing up close to overcome it."

-And we need to rely on a child to stop them.- he did not add aloud.


"I can't believe we're going to try to activate an incomplete Eva with this junk," Lt. Avery commented in disbelief as he took his seat at the oscilloscope turned synchrograph.

"If you have any better ideas," Major Belmont commented from the doorway of the booth, "I'm listening."

"For twenty five minutes of work," Stormcloud mentioned from across the card table, looking up briefly from her display of the Interface matrix, "I'd like to see you do better."

Avery shrugged, "I could've done it." Before anyone could interject, he quickly continued, "Major, the egress corridor and cargo gates are all wired up. One of my guys is just sitting out there waiting for you to tell 'im to push the plunger. On your word, we can blow the side off the lab mountain."

"That's what I was hoping for. Can you handle the synchrograph?" she asked.

Nodding, Avery gave one of his most obnoxious grins, "With my eyes closed. Since we have no REM data on Jane, Doc Valentine and I'll have to write some interface parameters on the spot. Just a matter of finding her synch frequency and programming the matrix to scan for it. Shouldn't take more than a minute once everything is running."

"Assuming the Eva's internal neural structure is complete enough to know we're trying to contact it," Toho told him quietly. The small asian woman practically disappeared as she sat low in her chair.

Belmont bit her lip, knowing that there was no way of addressing that particular concern. Stormcloud answered the question instead, "If the matrix functions properly, the Eva should be able to activate. Speaking of which, Major, our paralyzed pilot can't touch the manual controls. Did Dr. Valentine install servos for us to control it from here?"

One hard question for another, Belmont would have been forced to reply if Valentine hadn't come pounding along the catwalk when he did. Huffing and puffing, he caught Stormcloud's query, "I set up servos. There are a couple technicians with a comm link to
General Teneyl sitting just off the gantry with remote controls, waiting for us to get the Eva active."

"Who'd you get?" Stormcloud asked curiously, stroking the tiny dreamcatcher she wore.

"Oh, uh, Woodfill and Snyder," Valentine replied, waving his hand vaguely over the cage, "Sitting up there in the, uh, crane operator's box."

Stormcloud's dark eyes came up smoothly, a downward quirk flickering to her lips before she parked an accusatory gaze on Belmont. Closing her eyelids with a quietly exasperated sigh, she ventured to look again at her display. She shook her head in cynical disbelief as she held firmly to the ornament she wore around her neck.

-Raina's figured it out,- Belmont realized, staring for a long moment at Valentine. She prayed silently that no one else in the control booth would recognize the lie. Given the massive stress they were already feeling, her small crew really didn't need to know exactly how much of the situation depended on a child's mind.

"Major," Valentine turned to her, "the hatch is closing as we speak, once you contact Lt. Wise, we should be able to flood the plug."

"Good," Major Belmont returned, trying to stave off the expression that hadn't quite reached her face, "General Teneyl reports that his forces are being driven into full retreat; the Angel has completely destroyed the AFbase and is on its way here. Base systems report that the motor pool is being attacked and the generators are experiencing power fluctuations, probably due to close proximity impacts and EM interference. Teneyl anticipates no more than maybe five minutes before we fall under direct assault."

"Convenient that we've already switched to diesel generators here at the cage," Valentine replied. "I'll help Avery set the synchronization software once the plug is injected. Excuse me." Belmont moved to the side so that he could enter the control booth to stand next to Avery at the synchrograph station.

"Then we're almost ready to begin. Toho, how's the equipment."

Glancing up from her laptop, Toho nodded shortly, "We're ready here. The Eva's external batteries are fully charged. Safety restraints and interlocks are armed. Eva core is reading marginal, which is the most I can say until we try to activate it. Pilot physical monitors will be up after we inject the Entry Plug. The Eva's internal power systems are less than nominal, but serviceable; we tracked and shunted past as many of the power leaks as we could, so the batteries should remain at optimal charge for the next fifteen or twenty minutes in standby mode. And, the S2 is in passive standby. If everything works perfectly, it shouldn't give us any trouble."

"Keep it in negative feed mode as a safety precaution."

"Major, that's a pretty serious power draw," the small asian woman protested. "If the system is in neutral feed when we activate, it shouldn't give us trouble unless we spike it."

"I'd prefer not to test that possibility. If our luck stays true to form, I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you." Turning in the doorway to look at the catwalk, Belmont nodded to McClellan, "How's the gateway interlink?"

McClellan interrupted his work long enough to give her a silent thumbs-up sign.

"Okay. Stormcloud, what's the status on the Interface Matrix?"

"Silent, on start-up mode until the Plug is injected. Otherwise, with this limited equipment, I might as well be making a sand painting with a lead box over my head."

"You aren't ready to go?"

"No, I'm ready," Stormcloud told her, looking back at her screen, "We're trying to initialize the world's most complex piece of equipment with a laptop. There's just not enough instrumentation here to correctly monitor the matrix. With what we have, I'm as
ready as I'm going to be."

"I wish there was another answer. Aside from that, we're good to go?" Belmont asked.

There were affirmative nods all around, but not a smile to be had.

"Okay," she adjusted her headset. With a swallow, she began, "Lt. Wise, are you in position?"

"Yes, Sir. We're waiting for you to flood the tube."

"Very well, Lt. Toho," she turned, moving the microphone away from her mouth, "have the tube flooded with LCL."

"Yes, Sir," Toho answered, then spoke into her microphone, "Flood Entry plug with LCL and stand by for Lt. Wise's egress."


"Be Brave," Her father told her one last time.

"LCL flood procedure commencing now," the radio in Jane's ear squeaked.

She waited anxiously for something to happen. Still, frightened, she waited. Many rapid heart beats elapsed and even more, but the chamber seemed exactly as before. Null and void, swaying stillness, like the top of a skyscraper with all the windows closed and drawn. Mechanical popping sounded somewhere close, reminding Jane of catches on a thermos bottle snapping roughly against immutable metal. But nothing happened.

At last, the pale white light shining from below ran slowly over with a tide of yellow gold that made her father appear jaundiced. Soon the white was edited out altogether by morose lemon. No liquid showered in from above, no rivulets or drips cascading down the walls. Jane could not turn her head to look down, toward where her father's eyes were directed. Was the chamber being flooded?

A cool sensation started at her feet and ankles, steadily and silently working its way up her body. She remembered the sponge baths given her by the nurses every other day, only without the sound of running water. The respirator began to burble and bubble when it was submerged under the invisible front of advancing liquid. Droplets spewed up the hose into her mouth from the laboring air pump. Salty taste, she decided, wondering if she were now to drown. The front came up very quickly, filling from the height of her abdomen to her neck almost before the respirator gave her the first fully flooded breath. After that, it tickled her neck, cold and warm, engulfing her face with its tranquil touch. Then it was gone, the surface sucking her irrevocably beneath.

Bubbles spewed out of her mouth and nose each time the respirator made a frantic stroke. The ferrous, salty liquid coursed over her tongue, the taste of blood awakened from a time when someone accidentally punched her in the nose.

-An opponent can be quelled by sanguine flavor, my child,- the distant memory told her, -most humans are instinctively repelled by the taste of serious injury.-

She wanted to gag at first, though the reflex was beyond her capacity. Still, she quickly found immersion warm and welcome, like the covers of a bed on a particularly cold night. Her father was totally submerged, his face quirked with a bewildered expression behind the sheen of glistening yellow. He wasted no time getting to work.

"It's all right," he said, slightly muffled. The last of his air blew out in a flurry of bubbles. He reached for the elastic band that held the respirator mask over her mouth and nose. Jane could feel him unfastening it behind her ear.

Golden baubles, each one a decorative memory, climbed up the blackened chimney through a furnace haze of coiling convection eddies. Up was up somehow, almost the promise of an open sky somewhere far above. Intrigued by the beauty of ovoid gas bodies straining toward thermodynamic equilibrium, Jane struggled to follow their shimmering metallic assent. She could remember dumping a bag of silver marbles into a bucket of water, then watching intently as the beads clunked to the bottom. They fell upward now, spatters of molten metal bursting with a blizzard of glowing reflections. For the moment, with the deluge ensconcing her, she hovered in an imaginary coral cove and forgot her claustrophobia in favor of ocean borne dreams. Blissfully unaware for that solitary moment of what the next would bring.

Her father pulled the mask away from her mouth, stealing the bubbles with it. She saw him take in a huge lung full of the fluid, his lips clenched like those of a fish. Crouching very close, he gently pried her mouth open and sealed his mouth against hers. A light pressure by his hand against her abdomen caused a surprising burst of bubbles to explode from her nose. When her chest did not contract any further, he expelled his watery breath into her mouth, filling her lungs with a flood of liquid. He tenderly repeated the motion, getting the last of the air out. Then his protective warmth was gone as he leaned away.

Jane was amazed. Though the respirator mask no longer clenched her face, she felt no hint of suffocating discomfort. Even her eyes still seemed to focus perfectly, despite the liquid flooding them, urging her to blink. A few more bubbles escaped her nose as the sinus cavities in her head equalized. The liquid itself smelled funny, but she could not identify the sense right away.

Bending, her father placed the computer chip into the receptacle on the chest of her suit. Immediately, the suit tightened against her abdomen, forcing some of the fluid from her. When it relaxed, the space in her lungs was rapidly refilled. Tightening and loosening, it continued to cycle.

"One other thing," her father was miraculously able to speak, despite the watery baffle. He held out the plastic mouth piece. "Say 'ahh'," he pressed her jaw gently open. The mouthpiece fit smoothly, without taste. Jane knew she would forget about it before long.

Then Father stooped down and retrieved the battery operated respirator, which had finally shorted out. Holding the now quiescent device, he stopped to look at her. There was a careworn, parental expression on his face, as if he did not want to go, but knew he needed to. Deep dread was visible in his eyes.

"Are you ready Sport?" he asked, restoring his own confidence.

-Yes,- Jane responded boldly, her eyes giving a vigorous nod.

Touching her cheek with a soft hand, he bent forward to kiss her on the forehead. Then he brushed a finger along beneath her eye, as though to catch any tears.

"Be brave, and you'll do just fine..." he told her, beginning slowly to turn away. "Okay Major, I'm ready to come out now."

"Very good, Lieutenant Wise. We'll open the terminal hatch for you."

Taking a ponderous last look at his daughter, Wise pushed off against the wall, carrying himself, and the respirator, up the chimney out of sight. There was some light from above as a hatch Jane couldn't see was opened and closed.

Left finally alone in the dim, yellow tinted world, Jane regarded her emaciated reflection in the curved internal surface of the tube. Somehow, she did not recognize herself. The hair seeming too lank and formless around that skeletal face. Projected on the rounded wall was the image of a sack of twigs bundled together by the pale yellow form fitting plugsuit. The body, her body, didn't even seem to possess features of male or female. The doppelganger in the reflection stared unblinkingly back at her, its deep seated blue-green eyes set beneath an abrupt brow.

-God, I look horrible,- she thought, sensing, despite all else, the lonely emptiness within these vague walls. She remembered waiting for kingdom come in that other darkness too. But, this time, she fully expected to encounter the true hell revealed to her in that other void so many months ago.

"Jane," came Major Belmont's voice, so distant that it echoed from beyond a gulf of eternity. "This is important now, Honey," the first time in memory anyone had used that name for her since her mother, "we want you to become as relaxed as you possibly can. If you do that, this will all go smoothly. Your focus is the key to everything."

-Relaxed- Jane thought, -I can do that.- Mentally, she began once again to go through her old meditative exercises, gathering her Chi toward the core of her being. Focus, focus, always focus.

This was how that other experience had begun.

Copyright 1999 Gregory P. Smith