Greater Love/The Wonders of the Hidden World [23]

 

[Intro track — Fallen Angel : Blve Öyster Cvlt]

Scene: The Geofront at evening. The transmitted light from above is reddening. The lights of a train are visible on one of the tracks that descends on the underside of the dome.

Close in, to where the earth meets the virtual sky. In between the pines, a small puff of dust. Closer up, we discern a cyclist, reddened in the light, following one of the tracks between the trees, a track that now curves away from the wall of the sky, to descend towards the central lake.

Closer still, and now from overhead, we watch the cyclist take a number of hairpin curves on the descent. We can see that she is wearing red lycra shorts and top, and her red hair streams out from beneath a black tourer's helmet.

Tight focus. Asuka in cycling gear, with wrap-round goggles, their lenses untinted in the fading light, exhilaration and concentration showing on her face.

Then she spots something off to one side, and brakes, skidding sideways to a stop in a shower of dust and gravel. She looks again to check what she has seen, then starts off again, standing on the pedals, directly downhill, across the rough grass.


“Misakichi! Hi!”

Asuka brought her bike to a stop as she crossed the next path, and pushed her goggles up to her forehead before they could steam up.

The other girl picked herself up, and pushed her fringe out of her eyes. She was wearing T-shirt and denim cut-offs, and her hands and knees were dark with earth, as was her forehead.

“So you're setting up a garden here. How domesticated!”

“It wasn't us — it was Kaji-san's garden.”

The expression on Misaki's face, the tense construction, all suggested that there was something amiss.

“We think that something bad happened — Misato had this strange phone message from him, and she was crying all evening. So we thought we ought to keep an eye on his garden for him.”

So, Asuka mused, the old lecher had had other hobbies than simply chasing anything in a skirt. And if he had come to a bad end — well, that didn't come as too much of a surprise — she was certain that it had not been completely playing up, that James Bond act of his, on those long-ago shipboard days.

Once, the news would have left her heartbroken. Now — she just felt desolate, numbed. The melons were swelling on the vines in the garden. With the Angels getting stronger and subtler, and their own strength diminished, would any of them still be here to enjoy their ripening?

She shook her head, and spotted Shinji, trudging uphill with a watering can.

“You've got him well trained, haven't you?” she forced a smile.

“Hi, Shinji!” she waved.

“Uh. Hello, Asuka.”

Still Mr. Enthusiastic, she could see. But then what did they have to say to each other, these days?

They all stood there in silence for a few minutes.

“Oh, well,” Asuka broke the awkward silence. “I've got another 15 klicks to do.”

“New training?”

“I was getting slack, all the good food and sitting around.” and she slapped one inner thigh, showing a ripple of muscle. That caught Shinji's attention.

With a grin of satisfaction, she pulled her goggles down, and pedalled off.


She set off at an easy pace, sketching out a route that would take her around the lake, and back over the bridge. The cycling was not exactly new — she had more resumed a previous regimen of exercise during the respite offered by the school holidays, when she had chanced upon a number of apparently new but unused trail bikes in a storage locker, and realised that in the controlled environment of the geofront — as opposed to the humid soup that passed for air in Tokyo-3 above — that such exercise would be enjoyable. And, indeed, she had forgotten quite how good it felt.

Plus, she thought, it also gave her time by herself to think. Like about what to do about Ayanami. After that dramatic scene as she was being wheeled away for treatment, the girl had continued to act as if she had a crush on her.

Asuka didn't know if she felt exactly comfortable about that — but she had tried to exploit the opportunity to try and get at the truth of what was really going on at the surface. But all that had done was raise more questions than answers.

She had found that Rei was put through more tests, similar to, but not quite the same as, the usual ones — purpose obscure, but with the Commander usually taking personal charge with Ritsuko assisting. She also found that Rei performed a number of step-and-fetch tasks, with as little useful data.

“What was that thing you used to destroy the last Angel?”

“The Lance of Longinus.”

Unbidden, a childhood memory of a badly mis-cast John Wayne, and a parental argument over whether it was superstitious rubbish, cultural heritage, or a badly made movie inflicted on them by Yankee cultural imperialism. That really didn't help.

“But what was it? Where did it come from in the first place?”

Though Rei was able to describe its size, mass and colour, and tell her that she had received it, stored it, and then retrieved it, she was as ignorant as Asuka of where and by what process it had been created, or with what intent.

About the only words that Rei had let slip that seemed to contain new enigmatic significance were “The Human Instrumentality Project” — a confirmation of sorts that there was more to NERV than mere Angel-killing. But that had been another dead end. All the searches for “Human Instrumentality” that she had conducted from a randomly chosen public navi booth in Tokyo-3 had simply turned up pages related to the works of Paul Linebarger (1913–1966), an American writer of somewhat religiously oriented SF. So whatever Human Instrumentality was, it was a deep black secret indeed.


Returning to the flat after her exertions, with a pleasant feeling borne of exercise driven endorphins, and an overall gentle tiredness, she had taken a long, languorous shower, and now sat, wrapped in a bath sheet, towelling her hair.

“Hello, Maya! I'm in the shower!” she called when she heard the front door open. There was a shuffling of shoes being kicked off — and then the bathroom door was pulled open, and Ayanami was standing there.

Asuka stood up, stormed over, intent on asking firmly and forcefully, what the other girl was playing at, barging in to her bathroom like that — and slipped on the wet floor, tripping full length into Ayanami, sending them both cascading to the floor in the hallway.

When movement ceased, she found herself face to face with Rei, close enough to feel the other girl's breath, and looking into her eyes. She didn't know how long she stayed there, lost in that wine-red gaze, before she became aware of where her right hand was resting — and that the bath sheet had become untucked, and had slid down to her waist, where it remained only precariously perched across her haunches.

And then the front door opened again.

She turned her head slowly to look, feeling her face turn redder than her hair. This time, it was Maya. She had a faint expression of surprise on her face. Slowly, she raised one quizzical eyebrow, and spoke.

“Really, Asuka. People will think I'm being a bad influence.”

Lying in bed that night, she was still cringing at the recollection, remembering grabbing at the towel as it made its final descent to the floor. And Ayanami, lying there, unconcerned, as if nothing had happened, saying “I shall go, now.” and picking herself up, leaving, with whatever errand she had intended to perform undone.

And that memory of soft warmth in her hand.


Asuka

At last, after anxious days, another Angel. A double helix of light floating in the clear blue sky, like some ethereal plasmid.

Misato's AWOL somewhere when the sighting is made, but is still trying to direct the operation via her mobile while driving back — which really means that it's Ritsuko who's on the spot.

The deployment is much like last time, if with better weather — Rei as sacrificial lamb, I'm covering her, and Misaki's still sitting on her hands in Unit 01, in case the Commander gives her the all-clear.

I'm just waiting too, watching the tactical reports flow in. The thing isn't over the horizon here, yet — but already I have a bad feeling about it. The thing is cycling between blue and orange like the 12th, and I wonder if it will be a maw to swallow us all up.

I can see it now, low on the horizon, slowly swimming into view, rotating — or its wave structure propagating around it — as it goes. It's past the Gora line — and stops a couple of klicks away, over Owakidani, taunting us.

Ayanami is a few hundred meters closer to it than me, crouched down in the trees, ready with the positron cannon.

Misato comes on line from command, at last.

“Rei, stay ready.”

“No,” she says, “It's coming.”

The hoop flexes, changes topology, and one end of it strikes like a snake at Unit 00.

“Rei, fight back!”

But it's too late. She fires the cannon at point blank range, then staggers back, collapsing into the trees, trying to wrestle the Angel, while bad news plays on the command channel — including Ritsuko's cheerful “This could be fatal. Unit 00 is already 5% fused with the Angel.”

“Asuka! Advance 300 meters, AT field to maximum. Open fire on the other end of the Angel.”

I'm already moving. Rei is jabbering on the pilot channel, mostly glossolalia, as if this were Pentecostal fire that filled her, but at times fragments of comprehensible — if crazy — speech.

“Are these my tears?”

Just as I think I have a clean target amongst the clutter, the Angel's free end strikes at me. I roll clear, but it catches my rifle, shattering it. I'm still rolling when I hear Ayanami say “Asuka? Does my soul want to become one with Asuka-sama?”

The Angel strikes at me again, and this time, it's like a comet — a comet with Ayanami's face.

Munitions block — where's the munitions block?

I'm too busy dodging to have a chance to check on the tactical overview.

“No!” Ayanami's quiet voice sounds very final.

The Angel withdraws from me — it looks like she's drinking it in.

“AT field phase reversed.” — Maya.

“Is she going to hold the Angel?” — Ritsuko.

“Rei! Eject!” — Misato.

“No!” she says again, “I must stay to sustain this AT field. Therefore I shall not eject.”

I know what she's going to do, even before Misato cries out, “Rei — are you going to kill yourself?”

She doesn't answer.

“Core destruction — critical limit exceeded.” — Maya.

And then there was light.

If I weren't already down and rolling, the blast would have knocked me down. As it is, I can only hunker down until the firestorm abates, powering down to wait for recovery.

As I sit there in the dark, I think to myself that it really doesn't matter how many more Angels there are to come. The next one will kill us.

It's over three hours until I hear a voice on the direct line — they're ready to extract me. I eject, and as soon as I can, clamber out. Maya is there, and I go to her, hold on to her. So what if people stare.

“She did it,” I tell her, “The stupid little bitch actually did it!”


Next morning, I'm on the balcony, looking at the new lake, its waters still steaming, which used to be Tokyo-3. UN aerodynes are still buzzing overhead, when Maya comes out to me.

“Misato just called. They found Rei. She's alive.”

I can't take it in. But what reason would there be to lie?

When I get to the hospital, she's sitting up in bed. She's swaddled in bandages, but otherwise looks in better shape than I remembered. Her “Good morning, Pilot Soryu.” is, in contrast, more distant and wooden than I can ever remember.

“Well, I guess that means we're quits.”

She looks blankly at me.

You saved me this time,” I explain

“I see. I saved you.”

Her head is bandaged.

“Don't you remember?”

“I am not yet up to speed with events. Perhaps that is because I am the third.”

Her words trigger memory of that fantasy of the doll factory. I can see little Ayanami heads being snapped on to little Ayanami bodies. I feel my breakfast returning to haunt me, and I stumble out of that chamber of horrors into the clean, antiseptic, air of the corridor.


I skipped school without even bothering to check whether it was still there or functioning or what. There was no point in wasting these last precious days. I needed speed, I needed activity, the meditative rhythm of feet on the pedals, quartering the tens of kilometers of paths in the geofront.

I'm about 50km in, and not really there at all, lost in the pulse of the ride, when this girl steps out in front of me, and I skid to a halt, barely missing running into her. She stands there, cool, calm, and collected, as if she has judged my stopping distance to the millimeter, and allowed a generous two or three as margin of error.

Freya
[フレイヤ (Fu-re-i-ya)]

I don't recognise her. Her skin is as pale as Ayanami's, but everything else is black — the short, spiky hair, eyes of jet, a leather vest and short skirt. Knee boots with thick platform soles and long fingerless leather gloves. And straps and buckles — everywhere.

“Are you stupid?” I yell in her face.

“I am Flare,” she says, “Dr. Mihara sent me to fetch you. He wishes to speak with you.”

“And what does the old pervert want?”

“He said that if you were hesitant, I should tell you ‘Instrumentality’.”

That has my attention.


I know I've barely scratched the “surface” of the geofront, even in all this cycling. The girl, Flair, Flare, Freya, whatever, leads me into places I've never seen, down further than I think I've ever been, and then stops in an empty corridor.

There is a chuckling from somewhere, and then a grille swings open, and a face peers out.

“Hello, Asuka,” Dr. Mihara says, “Please forgive the unorthodox approach. I have some things to show you. Please follow me. Freya, please assist Pilot Soryu.”

Mihara shuffles back into the ducting, and the girl crouches down, under the open grille.

“Please climb,” she says, fixing me in the eye. It takes a moment to realise that I'm supposed to user her as a footstool.

So once again I'm crawling through various bits of NERV plumbing. At least this time I don't have the other idiots distracting me, and leading me off-course. And not only that. I'm glad that Dr. Mihara is in the lead, rather than having Shinji following behind : bad enough with him trying to sneak a peek up my skirt — but while these shorts are practical for their intended purpose, in the saddle, it's not dignified gear for crawling along with my bum in the air, and I'd be forever having to slap him to keep his nose out of my crotch. As it is, I can simply hear the rattling and scraping noises as Freya follows, some meters behind.

I am completely lost by the time, some minutes later, when we climb out into a dimly lit area. There is a faint, sour, smell to the air here that reminds me, somehow, of museums.

“What is this place?”

“A cabinet of curiosities,” he says, “or perhaps just a junkyard for people who can never throw things away.”

We round a corner and…

“Ayanami?”

It looks like Rei, floating, asleep, in a tank of LCL. Naked. Her breasts are at about my eye level. I find myself clenching and unclenching my fist like that idiot, Shinji.

“An Ayanami,” he confirms.

“She comes in six-packs?”

“Oh, no, she's a mass production model. This is just one of the back-ups.”

Dr. Mihara produces a handy paper bag, but all I bring up is bile.

“Here! Have a mint!” he says, brightly, when I'm done.

Further along the corridor, in a glass case, like Lenin or Mao, the fair haired girl who I thought was Mihara's daughter.

“My Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a Prince to awaken her. A noble failure, a pure heart, who loved too well, and not wisely.”

Freya casts him a significant glance.

I can feel the open space ahead before we reach it. The smell is stronger here — and I remember the Egyptian Room of the British Museum, reeking gently of ancient death — and I see a graveyard of Titans; half built — or half decayed — Evas, all cyclopean like Unit 00. There are half a dozen at least before the gloom becomes too intense to discern detail.

But even that isn't the point of the tour.

That comes when we stop at a partition with multiple layers of thick glass, and I look down enormous distance to an Eva-scale figure of fishbelly white, crucified on a red cross. I cannot see what passes for its face, but I know what it must be.

“An Angel?”

“Yes, one of the early ones. Ryoji-san brought something here, about the time you arrived, something to do with Instrumentality — a project that the Commander and Dr. Akagi seem to be involved in for the Committee. And I think that this is it. This is what you have been defending. If another Angel should release it — well, as far as I have been able to discover, that is what really caused the Second Impact.”

“Kaji-san. I don't suppose you have a copy of him anywhere, like you do of Ayanami?”

“No, nor Elvis, Bigfoot, Princess Diana nor the Roswell Alien. But I have looked.” He grins. “I thought of making some, though.”

I look down at the Angel again.

“What should we do?”

“When all the other Angels are defeated, be ready to destroy this one too. At least now it will not come as a surprise.”

[Outro track — The Whole of the Moon : The Waterboys]


© Steve Gilham 2004
© Mr. Tines 2004

#include <std::copyright> — most of the characters and situations in the fic belong to GAINAX/Project Eva, and almost all the rest to the ladies of Clamp. It's just this form of words that is mine.


[21–22] The Shattered Tower/The End of Innocence

[24] The Last Temptation/Bloody Murder

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