Hard Choices/They take a little longer [18]


[Intro track — Fallen Angel : Blve Öyster Cvlt]

Interlude — Misato

The drive over to Matsushiro gives me a chance to think, even while I'm lending half an ear to Ritsuko's chatter.

I'm getting into waters that are deeper, darker, and murkier by the day. First, Kaji breaking in to — and showing me the truth of — the LCL manufacturing plant : an Angel in our own basement. No wonder there is a shoot on sight warning concealing that particular unpleasantness. And then his other hints from our later little chat, after that spat with Asuka. The sham of the Marduk Institute, who Shinji's class really are.

What am I going to do about that man?

Part of me says that I made the right choice a few years back. Part of me says that I'm not going to find any better. And part of me thinks that the previous part feels that I haven't been laid in far too long.

And then a few days ago, testifying to the committee about the last Angel. Now, there are a nastier bunch of bastards even than Commander Ikari. And why did he specifically direct me to let them continue to assume that his son was the pilot of Unit 01 at the time — talking “the pilot”, “the subject” and “Pilot Ikari has no recollection”?

And I know I should have been brave, told Shinji about who was chosen to be the new pilot. But I've been too scared, scared of what it might do to him. And when I might have done, as I was setting out this morning, the only non-pilot left to have ridden aboard an Eva turns up, hoping to take that place.

Did I do the right thing, offering to take any of the pilots as my wards? I failed with Asuka — I fear that I'm failing with Shinji, and he's just drifting off into his own world. If it weren't for Misaki, I don't know what things would have turned out like. Well, for the next few days, he's Shouko's worry, not mine, thank goodness.

But did the Commander — or whatever of the Committee who did it — make the right choice here with the new pilot? Kensuke would probably have been better material. At least his attitude was positive — not the “I'll do it on condition” that Ritsuko's telling me about Toji.

Asuka sat tensely at the controls of Unit 02, waiting, as the sun sank lower, for the approach of the 13th Angel. This would be the first time since Misaki had been inducted that the newcomer was not piloting in a combat mission, the day's roster being as it was. No, she was at the extended intercept facility, a couple of kilometers back down the road. Her presence was felt only in the background, in the LCL, a feeling that she was coming to regard as comfortable, reassuring, even.

Not that Misaki's absence from the front line had been a foregone conclusion. She had consistently outperformed Rei in the last few tests, and if the Commander hadn't overruled them, Maya and Lt. Hyuga would have dropped her in favour of the reserve pilot. The Commander's cold fury as he had insisted that the roster stand, that the First Child must continue to pilot, had started the whole deployment out with a negative tone, the worse since with Misato being off-site, and, for all they knew, injured if not killed, in whatever had happened at Matsushiro, the Commander would be handling the whole operation directly.

She tried her best to filter out the chatter on the pilot to pilot channel. Shinji was bitching about everything as usual — if she felt a little bit of stage fright in having to perform for the boss, he seemed to have been completely thrown, worrying about what they would do. But she had other things to occupy her mind.

Like, just exactly what was the deal with Pilot Ayanami?

That incident just the other day, when she had chaperoned Toji, and then coerced Rei into doing something about the state of her flat. They had cleaned out the kitchen, to the point where the artificial freshness of the cleaner had replaced the musty smell, and she'd felt that she might actually consider eating food that had spent any time there, and the bathroom — which hadn't been too bad, the shower having already hosed down most of the surfaces incidentally — and she had gone to lean against the chest of drawers, out of the way while Rei scrubbed the main room's floor, in the same methodical fashion as she had in school. It was as if she'd never before actually connected the activity of cleaning the classroom with anything that might apply to another facet of her life.

Asuka had looked around the room. The bed, showing evidence of having been simply pulled together after having been slept in, the fridge with the truckloads of meds on the top, a chair, the walk-in cupboards, this chest with a few schoolbooks, thick with Post-its. No TV, no computer, no games console, no stereo, no novels, not even a stack of shoujo manga. And she had thought that Shinji lived like a monk, with virtually no stuff, but even he had his Walkman, the one that he used to retreat behind whenever he might otherwise have to take notice of the world. Only the signs of use in the bed dissuaded her from the idea that at night wonder-girl was simply hung up in the wardrobe, stowed away just like the Eva she piloted.

She hadn't thought about it before, just thinking her the Commander's pet, and filing her under annoying — but that dullness that had infuriated her — what was it that all those pills and capsules were about? Was she really seriously ill? Maybe it was a wonder that the girl actually managed to keep breathing from day to day.

And along with those few books, a pair of broken glasses.

“Are these junk, too?” She held them out. She'd never seen Rei wearing them.

She'd never seen Rei react so quickly, hardly saw the lunge that projected her across the room and snatched the glasses from her hand. Rei retreated back across the room, holding them protectively to herself. The light shining through a gap in the curtains glinted off the cracked lenses.

“They're Commander Ikari's,” Asuka realised.

Rei nodded.

“Before Pilot Ikari came, Izanami rejected me. The Commander released me from my entry plug, but he dropped his glasses, and they broke.”

Izanami? Oh, the Japanese equivalent of Eva. So Misakichi got you into her game too.”

“You should ask your Eva what her name is, Pilot Soryu.”

She snorted. But it was all all right now. Wonder-girl was no longer a threat. She was nothing more than a tool for the Commander, who sniffed around him for appreciation like a stray puppy, and received only some scraps he had discarded without thought.

Now, sitting and waiting for action, with the Commander's recent rage fresh in her memory, she wondered — that brittle tool, Pilot Ayanami, might have been discarded — retired — when other pilots arrived. That she wasn't suggested that the Commander had some other purpose in mind for her.

But that hadn't been the only outcome of that day. The three stooges seemed to have finally been broken up — yesterday, coming to school, Toji had just seemed totally bemused, rather than moody as he had been the previous afternoon. And at lunch-time, when Kensuke had headed off to get his lunch, expecting Toji to join him, she watched Hikari present Toji with the most enormous box of food. It might have been meant for the two to share, but he had wrapped himself around most of it by himself. Well, that was sorted — the way to a man's heart, and all that. And less chance that he would think that his being a pilot would gain him any traction with her.

And, as she had discovered that lunchtime, Hikari was indeed a good cook - Toji's lunch had arrived, but he was already en route to Matsushiro. She'd had to take Hikari aside, to tell her what was happening. That her new boyfriend had been drafted. “So,” she looked downcast, “he won't be here. Would you like to share?”

“The target is approaching!” The Commander's voice broke in on the main channel.

And out of the setting sun, a shape was emerging along the highway, around the slope of Mt. Nobe — an all too familiar shape.

“No way is that an Angel!” Shinji spotted the obvious, “It's an Eva!”

“Nevertheless, that is your target.”

“But how come it's an Angel? What happened?” This could be bad. She needed more data. An Eva against an Angel-enhanced Eva was no fair fight. And it was unfair in the wrong direction.

“Is Toji still aboard?” Shinji added, asking something that was pertinent, but not quite in the league of “how do we fight this thing?” in terms of immediate relevance.

She was about to let her exasperation show, to yell something like “Shut up, you whining pussy!”, when something happened. Damn! she'd let herself be distracted. The target had been a couple of hundred meters away and now it was pounding on her. She felt something fail, synchronized pain wracking her body.

There was a moment of vertigo, and then a thud of impact that struck like a hammer through the cushion of LCL. The limited proprioception data she still had told her that Unit 02 was fallen. And in the seconds that followed, there was silence from outside.

“Unit 00 — the target is now approaching you.”

Phew. She still had the backup comms. And it would be safe — for some definitions of safe — to get out of here. Just so long as the JSSDF didn't start chucking N2 munitions around. She hit the eject and flush, choking up the fluid, tumbling from the seat onto the side of the capsule that was now the underneath, then reaching up for the release handle.

“Unit 00 — contamination detected, left arm.”

Oh, crap. This didn't sound good. Asuka continued to turn the hatch release, winding open the lid that was now a door in the side of the capsule. From outside, the echoing noises of a struggle.

“Sever the left arm — regardless of pilot state.”

Commander Ikari was one mean bastard. There was the echoing boom of a detonation.

“Unit 00 is down, severely damaged. Pilot is injured.”

Asuka scrambled up to sit in the open hatchway, and look down. If she had to, she could hang full-length from the lip, and drop to the roadway below. Ahead of her, she could see, a way down the road, the black Eva, continuing on its path. The thing was just taking them apart one by one. This wasn't like one of Misato's hair-brained schemes that actually worked. The Commander's reasonable suggestion — defence in depth — was just falling apart without any sort of mutual support between the units. The whole deployment had been stupid. And talking of stupid…

“Unit 01 — the target is approaching you.”

“Tell me! Is Toji still inside?”

The black unit made another of its startling leaps; she watched it strike down Unit 01. The sound would follow in a couple of seconds.

“I can see the entry plug. He is still inside!”

The rumbling noise of the first attack reached her, as the Angel reached out its arms impossibly far and began to choke the Eva. She could hear gurgling noises from Shinji on the comms.

“Unit 01 — life support critical.”

This is it. We're all doomed, she thought, thanks to that idiot. Maya should have asked to bump him in favour of Misaki, not Rei.

“Shinji, why don't you fight?”

Oh, Commander! Like that will help. Leave the philosophy for after we've won. Idiots, both of them.

“My friend is in there, father. I can't!”

“Shin-chan — If I were in there I would want you to rescue me. No-one else can.”

Misaki was being a bad girl, breaking comms discipline. But, way to go! Someone round here needs to have their head screwed on properly, to give Shinji the kick he needed.

“But synched — like Ayanami — I'll be hurting him.”

“If it were me, I would have to be brave — you have to be too, Shinji-chan. Fight for him! And if you won't fight for him, fight for me. I'm walking down the road towards you now.”

Asuka heard an inarticulate sound of rage that might just have been a yell of “Misaki!”

She watched Unit 01 rise, stand and begin to pound its assailant. It grasped one of the Angel's extended arms and hauled it from its socket in one convulsive movement. Fluids, coloured unpleasantly red in the last of the sunlight, gouted from the wound, splattered the buildings beneath the road. The black unit fell over, backwards, with Unit 01 on top, pounding, tearing. More bits, less identifiable, flew in all directions.

“Let him go! Hate you, hurt you, die, die, die!”

Asuka listened in horror to the voice on the comms, at the hideously organic sounds coming direct but delayed from the slaughter — it wasn't a combat any more. Shinji had lost it. She didn't think it was the Angel he was fighting any more.

“Stop it! Stop it! Enough!”

Misaki sounded like she was in tears.

“Unit 03 — the target — is silent.”

Unit 01 raised its gore splattered hands for another blow. And stopped.

Asuka let out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. And there, already, the recovery helicopters, coming over the hillside. She waved, let herself drop to the ground, and began to run towards a clear bit of roadway.

Interlude — Misato

Cold air, and movement. That is what wakes me.

“Am I still alive?” I gasp.

I can feel something on my cheek, and around my forehead. My left arm aches, feels numb. There are sounds of some efficient business going on around me. I open my eyes to a dark sky and arc lights.

And to Kaji — am I ever glad to see him. He leans over me with that smile of his, follows me while I'm being carried off on a stretcher somewhere.

“You were lucky, Katsuragi.”

Not first names, then? Is this just formality because he's on duty?


“Lucky too. Luckier than you, only a few cuts and scrapes. The medics had their job cut out convincing her that she shouldn't take charge of the recovery.”

“And Unit 03?”

His face tells me what I didn't want to know.

“Destroyed as an Angel by Unit 01.”

“And he still doesn't know?”

“Someone had told him. He knew what he was doing. I think that may have been worse.”

“I have to talk to him, Kaji, please!”

“One moment.”

He heads off into the bustle of activity, returns as I'm being hauled aboard the ambulance.

“Here.” He has a headset, which he tenderly sets on my head. “You're patched into the pilots' channel.”

“Shinji?” I don't know how he'll react — whether he'll think I betrayed his trust, like Asuka thought I had hers.

“Misato! You're safe!”

I breathe again, relieved at the sound of relief in his voice.

“I'm sorry, I should have told you, but…”

“Misakichi told me. I thought you knew. They're recovering the entry plug now. I don't know what they'll find.”

I hear faint voices on another channel “Pilot life signs confirmed.”

“Alive — he's alive!” and “Serious trauma — medevac, stat!”

Well, we've had more than one miracle already today. Let's hope we don't need another.

[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.