24.a--Weighed in the Balance
Shinji guessed that he waited about 24 hours until Rei appeared again. He tried to avoid showing it, but he grew more frantic as each minute passed. When she finally appeared, he jumped out of bed and met her before she got halfway across the room. They kissed hungrily, holding each other tight.
Finally, reluctantly, they pulled apart. "Shinji, we have to leave now."
"Yes. They've been waiting for me to come back. They know it was my blood on the washcloth. I'm afraid they may set some sort of trap."
"Can we avoid it?"
"I think so, but we have to go now."
"Like this?" Shinji pointed at his pyjamas.
"Where are your street clothes?"
"They're not here. I looked for them a little while ago."
Rei shrugged. "Then go like that."
Both Tokyo-3 and its underground complement, the geo-front, seemed to go on forever. The two could hide there for weeks without ever being seen. The problem was, NERV knew it too.
"What are you going to do about it?" Gendou Ikari asked.
Fuyutsuki, Gendou's old college mentor and now his lieutenant at NERV, tapped a pencil on the desk. "We've canceled all entry cards. Nobody can get in or out of NERV without notifying us here."
"That only traps the intruders. We need to find them."
"We don't have the manpower or the time to go through the geo-front section by section. SEELE wants results."
"That's putting it nicely; SEELE really wants my head on a plate. But those old men appreciate results, even if they hate the people who supply them. They didn't touch you; they won't touch me."
"What will it take to make them happy?"
"The Last Angel, of course. He should be ready in another 24 hours. Then their Dead Sea Scrolls will be finished."
"And enough Evas are under construction to keep them happy. But that only makes it more imperative that we solve the problem at hand."
"Start closing off the least-used rooms and sectors on the periphery. Work your way in, but don't skip anything."
Shinji and Rei wandered the empty halls of NERV. Through her insight into Magi, Rei could tell which rooms and corridors were safe. As they made their way from Shinji's recovery room to where Asuka lay, only once did they have to abandon the hallways for air vents and service ducts. Nothing stopped them or slowed them down. They knew what they had to do, and wanted to try to enlist the Second Child to their side.
Shinji's heart sank when they finally entered Asuka's room. Asuka Sohryu Langley, the Second Child, was strapped to her bed. She was tied down spread-eagled with wide leather straps, like some victim of medieval torture. For hours she had strained against her bonds and shouted at the top of her lungs, to no effect. Doctors had given her stronger and stronger sedatives, to no effect. She had wet herself several times since she was last cleaned, and didn't notice.
She had a secret in her life, hidden away behind locked doors, but her last battle with the Angels had blown those doors off of their hinges. She fought to repress, and now was forced to relive, the worst moment of her life: when her mother, Keiko Sohryu Zeppelin, married to a German member of the Human Enhancement Project, faced her husband's infidelity. Driven to distraction, a stranger in a strange land, she hung herself, after first trying to strangle their 5-year-old daughter Asuka in what was supposed to be shinjuu, a traditional Japanese murder-suicide.
Ironically, it was the tension between Asuka's repressed rage at her mother, and even more repressed fear of abandonment, which qualified Asuka to be the Second Child. She took chances that a grown man would never take. Now, however, she was paying for her fearlessness with her sanity. After the last sortie, in which she proved absolutely useless, she swung from depression to a manic rage. The restraints were first used because she had tried to slash herself.
Shinji felt embarrassed watching Asuka's useless violent thrashing, but he couldn't bring himself to untie her yet. After about a minute, she seemed to tire, look around, and recognize her visitors.
"Well, look who's here. The Wonder Twins. You know, you two are even beginning to look alike. Are you winning the war with the Angels? Probably not, so you came to ask for my help, right? Well, what makes you think I want to help the likes of you?"
She was past her usual pride and egotism and complaining. This Asuka lived in a well of scorn and contempt. This was too discomforting. Shinji reached a hand back; Rei took it in hers.
Asuka caught the gesture. "Oho! You two have been busy while I was away. I'll bet you're doing it, aren't you?" The color rose in Shinji's face, but he didn't try to take his hand from Rei's. Asuka's eyes just went wider. "Omigod, you ARE, aren't you? Well, use the pill or something; I hate to think of what kind of ugly deformed little monster you two would come up with."
She's spiteful and she's mean, thought Shinji, but she's not crazy. I've seen her in action. And she has to hate the Angels now for what they've done to her. "Asuka-san, we have a plan to destroy the Angels once and for all. If we set you free, will you help us?"
"Why are you asking? Where are the others--Misato, Ritsuko, Gendou? Why aren't they here to tell me?"
Shinji hesitated for just a second; in that second, Rei spoke up. "We can't trust them anymore. They built the Angels. They're the ones we have to fight."
Asuka's eyes went wide--with comprehension, Shinji hoped. But a second later, Asuka's eyes rolled back. "No! You're lying! You're trying to discredit them! Take away my glory! GET OUT OF HERE! SCHEISSKOPF!"
A lump came to Shinji's throat. As he turned to go, he muttered to Rei, "Poor Asuka-san."
"I heard that!" Asuka yelled. "Don't you dare do that to me. Don't you dare pity me. Yell at me or laugh at me. Make fun of me like I make fun of all of you, but don't give me your Goddamn pity!" She then seemed to forget that Rei and Shinji were there as she resumed her futile straining against the straps. "Halte! Halte! MAMA!!"
Rei and Shinji walked out of the room without another word.
Once they were in the corridor, Shinji stopped and looked back. "I still think--perhaps there's something we could say--"
"It's no use," Rei replied. She knew what Shinji was referring to. It was perhaps the most terrible indictment in Shinji's mind against NERV: that the whole notion of ranking the pilots was a sham. The numbers were arbitrary, designed to manipulate the pilots rather than reveal their actual skills. Asuka's score could be on top one day, and Shinji's the next, and it didn't make a difference to NERV. Except that Asuka believed in the test scores like she believed in God. When her score went down, it destroyed her will, and the score became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the battle with the Sixteenth Angel.
"So we're alone?" Shinji asked after a minute.
Rei shook her head. "Your strongest ally is Eva 01; my strongest ally is the Magi. But we can't use them until we're safe, and we'll only be safe inside of 01's entry plug, with the plug locked into the Eva. That's where we have to be."
"Then the battle begins."
"Good morning, Misato-san. Is something wrong? You look a little distracted."
"Nothing in particular; just a bad time for me. You don't look so well yourself."
"One of my cats got sick awhile back. My granny's been looking after it, but it finally died last night. I hate being on-call 24 hours a day. I should have taken care of it. Ah well, we don't have much longer to go with the project. Commander Ikari seems pleased with the progress."
"Everything's going the way it's supposed to?"
"As far as I know. You really do look strange, Misato-san. Can I get you something?"
"Thanks, Ritsuko-san. My stomach is a little--"
As soon as Ritsuko left the room for a bicarbonate, Misato stood up. She had sat down on the report of the blood test; that was the quickest way to hide it from Ritsuko. There wasn't much time left. She took the report down the hall to an office that had a paper shredder.
"As far as you know, eh?" Misato said to herself as the machine destroyed the evidence. "I don't think the plan called for Rei to be so active. Things may just be getting interesting."
Shinji and Rei spent the rest of the day working surreptitiously toward Eva 01's entry plug. The Eva was being kept under highest security after the incident in which it devoured the S-2 engine from Eva 03--and almost killed the Fourth Child. Rei had to tell the Magi to provide access to high-security areas, while making it look as if nothing was happening. They moved as slowly as if they were in a minefield, but at last they came to the final door. Beyond it, only ten feet of deck was between them and the entry plug. But it was a run across the open, with nowhere to hide.
"What do we do?" Shinji whispered.
Rei whispered back: "When I distract their attention, we run for it. It should only take a few seconds."
"Distract their attention? How?"
"Maybe they're holed up somewhere with food and water," Ritsuko suggested. "In that case, we don't even need to worry about them."
"But Shinji must confront the final Angel," Gendou said. "When the Fifth Child is ready..."; he never finished.
Every computer screen in Central Dogma went black. Every terminal the Magi touched--and the Magi was everywhere--went blank. Only a few seconds later, though, a message appeared, one keystroke at a time, on every screen in the geo-front;
--Mene mene tekel upharsin--
"What the hell is that?" Misato asked.
Ritsuko had clapped both hands over her mouth when she read the message. Now she began laughing like a crazed woman. "It means we have been weighed, and we came up short. We've been down here all this time playing at being God. God just reminded us that we're not there yet."
"WHO'S DOING THIS?" Commander Ikari roared.
The screens all went blank again, and began filling with a different message, repeated over and over:
IKARI NO BAKA
IKARI NO BAKA
IKARI NO BAKA
The cool and controlled Ritsuko Akagi was on the edge of a complete breakdown. She put her fist through the nearest computer monitor screen, shattered the cathode tube and kept punching. "Stop it, mama! Stop it!!"
Misato pulled Ritsuko away from the monitor, then slapped her hard across the face. Ritsuko's hand flew up to her stinging cheek, then came down slowly. She stared at her bloody scratches.
"Katsuragi!" Gendou barked. "Give her a tranquilizer or something. We need her to regain control of the Magi. Although I suspect it's just tricks by those children."
"But how could they do this? And where are they?"
"Are there any other anomalies to report?"
"No, sir. All systems appear normal."
Misato had failed to notice that the entry plug was now inserted in Eva 01.
Shinji and Rei braced themselves for the worst part of working in an entry plug: the filling of the plug with the briny LCL medium. It may have been an efficient oxygen-delivery system, but it always made Shinji gag. "What do we do now?"
"Tell your father and the others where we are, and try one last time to get them to stop the project. You know what we must do if we fail."
Shinji sighed. "So how do we tell them?"
"Eva 01's torn loose from its moorings! It's activated!"
"It's them!" Gendou shouted. "Are they in the plug?"
"Entry plug inserted into 01, LCL injection complete."
"Then get them out! Set off explosive charges if you have to!"
Just then a voice came over the computer's audio system:
"MAGI! EVA 01 ENTRY PLUG LOCK! PRIORITY SECURITY CODE--JONAH!"
"That was Rei's voice, but it came from within the Magi."
"Eject the plug!"
"We can't! The Eva is refusing all signals."
All eyes turned to the computer display, where a digital camera mounted inside the entry plug showed Shinji Ikari at the controls, still wearing hospital pyjamas, with Rei Ayanami seated behind him.
"What do you two think you're doing?"
"Putting an end to the Human Enhancement Project. No more Angels, no more Evas. It's evil; it must end now."
"What do you know of the Project?"
Rei spoke up. She certainly didn't look happy to see Commander Ikari now. She looked grim, determined. "He knows what I've told him, and I've told him everything. Shinji's mind is one with this Eva, but my mind is one with the Magi. I've seen the secrets, I've seen the lies, and I know the truth. The truth is that NERV and SEELE are just a bunch of old people afraid of death. So you tried to cheat death by turning yourselves into something you're not. You killed most of the earth; you terrorized those who were left. You destroyed the climate. And you made the Angels to trick people into letting you have your way. You acted like children who didn't want to be told "No, you can't"--and look what happened."
Gendou's fists had clenched during Rei's indictment; his knuckles had turned white. Now, however, he loosened his grip and tried to speak sensibly. "You claim to know everything. In that case, you know that you also were part of the project."
"Yes, but not the way you intended. Your goal was to cheat death; there is no way to cheat death, except through life itself. You created me, yet you never counted on my becoming what I am now."
"What are you saying? I designed you precisely--"
Rei cut Gendou off. "Magi! Entry plug camera footage of Eva 00's last sortie. Prepare to freeze-frame on my signal."
Up popped a screen-in-screen, showing everyone Rei protecting Shinji at the cost of her own life. It was harrowing, and strange to watch Rei watching herself now. Rei the pilot was being possessed by the Angel; it was consuming her like a virus made visible. She said nothing, except, for no apparent reason, "This is my mind, which wishes to be one with Ikari-kun." Shinji blushed when she mentioned his name. Then--
"FREEZE! Closeup on the pilot's face."
The computer blew up the image of Rei's face.
"That can't be," Ritsuko said. "A trick of the light--"
"Magi, final visual image of the pilot before connection was broken."
The picture fast-forwarded, freezing again in a closeup on Rei, waiting for the Eva to explode. Now nobody could mistake it, or call it a trick of the light.
Gendou stood up to stare at the image. "Tears?!"
"Yes, tears. You made me more human than you thought you could. And the proof is in here, within me. I carry Shinji's child."
Shinji's head swung around so fast he might have gotten whiplash. The NERV control room was absolutely quiet, except for Misato, who couldn't help muttering under her breath, "Way to go, Shinji-kun!"
Gendou's voice was hoarse and rasping. "You lie!"
"Magi. Life-form analysis on entry plug."
Up popped two windows, showing the vital signs for IKARI SHINJI and AYANAMI REI. Then, a second later, a third window, labeled UNKNOWN ZYGOTE, showing a mass of undifferentiated tissue attached to the wall of Rei's uterus.
To be continued...