Gospel of a New Era

Title: Gospel of a New Era
Plot, or Lack Thereof: Yours Truly becomes a bridge bunny at NERV.
Reason for Banishment: Slated to be re-written as a less blatant self-insertion.


Prologue: HASSHIN (Launch)/In the Beginning

September 13, 2000. The day the world was turned upside-down.

Despite advances in modern technology, nothing could even begin to capture what ensued on that day. I’m sure you’ve all seen the replays ad nauseum by now. First were the shock waves that shook the ground, causing massive earthquakes along fault lines and re-configuring much of the landscape. Then, the sudden rise of the sea level, drowning all of the coastline cities and at least half of Florida, where I called home. One-third of the entire human population—including my parents, my little brother, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and who knows how many other relatives—had died right then and there.

Next came the long-term effects. The explosion caused by what would be later deemed the “Second Impact” shifted the Earth’s axis, causing drastic changes in the global weather pattern and the jet stream. Volcanoes opened up by the shaking of the earth erupted almost nonstop those first few days. The weather then alternated between flood and drought for weeks that felt without end. Another one-sixth of the world was killed as a result of the natural disasters and the diseases they brought. Food and water shortages as well as brownouts and blackouts became commonplace in even First World countries.

But the worst disaster, the one that you couldn’t understand unless you had been there, was not physical at all. Brokenhearted, alone, and without hope, people lost the will to live. Random, senseless crime had become so rampant that it wasn’t unusual for people to carry guns in plain sight and use them at the slightest provocation. By the end of that year, only one-third of the original 5 billion human beings was left on the planet, and they still continued to die at an alarming rate.

And I hadn’t even graduated from college yet.

Not that I’m bragging about our generation’s suffering. I wouldn’t wish that sort of experience on anybody. But when something this big happens, it drives an unbridgeable wedge between the first-hand witnesses and the generation afterwards. It was exactly like how those of us who were born after the Vietnam War can observe what happened with detachment even though our parents fought, died, lost their minds, protested, or became disillusioned because of it. We can’t connect with the horror by the fact that we weren’t there.

So what is the point of me writing all of this down, then, since it’s obviously not going to help you as far as figuring us weird grown-ups out?

Well, half of it is self therapy. Ever since that day all those years back, I’ve felt like my life stopped. But now, since I no longer need to lock my feelings away for the sake of confidentiality, I want them purged from my system as soon as I can. Even though some part of me will always remember, I want to be able to forget some of it, if only for a while, but without risking that such a great defining moment in human history could be lost if I did.

The other reason is obvious. You have never gotten to hear from any one of those who were involved in the Human Complementation Project. Not just because we weren’t allowed to, but because much of it is too painful to even think about. For me, though, it would be much more painful to keep quiet. After all, it is by peeling away the layers of cauterized skin that a burn victim can begin to heal.

And so, it is on this rather depressing note that I begin. After I’ve finished, maybe you can tell me whether what we did was the right thing. I’d like to think so, but now I’m not so sure any more. Maybe in another fifty years, the Human Complementation Project will be looked at the same way we saw the Vietnam War in our time: pointless, evil, and a complete waste of human life.

Not to mention that around here, there were plenty of fates worse than death.

 ***

The first few days after the Second Impact were a blur. I think I, like a lot of other survivors, just spent most of it in shock. Classes were cancelled, of course, but I wouldn’t have gone to class anyway. It’s a bit hard to go on with your normal life when you’re convinced that the End of the World just happened and you were left behind. Some time during this, I returned home, identified the bodies of my family, and arranged for them to be buried. I spent a lot of days crying, praying, staring into space, or some combination of the three.

I can say that I would not have made it through those initial days of insanity had it not been for my faith. To this day I am convinced that it was a miracle of God that I didn’t suffer a nervous breakdown and waste away like many of my fellow human beings did. A supernatural strength carried me through my hardest times, and kept me from giving up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As soon as I was able to, I went back to college. I worked part-time to support myself so I wouldn’t have to draw too much out of my account. Even though I had inherited my parents’ savings, I knew better than to rely on that. I learned a lot of hard lessons about managing money—and time—that year. I made it, though, and got my degree in Chemistry. I “dated” a few guys, too, but my relationship between them was nothing more serious than that of friends. All for the better, I suppose, since I never got along with people very well, and my tendency to be honest to the point of bluntness drove many of my acquaintances away.

During that year, some of my first doubts arose about the cause of the Second Impact. I tended to think a lot in my spare time, and the more I did, the more the “meteor striking the Antarctic” story sounded fishy. First of all, given the amount of publicity given to the asteroid which “almost” hit Earth two years previous, I found it hard to swallow that anybody could have missed a meteor huge enough to melt the entire South Polar Ice cap. Second, a meteor strike would have thrown up tons of dust, blocking out the sun and making the aftereffects of the impact even worse than it already had been. Third, nobody offered any opposing theories. If scientists could not agree on the age of the universe, the origin of man, or whatever the most recent controversy may be, how come they were so quick to accept the one explanation given about the greatest disaster since possibly Noah’s flood? Since I could do little more than think about it, though, I tucked that thought in the back of my mind and concentrated on getting into a good graduate school.

That was when my life changed again.

It started with a typed form letter. You know, those polite ones offering “exciting job opportunities” and whatnot, signed “in person” by the head of the company.

What interested me, though, was that the job would be in Japan. Being a bit of an anime/manga fan, I’ve always wanted to live in the middle of it all. Never mind that the latest stuff that came out tended to be ultra nostalgic or ultra depressing, I meant the Pre-Impact shows that had by now become classics (and hot collectors items). In addition, the job offer suited my personality, since there would be minimal human contact. And the starting salary they proposed sounded very, very attractive.

So I filled out the forms, wrote a resume, got the recommendations, and sent it all in. A few days later, I had pretty much forgotten about it. Imagine my surprise when I got a call from these guys saying that they’d like to interview me. So I went in, answered their questions, and tried my best to look professional.

About two relatively sleepless weeks after that, Sub-commander Fuyutsuki called me personally to welcome me into Gehrin.

Needless to say, I bought myself a better phrase dictionary.

***

1: TOMODATCHI (Friends)/What Friends Are For (A.D. 2006)

“Katsuragi-san.”

The head of purple hair was still down, and now soft snoring sounds could be heard from within. The other students no longer bothered to tone down their giggling as I marched over to Katsuragi’s desk.

“Ahem,” I began poking at Katsuragi. She stirred once, but went back to sleep.

“It’s hopeless, Shirane-sensei,” Ryouji remarked from behind her. “Misato is a strictly nocturnal person.”

And you know this because? I wanted to ask, but kept my thoughts to myself. I headed back to the front of the room, grabbed the “I fell asleep in class—again” sign that I made for Misato. I was about to attach the sign to Misato’s back when she sat bolt upright and screamed loud enough to render the entire class deaf. I shot Ryouji a suspicious glance, but he held up his hands and gave me the most innocent smile he could manage. I wasn’t the least bit convinced, but I turned my attention back to Katsuragi, who was doing a terrible job trying not to look embarrassed. “Ah, Katsuragi-san. Glad to see you finally awake.”

“Sorry,” she apologized.

“What’s past is past,” I answered. “But since you seem to do so well in my class despite being asleep most of the time, why don’t you show us how to do the sample problem on page 257?”

Still blushing, Katsuragi made her way to the front of the room and began explaining the intricacies of aromatic substitutions.

***

A much-humbled Katsuragi slunk her way towards my desk after class.

“Of all the days to fall asleep in my class, Katsuragi, you just had to pick this one, hm?” I teased, pretending to be stern.

Katsuragi looked like she was ready to disappear through a hole in the ground, but no such thing happened. “I take it you got my message?”

I smiled, letting her know for certain that I wasn’t really mad at her. “Yeah. So what’s up?”

“Misato’s failing calculus,” Ryouji answered for Katsuragi, getting elbowed in the ribs for that remark.

“I don’t understand any of the concepts,” she explained, giving Ryouji evil looks.

“Well, calculus is one of those courses that you can’t pick up intuitively unless you’re an absolute math genius, and even then it takes some elbow grease to learn the more complicated stuff.” I whipped out my planner. “So when are you free?”

We traded schedules, and in a few moments had worked out a meeting place and time. I was very surprised to find out that Katsuragi lived a mere three stops from the nearest EMR station, which was in turn a short walk from my apartment. I wasn’t as surprised when, through Katsuragi and Ryouji’s banter, I discovered that the two were living together.

“Great.” Katsuragi shook hands with me. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem.” I leaned forward. “Think you can ditch the peanut gallery?” I whispered, jabbing a thumb at Ryouji.

Ryouji heard me, shot me a crooked grin, and hooked an arm around Katsuragi’s torso. “Sorry, Ms. Shirane, but Misato and I are attached at the waist.”

“I don’t think Katsuragi-san agrees with you,” I observed, as Kasturagi demonstrated just how much she didn’t agree.

Ryouji was in too much pain to reply.

***

(Approximately three months later.)

Carrying my tray, I desperately tried to find a seat within the mid-lunch crush, but failed.

Ugh. I made a face. I really need to remember why I usually don’t eat in the student cafeteria.

Just as I thought I would have to eat standing up, Misato’s voice carried over the noise of several hundred students conversing. “Shirane-sempai! Over here!”

Following the sound, I soon saw Misato waving at me from one of the tables. I waved back and threaded my way through the crowd as soon as I could.

“Hey, Misato,” I greeted, setting down my tray in the space she had made for me.

“Slept past the alarm again today, Shirane-sempai?” Kaji teased, having overheard about my atrocious morning habits from Misato. “You should really make your meals before you go to bed.” he winked at me. “Or find a boyfriend who is a really good cook.”

The blonde sitting next to Kaji rolled her eyes. “One could hardly call curry ramen with beer good cooking.”

A mental bell in my head went off, but I couldn’t quite place what the bell was attached to. “This is?” I began, indicating the woman in question.

Misato stood up. “I’ll intro you. Shirane-sempai, Akagi Ritsuko, my classmate. Ritchan, Shirane Kikuko, my T.A. for OrgoChem and my tutor for Calc.”

Outside of the classroom, Misato had the tendency to clip everything down to the shortest amount of syllables possible, but I caught the name Akagi, which rang another bell. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” I asked, still trying to dredge up why the face seemed so familiar.

Fortunately for me, Ritsuko caught on much faster than I did. “You were with that group of graduates who came in last year.”

The proverbial light bulb finally came on. “Oh, right!” I nodded, an abbreviated form of the bow that was quite popular among college students. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“It has,” Ritsuko agreed. “I’m surprised you still remember.”

Feeling embarrassed, I stuck out my tongue. “Well, actually, I didn’t really remember until you mentioned it.”

Misato almost spit out her drink. “You a Gehrin grunt, too?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, smiling. “Or, rather, Gehrin is sponsoring me through my degree. Once I graduate I’ll be part of a full-time medical team.”

“Misato and I are joining Gehrin as well,” Kaji explained for Misato, who was still rather shocked. He gave me another one of those looks. “Fate just keeps bringing us together, hm?”

“Boy, you just don’t give up, do you?” I asked. “How many times do I have to shoot you down to get you to leave me alone?”

“Yeah, and in front of Misato, too,” Ritsuko shook her head, then turned her attention to the now seething Misato. “Just what do you see in this guy?”

“Oh, Mi-chan knows I’m joking,” Kaji crooned, running his hand through Misato’s fine, dark, and almost purple hair. “My heart is hers.”

Ritsuko scoffed. “And your pants, too, I’m sure.”

I declined to comment, instead beginning to attack the strange-colored mass that the university claimed to be food. No wonder Kaji considers his cooking to be gourmet, I thought, snickering inwardly. Meanwhile, Misato continued to flush all sorts of fascinating colors, while Ritsuko and Kaji traded stinging banter. Not interested by any of this, I tuned out my surroundings and worked on finishing my meal.

 ***

And so, it was under the blandest of situations that I became acquainted with my future cowokers. Of course, at the time I had no idea that these people would one day be capable of turning the world upside down wit the power that they wielded. Nor did I have much of a concept of what I had gotten myself into; I definitely would have reconsidered if I knew what was about to be involved with.

[stuff]

***

I boarded the EMR, grateful that I had access to the special line. The morning and evening crushes were terrible, and I neither had the energy nor the will to push through a mob of people who were all in a hurry to go.

I was rather surprised to find myself sharing the otherwise empty car with a very young girl. The morning daylight cast an eerie blue glow to her light-colored hair, and she stared at the world outside through dark red eyes. I blinked several times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming—I wasn’t—and then approached her.

“Hey, there,” I greeted. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere,” the girl replied, not turning. “I just like to watch.”

Ooh-kay. I tried a different question. “Do you know where you live?”

“Uh-huh. In the big pyramid.”

I raised a mental eyebrow. The only “big pyramid” I knew of was the NERV building. “Are you sure you’re not lost?”

“No, I can walk by myself. I don’t need any help, basan.”

Eep. Unintentionally, the little girl had insinuated that I was a hag. “Do you know what ‘basan’ means?”

The girl shrugged. “The Commander says it all the time. It’s always ‘basan’ this or ‘basan’ that.”

Well, well. Somebody wasn’t being a very good role model for this kid. “Sometimes adults don’t always say good things about each other,” I said, trying to phrase my words in the right way.

Now the girl gave me her full attention. “The Commander always speaks the truth.”

It was my turn to shrug. “The truth isn’t always good to hear.”

“Hm.” The girl faced the window again. “Yes.”

All too soon, my stop came up. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” I asked, making my way to the door.

“I’ll be fine.”

Oh, well; eventually security will find her and get her back to where she lives, I guess, I thought as the door slid open.

As I left, I kept peering back to the disappearing train, but I could no longer see the girl.

 ***

2: SHIGOTO (Work)/Occupational Hazards (A.D. 2015)

Flipping through my little black book of kanji, I tried to find the word that was giving me so much trouble.

Damn! You’d think that after 10 years, this would be second nature already. I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes before putting them back on and making sure it was resting on my nose. I never got used to wearing contacts; the idea of putting a foreign object in my eye had not become a pleasant one despite my mother’s repeated assurances while she had still been alive and trying to make me look more ladylike. Forcing myself out of my reminiscence, I found the offending word and what it meant, and continued to read the rest of the article on the newest election scandal that broke out in Russia.

The P.A. system unexpectedly came to life: “Attention, Dr. Shirane. Secondary medical staff doctor Shirane Gyoukuki, you are being paged.”

That got my attention in a hurry. I, being one of those more or less invisible peons that make up the core of NERV’s staff, seldom get paged over the building-wide speakers. Something important must be up.

The all too cheerful voice continued: “Please meet Captain Katsuragi at elevator A1A immediately.”

Ahh. Misato must have gotten lost again. I didn’t blame her, though; my sense of direction was almost as bad as hers, and in the maze that was NERV HQ, it was pretty easy to lose your way. Even after ten years of working here, there were still places where I could wander in circles without realizing it unless I had detailed instructions on where to go. Misato had arrived to the Tokyo branch of NERV just a few weeks ago, so it was no surprise that she’d need help. I grabbed a map off my desk and headed out.

***

“Hello, Katsuragi-san,” I greeted upon seeing her. Misato frowned at my formalities, but I indicated with my eyes towards the guest she had with her that it probably wasn’t appropriate to be too casual. “Where to?”

“EVA cages, please,” Misato replied a bit sheepishly.

My eyes widened. “I don’t have authority to go up there. Why didn’t you ask Dr. Akagi to guide you?”

Misato hmphed. “No, way. I get enough grief from her as it is.”

I sighed. “You haven’t changed a bit, Katsuragi-san.”

Misato blushed for a moment, then shook her head as if to clear it. “Anyway, this is an emergency. I can get you through security if you need me to.”

I hesitated. “Well—”

“Please, Shirane-san,” Misato begged, starting to look desperate. “I’m late enough already.”

I sighed again. “Sure, I guess.” I returned my attention to the young boy standing behind her. Somehow, he looked a bit familiar, but I couldn’t place exactly when I had seen him before, so I decided to play it safe. “Who’s the new guy?”

Misato pushed the boy—a teen—forward. “This is Ikari Shinji. He’s one of the Children qualified to pilot.”

The one thing that made any sense to me was the name ‘Ikari’. “Ikari? Any relation to the Commander?”

“He’s my father,” Shinji replied, although he didn’t sound very enthusiastic about it.

So that’s why he looked so familiar. The kid could almost pass for his dad if he grew a goatee and donned some orange tinted glasses. What was different about Shinji, though, was that he had an air of awkwardness and shyness about him, whereas the opinions concerning the Commander seemed to suggest that the man always radiated confidence.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Shirane Gyoukuki,” I held out my hand, and Shinji shook it. “I’m one of the secondary medical staff, so I hope I don’t see you often.” I grinned. He smiled back, but not in a very sincere way. Definitely shy, I thought. Or my joke just wasn’t that funny. As we headed up in silence, I decided on the latter.

***

The lights were off when we entered the EVA cages. When they turned on, I found myself staring into the hideous face of one of the so-called Units that I had just heard hints of before this. Shinji shouted and staggering backwards a few steps; I, on the other hand, stayed silent, but my heart took quite a beating from the combination of shock and terror.

“This is the Evangelion Unit 01, a man-made humanoid fighting machine,” Ritsuko introduced, most likely for Shinji’s sake, as she walked up to us. To Misato, she hissed, “you’re late. What took you so long? And why did you call her instead of me? You know she’s not authorized to be here!”

“My hearing’s a lot better than you think it is,” I commented, while on the inside, I kicked myself for speaking before I thought.

Ritsuko gave me the Look of Death. “You’ve done your job. You’re free to leave.” Translation: get out before I fire you.

“Let her watch if she wants to,” a cold voice from above cut in.

Shinji froze at the sound, then glared towards the source of the voice. “Father!”

Commander Ikari Gendou was one of those people who had a Presence with a capital “P”. You know, the kind of person that can walk into a noisy room and cause it to go quiet. One look from him and you felt as if your entire soul had been exposed to him. I had not seen him often during my stay in NERV, and today was the first day that I got a good look at him, but I already had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be a pleasant guy to get along with.

[stuff—don’t use dialogue from series unless absolutely necessary]

***

While Shinji was lead to the Eva, I followed Misato into a large room covered with instruments and panels.

“This is the bridge,” she began, and was probably about to launch into a more detailed explanation when Gendou cut in.

“There’s a ‘disciple’ attacking right now, Captain. Save your tour of the bridge for later.”

I ran that sentence across my mind again. ‘Shitou’ meant ‘disciple’ or ‘messenger’, but neither translation made any kind of sense in that context. Was there another meaning to the word that I wasn’t aware of?

“Beginning synchronization sequence,” reported a young lady with short brown hair. She, and the two others sitting with her, didn’t look any older than 25. I felt a lump rise in my throat as I remembered that my little brother would have been about their age had he lived to this day.

One of the screens showed Shinji with strange triangular clips in his hair, sitting in something that resembled a video arcade cockpit. “Hey, what’s going on?” he exclaimed with alarm as an orange-yellow liquid began rising in the cockpit.

“Don’t worry, that’s a liquid interface to help you breathe easier,” Ritsuko told Shinji. “Just draw it into your lungs and your body will get used to it.” Nevertheless, the boy, thinking that he would drown, gurgled a bit before discovering that he in fact had not asphyxiated.

“Bleah,” he muttered. “I’m not sure I want to get used to this.”

“Endure it!” Misato told him. “You’re a man, aren’t you?”

Shinji looked all the more miserable, but suffered in silence this time. Meanwhile, voices continued to call out various stages of the synchronization, but I couldn’t follow all of the techno-babble that went on.

“Incredible,” Ritsuko breathed. “Maybe this might actually work.”

“All systems normal,” the young lady reported. “Unit 01 is ready for launch.”

“Great!” Misato beamed. “Eva, launch!”

The display changed to a view of the city. At one end of the screen stood Shinji’s ‘Eva’, a giant purple robot with what appeared to be a long extension cord connected to it. At the other was an enormous being that looked like it escaped from the costume department of a B movie. If everyone else weren’t so deadly serious about this, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

“All right, Shinji, let’s get you acquainted with the basic control systems.” Misato said into the speakers, all business now. “Just think about walking, and let the Eva do the rest. Try taking a few steps so you can get a feel for how the Eva responds.”

“Okay,” Shinji answered. “Walk?” Unit 01 took a lumbering step forward. “Walk—woah!” the next step was a bit too big for the machine to be able to keep its balance, and toppled forward. Meanwhile, the other gigantic being (which I assumed to be the ‘disciple’) had noticed Unit 01 and began heading towards it.

“Shinji, stand up!” Misato urged, her voice rising. “You’ve been spotted! Hurry!”

Her warning came too late. The ‘disciple’ picked up Unit 01 and grabbed its left wrist in a twisting motion. Shinji cried out in pain, his voice quickly rising to a scream.

“That’s only electronic feedback from the synchronization, Shinji! It’s not really your hand! Stay calm!”

Misato’s advice didn’t help. The ‘disciple’ continued to beat upon the helpless Unit 01, while frantic reports were being issued from all around and Shinji continued to scream. Misato wrung her hands, and I think I uttered a prayer for Shinji to be all right.

A few moments later, I found myself staring at the monitor, unable to wrench my eyes away even though my stomach was begging me to stop looking, as Unit 01 began to fight back like one possessed.

But by what?

I didn’t think I wanted to know.

***

I could still feel the bile tugging at the bottom of my throat as I made my way back to my office. I gave myself some Peptol Bismol, but its terrible taste compounded my nausea rather than relieve it. At least I wouldn’t have to see that again, I consoled myself. After the whole thing was over, Ritsuko told me that I was never to reveal what I had seen to anyone, and that I was never to step foot into the bridge again. I was fine with that.

A prescription for Ikari Shinji came to my desk a few hours later, an over-the-counter painkiller and a long chemical whose name I didn’t recognize until I found it off the shelf. It turned out to be some sort of memory suppressant, but I dismissed my musings about the choice of medicine. One of the first unspoken rules that I learned here was “don’t ask too many questions”.

But I was pretty sure there was no such rule, either written or silent, against the staff interacting with the Children.

***

Call it the will of God, fate, or mere curiosity, but something possessed me to deliver Shinji’s medication by hand. Shinji’s behavior had hit much too close to home for me to forget him the way I did most people I deemed a passing acquaintance. The haunted expression on his face was the one I saw in the mirror more times than I cared to see during much of my life even before the Second Impact. Then, it had been the loving support of my faith, my family, and my friends that had pulled me from a never-ending spiral of depression and self-loathing. I had no idea what I could do to help Shinji—maybe my visit would do more harm than good—but the idea that I did something would at least be of some comfort to me. A selfish notion, perhaps, but not an uncommon one.

By the time I was nearing Shinji’s room, though, I began to have second thoughts. Did I really need to get into more trouble than what I had already experienced? And, more importantly would Shinji appreciate the unsolicited attention?

Before I could change my mind, though, I had already reached Shinji’s door and knocked on it without really thinking.

“Come in,” Shinji replied shortly thereafter, sounding a bit surprised.

Summoning what was left of my courage, I inched the door open and peeked through. “Hi. Remember me?”

Shinji forced a weak smile. “Dr. Shirane, right?”

I smiled back. “Yup. Mind if I come in?”

“Uh—no, I guess.”

“Thanks.” I entered, feeling like I was stepping on eggshells all the way, and sat down on a chair next to Shinji’s bed. I fingered the bottle of pills in my hand before handing them to him. “These are for you.”

“Why?” Shinji wanted to know. “I feel fine.”

I shrugged. “I just fill prescriptions.” I looked around the room. Aside from the wilting flower in the vase on the small table next to the bed, the room had no other color. “It must be terribly boring for you here.”

“It’s okay.” Shinji sank back into his pillow and stared at the ceiling. “I like to think.”

“About what?”

Shinji shrugged. “Stuff.”

Starting to feel rather awkward, I decided to change the subject. “By the way, Shinji, how old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

I blinked. “Say, that’s the same age as that girl—” I tried to remember her name.

“Ayanami,” Shinji filled in for me in a half-whisper.

“Right, Ayanami. You’ll be going to school with her.” I winced, recalling Ayanami’s current physical state. “Once she recovers, anyway.”

Shinji’s expression took one of concern, the first real emotion I had seen him display since I entered the room. “Is she going to be okay?”

I nodded. “I think so. From what I’ve heard, she’s one tough cookie.”

Shinji let out what might have a relieved sigh and resumed his gaze towards the ceiling. I followed his glance up towards the soft UV lighting, but I didn’t see what he found so interesting.

“Uh.” I began, wondering if I was making myself an unwelcome visitor. “If I’m bothering you, just say so.”

“No, that’s okay.” Shinji gave me his attention again and forced another weak smile. “You’re the first living being I’ve seen since I got here.”

“The nurses don’t count?” I joked.

This got a genuine chuckle out of Shinji. “Oh, yeah, them too.”

Misato poked her head into the door, startling both of us. “Shinji! Good t’see you’re ready to go! And Shirane-san!” her face took a mischievous grin. “Didn’t know you were into younger men.”

Shinji flushed a deep red, whereas I crossed my arms. “That’s not funny. I’m practically old enough to be his mother.”

Misato feigned hurt. “Come on, can’t take a joke?”

“We are not amused,” I deadpanned, before the grin that was tugging at the edge of my face eluded my control. “You really haven’t grown up at all.”

“Only as young as you feel,” Misato countered. “Anyway, I’m here to pick Shinji up and take him home.”

I patted Shinji on the shoulder. “Congratulations, you’re out of here!” I got up and helped Shinji to his feet, then faced Misato. “Would you like me to go with you in case you get confused again?”

It was Misato’s turn to blush. “It’s just a short walk.”

“In that case, it’s back to the grindstone for me.” I placed a hand on Shinji’s shoulder, and noted that he flinched momentarily before forcing himself to calm down. “It’s been nice seeing you again, Shinji.”

He nodded back. “Likewise, Dr. Shirane.”

***

3: SHINYUU (True Courage)/Whispers of the Heart

I thought that that would be the end of my involvement with whatever was going on “upstairs”—or, rather, downstairs, as the main action took place several feet below the places where I worked—excepting when those prescriptions came for me to fill. I had never seen that much action anyway, since I was not supposed to step in unless the primary team was shorthanded, which was already a rare occurrence. And now that I had broken NERV policy by showing up at the bridge and then possibly a second time by going to see Shinji, I was lucky that I still even had my job. Then again, given the apparent top-secret goings on of NERV, letting me out might have been a bigger a security risk given my propensity to voice my opinions.

So the days passed in a slow, but it wasn’t long before I settled back into the mendacity of everyday drudgery. I relegated everything concerning Shinji to the back of my head: while I didn’t forget about him, I didn’t think about him that much, either. Misato also more or less disappeared from my life again as well; before, we could at least run into each other in the many hallways of NERV, but these days she was more likely than not spending more and more time on the bridge. And hence I became pretty much cut off from all human contact.

I didn’t even learn that a second “Shitou” had attacked until I watched the official NERV press release on my television at home—I had long ago learned to tune out the klaxons that signaled an emergency since the bridge had a tendency to conduct preparedness drills every once in a while. What occupied my attention instead was the run of bad weather that brought on persistent, pounding headaches. The entire week had been dreary and gray from dawn till dusk, but the downpour didn’t start until the day after that newscast. In fact, the rain didn’t come down until I had walked outside, and then without warning suddenly increased in volume as if someone had turned up the heavenly shower-head. In the short distance between the exit of NERV Headquarters and the warm, dry interior of my car, I had gotten so soaked that I was leaving puddles on the rubber mat. I had never thought to keep an umbrella or raincoat with me before, and today I was paying for my carelessness in spades.

By the time I got onto the main road, I had to drive at a snail’s pace to be able to see through the sheets of water pounding against my window. Fortunately, I didn’t share the road with anyone since the population of Tokyo-3 had dropped considerably since the first “Shitou” arrived and other working people had already gone home well before this hour.

That might’ve been why the blur of white caught my eye. Even through the rain it was obvious said blur was a person walking. That person moved slowly, not caring that he was under a veritable deluge. Curious as to who would be out in the dead of the night getting drenched, I pulled alongside and quickly caught up to the mysterious pedestrian.

With recent memories still fresh on my mind, recognition came in a near instant. I rolled down the passenger-side window in a hurry. “Shinji!” I called above the dull roar of the deluge. “What in the world are you doing here?”

Shinji stopped walking, but he didn’t look at me. “Oh, hi, Dr. Shirane.”

I unlocked the door behind me. “Get into the car before you catch a cold!”

He gave me a glimpse, but his eyes went back to the ground. “No, thanks.”

Putting the car into park, I unlatched my seat-belt, got out of the car, and opened the door. “That wasn’t a request,” I said, making sure Shinji knew I meant business. “Get into the car.”

Now Shinji’s head jerked up, and he glared at me. His dark eyes were smoldering with barely repressed anger, and for a moment it seemed like he was going to snap at me.

Then Shinji squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists. “No,” he said, soft but firm. The anger was still there, but now it had gone down to a low boil.

I knew that I couldn’t change Shinji’s mind, but I wasn’t about to give up. “Why not?”

“I don’t want to go back.” Again, quiet, but with a will of iron. This was not the same shy, uncertain boy I had met before.

I was, however, stubborn. “Where do you want to go, then?”

Shinji looked up into the distance. “I don’t know. I just want to keep walking forever.”

Aha. The gears in my head began turning. “Wouldn’t it be faster to drive?” I asked, smiling.

As I suspected, this threw Shinji off track. “What?”

“I’ve got enough gas to get you pretty far away from here. I don’t mind giving you a ride.” I pulled at my clothes. “But I’m going back to my apartment to dry up first, and you look like you could use at least a good toweling down.” I smiled at him again. “What do you say?”

Shinji went from surprised to suspicious. “I say you’re just trying to trick me.”

I shook my head. “I only want to get you out of the rain.”

Shinji examined me through the icy daggers that continued to assault us from. I looked back, meeting his gaze eye to eye. He was a lot calmer now, but the rage still lurked within him like some sort of wild animal that was waiting to pounce.

“Well?” I prompted. Shinji said nothing. I leaned against the car. “I’m not going anywhere unless you come with me.”

***

It took another five minutes of standing under the pouring storm to get Shinji to give in. I was quite certain that I could no longer feel my extremities by the time I got back home, but I managed to get out of my soggy clothes and downed some rich hot cocoa before anything serious developed.

“Want some?” I asked, offering Shinji some potato salad that I had made for myself the night before.

“No, thanks.”

I sighed. “Your loss…” I doled out a generous portion onto my plate and dug in, while Shinji continued to sit there and sulk, disappearing into the large t-shirt I had lent him.

A long silence passed between us before Shinji spoke. “You’re not going to ask me why I ran away?” It was more of a statement than a question, and a rather bitter one at that.

“Sure I’m curious, but you’re probably still mad at me for basically dragging you into my house, right?” Shinji didn’t answer, but the look on his face said it all. I played with my spoon. “Besides, I don’t think you’re the kind of person to make such a big decision rashly.”

Shinji’s eyes went to the floor again and he muttered something I couldn’t quite make out. I decided that now was a good time to change the subject.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” I offered the salad again.

Shinji eyed the bowl—which, to him, must have seemed like a pale yellow mass of alien goo—and raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

I blinked. “You’ve never eaten potato salad?”

Shinji’s other eyebrow went up. “That’s potato salad?”

Ouch. “I guess it doesn’t really look like much of anything, does it?” I scratched the back of my head.

Shinji scrutinized. “Actually, it’s not that bad,” he volunteered, trying not to hurt my feelings again.

Any further conversation we might have had was interrupted when a knock sounded at the door. I excused myself and went to answer it.

Standing in the hallway were six or seven figures in dark glasses and matching black suits.

What in the world is this, some bad science fiction film? I wondered to myself. Putting on my best face, I smiled at them. “May I help you?”

“Is that boy Ikari shinji?” One of them asked, pointing to Shinji. Before I had a chance to answer, he kept talking. “We’re here to take him back.”

“Back?” I repeated, bewildered, again wondering if I had really gotten transported into a movie. “To where? And on whose orders?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

The men tried to move past me, but I planted myself firmly in front of them. “It is every bit my concern. Did Shinji commit some sort of crime so heinous that it would require a small army to get him?”

The men discussed something among themselves. Finally, one of them walked forward and flashed me a badge bearing the NERV Logo. “We’re sorry we can’t tell you more, but the longer pilot Ikari stays out here, the bigger the danger to public security.”

I crossed my arms, my heart pounding in my chest. “I don’t know. From what I’ve seen of him, Shinji’s not one to go around and talk about himself.” I smiled at them, although it was more of a smirk. “And you certainly wouldn’t have been careless enough to give a fourteen-year-old boy classified information, would you?”

I didn’t get so much as a flinch out of any of them, but I wasn’t surprised. I was trying to face down professionals, after all. The same man put away his badge. “We don’t want to cause any unnecessary trouble, ma’am.”

I pointed to the staircase. “Then leave. I’m not letting Shinji out of my apartment if I can help it.”

I let out a startled yelp as one of the men grabbed my wrists and pushed me back. “Sorry,” he apologized as the other agents moved through the door.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” I yelled, raising my voice as loud as I could, hoping that somebody could hear and alert the authorities. “Let go! Get out of my apartment!” An unresisting Shinji was pushed forward, flanked by the agents. “Leave Shinji alone!”

I tried to free myself, without much success. More conferring ensued among the agents, and one of them pulled out a phone and stepped aside. The rest watched impassively as I grew louder in volume and struggled with more intensity.

“She comes along, too,” the agent on the phone reported after hanging up. With a swift and well-concerted jerking motion, I was pulled off my feet and dragged down the corridor along with Shinji. Despite the noise I made, no one even peeked out of their residences to see what the ruckus was about.

***

The lamp on Commander Ikari’s desk was the only light source in the room, casting eerie shadows in the cavernous office. Despite the lack of illumination, Commander Ikari kept his tinted glasses on, peering at me through them with a dark, intensive stare. I—having been infuriated past the point of good sense, first by the invasion of privacy and then the strong-arm bullying—glared back, refusing to be intimidated any further.

“You resisted when Intelligence came to retrieve Shinji.” Commander Ikari pushed his glasses back up to the top of his nose and clasped his fingers in front of his face. “Why?”

As he didn’t know. “As far as I knew, group of strange looking people knocked on my door and demanded that he go with them without giving a sufficiently good reason.” I crossed my arms. “In any other country, that would be called kidnapping.”

Commander Ikari didn’t react either way. “You didn’t trust them.”

I scoffed. “Of course not. If they had been really acting in Shinji’s best interest, then they wouldn’t have resorted to using scare tactics or violence. They were obviously just doing their job, and that wasn’t good enough for me.”

“Shinji was gone for three days, and no one knew where he was until you came across him.” Commander Ikari put his hands down and peered at me from behind his glasses. “We were very concerned about him.”

“Well then why didn’t you come get him yourself?” I wanted to know.

Commander Ikari tensed slightly. So the man had some emotions after all. “I was occupied.”

I didn’t believe him. “You couldn’t take a few minutes to get your son?” I shook my head. “You are his father, aren’t you?”

“I am.” Commander Ikari readjusted his glasses again. “You, on the other hand, have no business in telling me what to do, especially not as a parent, despite whatever responsibility you may feel for him.”

“At least I know that at that moment I cared more about Shinji than anyone else did,” I shot back.

Commander Ikari’s glasses seemed to glint. “What makes you so certain?”

I continued to stand my ground. “Because I did something about it.”

Commander Ikari was silent for a long time, and I allowed myself to gloat slightly. Well, that showed him.

Then Commander Ikari’s gloved hands went to his face. “How old are you?”

I nearly fell over. What sort of question was that? “Th-thirty six,” I finally managed to stammer, still in shock. “Why do you ask?”

Again, the Commander did not answer right away. “My late wife would have turned 38 this year,” he stated, his voice tone of voice much more subdued.

This time, all of the anger drained out of me. Open mouth, insert entire leg, I thought to myself. The story of my life.

I bowed. “I’m truly sorry. I had no idea.”

Commander Ikari waved me off. “No one ever told you.” he put his hands down and allowed a small smile. “Besides, it’s rather refreshing to see someone with balls for a change.”

I chuckled weakly. “Thanks, I think.”

“However,” Commander Ikari continued, taking on his stern demeanor again. “Such actions cannot be tolerated, and you are not to question my orders again. Is that understood?”

I bit my lip and considered my actions. Undoubtedly I was in a lot of trouble already, and if I continued to be stubborn I could very well lose my job. But what would my career be worth if I didn’t stand up for myself and what I believed in?

I bowed again. “I’m sorry, Commander, but if it ever comes down to what I know is right and what someone tells me, I’m afraid I would have to defer to my conscience every time.”

For a third time, Commander Ikari’s glasses were pushed back up. “I see. Then that is all I have to say to you.”

“Does this mean I’m fired?” I wanted to know.

“You will be informed of my decision when the time comes.” Commander Ikari picked up a piece of paper and began reading through it. “Dismissed.”

He didn’t need to tell me twice. That place was starting to give me the creeps.

***

The next morning, my car engine coughed, sputtered, and  refused to start no matter how I cajoled, begged, or threatened it. Being no mechanic, I walked down the street to the EMR station. Even though there was no longer any need to avoid the morning traffic, I took the line specifically reserved for government employees out of habit.

Boy, was I surprised to find Shinji sitting in the same car that I was entering.

Well, actually, slouching would probably be a better term for the way Shinji’s body sort of sagged against the seat like an old rag doll. In his hand was a SDAT, and he was listening to some sort of music that I couldn’t make out through the earphones. The display on the SDAT indicated that he was on track 25, the second-to-last track for that particular cartridge. He didn’t seem to notice my entrance, so I planted myself across from him, cupped my chin in my hands, leaned forward, and waited for him to look up.

It took another five minutes before Shinji finished listening to tracks 25 and 26. In the lull during the time the SDAT looped back to the beginning, he took a short survey of his surroundings.

His eyes widened when he spotted me; he was not expecting another human being to be even on the same train, much less the same car.

“Dr. Shirane!” Shinji exclaimed. In one motion he had pulled out his earphones, stopped the SDAT, and stood up. He then bowed and continued to stand.

“Sit, sit,” I gestured, smiling. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

Shinji sat. “What are you doing here?”

“My car wasn’t being very cooperative today, so I took the magline. What about you?”

Shinji looked very uncomfortable. “A while ago I was sure, but now,” he sighed. “I don’t know anymore.”

I peeked at my watch. I was still rather early, and nobody bothered to check whether secondary medical staff was punctual anyway. “I don’t suppose you want to tell me about it, do you?”

Shinji looked even more uncomfortable, if that were possible. “I’d rather not.”

“All right.” I gestured towards his SDAT. “What group are you listening to?”

“Oh, this? It’s just a mix I pulled off the internet of the songs I don’t mind listening to repeatedly.” Shinji offered me the earphones. “You want to hear what it sounds like?”

I shook my head. “No, that’s okay. I’ve never really gotten into contemporary music. I mean, some of it sounds okay, but I haven’t found one song yet that isn’t completely repetitive.”

“I suppose,” Shinji sort of shrugged, “but it’s good for letting your mind wander.”

“Yeah.” I fell silent again, not quite knowing what to say, as did Shinji. We sat there for a while in abject silence, staring at each other but at the same time trying not to.

“Um,” Shinji began shifting in his seat after some time. “Thanks for sticking up for me yesterday.”

I shook my head. “I just did what anyone else would have done, or at least wanted to do.”

Shinji lowered his eyes. “I just wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.”

I smiled. “Don’t feel bad, I was probably even more scared.”

Shinji’s head snapped up. “But you were so brave!”

“Only because you were there, Shinji. I was too busy worrying about what would happen to you to think about anything else.” I tried to smile, but it didn’t quite come out right. “Otherwise I think I would have passed out.”

“You’re still braver than I am,” Shinji muttered.

This time I had trouble not laughing. “I’m not the one piloting a multi-ton machine to save the world.”

Shinji looked like he was about ready to disappear into a hole in the ground. “I only did it because they were going to put Ayanami in there.”

I finally let out the smile I was holding in. “You were more afraid for her than you were of doing something you’ve never done before, at the possible risk of your own life. That’s what I’d call courage any day.”

Shinji blinked. “I—I’ve never thought of it that way before.”

He blinked again as I stood up, walked over him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. This time, he didn’t flinch from my touch, but it was clear that he was still very uncomfortable at the idea of another person being so close to him. “Shinji, it’s okay to be afraid. But what’s more important is that you always do what is right, even if you are scared.”

“So how do I know what is right?” Shinji asked.

I smiled at him again. “I think you already know.”

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