At the End of the World 9
Neon Gensis Evangelion: At the End of the World
by Luna Ayanami (ayanami@highlandgrey.com)

Chapter 18

   Risa and Tashi came back as I cut the last long piece of my hair off. By that time, I had sunk to the bathroom floor, in tears as each handful fell away. So I sat on the cold floor, surrounded by uneven chunks of my hair and the scissors lying beside me.
   "Mei!!" Tashi called, though it was largely unecessary. Risa was the one who found me, leaning against a wall with my arms wrapped around my chest, head down and crying almost hysterically. She rushed to my side and hugged me to her, rocking back and forth and singing softly. "It's alright, Mei," she whispered. "It's okay. We're here for you."
   Tashi stood just inside the door, staring at us as though he didn't know us. Then he slowly bent down and picked up one of the pieces of my hair. "Your hair..." he said softly.
   Risa ran her hands over my head. Then she pushed me into a sitting position, brushing the hair back from my face. "I like it," she said. "It suits you. Here, let me straighten it out a bit." She reached for the scissors, but I stopped her.
   "Don't," I whispered. "It's fine."
   She stared at me. "Alright. That's the way you want it..."
   "It is..." My eyes came to rest on Tashi's feet. I couldn't look up at him. I just couldn't. I was afraid of seeing that look on his face again, since I was almost at the same level as I had been yesterday when he had rescued me. "Tell me you didn't kill him," I whispered then.
   "Huh?" was their response.
   I got to my feet slowly, wincing with pain. Tashi had grown a lot in the last year. I didn't even come to his shoulder anymore. "Tell me you didn't kill him," I repeated, more forcefully.
   Tashi looked at the floor. "I didn't," he replied sullenly. "I wanted to...but I couldn't. He's in a locked room right now. I want one of the Units to take him far, far away from here." He looked up at me then, raising his eyes only enough to meet mine. I backed away, taken with a sudden, uncontrollable fear.
   "I can't do it, Mei," he said softly, almost so soft that I didn't hear him. "I can't be anything like him..."
   I ran from the room, dodging past Tashi and running down the hall as fast as I could.
   *****
   I didn't know where I would go. NERV was so big. I remembered the bottom level of the complex, but I wasn't sure I wanted to go there. I looked down at my skirt and loose tunic. Tears gathered in my eyes.
   **Why couldn't I see it?** I asked myself as the tears slipped out, leaving trails of hot water down my cheeks. **Why couldn't I see him for what he was?**
   I didn't have an answer, and maybe I didn't want one.
   Instead, I found a tiny hole in the skirt, dug my fingers in to make it bigger and tore the skirt off all around, so that it was nearly half as long. Now, it hung raggedly at mid-thigh, rather than below-the-knee. I tore the sleeves off the shirt and tucked it into the waistband. I found a lamp nearby in a supply closet that we had left there in case of an emergency and one of us was stuck there; the battery was low, but it would last for an hour or three. I set off down the hall towards the stairs that would take me down.
   The lower level was black. Only a single beam of light weakly illuminated a cross. A figure was nailed to it. Without thinking, I walked down the last steps, and heard the splash of liquid before I felt it.
   I turned my lamp on; the liquid was the same yellow colour as LCL. I bent down and was overpowered by the smell. The smell of blood.
   I straightened and thought for a moment. Wiping tears angrily from my eyes, I continued down into the LCL-filled room.
   It was hard. The ceiling was high; higher than my lamp light could reach. I sensed that at one time, this room had been filled, floor to ceiling, with LCL. Now, it was about maybe half full, which was still a lot. I had absolutely no sense of dimensions in this room. Even so, the floor soon disappeared beneath my feet and I had to swim my way around. I was glad the light was waterproof, or at least as waterproof as we could make it.
   It didn't help. The battery soon flickered and died. Whether it was from the liquid or it just ran out, I never knew. I let the lamp fall from my hand and swam towards the shaft of light.
   I got close enough to see that the figure on the cross was faceless. Seven eyes were tattooed on a dark surface in green, all connected by a triangle. A spear shot out from it's chest, piercing the location of the heart, if it even had one.
   **Who enters my domain?**
   I stopped dead, almost sinking beneath the surface of the liquid. "I do," I replied defiantly, somehow knowing that weakness or fear would be a bad thing to show.
   **Do you have a name, mortal?** The voice was not quite internal, like the Unit was, and it wasn't quite external either, like Tashi or Risa would be. It was just a part of the room, female-sounding, yet overlapped by many. many other voices, all slightly out with one another to create a dragging effect.
   "I do," I stated, floating lazily in the LCL. I offered no more.
   A long silence and then the voice laughed. **You are strong, mortal,** the voice said. **Yes, you are one worthy of the Children I have Created. But do not underestimate my other Children. I feel Them coming, even now. They will be here soon.**
   I felt then, the presence of others in the liquid. I stayed absolutely still, letting their minds touch mine. How many there were, I couldn't tell. They all flowed one right after the other, each one feeling only slightly different than the last.
   It happened suddenly. I started to choke with the overwhelming smell of the LCL, it burned against my skin, and I felt like I was about to sink. I didn't know how far down the floor was, and it was so dark...
   I struggled my way back to the entrance. The only reference I had was to look over my shoulder from time to time and make sure that the shaft of light was still directly at my back.
   I got out finally, ran up the stairs and ran away. I didn't stop until I had reached a hallway I knew off by heart.
   The hall leading to the Eva bay.
   Did I really want to go there? I asked myself. I knew I couldn't handle the smell and feel of the LCL in the plug, and I didn't have my thought sensors anyway. My feet started carrying me there anyway, even though I walked with a jerky half limp.
   Unit-01's entry plug was open and ready to go. No one was in sight. I climbed up to it awkwardly, tears in my eyes from the pain, got in and shut the door. I didn't want to activate it, just sit in the plug and be alone.
   "How could that have happened?" I whispered to myself as more tears came, and not from pain. Memories now...even visual flashes against my closed eyes. "What did I do to deserve that?"
   A weak ripple of anger ran over my mind, and it was not my own. I thought then that it had to be a pretty strong ripple of anger, if I felt it without my thought sensors.
   Before I had much of a chance to ponder over that, there was a soft tap at the plug door. "Mei?" came Tashi's voice. "Mei...could you at least open the door for a moment?"
   I wiped at my eyes with the back of my hand, knowing that it would be obvious that I had been crying. I got out of the seat and opened the door, though I didn't get out.
   "Here," he said, tossing my thought sensors at me one at time; I caught them both. "I thought you might want those," he said, his eyes holding mine.
   I couldn't answer. Instead, I only returned his gaze for a moment, then nodded once to acknowledge the gift, and retreated back inside, closing the door tightly.
   I affixed the sensors to my head slowly, trying to find the best place on my head with my new haircut. I ran my hand over my hair, still damp as it was with LCL and only one sensor attached. With a small shake of my head, I reached up and put the other sensor on.
   **Where is he? I'll kill him!** the Unit roared in my head. I had to grab my temples to brace my thoughts against the force of it. I barely realized that the Unit had repeated what Tashi had said.
   "He's...elsewhere," I replied when I could, my head pounding with a sudden headache. "Tashi wants one of us to take him far far away, and I'd rather not do it." I could barely think.
   **I'm hurting you!** I didn't understand, but a few moments later, the headache dulled into a barely noticable throb just behind my eyes.** Is that better?**
   "Yes," I said, grateful.
   There was a long moment of silence. **It's not your fault, Mei,** he said.
   "Huh?"
   **Your mind is very open right now -- oh there it goes. It's not your fault Mei. You did nothing to warrant that kind of attack.**
   "What if I did?" I cried, leaning forward in the seat and wrapping my arms around my chest, wincing as I pressed a little too hard on the wounds. "I could have..."
   **No,** he disagreed vehemently. **Believe me, I would have been the first to know.**
   "What do you mean?" My voice was very quiet through the tears I was forcing down.
   **First, let Tashi inside. You need to release.**
   I didn't listen. I did open the door, and Tashi was waiting on the other side, but I ran past him back to my room, where I locked the door, sat on my bed and held my knees to my chest, crying until I felt sick.

Chapter 19

   It took a long time for me to recover.
   I was fine physically in about a month. I was back in a plug suit in less than a week after the incident, and back in the Eva as pilot not long after that, though I was immensely relieved that it didn't try to talk to me for another month yet. Emotionally, however...
   Risa handled Kyle's departure. Whenever Tashi mentioned it to me, I just froze up and couldn't respond to anything until the subject was turned to something else. She just said that she sent him far away. I heard her later tell Tashi that she had gone as far as her power cable would let her and then overhand-threw him as far as the Eva could. Satisfied that he was gone for good, I was able to relax a little. I was still afraid of taking a bath by myself and made sure that someone was near when I went to sleep. When I could sleep. It often evaded me for a long time, no matter how tired I was. Most of all, I was scared to be alone with Tashi.
   It was completely unreasonable, and I knew it. Tashi had done nothing to me, had shown me nothing but kindness and sympathy, among other things, but never had he ever even hinted that he meant me any harm. Still, inside I was still an emotional mess, and I was afraid of Tashi, of what he might do. Completely unreasonable...and I refused to talk about it.
   They noticed, of course, that I carried myself differently, that I acted differently around Tashi, even when Risa was with me. I was almost afraid to wear the plug suit, because it was so tight fitting. Every day, I would lock myself in the bathroom and stare at my reflection, telling myself silently all the things that Kyle had said. I kept feeling his body pressing down on mine; I kept seeing the look on his face and in his eyes. Every day, I cried my eyes dry, thinking that there were no more left, but the next day, there were always more.
   When Unit-01 did start talking to me, it was only briefly. I don't even remember what happened that day. It might have been a sync test; it might have been an above-ground venture with Risa; it really could have been anything. The Unit spoke a grand total of five words, and I don't even remember what they were.
   About a week after that, I started dreaming again. It wasn't bad dreams like before. Instead, a pretty blonde girl visited me. We would sit in a classroom (at least that's what I think it was) in two desks by the window and talk. At first we would talk about nothing special, like the weather. I didn't really understand what the weather would accomplish, seeing as I hadn't really seen anything but rainstorms, thunderstorms, and dark boiling clouds so thick that nothing could penetrate them when I was above ground. The last time I had seen sunlight or light cloud cover, not these pitch-black ones, had been before I was taken to the work force. Even so, the weather outside the window was beautiful. Sunlight, bright and clear, streamed through the window, coating everything in a bright golden halo.
   No one else was in the classroom. I remembered, very briefly, that the classroom in my other dreams had been exactly the same, but the thought didn't stick. I forgot it again almost right away.
   "Nothing's wrong," the blonde girl had said, waving her hand carelessly in the air. "Nothing's wrong with you, at least. It was all in his head." I didn't know what she was talking about, and when I woke up, I couldn't remember the dream.
   I had these dreams for two weeks, something like that. I could never remember them when they happened, but bits and pieces always came back later. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was Unit-01 who had been giving me the dreams. I met two people in the dream, the blonde girl and a dark haired boy, and they made me talk about everything that had been bothering me, including Kyle. The girl was no one real. The boy was intended to represent Shinji Ikari.
   Unit-01 told me it was for two reasons. The first was that I was such a mess inside, I needed help and I was unwilling to seek it. I still didn't like being alone or taking a bath by myself, and I still hated being alone with Tashi, but I could at least tell myself that I was fine, that Kyle was gone, that Tashi wasn't going to hurt me. The second was that I couldn't bring myself to believe the change in the Unit, and that I needed to get used to it so we could operate as the best team we could be.
   **We need to be prepared for the Angels. They're coming back,** he had said.
   I had no idea what he meant. I wasn't about to ask Tashi. But I was willing now to at least accept the change in the Eva.
   I spent a lot of time in the entry plug, just sitting there and conversing with the Unit. Well, maybe not conversing. I would sit there, and I could feel his conscious on mine. Sometimes, we would actually talk, and I was getting more used to that form of communication.
   I finally got up the nerve to talk to Tashi, see if he knew about these 'Angels'.
   I found him alone one afternoon, about an hour after lunch. Risa, I knew, was off in Unit-00 doing something with some power cables in a lower recess of NERV. She had said that if we had room for a...something or other (I don't remember what she said), then she would make use of that room.
   Tashi was in C&C; I paused outside for a moment, fighting back the fear that took me. Gulping down air and forcing my stomach to calm down, I pushed the half-closed door open and walked in, hoping that my shaky knees weren't obvious.
   He looked up as the door creaked open. "Oh, Mei," he said, smiling. "I'm glad it's you. I want you to see this." He turned back to the wad of papers he was studying.
   I swallowed and went to his side, keeping a tight rein on my impulses, the first of which was to run away as fast as I could.
   They weren't papers, was my first thought. They were pieces of very thin plastic or metal, or something thin, flat and opaque. A diagram took up most of the sheet on top. Lines and tight writing pointed to various places all over the diagram. I had to lean close to even make out the different words, and even then it was hard to read. I still couldn't read all that well, though if I went slowly, I could get through it all.
   The diagram, however, was fascinating. I did have to lean in close to see it clearly, and for a moment, I forgot that Tashi was right there, and that I had to lean around him to see it. It was a sketch of Eva 01 in both front, side and back views, with the entry plug below in a cut-a-way. Then I realized that my stomach was pressed against Tashi's arm and I hurriedly straightened and backed a step away.
   "So what does it mean?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
   Tashi swung his chair around, looking at me oddly. "There's a sheet for every Unit. Now we can find out how each one is supposed to look so we can fix them properly. I think..." He turned back and shuffled through the sheets before turning to me again. He looked excited. "There's a sheet on how the neural connections work and how the wiring goes, and everything! This is great, Mei!" He jumped out of the chair and hugged me.
   I just froze. I couldn't do anything. I just stood there, stiff as a board, with my mind frozen stuck. My reactions were useless.
   "What's wrong?" Tashi asked, pulling back and holding me at arm's length. I only stared at him. After a long moment, my jaw moved, but no sound came out. My hands came up under my chin so that my arms unconsciously covered my chest, plug suit encased as it was.
   He looked shocked. "Mei...I wouldn't do that to you. I just couldn't..." His hands slid down from my shoulders to just above my elbows. I stared up at him, shaking with the memories I couldn't force back. He was so much taller now...
   "I'm not like him, Mei," he continued softly. "What he did was just...sickening!" He dropped his eyes from mine, and his hands loosened their grip. "I almost killed him, Mei. I would have, too, but I knew it would have upset you even more." He raised his eyes again. They were flashing with a desire for me to believe him. "Sometimes I think the only reason I was born was for you, Mei," he whispered. "Everything I do...everything I've done...it's been for you."
   I couldn't take anymore. My impulses kicked in with ferocity and I broke free of his grasp, running out of the room as fast as I could without hurting myself. I ran to Unit-01 and climbed into the entry plug, activating it so that it slid down into the Eva. I couldn't say why I did that. I just did.
   **Did you ask?** the Unit asked as soon as I was breathing LCL.
   I hugged myself, wrapping my arms tightly over my chest. "No," I answered softly. "I couldn't..." In my 3-D view of the Eva bay around me, I saw Unit-00 return, moving past the cage of the white Unit we had removed the chest plate from.
   A barely seen flicker and the cage was broken. Unit-00 lay on its side, the chest-less white Unit crouched on top.
   "What's going on?" I demanded, staring at the scene in shock.
   **GET OUT OF THE CAGE!!!** Unit-01 shouted at me. I had to gasp for breath afterwards. **Help her! Unit-08 will destroy her!**
   My hands flew to the controls and I twisted them; the Unit responded instantly, grabbing the catwalk across its throat and ripping it down. He tore the cage door down and ran out into the bay, dashing forward with an agility I've only ever seen hinted at. I was surprised; I'd had no idea that the Unit could move like this.
   Unit-01 pounced on the white Eva, knocking it off Unit-00 and farther down the corridor. Kneeling over it, Unit-01 began to punch at the white one, the huge fists making large dents in the shoulder plates.
   It was like I was an observer, rather than the operator. The Unit was displaying a visciousness I had never known...except that one time, before the workforce had stolen Unit-00. That's what the white Eva was trying to do now, steal Unit-00 from me again.
   It was irrational. I knew it was. Maybe it wasn't even my own thought, and planted there by an external source. I didn't know, and I wasn't about to ask. I knew I wasn't going to get an answer. So I just pounded on the white Unit until it stopped moving and trying to fight back. Then I stopped, leaning back on my heels. I was all but gasping for breath.
   "What...happened?" I demanded of Unit-01.
   **You took the chest plate off. The same thing happened to me once. The armor is all that holds the body of the Unit in place, keeps in check. The armor is the only thing that bends the Eva to your will. If I did not wear the armor I do now, I would not need you.**
   "Well, you don't have to sound so smug about it." Sometimes, he really got on my nerves.
   **I never said that I wouldn't keep you, just that I wouldn't need you.**
   I had the distinct impression that I was being laughed at.
   Unit-08 activated again, half-sitting up so that the hands wrapped around my throat. I almost couldn't react, but I managed to get my hands on the controls and brought my own hands up to pry the other Unit off.
   **Get the globe! The red globe in its chest. If you destroy it or at least crack it, it will stop moving for good!**
   "Easier said than done," I muttered. I was safe inside the plug, I supposed, but it really felt like I was being strangled. The white, shapeless face grinned demonically at me, gaining more of a grip on me with each second.
   **In your left shoulder guard! There's a vibro knife there. Get it!**
   I took one hand off the white one's to reach up and fight for the tall armor plate rising off my shoulder. The front part popped open and down and the knife rose out partway. My hand closed around the handle and I whipped it down. The blade glowed slightly; my hand switched the grip so that it was a stabbing tool and brought it down on the red globe. It bounced off, but it went down again. It was so hard to breathe...
   **What's going on?!** a part of my mind screamed at me. I barely heard it.
   I was suddenly reminded of the enforced vision I'd had so long ago. The red globe with the fetal human in it set in the chest of the Angel. It was too late to stop. The blade buried itself in the globe and Unit-08 fell away. I gasped for breath.
   I released the controls but the Eva stayed in its crouched position. "What did I do...?" I asked softly, staring at my suited hands.
   **What was necessary. It would have destroyed us, and every other Eva here and then escaped and run out to destroy everything else it could find. You did the right thing, Mei. You saved us all.**
   I didn't move. I could hardly think. The only difference had been that there was no humanoid fetus in the globe.
   Risa picked her Eva up off the bay floor. One arm hung at her side. She stumbled over to me and laid her good hand on my forearm. A little screen popped up in my 3-D view with Risa's face visible. "It's okay, Mei," she said. "It...it wasn't sane..."
   "It doen't matter," I said quietly. "It was alive."
   She snorted. "So was Kyle; did he deserve to live?"
   I shuddered. "It's not the same -- "
   "Yes it is! You can't go around feeling guilty all the time, Mei. We need you too much. If you can't be strong for us, how can you be strong for yourself?" The screen closed abruptly.
   **She's right, you know.**
   "Shut up!"
   **No. She is right. I know your mind now, Mei. You are a strong person inside. If you can't be strong, when the Angels return, we will all die.**