Well, it's been a while. I'd like to say that this update took so long to write because working from home has wrecked my usual routine but, even if there is a bit of truth to that, late March/early April being a very good month for gaming likely has had a lot more of an impact on my tardiness. Needless to say, a lot of hours have been recently spent in worlds completely unrelated to EVA. Also, I watched the last season of JoJo too and I can't say I was particularly impressed by it, to be honest.
In any case, I'll try to have the next update not take a full month to come out.
It was three hours after the Angel disengaged that the invading forces made it into the command room, carrying combat shields and primed guns fully ready for a fight that never happened. Following Major Katsuragi’s directives to the letter, none of the techs and engineers present in the gargantuan room dared to waste their lives on a doomed battle and raised their arms in surrender, many of them pre-emptively so when the presence of soldiers on the other side of the door became obvious. Such a show of submission didn’t stop the sergeant in charge from barking orders at everyone, however, making certain that everyone present remained sitting and still and that the soldiers in their command drop their guard for a single moment.
The tense minutes that followed came to a stop with the arrival of a second group, the leading figure ordering the soldiers to lower their weapons and motioning for the rest of their retinue to follow in the climb to the command room’s main floor. The second group of soldiers struggled to carry a large coffer up the stairs, panting and growling obscenities under their breaths until they set it down at its destination with a heavy thud. Without a hint of pity for the plight of their grunts, the officer in command, a Lieutenant by what looked to be UN military rank markings, ordered the coffer open and its contents assembled. Finally, the officer turned to regard Ritsuko.
“We need a connection to the MAGI,” they plainly stated in heavily accented English, and Akagi’s otherwise patient expression shifted by a raised eyebrow.
“What for?” she replied in her own personal version of the language. “I was under the impression that you already had one.”
“We need an actual connection, a physical one. It will be necessary for the new Commander to properly take over.”
“Hmm. That thing inside the box is this so-called ‘new Commander’, I presume?”
“Yes, it is. It’s good to see that your genius wasn’t exaggerated,” the officer shot back with battle-weary sarcasm. “But if you’ll excuse me, Doctor, I’m not here to answer your questions. Unlock the MAGI, and I’m sure that the Commander will be more than willing to chat with you.”
“Very well,” Ritsuko agreed, refraining from voicing a scathing comeback. “But first, I will ask that you take off your helmets. UN markings or not, hiding your identities is making the crew more restless than they already were.”
The Lieutenant scanned the crowds for a moment, finding to no real shock that everywhere their eyes went the civilian technicians would quickly look away or do their best to hide under their desks without appearing too obvious, if they hadn’t already gone into hiding from the very beginning of the breach. Akagi had a point, and their orders were very specific about keeping good relations with the residents.
“...Fair enough,” the officer eventually agreed with a hint of annoyance in their voice. They then took off their helmet to reveal a hardened woman’s face in her late twenties or early thirties, with hints of pale blonde in her military style haircut and a piercing gaze of icy blue. Her rough features and demeanour spoke of a likely origin in the Baltic hot zones, or perhaps even further east into Russia. The rest of the soldiers present followed suit, revealing a multitude of ethnicities and skin colours from all over the world behind the armoured visors, as well as a wide range of satisfaction with the order to lay bare.
“I am First Lieutenant Tasha Zakharova, UN Special Ops detachment. We apologise for the way we entered, but we couldn’t take any chances considering the situation,” the newly unveiled Lieutenant spoke, as soothingly as she could muster. It was clear that she wasn’t a people person. “The Commander will elaborate further on the day’s events, but I want to stress that no harm will come to any non-combatants present in the base. Our business is solely with the transgressions of Commander Ikari and Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki.”
The words, delivered without a microphone or any other voice amplifying device, contributed to their feeling of power by echoing slightly throughout the gargantuan chamber. The placating message, however, was not lost on those crew who were somewhat fluent in the English language, the not so gifted companions turning to those who had understood for clarification. Before long, the people who had barricaded themselves behind their terminals slowly began to come out, the process helped by a few friendly waves from what appeared to be the more outgoing members of the invading group, and some degree of normalcy returned to the work of the command room. The wariness remained, but a faint sense of relief was steadily returning to the room. Satisfied, Tasha turned back to Akagi.
“Now, about the MAGI?”
The Lieutenant’s line was more a demand than a question. Her patience was clearly wearing thin, a fact that caused Aoba and Hyuga to unsubtly shy away from the overbearing foreign newcomer. They then wordlessly asked for direction from the only person in the room that continued to appear unfazed by the entire situation.
“Open it up,” Ritsuko acquiesced, motioning with her head towards the long haired bridge operator. “And Aoba, please help these nice people take care of their business down there, will you?”
The guitar-loving man visibly cringed, but accepted the orders without further protest. He keyed in a command in his terminal before stepping down towards the lower levels with a small retinue of soldiers, the three towers of the MAGI slowly rising up in the background. Tasha followed them with her eyes, a deep scowl forming on her face.
“My technicians are skilled enough to work on the MAGI without a chaperone.”
“Absolutely out of the question. Even if it weren’t a supercomputer unlike any other in the world, the MAGI is an irreplaceable family heirloom. I will not allow anyone to tamper with it without supervision. Will that be a problem?”
“...I suppose it can be allowed.” The Lieutenant relented, quickly identifying a battle that she wasn’t going to win. She quickly ordered a pair of soldiers in the background to begin the setup operations and, before long, metres of cabling began to be placed along the route to the MAGI. Tasha left her troops to their work and hardened her gaze to look once more upon her temporary kingdom, quickly going back to a discrepancy in her reports that she had identified as soon as she arrived at the top floor. “One more thing, Akagi.”
“What is it?”
“I was under the impression that the upper echelon of the bridge crew consisted of three people, however, I can’t help but notice that only two men are up here,” Tasha motioned meaningfully to the empty seat in the centre. “Where is the last person?”
Ritsuko followed the Lieutenant’s hand to Maya’s vacant terminal, then turned back to supervise the MAGI with a careless shrug.
“Oh, the third one is currently running an errand for me.”
“Is that so? What sort of errand?”
“The sort that won’t prove to be any kind of hindrance whatsoever,” the Doctor replied without an answer, moving to check her watch. “In fact, I’d expect that you will hear from her shortly.”
Maya’s hands shook as she checked the First Child’s straps to make certain that she was still firm and stable in the wheelchair. Taking Rei out of the hospital wing had not been difficult once the doctors in charge of the First Child heard that she was on Ritsuko’s orders, but even with a blanket draped on top of the girl’s unconscious body to hide her identity, walking around the occupied hallways of NERV HQ had the young woman very on edge. No soldier so far had questioned her explanations while she was in the medical ward, but now that she had left that area their stares had turned more inquisitive and their hands had travelled closer to their guns...
...or that was the impression Maya got, anyway. She had never enjoyed the thought of weapons in the first place and having so many of them around her during the last hour had done little good for her sanity.
“O-Okay, calm down, Maya. Your heart’s about to burst, but you’re doing this for Senpai and for Rei-chan,” Maya used her breather to take a peek at the state of her patient beneath the blanket. She was still heavily sedated, the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest as she breathed proving the only sign of life, and the tendrils that had appeared during the Angel fight, even if apparently dormant, had not receded at all. Knowing her Senpai as she did, Maya already had a feeling that she had been lying through her teeth during her conversation with Asuka, but seeing Rei’s pitiful state firsthand... Maya just couldn’t imagine what her Senpai could possibly do to keep her word. “...Hold on just a little bit more. I will get you to that place Senpai talked about and then... and then she will make it all better, I promise.”
Her convictions reignited, Maya allowed the blanket to fall back in place and resumed her journey. It was only a couple of minutes later that the young woman arrived at the intersection that would lead her to one of the restricted elevators going further down, from where she could hear the faint sounds of a conversation. It was likely a checkpoint, she reasoned, before Maya steeled herself and stepped down the hallway.
It wasn’t long before she was spotted and made to stop by two large men.
“Sorry, miss, but this area’s restricted,” one of the soldiers firmly stated while stepping closer to her, his teammate keeping a close eye on Maya. “I’m gonna have to ask that you come with us.”
And, just like that, Maya’s fragile determination crumbled under the sight of the soldier walking towards her, their weapons not pointed at her but ready to shoot in the case that she did something suspicious. Or something that could have been taken as suspicious. Or something that could have accidentally been misunderstood as suspicious.
“I’m...” the young woman stumbled, her eyes never leaving the man’s rifle. “I-I’m...”
“Miss, are you alright?” the soldier inquired, identifying where Maya’s eyes had travelled and quickly putting his hands up in a placating gesture. “Look, I know this is intimidating, but we’re telling you to come with us for your own good. It could get dangerous out here and...”
The man continued his attempts at soothing Maya, but she wasn’t listening, her eyes still glued to the gun. How close had they gotten to these soldiers shooting their rifles at everyone in sight? How close could they still get to that? How likely was it that she would still... have to shoot at these people, too? Could she force herself to pull the trigger when the target was flesh and blood and not some paper outline of a person?
The soldiers sounded fairly young, likely no older than thirty, but Maya suspected that they wouldn’t have the same qualms that she did if the need arose. But it was then that it hit her: her Senpai’s decision had been to entrust Maya with a way of making that terrible possibility less likely to occur. She couldn’t disappoint her, she couldn’t disappoint Rei-chan and, perhaps more importantly, she couldn’t disappoint herself. Closing her eyes, Maya forced herself to break contact with the man-made tool for taking lives and took a deep breath.
“I-I’M HERE UNDER REQUEST FROM DOCTOR RITSUKO AKAGI!!!”
“...Ouch,” the soldier cringed, turning towards his teammate when he made sure that his ears still functioned. “Ritsuko Akagi? Isn’t she that big shot scientist we were told to keep on side?”
“That’s her, alright,” the other soldier confirmed, motioning with his head towards the wheelchair. “Does the person under that have anything to do with your request?”
Maya slowly nodded, still too spent for words.
“Then we’re gonna have to take that blanket off. I’m sure you can tell why.”
Maya nodded again and reached for the bottom of the blanket, slowly pulling it back until it was gathered at the back of the wheelchair and Rei was fully visible.
“That’s one of the Pilot kids,” the soldier that was closest quickly identified her. “The First, I think.”
“Rei-chan’s badly hurt,” Maya confirmed, her voice still shaky. “The doctors are having trouble treating her, s-so Senpai asked me to bring her to another laboratory she has further down into the Geofront. So that she can... heal her.”
“And how’s she gonna pull that off? Poor girl looks like she has a tree growing out of her!”
“That’s none of our business, but this does look important. Hold on for a second, please,” the second soldier stated, reaching for his radio. “Ma’am, this is Corporal Hamill at checkpoint Alpha-12? There’s a woman here asking to pass through to the lower levels, she claims to be under Akagi’s orders. She’s got the First Child with her, in a wheelchair. What should we do?”
A few moments of silence lingered while the soldier eyed Maya, listening to the words from the other side of the line.
“Yeah, shortish black hair, petite. Cute thing, really, her nametag has ‘Ibuki’ on it,” the soldier relayed back. “I take it you know her?”
A quick pause, and the man agreed to something with a brisk nod.
“Roger that, I’ll take care of it,” he finally replied, ending the call. “You can pass on through, but I’ll be coming with you. Will that be a problem?”
“No! I... I don’t think so, at least.”
“Good, then let’s hurry.”
Not a second after her non-response, Ritsuko saw the Lieutenant react to a message on her radio. The usually intimidating woman blinked in confusion for a moment, before fixing her disbelieving stare on the head of Project-E.
“Is something the matter?”
“...I was just told that Maya Ibuki has been spotted at a checkpoint and is now being escorted to the depths of Terminal Dogma,” Tasha relayed back, still surprised. “Are you a psychic or something?”
“Better, I’m a Jedi.” Ritsuko replied without missing a beat.
A second of silence followed the deadpan delivery, Hyuga breaking down into giggles in the background shortly after.
“Maybe so,” the slightest rise of a corner of Tasha’s lips indicated that the woman did indeed have a sense of humour. “In any case, Agent Morgan sends her regards.”
“We’re almost done over here, ma’am!”
Both women turned to the reporting soldier, Ritsuko quickly noticing how the contents of the coffer had been assembled into a pyramidal device with a sphere on top, equipped with what appeared to be cameras and other information gathering equipment. Several cables ran from the base of the pyramid to the three towers that made up the MAGI.
“Good. Flip the switch, then,” the Lieutenant ordered, her underlings not quite literally starting the process of connecting the device. A few moments and blinking status lights later, the sphere on top whirred with life and began to move in its pedestal.
“Connections established. Video and audio feeds working at full efficiency. Currently running a background check on the quality of the link with the MAGI. This will be followed by an in-depth analysis of the information stored in the MAGI as well as a test of my control of NERV HQ’s functions,” a familiar, neutral male voice reported, before the sphere rotated to the right and towards Ritsuko. “It is good to see you again, Doctor Akagi.”
“I thought it might be you,” Ritsuko dispassionately replied, implying that the feeling was not mutual. “I have to question the need to bring this large device into the command centre, though. You could have used the room’s speakers to make your entrance without being anywhere near as obstructive.”
“Perhaps so, but some speeches are better delivered personally. I deemed a new alliance to be one such case.”
“What are you talking about?” One of Ritsuko’s eyebrows rose above its twin. “You’re still hiding behind an interface, there’s nothing personal about this...”
The doctor’s words trailed off, her mind quickly connecting Arthur’s bizarre comment with some other strange details she had noticed in the past: his penchant for hiding behind speakers or other people. His overly polite and unnatural way of speaking, coupled with his calm and collected demeanour. The manner in which he had managed to hack into the biggest and most secure supercomputer in the world with a simple backdoor access, with the best computing experts in all of Japan being none the wiser about his movements...
A lot of Arthur’s feats and idiosyncrasies had not seemed human to Ritsuko for a long time, but the worst of her suspicions had been dispelled when Legion’s love for cybernetically augmenting the human body became apparent, only to rise back up in full force at that very moment. After all, it was hard to ignore the likely evidence staring her straight in the face.
“Wait a minute... You’re-!”
“I am Arthur,” the new Commander gently interrupted. “It would be exceedingly rude to call me anything else.”
“It’s... self-aware? How did you-?” Ritsuko demanded of the calmly spectating Lieutenant, her voice rising a few octaves despite herself. “No! Why did you create a self-aware AI?! Are you people insane?!”
“As I said, Doctor, you’re being exceedingly rude. Even if I’m aware that, as a member of the sole intelligent species in the planet, it must be daunting to meet someone like me,” Arthur continued, conciliatory despite his words. “To put some of your fears to rest, however, I will have you know that I am the only one of my kind, and that I have no interest in the annihilation of the human species, despite what popular culture may believe.”
“That’s...” Ritsuko gritted her teeth, letting out a sharp release of air at the AI’s lacklustre attempt at humour. “That’s reassuring, but it’s still barely even the tip of the iceberg regarding the issues I have with this... development.”
“I am certain that your remaining reservations will vanish once we get to know each other a bit better, now that we will have ample time to do so.” The AI’s camera focused on the bridge crew and Ritsuko in turns, speaking to all of them. “Nevertheless, I would prefer if my true nature was kept to this small circle for the time being. Reassuring everyone in NERV HQ about my non-genocidal intentions would require a vast amount of resources better allocated elsewhere. I am sure you understand.”
“I understand, alright,” Ritsuko gruffly agreed. “You don’t need to state the obvious.”
The agreement of one party secured, Arthur’s attention shifted to the remaining two. Hyuga and Aoba shared an uncomfortable glance, before they nodded with a sigh.
“Damn, today keeps getting crazier and crazier,” the long-haired bridge man moaned, reaching for the bridge of his nose. “Fine, our lips are sealed. What about Ibuki, though?”
“I will personally brief Miss Ibuki on the situation when-”
“No, thanks,” the head of Project-E interrupted. “I will do it myself.”
“...As you wish, Doctor. And thank you, I appreciate your collaboration.” Arthur’s eye turned towards Tasha. “Lieutenant, please regroup your troops on this floor and have them form up around us. It is time we properly introduced ourselves.”
With a brisk nod, Tasha stepped forward to Maya’s empty workstation and grabbed the attention of the soldiers under her command, motioning for them to rendezvous with her post-haste. The troops did as told and quickly formed a semicircle around Arthur’s pyramid, dozens of still anxious eyes following their movements until the main screen of the command room changed to a panoramic view of the main floor, with Arthur in the middle of it. Curious murmurs erupted at the sight of the strange device that most present had only caught a short glimpse of.
“Good evening, everyone,” the faux-man began, all conversation in the room quieting down in quick succession. “My name is Arthur, and I am here under the authority of the United Nations joint committee. As they previously stated, the fine men and women behind me are part of the United Nations military arm, and directly under my supervision. First of all, and before I go into the reason behind our presence here, I would like to congratulate and extend our deepest thanks to all of you, for your courage and determination on the frontlines of our fight against the Angels. Doubly so for the brave Evangelion Pilots that make up the first and last line of defence and who have sacrificed more than any of us. I hope that knowing that the rest of the world can rest easier because of NERV’s combined struggles at the walls can make those sacrifices bearable.”
A familiar scoff filled the audio waves, clearly signalling that the Second Child had also been invited to the speech, but no witty or disparaging remarks followed. Sohryu either wanted to hear what the invaders had to say for themselves, or realised that throwing one of the tantrums she had been infamous for would serve no purpose. Either way, Ritsuko approved of the girl’s choice.
“But, as much as it pains me to say so, not everyone in NERV HQ shares the same valiant spirit that you have. Not everyone has remained loyal to the directives bestowed upon NERV by the United Nations, by the entire world, choosing instead to corrupt our righteous struggle and use it to serve their own selfish desires, the wants of a group that your leaders, Gendo Ikari and Kozo Fuyutsuki, serve without question. It is through that serfdom that they made you secretly complicit to this perversion of your mission, planning to use our fight as a means to enslave all of humanity under the yoke of a ruling few.”
The murmurs rose anew, disbelief and scepticism in equal measure. It was true that the Commanders weren’t very well-known or particularly loved by their staff, but thirteen Angel attacks and over half a year of war, more than that for most of the people in HQ, had been spent under their command. They were a great part of the reason why NERV HQ still stood, and the denouncing of an invading army didn’t appear to be sitting well with a big part of the personnel who understood that fact.
“World domination?” Aoba muttered to himself, just loud enough for Ritsuko to overhear. “Really?”
“I am aware of the gravity of my accusations, but it is because of that same severity that we didn’t act sooner, and made certain to come prepared. In fact, now we are more than ready to lift the long-lingering veil of secrecy from your eyes, and fully intend to do so.”
The lights in the gigantic room dimmed slightly, bringing the attention of everyone present to the main screen once more. The panoramic view of the invading forces faded and, instead, a number of files began to appear on screen, the clearly visible access path marking them as data buried deep beneath the most secure layers of the MAGI.
“Brave ladies and gentlemen of NERV, heed my words: today I would tell you about the Human Instrumentality Project.”