AVA-02 pulled ahead of Shinji's plane. He had been running through his own checklist, but the bright red paint of her jet was too much to ignore in his peripheral vision.
"Asuka, wait for Shinji to take off and gain altitude first. Asuka!"
Misato's commands went unheeded. Asuka had already taxied onto the runway, the soft whine of her twin engines intensifying. Shinji only had a single propeller engine; he needed the head-start planned for him.
"Just watch me. With my superior speed and my 30-millimeter cannons, I'll kill that Angel before Shinji even gets his engine switched on."
Shinji's engine was running already, it was his AVA that was taking its time to synchronize its systems. Without connections between the engine, flight control, and gun sight, he would be nothing but an ordinary teen at the controls of an experimental plane. Asuka had no such problem; she had been in the middle of her first synchro test when the Angel was spotted on radar. Now she had been on the runway for at least a minute, German jet engines warmed up and ready.
His systems continued to dally. Asuka got tired of waiting, and Shinji saw her begin to take off without permission. She widened the gap between them by firing the rocket boosters meant to help her gain speed. The trail of fire and smoke climbed up from the runway above Odawara and out over Sagami Bay, with Asuka using every ounce of her propulsion to get ahead. When he finally saw his green synchro light switch on, it wasn't soon enough.
He gave his engine no more time to warm up. He pushed the throttle lever forward and raced out onto the nearest runway, his feet tapping the brakes on one side to get the plane to turn. His rear-mounted propeller and engine would be eager to get him off of the ground. As soon as he was lined up, he let them push him into the air at maximum power.
The original airframe for AVA-01 had been designed as an interceptor, so Shinji would not be too far behind Asuka. SASU gave him updates on her position and elevation and he kept his engine at maximum to try and narrow the gap. If he could just be there in time, he might prevent what happened to Rei. Maybe he could stop AVA-02 from blossoming into a fireball.
He caught sight of Asuka as a distant speck directly in front of him, kilometers away. She was climbing up into a white bank of clouds. They hadn't spotted the Angel under the cloud layer, so she was going to use the power of her twin engines to climb even higher. Shinji tried to follow her, but he lacked the power to catch up. He wanted to tell her to slow down, to wait up for him, but no words came. He would have to tail her from a distance.
"It's gigantic." Shinji heard Asuka say. "Where's that dummkopf?"
AVA-01 popped out of the cloudbank 4 kilometers from AVA-02. The distance between both planes was almost dwarfed by the size of the enemy they faced. Shinji could see it hovering in the air above them, something like an eyeless snake- or two eyeless snakes, one black and one white. They seemed to swallow each other in an endless vertical loop, the tail of each shoved in the sharp-toothed maw of the other. As the two serpents chased each other, a red dot traveled along their surfaces, starting at the head of one and then moving to the hide of the other through its tail, as if it was being consumed in turn with the bodies.
"Core located," Asuka said over the radio. "I'm closing in for my attack run."
Misato tried to caution Asuka, but it was too late. Shinji watched the jet close in with the shifting red dot just as the core migrated onto the head of the black serpent. Her four cannons fired a burst within 300 meters, the impact of the Type-L shells obvious even from Shinji's perspective. She banked left to come in for another pass, but it ended up unnecessary. The twin Angels fell apart, their circle broken by what looked like a direct hit on their shared core.
Shinji sighed with relief. Then he saw the serpents stop their freefall within seconds of being stunned. The separated bodies erupted with new energy and they regained flight, writhing through the air like corrupted dragons. The two targets were now pointed towards EVA-02, open mouths shrieking in an unholy harmony. One fired a blast of energy that barely missed Asuka's left wing. She responded with an immediate dive into the clouds, the two serpents pursuing her with a speed that felt at odds to their enormous sizes. Shinji dove after all three of them, the Angels sending blasts of energy crackling through the clouds.
"Where's my cover?" Her yelling deafened Shinji but he was too focused on the targets ahead of him.
He lined up the tail of the white snake in his sights, his AVA calculating the range and accounting for the physical forces against the plane. As soon as he pierced the layer of clouds, he squeezed his trigger and let explosive shells rain onto the target below him. He missed the tip of its writhing tail but still drew its attention. The black angel coiled up into a vertical spiral and turned to face Shinji, opening its mouth just as the nose of his plane lined up with it and fired its cannons. The shots connected, but the next laser was still building in the Angel's mouth. It was about to shoot at him.
Shinji rolled to his right and entered a steeper dive, scarcely aware that Asuka was also being forced to mirror his action on the left. The first shot of energy missed him, but he felt a wave of intense heat on his skin and the shock wave from the pulse threatened to throw him into the plane into a spin. It was a classic paradox in dogfighting: he needed to keep his speed up, but if he did not take evasive action, the Angel would be able to hit him. The truth of that was revealed when a purple spear of light again sliced through the air from the black serpent, just by his cockpit. Shinji banked left, aiming for a long turn. He wouldn't be able to dodge forever. He needed to get his guns on it to try and slow it down. Then he could help Asuka with her own pursuer.
"We see two targets on the radar. You have to help each other." Misato's voice sounded calm on the radio, but Shinji knew her well enough to recognize the worry.
"I know, I know," Asuka said, forcing her words through the force of gravity. "That's why I have to get my target first."
Shinji extended the flaps of AVA-01, trying to catch every last bit of wind to make his turn sharper and get on his enemy's tail. He pulled back on the control with all his force to go tighter, tighter, tighter, pressing himself into his seat with the g-force, darkness edging in on his vision. As soon as he got the body of the snake into his sights again, he pulled the trigger, a brief burst straight into its tail. The shells easily penetrated through the AT field of the Angel and its scales of armor... and straight through to the other side.
Shinji saw his canopy turn into a high velocity burst of glass shards. His engine died behind him with the sound of broken metal, and he began losing speed instantly. Ice-cold air whipped at his face as the aircraft began to spin out.
Shinji hit his target, just like he had been trained. So why was headed for a crash landing with the Pacific Ocean? He had to bail, there was no possibility of gliding back to SASU from this distance. He leaped into cold air, shivering as the parachute deployed over his head. The serpents ignored the twin parachutes of the AVA pilots, heading straight for the New Tokyo airbase. He couldn't imagine how anyone could stop the Angels now.
Vice Commander Fuyutski looked gravely at the two pilots in front of them. They clutched their blankets a little tighter, still shivering after their time drifting in the ocean.
Lt. Maya Ibuki was describing the final stage of their sortie using a slide projector. A diagram showed their flight paths, ominous red lines that diverged and then intersected.
"At 10:03, AVA Units One and Two simultaneously fired their 30-millimeter cannons at the targets in front of them. Unwittingly, their positions and orientations were manipulated by the Angel to position both AVA units directly across from each other."
Lt. Ibuki switched to the next slide, a black and white image of two aircraft plummeting downwards.
"Unit 01 received a cannon round from Unit 02 that went through the cockpit, but it did not detonate until it penetrated his rear mounted engine. The shrapnel from this explosion caused asymmetric damage to Unit 01's wing surfaces, causing him to enter a spin." Lt. Ibuki pointed out Shinji's damaged plane.
Asuka turned her head away in silence, her arms crossed. Lt. Ibuki pointed to jet she had been piloting.
"Unit 02 also received a cannon shot from its wingmate. With both AVA units damaged beyond operable condition, SASU ceded command to the U.N military delegation at 10:05. Fissile missiles halted the target at 10:44, just within the first defensive boundary. Using sonar, SASU has determined that the damaged Angels have begun to regain mass while on the seafloor and will restore themselves in 6 days, 18 hours."
Fuyutski's long face grew an even longer frown.
"You both have made an utter disgrace out of SASU and the potential for your countries to regain their honor in the eyes of the world."
There was scorn in his voice, but he was holding back true anger.
"The fate of this world requires skilled pilots who cooperate with each other, not impertinent youths who rush to destroy themselves."
Shinji felt Asuka tense up beside him when Fuyutski described them as youths.
"I am very sorry." Shinji bowed low, at his hips.
Asuka only lowered her head. "It will not happen again, Vice-Commander."
Misato was waiting for them outside of the briefing room. She had not left them all the way from their rescue to the present moment, alternating between scolding and encouraging them. She had stabilized during their time in briefing room.
"Well, that's that," she said. "You're lucky the AVA units can generate A.T fields without their pilots, or we would have paid for this lesson with our best planes."
"Sorry," Shinji said.
Misato waved her hand dismissively. "Don't mind, don't mind. You're both still children. Sometimes they forget that."
"Me? A child?" Asuka spoke up. "I outrank Shinji. I am a better pilot than Shinji. My AVA exceeds Shinji's. How am I a child like Shinji?"
"Who said that you are the same kind of kid as Shinji?" Misato smiled as she spoke. "You are an accomplished pilot, but that doesn't make you an adult. Be glad for that."
"Glad? Why should I be glad?" Asuka mumbled, unheard by anyone other than Shinji.
Misato took them up within the SASU command bunker to their underground hangar. The AVA units were stored here, lifted to the surface hangar when needed, and kept secure below the ground at all other times. Units 01 and 02 had been retrieved alongside the pilots, and the maintenance crew was now attempting to undo all of the damage that they had done to each other.
"Those Type-L shells really will go through any A.T field, ally or not." Lieutenant Hyuga was up on a scaffold, inspecting the damage to Shinji's plane with Lt. Aoba.
Aoba leaned on the railing. "It seems fitting that Man's best weapon against the Angels can also be turned against itself."
Their soliloquies were interrupted by the arrival of their captain.
"Have you seen Ritsuko around?" Misato asked.
"Last I saw, Mr. Kaji was chatting her up by the computers," Hyuga said.
"Oh, I know where to find him," Misato said, rolling up her jacket sleeve.
Shinji and Asuka jogged to keep up as Misato marched out of the hangar and to the MAGI enclosure next door. The three rooms inside faced towards Dr. Akagi's desk, where she coordinated the MAGI system through an internal communications system. Usually, it would be a hive of activity as staff rushed to calculate important figures, but by the time Misato barged in, their attention was already occupied by another spectacle.
Kaji had his arms around Dr. Akagi, much to the agitation of the assembled computers. The mathematics corps that served SASU was staffed mostly by married women, so the display was met plenty of tutting and whispers from the scandalized staff.
"Ah, there's Captain Katsuragi. She won't like what Mr. Kaji is up to."
"Oh, and she brought Little Shinji. He looks like he could use some cheering up. You can do it, Shinji!"
Shinji blushed as the ganbatte rose up from the assembled computers of the MAGI unit. At least when they said it, he felt they were being truthful. After all, the dozens of women present had calculated the slim odds of his survival hundreds of times with nothing but paper, pencil, and a slide-rule. They knew the difficulty of his tasks almost as well as he did.
"Is that a foreigner with him?"
"How pretty, look at that hair... and those eyes!"
Asuka stood, her hands on her hips, basking in the attention in a way that he never could. It had even taken her attention away from Kaji, who by now had dropped the act and was talking with Misato and Dr. Akagi. When he saw Shinji looking at him, he winked.
"Don't be too hard on yourself for this morning," he said. "Ritsuko has a plan. She's been working with the MAGI computers to figure it out."
Dr. Akagi smiled. "It's your plan, Kaji. All we've done is run the numbers."
Dr. Akagi produced a paper-wrapped circle from her bag. Asuka snatched it before Shinji could get a look.
"Huh? Jazz?" she said, looking at the label.
Dr. Akagi had handed Asuka a vinyl record. It was a special SASU pressing made that very day. It was labeled 'New Tokyo Boogie Woogie'.
"A jazz record?" Shinji peeked over Asuka's shoulder.
"Obviously, you cannot confront the target at your current level of organization." Akagi spoke as if it was a matter of fact. "Synchronizing your actions to one song is our best chance to counter that."
"How am I supposed to listen to this?" Asuka asked.
"I'm Shinji wouldn't mind sharing, right?"
"Of course not," Shinji said, but his heart plummeted. Asuka hated him. Every minute would be torture for them both.
Dr. Akagi reached into her handbag and retrieved a dual plug with room for two headsets.
"This will let you listen together. And here is the plan of attack."
They each got a thick sheaf of paper bound together with two clips. The front page read: YUKITOSUMI : ATTACK PATTERN F.
"Pattern F? What happened to the rest of the alphabet?" Asuka wondered.
"MAGI gave this plan the highest chance of success compared to the previous five alternatives."
"Oh yeah? What percentage chance was it?" Asuka asked, daring.
Ritsuko was coy. "That's classified information."
"All you need to know is that we're running our first test at noon tomorrow," Misato explained. "It might be a lot, but this all needs to be memorized by then."
Asuka looked at the three adults. Kaji stood by with a smirk at the corner of his mouth, but Ritsuko and Misato were just waiting to hear resistance from her. Shinji had no doubt caved by now, and she would not fall behind him in enthusiasm.
"Just you see, I'll have this known by heart." She flipped through her book, written in a frustrating mix of English and Japanese. She knew some of the kanji, but others were beyond her ken.
"If you have any trouble reading it, be sure to ask Shinji," Misato said. "Japanese is one of his best subjects."
"Of course I will," Asuka said, her lie obvious even to Shinji.
That night, their sleeping arrangements were set up to maximize their time together. Misato would sleep in the officer's quarters at the end of the hallway, but Shinji and Asuka were assigned the bunkbed from his room.
"How plain," she said upon entering his room. "Don't you have any decorations?"
"Those were against regulations at the Naval Academy." Shinji fussed with his sheets at the bottom, smoothing them flat before he laid the blanket down.
"The war is over, dummkopf," she grumbled, before handing the record to Shinji.
Asuka disappeared into the room's closet. "No peeking!". When she emerged a minute later her flight uniform had been exchanged for monpe and short sleeves, the loose work pants taken up during the war. Her hair was let down from its low braided bun, its auburn color still shocking his eyes with tones of vivid red. Just like her AVA.
"Where are you staring?" Asuka said, before climbing up to the top bunk, as far away as her headset would reach.
"Sorry," he said, on reflex.
Asuka grumbled and lay on her side, propped up on one elbow. He could feel her eyes following him as he set up his sound system. The turntable was his father's old gramophone, scavenged scientific equipment made a decade earlier and discarded for Shinji to pick up. As he set his speed to the standard rate and adjusted the output voltage to make up for having two headsets, Asuka spoke up.
"Why can't you put a horn on it? I don't want to be hooked up to a machine with you."
Shinji could not understand the hostility. When they had first met on the American aircraft carrier, she had been enthusiastic to show off to him. When an Angel appeared, he was her bombardier and their synchronization had been perfect, dropping a Type-L torpedo into its open mouth with flawless timing. As soon as they had landed, though, her mood had soured, and she began to lash out at him. It was the sort of thing he knew he should ignore.
Vinyl still seemed too flexible in his hands, but the disc fit the turntable just as well as old records. He hit the power and let the needle down onto the spinning grooves. With only a little distortion, the sound of 'New Tokyo Boogie Woogie' started playing. It was a live audience recording, but the energy of jazz came through just as well as it would have in a studio. It was a nostalgic sound, too, because jazz had been censored during the war years. Something so jovial and free-spirited had no place in under a militarist regime, but the political changes and the end of the World War in 1943 marked a new era for Japan. The song was a celebration of the end of that long winter of war, even as the Angels rose up as a threat.
Shinji listened to the song, measuring it out to 181 seconds. The plan would take that long to execute, and they would have to act out their instructions separately. He couldn't even turn through the entire packet before the song ended, and the sections in English were beyond anything he had learned in school. He didn't know how he was going to memorize all of it.
Asuka was no better off.
"Verdammt," she cursed, casting down the instructions. "I can't even read past the title page. Why are there so many kanji in Japanese? This makes no sense."
"You know, Misato told me to help you,' Shinji said.
Asuka scoffed. "Of course. You only like to do what you're told, don't you?" He heard her roll over.
"Hey, Asuka, would you help me with this English? You must be really great at it."
Shinji had learned flattery at the Naval Academy as one of many ways to avoid beatings. He did not know much about Sgt. Soryu except for her sense of pride. She looked over the edge of her bunk, suspicious. Shinji was desperate and made no attempt to hide his feelings. The world depended on their actions here to prevent an extinction.
"Fine," she said. "Bring it over here."
He climbed the ladder and sat at the edge of her thin mattress, pointing out the phrases he had trouble with. After the song played a few times more, she began pointing out the phrases she had trouble with.
One of the things was the name of the Angel. "Yukitosumi? Snow and ink? What's that supposed to mean."
"It describes things that are opposite. Yuki is snow, sumi is ink, it's white-and-black."
"The attack pattern is about splitting them up into two snakes, Shiro and Kuro."
"White and Black," Shinji said.
"I know that much," she said.
"Of course," Shinji said. "Help me with the English, then."
They got through the packet like that, although it took all the way until sunrise. The next stage was memorizing it, and Asuka shooed Shinji down to his bunk for that stage. Alone in bed, they tried to memorize their steps, but Shinji found himself slipping into sleep after the all-nighter. By the time that Misato checked on them, they were both snoring.
They were awake two hours later, rushing to memorize instructions that had already themselves been hastily translated. The results were not good. They were put to the test in mechanical mock-ups that simulated their AVAs but could not match the other's tempo. Again and again, Ritsuko rang a bell that indicated that they failed. Once they passed 20 fails, Asuka climbed out of her seat, throwing her helmet down into the cockpit in disgust.
"This is impossible. Why couldn't I get instructions that I understand?"
Ritsuko walked up to the simulator and handed a packet to Asuka. It was entirely in English. Shinji hoped that meant there was one in Japanese, too. It didn't help Asuka's mood any.
"Did you have this the entire time? Why am I only getting this now?"
Ritsuko shrugged but Asuka began to form her own conclusions. She pointed to Shinji.
"It's about him, isn't it? You want me to slow down for that dummkopf."
The bridge personnel were feigning ignorance to her building tantrum.
"I get it," she said. "I'm useless compared to some doll you can just pull out of storage. Why even bring me to Japan then?"
Ritsuko did not reply. Asuka jumped from her simulator and stormed off through the doors and into the hallways. No one said anything, but Shinji felt the eyes of Ritsuko and the bridge staff looking at him. Should he go after her?
No one told him to, but he knew it was the thing he should do. He had been successful when he reached out last night. Maybe it could happen again. He followed her trail out into the SASU bunker. As he passed the open doors of the Magi room, he saw the computers pointing their fingers to show which way Asuka went. He caught up to her in the hangar. She was looking with disgust at AVA-02. Its wide nose had a needle-like cannon bore sticking out of it. If it had been like a shark before, it now looked like a narwhal.
"What did they do to my beautiful Unit Two?" she said, raising a hand and standing on her toes to press her hand against it.
"That's the 50-millimeter cannon," Shinji said. "It has the energy to break them apart from a longer range."
"I know that, it's my AVA, after all." Asuka seemed much calmer now. Maybe she had just been waiting for someone to chase after her.
She turned to Shinji, arms crossed in her baggy flight suit. "The one thing I can't stand..."
She didn't finish her sentence, but Shinji understood what she meant. He had exchanged the strict control of the Naval Academy for SASU's deeper model of manipulation. It wasn't the first time he had been part of someone else's plan, and he was sure it would not be the last.
"Well, we're the only ones who can pilot AVAs." he said.
That made Asuka smile.
"You've got that right," she said. "It can't be helped, then. If we're the only two who can do this, getting used to you is part of being a pilot."
She offered her hand. Shinji took it with some hesitation, and she shook it, being very rough.
"Now let's get back there and show them what AVA pilots can do."
Despite Asuka's new resolve, things were not perfect when they returned. Even if they could read their instructions, they still had a long way to go before they could execute them with the same timings as each other. Misato set up a five-day schedule for them. In the mornings, they would try to line up with each other in the simulator. At night, they tried to dance to their song. Their accuracy rose higher and higher, their performances becoming closer together. By the night before the operation, they only diverged by 1% or less.
"It can't be helped," Captain Katsuragi had said. "You both need to do it live."
The next time they heard "New Tokyo Boogie Woogie", they were in their AVA units, 5,000 meters above the surface of the ocean. At first, there was no sign of the Angel. But then, just as the horn section came in through the radio, Yukitosumi emerged from the waves, restored into its self-consuming form.
"I start this dance," Asuka said. AVA-02 dove to meet the circling serpents.
She ignored the circling red dot, the illusionary core. Her target was Shiro, the white snake. Each snake held one half of the core in their mouths so that linking up let them generate and store energy. That was the first thing they had to eliminate. Asuka opened fire from a longer range this time, her salvo of high-velocity shells colliding with Shiro. The snakes split apart, chasing her as before, but she had kept her speed up during the dive and could stay at the edge of their range. She led them off to sea.
"Dummkopf Shinji!" she shouted, rolling from left to right to dodge lethal beams of light. "Where are you?"
"Already here." Shinji dove in from above, cutting in close on Kuro in the back of the pack and peppering it with all four autocannons. It turned to focus on him, and Shinji continued his dive, turning sharply right. He knew Asuka could be climbing and turning to the left. He pulled back on his stick, pulling tighter and tighter into his turn as Kuro's blasts tried to fry him. This time he had knew the turn would give him a tactical advantage. As he finished the turn, he felt linked to Asuka by the music; the red dot of AVA-02 was above him, headed his way. He was sure she could see his own purple plane. He pointed his AVA up towards hers, racing towards her as she zoomed down towards him
Just as before, they were facing each other. But he knew this part of the song. His left hand tightened on the throttle, where the trigger for his cannon was. He could trust her to know the right moment in the music...
He pushed his plane even, breaking out of his climb for a split second. Asuka pulled up to match him. They had been on a collision course, but their surprise maneuver had just given each other clear shots to the Angel that had been chasing their wing mate. They had inverted their enemy's strategy. Their cannons thundered in a staccato rhythm, mismatched but somehow in time with each other. Their shells found their marks, exploding into fragments that shattered cores as a hammer would shatter glass. Kuro and Shiro dissolved into blood and dissipated in the breeze.
Shinji had watched the track of the blood for too long. When he looked back in front of himself, Asuka's AVA was less than 50 meters away. He jerked over into a roll, but it was too late. His wing clipped hers, and they both ended up going into spins. Their freshly repaired AVAs were wrung apart by the force of air. Shinji again found himself jumping for safety.
His parachute drifted closer enough to Asuka to see her shaking fist. She seemed all right, if angry. The waters of Sagami Bay were warmer than a week before, and they held hands to keep from floating apart on its surface.
"Don't think this meant anything," she told him.
He knew what she was trying to say, even if he could not voice it himself. Having someone with him could not fix all of his problems, but it was a lot better than the silent anguish that had come before. The unseasonable chill of Spring was finally drawing to a close. Who knows what warmth Summer would bring?