Several days after WILLE's newest crew-members were inducted, the AAA Wunder hovered high above the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Around it were a half a dozen decommissioned battleships and patrol boats, hovering within the grasp of the ship's AT field. And a few kilometers ahead of it, a dozen dyed-red weather balloons standing in as mock-up Nemeses hung in the air, scattered in a random array. As the ship approached the targets, its dorsal AT cannons swiveled to take aim, before letting loose a hail of vibrant red energy fire. The weather balloons, considerably less sturdy than actual Mark.04-C frames, combusted within moments, and were completely obliterated by the time the Wunder ceased fire.
Misato had her arms and legs crossed as she sat in the Captain's chair on the bridge.
"Time," she ordered.
"Twelve point four seven seconds, Captain," Lieutenant Kitakami reported.
Misato nodded. "Very good. Let's proceed to the next area."
Sumire Nagara nodded and urged her control yokes forward, driving the Wunder ahead to where another dozen weather balloons hung in the air.
Next came the part that gave Misato pause.
"Alright," she commanded. "Prepare to transfer control to Unit 01."
As the engineers on deck all grunted in confirmation and got to work setting up the power transfer, Lieutenant Commander Nagara sat back in her seat, a look of uneasiness on her face.
"Something on your mind, Nagara?"
The dusky woman looked from her brooding at her Captain and sat up straight.
"Nothing of importance, Captain," she said dismissively.
Misato just sighed, removing her cap.
"Let's hear it."
Nagara chewed on her lip. It wasn't entirely clear where their Captain stood on the matter at hand. While at one time, she had been one of the principal denouncers of Shinji Ikari's participation in this war, it had been Captain Katsuragi who had ordered this new change in structure. While much of it had been due to extenuating circumstances, it still felt like a lapse in their principles, and it was one that did not sit comfortably with most of the crew.
"I'm just not really comfortable letting the kid who nearly destroyed the world take the Wunder's helm," Nagara said simply.
Misato nodded. "Neither am I, Lieutenant Commander. But the Wunder will only fly if the two of them are in that entry plug now. And as long as they're in there, we might as well put them to use. I'd be lapse in my duties as Captain if I didn't see the advantage in that. And we can always override the connection at any time."
Nagara nodded. "I understand all that Captain. But still…"
Misato nodded. It had been something she had been wrestling with for a while as well, and it was not a problem that had an easy solution.
"Doctor Akagi told me a story once," Misato said, offhandedly. "She was having a conversation with one of her old classmates, who had gone on to become an orthopedic surgeon. And while they were talking, her classmate was trying to explain how invasive her practice was for her patients. To elaborate on her point, she gave the analogy that if a patient's arm had been broken by a sledgehammer, the surgeon's task could be compared to taking that same sledgehammer, and breaking the arm back into place."
The corner of Sumire's mouth curved up into a wry smile. "Remind me never to go to any of Doctor Akagi's classmates if I ever need a doctor."
Misato snorted. "The point she was trying to make was that both processes involve inflicting a certain amount of trauma on the patient. But Dr. Akagi put it another way."
Nagara nodded curiously. "Which was?"
Misato let out a sigh.
"Shinji may have been the one to break the world," she said. "But that just means that he's the one who's best equipped to put it all back together again. Whether we like it or not."
The helmswoman frowned at that. "Do you really believe that, Captain?"
Misato shook her head. "Not really. But it doesn't really matter what I believe anymore now, does it?"
Shinji and Rei were seated in a modified entry plug inside of Unit 01, still within the Wunder's core. This entry plug had two seats, one behind the other, with Rei seated before Shinji, to allow both pilots to sit comfortably, each with their own set of control yokes. The entry plug had also been modified to allow the bridge crew to override their control over the Wunder, a process by which Ritsuko had deduced after many long nights of experimentation on the neural connections between the entry plug and the Eva. Normally, the entry plug was designed to modulate plug depth in order to accommodate for the pilot's sync ratio, but in order to sever the pilots' control over the Eva without shutting the Eva down entirely, the entry plug had been modified to lower and rise on command, allowing the crew of the Wunder to limit the pilots' sync ratio to as low as ten percent, low enough to keep the Eva in standby without registering any of the pilots' mental commands.
It was a rather stringent compromise, but Shinji and Rei weren't exactly in a position to argue, even if they wanted to.
Both pilots were wearing their black NERV issued plug suits, though Ritsuko had stripped them of any tech that she had found questionable. All around them, the red waters of the Arctic Ocean expanded outward in all directions, tiny wisps of clouds visible here and there. Around them, the floating carapaces of the decomissioned naval warships floated all around them, stripped of their useful parts. And before them, the dozen or so red targets, floating haplessly in the air before them, standing out obtrusively against the clear blue sky.
A familiar face appeared on the screen before him, wearing a black beret and a stern expression.
Shinji searched the recesses of his memory of a name.
"Miss…Ibuki…?" he asked, dumbly.
"That's Lieutenant Commander Ibuki, if you don't mind," she snapped, reprimandingly. "I'll be conducting the training exercise for today."
Shinji wasn't sure how to respond to that. Something in the Lieutenant Commander's tone suggested that she would have rather been anywhere but there.
"Look alive, you two," Maya said in a rough yet resigned tone, the white letters spelling out 'Primary Control Granted' blinking on the screen beside her. "The bridge has turned the flight control of the Wunder over to you. Go ahead and take hold of the handles."
Shinji obeyed hesitantly, grabbing onto the control yokes as Rei mirrored his actions in front of him.
"Do you have control, Shinji?" Maya asked, expectantly.
Shinji nodded. "Yeah."
"Say the words then," Maya instructed in an annoyed tone.
Shinji squeezed a bit harder on the yokes. "I have control."
"That's better," Maya nodded. "Rei?"
Rei nodded in response. "I have control."
Maya nodded again. "Alright. During this training exercise, Rei will be handling combat maneuvers, while Shinji will be responsible for targeting. Shinji?"
"Yes ma'am?" Shinji replied, feeling more and more nervous around the Lieutenant Commander by the minute.
"You've gone through the targeting simulations," she said. "The Wunder will take care of aiming and firing. All you have to do is identify the targets for the Wunder to shoot at. You should in theory be able to prioritize your targets to determine what order the Wunder fires on first, but for now it's probably best not to get too ambitious, so let's just stick to basics here. Got it?"
"Yes ma'am," Shinji responded again.
"Good," Maya continued impatiently. "Rei?"
"Yes ma'am?" Rei replied.
"Do not crash the ship," Maya said, absolutely serious. "When you're in a combat situation, your job is putting the ship in the most tactically advantageous position possible. But no matter what the circumstances, the safety of the ship is your top priority. I cannot stress to you enough: do not crash this ship. The Captain gets very pissed when that happens, so we want to keep it to a minimum. Is that clear?"
"Yes ma'am," Rei repeated.
Shinji blinked in surprise. He couldn't tell if Lieutenant Commander Ibuki was trying to be humorous or not.
"Good," Maya went on. "Rei, take us closer to the targets ahead. Shinji, as soon as you're in range, open fire with the Wunder's S2 cannons."
As the ship neared the floating weather balloons, Shinji focused on the closest one, thinking the word "enemy" in his head, doing his best to associate the red balloon with the Nemesis Series that had been nipping at their heels at every turn.
He didn't even see the shot fired, since he was technically looking through the very eyes that were doing the shooting. The world around him simply pulsed red, and all of the sudden there was one less balloon in the sky, and a bright red cross where it had been.
Gritting his teeth, he focused on the next balloon, and the next. One by one, they all vaporized in a flash of red energy. He had to admit, it was comforting to have Rei take the helm while he did the shooting. It allowed him to focus on one thing, while Rei worried about keeping the ship on course. As an Eva pilot, he was used to having to do several things at once, but with Rei keeping them steady, and with the ship itself taking care of the pointing and clicking, it was actually somewhat liberating to have one simple task before him.
Of course, this was just a training exercise.
"Fifteen point eight two seconds," Maya reported, her face reappearing on screen. "Not bad for a first field test, I suppose. Rei, I'm sending you a map of the local area. Take us to the next training position."
"Understood," Rei nodded.
Below him, Shinji could see Rei peering at a screen readout of her own, as she gently nudged the control yokes forward. As jumbled and out of place as her memories were, she seemed to take to piloting naturally. It seemed to be the thing she was born to do, he thought with a frown.
Ahead of them lay another set of balloons, this bunch much larger and consisting of four different colors, arranged randomly in the air.
"Next, we need to determine how well you can distinguish friendlies from hostiles," Maya announced on the screen. "I want you to target the red and the blue balloons, but leave the white and the black ones alone. Think you can manage that?"
Shinji nodded. "I think so."
"Well, we'll see then," she replied. "Get to it."
Shinji had to concentrate hard on this one. If he had simply had the one color to focus his fire on, it would be easier, but now he had two. And he couldn't just fire indiscriminately either, or he'd risk hitting the others.
The solution he came to was a straightforward one: focus on one color, and then the other. Within six seconds, all the red balloons had been vaporized, and in the following seven seconds, so had the blue ones.
"Hmm," Maya mused to herself. "Not the most efficient dispersal, but your timing's actually improved. Let's see if you can keep that up, Shinji."
Shinji tried not to let the words of praise get to him, but old habits died hard, and he couldn't help a smile from coming to his face.
"Alright, this next test is for Rei," Maya announced, sounding bored. "First, we're going to test the Wunder's maneuverability. Ahead, we've put together a bit of an obstacle course. Keep the red balloons on your left, and the blue ones on your right, until you get to the white balloon at the end. After that, we're going to test the Wunder's speed, so swing around that white balloon, activate the S2 drive, and take the Wunder back to base as fast as it can safely go. Understood?"
"Yes ma'am," Rei replied crisply.
Shinji looked up to see the next set of balloons, marking a clear and distinct path ahead of them. The red and blue balloons were arranged such that the ship would have to make wide, zig-zagging turns to clear them as Lieutenant Commander Ibuki had instructed.
He gripped his control yokes tightly. This was going to be a bumpy ride.
"Begin!" Maya ordered.
Shinji was pushed back into his seat as the Wunder kicked into gear, swooping forward towards the first red balloon. He saw the balloon pass by on the left, and then the world practically turned sideways as Rei banked left, throwing him into the side of his seat. The Wunder turned hard to make its way to the next balloon, before leveling out and banking right again, throwing Shinji against the other side of his chair. This continued several times after, and Shinji began to feel sick, until the white balloon mercifully appeared on their screen.
"Whew…" he breathed, sitting back.
But his relief was premature, as for some reason, in lieu of circling the marker, Rei chose to fly under the balloon. The ship dipped downward, before pulling all the way up to point the Wunder's nose at the sky, and then kept arcing upward until the Wunder had flipped upside down. Shinji looked up to see deep red ocean water over his head, and he nearly vomited.
"Ayanami…!?" he whimpered, voice vibrating with the rumbling with the jostling of the ship. "What are you…doing…!?"
"Hmm?" she hummed, looking up at him curiously.
Without even looking, she twisted the control yokes, and the Wunder righted itself. An instant later, Shinji was plastered back into his seat as the Wunder's S2 drive kicked in, propelling the warship forward at super-sonic speeds.
"YAAAHHH!" Shinji cried out in alarm, gripping his control yokes for dear life as the G-forces caused his stomach to sink inward as the clouds rushed past his view-screen so fast he could hardly make them out. The sea and the sky overhead practically stretched out of existence, whipping by in the blink of an eye, and before long, the water gave way to a gray-green landscape.
Just as Shinji was starting to develop tunnel vision, the Wunder quickly slowed down to leisurely cruising speed, and Shinji was thrown forward, bracing himself on his control yokes.
"Gah!" he gasped, taking a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Ugh…I think I think I'm going to be sick!"
Rei tilted her head back to peer at him, concerned. "Are you well, Ikari?"
Shinji was panting for breath. "Yeah, I think so…just let me catch my breath!"
As he recovered himself, he was aware of Rei's eyes still on him, and he straighten himself up, trying to recompose himself with some level of grace.
"Whew…" he breathed, smiling weakly back at her. "That was…really fast…"
"Yeah, no kidding," Maya's face popped up on screen, in the process of replacing her hat, which had apparently tumbled off her head during the trip. "The SR-71 clocked in at about mach three point two, and the Wunder just passed that by about eight percent. Yeah, I think we're done here for today. Transfer control back to Nagara, and prepare to pack it up for the day."
Shinji was still catching his breath, and he was only just noticing the navy battleships still floating around them, seemingly no worse for wear, which he assumed was a good thing. They must have also been testing to see what supersonic speeds would do to their naval escort in battle. And on the ground, he saw a settlement not one kilometer ahead of them that was serving as their base of operations for the time being.
Lilin Outpost Zion. The largest collection of human beings on Earth, totaling just under five hundred thousand, mostly women, children, elderly and infirm.
And it was built above the excavation site of the AAA Wunder.
"What do you mean, I have to share an entry plug with her!?"
Asuka pointed a derisive finger in Mari's direction, who only appeared to be amused by her outrage.
The two of them along with Dr. Akagi were standing in one of the briefing rooms in the militarized area of Lilin Outpost Zion, which offered a spectacular view of the skyscraper sized hole in the ground that made up the majority of the outpost. The entire facility was constructed around a massive pit, just a few kilometers inland of the eastern Siberian coast, that stretched as wide as a city and went down seemingly without end. The surface level perimeter was lined with defensive bunkers and barricades, launch bays that stored the bulk of WILLE's JA Heavy Armor platoon, as well as a colossal defense array that included two super-powerful AT generators that projected an enormous yellow hemispherical dome over the entire complex, and a secondary one straight across the pit itself for added protection of the civilian population.
As the facility went further inward and further down, the base actually built into the very walls lining the pit, the architecture became more residential, the compounds housing the families of WILLE's soldiers, as well as what few surviving refugees had been recovered from all the nations of the world. Over the past fourteen years, as WILLE outposts sprouted up throughout the globe, more and more refugees had found their way to these tiny bastions of safety, as little by little, the survivors were ferried to humanity's most secure stronghold. And as more and more people flooded their borders, the number of helping hands grew, and the residential areas continued expanding ever downward. It was an arrangement that left the facility very open to aerial attack should the AT barrier fail, which is why there were four evenly spaced AT cannons mounted along the surface perimeter, each equal in power to the Wunder's own armaments.
Within the JA launch areas were also custom fabricated Evangelion cages, and it was here that the remains of Unit 02 and 08 had been brought.
Which in turn had lead to the source of Asuka's current aggravation.
"I've tolerated quite a lot these past few days!" Asuka blared on, with Ritsuko listening with the utmost patience, and Mari just rolling her eyes. "I've put up with that sniveling brat bugging me at every turn! I've put with his freaky oedipal sex-doll following us around like a lost puppy! I've even tolerated the two of them not only being brought into the ranks of WILLE, but actually given control of the ship!"
"On a provisional basis," Ritsuko amended.
"There shouldn't even be a basis!" Asuka ragged. "There is no precedent for any of this! And to top it off, my only fellow pilot for the last fourteen years turns out to be some kind of sleeper agent or something! And now you expect me to put my life in her hands!? How in the hell is the Colonel okay with this!? Why isn't Four-Eyes being interrogated?"
"We've already made some progress on that front," Ritsuko said calmly, reaching for her cup of coffee. "But quite frankly, this is all above your pay grade, Captain. Colonel Katsuragi and I have already taken everything you're saying into account."
Asuka exhaled in a huff. "Where is the Colonel, anyway? I have a few choice words to relate to her about all this, and none of them pleasant!"
"She's conducting a training exercise on the Wunder," Ritsuko explained. "She should be returning soon. But in any case, she and I have already discussed this, and it's been decided that until further notice, pilot Makinami will be allowed out of her cell for sync testing purposes. No matter her allegiances, we still need her to get Unit 08 to start up. And we're going to make use of her, even if it means we have to keep her shackled into her pilot seat. And if she causes any trouble, we always have this."
Ritsuko held up a DSS trigger, and only then did Asuka notice the choker around Mari's neck, and her one eye widened.
"Wait a minute…" Asuka blinked, suddenly back-pedaling. "You don't mean to actually execute her, do you!?"
Mari smiled. It was nice to see that, despite all her bluff and bluster, Asuka still had a heart under that harsh exterior. Bravado and browbeating aside, they had still worked together for fourteen years, and had become something like friends in that time. Those pet names they had for each other weren't completely mean-spirited after all.
"What did I say, Princess?" she smirked sardonically, tugging at her collar. "It was only a matter of time before they slapped one of these on us."
"This one hasn't been set to terminate," Ritsuko reassured the two pilots. "Just to stun. Pilot Makinami doesn't represent an Apocalyptic threat, just a security risk. At the push of a button, the collar will administer a fifty-thousand volt electrical charge that's designed to non-lethally incapacitate the wearer."
"Like a taser…" Asuka mused, giving Mari an odd look. "You know…those things can still kill you if it hits you for too long…"
The brunette could have been imagining things, but she could have sworn she's seen genuine sympathy in her gaze.
"Awww…" Mari smiled, melodramatically. "Is someone worried about little old me?"
Asuka snorted derisively and turned back to the Doctor, giving her a deadpan stare.
"Can I see that DSS trigger for a second?"
"No," Ritsuko said plainly. "You'll just abuse it."
"Come on," Asuka grumbled. "I'll only abuse it for a little bit."
"No," Ritsuko proclaimed. "Now stop being childish"
"Fine," Asuka sighed. "But all of this still doesn't explain why you need the two of us to be in the same entry plug! What's happened to our Evas, anyway? I thought you said they've been mostly salvaged."
"See for yourself…" Ritsuko waved her hand out the window.
Asuka approached the window and peered off in the direction the Doctor was pointing.
There, laying across the floor of one of the facility's makeshift Eva cages, were the two mangled husks that had once been Units 02 and 08. Unit 08 looked mostly salvageable, though its arms were a lost cause, and it was still nowhere near fighting shape. Unit 02, whose core had detonated, was little more than a torso and a head. But it was not the level of battle damage their Evas had sustained that made Asuka draw in her breath.
It was the fact that the two enormous bio-weapons were in the process of being grafted together.
"Mein gott…" Asuka whispered in disbelief. "This is…"
She wheeled on the professor, a look of shock and earnest hurt on her face.
"What are you doing to my Eva!?"
"Asuka…" Ritsuko explained gently. "We don't have the resources to salvage either unit by itself. This is the only way we get even a single functioning Eva after the damage they've sustained."
Asuka placed her hand over the glass, a look of revulsion on her face. "This is…this is despicable…"
"It's our most sure-fire option, Asuka," Ritsuko lit a cigarette. "Terminal Dogma is protected by a dual relay synapse barrier. Even the power of an Evangelion cannot penetrate its lower recesses. But an Eva built on a dual entry system, such as Unit 13 was, should theoretically have the ability to penetrate this barrier. Thanks to Shinji and Rei, the Wunder itself should have the ability to do so now. But the Wunder's system relies on a single massive core, which may not be enough to sustain the dual harmonic structure needed to break through. If that's the case, we want the two of you piloting this hybrid unit, which will contain two full Eva cores. There's still a lot we don't understand about dual entry systems, so you two are going to be trail blazers."
Asuka continued to stare in disbelief, while Mari continued to watch from the sidelines.
"Question," Mari piped, like she was in a classroom. "How's that gonna work if Unit 02 doesn't have a core anymore? It blew up in the fight with the Mark.09, remember?"
Ritsuko took a puff from her cigarette. "We'll just have to find another one. None of this is going to be happening right away. We're just planning for the inevitable confrontation."
Asuka furrowed her brow. "Confrontation?"
"We can't keep up this game of cat and mouse with NERV forever," Ritsuko explained. "Eventually, we're going to have to take the fight to them. And it's my job to make sure that when we do, we have the tools we need to make it count."
Asuka still could not believe what she was seeing. It was not enough that she had to sacrifice her Eva in the line of duty, but now they were affixing its corpse to the body of that favored Four-Eyes's unit, disgracing its sacrifice by making a mockery of its remains. It was reprehensible!
"Can I count on you, Asuka?" Ritsuko asked, insistently.
Asuka let out a sigh. Nothing about this was right. But like it or not, this was what she'd signed up for. She knew from the get go that it wasn't going to be glamorous. Sure, the situation was a lot worse than anyone could have predicted. But she was Captain Asuka Shikinami Langley! She was nothing if not resilient, and she was not about to let this little set-back get the best of her!
So let them jury-rig her Eva into some sort of abomination! Let them have her pilot it alongside that traitor! At least she would still be doing what she did best.
"Fine," Asuka huffed, crossing her arms. "But you and the Colonel are really pushing it with all this. Nothing about this is sitting right with me…"
She fixed Mari with a cold stare.
"And you…" she sneered. "I don't know what kind of connections you have to manage all this, Four-Eyes. But one of these days, your luck's going to run out. And when it does, I just hope I'll be there to see it."
Mari gave her hair a toss, smiling defiantly.
"Princess," she grinned, "I wouldn't have it any other way."
To be continued…