Some three hundred JA Heavy Armor units were lined up outside of Lilin Outpost Zion, which for all practical purposes represented WILLE's entire infantry. Overhead, the AAA Wunder loomed like an ever-present carnival float, while WILLE's naval escort, consisting of what remained of the U.N. battle fleet after Third Impact and everything that came after, lay out at sea just off the coast. There were sirens sounding all around, as the dome-like AT barrier surrounding the compound lifted at the base to allow the ground troops through.
Leading the platoons of JA Heavy Armor were two distinctly colored units, one with red trim, and the other with pink.
Asuka gritted her teeth uneasily. She was not comfortable with Mari being out here in her own suit, but the Colonel had insisted. Misato had not appeared any happier about it than Asuka was, and for some reason, she and Ritsuko seemed incapable of making eye contact for the entire conversation. But the Captain's mind appeared to have been made up. Two manned units were better that one, and this was an emergency. When Asuka had protested, Misato had simply handed her the DSS trigger to Mari's shock collar.
"Don't abuse it," had been her instructions.
Asuka blew a strand of hair out of her face. She was not a fan of these clunky pieces of machinery, but Units 02 and 08 were nowhere near ready for combat, and WILLE's fleet had detected an advancing force larger than any they had seen before. So the two of them had been ushered into their own Jet Alone units and sent out onto the battlefield to coordinate the automated troops. So not only did Asuka have to marshal an army of mindless drones against an angelic threat, but she also had to keep an eye on the potential threat that Mari represented out here.
No, Asuka was not comfortable with any of this at all.
Mari, on the other hand, seemed to be so elated that she had decided to take the opportunity to sing.
"When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah~! Hurrah~!" she piped. "We'll give him a hea-arty welcome then, Hurrah~! Hurrah~!"
"Would you shut up?" Asuka demanded in irritation over the intercom. As skilled and adaptable as she was, they were still at a massive disadvantage in these machines. Nuclear powered, flimsy and delicate compared to the layers and layers of special armor worn by an Eva, and no AT field whatsoever! The thing was about as dexterous as a brick, and she while she was familiar with the controls, she just wasn't nearly as accustomed to piloting a Jet Alone as she was her Eva. She wasn't even wearing her plug suit for crying out loud - she was still wearing her officer's uniform! The last thing she needed was Mari serenading her over the radio!
"Sorry, Princess!" Mari chuckled in the corner of her screen. "Just getting a little excited!"
"Don't see what's to be so excited about," Asuka groaned, as she tallied up the distribution of the JA units under her command. "And besides, aren't you British?"
"Yeah, what of it?" Mari wrinkled her nose.
"Well, isn't that an American song?" Asuka posited.
"Yeah, but it's a marching song!" Mari smiled like a satisfied cat. "Usually we're flying solo missions! This is the first time we've been out with a platoon under our command! It's exciting!"
Asuka groaned again. This was a little more than she had signed up for. It had only been a day since the Wunder had conducted its first official field test under the feckless stewardship of the Brat and the Nerv Clone, and they were already under attack! In a little under ten minutes, they would be flooded with Nemeses and God knew whatever else NERV decided to throw at them, now that they were all in one place like this. Usually, the Wunder was kept mobilized to avoid this very situation, but in this case, they needed Zion's resources to repair their Eva units. Neither of them had ever been so extensively damaged before. So it was up to her to make sure that the Nemesis Series or anything else didn't get too close to the base, and on top of that, to keep tabs on Mari in the event of any foul play.
Well then, she thought with bitter resolution, bring it on.
"Oh, the men will cheer and the boys will shout!" Mari continued to sing. "The la-adies the-ey will all turn out! And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home~!"
Asuka let out another sigh.
Shinji gripped his control yokes tightly, gritting his teeth as he stared at the oncoming force that loomed over the horizon. No less than a dozen Nemesis Series, all intertwined in a bright red cocoon of energy. They were also getting reports of something big moving in from the ocean, but as of yet, had been unable to identify what it was. It was too small to be a Nemesis, but wasn't displaying a blue waveform pattern that an Angel exhibited. Unfortunately, Outpost Zion's long range sensors were dependent on whatever WILLE naval forces off the coast were able to detect, which meant that they would have to wait for it to make landfall before they would know more.
"Do not fear, Ikari," he heard Rei say in the seat before him. "I will protect you."
Shinji let out a sigh, as the ghost of a smile appeared on his face. Working with Rei seemed to be a constant exercise in nostalgia. Every other word she said reminded him of days long past.
A doctor had seen to his injuries after the attack in the hallway the other day. The black eye had mostly faded after a few days, but he still had a scar splitting the left side of his bottom lip. Rei had been shaken to learn about his attack - at least, as shaken as Rei ever got about anything - and had seemingly taken it upon herself to be his personal guardian from then on out. It was a little embarrassing, having her constantly following him and asking about his health over the course of the day, but he could not deny the safety of moving as a group. And if he was perfectly honest with himself, he did find the concern rather touching.
Of course, Rei could not be with him all the time, but Sakura also seemed to have taken pains to ensure that at least one of them was with him at all times to dissuade further attacks. While the Captain seemed content to allow the entire ship to be his own personal hell, Misato had already demonstrated that she was aware of his value to WILLE. It seemed foolish to risk losing one of the only keys they had to activating the Wunder's core or setting Unit 01 off again with another perceived threat like it had with Outpost Naraka. Given how much of WILLE's operational methods had been lifted from NERV, Shinji supposed it was likely that there were security teams in place throughout the ship, prepared to move in at the push of a button, should anything serious happen.
Still, it was strange that WILLE would allow him to move about unescorted after what had happened. Perhaps their intention had precisely been for Sakura or Rei to step in and take up the mantle themselves. Neither had mentioned an explicit order one way or the other. Perhaps, it was some strange passive-aggressive power play on the Captain's part, ensuring that Shinji was ultimately safe, but taking no visible action to ensure it, ensuring that he still felt the hostility around him. Either way, he couldn't help shake the feeling that someone in charge had deliberately let the attack happen.
It was a fucked up world indeed where Shinji actually felt safest within the entry plug.
"We can protect each other," Shinji assured her. "At least, in here we can. That's one thing I like about this arrangement at least."
"Yes," Rei nodded in agreement. "Here, we are one."
Shinji wasn't sure how to respond to that. He was used to her saying things like that, and he was used to them making him feel awkward, but for different reasons than they did now. He knew he cared about Ayanami, but ever since Fuyutsuki had revealed her origins, there had always been this uneasiness lingering in the back of his mind about her connection to his mother. On the one hand, he did not need further social stigma from whatever moral gray area his connection to Ayanami represented. But on the other, it was not like he could invoke any further ire from his peers, so he might as well be with someone he cared for.
The question he hadn't yet answered was how far he was willing to take that connection. He was naturally timid and skittish when it came to physical attachment, and that was under the best of circumstances. As it was now, he was, true to form, completely unsure of himself.
So, as per usual, he simply avoided the problem, and resolved simply to continue protecting her wherever and however he could, and deal with the other questions later.
And that was what he had thought before Asuka had stuck her neck out for him last night. Until that point, he had all but lost hope of her ever caring about him again. But after that moment, he didn't know what to expect. He felt that he owed Asuka even more than he owed Rei. At least Rei had not been suffering all these years. At least, he hoped she hadn't.
And then there was Mari to consider. Shinji couldn't make heads or tails of that girl. And considering who she was being compared to, that was saying something.
And if Sakura had been any friendlier, he might have even imagined…
Captain Katsuragi's face appeared before him.
"Gah!" he started, flailing out of her reverie. "Captain! Wh-what is it!?"
Misato looked unamused. "You weren't answering."
Shinji blinked suddenly. "Oh, uh…what?"
"We're in position," Misato declared simply. "Are you ready?"
"Y-Yes ma'am!" he blurted, a little too quickly.
The Captain raised an eyebrow. "You don't sound very ready."
Shinji looked away, awkwardly, feeling like he had been caught with his pants down. "I, uh…"
"Get it together, Shinji," Misato scoffed. "We're counting on you to be our eye in the sky here."
"Y-Yes, Ma'am!" he exclaimed.
Misato exhaled. "Alright. The enemy is still on approach. We've got twelve Nemesis Series in the air, plus something big about to make landfall. It'll breach the surface in T-minus twenty, so stand by."
At her command, an additional screen displaying one of the base's long range sensor display appeared besides Misato's screen before Shinji. The screen displayed a rocky beach, looking out across the ocean at the surrounding fleet. The display moved to the left and then the right, as if the camera along the outer perimeter was scanning, until it resolved upon an ominous looking bulge in the water. As the camera focused and zoomed in to the approaching bulge, the water around it began to bubble and froth as it neared the beach.
"T-minus ten…" Misato warned.
Shinji clenched his teeth as he watched the approaching menace. This definitely felt like the beginning of an Angel battle, the way the target was approaching from the ocean. But unfortunately, unlike Tokyo-3, Outpost Zion was just a hop, skip and a jump from the coastline. Which meant that they had about a minute before whatever was coming at them revealed itself and having to fend it off.
The bulge of water suddenly exploded outward as a head emerged from ocean, following quickly by a humanoid body, slogging through the water until it had surfaced completely, whereupon it accelerated into a run, stepping over the outer perimeter cameras, which swiveled around to watch it vanish over the horizon in the direction of Outpost Zion.
Shinji stared in disbelief at what he had seen. The brief glimpse had been more than enough. He had recognized the shape instantly.
So had Misato.
"The Eva Series…"
The unit closely resembled the Mark.06, with a single visor-like eye, twin crests sweeping back from either side of its face, giving it's head a triangular look, and a long frontal horn not unlike Unit 01 that was split down the middle. Unlike Unit 06, however, this Eva was all grays and greens, and wielded no weapon.
As the Eva made a beeline for Outpost Zion, the Nemesis Series began to accelerate as well, forming up over the Eva unit, clearly attacking in unison.
Lieutenant Commander Ibuki bit her lip. Why would NERV plainly announce they were coming by having the Nemesis Series reveal themselves long before the attack? The delay had given WILLE plenty of time to prepare for the assault, though the odds were still not in their favor with this new unit on the field. Was the Commander of NERV really so confident, or was there some other angle that the enemy was playing at?
Either way, Maya had been given the role of Operations Director for WILLE's ground forces, which meant that she now commanded over three hundred JA Heavy Armor units, and was responsible for coordinating with Asuka and Mari, the latter of whose presence on the battlefield still baffled her. And she was determined to use every resource available to her to keep their home safe.
"Jet Alone forces, in position!" she reported. "Ready to intercept!"
The bridge of the Wunder offered her the perfect view of the battlefield below. Usually, Maya's role was to oversee the launch bay, but for this particular battle, someone with experience in mobilized armor deployment was needed, and the rest of the bridge crew was otherwise occupied with operating the Wunder.
Maya had been eager to step up.
"Asuka!" Maya boomed. "All artillery units, open fire!"
"Roger!" the redhead exclaimed.
An upward hail of small cannon fire concentrated around the cluster of Nemeses as each of the JA units below turned their guns to the sky and fired. The massive red cloud that was the energy cocoon around them did not seem to waver from the assault, but it did seem to get their attention as the cloud began to descend upon the ground forces.
"Mari!" Maya ordered, turning her attention to the Eva Series. "Move kamikaze units to intercept!"
"Roger!" the other girl responded.
Another platoon of JA Heavy Armor units began to tackle the approaching Eva, throwing themselves on top of it before exploding all at once. The Eva barely responded to the assault, but each successive explosion did seem to slow it down.
"We're not making a dent in these shields!" Asuka exclaimed.
"Same here!" Mari added. "The Evas just shrugging us off!"
Maya gritted her teeth. The Wunder was contributing as much as it could with it's AT cannons, but the JA units were being wiped out by the dozens! Though that had always been their intended purpose in this battle. They needn't defeat the enemy, just wear them down enough to allow the Wunder's S2 cannons to finish them off. The only fear was that there would not be enough to slow them down. Already, the Nemeses had descended upon the base, hammering away at the AT barrier surrounding the outpost, as JA units continued to badger the beasts.
But it wasn't the Nemesis Series that concerned Misato.
It was that Eva.
"Alright," Misato ordered. "Prepare to transfer control to Unit 01."
As the bridge crew scrambled into action, Misato brought up the feed to inside Unit 01's entry plug.
"Ok, Shinji," Misato frowned. "The ball's in your court now. Just try not to screw this up."
Shinji's uneasy face just nodded once.
Misato nodded, watching the relays in front of her display the ship's status, until the feeds had moved entirely over to the Eva.
"I have control!" Shinji announced in a determined voice.
"S2 cannons, fire!" Misato hollered.
The Wunder suddenly let loose with twin optical beams from the beast's face, which impacted the Nemeses shields, before dissipating.
"Again!" Misato ordered. "Fire!"
The optical blasts beat down on the Nemeses' cocoon, but the red energy simply resisted.
"There's too many of them!" Shigeru reported. "Their AT Fields have conjoined! The S2 cannons aren't powerful enough to penetrate them! We need to break them up!"
"Roger that!" Maya responded from below the helm. "Pilots! Move in!"
"On it!" Asuka responded from below.
"Aye ma'am!" Mari chimed in.
Maya wrinkled her nose and turned her attention back to the Eva Series, which was currently in the process of mowing through a horde of autonomous JA units. They were doing a good job slowing it down, but the tactic would not last forever. Even as their nuclear power cells detonated as a pre-programmed last ditch effort, the Eva Series' armor and AT Field was on a whole different level from the Nemeses.
The Wunder was still focused on keeping the Nemesis Series from breaching the base's outer defenses, letting loose with AT and S2 cannon fire. It was only after an entire platoon of JA Heavy Armor units practically dog piled the swirling mass of red and gray, each one detonating with the equivalent of an N2 mine, that the Nemeses finally scattered.
"Now's our chance!" Captain Katsuragi cried out. "Shinji! Take them out!"
The Wunder's S2 cannons fired in rapid succession, each strike hitting home as, one by one, the Nemesis Series erupted into spires of brilliant red energy. In a matter of seconds, the Wunder had struck each individual Nemesis out of the sky.
"Nemesis Series neutralized, Captain!" Shigeru reported.
"Roger that," Misato nodded. "Now to deal with that Eva."
The gray green Eva Series had all but decimated the JA Heavy Armor force in its way. The surrounding countryside had been completely cleared of foliage in the ensuing nuclear blasts, leaving the earth charred and brown, the path between the Eva and the base all but clear.
All save for two lone Jet Alone units.
"Asuka, Mari," Maya's voice sounded over their intercoms. "The remaining JA units were thrown out of range in that last blast. The terrain is slowing them down and the nuclear fallout is throwing their navigation systems out of whack. They won't make it to your area before the Eva reaches the base!"
"In other words, we're on our own," Mari replied with a cocky smile.
"That's correct," Maya replied. "You have to stall it!"
"Understood, Lieutenant Commander!" Mari grinned.
Asuka just sighed. "Well, here we are. Piloting two effective pieces of junk against a full sized Eva, with its own AT Field and probably an S2 engine. It's wiped out about half our ground forces, and we are pretty much all that stands between it and what amounts to the last bastion of humanity on the planet."
The Eva series turned its wide eyed visor towards them, a low rumbling growl emanating from its mouth.
"Well, it could be worse," Mari said casually. "It could be raining."
No sooner had she said that when the Eva was suddenly struck by the Wunder's twin optic cannons, causing the Eva to take a step back.
Asuka grinned. "I don't know about you, Four-Eyes, but that's the kind of rain I can get behind!"
The Eva Series turned its head skyward to peer back up at the Wunder.
Asuka suddenly had a sinking feeling in her gut, and banking on instinct, she charged forward, tackling the unit head on.
If she had acted a second later, the Eva Series' own optical cannon would have struck the Wunder. At that range, the Wunder's AT Field was neutralizing the Eva Series, and the optical cannon would have probably knocked the warship out of the sky.
"Whew!" Mari whistled. "Good save there, Princess!"
Unfortunately, the save had cost Asuka her unit, as the Eva Series wrapped its arms around the clunky robot, its fingers digging into it before slowly turning it into core material.
"Crap!" Asuka grunted. "Got to eject!"
A red escape capsule jettisoned out of the JA unit's back, before the unit exploded. Now that its AT Field was neutralized, the blast was bound to be more effective, Asuka hoped. But as her escape capsule parachuted down some three kilometers away, she could see that her unit's sacrifice had merely charred the Eva Series' armor.
Asuka grit her teeth. This attack was just a test run for NERV to try out their new toy, she knew. They had been pestering WILLE with the Nemesis Series for years, but now it seemed they had whipped out the big guns. She also knew that, even if they made it through this attack, the number of attacks would only increase after this. JA units weren't going to cut it anymore. WILLE needed an Eva. And it needed an Eva pilot - two, if Dr. Akagi was correct - to get it running.
But before they could get either of those things, they had to survive this first attack with what they had, and so far, it was not going well at all. Their JA platoon had been reduced by half, it was already proving useless to throw any more of them at the Eva Series. That hadn't stopped her or Mari from trying though.
But it was up to the favored Four-Eyes now, she thought bitterly.
Asuka tightened her grip around the DSS trigger in her hand, staring at it hard with her good eye.
She really, really hoped that she wouldn't have to use it.
A/N: Inspiration for Mari's song comes from the ending theme to Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail.