Reticence

Chapter 15

Ritsuko was standing over Misato's bed in the medical wing, doing an examination. She had been there since yesterday, and still had not risen. Asuka, Mari and Shinji were standing behind her, the latter two of which still wore DSS chokers, watching the Captain's form with a concerned eye. A few beds over, Rei still slept, her hair still a darker blue than before, her skin inexplicably more tan in color than it had ever been, herself wearing a DSS choker of her own.

"What's wrong with her, Doctor?" Shinji asked after a time.

Ritsuko shined a pen-light into Misato's eye, before moving onto the next one.

"When she was first brought here yesterday, she was displaying all the symptoms of acute alcohol poisoning - heightened blood rate, dehydration, irregular breathing, hypothermia - and she was treated accordingly."

Ritsuko professionalism did little to disguise the concern in her voice.

"If that was all there was to it, however, she should have woken up by now," she said, closing her eyes. "My concern is that relapsing after so many years may have overwhelmed her system. I…"

Ritsuko's voice wavered. There was a lump forming at the back of her throat that was preventing her from speaking properly. If it was just a concern with intoxication, she wouldn't have been all too worried. But there was another concern that lingered at the back of her mind that had not voiced, nor would she.

For this was not the first time she had seen Misato in a state of self-induced catatonia.

"What do we do now?" Shinji asked, fearfully.

"What do you mean, 'what do we do now?'" Asuka asked incredulously. "We do exactly what we've been doing - preparing for the next attack!"

Shinji winced. He hadn't expected such a cold response from Asuka, but he supposed letting her concern for her Captain show through would not have been like her.

"I meant…" Shinji said, hesitantly. "I meant, what can we do for Misato?"

"There's nothing we can do now but wait…" Ritsuko said, turning away to put her stethoscope and other medical supplies into a Doctor's bag.

"With the Captain out of commission, not to mention having resigned yesterday, command of WILLE falls to the Vice Commander," Mari said simply.

"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Asuka blurted angrily. "With Colonel Katsuragi out of the picture, you and Shinji get free reign of the facility!"

The conversation quickly devolved into an all-out shouting match.

"That's not what I was suggesting!"

"Oh please! You may put on a remorseful face, but you're totally thrilled about all this!"

"Asuka!"

"Sure, cause you've got me totally figured out!"

"Oh, just admit it, Four-Eyes! This is just revenge for me busting you in the first place!"

"Don't flatter yourself, Princess! Seriously, do you even hear yourself anymore!? You've been accusing me of everything from espionage to stealing your lunch money since this all went down!"

"Makinami!"

"Then wipe that fucking smirk off your face, and maybe I'll go back to buying your bullshit!"

"Can we just calm down please!?"

"You keep painting me as this cold-hearted spy, Princess! But I'm just another pilot like you!"

"Oh please! You've been scheming and conniving since you got here! I bet you were just waiting for something like this to-!"

"STOP IT!"

The last voice had been Ritsuko. She still had her back turned, and spoke with a voice so full of grief that it put the argument to a halt.

"I just…" the Doctor spoke haltingly, her voice shaky and disjointed. "I don't…I just…"

She lifted her arms and clenched them into frustrated fists.

"I can't be a Commander right now…" she declared, on the verge of tears.

Only then did it become apparent to the other pilots how much she had been holding back, how much she had been holding in. She had kept herself objective and dispassionately rational for every major decision made since Shinji's return. But now, her best friend was lying on the brink of life and death, and the responsibility for her legacy was falling onto her shoulders, and she was confronted by the frightening realization that she now simply didn't know what to do.

"Dr. Akagi…" Shinji spoke up, the only one who dared voice their concern.

Ritsuko's shoulders sagged. She look like she was tired enough to drop where she stood. All she could think about was the first day she and Misato had meet, after she had survived the trauma of Second Impact. She had been nearly comatose, a recluse in her own mind. She had known, ever since that day, that Misato would carry that scar around with her forever.

"I can't do what Misato could do…" she stuttered. "She wasn't afraid to take chances if it meant victory. Me, I'm a rational thinker. If I see a clear path from point A to point B, I take it. But I don't…"

She placed her hands on the far wall, leaning into it as she hung her head.

"Misato's irrationally, her lateral thinking…that was her greatest strength," she lamented. "But when it began to steer her off course, I…I saw no other choice but to step in. But now…now, we need that irrationality of hers more than ever. Because now…"

She shook her head mournfully.

"I look at the situation we're in now…" she said tremulously. "And the rational part of me is telling me that we've already lost."

All three pilots watching the Doctor with growing trepidation. They had already lost one commanding officer, and it felt like they were about to lose a second one.

WILLE really was falling apart.

"The Spear of Cassius."

All eyes fell on a single, solitary voice that spoke up from the opposite side of the room. There, sitting up in her bed, her royal blue hair offset by burgundy eyes, was Rei Ayanami.

"Ayanami!" Shinji let out a relieved breath as he rushed over to her.

Asuka rolled her eyes at the display, while Mari put her hands on her hips.

"Hmmm…" she mused, eying the girl's new appearance. "Not a bad look for you, Miss Ayanami."

Ritsuko, still on the other side of the room, just looked stunned.

"What…did you just say…?"

"Ayanami!" Shinji pattered excitedly, clutching the handrails by her bed as he smiled at her. "Are you alright? What can you remember?"

She turned her head to offer him a strange look.

"I remember everything," she said in a voice that suggested that she could describe the moments after her birth in exhaustive detail.

Shinji's eyes widened. "Really? That's great!"

"Wait!" Ritsuko blurted, coming towards her after recovering her senses. "What did you say about the Spear of Cassius!?"

Rei looked at the Doctor.

"You created an artificial Spear of Cassius using the AT barrier surrounding Lilin Outpost Zion," she summarized. "Why not make use of it?"

Ritsuko shook her head in astonishment. "Rei, you…what the hell happened to you? How do you even know about that?"

"I told you," Rei explained simply. "I remember everything."

Ritsuko took a nervous breath, eyes widening. That raised more questions than it answered, but she did not press any further. If Rei could recall all of that, what else could she recall? If what Rei said was true, then this had the potential to be highly beneficial…or devastatingly dangerous.

"Is that so?" she pursed her lips. She would have to watch what she said around the girl. "Well, the spear that we created dissipated only a few seconds after it struck. It's not a re-useable weapon."

"But you could make it again?" Rei asked.

"We could, but we'd be putting the entire base at risk by taking down our shields!" Ritsuko declared. "We could use it to take out a single enemy, but it takes time to recharge the base's shields! We would be open to attack from any other enemies in the area! We nearly got taken unawares by just two Evas last time! Next time, there are bound to be more!"

Rei nodded. "Indeed. So why not create one using the AAA Wunder instead?"

"The Wunder?" Ritsuko demanded, incredulously. "What are you talking about?"

"The same technique could theoretically be applied to the Wunder's AT Fields, could it not?" Rei explained simply. "Any AT Field should work in theory. It should actually be more powerful, as the Wunder's shields are not artificial as the outpost's are."

Ritsuko felt her hair getting grayer by the second.

"There's no way you just casually overheard all this, Rei!" she said, flabbergasted. "How can you possibly know all this? What exactly happened to you back there?"

Rei blinked, turning her gaze to the palm of her hand.

"How do I know all of this?" she asked in a whisper to herself. "My mind seems to have…expanded, somehow. It is as if the information is simply there for the taking…"

Rei turned to Shinji, offering him a strange look. Was it sadness? Or was she asking for forgiveness?

"The first time I conjoined, I was in an incorporeal state," she said simply, as if she was describing nothing more serious than taking a walk through the park. "I was fluid. Unconscious. Immaterial. The second time, however, I was awake. In the moment. I was aware of my every surrounding. It was…"

Rei seemed to struggle to find the right words.

"It was…painful…" she decided. "To encounter one's self, and then be made one with that plurality. Two perspectives of the same mind, suddenly seeing through the same eyes. Within the space of a moment, I witnessed my copy's memories in their entirety as she was unmade, while at the same time, she witnessed mine. The two experiences congealed into one, and as we joined, I saw…heard…felt…everything."

Shinji's eyes widened with each passing moment. Asuka and Mari were regarding the girl with something close to fear.

Ritsuko, however, was fascinated. Terror and elation mixed, and her scientific curiosity was piqued as it had never been.

"You have to tell me everything, Rei!" she said in excitement. "The information you might have gleamed during this process could be crucial to our success!"

"That would take weeks, Doctor," Rei responded simply. "And we have only hours before the next attack comes."

"What?" Ritsuko demanded, panic growing in her voice. "How could you possibly…?"

If Rei was capable of passing off a sardonic expression, she was accomplishing it now.

Ritsuko drew in her breath. "You…remember everything. Even the memories of the Dummy Plug you absorbed?"

"Ayanami…" Shinji breathed fearfully.

It was unnerving to hear such words coming from Rei's lips. She did not sound like herself, and the idea of a Dummy Plug - the thing that had nearly destroyed Asuka in her own entry plug - being in any way associated within Rei didn't sit well with him at all.

Rei nodded. "The Dummy Plugs share a linked mind, Doctor. Their memories are one and the same. As such, I can give you a rough estimate of their whereabouts and immediate destination, within a certain margin of error. My link with them is incomplete, but that will be easy enough to remedy before long. I doubt that the next time I am conjoined, it shall not be as painful."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ritsuko held her hands up. "'Next time?' You expect us to send you out there to pull a stunt like that again?"

"It is the most logical option," Rei claimed, as if to do otherwise befuddled her. "With each of the Eva Series the Wunder consumes, the stronger it becomes, and the more accurately I will be able to predict our enemy's movements."

"Rei, it is going to take days, maybe weeks of investigation just to figure out if you're still you!" Ritsuko shook her head. "We have no idea what's happening to you or the ship! And furthermore, we have only your word to go on. How do I know the Dummy Plug hasn't taken over your thoughts already? How do I know the ship is even still safe to fly? For all I know, your advice would have us playing right into NERV's hands. I'm not launching the Wunder until I've completed a full examination of both the ship and you."

"I am afraid that we have time for neither, Doctor," Rei responded simply. "Right now, the Wunder represents WILLE's greatest weapon. You can either make use of it, or allow WILLE to be destroyed at the hands of the enemy. The choice is yours."

"Doctor!" Asuka protested. "You're not seriously considering trusting this…this mutant, are you?"

Shinji winced in sympathy at her scorn. "Asuka…"

But in truth, he too was hesitant. He was not used to Rei being so…resolved. So resolute. So confident in her knowledge that she she would actually try to convince her superiors to change their mind about something.

This was not the Rei he had known before. This felt like something more than a simple boost in resolve. Her entire attitude towards her peers, towards WILLE, and towards the world seemed to have shifted. This Rei had all the poise of a confident, knowledgeable adept. She spoke with conviction and purpose. She did not merely question the world around her, she sought to act upon it.

With each passing moment, he felt the girl he knew drifting further and further away. And he did not know if he could still trust this Rei as he had the Rei he had been growing close to thus far.

Rei turned towards the other girl. "Your mistrust is understandable, Captain Shikinami. If we had the luxury of time, I would submit myself to the thorough scrutiny of WILLE. I will be perfectly willing to do just that after the battle ahead, but in the meantime, we must prepare."

She turned her gaze back towards Ritsuko.

"We have precious little time."

Ritsuko chewed on the tongue. She really wished Misato were there to advise her. Though, knowing her, she would say that this was the craziest idea they've heard yet. Knowing her Captain, she couldn't have said if that would have been a deal breaker, however.

She turned her gaze back to Misato's sleeping form. Her heart monitor still beeped slowly by her bedside, as her chest slowly rose and fell with each steady breath.

Ritsuko sighed. Rei may very well have been giving them a genuine warning. But she could have also been setting them up for a trap. She couldn't ignore this. But she didn't have to commit to anything until she had all the facts. The best course of action, she determined, was to put themselves in the best position possible to respond to either circumstance.

She made her decision.

"Battle stations, everyone," she said, standing up straight. "Shinji, you and Rei get to the Wunder, but do not get into the entry plug or anywhere near Unit 01 until I give the signal. Is that clear?"

Both pilots nodded and began to file out the door.

"Yes ma'am!" they said in unison.

Ritsuko turned her attention to the other two.

"Asuka, Mari, get to the JA launch bays and make sure our platoons are ready to launch within the hour."

Asuka rolled her eyes as she sauntered towards the door, with Mari following close behind.

"I'm telling you, we're wasting our time here."

Asuka's path was suddenly blocked by Ritsuko arm as the Doctor planted her hand against the wall.

"What would you have me do, Asuka?" she demanded. "Ignore this outright? What's happened here is unprecedented, and we can't take the chance that what she's saying might be the truth."

Asuka crossed her arms, unimpressed. "And if it's a trap?"

"How would they trap us?" Ritsuko demanded. "I'm not letting Rei anywhere near the Wunder's core until I see the Eva Series on the horizon."

"That could be exactly what NERV wants!" Asuka protested. "You heard her, Doctor! She can hardly wait to absorb another core!"

"Well, we can hardly hope to win by sending more JA units to their destruction," Ritsuko said, exasperated. "The Wunder's the only viable weapon we have against the Eva Series!"

"Why?" Asuka demanded. "Because it might be able to fabricate a Lance of Cassius?"

"The theory behind it has been shown to work," Ritsuko replied. "It's just a matter of scaling it down. Within the time constraints, I believe I can make it happen."

"Doctor, we risk losing the ship if this thing backfires!" Asuka said tersely.

"What's the alternative, Asuka?" Ritsuko demanded. "Until we repair your Eva, and you and Mari learn to put aside your differences and sync properly with each other, this would have been the game plan either way! Now get to your battle stations! That's an order!"

She withdrew her arm from the wall, letting Asuka and Mari pass.

"Yes ma'am," Asuka grumbled.


Unfortunately for Shinji, there was very little for him to do while they waited to see if Rei's prediction came true. While Asuka and Mari mobilized their JA units, and Dr. Akagi got to work on the Wunder's AT projector, Shinji and Rei weren't allowed to leave the ship, nor were they permitted anywhere near the ship's core. Normally he would have spent this time with Rei, but he wasn't as comfortable with this new Rei as he was with her predecessor. Not wanting to risk the awkwardness of an encounter with her, he tried finding someplace secluded to hide away that wasn't his bunk, and after a time, found himself on the top deck of the Wunder.

Shinji clutched the handrails to keep from being blown overboard. The updraft of wind at that altitude made it chilly in spite of the unseasonably hot post-Impact weather, even this far north. The ship lay docked at a berth erected along the edge of the base, though most of the outer military rim of the outpost did not stretch as high as the Wunder itself, leaving Shinji with a spectacular view of the deck's surroundings. The deck itself was restricted to the ship's main body, which did not include the twin pontoons or most of the tail. The Wunder's wings stretched out half a kilometer in either direction, each obscured from his view by two sets of massive turrets, its wingtips fanning out like a bird's primary feathers. Towards the rear, three massive relay dishes loomed overhead along the ship's pontoons and tail, and higher above still were two massive construction cranes extending up from the dry dock, used for ship repairs, loading cargo, mecha, and assisting with casting off the ship itself.

"You're a hard guy to keep track of, Shinji Ikari," came a voice.

Shinji turned to see Second Lieutenant Suzuhara crawling out of the entry hatch that he had climbed up to get there.

"Oh…" he muttered, not expecting company. "Sorry…"

Sakura smiled encouragingly as she stood up on the deck and let the hatch swing shut. "Not a problem. I just worry about you."

Shinji let out a sigh and looked away. "I'm not the one you should be worrying about."

The wind kicked up, and Sakura had to hold her hair back to keep it from blowing in her face.

"You worried about the Captain?" she asked, stepping over to lean against the handrail next to him.

"How could I not worry?" he asked, hopelessly. "She only got sick cause she exhausted herself arguing with me. I shouldn't have bothered her. If I hadn't-"

"If you hadn't, she would have still likely passed out from alcohol poisoning, just a little later that evening," Sakura explained simply.

While rest of the crew hadn't been privy to the exact circumstances behind the Captain's condition, Sakura was a medical officer first and foremost, and with Ritsuko's heavy reliance on her, she had heard more than enough to gleam just what ailed their erstwhile Captain.

"You being there meant that someone was able to call for help when it was needed," she reasoned. "If you hadn't been there, she could have died in her sleep. You very well may have saved her life, Shinji."

Shinji drew in a breath. He hadn't thought of it that way.

"Well…" he muttered, still disheartened. "She's still not waking up. Dr. Akagi doesn't know what's wrong her. And the Doctor is taking on more and more of the burden for her. I don't know how long she can keep this up."

Sakura nodded with a sigh. "Dr. Akagi is an amazing person, but even she has limits. I sure hope the Captain wakes up soon. I can't let myself believe she will stay resigned forever."

Shinji shuddered. He knew it wasn't from the cold. "I hope not."

Sakura pursed her lips as an uncomfortable silence descended upon them.

"I, um…" she said, looking for conversation material. "I heard that Ayanami has woken up. That's a good to hear."

Shinji pulled his arms even more tightly around himself.

"She's different now," he muttered, listlessly. "Dr. Akagi thinks that she's merged with one of the Dummy Plugs. I don't know what happened to her, but she's not the same anymore. I don't…I don't think the Ayanami I remember is ever coming back."

Sakura frowned. It seemed that everything she brought up was only sapping his spirits.

"Have you considered…" she said, searching for a silver lining, "That the Ayanami that you knew was only one small part of the whole thing?"

Shinji blinked in surprise. Rei had been one huge conundrum since the day he'd known her, so while nothing was so out of the ordinary as to be impossible, he could not have nearly thought of every possible explanation.

"Each of these Dummy Plugs is derived from one of her clones, right?" Sakura reasoned, before holding her hands up, embarrassed. "I mean, I know that's classified intel and all, but come on, people talk."

Shinji shrugged. It made no difference to him.

"But yeah," Sakura went on, looking away. "What if every time she takes in one of these Dummy Plugs, she becomes more and more of a complete person? More like the person she was originally meant to be?"

Shinji closed his eyes. All this talk was beginning to hurt his head.

"I mean, she wasn't exactly like she was when you first knew her, even after she got her memories back, right?" Sakura reasoned. "Even if she could remember your time together, her personality was kind of different from the way you remembered it, right?"

Shinji had to stop himself from crying. While he hadn't wanted to admit it, he had noticed a difference in her behavior from their time together before Third Impact. He had chalked it up to her traumatic experiences, but taking that into consideration, what Sakura was saying did make a certain twisted kind of sense. But if that was the case, then…that meant that the person that he had known in Tokyo-3 had never been the real Ayanami in the first place.

"I don't know, Sakura," he said, bitterly. "I just don't know. I just…"

He hung his head. The tears had finally won the battle.

"I just wish things could go back to the way they were before," he sobbed.

Sakura put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.

"Me too, Shinji," she said, sadly. "I'd do anything to get my brother back."

Being reminded of Toji only increased the burden on Shinji's frail shoulders, and he closed himself off even more.

Sakura saw this and moved her hand to his opposite shoulder, squeezing him tightly to her.

"There's nothing left for us in the past, Shinji," she said resolutely. "Once you've learned all you can from it, there's no point in holding onto memories that only bring pain. Let them go. You're only hurting yourself by keeping them so close."

Sakura closed her eyes. Once, she had thought Shinji to be the harbinger of humanity's doom. But that was before she had gotten to know him. And while his actions may have indeed brought about catastrophe, Sakura could not bring herself to believe that someone who cared so much for others over himself would voluntarily seek out the destruction of mankind, no matter how misguided. She knew just how persuasive NERV could be, knew how if repeated often enough, a lie could be construed as truth. But Shinji was here with WILLE now, and with their guidance, Shinji could be a force for good. She knew it.

"I believe in you, Shinji Ikari," she said, determination and strength in her voice. "I don't know how much that's worth to you, but I believe in you. Please, don't give up on us."

Shinji let out a sigh.

"Right now, Asuka and Makinami are preparing to go to war using tools that are completely inadequate for the task," he croaked grimly. "Misato's been struggling so hard through this war that she's fallen ill, Dr. Akagi's doing the jobs of four people, and even you are going above and beyond your duty just to keep me on my feet."

Sakura had to smile at that. "It was about time someone did something nice for you."

Shinji shook his head. "You've all been fighting so hard for so long. You're the strongest people I've ever known. I could never give up on you."

He turned and looked at her with tear soaked eyes.

"It's me I don't believe in," he said, sadly. "It's me who's holding everyone back."

Sakura held him tighter.

"Shinji…" she said softly, "Maybe we haven't been acting like it, but you have it worse than any of us. You've got the greatest burdens riding on your shoulders, and to top it all off, everyone foists their anger off on you because of Third Impact. It's unfair of us to expect so much from you after everything you've been put through, but we have no choice, Shinji. Like it or not, we need you."

Shinji wiped his eyes dry, and tried to look strong.

"I'll try not to fail you again…" he promised.

"That's all I can ask, Shinji," Sakura smiled.

They stood there for another moment, before the hatch swung open behind them, its creaking hinges grabbing their attention. As they turned to see, they saw Rei Ayanami's royal blue hair and soft burgundy eyes peeking up from the entrance. She was already wearing her black plug suit.

"Dr. Akagi has summoned us," she reported bluntly. "We are needed below deck."

Shinji pulled himself out of Sakura's embrace awkwardly, wondering idly if Dr. Akagi had specifically sent her to find him.

"Alright…" he said, not knowing what else to do.

"Ayanami," Sakura called out, throwing a casual arm around Shinji's shoulder. "You care about Shinji, right?"

Shinji's eyes widened to saucers. "Wh-what!?"

Rei looked completely unperturbed. "Yes, Lieutenant. Will you come below deck?"

Shinji tried to tug himself free of Sakura's grip, but the older girl was still stronger than he was, not to mention military trained.

"And you'd agree that it's safe to say he cares about you too, right?" she asked, almost playfully.

Shinji gave her an alarmed look. "S-Sakura!"

Rei seemed almost annoyed by the question.

"Yes, of course," she agreed, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Will you come below deck now, please?"

Sakura grinned, triumphantly.

"There, you see Shinji?" she smiled, patting him on the back, sending him stumbling towards the hatch. "What more do you need than that?"

Shinji caught his footing just in time to keep from running into Ayanami, though by the time he stopped himself, he was hunched over almost literally eye to eye with her.

"Gah!" he recoiled. "Ayanami!"

She did not seem to react to his embarrassment. "Come Shinji. Time is wasting."

He watched her head disappeared below the hatch, before re-emerging to stare back at him again.

"And for the sake of expediency," she said brusquely, "You may refer to me as Rei from now on."

Shinji blinked in surprise. He had barely registered her using his first name, but he had always called her Ayanami. It would truly feel like he was addressing a different person if even that were to change.

Then her eyes turned away, but she did not descend back into the hatch right away.

"That is, if you wish," she added.

Shinji could have been mistaken, but he could have sworn her now pink cheeks had gotten a touch pinker just then.

"Alright…" he said dumbly, not knowing what else to say. "Rei…"

Rei nodded, and disappeared down the hatch without saying another word.

Shinji, blinking and confused, could only follow after her.

Sakura smiled. Maybe there was hope for Shinji after all.


Ritsuko, Asuka and Mari were already waiting by the time Shinji and Rei arrived in the briefing room. Dr. Akagi was once again wearing her fur parka, now that she was back aboard the Wunder. The briefing room was small, just a row of chairs seated before a projector screen, upon which a diagram of Zion and its surrounding environs appeared. The eastern and southern areas of the map were almost completely covered by water.

"Good, you're here," Ritsuko said brusquely from the front of the room as the last two pilots entered. "Time is short, so I'll get started right away."

Asuka and Mari were already seated a noticeable distance from each other, so Shinji and Rei quietly made their way to the seats in between.

"Our fleet fanned out with its scan to ascertain Rei's warning," Ritsuko clicked a device in her hands, and three red blips arranged in a triangular arrow formation appeared in the blue lower region. "Patrol boats have detected three energy signatures moving in from the southern coastline. They're still many miles out, but they are approaching at speed, and are estimated to make landfall inside the hour."

The three other pilots threw a glance at Rei, some more surreptitiously than others.

Rei simply cleared her throat. "I hope this alleviates at least some of your suspicions."

Asuka pursed her lips. "We'll see…"

Ritsuko thumbed her clicker and proceeded to the next graphic, which zoomed in towards the base, which was represented by a the symbol of WILLE surrounded by a circle. A short distance away from the base, the three red blips representing the invading Eva Series stood, just inside the blue.

"We know we can neutralize at least one of the Eva Series with the experimental Cassius weapon," Ritsuko went on. "The problem is that it takes time to recharge after uses. The last time we used it, it took the base upwards of twenty minutes for its AT barrier to come back online. Logically, that means that we want to use it on the enemy when they are still some distance from the base. But of course, the accuracy of the weapon decreases with distance. And with obstacles and the curvature of the Earth, there is a limit to its effective range."

Ritsuko prompted a red line to appear between the closest blip and the base.

"We won't be able to target the enemy from here until they make landfall," she went on. "Even if we take one out with the first shot, the other two will be on top of us before we can recharge. At least, hypothetically."

Shinji pursed his lips at that. "Hypothetically?"

Ritsuko nodded. "Zion will strike the first target as soon as the Evas make landfall. At the same time, the Wunder will attempt to neutralize the other two units simultaneously with a Cassius strike of its own."

An image appeared on the screen of a silhouette of the Wunder flying in from the side, a single red line extending from the Wunder's nose to hit the blip on the right.

"Simultaneously?" Asuka asked incredulously. "You actually think the Wunder can pull this off?"

Ritsuko nodded. "It's just a matter of focusing the AT field projector into a single point. The effect is a vector weapon that has an effect similar to that of the Lance of Cassius, hence the name. It's essentially the same type of energy that the Angels used for their energy attacks - a projection of their AT fields into an offensive weapon."

Ritsuko thumbed the switch again, and the projector displayed the two red vectors extending from both the outpost and the ship, forming a criss-cross shape that went through all three targets, the lead in the middle from the front, and the two remaining targets from the side.

"As Rei said," Ritsuko explained, "The Wunder's shields are even stronger than those of the base, such that a Cassius weapon forged from them will hit with far more penetrating power. It should be more than enough to destroy two Eva Series."

Asuka crossed her arms. "And what about our JA units?"

Ritsuko nodded. "You'll be our backup in case any part of this plan fails. We want these two attacks to go off simultaneously to prevent a counterattack. The Wunder's shields will come down as well after it discharges its Cassius weapon, so be ready. The ship will be vulnerable to attack after we fire that first shot. If either the base or the ship fails to hit their targets, it'll be up to you two and your platoons to buy us as much time as possible for us to recharge and try again."

Asuka sat back and grumbled. "Great."

Mari smiled. "Cheer up, Princess! Unit 08+02 is nearly complete, thanks to all the spare parts we salvaged from the last Eva we took down. If we take down these three, we'll have parts aplenty!"

"Thanks, Four-Eyes," Asuka rolled her eyes. "That just fills me with confidence."

Ritsuko pressed on. "Do each of you understand your roles in this?"

All four pilots nodded, some more grudgingly than others.

"Very good then," Ritsuko nodded. "I want-"

She was halted by a chime from the walkie-talkie at her hip.

"Akagi here," she said, bringing it to her ear.

Her eyes suddenly flew open.

"Are you sure!?" she demanded, before pausing. "Yes, of course. I'll be right there."

The pilots fixed her with expectant expressions as she clipped the radio back to her belt.

The doctor gazed back at them with a stupefied look in her eyes.

"It's the Captain," she said simply. "She's awake."


To be continued…

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