Shinji was terrified.
As the entry plug shook from the turbulence of being ejected from the Wunder, Shinji and Rei were both thrown about the interior of the plug until Unit 01 came to rest on the floor of the once lush but now barren Geo-Front, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. When Shinji was finally able to right himself again, all he could think about was getting back to Rei.
He quickly found her splayed across her pilot seat, wilted and frail. Reaching out to take her in his arms, she lolled limply in his arms, completely unconscious.
"Rei…" he whispered, looking down at her in fear.
Her hair was pitch black, while her skin, conversely, had become a sickly pale shade, almost white, and black ooze seeped from her tear ducts, her nose, her ears and from between her lips. He had some idea of how many Evas the Wunder must have encountered after they had broken through the super-massive AT Field. He could gather that the Wunder must have gone berserk and started consuming the cores of the Evas around them. What he didn't know is how many it had managed to eat before Misato had severed their connection. If Rei's hair got darker with each conjoining, what did black hair entail? Why was her skin now white? It looked unnatural, sickly.
How many Dummy Plugs had she taken in? How many minds were fighting for control in her head right now? How much corruption had been crammed into her skull that it would weep out every orifice on her face? How much more could her mind take?
Was she even in there anymore?
Unit 01 was still online, and the entry plug displayed their environment vividly for them to see. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered Unit 08+02 fighting off the Eva Series one by one as they charged him. He knew that he should be helping them right now. He could feel his connection to Unit 01 holding steady. Whether he was able to connect because Rei was still technically in the entry plug with him, or if he had regained the ability to connect on his own, he could not say.
But none of that mattered to him right at that moment. Rei was lying motionless in his arms, and he had no way of knowing if she would ever awaken again. For all he knew, she might already be gone.
Then the Eva Series finally made it past Unit 08+02, and he felt the dull throbbing of teeth and claws tearing at his Evas flesh.
"Stop it…" he shuddered, holding Rei's limp form close as he tucked his head against hers.
The attacks did not stop. Even as Unit 08+02 desperately attempted to fend off the attackers, the Eva units just kept coming, slashing and biting at him with tooth and claw.
It was if the entire world wanted the two of them to suffer.
"Go away…" he breathed, tears dissipating into the LCL. "Just leave us alone…"
The cockpit began to shake as Unit 01 was flung to and fro from the relentless assault of the outer world. The Eva Series were swarming them like a flock of crows, fighting over a scrap of meat. As Unit 01's flesh tore under the punishment, Shinji's entire body began to writhe with pain that nearly matched the pain in his heart, as his connection to the Eva began to become more pronounced.
He knew he needed to fight them, but he was just so weary of it all. He was tired of making Rei and Asuka and Misato and everyone else shoulder all of his burdens, unable to so much as stand up for himself. He was tired of making everyone else suffer because of his own inadequacy. Tired of constantly having to fight to keep his head above water while everyone else strode above him. He was tired of this world, tired of his own inability to cope with it, and with everyone's tacit refusal to help him stand on his own.
He was tired of everything.
"I SAID STOP!"
Asuka and Mari watched in horror as Unit 01's AT Field expanded outward like the shockwave of an N2 Mine, sending every last Evangelion it caught in its path flying outward.
Unit 08+02 planted its sword in the ground, gripping it for dear life as the AT Field hit. As it did, the field seemed to warp around the Magorox blade as water parts around the bow of a ship, it's micro-core splitting the blast of Absolute Terror just enough for Unit 08+02 to stay rooted in place.
"Shinji!" Asuka cried out in alarm, realizing fully what she was witnessing, as Unit 01 went berserk. "Stop it! You'll kill yourself!"
The green rims on Unit 01's body were glowing bright red, as were its eyes, as a halo began to form over its head. The ground around it broke into pieces as matter was flung away from it in all directions. Light seemed to emanate from every fiber of its being as it roared in hatred in anguish.
"Shinji!" she screamed. "Stop!"
Asuka brought up Shinji's monitor, which was somewhat fuzzy with static from the interference. But even she could see his eyes glowing the same malevolent red, as the interior of his entry plug glimmered a prismatic array of colors, the entry plug going as crazy as the look in Shinji's eyes. Around his neck, the DSS choker was already shimmering in response to the activation, and she knew it would not be long before its timer ran up and it terminated its host. And in his arms, the unmoving Rei Ayanami, her hair jet black, her skin a pasty white, and Asuka felt something in her heart break.
He was going to try to end the world. Again. And if the DSS choker did its job, it would kill them both. And then it would all be over for the rest of them anyway.
All because Shinji couldn't bear to see his precious NERV clone get hurt.
"Shinji!" Mari cried, interrupting Asuka's thoughts, using his name for the first time that she had heard. "Don't let the beast control you! Don't give into it! Fight it!"
Asuka blinked, looking down at her copilot. She too had Shinji's monitor up, and was staring at him as he curled up in fear.
Unit 01 responded by extending its hand out and sending another wave of AT energy towards them, which buffeted them like storm winds, shaking Unit 08+02 where it stood, but was once against dispersed by the Magorox Sword in its hands.
"We all have monsters inside us, Shinji!" Mari shouted back at him, heedless of his bestial disregard for his allies. "We all have the capacity to lose control of that monster in our darkest moments!"
Unit 01 let loose an optic blast, which Asuka reacted to instinctively, lifting the Magorox sword out of the ground and into the air to deflect the twin beams of light, each in opposite directions, resulting in massive explosions where they struck. As Unit 08+02 stood at a ready stance, Unit 01 glared back at them, with glowing red eyes, its mouth opened to reveal a snarling array of teeth.
"But you can control the beast, Shinji!" Mari continued to shout. "I know you can!"
"Mari…" Asuka breathed in disbelief, wondering just what she was trying to accomplish, wondering for a moment if Shinji was the only one she was speaking to.
Unit 01 slowly began to march towards them, still glowing like a beacon, its halo hovering steadily over its head. On the screen, Shinji was holding Rei in his arms, not even watching the world around him. The crystals around his and Rei's DSS chokers had begun to revolve in rapid orbit around their necks.
"Shinji!" Mari continued. "I know you must be scared right now! You're angry and you're frustrated and your don't want to have anything to do with the world! I get it, Shinji! But we're part of this world too! Me, Asuka, Miss Ayanami, all of us! We all want to continue to live in this world! And if you don't stop this, we'll all die!"
Unit 01 planted his feet on the ground, standing just before Unit 08+02, the Magorox sword held ready to fend the beast off if need be. It would have been an easy thing for Unit 01 to reach out and grab them from where it stood. Mari had no illusions; the Magorox Type-02 sword would be no match for the full might of an Awakened Evangelion if it turns its sights solely on them.
"Come on, Princess!" Mari hissed covertly. "Say something!"
Asuka started out of her reverie, too caught up in the spectacle to do much more than stare. This must have been what Misato had seen that day. This was what the end of the world looked like.
"If…" she muttered, hesitantly. "If this is what you want, Shinji…then get it over with!"
Mari's face paled with disbelief. "Princess!?"
"Nothing that any of us says or does is going to make any of this better, Shinji!" she barked angrily. "Only you have that power! Four-Eyes and I may be the best pilots in the world, but right now, there's not a God damned thing either of us can do to stop you!"
Mari blinked at her copilot in stunned silence.
"So if this is the way it's going to go down, then just do it already!" she shouted, tears in her eyes. "End it all! But this time? It really will be all on your head!"
Unit 01 continued to standing at the eye of the hurricane that was its AT Field, its eyes an unblinking bright red, a low, angry growl continuously escaping its teeth.
"You choose what happens next!" Asuka gritted her teeth. "No one else is making you do this, Shinji! Only you! So what's it going to be!?"
On the view screen, Shinji's head lifted, revealing sad red eyes.
"Asuka…" he whimpered, breathlessly.
Asuka's look of hurt and betrayal did not abate.
"I'm…" Shinji breathed, tears escaping his bright red eyes. "I'm so tired of fighting, Asuka…I'm just so tired…"
Asuka closed her good eye, her eyebrows knit as she released a long sigh.
"I know, Shinji," she said slowly. "I am too."
She opened her eye to look at him, her lips pursed with so many contained emotions.
"But we're so close now," she whispered, her face a silent plea for him to give just a little bit more. "This is it! After this, it can all be over! We just need you push a little bit harder, and we can finally be done with this!"
Shinji's expression of hurt and anguish did not abate, as he looked down at the girl in his arms as the brilliant blues, reds and greens shimmered around his entry plug.
"I don't know if she's going to make it or not, Asuka…" he cried remorsefully. "I know you never really cared about her, but she might die. I can't lose her again…"
Asuka swallowed back her tears and her bitterness. "Are you kidding me, Shinji? The only reason I couldn't stand her was because she had everything I wanted!"
Shinji looked up at Asuka in disbelief. How could she possibly have wanted what Rei had?
"She was everything I wasn't!" Asuka blurted, shaking her head, unsure why she was telling him all this. "She was cool under fire, she got the job done, and she didn't waste time! And she was both feared and respected for it! And for all that, she never seemed to even care! How was I supposed to compete with someone so unshakable?"
Asuka wiped her eye as she realized she was crying too.
"I never understood you two," she sighed, breathlessly. "Do you really care about her that much, Shinji? Are you really prepared to face the end of everything just to keep her safe?"
Shinji looked down at the girl in his arms, at her pitiful form, and looked back at Asuka's floating image amongst the colorful chaos that was his entry plug.
"I…" he breathed, hesitantly. "I am."
Asuka closed her eyes. And then shook her head, sadly.
"Then you're not going to accomplish it like that, Dummy," she said sadly. "Both your DSS chokers have been triggered. In a few moments, you'll both be dead."
Shinji's eyes widened as he looked down and seemed to only just realize the peril they were both in.
"You still have a choice to make, Shinji," Asuka breathed. "Die with her. Or fight with me. And maybe even save her in the process. What's it going to be?"
Shinji gulped, and nodded, quickly sobering with the threat of imminent death looming over them both. If it had just been his collar, he might not have reacted so strongly. But Rei's too?
"What do I have to do?" he asked feebly.
Asuka smiled and nodded at Mari, who's face appeared next to hers on Shinji's display.
"Alright, listen to me very carefully," she said. "The Eva is reacting to a complex need, most likely your desire to withdraw from the world. If it was just trying to protect you, it would have simply gone berserk without awakening. In order to bring it back down from an awakened state, you must will it to do so!"
Shinji nodded, watching the revolving crystals around his and Rei's collars spinning around them.
"H-how do I do that?"
Mari sighed. "By accepting the fact that you are a part of this world, Shinji. You have to accept that the world is imperfect, and that there are things beyond your control that you simply cannot avoid. To survive in this world, Shinji…you must wish to live in this world, with all of its flaws and all the pain that entails. No more running away."
Shinji clenched his eyes shut, feeling hopelessness overwhelm him. Wish to live in this world? Who in their right mind would choose to live in a world like this? Was oblivion really his only alternative?
He thought of Asuka. And Misato. And Rei, lying still in his arms. And of how much they each meant to him.
If this world could produce such creatures of brilliance, perhaps there was some hope to it after all. And even if it meant suffering a little while longer, there was always that slim chance that things might improve. Oblivion would be waiting for them all in the end, either way. Didn't he deserve a chance for at least some happiness before it came?
Didn't everyone else?
The rainbow storm of colors faded out from his display as his entry plug rose back up to normal levels. The revolving crystals around his and Rei's DSS chokers simultaneously slowed to a standstill, turning a non-threatening blue in color, before withdrawing back into the chokers.
Then, as if stirred by the activity, Rei's eyes flickered open, glowing the same bright red as his own.
"Shinji…?" she uttered in a tiny voice as she looked up at him.
He stared back down at her, relief washing over him. Her hair was as black as the night, and her skin was even more pale than her original form, but there was no doubt in his mind.
It was her.
It was her, and Asuka and Mari and Misato and Sakura and Kaji and Ritsuko and everyone else who had been there for him. So much of his life had been spent in fear of getting hurt by those who got too close to him. But in his desperate pursuit to attain forgiveness, he had inadvertently gotten close to them anyway.
It had been a slow, gradual change, one he hadn't even noticed until it had already happened. But somewhere along the line, he had realized that most of the people he was afraid of had just as much reason to be afraid of him, and that if he could just reach out to them, and had a little patience, then they just might be willing to extend a hand back to him.
And once they did, he reflected, the warmth they provided was immeasurable. If anything made living in this world bearable, it was the people in it. That was why he truly did not want to leave this world just yet.
"Way to go, Shinji!" Mari's enthusiastic voice sounded over the comm.
"I knew you could do it!" Asuka exhaled in relief, her face a brilliant smile.
Shinji looked up at the two of them, smiling down at him with honest to goodness pride on their faces.
"Now…" Asuka's smile took on a more familiar edge to it. "Are you ready to take on these sons of bitches or what?"
Shinji pursed his lips as Rei continued staring up at him, confusion and wonder in her eyes.
How much had she suffered at the hands of the Eva Series?
He clenched his hand into a fist.
"Asuka…" he said, looking back up at her with a fearsome look in his eyes. "I have never been more ready in my entire life."
Misato inhaled in trepidation as the Wunder's backup generators finally powered on, illuminating the Wunder's bridge beyond the simple red emergency lighting. Most of the ship's functions that were not associated with flight control were in operation, however the majority of those functions were associated instead with maritime operation, which were equally useless on land.
All this, Misato knew. What she didn't know what she would see when the controls powered on. Would she see Unit 01 and its pilots, being torn to pieces by the masses of Eva Series swarming them? The Wunder itself had remained relatively calm after its final crash. It appeared that the Eva Series was drawn to the power of active cores, and while the Wunder had several boosting the power of their AT turrets, none of them were active. Which was good news for the Wunder, but bad news for the only remaining cores still active on the battlefield.
Misato had to brace herself as the visual feed cycled back on. She almost did not want to know what she would see. Whatever vision of horror was waiting for them out there, it couldn't be good.
But whatever nightmare vision she could have imagined, she had certainly not expected what she did see once the feed came up.
Unit 01 was using its optic cannon to take out the Eva Series by the dozens!
"What the…?" she stammered, before looking to Ritsuko for answers. "Did Unit 01 awaken!?"
Misato's heart was in her throat. Had they already failed?
Ritsuko, who had just been in the midst of calibrating the power distribution of the Wunder's backup battery, promptly dropped everything and pulled up the DSS monitor.
"It…it appears that it did!" Ritsuko exclaimed, before adding. "At least…briefly."
Ritusko gestured to her monitor, pulling up two graphs that remained at zero until spiking halfway through, before leveling out to about half the height of the graph, where it remained steady up to the present moment.
"The chokers on both pilots registered a spike in the Evas core activity levels," Ritsuko explained. "But those levels shortly descended back to within acceptable levels, and the DSS chokers switched back to standby."
Misato blinked in stupefaction at Ritsuko's data, before staring at the contradiction out on the battlefield. Unit 01 certainly looked like it had awakened.
"Then how is it using that level of Angelic weaponry?" she demanded, her voice still shaking as though Fourth Impact were upon them.
"Both pilots are synchronizing at roughly 99%," Ritsuko said, sounding just as perplexed as she checked both pilots' feeds. "That's the maximum amount that any human can naturally synchronize…but since they're also synchronized with each other, they are giving each other a massive boost to their sync ratios! Unit 01 is currently operating at almost a 200% sync rating! It's essentially fighting at berserker levels without actually awakening!"
"Communication's reestablished!" Hyuga shouted out, as all four pilots' faces appeared on screen. And Shinji and Rei's eyes were both glowing a pale red.
"Shinji!" Misato called out in disbelief.
"Can't talk now, Captain," Shinji replied simply through gritted teeth. "Focused on fighting."
"Captain!" Mari responded when she saw her face, exuberance in her voice. "Glad to see you're alright! What's the status of the Wunder, Ma'am?"
Misato blinked in surprise. She wasn't looking at Mari, however; she was looking at the Eva as it marched onward like a battle tank, blasting everything in its line of sight with extreme and utter prejudice.
"We're…intact, for now…" Misato answered, distracted. "What about Unit 01?"
Mari grinned as Asuka seemed too focused on the battle to respond to the conversation. "See for yourself."
Unit 01 was marching slowly forward, firing off its optic cannon, wiping the walls of the crater and leaving trails of destruction wherever it looked. Around them, 02+08 was darting back and forth, keeping the stragglers at bay. The pink and red Eva moved like lighting, slicing up any Eva Series that ventured too close to Unit 01, while the giant purple mech simply powered on through, blasting away at the Eva Series and wiping them out by the hundreds.
It wasn't a battle. It wasn't even a slaughter. It was an extermination.
Misato watched in total awe. The ground itself was smoking and shaking from Unit 01's constant barrage. It was like watching a God, made flesh.
"They're riding the razor's edge…" Misato breathed. "They've actually managed to tame the berserker!"
Mari grinned. "Told you they could do it! Didn't I, Doc?"
Ritsuko's helpless smile was tempered by exhilarated relief. "Well, color me surprised."
Misato was still too busy staring aghast at the scene of carnage before them. The two Evas had, in total, reduced the strength of the Eva Series by half already!
Then Kaji's face flickered on screen.
"Finally!" he exhaled, his screen filled with static. "We were starting to worry! What's your status, Katsuragi?"
Misato seemed just as relieved to see him as he was her, though the high pitched twinge in her voice was still reacting to the fact that they had nearly dodged Fifth Impact.
"We're in one piece, no casualties to report," Misato smiled wanly. "But we've run aground. We're dead weight without Unit 01. What about Naraka?"
"We sustained some damage from the impact, but miraculously, we're still operational," Kaji said, sounding genuinely impressed. "Those cores you gave us really saved our butts."
"Hull integrity is stable," Maya's voice sounded from somewhere behind him. "And the cores are maintaining a steady output.
As if at his summons, the Naraka slowly hovered into view, a few hundred feet above the smoldering rubble that was the floor of the Geo-Front. It had gashes on its left and right flank, but the giant floating pyramid was still largely intact, and even looked like it still had some fight left in it.
And just off in the distance, Misato could see the remains of Central Dogma.
She set her jaw, giving Ritsuko a nod.
"The pilots have their hands full with the Eva Series, and the Wunder can't fly without a power source," she summarized. "But we still have a mission to fulfill."
Ritsuko nodded in return. "What are you suggesting?"
Misato took a breath, before stepping out onto the command platform to address her tired and shaken crew. Many of them were bruised, and bleeding from various cuts, but everyone was alive and kicking.
"I need volunteers for an away mission!" she called out, drawing everyone's attention from the task of restoring the Wunder's functions. "Operation Kanazuchi is still underway, with or without the Wunder! Those with combat experience are preferable, but I will understand if anyone wants to sit this one out. We'll be taking a VTOL craft into NERV HQ, and there's no telling what could be waiting for us in there."
Hyuga and Shigeru stepped up, as did Sakura. As the volunteers began filing out of the bridge and towards the hangar, Ritsuko gave Misato an incredulous look.
"You're leaving the Wunder?" she asked. "Now?"
Misato nodded. "Now. We're no good to anyone like this, and we need to get this done before they hit Rotterdam. We need to get out there, Ritsu. But I'll understand if you don't want to come along."
The Doctor hesitated. "I…as much as I'd like to, I should really stay here with the ship. There may be something I can-"
"That's not going to be an option, Ritsuko," Misato shook her head, before flicking on Kaji's view screen. "Naraka, we're shipwrecked - can you take on any of our servicemen?"
Kaji nodded in response. "Can do, Katsuragi. Naraka's got space aplenty."
Misato nodded. "Good. Send over as many rescue VTOL as you can. We'll be sending ours out as well."
Kaji nodded again. "Aye-aye, ma'am."
Ritsuko's eyes widened in response. "Captain, what are you doing?"
Misato cast a sad look back at her long time friend.
"I'm evacuating the Wunder," she said simply. "It's not safe here. The Naraka has thirteen layers of AT field protecting it; the Wunder has nothing but its own hull. You can either come with us, or get to the safety of the Naraka. But you'll be a sitting duck if you stay with the Wunder in its current state."
Ritsuko's mouth opened and closed in disbelief. "But…the Wunder is-"
"Is not going anywhere, Ritsuko," Misato cut her off. "I don't intend on staying here and doing nothing, and neither should the crew. And I could really use you on this away mission."
Ristuko continued to stare at Misato in disbelief as she addressed her crew.
"You heard me, people," she called out as Tama, Kitakami and Takao all looked up at her. "Everyone not coming with me to Central Dogma needs to get to the Naraka by any means necessary. I repeat, all hands abandon ship!"
The Wunder had over a dozen VTOL craft in their hanger, but had been upset by the multiple crash-landings sustained that day, making it necessary for the crew of the Wunder to work to get them upright. By the time the first VTOL craft were dispatched to ferry the crew from the Wunder to the Naraka, the Geo-Front was a complete and total war-zone. There were so many burning bodies of fallen Evangelions that the mid-morning sky had gone dark from the rising smoke, obscuring the Black Moon overhead. Off in the distance, Unit 01 was driving the Eva Series back with its optic cannon as Unit 08+02 picked off any stragglers it left behind.
And ahead of the Wunder, beneath the smoke, was the desiccated remains of the once proud NERV Headquarters.
"Sixty seconds to target," Hyuga reported from the helm of one of the Wunder's remaining VTOL. He, Misato, Shigeru, Ritsuko and Sakura were all wearing combat gear, though the latter two looked less comfortable in it than the others. Several of their VTOL craft had been damaged or had their weapon systems compromised in the crash. Most had been stripped down to the bare minimum to act as lifeboats, but Misato and her team had stocked their sturdiest fighter with as much weaponry as it could safely carry. They were venturing deep within enemy territory, and there was no telling what they might find there. They had no real intel on what kind of forces NERV had at their disposal beyond the Nemesis and Eva Series. There could be an army waiting for them, and they had no way of knowing.
Which made Sakura's presence all the more worrisome.
"As much as I appreciate you coming, Second Lieutenant, I'm not exactly sure why you volunteered for this mission," Misato said frankly to the girl sitting across from her as the VTOL flew over mounds and mounds of Eva corpses towards the husk of NERV HQ. "You don't exactly have much in the way of field experience."
Sakura was sitting up straight in her chair, and tried not to let her trepidation show. "I'm a fully qualified field medic, Ma'am. If someone gets hurt on this mission, my being there might just make a real difference. Besides…"
Her face took on a somber expression.
"All the pilots are out there, on the front line," she said, despondently. "I need to do my part."
Misato glanced over at Ritsuko, who simply shrugged as if to say that she had tried talking her out of it, and had not met with success.
"Has it occurred to you that we already have a field medic on our team?" Misato asked, pointedly.
"Yeah," Sakura replied stubbornly. "And what if she's the one who gets hurt?"
Misato opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again.
"She's got you there, Captain," Shigeru shrugged from his seat next to Sakura.
Misato chewed on her lip. Sakura was a hard worker and had a good head on her shoulders, but she could be as tenacious as Asuka sometimes, and Misato was loathe to put her in harm's way. While she had been out in the field on several occasions, and her marks on the shooting range were above par, she had no real combat experience to speak of.
"Just keep your head down, Lieutenant," Misato ordered.
"Yes Ma'am," Sakura replied.
"Target is directly underneath us!" Hyuga reported as the VTOL halted its advance. "We're directly over where the schematics put the Commander's office!"
The once prominent pyramid of NERV headquarters lay below, though it was a shell of its former self, with entire portions that had been blown off, its reservoir entirely dried up. Misato reached up to grab hold of the ceiling handlebars of the VTOL, retrieving a semi-automatic from the wall, and hoisting its strap over her shoulder.
"Alright, people," she said, fastening a zip-lines to her harness. "Let's go!"
The other volunteers tied off to the zip-lines on either side of the VTOL, before rappelling out the doors to descend to the derelict structure below.
Misato and Shigeru landed first, hitting the tall office windows feet-first, breaking through the glass.
The two soldiers hit the floor and rolled from the impact, unclasping their zip-lines in a swift motion as they hit the floor, rolling to their feet, both pointing their guns forward.
Their eyes fell on a familiar looking desk beneath a familiar system of symbols lining the ceiling. But the room's expected occupants were short by one very important figure.
"Quite an entrance, Captain," Vice Commander Fuyutsuki commented, absently.
As Misato and her lieutenant pointed their gun-mounted flashlights ahead of them, their eyes fell on the Commander's right hand man, the aged Kozo Fuytuski in his brown NERV jacket, sitting idly at the Commander's desk and sipping what looked to be a saucer of sake, a tray and ceramic bottle on the desk. Apart from the the old teacher, there appeared to be no other occupant in the room.
Sakura and Ritsuko both lowered themselves through the window at a decidedly slower rate - more a leisurely descent than an armed assault - as the VTOL's engines hummed faintly overhead, it's spotlight illuminating the dimness caused by the overcast smoke that blotted the sun.
"Vice Commander Fuyutsuki," Misato said simply as her eyes scanned the perimeter, her gun still trained on the old man. "Where's the Commander."
"He's not here, obviously," he said without looking up from his drink, taking another sip of sake. "Very soon, I suspect he will be well beyond anyone's reach."
"Answer the question!" Misato said more sternly, her eyes narrowing. "I don't have time for games."
"You won't find anyone here, Captain," Fuyutsuki sighed in disappointment, slowly getting to his feet with an effort. "NERV is no more. The man you're looking for has moved on to greater things."
"Where?" Misato demanded, gesturing at him with her gun. "Give me a location!"
"Do you think I am frightened by death, Captain?" he asked, simply. "I have long since given up on this life. I am simply waiting for it to give up on me."
Misato looked like she wanted to say more, but Ritsuko put a hand on her shoulder, interrupting her.
"Hello, old man," she said simply as she stepped up to him. "It's been a long time."
Fuyutsuki nodded, the ghost of a smile on his face. "Dr. Akagi. I love what you've done with your hair."
Ritsuko let out a laugh that sounded more like a sigh.
"What's the Commander gotten himself into, exactly?"
Fuyutsuki took another sip from his saucer of sake. "Why, the man is trying to play God, of course."
"Haven't we all?" Ritsuko said, leaning against the desk next to the Vice Commander.
"Ritsuko!" Misato shouted, concern evident in her voice.
"Relax, Captain," she responded. "We're not in any danger here. We're just two old friends, catching up over a drink."
She pointed to the bottle and one of the three stacked saucers on the lacquered tray atop the desk.
"Go right ahead," Fuyutsuki responded.
Ritsuko took her time, slowly pouring herself a glass, and took a careful sip. There was a languidness to her motions that she had not used in a long, long time.
"I was wondering exactly how NERV was getting the resources to put together such a force as you have amassed," she said slowly, her eyes gazing out the window off into the smoky distance. "I guess now we know."
Fuyutsuki nodded. "I assumed it would not be difficult for you to guess."
Misato's eyebrow rose. "What are you talking about?"
Ritsuko gestured out the window. "A hunch. I had no way of confirming it until now, but I have little doubt anymore."
She gave Fuyutsuki a knowing smile.
"The Commander is within the Black Moon, isn't he?"
Fuyutsuki took another sip. "Very astute, Doctor."
Misato lowered her gun as she stared at Ritsuko in disbelief. "Within the Black Moon? How? Why?"
Ritsuko set down her glass. "It's the only explanation that makes sense, Captain. You know the facts. The Black Moon is essentially a God machine. If someone - say, the Commander - were to gain control of it somehow, they could reshape the entire world to their will. It's how they've been making the Eva Series up until now. It's the only thing capable of producing Evangelions on such a massive scale. It's a machine capable of creating life as we know it."
She turned to look pointedly at Fuyutsuki.
"You just needed someone to uncover it first," she said by way of inquiry.
Fuyutsuki simply took another sip.
Misato's eyes narrowed. "You mean the entire purpose of nearly causing Fourth Impact was to dig up the Black Moon for you?"
Fuyutsuki poured himself another glass. "Among other things. Ideally, we would have acquired Unit 01, and begun the process of reshaping the world at that very moment. But you take what you can get, and the Commander has been making due without."
He locked eyes with Ritsuko, a sad look in his eyes.
"I fear though that it may be the end of him."
Ritsuko frowned and turn to Misato.
"We need to go," she said. "Now."
Misato gave Fuyutsuki one last parting look, before returning to the window to wave for their ride.
Fuyutsuki simply brought the now full glass back to his lips.
"Please bid Ikari farewell for me when you find him," he asked somberly. "One way or another, I doubt I'll be seeing him again."
It was difficult for Shinji not to lose himself within his Eva. He and Unit 01 were so synchronized that it felt like he was walking on his own two feet across the barren landscape. It felt like he, not just his Eva, but he himself had access to such a powerful AT Field that he could project it far beyond his body to strike at his enemies from great distance. He, not his Eva, had but to simply look upon his foes to destroy them with the very essence of his being as it projected from his eyes.
Only his connection to Rei was keeping him grounded in reality, the staunch and decisive 'other' within the entry plug with him that was both familiar and different. She was his anchor, as he was for her. And through them, Unit 01 wrought destruction unto NERV, the massive war machine doing their bidding as they marched over the land.
Around them, Asuka and Mari guarded the Eva with a keen blade, even keener senses and lightning quick reflexes. Unit 08+02 was a deadly machine all by itself, and between the two of them, the six thousand Eva Series had been reduced to a few hundred.
Now it was just a matter of picking off the stragglers.
"How are you two holding out?" Mari called over the radio.
Shinji and Rei both had an ambient glow to their eyes. It was not as sharp as it had been when the Eva had been on the verge of awakening, but it was unmistakably there. The task of wiping out the enemy before them with a barrage of Angelic energy never before wielded by man was a simple matter. Keeping the Evangelion under control, stifling the rage in its heart and controlling their own emotions as well so as not to push the Eva over the limit, while still maintaining a high synch ratio, was theoretically impossible, and yet with the dual entry system, Shinji and Rei were managing it.
But it could not last.
"Hard…to concentrate…" Shinji said through gritted teeth, his thoughts coming out in chunks.
"We will…not be able to…maintain this state…" Rei reported, ever the blunt speaker.
Asuka pursed her lips. "If you need to take a break, Four-Eyes and I can probably take it from here. You've already taken out most of them."
Before either Shinji or Rei could respond to her, Misato's face appeared on everyone's screens.
"Pilots!" she called. "We have a situation!"
"What's wrong, Captain?" Mari responded.
Misato was holding her hat down, as if she was being buffeted by the winds generated from an aircraft.
"We were set up," she reported. "The Geo-Front was meant to be a trap."
"What!?" Asuka demanded. "Are you telling me that they set all that up just to capture Unit 01?"
"I believe so," Misato said. "I don't think we were even intended to make it this far. There's nothing in Central Dogma."
"Then where's the real target?" Mari demanded.
Misato took in a breath. "Inside the Black Moon."
"The Black Moon?" both pilots said in unison.
Without even thinking about, both pilots unconsciously looked up at the towering monument that was the Black Moon, still standing tall despite how indisputably WILLE was winning against the Eva Series.
"And how the hell are we supposed to get inside that thing!?" Asuka demanded. "We tried making runs at it before, remember? Nothing we threw at it could even make a dent!"
"Yeah, it doesn't even have an AT Field," Mari agreed. "It's just simply indestructible!"
"We're a lot better equipped now," Misato assured her. "And I don't think we'll have to breach anything in order to get inside. The Eva Series has been pouring out from there ever since we put a halt to Fourth Impact. In order to get inside, we should be able to simply use whatever passage they use to come out."
"They come out and we go in!" Mari nodded. "I like it!"
Misato nodded. "Rei, are you able to get a lock on exactly where the Eva Series is coming from on that thing?"
Rei's black-haired, white-faced and glowing red-eyed visage appeared on screen, nodding once.
"I believe so, Captain," she said simply.
"Then do it," Misato commanded.
Rei nodded again, and her red glowing eyes closing in concentration. After so many Dummy Plugs had been absorbed by the Wunder, her senses and connection to the Eva Series had magnified several times over. For all that, she had no difficulty controlling her actions as the numerous but tiny facets stirred within her.
"I…" she muttered, stretching out with her senses. "I can almost…"
Her eyes suddenly flew open as the remaining concentration of Ayanami Types called out to those lingering inside her.
Without warning, Unit 01 began to rise from the ground, it's AT Field repelling it from the very ground it stood upon, the area around them glowing from the effect.
"Whoa!" Mari blurted. "That's a pretty awesome trick!"
As Unit 01 lifted, it began to move towards the Black Moon off in the distance, vaguely obscured by the smoke, but still clearly visible.
"Lead on, Rei," Misato said, her team's VTOL craft coming into view behind them. "But keep your distance until we've joined up with you."
Rei did not respond. She was concentrating too hard on too many things at once - keeping the Eva tame while at the same time maintaining her synchronization with both it and Shinji, on top of reaching out to sense the other Ayanami Types. Adding all that to flying was putting far more pressure on her brain than she could handle.
She was starting to lose the battle.
"Hold up, Lobotomy Girl!" Asuka said in an annoyed tone. "Some of us are stuck walking here!"
"Rei, decrease your speed," Misato called out to her. "Our VTOL can't keep up with you! And you've completely outdistanced Unit 08+02!"
Rei still did not respond. Her eyes had gone completely vacant.
"Rei?" Shinji said, squinting as he divided his focus from syncing with the Eva and looking down at her to see if she was alright. "Did you hear? Captain said…slow down."
Unit 01 sped through the air towards the Black Moon, rising from the crater, the super-massive AT Field having completely withered away as the Eva Series had peeled off to join the fray and inevitably meet their doom.
"Rei, reduce speed!" Misato called out a little louder. "That's an order!"
Rei didn't even acknowledge that anything had been said.
"Rei!?" Shinji cried.
He was unsure of whether or not to let go of his connection to the Eva in order to go to her. He had no idea if such an action would simply place more of the burden on her, or cause them to fall out of the sky. He wasn't sure which fate he feared most.
"Captain! She's seized control! Won't respond to anything!" Shinji said in a panic, his voice coming out in halting breaths. "Please advise!"
"Can't you get to her?" she demanded.
"Can't!" he replied simply, grunting through clenched teeth. "Still synced! If I move too much…our sync rate drops! We'll fall! Or worse!"
"Did she lose control!?" Misato demanded, angrily. "Has she been taken by a Dummy Plug?"
"No idea!" Shinji managed, his whole faced tensed. "She's not…trying to kill me though!"
"Alright, just hang on!" Misato called out, eyes pointed somewhere off screen, probably following Unit 01's flight trajectory on another screen. "We're getting to you as fast as we can!"
The Black Moon loomed ever closer, larger than the mountains around which it lay. Unit 01 was speeding towards it now, centering in one one of the many canyon-sized circular depressions along the rim. At its very center, a tiny hole began to resolve, until they got closer to find that it was not so tiny after all, but a massive shaft down which the Wunder could easily fly with room to spare.
And descending from this opening, one at a time, were more of the Eva Series.
Shinji could only register a small portion of all of this. The rest of his mind was focused on trying to maintain his synchronization with Rei and his Eva, trying desperately not to let their sync rate climb too high, or descend too low. It was like holding onto two sets of reigns pulling in opposite directions, and it made it very hard to focus on their immediate situation.
"Come on, Rei," Shinji muttered through his teeth. "Snap out of it!"
She did not respond.
As Unit 01 flew into the shaft, more Eva Series could be seen below them, marching steadily towards the exit, heedless of the two of them flying overhead. As they flew deeper and deeper into the tunnel, a tiny light became visible at the far end.
"Captain!" Shinji said, voice straining. "You seeing this?"
"We are, Shinji," Misato confirmed. "Our ETA to the Black Moon is five minutes. Asuka and Mari are making their way to you as well. Keep us posted until then!"
"Roger…" Shinji said meekly, terrified of what they were going to find back there.
As the light at the end of the tunnel increased in size, their destination nearing, the chamber beyond the tunnel came into view. Shinji had no idea how fast the Eva was flying, but he could not even make out the shapes of the Eva Series below him as they whipped by. And once Unit 01 finally reached the end, his eyes flew open as he finally saw what was hidden within the Black Moon.
The massive chamber was mostly empty, its walls honeycombed with Eva-sized pods. The chamber stretched in either direction for what must have been miles, arching at an angle to correspond with the tilt of the Black Moon on its axis. Shinji could not even see all the way down either end. Each pod on the wall, it seemed, contained another carbon copy of the Mark.06, some of them fully grown, others looking small and shriveled, like unborn children.
Shinji couldn't believe what he was seeing. They had fought their way through countless battles to make it here, and within the Black Moon, there appeared to be even more Eva Series readying for deployment than there were people left on the planet.
What exactly did NERV even need this many Evas for?
The source of the light he had seen seemed to come from everywhere. There was a steady stream of active Eva Series marching from one area along the floor to the tunnel through which they had come. And directly below, haphazardly erected atop a pile of ruined Eva pods, was a platform large enough for the Wunder to land upon with room to spare. At the center of the platform, something caught his eye.
"You getting all this, Captain?" he asked out loud.
Misato's face came back, obscured by static, her voice more garbled noise than anything recognizable.
Shinji mentally cursed. The Black Moon's walls must be blocking their signal somehow.
Shinji froze. "Wh-what? Who said that?"
No one responded. Rei continued to steer them towards the center of the platform, as the small point at its center slowly became close enough to make out.
"Who's there!?" Shinji demanded. The voice had been very familiar. Was he hearing things now? Was the strain of synchronizing affecting him this much? Or was this voice somehow reaching Rei too?
He forgot all about the strange voice he'd heard when the object at the center of the room finally resolved into view, and Shinji's heart leaped into his throat.
He recognized what he was seeing.
Somewhere, deep in the darkest corners of his memory, an image formed in his head of a small house - more of a cottage than anything else - in the suburbs of Japan where he and his parents used to go during the summer. After his mother had died, his father had never taken him there anymore. But when it had been the three of them, he could remember some of the only happy memories from his childhood, memories that he hadn't even known he had anymore.
Seeing the house had triggered the memories, causing them to resurface. For it was the same house he was looking at now. Somehow, it had been recreated, almost brick for brick.
In the middle of the Black Moon.
"What's going on?" he demanded, not even paying attention to the fact that Unit 01 had already touched down. "What is all-?"
His voice caught in his throat as the Eva suddenly powered down, and his connection to the Eva and Rei was suddenly severed. He gasped for breath at the backlash of thought, as his own mind suddenly felt very closed, and he had to hold onto his control yokes in order to remain upright.
Suddenly the lights in the entry plug flicked off as the plug slid out from the back of the Evas neck, LCL draining as the hatch opened up.
"What the-?" Shinji demanded, completely caught off guard.
As he looked up, he just caught the glimpse of a black plug suit as Rei exited the entry plug.
"Rei!" Shinji gasped, scrambling to his feet.
He stumbled as he made his way to the exit. He was unbelievably woozy after synchronizing at that level for so long, and his head was pounding as if he had run headfirst into something. But somehow, he managed to stumble his way out of the entry plug and climb down the drop-down ladder Rei had left on her way down.
"Rei!" he shouted as he clamored his way down the ladder, watching her hurry towards the house. "Wait! Don't go in there!"
Why wasn't she answering any of them?
Shinji nearly fell off the ladder. He knew he heard something that time.
"Who's there, damn it!?" he shouted in anger and frustration.
What in the world was happening? None of this was making any sense! First Rei takes the Eva off on her own, taking him with her against all his wishes, into some massive alien object that he wanted nothing to do with and happens to be full of Eva cloning chambers producing an army of destruction, not to mention an obscure memory ripped out of the deepest recesses of his brain! And now he was hearing voices in his head? What the hell was happening?
Rei had almost reached the inexplicably placed house, and Shinji jumped down off the ladder and dashed after her, his disorientation causing him to stumble several times, before climbing back to his feet with a determined huff.
"Rei…" he stammered, out of breath as he ran towards the cottage, as if in a dream. He had completely lost sight of her. She must have already ventured in through the front door.
He redoubled his speed.
"Come…" the mysterious voice said again.
And finally, Shinji recognized it.
"Kaworu!?" he stammered in disbelief, nearly falling on his face.
A million terrified thoughts raced through his head. It was definitely Kaworu's voice he had heard. But how? Why!? He had watched him die! How could he be hearing his voice now? It didn't make any sense! What in the world was happening!? What in the world was this place!?
He regained his footing and burst through the front door, with no idea what he would possibly find on the other side.
Reality, it seemed, was determined to surprise him yet again.
"Mama…?" came a tiny voice.
Shinji ignored the subconscious urge to take his shoes off at the door, and wandered in past the entryway to look down at the living room floor. It looked just the way he remembered, down to the last stitch of carpeting! If someone had asked him yesterday, he could not have recited a single detail about the place, but somehow he could tell, the house looked exactly like it had in his memories.
And there on the floor was a little boy, perhaps four or five years old, a red and white ball in his hands.
He could vaguely remember sitting on that same floor when he was that age.
He could even remember playing with that same ball.
"Mama?" the little boy said, looking up at him with pure blue eyes.
And as Shinji looked at the child, his mind tried to process what his eyes had already realized.
Because the boy playing on the living room floor…was Shinji Ikari.
To be continued…