Unit 08+02 barreled across the smoldering Geo-Front, stepping over body after body of the fallen Eva Series, their gray-green corpses littering the floor of the Geo-Front, slowly eroding into deep red core material. Overhead, Misato's VTOL craft flew in an escort pattern as they neared the menacing, towering behemoth that was the Black Moon, an overturned monument to humanity's sins.
"We've lost contact with Unit 01!" Misato said in alarm over the comm. "Looking at the last known location. You're going to need a lift, ladies!"
"Sure thing!" Mari nodded. "Just as soon as we clean up these last few stragglers."
Misato looked again, and realized that Unit 08+02 was cutting its way through about eight or ten of the Eva Series. The mass produced Evangelion did not pose much of a threat at the moment, but more were coming. But from where?
"There!" Ritsuko called out, as another Evangelion seemed to fall from the sky. "The Black Moon is still replicating the Eva Series. They're being released from somewhere up there! That's our opening."
As another Eva dropped down from the Black Moon, Misato glanced back down at Unit 08+02, and to her shock, saw that the number of enemies it was fighting had increased, despite the bodies that littered the floor below. They must also be coming from the other indentations along each of the other rims. The Black Moon was producing Evas faster than Asuka and Mari could kill them!
"We don't have time for this, people!" Misato blared. "We need to get up there now!"
"Ma'am!" Hyuga called out from the pilot's seat. "This craft isn't rated for Evangelion lift! Not while we're fully outfitted!"
"Then jettison the weapons and cargo pod!" Misato yelled back. "We're on the clock here!"
Hyuga chewed on his lip, before flipping a row of switches and jamming his thumb into a big red button.
The VTOL lurched as its gun turrets, both its missile bays as well as its rear cargo pod unlatched and fell to the ground below. Now significantly lighter, a long, sturdy cable wheeled down from the ship's base to the battlefield below, where Unit 08+02 was slicing through gray-green Mark.06 mock-ups like there was no tomorrow.
"Asuka! Mari!" Misato shouted as their ship swooped in low. "Grab on!"
Unit 08+02 looked up from the carnage to see the tether sweeping down towards them. The Eva sheathed its sword and took off into a run, following the VTOL's path to get a clear shot, before leaping into the air to grab hold of the cable, using the hook at the end to create a loop to use as a foothold.
"We're on!" Asuka shouted. "Go! Go!"
Slowly the VTOL elevated again, carrying Unit 08+02 along with it on a tow cable as the mass of Eva Series chased after them from behind. The VTOL pulled away from the pursuing Evas, but then banked sharply to the left to avoid another falling Eva that had somehow managed to control their fall enough to target them, and lashed out at Unit 08+02 as it fell past them.
"Incoming!" Misato hollered.
"Whoa!" Mari shouted as she swung their Eva nimbly out of the way. "These guys really don't let up!"
"Just how many more Evas are there?" Asuka growled. "Is this thing going to just keep churning them out until the world ends?"
"That's the general idea," Ritsuko said.
"All the more reason for us to shut this thing down," Misato said bitterly.
"And how are we going to manage that?" Mari demanded.
"That's exactly what we need to find out," Misato said grimly, pursing her lips. "The mission parameters of Operation Kanazuchi will change accordingly."
Both pilots nodded and looked up at the black wall that was the toppled obelisk of the Black Moon, the sky above still a smoke-covered black morass of brimstone. Overhead, though they were too close to make out the shape, the surface domed inward, contouring towards an opening that appeared as the merest pinprick on the indistinct black surface. As the wall went from an overhang to a flat vertical wall and abruptly began to slope into an incline, many more Evas could be seen sliding down the polished onyx of the wall.
"Entrance in sight," Hyuga announced, dodging bullet fire from the Eva Series as they descended down the slope.
Slowly, the tiny dot off in the distance became larger and larger as they neared it, until it utterly dwarfed their helicopter sized craft, and almost seemed to swallow them up.
"The size of this egress hatch suggests something larger at one point could fit through," Ritsuko mused absently as the VTOL flew through the passageway, amidst a swarm of Eva Series below. "Could the Angels have physically manifested from within this machine?"
Misato shuddered. "I don't even want to think about it."
One of the Evas below must have noticed them, for they began shooting up at them. Hyuga skillfully dodged the fire, but the sound of the shots drew the attention of the rest of the platoon. Soon, the entire floor of marching Evas was letting loose a hail of bullet fire up at them, and unlike the Wunder, the VTOL had no AT Field to protect it, and for the moment had no weapons with which to even return fire. The airship dodged and weaved to avoid taking fire, but the resulting maneuvers caused Unit 08+02 to swing precariously on their tow cable.
"Getting a little turbulent down here!" Mari called up, a worried expression on her face.
"Oh, don't be such a baby!" Asuka shot back.
Mari was about to respond, when a lucky bullet managed to clip their tow cable. The taught wire was already weighed down to its limit, so the tiny nick was more than to cause the entire line to snap, sending Unit 08+02 tumbling to the ground.
"Whoa!" Asuka and Mari both shouted, flailing precariously as they struggled to right themselves in mid-air.
"Asuka!" Misato called back. "Mari!"
The two girls quickly recovered in the air, and landed on their feet on the floor of the Black Moon passage with their hand on their sword, surrounded by surprised looking Evangelions.
"Turn us around!" Misato ordered as the VTOL proceeded onward down the passage.
"No wait!" Mari shouted. "Don't stop, Captain! Every moment we linger here, we risk losing Unit 01!"
"Yeah, just keep going!" Asuka hollered in agreement as the Evas turned their attention on them. "We'll catch up!"
"They're right, Misato," Ritsuko said. "We have no time to waste!"
Misato furrowed her brow as she looked back at Unit 08+02 amidst a sea of Evangelions.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Positive!" Mari called back. "We'll keep them occupied here!"
Hyuga nodded. "Enemy fire has ceased, Ma'am! We're clear to proceed!"
Misato gritted her teeth as she peered out the cockpit window. It was true - with Unit 08+02 keeping the Eva Series occupied, the path ahead lay clear of enemy fire. They were unarmed and poorly armored, and unburdened by weapons or an Eva, the VTOL could fly at its top speed. But she was loathe to leave the two girls behind. On the ground, the Evas were being produced faster than they could even handle them. Here in the heart of the Eva Series generator, how many more would they have to deal with?
"You two better stay alive," Misato said in a somber tone. "Fall back if it gets too hairy."
Mari and Asuka both wore the same grin.
"Small chance of that!" Mari laughed.
"Yeah, come on Captain!" Asuka crowed. "Who the hell do you think we are?"
Misato nodded, a hopeful smile on her face. "Good luck then."
Mari and Asuka exchanged a knowing glance, before nodding to each other. This time, they had no one they had to worry about protecting. This time, it was just them and the enemy. This time, it was just a good old fashioned bloodshed.
The VTOL pulled away, leaving the two girls to face down what must have been at least a thousand Evas standing between them and the end of the tunnel. The Eva Series surrounded Unit 08+02, like a pack of wolves surrounding a tender piece of meat.
Unfortunately for these wolves, they had inadvertently decided to wake a sleeping tiger.
"Mode change!" they both said in unison. "Code Triple Seven!"
Shinji gazed down at the tiny doppelganger, eyes wide and jaw hanging in disbelief.
It was him! He was looking at a younger version of himself! He was wearing a light blue tee-shirt and dark blue shorts, just like he had worn at that age, and looked for all the world like a little boy, just playing with his toys!
"Mama?" the young boy called again, evidently afraid of the stranger and looking around for a familiar face.
Shinji felt his mouth going dry, unable to utter so much as a sound.
This was impossible! This whole place was impossible! Summer cottages, disembodied voices, and now a miniature clone of himself!? He must have been dreaming! Or maybe he had inadvertently caused Fifth Impact! Or he had just gone crazy! Somethingmust have gone completely wrong somewhere down the line for this to be happening!
Then a light pair of footsteps caught his attention, and he turned to see a ghost from his past step out of the kitchen.
"Shinji?" a female voice called out. "What's the matter, sweetheart? Did you lose your…?"
She stopped talking when she saw Shinji standing in the entryway, pausing in her step to stare at the boy, puzzled.
Shinji's knees began to shake as he laid eyes on the figure before him.
It was impossible.
This had to be a dream! It had to!
Because standing there in an apron and a long, thin yellow dress was his mother.
"Um…" she blinked, looking someone confused. "Can I help you?"
Shinji took a step back, leaning back against the wall. His knees finally gave out, and he slid down to the floor. He was completely frozen in shock, his eyes wide and his mouth dry. He couldn't have said anything even if he wanted to, he was so completely stunned.
Yui took a breath, looking more and more concerned. Despite how quickly Shinji had identified the young boy, she herself did not seem to recognize the older boy. She slowly turned her head slightly to one side, keeping her eyes on him.
"Honey?" she called out with a rising note of uneasiness in her voice, her call obviously meant for someone else in the house. "Could you come down here?"
The soft sound of creaking floorboards upstairs caught Shinji's attention as a heavy set of footsteps came down the stairwell opposite the kitchen. Dark leather shoes and black pants came into view, following by a black NERV jacket, a black and red visor and a very familiar black beard.
Shinji tried swallowing but his throat had gone completely dry.
"…F…f…father…?" he wheezed through a clenched throat, actually somewhat relieved to see something he recognized as being from this world.
Gendo Ikari reached the bottom of the stairs, before smiling.
"We have a guest, dear," he said in a disarmingly calm voice, addressing the woman. "Why don't you put on some tea?"
Yui - or at least, whoever this creature was who looked like Yui - gave Shinji one last suspicious look, before hurrying over to scoop up the little Shinji clone in her arms and taking him into the kitchen.
"Shinji," the Commander said, nodding to the boy sitting against the wall. "I had hoped to be a little farther along in my work before showing this to you."
Shinji stared at his father with a renewed sense of horror. He had just begun to accept what had happened to his mother, how her soul had become lost within Unit 01, how his father had spliced her DNA with that of an Angel to create the Ayanami Types. That much, he knew, even if he didn't understand most of it.
"Father…" he stammered, trying desperately to moisten his lips in order to speak. "Wh…wh…what…what's going on? Wh-who was that!? What the hell is going on here!?"
Gendo Ikari remained perfectly calm, his expression unreadable behind his visor.
"I suppose there is no harm in telling you," he said simply. "It is likely you would have found out eventually."
Shinji just continued to stare at him as he clasped his hands behind his back, stepping over to a window opposite the entryway, gazing out of it at the…greenery?
Only then did Shinji realize that by some twist of logic, the windows looked out not onto the gruesome scene of Eva cloning vats out there within the Black Moon, but a peaceful image of a summer afternoon in the Japanese suburbs, with blue skies and white clouds.
Shinji was so shaken by the rest of the day's events that he wasn't even phased by it.
"It is good that you came here, Shinji," he began. "With WILLE's involvement, acquiring Unit 01 was proving to be a difficult task. The Dummy Plugs are notoriously difficult to control. They can only comprehend the most basic commands. Advance, attack, hold position, retreat…capturing a target without killing it is well beyond their scope."
Gendo turned to fix Shinji with an accusatory stare that he felt even through the visor.
"Of course, you had to run off with our most advanced model," he said, his tone somewhat disappointed. "All the years of time and effort put into her, and she simply follows you home like a lost puppy. I suppose it was not an unexpected outcome, but it was a decidedly unfavorable one."
Rei, he realized. He was talking about Rei.
"Such actions would normally not go without consequence," he went on. "However, since you were kind enough to bring both her and Unit 01 quite literally to my front door, I suppose I can offer some leniency."
Shinji was shaking with too many emotions to keep track of. He was still sitting on the floor with his back to the wall, staring up at his father as though he were some kind of demon.
"She has evolved a great deal since then," Gendo remarked, as if he were discussing little more than how well she was doing in school. "I never would have imagined that she might have progressed this far in such a short amount of time. I suppose I have you and your new friends to thank for that."
The old man pursed his lips as Shinji stared up at him in stunned silence.
"It was postulated that Unit 01 could be used for such a purpose," he went on. "Though it would have been difficult without the Angel of Birth to act as an incubator. If I had the luxury of time and resources, I would have moderated her conjoinings to a more reasonable time-frame, but there is only so much you can do when your enemies hold both the mortar and the pestle of your craft. I can only hope the experience was not overly traumatizing."
Shinji was trembling uncontrollably now. The Eva Series had not just been after Unit 01 - they had been practically serving themselves up on a silver platter! And the Wunder had been more than happy to gorge on them and feed them to the nursing child in its womb, like a mother bird giving food from its own craw! His father had been deliberately encouraging Rei's evolution! Had his father known from the beginning that Unit 01 would be placed inside the Wunder? Had he allowed WILLE to discover the Wunder for just that purpose?
His mother's doppleganger finally returned from the kitchen, carrying a tea tray out to the small table in the living room where they were sitting. She began laying out items onto the table, silently ignoring the two other people in the room. The little Shinji clone was nowhere to be seen.
When she was finished, Yui bowed politely in a very Japanese fashion, before leaving the room.
All the while, Shinji watched her with a kind of morbid fascination one would feel when the ghost of their dead mother casually goes about her daily routine right before their eyes.
"You may sit, Shinji," Gendo said, going over to the table to help himself to a cup of tea. "Unless you prefer the floor."
Shinji was still trembling, but he managed to swallow and find his voice.
"Wh…where's Rei?" he demanded.
There were too many questions in his head to get out at once. Why were his mother and a tiny version of himself running around in an exact replica of a house that had almost certainly been destroyed fourteen years ago along with the rest of the world? He wasn't sure if he even wanted to know the answer to all of that, so he asked the question that remained at the forefront of his thoughts despite it all.
"She is safe," Shinji's father assured him. "There will be time for her later. For the moment, it seems I have additional guests to entertain."
Shinji whipped his head around just in time to see the front door burst open to reveal Misato, Ritsuko and Sakura, all of them armed to the teeth, the VTOL craft just visible near Unit 01 off in the distance, Hyuga and Shigeru evidently remaining behind to guard it. It seemed whatever illusion that provided the scenery through the windows did not extend to the door.
"Freeze!" Misato yelled, pointing her gun right at the Commander.
The Commander's response was simply to lift his teacup towards them.
"Captain," he said by way of greeting. "Doctor. So nice of you to join us."
"Last chance, asshole!" Misato growled, lining up her weapon sights. "Hands where I can see them!"
Gendo simply sipped at his tea, paying them no more mind than he would pay a dog barking at the mailman.
"Won't you have a seat?" he offered the three of them.
Misato made a face that looked like she wanted to spit. She aimed her gun at the Commander's kneecaps and squeezed the trigger.
Her eyes went wide. Had her gun jammed?
"Lieutenant!" she barked quickly back at Sakura. "Open fire!"
Sakura's eyes went wide, but she quickly trained her gun on Gendo Ikari's legs and squeezed the trigger, albeit closing her eyes in the process.
Another CLICK, and again the gun did not fire.
"If you're quite finished," he said with more than a hint of smugness in his voice, "I would be honored if you would join us."
Misato and Sakura were both checking their weapons. Ritsuko, meanwhile, simply took a step forward, her gun lowered.
"Commander," she said simply. "What exactly is this place?"
Gendo nodded at her. "Doctor…I think I preferred you with longer hair."
Ritsuko wrinkled her nose. "I'll take that under advisement. Now where exactly are we?"
The man gestured to the house around them. "This domicile is little more than a facade created to facilitate a productive working environment. As for the monolith in which we all find ourselves, it is no less than the house of God."
Ritsuko resisted the urge to roll her eyes with an effort. "Must you rely on such grandiose terminology, Commander?"
She un-holstered her weapon and eyed her magazine clip
Empty. Odd, but not inexplicable.
"I am not so easily impressed by parlor tricks," she said simply. "I am a scientist. I only believe what I can see with my own two eyes."
Sakura gave up on trying to fix her weapon, and knelt down by Shinji's trembling form and began performing a quick field examination.
"Shinji…" she breathed, hurriedly, as she felt his pulse. "Can you hear me?"
Shinji made no reply as Sakura checked his vitals. Stable, though his heart rate was elevated and his skin was clammy.
The Commander, meanwhile, did not seem inclined to respond to the Doctor's implied accusation. He instead appeared to merely be waiting for something.
All heads suddenly jerked up - and in Misato's case, her gun as well - in the direction of the noise.
Yui Ikari was standing in the kitchen doorway, a terrified look on her face. At her feet, a tray full of tea-things lay shattered, hot tea and broken china littering the floor. She appeared to be little more than a housewife seeing her home being broken into by a group of armed intruders.
Misato struggled to identify the woman, but Ritsuko blurted the name out immediately.
"Yui Ikari!?" she gasped, eyes wide with shock.
Misato stared dumbfounded at the woman. "Holy shit…you mean he actually did it?"
At their words, Sakura glanced between her and Shinji, to find his eyes fixated on the woman as well. The look in his eyes gave her all she needed. She of course knew the stories of the Commander of NERV attempting to clone his dead wife. Almost everyone at WILLE knew about that. But to see the results in the flesh - and for the look on the Commander's son to be confirming it - utterly shocked her.
Had it worked? Had he actually brought her back to life?
Could the same be done for Toji?
The woman in the doorway seemed to be getting more and more agitated, until finally she let out a scream of terror before fleeing back into the kitchen.
"Wait!" Shinji cried, his instincts taking over as he pried himself free from Sakura's arms and rushing into the kitchen after the clone of his mother.
"Shinji!" Sakura blurted, hesitating to run after him.
Misato stood poised, glancing between the kitchen and Ritsuko. The Doctor was still staring in stunned silence, and Misato was loathe to leave her in a room with a madman while their weapons were proving defective.
So she turned to Sakura.
"Lieutenant!" she barked. "Stay with him! And make sure neither of them do anything to endanger the mission!"
Sakura, who had remained standing where she was, trying to decided whether or not to abandon her post, promptly nodded and took off after Shinji.
Misato turned back to Ritsuko.
"Doctor!" she shouted, trying to get her attention. "Are you still with me?"
Ritsuko inhaled sharply, as if suddenly realizing where she was, before turning a deadly glare towards the Commander.
"What did you do!?" she demanded slowly, enunciating each syllable in a low tone.
"Ever the curious scientist, Doctor," Gendo remarked, finishing off his tea and getting to his feet. "Shall I show you?"
He began to slowly make his way towards the kitchen, Misato's gun trained on him the entire way.
"There is no need for that, Captain," he said, simply. "Your weapons will be of no use to you here."
Misato sneered and charged him, raising the butt of her rifle to strike at him.
As her gun came down, there was a sudden flash of light as an AT Field immediately filled the room, appearing between her and the Commander where the stock of her gun had struck, throwing her back to impact roughly against the far wall.
"Captain!" Ritsuko shouted, quickly rushing over to Misato's side while the AT Field filling the room shimmered and slowly vanished.
"Still only believe what you can see with your eyes, Doctor?" the Commander said haughtily. "Shall I give you an even closer look?"
He made his way into the kitchen.
Ritsuko chewed her lip as she watched him go, her curiosity getting the better of her. After she was satisfied that Misato was in no danger, she quickly followed after him.
She found Yui's clone kneeling on the kitchen floor, her face in her hands, whimpering in fear as Shinji's infant clone tugged insistently at her sleeve.
"Momma…" he murmured in a worried tone. "Momma…"
Off to the side stood the Commander of NERV, who seemed to content merely to watch the events unfold. And before the two of them stood Shinji, who seemed unable to decide whether to go to them or to run away. Standing at his side, with a protective arm around his shoulder, was Second Lieutenant Suzuhara, the two of them watching the scene play out before them.
Then, without warning, Yui's form began to gradually dissolve into what appeared to be LCL.
"What the-!?" Sakura gasped as she and Shinji recoiled in shock.
"Momma!" little Shinji shouted fearfully. "Momma!"
The translucent form of Yui Ikari was still crying, the sound escaping from her lips a haunting, wailing moan that sounded more alien than human now. Her body began to lose definition as every part of her turned into LCL. Eventually, both her shape and sound dissolved beyond all recognition, drenching the toddler at her side in orange goo, the rest pooling onto the kitchen floor.
"What the hell!?" Ritsuko gasped, completely oblivious to Misato, who had regained her senses and just stormed into the kitchen with her gun ready, and was similarly gawking in a stunned silence.
Shinji and Sakura were frozen, utterly petrified.
"Another failure," Gendo's voice surprised everyone as he stepped forward to inspect the remains, the young boy still drenched in the LCL that used to be his mother, crying in terror. "I had hoped this one might last just a little while longer. It seems that acute stress tends to destabilize the integrity of their AT Field, causing their ego border to collapse, and their body to devolve back into primordial soup."
He turned his eyes back to the cowering Shinji.
"Now that I have the originals, however, this should no longer be a problem."
Misato and Ritsuko both narrowed their eyes in undisguised rage. Just how many times has he brought this poor woman back to life?
"What the hell was that, Commander!?" Misato demanded. "What in God's name are you doing here!?"
"An apt choice of words," Gendo sighed. "I should think the results would speak for themselves."
"This is madness, Commander," Ritsuko seethed. "You're playing with life itself here! This goes beyond anything humanity should be tampering with!"
"So say all those who lack enlightenment," Gendo responded dismissively as he reached down to scoop up a handful of orange goop, letting it stain his pristine white gloves as it dripped to the floor. "Do you see this? It permeates the very soil of this planet. It is all that remains of humanity before Third Impact. This elementary substance is the very essence of life on this miserable planet. It has the potential to recreate the world as we know it. All it lacks is the structure around which to form. And all this potential is simply lying out there, stagnant and waiting to be molded."
"By whom!?" Misato demanded. "You!? This is our entire species you're talking about, you bastard! Every man, woman and child who ever lived! What gives you the right!?"
"If not I then who else?" he asked, simply. "You, Captain? You, Doctor? Who else has it within their grasp to do what is necessary to rebuild humanity?"
"You would mold humanity like clay!" Ritsuko gasped, as if she was only herself realizing the scope of the man's aspirations. "You would rebuild mankind in your own image! Sir, this is lunacy!"
"If not I then who else!?" he repeated his demand, anger creeping into his voice. "Some elected official? Another super-computer like the MAGI? Those buffoons on the board of SEELE? Those children you continue to use as your blunt instruments!? Whose hands would you place the fate of humanity into, Doctor!? I see before me the chance to restore mankind to its former glory! How am I not to take it!?"
Misato shook her head in refusal. "This is wrong. This absolutely wrong. There is no way in hell that we can let you do this!"
"It has already begun, Captain," Gendo said, looking down at the crying boy kneeling at his feet. "Nothing that happens here will change what is about to come. Now that you've delivered the last pieces to me, I am free to move as I see fit. My army will span the entire globe, cleansing the last remains of the old. I shall usher in a new era of mankind. A new canvas. A fresh start. No more of the hypocrisy and misery that we have saddled ourselves with."
He walked over to the crying boy, placing a gloved hand on his head.
"A world in which I can fix all that I have broken…" he breathed, sounding almost remorseful. "A world in which I may try again…"
The boy continued to cry, heedless of the man's touch.
"That's just selfish!" Ritsuko shouted. "You think you have the right to rewrite the entire human race just because you messed up the first time through!? The world doesn't work like that!"
"I think you will find, at this point in time, that it does, Doctor," he said. "And I have more than the right; I have the responsibility. If I do nothing…the entire planet will remain as it is: a barren wasteland, its potency forever untapped in a state of unending stagnation, its inhabitants existing as no more than so much genetic sludge."
As if to illustrate his point, the crying toddler began to dissolve as well, his own distress causing his AT Field to collapse, and his physical body to break down until he was little more than a dark orange pool of LCL, mingling indistinguishably with that of his mother's.
The real Shinji fell to his knees, dropping down into the LCL pooling around them, his eyes empty shells of white. The sound of his own younger self's mutated crying voice rekindled the dust of ancient sorrows in his memory, compounding his stupor and rendering him nearly catatonic. Sakura descended to one knee with him, her arms still around his shoulders, though whether she was trying to hold him steady or use him to steady herself, she was not sure.
Misato inhaled slowly, the hair on her neck standing on end.
"You're a monster…" she breathed.
Gendo shook his head.
"No, Captain," he said. "I am human. That is monster enough."
The ground suddenly shook, the cabinets and flatware around the kitchen rattled from the shock. All eyes turned around to see the image projected by the windows flickering, as if by static affecting a television screen. The peaceful image of rural Japan outside the windows eventually gave out to reveal the innards of the God machine they stood within, its walls lined with Eva cloning vats, as well as the WILLE VTOL parked outside, and kneeling above it, the form of Unit 01 a short distance away.
And standing behind it, drenched in blood, was the bestial, animalistic figure of Unit 08+02.
"Asuka!" Misato shouted in surprise. "Mari!"
She ran to the window to peer outside as the red and pink bio-mech (now mostly just red) hunched over them, its newly acquired cat-like tail swishing back and forth, as if evaluating the scene before them.
"Hyuga!" Misato barked into her radio. "Patch me through to the pilots of Unit 08+02! Now!"
"Aye-aye, ma'am!" came the technician's voice over the radio, still waiting in the VTOL.
Ritsuko threw the Commander a suspicious look. He did not seem as concerned by the Evas arrival as he should have been.
"You neutralized our guns with relative ease," she observed, before gesturing to Unit 08+02. "Can whatever power you've obtained contend with this?"
Gendo's eyes were still hidden behind his visor. But the slight curve at the corner of his mouth told Ritsuko all she needed to know.
"Captain!" Ritsuko shouted. "Tell them to move!"
"What!?" Misato demanded.
Neither Asuka or Mari were able to get a word out before they were suddenly struck from behind. The giant bio-weapon suddenly lost power and fell to its knees as the Lance of Cassius protruded from its chest, embedding the tip of the lance into the surface of the platform upon which they stood.
"No!" Misato cried in alarm, far too late to do anything to help.
Unit 08+02 slumped over onto the lance as it stood tip first in the ground before it.
And standing behind the bi-chromatic Eva, a small halo of light over its head, was Unit 13.
As the LCL pooled around Shinji's senseless form, his mind found itself adrift in a sea of thought, far away from everything, someplace deep within his subconscious, where it could keep itself safe.
But even here, his mind could not find peace.
"Shinji…" a familiar voice called out to him.
He was surrounded by a pool of blackness, the kind you see when you close your eyes, where images dance within your head, just beyond the reach of your conscious mind.
"Shinji…" the voice repeated.
He was curled up into a ball, shivering and shaking, refusing to stir.
"Shinji…" the voice insisted.
"Just go away…" he muttered, tears in his eyes. "Leave me alone!"
Standing over the boy as he sat with his head pressed against his knees was Kaworu Nagisa, wearing a white tee shirt and black pants, and that same devil may care smile he always used to.
"Shinji…" he said, laying a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. "I am so sorry…"
The boy only continued to sob.
"It's too much…" he moaned. "It's just too much! How am I supposed to deal with this?!"
"You're not, Shinji," Kaworu said simply. "Everything about this situation has been delivered with every intention to break your resolve, to make you give in."
Shinji looked up as Kaworu gently wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a tight embrace.
"Even my very existence here was allowed for the sole purpose of giving you a way out," he said, sadly.
Shinji was still shaking. "What do you mean?"
The gray haired boy smiled sadly at him. "I am here to offer you an escape, Shinji. Your father has secluded himself within the memories of his past, within a happier time where he could simply live with his family, and be untroubled by the concerns that have plagued him since then. Now that you are here, Shinji, you may choose to do the same. Already, the LCL flowing through the machinery of the God machine has begun to answer your voiceless pleas, and I was created as a result."
Kaworu wrapped both hands around the back of Shinji's head, lifting his eyes up to meet his own.
"That is what the Black Moon is, Shinji," he said simply. "It is a machine capable of turning raw human will into reality through the use of the primordial essence of life itself. Originally, it was sent here to create the first forms of life on his planet. But it has laid dormant for all of Lilin existence…until now."
Shinji looked into Kaworu's eyes. He looked so real, so absolutely there. He knew he had heard his voice calling to him, but he hadn't been able to believe it. He wasn't sure he even believed it now. How could he be sure this wasn't some dream anymore?
"Your father has tapped into this machine using the Key of Nebuchadnezzar, and has used it to create this fantasy of a long forgotten time when his life was simpler, and he could be happy once again," Kaworu went on. "As long as he controls the Black Moon, he controls the very reality around him. And with Unit 01 in his hands, he now has all he needs to bring back the one who truly mattered to him. Now, there is nothing stopping him from unleashing the full force of the Black Moon onto the world. After the Eva Series reverts the last remnants of humanity into core material, he will be able to bend the combined life essence of the entire planet to his will."
Kaworu's grip tightened, urgently.
"But there is still time to put a stop to this," he breathed "That is, if you choose to do so."
Shinji looked more confused then ever.
"What are you talking about?"
Kaworu pulled away from him spreading out his arms.
"There are two paths before you, Shinji," he explained simply. "There is the path that I am here to offer, the simple and easy path, the one where you spend the rest of your life in an illusory world of your father's making. It is within such a world that I myself may yet draw breath. We may live in this new world together, with all of the friends and family you wish, in any utopia your heart desires. And all for no greater purpose than because you wish it to be so."
Shinji's eyes widened as the possibility Kaworu offered him. He had just seen his mother walking about the house, healthy and whole. Could it be possible that the same could be done for Kaworu?
His mind suddenly filled with a vision of a simple life. Living in a normal house with normal parents. A redheaded girl next door who would wake him for school. A strange blue haired girl who just transferred to their class. A foxy school teacher, a normal pair of goofball friends, and a gray haired boy at the back of the class who would hum Beethoven to himself all day long.
"But this will not change the fact that I am dead, Shinji," he said, closing his eyes. "Even I am but a copy of the real Kaworu Nagisa, conjured by your own wishes, given form only in the garden of your mind by the mercy of the LCL around your natural body."
Shinji's heart sank as Kaworu continued.
"The same will hold true for anyone else for whom you care about in this world," he explained. "Your mother. The First and Second Children. Your friends at WILLE. Everyone left on this Earth whom you have ever known and loved. Even if your own heart's desire was to be with them, you will never again see anything but the shells of what they truly were. They will all be converted into LCL, each of them ensconced within a fantasy of their own, their essence used to power the illusion itself. As will your own."
Shinji's face contorted in dismay.
That was not the way.
"What's the second choice?" he asked, fearing that he already knew the answer.
Kaworu's face was calm and resolute.
"You fight on, Shinji," he said simply. "You reject your father's world and you forge a path of your own within this one."
Shinji hung his head.
"How?" he breathed, desperately. "My father holds all the power here! Rei's gone missing, and may have already lost herself to the Dummy Plugs! For all I know, I'm already trapped in my father's illusionary world! How am I suppose to fight anymore? I feel so helpless!"
"You were able to wrest control of the Beast through your desire to live in this world, here and now," Kaworu pointed out. "Was this a lie, Shinji? For a promise to mean anything, you must commit to it. You cannot have faith in this world one minute, only to give up on it in the next."
He took a step forward, placing his hands on Shinji's shoulder, smiling in earnest.
"Either you wish to live in this world, or you do not, Shinji," he said, somberly. "You must decide once and for all. This world contains both good and bad, both pleasure and pain, both love and hatred. Sometimes bad can obstruct the good. Sometimes pain can mask the pleasure. And sometimes hatred can darken the love. But it is this dichotomy that makes your power to choose so important. If you would prefer a world where youtr happiness were simply handed to you without a struggle, you may choose your father's path. But for this world you mean anything, Shinji, you must choose to reach for these ideals in spite of the obstacles in your path."
Kaworu took Shinji's face in his hands, resting his forehead against his own.
"No one will do this for you, Shinji," he sighed. "You must do so of your own free will."
Shinji began to cry as he leaned against his old friend.
"If I choose this world…will I ever see you again?" he asked, his broken heart already knowing the answer.
"No Shinji," he breathed silently. "I made a promise. And I intend to keep it. Your happiness is worth the price of my life."
He placed a delicate kiss on his forehead.
"I would die a thousand times more in a thousand other worlds, if only I could make you happy in at least one of them," he sighed. "If your father's illusory world is what makes you happy, Shinji, then I would gladly spend my existence as a phantom in the garden of your mind."
He cracked a wry smile.
"But something tells me you need more than that…"
He waved his hand, and slowly, the blackness around them gave way to the image of a pale young girl in a black plug suit, standing with her arms wrapped around herself.
"Rei!" Shinji blurted.
Kaworu nodded, and gestured upward, as a statuesque form of Unit 08+02 towered over them.
"Asuka!" Shinji cried when he saw what was happening.
Kaworu nodded. "I was given form to deliver you from your troubles, Shinji. But the reason you conjured me here isn't because you believe that Kaworu Nagisa will keep you safe. It is because you admired him, looked up to him, perhaps even loved him. You saw in him the qualities you wished that you yourself possessed, and so you summoned me here, not to shield you, but to guide you towards the path you already know to be the righteous one. I would not be able to even tell you this if you didn't already know it somewhere deep within your heart."
He held his arms out again.
"Right now, your friends need your help, Shinji," he smiled. "They too are fighting for this world they live in. But so long as this Black Moon exists, the lilin will never be free."
Shinji set his jaw, squeezing his hand into a fist.
"How do I stop it?" he asked.
"I do not posses any answers that you do not already have, Shinji," Kaworu sighed. "The Black Moon is a font of substance, not knowledge. It creates only what it is told to create. But when the time comes, you will know what you have to do."
He smiled at him.
"Just as you know now what you must do."
Shinji nodded and pulled away.
"Thank you, Kaworu," he said somberly, turning to look the other way. "I've made my choice."
He glanced back, offering a sad smile.
"I promise…I will never forget you."
Kaworu simply smiled as Shinji turned and ran in the other direction.
And he never looked back.
Asuka jammed her control yokes in the dark entry plug, illuminated only by red LED emergency lights. They had cut their way through no less than a thousand of the Eva Series, and had arrived triumphant at the goal post, only, it seemed, to choke at the home stretch. Aside from the stillness indicated that they had not moved since shutting down, there was no way for them to know what was happening outside.
Which made it all the worse for Asuka.
"Move!" she screamed. "Move! Move! Come on, move!"
Mari bit her lip as she looked up at her, helplessly. Like Asuka, she too was still riding the adrenaline fueled high that the inverted battle mode of the Evangelion. Suddenly hitting the emotional wall of complete deactivation was jarring enough, but to do so while mentally attached to someone else experiencing the exact same thing, was staggering.
"It's no good, Princess," she sighed, shivering in shared emotion. "We've completely shut down."
"No!" Asuka growled, her eye-patch glowing blue. "I am not letting them win! Not when we're this close!"
"That was the Lance of Cassius just now," Mari shrugged. "The real one, not some fake. There's no way we're getting up from that."
Asuka didn't respond. She just kept jamming her control yokes forward, urging her Eva to restart.
"Asuka…" Mari shook her head.
"No!" Asuka seethed. "Fuck that! Fuck them! And fuck you! I have had it! I am sick of being a pawn in their stupid game! I am sick of being two inches from my goal, only to have it yanked out of my reach!"
She turned her eyes skyward, despite there being nothing above her but the ceiling of the entry plug.
"You hear me!?" she demanded, as if challenging God himself. "I am not going to go down like this! I am not some puppet for you to play with! I am Asuka Langley Shikinami! And I am not going to take this anymore!"
In a fit of rage, she grabbed the eye-patch from her face and yanked it off completely.
"Asuka!" Mari shouted in alarm.
Asuka's left eye glowed a vibrant blue as she glared up at the sky. She opened her mouth to let out another scream, which came out more like a bloodthirsty roar.
Mari shuddered as the entire entry plug shook from the sound, until she realized that the sound had come from their own Evas mouth.
Then to her astonishment, the Evas systems powered back on.
"What the hell…?" she breathed in absolute stupefaction.
Before she knew it, their external monitors had powered back on, and they were staring at the ground beneath the Evas feet. It's red and pink arms were wrapped around the haft of the Lance of Cassius in its belly, slowly pulling it forward and sliding it out of their body.
"What's happening!?" Mari cried, watching in terror as their Eva slowly pulled the Lance out of the front of its body, got to its feet and turned to face the four-eyed Eva that stood before them, a challenging glare on its face.
Above her, Asuka continued to rage, her eye glowing blue, as the Angelic contamination reached into her Eva through her mind, channeling her anger into pure energy, energy enough to jump-start their S2 engine and override the Lance of Cassius itself. Angel alone would have never been enough. Eva alone with a Dummy Plug could not either. But a human will, here inside the Black Moon, where will was channeled into reality, with the power of an Angel and inside an Evangelion had somehow managed to do the impossible.
And there was no way it would not come at a cost.
"Asuka!" Mari shouted. "You have to put the eye-patch back on!"
Asuka did not respond, her face contorted in rage and hatred as her bright blue eyes fell on her target.
Both Asuka and Unit 08+02 let out a ferocious roar, and Mari felt a sudden jab of pain explode inside of her skull as she clutched her own left eye.
Their connection! The two of them were still linked! Asuka was going to kill herself, and she was going to take Mari with her!
"Asuka!" Mari screamed in fear.
The redhead gritted her teeth, before thrusting forward on her control yokes.
With that, Unit 08+02 hunched over and charged.
The house's occupants watched in confusion and terror as Unit 02-08 came back to life and turned to face Unit 13. It's red half began to glow a vibrant, fiery blue, its eye bursting into blue flame. It let out an inhuman roar, its cat-like tail swishing back and forth, before it lunged at the four-eyed bio-mech, sending the two of them sprawling over the ledge of the platform and down the pile of broken Eva cloning vats below.
"Oh God…" Misato breathed, her pupils narrowing to hollow points, her mind already reaching the conclusion without even knowing it. "Asuka…"
"That's…that's impossible…" Commander Ikari breathed in disbelief. "In no scenario was this ever a possibility!"
No one thought to correct him as they all watched the two behemoths fight for dominance off in the distance, as Misato tried futilely to hail the pilots over her radio. The ground shook and the house continued to rumble as the two titans clashed.
The only one who had not joined the others by the window was Sakura, who knelt on the floor, heedless of the LCL spread out over the linoleum, with Shinji's head in her lap as he lay unconscious. In all the commotion, no one noticed the boy's eyes flicker open as his hand come up to touch Sakura by the arm.
She looked down at him with a start, and was about to ask if he was alright, when she saw his finger come to his lips.
He shook his head slowly, giving her a knowing look.
Sakura nodded slowly in return, understanding.
Slowly and silently, she helped him to his feet, though the others paid them no heed, distracted by the battle. The two of them tiptoed out the kitchen behind everyone's back as they stared transfixed as the battle outside left a trail of destruction across the interior of the Black Moon, knocking down Eva cloning vats that spilled out LCL and half-formed copies of the Mark.06.
Shinji looked around the living room until his eyes fell on the stairs. Glancing back at Sakura, he motioned downward with the flat of his hands, mouthing the words 'wait here.'
Sakura wrinkled her nose, evidently not pleased with being told what to do. But after following Shinji's gaze back at the others, she finally sighed and put her hands on Shinji's shoulders as she leaned in close to whisper into his ear.
"I'll stall them for as long as I can, but…whatever you're doing, please hurry!" she breathed.
"I will," he voiced back.
Then she placed a kiss on his cheek.
"Stay safe," she whispered.
She pulled away, leaving butterflies in Shinji's stomach, but he nodded gratefully and turned to climb up the stairs.
The house continued to rumble from the fighting outside, making it easy to remain relatively silent. As he made his way up to the second floor, he tried not to think about the danger that Asuka and Mari must be in. In order to help them, he needed Unit 01, and in order to operate Unit 01, he needed Rei. All other concerns came second.
Once at the top of the stairs, he peered around at all the doors he found. Drawing from his memories, there was one room - most likely a private study - that his father had never allowed him to enter as a child. It made sense to check this room first.
He pushed open the door and found that his suspicions seemed to pay off, though his discovery lead to yet another conundrum.
There in the room were not one, not two, but five Rei Ayanami's, each of a varying age, most of them appearing to be younger than twelve. He was able to pick out his Rei from the crowd rather quickly from her distinctive black hair coloration and black plug suit, but there was one other Rei Ayanami of a similar age with familiar blue hair and even a Tokyo-3 autumn school uniform, standing between him and the girl he sought.
And she did not look pleased.
"You should not be here…" she said simply as she approached him.
Shinji took a step back, the hairs on the back of his neck rising as he subconsciously registered the implied threat of the girl's approach. In the space of an instant, he deduced three things.
One: that the Rei Ayanami that he needed to get to was standing still and un-moving, with a blank look on her face, almost as if she were in some kind of trance. In any case, it was clear that in order to get to her, he would have to get through this other Rei that had seemingly been left to guard her.
Two: that as both his father and Rei herself had repeatedly corroborated, a Dummy Plug would be unable to disguise its intentions, and that if he ever met one, it would simply try to kill him, as it was unable to comprehend more than very basic commands. This made the Rei Ayanami that was approaching him no different from the Eva Series he and the other pilots had been warring with these past two months. This made them his enemy.
Three: that his enemy was closing the distance between them with a very clear intention of causing him harm, and that if he wanted to have any chance of surviving this encounter, much less escaping with the real Rei, he had to act now.
He did not hesitate.
He widened his stance, turning himself sideways to turn himself into a smaller target, and as the Ayanami Type that approached him reached out to seize him, his defending hand came up to grab her by the wrist. He then planted his foot outside and opposite of hers, turned his body around as he yanked forward on her wrist, making a roadblock of himself, and pulling her over his body and flinging her onto her back to land roughly on the floor.
Asuka would have been proud.
He followed through with the move by using his grip on her arm to twist her over onto her stomach and barring her arm against her back.
"Rei!" he called out to the girl in the black plug suit, who still as of yet had done nothing.
The Rei he had pinned to the ground quickly untangled herself from his grip at that moment, and seized Shinji by the neck, turning him over and pinning him to the floor.
"Hnnnnnng!" he grunted in pain, cursing his inexperience in hand to hand combat. He had actually had the upper hand for a moment.
The Ayanami Type's fingers dug into the skin of his neck around his choker, the expression on her face disarming and unnervingly calm as she slowly began choking him.
"Nnnnn-Rei!" he managed to cough out, calling out to the still figure behind her, before his windpipe closed under the girl's grip.
His eyes widened as his vision suddenly began to grow dark. How quickly the Ayanami Type had not only reversed his hold, but had managed to completely overpower him. Were they just the perfect killing machines, or was he just that sloppy of a fighter outside an entry plug? Either way, his frail human body was quickly giving out, and Shinji found himself faced with the startling realization that he was utterly powerless in this creature's grip.
Was he going to die?
Then all at once, the girl's grip released and he could breathe again! He rolled over, coughing in relief as his vision slowly came back to him. His throat was on fire as the air filling his lungs felt almost as painful as it was sweet!
Finally, he managed to look up to see why the Ayanami Type had released him.
His blood suddenly ran cold when he saw the black-haired Rei - his Rei - clutching the other Ayanami Type by the throat, lifting her off of her feet with one arm as she struggling for breath. The look on the dark-haired Rei's face was the deadliest expression he had ever seen. As she held the Ayanami Type in the air, Rei spoke in a hushed tone through gritted teeth in scarcely controlled anger.
"Don't you touch him…"
The Ayanami Type's eyes rolled back into her skull, and then a sudden, sickening snap left her neck tilting at an odd angle.
Shinji watched in horror as Rei released her victim, letting her tumble lifelessly to the floor.
She then turned to face Shinji, and it was like he was looking at an entirely different person.
"Are…are you alright, Shinji?" she asked, all hostility gone from her voice.
Shinji could only stare at her, terrified.
"Rei…" he breathed, too stunned to move. "You…you killed her…"
The dark haired girl look down at the lifeless body at her feet.
"It is no different from destroying one of the Eva Series," she explained simply. "Besides, if I had not, she would have killed you instead. It was her or you, Shinji. I was not going to let you die."
Shinji shuddered squeamishly. He felt like throwing up.
"I…I guess you're right…" he coughed, wheezing as he slowly recovered his breath. "Th-thank you…"
Rei tried to smile down at him, but circumstances were just too bleak for the smile to communicate what she needed. So she knelt beside him and threw her arms around his shoulders, embracing him tightly.
"I am…" she breathed, silently. "I am glad you are safe, Shinji."
Shinji slowly lifted his arms to return the embrace.
"Sorry to scare you, Rei," he said meekly. "But…why did you go running off like that? Why did you take us here?"
Rei blinked, as if trying to remember. She then shook her head, as if giving up on the task.
"I can only surmise that the Ayanami Types circulating within my mind had momentarily seized control," she hypothesized. "My attentions were spread very thin keeping Unit 01 under control, retaining synchronization, as well as reaching out to the other Dummy Plugs. I…I overestimated my abilities, and I put all of you in danger. I was completely lost, until I saw her…trying to kill you…"
She gestured to the corpse at her feet, before returning a sorrowful gaze back at him.
"I am so sorry, Shinji."
Shinji squeezed her again.
"You came back when I needed you most, Rei," he said gratefully. "We can still win this. But we need to get back into Unit 01. Asuka and Mari are out there, and they need our help."
"Agreed," Rei nodded in response as she climbed to her feet and offered a hand.
Shinji took it and she pulled him shakily to her feet, and he had to hold onto her shoulder to keep from falling back over.
Their eyes met in that moment, and they both nodded. So much had changed since this had all started. Shinji had grown more in three months than he had in three years. And Rei did not even look like the same person anymore. But after so much time synchronizing with each other, nothing more needed to be said.
There would be plenty to talk about after this war was over.
Then Shinji looked back at the other Ayanami Types standing bleakly in the room, all of them younger, some looking no older than five or six. More of his father's twisted experiments, no doubt.
"What about them?" he asked, worriedly. "We can't take them with us, can we?"
Rei shook her head. "They are fractions of fractions, just like every Eva Series surrounding us. Even if I were to conjoin with them, the benefit would be minimal. We must leave them."
Shinji pursed his lips. "It just…doesn't seem right."
Rei shook her head. "It is not we who made them as they are, Shinji. You would just as well offer aid to every one of the Eva Series that grows around us. The only way we can help them now is to put an end to this."
Shinji cast one last glance back at the girls as they stood completely immobile, as if they had no idea what to do without orders.
Rei knew that she too had been like that once upon a time.
But no longer.
To be continued…