Unfortunately, the Wunder was still undergoing repairs from its last battle, and was currently well out of the small VTOL's flight range for it to take them there. So the pilot had little choice but to take the three children back to its base of operations, which just happened to be the same outpost that they were headed to anyway.
Lilin Outpost Naraka. The closest that WILLE dared get to ground zero.
Of course, having been marching around this close to the remains of Tokyo-3, with all the LCL particles in the air, the pilots still had to go through decontamination before being let into the actual base. And so the three of them stood in a small, empty room in various degrees of dispassion and mild contempt as they were systematically sprayed down, pressure steamed, and submerged in decontaminant, and then doing it all over again before they were even brought in.
"Remember the good old days when we used to have to strip down to our skivvies for this?" Asuka grumbled dryly to no one in particular as they were air-dried, her hair still damp.
"Man, those were the days," came a familiar-sounding voice over the speakers.
Shinji looked up, trying to discern the speaker's identity.
Asuka just cracked a smile.
"Would be just like you to take some kind of sick pleasure from something like that," she said snarkily.
Finally, the inner doors finally opened with a hiss, revealing the concrete walls of the paramilitary industrial compound within, and a familiar figured stepped into view.
He had changed significantly since Shinji had last seen him. His ponytail was gone, and his five-o'clock shadow had grown out into more of a stubbly beard, and he now wore set of rimless glasses. But his roguish smile was still there.
"There's so little left to take pleasure in anymore these days, Asuka," Kaji said with a smirk. "You can't fault me for getting it where I can."
"Can too," Asuka stuck out her chin with a laugh.
Kaji just laughed.
Shinji blinked in surprise. "Mister Kaji…"
Kaji nodded, gesturing for the group to enter the compound. "Warrant Officer Kaji now. Welcome to Lilin Outpost Naraka, Shinji."
Shinji couldn't think of anything more to say as he lead them down an unfeeling concrete corridor, Rei walking dispassionately at his side, and Asuka strolling confidently ahead at Kaji's side like she owned the place.
Asuka crossed her arms. "Heh. Still running the Hellhole, I see."
Kaji shrugged. "It may have seen better days, but it's got its perks. Speaking of perkiness, how's Katsuragi?"
"Still pissed at you," Asuka smirked. "Luckily she's got bigger fish to fry, else you'd be proper fucked. And not in the way you like it."
Kaji held out his arms. "Thank goodness for small favors."
To Shinji, the moment was absolutely surreal. Having spent the last several days of living through a veritable nightmare, to see Asuka and Kaji casually strolling along and chatting like they did back in the old days just seemed…out of place. Artificial. Like they were both just acting their parts, when they both knew just what lay outside those walls.
It was disturbing.
They reached what appeared to be long debriefing room, with seats lining the walls and a long rectangular table its the center, and a glimmer of natural light peaking in from windows lining the tops of one of the longer walls, and Kaji gestured for them all to sit. Shinji and Rei both accepted and sat one seat apart from one another, but Asuka remained standing.
"I'm surprised you had patrols running that close to the L-Barrier," she said matter-of-factly. "With all the activity around NERV, I was sure it would be too big a security risk. I thought we'd have to walk at least another day to get here."
"The Wunder issued an alert shortly after the events from yesterday," Kaji nodded, leaning against the table in the middle of the room. "The Hellhole is stationed here for just these sorts of operations, so we've been patrolling as close as we can to the border in the off chance you decided to come our way. With all the commotion yesterday, everyone here was prepared for all-out war if it came to it."
He threw Shinji a knowing wink.
"Glad to see we could avoid another Impact."
Shinji was still staring in disbelief, opening and closing his mouth as if to say something, but couldn't.
"Surprised to see me?" Kaji offered, giving the boy a sly smile. "Personally, I'm even more surprised to see you, all things considered."
Shinji stammered again, and Asuka suppressed a derisive chuckle.
"You're at Lilin Outpost Naraka, Shinji," Kaji said, congenially, spreading his arms wide. "Population: six hundred and fifty-seven. The boys like to call it "The Hellhole." Kinda fitting, depending on how well you know your Buddhist philosophy. Anyway, I've been stationed here as acting commander for…well, years, really."
He offered a helpless smile.
"Leadership has been rather hard to come by these days. We're the closest humanity can get to ground zero, but we're just one of the many outposts WILLE has scattered throughout the globe."
Shinji blinked rapidly. "WILLE…"
Kaji nodded, his expression growing somber. "Katsuragi would have me believe that you're responsible for the sorry state of the world we're all in here. Now, I'm not here to say one way or the other. What I am here for is to keep these six hundred and fifty-seven souls alive."
Kaji gave Shinji the most serious look he had ever seen him make.
"Now protocol dictates I clap you in irons, Shinji," he said. "But that strikes me as a little harsh, given all you've been through, so I'll let is slide for old times' sake. But let me just make one thing perfectly clear to you: Everyone here is a trained soldier. Most Lilin are these days. They don't all start out that way, but they all become that way, one way or another. They have to, in order to survive this long. Those who can't adapt are usually the first ones to die. And only the craziest of them get dispatched to the Hellhole. And aside from a few of Katsuragi's liaisons, everyone stationed here answers directly to me. I give them one word, and they will not hesitate to use lethal force. So you give me any reason to think that you're a danger to the six hundred and fifty-seven men and women stationed at Lilin Outpost Naraka, Shinji, and I will not hesitate to put an end to you myself, Katsuragi be damned. Do we have an understanding between us?"
Shinji's eyes widened, and his breath caught in his throat. He nodded once, unable to utter a single peep.
Asuka blew a damp lock of hair out of her face, still evidently miffed at having to be put through decontamination. "Colonel's going to eat you alive if you execute one of her prisoners without her permission."
Kaji shrugged nonchalantly. "Add it to the laundry list of things Katsuragi already hates my guts for. Besides, Shinji's not dumb enough to start causing problems here, right Shinji?"
Asuka snorted at the boy's silence. "You'd be surprised."
Kaji sighed. "All the shit we've been through, Asuka…I wonder if there are any surprises left in the world anymore…"
His eyes fell on the blue haired girl in the black plug suit.
"And what about you?"
Asuka answered for her. "Do what you want with that one. It's an old Ayanami Type. I will say that it hasn't given us any trouble since the battle yesterday, but you can't be too careful. It was created by NERV after all."
Kaji winced. "'It?' That's a little harsh Asuka, don't you think?"
Asuka snorted. "It's not like it's a real person, so why should I refer to it as one? Besides, thinking of it as an 'it' will make it easier to kill whenever the time comes."
Kaji seemed surprised at this. "You don't really believe that, do you?"
Kaji sighed. "And you used to be such a sweet little girl."
Asuka's expression soured. "Not sweet enough for your tastes, it seemed. Do you still not like what you see after all this time?"
Kaji held up his hands. "Easy. I didn't mean it like that, Asuka. I just meant that…well, time changes things, it seems. And not always for the better."
Asuka's good eye disappeared behind her bangs.
"You think I like things any better like this?" she growled, before pointing an accusing finger at Shinji. "He's the one who screwed everything up!"
Shinji withered. Rei persisted in being aloof.
Kaji's face remained sternly resolute. "You're not alone, Asuka. We've all become things we didn't want to become because of this war."
He offered Shinji a sympathetic look.
"And when times are as tough as this, when all the problems of the world just seem so disproportionally big for us to handle, it's real easy to put all the blame onto a single person. It makes it easier for us to compartmentalize the enormity of just how fucked up everything is when we can say that it's all someone else's fault."
His eyes returned to Asuka, who still seethed.
"But the truth is always more complicated than that," Kaji said. "We can't always reduce reality to bite-sized chunks just because we can't digest the whole thing. Not when doing so skews the whole picture."
"Don't you think he holds most of the blame for this?" Asuka asked, almost in disbelief.
"I think we all played some part in what happened, Asuka," Kaji admonished. "And I don't think that Shinji wanted this new reality any more than you did."
Shinji wasn't sure why, but for some reason, Kaji reminded him of his father in that moment. Maybe it was the beard. Or the glasses. Or the lines on his face. He was no longer a young, virile playboy, even if still tried to act like it.
He was right. This war had changed them all. And not all of it for the better.
"Fine," Asuka harrumphed, turning to head for the exit. "Where's this base's mess hall? I need a decent meal. And an actual shower. And some clean clothes. In that order."
"Down the hall to your left, just follow the signs," Kaji hollered after her, as she was already halfway out the door.
The door slammed with a loud bang. It was an actual door with hinges and everything, Shinji noticed. Everything at this based seemed fairly low-tech. He wondered idly if Asuka would find the mess hall suitable to her needs. If not, she would most likely find some way to blame him for it yet again, he cringed.
"You two should also probably get something to eat," Kaji advised, breaking the silence Asuka had left. "Trail rations can't have been very satisfying out there."
"Kaji…" Shinji muttered, still in something that looked like shock. "I…I'm sorry…"
Kaji sighed in pity. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to, Shinji."
Shinji shook his head. "I…you told me to keep Misato safe…and I failed."
Kaji crossed his arms, exhaling as he did, eyes focused on the floor.
Shinji swallowed hard. "…I'm sorry."
Kaji took another deep breath. It had been fourteen years since it happened, but the shock of those first few days was still etched into his memory, the terror on Katsuragi's face even more so. It hadn't been easy living in the world after Second Impact, but the world after Third Impact was a perpetual war-zone, with angelic sentries and soulless dummy plug drone patrols out in droves, killing off the last vestiges of humanity with ruthless single-mindedness.
Katsuragi had never been the same after that day. The nightmares from her childhood had all been brought to life, and all seemingly by one, desperate boy. Kaji could make an effort to guess what had been going on her head during those first years, but he would be the first to admit that he would have been off. For a while, she had taken some modicum of comfort in his arms during that time. But the years of intermittent fighting, fleeing and hiding in the dirt had ultimately destroyed whatever the two of them had left.
He had to convince himself to follow his own advice – it would have been so easy to lay all that hurt, all that fear, all that turmoil at Shinji's feet. But what then? What could a fourteen-year-old boy with practically no experience do with that? He couldn't have made anything better all by himself, even if he wanted to. He wouldn't have even known where to begin! And that was assuming he wouldn't just crack under the pressure and decide to end it all. God knows, Kaji had thought about it more than once these past few years.
But one thought kept him going.
Kaji closed his eyes.
"Katsuragi's a survivor," he said calmly. "Always has been. Hell, it was probably that very instinct that made her leave me behind."
He opened his eyes and gave Shinji a reassuring look.
"You did all you could, kid," he nodded. "But you're here now. And now we need you to do a little more. Think you're up for it?"
Shinji shuddered, but nodded. "I'll…try."
Kaji frowned. "You've been trying all your life, Shinji. Has there ever been a time where you actually felt like you were sure of yourself?"
Shinji shook his head, closing his eyes. "Once."
Kaji crossed his arms. "And when was that?"
Shinji glanced in Rei's direction. "The day I set off Third Impact."
That's when the klaxons sounded all across the base.
"Code 4C!" came the shouts from the small operations center of Outpost Naraka. "Nemesis Series inbound!"
The compound, which before had seemed sparsely populated, was now teeming with activity, as soldiers, officers and gunnery-men hurried up and down the corridors.
"Battle stations!" Kaji blared, dashing into the operations center. "What's our status?"
"Sir!" one of the junior officers saluted. "AT Generators running at optimal capacity! Shields are up! All weapons systems are green!"
"Alright," Kaji nodded. "Scramble the defense turrets! And get some eyes out there! I want to know just what we're dealing with!"
"Sir!" one of the communication engineers turned around in their seat. "Multiple targets incoming! At least eight contacts, possibly more!"
Kaji gritted his teeth. Outpost Naraka had never had to deal with more than one or two of these sentries at a time. Its AT Barriers were theoretically capable of fending off that many, but each additional AT Field it had to repel drained the base's generators of more power, and they weren't fortunate enough to come equipped with an N2 generator like the Wunder. They had to rely on conventional nuclear power, which had arguably been enough to keep the outpost running all these years.
But never under an assault such as they were about to be hit with.
"That's what we get for flying that close to the L-Barrier…" Kaji muttered grimly to himself.
The central command console at the center of the room lit up with a holographic map of the surrounding area. Their compound was indicated in green at the center, and the incoming targets slowly approached from three sides – four from the direction of Tokyo-3, and two each flanking from either side.
There were some twelve soldiers and engineers stationed in the operations center, each of them staring at their respective view-screens. Each of them had their own indicators of just what they were facing, and all of them were sweating.
"They look nervous."
Kaji twisted and saw Asuka standing just behind him, looking around their ops center with an appraising eye. He hadn't seen her come in. He wondered idly where Shinji and Rei had gone. He had left two guards with instructions to keep tabs on them, but otherwise the two of them could move about most of the facility unencumbered.
Asuka, however, technically outranked him, which meant that she had free reign of the entire facility.
"Alright, ladies and gents!" Kaji said enthusiastically, after giving Asuka a quick smirk. "All you roughnecks who wanted to kick some angelic ass yesterday? Well, now's your chance! Time to earn your stripes, fellas! Deploy all automated defenses! I want all our guns pointed at the main attack force, with all our armored units covering our flanks! Retract all subsidiary posts, and put priority on defending the main compound!"
The room sounded with one collective "Aye-aye!"
"Sir!" came the communications officer. "Main force is within firing range! We've got a lock!"
"Alright!" Kaji said, sweeping his arm forward. "All batteries, fire at will!"
The very foundation shook as eighteen hundred pounds of heavy artillery let loose, impacting the collective AT Field of the four advancing Nemeses, their glowing red bodies and flailing black tendrils whipping about in the wind.
"You're not going to last long throwing all your weight into a first strike," Asuka muttered, off-handedly.
"The best defense is a good offense," Kaji insisted. "Besides, a battle of attrition is a death sentence with these odds. Our best bet is to try to take out as many as we can before they can hit the main base."
Asuka harrumphed good-naturedly. "In that case, point me in the direction of your armor bay. I'm mounting up."
Kaji blinked at her in surprise. "We don't have any Eva units, Asuka."
Asuka snorted. "So? This facility is outfitted with JA Heavy Armor, isn't it?"
Kaji gave her a worried look. "Yeah, but those are automated units."
"They have a manual controls, don't they?"
"But only from inside!" Kaji insisted. "We're sending them all out unmanned because the idea is to use them as front-linemen to absorb the brunt of the attack! Cannon fodder to diminish our casualties! And they're not nearly as dexterous as an Eva! You'd be a sitting duck out there in one of those things, Asuka!"
Asuka gave her hair a toss and turned to go down the hall.
"Never underestimate what a good pilot can do," she said, giving him a wink. "Especially if that pilot is a child of Eva."
While all the commotion was going on, Shinji and Rei remained in the briefing room where they had first been brought. Rei had probably not moved a single muscle from the moment she sat down, though Shinji had been fidgeting nervously ever since Kaji had left, and it had only gotten worse once the rumbling began to shake the entire base.
He was vaguely aware of the sound of comm chatter being broadcast across the loudspeakers installed in each room, but it was only when he heard the name "Asuka" that he actually pricked his ears up.
"Damn it, Kaji, get your drones to give me some god damn cover!" her shrill voice shouted in a familiar sounding battle frenzy.
"I'm working on it, hold on!" Kaji's voice sounded back.
Without even thinking, he got to his feet and went to the door, finding the two guards posted outside.
"Ummm…excuse me…" he mumbled, not sure where to start. He had known the two men were out there, but he hadn't done a very good job of preparing his request in his mind. "Is there…any way we can…see what's going on outside?"
The two guards exchanged a look, before the one on the right, an older man who with gray hair and a moustache, spoke up.
"There's a digital display screen in that room you're in," he offered, gesturing with his free hand to the monitor behind Shinji. "On the wall, in the back. If you turn it on, you should receive the feed that's going around to the whole base. It's not going to give you a lot of technical details, but it should give you some idea of what's happening out there."
Shinji blinked. He hadn't been expecting anyone to actually help him.
"Th-thanks…" he nodded, closing the door.
He was aware of Rei's eyes following him as he hurried over the television screen and switched it on.
Immediately, he was inundated with scenes of carnage. The screen was divided into four separate partitions – a frontal view, a view from the east and western border, and a computer rendering of a top-town view of the compound and surrounding area, with red blips indicating hostiles and blues indicating friendlies. The hostiles numbered only eight, but the number of friendlies on the screen was diminishing by the second!
Much like the battle in the Wunder, the sentries were obscured by pillars of red light which meshed together to form a large cocoon of AT energy around each of the three groups, which bombarded the barrier around the compound on three sides. All around, the twisted bodies of Eva-sized JA Heavy Armor units lay mangled and useless, as a near constant stream of artillery fire poured into the four main sentries. Overall, it appeared that the Nemesis series hadn't suffered a single casualty.
And on the screen displaying the western front, one JA Heavy Armor stood out from the others. One for the red stripe on its arm. And two, for how, despite having lost an arm, it was still managing to put up a fight.
"Main force still advancing!" a voice cried over the speakers.
"AT Barriers down to forty-two percent!" another voice shouted.
"Armor force suffering heavy casualties!" cried a third. "They're not lasting long enough to even act as a deterrent!"
"Kaji!" Asuka shouted through the intercom. "Can you transmit the JA self destruct sequence codes to me? I'm going to try something."
There was a pause in the transmission while the battle still raged on screen.
"You better not be planning what it sounds like you're planning, Asuka," Kaji's voice sounded in a reprimanding tone.
"Relax," Asuka said, not sounding worried at all. "I'll have your western flank clear of angelic dip-shits in a matter of minutes. By the way, these units have boosters packs, right?"
Shinji was not aware that he had his hands pressed against the wall under the screen, his knuckles growing whiter by the moment, his eyes locked on the events taking place. He was also not aware that Rei had moved to his side in the span of the events he had witnessed on screen.
"You wish to aid her," she said simply, by way of observation.
Shinji flinched, suddenly noticing that she was there.
"Wha…?" he stuttered. "Umm…well…"
Suddenly, a faint warning chime began sounding over the speaker, as if it was picking up a louder alarm from somewhere else.
"Self-destruct sequence initiated," an equally faint automated voice sounded.
Shinji's head snapped back to the screen just in time to see the view screen covering the western wall cut to static, and the one screen displaying the CG rendering of the compound showed a dozen bright yellow circles expanding outward along the western edge, with both the friendly and hostile blips alike flickering off in the process.
"Asuka!" Shinji shouted, pressing his hands to the screen as if to reach in and pull her out of the blast zone.
Then the shock-wave hit the facility, and the entire foundation shook like it was in the middle of an earthquake! Shinji had to grab one of the chairs to keep from falling over, the lights all flickered and anything that wasn't bolted down bounced and teetered from the impact equivalent to about a dozen N2 mines compounding upon one another as the JA Heavy Armors' nuclear engines went critical, buffeting the base with a force through its AT Barrier.
Over the loudspeakers, the confused voices coming from the ops center all garbled together as multiple officers and engineers spoke at once, but Shinji could barely hear them. All he could process was the idea that he had just lost Asuka again.
"What just happened?" Kaji's voice rose up over the cacophony of human noise. "Asuka, do you read me?"
Shinji's vision began to blur. Asuka had been at the center of that blast! Right in the middle of the battlefield! And then every mech in the vicinity had self destructed, and then everything west of Outpost Naraka had vaporized.
He couldn't breathe. His vision was narrowing slightly, and he felt his stomach beginning to heave. Tears blurred his vision as his body pitched forward, as if his arms lacked the strength to hold him up anymore.
Only two things registered in his head at that moment in time. That Asuka wouldn't have been out here if not for him. And that if she didn't make it, this meant that her death was on his hands.
"Ikari…" Rei said, still standing next to him.
He didn't respond. He could hardly think. The nightmare was coming back to haunt him. The terror and anguish that had driven him to attack his own father all those years ago was boiling up inside of him like a wellspring of misery and negativity that he could neither control or contend with. Asuka might have very well been dead. Hesitation no longer registered in his mind at that moment.
And though he could not see it, his eyes had inexplicably begun glowing a deep, angry red.
To be continued...