The door to the briefing room flew open.
"Asuka!" Shinji screamed, making a mad dash through the door.
The scream, however, was suddenly muffled by a burly arm around his neck, as one of the guard's arms grabbed him mid-dash.
"Hey!" the younger of the two soldiers said as he lifted Shinji bodily off the ground, holding him in place. "Settle down, kid!"
"Rrrnng!" Shinji grunted in pain, eyes raging a brilliant crimson. "Let go of me!"
"We're in the middle of an attack, son," the older looking soldier said, grabbing one of Shinji's flying fists. "There's nothing you can do right now."
"Let me go!" Shinji demanded, screaming and kicking. "Let go! Asuka! Asuka!"
Behind him, Rei watched dispassionately, though her attention was fixated on the spectacle Shinji provided. Either one of these soldiers alone would have been enough to subdue someone with Shinji's build and training, and he had attempted to charge right through both of them.
As the soldier's grip around his neck tightened, Shinji's eyes began to lid, and he slowly felt the energy leave him. Time seemed to dilate as the world spun around him. He was faintly aware of collapsing to his knees, of Rei standing behind him, looking down at his pitiful form, not knowing what to do; of the two guards picking his limp form off the ground, talking in subdued voices. The noise over the loudspeakers blurred into a cacophony of meaningless sound, and an eternity went by. All he could think about was Asuka, and how he had failed her.
An indeterminable amount of time later, however, something finally registered in his ears.
"Sir, we've got incoming!" a voice said over the speakers.
"What is it?" a voice that sounded like Kaji's asked, despairing. "More Nemeses?"
"No Sir, it's…friendly…" the voice replied, sounding confused, before a sudden wave of elation took over. "Sir, it's…it's the Wunder!"
Shinji blinked, finding himself back inside the briefing room, crumpled on the floor.
Wunder. He knew that name.
He got to his feet and stumbled over to the view screen, using the table in the middle for support, and on the CG render he saw a massive blue blip racing across the entire field, before coming to a standstill directly overhead, and on the other screens, Shinji could see the Nemesis series taking flak from one massive ship from overhead. The Wunder was large enough that it was visible at the top of both active screens.
He could actually see the Wunder's AT Field expanding to neutralize the Nemesis Series' energy cocoon, exposing the small, bright red entities that was the core of each individual sentry. Then, both the Wunder and Outpost Naraka opened fire on the exposed cores, and with a climactic explosion, the Nemeses erupted into plumes of bright red energy, skyrocketing into towering crosses of light.
Shinji still could not breathe.
"Asuka…" he whimpered, desperate for some kind of sign that she was all right. All he could think was that she might really be dead this time. And this time, it really was all his fault.
Then a voice broke out over the comm system.
"Hey!" came a new, but familiar voice. "Anyone down there missing a princess in a box?"
Shinji blinked. That had sounded just like that other pilot. Makinami, was it?
The static screen finally switched to a different camera, this one resolving on another JA Heavy Armor, this one with a pink stripe on its arm. Under said arm, charred and beaten up but intact, was what looked to be an escape capsule of sorts.
A capsule with a familiar red stripe on it.
"Very funny, Four-Eyes," Asuka's voice sounded. "Now get me out of this hunk of junk, would you?"
"Oh, I don't know…" Mari said, sounding lighthearted. "I think the 'twisted, burning metal' look kind of suits you."
"Let me out of here, damn it!" Asuka blared. "I mean it! It's sweltering in here!"
"We could set you up in the deck of the ship, maybe arrange some flowers around you…" Mari giggled. "And the constant ruckus you make could scare away the riffraff for miles around!"
"Oh, when I get my hands on you…"
Shinji sunk to his knees.
She was alive.
Relief overtook him.
Rei continued to watch in silent fascination as the Third Child hung his head and wept in relief, and she stifled the urge to ask him why again he was crying.
Captain Katsuragi had her usual un-amused scowl on her face as she marched into the operations center of Outpost Naraka, flanked by two escorts in WILLE uniforms, each carrying a semi-automatic rifle tucked under one arm. Two of the base's own guards stood at attendance on either side of the room as she entered. Shinji and Rei were standing behind Kaji on the far side of the central terminal at the center of the room, Shinji having a particularly dejected look on his face.
Misato crossed her arms as she spotted Shinji and Rei.
"Why aren't your prisoners shackled, Warrant Officer?"
"Nice to see you too, Colonel," Kaji rolled his eyes. "Appreciate the save and all, but I was under the impression that the Wunder was still undergoing repairs."
"I asked you a question, soldier," Misato barked, all business.
"Relax," Kaji explained. "We've kept them both under guard. We have no Eva units here, or any Angelic equipment of any kind aside from our AT Generators, so the two of them are harmless on their own."
Misato's un-amused expression did not abate.
"Forgive me, but I won't be taking any such chances," she said, snapping her fingers.
At her signal, the two officers who had come in with Misato moved forward taking both Shinji and Rei by the arms and slapping military issue handcuffs around their wrists. Neither put up a struggle, though Shinji threw a wounded look in Misato's direction.
Kaji winced. "You know, you could learn to lighten up on the boy just a little."
"And you could learn to mind your tongue, Warrant Officer!" Misato growled in response. "Specimen BM-03 has already escaped my custody once; I'm not inclined to give him any more opportunities to do so."
Kaji sighed, throwing his arms up in exasperation. "You can't even call him by his name anymore? You used to be such a people person, Katsuragi! What happened?"
"What happened?" Misato demanded, incredulously. "Third Impact happened, in case you've forgotten!"
"I haven't forgotten," Kaji said seriously "But even though Shinji may have been at the heart of it all, and may have even been responsible for it, do you honestly believe he wanted any of this to happen?"
"It doesn't matter what he wanted," Misato said stubbornly as her two guards escorted both Shinji and Rei towards the door. "He did it. And he would have done it again if our pilots hadn't stopped him! And on top of that, Unit 01 has activated by itself not once, but twice now since we've recovered it! Both in reaction to the specimen you've been blithely allowing to meander the halls of your facility!"
Kaji let out an exasperated sigh. "He hasn't gone anywhere or done anything since arriving here!"
"Nevertheless, he's a threat as long as he's alive!" Misato declared, her guards and their prisoners standing at the ready behind her. "And if you can't get that through your head, Warrant Officer, than I can't help but question if you're truly fit for duty here."
In response to her words, two of Kaji's troops stationed behind him took two deliberate steps forward and clicked their heels together, standing even straighter than before, their guns held in a ready position.
Misato's eyes widened as she wheeled on the two men, her own guards tightening their grip on their own weapons in response.
"The hell?" Misato blurted. "Kaji, tell your men to stand down!"
Kaji smiled. That was the first time he'd heard her use his name in years. His command here had always been a tenuous one. Misato had wanted to put a higher ranking officer in command of the Hellhole for years now. But he had been a leader to the people here long before he had been appointed to the position. And his track record spoke for itself; Naraka had been a lost cause before he'd shown up. He had a feeling the only reason he hadn't been promoted was Misato's stubbornness.
"You heard her, guys," he nodded, smiling at the two men who had stepped forward.
The two officers saluted and stepped backwards, returning to their position behind Kaji.
Kaji's gaze remained on Misato.
"You don't need me to tell you the value of a loyal crew, Kasturagi," he said slowly and evenly. "But even you have to realize that a cooperative ally is a lot more useful than an unwilling prisoner. If you keep Shinji locked up like that, he's not going to have any reason to follow you, and may well keep resisting you until the day he dies. But if you can at least try to forgive the boy, and give him the chance he needs to redeem himself…then maybe he'll prove himself yet. He has nothing but good intentions after all."
Misato stood there for a long moment, her eyes hidden behind the brim of her cap. It was not the first time Kaji had suggested something like that, but usually it had to do with the two of them making amends. But this was different. Now it was with regard to the very culprit behind Third Impact, the nightmare that had struck the world at its heart, from which humanity was still feeling the effects. And if Kaji meant to imply that she offer leniency to the boy whose foolish, childish need for resolution nearly doomed humanity…
She gestured to her guards, and the two of them ushered her two prisoners out the door.
"Katsuragi…" Kaji called as she turned on her heels, offering her a sad smile. "Don't you think maybe it's time we put the past behind us? We don't seem to have much of a future left to spend dwelling on it."
She paused and turned her head to give him one last look.
"Stand amongst the ashes of a billion dead souls," she muttered bitterly. "And ask the ghosts if good intentions matter."
Kaji just stared back at her as she peered at him over her shoulder from under the brim of her cap. Anyone who had known Misato before had seen just what a flighty, bubbly sweetheart she could be. But anyone who truly knew her also knew that this was just the mask she wore. No, the real Misato was a soldier through and through. But even though she was every inch a soldier, she had also known when to let the soldier out, and when to keep it shrouded in her shell of light-heartedness and cheer.
But now, that shell of optimism had long since evaporated. Now, only the soldier remained. There was no room in this world for the playful, carefree Misato that everyone saw on the surface. No longer was she the young, vibrant woman he once knew. This Katsuragi was cold, ruthless, and calculatingly cruel.
Time, it seemed, had changed things for her too.
"The silence is your answer," she breathed, before leaving the operations center, the doors closing behind her with a whirring hiss.
As the AAA Wunder took flight, Rei found herself alone in a containment cell, much like the one Shinji had been in during his brief stay aboard the Wunder. Also much like Shinji, she had been stripped of her plug suit and placed in a hospital gown, with a DSS choker was clamped around her neck, its lights slowly blinking, indicating armed status. WILLE was not taking its chances with Rei any more than they were with Shinji. Both of them had displayed hostile intent during the battle over Tokyo-3, both towards WILLE and in NERV's interests of triggering an Impact, which meant that the two of them were currently being treated as enemies of WILLE, and were imprisoned as such.
To Rei Ayanami, this was an odd situation. Whenever her creator had wanted her to remain somewhere, he had simply commander her to do so, and she had obeyed. She did not physically possess the autonomy it would have taken for her to do otherwise. No prison cell had been needed to imprison her. She had simply imprisoned herself within the confines of her own reality.
She studied the walls of this new prison with passive disinterest. It was more brightly lit than NERV had been, and there appeared to be more moving parts, and outside the walls she had seen more Lilin passing by than she had even known existed. But these external facets were the only discernible differences. Beneath this thin veil of humanity, the Wunder was little more than a mobilized version of NERV, the same skeleton in a different cloth. And while she did not smell like her creator, this Misato Katsuragi person clearly sounded like him. She would have simply had to give the word, and Rei would have had no choice but to obey.
But she hadn't. The Captain of the Wunder had not so much as spoken a word to Rei since she had arrived in this flying Angel carapace. And so, just as she had been when Unit 09 and 13 had done battle with the Wunder above NERV, she was directionless, adrift in the wind with no idea what to do but proceed with whatever task she had been left with, and to contend with the rest on her own.
This made the presence of the pilot of Unit 08 all the more confusing as she entered the room on the opposite side of the bars.
"Hey there, Miss Q," the bespectacled girl said smoothly. "Enjoying your new digs?"
Rei's response was simply to blink. She was not entirely certain what the pilot was asking, much less how to answer, even if she were so inclined.
Mari went on, apparently unaffected by Rei's lack of participation in the conversation.
"So, you're the reason Puppy-Boy ran off, huh?" Mari chuckled, crossing her arms over her head as she strode along the barred walls, eying the Ayanami Type with a casual eye. "I can sorta see why. I mean, I guess you're pretty cute, all things considered. No Helen of Troy, but I could see at least a few ships launched in your honor. But I suppose we both know that's not the real reason he followed you."
Rei still did not deign to respond. Mari, in turn, continued on as though the lack of response was completely expected.
"You remind him of someone he used to know," she explained, turning on her heels to stroll the other way along the bars. "Someone he cared about enough to start Third Impact in order to protect. Pretty easy mistake to make, considering you're genetically identical to her. But you're not her."
Ayanami still said nothing.
"No matter how much you may wish to be," Mari added.
Rei blinked, an expression that could have easily been called "confusion" on her face.
Mari took that for what it was. "Oh, come on. Why else would you have followed him home after all that? With Gendo giving you orders your whole life, you probably never had to deal with a situation in which you had to decide something for yourself. So when you finally do, what do you choose? To follow the one boy who seemed genuinely attached to you, the one boy who seemed to know who you are."
Rei remained silent. But her eyes followed Mari, and seemed focused on what she was saying.
"But it was never you he was after," Mari went on, sounding like she was gloating, but for the sincerity in her eyes. "It was the girl still trapped in Unit 01. The girl you were designed to replace."
She shrugged helplessly.
"Well…I doubt Puppy-Boy will be satisfied with a replacement," she sighed. "He wants the real thing. He wants the girl he saved from the 10th Angel, the girl he got to know growing up in Tokyo-3, not the puppet his father designed to take her place. Really, can you blame him?"
Mari turned to focus on Rei's blood red eyes.
"But unfortunately, she's trapped forever inside the soul of an Eva," Mari lamented melodramatically. "And nothing short of a miracle can get her out of there. And that's assuming you could even get to Unit 01; right now, it's in one of the most heavily guarded places on the ship."
A catlike smile appeared on Mari's face as her fingertips hovered over a single button on the control console on the wall.
"At least…in theory."
She pressed the button, and with a whoosh, the bars separating the two of them slid to the side, leaving the way out free and clear.
"You have no orders to follow anymore, Miss Q," Mari said as she turned to go. "No one's telling you what to do anymore. You've got to make up your own mind, decide for yourself what you want to do now. The choice is yours alone."
She turned to gaze into her deep crimson eyes once more.
God, those eyes made her look like the fiercest thing on the planet, Mari thought with a smile.
"And I'm afraid you don't exactly have all day to make up your mind," she smirked.
And with that, leaving Rei's door completely open, and the girl staring out at her freedom in abject uncertainty, Mari strolled out of the detention area and down the corridor, heading for the locker rooms.
The Wunder was still recovering from its encounter with Units 09 and 13. It was still equal to any angelic sentries it encountered, but as soon as the pilots had been lead inside, they had been able to see the signs of damaged components, open-circuitry that snapped and sparked every so often, fluids and gases leaking from creaking components, and emergency repair crew scrambling to attend to everything.
As Captain Shikinami hustled out of the locker room after a lengthy and much needed shower and changing into her officer's uniform, which was similar in design to the bridge crew of the Wunder, particularly that of the helmsman - a gray flight-suit with red trim on the hips and shoulders, a white flak jacket and a blue bandana tied around her left arm – she couldn't help but notice just how banged up everything looked.
"I'm surprised you guys were in any condition to come after us," she wrinkled her nose as a broken pipe hissed out a plume of steam next to her.
Mari, who had been waiting for her outside the changing room in a similar pink-tinted WILLE uniform of her own, gave her a half-smile.
"That's the scary part, actually," she commented as the two of them made their way to their scheduled briefing. "We weren't."
Asuka threw the other girl a questioning look. "Sure looked like the Wunder was mopping the floor with those Nemeses. How do you figure?"
Mari shrugged. Two engineers rushed past, carrying a sizable roll of what looked to be some type of insulation material.
"Weapon systems are mostly operational, but main engines and maneuverability are down something like forty percent," she said, stretching her shoulders. "Plus, we have no functioning Evas. We were well out of dodge by the time we heard from Outpost Naraka, and we were planning to come and get you as soon as repairs were done. But it seemed Unit 01 had other plans."
Asuka's face darkened as she felt a chill run down her spine. Anything involving Unit 01, especially something that included the implication of the Eva possessing any degree of self-awareness, was bad news.
"Wait a minute…" Asuka breathed, her voice a low, serious tone. "Are you telling me Unit 01 went active?"
"Worse…" Mari replied, her usual sassy humor all but gone. "It commandeered the ship."
Asuka almost stopped in her tracks. "…Tell me you're fucking with me."
Mari sighed, shaking her head. "I'll let Doctor Akagi explain it; she'll do a better job than I can."
The two of them redoubled their pace as they made their way to the briefing room.
A/N: Misato's line inspired by Javik from Mass Effect 3.