Misato stared blankly at Dr. Akagi for several seconds, before furrowing her brow.
"You want to run that by me again, Doctor?" she said in a disbelieving tone.
It had been three hours since the new Ayanami Type - which was being classified as BM-03γ, or Rei′ - and the Wunder had still not taken to the air, or shown any signs of starting up again. Growing wary of their vulnerable state, Misato had once again invaded the lab area just outside the core, which Ritsuko appeared to have converted into her secondary office as of late.
"We cannot restart the Wunder's main drive," Ritsuko explained simply, gesturing to the helpful CG rendering of the Wunder's core on the computer screen. "At the moment, it's as if Unit 01's S2 engine has shut down."
Misato's eyebrow raised. "You're telling me that a source of perpetual energy has gone dead?"
"I don't believe it's actually dead, but by all appearances, yes," Ritsuko clarified. "And I think I know the cause: Unit 01 seems to be in a self-imposed state of lock-down. It wasn't like that before now."
Misato crossed her arms. "You don't say…"
"Whatever process by which the Ayanami Type was removed from Unit 01 seems to have caused the Eva to lock down," Ritsuko elaborated. "We don't need to activate the Eva, but we do need to bring it back up to an idle state in order to tap into it's S2 engine. We need to get it back online."
Misato shook her head. "I got that part. It's the part that came afterward that I'm having trouble swallowing."
Ritsuko pursed her lips. "Captain, apart from the sudden loss of power that occurred when the Ayanami Type merged with Unit 01's core, the Wunder's engines were still online before we proceeded with the extraction operation. It's natural to assume an engine might hiccup if you to shove something into it while it's still running, but the fact remains that once the process completed, the engines did recycle themselves back on, saving the Wunder from a devastating crash. It was only after Rei′ was extracted that the Wunder failed to activate."
Misato massaged her temples. It seemed that everyone and everything saw fit to try to fry her nerves today.
"So you want to put the Ayanami Type back into the entry plug and then put her into Unit 01, is that correct?"
Ritsuko nodded. "Just long enough to verify my hypothesis. The results will speak for themselves."
Misato closed her eyes and took a moment so as not to rail on one of the last people in the world she could call her friend.
"And this plan doesn't strike you as completely insane!?" Misato demanded.
Perhaps waiting another breath or two would have yielded more diplomatic results, she thought absently.
"I don't like it either, Captain, but what other choice do we have?" Ritsuko shot back. "We're dead in the water without Unit 01, and we're sitting ducks if a sentry happened to patrol these waters. We need to get airborne. And this is the only option I can think of that's feasible in this situation."
Misato huffed and took a few frustrated steps around the limited floorspace of the small office, shuffling back and forth as she weighed the possibilities in her mind.
"You still have the DSS trigger, Captain," Ritsuko assured her. "You can neutralize the pilot if anything happens."
Misato rubbed the bridge of her nose. She was used to things being out of her control to a certain degree, but this was pushing it.
"Not all of your subordinates are as loyal as you think, Colonel."
Misato pounded the heel of her hand into her forehead. She would not allow that mischievous little harlequin to cast suspicion on everyone she knew.
"We've been in uncharted waters from the get-go, Ritsu," she muttered quietly, looking out the view-port at the ship's non-functional core. "I don't know how much longer we can keep pushing our luck like this. Sooner or later, something's going to bite us in the ass that's too big for us to bite back."
Ritsuko said nothing. She knew the Captain would make the right decision if she gave her enough room to make up her mind. She had known Misato for practically all of her adult life, and had gained a comprehensive knowledge on the best times to push, and the best times to stand back and let the brilliant, tactical genius that she was call the shots.
Misato tugged off her captain's cap and straightened her hair.
"Oh, hell with it…" Misato exhaled in exhaustion, replacing her cap. "Fine. Let's go tempt fate."
Shinji stared in trepidation as Rei gingerly climbed into the entry plug for Unit 01. Everything about this felt wrong to him. NERV and WILLE had done nothing but take advantage of Ayanami since her inception, and this was no exception. It was becoming remarkably clear that to the people running the show, he and the other pilots were little more than tools for them to use. He was fine playing the role of a tool himself…but to put Ayanami through all that after everything she'd gone through…
"I'm surprised they let you out of your cell," came a familiar voice from behind him.
He turned saw Asuka in her WILLE uniform, wearing the same hat he had seen her in after he first woke up.
Shinji stared at the floor. "I thought you weren't talking to me."
Asuka crossed her arms, turning her attention to the operation at hand.
"I'm allowed to change my mind, you dolt!" she huffed indignantly, watching as the entry plug sealed itself, trapping the Ayanami Type inside.
The facilities here in the core weren't designed for launching Evas, so everything had to be jury-rigged to allow for pilots to get to and from the entry plug and to get the entry plug to and from the Eva. The mechanical arm that served as an all-purpose utility tool was only so dexterous, which made getting a pilot inside of the Eva an intensive affair.
"Well, I've basically got a gun pointed at my head at all times," Shinji grumbled. "It's not like they even need to keep me locked up."
Asuka just shrugged.
In all honesty, though, Shinji wasn't sure either why Ritsuko had let him out of his cell. She had even invited him to watch Ayanami get into Unit 01. It was like WILLE was deliberately goading him, which didn't make much sense, given all that he had learned. Then again, nothing had made sense to him every since he had woken from his fourteen year slumber.
"So…" Shinji asked awkwardly. "Where's Unit 02?"
Asuka closed her eye. "It self-destructed after its fight with the Mark.09. Thank you so much for reminding me."
Shinji winced. "Sorry. I was just asking."
Asuka groaned, rolling her eyes. "God, you're such a brat…"
Shinji pursed his lips. It seemed he would really have to walk on eggshells with her.
"Colonel Katsuragi!" Asuka snapped. "Or Captain, or Ma'am. You don't get to call her by that name anymore."
Shinji withered. Must everything she say be a reminder of his failure?
Asuka crossed her arms, exhaling in exasperation.
"Look," she snorted, as if she realized that she had been a little harsher than necessary. "There's a certain amount of decorum expected of you, Shinji. If you honestly expect to ever be one of us again, you better start acting like it."
Shinji hung his head. This was going about as well as he could have predicted.
"Well…the, uh…Captain said that you were now WILLE's only pilot," Shinji muttered. "But all we've got is that…JA thing…"
"The Jet Alone Heavy Armor Infantry Unit," Asuka elaborated, as if reading from a textbook. "After Third Impact, the last of us had to scrounge what resources we could find. Turns out the UN had requisitioned the SSDF's mechanized infantry project in an attempt to turn it into an Anti-Evangelion army. They were so terrified that NERV would try to seize power when the war was over that they pursued every option available in order to try to prevent it. And since all the JA's required was a simple nuclear engine, they were a lot easier to mass produce than the IPEA's Mark.04 program."
Asuka snorted derisively.
"They actually thought a bunch of nuclear powered automatons would be a match for an Evangelion…"
Shinji blinked in surprise. He hadn't been expecting Asuka to actually give him a genuine answer.
"Can hardly blame them, though," she quipped. "In all truth, the UN seriously underestimated just how much damage NERV could do in the end. And now that the world's gone to hell, their paranoia has actually benefited WILLE in the long run. When they're not being used to fend off sentries, the JA's have doubled as emergency power sources for what Lilin outposts we have. The single unit we have wouldn't be enough to power the Wunder of course, but a regular naval battleship could circumnavigate the globe with all the juice that one of these puts out. It's also kept survivors warm in the winter. A lot of lives have been saved because of these things."
Shinji swallowed. He hadn't really appreciated just how desperate the human race was at this point. Subsisting on nutrient paste and using a relic from the pre-Impact days to keep them warm in the winter, all the while being hunted by NERV…
WILLE really was the last bastion of hope for humanity, he mused.
So lost in thought, Shinji didn't even notice that the entry plug had already disappeared inside of Unit 01 until Asuka nodded in the Evas direction.
"Let's hope that NERV clone of yours can get us moving again without starting another Impact."
Shinji was about to speak, but at that moment, the air suddenly filled with the sound of alarm bells.
Misato bit her lip as the entry plug was lifted up to the mouth of the insertion chamber. In her fist was the DDS trigger, her thumb hovering over the kill switch, watching in trepidation as what could easily be the doom of humanity stepped into the most powerful war machine on the planet.
"This had better work…" she muttered through gritted teeth. "Or there's literally going to be hell to pay."
Ritsuko eyed the Captain, warily. Already, she was regretting her suggestion to rely on the DSS trigger as a safety net. "Well, don't trigger it unless we know for an absolute certainty that there's a risk of awakening. Otherwise, you could very well be destroying our only hope of salvaging the Wunder."
Misato didn't match her gaze. She was watching the entry plug screw into place, wondering what was happening inside that bus-sized metal tube that could possibly render Unit 01 back into a viable power source without also awakening it and turning the Eva into a doomsday device.
"You don't have to make up for anything, Captain," Ritsuko said suddenly.
Misato blinked, not understanding. "What do you mean?"
Ritsuko continued to examine her instruments. "Don't think that you have to kill someone today just because you couldn't do it earlier."
Misato threw her a dirty look. She knew exactly what Ritsuko was referring to.
"Don't think that I won't do it if I have to," Misato countered.
"For Rei′, maybe," Ritsuko allowed. "But not Shinji. You wouldn't kill him then, and if it came down to it, I don't think you would do it now."
Misato wrinkled her nose and turned her attention back to the proceedings, unwilling to meet Ritsuko's gaze.
"That's a good thing, by the way," Ritsuko added, idly, tapping a few keys on her keyboard to bring up initial diagnostics. "It means you've still got some humanity left in there."
Misato exhaled. She was already wound up from such a high risk test like this. She was in no mood to be receiving lectures from an annoying doctor friend.
Ritsuko apparently realized this.
"No immediate reaction from topical immersion," she commented, scanning her instruments. "Beginning primary induction sequence."
Misato gritted her teeth, her knuckles whitening as her fingers tightened around the DDS trigger. The longer this dragged on, the more she was convinced that this was absolutely the worst idea to ever…
BREEEP! BREEEP! BREEEP!
Misato jerked wildly as the alarm bells sounded, and she nearly dropped the DSS trigger.
"What the hell's going on!?" she demanded, adrenaline pumping. "Is Unit 01 awakening!?"
"Negative!" Ritsuko replied in a hurried tone. "Unit 01 is still inactive!"
"Captain!" Lieutenant Commander Nagara's voice sounded over the intercom. "We've got a Code 4C up here! Repeat: Nemesis Seris inbound! Please advise!"
"What!?" Misato demanded incredulously, leaning in close to the communication's array. "Damn it, why now? Prep the JA Heavy Armor for launch! What's their number and ETA?"
There was a pause, presumably as one of the bridge crew relayed the desired intel.
"I count three Nemesis Series," Nagara finally responded. "They'll be on us in forty seconds!"
"Understood," Misato nodded. "Hold position and open fire as soon as they're in range!"
"Captain!" Nagara replied. "I've got no engines and no steering up here!"
"We're working on it, Lieutenant Commander!" Misato shouted back. "You're just going to have to hold out for a bit!"
"Aye, Captain!" Nagara's voice sounded nervous and excited at the same time.
Misato hoped that she was up to this. If she and Ritsuko couldn't pull a rabbit out of a hat somehow, Nagara would have to get real creative, real fast.
"How are we doing, Ritsu?" Misato snapped.
"Unit 01 is still silent, Captain," Ritsuko reported, somberly. "Rei′'s sync rate with the Eva is zero. Just like…"
Ritsuko paused, stroking her chin as she thought.
"What? What are you thinking?" Misato demanded, impatiently. "I need options here, Doc!"
Ritsuko bit her lip as she appeared to run through some calculations in her head, before pulling up some sync data onto her computer screen, comparing what appeared to be two different waveform patterns, before exhaling.
"I've got an idea, Captain…" she sighed in a tone befitting for their current predicament. "But you're not going to like it."
As Misato listened to the Doctor's idea, she had to agree.
She did not like it at all.
"I can only assume that you're joking," Misato said dismissively. "I need a real answer here, Ritsuko."
The doctor simply stared silently at her.
"The data doesn't lie, Captain," Ritsuko pursed her lips, fixing the Captain with a serious look.
"Ritsuko…" Misato repeated again, staying calm with visible effort. "That is one line I will not cross. Letting that NERV clone into an Eva was the last straw, Doctor! I will not jeopardize humanity on nothing more than a hunch!"
That's when the ship began to rock as the first of the Nemesis Series' attacks began to hit home.
"Taking fire, Captain!" Sumire Nagara's voice sounded from the intercom.
"Return fire!" Misato ordered absently, her eyes not leaving Ritsuko's.
"We're trying, Captain!" Nagara replied. "But we have zero maneuverability! The Nemeses are beneath the surface of the water! They're attacking from our blind spot beneath the ship's belly, and we are unable to angle the dorsal AT cannons to get a lock on them!"
"Just keep at it!"
Misato flipped a switch on the comm terminal to send a message to the launch bay.
"Ibuki, what's the status of the Jet Alone?"
"It's still being outfitted with underwater gear!" Maya's voice sounded from the other line. "Asuka just got here! We're scrambling the launch!"
Another round of shock-waves rocked the ship's hull, and both of the lab's occupants teetered as they attempted to remain standing.
"Captain, we're out of time," Ritsuko said firmly. "Without an AT field or the ability to return fire, the ship will go down before Asuka can do any good out there. This is our only option now, Misato."
She met Misato's gaze, as Misato simply stared back, ignoring the lapse in decorum at using her first name for old time's sake.
"Either we go out like fish in a barrel, or we go out swinging," Ritsuko reaffirmed quietly. "It's up to you."
Misato swore silently. It appeared that once again, she had been backed into a corner.
She took a breath.
And made her decision.
Shinji blinked in absolute and utter stupefaction.
"You want me to what?"
He looked up at the lab area, whose window overlooked the causeway surrounding the outer core, with Ritsuko staring down at him. Overhead, the mechanical arm bearing the entry plug was already descending towards him.
"We need you to get into Unit 01's entry plug with Rei," Ritsuko's voice said gently. "Don't worry; we don't need either of you to pilot at all. We just need you to get in and see if we can get the Eva to start up."
Shinji looked back and forth between the window overhead, and the entry plug, which was already sitting on the causeway, draining of LCL, before opening.
"Why?" was all he could think to ask.
Misato appeared at Ritsuko's side, arms crossed.
"We don't have time for twenty questions, Shinji," she said bluntly. "Either you get in, or we all die."
Shinji swallowed. That sounded eerily familiar.
Though having to share his entry plug was a new one.
"I thought you said that my sync rate was zero," he said, despondently. "That I would never pilot Eva again."
"You seemed to have no trouble piloting Unit 13," Misato shot back snidely.
"What the Captain is trying to say, Shinji," Ritsuko amended quickly, "Is that we want to try again."
Shinji turned his head up to look at Misato, who simply matched his gaze with a cold hard stare of her own. As high up as she was, with Unit 01 right before him, it reminded him of that first day at NERV, staring up at his father for the first time in years.
He gritted his teeth as he stared down at the metal floor beneath his feet. And so once again, they needed him to pilot for them. Oh, sure, it wasn't "piloting" per-say, but how long before the pain came? How long before the nightmares returned? How long before he would be made to bear the brunt of humanity's burdens?
And how long before they once again decided to blame him for everything when he inevitably made a mistake?
Another loud rumble shook the entire ship, as everything that wasn't bolted down shook and swung, causing Shinji to wobble precariously on the causeway.
"Please, Shinji!" Ritsuko cried out, her voice sounded sincere.
Shinji wrinkled his nose. He had wanted to help WILLE, but now it just seemed like he was back at NERV. Was this his lot in life? Was this the only way he would ever be useful to anyone? Was he doomed to always be the martyr for the world's salvation, whether he wanted it or not? Would he be forever trapped in an endless cycle of being damned if he did, and damned if he did not?
He was so tired of being used. So tired of being manipulated. So tired of being everyone's scapegoat, their go-to person whenever something went wrong, whether that meant taking the heat or being the 'only one who could save everyone.' He was sick of it all! It was like he had a great big sign on his back, letting everyone around him know that they could expect something out of him, whether that was to be their fall guy or their beast of burden.
No one ever seemed to consider his feelings for even a moment.
Then Shinji's eyes fell onto something black on the floor. He turned his head to see Asuka's black, peaked cap laying on the deck. It must have fallen off her head as she had run out of the core area. As soon as Misato had given the order, Asuka had barreled towards the launch bay without so much as a backwards glance. She was probably out there right now, fighting off a horde of angelic sentries in nothing but an outmoded piece of pre-Impact hardware, just like she had been at Outpost Naraka. Only this time, she wouldn't have an army of drones at her side, a battery of turrets backing her up, or even the Wunder, which seemed to be about as useful as a beached whale in its current state.
She would be fighting them alone.
Shinji squeezed his fist into a tight little ball.
If he backed down now, he would be validating every bit of the vitriol that Asuka, Misato and everyone at WILLE felt for him. Yes, it was unfair of them to lob contempt at someone who had honestly given it everything he had and failed.
But someone who wouldn't even try? That was unforgivable, no matter how you sliced it.
"Alright," he said quietly, though he knew they could hear him. "I'll do it."
Three Nemeses were circling the Wunder like sharks circling a dying whale as it floated in the water, taking cruel, calculated strikes seemingly at random, but each one damaging critical areas. Without an AT field or even the ability to move, the ship was completely defenseless. The three Nemeses had linked tendrils, forming a circle around their prey, each one firing off in sequence the key segments of the hull. The Wunder was leaking LCL like a bleeding animal, too exhausted to fight back, but too stubborn to give up the ghost. And as the Nemeses became bolder and bolder with their strikes, it was clear to the crew that it would only be a matter of time until they sank.
That was, until a single JA Heavy Armor craft emerged from the launch bay beneath the ship, motoring along on its underwater gear through the red, murky ocean.
"Alright you sons of bitches!" Asuka shouted in full battle frenzy over the comm channels. "Come get some!"
The JA released a volley of N2 torpedoes at the surrounding red balls of merciless destruction, which went off like depth charges, buffeting each of the sentries. The Nemeses broke off their attack and dispersed, their tendrils disconnecting from one another as they reassessed their prey.
"Yeah, that's right!" Asuka hollered. "You better run!"
As if responding to the taunt, one of the Nemeses' tendrils shot out, and latched onto Asuka's vessel, pulling the JA towards it through the water.
"Gah!" Asuka shouted, thumbing the trigger to send two more torpedoes into the sentry's carapace in response, though the creature's AT field deflected most of it, and the N2 detonation dealt more damage to the JA than to the Nemesis. "Get off me!"
The Nemesis' tendrils began to seep into the JA unit's armor, the cold, dark metal slowly corroding into a rust-red material, as the Nemesis began transmuting the mech into core material.
"Damn it!" Asuka grunted in frustration, as her unit's control systems began to short out as complex circuitry and engine systems inside the JA's chassis began to metastasize into one, indelible red material. "The JA's being compromised!"
She had expected a response from the bridge of the Wunder, but at that moment, no one appeared to be offering any feedback.
This was most likely because the Wunder had begun to slowly lift out of the water with little to no warning or explanation.
"What the-!?" Asuka gasped, craning her unit's neck to peer up as the belly of the Wunder disappeared above the surface of the ocean.
As the ship lurched, Misato and Ritsuko were thrown this way and that within the lab as the Wunder suddenly rose. Alarm bells sounded, and the the air suddenly filled with a deafening howl as the engines kicked on. Out the plexiglass viewport, a resounding red glow emanated from the core as inside, the sound of Unit 01's S2 engine thrummed sonorously.
One look at their circumstances, and panic overtook Misato as she scrambled to the communication's array, stumbling and dodging flying junk as she did, gripping the control console for leverage as the entire floor slanted at an angle.
"Helmsman!" she blared into the comm unit. "Report!"
There came a sound of muffled shouts of confusion from the other line as the bridge crew blathered in alarm.
"The Wunder is back online, Captain!" Lieutenant Commander Nagara responded after a fashion, but sounding like she was concentrating on something else. "But the controls are unresponsive! The Wunder's acting on its own! It's Kamchatka all over again!"
"Shit!" the Captain swore, as she switched off the console and reached into her jacket pocket for the DSS trigger, keying it to both pilots' chokers. "Unit 01 must've taken control of the Wunder again! I knew putting those two in there was a bad idea!"
"Wait!" Ritsuko shouted, clinging to the far wall for support, though from the angle of the tilt, it was the lower end as well, forcing her to stare up at her Captain. "Stop!"
Misato had been millimeters from triggering both DSS chokers with the push of a button, before turning to stare down at the Doctor, trying to figure out why she would stop her at this point.
"Not all of your subordinates are as loyal as you think, Colonel."
Misato shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, shutting out Mari's words. Ritsuko would never betray her!
"I have to stop this now, Ritsuko!" Misato blared from the far side of the lab, clinging to the control console so as not to fall down the slanted room. "This has gone far enough!"
"Captain, we don't know what's happening!" Ritsuko countered, as the entire lab shook with the rest of the ship. "This could be just the break we need! You pull that trigger, and you'll be throwing away our only chance to survive this!"
"I can't risk it!" Misato shouted back. Around them, chairs and desks overturned as papers and tools were flung through the air around them, sparks flying from every piece of machinery not bolted down. "I have to end this, now!"
"How far are you willing to go for your revenge!?" Ritsuko demanded, bluntly. "Are you willing to sacrifice everyone on this ship!? Because that trigger isn't just aimed at Shinji and Rei anymore, Captain! It's aimed at your entire crew!"
Misato was breathing hard now, looking between Ritsuko and the DSS trigger, uncertainty clouding her vision.
"I'm not-!" she said, haltingly, staring at the DSS choker like she didn't know what it was. "I'm not doing this for revenge, Ritsuko! I'm doing this for the sake of humanity!"
"No you're not!" Ritsuko hollered across the lab. "You're only doing it because you're scared!"
Misato blinked, staring incredulously at her old friend as the engines howled, the machinery sparking and hissing as the ship groaned all around them, their whole world reflecting the chaos in her heart.
"I don't blame you, Misato!" Ritsuko continued, voice still loud, but her tone softening. "I'm scared too! But if you pull that trigger out of fear, then you'll only be running away from your problems! Just like Shinji!"
Misato's eyes widened as she stared at the DSS trigger in her hands.
"This isn't you, Misato!" Ritsuko proclaimed. "The Misato that I know is a hero! And she wouldn't have to rely on something like that to make her problems go away before she even understood them!"
For some reason, Misato thought of Shinji in that moment. Not Shinji, the desperate, ignorant boy-child who had nearly doomed humanity, or even Shinji the reticent Eva pilot who only wanted his father's approval.
Instead, she thought of Shinji, the boy who she had taken into her home, shared her meals with, and practically adopted as her own. After so many years, she had refused to acknowledge even a sliver of that maternal emotion within her that driven her to stand up for Shinji when no one else would. In the time that followed Third Impact, she had tried writing it off as a fanciful whim, as the foolish desire of a lonely bachelorette who feared that she'd never know what it meant to have a family.
But even as Ritsuko repeated Shinji's words to her, all she could think about was how much he had looked up to her. For all the care and affection she had carelessly heaped on him in an attempt to spur him on as a pilot and give him the illusion of a family, Shinji had inadvertently become her family, just as she had become his.
Third Impact had hurt her. It had scared her. She had wanted so badly to lay all that hurt and fear at someone else's feet. But that didn't take away their time together. Every word of encouragement, every thank you and goodbye, every tear shed…they had all meant something to her once.
And they still did.
No matter how she tried to deny it.
Misato took a breath.
Ritsuko was right. Some things were just too important to sacrifice.
As the craft shook all around them, she thumbed the DSS trigger into the 'off' position and let the device fall to the floor, clattering down the slanted room, where it slid to the corner of the lab.
Ritsuko sighed in relief and slowly climbed her way up to her long time friend and put her hand on her shoulder.
"Glad to see you haven't set aside your humanity just yet," she smiled, before turning her attention to the communication's array.
Misato blinked, still somewhat out of breath, as she watched the Doctor bring up a feed.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
On the screen, the view from the Wunder's external feeds and everything surrounding it came up on separate screens, breaking down into several different perspectives, and a final, digital recreation of the entire ship as it dodged and weaved between Nemeses, represented by shimmering red dots around it.
"Getting a visual," Ritsuko nodded at the screen. "Something tells me we won't want to miss this."
The remaining two Nemeses had reacted immediately to the Wunder's takeoff, breaking through the surface to levitate towards the mighty warship and give chase, still keeping below the hull and out of range of the dorsal cannons. The ship's AT drive was online, but with the maneuvering thrusters removed for repair, the drones were staying out of range of the AT cannons with ease. All the while, the Wunder was still smoldering and leaking LCL from damage already sustained, and taking fire even as it flew.
In the ocean below, Asuka still wrestled with the third Nemesis, her JA Heavy Armor unit slowly deteriorating into core material.
Asuka gritted her teeth. She would need to eject eventually, but she was loathe to surrender their one and only mech with two other Nemeses out there, haranguing their already damaged capital ship. Failing armor or not, Asuka knew that she represented the Wunder's best chance of survival at this point.
At least, until the Wunder started flapping its wings.
As if frustrated with its lack of maneuverability, the Wunder let out an earsplitting scream as the armored shell casing around the joints at the base of its wings suddenly crumbled into detritus. And then suddenly, the ship banked in mid-air, buffeting the surface of the ocean with its two massive steel wings as it ducked under the Nemeses' next energy blast, and fought to get an angle on the sentries.
"What the hell…?" Asuka blinked as she watched the warship through her view screen, her cockpit's display receiving sensor data from the Wunder's bridge and giving her a fairly accurate visual.
In its entire term of service, the Wunder had never moved like this before! It was functionally just a ship, despite any appearance it had to a living thing, and any moving parts were invariably internal and man-made. But now the Wunder was swooping through the air like an over-sized bird, flapping its wings and twisting and turning in mid-air to dodge the Nemeses' laser fire and return fire with its dorsal AT cannons, letting out sonorous screams as it fought.
Asuka was lost for words, however, at what happened next.
Despite its renewed maneuverability, the AT cannons still failed to connect with their targets. Its targeting sensors had most likely been thrown off by the sudden lurching of the Wunder's body as it made very un-ship-like movements through the air above the sea. After a few failed shots, however, the twin sensor modules that covered the ancient beast's skeletal eye sockets began to crumble and fall away. At the same time, just as the once stationary wings had suddenly moved on their own accord, so too did the great creature's neck, as the beast swung its head to track one of the orbiting Nemesis sentries.
And that's when the two black pools of emptiness that were its eye sockets began to shimmer a brilliant red.
Twin optical cannons let loose, and the first sentry was obliterated in an instant, leaving behind a cross-like plume of energy that sank into the sea.
The Wunder swiveled its head to followed the remaining airborne sentry.
And in another instant, the second of the Nemesis had been reduced to dust, leaving behind another cross-shaped explosion in its wake.
Asuka stared in awe, as a smile slowly began to creep across her face.
"Well, now…" she grinned. "That changes things…"
Asuka felt an unfamiliar rush wash over her. For the first time in fourteen years, she felt that maybe, just maybe, WILLE really stood a fighting chance now.
With a victorious huff, she jettisoned her escape pod, triggering the JA's self destruct sequence before her cockpit flew out of the back of her mech, bursting through the water and sailing through the air, leaving the rotting carapace of her armor to explode in a massive bubble of nuclear combustion, taking the solitary Nemesis along with it.
Gasping and panting for breath, Shinji clutched the control yokes within his entry plug, awkwardly sharing the seat with Rei, her own hands over his own. Around them, they could see the red ocean spanning for miles in every direction, as the last flecks of dust that had once been the two Nemeses drifted away. Shooting them down had been a completely unconscious effort; he had simply looked at them, identified them as a threat in his mind, and the ship had apparently aimed and fired on its own, as if reacting to his fear.
Then there was a sudden dull 'boom' as a massive plume of water abruptly erupted from the ocean below as the last Nemesis was obliterated by the equivalent of an atom bomb. At the same time, a single bright mote of light breached the surface of the ocean and took off through the air, only to splash down half a kilometer away.
"Asuka…" Shinji muttered, and before he knew it, the city-sized craft had turned to follow the trail, once again seeming to react to his very intention.
That's when Ritsuko's face appeared on his screen.
"Shinji," she said. "The fight is over. I need you to stand down now."
Shinji hesitated. "But…Asuka…"
"We'll take care of recovering the JA's escape capsule," Ritsuko instructed, like it was the simplest thing in the world. "Transfer control over to Lieutenant Commander Nagara. We can handle things from here."
Shinji blinked, staring at the interior of the entry plug in befuddlement. "H-how…how do I…?"
He felt a gentle pair of hands take hold of his wrists, gently lifting them off the control yokes.
"A-Ayanami…?" he said, turning to face her.
She just simply his gaze.
"Hmm?" she hummed, as if curious to what he wanted.
As his hands left the controls, the words "Primary Control Relinquished" appeared in big white letters across his display.
"Very good, Shinji," Ritsuko nodded approvingly. "You've gone above and beyond what we've expected of you today."
Behind Ritsuko's face, Shinji could just barely make out Misato's face.
"I…" he muttered, completely unsure of what had just happened. "I don't understand…how did I synchronize?"
"You didn't," Ritsuko answered. "At least, not alone. By yourselves, you and Rei each have a sync rate of zero. But when you combine your two waveform patterns…"
To illustrate her point, Ritsuko sent a CG graphic to appear next to her image on Shinji's display, showing two different waveform patterns slowly merging into one, and the double helixes lining up almost perfectly.
"It's a similar concept to Unit 13's dual entry system," Ritsuko said excitedly, moving off screen, her scientific exuberance momentarily getting the best of her. "We'll have to re-prioritize our research into this back at base. I've almost got the calculations mapped out. Oh, this could be just the data we need to salvage Unit's 02 and 08…"
As Ritsuko wandered off, muttering to herself, Misato appeared behind where she had been standing, crossing her arms and stepping up to peer back at Shinji.
"We're going to have to leave you two in there until we make it back to Kamchatka," she explained simply. "The Wunder won't seem to fly without the both of you in the entry plug."
Shinji nodded slowly. "I…I understand Misato - um…Captain…"
Misato took a breath.
"I suppose congratulations are in order, Shinji," she muttered, sounding somewhat withdrawn. "You and Rei have not only managed to get the Wunder back up and running again, but you also seem to have unlocked some powerful new abilities with it. It appears that WILLE has finally found a use for you."
Shinji blinked, exchanging a look with Rei, who simply stared back, still seemingly puzzled by their current circumstances.
"Does this mean…" he asked, hesitantly, "That you want us to pilot again?"
Misato exhaled in acquiescence. "Shinji…what this means is that you and Rei are now the Wunder's new co-pilots."
End of Part 1
A/N: Taking a (hopefully) short break to plan out Part 2.
Also, FYI, this is how I'm pronouncing the following terms:
BM-00α - "BM-Zero-Zero-Alpha"
BM-00β - "BM-Zero-Zero-Beta"
BM-00γ - "BM-Zero-Zero-Gamma"Rei′ - "Rei Prime"