NERV Headquarters was huge. No, it was actually positively megalomaniac.
Shinji had no idea how anyone could have use for so much space. It was not enough that NERV had created an entire geofront beneath Tokyo-3. The facilities inside and below that geofront seemed to stretch for several kilometres. And there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how they were arranged. The surface of the geofront was a nice woodland areal that could have provided enough space for several buildings, each dedicated to a specific task. Instead, NERV HQ had ended up as a veritable maze of train lines, rooms and corridors. And escalators. Lots and lots of giant escalators.
Shinji did feel a bit intimitated by the surroundings: A room that seemed to be large enough to house the entire apartment complex he and Misato was using, and a ludicrously large escalator running right through it, at its centre at least a hundred metre removed from any wall, ground or ceiling. But as usual, the vaguely suppressive feeling did not really reach him. He had to report in for synch and combat training, so that was what he would be doing.
His bored gaze got steady when he saw a person at the end of escalator. Misato seemed to be waiting for him.
"There you are, Shinji," the Captain greeted him. "Sorry for letting you come here on your own. Ristuko wanted to brief me."
"Brief you?" Shinji echoed.
"They finally got Unit 00 functional again," Misato explained. "So I've scheduled joint combat training between you and Rei today."
"Already?" Shinji asked. "She only got rid of her last bandages a few days ago."
"You two need to be able to work together ASAP," Misato answered. "There's no telling when the next angel will arrive."
That made Shinji turn his gaze strictly forward again, and a scowl appeared on his face. The next angel. It was not something he was looking forward to.
Misato seemed to sense his mood. A mischievous grin appeared on her face when she asked in an all too innocent voice: "Aren't you glad for the chance to be working with Rei?"
Shinji had only lived with his new guardian for a few weeks, but he could already guess what would come now. He sounded too petulant even for his own taste when he answered: "What do you mean?"
"You entered EVA-01 when you saw how injured she was," Misato recalled. "The knight in shining armour getting up on his horse to save the fair maiden. You know, traditionally chivalry should be rewarded with a kiss."
This was exactly what Shinji had expected, and yet he still got annoyed. Or flustered. Whatever. "It wasn't like that! You know that!" He paused, but before Misato could speak up again he continued darkly: "It was much more serious than that."
That seemed to make Misato reconsider. "Yes, it was," she finally said in a serious tone. "But it still was a very noble thing for you to do."
Shinji did not know how to respond to that. He knew full well of himself how much he longed for such words of praise and acknowledgement. Misato seemed to have made it a habit to casually mention now and then how his decision to pilot was the right and noble one, or how he had saved the city on two occasions. Even so, Shinji still never knew how to react to that. So as so often, he simply remained quiet.
He actually ran into Ayanami before the tests and training began, right outside the locker rooms. She was walking straight to the female one, without even so much as looking at him.
Before she could reach the door, Shinji spoke up: "So, uh... do you feel ready for the training?"
"I foresee no problems," Ayanami simply answered.
"Say, didn't you get those injuries in a test with Unit 00?" Shinji asked. "Aren't you at least a bit afraid of entering that EVA again?"
"No," Ayanami replied. Despite the shortness of the answer it did not sound curt. In fact, nearly everything she said sounded incredibly soft.
"Uh, if you say so..." Shinji commented. He was confused.
Ayanami finally came to a stop, right in front of the door to her locker room. Without turning around she asked: "Aren't you Commander Ikari's son?"
"Uh, yeah..." Shinji answered unsurely. Not that I like that fact.
"Then you should have faith in your own father's work," Rei stated.
Shinji just scoffed at that and entered his own locker room. He did not want to be rude towards Rei, but his father was a hot button topic with him.
The first two hours of activities consisted of nothing else but synch tests. The test room was occupied by EVA-00, so all Shinji could do was to sit in his entry plug and try to concentrate. Again and again and again. Synch tests were alright, actually, since they required basically no effort. But two hours of them could become very long, especially as nearly nobody spoke to him. Only Misato made a comment now and then.
He hoped the reactivation of EVA-00 would go smoothly. As much as he was confused by Ayanami, he did not wish harm on her. It seemed the girl had suffered enough due to the EVAs already, as proven by the bandages she had worn to school for several weeks. Due to Father's EVA program... and yet she says I should have faith in him. Yeah, that'll be the day.
There were no bad news coming his way, though, and finally he could leave the entry plug. Dr Akagi told him that the reactivation of EVA-00 had happened without a single glitch; in fact she seemed a little surprised by that herself. For now the unit would be left in the test room. Since it was too small to accommodate two EVAs, Shinji and his unit would be added by VR, just as the training simulation was. After two hours, Shinji and Ayanami would change places, with EVA-01 then in the test room.
The fights themselves, simulated retellings of the attacks by Sachiel and Shahamshel, were easy enough. Both Shinji and Ayanami simply followed Misato's commands. This was Virtual Reality, and Shinji knew so. There was no emotional investment here. There really only was rote and routine, and it seemed to be the same for Ayanami. Both EVAs, no matter which one was the virtual one and which the real one, showed little to none initiative.
That was expected. What was more surprising was Ayanami's general behaviour. Even during the simulations, her acknowledgement of orders and status reports did not waste one word too many, and outside the simulations, in pauses when the virtual environment was rearranged or when Dr Akagi would take her time to analyse the sensor and machine readings, Ayanami did not say anything at all. When pushed, she would finally answer with pure "Yes" and "No" answers, but Shinji really was not a person to push, so he gave it up after a single try.
It's odd. Does she hold my earlier rudeness against me? That would be one lengthy grudge over such a small thing.
After the training, Shinji ran into Ayanami again, after both had showered and dressed.
"Uh, I think we did well..."
Ayanami did not answer.
The two walked a few steps before Shinji tried anew: "I'm glad you didn't experience any problems in Unit 00."
They had reached the long escalator when Shinji said: "I just hope we won't need to use this training any time soon. Hopefully the next angel will take some time before attacking."
When Ayanami remained silent again, Shinji thought it best to give up. However, she eventually did speak, if with nearly a minute of delay: "You could have left. I could have piloted Unit 01."
Shinji really did not know how to respond to that.
Misato waited for Shinji at the bottom of the escalator. Without acknowledging either of the two, Ayanami just turned around and walked away. Shinji watched her leaving.
His confusion must have been written plainly in his face. "Girl trouble?" Misato teased.
"Say, Misato, for how long have you known Ayanami?" Shinji asked.
"Since the first activation tests of EVA-00," the Captain answered. "Which were about a year ago. Why?"
"She is... odd," Shinji judged. "She hardly spoke a word during the training. And now she told me I could have left, as she could pilot my EVA."
"That's just the way she is," Misato explained. "I doubt you could fill much more than a A4 sheet of paper with all the words she has said to me, ever. I don't think she was hostile to you. Knowing her, she probably even meant that in a friendly way – you're free to go, she'll cover for you. Though, knowing her, she could have meant it in all kinds of ways." She looked in the direction into which Ayanami had gone and frowned. "Communicating with her is difficult."
"I see," Shinji muttered. That was not a very difficult concept for him to comprehend. Communicating with anyone was difficult for him.
By and large, Shinji's life so far had been dominated by grey, dull monotony. He was living day to day, with little conception of or care for the future, and there was little that reached him emotionally. That did not mean he had entirely lost the ability to marvel, though. First seeing the Geofront, or seeing the buildings of Tokyo-3 literally rise into evening sky, those had been marvellous moments. And right now, he was able to enjoy his helicopter trip, no matter how suddenly he had been called to it. He had never seen urban areas, like Tokyo-3, or various fields and woodlands now, from such an angle.
He had assumed today would be just another school day, but he had been wrong. Instead of driving him to school, Misato had brought him to NERV Headquarters, where they had entered a helicopter belonging to the organization. The only drawback was how cramped it was. No less than four armed people, all of them dressed in light beige uniforms and red berets were besides him and the Captain. There was no doubt that this was not a joy ride; this was a military helicopter taking them to a military operation.
Shinji did a double take when he saw two giant statues in an otherwise empty woodland, one of them orange and one of them purple. Not statues, but Evangelion Units 00 and 01. EVA-00 was covered in scaffolds. And around them, a makeshift camp of containers and plane tents. It was there that the helicopters landed. Misato disembarked even before the copter had fully reached the ground. She did not even duck under the still roaring rotors. By contrast, Shinji waited until those had mostly died down.
He was surprised to see Dr Akagi and Ayanami waiting for them at the landing field, even though Unit 00's presence should have given him a hint.
"Ah, hello," he greeted them, then looked at the blue-haired girl. "You're here, too, Ayanami?"
Instead of the girl, Misato answered: "She came in in another helicopter. Security rules. I had to push to be allowed into the same one as you, Shinji. NERV gets nervous when all its eggs are in the same basket."
Shinji turned to her. "So I assume we are here to pilot our EVAs?"
Misato nodded. "I'm sorry about not having told you any details. Again, operational security. We can't afford any leaks. Come along."
The group entered a nearby long, white tent. Inside, electronic devices had been installed in a very unorderly fashion, surrounded by mazes of cable. Dr Akagi led them to a monitor. Shinji could not quite recognize what it showed. The thing on the monitor looked like a weird caricature of a human foetus, but the picture was held entirely in black and brown colour tones, so it was difficult to discern details.
"I'm sure your departure was a bit too sudden to notice any landmarks, Shinji," Dr Akagi began, "This is Mount Asama. As an active volcano, it is under constant geological observation. Some day ago, the monitoring station found something remarkable. NERV teams were sent to investigate. And they found this." She used a pencil to point at the monitor. "This is an angel. Importantly, an angel not yet in its adult state. We assume it is a sort of chrysalis. I hope you understand what this means for us in term of opportunities. A not fully grown, live but dormant angel would be a perfect study object, to find out about the capabilities of our enemies."
"So you want us to capture it," Shinji concluded. He felt... resigned. Not sad, because he had not really expected anything better. He would do NERV's bidding again, simply because there was no one else to pilot Unit 01.
"Correct," Dr Akagi confirmed. "Work teams are currently re-fitting Unit 00. Its D-Type equipment will be able to withstand the extreme pressures and temperatures inside the volcano."
Ayanami nodded slightly. Even though Dr Akagi hardly seemed to notice her, it was apparently her briefing as well.
"What about me then?" Shinji asked.
"We currently don't have D-Type Equipment for Unit 01," Dr Akagi explained. "Unit 00 was our prototype... the unit we used to test all this equipment. It is still under development for the other units."
"Unit 01 will take up position outside the volcano, standing guard," Misato picked up the explanation. "If the capture attempt fails, the angel must be destroyed. And... if it should manage to break out of the volcano, it will be your job to fight it."
Shinji's brows furrowed as he looked to the side. If the angel kills Ayanami, they mean. Why are we...
He looked up and decided to ask the question: "But so far it's been dormant?"
"That's correct," Dr Akagi simply confirmed.
"Then why risk this?" Shinji asked. "Why fight more angels than we need to fight?" He knew he sounded petulant, but he did not care.
"Shinji..." Misato began, but Dr Akagi showed less caution: "More angels will come. If we haven't used all opportunities to study specimen until then we will be at a disadvantage. You will be at a disadvantage fighting them."
That was not something Shinji liked to hear, but Misato added another argument: "Besides, it's time we take the fight to them. Right now, that angel is just a pup. What will happen once it's fully grown? Do you think it will simply stay dormant then?"
Shinji just looked down and did not reply. They always find oh so good reasons. They don't really care if I understand or agree. They only care that I get into the EVA. Misato is wrong. It isn't 'we' who'll take the fight to the angel, it will be Ayanami. Not her.
He looked up again, at Ayanami. He was very sure she would never protest. Which meant that if he refused to pilot, she would be all alone in this. It always comes down to this, doesn't it? Ever since I arrived here.
Misato gave him a soft smile. "We established changing areas in the neighbouring tents. Your plugsuits are there. Get dressed. The operation starts in..." She took a look at her watch. "One hour, twelve minutes."
'Changing areas' simply meant a separation by a thin tent plane. Shinji could still see Ayanami's silhouette on the other side , something he became acutely aware of when he saw her removing her bra and her... Shinji looked down, his face flushing red. Fortunately, he was already in his plugsuit. He heard a familiar faint noise of air hissing from Ayanami's area and looked up. Her plugsuit had tightened, matching to her figure perfectly. He grinned lopsidedly. Not that this is much better...
He felt the need to say something. Ayanami had gotten the dangerous part of this mission. It was possible she could die out there; he was after all the back up in case she did. But he could not ask her if she was afraid. That would most likely be as pointless as last time he had asked her that. Instead, he said softly: "Good luck out there, Ayanami."
The girl did not respond. Not that Shinji would have expected her to. But as she turned, and before she could go, he added quietly: "I'll protect you." He did not know where that came from, but it was important to him. He understood why Ayanami had gotten the dangerous part of the mission, he could even agree with the logic behind it, but he felt awful and even somewhat guilty at the idea of leaving her alone with an angel in the middle of an active volcano.
He had not been sure whether she would even hear him. He had spoken so quietly that these words had been more for his own benefit than hers. However, she replied: "That is not your assigned task", and left.
Shinji was still mulling that over when he left the tent. Then all thoughts of that sort were pushed away and he just laughed.
Both EVAs were standing a bit further down the slope leading up the volcano. Unit 01 looked like it always had, the only unusual element a single wall of scaffolds at its side that would allow him to reach the entry plug. But Unit 00... Unit 00 was wearing a white deep sea diving suit. There was no other way to describe it. Its cyclopean head was even stuck inside a helmet.
Misato smirked when she saw Shinji laughing. Ayanami and Dr Akagi were standing next to her.
"Well then," she said. "It's time. Ayanami?"
The girl nodded and pushed a button on her wrist. Again, Shinji started laughing.
She looks like a balloon!
Her plugsuit had suddenly become inflated, so that her body indeed looked nearly completely spherical, not dissimilar to how EVA-00 currently looked... Which is probably the reason, Shinji realized. Even so, it was quite funny.
Ayanami did not laugh. Dr Akagi did not laugh. Misato merely smirked, and she had an over-active sense of humour anyway.
Shinji stopped. His face reddened and he looked down. He barely managed to look at the blue-haired girl when he whispered: "Sorry."
Ayanami tilted her head. "What for?"
The right side of Dr Akagi's mouth curled up, but the grin did not extent further than that. "Get into your unit, Rei."
"Yes, Dr Akagi," the girl confirmed.
"You as well, Shinji," Misato told him.
Shinji nodded and turned around.
After his EVA had reached the edge of the caldera, he still had to wait nearly an hour for Unit 00 to get into place, whose movements had become much clumsier. A giant crane was suspended over the caldera, and Unit 00 was being connected to it. While this happened, Shinji saw some objects glittering in the sky. They were far too high to be birds, but too numerous to be normal passenger planes.
"What are those?" he asked the open comm channels.
"Air force contingents from the UN and the JSSDF," Misato told him. "They are our second back-up line, after you." She breathed out. "If the angel escapes the volcano, and if you fail to defeat it, then they're our last hope. They will carpet bomb the area with N2 mines."
"But that means..." Shinji started to protest.
"Yes," Misato answered gravely, "it does."
Shinji made his right hand a fist. His face had become a grimace of anger. Of course. They force us to pilot those things, and will kill us if we fail.
He calmed down again. He should not have expected better of NERV. Please, Ayanami. You have to succeed...
EVA-00 was slowly being lowered into the caldera, clad in its special equipment and holding a giant force cage. The unit was absolutely motionless. Shinji tensely listened to the comms.
"Current Depth: 170. Speed of descent: 20"
"Switching to CT Monitor." A pause. "Visibility no more than 120."
"Depth is 400... 450... 500... 550... 600... 650..."
Finally: "900... 950... 1000... 1020... we're over the maximum safety depth."
Shinji tensed further up. Over the safety maximum? He made a deep frown when he listened again: "Depth is 1300. Unit 00 has reached estimated target level." The target level is below the maximum safety depth? That's part of the plan ?
"No reactions detected," Ayanami reported. Even in a situation like this her voice sounded soft and monotone.
"Understood," Misato confirmed. "We're resuming descent."
What? What is Misato doing?
"Depth is 1350... 1400... A crack has occurred in the second coolant pipe."
Coolant pipes? Shinji took a look at the cables again. They were pipes all right. And if they're needed...
"Depth is 1480... we're over the allowed maximum depth."
I swear, Misato, if she gets hurt...
"Maximum allowed depth plus 120... Unit 00 has lost its progressive knife... Maximum allowed depth plus 200... Depth 1780. Unit 00 has reached the corrected target depth."
"Target object sighted," Ayanami reported. Her calmness began to unnerve Shinji.
"Prepare to capture," Misato ordered.
"Rei, due to the extreme lava currents around you, you will only have one chance to capture the target," Dr Akagi added.
"Understood," Ayanami confirmed.
"Electromagnetic cage spread. No problems detected."
"Target captured," Ayanami reported.
Shinji breathed out. He was feeling pure relief. In fact, he was feeling a bit dizzy now.
"Nice job, Rei," Misato lauded her. "We're initiating the ascent."
The rumbling of the cables in the opposite direction as before had a calming effect on Shinji. It seemed like all his fears had been misplaced. Fortunately. Maybe for once things would go better than he had expected.
Then the alarm signal blared
"What's happening?" he demanded to know.
"Movement in the cage," Ayanami reported at the same time.
Shortly afterwards, Misato ordered: "Abort the capture! Jettison the cage! New mission priority: Destroying the angel."
"Understood," Ayanami confirmed. Now she sounded strained. "Cage successfully jettisoned. Angel is growing rapidly... the Angel has freed itself from the cage."
"Unit 00, withdraw and prepare for combat!" Misato ordered.
"Unit 00 is without progressive knife," Ayanami reminded her, now surprisingly calm again.
Misato wasted no second: "Shinji, release your knife into the volcano!"
Shinji did not just "release" it. He threw it into the caldera with all of his EVA's might.
He desperately wished he could get a glimpse of how the combat was going. Even more so he wished he could help Ayanami. But all he could do was to stand at the edge of the caldera, wait, and hope for the best.
"Contact with knife, 40 seconds. Angel is approaching rapidly."
Shinji could hear pained grunts by Ayanami over the comms. He did not notice how his EVA formed fists.
"Knife received," Ayanami reported. However, a while later: "Progressive knife seems to ineffective."
Suddenly, Dr Akagi spoke up: "Rei, cut open coolant pipe 5, and target the angel with it. We're rerouting all coolant pressure to there. The thermal shock should be able to damage the angel."
"Understood," Ayanami answered. She sounded tense. An eternity later, which probably was only about one or two minutes in absolute time, she reported: "Angel seems to be disint... oh."
Shinji heard the explanation for the "oh" instantly from the command centre: "Coolant pipes 1 and 2 ruptured. Coolant pipes 3 and 4 damaged. Amount of coolant pipe received by Unit 00 insufficient."
"Estimated time of arrival topside for Unit 00?" Misato asked.
"One minute, ten seconds," came the answer.
"The angel?" Misato inquired further.
"Destroyed, as far as we can tell. Visual sensors show a disintegration of its physical form, and we aren't picking up any code blue AT fields."
Half a minute later: "Coolant pipe 3 ruptured. She... she's hanging in there on a single, half-destroyed cable."
That was a rather unprofessional report, but Shinji could appreciate that. Or maybe he could have if he were conscious enough about it. As it was, his mind was tasked out by swinging between desperate hope and just despair.
"EVA-00 at 150... further ruptures in remaining pipe... 120... 80... the pipe, it..."
Shinji had heard enough. Given the depths Unit 00 had been in, 80 metres was basically at the edge of the volcano, but if the cable ruptured for good it would not mean a damn how close the EVA and Ayanami had come. So EVA-01 climbed into the volcano.
"Shinji! What are you doing?" Misato shouted.
He ignored her. He was not acting entirely unreasonably. 80 metres, or maybe 100 if Unit 00 has already sunken in a bit, was just about two EVA lengths. And he had not jumped into the caldera; rather he was now climbing down the pipes.
It hurt. It hurt like hell. Unit 01 had no heat-resistant gear. Shinji was not literally boiling. He willed his AT field to become as strong as possible, and the standard EVA armour was nothing to sneeze at. But it still felt like various parts of his body constantly coming into contact with glowing hot metal.
But that was nothing compared to what Ayanami would feel if he were to fail.
He could barely open his eyes for all the pain, but there it was, Unit 00. Unit 01 stretched out its hand.
"EVA-00 at 150... further ruptures in remaining pipe... 120... 80... the pipe, it... pipe ruptured!"
A mild shock went through Unit 00 as it was now completely freed from any force pulling it up. It was now lost in the middle of enormous amounts of lava.
I completed my mission, Rei thought. That is what matters. She did not fear death. She would welcome it, even. But instead, soon there would be another her. She looked around. Red. I hate red.
Then she saw something piercing through the red. Something dark. And in the midst of that dark... two slits, glowing up white. Unit 01's face.
They managed to improvise a rescue operation.
Unit 00 grabbed Unit 01's hand. The latter was hanging from what remained of the pipes and was now slowly crawling them up, Unit 00 in tow. Over the comms, Rei could hear pained grunts from Ikari.
He doesn't have special equipment. But he had to do this. Unit 00 is too valuable to lose.
Finally, Unit 01 was topside, and it managed to drag Unit 00 out of the volcano with one final act of strength. Then it collapsed on the ground.
Rei's synchronization was severed, her entry plug ejected. Soon after, people came, a rescue team, and helped her outside. It really was unnecessary. Her special equipment had gotten some debilitating cuts from the angel, so that her right leg had been subject to some sympathetic pain, but it was nothing severe, and in terms of physical health she was fine. She could have left Unit 00 all on her own, she could even have it manoeuvred it back to the airlift to the Nerv HQ.
Outside the EVA, there were more people. NERV technicians, workers... Dr Akagi, Captain Katsuragi, Ikari. The Operations Director seemed agitated. She kept on talking to Shinji. The boy did not seem to care or even pay attention. His stance shifted now and then, but not in reaction to what Captain Katsuragi was saying. He winced.
He's in pain, Rei realized.
She could now hear what Katsuragi was telling him: "Please, Shinji. Pay attention to me. Look, I won't say the pain is your own fault... you do deserve sympathy... but you did act recklessly, and..."
Ikari looked up and spotted Rei. His face lightened up. Without further paying notice to Katsuragi, he impulsively ran over. Rei still had time enough to wonder about his intent, when she suddenly felt surrounded on all sides by him. For some reason he had grabbed her and… hugged. He has hugged me. Rei's eyes widened. She was startled and surprised.
Nearly as quickly as he had started the hug, Ikari ended it and awkwardly retreated. He looked down as he did so. "Ah, sorry, Ayanami. I'm just glad you survived!"
Katsuragi grumbled, but it sounded benign. "Don't think you can escape this by sheer cuteness." She began to sound more serious. "If we had lost both Evangelions… and what about yourself? We would have had no way to rescue you!"
"I hardly could leave Ayanami to die, could I?" Ikari countered. He was grumbling for real, speaking in a subdued but defiant voice.
Rei did not understand what the conversation was about. She was confused.
"But you can risk your own death?" Katsuragi asked rhetorically. "Or impose burning pains on you?"
"I'm becoming used to pain," Ikari mumbled.
This finally motivated Rei to speak up: "Did Pilot Ikari not succeed in your rescue operation, Captain Katsuragi?"
The Operations Director turned her head around to her sharply, then her facial features softened. "It never was my rescue operation, Rei. It was his. When he heard about the last pipe rupturing, he stepped into the volcano on his own initiative."
Rei nodded. It was good that Ikari, despite being so new to NERV, could appreciate the value of Unit 00. Maybe he should have waited for orders, but she could appreciate the rapidness of events might have made that infeasible.
"He wanted to save you," Katsuragi continued.
Rei's eyes widened again. He looked to Ikari, who now looked a bit abashed... and still in pain, as he seemed to bite down hard on his teeth.
She tilted her head. "I do not understand."
"I thought you at least would," Ikari suddenly shouted. "Everyone questions me. But..." His voice got quieter. "I did say I'd protect you, didn't I?"
Rei looked in the faces of the people around him. Captain Katsuragi was as easy to read as a book. She seemed to be mostly motivated by her concern for Ikari. That concern was not something Rei understood, but that was okay: All in all, she understood little of the world, and she had no reason to understand more. Her purpose did not require it. Meanwhile, Dr Akagi's expression was blank and neutral, but Rei knew her: She was constantly observing everything.
She felt a deep urge within her to ask Ikari why protecting her was so important. She was replaceable, after all. She also wanted to ask if this had anything to do with what she was feeling currently. As so many things about the aftermath of this operation, that confused her as well. It was not a physical sensation, but something inside her. Something that was both unsettling and yet... positive, in a strange way she could not articulate even within her thoughts.
But it would not do to ask him this here. She would have to approach him later.