Chapter 20.

Yeah, it happened.


"Colonel Ramirez?"

Frowning somewhat at the mentioning of his name, Colonel Ramirez sat up a bit straighter in his seat as he looked at the person who had addressed him. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

"We have a bogey inbound, sir," the Lieutenant replied. Frowning at this revelation, Ramirez frowned that more when the Lieutenant added. "It's coming in from the Pacific ocean, approaching the coast at mach 5!"

Despite his many years of training and experience, the Colonel's mouth popped slightly open at this. "Are you sure about that?" The Lieutenant promptly nodded. "Where's it headed?"

"Assuming it maintains its present course, sir...right towards us," the Lieutenant reported.

At this bit of news, Ramirez narrowed his eyes in consideration. "Any idea what we're dealing with here?"

"Negative, sir. Radar profile doesn't match anything we have on file," the Lieutenant reported. "But whatever it is, it's small. Too small to be any kind of jet we've seen."

Again, Ramirez was dismayed, but not particularly surprised. Mainly because this wasn't the first unidentified craft to intrude into United States airspace in recent times. "Alright, then," he muttered beneath his breath as he looked about the control room of the Evans Air Force base. Surveyed the people working there under his command. "How long until this thing crosses into US airspace?"

"Ten minutes, sir!" the Lieutenant reported. "And fifteen before it gets here!"

"Alright, then. I want eyes on target. Scramble the Reapers," Ramirez ordered, realizing just how little time he had. "And mobilize all flight crews! If this thing turns out to be hostile, I want to be ready for it."

"Yes, sir! Preparing the Reapers for intercept!" another one of his personnel reported.

Satisfied that they would soon be ready for the worst, Ramirez starting working to keep things from coming to that. "Now, then, open a broadband channel. Let's try and talk to our bogey...and get it to rethink whatever it's got on its mind."

"Understood, sir," replied the Ensign at the communications station. "Channel open."

Pausing to take a deep breath, Ramirez proceeded to announce, "Attention, unidentified aircraft. This is Colonel Ramirez of the United States Air Force. You are in violation of US airspace. Decrease speed and reverse course, otherwise we will have no choice but to interpret your presence as hostile."

A few seconds passed before a response was heard. Two words that were spoken with such cold fury that Ramirez was more surprised by it than the words spoken.

"Up yours."

The Colonel's people quickly glanced about at each other, clearly wondering if they had heard that correctly. They did this for a couple seconds, which was all the time they had before the Lieutenant at the radar squawked in surprise. "Sir! The target, it -!"

When the Lieutenant's voice trailed off, the Colonel shot him a toxic glare. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

"The target! It's...split in two!" the Lieutenant reported, his voice rife with disbelief of his own report.

"What did you just say?" Ramirez demanded.

"We've got two contacts now!" the Lieutenant confirmed, sounding as perplexed as before. "One's slowing down, but the other one is maintaining speed!"

His concerns mounting at this development, Ramirez demanded, "Time to intercept?"

"If the bogey maintains present course and speed, five minutes to intercept!" someone answered.

"How long until we can launch a manned intercept?" Ramirez asked.

"Ten minutes, sir!" an Ensign reported.

Which meant that the bogey would be within US air space before they could launch, and would likely be that much closer to the base before it could be intercepted. Far from ideal, but Ramirez had been handed worse situations over the course of his career. 'Besides, with all the cutbacks we've had to the budget, I should be thrilled we're mobilizing this quickly,' he added with a hint of distaste. 'Damn NERV and their connections...'

Wishing not for the first time that he could deliver a nuke squarely in the laps of the morons who made such incompetent decisions, Ramirez was forced to watch and wait. Making his way over to the radar station, he studied the display that showed the paths representing the progress of the two Reapers that they had launched, along with the radar signatures that symbolized both the incoming intruder and the object that had split off from it. 'They're right. Whatever it is that's coming this way, it's small. About the size of an UAV,' the Colonel mused. 'But what could it be? What is...?'

"Sir! The Reapers are coming into visual range of the bogey!" sounded one of Ramirez's men, immediately snapping him back to the moment. "I've got a visual on - what the hell?!"

Immediately focusing on the man who had spoken, Ramirez's eyes immediately locked on the display screen before him. A moment later, he understood the shock and confusion in the soldier's voice, because the object that was growing steadily larger on the screen made no sense to him. It wasn't a missile, or an UAV, or anything else his experience had trained him for.

The first thing he noticed was the primary colors of grey and gunmetal grey. Then Ramirez took in the armored contours of the bogey, like that of a tank. As these things sank, his mind processed the general shape of the inbound intruder. Two arms splayed out to the sides, with what looked plumes of fire erupting from the palms of its hands. Legs straight with similar plumes sprouting from the heels. And a head with a simple metallic face, with blue eyes glaring from the cold metal.

'It's...a man! A robot man or -!' Ramirez let a tiny gasp at this, for this thought triggered a memory. A memory of before he had even joined the military, of an infamous figure very similar to the one he was looking at.

"An...iron man...oh, shit!" Ramirez abruptly spat out as his faded memories crystallized. "Emergency scramble on all fighters! And get me General O'Neil on the -!"

The figure on the screen shifted its icy blue mechanical eyes. Just enough so that it looked like it was looking Ramirez right in the face. For a moment, the Colonel froze, just long enough for the armored figure to raise his hands up, energy blasting forth from its palms.

An instant later, the feeds from the two Reapers were replaced with static. And Ramirez's heart sank in realization.

He was aware of the recent battle that had taken place between the Air Force and another such armored figure. Though his people hadn't participated, and though the entire battle had quickly been declared classified and covered up, Ramirez still heard things, and had learned some of the details regarding the mystery intruder. But more than that, he remembered a man from before Second Impact who had worn armor not unlike the one he saw. And more importantly, he knew exactly what that armor was capable of.

"Get everything we have up in the air right now!" Ramirez ordered. When the people responsible for making this happen turned to protest, he cut them off before they could utter a single syllable. "I don't care what it takes, we need to intercept this thing immediately! Get Gabriel Airfield on the horn! We're gonna need some support!"

After a moment of being rendered dumbstruck, the people before him went into motion, working to make Ramirez's orders happen. "This is Harper Air Force Base to Gabriel Base! Please come in!" an Ensign began in a mildly confused but no less professional manner. "Repeat, this is Harper Air For- gahh!"

It happened too fast for Ramirez to process all at once. First, a blur of motion was seen in a nearby window, right in the middle of his airfield. It was followed by a blinding flash and a thunderous boom that sent the people working out there scrambling for cover. His eyes and ears overwhelmed by the blast, Ramirez didn't realize exactly what had happened. It was only when his senses recovered from being utterly overwhelmed did he look about, and realize that every monitor within view had been scrambled, and the crackle of static filled the air.

"Status!" Ramirez demanded, determined to regain control of the situation. When his demand was met with silence, he tried in an even harsher voice, "What happened!"

"Something's scrambling our systems, sir!" one of his people frantically reported. "Radar, computers...everything's effected, sir!"

"What about communications?" Ramirez demanded.

"Totally down, sir!" another Ensign reported. We've lost satellite and landlines!"

Which meant that they were on their own. Unless Gabriel Air Force Base had received that bit of their call they had managed to get out before everything had gone down, Ramirez and his people could expect no backup. They would have to deal with whatever was coming their way without any hope of assistance. "How much longer until we can launch an intercept?!"

"I - don't know, sir!" an Ensign informed him. "If the planes have been affected as well, then we might not be able to launch at all!"

"Any sign of the bogey?!" Ramirez asked, determined to keep moving, to not give himself a chance to freeze up. To keep his mind working.

"Negative, sir! Radar's gone! I've got nothing, sir!" the radar operator reported worriedly. "No sign of the - !"

"Incoming!" cried out another voice. Ramirez didn't even have time to look towards the speaker or ask what was happening before the sound of smashing glass was heard, followed by cries of pain and fear from his people.

Instinctively whipping about, Ramirez felt his eyes bulge with shock when he realized what had happened. The armored bogey he had seen moments ago via the Reapers' feed was now standing in his control room, having flown in right through the window. Surrounded by shattered glass and stunned soldiers, it swung its icy cold electronic gaze about the control room before starting forward.

"You!" cried out of the soldiers there, already whipping out his sidearm at the intruder. "Freeze! Hands in the - aarrgh!"

Whipping up his hands in a blur of speed, the intruder held out his palms at the soldier, and released twin blasts of deadly blue at him. The force of the blasts sent the brave soldier tumbling backwards to smash against the far wall. Even as he fell to the floor, the intruder whipped about, loosed another set of blasts, drilling two more soldiers square in the chest even as it marched forward. Acting on well-honed instinct in the face of this threat, Ramirez's people all drew forth their pistols, and opened fire.

The intruder didn't even seem to notice. Every round bounced off its armor with a distinct ping, several ricocheting into the walls and the equipment. He simply responded with more blasts of power as he marched forward. Realizing the ineffectiveness of their assault, a Lieutenant discarded his sidearm and launched himself at the armored figure.

The intruder, so intent on blasting his foes, didn't even notice the assault until the Lieutenant had his arms wrapped about his neck. As he did so, Ramirez was able to get a good sense of the scale of their foe, and to his surprise, realized that he was smaller than a fullgrown man. More like the size of a young boy just reaching his teens.

But size didn't take away from the intruder's strength. Upon realizing that he had someone clinging to him, it moved quickly and with horrifying brutality. Grabbing its assailant by the wrists, it ignored the cries of pain it elicited from the Lieutenant as it forcefully whipped him off its back and flung him to the floor. Pause to glare him in the face, the intruder than grabbed him by the waist, lifted him up over its head, and flung him at another group of soldiers, sending them falling to the floor in a heap.

While this was happening, Ramirez was setting aside his own sidearm. Small arms fire wasn't going to do anything to this foe, and it was equally obvious that physically assailing it would end in disaster. There was nothing that he himself could do to stop this thing, but there was still a chance. 'I have to get out of here, get some backup!' the Colonel realized. 'If this thing has anything to do with Iron Man, then -!'

The Colonel's train of thought was forcibly derailed when he felt something hard and powerful grab his shoulder. A guttural cry of protest tearing free of his lips, he was helpless to stop himself from being lifted up into the air, then slammed down on the floor. His head cracking and the air driven from his lungs, the world was sent spinning before his eyes as a harsh, metallic voice sounded. "Order everyone here to stand down!" As the world again came into focus, Ramirez sucked in a gasp when he found himself staring into the electric blue gaze of his attacker as it added, "Or I make them go down! Permanently!"

There was no doubt that the intruder meant what he said. And Ramirez had a sinking feeling that this metallic nightmare was fully capable of making good on his threat.

But despite all of this, he had sworn an oath to protect the United States of America. And even if it cost him and his men their lives, there was no way he could consciously pave a trail for this monstrosity, whoever or whatever it was.

"Go ahead and try," Ramirez told his enemy in a voice of pure defiance. "I'm betting that one of them will manage to either get word out or put your lights out before you even get halfway through here."

It's eyes seeming to narrow with contempt, the intruder drew back its fist. "That's a bet you're gonna lose."

Then the intruder's fist came smashing down upon Ramirez, plunging him into darkness.

x

As War Machine stood up straight and surveyed the man he had just pummeled, he scowled hatefully. His armor's sensors indicated that he was still alive, which was a relief and a disappointment all at once for the boy within the armor.

'It's not him you're after, Toji,' War Machine reminded himself, trying to keep his rage in place. 'He's not the bastard who killed Mana. Just some idiot doing his job.' Heaving a deep, hateful breath, the armored warrior looked about the control room. 'And I still have to do my job.'

With that in mind, he made his way over to one of the control consoles, using the information Tai had downloaded into his armor to guide him to the appropriate station. When he finally found it, he paused to study the screens for a moment, frowning at the way they flickered, the static that still showed on them.

'Dammit...that Scrambler Missile made more of a hash of this place than I thought it would!' War Machine thought with a sense of disgust. But even as he thought this, he scowled, for the fact was that using the Scrambler had been his only real option. It had kept the base blind to his actions when he had accelerated and hit the control room, and it would keep them from contacting the outside for a while longer. 'I just have to hope that it didn't wreck the data here!'

With this in mind, the armored teen held out his right arm, and with a mental command, deployed a USB interface and plugged into the computer. "Computer; locate all information pertaining to missions and flights from this and every Air Force base within a 1000 kilometer radius of this base," War Machine ordered. "Have all pertinent data wirelessly transmitted to IRVING for processing."

To his considerable relief, his armor's computer had no difficulty in interfacing with the potentially scrambled computer. And was soon rewarded when a window appeared.

Requested Data Located. Estimated Time for Download; Ten Minutes, Fifty-Three Seconds.

"Fine. Just get it done," War Machine instructed it before unplugging and looking out a nearby window. Watching as the flight crews outside scrambled out, trying to launch the jets.

The Scrambler Missile War Machine had launched was powerful, enough to cut this base off from the outside for the time being, but that wouldn't last. And sooner or later, the people outside would be able to launch. Meaning that he had to deal with them before they could contact someone on the outside, and have additional forces sent after him.

'And I don't have time to waste on that sort of crap,' War Machine declared inwardly as he started towards the window. 'So I'm just gonna have to shut everybody on this base up.'

Looking down at the airfield below, he glowered at the many military personnel before him. And while there was a good chance that none of them had anything to do with the attack that had claimed Mana's life, they were still between him and the one's responsible.

"Do yourselves a favor!" he shouted, his armor's systems immediately converting his words to English. "Fall down and stay down quick! Before I show you why they call me War Machine!" Without another word, he launched himself from the window, ready and willing to express some of the rage that was burning inside of him.

x

As Shinji entered one of the many research labs within NERV, he found himself greeted by the sight of a girl apparently his own age with long, turquoise hair done up in pigtails. She was presently adorned in familiar suit of armor, the hard metal shell a striking contrast to the tear-streaked face the girl wore as she fussed at a computer console, looking from the nearby holographic displays to the badly damaged gauntlet that rested before her.

A lump of bile forming in his throat at the sight of the girl, Shinji was forced to swallow. A noise that failed to attract the girl's attention, but did startle one of the other people there. "Oh! Hello, Shinji!"

A noise of surprise escaping his lips, Shinji looked about, only to settle down when he saw who it was. "Oh...hello, Maya."

"What are you doing here?" Maya wondered as she approached Shinji. Taking note of his plug suit, she asked, "Synch test?"

Nodding, Shinji answered, "We just got done." Then he glanced over at Sid, and added, "Anyway, I...Misato told me about...well..."

As Shinji trailed off helplessly, Maya's expression became somber. "I see."

Feeling the pain those two words carried with them, Shinji looked over at the girl he had come to see. "Sid, I...I'm so sorry that -"

"She's not dead," Sid abruptly broke in. Starting at these words, Shinji froze in place when the AI girl turned her bloodshot eyes towards him. "She's not dead, so don't you dare say that!"

Recoiling at the sheer anger and misery in Sid's words, Shinji instantly recoiled, waving his hands defensively. "I - I never said that she's -!"

"I don't care what you or anybody says! Mana is not dead!" Sid shrilled before returning her focus to her work. "I don't care if that arm's DNA matches hers! So what?!" Shooting Maya a poisonous look, she added, "I'm a clone, right?! My DNA matches hers, right?! That doesn't mean that that arm was hers!"

"I - we know that, Sid," Maya replied helplessly.

"And I don't care if this armor matches hers, or if her arc reactor exploded! She is not dead!" Sid very nearly shrieked. "Mana's not dead! Do you hear me?! She's not dead!"

Recoiling a step more, Shinji found himself plagued with fresh doubt. When Misato had informed him of the cruel delivery that had been made to Tai's office and the way he and Sid had reacted, he had felt nothing but sympathy for the two AIs made flesh and blood. But even as the desire to console them was felt, his own negativity made itself known, making him question what he could possibly do to help ease their pain.

Even as that negative aspect rose to the fore, Shinji had frowned, and recalled the files he had seen regarding his father's despicable plans for him and the rest of the world. Gendo's files on how he had spent ten years observing him from a distance, doing everything in his power to make his life as miserable as possible, all in a calculated effort to make him doubt himself on every level, to make him dependant on Eva and ultimately suicidal. It had been that memory that had left him wanting to defy Gendo's efforts on multiple levels, and try and offer some assistance. And since Tai had made it clear to Misato that he wanted to be left alone, that left Sid as the only one he could try and comfort.

As Shinji struggled with the notion that that had not been such a bright idea, Maya shot the AI girl a look. "Sid, please." Then she looked at Shinji and explained, "I'm sorry, Shinji. But...well..."

"I know. I understand." Glancing one more time at Sid, he then asked, "Wh-what have you found?"

Pausing to glance over at Sid, Maya sighed and explained, "Well, as you might have guessed, the arm was a perfect genetic match for Mana's. Sempai's already confirmed that." Then she looked again at the turquoise-haired girl and added, "As for the armor...it looks like a match, so..."

"She's NOT dead!" Sid shrieked, fresh tears springing from her eyes.

"W-we're not saying that, Sid!" Shinji babbled out helplessly.

"But that's what you're thinking, isn't it?!" Sid cried out, fixing Shinji with her bloodshot eyes. "Well, I don't care what you think! She's n-not dead, and th-that's..."

Shinji had nothing to say to this. Nor did he have anything to say about how Sid then hung her head above her console before letting it crash down, breaking down into open sobbing. All he could do is stand there for a long time, watching her before finally getting out, "I...I'm sorry, I..."

After several seconds of choked sobbing, Sid somehow managed to drag her head back up and nod. "So am I." Her eyes evermore bloodshot, the AI girl sniffled loudly and said, "Shinji, I..."

"I...it's okay. I...understand," Shinji replied, recalling his own troubled past. "I...know what it feels like. To...to lose someone, and..."

For a moment, Shinji was certain he had said precisely the wrong thing. But as Sid looked at him, she managed a crooked smile. "Yeah...you're right. You do." Looking as if she were kicking herself, the turquoise-haired girl sniffed and replied, "I mean...well, I...I heard about what Gendo..."

"Yeah," Shinji replied, not wanting to think about the things she had likely heard about. Not wanting to be reminded of all the horrors his father had concocted, as well as the possibilities regarding the fate of his mother. "Well...anyway, you're right, you know?" When Sid gave him a querulous look, he shrugged helplessly and explained, "Even if the arm and armor...are real...that doesn't mean that she's dead, you know?"

What anger still lingered in Sid's eyes quickly faded, and in its wake was left even more pain. "I - I know...and I'm really sorry to have...acted this way...but..." Shaking her head slowly, the AI girl then looked at Shinji, giving him a good look at how much she was hurting. "Shinji, I...I never imagined it would hurt this much!" Looking on uncertainly, the Third Child watched as Sid went on to say, "When...Mana's mother...Dr. Kirishima's wife was...killed...I didn't feel anything. I was a much simpler AI back then; I didn't have anything even...approaching emotions. And even when her father was killed...I felt something...a kind of sadness...but this...!" Fresh tears rolling down her cheeks, the turquoise-haired girl shook her head miserably. "I never - never imagined that I could feel anything like this, Shinji!"

As Shinji continued to study the girl, he sighed miserably as he thought back to his own experiences with such grief. The day he had lost his mother, and subsequently his father. He thought of the friends he had made and subsequently lost until he stopped trying to even make friends, certain in the knowledge that he would lose them to. And he thought of the recent horrific revelations about his father's schemes and the people who wanted to see their own vision of Ragnarok come to pass. And as he did, he wished that he could tell Sid that she would one day stop feeling such pain.

But he couldn't. So all Shinji could do was say, "Sid...I know it hurts, but...I really do agree with you. Mana isn't dead."

Still sniffling and blinking away her tears, Sid looked up at Shinji. "Y-you really th-think so?"

"Sure," Shinji lied. Forcing a brave smile onto his face, he then added, "I mean...Father could...he could send us her head, and I still wouldn't...believe..."

As realized what he had just said, Shinji found himself kicking himself inwardly even as he trailed off. He didn't even need Maya grimacing and putting her hand to her head to tell him just how badly he had screwed up. But even as he wondered if he would notice if his own head had been removed from his body, Sid said, "Why didn't he?"

"Huh?" Shinji started, interrupted before he could himself another mental kick in the butt. "Wh-why didn't he what?"

"Why didn't Gendo send us her head?" Sid asked in an oddly quiet voice. "If Mana was dead, why didn't he send us her head or her heart or something else?" Looking from Shinji to Maya and back again, she demanded with greater energy, "If Gendo wanted to antagonize us, why just send us an arm? Why not something that would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mana was dead?!"

Shinji had no answer to this, and it was pretty obvious that Maya was equally clueless. So all the Third Child could do was shrug helplessly before saying, "Maybe...the arm was...the only part of her...he...had?"

Again, Shinji was ready to kick himself. But before he could renew this mental assault, he was stunned and astonished when Sid broke out in the biggest, most joyous grin he had ever seen. "That's right! Gendo didn't send us Mana's head because he didn't have it!" Her grin widening, the AI girl did a quick skipping dance towards Shinji and cried out, "Oh, thank you, Shinji! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Shinji had no idea what to say to this. And became even more confused when Sid wrapped her arms about him, giving him a fierce bear hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek, before releasing him and looking over at Maya. "Call Misato, Ritsuko, Tai, everybody! Tell them to meet at Gendo's office! I've got something really important to tell them!" Then she shot a glance at the Third Child before adding, "And make sure you bring Shinji to the meeting as well! He deserves to hear this as well!"

"What?! Sid, what are you -?!" Maya started, only to cut herself off when the AI girl darted out of the room. Leaving the Lieutenant to look at Shinji, who looked back with eyes as blank as hers.

"Uh..." Shinji hesitated, trying to figure out what to say in the face of this. "Well...she looks...happier, at least."

Nodding to this, Maya then asked, "Do you have any idea why?"

"Uh...no..." Shinji slowly admitted. "You?"

"No idea," Maya confirmed.

Glad that he was not the only one left in the dark, Shinji asked, "So...what do we do now?"

Sighing as she glanced at the door Sid had disappeared through, Maya shrugged and replied, "What she asked, I guess."

Watching as Maya set about making Sid's demands reality, Shinji again looked at the door. The words he had spoken had been so poorly chosen that he could scarcely wrap his mind around it. And yet, he had still managed to cheer her, the result far beyond his wildest expectations.

'I'll never understand women. Organic or cybernetic,' Shinji decided, issuing a heavy sigh. Hoping that this made more sense at the meeting than it did just then.

x

As War Machine stood in the center of the shattered ruins that had once been an Air Force base, he paid no heed to the burning remnants of the many jet fighters that littered the airfield. Did not care about the base proper and the other buildings, which he had reduced to smoldering ruins. He hardly noticed the men and women laying about the field, some groaning in pain, all of them broken and bloodied.

All he cared about the words that finally shown on his HUD. The words that had brought his rampage of destruction to a halt.

Download: Complete.

He had the information he needed. The data that would soon lead him to Mana's killers.

To his next targets.

Just the thought of it made War Machine's heart pound with eagerness. He had forced himself to hold back in this battle. The people here weren't necessarily the ones that had killed Mana, the people that deserved to die. The hatred that so desperately wanted release was still burning within him, awaiting the moment when it could be unleashed upon them.

'Just you wait, Mana! It won't be long now!' War Machine thought furiously. 'Computer; cross-reference the time that Mana was shot down with the flight data from every listed airfield!'

A moment passed as his armor's computer worked, then subsequently beeped loudly.

Unable to Comply; Data Corruption Detected.

As these words flashed before his eyes, War Machine studied them for a moment before the rage that burned in him erupted. "NOOOOOOO!" he howled, raising his fists to the heavens before bringing them smashing down upon the tarmac.

He had blown it. The Scrambler Missile he had used to thwart the people here had done its work too well. It had not only disrupted the radar and much of the equipment there. It had also disrupted the computer records kept there on base.

War Machine had destroyed the very information he had needed to track down Mana's killers. And that knowledge sent his rage spiraling out of control, causing him to lash out in madness. Respulsor blasts sprayed forth from his hands, causing further destruction. He lashed out mindlessly, smashing anything and everything within reach, his body nothing more than a puppet to his own uncontrollable rage. And that rage made him lash out again and again until his adrenaline had been expended and his strength had faded, leaving him just a boy in a metal suit as he collapsed to the ground, staring impotently at his own fists.

"I...I can't believe this..." War Machine whispered helplessly, tears of helplessness rolling down his cheeks. "I...this can't be the end..." Sniffing loudly, the boy inside the armor looked at the window still framing the devastating information. "Computer...can't you...do something? Anything?"

A beat passed before the computer's response was seen.

Request for Data Reconstruction?

Blinking a few times, War Machine gulped before asking, "So...you can...repair the corrupted data? So you can read it?"

Probability of Successful Reconstruction: 98.223%

As these words filled War Machine's mind, he sagged with utmost relief. He hadn't squandered his only chance at revenge. There was still a chance of tracking down Mana's killers. "Then...do it," he breathed heavily. "Go ahead and do the...the reconstruction thing."

Reconstruction Commencing. Estimated Time of Completion: Three Hours and Fifty-Seven Minutes.

This revelation immediately banished War Machine's initial relief, and stoked the fires of his fury. "Four hours?! Are you kidding me?! Can't you do it any faster?!"

Negative.

War Machine wanted to bash the stupid computer good for that. He simply didn't have time to waste waiting around for it to finish tracking Mana's killers. Despite his efforts to keep the people on this base from contacting the outside, he wasn't foolish enough to believe that his actions and presence would remain a secret for very long. Even if he were willing to kill every man, woman, and child on this base, there were satellites in space that could very easily be recording his every move. And if the people here had managed to get off any kind of communication before his Scrambler Missile had struck, then further military forces could well be on their way that very moment.

But he didn't. He couldn't risk doing something to damage the very machine that he was depending upon to track down the murderous bastards that were even now chopping Mana up and sending her home, piece by piece. 'Besides, it's like Ken said; Percussive Maintenance doesn't work too well with computers. Which means that I have to get out of here; find some place to hunker down, wait until the computer finishes doing its job,' War Machine thought slowly. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he forced himself to his feet, and looked down at himself. 'And it looks like that's not the only problem I've got to deal with..."

In the heat of the battle, the boy within the War Machine armor had not realized that he had not come out this engagement unscathed. Bullet impacts, grenades, missile hits and his own outrage had taken its toll. And even though the armored exterior had born up under it well, he had also depleted his own ammunition in the process of this invasion.

'This was a search-and-rescue mission, not an invasion. I don't have enough firepower left to go after Gendo and his bastards,' War Machine realized with considerable reluctance. But then he looked at the datastream that signified the In-flight Refit Vehicle with Interactive Neuromimetic Gear that Sid had created was still under his command. 'At least...not yet...'

War Machine studied the datastream with considerable interest, recalling what Sid had told him about it. That it was not only capable of making repairs to his armor and administering first aid, but it was also capable of taking any technology he found, and integrating it with his armor.

'It can even build a new armor...and seeing as I just happen to be surrounded by all kinds of military hardware...!' War Machine thought, a sadistic smile appearing beneath his faceplate.

He couldn't stay there, that much was obvious. He had no idea how long he had until additional military forces arrived. But there was surely enough time for him to abscond with at least some intact equipment. After all, a few missiles and so on had to have survived his assault intact.

'I'll give the hangers a quick onceover, see if I can find anything,' War Machine decided, launching himself towards said hangers. Already summoning IRVING to join him. 'And with any luck, I'll have a few new toys to play with before I leave!'

x

"It's legitimate," Sid announced as she looked at the gather NERV staff. "Our analyses have confirmed that the armor fragment we received is from the Strike armor."

As Misato looked at the AI girl, she couldn't help but feel a gaping hole open in the pit of her stomach. She had known that this was likely the case, but that didn't make it any easier for her to deal with. Knowing full well that Mana, a child, was now dead.

'And I sent her out. I gave her the plane she used to go to her death...' Misato couldn't help but think. The knowledge that, when you came right down to it, there was no real way she could have stopped Mana if the armor user had wanted to go. She could have used her own armor, much like Touji had done, or simply built whatever she had needed.

This still did nothing to soothe the guilt she now felt. Or tame the nightmarish sensations Misato experienced in her nightmares. Nightmares that resulted from it being her job to send children to risk their lives in battle.

Pausing to glance about the room, Misato studied the people there. Ritsuko looked as cool and calm as she always did in such situations, while Maya and Shinji looked somewhat uncertain. Fuyutsuki's expression was as placid as only the old professor knew how to be.

The face that Misato found hardest to meet was Tai's. The cybernetic clone of Commander Ikari still bore many of the signs of the emotional breakdown he had suffered earlier, but at the same time, he displayed no current signs of emotion. He looked to be as cold and cruel as the man whose DNA his body had been forged from, right down to the telltale 'Gendo pose' he had assumed.

"Now, the arm could have been faked; the fact that I even exist is proof of that," Sid went on, cool and collected. "But there are only a handful of people on the planet who would have the know-how to fake the armor components. And even then, it would be pretty tough to pull that off without the original blueprints, which only I and Mana have."

Which settled it, Misato knew. If the arm and armor fragment were both real, then there was no getting around what they added up to. And so, with a heavy sigh, she looked at the two living AIs and told them, "Sid, Tai, I...I truly am -"

"While I appreciate the sentiment, Misato, I think we already knew...what this all means." This said, Tai fixed Sid with a glare and asked, "Which leaves just one question; who sent the package, and where are they now?"

"I'm afraid I haven't figured that part out yet. But I have come up with something else. Something important!" Looking from one face to the next, Sid smiled joyously before saying, "I think that there's a good chance that Mana's still alive!"

This was not what Misato expected the AI girl to say, and as she looked about the room, it was obvious that the others there were equally confused. "Sid...I know how hard this must be for you," Ritsuko slowly began in a compassionate voice, one not often heard from the doctor. "But...you have to face facts! You -!"

"I am facing facts, Dr. Akagi!" Sid sharply countered in a determined voice. "But unlike you and everyone else here, I'm not just thinking of the numbers and statistics! I'm also thinking of the human factor!"

This got Misato's attention. "What do you mean by that?"

"Something Shinji said before got me to thinking; why did Gendo - assuming it was Gendo - send us Mana's arm?" Sid explained in a careful manner. "If she was dead, why not send us her head or something else?" Then she smiled dangerously and added, "And it's like Shinji said then; that maybe he didn't send us her head because he didn't have it!"

A look of surprised comprehension appeared on Shinji's face even as Misato processed this possibility. "That doesn't necessarily mean Mana's alive, Sid," Ritsuko commented in a solemn fashion. "It's possible that whoever attacked her simply failed to recover her head."

"It's equally possible that the head and helmet were destroyed in the arc explosion," Fuyutsuki suggested.

"No. No way," Sid replied with a quick shake of her head. "An arc explosion doesn't work that way. Her reactor would have fried her armor good and done some serious damage, but it wouldn't have been able to destroy any section of her armor completely. And believe me, I did an exhaustive analysis on the condition of the gauntlet to see how much force it would have had; everything indicates that, if that gauntlet and arm survived the explosion, then the helmet and head would have, too." Then she looked at Ritsuko, and added, "And as for not finding her head, if whoever pulled this stunt went to all the trouble of tracking down her arm, then there's no reason to assume that they would have left any stone unturned searching for the rest of her, even if it was just Mana's head. Especially if they were planning on playing this kind of game with us."

With a thoughtful frown, Misato considered this theory before replying, "Even if you're right about this, Sid, and Mana somehow survived the blast and the fall afterwards, then what? There's no way she would have been in any condition to escape her attackers, in which case she would have been captured."

"And since we haven't heard anything about a foreign girl being captured in America, then all we can assume is that Gendo or whoever else is behind this is the one who captured her," Ritsuko seconded grimly. "In which case, she's as good as dead."

"No way. If Mana was captured, then why would the people who captured her just send us the arm?" Sid persisted. "Why not show us a video of her being tortured, or wait until she was no longer of any use to us before...well, you know."

As Misato again considered this, Tai looked at her perplexedly and said, "But...Sid, that doesn't make sense. If Mana's not dead, then she must've been captured. There aren't any other real possibilities."

Grateful for the slight cracking in Tai's Gendo-behavior, Misato then focused on Sid grinning in a knowing manner. "Wrong. There is one other possibility." As everyone there, Misato included, leaned in and waited, the AI girl went on to say, "That she was rescued by the person she was looking for. By Tony Stark."

Now everyone there was well and truly confused, with Misato feeling the most confused of all. "Tony Stark...?" she started, even as the name started rattling about in her mind. "Wait a second...that name sounds familiar for some reason..."

"It should, though I'm not surprised you don't remember," Ritsuko announced. "Tony Stark is considered to be the father of modern cybernetics, robotics, and computers. He's the first to have developed AIs that were actually capable of a kind of independent thought. That could act almost like a human being."

"He's also considered to be a traitor to the entire world. Thanks in no small part to SEELE's efforts," Fuyutsuki chimed in. "Shortly after Second Impact, the Instrumentality Committee demanded that his company, Stark Industries, surrender all its technological assets, ostensibly for the purpose of helping repair the damage caused by Second Impact." Giving a slow shake of his head, the old professor added, "He refused, and after completely destroying the Stark database, seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth."

Nodding, Misato found that these words caused further memories to come to the surface. "Of course, if Keel wanted his technology so badly, I'm betting that it wasn't for the sake of the world."

"Correct," Fuyutsuki quickly confirmed. "Stark had also developed a cybernetic weapons system of extraordinary strength and firepower, equipped with a miniaturized, self-contained power source that allowed it complete mobility." The old professor gave a weary smile before adding, "And the name of that weapon...was Iron Man."

Starting at this, Misato looked from Fuyutsuki to Ritsuko and back again. "Iron Man?!" she repeated incredulously. "As in like Iron Maiden?!"

"Misato, you didn't think that Mana was the first one to wear armor like that did you?" Ritsuko asked in depreciating tone. "I guess most people don't remember it any more, what with everything that's been happening, but before second impact, there was another who wore armor like Mana's. He went by the name Iron Man, and he was backed by Stark Industries."

"So even then, SEELE and probably Gendo himself were after this technology?" Misato demanded.

"Don't act so surprised, Misato. The applications of this level of science to something like the Evas are virtually without limit," Ritsuko explained. "A properly scaled up arc reactor would be capable of powering an Eva continuously for 200 days. And with the interface and artificial intelligence systems Stark had developed, the Dummy Plug System would have long since been perfected. Allowing for the Evas to perfectly autonomous and self-sufficient."

"The perfect weapons to insure SEELE's twisted vision of the future became a reality," Fuyutsuki seconded. "Which is possibly why Stark went to such extreme measures to keep it from them."

"So...does that mean that Stark...knew about SEELE...and what they were up to?" Shinji wondered.

"At the very least, it's safe to assume that he figured that the Committee wasn't on the level," Ritsuko replied.

Frowning somewhat, the Third Child looked about the others there. "But then...how does Mana and her father...how did he get the arc reactor, and - and all the rest of it?"

"Dr. Kirishima used to work for Stark Industries, Shinji," Sid explained. "All of his research, even my own designs and the armor, were based off the original Stark technologies."

"So...that's why Mana left, right? To track down Tony Stark?" Tai gathered, slowly perking up. But then he frowned and asked, "But...what makes you think that he could have rescued Mana? We have no idea where he is, or if he's even alive!"

"That's simple. Before Mana left, she reminded me that we didn't make the arc reactor in mine or the War Machine armors," Sid explained. "I didn't think of it at the time, but...well, the person who helped me out, he didn't have the resources to make the reactors, either."

"Which means that...somebody else must've made and given him those reactors," Misato intuited. "Somebody who's been keeping a close enough eye on Mana to know that she was in trouble."

"And if we're right, and Stark is the one doing all of this behind the scenes, then there's a good chance that he found out about Mana getting attacked," Sid replied enthusiastically. "And if that's the case, if he had the resources to crank out those arc reactors, I'd bet anything that he had the resources to rescue Mana!" Looking about at the others, the AI girl went on to add, "She was hurt, badly, of that there can't be any doubt at all… but I really do believe that she's still alive!"

"That's pretty optimistic." Ritsuko remarked dryly. "Still...I have to admit you're right. The facts as they are do add up."

"Then...she might really be alive?!" Tai exclaimed with a look of wonder. "Th-that's amazing! It's a miracle! It's - ohhhh..."

Misato didn't like the way Tai's voice suddenly shifted from mounting excitement to a despondent groan. And she really didn't like the way he suddenly looked like a little boy that had just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And it was obvious that Ritsuko shared these feelings when she asked, "Tai? What is it? What's wrong?"

Shrinking away from Ritsuko with a look of shame, Tai gulped before explained, "Uh...I...think made a very large mistake, Ritsy."

"What kind of mistake?" Sid wondered uncertainly.

"Well...after we got the...the arm...I did the math," Tai hesitantly explained. "And I calculated that, based on the information we had, that there was a 95.2% chance that she was dead. And if she wasn't, then she'd been captured."

"So...what? What did you -?" Realization hit Misato before she could finish her statement, leaving her to look at the AI and shoot him a glare that could have melted battleship armor. "Are you saying...that you told Touji...about the arm? That you thought that she was...?"

"Eh...yeah. I'm...afraid I did," Tai replied with a trace of humiliation.

At this revelation, all of the relief and hope Misato had been experiencing at Sid's revelations immediately went flying out the nearest window. "I don't believe - well maybe I should, considering whose clone you are!" the Major spat disgustedly as she took in the all-too familiar features, all the while ignore the shame Tai wore. "You mean to tell me you went behind our backs and told Touji about this before Ritsuko and Sid had finished studying those things?!"

Tai was visibly stung by this, as was everyone else there. All of them, Shinji and Maya, Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki, they looked at Gendo's cybernetic clone with a mix of horror and despair. Until at last the Third Child shook his head slowly and softly asked, "How...how could you do this...Touji, he's...he's my friend! How could you...?!"

"Shinji, please, not now!" Misato broke in, shooting her ward a look before focusing on Tai, thinking of all the things she wanted to say to him. Things that she knew she couldn't say, simply because, in her own way, she was every bit as guilty of using the children to sate her own hate and desire for revenge as he was. "I'll be dealing with you later, Tai. Right now, we have to contact War Machine! Tell him that -!"

"You can't," Tai broke in, his voice a hollow shadow of itself.

Starting at this, Misato could only look at Tai as Sid declared, "What do you mean, Tai?! We have to tell War Machine about this."

"You can't," Tai repeated, using the same empty voice. "When I contacted him earlier, I instructed him to observe a complete communications blackout."

If Misato thought she was past being horrified by Tai's actions, then this statement would have immediately proven her wrong. "You...you had Touji cut himself off from us?!"

"Why'd you do something like that?!" Maya demanded in a horrified voice. "How can we support Touji from here if he's going to ignore us every time we try to contact him?!"

Misato was sorely tempted to ask this same question. But even as Maya asked it for her, the Major realized the answer. A blackout not only cut Touji off from them, it cut them off from him. It made sure that they couldn't order him to return if they felt the risk was too great. They couldn't persuade him to abandon revenge to come home to those that were still alive. It kept Touji and his War Machine armor right where it could do the most damage to Mana's killers.

Heaving a deep breath, Misato glared at Tai for a moment before marching over to his side and saying, "Permission to speak freely, sir."

Shaking his head miserably, Tai hesitated before replying, "I know I'm going to regret this, but...go right ahead."

Nodding to this, Misato then drew back her fist. The only warning Tai had before the sound of the purple-haired woman's fist connecting with his jaw broke the silence. As the AI came crashing down to the floor, Misato turned and glared at the others present. "Ritsuko, you stay here and keep an eye on Tai. Try and keep him from doing something else stupid. The rest of us are going to try and contact Touji! And hope like hell we can him down before he causes an international incident!"

x

"You know, I don't know what's more pathetic," Mana muttered as she stiffly made her way away from Stark's training room. "The fact that I'm this sweaty and sore after that little training session, or the fact that you barely broke a sweat!"

Giving her a rueful smile, Stark shrugged and answered, "Well, I've been doing this for a while. It's not like I can go out and hit the party circuit the way I did in the old days." Then his smile slipped somewhat before he added, "Besides, the fact is I've been training for what's to come for a long time now. I didn't know when things would start happening, so..." Nodding to this, Mana sighed as her impromptu sensei went on to say, "Anyway, if you think you're sore now, just wait until we really get to work!"

Her eyes bulging with horror at this, Mana groaned heavily before saying, "Ugh...I'd ask if you were kidding, but I got this bad feeling that you're not."

"You're right; I'm not," Stark assured her, all business. "I'm sorry, Mana, but if you're going to be in on this fight, then we have to get you into top fighting trim. You've been going about this like an amateur, and it damn near got yourself killed."

Despite the truth to this statement, Mana was still stung by it. "Well, I'm sorry, but it's not like I expected to be doing this. I was just an ordinary girl when everything went to hell on me," she snapped back, not bothering to disguise her irritation. "It's not like I've had the backing of a multi-million dollar corporation. I've been working with what little I have, what little my dad left me, just doing what I had to do to survive."

"You don't have to tell me that, Mana. And it's like I've said before; I am sorry about everything you've been through. But the fact is that doing things the way you have been doing them isn't going to cut it, and you know it." Then Stark gave her a sympathetic smile. "Besides, you're not on your own anymore. You've got NERV, and from you've told me, there are quite a few of them who are aware of what SEELE's up to and want to poke a few holes in their plans. And you've got me now, of course."

"Of course," Mana repeated, uncertain as to what else she could say. There was still so much that was hard for her to deal with. So much that had happened too fast for her to keep up.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Stark sighed and slouched slightly. "So...how's the arm?"

Pressing her lips together, Mana raised her right arm and made a fist. "Feels as good as the real thing, but I still feel a little off balance when I walk," she admitted, opening and closing her fingers. "It feels like my center of gravity isn't where it's supposed to be."

"That'll pass soon enough," Stark reassured her. "Your legs are a little…different from the original, obviously."

"To be honest, I've been trying not to think about that," Mana replied to the tune of the rolling of her eyes. "Blowing myself apart is not one of the highlights of my career."

"Just think of it an exciting story to tell your grandkids," Stark quipped with look more like the devil-may-care expressions he was more known for. "Anyway, first let's take some time for something to eat, and then we can get to work on some new armors for the both of us."

At the mention of armor, Mana forgot all about her soreness and smiled broadly. "Really?"

"Why not?" Stark smirked. "Jarvis already has your measurements, and after fifteen years of development and research on my part, I think we can come up with something interesting, don't you agree?"

"Yeah, I'd say so," Mana grinned, already wondering what her next suit would be capable of. "Mind if I help out?"

"Mind? Mana, I would be delighted!" Stark responded. "No offense to Jarvis, but it's been a long time since I've been able to work with a flesh-and-blood person in person, and -"

"Excuse me, Mr. Stark," Jarvis suddenly broke in, prompting the two armor users to pause, "but I have message incoming for you. From Mr. Rhodes."

"Rhodey?" Stark started, his voice a mix of surprise and delight. "That's strange; I wasn't expecting to hear from him again. Not this soon, anyway."

"Rhodey?" Mana repeated.

"Jarvis, put him on in the dining room as soon as we get there," Stark ordered as he started forward again. "And put out some sandwiches and a couple protein drinks while you're at it."

"Very good, sir," Jarvis answered.

"Wait a minute..." Mana began as she started after her host. "Who's Rhodey?"

"Remember that close friend of mine that I mentioned before? You know, the one that brought you here?" When Mana made an affirmative noise, Stark smiled and answered, "There you go."

"Oh," Mana replied, unsure of what else to say. "Then I guess I should thank him for getting me here so you can put me back together again."

"Well, that would be nice," Stark concurred as they arrived in the dining room. Unsurprisingly, their repast was already waiting for them at the table. "Still, whatever he's calling about must be pretty important." Taking note of the way Mana's furrowed her brows, the older man went on to explain, "One of the big rules I've laid down with myself and my...allies...is that I'm to be contacted only in an emergency. When you live in a world when every government on Earth and the biggest spy organization of all times wants your hide, loose lips can quite literally sink ships."

Mana made a face at this, now realizing more than ever just how alone Stark must have been all these years. Having to isolate himself from the world, both to keep himself safe, as well as protect those who might be damaged by being affiliated with him. With this thought weighing her down, she sat down at the table, watching as her host lounged back in his own seat and said, "Okay, Jarvis, put him through."

"Very good, sir," Jarvis answered, and a beat later, a holographic display like those used at NERV appeared before them. It displayed an African-American man of about Stark's age, though he didn't look nearly as bedraggled. His hair was trimmed in a military fashion, something reinforced by his Air Force uniform.

"Rhodey! I didn't expect to being hearing from you again so soon!" Stark began, taking a sip of his protein drink. "Not after the last present you gave me."

"To be honest, I wasn't expecting to, either," Rhodey replied in a weary fashion. Glancing over at Mana, he quirked a tiny smile and added, "Speaking of which...glad to see you up and around, Ms. Kirishima. You're looking a lot better."

"Yeah, well, from what I understand, just about anything would have been an improvement," Mana ruefully commented. "By the way, thanks for...well, you know."

Nodding, Rhodey simply replied, "No problem, ma'am." Then he heaved a deep breath and went on to say, "Tony, I'm sorry to say this, but it looks like we've got a situation here."

"Well, I didn't think you called for dating tips," Stark commented with a slight smirk.

"Yeah, right. The day I ask you for tips on women is the day I stick my head into a blender," Rhodey commented. "Anyway, about hour ago, Harper Air Force Base tried to contact another base, but the communication was suddenly cut off. When people were sent to investigate, they found the entire base flattened. Everything that could be blown up was, their computers were scrambled...you name it. There's pretty much nothing left of the place."

"Really?" Stark replied, his eyes narrowed in consideration. "What about the people there? Were there many...?"

"That's where we got lucky. Nobody's dead, but a lot of people will be heading for the hospital for a good, long while." Then Rhodey narrowed his eyes intently at Mana. "However, eyewitnesses said that their attacker was someone in a suit of armor like ours. He called himself War Machine...and just for the record, it wasn't me."

As Mana sucked in a gasp, Stark muttered, "Uh-oh..."

"Exactly," Rhodey nodded grimly. "So I was wondering if maybe your...guest might know who we're dealing with."

"Ohmygosh...i-it's Touji...!" Mana gasped, barely able to believe what she was experiencing. "He...he must've come looking for me! He -!" Her heart pounding that much faster, she then cut herself off as the other part of Rhodey's report registered. "But...wait. Why would he attack an Air Force base?"

"Maybe it has something to do with them shooting you down," Stark commented.

"You might be more right than you know," Rhodey confirmed. "Remember what I told you about when we found Mana? And that we swept the area, but we were never able to find...well, those last few pieces?"

"You mean her arm and that gauntlet? Yeah, I remember," Stark confirmed. "Why? Have they turned up?"

"They might have, but not here." Giving this a moment to sink in, Rhodey leaned in closer to the screen. "Our friends in Japan reported that an...unusual package was delivered to NERV. They don't know what was in it, but...well, from what they could tell, it was large enough that the...missing items might have been inside."

"Wha- somebody sent my arm to NERV?! But then -?!" Then Mana realized what this meant, and cut herself off with a gasp of pure horror. "Oh, no...you mean that...they must think I'm dead!"

"Which would explain your friend's little rampage." Returning his focus to Rhodey, Stark then asked, "What about the people that shot Mana down? Are they from Harper?"

"Nope, which might explain why they're all still breathing," Rhodey reported. "But Tony, this guy, Touji?If his armor is anything like ours, then there's no reason to believe that he couldn't hack the computers -"

"- and find out who did do it," Stark nodded unhappily.

Feeling the eyes of both men falling on her, Mana squirmed somewhat in her seat before admitting, "I...Sid designed Touji's armor more for combat than anything else, but...well, it did have all the basic hardware. Including computer interface."

"So there's no reason to assume that War Machine 2.0 wasn't able to track down the guilty party," Stark reasoned. "And on that note...any chance you might know who that might be?"

"I haven't been able to dig up who gave the actual orders," Rhodey informed them with a shake of his head. "But I did learn where Mana's attackers came from; Edwards Air Force Base."

"Then...he must be on his way there! Right now!" Mana gasped in horror. "Stark, we have to get there right now!"

"Oh? And in what armor?" Stark wondered. As Mana was stuck trying to field that question, he then focused his attention on his friend. "Besides, if you friend was picking a fight with Edwards Air Force Base, I'm sure Rhodey would have mentioned that little fact."

"That's right, I would've," Rhodey confirmed. "But don't celebrate just yet; according to the reports, all the jets and other equipment on the base have been accounted for, except one; a CV-22 Osprey."

It took a moment for Mana to realize what Rhodey meant, at which point she gasped, "You're saying that...Touji stole it?!"

"There's no sign of any wreckage from it, and believe me, we would have found wreckage if he had blown it up," Rhodey confirmed. "It also looks like he made off with some additional ammunition. Missiles, grenades, you name it, as well as some oil."

"One teenage kid made off with all of that?" Stark demanded with a raised eyebrow. "And I'm guessing you have no clue where he is now?"

"Not a clue," Rhodey admitted. "We had no eyes on that area, and we've picked up nothing on radar."

"Wow. Looks like military intelligence is more of an oxymoron than ever," Stark sniped. "Remind me; why did lock myself in this bunker for a decade and half again?"

Clearly not amused by Stark's wiseass comments, Rhodey responded with, "Personally, I'd like to know what this kid intends to do with a load of military equipment and five barrels of oil."

"Five barrels?!" Mana repeated, bringing her hand to her face. "Oh, no...Touji must be planning on building a nanotech bath!"

Looking over at Mana, Rhodey made a face of patent disgust. "Great. Someone else who speaks geek. I'd have an easier time with straight Japanese!"

Shaking her head in dismay, Mana recovered enough to explain, "We...my father developed a way of reconstructing raw materials by using nanites with oil as a medium for them." Swallowing nervously, she added, "Touji...he-he must have something with him. Some equipment to make a bath...he's planning on rebuilding the stuff he stole into something else!"

His expression souring that much more, Rhodey replied, "And I'm guessing that that something will be big, mean, and loaded with all kinds of guns."

"In other words, he's hunkering down to plan his next move...and to bring a whole lot of pain to Edwards," Stark solemnly agreed.

"So how long do we have until he makes his move?" Rhodey demanded.

"Well, that depends. Mainly on how big this thing he's working is going to be," Stark admitted. "I'm familiar with the basics of this nanotech bath Mana mentioned..."

"Of course you are," Rhodey muttered.

"And while it's an easy way of building stuff without too much in the way of big equipment, it does take a bit of time," Stark went on despite his friend's remark. "If he's whipping up something big - and from what you've told me, he is - it's gonna take him at least twenty-four hours to finish putting together. Longer if he's relying on just his armor for this."

"He won't be." As both men focused on her, Mana sighed heavily before adding, "Touji might not be a scientist or engineer, but he's not stupid. He wouldn't try something like this without the right equipment."

Pausing to study her, Stark raised an eyebrow before saying, "Alright. Let's assume that we have until tomorrow before Touji makes his move. You do whatever you can to track him down, but Rhodey -"

"I know, we'll have to make sure that SHIELD doesn't track him down, either," Rhodey nodded somberly. "I'll see about covering for the kid...and hope he doesn't do anything too stupid for now."

"Just be sure you let me know as soon as something goes down," Stark instructed. "In the meantime, I'll be working with Mana on some new gear for the both of us."

"You got it. Take care, Tone. You, too, Mana," Rhodey replied, giving a polite bow of his head before the holographic display vanished.

Her insides knotting up, Mana looked imploringly at her benefactor. "Tony, we can't wait. We have to go find Touji right away!"

"I'm sorry, Mana, that's not an option." As the auburn-haired girl opened her mouth to protest this decision, Stark looked her in the eyes, his expression worn and solemn. "Look, I know how you feel. I've been where you are right now more times than I want to remember, and every single time, I wanted nothing more than to rush right out the door and save the day and my friends!" Then he made a face before adding, "I've also lost count of the number of times pulling that kind of stunt has come back to bite me in the ass!"

"But - we can't just sit around here!" Mana countered.

"And we're not," Stark assured her. "The first thing we're going to do is eat up, and then we're going to get to work on those new armors we were talking about. Because I guarantee you that we're going to need them."

"I know that, but...can't you go out and look for Touji?" Mana tried again. "You must have one or two armors around here right now!"

"That's right. And more than just one or two," Stark confirmed. "And do you know what my going outside right now to search for your friend would accomplish?" Giving her a mild scowl, he went on to say, "At best, I would probably accomplish nothing. At worst, I would make myself a great big target for Gendo, SEELE, and SHIELD."

"SHIELD?" Mana repeated, recalling Rhodey's earlier mentioning of that name. "Wait...that sounds familiar..."

"It should. It was ostensibly an organization to keep the peace around the world, overseen by people with way too much power and way too few scruples," Stark explained. "Their boss, Nick Fury? He's one of the guys who championed me giving up my tech. For the 'greater good', of course."

"Right, right, you mentioned him." Then Mana frowned and said, "But...I thought SHIELD was disbanded. After Second Impact..."

"Yeah, they're much happier with the world thinking that," Stark assured her. "I know it seems harsh, but right now, our best bet is to get prepared and wait to hear from Rhodey. Believe me, he has access to some of the best tracking and monitoring technology on the planet." With a grin, he added, "And I should know. I made it."

"But..." Mana tried again.

"It's like I said, Mana; we need to be ready before we make our move," Stark told her, all business. "Because I guarantee you this; right now, Nick Fury and likely all our other enemies have gotten word about this new War Machine. They've likely heard about me buddying up with a guy in a similar suit, and they're doing the math. So as soon as Touji pops up on the radar again, they're gonna make their move." Narrowing his eyes, the notorious armor user went on to say, "And if we're not at our absolute best when that time comes, then he and a lot of other people will be in danger...or worse."

X