"Are you Shinji Ikari?" the scruffy-looking man asked in flawless Japanese.
"Y-Yes," the timid boy answered, gripping the handle of the door as if it were a knight's shield.
"My name is Dom Cobb. I work with your father. This is Arthur, Eames, and Yusuf." He indicated the men standing behind him, two Englishmen and an Indian with glasses. "May we come in?"
Neon Psychosis Evangelion 01
A Very Specific Type
"Um, sure." He stepped away from the doorway to let the suited men into his uncle's apartment. They removed their shoes and lined them neatly along the wall before proceeding. It surprised Shinji how comfortable they were with Japanese culture, but then if they worked with his father, he supposed they would be.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked, since he was the host when his aunt and uncle were out.
One man – Eames? – raised an eyebrow at Dom Cobb, who shook his head. "No, thank you. We don't plan on staying very long. Is there somewhere we could talk?" Shinji saw now that Cobb was holding a briefcase in his right hand.
"This way." Shinji took the men to the kitchen table. There were only three chairs arranged – one for him and his aunt and uncle – but when he moved to retrieve a fourth, Yusuf shook his head.
"That's okay, I'll stand." The Indian glanced sideways at Cobb who didn't return the look. Obviously Cobb was the leader of this group, as evidenced by the fact that he had spoken first. But if Shinji had been dense enough to miss that, the way the other two deferred Cobb was evidence enough of his leadership.
Shinji sat so that Cobb was on his right and Eames on his left. Eames adopted a laid back posture while Cobb placed the briefcase on the table and pulled a piece of paper out of it. "Before I explain, Shinji, I need you to do something for me."
"What is it?" he asked nervously.
Cobb slid the paper in front of him. "Solve this maze, please." He handed him a pen.
"You have two minutes. Go." Behind him, Yusuf clicked a stopwatch. Impulsively, Shinji picked up the pen. He studied the maze. It was rectangular like most mazes. He had done a few that came with magazines and newspapers, but none of them had been this complicated. Two minutes to solve this? It was impossible!
I can't do this.
"You can do this Shinji," Cobb urged. "Find the beginning, and find the center."
"He can't do it, Cobb," Eames said dispassionately. "We found the wrong kid."
"No, Eames. This is Gendo's son, the Third Child."
Eames shrugged and put his hands behind his head, leaning back farther. "Okay. But he doesn't look half the Child the Second was."
"Don't listen to him, Shinji," Cobb said. "You can do this, I know you can."
"But this – "
"Touch the pen to the beginning, and then to the center. That should help."
"One minute," Yusuf announced.
"He'll do it."
It surprised Shinji how much Cobb believed in him. So much so, that he took his advice and touched the paper at the maze's entrance and at its center. Immediately, the maze started to make sense. Before his eyes, the correct path became apparent, like a beacon. How did I not see that before? Quickly, steadily, he traced the path with the pen, making no mistakes, and arrived at the center just as Yusuf announced "Time."
"Very good, Shinji," Cobb said coolly.
"Well whaddya know," Eames remarked, not looking.
"Is…Is that all?" Shinji replaced the pen cap and set it back on the table.
"Not quite, Shinji." Cobb retrieved the maze, slipped it back into the briefcase, and produced another one. "I need you to do another, harder, maze. Can you do that?"
"Sure." Why not? It was just a maze. But it wasn't just a maze. This one was circular, a spiral, with numerous dead ends and switchbacks.
"Go." Yusuf clicked the stopwatch. Shinji repeated the same technique as before, touching the pen to the beginning, and to the center. Just like before, the path jumped out at him, and he traced it without making a single mistake. "Time."
"Excellent. Thank you, Shinji. No, don't put the pen down just yet. I need you do one final maze. Can you do that for me?" Cobb had already switched the papers and was handing Shinji the third maze.
"Um, sure." This maze was completely different from the other two. The outer layers were rectangular, but it switched to circular towards the middle. The very center of the maze was octangular. Now this maze was impossible.
"One minute," Cobb said. Yusuf nodded, and clicked the stopwatch. "Go."
What? One minute! How can I solve this maze in that short time? I could barely get the others in two minutes. No, no, I'm going to fail. I'm going to fail! I knew it; I'm not good at anything. He glanced worriedly at Cobb, but the scruffy Englishman held his calm, cool gaze that radiated confidence. Confidence in Shinji. Dom Cobb thinks I can, though. He thought I could when Eames didn't.
Touch the pen to the beginning, and then to the center.
He made the motion for a third time, ignoring the steady ticking of the stopwatch. Was it getting faster? Suddenly, Shinji could see the path. It was deceptively straightforward, just obscured by twists and spirals. Knowing his time was short, Shinji traced the path as quickly as he could, making a few mistakes out of haste, but otherwise getting along. He was over three quarters of the way there when Yusuf called "Time." Cobb snatched up the maze before Shinji could finish.
Shinji capped the pen and set it on the table, shamefully. He had failed, just like he thought he would. He wasn't worth anything; he couldn't even solve a maze. Whatever kind of person Dom Cobb and his men though Shinji was, they were about to be disappointed.
"Very good," Cobb announced.
"What?" Shinji snapped his head up.
Cobb laid the maze on the table again. "You solved the maze, see?" He pointed to where Shinji's pen line stopped (well, it scrolled off the paper from when Cobb snatched it up) with his index finger, and the center with his thumb. Then he peeled them away and held them up for Shinji to see. "This close."
"But I….I didn't reach the center in time," Shinji said meekly. "I failed."
"Come on now," Cobb said with a raised eyebrow. "Do you really think anybody could solve this other in one minute?"
"Well, no," the young teen admitted. "But you said I had to solve it in one minute, so…" he shrugged.
"That was to see how well you did under pressure, and you did marvelously."
"Yeah," Eames snorted. "Cobb here didn't even get halfway when Ariadne first drew the damn thing. Make a hell of a lot more mistakes than you, too."
"Thank you, Eames," he replied with slight annoyance.
"Well, I'd say he passed." Shinji jumped at Yusuf's voice. All he had said so far was "Time". "But we are on a tight schedule here, Cobb, mind if we move this along?"
Cobb set down his tea and observed Shinji sitting next to him. They were seated at a roadside ramen shop. Shinji picked at his noodles and glanced at Cobb.
"What is it?"
"I bet you're wondering what the hell we're doing here."
Cobb turned in his seat to face Shinji directly. "Think about it. How did we get here?"
Shinji wracked his brain. "Well, we were in my aunt's apartment, and I solved your mazes. Then we…" He drew a blank. "I-I don't remember." He turned fearfully to Cobb. "How did we get here? Where are we?"
"Easy, kid. It's okay. To answer the second question, we're at a ramen shop. Notice how there's nobody else around?" Suddenly, Shinji became aware of the fact that they were alone. "To answer the question more correctly," Cobb leaned in close, "we're dreaming."
"What?" This man in insane! I should never have let him into the apartment. "That's crazy!"
Shinji's ramen bowl levitated in the air right in front of his face. Then it burst apart, but the fragments stayed in place. Cobb blinked and the bowl reassembled itself. Suddenly the stall creaked and began to rotate around the two of them. Shinji gripped his seat in fear, but Cobb simply picked up his tea and waited as the structure moved. Inexplicably, the entire thing exploded outward, and they were sitting on bar stool in the middle of an intersection Shinji did not recognize. The bar stool flew out from under them, leaving them standing.
"This is my mental recreation of New York City, Shinji, before it was flooded after Second Impact. You're in my dream."
"How is that…how is that possible?"
"Human minds all share the ability to dream together. Normally, it can't happen, but with the aid of a special machine, we can pull others into my dreams, or anyone else's."
Cobb seemed fully aware of how ridiculous and unsatisfying the explanation was, but that seemed to be all he was willing to give up at that point.
"It feels real, though," Shinji said.
"Dreams feel real when we're in them. It's only when we wake up, that we realize we were asleep. Now I need you to pay attention from here, okay? This information is important. You will be confused, but whether you understand it or not, you have to remember what I'm going to tell you, okay? We don't have a lot of time."
"Right now, I am the Dreamer. That means you are in my mind, and this dreamscape is a projection of my doing. Normally, the dream is filled with projections of my subconscious, like so."
Suddenly the city was filled with countless pedestrians, all emotionless and set on a destination somewhere within the imaginary city. They appeared real, and even interacted with one another.
"These people are my subconscious, going about their business. If someone starts to mess around with my dreams" He looked at a street sign and twisted it into a pretzel shape, "The subconscious becomes aware of the intruders." The people closest to them stopped and stared at Cobb. When he fixed the sign, they moved on, casting wary glances over their shoulders. "You try. Imagine something in this world changing."
"Um, okay." Shinji thought about the street sign and imagined it twisting into the pretzel shape again. When he was finished, he said, "Like that?"
"Sure." Cobb straightened the sign before his subconscious reacted. "But try something I didn't do already."
"I don't know. Anything." Shinji continued to give him a blank stare. "Okay, uh, try…doing something to that skyscraper over there." He pointed to the old Chrysler Building.
"I don't know, Shinji," Cobb did his best to keep his frustration in check. "Anything! It won't work right if I tell you."
"Okay." Shinji stared at the building, trying to think of something to change about it. It was difficult, but finally he settled on simply twisting it. The whole structure rumbled as the top floors twisted while the base remained stationary. When it stopped moving, each edge was a wide spiral to the top. "Like that?"
"Well, judging by the way everyone is staring at us, I'd say you did a good job." Shinji turned around and was met with a crowd of dream projections staring them down.
"Not to worry," Cobb assured the panicking youth. "You did just enough where they won't attack us."
"As long as we don't mess around anymore, we'll be fine. I have some more to tell you about-oh no."
"What?" Shinji followed Cobb's gaze down the street. A woman was walking towards them, determination in her stride.
"Not now, Mal, not now." Cobb grabbed Shinji's arm and tried to pull him away, but the crowd of people proved impassable. "No, no, no! We don't have time for this, Mal!" Shinji was yanked away from Cobb by the projections.
"I thought you said they wouldn't attack!" Shinji cried helplessly.
"Mal's controlling them, now, Shinji. I can't stop her." Firm hands gripped the two of them and hauled them to the woman. "Let us go!" Cobb shouted at her. She ignored his words, and very smoothly, raised a gun, first to Cobb, then to Shinji.
She pulled the trigger.
Shinji jolted awake with a cry, and sat upright, sweating. He was sitting in the back of a van, his arm hooked up to some machine. Cobb was hooked up across from him. Shinji put a hand to his head, but there was no blood, no bullet hole where Mal had shot him.
"Dammit, Mal!" Cobb awoke and ripped the needle out of his arm. Shinji carefully did the same with his.
"What happened?" Eames apparently was driving the van. He looked back over his shoulder at the two of them. "You're up early."
"Mal killed us, Eames; I didn't get to finish explaining things to Shinji."
"She killed us?"
"In a dream, if you get killed, you wake up," Eames explained. "Still feel real though. I had nightmares for weeks the first time it happened to me." He made a show of checking his watch. "Well, we're behind, Cobb. Might have to give him the condensed version."
"Right." Cobb packed up the wires and needles, putting them back into his briefcase. Shinji caught a glimpse of a strange machine. "Well, you know about dreams-sharing, at least in principle. I guess I should tell you what we do." He cracked his fingers and neck. "We are Extractors. That is, we invade people's minds and steal information."
Shinji's eyes widened.
"Well, we used to. Now we work for NERV, under your father. Now we focus on protecting dreams from being invaded. Because we worked as them for so long, we're very good at preventing Extraction."
"Very good," Eames echoed.
"But right now, we've a problem that requires you."
"Me?" Shinji pointed at himself. "What do you need me for?"
"We need you to – "
"Incoming!" Eames shouted from the driver's seat. The van rocked sideways as if hit by something explosive. Eames struggled to keep the van straight. Cobb swore and produced a pistol from somewhere, and opened the back doors of the van. They were driving through a city Shinji didn't recognize. Behind them, another van was following close behind. An unrecognizable man was driving it, but in the passenger seat, Shinji could see –
"Mal!" Cobb shouted. He fired a few rounds at the van, which cracked the windshield. Mal leaned out the window and aimed a small bazooka at them. "Down!" Cobb shoved Shinji down and yelled to Eames. "Evade! Evade!"
Eames jerked the van hard to the left, avoiding the projectile. Cobb fired again, aiming for the driver.
"What's going on?" Shinji screamed.
"It's Mal, again. She's trying to kill us again."
"She's been following me for some time, Cobb," Eames said, jerking the van to the left again. "Didn't do anything until you woke up. I thought she'd try to kill you while you were under and drop you –"
"Not now, Eames!" Cobb fired again. Out of bullets, he dropped the magazine and hurled it out the back. Fishing around for another, he asked, "How much longer?"
"Only another minute or so. Speak of the devil…"
Shinji awoke again to find himself reclining at the kitchen table, his arm hooked up to the machine. Cobb and Eames slowly stirred to life, while Yusuf went around and checked each of their pulse. They all removed the needles from their arms and returned them to the briefcase.
"I'll bet you're very confused," Cobb said, stretching.
"Yes! I mean…we were dreaming…twice?"
"A dream within a dream," Cobb explained. "I promise though, we're awake now." He took a strange top out of his pocket and spun it. When it fell, he quickly snatched it up and hid it away. The other two messed around with strange objects as well.
Yusuf checked his watch. "We need to leave. NERV won't be able to wait much longer."
"I know, I know. Come on." He shoved Shinji to the door while Eames left a note on the table, addressed to his aunt and uncle. Yusuf gathered up their shoes as the four of them hurried down the hallway. They bypassed the elevator which was stopped two floors above them in favor of the stairs. Shinji nearly tripped on the way down.
Cobb's cell phone rang. "Hello? Yeah, I got him. We're leaving now." They nearly ran out the front door as a white van skidded to a halt in front of them. Arthur was driving. Apparently he had left while they were dreaming to pull the can around. Shinji hadn't even noticed his absence. "In the back, in the back." Cobb climbed into the passenger seat while Eames, Yusuf and Shinji got into the back through a side door.
"What's…already?" Cobb checked his watch. "You guys work fast. Alright, we'll be there in less than an hour. Call ahead to clear the roads for us, I don't' want to get stuck in traffic. Oh, and Gendo? Keep him heavily sedated. Whatever dosage the Magi have programmed – double it." He closed the phone with a click and tucked it inside his coat.
Also seated in the back with them was a young girl that would either be English or French. "Hello," she said in slightly accented Japanese. "My name is Ariadne."
"I'm Shinji," he replied shyly.
"Gendo's son?" She raised an eyebrow. "Nice to meet you."
"How does everybody here know my father?"
"We all work for NERV. Gendo's our immediate superior."
Shinji pulled his legs to his chest. "Then you must know how he is. He doesn't want to see you unless he needs something."
Ariadne gave Eames a look that said she knew exactly what he was talking about. "Well, it'll be fine. Once he sees you, he'll lighten up."
"Really?" Somehow, Shinji doubted it, but he was grateful for Ariadne's kind words.
"Can't you go any faster, Arthur?" Cobb pressed.
"Patience, Cobb, the Angel's not going anywhere. The Magi have it sedated, and Eame's constructs are ready to be dropped into the labyrinth. I hear you designed a good one this time, Ariadne," he called back.
"Of course," she answered. "It wouldn't do to half-ass the first Interception mission given to us, now would it, Arthur?"
Shinji was hopelessly lost. Eames clapped him reassuringly on the shoulder. "Don't worry, kid. It all gets way more confusing from here on out."