In my supreme selfishness I thought: It had to be Unit Zero, didn't it?
I couldn't be one of the hero Evas. I couldn't be the one pulling Asuka out of the fire. Literally. I couldn't be the one charging into battle. I had to stand here, frozen, able to breathe but barely, drifting in a stupor while events I had no control over happened miles away.
All I could think of was the cable snapping at a different place, or too early or too late, of Shinji slipping or his grab missing the mark and Asuka drifting to her death in the volcano or both of them and it would be my fault solely for being here.
No longer could I reasonably deny Ritsuko information about angel attacks. Yet so many of them were such close run things. However the connection worked between her laptop and my mind, it broke during her drive with Asuka to the remote launch site, and though I searched I did not find. Here I was alone.
Kaji came in a few hours after the operation was set to start. He sat at Ritsuko's desk, picked up Ritsuko's cup and sniffed Ritsuko's coffee.
"What do you want?"
"Old spy trick," he said. "Annoy you into starting the conversation. Puts me on better footing."
"I see. What do you want?"
He smirked. "I thought we were partners. I've done some digging, reported some findings about Seele to Gendo, some findings about Ikari to Seele, some findings about both to the UN. Seele and Gendo don't give a fig what the UN is doing, so less paperwork for me."
"You're still helping them?"
"What choice do I have? If I should suddenly clam up, how would that look? Seele might wonder why they bother keeping me here and Ikari would get suspicious immediately. I've been feeding them information they already know, anyway. It's the government of Japan that's breathing down my neck."
"They're useless to us. Anything you report to them you may as well be reporting to the others."
"I do have some information. Gendo will be leaving soon. Nerv is recovering some kind of object from the Antarctic wasteland. Ideas?"
"The Lance of Longinus."
"That would be…?"
"It's a device fashioned by the same aliens that created Adam. It can shut down a seed of life. It also makes an effective weapon against AT-Fields."
"It can pierce them?"
"Yes. The Lance appears to be a lifeform of its own."
"You know this how, exactly?"
"Because in a few weeks, I'm going to use it to kill a spaceborne Angel. Or I'm supposed to, at least. That may change."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd let me in your plans a little bit. You keep mentioning this ace in the hole."
"I know what Gendo wants."
Kaji sat back. "So you mean to extort him?"
"No. I mean to give it to him, freely, if it comes to that."
Kaji rocked in the chair. "Suppose he doesn't want to cooperate with you, even if you can give him what he wants."
"I'll deal with him."
Kaji blinked. "I see."
"It's not him I'm worried about."
"Then who?" he said.
"His wife," I said. "I need to be sure. I need you to find information on her for me. I need to know what I'm doing."
"Ikari's wife is dead," said Kaji. He blinked. "Wait, you said she's alive somehow in the Eva. Like you."
"Yes. Like me. Or not like me. I know for sure she's in there. How aware or independent is, I don't."
He blinked, and stared at the camera. I felt a tug at my mind. I turned my attention to see Ritsuko staring into the camera. She was hunched over her laptop. She was sitting in her car, alone. She was slick with sweat and she looked tired.
"Chuck," she whispered.
"Are you okay? What happened?"
She sighed. "The cable broke. It couldn't handle the strain."
I tensed. "The pilots?"
"They're both fine. Shinji pulled them out. I never would have believed it if I didn't see it myself."
"Then what's wrong?"
"Nothing," she sighed, breathing sharply. "Everything. We did it. We captured the angel."
"That's great," I said. "I think. Is it?"
"There's so much we can learn from it," she said. "They're going to prep it to be moved over to the Matsushiro facility. I've been on the phone with the Commander there. They're going to pull the experimental S2 from Unit Four and and move it and Unit Three to Matsushiro ahead of schedule. They'll be kept on standby if it goes active and we have to kill it."
She was breathless, flushed with excitement. Her soft features folded into a genuine grin. I just stared at her for a second.
"I have to get back to the mobile command before I'm missed. I'll see you in a few hours, okay?"
I would have nodded. I hope no one noticed Unit Zero's head bobbing slightly. "Okay."
"What?" said Kaji. "What is it?"
"They captured the Angel."
"Is that good?"
"Fuck no, now I don't know what's going to happen. It's already started causing huge changes."
"You should still have good intel, though, right?"
"Lots, but now the specifics of the battles will be up in the air."
"You still know the capabilities of the enemy. That's a start."
"Yes. I have a job for you."
His eyebrow twitched. "And what would that be?"
"I want you to spend some time with Shinji."
"Guy stuff. Bonding. Taking him… I don't know, shooting or to a strip bar or something."
He sighed. "Maybe something a little less mature."
"Whatever. Just get him comfortable around you. I don't have any sources of information on him. See if you can get Misato to join you."
"She won't," he said.
That made his eye twitch, but his face remained calm, the same dismissive grin on his lips. He'd have made an able poker player. He nodded, a tight, subtle movement, and stood up. He locked the door behind him.
Ritsuko came back hours later. She was practically glowing. She flounced into the chair and grinned.
"I can't believe it. It really worked."
"What are you going to do with it?"
She shrugged. "Everything. It has an intact core, for a start. The Evas could all be upgraded with viable S2 engines. No more umbilicals."
"Things have changed. The angel was supposed to die. Unit Four is supposed to go missing when its S2 screws up."
She leaned her chin on her hand. "Go missing?"
"Vanish. Apparently an AT-Field can create some kind of theoretical space. One of the angels can do that, too. The twelfth."
"I never considered that. Do you know where it went?"
"It all happens off screen."
"Was there ever a problem with Unit Three?"
I was quiet for a moment. "Yes."
"What kind of problem?"
"After Four went missing, Three was sent here for testing. During transport it was infected by Bardiel, the thirteenth angel."
"Infected?" she said. "It's some sort of a parasite?"
"Yes. It took over the Eva."
"Shinji didn't want to hurt the pilot, so he refused to fight. The Dummy System was activated instead. It ripped Unit Three apart. The pilot loses his leg."
"Well," said Ritsuko. "That won't happen now. I'll put in protocols to check the Eva for contamination before we even activate it."
"Do you know who the pilots will be?"
She leaned forward and typed something, holding her pencil in her mouth. "Let me check. Here it is."
"The next viable candidates on the list are Toji Suzuhara and Kensuke Aida."
You gotta be fucking kidding me.
"The Aida one. Switch him out. Can you do that?"
"Sure. I made up the list. The next candidate is almost on par with him. It's a girl. Hikari Horaki. Does that name ring a bell?"
"Yes. I think she'll be great. Perfect. I hope I'm right."
Ritsuko sighed, and stuck her pencil back in her pocket. "I'm so excited I can barely stand it. I wish I could take you to get a drink with… me…" she trailed off.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"So am I."
"Who are you talking to?"
Ritsuko spun around. Misato was leaning in the door.
"Who?" said Ritsuko.
"You. Who were you talking to?"
"I wasn't talking to anybody," said Ritsuko.
Misato eyed her. "I heard you."
She strutted into the room, arms folded. "What is that?"
Staring straight into the camera, she shouldered Ritsuko to the side.
"A webcam? You are talking to somebody. Who is it?"
"None of your business," Ritsuko said, sharply. "I have a mountain of paperwork to do. Do you mind?"
"Yes, I mind. You're blushing!"
Ritsuko's blush deepened. "I am not. Don't be ridiculous. Relations between men and women are-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Misato, "I've heard this all before. Who is he?"
"Misato," Ritsuko said, angrily.
"Ritsuko has a boyfriend!" Misato chanted. "Ritsuko has a boyfriend!"
"I do not!" Ritsuko almost shouted.
Misato pointed at the webcam. "Have you put on a show for him yet? A little striptease?"
Ritsuko glanced at the camera. Her mouth clicked shut, and she stood up.
"Misato," she said, sharply, grabbing the other woman's arm. "You have to keep quiet about this. Please."
Misato's face went from a mask of mirth to a wide-eyed look of confusion. "What? Why?"
"I can't explain, I-"
"Tell her," I said.
They both looked at the screen.
"I knew it," said Misato. "A video chat. How did you hide the window?"
Ritsuko rushed to the other side of the lab and closed the door, locked it, and slid a chair under it for good measure. She jog-walked back to the computer and looked out the window.
"Are you sure about this?" said Ritsuko.
"I am," I said.
"About what?" said Misato.
"Show her," said Ritsuko. "The cage is clear."
She nodded at the window. Misato walked over, looking at her askance. She looked out the window.
I turned my head.