Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.
Disclaimer: I do not own anything belonging to Marvel Comics or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.
Superwomen of Eva: Emerald Fury
Chapter 16: Survival
"C'mon, Third! What's taking you so long?" Asuka wondered, looking up from the beanbag she was seated on, TV remote in hand and a superior smirk on her face. "When's dinner gonna be ready, anyway?"
"Just give me a few minutes," Shinji returned as he hovered over the various pots and pans, sweat rolling down his face due to the heat of the burners. "Sorry. I told you I've never tried this recipe before."
"Hmph. Figures," Asuka muttered. Her tone of voice conveying the image of her rolling her eyes at Shinji's incompetence. "What's the matter, Third? I thought you'd be used to cooking real food by now!"
And what makes this stuff more real than Japanese food? a spiteful voice in the back of Shinji's mind retorted irritably. A voice that he knew far better than to allow access to his physical mouth and vocal chords.
In the days since Misato had crushed the 10th Angel, Asuka had become more officious than Shinji would have believed possible. She had immediately stopped doing what few household chores she had been willing to deal with in the past and had decreed that she would not tolerate any more Japanese cuisine. She had become increasingly more demanding in terms of the meals she wanted, leaving Shinji often struggling with recipes he was only marginally aware of, if at all. And any time he accidentally overslept, he had found himself awakened courtesy of a series of kicks to his ribs.
I haven't even had the time to do any more research about Jet Alone…or doing anything else with the Brigade, Shinji muttered inwardly as he fussed with the sections of lamb that were almost sizzled to perfection. Thinking of all the times he had tried to investigate it at home, only to be interrupted when Asuka caught him and told him he wasting his time with her fists. Not that I've been much help with that, but still…
Sighing tiredly, Shinji continued to work, until at last every course of the fancy dinner the German had demanded of him was done to the best of his present ability. "Uh, Asuka? Dinner's ready, and…"
"Then what are you waiting for, dummkopf?! Hurry up and get it served!" Asuka retorted. Getting up and brushing out the wrinkles in her clothes, she marched into the dining room and sat herself down. "I haven't had decent roast lamb since I got here!"
"I'm coming…" Shinji muttered. Moving as carefully as he could, he brought the roast lamb, along with the salad and the side dishes he had labored to prepare. One by one, he set Asuka's place, finishing up with a glass of iced tea.
Lowering her nose and taking an experimental sniff, Asuka gave a slight smile before cutting a small piece of lamb and forking it into her mouth. "Hmm…not bad, Third," she said with grudging respect. "I'll have to try you out on a few other dishes I've got in mind." Unable to help himself, Shinji allowed a weary groan to escape his lips as he gathered up his own meal. "Well, come on! Get in here and see what real food tastes like!" Asuka stated, waving for him to sit down. "And after you're done eating, you can get to work on my homework assignment."
"Wha - again?" Shinji moaned, practically dropping his own dinner in surprise. "But…Asuka -!"
"Don't 'but, Asuka!' me, baka! I've got better things to do than to waste my time on kiddy stuff like that! I've already graduated from college, for Gott's sake!" Asuka stated with an offended snort. "Besides, that idiot teacher they stuck us with won't even give me my stuff in German! The stupid, old fart!" When Shinji gave a tired sigh to this, she gave him a disdainful look before sampling her salad. "Hey, don't be like that! At least this way you're doing something useful!"
Pulling his head back somewhat, Shinji studied his German housemate. "Useful?"
"Sure! You're helping me!" Asuka returned with a superior look. "And that's a lot more useful than wasting your time on those stupid conspiracy theories of yours!"
Heaving a deep sigh, Shinji slumped forward. Knowing there was absolutely no point in trying to convince Asuka of anything when she had made up her mind, he decided to try to enjoy what little peace this day would offer him. Taking his knife and fork in hand, he took in the aroma of the sumptuous dinner he had worked so hard on before moving to cut a piece of lamb. Only to stop when, as if on cue, the phone started to ring.
Hovering over his dinner, Shinji looked over towards the phone, aware of Asuka doing the same. The two teens then looked at each other, the phone continuing to ring. Her expression turning to one of disgust, the redhead grumbled, "Well? Aren't you going to answer it?"
Tempted to sigh again but deciding he had better save it for when he really needed it, Shinji stood from his seat and moved into the kitchen. Trying not to pay attention to PenPen, who was happily gulping down sardines, Shinji picked up the telephone. "Hello?"
"Shinji?" came the voice on the other end of the line.
"Oh, Horaki-chan!" Shinji returned, immediately grateful for the distraction. "How are you?"
"It's Hikari?!" Asuka spoke up. Looking about, Shinji saw the German getting up and heading towards him. "Well, come on! Hand it over already!"
Before Shinji could do as he was asked, he heard a hushed voice speaking. "Shinji, listen to me, please." His lips parting at the urgency in Hikari's voice, he frowned and held the phone closer. "I just talked to a close friend of mine, and something's got her really scared."
"Hey, what are you doing?" Asuka demanded, leaning forward with her hands on her hips. "That is Hikari calling, right? So give me the phone, dummkopf!"
"Uh, sure. Just, um, give me a minute, okay?" Shinji murmured, taking a step back. Turning about so that he wouldn't be distracted by Asuka's scowl, he pressed the phone as tightly to his face as he could. "Your friend, huh? What's…wrong with her?"
"I'm not sure. She couldn't go into details about it, and it's making me nervous," Hikari replied tersely. "I…I'd like to be able to go over to her place. To check on her myself, but…"
"Right, right," Shinji nodded, only to yelp when Asuka grabbed hold of his hair and yanked him back.
"I said, give me the phone!" Asuka gritted, snatching the phone from Shinji's hand. She then shoved him aside and smiled, "Hey, Hikari! How're you doing?"
Pausing just long enough to make sure Asuka was occupied, then to look over at the dinner he hadn't even has a bite of, Shinji sighed before moving to the door. "I, uh, I'm gonna take a quick walk, Asuka! I'll be back as soon as I can!"
"What?!" Asuka retorted as Shinji left the apartment. Closing the door behind him, he heard the German bellow, "But what about my homework?!"
I'm sure gonna be in trouble when I get back, Shinji thought woefully, already knowing the pain he would be suffering when Asuka got through with him. Despite this, however, he kept moving, taking each step even faster than the one before. But if Hikari's right about this…
This dread thought trailing off, Shinji thought of the many precautions he and the rest of the Brigade had begun taking since they banded together. Phones, emails, text messages were all considered to be off-limits when it came to the transmission of sensitive communications. The only exception to this was certain code words Toji and Kensuke had come up with to signify that there was an emergency or something else of extreme urgency had happened and that the group was to assemble at a certain location. However, he and Hikari had taken this a few steps further and made a few private additions to these code words.
In his conversations with Hikari, she had revealed that one of her powers was detecting when an Angel or a being with Angelic powers like Misato was in close proximity. And while it may have been Kensuke's paranoia rubbing off on them, they decided to give certain words extra meaning, in case She-Hulk escaped from NERV, or some other creature like the Rhino attacked Tokyo-3. The words, 'close friend' would refer to Spirit, and 'scared' or 'frightened' meant something had triggered her mental alarm. And while she hadn't been able to give him many other clues, the one she had given him, 'nervous', made it clear where his destination was.
Something's gone wrong in the Geofront, Shinji thought worriedly, already heading towards the nearest entrance to NERV's underground colony. Horaki-chan wasn't sure what it was, so it's not Misato. And if it were an Angel, Captain Ibuki probably would have called us in already. Pressing his lips tightly together, Shinji ran down the possibilities. If it were an Angel, then NERV either hadn't detected it yet, or they had somehow been cut off from the outside, like when the 9th Angel had attacked. And if it were something else…
There's no way Horaki-chan would be able to get down there as herself, and if she tries to break through the vents as Spirit, then Father might have her attacked, Shinji thought, the idea leaving him caught between fear and sadness. I have to get down there and find out what's going on. If it's an Angel, then we should be able to handle it. And if it's something else…
Frowning, Shinji found that he really didn't want to think about 'something else', if for no other reason that it might mean something that he wouldn't be able to use Unit 01 against. That he would have to watch as Misato was forced to fight in his stead, or that he would have to call Hikari on his cell phone, and give her the code word that would send her down to risk capture, possibly death. All because he lacked the power to protect those he loved himself.
I hate this, Shinji muttered inwardly as the entryway to the Geofront finally came within a view. I hate being so weak, so helpless…
Hanging up her phone after a prolonged conversation with Asuka, Hikari frowned to herself. I hate this, she thought as she moved back to the kitchen. Never before feeling as helpless as she did that very moment.
It had only been a short time since she had begun sensing an Angel somewhere beneath the city, down within the Geofront. But time enough for NERV to have detected its presence and sound the alarms, alerting everyone to retreat to the Angel shelters. And certainly time enough for them to call in the pilots to deal with the threat. Neither of which had happened, not if her conversations with Shinji and Asuka were any indication.
Heaving a sigh, Hikari rubbed at her arm, feeling the goosebumps rising from her flesh. Not that long ago, she would probably have been quick to investigate this situation. She would have suspected a trap on NERV's part, but she had no doubt that she would have done something to find out what was going on. To at least confirm whether or not the city was at risk.
I…I almost got killed the last couple of times I went out as Spirit, Hikari murmured inwardly. The agony of her wings being torn out, virtually every bone in her body being shattered by She-Hulk still with her, as was the horror of her flesh and blood being corrupted by the Grey Gargoyle's touch. If something did happen to me…if I died… Her fear and shame mounting, she saw within her mind her friends and family grieving over her shattered form. Losing Mom…it almost destroyed Daddy and my sisters. If they…if I died as well…
Even as this thought occurred to her, Hikari found herself being assailed by other fears as well. Fears of the possibility that NERV had found some way to replicate an Angel's signal, and were trying to lure her into another trap. Or that the scientists at NERV had been telling Shinji the truth. That there was something dangerous lurking within Hikari's body, something that would render her a mindless destroyer the next time she transformed…
No! Stop it! Hikari thought, wincing at the very idea. That was a lie! Just another trick by NERV! It…it has to be… Gulping loudly, the pigtailed girl shook her head, trying to clear of such rogue thoughts. I…its okay. Shinji…he'll find out what's going on, and…if it's not a trick and they really do need me…he can find an excuse to call me, and…and it'll be okay. Heaving a deep breath, she bit down on her lip. Hard enough so that the taste of blood filled her mouth. Besides, I can't just sneak out of here at any time! I have to finish dinner, and...oh, NO!
Realizing just how long she had been on the phone, Hikari dashed back into the kitchen. Only to moan in defeat upon seeing that she accidentally put one of her textbooks on the grill, instead of the salmon she had meant to be cooking. Her nose filling with the stench of roasting paper, the Horaki matriarch leaned back against the wall and slowly sank to the floor.
Oh, God…what did I ever do to deserve all this? Hikari moaned. Then, with a derisive roll of her eyes, she answered herself. Right. I've been killing Angels. What a stupid question…
Looking down at the display screen built into the table before him, Gendo frowned tersely as he clenched his right hand. His forearm still hurt where the Rhino's horn had hit it; the time it has spent exposed to the air had resulted in his wound suffering a minor infection. An infection that pained him, despite the bandages and treatments it had been subjected to, but the Commander of NERV ignored the pain. Pain was immaterial to him. Especially in light of their current predicament, in which the MAGI had become their enemy. Infected by an Angel, with less than two hours until they activated NERV's self-destruct systems and destroyed them all.
Frowning at the contaminated simulation bodies in the Pribnow box, Gendo studied the glowing patterns that had formed on them. Listening as Ritsuko analyzed their newest enemy. "Apparently, this Angel is composed of a collective of nanites, each of them no larger than a virus. These nanites are constantly replicating themselves, spreading and infecting new host bodies, forming colonies within them. These colonies are highly sophisticated, taking the form of advanced computer circuitry."
From his place at the table, Fuyutsuki studied the display with the intensity of a hawk. "It's evolving."
"That's right," Ritsuko confirmed. "They're constantly adapting themselves to environmental change, forming whatever configuration is best-suited for their survival."
"Total adaptability," Fuyutsuki nodded thoughtfully. "It's this Angel's survival mechanism."
"If that's the case, then we've got just one chance of stopping this Angel before it blows us to kingdom come," Chihiro muttered gravely. "We've got to destroy the MAGI before it forces them all to sign off on the auto-destruct!"
Her face falling in shock, Ritsuko then shot the newest addition to the bridge crew a look of pure outrage. "That's impossible!" she roared, causing Chihiro to recoil in fear. "If we destroy the MAGI, we might as well as destroy NERV itself!"
Frowning, Gendo silently agreed with this. The MAGI essentially ran, not just all of NERV, but the city of Tokyo-3 and all of Japan. It was only through them that an organization like NERV could be run with any level of efficiency, let alone the standards that were upheld. They were responsible for making certain that the Evas were maintained, the analysis of Angels, and a horde of other functions that were essential to the day-to-day function of NERV Headquarters.
"I…I know that, but, Dr. Akagi, if we don't do it, then we're dead, anyway!" Chihiro finally protested with clear reluctance. "I'd rather have to replace the MAGI than invest in a harp and halo!"
"But destroying the MAGI wouldn't necessarily stop the Angel, Chihiro," Maya pointed out. Still wearing the same bedraggled face she had been when Gendo had arrived on the bridge. "With its capabilities, it could probably find another way to access the self-destruct systems."
"Precisely," Ritsuko nodded, her expression taut with intensity. "Besides, as long as this Angel is still evolving, there's still a chance for us to stop it entirely."
Only needing a moment to pick up on what Ritsuko was saying, Gendo muttered, "By manipulating its evolution."
"That's right, sir," Ritsuko confirmed. "If we can reprogram the MAGI before the Angel completely absorbs them, we can trick it into thinking that the only way for it to survive is to co-exist with them indefinitely."
"Reprogram the MAGI?" Chihiro repeated blankly.
"I get it," Maya chimed in, a spark of joy appearing in her tired eyes. "This Angel functions almost exactly like a computer, so we should be able to hack into it by using Casper."
"Exactly. Once the Angel breaks through to Casper, we can use it to load some kind of auto-destruct program into the Angel," Ritsuko replied, giving her former understudy a warm look. When Maya responded with a look of her own, the faux-blonde frowned with concern. "Unfortunately, we'll have to get it all done before the Angel breaks through. And even then, everything will depend on Casper being faster than the Angel."
"Do you really think you can do all that, Dr. Akagi?" Makoto wondered from his position. "If we lose Casper, it's all over for us."
"I keep my promises," Ritsuko told him. Her voice heavy with certainty. "Besides, I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve. We can do this."
"Maybe…" Chihiro murmured, her brows furrowed with concern. "But…shouldn't we have a backup plan, just in case?" All eyes focusing on her, the techie frowned her concern. "I mean…what you're proposing…it seems almost impossible!"
"We don't have a choice! Nor do we have time for any more debating!" Ritsuko growled, once again causing her new understudy to back away with the sheer force of her glare. "Every second we waste jabbering here gives that Angel an even better chance of beating us! There's nothing else we can do!"
After a moment's hesitation, Chihiro returned, "Well, actually…there might be one other way."
At this, everyone there swung their eyes in Chihiro's direction. "What are you talking about, Lieutenant Mifune?" Fuyutsuki demanded. "What else could we possibly do?"
"Well…Dr. Akagi said it herself. This Angel works just like a computer," Chihiro started, caught between uncertainty in herself and the desire to explain her theory. "So, I was thinking…instead of trying to reprogram it, why not wipe out its memory? Make it forget everything, even why it's attacking us in the first place?"
"And how do you propose we try and do something like that?" Ritsuko asked, folding her arms before her. Every gesture she made betraying her annoyance.
"You see, before I was promoted, me and the rest of my tech division were working on different weapons and machines that could – in theory, anyway - be used against the Angels," Chihiro began, speaking her hands as well as her voice. "One of them was a localized EMF generator. It's similar to ones that NERV uses in the AT-Field nullification zones for the Evas, and we were hoping to modify it so it could give our long-range weapons more strength against the Angels." Pausing to look at the faces around her and make sure they were all on the same page, the techie managed a somewhat bolder smile. "Anyway, I was thinking that, if we tuned it to the exact bio-electrical frequency of the Angel's nanites, we could generate an electromagnetic pulse that would wipe out all their programming! They would be completely helpless!" Then she shrugged and added, "Well, that's the theory, anyway."
It was still a good theory to Gendo's mind. Turning towards Ritsuko, he frowned and asked, "Your opinion, Dr. Akagi?"
Her face tightening with thought, Ritsuko spent a few moments considering the matter. "Assuming the generator could be set to exactly the right frequency, it is…possible," she finally conceded. "But we would have to channel the EMP through the MAGI's systems in order for it to get to all of the nanites, not just the ones here. And that would almost certainly mean losing some of our data. And even if it works, there's no guarantee it would stop the Angel permanently."
"Perhaps, but it would certainly slow it down," Maya chimed in. "I've seen the reports on that project, including Chihiro's work on it. In fact, that's the reason I chose her as my…replacement."
"Really?" Ritsuko spoke, raising an eyebrow at this. Giving the matter more thought, she turned towards Chihiro, studying the younger woman for a time. "Very well, then. We'll go with your plan as a backup, in case we can't reprogram Casper fast enough." The doctor's new understudy gasped in delight at this, a silly grin plastering itself on her. "Now, hurry up and get whatever people and equipment you'll need to make this work! We don't know how much time we have left!"
"Yes, Dr. Akagi! And thanks!" Chihiro cried out, snapping off a fast salute before darting off.
Watching her leave, Ritsuko then looked over at Maya. "You did a good job, choosing her." Seeing the reluctant nod her former understudy gave her in return, the faux-blonde moved and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Still, with her busy with the generator, I'm going to need someone else to help me with Casper."
Looking up, Maya frowned her befuddlement. "Sempai…?"
"Come on, Maya. Chihiro's good, but she doesn't have your mind," Ritsuko told her earnestly. "And there's nobody I trust more to help me with this than you." Giving this a chance to sink in, she cocked her head in the direction of the waiting MAGI. "So what do you say? Do you feel up to this?"
Gendo had long since mastered the art of reading people. It was one of the many reasons he had climbed his way up to the position of power he now enjoyed; the ability to analyze every gesture, every breath and every blink of a person's eyes and find out exactly what was going on inside of them. So it was absolutely no challenge for him at all to see that Maya wanted nothing more than to fling her arms about Ritsuko and jump for joy when all she did was grin so broadly that her face looked like it would split in half. "You couldn't keep me away, sempai!"
"Then let's get to work," Ritsuko told her. "Come on, and I'll show you one of those secrets I mentioned earlier."
Barely paying attention as the two women started away, already discussing their plans, Gendo turned towards his former sensei. "Fuyutsuki, while they're working, alert Section 2. I want a detachment armed with tranq guns sent down to the Major's quarters."
"Ikari?" Fuyutsuki frowned, studying his former student.
"With the MAGI now inoperative, it's possible that the security systems in her enclosure will have gone offline. And given the Major's temperament and sensitivity to the Angels, the longer she's left in there to wait, the more likely she is to transform," Gendo muttered, knowing full well how far her obsession ran. "I don't want her other half making things more difficult than they already are."
"Yes, sir," Fuyutsuki replied. Snorting his weariness as he moved off to carry out his orders.
Turning about, Gendo started forward, already thinking of the numerous fires he would have to put out once the Angel was defeated. He didn't bother considering the possibility of failure, for failure would mean death. Not just for him, but also for the one being that made his life worth living, for his plans to hold her in his arms once again, for all eternity. And so he pushed such thoughts out of his mind. Refusing to allow himself be distracted from doing whatever it took to make his dreams reality.
Even as he did so, his still-healing arm sent a burst of pain stabbing into his mind. Grunting in discomfort, Gendo spared just a moment to glare at his injury before shoving it to the back of his mind. Having more important things to deal with than a minor infection, he made a note to apply more medications to it later before dismissing it completely.
Something was wrong. Even if Shinji hadn't already been warned by Hikari, he would have realized it the moment the tram he was riding in appeared within the Geofront. For as he sat back, looking about the now-familiar underground colony, observing the portals through which many of the houses and businesses in Tokyo-3 would descend in times of trouble, as well as the portals through which the Evas and their weapons could be launched, he was aware of movement all around him.
Down below, just outside of the high-tech pyramid that was NERV Headquarters, people were scrambling about like ants on overdrive. And from what he could tell, just about every other tram that NERV had was already in motion. Working to carry people up and out of the Geofront.
Is it a full evacuation? Shinji wondered, watching as another tram passed his own. Just barely able to see people staring out at the one car that was going down, rather than up. But…why would they be evacuating? Is it an Angel…or is it something else?
Frowning, Shinji felt his hand reaching for his cell phone. His first impulse to contact Hikari, to let he know what was happening. But he stopped himself before he could even reach into his pocket. So far, all he knew was that there was something wrong. He didn't know what was actually happening, let alone if Spirit could do anything to help. He also considered alerting Asuka, but the same thing applied to her.
I have to find out what's going before I contact anybody, Shinji realized, frowning intently. And if they haven't sounded the alarm while they're evacuating, then they probably won't tell me what's going on if I call and ask them. His heart pounding with the sheer intensity of the situation, the 3rd Child did his best to ignore his mounting fear and confusion and keep focused on the task at hand. Then the massive sound filled the air. The sound of machinery grinding. What the -?!
Before Shinji could complete his thought, he sat up and looked down towards the source of the noise. Just in time to see two portals opening up near the NERV pyramid, and electromagnetic tracks rise out of them. His mind emptying, Shinji realized what was happening just as two things shot up on the tracks. And though he couldn't make out the details, he could see the things well enough to know that one was blue, the other red.
They've launched the Evas?! Shinji gaped, staring up in astonishment even as the tracks, having completed their duty, withdrew back into the base. But…even if Ayanami was there, there's no way Asuka could have beat me here and gotten into her Eva or any of that! And…Horaki-chan, she said the Angel was down here, not in the city! Suffering a sudden pang, he quickly thought back over his interrupted conversation with her. After a few seconds of thought, he was satisfied that he hadn't misinterpreted things. Hikari had used the code word for NERV Headquarters, there was no mistake about that. And so Shinji pondered the matter even further, trying to make sense of things. Until at last, a pit opening up in his stomach, he was forced to arrive at just one conclusion.
They aren't launching the Evas to fight…they're trying to save them! Shinji gasped inwardly, his head spinning from the thought. Whatever's happening…it's so bad that even the Evas can't stop it!
In that instant, Shinji wanted nothing more than to run away. To run around, trying to find a way to make the tram reverse its course, or failing that, wait until he reached his goal and then find a different avenue of escape. He had fought the Angels, but only with the power of Unit 01 at his command. He had come face-to-face with the Rhino and had been completely at his mercy. Certainly anything worse than them, anything that would force his father to order a complete evacuation was beyond either of these things, beyond his ability to deal with without help.
But before this impulse to flee could fully manifest itself, another thing occurred to Shinji. The image of Misato, trapped in her gilded cage. Possibly forgotten, maybe even abandoned, while the rest of the personnel and equipment were being evacuated. Left to die at the hands of whatever threat had been unleashed within.
I have to make sure! Shinji thought, the image of Misato lying unconscious, a victim of her enclosure's sleeping gas, when NERV was destroyed or whatever was about to happen. I have to make sure she's okay!
This thought spurring him on, the words 'I mustn't run away' repeating themselves in his mind over and over again, Shinji kept watch outside. When his tram finally arrived at one of the terminals within NERV Headquarters, he was able to see the many people running about madly. Making use of every tram that was available to them.
I won't have much time! Shinji thought worriedly. Already seeing a horde of people bearing down on his tram, flooding it before he even had a chance to step outside and even try and help Misato. As soon as the door opens, I'll have to run!
Moving to the door, Shinji grabbed hold of one of the handrails and braced himself for the gentle thud of the tram reaching its station. Then, when the door slid open, he poked his head out the door and quickly scanned the area. Wincing when he heard a female voice announce, "Red alert. Red alert. An emergency has occurred in NERV Headquarters. All D-Class personnel must evacuate."
Only D-Class personnel are being evacuated? Shinji thought even as he scampered away from the tram. Crouching down even as he scampered forward, every sense he possessed on high alert. Then whatever's going on, some of them must be staying behind to try and stop it!
Mentally running the list of people he knew who were ranked at above D-Class, Shinji spotted the door that led into NERV proper. Steeling himself for what he had to do, he darted towards the door…only to squawk in surprise when he felt someone grab hold of his wrist.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?!" demanded an unfamiliar male voice. Helpless to stop him, Shinji was whipped him about, bringing him face-to-face with a NERV technician. "Are you deaf?! We've been ordered to evacuate!"
"No! Stop!" Shinji cried out as the techie started dragging him backward. "Let me go!"
"No way, kid! We've orders, and…" Trailing off, the man frowned as he studied Shinji's features. "Wait a minute…aren't you the 3rd Child?"
Practically fainting in relief, Shinji nodded hurriedly. "Yes! I'm – I'm Pilot Ikari!" Noticing the effect his last name had on the tech, he quickly drew out his wallet and opened it. His NERV ID hanging out for all the world to see. "I'm…I've been ordered to report to…to the Commander, and…"
Once again, the techie faltered, a shadow of fear crossing his face. A few seconds passed as he looked from Shinji to his ID and back again before he frowned in suspicion. "But…Unit 01 has already been evacuated! Why would they call for you now?!"
They've launched Unit 01 as well?! Shinji cried out in his mind, staggered by this bombshell. Then he realized that the techie was looking at him with increased wariness, and shook himself back to full alert. "I…I don't know. I just – Father ordered me to come here, and that's all!" When the techie failed to release him, Shinji forced all the determination he could to his face. "Please, I have to get to the bridge right away! You have to let me go!"
Groaning unhappily, the techie seemed to consider the matter. Finally, whether because of Shinji's resolute expression or simply because he didn't want to have Gendo's wrath fall on his head, the techie released his grip. "Alright. You better get going, then."
"Right! Thanks!" Shinji beamed, waving at the techie even as he turned to run. His every thought on finding out what was happening, and how best he could help Misato and the others.
Never before had Misato felt so much like a caged animal.
She had long been aware she was a prisoner within NERV. She had known that from the day she had been first led to her gilded cage, and she had accepted it because it was necessary. She had almost no control over her transformation, and the same applied to her bestial other. And as She-Hulk, she was simply too dangerous to let run around Tokyo-3, where just about anything could set her off.
But still, Misato knew she had friends who cared about her and came to visit. Shinji, Ritsuko, and all the others had done everything in their power to make her situation more bearable, and she was grateful for it. Doing her best to make do with what she had, knowing that she was not alone.
Now, not only was Misato alone, cut off by the restrictions meant to keep her presence and condition a secret, but she was helpless. Unable to do anything but pace about her enclosure, feeling the hateful presence of this latest Angel gnawing in her mind, fueling all the loathing she felt for each and every last one those monsters. And even as she struggled to keep her temper in check, she could feel the savage within her rattling at its cage with every breath she took, demanding she give way to it. To unleash all the anger and hatred she felt for the Angels, and allow the savage she-beast that personified it to take revenge on another of Adam's kin.
But I can't! Misato growled to herself, wrapping her arms about her frame. Fire seeming to burn through her veins, despite the loose medical gown she was wearing. Never mind the damned sleeping gas! Even if I'm right about She-Hulk, she's still got the brains of a jackhammer! And without anyone to instruct her on how to fight this thing, there's no telling what kind of disaster she could make of things!
These were the things that Misato continued to repeat to herself, over and over again. The things that the cold, cool logic that the part of her was a strategist told her, things she herself could not refute. But her She-Hulk mentality was another story altogether.
The beast that struggled to take over Misato's body and remake it in her own image didn't care about the odds or collateral damage. She didn't care about the aftermath of her rampages, or plans or strategies or any of those things. All that truly mattered to her was that there was an Angel nearby. That one of the monsters that had haunted her these past fifteen years had invaded her home, her sanctuary, with the intent of destroying everything she held dear in her life. And she wanted to smash it. She didn't care what form it took or how dangerous it might be, she wanted to track down the Angel and tear it apart with her own two hands.
And if it were that simple, I'd gladly just hold my breath and let it all hang out, Misato grumbled, partly to herself, partly to alter ego. Too bad that one of us has to think about these things before we jump in with guns blazing.
Her other self still didn't care, something that didn't surprise Misato. There was a terrible power in She-Hulk's simple thinking, in knowing exactly what she wanted and not caring what got in her way. A terrifying temptation that Misato was fully aware of, and found herself hating herself for it.
Dammit! I hate this shit! Misato snarled inwardly, cursing her inner monster for all she was worth. Why the hell couldn't I be like Spirit and be in control of this damned monster?! Then I wouldn't have to worry about all this crap, and I could just go out, and -!
Even as she was envisioning such a scenario, the frustration she felt at it not being reality causing her eyes to spark with green, Misato started at the sound of the heavy door to her lodgings slowly creaking open. Sucking in a surprised breath, she watched as it opened completely, and scowled when several men dressed entirely in black marched in. "What's going on here?!"
"Isn't it obvious, Major Katsuragi?" came a voice from beyond the door, a voice that made her go rigid. When the voice's owner stepped inside, a tranq gun in hand and a triumphant smirk on his face, Misato growled beneath her breath. "We're here to keep an eye on you."
"Chiron, you porker!" Misato snarled, her hands involuntarily clenching into fists. All the fights and arguments they had had since she had first come to NERV burning inside of her, the weapon her resident nemesis held the only real reason she chose to hold her temper in check. "What do you mean, keep an eye on me?!"
"Just what it sounds like…you dumb slut," Chiron retorted as his men took aim at her with tranq weapons of their own. "Commander's orders. He wants to make sure you stay put until the Angel has been taken care of."
"Really," Misato muttered, narrowing her eyes as she glared at the Section 2 Captain. Fully aware that he and his underlings could put a dozen darts in her the moment even a spark of green was seen in her eyes.
"Yes. Not that I blame him for being cautious," Chiron told her even as a couple of his men moved to close the door to her enclosure. Once that was done, they remained in front of it, weapons at the ready. "We all know the kind of damage an…animal like you is capable of when you're let out of your cage." Keeping his weapon at the ready, the Section 2 head stepped closer, his smirk taking a vindictive edge. "Which is why I decided to take charge of this situation."
Translation, it's payback time for what Greenie did to your car, Misato growled inwardly, glaring hatefully at the bane of her existence, who was chuckling, enjoying the fact that she was effectively his prisoner. "I'd be a bit more careful about what I said if I were you, Chiron," she muttered, wishing for an excuse, any excuse to wrap her hands about his throat. "Considering that this is my cage you're in."
"I'm also the one with all the guns," Chiron smiled wickedly, holding his weapon up just a bit higher even as his flunkies mimicked him. "Now, instead of wasting time with threats, why don't you take a seat?" Tilting his head in the direction of her couch, the Section 2 head stepped closer, the barrel of his weapon aimed directly between her breasts. "We're going to be here for a while, so you might as well make yourself comfortable."
Frowning, Misato studied the gun and the man wielding it. Chiron was brutal, a thug, and not a big believer in subtlety, whether in his actions or his words. A man Gendo kept on a very tight leash and was sent in to directly handle only the biggest problems. And despite the intensity of her loathing for him, she knew he wouldn't be here with an armed guard unless it was under direct orders from the Commander.
Whatever's going on, they must think they have it in hand, and they don't want She-Hulk blowing it all to hell, Misato thought, reluctance and something like regret creeping through her. But they're not sure, and they want me available in case things go sour. Otherwise, Chiron would have put a dart in me as soon as he got here.
As Misato continued to consider the situation, her musings were cut short by Chiron growling, "What are you waiting for, Major? Get on that couch. Now." Returning her full focus to the present, she grimaced at the expression he wore. The face of a man who knew he was in control and was loving every moment of it. "Or would you like me to force a little cooperation into you?"
And let you have the satisfaction? Not a chance in hell! Misato snarled inwardly. Snorting her disdain, she started towards her couch. Trying to ignore that savage hatred her bestial other exuded, the desire to take this man and render him limb from limb. Knowing that she would be darted several times over like the animal he implied her to be before the monster could do more than give him a green glare.
"There. Was that really so hard?" Chiron oozed, staying close to her. "Daigoji, why don't you go check the fridge?" Misato stopped in mid-step at this, resisting the urge to turn about and see the ugly look that went along with these words. "Considering who we're dealing with, I'm sure you'll find plenty of…refreshments for us."
"Excuse me," Misato muttered. Her hands clenched so hard that she could almost feel blood emerging from where her nails dug into her flesh. "But I don't recall giving you permission to start poking around in my kitchen."
"And I don't recall ever needing your permission for anything," Chiron returned, still using that same sickening voice of victory. "Now sit your ass down already. This is my party, and we're going to be playing by my rules."
Smash him, the beast within snarled hatefully. Smash him, crush him, kill him, smash him…
Peripherally aware of one of the Section 2 men opening up her refrigerator, Misato grunted disgustedly before sitting down. Don't I wish…
It was times like this Ritsuko remembered why she had become a scientist.
There were certainly many reasons she cursed her chosen course in life, everything from the overwhelming hours she was forced to work to the underwhelming pay. And when she allowed herself to stop and think about it, to curse her fate for everything she was worth, the number one reason had to be knowing that she was a pawn to bring about the end of the world and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it. That all she could do was live with it or die because of it.
But at the moment, all of that was forgotten, because Ritsuko was doing what she excelled at. She was using all her skills, doing what she was meant to do. And best of all, she was using those skills to save lives other than her own. She was helping people, rather than hurting them, for the first time in a painfully long time.
As Ritsuko lay on her back, using a small power saw to cut into Casper's techno-organic processor, she listened to the people outside working as well. Most notably Maya, who was typing away just outside. Working feverishly on her laptop to help turn Casper into a sling to bring down this particular Goliath. The current Captain happier and more alive than she had been since she had been promoted.
"How it's going out there?" Ritsuko asked as she completed the incision, causing a section of metal to fall away.
"I'm almost done with the base program, sempai!" Maya called back, a note of cheer in her voice, despite the peril of the situation. "And Chihiro and her team are working on the EMF generator. They're making the final adjustments to it right now."
I just hope we don't have to use it, Ritsuko replied inwardly, the chance for losing data still in her thoughts. We may have all of our data backed up at Matsushiro, but I really don't want to have to try and reload it all into the MAGI!
Knowing all the late nights she would have to put in on such a project, Ritsuko shuddered involuntarily. "Hand me the wrench, someone," she muttered, reaching out towards the open air.
"Uh, right. Here you go, Doc," some technician whose name Ritsuko didn't remember offhand replied. Within moments, she felt the solid metal tool in her hand and was proceeding to open up the next layer of Casper's insulation.
"Look out! Coming through!" came Chihiro's voice from somewhere outside the MAGI. The sound of something being dragged punctuating her words.
Before Ritsuko could wonder what was going on, Maya spoke up. "They're linking the generator to the MAGI, sempai."
"Right," Ritsuko nodded. Once that was done, they could calibrate the generator to the exact frequency needed to effectively lobotomize the Angel, if it worked in life as well as it did on paper.
As she listened to Chihiro's team make the essential connections, Ritsuko sighed heavily. Though she had hated her mother, she didn't like the idea of someone other than her mucking around with the MAGI on base principle. "Say, Maya," she began, trying to distract herself from the others' labors. "If you don't mind my asking…why did you decide to join NERV?"
"Sempai?" Maya returned, surprise evident in her voice.
"Sorry. But…you never did tell me why you decided to come here," Ritsuko prompted as she removed the next panel, revealing the inner workings of Casper. "Hand me Board #25, please."
While someone was handing Ritsuko the required piece of equipment, she tried again. "It's just…I know how much you hate fighting. So…why join a military organization?"
"Oh, that," Maya got out. "Well, it's kind of a long story, but…well, my mother had a lot to do with it."
"Really?" Ritsuko returned even as she connected the board to the MAGI and began inputting her share of the modifications. "In what way?"
"Well, she was always telling me that I couldn't just be a computer technician if I wanted to get ahead in life. Going on and on that there would always be someone trying to get me, and I had to have a backup plan. Something to fall back on," Maya returned, some of the gloom she had been carrying around the past few days reappearing. "Finally, I decided to go to a military academy. I thought I could pick up additional computer training, and I scored high there. So when I found out that NERV was interested in me…" Somehow managing to convey a shrug with pure silence, the brunette added, "I thought…NERV isn't about fighting some other country or anything like that. We're trying to protect the entire world, and…with all the resources here to work with…it seemed like the best possibility."
"I see," Ritsuko murmured gently, a sad smile appearing on her face. In a way, it's like me. NERV – GEHIRN – seemed like the perfect choice back then, she thought, memories of better time encroaching on the moment. Then the faux-blonde frowned as reality returned. Too bad it turn out the way I had thought it would. Continuing to work, Ritsuko gave a tired shake of her head. I just hope you don't find that out the way I did.
"I have to admit, I was a bit worried when I first came here," Maya went on. Blissfully unaware of the dark musings in Ritsuko's mind. "But…you know something? Even with everything we have to deal with here, I'm glad I came here. I feel like…I've really made a difference."
Her heart growing heavier with every word her friend said, Ritsuko felt her eyes begin to water. "Even now?"
"Yeah. Even now," Maya told her. "Sempai, you might not believe this, but…I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be than right here."
Never once pausing in her labors, Ritsuko shook her head. A pit opening in her stomach at the innocence with which her former understudy spoke. "I'm sorry, Maya."
"Sorry?" Maya replied perplexedly. "What for?"
For everything, was what Ritsuko wanted to say. What came out of her mouth was, "For not realizing you were happy where you were."
A kindly chuckle was Maya's response. "Well, I…"
"It's happening!" Makoto erupted from outside, cutting Maya off. "The Angel is taking over Balthasar!"
"What?! Already?!" Ritsuko shrieked, aghast at this revelation. Looking down at her board, she cursed rapidly and repeatedly in her mind when she realized that they barely halfway done with reprogramming Casper.
"MAGI ordered self-destruction sequence has been determined," a female voice announced over the PA. The voice of the MAGI. "Self-destruction will occur twenty seconds after all three AIs consent. Area of destruction will include Geo-A depth, minus 280, minus 140, and 40."
Dammit! We're out of time! Ritsuko snarled inwardly, looking wildly about at the notes left behind by her mother. Even with mother's codes…we wasted too much time with Chihiro, talking about her plan! And now…it's our only chance!
Not wasting an instant, Ritsuko disconnected her board and shoved herself out of Casper. Aware of Maya as she continued to work, the terrified faces of all her coworkers, Gendo as he stood at the top of the bridge, still looking calm and in command. Getting to her feet, she looked over where Chihiro and her team had set up their equipment. "Is the EMF generator ready?!"
Chihiro gave a quick nod, her hands on the control panel for the generator. It was fairly simple in appearance; a gunmetal gray cylinder held up just above the ground by a metal cradle. A large, knobby sphere was slowly rotating at one end, and from the other emerged several cables that led from it to the MAGI. A muted, electrical hum was the only sound it made. "We're ready! But make sure you're not in contact with the MAGI when we set it off! It won't fry your brains, but you might get a bad shock!"
"Right!" Ritsuko returned before turning about. "Let's go, Maya!"
"Okay!" Maya nodded tensely. Laptop clenched to her chest, she and Ritsuko darted away from the computerized monolith.
Once the both of them had their back to the wall, Ritsuko announced, "We're clear! Do it now!"
"Right! Initiating EMP!" Chihiro declared even as she pressed the large, red button on her control panel. The EMF generator hummed even louder, the sphere spinning faster as the lights on her panel went crazy. Finally, a strange zapping sound filled the air, just before every computer screen in sight broke down into static.
"T-T-T-minus ten s-s-s-econds to selllllf-destruct…" slurred the computer voice as the various screens continued to deteriorate. "Self-destruc-shunnnn will o-o-occur twenty minutes a-a-a-after all three AIsssss…" The PA trailed off, leaving nothing but static in the air. Even the screen displaying the MAGI's status broke down, colors flashing erratically before it went off entirely.
Standing completely still, Ritsuko took in the computerized chaos the generator had unleashed. Several seconds passed with no apparent sign of the countdown resuming. Realizing that this didn't mean anything in and of itself, she turned and looked up at the bridge proper. "Shigeru! Makoto! Status!"
"Uh…I'm not sure!" Shigeru reported after a moment's hesitation. "When the EMP went off, Melchior and Balthasar completely crashed! Casper took a pretty bad hit, and all of our primary systems have been scrambled!"
"And the auto-destruct?" Maya asked warily.
"That went down with the MAGI," Makoto informed them. "We're safe for now."
Heaving a deep breath, Ritsuko turned and looked over at where Chihiro and the other techs stood. "In that case, good job, all of you," she announced. Heartened by the pleased looks and sounds this inspired in the techs, the doctor got back down to business. "Still, we better treat this as a temporary reprieve." Watching just long enough for the techs to sober up, she looked back up at the bridge. "What about the Angel? Can you tell how the EMP affected it?"
"Not yet," Makoto admitted worriedly. "But…it looks like the MAGI's backup systems are still online. They're rebooting themselves!"
"Already?" Ritsuko gaped, disquieted by this revelation. "Then the Angel must still be partly active."
"Yeah, but…it's going pretty slowly. All the systems were affected; the MAGI has gone into self-diagnostic mode," Shigeru informed them. "I can't tell much right now, but at the rate it's working…we've got ten minutes, maybe more, before they're back online."
"Keep an eye on things, you two. Let me know the instant the MAGI are back online," Ritsuko told him. Turning her gaze to Maya, she gave the younger woman a thoughtful look. "Think we can be ready in ten minutes?"
"Not a problem, sempai," Maya returned. Only for her happy look to be cut off when a strange electrical crackling pierced the air. "What the – what was that?"
Frowning, Ritsuko looked towards the other techs. "Chihiro?"
"I'm not sure," Chihiro admitted as she and her friends looked over their equipment. "It wasn't the generator, but – look!" Freezing up with surprise, Ritsuko automatically followed the tech's gaze…and blanched with fear and confusion. A strange glow, similar to the light she had seen on the simulation bodies, was rushing up one of the cables leading from the MAGI. After a moment, she realized that it was running up the same cable that led to Maya's laptop.
"Maya! Drop it!" Chihiro cried out, but it was too late. The glowing wave of what could only have been the Angel's nanites surged up through the cable and into the laptop. The portable computer then glowed with the same dangerous light, light that jumped from it into Maya herself. Completely helpless, Ritsuko watched as the nano-machines surged up Maya's arms and spread throughout her, causing every square inch of flesh it touched to convulse madly.
"Maya!" Ritsuko howled as the younger woman tumbled to the floor, her laptop falling from her grip. Wanting to help but terrified to touch her, to let the Angel invade her as it had Maya.
"What is it?" came the voice of Gendo Ikari. Looking up, Ritsuko saw the Commander gazing down from the bridge. Looking at them like they were cockroaches scurrying about his kitchen floor. "What's happening?"
Before she could say a word, Ritsuko's eyes went wide when an agonized groan pierced the air. Looking about, she sucked in a horrified breath as she watched Maya come to her hands and knees, veins bulging up from her flesh. Her breathing ragged and tormented, she swung her head up and looked at the head scientist with eyes filled with desperation. Her mouth opening and closing, she worked her jaws and forced one word out of her lips. "Se…sempaiii!"
Practically choking on her own helplessness, Ritsuko could only stand and watch as the young woman flung her head back down, streamers of light spreading out from her hands and into the floor. Taking a step back, Ritsuko eyed the streams warily, waiting for them to reach out and try to infect her or another part of NERV. To her surprise, this did not happen; instead, they terminated a few inches away from her. Then she realized something else. The metal around the nano-circuits shifted about, seeming to liquefy, before being drawn up through the circuits into Maya's body.
Apparently struggling to rise up, Maya then cried out before her upper body slammed back down, her shoulder blades and spine visibly pressing up against her uniform. Her skin started changing color, going from normal flesh to a metallic gray. The same color of the metal floor.
While Ritsuko was staring in horror at her understudy, other eyes were observing her metamorphosis. "Get Section 2 down here immediately, and have them fully armed. Captain Ibuki has been infected by the Angel," Commander Ikari announced, his voice cold and hard. "We need to dispose of her immediately."
Her eyes going wide with horror, Ritsuko tore her gaze away from her mutated friend. "What?!"
"What – but, sir -!" Makoto protested as well, with Shigeru sputtering helplessly in the background.
"Communications are still offline, Ikari!" Fuyutsuki reminded him.
Ritsuko didn't know if Gendo said anything to this, nor did she care. All she could hear now were the tormented grunts and groans of Maya, noises of agony that forced her to once again bear witness to her understudy's plight. Her body and musculature had visibly swollen beneath her uniform; her jacket was splitting open along the back, and the seams were ripping apart about the shoulders. The bottoms of her pants legs were tearing open as her legs grew longer, their muscles slowly expanding. Her boots popped open along the sides and at the toes as her feet outgrew them. In no time at all, her footwear had completely fallen apart, her socks had burst open at the toes, allowing her bare feet to come into contact with the metal flooring. At which they sent out nano-circuits of their own.
"Oh, God…" Ritsuko moaned, shaking her head in denial as Maya let out a cry of pain, rage, and what could only be described as ecstasy as another wave of growth tore through her body. Almost flinging herself to a standing position, the mutating woman looked wildly at her own body as she shot up from about five-something to seven feet tall in mere seconds. Her breasts pulsated beneath her jacket before expanding tremendously, popping open the front and sending the ruined garment to the floor. Though her tattered shirt remained somewhat intact, it now hung exclusively about her chest like a shredded halter-top, giving everyone a clear view of her abdomen as it throbbed and hardened into a steely six-pack of muscle.
As the transformation ran its course, Ritsuko gulped loudly as she took a step back from what had once been the young woman she had worked with so well. Though she was nowhere near as heavily muscled as She-Hulk was, what she had was damned impressive, giving her the build of an Amazon and the height to go along with it. Her skin was the same color and texture of the metal on which she stood on, even glinting in the low light of the bridge. And her eyes were swinging about aimlessly, as if in search of something. "M…Maya…?"
At this utterance, Maya suddenly focused on the faux-blonde, causing her to go rigid with fear. But even as Ritsuko grew certain of her own demise, her mutated friend groaned before giving a shake of her head. Tottering to one side, she staggered off balance until she slammed into the wall. Another confused groan escaped her lips, she brought her hand to her forehead, as if trying to massage away a headache.
"What's happening?" Darted a sideways glance behind her, Ritsuko realized that one of Chihiro's friends was the one to ask this question. "What is she doing?!"
"Shh!" Ritsuko hissed, carefully moving backwards from where her friend was struggling with her own body. Once she was closer to the techs, the faux-blonde began speaking in a hushed voice. "Don't make any sudden moves or loud noises. Don't do anything to provoke her!"
"Believe me, I won't!" another techie hissed fearfully. Without another word, the small group started away from Maya, moving cautiously towards the stairs. All eyes on Maya as she pushed herself away from the wall and started forward, still moaning pitifully as she staggered towards the MAGI.
Desperate to keep detached from the situation, Ritsuko resumed the role that had enabled her to keep her sanity all these years. The role of a dispassionate scientist who thought only of facts and figures, ratios and results, not emotions or right and wrong. And while she and the others kept moving away, she watched and studied what had once been a normal, mild-mannered woman she made her way over towards the MAGI. Anticipating Maya either smashing the MAGI or reactivating them so they could complete the self-destruct, she sucked in a fearful breath, only for fear to turn to confusion when she moved around the three supercomputers, ignoring them except for using them to support herself when she momentarily lost her balance. As soon as the metal-skinned woman recovered, she let out a pained, desperate groan as she picked up the EMF generator.
What is she doing? Ritsuko wondered, trying to keep her fear down. To study and analyze what was happening even as Maya effortlessly tore the still-active generator from the MAGI. Ignoring the sparks flying about her, the mutated woman hefted the generator up in her left hand and grabbed hold of the electrified cables with her right. The instant her steely skin made contact with live wires, Maya stood up straight and let out a moan of relief. Even smiling as the electrical current ran through her.
Of course! The EMP must've completely disrupted the nano-machines! Even their S2 organs! Ritsuko realized, watching in mute horror as the glowing nanites ran up the cables and into the generator. Causing them writhe about of their own accord before wrapping about Maya's right forearm. Now they need an extra source of energy to stay alive while they're recovering, and with the generator already set to their bio-frequency, they can easily adapt to it!
Even as this thought ran its course, Maya drove her right hand into the generator itself, the Angel's nanites causing it to shift and wrap about her forearm. Once the transformation was complete, the mutated woman held it up into the air, the knobby metal sphere like a morning star at the end of a heavy metal gauntlet. She looked at it and grinned with wild, feral satisfaction. A grin that was cut short when she and Ritsuko heard a voice penetrating the background.
"- don't care what it takes!" Gendo spoke dangerously over his cell phone. "You have your orders! I want Ibuki terminated! At all costs!"
Stifling a groan of protest, Ritsuko then swung her gaze at the mutated woman and gaped in amazement at what happened. Maya's face fell in shock, clearly cognizant of what was being said, despite her current condition. And in that instant, the doctor could see her friend and understudy beneath the layers of transformation. She saw fear and shame and guilt and confusion, all the things that made Maya what she was. Then, her expression still frozen in horror, her right arm shot straight up. In complete defiance of the generator's original design, the sphere at the end fired up into the ceiling, still connected to her by a glowing cable. Before either of them realized what was happening, the cable began to retract, pulling Maya up into the air.
The Angel…it's still adapting! Even forcing the generator to adapt as well! Ritsuko realized in dread awe. Trying not to think about what it was doing to Maya's body as the mutated woman rose up above the level of the bridge. She then began swinging her legs back and forth, causing herself to swing like a pendulum. Realization exploding in her mind, Ritsuko shot up to the stairs just as the metal sphere came loose from the ceiling, turning Maya's swing into a tumble that landed her on the bridge itself. The mutated woman crashed to her back just past the stations where she had once worked, sending Shigeru and Makoto scrambling to avoid her.
"Everyone, be careful!" Ritsuko warned even as the metalized woman rolled to her feet, her mace-like sphere already retracting along its cable until it was once again secure at the end of her arm. Nano-circuits spreading from her feet whenever they came in contact with another surface, only to retract as she stepped forward. "Whatever you do, don't let her -!"
Before she could complete her warning, the doctor's mouth fell open in horror as Maya advanced towards the exit. And while Fuyutsuki had already gotten a fair distance from the transformed Captain, Gendo was facing her with the same calm he had evidenced throughout this entire crisis. Like she was still the same woman she had been just minutes ago, a being of no consequence whatsoever that he expected to give way to him.
As a result, he had only taken a few steps back, his primary focus on his cell phone and whatever agents he was giving orders to. Only realizing his error when Maya stomped up to him and smacked him with her mace, sending him flying against the wall with the ease of swatting a fly.
"Commander!" Ritsuko heard someone cry out. She wasn't sure if it were herself or someone else. All she knew was that she, Fuyutsuki, and the other techs were rushing over to Gendo's side even as Maya stomped her way off the bridge.
"Don't bother with me," Gendo grumbled even as Ritsuko and the other arrived at his side. The Commander was groaning in pain, but he was still conscious and was already struggling to regain his feet. "I'm fine. It's nothing serious."
"But, sir -!" Makoto started, staring owlishly at Gendo as he moved to assist him.
"Don't touch him!" Ritsuko barked, freezing the techie with the force of her voice. Only to take a step back when she saw the look of disapproval her order had garnered from her Commander. "I'm sorry, sir, but given how readily Maya was infected, I just thought that…"
"I realize that, Dr. Akagi," Gendo grunted, wincing in pain as he straightened himself out, shedding his jacket in the process. "As I told you, I'm fine."
Pressing her lips tightly together, Ritsuko tried again. "Sir, we don't know that. If even a few nanites managed to -!"
"If I had been infected by the Angel, I think we would have seen signs of it by now, Doctor," Gendo tersely informed her. "And at the moment, we have much larger problems to deal with." He then turned to face the bridge techs. "How long do we have before the Angel can reactivate the MAGI?"
Exchanging a quick look, Makoto started towards his station while Shigeru said, "I'm not sure. About seven minutes when I last looked, but…"
"Then that gives you less than seven minutes to finish reprogramming them," Gendo told them in a voice that made it clear that he was giving them an order. "And while you're dealing with the Angel on that front, I'll take care of our…other problem."
Feeling claws of ice wrap around her heart, Ritsuko looked hard at the man who was effectively signing Maya's death warrant. "Sir, with all due respect, you don't have to do this! If we can capture Maya, then -!"
"There's no time for that, Dr. Akagi," Gendo told her in the same cold voice he always used with her. "We don't know how long we have until the Angel recovers from the EMP. That means we have a limited window of opportunity to terminate it, and I will not waste this chance."
Wincing at this, at the sense of wrongness that was rising up within her, Ritsuko did as she always did. She tried to squelch with scientific logic. "But, sir, how will you do that? If the Angel can still generate an AT-Field, then Section 2 won't be able to do anything about her!"
"You leave that to me," Gendo stated as he turned towards the Sub-Commander. "Fuyutsuki, I'm leaving you in charge. Make sure everyone stays on task."
A pit opening up inside of her even as the old professor confirmed he would do the Commander's bidding, Ritsuko watched as Gendo started away. "But, sir!" the doctor began, taking a step forward. "If there's still a chance to save Maya, then -!"
"Doctor, that creature is no longer Captain Ibuki," Gendo declared. Not even bothering to turn and look at her as he left the bridge. "It is the 11th Angel. And I will deal with it in whatever manner I see fit." With this declaration, the bridge doors slid shut behind Gendo. Leaving Ritsuko to slump beneath the weight of his words, the bitter helplessness she had long since learned to live with growing ever more suffocating.
"You heard him, Dr. Akagi," Fuyutsuki intoned from off to her side. Turning about, Ritsuko looked into the old professor's face. A face that seemed to have grown more seemed and lined with age in the past few minutes. "There's nothing more we can do for the Captain. All we can do now is…survive."
Heaving a deep breath, Ritsuko somehow managed a nod. "Yes, sir. I know," she said before looking at the people surrounding her. Feeling the weight of their gazes, their own guilt and disappointment as she struggled to be a scientist. "Alright. You heard him, people. We have work to do."
One by one, Ritsuko saw the others slowly resign themselves to doing what they had to do. To survive at any cost. Dirtying their own souls for the sake of their lives. And after years of doing just that, the doctor knew full well how much it hurt.
I'm sorry, Maya, Ritsuko spoke inwardly as she started back down to the MAGI. Wishing that she could make herself heard to the young woman whom she had failed. Completely unaware that Fuyutsuki had been wrong; communications had not gone offline as a result of the systems failures, but had instead been thrown into chaos. Many of the com-lines within NERV had gone on, seemingly at random. And many of her own words, and those of others, had been heard by someone else.
"Damn, this stuff is good!" one of the Section 2 agents that had invaded Misato's quarters declared around a mouthful of curried chicken.
"Tell me about it," one of his fellows agreed, forking up a piece as well. Before biting down, he looked over at where Chiron was seated. "Hey, Captain! You sure you don't want any of this?"
"No, men. Curry doesn't agree with me," Chiron returned, sitting back next to Misato. Enjoying every moment of barely controlled outrage she felt at watching her current lodgings being ransacked by his men. At her being forced to watch as Section 2, people she had long reviled for their callousness, brutality, and overall worthlessness, wined and dined themselves with the beer and meals Shinji had brought her. Enjoyed the games and movies made available for her use, even pocketing some of them right before her eyes. "Just save me that eel teriyaki and a couple beers. I'll have those after work."
Her mind filled with the outrage bellowed by her own inner beast, Misato glared in disgust at Chiron. "I hope you choke on them, you son of a bitch."
"I doubt that," Chiron smiled, waving the tranq before her eyes. "I have to admit to being surprised, though. I would never have thought the 3rd Child to be such a gourmet." Giving a low chuckle, the Section 2 man leaned in a bit closer. "And here I thought the only reason you took him in was because you needed some sucker to keep that landfill of yours clean."
Stung by this implication, Misato did her best to keep her composure. Knowing full well that anything she said would be met with further barbs from Chiron, she looked away from him. Trying to stifle the images of all the horrible things she would love to do to him and agents, if only they didn't have those damned tranq guns.
"Still, I can't imagine why the damn punk wastes so much time that way. Making gourmet dishes for an animal like you," Chiron went on, enjoying the power he had over her to the fullest. "Considering the sort of swill you enjoy, I would think you get by on dog food."
Smash him, choke him, break him apart… the beast within growled in Misato's mind. Images of all the damage She-Hulk wanted to inflict on Chiron dancing before her eyes. Rip his arms out, crush his spine…
Don't tempt me, Misato shot back, folding her arms across her chest.
"But I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Chiron went on casually. "After all, a teenage boy with hormones going full steam? I'm sure he must be really impressed by those implants of yours."
Don't look at him. Don't do anything, Misato ordered herself. Doing her all to drown the anger, the fury that was trying to rise up, the monster that wanted to take her over. Don't give him the satisfaction of knowing how much he's pissing you off!
"So, tell me something," Chiron started again. Victory hanging from every word he spoke. "Have you taken the little bastard into your bed yet?"
Misato's entire body went rigid at this. Her mind emptied in shock, and even the beast was momentarily silenced. But this silence lasted only a second before it recovered, and screeched in outrage. Demanded that Misato give into it, to let it take revenge for Chiron even daring to say such a thing.
But even as Misato shared in the monster's anger, she experienced something else as well. Guilt. Guilt at just how close to home Chiron's insinuation actually came.
Since Shinji had come to live with her, he had dealt with all of Misato's scandalous ways without complaint. Everything from her drinking and sloppiness to her merciless teasing. He had gone into battle at her behest, fighting in the monstrous Unit 01, despite how badly it hurt him. He had been good to her, cared for her better than she had cared for herself. He had fought for her and protected her to best of his ability on that horrible night She-Hulk had very nearly killed Spirit. And since she had moved into her current dwelling, he had made sure to visit her every day, caring for her to the best of his ability, doing his all to chase away the loneliness that shadowed her every day in the depths of NERV. Giving her far more than she would ever of have had the right to ask. And despite all the problems he had, his shyness and lack of confidence, Shinji was undoubtedly the kindest, gentlest, most caring person she had ever met.
There was no doubt in Misato's mind that, if Shinji had been of age, she would have probably at least made a move on him by now. There had even been a few occasions when she had been tempted to do so despite the age gap, occasions in which she had quickly drowned those rogue thoughts in beer. And since she had been interred within her gilded cell, where his smile and companionship were one of the few anchors to reality, to sanity remaining to her, those temptations had grown more and more intense. Even culminating in that moment above Tokyo-3 in which she had awoken to find Shinji kissing her, and finally succumbed to her urges somewhat. And experienced kindness and caring far beyond anything she had experienced before.
While Misato was struggling with memories that she cherished and urges she cursed, Chiron was noting her hesitation, and pouncing on it. "Yeah, I bet you have. It's probably the only way a whore like you could ever get a piece of anything male into bed with her," the Section 2 head declared, his henchmen chuckling in the background. "Kids these days. All hormones and no brains. I'd bet he do anything for you if he thought it would get him another roll in the sack. Heh heh heh…"
The beast within now inarticulate with rage, Misato slowly turned about to look at Chiron. Her eyes slitted with her ire, she stared hard at him, not even taking a bit of satisfaction in the way he jerked back from her. "You can say whatever you want about me, Chiron," she told him in a voice seething with malice and hatred. "But if you say even one more thing about Shinji, I promise you…it will be the last thing you say."
Chiron recoiled just a bit more at this. The entire room fell completely silent, and Misato could feel the eyes of every Section 2 agent on her. To her growing ire, the moment didn't last long; Chiron quickly recovered his cool and raised his tranq up so that she was looking straight down the barrel. "I'll say whatever I want about him and you…whore."
The urge to surrender to the beast within growing, her body already tensing in anticipation of the change, Misato found herself distracted from her own fury when the lights in her quarters flickered badly. Startled from her own growing fury, she looked about, peripherally aware of the Section 2 agents doing the same. While one of them was squawking in dismay over her game system going down, the lights came back at full strength, but the various computer and the com-unit were scrambled, spewing out static and distorted images.
"What the hell is going on out there?!" Misato demanded, wincing at both the sensory overload and the way her inner beast reacted to the fresh fuel for its anger.
"Whatever it is, it's none of your concern," Chiron growled, his focus and his gun still on the purple-haired woman. "Just sit back and - !"
"Maya!" came Ritsuko's voice over the com-system. A voice so filled with horror and anguish that pierced through the air and straight into Misato's heart.
Slowly standing up even as most of the Section 2 people did the same, Misato looked towards the com-unit. Though the holographic display above the table was completely scrambled and the sound was shredded by occasional blasts of static, she could still hear most of what was happening. Enough to hear Maya's grunts and snarls as she was transformed by this latest Angel. Enough to make sense of the panic she was now inspiring in the people on the bridge.
As the drama continued to unfold, Misato became blind to everything else. She no longer heard or cared about what the agents there were doing, or even Chiron answering his cell phone. All she knew that Maya, one of her friends and one of the honest, caring people she had ever met, had had her body taken over and transformed by an Angel. That the monsters that had haunted her for the past fifteen years had claimed another victim, had taken someone else away from her.
No…dammit, dammit, NO! Misato shrieked in her own mind, her shrieks echoed by the outraged howls of her other. Clenching the table that housed her com-unit, seeking some kind of anchorage as she struggled with her fury. The cage that held back the monster already buckling beneath it. Not another one…damn you monsters! Just how many more lives do you have to destroy before you're finally satisfied?!
"Yes, sir. I understand," came a voice from behind her. A voice that Misato was barely conscious of until it was raised towards her. "Business calls. Commander Ikari has given me new orders. It seems that your replacement has just outlived her usefulness." Slowly turning about, Misato watched as Chiron replaced his cell phone, shaking his head in seeming dismay. "Women these days. Always forgetting their place in a man's world," he muttered before looking back towards his troops. "Keep an eye on the slut. I'll be back once Ibuki is down for her dirt nap."
Amidst a wave of affirmatives, Misato found herself staring hard at the man who had quickly become the bane of her life at NERV. This one statement making Gendo's objective clear. He wasn't going to try and help Maya, wasn't going to take her alive. He was going to do everything in her power to kill her, just for being a victim of the Angels.
No! Not hurt Maya! the beast within roared, its primal voice shrill at this injustice.
For once, you'll get no arguments from me, Misato returned even as she felt a hand on her shoulder. Sucking in a breath, she whipped about to find one of Chiron's goons standing behind her, a tranq gun leveled at her face.
"You heard the Captain," the agent spoke as he shoved Misato, sending her stumbling forward. "Now why don't you make things easy on yourself and sit your ass back down."
Glaring back at the agent, Misato frowned before stepping forward. Making sure to move slowly as she swung her gaze towards Chiron. The Section 2 head had already put away his tranq gun and was bringing out his NERV ID. In seconds, he would have the door to her quarters open. Just one chance, she thought, knowing full well the weight of the heavily reinforced door. A door that required several seconds to open and close. Gotta time it just right…
Her ears perked, Misato slowly went over to her couch, keeping herself aware of the position of both her immediate escort and the other Section 2 agents. All the while listening to the sound of the card reader beeping, the distinctive creaking the door made, she turned about and brought her hands down on the couch's cushions. As she moved to sit down, she watched as Chiron pulled the door further open, almost enough to step through…
Now! Misato growled inwardly. Taking hold of both cushions, she shot from her bent-down position to elbow the agent right in the crotch. While he was bellowing in pain, his hands covering his damaged jewels, Misato flung the cushions up into the air before launching herself at Chiron. The air was filled with the sound of tranq darts being fired, but the cushions foiled the aim of her attackers long enough for the purple-haired woman to crash into their leader and carry him past the door.
"You damned bitch! Let me go!" Chiron snarled as the both of them sprawled against the heavy door. Blanching as he came face-to-face to Misato, who could already feel her body flooding with adrenaline, muscles shifting and bulging, the beast within rising up as she wrapped her burgeoning arm about his throat.
"Now it's my party...ass -!" Misato snarled out, only to be cut off when another volley of tranq darts shot through the air. Though she had already been forcing Chiron about to act as her shield, either she hadn't been fast enough or his goons were better trained than she had ever given them credit for. She gasped as two darts struck home, one on her leg, the other on her arm. Roaring incoherently at the sudden pain, she dragged Chiron further back before kicking the door shut. Even with the transformation in its earliest stages, she had still become strong enough to slam it closed before any more darts could come out after her.
Making sure to keep her hold on Chiron, Misato savagely yanked out the darts one after another before reaching into his coat. "I don't think you'll be needing this," she muttered as she reached into the holster she had seen him place his own tranq gun in. Once she had it in hand, she tossed it as far away as she could before reaching into his coat again.
"Find anything you like, whore?" Chiron wondered, grinning cruelly as he looked back over his shoulder at her.
"Yeah," Misato growled as she found her objective and yanked it from its own holster. The feel of Chiron's own Heckler & Koch handgun refreshingly familiar as she pointed it at his head. She was just in time, for moments later, the rest of Chiron's Section 2 escort managed to get the door open and spill out of her gilded cage. Agents who took aim at her, only to falter when they saw the situation their Captain was in.
"All right, you bastards," Misato snarled as she backed away, keeping her arm wrapped about Chiron's windpipe. "Now unless you want me to ventilate your boss's empty head, you better drop your weapons! And I mean right fucking now!"
The agents didn't respond. Instead, they looked as one towards Chiron, questioning him with their gazes. "Go right ahead, men," he croaked out around his compressed windpipe. Shooting Misato a victorious glance out of the corner of his eye, he then added, "She won't be an issue for much longer, anyway."
Grimacing, Misato knew that she was in trouble. The two darts that had struck home were slowly taking effect. The limited transformation she had experienced had already been neutralized, and she could already feel an insidious weakness taking hold. She wasn't drowsy yet, but she couldn't waste time. And more importantly, she couldn't afford to take another hit from those darts.
"Don't bet on it," she muttered, forcing up all the strength and bravado she could summon. "Now hurry up and drop them! Before I decide to drop a few of you as well!" Misato didn't know if this reinforced threat or the look of utter confidence that Chiron still wore that did the job, but it ultimately didn't matter. Within moments, all of them had let their tranq weapons fall to the ground.
"Good boys," Misato growled in her throat as she continued backwards. "Your boss and I are going to take a little walk. So stay put and don't do anything stupid."
Not bothering to fight her, Chiron instead chuckled as they backed towards the door. "You're the one being stupid, slut," he told even as the door slid open, letting them pass into the corridors of NERV. "Do you really think you can save Ibuki? There's nothing you can do for her! She's an Angel now! She's the same kind of animal you are!"
"Yeah?" Misato growled back, ignoring the way her eyelids fluttered as she started towards the nearest elevator. "Well, seeing as this animal has a gun at your head, I think you'd be a little more careful about your language, asshole."
"It's already too late for her. And for you, slut," Chiron grinned, almost amused by the whole thing. "You've already got enough sedatives floating in you to flatten an elephant! And if you thinking holding onto me is gonna keep you from keeling over, then you're even dumber than I thought!"
"You know something?" Misato returned as she pulled the gun away from Chiron's head. Snorting out a laugh as she saw the fear that shadowed his face. "For once…you're absolutely right." And with that, she pulled the trigger. Her captive jumping fearfully at the thunderous blast his own weapon released.
The instant the gun was fired, Chiron's mind completely froze up with the certainty that he was dead. But then his training kicked in a moment later, and he realized that he felt no pain. There was no sign of his motor functions being impeded by a bullet bypassing his nervous systems, nothing to indicate that he had actually been shot. Then he heard Misato groan before relinquishing her grip on him, and with a widening of his eyes, realized what had just happened. The smell of blood in the air confirming it long before he actually turned around and saw her stepping away from him, clutching at her side with her free hand. Her medical gown already stained red beneath her hand.
"What – you -?!" Chiron got out, trying to make sense of what his former captor had done.
"Just stimulating…some high-octane adrenaline…you sonuvabitch!" Misato grinned, her gun hand shaking as she backed away from him. "Just the thing…to help Greenie rise and shine…wouldn't you agree?"
Sucking in a breath, Chiron felt his hands clenching into fists. He wanted to grab Misato, to beat her and break her arms and make her hurt for daring to humiliate him this way. But she still had his gun, and even worse, her eyes were already glowing with green. The same green that was making its way into her blood, causing her muscles to bulge ever so slightly. And while he wasn't sure that this would be enough to offset the effect of the tranquilizers, Chiron had seen enough action to know when it was time to cut his losses.
"It doesn't matter, slut. You won't be able to save Ibuki!" Chiron muttered as Misato continued to back away. "All you can do is choose who kills her! You…or me!"
"We'll just…see about that…!" Misato snarled before finally turning about. Clamping down on the pain and her injury, she made her way to the nearest elevator. Leaving Chiron to stare after her, thinking every evil thing he could about her, before starting towards the next available elevator.
You humiliated Section 2 once before, slut! Chiron snarled inwardly, plotting the course that would lead him to the team he had selected for this mission was waiting. But if you think I'm going to let that green beast of yours make fools of us again, then you're wrong. Dead wrong!
As Shinji made his way through NERV, looking up and down the various hallways as he passed them, he honestly felt like he was going out of his mind.
In the short time since his arrival, he had seen more personnel fleeing NERV, and had been stopped more than once. Time and again, he had been forced to lie, to explain that he had been summoned there by his father. It had been his great fortune that no one had been willing to spend the time needed to contact the bridge, whether because they didn't want to risk Gendo's wrath or staying on base any longer than they had to, but that had been just the beginning of Shinji's difficulties.
Despite his efforts, Shinji still had no real idea what was happening, or what kind of danger Hikari had sensed. He hadn't been able to ask any of the fleeing personnel, simply because he didn't want to betray his own excuse for being there. And if the limited commentary he had overheard were any indication, none of the people being evacuated knew what was going on, either. And the evacuees had finally trickled out and were gone, Shinji found that he was even more clueless than he had been to begin with.
There's…nothing wrong, Shinji found himself thinking as he navigated the base. Aside from the absence of personnel, there was nothing to indicate a problem of any kind. There was no damage to any of the walls, the lights were working just fine, and the only sound was the usual electronic hum in the background. But…if there was an Angel or something else attacking…there'd be at least a little damage…wouldn't there?
Frowning his uncertainty, Shinji paused in his explorations and pondered what to do. What he really wanted to do was continue down to Misato's quarters and make certain that she was still safe, or at least still there, but there were still many levels between him and there, and he still had no idea what Hikari had sensed. And while he had considered simply going to the bridge and asking there, that raised its own problems. For while he had been able to convince the NERV personnel he had encountered so he had a legitimate reason for being here, he doubted he'd be able to fool Ritsuko or Maya, let alone Fuyutsuki or his father.
I mean…I guess I could just say that I was here visiting Misato…but then they'd be wondering why I didn't leave when I saw there was an evacuation, Shinji thought morosely. And if they find out Horaki-chan called me just before I left… Letting out a morose sigh, he found himself wondering if Kensuke's paranoid mind was rubbing off on him just a little too heavily. After all, the odds of them making such a connection were pretty high, to say the least.
But at the same time, Shinji couldn't help but worry. With the near confirmation that Jet Alone had been sabotaged, he didn't want to think about what might happen if his father had even the slightest suspicion that Hikari was the one who had prompted his visit. And given the number of people in his life that had met with tragedy, he didn't want to take the chance on making a mistake that would spell disaster for Hikari and her family.
At leastwhatever's happening, Misato isn't responsible for it, Shinji found himself thinking at one point. Her She-Hulk persona was many things, but 'quiet' and 'subtle' were not amongst them. But what else could be down here? And -?
Before he could give any further thought to the matter, a strange, guttural growl echoed through the halls and was followed by a distinct screeching of metal being torn apart. His hairs standing on end, Shinji looking about, trying to pinpoint the source of the sounds. Misato? he wondered, taking a step in what he guessed was the right direction. His guess was confirmed when another animalistic growl reached his ears, causing the boy to momentarily forget caution and dash forward.
As he continued onward, Shinji heard other noises in the direction he was going in. Some of them he couldn't identify, while others were grunts and growls of various inflections. But as he got closer and closer, he found himself frowning deeply. After all the years Shinji had spent practicing the cello, he had developed a keen ear for sound pitch and tone. And while the sounds he heard were about as animalistic as She-Hulk's, they were too high-pitched to have come from her.
Something else was loose in NERV. Something potentially dangerous.
Maybe this is what the big emergency is all about, Shinji thought, feeling a dark chill running through him. Memories of how he had dangled helplessly from the Rhino's hand returning to him, the boy faltered worriedly, his fears returning to him in force. But…no. I…I have to keep going, he finally decided, once again squelching his terrors. I…I haven't been able to do anything to help Misato…or anyone else. I can't just give up now!
Sucking in deep, heavy breath, then exhaling, Shinji edged over to the wall. With the feel of cold metal reassuring him, he started forward again, though more cautiously. His thoughts torn between the need to help those he cared for…and the grunts and growls and heavy breathing of whatever creature he was approaching.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Shinji gasped and froze up completely when he saw a large figure lumber into view at the other end of the hall. Flattening himself against the wall and trying to look invisible, he studied the massive being pass by. A figure that was hunched forward and its skin shone with a metallic glint. And most importantly to Shinji, a figure that didn't bother looking in his direction.
Sweat forming on his brow, Shinji kept perfectly still as the towering being passed by, not even relaxing when it was out of sight. It was only when its footfalls diminished somewhat that the boy was finally able to push himself away from the wall and take a tentative step towards where he had seen the creature. What…what was that…? Shinji thought before cautiously pressing forward. Doing his best to render his every footfall completely silent, he finally came to the corner and peered around it.
Once again, Shinji felt a chill at the sight of the massive figure he saw. Though it was already a fair distance away, he could discern female attributes beneath and about the being's tattered clothes, and it seemed to be wearing a heavy gauntlet on its right forearm. And it was grunting and moaning like…
Wait a minute… Shinji thought as he edged closer, his brow furrowed with concentration. He had spent a fair amount of time with She-Hulk, both in the research facility and out in the open, and had heard her convey a wide range of emotions with a simple growl. And the sounds this creature, whatever or whoever it was, were not the sounds of something on a rampage, or that even wanted to hurt anyone. And the way it's moving…it's like it's sick!
Pressing his lips together, Shinji gathered his courage and started after the creature. Watching every move it made and keeping aware of every possible escape route, he followed her from what he considered to be a safe distance. If this new she-creature was aware of his presence or even cared about it, she gave no sign of it. Instead, she kept marching forward until she came to a computer access panel. She then turned to look at it…at which point Shinji got his first good look at the creature's face. Nearly leaving him to collapse in horror.
"M…Maya…?" Shinji fumbled out, almost falling from the shock. When the mutated woman looked in his direction, grunting inquisitively, he brought his hands to his mouth before practically flying into the ceiling. But while his heart was thundering in his ears, Maya shuddered visibly before looking back towards the panel that had drawn her interest. Drawing back her gauntleted arm, she fired it into the panel, smashing it effortlessly. Keening in fear and surprise, Shinji shielded his face from the ensuing sparks and debris, backing away and watching as Maya's entire body crackled with electricity.
What is she -?! Shinji demanded inwardly. His question answered when Maya released a deep sigh of satisfaction, her face relaxing to the current. Oh, my…she's absorbing the electricity! She's actually feeding on it!
With this realization, Shinji knew he had no longer had any choice. While he had never spent a lot of time with Maya, he knew her to be a kind, gentle woman. Whatever had caused her transformation, she didn't deserve this fate any more than Misato deserved hers. And if there was anything he could do to help her, then he had no choice but to do it. With a quick look about his surroundings, he sighted nearby com-panel and went to it. Hoping that it was still functioning, and could provide him with a direct link to the bridge.
"There. That does it," Ritsuko muttered. Wiping her brow free of sweat, the faux-blonde leaned back against the interior of Casper. Feeling no satisfaction, no triumph whatsoever as she looked at the computer board in her lap. "The Angel has been completely reprogrammed, and is now functioning in perfect synchronization with the MAGI."
"Are you sure, Dr. Akagi?" came Fuyutsuki's voice from just outside the MAGI. "Given what happened with the EMP, are you sure that the Angel will remain that way? Or that the MAGI…?"
"Don't worry, sir," Ritsuko returned. "I've already double-checked all the MAGI's systems. And it seems their backups came through unharmed. Any of the data and programming that was damaged by the pulse has already been restored. They're perfectly functional, despite everything."
"I see," Fuyutsuki muttered dispassionately. "And what of the Angel? What's it status?"
Wincing at this reminder, that she was effectively surrounded by the thing that corrupted her friend while she stood helplessly, Ritsuko heaved a heavy sigh. Shifting about, she got on her hands and knees and started out. "Well, we'll have to keep tabs on it for now, but the portion in the MAGI and the rest of the base shouldn't be a problem," she explained as she crawled out into the open. Looking up and meeting Fuyutsuki's gaze as she got to her feet, the faux-blonde slowly got to her feet. "From what I can tell, the EMP hit the Angel hard. Not only did it disrupt the nano-machines' physiology, but it completely scrambled their programming."
"So. They're all blank slates, then," Fuyutsuki muttered. No signs of victory in his eyes or his words. "It would seem Lieutenant Mifune was correct, then."
"Yeah. Chihiro was right," Ritsuko nodded somberly. Giving the old professor a sad smile, she added, "Maya…she did good, choosing her." She was about to say something else, she felt like she had to say something more. Anything to commemorate the young woman that had been her friend. But ultimately, all the scientific logic at her command proved unable to keep what she truly felt at bay. And the pain she had tried to bottle up alongside the years' worth of agonies she had kept inside escaped. Now it was free to leave the scientist sagging beneath its weight, her face creasing with misery as her eyes welled up with tears. "Maya…"
"I know," Fuyutsuki spoke, placing his hand on her shoulder and conveying as much comfort with that gesture as she could. "There was nothing any of us could have done."
Sniffing loudly, Ritsuko wiped away the tears that were making their way down her face. "Yeah," she muttered with deep bitterness. "The story of our lives."
"Yes," Fuyutsuki nodded. "It would certainly seem that way." Squeezing her eyes shut, Ritsuko brought her hands to her eyes, hiding them and her pain from the rest of the world as the old professor wrapped his free arm about her. His tears long since used up by everything he had seen and been a part of, but still capable of hurting and feeling for those that were hurting as well.
"Commander! You better get up here!" Makoto cried out. The two of them pulled apart somewhat and looked up to see the techie craning over his console and looking down at them with a phone in his hand. "I've got the Major on the line here!"
Their minds instantly blank, Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki looked at each other, then back up at the tech. The fact that Makoto would risk discussing Misato when so many people who weren't aware of her condition hitting home, the two of them virtually flew up the stairs and were soon at his side. When Makoto held the phone out to the doctor, she quickly tore it from his hand and cupped it to her mouth and ear. "Misato? Is that you?"
"Heh…who else…could it be, Rits?" came the voice of her best friend from college. A voice that was heavy with pain and determination.
"What the -?!" Ritsuko started, shaking her head as she struggled with what she was hearing. Her confusion mixing with the pain that still hovered about her, and giving birth to a bellow of rage. "Misato, what the hell are you doing on this line?! What happened?! And where are you, anyway?!"
"That's…not important, Rits…" Misato returned in the voice of authority. A voice that was punctuated with an agonized groan. "Listen…I need your help…"
Nodding shakily, Ritsuko replied, "Right. Just give me your location, and I'll get a medical team to you as soon as I -!"
"That's – not what I…meant…!" Misato countered with more than a bit of snarl to her voice. Ritsuko could practically see her friend's body shifting about, emerald fury flowing through her. "Where…where is…Maya?"
Sucking in a gasp of surprise, Ritsuko glanced at the phone like it was about to bite her. "But- h-how did you -?!"
"That's not…important!" Misato growled, the sound of cloth ripping in the background. "Just…tell me where…she is!" The woman on the other end of the line sucked in a heavy breath before trying again. "This damned Angel…I can feel it from…all over. Can't…lock in on her…I need you to tell me…where she is."
"I…I don't know where…" Ritsuko confessed. "Our security systems are still screwed up, and…Misato, what's wrong with you?! Why aren't you in your -?!"
"I said…that's not important!" Misato gasped out feverishly. "Listen, Rits…you can't let…Chiron do this. You can't…we can still save her, and…"
"Misato, no…" Ritsuko moaned, as much to herself as to her friend. "She…the Angel has completely taken over her body, and…"
"Don't – give me that – Rits!" Misato retorted, groaning her agony. "Don't tell me…there's nothing…you can do for her. Not after…all the work you've been doing…for me!"
Wincing at this, Ritsuko hesitated before speaking again. "It's…not the same, Misato. Maya…she's become too dangerous!"
"Not…for Greenie, I bet," Misato returned, a bit of a laugh lacing her pained words. "And while she keeps…Maya busy…you can figure out a way…to help her."
"But…Commander Ikari…" Ritsuko murmured, the scornful face of her sometimes lover looming in her mind's eye. "He's already ordered for her -!"
"To hell with that…Ritsuko Akagi!" Misato snarled in response. "If there's any chance – we can save Maya – then you damn well better believe – I have to take it!" Heavy, ragged breaths filled the doctor's ears as the Major gathered herself up. "Now...how did this thing…get Maya, anyway?"
Pressing her lips tightly together, Ritsuko then gave Misato a hurried account of what had happened. "My guess is that the collective in Maya was blanked before it escaped the MAGI, just like the rest of the Angel! It's acting on pure instinct, and it'll do anything it can to survive! It'll go anywhere, attack anyone, and -!"
"Not if Greenie…keeps her busy!" Misato corrected. "Come on, Rits…you're the one…with the brains. You can…figure out…how to help her! We can't…just let her die…without even trying…!"
Do you really think I want her to die?! Ritsuko demanded inwardly, her mind being torn in different directions. Part of her dearly wanted to help her friend, to help both her friends. Another part was considering the various possibilities and problems involved in doing so. And a final part that could still see Gendo looming overhead, wielding the power of life and death over all of them. A part of her that had long since been beaten into submission. But…even if Misato is able to find Maya, She-Hulk is too unpredictable! Without anyone to guide her, she might try to kill Maya anyway! Assuming the two of them don't team up and go on a rampage through the city!
Just as Ritsuko was considering these and even more frightening possibilities, Shigeru piped up from his position. "Commander! Doc! You're not gonna believe this!" Turning about, the people who had been addressed saw him with a phone to his ears. "I've got Shinji on the line here! He says he's here on base! With Maya!"
Staring goggle-eyed at the long-haired guitarist, Ritsuko felt her mind empty with confusion. Stifling the urge to ask why on Earth Shinji was on base during an evacuation, the doctor immediately jumped to more important matters. "Then tell him to get away from her! If she attacks him, he might killed! Or infected! Or -!"
"He says she's not really doing anything right now," Shigeru cut in before she could really get on a roll. "She seems to be using the generator to absorb power from the base electrical system. She's completely ignoring him."
Turning towards her, Fuyutsuki wondered, "What's this all mean, Doctor?"
"Hey, Rits…?" Misato growled over the line. "What's going on…there?"
"Just hold on, Misato!" Ritsuko instructed, the scientist requiring a few extra seconds to make sense of what was going after everything that had happened. "The generator…it can't hold an infinite charge. So the Angel must be using it to process electrical current into usable energy."
"And what about the boy?" Fuyutsuki persisted. "If Maya is aware of him, then why doesn't she…?"
This required even more time to answer, simply because it made no sense. The Angels had been unceasingly aggressive in pursuing their goals, attacking anyone or anything that got in their way. Even self-destructing themselves in order to pave the way for future Angels. That one wouldn't attack just didn't make sense at all.
Unless…! Ritsuko then thought, her mind lighting up with inspiration. "It doesn't remember…!"
"Doctor?" Fuyutsuki wondered.
"As I explained, sir, the EMP wiped the memory of the Angel's nanites. They have no memory of anything that's happened before the pulse hit them. They may not even be able to remember anything right now! Even…even that they should be trying to get to Terminal Dogma!" Ritsuko explained, making sense of her theory even as she gave it voice. "If that's so, sir, then all we're dealing with is the Angel's basic survival instinct!"
"But…certainly its chances of survival increase if it attacks others, spread to other hosts…" Fuyutsuki rejoined.
"Yes, but the Angel might not realize that! Remember, it jumped from the MAGI, then to Maya's laptop, then to Maya herself!" Ritsuko went on, gaining strength with each word she spoke. "She was working on the program that we used to reprogram the Angel when it happened! Even though it wasn't ready, if the Angel somehow picked up on that, that co-existing with its host was its only chance of survival -!"
"Then it will do everything in its power to stay inside Ibuki, to keep her alive," Fuyutsuki replied, frowning as something occurred to him. "But if it absorbed the program, then why isn't it working in synch with her, like with the MAGI?"
"The program must not be complete enough for that," Ritsuko explained. The instant this was said, her eyes went wide with realization. "And…if I could…complete the program…and load it into Maya's nanites…"
Ritsuko was unable to finish her statement, simply because it was too incredible for her to believe. But as she stood there and thought it over, looking it at from every possible angle, the scientist in her sounded off on it. For while the risks were definitely high, the base theory was sound. More than sound. It was rock solid. All she had to do was complete the program on Maya's laptop, spread it the nanites controlling her…and she could save her. She could actually save her friend's life.
But…the Commander…he already gave the order…! Another part of Ritsuko's mind countered, fearful of Ikari's wrath. And how are you going to finish the program if her laptop's infected? Or load into her body? Or get her to sit still long enough for you to do any of that?!
Even as these things came to the fore, however, Ritsuko thought of other things. Of all the horrors she had stained her hands and soul with, just to stay alive. Of the many cruel acts that bore her name. Of the hideous nightmare that she had long since become a part of. And most importantly, how she had already failed a dear friend once before, all in the name of keeping herself safe.
I already let this happen to Misato, Ritsuko thought miserably, tears once again threatening to overtake her. And now I'm going to sit back and let it happen to Maya when there's actually a chance I can still do something to help her?! Grinding her teeth together, the weight of her own sins practically crushing her, the scientist gasped as she once again felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up in surprise, she saw Fuyutsuki smiling at her.
"Dr. Akagi," Fuyutsuki spoke tenderly. His aged face seeming a few years younger as he beamed his support. "I think it's safe to say…that we all want to save Ibuki." He then looked about at the people around them, people whose gazes were all firmly locked on them both. "Isn't that right?"
"You better believe we do!" Makoto piped up.
"Damn straight!" Shigeru chimed in, thumping on his console for emphasis. "She's our friend, too! Remember?"
"Don't forget about us!" Chihiro exclaimed, her friends making noises of agreement. "We're right behind you, Doctor!"
Looking about at these people, these innocent, naïve, unsoiled souls that were lending her their support, Ritsuko lowered her gaze and allowed one tear to fall from her eyes. "Shigeru…where's Shinji calling from?"
"Huh?" Shigeru got out, only to be prompted by her looking harder at him. "Uh, give me a second! I'll check!"
Momentarily satisfied, Ritsuko returned her attention to the phone. "Misato, I'll have her location in a second. Just hold on!"
"Sure thing…" Misato groaned, then laughed. "It's not like…I'm going anywhere…"
Holding the phone away from her head, Ritsuko looked down towards the techies below. "Chihiro, you and the others check Maya's laptop! We need to try and pull up the program she was working on! But make sure you handle it with kid gloves; the last thing we need is for anyone else to become infected!"
"Doctor! I've got Shinji's location!" Shigeru spoke up even as Chihiro and the others went to work. "He says Maya's still there!"
"Great!" Ritsuko returned even as Shigeru passed along the vital information. "Misato! Maya's on Level B-3! And Shinji's with her!"
"Shinji's with -?!" Misato squawked, the force of her voice like a bullet through the faux-blonde's brain. "But what is he -?!"
"No time to explain now! Just get there as soon as you can!" Ritsuko explained, almost panting with excitement. Then another factor occurred to her, at which she brought her hand to her head. "Uh, I take it transforming isn't going to be a problem?"
This elicited a laugh from the purple-haired woman. "Rits…since when has it ever been tough…to get me to blow my stack?!"
"I'll take that as a no," Ritsuko decided, even as Misato groaned and growled. "In fact, I'd say you're about halfway there already." With that, the scientist returned the phone to Makoto. "Alright, people! We've got a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it! So let's get cooking already! Maya's life is riding on us!"
"Yes, sir!" the techies about her chorused in response.
"I'll contact Chiron. See if I can stall him," Fuyutsuki broke in. "Then I'll give Ikari this new information. Maybe we can stop this thing before it gets worse."
"Right," Ritsuko nodded, gazing at the old professor. "Thank you, sir."
"You don't need to thank me, Doctor," Fuyutsuki told her easily. "It feels good. Doesn't it?"
"Yes," Ritsuko agreed, a sad, tired, and grateful smile tugging her lips. "It certainly does…"
Author's Notes: You know, I really thought I'd be able to get to the big fight scene I had planned, but this chapter just kept getting longer and there was just so much I wanted to get covered, so…oh, well. Sorry to disappoint you all. I just hope the great big blowout I've got planned will make up for it. So until then, please, read and review! And maybe check out my other stories as well?
By the way, I can't believe nobody picked up on Misato carving the fourth wall a new one last chapter!
Now, those of you who are fans of Spirit might be mad about me making her sit this one out, but this is Misato's story. And I think it would be ridiculous to involve her in everything that happens here. Besides, in her story, she was extremely hesitant to try and go after this Angel. With everything that's been happening to her so far, I think she would be even more reluctant to go and fight.
Xardion, Kaji has never struck me as someone who thought about the dangers of doing something stupid. And as we've seen here, Maya's responsibilities are now the least of her worries.
The Wandering Soul of 1014, just keep an eye on my next chapter.
Ryousanki, we'll have to wait a bit to see the results of SEELE's scheming. I just hope it'll be worth the wait.
Quathis, Maya isn't just getting the short end of the sticks, she's getting the whole forest. Fuyutsuki sure did rub me wrong in that episode. And I certainly would enjoy giving Kaji another trip via She-Hulk Air. Shinji's development and his role in the Brigade has been my plan for him in this story for the longest time. And I agree; Kaji deserves what he got in the last omake more than Ritsuko. And who wouldn't love a major free-for-all between the various Superwomen?
Mike313, I agree that the age gap is an issue and it's one I've already got plans for addressing. But I just think that it's not an issue that would come immediately to mind in that situation. As for Maya's involvement in this chapter, well, for the details on that, just check out the omake…
"Alright, Orion! What's the big idea?!" Misato demanded as she marched into the fanfic writer's office. Green spitting from her eyes as she thumped both hands on his desk.
"Why, hello, Misato!" Orion replied. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
"You better believe something's wrong! Take a look at this!" Misato snarled, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, just as Ritsuko entered as well. The faux-blonde scientist a wearing nothing but tattered scraps of cloth about her heavily muscled, gamma-mutated frame.
"I'm looking, Misato!" Orion grinned. "Believe me, I'm looking!"
"And you're loving every minute of it, aren't you?" Ritsuko cooed playfully even as she flexed a mountainous bicep. "And so am I, for that matter!"
A vein bulging from her forehead, Misato fixed the fanfic writer with a steely glare. "Look, tell me what the hell is going on here! First you let Ritsuko turn herself into a gamma mutant in the omakes, and now you've turned Maya into a female version of -!"
"Uh-uh-uh!" Orion broke in, waving his finger warningly. "Don't forget, Misato! First we do the debut of a super-powered character in one chapter, then the big reveal in the next one! That's my modus operandi, after all!"
"Fine, whatever! But what the hell are you thinking, pulling a stunt like this, anyway?!" the Major screeched angrily. "You of all people should know Maya's supposed to be Ms. Fantastic in these stories!"
"Not necessarily," Orion countered reasonably. "Now, why don't you sit down, Misato, and let me explain." Snorting in disgust, Misato glared at the fanfic writer for a time, but eventually conceded to his wish. "Thank you. Now, before I begin, I realize that it's basically a prerequisite that your She-Hulk and Maya's Ms. Fantastic are going to duke it out at least one or two times in these stories. After all, given the number of times the Hulk and the Thing have gone at it, not to mention all those other great heavyweight fights throughout comic history, the readers will definitely be demanding it." Heaving a sigh, Orion then sat back in his chair. "However, when I was planning out this part of the story, I found that bringing Ms. Fantastic into the mix – at least right away – would leave me with all kinds of problems."
"Problems?" Misato repeated blankly. "What kind of problems?"
"Tons of them," Orion returned, shaking his head sadly. "Now, first of all, one of the things I like to do with these stories is to make sure that all the characters have a real role to play in them. Especially Shinji, seeing his major role in NGE in general and as the significant other of each of you in your individual stories. And whether it's as big as helping the lady find hope or just being a morality pet, I don't want to do anything to invalidate that role."
"Okay," Misato nodded, understanding the logic of this.
"Now, Shinji's role in this story is helping you, and in order to do that, he has to confront all kinds of nastiness to find the truth behind NERV and become stronger as a person," Orion went on. "But if I bring in Ms. Fantastic, with her nanites filled with information from the MAGI, then his role is completely invalidated because she does all the work for him!" When Misato looked blankly at the fanfic writer, he spread his hands in emphasis. "Think about it! If Maya came into all that knowledge and was aware of other Superwomen were presently active and she had a good chance of finding them – such as Spirit, for example – she would try and alert them to what was going on! And then Spirit would tell Shinji about everything, and then…"
"I get the idea," Misato grumbled, cutting him off. "And that's why you brought in the EMP thing. To wipe the nanites' memory. But why the change in Maya's powers?!"
"That's obvious! Because if I go ahead and have her be Ms. Fantastic later, I don't want Gendo knowing where to find her!" Orion returned. "Let's face it. Maya goes nuts with her Ms. Fantastic powers while in NERV, where everyone, including Gendo, can see her. Then this strange woman shows up with the exact same powers and starts putting the screws to him, and he's not going to figure out that Maya's somehow involved? Not even Hitomi would be enough to fool him in a situation like that! And it's not like I can't have her go Ms. Fantastic when Ritsuko reprograms her nanites!" As Misato frowned in agreement, Orion grinned wickedly. "Besides…just think of the possibilities this opens up!"
"Possibilities?" Misato echoed, already knowing that she wasn't going to like this.
"Why, sure! We've already established that each of the SOE stories are separate! And I've already got people on the lookout, wondering which of you ladies will be putting in a cameo as a hero!" Orion explained, leaning over his desk like a hawk. "But what if we go the other way around? Instead of having you girls show up as heroes…why not have you turn into villains instead?"
"V- villains?!" Misato gaped in horror. "Wh-where the hell did you get an idea like that?!"
"Well, I wish I could say I came up with all on my own…but I'd be lying," Orion admitted. "In fact, Emperor Nescaro, who actually came up with the idea of zapping Eva ladies with gamma radiation before I even got into fanfic writing, also thought of making them evil as well. I've also seen a story or two with Eva femmes gone evil, and some of my reviewers have also suggested making you ladies into baddies as well." Then he raised an eyebrow at the purple-haired woman. "Besides, Marvel has played with that idea as well. Did you know that Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four actually went around in black-and-red leather with a spiked collar as the malevolent Malice, Mistress of Hate? Or that Colossus from the X-Men once hooked up with the forces of evil? Heck, the Silver Surfer once worked for Galactus, for crying out loud!"
"Okay, okay! I get the…" Misato grumbled, only for her eyes to go wide. "Now, wait a minute! Does that mean you're planning on having me go evil in one of your stories?!"
"Well, it's definitely a possibility!" Orion declared, rubbing his hands together. "And as it happens, I've already got -!"
"Hey!" Ritsuko squawked, her eyes lighting up with an even deeper green. "Is that why you've let me parade around as a gamma mutant?! You're planning on making me an evil muscle girl?!"
"Uh, yeah! I mean, I wasn't thinking of leaving you green, but…" Orion then trailed off, sweat rolling down his face as he watched Misato explode out of her clothes as she changed into She-Hulk, even as Ritsuko cracked her knuckles menacingly. "Um…I'm in big trouble, aren't I?"
"You better believe it," Misato growled before shattering Orion's desk in a single blow.
"Ah…ahahaha…" Orion chuckled nervously as the two gamma mutants slowly advanced. "In that case…next stop, the fourth wall! Exit, stage right!" With that, the fanfic writer began running as fast as he could, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake as the two gamma gals began their pursuit.