Dressed in her plug suit, Hikari sat on the red and green-painted steel scaffolding that surrounded her Evangelion unit as she desperately clung to her mobile phone while trying one more time to contact Toji. "Come on, come on!" she said out loud in frustration. "Toji, where are you?"
She had not heard back from Toji since the day before when he had left the GeoFront in order to visit his family and especially his little sister. As he left he had promised Hikari that he would remain in the GeoFront to support her as she took to battle in the EVA.
Toji had not returned to the GeoFront the night before however, and since then Hikari had continued to make phone calls and send text messages to contact him. She had with her older sister Kodama and also with Toji's grandmother in Hakone but neither of them knew where he was. Neither his father or grandfather, who worked in the GeoFront and were busy along with the other technical staff with making final preparations for Hikari's EVA, knew his location either.
Usually Toji was very good about keeping Hikari informed to his whereabouts so the silence from him was very disturbing to her, enough to then bring up his disappearance with NERV security. They had told her last evening that they were looking into his location and would let her know when he was found, which only made her worry even more. She was unable to sleep much that night.
With NERV on full alert since the morning, Hikari was ordered to suit up and wait by her EVA for further orders. Knowing that it was likely she would be deployed soon she clutched her phone and continued to make phone calls and texts to reach the boy while feeling horrified inside that somehow SEELE had succeeded in another attempt to hurt him or take him away.
She closed her eyes tightly and prayed that he was safe. Toji, please, she wished him with all of her mental emotion. Please make it back here. I just want to see you and hold you one more time before I...
Hikari heard footsteps behind her on the gantry, footsteps that had a "light-heavy" pound to them. Knowing Toji's gait by now and the heavier weight of his artificial leg, she turned around excitedly to greet him. Indeed, it was Toji in front of her now but what she saw was not at all what she expected.
Standing a few meters from her was the boy, but he was now dressed in a black and blue-colored plug suit, a newer version of the one he wore months earlier in his one and only mission in the EVA. Seeing him in the plug suit made Hikari gasp in shock, her heart aching all the more, as it had now become obvious what he had been up to earlier.
"Hikari," he said to her as he tried to smile.
The girl clenched her fists in anger. "Toji, No!" she shouted to him and shook her head vigorously. "Don't do this!"
"You asked me to make sure you wouldn't be alone," he told her as he stepped closer. "So, I figure, it's time I got suited up again."
"No!" Hikari repeated, her voice in a tone of both anger and sadness. "You don't have to fight anymore! This is my turn now!"
"I got to," Toji said. "I've been on the sidelines enough while you, and Kensuke, and Shinji make all of the sacrifices."
"You've sacrificed enough!" she said, still shouting as he got within arms' reach of her. "I...I can barely see you like this now. I can't image if something worse happened to you."
"And what about you?" Toji asked, now reaching for her. "What if you got hurt?"
"It doesn't matter anymore," Hikari replied with a remorseful tone, turning her head away. "You know I have to go through with this."
The boy held her closer to her, and gently lifted her head with his hand to face his. "And you're brave for doing so."
Tears came to Hikari's eyes again as her body began trembling. "I am so terrified!"
"Then better to do this together, right?" Toji encouraged.
"But I can't bear to see you hurt again. Besides," she protested, "According to what Misato-san told me, only I can pilot this EVA anyway."
Toji smiled. "Shinji told me that he was in Asuka's entry plug once when they took on an Angel. You remember, in the ocean when Kensuke and I went with him to see the UN Fleet back last August?"
Hikari was puzzled "So?"
"So," he continued, "He didn't just sit in the plug, they actually piloted Unit 02 together! Even though it was her EVA. It's not just that time, remember when Kensuke and I had to get inside the plug with Shinji for the Fourth Angel? I realize now that even though we weren't actually fighting with him we were still able to give him something extra that day. All of us pilots are connected in some weird way like that."
"What do you mean, then? You want to be a co-pilot for the EVA?"
"If Shinji and the Noisy One could pilot it together, I know that we could!" Toji said confidently.
Before Hikari could say anything alarm klaxons came on around them. As they both looked around, red alert lights started flashing and the technicians and others around them hurried to their posts or sped up the tasks that they were already performing. A giant LCD display flashed "RED ALERT" on its screen. Both of the children knew what this meant: the enemy was now coming.
"Hikari," Toji said to her softly. "It's your decision, okay?"
She had to admit to herself that despite being fraught with worry for his well-being, Hikari knew anything would help at this moment and Toji coming to her suited and ready for action was just was she was praying for, even if she didn't know it at first. Hikari gulped down the rest of her feelings and nodded confidently, and for the first time in a long time she knew she had hope to carry on.
"Targets on visual!" Ooi called out as Hyuga and the others look at the main screen. Displayed on the large screen were the images of three of the monstrous white Harpies with their broad wings which had landed on the crater's edge of the GeoFront.
"Three enemy units in all," confirmed Aoi. "Sensors confirm higher energy signature of S2 engines."
Hyuga smirked a little. "Well, they're going all out to get us then," he said. Turning to Ooi, he ordered "get immediate word to ZEUS that they sent three units here. At least that's three less than they'll have to deal with. Agano?"
The middle controller turned her head back, "Sir?"
"Engage the automated defense system on the targets. It won't do much but at least it'll keep them busy until we can roll EVA out. Aoi?"
"Status on EVA-09?"
"Pilot has boarded the unit and sync startup is progressing."
Hyuga took another good look at the screen and then all around him in the command post. Everyone was at their post and focused, he saw, working to do their part in the action, while soldiers nearby in battle dress kept their weapons combat-ready in case the enemy tried again to infiltrate Central Dogma. He looked over the operations deck and saw another familiar figure at the top of the platform: Gendo Ikari was now standing aside the railing at the top deck just meters from his old desk, accompanied by Wellington who was just a few feet behind him. Well, even he shows up here now. All things are coming to a head.
"Captain," Gendo called down to Hyuga. "Unit 09 is ready for operations."
"Thank you, sir." Just then the large display showed cannon and missile fire coming from what remained from NERV's defenses streaming towards the three Harpies on the screen. The firefight lasted for a minute as all of the blasts from the weapons left no damage on the Mass Production series, but each of the three Harpies began to seek out and destroy the sources of the attacks.
"Automated Defense System reports confirmed hits on targets but no damage," Amano reported, her voice wavering just slightly. "Several gun mounts are already destroyed."
"Keep them engaged until EVA is ready to launch. Aoi, how long do we have until the MAGI needs to send the final course corrections to the EVA units currently in orbit?"
"Another nine minutes and forty-five seconds, sir."
"Right. We've got to last at least that long in order for the rest of the attack to proceed. Whatever you do be sure we can still transmit the coordinates up the tight-beam uplink."
"Roger, sir. We've got five redundant uplink units linked together and ready."
The captain looked at the tactical map and saw the location of the Harpies, and then tried his best to work out his final tactical plan in his head. While he had gone over with the others and also with Hikari how to best fight off a Harpy attack, in his own mind he knew he chances for success were low at best, especially against three enemy units and especially against units powered by S2 engines that weren't going to stay down for long once attacked.
Try as I might we're not going to get out of this without a lot of luck, he thought. He turned his gaze again towards the command platform and decided that with the odds stacked up against them any opportunity, no matter how risky it might be in the end, shouldn't be ignored. Without saying anything Hyuga quickly jogged over to a small elevator, which then lifted him up to the command platform.
"Commander Ikari," he called to Gendo as he stepped in front of him, addressing him by his former title. Gendo looked at him unemotionally.
"Sir," Hyuga said, "I don't have any illusions about what we're facing right now. I also don't have much pride, either." Gendo silently stared at him as he continued. "I guess what I mean to say is, it might be better to have a more experienced leader at the helm in this situation."
Gendo was nonplussed. "I trust you're capable, Captain."
"Even so, there's too much riding at stake here," Hyuga continued, the sounds of the battle outside becoming louder as he spoke. "It's not just whether or not we survive at the end of the day, I don't want to let down the others. Frankly," he said with a forced smile, "Other than Katsuragi-san I couldn't think of anyone better in the world than you who can get us out of this, and I think that you being right here, right now, is somehow meant to be."
"Sir," Hyuga said, bowing to Gendo, "please take command!"
Gendo looked at Wellington, a curious expression on his face. "Is it allowable?"
His guardian shrugged. "Probably not," she said, "but I think we're all dead anyway with three of those things coming to get us. You might as well."
The old commander slightly smiled to himself. "Very well, captain."
Hyuga looked greatly relieved. "Thank you, sir!" He then quickly jumped back on the elevator platform as Gendo made his way to his old desk and sat down. The images on the main display showed camera views of one of the Harpies destroying the last of the missile launchers that were topside. "Automatic Defense System has been annihilated," Agano called out.
"EVA is all we have left then," said Hyuga. "Is she ready for launch?"
Aoi looked up from her control console. "EVA is synced up but...it's something like that same anomaly again we had earlier with Unit 04," she reported.
"Get me in touch with the pilot," Gendo ordered from his desk.
Aoi brought up the image of the inside of Unit 09's entry plug to the screen. Inside was Hikari, wearing her yellow plug suit, but now sitting behind her on the control throne was Toji Suzahara.
"What?!" exclaimed Hyuga. "Suzahara-kun, what the hell are you doing in there?"
Toji tried to make himself sound serious. "Um..I'm sort of a co-pilot. You know, like Shinji and Asuka that one time..."
"This is no time for screwing around!" Hyuga replied angrily, turning to Ooi. "Get him out of there!"
"Not necessary, Captain," Gendo's voice sounded from above. "Lieutenant...Aoi, is it?"
The other controller responded. "Yes, sir."
"What is the sync rate on Unit 09 currently?"
She quickly studied her display and then reported back. "Steady at 58 percent, sir."
"Are there any fluctuations in pilot feedback?"
"No sir," Aoi continued, "the link is stable."
"Good. Captain Hyuga, we'll proceed then."
Gendo's acceptance of the situation caught Hyuga by surprise. "But sir, earlier experience with Unit 04 with two pilots..."
"... the pilots were likely not in sync with each other," Gendo answered before Hyuga could finish his comment and then addressed the larger video screen. "Pilot Horaki?"
"Yes, sir?" Hikari replied to Gendo from her position on the control throne, her hands clutching the actuators.
"If you want to survive the next ten minutes you need to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you. Do you understand?"
Hikari nodded firmly. "Yes, sir!"
The commander simply nodded and then called down to the operations deck again. "Is the weapons conveyor system available?"
Ooi made the report this time. "Seven stations are still functioning on the Interior level of the GeoFront." A monitor to the side of them showed the seven positions on map of the GeoFront, with each of the stations represented by a flashing icon. "It's all we could get ready with the time we had," Hyuga added.
"It will have to do."
Agano now called out from her station. "Here they come! Enemy is moving towards the GeoFront!" she shouted. On the video screens was a camera close-up image of one of the white eyeless beasts, its large mouth salivating and bearing its giant teeth. Each of the three Harpies jumped down from the edge of the crater at the GeoFront's top and landed on the Interior ground with a loud thud, the vibrations big enough for Central Dogma itself to shake with the impact.
The commander rested his chin on his hand. "Position Unit 09 in the GeoFront Interior on the north side entrance," Gendo ordered, his mouth in a confident smile. "Let's begin."
Patrick sat against the wall in his cell, huddled against the side of the wall in an effort to keep warm. Somehow it seemed to him that within the last few hours his cell had become a lot colder.
Earlier he and Erin had again talked to each other in an effort to keep their hopes up, each telling stories about the more fun and sometimes very stupid things they had done in their early days as EVA pilots, relating anything that could help them elevate their mood. After a while they had both become tired and fell asleep, Patrick pushing against the front corner of the wall in an attempt to get to as close to Erin as he could before drifting off. His sleep had been troublesome, riddled with nightmares about falling out of the clouds into a dark, stormy sky. He wasn't sure what that meant but his fears about what might happen to him if he didn't get his LCL stabilizer soon began to rise as a crescendo of screams inside his head.
After a while he had woken up and leaning against the wall stared at the three video cameras that were silently panning across the cells, his only companions in this place apart from Erin. Patrick wondered what chance he really had at this point. I suppose the best case is that the Alliance somehow makes it in here and takes us prisoner. At least this way Erin gets out alive.
The lights in the cell seemed to flicker slightly and that caught his attention. He looked up and saw the lights flicker again, dimming slightly and then going bright. Thinking nothing of it at first, Patrick leaned against the wall again and kept his eyes on the cameras. It took another thirty seconds for him to realize that the three camera units were no longer moving, their red LED lights now gone dark. He knew that now was the first time since he had been in the cell that the cameras weren't active.
Well, that's different. Did something just happen?
The door clanged open and a single security guard in a blue uniform rushed inside. Without saying anything the man went to the plexiglass wall of Patrick's cell and started to key numbers into the lock control keypad next to the cell door. Patrick pulled himself off the floor and watched as the guard's fingers moved in rapid-fire motion to activate the door. A moment later there was a loud hiss and the cell door swung open.
Not sure what he should do at first, Patrick tried to get a closer look at the guard who had opened the door. A familiar face smiled back at him.
"Mr. Kaji!" Patrick exclaimed.
"Shhh," replied the agent, motioning with his hands for Patrick to keep his voice down. Kaji took a quick look around to see if there were any other surveillance devices he hadn't noticed earlier, and then motioned for Patrick to leave the cell. The boy sighed in relief and hurried out the open cell door and onto the stony floor below.
"Am I glad to see you," Patrick whispered to Kaji. Behind them Erin was now awake and on her feet, pressing her hands against the plexiglass wall of her own cell.
Kaji put his hand on the boy's shoulders. "Are you all right?"
"I guess. I'm still alive at any rate," Patrick replied. A voice called out in English from the front door of the prison where Kaji had come from. "Hurry it up, I've only got another ninety seconds on the camera bypass." The sound of the voice took Patrick by surprise. Wait, I know that voice…
"We should go now," Kaji told him as Patrick tried to sort things out in his tired head. Patrick looked over his shoulder and saw Erin pressed to the wall of her cell, her face in anxious anticipation. "What about her?" he asked Kaji.
The agent looked at Erin with a jaundiced eye. "What about her?"
Patrick was incredulous. "You're not going to just leave her in there, are you?"
Kaji gave him a serious look. "She's the one who put you in here, Patrick." Erin's face went from hope to disappointment as she heard what Kaji had said.
"You can't just leave her. She's dead if we leave her behind!"
"Patrick, do you know what actually happened at Tokyo-3?"
"I know that something really bad happened to Kensuke and Mari, and I know that they think I had something to do with it. Look, Mr. Kaji," Patrick pleaded, "it doesn't matter. Yes, Erin tricked me to get the EVA and we both know it but they lied to her and now she knows everything. She's not going to be on their side anymore, otherwise they wouldn't have put her in here."
"Or this is another way for them to gain your confidence," a skeptical Kaji observed.
"Fine," said Patrick, moving towards Erin's cell. "If she doesn't go, I don't go!"
Erin herself had the look of bitter disappointment. "It's okay, Patrick," she said to her brother on the other side of the wall. "Just leave me here. That boy's dead because of me. I…I deserve it."
Kaji stood firm, looking at both of the children as he considered the situation. "I don't like this at all," he told the boy. "Using family members to gain control over their targets is a proven SEELE tactic."
"Well," Patrick replied, "you can't pilot EVA without us!"
The voice outside the prison door came again. "What's the holdup?"
"Our escapee apparently doesn't want to go just yet," quipped Kaji.
"He's always stubborn like that," the voice replied. Patrick was about to continue arguing with Mr. Kaji but suddenly stopped at the sound of the voice from the doorway. Patrick realized that he did indeed know that voice all too well.
From the shadow of the outside doorway another figure of a man walked through and then approached the others. Dressed like Kaji in a security uniform and clean-shaven, he looked right into the boy's eyes as Patrick froze in the shock of seeing a ghost, which in this case was very nearly correct.
"Hello, Lad," said Omega calmly. "Long time, no see."
The boy's jaw dropped open in complete surprise. "U-u-uncle?"
Go on to Chapter 53