Ascension of the Lamb
EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 39: Learning to Live Again / The Wretched 2: Abandonment

     There was a knock at the door.
     A gentle rap, repeated three times, then again, when there was no answer.
     This time, there was a reply, although feeble and throaty.  "Yes..?"
     Lieutenant Kayo Arashio tugged at the hems of her jacket.  Funny, how she always got these odd jobs.  Shigeru had probably given it to her because she was the only one who knew enough about the Evas and their pilots, and had some degree of empathy.  Yamashita was too distant, Masaharu was too light-headed, and Dr. Robertson was too much of a jerk.  In all, she really was the only one on the bridge staff who could do this.  The other pilots probably could have done it, but this was impromptu, and they were already engaged elsewhere.
     "May I come in?" she asked the door, hand poised by the knob.
     There was a short pause.  "...Yes," the voice repeated itself, considerably stronger than before.  It was pleasant, meek voice; yet it seemed like it was capable of an incredible range of emotions and intensities.
     Arashio smiled.  Hikari's voice actually sounded rather like her own.
     "Lieutenant Arashio?"  Hikari was sitting on the edge of her bed, now.  Ten days had passed since she first rejoined the world, since the last Angel, and since she had started eating again.  "Hi..."
     For some reason, Hikari wasn't apprehensive in the slightest at Arashio's arrival, quite contrary to the belief the lieutenant had held before entering the room.
     There was a marked difference in the Hikari currently greeting NERV's spokesperson and the one that Asuka had first come to visit.  Helped along by a healthy appetite and Asuka's daily visits and encouragement, Hikari had steadily been regaining strength at a relatively rapid pace.  Her stamina had improved to the point where she was able to walk at a normal pace at least once around the room before having to sit down again, and the approval of her doctors and friends gave her seemed to make all the painful exercise worthwhile.
     Arashio greeted the girl as well, setting herself down on one of the chairs next to the bed.  Thus far, no member of NERV outside of the other pilots had had contact with Hikari yet.
     "You can call me Kayo...  How are you feeling?" she asked, making Hikari cringe in a good-natured manner; this was a question she was starting to feel completely sick of, after hearing it from everyone's mouth at least once.  She said so, but not before answering politely.
     Nevertheless, Hikari's honesty did crack the ice and the certain level of formality expected between personnel of differing ranks.  Technically, Hikari and the other pilots actually ranked higher than most of the other staff at NERV, simply by virtue of what they did.  On the other hand, they were expected to follow whatever orders were passed down from the Operations Director, and heed the suggestions of the Chief of Science.  Not to mention, of course, Commander Fuyutsuki himself.
     Suddenly amused by Hikari's evidently well-practiced answer, Arashio raised a hand to her lips to stifle the laugh sprouting there, and reminded herself of her role in this situation.  She still had a job to do, she thought, sobering up considerably.
     It wasn't an easy one; perhaps because of the very fact she was capable of empathy, she felt a lot of pity for the poor girl.  She'd been through a lot, and Arashio had always heard her anxiously asking Asuka about the pain she had been going through in the Eva.  Asking her to take it up again would be difficult.
     After a few words, her carefully rehearsed words rapidly fell into disarray, and she cut to the chase, not wanting to drag this out.
     "Ms. Horaki...  The Commander was recently informed of your condition, and he sends his regards.  Um...well, basically, we need to know if you'll pilot Unit-15 again..."
     Hikari leaned forwards, placing her chin in her hands and resting against her knees as she listened to Arashio talk.
     "I mean...you don't have to anymore, if you don't want to...or..."
     It was Hikari's turn to smile, as she waited for the young woman to finish talking.  "I'll do it," she said, looking Arashio straight in the eye.  "I have to."
     Arashio stumbled over herself, surprised.  She'd expected immediate refusal, a tactful negative, or even the slight possibility of a slow, reluctant assent.  Certainly not the rapid response she'd received here.  Perhaps Hikari had misunderstood, she mused.
     "Are...are you sure..?"
     Hikari nodded slowly.  "Asuka told me this happened to Shinji once...and I don't think anyone ever asked him if he still wanted to do this."
     Still flustered, Arashio did her best to think of a reason why, grasping at straws.  "Well...that was then, and we had a...a different Commander...  This...this comes from Commander Fuyutsuki..."
     Some ancient part of Hikari's mind reminded her that she had indeed wanted to quit, once, and that this offer could have very well been that ticket out, that passage to freedom.  Turning it down should have been complete and utter folly.
     On the other hand, she had a reason to do this, now.  She could see with clear eyes what the Angels did to people, to her friends; thus, she could act with a clear mind and, hopefully, help them.  She was still afraid, granted, but that was part of the deal.  She could accept that.
     And then, she was the designated pilot of Evangelion Unit-15.  If she left, they would have to find a replacement, one who'd have to go through the same searching, possibly the same or worse pain to come to this same conclusion she had.
     It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.  She didn't mind so much any more.
     "I will do it," she said, with some degree of finality.
     Suddenly uncomfortable in the chair Shinji had once brought into the room for Asuka, Arashio stood, straightening her uniform.  "...Well, then...  That's basically what I was sent here for...  If it's not a problem...I ought to be going..."
     She nearly jumped in surprise as Hikari joined her on unsteady feet.  Dismissing the lieutenant's urgings to sit down and rest, Hikari took another step towards her, balancing against the chair.
     "If it's not too much to ask, Lieu...Kayo, could you help me out into the hall?  I've only been out that far once, with Asuka, this morning.  I'd like to do it again."
     This girl, thought Arashio, has a talent for putting people at ease.  Nodding, she offered Hikari her arm, and they walked out into the hallway together.

* * *

     "Fascinating creatures, aren't they?"
     A sudden look of surprise and disconcertion clouded Yamashita's face as he turned to look at his co-worker on the bridge.
     "What was that?" he asked, pausing at his work.
     Masaharu shrugged.  "Fascinating creatures.  You know, the Angels."
     Yamashita relaxed, picking up his coffee cup.  Masaharu was just really weird, he supposed.  "Since when have you had this interest in Angelic zoology?"
     His counterpart picked at his keyboard, bringing up new menus from the MAGI's central database.  Even with all the cleanup work left after the last Angel and the final tests being performed on the newly repaired Units-14 and 16, Masaharu somehow still found the energy to continue his work deep within the three supercomputers, always ostensibly looking for something to fix or refine.
     Yamashita was used to his co-worker's strange habits now, although he could never understand what was so interesting about the MAGI that prompted Masaharu to spend so much of his time digging through the databases.
     "Unclassified, unheard of.  New to man.  Already, we can't let what we don't know pass us by.  After religion got out of the way, at least in Europe, there was an explosion of scientific discovery that followed an exponential scale upwards.  Look where we are today."
     "On the brink of evolution, perhaps?"
     "I wouldn't go that far.  Once you stop learning, you can't evolve.  That's why we keep learning.  We left behind biological evolution a long time ago."
     Yamashita just shook his head, and turned back to his board.  Just another severe case of sleep deprivation, he decided.  Masaharu probably didn't know what he was talking about.
     "Don't forget," his co-worker's voice stated, suddenly clear and professional, "we have Unit-15's reactivation test in twenty minutes."
     "Yeah...right."
     Or maybe Masaharu just was just more alert than he assumed.  He'd forgotten entirely about the reactivation.

* * *

     Wheels rattled against a hard metal floor as the nurses brought the plugsuit-clad pilot of Unit-15 into the preparation area on a wheeled stretcher.  As always, Hikari hated the nakedness she felt whenever she was wearing the skin-tight neoprene, and she didn't think she'd ever get used to the way it clung to her body on all sides.
     Wearing this instead of the loose fitting hospital gown emphasized just how much weight she'd lost over the weeks.  She could have sworn she could count her ribs, even through the suit.
     Through the open doors, she could see the long, white cylinder that was her entry plug gleaming under the brilliant stares of several floodlights.  Technicians surrounded it, monitoring, checking, repairing.  On top, the hatch gaped wide, the dark second maw of her Eva, ready to swallow her, hold her deep within the beast's body.
     It used to scare her.
     With some effort, she sat up and let the nurses help her off the bed, but kept her eyes fixed on the white tube that had been waiting six weeks for her to arrive.  And for the first time, Hikari felt like she was almost looking forwards to climbing in and sitting in the coppery-tasting LCL.
     Still, it did provoke some measure of apprehension within her.  After all, her first experience with the Eva had resulted in an overnight stay at the hospital, because of some phenomenon that had never been explained to her.  It had occurred to her that something similar would occur today, but not for long.  Unit-15 had been stable since, and hadn't had any further problems.
     The access ladder loomed closer with every halting, assisted step, but she somehow managed to keep her focus.  Arashio was still nearby, and had asked several more times on the way to the facility if she was absolutely certain about climbing back into the Eva.  Hikari had nodded each time, remembering the Angel and what it had done to her, remembering the effects others had had on the people she knew.
     Asuka's...depression, although it was much worse than that; Touji's limbs...  The thoughts rallied behind her, buttressing her will.
     After some time, steady hands guided her into the command chair, and she was finally able to relax.  It wasn't the furthest she'd forced herself to drag her sorry body, but it was still quite demanding.  As the sank against the stiff cushioning, she watched from behind half-lids as they withdrew and the hatch slid shut over her.
     She felt the jerk of the crane beginning to move behind her, and she presumed she would still have about a minute before everything was prepared for the test.
     A few days had passed since the weekend, and she assumed she would have been attending school if it weren't for the fact she was recovering.  That much of her, she thought, was still the same.  She had asked Asuka to bring her her textbooks and laptop from home, so that she could start catching up when she wasn't bringing her physical body back to par with everyone else.
     Already, she'd taken the initiative to e-mail her teacher for assignments and covered material.  So far, though, she hadn't had the guts to ask if she could have her old position of class representative back, yet.  She had been sure someone would have been asked to do it, and Asuka had recently confirmed that -- with, of course, a scathing commentary on his inability to keep the class under control.
     The entry plug stopped vibrating as the crane came to a halt.  It picked up again, and there was a mellow clang as the sides of the entry plug came into contact with the edges of the insertion passage drilled into the Eva's neck.  A little later, the hiss of the crane's hydraulic appendages could be heard releasing the plug, and gears clanked as it screwed itself into Unit-15.
     Frowning, she reached up to the top of her head to make sure the interface clips were still in the right places.  She couldn't quite remember exactly where she had placed them before, but it almost seemed right.  For now, she would trust the memory of NERV's staff, particularly Lieutenant Arashio, who had been helping her all morning.
     From the replies she'd had back from the old man who was their teacher at school, he seemed fairly pleased to know she was indeed healthy and would be returning shortly.  He, too, seemed fed up with the replacement class representative.  He'd even offered to spend extra time after classes to bring her up to speed.
     One of the things Hikari had never understood about other students, her friends included, was the constant complaining about teachers.  Perhaps it was just because she'd been a teacher's pet all her life, but she'd never felt mistreated or overworked by any of hers.  Here was someone genuinely interested in her education, deserving of her respect.
     Sure, he was boring, sometimes, and misinformed about Second Impact.  The Third remained unexplained, even by official government sources, and there had been no tries by the media to figure it out, either.  Not that she was aware of, anyway.
     She supposed a lot of people, rather like herself, had put it down to strange dreams for a while, whether or not they had been asleep at the time.  As a matter of fact, it wasn't until she had joined NERV that she had learned there had ever been a Third Impact.  Most people just didn't think about it.
     The news had been fairly disturbing to her at the time, although it hadn't quite been the nightmare scenario of hurricanes, meteor impacts, and volcanoes that most everyone had imagined.
     On top of that, Hikari had no clear images left from those dreams, only that she'd woken up one morning with something pressing a little on her mind.
     Looking down, she could see they'd began the process of pumping the LCL into the plug.  It always came in very quickly, and the first time, she'd been so surprised that she had nearly forgotten Asuka's advice.
     As it covered her legs, then her thighs, she put those recommendations into action.  The key, apparently, was to wait until your nose was submerged, then exhale everything before breathing in the liquid.  She'd tried it a different way, once, and the bubbles that had formed inside her throat were definitely annoying, to say the least.
     The moment the warm liquid invaded her lungs and surrounded her body, Hikari began to feel more comfortable.  It had never been comfortable in the Eva before, she had never quite gotten used to it.
     On the other hand, if she could trust her memories, she had spent the last several weeks floating in a tube of the same, so perhaps she was now accustomed to it after all.  In the null-g of the fluid, she also was weightless, a certain relief for her aching body that had been learning to fight gravity again.
     It was warm, too, and even if it smelled of blood, it did seem to soothe her a little.  She smiled, wryly, in the partial darkness.  For a moment, she thought she could smell someone else, or something different from what she usually found.
     "Hikari?  Are you ready, now?"
     Clearing her throat, she replied that she was, and prepared herself for another plunge into the strange sensations that made up piloting these strange things.
     Yamashita announced that the neural connections were open, and Hikari began to open her mind, concentrating on what sensations she could feel, and those that she knew would be coming.

     With a quick tap of a finger, Masaharu initialized the A-10 nerve connections to complete the synchronization and activation sequence for Unit-15.  Energy surged through the Eva's body, tightening its muscles visibly in the harsh white light of the room.
     It's eyes began to glow brighter, and the tiny involuntary twitches came to an end as Hikari was finally connected to it.
     "Can you hear me, Hikari?"  Shigeru leaned into his microphone, keeping an eye on the white giant, waiting for her reply.
     After a short while, they heard her take a deep breath, then exhale a soft 'yes'.  Arashio had reported that she had seemed somewhat enthusiastic about getting back into the Eva, although she didn't sound like it.  Perhaps she was still just too tired to act that way.
     In any case, there was a job to finish.
     "Reactivation and synchronization was successful, Hikari.  Focus on moving your right hand, okay?"
     The right hand twitched once, then closed into a fist.  After a few seconds, it relaxed open again.  Yamashita watched the readings on his monitor, then looked up, impressed.
     "Six weeks," he began, "and there's been no drop in her synchronization rating."
     Dr. Robertson thought about it for a minute.  "She must have a particularly good tie with the Eva then.  No wonder the other two rookies couldn't make the cut."
     Shigeru decided then that he would not allow her to fight against the next Angel.  If the pauses in her speech really were due to healing-induced fatigue, then it wouldn't be right, morally, to deploy Unit-15, yet.  Even if this test and Dr. Robertson both confirmed that she was capable of piloting the Eva.
     For now, he'd keep her off the roster, until she could at least walk under her own power at a normal rate.  As far as he could tell, she wouldn't mind much.

     "Hikari?  We're going to proceed like this was a harmonics test.  We're going to increase the plug depth, now, so you can start concentrating harder."
     She responded to Shigeru's order with another quiet assent, then closed her eyes and began to focus on the Eva, her body, and her senses.
     She could almost feel her mind expanding to fit the Eva as the command chair sunk deeper into the plug.  Her fingers fitting into the larger hand like into a glove, the extension of her legs from a different torso, the approach of her consciousness to another...
     The other...the Eva?
     Yes...the other was the Eva.  This was synchronization.  To feel what the other does.  For it to do what she felt.  It touched her, breached her consciousness and brushed against it, filling the gaps without obscuring her own sense of self.  She recognized it, and the strange, immature hatred it had wrought.
     "What..?"
     The single word riveted the entire attention of the staff of the observation booth on her, as Shigeru opened the communications link again.  "What was that, Hikari?"
     Her eyes snapped open, as she suddenly realized someone was talking to her.  She blushed a little, unaware that she had said something.
     "Oh...nothing," she said, knowing how silly it would seem if she tried to explain the voice she had heard in her head a while ago.
     She searched again, seeking consciously this time, and was unable to rediscover the feeling...  It had vanished, sublimated again.
     "Nothing...nothing at all.  I'm fine," she continued, trying to reassure them.
     After a pause, Shigeru spoke again.  "That's good enough, Hikari.  You can come back now."
     So distant, and familiar at once.  And why had it sparked such a reaction within her?  She'd synchronized with Unit-15 before, and never once could she recall anything like this...
     Hikari couldn't quite explain what she experienced, even to herself, as she was lifted back onto the wheeled stretcher and returned to her hospital room, but she was sure it meant something.
     Exhausted by her ordeal, she let herself sink into the bed and relax.  She'd put off her third morning round today.

* * *

     "Hey...dummkopf.  It's lunch."
     Shinji looked up abruptly, roused from an hour and a half lecture-induced rêverie by an insistent and slightly impatient Asuka.  He stood slowly, realizing with a sheepish grin that most of the other students had already abandoned the classroom.
     "Oh...right."  Fishing into his bag, he was able to produce their packed meals.  For some reason, Asuka never carried her own lunch to school, making it into one of his responsibilities.  "Touji and Kensuke never showed up, did they?"
     Asuka laughed, tossing her head with amusement as she collected the bag from Shinji's outstretched hand.  "Don't you ever pay attention to anything during our tests?  Dr. Robertson said Units-14 and 16 were supposed to be ready today."
     "So?"
     "So it's just you and me today, baka!  Those two idiots are probably down in the geofront getting chewed out by Dr. Robertson."
     "I thought there was only supposed to be Hikari's reactivation test today," he said, sorting through his own bag to make sure he hadn't handed Asuka the wrong lunch by accident.  "I guess I didn't hear the other announcement."
     "Of course you didn't."  Taking him by his free hand, she led him out of the classroom into the hallway, and from there to the open door that led to the roof.  "What were you thinking about back there anyway?  I'm not having dreams again, am I?" she teased, whispering.
     Shinji blushed a little as she pushed him out onto the roof.  "No..," he replied, albeit slightly unsteadily, "I wasn't really thinking about anything..."
     The air was already heavy with confused snippets of conversations assailing them from all directions, under a dark blue sky adorned with clumps of soft white clouds.  The roof was covered in wide slabs of light grey concrete which served the dual purpose of a usable surface and improving drainage.  These, in turn, were covered by the loose clusters of students taking full advantage of the day.
     Some, seated or standing near the roof's safety rail, were carrying on loud conversations with friends in the courtyard, while others chatted or gossiped quietly amongst themselves.  Shinji and Asuka, therefore, went more or less unnoticed as they found an undisturbed spot and sat down.
     "Well," she said, taking a significant bite out of her sandwich, practically tearing it apart with her teeth, "it looks like you were right about Hikari.  She says she'll be out of the hospital in a few days.  She's getting stronger, too."  Her voice shone as she thought about the rate at which her friend was recovering.
     Shinji nodded.  "I heard she's already catching up on her homework.  You must be happy."  Not without reason, he glanced back at her to check her reaction.  Asuka smiled behind her soft drink.
     "Why shouldn't I be?  We'll finally get some decent food at home!"
     Shinji's eyes snapped wide open, irate.  "Hey!  What's that supposed to mean?!"
     Giggling, Asuka threw an arm around him, then poked him hard in the ribs.  "She's a far better cook than you are, baka..."
     Throwing her an annoyed glance, he mumbled that she hadn't ever tried cooking herself, and sought to console himself in what he'd made for lunch.  Effectively impossible, the way she was leaning against him.
     "I can so cook," she said haughtily, taking another bite out of the sandwich, "I just let you two do everything because it's easier that way."
     Shinji spotted his opportunity to revenge himself, and, launched himself at it.  Strangely, he found he didn't regret it afterward.  "Fine.  I'm not going to make dinner tonight.  You do something, if you want to eat."
     "Sounds good to me," she said, giving Shinji a look that told him he was indeed going to lament proposing this, "but don't expect me to make anything for you..."
     Caught again, Shinji could only gape and stammer about how unfair she was being.  After all, he had been doing it for at least six months, and while his successes were limited, it was infinitely preferable to Misato's cooking.
     Asuka sighed contentedly, and sat up straight again.  "No...seriously.  I haven't cooked anything in a while.  I used to cook for myself in Germany, out of cookbooks, because there wasn't ever anyone around to feed me after my grandmother died."
     Shinji's nerves relaxed, and he turned his head to face her again.  "Sounds like me...only I had to learn because of, you know...Misato.  I guess I still don't really have the hang of it."
     Neither said anything more for a while longer, looking out onto the cranes that had been working non-stop these last weeks to rebuild what had been destroyed by the last few conflicts in the city itself.
     An alert siren sounded in the air, a long,low warning tone that echoed in the mountains and blanketed the streets.  Very few of the students took notice, already trained to recognize the difference between an attack siren and the one that signaled the arrival of the central block into the world above ground.
     Through the bars of the railing, they could see the monster sky scrapers rumble out of their vertical shafts, coming to a stop with their roofs hundreds of feet in the air and doing justice to their common name.
     "Hey, Shinji?"
     "Hmm?" he replied, mouth full.
     "What does that Stooge friend of yours think of her?"
     Shinji frowned for a minute, swallowing his mouthful.  "Which one?" he asked, confused, "and who's 'her'?"
     "That's what I thought," said Asuka, pensive.  "Forget I asked."
     He frowned for a while, trying to figure out what she'd meant, but was unable to make any sense of her question.  Far too vague for him to provide a decent answer.
     "Say, why are we called the three Stooges, anyway?"
     Asuka started laughing, and Shinji was unable to avoid becoming the centre of attention for the students sharing the area with them.  Even more so when Asuka stopped poking fun at him and leaned over to kiss him.
     For a moment, he felt himself flush, dozens of eyes trained on him and the brash girl with him.
     "Well?" she whispered, impatient, "...It doesn't matter what they think, baka."
     "...Sorry."
     Shyly, Shinji simply let gravity incline him such that he reached her as she wished.
     Finally drawing away after several long moments lost in some other realm, Asuka took a quick glance around them, duly noting the stares.  Looking back to Shinji, she noticed he was still looking quite sheepish about his observers, but he wasn't quite as red as he would have once been.  And that, she thought, was progress.

* * *

     Kensuke sat in the dark confines of the entry plug, waiting.
     This was effectively the third time that Unit-16 had failed to restart, due to some conflict with the MAGI.  Thankfully, at least this wasn't his fault.
     At the edge of his perception, he could hear a dull buzzing in his ears.  It seemed almost angry, like a heavily muted swarm of wasps.  It felt tense, electrical, and without anything else to distract him, he could sense it entering his body.
     Still, it wasn't strong enough to become fully intrusive or uncomfortable for him.
     He thought he should have been happy.  After all, he was finally getting reaquainted with the Eva, his Eva.  He still had yet to see exactly what his synchronization ratio was now, and he was still somewhat anxious about that.
     However, he recalled his first communion with the grey giant, and his excitement then.  He had hardly been able to calm himself then, practically bouncing off the curved, inner wall of the entry plug.
     He glanced down at his hands, resting peacefully on the control levers, his fingers wrapped around the bases of the loops that helped refine the dexterity and control in the Eva's hands.
     A few months had passed since then, and perhaps he'd matured somewhat as a pilot, paying more attention to the commands given to him by Captain Shigeru and Dr. Robertson.  At the same time, he was beginning to watch Shinji and demon-g...Asuka more and more carefully, trying to net some advice or pointers from the depths of their evident knowledge and skill.
     During the last battle, it had become all too obvious to him that his synch ratio wasn't the only thing holding him back.  He'd been a first-hand witness to a battle above and beyond any of his meagre skills.  They seemed to know precisely how their respective Evas reacted to given commands, knew how to fine-tune their balance in mid-fall, understood not only how, but when the AT field was best deployed...  The list went on.
     Simply put, he was very far behind.
     He understood very well that he needed to do better.  He felt as if he were little more than a dead weight to his friends, unable to provide assistance in any way, shape, or form.
     Things would likely remain that way, although it was assured if Unit-16 didn't activate soon.
     Dr. Robertson's voice, tainted with more than a little of the cold, tired edge it developed when he was cranky, echoed through the plug, overwhelming the strained, pulsing buzz around him.
     "All right, Kensuke.  If this bloody thing doesn't find a new way to screw itself up again, this should work.  Get ready."
     The muted amber colour around him began to shift as the LCL was electrolyzed, suffusing the entire plug with the light of a fully prismatic spectrum.  Kensuke reached up, removing his new glasses for the third time.  Hopefully, this time the Eva wouldn't let him down and restore the perfect sight that was indicative of a good connection.
     There was a pause, and he could do nothing but wait powerlessly until the Eva accepted the external command to activate.
     Again, nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  None of the waves of visual chaos that normally erupted violently around him, none of the hollow, pounding roar that indicated synchronization was occurring.
     Dr. Robertson swore over the communications line.  "Last time," he almost shouted, "last resort.  We need this Eva functional, so we're going to see if you can start it up autonomously.  We're disconnecting the MAGI from Unit-16.  Wait for my command."
     Kensuke acknowledged, the fingers of his right hand tightening reflexively around the control switch that would cause Unit-16 to activate by itself.
     The command came.  Kensuke's finger contracted around the control.
     And finally, the world around the Eva became his world, its senses became his, and its movements became his.
     "...I'll be damned," muttered Dr. Robertson, "it works, after all."
     Sighing in relief, Kensuke let his head fall back against the cushion behind it.  It looked like he was going to get his second chance after all.  Best not to mess it up.
     He'd do something right this time.  For sure.

* * *

     Yamashita leaned back in his chair at the MAGI interface station.  Through the thick glass, he could see into the massive white chamber that had previously occupied both Units-14 and 15.  Right now, with sickly glowing eyes, stood Unit-16, connected to NERV only via the communications line and the umbilical cable that hung from the centre of the Eva's back like a thick snake.
     He had nothing better to do, either.  Since all of the MAGI's commands, data requests, and transmissions had been refused by the Eva currently being activated, there was nothing left that fit his job description.  Granted, the MAGI would continue to analyze what it could detect from Unit-16, but there likely wasn't going to be any further work for him until it completed its analyses in a few hours.
     By the thick plate glass between the control booth and the testing area stood the Fourth, completely bored, yet fully absorbed in the proceedings of his friend's test.
     Contrary to Touji's ennui and general state of inaction was Dr. Robertson, poring over Unit-16's files and records.  Frantically skimming through page after page, he finally shut off the interface board and began typing equally harriedly in his computer.
     Things had been rough for Dr. Robertson, recently.  In his quest to be knowledgeable about absolutely everything, he'd found himself with numerous difficulties beyond his reach.  For example, he could find no way to fully explain the apparent ease with which Unit-01 had regenerated.  Of course, he'd read the files of the previous incidents, although he'd never been too sure whether or not to believe it fully until he'd become a witness himself.  And today, as far as he could tell, there was nothing wrong with Unit-16, although it had stubbornly persisted in cutting off the connection to itself, and therefore the MAGI.
     The self-inflicted lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll, as he began taking shifts of length and intensity similar to Masaharu's.
     Other than his darkened, puffy eyes, he had become more and more cranky, although without the acerbic wit that seemed to define him.  Rather than spending the effort to come up with new, piercing remarks every time somone did something not to his liking, his insults had become progressively blunter and more blatant.
     Yamashita, for his part, liked to stay out of the way.
     Finally, he grunted something derogatory at his interface board, and shut it off.  Apparently satisfied with the results of the test, he flicked on the microphone and dismissed 'the rookies'.  The other technicians began to file out of the room as well, leaving only himself and Yamashita to watch the entry plug's removal and the return of the Eva to the cage.
     "Fascinating creatures, aren't they?" muttered Dr. Robertson as the lights dimmed away to nothingness, illuminated only by the light from the test facility's walls.
     Yamashita flexed an eyebrow.  "The Evas?"
     Dr. Robertson nodded, the white light playing over his craggy features.  "Absolutely.  We can't understand them, yet we've found ways to bind them, utilize them for our own purposes."
     "You believe that?" Yamashita asked in reply.
     Again, the nod.  "I do.  Ambition has surpassed science."
     "Not necessarily a bad thing.  This is for mankind, isn't it?"
     Dr. Robertson paused, still calculating probabilities in his head.  "Or it's just for man."
     Chuckling, Yamashita shook his head as he headed for the door.  "I don't understand a thing you're saying.  Sir."  He stopped just before the door.  "I'll see you later, sir."
     Dr. Robertson barely acknowledged the other man's departure, looking out into the test chamber as Unit-16 was trasported back to the Cage through the floor, rumbling down the dark shaft supported only by the restraints around it.

* * *

     The door from the hallway slid open, and Kensuke entered the change room to find Touji staring up at the ceiling through half-closed eyelids, still clad in the char-black plugsuit that seemed to fit the colour of his Eva.
     Touji's test, predictably, had been completed flawlessly, without interruptions or errors.  Everything had remained unchanged since the last test, a day before their Evas had been put out of action.  His synch ratio was still stable at roughly sixty or seventy percent, but it didn't seem like he cared too much, either.
     "Hey...  Kensuke..," Touji said, still staring up at the ceiling.  "How was your test?"
     Kensuke opened his locker, shrugging.  "It could have been better.  I've lost about five points since last time.  Not as bad as I expected...but..."
     After a while, Touji took a breath, then rocked forward, off the bench.  "Don't let it get to you...  After all, it's not like this is the end of the world, you know."
     Evidently still disappointed, Kensuke began dressing.  "Yeah, right.  How come I can't do as well as you?  Or class rep, or the others?  The class rep just spent over a month in hospital, and her synch ratio went up!"  That article of news had been circulating among NERV's Eva technicians since the morning, and it was hard to avoid.
     Touji couldn't really think of anything to say until he got to his shoes, sitting back down on the bench to slip into them.  "...You're doing your best, just like the rest of us.  I can't complain about my performance."
     His brow furrowing in frustration, Kensuke joined him on the bench for the same purpose.  "You have a kill, Touji.  That's all I ask."
     Touji shook his head.  "Yes, I do.  But really, it wasn't mine.  I killed its core, but no way would I have been able to do that without Asuka beating the crap out of it first.  That's not even the point..."
     Kensuke was silent, as he tied his shoes and collected his bag.
     "C'mon," said Touji, shaking his head, "We've got to get you out of the geofront.  You're turning into a real freak.  Feel like basketball?"
     His bespectacled friend gave him a wry smile, and conceded.

* * *

     For a reason far removed from him, Shinji found the sunset ever more spectacular this evening.
     From his vantage point on the balcony, overlooking the city, he watched in awe as the sun began to burrow into steep hills surrounding the city.  It had been a long time since he'd seen his first sunset in Tokyo-3, and quite a lot had happened since then.
     He remembered very well the first time that Misato had driven him to his new home, and she had insisted that they stop at a panoramic spot en route.
     His first remark had been how desolate the city looked, before the skyscrapers had deployed themselves into the evening air before him.  Only a phoenix rising from ash could have appeared so glorious, with the intense bronze and gold light playing off the walls of glass and the forest of polished metal.
     That was the whole purpose of this city, summarized in a single act: death and resurrection, pressed into one, never ending cycle.  Who knew what was trying to be accomplished here?  Perhaps one day, they would reach the point of resurrection, and then fly free from the circle at long last, no longer having to fear death.
     Or, the tangent would stem from the point of death itself, and remain there for all eternity.  And was there yet another way to end this?
     By now, the rise and fall of the buildings were no longer in the forefront of his mind; having seen them run through their motions so many times, Shinji might have become somewhat numb to the stark elegance of a city designed for war.  Perhaps it was because he had approached death himself so often and never reached it.
     This sunset was fairly similar to that one he'd seen first, only the orange hues seemed to lack the harsh, angered intensity he remembered from that first time.  Instead, the shades seemed to feather gently into each other, gradually fading to an intense indigo at the vertex of night's dome.  Already, several stars could be seen there, rivaling and surpassing the lights suspended in that other dome, the geofront.
     Shinji took a moment away from the setting sun to examine those stars, and the chaotic patterns that humans always sought to organize into constellations...  There was certainly something to be said for simplicity.
     He'd never been too interested in the skies before coming here, too caught up in his own world, fighting his demons.  As such, he didn't know where most of the constellations were, or why they were at all, not ever having cared before.  All he saw were stars.
     Slowly, his gaze returned to the sun, no longer impeded by the tall buildings, which had buried themselves in the ground again.  Misato's apartment, their apartment, was half-way up the side of a hill, affording him a broad view among the smaller edifices of the city below.  Even with the sun so low, the shadows were unable to dominate the view everywhere, and long, straight tracks of brilliant light traced their way between the loosely clustered buildings and over the massive gates that protected the fallen skyscrapers.  Other than the infestation of construction cranes, one would have never believed that there had ever been a battle here.
     Then again, one might say that the cranes, the reconstruction, were all part of the greater design, part of the resurrection half of the cycle.
     Shinji let his eyes sweep over the shadowy cloaks on the hills again, never quite resting his eyes on one object or location for very long.  To tell the truth, he had indeed been thinking about something during class in the morning.  His mind was returning to it now, and that may have contributed to the considerably higher level of enjoyment he was deriving from the scene laid out before him.
     For the second time in three months, he'd come within two paces of that very threshold that would have marked his death.  Obviously, every time he climbed into Unit-01 to fight an Angel, he risked this.  However, the Eva itself normally provided sufficient protection that he never really had to fear being physically harmed himself.
     However, there were the two events that ran through his mind, each bearing a certain degree of fear and apprehension with them.  Twice, now, he'd been pulled from a shattered entry plug.
     The first, he couldn't remember directly, having passed out almost immediately upon the impact of the Angel's sledgehammer-blow to the side of his cockpit; certainly severe enough to have made Asuka believe he'd died as a result.
     The second was much more recent, as this last Angel had first torn away the protective cover over the plug, merely exposing it at first.  Then, it had leapt down on him for its second attack, specifically aiming for the relatively small target formed by the top of the plug itself.  After the insertion crane had removed the plug from the Eva's spine, after he himself had been extracted, parts of it had even begun crumbling away.
     The entry plug was essentially a long, thick tube of solid metal.  The amount of force required to crack it, let alone shatter it, was enormous.
     As the sun sank lower into the hilltop, lengthening the shadows all around him, he became aware of a gentle warmth pressing against the side of his bare foot, followed by a hand on his.  Glancing over, he watched as Asuka leaned into the part of the railing next to him.
     "Asuka..."
     "Hmm?"  Asuka, too, was quickly entranced by the sun's descent into the horizon; Shinji reveled for a moment in the quiet warmth as the cicadas chirped into the darkening air.
     "Do...do you think the Angels are trying to kill us?" he finally asked, still looking at the reddening orb over the crest of the hill.
     Momentarily startled, Asuka snapped her head around to stare at him, sending her long train of red flying over her opposite shoulder.  "...Well...  Of course..!  They wouldn't be trying to destroy the city, and we wouldn't have to defend against them, otherwise..."
     Shinji's expression remained static, unperturbed.  "That's not exactly what I meant...  Are they trying to kill us, the pilots?  Look at what happened last week, Asuka.  Like you said, it nearly killed me.  And the time before."  He lapsed into a short silence, replaced in her ears by the steady chant of the cicadas.  Asuka began to open her mouth to speak, but he started again, his voice slightly strained in memory.  "There was the other one, and what it did to you; the one that nearly killed Rei; the one that took Hikari..."
     Asuka found he had a point.  A very good one, at that.
     "...Maybe.  It bothers you, doesn't it?"
     For some reason, Shinji was able to smile.  "A little.  I just don't know what's happening here...  I still don't understand why these supposed messengers from God are here, or what they're trying to do."
     Asuka nodded absently.  In the past, it had been easy to say that the purpose of the Evas, and their pilots, was to defend against these invaders.  It wasn't so easy any more.  Certainly not since the Awakening, anyway.
     After another pause, Shinji found his voice again.  He certainly was being vocal for his reticent personality, this evening.  It wasn't like him to go on like this.  Nonetheless, she couldn't say it bothered her.  It was nice to listen, sometimes.
     "...I...want...to ask you something, Asuka..."
     She only nodded, watching his face, letting him know she was ready.
     "What...would you have done...if...if you were found out one of your friends...was an...Angel?"  Her expression twitched, suddenly troubled by the quality of his voice.
     It didn't really crack, like it did when he was extremely upset or when he had something supernaturally painful on his mind.  Rather, she could only detect a subtle stress that seemed to stem from a place much deeper within him.  She wasn't sure if this meant the question -- phrased rhetorically -- was more serious, or less important.
     "Is this about Touji?" she asked, knowing how hard it had been for him to accept the near-loss of that friend.  Even now, she found herself feeling a little uneasy about having engaged the corrupted Unit-03 herself.
     "No," came the reply, quickly, "it's not.  A person, not an Eva.  Like you or me.  Imagine...imagine one day you wake up to find Hikari...with...an AT field, in NERV headquarters."
     Shock dawned on Asuka's face, highlighted violently by the rays of the setting sun.  For a moment, she was too stunned to say anything.  "What..?  What are you talking about?"
     Shinji looked at her, examined the look on her face, then glanced away, towards the ground.  "...I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have asked.  Just...forget it."
     It had been a long time since then.  Since that death.
     Much like the way Shinji felt about his father, he found himself highly ambivalent about the 17th, about...Kaworu.
     At that time, Kaworu had been the only approachable person he'd known; a complete stranger, and therefore, a chance to start anew.  A final chance to forge an unblemished friendship.  Almost immediately, he'd told Kaworu everything, about his life, about his father, friends.  Pouring out his heart so quickly anyone else would have drowned.
     Something he'd never been able to do for anyone else.  For himself.
     And then, Kaworu had taken all that, and crushed him.  Betrayed him as badly as his father had, twisted him and his feelings for his own purposes -- or those of his superiors, it mattered not.
     And yet, it had taken him nearly an eternity to collapse Unit-01's vice-like hand around his friend and enemy's fragile body, reducing it to a bloody smear against the armour.  Kaworu had said that his was not the life that should perish, moments before leaving this plane of existence himself.
     And why?  If the Angels were here to destroy him, to destroy the others, and wipe humanity of the face of the globe, why did Kaworu do what he did?
     Why didn't Kaworu want him to die?  Why the wild goose chase to Terminal Dogma, the brutally savage duel with the empty shell of Asuka's Eva?
     Why didn't Kaworu kill him, as he had done?  As these newer Angels had attempted?  And if he hadn't met Kaworu before, befriended him, would the Angel have undertaken his destruction without pause or mercy?
     Silence reigned on the balcony, and in his mind.
     Gradually, the cicadas returned to dance at the fringes of his consciousness, and he breathed a sigh and tilted his head to stare at the stars above.
     And shortly thereafter, he felt a fresh warmth against his back, around his waist.  Breath against his ear.  "No, I won't forget...tell me.  What do I do if Hikari's an Angel?"
     He closed his eyes, letting his chin rest against the top of his chest, pulling Asuka's arms tighter around himself.  "Would it be murder if you killed her?"
     Silence, again, but warm.
     "...I don't know, Shinji.  This did happen, right?"
     Asuka read his reply in his silence, yes.  Another Angel, transformed into a demon.  Apparently while she had been...away.
     "I...  Kaworu was the only one who was nice to me, who I could still talk to..!" It was as if he had to defend himself to her, for having been the friend of their common foe.  "He...liked me, despite everything...and I still had to destroy him."
     Gradually, Shinji calmed himself.  Past was past, and there had been no choice.  Still, even having understood the necessity, it remained his burden to wonder if there had been yet another way to end it, avoiding both evils.
     "I just don't understand why he wanted to be my friend, if his goal, their goal, is just to annihilate us.  Why?"
     The sun disappeared, at long last, plunging their world into darkness, illuminated only by the last fading bands of light against the sky and the glittering artificial stars that dotted the city's centre.
     Asuka spoke, finally, not entirely comprehending him, but finding some reason there.  "I don't know...  But...it's not your fault.  If that were true...we'd have...to do it, I guess."  Sincerity marked her words.  She didn't blame him, didn't consider him to be a murderer...just someone forced to pick between two evils.  Best to have picked the lesser, but she felt as if Shinji didn't know which it was.  She decided she couldn't tell either.
     Asuka's voice was now laden with the same tension Shinji's bore.  While her imagination couldn't do justice to the viscereal horror Shinji had inflicted upon the Angel, the mere thought of having to...dispose...of Hikari in such a manner sent a coursing tremor through her entire body.
     Shinji felt it, too, even as far as in her fingertips pressed against the base of his ribs, and as if he had read her mind, he realized how very cruel it had been to force that image into the poor girl's mind.  Damning himself, he turned around to hold her in turn, apologizing profusely and telling her how stupid he'd just been.
     A minute passed, and Asuka realized exactly what had happened, in this moment frozen in time.  She was doing for him what he'd already done for her, taking his burden on her shoulders, aiding him.  And somehow, it felt...good.
     "It's okay...baka," she whispered, barely audible over the growing song of the cicadas around them, "I'm the one who loves you now."
     They almost didn't notice the night sky being rent apart by a thundering stroke of white, spiralling out of the heavens to follow the fallen sun behind the mountains.

* * *

     "Pattern Blue confirmed!  It's an Angel!"
     Shigeru tore onto the bridge just as Yamashita made his announcement.  Already, Masaharu and Arashio were scrambling to activate the hundreds of cameras and sensors in the Angel's immediate vicinity.  Live images flooded the screen, revealing a deep crater in the forests to the west of the Tokyo-3's outer limits.
     Undoubtably, the Angel was to be found therein, as the hellish red glow emanating from its depths attested.
     "Has Commander Fuyutsuki been contacted?" he shouted over the din of the warning sirens, and received several confirmations from the operators around him.  "What about the pilots?"
     "Yes, sir!  All Evas on standby, ready for launch!  Approximate deployment time, thirty-five seconds upon insertion of entry plugs!"
     Shigeru stared up at the screen, where the red glow from within the cavity appeared to be intensifying.
     "Can't we get a visual on the Angel?" he asked, trying to collect as much information as possible, "Where did it come from?"
     The first request could not be fulfilled, the Angel's impact crater having wiped out all the observation cameras that would have been able to establish line of sight to the interior of the crater.  The second, however, was answered for him by Dr. Robertson.
     "It's in a hole that wasn't there before.  Maybe, just maybe, it fell from the sky, Captain."

     Touji had believed he was the first to reach the change rooms, although he wasn't particularly surprised to find Kensuke already half-way into his plug suit, his clothes scattered over the bench and floor.
     "Here we go again," he said, opening his locker to find a brand-new shrink wrapped plug suit waiting for him.  "And it's only been a week since the last one."
     Kensuke said nothing, but dashed off to the Cage as soon as the air inside his suit had been sucked out by the pressure valves, pressing it to his body.
     As he set foot on the umbilical bridge that crossed in front of the Eva's chest, he realized he couldn't feel the thrill of anticipation any more.  Replacing it was a cold, hard determination that demanded he prove himself at last.
     Adjusting his glasses, he took one good, hard look at the silent grey monstrosity that would be his to control...if all went well.  No, it would go well, of this he was certain.
     Despite the delays, he had been successful in finally synchronizing with the beast, and it wouldn't fail him now.  This battle was his to take.  If he didn't kill the Angel this time, he would at least find himself of some use to the others.
     Finally, he turned, and headed to the place where his entry plug had been prepared for him.  As the hatch closed over him, and he removed his glasses to wait for the Eva to correct his myopia, he thought he saw one of the technicians salute him.
     Maybe that anticipation would spark and come to life again.

     "I can do it, sir!  I will!"
     Dr. Robertson rolled his eyes in response to Hikari's disembodied voice.  Once again, Shigeru found himself answering.  "For the last time, Hikari: we are denying your request.  You will remain in the medical facility for the duration of the battle.  We can't risk deploying a pilot in your condition!"
     "Sir..!"  There was a note of disappointment and frustration in the girl's voice, and for a moment, Arashio wasn't sure whether or not to encourage Shigeru or Hikari in their attempts to sway the other.
     Shigeru said nothing more, and cut the connection.  There was something very strange about the way Hikari was reacting to her orders.  He'd thought he might have found her reacting with relief that she would not be used in the upcoming battle, much as Touji had before his first actual combat with a real Angel.
     "Who can fathom a woman's mind?" asked Dr. Robertson, turning back to look at the screens scrolling past at Yamashita's station.
     He shook his head, bringing himself back to the current status of the Angel.  "Any movement?"
     Masaharu shook his head.  "No, sir.  It appears to be waiting for us."
     "Good.  It's fairly distant, but not so far as to warrant the use of the transport planes.  What's the nearest surface gate to the Angel's location?"
     "There's a mountainside portal less than three kilometers away from the impact site.  We can deploy the Evas in groups of two there."

     Shigeru's last orders echoed around Touji's head as Unit-14 and himself began a relatively leisurely deployment towards the surface.  This certainly was not a normal launch.  They were to stand off until orders were given to attack; Captain Shigeru had stated that they didn't know enough about the Angel to formulate any real plan.
     He could hear Kensuke over the open communication lines, arguing that they should press the attack, since the Angel wasn't doing anything.  Captain Shigeru, however, had stopped responding a while ago, and, to Touji, at least, it seemed like Kensuke was talking to air.
     Shinji and Asuka, on the other hand, were calm, almost distant, as the distance-to-surface counter hit the three-hundred meter mark on his HUD.  Everything Kensuke said seemed to wash past them without registering.
     Geez, thought Touji, am I the only normal person here?
     From Unit-16's position just south of the access portal where the Evas had emerged, Kensuke could see the plowed ridges of debris and rocks that marked the outer limit of the Angel's crater.  Within glowed an unearthly crimson light, that played off the scorched sides of the depression and reflected off the sky, overwhelming the light of the stars in places.
     A holographic window played in front of him, displaying the satellite image of the crater, a dark eye in a sea of green, with a bright red pupil.  Other than the core that had struck the ground mere minutes ago, there was no sign of the rest of the Angel.  The solution seemed incredibly simple: charge down into the crater and plunge his knife deep into the creature's power source, killing it.
     Almost as if it sensed his need to proceed further, his frustration at being held back and unable to lunge forward and carry the battle to the invader, his Eva's right leg twitched, lifting slightly off the ground and moving forward a step.  And yet, it had been his command.
     Almost immediately, he was admonished by Captain Shigeru, whose communications window winked into existence next to him.
     "Stand down, Kensuke.  We're waiting for further analys..."
     And promptly winked out again, leaving only silence in the dark entry plug.
     What the hell..?

     "What the hell?  What's going on?!"
     Error messages scrolled upwards across the main screen of the Command Centre, filling the room with a dark, orange light.  All the camera images were replaced by static, and the links to the pilots disappeared.  Shortly thereafter, even these clouded images went out with the lights, leaving the entire staff in the dark, save the monitors from which the crew worked.
     "Trace in progress, sir!  Melchior and Caspar are reporting external malfunctions that are defying standard operating procedures!"
     "Not now!  Is it the Angel?!"
     Dr. Robertson shook his head in the dark.  "No.  If only you could just calm yourselves down and think, for once...  If it were the Angel, it'd be jumping numerous lines of defense without regard for its own safety.  It would be a suicide run.  Look, we have Evas deployed near the Angel.  If they attacked us here, it would be over."
     Masaharu's fingers practically flew over the keyboard, searching what little he could access for clues to this untimely failure of the world's most powerful and independent computer system ever constructed.
     "We can't tell!  We have no external data!  All the lines are blocked or inoperative!"
     Suddenly a simplified diagram of the MAGI's modem lines came up on his screen, and he understood precisely what the problem was.
     "All of Balthazar's outgoing lines are in use!  It's Balthazar!"
     The rest of the bridge crew stared at him, unbelieving.
     "Didn't we fix that last time it happened?  I thought we wiped all the memory!" shouted Arashio in the darkness, not wanting to believe the apparent cause.
     Even Dr. Robertson looked slightly surprised, although there was no bafflement to be found on his face.  After a few seconds of intense thought, he walked over to the access ladder to the lower level.
     "Give me ten minutes," he said, then disappeared over the edge.

     An error tone sounded discordantly in Touji's cockpit.
     Lost and confused as he already was, it was all he could do not to panic when the power line from NERV headquarters suddenly cut out, and his battery monitor began counting backwards from five minutes.
     Automatically, the umbilical cord behind him ejected, falling heavily to the ground.  A fraction of a second before it touched down, it fired a pair of jets, slowing the multi-ton projectile enough so as not to damage the inner components.
     Tapping the communications control as he always had, he was surprised to find it only responded with an alert window informing him that there no longer was a connection, even to the overhead satellites.
     "What do we do now?" he shouted to the small amber windows around him.  "We've been cut off from the Command Centre!"
     Asuka spoke first.  "You two Stooges, shut down your Evas.  We'll find some way to beat this thing on our own if we have to."
     "Just you and Shinji?" asked Kensuke, looking and sounding outraged.  "Hell, no!"
     "What are you, stupid?  You're running on battery power!  If you want to waste all that energy before we come up with a plan, you're welcome to be the paperweight!"
     Kensuke looked from the other Evas, and the already darkening eyes of Unit-14, back to the basin in front of him.  He felt his entire being in the iron grip that was pulling him towards the intense bloody glow at the centre of the crater, one that would not release him, ever.
     This was his chance...had been his chance.
     Still was.
     "Shut down, already!  You've got less than four minutes of activation time left!"
     Asuka's pitched, harsh voice rang hard in his ears.  Telling him to sacrifice himself to waiting again, to lose this Angel.  Even if it would be an easy victory, against an Angel without a body or AT field, it would be one he could claim.
     Shinji joined his girlfriend, exhorting him to follow her advice.  "C'mon, Kensuke...she's right, you know..."
     Still was his chance.
     "No," he whispered, staring into the pit, into the darkness, "she's not..."
     The silence was torn by the synchronized yell of Eva and pilot, and Unit-16 launched itself through the darkness, over the trees, leaping out of sight into the Angel's lair.
     Shinji could only watch as a sudden sense of dread pierced him like a frigid winter wind before the blizzard.  "Kensuke!" he shouted, Unit-01 almost throwing itself after his friend, if not for Asuka's steadying hand on his Eva's arm.
     Touji saw him go, too, saw the immense cloud of sand and dust thrown into the air by Unit-16's landing, heard the rumble of its slide down the steep slope inside the caldera.
     The Angel manifested itself, at long last.  Its vast, buried body rose out of the ground like the roots of a massive, uprooted tree, thousands of individual arms shooting out of the ground as one dense curtain of armoured flesh.
     They heard Kensuke shout a curse at the Angel, then the unmistakable hum of a progressive knife slashing the air.  The Angel let out a short scream of pain, but the wall of tentacles collapsed over Unit-16, enfolding it from all sides.
     By now, Unit-14 had reactivated, and joined the others at the crater's edge, staring in as Unit-16 was caught in the Angel's impenetrable web.  They never saw the flash and smoke that would have been indicative of the entry plug ejecting, only the silent, hulking, overgrown mass that was Kensuke's grey Eva.
     "Why isn't he ejecting?  What's wrong?" Touji shouted, looking down on the scene as one of the Angel's many branches began growing over the armour plate protecting the entry plug itself, permanently blocking any chance of escape.

     Static filled the screens around Kensuke as the last of his reserve battery power cut out, cutting off the synchronization and leaving him in the dark.
     Ever so gradually, it dawned on him that he'd just done something so impulsive and childish as to be not only futile, but also possibly complicating the task of destroying the Angel for those who had the capacity to do it.
     What he'd never had.
     He ignored the ejection handle, the long red lever inlaid in the steel surface before him, and sat quietly as the HUD disappeared from his view, replaced only by the blurry, uncorrected world of an entry plug bereft of use.
     Like himself.
     Useless.

* * *

     The first error message blinked off, coinciding with the normalization of the first of Balthazar's protocols.
     After what seemed like forever, a second followed.  And then, in groups of twos and threes, the second MAGI began returning to normal, accelerating its repair processes until the error messages disappeared at an exponential rate.  And as the last message cleared to a blank, the main screen in the Command Centre returned to its previous command, displaying the scene to the west of Tokyo-3.
     Only two Evas stood at the rim of the circular chasm the Angel had created, one kneeling, the other upright.  There was no sign of the other two, save Unit-16's entry plug in Unit-01's hand, and Unit-14's nearby on the ground, parachute deployed.
     Still quite unnerved by the MAGI's failure and unsure of whether or not further manipulation would plunge them back into darkness, Arashio began typing in the command line to switch the view to the satellite feed.
     At first, the image showed a broad, overall view of the lands around the city, and the depression itself was visible only as a minor blemish on the map.  Subsequent magnifications and processing cleared the picture.
     Standing despite the thousands of fleshy protrusions that covered it like a coat of mail, Unit-16 was dead, no longer powered by its battery.  Likewise, Unit-14 stood behind it, one hand still outstretched in a throw that had twisted its torso around.
     Even from above, the bridge crew could see the first of the Angel's tendrils growing around the black Eva's legs, wrapped around the legs and feet.
     Climbing over the emergency ladder back onto the bridge, Dr. Robertson shook his head in dismay.  "You give them a direct order, and of course, they're going to ignore it.  Children."
     Images of the 16th Angel ran through Shigeru's head.  "Is it trying to fuse with the Evas?  What's it doing?"
     Masaharu shook his head.  "No, sir.  It...appears to be secreting enzymes and acid.  It's trying to digest them."
     "If we destroy it within the next six hours, there will still be enough for us to repair, sir," added Yamashita, "I don't think it should be a problem."
     Still, noted Shigeru quietly to himself, we are going to have to figure out what happened out there.  And what the hell happened to Balthazar?  Again...

* * *

     Less than a few hundred meters from the edge of the depression where Units-15 and 16 were slowly being consumed, a squadron of tanks came to a stop on the broken ground, forming a rough semi-circle around the two abandoned entry plugs that lay on the ground.  One was half-covered in nylon chute that had brought it to earth, the other, slightly deformed by the hand of the monstrous weapon that had caught it in mid-flight.
     As the recovery vehicles parked just behind them, their cranes preparing to lift the two entry plugs onto their flatbeds, soldiers and medics disembarked to locate the two pilots, who, hopefully, were uninjured.
     They found one attempting to wrench open the other's emergency egress hatch.
     "Kensuke!" he shouted, pushing the stubborn lever another ten or fifteen degrees, finally, wrenching the bolts out of place.  The hatch twisted on its fractured hinges, dropping a handful of torn metal into the wave of LCL that flooded out of the hatch.  "...Hey...you okay?"
     Touji felt someone's hand on his shoulder, and he turned to find it was one of the doctors.
     "Yeah..," came an extremely tired voice from within, catching both Touji's attention and that of the medic, both listening for any sign of any abnormality, "...I'm fine.  Give me a minute..."
     "Sorry, kid," the medic interrupted, asking Touji if he could move out of the way with a gesture, "we don't have a minute.  They tell me they're going to be deploying the other two Evas here again soon, and we need to be in the safety area.  I'm going to check you out, then we evacuate.  Okay?"
     "...Figures," muttered Kensuke, sitting up in his command chair.
     Touji was led away by a platoon of soldiers to a waiting armoured vehicle.

* * *

     A reverberating rumble filled the air around the gargantuan transport plane as it heaved its weighty frame into the sky, trailing its massive, humanoid cargo behind it.
     Immediately behind it lumbered another, carrying a similar mass from the two cranes mounted in its belly.
     In the fifteen minutes since they'd been ordered to pull back, the MAGI, now cooperating properly, had performed a rapid analysis of Unit-01 and 02's logs.  It had been determined that the defensive web that made up its body was most effective in warding off or trapping lateral attacks, and would be considerably easier to penetrate from above.
     Of course, a simultaneous drop onto the same, tiny target had never been attempted before, so there was a certain risk factor involved in Shigeru's suggestion.  Nevertheless, it was feasible, and the probability of success, given the respective records of both Shinji and Asuka, was higher still than many of the plans proposed by Major Katsuragi.  Put concisely, the two pilots had faced worse odds and won.
     "Implementing course correction for wind deviation," announced the pilots of the massive aircraft, turning slightly into the wind.
     And now, after completing a wide turning loop over the Pacific Ocean, the transports aligned themselves as closely as they felt was possible without risking disaster, and dropped the Evas.
     There was a hard lurch in Shinji's stomach, followed by nothing as Unit-01 entered a long, graceful freefall, merely a few hundred meters away from the falling Unit-02.  In perfect time with each other, they adjusted themselves so that they began drifting together.  The distance between each Eva and the ground shrank in a few short seconds, leaving the pilots little time to bring their own AT fields to bear against the Angel's.
     With a deafening crash, the massive barriers of energy slammed into each other, creating a brilliant storm of light as the invisible obstacles annulled each other, followed by the thunder of the two massive creatures smashing into the twice-pumelled earth.
     The Angel reached up its branches to meet them, to enfold and envelop them as it already had the two others, but too late.
     Even as the first droplets of acid began to mist over the two attackers, their knifes were already buried in the monster's core, their harmonic vibrations shattering the brittle matter that made up the Angel's heart.  The core itself began to glow a bright white, blinding Shinji and Asuka seconds before the entire being detonated, combusting in a brilliant display of self-immolation.
     And as the light faded, the last of NERV's two remaining Evas shut down, their concealed cores dimming beneath the hundreds of plates of armour.
     Finally, kneeling amidst the devastation, their souls were released into the night, to sit at their feet.

     In a slightly ungainly manner, Shinji pulled himself up onto the large rock that sat between the two Evas.  Asuka, who was already sitting there, offered him a hand to help himself up, then waited for him to get comfortable.
     "Hey, dummkopf...  I was just thinking about everything you said this evening...  Looks like it all worked out after all."
     Shinji looked up, between the dark Evas on either side, to the sliver of sky that could be seen between the shoulder mounts.  They were still too close to the city, and the night sky took on a nearly rosy hue that obscured all the trillions of stars he knew were there, having seen them once before.
     "What..?" he replied, not paying full attention.
     "It didn't try to kill one of us, this time..," she said, wrapping her gloved hand around his.  "...and I don't think they'll ever be able to."
     Shinji turned to her, looking for her brilliant eyes in the gloom.  "You think so, huh..."
     It wasn't until the lights of the landing helicopters illuminated her face that he found them in the pitch of night, but that never stopped him from looking.