EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 30: The Seventh Child / Clytemnestra Forewarned

     Kensuke Aida slowly panned his eyes across the classroom, pausing for a second on each of the seats normally occupied by his friends.  Well, sort of.  He supposed the class rep and demon-girl were his friends, too, by association.  Of those he considered his true friends, there was Touji, whose chair was empty, and Shinji just beyond.  All were pilots, leaving him the only one in the group who wasn't.
     Of course, that didn't mean he didn't know what was going on at NERV.  Far from it.  It was difficult for him not to overhear sensitive information when his father, a science section head, was talking about it over the phone or with his grandfather.  So what if he couldn't read lips or fine-tune his hearing like a real spy?  He still managed to put a lot of effort into learning more and more about the wondrous androids named Evangelion.
     But at the same time, he often found his information to be seriously lacking.  In the waning months of the last year, the secrecy and silence that had suddenly sprung up like a dense cloud of fog around NERV had isolated him, and destroyed all hope of continuing his activities.  When none of the pilots had come to school for several weeks, he was only able to conclude that the situation was getting 'really serious'.
     And now, after the wonderfully helpful confusion that had followed Third Impact and the reconstruction of NERV, that veil was descending again.  From what he'd been able to gather, there were now external spies that had recently infiltrated the organization.  Meaning even his amateur activities would have to stop, if he didn't want to get caught by the heavy investigations currently in progress.
     Still, there was that part of him that refused to give it up.  And it was doing what it always did, trying to learn as much as it could.
     Touji was absent.  From the attitudes of the others, it didn't look like he was fully healthy.  And of course, the last Angel would have had something to do with that.  Somehow, the last time the city was ordered to evacuate to their shelters, the Angel was already descending, triggering a general panic on the roads as the populace rushed for safety.
     Shinji and Asuka didn't look too worried, a good sign, since their experience with the Evas would have taught them when an injury was truly serious.  Nevertheless, the way Shinji kept glancing sideways at Touji's desk meant there was still something not quite right.
     Demon-girl had received a message on her computer two hours after the beginning of class, and she'd looked up and over at the class rep, indicating to Kensuke who it had come from.  She didn't look too concerned about Touji, but when was she ever?
     Finally, there was the class rep herself.  She'd arrived with fairly dark circles under her eyes only seconds ahead of the teacher, not quite up to her usual standard of early punctuality.  Her infatuation with the currently injured class clown and sports buff was well-known, apparently even before Kensuke had finally gotten wind of it.  It was surprising, but he'd finally managed to spot the signs, and wondered why he hadn't seen them before.  That seemed to be the cause of her recent state.
     He decided it was kind of funny that NERV would have picked these four -- and Rei, he reminded himself -- to be pilots when only a single one of them seemed to have any pride in doing it.  Shinji, he knew, had never wanted to do it in the first place; when Touji had gotten angry with him for hurting his sister, Shinji had said he'd been forced.  There was Rei, who was never enthused about anything.  Touji didn't seem too enthusiastic about his windfall either, but that was understandable, seeing as how he'd been hurt really badly before this.  And then class rep, who'd slowly become less and less healthy-looking since she'd started.  Demon-girl was the only one who thought that piloting Eva was a good thing, from what he could tell.  And that, too, might have changed, given that she wasn't berating Shinji every time she opened her mouth, and had since become his girlfriend.
     Why couldn't they have picked me?  he asked himself, Even if I'm not the best candidate, at least I would have tried hard!
     But Eva was, as always, the unreachable dream he was going to have to give up sooner or later.

* * *

     Touji woke up in the darkened hospital room, coming to the sudden realization that his chest no longer burned with the same intensity it used to.  The feeling in his arms seemed to have returned fully, as well.  He risked sitting upright on the mattress.  As he did so, a powerful ache spread across his ribcage, and he clenched his eyelids and jaw to fight the pain.  After it subsided, he inhaled deeply, as if daring it to return, filling his lungs to their fullest capacity, and wincing again as his body protested.
     He let himself slump against his knees, finding that this was the best way to be sitting to avoid the agony.  Then, willing his hurting muscles to move, he slid across the bed, threw the sheets aside, and stood on the cold floor, flexing his toes.  He took another deep breath, and found that the pain there was losing intensity as well.
     Encouraged by this development, he took a step forwards, then another, until he reached the door.  He was pleasantly surprised to find that he could identify the texture of the door handle only by touching it.  Smiling a little, he twisted it clockwise and opened the door.
     Light streamed in from the hallway, and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to it.  Just down the hall, he spotted the nurses' station.  I need to call Mari.  Tell her I'm okay.  What time is it?
     He looked around for a clock, and found it, hanging over the head nurse's desk.  It read a quarter past one, meaning his sister would not have gotten home from school for at least another few hours.  When would they send someone to tell him he could leave?

* * *

     A cold wind ravaged the storm-swept Kola Peninsula with a ferocity normally found only above the arctic circle.  The peninsula itself had once been above that line.  No longer.  Second Impact had knocked the earth's axis so far to the side that the pole now found itself closer to Reykjavik than it did to Alert Bay.
     "This goddamn project is just going to bring this godforsaken country closer to bankruptcy than it already is."  A taller, bearded man, swathed in so many layers of clothing that his face and body shape were almost impossible to make out, turned and agreed with his co-worker.
     "Hmm.  We kill ourselves out here in the bloody cold for two and a half months..."
     "Not to mention that bit when everyone was really confused for a while..," threw in the first man, quickly.
     "And then they make us stay here longer so we can wait for the weather to clear up.  Given our luck so far, it never will."
     The other man grunted his assent.  Wasted words only made you colder, here.
     "Oh, what the hell.  Authorise the take-off.  I doubt anything less than a supernova could endanger these planes anyways.  Who here gives a damn, anyways?"

     Two hours later, in an enormous underground hangar, the final stages of the airlift assembly were being put together.  Normally, the Evas were transported by the shoulder struts, attached to a pair of extensible rails.  Unfortunately, a pilot was needed to correctly maneuver the big humanoids into them correctly.  So, for unmanned transport, they needed to be practically welded to an enormous cross-shaped transport container once they could be removed from cryostasis.
     Which was happening now.  Slowly, the Eva, its arms already outstretched, was being lifted up into the indentation in the huge crucifix that conformed to the Eva's back.  The hundreds of cranes positioned around the pool protested with a metallic screeching as they were pushed to their limits by the immense weight with which they were contending.
     Cautions were shouted from supervisors to the operators, as, finally, the Eva was eased into its berth and secured.  The transport container, no small weight in its own right, could be moved along a set of thick iron beams that ran across the ceiling of the facility.  These were each no less than ten feet thick, and could easily support the mass affixed to them.
     Finally, there were the enormous dollies, wheeled struts that could be attached to crucial points around the open-fronted cross, designed so that the Eva could be dragged face down during takeoff without damaging it or slowing down the aircraft.
     After all the checks were cleared, the enormous grey container was finally linked to the aircraft, an enormous metal manta with a wingspan of several hundred meters.  Its enormous engines rumbled to life, throwing back a wash of superheated air which instantaneously melted the hard-packed snow.  Heavy winds threatened three times to throw it off balance, but the pilot corrected skillfully each time, and the gigantic machine rose ungracefully into the air, dragging its cargo behind it.

* * *

     Shinji crumpled up his third idea for the literature essay and dropped it into the garbage can.  Nothing seemed to be quite normal in the apartment since the battle with the last Angel.  Well, as normal as things could be here, for him.
     The aura of crushing despair Hikari had been exuding over the past week had started to affect everyone.  Asuka didn't seem to manage being cheerful quite as often as usual, he himself couldn't concentrate hard enough to get much housework or homework done, and even Pen-Pen had been driven to consuming more of Misato's beer than was typical of the barely alcoholic penguin.
     He began idly tapping away at his keyboard, less and less interested in finishing the book the essay was supposed to be about.  Unable to think, he finally shut it off and got up, taking the penguin's empty can with him.
     Asuka stepped out of the common area into the kitchen, sighing heavily.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, dumping the can into the recyclables bin.
     "Hikari.  Again.  She just won't tell me what."  Asuka opened the fridge, and took out a diet drink.
     Shinji sat down again at the end of the table, and watched quietly as she drank down the first half of the can.  He wasn't sure why, but Asuka had seemed more than a little troubled since the last Angel.  He wasn't concerned purely out of curiosity, he'd managed to figure that much out for himself.  After all, she'd frequently seemed out-of-sorts before, and that had never really piqued his interest this much.  No, not until recently had he ever been so worried about this girl who'd always been fully able to take care of herself in any situation.
     He was surprised that he could care so much about anything.  Nonetheless, he couldn't bring himself to take the initiative and ask, even though he couldn't think of a valid reason not to either.
     He shrugged unhappily and stared into his tea, watching the leaves float around in the miniature whirlpool.
     Asuka, too, had noticed that Shinji had been more reserved than he was usually was, and it reminded her of what she had initially thought about his hesitation to attack the last Angel.  She imagined that his ordeal in the shadow Angel's inter-dimensional body might have been similar to her own at the hands of the 15th, and that its physical similarity to the last one might have caused it.  Always more curious and forward than he was, she wanted desperately to ask him why he hadn't acted when he was supposed to.  But at the same time, she wasn't sure how she could do so without being too personal or probing.  She was actually surprised to realize that it hadn't occurred to her to ask earlier.  After all, she did know what had happened in her case, and if it were the same situation for him, did she want to risk bringing it back to him?
     Shinji had never really avoided personal questions before, usually answering with some degree of detail, but to ask one now seemed far too intrusive and disruptive for the current state of affairs.  Which she wanted to maintain at all costs.
     She decided on the indirect approach.
     "And what's the matter with you?" she asked, putting her drink down on the table with a diminuitive clink.
     "Oh..."  Shinji's silent introspective collapsed like a house of cards as her inquisitive tone crossed over into his consciousness.  Again, the concern that had so thrown him off the first time did it again, even though it had slowly become less and less uncommon and should not have been startling.  But still, if he answered her question, it would force his into the light.  This opposition initiated an inward panic, and the old evasiveness kicked in out of reflex.  "...Nothing," he replied, kicking himself as he did so.  Why did I say that?
     Asuka was surprised Shinji had tried to dodge even such a simple question.  In any case, it only confirmed her suspicions that something was on his mind after all.
     "I know you better than that, dummkopf," she smiled, and reached in what she thought was a somewhat reassuring manner across the table with one hand.  "What is it?"
     To Asuka's mild surprise and satisfaction, Shinji didn't shy away from her for once.  His hand tensed slightly, and remained that way, but he did not take it away.
     "I...well...er..."
     Shinji knew what he wanted to ask, but still he stumbled a little, unsure of why he could still be so unnerved by her.  It was the simplest of questions anyone could ask, but he'd never felt as panicked as this since their first exchange during that first week.  His hand wanted desperately to pull itself back, break contact and end the conversation before it began, but he knew that was not what he, Shinji, wanted to do.
     She couldn't have known what he was thinking, what he wanted to ask, but to him, it seemed like she was offering him the chance to peer in at her unguarded, defenseless soul.  At the same time, the fact that she was interested in what was troubling him was warming, but to tell her would also mean that she, too, would get a glimpse inside him.  After a few long seconds of nervous silence, he forced himself to get it out.
     "You...um...didn't seem like yourself, Asuka...after..," here he paused, and looked back at the tabletop, wondering if this was really such a good idea after all, "...you know...the last Angel..."  Shinji knew he was opening a door to a room whose contents were probably none of his business, but he was strangely proud of himself for getting through the simple, almost idiotic statement in its entirety.  Now, maybe, he could get on with the question part.  His being able to make even a superficially personal comment emboldened him, and he continued, determined to get the monosyllabic interrogative out as well.  Which he did, making him even happier with himself.  His eyes came back up towards her timidly.  "Why?"
     Asuka reared back slightly, slight surprise forming itself on her face, but she didn't withdraw her hand.  It was certainly not what she had expected, that he had actually been worrying about her all this time, and not about whatever might have happened to him before.  In any case, he'd managed to trash all of her original speculation in one stroke.  It was good to know that she took precedence in his mind.
     Shinji was now seriously doubting the wisdom of what he'd just done.  An apology welled up in the back of his mind, and was rapidly making its way to his mouth.
     Asuka, on the other hand, was still marveling at what she'd just learned.
     "...I mean...if..."
 She realized she must have been staring at him funny, because he looked ready to bolt like a jackrabbit.  The wrong move, and he just might, she thought.  She held his hand a little tighter, to hold him back, then added her other hand to that task, just in case.  Trying not to move too quickly, she leaned as far forwards as she dared.  It was like trying to catch a squirrel.  Since it doesn't know what you're going to do, it watches nervously, waiting to see if you'll pounce on it.
     But what he'd said of her was true, too.  She had been suffering recently from her memories again.  Not those of her distant past, of her failed childhood and the reasons for it: those were no longer as heavy or pressing on her, and she was learning to live with them.  What still bothered her were those recollections more recent, and more distinct that Hikari had inadvertently brought to mind.  She'd eschewed trying to ignore them, trying to bury them, to forget them.  This time, she'd have to face them.  She wanted to.  But that didn't necessarily mean by herself.
     "I...Shinji...what do you remember about...the day of...Third Impact?"
 Her eyes were a little wider now, open and honest.  Shinji found he liked that look.
 As for her question: too much, he decided.  "Not a lot," he answered.
     "Did you see the Eva Series?"
     Another memory sprang to mind.  The sun, brilliantly shining overhead, and the silhouetted but clear shapes of seven? eight? winged forms all clutching two-pronged weapons of a twisted helix design, and, in their mouths and strangely limp arms, the tattered, torn and bloody remnants of an Eva, as barely recognizable as it was obviously Unit-02.  And what should have been Asuka's too early death.
     He started in sudden comprehension, however inadequate, of the pain she must have suffered.  He knew for sure now that this particular question had not been a good idea, and found it impossible to look directly at her for very long.
     "I..."
     Asuka knew she'd just seen something straight out of Shinji's heart, and found that the only appropriate response she could think of was to wait for him to do something.  It felt good to be able to share this, because it seemed to alleviate some of the weight it placed on her shoulders.  She thought it might be a little cruel to make Shinji help carry it, but that he could understand had its own advantages.  She barely managed to notice that his hand wasn't stiff anymore before he spoke again.
     "I'm sorry," he said, looking back to her from the now still tea leaves.
     "That's okay," she said, even though it sounded a little trite to her own ears.

     Hikari watched silently from the shadows of the living room with Pen-Pen in her arms as Asuka coaxed Shinji into kissing her by placing the palm of one hand on his cheek.
     Saying nothing, she returned to her room, and sat down at her desk, resolved not to think of anything but the half-finished essay on The Tale of Genji that the teacher had assigned a few days earlier.
     Pen-Pen squawked sympathetically from his seat on her lap.

* * *

     "I'm sorry, sir.  I just can't stay here any longer."
     Fuyutsuki was certainly regretful.  Dr. Masaharu was more than competent, but she, like him, was getting on in years.  "The quality of your work certainly has not suffered as much as you say it has, I don't believe.  It's still remniscent of your original research."
     The old woman smiled somewhat crookedly.  "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but that's not what's bothering me.  I just can't do this any more.  And I'm sure you already know how much I've been forced to bend my own principles to be here, working for NERV.  This is going to be my second retirement."
     Fuyutsuki opened his mouth to say more, but she held up her hand.  "With your permission, sir.  I'm here because you were desperate enough to call back an old woman to a world she left a long time ago.  I'm here because I remember everything you did for me when we were still studying.  But since then, I've discovered a lot of things about the science and those who advance it that I didn't like.  And I'm not liking it any more now than I did in the '80s, and when I decided to quit in 1990.  I dare say you were the last decent scientist I ever met.
     "And I told you when I came I was only temporary, until you got everything running again."
     Fuyutsuki nodded, smiling understandingly as he finally conceded defeat.  "All right," he said, "I'll accept your resignation.  But on one condition.  No, two."
     "And those would be..?"
     "First, I need you to select a successor.  Pick whoever you think is best suited for the job.  I'll take your word for it as an old friend."
     "Go on."
     "Also as an old friend: what do you honestly think about all this?  About NERV, the Evas?"
     Dr. Masaharu threw back her head and laughed.  "Where do I begin?  First of all, I don't know where SEELE was coming from sending old Katsuragi to the South Pole.  I suppose now that the Angels are here, we don't have a choice but to field the Evas, and those poor children.  I don't like it at all."  She smiled as a month's worth of impressions poured forth freely.  "I don't like what I've heard about Ikari or her husband, even though Shinji's a nice kid.  And I don't think you're in the right place.  I can't imagine you joining a group like this out of your own free will."
     Fuyutsuki savored the honesty, something he'd had very little taste of for so many years.  "Thank you.  And I didn't come here on my own.  I did get dragged into it kicking and screaming."  Well, that much was true.  Gendou had somewhat coerced him into joining Gehirn, but it had truly been Yui's presence here that had forced his hand.  She was ambitious and smart, but he'd been worried that his most prized student might make a wrong choice, go too far.  And he'd been right.  "Sort of."
     "I thought so," said Dr. Masaharu, one eyebrow raised.
     There was a calm silence for a while.
     Fuyutsuki leaned forwards on his desk.  "Still tending your bonsais?"
     Dr. Masaharu smiled.  "Of course.  You're still playing shoji, I presume.  More thought, less admiration involved."
     "True enough.  But I tried to admire something, once.  I just ended up thinking about it."
     The smile didn't fade.  "You'll find one day that you'll just want to walk away from all the thinking.  You'll see.  I'll have a successor picked by the end of the week."

* * *

     "I believe we are looking at a particularily exploitable opportunity," intoned a voice in the darkness, tinted with a malevolent-sounding accent at the same time as it was twisted by a secretive distortion.
     "Indeed.  This will give us the chance to have Moses join Aaron."  Even in this most exclusive of meetings, the two agents SEELE was employing were still referred to by their coded designations.  Their role was of significant enough importance to warrant even that level of secrecy.  Only one of the twelve knew who their true identities were.
     "Then Aaron will be informed of his new task."
     The council's voices were somber, as they always were, but this new development opened hundreds of doors of possibilities, diversifying what strategy they would be able to employ to bring down NERV.  Their spirits were buoyed up by this turn of events, as it was another stepping stone that promised to bring them closer to their lofty goal.
     "Do we have a fix on Moses?" asked one.
     "Yes.  He is currently posted with the branch in Britain.  He will be informed if Aaron is successful."
     "Aaron's close association with the departing Dr. Masaharu has certainly proved to be a most worthwhile and helpful relationship that has furthered our efforts greatly.  He has certainly been able to accomplish more for us than we have asked of him."
     "Even if he was slightly misguided last time, he is most valuable."

* * *

     Touji was slumped in his chair at the back of the class as usual, trying not to look like he was paying too much attention to what was going on at the front.  Hikari was engaged in a quiet, one-sided conversation with the teacher.  It appeared she was having difficulties getting a word in edge-wise, but even when she did, it was to no avail.
     Finally, after several minutes that Touji imagined had to be very embarrassing, what with the entire class waiting for the course to begin, Hikari returned to her seat, stony-faced, but looking a little emotionally worn.  Touji also noticed that the circles she now bore beneath her eyes had darkened somewhat over the days since he'd returned from the hospital.
     Using the cursor, he dragged down the message menu, and opened a new line to Hikari.  [Hey, class rep.  What was all that about?]
     There was a pause as Hikari looked up and around for the source of the message.  Touji lifted two fingers and waved at her.  She caught the signal and turned back towards her screen, as if she was still taking notes.
     [He wanted to know if I thought I could still be class representative.]
     Touji was shocked.  The teacher had actually decided that Hikari, the most studious and dedicated member of the school, might not be fit any longer to be the class rep?  Over a three-day absence that was the result of a failed Eva test?  Incredible.  He knew it couldn't have been more than a warning, but it was still obviously troubling for her.  It didn't make any sense.
     [That sucks.  I'm sorry.]
     And then, strangely, her answer: [Thank you.]

* * *

     Shinji watched from his Eva's command chair as Unit-16 was stabilized and brought to cryostasis.  Unit-01 was undergoing the same procedure, used as a preparation for scientific evaluation.  As a matter of fact, so were Unit-02, Unit-14 and Unit-15.
     Shinji leaned back into the command chair, hands loosely holding the control handles.  I wonder who the new pilot will be?  Do we know them?  He also wondered, idly, why even more Evas were being brought in.
     Slowly, he came to the realization that he no longer minded the bloody smell of the LCL that drifted through his nostrils with every breath.  It was still as...comfortable, if that was the word, as it was before, but he did notice that he felt more at ease.
     Beneath him, the core and chest armour had been repaired.  Being inorganic, they were easier to recreate than other parts of the Eva.  Unit-02's arm had been replaced, but only Unit-14's right arm was fully regenerated.  The black Eva's left shoulder was still covered with a metal cap.
     Normally, when the Evas were put in cryostasis, Shinji slept through the long and tedious affair, as Asuka was undoubtedly doing now, probably even listening to something she'd brought along.  This time, he didn't feel like it was possible.
     Are you still here, mother?  He reached up with one neoprene-beta covered hand to the invisible ceiling of the entry plug, obscured behind the image of the exterior the Eva superimposed on his sense of sight.  As his hand touched it, the image rippled and distorted a little as his brain attempted to sort out the conflicting information.  Wisely, he drew his hand back.
     Or did you leave  from here?  He waited in perfect silence, unwilling to even think for fear of drowning out any response, for almost five minutes.
     In the end, he gave up, sure he wasn't going to get an answer either way.  I guess I can't expect anything, anyways.  Thank you, mother, wherever you are.  His mind continued to drift unchecked.  This was like the bath, when the worst or most ambiguous memories would come back to him, as he had nothing to distract his mind.  Some of the most recent images, salient to the Third Impact, rejoined him.  The last time he had seen Rei, likely never again, and everything that had happened there, in that...limbo.  Ending, finally, with a scene he would have preferred to wipe out of his memory forever.
     Instead, he tried to concentrate on a different recollection, preferably something from the most immediate past, but the ones he didn't want made a point of persisting as long as possible, drowning out his efforts to clear them from his consciousness.
     He leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes, hoping someone would tell him he could leave soon, before he was tormented too much longer.

* * *

     Kensuke was alone at home when the doorbell rang.  Figuring there was no way the door would open itself, he pried himself away from his gaming console and answered it.
     The door swung wide to reveal two very large, hulking men clad in black suits with dark sunglasses over their eyes, telltale bulges at the left sides of their torsos betraying the existence of their sidearms.
     Kensuke yelled, and jumped back.  Surely what he'd learned about the Evas wasn't that serious, to merit an investigation by NERV's security division?  He started stammering something about being innocent, when the first man began speaking.
     "Good morning.  We are from NERV.  You must be Mr. Kensuke Aida."
     "Erm...yes..."  Kensuke bit his lip, hoping fervently the sweat on his forehead wasn't too apparent.
     "We have an important matter to discuss with you.  Your guardians have already been informed, and have agreed.  There is no longer any need to contact them.  You may, of course, if you still want to."
     Kensuke gulped.  Now, he was seriously in trouble.  Agreed to what?  His sentence?
     "May we come in?"
     He managed to splurt out something and ushered the two men into the small kitchen, where the remains of his lunch were still sitting on the table.  He hastily cleared it off.  That was stupid, he said to himself, I didn't even hide any of my videos!  And these are pros!
     The first man lifted a briefcase onto the table.  "Do you know what the Evangelions are?" he asked, gravely, undoing the latches with his thumbs.  Two sharp clicks snapped into the air.
     Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.  "Yes...I mean, no...I mean..," Kensuke's fertile imagination was running through a long list of possible items the case could contain, none of which could possibly be beneficial to him.
     "I see.  In which case, there are some legalities we have to go through.  This is a matter of some secrecy, and the other pilot candidates had very little information before they were selected.  Therefore, we'll have to give you a basic briefing before we can ask you."
     His teeth stopped grinding together nervously.  What was that?  Kensuke suddenly felt very foolish and unwise for having jumped the gun like that.  Nonetheless, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming, he pinched himself as hard as he could under the table.  The sharp, intense and lasting pain combined with the fact he wasn't waking up either convinced him.

* * *

     "Touji?  Did you see the new Eva?"
     "Hmm?"  Touji's head appeared through the collar of his T-shirt.  "Yeah."
     Shinji folded up his soggy plug suit and dropped it into the appropriate container.  "How do you suppose they pick the pilots?"
     Touji looked perplexed for an instant.  "What do you mean?"
     Shinji shrugged, not entirely sure what he meant himself.  "Well...what about you?  How did they pick you?"
     "How'm I supposed t'know?" he said, frowning, "They just called me to the principal's office and Dr. Akagi and some guys were waiting for me.  What about you?"  Touji threw his own balled plug suit across the room, and it rebounded perfectly off the wall into the box, where it landed in an untidy heap on top of Shinji's.
     "My...father...just sent me a letter, and then Misato came to get me."
     "It doesn't make any sense to me.  I try not to think about that stuff."  As a matter of fact, Touji tried to think as little as possible about the Evas as he could.  Numerous bad experiences, including the last, heavily outweighed any positive ideas he might ever have had about them.  "I don't really like doing this."
     Shinji wasn't surprised in any way.  That much was obvious.  He remembered that he had resolved at the beginning of last month to talk to Touji about this, anyways.  If I can talk to Asuka about it, why not?  "So why do you do this anyways?"
     Touji finished tying his shoes and stood up.  "I guess I thought I could make a difference.  You know, do something to help someone."
     Shinji followed him out of the door, turning off the lights as he did so.  "That's good.  At least you have a reason."
     "What, you don't?"  They stopped at the intersection of the hallway, waiting for the other two pilots.  "I always figured there had to be some reason you're still here if you don't like it.  Like Asuka, or something."  Touji scratched his head, puzzled.
     "I know.  I'm still trying to figure it out myself."

* * *

     Fuyutsuki looked out over the mostly empty Command Centre from the enormous window in the Commander's Office.  Very little progress had been made towards finding the saboteur of the launch platforms, and it was beginning to frustrate him.  A small handful of possible spies from foreign agencies had been identified, although not positively.  But there was still no sign of SEELE's man, who had somehow managed to accidentally hand NERV the victory over the last Angel.
     "We still don't have any leads, do we?"
     The security chief showed no sign of any emotion, although Fuyutsuki was sure he had to be as frustrated as he was.  "No.  There are over two thousand individual technicians who work on the Cages, the Evas and the launch systems alone.  That's not counting all the scientists and other workers who have clearance either.  And whoever it is, they know what they're doing.  They likely won't move until they know they won't get caught."
     "Hmm.  Dismissed."  Shigeru entered as the security man left, holding a folder in one hand and a computer card in the other.
     Fuyutsuki turned around to face his operations director.  "What news today?"
     Shigeru handed him the card.  "First things first.  Dr. Masaharu told me to give this to you before she left.  She said it has something to do with her retirement."
     "Good.  And?" Fuyutsuki prompted, taking the card and pocketing it with a smile.
     Shigeru shrugged to one side and continued, opening the folder.  "Unit-16 is ready and in cryostatis, currently undergoing its final examination.  The pilot candidate has been informed and has accepted."
     No surprise there.  The connection with the Eva would be barely adequate, and the pilot would most likely have difficulty establishing a rapport with it, but it was the best that could be done.  At least the pilot would have the will to continue trying until that did happen.  Fuyutsuki decided he would have to be grateful for these small mercies being granted to him.
     "Right.  Schedule the activation test sometime in the next week."
     Shigeru noted this in the folder.  "When should we inform the other pilots?  I mean...last time..."
     "I don't think we need to worry about that," the older man said, smiling.  "I think they'll probably be told by the new pilot himself."

* * *

     "Asuka?  I've never seen that Eva before."  Hikari finished adjusting her school uniform and picked up her bag, waiting for Asuka to follow.
     "I know.  It must be new."
     "You didn't know about this before, did you?"  There was a note of anxiety in her voice.  Asuka shook her head no as she closed the locker.  Hikari looked down at the end of the bench that ran up the middle of the room.
     "I accepted to do...this...so that they wouldn't make someone else do it...but...now...they're going to need another pilot anyways, won't they?"  Hikari's voice grew progressively more strained until it broke.
     Asuka was pretty sure she'd never heard her normally cheerful friend so stressed and unhappy in all the time she'd known her.  Obviously, this most recent development was only the straw that was breaking the camel's back.  Hikari's ill state had predated this by at least a week.
     "Hikari...that's not everything."  Her words came out more like a statement than a question, because she knew she was right.
     Hikari's tired eyes flicked up from the bench to where Asuka was standing.  "What?"
     "That's not everything that's bothering you, is it?  You haven't been looking too well for the last couple of days.  If you know what it is, just tell me."
      Her classmate's head tilted down until her bangs veiled what Asuka could see of her face.  "I don't, really...I don't think he's really interested, but I can't figure out why he would do what he did, either...  And then, I've got to work harder if I want to stay class rep, too...  I don't like doing this, and I haven't felt the same since it all started..."
     Finally, thought Asuka, it all comes out.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much she'd be able to do about the First Stooge...and the rest was pretty much out of her control, too.  But other that Touji, the rest of Hikari's problems all appeared to stem from a common root: Eva.  Right from the start, she could see that Hikari was not enjoying piloting Unit-15, and that it was weighing on her from the very first day.
     "Look, Hikari...you can still quit if you want to.  No one's stopping you."  It wasn't much in the way of advice, but if Hikari left, at least she'd be able to return to a world she was more comfortable in.
     "I...you mean like Shinji?"
     "You knew about that?"
     Hikari slumped against the wall.  "I don't know if I can..."

* * *

     "Dr. Calvin Robertson.  That's your final recommendation?"  Fuyutsuki scrolled down the page, scanning over the man's various recommendations.  All very impressive, really.  Almost as good as Dr. Akagi.
     Dr. Masaharu nodded.  "Yes.  He just finished the assembly of Unit-16 in Russia."
     "You've met him personally?"
     At this, the aging scientist frowned a bit, and looked to the side.  "Well, I did meet him at a seminar, once.  I must say, I didn't like him at all.  Too sure of himself, too cocky for my liking."
     Fuyutsuki raised an interested eyebrow.  "And you're telling me I should take him on?  I can't imagine liking him much if you don't."
     Her smile was innocently mischievous.  "Yes.  But, he'll be continuously looking for ways to one-up you, and everyone here.  Meaning you'll get quite a lot of very good work out of him.  He doesn't seem to mind the whole idea that the Evas have some divine, Angelic properties either, so he won't have any moral grounds to protest like I do.  I don't imagine Captain Shigeru will like him much either."
     "I see.  A purely professional evaluation and recommendation."
     "I hope you're satisfied.  After all, that was what you asked me to do."
     Fuyutsuki thought over the possibilities, and found that he could deal with anything Robertson felt like throwing his way.  As far as smug, self-confident bastards went, Gendou was the champion.  "All right, I'll take it.  You will, of course, be present until he takes over, won't you?  I can't deprive the Scientific Development Section of a director for all of next week until we can arrange the transfer."
     "Of course.  That means activating Unit-16, too, doesn't it?"
     "Yes.  I want that much done in hands I can trust implicitly, and before it's too late."
     "Too late?"
     Fuyutsuki smirked logically.  "Never know when the next Angel will show up, do we?"

* * *

     Kensuke could barely contain his excitement when we was directed out of the elevator's doors towards the entry plug, cradled in the cold steel embrace of the support gantry.  And, once inside, in a chair of similar design to one he had had the luck to see Shinji occupy, in combat, he could see all his dreams coming true before his eyes.
     Finally, after months of agonizing hope which he'd eventually dismissed as futile, he was an Eva pilot.  A combat pilot, with his own Eva.  Not just some reserve, but a fully-fledged saviour of humanity.  Fine, not yet, he still had to get through what he imagined was a draconian training program.  But here he was...where he'd always wanted to be, right in the middle of it all.
     He'd almost given up on the prospect, the morning after the new year, but since the visit of NERV's personnel, he'd thrown that doubt out of the window.
     Cool cool cool cool cool cool...  Above him, the thick entry hatch slid shut, blocking his view of the outside, and the plug slid downwards.
     Directly behind the open armour plates at the back of the dark grey Eva's neck, the white panels of the wall slid away, revealing a white-painted oblong shape that was the entry plug.  Then, with the clanking of heavy machinery and another oddly electrical sound, the plug was secure in the round hole drilled through the Eva's seventh cervical vertebra.  After this, the hatches slid into place and the entry plug was buried deep inside the massive humanoid, completely cut off from the exterior.
     "Beginning LCL injection," a voice murmured, echoing through the silent interior of the plug.  Kensuke frowned suddenly as a clear yellow liquid began rapidly flooding the space around him.  But panic was not the order of the day, and Kensuke already knew that the cockpit was normally full of fluid.  Nonetheless, he had difficulty not holding his breath until his face turned blue, the self-preservation instinct ever stronger than his sense of amazement and daring.
     When he finally opened his eyes, the featureless, curved wall in front of him was blurry.  He reached up to his glasses, to find they were still there, although they were no longer working.
     Captain Shigeru's voice now issued forth.  There was no longer any echo.  "Kensuke, we're starting now."
     Kensuke responded with a crisp, "Yes, sir!" to get started with a good impression.  He'd been understandably disappointed to find out that the dazzling Misato Katsuragi had long since disappeared, but that had been mostly forgotten since they'd handed him the shrink-wrapped black and blue plug suit and the neural band.
     He pulled the two rounded control levers towards himself, pushed them away, tested the two index-finger triggers which he supposed controlled the weapons systems.  They gave nicely, with a satisfying click that only reinforced his opinion that this was a very cool place to be.  His grin grew as he slid them back and forth in their slots.
     Captain Shigeru's face appeared in a tiny orange box in front of him.  "Mr. Aida...if you could stop playing with the controls, please.  Once the Eva goes active, you might end up doing something that could prove detrimental to all of us.  Please try to remember this is serious."
     The warning didn't come close to dampening Kensuke's spirits.  "Yes, sir!  Sorry, sir!"

     Fuyutsuki let his head fall onto his palm for support.  And he's our best choice for this Eva, too.

     Kensuke let go of the control levers, and fidgeted with his hands instead as the massive umbilical cable, capable of safely carrying several thousand amperes worth of electricity, poured an immense power into the Eva.
     "Preparing to go to first stage."  The entry plug suddenly began humming, a low, steady vibration closer to a human voice than an electrical system.

     "Plug systems normal.  Kayo?"
     Arashio flicked a sequence of switches, then waited over the last one.  "Ten seconds on my mark... Mark," she finished emphatically, then stabbed at the toggle with her finger.
     Yamashita watched the MAGI's reports scroll past, all the indicators showing the Eva's synapses were in good condition and transmitting normally.
     "Going to first stage.  Opening neural connections."

     Kensuke felt a strange tingling sensation over the entire surface of his body.  It was really weird, but interesting at the same time.

     Yamashita swore under his breath.  "The MAGI are reporting an integral instability at the third level neural pathway.  They recommend that we shut it down and start again."
     Shigeru looked over at Fuyutsuki.  Impassive as he had been before Impact.  "Do it."
     Arashio nodded, and engaged the reset sequence.  The white testing room went dark as the large mechanically-controlled circuit breakers tripped, then lit up brilliantly as they reversed with a heavy clank.
     "What was it?"
     "The MAGI haven't given me a report yet, they're still deliberating."
     Dr. Masaharu's eyebrows knitted together.  "It's odd, the Gaf test results showed no abnormalities."
     Fuyutsuki looked pensive for a moment.  "True.  If it happens again, we might have to abort.  Go to first stage again."

     The funny tingling feeling returned, amplified itself, then faded.  This time, Kensuke just felt lighter, like he didn't have the plug suit did around him, and that he was actually naked in the plug.  Most of these changes he didn't notice, as he was wondering exactly how he would be able to see where he was piloting this huge thing, since he couldn't see through the opaque walls that surrounded him.

     "Hmm...it didn't happen this time."
     "All interfaces reading nominal...no difficulties.  Power is nominal."
     Shigeru leaned forwards into the microphone.  "How are you feeling, Kensuke?"
     "All is well, sir!  I am not experiencing any discomfort!"
     Shigeru looked back at Fuyutsuki.  "Do we go on, sir?"
     He glanced up at Dr. Masaharu.  "What do you think?" he asked, clasping his hands behind his back.  Dr. Masaharu was silent, then she signaled Arashio to engage the second stage.
     "Yes, ma'am.  A-10 nerve connections initiated."

     Kensuke was astonished by the suddenly clear waves of colour that materialized instantaneously out of nowhere around him.  His sloppy grin twisted into a wide smile of amazement as they subsided into a clear image of the white room around him, even though he was no longer wearing his glasses.  "Whoa."

     "Approaching border-line...border-line cleared.  Synchronization rated at sixteen point two percent."
     Shigeru pressed his lips together.  It was barely acceptable, only six points above the most basic activation level, but it would have to do, if this was the best candidate availiable.  Training would have to improve that value.
     Yamashita swore again, and began typing in new commands to the MAGI.  "There it is again!  It's back!"
     Shigeru hit the communications switch.  "Kensuke!  Report!" he yelled, anticipating a reply filled with pain.

     Kensuke could barely feel the mild ache spread through his body, and he failed to notice it at all.  "I'm fine, sir," he said, still wondering at the details he could see outside.  He could even see the faces of the people working in the room behind the orange glass window.

     "The LCL buffer is working, we can maintain.  The pilot's vital signs have not changed.  Standard scans are reporting nominal."
     Yamashita looked grim.  "Yes...  The MAGI are recommending that this by established as the maximum allowable plug depth, so that the pilot doesn't suffer mental contamination."
     Dr. Masaharu nodded.  "That's the most prudent course.  But it'll be hard to bring up the synch ratio without pushing the plug in any deeper.  We'll need a harmonics test to re-evaluate and modify."
     Arashio looked up from her console.  "It seems to be subsiding, sir."
     "Yeah," added Yamashita, "it does look like the resida has given up its struggle for now."
     Fuyutsuki let several seconds pass before he said anything, as if waiting to see if the Eva was going to resume giving them difficulties.  "That's acceptable," he said, finally, "but we'll have to designate a warm-up period for all subsequent activations of Unit-16.  And continue these tests until we get a good idea of how long subsidence takes."

     "Kensuke?  This may take longer than expected."
     "That's fine with me, sir!"  Kensuke wasn't in any rush to leave this fabulous machine they'd just given him.  He started humming to himself as the colour cycle reversed itself and started up again, once more letting him look out into the bland white room of the test facility.

* * *

     Hikari was still a little under the weather, but, most likely due to Asuka's insistence that she get more sleep, the circles that proclaimed a serious lack of just that had faded to the point where they were almost no longer easily noticeable.  Her mood had also been improved by a good night's rest, and she even managed to laugh a little on the way to the school.
     All this was left by the wayside, however, when Kensuke arrived exhausted, exultant and exhilarated.
     "Three guesses as to what happened yesterday," he asked as soon as he got within earshot.
     Touji wasn't too surprised.  He'd seen Kensuke frequently excited like this before, usually just before he went to visit some new piece of military hardware he'd discovered was coming into port, or being delivered to a nearby airbase, or being tested somewhere.
     "It's a battleship," he said flatly -- it was almost routine, with Kensuke -- "or a plane, or a tank."
     Kensuke sniggered happily to himself.  "Wrong on all three."  The video camera was out, and centered on Touji's face, so that he could have a permanent archive of this particular reaction.  "Unit-16!" he announced.
     Touji's jaw dropped in sudden comprehension and shock.  "You're not serious?!"
     Asuka's reaction was slightly more violent and astonished as she spun away from Hikari.  "You?!  They picked you?!  How the hell...?"
     Kensuke ignored the demon-girl for the time being.  "Yeah!  What do you think, Shinji?"
     Shinji wasn't entirely sure what to think.  Sure, he knew Kensuke had always wanted to be an Eva pilot, ever since he'd first seen Unit-01 in action, but he wouldn't wish Eva on anyone he liked, now that he knew what could happen.  But he couldn't burst Kensuke's bubble either.  "Um...that's great!  If that's what you want...I mean...that's good...er...for you..." he stammered, feeling his neck begin to itch with panic.
     "We had the first activation tests yesterday," Kensuke enthused, stressing the technical parts and failing to notice the utter surprise of his classmates, "and I'll be starting training tonight!  I'm so damn happy!  This is so awesome!"
     Touji had managed to recover from his stunned state by this time, and picked himself up off the floor.  He supposed having Kensuke as another pilot would be okay, but he, like Hikari in some respects, had no idea about how bad it could be.  Who knew?  Maybe the next Angel would put Kensuke in the same position he had once been in...
     He'd have to watch over Kensuke as well, at least until he figured out how to control the Eva and take care of himself.
     Hikari broke in with her own contribution.  "Aida...I think you might be a little too excited...I mean...it's not really a good thing."  Asuka interrupted her rant to agree, then picked up again with equal, unchecked momentum.
     "Not a good thing?  You must be crazy!  This is a dream come true!"
     A throat cleared itself loudly behind them.  "Ms. Horaki, if you'll kindly bring this classroom under control, we can begin."
     Hikari's eyes widened in panic as she realized she'd completely forgotten about her duties as class representative in the chaos.  "I...yes, sir," she stammered, then scrambled up to her usual place and called the class to order, even though her voice wasn't quite as strong as it usually was.
     Shit!  I really messed up this time, she thought, then found herself horrified as she recognized her obscene use of the strongest expletive she actively recognized as a part of her vocabulary, even if it was only to herself.  Despairing once again, she sank into her seat and turned on her computer, holding her temples in her hands.  And it's only Monday morning!
     And she spent the rest of the day hoping the teacher would overlook this little incident and not replace her.
     Kensuke, meanwhile, couldn't concentrate on anything at all, and spent the class excitedly tapping on his desk, prompting numerous admonitions from those in his immediate vincinity.

* * *

     "Asuka, can I ask you something?"
     Asuka had previously noted that Hikari had looked much better in the morning, but much of that had faded at this time.  Hikari had gone out of her way to be a model class rep after her early mistake, dealing out particularily harsh punishments to those who had dared to make even the slightest disruption.  Kensuke was now saddled with class clean-up duty, one of the most dreaded of all possible assignments from the class representative, which he'd loudly protested by claiming he would be late for his pilot training.  She'd even refused to answer Asuka's electronic queries during class, focusing herself entirely on the day's lesson.
     "Sure.  What is it?"
     Hikari looked over at her friend as they walked past a warning painted on the street, another reminder of the abnormal city in which they lived.  "Do you think I'm a good class rep?"
     "That's silly.  Of course you are.  Why do you ask?"
     Hikari's voice was still strong, but Asuka was sure she could detect the slightest wavering under it.  "It's just that this morning, and last week, I just...don't think I've been able to do it properly."
     "Why would you think that?  It's not like you've been doing anything different."
     "The teacher told me he wasn't sure I'd be able to fulfill both duties at the same time, and...I'm starting to think so too."
     "What, you mean Eva and class rep?  Sure you can."
     Hikari didn't look too reassured by the compliment, and went on.  "I mean...if I only think about one thing at a time, I think I can do okay...but...I don't know."
     Asuka stopped to check if Shinji was catching up to them.  "You're doing great, Hikari.  Just try to relax a little."
     "You really think so?"

* * *

     Quiet reigned in the cavernous containment areas commonly referred to as the Cage.  Most of the time, there was a small number of technical staff on watch, to ensure that the various mechanical systems were in good shape.  The heavy machinery, such as the hydraulic restrait system, was of such a large scale that regular checkups were long and physically demanding chores.  So, in anticipation, they were designed as simply as possible, so that they would also be extremely reliable and foolproof, precluding that type of heavy maintenance.
     Mostly, the technical crews were on hand to make sure the Eva's systems, such as the entry plug mechanism, the electrical storage batteries, the computers and communications gear were functioning well.
     The echoes of these few workers resounded loudly in the empty spaces.  There were five now accessible, one for each Eva.  Typically, the Evas were not kept cryogenically frozen, due to the amount of time required to drain the Cages before running through the rest of the launch procedure.  The restraint system was considered enough to stop any berserk Eva before its batteries ran dry, as it immobilised the arms and torso completely.
     Nonetheless, as an additional precaution, the place normally occupied by the entry plug during activation was filled with the terminal plug, a dense block of a heavy alloy topped with a cross for balance.  This prevented the Eva from activating completely, and would give a signal if it did.
     The watch was going through a generalized checkup of Unit-02's entry plug with Masaharu when a low groan resounded through the Cage.
     "Did anyone hear that?"
     Two of the techs nodded, but didn't give it much weight.  "Probably just the hydraulic pumps again."
     Masaharu shrugged and went back to watching another man inspect and clean the drive interfaces built into the command chair.  A second groan, lasting somewhat longer and slightly louder, followed its predecessor through the air and resounded throughout the metal walls of the facility.
     "Those are hydraulic pumps?" asked Masaharu, this time incredulous.  He quickly appropriated one of the mechanics' walkie-talkies and turned it on.
     "Is anyone up there watching the Evas?"
     Yamashita's voice scratched out of the low quality speaker.  "The MAGI haven't reported anything.  They watch all the time."
     "Huh.  We're hearing something down here."
     There was a short pause.  "Hang on, I'll do a check.  Should I tell the Commander?"
     "You might as well."
     The technician took back his handset.  "What was it?"
     Masaharu jumped down from the lip of the plug and landed on the umbilical bridge crossing over the red giant's massive shoulder.  "I don't know," he said, shaking his head, "they're checking.  Maybe we should, too."
     He was about to move towards the door nearest him when a third groan, this time closer to a threatening, low pitched growl than a moan, resonated in the air.
     "That was not a hydraulic pump," muttered Masaharu, and they all ran for the safety of the perimeter hallways, even as Yamashita was telling them to do it.

     Four cages down the row, on the other side of Central Dogma from where Masaharu was working, two sharply defined, glowing eyes came to sudden life in their dark, armour encased sockets.  The dark grey Evangelion named Unit-16 suddely threw its head back as far as the open entry plug hatches would allow, then bellowed, a long, rumbling growl of menace like that of a wild animal.
     Plates of metal flaked off the walls, the structural beams beneath buckling as the colossal strength of the Eva crushed them and let them fall away from its arms.  Hydraulic fluid rushed out of torn pipes, painting the scene in a glittering dark red that coated every surface with an oily sheen.
     The massive grey monster doubled over, screaming its opposition to its confinement, and then proceeded to snap off the still attached umbilical bridge from its shoulders with an almost casual fling of the arm.  Still emitting its unearthly wail, it turned to the right and threw open the wall between it and Unit-14 with a powerful sidearm swing as panicked workers scattered as quickly as they could out of the beast's path.

     Commander Fuyutsuki emerged from his office, summoned his work by the sudden cacophony of the active Eva.  "What's going on down there?" he yelled, leaning over the edge of the command tower.
     Yamashita didn't turn around, as he was still trying to get the MAGI to determine what had gone wrong.  "It's Unit-16, sir!  It just activated!  The terminal plug is still inside!  I don't understand it!"
     "What?"  Fuyutsuki's normally controlled voice betrayed a sudden fear and disbelief.  "How the hell could it activate?  What's it doing?"
     "It's only broken free of the restraints so far, sir!  It appears to be coming in this direction!  Or even here!"

     The restraining wall that would have held Unit-14's arm in check screamed in protest, then crushed inwards under the rogue Eva's blows, collapsing inwards.  Unit-14, no longer adequately supported, slumped heavily to the side as Unit-16 continued its rampage.

     "It's running off the internal battery system, sir!  It managed to initiate the system in the absence of an entry plug!"
     Even in that case, as Fuyutsuki was thinking, it still shouldn't have been able to activate, as the terminal plug was in place.  "How can it maintain activation with the terminal plug inside?" he shouted.
     Yamashita's eyes were wide with excitement, panic and wonder.  "It's routing the nerve signals through the ganglion system!  Those were never suppressed!"
     Fuyutsuki frowned in thought.  "But the ganglion system is sympathetic!  It can't carry conscious nervous impulses!  It's only connected to the midbrain's vegetative function centres!"
     "I don't get it either, sir!"
     The crashing sounds coming from beyond the left wall continued, coming closer each time.  "It's coming here!  Shit!" shouted Yamashita.

     The wall blocking off the fourth Cage fell before Unit-16's bestial strike, and finally fell away in a cloud of dust and rubble.  Debris bounced off Unit-01's exposed arm, and ricocheted with loud metallic pings off the restraint.

     "Begin Bakelite injection!" Yamashita ordered to those below him, suddenly standing up from his chair.  "We have to stop it before it gets to Central Dogma!"
     Fuyutsuki turned, his attention torn from the screen by his subordinate's command.  "Belay that!  Cease injection immediately!"
     Yamashita turned to face his Commander.  "But sir!  If it comes in here, we could all be killed!"
     Fuyutsuki was grave.  "It will not have the time.  It has only fifteen seconds left in its internal battery.  Evacuate the Command Centre!" he shouted.  The white-uniformed staff abandoned their stations and ran to the doors, spurred on by the urgency of the situation.

     Unit-16 turned its grey-painted face towards the silent, helpless Unit-01.  Its eyes narrowed, and it reached out, its groping hands destined for the orange neck of Shinji's Eva.  Suddenly, just as the slick, oily armour covering its fingers had reached a position mere feet away from that thick trunk, it stopped, and the massive head turned again to the right.
     This time, the roar was one of triumph and sudden macabre joy.
     It withdrew its dripping hands,  and headed for Central Dogma, only a wall away.

     Fuyutsuki stared expectantly down at the tower beneath him.  Yamashita had not yet moved from his position.  "I ordered you to evacuate, Lieutenant."
     "Yes, right, sir!" he said, then backed towards the door, still watching the counter on the main screen that showed the five remaining seconds on time the Eva had in its battery.  A mere second after that very door slid shut, a massive spiderweb of cracks appeared on the wall to Fuyutsuki's left.  He watched silently and unflinchingly as a massive hand that seemed bloody in the dim light given off by the various holographic windows that filled the dark pit burst threw the barrier, throwing huge chunks of concrete and metal onto the floor below.
     "Zero," whispered Fuyutsuki, as the thin hail of cement particles fell around him and a cloud of dust coalesced in the air and filled the massive room.  Through the dark fog, he watched as the great, glowing eyes of the berserker flickered and went out.
     The arm shuddered violently, convulsed once more with a final twitch and stopped moving, its outstretched hand reaching directly for the Command Tower below him, for the MAGI.

* * *

     Kensuke was somber the next morning, and his state of excited and ebullient effervescence had disappeared as quickly as it had come.
     "Hey, Kensuke!  What's up?"
     Kensuke answered Touji's good-natured inquiry with a muttered greeting.  "They cancelled the training session," he said, disappointment evident in his voice.  "I don't know why...they won't tell me either.  Did they tell you?"
     Shinji and Touji both shook their heads.  Despite everything, they were both still only pilots, and not too well informed.
     "All I know," continued Kensuke, "is that something important must have happened because everyone was panicking yesterday.  I don't think my Dad even came home yesterday night."
     "Come to think of it," added Touji, realizing it was unlikely that his father had returned either, "you could be right."
     Kensuke looked up from his laptop, where Shinji could now see several windows containing the NERV logo and a large number of 'Access Denied' messages.  "You don't suppose they cut me off, do you?"
     Touji half-laughed.  "Naw...If they did that, I'm pretty sure they'd have told you."
     "They didn't take your card back, did they?"
     "No," said Kensuke, shaking his head at Shinji, and laughing at himself, "they didn't."
     Hikari's commanding tone dissolved the conversation.  "Hey!  Quiet back there!  Class!" and they all stood to salute the teacher's arrival.

* * *

     Fuyutsuki looked down from the lofty height of his station into the pit where hundreds of technicians were clearing away the large piles of rubble and fractured concrete that had fallen to the ground when Unit-16 had burst through the wall.  Less that fifteen hours had passed since the rampant Eva had finally run out of power.  The arm was still hanging through the large hole, its muscles still rigid and tense in its state of deactivation.  Maintenance crews from all over the geofront had been diverted from their regular tasks to repairing the Command Centre and the damaged Cages.
     The grey and green appendage, now covered under a thick canvas sheet, had been cleaned, and a large gantry had been erected around the Eva, dedicated to returning it safely to its original position once that was repaired and rebuilt.  Units-01 and 14 had been temporarily moved to Cages on the other side, so that the work could be accomplished without those Evas in the way.
     Shigeru rose up out of the floor on an elevator platform from the access hallway beneath him.  "Sir?  When did this happen?"
     Fuyutsuki didn't look away from the hand.  "Yesterday evening."
     "It went completely berserker?  All by itself?"
     "Yes."
     Shigeru peered over the edge.  "Why would it come here, to Central Dogma?  What did it want?"
     Fuyutsuki turned towards him.  "What do you think?"
     Shigeru was surprised by the hard expression on his Commander's face.  "Sir?  I was just...speculating."
     Fuyutsuki rubbed his jaw for a second.  "Aren't we all.  You believe it wanted something from here?"
     "I don't know, sir.  Um...another question, sir.  Why didn't you authorize the use of Bakelite to slow it down?"
     "Bakelite?  Captain Shigeru: how large are the Cages?"
     Shigeru had forgotten the exact number.  "Big.  Sir."
     "Exactly.  How quickly can you pump Bakelite in?"
     Shigeru had also forgotten that number.  "I don't know, sir."
     "Not fast enough.  What would have happened is that we would have had a thin layer of Bakelite, hardly more than arch-depth on a Eva, clogging up the restraint system.  How long would that have taken to clean up?"
     Shigeru was glad he could at least make up this answer.  "Weeks, sir.  Ah, I see.  It would have locked our Evas in."
     "Precisely.  Now, go and tell Lieutenant Yamashita that all the orders of that importance and consequence are to come from you or me.  No one else, and definitely not him."
     Nevada was the last major unscheduled event.  And Fuyutsuki had the impression that this one was not over yet. 1