EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 31: The Wretched / Prestidigitatorium

     "Reactivation complete.  No abnormalities or system failiures this time."  Arashio leaned back in her chair and looked over the top of her console at the giant grey head staring at them through the glass.  "It looks like rehabilitation was successful."
     There was a collective feeling of relief in the room.  Everyone had been edgy for the past four days since Unit-16 had gone unexpectedly and spectacularily haywire in its Cage.  The butcher's bill from its rampage finally amounted to nearly six million dollars in damage, and not a few injuries.  Luckily, no one was killed during the incident, but the possibility was what was frightening.
     It appeared to most people, Arashio included, that the Evas were inherently unstable, and the lack of difficulties that Unit-02 and Unit-14 presented were the exception to the rule.  Aside from those two sparkling abberations, overall, the Evas had a less-than-spectacular record.
 Shigeru re-opened the link to the entry plug.  "Kensuke, you can leave now.  We're finished.  Your training has been moved up to next week."
     "Yes, sir!"
     Arashio chuckled to herself.  At least there was someone who wasn't afraid of the Evas.
     She ran her station through the shut-down procedure, and turned it off.  Now there were only the harmonics tests of the other pilots to take care of before the day was over.
     Then, at last, she could get a decent night's sleep.  Unit-16's accident had forced a complete and immediate inspection and examination of every system and bio-component of the Eva.  Even the oft-complaining Masaharu had silenced himself to finish the enormous three day task.
     Fortunate for him that he was assigned to be off-shift when the normal schedule was reinstituted in the morning.  Unfortunate for her that she was to be beginning hers when that happened.
     Not that she wasn't willing to complain.  Just too exhausted to waste energy griping.

* * *

     Since I don't have a choice, I might as well do the best I can.  That's all that matters.
     After the previous week's disaster's at school, that had driven her to within inches of insanity, Hikari had resolved not to allow Eva to interfere with her life any more.  Not quitting, rather the simpler matter of reorganization.
     Prior to her discussion with Asuka the week before about the uncertain foundation her status as class representative was based on, she'd allowed herself to believe that her new status as a pilot was completely obstructing her ability to lead the class.
     So much so, she'd nearly had a mental breakdown over the threat of losing that position.  To reinforce her reputation as a good student, she'd thrown herself entirely into the task, enough that the teacher seemed satisfied.
     During that panicked drive, she'd discovered something else.  When she concentrated fully on being class representative, she could forget entirely about the Evas, Touji, and everything else.
     Hence the decision to mentally dichotomize her life.  At school, she would be the best class representative she could be.  Here, at NERV, the best Eva pilot she could be.  And at home, the best student she could be.
     Then she could worry about Touji in the spaces.
     She wasn't completely satisfied.  It meant having to forget entirely about some things at times.  Things she wanted to worry about.  But it did satisfy her simple and elegantly virtuous philosophy of doing the best one can honestly.
     And right now, during this harmonics test, her mind and conscience were both clear as her natural ability to pilot Eva was being carefully monitored and evaluated.
     I'm just trying to do what they want me to.  It's the right thing, isn't it?  I can't be blamed for that.

* * *

     "How are the new pilots doing, Doctor?"
     Dr. Masaharu didn't look up from her readouts.  "They're doing fine, Captain.  Both are still climbing."  She let out a sigh.  "With any luck, this is the last time I'll have to do this.  The new Science Chief is coming this afternoon, you know."
     Shigeru walked up to the window overlooking the test area.  "Really?  I didn't know about that.  Who is it?"
     "I don't think you would know him.  He's from our branch in Britain."  Dr. Masaharu shrugged.  "Shinji's at the maximum plug depth already?  All right...bring him back.  Asuka too, she's approaching the limit as well."  She straightened her back with a grimace, then turned to Shigeru.  "I don't hear you asking about what I discovered about Unit-16, do I?"
     Shigeru smiled in a dissatisfied manner.  "No, I've already read your report.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  By all standards, it came up clean.  Just like Unit-15."  He finished his coffee, and made an odd face.  "Every time, it's the same story.  The Eva goes nuts, and no one can find anything wrong with it."
     The aging Chief Scientist nodded in agreement.  "Do you know what science is based on, Captain?  Cause and effect.  Everything that happens is an effect of something that caused it."
     "So?"
     "The Evas defy that rule almost every day.  They aren't affected by it, half the time.  Science created them, yet they rarely conform to our scientific laws.  They're like gods."
     Shigeru was puzzled.  "Gods?  How could we create a god?"
     "And yet, they're not.  Have you ever read Descartes, Captain?"
     "'I think therefore I am'?  Him?  No."
     "I thought so.  Everyone knows that passage.  He also discusses the notion of God in his writing.  Are you God, Captain?"
     They shared a laugh over that one, but Dr. Masaharu continued.  "Exactly.  You're not perfect.  But you know what perfect is, right?  Where did that idea come from?"
     Shigeru thought about that for a while.
     Seeing no answer forthcoming, Dr. Masaharu explained.  "You don't, because God supposedly is that idea.  God is inherently perfection.  The quality you lack, perfection, is that which makes up God.  You're also composed of matter.  Meaning you depend on matter to give you a body.  Dependence is weakness, imperfection."  She turned back towards the MAGI report currently calculating the current synchronization ratios of the pilots.  "Not bad, Hikari's made it as far as sixty-four percent.  Now tell me why the Evas are gods."
     "Well...they can't be.  Because they're not perfect.  They bleed, they're not supposed to be able to move by themselves, they need a pilot, they're...composed of matter."
     The aging scientist nodded as she looked over some of the test results.  "Exactly.  So someone, if Descartes is right, here at NERV made a mistake thinking they could create a god.  Or they knew something else.  And they know these aren't gods."
     Shigeru's mind was rapidly overwhelmed by the storm of ideas coming at him.  "So tell me why they defy science, then.  Since we can measure something that isn't a god.  I mean, we do test them, and most of the time they behave like we want them to."
     "I said they're like gods.  Tell the children the test is over," she said, tapping Arashio on the shoulder, "they're finished.  We managed to harness something god-like.  Something outside our experience.  That's all.  And we don't understand what we've done.  At least, most of us.  Myself included."
     Shigeru thought about the ideas that had just been thrown at him as he watched the children file past, obliviously chatting among themselves.  They still didn't know what had happened with Unit-16, no one had told them.
     At least they didn't have that much to worry about, he thought.

* * *

     Fuyutuski skimmed through the reports for the umpteenth time this week.  Again, the same things as always.  "All synapses functioning within normal parameters, no sign of external tampering, no evidence of internal, uninitiated modifications, ganglion system checks out as normal..," he muttered, throwing them back onto the desktop.  He snorted ironically.  Now I know what SEELE was thinking when Nevada happened.
     Finally, he came to the conclusion he and Gendou had given SEELE for that very incident.  It was the same.  He shrugged to himself.  It was an accident, out of his control, and had no impact in the end.  Other than some repairs.
     The Command Centre's south wall had been partially rebuilt over the last four days, a rush job, but of no great complications.  It was just a basic structural piece, and had no real impact on the function of the facility it enclosed.
     "Dr. Masaharu here to see you, sir.  And Inspector Desaint after that."
     "Send her in."
     The door at the far end of the massive room slid open, and Dr. Masaharu's white-clad figure casually walked the distance up to his desk.  "You're late for my official acknowledgement of your resignation," remarked Fuyutsuki, filing the reports away again.
     "I know.  Just discussing Descartes with Captain Shigeru."
     "Descartes?  Never read him.  Philosophy was never my forte.  Biology, yes."
     "Neither has he.  An uneventful last day, if you ask me."
     "Of course.  Thank you for your help.  Your resignation has been filed and approved by the auditing department.  All you have to do is sign the non-disclosure contract, and you're free to go."
     Dr. Masaharu took the pen from Fuyutsuki's outstretched hand and scrawled her name along the bottom.
     "It's been nice seeing you again."
     "I feel the same way.  Thank you."
     "Goodbye."
     Dr. Masaharu turned and left.

* * *

     Shinji was watching a noisy altercation over the top of his computer screen.  Hikari had been calmer and less nervous since last week.  Additionally, she wan't openly worrying so much about the Evas any more.  Shinji wasn't sure if she was just trying not to think about them, or if they had genuinely slipped her mind.  Even during the day's harmonics tests, she appeared to be more talkative and...normal...than before.
     Of course, she was still as moralistic as always, as she confiscated the unopened can from the screaming mad penguin at her feet.
     "Oh, c'mon, Hikari...let him have it."  Asuka emerged from the shower and sat down next to Shinji, picking up his cup and examining its contents before drinking it.
     "He has to learn to live without it, Asuka.  It's not healthy for him."
     Pen-Pen flapped his wings and squawked louder, trying to jump for the can Hikari had placed on the table's edge.  "Probably, but it's not his fault either."
     "Why's that?" Hikari asked, incredulous.
     Shinji shrugged.  "It's all Misato ever gave him to drink.  He's just used to it, I suppose."
     "You mean addicted," corrected Asuka.  "Let him have his fix, Hikari.  If you really want to get him off it, you should wean him off gradually.  He'll just get withdrawal if you do it by stopping him altogether."
     Hikari didn't look convinced.  "Well...maybe..."
     Asuka, meanwhile, had turned her attention to what Shinji had on his computer screen.  "What's this you're working on?  Your corrected essay?"
     Shinji suddenly turned red.  "Um...yeah..."
     "That's your mark?"  Asuka grimaced.  "That's not too good."
     "I know..."
     Hikari poked her head over the top of the laptop's screen.  Even upside-down, the score wasn't too hard to make out.  "Seventy-six?  That's pathetic!  How long did you actually work on it?"
     "I'm sorry!"
     "Speaking of which, Asuka, where's yours?  I've been working on mine since we got back."
     "Oh."  Asuka leaned back in her chair and picked up her cup.  "I did it at school, during afternoon class.  This is why you lost marks here, Shinji," she said, pointing with a finger at one paragraph.  "You changed your argument half-way through."
     "At school?  You mean you weren't paying attention in class?"  Shinji watched as outrage dawned on Hikari's face for the second time this evening.
     "Not true...I did it when the teacher started talking about how he used to live in a flooded area again."
     Hikari looked suspiciously at Asuka as she sat down, picked up her can and opened it.  It made a distinct cracking sound, followed by the hiss of escaping gas.
     "I'm not sure I can believe that, Asuka.  It takes longer than ten minutes to edit and correct an entire essay."
     "Um, Hikari..."  Shinji's interjection was roundly ignored by both parties.
     "Well, I did do more during math.  I already know that stuff."
     "Hikari..."  Shinji went unnoticed again.
     "It still doesn't make it right!  You ought to be listening and taking notes all the time!  You're a student, aren't you?"
     She raised the can to her lips as she waited for Asuka's response.  Shinji cleared his throat.  "That's a can of Yebisu you've got there," he said as the liquid flowed past the rim of the can, too late to stop it from happening.
     Two seconds later, Shinji was wiping off the tabletop with a wet cloth while Asuka was tending to Hikari's sickness in the washroom.  Pen-Pen, still upset, clambered up on the abandoned chairs and huffily reclaimed his vice.

* * *

     Arashio was more than a little relieved to see Masaharu when he finally stepped onto the bridge.  His arrival meant she was relieved, her shift was over, that she could go home.  Smiling to herself, she picked up her files, saluted both of her co-workers, then the Commander, and headed for the doors.
     They opened just as a MAGI dilemma appeared on the main screen, and Captain Shigeru walked past her onto the deck.  And, as she moved forward to go through, it slammed shut, inches from her face.
     "What?" she asked herself, pressing the door activation button again.  It refused to open.  Three more tries yielded the same result.
     And that was when the klaxon went off.

* * *

     Dr. Robertson, newly arrived with only a small bag of personal effects, stood silently in the elevator, waiting for it to deliver him to his new position.  The room he'd been given was small, but he was sure he'd be able to find something more appropriate on the surface.  In any case, Japan was certainly an improvement over Russia, and the work was bound to be more interesting.
     The wheel counting off the floors clicked away in the silence.
     Impatiently, he tapped his fingers against the door jamb.  It would be fascinating to finally get a chance to look at the famous MAGI supercomputer system.  He'd read all the theories, all the texts he could dredge up about the bio-neural computer that ran all of NERV's autonomous functions and controlled all of Tokyo-3.
     The most interesting thing, though, was it was the original system.  It had been in use the longest, and its automated learning processes would have hundreds of thousands of extra protocols it had instituted itself.  The sheer experience of a computer this old was mind-boggling.  It knew how to correct and solve its own problems, as well as the myriad problems the systems attached to it could suffer from.  It couldn't crash either, it knew how to anticipate programming errors and correct them, too.
     Its only fault, so far as Dr. Robertson was concerned, was that no one had yet figured out how to give it a true biological memory.  While the mechanical and electrical memory adapted itself and evolved, the biological core of the computer was still incapable of developing any further than the pre-ordained and carefully controlled neural pathways that already existed.
     Just as he started thinking about this, the elevator stopped somewhere between floors B-17 and B-18, and the lights died.  He fumbled in the darkness for the emergency phone, but it too was dead.

* * *

     Hikari rubbed her forehead in a doomed attempt to relieve the headache still pounding there and behind her eyes.  She yawned and let her science textbook fall to the floor.  It landed at an odd angle, and the pages splayed out, some folding together messily under the weight of the thickly bound tome.
     Groaning in frustration, tiredness and the physical inertia that had come from lying too long and too comfortably in one place, she got up, unfolded the pages and closed the book properly before laying it squarely back down on her desk.
     She sat back down on the mattress and scratched at her midsection with the fingers of one hand.  She still felt sick to the stomach, six hours after accidentally consuming...what was that anyway?  The beer?  Casting a disgusted look over herself, she stood and inched slowly towards the door to her room.
     She slid the door open and looked back.  Funny, she thought, this used to be Major Katsuragi's room.  She wasn't entirely sure why she'd suddenly come to think of it.  She smirked a little as an image of the horribly disorganized and disheveled living area she'd once had the misfortune to see came back to her.  Well, at least I've got some semblance of order here.
     Ignoring the thought for the time being, she took another antacid.  This was the third of the night.  Hikari closed her eyes, and swallowed it, trying not to think about its dry bitterness.  When they opened again, it was abruptly dark around her.  Groping in the dark, she found the light toggle, and flicked it back and forth a couple of times.
     There was no change in the lighting condition.  At first, she assumed the light bulb had died, but when she made her way back out into the kitchen, she saw that the lamp in her own room had died as well.  And, outside the window, the only illumination came from the half-moon that lit up the balcony.
     That's strange.  There must have been a power failiure in the geofront.

* * *

     Only those awake like Hikari in the city of Tokyo-3 would have noticed when the power went out at two in the morning.  Most were asleep.
     The number of people who noticed in the always-active geofront was far more striking.  Even though the lights stayed on, everything else shut down.  Doors, elevators, escalators, computer terminals, automatic toilets, and a wide variety of other MAGI-controlled appliances.
     "What the hell's happening?"
     Yamashita watched powerless as a huge number of error messages scrolled rapidly past his face.  "I don't know!  A virus, or a bug, or something!  Most of the vital electrical systems are shutting down!  Everything except lights and doors!"
     "Doors are active?"
     "Yes, but they're all power-locked!"
     "What about life-support?  Is it functional?"
     "No, it's been shut down!  We're going to start baking in here once the air conditioner's effects wear off!"
     "Put a trace on it!" shouted Fuyutsuki.  He was aware of the destruction non-scheduled events could cause, he'd seen what had happened at Nevada.  But he didn't think something as annoying but potentially devastating as this would happen.  His mind proposed another solution: SEELE could be behind this problem as well.
     "Sir!  It's blocking the emergency pathways too!  It's engaged the emergency hermetic protocol over the entire base!"
     Fuyutsuki's eyes narrowed.  If an Angel comes, we won't even be able to get the pilots in here.  We'll be sitting ducks.
     Masaharu suddenly jerked upright in his chair.  "Trace completed, sir!  It's coming from inside the building!  Right beneath us!  It's...it's Balthazar!" he shouted, shock, incomprehension and disbelief all evident in his voice.
     Shock ran through the entire Command Centre with Masaharu's announcement.  MAGI Balthazar?  The source of all this?
     "What in the name of..," began Shigeru, looking over his replacement's shoulder at the board that was so familiar to him.  "Why didn't the other two MAGI intercept the command?  How did it circumvent the programming?"
     "I don't know, sir!  There's supposed to be a majority between all three computers on all decisions!  This isn't supposed to happen!"
     Shigeru twisted towards the other side of the bridge.  "Do we have contact with Balthazar?  Get it to end this!"
     Yamashita's chair spun around.  "No, sir!  It's refusing contact from this station!"
     At the very least, thought Fuyutsuki, it isn't SEELE.  "Get the other two MAGI to contact it, then!"
     "Yes, sir!"
     "How could this have happened?  None of the MAGI are supposed to be autonomous in any way!"
     Fuyutsuki ignored the question, as he was thinking about something different.  Evidently, Balthazar had found a way to circumvent all of its core programming and even some hardware blocks.  How it had done that specifically was unknown to him, but neither did it pose any problems for him.  That would eventually be rectified.  What was currently puzzling him was the action Balthazar had chosen to engage.  Why close and lock all the doors in the base?  Why shut down life-support?  Why would Balthazar care about those things?
     "Where's Dr. Robertson?" he asked over the din of error warnings and programming alerts.
     "We can't find him, sir!  All of the security nets are down, too!  According to the schedule, he should have been coming here."
     Effectively, there wasn't anyone available with the necessary expertise to easily fix Balthazar, even if they could identify the problem.  Lieutenant Yamashita could probably handle most of it, but he was ill-prepared to deal with a bio-neural computer of the scale and complexity of the MAGI.
     "Sir!  Balthazar is refusing contact from Melchior and Caspar!  They're being refused on all network lines!"
     "Make the synchronization timing arrythmic and irregular, it'll prevent Balthazar from sending a blocking signal," suggested Shigeru, trying to remember everything Ibuki had once told him about the MAGI.
     "It'll work, sir, but it'll be really slow," answered Yamashita, already implementing the order.
     "It doesn't matter," countered Fuyutsuki, "as long as we can access it and figure out what's wrong.  How long will a diagnostic take at this rate?"
     "With both MAGI?  About two and a half hours."
     "That's still acceptable.  Keep at it."

     Error messages and failiure warnings continued to fill the air over the next thirty minutes as the remaining two MAGI divided their efforts between attempting to repair the damage done by Balthazar's rogue instruction and hacking into their counterpart.
     Still, thirty minutes later, there was no progress on the attempted diagnostic.  Only ten minutes into the attempted diagnostic, Balthazar simply stopped trying to synchronize with the other two MAGI, isolating itself almost completely from the outside world.  Only a handful of its network lines remained open, which it dedicated to the continued transmission of the program required to keep the geofront in a powerless and stagnant state.
     Melchior and Caspar, sensing the discrepancy, immediately rerouted their attempts through those lines, but Balthazar simply switched them to outgoing lines only.
     "It's no use, sir.  Balthazar simply broke off all communication lines.  We can't access it.  At all."
     Fuyutsuki rubbed his forehead with his palm, trying to ease the pain blooming there.  Without Balthazar, the system was far from crippled.  Only one of the MAGI was required to carry out the menial instruction sets that controlled the geofront, each was powerful enough to manage that on its own.  But with that computing power came a great deal of actual power as well.  As Balthazar had just demonstrated, a repetitive signal deactivating the power grids had shut down the entire base.
     Of course, that theoretically was not possible, as such a widely-ranging command would usually have required the complete approval of all three MAGI.  Even though Balthazar had defeated that particular protocol, its orders were still subject to it.  Meaning Balthazar had also appended the electronic signatures of the other two MAGI to the program it was still sending out, most likely along with similarly faked self-countermanding instructions to blunt the attempts of the other two computers.
     Pausing his train of thought momentarily, Fuyutsuki turned back towards the doors, which were still locked.  A group of operators from one of the stations below had attempted to get one open, but it snapped shut as soon as the crowbar they were using slipped out of position.
     With the network lines down, it was going to be impossible to re-establish any kind of contact with Balthazar, meaning it could remain independent for an indefinite amount of time.  Granted, the computers weren't fully autonomous, they did rely on outside power to maintain activation.  However, since all three were hooked into the same power lines, it was impossible to shut down one without doing the same to the others.  And, since the MAGI had never been shut down before, it was unknown what kind of damage could be done to their various systems by cutting out the power in this way.
     There was no simple solution to this problem.  Fuyutsuki didn't want to risk turning off the power, that was a last resort.
     "Very well, then.  Lieutenant Yamashita, do you think you could mediate a direct link between the processors of all three units?"
     "Sir?!"  Yamashita's frown was one of concern and disbelief.  "You mean, connecting the three bio-processors together?  It's never been done!"
     "I realize that.  Can you do it or not?"
     "I...You want me to regulate the link?  I think so...but we don't have an interface that will let me do that personally, sir."
     Fuyutsuki shrugged off Yamashita's protest.  "Then write one.  We don't have any options left."
     "Yes, sir."
     The plan was far from simple, but it appeared it was the only one that could possibly work.  By linking together the neurological 'brains' of the MAGI, the three computers effectively became one, connected by an artificial chiasm that Yamashita would monitor and break off should things go wrong.  Hopefully, the combined power of Melchior and Caspar would be enough to overpower and correct Balthazar's programming.
     Yamashita soon found himself surrounded by stacks of interface boards and coils of cable, while the others were sent to prepare the MAGI for the operation, all under Fuyutsuki's steely eye.

* * *

     A darkened elevator shaft receded out of sight, the shadowy lines marking the corners of the square vertical passage disappearing into a point in the darkness.  Dr. Robertson had spent a few minutes gazing up at that infinity.  His mind had been pondering the question of how such a long power failiure -- it had been at least forty-odd minutes now, according to his watch -- could have occurred in a facility as autonomous as this one.  Granted, it had happened before, but that was SEELE's doing anyways.
     The possibility that SEELE was behind this one too had also come to him as he had struggled with the emergency escape hatch in the elevator's ceiling, but he decided it was simply implausible under the current circumstances.  He decided it had to be a serious problem with the geofront's power generation station.
     Just for practice, and his own amusement, he decided to imagine a hypothetical situation involving an accidental malfunction of the computers that ran that plant.  Say, for example, a virus had managed to pass through the very elaborate programs that protected the MAGI.  It was a truly impossible situation, of course, as the MAGI already knew how to hunt down and eliminate such an inelegant and crude medium of destroying computers.
     The first step, he decided, modelling his idea on medical procedure, would be to quarantine the MAGI from each other, and from the other computers in the base.  That meant shutting off the I/O system and interrupting the communications lines between them.
     The second phase, since the computers were large enough that they could be entered and the component pieces individually identified and examined, would be to do just that.  A skilled specialist -- like himself, he thought, smiling -- could directly access the immediate memory core of the supercomputers and freeze all activity there.
     Then, using a simple interface board, the damaged memory could be easily wiped, before the virus could spread to any of the ten thousand other computers in the geofront.
     As a matter of fact, he thought, taking the thick wire cables in his hands, that solution would work for nearly any screwup with the MAGI.  And, concentrating now on hoisting himself up to the nearest emergency manual door three floors up, he began climbing.

* * *

     "Gross...I didn't think they'd actually look like brains," commented Arashio as she passed Masaharu the leads for the connector slots punctured into the dense neuron matrix that made up Melchior's core.  She shuddered with revulsion as he pushed the needle-sharp potassium-carbon rods into the processor with a squelching sound.
     "Neither did I," said Masaharu, sliding back out into the crawlspace and wiping his hands off on his shirt.  Arashio anchored the wires, and pushed the connector pins into the adapter.
     "Think we'll actually be able to pull this off?  No one here really knows anything about the MAGI.  When she was still here, Dr. Ritsuko did what we just did in less than five minutes.  How long did it take us?  Thirty?"
     "That was just to find the core.  Even with these development notes, it took way too long.  I hope Tatsuo and the commander know what they're doing."  He propelled himself out of the tight space after his co-worker and looked over the railing where Yamashita had set himself up next to Balthazar.  "Melchior is connected," he shouted, "and we're ready to go!"
     "Right," muttered Yamashita, flicking the switch on the impromptu control box.  The other two MAGI had already been warned about what they were supposed to do, and were waiting for him do that.  Before even the mechanical parts of the switch had come together, just as the first spark of electricity leapt across the air between the hundreds of tiny connection plates, Melchior and Caspar had begun.
     Pages of programming and text suddenly materialized and scrolled past his face at extremely high speed, the words blurring together as his computer's pathetically inadequate processor and graphics card tried to keep up with the transmission speed between the MAGI.
     I can't even read any of this, he thought to himself, how the hell am I going to know if anything goes wrong?
     "There's nothing wrong with Balthazar!" shouted Arashio from above him, as Melchior's report appeared in full detail on her screen.
     "What was that?"
     "It checks out as normal, sir!  All the programs, all the hardware, everything!  There's no indication at all that anything's wrong!"
     Fuyutsuki frowned.  "Then why the hell..?"
     Melchior continued to analyze, but gave no answer.
     Yamashita turned his attention back to the screen, where the lines flew past even faster than before.  "Lines at maximum capacity, sir.  Melchior and Caspar and renewing all of Balthazar's programming."
     And the text stalled, and began reversing, again at high speed.
     A new warning alarm sounded in the air, and indicator lights on all of the MAGI control stations flickered rapidly.  Arashio's voice followed it almost instantaneously.  "It's Balthazar!  Cut the link!"
     Yamashita's hand convulsed violently on the switch, disconnecting Balthazar from the others.  His other hand, similarly driven by the barked command, clenched in a tight fist around the wiring leading into the control box, and tore them free.
     The enormous screen at the far end of the command centre suddenly lit up with a schematic representation of the massive computer system.  Red was seeping rapidly from Balthazar into the other two computers.  Caspar appeared to be fighting it off fairly easily, but Melchior was being handily overpowered by the second MAGI before they both initiated the self-defense protocol they'd learned from the incident with the 11th Angel.  Instantly, the progress of the error slowed to a crawl.
     "What just happened?"
     "Balthazar's attempting to reprogram the other two!  We can't stop it!"
     Fuyutsuki had been feeling more or less powerless for the past few hours, but not so much as now.  He was a scientist, but the function of the MAGI was beyond him.  Especially now that Balthazar was acting so erractically and illogically.  The cause of this whole problem would elude him now and forever, of that much he was sure.  He watched as Balthazar continued to proceed with reprogramming Melchior's core.  If this were a human, we'd be finding them a psychiatrist.

* * *

     The lights around the sides of the elevator shaft flickered again, casting their pale light over Dr. Robertson's sweating face.  Normally, climbing a set of ropes wasn't much of a problem for him; he was in pretty good shape for a man of his age and profession.  But when you had to hold yourself still on said ropes long enough to twist a stiffly recalcitrant lever...
     But now, the hatch open and his body partially out into the narrow space that would lead him to freedom, he couldn't help but interpret the flickering lights as a good sign.  Obviously, somewhere, progress was being made.  Grunting with exertion, he pulled his body further into the tight passage, hoping to get somewhere where someone would find him.
     Since his impromptu mental digression on the MAGI, he had since turned his mind towards the fastastically complex and comprehensive security system elaborated and implemented by Dr. Akagi -- talented, for a woman, he admitted -- just prior to Third Impact.  Given that the copies of this supercomputer system were the most powerful in the world, they were the logical choice for SEELE when the attempt at hacking into the original was made.
     He assumed Dr. Akagi had begun work on the system shortly after having disappeared from all of NERV's security logs and even her usual work locations.  After all, such an important project was too important to leave uncovered.
     The program itself, named 666, was essentially a labyrinthine series of quantum instruction sets, all ending in sub-routines that would attempt to crash the hacker.  Only a highly advanced computer had even the slightest chance of successfully breaking through it within any given amount of time.  And Dr. Akagi had designed the program to withstand the efforts of all five of the MAGI duplicates for at least sixty-six hours, hence the name.
     Smiling eagerly in the darkness, he wondered if it would be possible for him to study the program.

* * *

     The red indicators vanished entirely from the crude rectangular image that represented Caspar's program core, and the bridge crew watched in awe as the suddenly hyperactive supercomputer engaged the 666 protocol around itself, shutting itself off from its two companions, one of which had turned against it, and the other which was slowly being converted to the other's cause.
     Effectively, it was now only a matter of hours before Melchior lost its independence entirely, and Balthazar's programming would take effect.  Already, the facility self-destruct had been initiated, and it was only waiting for Caspar's approval before engaging itself fully.
     "How long will it be before the 666 security program wears off if both Melchior and Balthazar are working on it?"
     "Theoretically, 492 hours, there are only two of them as opposed to fifteen, but..."
     "But what?"
     "But they've both got the program inside them already.  It may take a few hours of analysis to work out a solution, but they will break through eventually.  I wouldn't give it more than three or four hours, sir."
     Shigeru winced.  This situation was rapidly deteriorating, and there didn't seem to be anything anyone could do.  The original plan had worked, right up to the point where Balthazar's core programming was being cleaned out and replaced by its couterparts.  Then, without warning, they'd suddenly been forced to contend with a complete reversal of fortune.
     Only Caspar was now funtional, but its hours were counted.
     "Isn't there anything we can do?"
     Fuyutsuki took a deep breath.  The failiure of the attempt to retake control of Balthazar, combined with the impending take-over of Melchior only left one solution: reset.  It was ironic, really.  The MAGI were supposed to be the ultimate in computer technology.  And yet, when all else fails, the solution remains the same as with the earliest computers.
     "Yes.  Caspar still has autonomity, but that will not last long.  We only have one option left to us at this point.  I never thought it would come to this.  We'll turn off the MAGI."
     "But sir...then we'll lose all the programming and the learned patterns they've assembled over the years!"  Yamashita protested, gesturing at the three enormous machines.  "We can't do that!"
     Fuyutsuki would not be swayed.  "The only thing we need more than the MAGI are the Evas and their pilots.  We can sacrifice whatever it is they've put together since their inception.  Much of it we can restore from the back-up files.  The rest is unimportant."
     Yamashita's further protests were turned away as well, despite what he thought were perfectly reasonable objections to the seemingly short-sighted solutions.
     When proposed to MAGI Caspar, it took a full minute for the computer to analyze and weigh the suggestion.  In the end, as Balthazar worked its way around another part of the 666's defence, Caspar finally gave in and accepted the proposition to cut the power for a full restart.
     Each of the three bridge operators was given a key from a safe in Fuyutsuki's desk on the top of the command centre, still accessible by the emergency ladder.  Next to each computer was a small, covered opening in the floor.  These had already been opened that evening, when the computers were lifted out of their protected sinks.  Each opening contained two locks.  One, already open, had enabled the staff to access the MAGI's innards.  The other, hidden beneath a safety cover, would disengage the supercomputers from the power grid.  This, at last, was the one contingency measure no computer could hack around.
     Caspar, having full knowledge of Fuyutsuki's intentions, was allowed to upload the vast majority of its core into the databanks before Yamashita turned the key to the '0' position.  Arashio and Masaharu did the same from their stations near Balthazar and Melchior respectively.
     All activity ceased in the command centre.  The usually ever-present and persistent hum of electricity ceased, all the screens went out, the holograms in the pit vanished.  All that could be heard was the breathing of forty people.  That, too, ceased, as the requisite thirty seconds of dead time was counted off silently by the three holding the keys.  On cue, the keys turned in their locks again.
     The MAGI sunk back into their recessed pits.  The main screen was filled with the boot-up sequence programming, and as they finished their progress normally and resumed operation, a cheer went up from the forty who had just spent their last six hours breathing the same air and panicking.  The lights flickered and came back to life, the doors unlocked themselves audibly, even the coffee machine came back on.
     Fuyutsuki reappropriated the keys from the three bridge operators, one of whom was dead on her feet, and returned them to his safe.
     Yamashita began a diagnostic.  None of the computers had memory of the incident, nor did they recall anything that could not be gleaned from the databanks, except, of course, Caspar, who had already created a dedicated backup of itself the other two could not access.
     "That's it, then, sir," Shigeru concluded, finally feeling a little cheerful, "It's over."
     "Yes," agreed his Commander, "it is."

* * *

     The lights all over Tokyo-3 came back on as they were finally reconnected to the power grids.  Traffic lights and trains alike resumed their operation beneath cloudy, rain-laden skies.
     "How are you feeling now, Hikari?"
     Hikari passed a hand lazily over her stomach and made a face.  "Better, but I still don't feel really well.  I'm mostly sick with myself for not noticing what that was...  I can still taste it."
     Shinji handed Asuka a bowl of soup.  "I guess it's just as well you get up late, Asuka, the stove wasn't working until about fifteen minutes ago.  Hikari said the power was out."
     "Really?"  Asuka gauged the temperature of the bowl and decided it was too hot to drink yet.  "Say, aren't we supposed to be having a harmonics test this morning?"
     Hikari nodded.  "Yeah, but they called.  They've postponed all our activities for the time being."
     "Huh.  We finally get a weekend to ourselves, for once."
     Shinji sat down, depositing the rest of Asuka's breakfast in front of her and putting a pair of chopsticks down next to it.  "I guess Kensuke's probably not too happy about it.  He says he can't wait to start training with the Evas."
     Hikari sat down as well, cradling a cup of tea that she'd put together herself.  "Why would anyone want to?"  She'd always imagined before that piloting the Evas must have been painful, given she'd seen first-hand what had happened to both Touji and Asuka.  But not until she'd heard the screams of her friends over the open communications lines during the last battle did she ever begin to fully comprehend the sheer excruciating scale of the torture it must be.  It still scared her to no end, but she'd also learned to ignore that fear while she wasn't actively engaged in piloting the damn things.  Now that she'd started, there wasn't really any turning back possible any more.  It was a duty that had to be done.  "Why would he?"
     It took Shinji a while to realize the question was directed at him, and a while longer to think about it.  "I really don't know..."
     "He's your friend, isn't he?  You ought to know, Shinji."
     He glanced at Asuka for support, but she was half-way through her soup.  "I'm sorry...  I don't know why..."
     Asuka put down the bowl and picked up her chopsticks.  "Who knows why he does anything, Hikari?"  Shinji felt a small wave of relief wash over him as Asuka recovered his fumble.
     There was a minute pause, and he felt compelled to continue.  "I guess he's just...like that.  He likes the Evas."
     Hikari shook her head.
     For the second time, Asuka's interruption was welcome, as Shinji remained at a loss for words.  "Instant ramen for breakfast?  Is that all we've got?"
     Shinji shrugged.  Frozen food was easier to understand than the people around him.  "I'm sorry...  Just about everything that's supposed to be refrigerated most of the time spoiled.  I'll have to go shopping later today."
     Hikari chuckled, the Evas forgotten for the time being.  "It's not that bad, Asuka, when it's done properly."

* * *

     Even though the MAGI were being re-checked for any last signs of damage or lingering malfunction, all activities not requiring their use were back in full swing.  In fact, most of those off-duty or not in the command centre when they had malfunctioned did not know there had ever been an error, let alone a complete shutdown.
     Among those activities that had resumed -- had they ever stopped? -- were those of NERV's intelligence branch, still devoted for the most part towards finding SEELE's sheathed dagger.
     They had still managed to keep tabs on almost everyone, even throughout the blackout, without their security networks.  Only a small number of the already few resourceful individuals who had tried to escape their imposed imprisonment were not located immediately afterwards.
     One of them was now standing in Fuyutsuki's office.
     "We finally meet, Dr. Robertson."
     "Yes," Fuyutsuki's interlocutor replied ruefully, "because I've spent all morning cleaning up the mess you boys made with the MAGI."
     "I'm sure you must know there was no possible way to predict that occurrance."
     "Nor did you have any idea what you were doing when you tried to fix it."  Dr. Robertson rolled his eyes.  "I was sitting in the dark, isolated from everyone, and I still came up with a better way to do it.  You erased just about everything when you restarted the system.  It'll take forever for the computers to relearn everything they've lost.  Even the 666 protocol disappeared almost entirely.  I can piece it back together, but it'll take time."
     "I'm sure you can," answered Fuyutsuki, remembering what Dr. Masaharu had told him about this man.  "When can we resume normal operation?"
     "I'd say, a day, a day and a half."
     "Very good.  I presume you already know how we maintain the Evas and their pilots, correct?"
     Dr. Robertson nodded smugly.  "Of course."
     "Good.  Then we'll reschedule to begin again on Monday.  Dismissed."
     After Dr. Robertson had left, he was replaced by the hulking, black-suited man from intelligence.  Finally, someone Fuyutsuki could talk to without being questioned.
     "Do we have any progress?"
     "Very little.  We don't have anything more than what we already know, at least for sure."
     "How about surveillance?"
     "We just don't have the manpower to watch everyone twenty-four hours a day.  Only the pilots and the ones we know are working for someone else are getting that kind of treatment.  Whoever it is, they were very careful.  They covered up all the evidence.  We've got nothing to go on."
     Fuyutsuki leaned back and settled deeper into his chair.  "I suppose we won't be able to do anything until they do.  We'll have to pass again."
     He thought about it in silence a little more.  It was rather like playing shoji blindfolded while your opponent was in full possession of his senses.  If you were good enough, you might know where all your pieces were at any given time, because you knew their starting positions, as well as where you'd moved them.  If you were better still, you might know what your opponent had done with his pieces, based on where they'd started, how you knew they moved, and from the sound they made when they landed on the board.
     That was sort of what Gendou had done with SEELE, he thought to himself, smiling.
     Following up on his analogy, he decided to apply it to his own situation.  He was blindfolded, he knew where all of his pieces were, and his opponents'.  All except one.  Somehow, he'd lost track of that one piece.  How could he flush it out?
     Easily.  By bluffing.
     By acting aggressively in the general direction of the piece, he might prompt his opponent to panic, and move his piece back into an exposed position, ripe for capture.
     He smiled again.  "Step up your interviews and surveillance.  Keep an eye on everyone suspicious.  Upgrade your patrols and security checkpoints.  We'll squeeze until they choke."
     "Yes, sir."
     "Oh, and, if you find anything even remotely out of place, I'm giving you authorization to search the offices and living quarters of anyone you think deserves it.  Just do it discreetly, when they're not around."
     "Yes, sir."
     The security man saluted and left.
     This is it, Kihl.  You against me.  Let's see who plays a better game of shoji.

* * *

     Another week gone and still nothing!  What am I going to do?  The suspense is killing me!  Kensuke picked up the training manual that he'd been reading when the lights had gone out, and checked over the quiz he'd given himself.
     "Grid E-5: contains the following.  Eva socket, egress platform (enclosed), two large armament buildings, two missile batteries, one recovery zone.  Perfect."
     He smiled to himself.  At least he'd be ready when they started testing him.
     "Another three days..." he moaned, looking up at the leaden skies through the window.  "Grid E-6:.."

* * *

     "NERV's situation appears to be worsening.  Not only have they been forced to ask the U.N. for more money, but their Evas and the MAGI all have had serious difficulties within the last two weeks."
     "Does this mean we will be able to act soon?"
     The first of the monoliths was adamant.  "Patience.  There are yet more Angels, whose presence could interfere.  And do not forget the report Aaron has sent us recently.  Fuyutsuki is being more careful."
     The second council member's voice broke into the silence.  "Indeed.  Aaron's report has indicated a disturbingly intense level of activity among Fuyutsuki's intelligence staff.  They are resuming their investigations at a higher level."
     "It would not be beneficial to us if Aaron loses his ability to move freely.  We still do not know what other secrets Fuyutsuki may be hiding from us."
     "Very well, then.  Perhaps Aaron should allow the blame for his activities to fall elsewhere."
     That seemed to be the best solution.  By skillfully framing another, Aaron would be enabled to act with near impunity within NERV's infrastructure while they were occupied.
     "As long as the blame does not accidentally fall upon Moses.  They have not contacted each other yet."
     "Of course.  Send Aaron his orders."
     One by one, the black boxes winked out of existence, leaving an empty black room around SEELE's head.
     Once again, Fuyutsuki is meddling in our business.  Again, we will stop him.

* * *

     "Hey, Kensuke!  You walkin' home with us or what?"
     Kensuke turned around momentarily in response to Touji's shouted query.  "No!  I've finally got my first training session!  I can't be late!  Bye!"
     After watching Kensuke's retreating silhouette disappear over the crest of the hill, Touji turned back to Shinji.  "He's really wound up over them, isn't he?"
     "Over what?  The Evas?"
     "Yeah.  I just wish he'd take it a little more seriously.  He could get hurt or something, if he's not careful."
     "He's probably too dense to know what careful is, anyway," added Asuka as she emerged from the school behind them, Hikari in tow, "Let him find out about it for himself."
     Touji turned on her as she draped an arm over Shinji's shoulder.  "Hey!  He's still our buddy, we have a right to care, y'know!  Right, Shinji?"
     "Um...right," he answered, unsure of what to do.  After all, Touji was right.  Kensuke was a little too excited for his own good.  "I think he should get to know sometime..."

* * *

     Unit-16 had passed its reactivation test without incident several days ago, and had been declared stable and usable first by Dr. Masaharu, then by the new chief of scientific development.  Now, it stood in an enormous white room, surrounded by hundreds of cables that dangled from the ceiling and entered the Eva's armoured body at numerous interfaces.
     Because inside, in the entry plug, for the pilot, it wasn't a white room.  The cables supplied the Eva's nervous systems with the false data required for the training simulation.
     "Slow down, Kensuke!  You're losing your balance.  Try it again!"
     The giant stumbled, and recovered itself, nearly losing the palette rifle it cradled in its arms.  Then, a new target presented itself to the pilot, who turned the Eva on its heel, and made it crouch in a firing stance, albeit slightly wobbly.  The end of the trainer palette rifle blinked as Unit-16's index finger pulled back on the trigger.
     "He's not doing too badly, is he?"
     Arashio looked up at Shigeru.  "No, but his synch ratio hasn't improved, either.  He's still at sixteen percent."
     "We're still not sure if that's the fault of the Eva or the pilot," appended Yamashita from his station, where he entered the command to give Kensuke a fresh target, this time a representation of the 7th Angel.
     Again, the Eva turned and fired.
     "Give him the 13th, at a wide angle.  See what he does with it."
     "Yes, sir."
     Again, Yamashita typed in the commands.
     "Kensuke!  Attack!" Shigeru ordered through the microphone.
     It was unneccessary.  The Eva had already turned the seventy-five degrees required to line itself up with the target, and fired.  In the virtual world of the entry plug, the representation of the infected black Eva toppled over and exploded.
     "Next, sir?"
     Shigeru shrugged.  "Give him a few more.  Say, the 3rd, the 18th, and the 19th."  Then, turning to Arashio, "has he seen the other Evas yet?"
     "I think so...he's been to the Cage a few times."
     Once again, the Eva rotated towards a new target and fired.
     "He's got seventeen seconds left on the timer, sir."
     "Just give him anything."
     Arashio pushed her chair away from her station as the entry plug was ejected from the Eva.  "Isn't Dr. Robertson supposed to be in charge of training?  I though Tatsuo here had today off."
     "I do," he confirmed, "he just told me yesterday to take over for him.  Says he's got something more important to do."
     Shigeru rolled his eyes.  "I'll bet.  I haven't seen him doing anything even remotely connected with his job since he got here.  Hell, I've never even seen him in the command centre."
     "Really?  I..."
     They were interrupted by the high pitched whirr of a door opening behind them and the heavy impact of formal shoes on metal.
     "Lieutenant Kayo Arashio?"  The voice lacked any kind of emotion and betrayed no intent.
     She leaned from behind Shigeru, whose body was blocking her line of sight to the door.  "Hi, that's me."
     The intelligence man's voice remained flat.  "You'll come with us, please."
     Arashio frowned, uncomprehending.  "Sure...just give me a second to get my stuff together."  She stood and began packing her files into a neat stack.
     "You can leave those.  You won't be needing them."
     "What?"

* * *

     "Any progress?"
     "Not really.  She's been placed in an isolation room.  The specialists are still watching her."
     "What are they saying?"
     "The usual.  She's scared and confused.  It could still be a programmed response.  We haven't told her anything yet, so there's been no explicit reaction."
     "Keep it up for a couple more hours.  If there isn't any change, terminate the isolation and begin the interrogation."
     "Yes, sir."

* * *

     Masaharu watched as a different person stepped onto the command bridge and took the chair in between him and Yamashita.
     "Isn't this normally Arashio's shift?"
     "Yeah, why?"
     "Is she sick or something?"
     Yamashita's eyebrows shot up in surprise.  He leaned in closer and dropped his voice to a whisper.  "What, you haven't heard yet?  Rumor has it intelligence finally caught the ones who blew the launch platforms."
     "You're not serious."
     Yamashita looked around again.  "They walked in after we finished training the Seventh with the palette rifle, see?  And they just took her and left.  Like that.  No one's seen her since."
     Masaharu was incredulous.  "That's...so totally absurd!  Her?"
     Yamashita silenced him with a look, then pointed up at the command tower.  "We're not supposed to know.  And you know what they say: watch out for the ones that look innocent."

* * *

     A tiny sliver of light appeared in the wall next to Arashio, and it rapidly grew into a brilliant rectangle that spilled over onto the floor.  The large red logo on the wall next to her appeared out of the darkness, and she shielded her eyes from the brilliance that stung them.
     "Lieutenant Kayo Arashio."
     It was the same voice as before, with the same lack of intonation.
     The lights in the ceiling came on in sequence, scattering their harsh stare over the entire room.  Her eyes adjusted gradually, and the glare resolved itself into the dull metal plates that typically made up the walls of every building in the geofront.
     "What's going on?" she asked timidly.
     The room was completely empty, and she felt very small in the empty space.  The two men who had brought her here entered the room.  The larger of the two was carrying a metallic box, while the other carried a small collapsable chair.  This he unfolded in front of her, and his partner placed the box on its seat.
     "What do you know about these objects, Lieutenant?"  It was less of a question than a fact, the way he said it.  If not for the interrogative that began his sentence, it would certainly have been one.
     The box with the objects he was referring to had a rim high enough that she couldn't see inside from her slightly slumped position.  With one hand, she reached up and tipped it slightly towards her.  Inside, carefully wrapped in plastic bags, were a number of items that were unfamiliar to her.
     "I...I don't know...sir.  What are they?"
     The man continued to look directly at her from behind his dark glasses.  It was very disconcerting, she thought.  It kind of made her skin crawl.
     "These are, without a doubt, the very tools required to initiate the 'accident' of two weeks ago.  Everything one would need to accomplish the deed."
     She looked up at him from the box.  "What does this have to do with...oh."  Her voice grew weak as the pieces of the puzzle snapped together.  It took a while before she found the strength to protest the accusation.  "But...but I've never...seen these before...  I don't...even know what..."
     An eyebrow appeared above the rim of the glasses.  "And yet, they were discovered among your personal effects in your quarters."
     "What?"

* * *

     It is normally quite difficult for any one person to completely clear their mind of any and all thoughts at any given time.  To do so for the half-hour or so required to fully evaluate the synchronization between an Eva and the pilot was near impossible for Kensuke, whose consistently fluctuating readings were apparently caused by an over-excited state of mind.  This warranted several reminders from those conducting the test, especially a particularly cranky and impolite Dr. Robertson.
     Nonetheless, a stable reading was finally coaxed out of a finally and thankfully calmer Kensuke, and the harmonics tests resumed.
     As usual, as it had been since NERV had finally pulled itself together enough to recover the then confused and overwrought pilots of Unit-01 and Unit-02, Shinji and Asuka had no difficulties, even improving their scores negligeably: quarters of a percentage were generally disregarded, but they still drew attention and admiration, as it was difficult to believe they were still maintaining that level of proficiency.
     The only two cases that truly garnered any serious amount of attention, however, were those of the two other pilots.  For example, Hikari's synch ratio appeared to have inexplicably worsened since the last test.  Not by much, but it was there.  Touji's, too, had descended somewhat, levelling out just under 50 percent.
     Touji's difficulty, of course, appeared to be related to what had happened during the fight with the last Angel, that had ultimately resulted in severe damage to the Eva and an exceptionally longer stay at NERV's hospital than the pilots generally earned after combat.
     The specifics of that battle were running through Hikari's mind as she listened to the faintly chromatic hum of the harmonics test plug.  Arguably, had anyone actually known what she was thinking, this was the cause of her lesser performance.
     Touji's presence among the Eva pilots frequently linked the two together in her mind.  During this test, and the last one, she'd found it difficult not to think about him while concentrating on the Evas.  Much to her chagrin, she found it equally difficult to dissasociate the Evas from him.
     In any case, the thing that was bothering her the most was Touji's pig-headed refusal to abandon his untenable defensive position during the last Angel incident.  It wasn't a simple matter of following orders.  From what she'd resurrected from the panic-clouded remains of her own memory of his act, he'd disobeyed Captain Shigeru's direct order to retreat, even avoiding it when the platform supporting his Eva was pulled away.
     So did he do it for her?  It seemed to be the only logical explanation.  And yet, it didn't add up.  If he really did care that much, why did he continue to ignore her at school?
     She knew he wasn't as stupid as Asuka made him out to be, but if there was no reason for what he'd done, Hikari dejectedly thought she might have to agree with her friend on this one.
     Despite her best efforts to get his attention, albeit discreet and polite, he still didn't seem to take any interest in her.  On the days she did make him lunch, he took it enthusiastically; when she didn't, he didn't notice, and went about his usual purchases in the school shop.
     At the same time, though, she remembered that he had been the only one other than Asuka to inquire about what the teacher had talked to her about in front of the class.  She couldn't decide if he really cared, or if he knew she existed.
     Why can't I understand him?
     Another question came to her, unasked for, but there nonetheless.
     Why aren't you doing more about it?
     It was an internal voice she was unfamiliar with, and even in her mind, it sounded surprisingly different from the self she and others knew.
     Granted, she was timid by nature, but was there anything she could have done to make him see?  Asuka, certainly, would be able to offer her some sort of advice along those lines.  Unfortunately, her own affection for Shinji was so visibly blatant, that it occasionally approached the limits of what Hikari considered public decency.  That would never do, not that way.
     Perhaps she could have been present at the hospital again, after what had happened during the battle against the last Angel.  That would have been a simple and clear statement of how she felt.  The thought occurred to her that Touji might have caught on just a little during her visit that first time...
     Cheered by the thought, she cleared her mind and returned to the harmonics test.  Those observing noted a minor upwards recovery of a half percent.

* * *

     A feint?  No.  It wasn't a false move.
     A reaction?  Hardly.  It was well calculated, not rash or sudden.
     A capture?  Not even close.
     Fuyutsuki found there was little in his repertoire of shoji strategy that would fulfill his analogy for the current situation.  Since this was the case, he decided it was best to abandon it for now.  Better not to trap his mind in one specific line of thought.  Flexibility was key.
     So then, what was this?  A distraction.  A simple, unequivocable distraction.  Something to keep intelligence busy with until it was too late.
     Lieutenant Arashio seemed innocent.  Her alibis checked out, they'd been verified by numerous strangers.  What's more, there was no indication on the evidence that she'd ever touched them with her hands.  She'd also been home several times since the intelligence department had been ordered to step up operations, which would have given her ample time to hide whatever she needed to.  None of the pieces fit together well.  There was only circumstantial evidence on which to base any accusation.  But still, if she was the one, he couldn't afford to keep her anywhere near the base.
     What to do now, then.  He leaned back in his chair and mulled over some of the possibilities.  He always wondered why Ikari had kept Kaji around, as it had become fairly clear early on that Kaji really had a knife in everyone's back.  Not deep enough to kill, just enough to look inside the wound.
     And then, what role did Kaji really fulfill?  He didn't do anything for intelligence.  He didn't really do anything for SEELE, either.  He wasn't an errand boy, he never had anything to do.  And who knew what he'd actually told the Japanese Government.  Probably as little as he told anyone else, but enough to keep them happy with his work, enough so that he could receive information in exchange.
     Of course, there was the one time Kaji had brought him in front of the council, but that was really just incidental, after all.
     So, really, Kaji's job at NERV was just an envoy from SEELE, sent to watch Ikari.  Something Ikari allowed, and why?  Ikari had let Kihl play his little game.  Because there was nothing Kaji knew about Ikari's other pet projects, the ones that would interfere with SEELE's plans.
     Fuyutsuki snorted in amusement as an elegant solution to his problem presented itself to him.  It had been too easy for Ikari to fool SEELE before.  He wondered if it would work again.
     Let Kihl have his fun.  Let him think he's fooled me.  Let him believe I was tricked.
     Send Lieutent Arashio away.  Hide her somewhere for a while.  Out of the country, perhaps.  Out of Kihl's sight, anyway.  If she was indeed guilty, she would be in no position to do any harm.  And if she was, she would have to attempt contacting her superiors at some time.  If she wasn't, it was a paid vacation for her, and the true double agent might very well expose themselves accidentally, thinking they were free from suspicion, free from inspection, free from the relaxing eye of NERV's intelligence.
     Either way, he couldn't lose.

* * *

     It was a Tokyo-3 waste management worker who discovered the corpse, two days later.  A young woman, of no more than thirty years of age, with moderate-length black hair and wearing a partially shredded NERV uniform, of a Lieutenant's rank.  Four tightly clustered bright red splotches of the front of the body's chest could be identified by even a layman as the cause of death.
     As this was a NERV matter, the police handed the investigation over to Section 2, NERV's own investigative force.  The body was carefully placed in a transport container and driven back into the geofront.  Security around the crime scene was tight for several days as a small number of technicians crawled over the site, then evaporated.
     The last anyone saw as the body officially reported as having belonged to Lieutenant Kayo Arashio was a limp, waxy hand being shoved into the white plastic crate before the lid was closed and sealed.

* * *

     "It would appear Aaron was successful.  Fuyutsuki's intelligence branch does not suspect him as of yet.  He has not been approached."
     "Aaron reports that Section 2 has ceased pursuing its activities with the same vigor and depth as before.  It seems they executed the puppet."
     "Then the smokescreen has served its purpose.  Once again, we will be able to utilize him as a most valuable resource.  Fuyutsuki may believe he has found Aaron."
     The ghostly disembodied voice of the council's tenth member resonated in the darkness as it cautioned its peers.  "To employ Aaron again so quickly would only endanger him and expose us to the very people we wish to disrupt.  It would be unwise to act in that fashion."
     Anywhere else, such a divisive statement would have invited debate or argument.  As always, however, this council was united of mind and purpose, and none contradicted the warning.  "Indeed.  And we still have Moses, who can act as our primary tool until Aaron can be safely reactivated."
     With this item resolved, the next rose to discussion.  "Aaron's final report on the MAGI indicates that Fuyutsuki has an additional resource.  It cannot be confirmed as yet."
     During the confused and chaotic aftermath of the MAGI's malfunction, Aaron had taken the opportunity to filter through what remained in the supercomputers' database and memories.  Almost nothing that SEELE didn't already know was to be found, save a fragment of a translation program elaborated within Melchior's static memory.  "If this item truly carries the significance Aaron believes it has, it would be a definite cause for great concern."
     "We cannot allow Fuyutsuki to hold such a powerful resource.  Inevitably, he will use it against us."
     "Then that will be the new task for Moses and Aaron.  Observing Fuyutsuki is no longer a problem.  He does not have the same ambitions as Ikari."
     That was true enough.  Fuyutsuki had had no conscious part in Ikari's interference with Human Instrumentality, and was not experimenting with the nature of the Evas.  His goal, as it appeared to the council, was the simple and short-sighted defence against the Angels.  Despite the delivery of three additional Evas to Tokyo-3 from Canada, Great Britain and Russia, they were all base production models, lacking any of the characteristics that would have made them valuable to SEELE.  As such, they were incidental.  Inconsequential.  Nuisances, at best, when it came to the council's objectives.
     All Fuyutsuki was doing was digging in, holding his ground.
     Nevertheless, he knew the scope of the threat SEELE posed, and was too smart to disregard them in the same fashion.  The old men disguised behind their monoliths knew it too.  And, now that they had been warned of the possibility that Fuyutsuki knew more and controlled more events than they did, they knew he would have to be deprived of his tools, as they had once.
     But proof was still needed.  No one could be sure what Fuyutsuki knew without discovering it themselves.  Or, unless Fuyutsuki was somehow induced to let slip his tongue.  Or, unless it became blatantly obvious that Fuyutsuki could read and initiate preemptive action against the future, defying it as they had, as Ikari had, because he knew.
     That was what they were watching for.  And, instinctively, many of them knew their suspicions would soon be justified.  Many of them knew that when they were, they would be faced with greater difficulties than ever before. 1