EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 41: Slaying Cassandra / Libra

     "Excuse me...  Does anyone know where I could find Dr. Robertson?  These are the lab's finished test results."
     Masaharu spun around in his chair, facing the fresh-faced corporal on what appeared to be delivery duty.  "Absolutely," he answered, straight-faced.  "Practically no one's seen him these last few days.  He's spent almost all his time cooped up in there."
     His crooked finger pointed downward, over the edge of the command tower, to the lower level where Balthazar was still extruded from the deck.
     "When he's not in there, he goes straight home.  He hardly talks to anyone."
     The young man, leaned over the edge himself, staring owl-eyed at the pillar of twisted piping below them.
     "Should I bring this down to him, then?" he asked, holding up the manila folder.
     "Sure."  Masaharu gestured to one of the two hatches in the bridge's deck.  Each was an elevator of sorts, a quick way of changing levels without having to go all the way around.
     As the young man disappeared into the floor, Arashio turned to stare at her co-worker, too late to stop either the elevator or the delivery.  "That wasn't nice," she uttered, appalled.
     "What?  I told him the truth, didn't I?"
     Arashio rolled her eyes at his defence.  "You know Dr. Robertson doesn't want any one in there but himself!  He'll just start screaming at that poor kid, and then who knows what he'll do."
     As if on cue, Dr. Robertson's voice rang out from the bowels of the MAGI, somehow echoing throughout the entire Command Centre, despite the fact that he was sitting in that confined space.
     "What the hell are you doing in here?!  Go!  ...No, I don't care!  Get out!  ...Is that a firearm?  I said, is that a firearm?  Chrissakes, you're bringing a weapon into a computer!  This...is...a...computer!  Do you hear me?"
     Leaning over the bridge, Masaharu grinned in amusement as the soldier stumbled and scrambled his way free of the loose wiring all over the deck and ran for the doors.  The scientists gathered below watched him go with a knowledgeable pity, but said nothing, for fear of bringing down yet more wrath upon themselves.
     That kind of luck ceased to exist once Dr. Robertson got riled.  For the first time in several days, he crawled out of the tube himself, and drew himself up to his full height.  "Who the hell let him in here with a gun?!  This is the world's most complicated and delicate computer system of all time, and possibly one of the most important resources in this whole goddamn base!  It's already broken, and I for one am not going to spend more of my time trying to fix it if something else happens!"
     For obvious reasons, a holstered weapon with the safety on posed very little threat to anything, more so since NERV personnel, even the soldiers, generally did not walk around with them loaded.  Still, no one had the guts to say anything, and there was never any guarantee that Dr. Robertson would even listen, given his current mood.
     Masaharu sat down again, out of sight, before Dr. Robertson noticed his form peeking over the rail.
     "See?" admonished Arashio as Dr. Robertson began laying out a few more impromptu regulations at the top of his voice, "I told you."

     His eyes still shooting flame with every glance, Dr. Robertson crawled back into the dark, humming apparatus of the MAGI, seating himself again before the pulpy greenish-grey orb that was Balthazar.  The first time he'd seen it, he'd regarded it with keen interest, unlike most others, who saw it with a fair amount of revulsion.  To him, it wasn't worse than any dissection or operation could be.
     He hardly even noticed it any more, his attention now focused on the holographic screen in front of him as he mapped out its interior, looking through the immensely complex web of neurons.
     Nearly a week of continuous work was beginning to pay off.
     Despite the fact that this part of the MAGI was supposed to be used purely as a processor, receiving external data and modifying it as required by the MAGI's programming, he had discovered, quite by accident, that it had actually been maintaining a biological memory.
     While the secrets of memory in the human brain were still a mystery, he had located a number of sectors which were somewhat isolated from the rest of Balthazar's own 'brain', and were not used for processing.  Mapping them out had proved to be a most time consuming task.  For the most part, they were partly buried, but still indirectly accessible through the interface leads.
     He hadn't expected the mapping to provide him with much information; it gave only the position of each neuron and the extensive network of dendrites and axons surrounding each one.  What was most remarkable, however, was the fact that each neuron was constantly active, cycling the same electrical potential through themselves in the same patterns at a constant rate...even when Balthazar as a whole was idle.
     Despite all the advancements in computing -- artificial intelligence, biological processors, and the like -- everything, even the MAGI, was still based on binary code.  In most computers this was the fault of the lowly transistor.  The disadvantage, therefore, was that they could only consider two possibilities for each and every problem: true or false, right or wrong, left of right.  Nuances were lost, creativity and subjectivity sacrificed.
     The advantage of biological processors like those that made up the MAGI, however, was that that each neuron could direct a electrical impulse down one of many pathways, resulting in multiple possibilites...shades of grey.  However, binary code still persisted in the MAGI for an entirely different reason; that an electrical impulse can only represent two possibilities: on, and off.  While these binary pulses could be directed down one of nearly infinite pathways for the holistic and universal analyses that made up the MAGI's strengths, they remained binary.
     This was what Dr. Robertson understood.  By having the other two MAGI interpret the cycles in each memory sector which had been previously identified and mapped out, they had produced a large number of files.
     Most of the files were part of a well-ordered organization tree; sorted, classified, encrypted and compressed as most were within the MAGI's databanks.  Most of them were old, and due to limitations in the equipment he was using, they were probably full of corruption.  On the other hand, and even more intriguing, were those that had been identified outside the file tree.
     These files, if they could be called that, contained within the gaps, were not in any recognizable code.  And if this was the unconscious doing of the MAGI...well, it might yet make him believe the computers were alive.
     Over the last several days, he'd been working on a way to decrypt the 'lost' data, as Yamashita had put it.  And it seemed to be working.  He'd extracted several heavily disrupted, static-filled, borderless images from the mess, and had even been able to recover some sounds.  These, however, were too scrambled to make sense of, even with the help of several filters and re-encryption programs.
     Locked within the MAGI, surrounded by the steady hum of electricity ringing behind the metal, he finally dredged up the monochromatic images for one last look.  Fascination and curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he hadn't been able to help himself from taking the images for himself.  It would be a shame to lose them, with what he had to do next.
     What was most shocking about the images was their contents.  The MAGI received input from the security cameras strewn around the base at all times, and yet, the pictures had not been taken from ceiling corners or from against walls.  Instead, most of them seemed to be focused at head height, in the centre of rooms or hallways.
     There were many images of NERV's previous Chief of Scientific Development, Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, in her younger days.  In some, he could have sworn there was a Gehirn logo off to one side, which was puzzling, since the MAGI hadn't yet been activated in those days.
     The clearest of the images, however, was particularly horrific, as it depicted a pair of hands locked around the throat of a child.  The neck, a fragile, white stem, hung at an sick angle, and the face was obscured in shadow.  Even though he wasn't exactly a licensed physician, it was too easy for him to tell that it was the picture of a premature, artificial death.
     He wondered how the memories of a murderer had infiltrated themselves here, into the cold shell of a machine.  There was no explanation that he could even imagine.
     There were more images, too, but these were in identifiable formats, and easily translated onto the screen he had brought with him.  Most likely, they had been created after the MAGI's activation, when whatever controlling force within the computers was linked for eternity with the machine.  Again, these were focused on a single subject, almost like an obsession.  There were perfect duplicate records of all the Unit-16 incidents, from its initial activation to its rampage through the cages, and even from each of the Angel battles where it had nearly been destroyed.
     Less startling, however, was his discovery of the hidden instruction sets that had caused the two malfunctions.  It was no wonder the other two MAGI had been unable to discover the error, as it was embedded not in Balthazar's electronic memory, but in its true memory.  Balthazar had kept perfect records of these two events, and appeared to be in the process of writing a third.
     Unsure of what to make of all this, Dr. Robertson ultimately decided he would not mention it in his report, and focus instead on repairing the machine aspect for future use.
     If he could even consider it a machine.
     Like everything designed by NERV, it seemed to have a nature both natural and artificial, and, while he was loathe to destroy the uniqueness of Balthazar's strange, murderous conscience, it had to be done.
     He put down the interface board on his lap and lifted another.  He'd already programmed the interface leads to 'overload' those few, isolated sectors with electrical energy...just enough to destroy them without affecting the rest of the computer.  His thumb came down on the activation key, and less that a microsecond later, it was done.  He replaced the cover on Balthazar's now obedient core and set about welding it in place.
     He was uncommonly silent for the rest of the day.  He certainly felt like he'd just destroyed something truly worth studying.

* * *

     Rain splattered in ever-intensifying waves against the panes of the house, rushing audibly through the gutters and running down the glass in miniature torrents.  For Touji, it had already been a long day, and it didn't look like things were going to improve any time soon.
     His mood wasn't particularly bright, either, what with the steady drumming of droplets against his uncovered head.  Constantly forming and being dashed apart on his forehead were innumerable clear beads of water, riding along his normally upright hair.  At the moment, it had fallen, soaked to the core much as he was himself.
     Shrugging his shoulders once beneath his sodden black tracksuit, he glanced around the abandoned school courtyard, and set off.  It seemed Kensuke had decided to leave without waiting for him, and it was a ludicrous amount of time for anyone to have spent in the washroom.  An umbrella wasn't typically something he carried with him, and it had seemed nice enough in the morning to eschew bringing one.
     Cursing himself for being so stupid, he kicked a pebble and watched it tear ripples in the smooth, seamless surfaces of a few large puddles before skidding to a stop on the wet pavement.  Scowling as another heavy sheet of water washed over him, he left the school grounds and began to head home.
     Twice, passing cars had tried to drench him further, but he'd managed to avoid them, if only just barely.  Mari was probably already home, he thought, letting his hand slap against a lamp post as he trudged past it.  He arrived at an intersection, and lifted his head to check for the pedestrian signal.
     The silhouette of a man, red against a black background, was a sure enough indication that he would have to wait another minute in the rain.
     Wiping the thin film of accumulated water off his brow, he looked around.  The streets were faily full, by Tokyo-3's standards.  Three other people stood by the intersection.  Ahead of him, two older ladies were crossing the street, perpendicular to his route.  On the side they'd come from, near the geofront access on the corner, stood a student, probably about Touji's age, lackadaisically swiping an identification card through a reader...
     Touji frowned.
     "Hey!  Kensuke!  Wait!" he shouted, finally identifying him positively through the grey wash of the rain, "Just a sec!"
     Kensuke had disappeared, the doors to the access area closing behind him.
     Nearly slipping in a puddle into the path of an oncoming car, Touji rushed across the road before the signal had changed.  This was, in fact, the intersection where Kensuke usually left him.
     Digging through his own bag, Touji realized he'd left his own security card at home, not expecting to need it.  That made two things.
     "Aw, damn!" he shouted, kicking the grey steel door.  By the time he came back, Kensuke would have disappeared for good.  Growling as his own slowness, he hiked the rest of the way back to his home with his shoulders hunched and a steady trickle of water dribbling off the end of his nose.
     At that moment, he wanted nothing less than to get home and towel off.

* * *

     One of NERV's many silent elevators rose at high speed from Central Dogma towards the geofront.  These elevators were nearly always in use, connecting the dozens of floors of facilities to each other and to the surface.  Some linked into the geofront proper, others were joined directly to the facilities built into the walls of the massive underground cavern.
     Shigeru, who had just finished showing Desaint a night shift, now found himself
trapped with the inquisitive and naïve Inspector inside said elevator as it rushed towards
the immense hollow that NERV had been built around.
     "What will the cost of repairing the MAGI come to?  Surely such a serious error will require extensive maintenance or even replacement."
     Another glance at his clipboard only reinforced Shigeru's negative response.  "Other than overtime pay for a few scientists, nothing, really.  Apparently it was a program error.  Nothing showed up in the hardware, according to Dr. Robertson."
     "Are we sure of this, then?  Can you give us your assurance that these incidents will not be occurring any longer?"
     Shigeru sighed, staring at the wheel that was counting off the floors, mentally begging it to turn faster.  "Yes, already.  You can tell the U.N. council that we won't be having any more difficulties with the MAGI.  Dr. Robertson's staked his reputation on it."
     Desaint gave a partially satisfied snort, then leaned his ponderous bulk against the wall of the elevator.
     "To be perfectly frank, Captain, I haven't found a way to explain some of the things I've found here to my superiors."
     "Oh?"
     "Some of the phenomena here are quite beyond my reach.  My job is extremely difficult, sometimes, because the line between use and misuse is so often blurred.  I am quite used to looking for fraudulent accounts and inappropriate purchases, but these things are so different.
     "What would qualify as a misuse of international funding?  The Evas themselves are beyond my scope.  Some of the technology being employed here clearly violates many international ethical standards normally enforced for bio-tech corporations..."
     Shigeru blinked, stunned by his oversight.  Commander Fuyutsuki had clearly stated that he vet all reports being provided to Desaint and his men.  He had, of course, been doing this, but somehow he'd forgotten to check the ethical conventions regarding cloning and genetic manipulation, among others.
     "...not to mention quite a few other trangressions of scientific law," continued Desaint.  "My concern is that I know the difficulties being faced by this organization in fighting the Angels alone.  So far, I've found myself unable to report any of the serious finds I've made, since I know how it is being used.  On top of that, I've also learned some disturbing things since my arrival: scientific confirmation that we have souls, for example.  Just what, in your opinion, is the primary purpose of NERV, Captain?"
     Shigeru thought that one over for a while.  He thought he'd known, once, but many of the events over the last nine, almost ten months had convinced him otherwise.  It was still best to stick with the official line.
     He shrugged.  "Defeating the Angels.  Safeguarding humanity."
     "Of course.  And yet, why do I always have the impression that there is always something much more sinister going on, right under my nose?  Or is it simply the reputation Commander Ikari and Dr. Akagi built?"
     "In the past, you might have been right," replied Shigeru, as the doors opened on a geofront filled with the light of a new day.  For now, he had confidence that Commander Fuyutsuki wasn't hiding anything too peculiar.  After all, there were no real signs.  None of the current pilots was as strange as the First Child, there were no dummy plugs, nothing too different from day-to-day preparations for the next Angel, when it came.
     Nevertheless, he still had lingering concerns about Terminal Dogma, the room with the diagrams, and Commander Fuyutsuki's strange absence.  "I think Commander Fuyutsuki always disliked Ikari's way of doing things, so I doubt you have much to worry about," he said, injecting a note of finality into his voice.
     Desaint nodded slowly.  "Hmm.  Well, thank you.  I will see you later."
     On that, he climbed into the waiting car and left.  Shigeru turned on his heel, and headed on his own for the egress escalator, illuminated obliquely by the morning light entering the geofront through the roof.  He'd have to be more careful about what information found its way to whom in the future.

* * *

     Fifteen minutes late, as always, Asuka dragged herself from Shinji's bedroom into the kitchen, disheveled and not entirely conscious of the world around her.
     "Hey, baka.  What happened to all the towels?"
     "Um...check your bed.  Hikari did the laundry yesterday, I think."
     Sensing that Asuka would surely be able to find her personal stack of towels in her room, he turned back to the stove.  Hikari, for some reason, always laid out fresh laudry in their respective rooms, in neatly folded piles on the bed, rather than leaving the bags of automatically wrapped clothes and miscellaneous fabrics out in the kitchen, waiting to be claimed, as Shinji did.
     "Which one?" she shouted back, laughing, already half-way into the short hallway between their official rooms.
     Shinji blushed slightly, and focused himself back on his task of preparing breakfast, as marked on the calendar.  Without a doubt, Asuka would never tire of poking fun at him and the way he always seemed to grow timid around any mention of their shared intimacies.
     Not that he was truly embarrassed or uncomfortable, only that he knew Hikari was within audible range.  The tell-tale falling of water from the washroom had ended several minutes ago already, meaning that she had finished her shower, and was probably listening.
     This was verified not only by her subsequent appearance in the kitchen through the washroom's accordion door, but also by the curious and ever-scandalized stare she gave him before disappearing into her room.  Shinji's face flushed a deeper shade of red.
     "Is Hikari done yet?" Asuka asked, poking her head past the open curtain, then slipping beyond it.  "I notice you didn't wait for me this morning," she added, implanting disappointment into her voice.
     "...I...I didn't want to wake you up..," Shinji stammered, suddenly unsure of himself.
     "Yeah, I know.  Baka," she said in a sing-song that could only mean she was mocking him again.  Shinji sighed in incomprehension and watched her disappear behind the curtain.
     Since the apartment itself was so small, and contained three people, it was hard to avoid the kind of chaos that ensued just about every morning.  Shinji, for his part, simply found that staying to the side was the best way to escape getting caught up in the confusion.  With the kitchen finally evacuated, both Asuka and Hikari being occupied elsewhere, Shinji took the few moments of silence granted to him to feed a desperately squawking Pen-Pen and himself.
     He hadn't gotten much past three or four mouthfuls by the time Hikari reintroduced herself into the room, giving the eating bird a quick pat on the head.
     Shinji forced himself to finish off what food he still had in his mouth as quickly as possible.  "I'm sorry," he muttered, still chewing, and stood to get Hikari her own plate.
     "Don't worry.  I'll get it," she said, beating him to the stove quite easily.
     Shaking her head in some amusement, Hikari sat down across the table from him.  She was unable to restrain herself much longer, and let a thin chuckle escape into the air between them.  Shinji stared, not seeing what was so funny.
     "Did...did I burn something?"
     This only made Hikari shake her head harder, and she was practically giggling outright.  "No...no.  'Baka.'  ...I'm sorry."
     "What?"  Shinji blinked, frowning slightly.
     "Seriously, Shinji.  How often does she call you an idiot?" Hikari asked, calming herself a little.  "Let's say, each day."
     "I don't know.  A few times, I guess.  I...I don't mind, really," he returned, not understanding where she was going with this.  "I kind of...like it, I guess."
     "Of course you do.  You two are so weird."
     She turned to her breakfast.  In the two weeks since her return, they had seen Hikari's ravenous restorative appetite return to somewhat normal levels.  He decided to wait a while longer to see if she was going to say any more, and when it appeared that she wasn't, he picked up his chopsticks again.
     She surprised him in mid-bite again.  "I think it's really good, you know.  Other than, well...you know."  Shinji blushed anew.  "I must have missed something important when I was gone, because I've noticed you two seem to be a lot closer since then.  Especially you.  You're more, well, relaxed, I suppose."
     Unable to think of anything to say in response, Shinji began chewing slowly again.
     "It must be nice, having someone to hold hands with, or talk to all the time.  Like when we walk back from school."
     Shinji nodded slowly, not looking up.  "Well...yeah."  Outside, the cicadas were chirping in the trees and among the grass as the sun rose higher.  "It...is.  Nice, I mean."  He glanced at his hands momentarily, feeling Asuka's fingers there through the hazy, yet perfect, medium of recollection, intermixed with his own as they had been earlier, before he'd gotten up.
     Hikari watched engrossed as Shinji sank into a wandering memory or some similarly ambulant thought, lost to the world.  Either way, it was a certain indication that she was right, and it felt quite pleasant to be able to confirm what she already suspected to be true.  It was an odd sort of pride, rooted as it was in their imprudent affection and bliss -- which she had always claimed was too close for an unmarried couple.
     Nonetheless, as always, she found she envied the detached, inwardly focused expression of peace of Shinji's face, as similar tranquility was something of a rarity in the world around her.  And if only she could get the chance to experience something similar, preferably in the near future...it depended on her, really.
     "I'm...I'm not bothering you with this, am I?" she asked as his mind snapped back into reality, and his face suffered yet another slight reddening when he noticed she was still there.
     "No," he replied, "Not really."
     "It's just that it looks like I'm embarrassing you a little, that's all."
     Shinji bit his lip.  "Well..."
     Hikari let herself take a closer, more analytical, look, now.  Granted, everyone was different, but she'd been a class representative for too long.  Certainly long enough to know that Shinji was fidgeting for a reason.  "I'm sorry.  I couldn't help it."
     "That's okay..," he mumbled, "I'm just not used to...talking...about her."  He grinned nervously, and began playing idly with his food.
     Puzzled, Hikari rejoined the conversation again.  "Why not?"
     "Oh, I don't know..."  Shinji paused, thinking.  "I don't think I've ever really talked about Asuka with anyone, yet."
     "Well, there's a first time for everything, right?"
     Shinji supposed so.  After all, Asuka had told him more than once to 'loosen up' when he was in public, only it was so very antithetical to all his previous experiences that he'd never really been able to manage it quite to her liking.
     The water stopped falling in the neighbouring room for the third and last time that morning.  Hikari looked panicked for a second.  "Ah...Shinji...  There was actually a favour I was going to ask you, if that's okay?"
     He shook himself out of thought.  "Sure.  What is it?"
     "You're good friends with Touji, aren't you?  No, you are his friend."  It was her turn to feel the blood creep up into her cheeks, and her voice dropped to a whisper.  "You'll talk to him today, right?"
     "Yeah...why?"
     "Could you ask him...no, better yet.  Does he ever talk about me?  Other than complaining about class chores, I mean."
     Shinji stared at the ceiling for a second.  "Um...I...I don't know.  He was trying to figure out where you were when you were, uh, absent.  And I think he was always pretty pissed off at NERV for not telling us.  Why do you ask?"
     "I...I'd like to get to know him better, that's all..."
     He heard her start to say something more, but she broke it off as Asuka pulled the accordion door to the washroom open again and stepped out in her school uniform.
     "Hikari!" she shouted, mimicking her friend's commanding voice, "Why aren't you dressed for school yet?  We're going to be late!"
     They both burst out laughing, leaving Shinji completely lost and looking back from one to the other and back again.  In any case, Asuka hadn't yet eaten, and he went to fetch
her breakfast from the counter.
     Under the bubbling storm of their chatter and Pen-Pen's incessant keening tinkled the sound of ceramic hitting wood as Shinji set the plate down in front of a nearly oblivious Asuka.  And then, he kissed her.
     No one really seemed to notice much.
     Eventually, the tumult died away, and Hikari's form eclipsed itself behind the door to her room.
     Shinji looked up from what little remained of his own meal to find Asuka staring at him with an odd air of surprise and satisfaction about her eyes.  She lifted a hand, placing it carefully between the two thin strands of still-wet hair clinging to her cheek.
     "Dummkopf," she said, smiling.

* * *

     Yamashita heaved the box of memory cards up onto his workstation, placing it among the stacks of printouts that all the work on the MAGI over the last two weeks had left in its wake.  Sighing, he pulled out the first one, plugged it into the slot, and uploaded the files.
     As he was waiting for the card's contents to transfer, he made a quick trip over to the coffee machine, filling his mug with the thick black sludge that seemed to be the best of the only things NERV provided to its staff without considering them 'benefits'.
     "What's on the cards?" asked Arashio, taking a reluctant sip from her own cup and taking a quick break from the diagnostics scrolling past on her screen.
     "Hmm?  Oh, those.  It's just some stuff that Dr. Robertson wanted analyzed.  It's from the MAGI's repairs, last week."
     "That's quite a lot of data," she commented, quickly checking to make sure her monitor was still clear of error messages.
     "That's only half of it," he responded drily.  "Only half..."
     Masaharu's considerations had long since been diverted, focused on the shallow cardboard box as well.  "So...what's on them?  Dr. Robertson find something interesting in those weird brain things?"
     Yamashita shrugged.  "I haven't got the slightest clue.  I haven't really looked at them yet.  I took a couple minutes to check some out last night.  Most of them are large image files, and a lot of them need to be re-filtered and encoded.  As far as I can tell, they're really messed up.  Probably really old, too."
     "I could give you guys a hand with that," proposed Masaharu.  "I've got the time."
     His counterpart stalled for a couple of seconds, examining his coffee.  "Ask Dr. Robertson.  He said I shouldn't distribute any of it to anyone, so..."
     "Sure, whatever.  Well, you know I volunteered."
     Work then proceeded normally.  The MAGI self-diagnostics were already behind schedule, despite being slated for completion that day, and while everyone in the Command Centre knew that Dr. Robertson would have another fit if the task wasn't finished by the end of the morning, very few considered this entirely feasible.
     If it weren't for Masaharu's own tireless efforts, it would have been impossible.  Having abandoned his usual marauding through the MAGI's databases for now, he was almost completely centered around his actual, assigned job, rather than the one he had created for himself.
     Every once in a while, he'd pick himself up, stroll past the other two to the access elevator to the lower level, and go down and work with the workers on the command tower's lower echelons, and return.
     On occasion, Yamashita could be heard swearing at the filtering programs he was trying to run, as they usually returned images of worse quality or with considerably more white noise in them.  File recovery was always difficult, but it was enough to make everyone wonder where Dr. Robertson had dredged up such totally corrupted files, and what was so important about them that they had to be analyzed at all costs, and in complete secrecy.
     On one of Masaharu's quick trips to the lower levels, Arashio spotted him deftly palming one of the memory cards while Yamashita was working on one particularly stubborn error.
     For now, she said nothing.

* * *

     A piece of parchment, meticulously inscribed with the written form of some archaic, superannuated tongue, hung in mid-air, floating majestically above the floor and enfolded in shadow.  The darkness around it was only barely pierced by the twin octagons of purple light that ran around the border of the room.
     Despite the darkness, it had a frosted aura of its own, a halo of wispy light that clung to its countour and seemed to emphasize the characters on the tattered and torn scrap they were printed on.
     Twelve pairs of frigid eyes watched the text from every conceivable angle as it revolved slowly before them, scanning for any indication of spurious forgery.  It had been delivered to them electronically, as a single, heavily encrypted file sent anonymously amid the inconsequential garbage that traversed the world's communication nets every day.
     Finally, when there could no longer be any doubt that the fragment was counterfeit, the eyes and their proprietors silently knew that a resolution would have to be made, action taken.
     "Then Moses sent this to us?"
     "No.  It was Aaron.  A most curious development, indeed.  Apparently, the discovery of these records was done during maintenance being performed on the MAGI."
     The tone in the room had changed since the file had been decrypted for analysis.  While hope had never penetrated its confines, there was a level of interest and self-concerned intruigue that seemed to dominate the cold, harsh voices.  Emanating solemnly from one of the invisible stony pillars, the sixth member spoke in turn.
     "And its original provenance appears to be of Edom.  What does Aaron say of the others?"
     "He has not set had the opportunity to forward them to us.  He is not in possession of the full volume, and has found it necessary to establish a different means of procuring them from that he used most recently."
     "Very well.  Reward him, and inform him that he should continue.  We will yet see what Fuyutsuki has hidden in the MAGI.  It is to our advantage now."

* * *

     The familiar, low hum of machinery wound its way through the hollow, liquid filled room of the synchronization test facility as the hatches of the mock entry plugs slid shut over their occupants.  For the first time in quite a while, all five pilots were indeed present, and they could at last be evaluated in function of each other.
     To say the least, this kind of analysis hadn't been performed in quite a long time, and it was surprising to see that Dr. Robertson had sent one of his aides to sit in for him.
     He, if no one else, should have been interested in seeing the test results.
     Truth to tell, he and Yamashita had opted to remain on the bridge and continue their analysis of the hundreds of thousands of bytes of data recovered from somewhere within the MAGI.  The lost files seemed to be growing in number, at far as anyone else could tell from the growing stacks of memory cards and printouts crowding that entire section of the command tower.
     Arashio waited for her station to finish updating, then allowed the test to run on its own.  In Dr. Robertson's absence, someone had to take charge, and at that moment, she wouldn't really have minded getting this over with as soon as possible, the better to return home quicker.
     Just as she was reminding Kensuke to focus on his Eva more, Shigeru walked into the control room and sat down in one of the chairs by the observation window.
     "I'm sorry.  I was on the line with the Commander.  He's coming back to Tokyo-3 sometime tomorrow, or the day after.  So, how are they?"
     "They're just about done, now.  The MAGI are collating the last of the data from the collection, so it'll be another few minutes," she sighed, cheerful that this was at least over.  As well, the Commander's return bade well for NERV, in general.  "Mostly the same as last time, although the Seventh has had a significant gain over the last week.  We haven't really been able to pinpoint the source, so you'll have to talk to Dr. Robertson."
     Shigeru grimaced.  "I'd rather not.  I suppose you must have seen how busy he's made himself?"
     She smiled.  "I do feel kind of sorry for Tatsuo.  He's going to be working his butt off over the next few weeks."
     "Like Shoji does, every day?" asked Shigeru, "If he can do it, I suppose Tatsuo can, too.  Given enough caffeine, the human body can work wonders."
     They both laughed, but Arashio was duly reminded of Masaharu's strange theft that morning.  She engraved her previous mental note slightly deeper in her conscious.  Nonetheless, she didn't let it show.
     "What did they say they were working on, anyway?" she asked, frowning slightly as she shifted the data collection to its last stage; soon enough, the pilots would be free to go home, as would she.
     "Some vital data recovered from Balthazar during maintenance.  Apparently, it's quite sensitive.  I wouldn't be surprised if Commander Fuyutsuki swore them to secrecy on it and classified it beyond himself."
     Arashio laughed once more, waiting for the timer to wind down to zero, then ended the test.  Once more, the cavernous facility was filled with the sound of metal sliding against metal, then silence.  The cranes reached out and plucked the command chairs from their brackets in unison, transporting the bored pilots back to the gantry.
     "Well, at least this is over.  I think we're done here, Captain."
     Shigeru glanced once more of the graph still sitting on her screen.  "Right.  Call the pilots up here."

     From his vantage point at the far end of the platform, Kensuke could see all four of the other pilots, even though their forms were still a little blurry, the fault of a thin film of LCL still evaporating off his glasses.  At the other end, Asuka was talking to Shinji, then Hikari as she caught up to them, trying to move as modestly as possible.  Asuka laughed; Shinji shook his head.  Still, though, as the last of the LCL disappeared, Kensuke could have sworn Shinji wore a slightly bemused smile.
     Arashio's voice filled the room again.  "Uh...would you all please come up here?  Thanks."
     Hikari looked up to the speaker set into the wall, then at the large glass window that over looked-the room, the mock plugs, and the deep vat of acrid-smelling coolant.  Asuka gave her a little push, and they disappeared through the door, trailing Shinji behind them.
 Slowly, he began moving as well, covering the distance with sluggish steps and listening to their every hollow reverberation against the metal gangway.  A hand came down on his shoulder, pulling him along.
     "Hey, Kensuke, man, c'mon!  Or else we're gonna get chewed out for being slow again."
     Kensuke looked up from his feet slowly.  He'd barely noticed Touji so far during this test.  Then again, he hadn't noticed much, anyway, his mind elsewhere.  He let Touji's momentum carry him to the door.
     By the time they'd reached it, however, the other three pilots, masterminded by Asuka, had already taken the elevator up, leaving these two to wait.  Behind the metal doorway, they could hear the mechansims warming up again as the elevator began its descent towards them.
     "Oh, by the way, I saw you yesterday, Kensuke.  On the way back from school?"
     Kensuke looked to the side, sweeping his eyes past Touji's feet and up to the lights above the doorway.  They hadn't started changing yet, as the doors were only closing one level above.  "You...you did?"
     Only a blur in his peripheral vision, Touji nodded.  "Yeah.  What was it, anyway?  You had another test yesterday?"
     "No...why?"
     "Oh...I dunno.  You just rushed off without tellin' me.  I saw you go into the geofront.  Y'know?  From the place you usually go through."
     "...It...wasn't me," Kensuke lied.  "I went to get some food."
     "Huh.  Mebbe I need glasses too."  Touji laughed a bit, and the doors opened.
     When they stepped out of the elevator, Captain Shigeru had apparently joined Arashio at the control station.  Shinji and Asuka, as usual, seemed entirely bored about their results, not having to worry about their status.  Hikari, too, seemed slightly disinterested, compelled instead to watch Touji's entrance and play with the heavy wrist units of her plug suit.  For a second or two, Kensuke could see her lips opening and closing indecisively as she tried to convey comprehension to her superiors and greet Touji at the same time.
     As the scores were read out, the pilots were dismissed, one by one.  Nevertheless, they all stayed in their places, either talking quietly amongst each other as they waited for the last of the group to be dismissed as well...and that meant Kensuke.
     As Shigeru lifted the printout to his eyes, Kensuke felt certain that he could see some serious degree of disappointment there.  "Well, Kensuke," he said, frowning, "it...these scores could be better.  Thirty-six point five isn't bad, really...comparable to Rei's early combat scores, but they don't quite match up with your predicted potential."
     Kensuke nodded halfheartedly, then, as he was dismissed, turned to follow the others to the changerooms.  He was annoyed, really.  With himself, more than anything.
     He always seemed to be missing something, which everyone else had.  Something that could justify all the money and resources poured into the Eva project...money that was wasted on him.
     Why did they even bother, he wondered, as Touji pulled him along, telling some joke or another.  Asuka said it was stupid, Hikari laughed, Shinji groaned.
     Why was he even among them?

* * *

     Asuka watched with her usual peculiar curiosity as Hikari carefully folded up her plugsuit and laid it in the collection bin.  She, on the other hand, dropped hers in afterward without a like care.
     "Why do you even bother?" she asked, picking up her shoulder bag, "You know they just recycle them anyway."
     Hikari smiled quietly.  "I don't know.  Habit, I guess.  There's nothing wrong with it."  She reached into her locker and removed her shoes, then closed it.
     "Right..," replied Asuka, confused, then joked, "...Just like there's nothing wrong with some of Misato's habits."
     Looking indignant, Hikari straightened up, knowing somehow exactly what Asuka was referring to.  "That's not true!  At least I'm not hurting myself by being tidy."
     Asuka laughed.  "Just like Misato said a little beer never hurt anyone."
     "That's not fair, Asuka.  Honestly..."  Hikari's voice trailed out gradually, as she shook her head in feigned disgust.  Misato's drinking always used to bother her, and Hikari had demanded more than once that Asuka ask her to give it up.  Being an addict, of course, Misato was always adamantly against anything threatening her beer supply.
     Finished with her shoes, Hikari stood, joining Asuka by the door.
     "Um...Asuka?  You and Shinji should go on ahead without me."
     "Why's that?"  Asuka took another step forward, and the door slid open quietly, sitting in well-oiled tracks.
     Her friend looked back into the empty change room, checking to see if she'd forgotten anything.  "Oh...I just wanted to see the geofront."  She'd only seen it for the first time from her enclosure in NERV's medical ward, and she still remembered its strange flavour of ironic beauty.
     "It's...dull.  There's nothing to see there.  I don't know what you could do," Asuka said flatly, before she let her voice gradually slip into a husky growl, "But if that's what you're going to do, I'll just take Shinji home with me and we can..."
     "Asuka!"
     "...make dinner.  What?" she finished, innocently.
     "That's not what it sounded like," replied Hikari huffily, blushing hard as Asuka ran off chuckling down the corridor.
     Now left alone, Hikari began walking in her friend's wake, letting her feet carry her.  Her cheeks faded as her mind drifted away from this last of Asuka's pranks, and she returned to planning her words and scripting her speech.  Today, she'd decided, she'd do her best to see if she couldn't find in Touji what Asuka had already found in Shinji.
     She hadn't gotten too far along when all that was suddenly and swiftly dispelled by someone behind her.
     "Hey, if it isn't the class rep!"
     Her head lurched upward, blasted out of its wandering strategies, and she was greeted by Touji as she turned to face him.  She'd thought he was already going to be in the waiting room, with Shinji.  Undoubtably, Asuka had found him somewhere along the way there, because it was otherwise empty.
     "Hi...Touji," she said finally, predetermined words washed away by the surprise.
     "Hey.  Aren't you goin' the wrong way?  I thought you and the newlyweds live over in the other direction."
     "Yes...  They already went home, though.  Where's Kensuke?  I thought you might be with him..."
     Touji grimaced slightly in the empty spartan hallway.  "Oh...yeah.  He...didn't wait around.  He's been acting kind of funny lately, and I can't figure out why."
     "Are you going to ask him about it?"
     "Yeah...  I guess so.  He left while I was still in the shower, and I don't know where he went.  I...I guess I'll call him, or talk to him at school tomorrow.  I dunno.  So what are you up to?"
     "I was..."  Here Hikari paused momentarily, trying to redeem the conversation she had developed and lost moments ago.  Some of the words and sentences were missing, but she managed to relate to him why she'd never been to the geofront before, and why she was going.  "...Would...would you like to come with me?"
     Touji blinked slightly, then stared up at the metallic ceiling and the lights mounted therein.  "Ah...well...sure.  Lemme just call Mari first.  Gotta tell her I'm gonna be late, then."
     Surprised, Hikari was lost again until she managed, just barely, to say thank you.
     It wasn't long then, before they stepped out into the darkening artificial cavern as the last natural lights disappeared from the depths, and those electronic ones caught fire as elongated rows of points in the gloom.  The trees, healthy despite being exposed to less daily sunlight than their surface-grown counterparts, towered like endless rows of dark green sentinels next to the road, nearly obstructing the glittering pyramid made purple by the shadows that enshrouded it.
     It was still a massive cavern, and took them all of a half-hour to get to their destination.  Hikari found it an ideal time to pick up the abandoned conversation about their respective sisters.  Touji was all too pleased to listen and relate his own anecdotes.
     "It's...kind of pretty, isn't it?" Touji said at long last as they sat down on a bench placed surreptitiously next to one of the massive escalators that led back to the surface.
     Without a doubt, there were some insects in there, despite the early efforts to maintain the sealed underground chamber hermetic, and even some cicadas that began singing early due to its preternatural darkness.
     "Yes..."
     "I guess you must be feeling better, to be out here on your own, right?"
     Hikari turned on the bench to look at him.  Touji sat in his usual, hunched over position, arms folded against his knees, staring off into space.  "I am...thank you.  But I'm not really alone, since you're here..."
     Touji snorted in amusement.  "Of course.  I'm not exactly the brightest, you know."
     "That's not true, Touji."  Hikari paused for a moment, staring up at the hanging towers above them, seemingly too heavy for the geofront's ceiling...a true marvel.
     Here goes nothing, she thought to herself.
     "That's what I like about you..," she said, blushing in what she thought was a surely noticeable manner, "...you're modest, and you're always worried about someone else..."
     "You've obviously never been to one of our track meets, then," he replied, laughing.  "I'm nowhere near modest."
     "Well...then, at least you're always thinking about other people.  That's good..."
     Touji shrugged slightly, glancing up on his own towards the inverted buildings of the city hanging above them.  "I guess I just don't like watching other people getting hurt.  Speaking of which, Mari'll be expecting me soon...didn't tell her where I was goin'.  Do you want me to walk you back home?"
     "I...thank you..."  Following his lead, Hikari stood and gathered her belongings, checking to see that she hadn't inadvertently abandoned anything.  "...I enjoyed this."
     "Hey, you asked.  It was different, anyway."  Touji waited until she was beside him, then fell into his usual, sloppy gait.
     "Would you mind if I asked you to come here again...with me?"
     "Why not?"

* * *

     Outside of the geofront, on the edge of the city that sat like a king enthroned, another child sat on a bench, holding a small bag in his hands.  His grandfather had recently left Tokyo-3, returned to his home town near Nagano, so at the very least, he still had a place to go.
     A disembodied, professional voice rang out in the station, interrupting his thoughts.
     "The train for Toyota and Tokyo-2 is arriving at platform three.  Would all passengers with tickets for this train please collect your baggage and wait behind the yellow line.  The train for Toyota and Tokyo-2 is arriving at platform three.  Please ensure you have all your belongings."
     Even if it was insignificant, at least it fulfilled its function.
     Kensuke stood, lifted his bag, and headed for the stairs leading to the platform.  Two, long flights of stairs.  Not that it mattered.  In two or three minutes, he could get this done and over with, leave it all behind.
     Shinji had tried to do this.  Shinji had come back.  Because, as Commander Fuyutsuki had said, he couldn't stand to see his friends and fellow pilots destroyed by the Angels.
     At least Shinji could actually do something to about that, Kensuke thought morosely.
     It wouldn't matter if his friends were defeated by an Angel, Kensuke thought.  If they were, it only meant he and his Eva were nothing more than similarly disabled.  He took the first step, his foot just clearing the riser and landing firmly.
     A hand landed firmly on his shoulder, holding him back and gripping it like a set of jaws, locking around it and preventing any further motion.  Another disembodied voice, gruff, yet somehow still professional filled the air around him, in the station.
     "Excuse me.  Are you Kensuke Aida?"
     It lacked any emotion, so he didn't return any.  "...Yes."
     "As the Seventh Child, designated pilot of Evangelion Unit-16, you are not permitted to leave the city limits, in the case of a possible emergency, except under specific orders.  Doing so is in direct violation of NERV regulations."
     Kensuke gave a tired sigh, shook his head.  This was pointless, he already knew.  They were professionals, and they could probably break him like a twig if they wanted to.  Still, he resisted without knowing why, even if he wasn't pulling against the grip, towards the stairs.  Stairs to freedom.
     "...It wouldn't matter anyway."
     "We have our orders.  Please come with us."
     He felt his voice rising in his throat as he spun to face the man, finally getting his other foot to follow the first onto the stair.  The man's grip broke.
     "Who gives a damn?  Just leave me alone!" he shouted, backpedalling several more feet away from the man...two men, he could see now, staring silently back at him through darkened glasses.  "Go tell him I won't do this anymore!  I never could!"
     With an almost casual motion, the first man reached out again, his grip finding Kensuke's ankle beneath his pants.  Kensuke slipped, falling onto his back, sliding roughly on the stairs.  He gritted his teeth as his shoulders met the concrete, and his glasses flew off his face, into the air.
     The man's other hand caught them effortlessly.  Kensuke glared back at his blurred visage as he was unceremoniously picked up and placed in the back seat of the official-looking black NERV sedan.
     "Here are your glasses," the man said, returning them before slamming the door shut.
     Kensuke didn't put them on.  He didn't feel like seeing straight.
     As the car accelerated and turned onto one of the roads leading to a car train access point, Kensuke heard his cell phone ring in his bag.  He realized then that he'd forgotten to leave something behind...his NERV cell.
     It only rang under certain conditions.
     It only rang when the Evas and their pilots were needed.
     Kensuke held his forehead for a few long seconds, then swept his hand back over his hair as he finally answered the phone.  He was going to need the glasses for a while longer.

* * *

     "Do we have a confirmation of the analysis yet?"
     "Yes, sir!  Data from the VTOL squadron has completed transmission.  There's no doubt about it!  It's an Angel!"
     The main screen finally displayed an image of the Angel as one of the VTOL's scrambled to intercept established a visual lock on the tiger-striped humanoid.  Alternating, chaotic bands of white and indigo covered the stout, compact Angel, making it seem even shorter and wider than it already was.  Its huge, clawed hands seemed disproportionately large, and gave a very definite impression that they were extremely powerful.
     Lit from beneath by the molten rock flowing around its ankles, it appeared near-invincible and the incarnation of calamity to Shigeru and the rest of the bridge crew.  Its great chest suddenly pulsing in one spasmodic movement, it took a breath, its lungs no longer constrained by the great subterranean pressures from which it had emerged.
     As the colour of its core intensified from a mere red to a glowing scarlet, it took another step forward, carrying it free from the lava-filled fissure that had just birthed it.  With each rippling contraction of its potent limbs, flakes of hardened rock sloughed off, dancing against the ground where they struck.
     "Have we notified the pilots yet?  Where are they?"
     "Yes, sir!  Units-14 through 16 can be ready in thirty-five seconds, and the pilots of Units-01 and 02 are en route!"
     Too accustomed to his new role at NERV, Shigeru began unconsciously evaluating the distance to the Angel and the possible logistics required to bring the Evas to engage the Angel.  While he didn't have Major Katsuragi's seemingly inborn talent for directing battles, the least he could do in his situation was do everything by the book.  That way, at least he couldn't be faulted.
     The Angel itself had surfaced in a notorious earthquake zone, near Kobe.  Definitely too far to use any of Tokyo-3's pre-established surface delivery routes or combat systems.
     "What's the status of the transport aircraft?"
     "They're on ready-five, sir," answered Masaharu.  "Estimated time to target would be fifteen minutes, give or take.  Are we going to stop it there?"
     "That's our best bet, I guess."

* * *

     The powerful roar of the winds flew past Hikari's ears, deafening her for a few long seconds before it was halted by the sudden, bone-shattering impact of her Eva with the ground.  As her senses cleared, she quickly realized that her Eva was tilting at a dangerous angle, its knee out of place.  Before she realized it, she was correcting its fall, something she never imagined she had ever developed.
     It had been quite a long time since she had last piloted this colossus; already, her absence had kept her away from it for quite some time.
     As Unit-15 righted itself, she caught her first glimpse of the monstrosity she would soon be fighting.  Having confirmed the arrival of her and her comrades, the halo of VTOLs encircling the slow moving Angel dissipated and fled to a safer distance.
     She wasn't sure what she was feeling, really.  Hatred, undiluted and strong, should have replaced her blood by now, pumping through every passage of her body...and yet, it didn't quite feel that way.  Still, the ominous visage of the approaching Angel seemed to stir up something, something incredibly vague and unsourced, but something calling out to her, egging her on.
     An image flooded her consciousness, then another, momentarily flooding over her senses and blocking out all else for mere fractions of a second, and yet lingering long enough for them to register.  She suddenly felt cold, frozen and frigid in all of her extremities, as an overwhelming white light filled her field of vision.
     Blood, hot and red, seemed to be gushing from somewhere, soaking her, running in quickly hardening rivulets over her hands, her face, her body.  Some places it seemed to catch fire as subsequent memories and images came crashing in on her.  Asuka screaming for mercy, screaming her defiance even as she was being torn apart; Touji stubbornly standing up in her defence against the repeated onslaught of supernatural flames dismembering his Eva, pain translating directly to his new body.  Then, there was still more.
     Shinji driven to despondency by the pressures on his already overstressed psyche; Mari lying swathed in bandages on a hospital bed, trying her best to smile despite the pain in her every splintered limb and squashed organ.
     Finally, she was greeting by the vision of the grinning Angel as her own soul was burned and seared by its presence.  She recalled the feeling of helplessness, of despair when it had departed, leaving her to die in what she imagined must have been some kind of purgatory.
     Something inside her was fed and kindled, as it roared to full intensity and focused itself fully on the stout monstrosity taking another step towards their battle lines.
     Shigeru's order had barely spoken in her ears when she launched herself and Unit-15 towards the Angel, unthinking and unseeing.

     Without even glancing up, Kensuke knew the battle was joined.  Rumbling shockwaves ran through the ground under the Eva's feet, rippling upwards through the LCL into his body.  He stared down into his hands, silent, watching them vibrate uncontrolled through his uncovered eyes.
     It wouldn't be long now, before the Angel either exploded or lay in tatters on the bloodied soil.  It really was that simple.
     The angry hum he'd once heard in the harmonics test plug seemed intensified further here, in this environment...within the Eva.  It seemed to modulate steadily, manifesting dull pulses like the flow of blood through his veins...in time with his own self-oriented sorrow.
     And again, as the thunder of combat just beyond him -- this time explicitly sanctioned by Captain Shigeru -- he knew he was in the right place.  Out of the way, on the sidelines.  He smiled weakly, understanding that this was where he was supposed to be.  What else could they do with someone like him?
     What the hell was he doing here, in this Eva, anyway?  He had no chance to doing anything to participate constructively; his lot was to that of interference, of obstruction.  Best to stay here, entirely out of the way.
     Unit-16's hand relaxed, opening.  The palette rifle slipped a little, and he instinctively tightened his fingers again, to prevent it from falling.  Not that it mattered, anyway.  He'd never been able to accomplish anything with it anyway.  The AT field always stopped him, and he hadn't ever had the slightest idea of what to do about it.  If it wasn't used properly, it was useless.
     Like his Eva.  Without a decent pilot, it, too, became an excercise in futility.
     He let the gun fall to the ground.
     The roar of Touji's palette rifle cut through the air in short, coughing bursts.  After a few more seconds of intense fighting, Kensuke finally decided to look up.  He didn't particularly want to watch, as it only reminded him of his true ineptitude.
     Unit-15 and Hikari were already engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand fight with the Angel...she appeared to be holding out confidently, even when the Angel wrapped its massive hands around the white Eva's torso and threw it aside, allowing Asuka the room to engage in turn.
     No real surprises, there, he thought, watching his hanging glasses swing in harmonic vibration with the shaking all around him.  They'd all always been better.

     Yamashita frowned in incomprehension as the harmonics analysis appeared on his holographic screen.
     "I don't understand!  His synch ratio is the highest it's ever been, but he's not moving!"
     Justifying Yamashita was the image on the massive plasma screen covering the one wall.  Indeed, Unit-16 had not moved even an inch from where it had fallen, kneeling immobile amid the debris thrown up by its fall from the sky.
     "What do we do, sir?" asked Arashio, slight concern marking her voice.  "Should we get someone to check him out?  He might not be feeling well."
     Shigeru glanced away from the combat unfolding before him.  "How are his vital signs?"
     "They...seem okay, but...  Well, you never know.  It might not necessarily affect those."

     Kensuke watched with a detached, yet awed mind as the dirty white form of a muddied Unit-15 scrambled back to its feet again and returned immediately to attacking the Angel.  Both Asuka and Hikari had been repeatedly engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the Angel.  And each time, it repulsed them.
     So far, the only damage the Angel had really incurred were the regenerating pockmarks left by the combined fire of Shinji and Touji's rifles.  Every time either Unit-02 or Unit-15 got in close enough to neutralize the AT Field, they took the opportunity for a quick shot.
     Nevertheless, Hikari was surprising.  Hikari was never as aggressive as she was now, throwing another close range punch at the Angel.  It connected, but only glancingly, before her Eva was once again thrown back into the soft dirt by the sea.  Already, its white and blue paint was heavily obscured by the adhering soil.
     Kensuke snorted to himself.  Even Hikari, who pacifistic nature usually showed even through her Eva, was doing better than him.  He'd always assumed his enthusiasm would have carried him past her.  How wrong he was.
     "Shinji!" Asuka shouted, finally, "Put that thing down and give us a hand, will you?"
     "Um...right..."
     Hikari was breathing heavily now, having exerted herself almost too much against their foe.  For some reason or another, she seemed fully intent on destroying this Angel, this beast before her.  Unit-15 switched its bent and cracked progressive blade back into the original hand before extending a new one.
     The Angel took another step forward.  "Go!" Asuka shouted, taking it as her cue and charging forward into the night.  Curiously observing the three monstrous Evas running directly for it, the Angel raised its suddenly supernaturally glowing hands and brought them crashing to the ground.
     Unbidden, an earthquake split the earth on the very spot where the Angel had hit the crust, and a rapid, undulating wave of tortured earth upended its attackers, breaking the momentum of their rush.
     Kensuke and Unit-16 were thrown violently to the ground, its head digging a furrow through the core of an abandoned building, precipitating its complete collapse.  The massive monster began to sink, inch by inch into the mud before coming to rest against solid soil.  Even this was compressed by its weight.
     Still, Kensuke found no reason to move...he could still watch through the debris piled on his Eva's head.
     Surprisingly, Hikari was the first to regain her footing.  As she broke into a fresh assault, she uttered some incoherent sound.  Before the Angel had recovered from its bent-over posture, palms flat to the ripped stone beneath it, Unit-15 lifted it with one hand, pushing it backwards, and buried its progressive knife up to the hilt in its core.  Sparks flew outward in a fan, lighting up the night, then dying away as the core went dark.
     For several, long seconds, as the others regained their footing, the Angel's eyes flickered unsteadily.  Hikari kept pushing the knife deeper, splitting the hard red centre fully in half.
     "Looks like she did it without us," he heard Asuka say, then, "..what?"
     The Angel's eyes burned again so brightly that they illuminated the entire plain that they stood upon, blinding the pilots.  Then, its right hand folded into a crushing vice grip around Unit-15's head, glowed, and lifted it high into the air.
     Before she time to react, Hikari and her Eva were thrown violently to the ground like a rag doll in a sadistic infant's hand.  The Angel's hand drove through the armour, bone and flesh of the Eva's head, dashing it against the ground as it summoned another powerful tremor.
     "Hikari!" shouted Asuka, bracing her Eva against the fluid surface of the earth.

     Shigeru watched as the Angel unleashed another devastating quake, dropping every last defiant structure in the area as their abused foundations gave way and collapsed.  Units-15 and 16 now lay sprawled out in the mud, but Shinji's Eva leapt into the air before the shockwave had reached it, and practically landed on top of the Angel, slashing at its chest with its knife before kicking it violently away.
     "Asuka!" he shouted, pointing, "that wasn't its core!  Look!"
     The Angel slid through the mud, its flesh laid open and bleeding.  Through the thick, viscous fluid creeping down the cuts, he could just make out a suppressed glow, buried within.
     Another core...two?
     Asuka had seen it as well, following Shinji's direction just as the Angel was preparing to send out another earthquake.  Unit-02 seemed to appear out of nowhere, directly behind the Angel.  Asuka screamed something, then visciously impaled the Angel on her glaive hard enough to send shards of the true core out the other side alongside the blade of her bloodied weapon.
     The Angel tensed momentarily, then crumpled into a ball as it died.
     Seconds later, it detonated outward with the force of an N2 bomb, flattening the landscape around it.

* * *

     The massive aircraft slowed to a relative crawl in the skies above Tokyo-2, lining up carefully with the runway.  As it deployed its hefty landing gear, it reversed its thrust by deploying redirection vanes behind the engines.
     Rubber and concrete ground together, burning the former and marking the latter, as the ISPA touched down.  Weighing at least two dozen tons and with multiple passenger decks, it had a capacity of well over four hundred passengers.
     This flight contained only a handful, though.
     The plane taxied to a floodlit stop on the tarmac, away from the airport, and NERV's supreme commander appeared at the top of the mobile stairway flanked by two black suited men from Section Two.  As he descended the stairs, one of the personnel waiting by the car for him handed him a cellular phone.  Fuyutsuki lifted it to his ear and stepped in.
     Unlike most arrivals arranged for important and powerful individuals, Commander Fuyutsuki's return went mostly unnoticed by the press.

* * *

     Waiting in her entry plug for someone to come and get her -- her ejection system was no longer working -- Hikari listened to her breathing ebb and flow in the liquid.  The shaking outside had ceased, and she knew the Angel must have been destroyed.
     Somehow, she felt...satisfied.
     No, not quite.  She, Hikari, didn't feel that way.  Something within her felt satisfied.  To be perfectly honest with herself, she found herself slightly surprised, maybe even shocked, that she had actually accomplished what she had this night.
     In the silence, she could think only of how strange and new this still was to her.

* * *

     "Yes, sir.  The Americans have been informed of the three tidal waves headed their way...  What?  Um...six, on the Richter scale, sir.  Yes, sir.  See you tomorrow, sir."
     Shigeru replaced the phone in its cradle on the desk and sat down next to its place near Arashio's station.
     "Well," he said, "he's back."
     She nodded.  "A little late to handle this, wouldn't you say?"
     "Yeah...  So, how are the recovery operations going?"
     Arashio typed in a few short commands to display the relative positions and activities of the teams sent to rescue any of the pilots, if necessary, and return the Evas to the Cage.  Only Unit-15 appeared to be a minor problem, as what was left of its head blocked access to the entry plug.  Already, though, they were beginning to clear that away.

* * *

     "Class rep?"
     Huddled under the blankets provided to them, the pilots watched as the last of the four transport planes lifted into the sky, returning to NERV.  It wouldn't be too long, now, before they were sent back, as well.
     Hikari stifled a yawn with the back of her hand, exhausted.  "Hmm?"
     "You feeling okay?" inquired Touji from his seat on the bumper of one of the huge command trucks being used by the rescuers.
     "...Yes, thank you.  I'm fine."  For a moment, she blushed a little, but, cloaked in the night as they all were, it was invisible.  "Do you mind if I sit here?" she asked before she knew it.
     "Huh?  No...not at all, Hikari."
     Obliging herself, she sat, glad it was so dark out.  She still felt naked in the plug suit.

     Shinji felt Asuka's arms drape themselves over his shoulders as she hugged him.  Her weight seemed to grow against him, then fade.  Fighting a slowly overwhelming urge to sleep, she alternately supported herself and leaned against him.
     "Good job, Shinji..," she said, kissing him on the cheek.  "What are you doing out here, standing by yourself?"
     He lifted a hand, still enclosed by the glove of his plug suit, to grasp at hers.  "Uh...just looking.  You haven't seen Kensuke anywhere, have you?"
     Tiredly, she shook her head against his shoulder, letting her hair fall lazily against his arm.  "Nope.  Probably went off somewhere to look at the soldier's guns, or something."
     "...Maybe."
     "I'm sleeping in tomorrow...you going to stick around?"
     Shinji smiled in the darkness, now staring up at the stars.  "...I...I guess so." 1