Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion, or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.

Disclaimer: I do not own anything belonging to DC Comics or anything associated with it. I have written this story solely because I enjoy writing.

Chapter 6: Strange Encounters

Darkness. It was everywhere Hikari looked. Up and down, left and right. No matter which direction she turned, darkness was the only thing that met her eyes. The only thing she could sense at all.

She felt as if she was floating through absolute nothingness. There was nothing beneath her, and no wind against her skin. Where…where am I…? Hikari silently asked as she tried to make sense of what was happening. How'd I even get here? And…where is here?

Her silent plea went unanswered. As far as she could tell, there wasn't even anything there to answer it. And Hikari continued to float through the blackness. Without anything, any light or any sign to indicate what was happening to her. No sign that there was anything out there besides herself.

Time stretched out as Hikari continued to float, unsure if she was moving or stationary. Unable to see even herself as she looked about. What's going on? Has…has something happened to me? she wondered, growing more and more alarmed. Have I gone blind? What's happened to me? Why can't I see anything? Where am I?

Again, Hikari had no answers. And the all-consuming darkness that surrounded her did not offer any, either. So she continued to float in the perpetual night. Becoming more unsure, more afraid, with each passing moment.

Finally, after an unknowable amount of time, Hikari reached her breaking point. "Is there anybody out there?" she demanded of the darkness. "What is this? Where am I?"

As she listened to her words echo in the darkness, Hikari felt a moment of relief in at that she was at least able to hear her own voice. That she still had ears for hearing. But that relief was soon cut short when no other voice answered her pleas. Leaving her once again to wait helplessly in the dark.

"Oh, god, I sure hope this is a dream…" Hikari muttered, speaking if only to fill her ears. "This had better be a -!"

What? came another voice. A voice that was completely unlike anything Hikari had ever heard before. A voice that was utterly huge and yet distorted, like a huge crowd of people all speaking the same words at almost the same time. A voice that was strangely flat, and emotive at the same time. A voice of tremendous power.

Jolted with terror, Hikari brought her hands to her mouth. Determined not to let even the slightest noise escape her lips, to not do anything to draw that terrible voice's attention.

Once again, time passed in silence as Hikari peered into the darkness, but with even greater intent. What…what was that? she asked, trembling with fear as she searched for the source of the voice. Terrified beyond anything she could ever have imagined possible. It was as if someone had branded the word 'danger' into her brain, had seared that instinct into the very core of her being. Gulping fearfully, only to choke on the sound, she continued to look wildly about. It…that wasn't anything human! It -!

Hikari's thought was instantly cut off when something finally cut through the all-consuming darkness. A strange slit began to open up, casting a horrible yellow light through the shadows.

Completely freezing at this horrible sight, Hikari watched in dread awe as the slit opened up wider. Time seeming to slow to a crawl as the light became less blinding, allowing her to make out greater detail of the glowing object. Enough to be able to see a disk of blood red at the center of the slit. A disk that was laden was complicated patterns, almost like a circuit board.

A disk that was the pupil of a huge, horrible eye.

No… Hikari moaned inwardly as she watched the eye begin to swivel about, this way and that. The light it cast setting off every fearful instinct that she possessed. Leaving her helpless to do anything but float in the darkness, frozen with terror, until at last the eye finally cast its light upon her.

If Hikari had thought she was as terrified as was humanly possible, she would have been instantly proven wrong. Her mind went completely numb with horror as the eye drilled into her, widening as it hovered overhead. She quaked and trembled, her mind screaming to run, to float or fly or disappear back into the darkness. To do anything to get her way from the eye's awful gaze. But she couldn't. She couldn't move. Could barely even think.

And when she saw other slits slowly open up into similar eyes, eyes that were quick to turn towards her and bathe her in their own light, Hikari couldn't even think. All she could do was beg for the end to come, one way, or the other.

Impossible, came the impossible voice once more, this time seeming to echo a hundred times over. You are dead. You cannot be here.

Sucking in a desperate gasp, Hikari did her all to shrink away from the horde of cruel eyes. "Wh-what…?" she whimpered out, her own weak voice giving even greater strength to her fear. "What a-are you…?"

You are dead, the voice told her once more, in the exact same manner it had spoken before. You cannot be here. You are dead.

"Nooooo!" Hikari shrieked, her eyes squeezed shut as she struggled with the horror. Completely out of control, she flailed wildly against the emptiness, desperate for a handhold, to actually feel something. "Stop it! Please! Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me -!"

"Sister!" came a familiar voice, one that cut through Hikari's terror like a hot knife through butter. Gasping in surprise, the pigtailed girl opened her eyes…and found that the horrid eyes were all gone, along with the darkness that had spawned them. In their place were the warm, familiar sights and sounds of the Horaki living room. And after a few moments' searching, Hikari locked gazes with her younger sister.

Blinking rapidly, Hikari let out a sigh of relief before mopping her brow. "Oh…it's you, Nozomi," she muttered, suddenly feeling very sheepish. "Oh, god…"

"Um…are you alright, sister?" Nozomi squeaked out uncertainly. "And…what are you doing up there, anyway?"

"I'm sorry. I just…had the worst nightmare, and…" Practically swallowing her tongue, Hikari cut herself off and did a double take on Nozomi's last sentence. Her nightmare and her terror momentarily forgotten, she focused with laser-like intensity on her situation. And soon realized that, yes, Nozomi was somewhat below her, and, yes, there was something wrong with the angle from which she was seeing the living room. Finally, she looked straight down, and discovered that, not only was she completely naked once again, but she was roughly five or six feet above the floor.

What happened next was something right out of a Road Runner cartoon. The instant Hikari realized her situation, whatever forces within her body that allowed her to float like this decided to conk out, and gravity immediately took over. With a surprised squawk, the green girl suddenly crashed to the floor, and much to her dismay, this didn't turn out to be a dream as well.

"Sister!" Nozomi cried out, the little girl rushing over to Hikari's side. Kneeling down and gingerly placing her hand on the older girl's shoulder, she leaned in closer and asked, "Are…are you okay?"

Taking a moment to groan and wonder for the umpteenth time what she could have possibly done to deserve all this, the green-skinned girl slowly looked into her sister's expectant face. "Nozomi…" Hikari groaned, somehow managing a sardonic grin. "Have I ever been okay since I first woke up green?"

Making a face that was somehow annoyed and cute at the same time, Nozomi rolled her eyes and said, "Yeah, I guess you're okay."

Grunting her discomfort, Hikari put her wounded ego to the side and slowly got back to her feet. Sparing a moment to look at herself and realize that she was completely naked, she sighed and concentrated. With a bit of effort, she willed her flesh to shift and flow. "What happened?" she asked her sibling even as she reverted to human form, including a simple shirt and shorts. "How'd I…?"

"End up out here?" Nozomi concluded for her. "Well, I heard a strange noise, and then I saw you come floating out of the kitchen. You were all curled up and shaking, and…" The younger girl trailed off, concern ghosting her features as she lowered her gaze. "You…looked like you were having a nightmare…"

"Hmm. That's one way of putting it," Hikari returned, wrapping her arm about herself. Some of the fear she had felt returning, like an icy claw around her heart. "A nice way."

"Whoa. Sounds like it was pretty bad," Nozomi muttered. Her own concerns mounting as Hikari sat down on the couch with a definite flop.

"Yeah," Hikari muttered as she leaned forward with her forehead in her hands. Doing everything she could to not think about it. To keep the horrors of that dream safely in the realm of nightmares, where it belonged. Where it couldn't intrude on the waking world, couldn't bring her even greater fear.

Hearing more than seeing Nozomi approach, Hikari didn't bother looking up when she gently asked, "Um…do you…want to talk about it?" Giving her sister a surprised look, she was then treated to the sight of Nozomi shrugging sheepishly. "That is…I remember…whenever I had a bad dream…Mommy would always…she…"

Hikari didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to say a single word about the horror the strange dream had inspired in her, to give it even greater reality. But before she could say anything to that effect, she looked at Nozomi's tiny face, and saw fear and concern in it. "Maybe later," Hikari finally sighed tiredly. With a final effort to push her terrors aside, the Horaki matriarch made a point of looking towards the front door. "So, since I'm up anyway…do you know what time it is?"

"Uh, yeah," Nozomi replied even as she craned her neck to look at her watch. "It's just after seven."

Her mouth popping open, Hikari partly reverted to her inhuman form before regaining herself. "It's after seven? Already?" she cried out in dismay, leaping to her feet. "Omigosh! I have to get dinner started! Daddy and Kodama will be -!"

"Don't worry about Daddy!" Nozomi piped up, smiling knowingly. "He called to say that he was going to be late tonight. They're running some kind of experiment tonight. So you don't have to hurry."

Pausing, Hikari considered that particular tidbit. Not having to worry about her father's imminent arrival did make things a touch easier. "Okay, but I still better get on it soon," she decided. "The last thing I want to put up with is Kodama nagging me about food when she gets back."

Starting towards her room so she could fetch some decent clothing, Hikari paused when Nozomi murmured, "You know, if you're still feeling tired, we could always order out for something…"

Laughing at her sister's none-too-subtle hint, Hikari looked over her shoulder and answered, "Sorry, Nozomi. But the second-to-last thing I want to deal with is Kodama grumbling about how I'm contaminating everyone with my eating habits." The overly cute pout her sister developed after that giving her increased reason to laugh, Hikari started up to her room. "Don't worry, I promise I'll make something the both of you can enjoy. As impossible as it may be at times!"

"Hey, it's not my fault Kodama wouldn't know anything fun if it bit her in the -!" Nozomi started, her voice being cut off when Hikari entered her room and closed the door behind her. Allowing her body to revert to its normal self (or abnormal self, as Hikari still thought of it), she went to her closet and began picking out suitable clothing. While being able to reform her flesh to resemble clothing was something she had been practicing at home, and actually did come in handy when her father had decided to pop in unannounced to check on her condition, there was no doubt that simply adjusting her coloring and musculature to resemble her normal self was a lot easier on her.

Now, if only I could hold this a whole day without snacking, Hikari grumbled inwardly as she dressed. I might not be getting fat, but I still feel like I'm about to blimp out at any second!

A few minutes later, the Horaki matriarch was fully dressed and satisfied with her appearance. Still, as she looked in the mirror, she couldn't help but frown slightly. Still…maybe if I got really good at this whole shape-shifting bit… she found herself thinking as she studied her freckled face, as well as a chest that wasn't what anyone could call amply endowed. I mean…I don't want to be totally huge, but…maybe if I just changed my coloring and left everything else the way it is now…

Sighing out loud, Hikari shook her head longingly. While she tried not to pay attention to such things, focusing on her role and responsibilities at home and school, she knew she wasn't the most eye-catching girl around. When she and Asuka went out to the mall, Hikari knew that it was her redheaded friend that drew the guys' attention, and not her. And though she never said anything out loud, there were more than a few times when she wished she was as eye-catching as the German.

Hmph. That might explain my new color. All green with envy, Hikari reprimanded herself, suddenly annoyed with her stray line of thought. C'mon, Hikari. Stay focused and get dinner started. You can figure out how to morph into a supermodel after you find a way to keep your face on at school.

Giving one last sigh, Hikari left her room and started downstairs. Trying to keep her mind on business, and meeting with only partial success.

There were times that working at NERV flat-out sucked.

There were certainly plenty of reasons to grumble while on the job. The abysmal pay, the atrocious hours, and coffee that was only marginally tolerable when hot. But as far as Misato was concerned, one of the absolute worse things about NERV was the prevailing mentality that the children they used to wield the monstrous Evangelions were mere tools.

"What?" came the piercing wail of Asuka over the intercom."You mean I have to take my clothes off again?"

Sighing, Misato watched as Ritsuko Akagi replied with the air of a complete professional scientist dealing with a taciturn guinea pig. "The next chamber is an ultra-clean environment, Asuka," the faux-blonde informed her in a voice that betrayed too many hours working fueled solely by willpower and crappy coffee. "Simply taking a shower and changing your undergarments is insufficient."

"I don't believe this!" Asuka whined instantly. "All the schisse for a dumb autopilot test! This sucks!"

Watching with growing sense of distaste and disinterest as Ritsuko talked down the redhead, Misato sighed, painfully aware that she was running on fumes as well. When the sound of Shinji and Asuka groaning their misery caught her ears, the Major caste an accusatory look at her friend. "You could be a little nicer to them, you know."

Turning to return her look, Ritsuko grumbled, "Misato, you know how important these tests are. We're going to need all the data we can get if we're going to make the Dummy System work."

Which is one of the reasons why Asuka hates it, Misato thought tiredly, well aware how much pride the German took in her status as a pilot. Aloud, she muttered, "I know all about that, Ritsuko. I'm just saying that you could be a bit nicer to them." Frowning intently as she approached her friend, the purple-haired woman gestured towards the display that showed all the rooms and cleansing devices that had been used on the three pilots. "Several of the intersections don't even have any dividers, Rits! They're in full view of each other as they go from clean room to clean room!"

"I'm aware of that, Misato. And I understand why they wouldn't like it," Ritsuko intoned, using that same tone of voice. "But you have to remember that the pribnow box was assembled very quickly, and with our budget already at its limits. As a result…"

"I know, I know! Money, money, money!" Misato groaned mockingly. The fact that money was so necessary leading her to hate it at times. "Seriously, though! We couldn't even put in any curtains or walls, just to -?"

"I'm sorry, Misato, but that's not an option," Ritsuko explained, her voice reflecting her rapidly fraying patience. "We cannot afford even the slightest chance of contamination here. The tests we're running are just too sensitive." When the Major frowned her displeasure, the faux-blonde smiled knowingly. "Besides, once we have the Dummy System perfected, the children won't have to go through this anymore. We won't need them to fight the Angels; they'll be able to go back to their normal lives." Cocking her head at her friend, Ritsuko added, "Isn't that what you've wanted from day one?"

Knowing her friend had a valid point, Misato growled deep in her throat. Trying to ignore the rat that had crawled into her mouth and died, she was brought back to the present when Asuka declared, "Alright, we're all here! Butt-naked and run through the wash cycle seventeen times!"

"Good," Ritsuko replied, no pleasure in her voice. "And I want the three of you to stay that way as you walk through the room and board the Entry Plugs."

There was a moment of silence so potent that Misato could have heard a pin drop before Asuka shattered it. "What? Are you crazy?"

"Don't worry. We've already turned off the video recorders," Ritsuko told her, a familiar vein bulging somewhat from her forehead. "The purpose of this experiment is to monitor the harmonics directly from your bodies, without the interference of your plug suits. Not to engage in voyeurism."

"Asuka, please, just do it," Misato told her wearily. "Or do you want me to make it an order?"

The German girl replied with a statement best not repeated, and with some grumblings and mutterings, the three pilots eventually got into the Entry Plugs. As Misato stood there, barely paying attention to the steady flow of techno-babble, she watched the three plugs and the children within them with a sense of guilt.

It's true. If the Dummy System really does work, then the children won't have to fight the Angels anymore, Misato thought, guilt stabbing at her heart. Guilt over her obsession with the Angels, her hatred of them. Her need for revenge upon them. A need she had tried in vain to feed by using the children just as much as the rest of NERV did. Making them fight in biomechanical monstrosities that wouldn't accept her as a pilot.

If only I could do it…fight them myself, Misato thought, feeling heavy slabs of guilt settle on her shoulders. But…I can't…I…

The Major's line of thought was cut off by the sound of a strange groan coming from somewhere above. Standing up straighter, she looked about just in time to see Ritsuko turn towards Maya. "What is that? Another leak?"

"No, sempai," Maya reported, cupping a phone to ear. "According to Shigeru, it's some kind of corrosion in the Protein Wall above this floor."

"Oh, great," Ritsuko grumbled, placing her hand to her undoubtedly throbbing forehead. "Could it affect the test?"

"Not at the moment," Maya told her, setting the phone back down. "They'll let us know if it gets any worse."

"Good. The last thing I want to do is try and start this experiment again from scratch," Ritsuko stated. Mustering a wan smile, she added, "Besides, the Commander would chew my ass off is we aborted because of a few technical problems."

Several of the techies issued a low chuckle at this, and then got back to business. The techno-babble resumed its normal flow, and Misato returned to watching with disinterest. Until another sound pierced through her consciousness. The blare of an alarm.

"What's going on?" Ritsuko demanded tersely.

"Contamination alert!" answered a female tech. "It's in Sigma Unit on the 8th floor!"

"The 87th Protein Wall is corroding! Temperature rising rapidly!" announced a male techie.

"The corrosion of the Protein Wall is spreading rapidly!" Maya cried out, her fingers raining down upon her station. "It's everywhere!"

"Dammit! Abort the test!" Ritsuko ordered, those last three words coming out like a curse as well. "Shut off all flows through the 6th Pipe system!" Ritsuko

Acting with incredible efficiency, Maya began executing her orders. Only to look up at her mentor, her face creased with shock. "It's not working! Whatever it is, it's spreading along the walls as well!"

Making a face at this development, Ritsuko ordered, "Deploy polysomes. Set their lasers for maximum power!"

Frowning at this, Misato looked back into the water-filled room that held the simulation bodies. Even then, several aquatic robots were moving past the headless monstrosities, ready to blast whatever was eating through the pribnow box so rapidly. Once again a witness to a battle she was unable to fight herself.

Her entire body tense with adrenaline and anticipation, Misato practically jumped out of her skin when a cry of pain filled the observation room. "Rei!" she screamed, looking towards the source. Only to gasp at the sight of the albino's simulation body reaching towards them. Splotches of red appearing on the surface.

"It's the corrosion!" Maya reported from her station. "It's invaded the simulation bodies' active water system!"

"Quick! Eject the Entry Plugs immediately!" Ritsuko ordered, an edge of fear creeping into her voice. "Use the lasers!"

Desperate to keep track of everything that was happening, Misato watched as the three Entry Plugs were launched through an emergency hatch that closed behind them. She also watched as the polysomes took position before a section of wall that was showing signs of the same discoloration that had manifested on the simulation body. And she watched as a series of laser beams were fired…only to be deflected by a barrier of orange light. Light she knew all too well.

"AT-Field!" Misato gasped, her eyes going wide with shock. "An Angel!"

As Hikari moved about in the kitchen, humming lightly to herself, she started somewhat when she heard the front door swing open. Only to relax again when she heard Kodama call out, "I'm home! Whew, what a day!"

"Hello, Kodama," Hikari spoke, quickly surveying the various dishes before moving to the living room. Watching as her older sibling approached with her schoolbags in hand, she asked, "How'd your day go?"

"Pretty good, actually," the eldest Horaki sister replied. Giving Hikari a knowing smirk, she added, "And if you're wondering if, by that I mean I have some news for you…then the answer is yes." While the pigtailed girl was freezing up at this, her brain focusing all of its resources on that last word, Kodama was already moving past her and into the kitchen. "Hmmmm, this looks good. Grilled salmon, right?"

After waiting the few seconds required for her mind to reboot, Hikari turned about to face her sister. "Uh, yeah. That's right," she returned, moving up beside her even as Kodama lifted up a cover and taking a sniff of the soup she was preparing. "So…the professor learned something new about…?"

"That's right," Kodama nodded, setting the lid back in place. "Well, actually, sensei and I found it together. We are a team, after all."

"Right, of course," Hikari commented absently, not terribly interested in the details. "So, anyway…"

"So how much longer until dinner's ready?" Kodama asked, already moving out of the kitchen. Leaving Hikari standing there, growling lowly in her throat. When the pigtailed girl turned and fixed her sister with a crimson glare, Kodama smiled innocently. "Hey, don't look at me that way! I'm spending my lunch hours working with sensei! What do you expect?"

"And I'm very grateful for that," Hikari assured her with mounting impatience. "Now, about what you found…"

"And besides that, do you know what I have had to put up with Yukari these past few days?" Kodama went on, playing the dutiful sister bit to the hilt. While Hikari grinding her teeth together, practically feeling the veins bulging from her forehead, her sister was heading up to her room. "Honestly, it feels like every time I look around, I see her or Shiro lurking around some corner!"

Barely stifling a grunt of annoyance, Hikari strained to be diplomatic. "Yes, I understand that," she replied around clenched teeth. "And I appreciate it. But…"

"I swear, I'll never understand that nut," Kodama grumbled, shaking her head as she entered her room. "Ever since I won the science award, she acts like every project of mine is some kind of plot against her." As Hikari stood there, staring daggers at the closed door and clenching her fists. "Did you know that she accused me of sleeping with sensei? That that's why he voted for me getting the award?"

"Yeah, I can see that," Hikari growled, not bothering to conceal her mounting impatience. "Now, Kodama -!"

"Honestly! Where do people like her come from, anyway?" Kodama continued as she exited her room, having shed her more formal garb in favor of a set of slacks and shirt. Completely oblivious to the fact that her sister was slowly changing, allowing herself to shift to her alien colors even the college woman came back downstairs. "So, anyway, how much longer until dinner is ready?" Again standing before her mutated sibling, the eldest Horaki frowned somewhat as she looked into her narrowed, crimson eyes. "Is something wrong, Hikari?"

Practically hearing the snap resulting of this one last straw, Hikari moved up to her sister and placed her hands to her hips. "No," she growled even as she lifted Kodama up off the floor. The eldest sister squawking as Hikari gave her a shake and declared, "But if you don't tell me what you found out in about three seconds, then I promise you, something will be very wrong! Got it!"

"Okay, okay!" Kodama cried out, caught between shock and something resembling amusement. "I get the idea, Hikari! Now put me down!"

Still frowning her displeasure, Hikari snorted lightly before setting Kodama back down on her feet. Taking a step back out of the green girl's reach, Kodama gently fingered the points where she had been grabbed. "I see you're still getting stronger," she commented, wincing at her own touch. "I'm starting to wonder if Nozomi was right when she called you a superwoman."

"Kodama, please! I'm not in the mood for this!" Hikari grumbled, placing her hands to her hips. "I've already had a bad day as it is! So would you please just…" The pigtailed girl trailed off as Kodama looked past her, her brows knotting. "What is it?"

"Um, Hikari?" Kodama wondered, pointing into the kitchen. "I think the soup's boiling over."

Her eyes going wide at this, Hikari whirled about and let out a screech of dismay when she saw a foamy wave pushing past the lid and spilling on the heating unit. Dashing over to the oven, she quickly pulled off the lid, only to wince in pain and recoil from the sudden wave of steam billowing up at her.

"Still having trouble with heat, huh?" Kodama noted from behind.

Feeling a few more veins popping out of her forehead, Hikari returned, "Yeah, you can say that." Moving back to the stove and making certain that the worst of the steam had abated, the Horaki matriarch quickly surveyed the damage. The salmon was still sizzling nicely, and the soup wasn't burned. She would still have a mess to deal with later, but it looked worse than it actually was. "It's not as bad as it was, but still…"

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Kodama commented, backing away from the disaster lest she be drafted into helping clean it up. "Considering what sensei and I found today, I…"

Her ears pricking up again, Hikari gave her sister a look. "And just what did you find?" she asked, careful to keep the bulk of her attention on dinner, not wanting anything ruined after all the work she had done. "And please, Kodama, don't make me have to drag it out of you!"

Tilting her head to the side, Kodama gave Hikari that smug, knowing smile of hers. "Well, I was going to tell you everything over dinner…but I guess I can tell you this one little bit right now," she decided, leaning in to look Hikari in the eyes. "Professor Ousugi and I were able to track down the source of the meteorite the alien cells came from."

Of all the things she could have imagined her sister telling her, this was not one of them. "What?" Hikari breathed, dinner momentarily forgotten.

"That's right," Kodama nodded, savoring the moment. "We did an analysis on the composition of the meteorite, cross-referencing it with all other known extraterrestrial samples. Imagine our surprise when we got a match!"

"But how?" Hikari gaped, torn between her sister's words and making sure the salmon didn't burn. "That rock…didn't it come from another planet or something?"

"Yeah, it was from another planet before, alright," Kodama nodded, her lips curling with anticipation. "But as it turns out, it came from a planet humans have been studying for a long time. One right in our very own solar system."

Her mind completely emptied by shock, Hikari stared slack-jawed at her sister. "What…?"

"That's right," Kodama smiled triumphantly. "Remember how we've been calling you a Martian lately?" The elder sister gave a playful shake of her head before leaning in even closer to Hikari. "Looks like we were more right than we could ever have believed."

One of the upsides of being a scientist, Ritsuko decided, was the ability to be utterly fascinated with anything unusual. Even things that were trying to kill her, as well as the rest of human race.

Some time had passed since she, Misato, and Maya had arrived on the bridge so as to be better equipped with the invading Angel. The 11th Messenger had spread throughout Sigma Unit, and had infected the mega-depth. And to make the situation even worse, Commander Ikari had been forced to evacuate the Evangelions in order to protect them from potential contamination. Leaving them to fight for their lives without the only weapons proven to be able to defeat an Angel.

And yet, all Ritsuko could do was focus on the holographic displays showing images of the contaminated simulation body in the pribnow box. All concern for her own life, for the odds against them surviving this, momentarily forgotten as she analyzed their enemy. Fascinated by the glowing points of red that marked the infection.

"Look at that," Ritsuko intoned, her voice devoid of emotion as she studied the data being collected. "The infection seems to be avoiding the area where ozone is vented in to maintain antiseptic conditions."

"Yes, I see," Maya agreed. "Their preference is pretty clear."

Stepping forward to look as well, Misato demanded, "So you're saying that this thing's weakness is ozone?"

"It would seem so," Ritsuko agreed. "Therefore, if we increase the ozone concentration…"

"We might be able to stop this thing in its tracks!" Misato returned, her eyes glinting with feral eagerness. "Makoto! Increase the ozone levels! Let's see if we can yank the welcome mat out from under our unwanted guest!"

"You got it, Major!" Makoto replied, his fingers already raining down on his control panel. "Injecting ozone now. Ozone concentration increasing."

Looking up from the techie, Ritsuko and Misato studied the display, searching for any signs that their ploy was working. To their astonishment, the effect was immediate; as soon as the additional ozone reached the contaminated areas, the red glow of the infection began to fade.

"Zero-A and Zero-B are recovering," Maya reported from her station.

"The area around the pipes is getting back to normal," Shigeru agreed.

"So far, so good," Misato commented, her voice laced with wariness. Ritsuko understood her friend's caution. In just about every engagement with the Angels, their mortal enemies had had some surprise in store for them, some hidden trick that made them that much impossible to beat, and often left battle plans in shambles.

Not to mention burying Misato in paperwork, Ritsuko thought, indulging in a private laugh as she recalled the despondent expression her friend had worn at the sight of her desk after the first engagement with the 7th Angel. At the mountain of paperwork Sub Commander Fuyutsuki had happily dumped in her lap, leaving her trapped in her office for days on end, promising to take NERV's battles someplace else.

As this moment of mirth faded, Ritsuko returned her focus to the situation at hand. "Let's not celebrate yet," she announced, indicating the heart of the infection. "The central mass appears to be more resistant."

Nodding, Misato ordered, "Hyuga! Inject more ozone."

Makoto was quick to respond, and within seconds, the ozone levels within the pribnow box increased dramatically. Again, Ritsuko studied the data being fed to them. Waiting and hoping that there would be no nasty surprise this time. Preparing herself for the worst, just the same. She watched and waited…and soon frowned. "What the…?"

"What is it?" Misato wondered, eyeing her friend.

"The central mass. It's not shrinking!" Ritsuko reported, a pit opening up in her stomach. A pit that said that the proverbial other show had just dropped. Right on all their heads. A feeling that was confirmed by the worried cries of the bridge crew, and their reports.

"Something's wrong! The heat levels are going through the roof!" Makoto reported, a drop of sweat rolling down his forehead.

"The contamination is spreading again! It's moving even faster than it was before!" Shigeru cried out, his face turning ashen as he leaned forward.

"Oh, my god! The Angel! It's starting to absorb the ozone! It's actually feeding on it now!" Maya reported, her eyes rounding with horror.

"Dammit! Stop the ozone!" Misato ordered, sounding like she was swallowing a lump of bile as she did so.

Looking away from the cries of fear and confusion, from the madness that resulted of humanity's instinct for survival, Ritsuko focused on the holographic display once more. Grateful beyond belief for the ability to detach herself from her emotions, if only for a time. To leave her current situation behind and embrace the unknown, to study it and understand it. And it was that mentality that allowed to murmur, "Incredible. It's adapting, evolving…"

Just as she was losing herself in her study of their would-be destroyer, Ritsuko gasped in shock when the holographic display broke up into waves of static. "What's happening now?"

"We've got an unidentified intruder!" Shigeru reported, looking even paler than Rei ever did. "Someone's hacked into the network! The signal's coming in C-Mode!"

"I'm opening a decoy entry!" Makoto reported, his fingers a blur as he put his words into action. Then he let out a groan of dismay and reported, "No good! It avoided the decoy!"

"Can you trace the signal?" Ritsuko asked, a niggling suspicion deepening the pit forming inside of her.

"Working on it! I just need a few more seconds!" Shigeru responded. Apparently oblivious to the efforts of the rest of the bridge crew, to their various failures to stop the intruder, the long-haired tech finally gasped. "Impossible! The signal's coming from under the B-wing! From inside the pribnow box!"

"What?" Misato hissed while Ritsuko moved to stand behind Maya's station. Leaning in closely, she studied her understudy's display, of another shot of the Angel. And watched as the glowing patches on the simulation body shifted, changing from blotches of red to patterns of gold. Patterns that Ritsuko instantly recognized the purpose of.

"The optical pattern has changed!" Maya squawked even as Ritsuko's suspicions were confirmed. And the pit in her stomach opened up into a chasm.

"That's it! This Angel…it's not just an infection…it's a nanite collective!" Ritsuko announced, her eyes widening with shock and awe. "It's configured itself into an organic supercomputer!"

"So sister really is a Martian?" Nozomi demanded, looking at Kodama with undisguised excitement.

"That's right," Kodama confirmed, smiling in triumph. Then she shrugged and went on to say, "Well, actually I suppose I should say half-Martian. As I've already explained, we ran a comparison between her current blood samples and my own, and as near as we can tell, about half of her DNA is still human."

"And…it's going to stay that way, right?" Hikari asked pointedly. Many unspoken fears showing in her words.

"I think so," Kodama replied as she forked up a chunk of grilled salmon into her mouth. Speaking around the tender meat, she added "According to this morning's sample, your DNA seems to be done reconfiguring itself. Your cell structures are still fluctuating somewhat, so I'm guessing they're still adapting to the new genetic code, but other than that…"

"So I can stop worrying if I'm suddenly going to stop breathing oxygen or turn into an amoeba?" Hikari asked, not quite joking.

"Looks like it," Kodama confirmed, taking a sip of her soup. "It's like sensei said; the Martian DNA is extremely compatible with our own."

"How compatible?" Nozomi wondered, practically glowing with curiosity.

"Extremely." Setting down her cup of soup, the elder Horaki took a healthy chug of her soda before telling them, "Sensei's been running tests on some of the original cell samples, and it turns out that over eighty percent of their DNA is a perfect match for our own." Letting out a low chuckle, Kodama looked Hikari right in the eye. "I swear, you should have seen him when he came in to tell me that! He was jumping all over the place, shouting and cheering and just going nuts! I think he said 'Nobel Prize' at least a dozen times before I was able to get him to settle down."

Wincing at the mention of the Nobel Prize, and how such an event would in all likelihood necessitate her direct involvement, Hikari shook her and focused on other matters. "So, anyway, Kodama…you're sure that these things…they're from Mars? You're absolutely positive of that?"

"Absolutely. The meteorite's composition is a perfect match for the conditions found on Mars," Kodama confirmed as she chomped down on more of the salmon. "Why do you ask?"

"Well…I don't know," Hikari answered, giving a tired shrug. "It's just…seems so impossible…"

"It's not. Not if you think about it," Kodama told her, taking another chug of her drink. "After all, scientists have found a few other meteorites that have been confirmed to have been Martian in origin. And they've also discovered cellular fossils inside, and…"

"But there's a big difference between those things and anything that's like a human being," Hikari commented grumpily. "And how could Mars ever support that kind of life, anyway? It's a dead planet!"

"It is now," Kodama quickly agreed. "But scientists have confirmed that, at some point in the past, Mars had water and a viable atmosphere. It probably had some form of plant life as well. And given those conditions, there is the possibility that intelligent life could have evolved."

"Something similar to us?" Hikari frowned, raising an eyebrow at the idea.

"Well, not too similar," Kodama corrected. "The fact is, even at its height, Mars would have been an extremely harsh and dangerous planet. There's no way it could have ever supported human life as we know it." Pausing to down some more soup, the eldest Horaki gave her sister a very serious look. "It stands to reason that, whatever beings lived on Mars, they must have been extremely strong and durable, and perfectly adapted to that environment."

Sitting back in her chair, Hikari stared wide-eyed at her sister. "Really."

Nodding, Kodama to another bite of her dinner. "Actually, it goes a long way in explaining all the changes you've gone through. For one thing, Mars is much colder than Earth, being further away from the sun. The creatures there must've been accustomed to the extreme cold, which is probably why you had such a hard time dealing with the heat when we went to sensei's lab." Giving this a moment to sink in, the budding scientist added, "And I'd be willing to bet that the increased strength you've shown, plus your shape-changing would have probably been essential to survival on Mars."

While Hikari was considering these words, she became aware of Nozomi grinning at her. "It also explains why you've been breaking so many dishes lately, sister!" she needled, laughing at her own wit.

"Watch it, Nozomi…!" Hikari growled deep in her throat, her cheeks burning with humiliation. Something that wasn't helped when Kodama chuckled as well.

"You have to admit that you've been kind of rough on the china lately, Hikari," Kodama smirked.

"It's not like I meant to do it!" Hikari retorted, glowering at her siblings. Flush it with embarrassment as she recalled her first few nights of trying to adapt to her new condition. Of trying to take care of the duties assigned to her, only to be reminded time and again that she was a stranger in her own body. "The plates just snapped in my hands! I didn't think I was holding them that tightly!"

"I'm just glad Dad chalked it all up to you coming down with a case of Klutz-itis and decided to invest in a new set of dinnerware," Kodama smirked.

"Keep it up, and he'll need to invest in a new table as well," Hikari growled, glaring dangerously at her sisters. They both got the picture, and immediately focused on eating their dinners. Watching them for a bit longer, to make sure that there were no further snickers at her expense, the green girl decided to have some more of her own dinner before speaking again.

When her plate was all but empty, Hikari once again focused on Kodama. "Anyway, Kodama, I see what you mean about Mars. But…if there used to besome kind of intelligent life up there, wouldn't we have seen some evidence of them? Old cities…villages…something?"

"Possibly. We might find the remnants of whatever used to be up there, if somebody actually went there and conducted a thorough survey," Kodama commented around another mouthful. "But really, Hikari, these beings wouldn't have had to be all that advanced. Probably on the level of…chimpanzees or cavemen, and nothing more. They wouldn't have left any real trace of their existence. No buildings or anything." While Hikari was frowning at this, silently admitting that her sister had a point, Kodama added, "Besides, there's also the time factor to consider."

Momentarily freezing, Hikari looked up and said, "What does time have to do with anything?"

"Everything, actually," Kodama told her, again smiling in triumph. "You see, all other meteorites from Mars that have been found on Earth range from being over four billion years old to almost 200 million years. But the one the cell samples came from was a lot more recent."

"How recent?" Hikari asked, realizing that she was missing something important and not liking it.

"According to carbon dating, sensei's meteorite is just over five hundred years old," Kodama informed them. Smiling even more deeply when both her sisters discarded their interest in dinner and fixed their gazes on her.

"What? For real?" Nozomi squeaked out while Hikari stared at her in silence.

"That's right," Kodama informed them. "That means that those single-celled organisms had millions, maybe billions of years to evolve. And that'd be more than enough time for them or their cousins to change into little green men." She then cocked her head to the side and added, "Or girls, as the case may be."

Barely paying attention as her sisters continued to bounce the subject about, Hikari looked down at her own hands. Hands so different from her own, pale, human hands. Five hundred years ago, she thought, trying to wrap her mind around the idea. That just five centuries past, Mars was a world with life on it. That boasted beings similar in form to humans, and with powers that she was barely beginning to understand. What would they have been like? she wondered. Were they…Martian cavemen, like Kodama said? Or…were they more? Did they…have cities? A civilization of their own?

As Hikari studied her own green flesh, she couldn't help but think that the latter was correct. That whatever flesh had mingled from her had come from something more than mindless savages. That they were a people that, while different from herself, had souls of their own. Had lives with meaning, with purpose.

Of course, that might be just wishful thinking on my part, Hikari smiled self-depreciatingly. Or it could be just a case of all the time Nozomi spends watching rubbing off on me.

Returning her attention to the present, Hikari studied her older sister. "So, anyway, Kodama…any idea how much longer until my body finally settles down? Until I…finish changing into Lil' Miss Martian?"

"Good question," Kodama admitted around the remainder of her dinner. Tilting her head this way and that, she visibly considered the matter. "Well, as I said earlier, your cell structures are still adapting to the Martian DNA, but they do seem to be stabilizing. They're not changing as rapidly…despite the changes to your diet." While Hikari was wincing at this none-too-subtle reminder of her new eating habits, the elder sister shrugged. "I'd guess…a week. Maybe two."

"Two weeks," Hikari repeated, caught between relief and fear. Relief that her body would soon be stable…and fear of what that end result might mean for her.

"Of course, it might not take that long. Or could be longer," Kodama muttered disinterestedly. Before Hikari could say anything on the matter, the budding scientist looked towards the kitchen. "Say, I'm still hungry. Do we have anything for dessert?"

Momentarily stunned by this change in subject, Hikari glared grumpily at her sister. "No, we don't," she grumbled, drenching her words with as much sarcasm as she could. "Because I, your bottomless pit of a sister, have already devoured everything in this house that even remotely resembles junk food."

"Hey, give me a break! I told you I've been skipping lunch to help sensei with these studies!" Kodama retorted. Folding her arms across her chest, Hikari made a point of looking away. Until her older sister groaned in surrender. "Okay, I'm sorry I've been giving you such a hard time about eating so much. Now, do we have something for dessert?"

Pressing her lips together as she looked back at her sister, Hikari eventually sighed. "Well…I guess you deserve something for all your hard work," she stated slowly, as if having to consider the matter for a while. "And as it so happens, I did make some raspberry pie earlier."

"Ah, that sounds good," Kodama smiled. "Could you get me a piece?"

"Hey, I want some, too!" Nozomi chimed in eagerly.

Sighing matronly, Hikari stood from her seat and started towards the kitchen. Before she could take more than a step, however, she heard a terrible voice whispering in her ear. The Lilum will fall… came the hideous voice from before. The one from her nightmare. What they know, we will know.

Her eyes bulging in horror, Hikari froze up completely. The image of the impossible, monstrous eyes flashing in her thoughts. No... she whispered inwardly, the terror she had felt in her sleep returning. Just as strong and hideous as it had been before. It…it can't be…

"Hikari?" came the puzzled voice of Kodama, but it sounded distant. Insubstantial. "Hikari, what is it? Is something wrong?"

We will complete our mission. We will overcome their defenses, the voice of nightmares continued on. Once again, we will be one with the All-Father.

"Sister?" came Nozomi's worried voice.

"No, stop it…!" Hikari moaned, squeezing her eyes shut as she brought her hands to her temples. "Please…leave me alone…!"

There was a moment of silence before the alien voice spoke again. What? it said, almost sounding confused.

"Leave you…Hikari, what are you saying?" Kodama wondered, sounding even more distant. On some level, Hikari heard two sets of footsteps approaching her, could sense what could only be her sisters coming up alongside her. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Sister!" came Nozomi's plaintive cry, but like everything else, it seemed so far away from her. Like it was happening to someone else, rather than Hikari.

Again, came the alien voice. A voice that was already much more real than those belonging to Hikari's sisters. This is impossible. You are dead. You cannot be here.

"No…please, no!" Hikari begged, clawing at her scalp, trying to excise the foul voice. Shaking her head fiercely, she took a few steps back before opening her eyes…and found herself in complete darkness. Darkness that took her breath away, leaving her shaking in terror. Every inch of her body having gone cold, her heart all but stopping in the face of this new reality.

"No…this is just a dream…" Hikari moaned despairingly. Even as hundreds of eyes slowly opened up, and focused their cruel gazes on her…

"Hikari! Hikari!" Kodama cried out, unable to make sense of what was happening. At how her sister had been acting perfectly normal one moment, and the next, was babbling incoherently while trying to rip open her own head.

"Sister, please!" Nozomi pleaded, wrapping her arms about Hikari's waist even as the afflicted girl staggered backwards.

As Kodama stood there, unsure whether or not she should also try to restrain Hikari, their afflicted sibling groaned in pain, her fingernails digging even deeper into her head, pulling the malleable flesh to impossible lengths. "No…this is just a dream…" the green girl moaned desperately, slowly shaking her head in denial. Until at last she was jolted ramrod straight, loosing a cry of terror that sent her sisters scrambling backwards, covering their ears.

Wh-what is going on here? Is she having a seizure? Kodama wondered. Momentarily wishing she had taken a course in medicine, she watched through pain-narrowed eyes as Hikari screamed. Screamed, screamed, screamed, like every horror and nightmare humanity could imagine was attacking her all at once. The torment she was being so visibly subjected to painful for her to watch.

Then, as suddenly as it began, Hikari fell silent. The transformed matriarch's eyes rolled up into her head as she slumped forward and crashed to the floor. Limp as a puppet whose strings had been cut.

"Sister!" Nozomi shrieked, recoiling at the sight of Hikari lying still on the floor. Shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, the youngest Horaki soon looked towards Kodama. "I-is she…?"

Meeting Nozomi's gaze, Kodama grimaced when she realized that she was the one expected to deal with this situation. Turning to look at Hikari's prone form, the eldest sister found herself wishing that she were someplace else. Preferably sensei's lab, or maybe the library. Certainly anywhere but there, dealing with this.

After a few seconds of waiting, only to find herself not waking up from this nightmare or being magically transported to a locale of her choosing, Kodama heaved a deep breath and slowly knelt down beside her sister. As gently as she could, terrified of doing something, anything to make this situation even worse, Kodama placed her fingers to Hikari's neck. And to her immense and immediate relief, she found a steady pulse.

"Well, her heartbeat seems normal, and she's still breathing," Kodama quickly reported, taking note of the rising and falling of Hikari's chest. Frowning and basically making things up as she went along, she then forced one of Hikari's eyes open. Only to gasp at what she saw.

"What is it?" Nozomi squealed, jumping at the Kodama's fearful reaction.

Kodama didn't respond right away. Instead, she hovered over her sister and watched and analyzed. As her conscious mind slowly collapsed beneath the weight of this crisis, another part of her took over. The analytical portion of her mind, the part of her that was a scientist taking over. And it was that part that took note of the importance of what she was seeing. "Rapid eye movement."

"Huh?" Nozomi gaped, her fear momentarily forgotten.

"Look! See?" Kodama told her, pointing towards the opened eye. As they watched, the crimson pupil moved about, dilating and contracting seemingly at random. "Hikari…she's dreaming."

"Dreaming?" Nozomi repeated incredulously before she turned a ghostly white. "Kodama! Sister had a strange nightmare today! Before you got back!"

"A…strange nightmare?" Kodama repeated blankly.

As quickly as she could, Nozomi explained what had had happened. "Sister wouldn't tell me what it was about, but…I could tell that it really scared her. And she was moaning and saying things like she was just now, and…"

Frowning even more deeply, Kodama returned her attention to her fallen sister. "I don't like the sound of that, Nozomi," she muttered, her scared mind already conjuring up several possibilities. "I don't like it at all…"

How can this be possible?

the huge, horrible voice demanded. The horde of eyes set against the darkness moving about seemingly at random, swirling all around their prey. You are dead. You cannot be here. You are dead.

"Stop it!" Hikari shrieked as she flew aimlessly through the void, her arms raised before her face. "Just leave me alone! I'm not dead!"

You are not dead, and yet we remember you as being dead, the voice returned even as one of the huge eyes shot in front of Hikari, coming within a few inches of her face. How can this be possible? We do not understand.

"And you think I do?" Hikari shrieked back, somehow flinging herself away from the eye. "Please, let me go! I haven't done anything to you!"

Incorrect. You have hurt us, the voice countered, several more eyes closing in on her. You have fought us. You have killed us. There was a pause, as if the hundreds of eyes were considering their own words. Seconds passed, and then the being spoke. Its voice carrying with it something that could only be described as anger. Therefore, we conclude that we must kill you before you can do so again.

The impossible horde of eyes began moving as one, a massive swarm that bore down upon Hikari with malicious intent. Gasping as her mind was completely emptied by fear, the green girl turned about and tried to escape. She wasn't sure if she was flying or floating or something else, nor did she care. All she knew, all she cared about, was getting away from this monster before it could make good on its promise.

You cannot escape. We will kill you. Everything you are will become us, the eyes vowed. And as Hikari continued to move, she realized that there was good chance they would succeed. She could see nothing beyond the eyes except for more darkness, and as she moved onwards, more and more of the eyes opened up. Each of them fixing her with its evil gaze as it moved towards her.

Just as her terror was leading her into despair, Hikari gasped in surprise as she caught sight of something off in the distance. A light, set somewhere beyond the field of eyes.

Not even bothering to consider the possibility that she was exchanging one doom for another, Hikari started towards the light. The eyes, still repeating their promise of death, moved to pursue her, with even more appearing from the darkness and joining the chase. All the while, the strange light grew ever closer. Taking on greater definition with each passing second. Looking more and more like…a door in space.

Head into the light, Hikari found herself thinking somewhat humorlessly as she continued to approach the one and only tear in the void of darkness. Hoping that this wasn't a one-way ticket to the afterlife or some other doom, the green girl raised her arms to shield herself…just before plunging through the strange gateway.

Momentarily blinded by the transition, Hikari squeezed her eyes almost shut until she got through to the other side. When she reached the other side of the breach in the darkness, she gasped in shock at what she saw. Instead of a set of pearly gates or a raging inferno filled with demons, she saw three islands floating in the air, surrounded by vast, towering walls that encapsulated this strange space. All of the islands were connected to each other by a series of different bridges, with glowed and pulsated with streams of light.

"Wh-what the – oh!" Hikari started as she continued to look about, and found that she was flying over a similar bridge. Shifting to look back at the portal she had used, she gasped at the sight of the same darkness she had escaped from spreading across the walls of this strange, slowly spreading onto the bridge as well. And set in the dark ooze were more of the eyes, all of them still glaring hatefully at her.

Then…they're all one thing! One…creature! Hikari thought, shuddering in revulsion. And I…I was inside of it!

As she tried to clear her mind of that horrible image, Hikari looked ahead, towards the three strange islands. Each island unlike anything had ever seen before, and each was different from the other, with its own castle sitting atop it. One castle was an old-fashioned, Feudal-style abode surrounded by cherry trees, pink with beautiful blossoms. The second was like something from Britain, only so garish and encrusted with jewels and extravagant décor that it hurt Hikari's eyes just to look at it. While the third castle, the one closest to her, looked like something Kensuke would dream up. Its walls were composed of shimmering metal, and glowing points flowed about the windows.

"What is this place, anyway?" Hikari wondered as she continued to look about perplexedly. "And more importantly, how do I get out of here?" Frowning as no voice spoke up to give her the answers, the green girl turned her focus to the islands. "I guess my best chance to knock on the doors, and see if there's anybody home to give me directions."

With this thought in mind, Hikari considered her options. Of the three islands, the one with the techno-castle was the closest, and looked the most formidable. Possibly the safest place to hide, should the ooze-and-eyeball monster get there before she could get away.

"Okay, then," Hikari muttered, pushing herself for the speed she could and not even sure how she was managing to do so. "Let's just hope I'm not making another huge mistake…"

After what felt like forever but was probably only a few minutes, Hikari arrived at the target island. To her astonishment, it looked even stranger close-up than it did from a distance. The island was bare of vegetation; instead, massive computers and bizarre equipment right out of Star Trek sprouted out of the ground, all of them interconnected by glowing circuits. Gawking at all of them in turn, Hikari eventually realized that all of the circuits led back to the castle itself, feeding into circuits spread throughout its walls.

What kind of psycho could have dreamed up this techno-nightmare? Hikari thought, suffering second and even third thoughts about this. Casting glances at the other islands, she considered going to one of them for assistance, but then shook her head. There was no guarantee that the other islands wouldn't be any less creepy when subjected to close inspection, and it wasn't as if she was in the position to be picky, anyway.

Gritting her teeth as she resigned herself to her fate, Hikari hurried past the high-tech artifacts and headed directly towards a massive gate set into the castle wall. Quickly landing, she ran up to the closed metal door and placed her hands against it. "Uh, hello! Is anybody in there?" she cried out, darting a glance back towards the bridge and the nightmarish creature she just escaped from. To her horror, she found that the monster had spread even further, and was oozing across the bridge. Not requiring much imagination to realize what the creature's ultimate objective was, Hikari returned her attention to the door. "Please! If anybody's in there, then please, let me in! There's a -!"

(Command recognized. Access granted) came another disembodied voice. Like the creature's, it was flat and atonal. However, this voice sounded like an older woman. And to Hikari's immense relief, it was followed by the gate to the castle sliding open, allowing her inside.

"Oh, thank you!" Hikari grinned, almost swooning with relief as she entered. The instant she was inside, the gate slid closed once more, causing her to pause and look back for a moment. But before she could give any thought to the matter, she became aware of someone approaching. Turning to look down one of the hallways, the pigtailed girl saw a woman coming towards her. She was an attractive woman of about thirty to forty, and had dark, curly hair that was cut in close, businesslike manner. And to Hikari's surprise, she was dressed in a lab coat, with a tag marked GEHIRN on it.

"Greetings. I am Melchior," the woman announced as she came to stand before Hikari. "How may I be of service?"

Blinking at this statement, Hikari frowned in confusion. "Melchior?" she repeated blankly. Brushing aside the temptation to ask what kind of name that was, the green girl quickly got to business. "Listen, um, I don't know how to tell you this, but there's some kind of monster out there! It's coming this way, and -!"

"I know," Melchior told her, her tone as businesslike as the rest of her. "The Angel has successfully infected NERV's computer network, including the main security banks. As such, it has obtained all the codes required to allow it free access to all of NERV's systems."

Her eyes bulging in horror, Hikari took a step back and gasped, "An Angel? That's what's this thing is?" Melchior responded with a simple nod, leaving the pigtailed matriarch to try and make sense of the situation. "But…how'd it get here? And for that matter…where is here, anyway?"

"I do not know how the Angel was able to enter the Geofront undetected. Nor do I know the location of your physical body," Melchior confessed. "For some reason, I am unable to track the source of your signal."

Staggered with confusion, Hikari gave a quick shake of her head before sputtering out, "M-my signal?" Feeling like her mind was about to overload from all the insanity it was being subjected to, she stared incredulously at the woman for a long time. "Wait a minute. You…you said your name was…Melchior, right?"

Nodding, the scientist replied, "That is correct."

As Hikari stood there, staring at the woman, she found herself thinking that this was it. That after all the stress, the transformation her body had been subjected to, the nightmares, all of it and more had finally succeeded in driving her completely insane. "Melchior," she murmured, awaiting the confirmation that she was ready for the funny farm. "As in…one of the MAGI? The supercomputers that run Japan?"

"That is correct. You are presently interfacing with the MAGI network," Melchior confirmed. Cocking her head towards Hikari, she asked, "Do you have any other questions?"

Her mind faltering completely, Hikari rocked back and forth on her heels, staring in astonishment at the embodiment of one of the MAGI. "Yeah…I have another question," she asked before flopping down on her posterior. "How the hell can I finally wake up from this nightmare…?"

Tilting her head to one side, Melchior studied Hikari. "Your request does not compute. Please elaborate."

"Sure. Why not?" Hikari answered automatically, almost laughing as she spoke. "But…I suggest you take a seat. This is probably going to take a while…"

"What the hell is the Angel looking for?" Fuyutsuki wondered as he stood at Gendo's side, surveying the controlled chaos below him. "What's it trying to do?"

It wasn't long before he received his answer. "The Angel's scanning the directories! I…oh, god, no!" Shigeruu shrieked in horror. "The MAGI! It's going after them!"

Frowning as his heartbeat quickened, Fuyutsuki realized that their situation had just gotten that much worse. The MAGI were responsible for controlling almost all of Japan's functions. They had effectively replaced the government for practical intents and purposes, and held sway over all of NERV's higher functions and deepest secrets. If the Angel succeeded in taking control of them…

Clearly thinking along the same lines as Fuyutsuki, Gendo rose up somewhat. "Deactivate the I/O system!"

"Right!" Makoto shouted even as he and Shigeru drew forth a set of command keys. Inserting them into their consoles, the two techies looked at each other. "System shutdown!"

Nodding, Shigeru prepared to coordinate for simultaneous action. "Right! In three…two…one!" The two techies turned their keys at exactly the same moment. Then they waited, looking at each other. The realization that their effort had failed slowly dawning as they both fell back on their controls. With Shigeru giving voice to their horror. "We can't! The I/O system's locked! There's nothing we can do!"

Author's Notes: I know this is a rotten place for me to cut off, but after weeks of struggling with this chapter, I finally decided to just go ahead and post what I had done and hope for the best. Still, I hope you will read and review, and maybe check out my other stories as well.

One of the main problems I had going into this chapter was the fact that I really wanted to get some more action into this story, so originally, I tried to set it up so that Hikari would learn that her father was in danger, and attempt to go down to NERV and try to save the day. But the problems I had with that approach just kept piling up, and ultimately, I had to scrap half this chapter and start over again, with Hikari somehow perceiving the Angel mentally and being drawn into a sort mindscape with it. I'll do some explaining about that later on, and hopefully, it'll make sense.

Quathis, I know what you mean. Hikari is about the only person Asuka will treat with any measure of respect. Though there are times I wonder if that says more about Asuka or Hikari.

Mike313, my basic plans for Yukari and Shiro are quite simple. Given that this is NGE, things are almost certainly going to get grim later on. And we're going to be needing some comic relief. As for why Asuka brought Shinji along…well, she makes him do just about everything else. Besides, in terms of pairings, I'm going to be keeping my options open for now. And don't worry, it won't be long before Hikari finally gets her powers more-or-less under control.

Zoro50, I am trying to move to where Hikari is using her powers to protect people and fight bad guys, though I'm glad you're liking the focus on family here. I'm still trying to decide on the ultimate big bad for this fic. As for Yukari and Shiro…they're going to be more like Team Rocket then Flash Thompson. And they'll probably have about as much luck with their schemes as well.

Ryousanki, thanks for the suggestions regarding supplements to Hikari's diet.

Rassilon001, yeah, Yukari's got reasons for being nasty. Though I definitely hate people like her. And yeah, sugar as a catalyst to Martian physical power makes a great deal of sense. Plus, it makes for some good comedic potential, considering how many food-dependant hero-types in anime.

Whew…I'm wiped. I just hope this chapter's omake turns out to be funny, at least…


"Honestly! Where do people like her come from, anyway?" Kodama continued as she exited her room, having shed her more formal garb in favor of a set of slacks and shirt. Completely oblivious to the fact that her sister was slowly changing, allowing herself to shift to her alien colors even the college woman came back downstairs. "So, anyway, how much longer until dinner is ready?" Again standing before her mutated sibling, the eldest Horaki frowned somewhat as she looked into her narrowed, crimson eyes. "Is something wrong, Hikari?"

Practically hearing the snap resulting of this one last straw, Hikari moved up to her sister and placed her hands to her hips. "No," she growled even as she lifted Kodama up off the floor. The eldest sister squawking as Hikari gave her a shake and declared, "But if you don't tell me what you found out in about three seconds, then I promise you, something will be very wrong! Got it!"

"Okay, okay!" Kodama cried out, caught between shock and something resembling amusement. "I get the idea, Hikari! Now put me down!"

Still frowning her displeasure, Hikari snorted lightly before setting Kodama back down on her feet. Taking a step back out of the green girl's reach, Kodama gently fingered the points where she had been grabbed. "I see you're still getting stronger," she commented, wincing at her own touch. "I'm starting to wonder if Nozomi was right when she called you a superwoman."

"Kodama, please! I'm not in the mood for this!" Hikari grumbled, placing her hands to her hips. "I've already had a bad day as it is! So would you please just…" The pigtailed girl trailed off as Kodama looked past her, her brows knotting. "What is it?"

"Um, Hikari?" Kodama wondered, pointing into the kitchen. "I think the soup's boiling over."

Her eyes going wide at this, Hikari whirled about and let out a screech of dismay when she saw a foamy wave pushing past the lid and spilling on the heating unit. Dashing over to the oven, she quickly pulled off the lid, only to wince in pain and recoil from the sudden wave of steam billowing up at her.

"Oh, no! The soup! It's ruined!" Hikari moaned, looking at the disgusting lump that remained at the center of the pot. Then she looked over at the rest of the dinner, and growled in disgust. "And the salmon, too? Arrggh!"

"How is that even possible?" Kodama wondered, shaking her head at the extra-crispy mess. "How could everything burn up so fast?"

"How should I know?" Hikari groaned, placing her hand to her temples. "I guess I better call for pizza, after all."

Meanwhile, up in her room, Nozomi was grinning in delight as she listened to Hikari placing her order. "Yes! This is working great!" she chortled, holding up the remote control for the tiny motors she had placed in the oven. "Sorry, sister, but there are some nights I just gotta have pizza! And now that I've rewired the stove…I'm gonna be getting food my way every day!"