Crossing Point by Maya Perez
Summary: In this alternate universe story, Ken, who's been turned into a Vampire, must learn to deal with the consequences of giving in to his thirst as well as using his powers on his friends.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Original Character
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Mid-Series
Universe: Alternate Universe
Challenges: None
Series: Night Moves
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 42080 Read: 8604 Published: 06/13/2007 Updated: 06/13/2007

1. Part 1 by Maya Perez

2. Part 2 by Maya Perez

3. Part 3 by Maya Perez

Part 1 by Maya Perez
Crossing Point

Story by Maya Perez

Sequel to Night Moves

For an Alternate Gatchaman Universe

Original concept Inspired by Michael Wattenbarger

Edited by Wendy Dinsmore

PROLOGUE



            Katse's hurried steps echoed down the marble hall before him.  The dozen guards that lined the walls, snapped to attention as he walked past.  He ignored them, only partially aware they were even there.

            Two large doors loomed ahead of him.  Katse didn't slow down as he approached, and they opened automatically to allow him entry.  They sealed shut once he stepped inside.

            The room was empty except for a large, oval screen at one end.  Katse moved toward it and knelt before it with a flare of his cape, five feet from the screen.  He stared at the polished floor.

            "X-sama, please hear me.  I have news!"

            Katse felt the hair rising on his arms and neck as the air around him charged with energy.  X had come.  He let a small, satisfied smile fill his lips.

            "What is it, Berg Katse?" 

            Katse looked up and glanced at the familiar angular representation of He who had made him what he was.

            "I have news. Marvelous news, X-sama!  I've created a new weapon for you that cannot fail against the despised ninja team!"

            "Katse - "  X's tone was one of bored impatience.

            Katse interrupted him before he could go on, having expected this exact reaction from his alien master.  "I know I've said this before, Luminous One, but this time it's different.  I cannot fail!"  He stood up, his eyes bright.  "The weapon has been ready for weeks, but I held back from using it until I came up with the perfect plan.  Until I thought out every contingency!  I swear to you they will not have a chance this time.  Gatchaman will be destroyed.  And once they're gone, X-sama, I'll be able to give the world to you on a silver platter!  All I need to proceed is your permission and your blessing."  He stood up.

            "I will not fail you this time, I swear it.  You will not be disappointed.  Let me tell you of it and you will see.  This time, we will be victorious!"

 

 

 

************

 

 

 

            "Ken, it's time to wake up.  Come on!"

            Though his body was being shaken hard, it was the warmth pressed against his arms that slowly brought him toward wakefulness.  Ken struggled to clear his mind of the molasses that had poured over it in the daylight hours.

            "Come on, you're giving me the creeps.  Wake up already!"

            Ken's eyes fluttered open even as a cascade of sensory input flooded into him.  The lingering smell of recently-washed-off oil and grease invaded his nostrils followed by the familiar scent of Old Spice.  A strong heartbeat rang in his ears.  The beat was familiar and regular, subconsciously assuring him nothing overtly pressing had occurred during his sleep.

            Ken struggled to command his stiff muscles to allow him to sit up.  Hands reached out to help him as he faltered.  The warmth of blood and life poured into him at the touch and made his Thirst stir.  He gingerly moved away even as he suppressed and then ignored his Thirst.  He shook his head trying to clear the lingering bits of fog in his brain.

            "I thought that waking you up was supposed to get easier?"

            Ken slowly raised an eyebrow at the dripping sarcasm.  Joe didn't seem to be in a very good mood today.  "This -- is not -- as easy -- as you -- might -- think."

            "Yeah, right."  Joe slapped a tall thermos into Ken's hand.  "Just hurry it up, will you?  I want to get this over with.  Shit, the way things normally go, I might as well give up and kiss off the rest of the day!"

            Ken glanced at his friend as his chiseled Italian features filled with distaste.  He silently marveled at the deep blue eyes, the frowning lips, and the zillion other things he could see in his friend as he never did before.  Ken forced himself to look away before he was totally sucked in by it all.  "I take it you -- have a race today?"

            Joe leaned angrily against the wall.  "Three weeks of nothing, absolutely nothing.  Yet here comes one of the most important meets of the season and WHAM, we get called in for an emergency meeting!  Why the hell do I even bother?"

            Ken said nothing, knowing it would be to no avail.  Instead, he opened the top of the thermos Joe had given him and popped out its built in straw.  He quickly moved to take a sip from it.

            A chill of vibrant pleasure moved through him as the warm, heavy liquid touched his tongue.  It was quickly followed by a sharp pang of guilt.  He would never get used to the drinking of blood.  Because of his disease, he would die without it, but... why did it have to taste so good?  This was but one of over a thousand questions he'd yet been unable to find answers for.

            It'd been almost a month since his transformation.  Even now, the whole episode seemed unreal, just part of an old nightmare.  He had heard or seen nothing of Tiana since her visit to his room those many weeks ago.  He was still undecided as to what to make of it.  He did, after much deliberation, however, finally take her advice and searched out the films and books that dealt with vampirism.  They had taught, amused, and sometimes, horrified him.

            Lugosi showed him how the disease could be like an addiction.  Stoker portrayed it as an elemental force of evil that must be fought, while Saberhagen twisted the whole thing around into one giant misunderstanding.  Anne Rice had at first lamented over what was lost, but later pushed for acceptance.  The Hammer films with Christopher Lee made of it a wonderful means of gaining power and control over others.  The occult books revealed variations on vampirism from the familiar Americana version to their head detaching cousins in Japanasia.  The contradictions between the sources were endless, but a few things had also been somewhat constant.  The one thing they all agreed on was the need for blood.

            Ken felt a light shiver course up his spine.  He continued drinking his breakfast.

            Things had been pretty normal since the change.  Yes, his schedule changed and he didn't see as much as he used to of the others, but it was still better than he could have ever expected - except for Braun....

            He'd called him after the first few days to apologize for what he almost did.  Braun flatly refused to speak to him.  The others went and talked to Braun for him, but though he smiled and said he understood, he still refused to see him.  It wasn't long after that that Braun tried to resign.  Nambu had been able to talk him out of it, though only after he promised him that he'd be reassigned and that Ken would never try to contact him again.  The fact all of this transpired from that one horrible meeting haunted him in his rare dreams.

            "Aren't you through yet?"  Joe sounded impatient.  "I want to hurry to the meeting so Nambu can go ahead and dash whatever hopes I've left about today."

            Ken returned to the present.  "How about I finish it on the way?"

            "Let's go then...."  Joe pushed himself away from the wall and made for the door.  Ken followed after him, sipping as went.

            As the two of them entered Nambu's office, Ken noticed the others were already there.  He placed his emptied thermos on the floor as he sat down.  Joe leaned against the wall behind him, a scowl on his face.

            Nambu acknowledged their arrival with a nod and then used a remote to turn out the lights.  A slide projector lit up the west wall.  The current slide showed a detailed map of South East Asiano's Indiana Ocean.

            "As you know, the ocean around this region is heavily dotted with reefs and small islands that only disperse as it spreads out from Chuna out toward the Sea of Liam. 

            "One of the most used and safest passages through the area lies past the small country of Singapole through the Pole Strait.  The route is mainly used to transport goods from Asiano to the West and vice versa.  Its most valuable cargo are shipments of oil.  Due to security reasons, the schedules of these ships are heavily guarded secrets.  Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case."

            Nambu clicked the remote and the projector switched to a new frame.  A large tanker sat in the middle of the picture, its body roughly split in half, its precious contents spilling into the sea as fire raged on the ship's deck.

            "Galactor's quiescent period seems to be over."  He pointed toward the screen.  "This picture was taken a little over two hours ago.  What few survivors were found testified they were attacked by a humongous bird shaped ship."  Nambu paused a moment, letting his words sink in.

            "Clean up of the disaster is already under way.  There are yet no estimates on the long term ecological damage that will result from the attack."

            Ken watched his teammates tense as Nambu paused again.

            "Not one hour after the incident, a message was delivered to President Anderson's office with detailed information of the ship's scheduled route and a statement quoting the attack had been no accident.  The message went on to say that they have somehow acquired the routes for other oil tankers and that these would be destroyed as well if their demands were not met."  Nambu turned the lights back on.

            "Hakase, what are their demands?"  A strange sense of dread whispered through Ken's mind as he asked the question.

            Nambu pushed his rimless glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and turned to face them.  "Instant and total surrender of the world to Galactor plus my public and televised execution as well as that of the Science Ninja Team."

            "What drug trip is Katse on?" Joe asked.  "I never thought even he was stupid enough to think Anderson would hand over the world for just a few oil tankers!"  His confusion was shared by all.

            "You're right.  Though the ecological as well as economic damage of more attacks would be great, it still wouldn't be enough to seriously encourage the governments of the world to try and meet his terms."  Nambu sat down behind his desk.  "More than likely, this is a thinly disguised attempt to draw the team out."

            They all sat in silence for a moment.

            "So this could be a lure for a trap, or even a distraction as Galactor goes off after another target."

            "My thoughts exactly, Ken."

            Ryu leapt to his feet.  "But, but something has to be done!  There are some very rare fish and animals in the reefs and islands of the Indiana Ocean.  The oil from those tankers would poison everything!  It might even drive some of those species to extinction!"  Everyone stared at Ryu's sudden fervor with surprise.  "You just can't let them do it, even if it's a trap."

            "And I thought I was a hothead."

            At Joe's comment, Ryu's cheeks turned a blazing red and he quickly sat back down.

            "You are, of course, absolutely justified in your sentiments, Ryu.  The ecological damage that would be caused by further incidents is much too great to just ignore."  Ryu looked even more embarrassed.

            "The God Phoenix is to be dispatched to circle the area with an escort of fighters out of Singapoole.  The President is placing all countries on alert so if this does turn out to be a delaying tactic of some sort, they'll be ready to attempt to hold them off long enough for you to try and get there." 

            Jinpei grinned at Ryu.

            "If their threat is real, the most likely target is a fleet of tankers and escorts belonging to the Combine, and they are due to pass through the straight in about four hours.  I want the God Phoenix to cover the area before their arrival and escort them through once they arrive.

            "I advice strong caution.  Ken, if the situation becomes too dangerous, I'll expect you to pull out of there immediately.  If this is a trap, they've had plenty of time to prepare.  You can always engage them again when the situation is more in our favor."

            "Hai, Hakase."

            Nambu stared at them for a long moment.  "All the pertinent information has already been downloaded into the God Phoenix's computer.  I suggest you leave as soon as possible.  Any questions?"  There were none.  "All right then, good luck."

            The five members of the ninja team headed for the door. 

"Ken, could I see you a moment?"

            He waved for the others to go on without him.  "Yes, Hakase?"

            Nambu stared at his hands in silence before finally looking up at him.  "This will be your first mission since you were infected.  Though I don't really foresee any major problems... please, be extremely careful."

            "I will, sir.  I'll be fine."  Was Nambu having doubts?  Were they anything like his own?

            The doctor nodded.  "All right, go on then."

            Ken tried to reassure them both with a small smile before rushing off to catch up with the others.

            In bird style, the five ninja leaped into the God Phoenix.  Ken rushed to his seat feeling a tingle of nervousness coil about him as it usually did at the beginning of every mission.  Ryu kicked on the God Phoenix's engines as the bay around them filled with water.  Ken felt a layer of weight settle over him as it did so.  Water was mentioned off and on in the vampire books and films.  He'd dismissed it so far because he'd felt no adverse effects from it at Crescent Coral.  Did he do so too quickly?

            The ship launched before Ken could try and answer the question.  His body was pressed against his seat as the ship flowed forward and felt no different than normal.

            The God Phoenix tore itself from the ocean's grip out into bright daylight.  Ken flinched as the bright light poured in through the main screen but felt nothing as it covered him.  As Nambu had promised, his extended and darkened visor afforded him full protection as well as his uniform.  Still, a place deep inside quivered at the fact he was being bathed with the sun's rays.

            "Ken?"  Jun moved up behind him.

            "I'm all right.  The visor is working great."  He glanced back at her and saw her nod with a smile.  She looked strange to him, wearing the old familiar costume except for the beak-shaped visor which had been changed, like the others, to match his own.  Weirder was the fact he seemed to be able to look through them when he tried.  He was sure the feeling was mutual.  Nambu had felt, and they all agreed, that if Ken's were the only visor to change, it would have drawn undue attention to it.  Yet now that he saw the actual change in play, he thought of how easily it could become a constant reminder of the changes that had been thrust into his life.

            Ken forced his mind away from such thoughts even as Ryu set the ship's course toward the Indiana Ocean.  After going through their usual system checks and setting the scanners to maximum range, they all tried to relax as they waited for the ship to take them to their destination.  Though normally a tedious process for him, Ken found himself too distracted to worry about it.  Everything around him appeared in a new light through his heightened senses.  Even the unending blue sky dotted with cotton clouds enthralled him like never before.  How could anything be so vivid, so delicate, when not so long ago they seemed so mundane?

            They arrived at Singapole in less than an hour.  Six jets rose to greet them as Jun exchanged information with those on the ground.  Together, the God Phoenix and the fighters moved in an ever broadening pattern, checking the area for anything unusual.

            The hours whittled away without mishap.  No calls came from Nambu to advice them of any trouble brewing elsewhere. 

            Tension filled the bridge as the long awaited tankers finally came into view.   The number of fighters from Singapole doubled, half scouting ahead while the rest guarded the tankers' flank.  The God Phoenix hovered over the group of ten ships protectively.

            "Okay guys, this is it.  Keep your eyes open," Ken advised.

            "Roger."

            As always, he sent out a small, quick prayer asking that this time would be the time they would defeat Galactor once and for all.

            The tankers and their naval escort maneuvered past the worst of the reefs and still there was no sign of danger.  The Singapole jets returned home, replaced by those belonging to Chuna.

            "Ken, three missiles just launched in the water from one of the islands!  They'll reach the tankers in less than ten seconds."  Jun's expression was grave.

            "Damn!  They were supposed to attack from the air!"  Joe ran to the Bird Missile controls as Ryu guided the ship toward the water.  Before they could get a shot off, the missiles struck.  A guard ship and two of the tankers rocked as missiles hit their sides.  Their hulls groaned in agony before being engulfed in flames.  Oil and fire rained from them onto the other ships.

            "Holy shit!"  The fire from the guard ship spread out into the spilling oil.

            "Jun, where's the ship that fired those missiles?"  Ken's hands were clasped onto the arms of his chair.  The metal made a tortured sound.

            "Radar shows nothing, just the island... wait!   There's something coming up now."

            A giant, long necked bird of gold and yellow broke from the water into the air.  Ryu was forced to turn the God Phoenix hard to the right as the ship swept up into their path.  The mecha's long feather like wings blossomed behind it giving the illusion of an all consuming fire.

            "Now Katse's gone too far.  He's made his dumb mecha look just like the Fiery Phoenix!"  Jinpei's voice was indignant.  "That's plagiarism!"

            "You can take it up with him, once I've torn his new little play toy to pieces!"  Joe hung onto the back of Ryu's chair as the latter was forced into yet another sudden turn.  Joe placed his hand over the firing controls waiting for his chance to fire.

            "Get this over in a hurry, Joe.  Those people need help."

            "Keep your pants on, Commander.  I'll take care of it."  Joe pressed down on the red firing button.

            Four missiles left the God Phoenix's missile rack before Ryu was forced to turn away from their target.  The Galactor's Phoenix screeched in a close approximation of the Gatchaman's own ship's call.  Ten fiery feathers left the mecha's wings and homed in on the missiles.  Within moments, they destroyed them all.

            "No hits."  Jun's voice was low.

            "Damn."  Joe smashed his fist on the console.

            Jun looked up from the radar screen.  "Ken, they're coming after us."

            "Ryu, do you think you can take us on a loop over that thing so we can shoot at its backside?  We've got to bypass those feathers."  How beautiful and graceful the ship was.  Galactor definitely seemed to have surpassed themselves.  It made him worry.

            "Sure, I think so."  Ryu had the ship pick up speed.

            "Joe, get off as many as you can."

            "You bet."

            The God Phoenix made a sharp turn and headed toward the Galactor mecha.  The giant phoenix screeched again as they looped over it.

            "Got you now!"  Joe began firing in earnest.

            Feathers detached themselves from the mecha's tail and wings and destroyed the Bird Missiles within seconds of their being launched.  "Chikusho!"

            "Ken, they're turning away!  They're heading back toward the tankers!"

            "Ryu!"

            "I'm on it!" 

The ship swerved back around.

            "Aniki, what are we gonna do?  Our missiles aren't getting through."  Jinpei shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

            "There's no time to try to find a way inside the thing.  We're going to have to try and destroy it with the Fiery Phoenix."

            "There'll be something poetic in that I'm sure."  Joe hurried back to his seat.

            "Yeah,  we'll teach Katse what happens when you plagiarize!"  Jinpei grinned from ear to ear.

            The God Phoenix gained ground on the Galactor mecha.

            "Is everyone ready?" Ken asked.

            "Hai!"

            He leaned forward and grabbed hold of the familiar red lever.  He hesitated as the question of how his changed body might react to the Phoenix effect popped into his mind.  Guess he would soon find out.  "Fiery Phoenix!"  He pulled the lever.

            Rippling vibrations cascaded through the ship as the transmutation coils through the God Phoenix went to work.  The outer surface of the ship shimmered and within seconds turned into a bird shaped mass of flowing flames.

            Inside, all but one of the crew grimaced at the forces rippling about them.  Ken arced a brow in surprise as he found himself holding onto the lever without the usual muscle ripping strain.  He stared out the viewscreen in awe as he saw the raging storm of power that wove outside and around them.  The others had their eyes shut as their bodies struggled to withstand the strain forced on them.

            The view screen partially cleared becoming the eyes of that which the God Phoenix had become.  With baited breath, Ken watched as the Galactor mecha whipped around with previously undisplayed speed and faced them. 

            The Galactor Phoenix confronted its flaming sister and screeched as she opened her mouth wide. 

            Though Ken saw nothing come from the opening, he abruptly pitched forward as a piercing pain invaded his ears and his brain.  He grimaced at the torture but forced his hand to remain on the transmutation lever. 

            The Galactor Phoenix screeched again and the pain pouring in through Ken's ears multiplied.  The radar console in the rear of the bridge crackled with sparks as Ken screamed in agony.  His hand fell away from the lever as he tried in vain to cover his ears.

            "Ken!"

            The lever snapped back, ending the Phoenix's transmutation.  As the ship shifted back to normal, systems throughout the ship shorted and sparked.  Already strained, Ryu struggled to control the God Phoenix.   Ken's scream choked in his throat and he fell to the deck.  Jun was halfway to his side when the ship gave a violent lurch sideways.  She was thrown roughly against the wall and had the breath knocked out of her.

            "Nee-chan!"  Jinpei struggled against the after effects of the transmutation to try and reach his sister even as ship continued to rock back and forth.

            "Ryu, look out!" 

Ryu's head snapped up at Joe's warning.  Over twenty feathers had separated themselves from the Galactor ship and were heading straight toward them.

            "Grab hold of something," Ryu yelled.  "The controls aren't responding!  We won't be able to avoid them!"

            Jinpei reached out for his sister as she regained her feet.  They struggled back toward their seats.  By that time, Joe had stumbled up to Ken's chair.  He tried to lift his friend from the floor, but his body was stiff and wouldn't give.  Cursing, while trying not to think of what the stiffness might mean, he grabbed Ken's cape and wrapped it about his arm as he used the other to clamp onto the back of Ken's chair.

            The first of the feathers hit against the side of the ship and instantly exploded.  Two slammed toward the back of the ship near the engines.  As the ninja team was thrown about, the God Phoenix made a head long dive toward the ocean below.  The remaining feathers turned to follow after them.

            Twisting and turning out of control, the God Phoenix plunged into the Indiana Ocean.

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

            "Ugh..."  Joe's first thought was that his head hurt - it hurt bad.  He tried to move, but this only sent pain shooting through his brain and down his neck.  He groaned.

            "Ah, I see that our sleeping beauty seems to be finally coming awake."

            Joe stiffened recognizing the high pitched voice before him.  He opened his eyes.  His vision swam before him, sparks flashing before his eyes.  He quickly closed them again.

            "Are we not feeling well, Condor?"

            Joe forced his eyes open again and smiled coldly.  Katse's smug face swayed before him.  "I'm just fine, thanks."

            "I'm relieved to hear it, really I am.  I was so worried you might try to miss out on all the fun I'm planning to have with you."  Katse's gloved hand reached out to touch him.  Joe jerked back but wasn't able to get away from him.  The sound of jingling chains filled his ears.  Katse briefly ran his fingers up Joe's arm.  Joe struggled to force his vision to focus.

            "I must admit that things went even smoother than I hoped.  You won't believe how happy I was when I found you all waiting for me on the ocean floor."

            "Yeah, right."  Joe ignored him trying to pick up on what was around him.

            As he already suspected, he found his wrists and ankles chained and he hung suspended between them.  A blank metal wall stood less than ten feet in front of him, making the room seem more like a hallway.  Glancing dizzily to either side, he found Jun strung up on his right and Ryu on his left.  With his messed up vision and their new visors, he couldn't make out their expressions.  He tried to see past them for signs of Ken and Jinpei but wasn't successful.

            "Unfortunately, our little trap didn't go as easily for you.  I apologize if we banged you up a bit too much.  I really do prefer for the process to happen while we are face to face."  Katse's smile was predatory.  He reached within his cloak and brought out a small, remote control device.  His smile turned sad.  "Unfortunately, my victory didn't come without cost."

            Katse turned from him and pointed his device at the wall.  It rose up into the ceiling.  The room beyond had a floor totally covered by squares of alternating black and white marble.  Red and black banners covered two of the walls, flaunting the Galactor symbol.  Set in the back of the room was an enormous throne of gold adorned with purple velvet.  Katse pressed another button and several strategically set lights kicked on focusing their glow about five feet above the throne.  Centered in the light was something that had been spiked to the wall.  Joe struggled to focus his eyes to try an make out what it was.

            "Ken!"

            Jun's anguished cry cut through him, focusing his vision for one long horrible instant, the image before him burning itself into his mind.

            The ninja team's commander hung above the throne, held there by three spikes driven through his abdomen.  Ken's arms were stretched out to the sides and spiked at the palms.  His uniform hung on his body torn and ripped, covered with blood.  His helmet had been unceremoniously cut away, leaving his head exposed as it hung limply before them.  Mercifully, his long, dark brown hair hid from them the horrible facial expression he probably died in.

            Joe heard sobs coming from his right and left.  He saw Katse stare at them, wallowing in their pain.  Joe thrashed in his chains enraged by the glee he saw there.  "Stop it.  Don't you know you're doing exactly what the bastard wants?"  The sobbing gradually ceased.

            "Tsk, tsk, Condor.  Don't you know people need to let go of their grief?"  Joe tried to lunge himself at him.  His chains held him back.

            "My, my, I think that what we have here is a small misunderstanding.  Perhaps I should explain...."  Katse pointed lazily back toward Ken's hanging body.  "Somehow I get the feeling you think I killed him.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!"  He began to pace quietly before them.  "If you recall, I told you that there'd been a cost, price if you will, to my victory.  The accidental death of Gatchaman was that price.

            "Yes, I put him up there and unmasked him with my own two hands, but when I did so, he was already dead.  He had left us some time before we were able to find you on the ocean floor.  I want you to know if there had been the least bit of life left in him I would have done everything in my power to have kept him alive."  Joe snorted sure he would have only gone through the trouble just so he could later take the pleasure of killing Ken himself.  "I must admit I was quite annoyed at him for escaping me like that."  Katse toyed with one of the long ears of his mask.  "I had such lovely plans for him...and though I did try, they just weren't any fun with him dead...  What a pity...."  He grinned happily at Joe as the latter growled at him.

            "I have thought of a way to console myself, however.  I plan to do to all of you  those wonderful things I thought up especially for him."  He smiled endearingly.  "Each of you will bring me such sublime joy.  The expectation is almost more than I can bear!"  He stared enthusiastically at all of them.  "But, despite this, I will be patient.  I want all of you to hang there for a day or two so I can show you off.  Then, as your commander's body begins to rot, I'll pick one of you to play with and will eventually allow you to take his place."  His eyes turned sly.  "I may even let the rest of you watch so you'll know exactly what to expect on your turn."  His smile turned cold.  "You four have much to answer for and believe me, you will!"

            "Do your worst, you costumed freak!  We won't give you the satisfaction!"

            "Such brave words, Condor, but they have so little now to back them up."  Katse punched him in the stomach.  Joe swallowed the pain, trying not to make a sound.

            "We're going to become such good friends." Katse laughed.  "Try to escape while you're here, please, it should increase the fun.  But I'll warn you, it won't be easy, if even possible."  He leaned back on what seemed to be nothing.  "Besides the metal wall you saw, there's also a clear one between you and my audience hall and it will stand up to almost anything."  Katse's smile was wide, his voice pleasant.  "There's only one way in or out of this room, that door over there."  He pointed off to the left to a place Joe couldn't see.

            "The door has no locks that can be picked, no wires you can get at to cross.  It is opened only by remote, one which I do not even carry but is held by the guard stationed on the other side.  Do not call for him, he will not hear you.  And he will not open the door regardless, for you see, his life is at stake.  He will only open the door to me and then only with the proper code words.  And just in case, they are changed every time I leave here."  He pointed upwards.  "If you somehow do free yourselves from the chains, however, we're prepared to flood the room with a nerve toxin that will paralyze you where you stand.  You won't be able to use any of the vents to crawl out because the six of them that come into this room are but two inches wide."  He laughed with pleased mirth.  "You see, I've thought of everything!"  He twirled before them.

            "I guess I'll leave you for a little while now that I've explained everything.  It is getting rather late and I've many things to do.  Besides, you do want some time alone to grieve, am I right?"  Katse glanced at Ken's impaled body a wistful look on his face.  "Do you think I should go through the trouble to have him stuffed?"

 

 

 

 

            "Nee-chan, what are we gonna do?"  Jun strained to look past Joe and Ryu to her tired sounding brother.  Katse left them about ten minutes before, laughing all the way.  As he did so, he turned out all the lights in the room and in the audience hall except for those focused on Ken's body.

            "I don't know, Jinpei....  I'm sure help is on the way though.  We just have to hold on until it gets here."  She doubted she sounded as sure as she hoped.

            "And we already know what we have to do if help doesn't come.  We can't give the bastards the satisfaction they want.  Use your training to block out what pain you can, and always, always look for an opening for escape."  Jun glanced at Joe.  "Katse thinks he's got us good, and that will make him careless.  With Ken gone, he doesn't believe the rest of us to be much of a threat.  He's liable to slip sooner or later.  Watch out for it, take the chance.  The least that can come from it is a quick and merciful death."  No one disagreed with Joe's logic.

            For the next several minutes, they questioned each other to find out how each fared from the crash.  All were bruised and battered.  Ryu appeared to have a number of cracked ribs, Joe a possible concussion.  Jun thanked the spirits it wasn't worse.  Maybe they would have a chance.

            "We should try to get to sleep and get some rest.  This might be the last opportunity for it we'll get," Joe said.  No one argued with him.

            "Good night, nee-chan."  There was a slight quiver in Jinpei's voice Jun didn't like.

            "Good night, Jinpei.  I love you."  She felt tears gathering in her eyes.  She  wished she could hug him to try and ease his fear.  This was so unfair!  Never did she imagin it would be like this for them - that they'd be battered, scared, hopeless, with Ken dead and mutilated.

            Jun was flooded by a sudden deep pang of sorrow.  Ken... he'd gone through so much only to die like this....  Her gaze rose unwillingly to his lit form.  Who could have known?  Warm tears cascaded down her cheeks.  How would they go on without him?  Would they even get the chance to try?

            She found herself abruptly breathless as she saw... what?  Her tears slowed, her heart beating faster, as she tried to pin down if she had seen the impossible or if it was a trick of her tears.  She saw it again.  "J - Joe!  Look!  Joe!"

            "Jun, what's wrong?'

            "It's, it's -- he, he -- "  Jun shook her head trying to make her mouth work properly as hope, fear, and confusion battled for dominance inside her.

            "Oh my, God!"  Ryu's voice was pitched high.  "K-k-k-Ken!"

            "What?"  Joe still hadn't been able to see what they were so startled about.  His gaze traveled dizzily around the audience hall looking for any inconsistencies and finally settled on Ken's hanging body.  His eyes grew wide with disbelief as he saw what the others had already seen.  Ken's head had moved.

            "That's right!  Aniki's an undead!  He didn't die!  He's alive!  Aniki's alive!"  Jinpei's chains jingled as he wiggled with excitement.

            "No, that's not possible...  It has to be one of Katse's tricks."  Joe shook his head, hope fighting versus reason.

            "But I keep telling you!  Aniki is a vampire now, and vampires can't be killed unless they're exposed to the sun or staked through the heart with wood.  Those stakes are metal!  Aniki is alive!"

            "He needs our help.  We have to go to him!"  Ryu pulled at his chains with all his might, ignoring the growing pain in his side.  His eyes never left Ken's form.

            "Joe, we've got to do something!"  Jun looked helplessly at her teammate, her eyes already filled with the fear there was nothing they could do.  Joe wouldn't meet her gaze.  "Oh please, Kami-sama, help him!  Ken!  Ken!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

            ‘Ken'

            He was on fire.  His whole body was burning, slowly consuming itself from within.

            ‘Ken, wake up'

            He dreamed with the burning -  ghastly, horrible dreams.  Though they'd seared him he hadn't understood them, and there'd been nothing he could do to make them stop.

            ‘Ken, you must'

            He knew he almost awakened once, but he'd been so weak, his body so heavy.  The sun had pulled him back down.  Yet, things had changed.  He wasn't as heavy, the pull was gone.  The fire had intensified and spoke to him as it consumed him.  It told him he was dying.  It told him he must feed.  It pulled him toward wakefulness, helped by that other strangely familiar call from beyond.  And though he hated his Thirst with every fiber of his being, he knew that for once, it was right.

            "Ken!  Ken!"

            ‘Ken, you must awaken'

            He tensed, the slight movement making pain shoot through him from several places.  The voice, which was different from the other, he recognized as Jun's.  Why did it seem so far away?

            Ken concentrated and was able to open his eyes.  The first thing he saw was three large metal spikes sticking out of his abdomen.  He blinked several times, trying to comprehend what he was seeing.  His Thirst roared, caring nothing about such things, as the smell of coagulating blood flooded his nostrils.  Behind it came the scent of wax and polish.  He tried to shut all three of them out.

            Ken closed his eyes.  Something was terribly wrong.  The shadows of his tormented dreams strove to surface.  His muddled thoughts struggled for cohesion.  His thinking was slow, even clumsy.  He shouldn't be feeling this way.  With great effort, he was able to raise his head.  Pain flared all over it, but he did his best to ignore it.  In no way did it compare to the burning inside him.  -You must eat or you will die.-

            Reopening his eyes, Ken took in the brightly polished marble floor and the gaudy throne below him.  He had his eyes follow the black and white squares and looked up so that he found his friends across the room hanging from chains.  Bright auras covered the four of them, though they seemed oddly muted when compared to the brightness they had when he'd looked at them this way before.  -Blood, blood!  I must have it!-  His teeth ached and the burning inside him intensified, making him grimace.  He mentally cursed at his Thirst and then disregarded it.  He would never give the four of them to it - he wouldn't allow it!

            Slowly it dawned on him they were all prisoners.  Not far behind was the realization his enemies probably thought him dead.  Faster still came the knowledge that if he let Katse have his way, his friends wouldn't be far behind in having it become true of them.  That would not be.

            Ken tried to move his arms and found that he couldn't.  One of them screamed at him when he tried.  Haltingly, he turned his head and saw that his hands were spiked to the wall.  He tried to flex the fingers on the arm that didn't scream and felt pins of pain wrack his fingers, but they did move.  He looked back at his friends, his responsibility, even as they frantically tried to free themselves of their bonds to no avail.  He had to help them.  They couldn't be left there to die. - The blood shouldn't be wasted.-  He didn't want to see them die.

            Gingerly, Ken curled his right hand and put the protruding end of the spike between his fingers.  He, in a way, had already died, but they couldn't be allowed to follow.  Their deaths would not be like his... for that which was them would be no more.  -All that blood, wasted...-  He would be forced to do without them - he wasn't ready.  The mere thought of it was totally repugnant.  He couldn't allow it - they'd been through too much!

            Ken gripped the spike as best he could and gritted his teeth as he pulled with all the might he could muster.  His hand moved, but not the spike, as it bit deeper into his palm.  Agony shot up through his arm and it took all he had not to scream or stop.  Pull!  His vision swam even as he thought he felt the spike give a little.  Ken forced himself to shut everything out but the pulling of the spike. 

            After a seeming interminable moment, the spike slid out of the wall and set his arm free.  It fell beside him like a dead weight.

            -You must feed or you will die.  You must feed or you will die!-

            Ken let his arm dangle for a moment, trying to let the tide of pain which had been added to the constant burning subside a bit.  With slow, careful movements, he turned the pointed end of the spike toward the wall and pushed.  The spike moved easily through his bloodied hand and fell with a clang to the floor cracking one of the marble tiles there.

            Ken brought up his hand before his eyes, a chill passing through him at the large hole he found there.  Even as he watched, the hole began to close.  A nimbus glowed around it that eventually dimmed.  Layer upon layer of skin reconstructed itself within his bloody palm to look exactly as it had before.  His gaze was trapped by the miracle of it, even as the burning inside him raged greater than before.  -Blood!-

            Reminded that his job wasn't over, Ken glanced over at his other arm.  He saw immediately that it didn't run straight but that part of it was off at an angle.  With his free hand, he reached over as far as he could over his broken arm and pulled.  This time he screamed.  The sound echoed through the large room until his hand finally come free.

            Minutes moved on and he just hung there.  Cries of encouragement and worry buzzed like tiny flies about his ears.  Concentrating on them and whom they belonged, he gingerly moved to remove the spike from his left hand.  Once he did so, he dropped it onto the padded seat below.  With a sigh, he reached for the twisted lower part of his arm and turned it so that it looked right.  He ignored it after that.

            Ken looked down, knowing what should come next.  His vision swam in and out, pain still raging in his arm.  -Do it.  Do it!  The blood waits.  We must have the blood!-  Taking a deep breath to brace himself, Ken moved his right hand and wraped it around the first of the three spikes in his abdomen.  He yanked.

            Bright agony cut through him as it came lose and he pulled it from his body.  He bit his lip, cutting it open, trying his best not to cry out.  His body shifted slightly to the right, tearing some of the flesh around the other two spikes.  Ken felt weaker, and strangely giddy, as more of his remaining blood spilled over his freshly opened wound.  Like his hands, the skin around the opening began to close. -Blood!-

            Ken's hand shook as he moved to take hold of the second spike.  Inch by inch, he brought his legs up until they braced him against the wall.  He pulled until it came out.

            Though he used what leverage he had with his feet to keep himself from shifting, his whole body moved down over an inch.  He was instantly blinded with pain.  Everything went red.  His hand went momentarily numb and the spike fell from his fingers to the floor.  It smashed another tile, making the sound seem like thunder to Ken's ears.  He didn't move for several minutes, trying, mostly without success, to distance himself from the pain.

            After a time, he forced his eyes to open again.  He had only one more spike to go and then he would be free to help his friends.  -And drink their blood!-  If he'd only learned all Tiana had offered, he wouldn't have to go through all this!  He could have turned insubstantial like her and avoided all this pain.  -You were a fool.-  No!  Stick to the task at hand!  This wasn't the time.  -Yes, but if you'd only tried to learn...-  No, he wouldn't destroy what had been preserved!  His life was as close to normal as it could ever be; that would all change if he started practicing things that were supernatural.  -Fool.  Go get the blood.-

            Ken braced his feet even higher upon the wall.  He grabbed on to the last spike with first his right hand.  Ignoring the pain it forced up his arm and the itching growing in his forearm, he brought up his left and had it grab hold of the spike as well.  With both hands he pulled at the spike even as he pushed against the wall with his feet.  The spike resisted him more than the others.  He forced himself to go on.  Abruptly, the spike let go of the wall and he pitched forward.  Ken hit the side of the large throne and then the floor.  He didn't move from where he fell.

 

 

 

 

            "NO!  Ken!"  Jun struggled against her bonds further abusing her already exhausted body.  Tears streamed down her face as she stared hopelessly at Ken's crumpled form.  Why?  Why?  Surely he was dead now.  He couldn't have survived the fall.  He never should have tried it!

            She'd felt ill as she watched him struggle with each of the spikes that held him to the wall.  Her soul had cried when he cried out in pain.  It had been such a valiant effort, but useless, so utterly useless!  Surely he was dead... dead... and soon they would follow.

            "Get up, aniki.  Get up!" 

            Jun's tears turned bitter, already knowing the despair her brother would soon feel as he realized Ken would rise no more.

            "He's not moving."  Ryu's voice sounded pitifully small.

            "Give him a few minutes, dammit!  There's no way he'll give up now."

            "Joe, stop it!  It's over.  He tried and he lost.  He's dead now, dead."  Jun barely recognized her own sob choked voice.  She hadn't meant to say anything.  Silence hung between them.

            The minutes continued to drag by.

 

 

 

 

 

            ‘Ken.  Ken, you mustn't give up.  Your friends need you.'

            His eyes fluttered open realizing he must have somehow fallen unconscious.  His body burned insistently.  Slowly, he forced himself to shift from where he was and moved his good arm so it could help raise him up.  The arm wobbled, but held.  He was able to raise himself into a sitting position, using the back wall as a brace.  His tired eyes rose up in the direction of excited muted calls.  His friends... yes, help them, need to help them.  -You need them to feed.- 

            Ken wobbled to his feet using Katse's throne for support.  His body protested the move as his changed and impaled innards shifted inside him.  Nausea abruptly racked through him.  He clamped his mouth shut.  The only thing he had inside to lose was blood, and as his Thirst eagerly kept reminding him, he'd lost too much of the precious fluid already.

            He held onto the throne and tried to map out where he needed to go.  The distance between him and his friends seemed immense.  Ken hoped it was only his current weakness that made it seem that way.  -Run then!-  He ignored his Thirst's suggestion.  He knew better.  He'd be lucky if he could walk there at all.

            Ken let go of the throne and stood on his own for a moment.  When he felt stable enough, he stared at the floor before him and risked a step forward.  Much to his surprise, he didn't fall.  He took another.

            His sense of balance wavered here and there.  His slow progress resembled the path of a town drunkard.  Throughout, the muted cries of his friends came to his ears with encouragement.  Absently, he used his good arm to wrap around what was left of his cloak a coldness settling about him that battled the surging heat within.  His teeth ached to the roots.

            Ken had gotten almost there when he suddenly smacked into something he couldn't see.  His body tipped sideways and he was unable to recover his balance.  He fell.  Cries of dismay and horror came to him from across the barrier.  He could barely pick up the sound of the rapid heartbeats beyond the wall.  -Blood!-  His canines poked into his bottom lip.  He forced them to go back.  As he struggled to sit up, he waved his bloodied hand toward them trying to signal that he was all right.  From what he heard coming from them, he doubted they believed him.

            He slowly staggered back to his feet and leaned against the see-through wall.

            "Aniki!  There's a door into this place off to the right!"

            Ken nodded, not looking at them, before shuffling off in that direction.

            "Ken, don't!  You won't make it!  There's a guard there.  You're no match for him!"  Jun's voice was desperate.

            "She's right!  Don't waste this chance!  Try to get out of here.  Bring back some help!"

            Ken shook his head at Joe's suggestion.  His canines pressed against his lip again.  He paid them no heed and kept moving toward the audience hall's thick double doors.

            When he reached the doors, he leaned against one of them trying to pick up any sounds on the other side.  The mahogany wood of the doors sent goose bumps over his exposed skin, but he spent no time wondering why.

            Picking up no sounds from the other side, Ken gingerly opened one of the doors and eased out as quietly as possible.  He hesitated there, making sure he heard no one in either direction of the corridor.  -Move!  We must feed!-

            Ken turned left hoping this corridor would connect to the door Jinpei told him about.  Following Joe's advice was never a consideration.  If he went for help, they wouldn't be here when he got back.

            As Ken shuffled along, he couldn't help but notice how quickly the opulence of Katse's audience hall turned into the blank, empty walls so typical of Galactor bases.  It seemed that luxury was something Galactor reserved for its leaders alone.

            Ken had moved on for almost thirty feet when he suddenly forced himself to stop.  This was too far.  The room his friends were in didn't curve.  He should have come across a connecting hall or doorway by now.  It wasn't right.

            He moved to the other side of the hallway and started back.  With his eyes closed, he walked at a slower pace feeling his way along.  A little over halfway, he stopped, his head angling closer to the wall.  Yes, it was there, faint but persistent - the sound of a beating heart.  -Yes!-  Ken opened his eyes and stared at the wall.  He quickly spotted the faint outline of a door cut into the metal.  Absently, he wondered if he would have ever spotted it without his changed eyes.

            He shook his head not liking the content of his thoughts.  Instead, he moved to stand before the secret door and touched around it trying to find a way to make it open.  He found nothing.

            He needed to get in there!  -Get in there!-  But how?  The burning raged inside him.  Ken placed his forehead against the cool metal door and found it warmer than his skin.  The healthy heartbeat within became more pronounced.  -Get in!-  Despair bit at the corners of his mind.  If only he had tried to learn those unbelievable tricks.  Why hadn't he even tried?  Tiana would have no trouble getting in there.  What good were his new found powers if he couldn't call on them to save his friends?  His head swam making him feel dizzy but he ignored it.  -Get in!-  He had to get in there!  They were counting on him!  His friends... his only family... they would die horribly if he didn't.  They'd die!  He had to get in there!

            He read the books, saw the films; all their tricks revolved around their will, didn't they?  Then he should be able to get in there!  He wanted in!  Let him in!  Ken lifted his hands to beat against the door when he felt something push him from behind.  He grimaced expecting to hit the door but he didn't.

            Ken opened his eyes as waves of nausea and dizziness threatened to engulf him as he frantically tried to figure out what had just happened.  He was no longer in the hallway, but on the other side of the door! 

            The room he found himself in was small and empty except for a small table and a chair, and a young Galactor guard.  Presently, the guard was totally engrossed in a paperback book. 

            Ken looked down to steady himself before trying to stand up and deal with the guard.  His mind cringed as he found only a vague outline of his body.  Panic swelled inside him and with all his might he willed himself to be solid.  He instantly rematerialized and dropped to his knees.  A bout of weakness flowed through him even as his Thirst blazed like never before.

            Ken looked up as a gasp thundered in his ears from across the room.  Time visibly slowed as his eyes locked with the guard's his heavy heartbeat overriding everything.  -Yes!- 

            Without thought, Ken dived forward and grabbed hold of the startled guard.  In one swift motion, he ripped back the hood of the brown and green uniform the guard screeching in fear.  Part of Ken's mind tried to resist what was coming, but his Thirst had taken total control.  His elongated canines bit down into the life pulsing below the skin of the young guard's neck.

            The heavy liquid rushed into Ken's waiting mouth shocking his taste buds with its vibrant intensity.  Pleasured chills rushed through his body as he drank more and more of the life-carrying blood.  It was glorious!  -Yes!-  It swept him higher and higher with no end in sight.  His experiences with Tiana became almost nothing in comparison to this.  Why had he fought it for so long?  -The blood!-

            He drank and drank lost in the living liquid as it moved from the guard's body into his.  The young man's heartbeat rose, fell, and eventually became erratic but it meant nothing to him.  Echoes of pleasure flooded Ken's mind and with a distant, detached intellect realized it was the guard.  The two of them spiraled together in ecstasy until the guard was no more.  Still Ken couldn't let go.  He drank until no drop was left.  His mind told him he should be full, bloated, never did he drink so much, yet the burning was still inside him insisting he was nowhere near being satisfied.  With an angry jerk, he snapped the guard's neck before angrily throwing him across the small room.

            He leaned back against the wall, fighting to allow reason to reassert itself now that he was sliding down from his spire of rapture.  -Need more!-  He clamped down on the request, abruptly filled with disgust.  He'd just killed a man for it, how many more did it want?  Ken let his body slide down to the floor.

            How could something so wrong feel so good?  Was this the only reason vampires had been able to exist for so long?  It shouldn't be this way!  -Yes.-

            Ken felt tears gathering in his eyes.  Abruptly he recalled from what they would come from.  He smashed the fist of his injured arm against the wall and used the ensuing pain to focus himself away from the despair.

            Everything would have to wait - what he had done... what it meant for him...  The others needed him now and he dared not fail them.  Ken forced himself to his feet and stared at the floor as he made himself move toward the crumpled guard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            All their heads snapped to the left as the sound of machinery lightly echoed down their prison.  Of them all, only Jinpei and Ryu could see the foot-thick door in the lighted gloom as it popped into the room and then slid to the side.

            "Aniki!"

            Ken entered the room but made no move toward them.  Pressing his back to the wall, he didn't look at them as he raised a small device in their direction and pressed a button.

            The shackles at their wrists and ankles clicked open.  The four ninja fell hard to the floor as their numb limbs didn't respond to their commands.  Ken made no move to help them.

            Each of them struggled to sit up and gingerly massage their limbs back to life.  Joe winced as he used the back wall to help him stand, his legs and arms tingling painfully.  He spotted Ken over the head of the others.  His friend had turned from them, facing a corner.  Even as the strangeness of that trickled through his mind, he noticed there was a dramatic difference in the man standing across the room from the one he'd seen over twenty minutes ago. 

            Ken was standing straight, his stance solid.  This was nothing like before, when it looked like it took all his energy just to put one foot in front of the other.  However Ken achieved this drastic change, he was glad of it.  How he went about it was something that would keep till later.

            Jun stood up next to him, a little unsteady.  Her gaze followed Joe's to Ken.  Her brow creased as she noticed he wasn't facing them.  She craved to go to him and see how he was.  The light from the lamps focused on the far wall of the audience hall were enough for them to see him, but not clearly.  She still had no real idea as to the true extent of his injuries.  Surely he needed medical help?  "Ken..."

            "You'd better hurry.  I doubt we have much time."  Ken's voice sounded strained.  He still wouldn't look at them.

            "Don't be a jackass!  We're all only too aware of it."  Ken said nothing as Joe pushed himself away from the wall and shook his head as his vision tried to unfocus again.

            Jun moved past him throwing him a worried glance before bending down to help Jinpei to his feet.  "Aw, nee-chan, I could have done it on my own."

            "I know, Jinpei, but this is faster."  She held onto her brother as he swayed on his feet.

            "Uh, Joe...."  Ryu's cheeks were red.  "Could you help me?"  He stared at him sheepishly, his arm wrapped tightly about his midriff.  There was heavy perspiration dotting his face.

            Joe grunted then walked slowly over to help him up.  In less than a minute, they were all ready to go.  As they started toward the open doorway, Ken glanced at them for a second and then rushed through before they could come too close.

            Jun stood stock still, shocked by what she saw in the short instant he glanced back toward them.  Ken's eyes were dark, just like on the day he attacked Dr. Braun.  And though surprising, it wasn't what had brought her up short.  What actually caught her attention were the scars she glimpsed criss-crossing Ken's face.  What did they do to him?

            By the time she and the others stumbled into the small room beyond, Ken had already disappeared into the hallway.  None of them could miss the tangled heap on the floor.  None of them could ignore the fact the dead man's uniform had been torn away from his neck or the two gaping holes that glared at them from there.

            "Oh wow... he - he drank him... drank him dry...." Jinpei started to move toward the body but Jun held him back. 

"Jinpei, we don't have time for that.  Please, let's go."

            As Jun and Jinpei moved past, Ryu made the sign of the cross and went on as well.

            When they came out into the hallway, they caught sight of Ken a short distance further on.  The latter pointed the small remote he used before and pressed the button.  The door behind them closed.  He then wrapped his hand about the remote and squeezed.  The crackling sounds of crushing plastic drifted toward them.  He let the remote's remains drop to the floor.

            "Ken, how are - "

            He cut Jun off.  "I'll be scouting ahead.  I'm fit enough for that.  Follow as quickly as you can."

            "Ken, please - "  He was gone.  "Joe... you saw...."

            He shook his head slowly.  "I don't know.  I just don't know.  He'll tell us when he's ready."  Maybe...

            "Could, could he still be hungry?  He looked really hurt before."  Jinpei's eyes were bright.

            "God, I hope not."  Ryu stared at the floor.  He crossed himself again.

            Joe felt his ire rise, but forced himself to clamp down on it.  "Let's get going before he gets too far ahead of us."  They rushed off after him.

            A hundred yards down, they turned a corner and then came across an intersection.  Two dead guards littered the floor there.  Joe and the others exchanged startled glances having heard no part of the scuffle.  Both men held surprised looks on their faces which were permanently sealed by death.  One man had his neck broken; the other, his back.  Neither looked like they'd ever got a chance to try and reach for their weapons.

            "Hey, he didn't bite these!"  Jinpei pointed toward them.  The others said nothing.

            They continued along the corridor, occasionally coming across more slain men.  All had been quickly and efficiently taken care of.  None had their necks disturbed.

            "Does he know where he's going, Joe aniki?"  Jinpei flinched as he asked the question, having disturbed a number of bruises when he turned around.

            "I doubt it.  His senses may have gotten better, but he's still not omniscient."  Joe closed his eyes for a moment as the hallway tried to flip-flop before him.  He cursed beneath his breath.

            "Something's wrong, Joe, I'm sure of it.  We've got to catch up with him before it gets worse."  Jun picked up her pace leaving the others to follow as fast as they were able.

            Before long, they came across a door that had been ripped from its hinges.  A stairwell flowed up and down through the open doorway.

            "Which way?"  Jinpei rushed forward looking both up and down trying to catch a glimpse of their commander.  "I see him!  He's going down!"

            "At least he seems to be using his brain."  Joe looked down where Jinpei was pointing for a moment and then pulled back.  He rubbed at his eyes.

            "What are the odds the hangerbay is at the bottom?"  Ryu was leaning against the wall, his face red from exertion.

            Jun looked up from where she was leaning over the rail.  "Probably over 60%, especially due to the way they attacked us.  We've got to follow him regardless."

            They started down, supporting each other, keeping their eyes open for any sign of Ken or Galactor trouble. 

            After about ten floors, Ryu looked deathly pale.  It became harder for Joe as Ryu put more and more of his weight on him.  The tension following them was thick.  Their nerves were prickled as they expected the sound of alarms to fill the area at any moment reducing their chances for escape.

            Eventually they reached the bottom of the stairs. There'd been no sign of Ken since they started down.

            "I can't tell if he came through here, nee-chan."

            "Damn it, just open the door and go on.  If Ken doesn't want to leave us a clue as to where he went, fine.  We have to keep moving  or we'll never get out of here."  Joe stared at Jinpei impatiently, sweat trickling down his face.  Ryu wheezed quietly beside him.

            Jinpei inched the door open and peeked out the other side.  "Aniki did leave us a clue!"  He opened the door wide.  Two bodies lay slumped against the wall in the area beyond.

            The hallway was short and only ran in one direction.  The group followed it and came across two more bodies at the other end before a closed door.  Jinpei opened it as carefully as he had the other and looked in.  "It's a hangar, a really big one!"

            "Do you see anyone out there?"

            "No, nee-chan."

            "Is there any cover?"  Joe shifted Ryu's arm over his shoulder.  He didn't see the other grimace in pain.

            "Yeah, at least right here there is."

            "We'd better get on with it then."

            Jinpei moved out first with Jun not far behind.  Joe and Ryu trailed after them. 

            Large bulky machinery and boxed supplies dotted their side of the hangar providing them ample cover.  The Galactor Phoenix loomed over it all.  They shuffled toward the closest stack of boxes to keep out of sight.

            As they waited to try and get a feel of the place, they noticed it was quiet, too quiet.  Jinpei and Jun left Joe and Ryu in their current hiding place as they moved out to try and find out why.

            "Where the hell is he?"  Joe searched the area around and above them with his eyes as they moved deeper into the stacks of boxes.  Ryu said nothing, his entire concentration focused on the act of breathing.  "Ryu, you okay?"

            "Y - yeah. Don't worry - about - me."

            "Shit."  Joe had looked into his face as he spoke and didn't like what he saw there.  As gently as possible, he helped Ryu sit down on one of the crates using a taller one as a backrest.  "Rest for a few minutes.  We'll wait for the others here.  It won't make much difference one way or the other."

            Ryu barely nodded, his eyes closed.  Joe sat down next to him trying to remain alert for both of them.

            "Aniki!"

            Joe tensed and looked up, the fast movement making his vision waver.  "Keep you voice down, you idiot!"

            Jinpei jumped down toward them ignoring Joe's hiss.  "Aniki, we found it!  The God Phoenix is here!  Come on!"

            Ryu moaned as he tried to get up.

            "Here, give me a hand with him."

            Gingerly, the two of them helped Ryu to his feet.  "It'll only be a little farther."  Ryu nodded his eyes still closed.

            "Nee-chan is waiting for us over there."  Jinpei steered them to the left.

            When they caught up with her, Jun took over Jinpei's place on Ryu's left.  They hugged as much of the cover as possible as they moved around the hangar toward the God Phoenix.

            The ship appeared as wounded as her crew.  She was whole except for a couple of gashing breaches along the sides of the hull.  All evidence of what hit her were gone, washed away in her dive into the ocean. 

            Scanning and construction machines of all shapes and sizes were gathered about her like buzzards waiting for the victim to die so their feast could begin.  Katse was wasting no time in trying to find out what made the Gatchaman team tick.  Oddly enough, the place was nevertheless deserted.  The main storage bay ramp was down, so they quickly clambered on board.

            As they made their way through the passages on the way to the bridge, frustrated screams echoed toward them.  "Ken?"

            The sounds of ripping plastic and metal were not far behind.  The four of them hurried as best they could toward the sound.

            They found Ken in the ship's infirmary.  He was pacing the room like a caged animal hitting or throwing everything that came in his way.  Four empty bags of blood littered the floor along with almost everything else that was stored there.  The small fridge the bags were kept in had been ripped from the wall and thrown across the room.

            "Ken!"  He whirled toward them.

            Jun gasped as she saw that his eyes were still completely dark and that two sharp canines stood protruding past his lower lip.  The scars she thought she saw earlier on his face were faint now, almost gone.

            Ken took a step toward them then stopped.  Abruptly he turned away and moved to stand at the farthest point from them in the room.  "Stay away from me!"

            "Ken, what's happening?  What's wrong?"

            His fists were clenched at his sides as he answered.  "It's nothing.  I'll deal with it.  Just don't get too close.  I'm very - dangerous to all of you right now."  His voice shook slightly.

            "Well you'd better damn well snap out of it!  You're supposed to be the leader here and in case you haven't noticed none of us are in excellent shape right now.  We need you to do your job, Commander."

            Ken cringed at Joe's anger.  He closed his eyes, his pale face simultaneously twisting with effort.  As they watched, Ken's canines' slowly retreated back into his mouth.  When he opened his eyes, they'd returned to the sky blue color that was so familiar.  "Yes, you're right.  Of course."  He stared at them for a long moment, though he still made no move to come closer.  "The ship's taken damage.  We need to find out if she's still capable of flight and if the communications system is still working."

            "I can do that."  Ken nodded toward Joe without looking at him.

            "Jinpei, go to the lockers and resupply everyone with weapons and explosives.  Jun, help Ryu however you can.  I don't think I had enough time to destroy everything in here."

            "Hai."

            "I'll go check the engines.  We'll meet again on the bridge."  They all moved to accomplished their assigned tasks.
Part 2 by Maya Perez

            "Chikusho!  Fucking piece of crap!"  Joe kicked the bridge's main panel and then slumped into Ryu's chair.  His head hurt and his vision kept blurring.  He felt real touchy too, definite signs of a concussion.  He needed to rest but doubted that would happen anytime soon.  He felt in as bad a mess as the controls.  "Damn, damn, damn."

            "I take it it doesn't look good?"    

            Joe twisted in the chair positive he hadn't heard anybody come in.  "It's screwed.  Whatever they used on us has fused most of the systems.  We might be able to jury rig some of it, but... "  He shrugged.

            Ken nodded, staying in the rear of the bridge.  "The engines aren't much better.  The power plant took shrapnel damage and the left engine is gone."

            "Peachy."

            The elevator doors opened.  Ryu gingerly moved out of it under his own power.  Jun came out behind him.  "Sorry, Ken.  After I wrapped his ribs and gave him something for the pain, he insisted on coming up here."

            Ken nodded moving away as Ryu sped up a little and headed toward his seat.  He quickly looked over the panels there and sighed.  "She won't fly like this."  He gently caressed the electrically burned console.

            "What about communications?  Is there any hope there?"

            Jun moved to the console and checked it.  "I'm sorry, Ken, there's not much I can do with this.  I might be able to eventually generate a weak signal but it wouldn't get far and would most likely be detected."

            "And don't forget the jammers."  Joe lounged sideways in Ken's chair, his eyes closed.

            The elevator doors opened.  Jinpei stepped through, his arms full.  "I found everything, aniki."

            "Put mine over there, Jinpei.  I'll get it later."  Ken made sure not to let him get too close.

            Jinpei quickly passed the rest of the weapons out to the others.

            "What about our vehicles?"  Joe's voice was low.

            "None of them would prove useful here except maybe Jinpei's buggy.  The wing pods are more shielded than the rest of the ship, so there's a chance it's in good shape.  I believe there's enough power in the reserves to bring it down.  Why don't you two check it out?"  Ken closed his eyes.  God the smell of them was about to drive him mad.

            "Roger."  Jun and Jinpei ran toward the elevator.

            "Wait, I'm coming too!"  Ryu shuffled to catch up to them.

            Once they were gone, Ken retrieved his spare birdrang and the supply of bombs Jinpei left for him.  "Joe, why don't you go down to the infirmary and rest for a few minutes.  I'll wait here for the others."  Ken's voice was guarded.

            "Yeah, right.  What for?  They're not going to be gone all that long and you know it.  Are you trying to get rid of me?"  Joe made no move to get up.

            Ken stared at the wall.  "I'm thirsty, Joe.  It makes me dangerous."

            "There's lots to feed on outside."  Ken turned toward him, his face full of surprise.  "They get in our way and we kill them.  What difference does it make if you drink them dry or break their necks.  Dead is dead."

            "It's not the same!"  -Yes.  Oh yes.-

            Joe opened his eyes and looked over at him.  "Isn't it?"

            "No.  It's wrong.  We kill as the Science Ninja Team because we have to.  We don't do it because we enjoy it."

            Joe closed his eyes again.  "No, we do it because it's necessary."

            Ken turned away from him.  "All right, but I don't think this is necessary.  I don't want it to be.  To feed on them...."  He leaned his forehead against the wall.  "Joe... you've no idea....  I sucked that man dry and it was the most pleasurable experience of my life!"  He hesitated for a moment and then went on.  "You can't begin to imagine it.  And a part of me wants to do it again.  Has asked for this all along.  I think it could become addicting, that soon it would be the only way I'd want to feed.  And what if one of them lives through it?  This scares the hell out of me!"  A shiver ran down Ken's spine as echoes of his previous pleasure surfaced in his mind.  -Blood!-

            "I still don't see the problem."  Joe's tone was curt.

            Ken stiffened, pain filling his eyes.  He quickly covered it over with anger.  "You don't have to.  After all, it's not your problem."  He headed toward the elevator.

            "Ken, wait!"

            He stopped but didn't turn around.

            "I didn't mean for it to sound that way."  Joe got up out of Ken's seat.  "To be honest, I've really tried to understand all you've gone through, but I can't.  This is new ground for all of us."  Joe closed his eyes for a moment as Ken's back wavered into three blurred images.  "All I know right now is that we're in deep trouble, worse than any time before.  None of us are at peak efficiency and it won't help if you're starving.  I know you don't like it, but unlike the rest of us, the way is available to make you better.  We need any edge we can get, and you're it.  Go out there, take care of it, get us out of here, and when we're all safe, then you can take the time and think about what it all means.  We just don't have the luxury for that now."

            Ken's shoulders slumped.  Joe's words made too much sense.  He didn't like it.  Before he was able to say anything, however, the elevator doors opened.  Ken was forced to step back and to the side as Jun got out.

            "Ken, the buggy is operational!  Ryu took a good look at it and didn't find anything majorly wrong with it."

            "At least one thing seems to be going right."  He moved past her and took the elevator down, leaving Joe and Jun to follow after him.

            When he reached the hold, Ken found that Jinpei and Ryu had moved the buggy inside to keep it out of sight.  "Jinpei, do you feel well enough to drive it?"

            "Sure, aniki.  No problem!"  He stood up straight trying to hide the fatigue that plagued them all.

            "Ryu, I want you to squeeze in there with him.  Get yourselves over to Singapole as fast as you can and contact Nambu."

            Jun and Joe arrived.

            "If you think you can somehow fit one more person in there, Joe will be going with you too."

            "Like hell I am!"  Joe's eyes filled with fire.

            "You're in worse shape than Jun and you know it.  If I could shove all of you in there I would."

            "Aniki, since this is an island base, maybe they've got some of those crab mini-subs.  If we found some, then we could all go."

            Ken nodded, his cloak wrapped close about him.  "Good idea, Jinpei."  The boy beamed.  "Ryu, you and Joe stay here and protect the ship while the rest of us go see what we can find.  We're running on borrowed time right now, so we'll meet back in five and if we've found nothing, those who can will leave in the buggy.  Go."

            Ken, Jun, and Jinpei took off in different directions leaving a grateful Ryu and sullen Joe behind.  The two did not have long to wait.

            "There's fifteen crab mini-subs on the other side of the Galactor mecha."  Ken made sure not to get too close.

            "Aniki, I found where they're storing their missiles."  Jinpei bobbed up and down, more like his usual self.

            "Great.  We might just be able to set up a diversion while we escape.  Let's go people."

            Jun and Joe helped Ryu stand.  Jinpei slid into the inside of his converted buggy and drove to the area of the mini-subs.  Ken beat them there.

            "The subs will seat three.  Jun can drive one and Jinpei can provide cover with the buggy."

            Jinpei raised an eyebrow.  "What about you, aniki?"

            A frown crept into Joe's face as Ken answered.

            "I'll follow later.  It's vital I try and retrieve some information on that sonic weapon Katse used on us.  I also need to make sure this base and what's left of the God Phoenix are destroyed."

            "Destroy my baby?"  Ryu looked like he was about to be sick. 

            "You can't possibly do all that alone!"  Joe stepped in front of him.  Ken took a hasty step back.

            "I can, don't worry.  I'll meet you all in Singapole."

            "But, but, aniki, what about the water?  Vampires aren't supposed to be able to stay in it and these subs are small."

            "I haven't felt any effects from it so far, Jinpei."  Ken remembered the unnatural heaviness he felt during launch the previous day.  They had no need to worry themselves with it.  "I'm sure I'll be all right."

            "Ken, Joe's right.  You can't do all this alone.  You've been through so much already... it's a miracle you're here talking to us right now."  Jun's brown eyes pleaded with him.  "Jinpei can take the others to Singapole.  Let me stay and help you if you won't come."

            Joe dismissed her words with a wave of his hand.  "Say what you like, but I'm staying!  I owe Katse for a few things and I want to pay him back personally.  You can't make me go, Ken."  His jaw was set.

            Ryu stood a little straighter, trying hard not to let the pain he got from doing so show.  "I can stay too.  I'm sure my ribs are only bruised.  They won't slow me down."

            "If they stay, I stay too, aniki," Jinpei added.

            They were truly determined to stay despite the possible consequences.  Ken could see the decision written on their faces.  He couldn't let them.  There was precious little time before the whole base would discover they were free and they were going to waste it arguing.  They were going to get themselves killed.  "None of you are staying.  I've made my decision and it's final."  Ken faced them squarely.  "You'll get in the sub and I'll distract them so you can escape."

            Joe laughed in his face.  "I don't think so, Commander.  Even messed up as we are, you can't take all four of us on.  You can't make us leave."

            "Joe, you're not being rational."

            "Fuck rational!  We're staying!"

            Ken stared at them, love and anger warring over their defiance.  There were just too many unknowns here.  Katse had all the advantage.  He couldn't allow them to just throw their lives away - they were too important.  But what could he do?  If he sucker punched Joe the others might cave in and go, but there were no guarantees.  -There is a way to make them.-  Ken's eyes widened at the thought.  Yes, there was a way, but would it work?  Did he even have the right to try?  It didn't matter, their lives were at stake. 

            With distaste, Ken forced himself to think back on the long horrible, wonderful, nights he spent with Tiana as she went about the business of turning him into something not quite human.  He could recall every thought, every move, every kiss with frightening ease.  He tried not to dwell on her lips, her deep eyes, the grace with which she moved, but concentrated on her voice and how it changed when she exerted her power over him and made him forget.

            Ken took a deep breath and focused his will looking at each in turn through their visors locking with their eyes.  "Everything is fine.  There's no need to worry.  Everything has been done and you can go now.  It's time to go."

            Jinpei nodded and instantly started toward his buggy.  Ryu blinked twice before he slowly turned around and gingerly started to climb into the closest mini-sub.  Jun looked indecisively from the sub to Ken and back again.  Joe held a puzzled expression on his face, but didn't move.  Ken tried again.

            "Jun, Ryu needs your help."  She nodded and moved off to help him, her indecision averted.

            Ken now stared at Joe quickly trying to pull his thoughts together.  He stepped up to him until they were very close, the opaque visor posing no problems for his improved uncanny new sight.  The sound of Joe's heart thundered in his ears.  -Drink him!-  No! I'm here to help him.  Back off! Ken's teeth ached with longing.  He trapped Joe with his eyes.

            "Joe, everything is fine.  You know I can take care of myself.  I promise I'll make it back.  Believe it.  Besides, the others need you more."

            "But - "  His eyes had partially clouded over.

            "It's all right!  Remember I have new powers now.  Everything will be fine.  It's purely routine.  Routine."

            Joe looked away.  "We - we need to get going.  Surely you can handle this by yourself.  Sheesh, Jinpei could do it."  He looked back toward him.  His eyes were clear.  "Don't take too long."

            Joe left and climbed into the sub.  Ken stared after him his face filled with disbelief.  He actually did it!  He turned away as a cold shiver made its way down his spine.  God, it had been so easy - too easy!  Guilt crowded in around him but he pushed it back.

            He forced himself to turn back around and waved at his friends before leaping into the air and flying up a set of metal stairs wedged into the hangar wall.  He zoomed up to the control room at the top.  Below him, the crab mini-sub crawled toward the water covered part of the bay.  Jinpei's buggy hovered protectively over it.

            The door into the control room was unlocked.  Ken stepped inside.  It was empty.

            Quickly, he scanned the controls before him and soon found what he was looking for.  As soon as he saw that his teammates made it safely through the hangar to the ocean outside, he hit the button commanding the hangar doors to close.  When they finally clanged shut, he moved to the door of the control room and threw a small explosive toward the console he'd just operated.

            Flames rang out behind him as he ran down the stairs.  Alarms began ringing all around him.  Ken leapt from the stairs, and with a small handful of his contact activated explosives destroyed the remaining mini-subs in the bay.

            Explosions raged behind him as he sped to the missile depot Jinpei had mentioned.  More alarms rang around him as water sprinklers tried ineffectively to put out the raging fires.  Reaching the missile racks, he placed a time bomb among them set for forty minutes.  He then headed back toward the God Phoenix.  Men in green and brown poured out of a number of doors.  Ken reached the ship before any of them spotted him.

            After restocking his supply of explosives, Ken placed and activated three time bombs in the ship, one at the partially destroyed power plant, one in the Bird Missile rack, and the third in the Phoenix Effect generator.  If by some miracle the whole base and Katse weren't destroyed, they still wouldn't get any of the Science Ninja Team's secrets.

            Amidst more explosions, he crossed the bay toward the door that originally brought him here.  He batted the Galactor guards standing there aside with the ease of swatting flies.  More men waited for him in the small hallway beyond.

            Ken's eyes darkened and his canines grew of their own volition as he fought through them.  -Drink!  Drink!  There is blood here!-  Ken fought against two enemies as he made it to the stairs.

            When all the guards were rendered unconscious or dead, Ken leapt up the stairs after the lone guard that had managed to escape.  Within moments he rushed up to his side and knocked him lightly against the wall.  The man groaned from the impact.

            Ken brought his face close to his prisoner's after pining him to the wall with his arm.  The soldier gasped, squirming to find a way out of Ken's iron grip.  The smell of fear flowed freely from him.  It didn't occur to Ken then that his rabid fear might be inspired from more than the fact he'd been captured by Gatchaman. 

            "Where is your main computer?  Tell me!"

            The guard's eyes grew round.  "G - g - green level.  Co - co - rridor eight,"

            "How do I get there?"

            The guard struggled not to answer until Ken put a little more pressure on his neck.

            "Now run."  The guard stumbled down the stairs in his eagerness to comply with the command.  Ken found himself staring hungrily after him.  He forced himself to look away and start up the stairs. 

            As soon as he reached the level described to him by the guard, he yanked the door open and pulled through the guard he heard loitering on the other side and threw him over his shoulder back into the stairs .  Before his three companions could respond, he was already among them.  As they fell from his blows and lay still, he found his eyes riveting themselves on their necks.  -Drink!  Drink!-

            Ken picked up one of the men.  Shakily, he forced himself to set him back down.  It was one thing to have his Thirst take over, it was quite another to willingly do that which he so abhorred.  He ran, getting as far from temptation as possible.

            It didn't take him long to find the room he was looking for - the Halon gas warning signs were a dead giveaway. 

            Ken listened at the door and picked up only three heartbeats inside.  He rushed in and three men in lab coats turned toward him and froze.  One abruptly jerked into movement and lunged for an alarm button across his console.  Ken was at his side before he could ever finish the move.  With practiced ease, he twisted the tech's hand and broke his wrist.  As the man screamed in pain and horror, the other two broke out of their paralysis and made a dash for the door.

            In a barely perceptible blur, Ken ran for the door and beat them there.  With two quick movements he grabbed each of the techs and broke their necks.  As he released them, the third tech fell to the floor his eyes round with fear.  The man tried to wedge himself into the wall as Ken's dark gaze focused on him and began to approach. 

            "You will download all pertinent data on your new sound weapon to a disk for me, now."

            The tech blubbered at him, still trying to push his body into the wall.

            Ken focused harder, locking the man's gaze with his own and tried again.  "Download the information.  Now!

            The tech whimpered, but scrambled to his feet.  Ken watched as the tech's one good hand stumbled over the controls and downloaded the data for him.  The tech wouldn't look at him as he worked.  With a shaking hand and tormented eyes, the tech finally gave him a filled floptical disk.  Ken took it without comment.

            "Where is the computer's memory core?"  The tech glanced back toward a thickly shielded machine on the far side of the room, as he shook violently.  Ken forced him to look up into his eyes.  "Sit.  And do not move."

            The tech sat down, sitting absolutely still, his eyes spinning.

            Ken slipped the disk into one of his few intact pockets.  He took out two of the time delay bombs he had with him and placed them on the core.  Setting the timers for one minute,  he then lifted the tech as if he weighed nothing and ran for the door.

            As he raced for the stairwell, Ken's ears suddenly picked up the sound of running footsteps on the stairs.  He slipped into the first unlocked door he found and closed it behind him.

            Banks of wires and switches covered two of the walls in the five by five room.  He dropped the tech off in the far corner.  The latter whimpered as the movement jostled his injured wrist.  The sound seemed to echo loudly in the small confines around them.  "Quiet."  The tech instantly fell silent.

            Heavy footsteps rang outside the door as they went past.  The seconds ticked by as the timers ran out on his bombs.  At sixty seconds, the sound of shattered plastic and metal cut through the walls and were soon followed by agonized screams.

            Ken was about to reach for the door to use the confusion and smoke to slip away when an all too familiar voice boomed out in the hallway.

            "Find them!  They must be stopped.  I will allow no failures!  The Science Ninja Team must not be allowed to escape.  Instant promotion to the man who slays them!"

            Katse was still here.  Surely he wouldn't stay much longer though.  Dare he go after him while there was still a chance?  Ken turned around and lifted up the tech.  "Where is the command center?

            The tech blubbered incoherently.  Ken's teeth ached.  He gathered his will about him and tried again.  "Tell me where the command center is. Tell me, slowly."

            "Au-au-audience hall, the the the audience h-h-hall, the audience hall!"

            That was four floors from here.  He doubted he would have too much trouble making it back there - and if Katse hadn't yet fled....

            Ken released the tech and moved to the door.  He was about to turn the knob when the sound of more heavy footsteps filled the hallway.  Should he risk it?  There were at least twenty men.  Then he remembered the disk that was so vital to their cause.  He decided to wait.

            -Drink!-  Ken swallowed, his throat dry and aching.  The tech's fluttering heartbeat pounded in his ears.  -Drink!-  There had to be a way to shut it out!  He glanced back at the helpless man.  His throat tightened.

             - ‘They get in our way and we kill them. What difference does it make if you drink them dry or break their necks.  Dead is dead.' - -Drink!-

            All Joe had said was true, but... -Drink!-  Ken turned away from the tech, his friend's words still echoing in his mind.

            The sound of rushing footsteps receded, but Ken made no move to leave.

            -Drink!-

            Berg Katse was here - and he wanted him.  There was so much that monster was owed for.  But he was alone.  Always Katse had managed to slip away from them at the last moment.  Could he conceivably catch him all alone?  -Yes!  If you drink!-  Ken shook his head.  Katse would by no means be defenseless, and he himself wasn't in the best of shape.  His body had miraculously healed itself, that was true... but it had taken so much blood just to get that far and his body still wanted more - insistently so.  He had no guarantee that if he went after Katse he wouldn't lose what control he possessed at a critical moment.  The only way to guarantee it was to satiate it before he faced him, but that meant -

            Ken sighed and turned around.  The tech sat against the wall cradling his broken wrist.  Could he do it?  Should he try?  If Katse was caught or killed the reign of terror of Galactor over the world would be over.  Could he walk away without trying to catch him though he might have the means to end it all?  -Dead is dead.-  Time was running out...  Katse would only stay here so long...  -Drink!-

              Hesitantly, Ken walked up to the tech and then gently pulled him to his feet.  He searched the pale, frightened face before him and felt his insides flip in guilt over what he was going to do.  He allowed his eyes to grow dark.  His canines extended in rapt anticipation.

            The tech stared at the change and opened his mouth in a silent scream.  The strong stench of urine filled the room.  Ken gently but solidly turned the tech to the side so he could clearly see his neck.  The throbbing artery called to him, daring him to try and steal the succulent fluid flowing within it.  -Now!  Now!-

            The tech struggled in Ken's iron grip as no longer looking at his face had brought the man partially back to his senses.  His speeding heart was like a freight train to Ken's ears.  His Thirst soared driving him with anguish as he tried to hesitate.  -NOW!-

            Ken's fangs pierced the warm skin.  Hot blood gushed into his greedy mouth.  He wouldn't drink the man dry, he wouldn't!  Or so he told himself over and over even as pleasure infused every fiber of his being. 

            After a few minutes, the tech's heartbeat grew erratic.  He had to stop!  Soon it would be too late.  But all Ken could do was drink and drink until every last drop was gone.

            He felt incredibly warm all over.  With the feeling came the sudden realization that since the change was forced upon him, he'd never once felt warm before today.  He grew giddy with the sensation.  He struggled to regain control.

            Ken forced his eyes open and found the dead tech still in his arms, his body quickly growing cold.  A chill coursed through him at the relaxed, pleasured expression on his face.

            He gently placed the body on the floor and then snapped the tech's neck.  He stepped back from him, rising guilt over what he had done mixing with his Thirst's contentment.  His well being had only been achieved at the expense of another's - Ken felt a sudden bout of nausea.  He made himself turn away.

            Yes, he took the tech's life, but he wouldn't waste it!  Katse was waiting, but not for long.  He would have to follow the rest of Joe's advice and deal with all he had done - later.

            Ken moved out of his hiding place and sped in a blur to the stairwell.  Katse's voice blared again through the many speakers, threatening death and destruction to all if he got no results.  Yes, he was still here!  He was still within reach.  It might all yet be worth it!

            Ken rushed up the stairs and zoomed down the familiar hallways.  What guards he encountered along the way, he felled before they were ever truly aware of his presence.  They didn't slow him down at all.

            The large mahogany doors stood closed.  Ten of Katse's elite troops stood in a semi-circle around them.  Ken launched his boomerang toward them before they became aware of his presence.  Three men gurgled and died as their cut throats filled their lungs with running blood.

            Ken broke the nearest man's neck with his left arm while jabbing another in the throat with the other.  He kicked one in the groin, and used the man wrapped in his arm to smash down two others.  The last were violently smashed against the hall's wall.  Gore stained the dented surface as the two slid lifeless to the floor.

            Ken didn't look at them, his heightened senses telling him they were all dead.  He picked up the body of the man he used before and hurled it at the double doors.  As the doors opened and the body fell inside, Ken leapt up through the opening. 

            Gunfire ripped the dead man to shreds as Ken flipped unnoticed in mid air only to thrust himself toward the closest set of guards.  Bullets flew in a free for all, chipping the expensive marble floor.  None of the guards could react fast enough to Ken's unbelievable speed.  He wasn't even aware of the difference as he let his trained reflexes take over.  The entire battle was over in less than a minute.

            "You're dead!  I know you're dead!"

            Ken glanced over his shoulder and finally spotted his quarry.  The left side wall of the audience hall was gone, revealing an extensive control room.  Katse stood inside with his long purple costume, his body leaning against a console.  His red lips were pale.

            Ken smiled.  It was a cold smile.  "The White Shadow has once more crept into your lair and this time he's seeking vengeance!"  Ken sped forward.

            Katse screamed and pressed the button beneath his hand with all his might.  A clear wall slammed down between them before Ken could make it across.  Katse laughed, a touch of hysteria hidden behind it, as he realized the wall had held Ken back.

            "Though it looks like you've somehow managed to beat death, Gatchaman, I still remain out of your reach!  And in case all of this has been a sick trick on your part, I'm going to make sure that this time when I kill you, you'll stay dead!"  Katse touched the panel behind him again.  The doors into the room slammed shut and a sheet of metal slammed down in front of them.  At the same time, the clear wall that prevented Ken from at first helping his friends rose.  A thick green gas spewed into the audience hall. 

            Katse laughed again, his confidence restored as a touch of surprise covered Ken's face. 

            He no longer had any reason to breathe - that had become abundantly clear during Nambu's tests.  But Ken still possessed no real idea of what would or wouldn't affect him.  The gas crawled closer working hungrily to fill the room.  He shook his head.  He would find out one way or another now, so he decided to ignore it.  With slow deliberate steps, he walked up to the invisible wall even as the gas overtook him.  His skin tingled where it touched him but seemed to have no other immediate effect.

            Katse laughed again.

            Ken could see him clearly, even through the green mist.  He was less than ten feet away from Katse, but it might as well have been a hundred miles for all it seemed he could do to him.  He roughly shook his head.  No!  He wouldn't, couldn't allow this opportunity to end.  He was so close!  But time was running out.  His bombs in the bay would explode at any minute.  The moment they went off Katse would make good his escape.  He had to find a way to use his powers to get to him!

            Katse moved up to the glass, peering into the thick fog trying to get a better look at him.  Ken's hands curled into fists.

            "The gas is a nerve toxin.  It paralyzes its victims and if left in it too long, it will stop you from breathing as well.  But don't worry, I won't let it get that far.  I thought you had cheated me of my pleasures before, but I think I'll enjoy them all that much more now.  I'll make sure you die and are forever beyond salvation!  I'll spread your body parts over my domain for all to see!"

            The men in the control room were also staring into the fog.  One of them was very close to Katse's console.  Ken focused on him and locked on his gaze. 

            "All right, he's been exposed long enough.  I don't want him dead just yet.  Suck out the gas."  The vents were shifted to reverse and sucked in the gas.  The room began to clear.

            Ken held his gaze steady until the room grew empty enough for the guard to clearly see his face.  He put all the force he could gather into his voice.  "Raise the wall!"

            "What?!"  Katse spun around in the direction of Ken's gaze, surprise covering his features.  Even as he watched, the guard moved to raise the wall.  "Stop!  You fool!"

            The guard didn't seem to hear him.  Katse whipped out a gun from within his cloak's broad sleeves and fired.  Red blossomed on the green and brown uniform as the guard pressed the button.

           

 

 

 

 

Katse lunged forward to reclose the wall, but it was already too late.  Ken had made it through. 

            "It's over Katse.  Vengeance will be mine."

            Katse screamed in disbelief and terror.  There should have been no way Gatchaman should have been able to speak to them, let alone move.  Adrenaline flooded through his system and he attacked.  He released three concussion grenades on his enemy.  Not waiting to see their effect, Katse turned to the nearest wall.  He tapped a hidden control on his belt and let his fear propel him through the small hole that miraculously appeared in the wall.

            Katse almost screamed as the hair in the nape of his neck stood on end.  Someone was behind him.  Not daring to look back for fear of who it might be, he lunged for the chute that stood two feet ahead of him. 

            His body sped down the escape chute and was later stopped by an air cushion on the other end.  His heartbeat rang in his ears as he leapt for the controls of the escape pod.  He slammed his fist on the large red button on the middle of the panel.  The ship shuddered as the engines warmed.  Katse turned to slip into the pod's special chair in the few moments before launch.  His eyes widened as his throat choked on a scream.

            What stood before him was not possible, but he couldn't deny it.  Did he not tear the white and blue uniform with his own hands?  Did he not personally plunge the knives, needles, and spikes into the places where now there were only pink spots on the white skin?  The handsome face was the same he unveiled less than twelve hours ago.  This was Gatchaman.  And all he saw in the sky blue eyes before him was his own painful death.  It was beyond a doubt that whatever secrets he'd used to rise from the dead, he wouldn't be sharing with him.

            The escape pod launched, throwing Katse to the floor.  It was over, over!  All his schemes, all his dreams, all the suffering he had gone through, all for nothing.  He was going to die!

            Katse crawled against the g forces being exerted on him toward the pod's hatch, pushed on by desperation and fear.  As he reached for the handle that was his only hope for freedom, he was roughly lifted from behind.  As if he were but a doll, Katse was twisted around to face the bringer of death - the White Shadow.  What he saw before him chilled him to the bone.

            "It's over now, Berg Katse.  You've lost.  The world will finally be rid of you."

            "Nonononononononono."  Dark inhuman eyes stared into his own.  Sharp, abnormally long canines glinted at him from a humorless smile.  "No!"

            Katse's heart threatened to burst from the fear flowing through him.  He quivered in his enemy's grip.

            With growing terror, Katse watched as Gatchaman slowly pulled back his arm and curled his hand into a fist.  "Katse, prepare to go to hell."

            Katse screamed shrilly and frantically struggled to get free.  He got nowhere.  "Sosai-sama!  I beg you!"  Gatchaman's grip tightened on his shoulder sending bolts of pain down his arm.  "Help me!"

 

 

 

 

            Katse had turned hysterical.  His pleading made no sense.  No one could help him here.  It might be best if he just put him out of his misery. 

            Ken's eyes widened as a bright, gold aura abruptly enveloped Katse's body.  Pain shot through his hand as if it were set on fire.  He pulled it back.

            "Yes, Sosai-sama!  Help me!" 

            The look of hope which flared in Katse's eyes stabbed Ken with the fact that somehow his moment for final victory was slipping away.  The glow around Katse's body grew to an ever greater brilliance and stung his eyes.  He had to kill Katse now!  His fist shot forward with all his might.

            Pain flared through his arm as it entered the light.  He felt his fist connect with something momentarily and then it was gone.  There was a blinding flash and Ken staggered back.  Katse was gone.

            He hit him!  He was sure.  But would it be enough?  Would it be enough?  Ken blinked to clear his eyes and then moved to the hatch Katse so desperately was trying to open earlier.  Whether he had succeeded or not, this Sosai who had made Katse's escape possible would be taking steps to destroy him.  He needed to get out.

            Wincing from the pain still lingering in his arm and hands, Ken reached for the hatch's release lever.  The moment he released the door, the wind howled around him as the pressures within and without tried to equalize. 

            He didn't hold back, but let the pressure clash suck him through to the outside.  He was thrown out almost ten feet before gravity came into play and pulled him down.  The escape pod's friction eddies pulled at him and tried to drag him back.  Ken angled his body and broke away and down.

            He hadn't gotten far when the ship lit up the night as it exploded into millions of pieces.  A concussion wave rippled from it and quickly overtook Ken's falling form.

            He tumbled end over end as small pricks of pain laced his exposed skin.  He struggled to regain control of his fall as the wave finally moved past.  He splayed his arms and legs to slow his descent.  His uniform's tattered wings flapped behind him as he tried to get what lift he could out of them.  There was no doubt in his mind that wherever he landed, he would hit hard.

            Time slowed as he fell, giving Ken ample opportunity to gaze down at what lay below him.  The darkness meant nothing to his eyes, though he could definitely tell the sky was even then gradually brightening.  Dawn was on its way.  He had to hurry.

            The waters rushing toward him were dotted with islands.  One of the largest of these was on fire.  It looked like his bombs had done their handiwork and done it well.  With a slight shift of arms and legs, Ken made sure to move away from it.

            Looking again, he spotted a ring of four small islands and shifted his body to fall toward them.  With any luck, the water trapped between them would be shallow.  He hadn't forgotten the odd weight he felt when they left Crescent Coral, and he was in no mood to test the effects of large bodies of water on his changed body right now.

            Twelve feet from the water, he folded his wings and dived cleanly into it.  He arced his body upward before he hit bottom.  The weight he'd experienced before was back, but stronger than it had ever been inside the God Phoenix.  He forced his laden limbs to swim toward shore.  The unwanted weight left him as soon as he was able to drag himself onto the beach.  What would the weight have been like if he'd landed anywhere but here?  He shut the thought from his mind.

            The sky had visibly brightened.  The horizon turned bright purple heading toward red.  His friends should have made it to Singapole by now.  Help would be on its way soon.  But his body was already thinking of sleep.  And though he might be able to overcome that, his uniform was in tatters, he would have no protection from the sun.

            Ken stood up and quickly glanced around him.  Salt water dripped from his torn uniform and stained the tranquil beach.  The island he crawled onto was much like the three around it - flat and holding very little vegetation.  He would find no shelter here.  Damn. 

            The water between the four was too shallow to block out all the light.  He could cross the island and go to the deeper waters there, but dare he risk it?  He didn't mind tests under supervised conditions, but not out here, alone.  If he became as helpless as other vampires sometimes did in the films, he could be swept away by a current and never resurface again.

            He was running out of options.  He might have no choice but to brave the ocean waters if he wanted to try and survive.  Ken shifted and felt his boot sink into the sand.  He stared down at it and moved his foot again.  It gave beneath him.  -The sand!-

           

 

 

 

 

            "Hakase, the signal is strongest to starboard."  Jun turned from the jury-rigged equipment that had been brought on board.

            "All right,"  Nambu nodded as he stared quietly out one of the bridge windows.  "Fifteen degrees starboard if you please, Mr. Chai."

            "Aye, aye, sir."

            The small science vessel shifted to its new heading in the debris littered water.  Dozens of even smaller ships were busily picking up what they could before they totally lost the light of day.

            "I still don't see anything, nee-chan, but islands, islands, and more islands!  Other than the water that is..."  Jinpei buzzed from one side of the bridge to the other, a pair of binoculars glued to his eyes as he looked out the windows.

            Jun stared at the still beeping instrument before her and tried not to let her worry show.  It was a miracle that they'd escaped the Galactor base without pursuit.  They'd run underwater without lights to make it that much harder in case they tried.  It took them almost an hour and a half to reach Singapole.  When they surfaced, the burning wreckage of the Galactor base had been like a far off beacon in the rising dawn.  They tried to contact Ken then, but had received no answer.

            The four of them went from the docks to the Singapole branch of the ISO.  They'd been a little surprised when they found Nambu waiting for them there.  He'd already been busily organizing search parties to look for them only hours after the God Phoenix went down.  He immediately had them all hospitalized.  Joe was vehement in his insistence that he was fine and all he needed was a ship to go back to the base.  He almost made it out of the building before Nambu had him physically restrained and then drugged.  His angry screams had filled the hospital's hallways once they finally let him regain consciousness.

            Luckily, she and Jinpei checked out well enough to be allowed to help in the search as long as they didn't strain themselves. Ken's signal had started coming through in the middle of the afternoon.  Though she instantly signaled him back, his hadn't deviated from the simple steady beat he sent before. She had no idea what to make of it.

            "Sir, there's a cluster of islands dead ahead."

            Nambu nodded.  "Jun, is the signal coming from there?"

            "I believe so, Hakase."

            "Let's go get him, nee-chan!  We'll find him right quick."  Jinpei hopped from one foot to the other.  His excitement was contagious.

            "All right.  Take the launch.  I expect to hear from you every few minutes.  Is that understood?"  Nambu stared at them waiting for their response.

            "Roger!"  Jun grabbed a smaller, portable tracker and the two of them took off in the launch brought along for that purpose.

            Jinpei steered the boat and rammed it up into the nearest island's beach.  The sun was almost hidden entirely in the horizon.  Jun grabbed a thermos and a lamp as well as her tracker, and disembarked as Jinpei finished securing the launch.  The two of them started off in the direction indicated by the tracker.

            "Nee-chan, I don't see him anywhere."  His young brow wrinkled in concern.  "There's no place he could have used to hide here!"

            "Don't give up so easily.  He's here and we'll find him.  Wherever he is, he'll be able to come out as soon as it gets dark."

            The two of them slowly crossed the island, still finding no sign of their missing teammate.  They stood silently on the sandy beach that faced the other three islands even as the sky turned into a sea of blood.  Jun turned on the lamp and held it high. 

            "Could he be on one of the other islands, nee-chan?"

            "Possibly.  Though the signal is very strong here though.  Let's wait a while and hope that he'll see the light and come check it out."  Jun set the lamp on the sand and sat down next to it, prepared to wait as long as necessary.  Jinpei paced the beach looking all around for any sign.  A cool sea breeze swept over them in the growing darkness.  A couple of crabs gingerly made their way to shore.

            Jun felt something close to her hip and looked down.  She gasped as sand welled upwards and three blue gloved fingers broke to the surface where they could be seen by the light.

            "Jinpei!"  Jun rolled back, her body tense, her heart thumping loud enough to fill her ears in the night's silence.  A full gloved hand appeared out of the sand and then was sucked back in.

            "Nee-chan, it has to be him!  He hid in the sand.  Cool!"  Jinpei leapt forward and began digging around the area where the hand had appeared.  Jun held back, too spooked to dare.

            As Jinpei scooped away, the sand in front of him swelled and rose before slipping back to reveal a body underneath.

            "Ken!" Jun's hesitation was dispelled as her gaze fell on his face.  She rushed forward.

            Ken shook his head to clear the sand from his hair.  He tilted to either side so it would pour out of his ears.  He then snorted, shooting sand out of his nose.

            "Gross!"  The sparks in Jinpei's eyes belied the disgusted expression on his face.

            "Ken, are you all right?"  To Jun, his uniform looked even more tattered than she remembered.  All signs of his previous injuries, however, were gone.  Goose bumps rose unbidden up her arms. 

            "I'm okay."  Ken rose slowly to his feet.  He'd yet to look at either of them.

            "Aniki, were you under there all day?  Galactor would never have found you!  It's just like the ninja shows.  It's so cool!"

            "There are a few drawbacks to this."  Ken snorted again and out came more sand.

            Jinpei laughed.  "Well, I might be able to live with it."

            Ken smiled for a moment but then his face grew serious.  He turned to look at Jun.  "I failed.  He got away again."

            She couldn't read his eyes.  "We'll have other chances, Ken.  What's important right now is that you're all right."  She smiled.  It worried her a little when he didn't return it.  "Are you hungry?  I brought this for you."  She held out the thermos toward him.

            Ken hesitated before taking it from her.  "Thanks."  He turned his back on them before slowly opening the top of the thermos.  Jun watched his back intently. 

            "Nee-chan, should I call Nambu now?"

            "Sure, go ahead."  Jun ignored her brother as he activated the small radio hanging from his belt and called in - all of her attention was focused on Ken's tense backside.  After a moment, she edged closer to him until she could catch an angled glimpse of his face.

            Ken's eyes were closed, his face blank.  His body was totally still.  The only movement Jun could detect was an occasional bob of his Adam's apple as he drank.  It was eerie, really, how he could sit so still.  It was worse here, in the middle of nowhere, his uniform in tatters, with only a small lamp to hold back the darkness.  Her goose bumps spread.  She looked away trying to dispel the creepy feeling.  She must be more tired than she'd thought.

            "Our launch is not very far from here.  We can go meet Nambu whenever you're ready."

            Ken opened his eyes, the muscles on his face moving to something close to an embarrassed expression.  "Sure.  Sorry.  It just felt good having something other than sand touching my skin."  He stood up, closing the top of the thermos.  "We can go now."

            Jun nodded and moved to pick up the lamp.  Her eyes were drawn to the deep hole in the ground from where Ken emerged.  Self entombed for a day - only death waiting outside as sand slowly trickled into every available space.  She shivered.  It would have driven her insane.

            She forced herself to move and pick up the lamp.  She didn't look toward the hole again.

            "Come on, aniki!  This way!"  Jinpei bounced up the beach and headed inland.  Ken followed somewhat more sedately and Jun brought up the rear.

            In less than ten minutes, the launch made it back to the ship.  Nambu immediately took over and steered Ken toward one of the rooms below after ordering the ship to return to Singapole.

            Once there, Nambu made arrangements for him and Ken to leave for Utoland immediately.  He arranged transportation for the rest of them for the next day.

            Debriefings were to be conducted by Nambu the day after Ryu and Joe were deemed fit enough.  Crescent Coral became a hive of activity as the information on Ken's disk was downloaded and examined.  Immediate construction was begun on a new God Phoenix.

 

 

 

 

            "So, you found a number of crab subs.  What then?"

            Joe yawned.  God he hated these debriefing sessions.  He'd yet to see any good really come out from one of them.  "Well, Ken suggested we use one of them and have Jinpei follow us in the buggy.  He was going to stay behind and take care of the base and the God Phoenix.  We argued, of course.  He had his say.  We had ours.  We got into the sub and left him behind."  Joe's brow suddenly furrowed.

            "Is something wrong?" 

            Joe looked up at Nambu and noticed that his gaze was unusually intense.  "I - no, no, I guess not."  He shook his head.  He would have to think on all this later.  Something here was seriously wrong.  "Where were we?"

 

 

 

 

 

            It was late in the afternoon when Ken entered the small utilitarian kitchen near their quarters at Crescent Coral.  With silent steps, he moved to the refrigerator and removed one of the three thermoses that had been placed there for him.  He moved to the small table there and sat down.  His Thirst flared as he opened the lid and the heavy scent of the blood inside called to it.

            He sighed and then took a long sip.  His mouth burst with flavorful pleasure.  He sighed again.  It seemed his body would never tire of the taste.  -It could be better still.-  He'd come to notice that even the different blood types had a subtle difference in flavor.  If it was RH negative it even seemed to have a little extra zing to it.  Nambu found the whole concept absolutely fascinating.  Ken didn't want to think about it at all.  -But it could be better still!-

            Why was it his Thirst could be satiated yet still complain.  It'd done so every time he drank since his escape.  -You want it.-  He still hadn't truly faced all he'd done.  And he did it for nothing.  Spiraling with pleasure as the man in his arms died...  -Yes, yes!-

            Nambu decreed he would be the one debriefing them all from now on, to better keep his secret.  There was too much of a chance his unusual behavior, or survival, would spread rumors even from people as solidly trained as those they normally worked with.  Not that there wouldn't be rumors about the reason for the change.... 

            He wanted to tell Nambu everything, thought he should.  But though he tried a couple of times, he hadn't been able to say it out loud.  In the long run, he doubted it was necessary.  He was sure Nambu put two and two together.  He would have to talk about it, sooner or later, and later sounded awfully good right now.  Already he'd done just about anything not to even think about it.  And of course, there was still the other matter....  He didn't speak of it either, but of this one he was sure Nambu knew.  Yet, he said nothing.  He was going to have to do something about that one sooner or later as well....

            "You bastard!"

            Ken looked up in surprise only to be knocked to the floor as Joe's body flew over the table at him.  They both fell to the floor, Ken's half-emptied thermos skittering across the ground leaving a trail of blood behind it.

            "Joe, what the hell?"

            His friend's face was a mask of pure rage.  "How could you, you back stabbing son of a bitch!"  Joe lunged at him without warning, but Ken was able to avoid him easily. 

            "What's wrong with you?"

            Snarling, his friend didn't answer but tried for him again instead.  Ken dodged out of his way.  Joe shook with rage.  "Stand still, you fucking bastard.  I want to hurt you!"  Joe strafed him with a flurry of attacks.  Ken frowned, Joe was holding nothing back.

            He stepped back blocking or avoiding all of his blows.  When he didn't appear to be going to stop, a kernel of anger sprang to life inside him.  "Stop this!  What the hell's the matter with you?  Have you gone mad?"  Joe didn't stop.

            "You know exactly what's wrong, you sickening excuse for a man!  You stuck your dirty fingers in my mind and pulled my strings.  And I'm going to make you pay for it!"

            Oh God, no.  He knew.  He knew.  Ken's anger died without a whimper.  How did he find out?  Nambu wouldn't have told him, not Joe.  His concussion?  A flashback?  A dozen other possible explanations rushed through his mind.  "Joe, no, it wasn't like that.  Let me explain...."

            "Like hell!"  Joe grabbed a no longer resisting Ken and threw him at the nearest wall.  "You're such a fucking hypocrite!"  He pulled Ken roughly off the floor where he landed.  Ken still didn't resist.  Joe slammed him against the wall, his face close.  "You bitched and moaned so much about what Tiana did to you.  But did you remember any of that when you decided to use her powers against us?  Hell no!"

            "Joe, please - "

            "Shut up!"  He pulled Ken forward and then slammed him against the wall again.  "There's nothing you can say that I want to hear!  There's no explanation you can give me that would justify you fucking with my mind.  Nothing!  Never!"  He slammed Ken against the wall again.  "Now you have to pay."

            "Joe, listen - "  Ken got no farther.  As soon as the words started to come from his lips Joe reached back and punched him in the face.  Ken barely felt his fist as it connected with his jaw, but his surprise at the brutality of the attack was absolute.  Joe slammed him against the wall two more times.  Ken was too stunned to even think of stopping him.

            "I told you I don't want to hear it!  You fucked with my mind once and there's no way I'm gonna give you the chance to do it again!"

            Ken stared at him with dawning despair, wanting, needing to try and explain but seeing there was no way Joe was going to give him the chance.  Sending him even further down was his friend's accusation that he would carelessly try and manipulate him again.

            "Joe!  What are you doing?"  Ken looked past Joe's shoulder and saw Jun standing in the kitchen's doorway.  He groaned silently.  As Joe glanced over as well, a cold smile came to his lips.

            "Don't worry, Jun, I was just having a nice little discussion with our commander here."  He yanked Ken forward.  "Why don't you tell Jun what we were talking about, commander?"

            He couldn't bring himself to look at her though he could feel her eyes trying to lock with his own.  He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what Joe was about to do, but he couldn't find the courage to try and stop it.  A part of him felt he shouldn't try, that he deserved no less.  He wished he could disappear.  Joe shook him hard.

            "Not feeling talkative now, are we?  Why don't I fill her in for you then?"  His smile was cruel.  "Do you remember, Jun, when Ken was trying to convince us to escape and leave him behind, but we all decided we'd be staying with him instead?"

            Jun stayed inside the kitchen doorway, staring at the two of them with unconcealed worry and confusion.  "Ye - yes."  Ken would still not meet her gaze.

            "Don't you find it funny how less than a minute after that we just simply got into the sub like good little boys and girls and left him there?"

            "Ah - no, I don't see what - "

            "Think!"  Their gazes locked.  "We all volunteered to stay because we didn't think he should or could handle the place alone, right?  Yet, with only a few meaningless words from him, we all changed our minds?  On his say so?  Why would we do that?  We were going to stay!"

            Jun's brow furrowed further.  "I - I don't know... but... he said he could handle it..."  Her eyes grew clouded.

            "He made us leave!  Made us!  Just like Tiana kept him from telling us what was going on until it was too late.  He manipulated our minds!"

            Jun's even more troubled face moved from one to the other of them.  "K - Ken, is this true?  Did you, did you somehow make us leave against our will?'

            Ken didn't answer.  Joe smashed him against the wall.  "Answer her."

            Ken's shoulders drooped.  "Yes."  His voice was barely above a whisper.

            Joe smashed him against the wall again.  "Louder.  I don't think she heard you."

            A moment of silence hung heavily between them.

            "Yes."

            "Why, Ken?"

            He might be able to keep from looking at her, but he couldn't escape the agony in her voice.  "I felt there was no other choice.  You might have all been killed if you stayed."

            "It's our lives, dammit!  Our decision!  There's five people on this team, not just one.  We're suppossed to be a team.  Does that mean nothing to you?  Is the Gatchaman team made up now of one super-powered vampire and his weak, always getting in the way, lackeys?"  Joe pinned him to the wall.  Ken said and did nothing.  "You violated us, you pig!  You had no right!  And I swear if you ever try anything like that again, I'll stake you out at dawn and watch you fry!"

            Joe let go of Ken abruptly and turned away in disgust.  Ken did nothing.  He could clearly hear Joe stomp out of the room.

            Jun's rapid heartbeat had yet to move from the doorway.  After a couple of minutes of silence, however, he heard it slowly turn away and leave.

            Ken allowed himself to fall to the floor and hid his face in his hands.  It had all been for nothing after all.  Joe was right, he was a hypocrite.  He had done to them that which he swore not to let anyone do to him again.  Yet, he knew, if the same occasion arose, he wouldn't hesitate in doing it again.  Surely he was damned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            The entire team had totally avoided him for the last two days - not that he'd done all that much to seek them out either.  He should have done something, but he had no idea what.  He had no excuses they really wanted to hear.  He wasn't sure it could get much worse... 

            If he confronted them, they would want him to guarantee he'd never do anything like it again.  He couldn't do that.  He couldn't let them take a risk he could stop, not when it would lead to their deaths.  Without that promise, however, they might never forgive him, could never trust him.  Though forgiveness, if nothing else, might come with time....

 

 

 

 

 

            The sun had fallen below the horizon more than a couple of hours ago.  Ken nevertheless walked in the direction of Nambu's office, confident he would find him there.  Construction on the new God Phoenix was in full swing.  The studies on the data he'd brought back from the base were proving difficult, however.  A lot of the staff, as well as Nambu, were spending many a late evening at Crescent Coral.  Nambu would be there, though a small part of him suddenly wished he wouldn't.

            Ken sighed.  This couldn't be helped.  He doubted there was a better, faster way.  Yet the thought he might actually go through with this constricted his throat in a way he didn't like.  His hand felt like a dead weight as he raised it to knock on Nambu's door.

            "Come in."  The voice seemed muffled, though Ken still heard it clearly.  After a moment of further hesitation, he made himself open the door.

            "Hakase, I know you're busy... but could I speak to you for a minute?"

            The room was dark except for a green lamp on Nambu's desk.  Wrapped in partial shadows, the lightly lined face of Kozaburo Nambu looked up at him.  "Oh, it's you.  No problem, just take a seat."  He set the report he'd been reading to one side.  There were bags under his eyes.

            Ken found he couldn't look at him directly.  With a sigh, he made himself sit down.  It was time.  "Hakase..."  His throat abruptly tightened.  His carefully prepared words jumbled together into chaos.

            Nambu's brow rose as he said nothing.  "Yes, Ken?"

            He took a deep breath and tried again.  "I - I'd like to request a leave of absence..."

            Nambu waited, but Ken said nothing more.  "That's not normally an option, Ken."

            "Sir, it might prove very damaging to the team if you don't."  He had to fight to sit still, wanting nothing more at the moment than to run away from what he started.

            "Why do you think that?"

            Ken sighed, staring at his hands.  In a rush of words, he recounted what he did at the Galactor base to save his friends and their subsequent discovery of it.

            "I see."

            A deep silence stretched between them.  Ken could feel his tension coiling to the bursting point.  "I thought if I left for a while it would help things work out.  If I stay here, the issue will never cool off enough so they can look at it objectively."  The image of Joe's raging anger flashed in his mind.  "I figure if I stay out of their way and not be a constant reminder, they'll have the time to properly sort all of this out."

            "How long do you think this will take?"

            Ken sighed.  "I - I don't know....  Probably a long time.  They're going to want me to make commitments I can't.  Sir, to be totally honest, I think you should start looking for my replacement."  He took off his bracelet and laid it on Nambu's desk.

            "Ken - "

            "I thought I could sift through intelligence data for you or even do some bodyguard or security jobs at night.  I realize undercover work is out of the question, but I'm willing to do whatever you can give me."  Ken forced himself to plow on.  "I could move back to the airfield, which would keep me out of the others' way.  I'm sure I'll be fine there and I can come see you for my meals."  He stood up.  "Please give me a call when you've got something for me to do."

            "Ken, you can't go to the airfield," Nambu said.

            Ken smiled sadly.  He had doubted it would all go easy.  "Hakase, it's for the best.  My mind's made up."  He turned away.

            "Ken... the airfield's gone."

            He stopped in mid-step.  "What?"  Did he hear right?  His mind struggled to comprehend what Nambu might mean as he slowly turned back around to face him.

            Nambu stood up.  "It seems Katse did indeed survive your encounter.  Though he might not have had the time to figure out who you were once he saw you unmasked, he has now.  He's not taking any chances either.  He had the airfield literally blown out of existence."

            Ken's face twisted with shock.  The airfield... gone?  "Wh - when?"

            "Around three last night."

            Everything he owned.  All his mementos of his father and mother.  Everything he had looked forward to support him now that Gatchaman would be no more - gone.  "I guess I've come full circle then.  I really am dead now."

            "Ken?"  Nambu moved around the desk toward him.

            "Do the others know?"

            "The aftermath of the explosions were shown on the news, but if they've seen it, they've said nothing.  The only reason I didn't mentioned it to you earlier was that I was wanting to look at the reports on the incident to confirm our initial suspicions."

            "I see.... Please, unless they ask, don't mention it to them."  Ken's face was blank as he turned to leave.

            "I'll consent to a month's leave only if you're absolutely sure this is what you want."

            Ken stopped at the door, but didn't turn around.  "I'm sure... I've thought of nothing else for two days.  It's what I want."

            "A month then."  Nambu pushed his glasses higher on his nose.  "I'll find new quarters for you.  I'll call within the hour."

            "Hai."  Ken nodded and left.

            He returned to his room and in less than ten minutes had packed all he still owned.  All of what he had left of his life fit into a small duffel bag.  It made him feel ill.

            As promised, Nambu called within the hour.  He met him at a transport sub.

            "Our informants have notified us that despite the destruction of the airfield, Galactor's also put out a contract on you."  Ken said nothing.  "I believe I've found you a place that is both comfortable and secure.  It will also minimize your contact with outsiders."

            "I'm sure it'll be fine."  Ken's face was hard.  He was dead, dead, dead.  It was all gone.

            They rode in silence the rest of the way to Utoland.  Once within the main ISO building, Nambu led Ken past four security stations to an unassuming elevator.  After opening the doors with a keycard and checking with the two guards posted there, he bid Ken to enter. 

            Once the doors closed, Nambu pressed the button midway and on the left of two rows of unmarked buttons.  A pleasant computerized voice spoke to them from hidden speakers.

            "Names, please?"

            "Kozaburo Nambu and one guest."

            "Guest's name?"

            Nambu nodded to Ken to answer.  "Ken Washio."

            "Recorded.  Have a pleasant evening, gentlemen."  The elevator began to drop.

            After a few moments, the elevator stopped and the doors opened.

            Before them lay a non-descript corridor lined with far spaced, plain doors.  Nambu led Ken down the long, brightly lit corridor, stopping before the fourth door on the right.  There was a card slot to the side of the door.  Nambu removed a blue card from his jacket pocket.  "Insert this into the slot and then state your full name.  After it's been recorded, the door will only respond to your voice or mine."

            Unenthusiastically, Ken took the card and did as he was requested.

            "Acknowledged."  The door gave an audible click and then slid aside.  Nambu herded Ken inside.

            "Occasionally we have defectors or even informants that need to come here in secret and be kept out of harm's way.  We normally bring them here."

            The room spread out before them and went on for almost a hundred yards.  A curved ceiling watched over it, close to thirty feet high.  Lush green carpeting covered the front third of the room, supporting a lavish living area.  Beyond it, the floor changed to thick mats and held all sorts of exercise equipment.  The last third was in a deep blue carpet which held a bedroom/office area.  On the left hand side of the exercise area stood a recessed kitchen, while on the right were doors leading to the bathing and sanitary facilities.

            "It's, it's a little more than I expected."  Ken gaze drifted over the expensive furniture and lavish decorations on the walls.

            Nambu smiled.  "One of our high level informants insisted on all this.  His information more than paid for the cost of giving in to his wishes."

            Ken dumped his duffel bag on the floor.

            "I'll bring you some work in a couple of days or so.  Till then, get to know the place.  If you can, relax.  And while you're here, if you have no objection, I'd like to conduct some tests to find the limits of your new physical abilities."

            Ken nodded, not really listening, his heightened senses too distracted by all the grandeur around him and the beauty it brought to his changed eyes.

            "Well, I've things I must attend to, so I'll leave you for now.  I'll give you a call later.  Enjoy yourself."  Nambu's gaze lingered on Ken for a moment, before finally turning to go.

            "Hakase?"

            Nambu looked back and found all of Ken's attention focused on him.  "Yes?"

            "Thank you.  I really appreciate all this."

            Nambu nodded and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            As promised, Nambu sent work for Ken after about a day and a half.  The work included reams of reports for him to sift through for possible anomalies as well as tests to run on himself on the exercise machines.  He dived into the work with fervor.  He had only been here a little over a day, but already he found his thoughts dwelling on the past, on all the things he'd lost.  Any distraction from this was welcomed.  He didn't want to think. 

            The large screen TV and stereo were on twenty four hours a day.  Without them, the place seemed quiet - too quiet.  Only the occasional hum of the air moving through the vents had disturbed it.  The silence spoke of loss, and that was one of the topics he wished to avoid at all costs.

            A week went by and then another.  Time blended though it still divided itself into night and day for him as the dawn dragged him toward the sleep of the undead.

            Nambu visited him daily and at times spent hours discussing their work at length.  Ken held onto these moments as a drowning man would to a life jacket.  His time alone in the huge apartment grew ever more oppressive, but he never mentioned it.  The absence of his friends from his life was like a wound that would not heal.  He never realized before how much contact he truly had with them and how he had come to depend on it.  Yet stubbornly, he refused to ask Nambu anything about them, or even if they asked about him.  His Thirst would only laugh and laugh.

            It frightened him that his Thirst seemed to be talking to him more than ever.  -Yes.-  It wouldn't have surprised him to find out he was going mad.

            Each night was worse than the last.  And for the last week, he found himself thinking of Tiana.  He had accused her, killed her, cursed her to hell, but always, just before dawn, he found himself tempted to call her, aching as she must, without companions and friends.  How could she stand for the whole world to think her dead?  She was alone, without friends or family, without anyone to trust with the secret of her hunger.  He understood so many things now, though he'd never admit it.  That would say he thought what she had done was right - how far from the truth!  She betrayed his humanity for her needs, cursed him with his Thirst.  She was responsible for his present misery...  Though if she hadn't his friends would probably be dead...

            Just as his emotions see-sawed about his maker, so did they about himself.  He had sacrificed his final piece of humanity for mankind and then failed at his task.  If he had succeeded in killing Katse all would have been vindicated - the gain would have outweighed the cost.  But he failed, yes, failed!  And now he was paying the price for it.  Perhaps the Thirst would one day also swallow him whole.

 

 

 

            The room was pitch black, though to him it made no difference.  He hadn't had true darkness since the change.  It was but another fact to add to Nambu's growing list. 

            Ken stared up at the ceiling, his body splayed over an exercise mat.  Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata haunted the air around him from the speakers on the walls.

            The almost eerie music resonated inside him, through him.  He first came across it during his fervent search for knowledge on vampires in what seemed like years ago.  Used as the main backdrop of a short lived television series, the sonata had echoed the growing spiral of twisted feelings inside him.  It's dark encroaching mood was like a mirror image of his soul.  He always found himself entranced by it, even lulled by it.

            His eyebrow twitched as something was added to the repeating music that wasn't there before.  He sat up, making no sound, and tried to identify the defect.  His head swiveled to the right and he rose.  He crossed the exercise area in a blur and stopped at the far wall beneath a vent.  As he stared, one of the screws holding the vent's grating in place turned and turned until it eventually fell to the floor.  The grating slowly swung outwards.

            Ken struck like a serpent and jumped up, yanking the intruder out of the vent as he came back down.  A surprised yelp disturbed the still playing tune as Ken dumped the intruder on the floor.

            "Jinpei!"  Ken gasped in recognition not quite daring to believe his eyes.  "What are you doing here?"

            The boy climbed to his feet staring into the deep darkness in the direction of Ken's voice.  "Aniki?  Is that you?"  He bumped against a set of weights.  Ken abruptly remembered the darkness made Jinpei literally blind.

            "Stand still.  I'll go turn on the lights."  One of them had come!  Ken tried to quench his unexpected excitement.  He turned on the lights and turned off the stereo.  He glanced guardedly back at the gangly youth, half-sure he would dissipate with the light.

            "Wow!  This place is great!"

            Ken watched him look over the place with eager eyes.  Despite himself, his excitement grew.  "It's okay."

            Jinpei jumped over a small table and plopped down into the gold and green sectional.  "Do you think you might like a roommate, aniki?  I wouldn't take up a lot of room."

            "I don't think Jun would like that."  A flash of guilt crossed Jinpei's eyes at the mention of his sister's name.  Ken's excitement ebbed a bit.  "She doesn't know you're here, does she?"

            Jinpei wouldn't look at him.  "Well..."

            Ken turned away.  "Maybe you should go back before she finds out."

            "She won't find out!  I was careful.  Besides, she's the one that figured out you were here."

            Ken stared at the wall, full of unexpectedly mixed feelings.  "Jinpei..."

            "Please, aniki, let me stay for just a little while.  Things haven't been the same without you.  I've missed you.  We've all missed you!"

            "Even Joe?"  Jinpei didn't answer.  Ken hadn't expected him to.  He forced himself to turn around and smile.  "How is the construction going on the new God Phoenix?"

            Jinpei's eyes lit up again.  "Okay."  He smiled.  "Ryu's in heaven.  He's been spending most of his time helping to build her.  He won't let any of us go see her though.  Says he wants it to be a surprise."

            Ken nodded and sat down.

            "Aniki, when are you coming back?"

            The pleading was clear in his voice.  Ken ignored it.  "I don't know yet, Jinpei."

            "Hakase told me you needed some time alone to sort out some stuff.  Nee-chan said you were probably trying to give us time."  His voice grew serious.  "Well, I for one am ready for you to come back."

            Ken felt his chest tighten.  "I appreciate that.  But I still don't know when."

            "Oh."  Jinpei stared at the floor for a while.  "It took nee-chan almost a week to find you."  Ken sat very still.  "We didn't find out about the airfield until Kathy told us about it when we went back to the Snack J to check on things.  We hadn't seen you for a while, so at first we thought that you were home when it happened.

            "When we asked Hakase about it, he said that no, you hadn't been there, that you were okay.  But he also told us Galactor took out a contract on you.  So we didn't know if you'd gone to Brazil, or maybe Transylvania or something.  Though I think that would have been really cool.  Anyway, we kept bugging him, and guessing and everything, but you know that look he gets when he's set on not telling us something.  You know, not even if we put ants in his pants, or glued his eye lids together or anything.  So we couldn't find out."  Jinpei looked over at him but Ken said nothing.

            "Well, nee-chan started looking for you right away, though Hakase asked us to leave you alone.  She wouldn't have it that way.  She got real sneaky and everything, aniki.  She didn't stop looking until she found out where you were."  Jinpei stared at him eagerly.  "We all helped out, aniki.  Even Joe helped a little..."

            Ken stood and moved away.  The muscles in his jaw felt like they would snap.  "Well, now you can tell them you've seen me and that I'm all right.  They don't need to worry anymore."

            "Aniki, you've got to come back!  Don't you find it lonely here?  Please come back, please."  Jinpei rushed up behind him, his eyes bright with unshed tears.

            "It's not just up to you, or even me.  You'll just have to wait."  Ken closed his eyes and tried to shut out the sound of Jinpei's pain.  "We all just need more time.  I'm sure things will work out."  He forced himself to turn around and face the boy.  He smiled though in his heart he was sure things would turn out otherwise.

            Jinpei quickly dried his.  He tried hard to smile back.  "O - okay, aniki, but it's just not the same without you."

            "I appreciate that.  It means a lot."  He patted him lightly on the shoulder.  "You might want to think about going home now though.  I'm sure it took you a while to get down here and if you miss too much sleep, Jun is liable to notice."

            "Aw, geez, aniki...  she wouldn't.  I'm more careful than that."  Jinpei flashed him a mischievous grin.  It reminded Ken strongly of Joe's.  He looked away.

            "Aniki, can I come back later?  It's not fair of you to keep that huge TV all to yourself."  Jinpei looked longingly at the fifty two inch screen.  "Nee-chan still won't get us one."

            Ken hesitated for a long moment and then caved in.  "Sure.  You can come back as long as you let Jun know."  They might jump to awful conclusions if they found out on their own.

            "Aw, aniki - "

            "You'd be able to come down the elevator that way."

            "If that's the only reason, forget it!  I like vent ducts."

            Ken couldn't help but laugh.

 

 

 

 

            Over the next week, Jinpei came to visit him about every two days.  Stubbornly, he continued to visit him by use of the ducts.  The first time he returned, he dragged a sack filled with soft drinks and snacks, and they watched science fiction films all afternoon and into the evening.  On his next visit, Jinpei brought down his Sega video game system and all his cartridges.  Ken couldn't help but smile as Jinpei was wowed with wonder at the difference of playing the games on a large screen.  He constantly switched games and badgered Ken for over an hour until he played as well.  Eventually Ken gave in, and despite himself, had a good time.  He also didn't protest quite as much the following visit when Jinpei asked him to play again.  Jinpei's exuberance was a great defense against his inner darkness.

            "Aniki, I, uhm, happened to have mentioned your cool TV to, um, Ryu, and he, um, wanted me to ask if it would be all right if he came, um, with me next time to check it out?"  Jinpei had already crawled up into the open vent, his voice heavily muffled by his cramped quarters.

            "I don't think Ryu will fit in the vent, Jinpei."

            The latter giggled.  "Does that mean yes, aniki?"

            Ken weighed the question for a long moment and then gave in.  "Sure.  Yes."

            "All right!  Thank you, aniki!"

            "Give me a call around two and wake me up.  I'll meet you at the elevator on the first floor."

            "Thank you, thank you, aniki!  Ryu'll be thrilled!  He's missed you a lot too, aniki.  Bye!"

            Ken stood beneath the vent and listened to Jinpei crawl up the ducts until he could hear him no more.
Part 3 by Maya Perez

            Ken fought to stay awake as dawn approached and actually had more success at it than he had while hidden in the sands at the small island.

            He felt awkward and sluggish for a while, but drinking one of his meals helped a little.  He was sure his growing nervousness at the prospect of seeing one of the others helped him stay awake more than anything else.

            The day dragged by slowly.  He tried to immerse himself in work to make it move faster but he could barely concentrate on the task.  He struggled with it until noon and then gave up.  Working his body didn't prove to be much better.  He found his head turning every few minutes toward the far off clock.

            He cleaned up at one thirty and then started pacing by the phone.  His body was coiled but he could find no way to relax it.  -Drink.-  One thirty eight.

            Meeting with Jinpei had been easy.  It was out of his control, a surprise, unexpected.  And the boy was young, and in certain ways the most open minded of them all.  Ryu, however....  One forty three.  Dammit all, it shouldn't be this hard!  If he hadn't forgiven him or at least decided to ignore the whole incident he wouldn't be coming to use his TV!  One fifty.

            Besides, his coming really meant nothing, right?  Nothing had really changed.  Nambu would soon ask him about ending his leave and he still couldn't say yes.  If anything, he was as certain as ever the answer should be no.

            The phone rang.  Ken pounced on it and had the receiver off the hook before it had finished the first ring.

            "Hello?"

            "Aniki!  You're awake.  Great! I wasn't sure how long I would have to let it ring to wake you up.  You're getting much better at this.  Are you going to come get us now?"

            "Y - yes, I'll be right up."

            Ken hung up the phone and just stared at it.  He just committed himself.  He needed to go get them.  Though now that the moment was here, he found himself more hesitant than ever.  It would worry them if he kept them waiting.  Ken forced himself to turn around.  Yes, they'd worry.  He forced himself forward.  He picked up his keycard on the way out.

            The hall outside his room was unchanged from the only time he had been in it, over three weeks ago.  He tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the elevator, then wished it had taken longer to get there once he was inside. 

            The doors opened as he reached the first floor.  As he stepped out, he found Jinpei, who was presently talking to the two guards.  Ryu stood beside him.  As he got closer, he abruptly realized they hadn't come alone - Jun was with them.

            Their eyes met and Ken quickly looked away.  He stared at the floor, his mind racing with possibilities as Jinpei and Ryu also noticed his arrival. 

"Aniki!  Nee-chan said she, um, wanted to come too.  I hope it's okay."  His voice wasn't sure.

            "Hello, Ken."

            He nodded toward her and then moved back into the elevator.  "Yeah, sure.  It's fine."

            The four of them piled in together and each gave their names to the computer when asked.  The elevator rocketed downwards, the silence between them all thick.  Jinpei and Ryu turned around and stared from Ken to Jun and back again, while doing their best not to look at each other.

            When they reached Ken's floor, he got out and led them down the empty hallway.  Within minutes, he led them all into his new room.

            "Oh... wow!  You weren't lying..."

            Jinpei elbowed his large friend in the stomach.  "I told you!  Now come on and let me show you the TV!"  He ran off from the small group and after a slight apologetic nod to Ken and Jun, Ryu followed after him.

            "It's a nice place."

            He shrugged.  "It's someplace to stay."  Ken turned away and started walking toward the exercise area.  Jun followed.  "I think there's some drinks in the fridge from Jinpei's last visit, if you'd like one?"

            "Sure." 

            Clipped bags of chips filled one of the shelves in the small kitchen.  Inside the refrigerator, there was a large variety of dips and cheeses.  There was also a half-emptied pack of Pepsis as well as three thermoses.  Jun grabbed one of the Pepsis for herself.  Ken took nothing.

            Her expression was grim.  "I see Jinpei has turned your place into a junk food haven."  After her first sip of the Pepsi however, her expression softened.  "Ken, really, how are you?"

            He turned away.  "I'm fine.  Keeping busy."  He shrugged.

            "I see."  Jun moved past him and walked to his bedroom/office.  "You've been here, locked away, all this time?"

            He sighed.  She didn't hear it.  "There was nowhere else to go."  Jun glanced back to catch his expression, but his face was unreadable.

            "Hakase wouldn't say where you went, only that you were safe.  He didn't even tell us about the airfield until we confronted him with it."  Jun sat down on the edge of his bed and sipped at her drink.

            "Sorry.  My fault.  I asked him not to."

            Jun stopped in mid-sip.  "Why did you do that?" 

            "It seemed like the thing to do at the time."  He shrugged again.  "It just wasn't important."  He wouldn't meet her questioning gaze.

            Jun didn't say anything for several moments.  When she did, her voice was low.  "Jinpei says you're thinking of not rejoining the team." 

            He stiffened.  "I never said that."

            "Then why is your wristcomm sitting in Nambu's desk drawer?"  Her piercing gaze left no room for evasion.

            "The team needed time away from me and the best way to do that was to go somewhere for a while."

            "We couldn't have tracked you with it unless you wanted us to, and if we called, you wouldn't have had to answer."

            "No, but it would have kept me awake with all the constant beeping." 

            Jun stood up abruptly.  "Why are you running away from us?"

            Ken looked across the room to make sure the others hadn't heard her outburst.  The beeps of video combat and yells of encouragement told him they hadn't.  "I'm not running away.  I'm only preparing things for the eventual outcome."

            "What outcome is that? What are you talking about?"

            Ken stepped back, easily seeing her temper rising.  Her eyes were flashing.  "I crossed a line at the Galactor base, one I can never go back over.  When I did, I inadvertently hurt all of you though I only held your best interest in mind.  And though I regret what's happened because of it, I can't say that I feel I did the wrong thing or that I wouldn't do it again under similar circumstances."  He turned his face away.  "And that's the rub, because the fact I won't promise this will eat at your trust like a cancer and destroy one of the most essential things in the Science Ninja Team."

            "No, you're wrong!  We understand why you did it.  We didn't like it, sure, but we understand.  None of us can say we wouldn't have done the same thing if we were in your place.  We know you'd never do such a thing lightly.  We know each other too well and for too long.  You don't have to leave us because of it!"  Jun started toward him.  She stopped as he turned to look at her his eyes cold.

            "We, Jun?  Don't you mean just the three of you?  Joe isn't included in all that... is he?"

            She looked away and stared at the can in her hands.  "No, you're right... But Joe is just being stubborn as usual.  You and I both know he'd do just as you did, but he won't admit it.  I'm sure he'll give in eventually and see things our way.  You mean too much to him, to all of us, for him not to."

            Ken was about to protest when Jinpei's voice interrupted them from across the room.  "Nee-chan!  Aniki!  Come see, come see!  We're about to slaughter the Mother Metroid and save the Princess!"

            Jun waved back at him.  "Just a second, Jinpei!"  She grabbed Ken by the arm and steered him in their direction.  "It'll all work out, you'll see."

            Ken didn't resist as she dragged him toward the others.  He ignored the guilty ache in his teeth as her living warmth spread over his skin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Another week passed with at least one of the three coming by to see him everyday.  Nambu's visits faltered, making Ken aware the doctor knew of the others' visits, and no mention was made of his leave though his time was nearly up.  He held strong misgivings about the whole situation, but didn't have the heart or courage to turn them away.  He'd yet to hear from Joe.

            Early, on Friday morning, his phone began to ring.  Ken struggled slowly toward consciousness as the sound eventually intruded into his day induced sleep.  He rose and then fell from waking, having succumbed to the day's pull but a few hours ago.  Eventually, his eyes flickered open.  He fumbled for the phone.

            "H - h - he - hello?"

            "Good morning!  This is Jun.  Sorry to wake you, but could you come up and let me in?"  Her cheery tone held something concealed in it.  Ken was still too muddled to pick it up.

            "Um, yeah - sure....  Give me a few minutes..."

            "Great!  See ya when you get here!"

            He had to concentrate to sit up.  Dressing proved even more difficult.  Never had they waked him so early... 

            Ken felt more alert by the time he reached the elevator.  He found Jun waiting for him on the first floor.

            "There you are.  Come on, or we're going to be late!"  Jun reached for his arm.  Ken was too confused to resist.

            "Come on?  I thought you wanted to come down?"

            Jun pulled him away from the elevator.  "I lied.  If I told you we were going somewhere, you would have never come, and I didn't want to have to try and drag you up all those vents."  She grinned at him.  "Here, you'll want this."  She slipped on his wristcomm.

            Ken visibly slowed.  "Where are we going?"

            Jun pulled on his arm to no avail.  "Nambu's office.  We're having a meeting about the God Phoenix."

            Ken stopped cold.  "I'm not needed for that."

            Jun stared at him still not letting go.  "So, you're going to quit the team then?"

            "No - I mean, it's just that - " Ken fought to catch his mental balance.  Jun didn't give him the chance.

            "Good!  Then you have no choice but to come.  Move it!"  She tugged on his arm again and this time he gave in.

            When the two of them entered Nambu's office, they found the others already there.  Ryu and Jinpei quickly greeted them.  Joe, leaning stiffly against a wall, ignored them both.

            "Ah, there you are.  Please take your seats."  Nambu's expression showed no surprise at Ken's presence.

            Ken and Jun sat down.  As Nambu dimmed the lights, Ken heard Joe shove away from the wall and move as far away from him as the room would allow.  He tried his best to ignore it.

            A slide flashed up against the far wall.  It held a ship that appeared sleeker than the destroyed God Phoenix, yet still maintained the old overall design.

            "The new God Phoenix is around ninety percent complete.  Most systems and controls have had some major upgrades to facilitate the new configuration.  The engineers, you'll be pleased to note, took this chance to rid the new ship of the few problems we encountered with the original."  Ryu beamed as Nambu spoke.

            "Unlike the God Phoenix," Nambu began.

            "Which Ken blew up without us."

            Ken flinched at Joe's comment and the anger underlying it.  The rest of them did their best to ignore it.

            "The upgraded version has a vastly improved weapons system, which no longer will depend on your vehicles to close the firing circuit."

            "Oh, great!  Now he can just leave us behind whenever he wants and do the jobs all by himself."

            Ken heard Jun gasp beside him.  "Joe!"

            He didn't take his eyes off the screen.  He should have resisted Jun's efforts more.  He never should have come.

            Nambu went on as if Joe never spoke.  He clicked on to the next slide.  "The Phoenix effect machinery has been reconfigured and will now hopefully place less stress on the ship and yourselves." 

            He clicked on to a view of the engines.  "These have also been improved.  If all the test data so far is correct, your speed and power should increase by well over fifteen percent."

            "Yeah, just like our commander."

            "Asakura..."  Nambu threw a warning glare at him.

            Ken sighed.  He knew Joe wouldn't stop.

            "Also, the radar dish can now be made to form a wall of sound that should deflect Galactor's new sound weapon.  While not all the data we obtained has yet been decoded, I still believe this should do what we need."

            "Oh, yes, the data.  The data our esteemed leader retrieved all by himself after manipulating the minds of his teammates so they would bend to his will."

            "Joe don't do this!"  Jun turned toward him.

Joe paid her no attention. "His little puppets.  The big Gatchaman and his little toy sidekicks."

            Ken slowly stood.  "This is not the place or time for this..."

            Joe pushed himself roughly from the wall.  "Like hell it isn't!  You're not going to worm your way back into our lives as if nothing ever happened!"

            Ken sighed.  He suddenly felt very tired.  He should have known better.  "I was invited here."

            "Then uninvite yourself.  The heat seems to be too much for you anyway."  Joe grinned maliciously.

            "I tried to apologize, to explain... you'd have none of it.  I left to give you time to cool off.  Obviously that didn't work."  Despite his efforts, Ken felt his ire rise.  "So what do you want?  You want me to quit?  Is that what'll take?  Then fine!"  Ken ripped his bracelet from his wrist.

            "Gentlemen, control yourselves."  Nambu was ignored.  The others stood by silent, their faces filled with indecision and perhaps a touch of fear.

            "You'd love it to be so easy, wouldn't you, Ken?  It'd solve all your little problems.  Then you could just go out into the world and manipulate whomever you pleased without anyone standing in your way.  Coward.  You're trying to run now just like you've always tried to run from everything else."

            Ken's fists coiled at his side.  The two of them glared at one another.

            "Stop it!  You're going too far, Joe.  Please!"  Jun moved between them.  "You're both angry, you don't mean any of this.  Please, you've got to stop now before it's too late.  We can work all this out!"

            Ken's face turned hard.  His eyes were already partially darkened.  Reined in violence swirled around him like a cloak.  His voice was low but carried clearly to all in the room.  "There's only one way to resolve this."

            Before any of them could stop him, he zoomed past Jun and grabbed Joe painfully by the arm.  "Come on."

            "Let go of me, you stinking bastard, before I have to make you."  Joe's glare promised death but Ken paid it no heed.  He yanked Joe toward the door. 

            "Ken, what are you doing?  Stop this at once."  Nambu's tone was stern.

            "I'm doing what needs to be done, Hakase."  He turned away and opened the office door. 

            Joe swung a punch at his face with his free arm, but Ken easily dodged it.  "Let go, you son of a bitch!"  Joe's face was soon consumed in fury as his attempts to free himself continued in vain.  Ken dragged him from the room and closed the door.

            Joe took that moment to trip him.  They fell in a heap on the floor, but Ken never released his arm.  He snapped up to his feet and roughly yanked Joe to his.  He dragged him on down the hall saying nothing.

            Joe snarled with frustrated rage as Ken pulled him into an elevator.  He struck at Ken's arm hard enough to break it.  Ken grimaced in discomfort for a moment, but felt no other ill effect.  Joe ignored the pain in his hand from striking his unbending skin and struck at him again.

            -Do it!  Drink him!  It'd serve him right.  And it would feel so good!-  Frowning, Ken dragged Joe out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened.

            Joe cursed at him in every language he knew as he was pulled down the corridor.  Ken reached a door near the end and pushed it open.  He yanked Joe inside and pushed him into a tall backed leather chair in the curtained conference room.  He closed the door and locked it, pushing the locking mechanism with his thumb until it gave a grinding sound.

            "Oh, what the fuck was that for?  Looking for a little privacy to drink me dry?"

            Before Joe could blink, Ken crossed the room and back handed him.  Joe and the chair tipped over violently.  Ken forced himself to back away before he was tempted to strike him again.  "I would never willingly do such a thing and you know it!"

            Joe slowly picked himself up off the floor and smiled as he used the back of his hand to wipe away the trickle of blood falling from his lip.  "Is that so?  Gee, let me guess, you figure that's a much more serious crime than messing up our brains."

            "You stubborn jackass!  You know why I did what I did!  I didn't have to ask your permission.  You would have all died!"

            "You don't know that!  It wasn't your place!"  Joe kicked at his fallen chair.

            "If that's all you want to consider - fine!"

            Joe tensed.

            "You feel I betrayed you, that I did all that for nothing - fine!"

            Joe's smile grew as Ken violently thrust the conference table against the wall.  Now he would get what he wanted.  There would be no cowering or self pity to get in the way this time.  Yes, he may have gotten him a little too mad, but dammit he needed a beating and one way or other he would try his damnedest to give it to him!

            "I failed to get Katse.  I failed not to give in to the Thirst.  You've decided I failed you as well and that I'll do it again, and there's absolutely nothing I can say that will convince you otherwise.  Fine!"  Ken took off his shirt and threw it at him.  Joe ignored it, ready, knowing it would all begin very soon.

            "I know what you want... what I deserve...  and I'll give it to you.  You want payback?  Fine.  Just fine!"

            Joe crouched, eager, but instead of Ken rushing at him as he expected, the latter turned away and as a barely seen blur rushed to the conference room's large windows, grabbed the curtains there and pulled.

            Plastic and metal snapped as Ken ripped the fabric from its moorings and threw them to the side.  Bright shafts of morning sunshine shot into the room to fill every nook and cranny.

            Ken screamed as they touched him, his voice rising in pitch until the windows before him cracked.  He dropped to his knees, one arm trying vainly to cover his face as smoke rose from wherever the sun's rays touched his body.  The stench of burning flesh filled the air even as his skin began to bubble and hiss.  Ken fell to the floor, his scream stretching to infinity as he writhed in agony.

            "Ken!"

            Joe snapped out of his surprised shock as he tried not to gag on the stench crowding in around him.  His eyes ran frantically over the room trying to figure out what to do.  He knew what was coming.  He had only minutes left, if that long.  He'd watched some of the vampire films, though he made sure none of the others knew about it.  His insistence at the fact Ken couldn't be a vampire had never diminished.  But he wanted to know somethings about it in case... it was ever proved he was.  In all he'd seen, the sun was the one thing none of them were able to resist, and it now had Ken in its grip.  Soon, all that would be left of him would be ashes.

            His frantic gaze locked onto the discarded curtains and he was moving before the thought of what to do with them entered his mind.  With a strong pull, he snatched them from the floor and threw them over Ken's hissing body.

            "You damn fucking idiot!  You damn fucking idiot!"  Joe screamed at Ken's covered form as the hissing decreased, fighting an urge to destroy every piece of furniture in the room.  How could it have gone so wrong?  Tears gathered in his eyes as he forced himself to act and move toward the conference table.

            Joe pulled the table to where it stood between Ken and the windows and then tipped it over on its side to cut out the light.  His hands shook in indecision as he knelt beside Ken's covered body, not sure if he dare look at what lay underneath.  "You stubborn moron... if you've died on me...."

            With amazing care, Joe slowly lifted the curtain to look beneath.

            The stench of burned flesh shot up at him forcing him to put one hand over his mouth to shut in the responding nausea.

            Deep burns covered all of Ken's exposed flesh and they were oozing, making parts of the cloth stick to his skin.  His brown hair was charred, almost non-existent.  And his face, God, his eyes...  Joe dropped the cover not able to look anymore.  Could he still be alive?  After that?  He had to be!  He survived Katse's torture hadn't he?  He couldn't die on him, he couldn't!

            There was pounding on the door and worried voices asking if everything was all right.  Gingerly, Joe reached beneath the curtains and lifted Ken's stiff body, staunchly ignoring the wetness that soaked through onto his arms.  He moved toward the door.

           

 

 

 

 

 

            "Joe?" 

            Jun got no response.  She bit her lip as she stared at him.  Joe hadn't moved or spoken in over five hours... not since they received his call for help.

            No explanation was given on what happened.  Joe did, however, forcefully keep any of them from seeing the extent of Ken's injuries, only allowing Nambu to come near.

            Nambu had whisked Ken away immediately to the underground apartment ordering them to find this or that piece of equipment and supplies as he went.  Three partitions were set up to cut off the bedroom/office area from the rest of the apartment.  The team was allowed into the living room but no farther.  As soon as they showed no signs of trying to get past, Joe had sat down to stare at the nearest wall.  He'd done nothing that whole time, not even when Nambu came to talk to them.

            "Joe, I brought you some food.  I thought you might be hungry."  He ignored her.  "You're not doing Ken any good by acting like this."  Nothing.

            She sighed, a greater weight than before settling onto her shoulders.  It had been a disaster, all of it.  But who could have ever predicted any of this?  Quietly, she set the tray of chips and sandwiches on the floor next to his seat.

            One of the partitions moved across the room.  Jinpei and Ryu jumped to their feet as Nambu came out. 

            "Hakase, any news?"

            The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes.  Exhaustion covered his every move.  "The chemical process has stopped, so there should be no more damage.  The transfusions and sponge baths seem to be working.  A couple of spots already show signs of regeneration."  He sighed.  "It's yet too early to tell about his eyes."

            A muscle twitched on the side of Joe's neck.

            "Has he regained consciousness?"  Jun's heart was in her throat.

            "Not yet."

            "Is that bad?"  Her brother looked ready to start crying again.

            Nambu hesitated.  "I really don't know.  With Ken's changed state, I've no idea what to consider normal or extreme for him.  All we can do right now is wait and hope."

            "Could we see him now?"  Three faces waited eagerly for his answer.

            Nambu stared at the floor.  "Like I told you before, the cell disruption due to the chemical reaction in Ken's skin, have burned him terribly.  I suggest you wait until he's regenerated a little more before going to see him."

            "I'm willing to risk it.  He needs to know we're here.  He needs to know we want him back."  Her face was set.

            Nambu nodded slowly.  "Only for a minute then."

            All three of them shuffled toward the room.  Though she hoped he would, Joe did not follow them.  She saw Nambu sit down on the couch to watch him.

            The clying scent of antiseptic hit her first.  Drying blood came second.  Ken lay nestled in the bed, all of his burns exposed except for where blood filled bandages had been placed over his eyes. 

            Jun felt a stabbing pain as she stared at the destruction before her.  Ken was unregonizable.  Even part of his nose was gone.  Her knees grew weak and it was only through a push of will that she didn't fall.  She forced herself to approach the side of his bed, tyring her best not to look at him anymore.

            "Ken, we're here.  Please...get better.  I never meant for this...never..."  Warm tears coursed down her cheeks.  This wasn't how things were supposed to be.

            After a couple of minutes the three of them returned.  Jun glanced at the other two and saw their eyes were red, their cheeks wet, just like her own.  Ryu blew his nose noisily in his handkerchief.  Joe stood up.  He didn't look at them.  He started toward Ken's bedroom.

            "Don't let him in there, Hakase!  It's his fault Ken-aniki is like this!"  Before Jun could stop him, Jinpei moved to block Joe's path.  After a long look into his dead eyes, however, he slowly moved aside.

            "You better not hurt him anymore!"  Jinpei glared after him until he disappeared from view.

            "He's still not said anything about what happened?"  Nambu's' gaze was still pointed in the direction Joe had gone.

            Jun shook her head sadly.  "No, Hakase, not a word."

            "It's his fault!  We all know it.  His guilt is written all over his face!"  Jinpei wiped angry tears from his eyes.

            "You shouldn't jump to conclusions."

            The small boy turned on his sister.  "But he's the one that didn't want aniki back!"

            "I - I'm sure he never meant for Ken to be hurt like this, though."  Ryu blew his nose again, hiding from Jinpei's glare at his defiance.

            "Let it be for now," Nambu said.  "Everything will come to light in time."

 

 

 

 

 

            God he looked awful...  worse, really, if such a thing were possible.  And all this from a few seconds exposure to the sun.  How did this happen?  He should have seen it coming.  But if anything, he was the one who pushed him to it.  He should have known better - stupid, stupid.

            Joe's gaze was caught by the blood that oozed over Ken's burnt skin and the strange pieces of white flesh which seemed to be growing beneath it.  At least Nambu had had the sense to cover Ken's eyes.  He was thankful the others were spared the sight.  He would never forget it....  The blackened sockets, the oozing gore to either side.... Joe shivered.  But it was all bad.  What was Nambu thinking?  Why did he let them see Ken like this?

            The hair was already coming back, faster than the rest.  It looked all right -- normal.  Would the rest of him?  Even as he watched he could see Ken's skin inching toward what it had once been.  But this wasn't as fast as the recovery he made at the Galactor base.  He also wasn't conscious, as he was then...  Joe wrapped his hands around the bed's railing until his knuckles turned white.

            "Your time is up, I'm afraid.  I doubt there'll be any real change for quite a while.  Why don't you go get something to eat and maybe try and sleep for a few hours?"

            Joe's hands tightened on the rail some more.  He didn't answer.

            "There's every chance he'll get through this.  As you can see his body is already working to repair itself."

            Joe pried his hands off the rail and sat down in the chair by the bed.  Nambu stared at him.  "I see...."  Joe made no response.  "I'll have some food brought to you later then."

            Joe wouldn't look at him.    Nambu spent a few minutes monitoring Ken's progress and then left.

            Alone again, Joe stood up once more and moved back to the rail.

            Night slowly crawled to their part of the world.  As the sun hid behind the horizon, Nambu returned to join Joe in his vigil, hooking yet another pint of blood to Ken's IV.

            In silence, both stared at the changing mass that was Ken's body, looking for any sign he might be regaining consciousness now that the sun had gone.  Except for the small patches of white that continued to surface over most of his body, Ken didn't react, and appeared dead.  An hour crawled by without any obvious change.

            "Damn!"  Joe turned away and collapsed into his chair.  Exhaustion and worry for the first time marked his face.

            "It isn't necessarily bad news."

            Joe snorted but said nothing.

            "He‘s still healing.  It's a good sign."

            "It might not mean shit.  He could just be a self healing vegetable for all we know."  Joe glared at him.

            Nambu looked at him as if he said nothing rude at all.  "You're absolutely right, but is that any reason to assume it's over?"

            Joe looked away, embarrassed though he wasn't quite sure why.  After several minutes, Nambu left.  Joe got up once more to stand at Ken's side.

            His flesh crawled as he glanced once more upon the damage he helped bring about.  Self-loathing, that familiar friend, rose up to embrace him, brighter than ever before.  Too many times he had failed the oath he took to avenge his parents...  Yet always there was the hope he might someday make amends....  But, how he'd bungled this...  Bungled it beyond repair.  And he had no one else to blame for what happened this time -- no one but himself.  Jinpei's angry face rose up in his mind.  Yes, this was the kind of horrible mistake that would go on giving.  His hands curled into fists.  Bitter tears gathered in his eyes and ran freely down his face.  He welcomed the pain as his fingernails drove themselves deep into his palms making bright beads of blood collect around them.  What hope was there that he could fix this?

 

 

 

 

            The heat was all around him, running through him, suffocating his very essence.  A hundred million ants crawled over his body, biting, clawing, digging into his flesh.  Only darkness offered release from all of it and he dived into with wild abandon when he came too close to the light.

 

 

 

 

            A heavy, familiar scent flowed through him, bobbing in the void.  Bitter memories of sweet pleasure flashed in the darkness.  He tried to turn from them, only to feel his Thirst awaken.  He could feel it growing, writhing, wanting to take control.  It sensed the life that stood near him.  It wanted it for itself.  -Yes!  Must have it!-  He couldn't stop it and he knew he shouldn't allow it to surface. If he did, and he stayed here, he would lose all control.  Ken forced himself to move toward the light.

 

 

 

 

            A sudden loud hiss filled the air.  Joe looked up from where he was resting on the chair, only to find Ken sitting up in bed, his bandaged eyes fixed in his direction.  Even as damaged as his face still was, it was impossible to miss the expressions of pain and need that rippled through it.  Metal screamed as the safety railing on the bed crumpled under his inhuman grip.

            "Ken!"  Joe leapt to his feet a cold chill flooding through him at the moving grisly sight before him.

            The scent of flowing, living blood drew closer.  Ken tried to wave Joe back even as his canines ached with consuming need within his mouth.  -Yes!  Get it!  Give it to me!  I want to live!- 

            Ken doubled over a moment, dizziness and hunger gnawing at his soul.  His eyes burned in their sockets like hot coals, and though he couldn't see, his ears told him Joe was still moving toward him.  -Yes.  Oh, yes!-  "No!"

            Ken swung blindly as his Thirst struggled to control him and caught Joe in the chest.  He heard him land not far away.  The dizziness got worse.  He was going to lose control!  -Yes!  He will be mine!-  He needed to get out of there!

            Ken moved, though his every action sent flares of rippling pain through him.  Something tugged at his left arm, and as he noticed it, he caught the faint smell of old blood rising from it.  He heard Joe move and knew he would soon be back on his feet.  There was no time!  Ken felt along his slick arm, pushing away how unnatural the sensation was to his fingers, and yanked the needle he found there.  Blood squirted out onto the damp sheets filling the air with it's untainted glorious smell.  -Yes!-  Not yet, not yet.  He pulled roughly on the tube attached to the needle and reached out as he heard the pole holding the source of the blood clink against the bent rail.

            Ken fumbled for the bag hooked on it and brought it toward him.  He bit into the plastic, tearing it easily, and sucked in the heavy liquid in the hopes of quieting his raging Thirst.  Pleasure burst through him as always, but he tried his best to push it aside.  He sucked and sucked until there was nothing but the empty bag's husk in his hands.

 

 

 

            The blow caught Joe totally by surprise.  He hit the floor over ten feet away, the air knocked roughly from his lungs.  "Ugh."

            He forced himself to turn over on his side, his vision swimming before him as he struggled to regain his breath.  He froze when he saw Ken pull the bag of blood from the pole and sink his teeth into it.  His eyes grew as he watched, never having seen Ken really feed before.  The monstrous image of his burned, oozing body sucking so hungrily on a bag of blood tugged at his soul with horror.  What had he done to him?  What had he done?  "K - Ken."

            His friend turned away from his voice.  Joe could hear him still sucking on the bag though every last drop of blood inside it was gone.  As he rose to his feet, Ken finally threw the empty bag away from him and onto the floor.

            "Ken?"

            When he spoke, his voice was raw and almost unrecognizable.  "I need - - - more."  He doubled over.  "I need it - - - now!"

            "All right.  Don't worry about it.  I'll get you some."  Joe took a step toward him.

            "Stay back!  Get me what I need but for God's sake stay back!"

            Joe ran.

            He tore across the room to the small kitchen.  Surely Nambu put some blood there.  Why hadn't he paid more attention?  Joe tripped, rolled and got back up without slowing down.  He didn't have time for this!

            He opened the refrigerator and quickly thanked God and all the spirits it had what he needed.  Inside, all in a row, lay eight bags of blood.  Without hesitating, he took them all.

            Joe stumbled back into the partitioned area trying hard not to drop his burden.  As he came close, he threw one of the bags toward the bed.  Ken instantly straightened into a sitting position and plucked it from the air.  He plunged his teeth into it.  Joe tried not to stare as he came close and laid the rest of them at the foot of the bed.  He retreated quickly back to his chair and watched as Ken drank them empty one by one.

           

 

 

            His Thirst was like a bottomless pit.  He drank and drank but it still wasn't satisfied, even when there was no more for him to take.  -Oh, but there is!-  No, damn you, no!  Ken laid down and forced himself to be still.

            "Ken."

            The ants were still all over him, but now he knew it was actually his skin.  It crawled, it moved, he was healing, but how it itched!  The sensation disgusted him in its frenzy.  How did the aching miracle look to the others?  Did they scream away from him in terror once it began?  Why was he even alive?  Was there no way to get rid of him?  If only his eyes would stop burning!  His head jerked to the side at the sound of movement from Joe's chair.  "Stay back!"

            "Was that not enough blood?"

            Not enough blood?  There would never be enough.  If he allowed it, his Thirst would drink the world dry.

            "Dammit, Ken!  How am I supposed to help you if you won't even talk to me!"

            There was no help.  Nothing would help him.  His hands turned into fists.  His bones crackled and the healing flesh tore driving thick ooze out onto the sheets.  He welcomed the pain.  It was his and he deserved it.  "I just - don't have - anything - to say."

            "Oh, that's just great!  So now you're blaming me for all this and want to punish me at your expense?  Is that it?"

            Ken turned his face away.  He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, but most of all he just wanted to wither into oblivion.

            "Hell, all I wanted was to beat the living shit out of you, not turn you into a human torch by sticking you out in the sun!"

            Ken flinched at the word.  In his mind's eye he could see the magnificent orb hanging in the sky even as its image was forever burnt into his retinas, as its golden touch set him ablaze.  "You wanted - revenge and I gave it to - you.  Now leave me - alone."

            Joe couldn't believe his ears.  His fists shook as he resisted the urge to jump into the bed and shake him until he'd listen to what he so desperately, yet ineptly, was truly trying to say.  Instead, he grabbed his chair up by the arms and smashed it against the floor a few times before forcing himself to set it down again.  He made himself sit in it.  "I'm not leaving and you're in no condition to make me."  Ken gave no response.  Joe tried not to let it bother him.  He took a deep breath and tried again.  "Look, I was mad.  You'd really ticked me off this time."  Nothing.

            Joe ran his hand absently through his hair.  There had to be a way he could find the right words for this.  Why did it have to be so hard?  "It's not like I've ever had anyone mess directly with my mind before....  If I can't trust myself, I'm nothing."  Ken didn't even move.  "I didn't like it... not even from you.  Hell, I hated it."

            Ken still made no response.  This was going badly.  "You didn't react like I wanted you to.  I wanted satisfaction for what you did but you wouldn't give it to me.

            "And then, you ran away.  Shit, we found out the airfield was destroyed and didn't have any idea if you were there when it happened.  I - I almost forgot about it then, until we talked to Nambu.  Sure, I was relieved you were okay, but other than telling us that, Nambu wasn't talking and he would only do that if you had asked him to.  Dammit, that made me furious!  How dare you, you owed me!"  Joe pushed himself out of the chair and began to pace.

            "It didn't help when the others basically brushed aside the whole thing once Jun was able to track you down.  They said they'd come to terms with what happened and that they understood...  But hell, I didn't want to understand!"  Joe stopped and stared at the floor.  God how he hated this.  He wasn't used to having to explain, let alone look inside for his own motives.  He ran his hand through his hair again.

            "Look, you know me.  I'm a hot head.  I hold grudges.  Hell, my whole life is one giant grudge."  He glanced toward the bed but Ken hadn't moved.  "I wanted, I needed to make you pay for what you did.  I wanted to - "  His face contorted as he struggled to put his feelings into words.  He needed to win here, he must make it right.  "I pushed you too far...  I wasn't thinking.  I just wanted to make my point and let you know I wasn't going to put up with you doing that again....  But not this... never this."  Joe stared at Ken wishing he'd do something, anything.  Scream at me dammit!  Tell me you hate me or want to kill me.  Something!  I need to find out what's going on inside your head!  He knew his friend was being too quiet.  Dammit, too quiet.  And that was always a dangerous sign.

            "Ken, I'm sorry.  Sorrier than you'll ever know.  Please talk to me."  Nothing.  "Okay, I'll admit I was unreasonable, but since when is that anything new?  You should have never done this.  It was stupid, totally moronic!  And you scared the living shit out of me!"  Joe waited tensely for some kind of response.  He got none.  It was almost as if he didn't even exist.

            "If it'll make you feel better, the others think I'm totally responsible for this.  Jinpei wants to wrap me up in Christmas wrapping paper and hand me over to Katse as a peace offering."  Ken still did nothing.  Joe knew he was losing.

            "Say something damn you!"  He kicked at the wall in frustration.  "What will it take?  Are you the one wanting payback now?  Is that it?"  Nothing.  Anger took over.  At the moment he had nothing else left to use.  "You want blood for blood, is that it?  I can do that!"  With familiar ease, Joe reached down into one of the concealed pockets in his pants and removed a feather dart.  He brought its sharp end up to his wrist.  "I'll give you blood."

            Joe's words echoed in Ken's mind.  Blind panic poured through him.  His Thirst exulted with expectation.  -Yes!  Do it!-  It horrified him to the core.  He sat up in a blur, sending pain shooting through his body.  He turned his face in the direction of Joe's strong heartbeat.  "Don't!  Are you mad?  Do you want to make me kill you?"  - Yes, yes, yes. -

            Joe hesitated, hearing the deep anguish in Ken's plea - pain that by all rights, shouldn't have been there.  "Talk to me then."

            Ken laughed.  Torment laced the sound.  "What?  What do you want me to say?  That you had nothing to do with it?  Okay, you had nothing to do with it!  Are you happy now?  Put the dart away, fool, because if you cut yourself I'll kill you.  Blind or not, I'll find you and suck you dry.  I wouldn't be able to stop!  What will it take for you to understand that?  Is it really what you want?  To make me kill you?"

            Silence filled the room.

            "Why didn't you tell me you needed more.  I would have gone and gotten it for you."

            Ken laid back down.  He didn't want to talk about this.  He couldn't.  Joe would never understand.

            "Why, Ken?"  He heard him move closer.  "Answer me or I'll do it."

            Damn him!  Did he think this was a game?  "I just didn't want anymore!"

            "But you need more."

            "Yes! My body wants more, lots more, to heal.  Just like at the Galactor base.  But it wants me to drink you, like the two men I did before...  the two that sealed my fate..."  The last was barely audible.

            Joe stared at him.  Two men?  "What are you talking about?"

            Ken grimaced realizing he said more than he should have.  "It's nothing."  He turned his face away.  "If you feel I need more, then get me more.  Go talk to Nambu... he'll get it for me."

            "Ken."

            "Go."

            Joe turned away hesitantly, knowing something just happened, something important, but he wasn't sure what.  "Okay, I'll get you more."  He looked back once more when he reached the partitions.  "Ken, I'm really sorry."  He left.

            Ken lay very still, finally letting the burning of desire and the accompanying pain to show on his face.  He would repay his debt, yes, though his body conspired against it, he eventually would pay.  The task he started wasn't finished, but it would be.  All he had to do was wait.

 

 

 

            It didn't take Joe long to find Nambu.  The doctor was in his office looking over a number of strange looking charts.  It briefly occurred to him to wonder if perhaps the doctor wasn't human either.  He never seemed to stop working.  "Ken's awake."

            Nambu looked up.  His eyes were bloodshot and dark bags hung under his eyes.  Looked like he might be human after all....

            "How long?"

            "Thirty, thirty five minutes.  He's asking for more blood.  I've already given him all that was down there."

            "All?" 

            Joe nodded.

            "I'll - I''ll have to make a couple of phone calls.  I didn't honestly expect his need for more."  He reached for the phone and then stopped.  "How is he?"

            Joe shrugged not meeting his gaze.  "His body seems to be healing faster."

            Nambu raised an eyebrow at the guarded comment but said nothing.  "Keep an eye on him for now, or get one of the others if you're feeling too tired.  I should be able to get what he needs within twenty minutes or so."  He began dialing.  Joe took his cue and left.

 

 

            Joe reentered Ken's apartment, moving aside the chair he'd used to prop the security door open while he was gone.  He moved across the living room and sat down on the large couch to wait.  He needed to think.

            As promised, Nambu arrived with a small cart filled with bags of blood about twenty minutes later.  He paused only long enough to nod in Joe's direction before going straight to the partitioned area. 

            Joe stretched out on the couch and strained to nonchalantly listen for anything going on across the room.  At first all he picked up was silence.  Later, he heard Nambu's voice trickle toward him though it was too far away for him to make sense of the words.  Ken's voice rose to fill the intervening pauses only twice.

            When Nambu finally left him, there were only empty, crumpled bags on the cart.  Nambu stopped beside him.

            "Are you ready to tell me what led up to this?"

            Joe cracked an eye open.  "What did he tell you?"

            Nambu's face grew blank.  "That he didn't want to talk about it."

            "Well, neither do I."  Joe closed his eye.

            "I see..."  There was a dangerous note floating in Nambu's tone.  "I'm tired, so we'll continue this discussion tomorrow."

            Joe listened to him leave.  He wasn't looking forward to the implied confrontation.  Even Nambu's patience had its limits.  He'd tested it often enough to know.  But how was he supposed to admit to his part in all this?

            Joe stretched and turned on his side.  He would deal with that later.  Right now he needed to think, he needed a plan.  Ken was hiding something, something he was sure he wouldn't like.  He was in physical pain, that was obvious, but he also sensed there was more to it than that.  The problem was how to find out what was causing it and then how to deal with it...  whether Ken wanted to or not....

 

 

 

 

            The blood Nambu brought him finally enough to appease his Thirst, at least for a while.  The itching through his skin increased three fold - like a million pricks of pain flooding his every nerve.  It wasn't like this before, when he'd healed at the Galactor base.  Yes, he had felt some of the healing happening, but this was a hundred times more intense.  It was all he could do not to scream.

            A sad smile touched his lips.  The bringer of life to everything on the Earth had become for him a bringer of death.  And he in turn had become one who could only live from death.

            Once, he'd had control.  His body a carefully crafted weapon used for right, to defend the people of the world from would be oppressors.  That had all changed.  Yes, he was more deadly than ever, his body capable of feats unimagined, but with the power, he lost the control.  The thing he had become cared nothing for good or evil, only survival.  It cared nothing about the young, the infirm, kindness, mercy, or control....  It would take what it needed when it needed it without regard to anything.  He hated it!  And there seemed only one way to get rid of it, to regain the control he'd lost....  But Joe stopped him....

            Joe...  He was still out there.  Though he was now too far for him to track, he was sure he was there.  He suspected, Ken was sure of that too.  Though he wasn't sure how he could.  Nambu had told him Joe hadn't left his side since the incident happened.  He was a fool to care.

            A sharp pain shot through his bandaged eyes.  His head rang as a headache flared into being.  Ken tried to calm his turbulent emotions to try and distance himself from the pain.  Mostly, they ignored him.

            Dawn would be here in a few hours.  If only it would hurry.  The oblivion of the day would take him away from all this - the questions, the itching, the pain, the Thirst.

            A strange thought popped into his head.

            Did Tiana know?  He hadn't seen or heard from her since the night she confided her feelings to him.  Yet, though he'd not seen her, he came to suspect over the last few weeks she was nearby.  In his moments of despair and loneliness he'd gone over and over all that happened since his change.  Though he couldn't be one hundred percent certain, he thought he heard her voice rousing him when he was left hanging on the audience hall's wall.  And surely it was she who pushed him through the closed door in the midst of his unimagined change into insubstantiality. 

            What did she think of her choice now?  Of the things he'd done?  The ones he might yet do?  She had offered her help to him and he rejected her... just like the others had come to reject him.  Should he call for her now?

            Ken laughed bitterly.  The healing skin around his mouth cracked. 

            He was a fool!  What good would it do?  She was a killer, just like him.  There was no remorse in what she'd done to him.  He didn't even know how fully she'd given in over the years to her Thirst.  It was a battle without end, how could she resist?  How could he?  -Do not resist.-  He couldn't.  He had deluded himself on this point before, but he wouldn't now.

            "Aniki?"

            Ken tensed.  He'd been so involved with his thoughts he hadn't heard Jinpei's approach.

            "Aniki, are you awake?"  Jinpei's timid whisper drew closer.

            Ken lay perfectly still.

            "I - I'm sorry to bother you, aniki, but I couldn't sleep."  His feet shuffled on the carpet.  "I kept having horrible nightmares, aniki.  Nightmares about you."

            He came even closer.  "One of them was really bad...  it was about before, you know, before you became a vampire."  His voice quivered slightly when he spoke again.  "We were all at the beach.  Ryu and I were in the water, smashing the waves, while nee-chan built castles in the sand.  You and Joe aniki were under a large umbrella eyeing the girls."  His voice got lower.  "Then - then Joe aniki got up.  The two of you were arguing.  You stood up and your skin turned from tan to white." Ken could hear his heartbeat speed up.  "Joe - Joe aniki kicked away the umbrella then and, and the sun made you burst into flames!"  As Jinpei gasped the answer, Ken realized he was crying.  " I ran as fast as I could to try and save you, but - but by the time I got there all that was left was ash, aniki, only ash!  And the wind blew it away."

            He began to sob.  "Please don't leave us, aniki.  Please!  Don't let my nightmare come true!"

            Ken smelled his pouring tears, heard the anguish in his voice, but wouldn't allow himself to be moved by any of it.

            "If - if - "  His voice trembled, "if you die....  I swear, I swear I'll find a way to make Joe pay, aniki.  I swear this to you!"  Jinpei fell to his knees, wracked by sobs.

            Ken's mouth twitched.  It didn't matter.  It didn't matter.  There was nothing you could do.  "Jinpei..."

            "Aniki?"  Jinpei jumped up from the floor, rapidly wiping his runny nose on the sleeves of his pajamas.  "Aniki, you're awake!  This is great.  Oh, aniki!"

            "Jinpei... don't blame Joe.  He's innocent."  It wasn't hard to imagine the surprised look that crossed the young boy's face at the statement.

            "No, aniki, you shouldn't try to protect him.  This is his fault!  He's not innocent!  Look at what he did to you!"

            Ken drew a slow, deep breath, though he had no need for it.  "Jinpei, he didn't do this.  I did."

            His statement was met by stunned silence.

            "But, but why, aniki?  Why would you try to kill yourself?"

            It was Ken's turn to be silent.  The reasons were only too evident, but Jinpei wouldn't understand.  "Why don't you go back to bed, Jinpei?"

            "But why, aniki?"  A different type of torment now laced the young boy's voice.  "Being a vampire is the ultimate.  I want to be one too someday!"

            The words struck deep.  The boy understood so little.

            "I want to know, aniki."

            It would be so easy, so easy to use his cursed gift one more time to make Jinpei forget all this.  Ken curled his fist letting his shiny new fingernails cut into the soft skin.  "Please go, Jinpei.  I'm very tired."

            "Aniki..."  His heart was beating wildly.

            "Go."  Though it caused him great pain and tore at his healing skin, Ken gingerly shifted to his side and shut him out.  He tried to ignore the crying behind him until at last Jinpei went back the way he came.  Ken's eyes burned.

           

 

 

 

 

            Joe jerked up into a sitting position, snapping awake.  Despite his troubled thoughts, it looked like his body finally betrayed him and dragged him into sleep.  He glanced around the room toward the clock on the VCR, not sure what had awakened him.  It was five eighteen in the morning.  A new day would be coming soon.

            There was a crash somewhere behind him.

            Joe leapt from the couch searching for the source of the sound.  One of the panels separating Ken's bedroom from the rest of the apartment had fallen.  His injured friend was kneeling on top of it.

            "Ken, what are you doing?"

            He got no answer even as Ken rose slowly to his feet.  Joe watched him as he tentatively stepped over the panel and beyond.  His arms were outstretched before him, his eyes still bandaged.

            "You damn fool!"  Joe cursed under his breath and rushed across the room.  Ken tripped as the carpeted area changed to that of mats.  He fell hard.  A loud hiss reverberated through the room.

            "Ken!"  Joe ran faster. 

            By the time he made it to his side, Ken had flipped to his back, his face covered with pain.  "What the hell are you trying to do, you idiot!"

            Ken said nothing as his face slowly cleared.  A number of spots on his chest and hands were turning deep purple as he watched.

            "Here, let me help you get back to bed where you belong.  If you wanted something you should have called for me."  Joe reached down to help him up but hesitated as he struggled to find a spot covered with something other than new skin.  It struck him how in just the few hours since he had awakened, Ken had healed at an incredible rate.  Within days all traces of what happened would be gone, hopefully including the damage to his eyes.  His healing skin, however, seemed to have lost what little color it retained from his change.  Right now it appeared almost translucent.

            Ken said nothing, in no way acknowledging he even existed.  After almost a full minute, he sat up on his own and then rose gingerly to his feet.  After a short moment of hesitation, he started walking again.

            "Ken, what the hell are you doing?  You're blind remember?  This room is too full of things you can trip over like you did just now."

            Ken walked on.  Joe felt his anger rise.  "You damned fool."  Without warning, Joe dropped behind him and kicked Ken's legs out from beneath him.  The latter fell on his back with a thud.

            "Why the fuck did you do that for?"  Ken's fangs elongated past his lips.  Sharp talons extended from his fingernails cutting at the mat beneath them.

            Joe cringed at the volume of Ken's shout as it blasted in his ears.  He smiled.  "Oh, so now you've decided I exist have you?"  His sarcasm was thick.

            Ken sat up and swung out toward him but Joe anticipated this and moved out of reach.  "Get out of my life!  Leave me alone!  This has nothing to do with you.  Haven't you done enough already?"

            "Touchy all of a sudden, aren't we?  It only makes me all the more sure you're up to something, Washio.  Something I'm sure I'm not going to like."

            Ken dropped back onto his back and forced his canines and talons to retreat.  He had to maintain control.  Had to if he was going to succeed.  And he needed to be careful.  If he'd actually struck Joe just now he might have killed him.  -Oh, yes!  Fresh blood for us!-  He curled his fists resisting the urge to scream at himself.  He could feel the blood pooling inside him to the new places on his tender skin that he'd bruised.  The itching flared within and without.  He resisted the urge to scratch himself raw.  He heard Joe drop down into a sitting position not too far away, yet well out of his immediate reach.

            "What are you trying to do?  Huh?  I doubt you'd be this stupid just for any old reason."

            Ken sighed.  Time was running out.  "I wasn't trying to do anything.  I just needed to move around.  I was feeling claustrophobic in there.  Are you happy now?"

            "Ken, if it was that simple, why didn't you say so before."

            He said nothing.

            "It's still eating at you isn't it?"  Ken stiffened, not sure of what Joe was referring to.  "You said something before that's been nagging at me and I feel like an idiot for not realizing what it meant sooner.  I know I don't like what you're up to."

            Ken sat up.  He didn't need this now.  Why had he awakened?  Damn his eyes!  If only they healed as fast as the rest of him, he would have been gone before anyone was the wiser.  Damn them!  Damn his mouth!  Damn Jinpei!

            "Don't bother to get up or you'll just end up having another nasty fall.  You might be faster than me now and be able to keep track of me, but there are many ways to make a blind bat fall down."

            Joe's smug tone sparked Ken's anger.  His friend was right and he didn't like it.  If only things had gone as he originally planned.  He would have waited, waited until his eyes healed, if they would at all.  Then he could have left and done whatever he wanted before they could have thought to stop him.  But no, Jinpei had come, and now his time was gone as Jinpei spread the words of their conversation around.  If he didn't get it right tonight, they might not give him the opportunity to try later.

            "Why are two dead Galactors worth this?"

            Ken turned his back on him.  "We've had this conversation before."

            "I had a concussion then too.  I want to hear this again."

            Ken slowly shook his head.  "No."

            "It's me or Nambu."  Joe shrugged.  "I haven't told him anything yet, but if you don't come clean, I will.  And you know what he'll do once I tell him what I think you're up to.  And you can't afford that, can you?"

            Ken's shoulders slumped but he still said nothing.

            "You killed them to survive, Ken, to save us.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It was you or them.  The choice was easy."

            Ken shook his head.  "It's not that simple..."

            "Like hell it's not!  You're making this harder than it has to be.  They would have died one way or another.  What difference does it make how?"

            "It does make a difference!  The first man was killed because I lost control.  Worse still, I enjoyed it!  Still, I could have deluded myself into thinking it wasn't my fault, but what about the second man?  I knew what I was doing then.  I chose to do it!  And the ecstasy was overpowering!"  Ken slammed his fists onto the mat before him.  His hands darkened. 

            "I drank him dry.  Of my own free will!"  Slam.  "I was one with my Thirst!"  Slam.  "And I betrayed my humanity for what?  For what?  Nothing!"  Slam.  "I failed.  I failed miserably.  Katse still lives.  Nothing changed expect for the fact he now knows who I am and that I'm still out there.  And for that he destroyed what little true life I had left!"  Slam.

            "My Thirst hungers.  Nambu's bags keep it at bay, but now that it has tasted living, pumping, human blood, that's all it wants!"  Slam.  Blood stained the mat beneath his hands.  "Everything I've read or watched says I can live forever.  But Nambu won't, you won't.  There'll be no more free blood.  You'll tell me there's alternatives, but what if only human blood will do?  Some of the books have been this way.  And it's not like I can drink a drop here or a drop there.  I infect anyone I drink from and if I don't kill them, they'll become vampires too!  So all I can do is kill, kill, kill!  And I won't."

            Ken rose to his feet and turned toward Joe.  "Take me outside.  Dawn is almost here.  Let me finish what I started.  For the sake of everyone and everything, take me out to the sun!"

            Joe stood up as well, his brow furrowed, but a determined look still on his face.  "What good will it do for you to die?  We have unfinished business with Galactor.  You have duties you are sworn to, obligations."

            "That won't work this time.  Those things are no longer good enough!  You told me how you hated my tampering with your mind.  I would be lying if I promised never to do it again.  So what if I felt the need to do so, what then?  Take me where I want to go, Joe.  Let me get this over with!"  -No!  No!-

            "I won't, so just forget it.  And if you're stupid enough to use your powers on me again, I might kick your ass from here and forever, but we'll deal with it!  That's what we do."

            Ken screamed in frustration and ran.  He ran into a weight machine.  He picked himself up, bleeding, and threw it with all his might across the room.  He ran again and tripped less than five feet away.  He screamed again.

            "Ken, stop this!"

            He tore the mat beneath him to shreds.

            "It won't work!  It won't!  It won't!"

            "How can you be so sure?" 

Ken said nothing. 

"No one knows what lies ahead for any of us.  No one can tell you that."  He moved closer.  "I wish I had better answers for you, but I don't.  Life's unfair that way."

            Ken sobbed.  "Unfair... yes."  He shook his head slowly.  "But how am I supposed to deal with -- things?"  The dread, the guilt, the bitterness.  He spread his arms indicating all he had become.

            Joe sighed.  "The same way I do.  One day at a time.  One day at a time."

           

 

 

 

            Joe did nothing for a while leaving Ken with his thoughts.  When he thought him ready, he worked to coax him back to bed.  Ken went, his face unreadable.  Joe knew acceptance hadn't settled in yet.  They would have to make it.

            Ken's conversation with Jinpei spread like wildfire amongst the rest of the team.  He had barely succumbed to the pull of dawn when the others appeared at his door.  After talking to Joe, they decided to stay, taking shifts to sleep before Ken would awaken again.  Each of them took turns talking to him once he awoke to keep his mind from drifting to certain matters.  Nambu, as an added precaution, removed his security clearance so the door in the apartment and the elevator beyond would no longer respond to him.  Ken continued healing despite himself, cursing them all for fools.  Joe and the others made plans during the day.

            After three days, Nambu finally agreed it was time to remove Ken's bandages.

            Ryu, Jinpei, Joe, and Jun hung background.  Nambu dimmed the lights before sitting down next to him.  He gently reached over and began unwrapping the bandages.

            Five heartbeats filled Ken's ears, just as they had unceasingly for the last few days.  He tensed at Nambu's touch and the excitement he felt coming from the others.  He knew they'd been plotting against him all this time and though through tears and arguments they brought doubt to his resolve, still soon, he would be able to chose and freely carry out his decision.  If he chose to die, they would no longer be able to stop him... if that was what he chose....

            "All right, Ken.  I've removed them."  A hush fell over the room.  "I want you to open your eyes slowly.  Don't be discouraged if you see nothing at first.  Your vision should come back gradually.  Let me know immediately if you feel any pain or if the lights are too bright."

            "Hai."  With a small chill climbing up his spine, Ken bid his eyes to open.

            At first, he still found himself immersed in the same darkness that had been his companion for the past four days.  Then sparks played across the void.  Slowly, these sparks coalesced into blurs of what lay around him.  He blinked several times as the images got brighter and brighter.  With a little concentration, he was able to focus what he saw.  He fixed his gaze on Nambu's face.

            "Ken, how is it?  Is there any distortion?"

            "I - no - it's getting better by the minute.  I think they're okay."

            A loud cheer erupted around him even as Nambu leaned forward to check his eyes out more closely.  "It looks like you're right.  You've been extremely lucky."

            "Don't you ever dare put us through this again!"  Jun's smile was bright, but her eyes were deadly serious.  Ken looked away.

            As one, his friends converged on him.

            "Aniki, we know you haven't felt too good lately, but everything is going to be fine now."  Jinpei's eyes twinkled.  "Especially since we've brought you presents!"  He laid a box wrapped in bright metallic blue paper on his lap.  A flamboyant gold bow with matching ribbon made it seem almost twice as large.  Seven more presents were set with it around him.

            Ken wasn't sure what to make of them, but was touched nevertheless.  "What - what is all this?"

            "Open them and find out, you idiot."  Joe's mischievous grin was on in full force.  It made Ken worry.  They were too confident.  They really thought they could change his mind.  With a worried frown, he reached out for Jinpei's blue package. 

            The slick, metallic paper kept drawing his eyes to it.  His renewed sight was immensely fascinated by the normally unseen patterns on its surface.  Gingerly, he made himself start folding the paper away to expose the box inside.

            Joe's fingers tapped impatiently on one of the other gifts.  "Are you going to take all year to open that?  We don't have forever you know."

            "Joe, just because you like to tear open your gifts like an animal doesn't mean we all do."  Jun stared at him indignantly, daring him to contradict her.

            "Yeah, don't listen to him, aniki."  Ryu nodded in agreement as Jinpei spoke.

            "Geez, I'm surrounded by a bunch of wrapping lovers."  His smile grew bigger.

            Ken set the paper aside and finally opened the box.  Inside sat a miniature replica of his father's last plane.  It matched the one he built himself not long after his father's sacrificing death.

            "We realized you lost just about everything at the bombing of the airfield.  We ran around day and night trying to replace as much of it as we could in the last few weeks.  Today seemed the perfect time to give them to you."  Tears glinted in Jun's eyes as she spoke.  The others nodded and smiled.

            Ken stared at them, speechless, fighting with himself not to let it make a difference.  His throat was tight.

            "Here, open this one next."  Jun placed one of the smaller gifts into his hands.

            Ken stared at them and then at the package.  He ended up opening it even slower than the first.  He could almost taste their excitement.  It made him afraid.

            Within the box he found a small leather book with his last name embossed on the cover.  He just stared at it.

            "Open it, aniki!  Open it!"  Jinpei jumped up and down in exuberance.

            Not daring to look at them, and realizing he had no way around it, Ken pulled the cover open.  The pages were thick and covered on both sides with plastic.  His hand shook as he moved to touch one of the pictures trapped inside.

            The picture at the top was a wedding photo of his mother and father.  It had been formal, his father dressed in the traditional black kimono and his mother in white.  His mother's smile glowed.  His father's smile was almost as bright.  How young they looked.  How happy.  Nothing like the last time he saw either of them....

            Below the wedding picture was one of his father in T-shirt and jeans hugging his obviously pregnant wife.  Both were smiling as if they hadn't a care in the world.  Something squeezed Ken's heart.

            The picture at the bottom showed him as a new born baby being held in the arms of a much younger and less stressed Nambu.

            "H - how?"

            Jun was beaming.  "We went searching through Nambu's old cellar, Utoland's newspaper archives, and the ISO microfiche files.  Do you like it?"

            Ken didn't answer his mind totally obsessed with the things before him. 

            On the next page was a clipping announcing his parents upcoming wedding.  On the other was a slightly yellowed wedding invitation and a birth announcement.  On the next was a certified copy of his birth certificate.   After that a rare group photo of the team taken not long after Nambu brought them all together.

            His past, his life, his identity was here, mapped beyond denial.  And they found all this in just a few weeks?  What did it mean?

            A splotch of red landed on the plastic covered pages.  "Th - thank you."  There was more he thought he wanted to say but his choked throat wouldn't let him.  He could do nothing to make his tears stop now that they had begun.

            "Ken, you're really making a mess.  Here, use these."  Joe held out a box of Kleenex toward him.  Jinpei, Jun, Ryu, and Nambu did the same.  It looked like they'd all expected this from him.

            Ken started to laugh.  Soon the others joined him.  The sounds were free and full.

 

 

 

            ************

 

 

 

 

            "Are you doing anything special tonight, Ken?  Jinpei and I were thinking of going out to catch a movie."  Jun leaned over the counter of the Snak J and looked up into Ken's face as he sat at there quietly sipping from a thermos.

            It was a week since he'd regained his sight and the others managed to dissuade him from his sworn course of action with their unrestrained love.  All signs that anything untoward happened to him were gone, almost as if the entire episode had never been.  A few things hadn't changed, like the contracts still out on his life and the need for care that came with it -- but otherwise, life had returned to normal.

            "Joe's off on a cross-country race and Ryu's spending the night at his father's.  We're not going to get a better chance."  She smiled mischievously.

            Ken stared deeply into Jun's brown eyes for a moment and then looked away.  "I appreciate the invite, but I can't.  There's something I've been putting off that I really need to take care of.  I don't think it'll wait."

            "If you don't think it will take too long, we'll wait for you and go to a later showing."

            He considered it.  "No.  Just go on without me.  I'm not really sure how long this'll take."  Ken avoided her curious gaze hoping she wouldn't press him.

            "Okay, if that's what you want."  She gave him a quick smile.  "Are you through with that yet?"

            He handed over the thermos and returned the smile.  "Yeah, thanks."

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Ken stood before the multi-storied, white building and felt a chill run down his spine.  The Crystal Tower - this was where it all started.  His life, here, had gone on a path of change he wasn't sure he still totally understood.

            The line at the front doors wound around the left corner and beyond.  Looked like the crowd on that first night wasn't a fluke; the club was here to stay.  Ken looked around him.

            With slow, unhurried steps, he walked past the flashing lights and lines of eager club goers until he reached an alleyway.  He followed it, sticking to the shadows, until he reached the Crystal Tower's service door.  He stared at it a while, in no hurry to gather his courage for what might soon come.

            He gathered his will around him like a cloak.  Ignoring the dread and fear that sparkled in the depths of his mind, he stepped forward willing his body to dissolve and allow him through the door.

            He felt the change begin and quickly shied his mind away from the feeling.  Trying hard to stand against his rising panic, he moved on through.  An odd sense of disorientation swept through him as he made it past.  As soon as he was sure he was inside, he wasted no time wishing his body back into a solid state. 

            Ken found himself inside a short but wide hallway.  No one was in sight.  He sent a quick prayer of thanks for that.

            At the end of the hall, he found a large kitchen that at the moment stood mostly deserted.  The buffet must already be over...  He ran through it fast enough he wouldn't be noticed by those still there.  Muted music filled the small store room/buffet staging area beyond.

            Opening the door leading out into the heart of the club, he grimaced in pain as the music's volume leapt ten fold, the unhindered wall of sound pounding into his ears.  How had Tiana stood this?

            Ken forced himself to move on trying hard to shut out the blasting sound around him.  Hundreds of heartbeats mixed with the music in his ears.  Warm blood pumped all around even as the scents of perspiration and exotic perfumes intruded into his nostrils.  -Yes!  Blood, life!  Drink! Yes!-  Ken grabbed onto a mirrored pole to steady himself as a wave of giddiness overtook him.  Never had been around this many people since his transformation.  He could drown here.

            He forced himself go on, skirting the crowded dance floor.  He found a small table at a corner and despite the fact it looked like someone may have been previously sitting there, he collapsed into the chair.

            His teeth throbbed painfully as a formally dressed waitress appeared at his side to take his order.  Ken quickly ordered a Rum & Coke though he had no intention of drinking it.

            His eyes roved about the room watching the dancers as their lusciously exposed necks seemed to call to him.  Perhaps this was a terrible mistake.  This place was dangerous to his sanity, especially since in its way it was an extremely exciting experience.  Wouldn't Joe be pleased.

            Ken smiled and paid for his drink when the waitress brought it out to him.  How could things be so different yet so much the same?

            He looked up from his drink and to the right though he wasn't sure why.  His eyes widened.  She was here.  A wave of deja vu flashed through him.  She looked exactly as she did on that first night.  If anything, she looked more beautiful than she did then, almost surreal.  The full lips, her flaming hair, her soft curves.  She came up to his table.

            "Hello, Ken."

            Now that the moment was here, he didn't know what to do.

            "You're looking well.  You seem more at peace with yourself."  Despite himself, he looked at her again.  There was a touch of a smile on her lips.  "I was very worried about you for a while."

            "Would you have stopped me if I'd decided differently in the end?"   The question passed his lips before he could think to stop it.

            Tiana eyes were veiled.  "No.  It was your choice.  I want you, but I will not rule you."  She looked away.  "If you had done it, I would have wept long for what would have been lost."

            Though he had no reason to, Ken believed her. 

            Silence fell between them.  And though chaos reigned around them, in a very real sense it was as if they were completely alone.

            "I came because I felt I should thank you.  I thought if I came here, you would come too."

            Tiana's brow rose at his statement.  "Thank me?  For what?"

            Ken stared at his untouched drink.  "For helping me save my friends."  It would never be for the other.

            "They mean a lot to you, and you mean a lot to me.  I couldn't help myself."

            Time passed around them but neither noticed.

            "I also felt I needed to let you know that while I still don't agree with what you did to me, that I - that I can understand what might have led you to it."

            Tiana touched his hand.  Sparks flew between them.  Ken carefully removed his.

            "Thank you.  I know how hard that must be for you to admit."

            He looked at her.  Her face was open like a book.  Her eyes shone with pleasure rather than the mockery he half expected. 

            It was Tiana's eyes that had captivated him on that first night.  He'd been trapped by them and locked in by her flaming hair, her soft skin.  She was in so many ways like and unlike Jun.

            She was also dangerous, possibly even mad, though he'd yet to see any real manifestations of it.  Should he dare go on with the other reason he came here?  Tiana could no longer command him as she did while he was still human, but could she not now ensnare him with a different kind of power?  If he let her?

            "I - I have a request, but it will have conditions."

            "Yes?"  She sounded eager.  Almost hungry.

            Ken got the fleeting sensation her deep green eyes wanted to swallow him whole.

            "I'd like - I would appreciate it, if you would take the time to teach me more about our kind."  He swallowed hard.  "I've read the books and watched the films as you suggested, but I know now they aren't enough.  I need more.  I need to understand what we are.  Will you teach me?"

            "Yes!"

            He glanced up and saw she was smiling.  It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

 

            The air was hot and thick, burning his parched throat.  It all meant little to him.  All there was room for was the running, the fear, and the screaming need for survival.

            The accursed, whistled tune filled the air behind him.  He pushed himself to run faster.  His side ached and threatened to burst, but this would be nothing compared with what he would receive if he dared stop.

            "Katse."

            The whisper was right at his ear.  Katse screamed with chilled terror and spun off to the right.  "Nononononono."

            Laughter rang out right at his heels.  Death was behind him and had marked him as it own.  His heart threatened to explode with every step.

            A sharp pain crashed through his shoulder and he stumbled.  More gleeful laughter rang out behind him.  Katse screamed only pausing for air, running on as his arm fell limp at his side.

            He turned again within the faceless corridors around him and abruptly found himself in a dead end.

            He whipped around to try and double back to find another way, but his nightmare  cut off his escape.  His mind brimming over with panic, Katse tried to rush past him only to be picked up and tossed against the back wall like a discarded toy.

            "Your time has come, Katse."

            Five Galactor soldiers appeared behind the white dressed figure.  Hope flared inside him.  They would save him!  They were his men.  They would die in his place!

            With glowing eyes, his tormentor turned toward the others.  "Kill him."

            Five submachine guns turned in Katse's direction.  The men behind them were smiling with the same cold smile given to him by Gatchaman.

            "No!  You're mine!  Save me!  Someone, save me!"

            "No one will save you today, Katse."

            "I'll give you promotions, wealth, power!  Anything you want.  Just spare me!"  Katse tried crawling up the wall.

            The bright glowing eyes of death turned once more to the men.  "Fire."

            The men pulled the triggers.

            "NOOOOOO!"

 

 

 

 

            Katse sat up, his scream still echoing around him.  His body was covered in sweat.  His long, golden hair stuck to his face.

            "Katse-sama!  Katse-sama!"

            The lights blinded him as he desperately looked around at the familiar surroundings.  The switch that might have been used to turn them off had been removed weeks ago.

            A guard ran into the room and rushed to his side.  Katse cringed from the frantic creature.

            "I heard screaming.  Are you all right, sir?"

            "Get away from me!"

            "Sir?"

            With  complete exterior calm, as his mind screamed at him inside, Katse reached beneath his pillow and brought out what he previously hid underneath.

            A loud bang rang through the room.  A neat hole appeared on the guard's forehead.  His face twisted in startled surprise as he jerked backwards and fell.  Blood gushed from the hole and ran over his dead face onto the purple carpet.

            "You will not get me!  Do you hear.  You will not get me!"  He emptied the Ruger's clip as he shot randomly around the room.  When it was spent, he reached under his pillows for another one.

            His bandaged shoulder and arm ached as he moved. But he wouldn't let it stop him.  He would not be weak.  He would survive the death that stalked him even if he must kill every living thing on the planet to do it!




The End
End Notes:
Reedited in 2006 - updated in archives on 7/07
This story archived at http://www.gatchfanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=542