The Other Side
By Maya Perez
"Ken, watch out behind you!"
I dodged to the side, spotting my attacker out of the corner of my eye, and kicked him in the stomach. I swept immediately to my right, and smashed my fist into another Galactor's throat. He gurgled as he fell and I put him out of my mind. I scanned the area around me looking for my next opponent.
An anonymous tip had led us up into Ontara. After a few long days of ground work, and a little luck, we'd found this small Galactor science installation.
We really owed the find to Jinpei, if the truth be told. If he hadn't been his usual self and tried to climb every totem pole we'd come across, we would have never found the entrance to the place. His foot had hit the eye of the bottom most figure on one of the tree sized poles, and it had opened up to reveal a small set of stairs leading into the ground.
We'd gotten most of the bombs set by the time we'd finally been spotted. So far, the Galactor goons hadn't proved much of a challenge. That didn't bother me a bit, though I was sure Joe would complain about it later. As far as I was concerned, the sooner we could finish up in here the better.
"This way, Katse-sama!"
I glanced over my shoulder sure that I hadn't heard right. Yet there he was, the head of Galactor, in all his purple glory, running with his tail between his legs. This could be the day. "Stop, coward!"
I took off after him. Now, it did occur to me to wonder what in the world could have brought Katse to such a minor Galactor post, but I didn't let that hinder me. I closed the distance between us, sure that I could smell his fear. Katse and his crony neared a turn in the hallway. I threw my Birdrang with all my might.
The sharp blade caught the green suited guard in the back of the leg, cutting through his tendons. He fell screaming.
I reached out for my returning Birdrang and leapt over the injured man. My blood raced with excitement as every second brought me closer to my quarry. Today would be the day. The world would finally be liberated from Katse's evil at last.
I made it around the corner and saw that it was a dead end. Yes. The smile faltered on my face though as I spotted Katse leaning lazily against the back wall a nasty grin on his face. His hand was draped on a large switch to the left.
Damn. I'd fallen into a trap.
I barely had a chance to notice that my section of corridor was a different shade of gray from the rest, before Katse had brought the lever down.
Clear walls plunged down in front and behind me, trapping me in. A vibrating hum filled the air. I smelled something sweet as pink gas quickly flooded the chamber. Tiny lightning bolts played on the surface of the two off-colored walls.
I held my breath even as my hand instinctively reached down and pulled out three miniature explosives from the pouch at my side. I cocked my hand back, getting ready to throw them against the far corner and hope for the best, when twelve metal rods pushed out from the walls on either side. The hum increased to a high shriek. The stench of ozone filled the room as the small bolts of energy gathered at the ends of the rods and then shot out toward one another. I was trapped in the middle.
Pain flooded every nerve and tissue of my body before concentrating and exploding in my brain. I think I screamed. The moment seemed to stretch into infinity.
Then I was falling--falling in a hundred different directions at incredible speeds. Every piece of me, every atom, pulled farther and farther apart. I know I screamed this time, but could make no sound.
Panic filled me to the core, my sense of self unraveling. With everything I had, I tried to will myself back together.
Up and down returned to normal. I felt myself fall, my body not responding to my commands, and hit the floor--hard. I inhaled and it felt as if I'd never had air inside my lungs before. My head swam even as I struggled to breathe in ragged gasps. I felt the muscles all over my body spasm in painful jerks. What was happening?
"Ken, are you all right?" I tried to turn at the sound but nothing happened. "The bastard got away again, didn't he?" Joe didn't sound very happy.
I yelled at my eyes to open and after a moment they did as I asked. I felt a flood of nausea sweep through me even as my vision whirled before my eyes.
"You really shouldn't do this kind of thing. You know how turned on I get when you're helpless."
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. Joe's familiar features blurred before me. He helped me up into a sitting position.
"Try to get up. This place is toast, and we've got to get out of here before it decides to take us with it."
I nodded, still unable to speak. I tried to stand, but my body just wouldn't cooperate. It was almost as if my commands just weren't getting through. Joe pulled me to my feet, draping my left arm over his shoulder. My legs felt like rubber. "Oh, Ken, you're such a tease!" What?
"Come on you slowpokes. Let's blow this joint!" A white and purple blur moved past us. Had that been Jinpei? My stomach flip-flopped. What had Katse done to me?
Joe dragged me along, even as two more blurs sped on ahead of us.
"They can kiss off this place."
"If they make things any easier for us, they're going to bore us to death."
Ryu, Jun! The voices were theirs, but...
We exited the building, the bright sunlight burning my eyes. The nausea had calmed a little and I felt slightly more steady. I was still forced, however, to cling to Joe for support. He dragged me up a small hill.
"Neechan, did you see how I got that guy's guts to splatter onto the floor while he watched?"
"Humph! So, you got flashy, so what? You still haven't beaten Joe's twenty foot blood squirt." What the hell?
My vision finally straightened itself out as we crested the top of the hill. I hesitated there, pulling against Joe, thrown back by what I saw.
The small town of Queekak was a fiery ruin. A thick, black cloud of smoke clung over the town, growing as it was fed by the still burning buildings. A thin breeze assaulted me with the smell of burned plastic and charred flesh. Dark bodies littered the streets. Yet worse than all of that, the part that I couldn't understand, was the sight of the God Phoenix nestled in the ruins of a large house.
I blinked, not quite daring to believe what I saw. Slowly, I realized that the God Phoenix didn't look quite right. Her colors were all wrong. Instead of the familiar blues and reds, she was colored in silver and black.
"Beautiful sight, isn't it? Makes the whole job seem worth while."
I turned to stare at Joe with open mouthed shock. What did he just say? Luckily, he didn't see my expression as he started us moving toward town. "Let's get you on the ship and take you home. Nambu'll be waiting."
I looked away, a chill making it's way down my back. I said nothing, not sure of what had just happened and in no shape to want to find out.
As we made our way down the hill, I tried to get my first good look at the others. I didn't understand what I saw.
Their voices were right, their faces and bodies as well, but their uniforms... I gaped as the three of them played a game of tag amidst the towns' rubble and it's dead.
Jun's uniform was no longer the pink and white of old. Her suit and mini skirt had somehow turned blood red in color; her belt, boots, and gloves a deep gold. Jinpei's colors had changed to white and purple. Ryu's a deep green and black.
With a sense of dread building up inside me, I looked down at myself. Where once I would have seen only white, I saw black. My blues had turned into deep metallic ones. The symbol of all we stood for had changed into a deep, bloodier red.
I glanced at Joe and saw the familiar blues and browns, but their order on his uniform had been reversed. I shook my head and closed my eyes, hoping this was just an after effect of whatever had been done to me. I opened them again; nothing had changed.
"Come on, Shadow of Death, it's time to fly up into the ship. Are you up to it?"
It took me a moment to realize that Joe was talking to me. Shadow of Death? The name made my skin crawl. What was going on? I pulled away from him and tried to stand on my own. "Yeah, I can - do it."
"Go for it then. I'll watch." He looked me up and down, hunger in his eyes. I felt my cheeks grow hot and turned away. What was this? What was going on? Though I had no idea if I could make it, I made myself leap upwards just to try and put some distance between us.
I landed on the deck of the discolored God Phoenix, falling to one knee. The effort had sent my head spinning. I stiffened as I heard Joe land easily beside me.
"Boy, you are out of it. Man, the things I could do to you in this condition!"
I felt my anger rise even as my cheeks grew hot again. Joe grabbed my arm to help pull me up, but I roughly pulled away. "I can manage on my own, thank you." I wobbled to my feet hoping I could pull this off. I did.
I noticed that Joe was grinning at me. It was the same grin that was such a familiar part of my life. It made my stomach turn. Something was terribly wrong here.
The platform lowered us into the interior of the ship. We hurried to join the others on the bridge.
I stiffened with anger, shock, and just a touch of fear as Joe slapped me on the rear as he made his way past me out of the elevator. Was he mad? I fought to ignore the gesture wanting nothing more than to grab him and pin him against the wall and beat an explanation out of him. This wasn't the time or place for that, however. I made myself move forward and took my place on the bridge.
The chair felt as it had always felt. The bridge itself was exactly as it had always been, even down to the colors. Obviously whatever was wrong was either extremely selective or it had nothing to do with me. For some reason, that thought didn't make me feel any better. Maybe Nambu could explain what was going on.
The God Phoenix lifted into the air. Ryu handled her as expertly as always. An impostor couldn't have faked that. Galactor also couldn't have recreated the bridge in this much detail and to such perfection, especially since they'd never even seen it. Maybe I was unconscious and this was all a dream? The idea was appealing, but I couldn't fall for it. Everything here was just too real, too detailed. It had to be something else... But what?
The others were bantering amongst themselves. It sounded the same as always until I actually started paying attention to what they were saying.
"I got the most kills tonight, I'm sure of it! One hundred and five by my count."
"Obviously you weren't paying much attention to what the rest of us were doing."
"Don't worry, Jinpei, the tally after debriefing will tell for sure. Anyway, today, I think Ryu gets the Grossness Award. Don't you, Ryu?"
"Oh, yeah!" The glee in his voice curdled my blood.
"Ken, there's a message coming in. It's Nambu."
I felt my pulse rise. Things would get straightened out now. If anyone could make sense of all this madness, it would be him.
The screen lit up and I choked.
"Ah, children, the mission was successful? Yes?"
The man on the screen was and wasn't Nambu. The voice and features were correct, but everything else was wrong. His rimless glasses had been replaced by pink tinted John Lenon ones. His usually conservative suit was now green with purple stripes. His shirt was a bright pink and overflowed with ruffles. I stared at my hands. I just couldn't look at him. I couldn't! I tried my best to keep my face blank.
"Of course we were successful, Hakase. That's what we do!" Jinpei piped up from the back, saving me the trouble of having to answer.
"Yeah, everything went smoothly except for Ken, who like an idiot, decided to mosey on up to one of Katse's traps." Joe's tone was condescending. Ryu chuckled beside me. "It got him all weak and tingly though." The glee on Joe's voice made me cringe.
"I see." Nambu didn't sound overly pleased. "Return to base immediately." He winked. "Good job, team." The screen went blank. I felt panic welling inside me.
I closed my eyes and quickly tried to center myself. My stomach started doing flip-flops again. Nambu would be of no help. How was I going to get out of this? These people all physically resembled my friends, but that seemed to be as far as it went. And Nambu... Maybe I would get lucky and all of this really was a dream...
The bantering picked up again, but I paid no attention to it. I focused instead on taking an internal inventory.
I'd lived through whatever it was that Katse had planned for me. Though at first, I seemed to have little control over myself, that was slowly being resolved. I was tired, sore, but appeared otherwise unharmed. The only real problem was that my world seemed to have been turned upside down and at the moment, I really had no idea on what to do about it.
A weird thing occurred to me then... It was something from one of the science fiction movies Jun loved to watch on occasion. What had come to mind was the plot of one of those films, something about being sent into a parallel world, where things were almost exactly the same, but at the same time weren't. Could that be what had happened to me?
After about twenty minutes, the God Phoenix dived down into a patch of sparkling blue ocean. She quickly eased her way toward where I remembered Crescent Coral should be.
From the outside, the base looked as it always had. I felt my innards tighten, not sure of what to expect of the inside. Within minutes, we'd slipped into an airlock. The water was rapidly extracted, leaving it almost totally dry.
The others rushed to get out, but I purposely took my time. As soon as they'd gone on deck, they changed out of bird style. This gave me yet another surprise--their civvies were nothing like those we normally wore. Instead of the familiar jeans and numbered T-shirts, the uniforms had converted into black body suits, with brown half-jackets, and black ankle high boots. Each jacket had a gold number on the upper right arm.
I hesitated at the ramp before finally changing out of bird style as well. My clothes matched theirs. I would fit in. I sighed with relief, not having allowed myself the luxury of worrying about it until it was over. This should give me a little more time before they could figure out I wasn't who I was supposed to be.
"Hey, slowpoke, hurry it up will you? You know Nambu-baby doesn't like to be kept waiting. Unless there's something else you'd like to do first?" Joe's tone was lewd. I hurried to catch up, not wanting anything of the kind. I tried hard not to fidget in the strange clothing.
As we moved down the corridor from the bay, I noticed pieces of trash littering the hall here and there. Worse, graffiti covered the walls, in a myriad of colors, stating things like ‘Nambu sucks--by appointment only', ‘Katse is a pussy', or ‘Ninjas do it silently'. Some were even more graphic and crude. A few had visual aids. They made me extremely uneasy. What was going on in this place? None of the others paid any of it any attention.
Nambu's door was open. His office was littered with crumpled papers and stacks of files. A large lava lamp dominated a huge marble desk amidst the chaos, the globs of heated wax drifting slowly up and down. The wall behind the desk showed a large array of psychedelic colors that were flowing, merging, changing as I watched. The carpet, what could be seen of it, was deep magenta. It matched a set of deep chairs that were set in a semi-circular pattern facing the desk. There were swatches of red colored shag carpeting on the walls. The whole effect set my teeth on edge.
Nambu looked up from a stack of paperwork. "Ah, there you are. Sit down, sit down. Give me a quick rundown." He pointed a pen at the chairs and then went back to his paperwork.
All four of the others took their seats and started talking at once. Nambu did nothing to narrow the flow of the sea of words, but only nodded absently on occasion. Here and there he'd pipe in a question. Eventually, the furor died down. I hoped that in the midst of the chaos, he hadn't noticed that I'd said nothing. My hopes were in vain.
"Ken, you haven't said anything. Have you nothing to add? Your body count perhaps?"
I looked away as his steel gaze rose to lock with mine. I doubted, now that I'd met the man face to face, that this Nambu was any more of a fool than my own. I realized with a small chill that I couldn't afford to underestimate any of them. "S-sir, I'm afraid I can't report my body count or anything else for that matter. I'm having problems recalling most of our last mission." I glanced up and saw the doctor's brow rise.
"Any idea why that might be, Ken?"
I forced myself to shrug and look as nonchalant as the others.
"Hakase, it was probably that nasty trap of Katse's. It fried aniki real good!" Jinpei leapt to his feet, jerking about in an imitation of what I must have looked like.
"Ah, yes, I believe this was mentioned before." Nambu leaned back in his tall chair and put his feet on the desk. I almost cringed. "Well, Ken, since we're almost through and it looks like you have nothing to add, it might be prudent for you to go get checked out. I'll talk to you later." The dismissal was clear.
I rose to my feet without looking at any of them and headed for the door.
"Do you need one of us to help you get there, Commander?" I stiffened at Joe's tone. I forced myself to ignore it and walk on out.
"Hurry back, wimp!"
"All weak and fuzzy!"
Their comments struck me in the back like blows. Nambu didn't seem to care. I got out of range as fast as I could manage.
In no real hurry, I made my way down to the infirmary. Everything there looked pretty much normal, which for some reason only worked to make me feel uneasy. I walked on over to the nurse's station.
"Excuse me, Nambu Hakase asked that I come down and get checked out. Is a doctor available?"
The nurse looked up from the fashion magazine she'd been reading, a look of startled surprise on her face. I wasn't sure what it meant. "Sure, Dr. Braun is in one of the rooms down the hall. Feel free."
I thanked her, trying to ignore her offhanded attitude. I went to look for Braun.
I'd peeked into five different rooms before I finally found him. He was in a large office, behind a desk, busily polishing a wide variety of instruments. Glancing at their sharp hooks and twisted edges, I got the creepy feeling that these weren't used for regular medical procedures. I tried not to dwell on what those procedures might be.
"Excuse me, Dr. Braun?"
The round faced man looked up, the same startled surprise on his face as I'd seen on the nurse's. "Yes?"
"I triggered some kind of energy trap during our last mission. Hakase asked me to come down here to get a check up?" I didn't add that I was pretty anxious to have it done myself.
"Oh... fine." Braun picked up his instruments one by one, and tenderly wrapped them up in a red velvet cloth. Gingerly, he placed the wrapped bundle into an old fashioned doctor's bag. "Let's go get it over with, shall we?"
I was caught off guard by his disinterested tone. The Braun I knew would have been jumping at the chance to do a workup on me.
The examination was pretty routine, Braun's boredom at the task filling the room with a disinterested attitude. Instead of the non-stop distracting chatter that was the doctor's trademark, he kept totally silent and aloof. Worse, he gave me no information on the examination, even when I asked. I would have pressed the issue, but didn't know if that would come out looking suspicious. He booted me out of the examination room and stomped back to his office. I heard the lock click from the inside.
I shook my head, staring at the door, not sure what to make of all these inconsistencies.
"Ah, there you are." I turned around at the sound of Jun's voice.
"It sure took long enough." Joe's voice was loud, as if he hoped Braun would overhear. I suddenly wasn't sure how to feel about the fact that these two had been waiting for me.
"Now, Joe, don't be surly. It wasn't Ken's fault. Nambu did order him here and you know how unhappy Braun gets when he's not torturing someone." She turned back to me, flashing an interested smile. "Don't you love it though, when he let's us watch?"
I couldn't think of an answer to that, not that I had the presence to try too hard. I'd become a little distracted... For the first time since we'd changed into our civvies, I came to realize how the body suit was stretched drum tight over Jun's skin, showing off her figure in detail. She seemed to be only too aware of it, and stood there trying to give me the best view. "Ken, you won't believe this, but your little incident has gotten Joe into a real tizzy. You wouldn't believe what he wants to do to you." I caught him looking me up and down again. I didn't like it. "I wanna see him do it, don't you?" Jun reached out and gently caressed my cheek. Her tongue seductively licked at her lower lip.
"I--" I pulled away, suddenly realizing what the strange look in her eyes was all about. "I'm really feeling very tired, the trap and everything. If, if you wouldn't mind, could we put it off until tomorrow?"
"Too tired for me? You've never been too tired for me before. Maybe I can help you change your mind." With a quick feral smile, Jun shoved me against the nearest wall. Before I could react, she trapped my hands in hers as she pressed her body close. She crushed her hungry lips to my own.
I... I was beyond surprise at the move. I got my thoughts to stay coherent long enough to try and figure out what to do. I tried to push her away but I had no leverage. She was pressed so tightly against me that I could feel her every curve. I gasped in shock, and guilty pleasure as she slipped her thigh between mine and brought it slowly up and down.
The moment my mouth opened, Jun thrust her greedy tongue inside it. Playfully, she coiled hers about my own, inviting me to participate more fully. I tried to resist but she would have none of it. Dammit, this was wrong! This wasn't Jun. I fought to control the heat I could feel growing inside me. Joe chuckled from somewhere behind her.
After a moment, Jun finally released me and backed away, a small frown on her face. Obviously this wasn't the type of reaction she was used to getting. I sure as hell wasn't used to this type of thing at all. It was very hot in the hallway...
"Hm..." She turned to look at Joe a small pout on her lips. I was having trouble breathing. "Could I be losing my touch? Could that be it? How did it look to you?"
Joe leaned on the opposite wall to mine, his arms crossed in an all too familiar pose. "Everything looked fine from here. If anything, you looked a little more energetic than usual." He paused a moment. "Maybe it's him." He jerked a thumb in my direction a sly grin on his face.
Jun's eyes lit up as she turned to look back at me. I couldn't meet her gaze and I was sure that my face was not its usual color. I wished that the wall would swallow me whole. "Yes. That's it. Katse's trap! That would explain everything."
"Well, it would explain why he'd suddenly turned into such a prude." I felt myself turn a few shades darker. I wasn't sure if it was over the fact that I'd been called a prude or the fact that here I seemed to be far from one. Though at the moment, I really didn't feel like much of one...
"You've got a point, Joe, but to be honest, now that the doubt is there, it just won't go away. I need to find out, one way or another, if it's me or him." She tapped her foot thoughtfully for a moment. "Now on who should I ply my charms to find out?" She glanced over at him. "You wouldn't think of volunteering, Joe, would you?"
I saw the man who was yet wasn't Joe grin. "Well.... I guess I have nothing better to do..." He pushed himself away from the wall and sauntered over to her.
In spite of my need to get out of there and this opportunity they were giving me, I hesitated, morbidly fascinated by what was happening.
Jun studied Joe for a moment and then roughly slammed him against the wall before grabbing his head and pulling it down. She pressed her lips to his, devouring him with unrepressed enthusiasm. Her hands slipped into his jacket and roamed over his body. My face burned. I wanted to look away, but couldn't. Deep inside, I felt a slight twinge of jealousy as Joe returned her caresses. But they weren't them! I made myself turn away.
"So, how was that? Is it me or is it him?" I found myself looking over my shoulder at her breathless question. Though I couldn't see her face, I could see Joe's. His eyes were full of hungering lust.
"No--it definitely isn't you. But a little frustration suits you real well." He smiled. "You haven't been this hot before." He reached for her but Jun easily moved out of his reach, laughing with delight.
She sidled up to me. I held my breath.
"So, Ken, should I try again? Surely if we try hard enough, we can get you in the mood." Her smile was positively naughty.
A small part, the same one that had been jealous, screamed for me to let her try. I ignored it. This wasn't Jun! "No," I said hoarsely. "As you've already pointed out, I'm not... up to it." I didn't realize what I'd said until it was too late.
Joe chortled. "That's not how it looks to me."
God, I could have killed him right then and there.
Jun frowned for a moment, but then her face brightened. "Okay, a rain-check then. But we'll both miss you." She ran her fingers lightly up my chest. It tingled. I tried my best not to think about it. She turned away.
"Joe, do you think Ryu or Jinpei would be interested in joining us or should we make it just the two of us this once?"
"Let them find someone to screw on their own. I'm tired of waiting." He advanced toward her.
"Oh, are you?" Jun slipped away again. "Then I guess I should make you do just that, neh?" She gave him a teasing grin. "If you don't catch me before I get to my room, I'll lock you out and leave you with your misery." She took off down the hall. With a feral grin, Joe took off after her. I was completely and thankfully forgotten.
I leaned against the wall and sighed. The situation wasn't good and didn't look likely to get better. I'd put them off this time, but what about tomorrow? It wouldn't be long before Katse's trap grew to be a thin excuse. I wasn't looking forward to finding out what they'd do once they figured out I wasn't who they thought I was. I had to do something. The problem though was that I had no idea on what that should be.
The weight of everything that had happened came crashing down on me. I felt thoroughly exhausted and it didn't look like things were going to get better. Perhaps I should stay out of sight, at least until I could come up with something, anything to try and get out of this. Things just had to look better in the morning.
I took the long way back to my double's room, not relishing an encounter with any of my other ‘teammates'. As I came close, I made sure the coast was clear and then made a dash for the room and got inside.
I'd closed and locked the door before moving to turn on the lights. I flipped them on, blinking as I turned around, and was instantly certain that I must have gone into the wrong place.
The room was black, every bloody bit of it--the walls, the shelves, the bed, the sheets, the carpet, everything! It was eerie, almost alien. The only color came from posters that had been plastered all over the ceiling. AC/DC, Metallica, Napalm Death, and posters of other heavy metal bands sat amidst enlarged pictures of nuclear explosions, cop beatings, and other acts of violence. This was what I liked here?
I stepped over to the study desk on the right, still not believing I was in my room. The books at the desk were mostly cheap paperbacks, horror stories, and compilations of violent manga. There was a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, but it looked dusty and neglected. A large album sat prominently on the top of the desk. Curious, I opened it. I soon wished I hadn't.
The album contained a collection of items pertaining to my double's teenage life as both a civilian and as Gatchaman. At first the contents seemed harmless enough; pictures of the team in their ‘civvies' looking like normal people having fun. The five of them had formed a heavy metal band, which I supposed explained their choice in clothes. The reviews of their music were mostly lukewarm. Several of the clippings complained of their violent and at times highly controversial lyrics. Highlighted, as if with pride, were the names of the cities from which the band had been banned. There were also several articles on riots and other mayhem that spawned from the sites of their concerts.
And then there were the other articles... The ones with pictures of death and destruction. All talked of the horrid ravages committed to the world by the Science Ninja Team. Mass murder, assassinations, torture, mass destruction, these and more had been attributed to them. What were we here? A terrorist organization? It was almost as if the Ninja Team had taken over for Galactor here. The thought made me ill.
I slammed the book closed and stepped back. Everything in this place was wrong. They weren't the ones who were supposed to be terrorizing the Earth! They were supposed to be the ones trying to save it. How could any of this be?
I fell into the chair by the desk. My chest hurt. It felt like someone had taken a two by four to it and my head. I looked about me and abruptly felt the black walls closing in on me. Wrong, wrong, it was all wrong! I got out of there as fast as my shaking legs could take me.
I leaned heavily against the wall outside and tried to pull myself together. Staying in that room was out of the question. I'd be damned if I'd ever go in there again. So much for trying to get some sleep. It didn't matter. If this was a dream, it would have given me a way out. But if it wasn't, I would have had to face this reality all over again in the morning. I wasn't sure I could stand the disappointment. What was worse was that if all of this was true, he was in my world. What kind of damage would he do there before I was able to figure out a way to get back home?
As soon as I felt I could, I did the only thing I could think of at the moment--I went for a long walk.
The halls were quiet except for the screaming messages scrawled on the walls. Almost everywhere I went was familiar yet somehow distorted. A few places were nothing like I'd known them to be--one of the lower levels had been turned into a prison block. The few agonized groans that I caught from the elevator had been enough to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about the place. I got out of there in a hurry.
I was heading toward a T intersection, half looking for a place to crash, when I heard footsteps coming from that direction. I stopped to wait so they could go by, not sure of who would be up at that time of night.
The first thing I saw was a black boot followed by red pants. My eyes grew wide as more and more of the stranger came into view. Then came the familiar half-concealed face I'd never thought I'd see again. "Otosan!"
Red Impulse's head snapped over to stare in my direction. It was only then that I realized I'd spoken out loud. From the look on his face, I also realized that I might have just made a terrible mistake.
"What did you call me?"
My mouth opened, but no sound came out. My mind had gone blank; I had no idea how to get out of this.
During my silence, Red Impulse quickly looked down each of the hallways as if making sure that no one else was there. Finding nothing, he strode toward me. My every instinct screamed at me to get out of there, but I couldn't move. He was alive. My father was alive!
"I asked you a question, boy." His body was stiff.
When I continued to hesitate, he pushed me roughly against the wall. I couldn't find the will to resist him. "What did you just say?"
I made myself say something. "It-it was a mistake. I'd thought you were someone else." I couldn't look at him as I spoke, though technically I'd told him the truth. This man really wasn't my father, only an alternate form of him. But for all that, I found a strange secret joy growing inside me. It was so good to see him again, even if he wasn't the true article.
I looked up and saw anger marring his face. He pinned me to the wall, his forearm pressing uncomfortably against my throat.
"You lying dog! What has that bastard told you?" His face was very close to mine, his words a soft hiss. This close, I could make out his eyes through the visor. I saw anger there, just like on his face. And something else? Was that... fear?
"What--?" He applied more pressure against my throat choking out anything else I might have said.
"I heard what you said. Don't even try denying it. Now I want to know why. What has Nambu told you?"
Was this how my father would have reacted if I'd found out about his identity before that fateful day? Surely it wouldn't have been like this. Surely there wouldn't have been so much anger.
I stared at him, this replica of my dead father, and I still could find no way to answer him. If he was like the others, he would be a twisted mockery of the man he represented. Perhaps that was why he was so angry.
"I want answers, Washio!" I tried to double over as pain flared in my stomach as his fist slammed into my gut. I didn't get very far, his forearm still holding me pinned by the throat. I started having problems getting air. "Answer me, answer me now."
The violence and his tone of voice abruptly made one thing very clear--this man, this man hated his son. Loathed him. My father had loved me, and I him in spite of everything. Yet while my father was dead, this copy of him wasn't and he hated his son. It wasn't fair. How could this be?
The pain I'd thought tucked away into the depths of my soul boiled to the surface as fresh as on the day he'd died. All those wasted years! The fights we'd had. My strong antagonism when we'd first met. Those few moments when we'd gotten close, and I never knowing that he was my father. Not knowing until those final moments when he sacrificed himself for the sake of the world. Never getting the chance to tell him how I felt, only able to stand there and watch him go to his death unable to do anything to stop it. Nothing! And now, like a miracle, he stood before me again, this time hating me with every fiber of his being.
I felt something warm and unexpected run down my cheek.
The pressure suddenly eased from my throat. It was only as I stood there gasping for air and I caught a glimpse of his surprised expression, that I realized that I was crying.
"Who-who are you?"
I looked away, embarrassed, not able to stop the tears. I'd pushed too hard, for too long, now I was paying the price.
"You're not... my son... He, he would never allow himself to be seen with this weakness. Who are you? What are you doing here?"
I didn't answer--what could I say? He didn't like that. He grabbed me by the arms and shook me hard. "Who are you?"
"I'm--I'm Ken Washio... but I'm not your son." I could see the confusion I'd caused with my answer, but didn't know what to do about it or even if I should try. As I watched, his face was once more engulfed by anger.
"So, this is a new little game, is it? I don't find it funny." He slammed me into the wall. My vision blurred for a moment.
Though he wasn't who he looked like, it still didn't lessen the pain at having him look at me that way. "No, no, it's not what you think."
"No? Then what is it then?" His voice was ice cold.
Should I tell him the truth or try to fabricate a lie? He'd already given me a way out if I wanted it. It might earn me a few cracked ribs and bruises, but it would still give nothing away... for now. Yet if I told him, it might just increase my chances of getting back home. And if I didn't take the risk and trust him, who else would that leave? I had to have help if I was ever to get home. I had no real choice, I had to risk it. "I am Ken Washio, in every physical aspect that is. But, I'm not your Ken, not your son. Just as Red Impulse is my father, but he isn't you. I'm not from this Earth. I come from another."
His eyes narrowed, but whether in confusion or suspicion, I couldn't tell. I had to plunge on. "I called out to you because I was so surprised to see you. My father, my Red Impulse, is dead. He sacrificed his life to save my world."
"You're insane." He let go of me, taking a cautious step back. His hand slid down to the holstered gun at his side.
"No! You're wrong. Please, listen to me. Give me a chance! I'm taking a big risk in talking to you. If they figure out I'm not who they think I am, I'm sure you've got some idea of what they're likely to do to me. I need your help. Please." I put all the hope, sincerity, and desire into my voice that I could. He had to listen, he just had to!
My father's double studied me for a long moment and then nodded. "All right, I'll listen. But not here."
"Thank you." Relief washed over me like a wave. "Where do you suggest?"
His voice was low, his face close. "The walls have ears here. Come, I believe I know a place." He started back the way he'd come. I followed. He took the closest elevator up to the hangar level.
Red Impulse's double chose one of the smaller bays and quickly led me inside. Set in between the standard undersea crafts, was a small submersible, red like his uniform. From what I could see of it, all it was was two seats with an engine. It didn't look overly safe. He headed straight for it. "Come on."
As we came close, he pulled out a small control box from his pocket. He slowly walked around the craft pointing the box at it. Nothing happened. That seemed to satisfy him. I wasn't sure what he was checking for, but I had a feeling that it was a good thing that it was clear.
After he finished, he put away the box and took out a small pen that turned out to be somekind of key. He shoved it into a small hole next to the submersible's hatch. It lifted open. "Let's go for a spin."
He climbed in and I followed. I scrunched down into the cramped seat next to his. Red Impulse said nothing as he activated the bay's automated crane and put the ship in the water. Within minutes we'd left Crescent Coral behind us.
As we went, I found myself studying Red Impulse's profile. It felt eerie sitting here with him like this. In every physical aspect, this man was my father, yet my father was dead.
Crescent Coral fell from view as Red Impulse guided the small craft into a shallow trench not far from the base. He slowly lowered the craft toward the bottom and let it settle onto the ocean floor. Other than for a few tufts of waving algae, we were all alone. I once more found myself the object of Red Impulse's intense gaze.
"You wanted to talk, talk. I'm listening."
Now that the moment was here, I found myself hesitating. It was too late to back out and I knew it, but still... I stared out into the murky water around us and forced myself to start. Faltering at first, I eventually told him all that I knew.
Silence reigned between us for a while. It bothered me more than the comments of disbelief I'd half expected him to make. I didn't dare to look at him.
"Can you prove any of this?"
I made myself face him and meet the question head on. "Probably not..." I couldn't read his expression. "I've no physical proof and all the knowledge I have of the history of my Earth could probably be discounted as fanciful delusions of an unbalanced mind. The only thing I have is that I knew you were Ken's father, plus I would have nothing to gain by coming up with such a fantastical tale."
He humphed, a slight smile on his face. "You really must not be from around here or you'd know that Nambu will try anything he thinks he could get away with." The smile disappeared. "Let's assume for the moment that I believe you. What next?"
I almost groaned at the question. "To be honest, I hadn't gotten that far." I shrugged. "The only thing I do know is that I want to find a way to get back home."
Red Impulse nodded and then reached for the controls. "Good enough. But I'm not quite yet ready to enter into this with both feet." The craft slowly began to rise. "I suggest we sleep on it and talk some more tomorrow."
A shiver cut through me at the thought of having to go back to that dark, alien room. I supposed, since there was no real choice, I'd have to learn to live with it.
Needless to say, I was rather surprised when our ship didn't head back toward Crescent Coral. I opened my mouth to ask where we were going, but slammed it shut before I did. I had to gain his trust. If I questioned his choices this early in the game...
Red Impulse said nothing as we traveled, so I just left him with his thoughts. After a while, between the long day and the soft hum of the engines, my eyes closed. Before I knew it, I'd been dragged down into sleep.
I awoke a lot later... Bright light dazzled my eyes and I sat up in panic, my body tensed for whatever would come.
Deep, hearty laughter greeted me from across the room. I blinked, feeling horribly disoriented, and turned to find Red Impulse sitting across from me. He held a steaming cup of coffee in one hand. I stared at him in confusion the last thing I remembered was the two of us going somewhere in his submersible. Now, I found myself on a long couch with a blanket thrown over my lap.
"Good morning, or should I say good afternoon." Red Impulse sipped at his cup, a small smile on his lips. The strong aroma of brewed coffee tickled my nose and set my stomach rumbling.
"It would seem that crossing to parallel worlds takes a lot out of a man. I tried to wake you when we arrived, but you didn't cooperate. I took the liberty of carrying you in."
I looked away my cheeks coloring. Flashes of other times when he had helped me bubbled up from my memory. "Sorry about that."
"Don't worry about it. I needed the exercise." He set his cup down and stood up. "Are you hungry? I saved some lunch for you."
"Yeah, I am. Thanks." My stomach quickly seconded the motion.
I got up and folded the blanket he'd given me as my eyes roamed over the room. This was, but wasn't my father's cabin. There was nothing specific that was different about it, just little things I couldn't quite put my finger on. I was still trying to puzzle them out when he returned with a tray of food.
"Nothing fancy, but not too bad, if I say so myself." He placed the soup and sandwiches on the small coffee table before me.
My mouth watered at the smell of the homemade vegetable soup, so I quickly went at it. From the corner of my eye, I watched my father's double as he sat back down and finished his coffee. I could feel him studying me as I ate.
I sat back when I was through, popping in the last bite of my ham sandwich. I felt almost good. I studied Red Impulse as he'd done me, as he got up to pick up the dishes.
It struck me as he moved off that he was still wearing his helmet; almost as if he still believed I didn't know who he was. It was the same way I had always seen my father. Even on that last day, the day I found out who he really was, he'd not taken it off, staying Red Impulse till the end. I had seen him in civvies once, but never as my father. A strange feeling flared in the depths of my soul.
I held onto it, trying to figure out what it meant as I waited for Red Impulse to return. He came back a minute later carrying two cups of coffee. He handed me one and I took it. It was then that the feeling clicked. "Could I, could I ask a favor?"
His cup stopped midway to his lips. "A favor?"
Now that I had his attention, it suddenly occurred to me that the whole thing would sound stupid. I looked away and asked anyway. "Yeah, but it's nothing really important, so if you refuse, I'll understand." He said nothing. "If you, if you wouldn't mind, could you take off your helmet?" This man wasn't my father, but he looked just like him. I wanted to see what he would have looked like. I wanted, needed a full image of him to replace the fuzzy memories of his face that I'd preserved from childhood.
Red Impulse seemed to consider my request and after a moment shrugged offhandedly. "A simple enough request. I suppose there'd be no harm in it."
I watched with bated breath as he reached up to remove the helmet and visor. I couldn't take my eyes off him as he revealed what lay underneath.
His hair was short, cut in military style. It was dark brown like my own. His brows were thick, his forehead furrowed with old frown lines. But his eyes, what caught me were his eyes. Through the visor they had always appeared to be brown. In reality though, they were a deep steel blue. I had my mother's eyes, but now I knew that my father's eyes were also blue. I found a smile tugging at my lips as tears rose to my eyes. This was what Kentaro Washio truly looked like. This was what my father looked like! I engraved every line into my memory. The fuzzy mental picture of my father grew sharp again. "Thank you. This means a lot to me."
I noticed that he was staring at me strangely. "Might I ask why?"
I looked away wiping at my eyes. This wouldn't be easy. "I don't know what, what the history is here, but on my world... Kentaro Washio faked his own death in order to become a spy and keep tabs of Galactor's V-2 plan. This happened when I was four." I stared at my hands. "He left me and my mother under Dr. Nambu's care." It felt strange saying these things to him, my mind insisting that my father already knew them.
"And though, as far as everyone else knew my father was dead, I'd never quite believed it. I just, I just knew he wasn't dead. I was right, but I never suspected how close he really was. Through the team, I had contact with him as Red Impulse. Though we didn't hit it off too well at first, he eventually became a mentor to me, a friend, at times even a rival. To be honest, I felt a little intimidated by him, and felt I had to keep proving myself to him." I took a deep breath and went on.
"Then, Galactor finally implemented the V-2 plan. They held the world for ransom, and through a weird set of circumstances, my father and I ended working together to make it stop. After infiltrating the Galactor compound, we found out that the rocket needed to reverse the effects of the V-2 plan, hadn't been totally completed. The auto pilot had yet to be installed--to fly it where it needed to go, someone would have to give up their life." My throat felt very dry.
"I insisted the duty was mine, but so did he. We were about to come to blows when the team showed up and Jun... Jun told me that he was my father." I felt tears coming again. I couldn't stop them. Damn, I thought I'd gotten over this. "As I stood there staring at him in shock, he made his move. He... he lifted me in his arms and threw me across the room. Before, before I could try and stop him, he entered the rocket and launched." I hesitated before going on.
"By dying, he saved the world. It was later that I came to realize that in the end, I didn't really get to see his face. Now that he was dead, I'd never get the chance... That is, until I met you." My throat was tight, my cheeks wet. I wiped away the tears knowing that they weren't appropriate.
After several minutes of silence, I braved a glance in his direction. I found him standing by the window, staring into a clear blue sky. I barely heard him when he finally spoke. "What happened to you mother?"
The question caught me off guard. "She's... she's dead. She died when I was eleven. She'd had a long battle with Leukemia. She fought it for a long time. But in the end, it won."
"I see." He continued gazing at the sky.
His question brought up one of my own. One on who's answer I hadn't dared hope on until now. "Is she, is she alive, here?" He turned toward me. One look at the sadness in his eyes told it all.
"No, she's also dead. She was murdered while I was off on a mission. You were five then--I mean, my son was five. That's when Nambu got his hooks into him." His eyes darkened. "I've no proof, but I believe that the good doctor killed my wife in order to give him the excuse that he needed to take my son."
A chill ran through me. Nambu had killed her for the child?
"I didn't realize any of this at first of course. But I began to suspect something wasn't right when I returned, and many times afterward, when Nambu always had an excuse on why I couldn't see my son. Every time I pushed, a convenient mission would crop up and it was always imperative that I go take care of it.
"To be honest, I believe it took me so long to figure it out because I didn't want to face the truth--Kozaburo Nambu was no longer the man I'd once thought of as my best friend. I don't know what happened to him, what made him change so totally, but he was no longer whom he'd been. He was a total stranger to me." He turned to look out the window again.
"By the time I accepted all this, though, it was too late. Ken had already been corrupted to the core." His agony, his feelings of guilt, were all there for me to see. I didn't know what to do about it.
His face abruptly brightened. "Well, enough of memories. I have a few things to finish up and some calls to make. Just make yourself comfortable and I'll return shortly." He nodded toward me and moved to leave the room.
"Red Impulse - "
He turned back around and held up a hand. "Kentaro, call me Kentaro. I don't think you and I need to stick to titles."
I nodded quickly, glad for the change. "Kentaro, I just wanted to say, thank you."
He nodded again and left.
I yearned to follow him, to not let him out of my sight, sure that I would wake up as soon as he left. Instead, I made myself stay and finish my coffee. I decided to keep busy by trying to find out what was different about this reality's cabin, rather than sitting and thinking of other, possibly more painful, things.
The old worn mantle was the same; the logs ever ready in the fire place just waiting to be lit. The square Indian rug still sat on the floor nearby, but after a moment, I realized that its hues were different from those of the other. Most of the other differences I found ran along the same vein. How could a place be so much the same and yet so different? The question made me itch. I started walking around.
Even with all I'd seen and heard, I still couldn't get away from the feeling that all this had to be some kind of bad dream. But, I'd slept and awakened and everything was still here. Or was that just part of the dream? Maybe I'd soon wake up for real. But then...
I heard dishes clattering in the kitchen. Maybe, maybe I didn't really want to wake up just yet.
By the time Kentaro had finished with his calls and other things, I'd wandered on outside. The sky was blue as ever; the pristine picture perfect mountains and clean cold air the same. It was just as it should be, just like home--the place I'd vowed to always protect. I'd half wished it would somehow have been radically different. It might have made all this a little easier to take.
"Feeling up to a short ride?"
I turned around, not having heard Kentaro approach. He'd once more donned his helmet, his visor lowered. I couldn't really see his expression. I wasn't sure what to make of the change. "Sure. Where are we going?"
His smile was disarming. "You'll see."
Kentaro led me around the cabin out to the grassy hill where he normally kept his plane. The small, red fighter was just as I remembered it--sleek and menacing, yet calmly beautiful in its own way. I felt a bit of nostalgic pleasure at seeing it again.
"Ken." I looked over at him and found his gaze locking with mine. "I've thought over everything you've told me, and though I'm not one hundred percent sure of what you've said, I do know someone who can come as close as any to verifying it as truth or not." He walked slowly toward the plane.
"For the time being, my friend wishes to remain anonymous. To guarantee that, I'm going to have to ask you to ride in here." Kentaro popped open a side panel on his fighter that I'd never noticed before. It revealed a cavity inside the plane, one just large enough for someone to fit inside.
I stared at the cramped space, uneasy about it. I wanted help, yes, but getting in there would make me highly vulnerable. Still, Kentaro had already had plenty of opportunity to try anything of that sort if that had been his intention. Without a word, I took a deep breath, grabbed onto the lip at the opening and slipped in feet first.
"The ride will probably be a little bumpy, especially during takeoff. There should be a pillow in there somewhere. It should help some.
"It seems Nambu is having quite a fit looking for you." He slammed the panel closed before I could say anything.
The ride was as bumpy as promised. I was thoroughly sore and well battered by the time he'd lifted into the air. I tried to get somewhat comfortable, trying hard not to think about what the landing would be like. I dozed lightly through most of the flight, but jerked awake as I heard the landing struts slip out for the upcoming landing. Less than two minutes later, they touched ground. Thankfully, the passage through whatever we'd landed on was basically smooth.
Bright light abruptly bathed the cramped compartment, blinding me. Then a familiar shadow covered the opening and reached in to help me out.
"So, did we survive okay?"
I let him drag me out even as I tried to wake up my half sleeping legs. Painful tingles worked their way up my calves as I regained my feet. "If it's all the same with you, I think I'd prefer it if we drove next time."
Kentaro laughed and put his arm around my shoulders steering me away from the plane. I found the gesture strange, coming from him, but I was thrilled by it nevertheless.
The fighter was parked in a large hangar, which had already been closed to the outside. Aside from the fighter and us, the place was empty, too empty--there was nothing with which one could try and use to identify the place later.
I tired to get a better look around but Kentaro's arm stopped me. His hand was locked into my shoulder like a vice. I glanced over at him to ask what was wrong, but he beat me to it.
"Just stay cool; don't look too curious. My friend is a little on the paranoid side and doesn't know what to make of you yet. Let's just walk straight over to that door and make him happy. He doesn't go in much for the overly curious types."
I tensed, my nervousness rising, but did as he asked.
Without preamble, Kentaro opened the door and we moved inside. The hallway beyond was long and non-descript. The hair on the back of my neck rose as we went along, the lack of doors or places to hide making me feel uncomfortably vulnerable--I was used to going into bases on my own terms, not striding in when I was expected. Still, I'd be damned if I was about to let it show. Kentaro went along as if this were the safest place in the world. Every instinct inside me screamed the total opposite. Yet, I did nothing--I'd asked to be brought here after all. I just didn't like it.
We turned a corner into another long, plain hallway and followed it to a set of stairs. My skin prickled, and though I couldn't see anything, I was sure we were being watched.
At the end of the stairs, we came across a door on the right. Kentaro opened it and walked inside. I followed.
The room was as bland as the hallways had been. The only things inside were a couple of chairs, a wooden table, and an odd looking box. Kentaro signaled me to take the chair farthest in the room. He took the other.
"Well, Ken, this is it." He leaned toward me. "In order to gain my friend's trust, I'll need for you to tell your story again. Just talk toward the box."
I nodded, staring at the box, sure that it had to be some kind of lie detector. Though I understood the reasons behind it, they made me no less nervous. I drew a deep breath and quickly tried to steady my nerves. I slowly repeated all that I had told Kentaro earlier.
I glanced at my father's double, hoping for some kind of clue as to what would happen now that I'd finished. His expression was neutral and told me nothing at all. I finally couldn't stand it anymore. "What happens now?"
Before he could answer, a high, male voice poured into the room from the ceiling. "The test indicates that there's a ninety eight point seven percent probability that he's telling the truth, at least as far as he knows it. I suppose it will have to do. Please wait for me there. I'll be up momentarily."
Kentaro sighed softly and then glanced up at me with a small smile. Perhaps he had been as nervous as me after all. I wasn't quite yet ready to relax though.
Several minutes later, there was a soft knock at the door. Kentaro was halfway out of his chair to go answer it when the door opened on its own. I don't know what I was expecting, but what met my curious gaze probably hadn't been it.
Kentaro's friend was tall and lean. His face had an almost feminine quality to the features, but he was definitely male. His face made him look younger than he probably was; his deep blue eyes, however, told another story. They looked like the eyes of an ancient and wise man, one who, perhaps, had seen too much in his time.
His blond hair was like spun gold, thick and full, and cascaded down his back. He wore a tailored, light gray suit, which, when taken in with his clean features and lithe form, gave him an air of elegance. He smiled at us with full, robust lips as he stepped into the room. In an odd way, I had the thought that we'd met somewhere before.
"Well, I must say, this is definitely a meeting that I'd never anticipated." I stood as he came toward us. He held out his hand for mine. "Please let me introduce myself--my name is Berg Katse. You can call me Berg."
I stiffened, his hand in mine. A wave of repulsion and hate swept through me and it took all I had not to pull my hand away in disgust. My father had brought me to him? I looked into the man's eyes my every instinct telling me to attack. If this was Berg Katse, he was the man responsible for the death of millions! He was the man responsible for my father's death. Yet, was this him? Where was the infamous mask, the purple cloak? Was this his true face or another one of his disguises? What was Kentaro thinking? I glanced over at my father's double; he looked cool and uninhibited. I trusted this man, therefore I had to make myself trust his judgment. If the Ninja team were so different here, perhaps my enemy was too? I forced myself to remember over and over that this was not my Berg Katse.
"Hm, I take it I'm not very well liked where you come from?" Berg's brow was raised, an amused smile playing on his lips.
"I'm sorry, I meant no offense." I couldn't keep my voice from sounding cold. "I hadn't expected Kentaro's friend to be you..."
Katse's smile grew. "No offense taken. I did happen to have a little more time to get used to the idea than you did. Never in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen that the mighty Gatchaman might have to come to me for help."
"Yes, you should have heard him on the phone. It took some pretty fast talking on my part just to get him to hear you out." Kentaro chuckled. Katse gave him an evil look. I found it strange to realize that these two were actually friends. Yet that more than anything else, helped put me a little more at ease.
"Well, moving past all that, what can I do to help you, Ken?"
I hesitated, having thought the answer to be quite obvious. I was also finding it hard to ask for this man's help just because of who he was back home. "I'd, I'd like you to help me find a way to get back home."
Berg nodded, his eyes bright. "Yes, I thought that might be it. Unfortunately, I'm not all that sure that it will be possible."
I couldn't look at him, I should have expected as much. I sat back down and stared at the table. My throat felt very dry. "Su, surely the fact that I'm here proves that it can be done."
"Yes, that's true, but unfortunately, we've no idea what caused you to be brought here in the first place. As soon as Kentaro told me of your own theories on the matter, I pulled out all the available information on the energy box trap. I could find nothing in its design that could have caused the effect you described, let alone send you here. I've no idea if there's even a way to try and reproduce it."
My chest felt tight, too tight. I was having problems breathing. No, this couldn't be it. I couldn't just give up this easily. I made myself stand up and look Berg in the eye. "There has to be a way. There has to be something we can try." I would beg if I had to--though I was sure nothing would please him more. But there just had to be something he could do for me.
Katse shrugged. "I can try running some scenarios through the computers. I suppose I could also bring this up to Sosai, on the off chance that he's heard of this type of phenomenon before. It's mostly his doing that we've kept ahead of the game as we have."
I frowned but said nothing. Who was this Sosai? He sounded important, but I'd never heard of him before.
"Until I'm able to consult with him, I'd like to invite you both to stay as my guests." His clear gaze locked with mine. "Doctor Nambu has already noticed your disappearance and is putting on quite a search for you. It would be in your best interest to stay."
"I understand." It felt weird taking advise from my worst enemy, even if it wasn't really him. Joe would have found the whole thing profoundly humorous.
Katse smiled. "And so you should." His eyes sparkled with mirth. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that.
"There is, however, one other matter that needs to be brought up before I have some rooms readied for you." His expression turned serious. He pointed at my wrist. "That is a tracking device, am I right?"
I felt a shiver go down my spine. I'd forgotten about that. "Y-yes, it can be used for that."
Berg smiled softly. "I would take it as a sign of mutual trust if you would give it to me for safe keeping. Though I doubt it'd be able to make it through our shielding, I'd rather be safe than sorry. Unless you have an objection?"
He must have been reading my mind. I'd been just about to do that. The idea of parting with my wristband, regardless of the reason, made me very uneasy. But, did I really have a choice? I had to make them trust me; they were my only way home. "N-no, no objections."
I took the wristband off and handed it to him before I could change my mind.
"Thank you." Berg bowed slightly. I wasn't sure if he was mocking me or not. I clamped down on the thought before it could show on my face. "Please wait here while I make some arrangements. I promise I won't take long." He nodded toward each of us then left.
I sat down again, feeling naked without the wristband. I hoped to hell that I hadn't just made a terrible mistake.
"That went well."
I glanced up at Kentaro not sure I understood what he meant. "If you say so."
"Don't worry, if anyone can find a way to get you home, it will be Katse. You'll see." He propped his feet up on the table.
"This is just a little too weird for me not to worry. My whole world's been turned inside out and I'm finding it hard to get my balance. The whole situation makes me wonder if there's even more realities than just our two." That there might be an uncountable number of ‘Kens' sitting in a chair just like this one, saying exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way. My head started to pound. I didn't blame it.
Kentaro laughed. "I think we have enough problems without getting into those kind of questions." He laughed again. God how I enjoyed hearing it. Even if the worst came to pass, and I couldn't go home, would it really be all that bad? He would be here.
I was surprised at the thought, but even more at its odd appeal. I felt immediately guilty knowing that even thinking about staying here would mean leaving my other self to wreck havoc at home. I couldn't allow that.
We settled into an easy silence as we waited for Berg to return. We didn't have to wait long.
"Your quarters are ready. If you'd follow me?" His seeming eagerness made me shudder. I had to remind myself that this wasn't Katse, that he wasn't taking me to a trap.
I got to my feet, Kentaro doing the same. We followed Berg out into the hallway.
"This base is fairly new, but hopefully you'll find it has all the essential amenities. The lower levels house the living quarters, gyms, and training areas. You'll have free access to all of those. Access to the other levels will of course not be allowed except under proper escort. It never hurts to be careful."
I agreed wholeheartedly. I was also glad that the Katse of my world wasn't this cautious. Our job was hard enough as it was.
Berg led us through a maze of hallways that eventually ended at a set of elevator doors. Two guards there snapped to attention as they caught sight of us. Their uniforms were crisp and colored green, except at the cuffs for wrists and feet, which were brown. Neither of the men wore masks or helmets, leaving their faces exposed. This would render the ninja team's old trick of impersonating guards pretty much moot.
Berg passed the guards a card from his pocket. They immediately passed it through a reader. Berg made small talk as they waited for the results, acting as if he had all the time in the world. He even knew the men by name. These two things, more than anything, drove home the fact that this man wasn't anything like the evil villain I'd struggled against for so long. Hope rose inside me--maybe I would make it home after all.
We were scanned inside the elevator and after Berg put his hand over a panel on the wall, the elevator buttons lit up. The security measures here would have made Nambu Hakase proud. Berg chose the button on the lower right. The elevator rocketed downwards.
As soon as the doors opened again, Berg stepped out. "Gentlemen."
The drabness that had permeated everything upstairs was gone. Lush green carpeting covered the floor from wall to wall. A large mural decorated the wall on the left, depicting a lush valley greeting a rising sun. Small potted trees and hanging plants dotted the area here and there adding to the effect. Large couches were casually scattered about the area. These were essential amenities? I'd hate to have seen what he actually considered non-essential ones.
I looked to the side, only to find that Berg was studying me a slight smile on his lips. "Your rooms are this way."
He led us from the tall ceilinged room down one of the three corridors leading from there. We took the farthest one on the right.
People strolled past us, all wearing loose jumpsuits of varying colors. Berg had a smile or kind word to all we passed on the way. The men and women were extremely polite in turn and smiled at all three of us. It felt strange.
The corridor split off a number of times as it curled gently before us. It wasn't hard to get the impression that this base was immense. Berg seemed to be totally familiar with every inch of it.
"Ah, here we are. Ken, yours is the one on the left. I hope you like it." His eyes sought mine. "I'll let you know as soon as I learn anything. Until then, please enjoy yourself."
"Yes, thank you."
"Kentaro, try not to get him into too much trouble, all right?"
"I wouldn't dream of it." Kentaro's face was all innocence, but his eyes said otherwise.
Berg laughed. "I thought as much. I'll call you later. Take care!" And with that, he left us on our own. I watched him go, not entirely sure of what to make of him.
Kentaro moved past me and opened the door to my room. "Come on, let's take a look."
I knew what I was half-expecting, and this sure wasn't it. My quarters were twice the size of those at Crescent Coral. The bed was at least a queen size and was quite comfortable. The carpeting was the same green as the hallway and blended well with the cream colored walls. The bedspread was a combination of both colors, plus orange and reds thrown in for flair. It was almost as if I'd just booked into an expensive hotel.
"Come over here." Kentaro signaled to me as he walked on over to the wall on the far side of the room. "Most of these rooms tend to be standard, but unless you know what to look for, you won't realize all that they've really got."
He quickly showed me how to look for slightly darker patches on the walls. Each of them activated hidden compartments.
Jinpei would have loved this. "That's pretty amazing."
Kentaro shrugged. "It's just part of the way Berg does business. His people love him for it."
I shook my head in disbelief. Fear and hate turned to love and respect? It was unbelievable.
"Well, now that you've got an idea on what to look for, I'll let you discover the rest of the treasures on your own." Kentaro strode toward the door. "I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Sure." My stomach cramped at the prospect of being left alone in this crazy place. I knew I was being foolish but the feeling wouldn't go away. "Goodnight." I watched him go out the door. It softly slid shut behind him.
As he'd suggested, I looked for the other dark spots in the room and found out what they did. I found a set of bookcases, a gas fireplace, a desk and computer, a bathroom, a hamper, a large closet, and a small refrigerator full of snacks and drinks. There was even a full stereo arrangement. These were all basic necessities?
I tried my door, not sure what would happen, and to my surprise found it to have been left unlocked. A little more relaxed than I'd been before, I decided to turn in for the night.
Normally I'm not very comfortable sleeping somewhere I'm not familiar with. I had no such problems that night. I was asleep almost as soon as my head had hit the pillow.
I woke up early, feeling strangely rested and at ease. I cleaned up a bit and got dressed, pretty sure that I was all slept out for now. After I'd finished, and since I figured there wouldn't be that many people about at this time of the morning, I decided to walk around a bit and check the place out.
The level was quiet, the lights tuned down to a light dusk. I walked around aimlessly, letting the silence around me sink into my skin. After a short while, I ran into an elevator. To my surprise, I found that the last five floors on the button rack for it were active. I decided to press my luck -- I pushed the top of the lit buttons.
On the new floor, I'd barely gone five feet down the hallway before the walls on either side changed to see through panels. On my right I could see an extensive weight/exercise room with all manner of equipment. Even as early as it was, I found that people were already there availing themselves of it. On my left, there was a large running track with a set of bleachers on one side. The field in the middle looked like it could be set up for a number of athletic activities.
I wandered through the level watching the people I saw using the facilities. Everyone I spotted appeared healthy, even content. If I hadn't known better, I would have never guessed that I was standing in the middle of a Galactor base.
I came across a large cafeteria two levels above the one with my quarters. My stomach complained loudly as I was suddenly assaulted by the scent of fried eggs, toast, and coffee. I hesitated going in, noticing small groups of diners already scattered about the room. My stomach roughly reminded me ever more strongly of my obligation to it. I caved in. I tried not to look too conspicuous as I made my way to the short line. No one really seemed to notice me much.
My eyes wandered over the food, even as the mingling scents of bacon, pancakes, and the other items I'd smelled earlier, conspired to make my mouth water. I loaded my tray with everything that caught my eye, feeling more ravenous by the moment.
I steered clear of most of the diners and sat close to a corner from where I could keep an eye on the rest of the room. I dug in.
By the time I'd finished a second helping of pancakes, the room had started to fill. I finished the rest of my breakfast quickly and then took my leave. I was amazed again at the number of smiles floating here and there as total strangers bid me ‘good morning' over and over.
I glanced off to my right at the familiar voice. It was Kentaro. He quickly caught up to me. I was happy to see him. I was even happier to note that he'd left his helmet behind.
"You're up early."
"I felt a little restless, I guess. I went exploring. That was all right, wasn't it?"
Kentaro smiled. "Of course. You're Berg's guest not a prisoner." He glanced past me toward the cafeteria. "Have you eaten?"
"Ah, yeah, I just finished."
He nodded. "Feel up to a little exercise to work it off then?"
I smiled. "That'd be great."
He winked at me. "You may not think so when we're through." His smile had a wicked edge to it and was highly contagious. It made me that much more eager to go.
We traveled up one level and moved toward the back. "This way, we can change clothes in here."
The changing room was large and totally tiled. Bins of clean exercise wear filled one wall while another had chutes for putting in used ones. Kentaro grabbed us a couple of gi and took me farther into the room where we found a couple of lockers for our clothes.
I quickly took off the brown jacket and ankle boots. The tight body suit took a little longer. I was more than happy to trade the lot for the loose fitting gi. Kentaro was waiting for me by the time I'd finished. I forced myself not to stare too openly at his unmasked face.
"Ready for a little exercise?"
"Sure. I'm always ready." The line was corny, but I just hadn't been able to help myself.
"We'll take the room over there. I think it'll prove large enough for our needs."
The room was at least a thirty by thirty. The walls and floor were heavily padded. A rack of wooden hand weapons was set high on the far end wall.
Kentaro headed for the middle of the room and started doing stretching exercises. I followed suit. As we went, I found myself glancing at him off and on from the corner of my eye. I just couldn't get enough of him. After all that had happened in my life, this was like a dream come true. I was even a little afraid of it. Yet as we started in on some light sparing, I made myself forget the fact that this man wasn't really my father.
Each bout grew ever more fierce. Sweat covered our bodies from the effort, yet I'd never felt so good. Now that he no longer had a need to keep his identity secret from me, Kentaro relaxed and looked as pleased to be here as I was. I swear that he smiled with pride every time I pulled a particularly good move on him. He also laughed with good humor the few times I did something really stupid and he quickly took me down.
By the time we finally called it quits, I felt extremely content. The question of whether or not I'd ever be able to get back home was the farthest thing from my mind.
The shower was hot and soothing to my aching muscles. I'd pay for the hard workout even more later, but for the moment, I didn't care, it‘d been worth it.
With a towel snugly wrapped about my waist, I went back to the lockers for my clothes. I sighed when I opened the small door, remembering what it was that I had to put on.
"Something wrong?" Kentaro's voice startled me. I hadn't heard him come up.
"Ah, no, it's just that this ‘outfit' isn't quite what I'm used to.
Kentaro's brow rose as he glanced the uniform in my hands. "I see. Well, luckily, we can do something about that. Berg's bases are nothing if not well stocked." He walked off to the front to the clean clothes bins. I watched him as he moved in his towel, noticing a number of old scars that I'd never seen before. I wondered how he'd gotten them and if my father had had them as well. I promised myself to ask him about them later.
Kentaro leaned over a bin at the far end. He pulled out a blue jumpsuit and brought it over for me to look at.
"That'll do nicely, thanks!" The fabric felt comfortable and I liked the color. Besides, anything was better than the tight black suit. The boots didn't go too well with the jumpsuit, but they'd have to do. I folded the bodysuit and jacket and tucked them under my arm. "What now?"
"How about lunch?"
We made our way to the cafeteria. I loaded up with as much food as I had earlier that morning. I was even able to put it all away.
We took over a corner table, ate and talked. Most of the conversation was over mundane things; comparing this or that and what the differences were in our respective worlds. The more we talked, the more I realized that these differences were in no way constant. That struck me as odd, but then again, what did I know about such things? We talked late into the afternoon.
I've-I've never been so happy in my entire life. Kentaro appeared to be everything I could have wished my father to be. Never had I dared hope that it would be like this. True, he wasn't my real father, but surely mine would have been just like this.
I was rather surprised when Berg showed up and joined us for dinner. None of those around us seemed all that shocked to see it, just pleased. To my amazement, Berg turned out to be quite a conversationalist. As the evening wore on, it got easier and easier not to think of him as Katse anymore.
After dinner, as if he hadn't already shocked me enough, Berg brought up the reason for my visit in public, even though there were still diners in the area. Anyone of them could have easily overheard us, but Berg just didn't seem to care.
"I've spoken with Sosai-sama at length, and he believes that there's a chance that we might be able to send you home." My heart soared. "Of course, it will be a while before we're ready to try. There's simulations he wants to run on some theories of his, and we have to rebuild the trap as well. We'll also need to run some extensive tests on you to see if there are any residuals from your experience or other anomalies that might have had something to do with what happened."
I nodded quickly, willing to do whatever was necessary. "Test me on whatever you need." I wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea, but what else could I do?
He smiled at me eagerly. "Okay then, how about we start first thing tomorrow? I'll come for you around eight?"
"That'd be great." It actually wasn't soon enough to suit me, but I'd settle for what I could get. "I'll be ready."
And I was. I'd been pacing the room for at least an hour before he finally came for me.
The tests were more intensive than anything I had expected. They took most of the day. I was sure Joe wouldn't have put up with the prodding, probing, and boredom even if this was the only way he'd get home. Through it all, Berg and Kentaro always stayed nearby, normally trying their best to keep my mind off whatever they were doing to me at the time. After all that, I was sure there was no way they wouldn't find any possible anomalies that related to me.I collapsed in bed that night, too tired to even undress. I fell asleep in seconds.