"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."
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.
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.
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....
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.
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.
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.
"Kozaburo Nambu and one guest."
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.
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.