Reintegration by TransmuteJun
Summary:

The war with Galactor has cost Ken more than he could ever have imagined, yet now he is forced to face his new life head on.

 

This is the second story in my Consequences trilogy. 


Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Gel Sadra, Goon, Jinpei, Ken Washio, Other Canon Character, Ryu Nakanishi
Genre: Angst, Character Study, Drama, Hurt/Comfort
Story Warnings: Crude Humor, Death, Graphic Violence, Mild Language, Mild Violence, Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Mid-Series
Universe: Alternate Universe
Challenges: None
Series: Consequences
Chapters: 11 Completed: Yes Word count: 36791 Read: 20632 Published: 09/19/2011 Updated: 09/19/2011

1. Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

2. Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

3. Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

4. Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

5. Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

6. Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

7. Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

8. Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

9. Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

10. Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

11. Epilogue by TransmuteJun

Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 1

The sun was streaming brightly through the window. The temperature was warm, with nary a cloud to mar the perfection of the bright blue sky. It was an ideal day for being outside. An ideal day for flying.

But I wasn't a part of it. I lay in bed, amongst tangled, sweaty sheets, wishing that my curtains were drawn so that they could block out the bright light. I punched my pillow in frustration, turning and yanking the covers over my head. I didn't want to be a part of this world. There was nothing left in it for me anymore.

A knock on the door broke through my morose thoughts, jarring me back to my unwelcome reality.

"Ken." Dr. Nambu's voice was muffled as it came through the door. "I need to speak with you."

"It's your house. Come on in." I replied sarcastically, knowing that the Doctor was not about to be denied.

"This is your home too, Ken." Dr. Nambu intoned as he entered my room. "You have a right to be here. You grew up here."

I didn't bother coming out from underneath the covers. I didn't want to talk, and Dr. Nambu knew it. Sure, my behavior was childish, but if Hakase got fed up, he might leave me alone. Why should I make it any easier for him?

"Ken, I'm talking to you!" Dr. Nambu reprimanded sharply, ripping the sheets from my body and raking his eyes over me. "It's practically noon, and here you haven't even gotten dressed yet! You could certainly afford to pay better attention to your personal hygiene as well."

"Why bother?" I snorted, rolling onto my side so that I didn't have to look at him. I had once considered Dr. Nambu like my own father, but at that moment we couldn't have been further apart.

"I'm not going anywhere today." I added, as justification for my attitude.

"You haven't gone anywhere for months, Ken." the Doctor stated dryly. "But that has to change. I need you."

"You need me?" I laughed self-deprecatingly. "There's nothing I could possibly do for you, Hakase."

"I want to reactivate the Science Ninja Team." he said. "It's time."

"What does that have to do with me?" I asked bitterly. "I'm not…"

"I want you to lead the Team." Dr. Nambu said seriously, cutting me off before I could give voice to my objection. "I need you, Ken."

"You've got to be kidding." I snorted in disgust. "I'm of no use to anyone. I can't be a Science Ninja, much less the leader of the Team. A trained monkey would be a better Gatchaman than I."

"Look at me, Ken." Dr. Nambu ordered. Despite myself, I found my head turning to meet his gaze. No matter my current situation, instinctively I had to respond to that note of authority in his voice.

"You are not worthless." the Doctor stated, so adamantly that I almost believed it. "You were the leader of the Science Ninja Team before, and you can do it again."

"That's hardly a valid comparison." I retorted. "You know darn well…"

"Damn it, Ken, when are you going to drag yourself out of this self-pitying state and realize that you still have something to offer?" Dr. Nambu's reddened face contorted wildly with his fury.

"That's hardly fair, Hakase!" I shouted back, struggling to pull myself into a sitting position. "I gave everything I had in me to the last war. Everything! I'm not even a man anymore! I have nothing left, and the Team, such as it is, can go on without me. I'd only drag them down."

"Do you really think Jinpei and Ryu can go on without you?" Dr. Nambu replied coldly. "Jinpei can barely deal with civilian life during this temporary peace. Ryu is driving himself crazy trying to hold it together when there's no one around to support him. I'm attempting to recruit new members for the Team. Who's going to help them integrate, if not you?"

"New members?" I repeated. "You don't need me then. Make one of them the new Gatchaman."

"They won't have the experience that you do, or the knowledge. They'll be able to fight; I'll make certain of that. As you say, a trained monkey can fight. But no one else has your experience with leadership and strategy. Your knowledge of Galactor. Besides…" the Doctor paused, and I looked up, waiting for him to continue. He smirked slightly, knowing that he had finally caught my attention.

"It would kill you if I ever gave the title of Gatchaman to anyone else." Dr. Nambu finished. I hung my head, knowing deep inside that he was right. No matter how unsuited I was now for leadership, I didn't know if I could bear the additional shame of hearing another called 'Gatchaman'. The name was a part of who I was, and it would feel as if my soul was being ripped from my body if…

"I've called Jinpei and Ryu to a meeting in my study in three hours." Dr. Nambu informed me disdainfully. "If you change your mind, you're welcome to attend. But if you do, you'd better be washed and dressed." He turned sharply, departing my room before he could ascertain my reaction.

As the door closed once more, I sighed heavily, staring down at my ravaged body. I had let myself atrophy, and the musculature I had used to take for granted was long gone. But of course that wasn't the worst of it. I stared at the empty space where my legs should have been, still unable to accept that I was of any use without them.

And yet… Hakase thought I still had something to offer. I had spent more than a year wallowing in my own misery, and what had I accomplished? There had to be a reason I had survived the nightmare that had been Cross Karokorum. A day I could never forget…

88888

"Joe!" I called out, peering through the thick fog, searching both for my missing teammate and the entrance to Galactor Headquarters. I heard a flurry of footsteps, but the shapes that emerged through the mist were those of Galactor soldiers. I barely gave them a second thought as I ended their miserable lives, my only concern being the time that was fast running out, before the Black Hole Plan arrived at its ultimate conclusion.

"Ken…"

The voice was weak, but I knew it as well as my own. I ran toward the source of the sound, barely breaking stride as four more Galactors came out of the fog to attack. A few seconds later, I found my best friend sprawled out on the ground.

To say that Joe was a mess would have been kind. It appeared that he had been riddled with bullets, and drained of all strength. And yet somehow, he had survived. He was here, clinging to life, waiting…

"Joe, it's all right. I'm here." I told him. "I'll contact the others." I raised my bracelet to my lips, sending out the brief communication, knowing even as I did so that Galactor was likely monitoring the transmission, and would use it to determine my location.

"Ken… I can't go on…" Joe groaned, clearly using up all of his remaining strength to speak. "The entrance to Galactor Headquarters… it's here, right next to me. I had to show you the way…"

I desperately wanted to offer words of reassurance, to tell him that it was going to work out. That we would get him back to the God Phoenix, and that Dr. Nambu would cure him. But when I looked down at his grievous injuries, on top of the brain illness he had already been suffering, I knew that it would all be a pack of lies.

Joe could never survive this. To pretend otherwise to him now would be to dishonor our friendship. I couldn't do that to him.

Ryu and Jinpei appeared from out of the fog. They fell to their knees on the wet ground, staring slackjawed at their fallen teammate.

"Joe, why'd you do it, brother?" I asked.

"Listen, Ken, I know what you're going to say, so let me just tell you not to bother saying it." Joe gasped. "There's no more time…"

"Damn fool! Why did you take things into your own hands?" I questioned him, tears in my eyes. "Why didn't you talk to us about it? Ask for help?"

"Jun…" Joe said.

"What about Jun?" I asked. I quickly looked around, but she wasn't there. It was strange that she hadn't appeared after I had contacted her.

"She was shot…" Joe moaned, a tear falling from his eye. "They shot her bracelet, and then she de-transformed… She was hit in the head with laser fire… I tried to help her, but…" He winced in pain, and I could see how much his speech was costing him.

"I lost her…" he continued, after he had recovered some of this breath. "There was a quake, and she fell under the earth…"

My heart stopped beating for an instant, before my brain forced it back into reluctant operation. Jun… she was…? No. It just wasn't possible. It couldn't be. Not Jun…

"We'll find her." I vowed, yet even as I spoke I knew it was not possible.

"Go on, get moving, Science Ninja Team!" Joe urged us, acknowledging what I couldn't bring myself to accept. "If you don't hurry, Katse will escape!"

"Onechan!" Jinpei cried. "We need to look for her!"

"Ken, I know I could carry Joe back to the God Phoenix!" Ryu begged. "We can save him too, okay?" But I couldn't answer him.

"Aniki?" Jinpei moaned quietly. "Onechan…"

"Look, Joe is like a brother, Ken, who's been with us, through thick and thin!" Ryu burst out. "Won't you do whatever you can to save him?"

Even as Ryu spoke, dozens of Galactor soldiers appeared from out of the fog. I turned to face my enemies, but I directed my words to what remained of my team.

"This is my order, as Leader of the Science Ninja Team." I stated loudly. "We do not have time to search for Swan Jun. She will have to remain where she is, for now. We will leave Condor Joe here, and infiltrate Galactor Headquarters."

"Hey, Joe." I said softly, pulling out my boomerang. His eyes were closed, and it seemed that he barely had the strength to crack them open.

"Please, forgive me." I said. "I know we both swore we'd die together, but now I have no other choice but to leave you here, behind. Take this boomerang. Think of it as my heart. And know we're together, no matter what happens. And… keep an eye out for Jun, wherever you are."

I wrapped Joe's hand around the boomerang, then placed it on his chest. But I was thinking of Jun, buried somewhere beneath the Earth, who had died without even that small comfort. A blinding rage filled me, and I rose to my feet, lashing out at the men who approached.

"Halt your advance, Galactor; stand down!" I shouted, and amazingly, they complied. "Enough is enough! What will spilling any more blood prove? It's useless! It will only cause the needless loss of loved ones, separate you from your friends, and decimate your lives! Time is of the essence. We can't afford to waste any of it fighting with you! But if we have to, we're ready."

Then I turned and approached the statue.

"This is it, Ken!" Ryu said, as I reached up and pressed on the statue. The carved stone slid away, revealing the passageway underneath.

The entrance to Galactor Headquarters.

Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 2

Nothing had gone as I had planned. We had found Joe, but we had lost Jun. I had broken my promise to die together to the two people I had cared most about in the world… and all in the space of a few minutes. I had barely been able to think straight, and once inside Galactor Headquarters, I had taken out my rage on a blubbering Berg Katse. I had wanted to kill him with my bare hands… and I might have, if Leader X had not intervened. The alien entity had abandoned us all, leaving us to the doom of the Black Hole Plan. Katse had committed suicide at this rejection, throwing himself into the magma bubbling up from the Earth's core.

And I had been left alone with Jinpei and Ryu, to save the planet.

We had tried to destroy the Black Hole Device, but there had been so many fail-safes built into it that even all of our explosives together had not been enough to halt it for more than a few seconds. And so I had done the only other thing I could.

I had crawled into the machinery myself, searching for some way to stop its seemingly inevitable progress. Jinpei and Ryu had simply stared, white-faced, as I had gone down into the device, hardly believing what was happening.

I had begun pulling at the gears, doing my best to yank them out of position when suddenly… everything had stopped. The Black Hole Device had come to a grinding, screeching halt. The machinery had begun falling apart, and it had been all I could do to avoid the flying metal debris. I had climbed back up to my entrance point, where I had known that Jinpei and Ryu would be waiting. I had called out to them, and reached up…

It had been at that moment that a massive set of gears had fallen, crushing my legs beneath its weight.

Everything after that moment was a blur in my mind. I barely recalled Ryu pulling me out, slinging me over his shoulder and running like hell to the God Phoenix. The next thing I remembered clearly was waking up in a hospital, only to have Dr. Nambu tell me that I had lost my legs.

It had seemed like forever that I had been in that hospital. I had been unable to leave for nine months as I had recovered and been taught to fend for myself, even without something as fundamental as legs. I had suffered through it, yet all the while something else had been eating away at my soul.

It had been Jinpei and Ryu who had gone to search for Joe's and Jun's bodies. I had been unable to join them, in what should have been my final task as leader of the Science Ninja Team. They hadn't uncovered any sign of either of our missing teammates, save for my battered boomerang, which had been located near the spot where we had left Joe, sticking up out of the ground. Each day I had hoped to hear that either Joe or Jun had been found… yet at the same time dreading the finality of that discovery. Now, more than a year later, I finally understood that locating their bodies would have provided some kind of closure… closure I desperately needed. Just to see them one last time…

At least I had had a chance to say goodbye to Joe, for however brief a time. And in my heart, I knew that he had understood what I had done, leaving him there. Hell, his whole purpose in being out there had been to show us the way. But Jun…

I hadn't seen Jun go down. I hadn't been with her when she had been hit. She had been completely alone when she had died.

And she had never known how I truly felt about her.

I couldn't recall the exact moment when I had started to notice Jun in a different way, but over the years I had discovered that there was more between us than simple friendship. It seemed that she had felt the same way, or so I had judged by Jinpei's teasing, and her reaction to her younger brother's taunts. She had always turned to me when she had been in trouble, and it had been due to more than my position as the leader of the Team. She had always done her best to make things easier for me, from letting me run a tab a kilometer long at the Snack J, to giving me the space I needed when I had something to sort through. We had been there for each other, and I had always imagined that when the war was over, we would be there for each other then, as well.

Except now that the war was over, Jun was dead, and I was only half a man. Even had she survived, I was in no position now to offer a woman anything. I didn't need pity or sympathy, and it would have killed me to see that from Jun. As it was, I had a difficult time tolerating it from Dr. Nambu. I didn't see anyone else, aside from the occasional doctor.

But this afternoon… if I went to this meeting, I would have to face Jinpei and Ryu. It had been nearly a year since I had had contact with either of them. At first, they had made an effort to visit me frequently at the hospital, but as my depression had set in, I had shunned their company, and made it clear that they were no longer wanted. Eventually they had stopped coming. Even after I had been through my 'rehabilitation' process and had come to live with Dr. Nambu (I was hardly in a position now to fend for myself, and the Doctor had insisted) I had avoided all contact with my former teammates. With Ryu, this wasn't difficult, as he was running his business at the marina most of the time, but Jinpei had been more difficult to avoid. Since Jun was no longer around to care for him, Dr. Nambu had been adamant that Jinpei move back to the villa as well. Fortunately, his living space was in a different wing from my own, and as I rarely left my room, I didn't run into him.

In my mind, I knew that I had already accepted that I would attend this meeting, even if only out of curiosity. It was rare now that anything sparked my interest. I was still convinced that I couldn't do what Hakase was asking, yet the thought that perhaps somehow my life could have meaning again was too tempting to ignore.

Reluctantly, I moved over to the side of the bed, reaching down for the wheelchair that allowed me to access my bathroom. It took some effort simply to wheel across the floor, but I made it. Once there, I made good use of the facilities, which had been altered to accommodate my injured state. I ran my hand down my face as I showered, wincing at the sharp stubble covering it. Impulsively, I decided to shave. If Hakase thought I could lead the Science Ninja Team again, the least I could do was make an effort to look like Gatchaman.

Despite my meager wardrobe, getting dressed involved a lot more choice as compared to before the war. Rather than seven identical shirts and pairs of pants, I now had a selection of both. A few of the pants had been modified to 'accommodate' me. They had been cut off above the knee, and the ends had been sewn closed. They were designed to fold underneath the stubs that remained of my legs, thus making my handicap as inoffensive as possible to others.

Of course, I had another choice.

Sitting in my closet was a long box, containing the prosthetic legs that were bane of my existence. While Dr. Nambu had had my living quarters modified for a wheelchair, he had refused to make these alterations for the rest of his home, insisting that I wouldn't need it outside of my 'personal area'. Of course, this attitude had only encouraged me to become even more of a recluse.

The prosthetic legs didn't hurt; in fact, they were very comfortable. But to me they represented everything I had lost, and the friends whom I would never see again. The pain they caused was emotional, rather than physical. Yet I knew that if I wanted to attend Dr. Nambu's meeting, I would need them. The Doctor's study was on the first floor, while my living area was located on the third floor of the villa. I would have to walk down two flights of stairs.

I began the laborious process of attaching the prosthetics, cursing to myself as I did so. It bothered me to capitulate to Dr. Nambu's wishes without a fight, but by now I was determined to make this meeting, or die trying.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. I managed to pull on some jeans over my 'legs', then awkwardly rose to a stand. It felt strange, seeing things from an angle of height that I was no longer used to. I took a practice step, nearly stumbling as I did so. And then another.

The months of rehab at the hospital came back to me, and within a quarter hour I had managed to recall the small skill I had obtained there. Grimly, I opened my door. There was no one present in the hallway outside, and so there were no witnesses to my rough, shambling gait as I lurched down the passageway and toward the stairs.

The stairs. As I stood at their top, I looked down apprehensively, willing myself not to be afraid. That the White Shadow should have come to this was almost laughable, and the irony in my situation helped dull the edge of my fear. Resolutely I squared my shoulders, easing down the first step. The movements were awkward and jerky, but after the first ten or fifteen stairs I found my rhythm. It wasn't pretty, but in about fifteen minutes I had made my way down both long flights of steps.

I hadn't seen anyone so far, but I knew that particular streak of luck was about to end. Even as I turned the corner and looked down the hall to Dr. Nambu's study, I saw a shadow pass across the light spilling out of the door, indicating that someone was already inside. My jaw clenched, and I knew that the moment of truth was about to arrive.

As I lurched through the door to the office, I was surprised to see that the person inside was not Dr. Nambu, but Ryu. He looked up from the chair in which he was sitting, equally startled to see me there.

"Ken!" he exclaimed, half rising out of his seat before he thought better of his action and dropped back down. His eyes watched me nervously as I shambled over to the closest chair I could reach.

"Hello, Ryu." I replied as I slowly sat down. I was staring at him, just as he was doing the same to me. In the year since I had last seen him, Ryu had changed. His face, which had always been happy and carefree, was now stressed and worn. Dark circles underlined his eyes, indicating that he was having trouble sleeping. His entire body seemed to sag, as if he had completely given up. Even his hair appeared limp and lifeless.

"How have you been?" Ryu asked, suddenly coloring as he realized what my answer was likely to be. "Sorry…"

"It's okay." I replied honestly. I had steeled myself for far worse; this was a relatively benign query.

"I'm… surviving." I answered his question. "How about you?"

"Business at the Marina is good." Ryu replied, staring at his hands as they played nervously with each other in his lap. "But, you know… it's not the same."

"No." I agreed, shaking my head. "It's certainly not the same."

"Ken, Ryu, it's good to see both of you here." Dr. Nambu said as he entered the room. I caught a flash of relief crossing his face as he looked over at me. I felt slightly smug, despite myself. Apparently the Doctor hadn't been so certain that I would appear at this meeting after all.

"Where is Jinpei?" Dr. Nambu asked. "He should be home from school by now."

"He hasn't been here." Ryu replied.

"I expressly instructed him this morning to come straight home from school and to my study." Dr. Nambu frowned. He stood up and exited the room, clearly intending to fetch the boy himself.

"If he even went to school." Ryu mumbled, once the Doctor had left the room.

"Jinpei is cutting school?" I asked, mentally wincing as I instinctively used my sharp 'Commander' mannerisms. Yet Ryu seemed to respond to that tone just as he always had.

"I've talked to him about it," he sighed, "but Jinpei doesn't listen to me anymore. I know Jun would have wanted me to watch over him, since she's gone, but I've made a real mess of it. I've failed her trust in me."

"It's not your fault, Ryu." I told him, and I meant it. Ryu had brought up an uncomfortable truth. Jinpei had always looked up to me, and lost in my own issues, I hadn't paid much attention to him. But I had owed it to Jun. I should have been there to help Ryu shoulder some of the responsibility, yet I had not. I had gone out of my way to avoid Jinpei, even though we lived in the same home.

Perhaps I wasn't ready to be Gatchaman again after all.

Just as I was thinking of leaving, Dr. Nambu reentered the study, literally dragging Jinpei by his ear. My mouth fell open in shock when I saw how the youth was dressed. His torn, black t-shirt, studded belt and filthy jeans made him look like a street urchin. In comparison, his hair was covered in some kind of gel, and immaculately styled in a manner I hadn't seen before, with spikes sticking out all over his head.

"There is no excuse for failing to attend this meeting." the Doctor lectured Jinpei. "I told you this morning that it was important."

"And what could be so important, huh?" Jinpei mouthed off, apparently not in the least cowed by his foster father's ire.

"Jinpei, you will show the proper respect to Hakase!" I stated firmly.

Jinpei jumped in surprise, his wide eyes staring at me for a long moment, before his lips curled into a sneer.

"Well look who finally decided to join us!" he bowed sarcastically. "King Ken has come down from his royal tower."

"Jinpei, you have no call to be disrespectful to Ken, or Hakase!" Ryu admonished.

"Don't I?" Jinpei retorted. "Where have either of them been for the past year? Dr. Nambu's been spending all of his time away from home, and Ken's been locked up in his room, refusing to see anyone! It's practically like I've been living alone here!"

"And I can see that you've been failing utterly with this small measure of self-responsibility." Dr. Nambu remarked dryly. "Perhaps I was wrong including you in this meeting after all, Jinpei."

"Yeah!" Jinpei puffed out his chest, crossing his arms in a defiant manner. "I…" His head suddenly swiveled around the room in a comical manner, as if he had only just now realized who was here with him.

"Uh… well… I guess if it's that important…" he said sheepishly, slouching down in a chair at the back of the room.

"I'm so glad that you've decided to join us, Jinpei." the Doctor smiled thinly. He walked around to the back of his desk, then leaned forward, balancing his weight on his fingertips as his eyes scanned our faces.

"I'm going to reinstate the Science Ninja Team." Dr. Nambu stated. "And I want you all to be a part of it."

"Sure!" Ryu sat straight up, and a genuine smile came to his face. "That sounds great!"

"What's the catch?" Jinpei asked suspiciously.

"The catch is that Hakase isn't just doing this for fun." I pointed out to the sullen youth. "He's reinstating the Team because he thinks there's a need. There's going to be another war." The words had just come out of my mouth, surprising me. But they made sense. Why else would Dr. Nambu want to have an active Science Ninja Team, if not to protect the planet?

"Galactor?" Jinpei's mouth fell open in surprise. "But they're gone! We kicked their asses!"

"That's hardly an apt description," the Doctor frowned, "but it's beside the point. Ken is right. Galactor is regrouping. I have it on good authority that Leader X plans to return to our planet. If he does, you can bet that we'll have our hands full. I want to be prepared."

"So this is the first step, huh?" Jinpei smirked, lounging insolently in his chair. "You need us, and we've got to say yes, or your whole plan falls apart."

"Jinpei, of course we'll say yes!" Ryu lectured. "Like you'd even consider saying no."

"Maybe I would!" Jinpei shouted, jumping out of his chair. "Maybe I don't want to end up like Onechan, dead at some enemy base with a bullet in the back of my head, and no one else even cares!"

"We care…" I whispered, but I was pretty certain he didn't hear me.

"Jinpei…" Ryu appeared to be at a loss for words.

"Jun sacrificed herself doing her duty." Dr. Nambu intoned. "She wanted the Earth to be free of Galactor's tyranny. Are you going to sully her memory by allowing Galactor to terrorize the planet again?"

"I… well… when you put it that way…" Jinpei mumbled.

"The same can be said for Joe." the Doctor continued, ignoring Jinpei's response. "He gave everything he had to ensure your success, even when it was at the cost of his own well-being. I can assure you that if Joe and Jun were here today, they would be the first to rejoin the Science Ninja Team."

"And I'd be with them!" Ryu declared resolutely, to which Dr. Nambu nodded approvingly.

"What about you, Ken?" Dr. Nambu asked softly, his eyes boring into my face. "I presume your presence at this meeting means that you have accepted my proposal?"

"Yes." I replied, holding my gaze steady. "I'm willing to be the leader of the Science Ninja Team again." I felt a surge of pride well up in me. I was doing the right thing. My father would have approved of this, and somehow, I knew that Joe and Jun would have as well.

"What?" Jinpei's bray of laughter tore apart the solemnity of the moment. "Ken? Leader? You've got to be kidding me! He can't even get out of his chair!" Jinpei snickered, while Ryu appeared to be torn between reprimanding the boy and agreeing with him.

"Ken… leader?" Ryu appeared doubtful. "It's a nice thought, Hakase, but…"

"But, nothing." Dr. Nambu replied calmly. "I have already discussed this matter with Ken. Regardless of his physical condition, his leadership and strategic skills, not to mention his field experience, make him an invaluable asset to the Team." The Doctor looked pointedly at Jinpei.

"I'll have to ask you to leave if you're not going to accept reappointment to your former position." Dr. Nambu said blandly. "From this point forward, our conversation will not be for the ears of 'neutral civilians'."

Jinpei's eyes darted around the room, moving back and forth, before coming to rest on my legs. He stared at them intently, then lifted his gaze to meet Dr. Nambu's. Whatever he saw there caused him to tremble nervously. He swallowed anxiously before slowly nodding his head.

"Yes. I trust you, Hakase." he whispered.

"Fine. Then sit down and listen, G4." the Doctor ordered sharply. Jinpei instantly complied.

"Ken and Jinpei, you will both be reinstated at your former rank and G numbers." Dr. Nambu informed them. "Ryu, I am promoting you to G3. Since Ken will be unable to operate in the field, this effectively gives you an officer's field command."

"Thank you, Hakase." Ryu grinned. "I won't let you down."

"I know you won't." the Doctor replied, noting Jinpei's crestfallen expression. "Jinpei, I had considered elevating your rank, but given your appalling behavior in recent months, I am not certain that you have matured enough to deserve such a promotion. I may reconsider the matter in another year."

"Yes, Hakase." Jinpei mumbled dejectedly.

"Ken's leadership position will be irrefutable, but clearly he will not be accompanying the Team in the field. He will take over the duties of God Phoenix co-pilot, and remain onboard while the remainder of the Team operates off of the ship." Dr. Nambu went on. "I have been working with prototype video and audio transmission systems, which are to be installed in your helmets, so that Ken can participate and advise as much as possible during a mission." I blinked in surprise. I hadn't been expecting this.

"So I'd be able to monitor what was going on, from the God Phoenix, and assist if necessary."

"Yes." Dr. Nambu appeared pleased that I had instantly understood his intention. "As I said before, your experience is invaluable, Ken, and the rest of the Team would suffer without it in the field."

"So we're getting new uniforms?" Jinpei asked.

"Your Birdstyles will have the same appearance that they did previously," Dr. Nambu replied, "but yes, they are new. They will incorporate many new features and technological upgrades, including the helmet monitoring systems I just mentioned. I have also revised the transformation process, to prevent Galactor from using their Meganizer weapon to force you out of Birdstyle. In addition, the appearance of the civilian uniforms has been modified somewhat, to fit in with cultural changes."

"Cool!" Jinpei grinned. "I don't care if I never see those blue and white striped pants again!"

"There have been other changes made as well, if you'd like to see?" the Doctor smiled.

"Yes," I agreed, "I would." My mind whirled with the thought that asking us seemed to have been the last step in Dr. Nambu's plans. How long had he been working on this? How long had he been preparing for Leader X's eventual return?

"Me too!" Ryu added, and Jinpei agreed.

"Then we'll take my car to the new base." Dr. Nambu declared. "Follow me, everyone."

New base? Of course, it made sense. The Crescent Coral Base had been destroyed by Katse and his minions. We couldn't continue to operate out of Hakase's villa forever. However this 'new base' created another problem, as I was now required to push myself out of my chair and shamble through the villa and down the driveway to Dr. Nambu's car. I could tell that the others were purposely walking more slowly than usual, yet I still had difficulty keeping up with them. I grit my teeth and stared at the floor, willing my prosthetic legs to move, eking out as much speed as I possibly could. No one remarked on my lack of physical ability, but I could practically see the cloud of doubt hanging in the air when I finally reached the car.

Dr. Nambu drove us around the outskirts of Utoland, to the Submarine Station we had often used when traveling to the Crescent Coral Base. Even the submarines were the same, as were the few ISO personnel traveling with us.

"So I gather this new base is underwater?" I asked dryly.

"Yes." Dr. Nambu replied, but that was all he would say regarding the matter. Jinpei and Ryu also remained silent, each of us lost in our memories as the submarine descended and moved through the crystal-blue ocean waters. It was almost as if I were back in time, traveling to the Crescent Base. And when I arrived, Jun would be there to greet me, a smile on her lips…

But that wasn't going to happen today. I forcibly yanked myself from the painful memories, staring instead at the interior of the sub. Yet that only reminded me of Joe, and the way he had always tried to isolate himself from everyone, even when we were all together. Was I destined to follow in his footsteps? I laughed self-deprecatingly to myself as I realized that 'following footsteps' was something of which I was no longer capable.

"Holy crap!" Jinpei exclaimed, and instinctively I turned to look out of the window, only to find myself uttering a similar, though less crude, cry of astonishment.

The new base was massive: far larger than the Crescent Coral Base. I suspected that a dozen or more Crescent Bases could easily fit inside. The thing looked like a floating city! I noted engine ports on the back; clearly this base was designed to move, as the Crescent Base had done. Scanning the exterior of the base, I saw numerous vehicle docking ports. The submarine was headed for one of these, following some pre-determined traffic pattern. This was necessitated by the large volume of other vessels entering and exiting the base.

When we entered, we were in a massive Docking Bay, and I could see a wide variety of underwater vessels loading and unloading. A great deal of supplies seemed to be coming aboard. I asked Dr. Nambu about this.

"We're still stocking the labs and research facilities." the Doctor explained. "New personnel are arriving daily, and that requires more in the way of food and emergency supplies. The activity will die down in the next couple of months."

"So this place is only a couple of months away from being finished?" Ryu gaped.

"It's huge!" Jinpei added, as we disembarked the sub. Of course, I was the last one to emerge, and once I did so, Dr. Nambu turned to address the three of us.

"Welcome to G-Town." he said.

"G-Town?" I asked.

"This is the Gatchaman base, after all." the Doctor murmured. "It was only right that we name it as such." I barely managed to keep myself from flushing.

"Let's see the rest of this place." Ryu suggested.

Dr. Nambu led us on a tour of the base for the next two hours. Somehow, my amazement at it all allowed me to forget about the ache and exhaustion in my lower body, which had become unused to being upright for so long. We saw the research labs, where they were developing our new Birdstyles, including new bracelets. As Dr. Nambu had said, the Birdstyles themselves looked like the old ones, as did the bracelets. But I trusted Hakase when he said that they had been upgraded.

"You'll have to come back for a fitting tomorrow, Ken." Dr. Nambu informed me quietly, when Ryu and Jinpei were otherwise occupied with examining their own uniforms. "You'll be getting a new set of prosthetics, which transform and become a part of your Birdstyle. You should be much more stable, and gain more power from these limbs, but of course they will require significant adjustment as you adapt to their form and function."

We didn't get a chance to see what the civilian clothes looked like, but by this point my head was spinning so much, I barely noticed.

We moved on to a lab that contained our new hand weapons. We were each to be given a sonic pistol, along with an additional weapon suited to our talents. The saucer that was handed to me felt strange, but I quickly sensed that it would function in a fashion similar to my boomerang, yet be easier to throw. Jinpei had some kind of jai alai-style thrown weapon, while Ryu was given a… well, I didn't know what the hell it was. It looked like a giant green glob, but the scientists present called it a 'Gripper'. When Ryu threw it out and it attached itself to the wall, I could see why.

"You'll have plenty of opportunity to acquaint yourselves with your new weapons." Dr. Nambu assured us.

Next on our tour were the administrative areas (including a room that could have fit half the Crescent Base inside; that was all for Dr. Nambu's office) and the living areas. G-Town was just that: a town. The ISO personnel working aboard were stationed there for six month intervals, and some had brought their families with them. As such, there were shopping and dining areas, entertainment venues, and even a school. Living quarters had been assigned for Jinpei, Ryu and myself: roomier and more luxurious than we had been used to at the Crescent Base. I noted that there was already a wheelchair in my room, and that the quarters had been adapted for that form of movement.

"If you'd like, Ken, I can have your things transferred over from the villa." Dr. Nambu suggested. "Since you'll be spending most of your time here…"

I understood. I didn't have to leave, if I didn't want to. The Doctor was attempting to make the transition as easy on me physically as he possibly could.

"Thank you." I agreed. "That would be convenient." Immediately Dr. Nambu pulled out his cell phone and called the villa, instructing the help there to pack up my things. I smiled at his promptness. I suspected that he hadn't wanted to give me a chance to change my mind.

I already knew that there was no turning back now.

Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 3

Next we visited the training facilities. There was a massive swimming pool and a gym, equipped with everything we would need to get ourselves back in shape. I understood that I had signed up for hours of training each day. The better physical condition I could achieve, the easier a time I would have. Yet I knew it would be difficult to watch Jinpei and Ryu training, and not be able to participate with them in the way that I had used to do. I resolved to work in the gym when I knew they would be busy with other things.

Lastly, we came to a massive hangar. Inside was a ship easily four times as big as the God Phoenix, and then some. Its nose was painted with the image of an eagle. Inwardly I cringed at the garish sight, but did my best to hide my reaction from Dr. Nambu. Hakase had done so much, and provided us with more than we could ever have dreamed…

"What the hell is that?" Jinpei blurted out in shock.

"Are you ever going to learn how to be tactful?" Ryu muttered as he stared up at the ceiling.

"It was Director Anderson's idea." Dr. Nambu coughed uncomfortably. "He thought that the Science Ninja Team, and therefore the ISO, would be more recognizable if you had bird images on the front of your vehicles. This was the least… intrusive… design he approved."

"The old guy's gone batty!" Jinpei whirled his pointer finger around in a horizontal swirling motion next to his head.

"Shhh!" Ryu clapped his hand over the boy's mouth. "You never know who's listening!"

"The ISO has been very generous with us." I said carefully. "If this is what Director Anderson wants, we can deal with it." It took some doing not to choke on my words, but I had already realized that this decision wasn't one that was about to be reconsidered.

"Maybe you can deal with it…" Jinpei grumbled, free from Ryu's grip. I glared at him, and he backed away. I leaned down to address his ear.

"You're not the one who has to fly it." I growled. "So shut up."

"I have to ride in it!" Jinpei mumbled, but he didn't say anything further out loud.

"Why don't we take a look at the inside?" Dr. Nambu suggested. "You'll find that this New God Phoenix has many upgrades from the original."

"It certainly is bigger." Ryu noted.

"The New God Phoenix is capable of Mach 8.5." Dr. Nambu began our tour. I listened carefully, taking in everything before me. Despite the unfortunate decoration on the exterior, the interior of this ship was everything I could have dreamed. The facilities were on the cutting edge of technology, and it boasted everything from automated storage equipment to multiple armaments. As Hakase was explaining that the new ship housed four 50mm Vulcan Guns and ten rounds of Second Generation Super Bird Missiles, I couldn't help thinking of Joe. He should have been here to see this… I knew I would never be able to use these weapons without thinking of my fallen brother.

The Bridge was a jaw-dropping sight. The computer stations had been completely redesigned from the original God Phoenix, yet were familiar enough that I knew I could sit down and operate this ship with only a minimum of training. I noted that there were two sets of flight controls, at Ryu's position and mine, both of them at the front of the main viewscreen. As with our original ship, these controls were all manipulated by hand, which would allow me to pilot the vessel on my own. I almost found myself looking forward to getting into the simulator to improve my skills flying large vessels.

"As you can see, this ship is equipped to perform the Science Ninja Technique: Firebird, although obviously the size of the Hinotori itself will be much larger than on the original God Phoenix." the Doctor informed us.

"That's going to be a bitch to fly." Ryu grinned. "But I'm up to the challenge!"

"So the original God Phoenix is gone for good?" Jinpei asked. "It's going to stay underneath your house forever?"

"For the time being, yes." Dr. Nambu affirmed. "There are no immediate plans for its use."

The Doctor led us into the adjoining hangar, and I could see that this was some kind of repair bay. Technicians were swarming over a few vehicles, but I could barely see them behind the beehive of activity. My muscles had begun to ache. I was unused to walking so much anymore, and I found myself struggling more and more to move, even in my shambling gait. I spotted a bench against the wall and stared longingly at it.

"These are your new G-Machines." Dr. Nambu enlightened us as to the purpose of the vehicles in the bay. "Ken, I'd like you to see this."

"Ken gets a vehicle?" Jinpei whispered to Ryu, but his voice was so loud that neither Dr. Nambu nor I had any trouble hearing him. "I thought he wasn't leaving the ship?"

"A new G-1 has been designed especially for Ken." Dr. Nambu said smoothly, as if he were still giving our tour and not directly answering Jinpei's question. "An autopilot is being developed for the New God Phoenix, which will allow everyone on the Science Ninja Team to leave the vessel in their own G-Machine."

We approached a group of technicians who parted when they saw us coming. As they moved aside, I caught my breath. Other than the incongruous eagle 'beak' on its nose (which was not nearly as obtrusive as the eagle on the front of the New God Phoenix) it was beautiful. I had longed for an X-wing fighter plane ever since I had first watched Star Wars as a child, and now it was here in front of me. Even its crimson color was perfect, reminiscent of my father's Red Impulse jet.

"This is the Eagle Sharp." Dr. Nambu said. "Try it out, Ken." He had a strange smile on his face that reminded me of the expression he had often worn on Christmas mornings when I was a child.

Both sides of the plane were capable of opening vertically, like the time machine car from that old Back to the Future movie. I was easily able to climb inside and into the pilot's seat. Simply sitting down was a relief, but when I looked around at the controls, I was overcome with awe. Everything was right at my fingertips. Even the rudder, which in normal planes is manipulated via foot pedals, was represented on the dash, with all of the controls close to hand.

"You shouldn't have any problem flying that." the Doctor grinned, and for an instant I saw him as he used to be, before the first war had taken its toll on him.

"Hakase..." I said, my heartfelt words choking up inside of me. "It's… it's what I needed."

"Check it over for a few minutes while I show Jinpei and Ryu around." Dr. Nambu invited, and I didn't hesitate to accept his offer. I quickly lost myself in familiarizing myself with my new plane. Had it been only this morning that I had been convinced that I would never fly again? And now I had a plane and a massive warship. I was glad that I could be useful flying the New God Phoenix, but it was the Eagle Sharp that set fire to my blood. I would become one with the sky again, and my lost legs wouldn't matter.

I could be Gatchaman again, even if only in this plane.

Overcome with emotion, I almost didn't notice when Dr. Nambu returned with Jinpei and Ryu. Reluctantly I climbed out of the Eagle Sharp, vowing to be worthy of this exquisite aircraft. My gaze met that of Dr. Nambu, and I saw my own joy reflected in his eyes.

"Thank you, Hakase…" was all I could manage to get out.

"You'll be more than worthy of it, Ken." he assured me.

"Mine's girly." Jinpei grumbled. "Why do I always get the stupid-looking one?"

"You've got those Swallow Missiles." Ryu reminded him. "They look pretty cool. High Efficiency Missiles that act like throwing stars… and you can send out an entire spread at once."

"You're just stoked because you got your own vehicle." Jinpei rolled his eyes.

"You have a vehicle, Ryu?" I asked, pleased for my friend.

"Yeah, the Horned Tank." Ryu grinned widely. "I can do some serious damage in that thing."

"What are those over there?" Jinpei asked, pointing to two more vehicles, which sat at the side of the room, covered by tarps.

"Your vehicles are our first priority, of course." Dr. Nambu explained. "But eventually we will need two more, for the new Team members."

"New Team members?" Jinpei goggled. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"What did you think, Jinpei?" I asked him reasonably. "That the three of us could be a Team all by ourselves, especially when I can't join you in the field? If I'm G1, Ryu is G3, and you're G4, that still leaves two spaces open."

"But… we can't…" His face began to tremble, and I was suddenly reminded of how young he still was.

"I know how you feel, Jinpei." Ryu said sympathetically, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Perhaps we should talk about this in my office." Dr. Nambu suggested quietly.

"I think that's a good idea." I concurred, following the Doctor from the hangar. Jinpei and Ryu plodded along behind me, but the lighthearted atmosphere we had experienced earlier had vanished. It was as if we were marching to a funeral, no matter that the deceased had been gone for well over a year.

"Ken is right." Dr. Nambu continued on from our earlier conversation the moment we had all sat down in his office, as if there had been no interruption at all. "The Science Ninja Team cannot function properly with only the three of you. Perhaps if there were four, with Ken up to his full abilities… but the fact remains that right now, we can't afford the luxury of grieving for our missing friends."

"No one could ever replace Onechan… or Joe." Jinpei sniffed.

"Of course not." I agreed with him. "We know that. But we do need help. What good are the sacrifices of Joe and Jun if we can't stand up to Galactor again?"

"It just doesn't feel right." Ryu offered.

"It doesn't feel right to me either." I admitted. "But then, nothing has felt right since Cross Karokorum." Ryu's face colored, and he bowed his head.

"I guess not." he mumbled, doing his best not to stare at my legs.

"You have always worked best as a team of five." Dr. Nambu reminded us. "It's a large enough group to cultivate a good range of abilities and specialties, while not being too many members to effectively manage and conduct covert operations in the field."

"Yeah, I guess…" Ryu admitted, his face still glum.

"So who are these other people going to be?" Jinpei questioned, his manner uncertain.

"I haven't made my final decision yet." Dr. Nambu admitted. "But I have narrowed the field down to perhaps a dozen candidates. I will be certain to let you know when everything has been finalized."

"So we don't get a say then." Jinpei huffed.

"No." the Doctor confirmed.

"That's not fair!" the boy protested.

"This isn't a democracy, Jinpei." I lectured. "You take orders, and you follow them. That's the way it works."

"Even if they're the wrong orders?" Jinpei countered. A nervous silence fell over the room as he scowled at me.

"We're not talking about new Team members, are we?" I asked quietly. Jinpei shot me an answering glare.

"Don't think I haven't been over this myself a million times." I said slowly. "As I'm sure you can imagine, I've had plenty of time to think things over: to analyze every little detail of that day in my mind."

"We know you have, Ken." Ryu said. "No one blames you."

"Speak for yourself!" Jinpei interrupted. "If it hadn't been for him, Onechan…"

"We don't know what would have happened to Jun." I replied. "We might not have found her. You certainly weren't able to find her later. But if the Earth had been destroyed, we would not have had the chance to find her later. More importantly, her sacrifice, and Joe's sacrifice, would have been made in vain. The mission was more important. We had to stop the Black Hole Plan at all costs."

"What do you think Jun would have said to us, if she had been there?" Ryu asked, before answering his own question. "The same thing as Joe, that's what! She would have wanted us to go on, to defeat Katse, to stop Galactor from destroying the planet!"

"Yeah, I guess…" Jinpei mumbled.

"I know you've all been carrying a lot of grief regarding Joe's and Jun's deaths." Dr. Nambu added. "That's why I wanted to have you all speak with counselors, but only Ryu accepted my offer."

"I don't want to talk about it." Jinpei pouted, crossing his arms defiantly.

"We're already talking about it." I pointed out. "You're angry, Jinpei. And you have every right to be. I'm angry too. But I don't think I could have made any other decision than the one that I did. We didn't have time to search for Jun, or to bring Joe back to the God Phoenix. We had to stop the Earth from being destroyed. I made mistakes that day, but leaving Joe and Jun behind wasn't one of them."

"I could have stayed." Jinpei suddenly sounded much younger than he appeared.

"And then we would have been another man down." Ryu replied. "And you still would have had to abandon Joe, to look for Jun. Who knows what would have happened to you? All of those Galactors were still out there… the ones Ken just left behind when we entered the base. Would they have let you search for Jun in peace? Jinpei, I've had this conversation with myself… and with the counselor… many times. I could have stayed. I could have looked for Jun. She meant a lot to me too. But I still wouldn't have found her, and maybe now I'd be dead too. I'm not going to apologize for being glad I'm alive and in one piece." He looked at me again, and this time there was no trace of embarrassment on his face.

"You made a sacrifice yourself, Ken." Ryu added. "Whatever mistakes you might have made that day, you've paid for it many times over."

"This was my biggest mistake." I admitted, gesturing down to my prosthetic legs. "And you're right. I'm paying for it. But I'm not the only one. I'm not going to be able to contribute to this new Science Ninja Team in the way that I'd like. I won't be there in the way I should be for you, and for Jinpei. And it was all caused by my own anger, my own recklessness. Leaving Joe and Jun behind was the right thing to do, but it was killing me inside. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision that was the wrong one, and I'm going to be paying for it for the rest of my life."

I used every bit of strength I had to remain stoic. I had used to be so good at that… hiding what I was feeling. It had only been on a few occasions, such as when I had been dealing with my father's sudden reappearance and subsequent death, that I had had difficulty controlling my emotions. But the loss of Joe and Jun had dealt me a blow I could never have expected, sending me spiraling out of control as I had literally faced the end of the world that day at Cross Karokorum. I had woken up, only to discover that I was no longer whole physically. It had taken me a few months longer to realize that I was also no longer whole emotionally. The part of me that had felt joy, love, laughter… that part of me was gone, perhaps forever. In its place was a burden of anger, regret and depression: a heavy encumbrance to be carried by only half a man.

But today… today I had seen that there could be something different. I wasn't going to be able to do everything I wanted to do: everything I had previously done. But today, I felt like I could contribute a whole lot more than I would have thought possible yesterday.

It was the chance to be on the Science Ninja Team that had done this for me. I now had a sense of purpose that I hadn't possessed twenty-four hours ago. I had possibilities stretching out before me… and thanks to Dr. Nambu, the resources with which to accomplish them. Hakase had done so much for me… even when I had been buried underneath the covers, doing my best to hide away from the world, he had been planning my future. I owed him my loyalty, and my life.

"If Dr. Nambu thinks we should have two new members, then I trust his judgment in selecting our new teammates." I said finally.

"I agree." Ryu added quickly. "After all, he chose us to begin with, right? So he knows what he's looking for."

Jinpei looked back and forth between us, realizing that he had been outvoted.

"Fine." he huffed, but I could see that his resentment was still present. Dr. Nambu chose to ignore the boy's obvious displeasure, instead sending him with Ryu to check out the new cafeteria.

"I just need to discuss a few things with Ken about his medical arrangements." the Doctor explained, and in short order we were alone. We spent some time speaking about fittings for my new civilian uniform, and testing the transformation process to see how my prosthetics would best be incorporated into my Birdstyle.

"I've been working with another doctor at the ISO." Dr. Nambu revealed. "A woman who has spent a great deal of time working with cybernetic theory. She thinks she could better integrate your prosthetics through the use of cybernetic technology… making them a true attachment to your body, rather than something you use like a crutch."

"Cybernetics?" I repeated the word, a cold chill spreading down my spine. "She wants to turn me into a machine."

"No." the Doctor shook his head. "You would have a few chips, a few mechanical parts, surgically implanted into your body, designed to connect with a new set of legs. Your nervous system could be trained to send impulses to the legs, making them move of their own accord, rather than having you physically maneuver them with the lower body muscles you possess."

"No." I snapped. "I won't do it. I'm not going to become a machine simply to get my legs back. I know what cyborgs are like. We've fought enough of them, thanks to Galactor. I'm not going to have my brain altered, or my free will taken away. I'm already half a man, Hakase. I won't let them take my humanity from me."

"It's not like that, Ken." Dr. Nambu implored. "Please consider this. We'd be able to restore much of your movement, perhaps all of it. It's worth looking into."

"Is it worth looking into if I'm not me anymore?" I retorted. "I don't want to be an emotionless android, unable to think for myself or feel anything other than obedience to my duty. If the choice is alive as I am, or physically able and soulless, I know which one I choose."

"Ken…"

"Is this 'treatment' a condition of my returning to the Science Ninja Team?"

"No, of course not."

"Then let's drop it."

"Fine." Dr. Nambu sounded somewhat offended, but in my anger I couldn't find it in myself to apologize. Instead, I seized upon something else that had been bothering me for the past few hours; something that hadn't come up during our tour.

"What makes you so certain that Galactor is regrouping?"

"What?" the Doctor appeared confused by the change of subject.

"You told us that Leader X will return. That Galactor will reform. You're reactivating the Team. But this isn't a recent decision. You've been planning this for months, at least. How long have you been developing new Birdstyles, new weapons, new vehicles? Hell, this base didn't build itself overnight!"

"No, of course not." Dr. Nambu replied calmly. "Designs for G-Town were begun immediately after the destruction of the Crescent Base. It's been under construction for nearly two years."

"What about the Birdstyles?" I refused to let him avoid the question.

"They are a more recent development, of course." the Doctor admitted. "Along with the upgrades in weapons, the New God Phoenix and its accompanying vehicles."

"When did you start thinking about reactivating the Science Ninja Team?"

"Approximately nine months ago." Dr. Nambu revealed. "I had begun some preliminary thoughts and designs, investigated possibilities for team structure. But there was nothing concrete. Not until…" he stared intently, his eyes assessing me, deciding whether or not he wished to reveal his reasons.

"About three months later, I started seeing some unusual data." he went on, after a long pause. "Nothing specific, nothing remarkable by itself, but put together, it formed a pattern… I began to suspect that Galactor was beginning to reorganize itself. At the time I spoke with Director Anderson regarding the matter, and he reassigned a small team of researchers to assist me in the creation of the New God Phoenix. At first that was all that we had planned, as there was no concrete evidence, but then, about four months ago…" The Doctor turned to the computer behind him, input an instruction, then gestured to the screen closest to his desk.

"I received the following message." Dr. Nambu said. I leaned forward to read the words on the screen.

X will return. Galactor regrouping. You must prepare.

"Who sent this message?" I asked.

"It came from northern Ifriquia." the Doctor replied. "I am familiar with the source, and I can assure you that I am certain of its veracity. It was merely a confirmation of something I had already suspected. Still, it was enough to convince Director Anderson that we needed to move more quickly regarding this matter. Since that time we've made substantial progress in all areas of development. That's why I felt it was time to bring the three of you into the picture. You need to work with the ISO as we finalize these technological developments, and you need time to re-train, to bring yourselves up to your previous skill levels."

"I doubt I'll be able to do that." I replied bitterly.

"You will in everything except field operations." Dr. Nambu assured me. "I know you'll regain your piloting skills quickly, and you'll spend some time working out in your new Birdstyle as well. If you'd agree to the cybernetics procedure…"

"No." I interrupted him. "That's off the table."

"Very well." the Doctor replied. "I'll keep that in mind as I make the final selections for the replacement Team members." Suddenly it all made sense. Dr. Nambu still wanted me to lead in the field. He wanted me to become a cyborg so that I could pick up where I had left off.

I almost felt guilty… but then I pushed that emotion aside. No matter how much Hakase had done for me, it wasn't his decision to make. He couldn't force me to give up my humanity. That could only result in further suffering for the Science Ninja Team, and I had already caused Ryu and Jinpei enough pain.

Whatever role I was to be given in this new Science Ninja Team, I would be the one to play it.

Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 4

I didn't leave G-Town that day, nor on any of the following days. My things were sent from Dr. Nambu's villa, and my life changed literally overnight. A new routine was developed: physical fitness workouts and occupational therapy in the mornings to adapt to my new uniform, in both civilian and Birdstyle forms. The afternoons were spent in flight training: at first on the simulators, and then eventually in the real thing: taking the Eagle Sharp out through the ocean, and into the air for test flights. This was the part of the day I loved most, and the hours always passed the most quickly. After I had been deemed sufficiently worthy by Dr. Nambu on the New God Phoenix simulators, I accompanied Ryu during his test flights of our new warship, taking over the controls from time to time in order to improve my skills.

Evenings were spent catching up on a year's backlog of technical manuals and security reports. We didn't know how long we had before Leader X returned to Earth and Galactor made its presence known again, so it was imperative that I get myself up to speed sooner rather than later.

Yet my greatest progress was in my physical capabilities. I would never regain my former abilities, but after a few months (thanks to my new prosthetics, which had been integrated into both my Birdstyle and my civilian uniform) I was able to walk without a limp (although it was still pronounced when I ran) and jump sufficiently high in Birdstyle to fly to the hull of the New God Phoenix. After long hours of practice, I was also able to jump down from the hull and glide to the ground, landing on two feet, albeit somewhat awkwardly. So far this was the full extent of my abilities. It pained me to recall the freedom of gliding through the air, jumping up high to land with a kick, whirling and dancing around my enemies with the grace of my wings.

Such skills were no longer mine.

Every few weeks, Dr. Nambu would approach the topic of cybernetic enhancements, yet my answer remained the same. After all I had done to return to the living, I wasn't about to let myself die now.

Of course, my refusal to acquiesce to the ISO's 'request' made it even more necessary that new members of the Science Ninja Team be found. One evening as I was reading through some intelligence reports, Dr. Nambu called me over my bracelet and requested that I come to his office.

My new bracelet looked exactly the same as my old one, but apparently it made use of a different transformation process and alternating-frequency communications, so that Galactor would be unable to use their Meganizer weapon, or track us by our bracelet transmissions. It was made of Pelcium 257, which emitted a combination of supersonic waves and alpha waves to initiate the transformations to and from Birdstyle.

I was able to simply stand up and leave the room, as I was wearing my civilian uniform. The white pants were reminiscent of my original civilian uniform, however these had my new prosthetic legs built into them, as well as socks and shoes. Thanks to these amazingly lifelike artificial limbs and my endless hours of physical therapy, I now looked as if I was entirely whole… as long as I didn't have to run anywhere. I could walk at a normal speed (albeit on the slower side of average) and appear as if my legs were completely functional. In Birdstyle I could manage a little better.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror as I passed through the door and into the hallway. I almost didn't recognize myself. My hair had gotten longer, and was now a little past my shoulders. My shirt was still something of a shock every time I put it on. My red t-shirt with its yellow number 1 had been replaced with a blue shirt in a sportier style, a 'digital' red number 1 on its chest. The sleeves were a lighter blue, vaguely reminiscent of the sleeves on my original shirt. I was able to deal with this aspect of my new uniform, but I still winced whenever I looked at my belt buckle. Someone had had the bright idea to give me a belt buckle in the shape of a K… as if I was going to lose it and forget which belt was mine without my initial on it. Or perhaps ISO Research figured that if I looked down and saw the K, I'd know I was Ken, while if I looked down and saw a G, I'd know I was in Birdstyle as Gatchaman. Whatever the reason, that golden K grated on me every time I saw it. Somehow, Ryu and Jinpei had both escaped this particular indignity, and I had to wonder why I had been singled out for this 'distinction'.

Pushing my thoughts away from my changed appearance, I made my way to Dr. Nambu's office through the transportation tubes that had been installed throughout G-Town. I suspected that Dr. Nambu had had them installed to assist me in moving around the base, yet Hakase insisted that they had been planned before I had lost my legs. Regardless, it was a convenience I wasn't protesting. I merely had to step into the tube and be whisked away to Dr. Nambu's office. Unfortunately, the tubes only worked in one direction, and I always had to walk back under my own power on the return journey.

"Good, you're here." Dr. Nambu said as I entered the room. "Please sit down, Ken."

"What's this all about?" I asked, noting that Jinpei and Ryu were not present. "Is there some kind of problem?"

"No, not at all." the Doctor replied. "I merely wanted to inform you as to the status of the search for the new members of the Science Ninja Team."

"Have you chosen them yet?" I asked curiously.

"No." Dr. Nambu shook his head. "But I have narrowed the field down to six candidates: three pairs of individuals who work well together. I've been sending them out on minor missions to get a feel for how they operate, and to evaluate their various strengths and weaknesses."

"What kind of missions?" I frowned. Was Hakase holding us back from active duty?

"Minor cleanup assignments." Dr. Nambu replied. "Things I might normally hand over to the UN. We've been receiving information about small Galactor installations in South Ifriquia and Brasilia, and I have been sending these two-person units to 'clean up' the various operations. At this point, these individuals don't know that they're being considered as potential members of the Science Ninja Team: only that they are acting as ISO operatives." He pushed a folder across his desk, in my direction. I picked it up and began to leaf through the data there. The Doctor remained silent, waiting for my comments.

I glanced through the information presented. For the most part, these units seemed to be working effectively enough to deal with the tasks they had been assigned. The first two units appeared similar, and unremarkable. I didn't see anything special there that would inspire me to have them on my Team.

However the third unit had some interesting notations on their reports. Rather than simply accomplishing the task they had been given, they had made various observations, attempting to gather as much data as possible from the Galactor installations before they were destroyed. And one report…

"What's this about the Galactor base having already been neutralized before your people got there?" I asked. "It says that the base was entirely intact, but that all Galactor personnel were gone. The data systems had been hacked and left wide open. Your unit surmises that someone had done this purposely, leaving the information for the ISO to collect."

"I had forgotten that was in the file." Dr. Nambu admitted, briefly tugging at his collar. "There are other organizations out there, tracking down 'Galactor remnants', such as UN operatives."

"But why would the UN leave the data wide open for us to find? That's rather sloppy." I thought out loud as I read through the file. "Wait… it says here that the time signature on the systems hack was only twenty minutes prior. Perhaps someone had been waiting for your people to show up?"

"Or perhaps my people interrupted them." the Doctor suggested. "Regardless, Unit #3 was able to extract significant information from that mission, which has proven invaluable to me."

"It seems like Unit #3 is the most qualified for inclusion on the Science Ninja Team." I noted, examining the remainder of their reports. These agents certainly seemed to go a step beyond, and displayed an understanding of strategy and tactics that I knew would come in handy during encounters with Galactor forces. I turned to the personnel records. Unit #3 consisted of a man and a woman by the names of Getz and Mako. They both had military background, but had been working as ISO agents for some time.

"I agree, but there is a problem." Dr. Nambu frowned. "Getz and Mako are personally involved. They are engaged to be married, although they have not set a date." I winced. This was a sore point with me. Hakase had always made it clear that he would not tolerate this sort of relationship on the Science Ninja Team, claiming that personal feelings of this nature could cloud decision-making and result in unforeseeable outcomes. I had known this when I had accepted the position of G1, yet as my feelings for Jun had developed, I had found myself chafing at this restriction more and more. How many times had I soothed myself with the knowledge that the war would eventually end, and then I would finally be able to tell her how I felt about her? The fact that I had never had that chance had been a bitter pill to swallow, and one that I could still taste in the dark of night, when sleeplessness claimed me.

"I gather you can't look past that." I replied, as calmly as I could. "So why are they still under consideration?"

"They're the best candidates by far." the Doctor admitted. "I keep hoping one of the other pairs will distinguish itself in some way, but so far that hasn't happened."

"There's still some time." I reminded him. "Leader X has not returned to Earth."

"Yet." Dr. Nambu added. "Once he does, we will have to act fast. I must know by then who will become a part of the Science Ninja Team."

"What if you had to choose today?" I asked. "Right now?"

"I don't know." the Doctor smiled thinly. "I was hoping you could help me with that."

"Right now, I'd pick Getz and Mako." I replied. "Despite their personal relationship, they seem to be the best fit for the Team." I flipped through the rest of their personnel files.

"Getz is an adequate driver… and Mako has significant experience with motorcycles." I mused. "They'd be able to adapt quickly to their appropriate G-Machines. They're experts in reconnaissance. Mako has had training with explosives, and Getz is an exceptional hand-to-hand fighter. It's a good match." My hands trembled as I closed the file. It was almost too good to be true. Getz and Mako would cover Joe and Jun's responsibilities more than adequately. And they were enjoying the kind of personal closeness that I had never been allowed to admit to… and now never would.

"I'll take that under consideration." Dr. Nambu concluded, reaching over to regain possession of the folder. "Of course… if you would agree to the cybernetic enhancements, it's possible that we'd only need one additional team member. Then I would be able to make a decision without being worried about interpersonal relationships amongst the Team members."

My response to this suggestion was communicated in the form of a silent, stony stare.

"But as you say, we still have time." Dr. Nambu concluded.

It was clear that this meeting was over.

88888

Training continued, and my skills improved. I began attending sessions with Ryu and Jinpei, and was impressed by the leaps and bounds they had made as well. They were both comfortable with their new weapons and vehicles, although Jinpei still carried an enormous chip on his shoulder. I was constantly taking him down a peg or two. It was almost as if he wanted to remember our fallen comrades by replacing Joe as the one on the Team who always had to disagree with me. The difference was that Joe had usually known when to back down, and Jinpei never did.

Two months passed, and I still hadn't heard from Dr. Nambu about the new Team members.

"I haven't finalized anything." he responded.

"Haven't you had enough time to make a decision by now?" I questioned.

"They'll be there when you need them." the Doctor replied. "For now, my source is still providing me with useful information… enough to know that it's not critical that I choose now."

"What source is that?" I asked suspiciously. "The same one who sent that other message? Who is it?"

"Yes." Dr. Nambu said shortly. "And their identity is not information you need to know at this time." The communication ended abruptly, and I was left staring at my bracelet in surprise.

It was clear that the Doctor was hiding something from us.

88888

Over the months we had been training, I had become somewhat more comfortable with Jinpei and Ryu. They no longer stared at me, or seemed startled by my abilities (or lack thereof) and I began seeing them more as friends and less as painful reminders of my past. Ryu and I grew especially close, as we trained together on the New God Phoenix. My skills piloting large warships had improved dramatically. I had no doubt that they would be needed.

"When do you think we'll be called into action?" Ryu asked me one day, as we passed off piloting control to each other. "It's been five months since Dr. Nambu reactivated the Team, and no sign of anything. I tell you, this waiting around has me nervous."

"Nervous?" I asked. "How so?"

"Well, if Leader X is going to return, why hasn't he come back already? What's holding him up? You'd think if he wanted to strike back, he wouldn't give us time to regroup. And what is Galactor doing? We're sitting here, training… what if they're doing the same thing? What if the Galactor we're going to face is stronger than before?"

"That's certainly a possibility." I replied. "But all we can do is trust in Hakase to stay informed and give us ample warning. At least we've had this chance to prepare. Can you imagine what things would have been like if Dr. Nambu had reactivated the Team only days before a Galactor strike? Or if he hadn't had a chance to get our new Birdstyles or vehicles together?"

"It could be worse, that's for sure." Ryu admitted. "I'd feel a lot better though, if we could start training with these 'new members'."

"I wish Hakase would make up his mind too." I agreed. "I'm not sure what's holding him back from making a final decision."

"Could you talk to him, Ken?" Ryu asked. "He listens to you. We need those new members now. We can't practice the new Tornado Fighter, because we need all five of us to generate it." I nodded, recalling the new technique Dr. Nambu had described to us. I would no longer have to put any strain on my legs to perform the Tornado Fighter, as this altered version simply had us standing on the ground in a circle, with the power generated from within our bodies, transmitted via the G symbols on our belts. It was far more powerful, yet the drawback was that it was dangerous to attempt without five participants.

"And we can't test out the new Firebird, because we can't get all five vehicles aboard the New God Phoenix." Ryu went on. "And while we're on the subject, I'd like some practice docking and releasing all of the new vehicles as well."

"You're making some good points, Ryu." I told him. "I'll be sure to bring this up with Dr. Nambu."

"Thanks, Ken." Ryu grinned with relief. "I knew I could count on you."

I made good on my promise to Ryu the moment we had returned to G-Town. Rather than calling Dr. Nambu on my bracelet, where he could simply terminate the communication from his end, I went down to the Doctor's office, making use of the transportation tubes.

"Hakase," I said as I entered, "I'd like to speak with you."

"What is it, Ken?" the Doctor asked. He looked up, his face worn and drooping with exhaustion. I was startled for a moment, unused to seeing him appear so haggard and… old.

"I'm hoping that you've made a decision on the new members for the Science Ninja Team." I told him, sitting down across from his desk. "We need to integrate them into the Team, get to know their fighting styles and their strengths and weaknesses. Right now we're unable to practice the new Tornado Fighter. Ryu has expressed concerns…"

A soft chime interrupted my carefully prepared speech. Normally I would have ignored it, but I couldn't help noticing the way Dr. Nambu froze at the sound, before attempting to listen to my concerns once more.

"If that's something you need to check on…" I invited him.

"No." Dr. Nambu shook his head, shifting his position ever so slightly. "It's not…"

But it was too late. I had seen the image that had appeared on the screen behind his back. My eyes widened with amazement.

"It's a message." I stated, my eyes narrowing in suspicion. "From your 'source'. The same one who warned you about Leader X before."

"Yes." Dr. Nambu replied. "And I'd like to read it in private, if you don't mind." He gestured toward the door, clearly indicating that I should leave.

"No." I refused. "This concerns the Science Ninja Team as well. I'd like to know what it says."

"I'll brief you later," the Doctor's tone was frosty, "if there's anything that concerns you."

"Why are you being so secretive about this?" I demanded. "How do we even know we can trust this person? Maybe it's a Galactor plant, sending you false leads."

"No, this is not Galactor." Dr. Nambu disagreed. "You don't know everything that's been going on, Ken. I have been able to verify…"

"I don't care what you've verified." I retorted. "I want to know what you're hiding from us."

"Fine, read the damn message." the Doctor growled. He sounded so upset that I nearly backed off. Yet I couldn't. I was too curious about this mysterious 'source' and the information he was sending to Dr. Nambu.

"Just let me…" The Doctor was attempting to enter something into his communications system, but I stood up, leaning across the desk.

"No." I insisted. "No alterations. I want to see the message as is." I pushed Dr. Nambu aside so that I could read what was on his communications screen.

X has returned. Standby for further instructions. 23

"What's '23'?" I asked.

"I'm not certain." Dr. Nambu replied. "Perhaps it's just some transmission noise as the message was being terminated." Yet the Doctor's answer was too smooth, too polished. I was suspicious, but knew I wasn't about to get any more information than that.

"I don't like the sound of this." I tried another approach. "This 'source' of yours claims X has returned, then tells you to await instructions? Does he think you're doing his bidding? Who's in charge here?"

"It's not what you're thinking." the Doctor sighed. "There are factors at work that you don't understand. This is why I wanted to explain everything to you myself, rather than having you barge in here and make demands." He accessed his console.

"As it turns out, ISO scientists observed a strange phenomenon just this morning." Dr. Nambu went on. "At first, it appeared to be a meteor, landing in the South Pacific, one hundred kilometers east of the Gilbert Islands. But on closer observation, we have discovered that this object is quite different from a meteor. It came from space, but data analysis shows it to be something we have never encountered before."

A series of numbers and chemical formulas ran across one of Dr. Nambu's data screens, and I blinked at the meaningless jumble of characters. I focused instead on the information I was able to process.

"You think it could have been Leader X."

"It would certainly fit with the other data we have uncovered." the Doctor frowned. "So far we have been unable to locate the object, although we have determined that the cruise ship Queen Margaret was in its landing path. The ship was destroyed, with only half of the passengers and crew surviving. Yet still, we can find no trace of this celestial object."

"That's horrible!" I gasped. "If Leader X's return has already caused such a disaster, what more does he have in mind?"

"He will certainly attempt to reform Galactor." Dr. Nambu replied. "Before leaving Earth nearly two years ago, his goal was to destroy our planet. I have no doubt that he will attempt to do so again. But his movement is limited on this planet. He needs to work through others. This is our chance to stop him. If we can thwart Galactor, they will be unable to do X's bidding, and the Earth will be safe."

"Hakase, we really need those new members now." I urged. "It's crucial that we have some time to integrate them into the Science Ninja Team."

"I'll think about it." Dr. Nambu promised reluctantly.

Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 5

Yet the new members did not appear. I reminded Dr. Nambu frequently of his promise, yet still he did not take any action. At first I assumed that his reluctance was because he was waiting for me to accept his 'offer' of cybernetic alteration. Yet even after I had made it perfectly clear this was not an option, the Doctor continued to prevaricate on the matter. I couldn't understand why he was so slow to act, and found my resulting anger difficult to control. For his part, Dr. Nambu began to avoid me, knowing what I wanted and being, for some unknown reason, unwilling or unable to provide it to me.

Finally, after two months, the Doctor confirmed what I had suspected all along: he was making Getz and Mako members of the Science Ninja Team. Getz would be assigned the position of G2, designation Falcon, while Mako would be assigned the position of G5, designation Cardinal.

"When are they arriving?" I asked.

"As soon as I can extricate them from their current assignments and relocate them here." Dr. Nambu replied. "It's not an easy process, Ken."

"Galactor grows stronger by the day." I muttered angrily. "They've been quiet… too quiet, especially given that we're fairly certain that X has returned to Earth. We don't know what they're doing. When they do come out into the open, it's going to be disastrous. We need time to prepare!"

Yet the new members still did not arrive at G-Town. Jinpei and Ryu had permanently located to the new base, as I had, and we remained on standby twenty-four hours a day. I watched the days roll by with a nervous nausea. More days meant more time for Getz and Mako to arrive: more time to prepare. But it also meant that Galactor had more time to prepare: time they were likely using to better effect than we were.

The only addition provided to our Team over the following four weeks was Pimer, a robotic autopilot that would allow the New God Phoenix to be left unmanned, in case all five Team members were off the ship. While I was unlikely to be on the ground for a field mission, it was now possible that I could fly the Eagle Sharp while the others were assigned elsewhere. While Pimer was no substitute for a real pilot, the robot could perform adequately when needed.

Frustrated by our lack of progress, I spent my time working with the camera receptors that Dr. Nambu had installed on the New God Phoenix, learning the system from the inside out, so that I was able to gather as much real-time information as possible, as quickly as possible. If the new Science Ninja Team had to be deployed on the fly, at least I'd be able to provide as much guidance as I possibly could.

That evening I got a call from Dr. Nambu, requesting my presence in his office. Desperately hoping that the Doctor would have the news that I wanted to hear, I hastened to the transportation tubes to arrive as quickly as possible.

But when I got there, Dr. Nambu was strangely silent. He barely seemed to notice me as I walked into the room.

"Hakase," I said quietly, "I'm here."

"Ken." The Doctor looked up at me, his eyes full of anger. I involuntarily stepped back, unused to such a violent expression on my foster father's normally calm face.

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

"Yes... I…" Dr. Nambu appeared to be searching for words, which was very much unlike him. "I wanted to warn you to be careful."

"Careful?" It seemed like an odd message. Why would the Doctor summon me for something like this?

"Galactor is more devious than we have ever have given them credit for." Dr. Nambu spoke harshly. "You must have your guard up at all times. Everyone is on full alert. Inform Jinpei and Ryu."

"What has happened?" I asked, suddenly understanding. "You got a message from this 'source', didn't you? What did it say?"

"Just be careful." the Doctor refused to answer my question. "I trust in your judgment, Ken."

"If you trust in my judgment, then why won't you tell me what's going on?" I demanded.

"Your new Team members, Getz and Mako, will arrive tomorrow."

"Huh?" This wasn't what I had been expecting at all. "Well, I'm glad they'll finally be here."

"Full alert, Ken. Inform Jinpei and Ryu."

88888

I followed the Doctor's orders, but I couldn't help wondering what else was going on that he refused to tell me. Again, I suspected that this mysterious 'source' wasn't all that he appeared to be. How could Dr. Nambu implicitly trust this person to such a degree?

The following morning, everyone was summoned to Dr. Nambu's office. Since we were on full alert, we transformed to Birdstyle before entering. Dr. Nambu had informed us that this was to be the normal protocol from now on.

"Your new Team members, Falcon Getz and Cardinal Mako, have arrived." Dr. Nambu informed us. His face seemed almost blank, and I had a difficult time reading his emotions, almost as if he was making a concerted effort to hide them from us. I acknowledged his stiff upper lip with one of my own. Replacing Joe and Jun had to be as difficult for him as it was for us.

A large viewing monitor on the Doctor's control panel came on, and we could see Getz and Mako walking down the corridor, approaching us.

"What the hell?" Jinpei cried. "Why are they wearing Joe's and Onechan's uniforms?"

For a brief instant, I had almost thought that it was Joe and Jun approaching, but Jinpei's exclamation had jolted me back to reality. These were not our former teammates. Their builds, their heights, their flow of movement… little things that were 'not right' screamed out that I was not looking at the Condor and the Swan. Yet Jinpei was right: Getz and Mako we were wearing the Condor and Swan uniforms.

"I thought you created new Birdstyles for them?" I asked suspiciously. "Grey for Getz and red for Mako."

"Those Birdstyles are not yet ready." Dr. Nambu replied emotionlessly. I didn't believe it for a second. Hakase had been preparing for nearly a year. Why would everything else be ready, but not two of the Birdstyles? It didn't make sense. Unless the Doctor had purposely wanted to have Getz and Mako wear Joe's and Jun's colors? It was a slap in the face to the Science Ninja Team, and one that hit hard emotionally. Why would Dr. Nambu put us through something like that?

I could see by the expressions on Jinpei's and Ryu's faces that they weren't happy about this either. Already they resented their new teammates, when it was important that Getz and Mako be accepted. This didn't bode well for future interactions.

"Hakase…" I started to speak, but the Doctor interrupted me.

"I need you all to launch the New God Phoenix." he ordered. "Now."

Angry and hurt, we rushed off to our warship, dreading our first meeting with these new members of the Science Ninja Team.

88888

We launched for the first time as a full Team in the New God Phoenix. Although Dr. Nambu hadn't explicitly said so, I understood that we were on a mission, and that the world was counting on us. I resolved to crush our enemies quickly, to prevent this from becoming another long, drawn out war.

Mako sat silently in her seat, looking over her workstation but not conversing with any of us. Between her visor and my unfamiliarity with her as a person, I was unable to read her emotions. But from my limited viewpoint, she seemed… guarded.

Getz had given almost the opposite impression, swaggering onto the New God Phoenix like it was his personal limousine. I could sense instant dislike emanating from Jinpei and Ryu, and I felt it myself. Mako appeared to be distancing herself from the man, which was odd, considering that he was her fiancé.

"I don't like that new guy." Jinpei muttered, playing with his hand weapon. "He's a snob."

"Jinpei!" I cautioned. Had he already forgotten that Mako was sitting right there?

"Where is Getz, anyway?" I asked.

"He's browsing around the new ship." Jinpei replied, concentrating on his ball as he threw it back and forth. "Acting like he owns the place."

"He should be here, with the rest of us." Mako agreed, causing Jinpei to jump. Clearly the Swallow had forgotten that she was present. "I'll call him." But Mako's effort was unnecessary, as at that moment the elevation tube lowered to the floor of the Bridge. Getz was inside; not standing up, as the design of the device suggested, but lounging arrogantly on its floor.

"This New God Phoenix is incredible." Getz observed, but he sounded mocking, rather than impressed. "Dr. Nambu did a great job. I've checked out every corner of this ship." He stood up, swaggering across the Bridge.

"But I'm not certain we can defeat Galactor with just this God Phoenix, Ken." he told me condescendingly, as if he were the one giving the orders. Arrogantly, he pushed Jinpei out of the way as he strode by.

"Of course we can! We've never lost before." I retorted through gritted teeth, although truth be told, I was exaggerating slightly. Galactor had certainly handed us some defeats in the past. But I didn't like this jerk ruining our morale straight off the bat. Perhaps my assessment of Getz's file had been wrong. How could someone who seemed so right on paper be so wrong in person?

"But what if Galactor's resurgence is accompanied by new scientific advancements?" Getz asked in a superior tone, turning to Jinpei. "What do you think, Kid?"

"Who are you calling a 'kid'?" Jinpei asked angrily. His youth had been a sore spot for him recently, and Ryu and I had taken great pains not to refer to him as such. Yet it almost seemed as if Getz had known this, and was using this form of address on purpose, to annoy Jinpei.

"Take it easy. I'll teach you how to fight like a man in no time." Getz chuckled nastily.

"That's enough!" Mako said, crossing the Bridge to confront her fiancé. "I don't know what's gotten into you today, Getz, but you need to stop this now. Apologize to Jinpei!"

"Just like a woman: all soft." Getz sneered. "If he can't take it, or if you can't take it, then neither of you belongs on the Science Ninja Team." Mako was taken aback, simply staring at Getz with her mouth open.

"There's no call for that." she replied coldly, returning to her seat.

"Listen, Getz," I said, doing my best to diffuse the situation, "What we need most to defeat the enemy is teamwork. Understand?"

"Teamwork?" Getz laughed. "Do you have any concept of how weak mere humans are, in the face of Galactor's scientific superiority?" I felt a surge of anger rushing through me. I didn't know if he had intended to refer to my physical condition, but it felt as if he had. Childishly, I instantly decided that I had been right not to accept Dr. Nambu's insistent offer of cybernetic treatment.

"What the hell…?" I asked, but before I could finish my sentence, Dr. Nambu's face appeared on the communications screen.

"This is your briefing, Gatchaman." the Doctor said, without preamble. "A transport vessel crashed onto the beach at Eastern Island. Its two hundred passengers have mysteriously disappeared. There is a temple on the island. It's worth investigating."

"A temple?" I was confused. Why was this a mission for the Science Ninja Team? Dr. Nambu must suspect that Galactor was involved. But if that was the case, why wasn't he revealing this information to us?

"Getz will be an excellent field leader for this mission." Dr. Nambu went on. "He's been there before, on other ISO assignments."

"Really?" Mako asked quietly. "I don't recall you mentioning that, Getz."

"Before I met you, Doll." Getz leered. "It was three years ago. Don't worry, Dr. Nambu. I'll make sure that Gatchaman is able to work efficiently, with my leadership."

"I am certain that Galactor is involved." Dr. Nambu said, almost as an afterthought, although he didn't explain his reasoning. "I am also certain that they are different from how we remember them."

"I understand." I replied, as the Doctor signed off.

"Now I can relax a little, because Pimer will take care of everything." Ryu grinned, standing up and stretching. He activated the pilot machine, impressing Jinpei, who had never seen the robot in action before.

Getz took that as his cue to wander off again, leaving a cloud of tension behind him on the Bridge.

"Ken, I apologize for Getz's behavior." Mako said quietly. "He's been out of sorts for the last day or so. He was nervous about joining the Team: he wasn't certain that we would fit in. I don't like how he's dealing with it, though."

"He'd fit in better if he could ease up on that attitude of his." Ryu pointed out.

"How can you even like that jerk?" Jinpei grumbled.

"I told you: he's not normally like this." Mako defended Getz hotly. "I wish you'd all give him a chance."

"Seems to me, he's the one not giving us a chance." Ryu muttered.

Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 6

With Getz gone, the rest of us were able to relax somewhat and mentally prepare for the mission at hand. I didn't like the idea of sending Jinpei and Ryu, or even Mako, off under Getz's leadership, but I had little choice. I was unable to accompany my teammates. I pulled Ryu aside shortly before we arrived.

"I'll be monitoring everything from here." I reminded him. "I'll be able to speak to you directly; no one else will hear me. Don't be afraid to challenge Getz, if you don't agree with whatever he's doing. He's arrogant enough to make a mistake just to prove he's 'right'. No matter what happens, I'll back you up."

"Thanks, Ken." Ryu replied. "I appreciate it. You're putting a lot of faith in me, and I won't let you down."

The other four left the New God Phoenix, gliding down to Eastern Island. I watched them enter the temple, then turned on the four monitors at my station. Each one was designed to transmit from one of the helmets of every absent Science Ninja Team member. To my surprise, Getz's and Mako's helmets were not transmitting. I pinged the frequency, and got nothing in response. It was as if their monitoring systems didn't exist at all.

They were wearing the Condor and Swan uniforms… was it possible that Dr. Nambu had given them Joe and Jun's old uniforms, without any of the new modifications? I frowned, unable to determine why the Doctor would have done such a thing. But now was hardly the time for answering these questions. I needed to concentrate on the mission at hand.

I watched Jinpei's and Ryu's transmissions as they walked along behind Mako. Getz, in the lead, was a small distance ahead as everyone passed through the temple. Eventually they came across a large stone statue, which dominated an otherwise empty room.

"Are you scared, Jinpei?" Getz sneered.

"No way!" Jinpei blustered.

I noticed some sand falling at the side of the room. Apparently Ryu did too, because he clambered up a stack of irregularly piled stone blocks along the wall.

"Why don't we go a bit further?" he suggested.

"Wait for me!" Jinpei called, following behind. Since they were now in the lead, I couldn't tell what Getz and Mako were doing. It turned out that there was another passageway at the top of the blocks, and when Ryu turned a corner, I was able to see that Mako had accompanied them. I didn't catch sight of Getz.

"It's a dead end." Ryu observed, looking down the passageway at another stone statue.

"It's strange… isn't this the statue from down below?" Jinpei asked.

"Maybe we're going in circles." Mako suggested.

"I think this place was open before." Jinpei noted, pressing against a recessed block on the opposite wall. I was getting the impression that Getz's abilities were a lot less than he had made them out to be.

"Ryu, find Getz and tell him that you're going back." I ordered.

"Sure, Ken." Ryu replied. I could hear his voice as clearly as if he were in the room with me. "But… wait. Where's Getz?" Ryu swung his head around, but there was no sign of Getz. I didn't see him on Jinpei's transmission either.

"I haven't seen him since we started climbing." Mako admitted.

"Watch out!" Jinpei called, as the statue's eyes began to glow.

"Take cover!" I ordered Ryu. But he was already on it, leaping up to the blocks, Mako and Jinpei following his lead. Their movement came just in time, as a laser shot out from the statue, firing at the spot where Jinpei's and Mako's feet had been just a moment before.

"Hit the firing point with your sonic gun!" I ordered Ryu, who pulled out his weapon and did as I had instructed. He hit the statue between its eyes, and the front of the stone carving pulled apart, as if it were some kind of mask. A massive mechanical creature was revealed underneath, but just as quickly as my eyes registered that fact, it exploded. I was shocked that only one shot from Ryu's sonic pistol had been enough to accomplish this feat.

"There's more." I warned him. "Getz set you up. It's a trap!"

I saw a flash of a shadow on the wall, and called out a warning to Ryu. But Mako was already crying out.

"Getz! What are you doing?"

Getz ignored her, shooting at Ryu's position. Fortunately, thanks to his months of gymnastics practice, Ryu was able to jump away, using his own gun to return Getz's fire. The two traded sonic blasts for a few moments, until Jinpei threw out his Rebound Ball, knocking Getz's weapon from his hand. Getz leapt away, and I only caught a flash of him from Jinpei's perspective as he jumped down, flying toward Ryu's head.

"Ryu, from above!" I shouted, desperately hoping that the Owl knew what was coming. Ryu moved surprisingly fast, throwing his Gripper upward, knocking Getz on the side of his head and throwing him off to the side. Getz hit the wall, then tumbled to the floor. His right hand was now bare, revealing a vicious-looking hand spike. Jinpei aimed his Rebound Ball at the downed man, but Getz was faster. He jumped into the air, somersaulting backward until he landed up at the ceiling again.

"Getz, this isn't you!" Mako called. "Something's wrong! Come down and be reasonable!" Her voice carried notes of both terror and anger.

"Took you long enough to figure it out, Bitch." Getz sneered. "But it seems these bozos you're allied with are pretty quick, even without the vaunted Gatchaman."

"You tricked us!" Jinpei accused, leaping down to join Ryu on the floor of the chamber.

"I know all of your secrets." Getz bragged, not the least bothered by Jinpei's outburst.

"You'll pay for this, you idiot!" Ryu blustered.

"If you're not Getz, who the hell are you?" Mako demanded.

"Why I'm a member of the most feared organization on Earth!" the false Getz smirked. "Galactor!" With a flourish worthy of Berg Katse, he tugged at the side of his uniform, pulling it off to reveal himself.

"How do you look like him?" Mako demanded, fire in her eyes. I could see her fingers twitching next to her sonic gun, courtesy of Jinpei's video transmission.

"Galactor can do anything." the man bragged. "Even place a man on the 'famous' Science Ninja Team. And all it took was one well-aimed bullet into the body of that loser you called Getz."

"No!" Mako screamed, pulling out her pistol and firing in short, rapid bursts at the man. "You lie!"

Mako appeared to be a good shot, but Getz was adept enough at avoiding her fire. After a moment, Ryu gently put his hand on Mako's arm, and reluctantly she lowered her gun. I could see tears in her eyes, even through her visor.

"The real Getz was merely the first to fall as part of my assignment." the man bragged. "I have a mission to send you all to Hell! Take a look around you!"

Everyone gasped as they surveyed the chamber. My eyes attempted to grapple with the swirling images of Galactor soldiers entering the room, pointing their weapons at Ryu, Jinpei and Mako from above. My hands clenched into fists. I should be there! I should be helping! But instead, I was stuck here, watching everything unfold, unable to do anything to assist my teammates. I cursed my own stupidity that had lost me the use of my legs.

"Shit!" Ryu swore.

There was a strange figure dressed in purple amongst the green-uniformed soldiers. It appeared to be a woman with long blonde hair. Briefly, I was reminded of Berg Katse, but the moment she spoke, I could tell that it was definitely not Katse.

"Welcome, Science Ninja Team!" the woman cackled. "But where is the infamous Gatchaman?"

"Too weak to do more than putter about his ship." Getz mocked. "He's no threat to Galactor now."

"That's too bad. I've been waiting for him." the woman replied petulantly.

"Are you the head of Galactor?" Jinpei laughed disapprovingly. "You've got the outfit for it, that's for sure."

"Whoever you are, the Science Ninja Team will stand against you!" Ryu declared bravely.

"That's good, keep her on her toes." I told him. "You know she's going to order those goons to fire, right? Be prepared to jump! Signal Jinpei and Mako."

"Not anymore!" the woman sniffed. "As long as you exist, my goals will never be achieved!" She gestured imperiously at the false Getz.

"Go take care of this 'weakened' Gatchaman!" she ordered. "And you others… say your prayers!"

The anticipated laser fire rained down, but Ryu, Jinpei and Mako were able to leap out of the way. Mako moved to follow the false Getz, but was blocked by a group of Galactor soldiers. Jinpei's focus changed, and I could no longer see Mako on his camera, as he went after the Galactor woman, flying into the air and kicking her in the head when he swooped down, then throwing out his Rebound Ball to knock out a series of soldiers. Ryu seemed to be using his Gripper to suffocate Galactors, then swinging them around, using them as makeshift weapons to bash their comrades. My fingers itched, longing to be a part of the fight. But it quickly became clear that I wasn't needed. Ryu, Jinpei and Mako had no problem eliminating these Galactors on their own.

"Don't forget about the false Getz!" I reminded Ryu. "He knows the secret of G-Town!"

"We're on it, Ken!" Ryu grunted as he took out a final soldier. Mako was already running in the direction in which the Galactor agent had disappeared. Ryu called out to Jinpei, and the Swallow followed.

But as soon as they passed into the next room, the walls began to close in. The doorways were blocked, and the blocks at the side of the walls began to elongate, seemingly coming forward to crush the chamber's occupants.

"Damn it!" Jinpei cried.

"There is no way for you to escape!" a female voice called. "Witness the power of Galactor!" The blocks pulled away again, only to reveal the woman in purple who had been in the other chamber.

"Go to Hell!" she laughed, before disappearing again. The room rearranged itself once more into an empty rectangular chamber with perfectly flat walls.

"Be on alert!" I warned, although I knew it was a redundant order. Ryu, Jinpei and Mako were already looking around uneasily, pointing their guns in three different directions.

"What's happening?" Jinpei asked.

"Let's just stay calm." Ryu advised.

"Bastard!" Mako spat at the ground. "He killed Getz just so he could pull off this pathetic charade? I'll wring his neck with my bare hands!"

The floor began to tremble and break apart. A massive metallic hand rose through, a strange eye on each finger. I had a bad feeling about this. Eyes on Galactor creations were usually powerful weapons.

Ryu shot at the hand a few times as it emerged, but this time the blast of his sonic gun did little, if anything, to the Galactor machine.

"Stop, Ryu!" I ordered him. "It doesn't look like it's helping."

The eyes on the fingers opened. A small lizard was crawling on one of the walls, and the center eye turned, shooting a laser beam at it, incinerating the poor creature. A nasty laugh echoed through the chamber. I had only been aware of this female Galactor leader's existence for a few moments, yet I already hated her.

"If you want to extend your miserable lives just a little bit longer, you'd better not move." the woman mockingly advised. "I think you all know how terrifying Galactor weapons can be."

"Fuck you!" Jinpei cried, running forward.

"Jinpei!" Ryu called, as a laser beam shot forth, hitting the Swallow on the shoulder.

"Tell him not to move!" I shouted to Ryu, and he relayed the order.

"It's too easy." the Galactor woman's voice teased. "It's about time that my Mars Statue awoke. Its Eye Blasters will instantly incinerate you!"

There was nothing I could do. Nothing I could even advise. My heart fell into the pit of my stomach as I realized that my Team was about to die… and all because I had foolishly let them go in with that damn bastard impersonating Getz!

Frantically, I scanned the two monitors in front of me, desperately looking for anything that could help my teammates. And then I saw it.

"The eyes!" I shouted at Ryu. "Throw your weapons into the air as decoys, then shoot at the eyes!"

"I'll try…" Ryu replied doubtfully. He told Jinpei and Mako to throw up their weapons. When they did, the Owl attempted to shoot one of the eyes with his gun. But his aim, although much improved over the past six months, was not fast enough to prevent a laser beam from shooting him in the shoulder.

"Unnngh…" Ryu groaned, but to his credit he continued attempting to shoot at the eyes. He was hit twice more, the laser beams grazing his arm and his leg.

"Ryu, stop!" Jinpei cried, as the massive hand continued its attack. "It's not doing any good!"

My mind raced as I searched for something, anything that could help. But there was nothing.

I had completely failed my Team.

And then the giant hand exploded. There was a flash of brilliant white light, and then darkness as Ryu and Jinpei covered their faces from flying debris.

"Why did it explode?" Jinpei asked. Everyone turned around, and Ryu spotted something on the floor. He reached for it, turning it around in his hand to examine it from every angle.

"It's an explosive device!" I indentified the object. Ryu repeated this information to the other two.

"But who put it there?" Mako wondered. "You don't suppose Getz…?" Her face lit up for a moment, before falling again as she realized the futility of her hope.

"Someone else destroyed the monster statue." I told Ryu. "There's someone else there!"

"What's that?" Mako cried, jumping to her feet at the sound of some background noise. "Getz!" She ran off, Ryu and Jinpei following behind her. From the blur on my monitors I caught a couple of glimpses of the false Getz moving through the passageways of the temple. I suddenly recalled that the female Galactor leader had ordered him to return and kill me. A shiver ran down my spine as I understood that I had forgotten the danger to myself, even as I had been worrying about my teammates.

But I didn't have time to think about my lapse. Jinpei and Ryu had practically run into Mako, who had stopped in front of them. Ahead, the false Getz was pointing a gun in their direction.

"Getz!" Mako cried, running forward again. "I know it's you! The real you!"

But the man slumped over, coming to rest on the ground. It was obvious, even from my limited view, that he was dead.

"Getz, no!" Mako's anguish tore at my heart. She threw herself over his body, her shoulders shaking with grief.

"Getz, I never…" Mako pulled back suddenly, almost jerking away from the body, as if touching it burned her skin.

"It's not Getz." she hissed. "It's the imposter!"

"How do you know?" Jinpei asked.

"He doesn't have Getz's birthmark on his right shoulder." Mako spat. "This is that dirty bastard who killed him!" She kicked the body violently, so that it rolled over onto its side. Now that it was displayed at this angle, something else was clearly visible.

There was a feather shuriken sticking out of the Galactor's neck.

"Joe!" Jinpei exclaimed. "No one but Joe uses feather shuriken!"

"No… it can't be Joe…" I shook my head, but Ryu wasn't listening to me.

"Maybe Joe's the one who destroyed that hand statue…" the Owl suggested.

"Joe? You mean, Condor Joe?" Mako asked angrily. "So my Getz is dead, and you think this 'Joe' of yours has survived somehow?"

"Someone set the explosives in that statue." Jinpei pointed out.

Ryu's view fell to the ground, and he shouted out in surprise.

"Look, footprints!"

Now I knew this couldn't be Joe. Joe would never be so obvious…. so careless. It had to be another trap. I was just about to tell this to Ryu when he started running down the passageway again, following the footprints, Jinpei close behind. I could only assume that Mako had joined them as well. Ryu and Jinpei ran down a stone ramp to the next level of the temple, arriving at the bottom just in time to see a shadow flash across a wall in front of them.

It was so familiar… and yet… hadn't we just been tricked by an imposter? What was to say that this wasn't a trap as well? But Ryu and Jinpei were off again, following the shadow in a desperate rush… until they came skidding to a halt once more. A familiar silhouette was shadowed on the stone wall before them… its shape so clearly recognizable that it made my heart ache.

But it wasn't possible! It couldn't be! It had to be another trap.

"Joe!" Ryu called, and Jinpei joined him.

"If this is your Joe, why isn't he just stepping out to talk to us?" Mako asked. "He could be an imposter, just like that 'Getz'."

"Shut up! You don't know anything!" Jinpei cried, rushing forward again. They ran down another corridor, only to come to a dead end.

"See? It's a trap!" Mako shouted, pulling out her gun and searching around. But Jinpei and Ryu weren't worried about Galactors. By the way they were frantically turning their heads around, I knew they were looking for Joe.

"She's right." I sighed heavily. "It's likely a trap, Ryu. It can't be Joe."

"Why doesn't he show himself to us?" Ryu muttered, apparently ignoring my words.

"That person is not Joe!" I shouted. "Mako is right!"

"He was just like Joe!" Ryu retorted.

"If he were Joe, he wouldn't run away from you." I told him.

"Joe…" Jinpei moaned. "It had to be Joe. And if Joe is here, maybe Onechan…" This was getting dangerous. I pushed aside the grief that was threatening to overwhelm me and did my best to get through to Ryu.

"You can't let him go on like this, Ryu." I ordered. "It's not Joe. Jun isn't here either. It's just those Galactor bastards, playing with our emotions, trying to lead us into a trap."

"I guess it would be like Galactor, to trap us like that again…" Ryu sighed sadly.

"You don't think it's Joe?" Jinpei was aghast.

"Mako is right. Joe would have shown himself to us. He has no reason to hide." Ryu admitted. "It's just shadow tricks."

"So who helped us, then?" Jinpei wanted to know.

"It could have been anyone." Mako replied. "Someone who wanted to gain our confidence."

"Maybe…" Jinpei said, but he didn't sound as if he believed her.

"Backtrack." I advised Ryu. "And watch out for any sign of danger."

"Okay, Ken." Ryu whispered.

They moved back to the main corridor and travelled along it, eventually passing from the temple corridors into an underground grotto. The sound of rushing water came from ahead, where the pathway came to an abrupt end. Jinpei peered over the stone cliff curiously.

"A whirlpool!" he exclaimed. "Two whirlpools! You're a goner if you fall down there!"

"Don't say that, Jinpei!" Ryu lectured. "I've been spooked enough today!"

"We just have to get past it." Mako sighed.

Everyone began edging along the side of the cliff, which got more and more narrow. Once they made it past the whirlpools, they were able to safely descend until all that remained between them and the other side was a few centimeters of still water.

"Wait!" Mako whispered suddenly. "I hear something."

"I don't hear anything." Ryu replied.

"It sounds like an electrical noise." Jinpei frowned. "What's wrong with your ears, Ryu?"

For a moment, it looked like Ryu was going to smack Jinpei for his ill-timed joke, but then something came over the Owl.

"Good, let it pass." I told him. "You're in charge right now, Ryu."

"Thanks…" Ryu muttered, clearly intending the word for my ears, and not those of the Swallow. He moved forward, leading the way.

"Let's see what's up there." Ryu suggested, pointing to a stone cliff on the other side of the water, from which daylight was visible at the top. The Owl began quickly climbing upward, Mako and Jinpei following behind.

As he peered over the top of the cliff, Ryu gasped. Eastern Island was clearly more than an 'abandoned' temple. A massive base covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. There was a giant satellite dish embedded within the ground. Next to it was some kind of factory, processing a black, dusty ore. Coal, perhaps? From Ryu's monitor, I could also see other structures, although it was difficult to discern their purpose from a quick glimpse.

"Wow…" Jinpei breathed, as he looked out at the base.

"There are Galactors down there." Mako pointed out. Ryu and Jinpei changed their points of view, and now I could see it too: tiny green dots moving around the factory environs.

"What the hell? When did Galactor build such an extensive base?" I swore to myself. But I knew when it had been done. All of those months when we had been waiting… waiting for Leader X's return, waiting for Dr. Nambu to fill the two empty positions on the Science Ninja Team. Galactor hadn't been wasting its time. I shuddered to think of the resources they had extracted here, and for what purpose they could be used.

"This is an incredible base!" Ryu observed.

"Look at the temple!" Jinpei exclaimed. Sure enough, the back of the temple was splitting open, pulling apart to reveal an air missile, clearly preparing for launch.

"The temple's just camouflage!" Ryu deduced. "But what are they plotting?"

"It doesn't matter!" Jinpei declared. "Whatever it is, we'll stop them before they can get it started!"

"It's going to be difficult for us to destroy such a huge base." Ryu noted.

"Make your way to the other side of the base." I told him. "I'll pick you up in the New God Phoenix, and we can attack from all sides in our individual G-Machines."

"Ken's going to pick us up on the other side of the base." Ryu told the others. They leaped down to the roof of the mining area, taking out the guards there and secreting themselves inside a coal transport. After a short, dusty ride, they passed over to the other side of the base. Checking their positions on the helmet transmissions, I was able to maneuver the New God Phoenix underneath them. Everyone dropped down for a pickup. I noted that Mako landed well, if a little awkwardly. Clearly she was still getting used to Birdstyle.

"Listen, everyone! Attack the base in your individual G-Machines!" I ordered, moving as quickly as I could to the Eagle Sharp's docking bay. I had set Pimer on autopilot, ready to respond to my bracelet if we needed a pickup.

As eager as I was, nonetheless the others departed the New God Phoenix before I did. I saw Jinpei's Swallow Helico flying off to my left and Ryu's Horned Tank below me. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a white motorcycle flying over the ground, recognizing that Mako was upon it. Her file had said that she was an excellent motorcycle driver, but she had never ridden the Auto Swan before. I pushed away the sadness that played at the edges of my mind, thinking of the woman who should have been controlling that vehicle. We had agreed to honor our missing comrades by keeping their bird names on the G-machines that would have been theirs, but at the time, I hadn't realized how emotionally devastating that might be in the heat of battle.

I let a cold anger replace my grief, refocusing on my mission. An announcement blared over some communications system, warning the Galactors ahead of us that a missile launch was about to take place in sixty seconds.

"I was right! There was a missile!" I berated myself. I had no idea where it was targeting, but whatever it was, it wouldn't be good.

"We have to stop them from firing that missile!" I transmitted to everyone. "Let's go!"

I approached the missile itself, firing a mini-Bird Missile at it, hoping that would be enough to detonate the rocket right then and there. Yet when the smoke cleared, my weapon had done no damage at all. Worse yet, I had betrayed my position to the enemy, who was now firing at the Eagle Sharp. To my dismay, I quickly discovered that these Galactors had far better aim than their predecessors, only barely managing to elude their fire.

"Thirty seconds to firing!" came another announcement.

"Shit!" I swore, but then I crested a ridge, and a strange antenna caught my eye. The sun's reflection bounced back, and I noticed a thin line of windows stretching down the sides of a grassy hill.

"That must be their control room!" I realized, but there wasn't enough time to call the others to infiltrate.

I would have to do it myself.

Taking careful aim, I pushed the control yoke forward, sending the Eagle Sharp into a steep dive, breaking through the glass and bursting into the Galactor control room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman in purple whom the others had encountered in the temple, as she went flying for cover. A grim feeling of satisfaction settled into me. I reached for my Vulcan Cannons, but there wasn't enough time. I was already breaking through the opposite window and back out into the air.

It wouldn't be long before the missile was fired. Desperately, I called to everyone else to attack the base of the hill, to destroy the control center inside. But even as they approached, I saw Mako skid off the ridge, while Ryu and Jinpei came under fire. There were only seconds left. I had to stop that missile.

Metal covers were descending over the windows, closing around the control center. Recklessly, I dove down again, using the same point of entrance that I had before. I could already see that the window covers on the other side of the room had shut.

I didn't hesitate. Boldly, I shot one of my mini-Bird Missiles, then raced toward the other side of the control center, passing through the wall a millisecond after the explosion had ripped it apart. Fire surged around the Eagle Sharp, but then I was free, in the bright blue sky. I had done it!

Except… something was wrong. My plane was spinning out of control, and I couldn't focus on the ground, much less perform an emergency landing. Frantically I wrestled with the control yoke, pulling it toward me, working with the rudders to stabilize the plane.

Miraculously, it worked. But I could already see the ground coming up at me, at an alarming rate. Screaming with rage, I pulled up my nose as best I could, ploughing into the ground fast… too fast… skidding into a forest…

A tree bashed the side of the Eagle Sharp, and I saw part of my wing fly off, hurtling into the woods. My landing gear could not deploy, and I had no control over my plane, screeching forward through the dirt, directly toward the burning forest. I sensed that the end was near, but I faced it as bravely as I could.

Everything outside ceased to matter. Before me I saw the Science Ninja Team… not as it was now, but as it had used to be. Before the first war, when we were training, and our lives still contained a measure of happiness. I pictured us running through the trees, Joe right behind me, Jinpei and Ryu off in the back.

And beside me… beside me was Jun. Her eyes sparkled and her hair flew out behind her, and when our eyes met I could feel the joy in my gaze reflected in hers. I took her hand, and together we flew…

Behind us, Joe put on a burst of speed, zooming ahead, eager to win. Despite his rank as G2, he could never settle for second best…

I blinked as Joe's face changed. Now he was wearing his Birdstyle, and I could see him through the flames.

"Ken, come on!" he urged, "Pull the emergency lever!"

"I can't! It won't move…" I groaned.

"Ken… Ken… hang in there, Ken!"

"Joe… is it really you?"

Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 7

Something was wrong. I gasped, sitting up, staring into the fire...

But it was only a small campfire. I was in a cave, seated on a blanket, with Mako, Ryu and Jinpei beside me. My helmet felt tight, as if my head was swollen. I groaned. realizing that I had likely suffered from a concussion.

A strange man stood next to my position. He wore a long, black cloak, and a brown hawk sat upon his shoulder. The man's rough beard gave him a gruff, defiant air.

"Aniki!" Jinpei cried.

"You're awake!" Ryu observed.

"What happened?" I asked, rubbing my head.

"The Galactor base was destroyed." Mako replied. "After the control center exploded, the missile detonated in place, since it wasn't fired. There wasn't much for us to do after that… except look for you."

"Me?" I asked, still confused.

"It was a close call." the strange man said. "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have survived."

"Huh?" Who was this strange man? Had he… saved me, somehow? "You were the one who helped me?"

"That's right." the man acknowledged. "I was very surprised when I saw your airplane crash."

"He said that you almost burned to death!" Jinpei added.

I thought about what I had seen in the plane… what I had heard. It hadn't been Joe, after all. It had all been a figment of my imagination.

"Be vigilant, Gatchaman." the strange man warned. "Galactor will attack the Earth once again with their powerful technology."

"What do you know of Galactor?" I asked suspiciously.

"I am a scientist who used to work for Galactor." the man admitted. "My name is Dr. Raphael. My tale is a long and tedious one. Suffice to say that I have more than enough reason to hate Galactor. Through my studies, I learned that a suspicious object came to Earth some time ago. I have been looking into it ever since. The disappearance of the transport plane on this island was too coincidental to ignore, and so I came here to investigate." The hawk on the man's shoulder fluttered its wings, leaning down to preen itself. When it pulled its head up again, it held a large white feather in its beak.

Dr. Raphael held the feather aloft, and in the shadows created by the campfire, he appeared familiar… the hawk on his shoulder created a curving beak in front of the shadow's face, and instantly I realized whom it was that we had mistaken for Joe.

Dr. Raphael threw the feather, landing it straight and true on a vine climbing up the cave wall.

"I thought you were Joe…" Jinpei bowed his head. But even as the Swallow admitted his error, I noticed that the bird feather, while straight, was hardly powerful enough to pierce a man's skin… certainly not enough to kill with one blow, the way the false Getz had died.

Raphael wasn't telling us the whole truth. Yet I understood that it would be more prudent to pretend to accept his words at face value. There was no point in letting this man know that we were onto him. In any case, there was no time to do so, as he turned to leave.

"Farewell, Gatchaman." he chuckled softly as he left the cave, his hawk now resting on his arm.

88888

As we flew back to G-Town in the New God Phoenix, Dr. Nambu contacted us, congratulating the Team on its first successful mission. My cheeks burned with shame. It had hardly been 'successful'. We had not determined that 'Getz' had been an imposter until it had been too late. Mako, Ryu and Jinpei would have been killed by the hand statue, if not for the mysterious explosive device. And I easily could have died as a result of my own careless actions. Hakase was putting a good face on things, but I knew that we had survived only through sheer luck.

"Hakase, we weren't able to rescue the people missing from the transport vessel." I reminded him of yet another failure. "I am sorry."

"It is likely that they had already been taken from the island before you arrived." Dr. Nambu admitted. "We have been receiving more reports of people being brainwashed and forced to work for Galactor."

I nodded, not feeling any better for knowing this information.

"The body of the real Getz was uncovered in a Sao Paulo hotel." the Doctor went on. "I'm sorry, Mako, but DNA analysis has confirmed his identity."

"Sao Paulo… we were there only two days ago…" Mako's voice trembled. "I went out for an hour, to gather supplies… he was there when I returned. But…"

"Yes, we suspect that is when the imposter Getz took his place." Dr. Nambu confirmed. "Galactor has now shown their hand to us, and we know that this is just the beginning. We cannot afford to underestimate them." The Doctor stared intently at us, and I sensed that there was far more to his words than their surface meaning. I was proven right when we docked at G-Town, only to be met by Dr. Nambu and a number of ISO Security personnel.

"Mako, I would like you to come with me." the Doctor said.

"Am I being arrested?" she asked coolly, her steady gaze taking in the reality of her situation.

"We need to debrief you privately." Dr. Nambu stated, his tone completely neutral. However I noticed that the Doctor hadn't answered her question.

"I don't think that's fair." I interrupted. "If you're going to question Mako's allegiances, then you'll need to hear what we have to say. 'Getz' may have been an imposter, but Mako worked well with the Team, despite her personal grief over this incident. Her assistance to the Team on this mission was invaluable."

"Yeah, she was a big help." Ryu agreed. "We couldn't have made it out of the temple if she hadn't been working with us. Mako had plenty of opportunities to hurt us, if that's what she wanted."

"She's okay." Jinpei muttered. Given how much he missed his big sister and his emotional distress at seeing 'Joe' again, I knew this to be as big an endorsement as the Swallow could give right now.

"I see." Dr. Nambu frowned. "I suppose the three of you can sit as observers. But I will not condone any interruption of our proceedings. You are not to speak out unless you are directly asked for your opinion."

I looked over at Jinpei and Ryu, assessing their reactions.

"Fair enough." I answered for all of us. Mako stepped forward and was instantly surrounded by guards. Dr. Nambu escorted her down the hallway and through a series of doors, bringing her to a secure interrogation area. He motioned to a seat in the middle of the room and she sat down, not displaying the least sign of fear. Rather, Mako appeared cool and reserved, despite her obvious anger. I realized with a start that her behavior reminded me of Joe.

Jinpei, Ryu and I sat in chairs at the side of the room, doing our best not to show any emotion. Given the severe security breach that the imposter Getz had created, I completely understood why Dr. Nambu was suspicious of Mako as well, yet something in me wanted to trust her. I had instantly disliked Getz, but Mako was someone I had respected, first as she had apologized for 'Getz's' behavior, and then later as she had stuck by Jinpei and Ryu, in the face of a personal disaster that had taken her completely by surprise.

Of course, it could simply be that she was an excellent actress… hell, Berg Katse had been the master of disguise and acting. But that was the purpose of this 'debriefing': to determine if Mako truly was who she claimed to be. Silently we observed as Dr. Nambu took a blood sample from Mako's arm. When this procedure had been completed, the Doctor sat down and looked calmly at Mako

"Mako, please describe your journey with Getz, from the moment you first left the Folkland Islands, until the moment you arrived at G-Town." Dr. Nambu began.

Mako began to speak, detailing every moment of her journey, stopping only to answer questions posed by Dr. Nambu as she related her tale. Jinpei, Ryu and I said nothing, but merely absorbed the information as it was brought forth. Mako's face revealed no emotion, and it seemed as if she had purposely suppressed all feelings in order to endure this grilling interview. My opinion of Mako began to rise as I watched her undergo Dr. Nambu's interrogation, remaining calm despite the emotionally charged memories she was being forced to relive.

In a way, I was embarrassed to bear witness to the intimate details of Mako's personal life (and her last moments) with Getz, yet a larger part of me appreciated this opportunity to see her not just as an ISO operative, but also as a person. I recognized that this knowledge would assist me in finding a better fit for her within the Science Ninja Team. With a start, I realized that I already thought of her as a comrade. It was then that I knew that I had heard enough to make up my own mind as to Mako's loyalties.

Other than a half hour break for dinner, the 'debriefing' carried on late into the evening, and when it had finished, Dr. Nambu insisted that Mako spend the night in a 'secure room', until her DNA analysis was complete.

"You mean a 'cell', don't you?" she asked, her face still completely without expression.

"We don't want there to be any questions about your motives." Dr. Nambu replied. "I would appreciate it if you would cooperate. It would make things easier."

"I understand." Mako nodded shortly, her eyes distant. "I don't like it, but I can see why you need to make sure of me. But you don't have to worry. I'm going to exterminate those bastards who killed Getz. You can count on that."

A dark shadow crept across my soul as I realized that Mako had a lot more in common with Joe than I had ever realized.

88888

None of us ever mentioned it to each other, but I was aware that Jinpei and Ryu visited Mako during the night, keeping her company from the other side of her 'secure' door, letting her know that she was not alone. I could tell that the harsh interrogation conducted by Dr. Nambu had unconsciously elicited their sympathy, and in itself had done more to make her 'one of us' than Hakase could have imagined. For my part, I arrived at 0400, only to find Ryu asleep outside of Mako's cell.

"Go to bed." I whispered, shaking him awake. "I'll stay."

"Thanks, Ken." he yawned, pulling himself to a stand and lumbering groggily down the hall to his quarters. I settled myself down on the floor, keeping an ear on the door, in case Mako wanted to talk. For perhaps half an hour, there was silence, and then I heard a voice.

"Ryu?"

"Ryu's gone. I'm here now." I told her.

"Ken?" Mako sounded surprised. "I didn't expect you to… be here."

"Why not?" I shrugged. "You're on my Team. I know it can't be pleasant for you being under the microscope like this. But I'll do my best to make sure that your name is cleared tomorrow."

"You're that sure of me, then?" she asked.

"I know what I observed yesterday." I told her. "I'm not sure how much Hakase told you, but I'm able to see what goes on from the New God Phoenix. I know how difficult it was for you to find out what happened to Getz. And even so, you stuck by Jinpei and Ryu. That kind of loyalty means a lot to me."

"Your loyalty means a lot to me." Mako whispered in a trembling voice. "No one but Getz ever… well, you, Jinpei and Ryu have treated me more decently than most people I've encountered."

"You mean the ISO didn't…?" I began to ask, but Mako interrupted my question.

"I was a street rat." she laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "I picked Getz for an easy mark: someone whose wallet I could take, and be far away before he even knew it was missing. But he saw through me… in more ways than one. He knew I was starving, and he took me in. He fed me, but he also opened up a place for me… no one had ever done that before. He's the one who brought me to the ISO and saw me through my training. And when I earned my agent designation, he and I were teamed together. I never thought we'd ever be separated, and certainly not like this…" Her voice caught in a sob, and she stopped speaking for a few moments.

"He's the only person who ever gave a damn about me." Mako said. "That is… until you three spoke up for me today."

"We didn't say anything that wasn't true." I reminded her.

"Still, it's more than most other people would have done." she insisted. "I won't forget it."

"I just hope we can get you out of there quickly." I told Mako. "We need you. I'd like to get you involved in our training sessions, so we can better coordinate fighting techniques. And it looks like you were struggling a bit with the Auto Swan. Your file says you're good with motorcycles, but I know this one is different."

"I'm used to a Harley." she admitted. "This Auto Swan is powerful, but it needs a lighter touch. And of course, it's capable of a lot more."

"You'll be fine; you just need the practice." I assured her. "We all did, when we got our new weapons and machines."

"How long have you been preparing for this… for Galactor's return?" Mako asked.

"Nine months ago I barely wanted to get out of bed and face the world." I admitted. "But Dr. Nambu explained to us what was happening, and since then it's been nothing but intensive training every day."

"Why didn't you want to get out of bed?" Mako asked.

"It took me a long time to cope with our losses from the first war." I explained. "But eventually I learned that to honor the memories of those who were gone, I had to keep fighting… so that their deaths wouldn't be in vain."

"That's how I feel about Getz." Mako agreed. "Like I need to keep fighting, and to remember what he taught me."

"You'll remember." I assured her. "When you lose someone you love, you never forget."

88888

A few hours later, it was Dr. Nambu's turn to find me asleep outside of Mako's door. He awoke me with the news that her DNA test had confirmed her to be the same person who had registered as an ISO agent years ago. He had gone so far as to directly test her blood from the original sample she had provided when she had first applied, and matched it with the sample he had obtained last night, so there could be no doubt.

"I apologize for keeping you here, Mako." he told her. "But I'm sure you understand that knowing that Getz had been compromised, we had to ensure that you were the person we thought you were."

"I understand that Galactor will pay for taking Getz away from me." Mako muttered, her eyes cold. She was still dressed in the Swan Birdstyle, and the expression I saw there was so unlike Jun that I was taken aback by the incongruity of her appearance.

"I believe you have a training session scheduled for 0800?" Dr. Nambu asked me. "You should be able to make it on time. But first, Mako needs to stop by my office."

I knew a dismissal when I heard one. I nodded briefly, walking away as Dr. Nambu led Mako in a different direction. I grabbed a quick breakfast, then headed over to the training gym, where Jinpei and Ryu awaited me. They were already in Birdstyle, and I suspected that like me, they had never detransformed after our mission of the day before.

Mako arrived a moment later, but it took me a few seconds to process this fact. She was wearing a different Birdstyle. It only took me an instant to realize that this was the uniform that Dr. Nambu had designed for Mako all along: red wings, grey dress, black boots and gloves. It had been ready and waiting for her.

Something didn't sit right with me. If Dr. Nambu had her uniform ready, why hadn't he given it to her yesterday, before our mission?

The only answer I could think of was that he hadn't wanted to. Hakase had known. He had known that there was a problem… that either Getz or Mako, or perhaps both, was an imposter.

He had known… and he hadn't told us.

What the hell was going on? A surge of fury rose up in me, but I knew that now was not the time. I would settle this later. And when I did, there would be nothing to stop me from getting the answers I sought.

But for now, I had a training session to run.

Mako worked with us, learning our fighting styles and adapting her own accordingly. She was a good fighter, but definitely below the standard set by her predecessor. When I looked at her, I couldn't help comparing Mako's tight, awkward movements against Jun's flowing grace.

Grimly I pushed the memories of Jun from my mind. No matter how much I wanted her back, she was never going to return. I had to make do with what we had, and to be fair, given that she had never trained as a Science Ninja before, Mako was pretty good raw material.

"All right everyone, cool down." I ordered. "We'll break for lunch." As was our habit, almost in unison, Ryu, Jinpei and I detransformed, shedding our Birdstyles as we readied ourselves for the mundane task of heading to the cafeteria.

Mako hesitated slightly, then followed our lead. In a flash of light, her Birdstyle melted away to reveal a bright red shirt with the number 5 on it, and white pants. Her hair was long and dark, but with a slight greyish cast to it, rather than Jun's dusky emerald highlights. Her grey eyes were piercing as they took us all in. Her gaze encompassed the three of us, falling lastly on me.

"You two are about what I expected." she motioned to Jinpei and Ryu. "But Ken… Wow. No one would ever suspect you of being Gatchaman. Look at you. What are you, some kind of teenybopper pinup?"

Her comment was made plainly, without any hint of judgment or innuendo, but I had to fight to keep my embarrassed blush off of my face.

"It doesn't matter what we look like." I told her. "All that matters is that we defeat Galactor. In any case, I need to go see Dr. Nambu. I'll meet you all in the cafeteria." I left the room before anyone could question me further. It was something of an awkward departure, yet I had spoken truthfully. It was important that I speak with Hakase as soon as possible.

"Ken." the Doctor said, looking up as I entered his office, yet not seeming surprised to see me there. "How are things working out with Mako?"

"She's not up to Jun's standard, of course," I replied, "but I think with some intensive training, she could be, in some areas. Regardless, she's a useful addition to the Team. I just wish she'd arrived earlier, so that we could have had more time to train together."

"She's here now. That's what's important." Dr. Nambu replied, lowering his head back to the papers in front of him. His manner clearly indicated that I was being dismissed, but I purposely failed to acknowledge this silent message.

"You knew, didn't you?"

"I know a lot of things, Ken." the Doctor sighed, regretfully pushing his papers aside and raising his gaze to meet mine. "To what, specifically, are you referring?"

"You knew that Getz was a plant, and you suspected Mako as well." I accused, refusing to play these games any longer. "That's why you gave them Joe's and Jun's old uniforms, instead of their new Birdstyles. And yet you sent them out on a mission with us, and put Getz in charge of the field operation."

Dr. Nambu did not answer, yet neither did he look away. His eyes merely bored into mine, as if he was simply waiting to see if I would have the nerve to say anything more.

"Two days ago, you told me that Galactor was more devious than you had ever given them credit for," I went on, accepting his challenge, "and then you warned me to be careful… you had received a message from this 'source', and he had told you that Galactor had gotten to Getz and Mako, hadn't he?"

"The message stated that Getz had been replaced with a Galactor operative, and Mako's status was unknown." the Doctor admitted. "I wanted to stop 'Getz' in his tracks, but I knew that the information we might possibly glean was too valuable to ignore. If we could let this man think that we had accepted him, then we might be able to catch him off guard, to question him…"

"So you sent us off into a Galactor trap with an imposter in charge?" I raged. "We deserved to know!"

"I didn't want him realizing that we were onto him." the Doctor defended his actions. "If you had known, you wouldn't have been able to hide your true feelings. I never imagined that he would act so quickly. I presumed he would want to take time to uncover classified ISO information."

"You can justify it however you want, Hakase, but the truth is that you sent us to Eastern Island undermanned and underprepared." I accused.

"You all understand the risks associated with being on the Science Ninja Team." Dr. Nambu replied evenly. "I was doing what I thought best at the time. In hindsight, perhaps I should have acted differently."

"You…" I shook with rage, ready to lash out once more. But then my anger drained away. Whether I liked it or not, I recognized that the Doctor's loyalties were split, just as they always had been. He had his duty to us, his foster children, but he also had his duty to the ISO. Like my biological father, Dr. Nambu's loyalty to me was secondary to that other duty.

"Are there any other 'secrets' you're keeping from us?" I asked pointedly.

"No."

We both knew that he was lying.

Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 8

We had about a week of preparation time with Mako, which we put to good use. She had improved dramatically, and had easily incorporated her previous training into our fighting styles. She had also spent some time working with the Auto Swan, and was now fully aware of its capabilities. She was actually fitting into the Team dynamic very well, especially given the circumstances. Even Jinpei seemed to have accepted her, despite his strong ties to Jun. I suspected that Mako's personality, which was so unlike Jun's, had eased the transition for him. Mako wasn't pretending to be Jinpei's 'Onechan', nor was she capable of replacing her. That clear distinction had allowed Jinpei to view this newcomer in an entirely different light.

But now our brief respite was over. Dr. Nambu had summoned everyone to his office. We all arrived via the transport tubes, transforming just before we arrived. I almost felt like Batman sliding down the Batpole, except that I would much rather have faced the Joker any day, than Galactor and its terrifying agenda.

"Do we have a mission, Hakase?" I asked as we stepped from the tubes.

"Where are we going this time?" Jinpei asked. Surprisingly, he appeared almost eager.

"You will all listen to this tape, first." Dr. Nambu said, holding up an antiquated cassette. "This is a highly confidential message that has just arrived from ISO Headquarters." He placed the tape inside of his console, and it began to play.

"Dr. Nambu," the tape began, "Galactor's next target is Cascard. They are planning to build a large military base there. If we don't stop them, I'm afraid of what could happen."

"Hakase?" I asked, wondering what was going on. That voice…

"That's Joe's voice!" Jinpei exclaimed.

"You've got to be kidding!" I reprimanded him. "We've been over this before. There's no way that Joe is still alive!"

"It sounds like Joe's voice," Dr. Nambu admitted, "but we're not certain of that. I have people investigating it now. But the fact remains that someone sent this tape to me; it addresses me by name."

"What do you think, Hakase?" I asked. "Important information like this has never been just handed over to us before." My tone was slightly accusatory, as I still felt that the Doctor was withholding information from me about his 'secret source'. Could this message be from the same person?

And yet… as far as I knew, all of the other messages had been sent directly to Dr. Nambu, not ISO Headquarters. He had received them on his computer, and not on an antiquated recording device. Could this be someone else entirely?

Something else bothered me… but I couldn't put my finger on it…

"Galactor has always been careful about keeping their secrets." I noted. "But this man is…"

"It could be a trap." Dr. Nambu interrupted. "However Director Anderson says that he would like you to investigate the matter, even if there's only a 1% chance that the information is correct. If Galactor is building this base, we will have to stop them at all costs."

"I understand, Hakase." I replied.

"Science Ninja Team, launch the New God Phoenix!"

"Roger!"

88888

The New God Phoenix launched from G-Town, and I focused entirely on our mission. I noted that Mako's time studying her control panels had paid off, as she appeared to be adequately monitoring the data at her station.

"Emergency! Emergency!" Pimer's computerized voice called out in an emotionless monotone. "An ISO train transporting nuclear fuel has been attacked by mysterious Black Knights in the Cascard Desert." He called out their location coordinates, and I could see Ryu already making the appropriate course corrections.

"What?" I shouted.

"Galactor!" Jinpei cried.

"It seems like Joe… uh… that guy on the tape… was right." Ryu added. "Cascard is a target."

"Ken… There's something…" Mako said, but her voice was quiet, and easily ignored when competing with Jinpei's exuberance.

"So let's go stop them!" Jinpei suggested eagerly.

"We can beat them!" Ryu added confidently.

"Wait!" Dr. Nambu interrupted. We all turned in surprise. I hadn't even been aware that the Doctor had been transmitting to us.

"I was trying to tell you that Dr. Nambu wanted to speak with us." Mako reported dryly.

"Look at this." the Doctor said, showing us images of a city that looked as if it had been recently bombed. "This is San Frangeles. Galactor's Black Knights have attacked the Atomic Energy Center there. They appear not to be affected by the high radiation levels at that facility. They also struck at the UN Armory, killing all personnel there. The citizens of San Frangeles are panicked, and with the UN Forces disabled, they have no way to stop this invasion force."

"Galactor will pay for their terror-tactics!" Ryu shouted angrily.

"Galactor's main target appears to be atomic energy resources." Dr. Nambu pointed out.

"Atomic energy?" Jinpei was confused.

"They are likely using this energy as a power source to fuel their new base." the Doctor surmised. "You must stop them."

"I understand, Hakase." I replied, as the message terminated. And I understood all too well. Galactor was carrying on simultaneous attacks, knowing that we were undermanned. They were forcing us to split our resources, hoping that in this way they could take us down.

"Mako and I will take care of the train in the Cascard Desert." I stated. "Ryu and Jinpei, you will go on to San Frangeles, and locate Galactor's base of operations there. We'll meet up with you when we're done."

"But Aniki, you…" Jinpei's manner was unusually deferential, yet it was clear that he didn't like this idea.

"Locating the San Frangeles base and neutralizing it is the more important task." I explained. "Civilian lives are at risk, and for all we know there are further targets in that area. I know I can count on you and Ryu to do this."

"We won't let you down, Ken!" Jinpei replied, standing up straight, his chest puffing out with pride as he saluted.

"Mako, let's go." I ordered. She nodded curtly and followed me off of the Bridge.

The truth was, I shared Jinpei's concerns. How much could I do, with my limited abilities? I was hoping that I could deal with the majority of this threat in the Eagle Sharp, letting Mako take care of the legwork. Only time would tell if I had made the right decision.

As I traveled across the desert, Mako below me on the Auto Swan, I communicated my rough plan to her. She acknowledged my orders without comment, and I could tell that her focus was on the job ahead.

As we arrived on the scene, I saw a large mecha of some kind. Unlike most Galactor vessels, it didn't have an identifiable creature shape, but instead looked most like a truncated aircraft carrier with a flat white body and a red control tower. Long purple legs extended down from the flat body, and it was 'standing' on the ground above the disabled train. I noted that one of the train's cars, coincidentally the one that should have been right below this strange mecha, was missing.

"Mako, get onboard and stop that thing! I'll assist you from the outside."

"Roger."

Mako parked the Auto Swan behind a rocky hill, then slipped over to one of the purple legs, climbing upward into the mecha, until I could no longer see her. The ship's engines fired, and I brought the Eagle Sharp out into the open, firing my Vulcan Cannons and aiming for the red control tower. I spotted a small windowed area on the red protrusion on top of the craft and fired at that target.

It appeared that I had hit my mark, as the mecha jerked, stalling briefly in midair before crashing back down to the ground. Its legs had only partially retracted, and they hit first, but at an unstable angle, causing the front of the mecha to crash, nose down, into the desert sand.

"I think I've found the communications center." Mako's voice whispered over my bracelet. "It's a small room filled with Galactors and some weirdo in a red cape. I'm taking it out so they can't call for backup."

"Go!" I replied, knowing that was all she needed.

"Oh shit… Black Knights! I…" I heard the brief sounds of a struggle over my bracelet, followed by a small explosion.

"Who is that?" I heard a strange voice ask over the bracelet.

"It's the Science Ninja Team, you idiots." Mako sneered, just before more sounds of fighting broke out. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I wouldn't be able to monitor anyone's helmet view when I wasn't on the New God Phoenix, and so I was forced to rely on an open bracelet communication instead. It made for a poor substitute, and I could only imagine what was happening as I waited. I didn't dare attack the mecha any further, knowing that there was a risk that I could ignite the enriched uranium present on the stolen train car.

The sounds of explosions and electric sparks came from my bracelet, and Mako reported that the communications center had been neutralized. She had destroyed their equipment for good measure.

"Wait, Ken, these Black Knights… they're all down!" Mako sounded surprised. "It looks like they were being controlled by this communications system, and when I destroyed it…"

"Good job, Mako!" I congratulated her. "Now we just have to recover that train. Since the main forces are down, I'll come in to assist you."

"I'd appreciate that." she replied wryly. "I'm not sure how I'm going to get a train out of this damaged mecha all on my own."

"You won't have to." I informed her. "We'll do a quick sweep through to ensure there are no more Galactors, and wait for the UN Forces to arrive so they can initiate the recovery. We need to get to San Frangeles to help out Jinpei and Ryu."

"Roger."

88888

As we raced to San Frangeles, I contacted Jinpei and Ryu.

"Report."

"We've driven the Galactor forces away from the city, and the civilian population is safe." Ryu replied. "But we can't figure out where they're coming from."

"What do you mean? Just let a couple escape and follow the bastards!" I said angrily.

"We've been trying, but they just head out of the city to the shore and just stand there, waiting to be killed." Jinpei explained. "Maybe they're waiting for a mecha to pick them up?"

"But the data Dr. Nambu sent indicated that there was no large mecha involved in the San Frangeles attacks!" I growled in frustration.

"Ken… I think we should check out Arama Island." Mako suggested.

"Arama Island?" It took me a moment to remember that this was an island in the San Frangeles Bay, adjacent to the city.

"There used to be an old prison there." Jinpei recalled. "They said that no one could ever escape from it, but I saw this movie…"

"Arama Island is on the water, next to the city…" I thought out loud. "Perhaps the Galactors were trying to get there. It's worth a shot, especially if we don't have any other leads. You two check it out, and Mako and I will contact you when we're approaching the area for an update."

"Roger!"

Once Jinpei and Ryu were off on their new assignment, I contacted Mako again.

"Mako… what made you think of Arama Island? Are you familiar with San Frangeles?"

"No, I've never been there." Mako admitted. "I got a message, telling me that the Galactor base was there."

"A message? From Dr. Nambu?"

"No, I don't think so… It just appeared on my communications screen. Maybe it was from one of Dr. Nambu's personnel?"

"Maybe." But I had my doubts. This proliferation of 'strange messages' was really beginning to bother me. But at this point, there wasn't much else I could do, as we had no other leads. Grimly, I continued on, racing toward San Frangeles.

"Status!" I called to Ryu and Jinpei, when we were only a few minutes away.

"Ouch!" Ryu exclaimed.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"Yeah, I fell down an old well." Ryu replied. "I haven't found anything."

"Jinpei? What about you?"

"Nothing… But this sea water sure is badly contaminated." Jinpei noted.

"That's it!" I exclaimed. "Galactor likes to build their bases underground. They must be dumping out into the water!"

"I see! So the most heavily contaminated place will be Galactor's location!" Jinpei deduced.

"Yes, that should be Galactor's base." I concurred. "Find it, Jinpei!"

"Roger!"

A few minutes later, just as I was arriving at Arama Island, I received a transmission from Ryu.

"Emergency!" he cried. As we all listened in, he went on to explain how some kind of explosion had destroyed the floor of the well, and he had fallen down further… into a Galactor base!

"The explosion was my Swallow Missile." Jinpei explained.

"They're bringing the enriched uranium here." Ryu informed us.

"We'll be right there." I replied, landing the Eagle Sharp. Mako wasn't far behind me as she parked the Auto Swan. It didn't take us long to find the well that Ryu had mentioned, and we dropped down silently. I stumbled a bit, but managed to recover myself. I had been so excited that I had forgotten myself, wanting to dive right into the action. Of course, at this point there wasn't much else I could do, seeing as the New God Phoenix had been parked a few miles away.

"I'm impressed that you have found this place." a strange voice was saying as we approached Ryu's position. "But your number is up."

I realized that the voice wasn't speaking to me. I pulled out my Bird Saucer, stepping out of the 'well' and throwing it just as Ryu cursed the Galactors standing in front of him. Mako pulled out her gun, firing a few shots, and from another direction Jinpei's Rebound Ball bounced. Half of the Galactor soldiers present were down before the Captain with them had time to react.

"Who are you?" the Captain asked, a note of fear in his voice.

"As long as Galactor exists in this world, the White Shadow will always come back from Hell to defeat them." I smirked. I had to admit that I was enjoying myself.

"We are the Science Ninja Team: Gatchaman!" I announced.

"You did a good job Ryu." I congratulated the Owl as he joined us. I noted smugly that the Galactor Captain was doing his best not to soil himself as the Owl and I exchanged pleasantries.

"You did a good job too, Jinpei." Ryu added. "You discovered that this was Galactor's base!"

"I owe it to you, Aniki!" Jinpei replied.

"What?" I asked, confused.

"Because of the directions you gave me over the radio, I was able to destroy the water gate on the sea floor." Jinpei explained.

"That wasn't me!" I exclaimed. I had a sinking feeling about this. First Mako had received a strange message, and now Jinpei…

"Whose voice was it then?" Jinpei wanted to know.

Of course, this was no time for discussion. The remaining Galactors began firing, and we had to jump out of the way of their laser bullets. I soared, enjoying the freedom of my wings, where my legs were not required for movement, gliding down fifty meters to the level below, leaving the Galactors far behind. I stumbled slightly on landing, but did not fall. Belatedly, I realized that rather than staying to fight, the others had followed me.

In front of us was a massive reactor. I could see why Ryu had determined that the enriched uranium was being brought here.

"Mako, destroy that thing!" I ordered. Obligingly, she pulled explosives out of her belt pouch, attaching a timer as she placed them around the reactor.

"We have three minutes." she informed us.

"Everyone evacuate!" I ordered.

"Roger!"

We began to run, and I quickly fell behind. I could only go so fast before my shambling gait kicked in, and my speed was nowhere near what it had used to be. Before long, the other three were merely dots at the other end of the corridor. I knew that they hadn't even realized that I was no longer with them, and my pride couldn't bear to ask them to wait for me. And so it was that when two squadrons of Galactor soldiers came out of a side passage and gave chase to the Science Ninja Team, they didn't even notice me behind them.

Suddenly, Jinpei, Ryu and Mako stopped short. I could see that some kind of electric field had been generated around their position.

I heard a nasty laugh echoing around the room, and I realized it was coming from above me.

"This stupid cage!" Jinpei shouted.

"Calm down, Jinpei." I could hear Ryu doing his best to soothe the youth.

"It looks like there isn't enough time for you to dispose of those explosives you set." the voice above me announced. I realized that it belonged to the strange woman we had encountered at Eastern Island.

"I'm sorry there's nothing you can do to stop my base from exploding." the woman went on in an apologetic tone. "Now you and the base will share a common destiny."

"Gel Sadra, what about us?" asked a few Galactor soldiers, who were also trapped inside the electric field.

"I'm sorry to say this," Gel Sadra continued in the same apologetic tone, "but you must resign yourselves to your fate. I have to leave now."

"But Mistress!" they cried, yet she appeared not to hear their pleas. Meanwhile their comrades were taking off, not stopping to pay any attention to me in their haste to depart.

"See you in the next life, you dumb birds." Gel Sadra smirked as she departed. I could see engines firing above me and I ducked out of the way. The base began to crumble and debris fell as a rocket took off, carrying Gel Sadra away from the scene. It took all of my strength to get out of the way, and I was nearly crushed by a falling girder. When the dust cleared, I could see Ryu sitting glumly on the floor inside makeshift prison created by the electric force field.

"I wish Joe and Jun were here." he mumbled. "They'd be able to get us out of this place."

"That's it! It was Joe's voice on the radio!" Jinpei exclaimed. "He gave me the directions in the water!"

"We've got bigger problems right now!" I called out, approaching the field. "Forget about Joe and Jun!"

"Ken, can you disable the field?" Mako asked.

"I'm going to try." I replied, accessing the wall panel next to the field. It had been locked out, and I began attempting to find the encryption key. I couldn't help wishing that Jun was alive and here now, because this was the kind of task at which she excelled.

"It's going to take some time." I admitted.

"We don't have time!" Jinpei moaned. "There's only a minute left!"

"I don't want to die! Get me out of here, Gatchaman!" one of the Galactor soldiers inside the field begged. Unfortunately, he stepped backward as he spoke, stumbling into the field, electrocuting himself. His three remaining comrades simply gaped in horror.

"Help us, Gatchaman!" they pleaded, falling to their knees.

"Why should he help you bastards?" Mako sneered, shooting them all with her sonic gun. I was somewhat disturbed by her attitude, but didn't have time to reprimand her at this moment. I was too busy working to find the encryption key.

I knew that if I just had enough time I could do it… it was simply a process of elimination. But time was what I didn't have. I needed a shortcut, to find the solution quickly. That's what Jun would have done.

I forced these thoughts from my mind, blocking out all else except the task at hand. Methodically I went about the task, simply praying that I would find the key in time.

It was taking too long. Far too long. I would never do it in time. We would all die here, failing in our task to defeat Galactor… but still I kept at it, working to find the key, pushing all else out of my mind.

And then I cracked the encryption. The screen came alive, and I was able to deactivate the force field. The others rushed out, and we found ourselves once more racing for the exit. This time Ryu held my arm, chivvying me along. I was too emotionally drained to protest, and was actually grateful for the assistance.

Once we had reached the surface of the island we jumped into our vehicles and sped away. I lifted off into the air, circling around, ensuring that everyone else had safely evacuated the area.

And then the base exploded.

I maneuvered the Eagle Sharp away, expecting a full atomic blast, but the force of the detonation was far less than I had expected. Instead of the typical 'mushroom cloud' of an atomic explosion, all I saw was a fiery burst, and then the entire base collapsed in on itself. It was a professional job, designed to minimize surrounding casualties. Had Mako been that accomplished with explosives? I couldn't recall reading about that in her personnel file.

I reported our status to Dr. Nambu and returned to the New God Phoenix. Pimer had already taken off and had come out to meet us as we docked our G-Machines into the ship. When I arrived on the Bridge, the others turned to look at me.

"How did you do it, Ken?" Ryu asked, an amazed expression on his face.

"Do what?" I asked.

"How did you delay the explosion?" the Owl elaborated. "It's been at least ten minutes since Gel Sadra left the base."

"What?" I was astonished.

"It's true!" Jinpei piped up. "I thought we were goners for sure!"

"I set the timer for three minutes." Mako stated firmly. "I know I did. I was going to set it for two, but wanted to give Ken a little extra time to get out." She didn't appear to be embarrassed at calling out my lack of abilities, and I took her comment in stride. As it turned out, she had been right to be concerned.

"Did you set up any radioactive energy containment protocols?" I asked. "The explosion was far too small for an atomic blast: just exactly enough to destroy the base. And with all of that enriched uranium there…"

"I didn't even think of that." Mako admitted. "I just set the explosives. I've only had basic training in demolitions, and even if I'd remembered that there was nuclear material around, I wouldn't have known how to adapt for it."

"Onechan could have done it!" Jinpei suggested. "She knows everything about demolitions. Maybe she and Joe are both alive!" His eyes gleamed with hope, and for a brief instant I know mine did too. But it was a dream: an impossible dream. Joe himself had seen Jun die, and Joe had been far too badly injured to have survived at Cross Karokorum.

"You think so, Jinpei?" Ryu asked, his expression contemplative. "I wonder…"

"There will be no more wondering!" I ordered, more sharply than I had intended. "Joe is dead. Jun is dead. Just because we wish they were alive doesn't make it so!" The hurt on Jinpei and Ryu's faces cut me to the core, but I held firm, knowing that I had to quash this now, lest it became more painful later on.

"Someone was helping us out in San Frangeles, but it wasn't Joe, or Jun." I insisted. "When we get back to G-Town, I'll bet Dr. Nambu has some answers for us."

Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 9

But apparently Hakase had no more answers than we did. When we returned to G-Town, Dr. Nambu offered his congratulations on the successful completion of our mission, but seemed surprised to hear me admit to him that we hadn't done it alone. He had not been aware of the discrepancies I had noted about the explosion of the Galactor base, not to mention the strange 'orders' that Mako and Jinpei had received.

To add to the mystery, Dr. Nambu announced to all of us that his personnel had analyzed the tape that had been sent to ISO Headquarters, and had deduced that the voice had been artificially generated.

"It wasn't Joe?" Jinpei asked plaintively.

"You see?" I reminded him. "I told you that Joe wasn't alive. Someone is trying to prey on our emotions. Trust me, Galactor will take advantage of any personal weakness they can find." Bitterly, I thought about the way Berg Katse had nearly convinced me that my father was alive. For a brief, shining moment I had had hope… only to find it dashed as I had discovered that madman behind the entire thing. I wouldn't have put it past this Gel Sadra to try something similar.

"But it isn't Galactor. This person helped us!" Ryu reminded everyone.

"Maybe it's that Dr. Raphael." Mako suggested. "The man who rescued Ken when he crashed his plane on Eastern Island."

"I've looked into Dr. Raphael's background." Dr. Nambu admitted. "Twenty years ago, he was a top researcher in deep space transmissions and a pioneer in cybernetics. Even today, his work is still on the cutting edge of technology. But the man disappeared. He had requested funding from various sources, including the ISO, to continue his research in cybernetics. But the ethical implications of his work were difficult to put aside. He wanted to create a new class of person: a new species. It simply wasn't in the best interests of the UN to endorse that kind of controversial move at the time."

"So instead, he went off to work for Galactor, whose people had no ethical considerations." I muttered in disgust, recalling what little Dr. Raphael had divulged of himself at Eastern Island.

"He said that he hates Galactor now." Ryu offered. "It sounds like he figured out what kind of organization he was dealing with."

"It certainly is possible that he could be the one assisting you." Dr. Nambu mused. He appeared to be deep in thought; I could practically see the wheels turning in his head. I sensed that the Doctor would be unwilling to divulge further information, so I waited until the others had left before addressing the matter.

"Hakase, what is it?" I asked. "What have you figured out?"

"It's nothing, Ken." he brushed me off. "Nothing you need to concern yourself about. But there is one more matter I'd like to discuss."

"What's that?"

"I'm not sure it was a good idea for you to enter the Galactor base with the rest of the Team." Dr. Nambu lectured. "While I don't dispute your decision to split the Team and leave with Mako to deal with the issues in the Cascard Desert, your abilities are still not up to the level I would expect to have you participating in field missions."

"It was a situational issue." I replied calmly. "The New God Phoenix was nowhere in range, and I acted as I thought best at the time. As it turns out, if I hadn't been there, the others might not have survived."

"Possibly." Dr. Nambu admitted. "Regardless, I do not want you leaving the New God Phoenix or the Eagle Sharp unless absolutely necessary."

"But you'll trust my judgment as to when it is 'absolutely necessary'?" I asked sarcastically.

"Ken, if only you'd agree to Dr. Pandora's treatments," the Doctor swiftly moved to his true purpose behind this conversation, "then you could participate in all of the field missions. She's been using Dr. Raphael's original data, and has developed a few techniques of her own. She's convinced that she can cybernetically enhance your body to add on legs that would be a permanent part of your physical structure, and operate in a fashion much closer to your original..."

"No!" I shouted, angered by his suggestion. "You were the one pointing out that cyborgs were a 'new species', and all of the ethical considerations that went along with that. That you're even mentioning this now is beyond comprehension!"

"That was twenty years ago, Ken." the Doctor pointed out. "The world has changed. We need you at your full strength. Please think about it."

It was all I could do to turn and leave his office with the dignity befitting my rank. We both knew my answer to Dr. Nambu's plea.

My body was exhausted, but I was too angry to sleep. Instead I made my way to the gym, where I pushed my prosthetic legs to their limit: jumping, running, fighting. I was nowhere near as good as I needed to be. Nowhere near as good as my Team needed me to be.

I knew the price of regaining my abilities. But it was too much. How could I give up my humanity? To fight the enemy, I would have to become one of them. It was an unthinkable sacrifice. Dr. Nambu made it sound as if I would be helping the Team, but in my heart I knew it would be selling out. If I had to become like a Galactor to defeat Galactor, was it truly winning?

No matter how many times I examined this problem, I could never get past that ugly truth. It was many hours later before I finally returned to my quarters, falling into a troubled sleep.

88888

By the following morning I had put the matter aside, preferring instead to focus on the mystery that Dr. Nambu had so neatly sidestepped. Who was this 'source' of his, and why did he appear to trust this person so implicitly? I still wasn't certain about the audio tape we had received yesterday, warning us about the potential base in the Cascard Desert. As it turned out, the tape had been wrong. There had been an attack in the desert on the train, but the base itself had been underneath Arama Island. Yet there had been something in Dr. Nambu's voice when he had informed us that the tape had been mechanically recorded… something that set my alarm bells ringing, particularly given that I was already suspicious about the Doctor's motives.

Instead of heading back to the gym for further training, once I was dressed and breakfasted, I walked over to the labs, heading to the section assigned to Dr. Nambu's personal research assistants.

"Can I help you?" a tired-looking man asked as I poked my head through the door. His eyes widened as he saw the number on my shirt, and it was clear that he knew who I was.

"Yes, I was looking for the people who analyzed an audio tape yesterday for Dr. Nambu." I replied. "There are a couple of questions about their analysis."

"Questions?" The man instantly appeared nervous. "That was my team. There's no problem is there? Is Dr. Nambu displeased by our analysis?"

"No, not at all." I assured him. "I was just wondering about something. I was curious as to what led you to deduce that the voice on the tape was artificially generated."

"Oh." The man appeared to be relieved. "Well that wasn't too difficult to determine. See here…" He brought up a diagram of audio frequencies and speech patterns, displaying it on his monitor. I moved closer to observe.

"These areas here and here," he explained as he pointed to various spots on the chart, "are sounds that are impossible for the human voice to make. The only possibility

is that they were created by a machine of some kind. While so quiet as to be nearly indistinguishable to the naked ear, the sounds were nonetheless present as a component of the voice on the tape."

"It couldn't be because of the poor quality of the tape, could it?" I asked.

"No." the technician shook his head. "As it turns out, the fact that the audio quality was so poor made it more difficult for us to pick up these sounds, but my assistant was able to enhance the sound, using a thoroughly tested process. I can assure you that there is no mistake in our results."

"Do you mind if I listen to the tape again?" I asked. "I'd like to hear these sounds for myself."

"As I said, it's not possible for the human ear to pick them up." the man sniffed. "But you can listen if you'd like." He pressed a couple of buttons on his console, handing me a set of headphones.

"Thank you." I told him. I pressed play, listening to the tape again.

"Dr. Nambu, Galactor's next target is Cascard. They are planning to build a large military base there. If we don't stop them, I'm afraid of what could happen."

The technician had been right. I didn't hear the mechanical sounds, not that I had expected to. But there was something else bothering me… something I had noticed yesterday. I finally realized what it was.

The man on the tape had said 'we'.

Who was this man? Why was he going out of his way to make his voice sound like Joe's? And why was he so certain that Dr. Nambu would follow up on this information, enough that he would say, 'if we don't stop them'?

I definitely had a few more questions for Dr. Nambu. But before I could contact him, my bracelet lit up. The Doctor was asking the Team to assemble in his office due to an emergency situation.

Reluctantly putting the matter aside, I resolved to discuss this with Dr. Nambu at the first opportune moment.

Unfortunately, this was not the moment. The instant we arrived in the Doctor's office, he called us over to his broadcast monitor. Without saying a word, he turned on the monitor, showing us footage of a terrible earthquake ravaging New Jork City.

"As you can see, an earthquake of magnitude 9.2 struck the east coast of Ameris." he said.

"Magnitude 9.2?" I was aghast. A quake of that power yielded nearly 1,000 megatons of seismic energy.

"There is more." Dr. Nambu admitted. "Strangely, the earthquake is still continuing."

"What?" I asked in shock, knowing that earthquakes only lasted for a few seconds, rarely longer than a minute at most. "Are you certain it's not just an aftershock?"

"I am certain. The earthquake has been continuing for more than fifteen minutes." Dr. Nambu replied.

"This is different from the volcanic activity that used to occur in that area." I noted. "Something strange is going on."

"Look at this." the Doctor said, pressing a button on his panel. A table rose from beneath the floor, displaying some kind of experiment.

"This is a cross-sectional display of where the earthquake is occurring." Dr. Nambu explained. "This side represents New Jork, and this side represents the city of Sukarupton. Between the two lies the Gera Desert. For unknown reasons, the ocean current's mantle around the desert has been forced to speed up by some massive power source."

"Like an atomic explosion?" I asked, unable to comprehend of anything else that powerful.

"Likely so." the Doctor agreed. "Even worse, lava is spilling out of the ground, and even now is approaching both cities. Citizens are panicked, and everything is in chaos."

"It can only be Galactor who would do such a terrible thing!" Jinpei declared.

"But if it were Galactor, they would have made some kind of announcement by now, taking credit for the disaster." I pointed out.

"But this is a new Galactor." Mako reminded everyone. "We really don't know much about this Gel Sadra. Is that how she would operate?"

"They will make their announcement later." Dr. Nambu stated, as if he were perfectly comfortable predicting the future. "Right now, I need you all to take me to the epicenter of the quake, with my detection device."

"Roger!"

Fortunately, the quake stopped a few minutes after we had left G-Town, but that didn't negate the danger of violent aftershocks, or the lava flow that was threatening to overwhelm nearby cities. Soon we were flying over the Gera Desert, scanning the quake's epicenter from the sky. A giant chasm had opened up in the ground, and we could see the lava flow at its bottom.

"What the hell is this?" I asked in disgust. "It looks like a crack in the Earth itself!"

Dr. Nambu pressed a button on his console, and a device was lowered from the ceiling. It looked like a small missile, save that it had a boring bit on its nose.

"This is the device I will use to measure the activity in the Earth's mantle." the Doctor explained. "I want you to install this somewhere in New Jork, in a place that is having relatively few aftershocks. It should deploy itself automatically, moving deep into the Earth, then send back the data it gathers electronically."

We flew out of the desert into New Jork, and when Dr. Nambu had determined that we had discovered an appropriate location, we left the New God Phoenix in our G-Machines, each of us taking a portion of the detection device's deployment system. We assembled Dr. Nambu's equipment and watched solemnly as the device began boring into the ground.

We returned to our vehicles, which we had parked behind us. But as I moved to enter the Eagle Sharp, I discovered that someone was already inside. A man in a green uniform with a red hood stood up, pointing a gun at my face.

"You've done your job, but what's the hurry?" he sneered. It was clear from both his ridiculous costume and the symbols on his chest that he was a Galactor Captain.

"Galactor!" I spat. "You caused all of this trouble, didn't you?" I looked around, only to see Mako, Ryu and Jinpei being restrained by two squadrons of Galactor soldiers. They had clearly been taken by surprise as well.

"Sorry, Aniki…" Jinpei mumbled.

"Go to hell!" the Captain smirked, reaching for his trigger. I tensed, ready to move, knowing that my reaction times were significantly slower than they needed to be to avoid a hit at such close range. Any attempt I made to evade the shot would be futile. But I had to try.

I lunged to the side, clumsily hitting my prosthetic leg on the wing of the Eagle Sharp, expecting the blast to hit me at any moment. But the shot never came.

A grey blur shot out from behind me, sinking itself into the Captain's neck. I had only an instant to see that it was some kind of throwing star, before the weapon exploded, destroying the man before my eyes and catapulting him out of my cockpit with its force. I rolled over, only to catch a glimpse of someone dressed in black turning a corner, moving out of my field of vision.

"Hey!" I called, but my words were drowned out by the approach of a one-man helicopter from the opposite direction. Someone stood inside, spraying bullets everywhere at the Galactor soldiers who were surrounding Jinpei, Mako and Ryu. The Galactors began firing back at the man, shattering the protective glass surrounding his head, but doing little else. Our enemies dead, the helicopter moved away.

"Who the hell was that?" I asked, but I was thinking of the person in black who had run off. Was there still a chance I could find them?

 

"Hey!" I cried, moving off in their direction. "Come back! Who are you?" I couldn't help myself. There had been something about that person… something I couldn't put my finger on.

"What are you doing, Ken?" Mako called. "He went that way!" She pointed off into the sky at the departing helicopter.

"I was looking for…" I stopped, realizing that my unknown rescuer wasn't about to return, "someone else. Who was the person in the helicopter?"

"I don't know." Ryu admitted.

"It was too bright to see." Jinpei added.

"I didn't recognize him." Mako replied.

"Who are these people who keep helping us?" I wondered. "Why won't they show themselves? It's not just Dr. Raphael. I know it!"

Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 10

Even once we had returned to the New God Phoenix, no one spoke. I reported the encounter with Galactor in as few words as possible to Dr. Nambu, who didn't appear to be paying much attention, so absorbed was he in the data he was receiving from the detection device. After some analysis, he instructed us to fly back to the Gera Desert, specifying exact coordinates. He then disappeared from the Bridge.

When we landed, everyone exited the ship, but Dr. Nambu was still nowhere to be found. We waited for a few minutes, but when he did not show himself, I began calling for him, worried that something had gone wrong.

"Dr. Nambu!" I called out.

"Where did he go?" wondered Ryu.

"Why did he have us leave the God Phoenix in the middle of the desert?" Jinpei asked.

The ground began rumbling beneath my feet, causing me to stumble and fall. I rolled out of the way, doing my best to avoid the disruption. Something burst from below the sand, landing with a clumsy thump in front of me. I stood up, brushing the sand from my uniform.

In front of me was the Condor Attacker.

The Condor Attacker had been named in honor of Joe, and had been meant for Getz, however obviously the man had never had the opportunity to drive it. So who was behind the wheel now?

To my surprise, the hatch opened and Dr. Nambu revealed himself to be the vehicle's operator.

"Hakase?" I asked in surprise.

"I'm sorry to frighten you." the Doctor replied.

"This is the Condor Attacker, isn't it?" Jinpei asked. I noticed a pained expression on Mako's face, but she didn't say anything.

"Yes. I found a way to stop the lava flow." Dr. Nambu answered.

"You did?" Ryu gasped.

"Yes." the Doctor said, stepping out of the car and onto the sand. "In order to stop the lava, someone must burrow underground with the Condor Attacker and fire this special Target Device, which will neutralize the flow's pressure." He gestured to the top of the vehicle and we could see a large missile, complete with bird nose, affixed to its roof.

"Can this G-Machine go deep underground then?" I was surprised, not having been aware of this capability before.

"I was researching that very question." Dr. Nambu replied. "Of all the G-Machines, the Condor Attacker is best suited for holding up to the enormous pressure it will be subject to deep in the Earth's mantle. But…"

"But?" I had a feeling I knew what was coming, and I steeled myself against the Doctor's next words.

"Due to the manner in which this vehicle was designed, it can only be properly operated by an excellent driver: someone who has gone through extensive training in its capabilities." Dr. Nambu explained.

"So who's going to drive it?" Jinpei asked nervously.

"Getz could have done it." Mako whispered.

"I'm sure he could have, but he's not here now." I told her, before turning to the Doctor. "Hakase, can the missile be fired from above ground?"

"No." Dr. Nambu shook his head. "Its energy would be significantly diminished by having to travel through the sand. Its power would be cut in half. According to the data from the device you deployed in New Jork, there is a huge underground cave in this desert. This would be the most effective place from which to launch the missile."

"Let me do it, Hakase." I said.

"You can't." the Doctor refused to look at me, instead avoiding my gaze by using the excuse of picking up some sand from the ground and letting it pour through his fingers. "I'm sorry, Ken, but you're not physically capable of doing this."

"Then I'll do it!" Mako pushed forward. "This should have been Getz's job, but he's not here. It's only right that I take his place."

"No!" Dr. Nambu insisted. "I'm looking for an excellent driver: one who has had extensive training with the ISO."

"Such a person would not be used to fighting Galactor." I pointed out. "And they wouldn't get here in time to stop the lava flow from reaching New Jork and Sukarupton."

"I'm the obvious choice!" Mako declared.

"I said no!" the Doctor shouted. Part of me was amazed by this show of emotion on Hakase's part, as he rarely displayed his feelings to us, especially regarding a matter such as this. But these feelings were overwhelmed by my own anger and frustration with Dr. Nambu's attitude. Once again, he was refusing to reveal his reasons to us, choosing instead to harbor his secrets and keep us in the dark.

I wasn't having any more of it.

"What are you going to do then?" I shouted. "Are we just going to let these cities be obliterated?"

Dr. Nambu stared at me for a long moment, his face quivering with emotion. Anger? Disbelief? Disappointment?

I didn't care. All I knew was that there were civilian lives at stake, and the Doctor was preventing me from fulfilling my duty to these innocent people.

"Mako, you're the best candidate here." I acknowledged, not without some damage to my own pride. "Go."

"Roger!" she acknowledged my orders, moving toward the vehicle.

"Stop, Mako!" Dr. Nambu ordered, physically holding his arm up to bar Mako's entrance into the Condor Attacker.

"Let her go!" I cried, moving forward, grabbing at the Doctor's arm to allow Mako clear passage. "You know this is the best option we have!"

Mako stood still, frozen by the scene in front of her, unable to understand what was going on. She wasn't alone. I had no idea what had gotten into Dr. Nambu, but I wasn't about to sit idly by for the sake of mysterious reasons he was unable to disclose to us.

I was about to order Mako to get into the vehicle when I heard something.

It was a soft sound, carried by the warm desert winds, but one so familiar that it tore at my soul. I turned slowly, unable to believe what my ears were telling me.

Whistling… a song… and not just any song… A song that I had learned years ago, as a child, passed onto me from my father and echoing in my memory. A fight song from my father's military unit, from the time he had served in the army with Dr. Nambu, when they had both been young men.

As we had performed our duty as the Science Ninja Team, I had occasionally whistled this song in the face of our enemies: a gesture meant to inform them that I was present, and ready to shed blood, but not before spilling theirs. It had worked: causing Galactor soldiers, and even Berg Katse himself, to quake in their boots.

There was only one person who could be whistling that song now.

I squinted, looking toward the source of the sound, but the desert sun was intense, and it was difficult to see more than a vague, shadowy form cresting a sandy ridge.

And then he appeared, standing in full view, albeit still from a significant distance away. His arrogant posture was so familiar, bringing back countless memories…

But it wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible!

"Joe!" Jinpei cried with excitement, jumping up and down before taking off at a run. "Joe!"

Ryu didn't waste time in following the boy, the two of them racing over to where the man stood. I found myself moving forward involuntarily, albeit at a much slower pace. It was Joe! My best friend, whom I had thought dead… and yet… a large part of me was reluctant to accept what my eyes were seeing as fact. What if it was some Galactor trick?

I glanced over at Dr. Nambu, looking for his response to this unexpected event. Yet all I saw was… relief?

It was as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown over my head. Suddenly everything became clear: the mysterious 'source', the Doctor's secretive behavior.

He had known all along.

A surge of anger filled me. How dare Hakase keep a secret of this magnitude to himself? Didn't he understand how emotionally devastated we had been by Joe's death, not to mention by our glimpses of him over the past ten days? And what about Joe himself? How could he be in contact with Dr. Nambu and not even think about revealing himself to the rest of us?

And then a dark voice inside of me spoke, its insidious words cutting through my heart.

If someone had to have survived… why couldn't it have been Jun?

I pushed the words away, but it was too late. The thought was already inside of my brain, burrowing its sinister poison into my soul. Filled with a white-hot rage, I moved forward.

Jinpei and Ryu arrived first at Joe's location, stopping dead in their tracks as they stared. For his part, Joe simply stood there, as if nothing had changed at all.

It was only when I arrived, Dr. Nambu and Mako close behind, that he removed his sunglasses, taking all of us in with a long, sweeping gaze.

"No one else is able to drive this car." he said simply, a trace of the arrogant pride I remembered in his voice. But it was as if no one had heard him. We were simply too stunned by the enormity of his survival to process anything else for the moment.

"Joe…" I gasped in shock.

"Joe!" Jinpei cried, throwing his arms around him. "You're alive!"

"You've had us all worried sick!" Ryu berated, but the grin on his face was a mile wide. Joe did not respond to these comments, but merely stepped forward, looking me in the eye, gauging my reaction to his appearance.

My reaction was a red haze of anger. Furiously I drew my arm back, before landing a solid punch on his jaw. For all my lower body had lost its agility, my upper body had regained its former strength and power. I channeled all of that into my fist, childishly pleased when Joe went flying, falling onto the ground in a heap.

"You bastard!" I shouted, unable to come up with anything more eloquent to describe my feelings at that moment.

And then… Joe laughed.

"You still pack a mean punch, Ken." he acknowledged, smiling as he rubbed his jaw. And just like that, all of my anger drained out of me. This was Joe, my best friend: the man who had been like a brother to me. He was alive, and that was something for which I should be grateful.

Slowly I walked over to where Joe was still lying on the sand. I wanted to show that I regretted my impulsive action, and my hand twitched to help him up, before I thought better of it. My stability was still somewhat uncertain on soft ground like this, and it was likely that any attempt to help Joe would only result in my falling down too. So instead I simply stood there, watching him get up on his own.

"Joe, I…"

"You idiot!" he grinned, his eyes taking me in. Internally I winced. How much did he know of my injuries? The old fears came flooding back, and instinctively I began to shut down.

"It's good to see you again, Ken." he said, holding out his hand.

"It's good to see you too, Joe." I replied, knowing that it was the truth. Briefly I accepted his hand before he moved away.

"So you were the one helping us from behind the scenes!" Ryu said, distracting me from my thoughts.

"Why didn't you show yourself to us?" Jinpei asked. "Why were you hiding?"

Joe didn't answer, merely turning aside, refusing to look at us. My anger swelled again. I had seen that kind of covert behavior all too often from Dr. Nambu of late, and witnessing it again now reminded me of my many recent frustrations.

The Doctor approached Joe, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"If you don't want to tell us, you don't need to." Dr. Nambu said. "However, why didn't you let us know that you were alive?" There was something strange in his expression. Something… uncomfortable.

Hakase was covering for Joe.

Dr. Nambu had apparently been communicating with Joe for months. Clearly Joe had let Hakase know that he was alive. This reeked of a setup.

"Dr. Nambu…" Joe appeared stymied, as if he didn't know how to respond.

"In any case, we're all very glad that you're still alive." the Doctor smoothed over the moment as he shook Joe's hand. Whatever he was about to say next was cut off as a deep rumbling shook the desert.

"Over there!" Mako shouted. The ground was rolling, and over the sand dunes it seemed as if the distant city of New Jork was rising out of the desert.

"The convection acceleration of the earth's mantle is increasing!" Dr. Nambu shouted in horror.

"No big surprise: Galactor's here." Joe's mouth curled in disgust. Indeed, a massive mecha was rising out of the sand. It was grey and white, and had the appearance of a flying saucer atop an insect's tail.

"Damn it!" I growled. "They're closing in!"

But while we had been preoccupied staring at the mecha's appearance, Joe had been getting into the Condor Attacker.

"I'm going to destroy the mantle junction!" he cried, starting the engine even as he spoke. "You guys have fun playing with Galactor." And before any of us could respond, he was speeding off in the car that had been inspired by his skill behind the wheel.

"Joe…" Dr. Nambu sighed.

"Okay, everyone, we're going to back up Joe!" I shouted. "Into your G-Machines!"

"Roger!"

And Joe did need backup. The saucer-tail mecha was approaching the Condor Attacker, clearly intent on destroying it. But I wasn't about to let that happen. Now that we knew Joe was alive, I wasn't about to let him die before me. Not again.

Bringing my Eagle Sharp around, I shot two mini Bird Missiles at the center of the saucer: where it appeared as if there might be a control room. Unfortunately, the shielding on this thing was sufficient to handle the blast, and when the smoke cleared, I could see that I hadn't even scratched it. However, it had now focused its attention on me, and I had at least accomplished the goal of distracting it away from Joe, so that he could continue on with his objective.

Mako, Jinpei and Ryu all fired at the mecha, but their attacks were as useless as mine. All we managed to do was confuse the thing, preventing it from firing, moving off, or doing any damage. I supposed that in a way, it was a minor victory.

The Earth shook again, this time with a violent crack that split open the desert before our eyes. The ground opened up directly underneath the saucer-tail mecha, and its weakness was instantly revealed: it wasn't capable of flight. Down it went, tumbling into the depths of the Earth, creating a massive explosion of its own, joining another spout of oily flames that had erupted not far away. I surmised that Joe had deployed Dr. Nambu's missile, which had created another violent disturbance underneath the ground.

Hurriedly, we all joined up with the New God Phoenix, meeting Dr. Nambu, who was onboard with Pimer. The moment the ground had settled we landed, rushing down to the landing gear, where an exit ramp allowed us quick access to the ground. I ran, stumbling down the stairs, horrified by the malevolent inferno before me. Smoke and flames rose thirty meters into the air, surrounded by billowing clouds of inky black smoke. Every opening in the ground served only as an avenue for this outpouring of burning destruction. This demonic fire raged forth from beneath the ground… where Joe was.

He couldn't be dead. Not again! Not now, when we had just found him again! There was no way in hell that a man could survive being engulfed in something like that… and yet, I found myself hoping against hope.

Something hurtled into the air, as if the Earth itself were spitting out a piece of noxious trash. It landed on the ground, crashing into the desert floor, the resulting waves of sand dousing the flames on its exterior. I quickly realized that this object was made of metal: debris from the saucer-tail mecha we had been fighting only moments ago. A crack appeared in its side, and from out of that crack… I squinted to see more clearly.

It was Joe. Dragging himself out of this last remnant of the Galactor mecha, using what looked like the last of his strength, Joe crawled out onto the sand, an expression of grim determination on his face that cut me to the core.

"Are you okay, Joe?" Jinpei asked anxiously, his eyes darting over to me. I understood the Swallow's concern. Joe's face was bruised and smeared with dirt and smoke. His clothing was torn and scratched, his body seemingly battered. He truly did look like a man who had escaped from the depths of Hell.

"Yeah, I'm fine." he attempted a smile, but all that came out was a strange grimace. "I just need to rest for a minute before I can walk again."

"The Condor Attacker is destroyed?" I asked curiously. "And yet, you've survived to appear here before us." I hadn't meant to sound so accusing, but something didn't sit right with me, and I was having a difficult time putting it from my mind. I was glad to see that Joe was okay… that he had survived. And yet, a part of me was screaming inside that it wasn't possible… that something was gravely wrong.

"I have the luck of the Devil." Joe shrugged, brushing my comment aside.

"Joe, why didn't you reveal yourself to us before?" I asked, unable to deny the rush of anger that was coming back to claim me. I needed answers, and perhaps Joe would be better able to provide them.

Yet he paused, clearly reluctant to speak.

"Don't take on airs, Joe. Just tell us." Ryu urged with a grin.

"This is just like before… everyone surrounding me…" Joe recalled his painful memory in a quiet voice. "At Karokorum, an old man found me… he rescued me, and brought me to an unfamiliar hospital, where I received a series of operations. It was an excellent facility, and thanks to Dr. Raphael, the operation was successful… he performed a miracle for me."

"Dr. Raphael?" Dr. Nambu repeated, closing his eyes, nodding slightly to himself.

"The man who rescued Ken at Eastern Island?" Mako questioned. "The one who used to work for Galactor?"

"Yes." Joe confirmed, pushing up from the ground and slowly moving away from us. "He's fighting Galactor on his own, now."

"You're the one who helped us at the temple, aren't you?" Jinpei asked, his expression a strange mixture of happiness and accusation.

"I didn't want to reveal myself to you, if at all possible." Joe admitted, turning his back to us. "I wanted to support you in secret. I didn't want to cause you any trouble. I… I still want that."

"Trouble?" Jinpei asked, confused.

"Right now, all I want is revenge against Galactor." Joe continued. There was something in his voice… but since his back was turned to us, I couldn't see his face to read his expression. Something wasn't quite adding up, but I couldn't figure out what it was.

"I'll destroy Leader X and his terrible evil, all by myself!" Joe declared, turning back to us, his face full of anger and determination.

"Joe…" I said, approaching him, my feelings of happiness and anger warring with themselves, "I understand your hatred for Galactor. But this isn't new. We've been fighting Galactor together for so long. It's impossible for me to think of you defeating X alone. You're a member of the Science Ninja Team!" Joe's face twisted in pain as I spoke; it was clear that my words had cut him to the core. He raised his head to look at me, his mouth forcing a smile I could see he didn't truly feel.

"Is this what I get? Another lecture from you?" he joked feebly. "No thanks, Ken. It's better this way."

"Better that you're on your own?" I pushed, sensing that I was hitting a nerve. "Never having anyone to rely on to back you up? I can tell that there are things going on with you beneath the surface: things that you don't want to talk about. I'll be honest: it bugs the hell out of me. But in spite of that, I'm just so glad to know that you survived, Joe. We've… I've… missed you."

"Just because you miss someone doesn't mean that you should stay with them." Joe replied evasively. His face had taken a hard expression, as if he was steeling himself against my words. "Sometimes it's better to be apart, to prevent people from getting hurt."

"Joe, you'd never hurt me, or anyone else on the Team."

"Haven't I hurt you all already?" The words burst out of his mouth in a flood of acidic self-loathing. "You all hurt when I was hiding my illness from the Team. You were all hurt when you thought I was dead, and even more so recently, when you thought I might be alive, but I didn't reveal myself. I've hurt you in ways you don't even realize. If I come back to the Team now, people will get hurt, Ken."

I stood there, my hands clenched into fists, wanting to knock some sense into him. In a way he was right: his actions had caused me pain. His absence from the Team had been strongly felt, and we still hadn't managed to fill the void that he and Jun had left behind. And I was furious that he hadn't contacted us… contacted me… to let us know that he was alive. All of this time I had been living through hell on my own, and he could have been there to pull me out of it…

But an even stronger voice inside my heart reminded me that this was Joe: my best friend. The person who had been by my side through thick and thin. We had never turned our backs on each other, even when we were unwilling to talk about what was going on within ourselves. We protected each other and sacrificed for each other, and damn it all to hell, that was the way it was supposed to be!

"Whatever hurt there is, I'm willing to accept it." I said boldly. "I know I speak for everyone here when I say that we're better off having you with us. You… you don't have to tell us what's going on with you, Joe, if you don't want to. We're barely hanging on here… and we need you." Sweat beaded my brow as I stood there in the hot desert sun, having just bared my soul to someone who was trying to reject me. If Joe still wanted to walk away at this point, I understood that it would probably be for the best.

But I didn't want him to walk away.

I raised my hand, extending it out to Joe, meeting him more than halfway.

"I…" Joe's eyes were wild. He was truly torn about this. I could see that he didn't want to accept my offer to return, yet he couldn't deny what I was saying.

"I know I'm going to regret this." he muttered to himself. "I'm sorry… but they need me too…"

Joe's fingers twitched, and he raised his arm with excruciating slowness. When his hand eventually met mine, he caught my gaze, staring at me intently.

"You said that whatever hurt there is, you're willing to accept it." Joe stated darkly. "I'm going to hold you to that, Ken."

"As long as we're on the same side, I can bear it." I told him.

"There's no going back now, Gatchaman."

Epilogue by TransmuteJun

Epilogue

Why the hell had I let Ken talk me into this? I was a damn fool. I should never have let the others know I was alive. Despite the bizarre circumstances, this past year had been the happiest time I had ever known. I was grateful to Dr. Raphael for saving my life, but I was even more grateful to him for saving Jun.

Jun… she was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was throwing that away like it was garbage. She would never understand what I had done. Never! Hell, I didn't even understand it myself. Right now she was in New Jork, anxiously waiting for me amongst the earthquake rubble. But I wasn't coming back…

Motherfucking stupid ass Ken! Why couldn't he have left well enough alone! He knew I was alive. Wasn't that enough for him? But as I looked around the Bridge of the New God Phoenix, I could see why it wasn't. This new girl… Mako… was nervous and unskilled. Jinpei and Ryu were good enough at swaggering about, but it was clear that they were lacking positive leadership. And Ken… there was something wrong with Ken. He seemed well enough to me, but Jun had told me how he hadn't been able to run back at the Arama base, and it certainly had been out of character for him not to be with the Team inside Eastern Island temple.

I wouldn't even have been in this mess if I hadn't been so damned curious about our replacements. Jun had begged me not to see Getz and Mako. It was enough for her to know that they had found others to fill the void we had left behind. But I had had to know… instead, I had stumbled upon a dying Getz, then had barely escaped the notice of his assassins. After that, I hadn't been able to just let this pass without contacting Dr. Nambu…

Jun had been furious, and rightfully so. But when I had described to her how hopeless and lost everyone was, she had understood, even sympathized, with my desire to help them. She had agreed to assist me, even when I had gone behind her back to warn Hakase about the attack in the Cascard Desert. She had stood by me… up until we had received that message from Dr. Nambu this morning. We had turned on our bracelets only to be greeted by a repeating signal, instructing us to meet him in the Gera Desert.

Jun had outright refused. She had instinctively understood that this was a trap: a setup designed to force us to reveal ourselves to the others. Deep down, I had known it too, but I had found that I just couldn't disappoint Dr. Nambu. He had asked so little of us, and as it had turned out, this time he really had needed my help. There was no one else who could have done what I had done… at least, no one who could have accomplished it and come out of there alive. I shuddered, recalling the intense heat and the manner in which the Condor Attacker had literally melted under the intense sprays of boiling magma.

I was doing the right thing. I just had to keep telling myself that. It was the right thing for the Science Ninja Team. The right thing in the fight to defeat Galactor.

But was it the right thing for Jun? For me?

Only time would tell.

The End

End Notes:
Consequences part 3: Return, coming soon!
This story archived at http://www.gatchfanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=1317