The River Divided by Diinzumo, JaneLebak
Summary:

A Scavengers/Out Of The Shadows crossover written by Diinzumo and Jane Lebak


An accident causes a clashing of universes, and Ken Washio and Mark Washington end up switching places. Lost in each other's world, Mark tries to be a leader for these older versions of his family while Ken, still in mourning for a dead brother, tries to change history, and ensure that this new universe never loses its Condor.


Categories: Gatchaman, Battle of the Planets Characters: Chief Anderson, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Original Character
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, General
Story Warnings: Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language
Timeframe: Prequel, Sequel
Universe: Cross-Over, Mostly Canon
Challenges: None
Series: Out of the Shadows, Scavengers
Chapters: 9 Completed: Yes Word count: 44033 Read: 53625 Published: 06/11/2007 Updated: 06/11/2007

1. Chapter 1 by Diinzumo

2. Chapter 2 by Diinzumo

3. Chapter 3 by Diinzumo

4. Chapter 4 by Diinzumo

5. Chapter 5 by Diinzumo

6. Chapter 6 by Diinzumo

7. Chapter 7 by Diinzumo

8. Chapter 8 by Diinzumo

9. Chapter 9 by Diinzumo

Chapter 1 by Diinzumo
While the New GodPhoenix flew a grid pattern over their latest target, Ken kept his eyes on the monitors. After only a few weeks' work and only one mission with this new, clunky craft, he'd begun to acclimate himself to the different layout on the control panel. Almost without thought, he adjusted a knob to zoom in on one of the features of the semi-barren landscape.

Jinpei said, "How come they didn't just send out somebody's air force instead of us? Anybody could do this."

"Jinpei!" Jun's voice had a whip-like sharpness, and from the corner of his eye Ken saw Jinpei sit up straight in his chair. "For the fifth time, we know you dislike recon. Don't you think we'd all rather be doing something more valuable with our time?"

Ken said nothing. Jun hadn't strung together as many words at any other point so far this mission--well, what of a mission they performed, taking photographs and electromagnetic readings of a suspected Gallactor base in a desolate part of South America. The only one who didn't seem to share Jinpei's restlessness was Ryu, still struggling to pilot the New GodPhoenix with the finesse he'd had over the older model.

Ken glanced at the empty chair behind him to his left. He swallowed hard and looked again at his monitor.

"Passing through the hot zone," Ryu said. "This is as close as we get to the target area."

As Ken zoomed in his camera, he wondered briefly about basketball, and about Joe. An odd combination--Joe had never cared much for sports that didn't involve machines, and Ken couldn't even remember the last time he'd seen a basketball game. He asked, "Jun, do we have any EM readings?"

"The same we've had for the last half hour." He wondered how she managed to create sentences that sounded angry while not having any inflection. "No, wait--I'm picking up some sort of high frequency broadcast with waves generated from forty to sixty gigahertz."

Ken saw Joe out of the corner of his eye, eagerly staring at a monitor, standing near it with clenched fists and brilliant eyes. He almost said something, but when he turned his head to look directly, the image vanished.

Ken's heart pounded. He'd broken into a sweat.

Jinpei said, "The computer systems are going haywire! I have to shut down--"

Ryu said, "I think we passed through some sort of defensive field. All our instruments are out of whack!"

"Ryu, get us out of here," Ken said. "Jun, get Dr. Nambu on the monitor. Let him know we're turning for home."

Beside him, Joe's image turned to him and said something he couldn't hear, then looked back at whatever it was watching. In the act of turning toward Joe to dispel the mirage again, Ken felt a sudden burning in his throat and stomach, and in an abrupt lurch, the world went white.



"Right during the middle of the NBA finals..."

Ignoring Jason, Mark concluded his report over the monitor to Chief Anderson. With a smile, the Chief glanced off to the side momentarily, then said, "Utah by four."

"Blast!" Jason walked to the back of the cockpit, then forward again. "Tiny!"

"You think I'm not hurrying?"

"They do this deliberately," Jason said. "They knew it would probably be Michael Jordan's last game of his career, so Spectra goes and blows up West Cupcake National Park or whatever that no one's going to notice ever, and it's probably just to keep us from seeing the game."

Princess rolled her eyes, then adjusted her stance as Tiny accelerated. "Guys, keep it safe. Safe! No game is worth this."

"Shows what she knows," Keyop said.

Mark fought a smile as he met the Chief's eyes. Behind him, Jason made an imaginary twenty foot jump shot and a swooshing sound. "Next season, guys, just call me Air Jason."

Tiny muttered, "Air Head." Keyop sputtered a laugh as Jason glared at the pilot.

"Chicago just took a two minute time-out." Chief Anderson gave Jason a smile. "You can relax for a moment--you're only missing a commercial."

"Sometimes the commercials are the best part," said Princess.

Jason started to sing off-key, "Sometimes I dream, that he is me..."

Tiny and Keyop joined in, "You've got to see that's how I dream to be," and Tiny did the "Bom-ba-bom-ba-bom." The three of them continued, "I dream I move, I dream I groove--" and while Tiny and Keyop sang, "Like Mike!", Jason sang, "Like Mark!"

Mark rolled his eyes, and when Keyop burst out laughing, Tiny and Jason kept singing, "If I could be like Mark! If I, if I could be like Mark, like Mark, if I could be like Mark!"

Mark got out of his chair long enough to give Jason a good hard shove into the back wall of the cockpit, but Jason was laughing too much to really notice. Mark looked at the Chief on the monitor.

The Chief drawled, "I'm not gonna sing."

Jason, Tiny and Keyop broke apart laughing again. Keyop giggled, "Larry Bird-style!"

"Yeah, yeah..." Mark shook his head as he made his way back to his seat. "What's our ETA?"

"It'll be a few minutes more," the Chief said. "Chicago's down by six. I'll debrief you after the game."

Jason ran from the Phoenix after it docked, shouting, "No one detransmute--you know how that screws up the HDTV for ten minutes, and if I miss even a single second because of one of you nitwits going and..." His voice faded the further he got away. Keyop and Tiny were after him. Princess said, "Only heaven knows why we needed an HDTV in the first place, so we could count every bead of sweat on Karl Malone's face--" and then found herself alone. After a second's hesitation, Mark had raced down the hall to the TV room as well.

Right in front of the TV, Jason stood breathing deeply. "Oh, this must have been a barn-burner...yes!" Mark took a seat at the end of the couch. Jason turned to him, eyes bright. "Utah by three--that's the closest Chicago's gotten all quarter, but there's only 53 seconds left."

Mark leaned forward. Jason had taken a seat on the left arm of the couch while Tiny and Keyop stood behind the couch on his either side. Princess slipped into the TV room as well. No one said anything as Chicago grabbed the ball and handed it off to Jordan, who scored. "Do it do it do it," Jason was murmuring while Keyop and Tiny high-fived one another. Utah raced down the court, passing to Karl Malone, who turned with the ball only to have it stripped from him by Michael Jordan.

Jason was screaming, "He stripped the ball! He stripped the ball!"

Mark suddenly bent forward in a painful flash, hands covering his nose and mouth.

Jason was standing on the couch, his raised hands in fists. "You didn't watch who was double teaming you--YES!" He started jumping up and down on the couch. "Look at that! Look at that--a perfect fake for the seventeen footer! They're gonna do it! They're gonna go all the way!"

Tiny and Keyop were screaming as well, and Jason pumped the air with his fists, then turned to Mark. "They did it! The man's a basketball god! They did it!"

The figure on the couch raised his head, and suddenly all three boys stopped celebrating Chicago's sixth NBA title. He wore Mark's uniform and sat where Mark had been, and he even looked like Mark, but they knew in an instant it wasn't him at all.



Mark kept his hands over his face for several moments until the pain subsided, and when he looked up, he startled and pressed back into his chair.

Where am I?

There was no NBA game, no Jason shouting at the television, no Tiny and Keyop high-fiving one another. Instead he found himself in a cavernous, ornate cockpit, with Chief Anderson on the monitor--only the Chief wasn't speaking with his own voice. Mark's eyes darted to the side--Tiny sat in the pilot's chair, but he looked older. He had a different holster on his uniform.

"Ken!" a high pitched voice said, "You're bleeding!"

Mark hesitated as Princess--only older, with that higher, softer voice--rushed up to him and looked at him. Ken? Mark could feel it, though--he had a nosebleed, and no one else in the cockpit did, effectively making him Ken for now. The woman in the Swan birdstyle virtually pulled him from his chair, and he followed her to the rear of the cockpit where she thrust him some gauze pads from a first aid kit. Mark pressed them to his nose and mouth and bent his head forward.

They all look older--they all sound different--they're calling me Ken. This isn't the Phoenix. Mark kept his head down and tried to breathe deeply and get his thoughts collected. He had about five seconds until he'd have to either raise his head or speak, at which point these others would realize something had happened.

"Aniki?" Mark identified this voice as younger than the others--the boots that showed up at the edge of his vision were Keyop's dark ones. "What's up?"

The woman said, "Leave him alone. He's hurt."

"Huh?" the kid's voice said. "What happened, Aniki?"

There was no fifth person in the cockpit.

Mark took another deep breath, then raised his head and stood facing the rest of the team. He removed his helmet and looked around at the other three, who clearly appeared as shocked as he was.



When his vision finally cleared, Ken felt something warm trickle down his face. With one gloved hand he touched his upper lip and his fingers came away bloody, just as he suspected. The sudden, blinding headache had struck without warning and now that it had faded, he felt sick, chilled all over despite the protection of his birdstyle.

What happened? Where am I?

Instead of the command center of the New GodPhoenix, he found himself seated on a couch in what appeared to be someone's living room, in front of a television that blared the results of a basketball game and the cheers of an approving crowd. He frowned, eyes narrowed. At least the others were here with him. With his head still down he could see the edges of Jun's mantle to his right. And to his left, the deep blue feathers of the Condor.

Joe?

Ken gasped and his shoulders jerked. He could feel his heart slamming against his ribcage, a deep pit dropping though his stomach. His head snapped up, and with huge eyes, he stared at the man sitting beside him.

The man stared back, startled. Sharp eyes glowed with unmistakable familiarity through the deep violet grey of his visor. The Condor. It was him. It had to be! Ken lunged forward and grabbed his shoulders with both hands, expecting the apparition to vanish in smoke, but Ken's hands clutched solid flesh and bone, muscles taut.

"Joe?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "How is this possible? How can you be here?"

"Hey!" The apparition jerked back, glaring at Ken with confusion and a little bit of annoyance. Ken startled at the wrongness of his voice, not Joe's baritone at all. From a closer vantage point, Ken found other differences: his face was too rounded, too young to be Joe, and now that he took the time to really look, the young man carried himself differently too.

Ken opened his hands and let him go. The Condor backed off a foot or so, perching high on the arm of the couch. "What's with you all of a sudden?"

"Mark?" Another voice spoke. A stranger's voice.

Then he looked at the others, and what he saw jarred him. Although at first glance he could have sworn they were his teammates, now he couldn't recognize them. The features were right, but dozens of tiny details combined to convince Ken he was looking at four entirely different people. They looked soft, closer to the young adults the Kagaku Ninjatai should have been if the Syndicate had never begun its campaign.

All of them sat perfectly still, mirroring his shocked expression.

"What's wrong?" the Swan asked, her voice low. "You're bleeding."

"And your face looks weird," the youngest added. "And your voice."

The Condor glanced at the boy. "Keyop, get the Chief," he snapped. "Now." As the Swallow--Keyop--dashed out the door, the woman snatched a tissue from the box on the coffee table and handed it to Ken. He wiped the blood from his face and pinched his nose until the bleeding subsided.

"Mark?"

"Who?"

"What do you mean?"

"Who are you calling Mark?"

"You." The Condor quirked an eyebrow. "Who else would we be calling Mark?"

"I'm not Mark."

"Up until a minute ago, you were." The Owl spoke in a too-deep

voice, with none of Ryu's old slang.

This was too strange to be a snare. Gallactor would try to emulate the team, not provide so many differences. They're not trying to earn my trust. It looks like they're pulling things from the past, not the future. Why?

Ken got off the couch and backed away from them toward the door, then winced as the room tilted around him. "You're not my team. Tell me what's going on."

"You never saw him hit his head," the Condor said quietly, looking over at the Swan. She shook her head. "But he does look different."

"Something flashed around him," the Owl said. "I thought it was just the TV, but now...."

The door opened behind him, and Ken whirled to see the Swallow trailed by a man in a lab coat. Though he appeared younger, he looked more familiar than the rest of the team. Upon seeing Ken, he stopped, and his brows drew together in puzzlement.

"Hakase?" Ken said in as level a voice as he could manage. "What's going on here?"

The man's puzzled look intensified, and as he opened his mouth, Ken dreaded the sound of his voice. But he spoke, and his voice, like the others, was wrong. "That's what I intend to find out."

Chapter 2 by Diinzumo
Mark sat in his civvies in a chair beside Dr. Nambu's desk, the others seated behind him. He could feel their eyes on him, boring into his back. Looking down, he touched the band-aid on the inside of his arm, covering the spot where the medical staff had drawn blood. "So the DNA's the same?"

The Professor watched him, his elbows on the desk, his fingers steepled. "Yes. Genetically, you and Ken match perfectly, the only difference being in your age and background. Tell me again where you were right before you found yourself aboard our ship."

"I was back at base, watching a basketball game with the others after a routine mission."

"A base like this one?"

Mark frowned, considering security. As long as I don't reveal the location. "No, we call it Center Neptune. It's smaller than this place." Much smaller. Where did they find the budget for this?

Behind him, Jun leaned forward. "Another ocean base. Was it hidden beneath an island?" When Mark looked back at her, she motioned with her hand. "An island shaped like a quarter moon?"

His eyes widened, but he didn't reply.

"Hmm." The Professor picked up a phone beside his desk, spoke softly to whomever answered, then hung up. A moment later, the door slid open and a young man handed him a manila envelope. "Mark, I want you to look at these photos and tell me what you think they are."

Hesitantly, Mark took the envelope and pulled out a sheaf of photographs. His jaw clenched as he looked over each image in turn, all of them too familiar, too detailed, too accurate to be a Spectran ruse.

"Where... did you get these?"

"They were taken about four years ago. Some are file photos and some are personal. Identify them, please."

Slowly, Mark placed one photo down on the desk. "This is Center Neptune."

Ryu whistled. "That's impossible! You were just there?"

"Please continue," Nambu said.

Carefully, Mark did as he was asked, placing down photo after photo. The Phoenix. Princess and Keyop at an amusement park. Tiny and Captain Jack. The Rigan Air Command. Colonel Cronus--his father. "Professor, what happened to him?" Behind him, Mark heard the others draw in their breaths.

"You tell me."

"About four months ago, he gave his life trying to keep the Spectrans from destroying the Van Allen Belt," Mark said, looking down at the desktop. "He piloted a missile into the belt itself."

"I'm sorry, Mark."

"He did what he had to." Mark raised his head. "What about here?"

Nambu shook his head gently. "All three men in the photo are gone. Their commander gave his life in the way you described."

Mark swallowed, then continued shuffling through the photos. His private airstrip and plane. Jason, laughing, holding a race trophy high above his head. "Jason was sitting beside me right before I turned up here." He tapped the photograph. "Where is he now?"

The professor's face tightened, an expression reflected by the others. Mark glanced from him to Jun, Jinpei and Ryu, and found them studying the floor. "Oh, no."

Jun spoke quietly. "Two years ago, during a campaign called the Black Hole Operation, Joe went alone to find the Syndicate's home base, and he was captured and mortally wounded. He was able to guide us to the base itself but... after it was all over... we lost him."

"Jason--" Mark slackened into the chair. For a moment, he imagined his team fighting without Jason, Jason dead, something that had nearly become reality years ago. He rubbed the backs of his arms. This was Joe, not Jason. Staring down at the face in the photograph, he shuddered.

More photographs arrived, though this time, Mark couldn't identify what he saw. Ken's old classmates from the Academy were strangers. He couldn't restrain a snicker at GelSadora's photo: "What in the world is that?" Nambu looked pained but said nothing.

At last, the professor put the photographs away, shaking his head. "Truly uncanny," he muttered.

"So what comes next?" Mark said.

The Professor rested his chin lightly on his fingertips, staring at Mark. "We probably have two to three weeks before the Syndicate recovers enough to launch their next offensive. We spend that time finding out how to reverse what happened to you."

"What if we run out of time?" Jinpei said. "We need Ken, Hakase."

"Mark, how many years have you led your team?"

Mark shifted his weight. "Close to two."

"That fits," said Ryu. "Jinpei's right. We're gonna need him, if only to assure Gallactor that Ken's still with us. They see we're weakened in any way, they'll leap on the opportunity." His voice lowered. "It's bad enough that we lo-" Jun elbowed him hard; with a grunt he stopped.

Mark's eyes narrowed slightly. "I'm so very sorry for the inconvenience." Ryu grimaced.

"We should address that possibility, yes." Nambu frowned. "If he and Ken are this similar, chances are we can compare Mark's skills to Ken's a few years ago. That will be workable if the rest of you fill in the experience he lacks. We can test Mark's skills, perhaps later today, depending on the schedule. Right now, I'd like to speak with Mark alone for a while."

With lingering glances on the two remaining, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu filed outside.

Once the door shut behind them, Jinpei glared up at the pilot. "Nice going, loudmouth."

"It's the truth. None of us has any experience leading the team. It was either Ken or Joe. Now what do we do?"

Jun shrugged and walked away down the hall.



Ken vastly preferred his old quarters to the new ones, even if he had agreed the best place for him tonight was under guard. Nambu, or rather Chief Anderson, had studied him and quizzed him and begun medical tests on him, but they hadn't finished. "It's nearly midnight," Chief Anderson had said. "I want you someplace I know you won't hurt my team, and I would think you would prefer getting some rest as well."

Now a very puzzled guard watched over Ken, or was it Mark?, locked in a solitary confinement cell down in the sub basements of the ISO building. Nambu had given him a television and a radio, had asked the guards to provide him with food, drinks, reading material-- whatever he wanted, within reason. Ken's first concern had been dinner: he'd been hungry ever since his arrival. Next, arms prickled with goosebumps, he asked for a sweatshirt. Ken had asked if Nambu--Anderson, damn it, Anderson. Anderson, Anderson, Anderson--Ken had asked if Anderson wanted him to turn over his bracelet, and Anderson had said no. Ken should keep that if he wanted.

If Anderson wanted him to keep it, did he really want it around?, Ken wondered. Or was this a trap Anderson laid for him, tricking him into turning over the bracelet through a false sense of safety?

This makes no sense. On the surface, yes, every detail of their story held true. Ken flipped through a variety of magazines and a couple of the daily papers, and while it wouldn't have been impossible for Gallactor to make up something like this, the products he was looking at seemed too consistent. The radio got all different channels than Ken was accustomed to. They had commercials and ads for every conceivable product and service. Talk radio had just as many callers, and stations played the same variety of music, and it was all going on at once. In order for Gallactor to have faked this, they'd have had to jam out all the normal stations, then present this cornucopia of radio waves and run it constantly, not knowing when he'd tune in and to where.

The magazines ran stories that were for the most part well written and all professionally edited. The slick ads had obviously been put together by highly paid ad agencies, and they hadn't been lifted from the Utoland weeklies, either. The core of his situation still sounded faked to Ken, but slowly the daily clutter of life was winning him over. Even the clothes Nambu--Anderson--had given him for the night, even those had a brand name stitched into the label, and it wasn't one Ken recognized. Asking the guards for a soda, he made sure to request "the choice of a new generation," (he'd seen an ad) and the guard looked puzzled, then said, "Oh, a Pepsi!" One had arrived in two minutes.

In terms of verisimilitude, then, Ken had little to complain about. Everyone he'd met had also been somewhat smarter than the average Gallactor.

Why not believe it, then? Well, wasn't it what's-his-name's wager, Ken asked himself: if I believe it's real and it's not, then I'll be duped and this will end up being bad-bad-bad. If I believe it's not, and it is real, they'll still work at returning me home because they want their own Gatchaman back.

The collateral evidence kept mounting, though. Ken asked for access to a phone book, and they gave it to him, then asked him if he wanted access to the phone. He politely refused and looked through the book. Again, all looked normal. There wasn't any reason they should have suspected he wanted this.

After one o'clock, Ken stretched out on the cot, leaving the lights on, arms crossed behind his head but the blanket up to his shoulders as he stared at the ceiling and thought. His own body clock put him closer to late afternoon than past midnight. He still had no desire to sleep.

"Ken?" Anderson appeared at the door to the cell, and Ken sat up. He found it easier to remember to call him Chief Anderson with the man actually before him--slight differences in mannerisms and that different voice assisted in that respect. "I wanted to talk to you again."

"Shouldn't you be asleep?"

Anderson chuckled. "I'm trying to figure out this dilemma--I don't think I'll be sleeping tonight any more than the kids upstairs are going to be."

Ken shook his head. "I'm beginning to think I won't, either. Maybe I should go back to your office."

"Possibly." Chief Anderson took a seat across the room from Ken, who leaned back against the cell wall. "This isn't the most comfortable place for a guest to spend the night. I'm still not certain you are who you say you are, and of course, if you're genuine, you must have misgivings about us. I want to respect those misgivings on both sides."

"You said as much earlier."

Anderson nodded. "But I think I've come up with a way of earning one another's trust." He handed Ken an envelope. "Don't open it yet. I'm guessing, based on all we've discussed so far, that certain events are holding true through both universes despite the different surrounding circumstances. I've brought you an envelope with my account of your father's life and death."

Ken's eyes opened. "But if I read it and tell you it's correct, you still won't know--"

"Before you open it, I want you to write out your own account of your father's life and death, to the best of your knowledge. You seal it and keep it until you've read what I wrote. At that point, if you trust that what I've said is true, you can give me your envelope which should, at least to a point, contain the same story."

Ken folded his arms, still fingering the envelope. "And since I'm fairly certain Gallactor doesn't know this, and since it also wouldn't be drastically harmful for them to find out about it, then we're not wagering too much."

Anderson nodded. "Shall I give you a few minutes to write?"

Following Chief Anderson down the hallway, still holding the envelope, Ken felt his heart pounding. Gallactor shouldn't know about his father--technically, they shouldn't. Anything was possible, and Hakase had said they had a leak in G-Town. On the other hand, if Anderson had known the Kentaro Washio of this universe, then he'd know things that weren't necessarily the information you'd put into a file folder.

Finally they reached a small room where Chief Anderson asked for the envelope back and let Ken inside to use the desk. The green glass desk lamp illuminated the page as Ken forced himself to write on the legal pad with a ball point pen (they had Bics in this universe too, apparently.) His hands trembled, and he wondered if Anderson would even be able to read his handwriting.

Sometimes it all came back to him. He hadn't even dared wish his father were still alive on this side of the sword. Maybe somewhere Kentaro had survived, but Anderson had mentioned his death, so it certainly was not here.

Ken sealed the envelope, then took a deep breath and returned to the doorway where Chief Anderson stood talking to one of the security guards. "Yes, it has been a long night."

Ken handed Anderson his envelope without a word, and without a word, he got one in return.

Back at the little desk under the green glass lamp, Ken spread out five sheets of handwritten paper, an account so thorough and truthful that he stopped reading three times in order to press his hands to his eyes, and at page three he turned around and said to Chief Anderson, "Open mine."

The next two pages took longer to read than the first three, and Ken felt his hands beginning to shake. The final paragraph he reread three times.

Although Mark's father had serious misgivings initially about my decision to allow his son participation in and leadership of the team, he did eventually grow to see all his son's accomplishments and abilities the way I did. I know he was very, very proud of all Mark managed to do and the person he was becoming under very trying circumstances. His loss was felt by all, as he was a courageous man in a world of dreamers and cowards. I'm sorry, Ken.

Ken folded the letter, replaced it in the envelope, and jammed it into his back pocket. When he went to the door and Chief Anderson rested an arm across his shoulders, Ken only whispered, "I'm convinced. I'm convinced. But I'll stay down here the rest of the night. In the morning I'll head upstairs and rejoin the team."



After another hour of interview, spent mostly relating the last five minutes before Mark found himself in his uncomfortable predicament, his meeting with Nambu ended. The professor dismissed him, seemingly unaware that he had no idea where to go next, but when the door opened, Mark found Jun sitting in the waiting room outside.

"I thought so." She smiled warmly. She'd changed her former t-shirt and jeans for a blouse and dress pants, but Mark didn't register her clothing or the hint of make-up. "He cut you loose without a map. Would you like the grand tour?"

After a moment, Mark returned the smile. "Sure."

He walked down the corridor beside this familiar woman. Mark stole a glance at her and decided yes, woman was the right term. Princess he referred to (as she did herself) as a girl, but Jun had an older look even if she lacked the spark of mischief Princess generally carried. Do two years really make that much of a difference? Or has she simply endured a lot more than Princess? Other than a slight difference in height--Jun being taller--their difference in age wasn't as noticeable as with the others. For some reason she seemed fragile; not quite as sturdy as Princess. The higher voice might have had something to do with that.

She showed him the gym, the pool--with its great glass windows looking out "so the fish can watch us swim in our own fishbowl"--the small cafeteria, and finally the block of suites where they all lived. "You have to stay here?" Mark said. "Don't you have homes on the outside?"

"We don't go there as often anymore. In the last year or so, the Syndicate has concentrated on finding out who we are, so it's been easier to stay here, always on call." She fixed her eyes on him. "There are advantages to the close quarters."

"I don't know." Mark frowned. "It's so closed in. It's like hiding."

"We thought so too," Jun said. "But after Joe's replacement was killed on his way here, we had to see things Hakase's way."

Mark's eyes rounded. "Replacement?"

Jun nodded. "Hakase felt we needed a team of five, and he recruited a man from the Intelligence division to act as the new G-2. He didn't last very long." Those matter-of-fact words, spoken in that high, soft voice, jarred him, and Mark looked away, tucking his hands in his jeans pockets. He wondered if Don had a doppelganger here as well. He wasn't sure he wanted to know Don's fate.

"Ah, here." They had arrived before a nondescript door at the end of the corridor. Jun produced a card key and slipped it into the slot beside the door, rewarded with a click as the door unlocked. "These are Ken's quarters. It seemed appropriate enough to put you here." She handed him the key.

"Thanks for the tour," Mark said.

Jun offered a smile and rested a hand on his arm. "Would you like me to come in with you?"

"No, I think I can find my way around a room pretty well." He flashed her a smile which she missed as she pulled her hand away. "I take it you guys are behind doors one, two and three?" he added with a gesture down the hallway.

"If for some reason you need to find us--or the bracelet should work." Jun's voice had tightened a bit. "If you just want to hole up for a while, we're meeting for dinner tonight in oh," Jun stuck her head inside the door and glanced at the wall clock. "Two hours--at seven. I'm in the second suite down on the left if you want me or anything."

"Thanks... Jun." The name still sounded strange in his mouth. "See you then." Jun lingered a moment longer, found she had nothing to say, then turned her back and walked down the hall.

The door clicked shut, leaving Mark in the silence of the apartment. Larger and better appointed than his shack at the airfield, the suite consisted of three rooms: living room with kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom. Two windows revealed the dark sea outside. Simple, comfortable-looking furniture filled the place, everything arranged neatly with a minimum of clutter. Mark found many of the items familiar: the airplane models, the airshow posters, cloudscape photos and old air sectionals hung on the walls, though Ken's were matted and framed, not informally tacked to the sheet rock.

Mark walked through the rooms, observing, feeling a little like an intruder, yet too curious to stop. The framed photographs sat on the dresser in the bedroom, not on the desk where he might have put them, and one by one, he lifted the frames for a closer look. The photo of Ken's family--father, mother and three-year-old son seated in formal poses--sent goosebumps prickling up the backs of his arms. The photo beside it, of Ken at age seven or eight with a pale, emaciated mother, held Mark's attention for quite a while. His mother had died when he was three. Somehow, here, she'd survived a few extra years--what had Ken done better than he to deserve that? Mark thought to himself, How does a child so small do something to deserve losing his family, either one at a time or simultaneously? How do you lock them inside after they're gone? He set the photo back on the dresser with unsteady hands.

Another photo showed all five of the team sitting together, a carbon copy of his own team. He could almost remember the occasion when this had been taken. He shivered, glancing at his face in the mirror, then back at the five smiling faces in the photo.

Back in the living room, he searched for more clues, through the books on the shelves and the videos on the console below the television--mostly action movies, he noted. Finally he found a photo album and knelt with it beside the shelf. He started with the most recent pictures in the back.

There he finally found Ken as he must have been at the time of the switch. The photo showed him standing beside a shiny red aerobatic plane on his airstrip. Ken resembled him but was larger, older, more battered, with a hardness to his eyes. Slowly Mark flipped the pages, backtracking across vacation photos; from islands in the South Pacific to cities in England and Spain. The further back he went, the worse Ken looked. The first vacation photo showed him haggard and pale, deep circles under his eyes, standing with shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. Jun stood beside him, hands on his shoulder almost as if she was propping him up. The pages before that were blank. An old chapter had come to a close.

The next page revealed a birthday party in full swing. Keyop, or Jinpei, mugged before a birthday cake with a single candle, placed on a counter in what appeared to be a bar. Mark frowned as he looked more closely, seeing the rows of liquor bottles and glasses on the shelves in the background. A bottle of champagne and three glasses sat on the counter beside the cake. What were they doing celebrating a kid's birthday in a bar? Did they drink? Jason had the occasional beer at the track when he wasn't racing, but neither he nor Mark drank often. Gathered around Jinpei were the others, and finally Joe: a statue of Jason roughly hacked out of stone, wearing a grin that didn't quite reach his eyes. He had the same hardened, haunted look Mark had seen in Ken's face.

Mark put the album away. He curled up in a chair beside the window and looked at the dark ocean, arms wrapped around his knees, a blanket over his shoulders. Am I looking at the future? Jason's future? My own?

Chapter 3 by Diinzumo
When evening finally came, Mark threw himself onto the bed in his double's quarters and stared at the ceiling. You couldn't tell it was evening except for the clocks--they were that far beneath the surface. Hanging tiles--somebody could hide anything in one of those, and generally, Spectra did. Either the designers of G-Town were confident that no one from Gallactor would get inside, or else they didn't realize the potential threat of easily accessible hidden spaces.

He'd never sleep tonight unless he got his mind off these eerie photographs and borrowed memories. Dinner with the new team had taken too much adjusting and translating and compensating. The gap left by their own dead G-2...it was palpable. Jinpei and Ryu had a relationship a little more antagonistic and yet simultaneously more comfortable than Keyop and Tiny's. Jun he couldn't understand at all--the way she shifted between distance and closeness. While they hadn't excluded him, Mark hadn't missed the lack of warmth in their interaction with him. Although he might look like Ken, he wasn't--their lack of shared experience made him a facsimile just the way Ken would be to Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny. Every time Mark thought about something else, the thoughts inevitably turned to his current stranded, expatriate status.

Usually before he went to bed, Mark tried to read for a little while, and he'd gotten up to a pretty good part in his current book--it might be interesting to see if that same author had written the same book in this universe. He made his way to the fork in the corridor and then puzzled which direction he could wander to find a library.

"Mark?"

Turning, he found Jun, still dressed as she'd been this afternoon and at dinner. He smiled. "I was looking for a library."

"Oh--I thought I'd shown you that earlier today. I can take you there."

Jun had the manner of a woman not saying anything as she showed him to an elevator, and after Mark stood inside with her for a protracted moment, she pressed the floor button. The hair began standing on the back of Mark's neck as she delayed, and he edged closer to the wall. Jun caught the motion. Her mouth tightened.

The elevator door closed.

Mark glanced at the ceiling.

"Are you planning on flying up the elevator shaft to escape me?"

Juggling the situation, Mark said, "Only if you attack."

"I'm not going to." Jun folded her arms and looked away. "How often do I have to prove myself to you?"

"I've only been here ten hours," Mark said. "I don't care how often you've had to prove yourself in that time--it can't have been that much."

It took another moment for Mark to realize he wasn't the brunt of that remark at all. Jun punched the button for the floor they were about to reach, and the elevator stopped. Mark's eyes widened, and as the elevator doors opened, he said, "Wait, Jun-"

"The library's three more floors." She gave him a tight smile. "I'm going to prove I'm friendly and leave you untouched."

"I said wait!" Mark stepped off the elevator and stopped, arms folded. "I'm not going to have you ambushing me, either physically or verbally. Whatever you've got against Ken, don't hold it against me. I didn't do it yet."

Jun started to walk, and Mark waited at the end of the corridor, watching her retreating form.

"I didn't do it yet." The thought kept asserting itself. Jun kept walking and never looked back.



Jun found the fire stairs and took them back to her level, moving slowly, her mind tracking over their conversation.

Only if you attack. That hurt. And then Mark's next phrase: Whatever you've got against Ken, don't hold it against me. I didn't do it yet.

You're already doing it, she thought.

Back on their floor, she scanned the hallway first, wondering whether Mark might have taken the elevator back down or continued to the library. That would be just like Ken: back to business as usual. Aloof. Oblivious.

In her quarters, she kicked off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse as she walked back to the bedroom, tossing it viciously into the hamper beside the bathroom. The slacks followed, and she turned on the shower, stripped and stepped under the spray. Though she normally preferred long, leisurely baths, she scrubbed quickly this time; massaging the shampoo into her hair and soaping the makeup from her face. Dripping, she walked across the room to the mirror above the sink and stared at her face as she combed out her wet hair.

How could she have been so foolish? Mark and Ken were two different people, more than evident in the way Mark carried himself--more educated, more refined than Ken in some respects. More cautious. Ken would fly a plane upside down through an overpass for the sheer thrill of it. And yet... yet he was still terrified of a relationship. With her.

Back in the elevator, Mark had lectured her as if they were on a mission together. Still that leader's tone. Still that wall, that barrier that left them both unfathomable to her.

She stared at herself in the mirror, at a graceful, muscular body and a face a famous fashion designer had once personally said was model material. At her nightclub, on the stage and on the dance floor, she had broken men's hearts. Why does he shove me away? Am I such a horrible woman?

She wished she could ask someone. Jinpei would blow it off with a joke, Ryu would blush and stammer. Nambu... he would just stare at her, confused. And that was the extent of her social circle now that they were stationed deep beneath the ocean's surface. Joe, he might have said something along the lines of, "Don't be silly. Ken's just an idiot." How she wished she could hear him say it now, but Joe was just a memory, a shadow on the wall that had been cast by someone else.

Steam built up around the edges of the mirror, a frame closing in. Jun toweled herself off, dressed in a nightie and retreated to bed, forcing her eyes shut and her mind blank until sleep finally came.



After eleven o'clock in the morning, Ken made his way upstairs to the 19th floor of the ISO building. Anderson had left him an ID that let him access the elevators, and he'd left instructions with the guards that Ken was free to go whenever he wanted. Breakfast had already been served, gotten cold, and been removed while Ken slept in, so a ravenous Ken had headed straight toward G-Force's kitchen, picking up an escort on his way there from the elevator.

Jason leaned against the door of the kitchen while Ken sat at the table with a sandwich, soda and fruit. Arms characteristically folded, ankles crossed as he maintained that impossible balance, Jason studied Ken. Between bites, Ken studied him back, this apparition that seemed, for all intents, to be living and breathing and thinking.

It's almost as if I've won the lottery. This is the jackpot--pick the right five numbers and you get back your friend.

Jason said, "Quit looking at me like that."

Ken shrugged as he swallowed. "While you're satisfying yourself that I'm for real, you haven't done much to prove yourselves to me."

Jason rolled his eyes. "What do you want me to do? I've got my driver's license."

Jason walked to the refrigerator and got some water while Ken ate more of his sandwich. The weird hunger hadn't really abated since Ken had started eating, and he'd begun to wonder if it would at all. Maybe he'd always be hungry here, the way he always seemed to feel cold.

Princess and Tiny had entered the kitchen. "The Chief left word that for now, we're to trust you, but only within our judgment." Princess gave Ken a smile, the first real warmth since his arrival, and it made his skin crawl. Princess and Jun, so alike--what if they had the same unrealizable dreams? The girl sat across the table from him and rested her chin on her hands. "He's leaving you with us while he returns to his conference at Center Neptune for the rest of the day. I guess you're legit after all."

Jason said, "I told him, we saw it happen--"

Tiny said, "What if Spectra had beamed a clone down like Star Trek or something?"

"Maybe the Vulcan nerve pinch did something to your brain." Jason huffed. "I think we'd have heard about it if something that big was even in development."

"It's possible. Throw me an apple, Jason." Princess shrugged. "But the Chief said it didn't happen that way, so I'm satisfied." She caught the fruit Jason tossed her, and after a moment she tossed it back. "Wash this off for me?"

"What am I, your personal slave now that Mark's not around?" Jason had already gone to the sink. "I'm only indulging your fruit habit this once."

Grinning at Ken, Princess said, "I'm eternally grateful."

Ken said, "So now that I'm 'trusted,' what does that mean?"

Tiny said, "I guess we can do whatever we normally would."

Jason said, "How about a workout?"

Ken's pulse quickened. "That would be fine."

Jason gestured over his shoulder as he walked out of the kitchen. Before he followed, Ken quickly finished the rest of his sandwich and put his dishes in the sink. Above the sink was a laminated sign with the single word: "THINK." Right over the soap dish, someone had put a yellow Post-it with smeared letters that said, "THOAP."

Princess called after them, "I'll get Keyop when I'm done with my apple."

In a slightly smaller gym than Ken was used to, Jason and Tiny transmuted, so he did the same. One half of the gym contained assorted gymnastic equipment--rings, a high bar, uneven bars, a balance beam--and a track encircled the whole room. The larger, open space closer to them seemed to serve more as a warm-up and free-form area. Jason had done only one or two stretches to limber up before Tiny jumped him, and shortly they were involved in a full-scale brawl.

Watching, Ken smiled. Tiny nearly had Jason pinned several times. Jason kept managing to escape.

On his own, Ken moved to the high bar and mounted it easily, then pulled himself up to the top and stood scanning the gym.

Jason found him on the bar and called out, "Do you do anything with that birdstyle other than stand around looking impressive?"

Ken leaped for Jason and Tiny, who scattered. Ken angled toward Jason, in midair grabbing his bird saucer and hurling it toward the light switch by the door.

With a shower of sparks, the lights died, engulfing the room in black. The saucer returned to Ken's hand, and he leaped toward the ceiling to make good his position.

Tiny's voice, a bit shaken, said, "Guys, we aren't supposed to do damage to the room--"

Jason, his voice an imitation of Anderson's, thundered from nowhere, "That's coming out of your allowance, young man!"

A slow, tragic whistling reverberated in the gymnasium.

In the silence that followed, all three must have been changing positions, gauging their opponents. Then,

"Sometimes five, sometimes one--the white shadow that slips in unseen--"

Jason's laughter sounded from one corner. "Ooh--does that scare the baddies in your world?" Ken faced that direction only to hear the gentle swish of Jason's wings--he'd moved again. When he listened intently, he thought he might be able to hear whispers or faint breathing, but not enough to determine Jason's and Tiny's locations. Belatedly, he'd realized his mistake. Both his opponents would know this room in exacting detail. In the dark, he hid himself, but at the cost of any knowledge or planning he could have had.

A slight scuffle across the room let him know Jason and Tiny were still hunting each other as well, and Ken drew closer to the fray, crouching beneath the balance beam and still clutching his bird saucer. He'd retracted the blades--it would hit without injuring.

Ken whistled again, but nothing happened. Were they waiting him out? He returned to a perch on the ceiling, crouching on one of the support beams, weapon remaining ready.

What are they expecting me to do? What would Mark have done? What would I expect of Joe or Ryu?

The last was easiest--Joe would search for him while Ryu backed Joe up. Joe would be expecting him to be on the ceiling, so Ken gingerly dropped to the floor. Ryu would be covering Joe from near some sort of landmark. Ken headed back toward the gymnastic equipment. He could feel the seams in the mats, and that gave him a clue as to his location. Shortly he had returned to the balance beam.

Again he thought he heard whispers, and that's when he realized, Tiny and Jason weren't still pursuing each other. They were using their wrist bands and carefully tracking him across the room. The only light in the gym came from the seam beneath the door, and that wouldn't suffice to find Jason's and Tiny's dark wings. His own, however--his own they might be able to track if he accidentally got too near the light source. He'd better subdue them quickly.

Ken sprang onto the top of the balance beam, and suddenly the beam shuddered as a small projectile hit it. Ken took to the air again. That was close! The gun whirred as the cable retracted, and Ken hurled his saucer, but presently it returned to him untouched. A second projectile buzzed past his ear, and Ken realized Tiny had shot his own cable gun. Grabbing one of the beams on the ceiling, Ken whipped around and angled for the ground where he thought Tiny had fired from.

"Hey!"

"Tag!" Ken shouted, but then the corner of the cape he had grabbed slipped through his fingers, and when he dashed after his prey, he couldn't find him again. Jason and Tiny had hidden once more, utterly silent.

This could go on all day!

"I have to admit," Jason said, almost directly above Ken, "I expected better."

"You haven't beaten me."

"I can say the same about you." Jason laughed, and his wings swished again. Ken bolted for the side of the nearest wall, then held his bird saucer up, ready to throw.

That was when Princess opened the door, casting a bar of light into the darkened gym and giving all three a hint of one another's positions. Two cable guns and the bird saucer fired simultaneously, and each birdstyle flared open as the fighters took wing. Ken tackled Tiny, knocking him from the air. Jason slammed into Ken's side, but not before Ken's bird saucer had returned to him. Ken swiveled enough to get Jason into the line of fire as the Condor leaped backward with a fling of his arm, and Ken's saucer smacked into Jason's chest.

They landed in a heap. Ken said, "Gotcha."

Jason had already sprung to his feet, mouth open to speak before he'd actually decided what to say, and finally he folded his arms and huffed, turning aside. "You're good. Almost as good as Mark."

As Ken stepped aside, he felt his cape snag on a few rubber-tipped feather shuriken caught in the edge, near his shoulders. Another six inches and had the shuriken been real, Jason could have imbedded them in his heart.

Tiny stood shakily. Princess said, "What the heck are you guys doing?"

Jason said, "Practicing. Can you go get the flashlight, apple-girl?"

"Can't I just turn--oh, you wrecked it. Good going."

Jason laughed as the door closed with Princess' departure, and he made his way back toward the hallway. "I have to admit, I guess, that was fun. Even if," and here he stopped, then looked around and said, "even if we're going to get our heads handed to us when the Chief gets back."

Tiny gave Jason a shove. "I'll just tell him it was your fault."

"Only if you want to be in a whole world of hurt, pal."

In the hallway, Ken picked off Jason's shuriken and retrieved the saucer. Jason had been inspecting the three rings that comprised it, brows furrowed. "Mark's boomerang has more style."

"I don't have mine any longer--not since--" but Ken stopped. "Not since the first war ended."

As they walked down the hall, Jason shrugged. "Suit yourself. It seems to work about the same as Mark's."

"Why're we going to the Chief's office?" Tiny said.

"I want to see if we can get maintenance up here before he notices the electrical difficulties." Jason pulled his cape tighter around himself. "The less he knows, the better for us."

Jason looked up the number and put in the request with Sheryl, President Kane's secretary, laughing it off and suggesting the destruction had been part of a legitimate training exercise gone awry, "testing a new weapon that apparently needs some guidance." While he did that, Ken looked over some of the files on Anderson's desk.

"You know," he said to Tiny, "I recognize this mech."

"It's not really a mech...yet," he said. "All right, we're not sure. We think that's what they're building there."

"No, I know exactly what it is." Ken pointed out the various features. "It's something like a jellyfish. It's going to attack and destroy one of the cities where...do you guys have a Mantle Project?"

Both shook their heads. Ken shrugged. "Anyhow, in our universe, it attacked and destroyed a progressive, high-tech city that was essentially pollution free. When we fought it, we couldn't even make a dent in it, so we used firebird effect. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Katse wanted, and we were nearly destroyed. The GodPhoenix was out of commission for better than two weeks, and all the while that stupid mech raged free. The media gave us all kinds of hell. When they rebuilt our vehicles, we finally had personal weapons onboard them, but that was the only good thing to come of it. If we'd had the chance to destroy this before it had gotten fully armored and operational--" Ken's eyes glinted, "--it would have been a totally different story."

"We've always had personal weapons on the vehicles. What kind of idiocy would keep you from having them in the first place?" Jason squinted at him. "You think you can get the Chief to authorize us to make a preemptive strike on that sucker?"

Tiny said, "That planet's out of Federation jurisdiction. If we go, it might cause all sorts of interplanetary hand-wringing. I don't know."

Princess and Keyop had shown up in the doorway. "What are you guys destroying this time?"

"Diplomatic policy," Jason said to her, then returned his stare to Ken. "We should head out there, if you're sure."

Princess said, "Seriously, what's going on?"

Tiny said, "Ken said that's a mech in the formative stages."

"It'll be far easier to destroy it now before it's operational." Ken had a light in his eyes.

"We don't have permission yet, do we?" Keyop said.

"Why should we wait for permission?" Ken chuckled. "Let's just ask forgiveness later."

Jason burst out laughing. "I like this guy! This is what Mark should have been--I say we go for it!"

Tiny and Princess looked over the picture. "How many did you say this machine killed in your universe?" Tiny asked.

Ken said, "About half a million. There were billions of dollars in damage."

Keyop whistled.

Princess said, "Then we ought to go. No question."

Jason hit Ken on the back. "March on, fearless leader!"

"You'd better take the lead until we get to the Phoenix," Ken said with a laugh. "I'm not sure where you've got her docked."



Mark awoke to a steady, familiar beeping. Opening his eyes to slits, he brought his wrist in front of his face to see the light flashing on his wristband. A glance beyond the bracelet to the dim tiles on the ceiling, and instantly he knew where he was--so the bracelet worked here as well. Too cold and weary to change for bed, he'd fallen asleep in his street clothes, huddled tightly beneath the comforter on Ken's bed, and he found he felt cold even now.

Yawning, he thumbed the bracelet. "Mark here."

"Mark," Dr. Nambu's voice. "I want you and the others to assemble in my office in thirty minutes."

"Yessir." The flashing stopped.

Though the light outside--or lack thereof--told him nothing, the clock beside the bed read 8:30 AM. He'd last remembered being awake at ten the previous night, yet he felt like he hadn't slept at all. Yawning and rubbing a hand across eyes that felt scratchy and dull, he pried the covers away and climbed out of bed. Thirty minutes, enough time for a shower--a hot shower--and maybe a chance to wake up.

He stood under the spray for nearly fifteen minutes, hot water cranked to full, steam billowing in the tiny stall. Jason wouldn't have let this go without a comment, since Mark and the others prided themselves on short showers with reasonable temperature levels. But the hot water had its desired effect, unstiffening muscles and finally waking him up. He found a hair dryer in a drawer and the heat from that finally dissipated the steam on the mirror. The face that stared at him in the mirror was pale and very young.

He thought he was early, but the others turned to look at him as he entered. Jun's expression was unreadable. The other two looked thoughtful. Nambu stood behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back. He looked like he'd been pacing the floor before Mark entered. Without a word, Mark found a chair and sat down.

"This has been an unusual chain of events," the Professor said, as if continuing a conversation interrupted by his arrival. "But given the circumstances, we can only proceed. While we examine our predicament, a war rages on. Gallactor continues with the construction of their base beneath the Atacama Desert. They've proceeded with more weapons tests, and we still don't know its purpose. Our best course of action at this point is to continue as if nothing has happened--"

Jinpei gasped. "But--"

"Yes, I realize something has happened." Nambu waved him down. "But as far as we know, our enemies aren't aware of that. They won't perceive any weakness caused by Ken's absence." He glanced at Mark. "And there's no reason they should. Mark has the fighting ability. He'll only need to maintain a lower profile. And while I realize he is accustomed to leading his team, his lack of experience is a liability, so Mark, you'll be in the position to strategize, but you'll defer to Jun."

Mark's jaw tightened. This had happened so quickly, so immediately beyond his reach. "Do I have a choice?"

"We're returning you to the site where the transfer took place. If there is any way you'll get insight on how the switch happened and how to reverse the process, this is the place. You'll approach the installation the team reconned three days ago."

"All right."

"An unusual transmission was reported shortly before the transfer took place, so your mission is to track down and analyze the source of the transmission." Stooping, the professor reached into a drawer in his desk, withdrew three flat metal boxes and placed them on the surface. The boxes resembled small computer drives, bland beige in color, with a string of red and green lights on one end and cables trailing from the other. Jun turned one box over in her hands, inspecting it. "Aren't these cute!" she said, sounding almost surprised.

"These devices are capable of recording a range of disturbances, from radio waves to airborne particles. They'll give us a clue as to the nature and strength of the transmission. Your job will be to plant them where they can do the most good. And here," he pressed a button and a screen scrolled down behind him. "Is what our surveillance teams have been able to ascertain so far."



"Does he always do that?" Mark asked as they trotted out of the office and down the hall. Jinpei glanced up at him and Ryu said, "Do what?"

"That briefing. It was so... abrupt."

The boy grinned. "Yeah, that's Hakase. He's always two steps ahead, and all we can do is just go, 'Yeah, uh-huh,' or 'Roger!' and figure it out later."

Ryu elbowed him. "That's just the way you do it."

Jinpei elbowed him back. "Oh please. You're more clueless than I am!"

Jun was already standing beside an open elevator. "If you don't mind," she snapped.

As they descended--Mark couldn't tell how many floors--Ryu frowned, and said, "I just thought of something. We might need the vehicles, and Mark's never flown the Eagle Sharp before. We oughta split up for the first half of the trip so he can get a shot at it."

"That'll slow us down," said Jun, looking at the elevator controls.

"Is this a race?" Her head snapped up and she glared at Mark. "Ryu has a point," he said. "We may not need it, but it's one less risk, and we're not sacrificing much." You wouldn't want me to be any more of a liability, would you? "At most, it would cost us an hour."

The elevator halted and the doors opened on a short, darkened corridor with a locked hatch at one end. Jun pressed her bracelet to the lock and the hatch irised open, exposing a small room with five vertical glass tubes. "This is the cool part," Jinpei said.

"I think the engineers were having too much fun with this. It's how you get into the New GodPhoenix," Ryu said. "They said it also keeps us out of the airlock and saves them the maintenance." Jun, ignoring them, had already stepped into the third tube from the left and slid the hatch shut behind her. A moment later, she disappeared. Mark raised an eyebrow.

"That one's yours," Ryu said, pointing to the tube on the far left. "See you on the ship!"

Mark stepped into the tube, groped for the handle on the hatch, then slid it closed and waited. A second later, the floor dropped beneath his feet, and he flailed for balance. He found himself descending, not falling, but couldn't tell how fast because he couldn't see past the darkness outside the glass. Instinctively he brought his bracelet in close and transmuted, and a moment after his wings flashed into place, his descent stopped. The walls of the tube rose away from him, and Mark found himself standing in a small, open cockpit in a confined space lit by red spotlights.

"Mark," Jun's voice came over the radio. "Are you in the Eagle Sharp yet?"

"I suppose so." He looked around, seeing the smooth skin of some sort of plane.

"There's a handle marked 'link exit.' Pull that to join us in the main cockpit. We'll split up for flight practice later."

A moment later, Mark found himself seated in the command chair in the huge cockpit where he'd first arrived after the switch, Ryu working busily at the helm. He looked around at the confusing array of controls, instruments and flashing readouts and longed for the solid simplicity of the Phoenix.

They didn't take long to get under way, and Mark watched the screens silently as the airlock opened outside and they moved away from G-Town. Ryu, with a glance toward him, flicked a switch and one of the screens flashed a view from one of the tail cameras, of G-Town receding behind them. Mark's eyes widened at the scale--the new base had to be six times the size of Center Neptune. As a matter of fact, the entire ISO tower could have fit inside.

"If you want," the pilot said, "You can punch up the specs on the Eagle Sharp and get an early look. Jun, we gonna get any practice in?"

"After we clear the surface," came Jun's voice behind him. "We can fly separately until we reach the coast."

When they at last broke free of the ocean, Mark backtracked to Ken's plane. Now able to take his time, he found the switch that turned up the lighting in the G-1's compartment, and he walked around the strange, angular craft, thankful that the others weren't around to see his expression. Spectra is known for some strange mechs, he thought. But this has to be the weirdest looking plane I've ever seen.

Fifteen minutes later, flying at twenty thousand feet and looking down at the New GodPhoenix, Mark amended that. Jinpei's Swallow Helico darted a few hundred feet from the massive, garishly painted nose of the mothership .

"How do ya like the paint?" He could hear the smirk in Jinpei's voice.

"Don't answer that," Ryu interrupted. "We're still campaigning to get it stripped to primer grey."

"Not that I blame you," Mark said. He tugged the yoke and the plane responded instantly, pressing him hard into his seat. Ugly and unwieldy as it was, the Sharp had a respectable amount of power that would take some practice to master. He could handle a mission with this thing... if he was very careful.

Jun called them back the moment the South American coastline appeared. "From this point on, we need to keep a low profile."

"Now there's a challenge," Mark said under his breath as he took his seat.

"We'll stay low and out of the radar path; thread along the mountains, and drop off here." A map flashed into view on the forward screen, and she pointed. "Hakase showed us a service entrance in the foothills. We take the same entrance, then split up. Because we're restricted to this one entrance, Jinpei will stay there."

"Aw, Oneechan--"

"The base could be shielded, which would block our radio calls to the New GodPhoenix," she snapped, glaring at him. "And we might need someone to direct the autopilot to pick us up."

"Why can't Ryu do it?"

"Because you're better at guard duty, and--why am I explaining this? It's an order!" The boy backed off.

Jun pointed to the center of the diagram, at something that resembled a giant radar dish. "The generator is here, beneath what should be the transmitter column. Ryu, Mark and I will take it in thirds. We'll run the boxes for up to an hour, then get out. Meet back at the entrance unless Jinpei says otherwise." The Swallow looked slightly pacified at that.

"Got it," said Mark. The three of them returned to their seats as Ryu began the craft's descent into the mountains.



Once inside the cockpit of the Phoenix, Ken practically ran for his seat. The same familiar smells and sounds assailed him like a guilty conscience--the team never should have set this little rugged craft aside in favor of that damned overpowered space chicken the ISO had designed. When he looked over his shoulder and saw the Condor sitting at the radar display, his heart raced even harder.

Tiny said, "We're going to catch hell--" in a low voice before he ran through his preflight check and then launched them from an underwater cavern beneath Manhattan. After they'd put themselves several miles out to sea, Tiny raised the nose, radioed a request for clearance for a space-launch, and counted down to liftoff.

Ken looked over his shoulder again. Still the Condor sat at his post. Just like two years ago. Just as it should be. His heart pounded. He smiled joyfully.

As if he could sense the look, Jason turned to him with wild, burning eyes. "This is going to be great! This is working out perfectly!" Jason said, and inside, Ken felt the relief from a burden he hadn't even been aware of. The last time they'd met this mech, Joe had played the prophet of doom, and he'd proven correct. This time--this time--

Tiny said, "Time warp on five."

Ken said, "Time warp?"

"How we travel faster than light speed," Jason said. "You'll hardly notice."

Ken decided later it must be a variant of hinotori mode. When they reemerged into realtime, Princess was reading out their speed and time until their destination.

"And about now," Tiny was saying, "no doubt the Chief will start trying to call us home."

Jason marched up to the control panel and shut off the communications system. "Well, that's taken care of. We're not defying orders, at least."

Tiny said, "I don't want to be the one to explain this to him."

Ken shivered--had Tiny and Jason reversed roles?

Princess said, "We all agreed--no matter what trouble this gets us in, we have to go. The potential loss of life is too devastating."

Ken punched a few buttons and brought up the manufacturing site of the mech on the main monitor. "And there's our target. The outside of the base appears heavily armored. I think our best bet is to sneak inside with all the explosives we can carry."

Jason chuckled. "Sounds good to me."

Ken hesitated. He'd thrill to see the Condor in combat again--no question. His breath caught every time he considered it, like the anticipation of a guilty pleasure. But maybe he was affecting the timeline here. Maybe if Jason went outside on this mission he wasn't supposed to, maybe it would kill him here and now, too early. They'd never have finished off the war without Joe. Ken's hands trembled on his controls--his fingers felt like ice. The weird hunger chewed at his insides.

Jason said, "What's up? You don't look right."

"I'm fine." Ken squinted--was something going to happen to Jason now? What if he were the inadvertent cause of the G-2's death in two universes? "I'm going out--you're staying here."

"What?" Jason's eyes snapped wide. "Are you serious? I'm going!"

"I want you onboard the Phoenix."

"That's Tiny's job!" Jason folded his arms. "I'm going with you--there's nothing you can do to keep me here."

Ken stood from his chair. "Orders are orders, Jason!"

"Oh, please, spare me." Jason rolled his eyes. "We're here explicitly against orders, in case you haven't noticed. Don't pull this hypocritical crap on me. If you're going, I'm going."

Ken shook his head. "Jason, you have to understand, I've been through this mission before. I know details about it that you can't know, some of which I can't share with you. I know what we did right and wrong last time, and we're out to correct what went wrong then. You have to trust me that I'm working on correcting it to the best of my ability. All I'm asking is that you stay inside this time around."

Jason's eyes narrowed in a very familiar glare.

Ken said, "I'm ordering you on my authority."

"And I've already seen what respect you have for authority!"

"You're staying!" Ken face had whitened. "Being part of a team means that we all have to work together as if there were only one of us--don't you understand that? We have to trust each other, and right now, I'm telling you there's too much of a risk. Why are you in such a hurry to rush out there and kill yourself? Don't you care how that will affect the rest of the team?"

Princess and Keyop stared open-mouthed. Tiny's hands had whitened on the controls.

Jason drew a deep breath. "You were the one so hot to come blow this thing to hell, and now you have the nerve to call it killing myself?" His face had whitened, and he snarled at Ken, "You're even worse than Mark! Are you going to lecture me until the day I die?"

Ken turned and punched Jason in the jaw, knocking him backward onto the floor of the cockpit. Princess and Keyop were out of their seats instantly, Princess shouting at Ken to back off while Tiny yelled, "What the hell are you doing?" Jason came up off the floor as if by magnetic repulsion and hurled himself at Ken, landing two blows before Ken hit him again. This time Jason paused to set himself before attacking, and as he went for Ken, Princess saw Tiny shift the ship into Fiery Phoenix mode.

Because she was prepared for it, Princess gritted her teeth and stayed conscious, and when Tiny eased them out of firebird mode, Ken and Jason were passed out on the cockpit floor. Keyop had crumpled in his own spot, but him she ignored as she loosened the tether on her yo-yo and tied Ken's hands. He was rapidly rousing when she pinned him down, her knee in his throat.

Jason pushed up off the floor, blinking and squinting.

Tiny said, "I'm bringing us back to Center Neptune. Now."

Princess said to Ken, "Don't even try to move. I'm warning you."

Ken struggled, but Jason came up behind Princess with his gun drawn. "I don't know who you think you are," Jason said lowly, "but I'm not going to hesitate the next time you attack one of us."

Tiny was radioing the Chief. Ken didn't struggle any longer, but Princess and Jason kept him guarded until security arrived onboard and brought him away handcuffed.

Chapter 4 by Diinzumo
The round chamber reminded Mark of a Roman arena, its walls lined with fluted stone columns that all but hid the accessways fthat radiated from it to the rest of the base. Situated in the middle of an expanse of polished stone floor, the generator consisted of a cylindrical steel tower which nearly reached the ceiling of the chamber, Mark estimated four stories up. A ring of computer terminals, their screens and LEDs glowing in the dim lighting of the chamber, wrapped around its base. The air vibrated with a deep electronic hum; a great deal of power was channeled through this machine, whatever its purpose.

Those columns provided ample hiding places for someone used to concealing himself. What he needed to do his work was an undisturbed niche for ten or fifteen minutes. An unlit space between two of the arches proved fine for the job.

Mark unbuckled the belt pack from his waist and pulled out the miniature sensor array Nambu had designed to decipher this monstrosity. He hadn't gotten a good look at it earlier, but as he pulled out the antennae and opened their fan-like appendages, he admired the sleek little box. Two tiny red lights blinked alternately as it warmed up, and as soon as Mark had it aimed in the right direction, he pressed a switch on the side and both lights stayed lit. The device got to work.

As he crouched behind the columns, Mark caught a flash of movement near the tower. Frowning as he left the little sensor array, he focused on that spot and ducked from column to column in an attempt to keep the tower from blocking his vision. Sure enough, a human figure was moving in on the generator, approaching too carefully, too quietly to be one of the guards. It couldn't possibly be one of the team. He had left them at the perimeter of the base, and besides, the others were easy enough to identify, even in the dark.

By the time he cleared the obstruction, the other intruder had gotten halfway to the tower, slinking, catlike, toward the bank of computers at its base. From this new vantage point, Mark could discern a man close to his own height or taller, wearing loose, dark clothing. The bodies of five guards lay in his wake, back by the columns. He kept his head down, his face in shadow, but the way he moved struck Mark as eerily familiar. In earlier missions with his own team, he'd watched Jason moving in for an ambush with the same flowing tread; the same pent up energy waiting to be released.

Biting his lip, Mark tried to edge closer for a better look. If the intruder noticed him, he gave no sign, seeming focused on the tower itself. As he approached the generator, he withdrew a small device from a pouch on his belt.

The steady hum of power within the room skyrocketed to an angry blare, and Mark's hair stood on end beneath his birdstyle. A bright bolt of energy arced from the shaft of the tower and struck the other man, engulfing him in light and whitewashing the entire chamber in the sudden brilliance. The ear-splitting clap of thunder sent Mark grabbing the sides of his helmet as the man collapsed onto the tiles and lay still.

Alarms shrieked, and above them, lights flashed, bathing the room in an eerie red glow. Mark could already imagine the guards rushing toward the control room guns ready, and he left his hiding place. The guards might well find the sensor, but where he ran was toward the unconscious man on the ground. He lay face down, features still obscured, and Mark had no time to take a closer look. A quick check of the carotid pulse on the side of his neck told Mark he was alive.

There'd be time for questions later.

Dragging the man would only slow him down, so Mark knelt and tried to hoist the man's body in a fireman's carry. The muscles in his knees and back strained, and he grimaced at the unexpected weight--far more than this thin frame suggested. Damn it, he weighs a ton!

Staggering, Mark rushed for the entry he had used, the one he prayed had remained clear. The corridors ahead were still empty, but distant shouts and the sounds of running feet indicated they wouldn't be for long. His wristband chimed. Mark brought the receiver to his face and tapped the activator against the tip of his visor. "Mark here."

"Where are you?" Jun's voice, outraged. "We've been detected--clear out!"

"Meet me back at the hangar bay where we landed. We'll have to try again."

"Stay there--we'll come for you."

"Negative! I--" Footsteps sounded in the intersecting corridor ahead, and Mark skidded to a stop, listing under the weight of his burden. Concealment was his only option; he couldn't fight this way for long. With his free hand he unholstered his boomerang and let fly; the shriek of the weapon gave way to the sound of impact and several screams before the blade returned, smeared with blood. He scanned the hallway for potential hiding places and found several doors, apparently to offices or to storage. Yanking one open, he found a closet filled with wiring and pipes: probably an accessway to conduits leading to the tower control room. Quickly he unloaded his burden, wincing as the man thudded ungently to the floor and sprawled on his back, arms outstretched, still unconscious.

Mark gasped.

The face...

He looked like Jason: an older, more battered version of Jason. His eyes were closed, features relaxed in an expression of uneasy sleep, strands of brown hair spilling across his face. The face from the photo albums. Joe.

Impossible.

How'd he get here? Had there been more than two universes involved in this swap? Mark's stomach churned momentarily as he wondered what remnants of this universe's Joe had turned up in that third mystery world. But no--he shook his head and leaned closer to the mystery Condor. No, Joe couldn't have been involved in a transfer. Joe hadn't been in their cockpit when it happened. This might actually be the legitimate article.

Mark put a hand on him and detected the regular rise and fall of breathing. The smell of ozone and singed fabric issued from his clothing, but his exposed skin didn't look burned. Despite the ferocity of the blast he'd suffered, he didn't appear to be in terrible physical distress.

Mark's heart pounded hard. He wanted to reach down and shake him, to scream at him to wake up. If Jason had done this....

He activated his radio again. "On second thought," he called, his voice barely above a whisper, "You'd better come get me. Here's the signal." A quick coded sequence activated the Bird Scramble. If the signal worked here like it worked at home, the rest of the team would arrive as soon as they were able.

And wait 'til you see what I've brought you, he added silently. Someone who has a lot of explaining to do.

Now Mark had two choices. He could either hole out here and wait for the others to pick him up, or he could go outside and try to hold off the guards until the cavalry arrived. Hiding in a closet appealed to him less, since it would leave him blind and guessing while the enemy either combed the area or tried to smoke him out. At any rate, he'd still like to fetch that sensor and return it to Nambu full of the data which would send him back to a world where he knew all the players and the wild cards.

"Stay put," he whispered at the man on the floor, then eased the door closed behind him.

Mark backtracked down the corridor to the generator room. The sounds issuing from the arena told him it was full of guards. As quietly as he could, he shut the fire door, putting a barrier between that access and the corridor he stood in. Though it wouldn't hold the guards long, at least he'd be aware when they tried to open it. For a moment he wondered if the bird scramble worked in this world, and if he hadn't inadvertently cut off communication with the rest of the team.

A brief scan of the chamber told Mark more than he had wanted to know, and everything he had expected. At least three dozen Gallactor soldiers milled around the central area, and several officers had gathered close to the machine or at the larger archways at the far end of the chamber. Mark's silent approach brought him within sight of the array--still valiantly churning away, recording its data if it hadn't gotten totally fried by the power surge that had taken out the mystery Condor--but several guards stood between him and the device.

Where are Ryu and Jun? They ought to be here by now.

Boomerang in hand, Mark searched the ceilings, the floors, the machine itself, for any possible advantage he might have. Nothing sprang immediately to his attention.

I wonder if there's any way out of here without fighting these men. Judging from how heavily armored they appeared, Mark guessed not. Those five guards Joe or his counterpart had felled certainly gave the Gallactors enough reason to shoot at anyone who might present himself as a target.

Mark straightened. Maybe there he had an alternative--while not even Jason would deliberately dive into fifteen or twenty armed Spectrans, that didn't prevent him from exercising a little trickery.

All of the team carried feather shuriken, although Jason tended to use them as a signature. Mark had seen feather shuriken on one of the dead soldiers. Lifting a handful of feathers, Mark crept through the shadows until he found himself behind a small cluster of guards. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself, then dashed across a segment of the open area, his birdstyle blurring with his passage as he used every amount of the superhuman speed the uniform could provide. And as he passed, he planted a handful of the shuriken in two of the soldiers' belts.

"What was that?" one of the guards shouted, followed by many others.

I wonder if I could kill the lights somehow? Mark decided against that and made another rapid pass through the room, scattering feather shuriken as he went. This time he leaped to the second level of columns, like a promenade, which was less well lit than the ground level. He'd dropped several guards this pass, and the ones who remained standing milled about in confusion, weapons ready, voices shrill with tension. Once more, Mark dropped to the ground and raced through, raining feathers at several Gallactors only to vanish in a blur in the darkness on the opposite side of the arena.

Mark kept himself hidden behind a column, but this time, when the panicked shouts began to die down, he gave a cry of his own: "There's an imposter! Look!"

It took fifteen seconds for the gunfire to start, and once it did, Mark dashed around the perimeter of the room, hefted the sensor array without bothering to replace it in its pack, and then reversed course for the corridor where he'd stashed Joe.

Or Joe's alternate, he told himself, jumping over a fallen Gallactor.

"Gatchaman!" Mark looked over his shoulder as he ran and saw several Gallactors rushing for him, and suddenly he found his escape route cut off by armed Gallactors between him and the fire door.

He didn't have time to swear before a whip-like strip of ribbon flashed down and throttled the nearest Gallactor, followed by a wad of greenish gooey rubber that attacked the next. Mark whipped his head around to find Ryu, Jun and Jinpei sailing down from above. His heart hammered. "This way," he shouted. "G-5, get down here!"

Ryu landed beside Mark and charged forward, clearing a path before even as Jun and Jinpei covered his back. At the door--hopefully the right door. They'd all begun to look alike in this round chamber--Mark forced it open and ran into the corridor. "Follow me, Ryu--I need you to help me--I can't carry--"

Reaching the supply closet, Mark flung open the door and found only a tangle of wires and vents.

"Oh, damn it!" Mark's eyes flared.

"What is it?" Ryu pulled the device from Mark's hands and shut it off. "What did you think was here?"

This had to be the right closet, the right corridor--Mark could still smell the burnt odor of the Condor's charred clothing.

Jun and Jinpei pulled up behind them. "Could we get a move on?" Jun said. "Everyone on the base is going to know where we are."

Mark looked at Ryu. "It doesn't matter any longer--I thought I'd found something that could help us out." He gestured to the rest of the team. "Let's get out of here."



The trip home passed in silence. Curled in Ken's command chair, his cape pulled tightly about himself, Mark stared through the front viewscreen, mind turned inward. Again he saw the arc from the generator strike Joe--or whomever he was--full force, knocking him to the ground. He remembered trying to shift Joe's long arms and legs into a more comfortable position for the fireman's carry. He remembered that uneasily sleeping face. You bastard, he thought. Why didn't you tell anyone?

That face, at least, he'd seen before. Seen it on someone much younger who lay unconscious, head on his lap, hair drenched with blood, jaw clenched tightly. The goosebumps stood at attention along Mark's arms and legs.

Should I tell them? He's their friend--they need to know. I'd want to know if Jason-- But what if he turns out to be a fake? They said unequivocally he was dead. What if he's like me and doesn't belong here? What if he was killed since I saw him? All I'd be doing is increasing their pain.

He thought about the last time he'd seen Cronus and all the stupid imaginings he'd had during the next few days, imagining Cronus would radio for help to say he'd bailed out just in time. He'd jumped every time the phone had rung. He'd awakened longing for an obscure headline at the back of the front section of the New York Times: "Downed Astronaut Rescued Safely."

What if it was my imagination? But why would it be? Jason's alive in my world.

"Mark?" Jun's voice broke through his reverie, startling him. "What were you able to find out?"

"Not much. I found the generator, obviously, but I wasn't able to get in close enough. At least we got the data Doctor Nambu wanted." Should I tell them?

Jason with closed eyes and bloody hair. Cronus with his hand raised as the missile door closed on him forever.

Would they believe me?

Chapter 5 by Diinzumo
"For starters," the Chief said, hands clasped behind his back, "Jason, you were wrong to take the team with Ken."

Jason burned softly across the office from the Chief. Detransmuted, the team stood arrayed against the far wall. Still handcuffed, Ken sat in the chair beside Anderson's desk. The portal gave a view of Atlantic undersea life just over Anderson's right shoulder, but no one got distracted by it during this interview.

"How nice for you to have someone else willing to defy my orders," the Chief continued, "but damn it, Jason, grow up."

Ken glanced at Jason, whose mouth stayed tight.

Anderson looked at Ken. "And you--aren't you the leader of your own team? Haven't you learned anything about not putting them in jeopardy on impulse?"

"I've faced this mech before," Ken said. "I know its weak points. I also know how much damage it's about to do, and where it'll be striking. We had a chance at preventing that."

"While that's admirable, you still shouldn't be inciting Jason's natural inclinations to go running off alone at every opportunity." Anderson folded his arms. "We did have that position under fairly intense surveillance, prior to your showing up with the Phoenix just long enough to alert Spectra to our attention. Since then, they've packed up their operation and moved it somewhere we can't find. By trying to be clever and stop this machine before it attacks, you've enabled it to sneak up on us and attack whenever and wherever it likes."

All five team members stayed silent, heads lowered.

Anderson said slowly, "Now, tell me precisely how accosting your second officer is considered a helpful tactic against the threat of Gallactor?"

Keyop snickered, but none of the others made a sound. Ken said, "Joe and I traded punches all the time."

Anderson kept his arms folded and his eyes narrow. "That's not acceptable behavior on this team. I let the boys tussle from time to time to burn off steam, but no one strikes with intent to harm, as you clearly did."

Ken said, "Joe could have taken it."

"Jason isn't Joe, and unless Joe's jaw is made of solid iron, I don't see how he could have taken it, either. If you've sucker-punched him as often as you claim, he's obviously on his guard for it, but someone unprepared for your strike can be seriously hurt. I spent quite a while teaching the team how not to do unintentional damage. If your Doctor Nambu didn't do the same, I can't say I think highly of his teaching methods."

Ken returned Anderson's glare. "His teaching keeps me alive."

"But it's not going to keep my team alive if you go off half-cocked again. If you're the leader of the team, you have to do better than you've been doing." Anderson said lowly, "Do you have an explanation for your behavior, other than your apparent need to use force when your orders are questioned?"

Ken's head dropped. "Not now. Not with them here."

Anderson gestured to the remaining four.

"I'm not leaving." Jason folded his arms. "What if he strikes at you?"

Ken tossed the handcuffs to Jason. "I'd have attacked already if I were going to."

Anderson nodded to Jason. "You can wait by the door if you want. I'll be all right."

Jason locked eyes with Anderson, then threw the handcuffs back at Ken and left the room.

Ken stayed seated. "I did lose control--you're right. I was used to Joe questioning my orders, but that was a good thing. It kept me honest. Joe can--could--set me straight sometimes when I was putting the team in jeopardy for personal reasons. But what Jason said, about me lecturing him to the very end--"

Anderson went to his desk chair and sat down. "Go on."

"At the end of the first war with Gallactor," and Ken drew a deep breath before continuing, "Joe was diagnosed with a fatal head injury. He'd apparently sustained it early on, and because the doctors hadn't gotten out all the shrapnel, some of it worked its way deep inside his brain. It was causing all manner of damage, as you might imagine." Ken snuck a glance at Anderson and found him pale. "When Dr. Nambu was about to send us on what would turn out to be our second to last mission, he kept Joe behind. Joe looked pretty ragged already, but he kept denying anything was wrong. I should have known--he'd fallen out of the tatsumaki fighter twice, he'd been making judgment errors recently, and he'd had problems with vertigo and double vision whenever there was a bright light. I'd fooled myself into thinking it was just the stress of his repressed memories of his parents' death, how they'd worked for Gallactor--"

Anderson broke in. "So Joe eventually recalled that?"

Ken said, "Jason hasn't yet?"

"I'm hoping he won't."

Ken shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter, now. Joe fled--he actually jumped out the window--when the doctor tried to examine him, running off and somehow finding the Gallactor secret headquarters that had eluded us all throughout the war. He got caught, and we got there too late. During the final battle, we found him near death on the battle field, and I made the decision. We left him there."

Chief Anderson didn't say a word.

Ken played with the chain links on the hand cuffs. "At my orders, we left him for dead."

"A commander has to make those decisions."

"I've lived with that decision for better than two years now. I don't think Joe'd be angry at me for ordering as I did. He urged us to leave him. But I hesitated when it came time to send Jason into battle. When we found Joe there, dying in the grass at Cross Karacoram, I yelled at him for not telling us what was going on, like an idiot, and he said to me, 'Are you going to lecture me to the very end?'" Ken's eyes stayed riveted on the handcuffs on his lap. Anderson maintained a respectful silence. "You have no idea how many times I've heard that since, going over and over that whole sequence in my mind, looking for the one thing I could have done differently to make it all work out right for real."

"You can't change the past," Anderson said.

"I can change it for you. You have to check--"

"I intend to."

Ken said, "Has he ever had a head injury?"

Anderson nodded.

Ken pressed two fingers to the right side of his skull, near the back, a little over the ear. "It was right here. Dr. Nambu had a devil of a time getting it out initially."

Anderson nodded again. "For right now, Ken, I want you to think about this. Every commander has to make decisions like the one you faced. Only the truly great generals stay awake half the night pondering the loss of life among their own forces, knowing they have to take a certain point strategically and yet simultaneously seeing the faces of all who will perish for the cause. But your team had pledged their lives to you."

"They thought I could protect them." Ken hadn't raised his head.

"They trusted you could protect the world." Chief Anderson folded his hands on the desk. "If they're anything like my own kids, the rest of it is all incidental."



Jun handled the initial debriefing after the team returned to G- Town, and Mark added no details. Nambu studied him momentarily when Jun mentioned their brief side-trip to the closet to retrieve the something Mark had thought might be helpful to them. "I was wrong," was all Mark would say. The room buzzed around him, and he shivered beneath his birdstyle, keeping the cape clenched tight over his chest. He longed to dive back into the shower and crank up the steam high enough to surround himself with a fog impenetrable to the rest of the world. At least the white noise of the water would whisper away the distractions and leave him in peace.

Tell them? Don't tell them?

At home, he'd have blurted it out right at the beginning of the debriefing. There he would have found in Princess a comprehensible ally and strong if somewhat silly supporters in Tiny and Keyop. He'd never have thought of holding back something this important from his own team, no matter how painful. Although now that he thought about it, he'd lied for Jason before. Only back then the motive was different: he'd lied to keep the peace...no, he thought to himself. I lied to keep the situation from getting out of control. I could handle Jason if I stayed involved, and that was the only way to do it. Here I'm already out of the loop, so there's no reason not to tell them.

He really, really needed that quiet shower. His ears rang and his eyes stared at nothing at all even as he remained standing at attention.

"Mark?"

He swallowed. "Yes, sir?"

"Did you have anything further to add?"

Oh, Jason--damn it.

"No, sir."

From the corner of his eye, Mark caught Ryu studying him, and he forced his gaze back to Nambu's desk. Nambu was saying, "Nothing?"

"This was Jun's mission, and I found her report most thorough."

I'm lying already, aren't I? He hadn't heard more than ten words.

"Very well. We expect to have the data analyzed in a few hours. Jun, Mark, Ryu, I'm going to have each of you speak with a separate agent about your data recorders. You'll be summoned after I've briefed them on the situation."

Mark's stomach tightened, and he fought a very inappropriate smile. Anderson gave orders like that all the time, and he could almost hear Jason turning to him and saying, "You know, Superman doesn't need to eat, sleep, piss or bathe."

Nambu looked right at him, and Mark looked to the side. Momentarily, they were dismissed.

Jun stayed behind in Nambu's office. Out in the hallway, Ryu announced he was heading to the swimming pool.

Jinpei said, "I'm sticking with Mark."

"Suit yourself." Ryu hit Mark on the back. "So, you've got a disciple."

Jinpei blew him a raspberry.

Mark looked at Jinpei, who wore a smirking grin. Ken's far more perfect than me, if he has a disciple. As Ryu left, Mark said, "Actually, I was going to go take a shower."

"What's my counterpart like?"

Mark started walking in the direction he thought he remembered their rooms being. "He's your age--I'm not sure why, but of all the team, you're the only one no older here than there."

"Really?" Jinpei said, "Did the war start later in your world?"

"You guys told me what year it is here, and the numbers don't correlate." Mark shook his head. "He was five when Jun found him in the Port Authority bus terminal, and by the time the war started, he was twelve."

Jinpei hummed. "Neechan found me when I was two. The war started when I was eight."

Mark stumbled. Eight? "When did you join the team?"

"Oh, right at the start." He didn't notice the look Mark gave him as he grinned. "So is Keyop--you said his name was Keyop? What kind of an idiot name is that?"

"Princess couldn't pronounce Keith Opderbeck when she found him."

"And her name's really Princess?" He made a disgusted face.

"Is Jun's name really Oneechan?"

Jinpei rolled his eyes. Mark rounded the corner to the team's suites, and he breathed deeply as he sighted his door and made his way directly toward it. Jinpei was saying, "So Keyop, is he doing anything special, like with his friends?"

"I'm not really sure. He still goes to public school, so I guess he has friends there."

"Really? Oh, lucky!" Jinpei shoved his hands in his pockets. "I was rocking at my school, you know, and I was this close to bringing the school bully down, but then we had to come here and I couldn't stay any longer."

"That's a shame." Mark opened his door and looked at Jinpei meaningfully.

"I know--I bet I'd get into a great college and be set for life if Gallactor hadn't come back. I was even going to have a girlfriend! Does Keyop have a girlfriend?"

"No--there's one or two girls he has lunch with sometimes, but they're not really--"

"Has he met Maria yet? That rich girl they kidnapped?"

Mark rested his hand on the door knob. "I don't--"

"She's hot, but she'll just break his heart if he sticks with her. Tell him that."

"I'll be sure to." Mark started edging into his apartment. "Assuming her name's the same in both worlds."

"He'll know who I'm talking about when it happens. Man, she was awesome." Jinpei dazzled for a moment. Mark took half a step into the apartment, and seeing him move, Jinpei followed him inside.

Mark didn't sit on the couch. "So you went out with this girl?"

"I couldn't--she'd have found out about the team in two seconds flat, you know. Smart girls like that--Oneechan said she understood, but I don't know."

About to start collecting his towel and a change of clothes, Mark hesitated. "You and Jun are close, huh?"

"She's practically my sister." He looked at Mark. "I know what you're thinking, and you know, don't ask."

When it's just about to get interesting? Mark said, "Don't ask it?"

"Because for real, I just don't know what to tell you. Yeah, I mean, I saw how everything played out here, but I don't know what would have made it better."

Mark nodded. "So I shouldn't ask you for advice--but you can tell me what you experienced and leave me to draw my own conclusions, right?"

Jinpei thought a moment, then sat on the couch and rested his elbows on his knees. He looked so gangly that for a moment Mark decided he really might be older than Keyop--he must have just hit a growth spurt and his spirit hadn't quite moved into the enlarged quarters of his arms and legs. Despite his ninja poise, the kid's limbs dangled when he wasn't paying attention. "Look, I'm not saying anything about you, but when it came to women, Ken was kinda thick-headed. Oneechan had it for him for the longest time, and he never followed through."

Mark watched blankly. "He didn't?"

"He didn't realize at first how much she liked him. Or maybe he did and he just didn't let on, like it would go away." Mark straightened suddenly, and Jinpei looked up at him. "When the war ended, though, they were really happy together, until all of a sudden they broke up. I think he broke up with her, but she won't talk about it even to me, so that means it's really serious. She was totally pissed at him for the longest time and they were just starting to be nice to each other when we went on our first mission. I think she misses him."

Mark groped for the chair and sat gingerly. "Now that I'm here, or now that--"

"Now that they broke up. I'm not sure why she's mad at you unless you put a move on her."

Mark's mouth opened, and Jinpei said, "Oh, I didn't think you would--I'm surprised Ken ever got around to it, you know? You'd have to be real different from him. So you haven't, you know, gone out with Princess yet?"

Mark said without inflection, "No."

Jinpei shrugged and shook his head. "See--maybe if they'd given it a whirl during the first war, they'd have been able to handle the second one." His feet shuffled on the carpet. "But you know the war's going to start again, so if you don't want to have a girlfriend while you're fighting all the time, maybe you want to hold off even after it ends. But what do I know? All I have to go on is Maria, Laura, and a whole lot of listening from the top of the steps."

Arms crossed, Mark said, "You've certainly given me something to think about, though."

Jinpei brightened. "Really?" He sat forward to the end of the couch. "Tell Keyop that when he gets to level fifteen, the password is Shiloh. He'll know what I'm talking about--it's a computer game--and that you have to get all the evidence first otherwise the game just locks up and you can't ever win it. That stalled me for months."

"You don't say." Mark glanced at the clock. "You know, I'm going to have to go to a second meeting in a bit--I'm going to take that shower now."

"Oh! I totally forgot! Sure--hey, thanks!" Jinpei left the room, banging the door as he left. Mark stripped off his wristband and stood once again in his jeans and t-shirt. As he headed for the shower, the bracelet started to beep, but he left it untouched on the table as he turned on the water and stepped inside to the roar of silence.



Sitting behind her desk, Julia studied her computer screen with an intensity Mark found Jason-like in its single-mindedness. Joe-like? A lot of things had begun to look like Jason to him lately, it seemed.

As she examined the data Mark had gathered, he inspected her office. Neat, organized, a desk where he'd have been proud to work. A small stack of files in the corner had typed labels on the tabs and color coding on the edges. Although her office had no window, Julia had decorated with posters from various countries, each framed in black that stood in smart contrast to the white walls. She had set small plants at various points around her office, and a miniature rose sat atop her CPU.

"What I'm getting from this data," Julia said, "just at first glance, mind you, is a fairly clear pattern of energy emission in the gigahertz range, and that dovetails nicely with the New GodPhoenix's first findings at the time the switch occurred. So I think whatever you found, that's the causative mechanism."

Mark nodded. "It was easily the most powerful piece of equipment on the base."

Julia's brows furrowed and she didn't reply. Trying to guess her age, Mark couldn't narrow it down to anything more specific than between twenty and thirty. Right now she had her hair tied back in a metal clip to keep it from her eyes as she continued coaxing the computer to come up with a solution. "What would they use it for--now that's a bigger question. It's far too powerful and random a signal for them to be using it for a transformative effect of their own, and it's too scattered to be something of a hyped-up Mechaziner."

"A what?"

"A machine that can reverse your transmutation. You'll have to watch for that in the future." Julia hadn't even looked away from the computer as she said this, and now she edged closer. "Tell me about it again, Mark. Where in the base was it situated? What sort of personnel ran it?" She kept typing even as she spoke, and as he hesitated, she said, "Well?"

"Don't you want me to wait until you're finished?"

"I've got two ears, and I don't use either of them to watch the monitor."

Mark sat up straighter. "The mechanism, whatever it is, was positioned directly at the center of their base, close to the surface. I think there were ten levels or so beneath the one I was on, but immediately beneath was a fairly long tunnel--it wasn't smoothed out, either, just rough rock. A crater, I guess."

"Personnel?"

Mark hesitated. "Personnel--"

"Anyone you saw there."

All right, then. Time to rattle the chains. "I saw Joe there."

Julia stopped typing, swiveled her chair, and looked directly at Mark.

Score one for the outsider. "I saw someone who looked exactly like Jason, only older. Not clearly. He had gotten right up to the machine, and I crept up closer to see him better. As for Gallactors, I saw about six of them, all green-uniforms, but they were lying dead. I didn't have any doubt at the time that Joe, or whoever it was, had been the one to kill them."

A pale Julia said lowly, "Mark, why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"Because it can't be Joe, not really." Mark waved a hand absently. "Joe is dead, they've told me. Anyway, when the person got close to it, sparks or some kind of energy shot out of the machine and hit him, and he dropped. That's when the alarms went off and I had to get out of there. I didn't get a chance to verify what I saw. I'm willing to admit I might have seen something I wanted to." Mark took a deep breath and employed the large-eyed look that made Jason so furious because he couldn't copy it--this expression of mixed earnestness and utter innocence had saved him for the first time when he'd disassembled two toasters in three days at age nine in a misguided attempt to "fix" them. Not even Nambu would have realized the calculation in his breezy style. "All this means is that Gallactor has at least one other enemy breaking into its bases."

"I know that," Julia said. "We get semi-anonymous tips from time to time. Or rather, I get them from one man in particular."

She still wanted to keep her cards close--he'd never get any useful information that way. With a great smile of relief, Mark said, "Then it was him. Obviously I was mistaken."

Julia shook her head. "I was able to get a voice print on the guy once, and he's far too old to be running around sneaking into bases--I'd guess he's in his fifties or sixties."

Press her a bit. Shaking his head, Mark said, "This person didn't look any older than early twenties. He had an astonishingly deep voice."

The barefaced lie twisted Mark's stomach, but he knew how Joe supposedly sounded.

For a moment, Julia sat with her hands clasped on her lap. "You ought to tell this to Doctor Nambu." Her voice sounded like a whisper. "I think he knows it already, though."

Mark sat on the edge of his chair. "What are you talking about? What are you getting at?"

"Joe--I think Joe's still alive. There've been too many close calls, too many near-misses. Either he's alive or someone wants us to think he is. The team thought they saw him out on Easton Island."

Taking a few deep breaths, Mark closed his eyes. His heart hammered. So it was true. Jason. Jason somewhere not telling them he'd survived--why on Earth...? Why hurt everyone like that--what motive could Joe possibly have to stay away while everyone else grieved and suffered from his loss? But then Mark could imagine Jason like a specter who didn't care whom he hurt. Wrapped up in his rage, Jason had certainly done that once before, trying to torment everyone by removing himself. Someone like that might realize everyone thought him dead and not let them know he wasn't, watching them from afar and letting them resume their lives in grief while he watched like a voyeur and gloated that they thought about him. Jason had said once that he and Mark did things equally heroic, the difference being that "Everyone watches you do it--it's being noticed and thought about that counts." A distant, mourned Joe at least had power over their thoughts.

"That's unforgivable," he said. Julia looked at him, sitting back, and Mark added, "But you said he's dead."

"Technically, presumed dead. After the devastation at Cross Karacoram, when X took off for his home planet or wherever he spent the last two years, the ground was so torn up the team assumed the obvious, that Joe'd been buried in a landslide or crushed by falling rocks. When they had left him earlier, he was practically dead."

Mark whispered, "They abandoned him still alive?"

Julia nodded.

Now Mark stood and paced her office, no longer seeing the photographs on her credenza, the astonishingly clean in-box or the posters of Ireland and Thailand that graced her walls. Gone was the calculation. He stared past the two potted violets on her desk and saw a land ruined by earthquakes and covered with fallen stone, and somewhere in that, Jason. Abandoned. He almost could hear it--"You guys go on without me." Or was it Ken, Ken their older, experienced, brutal leader, saying, "We can't spare any time for you now. We have to go on. We have to save the world."

But what good is it to save the whole world, Mark asked himself, and then lose ourselves? If I did that--if that was me who said that--then I wish I were the one who died on that hill. Jason wouldn't do that to us. Why would they have left Joe?

Julia said, "You didn't know the circumstances, then?"

Mark didn't turn to look at her. He had his eyes shut tight. Rocks. Mudslide. A body. Fallen stones. The Phoenix lifting off minus one member. One member watching, trapped and injured, full of rage as they left him behind. Jason thinking, So let them be without me forever.

"He was already critically ill even before being captured. Jun said he'd been shot and beaten as well, that he barely had the strength to squeeze her hand when she found him, but he roused himself enough to talk to them all one last time."

Mark still said nothing. His throat tightened.

"Ken said he needed the whole team to head underground to defeat Katse. They defeated Katse. When they looked for Joe afterward, they couldn't find him." Julia shook her head. Mark still had his back to her. "But since his death, we've had a new informant feeding information to ISO--we heard a phone call that expertly matched Joe's voice but it sounded faked. Knowing what tests we'd run on the voice, Joe might have used a distorter on his own voice to confuse us." Mark's fists clenched as she continued. "We've received anonymous emails. We were tipped off prior to Easton Island by someone who said he'd spring a trap on Gallactor there, and all four members of the team claimed they saw Joe's shadow and saw a man killed in a way that left them convinced Joe had done it. I think it may be true--Joe may be alive and helping us from somewhere else."

Mark said, "Bastards. You're all bastards in this universe. I want out. I want to go home."

Julia looked at him, then lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry you feel that way. We're trying to get you back as soon as we can. Help me out again--tell me what kind of equipment you saw near the large machine."

Chapter 6 by Diinzumo
"Barry, you don't get a lunch today."

The medical technician turned from his monitors to look at his supervisor with a long-suffering expression. Seated before the control panels of the CAT scan equipment, Barry looked shorter than he was. "Got a set of emergency tests?"

"Some science guy over at ISO commandeered your lunch hour for a high priority test. He demanded the best tech at Cornell Medical Center." The supervisor gave a wicked smile. "No good deed goes unpunished, my boy."

Barry ran a hand through thinning hair. "Bring me up a sandwich from the caf."

"You're taking this well," said the supervisor, "considering it's probably some pointless case and the guy won't even thank you for skipping lunch."

Then the machine beeped, and Barry returned his attention to the current set of tests he was running on a middle aged woman. When he escorted her back to the waiting area and her family, assuring her as he did so that he couldn't read the results (he could) and that her doctor would be calling her (he already knew the outcome), Barry saw his next appointment.

The lunch hour appointment consisted of a trim-looking middle-aged man wearing glasses and a teenage boy with hardened eyes and balanced poise. "I'll be with you in a moment," said the tech, then went in back to tell the nurse to bring out the drink with the dye in it.

Among the rows and rows of cabinets, only the nurses knew which contained which supplies. "Which one gets it?" the nurse asked, unerringly going for the correct cabinet.

"I'm not sure."

After a quick search, Barry could find no paperwork for these men. He called the nurse as she walked by with the plastic thirty-two ounce pitcher. "You know what--I'll take it out there myself. There's no need for you to skip lunch too."

The nurse offered a smile. "You want me to bring you back anything from the cafeteria?"

"Ring dings." Barry grabbed a plastic cup to go with the pitcher and made his way into the waiting area.

Both men stood from the creaky seats as he entered, and the older man shook his hand. "I'd like to thank you for scheduling us on such short notice." The man gestured to the teenager at his side. "That's for him."

The teenager looked startled. "What--?"

Barry said, "You have to wait a half hour after drinking this before we can begin."

"Begin what?"

The older man nodded to Barry with an unmistakable "you can go now" in his eyes. Barry left the room and sat at the paper-cluttered nurse's station on the other side of the glass partition. He still could see the entire waiting area in its unrelenting beigeness, but he couldn't hear the two men's discussion. It hardly mattered--after this many years, Barry had seen enough waiting area conversations to classify them all on sight, almost as if they were different kingdoms, classes, orders, right down to subspecies.

Seated across the room, these two spoke in very low tones with their heads close together. The young man had begun drinking the dye, though not without making a disgusted face the first time he tasted it. I don't blame you, kid, Barry thought. He'd tasted a drop once, just to learn what the patients had to go through. The raspberry flavor and chill did little to conceal the sharp bite of the dye. It almost seemed like an additional insult, that someone suffering from cancer had to consume so much of something so foul-tasting.

The older man had put his hand on the younger one's knee, and the younger one's shoulders had hunched, his fists tight. He worked on that dye-drink like a trooper. Barry started warming up the machine.

When they finally were ready to begin, the older man took a place near Barry at the control panel. "We can speak to him through this?" he said, taking the mike. Even before Barry nodded, he'd flipped it on. "Jason, we'll be able to talk through this. It's important you hold still."

"The next time you tell me something's vital to security, I'm going to make you sign a form saying there aren't any doctors involved."

Barry chuckled. "He looks young to be a security officer."

"He does." The man hit the switch on the mike again. "We're ready to begin."

Barry noted how the man stared closely at the screen, reading the results as they came up. "You're doing fine," the man said into the mike every so often. "Ten minutes more."

Barry could tell from the readings that nothing had turned out abnormal so far. While not a doctor, and while he certainly couldn't have identified precisely which bad things turned up on his scans, he recognized the anomalies.

The man turned to Barry. "Is this the best resolution you can get?"

"I've got it all the way up."

"But you could still miss something smaller than a half inch. What we're looking for may be extremely subtle."

Barry nodded. "To go much smaller, you'd need a PET scan--proton emission tomography. But it's highly unlikely he'd require one of those."

The man nodded.

"If you don't mind my asking--"

"I do mind." The man's voice had picked up a sharpness. "I want you to send the data to my office the instant you get it back."

"I need your name first."

The man handed him a business card. "Doctor Raymond Anderson, 19th floor, ISO Building."

Barry said, "And his name?"

The man said, "He's Anderson too."

Barry left it at that.

The Anderson in the scanner said, "So what's next after we're done here?" and the Anderson out of the tube said, "A PET scan. And an MRI. And x-rays if there's time."

Later, when the various components of Barry's lunch arrived from the cafeteria in the hands of friends and coworkers, he didn't even bother unwrapping them. He made a half-hearted excuse to his supervisor. In his mind's eye, as he scanned the various frightened and tense old ladies and gentlemen he saw day in and day out, the image kept returning of two apparently healthy men, both called Anderson, leaving the scanner with their mouths shut and their hands deep in their pockets.



Mark's bracelet began to beep as he left Julia's office--an additional insult, he thought--and he scowled at it, tempted to just let it go. Almost of its own accord, though, his hand came up and he tapped the receiver. "Mark here." "All of you meet in my office immediately," said Nambu's voice.

"Roger." Hooking his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans, Mark turned back around in the direction of the elevators.

This time, he was first there, and Dr. Nambu motioned for him to sit. Mark sat silently on the couch and waited for the others to show up.

A moment later, a second door beside the professor's desk opened, and Julia walked in. Mark swallowed hard as the agent laid a thick stack of reports on the professor's desk. Just for a moment, she paused, and her eyes met Mark's. He swallowed again, feeling betrayed.

Did you tell him?

Julia turned away and silently left the room, leaving Mark to guess at the meaning behind the look in her eyes. Had she shaken her head very slightly?

The door opened again and the others filed in; first Ryu, then Jun and Jinpei. Ryu squinted at him. "You okay, Mark? You still look pretty pale."

"Yeah, I'm fine." Jun also gave him a quick glance before she sat on the far end of the couch. Ryu took the middle, and Mark found himself sinking into the indent he made in the cushions. Mark stood and leaned against the arm, and Jinpei took his spot.

"I have the preliminary results from your mission," Nambu said.

"That was fast!" Jinpei said. "What is Gallactor planning this time?"

"We don't know. There's a lot we don't know at this time, I'm afraid. We don't know the purpose of the weapon. We don't know how far along they are with the device, though we believe that they were testing it at the time of Mark and Ken's switch. Since you returned to G-Town, there have been three more test-firings, all at the same target: a Gallactor-built satellite orbiting above Earth."

"They're shooting at their own satellites?" Ryu snorted. "What a waste of their own money."

"The satellite is intact. I don't think the emission is meant to destroy," Nambu said, leaning forward. "And that's what worries me. Our people are working on solving this mystery."

"Have there been any other side effects of the test firings?" Jun said.

Nambu frowned. "The emissions have been generating a great deal of heat, which is beginning to effect the weather patterns around the area. We've received reports of unusually heavy thunderstorms causing mudslides and cave-ins in the surrounding mountains. If they continue to test, the weather for the entire western hemisphere will be affected."

"Kind of like El Nino," Mark said.

"El What?" Jinpei said, startled.

"El Nino. It's a mass of warm ocean water that migrates all over the globe, and it affects weather in any area it's in," Mark said. The last one that hit the United States killed over a hundred people with the storms that resulted."

"You're right," Nambu said. "The last one caused unseasonal storms on the coast of Iropa last year. Twenty people were killed in the flooding and mudslides."

"Then we have to get rid of it," Ryu said, "Right?"

"When do we go?" Jinpei bounced on the sofa, rattling both Ryu and Mark.

"We don't."

"What?" Jinpei and Ryu said together.

"Why not, Hakase?" Jun asked.

"It's too dangerous," the Doctor said. "From Mark's report of his last encounter, it's heavily guarded, and the guard has probably been increased. It will be difficult enough to destroy. Not to mention that if we destroy the generator now, we lose any chance of reversing the phenomenon that swapped Mark and Ken. Right now, the weather fluctuations are minor. We have time to work on our own problems right now. I don't want to eliminate our only countermeasure yet."

No one spoke. Mark felt his stomach tighten.

"You did a good job, people. I'm putting you on standby for the next few days while our staff works on the problem."

"But Professor--"

"That's my decision, and it's final." Nambu said sharply, glaring at Mark with an expression he knew well. The others stood without another word and filed out the door, and after a pause, Mark followed.



After staggering through the door late that night, Jason went straight for the phone in the TV room. His lunch and dinner with the Chief in the hospital cafeteria had passed in a few hurried minutes each--little time to talk between tests. Then in the various waiting areas, Jason had spent most of his time in silence, reading the captions on the photos in Motor Trend and Sports Illustrated. The Chief had pulled out a folder and begun making notes and working on equations Jason didn't understand after only one semester each of calculus and physics.

Phone in hand, Jason hesitated before dialing, then finally settled on a number and waited for the answer.

Tiny showed up in the doorway, but Jason waved him off and shook his head when Tiny started asking where he'd been all day. Into his other ear came the voice of Professor Sanders. "Hello?"

"Hi. Hold on--Tiny, I'm on the phone, damn it!" Jason focused one of his milk-curdling glares at the intruder, who quickly vanished with a slam of the door. "Sorry about that. What's up?"

Professor Sanders spoke to him about a couple of interesting events of the day. Jason sat on the edge of the couch before the black HDTV, legs swinging. He hadn't turned on the lamp in the room, and as the sun set, it got darker.

After a few minutes, during a lull in the conversation, Jason said abruptly, "What would I do if I only had ten days to live?"

"That's an interesting question." Sanders thought for a moment. "Get a second opinion?"

"I'm not joking. I want to know."

"Oh." A momentary pause. Then, "Jason, do you have ten days to live?"

Jason giggled nervously. "No--I mean, I think I have more than ten days to live. I was just wondering."

"What brought it up?"

"I can't really say."

"Have you talked to Mark about it?"

"I--well, I can't." When Sanders fell suddenly, abruptly, startledly silent, Jason said, "Oh, no, not that way. I mean, he's not here, not that he's dead or anything like that."

"I never know with you. Well, frankly, I'd think you could answer that question better than I could."

"I never even thought about it, to be honest." Jason lifted the phone and walked with it to the window, pressing his forehead to the glass so he could see down the steel sides of the ISO building. "I'm serious--what would I do?"

"To quote my Sunday school teacher, we're supposed to live every day as if it's our last."

"But we don't, do we?" Jason turned his back on the window and half-sat on the heater. "We make long-range plans and we snap at annoying younger brothers and we forget to say goodbye when we head off to do whatever. Those aren't the things you'd do if you thought it was really over, are they?" His head dropped. "What if, back when I hated everything so much, what if we only thought I hadn't accomplished it, but I had after all, only it was going to take a little bit longer?"

Professor Sanders paused, and Jason added nothing more. From this room he could look uptown and see some of the East River dividing Manhattan from Queens. He mentally picked apart the landmarks. If he thought about it, he might have said, "There is where Cassie lives. There is where I'd see the track if the window went a little further. There is where I'd go to get to Poughkeepsie to visit my aunt and uncle." He didn't. The river continued dividing the skyline in silence.

Finally, Professor Sanders said, "In that case, I'd say this: clear up everything every day. Don't leave anything so you'd have to apologize for it. Don't leave anything to be said at the last minute. Repay all your debts now so your survivors won't have to. Plan out the future of anything or anyone you care about and are responsible for. Divide your plans into distinct units that you can finish up in short order but that each work together to carry you forward many years if that's how long you have."

Jason continued looking out at the night. Manhattan looked aflame with streetlights and headlights below and office lights above. "I guess," Professor Sanders said, "you'd want to help as many people as possible, so that at the very least, when they remembered you, it would be with fondness and not hatred."

"Maybe that's it," Jason said. "I think you're right."



Mark left Doctor Nambu's office feeling enervated rather than energized, and he jammed his hands in his pockets as he made his way to the elevators. As she left the office, Jun kept her chin high and her jaw locked. Jinpei even seemed to shoot Mark a pensive look as they left.

In the hallway, before Jun could stalk too far from them, Ryu arched his back, stretched his arms above his head and groaned. "Hey, let's go eat. I'm starving. That stuff they call 'rations' on the New GodPhoenix can't hardly be called food."

Jun folded her arms and looked back at all three of them like a construction worker at a pile of flawed I-beams.

"Yeah," Jinpei said. "It was like eating sawdust and grape jelly. Even Oneechan's cooking is better than that." When Jun turned to give him a poisonous stare, the boy wiggled his eyebrows at her and grinned. Ryu snorted and Mark had to turn away from them both to hide his own grin. "C'mon, Oneechan. Aren't you hungry? Let's go!"

"Actually," Mark gave Ryu an apologetic smile. "I was planning just to head back to my room for a while."

Jun regarded him archly. "Suit yourself. Come on, guys." She turned her back and led the way down the hall, the other two following more slowly. Ryu paused to glance back at Mark over his shoulder. Mark waved at him, and the three continued down the hall.

Maybe she's the reason I always feel cold here. Mark walked as naturally as he could around the nearest corner, then folded his arms. An evening alone--not completely undesirable, considering the matter he needed to mull over, but also not completely desirable. Again, that matter he needed to mull over.

Instead of his room, Mark trekked over to the library. Nambu had said bluntly that Mark might get himself forever trapped here if the team succeeded in detonating that weapon. Right now, that thought was too awful to dwell on. He longed for a distraction, and one particular thought surfaced: Did Chicago win the game?

Seated at a computer terminal in the library, Mark arranged a bag of pretzels and a caffeinated soda off to the side of the mouse and went searching through the archives of public newspapers and magazines. Three or four minutes sufficed to learn the tricks of the search engine, and Mark started his work.

Searching for the NBA did no good--apparently basketball had never surfaced as a popular sport here, although Mark shuddered to realize soccer enjoyed the same fanatical world-wide following it always had. Wrestling, it seemed, was fairly popular though no more legitimate than at home. Roller derby and some kind of horse racing had fans of their own, but Mark didn't investigate. Towering over all other sports, though, was baseball. It seemed as if the World Series here actually involved the world. Baseball stadiums habitually pulled in regular season attendances higher than the Superbowl back home.

Michael Jordan's name never showed up: Mark had expected that. Munching on a pretzel, he wondered how he'd sleuth out Jordan in this dimension. Short of running up a roster of every known basketball player and looking at photographs, he could think of nothing else.

After a minute, though, he realized something that had only teased at the corners of his mind prior to now. Nicknames seemed to stay largely the same on both sides of the dividing line. He was still the Eagle. Jason and Joe were both Condors. It was too ridiculous a long shot for Mark to do it without feeling self-conscious, but finally he searched for the nickname "Air".

He found about thirty hits immediately.

Most of the hits came from several years back, a few more recently, but a quick scan of the headlines deflated Mark's elated surprise. This man, Matthew "Air" Waters, played baseball.

Tilting back the soda can to catch the last drops, Mark clicked on one article that seemed to be an overview of the man's life ("Where is he now?") and then choked when he saw the picture.

That's him! He really can play baseball! Forgetting to set aside the can, Mark leaned in as close as he could to the screen and devoured the article. Matthew Waters--Michael Jordan--had played baseball for the Toronto JBs for five years. The JBs? Mark opened another window and found out that JBs technically meant Jay Birds, but during their first season a shortstop had thrown his bat at an opposing pitcher after getting beaned, breaking the pitcher's jaw. JBs had come to mean Jaw Breakers. Great--now I really want to go home.

Returning to the article about Michael Jordan's counterpart, Mark read the writer's opinion that he was one of the most underrated center fielders in baseball, a man who had he only played longer could have easily shattered so-and-so's home run record. An early back injury had put Waters on the injured list for an entire season, and during that time, Waters' father was murdered.

Waters had decided not to return to baseball. Where is he now?, the article asked. He currently worked as a physical education teacher in a burnt-out inner-city area, working directly with teenagers who desperately needed guidance in a violent and war-torn world. He worked weekends at a Boys and Girls club with a former teammate who looked suspiciously like Toni Kukoc. The Matthew Waters foundation sponsored several sports scholarships to colleges around the world.

"I'd never have gone to college if not for him," one boy said. "He convinced me to straighten out, stop messing around with guns and drugs, work on my game. Maybe I never got good enough to join the big leagues, but I got a job and I got a future. I'm helping my kid brother straighten out too, maybe get him a job where I work. But I did it because of Matthew Waters. I wanted to be like him."

Mark sat staring at the screen.

After several minutes, Mark swallowed tightly and placed his empty soda can beside the forgotten bag of pretzels.

Heroes were heroes on both sides of the river. Sometimes, when it all came down to the finish, men proved themselves heroes or they proved themselves one of the multitude. Maybe despite the changing circumstances and the different situations, when it came time to decide, the different incarnations of the same people made the same decisions because it was their core shining through. Because they were heroes. To be a hero for everyone else, they had put themselves second and never thought twice.

And I want to see Princess and Jason and the Chief and everyone again. And I want to get out of this cold B-side of a world. I want to look out the window and see clouds instead of fish. I'm sure Ken wants to come home too. But I'm equally sure that given the choice between the possible thousands of deaths and one sacrifice we both could make in order to protect those people, we both have to choose the same.

Shutting down the computer, Mark closed his eyes and made a mental list of the steps he'd need to take before he could leave G-Town. No matter how often he redrew it, unfortunately, the top task was Jun.



An hour later, as Ken was getting ready for bed, Jason knocked on his door and slipped inside with a sleeping bag and pillow. "I'm staying in here tonight."

Ken had said nothing while Jason spread out his gear on the floor and settled in. "You and Mark do this often?"

"Yeah--like when his father died, other times."

Jason kept his eyes down, and Ken studied him as he carefully kept his body angled away. The words stayed in his throat, and he formed new ones instead. "Joe was my roommate, growing up."

"Really?" Jason's head lifted and he faced Ken a little more squarely now. "Mark and Tiny and I shared a room before we moved to ISO, but that was only for a few months right at the beginning."

When Ken said nothing else, Jason dropped back onto the blanket. "Well, whenever you're ready."

Joe used to say, "Will you kill the lights, damn it? Even night owls can see in the dark." A little unsteady, Ken closed the lights and stripped to his underwear before getting into bed himself.

With the lights out, Ken said, almost a whisper, "Did the doctors find anything?"

"Nothing at all. They said I'm healthy as a horse. They wouldn't say precisely which horse, naturally." Ken could decipher Jason's profile in the little light let into the room from the crack beneath the door. Jason kept his head up, staring directly ahead. "The Chief told me why they did all that testing."

Ken said, "If he could prevent what happened to Joe--it was worthwhile."

"I'm going to glow in the dark for three years after all the X-rays and cat scans and MRIs they gave me. I'm probably radioactive now, thanks to you."

Ken grinned. "So you came in here to keep me awake all night?"

"Basically. Jerk."

Ken put his face against the pillow and shook.

"I bled more for those stupid lab technicians today than I do during most missions."

"You didn't even get combat pay for today."

"Hey!" Jason turned to Ken. "You're right! Where's my time-card?"

"You have to fill out a time-card?"

"No--it's called sarcasm."

Ken said nothing for a minute or two, lying on his side with his eyes closed. He hadn't heard Jason settle down yet. Sharing a room again--how long had it been? First Joe, later Jun, but alone during the time between and the time afterward. How much of this felt familiar--the conversations in the dark, the listening to hear if the other had fallen asleep yet.

Joe--Jun. This isn't right. I shouldn't be here,

Suddenly in the darkness, Jason said, "Tell me about Joe."

Ken chilled. "Tell you what?"

"Anything. What was he like? Who was he?"

Ken shifted onto his stomach. "He was like you, and not like you. He was more elemental, forceful. You're both mercilessly efficient, from what I've seen, but he was driven differently than you are. He kept himself to himself."

Jason said, "Did he race?"

"He used to. Gallactor found out his identity, though, so if he had raced again professionally it would just be inviting attacks."

Jason said, "Was he any good?"

Ken laughed. "Yes, I think so."

Jason said, "Who were his friends?"

After a pause, Ken said, "Us."

"What about his racing team?"

"I never met them." Ken shrugged. "I think he just showed up on Sundays for the races and then came home."

"Oh, bad form." Jason's blankets shifted in the dark, and Ken imagined he must have rolled onto his back and crossed his arms behind his head the way Joe always did. "Do that and you're not a team. You're trusting your life and your car to your team--you need to spend time with them, know each other inside and out, otherwise how can you trust them when they say you've got enough fuel left to finish and you know you don't have it?"

Ken said, "He did all right anyhow."

"I'm not saying he didn't, just that he couldn't have impressed many people with his sportsmanship."

Ken squinted in the darkness. Jason said, "How'd his parents die?"

Ken said, "Assassinated."

"Mine, too."

Ken said, "Joe really let revenge motivate him at times."

"Who wouldn't?" Jason chuckled. "You don't think I'd like to get my hands on the woman who squeezed the trigger on us?"

"Joe swore he'd bring Gallactor down because of it."

"Single-handedly? This guy had an ego?"

"You don't understand." Ken sat up, and Jason stilled. "Joe did everything in high gear. When he fought, he fought totally. When he raced, he raced totally. When he had time off, he played totally. When he was dying, he was going to die in high gear too. He wouldn't have gone with you today to the hospital to find out what was wrong with his head--in the same situation, he jumped out the window and ran off to find Gallactor's headquarters and didn't let us know he'd found it until Gallactor found him first. They must have beaten the hell out of him--when Jun found him, he was so totally shot up I don't know how he kept breathing, and he still managed to get out of that base in order to let us know how to go back inside and finish the job he'd started."

Jason said, "How'd he do that?"

"Because he was stupid, stubborn, and so strong-willed that I don't think he would allow himself to die before he was good and damned ready, that's how!" Ken's breath deepened. "He had something left to do--he'd made a total screw-up of his own life and then issued a whole bunch of last words telling us how to live our own. I don't know what kept him alive, but once he knew he was done for, he played it out all the way--he issued his wonderful last words and now he's stayed good and dead to us for two entire years while we mourn him and go the hell on with our lives. Then, when the fighting starts again, he starts showing up again--in the way we look at each other, in the way we say things he would have said as if it can keep him here and not let him go on to the next life. I see him in my peripheral vision when I'm not paying attention, leaning against the wall with crossed arms, counting him in to make us five even though we're only four. I know what he'd be telling me, just how he'd say it. After two years, I haven't lost the knack of reading his mind. I don't know why. I just don't know."

Jason's voice dropped a little. "But you knew him best of anyone."

"And sometimes," Ken hissed, "even I didn't know him at all."

Jason said, "You ever ask him?"

"You can't ask Joe anything. He gets quiet and dark and then you regret asking."

Jason chuckled. "Maybe I ought to try that sometimes."

Ken forced his fists to uncurl. Jason's younger than Joe. "It's still a game to you."

"On the contrary." Jason kept his voice very, very soft. "I don't think it's a game at all. If you're going to do something all the way, that's the way to do it."

Ken said, "And all the rest of us get left behind."

"I've thought about that too," Jason said. "Maybe that should have kept him there. But it doesn't sound like he did it on a whim. He helped you take those bastards down with him."

"And it's all for nothing," Ken said, "because two years later we've got an unburied body lying somewhere in Cross Karacoram and Gallactor has crawled back into the daylight as if we'd never struck them down."

This time Jason stayed silent for a long time.

"Is that what you'd want to die to accomplish?"

"No," Jason said, "but we don't get to choose, do we?"

Ken clenched his teeth and curled his legs to his chest. Gallactor took my father. They took my team-mate. And now where am I? Why should I be lost too?



Mark found Jun sitting on the window seat of the gym staring out at the fish. Leaning against one of the weight machines, he hesitated to collect his thoughts, eyes lowered. His jaw clenched.

"You wanted something?"

"I wanted to set things straight with you."

"What for?" Jun hadn't looked back at him yet. Mark stepped lightly toward her, coming to a stop looking over her shoulder out the portal.

"We're so far down," Mark said, "Fish down here never see light at all, do they, except for what we shine on them so we can sightsee."

"I suppose your crescent coral base doesn't have lights on it?"

"I first had that thought about ours, actually." Mark folded his arms. "It's so astonishing to be down here under the sea, who could resist looking? But I wonder how many fish we've blinded or worse--"

"Half of them have no eyes at all." Jun's voice stayed low. "What's blinding to most of us isn't even going to faze them."

Mark sighed. "Why are you so furious at me?"

"Because you're as blind as the stupid fish, that's why." Jun faced him angrily, the green ocean water at her back seemingly roiling from her eyes and her hair like black thunderclouds. "I don't think I'm the one with explanations to make."

Mark felt his heart beating faster. "Will you at least condescend enough to tell me what's going on?"

Jun folded her arms and stared levelly.

Mark shifted his stance so he balanced easily on the balls of his feet.

Jun said, "You know, you're so much like Ken."

Mark said, "Then maybe it'll comfort you to know that in some universes, you don't hate me."

Walking the halls again, Mark had his hands in his pockets. That had gone over like a lead balloon. It took a moment's deep breathing for Mark to regain his calm.

In order to leave G-Town, Mark would need to apprehend some kind of minisub. The underwater vehicles were stabled in a small bay close to the top level, above the New GodPhoenix's bay. The elevator brought him up to that level, where he quickly found the correct door. He knew it was the correct one because it had Ryu leaning in it.

Mark stopped in his tracks. His shoulders dropped.

"Nah," Ryu said. "I'm not stopping you--I'm here to help. You'd never get out of here alone without setting off all kinds of alarms."

Mark swallowed slowly.

"Ken would have tried to go blow that thing to kingdom come." Ryu grinned. "I knew it was only a matter of time until you tried something like this." He held up a key card. "You need someone with my expertise to bring you back to the site."

Mark stared at Ryu's shoes. "I-- Thanks."

"No need to say anything." Ryu laid a hand on Mark's shoulder. "Let's just get going before Jinpei figures you out too."

Chapter 7 by Diinzumo
Ken answered his door when Jason knocked. "Come on." Jason wore an uneven grin. "Follow me."

When Ken hesitated, Jason gestured. "Come on! We're going to use the pool. G-Force gets it every week at this time."

Setting his book aside, Ken stepped into the hallway. "Do I need anything? Swim shorts?"

Jason shrugged. "It'll all be down there for you."

Ken kept his eyes open and his guard up as he followed Jason--although Jason was trying to look relaxed, he had a keen anticipation shimmering over him. Only yesterday Jason had gotten examined by so many doctors, and last night he'd spent in a sleeping bag on Ken's floor. Something was up--even after only a few days, Ken had learned enough about the team to detect Jason enacting revenge. This team liked to rough-house and joke more than his own ever had--they tended to banter and playfully insult or threaten one another. He'd fought too many battles not to recognize an ambush.

The Olympic sized pool proved to be ordinary enough, although it seemed too empty with only Keyop and Tiny sitting on benches at the sideline. Jason walked up to them and said, "All right--let's see."

Keyop's eyes were practically glowing, and Ken studied him intensely. "What's going on?"

"We want to see--" Keyop started, then stammered to a stop awash in giggles.

Ken was smiling by now too. Of all of three, only Jason wore a deadpan expression--Tiny was chuckling. Jason said, "We were curious...because Mark did, you know."

Keyop buried his face in his hands, shoulders shaking.

"Mark did?"

Jason and Tiny looked at each other, and together they rushed at Ken. Keyop's shrieking laugh echoed even louder than the splash when the two of them dumped Ken into the pool.

"Because Mark thought he could walk on water, that's what!" Jason couldn't stop laughing. "And after all the hot water you got me in, I figured--hey!"

Behind Jason's back, Tiny had winked at Ken and then given Jason a good shove into the pool as well.

Keyop was doubled over. Ken made his way to the side of the pool as Jason surfaced, shaking his head to clear the water, shouting, "You're dead, man!"

"Even worse, you're wet, man!" Tiny stripped off his jeans to reveal his swim shorts. "Fire away!" he shouted, cannonballing into the pool.

Jason ducked in time to avoid the splash. Keyop got wet even on the sidelines, and Ken clung to the side of the pool as the rocking water doused him again. As he scrambled out of the pool, Jason sprang up beside him. The sopping Condor started pulling off his wet clothing--he also had swim shorts on beneath his jeans. "Tiny wasn't supposed to do that--he was supposed to wait." Jason glared at Ken. "If you don't mind, now, I've got a brother to murder."

Tiny caught the expression on Jason's face and started freestyling across the pool even before Jason made a speed dive after him.

They had a way of bantering that Ken had never seen before--one after the next, returning sentence for sentence like volleys in a tennis tournament. He wondered how well he'd play at the banter game. Too many of his exchanges with Joe had ended with, "Quit screwing around, Joe" or one of them swearing. Jason could snap right back at Tiny or Keyop with an unconcern Ken would have given anything to hear from Joe just once, just once again.

"Where's my swimsuit?"

"Here." Princess had walked in behind him while the guys had been splashing one another, and now she handed Ken a towel and a pair of Mark's swim shorts. Ken took a moment to study her high necked red and white one piece suit with its racer back--Jun had always worn something low-cut or high-leg or else a bikini. Did Princess have some kind of figure-flaw to hide? Presently he forced his eyes away from her, but not before Princess had also averted her gaze. She said, "I told them not to assault you, but you know how the guys can get."

Ken pulled off his shirt and dropped it with a slap on the tile floor. Tiny had made his way back to Keyop, and now Jason slipped up to the side of the pool as well. "I still say you shouldn't have brought him that towel, Princess!"

"Some of us have compassion in this world. Hey!" Princess turned her back suddenly on Ken, who had pulled off his jeans and underwear right where he stood. "Do you mind?"

"Huh?" Ken tossed away his wet clothes and pulled on the swim trunks without even looking at her. "Nothing you haven't seen before."

Jason laughed out loud as Princess reddened. "Your secret's out, Princess! But don't worry--I know I'm the best you ever had!"

"Nah," Tiny said, "just the cheapest."

Jason ducked Tiny's head under the water, and Keyop piled on them as well. Ken kicked his sopping clothing toward a bench by the wall and moved to the pool, but Princess grabbed his arm.

"I don't think that's funny." Her fingers tightened. Her cheeks were still hot.

Ken studied her momentarily. "You--"

"G-Force's female officer isn't automatically the property of the high ranking male." Princess turned from him and walked away, shouting over her shoulder, "I don't care what kind of a slut my counterpart is--I'm not that way."

Fists clenched, Ken rushed after her. "Jun's no slut! I didn't--"

"You just watch yourself," she said. "Keep your hands off me, and don't look at me again--did you think I was blind? I don't think I even want to be in the same pool with you."

"Just listen--you're taking that all wrong." Ken took a deep breath. Behind him, Tiny was throwing Keyop into the deep end of the pool. "You're overreacting. You and Mark--"

"Mark is my brother. Mark is my best friend." Princess set her jaw and stared levelly at Ken. "Mark never stared at my ass. To be so brazen--to even get Jason and Tiny to think of me like that--I don't care what you do back at home, but don't you dare treat me like a toy. I'm your teammate, not something to humiliate."

By now, Ken wore an innocent confusion. Princess folded her arms. "And don't give me altar-boy eyes--if this other girl really did like you and all you did was make stupid remarks and pant like a dog, then I can't see why she'd have stood for you in the first place."

Ken watched her leaving the pool area. Keyop called out, "Princess? Where are you going?" as she reached the locker room door.

Tiny and Jason stopped tussling and drifted back to the ledge alongside the pool. Tiny stared after her. "What got her so upset?"

Jason said, "Keyop, go talk to her."

The little one scrambled out of the pool and sped across the tiles to the women's locker room, not even hesitating as he barreled through the door.

Ken only said, "I was treating her like one of the guys."

Tiny said, "She's not a guy."



Neither spoke much during the trip. Ryu guided the minisub to a small island where they caught a ferry to the mainland. From there, a series of airliners and small rented planes took them to a tiny strip in the foothills. From there, Ryu acquired a rented Jeep and they drove into the desert.

Mark was impressed with the big man's efficiency. "You must have connections," he commented.

Ryu shrugged. The guy at the last airport? He was a friend of my dad's. I've met folks here and there."

"You remember your family?"

"My dad and little brother still live up in Sendai," Ryu said. "I go up and visit every once in a while. Is my counterpart an orphan?"

Mark nodded.

"Man. It used to aggravate me that Ken always ordered me to stay on the ship because I was the only one with family. I used to think it was because I couldn't do my job right, and then Ken set me straight. I'd actually quit the team, and he came after me. Turned out that Joe was beating the GodPhoenix to death and the others couldn't take it anymore." He chuckled. "Now I have an autopilot aboard the New GodPhoenix so I can join in, and it's good to be doing my part."

"I hate to do this," Mark said, "But I'll be posting you as lookout again. I've been thinking about it on the way over. You've got to be ready to get me out of there right away once the fireworks start."

Ryu just shrugged. "I figured as much."

They arrived at sunset. Both transmuted and Ryu dropped Mark off as close to the entrance as he dared.

Mark crept silently down the passageway, back to the wall. He had two options: he could find a control center and try to shut the generator down, or he could try an assault on the generator itself. Since he and the team had already scoured the upper floors, he assumed that the control center had to be further down. He found both an elevator and emergency stairs, but the sounds issuing from behind closed doors indicated more guards than he wanted to deal with.

That left the generator itself. Mark backtracked to familiar territory, sneaking past the two guards he found posted outside. A third and fourth guard stood at the opposite end of the chamber, on the other side of the humming tower. Mark fingered his boomerang; he'd have to move quickly to keep them from setting off the alarm.

With a loud click, the lights went out. Mark waited for the alarm, but none sounded. Before the red emergency came on, he heard two muffled grunts, then the sound of bodies hitting the stone floor.



"All right," the Chief said, "one more time--let's review anything unusual that happened in the days before the switch occurred."

After swimming, all five of the team members had assembled in Chief Anderson's office for a briefing. All four guys still had wet hair from their showers. If the Chief noticed that Princess didn't look as if she'd gotten wet, he didn't remark. On entering the room, she had taken a position as far from Ken as possible and any time Tiny shifted stance, she compensated to keep his body in Ken's line of sight to her.

Once again, everyone on the team had the same story for Chief Anderson, the same possibly unusual occurrences that on analysis had nothing whatsoever to do with the swap. Sitting in one of the desk chairs, Ken watched as the four G-Force members made the same suggestions they'd made three times already, and all with the same result: Anderson would shake his head and say firmly, "No, that couldn't have caused a reaction of this magnitude."

After ten minutes of rerunning the past, Chief Anderson picked up his clipboard, stared at it, then said, "Come on, team--Mark is depending on us to find the answer somehow, and I dare say Ken feels the same. I want you to think--was there anything else you're not telling me about? Anything different at all? Did you go anyplace different, eat anything different? Think all the way back to the Sunday before last."

Even Ken could tell how all four suddenly got very, very quiet and still. The Chief looked at them, raised his eyebrows, and tossed the clipboard back on his desk. "Okay, now. Come clean. What did you do?"

"It wasn't much," Tiny said. "Just different food."

Keyop said, "Ballpark franks. Gatorade."

Tiny said, "For game four, we had a Michael Jordan night."

Keyop said, "Wheaties."

Jason said, "RayOVac batteries, Hanes underwear--"

"--Nike sneakers, I get it." Chief Anderson sat back behind his desk with half-closed eyes.

"Michael Jordan cologne..." Jason was still ticking them off on his fingers. "Oh, and I switched us over to MCI."

Anderson raised neither his eyes nor his voice. "You had better not have, young man."

Tiny said, "I said the whole thing was a stupid idea at the time."

Keyop snapped, "Chicago won, didn't they?"

"You can't argue with success," Jason said. "Besides, it had been about six months since I'd eaten a hot dog and I wasn't quite up to the food pyramid guidelines on rat entrails."

The Chief glanced at Jason. "You went along with this?"

Jason looked wounded. "Princess too!"

"She had the sneakers," Keyop said.

"And Jason--" the Chief didn't look at any of the others, "after all you've seen in this universe, all the places you've been and the experiences you've had, have you ever seen any evidence that superstar endorsement advertising has any kind of effect on the real world?"

"After all I've seen, Chief, I honestly can't rule it out." Jason had the hints of an embattled smile on his cheeks. Ken had to turn his face away before he started laughing himself.

Keyop said, "Therefore it's obvious that Michael Jordan had something to do with this situation, so we should definitely bring him over here for an interview."

Turning to the youngest one, Tiny said, "You did that very well."

The Chief was muttering beneath his breath. "Unbelievable." He tossed his clipboard to the far end of his desk and closed his eyes. "Well, then, I think it's safe to say you four have no potential for helping solve this mystery, so I might as well end your loafing around and give you your next assignment."

Ken got to his feet as the other four stepped closer to the desk. Chief Anderson rose and turned on an overhead projector, then turned off the lights. A few satellite photos in various degrees of clarity revealed a Spectran outpost in a desert-like area. "We've located the mech you scared off three days ago. The good news is, I don't think they're done with the building. The bad news is, it's most definitely mobile, and what's missing isn't their weaponry."

Jason said, "That's not too bad."

"Well, then I'll up the ante for you--it's parked outside Las Vegas." Chief Anderson turned back to Jason. "Are you going to leap to any more conclusions, or should I go on?"

"Who am I to halt the voice of progress, sir?"

"Please pay attention or Ken is going to be leading this mission." The darkness of the room hid Jason's expression as his eyes bugged, but all of them knew when he didn't reply. Ken also said nothing, but his jaw had tightened. "Thank you. As I was saying, the octopus-type mech is mobile and rapidly completing construction out in the desert beyond Las Vegas. I want you five to head out there to demolish it."

Jason said, "Any strategic recommendations?"

The Chief turned to him. "Ken says this mech was designed to destroy the Phoenix when in operation as a unit, particularly in its firebird mode. His team defeated it by separating into their vehicles and attacking in that fashion. This is primarily why I want you in charge, Jason. Ken by his own admission hasn't dealt with this incarnation of the Phoenix and these vehicles for over two years. In addition, the vehicles' capabilities seem to be markedly different between the two universes: yours have always had weapons while theirs did not, for instance. Their Phoenix isn't spaceworthy."

Jason folded his arms. "So in the middle of combat isn't the time to find out Princess' motorcycle can't fly, in other words."

"Or that she can't corner as fast as Jun, or that you drive differently from Joe. The orders Ken gives will be a matter of reflex at this point, but reflexes based on different individuals." Anderson shook his head. "That's too dangerous right now. You know your own team better--you can tell by the intonation in their voices how they're feeling and how serious each one's situation is. Ken won't be able to do that for a while, if ever."

Jason looked at Ken, who was scowling even as he nodded. Ken said, "You have a point."

"I know you aren't used to taking orders." Chief Anderson walked back to the projector. "Jason, although you're in charge, I want you to rely on Ken as your chief strategist. Take any of his suggestions with nearly the force of an order, but the final call will be yours."

No one could see how Jason's fists had tightened or how he smiled in the dark. "Thank you."

"The coordinates have been fed to the onboard computers," the Chief said. "Good luck, team, and godspeed."

Out in the hallway, Ken grabbed Jason by the arm.

"Hey, I had nothing to do with that!" Jason beamed, though, and Ken let go of his arm.

"That wasn't what I was going to ask you." Ken wished Jason would stop looking so pleased. "Before we start the mission, I have something to take care of. Can I have a few minutes?"

Jason checked his watch. "Sure--it's going to take me about five minutes to get Sweetheart docked in the Phoenix. Longer if the Chief parked me in again."

As Jason tore off toward the steps, Ken turned and looked down the hallway at Princess. Seeing him staring at her, she startled and took a step backward.

"No, I'm not going to stand for this during a mission." Ken squared his shoulders and strode the hallway toward her. "You ran off before I could settle this out."

Princess' eyes widened. "I thought it was settled--"

"Not by far. What the hell was going on back there in the office?"

Folding her arms, Princess shifted her stance. "You still have no idea what you did, do you?"

Ken had learned many things about women during his year and a half as Jun's consort, and one basic, brilliant fact outshone all the rest: now was not the time to guess what he'd done. "If you'll stop being unreasonable and just let me know--"

"You said something that insensitive and now you can't fathom what you did wrong?" Princess rolled her eyes and she rested her hands on her hips. "Does anyone on your side of the curtain believe in manners or decency?" When Ken opened his mouth to reply, Princess shook her head. "No, spare me the explanations. First you sized me up and studied me like something in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and then you made that positively stupid remark about a naked man not being something I haven't seen before... By the way, did you mean by this that I'm the kind of slut who ordinarily sees near-strangers naked, or was it that I'm constantly peeping at my older brother?"

Once again, Ken knew not to take the bait and answer the question. "Princess--" Whatever he said now had to somehow not worsen the situation. "If that's how it came across, I'm sorry. I never thought of you as a slut."

"So you're an exhibitionist?"

The light in Princess' eyes told Ken that he hadn't actually made the situation that much better. He fumbled for the words. "That's not right at all--I wasn't thinking of you as a woman. You're one of the guys. I wouldn't hesitate to change in front of Jason or Tiny, and I know they treat you as a member of the team without regard for gender."

Princess shook her head. "You're right--they never hassle me about being the only girl on the team. And I have 'seen it all before,' as you so tactfully put it. But there's a difference between cutting away someone's clothing to get at an injury and ogling a guy like a piece of meat." She shrugged. "On the other hand, you're still a bare-faced liar as far as I'm concerned. If you were thinking of me as one of the guys, then why were you staring at me in my swimsuit?"

Ken felt his cheeks getting hot. He didn't reply.

Princess nodded and began to walk around him. "So, close but no cigar. Feel free to be as slimy as you want, but please don't involve me."

"Wait." Ken put his hands in his pockets. "You keep referring to Mark as your brother. Jun and I never thought of each other in terms of siblings. Joe, yes--Joe was my brother. But the rest of us weren't family. We were team-mates. With the war ended, with no real team to identify us any longer," Ken swallowed and found he couldn't meet Princess' eyes, "Jun and I finally did get closer."

Princess folded her arms. "So you were sleeping with her and thought you could enjoy the same services during her absence?"

"Will you stop villifying me enough to let me finish?" Ken huffed. "When the war started again, we had to break it off. There's no way to send someone you love that much into the middle of half a dozen soldiers with guns, and there couldn't be a tearful goodbye every time I had to infiltrate some kind of mech or a new base." No, one goodbye had been more than enough. "But sometimes I miss her still."

Princess had relaxed a little. "Why don't you tell her that? Wouldn't she get back together with you if you just explained--"

"She doesn't have a choice in the matter. If we could choose, there would be no war." Ken shook his head. "And that's it."

Princess looked down. "I'm sorry if I overreacted."

Ken nodded. "So for now, at least, can we go into battle being team-mates and not enemies?"

"I think we can handle that." Princess gestured ahead down the hallway. "We'd better get going--Jason's going to wonder if we've mutinied rather than endure his command."

When Princess and Ken entered the cockpit, they took their seats quietly and waited for Jason and Tiny to finish preflighting the Phoenix. Without turning from the console he watched over Tiny's shoulder, Jason said in a low, chuckling voice, "You're late--two demerits."

Princess giggled. About to object, Ken looked at her but said nothing when she grinned at him, a smile he returned. Momentarily, Jason went to his chair and told Tiny to launch when ready.

The launch happened smoothly, during which all five were occupied by the business of flying the ship. Only when they had reached their cruising altitude and Tiny assumed the majority of the work did Jason address the team.

Leaning against the back of the command chair, Jason held a clipboard and looked out at the others except for Ken, whose eyes he couldn't quite meet. "Well, I guess, after reviewing all the information Ken and the Chief gave us, I agree that we ought to split up and tackle the mech in its separate parts."

Princess had Jason's usual spot at the weapons station while Ken and Keyop sat at the pair of consoles facing him. The overhead lighting glistened against the tint of Jason's visor but couldn't hide the way his eyes kept shifting from one teammate's face to the next. "The mech isn't quite finished yet, and it seems the reason they moved it here is that there's a large underground cavern in the vicinity of Las Vegas where they can finalize construction. The US Air Force made several sweeps of the target area with ground piercing radar--"

Princess huffed. "And obviously the ground piercing radar isn't going to work in the desert with all that salt." After a moment's dead silence, Princess looked up at all the blank faces, and she sighed. "Fine. Go on."

Jason tried to flash a smile, then took a deep breath. "Well, um, that explains why they conducted a microgravity reading, then. Fluctuations in the Earth's gravitational field revealed a cavern of approximately nine hundred thousand cubic feet."

Princess said, "That would be staffed by perhaps a hundred to two hundred Spectrans?"

Jason checked the clip board. "Estimates are on that order. Apparently our scaring them off that stupid asteroid had at least one good result because it revealed this local base. Las Vegas is perfect for it, if you think about it. There's so much tourism that no one will notice extra people hanging around the city, and there's not much surrounding it once you get past the suburbs. If there's tremors in building this machine, it'll be chalked up to normal seismic activity. No one would have found it at all if not for the sudden appearance of a couple spent warheads in the municipal dump." Jason looked up. "So this is my rough plan: we should split off in our vehicles almost immediately but make it appear that our real target is that cavern." "I'm wondering how you intend to get them to split up," Ken said.

Jason's eyes flickered.

"He's got stragedy," Keyop said.

Princess said, "Strategy."

"When Jason does it," Keyop said, "it's Tragedy with an S."

"Having that base there is convenient." Jason took a deep breath and ignored the little one. "We'll dogfight the united mech for a few minutes in order to draw them out over the cavern where there won't be any bystanders. Then, when they try to force us into Fiery Phoenix mode, we can oblige--and then split off into the vehicles. Switch out of Fiery Phoenix as quickly as possible, either the instant it splits up or when it looks like it's getting ready to fire at us--you called them cell-missiles, Ken?--then pick your target and blast away." Jason scanned the cockpit for objections.

With a groan, Keyop said, "Do we have to split into the five separate firebirds? If they're waiting for us to become the Fiery Phoenix, why don't we just not do it?"

"Because they can wait all day for us to go into Fiery Phoenix, that's why. If we don't oblige, they may start picking off passenger airliners to pass the time. Since they are going to be trying to attack us in firebird mode, we might as well use the variety they don't expect. As soon as we split off, they'll split up too just to be able to fire on all of us before we burn out. The mech's tough, but it's a very specific weapon. Its armor is designed to withstand big blows, but small ones can penetrate it--kind of like medieval chain mail that could bounce off a sword blow but stood no chance against arrows. Their laser is fast, but it's fairly low-powered. That thing's no doomsday device. They know we won't use the Fiery Phoenix twice that close together. They have to have been told they'll have one shot and only one shot. Believe me, they'll take it."

Keyop pouted. "You're just saying that because you've always wanted to give that order."

"Shut up." Jason wore a borderline smirk. "Are we set, then? Good. Tiny, time to target?"

"Five minutes. Local armed forces just radioed some activity in the region--they think Spectra's rallying against us."

"Roger." Jason hesitated. "Ken says it can fly at a higher altitude than we can, and that it can get there faster. Stay close to the ground. Any flat surface on any of its individual units can lock into any flat surface on any of the others--they can reassemble in any shape they want. If we can't induce them to break up, we may still be able to convince them to change shape, and that will be the time to attack." Jason glanced at Ken, who said nothing. Next he turned back to Tiny. "Where are they now?"

"Right over the city."

"Probably causing a panic," Princess said.

"Get in close and try to lead it westward," Jason said, then looked over his shoulder. "If it's over the strip, Princess, no one will notice one more monstrous structure towering overhead, right?"

Keyop giggled.

"Forward visual," Tiny said.

"Buzz them." Jason returned to the command chair and glanced over the indicators. "It's got that look-down-shoot-down laser beam, so skim right overhead, just out of reach of those arms."

Keyop said, "Eeeyech."

"Princess, you keep a missile at the ready."

Ken said, "They can shoot our missiles out of the air."

"We might as well keep them shooting at the damned missiles then, and not at us." Jason had locked down the clip board, but he glanced at it now. "Tiny, if Princess raises the gear, angle us away from them as soon as they shoot. Their lasers are capable of shooting off the missile launcher."

Keyop whistled. "Ken told you that?"

"It was hard to forget," Ken said.

"Ten miles," Tiny said.

"Energy shield control units jammed," Princess said. "Backup systems are down as well."

Jason said, "Keyop, jam their radar. Ken, notify Anderson we've engaged."

"Hang tight," Tiny said.

The Phoenix blasted over the top of the mech, which quickly reorganized itself into an aerodynamic linear shape and took off after them.

"They're gaining," Tiny said. "Intercept in approximately two minutes."

"Keep us low," Jason said. "Turn to evade."

The Phoenix banked, and the mech corrected to follow them.

"Ten miles from the city," Ken called.

"Fifteen miles to their base." Jason's eyes narrowed. "Tiny, bank hard, starboard!"

Keyop said, "Commencing radar jamming."

"Try jamming the rest of their communications too. That might make it harder for them to reassemble themselves." Jason punched one of the buttons and brought up the rear cameras. In the background, he could hear Ken radioing Anderson. "Princess--"

"They'll be on top of us in less than a minute."

"Hold," Keyop said. "The radar jamming threw them off--they're slowing--"

"Tiny, ascend!" The afterburners kicked in, and gravity slammed all five back in their seats. "Increase velocity!"

"I'm trying!" Tiny sounded strained. "They've got it all over us!"

"We're going to have to outmaneuver them." Jason called, "How far are we from the base?"

"Ten miles."

"Almost, then--" Jason cut off as Tiny threw them into a hard turn, pulling four g's. The mech couldn't follow as tightly.

Princess said, "We gained about ten seconds."

"That's a painful way to gain ten seconds," Tiny said.

Jason looked pale. "I'm taking suggestions if you've got any."

Tiny banked hard again, leaving them breathless until he straightened. Ken said, "Get them to change shape--pull up and overtop of them so we come down behind. They'll rearrange to a defensive posture that's slower."

"Do it!"

Tiny pulled hard on one of the levers, and the Phoenix shot nose-upward into the sky. As the mech scorched beneath them, Tiny brought the Phoenix down in a dive hard on the mech's tail. Princess fired off two missiles. One missed; the other exploded uselessly against the hull. As she prepared to fire again, the mech rearranged into a horseshoe shape.

Jason shouted, "Retract missile gear!"

The mech fired instantly, and Tiny dodged enough that the laser only scored their left wing. The Phoenix rocked with the impact. Princess said, "We want to keep them in this setup--they're definitely slower in this configuration--"

"Ascend to seventeen thousand feet," Ken called. "Weather service reports severe turbulence at that altitude. They'll need the more stable structure to weather--"

"Go for it!" Jason was already adjusting the vents to change cabin pressure.

Tiny climbed. The mech followed, not rearranging yet. At seventeen thousand feet, Tiny once again turned on the afterburners, and although the turbulence rocked the Phoenix, they continued to make headway.

"What we wouldn't give for some cloud cover." Jason scanned the views from the rear-mounted cameras. "They're still a horseshoe--belay that. They've formed a cross-shape."

"Looks like an X to me," Keyop muttered.

The X definitely handled the turbulence better, and the mech had developed a slight spin as it pursued the Phoenix. This time, though, the Phoenixwas able to maintain its distance.

Princess said, "We're still about ten miles from their base--time to target two minutes."

"Good grief." Still pale, Jason stood from his chair, leaned against it unsteadily as the ship rocked on the gusting air, then nodded to the others. "We'll take our positions in our vehicles now that the situation's stabilized."

Princess said, "Are you going to be able to handle--"

"We all had damned well better be able to." Jason dashed for the back door of the cockpit. "Radio in when you're set."

Jason broke off from the others first to descend the shaft to the G-2. Ken ran alongside Princess. "What was that about?"

"He can get airsick after the Fiery Phoenix, and he wasn't looking good." They reached the corridor where Princess and Keyop split off, and Ken continued for the G-1 at a flat-out run.

The cockpit gave him shivers, like a man meeting an old flame at his high school reunion. Princess and Keyop had already radioed that they were ready. Ken now did the same. In better times, he'd have spent more than an hour preflighting this jet-powered beauty, if only to remember every nook, all the smells of the engine, the leather seat, the curvature of the glass, and the high-powered shriek of the jets spooling up. Here he'd had only ten minutes to preflight before takeoff, and now he'd be lucky to have forty-five seconds for his runup check. The controls, oil and electrical systems checked out fine; the weapons systems he began warming up even while running up the RPM, knowing he'd need to flame out of the Hinotori ready to target and shoot.

Tiny radioed, "I've let them get close enough--" and the Phoenix rocked as he said it, "--damn, too close. Ready to initiate-- "

"Go for it!" Jason called.

The flames of the Fiery Phoenixcame on Ken as they always had. Gritting his teeth, he felt he fury of the craft around him as it transmuted into plasma and fire. The birdstyle took the heat, but the panic of standing in a house on fire tightened his insides. He'd always found that worse than the physical flames. Next began the roaring, a sound so loud it always forced them to shout at one another across the cockpit. At the point where the heat finally penetrated the birdstyle, Ken closed his eyes and clenched his fists. It wouldn't be long until they separated from one another, and in doing so, hopefully separated the mech into its component pieces.

Tiny's voice raged over the bracelet, "Now!"

As if in an explosion, the firebird burst apart, and Ken urged his craft away from the other four just as they distanced themselves from each other. The mech hesitated before dividing to pursue them, and instantly Ken saw the lens at the base of the closest segment opening. "Now!" he called out even as Jason did likewise. Before he finished speaking, his craft had left the flames behind in favor of its solid form. The cell missiles landed on the skin of the plane without doing more than cosmetic damage.

It worked! Ken swung the plane to face the closest unit head-.

Over the bracelet, he heard Princess shout, "Jason!"

Ken spared a moment to see Jason's vehicle shedding the firebird only feet from one of the units, gun already exposed, and even as the flames sloughed from the back end of the car, gunfire burst from the front end. Princess' shout had barely died when the two machines met in mid-air in a chaotic mess of weaponry. As Ken watched, the mech exploded directly before the G-2, and the car passed through the resulting inferno to crash to the ground with a teeth-rattling jolt.

Jason whooped over the bracelet. Ken thought he sounded shaken. Princess shouted, "Switch to decaf!"

Before the targeting computer beeped at him, Ken looked at the mech ahead of him and found it right in his sights. He squeezed the trigger with an oath. Just as Jason's had, his blew apart: these were machines designed to withstand big blows, not small ones.

To the east, a third explosion punctuated the battle. Keyop had dispatched his. Princess had set herself up on a small rock ledge, raised her gun, and opened fire as well. The mech rocked, but for a moment it looked as though she'd have to take another shot. Then the machine blew apart with a ferocity that sent bits of metal screeching to the desert floor in a deadly rain.

"You okay, G-3?" Ken radioed.

"Fine. Who's got the last one?"

"I'll take it."

Ken gunned for the last of the five, watching it on his radar until he was able to confirm it visually. The fifth piece already was trying to leave town, but Ken forced his plane closer. I'll get you-- I'll shoot you dead, you son of a bitch.

He hadn't seen an escape vehicle yet. Katse--Zoltar--must still be aboard that last vessel.

Tiny was gathering the others even as Ken's targeting computer beeped at him. Locked on. Ready to fire.

Fire.

Ken saw the escape pod rocket away from the unit even as his shot landed home. The mech exploded with a ghastly brilliance, and for a moment his radar screamed unintelligibly at him. Too much clutter--he couldn't track the pod with all the metal between him and it, and knowing this, the pilot of the escape pod kept the plume of flame between himself and his pursuers. When Ken finally cleared the debris, his radar showed nothing at all.

"G-1, ready for pickup," Tiny said.

"Roger that." Ken slammed the dashboard with a fist. Even here, the bad guys proved a little too slippery for him, just a few too many steps ahead.

What good is all that extra experience, if he still gets away in the end? Didn't I learn anything from the first war, from Joe's death?

The precision of docking took all his concentration, but Ken still felt the growing pain in his throat. If he'd only managed to nail Zoltar, then Jason wouldn't have to keep fighting, and at least one world would manage to keep its Condor.

There's only so much you can do. But damn it, couldn't I at least have done better than this?

As the hatch sealed behind him, Ken radioed to the cockpit that he'd made it.

"Come up front," Jason said. "We figured we'd give you the parting shot."

The parting shot? He remembered abruptly about the underground base. That ground-piercing radar or microgravity thing would have helped immensely in his own battles--if he could take back one of the systems as a prototype for Nambu, that might make all the difference in combating a menace that tended to hide underground. Ken dashed to the cockpit, and when he arrived, he found the Phoenix circling with its targeting computer locked onto a site in the desert seemingly like any other.

Jason was sitting in the command chair while the others stood around him. "It's all ready to go, G-1. Push the button."

Ken blinked. About to defer to the gunner, he stopped. Jason had a clear and calm expression, and the others were looking to him. He had the supposed experience. They were giving him the honor, dubious as it may be.

Reaching forward, Ken pressed the button and fired the bird missile with all the joy of a second grader at the end of summer vacation.

Momentarily, the missile connected. The flashing explosion looked dull and distant on the forward screens. Ken watched from within a cloud of silence.

I'm not ready to do this again full time. He looked at Jason. I'm not ready to see this whole war reenacted knowing its outcome. I'll just keep trying to change things that are bound to happen anyhow. I'll try until I'm all out of strength, and then when even worse things happen, I'll wonder if I've done any good at all in either war.

The lower cameras showed the ISO's ground forces cheering the Phoenix as Tiny dipped his wings in a salute. "They always like us to take the final shot," he said. "They'll handle the cleanup for us." Jason said, "Take us home, Tiny."

Eyes downcast, Ken took his seat at the center console and watched as Tiny set the course and changed the transponder from the code for "battle in progress--stay clear" to 7797, the Phoenix's special code. Jason asked Princess to open a line to Chief Anderson, and when the Chief appeared on camera, Jason rose from his seat and addressed the man as formally as he could manage. Ken could hear the nervous note in Jason's voice. He must never have led a mission before, or else he'd never been allowed to do so in Mark's presence. Everything had gone as it ought to have. Ken knew they had no reason to feel anything but proud.

The Chief dismissed them from onscreen, and Jason left the cockpit.

Princess said, "That went a lot easier than it could have."

Keyop giggled. "Did you see how I got that one? One shot, and BOOM!"

Ken said, "Where'd Jason go?"

"Right here." Jason returned through the back door. "I forgot, it's probably not kosher for me to put on the walkman when I'm the one in charge."

Princess looked at him tolerantly, then glanced at Ken and tried not to giggle.

"So to hell with it--this time, you're all listening." Jason settled himself back into the command chair and popped his cassette into the Phoenix's onboard radio. "And best of all, Mark has nothing to say about it."

Ken shivered. Mark. Something about Mark--

Tiny sighed. "You know, when I'm riding in your car, you keep telling me the driver decides the music."

"Insubordination?" Jason shot Tiny a glare that dissolved when Tiny grinned back at him. Ken watched them exchange a friendly shove or two as the music started.

"Show me someone who makes a difference.
Show me someone who's brave when he needs to be.
I just need to see
Someone who cares enough that he would risk his life
For the love of what he's come to believe.
But you say that a man like that wouldn't last in a world like this.
Well, I believe that the world won't last while the man like that don't exist.
So I'm looking for a few good men--"

Ken closed his eyes. Jason, looking so pleased with himself--the image seemed burned into his brain. But at the same time, he saw an image of Jason if he followed this war through to the very bitter end as Joe had. And survived. This Jason had sharp eyes burning into him. This Jason--this Joe--had a feral grin and an older, more battered countenance. The face hovered in his mind against a backdrop of blackness.

"There's a lot of things working against me, but I know I can't lose.
And there's a lot of miles still between me and my home. But I've learned a lot through the years.
Now I'm more than just young."

Jason's music didn't sound like the music Joe normally listened to. Joe liked it harder, less lyrical. Ken could tell Jason was listening to the words. Princess was asking a question about the album, and Jason said someone (Cassie?) had played it at the track and he'd won the race, so it couldn't be all bad.

If he were in command of the Phoenix, Ken would use this time to review the mission and determine where the team could have improved. Of course, after ten minutes or so, Jinpei would have begun daydreaming, but Jun and Ryu would have seriously dissected their every movement and debated their strategy in retrospect. Joe--what would Joe have done? Every time Ken closed his eyes, he saw Jason instead. Many more days of this life and he'd have completely overwritten Joe with details of Jason. He'd spent two years wishing the sense of Joe nearby would fade and just let Joe be dead. Now that it had, he could swear his ears rang with Joe saying "I'll be watching."

Ken closed his eyes with a shudder, groping through his thoughts hand-over-hand; he let his mind wander. His team back at home--what were they doing now with their substitute Ken? He tried to imagine them and came up with the thought that they were on a mission. He imagined a large cavern lined by columns and several tiers of masonry. In the center towered a generator with computer terminals at the base. Standing at the edge of one of the rock ledges, Ken watched the generator firing at himself until his hands glowed and his birdstyle trembled with the power. Then, as he opened his eyes, the sensation faded, and he found himself back in the cockpit.

"Grieve later," he heard Joe saying.

That was weird. He shook his head.

Princess said, "Ken, you look a little pale."

"I'm a bit cold." He looked around--he was coming back to himself only slowly, and he could almost hear Joe's distinctive voice: "I was true to my word. I protected you. Don't betray me for them."

Ken's hair stood on end. Is forgetting you a betrayal? Isn't it enough to hurt for two years? Is remembering you the way to bring you back?

In the lingering dream, Joe said, "Let me stay dead."

He must have dozed off and dreamed all that--he told himself it had to have been a dream. A different song was playing now, though obviously the same singer.

"The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.
My heart is aging I can tell..."

Jason was actually singing under his breath, and Ken sat forward under pretense of looking at his monitors. The kid couldn't sing to save his life, but at least his phrasing was decent enough. Ken had no trouble understanding the song.

"This life has shown me how we're mended and how we're torn.
How it's okay to be lonely as long as you're free."

His eyes widened. This was Jason--this was Joe.

"And now that it's done,
If they dressed me like a pauper, or if they dined me like a prince,
If they lay me with my fathers, or if my ashes scatter on the wind--
I don't care."

Ken felt his throat tighten.

"But when I leave, I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire.
And when I look back on the stars,
They'll be like a candlelight in Central Park.
And it won't break my heart to say good-bye."

Ken's heart pounded, and he studied the figure in Joe's uniform. Did he mean all that, or had he picked this album without a thought for how Ken would hear it? Because they both knew Ken had said good-bye two horrible years earlier, and because Joe had scattered to the wind and sailed into the darkness without any fear or any regret. For two years, though, Ken had felt the fear and the regret for him, trying to hold the scattered pieces of a life broken apart by forces larger than any of them. Grabbing tightly to the remaining ones hadn't replaced him, only changed their relationships to each other. Jun got too close, Ryu too far, and Jinpei had gone about the business of growing up. It was all wrong--only here was another Joe telling him that no, it was all right.

In some other universe, just maybe, Joe didn't have to die in order to prove he was one of those few good men. Maybe here Jason could somehow elude the fire that could consume him and then end up consuming all the rest. Maybe, Ken thought to himself, I can help him do that. If Joe is dead and Joe's at peace with it, then the least I should do is make peace with it--with him--myself.

Tiny announced their arrival in New York, and Jason snapped off the tape to prepare for their final descent. Eyes lowered, Ken only watched the numbers on his console spiraling down to zero.



So quick was Mark's passage into shadow that his eyes barely had time to adjust. Something snagged his arm, a hand clamped tight around his bicep, and someone yanked him forcibly from the clearing and behind a column. "Watch it," a frighteningly deep voice hissed in his ear. "There are tripwires everywhere."

Mark glared, blinking until the darkness resolved into a familiar face and form. The older man was breathing hard, sharp eyes burning into him. "Joe?"

"That's my name. Don't wear it out."

Mark jerked his arm free. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Waiting for you." Joe grinned ferally. "I knew you'd be back. Ken would've returned to take out the generator. I figured you'd do the same."

He doesn't even seem surprised I'm not Ken. "You know about the switch."

Joe nodded.

"You realize that destroying it might strand me here. It might strand Ken wherever he is."

Joe's grin faded. "We can't let it continue to run regardless--Nambu's probably been trying to protect everyone and holding up progress. I've been instructed in how to get that machine to return you to your rightful place, but you'll have to be the one to set everything up. It treats me like a fucking lightning rod. This is as close as I get." From the darkness he produced the box Mark had seen him carrying earlier. "This will disrupt the generator if you activate it close enough."

"What qualifies as close enough?"

"Direct contact."

Mark stared at the clearing, the yards of no-man's land between the columns and the generator. "Can't you just shoot out the terminals?"

Joe snorted, a gesture so much like Jason's. "Redundant. There's a remote control center that'll take over if this one's damaged. That and nothing metal gets through the outer field. The generator arcs to it, fries whatever's caught in the field, and sets off the alarm."

"Damn." That meant he'd have to leave his weapons behind, including his belt and bracelet--his birdstyle and all the protection it offered. If he set off an alarm and the guards poured in, he'd face them unarmed.

Joe must have read his mind. "I'll be watching your back."

"What makes you think I can trust you?"

"What choice do you have?" His grin returned; Jason's grin, only more bitter.

Mark looked at the box in his hands. "What about this? Is there metal inside?"

"It's shielded. Small amounts of metal will get through."

Gritting his teeth, Mark pulled off his bracelet and laid it on the floor. Instantly his birdstyle faded. Joe's eyes widened slightly, then he looked away. Mark fished in his pockets and handed Joe his keys and seventy-eight cents in loose change. "Tell me one thing first," he said. "Just one thing. The team would give anything to know you're alive. Why the hell didn't you go back?"

Joe's head lowered, his face lost in shadow. After a moment, he looked up at Mark, eyes narrowed. His voice came softer than before. "Because I can't go back, and I can't tell them because they'd come for me. I'm not who I was."

"What do you mean?" Mark hissed.

"I'm a cyborg, damn it!" Joe's voice lowered. "Dr. Rafael, the man who rescued me, he rebuilt me as a cybernetic weapon. There's no way they can ever trust me again. You think they'd want me back like this?"

"Why don't you ask them?"

"Maybe they don't fight cyborgs back in your world." He nearly quivered with the tension, his jaw tight. "Get going. We don't have time."

Mark swallowed hard. "Give me instructions--I get up there with this box that disrupts the generator. Then what?"

"You'll find a small port alongside one of the monitors--plug in the box to that jack and turn it on."

Mark grinned. "Then run like hell?"

"Not just anywhere--run like hell right over here, get back into birdstyle, and then head up to that spot above the wider columns on the south end of the room." Joe gestured toward a specific point in the blackness at the other end of the chamber. Mark squinted, open-mouthed, then looked back at Joe. "I'll take you there," Joe said. "You'll have one minute between when you plug in the box and the generator fires a field at you. That shot of power will activate the bracelet and reproduce the original conditions that left you stranded here."

Mark said, "So then Ken arrives here completely confused, and...?"

Joe sighed. "You'll have to radio for your teammates. Get them here in a hurry, and they'll get Ken out again. Fifteen seconds after the generator targets you, it will target itself and blow sky high."

Wide eyed, Mark said, "What kind of a chance does Ken have? He's not going to know any of this!"

"That's why you'll need to get the others--"

"There are no others, damn it! I left Ryu at the entrance with a jeep, and everyone else is back home sleeping. Ken's done for!"

Joe closed his eyes. Mark put the box on the floor. "I'm not going to haul him back here just to have him die fifteen seconds after he's home again, so unless you've got a better plan--"

"I'll get him out of here," Joe said. "Is that what you want?"

"Yes," Mark said. "On your honor, if there is any such thing in this universe."

"What the fuck's that supposed to mean?" Joe's eyes glittered. "Try dying for your cause before you play the judge. I'd have expected better from Ken."

Mark's jaw set, and he returned Joe's glare without flinching.

Momentarily, Mark found himself standing at the dark edge of his hiding spot. Behind him, Joe crouched holding the largest machine gun Mark had seen in quite a while. "You get that from someone who doesn't need it any longer?" he'd whispered when Joe had unearthed it from behind himself, only Joe hadn't cracked a smile.

The Gallactor guards walked in something of a pattern. Mark got a sense of it immediately--their patrol looked at first as if it covered all the room, but in reality, during the moments the guards turned to retrace their steps, they left a swath of floor uncovered. For about five seconds, Mark would have a running start. At that point, the guards would turn and spot him, alarms would ring, and his life would depend on Joe's accuracy with that megaweapon.

Mark's hands trembled. Would I trust Jason in this position? He had, once. Jason had covered for him once during a mission similar to this one, infiltrating a Spectran mine. When the fighting had started, Jason had remained ensconced in a niche high up the ceiling while Mark had sailed into the brawl. After a while he'd stopped noticing the gun's report and concentrated on chasing down the officer in charge. Only at the end had he turned and seen just how many Spectrans had come hunting for him. Up until then, it hadn't seemed to matter.

So now, Mark took a deep breath, looked at Joe with a nod, then dashed up his five second corridor.

A Gallactor shouted, "Hey--stop!"

Wishing desperately for his birdstyle, Mark tucked as low as he could while he ran. Gunfire roared all around him, but nothing connected, and suddenly he found himself within the perimeter of the generator's shielding.

Mark had only made it a few steps inside when a bolt of lightning erupted from the side of the generator and blasted a hole in the cement flooring behind him.

Joe lied to me! Mark hit the floor and rolled to the side, then looked up as more electrical arcs sprang from the generator.

Bullets. The Gallactors were still shooting at him. The generator was protecting him, blasting down each metal projectile as it neared its target. A Gallactor that had run in after him hadn't put down his gun. The generator nailed him too.

Mark swallowed as he turned and made his way toward the console. A half dozen Gallactors had abandoned their posts at the computer terminals and lifted what appeared to be plastic handguns. Mark ducked to the side and took out one with a flying kick, then used that man's weapon to bring down two more. The generator above him continued sending out blinding rays of light, but Mark kept his head down and refused to look. The remaining Gallactors he dispatched in a rapid hand-to-hand meeting, breaking one man's neck, then spinning into a kick that slammed the last two remaining men into each other.

Chest heaving, Mark dashed for the row of terminals. Beside one of the monitors he found the port Joe had mentioned, and as he fitted his device into the slot, he thanked fate that they both had the right number and type of pins for each other. Trying this on his PC at home would have taken at least three different cables.

I'm on my way, then, Mark thought, and he pressed the switch to activate the device.

As he dashed back to where Joe waited, Mark realized the gunfire had stopped. Any remaining Gallactors had either retreated or decided to stay utterly still.

"Here." Joe thrust the bracelet at Mark, and before Mark could object, Joe had him over his shoulder and was running for the south side of the chamber.

Mark flashed, once again wearing his birdstyle just in time for Joe to skid to a stop and throw him up toward the second level of columns. He got the wings open momentarily to glide to a landing. "You didn't have to do that," Mark gasped. Joe sprang up beside him a moment later. "Give me my keys. Keep the change."

"Call Ryu down here." Joe thrust the keys at him. "You've got about ten seconds more in this realm."

"Ryu! I need you in the generator room, now! It's going to blow--"

"All right."

Joe shook his head. "I'll be watching. If you need me--"

"Get back. Five. Four. Three--"

Mark had misjudged the seconds. A sudden pulse of energy shot from the generator and enveloped him in a pearly light that seemed thicker than air. For a moment he looked ahead and could see two worlds--this dark world of columns and concrete and machinery, and a familiar cockpit with four familiar faces. Mark smiled and reached forward.

Then, as the light faded, the cockpit vanished as well. The columns solidified at his back. The concrete returned beneath his feet. Mark doubled forward and put his face in his hands.

"Oh, no--" He took a deep breath and fell to his knees. "Joe? It's still me."

Joe yanked him backward. "Grieve later--get over here--"

Mark felt himself pitched into the corner and had just enough time to try getting his wings up and over Joe, but Joe crushed him down and shielded him with his own body. The generator gave one shrill whine and blasted into thousands of pieces.

Keeping his head down, Mark knit his fingers and closed his eyes. Sound roared indistinctly around him, only gradually resolving into specific tones. The clatter of falling metal and the rumble of disintegrating masonry slowly yielded to the plinking of individual pebble-sized chunks of ceiling and glass. The base had gone dark. Only when the thunder lessened did Mark realize how hard each breath came.

"Shit!" Joe was whispering. "Shit--Rafael promised me that would work! He swore that was the way to do it!"

"It nearly did--I saw them for a moment." Mark sat up and sought out Joe's face. In the dark, he almost could make out Jason's profile. "It just wasn't enough. I'm no worse off than before."

Joe said nothing.

"Mark?"

Ryu's voice rang through the devastation. Mark shouted, "I'm alive--just dusty!"

"I'm coming. Don't move."

Mark reached for Joe before the other could pull away. "How are you going to leave?"

"Same way I got in--on my own." Joe moved so close to Mark his breath made Mark's hair stand on end. "Don't tell them about me. I was true to my word. I protected you. I thought I could get you out of here. Don't betray me to them."

Mark closed his eyes.

Joe said. "Let me stay dead to them."

"They're not dead to you," Mark said. But he might have said it to no one. The space beside himself felt suddenly empty, and then he heard a light crunching as someone landed on the rocks beneath.

"Hold, Gallactor!" Ryu shouted.

"No, it's me--it's me. Don't shoot." Mark had laughter in his voice. Desperate, possibly. Maybe he sounded in shock. It wouldn't be inappropriate, right? "Everything's done here--let's go. There's nothing left for us here any longer."

Chapter 8 by Diinzumo
Ken couldn't understand the tension in Jason's eyes as they prepared for their debriefing in Chief Anderson's office. Anderson sat at his desk with a pile of paperwork and his monitor playing something unseeable from Ken's position. Uniformed, standing ramrod straight, hands clasped behind his back, this mission's commander seemed braced for the worst. Does he know something I don't? The others had more relaxed postures, but a quick scan revealed clues as to their thoughts. Princess breathed lightly. Tiny and Keyop surreptitiously glanced from Jason to the Chief.

As soon as Chief Anderson looked up from his papers, he stood and walked directly before Jason. He studied him piercingly for thirty long seconds.

Ken blinked in surprise. Jason had darkened into a familiar glower and returned Anderson's stare without flinching.

The Chief said, "You engaged them far too rapidly and without a plan for reducing their obvious advantages over the Phoenix in terms of speed and maneuverability. Do you understand how dangerous that was?"

Ken waited for Jason to answer. He didn't. Ken itched. The Chief continued. "Then, after all you knew about this mech's powers against the Fiery Phoenix, you ordered your team to use it anyhow? Unbelievable."

Ken's fists clenched. "Chief Anderson, you're forgetting we won this battle."

The remaining three looked at Ken with wide eyes.

"And frankly," the Chief threw his papers onto the desk as he said this, "I have no idea why."

"Perhaps if you ever gave him some credit--"

"The transcripts from the cockpit seem to indicate you were the one who figured out how to neutralize some of the mech's advantages, Ken." Chief Anderson tilted his head and regarded Ken narrowly. "Without you, I might be attending four funerals in the next week."

Ken felt the blood rushing to his face, but he could see Jason standing still and not seeming to hear Anderson at all. This is insane--anyone would think we'd lost. "Without me, he'd have thought of something else. I'm not the only one on the team who can read a weather report or think five steps ahead of the competition."

"I believe you, Ken." The Chief folded his arms and turned away. "I only wish Jason would prove it."

Ken took a step forward. "What kind of morale--" Jason's hand whipped out and grabbed him. After one look at Jason's face, Ken clenched his jaw and said nothing further.

The Chief returned to his seat. "Ken's not entirely wrong, of course. On the plus side, Jason, you showed some common sense in not engaging the mech directly over the city. Utilizing their base in order to get them to split up in pursuit of the separate vehicles seems to have worked as you planned. The cleanup crew reports near total destruction of that base, with roughly two hundred Gallactors either apprehended or dead."

Ken drifted a little closer to the Condor. When Anderson looked back at the charts, Ken laid a hand on Jason's shoulder. Jason shrugged and turned his attention back to the Chief.

Now I know why they didn't spend their ride home analyzing the mission. Ken stepped away from Jason before the Chief looked up again.

Tuning out Anderson's report on the base's equipment, Ken tried to remember the face that had paled on learning of Joe's death. Princess was asking questions while Keyop and Tiny stood behind her rolling their eyes and masking giggles as coughs. Jason knows he did well enough, Ken thought. But I can't see Joe not defending himself in the same position--unless Jason really believes Mark could have done it better. Maybe Jason had been reckless to throw all the balls into the air and try learning to juggle on their way back down. Anderson had a point that Jason hadn't given enough thought to making the match more equal before it started. That same miscalculation in his own world had wrecked the GodPhoenix. Miscalculations like that could cost lives, and every life lost on this team meant a half million more civilian lives and a billion dollars in material damages to Spectra's targeted cities, countries, and although Ken could hardly conceive of it, even planets. Nambu handled the same problems so differently, though. Ken squinted. Nambu guided Joe into situations where his instinct could save all our lives. He gave him chances to hone his strategic reflexes until he hardly gave them thought any longer.

At last Anderson closed his file. "I'll be reviewing the tapes of the mission later tonight, if you're interested in going over them with me, Jason."

Jason nodded without relaxing his glare.

The Chief leaned back in his chair. "Then since G-Force's role in this mission is ended, I can give you some good news. We'll hopefully be having Mark back soon." All five of the team broke rank and moved in close to the desk.

Tiny said, "How'd you figure it out?"

"We should have picked it up earlier--I'm a little upset that I didn't catch it at once." The Chief looked at his four kids. "Go back over the last few minutes before Mark switched places with Ken. What were you doing?"

"Watching the NBA finals," Keyop said. "Screaming our heads off...cheering for Michael Jordan. It was Jordan's fault, wasn't it? We get to invite him over here?"

The Chief waved Keyop off and looked at the others. "Keep going-- you were watching in birdstyle."

Princess said, "Is that important?"

"Why didn't you switch out of uniform once you got off the Phoenix?"

Tiny said, "Transmuting in front of the TV screws it up for about ten minutes--all we get is static--and there wasn't much game left to play."

The Chief said, "Why didn't any of you tell me that before now?"

For the first time, Jason spoke. "Since when do we tell you about every stupid thing in this apartment that doesn't work? The toaster burns the toast if you don't stand right beside it, too, and sometimes the toilet runs for an hour. Do you want an inventory?"

"Mark never vanished because of burnt toast," the Chief said with a wave of his hand. In a leading tone, he continued, "Did you ever notice a smiliar problem with the old television?"

Princess gasped. "Oh--! I never realized, but the 1080 interlaced format was setting up a feedback loop with the energy output from the bracelets, and once it reached a harmonic resonance--"

Keyop whispered to Tiny, "Sometimes I get the feeling we're totally outclassed, you know?"

Princess folded her arms. "We just need a copy of the game."

Jason said, "Cassie taped it for me."

"But we won't necessarily need that particular set of signals." Chief Anderson shook his head. "The television alone wasn't sufficient to make the transfer--something has to happen on Ken's side as well in order to bridge the gap. My sense is that at some point, they'll meet their conditions for the swap as well. Either that, or as we get temporally further away from the causative event, Mark and Ken will just switch back on their own without our having to help the process. After all, there's nothing's exerting any sort of force to keep them in place, and Ken, you said you never feel quite right here."

Ken nodded.

"This may be a long haul," Chief Anderson said. "It may take a while for them to recreate the conditions on the other side."

Tiny said, "Great. For the next month, every meal is going to be a TV dinner."



Ryu watched Mark from time to time as they returned to G-Town in their mini-sub. Mark said nothing and made no attempt to hide his face. He imagined he looked ashen--it would match how he felt.

As G-Town came into view, Ryu finally spoke in a soft voice. "Are you always this shaken after a mission?"

Mark folded his arms around himself. He'd grown colder lately. "I've just stranded myself in your world forever. I think I'm entitled to a little grief."

Adjusting some of the controls, Ryu said, "You looked the same last time--you weren't stranded then. And you knew what would happen. Are we so bad to you?"

"You haven't been bad to me at all." Mark finally wrenched his eyes up to Ryu's face. "This place seems harsher than where I came from, and I keep being reminded of that. People I thought I knew back home--they do things I find unimaginable. Everything is edgier here."

Ryu sighed, then stretched his arms. "It's not always this tense. This is a good world, Mark, even if it's not like your home. This is just a bad time for us all. We're at war again."

"We were at war, and--"

"And you haven't been at war as long as we have. Give us a chance. If you're going to be staying around here, at least let us show you who we really are before you give up on us."

Mark turned his head to Ryu. "Do I seem that judgmental?"

Grinning, Ryu said, "You don't like it here. Even Jinpei can figure that out."

They said little for the rest of the docking procedure, except for just before Mark and Ryu left their little craft. "Thanks," Mark said. "I couldn't have done that without your help."

"You'd have done it, just without my finesse." Ryu slapped Mark on the back. "Do you want me to head up with you to Dr. Nambu's office?"

"I think I'll handle this on my own," Mark said.

Doctor Nambu regarded Mark with narrowed eyes as Mark gave a brief report, hands clasped behind his back. Nambu tapped a pen on the desk. "Do you know what this means?"

"I have a pretty good notion. I've been assured by those who would know that Ken would have made the same decision in my position."

Nambu rose from his desk chair and paced the space between his desk and the portal the way Chief Anderson often paced between the desk and his windows. Mark nearly closed his eyes and imagined the rows of book cases, the leather couch at the far wall, two cushioned chairs at the corners of the desk, and an unobtrusive beige carpet. Nambu kept his desk clear of the file clutter Anderson's so often accumulated.

"I wish you hadn't done that. As it so happens, my staff has created a system using the data you gathered from the first mission which they hope will recreate the original conditions that sent you to us."

"With all due respect, Doctor, I've tried that using the Gallactor machine itself. I was able to see and hear both worlds for a time, but when it faded, I remained here."

Nambu squinted. "How did you manage that?"

"Renegade scientist. And some extremely high-tech machinery that proved far more cooperative than I had imagined possible."

Mark's heart banged around his chest as if it would break loose, but Nambu didn't seem to realize the extent of the prevarication. Briefly Mark wondered if his composure would hold if Nambu bluntly said, "Did you meet Joe? Was he turned into a cyborg by someone who apparently has as great a vendetta against Gallactor as we do? Did he ask you to keep his secrets for him?" Nambu only shook his head. "I'm not satisfied," he said. "If you nearly got yourself home while under pressure and working with a system you barely comprehended, then I imagine my staff can do it correctly if given time."

Mark nodded. Nambu waited for him to say anything else, and when Mark didn't, he said, "What exactly did you do to the machine to try to reverse the effect?"

Swallowing, Mark said, "I got the generator to target me at a lower power at the same frequency it had done in order to trigger the switch. When that failed, I let the generator target itself at high power, and that resulted in a detonation that destroyed the machine itself and most of the base."

Brow furrowed, Nambu said, "And the renegade scientist?"

"Didn't make it out with me."

"What was his name?"

Mark put on a puzzled look. "You know, everything happened so fast, I can't say."

Nambu fairly smoldered. "How did you know you could trust him?"

With a flinch of his blue eyes, Mark said, "I didn't know if I could trust him. But I recognized him because of his counterpart, and his counterpart is someone I've worked with and trusted in the past. Maybe I was taking a chance, but he gave me his word of honor. I did try to bring him back with me, sir. I'm sorry I couldn't."

Nambu asked no further questions and dismissed him.

Chapter 9 by Diinzumo
The drone of the evening news issued faintly from the television as Ken sat in the easy chair, flipping idly through a stack of Mark's old flying magazines. Jason lay stretched out on the couch, arms folded and eyes closed, his chest moving softly. Ken lowered his magazine to stare at him, and again memory blurred with reality. Joe had taken any opportunity for a catnap--though he'd have left a newspaper or sports magazine discarded beside the couch instead of a paperback. Ken felt only a little guilty for wishing that Jason would stay in this pose, still and quiet, and maintain the illusion.

As if aware of the attention, Jason stirred and looked at Ken through half-closed eyes. "Anything?"

Ken shook his head. "Not for the past two hours."

Jason stretched and groaned, then sat up. "Jason," Ken said, "You really don't have to stay here with me if you've got other plans."

"Somebody's gotta keep track of you in case something comes through."

"I'm on camera," Ken said, "And I can call someone the moment anything happens."

"Still, it's better to have somebody here to keep an eye on you--in case it happens too fast for you to react and you or Mark really do need help."

"As if a television could be the cause of this mess." He turned his gaze to the window and the New York city skyline outside. "For all he walks on water, does Mark give you that hard a time?"

Jason shrugged. "It gets on my nerves sometimes how he's always so wonderful and everybody knows it, but he's okay, really."

Ken closed his eyes, his mouth quirked in a sad smile. Would Joe have said the same about him? Though he was far from the image of perfection that Mark seemed to be, he could just imagine Joe shrugging and saying, "Ken? He pisses me off sometimes, but he's okay."

He thought back to the debriefing, to his reaction compared with Jason's. The kid had stopped him before he'd exploded at Chief Anderson, cold indifference defusing a hot temper, but back during the mission... he couldn't rely on Jason to rein him in. Two impulsive hotshots egging each other on in a place where mistakes could mean a lot more than a damaged warship, a damaged city and damaged pride. Saint Mark was his opposite, one who erred on the side of caution to provide the balance this team needed. A balance that Ken himself couldn't provide, at least not right away.

What if Anderson's plan doesn't work? To Ken, the thought that a television could pull a solid human being from one world to another was almost comical. What if they were sent on another mission? Maybe he could convince Princess or Tiny to be more vocal. Maybe he could pay better attention to their suggestions, find some sort of balance without losing his own edge.

Jason had stretched back on the couch with his book. Ken squinted at the cover. "What is that?"

"Death Merchant #35." When Ken made a face, he shrugged. "It's one of the better ones. I've read it eight times."

"I've seen those. They're trash fiction."

Jason grinned. "Yeah, but I can read one in an hour."

Ken stood and walked to the window, staring out at the scenery without really registering it. After a moment, he realized he was staring not at skyscrapers and setting sun, but at Princess's face across a table. He held a warm mug of something in his hands.

"You don't know what it's like to have all your dreams shattered by someone."

Ken gasped. She spoke with Jun's voice, and suddenly he recognized the inside of Jun's apartment in G-Town--not that he'd been there often, but he recognized the art she'd brought down from the Snack. He could smell chocolate, and he heard himself saying, "It's looking now as though I'm here for good and Ken's well and truly lost."

As abruptly as it had come, the vision vanished. Ken rested his forehead against the window glass, his arms clutched tightly around his middle and his breath coming hard. From the television on the far side of the room, Peter Jennings talked about a situation in the Ukraine.

"No, dammit," he hissed. "Don't give up--you're wrong!"

"Ken?" A young voice sounded behind him. Jason touched his shoulder.

"It happened," Ken said. "Something happened. I felt him." He kept his eyes closed. "Just for a moment, but I'm sure of it. He was talking to Jun."

Jason disappeared from behind him, and Ken heard him pick up the phone and hit the speed dial. He spoke softly to the Chief. Ken raised his head just as Jason thrust the receiver at him. "It's a step in the right direction."



Heading back toward the team's quarters, Mark jammed his hands in his pockets. His hands always felt too cold now, and he looked at his arms to find rows of goosebumps. A brief stop in Ken's quarters--his own quarters, possibly forever--yielded a thick cable-knit sweater in dark blue. Mark slipped into it before heading to Jun's room.

She looked more than a little surprised as she answered the door. "What's going on?"

"I think I need to talk to you again." Mark shrugged and looked a little past her. "I wanted to apologize for real this time. The last time I tried, it was pretty lame. You're right--I haven't really been looking at you as you since I got here. And after all you've experienced with Ken, you honestly deserve better than that. May I come in?"

"Sure, I guess." She smiled bemusedly. "I gave that sweater to Ken for his birthday last year. I think he hated it. Wore it once and left it in his closet ever afterward."

Mark looked down. "I like it. I'm always cold here."

Jun showed him inside. "Isn't there anything you can do about that?"

"Other than dressing like an Eskimo?" Mark chuckled. "I've got the thermostat in the bedroom cranked all the way up, and I've been sleeping under three extra blankets."

Jun walked to the kitchen and filled two mugs with water, then put them into the microwave. "Why don't you have a seat?" As the microwave counted down the time, Jun leaned against the counter with crossed arms. Mark stared at the tabletop without saying anything. All this politeness, the tension as if he was a guest and would eternally be the outsider--for a moment he had no idea what to say that could dispel it. When the microwave beeped, Jun pulled out the mugs and opened two packets of hot chocolate, stirred, and brought them to the table. "I thought this might make you warmer."

Suddenly smiling, Mark took his in both hands. "Thanks. You know, Jason could make incredible hot chocolate. He'd make it late at night, and we'd stay up even later talking."

Jun took a sip of hers. "What did you talk about?"

"Oh, everything. Nothing important now, but everything at the time. You know how it is." Mark looked into his mug and shook his head. "This was the only thing he could cook."

"I'm not so handy in the kitchen myself." Jun shrugged. "It never interested me. I guess I'm not a real woman."

Mark traced the handle with one finger. "I didn't think that was a requirement."

Jun's shoulders slumped. "I'm just one more pressure you don't need right now."

Sitting up, Mark said, "That's not it at all." He put his hand on hers across the table. "Don't blame yourself for my idiocy. Or Ken's idiocy. And Ken must be an idiot if he didn't want to grab onto you with both hands and hang on tight. Princess is my closest friend back home. Her and Jason, but she's the one who understands." He forced himself to look into Jun's eyes. "You're a lot like her, and I can't afford to lose someone who understands here, especially if it's my own fault."

Jun stood suddenly and walked a short distance from Mark. "You don't know what it's like to have all your dreams shattered by someone."

"I don't. It must have been even worse to have someone show up and look as if he was prepared to do it all over again. I'm sorry." Mark rested his head in his hands. "It's looking now as though I'm here for good and Ken's well and truly lost."

Nodding, Jun wrapped her arms around her waist. "Ryu told me earlier."

"So I thought I'd make you this offer--if you stop hating me, I'll stop thinking of you as my long-lost sister. Neither of these things will be easy, but let's become friends."

Jun chuckled lowly. "And then in five years, if you're still around, and if I've been a good girl I'll get the decidedly feminine honor of wearing your wedding ring? I don't think so."

"In five years, if I'm still around, and if I haven't treated you terribly in the interim, you may feel like finding someone else." Mark twisted around in his seat to look at her directly. "I'm no good at this, and you have no idea how little I know about what women want. Jason stole a girlfriend right out from under my nose a couple of years ago."

Jun burst out laughing. "He did?"

Mark edged away in his seat. "I have no clue what would make it better for you, that's what I'm saying. Help me out here."

Jun returned to the table. "I used to wonder, if every woman in the world was lined up next to every plane in the world and every interesting mission Dr. Nambu ever assigned us, and then you threw in Joe, Ryu and Jinpei, if you made up a list of the ones Ken would choose for himself, where I'd fall on that list. And then one at a time, I found out--the other women weren't really an issue, the missions ended when Gallactor fell, Ken was still able to fly his planes...but where was I in all this? Sure, he'd take me to a movie or bring me a bouquet on my birthday. He thought enough of me to bum a beer off me at the Snack. When it came right down to it, though, it had to be up to me to take the initiative. All those other things had vanished, and still I wasn't anywhere on his list of priorities. Then the war came back, and he walked away from me without a second thought. I go back to the background, and we all go back into battle."

Mark rested his head on his hands and closed his eyes. "Jun, I'm sorry."

"There's nothing you can do about it, right?" Jun closed her eyes. "I should just know to give up."

"Don't give up. How does this sound?" Mark looked her in the face until she looked back at him. "I'll make you a priority. Maybe this doesn't count because you had to tell me to do it, but I'll make an effort to put you right up at the front."

Jun nodded. "That sounds good enough. What do you get out of that?"

"I get to make and keep a friend, hopefully." Mark had more of his hot chocolate, then added, "And I get more hot chocolate and Ken's rarely-worn sweaters."

She giggled. "Somehow I suspect he wouldn't mind that!"

Mark found her laughter contagious. For the next hour, talking with Jun in her kitchenette, he almost forgot the chill in his hands. Only later, heading to his own suite to turn in for the night, did his heart race and his jaw clench.

I'm here for good, then, aren't I? Walking into Ken's suite, he scanned it rapidly and made mental notes on all the changes he'd make to the rooms: more lights, more open space on that far wall, fewer posters in the hallway, more actual food in the refrigerator, the TV in the corner rather than in the center of the living room wall... In the bedroom, Mark dropped onto the bed and buried himself under the comforter still wearing his jeans and t-shirt. In the silence of the darkened room, he closed his eyes and let his mind wander its way to sleep.

A sudden crash of metal and plastic startled him.

As if in a dream, he looked up to see a door open and Chief Anderson step into the room. He turned back to Jason and heard himself speaking.

And you see, Jason, that's why one should never play volleyball in the house.

You're absolutely right. Is it your serve next?

Mark looked around at the TV room back at home, at Jason holding a large pink ball, grinning rogueishly. Presently Mark realized the ball was Keyop's, one of the things Tiny had given him last Christmas. It had a name he couldn't recall at the moment. Jason tossed him the ball, and Mark felt himself catch it. At his side, the TV played with the word MUTE in large green letters shining in the upper right hand corner. Chief Anderson stood with folded arms while Jason crouched beside the VCR cabinet picking up spilled tapes and a metal bookend.

Are you done thoroughly destroying the room?

Nothing's broken--we were using Keyop's Gertieball. Jason looked up at the Chief and half-closed his eyes. It's better than endlessly watching the TV.

Any change yet? the Chief asked, and Mark felt himself answering,

Not so far, but I could sense some things before. Nothing now.

Mark watched the Chief leave, and as the door closed, Jason gave him a sidelong glance. Stop trying to save your pride, Ken. Concede the game.

Mark startled, eyes open. I thought I was dreaming-- But even now, sitting bolt upright in Ken's bed, he still could hear and see some of the world where he'd come from. Ken and Jason were playing ball in the living room with the TV on but muted.

"That's it," Mark whispered. "The television!"



It took too long to get to sleep that night. Mark forced himself to remain awake long after his shivering body needed its daily collapse, and he found after a while he'd definitely increased his skill at piercing the river dividing him from his world. As if looking upward from the bottom of a swimming pool, Mark could pick out the shapes and voices of his family. His world came to him through Ken's eyes.

Does Ken know I'm here? he wondered. Does Ken feel my heart pounding or my teeth clenching?

Jason and Ken were having far too good a time. Even Princess and Keyop seemed relaxed as they stayed in the TV room with the impostor.

While it felt good to hear Jason's and Princess's laughter again, Mark wondered why they were laughing at all. He'd spent too much time living here, like a man underwater, and now he found the laughter alien. What if Ken didn't want to change back--that might make it more difficult. A hot surge flooded Mark's stomach and chest: if Ken decided he didn't want to head home at all, all he'd have to do was leave the TV room permanently. Now who's being paranoid? Mark wondered. Ken and Jason hadn't budged from the TV room the entire time he'd been able to check on them, and they hadn't once actually watched the screen, instead playing video games on the tiny set in the corner or else horsing around and at times outright brawling. They obviously wanted only to be in the presence of the HDTV--therefore they knew about its power to bring Mark home. Therefore they were trying.

We just need to time a burst of energy here with him near the TV there, the way we were when it happened the first time. Mark forced his mind back through the river to check on Ken again--they were looking at the TV this time, and then Ken turned his gaze to Princess.

I think we'd better call it a day. Nothing's happening.

Do you feel him any longer?

Mark felt Ken shake his head.

Well, there's no use staying awake for days on end--we'll try again later.

Maybe he ought to sleep in front of the TV tonight?

Jason's sardonic chuckle, And then die of radiation poisoning or something...

Or we wake up to find out he bought seventeen Juice Shooters or something off an infomercial, Tiny added.

Mark laughed. Then, as they left the TV room, he returned to himself. The solution seemed practical, assuming Nambu really had worked on a device of his own like he claimed. Mark's ability to sense when Ken entered the TV room would help him fine-tune their energy bursts on this end. And then he could go home and get back to his own Phoenix, his own bed, his own Princess and Jason and Keyop and Tiny, his own Chief Anderson, his own books and music, his own airplane, his own light of day, his own friends...

A sudden beeping startled him, and Mark turned to find the alarm clock sounding off. After blinking a few times, he realized he'd fallen asleep. Morning already--now he wished he'd stayed asleep. His body only sluggishly responded to his attempt to get out of bed.

That's because it knows what I have to do next, he thought groggily.

Outside Jun's door, Mark knocked lightly, then backed a step down the hall. She opened before he could escape completely, however.

"You're here early," she said, her face still sleepy. She wore a tremendous flannel nightshirt that ended at her thighs, and Mark kept his eyes carefully focused on hers. "Is something wrong?"

"In a way." She ushered him inside, and Mark took the same seat he had the night before. "I figured out a way to get back home."

Her eyes widened. "How? What happened?"

"When I got back to my room, in the quiet, I was able to sense Ken, Princess, and the others." He bit his lip. Jun took her seat across from him. "There's got to be a combination of forces--the one on this side has to coincide with the force on the other. I've figured out what the force there is--the damned high-tech television we bought with our combat pay, of all things--and all I have to do is tell you folks when Ken's near it in order to transfer back." Mark smiled wryly. "Ken's been making it easier for me--he apparently knows what the TV does."

Jun rested her chin on her hands. "Go on."

"I meant what I said last night." Mark swallowed. "You're a priority. I'm not leaving here if you think that's abandoning you."

After a second, Jun's mouth formed a small o. Mark went on. "Obviously I can't treat you very well if I'm not around. I'd be throwing you right back onto Ken's tender mercies right after going ahead and swearing you'd never have to deal with something like that because of me ever--"

"Wait a second--wait, Mark." Jun took a deep breath. "If it's my choice, then let me make it easier for you. Go. I'd never be happy if I knew it was solely by keeping you unhappy. I don't know what to say, that you'd even think you needed my approval." She hesitated. "But thank you."

Mark lowered his head.

"Let's go." Jun took his hand and stood. "Dr. Nambu will be interested in what you've learned."



The machine looked less intimidating than the HDTV, at least. Mark watched as two white coated technicians adjusted levers and dials on the contraption until something beeped, and they gave one another a thumbs-up. As they moved away, Mark got a better look at the system and still felt he knew nothing about it: a black box atop a black hourglass pedestal with no real features to define front, center, or anything. At least the Gallactor machine had presence, and the HDTV had always dominated the TV room, but this thing made Mark feel like he was about to put a quarter in a gumball machine.

Jun stood close at his side, a still and gentle presence. Just as wired as the black box, Jinpei wandered the room bugging Nambu, the techs, and the rest of the team indiscriminately: Are you done yet? What does that do? When can you start it?

I guess they want me to leave as badly as I want me to leave. Mark allowed himself a grim smile. Not that I blame them much--I guess I've been little more than a judgmental and reluctant addition to their team. And no one can replace Ken.

Jun said, "Are they back in the TV room yet?"

Mark closed his eyes and reached across the river yet again-- sometimes he could feel Ken even without the TV now, the more he practiced, but this time the images came sharp and sounds like faint whispers registered easily. "Yes. Finally."

Jason had perched on the arm of the sofa with a cup of coffee and an unbuttered bagel while Ken had taken a seat the normal way and watched the morning news. Ken was snacking on a box of mini wheats and kept a glass of orange juice at his side. Mark felt him startle, then heard him say, "I feel him--I see them! They're trying for a switch now...."

Jason said something, but a hand on Mark's shoulder on this side of the river interrupted him. "Mark, it's time to transform," Nambu said, and Mark obliged. The suit shimmered around him momentarily, and in that moment, Ken sat up and said, "I feel him again!"

Princess and Jason stood, and Ken moved closer to the television. "No," Princess said, "he was sitting right here when it happened--you'd better keep the distance the same just in case--" while Keyop ran out of the room to go get the Chief. Tiny and Jason looked on with a blank breathlessness.

Mark looked around the room at the others. "Thank you," he said to Dr. Nambu. "I appreciate all the effort you spent on my behalf."

"Get the television fixed," Nambu said.

Mark shook hands with Jinpei, then turned to Ryu and found himself the startled recipient of a bear hug. "Watch the ribs!" Ryu let him down laughing, and Mark gave him a friendly shove, then ducked as Ryu darted after him. Turning on the balls of his feet, Mark took another step that left him face to face with Jun.

Ken reached for Princess' hands and gave them a squeeze. "Take care of yourself," he said, and she replied, "You take care of yourself. It'll all work out."

Jason had his fists deep in his pockets, and he gave Ken a nod. "Hey, see you around sometime."

"I wish I could say the same for you." A pallor settled on Ken's cheeks, and he shook his head. "It was good to be with you again, even if it wasn't all the same."

Jason looked aside.

Mark tried to edge away from Jun, then said, "I have no idea what to say to you."

"Then don't try. Here." She handed him a bag. "I figured you ought to take something to remember us by." Mark smiled, and she grinned back at him. "Give Ken a heads-up if you can."

"We're ready," Nambu said.

Mark clutched the bag tightly in his hands, clenched his teeth, and nodded at Nambu, who threw a switch on the control board.

Ken said, "It's stronger!"

Jason rushed forward and pushed a video tape into Ken's hands. "Watch this when you get home--you'll like it."

Mark could see Jason's face perfectly, but he still could see Jun, Jinpei and Ryu with equal clarity, and the double vision set his heart pounding. He could feel the bag in his hands and could also feel the hard plastic shell of Jason's video tape. The television sounded in his right ear. In his left, he heard the whine of Nambu's machine and the panicked running commentary of Jinpei: what if this doesn't work--what if he doesn't make it--

Nambu said, "Now--transform, all of you! You were all in uniform the first time--maybe he needs the additional resonance--"

In the TV room, standing directly before Ken, Jason transmuted, and the HDTV buzzed into static. Princess said, "Oh--we were all in uniform last time--" and followed suit.

Mark and Ken both looked around at the double rooms full of shining transformations, and as the radiance settled away from their team mates, both felt themselves fading from the rooms.

For a moment, as though underwater, Mark could sense himself tugged by the current, pulled forward and upward, almost blind except for the sense that he had encountered someone exactly like himself. He reached a gloved hand into the energy surrounding him and felt his touch tingle past that someone. For a moment, all he knew was an incredible burning in his throat and unyielding tension in his chest, legs and eyes. The other presence paused a moment before him, studying him in return.

So you're the one!

Then the flooding electricity pulled them apart, and when Mark opened his eyes, he found himself staring only at Jason.

His breath caught. His heart pounded.

Jason's eyes widened, and in a rush he lunged toward Mark and grabbed him in a hug. Before he knew it, Princess and Tiny had joined in, and then the door opened and Keyop said, "Oh, he's back! Let me in! Let me in too!"

Princess and Jason made space between them for Keyop to squirm into the center, and Mark gave Keyop a squeeze even while trying hard to make enough room to keep breathing himself. He felt the nosebleed happen again as it had after the last transfer, and he tried to struggle out of the mob to grab a handful of tissues.

"Hey--you were bleeding all over me! Gross!"

"Yeah, Keyop, and your uniform never got blood on it before."

Mark waited until he felt the bleeding subside, sitting on the arm of the couch, breathing familiar air and hearing all the familiar voices he'd felt only distantly the last several days.

"Well," Chief Anderson said, "if that's all, I'll just go back to my office--"

Mark turned to him with laughter shining in his eyes. "Don't you even dare, Chief! There's so much I have to tell you!" Then his breath caught, and he looked at Jason.

"Yeah, yeah, he knows all about that." Jason shrugged. His eyes had narrowed, and now that the family hug had broken up, he'd withdrawn a few steps across the room and watched with crossed arms.

"Keyop, turn off the television." Anderson shook his head. "I've got a replacement set coming in a couple of days, an 800 progressive that shouldn't set up the same kinds of resonance with the birdstyle. In the meantime, I'd prefer none of you watch television, either in birdstyle or out."

Princess said, "You'd prefer we not watch it anyhow!" Her eyes had settled on the bag in Mark's hands. "What did you bring back with you?"

"Other than a perpetual set of the chills?" Mark realized as he said it that the warmth had returned to his fingers, but he didn't bother to correct himself as he opened Jun's bag. Inside he found Ken's blue sweater and a copy of a video tape.

"Holy toledo!" Jason had been looking over Mark's shoulder. "Lethal Weapon Eight!" Tiny and Keyop had pushed closer, but Jason grabbed the tape before they could. "Lethal Weapon Eight! This is awesome!" But in route to the VCR, Chief Anderson stopped him by interposing himself between them.

"No TV," he said.

Jason's eyes flared. "But Chief! This is... --and how is Mark supposed to see the end of the NBA finals?"

Mark turned to Princess. "When did he learn to use me as leverage with him?" When she giggled, he said, "How did it end, anyhow?"

"Chicago won!" Keyop's eyes glistened. "It was awesome!"

Tiny smirked. "Utah screwed up--they gave Karl Malone the ball."

Mark found everyone's smile too contagious, and he collapsed onto the sofa laughing. "I swear this, guys--they were okay over there, but I'm glad you sent their Ken back to them."

"Speaking of sending him back," Princess said, turning to Jason, "what did you hand him just before he left?"



Ken puzzled over the tiny printed scrawl on the tape label. "Mystery Science Theater 3000?"

"Aw man, some boring science show?" Jinpei made a face. "They must have been the most dull and uptight versions of us in all creation."

"I don't know--look at the episode titles. 'Attack of the Eye Creatures'? 'Master Ninja'? 'Fugitive Alien'?"

Dr. Nambu stood slightly apart from the four team members, watching the reunion. They had watched tensely as the light show began, enveloping Mark until he vanished, then fading to reveal a taller figure in Birdstyle slumping to the floor. Once they realized that Ken had returned to them, they'd rushed in, practically pulling the Eagle to his feet. Ryu crushed him in an enthusiastic hug, which Ken found himself returning with a laugh. Jun stepped back from the initial clinch, unsure of what to do next, and Ken regarded her apologetically, then reached out a hand.

Jun took his hand and put a handful of tissues into it. "You're bleeding again," she said, looking away.

Watching her, Ken tried to think of something to say. Even angry, she was such a welcome sight. And he'd never thought he miss Jinpei's bouncing sarcasm or Ryu's thick accent. Or Joe... the Joe that lived on in his memories. He could just see him off to the side, leaning against the wall with arms crossed, watching the reunion with a faint smile.

Ken passed the tape over to Jinpei to inspect. His nosebleed had already stopped, but he kept more tissues handy just in case it started again.

"It's good to have you back," Ryu said. "Mark was okay, I guess, but he's not you."

"Oh man, Aniki, he was so uptight," Jinpei said. "He didn't like us very much--even me!--and he acted like we horrified him."

Jun folded her arms and stared at the ground, and as she spoke, Ken could barely hear her voice. "How would you feel if you thought you were looking at your future?"

Ken turned to look at her, his eyes wide.

Nambu approached. "I'll want a full report from you in my office later today, but for now you might want to rest."

"I'm all right, actually." Ken shook his head. "I've really been looking forward to the five of us just hanging out."

Instantly he felt the room still, and thinking on his feet, Ken looked squarely at Nambu. "Would you like to watch a movie with us?"

Nambu hesitated, then glanced at his watch. "I suppose I could make time for dinner with you all. If you don't think you need any kind of medical checkup, you could fill me in on what happened then."

Ken nodded, then glanced at the others. Jinpei, Ryu, Jun, Nambu Hakase... He was home. With all its faults, it was where he belonged, the battle he needed to fight, and the team he needed to lead. Flanked by Ryu and Jinpei, joined by Jun and Nambu, he turned his back on the little black machine and the river that had divided them, a river he never again would cross.

This story archived at http://www.gatchfanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=521