The sun was streaming brightly through the window. The temperature was warm, with nary a cloud to mar the perfection of the bright blue sky. It was an ideal day for being outside. An ideal day for flying.
But I wasn't a part of it. I lay in bed, amongst tangled, sweaty sheets, wishing that my curtains were drawn so that they could block out the bright light. I punched my pillow in frustration, turning and yanking the covers over my head. I didn't want to be a part of this world. There was nothing left in it for me anymore.
A knock on the door broke through my morose thoughts, jarring me back to my unwelcome reality.
"Ken." Dr. Nambu's voice was muffled as it came through the door. "I need to speak with you."
"It's your house. Come on in." I replied sarcastically, knowing that the Doctor was not about to be denied.
"This is your home too, Ken." Dr. Nambu intoned as he entered my room. "You have a right to be here. You grew up here."
I didn't bother coming out from underneath the covers. I didn't want to talk, and Dr. Nambu knew it. Sure, my behavior was childish, but if Hakase got fed up, he might leave me alone. Why should I make it any easier for him?
"Ken, I'm talking to you!" Dr. Nambu reprimanded sharply, ripping the sheets from my body and raking his eyes over me. "It's practically noon, and here you haven't even gotten dressed yet! You could certainly afford to pay better attention to your personal hygiene as well."
"Why bother?" I snorted, rolling onto my side so that I didn't have to look at him. I had once considered Dr. Nambu like my own father, but at that moment we couldn't have been further apart.
"I'm not going anywhere today." I added, as justification for my attitude.
"You haven't gone anywhere for months, Ken." the Doctor stated dryly. "But that has to change. I need you."
"You need me?" I laughed self-deprecatingly. "There's nothing I could possibly do for you, Hakase."
"I want to reactivate the Science Ninja Team." he said. "It's time."
"What does that have to do with me?" I asked bitterly. "I'm not…"
"I want you to lead the Team." Dr. Nambu said seriously, cutting me off before I could give voice to my objection. "I need you, Ken."
"You've got to be kidding." I snorted in disgust. "I'm of no use to anyone. I can't be a Science Ninja, much less the leader of the Team. A trained monkey would be a better Gatchaman than I."
"Look at me, Ken." Dr. Nambu ordered. Despite myself, I found my head turning to meet his gaze. No matter my current situation, instinctively I had to respond to that note of authority in his voice.
"You are not worthless." the Doctor stated, so adamantly that I almost believed it. "You were the leader of the Science Ninja Team before, and you can do it again."
"That's hardly a valid comparison." I retorted. "You know darn well…"
"Damn it, Ken, when are you going to drag yourself out of this self-pitying state and realize that you still have something to offer?" Dr. Nambu's reddened face contorted wildly with his fury.
"That's hardly fair, Hakase!" I shouted back, struggling to pull myself into a sitting position. "I gave everything I had in me to the last war. Everything! I'm not even a man anymore! I have nothing left, and the Team, such as it is, can go on without me. I'd only drag them down."
"Do you really think Jinpei and Ryu can go on without you?" Dr. Nambu replied coldly. "Jinpei can barely deal with civilian life during this temporary peace. Ryu is driving himself crazy trying to hold it together when there's no one around to support him. I'm attempting to recruit new members for the Team. Who's going to help them integrate, if not you?"
"New members?" I repeated. "You don't need me then. Make one of them the new Gatchaman."
"They won't have the experience that you do, or the knowledge. They'll be able to fight; I'll make certain of that. As you say, a trained monkey can fight. But no one else has your experience with leadership and strategy. Your knowledge of Galactor. Besides…" the Doctor paused, and I looked up, waiting for him to continue. He smirked slightly, knowing that he had finally caught my attention.
"It would kill you if I ever gave the title of Gatchaman to anyone else." Dr. Nambu finished. I hung my head, knowing deep inside that he was right. No matter how unsuited I was now for leadership, I didn't know if I could bear the additional shame of hearing another called 'Gatchaman'. The name was a part of who I was, and it would feel as if my soul was being ripped from my body if…
"I've called Jinpei and Ryu to a meeting in my study in three hours." Dr. Nambu informed me disdainfully. "If you change your mind, you're welcome to attend. But if you do, you'd better be washed and dressed." He turned sharply, departing my room before he could ascertain my reaction.
As the door closed once more, I sighed heavily, staring down at my ravaged body. I had let myself atrophy, and the musculature I had used to take for granted was long gone. But of course that wasn't the worst of it. I stared at the empty space where my legs should have been, still unable to accept that I was of any use without them.
And yet… Hakase thought I still had something to offer. I had spent more than a year wallowing in my own misery, and what had I accomplished? There had to be a reason I had survived the nightmare that had been Cross Karokorum. A day I could never forget…
"Joe!" I called out, peering through the thick fog, searching both for my missing teammate and the entrance to Galactor Headquarters. I heard a flurry of footsteps, but the shapes that emerged through the mist were those of Galactor soldiers. I barely gave them a second thought as I ended their miserable lives, my only concern being the time that was fast running out, before the Black Hole Plan arrived at its ultimate conclusion.
The voice was weak, but I knew it as well as my own. I ran toward the source of the sound, barely breaking stride as four more Galactors came out of the fog to attack. A few seconds later, I found my best friend sprawled out on the ground.
To say that Joe was a mess would have been kind. It appeared that he had been riddled with bullets, and drained of all strength. And yet somehow, he had survived. He was here, clinging to life, waiting…
"Joe, it's all right. I'm here." I told him. "I'll contact the others." I raised my bracelet to my lips, sending out the brief communication, knowing even as I did so that Galactor was likely monitoring the transmission, and would use it to determine my location.
"Ken… I can't go on…" Joe groaned, clearly using up all of his remaining strength to speak. "The entrance to Galactor Headquarters… it's here, right next to me. I had to show you the way…"
I desperately wanted to offer words of reassurance, to tell him that it was going to work out. That we would get him back to the God Phoenix, and that Dr. Nambu would cure him. But when I looked down at his grievous injuries, on top of the brain illness he had already been suffering, I knew that it would all be a pack of lies.
Joe could never survive this. To pretend otherwise to him now would be to dishonor our friendship. I couldn't do that to him.
Ryu and Jinpei appeared from out of the fog. They fell to their knees on the wet ground, staring slackjawed at their fallen teammate.
"Joe, why'd you do it, brother?" I asked.
"Listen, Ken, I know what you're going to say, so let me just tell you not to bother saying it." Joe gasped. "There's no more time…"
"Damn fool! Why did you take things into your own hands?" I questioned him, tears in my eyes. "Why didn't you talk to us about it? Ask for help?"
"Jun…" Joe said.
"What about Jun?" I asked. I quickly looked around, but she wasn't there. It was strange that she hadn't appeared after I had contacted her.
"She was shot…" Joe moaned, a tear falling from his eye. "They shot her bracelet, and then she de-transformed… She was hit in the head with laser fire… I tried to help her, but…" He winced in pain, and I could see how much his speech was costing him.
"I lost her…" he continued, after he had recovered some of this breath. "There was a quake, and she fell under the earth…"
My heart stopped beating for an instant, before my brain forced it back into reluctant operation. Jun… she was…? No. It just wasn't possible. It couldn't be. Not Jun…
"We'll find her." I vowed, yet even as I spoke I knew it was not possible.
"Go on, get moving, Science Ninja Team!" Joe urged us, acknowledging what I couldn't bring myself to accept. "If you don't hurry, Katse will escape!"
"Onechan!" Jinpei cried. "We need to look for her!"
"Ken, I know I could carry Joe back to the God Phoenix!" Ryu begged. "We can save him too, okay?" But I couldn't answer him.
"Aniki?" Jinpei moaned quietly. "Onechan…"
"Look, Joe is like a brother, Ken, who's been with us, through thick and thin!" Ryu burst out. "Won't you do whatever you can to save him?"
Even as Ryu spoke, dozens of Galactor soldiers appeared from out of the fog. I turned to face my enemies, but I directed my words to what remained of my team.
"This is my order, as Leader of the Science Ninja Team." I stated loudly. "We do not have time to search for Swan Jun. She will have to remain where she is, for now. We will leave Condor Joe here, and infiltrate Galactor Headquarters."
"Hey, Joe." I said softly, pulling out my boomerang. His eyes were closed, and it seemed that he barely had the strength to crack them open.
"Please, forgive me." I said. "I know we both swore we'd die together, but now I have no other choice but to leave you here, behind. Take this boomerang. Think of it as my heart. And know we're together, no matter what happens. And… keep an eye out for Jun, wherever you are."
I wrapped Joe's hand around the boomerang, then placed it on his chest. But I was thinking of Jun, buried somewhere beneath the Earth, who had died without even that small comfort. A blinding rage filled me, and I rose to my feet, lashing out at the men who approached.
"Halt your advance, Galactor; stand down!" I shouted, and amazingly, they complied. "Enough is enough! What will spilling any more blood prove? It's useless! It will only cause the needless loss of loved ones, separate you from your friends, and decimate your lives! Time is of the essence. We can't afford to waste any of it fighting with you! But if we have to, we're ready."
Then I turned and approached the statue.
"This is it, Ken!" Ryu said, as I reached up and pressed on the statue. The carved stone slid away, revealing the passageway underneath.
The entrance to Galactor Headquarters.