Nothing had gone as I had planned. We had found Joe, but we had lost Jun. I had broken my promise to die together to the two people I had cared most about in the world… and all in the space of a few minutes. I had barely been able to think straight, and once inside Galactor Headquarters, I had taken out my rage on a blubbering Berg Katse. I had wanted to kill him with my bare hands… and I might have, if Leader X had not intervened. The alien entity had abandoned us all, leaving us to the doom of the Black Hole Plan. Katse had committed suicide at this rejection, throwing himself into the magma bubbling up from the Earth's core.
And I had been left alone with Jinpei and Ryu, to save the planet.
We had tried to destroy the Black Hole Device, but there had been so many fail-safes built into it that even all of our explosives together had not been enough to halt it for more than a few seconds. And so I had done the only other thing I could.
I had crawled into the machinery myself, searching for some way to stop its seemingly inevitable progress. Jinpei and Ryu had simply stared, white-faced, as I had gone down into the device, hardly believing what was happening.
I had begun pulling at the gears, doing my best to yank them out of position when suddenly… everything had stopped. The Black Hole Device had come to a grinding, screeching halt. The machinery had begun falling apart, and it had been all I could do to avoid the flying metal debris. I had climbed back up to my entrance point, where I had known that Jinpei and Ryu would be waiting. I had called out to them, and reached up…
It had been at that moment that a massive set of gears had fallen, crushing my legs beneath its weight.
Everything after that moment was a blur in my mind. I barely recalled Ryu pulling me out, slinging me over his shoulder and running like hell to the God Phoenix. The next thing I remembered clearly was waking up in a hospital, only to have Dr. Nambu tell me that I had lost my legs.
It had seemed like forever that I had been in that hospital. I had been unable to leave for nine months as I had recovered and been taught to fend for myself, even without something as fundamental as legs. I had suffered through it, yet all the while something else had been eating away at my soul.
It had been Jinpei and Ryu who had gone to search for Joe's and Jun's bodies. I had been unable to join them, in what should have been my final task as leader of the Science Ninja Team. They hadn't uncovered any sign of either of our missing teammates, save for my battered boomerang, which had been located near the spot where we had left Joe, sticking up out of the ground. Each day I had hoped to hear that either Joe or Jun had been found… yet at the same time dreading the finality of that discovery. Now, more than a year later, I finally understood that locating their bodies would have provided some kind of closure… closure I desperately needed. Just to see them one last time…
At least I had had a chance to say goodbye to Joe, for however brief a time. And in my heart, I knew that he had understood what I had done, leaving him there. Hell, his whole purpose in being out there had been to show us the way. But Jun…
I hadn't seen Jun go down. I hadn't been with her when she had been hit. She had been completely alone when she had died.
And she had never known how I truly felt about her.
I couldn't recall the exact moment when I had started to notice Jun in a different way, but over the years I had discovered that there was more between us than simple friendship. It seemed that she had felt the same way, or so I had judged by Jinpei's teasing, and her reaction to her younger brother's taunts. She had always turned to me when she had been in trouble, and it had been due to more than my position as the leader of the Team. She had always done her best to make things easier for me, from letting me run a tab a kilometer long at the Snack J, to giving me the space I needed when I had something to sort through. We had been there for each other, and I had always imagined that when the war was over, we would be there for each other then, as well.
Except now that the war was over, Jun was dead, and I was only half a man. Even had she survived, I was in no position now to offer a woman anything. I didn't need pity or sympathy, and it would have killed me to see that from Jun. As it was, I had a difficult time tolerating it from Dr. Nambu. I didn't see anyone else, aside from the occasional doctor.
But this afternoon… if I went to this meeting, I would have to face Jinpei and Ryu. It had been nearly a year since I had had contact with either of them. At first, they had made an effort to visit me frequently at the hospital, but as my depression had set in, I had shunned their company, and made it clear that they were no longer wanted. Eventually they had stopped coming. Even after I had been through my 'rehabilitation' process and had come to live with Dr. Nambu (I was hardly in a position now to fend for myself, and the Doctor had insisted) I had avoided all contact with my former teammates. With Ryu, this wasn't difficult, as he was running his business at the marina most of the time, but Jinpei had been more difficult to avoid. Since Jun was no longer around to care for him, Dr. Nambu had been adamant that Jinpei move back to the villa as well. Fortunately, his living space was in a different wing from my own, and as I rarely left my room, I didn't run into him.
In my mind, I knew that I had already accepted that I would attend this meeting, even if only out of curiosity. It was rare now that anything sparked my interest. I was still convinced that I couldn't do what Hakase was asking, yet the thought that perhaps somehow my life could have meaning again was too tempting to ignore.
Reluctantly, I moved over to the side of the bed, reaching down for the wheelchair that allowed me to access my bathroom. It took some effort simply to wheel across the floor, but I made it. Once there, I made good use of the facilities, which had been altered to accommodate my injured state. I ran my hand down my face as I showered, wincing at the sharp stubble covering it. Impulsively, I decided to shave. If Hakase thought I could lead the Science Ninja Team again, the least I could do was make an effort to look like Gatchaman.
Despite my meager wardrobe, getting dressed involved a lot more choice as compared to before the war. Rather than seven identical shirts and pairs of pants, I now had a selection of both. A few of the pants had been modified to 'accommodate' me. They had been cut off above the knee, and the ends had been sewn closed. They were designed to fold underneath the stubs that remained of my legs, thus making my handicap as inoffensive as possible to others.
Of course, I had another choice.
Sitting in my closet was a long box, containing the prosthetic legs that were bane of my existence. While Dr. Nambu had had my living quarters modified for a wheelchair, he had refused to make these alterations for the rest of his home, insisting that I wouldn't need it outside of my 'personal area'. Of course, this attitude had only encouraged me to become even more of a recluse.
The prosthetic legs didn't hurt; in fact, they were very comfortable. But to me they represented everything I had lost, and the friends whom I would never see again. The pain they caused was emotional, rather than physical. Yet I knew that if I wanted to attend Dr. Nambu's meeting, I would need them. The Doctor's study was on the first floor, while my living area was located on the third floor of the villa. I would have to walk down two flights of stairs.
I began the laborious process of attaching the prosthetics, cursing to myself as I did so. It bothered me to capitulate to Dr. Nambu's wishes without a fight, but by now I was determined to make this meeting, or die trying.
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. I managed to pull on some jeans over my 'legs', then awkwardly rose to a stand. It felt strange, seeing things from an angle of height that I was no longer used to. I took a practice step, nearly stumbling as I did so. And then another.
The months of rehab at the hospital came back to me, and within a quarter hour I had managed to recall the small skill I had obtained there. Grimly, I opened my door. There was no one present in the hallway outside, and so there were no witnesses to my rough, shambling gait as I lurched down the passageway and toward the stairs.
The stairs. As I stood at their top, I looked down apprehensively, willing myself not to be afraid. That the White Shadow should have come to this was almost laughable, and the irony in my situation helped dull the edge of my fear. Resolutely I squared my shoulders, easing down the first step. The movements were awkward and jerky, but after the first ten or fifteen stairs I found my rhythm. It wasn't pretty, but in about fifteen minutes I had made my way down both long flights of steps.
I hadn't seen anyone so far, but I knew that particular streak of luck was about to end. Even as I turned the corner and looked down the hall to Dr. Nambu's study, I saw a shadow pass across the light spilling out of the door, indicating that someone was already inside. My jaw clenched, and I knew that the moment of truth was about to arrive.
As I lurched through the door to the office, I was surprised to see that the person inside was not Dr. Nambu, but Ryu. He looked up from the chair in which he was sitting, equally startled to see me there.
"Ken!" he exclaimed, half rising out of his seat before he thought better of his action and dropped back down. His eyes watched me nervously as I shambled over to the closest chair I could reach.
"Hello, Ryu." I replied as I slowly sat down. I was staring at him, just as he was doing the same to me. In the year since I had last seen him, Ryu had changed. His face, which had always been happy and carefree, was now stressed and worn. Dark circles underlined his eyes, indicating that he was having trouble sleeping. His entire body seemed to sag, as if he had completely given up. Even his hair appeared limp and lifeless.
"How have you been?" Ryu asked, suddenly coloring as he realized what my answer was likely to be. "Sorry…"
"It's okay." I replied honestly. I had steeled myself for far worse; this was a relatively benign query.
"I'm… surviving." I answered his question. "How about you?"
"Business at the Marina is good." Ryu replied, staring at his hands as they played nervously with each other in his lap. "But, you know… it's not the same."
"No." I agreed, shaking my head. "It's certainly not the same."
"Ken, Ryu, it's good to see both of you here." Dr. Nambu said as he entered the room. I caught a flash of relief crossing his face as he looked over at me. I felt slightly smug, despite myself. Apparently the Doctor hadn't been so certain that I would appear at this meeting after all.
"Where is Jinpei?" Dr. Nambu asked. "He should be home from school by now."
"He hasn't been here." Ryu replied.
"I expressly instructed him this morning to come straight home from school and to my study." Dr. Nambu frowned. He stood up and exited the room, clearly intending to fetch the boy himself.
"If he even went to school." Ryu mumbled, once the Doctor had left the room.
"Jinpei is cutting school?" I asked, mentally wincing as I instinctively used my sharp 'Commander' mannerisms. Yet Ryu seemed to respond to that tone just as he always had.
"I've talked to him about it," he sighed, "but Jinpei doesn't listen to me anymore. I know Jun would have wanted me to watch over him, since she's gone, but I've made a real mess of it. I've failed her trust in me."
"It's not your fault, Ryu." I told him, and I meant it. Ryu had brought up an uncomfortable truth. Jinpei had always looked up to me, and lost in my own issues, I hadn't paid much attention to him. But I had owed it to Jun. I should have been there to help Ryu shoulder some of the responsibility, yet I had not. I had gone out of my way to avoid Jinpei, even though we lived in the same home.
Perhaps I wasn't ready to be Gatchaman again after all.
Just as I was thinking of leaving, Dr. Nambu reentered the study, literally dragging Jinpei by his ear. My mouth fell open in shock when I saw how the youth was dressed. His torn, black t-shirt, studded belt and filthy jeans made him look like a street urchin. In comparison, his hair was covered in some kind of gel, and immaculately styled in a manner I hadn't seen before, with spikes sticking out all over his head.
"There is no excuse for failing to attend this meeting." the Doctor lectured Jinpei. "I told you this morning that it was important."
"And what could be so important, huh?" Jinpei mouthed off, apparently not in the least cowed by his foster father's ire.
"Jinpei, you will show the proper respect to Hakase!" I stated firmly.
Jinpei jumped in surprise, his wide eyes staring at me for a long moment, before his lips curled into a sneer.
"Well look who finally decided to join us!" he bowed sarcastically. "King Ken has come down from his royal tower."
"Jinpei, you have no call to be disrespectful to Ken, or Hakase!" Ryu admonished.
"Don't I?" Jinpei retorted. "Where have either of them been for the past year? Dr. Nambu's been spending all of his time away from home, and Ken's been locked up in his room, refusing to see anyone! It's practically like I've been living alone here!"
"And I can see that you've been failing utterly with this small measure of self-responsibility." Dr. Nambu remarked dryly. "Perhaps I was wrong including you in this meeting after all, Jinpei."
"Yeah!" Jinpei puffed out his chest, crossing his arms in a defiant manner. "I…" His head suddenly swiveled around the room in a comical manner, as if he had only just now realized who was here with him.
"Uh… well… I guess if it's that important…" he said sheepishly, slouching down in a chair at the back of the room.
"I'm so glad that you've decided to join us, Jinpei." the Doctor smiled thinly. He walked around to the back of his desk, then leaned forward, balancing his weight on his fingertips as his eyes scanned our faces.
"I'm going to reinstate the Science Ninja Team." Dr. Nambu stated. "And I want you all to be a part of it."
"Sure!" Ryu sat straight up, and a genuine smile came to his face. "That sounds great!"
"What's the catch?" Jinpei asked suspiciously.
"The catch is that Hakase isn't just doing this for fun." I pointed out to the sullen youth. "He's reinstating the Team because he thinks there's a need. There's going to be another war." The words had just come out of my mouth, surprising me. But they made sense. Why else would Dr. Nambu want to have an active Science Ninja Team, if not to protect the planet?
"Galactor?" Jinpei's mouth fell open in surprise. "But they're gone! We kicked their asses!"
"That's hardly an apt description," the Doctor frowned, "but it's beside the point. Ken is right. Galactor is regrouping. I have it on good authority that Leader X plans to return to our planet. If he does, you can bet that we'll have our hands full. I want to be prepared."
"So this is the first step, huh?" Jinpei smirked, lounging insolently in his chair. "You need us, and we've got to say yes, or your whole plan falls apart."
"Jinpei, of course we'll say yes!" Ryu lectured. "Like you'd even consider saying no."
"Maybe I would!" Jinpei shouted, jumping out of his chair. "Maybe I don't want to end up like Onechan, dead at some enemy base with a bullet in the back of my head, and no one else even cares!"
"We care…" I whispered, but I was pretty certain he didn't hear me.
"Jinpei…" Ryu appeared to be at a loss for words.
"Jun sacrificed herself doing her duty." Dr. Nambu intoned. "She wanted the Earth to be free of Galactor's tyranny. Are you going to sully her memory by allowing Galactor to terrorize the planet again?"
"I… well… when you put it that way…" Jinpei mumbled.
"The same can be said for Joe." the Doctor continued, ignoring Jinpei's response. "He gave everything he had to ensure your success, even when it was at the cost of his own well-being. I can assure you that if Joe and Jun were here today, they would be the first to rejoin the Science Ninja Team."
"And I'd be with them!" Ryu declared resolutely, to which Dr. Nambu nodded approvingly.
"What about you, Ken?" Dr. Nambu asked softly, his eyes boring into my face. "I presume your presence at this meeting means that you have accepted my proposal?"
"Yes." I replied, holding my gaze steady. "I'm willing to be the leader of the Science Ninja Team again." I felt a surge of pride well up in me. I was doing the right thing. My father would have approved of this, and somehow, I knew that Joe and Jun would have as well.
"What?" Jinpei's bray of laughter tore apart the solemnity of the moment. "Ken? Leader? You've got to be kidding me! He can't even get out of his chair!" Jinpei snickered, while Ryu appeared to be torn between reprimanding the boy and agreeing with him.
"Ken… leader?" Ryu appeared doubtful. "It's a nice thought, Hakase, but…"
"But, nothing." Dr. Nambu replied calmly. "I have already discussed this matter with Ken. Regardless of his physical condition, his leadership and strategic skills, not to mention his field experience, make him an invaluable asset to the Team." The Doctor looked pointedly at Jinpei.
"I'll have to ask you to leave if you're not going to accept reappointment to your former position." Dr. Nambu said blandly. "From this point forward, our conversation will not be for the ears of 'neutral civilians'."
Jinpei's eyes darted around the room, moving back and forth, before coming to rest on my legs. He stared at them intently, then lifted his gaze to meet Dr. Nambu's. Whatever he saw there caused him to tremble nervously. He swallowed anxiously before slowly nodding his head.
"Yes. I trust you, Hakase." he whispered.
"Fine. Then sit down and listen, G4." the Doctor ordered sharply. Jinpei instantly complied.
"Ken and Jinpei, you will both be reinstated at your former rank and G numbers." Dr. Nambu informed them. "Ryu, I am promoting you to G3. Since Ken will be unable to operate in the field, this effectively gives you an officer's field command."
"Thank you, Hakase." Ryu grinned. "I won't let you down."
"I know you won't." the Doctor replied, noting Jinpei's crestfallen expression. "Jinpei, I had considered elevating your rank, but given your appalling behavior in recent months, I am not certain that you have matured enough to deserve such a promotion. I may reconsider the matter in another year."
"Yes, Hakase." Jinpei mumbled dejectedly.
"Ken's leadership position will be irrefutable, but clearly he will not be accompanying the Team in the field. He will take over the duties of God Phoenix co-pilot, and remain onboard while the remainder of the Team operates off of the ship." Dr. Nambu went on. "I have been working with prototype video and audio transmission systems, which are to be installed in your helmets, so that Ken can participate and advise as much as possible during a mission." I blinked in surprise. I hadn't been expecting this.
"So I'd be able to monitor what was going on, from the God Phoenix, and assist if necessary."
"Yes." Dr. Nambu appeared pleased that I had instantly understood his intention. "As I said before, your experience is invaluable, Ken, and the rest of the Team would suffer without it in the field."
"So we're getting new uniforms?" Jinpei asked.
"Your Birdstyles will have the same appearance that they did previously," Dr. Nambu replied, "but yes, they are new. They will incorporate many new features and technological upgrades, including the helmet monitoring systems I just mentioned. I have also revised the transformation process, to prevent Galactor from using their Meganizer weapon to force you out of Birdstyle. In addition, the appearance of the civilian uniforms has been modified somewhat, to fit in with cultural changes."
"Cool!" Jinpei grinned. "I don't care if I never see those blue and white striped pants again!"
"There have been other changes made as well, if you'd like to see?" the Doctor smiled.
"Yes," I agreed, "I would." My mind whirled with the thought that asking us seemed to have been the last step in Dr. Nambu's plans. How long had he been working on this? How long had he been preparing for Leader X's eventual return?
"Me too!" Ryu added, and Jinpei agreed.
"Then we'll take my car to the new base." Dr. Nambu declared. "Follow me, everyone."
New base? Of course, it made sense. The Crescent Coral Base had been destroyed by Katse and his minions. We couldn't continue to operate out of Hakase's villa forever. However this 'new base' created another problem, as I was now required to push myself out of my chair and shamble through the villa and down the driveway to Dr. Nambu's car. I could tell that the others were purposely walking more slowly than usual, yet I still had difficulty keeping up with them. I grit my teeth and stared at the floor, willing my prosthetic legs to move, eking out as much speed as I possibly could. No one remarked on my lack of physical ability, but I could practically see the cloud of doubt hanging in the air when I finally reached the car.
Dr. Nambu drove us around the outskirts of Utoland, to the Submarine Station we had often used when traveling to the Crescent Coral Base. Even the submarines were the same, as were the few ISO personnel traveling with us.
"So I gather this new base is underwater?" I asked dryly.
"Yes." Dr. Nambu replied, but that was all he would say regarding the matter. Jinpei and Ryu also remained silent, each of us lost in our memories as the submarine descended and moved through the crystal-blue ocean waters. It was almost as if I were back in time, traveling to the Crescent Base. And when I arrived, Jun would be there to greet me, a smile on her lips…
But that wasn't going to happen today. I forcibly yanked myself from the painful memories, staring instead at the interior of the sub. Yet that only reminded me of Joe, and the way he had always tried to isolate himself from everyone, even when we were all together. Was I destined to follow in his footsteps? I laughed self-deprecatingly to myself as I realized that 'following footsteps' was something of which I was no longer capable.
"Holy crap!" Jinpei exclaimed, and instinctively I turned to look out of the window, only to find myself uttering a similar, though less crude, cry of astonishment.
The new base was massive: far larger than the Crescent Coral Base. I suspected that a dozen or more Crescent Bases could easily fit inside. The thing looked like a floating city! I noted engine ports on the back; clearly this base was designed to move, as the Crescent Base had done. Scanning the exterior of the base, I saw numerous vehicle docking ports. The submarine was headed for one of these, following some pre-determined traffic pattern. This was necessitated by the large volume of other vessels entering and exiting the base.
When we entered, we were in a massive Docking Bay, and I could see a wide variety of underwater vessels loading and unloading. A great deal of supplies seemed to be coming aboard. I asked Dr. Nambu about this.
"We're still stocking the labs and research facilities." the Doctor explained. "New personnel are arriving daily, and that requires more in the way of food and emergency supplies. The activity will die down in the next couple of months."
"So this place is only a couple of months away from being finished?" Ryu gaped.
"It's huge!" Jinpei added, as we disembarked the sub. Of course, I was the last one to emerge, and once I did so, Dr. Nambu turned to address the three of us.
"Welcome to G-Town." he said.
"G-Town?" I asked.
"This is the Gatchaman base, after all." the Doctor murmured. "It was only right that we name it as such." I barely managed to keep myself from flushing.
"Let's see the rest of this place." Ryu suggested.
Dr. Nambu led us on a tour of the base for the next two hours. Somehow, my amazement at it all allowed me to forget about the ache and exhaustion in my lower body, which had become unused to being upright for so long. We saw the research labs, where they were developing our new Birdstyles, including new bracelets. As Dr. Nambu had said, the Birdstyles themselves looked like the old ones, as did the bracelets. But I trusted Hakase when he said that they had been upgraded.
"You'll have to come back for a fitting tomorrow, Ken." Dr. Nambu informed me quietly, when Ryu and Jinpei were otherwise occupied with examining their own uniforms. "You'll be getting a new set of prosthetics, which transform and become a part of your Birdstyle. You should be much more stable, and gain more power from these limbs, but of course they will require significant adjustment as you adapt to their form and function."
We didn't get a chance to see what the civilian clothes looked like, but by this point my head was spinning so much, I barely noticed.
We moved on to a lab that contained our new hand weapons. We were each to be given a sonic pistol, along with an additional weapon suited to our talents. The saucer that was handed to me felt strange, but I quickly sensed that it would function in a fashion similar to my boomerang, yet be easier to throw. Jinpei had some kind of jai alai-style thrown weapon, while Ryu was given a… well, I didn't know what the hell it was. It looked like a giant green glob, but the scientists present called it a 'Gripper'. When Ryu threw it out and it attached itself to the wall, I could see why.
"You'll have plenty of opportunity to acquaint yourselves with your new weapons." Dr. Nambu assured us.
Next on our tour were the administrative areas (including a room that could have fit half the Crescent Base inside; that was all for Dr. Nambu's office) and the living areas. G-Town was just that: a town. The ISO personnel working aboard were stationed there for six month intervals, and some had brought their families with them. As such, there were shopping and dining areas, entertainment venues, and even a school. Living quarters had been assigned for Jinpei, Ryu and myself: roomier and more luxurious than we had been used to at the Crescent Base. I noted that there was already a wheelchair in my room, and that the quarters had been adapted for that form of movement.
"If you'd like, Ken, I can have your things transferred over from the villa." Dr. Nambu suggested. "Since you'll be spending most of your time here…"
I understood. I didn't have to leave, if I didn't want to. The Doctor was attempting to make the transition as easy on me physically as he possibly could.
"Thank you." I agreed. "That would be convenient." Immediately Dr. Nambu pulled out his cell phone and called the villa, instructing the help there to pack up my things. I smiled at his promptness. I suspected that he hadn't wanted to give me a chance to change my mind.
I already knew that there was no turning back now.