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?