Crossing Point by Maya Perez
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Crossing Point

Story by Maya Perez

Sequel to Night Moves

For an Alternate Gatchaman Universe

Original concept Inspired by Michael Wattenbarger

Edited by Wendy Dinsmore

PROLOGUE



            Katse's hurried steps echoed down the marble hall before him.  The dozen guards that lined the walls, snapped to attention as he walked past.  He ignored them, only partially aware they were even there.

            Two large doors loomed ahead of him.  Katse didn't slow down as he approached, and they opened automatically to allow him entry.  They sealed shut once he stepped inside.

            The room was empty except for a large, oval screen at one end.  Katse moved toward it and knelt before it with a flare of his cape, five feet from the screen.  He stared at the polished floor.

            "X-sama, please hear me.  I have news!"

            Katse felt the hair rising on his arms and neck as the air around him charged with energy.  X had come.  He let a small, satisfied smile fill his lips.

            "What is it, Berg Katse?" 

            Katse looked up and glanced at the familiar angular representation of He who had made him what he was.

            "I have news. Marvelous news, X-sama!  I've created a new weapon for you that cannot fail against the despised ninja team!"

            "Katse - "  X's tone was one of bored impatience.

            Katse interrupted him before he could go on, having expected this exact reaction from his alien master.  "I know I've said this before, Luminous One, but this time it's different.  I cannot fail!"  He stood up, his eyes bright.  "The weapon has been ready for weeks, but I held back from using it until I came up with the perfect plan.  Until I thought out every contingency!  I swear to you they will not have a chance this time.  Gatchaman will be destroyed.  And once they're gone, X-sama, I'll be able to give the world to you on a silver platter!  All I need to proceed is your permission and your blessing."  He stood up.

            "I will not fail you this time, I swear it.  You will not be disappointed.  Let me tell you of it and you will see.  This time, we will be victorious!"

 

 

 

************

 

 

 

            "Ken, it's time to wake up.  Come on!"

            Though his body was being shaken hard, it was the warmth pressed against his arms that slowly brought him toward wakefulness.  Ken struggled to clear his mind of the molasses that had poured over it in the daylight hours.

            "Come on, you're giving me the creeps.  Wake up already!"

            Ken's eyes fluttered open even as a cascade of sensory input flooded into him.  The lingering smell of recently-washed-off oil and grease invaded his nostrils followed by the familiar scent of Old Spice.  A strong heartbeat rang in his ears.  The beat was familiar and regular, subconsciously assuring him nothing overtly pressing had occurred during his sleep.

            Ken struggled to command his stiff muscles to allow him to sit up.  Hands reached out to help him as he faltered.  The warmth of blood and life poured into him at the touch and made his Thirst stir.  He gingerly moved away even as he suppressed and then ignored his Thirst.  He shook his head trying to clear the lingering bits of fog in his brain.

            "I thought that waking you up was supposed to get easier?"

            Ken slowly raised an eyebrow at the dripping sarcasm.  Joe didn't seem to be in a very good mood today.  "This -- is not -- as easy -- as you -- might -- think."

            "Yeah, right."  Joe slapped a tall thermos into Ken's hand.  "Just hurry it up, will you?  I want to get this over with.  Shit, the way things normally go, I might as well give up and kiss off the rest of the day!"

            Ken glanced at his friend as his chiseled Italian features filled with distaste.  He silently marveled at the deep blue eyes, the frowning lips, and the zillion other things he could see in his friend as he never did before.  Ken forced himself to look away before he was totally sucked in by it all.  "I take it you -- have a race today?"

            Joe leaned angrily against the wall.  "Three weeks of nothing, absolutely nothing.  Yet here comes one of the most important meets of the season and WHAM, we get called in for an emergency meeting!  Why the hell do I even bother?"

            Ken said nothing, knowing it would be to no avail.  Instead, he opened the top of the thermos Joe had given him and popped out its built in straw.  He quickly moved to take a sip from it.

            A chill of vibrant pleasure moved through him as the warm, heavy liquid touched his tongue.  It was quickly followed by a sharp pang of guilt.  He would never get used to the drinking of blood.  Because of his disease, he would die without it, but... why did it have to taste so good?  This was but one of over a thousand questions he'd yet been unable to find answers for.

            It'd been almost a month since his transformation.  Even now, the whole episode seemed unreal, just part of an old nightmare.  He had heard or seen nothing of Tiana since her visit to his room those many weeks ago.  He was still undecided as to what to make of it.  He did, after much deliberation, however, finally take her advice and searched out the films and books that dealt with vampirism.  They had taught, amused, and sometimes, horrified him.

            Lugosi showed him how the disease could be like an addiction.  Stoker portrayed it as an elemental force of evil that must be fought, while Saberhagen twisted the whole thing around into one giant misunderstanding.  Anne Rice had at first lamented over what was lost, but later pushed for acceptance.  The Hammer films with Christopher Lee made of it a wonderful means of gaining power and control over others.  The occult books revealed variations on vampirism from the familiar Americana version to their head detaching cousins in Japanasia.  The contradictions between the sources were endless, but a few things had also been somewhat constant.  The one thing they all agreed on was the need for blood.

            Ken felt a light shiver course up his spine.  He continued drinking his breakfast.

            Things had been pretty normal since the change.  Yes, his schedule changed and he didn't see as much as he used to of the others, but it was still better than he could have ever expected - except for Braun....

            He'd called him after the first few days to apologize for what he almost did.  Braun flatly refused to speak to him.  The others went and talked to Braun for him, but though he smiled and said he understood, he still refused to see him.  It wasn't long after that that Braun tried to resign.  Nambu had been able to talk him out of it, though only after he promised him that he'd be reassigned and that Ken would never try to contact him again.  The fact all of this transpired from that one horrible meeting haunted him in his rare dreams.

            "Aren't you through yet?"  Joe sounded impatient.  "I want to hurry to the meeting so Nambu can go ahead and dash whatever hopes I've left about today."

            Ken returned to the present.  "How about I finish it on the way?"

            "Let's go then...."  Joe pushed himself away from the wall and made for the door.  Ken followed after him, sipping as went.

            As the two of them entered Nambu's office, Ken noticed the others were already there.  He placed his emptied thermos on the floor as he sat down.  Joe leaned against the wall behind him, a scowl on his face.

            Nambu acknowledged their arrival with a nod and then used a remote to turn out the lights.  A slide projector lit up the west wall.  The current slide showed a detailed map of South East Asiano's Indiana Ocean.

            "As you know, the ocean around this region is heavily dotted with reefs and small islands that only disperse as it spreads out from Chuna out toward the Sea of Liam. 

            "One of the most used and safest passages through the area lies past the small country of Singapole through the Pole Strait.  The route is mainly used to transport goods from Asiano to the West and vice versa.  Its most valuable cargo are shipments of oil.  Due to security reasons, the schedules of these ships are heavily guarded secrets.  Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case."

            Nambu clicked the remote and the projector switched to a new frame.  A large tanker sat in the middle of the picture, its body roughly split in half, its precious contents spilling into the sea as fire raged on the ship's deck.

            "Galactor's quiescent period seems to be over."  He pointed toward the screen.  "This picture was taken a little over two hours ago.  What few survivors were found testified they were attacked by a humongous bird shaped ship."  Nambu paused a moment, letting his words sink in.

            "Clean up of the disaster is already under way.  There are yet no estimates on the long term ecological damage that will result from the attack."

            Ken watched his teammates tense as Nambu paused again.

            "Not one hour after the incident, a message was delivered to President Anderson's office with detailed information of the ship's scheduled route and a statement quoting the attack had been no accident.  The message went on to say that they have somehow acquired the routes for other oil tankers and that these would be destroyed as well if their demands were not met."  Nambu turned the lights back on.

            "Hakase, what are their demands?"  A strange sense of dread whispered through Ken's mind as he asked the question.

            Nambu pushed his rimless glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and turned to face them.  "Instant and total surrender of the world to Galactor plus my public and televised execution as well as that of the Science Ninja Team."

            "What drug trip is Katse on?" Joe asked.  "I never thought even he was stupid enough to think Anderson would hand over the world for just a few oil tankers!"  His confusion was shared by all.

            "You're right.  Though the ecological as well as economic damage of more attacks would be great, it still wouldn't be enough to seriously encourage the governments of the world to try and meet his terms."  Nambu sat down behind his desk.  "More than likely, this is a thinly disguised attempt to draw the team out."

            They all sat in silence for a moment.

            "So this could be a lure for a trap, or even a distraction as Galactor goes off after another target."

            "My thoughts exactly, Ken."

            Ryu leapt to his feet.  "But, but something has to be done!  There are some very rare fish and animals in the reefs and islands of the Indiana Ocean.  The oil from those tankers would poison everything!  It might even drive some of those species to extinction!"  Everyone stared at Ryu's sudden fervor with surprise.  "You just can't let them do it, even if it's a trap."

            "And I thought I was a hothead."

            At Joe's comment, Ryu's cheeks turned a blazing red and he quickly sat back down.

            "You are, of course, absolutely justified in your sentiments, Ryu.  The ecological damage that would be caused by further incidents is much too great to just ignore."  Ryu looked even more embarrassed.

            "The God Phoenix is to be dispatched to circle the area with an escort of fighters out of Singapoole.  The President is placing all countries on alert so if this does turn out to be a delaying tactic of some sort, they'll be ready to attempt to hold them off long enough for you to try and get there." 

            Jinpei grinned at Ryu.

            "If their threat is real, the most likely target is a fleet of tankers and escorts belonging to the Combine, and they are due to pass through the straight in about four hours.  I want the God Phoenix to cover the area before their arrival and escort them through once they arrive.

            "I advice strong caution.  Ken, if the situation becomes too dangerous, I'll expect you to pull out of there immediately.  If this is a trap, they've had plenty of time to prepare.  You can always engage them again when the situation is more in our favor."

            "Hai, Hakase."

            Nambu stared at them for a long moment.  "All the pertinent information has already been downloaded into the God Phoenix's computer.  I suggest you leave as soon as possible.  Any questions?"  There were none.  "All right then, good luck."

            The five members of the ninja team headed for the door. 

"Ken, could I see you a moment?"

            He waved for the others to go on without him.  "Yes, Hakase?"

            Nambu stared at his hands in silence before finally looking up at him.  "This will be your first mission since you were infected.  Though I don't really foresee any major problems... please, be extremely careful."

            "I will, sir.  I'll be fine."  Was Nambu having doubts?  Were they anything like his own?

            The doctor nodded.  "All right, go on then."

            Ken tried to reassure them both with a small smile before rushing off to catch up with the others.

            In bird style, the five ninja leaped into the God Phoenix.  Ken rushed to his seat feeling a tingle of nervousness coil about him as it usually did at the beginning of every mission.  Ryu kicked on the God Phoenix's engines as the bay around them filled with water.  Ken felt a layer of weight settle over him as it did so.  Water was mentioned off and on in the vampire books and films.  He'd dismissed it so far because he'd felt no adverse effects from it at Crescent Coral.  Did he do so too quickly?

            The ship launched before Ken could try and answer the question.  His body was pressed against his seat as the ship flowed forward and felt no different than normal.

            The God Phoenix tore itself from the ocean's grip out into bright daylight.  Ken flinched as the bright light poured in through the main screen but felt nothing as it covered him.  As Nambu had promised, his extended and darkened visor afforded him full protection as well as his uniform.  Still, a place deep inside quivered at the fact he was being bathed with the sun's rays.

            "Ken?"  Jun moved up behind him.

            "I'm all right.  The visor is working great."  He glanced back at her and saw her nod with a smile.  She looked strange to him, wearing the old familiar costume except for the beak-shaped visor which had been changed, like the others, to match his own.  Weirder was the fact he seemed to be able to look through them when he tried.  He was sure the feeling was mutual.  Nambu had felt, and they all agreed, that if Ken's were the only visor to change, it would have drawn undue attention to it.  Yet now that he saw the actual change in play, he thought of how easily it could become a constant reminder of the changes that had been thrust into his life.

            Ken forced his mind away from such thoughts even as Ryu set the ship's course toward the Indiana Ocean.  After going through their usual system checks and setting the scanners to maximum range, they all tried to relax as they waited for the ship to take them to their destination.  Though normally a tedious process for him, Ken found himself too distracted to worry about it.  Everything around him appeared in a new light through his heightened senses.  Even the unending blue sky dotted with cotton clouds enthralled him like never before.  How could anything be so vivid, so delicate, when not so long ago they seemed so mundane?

            They arrived at Singapole in less than an hour.  Six jets rose to greet them as Jun exchanged information with those on the ground.  Together, the God Phoenix and the fighters moved in an ever broadening pattern, checking the area for anything unusual.

            The hours whittled away without mishap.  No calls came from Nambu to advice them of any trouble brewing elsewhere. 

            Tension filled the bridge as the long awaited tankers finally came into view.   The number of fighters from Singapole doubled, half scouting ahead while the rest guarded the tankers' flank.  The God Phoenix hovered over the group of ten ships protectively.

            "Okay guys, this is it.  Keep your eyes open," Ken advised.

            "Roger."

            As always, he sent out a small, quick prayer asking that this time would be the time they would defeat Galactor once and for all.

            The tankers and their naval escort maneuvered past the worst of the reefs and still there was no sign of danger.  The Singapole jets returned home, replaced by those belonging to Chuna.

            "Ken, three missiles just launched in the water from one of the islands!  They'll reach the tankers in less than ten seconds."  Jun's expression was grave.

            "Damn!  They were supposed to attack from the air!"  Joe ran to the Bird Missile controls as Ryu guided the ship toward the water.  Before they could get a shot off, the missiles struck.  A guard ship and two of the tankers rocked as missiles hit their sides.  Their hulls groaned in agony before being engulfed in flames.  Oil and fire rained from them onto the other ships.

            "Holy shit!"  The fire from the guard ship spread out into the spilling oil.

            "Jun, where's the ship that fired those missiles?"  Ken's hands were clasped onto the arms of his chair.  The metal made a tortured sound.

            "Radar shows nothing, just the island... wait!   There's something coming up now."

            A giant, long necked bird of gold and yellow broke from the water into the air.  Ryu was forced to turn the God Phoenix hard to the right as the ship swept up into their path.  The mecha's long feather like wings blossomed behind it giving the illusion of an all consuming fire.

            "Now Katse's gone too far.  He's made his dumb mecha look just like the Fiery Phoenix!"  Jinpei's voice was indignant.  "That's plagiarism!"

            "You can take it up with him, once I've torn his new little play toy to pieces!"  Joe hung onto the back of Ryu's chair as the latter was forced into yet another sudden turn.  Joe placed his hand over the firing controls waiting for his chance to fire.

            "Get this over in a hurry, Joe.  Those people need help."

            "Keep your pants on, Commander.  I'll take care of it."  Joe pressed down on the red firing button.

            Four missiles left the God Phoenix's missile rack before Ryu was forced to turn away from their target.  The Galactor's Phoenix screeched in a close approximation of the Gatchaman's own ship's call.  Ten fiery feathers left the mecha's wings and homed in on the missiles.  Within moments, they destroyed them all.

            "No hits."  Jun's voice was low.

            "Damn."  Joe smashed his fist on the console.

            Jun looked up from the radar screen.  "Ken, they're coming after us."

            "Ryu, do you think you can take us on a loop over that thing so we can shoot at its backside?  We've got to bypass those feathers."  How beautiful and graceful the ship was.  Galactor definitely seemed to have surpassed themselves.  It made him worry.

            "Sure, I think so."  Ryu had the ship pick up speed.

            "Joe, get off as many as you can."

            "You bet."

            The God Phoenix made a sharp turn and headed toward the Galactor mecha.  The giant phoenix screeched again as they looped over it.

            "Got you now!"  Joe began firing in earnest.

            Feathers detached themselves from the mecha's tail and wings and destroyed the Bird Missiles within seconds of their being launched.  "Chikusho!"

            "Ken, they're turning away!  They're heading back toward the tankers!"

            "Ryu!"

            "I'm on it!" 

The ship swerved back around.

            "Aniki, what are we gonna do?  Our missiles aren't getting through."  Jinpei shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

            "There's no time to try to find a way inside the thing.  We're going to have to try and destroy it with the Fiery Phoenix."

            "There'll be something poetic in that I'm sure."  Joe hurried back to his seat.

            "Yeah,  we'll teach Katse what happens when you plagiarize!"  Jinpei grinned from ear to ear.

            The God Phoenix gained ground on the Galactor mecha.

            "Is everyone ready?" Ken asked.

            "Hai!"

            He leaned forward and grabbed hold of the familiar red lever.  He hesitated as the question of how his changed body might react to the Phoenix effect popped into his mind.  Guess he would soon find out.  "Fiery Phoenix!"  He pulled the lever.

            Rippling vibrations cascaded through the ship as the transmutation coils through the God Phoenix went to work.  The outer surface of the ship shimmered and within seconds turned into a bird shaped mass of flowing flames.

            Inside, all but one of the crew grimaced at the forces rippling about them.  Ken arced a brow in surprise as he found himself holding onto the lever without the usual muscle ripping strain.  He stared out the viewscreen in awe as he saw the raging storm of power that wove outside and around them.  The others had their eyes shut as their bodies struggled to withstand the strain forced on them.

            The view screen partially cleared becoming the eyes of that which the God Phoenix had become.  With baited breath, Ken watched as the Galactor mecha whipped around with previously undisplayed speed and faced them. 

            The Galactor Phoenix confronted its flaming sister and screeched as she opened her mouth wide. 

            Though Ken saw nothing come from the opening, he abruptly pitched forward as a piercing pain invaded his ears and his brain.  He grimaced at the torture but forced his hand to remain on the transmutation lever. 

            The Galactor Phoenix screeched again and the pain pouring in through Ken's ears multiplied.  The radar console in the rear of the bridge crackled with sparks as Ken screamed in agony.  His hand fell away from the lever as he tried in vain to cover his ears.

            "Ken!"

            The lever snapped back, ending the Phoenix's transmutation.  As the ship shifted back to normal, systems throughout the ship shorted and sparked.  Already strained, Ryu struggled to control the God Phoenix.   Ken's scream choked in his throat and he fell to the deck.  Jun was halfway to his side when the ship gave a violent lurch sideways.  She was thrown roughly against the wall and had the breath knocked out of her.

            "Nee-chan!"  Jinpei struggled against the after effects of the transmutation to try and reach his sister even as ship continued to rock back and forth.

            "Ryu, look out!" 

Ryu's head snapped up at Joe's warning.  Over twenty feathers had separated themselves from the Galactor ship and were heading straight toward them.

            "Grab hold of something," Ryu yelled.  "The controls aren't responding!  We won't be able to avoid them!"

            Jinpei reached out for his sister as she regained her feet.  They struggled back toward their seats.  By that time, Joe had stumbled up to Ken's chair.  He tried to lift his friend from the floor, but his body was stiff and wouldn't give.  Cursing, while trying not to think of what the stiffness might mean, he grabbed Ken's cape and wrapped it about his arm as he used the other to clamp onto the back of Ken's chair.

            The first of the feathers hit against the side of the ship and instantly exploded.  Two slammed toward the back of the ship near the engines.  As the ninja team was thrown about, the God Phoenix made a head long dive toward the ocean below.  The remaining feathers turned to follow after them.

            Twisting and turning out of control, the God Phoenix plunged into the Indiana Ocean.

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

            "Ugh..."  Joe's first thought was that his head hurt - it hurt bad.  He tried to move, but this only sent pain shooting through his brain and down his neck.  He groaned.

            "Ah, I see that our sleeping beauty seems to be finally coming awake."

            Joe stiffened recognizing the high pitched voice before him.  He opened his eyes.  His vision swam before him, sparks flashing before his eyes.  He quickly closed them again.

            "Are we not feeling well, Condor?"

            Joe forced his eyes open again and smiled coldly.  Katse's smug face swayed before him.  "I'm just fine, thanks."

            "I'm relieved to hear it, really I am.  I was so worried you might try to miss out on all the fun I'm planning to have with you."  Katse's gloved hand reached out to touch him.  Joe jerked back but wasn't able to get away from him.  The sound of jingling chains filled his ears.  Katse briefly ran his fingers up Joe's arm.  Joe struggled to force his vision to focus.

            "I must admit that things went even smoother than I hoped.  You won't believe how happy I was when I found you all waiting for me on the ocean floor."

            "Yeah, right."  Joe ignored him trying to pick up on what was around him.

            As he already suspected, he found his wrists and ankles chained and he hung suspended between them.  A blank metal wall stood less than ten feet in front of him, making the room seem more like a hallway.  Glancing dizzily to either side, he found Jun strung up on his right and Ryu on his left.  With his messed up vision and their new visors, he couldn't make out their expressions.  He tried to see past them for signs of Ken and Jinpei but wasn't successful.

            "Unfortunately, our little trap didn't go as easily for you.  I apologize if we banged you up a bit too much.  I really do prefer for the process to happen while we are face to face."  Katse's smile was predatory.  He reached within his cloak and brought out a small, remote control device.  His smile turned sad.  "Unfortunately, my victory didn't come without cost."

            Katse turned from him and pointed his device at the wall.  It rose up into the ceiling.  The room beyond had a floor totally covered by squares of alternating black and white marble.  Red and black banners covered two of the walls, flaunting the Galactor symbol.  Set in the back of the room was an enormous throne of gold adorned with purple velvet.  Katse pressed another button and several strategically set lights kicked on focusing their glow about five feet above the throne.  Centered in the light was something that had been spiked to the wall.  Joe struggled to focus his eyes to try an make out what it was.

            "Ken!"

            Jun's anguished cry cut through him, focusing his vision for one long horrible instant, the image before him burning itself into his mind.

            The ninja team's commander hung above the throne, held there by three spikes driven through his abdomen.  Ken's arms were stretched out to the sides and spiked at the palms.  His uniform hung on his body torn and ripped, covered with blood.  His helmet had been unceremoniously cut away, leaving his head exposed as it hung limply before them.  Mercifully, his long, dark brown hair hid from them the horrible facial expression he probably died in.

            Joe heard sobs coming from his right and left.  He saw Katse stare at them, wallowing in their pain.  Joe thrashed in his chains enraged by the glee he saw there.  "Stop it.  Don't you know you're doing exactly what the bastard wants?"  The sobbing gradually ceased.

            "Tsk, tsk, Condor.  Don't you know people need to let go of their grief?"  Joe tried to lunge himself at him.  His chains held him back.

            "My, my, I think that what we have here is a small misunderstanding.  Perhaps I should explain...."  Katse pointed lazily back toward Ken's hanging body.  "Somehow I get the feeling you think I killed him.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!"  He began to pace quietly before them.  "If you recall, I told you that there'd been a cost, price if you will, to my victory.  The accidental death of Gatchaman was that price.

            "Yes, I put him up there and unmasked him with my own two hands, but when I did so, he was already dead.  He had left us some time before we were able to find you on the ocean floor.  I want you to know if there had been the least bit of life left in him I would have done everything in my power to have kept him alive."  Joe snorted sure he would have only gone through the trouble just so he could later take the pleasure of killing Ken himself.  "I must admit I was quite annoyed at him for escaping me like that."  Katse toyed with one of the long ears of his mask.  "I had such lovely plans for him...and though I did try, they just weren't any fun with him dead...  What a pity...."  He grinned happily at Joe as the latter growled at him.

            "I have thought of a way to console myself, however.  I plan to do to all of you  those wonderful things I thought up especially for him."  He smiled endearingly.  "Each of you will bring me such sublime joy.  The expectation is almost more than I can bear!"  He stared enthusiastically at all of them.  "But, despite this, I will be patient.  I want all of you to hang there for a day or two so I can show you off.  Then, as your commander's body begins to rot, I'll pick one of you to play with and will eventually allow you to take his place."  His eyes turned sly.  "I may even let the rest of you watch so you'll know exactly what to expect on your turn."  His smile turned cold.  "You four have much to answer for and believe me, you will!"

            "Do your worst, you costumed freak!  We won't give you the satisfaction!"

            "Such brave words, Condor, but they have so little now to back them up."  Katse punched him in the stomach.  Joe swallowed the pain, trying not to make a sound.

            "We're going to become such good friends." Katse laughed.  "Try to escape while you're here, please, it should increase the fun.  But I'll warn you, it won't be easy, if even possible."  He leaned back on what seemed to be nothing.  "Besides the metal wall you saw, there's also a clear one between you and my audience hall and it will stand up to almost anything."  Katse's smile was wide, his voice pleasant.  "There's only one way in or out of this room, that door over there."  He pointed off to the left to a place Joe couldn't see.

            "The door has no locks that can be picked, no wires you can get at to cross.  It is opened only by remote, one which I do not even carry but is held by the guard stationed on the other side.  Do not call for him, he will not hear you.  And he will not open the door regardless, for you see, his life is at stake.  He will only open the door to me and then only with the proper code words.  And just in case, they are changed every time I leave here."  He pointed upwards.  "If you somehow do free yourselves from the chains, however, we're prepared to flood the room with a nerve toxin that will paralyze you where you stand.  You won't be able to use any of the vents to crawl out because the six of them that come into this room are but two inches wide."  He laughed with pleased mirth.  "You see, I've thought of everything!"  He twirled before them.

            "I guess I'll leave you for a little while now that I've explained everything.  It is getting rather late and I've many things to do.  Besides, you do want some time alone to grieve, am I right?"  Katse glanced at Ken's impaled body a wistful look on his face.  "Do you think I should go through the trouble to have him stuffed?"

 

 

 

 

            "Nee-chan, what are we gonna do?"  Jun strained to look past Joe and Ryu to her tired sounding brother.  Katse left them about ten minutes before, laughing all the way.  As he did so, he turned out all the lights in the room and in the audience hall except for those focused on Ken's body.

            "I don't know, Jinpei....  I'm sure help is on the way though.  We just have to hold on until it gets here."  She doubted she sounded as sure as she hoped.

            "And we already know what we have to do if help doesn't come.  We can't give the bastards the satisfaction they want.  Use your training to block out what pain you can, and always, always look for an opening for escape."  Jun glanced at Joe.  "Katse thinks he's got us good, and that will make him careless.  With Ken gone, he doesn't believe the rest of us to be much of a threat.  He's liable to slip sooner or later.  Watch out for it, take the chance.  The least that can come from it is a quick and merciful death."  No one disagreed with Joe's logic.

            For the next several minutes, they questioned each other to find out how each fared from the crash.  All were bruised and battered.  Ryu appeared to have a number of cracked ribs, Joe a possible concussion.  Jun thanked the spirits it wasn't worse.  Maybe they would have a chance.

            "We should try to get to sleep and get some rest.  This might be the last opportunity for it we'll get," Joe said.  No one argued with him.

            "Good night, nee-chan."  There was a slight quiver in Jinpei's voice Jun didn't like.

            "Good night, Jinpei.  I love you."  She felt tears gathering in her eyes.  She  wished she could hug him to try and ease his fear.  This was so unfair!  Never did she imagin it would be like this for them - that they'd be battered, scared, hopeless, with Ken dead and mutilated.

            Jun was flooded by a sudden deep pang of sorrow.  Ken... he'd gone through so much only to die like this....  Her gaze rose unwillingly to his lit form.  Who could have known?  Warm tears cascaded down her cheeks.  How would they go on without him?  Would they even get the chance to try?

            She found herself abruptly breathless as she saw... what?  Her tears slowed, her heart beating faster, as she tried to pin down if she had seen the impossible or if it was a trick of her tears.  She saw it again.  "J - Joe!  Look!  Joe!"

            "Jun, what's wrong?'

            "It's, it's -- he, he -- "  Jun shook her head trying to make her mouth work properly as hope, fear, and confusion battled for dominance inside her.

            "Oh my, God!"  Ryu's voice was pitched high.  "K-k-k-Ken!"

            "What?"  Joe still hadn't been able to see what they were so startled about.  His gaze traveled dizzily around the audience hall looking for any inconsistencies and finally settled on Ken's hanging body.  His eyes grew wide with disbelief as he saw what the others had already seen.  Ken's head had moved.

            "That's right!  Aniki's an undead!  He didn't die!  He's alive!  Aniki's alive!"  Jinpei's chains jingled as he wiggled with excitement.

            "No, that's not possible...  It has to be one of Katse's tricks."  Joe shook his head, hope fighting versus reason.

            "But I keep telling you!  Aniki is a vampire now, and vampires can't be killed unless they're exposed to the sun or staked through the heart with wood.  Those stakes are metal!  Aniki is alive!"

            "He needs our help.  We have to go to him!"  Ryu pulled at his chains with all his might, ignoring the growing pain in his side.  His eyes never left Ken's form.

            "Joe, we've got to do something!"  Jun looked helplessly at her teammate, her eyes already filled with the fear there was nothing they could do.  Joe wouldn't meet her gaze.  "Oh please, Kami-sama, help him!  Ken!  Ken!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

            ‘Ken'

            He was on fire.  His whole body was burning, slowly consuming itself from within.

            ‘Ken, wake up'

            He dreamed with the burning -  ghastly, horrible dreams.  Though they'd seared him he hadn't understood them, and there'd been nothing he could do to make them stop.

            ‘Ken, you must'

            He knew he almost awakened once, but he'd been so weak, his body so heavy.  The sun had pulled him back down.  Yet, things had changed.  He wasn't as heavy, the pull was gone.  The fire had intensified and spoke to him as it consumed him.  It told him he was dying.  It told him he must feed.  It pulled him toward wakefulness, helped by that other strangely familiar call from beyond.  And though he hated his Thirst with every fiber of his being, he knew that for once, it was right.

            "Ken!  Ken!"

            ‘Ken, you must awaken'

            He tensed, the slight movement making pain shoot through him from several places.  The voice, which was different from the other, he recognized as Jun's.  Why did it seem so far away?

            Ken concentrated and was able to open his eyes.  The first thing he saw was three large metal spikes sticking out of his abdomen.  He blinked several times, trying to comprehend what he was seeing.  His Thirst roared, caring nothing about such things, as the smell of coagulating blood flooded his nostrils.  Behind it came the scent of wax and polish.  He tried to shut all three of them out.

            Ken closed his eyes.  Something was terribly wrong.  The shadows of his tormented dreams strove to surface.  His muddled thoughts struggled for cohesion.  His thinking was slow, even clumsy.  He shouldn't be feeling this way.  With great effort, he was able to raise his head.  Pain flared all over it, but he did his best to ignore it.  In no way did it compare to the burning inside him.  -You must eat or you will die.-

            Reopening his eyes, Ken took in the brightly polished marble floor and the gaudy throne below him.  He had his eyes follow the black and white squares and looked up so that he found his friends across the room hanging from chains.  Bright auras covered the four of them, though they seemed oddly muted when compared to the brightness they had when he'd looked at them this way before.  -Blood, blood!  I must have it!-  His teeth ached and the burning inside him intensified, making him grimace.  He mentally cursed at his Thirst and then disregarded it.  He would never give the four of them to it - he wouldn't allow it!

            Slowly it dawned on him they were all prisoners.  Not far behind was the realization his enemies probably thought him dead.  Faster still came the knowledge that if he let Katse have his way, his friends wouldn't be far behind in having it become true of them.  That would not be.

            Ken tried to move his arms and found that he couldn't.  One of them screamed at him when he tried.  Haltingly, he turned his head and saw that his hands were spiked to the wall.  He tried to flex the fingers on the arm that didn't scream and felt pins of pain wrack his fingers, but they did move.  He looked back at his friends, his responsibility, even as they frantically tried to free themselves of their bonds to no avail.  He had to help them.  They couldn't be left there to die. - The blood shouldn't be wasted.-  He didn't want to see them die.

            Gingerly, Ken curled his right hand and put the protruding end of the spike between his fingers.  He, in a way, had already died, but they couldn't be allowed to follow.  Their deaths would not be like his... for that which was them would be no more.  -All that blood, wasted...-  He would be forced to do without them - he wasn't ready.  The mere thought of it was totally repugnant.  He couldn't allow it - they'd been through too much!

            Ken gripped the spike as best he could and gritted his teeth as he pulled with all the might he could muster.  His hand moved, but not the spike, as it bit deeper into his palm.  Agony shot up through his arm and it took all he had not to scream or stop.  Pull!  His vision swam even as he thought he felt the spike give a little.  Ken forced himself to shut everything out but the pulling of the spike. 

            After a seeming interminable moment, the spike slid out of the wall and set his arm free.  It fell beside him like a dead weight.

            -You must feed or you will die.  You must feed or you will die!-

            Ken let his arm dangle for a moment, trying to let the tide of pain which had been added to the constant burning subside a bit.  With slow, careful movements, he turned the pointed end of the spike toward the wall and pushed.  The spike moved easily through his bloodied hand and fell with a clang to the floor cracking one of the marble tiles there.

            Ken brought up his hand before his eyes, a chill passing through him at the large hole he found there.  Even as he watched, the hole began to close.  A nimbus glowed around it that eventually dimmed.  Layer upon layer of skin reconstructed itself within his bloody palm to look exactly as it had before.  His gaze was trapped by the miracle of it, even as the burning inside him raged greater than before.  -Blood!-

            Reminded that his job wasn't over, Ken glanced over at his other arm.  He saw immediately that it didn't run straight but that part of it was off at an angle.  With his free hand, he reached over as far as he could over his broken arm and pulled.  This time he screamed.  The sound echoed through the large room until his hand finally come free.

            Minutes moved on and he just hung there.  Cries of encouragement and worry buzzed like tiny flies about his ears.  Concentrating on them and whom they belonged, he gingerly moved to remove the spike from his left hand.  Once he did so, he dropped it onto the padded seat below.  With a sigh, he reached for the twisted lower part of his arm and turned it so that it looked right.  He ignored it after that.

            Ken looked down, knowing what should come next.  His vision swam in and out, pain still raging in his arm.  -Do it.  Do it!  The blood waits.  We must have the blood!-  Taking a deep breath to brace himself, Ken moved his right hand and wraped it around the first of the three spikes in his abdomen.  He yanked.

            Bright agony cut through him as it came lose and he pulled it from his body.  He bit his lip, cutting it open, trying his best not to cry out.  His body shifted slightly to the right, tearing some of the flesh around the other two spikes.  Ken felt weaker, and strangely giddy, as more of his remaining blood spilled over his freshly opened wound.  Like his hands, the skin around the opening began to close. -Blood!-

            Ken's hand shook as he moved to take hold of the second spike.  Inch by inch, he brought his legs up until they braced him against the wall.  He pulled until it came out.

            Though he used what leverage he had with his feet to keep himself from shifting, his whole body moved down over an inch.  He was instantly blinded with pain.  Everything went red.  His hand went momentarily numb and the spike fell from his fingers to the floor.  It smashed another tile, making the sound seem like thunder to Ken's ears.  He didn't move for several minutes, trying, mostly without success, to distance himself from the pain.

            After a time, he forced his eyes to open again.  He had only one more spike to go and then he would be free to help his friends.  -And drink their blood!-  If he'd only learned all Tiana had offered, he wouldn't have to go through all this!  He could have turned insubstantial like her and avoided all this pain.  -You were a fool.-  No!  Stick to the task at hand!  This wasn't the time.  -Yes, but if you'd only tried to learn...-  No, he wouldn't destroy what had been preserved!  His life was as close to normal as it could ever be; that would all change if he started practicing things that were supernatural.  -Fool.  Go get the blood.-

            Ken braced his feet even higher upon the wall.  He grabbed on to the last spike with first his right hand.  Ignoring the pain it forced up his arm and the itching growing in his forearm, he brought up his left and had it grab hold of the spike as well.  With both hands he pulled at the spike even as he pushed against the wall with his feet.  The spike resisted him more than the others.  He forced himself to go on.  Abruptly, the spike let go of the wall and he pitched forward.  Ken hit the side of the large throne and then the floor.  He didn't move from where he fell.

 

 

 

 

            "NO!  Ken!"  Jun struggled against her bonds further abusing her already exhausted body.  Tears streamed down her face as she stared hopelessly at Ken's crumpled form.  Why?  Why?  Surely he was dead now.  He couldn't have survived the fall.  He never should have tried it!

            She'd felt ill as she watched him struggle with each of the spikes that held him to the wall.  Her soul had cried when he cried out in pain.  It had been such a valiant effort, but useless, so utterly useless!  Surely he was dead... dead... and soon they would follow.

            "Get up, aniki.  Get up!" 

            Jun's tears turned bitter, already knowing the despair her brother would soon feel as he realized Ken would rise no more.

            "He's not moving."  Ryu's voice sounded pitifully small.

            "Give him a few minutes, dammit!  There's no way he'll give up now."

            "Joe, stop it!  It's over.  He tried and he lost.  He's dead now, dead."  Jun barely recognized her own sob choked voice.  She hadn't meant to say anything.  Silence hung between them.

            The minutes continued to drag by.

 

 

 

 

 

            ‘Ken.  Ken, you mustn't give up.  Your friends need you.'

            His eyes fluttered open realizing he must have somehow fallen unconscious.  His body burned insistently.  Slowly, he forced himself to shift from where he was and moved his good arm so it could help raise him up.  The arm wobbled, but held.  He was able to raise himself into a sitting position, using the back wall as a brace.  His tired eyes rose up in the direction of excited muted calls.  His friends... yes, help them, need to help them.  -You need them to feed.- 

            Ken wobbled to his feet using Katse's throne for support.  His body protested the move as his changed and impaled innards shifted inside him.  Nausea abruptly racked through him.  He clamped his mouth shut.  The only thing he had inside to lose was blood, and as his Thirst eagerly kept reminding him, he'd lost too much of the precious fluid already.

            He held onto the throne and tried to map out where he needed to go.  The distance between him and his friends seemed immense.  Ken hoped it was only his current weakness that made it seem that way.  -Run then!-  He ignored his Thirst's suggestion.  He knew better.  He'd be lucky if he could walk there at all.

            Ken let go of the throne and stood on his own for a moment.  When he felt stable enough, he stared at the floor before him and risked a step forward.  Much to his surprise, he didn't fall.  He took another.

            His sense of balance wavered here and there.  His slow progress resembled the path of a town drunkard.  Throughout, the muted cries of his friends came to his ears with encouragement.  Absently, he used his good arm to wrap around what was left of his cloak a coldness settling about him that battled the surging heat within.  His teeth ached to the roots.

            Ken had gotten almost there when he suddenly smacked into something he couldn't see.  His body tipped sideways and he was unable to recover his balance.  He fell.  Cries of dismay and horror came to him from across the barrier.  He could barely pick up the sound of the rapid heartbeats beyond the wall.  -Blood!-  His canines poked into his bottom lip.  He forced them to go back.  As he struggled to sit up, he waved his bloodied hand toward them trying to signal that he was all right.  From what he heard coming from them, he doubted they believed him.

            He slowly staggered back to his feet and leaned against the see-through wall.

            "Aniki!  There's a door into this place off to the right!"

            Ken nodded, not looking at them, before shuffling off in that direction.

            "Ken, don't!  You won't make it!  There's a guard there.  You're no match for him!"  Jun's voice was desperate.

            "She's right!  Don't waste this chance!  Try to get out of here.  Bring back some help!"

            Ken shook his head at Joe's suggestion.  His canines pressed against his lip again.  He paid them no heed and kept moving toward the audience hall's thick double doors.

            When he reached the doors, he leaned against one of them trying to pick up any sounds on the other side.  The mahogany wood of the doors sent goose bumps over his exposed skin, but he spent no time wondering why.

            Picking up no sounds from the other side, Ken gingerly opened one of the doors and eased out as quietly as possible.  He hesitated there, making sure he heard no one in either direction of the corridor.  -Move!  We must feed!-

            Ken turned left hoping this corridor would connect to the door Jinpei told him about.  Following Joe's advice was never a consideration.  If he went for help, they wouldn't be here when he got back.

            As Ken shuffled along, he couldn't help but notice how quickly the opulence of Katse's audience hall turned into the blank, empty walls so typical of Galactor bases.  It seemed that luxury was something Galactor reserved for its leaders alone.

            Ken had moved on for almost thirty feet when he suddenly forced himself to stop.  This was too far.  The room his friends were in didn't curve.  He should have come across a connecting hall or doorway by now.  It wasn't right.

            He moved to the other side of the hallway and started back.  With his eyes closed, he walked at a slower pace feeling his way along.  A little over halfway, he stopped, his head angling closer to the wall.  Yes, it was there, faint but persistent - the sound of a beating heart.  -Yes!-  Ken opened his eyes and stared at the wall.  He quickly spotted the faint outline of a door cut into the metal.  Absently, he wondered if he would have ever spotted it without his changed eyes.

            He shook his head not liking the content of his thoughts.  Instead, he moved to stand before the secret door and touched around it trying to find a way to make it open.  He found nothing.

            He needed to get in there!  -Get in there!-  But how?  The burning raged inside him.  Ken placed his forehead against the cool metal door and found it warmer than his skin.  The healthy heartbeat within became more pronounced.  -Get in!-  Despair bit at the corners of his mind.  If only he had tried to learn those unbelievable tricks.  Why hadn't he even tried?  Tiana would have no trouble getting in there.  What good were his new found powers if he couldn't call on them to save his friends?  His head swam making him feel dizzy but he ignored it.  -Get in!-  He had to get in there!  They were counting on him!  His friends... his only family... they would die horribly if he didn't.  They'd die!  He had to get in there!

            He read the books, saw the films; all their tricks revolved around their will, didn't they?  Then he should be able to get in there!  He wanted in!  Let him in!  Ken lifted his hands to beat against the door when he felt something push him from behind.  He grimaced expecting to hit the door but he didn't.

            Ken opened his eyes as waves of nausea and dizziness threatened to engulf him as he frantically tried to figure out what had just happened.  He was no longer in the hallway, but on the other side of the door! 

            The room he found himself in was small and empty except for a small table and a chair, and a young Galactor guard.  Presently, the guard was totally engrossed in a paperback book. 

            Ken looked down to steady himself before trying to stand up and deal with the guard.  His mind cringed as he found only a vague outline of his body.  Panic swelled inside him and with all his might he willed himself to be solid.  He instantly rematerialized and dropped to his knees.  A bout of weakness flowed through him even as his Thirst blazed like never before.

            Ken looked up as a gasp thundered in his ears from across the room.  Time visibly slowed as his eyes locked with the guard's his heavy heartbeat overriding everything.  -Yes!- 

            Without thought, Ken dived forward and grabbed hold of the startled guard.  In one swift motion, he ripped back the hood of the brown and green uniform the guard screeching in fear.  Part of Ken's mind tried to resist what was coming, but his Thirst had taken total control.  His elongated canines bit down into the life pulsing below the skin of the young guard's neck.

            The heavy liquid rushed into Ken's waiting mouth shocking his taste buds with its vibrant intensity.  Pleasured chills rushed through his body as he drank more and more of the life-carrying blood.  It was glorious!  -Yes!-  It swept him higher and higher with no end in sight.  His experiences with Tiana became almost nothing in comparison to this.  Why had he fought it for so long?  -The blood!-

            He drank and drank lost in the living liquid as it moved from the guard's body into his.  The young man's heartbeat rose, fell, and eventually became erratic but it meant nothing to him.  Echoes of pleasure flooded Ken's mind and with a distant, detached intellect realized it was the guard.  The two of them spiraled together in ecstasy until the guard was no more.  Still Ken couldn't let go.  He drank until no drop was left.  His mind told him he should be full, bloated, never did he drink so much, yet the burning was still inside him insisting he was nowhere near being satisfied.  With an angry jerk, he snapped the guard's neck before angrily throwing him across the small room.

            He leaned back against the wall, fighting to allow reason to reassert itself now that he was sliding down from his spire of rapture.  -Need more!-  He clamped down on the request, abruptly filled with disgust.  He'd just killed a man for it, how many more did it want?  Ken let his body slide down to the floor.

            How could something so wrong feel so good?  Was this the only reason vampires had been able to exist for so long?  It shouldn't be this way!  -Yes.-

            Ken felt tears gathering in his eyes.  Abruptly he recalled from what they would come from.  He smashed the fist of his injured arm against the wall and used the ensuing pain to focus himself away from the despair.

            Everything would have to wait - what he had done... what it meant for him...  The others needed him now and he dared not fail them.  Ken forced himself to his feet and stared at the floor as he made himself move toward the crumpled guard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            All their heads snapped to the left as the sound of machinery lightly echoed down their prison.  Of them all, only Jinpei and Ryu could see the foot-thick door in the lighted gloom as it popped into the room and then slid to the side.

            "Aniki!"

            Ken entered the room but made no move toward them.  Pressing his back to the wall, he didn't look at them as he raised a small device in their direction and pressed a button.

            The shackles at their wrists and ankles clicked open.  The four ninja fell hard to the floor as their numb limbs didn't respond to their commands.  Ken made no move to help them.

            Each of them struggled to sit up and gingerly massage their limbs back to life.  Joe winced as he used the back wall to help him stand, his legs and arms tingling painfully.  He spotted Ken over the head of the others.  His friend had turned from them, facing a corner.  Even as the strangeness of that trickled through his mind, he noticed there was a dramatic difference in the man standing across the room from the one he'd seen over twenty minutes ago. 

            Ken was standing straight, his stance solid.  This was nothing like before, when it looked like it took all his energy just to put one foot in front of the other.  However Ken achieved this drastic change, he was glad of it.  How he went about it was something that would keep till later.

            Jun stood up next to him, a little unsteady.  Her gaze followed Joe's to Ken.  Her brow creased as she noticed he wasn't facing them.  She craved to go to him and see how he was.  The light from the lamps focused on the far wall of the audience hall were enough for them to see him, but not clearly.  She still had no real idea as to the true extent of his injuries.  Surely he needed medical help?  "Ken..."

            "You'd better hurry.  I doubt we have much time."  Ken's voice sounded strained.  He still wouldn't look at them.

            "Don't be a jackass!  We're all only too aware of it."  Ken said nothing as Joe pushed himself away from the wall and shook his head as his vision tried to unfocus again.

            Jun moved past him throwing him a worried glance before bending down to help Jinpei to his feet.  "Aw, nee-chan, I could have done it on my own."

            "I know, Jinpei, but this is faster."  She held onto her brother as he swayed on his feet.

            "Uh, Joe...."  Ryu's cheeks were red.  "Could you help me?"  He stared at him sheepishly, his arm wrapped tightly about his midriff.  There was heavy perspiration dotting his face.

            Joe grunted then walked slowly over to help him up.  In less than a minute, they were all ready to go.  As they started toward the open doorway, Ken glanced at them for a second and then rushed through before they could come too close.

            Jun stood stock still, shocked by what she saw in the short instant he glanced back toward them.  Ken's eyes were dark, just like on the day he attacked Dr. Braun.  And though surprising, it wasn't what had brought her up short.  What actually caught her attention were the scars she glimpsed criss-crossing Ken's face.  What did they do to him?

            By the time she and the others stumbled into the small room beyond, Ken had already disappeared into the hallway.  None of them could miss the tangled heap on the floor.  None of them could ignore the fact the dead man's uniform had been torn away from his neck or the two gaping holes that glared at them from there.

            "Oh wow... he - he drank him... drank him dry...." Jinpei started to move toward the body but Jun held him back. 

"Jinpei, we don't have time for that.  Please, let's go."

            As Jun and Jinpei moved past, Ryu made the sign of the cross and went on as well.

            When they came out into the hallway, they caught sight of Ken a short distance further on.  The latter pointed the small remote he used before and pressed the button.  The door behind them closed.  He then wrapped his hand about the remote and squeezed.  The crackling sounds of crushing plastic drifted toward them.  He let the remote's remains drop to the floor.

            "Ken, how are - "

            He cut Jun off.  "I'll be scouting ahead.  I'm fit enough for that.  Follow as quickly as you can."

            "Ken, please - "  He was gone.  "Joe... you saw...."

            He shook his head slowly.  "I don't know.  I just don't know.  He'll tell us when he's ready."  Maybe...

            "Could, could he still be hungry?  He looked really hurt before."  Jinpei's eyes were bright.

            "God, I hope not."  Ryu stared at the floor.  He crossed himself again.

            Joe felt his ire rise, but forced himself to clamp down on it.  "Let's get going before he gets too far ahead of us."  They rushed off after him.

            A hundred yards down, they turned a corner and then came across an intersection.  Two dead guards littered the floor there.  Joe and the others exchanged startled glances having heard no part of the scuffle.  Both men held surprised looks on their faces which were permanently sealed by death.  One man had his neck broken; the other, his back.  Neither looked like they'd ever got a chance to try and reach for their weapons.

            "Hey, he didn't bite these!"  Jinpei pointed toward them.  The others said nothing.

            They continued along the corridor, occasionally coming across more slain men.  All had been quickly and efficiently taken care of.  None had their necks disturbed.

            "Does he know where he's going, Joe aniki?"  Jinpei flinched as he asked the question, having disturbed a number of bruises when he turned around.

            "I doubt it.  His senses may have gotten better, but he's still not omniscient."  Joe closed his eyes for a moment as the hallway tried to flip-flop before him.  He cursed beneath his breath.

            "Something's wrong, Joe, I'm sure of it.  We've got to catch up with him before it gets worse."  Jun picked up her pace leaving the others to follow as fast as they were able.

            Before long, they came across a door that had been ripped from its hinges.  A stairwell flowed up and down through the open doorway.

            "Which way?"  Jinpei rushed forward looking both up and down trying to catch a glimpse of their commander.  "I see him!  He's going down!"

            "At least he seems to be using his brain."  Joe looked down where Jinpei was pointing for a moment and then pulled back.  He rubbed at his eyes.

            "What are the odds the hangerbay is at the bottom?"  Ryu was leaning against the wall, his face red from exertion.

            Jun looked up from where she was leaning over the rail.  "Probably over 60%, especially due to the way they attacked us.  We've got to follow him regardless."

            They started down, supporting each other, keeping their eyes open for any sign of Ken or Galactor trouble. 

            After about ten floors, Ryu looked deathly pale.  It became harder for Joe as Ryu put more and more of his weight on him.  The tension following them was thick.  Their nerves were prickled as they expected the sound of alarms to fill the area at any moment reducing their chances for escape.

            Eventually they reached the bottom of the stairs. There'd been no sign of Ken since they started down.

            "I can't tell if he came through here, nee-chan."

            "Damn it, just open the door and go on.  If Ken doesn't want to leave us a clue as to where he went, fine.  We have to keep moving  or we'll never get out of here."  Joe stared at Jinpei impatiently, sweat trickling down his face.  Ryu wheezed quietly beside him.

            Jinpei inched the door open and peeked out the other side.  "Aniki did leave us a clue!"  He opened the door wide.  Two bodies lay slumped against the wall in the area beyond.

            The hallway was short and only ran in one direction.  The group followed it and came across two more bodies at the other end before a closed door.  Jinpei opened it as carefully as he had the other and looked in.  "It's a hangar, a really big one!"

            "Do you see anyone out there?"

            "No, nee-chan."

            "Is there any cover?"  Joe shifted Ryu's arm over his shoulder.  He didn't see the other grimace in pain.

            "Yeah, at least right here there is."

            "We'd better get on with it then."

            Jinpei moved out first with Jun not far behind.  Joe and Ryu trailed after them. 

            Large bulky machinery and boxed supplies dotted their side of the hangar providing them ample cover.  The Galactor Phoenix loomed over it all.  They shuffled toward the closest stack of boxes to keep out of sight.

            As they waited to try and get a feel of the place, they noticed it was quiet, too quiet.  Jinpei and Jun left Joe and Ryu in their current hiding place as they moved out to try and find out why.

            "Where the hell is he?"  Joe searched the area around and above them with his eyes as they moved deeper into the stacks of boxes.  Ryu said nothing, his entire concentration focused on the act of breathing.  "Ryu, you okay?"

            "Y - yeah. Don't worry - about - me."

            "Shit."  Joe had looked into his face as he spoke and didn't like what he saw there.  As gently as possible, he helped Ryu sit down on one of the crates using a taller one as a backrest.  "Rest for a few minutes.  We'll wait for the others here.  It won't make much difference one way or the other."

            Ryu barely nodded, his eyes closed.  Joe sat down next to him trying to remain alert for both of them.

            "Aniki!"

            Joe tensed and looked up, the fast movement making his vision waver.  "Keep you voice down, you idiot!"

            Jinpei jumped down toward them ignoring Joe's hiss.  "Aniki, we found it!  The God Phoenix is here!  Come on!"

            Ryu moaned as he tried to get up.

            "Here, give me a hand with him."

            Gingerly, the two of them helped Ryu to his feet.  "It'll only be a little farther."  Ryu nodded his eyes still closed.

            "Nee-chan is waiting for us over there."  Jinpei steered them to the left.

            When they caught up with her, Jun took over Jinpei's place on Ryu's left.  They hugged as much of the cover as possible as they moved around the hangar toward the God Phoenix.

            The ship appeared as wounded as her crew.  She was whole except for a couple of gashing breaches along the sides of the hull.  All evidence of what hit her were gone, washed away in her dive into the ocean. 

            Scanning and construction machines of all shapes and sizes were gathered about her like buzzards waiting for the victim to die so their feast could begin.  Katse was wasting no time in trying to find out what made the Gatchaman team tick.  Oddly enough, the place was nevertheless deserted.  The main storage bay ramp was down, so they quickly clambered on board.

            As they made their way through the passages on the way to the bridge, frustrated screams echoed toward them.  "Ken?"

            The sounds of ripping plastic and metal were not far behind.  The four of them hurried as best they could toward the sound.

            They found Ken in the ship's infirmary.  He was pacing the room like a caged animal hitting or throwing everything that came in his way.  Four empty bags of blood littered the floor along with almost everything else that was stored there.  The small fridge the bags were kept in had been ripped from the wall and thrown across the room.

            "Ken!"  He whirled toward them.

            Jun gasped as she saw that his eyes were still completely dark and that two sharp canines stood protruding past his lower lip.  The scars she thought she saw earlier on his face were faint now, almost gone.

            Ken took a step toward them then stopped.  Abruptly he turned away and moved to stand at the farthest point from them in the room.  "Stay away from me!"

            "Ken, what's happening?  What's wrong?"

            His fists were clenched at his sides as he answered.  "It's nothing.  I'll deal with it.  Just don't get too close.  I'm very - dangerous to all of you right now."  His voice shook slightly.

            "Well you'd better damn well snap out of it!  You're supposed to be the leader here and in case you haven't noticed none of us are in excellent shape right now.  We need you to do your job, Commander."

            Ken cringed at Joe's anger.  He closed his eyes, his pale face simultaneously twisting with effort.  As they watched, Ken's canines' slowly retreated back into his mouth.  When he opened his eyes, they'd returned to the sky blue color that was so familiar.  "Yes, you're right.  Of course."  He stared at them for a long moment, though he still made no move to come closer.  "The ship's taken damage.  We need to find out if she's still capable of flight and if the communications system is still working."

            "I can do that."  Ken nodded toward Joe without looking at him.

            "Jinpei, go to the lockers and resupply everyone with weapons and explosives.  Jun, help Ryu however you can.  I don't think I had enough time to destroy everything in here."

            "Hai."

            "I'll go check the engines.  We'll meet again on the bridge."  They all moved to accomplished their assigned tasks.
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