By Maya Perez
Helpful prodding by Wendy Dinsmore
"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" Ken jabbed at yet another Galactor throat. Would there be no end to them?
Jun landed beside him and kicked a man in the face on their right. "We're running out of time."
"I know." There were only three other uniformed goons in the broad hallway. With a flick of his arm, Ken sent his boomerang flying and brought them down. "Let's move!"
The two rushed in a blur down the corridor.
When did they set the explosives? Ten, fifteen minutes ago? It was bad enough this particular base was more of a maze than usual, but guards poured out to slow them down almost every inch of the way back. He hoped Joe and the others were having better luck. Now if they could only get out of here in time...
As if to answer his question a tremor coursed through the floor.
"Crap!" They ran even faster.
The tremors intensified, trying to shake them about. A wall of sound roared abruptly over them. Ken saw Jun say something, but wasn't able to make it out. Cracks spread like lightning over the ceiling, walls, and floor. Then the whole room wrenched.
Ken stumbled, fighting to keep his footing. Dust swept in like a storm. Coughing, he tried to get back to his teammate, his eyes watering. "Jun!"
He felt more than heard the sound as it was absorbed by the rest of the chaos around them. Before he could become more than aware of it, however, something slammed into the small of his back and drove him to the floor with terrific force.
His helmeted head slammed into the concrete making his vision spin. He gave a grunt of protest as the air was smashed from of his lungs. His whole body vibrated as the floor continued to tremble with wave after wave of violence, but in only minutes, the tremors eventually grew less and less in force until all became still.
His lungs burned as he tried to breathe, the air filled with even more dust. He went into another fit of coughing. "J-Jun, where are you?" His ears continued to ring. If she answered him, he didn't hear it.
Ken tried to move and felt his back burn. He glanced carefully over his shoulder, sure he was pinned by whatever hit him. A large strut lay separated from the wall and ceiling behind him. Yet another piece of falling debris had kept it from crushing him in two. There was at least three feet of clearance between him and the beam that brought him down.
He tried to move again, but found that his legs weren't responding. He looked around for his missing teammate, trying not to think of what it might mean. "G-3!"
Still getting no response, he brought his wristcomm forward. "This is G-1. Team, respond." His only answer was static.
There was movement off to his left. Jun stumbled into his line of sight, her white wings yellowed with settling dirt. Her right arm hung limply at her side. A trickle of blood dripped off her stained glove to the floor.
"Ken!" She spotted him on the ground and rushed over. "Are you all right?"
He swallowed hard and ignored the question. "You need to get out of here. There's bound to be some secondary explosions and this place is already unstable. There might also be survivors."
"Yes, fine. As soon as you get up we'll leave."
Ken noticed her pupils were slightly dilated as she knelt down next to him. That, added to her curt response, indicated at least a minor concussion. Her eyes were also pinched at the corners with pain, and her lips were a thin, pale line. Things were looking worse by the second. Yet he felt strangely calm, though he was sure he should be anything but at the moment. "I can't."
"What? Why not?" She coughed then her eyes met his. For the first time, she truly focused on him. "Something is wrong."
"Yes. And I need you to go get help."
She closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head. "Go?"
"The others are waiting. You need to find them and bring them back."
Jun opened her eyes again. "I can carry you."
"You can't." A low tremor coursed through the floor dropping more dust on top of them. Ken felt it through his arms and chest, even hips, but below that, nothing. Fear nipped at the back of his mind but he shoved it aside. One thing at a time -- he needed to take things one problem at a time. "You're hurt. And you have to be able to protect yourself. You're not safe here."
She frowned at him as if not comprehending what he said. "I can do it."
He grabbed her uninjured arm and brought her close. "I can't be...moved, all right? You need to bring help."
Her eyes grew wide. He could see the pieces finally clicking together in her mind. "Oh. Oh! I'll find the others and bring them right away!" Jun moved to get up, but Ken kept his hold on her arm and brought her to a stop.
"You'd better take this with you." He let her go and reached for his bracelet. Only the skin on his upper body prickled as the connection was severed and his uniform returned to its civilian mode. "Here."
"Take it!" Maybe he wasn't all that calm after all.
Hesitantly, she did as he bid her. "I could stay here with you. Protect you. The others will find us. You know they will."
He shook his head. "The wristcomm's not working. And you're injured. You need treatment. I'd rather give Katse only one sitting duck instead of two."
"G-3, this an order and is not open to debate. Get the hell out of here! Our secrets can't be allowed to fall into Galactor hands. Now go!"
Tears glinted in her eyes, but she said nothing else. Jun stood up, swaying on her feet. "Ken, you'd, you'd better be here when I get back."
He watched her stumble away in what he hoped was the right direction. She had to make it out. Ken rested his head on his arm, abruptly dizzy. His throat felt thick. She had to make it out.
Voices...a blurred face. His throat so dry -- full of dust and grit. Coughing, pain. Darkness.
Twilight. Something is wrong. He cannot move! A collar around his throat, a weight pulling back his head. The smell of blood, death. Screams of pain. He wasn't supposed to be here! Struggle. A prick on his arm as voices wash over him. Dizziness and then more darkness.
Drowning beneath the cloying scent of oranges. Heat, humidity, a deep thrumming surrounding him, stabbing through him. Grabbing, reaching for solid consciousness. Slipping. Falling back once more into the abyss.
"It, it was around here. I'm sure of it!" Jun stumbled through the cracked corridor, her slinged arm momentarily throwing her off balance.
Joe reached forward and helped steady her. His teammate seemed totally unaware of his interference, her gaze scanning the lamp lit passage for any signs of their missing friend.
"Neechan, I'll look over here!" Jinpei zipped off to their right, his light bobbing along the far wall.
"Ken! Ken! Can you hear me?" Jun wandered on.
Ryu came up behind Joe, a folded stretcher strapped to his back. "Should she even be here? She got banged up pretty good."
Joe snorted. "You gonna try and stop her? I'm not. And I know that Security Forces captain never will again either." He shook his head. "Best we can do is find him ASAP and get them both the heck out."
Ryu squinted at the surrounding darkness. "Yeah, but it's been hours. Will he be here? I mean, we haven't found any Galactor bodies or anything so far. And some of the UN people were saying they often don't."
"Bodies don't just disappear." Joe threw a glare in his direction.
Ryu tried not to cower beneath the disapproving look. "I know that! But still, you know how paranoid Katse is, always blowing everything up. What if even the bodies have self-destruct mechanisms?"
Dust flared up around them as they moved around a collapsed piece of wall. The air smelled stale.
"Paranoid he might be, but I don't think even his goons would put up with that. Katse might be too tempted to blow them up out of hand." Joe waved his hand in a dismissing gesture. "He probably has cleanup crews of his own, so the UN can't get a hold of too many of his secrets."
"How would that work?"
Before Joe could attempt to speculate, a shrill scream cut across the jagged hallway. "Ken!"
Joe and Ryu rushed forward. They found Jun beside a fallen strut, which was propped up by a piece of debris. "Jun, what's wrong? Did you find him?"
Her lamp had fallen from her hand, totally forgotten. She stared wide-eyed at the ground beneath the strut, her hands over her mouth.
"Jun?" Joe touched her on the shoulder. She turned in his direction a tortured expression on her face.
"He was here." She gulped down air, obviously struggling to hold herself together. "I swear to you, he was here!"
"Are you sure?" Ryu asked, turning where he stood. "Here?"
Doubt rose in her eyes then. "I, I..." She stared at her hands.
"Neechan! I found blood!" Jinpei's voice filtered back toward them from down the tunnel.
As Ryu and Joe turned their lamps in that direction, they spotted a trail of dried blood nearby leading back almost to the exact spot where Jun stood. A small groan escaped her lips as she saw them. "Ken was here. Right here."
Joe's jaw tensed. "He's not here anymore."
Disorientation hit Ken like a slap in the face. Vague memories and nightmares teased the edge of his consciousness. He was on his back, though he clearly remembered falling on his stomach. The area around him was dim, but the air was clean, not gritty as before. He was glad the smell of oranges was gone. Oranges? He took a shuddering breath, dismissing the strange thought. He was alive, that was all that mattered at the moment.
A shy smile tugged at one side of his face. It meant Jun had made it! She'd been able to get help. He glanced eagerly to either side sure one of his teammates would be keeping vigil over him. He found no one. And instead of the familiar white walls he expected, he found a metal one to his right. On his left, only a few feet away, sat a metal-framed bed with a man whose face was covered by bandages. Raising his head, Ken could see that beyond him was another bed and then another and another, nine in all. The smile died.
Moans and soft groans filled the air. The scent of antiseptic and blood lay heavy all around. A parallel set of beds mirrored the row to his left. Halfway down, a huge red figure was painted into the plain metal wall - a familiar demon face, the symbol for Galactor.
A cold spasm of dread settled deep in Ken's gut. This was totally wrong. He wasn't supposed to be here. He tried to sit up, almost yanking the IV stand connected to a tube taped to his arm, and told his legs to move, but they did nothing. He wasn't able to get his upper body to a sitting position and fell back down. Panic tore at him even as he fought to keep it away. His uniform was armored, it had lessened the blow from the falling strut, and fortune kept him from being crushed afterward. He'd hoped his inability before was due to the shock of the impact. But now it looked as if he...
"Hey there, chap. No need to fret."
Ken's gaze snapped to the right. He tried to sit up again and managed to keep himself propped up somewhat with his elbows. He recognized the speaker's accent as British, but the look of the man still startled him. He was tall and thin, with a long, age-lined face, small square glasses, and close cropped hair with a sprinkle of white here and there. What caught him by surprise, however, was the color of his skin. It was a deep dark chocolate, a total rarity back home.
"I've been treating you with corticosteroids for spinal swelling, but it would still be safest at this point if you didn't try to sit up or move around a lot."
"You're a doctor?" Only now did Ken notice the worn but clean physician's coat and the stethoscope peeking out of a side pocket. His heart was pounding.
"Depends on whom you ask."
The man gave him a half smile. "Never mind, chap. You might say it's an inside joke. Now please, lie back and try to relax. You're safe here."
Ken glanced around again and realized, as far as he could tell, there were no guards anywhere in the room. It was no guarantee, however, that he wasn't under some kind of surveillance. Maybe they'd not posted any men because they knew he didn't have the means to get out. His heart pounded faster. "You mentioned my spine..."
"I also mentioned you should lie down." An arched brow raised in Ken's direction. Folded arms soon followed as the latter did nothing.
Under the quiet barrage, Ken realized the man would tell him nothing until he capitulated. Not having much to lose, he gingerly lowered himself flat on the bed.
"Wonderful." Down came the crossed arms. "It would seem you took a hard blow to the lower back, at the edge of the Thoracic and the Lumbar regions of your spine. X-rays showed there was no actual damage to the bones, which is very fortunate. The spine itself though is swollen and that's more than serious on its own."
Ken didn't like where this was going, but he had to know. He needed to understand what he had to deal with to get the hell out of there. "How serious?"
"Would you prefer the sugar coated or the non-coated version?"
Ken closed his eyes for a moment, panic stabbing him again as he realized this had the potential of being very very bad. He tried to make his voice as steady as he could as he gave the doctor his answer. "No sugar."
Ken thought he saw a note of approval in the man's eyes. Surely he imagined it.
"Injuries like these are known to affect transmissions from the brain through the spinal cord, causing anything from mild to severe paralysis and sensation deprivation. Now that you're awake, we can check the extent to which you've been affected. Even if it ends up being what is called a "complete" injury, there's a chance of some sensation or movement returning after a week or so, once the swelling has come down. Depending on how much improvement there is, we can use that as an indicator of whether there will be an eventual recovery and how long it might take or whether there will be none at all."
Ken's hands bunched into fists on the bed's starched sheets. "I see." He didn't need this man to test him, he already knew what they would find. His situation had been horribly clear before he was ever brought here. But might he recover? Or would he find out in a week's time he would be paralyzed forever, trapped in a Galactor hospital? What would he do then? Worse yet, dare he believe anything they told him as to his progress or lack of it? For all he knew this was some twisted charade. He could be only temporarily paralyzed, yet Katse and his goons could have made sure it became permanent and were even now getting their jollies at his torment-until they got tired of just watching and then they would come to gloat.
"Should we begin?" The dark man's voice was quiet, his eyes filled with understanding, as if knowing exactly what was going through Ken's mind.
He didn't trust himself to speak, so he only nodded.
"My name is Doctor Marcus, by the way, Daniel Marcus." He gently pulled the sheet up at the far side of the bed and folding the end, draped it over the jutting metal footboard. This was done in such a way the doctor could see and reach for the patient's feet, but to where Ken couldn't see what the doctor was doing. "You're currently down as a ‘John Doe'. Is there another name I should list on the chart instead?"
Marcus didn't look at him as he spoke the last. Ken frowned, finding it a very queer way to ask someone's name. Was he missing something here? Or was this man giving him an out? And if so, why? "I...I don't remember."
"Not surprising. You do have a rather nasty bump on the head. Lucky you were wearing a helmet, though the report indicated you weren't found wearing one, not even a uniform. But with the rush of rescuing who we could before the world UN Security Forces arrived, it wouldn't be the first time some information got marked down wrong."
Ken's jaw clenched. Was this man toying with him? What was this about? He made himself take a few deep breaths and forced his body to relax. Whatever Marcus was up to, he possessed no options at this point but to keep silent. Sooner or later whatever the man was after would show itself. Maybe he could even use this to his advantage. "Where am I? What hospital is this?"
"Were nothing quite so fancy as that. It's only a high end clinic of sorts."
The way he said it seemed rather odd, but Ken couldn't quite place how.
"This is unit 45879-B, not that that will probably mean anything to you. Would you try moving your right leg for me please?"
Ken noted the obvious change in topic, but nevertheless complied and stared at his limb, bidding it to move. As far as he could tell it did nothing. He got the same result with the left.
"How about wiggling your toes?"
Ken focused on making them carry out his commands. With his feet hidden behind the sheet made tent, he possessed no idea if he was successful. He didn't feel them move, if they even did, and Marcus's face betrayed nothing.
"I am going to test your sensory input now. Let me know if you feel something."
Ken stared up at the metal ceiling concentrating with all his might. There was nothing. He sensed the doctor move around the bed to one side and then the other, his hands beneath the sheet. Still nothing.
A sense of panic, helplessness, and fear washed all around him. He was trapped, doomed. What the hell was he going to do? What could he do?
"Ow!" The pinch at his hip snapped him out of his welling thoughts. He sent a dirty look in Marcus's direction. "That hurt!"
"Felt that, did you?" The doctor's eyes were bright.
"Y-yes, yes, I did." Ken was amazed at how pleased he was about it. At least not all parts of him were dead.
"Try to turn toward me. Take it very slowly - we don't want to run the risk of aggravating anything. Stop if there's any sensation of pain whatsoever."
Ken found that he could do as the doctor asked. Though his legs were dead weights, his hips obeyed him instantly. He felt almost giddy from finally being able to do something he was asked.
"Excellent! Now the other way."
He proved able to do that as well. His triumph soured, however, as he realized it really wouldn't do him much good in his current situation.
"Well that's some pleasant news, at least."
Marcus gave him a knowing smile. "It means you're unlikely to have problems with your bowels and urinary functions. However this turns out in the end, it will be a far cry from what it could have been."
Ken said nothing, not having thought there could be other complications. Though it was hard, he tried to feel grateful. The things Marcus talked about would have made getting out of here even more of a problem. And it was already bigger than he might be able to handle as it was.
"We'll need to watch for any unexpected muscle spasms. There have been none while you've been unconscious, which is a good sign. We immobilized the spine during transport, but since you've arrived it hasn't been necessary. Luckily we have some traction equipment here if it becomes an issue." Marcus took the sheet from its perch at the end of the bed and retucked it around the thin mattress. Then taking a pen from his coat pocket, he scratched some notes on the chart hanging from the end of the bed.
"So what happens now?" Ken tried to keep the question casual, though he felt anything but.
"Now? You will take your medications, rest, and allow your body to recuperate. Barring any complications, there's nothing else to be done at the moment. In about a week, we'll do more x-rays and tests, and then we'll see what we shall see."
Ken sighed, not liking it one bit, and knowing there wasn't a darn thing he could do about it. He had the feeling he would come to clearly understand Joe's fervent dislike of hospitals very soon.
"There's a call button cord hooked on the side of the bed. If you have any problems or need anything, please use it. We're slightly understaffed, but someone should come by in not too long."
Ken watched the doctor as he moved away with a slight limp. He stopped at each of the beds going crisscross through the room, giving a word or two to the patients as he examined their charts. An orderly and a couple of nurses came in not long after and tended to several of the patients as directed by Marcus.
After a while, however, all of them left, so Ken had only his troubled thoughts and a room of injured enemies for company. Neither was appealing in the least, so he gave up and slept.
"Hakase, you have to do something." Jun paced in front of Nambu's desk, her eyes red and her face unnaturally pale. The others stood not far behind her, their expressions grim.
"I assure you I am doing everything humanly possible to find Ken." Impassive eyes stared at them from behind the wide lensed glasses. "No one wants to find him as badly as I do. You should know that."
"Well obviously it's not enough!" Joe took several steps toward the desk, finding his anger and frustration getting the better of him. "He's been missing for over twenty-four hours. The longer he's gone the higher the likelihood we will never find him. Let us go look for him!"
Nambu's stare riveted to him. He leaned back in his chair for a moment as if the waves of antagonism coming from Joe were nothing more than he'd expected. "And where exactly do you suggest you go looking? The UN's forces are still sifting through the wreckage searching for any information they can find. There was nothing we could use at the scene of Ken's disappearance. So again I ask you, where exactly do you propose to begin?"
"To hell with that! At least we'd be doing something!" Joe turned away from Nambu and threw himself down on the nearest seat, arms crossed. His mounting displeasure was plain for anyone who cared to look.
The doctor sat forward, placing his forearms on the desk. "The last thing we need is to call attention to the fact Ken is missing or that we're searching for him. Keeping the enemy unaware of who they may have picked up is paramount."
"But Hakase, we don't know if they don't know." Ryu glanced up shyly from where he stood by the door.
Jun continued pacing before the desk, looking more distressed than before.
"You're correct, of course. Yet chances are they are not aware of his identity just yet." Nambu's brown-eyed stare shifted to each of them. "If it were known, the likelihood of Katse not advertising it to the world would be slim."
"Then what can we do, Hakase?" Jinpei's lip quivered as he spoke.
"We can only wait. Give our other resources time to find some leads. Give Ken time. He will let us know where he is if he is able."
"So how many? Make a guess."
The gruff, unfriendly voice snapped Ken awake. He took a quick glimpse to see who was there, then closed his eyes again and pretended to be asleep.
He recognized Marcus, but not the man with him, the owner of the rough voice. Not as garishly dressed as most base commanders he'd seen, the wiry man wore a black body suit and a blood red helmet with trailing streamers, his eyes hidden by a darkened visor.
"It's too soon to tell at this point. I've only had a few days." Marcus sounded strained. "We should discuss this in my office at any case, not here."
"And why shouldn't it be here?" The man never gave Marcus a chance to answer. "All of them are well aware of the stipulations in their employment contracts." His voice echoed in the long room.
Ken felt the tension go up around him, though he wasn't sure of the reason for it. He decided to risk slitting his eyes open.
"I'll be ready to go back to work in just a few days, sir!" This came from a man four beds down the other side of the aisle. Weaker voiced but similar sentiments echoed the first.
The costumed Galactor smiled. There was nothing pleasant about it. "You see, Marcus, they understand their situation perfectly."
The doctor's reply was a barely concealed hiss. "Putting such stress on them is not going to help them get better. Or would you rather none of them returned to service?"
"You forget your place, doctor. You wouldn't even be practicing now if not for our forbearance. It would do you well not to forget that before you go questioning your betters." The Galactor's streamers whipped about as he turned around and left the room.
Marcus stood there quietly, his spectacled gaze traveling down the room, a slow sigh escaping his lips. With it went the tension coiled about him like a cloak. As he turned to follow the other man, Ken stayed perfectly still. He didn't miss the doctor's odd expression or the sad look in his eyes as he stared at his prone form for a moment before going on his way.
"John, it's time for your medication."
Ken awoke from a light doze. Seeing who it was that brought his medicine, he turned instantly alert. "Dr. Marcus."
The doctor set a small tray on the bed then cranked the side of it to lift Ken into a semi sitting position. "Any problems so far?"
"None. Just trying to rest as you said."
"Excellent." He actually looked pleased. "Though I know you don't particularly think so right now, you seem to be quite a lucky young chap."
"As you say."
"Here you go." Marcus handed a small glass of water and a paper cup with a couple of pills. "More of the corticosteroids for swelling."
Having little choice if he wanted a half chance to get out of this place, Ken swallowed the pills. He just hoped they were what they were supposed to be.
"I also brought some applesauce for you. Figured we'd go easy on your system and make sure everything is working as it should before we get to more normal meals." He shifted the small tray and set it across Ken's lap. "One of the nurses will come back for it in a little while and set the bed back down. Though if you start experiencing any pain or discomfort whatsoever, use the call button. This low an angle shouldn't be an issue, but you never know."
"Who was that man earlier?" Ken kept his gaze focused on the doctor's face.
"Noticed him did you? He was being rather loud. But then that seems to be his way."
"Who was he?"
Marcus took a moment to slide his glasses back into place. It was a move very reminiscent of Nambu. Guess he wasn't the only one to use the movement as a way to buy time. "Personnel Captain, name of Blake."
"I didn't quite understand what he was talking about before."
Marcus looked away. "It wasn't anything all that important." He started to turn away from him.
Ken lurched forward, one hand on his tray to keep it from tipping, the other grabbing the doctor's arm to keep him there. A faint twinge rippled up his back at the movement. "I have a feeling it was anything but. Tell me." He kept his voice low, sure this would be something Marcus wouldn't want the other patients overhearing.
"Release me. You're only hurting yourself by doing this."
Ken only stared at him saying nothing.
Marcus finally sighed and stepped close to the bed again so Ken could recline against it. Ken's back twitched a couple of more times, but as he forced himself to relax, it quit.
"Blake is in charge of redistribution once the organization has had a...setback. Those with minor injuries were discharged within the first day of retrieval and have already returned to active duty. Now it's his job to determine how many more will be returning to full service, who will need to be placed to other less demanding work, and those that would be best to...release so as not to tax the organization's resources."
Ken nodded then suddenly realized what had just been said. Anger flared inside him. That they would treat their own people this way! Though why was he surprised? They showed little to no mercy to the general populous at large. Why should they be any different to themselves? The thought made him even angrier. For despite even this, droves of men still joined Galactor.
Marcus mistook his silence for something else. "Don't worry. You won't be one of them."
Ken gave him a frosty stare. "No, I won't."
The doctor nodded, not bothered by his cold tone, then looked out over the rest of the beds. "Unfortunately, not all of those here will be so lucky." He glanced at the bed on Ken's left. "But I will do what I can. I always do."
Ken didn't try to stop him when Marcus made to leave again. Maybe not every one of them was a callous bastard. More than ever he felt the need to bring Katse's organization to ruin. In truth, the mastermind was only using the evil that was already out there, only focusing it to his own ends. Didn't say much for the state of humanity's future though.
He grabbed the spoon from the tray and dipped it into the applesauce, wanting something to replace the rotten taste currently filling his mouth. The fare was bland, but filling. His hunger flared, as if it hadn't known it wanted food until he gave it some. He wiped out all that was there and even licked the bowl. He drained the rest of the water in the glass.
As he put the glass back on the tray, he blinked. Why hadn't he noticed this before? His gaze sat glued to his right wrist. Instead of bare flesh, there was gauze wrapped all around it. A simple patient bracelet sat atop it with a number designation. He hadn't hurt his arm had he? Though he wracked his brain to recall all that went on at the time of his injury, he couldn't remember anything happening to it. It seemed fine when he removed his bracelet to give into Jun's keeping. His bracelet...
Had it been obvious he wore something on that wrist? He couldn't remember. Yet someone went through the trouble of bandaging it. He rotated and flexed his wrist, proving there was nothing wrong with it as far as he could tell. So who bandaged it? And why? Was it more of Marcus's handiwork? But again, why?
Ken was sure Katse posted a permanent bounty on all the members of the ninja team some time ago. There would be rewards and prestige for just giving information on any of them. Who wouldn't want that in this cesspool of an organization?
"Are you done with that?"
Ken was jolted out of his reverie. A flat-faced nurse was staring at him curiously. "Ah, yes, I'm done. Thank you."
"I'll need to put the bed down first. Only take a moment."
He watched her as she rolled the bed back down. He wondered why someone in the medical field would willingly want to work in such a group. Were the promises of money and position that good, or was it something else? That was when he remembered something Blake said to Marcus. There was a story there, of that he was sure.
"Need anything?" the nurse asked.
"No, I'm fine."
As she picked up the tray, he noticed there was something in her right hand. He couldn't see what it was.
"Oops!" She dropped the tray on his legs, the bowl and glass bouncing onto the bed.
He felt none of it, which was why he wasn't distracted and saw her poke a sharp pin against the side of his leg through the sheet.
"What are you doing?" She was too far for him to grab, and while he could raise himself up to his elbows, he had no leverage with which to lift himself to a sitting position.
"So sorry! It was an accident." Her words and her expression far from matched. She quickly placed the bowl and glass back on the tray, the object in her right hand back out of sight. "No harm done, right?"
She didn't wait for an answer but stepped away.
What the hell was that about? He tried to shift on his right to stare at his leg. He could see the small hole where the pin went through. Did she inject him with something? How the heck could he tell? He didn't feel anything.
Then it hit him. Maybe that was the point. Could she have been testing him to make sure he wasn't shamming his illness? Was that what this was about? What was going on?
The nurse left the area with his tray, but was back several minutes later. Ken watched her as she stopped here and there. He noticed she seemed to suffer an awful lot of accidents.
The rest of the afternoon went past quietly and Ken dozed for most of it out of boredom and his healing injuries. When the orderlies came by to serve dinner, they gave him more applesauce and soup as well. Ken kept watch for the flat-faced nurse, but she didn't make an appearance.
A plump nurse came to see him about an hour after dinner.
Ken acknowledged her but said nothing.
"I understand you've been given some solids."
He stared at her not quite sure where she was going with this. "Yes."
"Well, they're bound to come out, you see. So I need to set it up for them to have somewhere to go."
It took him a moment to realize what she was saying. When he did, he felt the heat rise up his neck and face.
She showed him a sloped plastic contraption. "It's ergonomic. Dr. Marcus says its placement won't irritate your spine. There's really nothing to it. Standard procedure."
Ken stared at the strangely shaped bedpan, feeling even more embarrassed than before.
"He said the catheter should stay for now. Makes it easier for testing the urine whenever we need it."
Ken nodded rapidly, hoping she wouldn't talk about this anymore. It never occurred to him his injury would keep him from relieving himself on his own - hell, he'd never even thought about it!
"I'm going to place this for you, okay."
"Fine." Ken covered his face with his arm, still feeling his cheeks burning.
Was this what he could expect to go through the rest of his life? His eyes burned, so he shut them tight before they got a chance to betray him. This was not where he was supposed to be. This was not what he was supposed to be doing! His hand curled into a fist until his nails bit into the palm.
"All done! Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
He ignored her, not trusting himself to speak.
"I'll come check it in the morning and get you cleaned up if you need it. Have a good night."
Ken didn't move his arm away from his face until she was long gone.
He couldn't sleep. Though Ken couldn't feel it, he was horribly aware of the bedpan beneath him. His mind kept playing tricks on him, his imagination vividly imagining him shitting on himself. He was only too keenly aware of every movement in his intestines, each shift screaming the inexorable conclusion of the evening.
The lighting was down to a dim twilight. Snores rang softly from the far end of the room, an occasional groan here or there adding to the solitary intermittent sounds of the ventilation system.
The smell of antiseptic and putrefying wounds hung around him like vultures waiting for their chance. He wanted to scream to rant to pummel his bed into metal filings, but he didn't. He couldn't afford to bring attention to himself no matter how much he hated his situation and raged against it.
He tried to remember the five stages of grief -- Denial, Anger (oh yes, lots of that), Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. They didn't feel like stages to him. At times he felt nothing; at others it was the first four at once. But acceptance? How was that supposed to happen? The name made it sound as if he had a choice, yet he had none! None!
Movement to his left vied for his attention. Like a coward, he slunk from his previous thoughts and narrowed his eyes trying to spy where it had come from. Someone had entered the room from the far side. It was the flat-faced nurse. She was probably doing her nightly rounds, but he decided to watch her anyway. It was better than the alternative.
His vantage point wasn't the best, but at least she was taller than the beds so was easy to see. She walked silently down the aisle glancing from bed to bed but didn't seem to actually be checking on any of them. She stopped five beds down from Ken on the other side of the room.
She turned to look around her so Ken closed his eyes for several long seconds so she wouldn't know he was awake. When he glanced her way again, she was leaning over the patient in the bed she'd stopped at. Not able to tell what she was doing, Ken risked rising up on his elbows to get a better look. His eyes grew wide and his pulse raced as he spotted the pillow she was pressing fervently over the wounded Galactor's face.
He dropped down and reached for the call button, hoping this one wasn't actually the one on call. He pressed the button with all his might while still yelling. "Nurse!"
The flat-faced woman stared his way, frozen, like a goon caught alone by the Condor in a dark corridor, then turned around and ran back the way she came.
The other patients woke and questions started being thrown. Ken ignored them all, still using the buzzer and calling for the nurse as loudly as he could. Moments later, the plump woman whom he talked to before rushed into the room.
"What's with the racket? What is going on in here?"
"The man on the fifth bed across from me, check on him!"
She threw Ken a puzzled look but didn't question him, instead rushing to the bed indicated.
He pushed himself up on his elbows and waited tensely as she checked the patient over. The man might be his enemy, but that was no way to die. It was one thing to be killed in combat, it was quite another to be murdered in your bed while helpless. Now that he took the time to look, he noticed the patient's bed seemed to have some braces attached to the back and weights that hung from the front. His neck was in a brace keeping him immobile. His anger roared as he realized the cowardice of the flat-faced woman's actions.
"He's not asleep, he's unconscious. His pulse is thready. What happened here?" She half turned in Ken's direction.
The other patients chimed in: "That's what we want to know!" "How the fuck is anyone supposed to get some rest around here?" "Shut the hell up fools!" "Why was the idiot screaming?"
"Enough, all of you!" The nurse's voice boomed across the room. "I'm getting Dr. Marcus, he'll find out what's going on."
She rushed out of the room even faster than she came in.
Questions came flying at Ken, but he ignored them. The man in the bed next to him turned on his side with a grimace just so he could look at him with his unbandaged eye.
"The one over here, doctor." The plump nurse returned with a disheveled looking Marcus in tow. His limp was more pronounced as he half ran to the victim's bed. Doctor and nurse focused solely on their patient for the next several minutes.
After, Ken saw the two of them confer in quiet whispers, the plump nurse turning to point in his direction. Marcus made his way to Ken's bedside.
"Care to tell me how you knew Rob was in trouble?"
Ken could see other questions crowding close behind the first in Marcus's eyes. He signaled for him to come closer, only too aware of all the other eyes and ears on them in the room.
Softly, to where only the doctor would hear, Ken said, "It was the flat-faced nurse."
Marcus's brow furrowed.
"She was suffocating him."
The doctor jerked back as if bitten.
Marcus shook his head. "Not here. Not now." He didn't wait for an acknowledgement, just turned away to walk out to the middle of the room.
"It seems John heard Rob chocking. He may have gone a little overboard, but he was only trying to help." Confidence radiated from him as he met the gaze of each patient. "Rob is fine now. So all is well. I apologize for your interrupted sleep, but please try to get some rest. Everything is fine."
"Yeah, get help a little quieter next time, okay? Schmuck." Ken couldn't tell from whom the comment came from.
Marcus's gaze met his and he nodded, his look grim. Then he and the nurse left the area.
Slowly, after more mumbling and creaking of mattresses, the room quieted down as its occupants once more returned to sleep. Ken stayed awake, guarding them for the rest of the night though they never knew it.
Breakfast came and went as well as the embarrassment of having his bedpan checked, but Ken still saw no sign of Marcus. He found his impatience growing. Did the man care nothing for the information he had? Ken would have given almost anything for the ability to get out of that bed and be able to go track him down. At least the flat-faced nurse had not reappeared.
Around midmorning an orderly showed up at his bedside and he started undoing the brakes which kept the wheeled bed from moving.
Ken didn't like the look of it. "What are you doing?"
"You got tests this morning."
"No one said anything about running tests today." Wouldn't the nurse have mentioned it? "I want to talk to Dr. Marcus."
The orderly stared at him with a blank expression for a moment then shrugged. "Look, I'm just doing what I was told. You can take it up with the doc later." He undid the rest of the brakes.
Ken's pulse picked up speed. Did he have tests scheduled or was this something else? The flat-faced nurse might have gotten it into her head to eliminate him as a witness.
The orderly pulled the bed away from the wall and out into the middle of the room.
Ken swallowed the fear that trickled in the back of his throat. He didn't like the feeling. If he were whole he would be in control, but as things stood he was a leaf in a river, helplessly dragged off by the current and unable to do anything until he reached a destination.
The orderly got behind him and pushed the bed from there. Ken wasn't sure whether to be grateful he could see where they were going or nervous that he couldn't really see the man behind him and what he might be doing.
They turned right at the wall and not far down came to a large elevator. Ken tensed, figuring if the orderly was going to do something, he might try it here, away from prying eyes. The man only leaned against the elevator wall as they went up, whistling to himself as he totally ignored him.
When the elevator came to a stop, the orderly pushed away from the wall and resumed his place behind the bed. It was as if Ken didn't even exist. He'd never felt so invisible in his life. Was this what he might expect from now on?
They followed a nondescript metal hallway down to a set of large swinging doors. The orderly pushed the bed on through. Ken almost audibly sighed in relief as he spotted Marcus inside studying a set of x-rays on a backlit wall.
"Thank you, Jonas. If you'll set the bed by the lamp that will be all."
"Okay, doc." The orderly wheeled the bed close to a giant contraption that looked like a mechanical claw, and after popping a couple of the brakes in place on the bed, left the room.
Marcus stared at the x-rays until the doors quit swinging. Then he strode to Ken's side, throwing a glance in the direction of the doors as if still not sure they were actually alone. "I apologize for the subterfuge, but it seemed the easiest way to get us some privacy." Marcus maneuvered expertly around the odd humming machine.
"What is this thing?"
The doctor gave him a small smile. "This is Baby. A gift from a previous patient." He caressed the overhanging part of the unit. "Galactor may be many things, but the technology they use is without doubt utterly amazing. This small machine is able to take x-rays, full body sonic scans, CAT scans, and more." He stared down at Ken. "She's helped save many lives."
Ken wondered if he meant this in more than one way. The machine's low level hum might also work against listening devices. "Some of your people have been striving at taking them away." He watched the doctor's expression sober.
"The flat-faced nurse, she wasn't just there to kill the one man. She's been investigating all the patients."
"What do you mean?" Marcus asked.
Ken felt a kernel of his previous anger returning as he thought about this again. "She was checking to make sure some of us weren't shamming. I am also assuming she was second-guessing your prognosis and figuring which of the patients it'd be best to do without."
He saw Marcus's dark skin pale.
"How do you know this?"
"Because she did it to me." He pointed down to the side of his right leg. "Check the sheet, you'll see where she punctured the cloth."
Marcus bent down close and studied the sheet, then lifted it and inspected Ken's leg. "That bloody bastard!"
He rushed to one of the tables in the room and brought out some antiseptic and a cotton ball. Ken noticed the doctor's hands shook as he moved to dab some of the cleaner against his leg.
"It's Blake. It's got to be." The doctor closed his eyes for a moment, his body radiating tension. "That he would go this far..."
"I can help guard the people in my room. But I need to be mobile. Can you get me a wheelchair or crutches? Anything?"
Marcus turned to stare at him. "Out of the question. It's too soon. You could do irreparable damage. As it is you're lucky you don't need traction. And that could change."
Ken recalled the weights and collar Rob was being forced to wear and felt a cold shiver at the thought of being made that much more helpless.
Marcus must have seen some of this on his face because his expression suddenly softened. "I'm sorry." He took off his glasses and rubbed at his face. "I guess even after all these years, my bedside manner still needs some work." He tried hard to smile.
"I doubt I'm being the best of patients either, so I guess we're even."
This time the smile actually reached the doctor's eyes. "Let's get those scans done then. If the news is good enough, I might consider that chair in a few days."
Everything was quiet for the next several days. Ken fell into a routine of endless tedium, embarrassment, sleep, and weary watch keeping. He saw no trace of the flat-faced nurse, and a younger looking woman soon joined the staff as a replacement. A couple of the patients were moved out, his neighbor being one of them, but the rest remained.
Ken eavesdropped on what few conversations sprang up amongst the livelier of the patients. It was from one of these he learned that Rob was marked as a quadriplegic, the outlook for any kind of recovery grim. This only gave more weight to Ken's belief it was the reason he was marked for death. The Kagaku Ninjatai was cursed at often, jests bouncing back and forth on how they would get payback. Other curses though were for the organization, especially Katse, and his tendency to use the built-in self-destruct systems. These curses, unlike the ones about the team, were only whispers in the dark. Fear was an undercurrent they all tried to ignore.
Ken worried about his friends. Were they out there looking for him? Did they think him dead? Jun would be agonizing about ever having left him, though he'd ordered her to do it and she'd been in no position to do otherwise. They wouldn't have the faintest idea how to find him. He doubted there was a trail at all. And he didn't have the means to let them know where he was. How long would Nambu allow resources for a search? Would he decide to hide the fact Gatchaman was missing? This brought a sobering thought. If Katse ever realized he was MIA, would he assume it was an ISO ploy and that he was actually dead, or would his devious mind lead him to think of looking amongst his own people for where an injured ninja might be hiding?
Ken saw little of Marcus. When he did, the doctor gave him no more attention than he did any of the other patients. Ken held no idea of what the doctor was doing about his internal problem or if there was anything he could do about it at all. He felt like a statue in a park, watching life flashing past but able to have no part in it. He was being left behind and outside of everything, and it galled him no end.
"Your time is up, Marcus. I've been more than generous."
Blake's black-clad form strolled into the room. Marcus was right behind him.
"It's been but a week."
"More than enough time to make your final diagnosis."
Ken made no move to disguise his following of the conversation. He didn't need to. All eyes in the room were glued on the two men.
"I've released them as quickly as has been prudent. Not all cases are clear cut. Some of these men need more time to heal or their injuries might not repair as they should if rushed and will cause them trouble later."
Blake came to a stop. "I've heard all these excuses many times before, doctor. They mean nothing to me or the organization. We only want results." He grabbed the first patient chart he came across. "Concussion, broken arm, dislocated shoulder, broken leg. I see nothing here that would prevent him from going back to work." He slapped the chart back on its hook and crossed to one of the other beds, the streamers from his helmet flaring out behind him like a cloak. "Dislocated pelvis, head trauma, partially collapsed lung. Should have been back at least a day ago. We're not running a vacation spa here, Marcus."
Though the doctor said nothing, Ken could almost feel the anger radiating from him. What was Blake hoping to gain by provoking him like this?
"Ah and look at this one." As if homing in for the kill, the captain grabbed Rob's chart. "A total quadraplegic." He flipped some more pages. "Chances of recovery nil. And yet here he still is." He turned to face the darker skinned man his expression diffused by the helmet and dark visor. "The policy is quite clear on this type of thing."
"This...is a man...not some piece of machinery to be discarded on a whim. He can still be useful. There are controls which can allow someone with his disabilities to still be productive, still be able to meet the needs of the organization."
Blake feigned a look of surprise. "You don't say? Next you'll be telling me Lord Katse should make sure to add ramps and other features for the handicapped in all his mechs and bases." His tone turned hard as he stabbed a finger at the doctor's chest. "You're a bleeding heart, Marcus. People like you bog down the system."
Muted weeping filled the background. None of the other patients dared move or make a sound.
Marcus's face was determined. "Be that as it may, I hold sway here. And these men will not be released until they are ready." The muscle at the doctor's jaw jumped, he was straining so hard to keep himself in check.
Blake's open hand moved incredibly fast. Before the doctor even saw it, it connected with his face and sent him sprawling. The captain's voice was ice and held a sharp edge. "Your kind are only here on sufferance. Never make the mistake of thinking you have any true power. I am the final authority here - me!" From the holster at his side he withdrew a 9 millimeter Beretta. He pointed it at Marcus, a gleeful smirk on his face.
To the doctor's credit, he glared back at the man, showing no fear.
"Leave him alone!" Ken's desperate protest went unheeded. He tried to drag himself upwards though there was absolutely nothing he could do.
Blake laughed then pulled his arm to the left to point the gun at the quadriplegic. He pulled the trigger. Rob's body jerked, a red stain spreading over the sheet covering his chest. Gurgling sounds echoed loudly through the otherwise silent room then stopped.
"Listen up all of you!" Blake raked the room with his gaze. "You have two days to get out of those beds and go back on duty. If you don't, his same fate awaits you." He swept an arm to indicate Rob.
Marcus was rising from the floor, not looking at any of them. Before he could fully stand, Blake reached down and grabbed him by his white coat and jerked him up close. "I would also suggest the next time you feel like sending messages to higher command, you remember this little episode and squelch your desire to nothing, where it belongs."
He roughly pushed Marcus away, then turned his back on all of them and charged off. Ken glared at him as long as he was in view, wishing he had something, anything to throw at the heartless monster.
The patients started all yelling at once. "Doc, I don't want to die. You gotta do something!" "That guy is crazy! He hates us!" "Just kill me now and get it over with..."
Ken ignored the protests ringing around him, his total attention focused on Marcus. The doctor nodded at the bombardment but still wouldn't look at any of them. He limped over to Rob's body and after checking for a pulse and examining the wound, he pulled the rest of the sheet over the dead man's face.
"The swelling has definitely gone down."
Ken released a held breath, relieved at the news. He was one step closer. "So I'll be able to use a wheelchair."
Marcus glanced at him, relief reflected in his face as well. "Yes. It's not exactly what I would prefer, and we'll need to monitor it, but yes."
Mobility. Freedom. Ken couldn't help the smile widening on his face. Now maybe he'd be able to do something. Then his expression soured. "What about the others?" It wasn't that he cared about these criminals any more than before -- he wasn't going soft. He just didn't want Blake to win.
The doctor looked happy that he asked. "I've been able to patch most of them enough that they can move on their own power. Some pain medication and letters to their supervisors will hopefully let them get along well enough. One or two will end up back under care, but at least it will be elsewhere and not here." His eyes darkened. "Two have been moved...to other areas in the facility."
Ken nodded wondering exactly what that meant. Was he hiding those who couldn't fend for themselves? He wouldn't put it past him. He also found it unlikely Blake wouldn't expect him to do just that. He wondered how many times the two of them had played this game before. "He doesn't seem to think much of you."
"He's not the worst I've had to deal with."
That sounded undoubtedly unpleasant. It made Ken wonder just what kept Marcus here. But then again, once you joined Galactor you never got to leave - or so he'd heard said.
The doctor released the bed's brakes and moved the whole thing away from the scanner then set them up again. "Wait here a minute."
Ken tried to twist his head to see where he was going, but couldn't see much. He waited impatiently, hoping it was a wheelchair. He heard the door flop open a few moments later.
"Sorry for the wait." Something metallic clinked against the back of the bed. Ken tried to get a look at it even as he realized it wasn't what he'd hoped for. The gift was a metal arm that hooked to the back of the headboard went up and over and hung down to the side at a 45 degree angle. On the end of the arm was a bar, low enough that Ken could reach it.
"You can grab this to get into a sitting position. You'll also use it to lever yourself in and out of a wheelchair."
Ken felt the tingle of excitement flow through him again.
"Right now though, let's check the height on this and adjust it until it's comfortable."
He reached up for the bar, eager to get started.
After several tries, Marcus adjusted the arm and Ken was able to sit up on his own. It felt strange.
"Please don't over do this." Ken turned to stare at Marcus. "If you feel any strain at all, let me know."
Before Ken could formulate an answer, the doors to the room were slapped open. Blake strode in as if he owned the place.
"Ah, there you are! Wondered where you'd scurried off to." He gave the doctor and unfriendly smirk. "I believe there's a deadline you're supposed to meet today."
Ken forced his expression to neutral. He saw Marcus doing the same.
"I am well aware of what today is." The doctor's voice was chilly.
"Most of the patients should be going back on active duty later today."
Blake's dismissing smirk turned hungry. "And the rest?"
Marcus let out a long sigh. "Have been taken care of."
The captain's pleasure rankled Ken. Smug bastard.
Blake then seemed to notice him for the first time. "Ah, and this one?" Ken wished he could see the Galactor's eyes through the mask. He forced himself to look away, not daring to let him see any modicum of defiance.
"He's healed enough that he can be mobile. However, his memory loss continues, and Records has not yet sent back to whom he belongs. I will be keeping him here as an assistant until then."
Blake turned to face Ken fully, ignoring the doctor for the moment. "I remember you." It was hard for Ken to tell if this was a good thing or not. "Aren't you the lucky one?"
Ken continued not to look at him directly. He wanted nothing more than to leap from the bed and beat the man to a bloody pulp. "Yes, sir."
"I'd suggest you hurry and get your memories back then return to service. You never know when the good doctor might decide to start experimenting again."
Ken couldn't help throwing a glance in Marcus's direction. The doctor's eyes were veiled.
"And even if you don't get them back, why don't you consider coming to work for me," Blake added. "I need good eyes and ears and who would think anything of a cripple like you, especially one with such a pretty face." A gloved hand grabbed Ken's jaw and forced his head up so Blake could look down at his visage. Ken couldn't help his revulsion at being touched from showing, though it seemed to make no difference to Blake. "A very pretty face...and those lovely eyes. We don't see a lot of lookers in the organization. You could be very popular."
Ken pulled away in disgust. "I'll be staying here, sir."
A chuckle resounded beside him. "We shall see. Yes indeed, we shall." Still chuckling, Blake turned away and left them.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that." Marcus's voice was barely audible.
"It's no big deal." Usually he would have truly thought so, but nothing had been normal since he ended up in this place.
"Let's get this bed moved to your new room, shall we?" Marcus gave Ken no chance to answer, instead removing the brakes to wheel the bed away.
They took the elevator back up yet didn't stop on the floor above, but went one higher. The doors opened onto a broad hallway with painted blue walls rather than the metallic surface he'd seen everywhere else.
"The staff's quarters are here and also some rooms for any patients of rank. I will be putting you in one of those." He wheeled him through an open door on the left.
The room was small and sparse. It had a chair, a generic chest of drawers, and a mirror. A night table boasted several ragged edged paperback books. An open door to the right led to a wide bathroom. In the corner was a shiny, folded wheelchair. Things were finally looking up.
Marcus pushed the bed into place then locked it down. He raised the bed so Ken could more easily reach for the bar, then moved to leave.
"Dr. Marcus, what did Blake mean about your wanting to experiment again?"
A sigh rang softly in the room. A moment later, Marcus turned around. With a noticeable effort, he raised his gaze to meet Ken's own. "I lost my way once... It cost me everything."
His tone spoke of depths of pain and loss though his expression never changed. "It is not something I will ever do again. You have nothing to worry about."
Ken shook his head, dismissing the comment, not having been concerned on that account in the first place. Anything coming from Blake's mouth couldn't be given much credence. "Then why are you here? Why do you work for them?"
A bitter smile flickered on Marcus's face. "In medicine, you only get one strike. I had mine. They don't forgive or forget. To Galactor, however, it didn't matter. I could work again, make a difference, save lives."
Ken looked away. He saved the soldiers so that men like Blake could put them back into play and threaten the world again. How did Marcus live with that? But it wasn't something he could ask. Not without giving too much of himself away. "Thank you for telling me."
"If a patient has no trust in his doctor, how can he be expected to follow his advice to make a full recovery?" Some of the mask thawed away, a hint of humor flickering at the edge of his eyes.
Ken was glad to see it. "So when can I use the chair?" He glanced longingly at the folded wheelchair in the corner.
"Soon." A hint of a smile graced the doctor's face at Ken's displeased expression. "Maybe tomorrow. Try sitting up for a few minutes at a time and how it feels. If there's any stress or pain, stop immediately. We'll scan it again in the morning and if all looks like today, then you can give it a whirl."
Ken forced himself to look pleased though he truly wanted nothing more than to leap into the chair that second. "Okay. You're the doc."
"Joe-aniki, I'm really worried about her." Jinpei wiped the counter of the Snack J, rubbing hard at a stain that wasn't there, and sent a quick questioning look at his teammate's face. "She hasn't yelled at me once all week."
Joe's brow rose. He shook his head, this having to be the strangest benchmark of normal behavior he'd ever heard of. "What is she doing?"
"Nothing. She just sits in her room and does nothing." He wiped at the counter harder. "I bring her food, and she'll eat, but only if I stay and watch her. I have to put her to bed, I have to help her get up. Joe-aniki, it's like she's not here anymore." Tears glinted at the edge of his eyes. Jinpei abruptly turned away and rubbed his arm across his face.
"Okay, kid, don't worry. I'll go talk to her." Joe stood up from the stool, trying to hold back the frown wanting to crease his forehead. He headed for the stairs, Jinpei's hopeful face staring after him.
He knew he should have stopped by to check on them sooner. There just hadn't seemed to be the time. The team was all tense and worried, and he'd not been able to sit around and do nothing, regardless of what Nambu suggested. The poking feeling behind his shoulder blades that Ken needed them wouldn't let him. Though it wasn't his strength by any means, he volunteered to help out the intelligence group and spent hours pouring over reports from the countries surrounding the location of the destroyed base, looking for something, anything that might be a clue they could follow to find Ken.
When the headaches from the useless sifting got to be too much to take, he took to the track, letting the wind and speed bring him to some semblance of balance and calm. Sleep was hard to come by and never lasted long. He was too aware there was always something he could be looking at, more information he could be sifting through, if the doing itself didn't drive him mad first.
Joe stopped at the top of the landing, his grip on the banister turning his knuckles white. He shouldn't have forgotten the others though. They too were trying to find their own way to deal with the crisis. He really should have stopped by sooner.
He took a deep breath.
To be honest though, he knew why he hadn't. It wasn't the work, the need to stay busy-he just wasn't good at these things. Ken was the one who knew how to rally the troops, how to get them to see past the emotions to the logic, not him. He was ruled by his passions, and not always in a good way. What exactly did Jinpei honestly expect him to do?
He approached Jun's room with hunched shoulders.
His knock received no answer, so after a couple of moments, Joe reached forward and opened the door.
"Jun? It's me, Joe. I'm coming in."
He found his teammate sitting in an overstuffed chair close to the window. The light from outside was shining down over her. At any other time, it would have probably been a lovely sight, but not today. Today, the light only served to emphasize Jun's gaunt grown profile, her unkempt, unwashed hair, her red vacant eyes.
She didn't react to his presence, not even when he came to stand beside her. She was staring toward the window, her gaze unfocused, not actually seeing what was there.
No reaction. Joe cursed under his breath. Jinpei should have called him before this.
She jerked as if slapped. Her head turned slowly toward him, her eyes focusing for the first time. "J-Joe?"
"What the hell are you doing?"
"What?" Her features twisted with confusion.
"I asked what the hell are you doing?" Joe scrunched down so he could be on the same level as her face. His nose twitched as he caught the scent of her unwashed body. "When was the last time you took a shower? That you changed clothes? Is this how you want him to find you?"
"Who?" Her eyes grew wide. "Ken?" She leapt to her feet and swayed where she stood. "Is Ken back? Is he?"
Joe stood up, his face feeling like a hard mask. "No. He's not back. We've still no idea where he is."
It was as if she were a balloon and all the air got suddenly released from inside her. She slumped back into the chair. Jun turned her face away, but not before he caught a glimpse of fresh tears gathering in her eyes.
"He wouldn't want you to be doing this. You know that, right?"
She shook her head. "I left him there. I left him there to die, to be taken. He won't be caring about what I do at all."
"That's a load of horseshit and you know it!" Her defeatist attitude was getting under his skin. How could she be so stupid? "He ordered you out of there. You were injured, dammit! You know better."
"Leave me alone." She drew her legs up to her chest, keeping her back to him. "Go away."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" He reached down and grabbed her arm. "You dare call yourself a member of the Kagaku Ninjatai? Get the hell up."
"Joe, leave me alone!" She tried to yank her arm back, but his grip was too strong. Her eyes glared at him from beneath straggly strands of hair. "Let go!"
"No." He yanked on her arm hard, partially pulling her from the chair. "You're coming with me."
"Leave me alone!" She lunged forward aiming a blow to his solar plexus.
Expecting it, Joe half turned and grabbed the arm as it came past. He then tugged her totally out of the chair onto her feet.
"Let go of me!" Her hand reached for his elbow and pinched the nerve forcing him to release her. She followed this up with a jab at his face.
Joe barely dodged the bottom of her palm and used his hold on her other arm to shove her forcefully back onto the chair. Falling into it, Jun let her momentum carry her up and over. She landed on her feet behind it, breathing heavily. "Get out! Get out of my room!"
"Make me." He took a step back and motioned her to come at him. "Let's see what you've got." This was something he knew how to do.
She frowned at him, then glanced at room's door, noting how he was partially blocking the way to it. "You're being stupid. Just leave."
He chuckled. "I'm being stupid? Looked in the mirror lately, princess?"
"What I do or don't do is none of your business!"
"Is that right? What about Jinpei? Is it none of his business either?"
Her hands bunched at her sides. "You leave him out of this."
"The little squirt is downstairs right now crying his eyes out about you. It's not enough that he has to deal with Ken's disappearance like the rest of us, but he also has to put up with you letting yourself rot in here like some kind of criminal. Have you even taken a moment to think of what you're doing to him?"
"Shut up!" Jun cupped her hands over her ears. "Jinpei can take care of himself. This has nothing to do with any of you! You're not the ones who left Ken to die!"
His annoyance grew into a pit of heat. "I've had about as much as I am going to take of this bullshit." Joe rushed her.
Jun leapt before he could grab her and used his own body to flip herself toward the door. He kicked backward and caught her in the back of the leg, bringing her down. Joe turned around and jumped on her before she got a chance to get back up.
"Nee-chan? Joe-aniki?" A wide-eyed Jinpei stood framed in the doorway.
Jun glanced up at the sound of his voice and froze. Joe didn't hesitate, but used the distraction to capture her hands. "Jinpei! Get in here and help me. Grab her legs!"
"No!" Jun thrashed beneath him, trying to throw him off. "Don't you dare get him involved. Just leave me alone!"
"Jinpei! Now, dammit!" Joe held on, Jun's struggles making it very difficult to keep her pinned.
The boy jerked into motion, giving his sister a wide berth to move around to her legs. "Joe-aniki..." Doubt and a little fear tainted his voice.
"Just do it!"
The boy did as he was told.
Once Jinpei had Jun's legs secure, Joe flipped her over holding her upper torso off the floor. Jinpei yelped as she kicked her legs and he almost lost his grip.
"Jinpei, you let go of me this instant!"
Her brother shivered, though he didn't let go, his sister's glare way too reminiscent of the ones usually given by Joe when he'd been pushed too far. This could get very ugly for him later. "What, what now, Joe-aniki?"
Joe grunted as Jun lurched up and down. He was having a hard time trying to keep her hands trapped and the rest of her from getting injured due to her movements. "Just follow me."
He backed out into the hall then carried his unwilling burden down to the next room. Using his shoulder to turn the knob, and getting a nice bump on his head as he got smacked against the doorway when Jun took that moment to try to jerk loose again, he opened the door into the bathroom.
"Dammit, Jun, he's not worth all this!"
She continued to struggle despite his words, trying even harder as if sensing a growing weakness. "Let me go! Do it now!"
He carried her to the back, to the large western shower door, Jinpei stumbling as he continued to try to keep hold of his sister's kicking legs.
Joe got a second lump as he put his back against the shower door to slide it open and Jun once more jerked around trying to get loose. "Kuso."
He pulled himself and his charge inside. "Jinpei, let go and turn the damn thing on!"
Eyes wider than ever before, Jinpei shoved his sister's legs inside the shower and let go. Before she could kick him, he slapped the shower on and yanked himself out then slid the door shut.
Joe pushed her forward into the stream as Jun kicked at the walls and door. "Just calm the hell down already!"
Jun kicked the walls a couple of more times then went totally limp. Joe almost dropped her at the unexpected move. Tense, expecting another barrage, he set her down.
Instead Jun slid down to her knees and leaned forward, her hair falling over her face the water washing over her.
As Joe tried hard to catch his breath, water steaming up around him and pooling at his feet, she gave a loud wail of pain before again drooping forward to sob into her hands.
"Nee-chan..." Jinpei plastered his face against the opaque door, his tears staining the outside.
Joe crouched down and took her in his arms. Jun leaned limply against him, crying. "We'll find him, you'll see. And if we don't, then we'll make those bastards pay. You have my word on that."
Ken stared raptly as Marcus brought the wheelchair over and extended it into its open position. Movement, freedom, no matter how restricted, would be better than the bedridden hell of the last week. His very survival might rest with that chair and what he could learn to do with it.
"All right. The bed has been lowered, your handle adjusted. Now for the hard part." The doctor moved the chair to sit parallel to Ken. The armrest on his side was lowered, the seat even with the mattress on his bed. "Just do it as we talked about."
He nodded, having gone over the process in his head a hundred times and more. The legs would be the hardest part. Without being able to move or feel them, they were just dead weights attached to his body and very hard to control. Everything would work against him, gravity, friction, and the need to use both hands to keep himself up, at least until his arms grew even stronger.
"I'll be right here to help you, so just take your time."
Ken took a deep breath and reached up for the dangling handle. Holding onto it as if he was about to do chin-ups, he brought his bottom off the bed and shuffled his hands over the bar, partially dragging his body until he dangled over the chair. Feeling the strain in his arms, he slowly lowered himself until his rear was on the seat. Still holding onto the bar with one arm, he used his other one to grab his left leg and slip it over the edge and onto the chair's footrest. Feeling winded, but exhilarated all at once, he reached for his other leg. Once both were in place, he let go of the bar above him.
"Bloody well done!" Marcus clapped him on the shoulder. Ken found he was grinning like a little kid.
The doctor quickly helped him get acquainted with the brakes and the proper way to control the chair.
"Shall we take her for a spin?"
Ken didn't answer him, instead slapping his hands down on the handrims to either side and shoved them forward to rocket the chair toward the door.
There wasn't much to see, only empty rooms and a few offices, but just the fact he was able to move felt glorious. Marcus made sure he got to see the location of the exercise room and plainly detailed the types of exercises he expected Ken to get up to. He was more than happy to agree.
He grew tired after only a short while of moving around, his arms not used to this particular labor. When he finally gave in to the inevitable and allowed himself to be guided back to bed, his arms shook from strain as he pulled himself up onto the bed.Overall, he was well satisfied and slept well for the first time since he'd arrived.