Slowly, Joe opened his eyes and looked around to find himself alone, lying on an operating table in a surgery. The light above him, the only illumination in the room, was turned low to a dull reddish orange, like a heat lamp over a roast beef. Metal instruments gleamed dimly on brushed steel trays. The room seemed surreal, like a stage set with cardboard props that would crumple at the faintest pressure--must be the drugs. Had he seen Katse yet? Joe remembered something about the Black Hole Operation, the events vague as if he'd dreamed them. The fact he was awake at all surprised him. The surgeon--that goon glorified by scrubs and a mask; I always wanted to be a doctor, Katse-sama!-- must have stepped out for a smoke. Where were the other guards? They must no longer consider him a threat. At least not as much as the Kagaku Ninjatai outside. Joe didn't know how they'd found the base, but he remembered the sight of the Godphoenix looming large on a viewscreen. They were here. They must be close.
A machine counting down the Earth's destruction. Katse laughing. His shuriken had missed... Shit. Have to find the team. They have no idea what they're getting into.
There was plastic wrapped loosely around his body, leaving part of his face exposed. He reached up and pushed it away with his hands, then tried to lever himself up on the table. His left arm buckled; he lost his balance and toppled off the table to hit the metal flooring with an awful, rattling smack. It sounded worse than it felt, the impact happening as if from a long distance away.
Teeth bared in a grimace, Joe rolled onto his side and assessed the damage. His clothes were sticky with drying blood, his jeans covered with rusty stains. He hadn't been this bad off before--they'd bandaged the chest wound he'd gotten topside. It was seeping a little, but where was all the blood on the floor coming from? Though there wasn't much pain, he felt very weak, his movements disgustingly feeble. When he tried to get his feet under him, his legs twitched, but refused to move more than a few inches.
Great. It would be a long crawl, and he was already weary. The feeling of distance grew. The room turned blurry, indistinct, and then all he wanted was to let the comforting darkness close over him and pull him into its depths. Boot heels rang faintly against the deck--probably the goon surgeon on his way back. Joe closed his eyes and let his cheek rest on the floor. The cool, hard metal floor, fading--
"Hold off, Joe," snapped a rough, familiar voice. "We're getting you out of here." Joe startled. Shakily he raised his head and his vision cleared to take in a pair of black boots, then the red trousers and jacket.
"Red Impulse?" he groaned.
"Yeah. It's Masaki. C'mon." The burly pilot knelt down, pulled one of Joe's arms around his shoulders and hauled him up. Joe noticed his faceplate was missing, leaving his face naked. "We don't have much time."
He half-dragged Joe through the door and down the hall. Outside the surgery, the halls were dark, main lights out. Emergency bulbs cast dim pools of yellow light every twenty yards. Joe tried to force his legs to cooperate, pushing weakly at the ground every few steps. He noted with dismay the fat red drops staining the deck beneath him. They'd be trailed easily by the first troops to come looking.
"How'd you know to come here?" he asked.
"We'd been working undercover in Gallactor since the end of the V2 Operation, but we got to this base about the same time you did. We found your bracelet and called your team here. The Kagaku Ninjatai has to stop the Black Hole Operation now." Black Hole Operation. A machine counting down the Earth's destruction. Katse laughing....
"I know that," Joe snapped. "They're here already, aren't they? You saw them, didn't you?"
"Yeah, we saw them." Masaki said in a low voice. He looked grim, his jaw clenched. Joe raised his head and frowned at him.
"What's wrong? Where are they now?"
Masaki stopped abruptly, and Joe tightened his grip on his shoulders to keep from toppling forward. At the end of the hall a taller, thinner man wearing the same red uniform stood watch: Oniishi, Masaki's partner and the last member of the team. Years ago, he'd been tortured by Gallactor, his throat and tongue mutilated beyond repair, and ever since he'd fought his war in cheerless silence. He turned to look at Masaki and motioned with his hand: All clear.
"No," he whispered. "No! You shouldn't be here now!" His shoulders trembled. Oniishi stared at him levelly.
"What do you mean?" Joe growled, glancing from one man to the other. "Where are they?"
Masaki didn't reply. He lowered his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers. Oniishi approached them and rapped Masaki once on the helmet. He slipped Joe's free arm around his shoulders, and when Masaki finally looked up, he motioned with his head for them to continue.
The two men carried Joe down the hall at a rapid clip. Masaki kept glancing at his partner and his face glittered in the dim light. Joe waited, trying to keep coherent amidst the jostling, but the tense silence weighed on him. What were they hiding? Did they feel they shouldn't bother sharing the details with those they still considered children? They had played this game with Ken before, holding off information until it became one big punch line at the end of the mission. Ken hadn't found it funny then. Joe didn't now.
"I'll ask you one more time," Joe said through clenched teeth, and his right arm tightened against Masaki's neck until the man staggered. "Where are the Kagaku Ninjatai?"
Oniishi jerked one thumb upward and calmly repeated the all-clear sign. Masaki sighed. "They're topside, in the valley," he said, his voice breaking. "That's where we're taking you."
"Are they all right?"
"That's up to them."
"Give me my bracelet. I'll call them."
"Not here." Masaki's voice grew steady again. "These halls aren't safe for a rendezvous, and Gallactor's tracking your radio signals."
Joe snarled wordlessly at him. Masaki ignored it.
They moved on in silence, winding decisively through the maze of corridors, shunning the lighted accessways as if the light was poisonous. It very well could be, exposing them to surveillance cameras. At any moment, Joe expected to hear alarms and the sounds of guards, but none materialized; Oniishi and Masaki skillfully kept to the shadows.
Funny, Joe mused, how the three members of the Red Impulse team had always appeared to provide backup, to rescue the Kagaku Ninjatai from trouble in the early missions. Joe had never seen them up close, only as three distant figures in their red fighters, the leader's voice goading them over the radio; at least until Dr. Nambu had dispatched the team to that island for "retraining" after a particularly disastrous campaign. The leader of Red Impulse had taken Ken for a little one-on-one in their fighters, then brought him back on a stretcher. Masaki and his annoying drill sergeant patter had nearly brought Joe into open rebellion, but behind him he'd found a team too tired to support him. Meanwhile, Oniishi had stood in inscrutable supervision. Joe had later heard that man's story from Ken, but at the time, it hadn't increased his respect for any of the arrogant old farts.
After the death of their leader--now revealed to be Ken's father, the poor bastard--the Red Impulse team had almost completely vanished. Until now, when they had come to pull Joe's bullet-riddled carcass from the flames once again. Didn't they know it was too late for him? Once the drugs wore off....
The world took on that glittering, surreal feeling again, and Joe began to drowse, sagging against Masaki's shoulder. He saw Katse fling out his hand, his glove sliced by the edges of Joe's shuriken, blood drops flying across the room in slow motion--
Someone shook him hard, then a hand cracked painfully across his face. Joe opened his eyes to find Oniishi standing close enough that his wide eyes were visible behind the dark faceplate. "Stop that!" Masaki hissed in his ear. "Stay with us!"
They continued on.
"Tell me something," Joe said. "Aren't there supposed to be more of you guys?"
Masaki wiped his face with his free hand. "In the beginning, there were twenty of us," he said. "By the time your team fought its first mission, there were only three left."
"Why didn't you train more people?"
"No time, no resources. It's a long story, Joe. Maybe someday, if your leader ever tires of being Gatchaman, he can take up where his father left off." A chill crawled up the back of Joe's neck at the bitterness in the man's voice.
Then they halted. Beyond this intersection, Joe spotted a long, curving staircase leading up. Pale, bluish light suggesting daylight reflected off the metal walls near the top. This must be the way to the surface. Oniishi and Masaki set Joe on his feet. He tried to stand, but without their support, his knees buckled and he slumped to the floor with a curse.
The two men knelt beside him. "This is as far as we go," Masaki said. "The exit is up those stairs. Your team is there, trying to find a way in. It's up to you now. Good luck."
"What do you mean, 'good luck?'" Joe gave them an incredulous glare. "Where the hell are you going?"
They stared back at him. For the first time, Joe realized there was blood on Masaki's face, trickling down the side of his nose like tears. The man's jaw quivered, and he swallowed hard, then closed his eyes and turned his face away. "I'm sorry."
Then Oniishi leaned close and patted Joe on the shoulder, and his mouth twisted into the closest thing to a grin Joe had ever seen on him. He nodded toward the exit. Joe glanced back at the staircase, at the light, and when he turned back, both of them were gone.
The last hundred yards to the surface--pulling himself up stair by stair, struggling to move legs that were damn near useless, smearing blood on the metal beneath--became a battle unto itself. Joe thought he'd been tired before, when he'd been fighting those soldiers outside the base and the searing pain had lanced through his skull and the Blue Chief's round had punched through his lung... when? Hours ago? Days ago? But now it felt like the weight of the mountains pinned his spine to the earth. He couldn't breathe, could barely climb. He didn't dare stop and rest; if he stopped moving, he knew he'd never move again. The goons would find him lying here, and one good kick would send him bouncing helplessly to the bottom of the staircase. Or if they kicked him through the slats of the steps, his body would plummet into the blackness below, which, from the sound of the echoes, went several stories.
He heard the boots clattering in front of him at a run and saw their shadows on the wall: Several men coming down the stairs, shouting, alarmed. Joe pushed himself through the slats and clung to the underside with shaking arms. He propped his left knee between the slats and let his right leg, the weaker one, dangle in space. The clattering came closer and the stairway began to vibrate with the footsteps of the men passing above him. His hand slipped; clenching his teeth, he tightened his grip until his fingers went numb. And there they were, directly over him. The heel of one man's boot nearly crushed his fingers. Joe hung on, trembling.
Then they were past him, out of sight, past hearing. He pulled himself back through the slats and toppled down several steps, gasping harshly. The air flickered.
Mind over matter: your arms are still strong. Come on.... Joe rolled over and grabbed one step, then another, hauling himself toward the clear, beckoning daylight.
The round portal offered a beautiful sight: precious blue fragments of open sky between the undersides of snow clouds, the harsh, blue Karakoram Mountains rising like dragon's teeth around the valley, and the thick, green grass tipped with frost. After the dark halls, the colors outside struck him with a postcard clarity, too vivid to be real. The damp, misty air, no longer dank with metal, oil and sweat, tasted sweet. Like the others on his team, Joe had always been drawn to the open skies, the open seas, with room to dance and dodge and fight and bring down the fire on his enemies. Not a rat's maze underground, with dead men fighting already in their graves.
Joe dragged himself to a spot behind the statue that marked the entrance. Beneath him, the ground rumbled, and he saw the old stone beside him shudder. The quake subsided, and in the following silence, he heard voices:
"... No good. They're on their guard, and they're not using their bracelets. We haven't been able to catch their signal."
Bracelets? Joe checked his left arm, saw the band of pale skin, the black bruise on his wrist. Oh, right. It's gone. Red Impulse has it. Where the hell'd they go?
Another rumble. He clutched at the grass as the ground undulated beneath him.
"Another one?" The guard tried not to sound uneasy and failed.
"You think we'll really be okay? That we'll be the only ones who'll get out of this?"
"All we can do is believe what Katse-sama says, but to be honest, I've been worried lately...."
Idiots. Blind idiots. Katse's lost his mind. You'll all die. Joe remained silent; they were too close.
More shouts drifted through the fog: Get him, there he is. The two goons near him ran off. Joe raised his head.
"It's Gatchaman! Don't let him get away!"
The name sent a thrill through him. His shoulders spasmed. Joe pulled his arms under him, raised himself as high as he could, took a deep breath, and screamed with all his strength:
It came out as a thin wail, barely drawing an echo. Damn it all. He tried again, but his strength gave out. He coughed, tasted blood and saw it spill onto the grass in slimy ropes. The air around him shimmered, grew fuzzy. No! I can't give out now!
The next thing he heard was more people crashing through the grass, then a familiar high-pitched shout and the thud of bodies falling: the hollow sound of something striking a man's skull; the shriek of wire unreeling followed by a mangled squawk. Jun. All business, but she had her hands full. And she was close.
Joe grabbed onto the statue and pulled himself up the face of it. More coughing, more blood. He didn't know how much more he could take, but he wasn't doing any good lying on his face in the grass. He struggled to pull his legs under him and slowly, inch by inch, they moved into place. His knees buckled once before he braced his back against the statue and locked them. The horizon whirled around him and the world almost faded again, but he yanked it back hard. Now standing, he dragged a heavy hand to his chest, beneath the collar of his t-shirt, to where his last shuriken rested near his heart.
The sounds came from the opposite side of the statue. Slowly, Joe edged his way around, his back scraping against the rough stone. He found Jun, backing up, off balance, a goon firing on her. She fell, rolled, came up against a rock--
Joe brought the shuriken to his lips, kissed it, then let it fly.
This time it hit its target. The gunman fell, and beyond, Jun regained her feet and ran toward him. Jun broke radio silence to call the others, and as they waited, she tried to distract herself from tears by making Joe more comfortable where he had fallen. She straightened his tangled limbs and elevated his feet. She was about to unfasten her mantle to cover him when he told her to stop. "Jun," Joe said quietly, "Did you see the two members of Red Impulse?"
She began to blink, a fresh bout of tears brimming. "We met them shortly after we landed, and they tried to lead us to Katse," she said. "They're dead."
"What?" Joe's eyes went wide and he tried to sit up and failed. "How can they be dead?"
"If they hadn't stepped into that trap first, we would have been shot instead. We had to leave them behind, distracted the Gallactors with their grenades. We made it back outside, but they're probably buried in there."
Now the tears fell. Jun sniffed and dabbed at them when they reached her jaw. "Masaki died first. They shot him between the eyes. It happened so fast!"
Masaki, without his visor, wiping his face, blood running down like tears.
"Oniishi tried to pull him out of the line of fire, and he went down in a hail of bullets. He died in my arms."
A hail of bullets. Joe heard Katse's laugh: "I'm not about to be taken down by a dead man. Fire!"
A thrill prickled up his spine and down his arms. I never did believe in that shit. No wonder Masaki didn't explain everything.
Joe watched Jun struggling to regain her composure. He wanted to squeeze her hand, but his weary arms refused to move. The ground pulled heavily at him. He wouldn't last much longer.
And then the others were there, calling his name, leaning close.
They're probably wondering why I'm smiling, Joe thought. Seeing the familiar colors gathered around; seeing their faces, even with their tears, was like salve on a wound. These four were all that mattered. Joe knew he didn't have enough time to tell them all he wanted to, but in a fading whisper, he told them what they needed to know.
Ken knelt beside his left shoulder and leaned over him. The Gatchaman's eyes were huge, fighting back tears as he pressed his boomerang into Joe's icy hands and whispered his last request. This isn't the goodbye we'd envisioned, Ken, but I'm glad it's me and not you.
Ken stood and wiped his face, then whirled on the approaching enemy troops with a roar that sent them back several steps: "Don't come any closer, Gallactor!" They goggled at him as he advanced on them. "Maybe you don't know how we feel, but what the hell's to come of more blood spilled? More brutality, more hate, more friends lost!"
"In the beginning, there were twenty of us," Masaki had said. "By the time your team fought its first mission, there were only three left." Now there were none. The Kagaku Ninjatai wouldn't share their fate. The curse would end with Joe. He was sure of it.
Ken snarled, "You can't hope to defeat us now. If you get in our way, prepare to meet your fate!"
The confused soldiers gave the team a full minute's head start before giving chase at a less than enthusiastic pace. The ground shook again, and screams rang as statues toppled and the very earth ripped itself apart. Joe remained still as the huge statue marking the entrance toppled beside him, then rolled away from him and dropped into a newly formed chasm. By the time the rumbling ceased, the valley had been left to the mist and the statues and the dead.
Joe's eyes fluttered. Fuzzily, he searched the area around him and found himself alone.
Back in Katse's audience chamber, he'd felt the bullets strike with the force of a great spiked hammer; all at once, none of the individual rounds discernible. They'd slammed his body against the opposite wall even as they'd punched through his back and ricocheted off the metal behind him; for a split second leaving him suspended in midair. His sight and hearing had vanished into a bright red flash and tremendous roar, and then there had been nothing but motion. The impact of the rounds had shaken him like a rag doll, pulverizing flesh and bone. Leaving his blood to pool on the deck at Katse's feet.
But it didn't matter, did it? He'd managed to get in his last shot. He'd guided his team into the base to have the last word. He and Red Impulse.
Joe let out his breath in a long, slow sigh. The pain and weariness drained as the Earth fell away from him at last. His body faded, and with a soft thud, the boomerang fell alone to the grass.