Somebody asked once, "Why are they called ninja when they dress up in bright colors and everyone knows about them? I thought ninja were supposed to be unseen." Yeah, Ken's favorite saying is that he's "The white shadow that sneaks in unseen." You'd imagine it would be impossible to sneak around in those crazy comic book superhero suits, but it works.
Whoever had the bright idea to call us ninja was generalizing. We're not really ninja according to the age-old definition of the word. We're spies, sometimes, and we use ninja toys like shuriken and explosives, but there the resemblance ends. With the public face the ISO has given us, we're more like superheroes. Everybody knows our titles.
There's something to be said for hiding in plain sight. Think about it: a tiger's bright orange and black stripes stand out when he's standing alone in an uncluttered environment. Put the tiger in a forest cluttered with grass and brush, and he disappears. Our world is so loud and busy that our own loudness fits right in. Even with the fame. Sometimes because of the fame.
The public makes our presence surreal. Marketers sell T-shirts and flags with the bird-head and G-belt emblems, character "portraits," toy versions of our vehicles, and homemade "cosplay" of us. I'm slowly getting used to seeing my "heroic" image on a tote bag or a Happy Meal, and I hope somebody at the ISO is making sure we see a share of the sales profits. Jinpei says he's going to sue if he doesn't get his share by the time he hits eighteen. He's not kidding.
You'd think the publicity would be a bad idea after two kids dressed in crude birdstyles made of cooking pots and chicken feathers got grabbed by a particularly stupid Gallactor captain, but now we have clumsy three-foot-tall Eagles, Condors and Swans running around back yards, and, armed with treat bags, through neighborhoods on Halloween. If that wasn't strange enough, some of our fans do a phenomenal amount of research, gorging on everything the publicity department cares to feed them. Jun told me she encountered a fan who lectured her on what kind of music the Swan danced to.
It wasn't my idea to race as Condor Joe. I'm a professional driver, not a circus act. But the ISO publicity people, backed by Nambu, insisted it would be the perfect cover--homage to a hero. So I wear a black racing suit and a black helmet with a crude copy of the Condor's pattern on it. I gave one interview where I said I would someday like to meet my idol. The fans took it from there.
Here's an example: It's two days after a mission and I'm happy because I haven't missed qualifying for the next circuit race on the calendar. The car's running great and I feel good about the track. Dressed in my black and indigo fire suit, I'm about to put the helmet on when a couple of fans yell at me from the pits. They're heavyset boys, about fourteen. Both are wearing pit passes and "G"-emblem t-shirts. I roll my eyes. It's not gonna be about the race, about my car, or about my skills. It's gonna be about my persona. They're giggling. "Hey, Condor Joe!" yells one of them.
"Too bad he doesn't have the helmet right," the other says. "There're two stripes, not one. And the color's wrong. Sheez."
"You know, if the real one ever saw you, he'd kick your ass," yells Geek Number One. I put the helmet on, which shuts out anything else they have to say, and climb into the car. But not before I catch more pointing and sneering out of the corner of my eye.
Hey kids, here's some advice from your hero: Go get lives before a mecha squashes you flat.
What would the real Condor Joe have done if he met someone using his name and likeness? Well, as the real deal, I'd think it was the copycat's funeral--painting a big, fat target on himself for a Gallactor bullet. I've already been investigated by the GCIA--Gallactor's spy network--and so far they've found just another harmless racing driver. Even after what happened to Lucy, they haven't been able to put two and two together. Then the ISO stopped sponsoring me and the GCIA got off my case.
The crew chief comes over the radio and tells me I'm good to enter the track and start my warm-up. I leave the two fans behind.
Both qualifying runs are good. The second is better. I'm going to be in the front row for the starting lineup of the race, and my good mood returns. I pull into the garage and shut the car down to a welcome sight: Ken sitting on a tool cart, holding a two-liter plastic bottle of ice water. During the run, I'd shut out the subtropical summer heat and the sauna-like qualities of a thick fire suit and a hot engine, but now I'm feeling it. One of the crew pops and raises the hood of the car, letting the engine cool down. I pull off my helmet and unzip the top of the fire suit, imagining a huge cloud of steam billowing out.
Ken's wearing his trademark Wide Blue Yonder stare, eyes showing nothing. That means he's thinking about something, and in light of our recent mission and that gorgeous girl he rescued, I bet I can guess what it is.
"Well?" I say.
He's gonna make me say it. "I saw Boronbo's daughter," I tell him. "Have you asked her out?"
"No." He blinks and turns up that innocent stare of his. "Why?"
Bingo. "Why?" I say. "Are you blind?"
"No." He shrugs and hands me the water bottle. It had been frozen solid at one point, and a narrow cylinder of ice still floats in the middle. I slam back half the water, and when the ice threatens to bring on a brain freeze, I pour the rest over my head. Perfect.
"And you're not going to, are you? Why not?"
He shrugs. "She's not my type."
Shit, Ken. I would make her my type.
"What is your type?" Oh, hell with it. I wave a hand at him and head for the men's room at the end of Pit Road. For whatever reason, it's his loss.
Geek 1 and Geek 2 are still parked by the fence. They see me and the giggling starts again. No autographs for you. More people have joined them, including a pretty girl with blonde hair and a pink halter top. When she sees me, she bounces and waves. I come up to the fence. She gushes congratulations and leans forward for a kiss. I find myself scanning her up and down, looking for the slightest twinge of duplicity; the slightest threat. Then I oblige. We flirt, using meaningless words, and then I continue to my destination.
The girl sobers me. For as much as Ken and I argue about our job and relationships, he has a point about trust. While Boronbo's daughter is trustworthy, her friends may not be. One slip about dating a member of the Science Ninja Team, and our careers would get much more complicated.
Just to prove that I can, I return to the garage unseen by the fans.