In a clearing before the entrance to the installation, Condor Joe lay in the grass and waited to die.
His teammates would take care of the machine, if anyone could. There was nothing else he could do. He didn't think about what would come next for him--he'd had plenty of opportunities during the past three years to contemplate what would happen in the afterlife, if there was one. It would just be good to get it all over with. Distantly he could hear his body laboring to breathe as the Galactor drug wore off and the full effects of his injuries came into play. Contrary to the Galactor "doctor's" prediction, he felt no pain; perhaps his body had decided it had had enough and shut down that part which felt pain. His fading consciousness was just along for the ride. It was pleasant, actually.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the sky. Silhouetted against the sullen grey clouds, a hawk circled over him. It spiraled down, closer and closer, until Joe could see the patterns on its feathers, and the great talons clenched against its body--funny that his vision had chosen now to clear. Perhaps this was a sign: Native American legend had it that the Thunderbird collected men's souls when they died. How appropriate, since Joe had used a bird as a totem he would be delivered from life by one. The hawk landed on the nearest crumbling statue, cocked its head at him, and shrieked.
Then he heard someone approaching, footsteps rustling in the tall grass. Slowly, he turned his head to see who it was. An unfamiliar shadow appeared--a tall, broad-shouldered man with long curly hair and a beard. The wind pulled at his cape as he walked with long strides, intense grey eyes fastened eagerly, purposefully, on the battered man on the ground. Joe's euphoria vanished. Though he didn't appear armed, there was something sinister about this man. The stranger had been looking for him, had something planned for him....
He remembered the boomerang that Ken had pressed into his hands. "Think of this as my heart, which I leave with you," he'd said. It was also a nasty weapon, and the only one Joe could reach. Ken would understand. His right hand tightened on the center, easing out the blades.
Unaware, the man approached. Joe waited until he loomed only a few feet away, then--
His left arm forced his body up; his right cocked the boomerang and threw it backhanded with all his remaining strength. The bearded man leaped aside, and the boomerang sank deep into a rock twenty yards away.
The man's eyes followed the path of its flight, and he lifted an eyebrow. "I'm impressed," he said. He spoke in Italian, and his voice was hoarse, grating. "That almost found its mark."
Joe wasn't listening. With that last effort his heart had stopped.
The stranger wasted no time; he scooped Joe up, and carrying his body like a child's, strode away from the statues. A light flashed on the ring on his right hand, and the old man shifted his burden so he could reach the tiny radio. "Send the copter down immediately and have the gear ready," he snapped. "He's gone into total arrest."
"Yes, Doctor," said a man's voice.
The hawk trilled once, then flew from the statue and landed on the stranger's shoulder. "Stay off now," he protested. "The boy's heavy enough." The bird ignored him, digging its talons into the thick shoulder padding the man wore for just that purpose.
The old man's hair whipped back from his face as the black copter touched down before him. The door slid open, revealing shadowy figures who pulled him and his burden aboard before the copter rose and vanished into the clouds.
As he left the conference room, Dr. Nambu pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Years of technological advances had still done nothing to make the bright lights any more comfortable, or any less hot. Behind him he could hear the television crews packing up their equipment. He had called for the press conference shortly after receiving Ken's report--which had confirmed everything picked up by ISO sources--and now news agencies were spreading the message all over the world. He had been especially lucky when the Godphoenix had flown by the window at just the right time during the broadcast--from the reporters' reactions, that had no doubt made quite an impression on his audience.
He wasn't quite sure how he felt. Of course he should be ecstatic at the news of Galactor's defeat, but that emotion had plenty of others to battle with: weary relief that the Black Hole Plan had been thwarted and that Sosai X was gone, combined with the suspicion that he was dreaming. Then there were the losses: he already grieved the deaths of Oniishi and Masaki, the last two members of the Red Impulse squadron. And Joe... He dreaded the return of his wards, when he'd witness their pain up close, and have to face that empty space where Joe used to be. During Ken's brief report, the Gatchaman's voice had been flat, and over the viewscreen static, Nambu had seen only four pale faces. He would glean the details when the Team came in, and he was expecting them any minute. Nambu and his young charge hadn't parted on the best of terms--Joe most likely had viewed him as the jailer who retained him for useless medical tests while his only family fought and possibly died without him. The expression on Joe's face as he watched Ken and the others depart was permanently etched in the Doctor's mind. Nambu would have preferred a less painful picture to remember him by.
He walked down the hall to his office. Just as he reached his desk, the intercom buzzed. He pressed a button. "Professor," said the quiet voice of his receptionist, "the Kagaku Ninjatai have arrived."
"I'll meet them in the lobby." Full debriefing would take place later, after an ISO med staff checked them over and saw to their needs. He just wanted to assure himself that they were all right.
Ken and the others had just entered through the basement entrance, away from the frenzied activity in the reception hall. They had changed back to civilian style and moved with the stiffness of exhaustion. Jun, Jinpei and Ryu nodded to the Doctor but Ken passed with a wooden set to his expression. Without a word, Nambu fell in step beside him and they walked down the side corridor toward the infirmary.
"Are you all right?" the Doctor asked quietly.
"Cuts and bruises. Jun and Jinpei took some shrapnel." The boy, Nambu noticed, was limping, but Jun looked only tired. "We patched them up a little on the way back."
Nambu dreaded the next. "And Joe? Did you find him?"
"Yes." Ken stared straight ahead. "We found him. He showed us the entrance to the base. Then we lost him."
Ken stopped, turned and faced the Doctor. There was a smile on his face, but it wasn't a happy smile. It held all the irony, grief and bewilderment he had suppressed for the past forty eight hours. "Yes, Hakase, that's exactly it. He's gone." He laughed, and when he continued, his voice shook. "When we came out of the base, he was gone, and we searched and searched, but we couldn't find him. He just disappeared--"
"Ken." Jun put a hand on his shoulder.
Ken flinched as if she had slapped him. He froze for a moment, fighting to regain control. Then, shaking his head, he looked earnestly up at the Doctor. "I'm sorry, Hakase. I think we all need a little sleep."
Nambu sighed. "You've earned every minute. Let's all meet tomorrow evening for the debriefing, twenty hundred hours. Agreeable?" They all nodded. "I know it hasn't sunk in yet. What you've done. The world is indebted to you all."
"Just doing our jobs," Jinpei quipped--still enough energy left for a joke. Nambu clapped a gentle hand on his back and gave him a grin.
"Goodnight, then. I'll be in my quarters if there's anything you need."
Nambu watched them leave and hoped they wouldn't dream.
As he walked through the ISO complex to his quarters, he could hear other scientists and employees celebrating. Music blared from some of the rooms, glasses clinked, and the smell of food and liquor was strong. Several colleagues called from the rooms he passed, inviting him to join them. Smiling, Nambu declined, claiming exhaustion. The day had drained him completely, worse than the day Kentaro--Ken's father--had died.
Finally the door to his apartment closed behind him, leaving him to stand in his living room, wrapped in silence. He first went to the bar and poured himself a straight scotch, then set it on the table beside his chair and forgot it. He sat in his recliner and looked through the window at the evening sky, his mind blank. For once he didn't have to discipline himself past it. He didn't have to think about what would come next, at least until tomorrow. Tonight he could rest, and hope he didn't dream himself.
On his perch on the edge of the medical table, Ken let his breath out in a sigh. The doctor finished and pulled the stethoscope back around his neck. "Okay, that's it. You're looking healthy physically. As you said, some scrapes and bruises."
Ken pushed himself off the table and reached into the basket for his clothes. The medical staff had been waiting for the Team when they'd arrived, and dragged each member into a separate room for a thorough check. They had showered Ken with congratulations throughout his physical, and he had tried to accept them gracefully, but he still didn't know what they had done to save the world. The Team had killed nearly fifty soldiers outside the base before they found Joe and the entrance. Once inside the base, they had found almost no resistance--not that the soldiers ever had a chance. Ken had taken out some of his rage on a strangely unresisting Katse before X had intervened and mockingly left them all to their doom. Katse had committed suicide, and the Black Hole machine exploded on its own--despite the fact that it had resisted all the Team's efforts to stop it. So what had they done to deserve this hero's welcome?
Maybe their appearance at Cross Karakoram had been enough.
"Think you'll have difficulty sleeping?"
Ken blinked, jarred from his train of thought. "Why?"
Regarding him sympathetically, the doctor sighed. "You're still wound up from the events of the day, and sleep is what you need most." Bending over his desk, he scribbled something on a sheet of paper and then handed it to Ken. "Stop by the pharmacy on your way out. Take two with water before you go to bed."
As he left the medical wing, Ken glanced at the prescription, noted it was a sedative, and stuffed the paper into his pocket. Once he was back in the silence of his small apartment, he pressed the call button on his bracelet.
Jun jumped at the sudden, unexpected sound. Reflexively she lunged out of the tub and snatched the wristband from the counter beside the sink. "G-3," she said, keeping her voice carefully neutral.
"It's me. Sorry to startle you. I just wanted to check on you."
At the sound of Ken's voice, the ice in her veins melted instantly. "I'm fine. Just in the bath. Jinpei's asleep already, and the medic says all his hurts are superficial." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "How are you?"
"Tired. I was just..." He paused, and Jun's hopes soared. "Worried, I guess. Glad you're okay. See you tomorrow."
Jun heaved a sigh and slipped back into the tub, careful to keep her bandages dry. Almost. He almost asked me. Should I go to him? I don't want to be alone tonight either. Or ever, anymore.
Ken called Ryu, but this time used the base interphone. When he opened the channel, he heard snores. The man could sleep through a nuclear holocaust--almost had, once or twice. Right now Ken envied him.
Well, that was everyone. Jinpei and Ryu asleep. Jun... he shouldn't bother her with his problems. Same for Nambu. Joe...
Don't think about Joe right now. Just don't.
Feeling very alone, Ken showered, then lay down on his bed and stared at the stars outside his window. It was nearly dawn when exhaustion claimed him and he slept.
With current technology, it wasn't difficult to bully the human body into some semblance of life. Blood could be pumped through arteries and air forced into lungs artificially. Functions of other organs could be imitated, keeping other tissues alive for whatever purpose, technical or emotional. But bringing the body's performance to something above basic functions was another matter--especially with Dr. Rafael's objectives in mind.
The damage had been so extensive that if Rafael hadn't dodged Joe's attack, he wouldn't have believed the young man had been capable of moving. From the moment he set Joe's body down in the copter, the old man had fought hard to bring him back and keep him there. The young man had coded six times during the trip. Twenty-four hours after their arrival at the lab, ten of which were spent on the operating table, Joe's condition was elevated to critical. The old man had repaired what he could, replaced what he was able, and now the patient lay submerged in regen solution to speed the healing of the grafts.
Normally, when he found a body in such a damaged state, the old man merely made a recording of the patterns that made up the owner's "personality" and placed them into a new mechanical body. Though the exact technology for the mental coding still evaded his understanding, the procedure was far easier than what he was attempting now. But this time he had different goals. The more organic his subject's mind remained, the less the likelihood of mechanical sabotage.
His radio shrilled an alarm. The old man checked the display above the device and confirmed the frequency before picking up a telephone receiver. "Yes?"
"Dr. Rafael," said the voice on the other end. "How are things proceeding?"
The old man glanced at Joe through the window looking into the lab. His body lay within a clear tube filled with fluid, and was hooked to breathing apparatus and monitors which were being watched carefully by more of the doctor's silent assistants. He looked oddly fragile, and for the first time, as young as he actually was. "As planned, though he was injured worse than I thought. There was some brain damage, though it appears to be from old scarring. Amazing that he made it so far." He shook his head, unseen by his caller. "The boy is stubborn, though, and he wants to live more than he'll care to admit. We'll begin with the first of the implants as soon as he's strong enough... I'd say in two weeks."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" The other's voice sounded doubtful. "Asakura's a wild card--you don't know how he's going to react. He could ruin everything."
"It's worth the risk. He has skills that I can't possibly obtain any other way--why waste them? Besides, I think I can appeal to his basic nature."
"It's your choice. Keep me up to date." The transmission ended, leaving static.
Not that it will be easy, the old man amended. The first few hours of consciousness would be crucial, and the most difficult. Dr. Rafael was a scientist, not a negotiator. And his colleague was right--Condor Joe was a ticking bomb. It would take all of his resources to get that bomb to go off at the right time, and in the right direction.