Title: The Other Side

Author: Gloria Oliver (gioliver@swbell.net)

Summary: Katse sets quite a trap for Ken. 

 


"Ken, watch out behind you!"

I dodged to the side, spotting my attacker out of the corner of my eye, and kicked him in the stomach. I swept immediately to my right, and smashed my fist into another Galactor’s throat. He gurgled as he fell and I put him out of my mind. I scanned the area around me looking for my next opponent.

An anonymous tip had led us up into Ontara. After a few long days of ground work, and a little luck, we’d found this small Galactor science installation.

We really owed the find to Jinpei, if the truth be told. If he hadn’t been his usual self and tried to climb every totem pole we’d come across, we would have never found the entrance to the place. His foot had hit the eye of the bottom most figure on one of the tree sized poles, and it had opened up to reveal a small set of stairs leading into the ground.

We’d gotten most of the bombs set by the time we’d finally been spotted. So far, the Galactor goons hadn’t proved much of a challenge. That didn’t bother me a bit, though I was sure Joe would complain about it later. As far as I was concerned, the sooner we could finish up in here the better.

"This way, Katse-sama!"

I glanced over my shoulder sure that I hadn’t heard right. Yet there he was, the head of Galactor, in all his purple glory, running with his tail between his legs. This could be the day! "Stop, coward!"

I took off after him. Now, it did occur to me to wonder what in the world could have brought Katse to such a minor Galactor post, but I didn’t let that hinder me. I closed the distance between us, sure that I could smell his fear. Katse and his crony neared a turn in the hallway. I threw my Birdrang with all my might.

The sharp blade caught the green suited guard in the back of the leg, cutting through his tendons. He fell screaming.

I reached out for my returning Birdrang and leapt over the injured man. My blood raced with excitement as every second brought me closer to my quarry. Today would be the day! The world would finally be liberated from Katse’s evil at last!

I made it around the corner and saw that it was a dead end. Yes! The smile faltered on my face as I spotted Katse leaning lazily against the back wall a nasty grin on his face. His hand was draped on a large switch to the left.

Damn! I’d fallen into a trap!

I barely had a chance to notice that my section of corridor was a different shade of gray from the rest, before Katse had brought the lever down.

Clear walls plunged down in front and behind me, trapping me in. A vibrating hum filled the air. I smelled something sweet as pink gas quickly flooded the chamber. Tiny lightning bolts played on the surface of the two off-colored walls.

I held my breath even as my hand instinctively reached down and pulled out three miniature explosives from the pouch at my side. I cocked my hand back, getting ready to throw them against the far corner and hope for the best, when twelve metal rods pushed out from the walls on either side. The hum increased to a high shriek. The stench of ozone filled the room as the small bolts of energy gathered at the ends of the rods and then shot out toward one another. I was trapped in the middle.

Pain flooded every nerve and tissue of my body before concentrating and exploding in my brain. I think I screamed. The moment seemed to stretch into infinity.

Then I was falling -- falling in a hundred different directions at incredible speeds. Every piece of me, every atom, pulled farther and farther apart. I screamed but could make no sound.

Panic filled me to the core, my sense of self unraveling. With everything I had, I tried to will myself back together. It all came back with a bang.

BLAM

Up and down returned to normal. I felt myself fall, my body not responding to my commands, and hit the floor -- hard. I inhaled and it felt as if I’d never had air inside my lungs before. My head swam even as I struggled to breathe in ragged gasps. I felt the muscles all over my body spasm in painful jerks. What was happening?

"Ken, are you all right?" I tried to turn at the sound but nothing happened. "The bastard got away again, didn’t he?" Joe didn’t sound very happy.

I screamed at my eyes to open and after a moment they did as I asked. I felt a flood of nausea sweep through me even as my vision whirled before my eyes.

"You really shouldn’t do this kind of thing. You know how turned on I get when you’re helpless."

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. Joe’s familiar features blurred before me. He helped me up into a sitting position.

"Try to get up. This place is toast, and we’ve got to get out of here before it decides to take us with it."

I nodded, still unable to speak. I tried to stand, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. It was almost as if my commands just weren’t getting through. Joe pulled me to my feet, hanging my left arm over his shoulder. My legs felt like rubber. "Oh, Ken, you’re such a tease!" What?

"Come on you slowpokes! Let’s blow this joint!" A white and purple blur moved past us. Had that been Jinpei? My stomach flip-flopped. What had Katse done to me?

Joe dragged me along, even as two more blurs sped on ahead of us.

"They can kiss off this place!"

"If they make things any easier for us, they’re going to bore us to death!"

Ryu, Jun! The voices were theirs, but...

We exited the building, the bright sunlight burning my eyes. The nausea had calmed a little and I felt slightly more steady. I was still forced, however, to cling to Joe for support. He dragged me up a small hill.

"Neechan, did you see how I got that guy’s guts to splatter onto the floor while he watched?"

"Humph! So, you got flashy, so what? You still haven’t beaten Joe’s twenty foot blood squirt." What the hell?

My vision finally straightened itself out as we crested the top of the hill. I hesitated there, pulling against Joe, thrown back by what I saw.

The small town of Queekak was a fiery ruin. A thick, black cloud of smoke clung over the town, growing as it was fed by the still burning buildings. A thin breeze assaulted me with the smell of burned plastic and charred flesh. Dark bodies littered the streets. Yet worse than all of that, the part that I couldn’t understand, was the sight of the God Phoenix nestled in the ruins of a large house.

I blinked, not quite daring to believe what I saw. Slowly, I realized that the God Phoenix didn’t look quite right. Her colors were all wrong. Instead of the familiar blues and reds, she was colored in silver and black.

"Beautiful sight, isn’t it? Makes the whole job seem worth while."

I turned to stare at Joe with open mouthed shock. What did he just say? Luckily, he didn’t see my expression as he started us moving toward town. "Let’s get you on the ship and take you home. Nambu’ll be waiting."

I looked away, a chill making it’s way down my back. I said nothing, not sure of what had just happened and in no shape to want to find out.

As we made our way down the hill, I tried to get my first good look at the others. I didn’t understand what I saw.

Their voices were right, their faces and bodies as well, but their uniforms... I gaped as the three of them played a game of tag amidst the towns’ rubble and it’s dead.

Jun’s uniform was no longer the pink and white of old. Her suit and mini skirt had somehow turned blood red in color; her belt, boots, and gloves a deep gold. Jinpei’s colors had changed to white and purple. Ryu’s a deep green and black.

With a sense of dread building up inside me, I looked down at myself. Where once I would have seen only white, I saw black. My blues had turned into deep metallic ones. The symbol of all we stood for had changed into a deep, bloodier red.

I glanced at Joe and saw the familiar blues and browns, but their order on his uniform had been reversed! I shook my head and closed my eyes, hoping this was just an after effect of whatever had been done to me. I opened them again; nothing had changed.

"Come on, Shadow of Death, it’s time to fly up into the ship. Are you up to it?"

It took me a moment to realize that Joe was talking to me. Shadow of Death? The name made my skin crawl. What was going on? I pulled away from him and tried to stand on my own. "Yeah, I can - do it."

"Go for it then. I’ll watch." He looked me up and down, hunger in his eyes. I felt my cheeks grow hot and turned away. What was this? What was going on? Though I had no idea if I could make it, I made myself leap upwards just to try and put some distance between us.

I landed on the deck of the discolored God Phoenix, falling to one knee. The effort had sent my head spinning. I stiffened as I heard Joe land easily beside me.

"Boy, you are out of it. Man, the things I could do to you in this condition!"

I felt my anger rise even as my cheeks grew hot again. Joe grabbed my arm to help pull me up, but I roughly pulled away. "I can manage on my own, thank you." I wobbled to my feet hoping I could pull this off. I did.

I noticed that Joe was grinning at me. It was the same grin that was such a familiar part of my life. It made my stomach turn. Something was terribly wrong here!

The platform lowered us into the interior of the ship. We hurried to join the others on the bridge.

I stiffened with anger, shock, and just a touch of fear as Joe slapped me on the rear as he made his way past me out of the elevator. Was he mad? I fought to ignore the gesture wanting nothing more than to grab him and pin him against the wall and beat an explanation out of him. This wasn’t the time or place for that, however. I made myself move forward and took my place on the bridge.

The chair felt as it had always felt. The bridge itself was exactly as it had always been, even down to the colors. Obviously whatever was wrong was either extremely selective or it had nothing to do with me. For some reason, that thought didn’t make me feel any better. Maybe Nambu could explain what was going on.

The God Phoenix lifted into the air. Ryu handled her as expertly as always. An impostor couldn’t have faked that. Galactor also couldn’t have recreated the bridge in this much detail and to such perfection, especially since they’d never even seen it. Maybe I was unconscious and this was all a dream? The idea was appealing, but I couldn’t fall for it. Everything here was just too real, too detailed. It had to be something else... But what?

The others were bantering amongst themselves. It sounded the same as always until I actually started paying attention to what they were saying.

"I got the most kills tonight, I’m sure of it! One hundred and five by my count."

"Obviously you weren’t paying much attention to what the rest of us were doing!"

"Don’t worry, Jinpei, the tally after debriefing will tell for sure. Anyway, today, I think Ryu gets the Grossness Award. Don’t you, Ryu?"

"Oh, yeah!" The glee in his voice curdled my blood.

Beep. Beep.

"Ken, there’s a message coming in. It’s Nambu."

I felt my pulse rise. Things would get straightened out now. If anyone could make sense of all this madness, it would be him.

The screen lit up and I choked.

"Ah, children, the mission was successful? Yes?"

The man on the screen was and wasn’t Nambu. The voice and features were correct, but everything else was wrong. His rimless glasses had been replaced by pink tinted John Lenon ones. His usually conservative suit was now green with purple stripes. His shirt was a bright pink and overflowed with ruffles. I stared at my hands. I just couldn’t look at him, I couldn’t! I tried my best to keep my face blank.

"Of course we were successful, Hakase! That’s what we do!" Jinpei piped up from the back, saving me the trouble of having to answer.

"Yeah, everything went smoothly except for Ken, who like an idiot, decided to mosey on up to one of Katse’s traps!" Joe’s tone was condescending. Ryu chuckled beside me. "It got him all weak and tingly though!" The glee on Joe’s voice made me cringe.

"I see." Nambu didn’t sound overly pleased. "Return to base immediately." He winked. "Good job, team." The screen went blank. I felt panic welling inside me.

I closed my eyes and quickly tried to center myself. My stomach started doing flip-flops again. Nambu would be of no help. How was I going to get out of this? These people all physically resembled my friends, but that seemed to be as far as it went. And Nambu... Maybe I would get lucky and all of this really was a dream...

The bantering picked up again, but I paid no attention to it. I focused instead on taking an internal inventory.

I’d lived through whatever it was that Katse had planned for me. Though at first, I seemed to have had little control over myself, that was slowly being resolved. I was tired, sore, but appeared otherwise unharmed. The only real problem was that my world seemed to have been turned upside down and at the moment, I really had no idea on what to do about it.

A weird thing occurred to me then... It was something from one of the science fiction movies Jun loved to watch on occasion. What had come to mind was the plot of one of those films, something about being sent into a parallel world, where things were almost exactly the same, but at the same time weren’t. Could that be what had happened to me?

After about twenty minutes, the God Phoenix dived down into a patch of sparkling blue ocean. She quickly eased her way toward where I remembered Crescent Coral should be.

From the outside, the base looked as it always had. I felt my innards tighten, not sure of what to expect of the inside. Within minutes, we’d slipped into an airlock. The water was rapidly extracted, leaving it almost totally dry.

The others rushed to get out, but I purposely took my time. As soon as they’d gone on deck, they changed out of bird style. This gave me yet another surprise -- their civvies were nothing like those we normally wore. Instead of the familiar jeans and numbered T-shirts, the uniforms had converted into black body suits, with brown half-jackets, and black ankle high boots. Each jacket had a gold number on the upper right arm.

I hesitated at the ramp before finally changing out of bird style as well. My clothes matched theirs. I would fit in. I sighed with relief, not having allowed myself the luxury of worrying about it until it was over. This should give me a little more time before they could figure out that I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.

"Hey, slowpoke, hurry it up will you? You know Nambu-baby doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Unless there’s something else you’d like to do first?" Joe’s tone was lewd. I hurried to catch up, not wanting anything of the kind. I tried hard not to fidget in the strange clothing.

As we moved down the corridor from the bay, I noticed pieces of trash littering the hall here and there. Worse, graffiti covered the walls, in a myriad of colors, stating things like ‘Nambu sucks -- by appointment only’, ‘Katse is a pussy’, or ‘Ninjas do it silently’. Some were even more graphic and crude. A few had visual aids. They made me extremely uneasy. What was going on in this place? None of the others paid any of it any attention.

Nambu’s door was open. His office was littered with crumpled papers and stacks of files. A large lava lamp dominated a huge marble desk amidst the chaos, the globs of heated wax drifting slowly up and down. The wall behind the desk showed a large array of psychedelic colors that were flowing, merging, changing as I watched. The carpet, what could be seen of it, was deep magenta. It matched a set of deep chairs that were set in a semi-circular pattern facing the desk. There were swatches of red colored shag carpeting on the walls. The whole effect set my teeth on edge.

Nambu looked up from a stack of paperwork. "Ah, there you are! Sit down, sit down. Give me a quick rundown." He pointed a pen at the chairs and then went back to his paperwork.

All four of the others took their seats and started talking at once. Nambu did nothing to narrow the flow of the sea of words, but only nodded absently on occasion. Here and there he’d pipe in a question. Eventually, the furor died down. I hoped that in the midst of the chaos, he hadn’t noticed that I’d said nothing. My hopes were in vain.

"Ken, you haven’t said anything. Have you nothing to add? Your body count perhaps?"

I looked away as his steel gaze rose to lock with mine. I doubted, now that I’d met the man face to face, that this Nambu was any more of a fool than my own. I realized with a small chill that I couldn’t afford to underestimate any of them. "S - sir, I’m afraid I can’t report my body count or anything else for that matter. I’m having problems recalling most of our last mission." I glanced up and saw the doctor’s brow rise.

"Any idea why that might be, Ken?"

I forced myself to shrug and look as nonchalant as the others.

"Hakase, it was probably that nasty trap of Katse’s. It fried aniki real good!" Jinpei leapt to his feet, jerking about in an imitation of what I must have looked like.

"Ah, yes, I believe this was mentioned before." Nambu leaned back in his tall chair and put his feet on the desk. I almost cringed. "Well, Ken, since we’re almost through and it looks like you have nothing to add, it might be prudent for you to go get checked out. I’ll talk to you later." The dismissal was clear.

I rose to my feet without looking at any of them and headed for the door.

"Do you need one of us to help you get there, Commander?" I stiffened at Joe’s tone. I forced myself to ignore it and walk on out.

"Hurry back, wimp!"

"Whoop, whoop!"

"All weak and fuzzy!"

Their comments struck me in the back like blows. Nambu didn’t seem to care. I got out of range as fast as I could manage.

In no real hurry, I made my way down to the infirmary. Everything there looked pretty much normal, which for some reason only worked to make me feel uneasy. I walked on over to the nurse’s station.

"Excuse me, Nambu Hakase asked that I come down and get checked out. Is a doctor available?"

The nurse looked up from the fashion magazine she’d been reading, a look of startled surprise on her face. I wasn’t sure what it meant. "Sure, Dr. Braun is in one of the rooms down the hall. Feel free."

I thanked her, trying to ignore her offhanded attitude. I went to look for Braun.

I’d peeked into five different rooms before I finally found him. He was in a large office, behind a desk, busily polishing a wide variety of instruments. Glancing at their sharp hooks and twisted edges, I got the creepy feeling that these weren’t used for regular medical procedures. I tried not to dwell on what those procedures might be.

"Excuse me, Dr. Braun?"

The round faced man looked up, the same startled surprise on his face as I’d seen on the nurse’s. "Yes?"

"I triggered some kind of energy trap during our last mission. Hakase asked me to come down here to get a check up?" I didn’t add that I was pretty anxious to have it done myself.

"Oh... fine." Braun picked up his instruments one by one, and tenderly wrapped them up in a red velvet cloth. Gingerly, he placed the wrapped bundle into an old fashioned doctor’s bag. "Let’s go get it over with, shall we?"

I was caught off guard by his disinterested tone. The Braun I knew would have been jumping at the chance to do a workup on me.

The examination was pretty routine, Braun’s boredom at the task filling the room with a disinterested attitude. Instead of the non-stop distracting chatter that was the doctor’s trademark, he kept totally silent and aloof. Worse, he gave me no information on the examination, even when I asked. I would have pressed the issue, but didn’t know if that would come out looking suspicious. He booted me out of the examination room and stomped back to his office. I heard the lock click from the inside.

I shook my head, staring at the door, not sure what to make of all these inconsistencies.

"Ah, there you are!" I turned around at the sound of Jun’s voice.

"It sure took long enough!" Joe’s voice was loud, as if he hoped Braun would overhear. I suddenly wasn’t sure how to feel about the fact that these two had been waiting for me.

"Now, Joe, don’t be surly. It wasn’t Ken’s fault. Nambu did order him here and you know how unhappy Braun gets when he’s not torturing someone." She turned back to me, flashing an interested smile. "Don’t you love it though, when he let’s us watch?"

I couldn’t think of an answer to that, not that I had the presence to try too hard. I’d become a little distracted... For the first time since we’d changed into our civvies, I came to realize how the body suit was stretched drum tight over Jun’s skin, showing off her figure in detail. She seemed to be only too aware of it, and stood there trying to give me the best view. "Ken , you won’t believe this, but your little incident has gotten Joe into a real tizzy! You wouldn’t believe what he wants to do to you!" I caught him looking me up and down again. I didn’t like it. "I wanna see him do it, don’t you?" Jun reached out and gently caressed my cheek. Her tongue seductively licked at her lower lip.

"I -- " I pulled away, suddenly realizing what the strange look in her eyes was all about. "I’m really feeling very tired, the trap and everything. If, if you wouldn’t mind, could we put it off until tomorrow?"

"Too tired for me? You’ve never been too tired for me before. Maybe I can help you change your mind." With a quick feral smile, Jun shoved me against the nearest wall. Before I could react, she trapped my hands in hers as she pressed her body close. She crushed her hungry lips to my own.

I... I was beyond surprise at the move. I got my thoughts to stay coherent long enough to try and figure out what to do. I tried to push her away but I had no leverage. She was pressed so tightly against me that I could feel her every curve. I gasped in shock, and guilty pleasure as she slipped her thigh between mine and brought it slowly up and down.

The moment my mouth opened, Jun thrust her greedy tongue inside it. Playfully, she coiled hers about my own, inviting me to participate more fully. I tried to resist but she would have none of it. Dammit, this was wrong! This wasn’t Jun! I fought to control the heat I could feel growing inside me. Joe chuckled from somewhere behind her.

After a moment, Jun finally released me and backed away, a small frown on her face. Obviously this wasn’t the type of reaction she was used to getting. I sure as hell wasn’t used to this type of thing at all. It was very hot in the hallway...

"Hm..." She turned to look at Joe a small pout on her lips. I was having trouble breathing. "Could I be losing my touch? Could that be it? How did it look to you?"

Joe leaned on the opposite wall to mine, his arms crossed in an all too familiar pose. "Everything looked fine from here. If anything, you looked a little more energetic than usual." He paused a moment. "Maybe it’s him." He jerked a thumb in my direction a sly grin on his face.

Jun’s eyes lit up as she turned to look back at me. I couldn’t meet her gaze and I was sure that my face was not its usual color. I wished that the wall would swallow me whole. "Yes! That’s it! Katse’s trap! That would explain everything."

"Well, it would explain why he’d suddenly turned into such a prude." I felt myself turn a few shades darker. I wasn’t sure if it was over the fact that I’d been called a prude or the fact that here I seemed to be far from one. Though at the moment, I really didn’t feel like much of one...

"You’ve got a point, Joe, but to be honest, now that the doubt is there, it just won’t go away. I need to find out, one way or another, if it’s me or him." She tapped her foot thoughtfully for a moment. "Now on who should I ply my charms to find out?" She glanced over at him. "You wouldn’t think of volunteering, Joe, would you?"

I saw the man who was yet wasn’t Joe grin. "Well.... I guess I have nothing better to do..." He pushed himself away from the wall and sauntered over to her.

In spite of my need to get out of there and this opportunity they were giving me, I hesitated, morbidly fascinated by what was happening.

Jun studied Joe for a moment and then roughly slammed him against the wall before grabbing his head and pulling it down. She pressed her lips to his, devouring him, with unrepressed enthusiasm. Her hands slipped into his jacket and roamed over his body. My face burned. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Deep inside, I felt a slight twinge of jealousy as Joe returned her caresses. But they weren’t them! I made myself turn away.

"So, how was that? Is it me or is it him?" I found myself looking over my shoulder at her breathless question. Though I couldn’t see her face, I could see Joe’s. His eyes were full of hungering lust.

"No -- it definitely isn’t you. But a little frustration suits you real well." He smiled. "You haven’t been this hot before." He reached for her but Jun easily moved out of his reach, laughing with delight.

She sidled up to me. I held my breath.

"So, Ken, should I try again? Surely if we try hard enough, we can get you in the mood." Her smile was positively naughty.

A small part, the same one that had been jealous, screamed for me to let her try. I ignored it. This wasn’t Jun! "No," I said hoarsely. "As you’ve already pointed out, I’m not... up to it." I didn’t realize what I’d said until it was too late.

Joe chortled. "That’s not how it looks to me."

God, I could have killed him right then and there.

Jun frowned for a moment, but then her face brightened. "Okay, a rain-check then. But we’ll both miss you." She ran her fingers lightly up my chest. It tingled. I tried my best not to think about it. She turned away.

"Joe, do you think Ryu or Jinpei would be interested in joining us or should we make it just the two of us this once?"

"Let them find someone to screw on their own. I’m tired of waiting." He advanced toward her.

"Oh, are you?" Jun slipped away again. "Then I guess I should make you do just that, neh?" She gave him a teasing grin. "If you don’t catch me before I get to my room, I’ll lock you out and leave you with your misery!" She took off down the hall. With a feral grin, Joe took off after her. I was completely and thankfully forgotten.

I leaned against the wall and sighed. The situation wasn’t good and didn’t look likely to get better. I’d put them off this time, but what about tomorrow? It wouldn’t be long before Katse’s trap grew to be a thin excuse. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out what they’d do once they figured out I wasn’t who they thought I was. I had to do something! The problem though was that I had no idea on what that should be!

The weight of everything that had happened came crashing down on me. I felt thoroughly exhausted and it didn’t look like things were going to get better. Perhaps I should stay out of sight, at least until I could come up with something, anything to try and get out of this. Things just had to look better in the morning.

I took the long way back to my double’s room, not relishing an encounter with any of my other ‘teammates’. As I came close, I made sure the coast was clear and then made a dash for the room and got inside.

I’d closed and locked the door before moving to turn on the lights. I flipped them on, blinking as I turned around, and was instantly certain that I must have gone into the wrong place.

The room was black, every bloody bit of it -- the walls, the shelves, the bed, the sheets, the carpet, everything! It was eerie, almost alien. The only color came from posters that had been plastered all over the ceiling. AC/DC, Metallica, Napalm Death and posters of other heavy metal bands sat amidst enlarged pictures of nuclear explosions, cop beatings, and other acts of violence. This was what I liked here?

I stepped over to the study desk on the right, still not believing I was in my room. The books at the desk were mostly cheap paperbacks, horror stories, and compilations of violent manga. There was a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but it looked dusty and neglected. A large album sat prominently on the top of the desk. Curious, I opened it. I soon wished I hadn’t.

The album contained a collection of items pertaining to my double’s teenage life as both a civilian and as Gatchaman. At first the contents seemed harmless enough; pictures of the team in their ‘civvies’ looking like normal people having fun. The five of them had formed a heavy metal band, which I supposed explained their choice in clothes. The reviews of their music were mostly lukewarm. Several of the clippings complained of their violent and at times highly controversial lyrics. Highlighted, as if with pride, were the names of the cities from which the band had been banned. There were also several articles on riots and other mayhem that spawned from the sites of their concerts.

And then there were the other articles... The ones with pictures of death and destruction. All talked of the horrid ravages committed to the world by the Science Ninja Team. Mass murder, assassinations, torture, mass destruction, these and more had been attributed to them. What were we here? A terrorist organization? It was almost as if the Ninja Team had taken over for Galactor here. The thought made me ill.

I slammed the book closed and stepped back. Everything in this place was wrong! They weren’t the ones who were supposed to be terrorizing the Earth! They were supposed to be the ones trying to save it! How could any of this be?

I fell into the chair by the desk. My chest hurt. It felt like someone had taken a two by four to it and my head. I looked about me and abruptly felt the black walls closing in on me. Wrong, wrong, it was all wrong! I got out of there as fast as my shaking legs could take me.

I leaned heavily against the wall outside and tried to pull myself together. Staying in that room was out of the question. I’d be damned if I’d ever go in there again. So much for trying to get some sleep. It didn’t matter. If this was a dream, it would have given me a way out. But if it wasn’t, I would have had to face this reality all over again in the morning. I wasn’t sure I could stand the disappointment. What was worse was that if all of this was true, he was in my world. What kind of damage would he do there before I was able to figure out a way to get back home!

As soon as I felt I could, I did the only thing I could think of at the moment -- I went for a long walk.

The halls were quiet except for the screaming messages scrawled on the walls. Almost everywhere I went was familiar yet somehow distorted. A few places were nothing like I’d known them to be-- one of the lower levels had been turned into a prison block. The few agonized groans that I caught from the elevator had been enough to tell me everything I ever wanted to know. I got out of there in a hurry.

I was heading toward a T intersection, half looking for a place to crash, when I heard footsteps coming from that direction. I stopped to wait so they could go by, not sure of who would be up at that time of night.

The first thing I saw was a black boot followed by red pants. My eyes grew wide as more and more of the stranger came into view. Then came the familiar half-concealed face I’d never thought to ever see again. "Otosan!"

Red Impulse’s head snapped over to stare in my direction. It was only then that I realized that I’d spoken out loud. From the look on his face, I also realized that I might have just made a terrible mistake.

"What did you call me?"

My mouth opened, but no sound came out. My mind had gone blank; I had no idea how to get out of this.

During my silence, Red Impulse quickly looked down each of the hallways as if making sure that no one else was there. Finding nothing, he strode toward me. My every instinct screamed at me to get out of there, but I couldn’t move. He was alive. My father was alive!

"I asked you a question, boy!" His body was stiff.

When I continued to hesitate, he pushed me roughly against the wall. I couldn’t find the will to resist him. "What did you just say?"

I made myself say something. "It - it was a mistake. I’d thought you were someone else." I couldn’t look at him as I spoke, though technically I’d told him the truth. This man really wasn’t my father, only an alternate form of him. But for all that, I found a strange secret joy growing inside me. It was so good to see him again, even if he wasn’t the true article.

I looked up and saw anger marring his face. He pinned me to the wall, his forearm pressing uncomfortably against my throat.

"You lying dog! What has that bastard told you?" His face was very close to mine, his words a soft hiss. This close, I could make out his eyes through the visor. I saw anger there, just like on his face. And something else? Was that... fear?

"What -- ?" He applied more pressure against my throat choking out anything else I might have said.

"I heard what you said. Don’t even try denying it. Now I want to know why. What has Nambu told you?"

Was this how my father would have reacted if I’d found out about his identity before that fateful day? Surely it wouldn’t have been like this. Surely there wouldn’t have been so much anger.

I stared at him, this replica of my dead father, and I still could find no way to answer him. If he was like the others, he would be a twisted mockery of the man he represented. Perhaps that was why he was so angry.

"I want answers, Washio!" I tried to double over as pain flared in my stomach as his fist slammed into my gut. I didn’t get very far, his forearm still holding me pinned by the throat. I started having problems getting air. "Answer me, answer me now!"

The violence and his tone of voice abruptly made one thing very clear -- this man, this man hated his son! Loathed him! My father had loved me, and I him in spite of everything. Yet while my father was dead, this copy of him wasn’t and he hated his son. It wasn’t fair! How could this be?

The pain I’d thought tucked away into the depths of my soul boiled to the surface as fresh as on the day he’d died. All those wasted years! The fights we’d had; my strong antagonism when we’d first met. Those few moments when we’d gotten close, and I never knowing that he was my father. Not knowing until those final moments where he sacrificed himself for the sake of the world. Never getting the chance to tell him how I felt, only able to stand there and watch him go to his death unable to do anything to stop it. Nothing! And now, like a miracle, he stood before me again, this time hating me with every fiber of his being.

I felt something warm and unexpected run down my cheek.

The pressure suddenly eased from my throat. It was only as I stood there gasping for air and I caught a glimpse of his surprised expression, that I realized that I was crying.

"Who - who are you?"

I looked away, embarrassed, not able to stop the tears. I’d pushed too hard, for too long, now I was paying the price.

"You’re not... my son... He, he would never allow himself to be seen with this weakness. Who are you? What are you doing here?"

I didn’t answer -- what could I say? He didn’t like that. He grabbed me by the arms and shook me hard. "Who are you?"

"I’m -- I’m Ken Washio... but I’m not your son." I could see the confusion I’d caused with my answer, but didn’t know what to do about it or even if I should try. As I watched, his face was once more engulfed by anger.

"So, this is a new little game, is it? I don’t find it funny!" He slammed me into the wall. My vision blurred for a moment.

Though he wasn’t who he looked like, it still didn’t lessen the pain at having him look at me that way. "No, no, it’s not what you think!"

"No? Then what is it then?" His voice was ice cold.

Should I tell him the truth or try to fabricate a lie? He’d already given me a way out if I wanted it. It might earn me a few cracked ribs and bruises, but it would still give nothing away... for now. Yet if I told him, it might just increase my chances of getting back home. And if I didn’t take the risk and trust him, who else would that leave? I had to have help if I was ever to get home. I had no real choice, I had to risk it. "I am Ken Washio, in every physical aspect that is. But, I’m not your Ken, not your son. Just as Red Impulse is my father, but he isn’t you. I’m not from this Earth. I come from another."

His eyes narrowed, but whether in confusion or suspicion, I couldn’t tell. I had to plunge on. "I called out to you because I was so surprised to see you. My father, my Red Impulse, is dead. He sacrificed his life to save my world."

"You’re insane." He let go of me, taking a cautious step back. His hand slid down to the holstered gun at his side.

"No! You’re wrong! Please, listen to me. Give me a chance! I’m taking a big risk in talking to you. If they figure out I’m not who they think I am, I’m sure you’ve got some idea of what they’re likely to do to me. I need your help. Please!" I put all the hope, sincerity, and desire into my voice that I could. He had to listen, he just had to!

My father’s double studied me for a long moment and then nodded. "All right, I’ll listen. But not here."

"Thank you." Relief washed over me like a wave. "Where do you suggest?"

His voice was low, his face close. "The walls have ears here. Come, I believe I know a place." He started back the way he’d come. I followed. He took the closest elevator up to the hangar level.

Red Impulse’s double chose one of the smaller bays and quickly led me inside. Set in between the standard undersea crafts, was a small submersible, red like his uniform. From what I could see of it, all it was was two seats with an engine. It didn’t look overly safe. He headed straight for it. "Come on."

As we came close, he pulled out a small control box from his pocket. He slowly walked around the craft pointing the box at it. Nothing happened. That seemed to satisfy him. I wasn’t sure what he was checking for, but I had a feeling that it was a good thing that it was clear.

After he finished, he put away the box and took out a small pen that turned out to be somekind of key. He shoved it into a small hole next to the submersible’s hatch. It lifted open. "Let’s go for a spin."

He climbed in and I followed. I scrunched down into the cramped seat next to his. Red Impulse said nothing as he activated the bay’s automated crane and put the ship in the water. Within minutes we’d left Crescent Coral behind us.

As we went, I found myself studying Red Impulse’s profile. It felt eerie sitting here with him like this. In every physical aspect, this man was my father, yet my father was dead.

Crescent Coral fell from view as Red Impulse guided the small craft into a shallow trench not far from the base. He slowly lowered the craft toward the bottom and let it settle onto the ocean floor. Other than for a few tufts of waving algae, we were all alone. I once more found myself the object of Red Impulse’s intense gaze.

"You wanted to talk, talk. I’m listening."

Now that the moment was here, I found myself hesitating. It was too late to back out and I knew it, but still... I stared out into the murky water around us and forced myself to start. Faltering at first, I eventually told him all that I knew.

Silence reigned between us for a while. It bothered me more than the comments of disbelief I’d half expected him to make. I didn’t dare to look at him.

"Can you prove any of this?"

I made myself face him and meet the question head on. "Probably not..." I couldn’t read his expression. "I’ve no physical proof and all the knowledge I have of the history of my Earth could probably be discounted as fanciful delusions of an unbalanced mind. The only thing I have is that I knew you were Ken’s father, plus I would have nothing to gain by coming up with such a fantastical tale."

He humphed, a slight smile on his face. "You really must not be from around here or you’d know that Nambu will try anything he thinks he could get away with." The smile disappeared. "Let’s assume for the moment that I believe you. What next?"

I almost groaned at the question. "To be honest, I hadn’t gotten that far." I shrugged. "The only thing I do know is that I want to find a way to get back home."

Red Impulse nodded and then reached for the controls. "Good enough. But I’m not quite yet ready to enter into this with both feet." The craft slowly began to rise. "I suggest we sleep on it and talk some more tomorrow."

A shiver cut through me at the thought of having to go back to that dark, alien room. I supposed, since there was no real choice, I’d have to learn to live with it.

Needless to say, I was rather surprised when our ship didn’t head back toward Crescent Coral. I opened my mouth to ask where we were going, but slammed it shut before I did. I had to gain his trust. If I questioned his choices this early in the game...

Red Impulse said nothing as we traveled, so I just left him with his thoughts. After a while, between the long day and the soft hum of the engines, my eyes closed. Before I knew it, I’d been dragged down into sleep.

I awoke a lot later... Bright light dazzled my eyes and I sat up in panic, my body tensed for whatever would come.

Deep, hearty laughter greeted me from across the room. I blinked, feeling horribly disoriented, and turned to find Red Impulse sitting across from me. He held a steaming cup of coffee in one hand. I stared at him in confusion the last thing I remembered was the two of us going somewhere in his submersible. Now, I found myself on a long couch with a blanket thrown over my lap.

"Good morning, or should I say good afternoon." Red Impulse sipped at his cup, a small smile on his lips. The strong aroma of brewed coffee tickled my nose and set my stomach rumbling.

"It would seem that crossing to parallel worlds takes a lot out of a man. I tried to wake you when we arrived, but you didn’t cooperate. I took the liberty of carrying you in."

I looked away my cheeks coloring. Flashes of other times when he had helped me bubbled up from my memory. "Sorry about that."

"Don’t worry about it. I needed the exercise." He set his cup down and stood up. "Are you hungry? I saved some lunch for you."

"Yeah, I am. Thanks." My stomach quickly seconded the motion.

I got up and folded the blanket he’d given me as my eyes roamed over the room. This was, but wasn’t my father’s cabin. There was nothing specific, just little things I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was still trying to puzzle them out when he returned with a tray of food.

"Nothing fancy, but not too bad, if I say so myself." He placed the soup and sandwiches on the small coffee table before me.

My mouth watered at the smell of the homemade vegetable soup, so I quickly went at it. From the corner of my eye, I watched my father’s double as he sat back down and finished his coffee. I could feel him studying me as I ate.

I sat back when I was through, popping in the last bite of my ham sandwich. I felt almost good. I studied Red Impulse as he’d done me, as he got up to pick up the dishes.

It struck me as he moved off that he was still wearing his helmet; almost as if he still believed I didn’t know who he was. It was the same way I had always seen my father. Even on that last day, the day I found out who he really was, he’d not taken it off, staying Red Impulse till the end. I had seen him in civvies once, but never as my father. A strange feeling flared in the depths of my soul.

I held onto it, trying to figure out what it meant as I waited for Red Impulse to return. He came back a minute later carrying two cups of coffee. He handed me one and I took it. It was then that the feeling clicked. "Could I, could I ask a favor?"

His cup stopped midway to his lips. "A favor?"

Now that I had his attention, it suddenly occurred to me that the whole thing would sound stupid. I looked away and asked anyway. "Yeah, but it’s nothing really important, so if you refuse, I’ll understand." He said nothing. "If you, if you wouldn’t mind, could you take off your helmet?" This man wasn’t my father, but he looked just like him. I wanted to see what he would have looked like. I wanted, needed a full image of him to replace the fuzzy memories of his face that I’d preserved from childhood.

Red Impulse seemed to consider my request and after a moment shrugged offhandedly. "A simple enough request. I suppose there’d be no harm in it."

I watched with bated breath as he reached up to remove the helmet and visor. I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he revealed what lay underneath.

His hair was short, cut in military style. It was dark brown like my own. His brows were thick, his forehead furrowed with old frown lines. But his eyes, what caught me were his eyes. Through the visor they had always appeared to be brown. In reality though, they were a deep steel blue. I had my mother’s eyes, but now I knew that my father’s eyes were also blue! I found a smile tugging at my lips as tears rose to my eyes. This was what Kentaro Washio truly looked like. This was what my father looked like! I engraved every line into my memory. The fuzzy mental picture of my father grew sharp again. "Thank you. This means a lot to me."

I noticed that he was staring at me strangely. "Might I ask why?"

I looked away wiping at my eyes. This wouldn’t be easy. "I don’t know what, what the history is here, but on my world... Kentaro Washio faked his own death in order to become a spy and keep tabs of Galactor’s V-2 plan. This happened when I was four." I looked away. "He left me and my mother under Dr. Nambu’s care." It felt strange saying these things to him, my mind insisting that my father already knew them.

"And though, as far as everyone else knew my father was dead, I’d never quite believed it. I just, I just knew he wasn’t dead. I was right, but I never suspected how close he really was. Through the team, I had contact with him as Red Impulse. Though we didn’t hit it off too well at first, he eventually became a mentor to me, a friend, at times even a rival. To be honest, I felt a little intimidated by him, and felt I had to keep proving myself to him." I took a deep breath and went on.

"Then, Galactor finally implemented the V-2 plan. They held the world for ransom, and through a weird set of circumstances, my father and I ended working together to make it stop. After infiltrating the Galactor compound, we found out that the rocket needed to reverse the effects of the V-2 plan, hadn’t been totally completed. The auto pilot had yet to be installed -- to fly it where it needed to go, someone would have to give up their life." My throat felt very dry.

"I insisted the duty was mine, but so did he. We were about to come to blows when the team showed up and Jun... Jun told me that he was my father." I felt tears coming again. I couldn’t stop them. Damn, I thought I’d gotten over this. "As I stood there staring at him in shock, he made his move. He... he lifted me in his arms and threw me across the room. Before, before I could try and stop him, he entered the rocket and launched." I hesitated before going on.

"By dying, he saved the world. It was later that I came to realize that in the end, I didn’t really get to see his face. Now that he was dead, I’d never get the chance... That is, until I met you." My throat was tight, my cheeks wet. I wiped away the tears knowing that they weren’t appropriate.

After several minutes of silence, I braved a glance in his direction. I found him standing by the window, staring into a clear blue sky. I barely heard him when he finally spoke. "What happened to you mother?"

The question caught me off guard. "She’s... she’s dead. She died when I was eleven. She’d had a long battle with Leukemia. She fought it for a long time. But in the end, it won."

"I see." He continued gazing at the sky.

His question brought up one of my own. One on who’s answer I hadn’t dared hope on until now. "Is she, is she alive, here?" He turned toward me. One look at the sadness in his eyes told it all.

"No, she’s also dead. She was murdered while I was off on a mission. You were five then -- I mean, my son was five. That’s when Nambu got his hooks into him." His eyes darkened. "I’ve no proof, but I believe that the good doctor killed my wife in order to give him the excuse that he needed to take my son."

A chill ran through me. Nambu had killed her for the child?

"I didn’t realize any of this at first of course. But I began to suspect something wasn’t right when I returned, and many times afterward, when Nambu always had an excuse on why I couldn’t see my son. Every time I pushed, a convenient mission would crop up and it was always imperative that I go take care of it.

"To be honest, I believe it took me so long to figure it out because I didn’t want to face the truth -- Kozaburo Nambu was no longer the man I’d once thought of as my best friend. I don’t know what happened to him, what made him change so totally, but he was no longer whom he’d been. He was a total stranger to me." He turned to look out the window again.

"By the time I accepted all this, though, it was too late. Ken had already been corrupted to the core." His agony, his feelings of guilt, were all there for me to see. I didn’t know what to do about it.

His face abruptly brightened. "Well, enough of memories. I have a few things to finish up and some calls to make. Just make yourself comfortable and I’ll return shortly." He nodded toward me and moved to leave the room.

"Red Impulse - "

He turned back around and held up a hand. "Kentaro, call me Kentaro. I don’t think you and I need to stick to titles."

I nodded quickly, glad for the change. "Kentaro, I just wanted to say, thank you."

He nodded again and left.

I yearned to follow him, to not let him out of my sight, sure that I would wake up as soon as he left. Instead, I made myself stay and finish my coffee. I decided to keep busy by trying to find out what was different about this reality’s cabin, rather than sitting and thinking of other, possibly more painful, things.

The old worn mantle was the same; the logs ever ready in the fire place just waiting to be lit. The square Indian rug still sat on the floor nearby, but after a moment, I realized that its hues were different from those of the other. Most of the other differences I found ran along the same vein. How could a place be so much the same and yet so different? The question made me itch. I started walking around.

Even with all I’d seen and heard, I still couldn’t get away from the feeling that all this had to be some kind of bad dream. But, I’d slept and awakened and everything was still here. Or was that just part of the dream? Maybe I’d soon wake up for real. But then...

I heard dishes clattering in the kitchen. Maybe, maybe I didn’t really want to wake up just yet.

By the time Kentaro had finished with his calls and other things, I’d wandered on outside. The sky was blue as ever; the pristine picture perfect mountains and clean cold air the same. It was just as it should be, just like home -- the place I’d vowed to always protect. I’d half wished it would somehow have been radically different. It might have made all this a little easier to take.

"Feeling up to a short ride?"

I turned around, not having heard Kentaro approach. He’d once more donned his helmet, his visor lowered. I couldn’t really see his expression. I wasn’t sure what to make of the change. "Sure. Where are we going?"

His smile was disarming. "You’ll see."

Kentaro led me around the cabin out to the grassy hill where he normally kept his plane. The small, red fighter was just as I remembered it - sleek and menacing, yet calmly beautiful in its own way. I felt a bit of nostalgic pleasure at seeing it again.

"Ken." I looked over at him and found his gaze locking with mine. "I’ve thought over everything you’ve told me, and though I’m not one hundred percent sure of what you’ve said, I do know someone who can come as close as any to verifying it as truth or not." He walked slowly toward the plane.

"For the time being, my friend wishes to remain anonymous. To guarantee that, I’m going to have to ask you to ride in here." Kentaro popped open a side panel on his fighter that I’d never noticed before. It revealed a cavity inside the plane, one just large enough for someone to fit inside.

I stared at the cramped space, uneasy about it. I wanted help, yes, but getting in there would make me highly vulnerable. Still, Kentaro had already had plenty of opportunity to try anything of that sort if that had been his intention. Without a word, I took a deep breath, grabbed onto the lip at the opening and slipped in feet first.

"The ride will probably be a little bumpy, especially during takeoff. There should be a pillow in there somewhere. It should help some.

"It seems Nambu is having quite a fit looking for you." He slammed the panel closed before I could say anything.

The ride was as bumpy as promised. I was thoroughly sore and well battered by the time he’d lifted into the air. I tried to get somewhat comfortable, trying hard not to think about what the landing would be like. I dozed lightly through most of the flight, but jerked awake as I heard the landing struts slip out for the upcoming landing. Less than two minutes later, they touched ground. Thankfully, the passage through whatever we’d landed on was basically smooth.

Bright light abruptly bathed the cramped compartment, blinding me. Then a familiar shadow covered the opening and reached in to help me out.

"So, did we survive okay?"

I let him drag me out even as I tried to wake up my half sleeping legs. Painful tingles worked their way up my calves as I regained my feet. "If it’s all the same with you, I think I’d prefer it if we drove next time."

Kentaro laughed and put his arm around my shoulders steering me away from the plane. I found the gesture strange, coming from him, but I was thrilled by it nevertheless.

The fighter was parked in a large hangar which had already been closed to the outside. Aside from the fighter and us, the place was empty, too empty -- There was nothing with which one could try and use to identify the place later.

I tired to get a better look around but Kentaro’s arm stopped me. His hand was locked into my shoulder like a vice. I glanced over at him to ask what was wrong, but he beat me to it.

"Just stay cool; don’t look too curious. My friend is a little on the paranoid side and doesn’t know what to make of you yet. Let’s just walk straight over to that door and make him happy. He doesn’t go in much for the overly curious types."

I tensed, my nervousness rising, but did as he asked.

Without preamble, Kentaro opened the door and we moved inside. The hallway beyond was long and non-descript. The hair on the back of my neck rose as we went along, the lack of doors or places to hide making me feel uncomfortably vulnerable -- I was used to going into bases on my own terms, not striding in when I was expected. Still, I’d be damned if I was about to let it show. Kentaro went along as if this were the safest place in the world. Every instinct inside me screamed the total opposite. Yet, I did nothing -- I’d asked to be brought here after all. I just didn’t like it.

We turned a corner into another long, plain hallway and followed it to a set of stairs. My skin prickled, and though I couldn’t see anything, I was sure we were being watched.

At the end of the stairs, we came across a door on the right. Kentaro opened it and walked inside. I followed.

The room was as bland as the hallways had been. The only things inside were a couple of chairs, a wooden table, and an odd looking box. Kentaro signaled me to take the chair farthest in the room. He took the other.

"Well, Ken, this is it." He leaned toward me. "In order to gain my friend’s trust, I’ll need for you to tell your story again. Just talk toward the box."

I nodded, staring at the box, sure that it had to be some kind of lie detector. Though I understood the reasons behind it, they made me no less nervous. I drew a deep breath and quickly tried to steady my nerves. I slowly repeated all that I had told Kentaro earlier.

I glanced at my father’s double, hoping for some kind of clue as to what would happen now that I’d finished. His expression was neutral and told me nothing at all. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. "What happens now?"

Before he could answer, a high, male voice poured into the room from the ceiling. "The test indicates that there’s a ninety eight point seven percent probability that he’s telling the truth, at least as far as he knows it. I suppose it will have to do. Please wait for me there. I’ll be up momentarily."

Kentaro sighed softly and then glanced up at me with a small smile. Perhaps he had been as nervous as me after all. I wasn’t quite yet ready to relax though.

Several minutes later, there was a soft knock at the door. Kentaro was halfway out of his chair to go answer it when the door opened on its own. I don't know what I was expecting, but what met my curious gaze probably hadn’t been it.

Kentaro’s friend was tall and lean. His face had an almost feminine quality to the features, but he was definitely male. His face made him look younger than he probably was; his deep blue eyes, however, told another story. They looked like the eyes of an ancient and wise man, one who, perhaps, had seen too much in his time.

His blond hair was like spun gold, thick and full, and cascaded down his back. He wore a tailored, light gray suit, which, when taken in with his clean features and lithe form, gave him an air of elegance. He smiled at us with full, robust lips as he stepped into the room. In an odd way, I had the thought that we’d met somewhere before.

"Well, I must say, this is definitely a meeting that I’d never anticipated." I stood as he came toward us. He held out his hand for mine. "Please let me introduce myself - my name is Berg Katse. You can call me Berg."

I stiffened, his hand in mine. A wave of repulsion and hate swept through me and it took all I had not to pull my hand away in disgust. My father had brought me to him? I looked into the man’s eyes my every instinct telling me to attack. If this was Berg Katse, he was the man responsible for the death of millions! He was the man responsible for my father’s death! Yet, was this him? Where was the infamous mask, the purple cloak? Was this his true face or another one of his disguises? What was Kentaro thinking? I glanced over at my father’s double; he looked cool and uninhibited. I trusted this man, therefore I had to make myself trust his judgment. If the Ninja team were so different here, perhaps my enemy was too? I forced myself to remember over and over that this was not my Berg Katse.

"Hm, I take it I’m not very well liked where you come from?" Berg’s brow was raised, an amused smile playing on his lips.

"I’m sorry, I meant no offense." I couldn’t keep my voice from sounding cold. "I hadn’t expected Kentaro’s friend to be you..."

Katse’s smile grew. "No offense taken. I did happen to have a little more time to get used to the idea than you did. Never in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen that the mighty Gatchaman might have to come to me for help."

"Yes, you should have heard him on the phone. It took some pretty fast talking on my part just to get him to hear you out." Kentaro chuckled. Katse gave him an evil look. I found it strange to realize that these two were actually friends. Yet that more than anything else, helped put me a little more at ease.

"Well, moving past all that, what can I do to help you, Ken?"

I hesitated, having thought the answer to be quite obvious. I was also finding it hard to ask for this man’s help just because of who he was back home. "I’d, I’d like you to help me find a way to get back home."

Berg nodded, his eyes bright. "Yes, I thought that might be it. Unfortunately, I’m not all that sure that it will be possible."

I couldn’t look at him, I should have expected as much. I sat back down and stared at the table. My throat felt very dry. "Su, surely the fact that I’m here proves that it can be done."

"Yes, that’s true, but unfortunately, we’ve no idea what caused you to be brought here in the first place. As soon as Kentaro told me of your own theories on the matter, I pulled out all the available information on the energy box trap. I could find nothing in its design that could have caused the effect you described, let alone send you here. I’ve no idea if there’s even a way to try and reproduce it."

My chest felt tight, too tight. I was having problems breathing. No, this couldn’t be it. I couldn’t just give up this easily. I made myself stand up and look Berg in the eye. "There has to be a way! There has to be something we can try!" I would beg if I had to -- though I was sure nothing would please him more. But there just had to be something he could do for me.

Katse shrugged. "I can try running some scenarios through the computers. I suppose I could also bring this up to Sosai, on the off chance that he’s heard of this type of phenomenon before. It’s mostly his doing that we’ve kept ahead of the game as we have."

I frowned but said nothing. Who was this Sosai? He sounded important, but I’d never heard of him before.

"Until I’m able to consult with him, I’d like to invite you both to stay as my guests." His clear gaze locked with mine. "Doctor Nambu has already noticed your disappearance and is putting on quite a search for you. It would be in your best interest to stay."

"I understand." It felt weird taking advise from my worst enemy, even if it wasn’t really him. Joe would have found the whole thing profoundly humorous.

Katse smiled. "And so you should." His eyes sparkled with mirth. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

"There is, however, one other matter that needs to be brought up before I have some rooms readied for you." His expression turned serious. He pointed at my wrist. "That is a tracking device, am I right?"

I felt a shiver go down my spine. I’d forgotten about that. "Y-yes, it can be used for that."

Berg smiled softly. "I would take it as a sign of mutual trust if you would give it to me for safe keeping. Though I doubt it’d be able to make it through our shielding, I’d rather be safe than sorry. Unless you have an objection?"

He must have been reading my mind. I’d been just about to do that. The idea of parting with my wristband, regardless of the reason, made me very uneasy. But, did I really have a choice? I had to make them trust me; they were my only way home. "N-no, no objections."

I took the wristband off and handed it to him before I could change my mind.

"Thank you." Berg bowed slightly. I wasn’t sure if he was mocking me or not. I clamped down on the thought before it could show on my face. "Please wait here while I make some arrangements. I promise I won’t take long." He nodded toward each of us then left.

I sat down again, feeling naked without the wristband. I hoped to hell that I hadn’t just made a terrible mistake.

"That went well."

I glanced up at Kentaro not sure I understood what he meant. "If you say so."

"Don’t worry, if anyone can find a way to get you home, it will be Katse. You’ll see." He propped his feet up on the table.

"This is just a little too weird for me not to worry. My whole world’s been turned inside out and I’m finding it hard to get my balance. The whole situation makes me wonder if there’s even more realities than just our two." That there might be an uncountable number of ‘Kens’ sitting in a chair just like this one, saying exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way. My head started to pound. I didn’t blame it.

Kentaro laughed. "I think we have enough problems without getting into those kind of questions!" He laughed again. God how I enjoyed hearing it! Even if the worst came to pass, and I couldn’t go home, would it really be all that bad? He would be here.

I was surprised at the thought, but even more at its odd appeal. I felt immediately guilty knowing that even thinking about staying here would mean leaving my other self to wreck havoc at home. I couldn’t allow that.

We settled into an easy silence as we waited for Berg to return. We didn’t have to wait long.

"Your quarters are ready. If you’d follow me?" His seeming eagerness made me shudder. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Katse, that he wasn’t taking me to a trap.

I got to my feet, Kentaro doing the same. We followed Berg out into the hallway.

"This base is fairly new, but hopefully you’ll find that it has all the essential amenities. The lower levels house the living quarters, gyms, and training areas. You’ll have free access to all of those. Access to the other levels will of course not be allowed except under proper escort. It never hurts to be careful."

I agreed wholeheartedly. I was also glad that the Katse of my world wasn’t this cautious. Our job was hard enough as it was.

Berg led us through a maze of hallways that eventually ended at a set of elevator doors. Two guards there snapped to attention as they caught sight of us. Their uniforms were crisp and colored green, except at the cuffs for wrists and feet, which were brown. Neither of the men wore masks or helmets, leaving their faces exposed. This would render the ninja team’s old trick of impersonating guards pretty much moot.

Berg passed the guards a card from his pocket. They immediately passed it through a reader. Berg made small talk as they waited for the results, acting as if he had all the time in the world. He even knew the men by name. These two things, more than anything, drove home the fact that this man wasn’t anything like the evil villain I’d struggled against for so long. Hope rose inside me -- maybe I would make it home after all.

We were scanned inside the elevator and after Berg put his hand over a panel on the wall, the elevator buttons lit up. The security measures here would have made Nambu Hakase proud. Berg chose the button on the lower right. The elevator rocketed downwards.

As soon as the doors opened again, Berg stepped out. "Gentlemen."

The drabness that had permeated everything upstairs was gone. Lush green carpeting covered the floor from wall to wall. A large mural decorated the wall on the left, depicting a lush valley greeting a rising sun. Small potted trees and hanging plants dotted the area here and there adding to the effect. Large couches were casually scattered about the area. These were essential amenities? I’d hate to have seen what he actually considered non-essential ones.

I looked to the side, only to find that Berg was studying me a slight smile on his lips. "Your rooms are this way."

He led us from the tall ceilinged room down one of the three corridors leading from there. We took the farthest one on the right.

People strolled past us, all wearing loose jumpsuits of varying colors. Berg had a smile or kind word to all we passed on the way. The men and women were extremely polite in turn and smiled at all three of us. It felt strange.

The corridor split off a number of times as it curled gently before us. It wasn’t hard to get the impression that this base was immense. Berg seemed to be totally familiar with every inch of it.

"Ah, here we are. Ken, yours is the one on the left. I hope you like it." His eyes sought mine. "I’ll let you know as soon as I learn anything. Until then, please enjoy yourself."

"Yes, thank you."

"Kentaro, try not to get him into too much trouble, all right?"

"I wouldn’t dream of it." Kentaro’s face was all innocence, but his eyes said otherwise.

Berg laughed. "I thought as much. I’ll call you later. Take care!" And with that, he left us on our own. I watched him go, not entirely sure of what to make of him.

Kentaro moved past me and opened the door to my room. "Come on, let’s take a look."

I knew what I was half-expecting, and this sure wasn’t it. My quarters were twice the size of those at Crescent Coral. The bed was at least a queen size and was quite comfortable. The carpeting was the same green as the hallway and blended well with the cream colored walls. The bedspread was a combination of both colors, plus orange and reds thrown in for flair. It was almost as if I’d just booked into an expensive hotel.

"Come over here." Kentaro signaled to me as he walked on over to the wall on the far side of the room. "Most of these rooms tend to be standard, but unless you know what to look for, you won’t realize all that they’ve really got."

He quickly showed me how to look for slightly darker patches on the walls. Each of them activated hidden compartments in the walls.

Jinpei would have loved this. "That’s pretty amazing."

Kentaro shrugged. "It’s just part of the way Berg does business. His people love him for it."

I shook my head in disbelief. Fear and hate turned to love and respect? It was unbelievable.

"Well, now that you’ve got an idea on what to look for, I’ll let you discover the rest of the treasures on your own." Kentaro strode toward the door. "I’ll see you tomorrow?"

"Sure." My stomach cramped at the prospect of being left alone in this crazy place. I knew I was being foolish but the feeling wouldn’t go away. "Goodnight." I watched him go out the door. It softly slid shut behind him.

As he’d suggested, I looked for the other dark spots in the room and found out what they did. I found a set of bookcases, a gas fireplace, a desk and computer, a bathroom, a hamper, a large closet, and a small refrigerator full of snacks and drinks. There was even a full stereo arrangement. These were all basic necessities?

I tried my door, not sure what would happen, and to my surprise found it to have been left unlocked. A little more relaxed than I’d been before, I decided to turn in for the night.

Normally I’m not very comfortable sleeping somewhere I’m not familiar with. I had no such problems that night. I was asleep almost as soon as my head had hit the pillow.

I woke up early, feeling strangely rested and at ease. I cleaned up a bit and got dressed, pretty sure that I was all slept out for now. After I’d finished, and since I figured there wouldn’t be that many people about at this time of the morning, I decided to walk around a bit and check the place out.

The level was quiet, the lights tuned down to a light dusk. I walked around aimlessly, letting the silence around me sink into my skin. After a short while, I ran into an elevator. To my surprise, I found that the last five floors on the button rack for it were active. I decided to press my luck -- I pushed the top of the lit buttons.

On the new floor, I’d barely gone five feet down the hallway before the walls on either side changed to see through panels. On my right I could see an extensive weight/exercise room with all manner of equipment. Even as early as it was, I found that people were already there availing themselves of it. On my left, there was a large running track with a set of bleachers on one side. The field in the middle looked like it could be set up for a number of athletic activities.

I wondered through the level watching the people I saw using the facilities. Everyone I spotted appeared healthy, even content. If I hadn’t known better, I would have never guessed that I was standing in the middle of a Galactor base.

I came across a large cafeteria two levels above the one with my quarters. My stomach complained loudly as I was suddenly assaulted by the scent of fried eggs, toast, and coffee. I hesitated going in, noticing small groups of diners already scattered about the room. My stomach roughly reminded me ever more strongly of my obligation to it. I caved in. I tried not to look too conspicuous as I made my way to the short line. No one really seemed to notice me much.

My eyes wondered over the food, even as the mingling scents of bacon, pancakes, and the other items I’d smelled earlier, conspired to make my mouth water. I loaded my tray with everything that caught my eye, feeling more ravenous by the moment.

I steered clear of most of the diners and sat close to a corner from where I could keep an eye on the rest of the room. I dug in.

By the time I’d finished a second helping of pancakes, the room had started to fill. I finished the rest of my breakfast quickly and then took my leave. I was amazed again at the number of smiles floating here and there as total strangers bid me ‘good morning’ over and over.

"Ken!"

I glanced off to my right at the familiar voice. It was Kentaro. He quickly caught up to me. I was happy to see him. I was even happier to note that he’d left his helmet behind.

"You’re up early."

"I felt a little restless, I guess. I went exploring. That was all right, wasn’t it?"

Kentaro smiled. "Of course! You’re Berg’s guest not a prisoner." He glanced past me toward the cafeteria. "Have you eaten?"

"Ah, yeah, I just finished."

He nodded. "Feel up to a little exercise to work it off then?"

I smiled. "That’d be great."

He winked at me. "You may not think so when we’re through." His smile had a wicked edge to it and was highly contagious. It made me that much more eager to go.

We traveled up one level and moved toward the back. "This way, we can change clothes in here."

The changing room was large and totally tiled. Bins of clean exercise wear filled one wall while another had chutes for putting in used ones. Kentaro grabbed us a couple of gi and took me farther into the room where we found a couple of lockers for our clothes.

I quickly took off the brown jacket and ankle boots. The tight body suit took a little longer. I was more than happy to trade the lot for the loose fitting gi. Kentaro was waiting for me by the time I’d finished. I forced myself not to stare too openly at his unmasked face.

"Ready for a little exercise?"

"Sure. I’m always ready." The line was corny, but I just hadn’t been able to help myself.

"We’ll take the room over there. I think it’ll prove large enough for our needs."

The room was at least a thirty by thirty. The walls and floor were heavily padded. A rack of wooden hand weapons was set high on the far end wall.

Kentaro headed for the middle of the room and started doing stretching exercises. I followed suit. As we went, I found myself glancing at him off and on from the corner of my eye. I just couldn’t get enough of him. After all that had happened in my life, this was like a dream come true. I was even a little afraid of it. Yet as we started in on some light sparing, I made myself forget the fact that this man wasn’t really my father.

Each bout grew ever more fierce. Sweat covered our bodies from the effort, yet I’d never felt so good. Now that he no longer had a need to keep his identity secret from me, Kentaro relaxed and looked as pleased to be here as I was. I swear that he smiled with pride every time I pulled a particularly good move on him. He also laughed with good humor the few times I did something really stupid and he quickly took me down.

By the time we finally called it quits, I felt extremely content. The question of whether or not I’d ever be able to get back home was the farthest thing from my mind.

The shower was hot and soothing to my aching muscles. I’d pay for the hard workout even more later, but for the moment, I didn’t care, it‘d been worth it.

With a towel snugly wrapped about my waist, I went back to the lockers for my clothes. I sighed when I opened the small door, remembering what it was that I had to put on.

"Something wrong?" Kentaro’s voice startled me. I hadn’t heard him come up.

"Ah, no, it’s just that this ‘outfit’ isn’t quite what I’m used to.

Kentaro’s brow rose as he glanced the uniform in my hands. "I see. Well, luckily, we can do something about that. Berg’s bases are nothing if not well stocked." He walked off to the front to the clean clothes bins. I watched him as he moved in his towel, noticing a number of old scars that I’d never seen before. I wondered how he’d gotten them and if my father had had them as well. I promised myself to ask him about them later.

Kentaro leaned over a bin at the far end. He pulled out a blue jumpsuit and brought it over for me to look at.

"That’ll do nicely, thanks!" The fabric felt comfortable and I liked the color. Besides, anything was better than the tight black suit. The boots didn’t go too well with the jumpsuit, but they’d have to do. I folded the bodysuit and jacket and tucked them under my arm. "What now?"

"How about lunch?"

We made our way to the cafeteria. I loaded up with as much food as I had earlier that morning. I was even able to put it all away!

We took over a corner table, ate and talked. Most of the conversation was over mundane things; comparing this or that and what the differences were in our respective worlds. The more we talked, the more I realized that these differences were in no way constant. That struck me as odd, but then again, what did I know about such things? We talked late into the afternoon.

I’ve - I’ve never been so happy in my entire life. Kentaro appeared to be everything I could have wished my father to be. Never had I dared hope that it would be like this! True, he wasn’t my real father, but surely mine would have been just like this.

I was rather surprised when Berg showed up and joined us for dinner. None of those around us seemed all that shocked to see it, just pleased. To my amazement, Berg turned out to be quite a conversationalist. As the evening wore on, it got easier and easier not to think of him as Katse anymore.

After dinner, as if he hadn’t already shocked me enough, Berg brought up the reason for my visit in public, even though there were still diners in the area. Anyone of them could have easily overheard us, but Berg just didn’t seem to care.

"I’ve spoken with Sosai-sama at length, and he believes that there’s a chance that we might be able to send you home." My heart soared. "Of course, it will be a while before we’re ready to try. There’s simulations he wants to run on some theories of his, and we have to rebuild the trap as well. We’ll also need to run some extensive tests on you to see if there are any residuals from your experience or other anomalies that might have had to do with what happened."

I nodded quickly, willing to do whatever was necessary. "Test me on whatever you need." I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but what else could I do?

He smiled at me eagerly. "Okay then, how about we start first thing tomorrow? I’ll come for you around eight?"

"That’d be great." It actually wasn’t soon enough to suit me, but I’d settle for what I could get. "I’ll be ready."

And I was. I’d been pacing the room for at least an hour before he finally came for me.

The tests were more intensive than anything I had expected. They took most of the day. I was sure Joe wouldn’t have put up with the prodding, probing, and boredom even if this was the only way he’d get home. Through it all, Berg and Kentaro always stayed nearby, normally trying their best to keep my mind off whatever they were doing to me at the time. After all that, I was sure there was no way they wouldn’t find any possible anomalies that related to me.

I collapsed in bed that night, too tired to even undress. I fell asleep in seconds.

 

 

 

 

"Ken, wake up!"

"Huh?" My shoulder was being shaken, hard. I turned over slowly, feeling horribly groggy. Suddenly, a pair of warm, passionate lips pressed onto mine. What the hell?

My eyes snapped open even as I pushed whoever it was away. I looked up into a face that was only too familiar. "Joe!"

It was him, big as life, his helmet set on the side of the bed leaving him free to kiss me. My mind reeled. He’d kissed me!

"It’s me, lover! Come on, we’ve got to get you out of here."

He took hold of my arm to help me up. Without really meaning to, I resisted. The familiar Sicilian features turned into a half worried scowl. "Didn’t you hear me? It’s time to go!"

"I - I - " My eyes flew over his uniform verifying for me that this was still the wrong Joe. This wasn’t a dream and I wasn’t home. He’d come to take me back still not knowing who I was. This was bad.

"Ken, are you okay? What did those bastards do to you? Have they drugged you? Where’s your uniform?"

I looked away and sat up slowly. I reminded myself over and over that the concerned man before me was not my best friend. My lips still burned from his passion. "Y - yes, drugged. I - I don’t know about the uniform..." Would he believe me?

"Shit. Nambu said it might be something like this. If I get my hands on that traitorous pig...!" He helped me up to my feet, anger marring his face. He grabbed his helmet and put it back on. "Can you walk?"

I still couldn’t look at him. Lying to him felt wrong, but I knew it was necessary. "Yeah, I think so." It looked like all the blame for my disappearance had been dumped on Kentaro. They still didn’t seem to have any idea that I wasn’t their Ken.

"Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here in one piece. Then we’ll make the sons of bitches pay!" His face was close and I had to force myself not to jerk away. He took my arm and led the way out into the hallway. "Jun and the others are setting up explosives as we speak. As soon as you’re out, we’re going to blow this place to atoms!"

Damn! I hadn’t thought this out that far. Of course they’d want to destroy the base. The base and everyone in it, including Kentaro! I couldn’t let that happen.

I dropped to one knee wrapping my arm about my midriff and made a grunt of pain.

"Ken, what’s wrong?"

As he turned and looked down at me, I gave him an upper cut to the stomach. Joe doubled over in pain and surprise, and before he could react, I drove my elbow to the back of his neck. He dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

I checked him for a pulse, a wave of guilt washing over me at what I’d done. If only they didn’t look so much alike! I grabbed my partner’s double by the armpits and quickly dragged him back into my room.

I propped him up into a sitting position in the corner and thoroughly searched him, removing all his weapons and explosives. I stuffed them here and there in my jumpsuit’s pockets. I was just about finished when his wristcom beeped. Damn, I was running out of time!

I rushed to my door and then stopped, a nagging feeling in the back of my head telling me that I was forgetting something. I turned around, my eyes skipping around the room, when it hit me - my uniform! I’d appeared here wearing it, I might just need it to get back. Better safe than sorry. Besides, it would keep Nambu from having it.

I palmed the closet open and retrieved the uniform from where I’d stashed it the day before. Then I got out of there.

Kentaro’s room was just next door. From what little Joe’s double had said, it didn’t sound as if he’d known that. I prayed that he was all right as I rushed inside.

I flicked on the lights and before I could say anything, Kentaro had leapt from the bed and rolled across the floor, before he sprang to his feet with a knife in his hand held at the ready.

"Ken!" I saw his face fill with surprise and confusion, but he didn’t stand down. "What are you doing here?"

"They’re here! Somehow they’ve managed to find me. They’re going to blow up the base. We’ve got to get everyone out!"

I saw his eyes widen with understanding. Without a word, he activated the computer desk to come out of the wall.

As soon as it had started to come out, Kentaro rushed to the computer and started typing on the keyboard. He hit the enter button.

Klaxons brayed from hidden speakers overhead. The room’s lights flashed on and off. A pleasant female voice rose up over the din.

"Emergency. Emergency. This is a Class Beta alert. Please evacuate the area. All personnel are to make their way to the nearest escape chutes. Repeat, all personnel are to make their way to the nearest escape chutes." After several seconds, the message started again.

"That should catch them off guard." Kentaro reached for his uniform where it lay on a nearby chair and quickly got dressed. He donned his helmet as well. "Ken, tell me what happened."

I filled him in as we ran out into the hall, only omitting the part about Joe’s troubling kiss. People had already poured out into the corridor and were headed off to the right. We moved to follow.

"You killed him?"

I stumbled. He was serious! "N- no, I didn’t."

Now it was his turn to look surprised. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. "I know he’s not who he looks like, but I couldn’t do it. To be honest, it never even crossed my mind."

I saw a flicker of something cross his face but then it was gone. "No matter. Let’s just try and get out of here." We plowed on.

As we reached the area by the main elevator, I noticed that the wall with the large mural had disappeared, revealing six dark holes in the wall. Guards in the telltale green and brown stood by each one, helping those who were there to climb inside.

We were about to head in that direction when the vent high in the domed ceiling exploded outwards. Screams filled the air as those below attempted to scatter from the falling debree. Cold, harsh laughter washed over them, originating from the gaping hole above.

"Run, little worms, run. It won’t do you any good, for you’re about to die."

I stood transfixed at the opening into the room, fighting against the tide of people, recognizing the voice, though I’d never heard it speak in such a way before. I had no doubt as to whom it belonged -- it was Jun’s.

As if my thought had summoned her, the Swan appeared at the edge of the exploded vent. With more cold laughter pouring from her lips, she casually tossed several small explosives into the panicked crowd below.

The following explosions shook the room. Blood and gore flew from those closest to the blasts. The stench of charred flesh swept over me even as pain filled screams and moans echoed from those who hadn’t been killed outright.

I stood there watching what she’d done, numbed to the core. These people had been unarmed - they could have never harmed her. They’d only been running away. And she’d - she’d - it was wrong!

More harsh laughter washed over those below.

Those who’d survived the Swan’s attack tried to grab some of the injured as they tried to flee.

Someone grabbed me and pulled me against the wall as I faltered against the tide of people trying to get away. I barely noticed, my eyes never leaving the cold blooded killer above.

Even at this distance, her face seemed so clear to me. Her lips, her eyes, her curving face, all so familiar; yet the expression on it so alien to me. The Swan’s attention was riveted at the moment on the splattered bodies below. Her face was twisted with sadistic pleasure. I felt like I might throw up.

My blood froze as I saw her slowly reach into a pouch for more explosives.

"Ken, snap out of it! There’s nothing we can do here. We’ve got to go." Kentaro pulled on my arm, trying to get us to go in the direction of the others. I shrugged him off.

"No." This was wrong, wrong! This wasn’t what the Gatchaman Team stood for. This wasn’t what I’d trained all of my life for. These people were innocents! This had to stop!

A cold anger swept through me. Before I truly realized what I was doing, I reached down into one of my pockets. My body tensed. I couldn’t allow this to go on. "Jun!"

I stepped out into the room. She turned to look toward me, the explosives still in her hand. A look of surprise and recognition crossed her face. As she opened her mouth to speak, I cocked my arm and threw. Jun saw the feather dart, but wasn’t able to react fast enough. The dart buried itself deep into her shoulder. Her face was a mask of shock and pain as she fell back into the recesses of the exposed vent.

I felt something warm slide down my cheeks. I felt ill... Jun’s expression of pain and betrayal played itself over and over in my mind. But that hadn’t been her! Why did it hurt like this?

Kentaro’s solemn face abruptly blocked my view of where the Swan had been standing mere moments before. "Ken, we must go! It isn’t safe here!"

I stared at him, not really understanding what he was saying. His eyes met mine and they were veiled; his face a blank mask. A tendril of dread sneaked its way into my mind. Surely he didn’t think... "We’re not like this! Never, never like this! We do what we must, but we don’t kill like this! Not for pleasure! You’ve got to believe me!" The tears wouldn’t stop. I had to find a way to make him see.

"Ken, I know. I know. But we have to go. We can’t take the risk that they’ll find you, especially not after this."

I looked away knowing that all that he said was true. Still, I hesitated. These people had been hurt, some killed because of me. If I’d never come, none of this would have happened. How could I think of escaping without even trying to help those that might still be alive?

I pushed past him, toward the gore, not sure how I could express these things to him. "I can’t go yet. I’ll catch up to you when I can." I didn’t look behind me to see if he followed or not.

A couple of the security guards still alive were already busy sifting through the bodies looking for survivors. I checked with them, fighting the constant urge to look back up to where Jun had been last.

We worked quickly, a silent clock ticking in our heads as time ran out for all of us. What few survivors we found, were quickly grabbed up and taken to one of the two escape chutes that were still operational.

The stench of blood and death clung to me, permeating my clothes, my hands, sinking into my skin. It felt like I’d been at this for hours, but in truth, only a few precious minutes had gone by.

"Time to go." I looked up, surprised at Kentaro’s voice. His face was hard, leaving no room for argument. I did it anyway.

"No. I can’t yet. We haven’t finished. And there’s bound to be others. I can’t leave them here!" Pictures of the atrocities the other doubles could be up to right then flashed vividly in my mind’s eye. "I just can’t."

"You will."

I really should have expected something like this, but I guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly, because it caught me totally by surprise. Kentaro sucker punched me just like I’d done the Condor not too long before. My breath left me, my knees gave way. Kentaro caught me as I fell and dragged me toward the wall.

"Sirs, this way! You must hurry!"

I tried to fight him, but he pressed something on my back that sent a shot of pain through it and numbed my limbs. He threw me inside the chute.

I fell onto a cushioned pad, which immediately began to move. An opaque bubble snapped shut around it even as we continued to pick up speed.

The ride lasted no more than a couple of minutes. I had no idea as to its destination. Once it slowed almost to a stop, the bubble disappeared. Hands reached in from somewhere behind me and helped pull me out.

The numbness had mostly left me by then, so that when they released me, I was able to stand on my own. I looked around me looking for a way to go back.

I was inside a large open warehouse. From what I could see, there were about ten other chutes that seemed to empty here. Every one them was in use.

Part of the warehouse was filled with covered vehicles. One, a semi, had been uncovered and its trailer doors opened. From what I could see, it seemed to have a makeshift hospital inside. A line of wounded was being quickly carted inside.

"Are you hurt, sir? Do you need medical attention?"

It took me a moment to realize that the short man was talking to me. "No, no. I’m fine." I drifted father into the room to get out of the way.

A soft thunk sounded off on my right. As I glanced back, I spotted Kentaro being helped out of the chute. Our eyes met and he gave me a brief nod. I looked away. I still wasn’t sure how to feel about what he had done.

"We should be safe now. At least for a while." His face showed no trace of regret.

"Won’t they follow the chutes here?"

Kentaro smiled, it held little humor in it. "They can try. You see, each chute is set to go to a separate location from its brothers. There are also scanning devices in the tunnels. If they pick up anyone not currently logged in its computer banks, it’ll shut down and cave in the rest of the passage. After the first three times or so, they stopped bothering to try."

"Oh." I should have been relieved by the information, but found that it did nothing at all. "I assume the chutes are all one way?"

He gave me an odd look. "Yes."

"Then, what happens now?"

"We wait. Orders will come through in a few hours for a rendezvous once things have calmed down." He handed me my double’s uniform. I had never noticed that it’d been missing.

"You’ve gone through this before." I don't know why I was surprised by this, but I was.

"Once or twice." He shrugged. "Come on, there should be supplies stacked inside some of these cars. Let’s get you cleaned up a bit and grab you something clean to wear." I didn’t argue.

I was in the middle of changing clothes when the warehouse softly rumbled on its foundation. I quickly glanced over at Kentaro. He nodded slowly. The gesture confirmed what I’d already known -- the base had just been destroyed. My hands shook as I tried hard not to think about all those who hadn’t made it out.

After I dressed, I helped Kentaro and some of the others distribute packages of food, clean clothes, and blankets. I dug into the task with relish. I had to keep busy... There were too many things I didn’t want to have the time to think about.

A little over two hours later, the panels of several of the cars lit up and beeped softly.

Excited murmurs wove through the survivors, even as a number of the guards with us headed for the beeping cars.

After about ten minutes or so, the panels went dark. Orders echoed through the warehouse and everyone able to was put to work. First, all the wounded were loaded into the two semi’s prepped up for that purpose. The rest of the survivors were split up between the vans and cars.

"Red Impulse!"

Kentaro and I turned around. We’d just been about to board one of the vans. "Yes?"

"Katse-sama has requested that you and Mr. Washio come with us."

Kentaro looked slightly surprised by this but said nothing. It made me nervous. "All right."

"This way, sirs."

We were led over to a silver Cutlass parked close to the front of the warehouse. After we’d gotten in the car, we were the first to leave the premises.

The warehouse opened out into a waterfront district. This was the first indication I’d had of my location in the last couple of days. There were signs of slowly dissipating smoke in the distance as it marred the beauty of the dawning of a new day.

The ride didn’t last long. After the Cutlass was led onto a fairly empty freeway, the car turned off at an exit to the airport. We drove in through the employee gate.

The diver didn’t stop the car until he’d reached the back of a large private hangar. We were quickly taken inside.

A seven-forty-seven was nestled inside the hangar, sporting the tell-tale logo of American Airlines. I risked a glance in Kentaro’s direction. He looked as baffled as I felt. Without fanfare, we were promptly led up a set of portable stairs to the interior of the plane.

I hesitated at the door as I caught my first glimpse inside. Instead of the rows of seats that should have been there, the interior of the plane had been converted into a giant laboratory/office area.

I could see a figure folded over on the cluttered desk at the rear of the plane as if he was asleep. We were herded in that direction.

"Katse-sama, they’ve arrived." The guard’s voice echoed in the large space. Instantly, Berg’s face had risen from the desk to look at us.

"Kentaro!" A tired smile flickered on the Galactor leader’s face as he got up to meet us. He glanced at me for a moment, his eyes guarded, before returning his full attention to my double’s father. "Are you well?"

Berg’s face was drawn and there were bags under his eyes. His gaze, however, seemed to burn as he asked the question.

"We’re fine. You shouldn’t have worried." He gave Berg a half bow.

"Yes..." Berg glanced at me again and then turned away to head back toward his desk. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. "Thank you, Williams, for bringing them to me. Please, leave us and go to the rendezvous."

The guard bowed and then left us. He closed the airplane’s hatch on his way out.

"Any estimates on the casualties?" I cringed at the question, but was glad that Kentaro had asked it anyway.

Berg turned back toward us, and leaned against the desk, a slight smile on his face. I noticed that he held a strange looking pen, which he was twirling idly in one hand. "It seems that we were incredibly lucky this time. Casualties were less than five percent. The alarm made all the difference. As soon as things calm down, I’ll find out who was able to spot the invaders so early and thank them properly."

"That won’t be hard, since you’ve already found him and I’m sure that the help you’re already giving him will be repayment enough." Kentaro grinned.

"You?" Berg’s gaze snapped to me, a brow arced high with disbelief. I looked away, feeling suddenly self conscious, hoping that he wouldn’t make a big deal about it. After all, the attack had been my fault in the first place.

"I didn’t really do much. Kentaro was the one who actually activated the alarm. I just let him know they were there."

"Oh?" Berg then made me retell how I had found out about them. "Now, that does bring up a whole set of questions, does it not?" His face turned deadly serious. "The most prominent being, of course, how they were able to find you in the first place."

I had no answers for him. The very same thought had plagued me in the back of my mind all along. I hoped things wouldn’t turn ugly. I noticed again the strange pen in Berg’s hand. "To be honest, I don't have the faintest idea. Though if there is a way, I’d like to help to make sure that they won’t be able to do it again."

Berg nodded slowly. "Yes... That’s why you’re here. Whether willingly or not, I believe that you had everything to do with their appearance. I won’t endanger any more of my people until I can find out exactly how it happened and make sure that it can’t happen again." His dead tone cut through me like ice.

I didn’t back down from his challenging stare. I knew that my life was probably on trial here. It was totally obvious that if I wasn’t somehow able to convince him of my ignorance in the matter, that all of my hopes, and even my life, would soon turn to ashes.

Still staring at me, Berg reached behind him and flipped a switch on a small box on his desk. "Are we ready to leave yet, Bellamer?"

A male voice came from a hidden speaker on the wall. "Yes, Katse-sama, everything is ready."

"Wonderful. Please get us underway."

"Yes, sir."

Berg flipped the switch off. "If you’ll both take a seat? We’ll continue this conversation once we’re up in the air."

Kentaro and I sat down on a couple of captain’s chairs that had been bolted to the floor, close to Berg’s desk. I risked a glimpse in Kentaro’s direction and saw that he had taken off his helmet and that all of his attention was centered on his friend.

After we’d become airborne, Berg rose from his seat and deftly ran his long fingers over a set of controls on the back wall. I was startled as from behind us, a panel swung aside in the middle of the floor. A large man sized machine rose up into view.

"A bit clunky, but still an extremely useful machine."

I’d seen one of these before. It was a medical scanner. I’d been put through one just like it at the base the day before. From what I’d been told, it was vastly more sophisticated than anything we had at home.

"Ah, I see you’ve recognized it. Yes, it is a medical scanner, but I’ve had this one modified a bit to extend its uses for me. I want to run you both through it." I was surprised at the plural. "Kentaro, would you mind going first?"

Kentaro nodded and stood. I followed him over there even as Berg pulled out the scanner’s sliding bed for him to lie on. Kentaro settled himself on it as Berg turned on the machine and fiddled with the settings. The bed slowly slipped inside.

Berg gave me a cold sideways glance and I moved slowly out to where he could easily keep me in full view. I had the creepy feeling that Kentaro was being scanned as a test for me. I was amazed that Berg was even taking the risk. Surely this plane had defenses that I wasn’t aware of though. And there was also the matter of the pen. Berg was keeping it a little too handy for it to be what it seemed. I definitely didn’t want to give him any reason to suspect me any more than he already did.

After about five to ten minutes, the bed slid back out. Kentaro quickly got off, glancing at both of us. I could tell he’d had pretty much my same thought about why he had been put in there. Without being prompted, I moved to take his place on the bed. Kentaro flashed me a quick reassuring smile as the bed slid me inside the machine.

The aperture was round and deep. I could see or hear nothing going on outside of it. The minutes slowly dragged by with only the machinery’s soft hum for company. I really wasn’t sure of what Berg was hoping to find. While I did want to know how the team had found me, I also didn’t want it to be something that would tip over my situation anymore than it already had.

I was growing a little worried over how long I’d been in there when the bed suddenly jerked into motion. I was coming out.

" -- sure of this?" My ears perked up at the snatch of conversation.

"I saw it. There was no way it could have been staged. And there were the other things as well. I believe him, now more than ever."

I sat up as the two gazed intently at one another. It wasn’t hard to guess at the topic of conversation. It’s prompting could only mean one thing. "You found something?"

Berg gave me a veiled look. "Yes, actually, I did. If you’d be so kind as to remove your boots?"

I bristled at the lack of information, but did as he asked. I knew that for the moment, at least, he was still giving me the shadow of a doubt.

Berg took the boots and carried them to his desk. Kentaro came over and patted me lightly on the shoulder. He nodded in Berg’s direction so I followed.

"I suppose that if blame truly needed to be placed somewhere, it would fall most heavily on my shoulders. Nambu seems to be getting craftier by the day, and I don't seem to be keeping up. I should have been more thorough." His voice was light, but his eyes were cold. Berg opened a drawer on the desk and pulled out a stiff letter opener. He jammed the point of it into the heel of one of the boots. "The whole idea is quite ingenious really."

He pried the heel apart. Inside it sat a metallic looking rock and a small shielded device. He held up the latter.

"A passive homing beacon. Probably set up not to give out a signal until it encountered a specific frequency broadcast within a given range. Wouldn’t set off any detectors on your way in and since it only works close range, it wouldn’t matter if you were in a place full of external jammers.

"This, however, is the piece of genius." Berg pulled out the rock from the boot with a pair of tongs. "It’s radioactive, but not lethally so. It is though, just radioactive enough to leave a trail behind it. They must have picked it up at the hangar. And after breaking in, the passive homing device would have led them right to you. Very clever." He didn’t sound amused.

"Sir, I realize that you have no reason to believe me, but I tell you that I had no idea those were there. We don’t use anything like this at home." I stared at Berg’s blank face, and held my breath, waiting to see what he would say next.

"Do you have the rest of your uniform with you? I’ll need to scan that as well."

I picked up my double’s uniform from the chair I’d previously sat in and set them on the desk, making sure that I didn’t get too close. I tried to read his mood, but all I saw was resigned exhaustion. He caught me looking and gave me a half smile.

"Don't worry, Ken, I’m not planning on throwing you to the wolves. It’s well within Nambu’s profile to find ways to keep track of his toys without deigning to tell them about it. Besides, Kentaro still firmly believes in your sincerity. And I’ve learned, from personal experience, that he is not one to be easily fooled." A glimmer of humor flashed in his eyes. "Moreover, now that we know how they found you and can neutralize it, it should prove almost impossible for them to find you again." His smile broadened. "And if we get very lucky, we might just find a way to use this information to our advantage later."

Though I knew that was good news, it still sent a chill down my spine. This all felt extremely awkward.

"I’ll check these and get them back to you when I’m through." He picked them up. "If you’ll go through that door, you’ll find several small bedrooms there. Our flight will take a number of hours and you both look like you could use the rest. I’ll let you know as soon as we’ve landed." He got up and headed for the scanner. We’d obviously just been dismissed.

"Come on, we might as well rest while we can." Kentaro nodded in the direction Berg had indicated. He stopped me for a moment in the short hallway beyond the door.

"You kept your cool in there. That was very good. He respects that and so do I." His blue gray eyes stared into mine a small smile on his lips. He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. I felt a lot of pent up tension flow out of me. "I’ll see you when we land. Good night."

I watched him go into the first of the four rooms, as a warm feeling grew inside me. This is what it would have been like if my father had lived, just like this. If only...

I turned away rubbing at my eyes. I was just tired. I opened the door to the room across from Kentaro’s and stepped inside. The room was small, barely large enough to hold the twin sized bed inside. I laid down, not caring in the least, only grateful, for the bed. Before I knew it, I’d drifted off to sleep.

A knock at the door brought me awake. I was sure I’d only been there but a moment. My body ached. Surely we weren’t there yet. With a small groan, I forced myself to get up and stumble to the door.

I opened it, quickly combing my fingers through my disheveled hair.

"We’ve landed, sleepy head. Come on, Berg’s waiting for us." He handed me my boots and I quickly slipped them on.

"Do you know where we are?"

"No." Kentaro shook his head, a knowing look on his face. "We may be close friends, but there are still a few things Berg feels don't need to be known by everyone. He can be quite an enigma at times."

I nodded and followed him out.

"Ah, there you are." Berg’s clothes were fresh, but he still looked tired. His eyes, however, no longer seemed as troubled as they had before. I hoped that was a good sign. "The limo is waiting, so let’s be on our way. Shall we?" He came around the desk, picking up a small wrapped bundle on the way. He handed it to me. "I’m through with your clothes. I don’t believe we’ll be having any more trouble."

"Thank you." I hesitated, feeling I should say something more, but not sure how to put it into words. "I realize that I’ve been more trouble than I’m probably worth."

Berg waved my bungled attempt at an apology away. "Let’s go, we’re late. I have a lot to do before I can take the time to try and find a way to send you home." His teasing smile was sincere. I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing at all.

The plane was once more within an enclosed hangar. A black limousine was parked at the end of the stairs leading off the plane. A thin woman in a prim black uniform opened the door on the car for us as we came down.

Berg opened a console next to his seat as we got underway. It turned out to be a laptop computer. He activated it, but did nothing with it. Below the console sat a small refrigerator. It was to it that Berg now devoted his attention. Opening it, he pulled out what looked to be thick chocolate milkshakes. He gave one to each of us.

"Drink up! They’re pretty tasty, if I say so myself. They’re crammed full of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and a few other things. Not as good as a hot meal, but they’re great on the go." He drank his down with unabashed relish.

I hesitated until my stomach eagerly reminded me that I’d had nothing to eat since before the chaos had started. To my tongue’s great pleasure, I found Berg’s concoction to be quite tasty. Ryu would have gone all gooey inside over the rich, dark chocolate flavor. Berg had downed two of them before I was even halfway through with mine.

"These are definitely much better than those others, Berg." Kentaro reached past him into the small fridge to grab another. Berg seemed pleased at the comment.

"Yes, well, it did take me a while to get them just right. I’m glad you like it." His face didn’t look as drawn as it had a few minutes ago.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, each left with his own thoughts. I kept wondering where we were going. Where we actually ended up wasn’t anywhere near anything to what I’d guessed.

A half hour after leaving the airport, the limousine pulled up in front of a multistoried, yet squat building. As I peeked out the darkened window, I cold barely see the embossed name over the massive double doorway -- The Hallmark Hotel. We’d gone to a hotel?

The chauffeur opened our door and we got out only to be immediately surrounded by eager and helpful hotel staff. Berg ignored them and left us to deal with them as he strolled inside.

The ceiling was a good forty feet high. Thick marble columns made in the ancient Roman style formed a hallway leading from the door to the check-in desk. Thick carpeting sprang on either side of the passage, nestling sofas and settees as well as small hand crafted tables full of complementary coffee, newspapers, and magazines.

Berg looked at none of this as if the splendor of the place were immaterial and made his way toward the front desk. The helpful staff offered us beverages, services, whatever we required. They didn’t seem to be at all put off by our half-hazard appearance. I felt queerly out of place in my rumpled jumpsuit amidst the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the thousand dollar suits worn by the customers lounging about. Oddly enough, they also seemed to think nothing of our presence.

Berg booked us into a large suite and then shushed the concierge with a hundred dollar bill as he took the key to our room, insisting that he could find it by himself.

The concierge snapped his fingers and the throng about us stepped away. Berg led us off toward a row of elevators on the right.

The car he chose was mirrored on the inside and bordered with gold. As soon as the elevator doors had closed, Berg went through an odd combination on the button console until they turned into a reddish color. The lights blinked and then the elevator went down. The floor counter insisted in telling us that we were going up.

The elevator descended the equivalent of several floors and then stopped. He led us on out.

The hallway here was metallic and plain. It stretched for about ten feet before ending at what looked like a set of elevator doors. The doors slid open at our approach.

Inside the small room beyond, there were two contour couches that had been set facing each other against the walls.

"Please get comfortable. We should be taking off in a matter of moments." Berg spoke as he moved to sit down. We followed his lead.

As promised, we’d not been sitting long before the room, which was definitely some kind of craft, lifted up slightly and then shot forward. After the small initial jolt, the ride was amazingly smooth. It was hard to tell that you were even moving. Five minutes later, we came to a gentle stop.

"Well, gentlemen, we have arrived." The doors opened and Berg signaled for us to follow. I was brought up short by what lay beyond.

The room was huge! If it could even rightly be called a room. I couldn’t see the ceiling, the view being cut off by a canopy of green. Large oaks, firs, cedars, and pines were responsible for that. The floor was made of dirt and lay strewn with leaves and pine needles. There were even tufts of wild grass here and there. The air smelled of loam, and sap, and greenness. Birds and squirrels flittered through the tall branches, their chirps and playful calls falling about our ears. I, I had never thought that something this vast and manmade would be possible. I quickly said as much.

"I’m sorry to say that in truth, all that you see here is not real. The animals certainly aren’t. But I’m glad to say that it is very hard to tell. And the whole effect can be quite relaxing and pleasant." He looked back at me a bright twinkle in his eye. "Besides, it’s great for impressing visitors."

I looked away feeling suddenly self conscious. Kentaro laughed softly beside me and I felt a slight smile touch my lips. God how I loved that sound, even if it was at my expense. "Yes, you’re quite right, it is very impressive."

Berg nodded, a relaxed smile on his face. He took one of the branching paths through the trees, taking his time, letting us absorb some of the forest’s tranquillity. We found a guard station at the exit. We each walked past as scanner even as our identities were verified. As before, Berg showed all the patience in the world, silently encouraging his men to be totally thorough. We made it through.

"The layout of the living and entertainment levels here are very similar to our last location’s . All the restricted levels are randomized per base though. We wouldn’t want to make Nambu’s job too easy for him." Berg took a corridor on the left.

After a short walk, we reached an elevator. A young brunette was there waiting for us, an electronic steno pad in hand.

"Ken, Kentaro, this is Elysse."

"Pleased to meet you, gentlemen." Her smile was bright and sincere. I doubted that she was much older than I. She handed Berg the pad. "Here’s everything you asked for, Katse-sama."

"Thank you." He ruffled her hair. She didn’t really seem to mind; if anything, her smile grew brighter. "Well, duty calls, so I’ll be leaving you now in Elysse’s capable hands. I’ll try and check in on the two of you later." He bowed toward us and left, his eyes already busily scanning the contents of the pad.

"Please, if you’d care to follow me?" She guided us into the elevator and had it take us down.

Our rooms were almost identical to the ones we’d had before. The main difference lay in the color scheme. While my other room had been mostly beige and green, this one favored dark golds and blues.

Elysse hung around, her eyes studying us with intense curiosity. She acted as if she had nothing else in the world to do but to assist us. I could tell her attentions were making Kentaro feel as self conscious as they were making me. We turned down her offer of a tour using a long night without sleep as our excuse. Elysse took the rejection in stride and left us on our own; but not before she’d made sure that we had her beeper/extension number in case we needed anything.

Left alone, I took the opportunity to clean up and then tried to take a nap. My mind was having nothing to do with the nap part. Instead, it busied itself by reviewing everything that had happened since my arrival to this world. The things I’d seen and heard no longer seemed as strange as they first had. It looked like I might be finally accepting all of it. I hadn’t quite decided though, if this was a good thing or not.

After about and hour or so, I gave up on sleep and got up. I brought out the desk and sat down to check the computer. The pop up screen contained a full automated menu and even several search functions. After checking that out for a few minutes, I settled to exploring the entertainment section, though to be honest, a number of others had caught more of my interest. From all I’d seen here, however, I was sure that all my computer usage would be monitored and it wouldn’t be worth it to let my curiosity bring anymore doubts to Berg about my sincerity. I’d had enough of that game.

The large assortment of games at my disposal would have kept Jinpei in heaven for a number of months. I stuck to a solitaire card game for a while and then switched to Tetris for a change of pace. I’d thoroughly lost track of time when a knock brought my attention to the door. I put my current game on pause and got up to answer it.

"Did I wake you?" Kentaro looked refreshed. He must have been able to get some rest.

"No, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been playing some games on the computer to pass the time."

"Feel like getting something to eat?"

"Sure, sounds good. Let me turn off the game and get my shoes."

Dinner turned out to be a little eerie. The cafeteria looked to be an exact duplicate of the one we’d eaten in before. It felt strange to be seated there, eating, knowing all the while that the other had been destroyed. It dampened my mood though I tried hard not to let it. Kentaro didn’t seem bothered by the similarities at all. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. We both turned in early.

In the morning, we met for breakfast before going off to exercise together. The eerie feeling of the night before returned.

I knew that Berg had told us that these levels were very similar in all of his bases, but I still couldn’t escape the queer feeling that I’d somehow traded planets again. And, though I tried my best to ignore the whole thing, it ended up throwing off my concentration just enough so that I got repeatedly trounced during our sparing sessions.

I tried not to moan with the aches I’d picked up as my reward for my inatentiveness as we headed to the cafeteria for lunch. To our surprise, Berg showed up and joined us. He looked as fresh as on the day I’d first met him. It was the final piece that made it seem as if the destruction of the previous base had never been. It gave me chills.

Lunch was pleasant, the conversation light. We had just about finished when I suddenly noticed Berg’s gaze lock with mine with odd intensity.

"Would you mind giving me a little of your time today, Ken?" His tone was soft, yet somehow strained. I felt myself tense, but I didn’t know why. Was this why he had joined us today?

"Sure, I’m free. What do you need?"

"Sosai has downloaded some data that I thought you should take a look at."

"Oh, all right." I felt my lunch turn hard in my stomach. "When would you like to meet?" I tried my best to sound casual.

"Would now be too soon?" His gaze was veiled.

"No, now should be fine." I stood up a little too abruptly. No one seemed to take notice. A part of me was screaming that I didn’t really want to know what this was about. Had Berg not spoken about all other facts of this freely? This couldn’t be good news if he wanted it discussed in private. I quickly pushed those thoughts down.

"Good." He turned his attention to Kentaro. "I promise I won’t keep him long." Kentaro nodded and gave me an encouraging look.

My mind was in a frenzy as we walked down the halls, part of it trying desperately to figure out what this would be about while the other fought not to even think about it. Berg led me into an elevator and went ten floors up. We passed four guard stations on the way, and I felt my tension rise as we crossed each one. We finally reached our destination.

The room was spacious, almost huge. In many ways, it resembled the laboratory/office Berg had set up in the plane. The only major difference was a large TV screen that had been mounted on the back wall behind the desk.

"Please, take a seat." I did. And so did he. "How are Kentaro and you getting along?"

The question caught me off guard. Surely he hadn’t asked me here for that. "Ah, fine, we get along great."

"Good, good." He tapped the fingers of his hands together. "I believe you’d told us that in your version of the world he had died? Is that correct?"

"Yes, that’s right." I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. What was this about?

"Is, is Kentaro very different from your real father?" I saw an eagerness in his eyes that I didn’t totally understand.

"Not in anything that matters, as far as I can tell."

Berg smiled making me even more confused. "Meeting you, I think, has meant a lot to him. He’s happier than I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve known him for a long time. Thank you for that."

"He’s done as much for me..." I saw Berg nod with understanding. It made me want to ask why he’d asked me these things, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Silence stretched between us. Berg rose from his desk and came around. He leaned up against it, facing me.

"Well, we might as well get on to the real reason for this meeting, right?" I said nothing, somehow sure that the former had really been what this meeting had been about -- I just didn’t know why. "Sosai-sama has gone through the data on the trap mechanism, the data on you, and data on anything else he thought might have influenced things to get you here." I held my breath. "As best as he can estimate, you shouldn’t be here."

"But I am here!" I felt cold all over. Were they giving up? So soon?

"Yes, there is that. And going on the assumption that you are who you say, I can only conclude that we’re missing some key piece of data."

I wracked my brains for something that might fit what he needed, but nothing came to mind. "Do you have any idea on what might have been missed?"

Berg’s eyes would no longer meet mine. "Perhaps... but I’ll need your help to find out if I’m right."

"Yes, anything!" I had an awful feeling at the pit of my stomach.

"When I scanned your clothes on the plane, I noticed some anomalies in the fibers. At the time, I was pretty sure that whatever they were had nothing to do with communications, so I didn’t follow up on them. Now though, these anomalies could prove extremely important. What can you tell me about them? Were they there before the accident or should I assume that they are somehow a residue of the exchange?"

The clothes... my double’s uniform... what should I tell him? If I tried to explain, I’d also have to tell him about the bracelet. Dread flowed through me. What if this was what all this strangeness had been about in the first place? Could this really be some elaborate trick to find out about the team’s secrets? Such a thing wouldn’t be beyond Galactor’s efforts. It wasn’t like they’d never tried anything like it before.

I felt Berg’s gaze boring into me. I couldn’t look at him; I just wasn’t sure as to what to do. The Galactor leader said nothing. I suddenly had the strange feeling that if I lied, he wouldn’t contradict me even though I was sure he already suspected the truth. He was giving me an out. But what good would that do? Either I gambled that everything I’d seen and heard was real and told him what he wanted, or I lied and resigned myself to staying here forever...

Surely all of this couldn’t have been faked. There was too much detail, too many things that Galactor could have never found out about to fake -- and my father... Kentaro...

I met Berg’s calm gaze head on. "The clothes, I’m sure, are just like they’re supposed to be. They’re an intricate part of the Science Ninja Teams’ uniforms. They have altering properties, and these are activated by the bracelet you took from me before."

Berg nodded slowly. "This could very well be the piece we have been looking for." His eyes softened. "I know that just telling me this much took a lot, and though I know it will go against your every instinct, I need for you to tell me everything that you know about how they work and how the two interact."

I exhaled slowly, not having noticed until that moment that I’d been holding my breath. "All right."

Over the next couple of hours, Berg poured over changing computations as I gave him what limited information I had on my uniform and bracelet. I was a little surprised, once we’d finished, as he thanked me for the information and then opened a desk drawer. He took out my bracelet and handed it over without batting an eye. I put it on, glad to have the familiar weight back on my wrist.

"If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’d like to see you transform."

I nodded and with that, he quickly called for someone to go retrieve my uniform for me.

More nervous than I cared to admit, I brought my wrist over my head and down toward my chest, and called out the familiar phrase. "Bird Go!"

My skin burst with goose pimples as the familiar energies flowed around me changing my double’s clothes into the black Gatchaman uniform.

"Amazing! Utterly amazing!" Berg circled around me in a cautious way, before finally daring to reach out to touch the uniform. "Please, change back and we’ll go to one of my bigger labs. I want to scan you while in uniform - but I can’t have the Shadow of Death walk the halls even if he’s here to do no harm." His eyes were dancing.

I did as he asked, buoyed by his growing excitement.

The scan took longer than any he’d done on me before. I was getting a little claustrophobic by the time he finally let me out of there.

"I’ll send this information to Sosai immediately. I think it is the very thing he’s been looking for." Berg’s smile was bright.

I decided to get bold. "Excuse me for asking, but who is this Sosai?" I detransmutted back into civilian mode.

"Sosai-sama, yes... I suppose you have a right to know." His eyes got a faraway look. "Sosai is not from our world, yet he is the one that discovered the danger to our planet, something he even feels partially responsible for, since it was one of his own people who gave Nambu the power he now wields.

"Sosai is my mentor, my friend -- his vast knowledge a boon to all -- he’s the only thing that has stood between the Earth and disaster. We all owe him a lot."

I nodded slowly, not sure if I dared believe all that it seemed he’d just said. Berg’s words seemed to imply that Sosai was the power behind the leadership of Galactor. Could something similar to this be in play back home? And what about his allegations that Nambu had gotten the technology for our suits from an alien?

"I’ll let you know what he says once he’s gotten a chance to look at this data. I doubt that it’ll take him more than a few days."

"That’d be great." A few more days -- I’d have to wait for a few more days.

Though he hadn’t asked for it, I took off my bracelet and handed it back. It felt odd to do it, but I knew it was for the best. This wasn’t the time to start making stupid mistakes. "Here, you’d better take this."

Berg’s brow shot up. I think I’d actually surprised him. "Yes, thank you. I’d almost forgotten." He smiled warmly as he took it. I smiled back, even though I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d just passed another test. Stranger still, I found myself thinking again that I liked this man, even though his counterpart left much to be desired. I also had the queer feeling that the feeling might just be mutual.

As soon as I could, I changed out of my double’s clothes back into my jumpsuit. After I’d put the uniform away, I decided to go looking for Kentaro. As luck would have it, he found me before I’d found him.

"Ken!"

I turned around and there he was. He wore a half smile as he moved to join me. "Is your business with Berg over? It was good news?"

"Yeah, I think so."

An amused expression took over his face. "Well then, how’d you like to go flying?"

"I’d - I’d love to! But I thought -- "

"Don’t worry about it. Come on!" He moved off leaving me to follow. I wasn’t sure exactly how he planned to pull this off, but I eagerly followed after him. It’d been days since I’d had a chance to fly!

The visuals were incredibly realistic. The controls responded as if we were in the real thing. Kentaro had found the best simulators I had ever seen. You could just about forget that you weren’t out doing the real thing. I wanted to take them home with me. Maybe with these, I could get even Joe to learn to fly properly.

Kentaro took me on a long game of follow the leader. He had the greater experience; I had the better reflexes. Though to be entirely honest, they weren’t better by much. By the end of it, we’d come out about even, but I’d had to work for it! I was exhausted by the time we ended it, but was also feeling extremely satisfied with myself. God that felt good!

Kentaro threw his arm about my shoulders when I’d gotten out of the virtual cockpit. "Good job! Very impressive!"

I grinned like an idiot. I just couldn’t help myself. "Th - thanks. That means a lot coming from you."

He playfully mussed up my hair. I suddenly understood why Elysse had put up with it from Berg.

When we went to dinner, it was immediately obvious that things weren’t as they should be. The normal throng was in the cafeteria as usual, but they seemed unusually subdued. The buzz of laughter and conversation that normally permeated the place had been replaced by somber faces and soft whispers. As we made our way through the line, I felt eyes roaming over me. Whenever I turned to look to see who was watching, I noticed that everyone avoided my gaze. I suddenly didn’t feel all that hungry anymore.

"Kentaro, has something happened?" I watched him coolly analyze the strange mood in the room as we sat down.

"I don’t know. But this is not normal." He looked as troubled about it as I felt.

I was just about to suggest that perhaps we should try and find out when Elysse appeared before us. She looked as somber as everyone else, if not a little nervous. It was a far call from the way she’d been with us before.

"Please excuse me, but Katse-sama wanted to know if you would like to join him for dinner. He apologizes for the short notice, but begs you to indulge his request."

Kentaro and I looked at one another and then nodded. Surely Berg would know what was going on.

Leaving our untouched dinners behind, we followed Elysse to the nearest set of elevators. After an intense security scan, she quickly took us up to the level where I’d gone with Berg before. The room she took us to was not far from his office.

"Ah, welcome gentlemen. Come in, come in!" Berg was all smiles as he moved to greet us by the door. The room was small but cozy. A round, cherry wood table sat in the middle of it, with food steaming from the heaping plates there looking as if they’d just been served.

"Thank you, Elysse." I noticed that she still wouldn’t look directly at us as she took her leave. It made me uneasy.

"Please, sit down and eat before the food gets cold." Berg sat down on the chair facing the door and served us himself.

I saw Kentaro throw Berg a questioning look, but the latter did nothing to acknowledge it. He gave us back our plates, still smiling, and encouraged us to eat our fill. Something seemed forced about his easy manner. I didn’t know what to make of it. None of us said much throughout the meal.

"I realize that this has been somewhat unusual, but there’s been an... incident.. and I felt it would be better if you heard about it from me before rumors and gossip had blown it way out of proportion." The Chinese noodles we’d had for dinner turned to rocks in my stomach.

"It would seem that Nambu didn’t take well the fact that you weren’t rescued, Ken." Berg’s eyes met mine. They in no way mirrored his light tone. My blood turned cold. "In fact, he decided to attack a small scientific outpost in retaliation and has taken all the people there hostage. He left one of the members there with a specific message to deliver to me."

My whole body tensed as I anticipated what Berg would say next.

"It seems he would like to arrange an exchange -- you for the lives of the hostages." His eyes narrowed. "Of course, this is totally out of the question, and I want to reassure you on that account. I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea about this, so please rest assured that I have no intentions of handing you over to him. Only a fool would deal with Kozaburo Nambu on his terms."

"You have to!" I was on my feet before I realized what I was doing.

"I can’t. There’s no choice in the matter." Berg’s eyes were hard. Kentaro nodded in agreement.

I felt my face grow hot. "You can’t let those people die for me. I’m sure we can arrange this so that we can get them out. That we can trick him into it, or just hand me over to him and I’ll try to get myself out. You have to at least try! My life is not worth theirs!" The thought of being handed over to Nambu made my knees weak, but rather that than have those people’s death on my conscience.

"It’s not possible, I can’t take the risk. You’ve seen too much, you know too much. And there’s no guarantee that Nambu would make good on his word. I can’t give in to terrorists. I can’t afford to if the Earth is to be saved."

I looked into his eyes and saw that he was not to be argued with. Though he hadn’t moved, I could feel the tension radiating from him. There were rigid lines around his eyes and mouth. He didn’t like this anymore than I did, but he wasn’t going to do anything about it.

I felt an anger rise in me that I wasn’t sure I could control. Behind it lay other things that I really didn’t want to look at too closely, like feelings of guilt, frustration, and even a little relief. What could I say? It didn’t seem there were many options at this point. It seemed Berg felt that he could live with his conscience at the deaths of those people. Could I?

I stomped out of the room before I did or said something I might regret later. I knew they had my best interest at heart, that they wanted me to be safe, but what right did I have to that? Ever since I’d landed in this world I seemed to have caused nothing but death and misery. The scientists Nambu had captured were innocents, they had nothing to do with why I was here. Something had to be done. They couldn’t just be allowed to die!

I punched the button to summon the elevator with my fist trying to vent some of the frustration that was still building inside me.

"Ken, wait!"

I turned away from Kentaro’s voice not wanting to see him. As soon as the elevator doors opened, I stepped inside. My knuckles throbbed. I punched the button for my floor.

There was no question that I had to do something. The problem now was what. I had to stop being Ken Washio and act more like Gatchaman. There had to be a weakness to this place. Something I could exploit to get myself out.

I was halfway to my room when an idea came to me. I wasn’t sure if I could make it work, but I could think of nothing else to try. It had to work.

I turned around and moved back to the main hall and its mural. According to Berg, this base would be very much like any other. Behind that mural should be a set of escape chutes. The fastest and easiest way out of here would be through them.

I looked carefully about the room looking for any of the tell-tale patches of off-colored squares. Surely Berg wouldn’t leave something this important under the strict control of a computer -- I was betting that his cautious nature would have had him install somekind of manual override. Ah, there! I quickly pressed on the square and out popped a set of controls.

"Hey, what are you --"

I pressed the button to raise the mural wall and raced for one of the chutes. Lights blinked behind me even as a klaxon burst loudly overhead. I jumped in and never looked back.

Only as the protective bubble snapped around me did I dare let any doubts sneak into my thoughts. Subconsciously, I rubbed at my bare wrist, missing band, my uniform but knowing that it was probably best to go without them. If Berg was right, and Nambu could not be dealt with, at least I wouldn’t be giving him the suit so that he could just give it to another.

The chute stopped in a large warehouse. Sure that there would be somekind of pursuit, I wove in and out of its contents looking for a way out. As quickly as I could, I put as much distance between me and the warehouse as I could manage.

The dark city I found myself in didn’t look familiar. That didn’t make much of a difference though, I only had one goal in mind. I would trade myself for the hostages...

I had no money with me, so I kept my eyes open for a hotel. Once I found one, I strolled in as if I had every right to be there and then searched the lobby for a courtesy phone. I didn’t have much trouble finding one.

"Operator. may I help you?"

"Yes, I need to place an emergency collect call."

"Could I please have the number and your name please?"

I gave them to her. I wasn’t sure if the number would work in this reality, but I had nothing else to go on at the moment. It was Nambu’s office number at Crescent Coral.

I heard a number of clicks come over the line as the call went through a myriad of switch boxes specifically set up to keep the call from being traced. It finally rang.

click

"This is Nambu." The familiar voice sent a quiver down my spine.

"Hakase, this is Ken. I’ve been set free in order to be exchanged for the hostages."

"Where are you?"

I hesitated. "I’m, I’m not really sure. At the moment I’m in the lobby of a Courtyard hotel, but I don’t know what city it’s in."

"Give me the number." I wasn’t sure if the curt tone was unusual -- I didn’t know this Nambu at all. I gave him the number.

"Hold for a moment." Dead silence kept me company for about a minute and a half. "There’s an ISO facility close to your location. A car will be sent to you to pick you up."

"Roger."

The line went dead. It didn’t do much for my confidence. There was something about the way that things were going that I didn’t like at all.

Having no real choice, I waited in the lobby, staying out of sight yet with a clear view to the door and the parking lot beyond. After about twenty minutes, a black limousine pulled up to the front. My heart skipped a beat as I had the sudden thought that it might be Berg’s. It wasn’t. A man wearing an ISO security uniform got out of the driver’s seat. My ride was here. Hoping I was doing the right thing, I moved out to meet him.

As soon as the driver spotted me, he opened the door to the limo and then stepped back a safe distance away until I’d climbed inside. He pushed the door shut. I couldn’t help but notice that the privacy screen between the driver’s and passengers’ are was up -- it was black -- so were the windows. I couldn’t see out and no one could see in. Just as the thought trickled through, the doors made an audible click as they were remotely locked. It looked like Nambu didn’t want to take any chances with me.

The drive seemed long and made me restless. It was too quiet in the limo. What was Kentaro thinking of me about now?

The limo came to a stop and the doors unlocked. Before I could do anything, both doors were yanked open and five machine gun barrels poked in in greeting.

"Please get out on this side, Mr. Washio."

I complied, not feeling good about the situation but determined not to let them know it. Ten men had the side I got out on surrounded, their guns pointed directly at me at point blank range. The air reeked of nervousness and it wasn’t mine. A number of the guards looked afraid enough that they might just go ahead and pull the trigger. I wondered what my double had done to instill such fear in his own people. After a moment, I decided that I didn’t really want to know. I made myself stand very still.

"Mr. Washio, the doctor left some explicit instructions for your care, so please do as we ask so that we won’t have to kill you." The short man wouldn’t meet my gaze. Everyone seemed even more nervous than before.

Obviously Nambu expected somekind of duplicity on Berg’s part. I was also sure that by now he had gotten the reports from the others as to my odd behavior. I was probably not to be trusted.

"We’ll need to put these on you, sir. Please cooperate." The short leader held up sets of wrist, arm, and ankle restraints. This was starting to look worse by the minute. I forced myself to stay still as they gingerly put them on.

"We have a truck waiting... Dr. Nambu wants to see you as soon as possible."

I glanced in the direction he pointed. There was a small U-Haul truck with the door up -- a traveling prison. Great.

I hobbled over to the truck and had to be helped up into the empty interior. As soon as I was inside, they brought the door down and locked it. I was left in total darkness. I heard the truck’s motor come to life and fell down as it abruptly lurched forward.

The U-Haul was cold and uncomfortable and so were the restraints. I pushed myself over into a corner and tried to relax as well as I could under the circumstances. If they were taking me to Crescent Coral, as I suspected they were, it was going to be a long trip.

I was nice and battered by the time the truck drove into the belly of an airplane. I fell asleep out of sheer boredom and exhaustion somewhere in the interim.

I awoke as the plane bounced onto a runway. The U-Haul’s motor started up again and we were soon once more on our way. Well, whatever fate awaited me, it would probably soon be over -- I was sure we were almost there.

The truck stopped and my stomach tried to rise into my throat as the U-Haul suddenly dropped. My teeth jarred as we came to a stop. My ears were still ringing as the U-Haul got underway again. I heard a heavy door slam shut somewhere outside.

The U-Haul stopped and then shut down. I felt my empty stomach tighten. Doubts nibbled at me from the back of my mind, but I shut them out. there was nothing I could do about any of it anymore.

I guessed that I must be inside some type of transport ship especially when I heard the sound of metal against metal. The U-Haul started up again and quickly rolled out. I struggled to get on my feet, sure that it would be only a matter of minutes before I would be greeted. The truck stopped. I cold hear the sound of muffled voices just outside.

The latch clicked as it was turned and then the door rose upwards. Bright light invaded the darkness blinding me. I turned partially away, my eyes burning, even as I heard the sounds of someone climbing inside. I blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the light, to see who had come for me.

I stepped forward even as a part of me noticed the doctor’s stiff pose and the raging anger in his eyes. "Hakase..." Before I could say anything else, the back of his hand whipped out and smashed against the side of my face. The blow caught me totally off guard. I went down.

I stared at Nambu in shock, my cheek still tingling. He glowered down at me.

"Where is your uniform? Your bracelet? How dare you come back without them! You’re nothing to me without them!" His foot reared back to strike me, I couldn’t move.

"Hakase, don’t!" Jun leapt into the U-Haul followed closely by the others. I felt a tinge of guilt as I noticed her bandaged shoulder and her arm in a sling. "He’s not himself. We don’t know what they’ve done to him! He can’t be held responsible!" Jun bodily placed herself between us. It made me feel even worse about what I had done to her than I had before. It didn’t matter that I’d had every reason to stop her, that she’d been killing innocent people, for despite what I’d done, she was here protecting me!

Nambu hesitated as he seemed to consider Jun’s words. His face cleared. "Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right." He smiled brightly down at me for a moment before turning toward the others. "Joe, help your commander to his feet."

"With pleasure." Joe sauntered over to me and drew me up by the arms. I tried not to wince as he did so, glad to get on my feet again. I noticed his eyes roaming over me an odd look on his face. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t afford the time now to try and figure out what it meant.

"Hakase, what about, what about the hostages?"

Nambu turned to face me with a raised eyebrow. "They’re dead, of course. They had no real value, so what was the point?"

I felt my whole body go numb... Berg had been right after all... I should have never come here. I’d most likely just blown my only chance to get home.

"Joe, take him to Braun. I want him checked out immediately. Tell Braun to figure out what has been done to him and how to reverse it or he’ll have to deal with me."

"Whatever you say, Nambu-baby."

Joe leered at me, but I barely noticed. I’d made a terrible mistake and it looked as if I might just have to pay for it. I was as good as dead if I remained here. And if I didn’t find a way out before Braun got through with me and discovered that I was all right -- it would all be over. I’d have to keep alert and watch for my chance. Unfortunately, Joe decided to make my job a lot harder about then.

"Ken, I wanted to give you a little something for the nice thing you did for me the other day."

I saw the punch coming, but had no way to try and avoid it. I doubled over reeling in pain, but he caught me before I could hit the floor. With a hearty laugh, he lifted me up and threw me over his shoulder.

"Way to go, aniki!" Jinpei and Ryu both chuckled as he carried me past. I refused to look in their direction. Jun followed after us.

"Don't worry, Ken. Dr. Braun will get you back to your old self in no time."

"Yeah, and then, it’ll be our turn!" The others laughed even harder at Joe’s comment.

I stubbornly stared at the floor and the back of Joe’s legs as he deftly carried me along. We left the others behind. I stiffened as I felt his hand pat my rear.

"You know, maybe it would be okay if we made a side trip for a little while. It’s not like I see you trussed up everyday. And no one would have to know." Joe chuckled evilly even as his hand reached over to caress the inside of my thigh.

A wave of revulsion swept through me at his words and actions. I thrashed on his shoulder, and spoke before I realized what I was doing. "Move your fucking hand!"

"Whatever you say, commander!" His hand moved from my thigh to other places. I cursed at him thrashing even harder wanting to do nothing more than pound his face to shreds against the floor. Joe laughed merrily, my resistance only making him that much more eager.

With all I could muster, I forced myself to go limp. If he did take me somewhere, regardless of the reason, I might just get the chance I was looking for to try and escape. I didn’t let myself think about what might happen to me if I didn’t find a way to get free.

Despite my resolve and Joe’s earlier words, when we got off the elevator, I found myself in the medical section of the base.

"Where’s Braun?" Joe’s request came across as more of a bark than a question.

"In his office, where else would he be?" The nurse gave back as good as she got.

Joe turned and headed down the hall. As we moved, I worked one more time at trying to find a weakness in my bonds but found nothing just as before. The wrist restraints were set too tightly on my wrists for me to try and dislocate my thumbs to squeeze my hand through. The upper arm restraints had shut out any chance of at least manipulating my arms to the front of my body. And at the moment, I couldn’t even attempt to reach my feet.

Joe’s body shifted beneath me and then I hear a loud crash -- Joe had kicked Braun’s door open.

"Condor, how many times have I asked you not to do that?" Braun sounded livid. I wasn’t particularly sure that that was a good thing.

"Chill, Doc. I’ve brought a patient for you. Nambu wants you to find out what’s wrong with him and then fix it or else." There was a tone of glee lacing Joe’s words that I wasn’t sure what to make of. "So, where do you want him? And can I watch?"

"Interruptions! Always interruptions!"

"What are you complaining about? Didn’t Nambu give you all those scientists to play with? Weren’t they any fun?" The non-challant way in which Joe talked about the torture and murder of those innocent people made me bristle with anger. I wanted nothing more than to slam his face into the hard tile floor. How could such cold blooded bastards exist?

"Yes, they were quite nice, but I’ve yet to finish tabulating all the data on the experiments I ran on them. Couldn’t you give him to one of the other to play with?"

Joe patted my rear again and I stiffened, but made myself stay still. "Sorry, hakase asked specifically for you. And what Nambu-baby wants, he’d better get or else."

I heard Braun sigh. "Fine, I understand. Bring him along."

Joe turned to follow the doctor out of the office and I looked up trying to see if we’d come close to anything I might be able to grab hold of that might be of use to me -- nothing. On the desk across the room, I noticed that Braun’s strange tools were once more spread about the top of it. I looked away, my stomach feeling ill, as I realized that a number of them looked as if they’d been recently used.

"Drop him off over there. Face down."

Joe heaved me over onto an examination table and I landed on my arms. I grimaced at the pain but didn’t cry out. Joe was smiling at me with devilish intent. "Okay, Commander, you heard the doctor, upsy-daisy." He roughly turned me over onto my stomach, while caressing places I’d rather not think about. If I ever got out of this...

"Thank you, Condor. Now get out!"

I felt Joe’s warm breath come close to my ear. "I really do like you this way. I think I’ll sneak in here and have at you tonight."

I squeezed my eyes shut and said nothing. I wasn’t about to give him any encouragement either way. Playfully, he ran his hand slowly down my back and pinched my rear. I wanted to do nothing more than tear him limb from limb. It took all I had not to scream out in frustration. His soft laughter lingered about the room as he made his way out.

After Joe had gone, I heard Braun moving quietly about so I tried talking to him. He totally ignored me. That looked like one avenue I would not be able to pursue.

"Stay still." I stiffened at Braun’s touch, even as he moved my hair and then held my head to the side. He was behind me so I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I felt him dab something cold onto the side of my neck. This was soon followed by a rather painful stab. Braun removed the needle after several seconds and then pressed something sticky onto the side of my neck.

I heard Braun walk away and the hum of motors as machinery was turned on around the room. I turned my head trying to get a look at what he was up to. Yet, even as I did so, the examining table was moved and slid into a dark opening.

"Stay still or you’ll ruin the scan!" Braun’s voice burned with hi impatience.

"I’d be more cooperative if you would remove these restraints."

Braun didn’t answer. I sighed and hoped fervently that something would turn my way soon.

After about ten minutes, Braun switched off the equipment and pulled me out. From that point, he inspected every inch of me. I didn’t enjoy this at all, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. When he was through, I heard him sigh softly and then he left the room. I could tell that he was getting closer to figuring out that nothing had been done to me. I was running out of time -- I had to get out now.

I lifted my feet up and over as close as I could to my hands. The bar that kept my feet apart was linked to metal cuffs. I found the hole for the key, and they felt small -- probably about the same size as handcuff keys. Hopefully that meant that they’d be as easy to unlock. Now all I had to do was find something to pick them with.

I swung my legs off the examining table and quickly got off. I did a search of the room with my eyes looking for anything that would suit my current needs. On a small counter off to the right was a tray of wrapped needles and injectors. I shuffled over to them as fast as I could, not sure when Braun would return.

I stuck myself three times just trying to get the wrapper off the needle and another two trying to grab it afterwards. I knelt down on the floor giving my hands as good a reach to the cuffs as I could. After several tries, the one on the right gave an audible click. I shook my ankle out of it and started to work on the other one. I stood back up as soon as the second one had come loose.

I’d just reached my feet when the door opened. Braun took two steps into the room, holding a tray full of strange instruments, before he noticed that I was not where I should be.

Before he could react, I ran and crashed into him with all the speed and force I could muster. He slammed into the wall and dropped like a rock.

Ignoring him, I quickly took a look out into the hall to make sure that no one had heard what had gone on inside. I then checked Braun to make sure he looked like he was going to be out for a while, before leaving the room and locking the door behind me. I headed toward his office.

Once there, I headed straight for his desk. Ignoring the dried blood that was still visible on a number of them, I reached for the sharpest looking tool he had there and holding it up between my tied wrists started to work on my bonds.

Several minutes later, I was able to cut through the restraint and pull my wrist’s free. Twisting my right arm as far as I could, I worked on the arm restraints next. In another couple of minutes, I was free again. Now all I had to do was find a way out of the base. The easiest thing would be to sneak into one of Crescent Coral’s outbound subs. I started off in the direction of the bays.

I had sneaked my way down several levels when the sound of alarms inundated the halls. Damn. Things would be harder now.

I continued toward my goal using access corridors and shafts to make my way. My speed decreased by a great deal as I was forced to avoid the security teams that had been sent out to track me down. It wouldn’t be hard for any of them to figure out where I was going. Though all traffic out of the base would be stopped, the subs were still about the only way to leave. No matter how I looked at it, I was trapped and they knew it -- it was only a matter of time before they found me, but damn if I was going to make it easy for them!

Then it struck me -- there might be one actual way to get out. Yes, none of the subs could make their way out of the closed bays, but there was one ship here that could. One ship whose loss might just help make up for the lives that had been lost because of me -- The God Phoenix!

I changed directions and started off toward the main dock area.

The bay was filled with security guards, yet with a little patience and stealth I was slowly able to sidle my way to the ship.

The lower hatch was up, so to get inside I’d have no choice but to go through the top. That was the tricky part, because when I did so, I would be leaving myself exposed. I’d have to time it just right...

I made it over the top and onto the platform. It automatically lowered me into the inside of the ship. I’d find out soon enough if anyone had seen me. With any luck, it wouldn’t do them any good if they had. I ran to the lift and used it to get to the bridge. Everything there was quiet. Maybe I’d be able to pull this off after all.

"Hold it right there, aniki."

I turned away from the navigation controls at the sound of the familiar voice. "Jinpei."

His young, angular face was filled with a confident grin. He had a gun pointed in my direction. "I just knew you’d come here, aniki. I knew I’d be the one to find you."

His certainty shook me a little but I tried not to show it. There was an intensity to his gaze that gave me the willies.

"You’ve always dismissed me because I’m too young. Well now I’ll be able to prove to everyone now that I know what I’m doing. Even hakase will have to admit to it."

"Yes you’re right. You did figure out where I was going, even when the other couldn’t." I took a slow step forward. I was hoping to be able to get close enough to catch him off guard. "I should have noticed this in you before." Just a couple more...

"That’s far enough, aniki! I know all about what you did to Joe and Neechan. I’m not going to be that stupid. I know you’ll reward me for this as soon as Braun fixes what’s been done to you."

I leapt forward knowing that there was no way I could reach him in time. Jinpei squeezed the trigger. A dart embedded itself in my shoulder as I batted him aside. I stumbled into the lift not sure if he had others. My only hope lay in reaching the medical room -- there might be an antidote there to whatever he’d hit me with. I had to hurry.

When the lift stopped, the room was spinning around me. I clung to the wall, forcing myself forward as a wave of nausea washed over me. Just a few more feet! Come on, come on!

I was desperately gasping for air before I’d made it ten feet down the hall. My arms and legs had turned numb. I could see my goal before me except it suddenly turned sideways. I barely felt it as I slammed onto the floor. I tried to get up but found that I could no longer move. The hall spun about me faster and faster. A black haze appeared at the edge of my vision and worked its way inwards. Soon there was nothing left but darkness.

 

 

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

 

I regained consciousness as I noticed a constant pounding ringing in my ears. I opened my eyes to try and see where it was coming from only to realize that it was from the inside of my head. I jerked my eyes closed as the pounding suddenly turned painful. I tried to bring my hand over to rub my temples but it was jerked back as I brought it forward. I made myself open my eyes again.

The light in the room was dim, barely bright enough to see by. Cold metal walls stared at me barely six feet from one another. I was laying on what looked to be a thin cot. My arms were cuffed at the wrists and linked to a chain that was bolted to the wall. Another chain linked my wrists to a metal collar around my neck. Cuffs had been placed on my ankles as well, holding them apart by a thick metal bar.

I tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. The pounding in my head got three times worse and the room spun around me. I forced my head to rest between my knees until these feelings subsided a bit. To hurry it along, I took deep, long breaths and tried centering myself. It was only then that I noticed the putrefying stench of the place. The cell had no facilities except for a couple of gullies running down either side. The floor was littered with brown splotches and other dried marks. The cot itself smelled of sweat and fear.

I was on the prison level... They’d obviously decided not to take any more chances with me. I’d blown it... probably for the last time... How could I have been so stupid?

The stench and I kept each other company as the hours passed by. Had they already figured out that there was nothing wrong with me and were just going to leave me here to rot? My stomach rumbled noisily. I told it to be quiet; I doubted anything would be coming for it soon. I wasn’t wrong.

I’d fallen into a light doze when the sound of the cell’s door opening brought me totally awake. I rose to my feet, my chains clanking together, even as I tried to see who had come.

"Well, well, nice to see you awake, Washio." Braun walked in followed by two guards. I noticed a purpling bruise on the right hand side of his face. I didn’t have to think hard to realize where it had come from. "You gave everyone quite an exciting time. Be reassured though that we won’t be giving you a chance for a repeat performance." He signaled for the two guards to come forward. "Restrain him."

The two men moved to do as they’d been told.

I considered fighting them, but dropped the idea because it would get me nowhere. Even if I somehow managed to overpower them, I still wouldn’t be able to get loose from the chains. The two guards roughly grabbed my arms and forced me to sit down on the cot. They didn’t look to happy to be here.

"I’ve been going over your test results and have been having a few problems. You see, I’m having a hard time finding anything wrong with you. That has got to change... Nambu doesn’t take well to failure. I’m sure you understand." His expression told me that it didn’t matter whether I did or not.

"As you know, Nambu is not what any of us would call a patient man, and he is rather eager to find out how they were able to change you so quickly. It occurred to me that maybe the best way to find out was just to ask." He moved closer his eyes glinting. "Of course, I don’t expect that you’ll answer my questions willingly... That’s why I brought these along." A third guard entered pushing in a small cart. On it was Braun’s velvet sheet and all his shinning instruments.

"Nambu won’t stand for this!"

Braun smiled. It had no warmth whatsoever.

"Oh, he will. Especially if it means that I can get from you the means that would allow him to easily turn prisoners into his puppets in just days. Oh yes he will."

I swallowed hard, my body tensing. Braun was serious, and if what I had seen of Nambu was any indication, he was probably right as well. I felt a coil of fear wrap itself around my heart. The only way out of this would be to give him what he wanted -- except no such information existed! And telling him the truth would be no better. Not only would it not get me out here, but it might give Nambu the notion of trying to get to this other world because it might be even easier to exploit than this one!

"Here, we’ll start with something easy." I saw his hand reach up to caress his growing bruise. "Let’s touch up your face a bit." Braun studiously picked up a corkscrew looking implement. My blood turned cold. I had to find a way to get out of here! He brought it toward me.

"No!"

I bashed my head into the face of the guard on my left even as I threw my elbow in the opposite direction and caught the other guard on the shoulder. I heard something crack.

"Stop him! I don’t have time for this!"

The first guard fell to the floor, his nose bleeding and his gaze unfocused. The second was still on the cot, at the moment howling with pain. I stood up, hoping to try and reach Braun’s tray and possibly gain a means to removing my chains. I’d barely taken a step, when the third guard threw himself at me. We both crashed onto the cot. My head hit the back wall and the breath was knocked out of me. Everything in the room tried to go dark.

"Use the hooks, fools! Get him down or you’ll be next on my table!" Braun kicked the man on the floor with the glazed eyes.

Something hit me on the side of the head. I tried to focus my eyes and move, but my body wasn’t cooperating. My wrists got dragged over my head to one end of the cot, my feet shoved to the other. There was a sound of metal against metal.

"There’s really no need to make this any harder than necessary, Washio. If you cooperate, it’ll be through before you know it. And who knows, you might even like it."

I tried to get up, to get free, but got nowhere. As my eyesight continued to spin, I was able to make out the fact that there was a hook holding the bar between my ankles holding it down. I was sure the same had been done to my wrists. I was helpless, and with that realization came a frantic bolt of fear. "Let me out of here!"

Braun was smiling as he came to loom over me. He had the look of an eager child about to play his favorite game. "It’s such a pity that I’ll have to mar your pretty face..." His eyes told me differently. "Don’t worry though, Tessa can do wonders with plastic surgery, and we’ll get you over to her as soon as we are through."

I tried frantically to jerk my way loose, but two of the guards piled down on top of me denying me even that much movement.

I glared at Braun as he came closer despite my fear, determined not to give him any kind of satisfaction. Braun snickered loudly as if the defiance only made his job that much sweeter. He held my face down on the side and as I tried to fight him, there was a pinprick of pain against my right cheek.

The floor trembled. The prick of pain abruptly moved away.

"What’s going on?"

The whole room rocked. The dim light flickered off an on. Sirens started screaming overhead.

"You, go find out what’s happening!" Braun kicked the still partially glazed guard toward the door.

He’d not gotten two steps outside the cell before he was flung back inside. He smashed into Braun’s cart spilling its polished contents to the floor. The other two guards leapt over him and ran for the door. One, and then the other, fell back inside, both with identical deadly holes in their foreheads. The cell shook again. Braun screamed and fell back as if to reach for me. A red blur rushed in and smacked him to the ground. Braun moved no more.

"Ken, are you all right?"

Kentaro’s masked face hovered over mine. I’d never felt so relieved in all my life. "You found me!" I just couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. He smiled lopsidedly down at me as he reached up past my head.

"It wasn’t all that hard. I have connections here at Crescent Coral, so it didn’t take all that much for me to find where it had gone. As for finding you inside, that Berg’s doing. He removed the radioactive material from your boot, but left the transmitter in case he might ever need it. I warned you that he tends to be a little paranoid."

The room shook. There was the sound of far off explosions.

"We’ve got to hurry. It doesn’t look like we’ve got much time left. Berg’s outside giving the base a hard time. I think he might be doing just too good a job." He helped me sit up. I wave of nausea washed over me but I forced myself to stay still. God it was good to see him again!

Kentaro left me for a moment and quickly searched the bodies of the guards. "Damn, nothing. I was afraid of that. Oh well, don’t worry I came prepared." He pulled out a vial from a small pouch at his side.

"This will burn the lock out, but you’ll need to get your wrist out of the way before it burns through to your skin." I nodded.

With great care, Kentaro unstopped the vial and almost dropped it as the room gave a large lurch to the right. "Get ready."

Gold liquid poured into the lock and instantly the latter began to hiss. I pulled as best I could against the clamp until my wrist finally came free. We followed the same procedure on the other ones. My extremities started tingling painfully as unobstructed blood flow was resumed. I tried to stand but my legs wouldn’t hold. Kentaro caught me before I hit the floor. The room shook.

"I’m sorry."

"It’s all right."

I looked up at him and suddenly felt guilty at the fact that I was being saved. "They’re all dead. Berg was right."

"I know." He gave me a sad yet reassuring smile. "Here, put your arm across my shoulder. We have to try to hurry or we might never get out of here."

Kentaro half-helped half-dragged me out of the cell and then made our way toward the emergency stairs. We went up.

The base trembled and threw us to the side almost sending me over the rail. Kentaro grabbed hold of me and we continued up.

My ears popped. The pressure inside the structure was changing. Crescent Coral was taking in water. Trying to ignore my aches and continued dizziness, I forced myself to go faster.

Kentaro opened the door out of the stairwell. I followed, a little more steady than before, but confused at his choice. We were nowhere near the bay level -- why were we getting off here?

Kentaro was forced to shoot three men that decided to get in his way. The still screaming siren and echoing explosions hid the noise of the shots. The base trembled again, but this time it didn’t stop. We ran.

"In here!"

Kentaro threw a door open and pulled me inside. There was an armed man in the room with a patch over one eye. I thought Kentaro would shoot him, but he did nothing of the kind. It was then that recognition hit me. "Oniishi!"

The guard turned to look at me a startled look on his face. Though in my world, the man had lost his voice from having his throat cut rather than lost an eye, I would have recognized him anywhere. He’d once helped to save my life. It looked like he was about to do so again.

"Took you long enough, Kentaro. I was starting to worry!" Oniishi hurried to the other side of the room, the living quarters for an officer, and pulled down a large wall hanging. A pressure sealed hatch lay revealed on the other side. Oniishi quickly opened the hatch and herded us inside. He came in last and closed the hatch behind him.

"Sorry about that. I think Berg has gotten a little carried away with his diversion."

"Yeah. Just a little." Oniishi smiled. I found a small grin growing on my face at the sight.

Kentaro led me to a seat next to his and I strapped in. The ship detached from the side of Crescent Coral and dropped. As soon as it hit ocean bottom, it took off away from the base. Through one of the portholes, I caught a glimpse of Crescent Coral as we left it behind. Several of its main struts had either been bent or destroyed. Dark gaping holes littered the lower levels. It was a sight I’d never hoped to see.

"Oniishi, send Berg the signal."

"Right-o!" To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the sound of Oniishi’s voice. "The signal’s been given and acknowledged. Let’s just hope we get them this time."

Oniishi’s words sent a shiver down my spine. We’d not gone much further when the small sub was rocked by a massive shockwave. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that Crescent Coral was no more. Images of Joe and the others floating dead in bloodied waters flashed through my mind. I suddenly found it hard to breathe.

"Ken, are you all right?"

I nodded quickly, not trusting myself to speak. I should have felt happy, happy that this world might have just been liberated from a great evil, but I couldn’t. What if something like this was happening in my own world as well?

"If you’re worried about your teammates on this world, don’t be. They’re very hard to get rid off, so I pretty much doubt we got that lucky today. Though this should give Nambu pause next time he decides he wants to try and blackmail Berg."

I looked away feeling guilty that my concerns were so obvious. "If, if you could always find out where Cres- the base was, why didn’t you have it destroyed before now?"

Kentaro shrugged. This time he was the one to look away. "Like I said, they’re almost impossible to get rid of and we could never be quite sure of having them all in the same place at the same time. And there were other reasons..."

He didn’t look as if he wanted the subject discussed further, so I didn’t push it. I could feel Oniishi’s eyes studying us from the back.

After about an hour, the small sub sank down to the bottom of the ocean floor and stopped. Within minutes, a humongous sea anemone appeared before us. The sub rose up to meet it.

"Our ride’s here." Oniishi’s tone was cheerful. I felt quite the opposite.

I had caused Berg and his people a lot of trouble during my stay so far -- this being but the latest on a long list. Everything that had happened in the last twenty four hours and more all caught up to me at once. I doubt I’d ever felt so tired. The last thing I wanted to do now was to have to confirm to Berg that even more people had died because of me.

When the sub docked inside, I got up with the others determined to face my medicine with as much grace as possible.

A medical team converged on me the moment I hit the deck. The nurses and doctors badgered me into a wheelchair and then carted me off without a word to anyone. I never even saw Berg. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

I fell into an exhausted doze somewhere amidst the test and scans the doctors assured me were absolutely necessary. When I woke, I found myself tucked in a nice comfortable bed in what looked to be some sort of hospital room. I found Kentaro sitting in a low chair, seemingly asleep. Looking to my right, I found Berg leaning against the door frame staring at my father’s double intently. He stopped as soon as he noticed that I was awake. Quietly, he walked on over to the side of my bed. "How are you feeling?"

"All right." We kept our voices low.

"The doctor’s say that you only have a mild concussion. You should be fine as long as you get plenty of rest and don't overdo things." Berg seemed genuinely concerned about me. It brought my previous feelings of guilt screaming back like a ton of falling bricks.

"I - I want to apologize to you. What I did, what I did was wrong..." I stared at my hands not wanting to lose my nerve. "Things are different here than at home. I should have deferred to your judgment. I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you."

"You’re definitely your father’s son." I looked up into his strangely delicate face, surprised at the strange answer. He was smiling at me. "I would have been concerned if you’d just taken my word for it and considered the topic closed. Yes, you did react in a rather quick and unexpected way, but the right feelings were there. I couldn’t have asked for more."

I felt myself blushing though I wasn’t exactly sure why I was doing it. Maybe I actually cared about what the Berg Katse of this world thought about me. Who would have ever guessed at such a thing.

After another day of more sleep and rest, I was eventually released in Kentaro’s care. Berg went back to trying to find a way to send me home. And though there was no immediate retaliation for the destruction of Crescent Coral, Berg assured us that his informants had verified the fact that Nambu and the others had escaped. My feelings were quite mixed over the whole affair.

Kentaro and I spent almost all our time together over the next day and a half. The hours just seemed to fly by. But always in the back of my mind was the fact that I might soon be going home. Now that there was a chance that I would no longer be the ISO’s main concern, I found myself wishing that there was away to slow down time and keep that moment from coming.

We were sparing in one of the matted rooms one afternoon, when Berg found us. Kentaro spotted him first.

"Berg! Why don't you join us! Ken needs more of a challenge!"

I leaned against the wall trying to catch my breath. I shook my head slowly, in no way feeling that I wasn’t already being challenged enough.

Berg quickly declined the invitation. "I have enough trouble when I spar with one Washio. I’m not insane enough to try and go against two."

Kentaro laughed. All I could work up was a grin. Then I felt Berg’s eyes on me. My sweat turned cold. I pushed my wet hair out of my face and looked up at him. I suddenly knew why he was here.

"Ken, I have news." I slid down to the floor and sat down. "The information you gave me the other day was exactly what Sosai had been looking for. He thinks that he’ll be able to get you home."

"That’s great!" My face looked right, my words sounded right, but I found that I really was feeling nothing at all. I glanced over at Kentaro and found him looking at me. His face was guarded. "When, when will I leave?"

"I believe that we should be ready to try it by tomorrow." I noticed that Berg’s gaze kept drifting in Kentaro’s direction. "Right now, I’m having the trap reconstructed into a portable version. Sosai feels that the best chance for success will occur by recreating all this at the original site of the incident.

"I’ll let you know when we’ll leave as soon as things get a little more finalized. All right?"

I forced myself to get up. "Yes, that’s fine. Thank you, thank you very much."

Berg glanced at Kentaro again. "Don't mention it. I’ll see you."

He left.

The room got too quiet. I tried to make myself say something, anything, but nothing would come.

"Well, we should go out and celebrate the good news, don't you think? It won’t be long now." Kentaro seemed awfully happy for me. Why couldn’t I?

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling feeling incredibly guilty. The perfect mood of the last couple of days had left with Berg’s announcement. I doubted I’d said more than ten words to anyone all evening. There I was, stupidly ruining the last few hours I’d ever get to spend with Kentaro and I couldn’t stop it! What was wrong with me? The man had given me a great gift -- I’d been able to experience what life might have been like if my father had lived -- and this was how I repaid him for that? I was going home for Pete’s sake! Why did I feel nothing?

The questions went round and round but I couldn’t come up with any answers. Eventually, I just gave up on sleep and played more games on the computer. I kept at it until my mind numbed and I felt exhausted enough to sleep.

A knock at the door brought me awake. I sat up momentarily disoriented. I stumbled out of bed to go answer the door. It was Berg.

"Ah, you are here. Kentaro said that he’d yet to see you this morning."

I felt a touch of panic. "Wha - what time is it?"

"It’s almost nine." He smiled. "Don't worry, you haven’t missed anything."

I felt myself blush. "Ah, come in, come in. I’ll just be a minute." Berg did just that.

I tried to put him out of my mind as I fished for my double’s clothes and rushed into the bathroom. I hurried to clean up and get dressed.

Berg was lounging easily in one of the chairs, typing into palm computer, when I got out. He shut the computer off when he saw me come out. "Ready?"

I hesitated. "I - I know you’ve done a great deal for me already... but, I’d , I’d like to ask for one more thing if I may." I could feel my shoulders twinge from my pent up tension.

"Of course, what do you need?"

My throat was dry as I opened my mouth because I knew I had no right to ask, but I really wanted, needed this. "Would it be possible, if he agreed to it, for Kentaro to be allowed to come with us?" I half hoped he’d refuse. Where we were going might turn out to be dangerous, especially if Nambu had been able to put enough of the pieces together, and I couldn’t bear the thought that he might get hurt because of me. At the same time, I wanted nothing more than for him to be there.

Berg burst out in laughter. "It’s already done! I doubt I could keep him from coming even if I wanted to." He appeared really amused by the whole thing. Now that it was out of my hands, I felt my tension ease a bit.

Kentaro was waiting for us by the elevator. He had his Red Impulse uniform back on, his helmet sitting in the crook of his arm. He greeted me heartily and then handed me a small package. "Thought you might be hungry."

"Thanks!" I’d forgotten all about breakfast.

The elevator took us up. When it came to a stop, we took a small transport that was sitting there waiting for us. The hallways in this level were tall and wide as if to allow for cargo to be brought through. The transport followed these halls out into a huge hangar that was filled from wall to wall with all manner of vehicles. We got off, and Berg led us to a squat, golden flying saucer. We were going, we were really going!

Berg led us inside the saucer to a round room with plush white couches that hugged the walls. "I’ve got to take care of a few details before we can get underway. Please wait for me here."

I glanced around the room, but other than for the blank walls and the couches, there wasn’t much to look at.

"Nervous?"

I realized at the question that I’d been subconsciously tapping my foot on the metal floor. I made myself stop. "Sorry. I guess I am... a little."

"You shouldn’t be. Berg wouldn’t be letting you try this if he wasn’t pretty sure of its success."

"I know, I know."

A vibrating hum sprung up all around us. Within moments, we felt out stomachs being left behind as the ship rose. We were on our way.

I stared at my knees, terribly conscious that my time was running out, and still I couldn’t find anything to say. It was maddening!

"So, Ken, do you have someone back home?"

I grabbed the question like a drowning man might grab a life preserver. "Yes, I mean, no, not really, no one serious, just the team. They’re everything to me, they’re family. We take care of each other."

He nodded slowly. "Any plans on what you’ll do once the problems with Galactor are over?"

That brought me up short. It wasn’t something I’d spent a lot of time contemplating. It had never been necessary. "I don't have anything really definite." I shrugged. "I’ll probably go into the courier business full time, see if I can make something of it."

Kentaro nodded again. "Ever thought of getting married? Maybe starting a family?"

I couldn’t meet his gaze, though I wasn’t quite sure why. "I - I suppose, someday... I haven’t really had the time to think about that end of things."

"I see." I wondered at what he saw. "You’re the only one of your line left, are you not?"

"Ah, yeah." I got a funny feeling at that. It really wasn’t something I’d thought of in quite that way before.

"It might be something to keep in mind for the future."

I was about to ask him to explain when the door to the room slid open.

"How are we holding up?" Berg walked on in and made himself comfortable across from us.

"Fine."

"Our ETA should be about a half hour. With any luck, we won’t be noticed by any of Nambu’s spy stations and can conclude our business before anyone is the wiser." He leaned forward.

"Here, you’ll need this." He pulled my bracelet from his pocket and handed it over. I gratefully put it on my wrist.

Berg talked on and quickly detailed for us the installation of the portable trap and its generator and what else we might expect.

He left us just before we landed, but came back not long after we’d touched ground. He had us follow him outside.

Debree lay everywhere around us. What grass hadn’t been crushed or burned by the small science station’s destruction, had been later been trampled to death by looters, rescue parties, or both. I glanced to the east, in the direction of the decimated town of Queekak, but a hill stood in my way. I made no other effort to go look at the town the team’s doubles had decimated.

Workmen poured out of the saucer even as Berg personally moved to supervise the unloading of the trap.

I watched them moving around like worker ants, getting more nervous by the minute. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the process wouldn’t work, but that it would. My gaze moved to follow Kentaro’s vigilant form. His helmet was back in place, hiding most of his features as he checked the horizon for any signs of trouble.

I stood there, studying him, trying to ignore what I knew was bothering me. In truth, I think I’d known about this all along, but just hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself. Now that the time was almost on me, though, there was no way to make it go away.

"Ken, come over here. We’re all set up. It’s time."

Berg’s call chilled my blood. I tried to head toward him, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t!

"Ken." I turned and found that Kentaro had come up beside me. "Time to go."

I shook my head, my eyes studying his through his visor. "Do you want me to go?" His eyes turned from mine for a moment, but then locked on mine again.

"It’s not a question of what I or anyone else wants. It’s got to do with what’s right." His expression turned stern.

"Yes, I know that, but how do we know what that is?" He said nothing. I plunged on. "My father is dead, yet here I’ve had a chance to see what it would have been like had he lived. Who is to say that my staying here isn’t the way things were meant to be, that staying here isn’t what’s right?" I studied his face looking for any sign of rejection. He wanted me to stay, I knew it! Just like I had come to realize the same thing about myself.

Kentaro abruptly grabbed my shoulders and pulled me forward into a tight embrace. His voice was soft as it whispered in my ear. "Your duty tells you all you need to know. It says that you must return."

I tried to pull away, to try to argue with him, but he wouldn’t let me.

"In you world, you and the rest of the ninja team are all that stand between survival and chaos. What would happen to your world if you didn’t return to it before the evil was stopped?" He pulled back. I looked away knowing the answer to his question but not wanting to admit it.

"You know I’m right. Just as you know that though keeping you here with me is my greatest desire, I would never ask it of you and wouldn’t respect you if you did. Our roads follow different paths. Be grateful, as I am, that at least they got to cross for a little while."

It was true, all that he’d said was true. I closed my eyes, shutting in the tears I could feel gathering there and not wanting him to see. Duty did demand I go home... back to my friends, my family, my world. They were all depending on me, I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t ignore that, no matter how much I wanted to. "I understand. I’ll go."

Again, I found myself pulled forward in an embrace. This time, I gave back as much as I got. "Thank you, thank you for everything."

"No, Ken, my son, thank you."

We pulled apart, our eyes bright, and studied each other for the last time. Tears ran freely down our cheeks even as we tried hard to pretend they weren’t there.

"I’m proud to have known you, Ken. You are all your father could have ever wished for." He held out his right hand. I took it gladly.

"The same goes for me." I shook his hand hard.

I stepped back, my eyes never leaving his. I brought my arm up slowly into the familiar arc. "Bird Go!"

As soon as the transmutation was over, I gave him a crisp salute and turned away. I ran toward where Berg was waiting, before I gave myself the chance to change my mind.

I glanced at the Galactor leader as I moved to stand by him. His face was unreadable, his gaze fixed beyond me to Kentaro’s form. Was that sympathy I saw reflected in his eyes, or was it something more?

His eyes brightened as he turned to look at me. "Are you ready Gatchaman?"

I nodded slowly. "Just tell me what to do."

Berg pointed to the open trap on which all of this had rested on from the start. I slipped inside and turned around to face the way I’d come in. I tried to feel nothing as Kentaro slowly moved to stand at Berg’s side. All other personnel had quickly removed themselves to the saucer.

"I - I have one last question before we start."

"Go ahead." Berg’s right hand had stopped to hover over a large button on a remote control unit on his left.

"What, what will you do with... with my counterpart when he returns?"

Berg’s brow rose, but he deferred the question over to Kentaro. The latter’s face was blank.

"I’ll try to undo the damage Nambu’s done to him over the years. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll quickly rid the world of a great evil..." His voice held no emotion at all.

I was sorry to have burdened him with the question. "I understand. I wish you luck."

He nodded but said nothing.

I glanced over at Berg. "I’m ready now."

"Take care of yourself, Gatchaman." The blond hared man who would soon be my enemy once more, smiled.

"Thank you for everything..."

Berg pressed the button.

Clear walls fell before and behind me, closing off the cube. The inside was quickly flooded with pink gas. A high pitched hum reverberated through the air as small bolts of lightning played along the walls on either side of me. I took a deep breath trying to prepare myself for what I knew would come next.

The metal rods slowly protruded from the walls. The humming changed to a shrill scream. Bolts shot from one side of the cube to the other. Pain flooded me from every side. Though I tried my damnedest, I couldn’t hold back a scream.

Instead of falling in a hundred different directions as I had on my way here, I was hurled this time. The sense of unraveling consciousness swept through me faster than it had before. I fought for cohesion, clinging to the thought that I was going home, trying to use it as an anchor in the maelstrom I was trying to become.

Suddenly, gravity once more became a reality as I was roughly slapped back together. I fell. The world abruptly went black.

 

 

"But is it him? Is it our Ken?"

"We won’t be able to determine that with any degree of certainty until after he’s regained consciousness."

The voices that poured over me seemed reassuringly familiar somehow. Had I made it then? Was I... home? My eyes flickered open.

"Hakase, look! He’s opened his eyes! He’s awake!"

My gaze swirled but slowly steadied as a face came to stand over me. The worry lines were where they should be. The rimless glasses were clear just like they had always been. The conservative suit was as fresh and pressed as always. Nambu?

"He’s awake! He’s awake!"

"We can see that, Jinpei." I caught a glimpse of Joe standing not far behind the doctor.

"Quit being so cranky, aniki."

"Who are you calling cranky, short stuff?"

"You know exactly who!" Jinpei stuck his tongue out at Joe and quickly zipped around the bed before the older man could grab him.

"Guys, knock it off!" It was Jun! The real one! She glared mercilessly at both of them.

"Yeah, knock it off, or you might make Ken wish he’d not come back!" Ryu filled his immense chest out to push his point. He got scathing looks of death for his trouble.

I laughed, I couldn’t help it. That brought them all up short. God how I’d missed this! Missed them! The bell bottomed jeans, the numbered T-shirts, everything looked to be as it should be. It was them!

"Ken? I just have a few questions if you’re feeling up to it. We need to make sure of who you are."

"Sure, Hakase, I understand." I had a smile on my face and I could feel the loopy thing getting bigger and bigger. I saw equal smiles growing on the others as they gathered close. It was then that I remembered the one thing that had bothered me most while I’d been gone. Though Nambu had yet to ask any of his questions, I felt obliged to ask one of mine.

"Hakase, my, my double, did you realize -- what did he -- is everyone okay?"

Nambu smiled seeming to understand what I’d been trying to say though I was sure I’d been anything but clear. "He did no damage. We found out early that he wasn’t you thanks to Joe."

I looked over at my second in commands wondering how he’d done it. Joe just looked back at me, his eyes clouded, and shrugged.

"I bet aniki is wondering how you did it, Joe-aniki!" Jinpei had a teasing smile on his face.

"Stay out of it, Jinpei!" The death promised in Joe’s tone was hard to miss. It made me truly curious about what was going on.

"He has a right to know, aniki."

"No he doesn’t!"

"Come on, he’ll only find out sooner or later anyway." Jinpei’s mischievous smile had spread to Ryu’s face. It suddenly made me feel a little weary.

Joe glared death at both of them. Suprisingly, it was June who spoke next.

"Joe was the one who found your double after the trap had gone off. He wasn’t in any shape to escape on his own so Joe helped him out."

"Jun!" The others’ mischievous smile had now spread to her as well. I glanced at Nambu looking for some clue as to what was going on and found him trying hard to keep a straight face through it all. My dread increased.

"The other Ken was leaning real heavily on Joe-aniki, aniki. Then he acted as if he was having trouble breathing and got Joe to take of his helmet and then got aniki to take his off as well."

I glanced at Joe and the latter looked as if he were about to explode. Everyone else was ignoring him.

"Yeah, that’s when the double reached out and planted a great big kiss on his lips!" Ryu chuckled.

"Joe punched him right out after that."

"I still say that he stayed in the liplock a little longer than he should have before punching him out!" Jinpei was clearly enjoying himself. He made sure not to be anywhere near Joe’s reach. I felt my cheeks grow hot as I remembered a very similar experience.

"After that, Joe insisted that we tie him down in the med bay, that something was wrong with you. When the double woke up, he said, he said a number of things that I can’t willingly repeat, until he realized that that wasn’t the reason he was tied up for..." Jun’s gaze wouldn’t meet my own. Her cheeks had colored slightly. Oh my God!

"That’s how Joe aniki figured it all out and Nambu Hakase started working on a way to get you back."

I found my gaze straying toward Joe. As our eyes met, I saw that his cheeks were flushed. For some reason this made mine burn even hotter. He looked away. everyone else in the room burst out laughing, even Nambu. They’d never let Joe live this one down. I’d have to quickly figure out a way to edit my own account or I would be in for similar torture for who knew how long. A grin tugged at the corner of my mouth. I was definitely home!

 

The End