(Gatchaman IV story #5)
Alatan Katse stood on the balcony, overlooking the workmen's pit. It was an unimaginably heady feeling. Beneath her soldier/workers and techs labored to construct the Mechapart, legacy of days past and a person whose works one girl, at least, had not forgotten. The scaffolding surrounded a largely shapeless giant metal construction-- her creation. Those people down there-- green, blue and gold soldier/workers of various ranks; pale blue and crimson artisan/workers, specialized ones; white and grey techs from Marriochio's department-- they were all hers. They would labor to construct her dreams. And as long as she dreamed skilfully, there was no limit on how far she could take them, no limit on what they could do for her.
She smiled, filled with the joy of her own power. Galliente had advised her not to use mecha at all-- he favored the conventional weaponry Egobossler had begun with, modified to withstand the brunt of Ninja Team attacks. And Selina, while not oposed to mecha in general, had stressed to Alatan the necessity of covering all the angles, of finding every weak spot and plugging it. Selina hadn't approved of Mechapart; much as she'd admired Berg Katse, the fact remained that none of his mecha had ever worked. Alatan should let Selina's people design the mecha. Etcetera, etcetera.
What neither Selina nor Galliente realized was that Alatan had no intention of succeeding in her ambition for the next several years. She knew it was uncharacteristic of a Galactor leader, not to want instant world leadership. But the others had been driven by Sosai, not independent as she was. And two had been mortal adults, watching death press closer every day, while Gel Sadra had had an infant's impatience. Alatan was none of those things. Since she had set her life's goal at age 9, she had learned tremendous patience. She knew she was not yet fit to rule the world-- if it dropped into her hands tomorrow, she would have to rely so heavily on her advisors that, in effect, they would be her regents. Ruling Galactor would teach her leadership.
She had a long way to go before she was fit to be ruler of the world. At this point, however, the situation within Galactor was tense enough that she had to make an active show of seeking world leadership. Alatan had united separate, warring factions with the promise of a new beginning. Now the question on every Galactor member's mind was: can Alatan Katse lead us effectively? And to them, brainwashed by Sosai X's modus operandi, "effectively" meant "with mecha and lots of grandiose scientific schemes."
So. Alatan had already tested her skills at subterfuge and "inside" operations, the kind she intended to base her eventual victory on, and found herself capable. Now it was time to test her own mettle, and that of the Science Ninja Team, in battle with a mecha. She had selected Mechapart-- a design from her father's journals, involving numerous sections that could separate and recombine into something that was vaguely reminiscent of a giant blowfish-- because it was a typical mecha, and because her father had liked it very much, at least until Sosai had blasted it down on the grounds that it wasn't waterproof, and at the time X had wanted to attack Crescent Coral. Well, Alatan had no reason to need a waterproof mecha, and no need to worry about Sosai's opinion.
*There were other reasons for not using Mechapart. They were good reasons.*
What were they?
You don't remember, do you. Perhaps they were arbitrary reasons from the beginning. "Captain!" she called, to a man in the sober white and gold of a Tech Captain. "How is the work proceeding?"
"As well as can be expected, considering that the workmen are idiots and the supply crew are below moron level," the Tech Captain snorted. He was from Marriochio's department, where the standards were traditionally much higher.
"That's why I selected you to supervise. Since you are a Tech, and capable of correcting the submorons' errors before they endanger the mission," Alatan said calmly and formally. "I know it must be a burden to you, but I need one I can trust in charge."
"Oh, I understand that," the man groused. "But it's damned difficult, Katse-sama. I'm beginning to wonder how your predecessors got anything done."
"Fear, I expect," Alatan said. "In the future, I suspect the competency level will rise as the desire to please me increases." She walked away, leaving him to his work. The schedule for Mechapart gave it ten more days. Alatan smiled to herself. She was looking forward to this. Though she admired her father tremendously, there were quite a few things she'd have done differntly, had she been him. Now she would have the opportunity. Gatchaman and Galactor both were in for some surprises...
Dr. Kestin was giving her instructions on dealing with her casts, et cetera. Lara Remington wasn't listening. She was staring at the calendar.
Today was August 1st. At home the month of August, in the handmade calendar she and Alatan had worked on, was embossed in gold, Alatan's birth-month. Last year, Lara had been working out the details of a cake and presents for a soon-to-be 13-year-old at this time. Last year, she had apologized to Alatan yet again for being in a meeting on her birthday. Alatan had said she didn't mind, it was all right, she would celebrate her birthday with her phone friends. Lara could just imagine how, in fact, Alatan's 13th had been celebrated.
How?...How could this happen? Right under my nose, and Dr. Nambu's, and all of ISO... I'm her mother. Doesn't that mean anything? Don't I mean anything to her? Why couldn't I stop her in time?
"You lied to me. You have to pay for that, Mom...there's always a price to be paid..."
"Dr. Remington, you're not listening, are you?"
"Sorry...my mind was wandering."
"Please pay attention. I don't want you to be injured further..."
As if anything could injure me as badly as being hated by my own daughter... "I'll be fine, Doctor. I've been hurt before. I'll live." Unfortunately.
How could I have failed her so badly? Failed the world, failed the reason for my life...
She would have to try to stop Alatan. She was the girl's mother-- she knew more about Alatan's strengths and weaknesses than anyone else in ISO. Though obviously not well enough... She had to help Nambu and the Gatchamen stop Alatan. Whatever way she could. But right now, she was so tired...
"No, no," Jim said exasperatedly. "You have to keep the ball moving, or it's a foul. You can't take more than three steps with the ball in your hands-- you've got to dribble it, or pass it, or something."
"Stupid rule," Tetsuo muttered. "Stupid game."
"Better than burglarizing people's apartments and getting caught, na, Tetsuo?" Joe said sharply. The boy looked at him defiantly, then dropped his eyes.
"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Jim. He's the one whose game you called stupid."
"It's not my game, it's just an American game," Jim said.
"Do you play it all over the Americas, or just in the States?" Pietr asked.
"Just the States. Third favorite American pastime."
Joe happened to know that was not so, but he let it pass as Haruo fell into Jim's trap, asking, "What's first?"
Jim leered. "Haru, let your friendly Uncle Jim tell you some things about the facts of life..."
The other three boys laughed. "Tell me some things?" Haruo asked indignantly, trying to salvage himself. "At least I know what I'm talking about. You're too ugly to get any 'hands-on experience' unless you pay her."
They laughed again, and as Jim prepared a retort, Ngao said, "Okay, I know I'm going to regret this, but if somebody doesn't ask, Jim'll keep us here all day. What's second?"
Jim grinned evilly. "'Shoot the mutes'."
"Real information-packed sentence there," Haruo said. "What is it?"
"You go out looking for radiation mutants, and bang! Great fun."
"I can think of a couple of mutants I'd have liked to see head over to America, then," Joe muttered.
"That isn't funny," Pietr growled. "I've got a cousin--"
"Good for you, you have a cousin," Jim said.
"Watch it," Joe growled at him. His bracelet chose that moment to go off.
Tetsuo rolled his eyes. "Oh, kamisama, it's a Science Ninja Beeper!"
"Thought you weren't big on fads, niisan," Ngao said.
Joe grinned. To this day, he'd never know how the appearance of the Science Ninja Team's wrist communicators had gotten into international kids' lore so fast. That had caused a lot of headaches, once upon a time. But then some toy company had started marketing imitation bracelets, as wristwatches or crude walkie-talkies or whatever, and now there was no way Galactor could pick out team members by their bracelets-- thousands of people all over the world were wearing identical ones.
"I'm not. My kid brother gave it to me. He cooks the food, and he says he's gotten sick and tired of me showing up late to dinner." He waved at them and left. "Mata!" Once he was out of their sight, he picked up the pace, getting to his car and tearing through the streets of Utoland in a fashion rather reminiscent of a bat out of hell. For the past three weeks, since Alatan Katse had somewhat spectacularly announced her existence to them, Joe had been expecting her to announce it to the world as well. Now, it seemed, the waiting would be over.
This time he planned to kill the bitch.
The usual film of destruction played on the far wall, as the Gatchaman team watched intently. The bizarrely shaped mecha attacked three UN military bases, causing rampant destruction. Spliced onto the end of the film was a short, chaotic bit in which, for several minutes, an upside down and confusingly shifting picture seemed to depict the capture of the cameraman by Galactor. The next thing to come clear was Alatan Katse, her coloring badly off in the quality of the recording, speaking directly to the camera.
"Utoland citizens, my name is Alatan Katse," she said. "Galactor's Mechapart has amply demonstrated its destructive capacity on the military bases in this film. At 10 AM on Sunday, Mechapart will attack a civilian city-- you, Utoland. This demonstration of Galactor power will not take place if and only if ISO is evicted from the city before that time. You have two days, Utoland." The film ended.
"The cameraman who filmed the destruction of the Alaskan base for us was taken captive by Galactor, forced to record Alatan's statement, and released," Nambu said. "Which is, you'll admit, an unusual tactic for Galactor."
"They just let him go?" Jinpei said, startled. "That is unusual."
David shook his head. "That threat's ridiculous. How does she expect ISO to evacuate in two days? Even if we had no other choice, the logistics are just impossible."
"She knows that, Dave," Ken said. "She's picking a fight. It smells to me like a trap."
"Trap or no trap, if it's a fight she wants we'll give it to her," Joe said evenly. "She hasn't got Zed building her mecha for her now."
"On the other hand, we don't have a Hypersuit, either," Ken said.
"We probably didn't need it when we had it," Jinpei said. "A Galactor mecha's only as good as its pilots-- and all Galactors are stupid beyond belief. I bet if we hadn't had the Hypersuit, we'd have come up with some other way to beat Zed."
Jun said quietly, "But the cost might have been awful, Jinpei. Even with the Hypersuit, we lost Dr. Nambu-- we nearly-- we did all die ourselves. And Dr. Kymel isn't around to save us any longer."
"The point's moot," Joe said, irritated. "We won't need the Hypersuit. The weapons Dr. Kymel gave us are better than we're likely to need, since Zed isn't designing her mecha."
"We don't know that," Jun warned. "Remember what Dr. Remington said."
"I don't trust her," Joe said. "I especially don't trust her observations about her daughter. The kid turned into the leader of Galactor under her nose and she expects us to believe anything she says?"
"Dr. Remington's beliefs should not be ignored," Nambu cautioned. "If X does still exist within Alatan, it might very well be capable of designing mecha as advanced as Zed's."
"So?" Jinpei said. "Galactor never learns. We've beat every mecha they've ever come up with and they're still at it. We'll beat them this time, too."
Ken shook his head. "We don't know that. Egobossler nearly did beat us."
"Jinpei's right," Joe said. "Whether it's the most sophisticated mech Galactor's ever produced or something from 7 years ago, we'll find a way to stop it. The only problem is preventing it from killing too many Utoland citizens before we do."
They were all in the Phoenix Reborn at 7:00 on Sunday morning, and that late only because Galactor hadn't shown any sign of turning up yet. They were certain Alatan would be showing early-- she couldn't possibly be stupid enough to alert them and then come on time. But as 10 AM drew nearer, they began to wonder if perhaps this wasn't an elaborate trick to psych them out.
They flew in circles around the mostly emptied city, growing progressively more antsy. Galactor had never announced its schedule before, and none of them honestly believed that Alatan had done so this time out of the kindness of her heart. Would Galactor attack another city entirely? The Seatowns and suburbs outside Utoland were filled to overflowing with refugees. Was it Alatan's intention to demoralize the citizens of Utoland the more by forcing them into such crowded conditions and keeping them there by threat of attack? Or was she simply playing with the Science Ninja Team's minds?
Dave was the most nervous of all of them. The other four knew, whatever the threat turned out to be, that they would almost certainly be equal to it. Dave had no such reassurance. He was, he suspected, as well-trained as the other ninjas, and he had several doctorates and a grounding in Keiraine concepts that none of them would ever achieve-- but he was not as experienced. He had fought Galactor six or seven times in the past, when they'd come into conflict with his mother's interests, but he hadn't made a career of it, not like they had. And he was well aware that one of the strengths of the Science Ninja Team was their teamwork, the fact that they'd been together since childhood, knew each other strengths and weaknesses, meshed together as a unit-- all except for him. He'd fought beside them, and in the past three weeks he'd trained alongside Ken heavily so he could participate in some of their more esoteric manuevers-- but he didn't know them, and they didn't know him, not like them and Ryu.
There was also the matter of his competence as a pilot. From a technical standpoint, he was a far better choice than Ryu at flying this ship. He had been trained at interacting with neurosensitive systems like Phoenix's control board, as Ryu had not. Because of that training, he could manipulate Phoenix Reborn as if it were an extension of his own body, could react with a speed and precision not possible to Ryu. But-- Ryu had been a fighter pilot. Ryu had grown up with the ins and outs of flying against Galactor mecha, as Dave had not. Dave had never piloted in an aerial battle. He thought he knew himself well enough to be sure that he wouldn't freeze up or screw up-- but how could he be sure? He didn't know himself. The events surrounding his mother's death had proved that conclusively to him. He couldn't even call his childhood memories his own. How could he be sure of anything about himself?
Dave had quite a while to be occupied with these disturbing thoughts, for Alatan didn't show at 10, or 11, or 12. "Maybe she misplaced her lipstick, and she's looking for it, and that's what's holding her up," Jinpei suggested. "Or maybe she told all her men to relieve themselves before they left, and there's only one latrine in her base. Or maybe--"
"Jinpei," Ken said, "shut up." Jinpei grinned-- he loved getting a rise out of Ken.
"Could she be attacking another location now?" Jun asked.
Ken shook his head. "The Director would have notified us."
"No, I know what she's doing," Joe said. "Psyching us out. She'll wait until we leave, then strike."
"Hmm. You could be right." Ken thought about it. "That'd be the smart thing to do-- wait until we're tired from waiting, then attack." He made his decision. "All right, Dave, put us down on the nearest flat surface big enough for us."
Alatan's advance announcement had given ISO time to do something unprecedented-- evacuate the city. Up until about 8 this morning, chaos had reigned, as people had fled for the suburbs or the underwater cities off the coast of Utoland. Now, though, the city appeared deserted and silent-- about 3/4ths of the population had left, and of those that remained, most had brought themselves and their prized possessions to the bomb shelters beneath the city. Where they would be entombed alive if Mechapart caved the shelters in, but they thought they were safe and perhaps that was as important as anything else in a world as dangerous as this one.
They hadn't been "parked" more than ten minutes when Jun shouted, "Ken, I've got a blip on radar! Bearing mark 7,7--"
"That's it! Let's go!"
August 9th. 14 years ago today a mutant girl had come into the world, born from the womb of a human woman whose name was lost in the mists of time. 14 years ago today had begun the chain of destiny that set Alatan Kelly Remington Katse on the bridge of Mechapart today.
"Katse-sama, it's the Science Ninja Team's ship," a green reported-- they didn't yet know the name of the enemy mecha. Alatan nodded in acknowledgement, and smiled as they approached. Any who had known her father unmasked could see her parentage in the cold expression.
Happy 14th birthday, Alatan, she thought to herself. It had amused her to reveal her power to the world today. No doubt her mother had told the ninjas of today's significance. But it didn't matter, of course. She was not a child, to believe her birthday had some special importance. Today's mission was not to bring the Earth to its knees, or destroy the Science Ninja Team, or anything so grandiose-- she was here today because there were things to be learned.
"Wait until they are in very close range, then fire the disruptors," Alatan said. "Let's see what that new ship of theirs can do."
Phoenix Reborn swept in toward Mechapart, Joe already stationed at the firing controls. "Let's get this over with," he said. "Firing the Bird Missiles!"
The moment the missiles were loose, radiant light poured from Mechapart, exploding the missiles long before they reached their target. Ken shouted to Dave, "Watch out!" redundantly; the moment the light had appeared on the screen, Dave had thrown Phoenix to the side, dodging both the deadly disruptor rays and the explosion of their own missiles. Mechapart's disruptor turrets followed them, the mecha itself reshaping to accomodate the two pieces with the turrets on them as they slid along the mecha's body, tracking Phoenix. "Get out of its range!" Ken shouted, again unnecessarily; Dave had shot Phoenix under Mechapart's body, then up and climbing rapidly. The disruptor raked them as they climbed, sending a violent shudder throughout the ship, but then they were well above Mechapart and the firing stopped.
"We can move faster than those turrets can," Joe said. "We should go down, get the turrets to track us again, then go in close and get around to the front before the rays can follow us. Then we could finish it with the bird missiles."
"Is Phoenix that maneuverable at such close range?" Jun objected. "We don't even know the capabilities of our own ship."
"It's that manueverable," Dave said evenly. "And I know some tricks. I'm going to engage the time-warp."
"Can we do that?" Ken asked tightly.
"No! Dave, don't you remember the strain on the Minapai when we rode it in to Keirai?" Jun cried.
"Not the same. I'm only going to engage it to the .05 second. We get an extra five-hundredths of a second every second. It should be just enough to phase us slightly out of the disruptors' frequency, so they don't rip us apart when we go through them."
"All right, it's a good plan, let's do it!" Ken said.
Phoenix groaned slightly as Dave engaged time warp, very very slightly, and they shrieked down toward Mechapart. Sure enough, the turrets tracked on them-- Galactor was being typically singleminded. This time, Dave made no actual attempt to dodge-- the rays bathed them full-- but the slight speed-up in time for them meant that the rays had a slightly lower frequency, and so were not as damaging. The ship still shook, but they shot through the rays and around to the other side of Mechapart too fast to get damaged significantly. Phoenix's bird missile turrets could fire backwards as well, albeit with less accuracy. As they came out in front of Mechapart, Joe fired, sending missiles back at the enemy mecha before the turrets could arrive and demolish them.
That was when they learned why it was called Mechapart. A piece came off the front and intersected with the Bird Missiles, exploding them, as the main body of Mechapart zoomed back out of the explosion's range. Then Mechapart reconfigured itself, compensating for the loss of the piece, as it dove under Phoenix, its disruptor turrets poised to demolish Phoenix's unprotected underside. There were bird missile turrets under Phoenix, but they could only fire straight, not down. "Shit!" David climbed again, bringing Phoenix out of range, but this time Mechapart pursued.
"Ken, there must be several hundred of those sections!" Jun breathed. "If we had to do it piece by piece, we don't even have enough bird missiles to destroy that thing!"
Ken cursed, studying Mechapart on the screen as David dodged its attacks. The disruptor weapon was entirely typical, something Galactor had used dozens of times. Even the idea of a sectioning mecha was not at all new, and Galactor had used a few other mecha that could make radical changes in configuration. It was only the combination of the three that was making this one tough-- and really, he could count on his fingers the number of Galactor mecha they'd been able to destroy with just the bird missiles. He sighed. "You're right, Jun. The bird missiles aren't going to do us any good-- there's no point in prolonging this. There's one more thing we should try."
Jinpei looked at him expectantly. "You mean--?"
"Oh, shit," David said. He knew what was coming up. He'd only experienced it in training simulations, but that had been enough for him.
"Yes," Ken said. "The Science Ninja Firebird!"
"Wait," Jun said. "Ken, she's got to know about our Firebird capacity if she knows anything about us. Both Berg Katse and Gel Sadra designed traps for us in Firebird mode, and Katse's was a sectioning mecha like this one. We know she hero-worships her father-- could she have something like the Jellyfish bombs in mind?"
Ken thought back seven years, remembering the encounter with Berg Katse's Jellyfish Mecha. Unfortunately, it was all too plausible that Alatan might have a similar trick up her sleeve. "It can't be helped, we have to use what weapons we've got," he said. "Look, the mecha's attacking the city now. This is our first chance to defeat a Galactor plan with no loss of life, and I mean to keep it that way. We can't just pack it in and go home, because it might be a trap." He thought a second. "On the other hand, we don't need to be stupid, either. Phoenix Reborn can go to Firebird even if one of our vehicles is missing. Jinpei!"
"Take G-4 out and park it nearby. We'll cover your launch with a missile explosion. The rest of us will go to Firebird. If Alatan Katse does have a trap planned, and something happens to us, you're to follow Mechapart to its base and call us once you get there. Everyone else, we'll keep on our toes."
"Roger." Jinpei departed.
"Joe, fire at that thing again." Joe didn't bother to acknowledge, but simply did it, and the resulting explosion covered Jinpei's departure nicely. "Clear, Jinpei?"
"All right." Ken pressed the button to initiate Firebird preparation-- Phoenix Reborn, like the New God Phoenix, had walls designed to protect them from the worst of the heat. These walls slid up, and everyone strapped in, as Ken took the redline lever in his hands. Dave was just as capable of doing it, but tradition dictated that Ken handle Firebird transformations. "Is everyone ready?"
"Yes!" three voices chorused, with Dave adding, "I think." Ken ignored that.
"All right! Science-- Ninja-- Firebird!" He shoved the lever to redline.
"Katse-sama! Enemy mecha shows sudden temperature increase-- could be Firebird!"
"I thought so," Alatan murmured. "All right! Mechapart, scatter!"
"Haa!" Aboard all the manned sections of Mechapart, protected in the core of the ship, the order went out-- and as the blazing Firebird dove at them, Mechapart scattered into hundreds of pieces, the large interior sections making full speed out of the area as the Firebird's heat melted nothing but the expendable radio-controlled outer sections.
"They're coming around for another pass!"
"Aimed mark 3, 4--"
The radio crackled with voices, and the static of the Firebird's ionization wake. The Firebird was headed back, toward a small grouping of manned sections. "This is Alatan Katse!" Alatan shouted to them, over the radio. "Split up! If the Firebird pursues, get into the people pod and abandon!" The people pods were Alatan's addition-- her father had planned for only one pod, here at the control center, but Alatan needed her men to come to worship her, and saving their lives was the first step. "The rest of Mechapart, gather as the Firebird fades!" The ninja team couldn't maintain Firebird very long, Alatan knew. And when they recovered, they would be weak. That would be the time to test them, truly. "The moment they exit Firebird phase, prepare to bombard!"
Jinpei, listening in on Galactor's communications in an attempt to figure out which piece contained Alatan, went cold. That technique might work. "Aniki! Ken, can you hear me? Onechan? Dave, Joe, somebody! Respond!" They didn't, which was only to be expected. Even if the communication got through the Firebird's ionization cloud, nobody would be in any condition to hear or answer Jinpei. There was nothing he could do to warn them-- he could only hope Ken would be ready for the attack when it came...
Ken was feeling increasingly frustrated through the pain. The heat and acceleration pressure was growing more and more intolerable, but they hadn't accomplished anything yet. He wished fervently that all their vehicles still had Firebird capacity-- they could do a lot more damage with five Firebirds than one-- but at the moment there was nothing that could be done about that. The pieces of Mechapart were scattered too widely for the Firebird to effectively take out more than two or three at a time, and Ken suspected strongly that about 80% of the ones they were getting were unmanned remotes. There was no telling which of the damn things was the control center. He'd have to go to his back-up plan, then. Reluctantly, because it would render them vulnerable, Ken shifted them out of Firebird--
--and a massive shockwave ran through them as the Galactors began to fire.
Because Ken hadn't waited for the energies to die down of their own accord, the ninjas were all still awake, which probably saved their lives. "Shit!" David shouted, throwing them to the side-- but the draining effect of Firebird transformation had taken its usual toll, and Phoenix's systems responded only sluggishly. Two halves of Mechapart were bracketing them with disruptor rays, and the rest of the Galactor mecha was recombining.
"Jinpei!" Ken shouted into his communicator, as Joe fired bird missiles at the recombining portions of Mechapart. "Hook up with the recombining portions of Mechapart!"
"What about you guys?"
"We'll be all right. Do it!"
Dave dropped them under the disruptor rays, trying to outrace the thing, but Mechapart was above them and driving them down toward the city. "Head toward the ocean!" Ken ordered.
"Ken, we've got a massive power drain-- Phoenix Reborn can't take much more of this!" Jun shouted.
"Contact Seatown 3 and ask them to bring Phoenix in after it crashes!" Ken replied. "Dave, watch it! We can't descend too--" His words were cut off by an explosion to starboard.
"Systems are going crazy-- Ken, the computers--"
"Ken, we should abandon this thing! Momentum'll carry us into the ocean--"
"We have to guide it down, Joe!"
"Guide how? Nothing works!!"
Dave pulled off his headset, reeling slightly. "Link's down, Ken, I can't--"
"All right! To the vehicles and abandon!"
Before they had a chance to do anything, they slammed full tilt into the churning waves, trailing smoke.
"We did it!" a green crowed.
Alatan stared down at the waves. Could it have been that easy? Had she just snuffed out five lives?
I didn't mean to-- I was just testing-- I didn't-- Her lip trembled, and she bit down on it angrily. Get hold of yourself! It's done now, and you should be thankful. There's no one left to oppose you! You can do whatever you want! she told herself. So why did that freedom seem so frightening?
"Will we be going down to make sure?" her captain asked. Alatan shook her head absently.
"Mechapart isn't watertight. Pick up the people pods and return to base. This changes everything. I have to plan."
Jinpei had safely magnetized his buggy to Mechapart's shapeless underside when Phoenix Reborn went down. He stared in shock. No-- no, they can't be-- Aniki! Onechan! Frantically he called them. "G-4 to Phoenix Reborn! Anikitachi! Onechan! Are you all right?"
"Daijohbu, Jinpei," a somewhat dizzy-sounding Jun replied. "We just-- hit a bit hard. How are you?"
"I'm on the thing safely," Jinpei replied. "Apparently they're going to be returning to their base."
"Good." Ken's voice came in. "When they reach the base, find a place of safety, and transmit a locator signal to us. We'll be arriving in the personal vehicles."
"Got it," Jinpei said. "What're you going to do with Phoenix?"
"Seatown 3's going to pick it up for us," Ken said. "They owe us a favor. Don't worry about us, Jinpei, we're all right. Gatchaman out." The team's current headquarters, Denari Lake, was in the mountains around Utoland, not anyplace that could conveniently pick up and repair Phoenix. The various Seatowns, however, had originally been founded by a department of ISO, and Gatchaman had pulled their fat out of the fire more than once. Ken was grateful for their help-- the team had other things to do than try to repair Phoenix and get it back to Denari. As soon as the subs arrived, they thanked them and took off. The alien vehicles Teriani had given them were all capable of managing in the water, at least, though it wasn't their best element. They reached the mainland without difficulty and waited, hoping that Mechapart's base wasn't too far.
The signal came in half an hour later, which was a relatively good sign-- half an hour by mecha translated to about 3 hours by personal vehicle. They set off, achieving a cruising level just above Utoland's higher buildings, and dipped as they cleared the city, heading for Galactor's base.
Alatan had managed to find a rationalization for her unease at her own success. Gatchaman's death or no, she still wasn't capable of ruling the world by herself. She'd planned on a long period of limit-testing, allowing Gatchaman to keep her in check and prevent her from achieving her goal too quickly, giving her a long time to learn about ruling. Now, either she had to keep herself in check, and lose all credibility with her men, or go for her goal and perhaps lose all chance for personal power amid her advisors' hungry regency. The idea of getting everything she wanted terrified her-- it wasn't supposed to happen this soon! Gatchaman wasn't supposed to die yet! How could she have achieved so quickly what her father and his successors spent their lives trying to succeed at, when she hadn't even meant to?
And there was another component to her unease. She had known that, sooner or later, Gatchaman would have to die-- but she didn't like death. She didn't enjoy killing. For all that they were her enemies, they were people, with lives and happiness of their own, and for her to kill them was wrong. It was not the first step to a utopian dream. She had told herself over and over that the ends justified the means-- Galactor philosophy. And she hadn't had such a hard time killing those military men. It was because they were military, trained to fight and die, that their deaths had not really disturbed her-- yet, didn't the same go for the Gatchamen?
She didn't understand it. She especially didn't understand why the notion that the Eagle was dead bothered her, even more than the others. Was it because he'd been kind to a little girl who'd fallen from the sky, 5 years ago? Was it because he was so beautiful? She shouldn't think of such considerations-- Eagle Ken was, historically, Galactor's greatest enemy, though not usually as deadly as the Condor-- but she couldn't help it. The feelings were there. She didn't like the fact that he was dead, and the knowledge that she'd done it disturbed her.
*Little fool. If you do not harden, you will be squashed, you and your dreams of power.*
Shut up. I know what I'm doing.
But she didn't.
Her men, she knew, were confused. They didn't know what to make of their leader's ambivalence. She had announced she was going to destroy Utoland, but all she'd done was blow up a few token buildings. She'd killed the Ninja Team, but she wasn't celebrating-- she didn't even seem to be happy with the fact. Any other Galactor leader would have ordered the champagne brought out now, but Alatan's unfathomable emotions had put a pallor on their own celebratory mood, and they didn't know what to think. She had brought them home with no casualties, something unheard of-- but they weren't in Galactor to survive, they were here for glory and blood and fire, and Alatan Katse had leached all the joy out of the victory they'd won today.
She had to do something about that-- her goal was to win her men's love and trust. So she summoned them into Mechapart's chamber, and stood on the balcony, addressing them.
"I know many of you must be confused, wondering what we've accomplished today," she said. Many of their faces held a sarcastic challenge-- No, really?-- but she ignored them for the moment. "You thought we were going to destroy Utoland, and we didn't. And then it looked to most of you like we'd destroyed the Science Ninja Team, and you wonder why we're not all celebrating, nee? Well, I have some things to tell you.
"In the first place, the attack on Utoland was a bluff. I wished to draw out the Science Ninja Team, not really to destroy Utoland. Time enough for that when they're neutralized. In the second place, I doubt very much that the Gatchamen are dead."
Mass murmuring. A female blue, in the front, raised her hand. "But Katse-sama, we saw--"
"You saw their ship plunge under the waves, trailing smoke. How many Galactors in the past, do you think, saw the same thing and drew the same conclusions? How many died from a false sense of security?"
As she formulated her argument, she began to believe it. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps they are alive. "My goal wasn't to kill them, not this time. If we had followed them down to make sure of their deaths, we would have all drowned. My goal was to weaken them, by destroying their ship, and to bring them here. I have a plan to contain them without shedding Galactor blood. Gatchaman is a dangerous enemy, but they have weaknesses-- and the first of their weaknesses is that they underestimate this new Galactor. They believe I will make the same mistakes as my predecessors. I will not.
"This plan depends on you. Be vigilant. Make sure you know your evacuation routes, and stay in constant contact. I wish to lose as few of you as possible." She smiled, sensing that she had them. They believed, in this moment, that their leader cared for their welfare, would seek a way to preserve their lives. Cynicism would demolish that impression in time, but before long, she would have an opportunity to prove it to them, and then they would be hers forever. "I may call another evacuation drill sometime today or tomorrow. I want us to be as ready as possible for them when they come. This place will be the last base that the Science Ninja Team will threaten."
Jinpei, listening to her through the buggy's external mikes, was rather disturbed. Alatan wasn't behaving like other Galactor leaders. He didn't know how much of that trap business he bought, but her men seemed to believe it, and if it was true, Alatan showed a strategic ability far beyond the usual for Galactors. That frightened Jinpei. He had grown up fighting Galactor, and knew almost instinctively what they would do in any given situation. Galactor didn't change much. It got better weaponry, but the human element would bring it down every time, because Jinpei could predict what the people in Galactor would do every time.
Alatan wasn't like that. She was unpredictable, as Egobossler had been in the beginning. And that was very disturbing. Weaponry would never defeat the Science Ninja Team-- but if the humans in Galactor got more competent, changed their psychology... He wondered what Alatan's plan for "containing" them was, and had to admit that her last plan for doing that had been pretty good. If it hadn't been for the Angel of Death, and Joe being immune to the gas, God knew how it would have turned out..
As soon as the hangar emptied, Jinpei slid out of the buggy, leaving the beacon transmission on and a note on his viewscreen-- "I went scouting. Call me. Swallow." He moved through the hangar, a swift silent shadow, and found a lone guard, dressed in a dark blue costume rather than the usual green. He didn't know what that meant, but since the man was obviously on guard duty, he couldn't be too high-ranked. Jinpei stunned him with the ease of long practice, pulled the man's pants off, then killed him-- most people soiled themselves when they died, and Jinpei needed the pants clean. He dressed in the dead man's uniform. It was a tad long on Jinpei's short, slim frame, but at least he could see his hands, an advantage he hadn't always had when posing as a Galactor. Great, now if only I could get to be taller than Jun, I'd be in business. He stuffed the body into one of the remote-controlled sections of Mechapart, and strolled blithely down the hall, hiking his pants up every so often and looking for a shorter man to grab.
There was a bewildering variety to the Galactor outfits, the outgrowth of a trend that had started in Gel Sadra's time. No one had ever figured out quite what the different colors meant and each Galactor leader seemed to introduce new sets of idiosyncratically dressed special groups at random, so there wasn't any point to trying to figure it all out. The most noticeable difference between this version of Galactor and any other was the presence of women-- about a fourth of the Galactors Jinpei saw were female, wearing identical costumes to the men complete with brown wigs for the most part, although he did see a woman with a kabuki-painted face and garish martial-arts gi whom everyone carefully did not look at. A whore? A captain? Member of an elite squad? Jinpei had no way to tell.
He followed a stream of soldiers, mostly male, into what looked like a mess hall. The food tasted better than usual Galactor fare, but then that wasn't saying much. Sitting at the end of a table full of green and blue men, he listened to them talk, and gradually built up a different image of Alatan Katse's brave new Galactor than he'd had previously. Perhaps Alatan was unpredictable, but these men were entirely run of the mill, and they did not understand their leader. They were primarily loyal to Vicecommander Vincent Galliente, the more traditionally Galactor of Alatan's two second-in-commands, and were not yet sure that Alatan Katse-- a woman, and the daughter of a leader who was not remembered for his stability-- could cut it. They were veterans of Egobossler's regime, these men, and those who remembered what it had been like under Berg Katse feared that Alatan would adhere to her father's standard, while others thought of her as a "wimp" and a "spoiled rich brat." Interestingly, while they referred to her as a "kid", they seemed to have no notion of her true age-- Jinpei innocently mentioned a rumor he'd heard that she was only 14, which caused the men around him to laugh disbelievingly and begin debating how old Alatan Katse-sama was, 20 or 22. One man even suggested 25.
Shortly after that, Jinpei got up and explored some more. The base was a large one, one of the "old-style" that dated from Berg Katse's time, and was acting as Galactor temporary headquarters. Temporary until what, no one seemed to mention, and Jinpei didn't want to draw attention to himself by asking. Gel Sadra had begun remodeling the base, and the work was still in progress, which said a lot about Galactor, Jinpei thought. There were also evacuation routes posted everywhere, a fact that surprised and disturbed him-- Galactor higher-ups didn't normally give a damn about their men. Another glitch in what he'd come to expect as "normal" Galactor behavior. He found an interestingly vulnerable section right by the computer mainframes, and grinned-- it was exactly the sort of place Jun had trained him to look for, maximum damamge with minimum effort. He had just noted its location when his communicator beeped. "Jinpei, where are you?"
"In the base," Jinpei replied. "Want me to come up and rejoin you?"
"Yeah. Learn anything?"
"Well, Galactor cooking's improved," Jinpei said, and snickered at the exasperated sound Ken made. "No, seriously. I don't know how useful this is, but I've discovered that Alatan's posted evacuation routes everywhere and that her men aren't sure they can trust her. Also, I found a great place near the computer mainframes. You'll love it, onechan."
"That's good," Jun said. "You'll have to show me to it."
"On my way," Jinpei said.
Alatan studied the viewscreen intently. Half an hour ago her people had picked up an outgoing signal from inside the Mechapart hangar. Sure enough, the Science Ninja Team had shown up. There were only four of them-- G-4 was undoubtedly somewhere in the base, and would be able to hear general announcements, but it didn't matter-- it was time to set her plan into action. "Cut Mechapart's hangar out of the PA system," she ordered, and lifted the mike.
"This is Alatan Katse, announcing a test of the emergency evacuation procedure. Repeat, this is a test. There is to be no panic. All code A and B Galactors are to evacuate in an orderly manner. Repeat, code A and B Galactors only, evacuate the building. Code C Galactors are to remain at their posts. Repeat, Code C Galactors, remain at your posts. This is only a test."
She had drilled them several times in the past few weeks, and docked pay for anyone who didn't comply with the tests, with the result that the Galactors grumbled, but evacuated the building, believing it to be only a test. G-4 would, hopefully, also think it was a test, and to avoid drawing attention to himself would not interfere. Meanwhile, a trusted skeleton crew would operate the base until Alatan could capture the Ninja Team and permit C Galactrs to evacuate as well.
A blue-costumed form, still visibly shorter than the others, rejoined his team in Mechapart's hangar. "Full amplification," Alatan ordered, and listened.
"They're having a test of the damn emergency evacuation procedure out there," the Swallow grumbled. "A couple of guys I talked to said Katse pulls this on the average of once a week."
"Do you think it could be because she knows we're here?" the Swan asked. Alatan muttered a very unladylike curse under her breath.
"No way to tell," the Eagle said. "It does seem like an extreme coincidence that she'd hold one of these things just as we arrive. On the other hand, Jinpei, you say she's had them before?"
"About one a week, sometimes more, I heard," the Swallow replied. "She's also got evacuation routes posted everywhere. Aniki, she is really weird. I don't like it."
The Condor said, "It doesn't matter one way or the other. We're here after her, not her grunts."
"Right," the Eagle said. "The fact that she's evacuated her men can only work in our favor-- easier to get to her."
"But once you get to me," Alatan said, amused, "do you really think you can catch me?" She was completely unworried-- Dr. Remington would have briefed them on her skills, but she'd carefully kept her mo-- that woman from learning the full extent of her abilities over the past three years or so. With her healing ability and black belt, Alatan was confident of her ability to take on anyone.
She watched as the five of them split up-- the Swan and the Swallow heading toward the computer mainframes, the other three spreading out. "Split-screen and monitor their progress," Alatan said. "I want all Galactors in their immediate paths to be warned ahead of time." Her people-- male and female techs and non-soldiers-- stared at her with respect and a bit of disbelief. When had there ever been a Galactor leader who cared about her people's fate? It was exactly the reaction Alatan sought, and she smiled.
"As for me," she continued, "if they really want me, let them find me. I'm going to the main audience chamber. This is what I want you to do..."
As Ken stalked silently through the corridors of the base, the faint sound at the edge of his hearing resolved itself into music, eerie and pounding. He approached its source carefully, and the pounding turned into a wailing tarantelle of madness, frantic and crazed. It was the sort of music one imagined witches danced to in their covens, but set to synthesizers-- Druids whirling themselves into mindlessness against the backdrop of the frenetic beat. Ken slipped into the audience chamber-- and stared.
Alatan Katse had removed her cape and mask, and the absence of the red expanse shifted the effect of her costume's coloration considerably, making her gold hair and pale skin stand out strikingly against the black cloth. In the center of the room she danced like one of the Druids Ken had been imagining, her body flowing with almost inhuman grace and speed, merging with the demonic symphony crashing in the background. For seconds, Ken stood mesmerized, watching her. There was something hypnotic about her freneticism, something compelling about the barely controlled hysteria in the music, given physical form by the dancer in the center...
He shook off the spell. Alatan Katse was wasting her time as Galactor leader; she could have had the world at her feet through her art. But seeing her incredible talent changed nothing. As she was moving too fast to use the pennies, or the blades-- he didn't want her dead-- he flung the triangle so that the hilt would intersect with her wildly weaving head.
She caught it, caught the triangle without missing a step, and, as the music rose to a shrieking climax, spun around and around flawlessly-- she would have generated a small whirlwind, had she been wearing a bird suit-- and leapt as the music crescendoed, flinging the triangle back at Ken, this time with the rapier point aimed at him. Of course it had no chance of hitting-- as soon as it was airborne, Ken summoned it to his hand. Alatan landed, and bowed to him, as the music tapered to a soft wail.
"Beautiful, nee?" she said, breathing hard from her exertions but otherwise calm. "Tell the truth, Gatchaman-- don't you think I'm Olympic material?"
"I could have killed you while you were showing off like that," Ken said calmly, stepping forward. "You seem to think you can't be hurt, Alatan Katse."
"Because I can't be." She regarded him evenly. "Are you going to try to take me out yourself, or are you going to wait until your friends show up?"
"I'm going to ask you to surrender. Peacefully. No matter what you may think, I don't really want to hurt you."
"And no matter what you may want, I don't really think you can. So we're even, ne, Gatchaman?" She tossed something silver up into the air. It spun, catching the light, and she caught it again without looking away from him.
Ken shook his head. "You underestimate me, Alatan." Watching the tension grow in the slim body--
"No. I'm afraid, Gatchaman, it's you who underestimate me." She hurled herself into the air, flinging the silver thing at him-- it was a spinning-stick, aimed to cause unconsciousness. But Ken had seen the movement long before she made it-- he was in the air the same second as her, arcing up. Again he flung the triangle, this time so the rapier would strike a paralysis point.
She was better than his usual opponents-- her arm came up, deflecting the point just enough that the rapier sank in at the wrong angle. He heard her cry out in pain-- but she landed and wrenched the triangle from her shoulder. He landed across from her, as she laughed softly. "You've been told the truth, but you don't learn," she said. She flipped his triangle into the air-- and looked at it in dismay as he summoned it again. Ken laughed.
"No, it's you that don't learn, Alatan Katse." He dove at her suddenly. She dodged swiftly, a leg coming up to take him in the crotch as he landed, but he grabbed the leg and as his own weight came to balance he pulled on it, flinging Alatan to the side. She landed on her hands, and sprang back to her feet in time to meet a flying leap, which she did not quite dodge in time. Ken spun while she was still off-balance and bracketed her with three pennies, hitting nerve points. She warded off one with her arm, but the other two dropped her like a rag doll.
Ken stepped forward and hauled her to her feet by the crenellated collar. "You--" he started.
The collar came away in his hands as Alatan fell backwards, scissoring with her feet. Ken leapt, but one of her legs had connected with his and he was off-balance. Instead of taking her advantage, however, Alatan ran to the center of the room, spun, and gestured. A huge viewscreen came on, showing Jun and Jinpei in the computer room, apparently trying to get out. Jun was packing explosives against the closed door. Ken froze with a curse.
"Behold your trapped friends!" Alatan said. "There is no escape from that room--" the failure of Jun's explosives to do anything but make the picture smoky proved the point-- "and there is no escape for you, not unless you wish us to explode our computers and kill your friends."
Ken stared at the screen in fury. He looked across at Alatan, his face a mask. "What do you want?"
"Toss down your weapons-- and your bracelet. There are advantages to an ISO education. I know all about you and your precious bracelets, Gatchaman." Alatan smiled. Inwardly Ken smiled as well, albeit grimly. No, she didn't know. Teriani had given them bird styles that did not require bracelets for activation or maintenance. He deactivated-- they knew Alatan knew what they really looked like, that was not a problem-- and tossed down the bracelet and triangle on the ground, with his best expression of impotent cold fury. Alatan scooped them up.
Then his eyes widened, and his anger and apprehension intensified as, on the screen, Joe and David fell into the center of the mainframe room. Alatan clapped. "How wonderful! All the little birds are in one cage! Except you," she added, turning to Ken. "Lonely, Eagle-chan? Don't worry. Alatan-neesan will see you have all the comforts of home." As she laughed, he wanted very badly to break her neck, but refrained for fear of what would happen to the others. "You'll join your friends, soon. But I have some minor affairs to deal with first, okay? Ja, ne!" The ground suddenly opened, an iris that Alatan dropped through, and closed again before Ken had time to take more than a pair of steps toward it.
He became aware of a grinding noise, reverberating under his feet. Ken knelt by the door, after checking to see if it was indeed locked-- it was-- and packed explosives against it. Before he had time to set it off, however, the wall began pushing him backward, as it moved steadily forward. "Shimatta!" Ken set the charge and hurled himself into the center of the room, curling himself into a tight knot. There was the sound of an explosion, but when he turned around, although there was a hole in the door, there was a smooth, glassy material behind it that was undented. The room was much smaller, though not shrinking further. He tried blowing up the glassy stuff. It did nothing.
An obscenely sweet voice piped in over some unseen speaker. "Save your energy, Gatchaman. Galactor has made great strides in technology, you know-- there is no way to blow a hole in your cage. Especially out of Bird Style. And I would conserve my air if I were you-- unfortunately, the ventilation isn't nearly as good in this configuration..."
Ken noticed, as she spoke, that the air was beginning to feel stale. Damn! He sat down heavily. At the moment he had no way to break out of here-- the only thing to do was wait, conserve his breath, and hope the others came up with a plan.
"Joe-aniki! Dave!" Jinpei and Jun clustered by the two of them as they fell through a hole in the ceiling.
"Well. Fancy meeting you here," Dave said woozily, sitting up.
"What happened?" Jun asked urgently.
"Trap door," Joe said. His eyes took in the room, the flickering lights and dead computer banks, the glassy surface behind a hole in the wall. "What's the situation here?"
"This room was a trap," Jun said evenly. "The doors are locked, and when we tried blowing them up, we reached that smooth stuff." She pointed at the hole. "I think it's a forcefield. Whatever it is, though, we can't blow it up." She shook her head. "I'm beginning to think this whole business was a trap. I hope Ken's all right."
"Did you try calling him?" Joe asked.
"We can't call anyone, she's jamming our frequency," Jinpei said. "Whosever idea it was to have a Galactor leader who managed to hack into ISO computer banks, I wish we could take them out and shoot them."
David was looking around at the computer banks. "Are all of these dead?" he asked. "They look like her mainframes. I can't believe Alatan could afford to shut them down completely."
"She's probably got auxiliaries," Jun said wearily. "The awful thing, though, is that these are her mainframes. We could set ourselves free in seconds with them, if they only had power..." Her voice trailed off as she realized that there was a power source in the room, and if she kept talking about it, he might realize it, and do something stupid like volunteer himself.
"We could try to cobble up a small generator from one of these things," David said. "Joe's got a magnetic field on his gun..."
"I can do better than that," Joe said flatly. "Could you hook up one of these things to run off my power source?"
He'd realized it. Jun shook her head rapidly. "It'd be much too dangerous!" she said.
"But it could be done?"
"It could," David said eagerly. "I don't think it would be all that dangerous, either. Joe's got a self-replenishing power source and an atomic powercell backup. If we hook the computers to the backup, it shouldn't affect you much at all."
"What if it kills him?" Jun shouted. "Or exhausts him so much that he can't fight?"
"It's my decision to make," Joe said, looking at her. "If it can get us out of here, I want to do it."
"How?" Jinpei asked. "If we just hook it to you, the power surge could blow out the circuits..."
As the three males discussed how to use Joe's backup power source to run the computers, Jun felt sick. She wished Ken or Ryu were here-- they would back her up. But Jinpei was so used to Joe taking terrible risks and surviving that he probably thought nothing of it, and David didn't know how eager Joe sometimes seemed for death. Jun knew better. Joe had absolutely no concern for his own health or well-being-- he had always been bad, but gotten much worse about it when he became a cyborg. One of these days, one of the risks he took was going to kill him, and Jun would be powerless to stop him, as she always was...
"Onechan!" She turned. They had Joe's hands connected by wires to one of the terminals. "I'm not as good at hacking as you are. Will you do this part?"
She couldn't say no. Their success might depend on her skill-- and the faster they got this done, the sooner Joe would be out of danger. "All right," she said, seating herself at the terminal.
Joe was obviously under a tremendous strain. Jun tried not to think about that as her fingers flew over the keyboard. First she found the subroutine that governed surveillance. She changed the control codes and set the program to monitoring the cafeteria area. Then she found the programs that kept them imprisoned. It would be too much work to specifically instruct it to set them free, so she ordered it to change all values to default and hoped that would do some good. As the force field behind the hole in the wall shimmered out of existence and the computers hummed back to life. Gears ground beneath the base, and Jinpei discovered that the doors were now unlocked.
David unhooked Joe, who was pale and sweating-- also shaky and nauseous, but he wasn't going to admit that. "Now that you've got the power back on-line, you don't need me here, do you?" he asked. "I've got other things to do."
"Why don't you go rejoin Ken? Dave, Jinpei and I can take care of the computer files and the base," Jun said. She was always making suggestions like that. Implicit in her words was the idea that Ken and Joe, the violent, visible ones, should be the ones to deal with Galactor leaders. Jun hated work like that herself-- she preferred staying behind the scenes, doing more subtle work, and she had always preferred that young Jinpei and easygoing Ryu stay with her, uncorrupted by the more vicious side of Gatchaman's work. Now Dave was here instead of Ryu, and Jinpei had grown far more violent, but if anything that made her want to keep them from nastiness all the more.
Joe understood. He nodded. "Got it. See you." Jun had not said "why don't you go with Ken and deal with Alatan Katse," but that was what she had meant, and Joe was perfectly amenable.
When Ken heard the gears grinding beneath his prison, he jerked to his feet. The smooth, glassy stuff beyond the hole he'd made in the door was gone, and the walls were moving away from him.
He didn't waste time wondering why-- the others must have come through. Ken concentrated, and his civilian uniform shimmered, was replaced by his Bird Style-- sans triangle and bracelet, but that was all right, he'd find them. He slipped off through the hole and into the abandoned base.
"Katse-sama! Surveillance has gone down!"
"What??" Alatan was on her feet in an instant. "Find the problem and get it back online. Meanwhile, I want to see the tape of what the Science Ninja Team were doing just before the escape."
A split-screen appeared, showing the Eagle sitting patiently in his prison on one side, the Swan sitting at a terminal on the other... "You fools! Why wasn't I notified they were doing this?"
"It didn't look significant, Katse-sama..."
"The control codes have been overwritten, Katse-sama. The whole surveillance program's been clobbered!"
"Damn it! Let me--" Alatan bent over the keyboard, trying to fix the program, as her mind raced. What had gone wrong? How had the Science Ninjas managed to get the computers working again? She had cut power to the computer room, she was sure of it!
And then, breaking into her thoughts, came masculine laughter.
Alatan jerked away from the keyboard. "Gatchaman!" she gasped, her eyes scanning the room. Where was he?
"Obviously you didn't plan as carefully as you thought, Alatan Katse." Her own escape hatch turned in the wrong direction, and a bird-shadow fell on the floor, followed by the white-garbed form of the Eagle. With his triangle and bracelet...
"How did you escape?" Alatan wailed before she could stop herself. Backing up from him, her face crumpled with disappointment and fear, she seemed like the most pathetic of her predecessors, Gel Sadra. Ken smiled coldly.
"You cannot cage a white shadow," he said, and waited for her to order her men to fire.
Only they weren't men-- not most of them, at any rate. A rainbow of Galactors, mostly female and all weaponless, cowered behind chairs. Alatan straightened, regaining control of herself, and he expected her to laugh, but she didn't. "Of course. Foolish of me to expect an explanation," she said. "Well, Gatchaman, you seem to have caught me at a disadvantage. As you can see, none of my aides here are fighters-- I'm the only fighter in this room, and so it's my obligation to protect them." She shed her cape and removed her mask. "So I offer myself in exchange for their safe passage from here."
The Galactors gasped-- a Galactor leader bargaining for their safety with her own life? Ken's eyes narrowed. "Why should I trust you?"
"You misunderstand, Gatchaman. I will not hand myself to you on a silver platter. Let them go, and we'll resume our battle. Attack me, I will defend myself and they'll run. Attack them, and I'll assume you will kill them, so I'll blow up this room to destroy you. My healing abilities will, of course, save me." She stared intently into his eyes. "I am not like my predecessors. I love the men and women under my command. I will kill you if you harm them. If you don't, you have a chance to capture me. What do you say?"
Ken actually believed her. Any other Galactor leader, equipped with the same immunity to injury Alatan had, would have simply blown up the room and have done with it. Of course, Alatan would cheat once her people were gone, he was sure-- but it was Alatan he had come for. It gave Ken no pleasure to kill grunts, and noncombatant grunts at that. "I accept the challenge," he said. "Your people can go."
Alatan turned. "You heard him!" she said. "Kyla, order the rest of the base to be evacuated as soon as you reach safety. There'll be no Galactor blood shed today!"
As they scurried for the exits, Ken said, "None but your own, Alatan."
"Ah, but mine's different. It grows back." Alatan leapt--
--and Ken flung three pennies again, striking nerve points. Alatan crashed to the floor in an inelegant heap, and Ken closed the distance between them, kicking her in the stomach, grabbing her legs and swinging her around, then releasing her to strike the wall. He was sick of playing her games. Alatan cried out, but got to her feet-- not that it did her any good. Ken flung a penny into her eye, knowing it would do no permanent damage, but it would stop her from fighting back. He wasn't disappointed. She screamed and twisted, one hand to her eye-- which slowed her down too much to escape him. He grabbed her by the neck and shoved her into the wall--
--and she slumped, the one good eye rolling up into her head.
Startled, Ken released her neck, pinning her with his body, and checked her pulse. It was terribly low. There were livid bruise marks on her neck-- had he held her too tightly? Or had his shuriken damaged more than her eye? Or was she in shock? He started to lower her to the ground--
Hands slammed with full force into his face. Pain exploded through his body as Alatan's palms broke his nose, as her fingers drove into his eyes. Ken screamed, dropping her and backing away-- and Alatan's fist drove into his solar plexus, dropping him.
Joe, stepping through the doorway, saw that part. "Katse!" he screamed, in fury and hatred, as Ken fell to the floor. Alatan spun, instinctively turning at the sound of her name-- and made a tiny strangled sound as a feather shuriken plunged into her exposed white throat. Blood spurted, staining the air, and Alatan's golden hair fanned back as her body fell forward in slow motion.
An instant of grim satisfaction at her death gave way to anger and churning anxiety for Ken. Joe ran to his unconscious friend. "Ken! Ken, are you all right? Hang on!" Of course Ken couldn't answer. Joe checked the injury. The nose had been broken to the side, but the bone hadn't been driven up into the brain. That was good. Ken would recover. Joe reached to shake his friend awake--
--Pain exploded throughout every sense, and he stiffened, red agony sweeping away all other sensation. Through the red haze he heard a hoarse, agonized voice. "Move, and it will cut through your spine and kill you. I swore-- I swore I wouldn't kill.." Tortured breathing, rather like sobs. "...but..." The last word became an actual sob, and he heard Alatan run away, unable to turn his head and watch or stop her.
She was dead!! That was fatal-- she should have died in instants!
"Uhn," Ken moaned, and opened his eyes. "Joe?"
"Can't move," Joe enunciated carefully, keeping his head motionless. "Behind me. Alatan..."
"Shimatta.." Ken struggled to his knees. It was agony to speak, to move, but Joe needed him. He crawled around behind Joe-- and saw Joe's own feather shuriken, protruding from the back of the Condor's neck. Even injured as he was, Ken's hands were steady as a neurosurgeon's-- he pulled the offending dart out smoothly, and Joe sagged in relief. Ken, still in agony, merely sagged. Joe caught him.
"G-2 to G-3."
"G-3 here. I've copied all the useful stuff here to portable flimsies, and the base is mined and ready to go. It's deserted, though. How are you and Ken?"
"Ken's been bashed pretty bad," Joe said, ignoring for the moment the fact that he was still shaky and nauseous and getting a shuriken jabbed into his spine hadn't helped him any. "We're pulling out."
"Good idea." That was Dave's voice. "I'll come up and help you."
From a cliff overhang, Alatan watched exhaustedly as the Ninja Team escaped and the base blew up. Everything had gone wrong. She had wanted to watch them deal with a mecha, not blow up her headquarters. Somewhere, she had badly miscalculated.
Happy 14th birthday, Alatan...
At least everyone had gotten out safely-- her plan had worked that well, at least. The rumor of her selfless behavior to save her people would spread, and grow, and Galactor would come to love Alatan Katse, wholeheartedly and without reservation. That much she'd won, at least.
But she could still feel the agony as her eye ripped open, could still feel the shock and darkness as the shuriken plunged into her throat. She was not invulnerable, merely immortal. It was not the same thing at all. She had learned nothing of real value-- as usual, she had no idea what had gone wrong, what the ninjas had done to destroy her plans, only that they had done so. They'd taken information, and destroyed her base, and she'd gotten nothing in return.
And they had tried to kill her...
*Little fool. It's as I warned you. Your compunctions against killing won't save you from them. You must be as heartless, as ruthless, as your father, if you are to survive.*
He didn't survive!
*But they didn't kill him. Perhaps you will be the first Galactor leader to receive that honor...*
She was tired. She wanted to talk to Selina. She wouldn't admit it, but she needed someone now, someone to soothe the hurt away, and Selina was better than no one. They actually tried to kill me...
Tiredly, she walked back to her ship, and headed for home.