Dancers of Death

(Gatchaman IV story #8)

The dance had always fascinated Alatan. Its relationship to the art of killing and the art of masking, of becoming someone else, had influenced the child she'd been even before she'd had any plans to make her dreams reality. So she watched them practice, her Dancers, inhuman in their grace and precision, and felt the old desire stir, the longing for the aesthetic beauty of perfection.

Descendants of the Devil Star and Blackbird groups, they had been trained in disguise and murder before Alatan had become Galactor's leader. She had brought the dance into their routine, and they had taken what she could teach them and perfected it. They were all she yearned to be, what she could never be-- Dancers were perfect weapons, unclouded by the gray ambiguities a leader must always have in mind. Alatan's desire for power and responsibility denied her their perfection. But she could live vicariously through them. She had designed their costumes and modus operandi, on a premise mentioned in one of her father's journals-- "My face is a mask, and a mask has become my face." The face he had showed to the world, that which people recognized him by, was a mask, and his own true face, never seen by anyone, could serve to disguise him as well as a true disguise would. To Alatan, who had no true face, the concept of disguising oneself by not wearing a disguise was fascinating. Thus, Dancers wore elaborate Kabuki makeup, but no masks, except the disguises they were trained in. They were not merely trained killers; they were practitioners of an art form, beautiful and deadly.

The Dancing Masques and Dancing Dolls-- male and female, respectively; collectively the Dancers-- were all young and beautiful. The makeup they wore and their garishly colorful battle kimonos gave them the necessary sameness the members of an elite corps needed, without destroying their individuality or beauty. Alatan came frequently to watch them, and yearn after their perfection. She did not envy them-- she had chosen a different life path-- but she worshiped them.

Today, however, she had a purpose in watching them. As they completed their katas and bowed to her, she rose.

"I've decided," she said. "James, of the Masques, and Tori, of the Dolls-- you two will accompany me."

There was no time to speak to Tori privately on the way, as they flew to Utoland, but James could tell she was ecstatic over the honor, to be personally selected by Alatan Katse-sama. James was less thrilled. Alatan didn't bother him, but neither did he worship her the way Tori did.

James' attitude toward Galactor in general was more cynical than his lover's. Like all the Dancers, he was the child of Galactors, but his father had been seriously disillusioned with the organization and had transmitted that disillusionment to his son, shortly before he and James' mother had broken up and their son had gone to a training camp. James liked the idea of being hell on wheels, and liked the respect-- and even terror-- he got from the goons. He was also obsessed with the aesthetics of the dance, the way all the Dancers were. But he didn't think Galactor would do a particularly better job of running the world than anyone else, even with Alatan Katse's idealism. In fact, James might have quit-- he considered himself quite skilled enough to evade the death Galactor meted out to those who abandoned it-- if not for two things. He was too much of a nihilist to believe anything he might do with his life would be meaningful in the long run, so he might as well be a Galactor. The other reason was Tori.

Tori was different-- the daughter of a Devil Star, she dreamed of glory, of being one of the chosen few to reshape the world. Most of the time James thought she was hopelessly naive, with her passionate loyalties and grandiose dreams. Most of the time, Tori thought he was hopelessly cynical. But they were bound to each other, unbreakably. Most Galactors considered monogamy a hopelessly outdated notion, unsuitable for the bringers of the new age. Once, James might have agreed with them. Now he didn't seem to have a choice. He might be attracted to other women, and she might be attracted to other men, but they both knew the only one they would ever love was the other.

So maybe he had caught some of Tori's romantic notions, or maybe he believed in love because it was aesthetically pure, or because he had nothing else to believe in. He still loved Tori helplessly, and as long as she was a Galactor, so was he.

"What will this mission be, Katse-sama?" Tori asked politely, as James flew the plane.

Alatan smiled that special, secret smile, that smile that said, 'You and I are going to do something wonderful together, and no one else can play.' She had won over the hearts of most of Galactor with that smile. James personally thought she was just a skilled manipulator who could play people like a piano, but he couldn't deny she was charming.

"We've gotten an unexpectedly excellent chance," she said softly. "The Eagle will be attending an ISO function. I've decided that we're going to crash the party."

"Katse-sama, do you really think we can defeat the Eagle?" James asked apprehensively.

"Of course." She smiled wider. "Why do you think I picked you two? Of all the Dancers, you are the best, because your teamwork is perfect. The Eagle is an excellent fighter, but he is only one-- and you are excellent fighters, and two. I don't want him dead, you understand. I want to take him captive. That's what I need you for."

"But nobody's ever been able to defeat him."

"That isn't true. Nobody's ever been able to defeat the Science Ninja Team. Gatchaman himself has fallen before, but his team was there to catch him. This time, they won't be. Don't worry, James. You Dancers are very precious to me. I wouldn't risk you in a battle with no hope. No--" She leaned forward, looking directly at him in the cockpit's mirror. "James, if we fall today, all of us will fall. I'm not like Gel Sadra-- I don't make my people suffer for my bad planning."

She was such a smooth operator. But James could see the radiance in Tori's eyes, in his mirror. Tori obviously worshiped Alatan Katse, and that made her important to James, manipulator or no.

"We trust your planning, Katse-sama," Tori said. "I'm sure we'll succeed."

"Don't doubt it."

Ken said in a low voice to Jun, "I'm seriously thinking of strangling whoever thought it would be a good idea to throw a banquet to honor ISO's fighter pilots."

"It was probably the Director," Jun said, her eyes fixed on the hors d'ouerves tray. "I shouldn't... I have to watch my weight.."

"Since when? Your weight's perfect, Jun." He sighed. "Okay, if it was Director Nambu then skip the strangulation. But I wish he'd thought it out more carefully."

There were 3 dozen fighter pilots and assorted significant others milling about aimlessly and pretending they were enjoying themselves. The fighter pilots would probably all rather be flying. They had come more to honor their dead than to be honored themselves-- Ken knew he wouldn't have come, if not to honor Red Impulse's memory-- and so perhaps it was appropriate that they weren't having fun. But still. Ken caught sight of Nambu, talking to a group of nondescript tuxedoed men, and felt a faint twinge of-- not envy, exactly, but discontent. He had always assumed that when he got older, he would get better at being diplomatic with boring people, as his sensei did. Ken was pushing 30, and he didn't seem to have acquired the polish he had always thought came automatically with adulthood.

"He's probably just as bored as we are, if not more, Ken," Jun said, seeing the direction Ken was looking in.

"I know, I know. But look how well he hides it."

"He has to," Jun said sensibly. "These aren't the days when he can walk out of conferences in protest. He is ISO, and he has to be a diplomat." She finally gave in and snagged some hors d'ouerves. "What boggles my mind is how young the Doctor looks. I know why-- I was there when it happened-- but it still amazes me. He doesn't look more than 10 years older than us."

"Less than that," Ken said morosely. "I'm almost 30."

"You're 27. 3 years to go. And it's not the end of the world, Ken. Besides, men just get distinguished when they get older. It's women for whom old age is a disaster-- especially if they haven't had any children."

"I don't want to bring up that topic."

"Who's bringing it up?"

"Anyway," Ken said, "look at all these bald old men. Can you really tell me they're distinguished? Not everyone can be Dr. Nambu."

"You'll be okay. Your father aged very well."

"And my mother died of leukemia, but nobody ever brings that up when they're talking about my genetics."

Jun looked at him. "You're in a very depressed mood, aren't you! Are you going to cheer up, right now, or do I have to take drastic measures?"

"What kind of drastic measures?"

"I go to the ladies' room, get a bucket of water and dump it over your head."

Ken couldn't help laughing at the mental image that conjured. "I don't think that would help. It's just... I don't know. I never expected to be in this position."

"What position?"

"The 27-year-old leader of Gatchaman. I expected we'd either be dead or living in peace by now... we're weapons, Jun. Tools, to be pointed by someone else. And that's a young man's game. The older I get, the more conscious I am that I'm not getting any of the benefits of aging, like stability...oh, skip it. I don't really want to discuss it."

Jun shook her head. Only Ken could be 27 and think he was getting old. "Well, if you don't want to discuss it, then I expect you to control it. I'm going to go to the ladies' room, and when I come back, I expect you to at least fake being in a good mood, or else it's the bucket for you."

Ken sighed heavily, deadpanning. "Oh, for the good old days when my word was law. Sleep with a woman, and what does she do? Nothing but give orders."

Jun swatted him, giggling too hard to maintain her pose of outrage. "I mean it, Ken!" she said, and headed off.

She caught sight as she did so of a dark-haired girl in a white dress who was staring at her with something that looked very much like jealous hatred. But she'd gotten somewhat used to that, in the three years or so since she and Ken had become an official item. You're about 10 years too late, she thought at the girl, and headed for the women's room.

Unseen by her or Ken, the dark-haired girl followed, and as she heard Jun enter one of the stalls, she slipped in and left the Swan a present. For some reason she didn't understand, she wished very much it could be a deadly present, but her usual scruples against casual killing had prevented her from bringing something deadlier, and it was too late to get something new now. She stepped back out to wait.

Jun left the stall and went to the sink to wash her hands, when she felt suddenly, horribly dizzy. The world slipped, grew dim. Jun clung to the sink for dear life and held her breath-- she had been gassed often enough to recognize the symptoms. Desperately she staggered around the corner-- and saw something that looked like an aerosol spray can, with mist coming out of it. The hissing it produced was very soft-- she hadn't heard it in the stall. Ken! she thought, not daring to use her precious air to speak into the bracelet. Her hand fell on the door and yanked it open.

In her disoriented condition, she had barely time to notice the dark-haired girl outside the door before a fist planted itself in her stomach. The air rushed out of Jun's body, and as she staggered back, her lungs involuntarily filled again, and the world went dark.

The girl-- whose hair wasn't really dark, any more than it was any other color-- smiled, and dragged the Swan's limp form into a stall, where she put down the seat cover and sat her on it. Careless of the gas-- she was immune to it-- she studied her enemy's unconscious form for several minutes, then locked the stall and slipped out underneath it. Eventually the Swan would either wake up or be discovered, but by that time the girl's work would be done. She went to the mirror and concentrated, her face melting and reforming as a glow enveloped her body. The Swan's presence had not been expected, but Alatan Katse would not be caught unprepared.

Ken talked to a few people who'd known his father, drifted over to where Dr. Nambu was talking, decided that the conversation was unbearably boring and drifted away again, and was beginning to wonder if Jun had fallen in when he saw her, towing a man and a woman. "Ken! Ken, come here!"

He walked over. "Ken, I never told you about these people, did I?" Jun said. "These are my dear friends, James and Tori."

She had never told him about them before, but that was no reason to be impolite. The man was Ken's height and build, with thick, wavy brown hair with red highlights and feral green eyes. The woman was tiny, making even Jun look tall, Japanese with straight long hair and a beautiful face. Ken put out his hand to shake with James. "Hello, I'm--"

--and James pulled it hard, sending Ken flying in a judo throw.

Ken landed, twisting his body in midair, to face them. The two leapt, stripping off their formal clothes. Underneath, they wore metallic white gis with splotches of color and elaborate Kabuki paint on their faces. They were obviously Galactor. Ken shouted, "Everyone get out of here!" and leapt himself, bringing his arm up to transform into Bird Style. The woman bounced herself off the ceiling and flew at him, her feet landing in his chest and sending him into the hors d'oeuvres.

Nambu had caught the Galactors' first movement out of the corner of his eye. Now he saw Ken fall to the two brightly colored forms, with Alatan Katse in Jun's dress standing by, smiling. "You heard him," he barked, "out!" Ken would need all of his concentration for this battle, and couldn't afford to have to worry about civilians.

Oddly, Alatan let them go-- she was entirely rapt in watching the battle. Ken had recovered from the initial attack, and was managing to hold his own against the two Galactors, but they were damned good. From the atrium, Nambu pulled out his radio. "Jun! G-3, come in!"

No answer. He hadn't much expected one-- the Galactors had undoubtedly already moved to neutralize Jun. Damn! "Science Ninja Team, come in! Emergency!"

Joe's voice. "On my way. Where??"

"ISO banquet hall. Ken's under attack by Galactor assassins and Jun's gone missing."

"G-4, on my way!" Jinpei's voice.

Dave's voice. "G-5, acknowledging, on my way!"

Joe's again. "Tell them to hang on, Director, we'll be right there!"

They cut transmission.

Nambu rejoined the milling, frightened people outside. "Listen!" he shouted. "There are probably Galactors in the area, other than the ones inside. We want to avoid a hostage situation at all cost-- Gatchaman will win his fight if he doesn't have us to worry about." At least, Nambu sincerely hoped so. "Everyone, get into your cars and leave. The banquet will be rescheduled under more secure conditions."

Nambu could see that a good number of the fighter pilots didn't want to comply-- it galled them, to run away and leave a lone man outnumbered without helping-- but no one argued with his tone of command. They got. He didn't, though. Nambu knew quite well that there was nothing he could do to help-- even with 20 years shaved off his life, he was not Ken's caliber as a fighter, and unless he stayed out of harm's way, he could be Ken's biggest weak point. But so many times, he'd sent his team out into danger, and then waited at home, never knowing their fate until they called to announce they were coming home. He knew how to get into the monitor room in this building by little-used paths, where he should be safe. This time, even if there was nothing he could do, he could watch.

He split-screened the monitor when he got there. On the one, he scanned the outside of the building, looking for the Galactors' transportation. There were a few cars in the parking lot, but nothing that looked like a mech. Probably they were being picked up. On the other, he put Ken's battle on the screen.

Ken was losing.

In the beginning, Alatan had spoken to him mockingly, telling him that James and Tori were her Dancers, that he shouldn't expect any help from Jun, and she did hope they all got to be lovely friends. Ken had ignored her. He had to-- he needed all of his concentration.

James' fighting style was much like Ken's, relying on agility and strength-- Tori's, like a combination of Jun and Jinpei's, using grace and agility to strike at weak points. They obviously knew each other's strengths and weaknesses as well as Ken knew his own team's, and covered for each other. If Ken had been with Jun, they could probably have defeated the Galactors easily-- they weren't quite as good as Ken separately.

Together, though, they were better.

He couldn't spare any of his attention to look at Alatan, but he was conscious of her there, watching. He knew his teammates were on the way, but he didn't know if they'd make it in time.

So he fought, and Alatan watched, mesmerized by the battle. Even tiring, even losing, the Eagle was grace and perfection incarnate, perfectly matching her Dancers' intertwining harmonies. It was a beautiful, beautiful sight, and Alatan longed to capture it on video, or better yet on holo, and keep it forever. Even if her people were losing, it would be beautiful. But their success made it wonderfully satisfying as well. She was almost disappointed when Gatchaman fell, after ten minutes of battle. But she knew the Science Ninja Team were on their way. It was necessary to move quickly.

Nambu watched horrified as Alatan and her Dancers dragged Ken out to the parking lot and put him in the hatchback of a station wagon. He checked the license plate, then called the Science Ninja Team. "The Galactors just put Ken in a red station wagon, license plate 69-AKRK, and drove off on the westbound arterial. Intercept them!"

"On my way!" Joe's voice came.

Jinpei, Joe and Dave had all almost reached the ISO building from the other direction. They swung around and converged on the westbound arterial of Utoland. They did not, however, see any station wagons, let alone a red one, nor the license plate Nambu had told them to watch for. The Galactors had vanished, and Ken with them.

Then Jun's frantic call came through. "Dr. Nambu! What's going on, please?!"

"Jun, where are you?"

"In the banquet hall. Somebody tossed a gas bomb in the women's room. Where's Ken??"

"Meet me and the others in the observation room. Ken's been kidnapped."

Cross Karakoram Base had finally been completed. All that remained was the installation of some equipment and the move-in of the various personnel. Selina Marriochio was overlooking the installation of her lab equipment, with five female personal guards and two scientist/assistants, when her beeper went off. "Marriochio."

"Marriochio-sama, you have a call from Alatan Katse-sama."

"Noted." Selina closed her eyes in irritation. "Continue the supervision," she said to the scientist/assistants, and left the room, heading for the nearest communication node. She was aware that one of her guards had followed her, but assumed Alatan had issued orders not to leave Selina unprotected. "Selina here."

Alatan's masked face filled the screen. "I'd like you to come to Sadra's Folly, Selina," she said. "My Dancers have captured the Eagle for me, and I've brought him here for questioning."

"You sense of timing is lacking, as usual, Alatan," Selina said. "I don't suppose you would consider referring this to Galliente?"

"Galliente's not nearly subtle enough for the Eagle. I want you."

"You're not showing proper dignity by calling Science Base Sadra's Folly, either."

Alatan laughed. "I'll call it Science Base in front of the goons, trust me," she said, obviously unaware of the female goon standing unobtrustively behind Selina. "How soon can you be here?"

"Two hours." Selina did not quite sigh.

"Good. I'm waiting for you." The screen blanked. Selina left, irritated enough that she didn't notice her guard remaining behind.

Maryla's mind raced as Marriochio departed. Ken, captured? Any member of the Science Ninja Team being captured was bad, and Ken... Maryla couldn't bear the thought of Ken Washio dying in captivity, ignobly tortured and killed. Anything but that.

If she warned the Science Ninja Team, she ran the risk of blowing her cover. But if she didn't...

The Angel of Death made her decision, and set to work converting the comunication node for outside transmission.

Mission completed successfully, James and Tori relaxed in the practice lounge. "You have to admit that was beautiful, James," Tori said.

James nodded, somewhat reluctantly. "If there'd been more than one of them, Tori, we would have lost."

"But it still would have been a beautiful death," Tori said. "And there was only one of them, wasn't there? You should trust Alatan Katse-sama more."

He shrugged. "Maybe. But it's dangerous to trust the leaders. They have their own agendas, and they don't care about us."

"Alatan-sama does care," Tori said. "She's the first one I've met other than us Dancers who cares about the perfection of the dance. I only glimpsed her while we were fighting, but did you ever see her watch us when we practice? She cares about beauty."

"Maybe it's just sex she cares about." Alatan had acquired something of a reputation for sexual appetite in the past month. Not that most people minded, especially not most of the men she chose-- thought she presented a somewhat androgynous appearance in full costume, rumor had it that she was quite feminine when unclothed. But James minded, if that was Alatan's reason for watching him.

"No, she watches us Dancing Dolls too."

James laughed. "Think about that, Tori. Who was her father?" Even before his dual sexuality had become posthumous common knowledge, Berg Katse's tastes had been known to be flexible.

Tori shook her head. "I'd know that if I saw it. It's the beauty she wants, James, not the bodies. I've talked to her. She understands. Why else do you think she had us fight the Eagle? She could have taken him out the way she took the Swan, but she wanted to see the battle."

"Maybe." James leaned back, and Tori watched him, eyes alight. They didn't always agree-- in fact, they didn't usually agree-- but she couldn't imagine life without him. He was so beautiful, her lion, his face like perfect pale porcelain even without the makeup, his body so graceful and muscular. He was her kindred soul, as concerned for beauty as she was. He didn't see the larger glory in Galactor, the beauty in the vast pattern. He claimed to be nihilistic, to care for nothing. But he was as attuned to aesthetic perfection as she was.

"At any rate," James said, "she doesn't care about it as much as we do. She'd break the pattern and take the easy way out if she thought it was more useful."

"Well, of course," Tori said. "Alatan Katse-sama's a leader, James. She has to deal too much with gray areas and responsibilities for aesthetic purity." She leaned back, too. "Better just to be weapons, unclouded, with only one purpose. That's how to achieve perfection."

For a few moments she rested there, tiny and delicate. But like the bird her name suggested, she couldn't sit still for long. Tori leapt up, and her tiny slender body suddenly conveyed a soaring power, as if her fragility gave her powers larger, clunkier people didn't have. "Let's dance, James!"

Ken awakened, feeling dizzy and sick. He was in a hospital bed-- he could smell the antiseptic-- and an adolescent girl was sitting by his bed, an expression of concern on her face. For several confused seconds he didn't recognize her-- she looked far younger than he remembered his adversary to be-- but then she said, "Oh, good, you're awake! I was afraid you weren't going to," and he recognized the voice.

"Alatan Katse," he said, his mouth dry from his sleep. "To what do I owe this honor?" He tried to sit up, but couldn't. Tubes from his wrists and ankles carried his blood into a complex machine over head, and back again,and his limbs felt frozen.

"Well, I was the one who made you sick-- it seemed only fair that I nurse you back to health," she said, smiling. Normally her shapechanger abilities gave her the appearance of a young woman, even unmasked, but now she looked like the 14-year-old child she was. She lost the smile. "I was afraid you were dead."

"Why would you be afraid I was dead? Isn't that what you want?"

"No-- no, it's not." She glanced at the tubes, then back at him. "I don't like killing. You and your team are all brave, noble people, fighting for a cause you believe in. I happen to be fighting for a cause I believe in, but that doesn't give me any right to kill you."

"What about all those men you killed at those military bases?"

"They're military. They don't count."

"What do you mean, they don't count? They're human lives!!"

"It's the military's job to die for the sake of the civilian population. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, Eagle Ken-- I'd just prefer to break as few innocent eggs as possible. And you--" She frowned. "I don't know how to explain it. You're not innocent, but it would offend my sense of aesthetics to kill you. You're my proper balance, Eagle, you and your team-- of course, I'm human too, and I don't think I'd weep if I accidentally eliminated that mad cyborg you call your second-- he did try to kill me-- but you, at least, I want alive."

"I see," Ken said, heavily sarcastic. "It offends your aesthetic sensibilities to kill me, but not to have me tortured."

"I have no intention of torturing you!" she said, in a slightly outraged tone. "I have to learn what you know, of course, but I don't want to torture you for it. And then, once I've learned what I need to know, I want to make you see my point of view. I'm not like my predecessors--"

At that moment, Selina Marriochio entered the room. "I have him stabilized, Alatan. The interrogation can begin whenever you wish."

Alatan glanced at the helpless Ken. "You do have methods using drugs and such, don't you? I don't want him hurt."

Selina spared Ken a single, assessing glance. "Alatan. You don't want him killed, you don't want him hurt-- do you think you can fight this war without harming your enemies?"

"Torture's barbaric, Selina. I know what I'm doing!"

"Do you?"

Again Ken was struck by Alatan's naivete. He said swiftly, "Alatan, if it hurts you so much to do evil, why don't you come over to the side of good? You can't use a flawed tool like Galactor to create a Utopi..." Abruptly he found he had not even the strength to complete the word, as Marriochio adjusted some dials on the machine.

"Let him talk, Selina," Alatan said. "I don't mind arguing with him."

"I mind." Selina looked hard at Alatan. "Your attitude is unprofessional, Alatan. I will use painless methods to interrogate him, if that is your wish. But I would appreciate it if you didn't interfere beyond that."

Petulantly Alatan said, "I am the Galactor leader, Selina. If I want to interfere, I will."

"That's your prerogative," Marriochio said. "You also have the right to act like a spoiled teenager and ruin everything, if that is your wish."

Alatan flushed. "I am not acting like a spoiled teenager!" she shouted, looking exactly like one.

"No? Your form reflects your mood, Alatan. Go look in a mirror."

She's a child, Ken thought. A child. If only we could get through to her...

Then Marriochio adjusted a dial, and darkness claimed him.

Nambu had shown the four of them the tape of the battle. Jinpei had been all for running off as soon as he'd heard Ken had been captured, but Joe-- who knew exactly how he felt-- pointed out that until they knew where to look and what to look for, there was no way they could help Ken. They watched the tape carefully. Finally Jun said, anxiously,

"If that's the caliber of fighter Galactor's going to put us up against..."

"We're in deep trouble," Dave said solemnly. "Have you guys ever fought anyone like that before? I haven't."

"The Devil Stars gave us a hard time once or twice," Joe said, "and some of Egobossler's elite squads. But nothing like that. Still, if they hadn't moved to take you out, Jun, I think you and Ken could have taken them."

"But they did take me out," Jun said, "and that's what scares me. There wasn't any opportunity for me to fight back. I don't know why Alatan didn't gas the whole building, but... she knows who we are, she knows what we look like, and she knows how to take us out. She could have killed me so easily, or taken me along with Ken. I don't know why she didn't. And even with the Doctor watching, and all of you on the way here, she took him and disappeared. If she can do that..."

"We'd just better kill her, when we do find her," Jinpei said. "That's all."

Joe shook his head. "If it were that simple, we'd do it. But she doesn't--"

He was interrupted by a beeping from Nambu's radio. Nambu lifted it. "Nambu here."

"This is the Angel of Death. The Eagle's been taken captive and brought to Sadra's Folly, a base in the Caribbean. Latitude 18 N, longitude 82 W, grid coords 81-A. It's one of Marriochio's bases, and the security system is incredibly efficient. Tell them to be careful." She cut off.

Nambu frowned at the radio. "Angel..." Then he looked up. "She may have blown her cover to give us that information. Make good use of it, team. Go!"


Sadra's Folly had gotten its name from Gel Sadra's habit of launching the construction of ever more ambitious bases, and then getting bored and cutting the funding before completion. Science Base had originally been planned as a vast complex, with incredibly sophisticated security, that would easily have housed all of Galactor's major research facilities. If Gel Sadra had ever bothered to finish it, it would have been impregnable, but she had gotten bored and changed its priority-- another of the many reasons Marriochio had quit Galactor. Years later, Marriochio's Galactor Science Institute had appropriated it. It was much smaller than had been planned, and the security system had had to be compromised in order to connect the different parts together, but Selina had seen no reason to let its labs go to waste. It was now headquarters for the GSI division of Galactor, pending relocation to Cross Karakoram.

The Science Ninja Team knew none of that; all they knew was that this base was proving as difficult as the original Cross Karakoram had been. The problem wasn't in finding an entrance, but in getting past the automated defenses, which were the fastest and most efficient they'd encountered. The area encompassed a beach full of land mines, an jungle full of mecha plants, an cliff with literally hundreds of hidden lasers, and an underwater area that generated nasty pulses of electricity. They tried another promisinglooking area and were chased away by a triple laser sweep that melted all the shuriken they threw at it and canceled out the ray from Joe's gun. "Shit!" Joe said. "There has got to be a way in here!"

"Never mind the front door," Jun said. "We should find someplace where the defenses are relatively weak and drill in. I'm serious. Making an entrance would be easier than getting in one of the ones they have."

"I don't think Alatan Katse designed this base," Jinpei said. "Her security usually sucks."

"Why does it matter who designed it?" Jun asked.

"Galactors have their own styles. If this was all a mecha jungle, I'd've said Berg Katse or somebody like him, but these weapons are more open, like they were designed in Gel Sadra's time. And Gel Sadra liked to put ventilator shafts near trees. I think we should check out that copse over there."

"What are you, the Galactor expert?" Joe asked, not without affection.

"Hey, I grew up with this stuff. It's my second language. Joe, can we just check it out?"

"We haven't got any better options," Joe said. "Okay, Jinpei, we'll follow your instincts."

Moving like bright streaks, they avoided or took out the copse's defenses as much as they could. It was Jun who found an air duct set into the sandy soil, almost obscured by rocks. "You were right, JInpei!" she said. "This would be a good place to blow our way into the complex."

"I've got a better idea," David said, stepping forward. "Everyone back, especially Joe. This thing eats metal." He floated a balloon into the shaft. There was a faint hissing sound, and a huge hole grew, larger and larger. Finally, it would have been large enough to admit Ryu, if Ryu had been there. "This looks done. Let's go."

They headed into the no longer impregnable base, intent on finding Ken.

"What? They're in the base?" Alatan was furious. "Evacuate all unessential personnel!" She turned to Selina. "We took his communciator away, we scanned him for transmissions, we certainly weren't followed, how the hell did they find us?"

Selina spoke evenly. "There was a woman guard behind me who might have heard. When this is over, I'll return and investigate."

"Assuming you live," Alatan said bitterly. "They do kill people, you know." She opened a comm channel. "This is Alatan Katse. The Science Ninja Team is in the base. All hands, evacuate!"

In the training room, where they practiced their dance, James and Tori heard her. "The whole team?" James said. "We couldn't handle that many!" He already knew what Tori would want to do.

"We have to protect Alatan-sama!" Tori said, confirming his belief. "We couldn't abandon her, James..."

James looked at her. He didn't at all mind the thought of abandoning Alatan Katse-- she could easily run for it-- but Tori knew what had to be done, to fit the larger pattern. "Never mind the question of her safety, she'll run if she has to," James said. "Aesthetically, can we leave?"

Tori shook her head. "It's not fitting. We're her special servants."

"Then we'd better go," James said, half-sighing.

The door to the control room slammed open. "Where's Ken?" Joe snarled, staring at Alatan Katse and Selina Marriochio with uncontrolled rage. "Where's Ken?? Talk, bitches, or I'll rip your tongues out!"

Both of them stepped back slightly. Then Alatan glanced at Selina, who nodded, and Alatan stepped forward. "Do you really want to know, Condor Joe?" she said sweetly. "I'll send you to join him, if you like."

"He'd better be alive," Jinpei said. "He had just better be, Galactor filth, or you can kiss your own life goodbye!"

"I never said he wasn't alive," Alatan said.

She moved suddenly, blindingly swiftly, knowing her only hope was to move and run for it without warning. Five exploding shuriken landed on the floor, scattering and covering her escape. Selina had been edging toward the escape door, and reached it first.

Then a pair of metal slugs tore through Alatan's chest. She screamed and fell, two feet short of safety.

Joe strode over to her, followed by Jinpei, as Jun and Dave started trying to figure out the computer system. He deliberately stepped on and crushed her arms, then flipped her over and hauled her to her feet, knocking off her mask. "Don't play dead, Alatan, I know I didn't kill you," he said. "If you survived a feather in the throat, you survived getting shot. Am I right?" He shook her, and she moaned piteously, her eyes flickering open.

"Don't try to make me feel sorry for you!" he shouted, shaking her even harder. "Where's Ken?"

"P-please, stop, I'll talk, it hurts," she babbled, sobbing. "Let me go, please stop shaking me, please..."

She was faking it, Joe thought, never actually having heard a Galactor leader beg like this before. Katse and Gel Sadra would scream and moan, but wouldn't actually talk. So he snapped her arms again. Alatan howled.

"Start talking!"

"There's an elevator outside-- down one floor, third door on the right is the room where we put the Eagle, please, it's the truth, don't hurt me!"

"I'm on it!" Dave said, heading out the door. Jun followed.

The room Ken was in was protected by multiple security locks. They didn't even slow Dave and Jun much.

"Ken!" Jun screamed, charging in.

Ken lay, pale and unconscious, on a bed. He had been stripped to his underwear. Transparent tubes, attached to his wrists and ankles, carried blood in loops to an ominously humming machine. "My God," Jun whispered, the color draining out of her own face. "How do we get him free?"

"We have to try to figure out the equipment," David said soberly. He walked over. "Did Sosai X design this, before it was destroyed?"

"I doubt it-- I've never seen anything like it before. Why?"

"This is the kind of technology level my mother used. If a Galactor designed it..."

He studied the dark machine. "Well, this is the input valve, and this is output... if we could just figure out how to close this off..."

"Dave, look at these gauges!" Jun was upset. "`Chemical Level Inputs'? What are they doing to him!"

"I've never heard of this drug before," David said. He looked anxiously at Ken's pale form. "Damn, I wish we had a Galactor to question. I'm trained in this sort of thing and I'm not sure how to proceed. Let's see--"

The two of them examined the machinery for another minute or so. Finally they attempted to unhook Ken, turning the proper valves and closing off the tubings. As they withdrew the last of the tubes, Ken stirred, his skin already regaining color.

"Ken!" Jun sat on the bed, holding him. "Ken, can you hear me? Are you all right?"

Slowly Ken opened his eyes. "...Jun..."

"If you're too weak to talk, just nod," Dave said. "Do you think you could sit up, with help?"

"I'm...all right... I think," Ken said, attempting to sit up. Jun helped him. "Whoa... dizzy. I..."

"Maybe you should lay back down again?" Jun suggested.

"No... it's passing." Ken lifted his head. "I feel... almost all right now. Do we have time to give me a briefing?"

"I think so," Jun said.

Joe shoved Alatan back against the wall, hard enough to break ribs, and she screamed. "All right, Alatan Katse--"

"Watch out!"

Responding to Jinpei's shout, Joe spun, dropping Alatan, and narrowly avoided several spike shuriken in the back. Two forms landed inside the doorway. Jinpei was already leaping at them, using his tactics of speed and surprise. The man grabbed his leg and whipped him around, slamming him point-blank into the wall, as the woman leapt, flinging shuriken at Joe. He dodged, and they exploded. "Jinpei!" he yelled. "Jinpei, are you all right?" The youth didn't stir. "Kuso--"

There was no more time to spare for Jinpei. The two had launched themselves at Joe, a fast and furious attack, and Joe responded in kind. Both sides intended the death of the other, no quarter asked or given. Meanwhile, Alatan got to her feet shakily, her tortured body repairing itself, and ran for her escape ship, where she met Selina. "You weren't able to retrieve the Eagle?"

Selina looked at her coldly. "I didn't even try-- the Swan and the Asapei were already there when I arrived. You should have lied."

"Selina--" How could Alatan explain herself to Selina, who believed in stoicism at any cost? The Condor had hurt Alatan. Alatan had almost never in her life been hurt before she became Galactor leader, never really, truly hurt like that-- her minor pains healed quickly. She'd never encountered a concerted effort to hurt her before, and she wasn't used to the pain. How could Selina expect her to have kept her wits enough to lie?

She had Selina take them up-- Alatan had not 100% mastered cars, and still couldn't fly a mecha well enough to be trusted alone with one. "Stay close, Selina," she ordered. "I'm not abandoning James and Tori."

"Alatan." Selina looked at her. "They're fighters. There are many more like them."

"They're my special people," Alatan argued stubbornly, "and I won't abandon them. This is an order, Selina."

"Noted." Selina might not like the order, but she had sworn to obey Alatan. She landed the escape craft a short distance away, hidden in the jungle.

Joe knew now why James and Tori had beaten Ken. They were damned good. Very nearly Science Ninja caliber, themselves, and together, they were deadly. Joe's fighting style, which relied more on cyborg strength and speed than on avoidance, wasn't terribly suited to battling them. They had brought shuriken that could cut even his cyborg skin, and he was taking blows. He was holding his own, but doing no better than that.

He was, however, managing to occupy James and Tori to the point where they didn't notice Jinpei getting up behind them. His head ached fiercely, but he was too furious to care. Just because he was short-- probably a side effect of the bird styles or something-- people assumed he was young and helpless. Big mistake. Big mistake. Ten years of being the youngest on the team had made Jinpei ultra-sensitive to being taken lightly. He took his paddleball, stood, and snapped the cord around the woman Galactor's neck. She was leaping forward as he did it, and the tug on the ultrafine wire slashed her throat open.

"Tori!" the man screamed, turning, and Joe slugged him into a wall.

Jinpei untwined his cord from the dead woman's throat. "Do we go find Ken now?" he asked, as if nothing had happened.

"That won't be necessary," a shaky voice from the doorway said. Joe and Jinpei both turned.


"Aniki!" Jinpei ran forward. "You all right?"

Ken was being supported by Dave and Jun. "I think so," he said. "I've been drugged-- Marriochio was planning on questioning me-- but I'll be all right when it wears off."

"Are we going to blow up the base?" Jinpei asked.

"We don't have time," Jun said. "We'd have to find the weak points first, and I'd rather get Ken to medical attention first. We can always come back."

"I'll be all right, Jun."

"Ken, they had your blood running through a machine! We have no way of knowing what Galactor put in you. It'd be much better to wait, and eliminate this base when you're well again. Don't you think so, Ken?"

"All right," Ken said, too tired to argue.

"I could stay behind and look for a way to blow it up--" Jinpei argued.

"No," Jun and Joe said at once. If one of those Dancers turned up again, they might very well want revenge on Tori's murderer-- and Jinpei had grown up into a damned good fighter, but people who could defeat Ken and keep Joe on the ropes were too dangerous to mess with.

"We'll come back later," Ken said shakily. "Let's go."

Alatan had tried calling James and Tori several times, with no luck. Finally she snuck back in-- against Selina's very strong objections-- and found Tori dead and James unconscious, lying in a heap against the wall.

The Science Ninja Team had gone-- Alatan could afford to summon some people back into the base to help her carry Tori's body and James into the escape ship. Most of the evacuees had used other escape craft and had already headed for Mobile Headquarters. Mobile Headquarters, however, didn't have the sort of medical facilities they'd need for James, so Selina took them toward another of her own bases, referred to by most as the Temple of Science.

James awakened slowly, with Selina and Alatan bending over him. "You're all right!" Alatan said, relieved.

"How do you feel?" Selina asked, her voice clinical.

James sat up, suddenly remembering. "Tori. Where's Tori?"

Selina's expression didn't change, but Alatan's suddenly became very sorrowful. "I'm so sorry, James," she began.

"Don't tell me she's dead. I don't want to hear it. She's got to be alive, dammit, she has to be, don't tell me she's dead!" He half-leapt out of the bed, advancing on Alatan.

"I can't lie to you," Alatan said. She took off her mask-- her eyes were brimming with tears. "It must have been over instantly, James."

"I don't want to hear that!" James shouted. "Where is she?"

Selina, ever tactful, said, "Her body's in the morgue."

The cold, unyielding words were too much for James, who was weak already from injuries, He sat down heavily on the bed and began to sob. "Tori, Tori-chan..."Alatan sat down next to him and put an arm around him. "I'm so sorry, James," she whispered.

He shoved her away. "You swore we wouldn't get hurt!" He knew that that was unfair, that the Science Ninja Team's arrival had been unexpected and that Alatan hadn't asked them to defend her, but his rage at Alatan for being the cause of Tori's death was consuming him. Her being sorry meant nothing-- Tori was dead!!

James turned to Selina. "I want revenge, Doctor. I want to be better than anyone in the Science Ninja Team. I want you to make me better than human, better than them, so I can kill them!" He was sobbing.

Marriochio said evenly, "Would becoming a cyborg suit your purposes?"

"You can do that?"

Even Alatan looked startled. "Selina, I thought you said cyborg technology died with Rafael!"

"I've been working out the techniques independently," Selina said. "My experiments with animals have gone well, and I've already tested my work on some human subjects. But for the next stage, nonexpendable cyborgs, I need a human volunteer, willing to take risks." She looked at James. "I've never tried to create a successful human cyborg before. I believe I can do it, but I cannot tell you there is no risk involved. If I fail, you will die. If I succeed, however, you will be an unstoppable fighter. Does that meet your requirements?"

"Yes!" James stood, wiping the tears away. "If I can't avenge Tori, I have nothing to live for anyway. I'll take the risk-- I'll take any risk, to avenge her!"

"James," Alatan whispered, but he didn't hear her. Never mind the poetry of the dance, never mind perfection anymore. Tori had been perfect, and it hadn't saved her. All he had left to live for, all he had to believe in, was vengeance.

After he had left, Alatan spoke to Selina. "I want the leak found. Twice now, somebody's given away our plans to Gatchaman. You said you thought a woman guard was eavesdropping on you?"

"Yes. Maryla Sharp, one of my personal bodyguards on 2nd shift."

"I want her captured and interrogated. If the leak isn't her, I want to find out who it is. This is of top importance, Selina-- I want that leak found!" She looked at the door James had gone through. "I was badly hurt, your base was lost, one of my precious Dancing Dolls was murdered, and a Masque has been driven half-insane with grief. Whoever she is, who brought the Science Ninja Team down on our heads, she's going to pay!"

She clenched a gloved fist, feeling ripped apart inside, as Selina nodded and departed the room. It was her fault one of her beautiful Dancers, who'd done so much for her, was dead, Alatan thought-- her own fault James was suffering so.

*Idiot. Why should you care? I thought it was a game to you, your manipulation to make them follow you. If it's real to you...*

I don't care about most of them. Just my Dancers.

*Excuses! You feel too much, Alatan. For instance, these feelings of yours about the Eagle...*

Stay out of my head!

*Alatan, I live here. I cannot help but be exposed to your human emotions. If you wish to be successful, you must put these weaknesses aside!*

If you're so smart, why have you died twice?!


Alatan headed for a communications node, to contact Galliente. She had managed to score some points with that last comment, but what Sosai said made painful sense. She did have to be harder, she thought, and stop acting like a 14-year-old.

Well, when she found that leak, she'd make an example of her. She should be tougher, harder? Very well. Let her find that woman guard, and Alatan would show how hard she could be.

Just wait.