The Darkness Within

(Gatchaman #IV Prequel #2)

The child was born deformed.

Alatan Kelly Remington was a beautiful girl, a dancer and singer and brilliant student, who bore a stunning resemblance to her adopted mother.

Sosai X was not quite dead.

These three facts, as disparate as they seemed, were far more related than anyone suspected....

Dr. Lara Remington, a childless bachelor woman, was a member of ISO's genetics department, far from the most senior but one of the most promising. She was not usually called in by Utoland General Hospital's obstretics department. But something came up, on a day in August a few years before Galactor's first open attack, that demanded her attention.

She examined the deformed baby critically. The poor little girl had been born twisted, her fingers melded into fists, her feet clubs. Her nose and mouth merged, creating the look of a melting face, and her irises were far too tiny for her wide baby eyes, eyes that seemed to see far more than a normal infant's would. She sees me, Lara thought in shock and wonder, as the eyes focused on her face. A three-day-old infant should not be able to focus, and yet she was doing it. She's brilliant, Lara thought, as she spoke to the doctor. "Aside from these deformities, you say she's healthy?"

"Well, relatively speaking, yes," the doctor said. "Seems very robust, even strong, for an infant-- you'd think she would be a sickly little thing."

"She does seem very strong," Lara said, as baby mitts closed around her fingers. She's looking at her hands-- she knows what they are! There was no way a child that age should understand what its hands were, either... "It's amazing. Triploidy in a viable human being?... It doesn't make sense."

"The genotype wouldn't lie," the doctor said nervously. "That's why we called you."

"I know... but it's amazing. Look, she's looking at you. She's watching you."

"Babies that age can't focus..." The doctor's voice trailed off as he looked at the child. Baby Kelly was indeed focusing on him.

"Triploid mutants aren't possible, either," Lara said, somewhat acerbically. The doctor was beginning to get on her nerves-- he seemed too nervous about this, as if somehow the little girl's problems could rub off on him. She yanked her mind back to business. "Was the problem with the mother or the father? Do you know?"

"The father, definitely. Two of the baby's chromosomal sets don't match the mother's at all. The sperm must not have undergone meiotic division..."

"Thank you, I do know the causes of the syndrome. How's her mother taking it?"

"Badly... the baby was illegitimate, and she wants to institutionalize it."

"She is not an it," Lara said, beginning to get downright angry. "She's a girl. A female human little girl, and I intend to see that she's treated as one." My God, Lara thought tenderly, how bright she is... The baby's eyes were everywhere, drinking deeply of the sights of life. Never mind her looks-- what a treasure she is!

"Why bother?" the doctor asked. "She'll be institutionalized... they'll likely treat her as an it all her life. Such a shame..."

Abruptly Lara's anger crystallized into rage. "No! She's brilliant, she doesn't belong in an institution, and I'll see she stays out of one if I have to break this hospital in pieces to do it!" The baby's gurgles fell silent, as Lara's mood affected her. "No, don't worry, little one," Lara said gently, rocking the baby. "I'm just going to take you home with me, as soon as I get everything sorted out. You'll be my little Alatan." Tenderly she placed the baby back in the nursery box.

The doctor was pale. "Dr. Remington, you can't just take a baby--"

"Why not?" Lara asked. "Her mother doesn't want her." But reason reached her, and she realized that it would be better to at least talk to the mother first. Perhaps she could obtain the child legally, after all. "I'll talk to the mother first-- I want to know everything possible about Alatan's father. This couldn't have been accidental; someone arranged Alatan's birth, and I suspect it was her father." She left the room, with a single backward glance at the brilliant baby.

Jennifer Kelly was only 21 years old, and quite bitter about the hand life had dealt her. "Why do you want to know?" she asked, when Lara asked about the father. "You can't arrest the bastard for lying, can you?"

"Lying?" Lara asked.

"Yeah... oh, jeez. I'll tell you everything I remember, which isn't much... I can't believe this happened..."

"Suppose you start at the beginning."

"All right... I was a senior, working for a degree in engineering, and I met this guy, who said he'd seen my senior design project, and he wanted me to work for him. He was a weapons engineer. He said he was, at least, but then he said he was sterile, too."

"Maybe he thought he was. If he fathered Al-- your child, it's probable that he had a good deal of genetic damage. The chances of her living to birth were astronomical, you know."

"Great. All the other people who were going to have subhuman kids had miscarriages... I'm the lucky stiff that gets to carry the kid to term."

Lara silently ground her teeth. "Go on about the father, please."

"So he said he wanted me to work for him. We had lunch together-- business lunch-- damn, he was good-looking, though. One of those tall, blond, thin types-- I bet you if a million women designed what they wanted a man to look like, about 30% would have come up with him. And he wanted to see my work-- he said he had access to unbelievable technology, showed me some of it. Just a little. I was interested-- I mean, the salary he was offering!- and he kept up the sales pitch for another two, three weeks. We started going out, slept together a few times. I don't want you to get the wrong idea, I'm a careful girl, I use protection, you know? But he said there was as much chance of him getting pregnant as of it happening to me. Yeah, right... He said he was sterile. I believed him. Lucky me."

"Did you tell him you were pregnant?"

"It didn't happen right away... I was gonna take the job. I went to his headquarters with him, someplace in Asia. The stuff I saw... I mean, I only saw a little bit of that technology, but if there's more where that came from...well, whoever got a hold of that stuff could conquer the world, and I'm not positive that wasn't what he was planning on doing. I wanted to back out, then, but I..." She stared at the wall. "I couldn't get away from him. I wasn't in love with the guy, let me make that clear. He'd been charming at first, but he acted like more and more of an asshole, the longer I stayed. I wanted to leave... but I couldn't. It was like-- like I was addicted to him, or something. All I could think about was fucking him. I was losing my mind, going around in a daze all the time-- I think he was drugging me, or somebody else was. Finally, I got scared enough to pull my mind together, steal a car, and run."

"Wait a minute. Who did he work for? What was this place?"

"I don't know-- but it was evil." Jennifer Kelly shuddered. "I know that. He threatened to kill me, more than once, and everybody was going around in these bizarre outfits, and... there was this scientist guy there, who scared the shit out of me. I think he was the one drugging me. I don't know-- all I know is, I'm glad I'm out of there."

"Why do you say it was evil?"

"No reason, really-- it's a gut feeling. I just know it. Burke couldn't give a damn about anyone's life but his own." She looked back at Remington. "I didn't know I was pregnant until after I was out of there. It had to have been his-- I wasn't sleeping with anyone else around then, and I must have been hooked up with him for almost two months. I'd had to take a leave of absence from my classes, and this was at the start of the semester. God, if my parents ever found out... I told them I was going to be in Europe for a year, and I got a temp job to pay for the birth... I tried to get an abortion, but weird things kept happening every time I tried it. Once... once, I got as far as a clinic, and this white light appeared around me...and when I came to, I was miles away. I was scared-- I didn't know what was happening, I still don't know. I just want to go home and forget all about this as soon as possible."

"And what about your child?" Lara asked.

"What about it? There's some clinic or institution I can leave it with, I guess. What-- you think I want that?" Jennifer shook her head. "If I brought home some beautiful little cherub, maybe I could talk my parents into accepting it... but how the hell am I going to get them to take care of that... thing? It's evil."

Lara restrained with difficulty an impulse to hit the woman. "Give her to me."


"You obviously don't want your daughter... I do. I'll adopt her and give her a home."

Jennifer looked hard at her. "You're welcome to her... but I'm telling you, her father was evil. There's something wrong with the kid. Just don't ever let her father know she exists."

"I won't," Lara said dryly. "I assure you. What was his name, so I know who to watch for?" She didn't credit Jennifer's story completely, but the young woman had not been faking her fear.

"Some kind of funny German-sounding last name. I can't... remember exactly. They did some strange things to my mind, there. His first name was Burke, or that's what he told me, at least."

"Good enough. You won't have to trouble yourself over your child anymore." Lara's voice was heavily sarcastic. "Just sign her over to me."

The adoption papers were drawn up mere hours later. The next day, little Alatan Kelly Remington came home with her new mother. Jennifer Kelly left the hospital the same day, and Lara never heard from her again-- which was fine with her.

Within the next year of her life, Alatan began to change. The deformities slowly vanished as if they had never been, and the new face bore a remarkable resemblance to Lara's own. Milk-white skin acquired the same basic swarthiness that Lara had, and blond fuzz darkened to Romany black by the time her hair came in. People commented on how much alike mother and daughter seemed. In addition, the child healed at a phenomenal rate. The usual bruises and bumps babies acquired in learning how to walk would vanish seconds after they happened.

Lara tried to be objective and scientific about all this, and failed-- her daughter was not quite human, and it frightened her. Not that her feelings for Alatan changed-- her fear stemmed from the love she bore her daughter, fear that someone would discover and try to exploit Alatan's abilities. Especially she feared, seeing Alatan's differences, that somehow the father's organization would find her. So she took steps to protect her baby.

Once Lara Remington had been a very accomplished thief, taught by her schizophrenic older sister, and since then Lara had learned an amazing lot about computer fakery, forging, and information suppression. First she altered her own medical records, the ones that stated that she was sterile. She took a long vacation from work in order to write a genetics textbook. Although she was actually writing the text, her true reason for taking the sabbatical was to be away from those who'd know her for a long time, so she could fake her own pregnancy and put it in the records. She snuck into Utoland General one night, stole their records of the birth, and returned the next night with falsified records that named the pregnancy as that of Lara Remington, and gave Alatan Kelly Remington the status of Lara's natural daughter. The doctor she named who'd handled the birth was dead, and the nurses who'd been on duty at that time, according to the records Lara planted, were all ones that had transferred to different hospitals. There was no way to tell that Jennifer Kelly had ever been at Utoland General. Of course, the doctor who'd actually been on duty, the one who'd summoned Lara, was still alive, but without the records there was no way to connect him to Alatan.

She did remain curious as to how Alatan had lived to birth, how Alatan had been conceived in the first place. Normal human beings have two sets of chromosomes in their cells. Alatan had three, and that shouldn't have been possible, but it had happened. And then there was Jennifer Kelly's mention of "weird things." Had some intelligence actually arranged Alatan's birth? She doubted it would have been the father-- if Jennifer's story was to be believed, he had never known he had a daughter. But if not the father, then who? And why?

One thing Lara knew... whatever purpose Alatan had been born to, Lara intended to see that she never fulfill it. She would grow up a normal girl. She would never learn of her strangeness.

Lara was a very busy woman, and found it difficult to find time to raise a child. Her job required a good deal of travel, and since she was not willing to leave her daughter in the care of others for more than a few hours, Alatan was frequently uprooted and frequently left virtually alone. Fortunately, in addition to being a brilliant little girl, Alatan was quiet and seemed quite mature for her age. She could amuse herself for hours making up songs, or reading, or talking to herself. Lara was grateful for this, and it wasn't until Alatan was about to enter school that she began to question her daughter's isolation.

She had been at an ISO meeting called to brief the scientists affiliated with the organization on their new enemy, the Galactor Organization. Lara had been hearing bits and pieces about Galactor, but this meeting was the first time she'd received any concrete information. Galactor was a terrorist organization dedicated to world conquest, using super-science and highly advanced technology in their weaponry. And their leader's name was Berg Katse. If Lara had heard the name in isolation, she might not have made the connection. But the presentation had already reminded her of Jennifer Kelly's "evil" organization. So when she heard "Berg Katse", she was instantly able to remember Jennifer's "Burke" with a Germanic last name, and her blood went cold.

Her Alatan was the daughter of the leader of the worst terrorists in history...

She went home, and found Alatan playing in the garden. Her fears made her want to talk with Alatan, to reassure herself that her daughter was not a monster. "Alatan?"

"Yes, mommy?"

"Come here, baby. I've got a story to tell you."

Alatan was always eager to get attention from her mother. She came over obediently and sat down next to Lara. "What kind of story?"

"It's about an evil group of people. An organization called Galactor."

The child, then five, giggled. "That's a funny name."

"But what they do isn't funny at all," Lara said. "They kill and destroy everything they see. And their leader, Berg Katse, is the worst of all. He's the most ruthless, cruel person there's ever been in history."

"Why does this Galactor do such bad things?"

"Because they're trying to conquer the world. Berg Katse is obsessed with a desire for world rulership."

"Is he trying to be king of the world?"

Lara smiled. "That's one way to put it."

"What's so bad about that? When I grow up, I'll be queen of the world."

Lara couldn't help laughing at Alatan's solemn pronouncement. "There's no such thing as Queen of the World, honey. You could grow up to be Secretary-General of the United Nations, but that's the best you could do."

She was unprepared for the rage that twisted Alatan's childish features. "But Sosai promised me I would be queen of the world!"

Sosai? The word sounded strange, alien, without a contextual referent. Lara's blood chilled even more deeply than it had when she'd learned the name of Alatan's father. "Who is Sosai, Alatan?" she asked quietly.

Alatan had gone pale. "Nobody," she said.

"You said 'Sosai promised'. I want to know who's been making you promises, Alatan. Who is Sosai?"

"He's just an imaginary friend..."

"Don't lie to me!" Terrified, Lara grabbed Alatan's arms, and dragged her to face Lara. "Who is Sosai? Tell me!"

Alatan looked as terrified as Lara felt. "He's-- he's just a light, inside my head!"

"I said, don't lie to me!" Lara shook Alatan.

"No-- I'm not lying, I'm not! He's a light, who comes sometimes in my head! And he teaches me things!"

"Things like what?"

"Just things. He taught me how to read. And he said that my daddy will be King of the Earth, and someday I'll join him and be Queen."

Oh, God help us all... Lara stared into Alatan's eyes. Sosai was somehow the doing of Galactor, she knew, with all her intellect and mother's intuition. Because Alatan had learned to read at the age of three, without aid from any adult, and because the story about her father matched too closely with what Lara knew her father really was... Was it too late? Had she already lost Alatan to Galactor, and the purpose she'd been born for?

No! Lara couldn't believe that. She couldn't. "You have no father!" she shouted

at Alatan. "Your father is dead! I'm the only parent you have!"

"But what about Sosai?"

"Sosai's lying to you. He's trying to use you for some kind of evil purpose, Alatan. He wants you to be cruel and evil, so everyone will hate you. Is that what you want?"

"No..." Alatan whispered.

"Then don't listen to Sosai, ever. All right, Alatan? Promise me?"

"I promise," Alatan said, her eyes filling with tears, and Lara had to hug her.

"Don't worry, baby. I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at Sosai, for trying to take you away from me."

Lara didn't like the idea of Alatan spending all her time alone, vulnerable to this demon. But she couldn't put Alatan in ISO day care-- if Alatan were ever to hint at the things she had just told Lara, Nambu would steal her away and never let her go, and the same would happen if he discovered her powers. So she decided to send Alatan directly on to school, putting her in first grade a year early.

Alatan did not make friends easily. Her teachers told Lara that Alatan would not approach the other children, and that if forced to work with them, she would become bossy and demanding, throwing temper tantrums when she didn't get her way. Lara simply did not believe this. Alatan always obeyed the few rules Lara set her without complaint.

But she arranged to observe her daughter, and saw a completely different Alatan. In first grade, Alatan was easily the brightest child there, in an environment for gifted children. She already knew how to read and write and count, the usual things that were taught in first grade, and the simple assignments bored her. She hated to work with the other children, or to obey orders she disliked, and she did often throw tantrums, something she had never, not even as an infant, done at home. She also spent a fearful lot of time alone, staring into space-- just as she had when Sosai, whatever he was, was influencing her. Lara was shocked, and for a while considered giving Alatan a private tutor. But she had to learn how to relate to others her age, and the longer it was put off the more difficult it would be. Besides, she feared that anyone who gave Alatan individualized attention would figure out Alatan's secrets.

Instead, Lara decided to keep Alatan in school and to discuss the problem with her.

"I just don't like the other kids," Alatan complained. "They're stupid."

"I know it's tough. But you have to learn to get along with them, or you'll never have any friends."

"I don't need friends."

"Everyone needs friends, Alatan. Aren't you lonely?"

"No," Alatan said, but wouldn't look into Lara's eyes. A cold chill went down Lara's spine.

"Have you been talking to Sosai again?"


"The truth, Alatan!"

Alatan looked at Lara pleadingly. "He's smart! He teaches me stuff! The stupid teachers don't teach me anything!"

"What does he teach you?" Lara asked, fighting to control her temper and her panic. If she were to find a way to wean Alatan away from this monster sent by her father, she had to learn as much as possible about the hold it had on Alatan.

"Just things."

"Like what?"

"Like things." Alatan was unusually evasive on the subject, and kept repeating "just things." Finally, though, she agreed to show Lara one of the "things."

The Remingtons, of course, had a computer, and since her fourth birthday Alatan had been to some extent capable of using it. The programs Lara had taught her how to access were fourth or fifth grade level, far above Alatan's age group but still not adult. Now Alatan showed her mother an amazing proficiency. At the tender age of five and a half, she was a hacker, almost as talented as her mother herself, with the ability to get past virtually any security system. Alatan was a brilliant girl, with a vocabulary and abilities far beyond her years-- but not this far beyond. What she was doing was simply not possible-- unless she had outside help.

Help from the same force that had caused her to be born...

Lara forbade Alatan to invade security systems, but this was a concept Alatan had a near-impossible time with. How was she doing wrong? Shouldn't information be available to everybody? What constituted "invasion" anyway? Finally Lara explained to Alatan's apparent satisfaction that the special procedures she used to get in made her a thief of information, and that if she couldn't do it with the regular procedures, she shouldn't do it at all. Alatan nodded and said she understood, and Lara felt a sense of relief. If she could get Alatan to understand a moral concept, she might be able to teach Alatan that Sosai was evil...

The first thing she had to do was present Alatan with an attractive alternative to Sosai. The "light in her head" taught her things? Very well, Lara would make sure Alatan was challenged. She placed Alatan in classes in dance and the martial arts, deluged her with books on science, and put her to work debugging Lara's programs. That should stretch her mind enough that she shouldn't have to go to Sosai for intellectual stimulation. To top it all off, Lara dumped several pop-psychology books on making friends in Alatan's lap. Since Alatan read far above her age level, and they were mostly written for people with eighth-grade educations, she might be able to get some use out of them.

Within a year, Alatan's tantrums at school stopped. She seemed a model child, always with polite words for everyone, gifted, beautiful, quiet, loved by her teachers, always obedient. The other children taunted her mercilessly, but Alatan seemed to ignore them with a maturity far beyond her years. It grieved Lara that her daughter had no friends, but Lara didn't put as much value on friendships as others might, never having had many herself. What she saw was that Alatan's teachers loved her, and that in many respects she was a perfect child.

Except that she spent so much time wrapped in her own world, where Lara was certain she was talking to Sosai...

When Alatan was seven, Dr. Nambu called Lara on a matter of genetics. He wanted to know if she had encountered, in all her case studies of interesting mutations, any references to a syndrome of human polyploidy.

The question froze Lara's blood. He knows! was her immediate reaction. She liked and respected Kozaburo Nambu and would trust him with her life... but not her daughter's. If he knew even part of Alatan's secret, her triploid genetic structure and superhuman powers... she didn't even want to think about what to do then. She asked, cautiously, "Why do you ask?"

"Why don't you come by my office. An interesting case has come up, and I'd like your input."

She went to meet him, her brain roiling with possibilities-- could she trust him with Alatan's secret? And if she did, what were the odds that Alatan would somehow find herself becoming an elite agent trained against Galactor, or being interrogated about "Sosai" to find some weak point of her father's? Nambu would sacrifice anyone and anything to stop Galactor... he would not think twice about exploiting Alatan's powers. Could Lara blackmail him? With what? And would that bring Gatchaman down on her neck? Could she kidnap and hypnotize him? Or would she have to... no, no, she would not consider that. Not even for Alatan's sake.

But if it was a choice between Nambu's life or Alatan's?

As it turned out, none of her desperate planning meant anything. Nambu knew nothing of Alatan's secret. He had summoned her and a man in her department, Mark Westerly, a junior researcher whose work was extremely original and promising, to show them the result of his researches on the leader of Galactor. There was a record of an infant mutant who underwent periodic sex changes, an infant with double the proper number of chromosomes, held at a German science institute for study a little over thirty years ago. The child's name had been Katzchen Bergmann, and changed by its family for reasons unknown to Berg Katse. The records had been virtually impossible to get, he said, since the institute in question had burned down under highly suspicious circumstances some eleven years ago, but after he had that much they were able to get more with more ease. The mother's name had been Wilhelmina Bergmann. From the cold statistics of her life he had deduced that her baby had been illegitimate (like Alatan, Lara thought) and taken away from her, institutionalized and its name changed. Bergmann had spent many years in an insane asylum, then, apparently got out somehow and spent the rest of her life looking for her stolen child. It was a bitter irony that she had been killed by Galactor mere months ago.

"What's obvious," Nambu said, "is that Berg Katse is a tetraploid mutant, with 4 chromosomal sets instead of 2, and somehow that gave him two sexes. What isn't obvious is how he could have come to be that way, or how he stays alive. I was under the impression that human polyploidy was fatal... Finally, I don't understand how this could give him the ability to change sex. Wouldn't he be both at the same time? I was wondering if the two of you could shed some light on this."

From a profound relief that he wasn't talking about Alatan, Lara went to a fascination with the topic. If Berg Katse was polyploid himself, that explained a lot. That explained why Alatan was triploid, for one thing. And whatever mechanism kept him alive had kept her alive, too.

"Can we be sure he is human?" she asked. "After all, chromosome number varies from species to species. Maybe he comes from some sort of humanoid species that naturally has 92 chromosomes instead of 46." She knew that couldn't be-- if Berg Katse was truly of a different species, he couldn't have bred with Jennifer Kelly to produce Alatan-- but she wasn't about to admit to having special knowledge.

"You're assuming that aliens are involved with Galactor, then?" Nambu said.

"Actually," Mark Westerly said, "I have seen a few cases like that in the past. I'm afraid the details are confidential, but I treated a tetraploid man once. He had suffered some sort of sports injury, and had broken his neck. The injury should have been fatal. But he regenerated over a space of three days, regrowing even the damaged nerves in the spinal cord. I was in medical school at the time, so I don't have access to the records anymore. But what happened was unmistakable. One set of his chromosomes was deactivated when he arrived at the hospital, and it was the same set in each cell. When he started regenerating, the other chromosome set became deactivated, and the cells rebuilt themselves on the template of the first set, changing his dominant hand, and to some extent even his appearance. It was as if he were two different men entirely-- twins, as it were, in the same body."

"Were you able to question him as to the cause?" Nambu asked. Lara leaned forward, fascinated-- perhaps this could help her understand Alatan's abilities.

"I did, but I'm afraid it was no help. He claimed to have no idea. He was very bright-- a medical student himself, with an IQ of 170 on the American scale, 250 on the modified European." Lara nodded to herself-- Alatan's IQ was 265 on the modified scale. "He knew he was tetraploid, but hadn't the foggiest why, or why it had caused him to regenerate like that. Apparently, every year he went through the change from one form to the other, but had only recently realized he was tetraploid, and hadn't yet figured out the connection between the two."

Nambu, too, was nodding. "That makes sense. According to these records, Berg Katse's IQ is 280. Perhaps these tetraploid mutants have an unusually high intelligence, somehow. But what could have caused such a mutation?"

"It seems to me," Westerly said, "that the mutation may actually have to do with twinning-- that a pair of fraternal twins might somehow become combined in the womb, and end up becoming a tetraploid mutant."

"That still doesn't say anything about the cause," Lara pointed out, "since that's not really possible, either. Strictly speaking, there shouldn't be such thing as a polyploid mutant. Polyploid animals don't live."

"Galactor might have genetically engineered it, somehow," Westerly said.

Lara nodded. "That's probably the only way it could have happened. Galactor somehow put in some sort of switching gene, so these polyploids can turn off that part of their genome that they don't need. When they turn it back on, the cell builds itself over according to the new genetic plan." And that explains how Alatan can regenerate, Lara thought. She's not combined twins-- she's got only three sets, and she can probably turn them on and off at a local level, so small parts of her body can regenerate at incredible speed. And that explains how she changed to look just like me... "Does that help, Doctor?"

"It does indeed," Nambu said. "If Berg Katse can regenerate, that explains a great deal about him. I'd appreciate it if the two of you didn't tell anyone what I've told you today. I want to wait until I have all the facts before I make this public."

"I understand, Doctor," Lara said, and Westerly acknowledged that he, too, would keep quiet.

A week later, Nambu did publicize the information, together with a new fact. A being called "Sosai X" had genetically engineered Berg Katse. Lara listened to that fact and shuddered. She had never really understood what, exactly, Alatan's "Sosai" was-- now she knew it was Alatan's father's creator and master, and it chilled her. That was what she was up against.

Slightly more than a month later came the time of the earthquakes, and Galactor's most devastating plot to date. Alatan was supposedly safely ensconced at a children's shelter for ISO members' children, while Lara was in another shelter for adults, since her specialty didn't lend itself to working on the problem. She worried, and wished she could be with her daughter, but was reassured by her belief that Alatan was in the safest possible place.

But after the earthquakes were over and the world was saved, the shelter called Lara. It seemed that Alatan had run out of the shelter during the final tremors. Nobody had dared chase after her until after the quakes had ended, when they'd found her outside, huddled by a tree and sobbing uncontrollably. Lara came immediately to take her hysterical child and comfort her. Alatan wouldn't, or couldn't, explain her grief to Lara, other than crying, "He left! He left me!"

The next morning, Nambu announced on international television that Berg Katse was dead, Galactor defeated, and X gone from Earth. It was a cruel thing to do, then, Lara knew, but she silently rejoiced in her daughter's sorrow. Now Alatan would be normal again, without Sosai X influencing her development.

Shortly afterward, Alatan asked about her father. "Since Sosai was always lying to me, you said..."

Lara was deeply relieved. Already Alatan was recovering from Sosai's influence. For the first time, Lara confessed to her that she was adopted. "You can't tell anybody that, though. You have a very special power, Alatan--"

"You mean how I can make my face look different?" And her face melted, collapsing, then restored itself to an exact, adult replica of Lara's own. Lara hid her shock from her daughter. Even knowing her parentage, even knowing what she was theoretically capable of, Lara had never realized quite how far from human Alatan was.

"Yes. And the way that, when you hurt yourself, it heals immediately. With most people, like me, it heals, but slowly. It can take days for a cut to go away."

"Days?" Alatan asked incredulously. "I broke a bone once, and it went away in minutes."

"Exactly. That's a very special gift you have, Alatan. No one else in all the world can do that."

"Oh, no. My daddy can. I know."

So the subject was back to her father. Lara resisted the temptation to tell Alatan that her daddy wouldn't be doing anything anymore, except perhaps rotting in hell. "Did Sosai tell you that?"

"Oh, him. He never told me anything. I figured it out for myself. I saw a PBS special on how babies are made-- well, you know about that-- and I knew I could do stuff you can't, like with my face. And it's genetic. So I figured it had to be my daddy. Who was he? Where did he go?"

"I don't know," Lara lied. "I could find out for you, who your biological mother and father were. But it could have been your mother who was like you, you know."

"But you're my mommy, even if you're not genetically. I want it to be my daddy."

Lara made up imaginary records and pasts for a pair of nuclear researchers named Bert and Jennifer Kelly, neither of whom had mutations of their own, and explained to Alatan that her mutation was the result of a sperm cell failing to undergo meiotic division, which necessitated an in-depth discussion of chromosomes, DNA replication, and Alatan's own syndrome of triploidy. The information seemed to disappoint Alatan-- she wanted desperately to believe that her father was still alive out there, and a mutant like herself, instead of a normal human being who was dead as Lara told her. Lara hated to lie to her daughter, but the truth would only hurt her more-- if she knew whose daughter she really was, it would corroborate what Sosai had told her, and strengthen all the other things the demon had fed her impressionable mind with. Who knew how it might affect her?

The torments of the other children began to get through to Alatan. She got into fight after fight, attempting to solve her problems with her fists. It didn't usually work-- having little conception of pain or injury herself, Alatan had no idea how to hit someone and make it hurt. She seemed to be afraid to touch others. Others were not afraid to touch her, though, and sooner or later, Lara feared, Alatan would get seriously hurt and her regenerative powers would be revealed to the world. Apparently the martial-arts classes weren't helping much. Lara suggested that Alatan train harder, and that she try to solve her problems through nonviolent means.

Slowly, Alatan began to normalize. In the beginning, after X abandoned her, she was weepy, emotional, even violent sometimes, and for the first time the opinions of the other children began to matter to her. Without X, she was desperately lonely. This same loneliness forced her to become warmer, friendlier to the other kids and easier to be friendly with. As time went on, she regained her quiet equilibrium, and developed an extremely compassionate streak. Reports of hunger and poverty shocked her, as did the everyday violence of children, and she told her mother that someday she would "change all that." She still was not a popular child, but she had all the adults eating out of her hands, and the other children had stopped tormenting her, at least. Eventually, they even began to look up to her and treat her as their friend.

One day when Alatan was 9, Lara was summoned by Nambu. "It's an emergency involving your daughter," was all he'd say, but that was enough to terrify Lara. What had happened? Was Alatan dead? Had the ghosts of her birth somehow come back to haunt her? She rushed to the hospital, where he'd told her to meet him, and met the Science Ninja Team for the first time in her life. They were clustered in a waiting room, along with Nambu.

"Ah, Dr. Remington," Nambu said. "Your daughter's unbelievably fortunate. She's hardly injured at all.

"What happened?" Lara shrieked.

The white-suited man Lara had heard of as Gatchaman, the Eagle, spoke. "Galactor tried to kidnap her," he said. "According to Alatan herself, they dragged her into a mecha and flew her off. She crashed it, and at first we thought she was dead, but it turns out she was no worse than bruised a little."

"She's sleeping in the next room," Dr. Nambu said. "I don't think it's a good idea to wake her, but you can go in and see her if you like."

Of course Lara wanted to see her. She opened the door to the room, and saw her daughter lying peacefully asleep in a hospital bed, her dark hair fanning out on the pillow. "Alatan," she whispered softly. Then she stepped back out, shutting the door. "How could this happen? I thought Galactor was dead."

"We all thought so," Nambu said, "but that's the story she tells. I was wondering if you could help us understand what Galactor would want with your daughter, since she says she doesn't know."

Lara paled. Of course she knew what Galactor wanted with Alatan-- but it wasn't possible! The nightmare was over! Sosai X was gone! "I-- I can't imagine-- why would they take Alatan?" she whispered, trying to make her shock and fear look like natural outgrowths of the situation. "Galactor's supposed to be gone!"

"Sosai X left to investigate the disappearance of his homeworld," Gatchaman said. "If he's investigated it already, and if he knows Earth wasn't destroyed, he might come back. This might signify his return."

X-- back? No!! "Well... Alatan's exceptionally brilliant and talented, but..."

"But what would X want with a 9-year-old girl?" the Swan asked.

"Blackmail of some kind?" the youngest Science Ninja, the Swallow, asked.

"I doubt it," Nambu said, "unless he wanted to force you, Dr. Remington, to work for him. What sort of research have you been doing lately?"

"Sequencing the codes for juvenile diabetes," Lara said numbly. That and studying Alatan's genes, but of course she couldn't say that. "I can't imagine what something like Sosai X would want with something like that..."

"Neither can I." Nambu looked at her hard for several seconds, and Lara cringed inwardly. It looked as if he knew she was hiding something... But if she showed the guilt she felt, he would get the secret out of her. And she didn't dare do that. What would he likely do to the daughter of Berg Katse? Taking her away for study was the least of the fates Lara could imagine Nambu inflicting on her daughter, well-meaning though he was. So she looked back at him evenly, showing none of her fear, until he stood. "Well, if we find a connection, we'll let you know, Dr. Remington. I think we should leave you to take care of your daughter now."

"Thank you very much," Lara said.

The story came out in more detail when Lara questioned her daughter. Sosai had sent for her, but out of spite and the pain of her earlier rejection Alatan had decided not to go. Sosai had sent a mecha to kidnap her then. To teach Sosai a lesson, Alatan had ripped out the wires, crashing the mecha. She should have been killed, but it was very difficult to injure Alatan for more than a moment, and she had been unhurt by the time the Ninja Team found her.

Three months later X showed himself openly, launching the war against Earth once more, aided by his new assistant, Gel Sadra.

Alatan withdrew into herself again after the kidnapping incident. Lara explained to her about X's evil again, telling her that he was responsible for the Galactor attacks she heard about in the news, and Alatan said that she had already decided not to listen to Sosai ever again. Lara desperately wanted to believe her-- but there were indications that still pointed to X's influence. The few friendships Alatan had made melted away, and she seemed remote all the time. She barely spoke to her mother at all, and when Lara did manage to draw her into conversation, it was usually about genetics, or some concept Alatan wanted explained, never about anything important to Alatan personally. It was possible that the kidnapping attempt had changed her-- Alatan seemed still shaken over it-- but it was also possible that X had returned to her as well as to Earth, was once more influencing her mind...

Time passed. Gel Sadra's secret was discovered, that fact that she was a force-grown three-year-old, and when Nambu told her about it, Lara realized in horror that little Sammie Pandora had not been X's first choice of victim. He had planned to make his Gel Sadra out of Alatan. Nambu suggested that Alatan and Sammie both possessed some sort of unusual genetic sequence, that would make them both vulnerable to being force-grown, and that X had picked on Sammie Pandora and made her into Gel Sadra after he failed with Alatan. Lara lied again, saying that she had found nothing unusual in her daughter's genome, but then considering how little of the human genome was yet understood this was hardly surprising. As Gel Sadra was unavailable and both her parents were dead, it would be impossible to sequence them to try to find a point of comparison between their genomes and Alatan's. Nambu appeared to buy the story-- after all, he had no reason to suspect that Alatan was a mutant-- and warned Lara to be careful. If Alatan was indeed more vulnerable to Galactor genetic engineering somehow, they might continue to try for her. Lara thanked him and promised him she would take care-- as of course she would, she thought. She knew exactly how vulnerable Alatan was.

Alatan still claimed to have rejected X, and Lara could not catch her talking to him or anything like that, but things began to happen, things that might or might not have been coincidence. She was ten now, heading toward eleven. X had changed its name to Zed and had begun another war against Earth-- surely it was too busy to be affecting her? But Lara had noticed that Alatan seemed to have incredible luck, luck that seemed to operate against anyone that stood in her way. Alatan was made an understudy for a musical performance by an older girl. The other girl caught the chicken pox two nights before she was supposed to go on, and Alatan was called to give the performance on that night. The girls' gym teacher was a real jock who disapproved of things like modern dance being taught in gym. She was mugged and had to go on leave of absence, and the new gym teacher was a dance enthusiast who absolutely loved Alatan. Alatan stood to win second prize at a science fair-- although her project was excellent, it was obvious that an older boy's more sophisticated entry would win. But on the night Alatan took her project to her science teacher's house for help, the school was vandalized and all the other projects destroyed. Most students got theirs back together in time for the fair, but the older boy's project was far too complex to put back together in time-- Alatan won first prize. It was as if something was spotting for Alatan, some force was taking care of her competition and making sure she stayed on top, without making it obvious to anyone but Lara that such a thing was happening. But Zed surely had other things on what passed for its mind than insuring the happiness of one little girl?

It occurred to Lara that perhaps Alatan herself was responsible for these "coincidences." The idea made her physically sick, but she didn't mention any of this to Alatan-- how do you ask your perfect little girl if she's becoming a monster?

It was impossible-- especially since Alatan was happier now than ever before. At eleven, she was a recognized prodigy musically and in dance. She was known at school to have great skill in the martial arts, and was left strictly alone by the other students, which is what she seemed to want. The teachers were tutoring her separately in advanced math and science and language, things the other students wouldn't learn until high school. Lara watched her carefully for signs of Zed's influence. There didn't appear to be any... except for those weird coincidences.

Then a night came when Alatan awoke shrieking. Lara ran to her daughter's room and saw her writhing on her bed, hands shredding the blanket, eyes wide and unseeing as her head jerked back and forth and she screamed shrilly. She didn't appear to register Lara's existence, not even when Lara picked her up and carried her out to the living room at a run. Lara, being a doctor, knew how to give drugs-- she injected Alatan with a sedative and muscle relaxant. It had no effect. Of course not-- Alatan couldn't be drugged. Lara was forced to sit by her daughter, stroking her hands and murmuring soothing words, unitl the fit passed. Alatan focused her eyes then, and for the first time since it began seemed to see her mother there.

"It's all right, Alatan," Lara said soothingly. "It's all right. I'm here."

"M-momm!" Alatan threw her arms around her mother and sobbed helplessly for half an hour. She couldn't seem to explain what had happened to her-- but when ISO notified Lara of Gatchaman's apparent success in destroying Zed, she knew. Zed had been in contact with her daughter-- but no more. The nightmare was over forever.

Alatan never spoke of Zed, or that night, again. She never became exactly normal, but Lara didn't want an average daughter anyway. She remained aloof from her schoolmates-- they had very little in common with her, after all-- but she acquired an amazing number of pen pals and phone friends, in various countries and cities of the world. Lara was grateful for her daughter's occupation with something sane-- she herself had less time than ever.

Nambu and Gatchaman returned from wherever they had been-- the official story was that an alien scientist named Teriani Kymel had rescued the Gatchamen and somehow revived Nambu. Most people accepted this, since the alternative was to believe that Nambu had actually returned from the dead. Lara, who had become used to believing six impossible things before breakfast since the Galactor mutants had started turning up, rather suspected that there was a good deal more to that story, but she didn't pry. Now that Galactor was finally defeated, Nambu said, the ISO could finally do the work it was meant for-- furthering the scientific knowledge and expertise of the human race-- and Lara, as head of the genetics department, ended up becoming one of the top-level people as Nambu reprioritized genetics. This meant she had to travel a very great deal, and Alatan was of an age where she could be safely left home, what with her innate maturity, healing powers, and martial skills. Lara bought Alatan her own phone line, and paid for her ridiculously expensive calls to America, Italy, Switzerland and other places, and otherwise was forced to leave her alone.

But gradually Lara began to notice strange things about Alatan. Often, when she returned home, Alatan wasn't there, and the house didn't look as if it had been occupied in a while. Alatan usually said she'd stayed with one of her Japanese phone friends. But Lara never met these friends, no matter how hard she tried to find them. Massive quantities of mail filled Alatan's room, but their mailbox received only an occasional letter. Alatan had passed her thirteenth birthday-- it was usual for teenage girls to be secretive about things. But it was even more usual for mothers to grow suspicious. Lara tried reading some of the papers in Alatan's room, but they were often in a language she didn't understand. So, fairly often, were Alatan's phone conversations. And then there was the massive amount of computer time Alatan racked up. Lara tried having a tap put on the line, but it never worked. Then the phone bills stopped coming.

Alatan, when asked, was willing to provide explanations for everything. "I won a lot of money by mail in an American lottery, so I've been using it to rent postal boxes for my mail, and I decided recently to pay for the phone bills myself with it. I have a very good broker for my international stocks, Mom. So you don't have to worry about money."

"Who are these friends of yours, Alatan? What do you talk about?"

"Science and music."

Lara's suspicions were assuaged for a time, especially when Alatan showed her a bank statement. But the story was basically implausible, and she believed it only because she'd never known Alatan to lie. Of course, that only meant that she'd never caught Alatan at it-- and though she was not dishonest, the girl had been secretive and evasive all her life. Finally, one day Lara told her daughter she was taking a three-day trip-- and returned, only hours later. Alatan was not there. Lara decided to search her room.

She didn't know what she expected to find-- drugs? porn? Her mother's instinct told her that Alatan was involved in something illegal. But all the papers were locked away in Alatan's file cabinet, and Lara found nothing amiss-- until she came to the closet, and found a satin cape, a black mask, blood-red boots, and a black bodysuit with red lace. There was only one group in the world that wore outfits like that-- and Lara had seen that particular outfit before...

Nambu was not at the ISO mainland building, or Lara would have spilled her suspicions to him at once-- and years of secrecy kept her from confiding in anyone with less authority than he had. Lara had seen the picture on Nambu's desk last time, as part of a report that she was not authorized to read. Using every ounce of skill and pull, Lara finally found the report. The picture was a very blurry color photo of a blonde young woman wearing the outfit Lara had seen in Alatan's closet. For moments, Lara debated whether to read the report or not-- she wasn't authorized, after all. But curiosity, coupled with a mother's desperate fears, decided her, and she turned the page to read.

The report was about the return of Galactor. A pair of agents had learned that a mysterious young woman, the same one in the fuzzy photo, had begun to reunify the Galactor Syndicate only months after Egobossler's death. Since that time, over two years ago, next to no one had seen her-- she did virtually all her communicating by mail or phone. Recently, however, she had begun to make personal appearances more often, and one of the two agents had managed to get the photo. It had cost him his life. Nothing was known of the young woman's past history, her age, or her ability as a leader. As a matter of fact, only two things were known about her-- her name was Alatan Katse and she was Berg Katse's daughter and heir.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, oh my sweet Jesus Christ save us all... Lara thought frantically. Alatan, her brilliant daughter, was the new leader of Galactor. How? What did I do wrong? Lara cursed herself a thousand times over, in the colorful language of her Romany childhood, for not seeing the signs, for allowing Alatan to go blithely on her way. And yet, what could she have done? Evil was not genetic-- Alatan hadn't been raised by Berg Katse, there was no reason why she should want to follow in his footsteps. It was Zed, of course. It had to be.

Somehow a part of Zed had survived in Alatan, to corrupt her. Lara knew her Alatan didn't have a Galactor mentality-- she wanted to save the world, not destroy it. She couldn't bear to see people hurt. How could she be the new Galactor leader?

Perhaps, if she were caught now, before her position became rigid around her... perhaps if Lara took her file cabinets of plans and gave them to Nambu, Galactor would be broken and there would be nothing left to hold Alatan. Perhaps Lara could reach her, before it was too late.

She put the report away and returned home, too shaken to notice that things were not as she'd left them until a hand suddenly grabbed her blouse front and shoved her up against the living room wall.

"Alatan!" Lara gasped.

It was her daughter and not her daughter. The resemblance to Lara had vanished with the donning of the costume and mask, and Alatan's original coloring had returned, blonde hair and white skin. But the shape of the face behind the mask was the same, and the voice was pure Alatan. "You know," Alatan said. "You were going to turn me in, weren't you?"

Lara tried to pull away from her daughter. "Alatan, why? You--"

"Has to be. This is the destiny I was born for, Mom. You've been trying to keep me from it for years. You lied to me-- you never told me you knew who my father was, and you never told me he was dead." Her eyes were invisible behind the mask, but Lara could hear tears in the voice. "If I'd known-- if I'd known he was dead-- I wouldn't have wasted so many years in empty hopes. All along you've been trying to crush me into your mold, to make me into a carbon copy of every other human girl. I'm not human-- I've never been human-- and I'd never fit in with humanity. You ruined the only kind of happiness I could have. If I'd been with my father..."

"Your father was a monster!" Lara shouted, near hysteria. "Alatan, you're nothing like him. You're my daughter, not his! Alatan--"

"He wouldn't have been a monster if he'd had somebody like him to love him," Alatan said, her voice oddly childlike. "I would've. But you never let me know! He's dead now... but I'll fulfill his destiny. I'll rule the world, as Sosai intended... I'll change things. Galactor will be different. When I rule the world, I can end poverty, war..."

"Alatan, you can't use Galactor to do good with-- the ends don't justify--"

"The means? Yes, they do, if the ends are great enough. I didn't want to hurt you, Mom-- but I can't allow you to report to Nambu just yet. And besides-- you lied to me. You have to pay for that, Mom, there's always a price to be paid..."

By the time Alatan was done with her mother, Lara had mercifully lost consciousness. Alatan gently laid the broken body in a closet, where none of her men would see her. Lara wasn't dead-- she wasn't likely to die, either-- but if she were conscious, she would probably wish to be dead. Which was regrettable-- part of Alatan's mind even grieved for the necessity, but it had to be done and another part of her was glad to do it. Now, however, Lara Remington was no longer Alatan's concern.

She went to the door and called to her men. "It's time-- I want all my possessions moved out of here by nine, so we'd better get to work, neh?"

"Hai, Katse-sama," the men replied, bowing, and followed Alatan to her room. By ten o'clock tonight, there should be nothing left of Alatan Kelly Remington, except in her adoptive mother's mind. Now and forever, she was Alatan Katse.

And the presence in her mind-- the light that had guided her since birth-- agreed, in malevolent triumph.