Maze Games 3

(Gatchaman IV story #14)

Meghara sorted through a pile of papers with growing disgust. There wasn't anything useful in here. These scientists had in effect been playing with themselves, and taking Dr. Marriochio's money to do it. Heads were gonna roll, there was no doubt about it.

She leaned back, letting her purple hair fall over the back of the chair. She was sick of working for Dr. Marriochio, sick of judging papers to be crapola and thus possibly ending their originators' lives, sick of finding good original stuff and encoding it so only Marriochio could get access to it, sick of Marriochio herself... Meg was 14 years of age, nearly 15, and had spent all those years in thrall to Galactor. She was tired of it. She wanted to be free, to have friends, sweethearts, go to concerts... It wasn't fair. Alatan Katse was just as much a mutant as Meghara, but because her father had been leader of Galactor, she got to do everything she wanted. Whereas Meghara's mutant mother had abandoned her to the tender mercies of Vail Djannis when Meg was born, and hadn't been anyone in particular anyway. And so Meg was trapped, Marriochio's pet human computer, and she was never going to get free. Never ever.

"Have you read all the reports?"

Meg turned-- Selina Marriochio had entered the room. She sighed. "Yeah, I read them. They're shit."


"They're garbage. Their stats look like they got pulled out of the air, they don't have sufficient data pools for their claims, at least one looks like it'd have an experimental power of about point oh three, another one duplicates studies they got sufficient redundancy on ten years ago, they're essentially shit. A waste. And boring besides. Can I go now?"

"No." Selina walked over to Meg. "I have an assignment you might find a bit more challenging. Read this--" she slapped a dossier down on Meg's desk-- "and give me the weak points of this man, the things we can use to break him."

Meg rolled her eyes. She hated interrogation work. She glanced at the dossier-- and then back at Selina. "You want to break Director Nambu of the ISO?" she asked incredulously. "Good luck!"

"Find his weak points, Meg."

"What if he hasn't got any?"

"If the dossier doesn't give you enough information, you may question and analyze him. But everyone has a weak point."

"Yeah? What's yours?"

Selina sighed. "Just do what I tell you, Meghara. This is important."

"It's always important. Studies on whether snails shit more under a full moon are important as far as you're concerned."

"And refrain from unnecessary obscenity."

"Sorry. Whether snails defecate more."

"I expect this done ASAP, Meg. You may also interrogate Dr. Remington if you feel it will help."

"Am I supposed to figure out her weak points, too?"

"No-- not only doesn't she know anything useful, but I already know how to break her." Selina scooped up the pile of reports. "If it's as you say, that these do not meet standards, I will have a discussion with their originators. I do not pay my people good money for poor science."

"Going to kill them?" Meg asked. Her tone was nonchalant, but her heart was sinking.

"No," Selina said, which perked Meg up some. She didn't want to cause anyone's death. "Get to work, Meg."

She crossed the room, sat down at her desk, and began flipping through the reports. Meg saw her with the tiredly familiar eye of a rebellious teen looking at her mother figure. The made-up, dead white skin and long black hair Selina affected, a contrast other people found startling and weird, was normal to Meg's eye-- Selina had always looked that way. It wasn't that Meg hated Dr. Marriochio-- Selina had been like a mother to her. But she didn't like being held prisoner by a foster mother, and she was at the age now where thoughts of freedom were rapidly becoming more important.

She began to read through the dossier, resentful of Selina's presence and eager to get done. Five minutes later, she had finished-- it was a thick dossier, but Meg needed only to glance at a page to input it into her computerlike mind. "This isn't gonna help."

"Go question Nambu himself, then."

"Suppose I can't get enough that way, either?"

"Then I'm going to have to drug him. And if I do, I may end up damaging the skills I need from him. Not to mention leaving him a mental vegetable. I don't imagine you'd like that, would you, Meg."

"You're a shit, Doctor," Meg muttered. Selina knew how to push her buttons, all right. "All right, I'm going, already. Where're you keeping him?"

"Negative three, cell 152."

"Got it."

Nambu had thoroughly explored his cell, and come to the conclusion that there wasn't any way out. He couldn't even find the door. Food and drink-- mostly microwavable meals and water-- were provided through a small doorway that doubled as a microwave oven. Meals seemed to come at reasonably regular intervals, and by counting them, he gauged himself to have been here three days, and a captive of Galactor for four or five.

He was sitting on the bed, eating the microwaved pasta they'd sent him today with some distaste, when a part of the wall slid aside and a young woman entered. At least Nambu thought she was a young woman. She was androgynous in the way Gel Sadra had been androgynous, tall and muscular with broad shoulders. She also had a much harder and more masculine face than Gel Sadra. But her low-cut vest and bikini briefs could not be concealing a male body; her large breasts might be surgically enhanced, but enough of them was exposed to show that they were indeed real breasts, not a padded bra or falsies, and her briefs were tight enough to roughly outline female anatomy. She might be a transsexual, but she seemed too young to be permitted sex-change surgery; more likely she was a young female on steroids or something. Considering that this was Galactor, perhaps "something" was the most likely possibility. Her androgynous face was heavily made up, somewhat counterbalancing it in favor of femininity, and her hair fell to her waist, streaked purple and white. Aside from the purple vest and bikini briefs, all she was wearing were low suede boots, leather white gloves, and fishnet stockings, in addition to a great deal of jewelry.

"Hi, there," she said. Her voice was deep, but unmistakably in the feminine register. "Like the outfit?"

The question was so unexpected it threw Nambu off balance for several seconds. "I... hadn't thought much about your outfit, one way or another," he said. "I was more curious to know who you are and what you're doing in my cell."

"So think about the outfit. Do you like it? Why or why not?"

"Does Marriochio know you're here?"

"Oh, yeah. Look, if you don't like the outfit just say so."

"What are you doing in my cell?"

"Getting your opinion on my outfit. Would you let your daughter go out dressed like this? How about your son?"

"No, I wouldn't," Nambu said exasperatedly. "I've never found that sort of outlandish style to be particularly interesting or attractive. Now what are you doing here?"

"Having a pleasant little conversation with you. So what do you like-- boring suits, looks like. But at least you wear your hair long, that's a plus."

"Who are you?"

"Did I forget to mention that? I'm Meghara. Meg for short. Did your older sister wear stuff like this? Is that why your father disowned her?"

"How did you find out about my older sister?"

"Read about her. Why did she get kicked out?"

"If you have so much information, you can figure it out."

"I think it was because she wore wild clothes and slept around. Wasn't it?"

"No," Nambu growled. "Did Marriochio send you to annoy me?"

"So why did she get kicked out?"

"She did not get kicked out--"

"She got disowned, didn't she?"

"My family is none of your business." It was an effort not to shout.

Meg walked over to Nambu and stood over him, intruding on his personal space. If he stood up, he would smack into her head; if he crawled back on the bed to get some space, he would be admitting that she had managed to get to him. So he looked up at her, controlling his discomfort, as she grinned down at him from over 6 ft. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Namby. You can tell me the answers to my stupid meaningless questions, or I can ask you rational sensible questions about ISO's defenses and beat on you if you don't tell. And of course you won't tell. And I don't wanna have to break my nails." She displayed her nails-- at least 1.5 cm long, lacquered purple. "See, I've been told to question you based on what I read in your dossier. I wasn't told exactly what to ask you. And I figure it'll make you and me both happier if I ask stupid, meaningless questions. Right?"

Nambu changed his opinion of the girl. He'd thought she was insane at first; now he recognized her bizarre behavior as a deliberate attempt to disorient him. An interrogator's trick-- although, considering what she was proposing to do, she was either very naive, very stupid, insane after all, or had some other plan. "Do you think Marriochio is foolish enough to leave it at that?"

"Well, next time she wants someone to interrogate you, it won't be me. And by the time she schedules someone else to do it, you might be rescued."

"I see." He folded his hands in his lap, looking up at her. "Why are you an interrogator for Galactor if you don't want to be?"

"What, you think I get a choice? You can't be that naive after dealing with Galactor for what, ten years?"

"You obviously have some degree of power, or you wouldn't oppose Marriochio even as much as you plan to." Either that, he thought, or you really are insane. "A typical interrogator would not have the power to ask me worthless questions, or if she did, not be punished for doing so. If Marriochio truly gives you that much leeway, then why does she require you to do this at all?"

"Dr. Marriochio doesn't take no for an answer. You have to do something to fox her, then she'll leave you alone. Or rather, she'll leave me alone-- don't think for a moment she'll leave you. So tell me about your sister and how she got disowned." Meghara backed off and looked at him expectantly.

Nambu sighed slightly. He didn't want to talk about his past, but the girl was correct-- if he played along with her, whether she was insane or truly could outsmart Marriochio so easily, he would at the least stave off the inevitable interrogation, and at best might be able to buy himself enough time to be rescued. "Must we talk about Emiko?"

"Yeah. She sounds interesting."

"There isn't much to tell. My father wanted her to go to the University, get excellent grades, and work for his company. Emiko decided to join the Peace Corps instead. So my father disowned her."

"This was before the world war, right?"

"It was before WW III actually broke out, yes, but the storm warnings were in the air."

"What was your opinion of that? What your father did?"

"It was a cruel thing to do," Nambu said evenly. "My father was a very autocratic man-- he insisted that everything be done the way he wished it done. Emiko followed her ninjoh-- her heart, her feelings-- instead of her sense of duty to our father. Another man might have honored her for having the courage to make that decision; my father considered her action a betrayal, and made her outcast."

"Did you maintain contact with her?"

"Yes, in secret. I couldn't disappoint my father, but I had no desire to betray my sister."

"Well, you didn't join his company."

"That was different." He remembered, all his life, being introduced as "the genius." "This is my eldest daughter Emiko, and my son Kozaburo the genius." Father had said it as if it was a self-evident fact, as if he was saying "my son Kozaburo who wears glasses", and didn't seem to realize how conceited it sounded. "All my life, I had an interest in science, and both my parents encouraged me in it."

"If they hadn't-- if your father had done the same thing to you he did to Emiko-- would you have gone into science against his wishes?"

Nambu thought about it, and thanked the gods he'd never been forced to make the choice. But he did have an answer. "Yes, I would have."

"You already had a bachelor's in science when you went into the army. Why didn't you continue your graduate studies then?"

"I felt the war was more important. Japan's future-- the world's future-- was at stake."

"But you had a sister working for peace. Why did you go to war?"

"War and peace aren't as far apart as you may think, Meghara. I was also working for peace-- but sometimes, the only way to achieve a peace worth having is to fight for it."

"After the war ended, you went to England, got two doctorates in six years-- I'm impressed-- and then went back into the army, into the Japanese Air and Space Ministry. The last project you were assigned to was codenamed "Starlost", and then you resigned. What happened there? Why did you resign?"

"That information's classified."

"Oh, for god's sake. It was over 28 years ago, what's Galactor going to do with the information now?"

And in fact, he had told Alatan and Marriochio about the Starlost project-- he just hadn't told them that had been its name. "It was Earth's first contact with an extraterrestrial, a woman who crashlanded her spaceship in Japanese waters. I was assigned to teach her Japanese and socialize her."

"And you resigned."

"I thought I could accomplish that more easily by resigning."

"Galactor can pull really detailed records, did you know that, Doctor? You were cut out of your father's will, there was a warrant made out for your arrest, and you were to be court-martialed for desertion if they ever caught you. Then the records got retroactively changed, so they said you resigned, and the charges were wiped. And presumably, your father reinstated you, since you did inherit his fortune. What happened?"

"The woman-- was unwilling to teach the Japanese government the principles behind the operation of her spaceship. She wished to leave military custody. I helped her. The charges were dropped when we offered them the nuclear shield and the device to rehabilitate radioactive lands."

"That was Teriani Kymel. Who got Japanese citizenship out of the deal, married you, and then died in a car accident, or so it was said. You said she brought you back from the dead."

"Yes. Teriani had survived the accident, but didn't tell me. And she did bring me back from the dead, but died herself in the process."

"And she was responsible for the Bird Styles, the Firebird, the Hypersuit and so forth?"

Nambu was silent. "Oh come on, Nambu," Meghara said. "We know those aren't native Earth technology."

"That question I won't answer. I don't care what you know."

"Okay, okay. Don't get hostile. Let's talk about-- yeah! your mother. Let's talk about your mother."

"If you read my file, you know my mother died when I was ten." Nambu was somewhat irritated.

"Yeah, but what about her? What was she like?"

"She was..." He thought back. It had been so many years... "Very gentle, and very brilliant. She was always teaching us things. I think I learned my love of science from her. She was a schoolteacher by profession-- well, I'm sure you read it in my file. A fourth-grade teacher-- both Emiko and I had her for our respective fourth grades. Then when I was in fifth grade, she died."

"In a car accident. And since then you've had a hard time getting behind the wheel of a car, haven't you?"

Nambu stared. "That's not in my file-- is it? It can't be."

Meghara shrugged. "Ah well."

He had been 10 years old, sitting in the back seat, when Himiko Nambu had lost control of the wheel on a slick patch of road, trying to slow down when someone had pulled out in front of her. The car had swerved and smashed into a small tree at high speed, narrowly missing the other car. The back seat had been unhurt-- Himiko had retained enough control over the car to save her young son's life, but it had been at the expense of her own. A low tree branch had smashed through the windshield and driven into her head. There had been blood and brains everywhere, spattered over the front of the car. It hadn't been until the police arrived, twenty minutes later, that little Kozaburo had been able to stop screaming.

Six years later, when Kozaburo was forced to learn to drive, he had been terrified of it. The car had been a demon, waiting to kill him if he had the gall to try to master it. He had overcome his superstition by force of will, learned to drive-- and proceeded to have five accidents in two years, one that totaled the car and nearly killed him. They had discovered, after that last accident, that the reason was an astigmatism previously unnoticed in his eye, that warped distance. They changed his prescription, and when he went off to war he never again experienced trouble in operating a vehicle. But none of them had been cars. Even when he knew the reason, logically, something in him was convinced that cars were out to get him, and when he returned from the war he made a point to take public transportation everywhere. One of the nicest things about acquiring a position in ISO was that he could be chauffeured about, and indeed was expected not to drive himself. His phobia was not so crippling that he couldn't have driven if he had to-- he had just preferred not to whenever possible.

Now, after death and rebirth, driving no longer frightened him. The worst it could do was kill him, and he had no more fear of death. But it amazed him that this girl was perceptive enough to learn of his former problem from his file; he'd never told anyone of his fear. "I don't have any particular problems now, no. But you're right that a few years ago, I did have a great deal of trouble getting behind the wheel of a car." He looked at her intently. "You're very perceptive. You could put that talent to many better uses than doing interrogations for Galactor. Especially since you so obviously hate your work."

"What makes you think that?"

"It's obvious. You have gone out of your way to avoid interrogating me. You don't enjoy doing this. Why do you do it?"

Meghara smiled bitterly. "Back to this again? What makes you think I get a choice?"

"As I observed before, you obviously have some power within Galactor."

"Not power," Meghara replied. Her voice was softer than before, and very bitter. "You're mixing up power and responsibility. I've got a job to do, and the Doctor lets me do it however I want. But I've got no choice about doing it." Her face took on a look of long-ingrained resentment. "I'm her pet mutant, her thought machine. She can do what I do, but why bother, when she's got me around to do it?"

"Pet mutant?"

"Yeah. Just like dear sweet Alatan Slut-sama. My mommy was a hermaphrodite too, just like her daddy, but her daddy was a famous psychotic killer, while my mother was nobody special. At least, no one ever said she was anything special. She gave me up the day I was born, so I couldn't vouch for anything about her. Only way I know she wasn't the infamous Purple Prince is that Alatan's only six months younger than me. She would've had to have been conceived while my mom was preggers, which would've let out fathering on her part as far as I know. My mother, I mean. And I guess it'd be terribly inconvenient for a hermaphrodite to be wandering around with a baby, so I got handed over to Galactor, and Selina inherited me. And that's why Alatan is running Galactor, while I'm stuck down here, even though I'm older than her and I've got all the same abilities. You want to talk power? She's got power. I'm a servant. At best. Slave might even be a better term."

Nambu frowned. "If you have Alatan's abilities, what holds you here?"

"Are you kidding? They'd kill me if I tried to escape."

"How? You're a shapechanger if you have the same abilities as Alatan-- what prevents you from disguising yourself and walking out of here?"

"Well, for starters, they've got this doodad implanted in my heart. Kind of like yours. If either of us tries to leave, it's heart attack time."

"Have you ever experienced one of these attacks?"

"How stupid do I look? No, of course not. I'm not going to test it."

"Because, as far as I know, what you describe is impossible. According to Dr. Remington, it's impossible to surgically implant something in Alatan. Her body would force it out. If you truly are the same, as you say, so should yours... What I don't understand is how you could be the same. You say your mother could not have been Berg Katse, but was a hermaphrodite like him-- how is that possible? I thought Katse was one of a kind."

"Oh, lord. Ask Dr. Marriochio that question. Not only wasn't Berg Psycho one of a kind, Dr. Marriochio's--" She checked herself suddenly, and looked at Nambu admiringly. "Smooth, Doc, real smooth. But how about we remember that I'm asking the questions, okay?"

"I'm trying to help you," Nambu said quietly. "Just answer me this one question, and I might be able to give you a way to escape."

"And why would you do that? You don't see me giving you a way to escape."

"The difference is that you're a slave, and I'm not. You say Alatan is six months younger than you-- that makes you no older than 15. And you've been enslaved all your life. That sickens me." He spoke quietly, but there was a core of anger in his voice. "You never had a choice-- if you're telling me the truth about your past, you were never given the choice between joining Galactor, or leading a normal life. A young girl like you--"

"Stop. I'm not a girl."

"Not-- you're male, then?" He looked disbelievingly at her. Her body was muscled like a man's, but there were those briefs, and her bust was unmistakably not faked. Hormones? But that didn't explain the briefs...

"Half right both times," she said, grinning sardonically. "I got more from dear old Mom than Alatan got from her father. I can be either male or female, whichever I like. I used to be a boy all the time, but around eleven or so I decided to be a woman. I could still be a guy, but not in this outfit-- the kind of body I like to have, my briefs would likely rip right open." She had been stepping forward as she spoke, until she was crowded uncomfortably into his personal space again, and she bent down into his face. "I'm not making you uncomfortable, am I?" she asked, her tone indicating that that was exactly what she wanted.

"On the contrary. That's fascinating," Nambu said, and Meghara backed off again, seeming slightly disappointed. "You have complete control of which you wish to be?"

"You said, you'd ask one question, and then you'd tell me how to escape. Is that the one question?"

"No. The one question is, how many mutants like Katse were there?"

"A bunch. Six or seven. Weren't all hermaphrodites either. The technical term is Gemini Linkage, species designation Homo sapiens geminus. It's when you take twins of any sex and merge them into a single being. Some were made of two girl twins, so they're women, and some were made of two boy twins, so they're men. You only get hermaphrodites when the twins are of opposite sexes. Selina can give you exact numbers and all."

"Is she one herself?"

"That's more than one question."

Nambu sighed. "All right. Listen, Meghara. I'm no expert on mutant biology. But my fellow captive, Dr. Remington-- Alatan's mother-- is. Nobody-- with the possible exception of Dr. Marriochio-- knows more about Alatan's biology, her capabilities, restrictions, and the genetic origins of her power, and I strongly doubt Selina Marriochio will tell you what you want to know. Go to Dr. Remington and tell her exactly the hold Marriochio has on you. You do know where she's being kept, don't you?"


"If Marriochio's been lying to you about the transmitter in your heart, Dr. Remington will know, and be able to tell you. And if what I suspect is true, there is nothing to prevent you from walking out of this base but your own fear."

"And of course, when I walk out, you want me to drag you and Remington with me."

"No, not unless you're certain you can do so without endangering yourself. I'd appreciate it if you could free me, surely, but I'm in no position to demand it. Free yourself, and Dr. Remington if you can, but don't worry about me unless you have a perfect opportunity."

Meghara was silent for several seconds, staring at him. Then she shook her head. "Wow. I didn't think there were any altruists left in the world. You amaze me, Dr. Nambu." The words were as cynical as anything else she'd said, but it sounded as if she was using them to hold off some other, stronger emotion. She looked away from him, and said, in a shaky voice, "I gotta come clean with you-- my asking you personal questions? That was part of my job. I-- my specialty's finding weaknesses in things. Arguments, experiments, mecha, or... people." She quickly glanced at him, as if to assess his mood, then looked away again. He had seen in that brief moment that her eyes were suspiciously bright. "Anyway, I-- I was supposed to get you into a conversation, didn't matter how I did it, and figure out from what I learned of your personality how to break you. Because the Doctor wants to brainwash you, so I was supposed to find your keys. And then I was gonna tell the Doctor, and she'd do it. But I won't tell her," she added defiantly, swiveling back to look in Nambu's eyes. "You were straighter with me than she is, and even if I can't get out the way you thought, at least you tried. I know you weren't shitting me-- you think it'll work, and you really did it just to help me. So even if I can't do anything else for you, I won't give your keys to Dr. Marriochio."

Nambu felt chilled, in a way he hadn't since his rebirth. He believed her. He didn't know why, but he was utterly convinced of the truth of Meghara's words-- and that meant that the whim of a hermaphrodite child was all that kept him from being broken. Was he-- could he truly be-- that vulnerable? "You know my weak points?"

"Oh, yeah. They're not hard."

"If you don't mind my asking-- what are they?"

"Can't tell you. If you found them out for yourself, that would strengthen you-- but if I just tell you, Selina can get it out of you on truth drug, and it won't do you any good." She walked over to the wall, and looked back at him. "It'll be hell's own game trying to get you out of here, Doctor, so I won't try. But if your idea's right, I'll try and get Dr. Remington out, and if I can't get either of you, I'll tell ISO where you are. And thanks-- I mean it." Then she stepped through the wall.

Lara Remington felt shredded inside. She sat on the bed in the cell her daughter had had her placed in, and she wanted to wail or weep. In the hospital, the thought of what Alatan had become had tormented her over and over-- but here, where she was Alatan's captive, it was even more painful. Alatan had been within reach, within sight, and yet Lara had been unable to persuade her to stop this, to come home...

The wall opened, and a strange-looking woman stepped in-- a big, muscular woman in a very scanty, punky outfit, with long purple hair and a face that was somehow younger than it looked. Like Alatan, the woman-- girl?-- projected an indefinable aura of youth, even though she looked adult, making her age impossible to guess. Lara stared at her, pulling her legs up onto the bed and moving herself back slightly.

"Dr. Remington?" the woman-- no, Lara definitely felt she was a girl-- said. "My name's Meghara, and I need to talk to you."

Lara fought off an attack of hysterical giggles. "I'm not going anywhere."

"How much do you know about mutants like Alatan?"


"I need to know, okay?" The girl sat down on the floor in a graceless pile of arms and legs. "I am one, and I need to know something so I can try and escape Galactor, okay?"

"Escape Galactor?" Lara moved forward on the bed. "Why don't you tell me about yourself? You told me your name, but other than that, I don't know anything about you."

"What do you want to know? My biology? My psychology? My favorite fruit?"

"Your history. Who are you?"

Abruptly the girl grinned, but it was not a happy expression. "And why the hell you should help me, right?"

"That, too."

"Okay, you asked for it." The girl folded her amrs behind her neck and leaned back. "My name's Meghara, I'm 15 years old-- well, almost 15 anyway-- my birthday's in February-- anyway, I'm 14 years old and I'm a hermaphrodite shapechanger in female form. I never knew my parents-- my mother was a hermaphrodite Gemini, like Berg Katse, except a lot less famous, and my father was just some human guy who fucked her. When I was born, my mother, maternal being that she was, handed me over to her doctor, Vail Djannis, who was responsible for bioengineering Berg Katse and a bunch of others."

"I thought Sosai X did that."

"Sosai did, but Djannis helped. Anyway, so there I was, a little deformed mutie infant, given to the guy who invented the term Galactor Scientist to raise. He did a bunch of experiments on me, and he gave me to this other guy who was working on mental disciplines. He trained me into a sort of human computer. So then Djannis died, and his successor was Selina Marriochio, and I work for her now. But I want out."

"Your mutation is identical to Alatan?"

"Yeah, except I've got two X chromosomes and a Y, and she's got three X's. Two X's and a Y means you're a hermaphrodite-- you have genetic access to both male and female forms."

"And you work for Marriochio. What's your opinion of her?"

"I... don't know." Meghara stared into space. "If you want me to say I hate her guts and I want to see her bleed... well, I don't. I never had a mother-- Dr. M's the closest thing I've got. But... you want more from life than 'review these papers, interrogate this person, tell me whether so-and-so is lying--' you want to live, you know? She's never hurt me, she gives me stuff-- she used to be a little bit affectionate, when I was a kid, just enough so you'd know she did care, even if she couldn't show it-- but she keeps me prisoner here. I don't want to work for her, or Galactor, anymore. I'm sick of science. You know? I want friends my age, I want to date, I want to have a life! And she won't let me. I guess... In Galactor, you never say you love anybody, so I'm not totally sure... but I guess... maybe I love her, like she was my mom. But I can't stand her anymore."

Lara nodded. She knew the feeling. As a teenager, when Mother's insanity had made her unbearable to live with, Lara and her older sister had dreamed of escape. There was a strange sensation, a promise of revenge fulfilled, in her as she listened to Meghara's story. She and Marriochio were analogues, cast by fate as opposite sides of the same coin. Each had adopted a mutant child not her own. Marriochio had taken Lara's adopted daughter from her, and become Alatan's new mother figure. Now Lara had a chance to do the same in return, maybe.

"I'll help you," she said gently. "Tell me your problem. I can't guarantee I'll be able to help, but I do know quite a bit about Alatan's biology."

"Okay. You know that thingy Dr. M put in Nambu's heart? She claims she's put one in mine, too, and there's a field in a sphere around the base that'll set it off. Dr. Nambu said that probably wasn't true because you couldn't put an implant in me, but he said you were the expert so I should ask you. Could she put an implant in my heart-- and if she did, would it kill me?"

"It won't kill you," Lara said with certainty. "If the implant was close enough to heart tissue that it won't show on an X-ray, it might have been perceived by your body as non-threatening. It's possible to put implants in people like you, as long as they're inert. When Alatan was a baby, we attempted reconstructive surgery on her deformations, and there were some implants involved. As long as the implants were inactive, and didn't damage anything, the body accepted them. But as soon as they started to interfere, the body rejected them, and they were squeezed out. If you have such an implant, and Marriochio tries to use it to turn off your heart, your body will force the implant out, then heal itself. It might be painful, but you'll live."

Meghara smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. You know something?" You're a lot nicer than I thought you'd be."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I'd figured Alatan's mother for some sort of shrill bitch, and you're not."

Lara looked away. "No... I must have failed somewhere, but not by being a shrill bitch." She turned back to Meghara. "If you escape, where will you go?"

Meg shrugged. "Dunno."

"A fifteen-year-old without papers is going to have a hard time making a living."

"There's stuff you don't need papers for. I can look like whatever I want." Her eyes seemed to be challenging Lara to object. "Figure I can make myself look like a T&A dream goddess and work as a stripper someplace. I can dance..."

So could Alatan. Lara felt a surge of protectiveness toward this child. "You can't do that!"

"Why not? Better than prostitution. I don't care if people look, just so long as they don't touch. I bet I could make decent money that way."

"Wouldn't you prefer another line of work? One where you can use your mind?"

"That's the kind I've got now. Besides, with no credentials how'm I supposed to get a job that takes brains?"

"You could go to Direc--" She cut off, remembering that Director Nambu was a captive as she was. "No, no-- not unless you took him with you when you escaped... Could you do that?"

"Not him, the security on him's unbelievable." Meghara shook her head. "You, though... Alatan put you here because she didn't know what else to do. I might be able to get you out." She stood up. "I'm going to go map out an escape route. If I can get you out with me, I will. Okay?"

Lara's heart pounded. To be free-- oh, god, how she wanted it-- but... "Director Nambu is much more important than I am."

"Yeah, but I can't rescue him. Just no way. You, maybe I can. I'll be back, I hope." She stepped back against the wall, which irised to let her through and then shut again, leaving no sign that there had ever been an opening.

The team had gathered at Denari Lake Base, all of them together for the first time in a long time. Ken looked around at the five others-- Joe, Jun, Jinpei, Dave, and Ryu, who had agreed to stay with them for the duration of the current crisis. "This is the plan," he said.

He was badly shaken by the day's events. They had left ISO Headquarters early this morning to deal with a threat Nambu had told them about. En route, Ryu had contacted them and told them it was a trap-- Dr. Nambu had been replaced by an impostor. They'd returned home with all possible speed, where they'd learned what had happened.

Director Nambu and Dr. Remington had both been replaced by Dancers, Alatan's elite squad of assassins and disguise artists, some days ago. The Dancing Masque replacing Nambu had sent the team into a trap, and if it hadn't been for Ken's little sister Kyoko playing ninja games, no one would have known. But Kyoko had eavesdropped on "Nambu", apparently just to see if she could, and had overheard him talking to Alatan via telecom. She had warned Dr. Kamo, and then gone in person to get Ryu. When she and Ryu had returned, ISO HQ had been taken over by the Dancers. Ryu had notified the Science Ninja Team, and then, his cover blown, had been forced to confront the Dancers and try to save the hostages. he had injured one of them, but Dancing Masques and Dolls were the best fighters Galactor had-- two of them had once taken down Ken. Ryu was defeated.

That would have ended everything-- except that somehow, somewhere, Kyoko had gotten hold of the Gatchafencer. Nobody knew how-- it was supposed to have been destroyed when Z blew up. Then she had used it to kill the Dancers. It had apparently granted her fighting skills far beyond what she should possess-- but it had claimed a price in return. Kyoko was lying unconscious in the infirmary at Denari Lake, where Kamo was moving all of Gatchaman operations at Ken's order. Ken wanted to go to her, to hold her hand and wait by her bed until she got well. However, Director Nambu and Dr. Remington were still captives of Galactor, and neither Ken nor anyone else wanted to wait a single unnecessary moment before finding and rescuing them.

"We know the location of only one Galactor base-- their headquarters at Cross Karakoram. The Director and Dr. Remington might not be there, but it's the only lead we've got. Now the last time we were at Cross Karakoram, Alatan nearly trashed us. But that's because she knew we were there, and she had nothing to concern herself with but us." He looked around at all of them. "These are my orders. Half of us will take the Phoenix Reborn and attack Cross Karakoram with it openly. The other three will infiltrate the base, wearing Galactor uniforms. Ryu, you have some familiarity with Phoenix's controls, right?"

"I've flown it before, to keep in practice," Ryu said, nodding. "Handles like a dream."

"Good. I think we'll need an experienced pilot for this part of the mission. Not to criticize you, Dave, but Ryu does have more experience-- and also we'll need you for infiltrating. I want you and Jun to come with me and sneak into the base. We'll try to find one of those Pathfinder stations the two of you found before. Our objective is primarily to find the Doctors; if we find them themselves, that's great, but it's not likely. Second objective is to find Alatan-- we can beat the answer out of her. Third objective, failing those, is to capture Marriochio or Galliente. Either we get them to talk, or we use them as hostages to bargain for the release of the Doctors. Fourth, in general just find out as much about the base as you can." He turned to the other three. "Joe, Jinpei, Ryu-- you'll take Phoenix Reborn and attack Karakoram, as decoys. I want you to make it look like it's a serious attack. We know from the Angel of Death's report that high-powered missiles won't damage the base, or hurt anyone inside-- but Alatan doesn't know we know it, so go ahead and use them. Take out any of the defenses as you can-- if we weaken Cross Karakoram, or make Alatan have to spend time rebuilding its defenses, that's a plus. If things get too hot, pull out-- we'll call you when we need pickup. All right? Everyone understand?"

There was a chorus of yeses. "Then let's go."

Last time, it had taken them several hours to find their way into Cross Karakoram. But last time, they had made no attempt to surprise the base. Phoenix Reborn let Ken, Jun and Dave off a few miles from Karakoram, together with a Galactor-issue jeep they'd stolen some weeks ago. Then the Phoenix circled around, waiting before it began its attack. As the three drove in, they could see Galactors out, patrolling. One of them hailed them. "Hey! Where've you guys been?"

"Out patrolling the perimeter," Dave answered automatically. Ken looked at him. Maybe he should have specified that he was to answer any questions.

"See anything?" the Galactor asked, apparently satisfied with the answer.

Before David or Ken or anybody could say anything, there was a roaring, and the Phoenix Reborn suddenly shot into the sky over the base. "SHIT!!" somebody screamed. "It's the Science Ninja Team!"

The Galactor jumped into their jeep. "Move, move, move!" he shouted. "If we're still outside when they show up, we'll be locked out of the base!"

Ken, who was in the driver's seat, turned. "What's the fastest way into the base from here?"

Several more Galactors were running toward the jeep. "Gimme the wheel!" the Galactor said, and Ken obliged him. The man stomped on the gas and went roaring across the mountainous, gloomy terrain, and drove straight for a rock formation, which at the last moment split open and revealed a sloping tunnel. They bumped down the tunnel for a few minutes, then came out into a lighted garage. The Galactor took a deep breath. "That was close. Betcha all those other guys out there get stuck being ninja fodder."

That sounded more like the Galactor Ken remembered-- the man sounded almost happy that his comrades would suffer in his place. Jun was looking around, saying, "I don't believe I've ever come in this way. What level are we on?"

"Hunnerd an' two. New to Karakoram?"

"Yeah," Jun said. "We got assigned a few weeks ago, but the place is a maze!"

"No kidding," the man said. "You could get old and die without seeing the whole thing."

"We're supposed to report to level 33, any idea how we get there?"

"Not a fucking clue. Go to the Pathfinder station-- it's out that door, go straight, take the first two rights you see, you can't miss it." He leaned on the jeep, ignoring Ken and Dave. "So what time you get off work?"

Ken stepped forward. "Same time as I do," he said, putting a slight degree of menace into it. The man still ignored him.

"He your boyfriend?"

"Yes," Jun said, "and no, I'm not getting tired of him, or interested in playing the field, or anything else like what you were going to say."

"Come on, guys," Dave said. "The captain'll kill us if we're late."

They headed for the Pathfinder station, Ken inwardly fuming. The nerve of that Galactor, hitting on Jun! "Ken, don't take it so personally," Jun whispered-- apparently his fuming hadn't been quite inward enough. "Galactor men always hit on the women. He was just being a Galactor. You can't expect any better."

"I know. He just irritated me."

The Pathfinder station had maps of the entire base, just as the one on level 33 had had, and in addition it was nearly deserted, only one or two other people there. There was no one to ask for help, but then Ken's opinion was that the day the Science Ninja Team needed to ask for Galactor help was the day they should all turn in their capes. Dave and Jun were scrutinizing the maps, and after a moment Ken joined them. "I can't make head nor tail of this," Jun complained.

"Neither can I. Do Galactors really use these maps to get around?"

"It takes practice," Dave said. "Once you learn the trick of reading 3-D maps, it gets easier. Not much easier, but easier." He turned to Ken. "What exactly are we looking for?"

"Alatan's quarters would be nice," Ken said. "A major control center, if you can find one. The location of Alatan, Marriochio or Galliente."

After about fifteen minutes of walking from map to map, muttering about non-computerized reference materials and their general inferiority, David finally came up with something. "Okay. I found a section that looks like it's where all the top-level people live-- it's apartments with room service, and I figure they wouldn't give them to just anybody. I also found what looks like Galliente's headquarters, with a major control center of some sort there. And there's an interrogation/detention wing in near a lot of labs, which is probably Marriochio's stomping grounds. Alatan's quarters aren't on the map. Apparently you can't get there if you're not invited."

"All right." Ken made some rapid calculations. "Forget Alatan's quarters, then. She might be near Galliente's headquarters, or she might be near the interrogation wing if that's where the Doctors are. The other area, where top-level people might be quartered, might have Marriochio or Galliente quartered there. I'm going to the control center; Dave, you go to the interrogation area; Jun, you head for the apartments. Give us directions on how to get where we're going, Dave."

Galactor Headquarters was not to be caught napping. As Phoenix Reborn roared over the mountain base, defense turrets came up from the ground, firing lasers at them.

"Watch it, Ryu!" Joe warned, as they were bracketed by a series of lasers. Ryu grinned savagely.

"Don't worry about me. I haven't lost my touch." They dodged between the deadly beams. One struck Phoenix a glancing blow, but the ship was more or less laser resistant, and Ryu had them out of the beam before any damage could be done.

"All right, I'm taking them out. Firing Bird Missiles!" Joe trained the sights on the laser turrets and blew three of them away in rapid succession.

"Joe, Ryu! Mini-planes at five o'clock!" Jinpei shouted.

The ship turned in air like a graceful bird, focusing its head toward where Jinpei had shouted. The ground had opened, and a swarm of small fighter planes had come out, firing lasers and missiles up at the Science Ninja Team.

"All right," Joe said, grinning savagely. Something to kill. "You asked for it, Galactors."

Ryu wove them in and out of the line of fire, a nasty grin on his own face. He loved Joni and the babies dearly, but... god, he'd missed this. To become one with the ship, to pit his reflexes and skills against the Galactor bastards... he wouldn't want to do it for a living anymore, but it was great to do it one more time, to go back in the field and prove the old boy still had it in him. His defeat at the hands of the Dancers still rankled somewhat, though he'd felt better when Ken told him that a pair of Dancers had once defeated him, so there was nothing to feel ashamed of. Of course, Ryu had already known that, but it felt good to hear it from Ken.

It felt even better to fly Phoenix Reborn and prove himself, though. Now it didn't matter that those Dancers had beaten him. In the air, he was still unbeatable.

"Looks like they've got better pilots than usual," Jinpei said, watching the monitors. The Galactors were managing to avoid crashing into each other, and were in general keeping their heads above water a bit better than swarms of Galactor planes usually did. They weren't managing to inflict any serious damage on Phoenix, but they weren't being taken out as fast as usual.

"That's funny," Joe said. "Considering how incompetent the mecha we've been up against have been."

"Yeah," Jinpei said. "I wonder why?"

"'Cause they're protecting their home base," Ryu said. "And 'cause the mecha you guys've been fighting lately have been pieces of trash."

"I wonder why that is, too," Jinpei said.

"Who cares why?" Joe said, and blew another fighter plane to hell. "Let's see if we can totally trash Karakoram's defenses before Ken and the others finish up."

Just like the old days. Ryu grinned. "Sounds good to me!"

"Alatan-sama," Galliente said, nodding to her.

"What's this about the Science Ninja Team attacking?" Alatan stepped into Galliente's bustling control center, the only female among swarms of men.

"They've launched an assault in the Phoenix Reborn. I've ordered our pilots out to deal with them."

"You didn't need to," Alatan said. "I doubt they could damage this base significantly."

"Best to make sure," Galliente said, studying her hard. "Don't you think?"

Once, Alatan would have protested at the loss of life, at the men out there fighting uselessly to protect something that didn't need protecting. Right now, she didn't care anymore. "If you think it best," she said, dismissing the situation offhandedly. "I've got something to show you here. My plans for a new weapon."

"A new weapon?" He walked over to her, interest in his face.

"They're small, maneuverable mecha, human-shaped, with a single pilot each," Alatan said, showing Galliente her rough sketches. "The pilot sits inside, connected to these sensors that measure muscular potentials. When he goes to move his hand, the mecha's hand moves instead, as if it were his own body. Some unusual muscles that don't have direct analogues on the mecha-- for instance, eyebrows-- will be hooked to some of the more specialized weapons systems."

"Reminds me of Count Egobossler-sama's Iron Commandos." He tapped the design. "This is to scale?"

"More or less."

"So they're eight feet tall. Bigger than the Iron Commandos, then. Not bad."

She looked up at him. "You like it?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. I think you're finally growing up and showing some guts, Alatan-sama. Who are you putting in charge of the design specs?"

"I'd ask Selina, but she doesn't like designing mecha. I'm going to give it to someone in her department, but I'll want a bunch of your men to pilot the biomechs once they're done. Preferably men with brains."

"I think we can handle that," Galliente said sardonically. "Any other preferences? Blue-eyed blonds or something?"

Alatan pretended not to notice the sarcasm. "I'll also want your department to build them, once they're blueprinted. GSI is working on some other priority projects for me." She stood up. "I think it's time we took a more active role. The past six or seven mecha have been throwaways-- they were only intended to cover my real plans. The biomechs aren't the weapons I plan to win with, but I consider them an actual addition to the arsenal, not something we use once and throw away."

"Good," he said approvingly. "The men are getting restless. They want to win something, Alatan-sama, not be told constantly that losing is part of your plan."

"I know. Don't worry. Winning something is also part of my plan, and very soon." She picked up the documents. "I'm going to get somebody to start on the blueprints. I want you to start locating our most competent pilots." With that, she left.

Alatan was in a bloodthirsty mood lately. There was an increasing hardness at her core, and she welcomed it gratefully. Galliente had noticed, apparently, and hadn't even brought up the matter of the agents who had failed to dispatch the Science Ninja Team. Alatan herself had brought it up-- she was furious at those two Dancers, and would have killed them herself if they hadn't already died. Obviously they had severely underestimated someone at ISO, and the whole plan had fallen apart. She didn't grieve for them, as she had for Tori-- Tori had died in battle, protecting her, and had fallen to the Ninja Team, who were entirely respectable foes. Ashley and Darren had either been killed by the fat, slow Owl, or somebody Alatan didn't even know. An ignominious end for members of Galactor's most elite squad, and one she didn't intend to see repeated.

Sosai hadn't yelled at Alatan lately, either-- she was finally becoming someone he approved of, she thought, and so he was keeping his mouth shut. He hadn't complained about her failed plan, either-- Alatan's own disgust and fury over the failure was quite enough. Since they had attacked her here at her stronghold and turned what should have been a glorious triumph into a humiliating defeat, Alatan's opinion had changed, regarding what she wanted to do with the Science Ninja Team. She had decided she was quite capable of killing them. She still would rather take them alive, but she would no longer balk at killing if she had to.

Actually, right now she wasn't sure she did want them alive. In her mood, she was more than willing to kill most of them, slowly and painfully. The Condor had tried to kill her several times; she wanted him to be screaming when he died. The Swallow had murdered Tori, and thus merited a horrible death. The Swan she wanted to kill painfully just on the principle of the thing-- she hated that stupid whiny woman. And the Eagle-- well, she didn't want him dead. Death wasn't enough. He had hurt and humiliated her too many times, after she'd tried so hard to go easy on him. She was going to break him, to hurt him and punish him for what he'd done, and then make him her slave. That was what he deserved. Only the fifth-- the one who'd replaced the Owl, the one whose bird style she could never remember so she called him the Parakeet-- had not earned torment. She would either capture him or outright kill him-- she wasn't angry enough at him to torture him, as she wanted to do with the others.

Her fury was in part due to the Dancers' failure, in part due to the humiliation she had suffered a month ago, when the Ninja Team had invaded Cross Karakoram, but a large part of it was due to Selina's behavior. Nambu had been clinically dead, as a result of the heart-stopping device, and when Selina had brought him back he had tried to tell Alatan something-- a message from her father. Something terribly important. But because Selina didn't believe in ghosts, she had silenced Nambu and spirited him away to the Temple of Science, where Alatan couldn't privately question him. How dared Selina deny Alatan anything? Who was the leader here, Selina or Alatan? She had almost worked herself into a sufficient rage to call Selina and demand to interview Nambu when she saw... someone; someone familiar, drifting down the corridor at the far end. Alatan ran to catch up, but by the time she got there, it seemed to her as if the figure had melted into the floor and vanished.

All right. All right. Alatan whipped out her box, the device she used to change the internal configuration of Cross Karakoram, and programmed a sequence. "Don't run away from me, Father," she whispered. "Please..."

Again the door irised open, but this time Lara was prepared. "Meghara!" she said, standing up as the girl stepped through.

"C'mon," Meghara said. "Coast is clear, I checked." She moved back against the iris in the wall, permitting Lara to step through it before it closed again. They were now in darkness, so complete that Lara couldn't see Meghara in front of her. The girl's hand reached and groped for hers.

"It's only dark down here," Meghara whispered. "We'll be out in the light in a moment."

She pushed open a door, onto a lighted stairwell. It was only half a flight before they pushed open a second door, and they entered a different world.

Blinding, brilliant light like sunlight shone from the ceiling. Lara couldn't look up-- every square inch glowed with light. They were in a vast hall filled with impossible plants. Thick blue moss grew underfoot, occasionally interspersed with patches of black ivy-like plants. Trees with blue and black leaves grew amongst more normal greenery, and there were garish flowers and plants with bright and disturbingly colored leaves everywhere. Fountains of mirrored glass sprayed water in graceful arcs. The water landed in glass bowls and flowed into glass tubes, filled with fish and stones and multicolored plants, running through the air, supported on slender columns of glass. The air smelled sweet and cool, if heavily moist. Lara couldn't see the end of the hall-- it seemed to go on forever, an effect enhanced by mirrors everywhere and the omnipresent growth blocking the view.

"What is this place?" Lara asked.

"The Gardens. Experimental plants grow here; also, it produces our oxygen. This moss down here has an incredibly high photosynthetic rate. It consumes massive quantities of H20 and CO2 and makes tons of oxygen." Meghara's words sounded oddly incongruous, coming from her-- before, she had spoken in slang and simple language, and to hear her suddenly using scientific terms as if they came naturally to her was odd. But if she really did have a computerlike mind, as she'd said before, then these terms probably were natural to her, and before, she had been hiding her intelligence for some obscure teenage reason. "Also, human beings need a certain amount of light to stay mentally stable, and artificial light doesn't usually cut it. That's why we need such a bright room. And the kids play here, too."

"The kids?"

"I'm not the only young mutant knocking about the place." They began to make their way through the Gardens. Without warning, a red-haired young man seemed to fall out of a tree in front of them. He landed on his feet in front of Meghara.

"'Lo, Meg. What's doing?"

Lara stared at the young man. There was something very strange about him, somehow. His body was that of an adult, at least 18 and maybe older, in his prime-- thin but well-muscled, obviously somebody who worked out quite a bit and was comfortable with his own body, his limbs properly proportioned without adolescent lankiness. But his face was oddly ageless. Superficially, it looked like an adult face, a man anywhere between 18 and 25 with a faint red five o'clock shadow and only the last vestiges of baby fat. But it was a face unwrinkled, unlined-- inexperienced. A face that didn't even seem to have 18 years' worth of wear and tear on it. Something about it--

Just like Alatan and Meghara. Alatan in adult form had that paradoxical look to her face, and so did Meghara, despite her big, muscular, aggressively female adult body and the hardness in her face. They looked physically adult, and yet there was a childishness to them, like children playing dress-up. This young man was young, Lara thought, and a man only in body, not in age.

"What's it to you?" Meghara asked, her body tense.

"I only asked, Meg. Jeez, don't jump down my throat." From the way he talked-- annoyed and slangy, yet still somewhat deferential-- Lara surmised that Meghara was actually the elder here.

"Well, it's none of your business."

"'Cause you're doing something against the rules. Isn't that the doctor, the one who was Alatan-sama's mother?"

"I said it's none of your business, Connell."

"What, you think I'm gonna tattle? Who do you think I am, Garain?" He stepped back slightly. "You're running away, aren't you. You can tell me, I won't tell the Doctor."

Meghara sighed. "Yeah, I'm running away."

"How come?"

"'Cause." Meg shrugged. "I wanna have a life. I don't want to work for the Doctor anymore. Got a problem with that?"

"No. I know how you feel." He looked away. "Remember when we relocated? I should've run away then. I promised Gel Sadra I'd protect her."

"I remember. You cried for a week when you learned she was dead."

Connell reddened. "Yeah, well I was a kid then. Anyway, I promised her. She was my only friend, back then... and if the Doctor hadn't packed up and made us all move, I'd've protected her. Sosai wouldn't've killed her if I'd been there. I wanted to kill the Doctor then."

"Connell..." Meg's voice was suddenly gentle, without the street-punk edge to it. "You can come with us, if you want."

"What for?" Connell shrugged. "There isn't anybody else I need to protect. Might as well stay here. Besides, people here know not to push me." He looked back at Meghara. "I have to warn you, though. Garain's on monitor now. He's gonna find out."

"Oh shit."

"But not to worry. I'll go threaten to pound on him if he talks. I can't get him to keep his mouth shut forever, but I can buy you a few hours."

"Thanks, Con."

"No prob." And then he was-- gone. For a second, Lara thought he'd vanished. Then she caught a glimpse of him running off at impossible speed, and realized he'd moved, like a fly or a hummingbird, too fast for her eye to track him.

"Who was he?"

"Connell Malloy, the fastest man alive. Aka Barry Allen."

Lara laughed. "You read old comic books?"

"Nah, old TV shows. Seriously. Connell's 12. He's looked like that since he was about 6."

"And he was friends with Gel Sadra?"

"He says so."

"Who's Garain?"

"A snoopy little tattle-tale. Here we go." She opened a door. "Access hatch, leads up to the surface. Once we get there, we can steal a car from the garage, and it'll be clear sailing-- always assuming you're right about my heart."

An hour later, after they had stolen a Galactor vehicle and had been on the road for a while, Lara looked over at Meg. "Are you all right?" Her face was twisted in a grimace. "Your heart--"

"Oh, my heart's fine. That's the problem," Meg muttered.


She looked over at Lara, who was driving. "She lied. There's no field around the base. I was free to go anytime, if I could figure it out. And I just figured it out now." She looked back out the window. "Sometimes I don't think I'm as smart as I think I am."

"Well, you're free now."

"Yeah." Meg said it slowly, as if tasting the words. "I'm free."

Ken was in the correct area, that much he knew. There were suddenly no women about, and the costumes were all Galactor standards, not the variegated new uniforms worn by many. This was Vincent Galliente's territory, and the aura of military crispness, prevalent throughout Galactor in Egobossler's time, permeated the place.

Up ahead of him, Ken caught a glimpse of brilliant golden hair that could only be Alatan's, disappearing through a doorway. He switched to Bird Style, ran to the doorway, charged through, and found himself in a typical Galactor amphitheater, complete with balcony. It was dimly lit. Alatan was nowhere to be seen-- but there was nowhere else she could have gone, not in that short a time.

"All right, I know you're in here, Katse," he called to her. "Show yourself!"

The light flickered, and there was a sudden electric chill, as if heat had been sucked out of the air. Ken shivered, trying to fight a sudden incomprehensible urge to run. Something in here was triggering a deeply buried instinct, screaming at him to get out, that there was something horrible in here. Probably ultrasonics and temperature control. Ken held his ground. Little tricks like that were just Alatan's style.

The door behind him opened. "Otoh--" Alatan started, and cut off abruptly. Ken spun to face her. What was she doing over there? She had just come in here, a second ago! Maybe that hadn't been her-- but there was no mistaking that long blonde hair...

"So you've finally shown yourself, Alatan Katse."

She backed up, heading for the door, but he flung his triangle, forcing her to dodge out of its way; and while she was dodging, he leapt into the air, flipped, and landed between her and the door. Alatan backed away, nervously. Her hand went for her box; but the moment she had a grip on it, Ken used the triangle to knock it out of her hands. He then made a flying leap at her, foot out to kick her. Alatan barely dodged in time. Now she was once more between him and the door, but she was considerably deeper into the room than she had been, and without her box she had little chance of making it to the door before he reached her. She shifted into a fighting stance, desperation in the set of her mouth, as Ken started toward her.

Suddenly the floor heaved up under him, splitting him off from Alatan and sending the two of them falling toward opposite ends of the room. He had no time to compensate, and fell hard against the far wall, winded. As he tried to get his breath back, a familiar voice behind him said, "You won't hurt Alatan this time."

Ken turned his head, startled, but there was no one there. He stared at the blank wall in puzzlement. For a second, he had recognized the voice, had been on the verge of calling the speaker's name... and then it had faded from him, like the memory of an interrupted dream, and now for the life of him he couldn't remember who he'd thought was talking to him, or what the voice had sounded like. It hadn't been Alatan's voice, and he was reasonably sure it hadn't been Marriochio's... Galliente? Or who?

After a moment, he got to his feet. There was something he was missing here, but he couldn't afford to dwell on it, he thought. He had to find Alatan. But she had fallen on the side with the door, and had run for it. By the time he reached the door, she and her box were nowhere to be found.

Ken cursed. If Alatan knew he was here, the whole plan could be blown. His best chance now was to switch back out of Bird Style, into his Galactor disguise, and hope he got lucky again before Alatan located him and the others.

The box was shorted. Hidden inside one of the semi-permanent escape tunnels, Alatan inspected it with some degree of disbelief. Her boxes were never supposed to short-- and if they did, they had breakers to prevent them from accidentally shifting the walls.

She hadn't programmed the floor to split like that; she'd been nowhere near the box at the time. Sosai's abilities weren't delicate or precise enough, and besides, he claimed he'd been asleep at the time, and insisted on returning to that state without being bothered by Alatan. It was possible that someone at a control center had seen Alatan's danger, and caused the floor to split like that; but that shouldn't have caused her box to short out. Were the two events unrelated? Or...

Alatan remembered then who she'd been following when she'd run into the room, and smiled. She had read some books on parapsychology. Paranormal entities had been known to cause electrical shorts before. And if a paranormal entity had interfaced with her box, trying to cause the floor to split, the box might well have shorted out. "Thank you, father," she whispered.

She got up and walked down the escape tunnel, weaving her way through the labyrinth until she reached Selina's area, where the spare boxes were kept. If the Science Ninja Team were in the base, she couldn't afford to be without one. Now she had to notify Galliente of the ninjas within the base as well as without, and figure out a plan to deal with them, and get someone to do these design specs for her biomechs... so much to do.

Jun was in an area where the corridors were very wide. The doors, spaced widely apart, had numbers on them, and children ran down the halls, shouting and playing. She thought herself safely disguised in her Galactor suit, so it was a major shock to hear a childish voice shout, "Look! It's the Science Ninja Team!" When she whipped her head around, she saw a bunch of boys in Galactor masks that didn't fit chasing another boy, who was wearing a white sheet and a pot on his head.

"You'll never catch me!!" the boy shrilled, laughing. "I'm the white shadow that slips in unseen!"

"Yes, we will! We're going to kick your butt, Gatchaman!"

"Try it, meatheads!"

Jun had seen children play Gatchaman vs. Galactor before many times, and was at first shocked to see the game in a Galactor stronghold. After watching a bit, however, she realized that the game was skewed in the opposite direction. Here, the boy dressed up as Gatchaman was obviously the "bad guy". She turned and walked on, feeling an overwhelming sense of sorrow. It had been better in the old days, when Galactors were all drifters with no parents or children, or at least so it had seemed. This business with Galactor families living at bases... Suppose they did find a way to destroy Cross Karakoram Base, how could they avoid killing these innocent children?

The lighting in these corridors was bright, almost as bright and warm as spring sunlight, and there were rows and rows of plants in pots, from flowers to bushes to small trees. The air was cool and moist and constantly blowing, feeling almost like an outdoor breeze. There were children playing everywhere. Jun found a staircase, descended a few levels, and entered a similar area, but this one was shrouded in darkness. The lighting here was occasional and pale, not even as bright as a streetlamp. If Alatan was attempting to duplicate the outside world here, there would have to be day/night cycles; perhaps the people who worked the night shift lived their days when it was night on the outside, and vice versa. In a place where day and night were under artificial control, it made sense to do things that way.

In another area, there were stores, run by women in pastel Support Services uniforms or civilian clothes. Almost none of the employees she saw were young men; the only men at work were old, children, or crippled somehow. There were men shopping, some in uniform and some in civvies, but nobody was wearing a mask. There were also a large number of women shopping, so Jun didn't feel conspicuous. She removed her mask and stuffed it into her belt. There were eating establishments, and hardware stores, and bookstores, and all sorts of things, but relatively few clothing shops. At first this surprised Jun, until she realized that the people who shopped here wore uniforms most of the time, and didn't need as many civilian clothes.

She stopped in a bookstore. There were bestsellers, escapist fiction, how-to's and science-- but no biography, history, literature, religion, philosophy, no newspapers, only the fluffiest magazines... Jun was almost glad to see the censorship; it was a palpable reminder that despite the humanity of the shopping-mall atmosphere, this was still Galactor, still the bad guys. She also discovered, watching, that no money was used-- everything was paid for by cards that had Galactor insignia on them. Probably an internal credit system. It made sense. If you were never paid in hard cash, only in credit that you could only use in Galactor stores, how could you ever buy anything Galactor didn't want you to have? Jun nodded, and left.

Alatan's Galactor was no less corrupt, she thought, but the corruption was less evident, more subtle, and therefore more insidious. In the old days, when Galactors were stuck in bases for six months or more with inadequate living quarters, and were killed for complaining, it was easy to see how the organization dehumanized its members, and the members themselves had a greater chance of getting sick of the situation and trying to leave. Alatan's Galactor was more like Brave New World than 1984-- if you made people think they were happy, would they ever stop and realize that they weren't free?

Enough of this. She had to try to find the VIP levels. Several times she'd thought she had figured out how to get there, but each time she'd ended up at a dead end. Dave's instructions had been reasonably straightforward-- they'd just been wrong. Maybe one couldn't get there from here, not unless one was invited.

David was in the science areas, wandering through with some feeling of awe. He had changed his greens for a grey Technician uniform after realizing that there were no green goons here. The Technician whose uniform had been donated to David was going to be asleep for the better part of 24 hours, so Dave wasn't worried about anyone figuring out that he was here.

The technology level here was in some places equal or superior to what his mother had used. He had a sudden overwhelming urge to find a computer, hack into the system, and upload all the files to the mainframes at G-Town. How could he leave this place without getting this data?

But his father and Dr. Remington were captives somewhere, and stealing the data here wouldn't help them. He had work to do here. And around a corner he heard a girlish voice, telling him he might actually have found his objective. Carefully he walked to the edge of the corner and peered around.

" the Temple of Science, so I want you to handle it for me," Alatan was telling a bearded man in a lab coat. She had handed him a rolled-up sheaf of papers. "This is the basic design. I want it blueprinted and feasability checks done by 2 PM Wednesday. You can pick a team of whoever you like to help out. Can you do it?"

"Of course, Katse-sama. Three days should be plenty of time."

David stepped into a supply closet, shucked off the uniform, and transmuted. Then he took out a sonic balloon. Alatan might be immune to drugs, but if she had ears she wasn't immune to sonics. He placed his own earplugs in, cautiously stepped out of the closet, and sent the balloon drifting around the corner.

Even with the earplugs, he could hear a thin whine, grating against his nervous system and making him dizzy. That was all he could hear, aside from the rush of blood in his ears; the plugs made him almost totally deaf. He waited a few minutes, then stepped around the corner.

The balloon was still wailing. Everyone, including Alatan, was sprawled unconscious on the floor. Dave retrieved the balloon and shut it off, placing it back in its balloon bag. He took out his earplugs and put them away. Then he walked over to Alatan.

Ken and Joe's experience had taught him not to overestimate the length of time she would be unconscious. He took wire from another bag and wired her wrists together, and then her ankles. Her face was the best indicator of when she would wake up, so he pulled off her mask, and then lifted her, cradling her in his arms. Fine blonde hair spilled sideways, halfway covering her face.

Something odd about that. He peered closer. Her ears-- they had no holes in them. Where the ear canal should have been, there was an unbroken expanse of flesh. What the--

Her whole body jerked violently. There was a clatter as the wires fell off and landed on the ground. Clawed hands lashed at Dave's face, and he dropped her, startled. She landed like a cat, and kicked at him. Dave went back, dodging-- but the kick connected anyway, in a moment when her leg was impossibly long. As if her leg had grown to make contact with him. He fell back, and she launched herself at him.

Dave had trained extensively in fighting techniques, and had taken Galactors down before. He had, however, never done more than sparring with an opponent who was also highly skilled. Alatan didn't even seem to notice the blows he landed on her, when he landed them at all-- she was fluid, quicksilver, limbs growing and shortening, torso thickening and thinning. By the same token, it was nearly impossible to dodge her or to hold her-- he'd grab her arm, and it would suddenly become impossibly thin and slide through his grasp like water. When she hit him, it was often with a limb that she'd suddenly hyper-muscled, so her blows had far more strength to them than a girl of her build should have been able to produce. She didn't give him time to reach for a weapon; she stayed in close contact, tripping him when he tried to leap free, using her martial arts training and her mutant ability in tandem to surpass him. As the damage on his side mounted, he became more and more desperate, which meant more careless, and finally a lightning series of strikes to the neck and shoulder took him down.

Alatan was breathing hard, feeling exhilarated. So much for the Parakeet's brilliant plan to take me out, she thought. The sonics had indeed affected her, enough that she did lose consciousness, but before she'd passed out she'd closed up her ears. Without continuing damage from the sonics keeping her unconscious, her powers had caused her to wake up much sooner than he could possibly have anticipated. Using her powers like that was something she had recently been training to do, since Gatchaman had beaten and humiliated her the last time the Ninja Team had been at Cross Karakoram. The technique wasn't ready to take down Gatchaman himself yet, she thought, and it would never work on the Condor... but it gave her a good feeling to know that she could beat even one member of the Science Ninja Team, even if he was the least trained.

She removed his bracelet, noting that he didn't detransmute as she'd expected. Then she fastened the wires around his arms and legs, and used her box to call in some technicians. The people who hadn't been able to close off their ears, who'd taken the full brunt of the sonics, needed medical attention. And G-5 himself needed to be shipped to Selina at the Temple of Science.

As soon as that was taken care of, Alatan headed for one of her major control centers. "Have the Science Ninja Team been found?" she asked one of the controllers there, a woman in pastel blue.

"No, Katse-sama. We're still searching."

"And outside?"

The controller put an image of the outside on the screen. Phoenix Reborn was demolishing the little fighters Galliente had sent up to deal with it. "I think they only need one or two to fly that ship," she murmured. "There could be three or four of them here in the base." Something had to be done. She couldn't afford to have the Ninja Team wandering around her base, and if they had managed to disappear so thoroughly into the crowds at Karakoram, there was probably no hope of finding them. "They're probably in disguise. We'd have to seal the base and initiate an all-points search, like we did with the Angel of Death... and that took us several weeks, and the base wasn't full at the time... no." She had a better idea. "Give me a line to Mango Base."

An image of the captain of Mango Base, a plump man in a costume vaguely reminiscent of a bug-eyed monster, appeared on the screen. "Yes, Katse-sama?"

"I want you to take Tarantular and attack Utoland with it."

"But, Katse-sama... it's not complete yet."

"I know. Why do you think I sent you so many incompetents to build it and staff it with? Clean all the idiots out of Mango and assign them to Tarantular. I'll send you some decent people when it's time to build a real mech. But I want Tarantular launched within the hour, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

By now, G-5 should be well on his way to the Temple of Science. Alatan opened a channel to the entire base. "Men and women of Galactor, this is Alatan Katse. We of Galactor have just launched the mecha Tarantular against Utoland. As the Science Ninja Team are fruitlessly occupying their time in attempting to destroy us, they should be unable to divert themselves to stop Tarantular before Utoland and ISO headquarters become smoking ruins. I exhort everyone to wish Tarantular the best of luck. Hopefully, within the next few hours, one of the major obstacles to Galactor victory should have been removed from our path." She closed the channel. That should give the Ninja Team something else to think about.

Leave this base, run to save Utoland, and abandon your teammate to us... or stay to try to rescue him, and abandon Utoland to its fate. Make your choice, Gatchaman. Either way, I win.

Jun and Ken headed for the pre-arranged meeting point the moment they heard Alatan's announcement. But Dave wasn't there. They waited for fifteen minutes for him.

"Maybe he didn't hear the announcement?" Jun asked.

Ken took a deep breath. They couldn't wait any longer. "There's three possibilities. One, he's working on something that's too involved or important to stop. Two, either he didn't hear the announcement or didn't understand it meant we have to leave. Three, he's been captured. But we can't use the bracelets inside Cross Karakoram, because of the radio-jamming field, so we can't contact him to find out which it is-- and we can't stay here to find out." He clenched a fist. "Damn Alatan Katse. She must have done this to force us to leave the base."

"How did she know we were in the base?"

"I ran into her, but she got away. I've been expecting something, but I thought she was going to attack us..."

"Maybe she couldn't find us in our costumes."

"Maybe. Or maybe it's a trap. But what choice do we have?" He turned away. "Let's go."

Aboard the Phoenix Reborn, the others were not happy about having to abandon Dave. "You can't just leave him, aniki! What if he's in trouble?"

"I think Jinpei's right," Ryu said. "You'd never have left one of us behind, in the old days."

"Listen!" Ken was getting angry. "We can't contact him. Utoland is in danger-- we've got to go there. We'll come back as soon as we've dealt with the threat, but..."

"By that time, it might be too late," Joe said.

Ken whirled on him. "You have any better ideas?"

"Nope. None. I think you've made the only decision you could, Ken; I just want to make sure you know what it might mean."

"I know what it might mean, Joe. Don't doubt it." Ken stared into space desolately. "Utoland is more important than one of us. We have to go."

At the Temple of Science.

"My name is David Kymel." His voice was distant, hesitant and childish. "My mother was Teriani Kymel and my father was Dr. Nambu, except that he wasn't really, because he was the father of the original David, but I'm only a clone of the first David. His name was David Nambu and he's dead so Mom made me. He--"

"Tell me about your mother."

"She's an alien from the planet Keirai which was at war with Sosai X's world but not any more because they got help from the people who live on Fuyuress which is in the Proxima system which is close to Earth, while Keirai is in Andromeda and it's close to Selectro, except that Keirai and Fuyuress blew it up. Selectro. They have super-high technology there but they exiled her and they said if she ever came back they'd kill her. So when she went back they killed her. But she was insane then. My father died and it drove her insane and she wanted to be God and rule the entire universe but he didn't let her. So then they killed her." Tears streamed down his cheeks. "Why did they do that?"

"If Dr. Nambu died, why is he alive now?"

"There was this machine called the Eternity Matrix which was on Keirai. After we intercepted the Phoenix wave from Z and disentangled it to bring the Science Ninja Team back to life and we gave them new bodies and everything. Joe was the hardest. He didn't have a body so we had to make him one. She said, go with me to Keirai and I'll use the Eternity Matrix to bring Dr. Nambu back to life. But you have to guard me. So they said all right and I said all right and we all went to Keirai, and we got her to the Eternity Matrix, and she brought him back to life."


"By intercepting the wavefront of his departing soul from back in time, the second after he died, and making it corporeal in our time. The Eternity Matrix warps time. Only it doesn't, anymore, because Father blew it up."

"Could you build another one?"

"No one could. Even Mother couldn't build one and Mother could do everything."

"Tell me what she could do."

"She made the Bird Styles and the Phoenix Effect. Ken, Joe, Jun and I all have Keiraine god-birds for our bird styles. The Keiraines worship birds. Ken's is the sun god, Antarrapai, Sunbird. Joe is Tennai, Deathwing, the god of death. Jun's is the Shalasapei, the harbinger goddess of birth and death, and Asapei is our clan totem, but also, the trickster bird."

"How does one make a bird style?"

"It's a secret."

He didn't elaborate. "A secret? Tell me."

"I can't! It's a secret!"

"But it's all right to tell me."

"No, it's not!"

He was getting agitated. Selina adjusted a dial. "All right, you don't have to tell me," she said, thinking, Not yet.

"Mother made people too. She made me. And she made me believe things that weren't true. She made me think I was the original David but she edited my memories. I used to have a little sister but she died and Mom couldn't clone her so she edited out the memories and now I don't remember her at all. And I don't remember Father either from my childhood even though I know he was there. Because it wasn't my childhood, that guy's dead. And so's Mother." He began to cry. "Why did she do it? She went crazy because she lost everyone she loved except I wasn't dead so maybe she didn't love me? We were all injured but we could have fought them off, she didn't have to give herself up to the laserpolice and die... They vaporized her! Couldn't even clone her... Why didn't she tell me what was happening? She was going crazy and she never told me..."

Selina didn't need to hear any of this. She flicked a group of switched, and the truth serum pouring through David Kymel's veins was filtered out, replaced with a soporific. The young man closed wet eyes and slept. Selina looked down at him. Half-alien clone, heir to his mother's incomprehensibly advanced science-- oh, he could be a treasure trove. Nambu would be difficult to break and Remington didn't know anything Selina didn't, but the Asapei was a find indeed.

Someone knocked on the door. "Come in," Selina said, and turned. It was Garain, a slim boy of 9 with straight black hair. "Yes?"

"I thought you should know," Garain said. "Meghara ran away and took the doctor lady with her."


"Connell told me not to tell or he'd beat me up, but he said it was okay now."

"Connell..." There was no point in being angry at Connell. Selina knew the boy's resentment and understood it-- and he was not old enough to understand what was at stake. But Meghara... "When did they leave?"

"Three hours ago."

"Three hours..." No point in even pursuing them, now. "Tell Connell I'm not angry at him, but I'm going to let him explain to Alatan why he let her mother walk out of here." She left the room and the sleeping Asapei, to begin preparations. Lara Remington would tell ISO and the Ninja Team where Nambu was being held, and they had to be ready to defend themselves.

The Science Ninja Team reached Utoland at about the same time as Tarantular did. It was entirely a typical Alatan mech-- it didn't put up much of a fight. It kept catching the Bird Missiles in its forelimb claws and flipping them back, but once they actually managed to hit it with a Bird Missile it exploded nicely.

Ken took a deep breath. This was the seventh incompetent mecha Alatan had sent out. Since Mechapart, her first venture into mecha operations, had actually been unusually formidable, he was positive it couldn't be that Alatan meant these mecha seriously. She was using them for something else, but he didn't know what. Probably she was laughing hysterically, at how easily she had manipulated the Science Ninja Team into running away. Perhaps the next time, they should let the UN forces handle Alatan's mecha.

He was tired. He'd gotten up early this morning to deal with a Galactor threat that turned out to be imaginary. 6 hours round-trip to nowhere, then to Cross Karakoram to try to find Dr. Nambu. Not only hadn't he and Jun found Nambu and Remington, they'd lost Dave. It was late, and it had been a loong day, and he did not want to go back to Cross Karakoram and spend the rest of the night looking for David and the doctors. He wanted to sleep. But duty still called, and he couldn't rest as long as the three were missing.

Then Kamo contacted them from Denari Lake. "Gatchaman, please report to Denari," he said. He sounded excited. "Dr. Remington's on her way here-- and she says there's a defector with her who knows exactly where they're keeping Dr. Nambu."

The Temple of Science was in Greece, near the Mediterrean coast. After Remington had gotten a few hours away by car, she had called ISO and requested pickup. Her location was about 8 hours from Utoland by plane, so it would be very late at night before she got it with the defector. Since the plane that had picked Remington up didn't have closed-band radio, and since they couldn't afford for the transmissions to be picked up by Galactor, they were going to have to wait until the plane arrived and they could question the defector before they could go to Nambu's rescue. Ken suggested that everyone take this time to get some much-needed rest; either Dave was all right or he was captured, and if he was captured chances were he was with Director Nambu anyway.

Despite his exhaustion, however, Ken slept only fitfully, tormented by the need to rescue Dave and Director Nambu. When the plane got in at four in the morning, he got up and went to meet it eagerly, despite having had almost no decent sleep-- better to be doing something, exhausted though he was, than to be tossing about in bed, tortured by inaction.

Introductions were made. Meghara seemed to Lara Remington to be somewhat subdued by the presence of the Science Ninja Team-- she wasn't flaunting her differences quite as much. Maybe it was just the hour. Or perhaps it was the fact that up until yesterday, these people had been the enemy, to her. As she was describing Nambu's location, it seemed to hit her suddenly, what she'd done in coming here.

"You're going to blow it up, aren't you?" she blurted.

"Blow up the Temple of Science?" Ken looked grave. "I'm afraid we have to. A base of that importance..."

"I understand... just don't... don't kill too many people, okay?" She looked at them pleadingly. "I've got friends in there. You're not going to kill Dr. M, are you?"

"Let me ask you something," Ken said. "If we destroyed the base without killing the people, what sort of damage would we do to Galactor operations?"

"A lot," Meg said emphatically. "The Temple of Science's always been GSI's power base. Not the HQ-- we moved the HQ for Galactor Science Institute to Sadra's Folly, and then to Cross Karakoram after you guys blew the Folly up-- but the main research center. If you could trash it, data for something like 400 projects would be lost, plus all the files-- she keeps most of the important files in the Temple's mainframes, 'cause it's more secure."

"More secure than Cross Karakoram?" Jun asked.

"Yeah. See, the Temple's location isn't known to most of Galactor. Alatan herself might know where it is, but then again she might not. And I've been screening everyone who comes to work there. Nobody can lie to me. Almost nobody. They can't-- I catch it, it's what I'm trained for. I find the holes in false stories, even if the people themselves believe the story. And I have to-- used to have to-- do periodic security checks. About the only thing the Doctor didn't plan for is if I defected."

"Well, if it would damage Galactor just to lose that base, even if the personnel aren't hurt, then we can just destroy the base. Now, they're going to notice that you and Dr. Remington are gone, I take it?"

"The Doctor'll be prepared for you guys to show up, because she figures Dr. Remington will tell you. But she won't be prepared for me to spill my guts. She's never understood how much I hate Galactor."

Ken was somewhat impressed. He had been about to ask the girl if her defection was going to cause Marriochio to improve security around the base-- but all he actually had asked was whether Marriochio would notice she was gone. This Meghara was very quick on the uptake. "Then can you tell us the best way to destroy the base to avoid killing?"

"Sure." Meghara drew an incredibly detailed and precise map of the base, and outlined exactly where to enter to be unobserved, and where to hit to cause maximum damage to property, minimum damage to people, all within as short a time as possible. It was almost as if she understood the Ninja Team's methods well enough to predict their best possible path. Jinpei frowned as she worked-- he was suspicious of any Galactor who showed such knowledge of how the team operated, and he still wasn't sure he understood the point behind not killing the people.

"What if we wanted to take Marriochio captive?" Ken asked.

Meg shook her head. "Don't try; not here. She's got too many people who'll die to save her, plus some that could kill you. I mean, Connell tries not to kill anymore, but you don't want to mess with him. And Yuki's only 5, but in Mediterrean sunlight she can blow a human being to smithereens.

"Who are Connell and Yuki?"

"Mutants. We're all mutants, the Children of Science. Connell and Yuki are both bioengineered. Connell moves faster'n most people can see, and if he goes into a blood frenzy, everyone he sees ends up dead. Yuki's a psi-- gets her energy from sunlight-- and her telekinesis is strong enough to kill with. And she would, too, to protect Dr. M. She calls her Kaa-chan Hakase-- Dr. Mommy."

"All right. We'd better let Marriochio go for now. Rescue the Director, and Dave if he's there, and destroy the base."

After they left, Lara looked at Meghara. She said nothing, but wondered about the young mutant's motives. Was it true that the Science Ninja Team couldn't have captured Marriochio? Meghara had told Lara she didn't want to see Marriochio hurt-- had she lied to protect her foster mother?

Aboard the Phoenix Reborn, Jinpei asked, "Why are we going out of our way to avoid killing Galactors just because a defector asked us to?"

"Why not?" Ken asked. "One would think you liked killing Galactors for its own sake."

"I don't like it. But it doesn't bother me, either. I mean, they're scum, ani-ki. They're not worth as much as a cockroach."

"No," Ken said. "They're human, Jinpei. They're evil humans, and so if we have to kill them to preserve others, we will. But we can't ever forget that they're human." He turned and looked at Jinpei, hard. "That girl defected because she couldn't stand Galactor's philosophy, because she didn't want to be a tool anymore. But she still cares about some people in Galactor. It's just that she thinks we stand for higher principles. What do you think she would do if we used her as a tool to destroy people she cares about? Hardly a higher principle there. We stand for something, Jinpei-- that's why people do defect, when they do. And that's why we're not going to kill anyone this time-- not deliberately. We're not going to go out of our way to evacuate everyone, either, but like Meghara said, everyone should be able to get out in time if they don't make stupid mistakes.

"Jun, you have the medical background. You and Ryu go to rescue the Director and Dave. Joe, Jinpei, you two and I will plant the charges. If a Galactor sees you, knock him out. Meghara's given us a way to rescue people we care about; the least we can do is not kill the ones she cares about, and we don't know them from the others."

They parked the Phoenix Reborn some distance away from the base and snuck in on foot. At home, it would be early morning, but here at the Temple of Science, halfway around the world, it was the dead of night. Marriochio herself would be asleep at this hour, according to Meghara, and while she had posted extra guards, Meghara had told them the secret ways to get into the base unnoticed.

First, Jun and Ryu found Dave, in the area where Meghara had predicted he would be if he'd been taken captive. Ryu took out the guards at the door while Jun stunned the technicians in the room. She ran over to Dave. He was hooked to a machine, similar to the machine Ken had been hooked to at Sadra's Folly, with his blood pumping through various tubes and a forest of wires connected to his body. Ryu's face drained of color, looking at it. "Wh-- what're they doing to 'im?" he asked, horrified.

"Drugging him. They did this to Ken once." Jun's words were deceptively calm-- she knew enough about these machines not to panic, but the sight sickened and frightened her. When Ken had been hooked to one of these machines, Dave had done most of the actual disconnecting. Jun had helped him, but could she remember now how it had gone? Carefully she dredged up the memories and duplicated what they'd done before, step by painstaking step, until David was free of the machine. His uniform and bracelet had been taken off and placed in a glass case in the next room-- Ryu went and got them as Jun worked. Then he and Jun put them back on Dave, who began to slowly stir awake.

"Wha-- where?" He blinked his eyes at the two of them.

"Selina Marriochio's base, the Temple of Science. We're rescuing you and Director Nambu," Jun said.

"You found'im?" David tried to sit up, still slurring his words slightly, and fell back down again. "Dizzy... same as Ken?"

"Yes, the same sort of machine."

"Rem'ber... her question' me... oh shit." David managed to sit up successfully this time. "Jun... I rem'ber... Marrioch'...questioning me. But... don't remember what... I said. Whether I... told'er... anything."

"Aw, shit," Ryu mumbled.

"Well, maybe the Director can think of a way to find out. Maybe we can hypnotize you or something, after we get back," Jun said. "Now we have to rescue the Director. Can you walk?"

"I'll carry you, if you can't," Ryu offered.

"I'll try." David got up and swayed violently. With some support from Ryu, however, he seemed to be all right. They snuck down to the lowest level of the complex, where Director Nambu was being held, and Dave and Ryu waited in the dark hall outside the cell while Jun went in.

Nambu was asleep, but came fully awake moments after the door in the wall irised open. He spun on his cot to face the intruder. "Jun??"

"Director! Are you all right?"

"More or less." Nambu got up, ran a hand through his hair in a mostly futile attempt to neaten it, and straightened his clothing. His shoes, tie, belt, and the jacket to his suit had all been laid out neatly on the floor. "Aside from an implant in my heart. How did you find me?"

"A girl named Meghara defected and told us where you were."

"Good." Nambu nodded. "I'd hoped she would." He began to put on the shoes and other items. "Did she also tell you that theoretically, if I attempt to leave this base, I'll suffer a heart attack?"

"She says there isn't any field around the base, and Marriochio's asleep. If we move quickly, we can get you out of range before Marriochio can turn the implant on."

"Then let's go." He stepped through the iris Jun was holding open, into the hall. Dave had a luminescent balloon, casting a small and meager light against the darkness. "Where are the others?"

"Ken, Joe and Jinpei are going to blow the base up."

"I want Marriochio alive."

"We can't get her this time. The defector says it would be too dangerous. But we're going to destroy the base without loss of life-- just data. Meghara says that'll cripple Galactor."

"I hope she's right," Nambu said. "Shall we go?"

The explosions started half an hour after the Science Ninja Team's departure, waking Selina Marriochio from a sound sleep. She jerked to a sitting position in the darkness of her bedroom, wondering for a second whether the noise that had awakened her had really happened. Then an alarm wailed, and she knew. The base was under attack.

There was no time to take her morning shower or put her facepaint on. Selina switched on the intercom, audio only, as she dressed. "This is Marriochio. What's going on out there?"

The voice from the control center was shaking. "Marriochio-sama, apparently the Science Ninja Team broke in, an hour to half an hour ago. They stunned several guards, freed the two prisoners, and planted several bombs. The computer mainframes are down, we're on auxiliary power, and the storage area for the flammable chemicals was bombed as well."

"Dispatch firefighters and damage control. Notify Karakoram of our situation. Are the Ninja Team still here?"

"Not as far as we can tell, ma'am."

"I'm on my way."

Dressed in the first clothes she'd been able to grab, she ran for the control center. "We're evacuating," she gasped, out of breath, as she arrived. "I'll supervise from this post. All of you, go to the various sections and oversee the departure."

"Yes, ma'am!"

They left, and she flicked on all the screens. Auxiliary power made their pictures dim and fuzzy, or nonexistent in places. She picked up the PA microphone. "This is Selina Marriochio. Base security has been breached. All persons, evacuate in an orderly fashion as per regulations. Shut down the tools and carry as much data as possible without hampering evacuation." Galactor Science Institute was the only place in Galactor where people were valued more highly than data or equipment-- not for reasons anything like compassion, but on a strictly practical basis. Trained scientists and technicians were much harder to replace than equipment. "All persons, evacuate in an orderly fashion."

She switched over to speak directly with the medical group. "Medical group, come in. This is Marriochio. What is your status?"

A harried-looking man appeared on a viewscreen. "We have the one cyborg, Marriochio-sama. He can't be moved without his life-support system. Should we take him?"

"Yes. He's important to Alatan. Do you have a portable generator?"

"Yes, ma'am, but the life-support system consumes too much power."

"Never mind that. He can't be unhooked from it, but he can survive with it off for a day or so. Hook the generator to the refrigerator with the genetic samples. This is top priority, Doctor. If any of those samples are damaged, I'll have your hide, assuming you live. Do we have any other patients?"

"A few. The two adults used in the replication experiment can't be moved, either. Two broken legs who'll need assistance to travel, and Mantissa."

"Mantissa is top priority. Give the broken legs crutches-- if they can't make it out on their own, leave them. They're only technicians and can be replaced. The replicates, leave. We have that data on floppy disk, correct?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then we don't need the subjects anymore. Leave them. Don't allow Mantissa to be hurt. The boy in the bubble is dead already, isn't he?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"By the time we can do the autopsy, putrefaction will have set in. Leave his body behind as well." She closed the channel, and began directing the general evacuation.

Fire was spreading throughout the base. Selina notified the groups nearest the fire that they were in danger, and sent firefighting teams in. Their job was not to stop the damage-- it was too late for that; the Temple of Science was lost-- but to slow it, so people could escape. In other places, Selina had retrieval teams working desperately to evacuate experiments. Most of the Temple's data was going to be lost; that couldn't be helped. But she had to preserve as much of it as possible.

As she worked, she felt a brief stab of anger. She had tripled the guard around the base. The fact that the Ninja Team had still gotten in so easily meant they'd had more than Remington's knowledge to go on. But she couldn't afford to dwell on it. She made sure that the Children of Science-- Connell, Mantissa, Garain, Yuki, Alain, Sadami and baby Mina-- were all evacuated. It wasn't their fault what their compatriot had done-- well, it was Connell's fault, in part, but nothing he deserved to die for.

Finally, after several hours, Selina scanned through the base on the screens. A fourth and fifth explosion had gone off in the middle of the base, ringing several areas in fire, but mostly everyone was out. Good. She congratulated herself on her base's design; not for Galactor Science Institute a flimsy base that went to pieces with just one bomb. They'd had few casualties, they'd managed to save about half the hardcopy and floppy disk data-- if they transferred GSI operations immediately to Cross Karakoram, they might recover smoothly from this disruption. Time for her to leave.

She checked her own area for an escape routing. The area surrounding Control had been the first to be evacuated, so she hadn't looked at it in an hour or two. Now she checked it-- and her heart nearly stopped.

There was no way out.

Fire had encircled the control center while she had been looking elsewhere. All the possible escape routes were blocked. She flipped through the screens, making sure. There was one route she might be able to manage... no. She would need to have fire gear or be inhumanly fast, and she possessed neither. The firefighters had all left the building-- she couldn't contact them from here, and there wasn't any way they could reach her in time, anyway. There was no one close enough to rescue her.

She was going to die.

Selina fell back into her chair, filled with an awful numb resignation. There was an emptiness in her, a passive submission. She was afraid, yes, more of the pain than of death itself. But she had no will to fight, to try to resist her impending death. Somewhere inside her, she felt that whatever happened was what she deserved. Fate was just. And deep down, she'd known all along it would someday come to this. She was ugly and obnoxious and worthless, and sooner or later she'd have deserved to die.

There was a bitter sense of betrayal in her now, and without volition, tears began to form in her eyes. Meghara, why? Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Unbidden, she thought of Meghara's hermaphrodite mother, a smiling, shining, beautiful redhead who didn't know the meaning of the word "loyalty", who used and abandoned others freely. Andre Sordonne had used Berg Katse for five years and finally abandoned him in the end. She had abandoned her parents, abandoned her child, abandoned all her friends and lovers to take new ones-- cared nothing for anything but hedonism, her name a synonym for manipulation and shallowness. For Selina, who had been abandoned by her natural parents and so condemned to a hellish childhood, abandoning one's child, as Andre had done to Meghara, was the worst possible sin. Abandoning parents was not much better. Now Meghara had proven that blood ran true, by not only abandoning, but betraying Selina to death.

But she couldn't even summon hate for Meghara. All she could feel was this awful passive emptiness. She heard flames crackling behind her somewhere as the room got hotter, and tried to remember something happy, to occupy her last few moments-- but there was nothing. She couldn't remember ever being happy. Satisfied, yes, fulfilled, yes, but never happy. Could that be right? Had she never been happy, ever, in her life?

If she still believed in God, she might pray for this to end quickly, for death to come and bring swift oblivion. But she believed in nothing, and her fate was out of her own hands. She sat in the chair, hands folded in her lap, and waited for death.

Outside, Yuki pelted through the darkness, looking for Connell desperately. "Connell! Connell!"

He turned and saw her in the moonlight-- a tiny albino five-year-old, looking no older than 3, with a mind that sometimes seemed older than time. Right now, though, she was very much the child, broadcasting her distress to all psi-sensitives around. "Yuki! What's wrong?"

"It's Kaa-chan Hakase," Yuki said, gulping for breath. "She's in trouble!"

"What kind of trouble? Tell me!"

Too out of breath to talk, Yuki mindspoke him. She didn't need sunlight to use her telepathic powers, only her telekinetic ones. She's trapped in the base, in the control center, waiting to die. And it's dark out, so I can't rescue her! Garain says there's only one way in, and only you can do it. She showed him the path.

"I'm on it," Connell said, turned, and moved.

At hispeed the movement of the people around him was unbearably slow. He charged past a group of evacuees, back into the burning base, thinking, My fault. My fault! When he'd let Meg go, he'd had no idea she would do this. The guilt rose up bitter inside him. Oh, God, I know I'm evil and I've killed lots of people and all, but please, please let me reach Dr. Marriochio in time. I already promised I wouldn't ever kill again. Please let me reach her...

The flames were very close now.

Selina sat slumped in her chair, her mind very far away. She was trying to think about nothing, but not succeeding very well. The past kept intruding. Things she had done that made her wince to recall them, mistakes, stupidities, embarrassments, all the things that hurt worst to remember came back to her. With a life like that, she was almost glad to die...

A voice broke into her reverie of self-hatred. "Mraksnyaftngoutverino!" a high-pitched voice burbled, or something like that. She opened her eyes and saw Connell. Before she could protest his being here, risking his life for her worthless existence, he had grabbed her, and was cradling her in his arms. He moved fast enough that her skin bruised where he'd grasped her, but the same passivity that had kept her from struggling harder against death prevented her from resisting or complaining. Rather, by instinct, she locked her arms around his neck.

Then he was moving, at slightly less than full speed. Connell had been bioengineered by Vail Djannis, and as a result, the speed of his life went by three times faster than it would for an ordinary human. He had aged to physical adulthood by the time he was six. He was also designed with a self-healing factor, similar to though less powerful than Alatan's, which kept him from deteriorating with age. Physically, he was a mature adult in his prime, and he was likely to remain so for the rest of his potentially eternal life. Connell could move at normal speed when he chose to, but when speed was called for he was faster than all but the fastest cyborgs.

Of course, he paid a high price for all that...

Now he charged through the flames with Selina in his arms at nearly 30 miles per hour. The fire raged around them. A spark caught in her hair and began to blaze, and she screamed. But the wind of their passage damped out the fire in her hair before it could damage her very badly. The burned area still hurt like hell, and she was gasping for breath, going into shock from the pain, as they exited the base.

Connell practically threw her into a pile of wet undergrowth and dropped, rolling desperately. Selina saw that he had been on fire, too, and sat up, forgetting her own pain in the need to see to his. But his healing ability had already closed up the burns with fresh new skin. Unlike Alatan, Connell didn't heal perfectly-- there would be scars, but they would be small and faint.

People had surrounded her. "Marriochio Hakase! Are you all right?" "You should have called us!" "Cross Karakoram radioed and said they'd be here with medical help in fifteen more minutes-- just hang on until then!" Withdrawing into herself, away from the crowd of voices, Selina observed that her clothes had holes burnt in them from sparks, some deep enough to have burnt her skin as well. She could feel the pain in waves, but it hardly seemed to matter, as if she herself wasn't real enough to feel pain.

She was alive. She had been snatched from the jaws of death, rescued miraculously, and now she was going to live. Why didn't that make her happy? Why was it that she saw only emptiness, looking at the life she had ahead of her, and she felt nothing at all?

In a hoarse voice, she began questioning the people around her about the evacuation. When all else fails, do work. It was the only thing she could think of to do, to fill the emptiness inside her.