Maze Games 1
(Gatchaman IV story #11)
It was easily the biggest base Ken had ever seen.
They had gone in full guns, since there was probably no hope of surprising Galactor Headquarters, especially not one with 30,000 inhabitants. They'd pulled up, put Phoenix Reborn on autopilot, and leapt down, taking out Galactor cameras wherever they could. Cross Karakoram was not, at first glance, so different from the last time-- it was the same season, late fall, and the terrain was as rocky and mountainous as before. There was, however, a river where there hadn't been one before, a turbulent stream, narrow but deep, and the weird sculptures and stylized carving of Sosai X were no longer about. Instead, shattered piles of rubble indicated where the sculptures had been, looming in the mist. Ken wondered what the thirty thousand people who'd been forced to relocate here had thought-- the place seemed to him to reek of fog and death.
As they landed, Ken remembered his words of last time-- "This might be the last time we're all together like this--" and looked around at the others. Joe was with them this time, but Ryu wasn't, Dave having taken his place. "Listen," Ken said, and Jun visibly started, remembering last time. "I don't believe for a second Galactor's going to make it easy for us to get in and demolish their headquarters. If we do this right, this may be the end of our fight with Galactor. If we make a mistake, though... it might mean a different kind of end. Try to take a prisoner to interrogate. There isn't as much need for urgency this time, so I'll break us into two groups for safety. Jun, you come with me. Joe, Jinpei and Dave, stick together. Don't use the bracelets unless you've found the way in or it's an emergency. Running into those Dancers counts as an emergency. Got it?"
"We going to try knocking on the carvings again," Jinpei said, "or do you think Alatan Katse's got more brains than to repeat what her father did?"
"Knock on the carvings," Joe said dryly. "I'm not going to bet my life on Alatan Katse's brains."
"There aren't any carvings I've seen, anyway," Jun said. "Where is an entrance likely to be? This base-- it's the size of a whole mountain, isn't it? And remember the trap that killed the Red Impulse team.."
"I remember," Ken said quietly. "We're just going to have to be ultracareful."
"Why don't I make us a doorway, like I did at Sadra's Folly?" Dave asked. "She can't possibly have a trap set up then..."
"She could. Remember what the Angel of Death said. This entire base is mobile on the inside. Her men must have a safe area to come out of. Let's find it."
They split up as Ken had decided, relying on the fog and their speed to stay out of trouble. Strangely, they encountered no human defenders-- only dozens of electronic defenses, like they'd met at Sadra's Folly. Ken nearly screamed in frustration. With no people around, there were no prisoners to question, nobody to follow, and no way to find an entrance. "We've been doing this too long," he muttered to Jun. "Galactor's figured out our tricks."
"They can't stay in their base forever," Jun pointed out.
"But they can stay in considerably longer than we can stay out. They've got a self-sufficient city in there."
Their bracelets beeped. Joe, tersely. "Jinpei found it. By the waterfall."
"Roger," Ken replied. "Let's go, Jun."
The waterfall, like the whole river, was a new addition since the last time they'd been to Cross Karakoram. That was somehow mind-boggling. Building a mecha was one thing; but building a river? Ken and Jun came around the side of it, Ken still marveling at its existence, and located Joe, Dave and Jinpei, who were standing by the rock wall that supported the waterfall. "Over here, Ken," Jinpei yelled. "We took out all the defenses already!" It obviously hadn't been an easy job, either; Ken noted as they approached that David had a laser score on his arm. "Dave! Are you okay?"
"Yeah." The young scientist looked a little pale, but managed to grin. "Joe got the thing before it took off my arm."
Joe looked at Ken, an expression Ken interpreted as He's a liability, he's not as battle-trained as the rest of us. To which Ken shrugged. Who else is there? David's mother, Teriani Kymel, had been the original designer of the Bird Styles. She'd given Dave his and trained him how to use it, apparently because she feared that as Dr. Nambu's son, he was potentially at risk from Galactor, and she wanted him to be able to defend himself. There'd been no one else to fill the gap when Ryu left to raise his family, and David's scientific knowledge and supertechnological weaponry, beyond even the stuff Galactor played with in some respects, had been a great help to them-- but the Asapei wasn't as battle-honed as the rest of the team, not even close. It was a necessary trade-off. Ken just hoped it didn't get Dave killed.
"Where's this doorway of yours, Jinpei?" Ken asked.
Jinpei moved to a patch of concealing brambles in front of the rock wall, fumbled under it with his foot, and made contact with some sort of lever. The bush moved in one direction, and a segment of the wall in another, revealing a doorway. "I don't think this is the main gateway," he said. "If you look in the water real hard, you can see somebody's escape craft. I figure this area had to be the back door to some secret passage, probably concealed by a bush or something, and since this was the only bush around...it just took a little trial-and-error, aided, of course, by the brilliant deductive skills of the great Swallow Jinpei." He blew on his fingers and rubbed them on his chest.
Joe snorted and rolled his eyes. Jun fought to keep from giggling, and both Ken and Dave grinned. "Good work," Ken said, sobering. "The only problem is that I can't believe Galactor doesn't know we're here, especially since you guys took out all the defenses. I don't really relish taking somebody's secret escape passage-- they tend to be boobytrapped, you know."
"They're usually boobytrapped if you're approaching from inside," Jun pointed out.
"But if there's a way to enter from this direction, there'll probably be boobytraps in this direction. And that tunnel looks very narrow to me," Ken said. "Gas filters on, everybody. I'll go first, Joe bring up the rear, and everyone be very careful."
"Maybe I should go first," Dave said. "I could use a sonar balloon to look for traps."
Ken thought about that. "How's a balloon going to find traps?"
"A sonar balloon radiates a sonar probe, which I'm trained to follow. I can tell from the resonances if there's a trap door, or a hidden alcove, and I can also tell what's sticking out of the wall."
"Fine. Do it." Ken was never going to understand how Dave's balloons worked, if he lived to be 100. "I'll be right behind you, then."
They headed down the tunnel warily. There were no traps, after all, which only made Ken more suspicious-- there hadn't been any traps en route to the room where his father's comrades had died, either... Finally they came out in a vast, darkened room.
"Along the wall," Ken whispered to his team. "We're not being caught in the middle of that." There was no balcony overhead, nor a chandelier, two traditional staples of this kind of base. Which meant there was nothing ahead to leap onto or catch with cables if the floor dropped out from under them.
"There's two different doors," Jinpei pointed out. "Which're we going to take?"
"The one on the right. We're not going to split up until I'm sure we're actually in the base."
"Oh, you're certainly in the base," a familiar girlish voice said.
Everyone had weapons ready as a spotlight came on in the center of the room, illuminating Alatan Katse. She smiled directly at them.
"I can always count on my Science Ninja friends to show up wherever I am," she said. "You do realize that I could have taken you inside that tunnel at any time? But I did so want to let you see the inside of my magnificent base. Wouldn't you say it's a wonder? I mean, admittedly you haven't seen much of it yet, but I can fix that, I suppose..."
Jinpei prepared himself to lunge at her, but Joe's hand landed on his shoulder. "That's a hologram, Jinpei. Don't fall for it."
"A hologram? That?" It looked like Alatan Katse in the flesh. Even Dave, who was accustomed to sophisticated holograms, was taken aback. They'd been fooled by Alatan's holograms before, but after it had been pointed out they'd always been able to tell. This time, even if they took Joe's word that it was a hologram, it still looked real.
"She wasn't there until the light came on. I can see better in the dark than you. And she's not radiating any body heat."
"Ah, Condor Joe, but couldn't that just mean I'm cold-blooded?" Alatan said, and giggled. "No, you're right, this is a hologram. Isn't it magnificent? I can think of all sorts of things to do with such wonderful holograms."
"Playing with toys? 14 is a little old, Alatan," Jun said.
Alatan's eyeslits narrowed. "I get this from a woman who goes around with a whip and played with a yo-yo until she was 18."
Ken had been quiet until now. He stepped forward, eyes blazing. "You seem to think this is all some sort of game, Alatan. Well, we're done playing. It cost a brave woman's life to find this base, and nearly her daughter's as well. You killed a young girl's mother as your father killed her father, you hounded her across the Earth, you destroyed her happiness-- a girl no older than you." That was an exaggeration-- Kyoko was a year older than Alatan-- but Ken didn't notice. "We've dealt with you more kindly than you deserve, Alatan, because of your tender age. But if you can destroy the life of a girl that age, it's our duty to destroy you."
He had been slowly advancing toward the middle of the room, though nowhere near the hologram itself, since he was reasonably sure it stood on a trap door. Now he brandished the triangle, with the sword point aimed at the hologram. "YOU'LL PAY FOR KILLING THE ANGEL OF DEATH, ALATAN KATSE!!" he suddenly shouted, and flung the triangle at the ceiling, where the spotlight rested. The glass smashed, and Alatan vanished with the spotlight. "Let's g--"
Before Ken could even finish, the ground heaved sideways, piling all of them toward a sudden crack in the floor-- a crack that rapidly widened as the floor tilted more.
"Jinpei, Dave," Jun yelled desperately, "give me explosives! Joe, soon's they do throw me over the hole!"
"No buts! I won't fall in!"
Jinpei smacked exploding rocks into Jun's hand, and Dave an exploding balloon to wrap them in. Joe hurled Jun over the hole as David magnetized a balloon and pressed it to the floor, holding it for dear life with Joe and Jinpei hanging onto him and Ken holding to the ball of Jinpei's paddle weapon. Jun sailed over the hole and dropped the explosive package in, landing on her feet on the opposite side. There was an explosion, and the grinding of gears came to a halt. Jun brushed off her fingers, smiling at the others. Joe pulled himself up and got himself stuck to the magnetic balloon, giving him the leverage to pull the other three up the nearly vertical surface of the former floor and toss them to the other side, then using his natural strength to pull free of the balloon, kick off from the wall and land on the other side of the hole. He almost didn't make it-- when it was obvious he was going to fall short, Jun tossed him her whip and used his momentum to pull him in faster.
Another hologram switched on in front of them. "Nice save," Alatan said, none of her usual giggly demeanor evident-- she was deadly serious now. "But since it's the Angel of Death you're so upset about, let me explain my position. She died because she was instrumental in the murder of one of my precious Dancing Dolls. I know nothing regarding a daughter, nor do I particularly care. You see, I'm glad you mention it, because just as you will not forgive me for her death, I will never forgive Tori's murderer. Which of you was it?"
"Don't try to play to our sympathies, Alatan," Joe growled. "We haven't got any, not for Galactors. It could have been any of us."
"It was you, wasn't it?" Alatan's eyes lit on Joe. "Oh, I have so wanted an excuse to kill you painfully, Condor Joe. I'll make you pay for Tori's death-- I'll make you wish you'd stayed dead when my father killed you that time! The rest of your team will live, but you--"
"He didn't kill the Dancing Doll," Jinpei shouted, starting forward. "I did! And I'm not sorry for it. Galactor murders the innocent all the time. All Galactors deserve to die!"
"Jinpei, no!" Jun strangled out. Joe could handle himself-- he always had before-- and he was the target of Alatan's vengeful desires anyway. Jinpei was good-- probably better than Ken or Joe had been at that age, certainly better than she'd been-- but unfortunately, Alatan, too, was tougher to beat than her father had been, having the mistakes of nine years' worth of others' experience to draw on. The only reason Alatan hadn't killed them already was because she was squeamish about death. If she was deliberately out for Jinpei's blood...
"That's interesting. That's very interesting. That they call me crazy, when they have you to look at." Alatan stared into Jinpei's eyes.
"The difference is that we don't kill innocents!" Ken shouted. "You attempted to murder a 15-year-old girl who had never done you personally any harm, whose only crime was to be born to one of your enemies. Jinpei killed a woman who was on the verge of killing Joe, who tried to kill me! Are you the only one who's allowed to want revenge, Alatan Katse?"
"You've talked enough." Her image vanished--
--and the floor split up into three separate sections, dividing Ken and Joe into one group, Jun and Dave into another, and Jinpei by himself. "Jinpei!" Jun yelled, and threw her whip toward him. "Don't get separated from us!" She yanked him to them just as walls slammed down, separating the three of them completely from Ken and Joe. More gears ground. "As soon as a hole appears, drop bombs into it!"
No holes opened. Instead, the floor completely dropped out from under them, dumping them onto a floor that tilted so badly, they couldn't land on their feet. There was nothing to wrap a whip or paddleball around. David pulled out another magnetic balloon, and it ripped out of his hands and sailed across the room. Jinpei was being tugged along the floor in the upward direction by his metal paddle-ball, which he had a death's grip on, while the other two slid down. "Jinpei let go of it don't get separated!" Jun shrieked, all in one breath, but it was too late-- suddenly, the part of the floor he was on tilted in the opposite direction, separating him from Jun and Dave. "JINPEI!!"
Then the tilting floor became a vertical wall, and the two fell down into a large room. The facing wall slid away, revealing about 20 Galactors with guns. "You're coming with us."
Jun and Dave looked at each other, then back at the Galactors. With no more signal than that glance, they both leapt. Gunfire converged on where they'd been, never managing to become quite synched to where they were, and they came down fighting. With her little brother to rescue, Jun had no time to waste by stunning the Galactors-- she electrocuted them left and right with her whip, as with her legs and arms she took out others. Dave's balloons were no good at close range-- he released one to screw up the cameras, then entered the melee with fists and feet, striking to stun instead of to kill. Without the nine or ten years of war behind him the others had, he was not as hardened, and only killed at absolute need.
When the Galactors were all down, Dave turned to Jun. "Their cameras are temporarily out. We could invade the base from here."
"No! We've got to help Jinpei!"
"He's a big boy, Jun..."
Jun whirled. "He's my little brother and if Alatan Katse's got a vendetta against him, he's going to need all the help he can get!" She lifted her bracelet. "Jinpei! Can you hear me? Jinpei! Ken! Joe! Can anybody hear me? Respond!"
Not even static.
"Radio-damping field," Dave said. "Nothing without wires or Alatan's sanction is going to get through in this base. Listen, Jun. We're not going to be able to just blast our way to Jinpei, or the others for that matter. Alatan could have dropped them down so many rabbit holes we'd be looking for the rest of our lives. I vote we drop this gangbusters stuff, disguise ourselves as Galactors, and look for some sort of control center, where we can use our particular skills to zero in on our teammates and help them out. How's that sound?"
It was a logical plan, exactly what Jun would have herself proposed if it hadn't been Jinpei behind that wall, Jinpei who Alatan Katse was targeting for death. "I have another idea. You go do that. I'm going to do my best to blow out these walls and help Jinpei!"
"Jun, Katse plays this base like an instrument! You haven't got a hope! Even if you find him, she'll move him! Jinpei can protect himself for a while at least-- he's not a little kid, you know."
"But if she puts him up against that assassin's partner--"
"Then he's already dead, Jun. But if he isn't, every minute we spend talking is a minute off his life! Come on!"
Reluctantly, feeling as if she were abandoning her little brother, Jun transformed to the body-molded configuration Teriani had put into the bird styles, enabling her to wear clothes over it, and donned the clothes of the one female Galactor in the group they'd downed. There was no blood on the uniform-- Jun had broken its former owner's neck cleanly. David shook one of the ones he'd knocked out awake, and had little trouble getting the man to open the door. Galactors were not bred for courage. He then released another of his camera-ruining balloons-- he had 3-- and ducked back in, whereupon he gave all the living Galactors knockout drops and took one man's clothes. "Let's go, Jun."
She glanced back at the wall that had separated her from Jinpei as she left. Jinpei, hang on! We're coming to save you...
Jinpei landed hard in a tiny chamber with a single glaring light overhead. He had been dumped and slid and knocked sideways so many times by the damn shifting walls that he hadn't even been able to land standing. For several minutes the world spun crazily around him, and all he could hear was the grinding of gears under his body. But when the gears failed to signify being dumped sideways again, he decided to risk getting to his feet.
For several seconds it looked as if his eyes were playing tricks on him-- it looked like the walls were moving. Then clarity came with an ice-cold adrenaline rush that banished his dizziness-- they were moving. They were closing in. On him.
Quickly he glanced around. Nothing conveniently nearby to climb out of or crawl through or even use to prop the walls apart for a while. And he knew better than to try to blow a hole in the floor or walls-- it wouldn't do a damn bit of good. His life was entirely in Alatan Katse's hands, and she wanted him dead.
Jinpei had spent over half his 18 years of life getting into situations as desperate as this one, though, and he immediately figured out where his only hope lay. So he began to laugh. "Oh, this is your big revenge schtick, Alatan Katse? Real original! Been watching too much George Lucas lately? I can't tell you how unimpressed I am."
An echoing voice filled the room. Thank God, she's listening! Jinpei thought, as Alatan said, "In less than 2 minutes, you won't be able to tell me anything, Swallow Jinpei."
"You have no guts, you know that?" Jinpei said. "Same problem your father had. You hate somebody's guts, you dump them into a deathtrap, instead of facing off against them personally. I mean, maybe it could be excused in your father's case, since he couldn't fight worth diddly shit, but I thought you were supposed to be a trained fighter! Why don't you face me and kill me yourself if you can, instead of letting some impersonal slab of metal do all the work?"
"If you're trying to convince me to let you live, you're doing a very poor job."
"I'm not trying to convince you not to kill me. Talking to Galactors is like talking to a brick wall and when it comes down to it--" the walls were uncomfortably close now-- "you're just as bloodthirsty as your predecessors. You don't want revenge, you want an excuse to kill!"
The walls stopped. Thank God. Alatan Katse always preferred to talk first, kill later or not at all-- she was more heavily into gloating and attempting to justify herself than any of her predecessors-- and Jinpei had figured that if he cast enough aspersions on her motives, he might be able to get her to stop and talk. But that had been a big "might", and the walls-- close enough to pin his arms-- indicated just how close it had been. Predictably, Alatan's image appeared on the wall in front of him, incongruously cut off on the elbows by the walls.
"An excuse to kill, Swallow Jinpei?" She looked enraged. "You murdered a Galactor who hadn't, at that point, killed any of your team, nor any innocent people, and you claim I need an excuse to kill?"
"What, was I supposed to wait until she'd killed Joe? Or some innocent bystander? Maybe you forget, Alatan, but this is war, not a game. You hate me for killing one of your people? Fine, I hate you for killing the Angel of Death."
"You killed Tori first!"
"Then I hate you for killing those military men in Alaska. I hate you for killing the men assigned to investigate you. While we're at it, I hate you for sending men off to die and making us have to kill them, because they're killing innocent people at your orders, which is on your head so I hate you for that too. I hate you for putting your agent in a situation where I'd have to kill her. Get the picture?"
"None of those people trusted you, or died trying to protect you. None of those people loved you!" Alatan's voice cracked. "Poor Tori-- she died because she loved me. Because she had faith in me. She was trying to protect me from your psychotic teammate, bastard, and you killed her!"
"Well, now you know better. Quit Galactor, or don't let anybody you care about into the line of fire. Listen, you want to talk unfair? There used to be a woman scientist helping Dr. Nambu, Dr. Pandora. She was kind, sweet, gentle, pretty, smart, brave-- you name it, she had it. And Sosai X murdered her because she was trying to tell Gel Sadra the truth about his plans. She was Gel Sadra's mother. And that poor little kid, that poor dupe of Sosai X, finally realized what an evil creature Sosai X was, that X had murdered her mother and father and stolen her childhood. So she helped us, knowing how dangerous X was, knowing she might die-- and she did. At 4 years old. Having spent the last year of her life in confusion and fear and burdened with far more responsibility than a kid that age should ever have to handle. That's sad, Alatan. That's sad, that Gel Sadra's trust in Sosai X was betrayed so cruelly like that, and that Dr. Pandora died so awfully. And they're not the only ones. People who lost their parents, people who lost their kids, or their brothers and sisters, wives or husbands, friends... That's sad. That's what I'm fighting. And frankly, your assassin knew the risks. She was in a kill-or-be-killed profession. She'd have killed me in a second. No, I'm not sorry I killed her.
"And you-- wake up, Alatan, there's a war on! You wonder why people hate you? Why we say Galactor's tainted, and you'll never do any good with it? Galactor causes the kind of tragedy I've caused you all the time! Multiply what you feel by 170 million-- that's what Galactor's done! Maybe I'm a ruthless killer too, but frankly, I can't see any good reason to let anyone from Galactor live-- you've got 170 million deaths to atone for. Want revenge, Alatan? Just don't fool yourself that you're noble or something killing me-- the real reason is that nobody's real to you but you. You don't care about anyone's pain but your own. Maybe you're not bloodthirsty, but you're sure as hell not half as great and noble as you seem to think, and your precious Cause is rotten to the core!"
He took a deep breath, gauging Alatan's reaction. If it wasn't a trick of the hologram lighting, she'd gone pale. She bit her lip, a sure sign that he'd gotten through to her. "Then it's not a question of revenge, but a question of war?" she said. "In that case, I'm perfectly justified leaving you between two closing walls. All's fair in war, after all..."
Damn. Jinpei thought fast. "Yeah, that's right-- but remember revenge again? Like Ken said, we've all gone relatively easy on you. We could kill you without much problem, Alatan. Slice off your head, take a machine-gun to you point-blank range-- and the reason we held off on your predecessors was because we needed information. We don't need any information out of you. Kill me, and my teammates are going to stop at nothing to track you down and murder you. You'd have to kill them all to save yourself, and you've said over and over you don't want us dead. Besides, even if you managed to get most of them, you'd never in hell get them all. We've all come back from the dead once-- and Joe twice-- and you don't know how we did it. Maybe we could do it again."
Alatan laughed, having regained her composure. "I do believe you're trying to threaten me into not killing you." The walls slid aside slightly. "I could kill all of you, and no, I'm not afraid you'd come back to life. I'm an expert on resurrection myself, and I live among the ghosts of those who made me..." She trailed off, staring into the distance, then shook her head. "But I don't want to have to kill you all. I believe in ghosts, and I don't want to be haunted by yours. And there's other reasons, too. So I'll let you live, for the moment... but the man whose lover you killed is going to be very interested in hearing about you. He's undergoing some delicate surgery at the moment, and won't be in any shape to kill you for a while... but I think your teammates will find him even harder to kill than me. And as for you--"
The ceiling began to lower at a tremendous rate. Instinctively Jinpei threw himself backward, flat, one arm up-- and the ceiling stopped inches above his prone form. "I said I'd let you live," Alatan's voice echoed-- her hologram had vanished. "But I'm sure I never claimed you'd be comfortable..."
The base was a maze, that not even a good number of its inhabitants seemed to understand. After being asked for directions twice, Jun and Dave thought it safe to ask Galactors they passed themselves. Frequently they got "I don't know, I'm just passing through this sector" or "Who can tell, the way Katse's been rearranging the @$!#&* walls?" Apparently transforming regions of Cross Karakoram had profound effects on the rest of the base. Navigational routes were blocked, rooms were suddenly rendered doorless, and huge gaps had developed in some of the floors. A huge crowd was bottlenecked through a tiny gap that had once been a major thoroughfare, and Jun saw a child of about 7 wandering around, weeping for his mommy. Children? In a Galactor base?! she thought, horrified. The Angel's report had said civilians lived here, women and children, but she hadn't fully realized what that meant until now. If we do figure out how to destroy this place, we'll be killing innocent children!
A voice blared over an intercom. "PLEASE LEAVE THIS AREA. TRANSFORMATION IN PROGRESS. PROCEED TO SECOND CORRIDOR INTERSECTION PATHFINDER STATION."
"A Pathfinder station?" Dave muttered to Jun. "I do believe someone up there is smiling at us."
They let themselves be swept by a current of humanity to the Pathfinder station, a huge circular chamber divided by thin plastic stands on which glowing lights etched maps of the various levels of Cross Karakoram Base. There were over 40 of the map stands. "Good God. How do they find their way around?" Dave murmured.
Jun studied the maps with a growing feeling of frustration. Each had a crowd around it, trying to make sense of it as she was. She noticed various women in pastel uniforms standing by the maps, answering Galactor questions. Hey-- it can't hurt to try, she thought. "I think we ought to try asking where the control center is. We can claim we were ordered to report there," she whispered.
"Want me to do it? A guy's less conspicuous."
"In this room, no one's conspicuous." She managed, with a few well-placed elbows, to get to one of the map explainers. "Excuse me, we were ordered to report to the control center. Where is it?"
"Which control center? I handle levels 17-19. You want the level 18 center?"
"Well, where are we now?"
The woman stared. "You are lost, aren't you? Level 32."
"Can you tell me where the nearest control center is?"
"Not my department. You new?"
"Over by that wall, see that machine? Feed in your orders and it'll give you directions."
This was not a lot of help, as Jun didn't have orders. She considered clearing the room out with a smokebomb, to give her room to study the maps, but that would alert Alatan as to her and David's location. None of these people seemed to know there had been a Science Ninja invasion, but Alatan most certainly did, and would interpret a smokebomb accordingly.
David, meanwhile, had been using his height to get a good look at the maps. At 6'3", he was taller than most Galactors, and his experience with three-dimensional maps had helped him to figure some things out. "There's a lot of control centers," he told Jun. "One every three floors. Problem is, I don't know where we are."
"The woman said the 32nd floor. So the next control center should be on the 33rd floor, above us or below us."
"Let's see if we can find the 'You Are Here' map."
Finding the correct map was easy; it had easily twice the crowding of any of the other map stands. Deciphering it was another story, in part because of the crowding. Jun and David figured it out after fifteen minutes of straining to make out the torturous pathways of the map-- it was directly above the Pathfinder station.
"Above us," Jun muttered. "The whole time."
"The problem remains, how do we get there?"
"You didn't see any stairs on that map, did you?"
"Not me either." Jun collared another attendant. "Where's the nearest up staircase?"
"That depends on where you want to go."
"The 33rd floor."
"Not floor-- level. Where on level 33?"
"The control center! It's right above us!"
"Don't get huffy," the Galactor snapped. "I think if you go out that exit-- " she pointed-- "that's where the direct elevator to the level 33 control center is."
All that work, and it had been right above them the whole time. Galactor bureaucracy was the ninth pit of Hell, Jun decided, as she and Dave headed for the elevator as quickly as they could push through the crowd. Jinpei, hang on!
In the elevator, they shifted to Bird Style, and came out into a totally unprepared control center. One of the pastel-clad women staffing the station screamed, "The Science Ninja Team!" Weapons flew, people screamed, and all the Galactors but two dove under furniture, those two pulling open a hatchway and trying to escape through it. Jun leapt and knocked them away, blocking their escape.
"Don't kill us, please!" another of the women was begging from under a chair. "We don't have any weapons, we're only Support Staff, I've got three kids at home, please!"
Three kids at home? That was a terribly incongruous thing to hear from a Galactor. Jun strode into the center of the room. "We won't kill anyone-- if everyone gets out from under the furniture and up against the wall, right now, and if you cooperate with our questions. Now! Move!"
Everybody moved. David frisked them, under Jun's supervision-- they could have done it the other way around, but Jun watching with a whip looked more impressive than David with a balloon. Nobody had weapons. "We want to find our teammates using the viewscreens," Jun said to one woman. "Show us how to do it. And don't try any tricks-- both the Asapei and I are computer experts. We'll kill you if you try to trick us." Jun sincerely hoped she didn't try to trick them-- any of these women might have children. Galactor orphaned children, not Gatchaman. But she had to talk tough to make sure they didn't try something.
The woman nodded jerkily and moved to the console. Jun watched her carefully as she typed commands, and five of the numerous screens suddenly switched. Two showed birdseye views of this room, focusing on Jun and Dave, but the other three--
Joe and Jinpei were both trapped in extremely narrow, lightless coffin-shaped cells, the ceiling, floor and side walls constricted so small they couldn't turn over or move their arms. They weren't in danger of suffocating-- they had lots of room to the back of their prone heads, but it didn't do them any good, it being as low as the rest of the ceiling. They were displayed on a computer-enhanced infrared scan, since there was no light in their cells. Ken was shown with an ordinary visual camera. He was out of Bird Style, flanked by two grim guards, with his hands bound behind his back and a collar of extremely fine wire around his throat, attached by a leash to one of the guards' wrists. If he made any sudden moves, or if his guards tugged at the leash, the wire would slit his throat. His surroundings were a large room with a vast viewscreen, currently showing the same images of Joe and Jinpei they had on their screens. Alatan Katse stood with her back to the screen, talking to Ken with a wide smile on her face. Jun gasped, and
David said, "Oh my god. She must be blackmailing Ken with them."
Jun turned to one of the Galactors. "How do we free them?"
"You-- you can't. Alatan Katse-sama has them on personal override."
"A control box-- she's wearing it. She never puts it down where anybody can get it."
"Damn," David said grimly. "We can't get it from her then, or she'll have her guards take Ken's head off."
"Ken's still wearing his gas filter," Jun said. Dr. Nambu had given them the gas filters recently-- they were transparent membranes worn over the nostrils, almost impossible to see unless you knew what you were looking for. "What if we gas the room?"
"Alatan's immune," David pointed out.
"Right... and then she'd threaten to kill Joe and Jinpei... no, that won't work."
"If we could just pull off some sort of distraction to get her out of there..."
"A distraction?" Jun's face lighted. She turned to one of the Galactors. "Can you control hologram production from here?"
Better and better. "That's it! Somebody comes in... one of her seconds. Are they in the base?" She asked one of the Galactors, "Where are Alatan Katse's vice-commanders?"
"Marriochio-sama and Galliente-sama are both in the base, I think..." the woman quivered.
"Get them on viewscreen."
Vincent Galliente was seated in a control room much like this one, studying various rooms and flipping screens rapidly, occasionally cursing. There was no sound, but Jun read "those two damn Science Ninjas" off his lips and realized he was searching for them.
Selina Marriochio was standing over a long table, diagrams spread all over. Since she was standing up, she was easier to holograph-- working together, Jun and Dave captured her hologrammatically, then set up the camera cloak on Jun so that the hologram would mimic Jun's movements and turn them into Selina's. After making dire threats to the Galactors should they interfere, they turned on the sound from Alatan's chamber.
"No, I'm not such a fool as to believe that," Alatan was saying. "Not right away. But eventually, they'll come to see that my rule isn't so bad. I'll end poverty and hunger, ignorance and crime. The world will never have had it so good. Before long, they will all come to love me."
Dave cued the holo transmission, and Selina Marriochio walked into the room. "Alatan. Come quickly," Jun said, trying to match Marriochio's speech patterns, and the hologram put it into Marriochio's voice.
"What is it? I'm busy, Selina!"
Jun just bet she was busy. It didn't take genius to see Alatan was infatuated with Ken, and would take any opportunity to hold long conversations with him. Jun had figured that much out. "Chatting aimlessly with Gatchaman doesn't qualify as busy to me. This is important."
"Well, what's it about?"
"I can't very well tell you in front of him, can I?"
Alatan sighed theatrically. "A man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done. All right. But this had better be important."
The moment she had left the room, Dave tripped the switch to gas the chamber. Jun continued to provide the movements for Marriochio until the guards had collapsed and Ken had freed himself. Alatan was getting more impatient. "All right, Selina, what is it that couldn't wait?"
The hologram vanished, and Alatan stepped back, startled. "Selina? Selina, where'd you go?" She looked about, a bewildered expression on her face. "Selina?"
Meanwhile, they had broadcast a holo of Jun to Ken's chamber. "Ken, don't get excited--"
"Jun!" He ran toward her, but stopped as her words sank in.
"-- this is only a hologram of me. We can't get the bracelets to work, so we're doing this instead. Dave and I are occupying a control room. We can't free Joe and Jinpei from here-- Alatan has a control box on her person, and she's overridden all attempts to alter their condition. But we can guide you to Alatan, so you can get her control box from her."
Ken nodded. "Can you use those holograms to make me invisible?"
Dave shook his head, and spoke into the pickup. "No, but we can make you look like a really fat Galactor if you want."
"Do it." Ken switched back to Bird Style and left the room, garbed in a truly tremendous Galactor hologram. They guided him to Alatan with holographic arrows.
Alatan seemed not to have caught on that somebody was using her holograms against her. Panicky, she took out the control box-- it looked like a pocket calculator, but had at least twice as many buttons as even the scientific kind-- and punched a sequence into it. "Selina! Selina, can you hear me?"
They still had Marriochio on the screen, so they saw her irritatedly punch a button on her table. "Of course I can. What's the problem this time?"
"I- you were just here! And then you vanished! That wasn't you?"
"Vanishing was never a talent of mine," Marriochio said. "Might there be somebody using the holography?"
"Well, there's two members of the Science Ninja Team unaccounted for--"
"Two members? I didn't even know they were here! Why didn't you tell me?"
"I had three of them captured-- there was no AIII!!" Ken had reached her by that time, and smacked her on the head with the hilt of the triangle. She staggered, the control box falling out of her hands, and the hologram around Ken vanished as he leapt and grabbed the box. Marriochio was shouting, "Alatan! Alatan!-- This is Selina Marriochio to Dancers' sector. Alatan Katse is in trouble, possible Science Ninja involvement, level 37, axis coords 159a by G15."
"Ken!" Jun projected into the area. "Marriochio's sending those Dancers after you!"
"I copy." He grabbed Alatan, threw her to the floor, and knelt on her stomach with one hand around her neck. "Alatan Katse!"
"D-don't hurt me, please, don't hurt me!" Alatan cried, tugging at his hand. "You want to let your friends go, I'll tell you how, you don't need to hurt me, please!"
Ken looked down at her with more than a bit of contempt. Even her father had had more guts than that. Even Gel Sadra had, for that matter, and that was saying a lot. "All right, Alatan. Tell me how to release them. And bear in mind, the Swan and the Asapei are at one of your control centers. They'll know if you're trying to trick me, and I'll take it out of your hide. Do you understand?"
"Y-yes," Alatan stammered. After her last beating at the Condor's hands, she'd become highly allergic to pain. "Press the button that says 'UNL'. Then three zeroes, then 'ENT'. That'll put all the rooms back to normal."
Ken did so, and Joe and Jinpei's tiny prisons enlarged, once more developing doors and lighted images on the screens. Dave projected holograms to them, telling them how to get out of the base, while Jun monitored the progress of the garishly made-up Dancers sent to take Ken out, and guided him in escaping them. He took Alatan's control box, not because he could use it but so that she couldn't, and was almost out when he was cut off from Jun and Dave.
Galliente had found them. Once informed that they were in a control center, it hadn't been too hard. Jun and Dave had only had time to see his face glaring at their image on the screen before he vanished from their screens. Then all of the screens went dark.
"Shit! He must have used some kind of master command to cut us off!" David got to his feet. "Jun, I strongly suggest we leave now!"
"Point taken. Any more of those camera balloons?"
"Better idea. We smokebomb downstairs and get a change of clothes in the confusion. "
They headed into the elevator, which stalled-- they had to blow out its bottom, clinging by the last magnetic balloon to the top of the elevator, and then slid down the cables to the Pathfinding station, where they created chaos with a smokebomb. In the chaos, they stole two Galactor uniforms and escaped with them, managing to avoid several platoons of men who looked suspiciously like Egobossler's Rider Commandos.
It took nearly half an hour to find their way out of the base, where they were met by Phoenix Reborn. Avoiding Galactor volleys, they flew off, with little to show for their adventure but Alatan's control box and firsthand knowledge of exactly how tough this was going to be.
Jinpei broke the silence aboard Phoenix. "She beat the pants off us, aniki," he muttered. "She beat me, you and Joe without working up a sweat! If it weren't for onechan and Dave..."
"We did it wrong," Ken said, shaking his head. "That base has entirely too many control centers, for one. For another, as long as Alatan has total control over the layout, there's no way to beat her in there. There are three ways I can see to handle this. The first, not to go back in-- wait until she comes out. Unfortunately she never has to come out. Second, drop an extremely powerful missile on her."
"Ken, there's innocent children living at that base," Jun said.
"I know. And there's no guarantee we'd get Alatan-- and I'd prefer to take her alive, anyway. Third, use stealth and sneak in. That's our best bet, I'd say. But we need Dr. Nambu to get us more information on how to infiltrate." He stared out the viewscreen. "If only the Angel of Death were alive.... we need people like her, now more than ever." One hand formed into a fist. "The next time, Alatan Katse. The next time we meet, you'll pay for killing her!"
Vincent Galliente and Selina Marriochio agreed on very little. They were temperamental and ideological opposites-- Galliente a highly emotional man, with a deeply ingrained sense of his own kind of honor and the firm belief that women were intended to serve men, and Marriochio a cold, terribly controlled woman with intense loyalty but no morals or honor whatsoever and the equally firm belief that mutant geniuses were meant to rule the world. However, at the moment there was one thing they both agreed on-- the girl they both served, Alatan Katse, had been a prize idiot today.
"Firstly, you didn't bother to notify me that the Science Ninja Team were in the base," Marriochio was saying.
"And I had to find out from my security people, not from you!" Galliente ranted. "Besides which, you sent no one up to the surface to deal with them, you didn't use all of the remote defenses, you let the defenses you did use be destroyed, and you let them into the goddamned base! You could have closed off that passage anytime you wanted! Instead--"
"Secondly, you spent your time conversing with the Eagle instead of concentrating on the capture of the other two--"
"Your order that Support Services aren't to carry weapons led the Science Ninja Team to take over one of our control centers, without your even noticing!"
"Thirdly, you gave the Eagle your control box, and told him how to use it, when your powers would have made sure you'd have suffered no long-term damage at his hands--"
"In other words, Alatan-sama, you have handled this like a goddamned little girl! You claim Gel Sadra was incompetent? At least she didn't hand the Ninja Team victory on a platter!"
"Were your father to be alive, he would be disgusted at your conduct."
*They're right. You're an incompetent fool and I never should have pinned my hopes on you. If you want Galactor to be run competently, turn the body over to me!*
"SHUT UP!!!" Alatan screamed hysterically. She whirled on the two of them. Behind her mask, tears blurred her vision.
"Nobody sees what I accomplished! The Science Ninja Team ran home with their tails between their legs! They got a control box. A stupid little control box! I've got dozens! What can they get from that? We had light casualties, I demonstrated the worth of this base, I had 3 of them captured which is better than either of you have ever done, dammit, could you have done any better? Without me, the two of you'd be at each other's throats in three nanoseconds! It's not my job to catch the damned Ninja Team, it's yours, and I'm the leader of Galactor and I'm SICK AND TIRED OF PEOPLE YELLING AT ME!"
It was obvious from her voice, even though they couldn't see her eyes, that she was crying. The two adults looked at each other, then at Alatan, whose chest was heaving with the exertion of screaming and not-quite controlled sobs. "Listen," Alatan said. "You want a plan? You want a rematch? I've still got that tracer in Nambu's heart. I'll capture Nambu, replace him with a Dancing Masque, learn all of ISO's secrets and send the Science Ninja Team back here, and I'll trap them and kill them. Satisfied? Is that what you want from me?!"
Neither of the Galactors said anything, but in her mind, a familiar presence murmured, *Yes. That's an excellent plan. Do that, Alatan, and you will get everything you want.*
Alatan stalked out of the room, leaving Marriochio and Galliente to fight or go back to their jobs or whatever they were going to do. She entered her bedroom and collapsed sobbing on the bed, ripping her mask off but not bothering to take anything else off.
"Leave me alone!" she screamed at no one in particular. "Just everyone leave me alone!"
From the corner of the room, she caught a glimpse of something-- someone watching her sadly, someone who looked like her. But when she looked up, there was no one there. "You don't have to leave me alone," she whispered. "You can come back. Father..."
*You are overwrought, to start imagining things. There was no one there. Go to bed, Alatan. Now.*
"Shut up! You're not my master, you're only my creator and you can't tell me what to do!" But she was tired-- even as she denied X's orders, she felt exhaustion creep over her. Alatan stubbornly fought off going to sleep, since X had told her to, but her body apparently had other ideas. Before she could summon the will to get off the bed, she was asleep.
Something inside her brain laughed. It had begun.
And something else in the room screamed in denial, understanding what was happening.. but no one could hear.