I was one of the lucky ones.
When the Kagaku Ninja Tai attacked, I was in the tiny kitchen off the command room, getting a cup of coffee for the Commander. When the explosion wiped out the entire bridge crew, turning them into bloody chunks spread across the remains of the mechs controls, I was safe behind the thick door of an open fridge. It slammed into me from the force of the blast, almost dislocating my shoulder, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
Of course, I was still in a whole lot of danger. Id been in Galactor for a year, following the family tradition of joining, but this was the first time Id run into the Ninja Tai. Before this, Id been stationed on a remote little radar base that didnt even have outer weaponry.
I should have expected this attack more. I mean, logically I knew itd happen. The Science Ninjas always attacked the mechs, and destroyed them with appalling regularity. I knew that, but I never really expected it to happen to me. None of us ever did, Im sure, or Katse never would have gotten any of us to crew them. Were not really trained for intelligence, and I was one of the smarter ones, already tapped for officer potential.
Closing the door of the fridge, I made my way cautiously towards the open door into the command room, carefully not looking at what I stepped over, beyond seeing that it was red. I peered into the command room and froze.
There was one living person in there, and I definitely knew he was no Galactor. The Condor himself waded through the blood and fuel in that room like it was water. Grabbing a corpse that sprawled over the controls, he yanked him off it and dropped him uncaringly to the floor before examining the computer hed been bleeding on.
I didnt pull my gun. He may have had his back turned to me, but those BirdStyles were bulletproof. If I used my pathetic little handgun, Id just piss him off. And I knew exactly what hed do to me in retaliation.
Instead, I looked around the kitchen for anything I could use. There was a janitors closet there and I peered into it to find a flare gun. Taking it, I made my way back to the command room.
The Condor was still staring at the computer, trying to get it to work and having more luck than I would have expected from him. He was supposed to be a warrior, not a computer expert. Then I heard him murmuring into his communicator and a woman answering. The Swan was talking him through it, I realized. Either way, he wasnt looking for me.
I crept through the room, as quiet as Id been taught by my older brothers and uncles. Silence, theyd said, could save ones life far more effectively than violence. Id once considered joining the Blackbird squad, and I half felt like one when the Condor didnt hear me. I didnt let that go to my head, though. All he had to do was turn around.
He didnt. Probably because he wasnt expecting anyone to still be alive in this part of the ship, he was also standing in a pool of oil from one of the ruptured pipes under his feet, streaked red with blood. I reached the door out to the hallway, then aimed the flaregun for it and fired.
His head whipped up and around as the flare came towards him and he dodged, a hell of a lot faster than Id seen even on recordings of him. Adrenaline rushes from fear can do that to a person, and having a fireball coming towards you while youre standing in a lake of oil is definitely going to kick in the fear factor. I didnt stick around to watch, and was almost knocked off my feet when the control room exploded again behind me.
I ran. Straight down the corridor and towards the emergency stairs to the escape pods. In my helmet, my communicator relayed only screams and prayers. With the Commander dead, no one was even trying to organize a defense. Briefly, I thought of doing so myself, but I wasnt even an officer, and I knew no one would listen to me. Besides, what could we do against the Ninja Tai? Id gotten lucky with the Condor.
Then I had other things on my mind than being a hero. Behind me, a dark form suddenly hurtled through the flame at the control room into the corridor, and for an instant my eyes met the icy ones under that dark helm. I bolted around the corner, just as the wall behind where my head had been was turned to Swiss cheese from his gunfire.
Crap, was about all I could think of. Dont panic, keep your head. Freak out and youre dead. Use short corridors, lots of turns. Dont let him get you in your sites for even a second. Id learned that from my family, not Galactor. They didnt have a policy for fighting the Condor one on one. Basically, if you do, you die. Hell, whole squads died against him and he was undoubtedly a little peeved with me.
Regretting the need, I turned away from the stairs to the escape pods, instead heading into the service corridors. They were twisted by necessity, winding their way through the gears of the ship. They were the only chance I had to lose the Condor. Besides, I doubted that way Id run into any of the other ninjas. From the shrieking coming from the communicator in my helmet, I suspected one of them had already found the pods and was having a field day.
Running footsteps sounded behind me. The Condor never left off a hunt, I thought. Hed run me down if he could. Id just have to make sure he didnt have the time. Hed have to abandon ship before it crashed. The mech lurched in agreement. Id just have to make sure I didnt go down with it myself. It lurched again. Itd be close.
In the bowels of the ship, near the joining to the tail, there was a launching bay for small detection satellites. There was a small opening there that a man could fit through. My idea was to use one of the parachutes that came equipped with the satellites in case of faulty launches. Id most likely break my neck, but it was less of a likelihood than what the Condor or a crashing mech would do to me.
Sure that the Condor was right on my neck but knowing he was really a few turns back, I bolted down the twisting passages, leaping down stairways and ladders with very little caution. I could live with wrecked knees, after all. Id hoped to lose him in the maze, but of course I realized quickly that wasnt going to happen. Id gotten blood on my shoes and pants in the control room. I was leaving him a nice red trail to follow.
Crap, I thought again. Clutching the flare gun, I fired it ahead of me at one of the sprinklers set in the ceiling. It sparked, then flamed, and water poured out of the ceiling, soaking me and hopefully washing away traces of my passage.
The wall behind me exploded as I went around a corner. Shit, the Condor was gaining. He must have been hurt in the blast, since hed actually missed me twice, but he didnt let that slow him down. I put on a burst of speed and fairly flew down the hall.
Two maintenance techs crouched in a corner, hysterical as I passed. "Follow me!" I yelled at them. "Its your only chance!"
Of course, they were so panicked they didnt listen to me and I certainly didnt have time to stop. I ran around another corner and screams behind me showed theyd seen the Condor. The screams cut off abruptly and I breathed a prayer. Theyd bought me some time, but I didnt like the price.
Finally, I reached the satellite room. Slamming the door and locking it, I turned to the satellites and cursed. The mech had taken a hit here. They were all gone and there was a huge gaping hole where there used to be a tiny hatch. Outside, I could see the ground not nearly as far away as Id thought. We were still moving forward, but we were going down. Forests passed below.
A lake. There was a lake in this area, I remembered. If I timed it right and got lucky, I might be able to jump into it and survive. Cautiously, I made my way over to the hole. The wind was incredible, tearing my helmet right off and tossing my long hair in my face. I pushed it out of the way and looked for any sign of water. Of course I spotted it, a good kilometre behind us. Wed already passed it.
Then the door behind me exploded back on its hinges, half hanging to the floor. With a gasp, I spun to see the Condor standing singed in the doorway, his gun aimed at my head. Never forget youre a man. My fathers words echoed in my head, and I just stood there, glaring at him. I was no coward. Id meet my death without flinching.
It took me a good three seconds to realize he hadnt shot me.
The Ninja Tai have these weird helmets. They have these plastic, coloured beaks in the front, and youd expect youd be able to see their faces clearly, but you can never make out more than just snatches of detail, never enough to figure out what they looked like. I knew it drove Katse nuts. It drove me nuts, too, since I couldnt figure out what his expression was.
"Well?" I demanded angrily. "Are you going to just stand there, or what?"
That should have gotten me shot. It didnt. He just cocked his head to one side and stared at me. The mech shuddered. I almost fell, but it didnt seem to sway him at all.
"Who are you?" he growled at last.
I blinked at that. What was he doing, keeping a name record of his kills? I snorted. "Galactor #228696830F."
He holstered the gun, growling and moving towards me. "Not that shit. What is your NAME?"
Involuntarily, I took a step back, confused and flustered in spite of my bravado. At that point, the whole front of the mech exploded, and I was knocked right out of the hole.
I forgot about the Condor at that point, but he didnt forget about me. Id fallen about fifty horrible feet when I felt something grab the back of my uniform with a terrible yank. All the breath whoofed out of me as my downward plunge dropped to something closer to a slow drift. An indigo gloved arm snaked around my waist and I was pulled back against a warm, steel hard chest. At both sides, I could see blue wings stretched out into the wind.
The CONDOR had saved me?! The Condor? What for? I shook my head at the bizzarity of it all, but I didnt say anything. Its not like I wanted to encourage him to drop me, after all. I just kind of hung there like a good little prisoner and got a birds eye view of the four hundred ton pterodactyl mech Id called home until about ten seconds ago turning into flaming wreckage spread over five hundred acres of timberland.
We landed on a little hillock, a pretty place if the view hadnt included one dead mech. The Condor let me go and pushed me to arms distance, his gun under my chin. "Whats your name?" he growled again menacingly.
I gave a mental shrug. If he wanted to know so badly, I might as well tell him.
"Giorgio Asakura," I told him.
The Condor stared at me for a long time. "Asakura..." he whispered at last, and I wasnt sure if the tone of his voice indicated hate.
"What of it?" I demanded. He obviously wasnt going to shoot me, so I guess I got a little cocky. Its an Asakura trait.
The head cocked to one side again. "You have a family?"
That was absolutely the LAST question Id expected. "Excuse me?"
The gun pressed up into the soft skin under my chin. I tried not to swallow.
"Do you have a family?"
"Yes," I squeaked.
He trembled. "Big?"
I raised an eyebrow at the stupidity of that. "Im Sicilian. Of COURSE its big. Ive got seven brothers and sisters and about a million cousins and aunts and uncles."
"Im Sicilian too..." he whispered so softly I wasnt positive hed said it.
"Then you must have a big family too," I said lamely, wondering what the Condor would be like at Sunday dinners. My grandmother was always hugging everyone and scolding. I couldnt imagine anyone scolding the Condor. Hed probably blow their head off.
The gun vanished back into its holster. "My family is dead," he told me coldly.
I rubbed my chin, wondering why in hell he was telling me all of this.
"Galactor killed them."
His whole family? That kind of tragedy was too big to imagine. "So?" I bluffed.
He turned away. Again, I thought of my gun, but he was still bulletproof. "They shot my mother and father. They were the only family I had. I thought."
I stared at that blue back. "Why are you telling me this?"
He took off his helmet. I couldnt believe it. NO ONE saw any of the Ninja Tai unmasked and I imagined the death I was sure he was about to give me. Then he turned around and my jaw dropped open.
"My name is Asakura too," he told me.
I was looking at myself.
We could have been twins. I gawked at him, looking like an idiot, Im sure. He had my gray eyes, my dark blonde hair, even the same cleft in the chin Id inherited from my father, and his father, and who knew how many generations of Asakuras. He let me stare, looking back at me with the exact same tightness around his eyes that I got when I really wanted something, but didnt know how to ask for it.
His communicator beeped. "Joe?" a man asked. "Come in. Are you all right? We cant home in on your signal."
In answer, he took the bracelet off. I squinted as a bright light surrounded him, and when it was over, he was standing in front of me wearing a tee-shirt and jeans. He shoved the bracelet into his back pocket. Then he crossed his arms, looking at me.
I raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess, you can still kick my butt, right?"
He smiled coldly. "Probably."
"Are you defecting?"
"Are you going to kill me?"
I took a deep breath. "You want to meet my family."
So I took him home. What the hell else could I do? He was the Condor, the deadliest ninja alive. It was also entirely possible he was a long lost cousin and family was inviolate. I just hoped he remembered that the next time he got an itchy trigger finger. I didnt want to be bringing him home just so he could start killing my relatives. Id kill him myself first. I didnt care who he was.
He made it very clear from the very beginning that I was not going to tell anyone who he really was. I wasnt sure how Id bring it up anyway. "Hi mom, hi dad. Meet the Condor. Hes family." That would not go over well. Wed lost a couple of cousins, uncles and one aunt during the war, and the Condor was undoubtedly at least indirectly responsibly for many of their deaths. We had a blood debt to kill him in retaliation, but if he was actually family, that was void. Or was it? I was confused.
"What are your parents names?" I asked him at one point during the walk to the nearest town. I was slowly starting to get used to him, but I wasnt really comfortable yet. This was the first thing Id said to him without a gun shoved under my chin.
"Guiseppe and Catarina."
I looked down, thinking. "I had an Uncle Guiseppe and an Aunt Catarina once. They died about ten years ago."
He got all tight and stiff on me again.
"How many of you work for Galactor?" he asked about twenty minutes later. Hed just finished yanking me into the bushes as the God Phoenix roared by overhead looking for him. I was dressed in a matching pair of jeans and a work shirt, liberated from somebodys laundry line. I didnt exactly want anyone to see me in my uniform.
"About sixty percent of the family. Certainly everyone in their twenties. Were not really highly placed, Uncle Guiseppe was the only officer, but Ive got a sister whose a Devil Star. Were quite proud of her." Remembering who I was talking to, I shut up.
He just looked away and flagged down a bus by the simple expedient of standing in front of it.
"Are you crazy?" the driver demanded of him.
"Are you heading into town?" he asked.
"Yes. Now get yourself and your brother in here. Youre wrecking my schedule."
He didnt correct him, I noticed. Then I realized I hadnt either.
The God Phoenix flew by overhead again when we were in the town renting a car. The Condor didnt react, but people on the street pointed and stared.
I looked at the mirror face beside me. "Why havent you contacted them?"
He shrugged. "Because they wouldnt understand."
Wouldnt understand him running off with a Galactor? I could believe that. I followed him as he took the keys and led the way out to the gray car hed rented. "Not even going to tell them youre alive?" I teased as I got in the passenger side. Usually Id fight whoever I was with for the keys, but that struck me as a singularly bad idea right now.
He got in as well and stared at me. Then he fished the bracelet out of his pocket and turned it on. "Im alive," he said curtly and shut it off again. "Happy?"
I raised my hands in surrender. "Im not going to say a thing."
He just snorted and started the car. A few seconds later, I was clinging for dear life. When it came to driving, it seemed all the rumours about the Condor were true.
"What do I call you?" I asked after wed been driving for about 12 hours. Hed let me spell him, but he didnt nap like I had. I guess he wasnt as stupid as I was. I still couldnt believe Id dozed off less than three feet from the Condor. He just let me sleep though, obviously trusting the directions Id given him.
He shrugged, slouching in his seat, his arms crossed. "Joe will do. My birth name is Giorgio, though."
I blinked. "Thats my name."
Somewhat dizzy, I thought about that. My uncle Guiseppe and Aunt Catarina... theyd had a son, I remembered. Id never met him since they lived so far away and of course hed died when they did. I glanced at Joe. Or we all thought he had. His name had been Giorgio too. Id been born the same day he had, and our parents had given us the same name without realizing it until it was too late. I remembered my grandmother teasing me about having a twin Id never met. Giorgio and I had traded baseball cards through the mail, I thought. And letters at Christmas. Id cried when I heard he was dead.
Now he was sitting beside me.
"Do you remember me?" I asked cautiously. "I think I remember you."
He looked out the window. "I dont remember all that much."
"What do you remember?"
"My mothers stomach getting blown out into the sand."
I shuddered. "Thats... horrible."
"Galactor did it." A world of hate was in those three words. I didnt dare say anything more.
We got home around five the following day. I lived in a big house on a farm on the outskirts of a town that had escaped Galactor attack so far mainly due to the fact that so many of us lived in it. Four generations and more of us lived in that house noisily and contentedly. We were Sicilian. When we werent on assignment, we lived together.
It was quiet when we pulled up into the drive, the curtains black. Undoubtedly, they thought I was dead. Glancing at Joe, I climbed out. He didnt look back, his eyes locked on the house and drinking in the sight of it. I started for the door.
"Remember what I said."
I shuddered, my shoulderblades itching. "Right, JOE," I stressed. "Come on, theyre probably all home by now."
I had a bit of the dramatic in me. Even if I hadnt had the Condor in tow, I would have wanted to make some kind of entrance. Slipping in the front door, I went quietly down the hall to peer into the sitting room. Joe was soundless behind me.
It was quiet in the room, my family in mourning. I saw my grandmother, both my grandfathers, my parents, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, sisters, brothers and a bunch of more distant relations. They all wore black, the ones not in uniform anyway, and there was a lot of booze and hankies everywhere. My family never did anything halfways.
I stepped into the doorway, a huge grin on my face. "Whats up? Somebody die?"
"Giorgio!" my mother screamed, throwing herself at me. Then all the women were shrieking and crowding around me, the men moving in beaming and trying to shake my hand. Everyone was hugging and kissing me at once. It felt wonderful, so much so that I briefly forgot about the Condor.
"Giorgio," my father smiled, tears in his eyes. "My son, I thought wed lost you. How did you escape?"
Everyone quieted enough that I could be heard as I spoke. "I got rescued, actually," I admitted.
My sister wouldnt stop hugging me, her dark hair short so itd fit under her Devil Star wig. "By who? I heard that the Kagaku Ninja Tai attacked the mech."
"They did," I told her, unable to resist. "I fought the Condor." A faint snort sounded from the hallway.
My family, however, gaped at me in awe. "You... fought the Condor?" my uncle Mario repeated.
Better not piss Joe off, I thought. "Yeah. It involved lots of running away on my part."
Everyone laughed. My mother gave me an extra hug. "But who saved you?"
I squirmed free of them and pointed at the doorway. "He did."
Joe wasnt standing there. For a panicked instant, I imagined him setting explosives in the old polished wood of my ancestral home, then one eight year old cousin ran into the hall. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "You look just like Giorgio! Mama! He looks like Giorgio!"
Joe peeked shyly around the corner. Less shy of being around Galactors, I realized, than family.
Everyones jaw dropped again. "Who are you?" my tiny grandmother demanded.
He stepped in, his hands in his pockets. "Uh, Joe Asakura. I mean I was born Giorgio Asakura, but Im Joe now. My parents were Guiseppe and Catarina Asakura. They died ten years ago... on BC Island..." His voice trailed off.
Everyone was silent, staring at him. Psychotic killer or not, I almost felt sorry for him at that point. Slowly, my grandmother, undisputed matriarch of the family, walked over to him, peering up at him suspiciously. He seemed to realize he was on trial and looked down at her respectfully. Everyone else held their breath.
"What is your middle name?" she asked.
"Filipo," he said with only a moments hesitation.
"How old are you?"
"Born when? Quickly now."
"Where were you born?"
His lip twisted. "According to my father, on the kitchen table during the middle of dinner. My mother was quite annoyed."
A few chuckles sounded, but grandmother didnt move. She just snapped her fingers. "Bring me the album," she ordered, still staring at him. "The black one in the bottom drawer."
There was a scramble for the album. My father was the one who brought it to her, resplendent in his Galactor uniform. Joe didnt spare him more than a glance and I let go of the breath I hadnt even known I was holding.
Grandmother held the heavy old album out to him, not wavering at all at the weight. "Pick out your parents picture," she ordered.
Joe took the album and opened it. Slowly, he paged through it, examining each picture, then stopped. Turning it around, he pointed at it. "Thats them."
I recognized that picture. It was old, my aunt and uncle standing in front of a house, smiling, holding a newborn baby in their arms. Probably Joe. Carefully, Joe handed the open book to grandmother, than took out his wallet and removed a picture from it. It was wrinkled and torn, but everyone could see it was the same photo.
"Oh, my Giorgio!" grandmother exclaimed, dropping the book and embracing him. "My little Giorgio!"
He was family.
Dinner, as usual, was a hectic feast. There was a lot of food, and booze. A feast had been prepared for the memorial. It was just now it became a feast of celebration at the return of two family members instead. Joe was my cousin, the son of my fathers brother, his older brother actually, which oddly gave him more status in the family line than me. Not that we paid much attention to status beyond understanding that grammas word was law.
Joe looked completely overwhelmed by everything. He got hugged, kissed, his hand shook, the whole treatment Id gone through, but it looked like it was the first time hed ever had anyone hug him at all. He stiffened up at first, but gradually relaxed and finally just stood there, embracing one of my aunts who seemed quite happy not to let him go. She looked a lot like Aunt Catarina, actually. Joe wasnt crying, but I think he was close.
He was the greatest enemy of Galactor, I knew that, but it was kind of hard to remember as he sat on the floor holding my little sisters baby in his lap and surrounded by giggling children showing him their treasures. He was just another member of the family, for all hed been lost for so long. His gaze kept darting everywhere, looking at everyone and everything like the children around him. But then I went to the kitchen to get a drink and saw his stare immediately latch on me. I had to fight not to swallow. He was happy and contented, but he was no fool. He knew exactly where he was and he had his eye on me. Any plan I had to whisper his identity to my father dissipated at that moment.
Everyone waited until after dinner to start asking him questions, probably figuring hed answer more when he was too stuffed to resist. Then the questions came like wildfire.
"How did you survive?"
"Where have you been?"
"Who raised you?"
Joe took them all in stride, probably lying most of the time with his answers. "I was rescued by a Japanese doctor," he told them. "He made me his ward and raised me with a bunch of other kids." He glanced at me.
The Kagaku Ninja Tai. He was talking about his teammates, and warning me to keep my mouth shut. I wisely sipped my wine.
"You were raised by Japanese?" my mother was horrified. "But theyre so... prissy."
Joe grinned. "It was an experience."
My sister smiled at him. "Do you work for Galactor?" she asked. Galactor was her life, even more than it was mine.
I tensed, but Joe just shrugged and took a rather large sip of his wine. "Ive dealt with them," he choked.
"What do you do?"
"Im kinda in a special force. Its really hush-hush."
Her eyes glowed. "You must fight the Kagaku Ninja Tai, then."
"Uh, I dont know if Id put it quite that way."
I decided to rescue him before he panicked. "Leave him alone, Marina. He just got here."
She pouted but sat back, and Joe shot me a look that could almost be considered gratitude. I grinned at him before I could stop myself.
They stuck him with me in my room. It made sense. My brother, who I usually shared it with, was on a tour of duty at Kross Karakorum and space wasnt exactly easy to come by in the house. Even more people were staying around than normal, thanks to my death and return with Joe. I didnt much like the idea, but I didnt say anything. Joe didnt react. For him, it couldnt be better. This way he could keep an eye on me twenty four hours a day.
Once my aunts, sisters, mother and grandmother had finished burying him under pajamas, pillows, sheets and warm milk and left, I locked the door, took a deep breath and sat down on my bed, facing him.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked him.
He always hesitated before answering me, Id noticed. This time was no different. "I dont know," he admitted after a minute.
"Are you planning to stay?" I asked nonchalantly, ruffling my pillow.
"I dont know that either."
I nodded and lay down, sweating. The window was open, but the room still felt stifling. He shut out the light and time passed.
"Why are you people Galactors?" he asked at last in a whisper.
I shrugged. Id known this question was coming, but how to tell the Condor that it was simply because, for us, it was the right thing to do? It couldnt be explained. "Why are you in the Kagaku Ninja Tai?" I asked instead.
"For your family, right?"
I yawned. "Well, your revenge is getting your family killed."
He didnt answer that, at least not that I could hear.
We were all in uniform, all of us, even the kids. The men wore the green of troopers, the women the masks and wigs of Devil Stars. Joe sat at the head of the table in a place of honour, dressed like we were, but he kept shaking.
"I cant do this," he whispered, then "I CANT DO THIS!"
Surging to his feet with a scream, his arms outspread, he began to glow. The green of the Galactor uniform was shredded away, replaced by the indigo and blue of his BirdStyle.
Everyone was screaming, trying to run, but the Condor leapt up onto the table, shuriken flying, piercing the bodies of the people I loved. He moved like lightning, his wings sharp as blades as they lashed out at my family. My grandmother fell, pierced by the bolt of his cablegun. Then he was on me, his face clear for once through his visor, his eyes insane.
"Youre not my family," he told me, and then his feathers tore my throat out.
I woke with a start, lying in my bed in my house, my throat intact, my family safe. Or were they? I could hear the Condors slow breathing in the bed next to me. What Id dreamed could happen so easily.
Slowly, silently, I reached under the mattress, withdrawing it with a gun in its grip. Rising out of the bed, I cautiously stood and went the few paces to his bed. He was just a dim shape. I pointed the gun at his head.
Then I heard a click.
"Put it back," Joe hissed softly. "Now."
My eyes adjusted as I stood frozen and I saw the long sleek length of his gun pointing at me. We both stared at each other.
"Now," he told me.
Defeated, I went back to my bed, putting the gun back and lying down, my hands folded on the cover. I stared at the ceiling.
"Did you have a nightmare?" Joe asked through the darkness.
I nodded and swallowed. "Yes."
Silence, then: "Me too," he said.
Joe was distant the next morning. Distancing himself from us, I realized. I didnt want to think what that meant and wished there was someone I could talk to, but he always seemed to be nearby, watching me. He couldnt afford to let me live, I realized. I knew what he looked like. I could tell Katse. They could track him down. It would be my duty to tell them, but he was still family.
Did he want to be, though, now that hed met us? Wed love him, as long as we didnt know what he was, but we wouldnt stop being what we were. I had no intentions of leaving Galactor. Nor did anyone else. His father was the only one whod ever regretted being one, and none of us had ever understood that decision, even as wed grieved for him and his family. Galactor was all, and loyalty was supposed to be absolute.
But he was family...
I was thinking myself in circles. If I didnt stop it, Id drive myself mad. When it came down to it, I knew that Joe wouldnt become one of us, which meant hed keep hunting Galactors, which also meant at some point, hed kill one of us, without even knowing it. Marina was a Devil Star. She couldnt hide on minor bases like the rest of us if we were lucky. Shed probably get called to hunt down the Condor at some point, and hed make mincemeat of her. To protect her, and all of us, I had to betray him.
I came to that decision sometime around noon, as I was hauling garbage down the driveway to the street, the house out of sight behind some trees. I tossed the bag into the can and slammed the top.
"You know it too, dont you?"
I spun to see the Condor standing only a few meters away, staring at me. His gun was in his hand.
Anger filled me. "Why did you force me to bring you here?" I shouted. "So you can kill us all?"
He shook his head, no expression on his face. "No. I guess I just wanted my family back."
"But theyre not good enough," I spat. "Are they?"
He looked away. "If my parents hadnt died the way they did, they would have been."
"So now you kill me and go back to what?"
Gray eyes regarded me. "To my real family," he told me. "My team. I guess I forgot that."
I hated him. "So we all have to die for that?"
"Not them. Just you." He pointed the gun at me. "Youre the only one who knows Im the Condor."
Oddly, I wasnt afraid. I was too angry. "Theyll die when you meet them in combat though, wont they?"
"Damn you to hell!"
His face twisted. "Probably," he repeated. His finger tightened on the trigger. I closed my eyes.
Nothing happened. I opened my eyes to see him still aiming at me, his face tormented. "You cant do it," I realized. "Blood is thicker than revenge, isnt it?"
He lowered the gun. "Looks like," he whispered. "What are you going to do?"
I took a deep breath. "What I have to to protect my family." I pulled my own gun out of its holster under my arm, wondering as I did if Id actually have it in me to kill him, when he couldnt do the same to me. From the look on his face, I knew hed just stand there and take it, same as Id been prepared to.
Which is why we were both so surprised when my throat abruptly tore out.
"No!" Joe screamed, running to catch me before I hit the ground, one hand clamped over the gaping wound in my neck. I was in shock, blood fountaining out of me as I struggled for breath. Joe stared at me, genuinely horrified, then looked up at a figure that stepped out of the woods.
"Why?" he whispered.
The Eagle glowed white, hazing in my fading sight. "He knows you," he told him evenly. "I was protecting you."
That was true. I saw a flicker of gratitude in the Condors eyes, but I didnt share it. He was safe, and I knew instinctively that he wouldnt let the Eagle near the house, but my family would still die one by one. So I damned him instead. Damned my own cousin who couldnt kill me, whod saved me, and joined me, and refused in the end to betray me.
Because revenge really is thicker than blood.
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