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The Rest of the Way To Hell by JaneLebak
The Rest of the Way To Hell by JaneLebak
Summary: Condor Joe is hearing voices. Unsure whether his cyborg circuits are malfunctioning or if it's a supernatural phenomenon, he goes on the hunt for the cause...and the solution.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Joe Asakura, Ryu Nakanishi
Genre: Drama, Horror
Story Warnings: Mild Language
Timeframe: Mid-Series
Universe: Mostly Canon
Challenges: None
Series: my favorite stories you guys aren't reading
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 7714 Read: 1425 Published: 06/09/2007 Updated: 06/09/2007
The Rest of the Way To Hell by JaneLebak
The Rest of the Way To Hell
by Jane Lebak (7/2001)

 

I'm hearing it again, and this time I know it's not Jun. I've stopped asking if it's her after the third time she told me no, she wasn't muttering or whispering beneath her breath. I've pitched my hearing as high as it can go, and the sounds still won't resolve. I've pitched it way low and every other sound vanishes, but not that. If I deafen myself, all sound ceases, but I get the sense it's still going on. Someone is whispering, sometimes. I'm the only one who hears.

I know Rafael put something in my head to try calling me home when he needs me. It may be malfunctioning because of all the interference G-Town puts out as it travels, and it's pretty damned annoying.

I would just ignore the whispers entirely if I were certain it wasn't the alarm I'd get up close to X. Maybe I'm just on the cusp of being near enough to feel him. Nambu needs to know that. But it's such a hassle to move the whole base if it's just a couple of crossed wires. There's also the matter of telling him why I knew X was near. So on the one hand, I want to keep my secrets. But on the other hand, it doesn't do anyone any good if we all die just because I didn't tell them I'm a cyborg.

***

please make my dreams come true please make my dreams come true

This is the third time it woke me up, and it's only three AM. I wish whatever is causing this would stop. I still haven't found anything. It didn't get louder in the engine rooms. It doesn't seem to get louder or fade away no matter where I travel in G-Town.

This is the first time it really sounds like honest to goodness words. "Please make my dreams come true." Nice to wake me out of my own dreams to do that, huh? I'm still half-confused from sleep. I've been lying awake about three minutes when the whispers stop, but now I'm awake. Again. This is the second night in a row that I can't sleep through the sounds.

I'm going to try getting a message to Rafael. He can check me out somehow and get my ears working right again, because after three days I certainly haven't. It's not getting any worse, but you never know if these implants will jump straight to catastrophic failure.

The corridor is quiet in the Kagaku Ninjatai area, but once I get out into the more public areas of G-Town, there's plenty of activity. So deep beneath the sea, it's just as easy to work third shift as it is to work first, so Nambu has a full complement working around the clock. No one has to worry about getting the kids off to school or being home at the same time as the wife, so why not? No one thinks it's odd when I pick a corner desk in the computer lab and start typing away. I pop in a CD. What comes up is a web page about auto racing. I plug a set of head phones into the jack, and I wait.

A few minutes later, Rafael's voice comes to me. "You have something to report?"

A timer appears on the screen. We have to limit communications to a certain length, otherwise there's too much risk that the radio folks upstairs will realize that we're piggybacking our packets on their signals.

I type a brief explanation about the feedback noise.

Rafael sounds somewhat concerned. "I can't think of an easy explanation for that. It may be a failure of the auditory implants, and it may be that you're picking up interference.

Then why would I be hearing actual words?

"The auditory centers of the brain aren't very good at what they do. They'll fill in around the other sounds to make voices sound like words. Audiographers can completely remove a syllable from a digitized word, and people still hear the sound because they expect to hear it. Your brain is parsing random noise into words. I wouldn't worry about that."

Glad you don't think I'm schizo.

"The voices aren't telling you to do anything. You're aware that they're not real. I wouldn't worry about it. If you were mentally unstable, you'd have cracked long since."

Gee, thanks.

The racing page is pretty realistic--a pop-up ad comes up every so often and obscures the text, so I have to click over and close it. No one in the entire lab will realize I'm not just goofing off. The clock shows that we're almost out of time.

"Keep a record of when you hear it and how long it lasts. You may be able to correlate it with some local processing. I'll try to crack into their engineering records to find out if any systems were recently changed. When did the sound start?"

Two days ago.

"You've been stationery for about that length of time. It may have to do with your position. Signing out."

Yeah, well goodbye to you too. I terminate the connection with Mr. Congeniality and pop out my CD, then restart the computer. The lab guys hate when I do that, but I never trust that everything has cleared out of memory. Things could linger in the microchips in ways I don't understand, popping up if a program touched them the right way.

I might as well get some more sleep, so I head to the elevators. I'm alone in it as we descend.

how I've waited for this day how I've waited for this day

I push the emergency stop on the elevator. The whispers continue. I don't know if I can believe Rafael. The sounds are making my skin crawl. The words almost sound like a voice, but not quite. This isn't right. What the hell is going on?

"Elevator 15, what's the problem?"

I swallow. "It's nothing. Just a mistake. Sorry."

A moment later the elevator has resumed moving. The voice is still talking.

***

 

Jun noticed that I'm tired. As a cyborg, I can withstand a few nights of shorted sleep without physical effects, but nothing stops me from getting irritated. I've got to watch it with her or she's going to realize that I act tired when I'm not acting tired, if that makes any sense.

I've been writing them down. I know when some of the earlier voices came because I can correlate them to tv shows or meetings, and I know where I was standing when each one happened. It's all over G-Town, and there's no obvious pattern to these things.

We're waiting for Nambu to show up and brief us on thirteen developing situations, none of which are important enough for the Kagaku Ninjatai to actually go investigate but which are important enough to keep us standing around listening to why we're not going out there to solve them. The whisper is currently saying go on and waste your time.

Shut up, okay? Just shut up.

Jinpei is prancing around, and it's annoying as hell. I wish he'd just shut up too, all of them.

Nambu comes in finally, and he starts going over all this crap that may or may not be happening on this continent or that country. Oh, who the hell cares? Can't they bother us when they know what's going on? The KNT should be like a loaded gun. Find your target, then aim and fire at it.

Jinpei is staring out the window at the fish. I follow his line of sight, but he's just looking out into the deep.

Ken notices there's now two people looking out, so naturally he has to look too. A minute more of this and we'll all be staring out like prisoners at their cell bars.

"Will you five pay attention?" Nambu snaps.

Jinpei says, "Sorry. I was just thinking, we're near where the Titanic went down."

I can't help huffing. "Why would that matter? Ships have gone down all over the ocean."

"Yeah, but there's so much they talk about the Titanic. It was so grand. They said it was unsinkable."

I fold my arms. "They were wrong. Wouldn't be the first time."

"I read a lot about the Titanic." Jun is either seriously air-headed or else she's as bored with the briefing as I am. To her credit, I can't tell which, and neither can Nambu. She rests a hand on Jinpei's shoulder and says, "I have a whole book of ghost stories and coincidences about the Titanic. Did you know there was a book written twenty years earlier about an unsinkable ship which went down, and two thirds of the passengers died for lack of lifeboats, and in that book the ship was called Titan?"

Jun has done something I didn't think possible: she's more boring than Nambu.

Ryu said, "Eh, I don't care about the coincidences. It's the ghost ships that get me. My grandfather saw a luxury liner in the harbor once, and it faded away while he saw it."

Jinpei's mouth is open wide enough to catch a minnow. Jun says, "People still see flares from when it went down."

be in ruins be in ruins be in ruins

Ryu nodded. "That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Ships used to report life boats drifting on the water, only when they tried to pick them up, nothing."

"Aah." Ken waves a hand. "It's all nonsense. No one really believes that."

I've got my arms folded, but I don't offer Ken any help when he looks in my direction for backup. Fight your own battles.

"I believe it," Jun says. "For a long time afterward, telegraph operators used to pick up the distress signals."

My eyebrows arch. "Really?"

Ken looks betrayed, but Jun meets my eyes with a genuine earnestness--she's no longer attempting to derail a boring briefing. "Ships passing the area would pick up the SOS signals on their wireless radios. It was years later, but they'd still get the signals."

"Jun, you know that's patently impossible." Nambu turns to the map. "As for the situation in Portugal..."

It bought a few minutes of interest, at any rate. And for once, I learned something during one of these briefings.

***

The Titanic, huh? Ships sank for thousands of years, ever since someone made the first boat, but some of them come back in stories more often than others. And some don't even get a name, like whatever it was Ryu swears his grandfather saw in the harbor. Sometimes people make fun of the tragedy, like my mom muttering that Aunt Giulia was so unlucky it's a wonder she didn't get on the Andrea Doria.

But maybe there's something to this. Maybe I'm picking up ghost signals from the Titanic. Or maybe it's a whole big ration of crap and my ears are burning out the way Rafael suggested.

It would surprise the hell out of everyone if they knew I went to the library, but they don't know. I imagine ISO internal memos starting with sentences like "Yes, Virginia, Condor Joe is literate..." for years to come. I looked up some anatomy books, and basically, I think I'm screwed. I can't make the sound louder or softer by turning my hearing up and down, and if I keep the radio on at the same time, the radio does get louder and softer. I'm not sure exactly how these ears of mine work, but real ears would pick up vibrations in the air (the book said this) so these whispers can't be vibrations. That means they're not sounds. Hello, catastrophic system failure. If the sounds weren't waking me up at night, that thought would keep me from getting any sleep anyhow.

I don't like it, I don't like it, I don't like it.

I'm sending a message out to Rafael. I don't know when I'll be able to get away from G-Town to go see him, not without stealing a sub and going AWOL. The team would follow me for sure. I might as well just check myself into a Jiffy Lube. "Fill me up with 10W-30. Oh, and new filters for the ears."

I've done it I've really done it I've done it

I'm looking at a fraudulent web page about satellite pictures of Mars. Come on, Rafael. Answer, you old bastard.

"Joe, we're going to get caught."

I think the auditory implants are failing.

"Is it getting worse? Did you keep a journal?"

No, and yes. No coincidences.

"This isn't good. You'll need to run a system analysis on yourself. Find a private computer somewhere, and hunt around on the disk you used to contact me. There's a diagnostic program there. Follow the instructions. It'll take about half an hour. We're being detected."

Just like that, he's offline, and I'm left hanging. But at least he gave me that diagnostic tool. Maybe it'll give me a name for what's wrong. I don't think I can reboot myself. If something's wrong, I probably couldn't even stop it from getting worse, let alone fix it. Like I could arrange three mirrors so I could look into my own ear while I take parts out of my head with a screw driver. Ha-ha. I guess the disk is only in my possession at all so Rafael could talk to Nambu if they find me dead on the floor one day. "Sorry to hear about Condor Joe. Look, he had this CD that looks like a Ragamuffins soundtrack. Pop that into his mouth and let it analyze him so I can write a patch for Cyborg version 2.2.01."

we finally did it we finally did it we finally did it we finally did it

Will you finally shut up? You've got my attention already, whatever the hell you are.

Find a private computer. I have no idea where I can find one, but it's not going to be in the computer lab or in the library. Nambu had offered me one a while back, but I never needed one before, and I'd have felt like it was my idiot second-cousin, mocking me from my desk: we're both made of metal, but at least I can add. Ken might have one, but he'd want to know why I wanted it. Jinpei has a computer smart enough to launch the Space Shuttle, and he only uses it to play endless versions of Counterstrike Of The Vomiting Dead XII, or whatever new hot game with nauseatingly realistic graphics and men that moan and scream when they die. I'm hearing enough horrible sounds. I don't even want to step into his quarters.

Well, screw it. Someone here must go off-shift sometime, and all the higher-ups have their own private offices and personal computers. Hey, I wonder.

Nambu should be sleeping right now. I should be sleeping right now too, but I'm not going to get any tonight. Not with Mr. Voice chattering away in my ears that may crap out on me at any time and leave me only with their own irritating love-patter.

And here I am now at Dr. Nambu's office.

this will open the door

Gotta hand it to you, Mr. Voice, that was good timing. I open the door with my pass card and lock it behind myself. Nambu lets us use his public office and never questions us, although Door Number Two leads to his inner sanctorum, and I believe he'd yell at God Himself for looking at what goes on in there. Ken's been in there only twice, me never. Luckily, the computer is at his desk in the public office. This is the place where he holds meetings or dressing-down sessions (not debriefing--although he does that here too) and it's nice to have a computer on your desk. People take you more seriously if you've got a monitor staring you in the face, even if you know you've only got a hand of computer solitaire to look at.

The CD has a ton of directories. It looks like my whole schematics are on this sucker! And here I've just been using it like a phone card. But eventually I find a system analysis program. Norton Cyborg Doctor Rafael. He missed his chance--it would have been a good joke. There's a read-me file that tells me to take a regular USB cord and plug it into an honest-to-goodness port located beneath a realistic-looking scar behind my knee. I run the cable down my pant leg and re-dress myself. I don't know why I bother, since there's no one around. But I'd feel like an idiot typing at this computer only half dressed, as if I was looking for porn on the web.

The computer begins to hum as it starts scanning me, and my hair stands on end. It doesn't exactly hurt, but there's this dentist-drill feeling that appears sporadically throughout my body. Periodically various senses dim and rise again, or various body parts twitch. I get hot and cold by turns. I wonder if I'm supposed to be sleeping while it scans?

The good doctor assumed I wouldn't be sleeping, I see. A version of Minesweeper pops up, so I start playing. It's better than waiting with spiders crawling all over my skin.

Twenty-five minutes into the scan, Nambu opens the door and walks into the office. Damn it, don't you ever sleep?

won't that be fun won't that be fun

"Joe. I didn't expect to see you up."

"I'm sorry, Hakase." I have no idea how I'm going to get that USB cable out of my knee without him seeing it. If he wants to use the computer, I'm toast.

Maybe I look confused, because he says, "Don't get up. I'm just picking up some of the personnel files."

"A little light reading before bed?"

"Performance reviews. They're the best way to get to sleep."

He comes around behind me and looks at the computer. "Minesweeper. It's addictive. Make sure you go to bed."

My palms should be sweaty, only the stupid things can't be. It's ironic--being a cyborg keeps me from betraying the fact that I'm nervous about being revealed a cyborg. I hope to high heaven that the system analysis doesn't beep when it's finished. In my shoes, my toes are involuntarily clenching. I hope the thing doesn't test gross motor coordination next.

He's looking at me, and I grope for something to say."Why has G-Town been stationary for so long?"

Nambu looks at me curiously. Normally I wouldn't have cared where in hell we were. He says, "We're over the resting place of the Crescent Coral base. We're conducting a salvage operation to retrieve as much of the structure as we can."

"Oh. Right." Now I remember that we were going to be constructing some kind of monument for all the people who died when Katse blew the place apart. "How much longer will we be here?"

"It's hard to tell. Maybe as much as a week." He leans over my shoulder. "Are you stuck?"

"What?"

"The next place to move."

My shoulder twitches. I'm cold all over.

"I've found that when you've got numbers in a pattern like this..." Nambu has taken the mouse from my fingers "...you can generally assume there's a bomb here in this position..."

If he clicks on the desktop, I'm toast. Either that or if he looks down at my waist and realizes there's a cable running down my pants.

He keeps clicking until he accidentally clicks on a bomb. The program chooses that moment to check some reflex in my spine, and I jump.

"You need to relax, Joe." He rests a hand on my shoulder. "It's only a game. You're playing it to have fun, right?"

"I guess."

He takes the folder from his desk. "Don't stay up too late. This game makes you lose track of time."

"I've been playing for about half an hour."

"Don't do it much longer. Good night."

About five minutes after he leaves, the diagnostic ends. Just a few cold numbers and statistics, ratios and percentages. The actual results leave me colder. Everything's fine.

I want to see their faces I want to see their faces I want to see their faces

***

Okay, so either catastrophic failure comes in under Rafael's radar, or else I'm functioning fine. Let's go with that. I'm unlikely to just go deaf during one of Nambu's boring lectures. Just my luck. It'd be kind of funny if he said something really complicated and my head detonated. "Hey, Aniki, did Joe's head just explode?" "I guess the calculus finally got to be too much for him."

Let's say the ears are working fine, everything's working fine. That means whatever I'm hearing is actually there. But it can't be a sound, because I can't turn it off. It can't be a sound because when I dial up the sensitivity of my skin right to the max, I don't feel any air vibrations. Nothing is physically present. It's not temporally predictable. So what the hell is it?

The next thing to think about is Jun's stupidity about the Titanic. Sure, why not think about it. I've been awake in my bed for two hours. I might as well still be playing Minesweeper back in Nambu's office.

go back to your base go back to your base go back to your base go back to your base this will open the door

The hell with it. I might as well be active as lying here tossing around. The folks beneath me must think I've got a harem in my room if the floor beneath the bed squeaks. I wish. So instead I write down all the different phrases I've heard. This is the first time it hasn't been one phrase only. Go back to your base. This will open the door. Waste your time. Please make my dreams come true. I want to see their faces. Won't that be fun. We finally did it. I've really done it. Be in ruins. How I've waited for this day.

I wonder if I could arrange these things into one coherent speech. Go back to your base comes before This will open the door. Most of them are in anticipation of something--how I've waited for this day seems like it would be something big. Launching the Titanic? But that didn't happen here. Maybe I'm just picking up resonances of different people from when the Titanic went down. But they don't all sound like different voices. Not only that, but the sentences are all short and sweet. If I was picking up someone like Nambu--someone rich enough to afford traveling on the Titanic--he'd speak in long sentences just the way Nambu does. I can't imagine him saying "How I've waited for this day" when he could say "We've looked forward to this event with great anticipation during our many long months of preparation" or whatever you say when you've been to a snotty prep school.

Be in ruins--that doesn't make sense with the Titanic either, unless I'm hearing the iceberg's thoughts.

Brr. Okay, that left me with shivers. What's up with that?

Whatever I'm hearing, it must have taken place over a long period of time. There's anticipation. There's joy that it's happening, and there's joy that it's happened. If it was one person, one event, it happened over the course of several hours, and it was something good. It took several hours for the Titanic to sink, but no one except a Gallactor would be glad about sinking an ocean liner.

It's too damn late. I'm too tired to think about this any longer. Maybe I should take something to get to sleep. But then with my luck, we'd be sent out on a mission and I'd be too groggy to do my part. I don't know what's worse: being zoned on lack of sleep or being zonked out on drugs.

But being back in bed doesn't help either. I can't stand this. Voice, who the hell are you? Why are you bothering me?

give it everything you've got give it everything you've got give it everything you've got give it everything

***

What the hell?

that's crescent coral base

What the hell is going on? We're actually over the base right now. I know that. Nambu said hat. But--

Okay, I've been sleeping for two hours. I don't think that was a dream. The voice was the same, gave me the same cold shivers--

Oh.

Iceberg. Cold. Crescent Coral Base.

the great katse can't be found so easily

Shit. I'm hearing Berg Katse.

***

This doesn't make sense. Katse didn't die here. Katse didn't suffer here--Katse actually won here! He kicked our asses and left us running for our lives! Our men died here! If I have to be hearing ghosts, why not the ghosts of our technicians and scientists whose lives ended fighting Gallactor?

But there's no mistaking it, now that I realize who it is talking. That voice makes my skin crawl. This bastard who murdered my parents--his spirit is still hanging around. He hasn't shuffled off this mortal coil. He's not really dead. Not really alive, but not dead either. Just in between, the way he was always between being human and being a monster.

the godphoenix went back to base? the godphoenix went back to base?

Then it's time to bring out the big gun. Assuming he's awake, that is. I think he'll keep it to himself, too, unlike Jun who'd keep the secret until it bothered her too much, when she'd suddenly tell Ken everything anyone ever told her in confidence.

Ryu answers the door after I beep his bracelet twice. He looks disheveled, but while I'm standing at the door he rakes his fingers through that mop on top of his head and looks a bit more normal. He lets me into his quarters without asking questions, but I can tell he's nervous.

"You told us your father saw something." I'm not even sure how to begin to ask questions about this stuff. It's like when Jinpei watches me fixing my car and says, "Is something loose maybe? Maybe you need to change the oil? Someone I know told me his mother used to stick a pencil in the choke." Actually, come to think of it, that's how I talk to Rafael too. "Something like a ghost ship."

"Eh, what about it?"

"Tell me more of what happened."

Ryu, soul that he is, doesn't ask me if I've lost my mind or if this couldn't possibly wait until morning. I'm here, and he's going to trust my judgment that it's worth him losing sleep. He thinks a moment. "Well, for starters, it was my grandfather, my mom's dad. My mom was kind of sensitive to those kind of things too. My dad wouldn't see a ghost if he fell face-first into its lap. Anyhow, Granddad was walking on the beach one night to get into his boat to mend nets for the next morning, and while he was sitting on the rocks, he saw one of those luxury liners. It wasn't real big. Maybe the size of the ferry that takes you around Utoland Bay, you know that one? About three stories high. But old-fashioned. I saw a picture of one of them once but never a real one because they're all retired now. There were lots of lights on. It came right toward the center of the cove, where it should have been grounded, and when it reached the middle, it vanished."

"Had anything ever gone down there?"

"Not that we know of, although Seiji and I went diving there a lot to see what we could find. Just some old shoes, an axle from a car or a truck, and some soda cans."

"So you can have a sighting where there wasn't a wreck?"

Ryu shrugs. "I don't think it's a science."

I don't know if he's struggling not to ask me the obvious question because he's keeping his face so bland. I owe him an explanation, but I'm not going to give it. "Did he hear anything when he saw the ship?"

For a moment, Ryu looks puzzled. Then his face brightens. "Now that you mention it, yeah. He heard music, dance music. Classical stuff, he said. Like violins."

"Ghosts of musicians?"

Ryu waved a hand. "No, no Joe, you've got it all wrong. It wasn't that every person on that ship came back to sail around the world and dance and play music. There wasn't a ghost cabin boy or a ghost crew. Maybe the ship itself was what came back, holding onto a memory of a time when everyone loved to sail in it."

Involuntarily I've arched my eyebrows.

"Don't knock it like that, Joe. It's not that the ship was ever alive and remembers. But the things people experienced left an imprint on the ship. They call it a psychic imprint. Usually it's attached to a place, so like you'll see a woman walking up a staircase every night at 8:27, the way she did the night before she was murdered. Or you'll see a kid standing by the side of the road where he crashed his car."

"Those are both traumatic things, though, not happy things."

Ryu thinks for a moment. "But you can have psychic imprints from happy things too. My great-aunt said everything had a psychic aura. She could hold a wedding ring and tell you who it belonged to, how long the person was married, and if it was a first wedding. No, Joe, don't laugh. She really did it."

I destroyed the science nnja team I destroyed the science ninja team I destroyed the science ninja team I destroyed the science ninja team

"But one event." I frown. "One happening, one person--it would have to be a pretty powerful thing."

Ryu nods enthusiastically. Now I'm tired and he's wide awake. "If it was the most important thing of your life, I bet it would leave an imprint! The bigger your feeling, the stronger the print. So you catch a big fish, that leaves a small imprint on your net, on your boat. But you save someone from drowning, and I bet there's a big surge on the boat, the life ring, everyone. Sometimes even people carry a charge like that!"

Terrific, maybe my whole body is haunted by Katse and that's why no one else hears him. Except that most of my body is gone now. He wouldn't have much foothold. So it's got to be the location. He left a print on Crescent Coral.

Ryu says, "So to get back to what you asked, maybe Granddad was working that night, and a piece of driftwood came through with all that energy on it. The rest of the wreck was at the bottom of the ocean somewhere, or retired, but that little bitty piece of wood had all those memories attached to it. And when it realized Granddad could sense it, it swelled up real big, showed off a bit. Maybe it just wanted to be seen once more."

Interesting. So without an audience, the ghost is nothing. I've got to think about this some more.

"What did he do about it?"

This time Ryu looks a little blank. "Do?"

"About whatever he sighted. How did he destroy it?"

"Joe, Joe." Ryu laughs. "You don't destroy a ghost."

this is no time to lose control

"Why not?"

"They're already dead."

There's that, I guess. Chalk one up for the obvious meter. "But if it's bothering you."

Ryu's eyes widen. Stupid, stupid. That's as close as I'm going to let him come to knowing what's going on. He says slowly, "Sometimes you can perform an exorcism. Sometimes salt or holy water drives them away." Salt or holy water--terrific. We're surrounded by billions of gallons of salty water right now. Katse's thriving on the damned stuff. "Great-grandma chanted prayers over one house that always moaned when it was the new moon. But usually you just let the thing stay. You live with it. It's just an imprint, like a stain on your jeans."

"Okay." I push back from the table. I'm not about to chant prayers or bless the sea water or drop temporarily-flaming incense sticks into the water. "Thanks, Ryu."

"Anytime."

I always knew Ryu was strong. The fact that he lets me walk out of his room without saying, "Joe, what the hell do you want to know this for?" shows me that he's got willpower stronger than G-Town's outer hull. He's got to be curious, but he didn't cave.

get out of my way get out of my way get out of my way

Great, now my own room is giving me the creeps. I keep wondering if I'm going to turn around and see monsters in the dark. I humor myself and keep the lights on. After a minute, I turn on the radio as well. Give Katse some competition for a change.

So what are my options now?

be quiet men be quiet men this is no time to lose control be quiet men

Shut up and be quiet yourself. I can try to dislodge Katse by doing something to send him away forever. I can hope that as soon as we head away from this place, he quiets down and just stays attached to the bottom of the sea. But based on what Ryu said, he's going to be attached to the wreckage of Crescent Coral Base. We're carrying it away, so it'll come with us. Not only that, but now that he has an audience, he may follow me around.

I can't just hang around with him talking in my ear all the time. I want him gone. We had enough trouble killing him the first time around. I can't imagine how you do it the second time. What happens if moving away doesn't get rid of the sound? Would I be stuck with a second shadow for the rest of my life?

It means somehow purging his spirit out of here, making him completely dead. That sends him on to his final "reward," may he rest in itty bitty pieces. May he float for eternity in the lake of fire. If I don't send him on, has the premiere escape artist escaped God's wrath too? For the sake of his victims, for the sake of my parents, I have to do it.

But I've also heard that it's an eternal torment to be caught between life an death. I could leave him there. It's an endless three-AM, dry and tasteless. No touch, no sound, no smell--just ghostly grey shadows of the world you no longer inhabit. I don't know who told me about this. It's almost like the way I exist now, except that my senses have all been ratcheted up as far as they can go. And I have new ones. I can feel the electricity all around me. I awaken in the morning to the current surge when Jun plugs in her hair dryer. Katse must feel the songs of the living souls around him--in a tone-deaf, amusia fashion. I don't know if he can tell I'm picking up on him.

Then, after spending all of time until the end of the world here, lonely at the bottom of the sea, after all that, God can send him to hell. I kind of like it. Two hells for the price of one.

i've put out a net to pick up their radio transmissions and they don't know a thing about it

It's actually a bit interesting, now that I know who's talking. I'm hearing the other side of how it happened. Nambu didn't know about the net. He only suspected there was a radio receiver. If I listen long enough, will I hear all of Katse's planning, all his thoughts? I know Gallactor would love to destroy G-Town. Would any of the information I hear help us defend ourselves?

I can't do anything about it now. What I ought to be doing is getting some sleep. I can't even think about all the possibilities right now. I'm not cut out for this kind of garbage. Jun could handle this. Jinpei would be freaked out of his mind, but he'd know how to handle it. Ryu just explained he'd know how to handle it. Ken...well, at least I'm better off than someone. Nambu wouldn't ever be pestered by a ghost--the ghost wouldn't dare. Nambu would just explain how it couldn't scientifically exist, and the thing would get smaller and smaller and smaller until eventually it just folded in on itself and disappeared because it couldn't possibly have been there in the first place.

And then there's me. Sleepless. Senseless when I want to be. I don't know how to do anything about this, and even if I decide not to do anything, I don't know how to get myself to sleep.

***

I'm going to have to exorcise the stupid thing. Late last night, maybe while I was talking to Ryu, Nambu declared the salvage operation complete. We're moving again, carting away all the Crescent Coral wreckage big enough to be picked up with a tweezers. The voice must be going for a piggyback ride on the scrap metal.

Nambu won't let us leave on a mission, so I can't make sure the voices will stay here once I'm not. Stealing an underwater craft wouldn't be a smart idea--it's too suspicious. Anything that gets me more attention than necessary isn't good, especially when it might end up with a doctor looking me over for neurological disorders and suddenly discovering, hey, this guy's body is made of cerametal. I'd swim out on my own, but I haven't had this new body for too long: what if it sinks? I'd slowly settle to the ocean floor, unable to drown, unable to starve, unable to freeze from the cold or crumble from the pressure, and then Katse and I would have only one another to talk to for a terribly, terribly long time.

If I can't finish the job, it's not so bad. I've been thinking about it, and honestly, brutally honestly, I won't have to put up with the voices for too long. I've got that bomb in my heart with X's name coded into it. It'll finish me off the same as it finishes our enemies. It could be any day. Maybe a month. I can't imagine this war lasting another year. If it went on that long, I'd probably be dead anyhow by then. I can put up with the voices for a year. I can put up with anything for a year.

what? the godphoenix went back to base? no, wait. i want to see their faces when they see the ruins of their base. won't that be fun? i've put out a net to pick up their radio transmissions, and they don't know a thing about it.

He's just replaying his same dialogue, over and over. It's his same joy, his thrill of the battle. I hate hearing it, but I know how he must have felt. Wasn't the same fever in my veins when he let slip the location of Gallactor's homebase? Didn't that same surge overcome me when I saw a mecha explode, hoping beyond hope that this time, this time, maybe we'd got him? Maybe now, finally, my parents' souls could rest easy?

we've won, but we have work left to do. the enemy has been defeated, but we haven't yet achieved our goals. we have sacrificed many comrades, many friends, for our goal. our time to drink the winner's toast and shout "hurrah" has not yet come. that will be after we've conquered the world!

Why don't I still feel that surge? He's recalling in exact detail a battle from a lifetime ago, but I feel nothing. Why can I barely remember it now, here where deep calls to deep? I know I still feel it after victory. But right now the deceptive stillness of the ocean seems to have stilled my spirit too. I'm numb. I'm too tired. I want it ended.

yes, go back to your base! this will open the door to gallactor's final victory! this time, our victory will be complete!

I head downstairs, back to my base. Back to the wreckage of Crescent Coral. It fills an entire submarine bay. Twisted steel beams lie along the ground. Tremendous scaffolds hold assorted cartons of contorted metal and bits of crushed materials that used to be something before the pressure of the war compressed them into tiny nuggets of failure. No more than a memory now, yet the families still want these scraps of metal to memorialize their loved ones. In the same position, maybe I would too. Didn't I hold onto my own scrap memories the same way? When all that was left of Dad was a blood debt, didn't I hold it all the tighter?

that's crescent coral base! this time--this time for sure, i'll crush it!

It's already crushed. Loosened far beyond its depth, the water pressure folded it in on itself. I nearly drowned trying to salvage Jinpei, pinned as he was beneath something I couldn't see. Afterward they yelled at me: I should have gone for help and returned with Ken. I couldn't do Jinpei any good by drowning. My bones, crushed to powder and dissolved in the sea, would have been retrieved now, finally. They would have been able to give me a decent burial, whatever the fish had left behind.

the great katse can't be found so easily. go on and waste your time, playing around! before the godphoenix can return, the crescent coral base will be in ruins!

He's definitely here. This is the first time I've heard his voice so strongly.

It's so cold. My joints feel iced over, unable to move without crackling. As if the chill of the ocean is forcing itself through my second circulatory system, I'm sluggish. All those pieces. All those dreams. We meant to do so much. All the work. All lost.

my lovely missiles, please make my dreams come true. give it everything you've got.

I have nothing left. This was once a small underwater city, complete with a general store and a sanitation department. I was once a man--soul, mind and body--but it's all the same in the end. These twisted fragments. I'm picking them up now, but they'd slice the fingers off any flesh and blood man who tried to handle them. I haven't found a single scorch mark on the metal, even the parts that had to have been hit with missiles. It's as if the water took away the stain, or else never permitted any.

i've done it, i've really done it!

In the middle of the debris, something white gleams. I sort away some of the steel beams and larger panels, then reach past two contorted metal bars toward the tiny piece of white.

what? the godphoenix went back to base?

It's cold in my head. A little white chess piece.

no, wait, i want to see their faces when they get back to base.

A knight.

won't that be fun?

I guess the salvage crews netted up everything they could find, and this came up with the larger pieces in the sediment.

i've put out a net to pick up their radio transmissions, and they don't know a thing about it.

It wants to be back at home, this little ivory horse. Brittle from its time beneath the tides, it needs to return.

did we do it?

I can put it back. It wouldn't be difficult. I can just take a minisub and drop it out. Maybe I can swim out. Swim into the quiet and the deep.

get out of my way!

Maybe this was a scientist's. I don't know how it got that. I can put it back into the peace and silence of sand and sea water. It wants--

it's truly in ruins

--It needs my help.

I begin walking toward the door, picking my route between the twisted pieces of our ruined base

it's truly in ruins

so I can get out without ripping apart my clothes. Just a little further.

it's truly in ruins. we did it. we finally did it.

I've got my hand on the door when I hear Ryu saying, "Joe?"

Turning, I find him standing with his legs a little apart, as if he's prepared for sparring.

i destroyed the science ninja team and their base together.

I'm looking at Ryu as if from under water. Has he been speaking to me?

how i have waited for this day.

Ryu puts out a hand, and I back away. He says, "What are you holding?"

be quiet, men!

I don't answer.

Ryu steps closer.

this is no time to lose control!

I tighten my fingers around the little chess piece. Ryu puts his hands around my fist.

Abruptly it's as if the waters swirl away like dirty bath water when you pull the plug. I look at my fist as I open it, and I see the same white knight.

we've won

No, you haven't.

I close my hand tight on the ivory. A moment later, it crumbles againt my palm.

we have work left to do. the enemy--

The enemy. The enemy is me, you bastard. I'm the enemy. And you have nothing left to do except go all the rest of the way to hell.

When I open my hand, there's only a fine dust on it. Ryu's eyes are wide. Let him think what he wants. Sea water makes things brittle, doesn't it? Maybe a man could have crushed it down like I just did.

No more voice. No more Katse.

My enemy is defeated. I've sacrificed my body, my comfort, my passions, for this goal. But the time to relax and congratulate myself hasn't come yet. That will be after we've conquered Gallactor.

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