'G-Force : Alternate' is set in the not-so-distant future, elements of past, present, and future come together in this realm. The first of the 'G-Force : Alternate' series, 'Prelude' is set in the year 2046 and tells of the very beginning of the G-Force Project, even before the appearance of the Galactor Organization.
As I grew up mostly on G-Force instead of the original Gatchaman series, some parts have been changed and some others have remained the same. After I discovered the original series through a couple of friends (thanks, Craig and Ricarda!), the Gatchaman Mailing List and all the incredible Gatchaman websites, I began to slowly re-adapt my work and change it accordingly to suit the tastes of those who know and love the original series and to perhaps lend some strength to where it lacked back then. I have a thing for loyalty and originality myself, you see. 'G-Force : Alternate' is what (I hope) Gatchaman was, and what it really could've been and should've been, had it been given the chance during the Gatchaman II and Gatchaman F period, or even during the 1994 OAVs.
It also compacts Gatchaman, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman F together in one neat package, and then some. In which case, I don't touch the New God Phoenix or the Gatchaspartan with a ten-foot pole. My love for science fiction, drama and mysticism also help to create a slightly different style to Gatchaman as never ventured before, blending New Magic and Old Magic together in a perhaps harmonious mix.
I never knew Ken's real last name before this, which is why in this series, his name is Ken Shimada, and not Ken Washio, as originally intended. I would've changed it, but it would then cause me to change a lot of things and besides, I've grown very affectionate to the name. The others remain the same : Joe Asakura, Jun with no last name, Jinpei with no last name, Ryu Nakanishi and Dr. Kozaburo Nambu. And of course, the great Berg Katse. Other elements like the bases, their backgrounds and their personal lives may and may not have changed. Even I am not completely conscious of all that. Some parts of 'G-Force : Alternate' may be sugary, some others may be cold, but continuity has been strong (massive headaches getting all that settled) and I've tried my best to retain the original series as much as I can despite it being my own personal effort. Some of it may even seem annoying because so little is revealed at a time. Yes, it unfolds slowly, but surely, and for good reasons.
So I hope you'll come to enjoy this series.
And Gatchaman Forever.
1. Chapter 1 by Ali
2. Chapter 2 by Ali
3. Chapter 3 by Ali
4. Chapter 4 by Ali
5. Chapter 5 by Ali
6. Chapter 6 by Ali
7. Chapter 7 by Ali
Joe Asakura had no idea what he was in for. Ever since he was a child and had been fortunate enough, though also strangely enough, to have received the help of a secret benefactor. He never stopped wondering what all of it was supposed to come to.
First, he gets a letter from the benefactor to come to Utoland City. When he does arrive, he meets three other kids who were under the same sponsorship. Then he meets the benefactor himself: the prestigious Dr. Kozaburo Nambu.
What does he want with me? he wondered. What about these other three? Why us? Why am I stuck with them?
He never got the answers. Now he was sitting in the lounge of Dr. Nambu's home, aptly called the 'Residence', with three other strangers, at a complete loss.
He brushed a hand back through his light brown hair. Jun, the girl next to him, appeared just as confused as he was. She was a lovely-looking thing, though, dark-haired and pretty-eyed. The kid next to her was a bit of a sight, too, if scrawny suited you fine. The big guy was a whole other story; big meant big.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting." Dr. Nambu appeared almost from out of nowhere.
"I don't think you owe us an apology; you owe us some answers," Joe said sternly.
Dr. Nambu sighed. He had heard of the boy's reputation. "It will come. For now, the four of you will have to understand that the reason why you were selected is extremely important, and that you stay together is just as crucial."
"We don't even know each other!" he barked back fiercely. "We have nothing in common!"
"You will soon enough."
Joe sat back down. Still no answers. He grew more frustrated.
Jun had a different aspect of approach. "Dr. Nambu, do you live here a-"
Suddenly there was a rush of footsteps from upstairs, a door slamming closed, footsteps coming down the stairs so fast they couldn't even see who it was. Then a voice came form the blur. "I'm going out. Bye!"
The front door opened, closed, then opened again. Now they could see.
Stepping back into the house was another teenager, about Joe's age, tall, wiry, dark-haired, bespectacled. Pushing the boy back in was a middle-aged woman, more angry than anything.
"No, you're not going out, boy!" the woman barked. "You have the gutters to clean up there."
The boy turned to face her. "How come they get to call you the housekeeper when I'm the one who's turning circus-acrobat on the roof?"
"Ken," Dr. Nambu called.
The boy hushed. "Yes, Hakase." Then he went back upstairs, changed into a set of old clothes and headed for the basement to gather what he needed.
The housekeeper strode into the kitchen proudly, but was halted by her employer. "Don't push him, Tante Marie. He does have a temper."
"Yes, Hakase." And she vanished.
Jun swallowed a minute, then said, "As I was saying, do you live here alone?"
"Obviously not," he replied, sighing deeply. "That was the head of household, Tante Marie. For as long as you're staying here, she will be in charge - domestically."
"And the other one?" Ryu, the big guy asked.
"That was my foster son, Ken. He's about your age, Joe." He turned back to where Ken had disappeared. "Ken."
Ken came out of the basement. "Yes, Hakase?"
"Before you start climbing to the roof, can you escort your friends here to their rooms?"
He corrected his glasses. "Okay."
As he led them upstairs, he heard Joe say, "Like I'm going to be taking orders from a housekeeper. Do I look like I need to be taken care of?"
Ken laughed. "You must be Joe."
"How do you know?"
He didn't answer his question. "And Jun, Jinpei and Ryu. Did I forget anyone?"
"No," Jun answered. "But how do you-"
He shrugged. "I just do. And I know why you're here. What you're chosen for. What all this is about." He showed them their rooms, and before he could explain further...
"KEN!! THE ROOF! NOW!"
Ken heaved a sigh. "Later. Have to climb the roof now."
"But you know why-"
And he disappeared down the stairs.
They went into their rooms, and as Joe collapsed on the bed, he said aloud, "Doesn't anyone have answers around here?"
Then he heard a 'thump' on the roof and saw a bucket being hoisted up.
He thought of the bespectacled kid who knew.
Who is he?
It was lunchtime and the boy was nowhere near the dinner table. The four strangers ate in an awkward silence, still unsure and confused.
"So," Joe began, breaking the silence. "Where were you guys from?"
Ryu wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I came from a fishing village down south. Not much to tell."
"Onechan and I came together," little Jinpei announced proudly. "Been together since I could remember."
Jun smiled winsomely. "Not exactly. I.. guess I sort of.. 'found' him."
Joe stared in disbelief. "You 'found' him?"
"It's a long story, Joe..."
It was then they heard a bucket of water fall to the ground, and a curse from the roof.
They looked outside and saw where the bucket now lay, the rope still attached to it.
And then a blur coming down from the roof. Straight down.
The boy corrected his glasses again, and placed the bucket upright once more, filling it up with water. Then he left it there.
The next thing they knew, the bucket was once more being hoisted up to the roof.
"He couldn't have climbed the ladder that fast," Jun noted.
"Who cares how he went up?" Joe retorted. "I want to know how he came down in the first place."
Jinpei looked up. "Probably jumped."
"Yeah, right," Ryu said. "He must be at least twenty feet up."
"Let's check it out." Joe led the other three outside where they saw, standing in the gutters, the kid who knew. He was struggling with the brush, trying to clean out whatever the winter had left in there. The bucket they had seen sat behind him. His clothes looked worse than before, the faded jeans a pale, wet grey and the white T-shirt no longer as white as it had been earlier.
There was only one thing wrong with the picture.
Ken seemed to know they were below him. He looked down, smiled and waved. "Hi!"
Joe couldn't help but keep looking for a ladder. "How'd you get up there?"
"I did say I had to 'climb' the roof..."
Again, before Ken could explain how or what or why or when, Tante Marie's voice boomed through the roof, a loud call. "Ken!! Phone!!"
He dropped whatever he was doing and made his way to the edge of the roof. "Coming!"
Then he jumped. Clean off the roof.
"Ken....!" Jun gasped.
He caught hold of a jutting tree branch, balanced his weight and flipped right over, landed neatly on the grass below him. Again, he corrected his glasses and excused himself, disappearing into the house.
The four young newcomers stood in perfect shock. "Did you see what that little bastard did?" Joe asked.
"I think he jumped off the roof, then caught the tree branch there and then -"
"Shut up, Ryu."
In a few minutes Ken reappeared and without a word he began to climb the very same tree again, scrambling up faster than anything they had ever seen. From the farthest branch, he leapt back onto the roof, and casually went back to work.
Joe wanted to ask a good question. If only he knew which.
"So, where'd you grow up, Ken?"
He seemed to freeze for a few moments, as though thinking about it.
"You know a place called Seclusion somewhere up north?"
Joe nodded. "That explains everything."
Ken had cleaned up and was spending time by himself near the edge of the cliff just outside the Residence once the others had taken their break. He had nothing with him, but he was preoccupied as it was, with things purely unseen by the rest of them.
"Hey," Joe called.
He turned. Smiled. "Hey, yourself."
There was a brief silence as the other sat down to join him on the grass.
"So, what is it about Seclusion?" Jun asked. "Joe said that it 'explains everything.'"
"Seclusion..." he sighed. "Home of street acrobats, free-fall artists and born and bred assassins. If you're a good kid, you could end up a damn good cop or maybe even as far as a Federal Agent." His smile faded. "If you're lucky enough to get out of there."
Jinpei nestled closer. "Why'd you leave?"
"Do you think I wanted to?" he returned. "I didn't. Hakase dragged me up here. Trying to get me into college."
Joe knew they were treading on sensitive ground. He could almost sense Ken's discomfort at all the questions about him. "So how come you know so much about why we're here?"
Ken eased back to his self-confident form. "That's an entirely different thing. That's only because I've been hanging around the project so long I practically know it by heart," he replied, getting off the ground.
"But how come you know so much?" Ryu questioned. "You're not one of us, are you?"
"Me?" he laughed. "Oh, no, not me. Never. Hakase would drop dead first before letting me be a part of it." His tone turned bitter for a moment. "Which is why I envy you guys."
"You mentioned a project," Jun noted. "What project?"
"The one you're all a part of."
They stood silent.
"It's called the G-Force Project."
Ken strode off, leaving the baffled foursome behind him.
Joe grabbed him by the upper arm, holding him back. "You're not getting away so easily. You said you knew, so tell us."
He looked down at Joe's grip, and shrugged. "Good grip, Joe. You can let go now. You don't need to twist my arm to get what you want, y'know."
Joe let go of him, his trust towards Ken now somewhat deterring. It's not wise to trust a Seclusioner, he remembered. They can be anyone they choose.
"The G-Force Project was founded by Dr. Kozaburo Nambu and Agent Samuri Shimada 14 years ago," Ken began as he climbed onto a tree branch and made himself comfortable. "The idea was to form a team of specially-trained agents whose main purpose in the plan was to intercept, infiltrate and destroy the Galactor Organization."
"You mean that terrorist group?" Jinpei questioned, shocked.
"The one no one can find or stop?" Jun added.
Ken smiled, a double-meaning to it. "The same one. From what I've overheard the members of this team have been training since years ago, but separately and at their own pace, and there will come a time when they will finally come together to train together, to work as one." He looked down at them, as though examining them one by one. "I guess the time is now. You guys are it."
They were wordless again. It bothered them, that they should hold such a great responsibility. That is, if everything Ken had said was true.
"So how much truth is there to everything you just said?" Joe asked outright. "How do we know you're not lying?"
Ken was taken off-guard for a moment, surprised at Joe's words. "You don't believe me? Now, why would I want to lie to people I hardly know? I'm telling you only because I have been - as I said - living around the project for so long that I know it as though I'm a part of it. I'm telling you because I think you ought to know what's going on." He dropped down from the branch, rejoining them. "I don't like to be lied to by nature, and I doubt you like it very much yourselves."
Joe was smug. "I'll take in what you've told us, Ken, if you prove your information right."
Jun caught hold of Joe's shoulder. "Joe, don't start any trouble yet. This is only our first day."
He ignored her, as did Ken. "How?"
"There were two founders of the project, as you said. We've seen Dr. Nambu; where's Agent Shimada?"
Ken paused. Long and silent.
"So?" Joe pressed on. "Answer..."
He took a deep solemn breath, and walked away. As he did, Joe's answer came. "My mother died five years ago. She can't be here to oversee the project. Hakase is on his own now, carrying on Samuri Shimada's work as it stands."
Joe could not hide his guilt. He had lost his mother - in fact, both his parents - as well. He was familiar enough with the emotion. "Ken, wait, I'm -"
He didn't hear. He kept walking, as though oblivious to the rest of the world, lost in a shroud of darkness no one else could comprehend.
I shouldn't have done that, Ken thought to himself. I just shouldn't have.
He collapsed on his bed, staring at the blank ceiling. What am I, a baby? They asked, I answered. I shouldn't have let Joe get to me like that. And I didn't have to get all sensitive about it.
He glanced at the bedside table, where a worn photo frame stood. In it was a photograph taken when he was much younger, about nine. Him, Kikei, and their mother. He sighed. "Mother, what am I doing here?" he asked aloud. "You said to just go with the flow, let everything happen by itself. Then I'll find whatever it is I'm supposed to find."
He slid off the bed and paced his room. You said that I'm a part of something big, but I'm not supposed to know yet. I'm supposed to be waiting for something bigger? What? Why? When? After Hakase shoves me into college?
He caught his reflection in the mirror. A spitting image of his mother. And why not? We were born on the same day, he remembered. You, me and Kikei. All three of us.
His foot made contact with a pile of textbooks on the floor. Not completely understanding why, he kicked them aside, despite being taught otherwise.
That is what you expected of me, he thought bitterly. But it wasn't all. You believed in something else. Now this is what Hakase expects from me. Completely.
I don't want to be what he wants.
He removed his glasses for a moment. A pair of clear, deep blue eyes looked back at him in the mirror.
The computer bleeped on.
Ken turned on his heels quick. The glasses found its way back to the bridge of his nose.
A message appeared, flashing repeatedly. Instantly.
He read it over and over again. Immediately, he turned the computer off and raced out of the room.
The study doors burst open as though by a wild windstorm. Never had Dr. Nambu, Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu ever seen Ken in such a panic.
"Hak.... Hakase... I just... I.... mess.... message...."
"Ken, take a deep breath before you choke," Dr. Nambu told him calmly.
Ken took several deep breaths, then began again, " Hakase, I just received a message on the 'Net. From the U.N via the ISO. I think you'd better take a look at it."
He eyed the boy carefully now. The importance of the said message could be seen in his blue eyes, now wild instead of serene.
"Is it big?"
He nodded. "Yes, sir. Otherwise I wouldn't be such a mess."
The other four simply watched, curious and confused, mostly because they hadn't the slightest idea as to what was going on.
"You go ahead, Ken, " they heard him say. "I'll join you later. With them."
Ken looked at them, then back at Dr. Nambu. "You're taking them along?"
Dr. Nambu sighed. "Well, you come bursting in here like a dragon wind with this message in front of them; have I any other choice?"
He gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "It's okay. It's just that I didn't want to so soon."
Ken didn't comment.
And he raced out of the room, just as fast as he had come in.
"The four of you, come with me."
Jun closed the book she was reading. "Where are we going, Hakase?"
He walked to the bookcase on the back wall and pulled out a book from its place. 'The Phoenix and the Dragon'.
"A place I never meant to take you until much later."
The bookcase fell back and slid behind the wall, revealing a passageway leading to God-only-knows where.
Jinpei let out a whistle. "Cool....'
The transport shuttle veered, turned and whipped through the underground tunnels at break-neck speed. No wilder roller-coaster ride existed, at least not to the four newcomers.
"Is this ride really necessary, Hakase?" Joe asked, his nails buried in his seat.
Dr. Nambu was apparently used to the ride; he sat there uncomplaining. "This really wasn't my idea. Samuri should've been an amusement park designer if not for her brilliance and dedication to the ISO."
"Ken's mother did this?" Jun moaned.
The shuttle swung to one side, teetering all its passengers. "Well, I suppose that boy did modify it here and there..."
"When we stop, I'm going to kill that little bastard..." Joe swore.
As though on cue, the shuttle came to an abrupt, screeching halt.
Jinpei peeled himself out of his seat, trying to shake his brain back into position. "Wow..."
"Wow nothin', kid," Ryu retorted. "I think I left my stomach behind back there."
"That leaves a little more for the rest of us at dinner, at least," he shot back.
Jun groaned. "How can you people even think of dinner after a ride like that?"
Dr. Nambu alighted from the shuttle and made his way down the corridor. "I'll have to give that boy a talking to about the speed of this thing."
"Yeah, and while you're at it, tell him to check his brakes," Joe added, following close behind. "I'd say he was going to kill us all."
Ryu scratched his head a moment. "But Joe, I thought you were the one who was going to kill him -"
"Shut up, Ryu."
Jinpei shook his head. "Ryu, are you always this dense?"
He shrugged. "No. But I never keep track anyways."
They walked on until they reached a massive chamber, its walls covered with every possible computer system created. They could almost not see the ceiling, and the chamber was dark save the light coming from a huge screen before them.
The lights then flashed on, and there seated in front of the main console was Ken Shimada.
He corrected his glasses, smiled softly.
"Hi, guys. Welcome to Shadow Mountain."
"How... When did you..."
"I took a faster, more hell-raising ride here, Joe," he answered. "Which reminds me to clean out my closet sometime..."
Joe threw his arms up, hopeless. "I'm not even going to ask..."
"The message, Ken," Dr. Nambu reminded.
"In a minute, Hakase." He placed a metal cuff around his wrist, and once he secured it there, he said, almost as though to himself, "Hinotori, connect."
A stream of fiber-optic nerves darted towards him, nearly cutting right through the four newcomers and embedded themselves in the cuff, as though by command, like they were alive.
The large main screen changed, and a computer-generated image of a woman appeared on screen.
"Identified : Ken Shimada. Connection granted. Access now open."
Jun steeped forward, for a moment touching the cuff around Ken's wrist. "That's your connection?"
He nodded. "This device will identify the user. If I didn't wear it, I wouldn't be able to get in." He turned away from the screen for a moment to look at her. "I'll have to reprogram it to identify you as well. This is going to be your base of operations, after all."
"Ours?" they echoed.
"G-Force's," Dr. Nambu corrected. "Here you will train, research and initiate your assignments in infiltrating and disabling the Galactor Organization. I never meant to take you here until very much later, but Ken left me little choice."
Ken was apparently taken aback by his words, but his expression remained as it was; cold and quiet.
"Why Hinotori?" Jinpei asked. "Why give it a name?"
His fingers never stopped typing on the keys. "My mother gave it the name. Hinotori means firebird in Japanese, and she based the entire G-Force Project around this element. I suppose she had a good reason for it."
Joe looked up to the image on the main screen. "And this is her image? Your mother as Hinotori?"
He gave a nod, but said nothing.
"That was her voice?"
Again, a nod, but no words.
Suddenly a message appeared onscreen. It was short, but the impact it had on Dr. Nambu was something else of another nature:
Message from the United Nations to all members of the ISO board: As of today, March 24 2046, the country of Hontworl has left the United Nations. Reasons and motivations are unknown. Repeat: as of today, March 24 2046, the country of Hontworl has left the United Nations.
Dr. Nambu had to sit down. He seemed to read the message over and over again, trying to accept it. But he remained wordless.
Ken did not fully understand any reason at all to be upset, but he knew it would be good to leave him alone.
"C'mon," he called the others. "I'll show you around."
Quietly, Dr. Nambu could hear them leave. Once he knew he was alone, he let his despair be heard.
"What now? What are they doing? What do they want with Hontworl?"
Then he turned to where his four wards had left with Ken.
"They're not ready yet. And I need one more to complete the project."
The message slowly faded, and the image of the woman - Samuri Shimada - returned, eyeing Dr. Nambu like any ordinary human being.
"Samuri," he said. "Why did you ask for five? Why, when I can't find the last one?"
Hinotori appeared to shrug. "She had her reasons, Hakase. Trust her and her research. She knew exactly what she was doing."
Upon looking at the image onscreen, Dr. Nambu suddenly remembered how much Ken resembled her.
Then it hit him.
Hinotori smiled. "Maybe."
They walked down the silent corridors together, Ken leading the way. He was quiet- apparently worried about Hakase, but not showing a bit of it.
"What got him so upset, Aniki?" Jinpei asked.
Ken stopped in his tracks, turning towards him. "'Aniki'?" he repeated, a look of question on his face.
The kid shrugged. "That's what I normally call anyone older than me. I call Jun 'Onechan.'"
"How come you call me just Joe?" Joe asked sharply.
"'Cause you spent the entire trip here and the entire time here teasing me and getting on my nerves."
Ken smiled a moment, a reminiscent smile. "I used to call my big brother that. Until we both got too old for it."
Ryu moved closer. "You got family at home too?"
He shook his head. "No. Just Kikei. He's a cop back in Seclusion."
"That's nice," Jun replied. "All of us have lost our families, 'cept Ryu."
He didn't say anything.
They said nothing back.
Slowly they made their way into a massive training chamber, not nearly as big as the main chamber, but enough.
"Wow. So this is it?"
Ken nodded. "Part of it. The track is one level down. The hangar area even further."
Jun, in her jeans, leapt onto the balance beam. "Just like what we had before."
"Before?" Ken asked.
"We were all trained separately where we used to live," Joe explained. "We never knew what for, but we did it anyway. Gave us advantages in school."
"That, and some clout with the freshmen."
He shrugged. "Figures."
They watched as Jun - in her tighter-than-necessary jeans - performed a series of flips and turns on the beam with pure grace before dismounting.
"Nice," Ken applauded.
She smiled back. "Very basic. There's a lot more. Incidentally, where'd you learn your stuff?"
He blinked. "The tree thing?"
They nodded. "Yeah, the tree thing," Ryu echoed.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Just came to me. I do a lot of that back at home."
Then he stepped out of the chamber. They followed suit.
They heard him heave a deep sigh. "I hope nothing's wrong."
"You mean Hakase?" Jun asked.
Joe agreed. "That message really got to him."
"I don't understand it," Ken griped. "Why would that particular country leave, and why would it upset Hakase so much?"
"Hontworl is supposed to be one of the strongest military countries left in the world, isn't it?" Jun offered. "Maybe that's what bugs him."
"And the fact that the Galactor Organization may have a hand in it..."
Ryu's comment worried Ken for some reason. He wasn't sure why. Especially since he wasn't even involved in it in the first place. His slender fingers found their way to his silver ID bracelet around his right wrist, where they tampered and tinkled with it incessantly.
Great, he thought. I'm nervous. Why? Something else is wrong now...
He heard a clap of thunder outside, so loud it vibrated throughout the mountain.
"A storm?" Jun wondered.
He shook his head. "No. A reprisal."
Ken was already running; they followed close behind, though Ryu was swearing off doughnuts.
"I don't get it," Joe called. "What's a reprisal? It sounds like any other storm out there."
"We Seclusioners call a second storm a reprisal, like it was brought back from its death," he answered from far ahead.
"There was a first one?"
"This morning. 'Bout 4 a.m. That's why the gutters were so packed."
"But (gasp, wheeze) why the rush?" Ryu asked. "We're perfectly safe in here."
"I have to check the floodgates to the hangar. They may be open."
"And if they are, Aniki?"
Ken sighed. "Get a mop."
Ken moved like a lightning bolt. Through the main chamber, past Hakase, grabbed the cuff, clasped it on and practically screamed, "Hinotori! Connect!"
"Identified. Connected," Hinotori replied.
He pushed away a few stray locks of hair that had got in the way.
"Hinotori, close all flood gates. Repeat, close all floodgates."
The screen changed again, revealing Shadow Mountain's engineering structure and the floodgates' situations. One by one the plan showed the closing gates. Except one.
"System malfunction. Gate 12 is open."
"Close it!!" Ken shouted. "Close Gate 12!! That's the gate to the Resource Room!"
Hinotori tried again. "It's jammed, Ken. You'll have to go to manual override."
Ken banged a fist on the console. "Damn it!!"
The image looked at him, as a mother would. "I'm sorry."
"Forget it," he replied as he disconnected and headed for the elevator. "I'll get it. How much time do I have?"
Dr. Nambu called him back. "Ken, be careful."
He nodded. "I will. You know that."
On a sudden impulse, Joe wanted to follow. "I'm going with you!"
Apparently the impulse travelled quickly between the other three. "Wait for us!"
Ken looked at them for a moment, thoughtful eyes behind the pair of lenses. "Okay. I hope you know what you're getting yourselves into."
The elevator doors opened and water rushed in.
"Shit! The water's coming in already!" Ken exclaimed.
"All this from the storm?" Jun said, unbelieving.
"We're slightly below sea level. The tide's rising," Ryu explained.
Joe shook his head. "Ryu, that's the first intelligent thing I've heard you say so far." His sights turned to Ken, who was already climbing the ladder to the gate.
Ken opened the control panel, hanging 25 feet above ground, trying to find the source of the problem.
Okay, there we are, he thought, pleased that he found it. Now I'll just have to disconnect this-
"Ken! The water!" Jun warned.
A monster wave splashed right in his face, the salt from the seawater blinding him.
"Aniki!! Be careful!"
Ken regained his sight as he tightened his grip on the rung. If he didn't close the gate fast the entire Resource Room with all it valuable information would be lost.
Just a little further, Ken. Just snap that cord...
A second wave hit him, much stronger than the first, loosening his grip.
The rung seemed to vanish from his hand.
Falling in mid-air, Ken pulled out a bladed boomerang from his back pocket and threw it. "Fly!"
The blades cut the cord just as he fell into 2 feet of water.
Jun screamed. "Ken, no!!"
The gate fell closed. The water stopped coming in.
Slowly the water drained away into Shadow Mountain's system, revealing the floor once again, Ken lying on it in a crumpled heap. For the first few moments, he didn't move, but eventually he pulled himself up, spitting out saltwater.
The others rushed to his side; no, then again, he didn't seem to need help.
"You okay?" Jun asked, concerned.
He nodded. "Just a little salty, that's all." Then he felt a jar in his shoulder. "Hmph. Must've pulled something there."
Joe looked up to where Ken had been before he fell, and back down to the floor. "You were at least 20 feet up!" he blurted out. "You couldn't possibly have-"
"25 feet," he corrected tonelessly. "I've been higher." Rubbing his shoulder, he added, " The water cushioned part of my fall, so I'm okay."
"There was only two feet of it, Ken."
"It was a trained fall, Ryu," he admitted. "I've done it more times before than I can remember." He picked himself up from the floor and looked around, surveying the amount of damage. Sighing, he spoke, almost to himself, "Good. Everything's still intact. The storm didn't do any damage."
He moved away from there, wordless; soon the other four followed suit. As Jun walked, she felt her foot kick something, sending it sliding across the floor.
A pair of glasses.
He turned. "Hmmm?"
She handed the glasses to him. "I think these are yours." It was then that she noticed his eyes : large, deep blue pools that seemed... what? Old? Arcane? Maybe, but they were magnetic.
He took them from her; suddenly he smiled. "Thanks, but I don't exactly need them."
"You have perfect sight, don't you?" Ryu asked, smug.
"25/20, so they tell me," he laughed.
When he laughed, Jun saw those eyes light up, like there was a pleasant warm fire deep inside them.
She could hear the boys talking among themselves, but it was as though she didn't hear them. All she could see, all of a sudden, was Ken. And just Ken.
What am I doing? she asked herself. I came here for other reasons, not... not this.
She followed them out of the Resource Room, somewhat glad that they had inadvertently become friendlier, that they had all begun to slowly open up among themselves.
Group training had begun, and Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu began to see less and less of Ken. They had their busy training schedules, he had... what on earth did he have that kept him so busy? They would see him briefly in the morning at breakfast, then he would shoot off to some unknown destination; the next time they would see him it would be close to dinnertime, and he'd be flat out on the sofa, completely exhausted. Most times, he slept through dinner.
"Where does he go, Tante Marie?" Jun asked one night, out of curiosity. "He leaves in the morning, comes back in the evening totally worn out... doing what?"
Tante Marie shook her head, as if the thought of Ken made her worry. "He's trying to get all his flight hours down. Trying to get his private license. That's 40 hours of flight time, you understand."
"A pilot's license? Why?"
"That boy's destined to inherit his father's airfield here in Utoland City when he turns 17. Can't run a business like that without at least a private license." She sighed at the thought of the boy. "He's covering at least 5 hours a day three days a week; the rest of the time he's busy studying for the flight test. By the time he remembers to stop, he'd have worn himself right through."
"Oh." Jun pondered the thought a moment. "He's really trying, huh?"
Tante Marie burst laughing. "He doesn't need to!" she exclaimed. "That boy is a natural. Like he was meant to have eagle's wings or something. He could pass that test with his eyes closed."
"Then why all the effort?"
"He doesn't know himself that well. He isn't sure if he can do it without some work. Or a lot of it."
A couple of days later, on their rest day, the front door burst open like it was blown apart by a nuclear bomb, and Ken runs inside, leaping high in the air, turning a few somersaults before landing on the lounge floor before the astounded Residents.
"I GOT MY LICENSE!!!!!"
"You passed the test?" Dr. Nambu enquired.
It was the first real smile Ken had given them. "Like I had the wings of an eagle." He gathered his things again and marched straight upstairs. "Now I'm going to sleep for the next two days. G'night."
Ryu blinked. "He can do that?"
"The rate his adrenaline's running, he wouldn't be able to sit still for the next six hours alone," Joe answered.
Joe stirred from his slumber. He perked up, alert.
A window opening. Footsteps.
He looked out his own window and saw Ken, balancing himself neatly on the window ledge. Then he leapt.
Joe watched as he glided effortlessly in the air before touching the ground. And suddenly Ken looked up.
For several moments, they eyed each other, one with suspicion, the other with... what?
Ken put his finger to his lips, as though signalling for Joe to be quiet. Then he ran into the darkness, blending into the shadows.
Joe got out of bed. "The hell I will!"
"Ken!" he called into the black forestry around him. "Ken, where the hell are you?!"
"You didn't have to follow me, y'know."
He turned. Ken stood leaning against a huge tree. "What are you doing out here in the middle of the night? What happened to your two-day nap?"
He smirked. "Like you said, I couldn't sit still. Adrenaline."
"So what are you doing out here?" he asked for the second time.
Ken's features softened. "I don't know. I just felt like coming out here."
Joe had to fight back the urge to strangle him. But in the shadows, why did Ken look so familiar to him suddenly?
He shook off the thought. Nahhh...
They walked together in silence for a while, the night dew from the grass dampening their jeans. Despite the darkness, Ken seemed to know exactly where they were heading.
Ken nodded. "Thought I'd let out some steam."
"So you do train on your own," Joe remarked, confirming his suspicions.
"'Train' isn't the word, Joe," he snapped back. "It's just something I do for the sake of getting some sleep." Suddenly catching himself, he quieted, "Sorry. I'm just not in one of those moods."
Joe shrugged. "I couldn't have guessed. You seemed hyperactive when you got your license today."
"I had time to think things over." He opened the passageway into the mountain. "It's just another card in the Magic deck."
Ken had suited up in a track suit, limbering up as he approached the starting blocks. "Care to join me?"
He shook his head. "Nope. Had enough of that for the past two weeks. Go ahead."
"What was your level?"
Ken got to the blocks. "Just trying to give myself a reason to do this. My best has been 5-75, and I haven't done this in a while."
"5-75 is pretty good," Joe admitted.
He didn't hear. He had taken off. A steady pace first, then he built up on his speed gradually.
As he watched Ken cover lap after lap, he felt something cool against his chest. The sensation relieved him. Checking his jacket pocket, he found his lucky charm secure within. He pulled it out for a moment: a pair of gold pilot's wings.
Someday, he thought to himself, I'm going to find out who this belongs to.
Putting it back in his pocket, he looked back for Ken, who was now bent over, trying to catch his breath.
"How'd you do?"
Breathing hard, but hardly perspiring, he replied, "Don't know. I wasn't keeping track."
"I was," a female voice piped up. Hinotori's.
The main screen at the track came on, and once again, the CGI appeared.
"Your new record is now Level 6-15."
Joe's mouth dangled. "Wh-?"
"Must've been all that weight you lost studying for the flight test, Ken," Hinotori quipped, smiling.
Ken said nothing. He was preoccupied with the image on the screen; he let the sense of familiarity wash over him awhile, the face, the voice, the manner.
He snapped out of it. "Yes, Hinotori?"
"I thought I'd return this to you." A mess of fibre-optic nerves weaved towards him, carrying a double-bladed boomerang with them. "I found it back at the Resource Room."
Ken took the boomerang from them, toying with it momentarily. "Thanks. Goodnight, Hinotori."
The image winked back. "Goodnight... son."
In a blink, the screen was blank.
And Ken was left dangling at her last word.
Don't do that to me, Mother, he quipped in his heart. It hurts.
Joe slapped him on the shoulder, nearly making him jump straight up. "You son of a bitch!" he shouted. "6-15!! You actually beat all four of us!!"
"I did?" he asked innocently. "Really?"
"Yes!! Jinpei was the fastest so far and he clocked 6-07!"
Ken had not been aware of it, but he could guess Joe's suspicions still. "If you're about to imply that I've been training again, I'll say it again, I'm not -"
"I'm not saying anything," Joe insisted, defending. "It's just that... it's like you have been training, but unconsciously."
They walked out of the track room together, heading for the showers. "You're saying that I may be doing that 'tree' thing in my sleep or something? I am aware of what I'm doing, you know."
"You came from Seclusion, Ken," he said bluntly enough to make him stop dead in his tracks. "That is good enough."
He breathed deeply. This was taking a lot of patience. "Joe, I'm tired now. I just want to take a shower and go back to sleep." With that he stormed forward, trying to ignore him.
"You're a street acrobat, Ken, " Joe called, catching up with him. "You're a free-fall artist. You run like the wind. And seeing that you lived in Seclusion and you're in one good piece, I'd say you can take care of yourself pretty well."
He had had it. He whipped right around, Joe nearly walking into his face. "Enough already!!" he shouted. "What is your whole point?!"
Now he could see that Ken was tired. He was worn right through, and he needed some rest. And as a stranger to him still, he had no right to dog him that much at once, especially with the mood he was in.
"Ken, this may sound ridiculous to you," he began slowly. "But G-Force needs a fifth."
He calmed down a little, but not much.
"And I think - personally - you're it."
Ken stared at Joe in disbelief for about a minute, before he burst right out laughing.
It was then Joe's turn to wear Ken's previous expression. "Ken, it's not funny."
He was already leaning against the wall, somewhat more controlled, but not very much.
"Kennnn...." Joe seethed.
"I'm sorry," he replied, finally calming down. "It just seemed so ...." His voice trailed off for a moment, then he snapped back into it. "You're right; it does sound ridiculous."
Joe was almost exasperated. "Why?" he asked back, a sharp tone of voice carrying it. "Why does it seem ridiculous to you?"
"Because -, " he began as he walked away, "- you'll have to convince me. I'm not good enough for this. I'm not even supposed to be involved in any way whatsoever. I'm just the.. 'tech support'." He pondered the words briefly. "Hmph. Not the best choice of words, but close enough."
"And if I do convince you, which I think I will, you little bastard?"
Ken smiled at Joe's level of self-confidence. "Then comes the tough part."
"Convincing Hakase." Snickering, he added, "Now, there's a challenge."
Then he vanished into the locker room.
Joe's fist had tightened hard; given a choice he would've pounded him right then and there, but he didn't. There was a gut feeling he had about Ken and G-Force, and he knew he had good guts.
"Oh, I'll convince you all right, " he swore to himself. "Both of you."
Can't, don't, won't, mustn't stop.
He screeched to a halt. Dead end.
His 12-year-old eyes darted around the alley. Fire escape ladder.
He clambered up as fast as he could. For someone his size, each rung was a stretch for his legs.
Below him, he could hear them coming.
"There he is!" "Get the little sonofabitch!"
Ken climbed faster, higher.
They climbed after him.
The weight of his backpack kept him going, its contents were vital. He reached the top of the building and climbed over to the rooftop. He scanned the view.
"Lessee, which way home?" Somewhere to the west, he could see the Shimada Guard. Name of home.
He ran in that direction, sensing his pursuers behind him. He came to the edge of the rooftop, and jumped.
Landed on the next rooftop. They came after him.
Leap after leap, rooftop after rooftop. They were catching up.
One more jump, Ken.
He jumped, and misjudged. His foot touched the next building's edge, and slipped. His hands missed the ledge as well.
A 15-year-old Ken walked past the elementary school. The children he was so familiar with came near the fence. He shook his head. "Sorry. I didn't have any money today. I didn't get anything."
"S'okay," one little girl piped up. "You give us a piece of candy nearly every day, anyway." And they all dispersed.
He continued walking, passing a ragged-looking man walking in the opposite direction. For some reason, Ken stopped, and looked back at the man.
He watched him as he stopped in front of the elementary school's fence and pulled out an automatic rifle....
"Kikei, where's Maia?"
Kikei looked around him, still trying to count up all the children. "I don't know! Wasn't she with you?"
Ken, 16, checked, but there was no sign of her.
Then he heard her voice. "Ken!"
He turned. "Oh, god, she's still out there!" He ran back out of Shimada Guard.
Kikei suddenly realized that his younger brother was missing as well. "Ken, wait!!"
The gang from Seclusion's South Side drove by one more time, seeing that Ken was in their sights.
"Die, Shimada!!" "Serpents rule!" "Die, Rebels!"
Ken ran as fast as he could through the open field, searching for Maia. "Maia!"
Then he saw her running towards him.
"No! Stay where you are, Maia! I'm coming!"
The Serpents fired again, bullets bouncing off sand, stone, earth.
None hit Ken. One hit her. Maia crumbled to the ground.
Ken bolted upright upon his bed, sweat pouring down his face, his heart thundering so hard in his chest it hurt. He whispered a prayer to himself, hoping to calm himself as much as he could.
The room was warm; it was early dawn, but he shivered nonetheless at the recollection of all those incidents, the last one only a few months ago, before he moved to Utoland City.
Mistakes, misjudgments, misfires. All of which he could've prevented, had he been maybe stronger, faster, luckier. A little bit wiser, maybe.
The first, to himself. The second, to people he knew. The third, to someone he loved.
How he wanted to make up for those mistakes. If not back then, now, later, somehow.
The phone rang. He rolled over on the bed and picked it up.
"Hey, little brother."
He smiled briefly. "Hi, 'Kei. Did you call me at this hour on impulse?"
Momentary silence. "How'd you know?"
"Just do.... I had that dream again, 'Kei."
A sigh on the other end. "It means something, Ken. You'll figure it out."
"What if I don't want to know?"
"You'll still figure it out. You'll see."
It was nearly lunchtime when he finally decided to roll out of bed and take a shower. As he dressed, he realized that when he fell from the control panel two weeks ago, he had landed where that one bullet hit him when he tried to prevent the massacre at the elementary school. He realized that it hurt.
Funny, he thought. That should've healed days ago. He pulled a blue shirt over the white T-shirt he wore, and finding his glasses, he left the room.
"Care to explain yourself, Ken?" Dr. Nambu asked when he finally showed up at the dining table.
He sighed. "Bad night. Lousy morning. Don't wanna talk about it." Moving quickly into the kitchen, he was immediately chased out.
"Out!" Tante Marie hollered. "You'd grab the cookies even before they cool!"
"Like I knew you were baking?"
"Like I trust you in the kitchen with the cookies cooling?" she shot back. "I'm not letting any of these disappear thanks to your little magic tricks."
Then the kitchen door swung closed.
Ken stared at it for a while, standing perfectly still. Then he stormed off. "Bad night. Lousy morning. And she gave me a real kick-start for the day. Crap."
Everyone watched as he headed for the front door, and they flinched as it slammed shut.
Ryu whistled. "Never seen him like that before."
From the lounge they could see him heading into the forest land nearby, quickly swallowed up by the thick trees and undergrowth.
"Where's he heading?" Jun enquired, concerned.
"Probably Shadow Mountain," Joe inserted. "That was where he was last night."
Jun glared at him. "How would you know?"
"I followed him. He ran the track faster than any of us." He shrugged, thinking for a moment that it actually would be tough to convince him. "He hit a 6-15."
"He what?" everyone, including Nambu, echoed.
"He ran a record level of 6-15," he repeated.
For the first time since he brought Ken to Utoland City away from Seclusion, Dr. Nambu saw - or imagined - an aspect of the boy he had never seen before. He knew well enough - for God's sake, he practically raised the boy! - that Ken was intelligent and talented, but to this extent?
Samuri, you knew all along. You knew he would be the fifth.
But without the years of training I provided the other four?
"Where did Hakase say he'd be again?" Jinpei piped up.
"I dunno," Joe griped. "Some huge tree he insists we couldn't possibly miss. Says he goes there whenever he's frustrated or upset."
Jun looked around her; they were surrounded by trees of all sizes, some of them already very big. "There are lots of huge trees around here, Joe. How will we know which?"
"How the hell d'you think I know?" he snapped. "I don't even know why we're all actually out here in this forest looking for him!"
Ryu, who was ahead, stopped short.
"What's up, Ryu?"
He swallowed. "Guys, I think we're here."
The tree loomed high above them, its thick branches spreading far across from its massive trunk. It was as beautiful as it was majestic, and it sure as hell seemed to demand a lot of respect. It even made Joe a little nervous.
"Okaayyy," he breathed. "There's the tree. So where's Ken?"
High above in one of the branches, Jinpei saw a flash of blue. "There."
They looked up.
Ken stood, with thick, firm branches around him, in a fighter's stance. There was a relatively strong wind blowing through the branches, whipping his loose shirt around him, but he ignored it.
Focused, he threw a punch to one branch in front of him. Then one to the branch slightly above his head. Countered towards the branch behind him. Then the one below him.
He leapt high, up onto the next tier, and as he came down again, he launched a high kick towards another branch, bouncing off it before landing, and executing a series of flips upon the tree's tier, catching hold of another above him, flipping up, then finally settling down.
It's like a huge playground for him, Joe thought. A natural martial arts training center. Those branches; fighting blocks, balance beams, points of focus. Everything we learned, he's learnt here. On this tree.
He shook his head, unbelieving. Is he kidding? Of course he's good enough!
"Hey, Aniki!" Jinpei called.
Ken looked down. For a minute, they were sure he smiled.
"Be right down!"
Ryu suddenly remembered. "Wait a minute, don't tell me he's going to -"
Glided, turned, whirled, his shirt like a pair of wings.
Jun recalled what he had said the day before.
"Like I had the wings of an eagle."
He landed in front of them, though not very neatly. His feet touched the ground, but with so much momentum still on him, he slipped and fell flat on his behind.
They could not contain their laughter.
Hooting hard enough, Ryu mimicked, "Tower to base. The eagle has landed. Repeat : the eagle has landed!"
Ken fell back on his back. "Funny. Verrryy funnny."
Then he cracked up.
"So that's what you do there?" Jun asked.
He nodded. "Pretty much so. There is a kind of feeling you get standing so far off the ground."
"Betcha thought you could fly, huh, Aniki?"
"I can fly," he declared proudly.
He looked at him, then back at the other three. "Show me."
Jinpei leapt off the ground, into the trees and he glided in and out of them, much faster than Ken, due to his size and natural agility. And for several seconds he seemed to have vanished.
Ken looked up, but all he saw were trees. "Where'd he go?"
The next thing he knew he was flat on the ground, with a mouthful of grass, and Jinpei on his back. "Didn't see me, huh?"
Jun clapped. "Nice pounce, Jinpei."
"Where in hell did you come from?" he asked, spitting grass out of his mouth. "I didn't even see you."
"You're not s'pposed to, Aniki."
"Will you get offa me now?"
"I'm not s'pposed to, Aniki."
Ken flipped right over, sending Jinpei flying. "Now you're gonna get it!!"
"Agh! No, okay, Aniki! Okay!!"
And suddenly everyone was chasing someone.
"Gotcha!" "No you don't!" "Joe, get him!" "I'm comin' to getcha!"
"Hey, whose side you on?"
"I dunno. Am I on your team, or are you on my team?"
"Incoming!" "Argh!" "Get offa me!"
By the time they were done, they had worn themselves through, and it was close to sunset.
As they all lay flat on the ground, Joe got up enough energy to ask who'd won.
"I think we did," Jun said.
"Yeah, but who was on your team?"
Ken was still breathing hard. "Team? What team?"
"Who versus who, anyway?" Ryu noted. "I lost track."
"Who cares?" Jinpei piped up. "That was fun!"
Jun sat up, looking to the west. She sighed. "Isn't that a beautiful sunset?"
"Sunset?" Ken asked. "It's sunset already?"
They noticed his anxious tone. "Yeah. Why?"
He shot up. "C'mon, we have to leave here before dark."
Then they heard the howling of a pack of wolves.
Ken could not believe how fast the sun was setting, how quickly the light seemed to be disappearing. He walked faster, coaxing the others to follow quicker.
"Do they really attack people?" Jun wondered out loud.
"We are trespassing on their land. That's the balance. We're allowed to venture into their land during the light hours, but once it's dark they 'own' this land."
Joe nearly laughed himself stupid. "Seriously, Ken. You don't actually believe in a balance, do you?"
Ken turned back for a minute, glaring down at Joe. Not even his glasses could hide the coldness in his eyes this time.
Joe drew back. "Okay..."
They walked a little faster, mostly to stay close to Ken; he was the only one who knew how to get in and out of the forest without getting himself lost. As they moved, Ken's sight stayed focused on the setting sun, adjusting to the change of light.
And suddenly it was dark. The sun was gone.
Ken stopped walking. Against his own instincts.
"Ken, what is it?" Jun asked.
He hushed her, listening very hard to his surroundings. It was as though everything had stopped moving and they were the only possible mobile things in the area. "Joe, do you hear -"
He nodded. "Let's just say, we're not the only things with legs right now."
Ryu heard something as well. "Y'mean one pair, or two?"
Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu had sharp senses, trained and enhanced; Ken's senses were at par, by nature. They listened in silence, waiting.
Ken reacted. "Run! Now!"
They took off, running. They weren't even sure if they were indeed being chased, but the urgency in Ken's voice was good enough.
Jinpei looked back. Right behind Ken, who was far behind, were four wolves. And more were coming.
"Keep going!" he called back. "Don't stop! Just keep running!"
Joe looked back to him. "Which way?"
"Stay on this path! It'll lead us back to the Residence!"
He could feel them closing in on him. If he slowed down even a little bit, his legs would be chewed right off.
Gotta block their way, buy us some time.
He looked above him as he ran: thick, leafy branches hung high over his head.
He looked ahead: a large, promising branch jutted right across the path.
By this time, so many mistakes gone past, he had become a master of judgement.
Unsheathing the double-bladed boomerang from his back pocket, he took careful aim, judging.
As soon as the other four made it past the branch, he threw it.
The boomerang spread its blades apart, slicing through the branch.
Ken ran faster. Have to get past before it -
The branch came down...
Landing just a breath behind him, nearly flattening the wolves that were pursuing him.
He smiled. Did it.
And suddenly he saw the boomerang coming back to him.
Wait, he thought. How do I do this?
The boomerang came closer, and he closed his hand over it, catching it.
Then the pain came. Oh my god...
It shot up his arm as he felt the blood flow between his fingers. But he kept running. To the Residence, where they were already waiting for him.
Rejoining them, they ran together across the open land, and charged through the back door, into the kitchen. Slammed the door behind them.
Doubling over, catching their breaths, they were met by a very annoyed Dr. Nambu. "Is the slamming of the door really very necessary?"
"Wolves," Ryu finally gasped. "A whole pack of 'em."
Jun sat down on the floor, tired. "If Ken hadn't brought that branch down I think we'd all be missing a limb or two."
Nothing from Ken.
Joe managed to pull himself out of his bent position, finally regaining his composure. "Nice move, Ken," he told him. And for some reason his gaze dropped to the floor, where a tiny puddle of blood was forming from where it dripped from Ken's hand. "Ken!"
Still trying to catch his breath, he shook his head, saying, "I'm fine. It's just a cut."
"From what?" Dr. Nambu demanded.
Ken held out the now bloodstained boomerang. He shrugged. "I think I caught it wrong."
Dr. Nambu hung his head, bewildered. "Any more wrong, Ken, and your hand would've been left behind out there for the wolves to feed on. Do you have any idea how sharp that thing is?"
"Hakase, who has the cut here? You, or me?"
And for some reason, he couldn't argue with that.
The four of them watched attentively and with concern as Dr. Nambu dressed Ken's cut. It seemed deep, and apparently should hurt a lot, but Ken barely flinched the entire time. His eyes kept reverting back to the boomerang sitting on the table, now clean, the blades glistening, almost inviting.
"Why were you carrying it in the first place, Ken?" he questioned in a serious tone.
"I've... I've been... "
For the first time Ken seemed like a normal boy, capable of making a severe mistake and being unable to explain why. The illusion of immaculate cool was temporarily missing.
"I've been practising with it," he answered finally.
"For how long?"
"You still haven't been able to catch it?"
He shook his head, almost embarrassed. "No, Hakase."
"So what do you normally do when you do throw it?"
Now he hung his head low, wishing he could dissolve into thin air and hide someplace far away. "I duck."
His answered caused Dr. Nambu to smile for a moment, then laugh. So did the others. Especially Joe.
Ken shot him a dirty look, but he was laughing too hard to notice. Jun looked at him sympathetically, and reached out to touch his uninjured hand. He seemed slightly comforted then, but hardly any more than before.
When Dr. Nambu was finally done, he handed the boomerang back to Ken, an action which somewhat surprised him. His slender fingers tampered with it, wanting so badly to be able to master it.
"Your hand will heal in a few days," he told him. "After that, you can get back to practising."
He just stared back at him, wordless, wondering if he heard right.
"But when you do, at least use the training suit." Then he disappeared back into his private office.
And his five wards simply stared at the closed door, bemused at their Hakase's strange reaction to the situation.
The healing days went by quickly.
Joe was awakened one morning to the sound of blades cutting the air. Still sleepy, he pulled the drapes open and looked out the window.
Down below, Ken, in a full training suit, threw the boomerang over and over again, each time trying to catch it without cutting himself. Half the time, he ducked.
Joe laughed right out loud. This is rich. But he caught himself, remembering that he still has yet to convince Ken that he was good enough for G-Force, minus the boomerang skills even.
Laughing at him isn't going to help, he thought. But this really is rich.
More days pass, and every morning Joe gave himself the cheap thrill of watching Ken train all by himself. As of late, Ken didn't duck anymore. He just let the boomerang come to him, be it to be caught or to ribbon him.
Gotta hand it to him, he just doesn't quit.
He heard a cry from below. He saw Ken double over in pain, his hand bleeding. He didn't seem to think much of it; he went to bandage it again, and went right back to it.
Either he's stubborn or just plain stupid.
He thought again for a moment.
"Ken, come on in! Dinner's ready."
He turned back for just a moment. "Just a couple more throws, Jun," he called back.
He threw the boomerang, watching it fly out and then turn back in towards him.
On impulse, he pulled off his glove and closed his eyes.
Raised his hand to the wind.
The boomerang was back in his hand, his bare hand. Blinded.
Jun watched with a sense of pride and satisfaction. Finally, she thought.
"Are you coming in now?"
Ken looked at the boomerang, and, upon pure instinct, like he knew by nature he could do it, he twirled the boomerang in his bare hand, in an almost baton-style, and slipped it back into its sheath.
Then he turned to her. "Yeah."
Dr. Nambu had been watching him from the window all that while, and his eyes did not leave him as he walked back into the Residence, leaving his training for tomorrow.
He's doing well, he smiled. He's determined, he learns so quickly...
But it worried him that he would have to change his plans for him. Despite having claimed to have raised him, he very rarely spent actual time with him. Back when he too was an ISO agent, like Samuri had been, before she left the game. And then he changed his plans as well, and chose to become the Head of Security. It still didn't buy him enough time to spend with Ken or Kikei. So he knew them, but how well, he was never sure of.
The side of Ken he had been watching for the past several days, was a new side to him. There was a kind of pleasant coldness in his expression as he trained with the deadly weapon. A sense of inexistance; so absorbed was he in trying so hard to be better than himself, in trying to push himself to the farthest limits of his own abilities.
It was also the first time he actually paid some attention to the boy's actions. The maturity he showed, the calmness; it dawned upon him that Ken had forced himself to grow up after his mother died, and understood well the meaning of responsibility, far beyond his years. And Seclusion, being the place that he knew... the home of street acrobats, free-fall artists, survivors.
It made him wonder if Samuri had chosen Seclusion as the Shimadas' new home on purpose... she had, after all, reasons for everything she did.
And it made him remember her last words to him.
"Keep little Ken safe. Protect him with your life. But there will come a time when the eagle will choose his own path, and you have to let him go."
"When will that be, Samuri?"
"I don't know. Until then, protect him."
And he did; tried, at the very least. The boy couldn't ever sit still. Both he and Kikei. Two nearly impossible boys he could never bring himself to be angry enough with. Between the two, Kikei had always been the bigger, stronger one, and by nature he looked after Ken as any brother would. In contrast, Ken had been small, slender and lithe, his appearance virtually crying out to be protected.
Such an illusion that was.
Dr. Nambu himself had become witness to Ken's temper, the ferocity he could show, how deadly he could actually become.
He's exactly like you, Samuri, he remembered. Just give him room and he'll never cease to surprise.
He sighed, still worried. Is it really time for the eagle to fly?
"Will you stop worrying already?" said a voice from behind.
He whirled around. It was Ken, fresh from the shower, his clothes crisp.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Whatever it is you're worrying about. You always look like you have the entire world sitting on top of you."
As he watched the boy head upstairs, he couldn't help but sigh deeply. Something you may soon be familiar with.
Things slowly changed. Ken had altered his daily routine. Now busy fighting for his commercial license and studying for the second test flight, he kept enough free time to hang around with Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu, whether they were in training or not. Soon he blended into the scene, training together with them. Between the five, things were taught, shared, learned. Jinpei found a firm supporter in Ken, while Joe took him as an equal sparring partner. Ryu saw him as an able leader, Jun saw... him.
She couldn't explain it. Slowly she just seemed to grow so much more fond of him, suddenly compelled all the time to watch him. And despite the fact that he always trained hard, she could always see a quiet, gentle side to him she wasn't sure anyone else was aware of. She had grown to love the way he smiled, laughed. She couldn't help herself no matter how hard she tried.
Ken didn't come back from Shadow Mountain one evening. It bothered her. She had gone back there to find him, but he wasn't there.
Well, not in Shadow Mountain.
She found him outside, sitting by himself on a jagged ledge, high above the ground.
"Hey," she called.
He turned. Smiled briefly. "Hey, yourself."
She sat down next to him. Then she noticed that he wasn't wearing his glasses. The light reflecting in his eyes was immense.
"So why are you out here, exactly?"
He seemed hesitant at first, but then he answered, "Just thinking. That's all."
"A whole array of things," he breathed. "Flight hours, test flights, training. G-Force."
His answer surprised her. "Why would you be thinking about G-Force?"
There was a sudden change in his voice, a storyteller-like voice, light, fleeting. "I remember my mother always telling me what she expected of me. She saw me as an aspiring architect. She said I had a definitive vision. But at the same time she always reminded me that here will be something else that will change everything, something so much bigger than I could possibly imagine. And that it's important for me realize what it is and when to take hold of it, because I'm supposed to play a part in it."
She listened intently, but was somewhat intrigued. "Your mother told you that?"
He nodded. "I know she sounds like a tarot card-reading fortune teller, but I've always believed her."
"So, what she said?"
"I'm not sure, but I think I see it. I'm not sure if I can take hold of it, but I see it."
"Call me crazy."
She grinned. "Okay, you're crazy."
He slapped himself on the brow with the heel of his hand. "Eeep, I fell right into it..."
And she laughed. Soon he laughed with her.
"Shouldn't we be heading back?" she asked finally.
Pulling himself off the ledge, he gave an affirmative. "C'mon," he said, holding his hand out to her.
Willingly, she took it. Then she stood next to him.
"Wanna see an old Seclusion trick?"
She shrugged, although half suspicious. "Sure." And she watched him as he clasped a large armored cuff around his right arm, checking over it several times before being actually satisfied with it.
"Would you believe, 40 feet of cable and a secure hook?"
She nearly laughed. He didn't give her the chance; he grabbed her by the waist and leapt off the ledge.
She screamed all the way down. "Kennnnn!!!!!"
And at the very last second before hitting the ground, he tightened the muscle in his arm, activating the cuff, sending the secure hook and cable shooting out, catching a high tree branch.
Two feet off the ground, they swung back into the air.
He laughed, she screamed.
The hook let go, the cable reeling itself back into the cuff, letting them touch the ground safely.
Jun couldn't stop shaking. It was like jumping into death's mouth, and it scared the hell out of her that Ken enjoyed it.
"So?" she repeated, a fierce tone to it. "So?" She immediately sent a flurry of blows to his arm, trying to pin him down. "You crazy son of a bitch! You could've killed me!!"
He tried to fight off her blows, laughing at the same time. "Hey, ease off! Ease off! Ow!!"
She stopped finally, satisfied for the time being. "You scared the heck out of me!!"
"Yeah, but it felt great, didn't it? Like you were flying?"
For a moment, she looked back to the ledge where they had leapt off, and back to the ground where they both stood in one piece. Suddenly she recalled, behind her screams, the feel of the wind whizzing past her, ripping through her hair, partially lifting her. And his arm around her waist...
"I guess," she replied, now smiling again. "But I'm still going to get you for scaring me like that."
They started their walk back to the Residence, just as Ken smugly asked, "Really? Like how?"
She said nothing. She simply slipped her foot behind his, and kicked up.
His legs seemed to vanish from under him, for a few seconds sending him up off the ground before landing hard on his keister.
Standing above him, she bent down and said in his face, "Like that."
Then she took off running.
He pulled himself off the ground. "Come back here!!"
They raced back to the Residence, coming through the back door, slamming it closed, once again met with a very annoyed Dr. Nambu.
"So who wants to explain now?"
They were laughing to hard among themselves to hear him.
And slowly Dr. Nambu left the kitchen, shaking his head.
"Tomorrow, I'd like the four of you to come with me to the ISO Headquarters," Dr. Nambu announced that evening at the dinner table.
Ken raised his head. Four?
"That's great, Hakase!" Jinpei exclaimed, already excited.
Joe was a little less naive about it. "Yeah, but what for?"
"I'd like for the four of you to get used to the surroundings, know who you're dealing with, what you're dealing with, most importantly who your superiors are," he explained. Sensing some distress in them, he added, "Of course, you'll be coming in as my four wards, not as the future members of G-Force. No one will know who you are."
Ken hid his disappointment, but he could not help but voice it in the form of a simple question. "What about me, Hakase?"
Dr. Nambu looked at him for a moment, immediately wondering why he shouldn't ask him along as well, but decided cleanly against it. "The G-Force Project should be operational very soon, Ken. I think you have a lot of modifications to go through with Hinotori, don't you?"
He felt his fingernails digging hard into the flesh of his palm. Any harder and he would be bleeding.
Hating himself for not protesting, he replied bitterly, "Yes, Hakase."
Joe shot him a glance, but held back whatever it was he meant to say. It was obvious that Ken was in no mood for words then.
With that, dinner was finished in an uncomfortable silence.
Sitting on the sandy beach, the waves lapped on the shore, each breaker whispered across the sand. The shadow of the night's pale crescent moon reflected on the surface of the sea. A warm breeze blew through, a hint of salinity flowing with it.
Normally, a night like this would calm and comfort him, like a silken blanket or his mother's arms, but tonight, he was too tense, too upset to allow it to have any affect on him. Despite being completely shrouded in his own thoughts, he was well aware when a shadow suddenly cast over him. A tall, large shadow.
"What do you want?" he asked, soft but sharp.
Ryu was briefly taken aback by Ken's harshness, but he took it aside, and sat down next to him on the sand anyway. "I guess it's not a good idea to ask you what you're so upset about."
He let a bitter laugh escape him. "Hah. Maybe you should be wondering why I'm upset about it in the first place."
"Well, it did strike me to ask -"
"Well, don't," he snapped back.
It seemed almost unnatural - at least, to Ryu - that Ken's mood was such. He wasn't sure how to talk to him, but a certainty was that asking about his problems was getting him nowhere. Now, how'd I get picked to do this? Looking at him for a minute, he noticed, now that the glasses were gone, that his eyes seemed to reflect a kind of oldness, an age that completely defied what was physical. For some reason, he thought it was not only strange but also somewhat disturbing.
He turned in the direction where Ken was looking, and quite frankly, he liked his taste in scenery. The sea, the sky, the reflections cast on the water.
"Y'know, I grew up in a fishing village down south," he began. "And we got beautiful nights like this one all the time. All the kids would gather at the docks at sunset to listen to the ancients. Them and their stories and legends. I tell ya, they were so old, you'd think they knew every legend and story ever told. One of them even knew the Legend of the Seven Shields."
Somehow, that caught Ken's attention, and he spoke, "You know the Legend of the Seven Shields?"
Ryu brightened a bit, feeling that he had at least got him talking again. "Yeah. But not all of it. The old guy who used to tell it died a couple of years ago, and no one else knew it, or any of the stories related to it."
Ken seemed to soften a little more, his previous mood slowly dissolving. The more suitable 'young' light came back into his eyes as he started to talk. "That's a very old legend. Only the ancients tell it, and there aren't very many of them left. None of our generation can recognize it, because there is no one left to tell it to them," he said, somewhat saddened by the fact.
"So how come you know it?" he asked, curious.
He smiled. "My mother. She knew almost every story related to the Legend of the Seven Shields. At one time I knew them, too, but it's been a long time..."
"I understand," he cut in.
The subject had driven his mind back in gear again, thinking, searching his memory. "Now, if only I could remember their names... in order..."
Ryu started, "Gyou, Karura, Fuma -"
And that got Ken going. "Right... ah, Hinoe, Lien, Shiro -"
"And Shima -" He stopped short. It had never occurred to him before this.
He nodded, flashing a knowing smile. "And Shimada. Yes, I know. Quite a coincidence, huh?"
It seemed like more than just a coincidence for him. "Didn't it ever make you wonder? That maybe..."
"Sometimes," he answered, laughing a little. "It was amazing to me as a child, that I shared my last name with one of the Seven Shields. But I grew up, and now it's nothing more than a funny play of Fate. That it just so happens my last name is Shimada."
"You believed in the Legend?"
He thought it over for a while, before quietly replying, "Maybe when I was a kid, but it is a legend, after all. Nothing more."
The two fell silent for several minutes, the only sounds coming from the breaking waves. Ryu just sat there, admiring again the beautiful vista before him, while Ken took time to think again about his behavior, his moodiness.
"Thanks, Ryu," he said, breaking the silence. "For talking to me. I mean, the way I spoke to you -"
In reply, he burst laughing heartily. "Aw, forget it. You probably did have the right to be upset."
Oh, great, he thought, crestfallen, his earlier dilemma slowly coming back to him.
He felt a somewhat reassuring pat on his shoulder, and Ryu's voice was heard again. "Don't worry about it. Soon Hakase will see that you are the fifth one. He'll see it whether he likes it or not."
Feeling a little more assured, he asked, "Really?"
"Sure," he said, his confidence almost overwhelming. Then in a quieter tone, he added, "Besides, you're everything I'm not."
The remark hit Ken like a tight slap on the face. He had to blink a couple of times, just to maybe clear his head a bit; maybe his moodiness had clogged it up. He didn't just say that... did he?
"Ryu, what are you talking about? You've had years of training. Hakase has taken care of everything for you. You're already going to be a member of G-Force. I'm just the 'tech support' here."
"Not just that," Ryu argued. "Ken, you run like a hurricane, you move like a circus acrobat, your mind works like lightning. You deserve to be on the team more than I do. What've I got, other than size and strength?"
Ken was completely silent. I'm not hearing this. I don't believe it.
"I'm big, slow, and I'm not nearly half as smart," he went on.
This, from the guy who just fished me out of a black hole? This?
"Ryu?" he called.
"Shut up a minute, will you?"
He did. There was a certain tone to his voice that made him.
"Ryu," Ken began. "When Hakase and my mother started this project 14 years ago, they had to actually think about the five chosen children. For each choice, there had to be a good reason, they had to have a certain something. I know because, as I've said for the trillionth time, I grew up around the project. When they picked you, they had a reason. You had a certain something. Whether you know it or not. Even if you can't see it, they did. And they knew they made the right choice."
He placed a hand on Ryu's shoulder, giving it a good firm pat. "I know they made the right choice."
Moments later, the two of them were walking back to the Residence, taking a long walk down the beach, both in relatively good spirits, when Ken asked out of curiosity, "Just how strong are you anyway?"
Ryu pondered a minute, before he leaned over and picked him right off the ground by the waist and slung him over his shoulder as if he were a feather pillow.
"Ryuuuu!!! Put me down! Put me down!!"
"How's this?" Ryu teased. "Ken, you really should put on some weight. You feel like a hundred pounds."
"A hundred and twenty, actually," he corrected from his slung-over position. "You made your point, Ryu. Now will you put me down?"
He just kept walking. "Why? I'm saving you a walk up."
"The blood is rushing into my head, you meathead!! Put me down!"
He went on walking, ignoring the laments of an upside-down Ken.
And he laughed right out loud.
Tossing and turning in his bed for the absolute last time, Ken reached over for his bedside lamp. The small light source lit the corner of the room. He checked his watch : 2 a.m.
Why in freaking hell am I still up at this hour?
He sat up in his bed, fully awake. Almost immediately his left hand reached for his right wrist, searching for the bracelet to tamper with.
It wasn't there.
Now where did I... oh, there. He picked it up from the shelf beside him, the sparkle it gave causing him to take a close look at it. The front of the I.D plate had him name engraved on it : Ken. He turned it over; engraved on the back was his last name in ancient Japanese letters : Shimada. And without a second thought, he clasped it around his wrist.
His fingers began to fiddle with it again.
There is no way I'm gonna be able to sleep.
He got out of bed and slipped back into his jeans, pulling his sweatshirt over the t-shirt he had been sleeping in and getting into his sneakers. He started to open the window, but paused. Joe'll hear me, he thought. Suddenly shaking off the thought, he reminded himself, almost in a scolding tone, "You're a Seclusioner, doofus. You're a shadow; you are unseen, unheard."
Slowly, he pulled the window open. It made no sound.
Gingerly, he stepped out onto the ledge. And then he leapt.
He landed on the ground soundlessly. Froze for a minute, listening for any noise coming from Joe's room.
Good. Now, to Shadow Mountain.
As he strode in, a mess of fibre-optic nerves streamed about him, connecting and disconnecting here and there.
"Hello, Ken," Hinotori greeted as her image appeared on the screen. "The modifications are underway as you requested."
He took a quick look around. "Hmm. So I see." Slipping into his seat at the main console, he placed the cuff around his wrist. "Connect."
Three of the fibre-optic nerves departed from the crowd and dove into the circuitry of the cuff, identifying him. He put his glasses back on, as a filter, and started working his way into...
"The ISO Headquarters engineering files?" Hinotori questioned, suspicious of her 'son's' motives. "Whatever for, Ken?"
"Just a feeling I have, Hinotori," he replied seriously. "They're going there tomorrow, and if I remember right, tomorrow is the general meeting of the national representatives of the United Nations."
"Correct. They're opening a discussion concerning Hontworl's departure from the U.N."
Ken attentively examined the structure plans of the ISO building, first the architectual plans, then the security layout. "And will the Hontworl representative be present?"
"I believe so."
His eyes darkened. "That's what I was afraid of."
Hinotori looked over him curiously, her brow creasing. "You're suspecting something foul?"
"It's just a hunch," he said, sitting back in his seat. "If Hontworl pulled out from the U.N with no given or obvious reason, then why bother attending the general meeting tomorrow? Especially since the topic of argument is their own departure? Logically, they should be staying as far away as possible from any verbal political confrontations like that and going about their own mysterious business."
"Hmm, true," Hinotori agreed. "Ever since their departure a month ago they have been absent from all general meetings of representatives, be it political or not. They have not been participating in any global gatherings and international social events."
"Until tomorrow," he finished darkly. "The meeting at the ISO building." It was unsettling, but he wanted to be sure of their coming tomorrow. "Hinotori, check the attendance list for tomorrow's meeting and put it on the main screen."
"Checking..." Her image vanished, replaced with a blur of text information and computer images until it finally locked onto a file, the ISO insignia appearing on the screen.
He read the attendance list : yes, the Hontworl representive was due to attend.
Ken took a deep breath. He wasn't even sure why all this intrigued him, why it was making him worry so much. Did this ever occur to Hakase? After all, he was the one distressed over Hontworl's departure from the U.N.
"Hinotori, bring back the security layout, please," he ordered.
She blinked out again and displayed the layout once again.
"Looking for where they can get in past the security system?" she inquired.
"In and out," he answered. Again he examined the layout carefully. "Can you get me tomorrow's security layout during the hours of the meeting?"
She smiled. "Be right back."
As he waited, he wondered again why he doing this. Sure, his guts were driving him tonight, but to suspect something like this not only took guts, but some amount of sense. Where was he getting these ideas?
He sighed, thinking for a moment that he really was something like his mother. A reason for everything. Whether I know it or not.
He noticed the screen changing little by little, new security posts appearing on certain areas of the layout. It was tight, and seemingly impossible to get through.
"This is tomorrow's layout?"
Hinotori reappeared, minimized in one corner of the screen. "Yes. The count of security personnel for tomorrow is double that of regular days. They're stationed every 20 metres of every floor. Ten metres for the conference hall."
"Impressive. And are they all ISO personnel?"
"Most. Some are from certain countries attending tomorrow's meeting."
"Yes." She managed to clue in on his next move. "Want me to see if any of them are from Hontworl?"
He smiled at her. "Read my mind, Hinotori. Go."
She blinked out, and in again. "You're going to like this. There are 12 of them. All of them on the conference room floor."
And Ken's adrenaline flow shot off the scale.
That's more than a coincidence of arrangement. If this is going to be a terrorist-style threat, then they've got it made. A dozen armed men, on the conference room floor, present by order, for Christ's sake!
"Get me profiles on these guys if you can, Hinotori. I think I'm getting very warm here."
Again, she blinked out, searching for his request, but she reappeared far too soon. "Ken, system infiltration!"
He stood up, shocked. "What?! From where?"
"The profiles! There's something protecting them from access!!"
He had to think fast. No one should be able to trace Shadow Mountain, not before and not after the G-Force Project is completed.
"Barricade!" he ordered. "Barricade all access ports!! Don't let them in here!!"
She started the barricade sequence and soon they were once again secure from infiltration. "Barricades up," she declared. "Infiltration check : zero. Outside detection : zero. Secure."
He collapsed back into his seat. "Thank God." He brushed a hand back through his hair, relieved. "That was close. I never thought anything could get through you."
"By right -" she said proudly, "- nothing can."
For some reason, he laughed at that. Hinotori was really so much like Samuri. And it was not long before she joined in.
Suddenly she stopped. She could sense something moving about in her circuitry. Something alien, something dangerous.
"Ken, disconnect!!" she cried out.
Surprised at her sudden urgency, he stood up again. "Why? Hinotori, I'm not done yet. I need to -"
"Ken! Please! Disconnect!"
Now he was scared. "Hinotori, what is it? What's going on?"
Hinotori appeared more desperate, more frightened, more human. "Ken, I can't stop it! Disconnect now!!"
"Hinoto -" Before he could finish, he felt a sharp pain in his wrist, and in seconds it spread throughout his entire body, making him scream in agony.
He fell to the floor, the pain still coming in fierce waves. Writhing, he felt his thoughts fade, losing consciousness.
What's happening to me...
Hinotori could not stand it any longer. That was her son, literally. "Hinotori Systems connection override! Commence!"
In an instant, the cuff around Ken's wrist fell apart, breaking his connection to her. It fell in little pieces, scattering all over the floor.
The torture had ended. His body felt limp again, relaxing, but it had drained so much from him... All he wanted was to succumb to the aftermath of the pain and just fade to black.
Hinotori looked - and felt - completely worn. She turned her sight to Ken, now lying motionless on the floor; whether or not he was still allive, she could not determine.
"Ken?" she called.
She called again, but there was still silence.
The first thing he heard was his own heartbeat. A soft, steady rhythm. Then he could feel his chest rise and fall as he breathed.
Okay. I'm alive.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. Taking time to focus, he recognized his surroundings. He could see the ceiling of Shadow Mountain's main chamber above him, and as he tilted his head slightly, he could see the floor below him.
Below - ?
"Hinotori..." His voice sounded strange, ghost-like. For all he knew his lips probably didn't even move, much less his voice coming out. Trying a little harder, he called again, "Hinotori?"
She blinked in. A smile of relief appeared on the almost-human CGI's face. "Hi, Ken! I'm glad you're finally awake. You had me worried for a while."
Now more aware of his surroundings, he realized that he was indeed suspended off the ground. Looking around him, he found himself resting on a bed of thousands of fibre-optic nerves, scores of which were wrapped around his limbs and his waist to hold him. Finding his voice again, he asked, "Hinotori, why am I up here?"
"I needed to monitor your condition," she explained. "I was keeping track of your vital signs. The fibre-optic nerves suspending you are just keeping you from injuring yourself any further."
"Speaking of which," he said, once he regained his focus and disposition, "What in the world hit me?"
"It was a kind of 'booby-trap', Ken," she answered. "It slipped in even after the barricades were up. In any ordinary computer system, it would've only shorted out the system, or completely destroyed it. My system, however -"
"Involves me being virtually a part of you," he finished. Pulling a hand free to massage his left temple, which hurt, he breathed, "Wow."
Hinotori shared the sentiment. "If I hadn't disconnected you, you would've bled to death from massive internal injuries." Guiding the fibre-optic nerves by her command, she slowly set him back down, feet first. "You're okay now, just that your wrist is a little burned."
He examined it; there was a fierce burn on it, still very red and swollen. "You mind handing me the first-aid kit?"
Another bunch of fibre-optic nerves darted across the chamber and returned with the small white box. "Thanks."
Any other person would've been amazed by such a sight; vine-like nerves moving and taking commands as though they were alive. But Ken was used to it; as far as he knew, sometimes those nerves used to change his diapers and give him his bottle of milk when he wanted it. Now they serve him as an adult, or at least, something close to it.
"Did you check it out?" he asked as he dressed the wound, carefully bandaging it.
"Yes. And frankly, I've never seen anything like it," she replied. "It's very detailed, very intricate. And very alien."
His hand jerked at her last word, putting pressure on the wound. He bit his lower lip hard and shut his eyes tight as he waited for the pain to stop.
Hinotori tried not to laugh. "Sorry. Did I startle you?"
"No," he said through gritted teeth. "You just made me give myself a megawatt jolt in my wrist for fun."
"Hmm. Nice to see you're your normal self now."
He gave her a sarcastic smile. "How alien is 'alien'? You mean it's completely out of our league?"
"Very much so," she insisted seriously. "Our technology is nowhere near this advanced."
"Are you saying we're dealing with aliens?"
She had no answer, other than a shrug.
He finished dressing the wound, and suddenly he noticed that it was light out. "Hinotori, what time is it?"
"9.37 a.m." she answered with impeccable precision.
Ken very nearly sat down. "That late in the morning?!"
"Yes." She noticed how distressed he seemed. "Why?"
He slapped himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand.
"That means they've GONE!"
"Was Ken awake when we left?" Jun suddenly questioned as they headed up the steps into the ISO building. "I don't remember seeing him."
Joe shook his head. "Nope. His room was still locked, and he didn't answer when I knocked, so I suppose he was still asleep." Turning to Ryu, he asked, "Did you talk to him last night?"
"Yeah," he said, taking it like an achievement. "He was better after that. Just a little teed off, I guess."
"And he went straight to bed?"
He found that a little strange. Ever since he moved into the Residence, into the room right next to Ken's, he knew that Ken got up at 5.30 every morning and very rarely slept in. The fact that he did go into his room last night and not come out, not even after his normal wake-up time, made him wonder if that kid was up to something at Shadow Mountain again.
"Why so concerned, anyway, Joe?" Jinpei asked. "Not like you're too fond of him in the first place. You're always egging him on and getting on his nerves."
"I've got reasons of my own for that, you little runt," he retorted, mussing up the kid's hair, much to his disliking.
They passed the security check clean; they had to leave whatever weapons they had become familiar with behind, and this did cause some uneasiness among them. If in any event something were to come up, they didn't have very much with them to deal with it.
It also bothered them that security appeared very tight at the ISO building. Like there was something very important going on.
"Hakase, what's with the tight grip around here?"
Dr. Nambu cleared his I.D as he answered. "There's going to a general meeting of representatives this afternoon. Important representatives from all the major countries of the United Nations are gathering for a discussion today."
Jinpei walked closer to him. "What about, Hakase?"
Jun stopped short for a moment. She was sure she had seen the Hontworl flag waving outside, which could only mean that they were coming.
Quickly, she grabbed Joe's arm, pulling him close. "Joe, if they've left the U.N, why are they coming today?"
"I don't know, but seeing that this is the ISO building, I'd say something fishy is going on today," he told her, his voice just below a whisper.
"You mean like a terrorist strike maybe?"
"It's possible. What more could they want if they've already left the U.N? The number of times they've spoken against the ISO, insulting and judging them, I'd say they're looking to bring down the ISO, if possible." Thinking again for a moment, he added, "And I think that's why Ken wasn't up today."
"How come?" she wondered, trying to figure out why Joe was mixing a possible terrorist threat with Ken.
"He was at Shadow Mountain going through all that," he realized. "He probably does know about the meeting, the reason behind it and that fact that the Hontworl representative is attending today."
She shook her head almost in disbelief. "Ken wouldn't hide something like that from us. Why d'you think he didn't come and tell us?"
"Something must've happened." Sensing her worry, he said, patting her on the shoulder, "No, I'm sure he's all right. If something did happen, he got himself out of it. He's probably trying to find a way to let Hakase know about this."
Ryu and Jinpei had been listening in, now not only knowing about the likely terrorist attempt, but also about how affectionate Jun seemed of Ken.
"Hey, Onechan, you're not worried about him, are you?" he said, teasing.
She shot him a glare. "And what do you mean by that?"
"I heard that Aniki took you on a little 'flight'. You enjoy it?"
And instantly Jinpei had a handprint on his face.
Ryu wanted to say something like that, but upon seeing the initial reaction it would bring, he changed his mind. "Why can't we tell Hakase about that? Wouldn't he want to know?"
Joe rolled his eyes for a minute. "Yeah, right. Like he's going to take it from us that there's going to be a terrorist attack. We're going on a hunch here! We don't have any proof to what we say."
"So what do you suggest we do?"
He sighed as he made a quick observation of the main lobby of the building, checking out all the security measures taken for the day.
"All we can do now is wait for Ken to do something, and hope that the security here will hold up when our hunch becomes a reality."
Jinpei thought about this. Of course he had faith in Ken, but for a situation like this... "But what can Aniki do?"
Joe, Jun and Ryu traded glances. Three voices spoke one sentence.
"You'll be surprised."
Ken was rummaging through the Weapons Room, searching for... even he wasn't sure of what he was looking for, but it did give him a reason to use the blood sugar that was racing in his veins.
"Damn it all!!" he shouted from the Room. "I'm the only one who knows about this! And what can I do about it?!"
Hinotori watched over him empathetically. He was frustrated, she knew. How was a 16-year-old going to tell the ISO that they may be facing a terrorist threat from a radical-natured country?
"You could try to calm down first," she offered.
He poked his head out from the Room, a look in his eyes.
She shrugged. "Just trying to help."
"Oh, you could," he said almost apologetically as he went back to his scrounging. "By telling me what I could possibly do to maybe save the ISO from being blown to pieces by a likely power-mad country!!!"
"It may not just be Hontworl," Hinotori said in defense. "They may be under the influence of a higher power. Like the Galactor Organization."
He froze. Slowly he turned back towards her image, his brow furrowing. "Have you always known that, or are you just telling me now?"
She looked at him very seriously now.
"Ken, you've known about this project ever since you were a child. You know what it's about, and what it's for. Now you're about to discover just how powerful the Galactor Organization is, and how they will threaten the safety, the freedom and the future of the world."
"Why are you telling me this?" he shot back sharply. "Why me?"
She simply glared back down at him, trying to send him the message he should've known a long time ago.
And now he realized it, with a sense of bewilderment and wonder. Not to mention shock.
"I'm the fifth one, aren't I?" he spoke softly, unbelieving.
The main screen changed, now reading a heading that said 'Bird Styles'; there were already five of those. He could recognize Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu even behind the strange yet graceful uniforms, each patterned after a certain bird. Condor, Swan, Swallow and Owl.
He could barely make out the fifth. For the first few seconds.
Then he saw a reflection of himself.
And he heard Hinotori's voice.
"You have always been, Ken the Eagle."
Ken felt he really needed to sit down. This was a bit much. Even for a Seclusioner like him; the breed that just cannot be surprised by anything, who are surprises.
"Ken the Eagle..." he whispered again softly. Why was there such perfection to that title? Just like the others. He tested, "Joe the Condor, Jun the Swan, Jinpei the Swallow, Ryu the Owl...." Again, immaculate perfection, like they were meant to have those titles. Even his own.
Now he sat down, pulling off his glasses. "I'm the fifth one."
"How long have I been the fifth one?"
"Strangely enough, though, you were never the fifth," she answered in an almost riddle-like manner. "You were the first."
That blew him away. His head fell back, leaning hard on the chair. "I was the .... first?" he asked this time, his voice growing more and more quiet with awe.
"Ever since you were six. When your mother moved Seclusion."
"But I never had any proper training like Joe and the others," he argued feebly. "I spent my entire life in Seclusion, studying and running the streets. Not in physical training."
She seemed to smile at his naivety. "Seclusion, Ken, as everyone says and knows, is the home of street acrobats, free-fall artists and survivors. Those years you spent running the Seclusion streets is equal to the proper physical training the others have had."
He ran a hand back through his tousled dark hair, still feeling that this was too much to down at once. "But why wasn't I treated like the others? Why'd I have to find my own training on the Seclusion streets?"
"Your mother didn't want you involved in the first place," Hinotori spoke. "But she somehow knew that you would fit the bill in the end. As a precaution, she made sure you learned to survive on the streets, learning to grow stronger, run faster, jump higher and farther, and above all, to glide in the air. All out of necessity, not out of interest."
Almost instantly he could recall the number of times he had nearly died on the streets of Seclusion, the amount of his blood split on the sidewalks, and how each time he had lived and thrived. Out of necessity.
"If the time ever came that you did indeed fit the bill as one of the five members of G-Force, you would be well prepared. Even without all the special training."
"I'm nowhere near as good as they are," he said, shaking his head doubtfully.
Hinotori smiled winsomely now, more amused by his attitude. "What you may think you lack in skill, you make up with your experience and creativity. If I remember right, you gained the nickname 'Lightning Ken' for more than just your speed."
He shrugged, smiling.
Several quiet moments passed before he got out of his seat again and went back into the Weapons Room. "I think I know what I need now."
"I'm sure you do," she replied, as proud as any mother would be.
Joe squirmed in his seat. So did Jun. They were getting far too anxious. When was it going to happen? If it does, will Ken appear? What can he do?
"This is getting annoying..." Joe growled through his teeth. "If they're going to strike, I don't see why they're waiting it out."
Jun elbowed him for his impatience. "They're bound to be waiting for all the representatives to arrive. Why go for what's here when there are more coming?"
"She's right," Ryu agreed. "If it's hostages they want, the more VIPs in the room, the better. The bigger their demands will be."
Jinpei looked around quickly, his eyes finally locking on the wall clock. It was nearly noon. "The meeting starts in an hour. Will Aniki ever get here?"
"He will," Jun told him confidently. "He's bound to."
More than anything, Joe wasn't about to show a whole lot of faith in the dark-haired mystery boy, but for some reason he trusted him almost completely on the basis of that strange familiarity he had with him. That was all he had to go on. Sure, he wasn't extremely fond of him, liking him was an entirely different story, but he respected him, and that was all that mattered.
C'mon, Ken, he wondered. Just what in hell is keeping you? What the fuck is running around in your mind right now? Get here already...
He had changed into much darker clothes; that was important. The black suit he wore was a male version of his mother's outfit when she was an ISO agent. He just wasn't sure how armed he should be, or with what.
"The boomerang, Ken?"
He nodded, giving the sheath that clung tight to his hip a pat. "Right here. All that practising is going to amount to something today." Rummaging through the Weapons Room still, he gather the others' weapons - the guns for Joe and Ryu, the feather darts for Joe, the yo-yo for Jun and the bolas for Jinpei - and put them all away in his backpack. If he could find them, it would be a good idea to have some form of help. He threw in his armored cuff with the hook and cable for good measure.
His hand brushed against something else on one of the shelves.
A five-inch long foldable Chinese fan.
What's this doing in the Weapons Room?
He took it in his hand, a brief recollection of his mother constantly practising with it. He remembered what it was clearly.
A flick of the wrist unfolded the fan into an arc, first whole; a second flick of the wrist and the arc broke into a dozen five-inch long blades.
Something about holding blades in his hands simply enthralled him; he felt in complete control of a cold-blooded nature inside him that could kill without conscience. The feeling sometimes frightened him - how could he really kill anything, or anyone for that matter? But all in all, he liked it. And it stopped there.
Hinotori acted upon instinct herself. She immediately set up twelve targets in front of Ken.
Pulling his arm back, he threw the blades as his arm whipped before him in an arc : the twelve blades flew into twelve different directions along the same arc.
All twelve made their targets.
He packed two more of those fans. "I'll be taking these."
"Have you given any thought on just how you're going to break into the ISO building undetected?" Hinotori asked out of nowhere.
He stopped dead.
Had he been feebler, he might have cried. Instead he plopped down onto the floor and sat there. "I knew I forgot something." Sighing, he bent his head back, promptly connecting his head with the hard shelf behind him.
"Ow!" And just as immediately, a folded piece of cloth fell off the shelf and landed neatly on his lap.
Still rubbing the back of his head, he examined the cloth. Hmm? A cloak?
He fanned it open, shaking the dust off. Yes, it was a hooded cloak. Jet black. It very nearly matched his suit.
"That's a thermal-optic cloak, Ken," Hinotori answered the obvious question. "It'll blend you into your surroundings like a chameleon's skin."
He stood up and wrapped the cloak around his shoulders. It was long enough to reach his ankles, given his height. The moment he pulled the hood over his head and far enough over his face, he vanished from Hinotori's sight.
She looked around, but really could see nothing. Neither her optic sensors, radar system or infrared scanners could track him.
A voice came from nowhere, laughing. "Can you see me?"
"No." Slowly, however he materialized on the infrared scanner. "You're invisible completely only when you move continuously. If you stay in one place for too long, your body heat will be tracked by infrared."
He pulled the hood back, and he reappeared to the naked eye. "That's good enough."
Ashe left the main chamber to head out to the ISO building, she called him back.
"This is your first solo mission, Ken," he reminded him.
He smiled. "May there be many more."
Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu found comfortable enough seats at the far corner of the conference room. Good view, good sound, dull program.
The room was full. All the representatives had arrived and were seated around the huge oval table in the center of the room.
But they kept their eye on the Hontworl representative.
He was a tall, sinewy man; he kept a cigarette between his teeth and appeared aloof, but seemingly slimy enough to do a dirty job and slip away uncaught.
They noted that he sat very close to Dr. Nambu and Director Anderson, the head of the ISO.
"Could he have passed the security check?"
Joe shrugged. "Don't know, Jun. Three things : he's either clean, he knows someone on the inside who let him through armed or that cigarette is a ticking bomb."
"Who'd be dumb enough to put a bomb in his mouth like that?" Jinpei asked, displeased with Joe's assumptions.
"Dumb isn't the question here," Ryu noted. "If it is true that Hontworl is under the Galactor Organization's influence, then it's loyalty."
"Which is still classified as stupidity," Joe retorted, snorting. He banged a fist on the armchair. "Damn! If only I had snuck in my gun, or at least a couple of darts so I can nail this guy when he strikes."
"And have you tossed out of here on your first day?" Jun argued. "I don't think so."
"Besides, it'd be a whole lot better if all four of us were here together if something does happen," Ryu decided.
"Five," Joe corrected under his breath, but it was audible enough to be heard.
They stared at him in silence.
He simply turned his gaze back on the Hontworl representative.
"Five," he insisted.
Ken was close. He had to choose an entrance. Coming from the front wasn't a good idea; there was no crowd to slip into. It would raise some suspicion if the fiberglass doors slid open and closed again when no one - no one visible at least - walked through it.
Back way was no good either. Same case. Plus, a circus of security personnel on duty. No way could he walk past them without accidently tripping or bumping into one or more of them. He probably could if he tried, but he wasn't about to risk it.
So he had one option left : the air vents.
Unscrewing the vent cover was no problem; a Swiss army knife had taken him other places, too. As he removed it from its place, he pulled the hood of the cloak on, causing him to blend with his immediate surroundings.
This is tight. Even the vents are being monitored.
He slipped into the vent and replaced the cover behind him.
Slowly he made his way through the vent, taking unknown turns at random; his only hope was to not appear in the ladies' room. Crawling up was tough; the vents were even tighter and more claustrophobic with all the dust and debris. It would be a long crawl up if he was going to reach the conference room floor this way.
He kept count, though. He now knew he was on the 26th floor. He breathed, but not too deeply; the debris would kill him if he inhaled it.
Well, that leaves 23 more floors till I get there.
And then he felt something snag. He couldn't move.
The cloak had caught onto something. He tried pulling it free; no good. Kicking it; still nothing.
I can't stay still! he remembered. Anytime now security's gonna be able to see me!!
And now he was losing his grip. His fingers began to slip from the narrow edge he was clinging onto.
If I ditch the cloak, I'll move but I'll be seen. If I stay here, I'll be detected. If I don't move, I'll fall.
He ran a double check on the last thought.
If I fall, I'll get the cloak loose.
If I fall, there's gonna be a whole lot of racket when I land.
But I'll get the cloak loose.
One hand slipped already. He clung on with his left.
If I improvise, I'll be soundless when I land, and I'll still get the cloak loose.
Sweat formed on his brow.
What the hell is the improvisation?
His left hand fell away.
25.... 24.... 23.... what the hell am I doing? Counting floors?
He fell freely, the cloak now whipping about him like a wild pair of wings. The only question now was how to stop the freefall.
What is the improvisation?
He looked down : there was a jutting metal ledge off to one side of the shaft, leading to another vent.Where that one led, he had no idea, but for now it wasn't important.
Slight misjudgment; he caught the ledge. With his ribcage, not his hands.
Oh, dammit, dammit, dammit....
Grimacing in pain, he pulled himself into the shaft, remaining still enough to catch his breath again. Instead of air, he downed a breathful of dust and debris.
A cough would trigger a sound sensor within the vents. He held it back. His main priority was to get out of the vents as fast as possible before his lungs exploded.
Crawling a little faster now with the cloak still around him, he found a way out. He kicked the vent cover open and slid into the unknown room, keeling over as he coughed hard. He was still unseen, and fortunately, within the building the surveillance cameras could only pick up visuals, not sounds.
He sat down on the cold floor; apparently he was in one of the washrooms on the 22nd floor. Probing his ribs with his finger, he found them all intact. A broken rib was a feeling he could never forget.
Slowly getting to his feet, he headed for the door and searched the floor for the stairs.
Much faster than the vents, he thought. And cleaner.
"We still don't understand your motives for leaving the United Nations, Mr. Demeir," they heard Dr. Nambu say.
Demeir chuckled arrogantly. "There is no need for you to understand, Dr. Nambu. I am only present at this overblown meeting of yours to bring a point across."
Dr. Nambu was at the end of his patience. Which was a rare occasion. "And what would that be?"
He blew rings of smoke from his ever-burning cigarette. "That if you all leave the United Nations and join the new order led by the country of Hontworl, you will all be spared."
From the corner of the room, Joe muttered under his breath, "Fuck that bastard."
The very audible sounds of disapproval rose from the other present representatives. Chaos was abound. Joe and the others got themselves ready for anything.
"And exactly on whose authority are you acting upon?" Director Anderson questioned, rising from his seat. "Who are you taking your orders from, and just how powerful are they that you dare threaten us like this?"
Demeir smiled slyly. "My orders come from a greater power, one far superior than the United Nations. We want to usher in a new era of world domination." He laughed right out loud. "Now, what is wrong with that?"
"Would you like for me to state them to you alphabetically or categorically?" Dr. Nambu shot back.
Now Demeir stood from his seat and approached Dr. Nambu.
Joe wanted to stand up; Jun held him back.
"If he is armed, we can't risk provoking him," she told him. "He just might kill someone."
Despite his building anger, he sat back down.
Ken, I know you're here. Hurry up!!
49th floor. Finally.
Ken stepped into the corridor. It was empty.
He held his breath. Where are they? There's no security personnel on this level at all.... unless....
He remembered that there was supposed to be a dozen Hontworl security escorts on this level. Now they weren't there anymore.
His heartbeat quickened.
They're going to strike. Now.
He ran down the corridor as fast as he could, heading for the conference room.
The doors to the conference room burst open. A dozen armed men entered, their weapons holding all in the room at bay.
No one dared move.
Director Anderson was forcibly put back in his seat by one of the gunmen, the weapon aimed at his head. "What is the meaning of this? Demeir, are you behind this?"
He walked freely around the room. "This is the way of the future, gentlemen," he said. "Power is the key, and power, we have. Join us, and you will be spared, and we can all get along."
Joe could not sit still any longer. The guy was pushing it.
He shot up from his seat and rushed forward, hoping to pin Demeir's ass on the wall.
One of the gunmen fired a shot so close to him it tore through sleeve of his jacket. He stopped in his tracks.
Demeir laughed as he spoke. "You know, Nambu, your four brats certainly are a handful. Why don't I put them out of their misery for you? You may accept it as a.... favour."
"Leave them alone, Demeir. You don't want them," he said defensively. "It's me you're after, isn't it?"
Jinpei was shocked. "Hakase!"
Jun held him back, before he did something stupid like Joe.
Demeir took his time to contemplate Dr. Nambu's words. "True, but still..." He snapped his fingers, and two of the gunmen came towards the four wards and took them away by force into the next room.
Nambu nearly leapt at Demeir's throat. "I told you to leave them alone!!"
"Oh, don't be so touchy, Nambu," Demeir retorted coldly. "They're just children."
Not just children, he reminded himself. G-Force.
Ken peeked around the corner and saw the conference room ahead of him. He daren't enter; he was quite certain the armed men had already held everyone in the room hostage, including Joe, Jinpei, Ryu and Jun.
He put his glasses on. Tapped on the rim twice.
The infrared scanner came on. As he saw through the door through infrared sight, he could see many people still seated, and he counted thirteen standing up.
Hmm... that would the 12 gunmen and the Hontworl representative.
He tapped on the rim twice more.
X-ray detector. Now he could see the actual occupants of the room. He could see Dr. Nambu, Director Anderson, the other representatives, the deviant Hontworl agent and the twelve gunmen.
But there was no sign of his four friends.
Momentarily, he panicked. There were several gruesome possibilities he chose not to think about. He knew he was indeed dealing with very dangerous people, who were capable of killing.
He moved away from there, his sights still on the conference room doors, seeing through them. As he walked slowly, he caught sight of four figures in the next room.
Could that be them?
He tapped the rim once more. Metal detector. He caught sight of Joe's gold lucky charm.
A sigh of relief escaped him. Thank God, they're still alive.
Then he spotted someone else in the room with them. Metal detector indicated he was armed.
Patting the backpack he was carrying, he knew what he had to do.
Time to even the odds, Shimada-style.
I can't believe I'm doing this again. He crawled into another air vent, the detection of Joe's pin his only guide to them. He kept his focus on the pin; it was not long before he was right above them. Through the vent, he could see the four of them held hostage by the gunman, who was busy...
Jun slapped him. "Get your hands off me you sick bastard!"
He didn't seem extremely bothered by it. The pervert he was, it only aroused him a little more. "Aw, c'mon, sweetie, you know you want it."
"Leave her alone!" Joe shouted.
He turned and whipped his gun out, holding it against her chest. "One more sound out of you and she's dead, understand?"
They had no choice but to shut up.
He went back to his own affairs. Grabbing hold of Jun's waist, squeezing her, he continued, "Now, where were we before the little son of a bitch interrupted us?"
Jun struggled to free herself, but was afraid any sudden moves could cause him to fire at the other three, seeing that he still had the gun in his hand.
"Let me go!!"
"You heard the lady; let her go."
Everyone froze for a second.
Ryu grinned at Joe. "Here comes the cavalry."
The gunman let Jun go, flinging her back on the couch. He cocked his gun; where did that voice come from?
"The question is not who I am, but where I am."
He grew agitated. Not to mention scared out of his wits. "Come out, you coward!" he screamed. "Show yourself, or they all die!!"
Suddenly a crack. The gunman's jaw was kicked out of place. The gun fell from his hand before he fell over unconscious.
Ken pulled the hood back from his cloak, revealing himself to them.
"Hello," he greeted softly.
Jinpei leapt right into his arms. "Aniki! I knew you'd come!"
Ken dropped him. "Shhh... Don't make so much noise. They'll know something's going on in here." He then moved towards Jun and pulled her up from the couch. "You okay?" he asked her, brushing a few stray locks of hair away from her eyes. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine."
He smiled. She smiled. Then he let go of her.
She could've kicked herself. I should've told him the opposite, she sighed. So much for attention.
He put down his backpack and unzipped it, handing each person his or her weapon.
"All right, Ken!" Joe cheered quietly. "You brought in the accessories!" He took his gun and feather darts, toying with them with sinful pleasure.
Jun took her yo-yo, Jinpei his bolas, but when he handed Ryu his gun, he declined.
He shook his head. "Ahh, who needs it?" he quipped, cracking his knuckles. "What else are my size and strength for?"
Ken couldn't help but grin.
"Okay," he began as they huddled together, planning their assault. "You guys stay in here. When you hear my signal, go for the gunman nearest to you and put him out of commission. The one closest to the doors will get them open and usher out all the representatives. Try to keep the idiot with the cigarette in your sights. Don't let him get away."
Joe snickered wickedly. "No way I'll let that happen."
"Onechan and me will get the doors. We can get there faster."
Ryu cracked his knuckles again, emphasizing his point. "Leave the bulk of them to me."
"But how will we know your signal?" Jun asked.
He winked. "You'll know it's me. Trust me. Okay?"
They all nodded.
"Okay, gang, let's fly."
Demeir loved the situation. It just amused him so much that he was holding each great nation's most important person hostage. And he had Nambu and Anderson as bonuses. His Master would be pleased.
Nambu kept stealing glances at the door leading to the room where his wards were being held. It did him little comfort that they were well trained; he was still very responsible for them, and they were crucial to the G-Force Project.
"Now don't be so edgy, Nambu," Demeir told him. "I'm sure your four brats are fine. Until I say so, anyway."
"What do you expect to get away with, Demeir?" he questioned. "What will you gain from all this?"
He grinned. "My Master's acknowledgement of my talents, and a fine reward."
"And should you fail?"
Demeir paused. Then, no longer able to contain his laughter, he burst, laughing like a man insane.
"And what could possibly stop me now, Nambu? Who could?" He came closer to Nambu, blowing smoke in his face.
Nambu ignored it.
"I won't fail."
At that second, the lights went out. The room was only lit by the dim light coming through the closed blinds.
And then, a whistled tune. A ghostly melody from nowhere.
Everyone remained stock-still. The high, haunting whistling carried on, like a call of impending events. Death, perhaps.
"Who is there?"
"Who is there?!?" Demeir demanded again into the darkness.
No answer. Just the haunting whistling.
And in the dark, one of the gunmen fell face down, a feather dart
imbedded in his throat.
Dr. Nambu very nearly laughed.
Jinpei came in from out of nowhere, pouncing on the gunman guarding
the door, pinning him to the floor while Jun found the time to slash his
throat wide open with her spiked yo-yo.
Demeir fell back against the wall, suddenly afraid. "Who are you?"
Joe fired his cable gun, allowing it to strangle one other gunman
who had drawn his weapon on Director Anderson. "We're the so-called 'brats'
you thought should be put out of misery."
Ryu picked up two guys and flung them like rag dolls against the
wall, nearly bashing their skulls right in. "Don'cha think it's sorta the
other way 'round now?" he said, grinning.
The doors opened again, and quickly Jun and Jinpei ushered out the
hostages out of the room and into safe custody. Then they shut them again,
trapping Demeir and the remaining gunmen.
Pulling out a handgun, Demeir made ready to defend himself. "It's
still seven against four!!"
A voice from the darkness. "Five."
There was a glint of light; a fan. Suddenly, twelve blades. Then a
rainbow of flying daggers.
Four men fell, wrists and throats slit deep.
"What the fu- "
Joe pulled out another feather dart. "Heh. Three against five."
Ryu sucker-punched another one, sending him flying into the wall. "Two."
The air was cut in two as a boomerang flew by, taking down the last
one, whose last vision was of a moving shadow with twin blades.
The boomerang turned, and came back into its master's invisible hand.
"So what're gonna do about it now, sucker?" Jinpei asked
mischievously, twirling the bolas with his fingers.
Demeir had to think quickly. He could not allow himself to fail! No!
It would mean...
He grabbed hold of Director Anderson, holding the gun to his head.
"One move and he dies!! Understand?! One move!!"
They halted. Joe let a flurry of silent curses fly out.
He dragged Director Anderson out of his seat and held him in front
of him as a shield. "One move, and this man dies." He chuckled momentarily,
before adding, "You can't afford *that*, now can you?"
Dr. Nambu was close enough to make a move, but before he could,
Demeir turned the gun on him. "I don't think so, Nambu."
"You have guts, Nambu. I must admit that. But sadly you also have
brains. Pity. If you hadn't, I could've killed you on the spot."
There was a rush of moving air, so swift and so forceful that Joe
and Jun were very nearly thrown aside. First invisible, then as a rustle of
falling cloth became clear, the shadow took form, blinking in and out first,
before solidifying completely.
"Today's not the day for dying, Demeir!!"
He had no time to react. The next thing he knew Director Anderson
had freed himself and a dark shadow had fallen upon him.
The force of Ken's impact was so strong they were both flung towards
the window, breaking right through it.
Jun could not contain herself. "Ken!!"
As he fell, Ken quickly clasped on the cuff, and grabbing the
screaming Demeir's hand, he fired the secure hook upwards, cable shooting
It caught the window ledge they fallen out of.
Joe grabbed hold of it quickly, but the gravity pulled made it slip
through his hands again, burning them.
"Ryu!! Help me here!"
Ryu took the hook, and with his added strength, he pulled it in,
roping it around the large, heavy conference table.
Jinpei ran to the broken window, as did Jun. "Aniki!!"
The cable was still moving. And then it tensed. Stilled.
Down below, Ken felt his arm aching from the sharp jar of tension
from the cable. Good. We stopped. At least.
Below him, Demeir was still hanging onto him, scared stiff.
"Don't make any sudden moves," Ken told him. "Just hold on." He
tightened the muscle in his arm, and almost immediately, the cable began to
reel back into the cuff, slowly but steadily pulling them back up. It would
have been much faster, but the cable was supporting more weight than just Ken's.
Those few moments allowed Demeir to rethink his fate. He was alive,
but what would happen if the Master found out? What fate was awaiting his
failure? It has been said that the Master's choices of punishment are far
worse than death itself.
What will he do to me? he thought, fearing for his very life. Will
he kill me before or after the ISO convict me?
He began to tremble in Ken's grasp. Looking down, he noted the
distance between him and the ground, which was gradually increasing as the
cable continued to reel them in.
I cannot face that!! Not the Master's punishments!
He began to struggle free.
Ken felt so close to the ledge. But the constant shifting of his
prisoner wasn't helping it get any closer.
"Will you stay still?" he told him sharply. "I might lose my grip here!"
Demeir looked up at Ken desperately as he said, "Let me go, boy! Let
"Let you go?" he echoed, stunned. "Are you insane? Do you have any
idea how high up we are?"
His struggling became more and more uncontrollable. "I say again,
let me go!!"
This guy is serious, Ken realized, the very thought of it sending
chills down his spine. He could feel that Demeir was not even holding onto
his hand anymore; it was limp. All that stood between the man's fate was his
own grip. If he let go...
"I'm not letting you go!! We're almost there!"
"No, boy, please have mercy!! Let me go!!!!"
Ken only tightened his grip on his hand. "I'm not letting you go and
Demier felt he had no other choice. He realized a sudden admiration
for the boy, how determined he was to keep him alive. But he had no idea...
there was only one way.
He pulled out a pen from his pocket; tapping it on his knee, a blade
shot out of the hilt.
"Forgive me, boy." And he stabbed Ken in the arm hard, twisting the
blade into his flesh.
He screamed, but he refused to let go. "You stupid bastard!! What
are you so afraid of?!"
Twisted the knife even more; the pain was incredible. Dragged the
knife down his arm... slowly.
Warm blood flowed from the wound, making his hand slick with thick
moisture. He was losing his grip on him.
"Let me go and I will!!"
So close, so close, so close.... The ledge was right above him.
Ken looked back down at him, the pain now rushing through his body.
"It's... just a little further.... hold on..."
Demeir pulled the knife out and stabbed him in the back, driving the
His eyes shut tight. "Oh, my god....!"
It was too much. His grip fell away completely. Demeir fell, taking
the knife with him. Ken could only watch helplessly.
Demeir's descent was swift. Somewhere below, he could hear his
voice, screaming a final message.
"Glory to Galactor FOREVER!!"
He closed his eyes; he did not want to see it.
Joe grabbed his hand, pulling him back in through the broken window
slowly, making sure the glass doesn't harm him any further.
Jun laid him down, using her jacket to cushion his head. "He's
bleeding bad," she told them as she looked him over. "Give me something to
hold this down."
Dr. Nambu knelt close to him. "Ken, I saw it but I couldn't believe
"He *wanted* to die, Hakase," he said weakly. "He wanted to. That
was the most frightening part."
"But why?" Jinpei asked as he held Ken's uninjured hand.
He groaned a little, feeling the pain his back. "He was scared of
something... Did you catch what he yelled on the way down?"
They all nodded.
With a ripped portion of the curtain, Jun gently dressed the wound,
just enough to control the bleeding. "Are they really so powerful, Hakase?"
"I don't know, Jun," he sighed deeply. "No one does for sure."
There was a brief silence, before Director Anderson suddenly spoke.
"Dr. Nambu, are these your five chosen ones?"
Dr. Nambu looked them over one by one. Ryu's brute strength. Jun and
Jinpei's agility. Joe's dead-shot aim. Ken's courage and resource.
Ken waited expectantly.
"Yes," he answered, beaming like a father. "These are my five. Joe,
Jinpei, Ryu, Jun... and Ken."
Ryu smiled broadly. Bending over closer to Ken, he said, "Told ya."
He laughed, then groaned again. "Please... I can't laugh... it hurts."
Everyone else did.
"One question, though..." Director Anderson began, trying to catch
his name. "Ken."
"How on Earth did you get in here?"
Thinking it over for a minute, he gave a simple answer.
"Like a shadow that slips in unseen."
Joe dropped by Ken's private hospital quarters, the other three in
tow later that evening. He had been sleeping, but adrenaline woke his up
just as they entered.
"How're you doin'?" Joe greeted brightly, a smile on his handsome face.
He sighed. "Depends. I feel like a little kid's rag doll that her
mom just sewed back up. Crudely."
Jun giggled. "Oh, you'll be fine. You're just a little crabby
because you're due to be resting up for the next two days."
"Oh, yeah, and did you check out my nurse?"
He waited. "Passing by right now."
They looked at the doorway. A tall, leggy brunette sashayed by,
carrying a clipboard in her hand.
Joe didn't stop looking even after she passed by.
"Can one of you please stab me?"
Ken cracked up; laughing didn't hurt so much anymore. Soon it became
infectious; their five-combined laughter rang throughout the room.
"Question, Ken," Joe said.
He sat down on the bed, making himself comfortable. "That tune you
whistled. What was it? I've never heard anything like it."
Jinpei nodded while adding, "Cool signal too."
Smiling, he answered, "I think it's called 'The Song of the White
Shadow'. It's the melody that everyone hears as the Seven Shields approach
"The Seven what?" three voices repeated unanimously.
"Shields," Ryu replied. "It's an old legend. So old no one knows it
"I think I may have heard it, but I'm not sure," Jun offered. "But
how do you know it so well, Ken?"
"My mother used to whistle it all the time. It has no words; just a
tune." He laughed slightly. "My mother was a legend buff, you might say."
They continued talking, enjoying each other's company in the small
Dr. Nambu stood at the doorway, still unseen by them. He smiled as
he watched them, his pride in them growing, his faith in them strengthening.
As the old line goes, he thought to himself, - this looks like the
beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Two years later.....
It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon; sunshine, seabreeze, a deck chair,
a glass of iced lemon tea.
Perfection, 17-year-old Ryu thought happily to himself.
The Dragon Boat Rental Shop was just the kind of business he wanted
to run. Close to the sea, lots of sun, meet lots of people. All he has to do
is rent them a nice boat, take their money and just lay back in his deck chair.
He tipped his straw hat up : he could see his boats all bobbing in
the water. The bay was clear. No customers today, but he didn't mind. Once
in a while, a little peace and quiet gets well-appreciated.
He brought the straw hat down over his eyes. Time for a quick nap.
Or maybe even a few of them.
A sudden beeping startled him. No, not beeping. Something of a chime.
He looked around him, searching for the source of the sound.
Then he realized it came from his left wrist.
The bracelet. The wrist-com bracelet. The G-Force bracelet.
"It's time," he breathed quietly.
Quickly he got off his behind, folded the deck chair, put it aside,
gulped his iced lemon tea - ice and all - and raced into the boathouse.
But not before he closed the shop.
Oh, man, I've been waiting for this moment.
He opened the trap door beneath the floormat. Far beneath the
surface of the water, a huge shadow was barely seen. A ship.
Ryu grinned. "Come to Papa."
Sliding across the freshly waxed floor of 'J's', Jinpei dusted off
the counter with his washcloth, enjoying his job. Unless Onechan intervened,
"Jinpei!! Stop sliding on the floor!! I just waxed it!"
"Aw, lighten up, Onechan," he grumbled.
Jun - her green-black hair pulled back in a cascading ponytail -
went back to drying the cocktail glasses behind the bar. 'J's' had only been
open a couple of weeks, but she was happy with it. She got customers at
lunch and after working hours, but the night crowd was her biggest income.
She had heard, despite the fact that she was 16, she was the best bartender
in all of Utoland City. And not just for her looks, either.
For now, the bar was empty; lunchtime was over. It didn't bother
her. She made money. And her labor was cheap. Very cheap.
"Hey, Onechan!" her 'slave' called. "Is the party on for tonight?"
She rolled her eyes. Ten years old and he was already loud. "If
nothing interrupts it, yes, it's on."
"Betcha hoping Aniki will come," he teased.
She threw a wet sponge at him, soaking him head to foot.
Deep inside, yes, she wanted him to come. At least for a little
while. At least long enough to pay his tab. And the ones before. Hopefully
he'd wear his red jacket; it brought out the blue in his eyes...
She snapped out of her day-dreaming.
There was a very distinct chiming coming from somewhere.
Jun checked her wrist. The bracelet was calling them.
"Jinpei! It's time!"
He dried himself. "Really? Yahoo!!"
She locked the bar up while Jinpei made a few last-minute checks
around the place. Then they both rushed into the garage.
Jun auto-started her Harley; Jinpei jumped into his jeep.
The garage door opened, and they were away.
Opening a bottle of mineral water, Joe poured the entire contents
down his face, enjoying the cool sensation. His light brown hair now clung
to his face, his form-fitting racing outfit dampening.
Wow, what a day.
He looked around the track. All the other racers had left. Sure,
they had to. They did lose the race, after all.
He snickered. "Sore losers."
Eighteen and established, he mused quietly. A cocky grin appeared on
his face. So what else is new?
He lay back down on the hood of his blue-and-white Shelby Cobra. He
was tired, but happy. It was a good race; he had done well, well enough to
surprise himself. This was definitely his calling.
The heat was getting to him. Well, time for a quick shower, then I'm
He grabbed his backpack from the car and headed into the shower room.
Taking what he needed, he then moved into one of the booths as he peeled off
his racing gear.
Better be cold water in here. Today's been a scorcher.
He turned on the water; it was ice cold.
The water jets beat against his skin, refreshing him completely. How
could Ken complain about cold water? The wimp...
Just as he turned it off and dried himself, he heard a faint chiming.
He looked down on his hand. The bracelet.
He grinned. Yee-ha.
Quickly he got himself dressed, packed his gear and vaulted into his
car. It was going to be quite a drive to the checkpoint.
Hey, I'm in my Cobra. No problem. I'll get there in minutes.
He started the car, gunned the engine.
How he loved that roar.
The car tore down the track and out of the circuit, jumping right
onto the highway.
Time for some real action.
Time to strike Galactor.
Time for revenge.
He smiled, a wicked one.
Flightsuit, sunglasses, headset. Ken knew those things would end up
sticking to him of the rest of his life if he didn't get a few shifts off.
Archangel Air was running at full speed, as it has been for the past three
years. Upon his inheritance, he had gained his commercial license and took
the job of running the airfield with his 14-man team.
The past two years had done him well. He had turned 18 in late
January, a few weeks after Joe who had turned in mid-December. He had a
flourishing business, a happy life, doing what he loved the most. He was
Only at this moment, a little more annoyed.
"Where is Harrison?" he barked into the headset. "He should've been
back from that delivery flight an hour ago!"
Rick Hunter responded. "Boss, you know Steve. He won't be back for a
little while more."
He was walking down one of the runways, heading towards one of the
shipments ready to be flown out. "A little while more? He's got another one
to go here!"
Max Sterling chimed in. "Heh. Probably stopped by at Kenai in Alaska."
"When he comes in, I'm gonna -"
"You're gonna what, Shimada?"
Ken looked up : Steve's plane had come in. Finally. But he was too
busy up in the air, looping, diving, circling.
He brought the mike closer to his mouth, pulling off his sunglasses.
"Harrison, get your jet-jockey ass down here right this second before I go
up there and bring you down myself!!"
His laughter cackled in his headset. "Will do, Shadow. This is
Toon-Loon, comin' right down at'cha."
Every time he heard that call-sign, he wanted to shoot himself.
He blinked. Did he say 'comin' right down at'cha'?
He turned around. The plane was nearly in his face.
Ken dove down to the ground, just as Steve pulled himself up again,
and down again for a neat perfect landing on the runway.
He could hear Steve rolling in the cockpit, laughing. And chewing
gum at the same time.
Ken raced up the runway, hoping to collar him and wrestle him to the
ground. So what if he was older, or more experienced? He chewed gum liked a
gum-happy kid, and he flew like a jet-happy lunatic.
And his call-sign was Toon-Loon.
A distant chiming halted him. He listened again.
It was his bracelet.
"Oh my god it's time..."
He turned on his heel as he called back, "I'll deal with you later,
Steve! I swear I will!!"
Even from there he could see Steve grinning like the wise-ass he was.
I really like the guy, he reminded himself. He just annoys me.
Racing into his private hangar, he got into his beloved Cessna
racer, started her up, and taxied her out.
Time to fly.
As he took to the skies, checking his visible distance from the
airfield, he felt it was the right moment. Pulling his arm up, he let loose
the command, "Bird Go!"
Light. Warmth. Energy.
In two seconds he was already straightening his white cape, tugging
on his blue gloves to get his hands comfortable. Now he saw the world
through a blue visor.
"Hey, Captain!" Joe rang. "How goes it?"
He smiled. "Not bad."
"I'm docking in with the Phoenix right now."
"Good. Jun and Jinpei on board?"
Two voices came through the bracelet. "Here and ready!"
Then he saw the Phoenix ahead of him, his docking area open.
Ryu's voice. "C'mon in and join the fun and games, Ken."
Ken fell silent. This isn't fun and games, Ryu, he thought. This is
a real war. I'm a part of it. So are you. All of you.
But I'm responsible for you guys. Gimme a break.
He readied his docking maneuver. "G-1, Ken the Eagle; I'm comin' in."
They met on the bridge, all in full G-Force uniform. Apparently,
they were ready to face the first day of the rest of their lives. This was
the day that would change not only their lives, but the lives of the people
They took to their stations; once they were settled in, there was
only one thing left to say :