“Hand me some more chum, can you?” his father asked, holding out a hand without looking back, his empty fishing hook in his other hand, the fishing pole tucked up underneath his arm.
"Sure, Dad," Ryu said as he plucked out a piece from the plastic bucket they were sharing and handed it to him. Ryu studied the man, as he had since he was a small child, watching his movements, the effortless way he baited the hook, then gracefully whipped the pole and released the line out over the water, the sunlight picking out the gossamer thread of the fishing line for just a moment before it vanished into the waves.
Ryu leaned back in his chair and nudged his own pole. He had gotten a few nibbles, and pulled out a decent mackerel, but his father was the one with the golden touch on this trip out. Even this early, he had already hooked several good sized bass, all which were now on ice, waiting until they returned to the dock to be cleaned.
This was a scene he had seen every weekend growing up, his father and he fishing for that night’s supper. It made him nostalgic for the days when there was that bond between them, a connection between them as strong and as invisible as the fishing line they used.
Now, though, there was a secret. His father only asked general questions about his life now. Did he like the work he was doing with Nambu? Was he eating enough? And Ryu answered likewise, in general terms. Yes, he liked it fine. Yes, he had more than enough.
There was a time, not long ago, when they knew everything there was to know about each other, shared in this quiet time together. Or, at least, that was how it seemed to Ryu.
Ryu would tell him of hard science tests, of a pretty girl who had caught his eye, what he and his classmates had caught after school, while his father shared stories of what happened on his commercial boat. How big the catches were, how much of profit they made, who could cast a net the farthest, who fell overboard ….
Ryu smiled at those old days, wishing he could throw a net around them and hold them tight. But things had changed. Or had they?
He could, he supposed, tell his father now about his belonging to the Science Ninja Team. It was just the two of them here, and no one else for miles around. Just the blue water and them. Ryu even got as far as taking a breath and opening his mouth when his father’s shout stopped him. Ryu shook himself out of his thoughts in time to see his father letting out the line.
“Got a fighter here!” he gasped out, trying to pull back on the pole without losing his catch.
Ryu hopped up and stood behind his father as, together, they held onto the pole, his father expertly reeling in, then letting out, the line, until, finally, the largest halibut Ryu had ever seen landed at their feet in the boat.
They swung into action, a well-coordinated team, no need for words or instructions. They had done this a thousand times and they each knew their job. Once the fish was subdued, his father held it aloft.
“Look at that beauty,” he marveled, a gleam in his eye. “Wait until your brother sees it!”
Ryu smiled and nodded, his heart nearly bursting with love for this man – his father – who taught him not only how to fish, but to appreciate what they caught. He was a provider, too, for his own family, and for the town as well. People looked up to him, sought him out for his advice. He was the type of man that Ryu wanted to become.
A swell of pride filled Ryu’s heart and ached for the knowing of this secret between them.
One day, Ryu vowed to himself, one day his father will know and Ryu could only hope that this strong, wise, brave man of the sea would be proud of him as well.
They saw the crowd at the dock as they approached their boat slip; heard the voices rise up like a swarm of insects before the first mooring line was hitched around cleat. As Ryu busied himself with pulling the boat to the dock, his father at the helm, guiding it in, Ryu wondered what was going on to get such a gathering together when everyone was usually still out in their boats.
His father no sooner stepped foot on the dock’s wooden planking than the men converged on them both.
“Have you heard ….”
“Massive problem ….”
“Did you see it?”
“Did you see them?”
“No one’s reporting on it yet …”
“What’re we gonna do?”
At the last, Ryu’s father raised up his hands for silence, then looked at the thin man, permanently browned and wrinkled from a lifetime spent in the sun and on the water, standing beside him. He had known Takahiro for a long time as a member of his crew on his commercial boat, so now he looked to him for answers.
“There was a flash of light,” Takahiro explained, then pointed, “over there, and all of a sudden, the radios crackled, transmission lines went down. The Salt was in that area, but no one’s been able to get into contact with them. We’ve tried radar, but it’s as if the boat’s just vanished.”
“Or sunk,” an old seaman behind Takahiro muttered ominously.
“Squall come up?” Ryu’s father asked. He knew the Salt of the Sea and its owner and crew. Experienced all, and the boat was always well maintained. Ryu and he had just come in the opposite direction, but it didn’t mean that a sudden storm could not have hit an isolated part of the water. It was possible.
The men all shook their heads in unison, and once more began to speak at once, until silenced again by Nakanishi. Takahiro again answered for the group.
“Weather’s been clear as a bell, up and down the coast an’ most’a the interior all day. All of a sudden, there was just this huge ball of light, the instruments on my boat went crazy and the Salt was nowhere to be seen.”
“Could a fuel tank have exploded?”
Another crew member of his, Masa, answered this time. “That’s what we thought, initially, but, well, it’s just not possible.”
“Why not?” Nakanishi demanded. “Sounds to me like that’s what happened. Bright flash, no clouds ….”
“Except ….” Masa hesitated.
Now the men exchanged glances like guilty children.
“Well?” Nakanishi prompted, the tone of his voice making Ryu look up from tying the final line secure.
“It’s weird, you know,” Takahiro said, his voice rising up as though asking a question. “There was nothing in the water. No debris, nothing floating, nothing. And once the Salt disappeared, something like a oil slick or spill appeared on the water’s surface ….”
“So it was a fuel tank problem?”
“Uh, not exactly, we don’t think,” Masa answered. “We were only a short distance away, on the High Spirits, so we thought we would try to at least contain the spill with buoys ….” He stopped and swallowed hard, looking at Takahiro, who continued the story.
“When we got to the spill, it was as though the surface of the water had hardened, like ice. None of our pikes could break it, not even the full weight of the anchor when we threw it out. It was as though the water itself had turned to rock.”
Nakanishi locked eyes with Takahiro. “Was it just the surface? How far below the water’s surface did this hardening go?”
“We didn’t really look all that closely,” Takahiro admitted sheepishly. “We all just came back right away, to see if everyone had heard or seen anything.”
In the back of his head, Ryu wondered if Nambu knew about this ….
Just as Ryu was about to join his father, he saw the blip of light on his wrist, but before the communicator could make a sound, Ryu covered it with his hand and turned it off. He hoped Hakase would forgive him for a few minutes. Ryu looked around, trying to think fast. He bent down and picked up the cooler containing their catch.
Nakanishi frowned as he caught sight of Ryu. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “This is a serious situation.”
“Yeah, I know, Dad, but we shouldn’t let these spoil, though. You know, dinner’s soon and ….”
“Is that all you can think about, food?” his father thundered. “An entire crew may have died and all you can think about is eating?”
“I’ll just keep these in the cleaning shed,” Ryu muttered, hoisting the cooler for a better grip on it, trying to block out his father’s comments to Takahiro as he walked away.
“Just once I’d like to see him get his priorities straight ….”
Once in the cleaning shed, and away from the crowd, Ryu cupped a hand over his communicator, just in case, and called in.
“Hakase, this is G-5, reporting in.”
“Ryu, you’re the last to respond,” Nambu scolded. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, but I was in a place where I couldn’t talk freely.”
“I know you’re on a weekend holiday, but we need you to come back. We’re getting reports about spots in large bodies of water ….”
“That seems like they’re frozen?” Ryu finished. There was a short pause of silence.
“How did you know?”
“We got one up here. Just now, and the boat in it even disappeared.”
“Then stay put,” Nambu decided, “and we’ll join you as soon as we can.”
Ryu dropped his wrist and looked at the cooler with a scowl. Then kicked it for good measure. Then sighed, opened it up and began cleaning the fish.
There was nothing else he could do until Nambu and the rest of the arrived anyway and there was no point in going out there and disappointing his father any further.
* * *
When Ryu had done everything that he could think to do in the cleaning shed, he began to walk back to the small crowd of fishermen who remained on the docks, forming a tight knot around his father. Even from the distance of several blocks, he could hear the tense, tight tones in their voices as the men went over the details of what happened again and again.
Ryu’s eyes scanned the horizon once more, now not just out of habit; he was searching for the Godphoenix. To his surprise, however, it was only Nambu who came in an unmarked car, which was driven by Joe, who was in full Science Team uniform. As they walked up to the crowd, Nambu gave Ryu only the slightest of acknowledgements, Joe none at all.
This was to expected, as Ryu well knew. It would seem too odd, and raise too many questions, if he were to suddenly appear on such friendly terms with the members of the Ninja Science Team. After all, he was only supposed to be helping Nambu, an apprentice of sorts, whose exact job description changed every time they spoke of it, becoming less precise and more vague with each time the question was asked.
His father assumed that Ryu merely did the heavy lifting, running inconsequential tasks so that a man as great as Nambu did not have to dwell on the mundane tasks in life. Though it bothered him greatly, Ryu did not correct his father, nor try to change the man’s perception of him.
It was better this way, he kept telling himself. For all of them.
As Nambu stepped through the knot of men to interview those who saw the incident first-hand, Ryu shifted his gaze to see Joe standing to one side, a little way from the edge of the crowd, his stance relaxed, unless you knew him. Ryu could see his hands hanging loosely at his sides, his fingers flexing every now and then, his eyes narrowed and observant over the entire scene.
For just a brief moment, a flash of anger shot through Ryu. He knew what Joe was doing and why, but he knew all of these men, had known all of them his whole life, and besides, he was here. So it was not as though any one of them would try to hurt Nambu …. or would be able to get away with it ….
Ryu swallowed hard and tried to set aside his ire. He looked down at the ground and closed his eyes in an attempt to control the emotion that he knew was on his face. He had to look normal, like his jolly, usual self, and he had to do it quickly.
Unlike the rest of the team, Ryu reflected, now opening his eyes to stare out across the open water, he did not have the freedom that they did, and on many levels. They did not have the sweet burden of a loving family, nor did they know how hard this was for him, monitoring himself so carefully when visiting them. They did not know his frustration at all of the times when he was left alone on the Godphoenix so that the others could take their smaller vehicles to go on investigations during missions. And, unlike Ken and Joe, his outbursts, though rare, were not tolerated at all.
Just once, he thought, now turning his eyes skyward, he wanted to be able to really let go and be who he was on the inside. To show the world what the Great Horned Owl was really all about and what he was truly capable of accomplishing. His father would be proud of him then ….
Nambu’s voice broke through his vision of the Great Horned Owl cutting a large swath through Galactor soldiers and blinked as he turned in Nambu’s direction.
Behind Nambu, Ryu could see the frown on his father’s face, the subtle shaking of his head.
“Always got his head in the clouds,” his father muttered to Takahiro, who simply nodded his head in agreement.
Ryu shifted his gaze back to Nambu, who by this time had walked up to him.
“I realize that you still have time left to your holiday, but in light of this, I am must ask you to return with me now. There’s a lot of work to do, and not much time in which to do it.”
“Yes, Hakase,” Ryu said with a small bow. He looked beyond Nambu’s shoulder to his father. “Uh, Dad …”
“Go,” his father said with a dismissing wave of one hand. “It is important work that you do for Nambu Hakase, so be sure to do your best at all times.”
“Yes, sir,” Ryu mumbled, then turned and trailed after Nambu and Joe, who were, by this time, back at the car.
As Ryu slid into the passenger seat up front, and Joe started the car, he let out a breath he did not know he was holding. It felt like he had just been set free.
“We left the others with the Godphoenix a little way down the coast,” Nambu explained from his seat in the back of the car. “Once we join up with them, we’ll go directly to this latest site. I have the coordinates and location if you need ….”
“I already know that,” Ryu interrupted, then fearing he answered too sharply, added with a laugh, “don’t worry, Hakase, I’ll get us there.”
* * *
Once back in his rightful place, Ryu headed the Godphoenix out towards open water, to the spot the Salt was last seen. There had been no new information on the missing ship since the … whatever it was … that happened to it. No radar, no contact, no SOS, nothing.
Ryu shifted his shoulders as a tingle of anticipation shot through him. Now they would find out.
The spot was easier to find than Ryu thought possible. A large area, impossible to miss, even as far up in the air as they were. The water’s surface rippled with the winds, but the wide flat spot just under a few inches of water was obvious.
“Are you sure that that’s it?” Ken asked skeptically. “From this distance, it just looks like a trick of the currents.”
Ryu chuckled. “Or maybe it’s a group of mermaids, lying in wait for unsuspecting sailors.”
“That’s highly unlikely,” Nambu answered seriously. “Even a large school of fish, which frequently cause places on the water’s surface to look flat, could not generate an area that large, nor could they cause an entire ship to disappear.”
Ryu sighed inwardly. No one had a sense of humor any more.
At Nambu’s directive, Ryu touched down and placed the Godphoenix near it, but not too close.
“Jinpei, you’re up,” Nambu ordered, but the words were merely for effect as Jinpei was already headed down to his vehicle. He had been itching to get to do something and was thrilled when Nambu had selected him to gather the samples.
There was silence in the Godphoenix as they watched Jinpei’s vehicle circle around, then its mechanical arms reaching out, gathering water samples, and if possible, a sample of the odd formation itself.
“All done,” Jinpei chirped into his communicator, and Ryu opened the bay for the G-4 to dock. They waited a moment, then turned as one as the door opened and Jinpei came in, a wide grin on his face.
“Were you able to get everything?” Nambu asked the second Jinpei stepped in. He nodded and held out several test tubes. Only one, though, contained a very small chip of something clear and solid.
“Was hard to get, though,” Jinpei said, his arm automatically going up to his head, but his helmet prevented him from running his hand through his hair. “That stuff just didn’t want to let go.”
Nambu narrowed his eyes at the test tube containing the clear chip. It gave a faint tinkling as he shook it slightly.
“All right, Ryu,” Nambu said, lowering the test tube. “Let’s go down and see what it looks like from that perspective.”
The Godphoenix dived and everyone on board gasped at the sight that met their eyes.
“Is it alive?” Jun asked, her eyes wide.
“I don’t think so,” Jinpei answered. “It didn’t move or anything when I tried to take the sample.”
“Whatever it is,” Joe observed, rising from his seat to stand behind Nambu, “it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.”
“Ryu, see if you can’t circle around it,” Ken suggested. “I’d like to see just how big this thing really is.”
Ryu hit the thrusters and kept the Godphoenix parallel to it. As far as they could see, it extended down to the nearly the ocean floor, fish swimming accommodatingly around it, and the top stopped just shy of the water’s surface. They went around the entire mass, surprised at how large an area it covered.
“Do you think it’s some sort of iceberg, Hakase?” Ken finally ventured.
Nambu frowned. “It’s possible, but highly unlikely. We’re too far south. Even if a part of one broke off, it would have been spotted by someone before now.” He looked at the capped test tube he held and shook it. The shard rattled against the glass.
“And if it were just ice,” Jun added, “wouldn’t it have melted by now?”
“You would think,” Nambu agreed.
As Ryu circled back to their starting point, he gasped and had to make a quick adjustment in their flight path.
“Whoa, that wasn’t there before!” he gasped, maneuvering the Godphoenix around a large shard that now stuck out from the side.
Nambu’s frown deepened. “Jinpei, where, exactly, did you take this sample from?”
“You think it wants it back?” Joe quipped, dead pan.
“No,” he said ominously. “I think that’s what happens when it is disturbed.”
Jinpei giggled nervously. “The gift that keeps on giving?”
“We’ll know more once we’ve had a chance to examine these samples. Ryu, take us back to Crescent Coral.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Ryu said, his hands automatically starting the sequence that would bring them back.
It was a silent ride, and more than once, Ryu wondered if he should say anything or not. No one else seemed to notice. Maybe he was mistaken. He hoped he was. Maybe he was just seeing things.
But somehow, he just knew that the dark shape he had seen towards the bottom of that … whatever it was … used to be the Salt of the Sea.
* * *
It had been three days since they had returned to their base. Three days for Nambu and his team to figure out what that mass was. Three days until they were called in for a conference.
And now they stood there, waiting for Nambu’s briefing. He stood behind a large table, on which were several cups were lined up, each a different color. He lifted up a wooden stick from one of the cups, on which crystals had formed. He scowled at it.
“Ooo, lollipops?” Jinpei asked, bouncing over to the edge of the table.
“Not quite,” Nambu said as the other four stepped closer. As he spoke, he pointed to indicate each cup. “From our analysis of what Jinpei was able to take shows that the mass is structured like crystals, such as those found in salt or rock candy.” He held up the stick that bristled with heavy pink crystals. “And under the right circumstances, they can continue to grow.”
Ken raised a brow. “So you think that’s what this is? Just some sort of crystallization of sea salt?”
“If it is, I’d say it had some help,” Joe added, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Surely not,” Jun said softly. “Galactor can’t be everywhere, can they?”
“Could something that large actually form naturally though?” Ken asked Nambu.
“What about those quartz crystal rocks?” Jun asked, turning the matter over in her mind, trying to think of other natural examples. “They can get pretty big, can’t they?”
“They can,” Nambu acknowledged, “but such formations generally take long periods of time.”
“So why don’t we just go out there and blast them apart?” Joe asked, a gleam in his eye.
“We thought of that,” Nambu conceded, “however, there are a number of things to take into consideration. Take a look at this.” He hit some keys on a nearby keyboard and a monitor on the wall to their left flickered on as it displayed a map. Four red X’s were evenly spaced right down the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nambu walked over to the map and pointed to the second X down from the top. “This is the one that we investigated. These others were likewise investigated by other teams. In each case, when a sampling was taken, the spot it was taken from suddenly grew larger.”
“So it can regenerate itself,” Ken stated.
Nambu nodded. “Not only that, but they are getting larger, anyway. These areas are more than twice the size they used to be than when they first appeared. By our calculations, they will eventually come together, forming an enormous underwater barrier.”
Ryu squinted at the map, his mind harking back to the maps on his father’s fishing boat. “At what rate, Hakase? There are several species of fish that are about to migrate and if they can’t get around those things … or if it takes them too far out of their way, the journey alone would kill them ….”
“Exactly what we were thinking, Ryu,” Nambu confirmed with a nod of his head. “The environmental impact will be enormous. Not to mention the fact that they are already starting to affect the established shipping lines.”
“So how are we going to deal with them, if we can’t just take them out with a bird missile?” Joe demanded.
Nambu dropped the pink stick back into its cup and looked up with a steely resolve. “That’s what we need the Science Ninja Team to investigate and determine now.”
* * *
With Nambu’s blessing, the Science Ninja team headed back out to the ocean crystals, and were alarmed to find that they had grown considerably, even in the short amount time since they last saw them.
“Just great,” Joe muttered. “At this rate, the entire Southern Sea will be divided.”
“I know,” Ken commiserated, “but we’re only here to figure out a plan of action, nothing else.”
Joe shot him a hot look; he did not need the reminder. He chafed at the fact that using bird missiles would only make the problem worse. Perhaps if they could use enough to demolish the crystals into really, really small pieces, then somehow scoop them out ….
The gasps of Jun and Jinpei snapped Joe out of his thoughts and his eyes widened as he looked up to see what they saw through the bridge’s main window.
“What do you suppose that thing is?” Ryu asked speculatively, keeping one eye on the Godphoenix’s flight panel and the other on the rather large mecha that just appeared over the horizon. Saucer-shaped, with what looked like buoys floating at the edges, it looked to Ryu as though it were some child’s beach toy gone amuck.
“One of Galactor’s ideas, no doubt,” Jun said with a delicate shiver.
They watched, flying over two of the crystal formations when they watched in horror as the mecha centered itself above a fishing vessel bobbing on the waves.
Joe ran up to the main control panel, his hand fisted and ready. “I say we take it out now,” he stated, raising his fist over the glassed red button, “otherwise, we’re just going to watch them destroy that boat like the others.”
“Joe, no,” Ken argued, placing a staying hand around Joe’s wrist. Joe impatiently jerked his hand away.
“Just like you to balk when the heat’s on, but we can’t just sit and watch.”
“I know that, but we can’t just fire on it without making sure.”
“Of what? Really, Ken, what’s there to know?” Joe challenged. “And besides, maybe that thing is controlling the crystals. Maybe if we destroy that, those will follow.”
“It’s possible, Ken,” Jun added thoughtfully. “They’ve done similar things before.”
Without answering Joe or commenting on Jun’s statements, Ken hit the button on his right and sent a call signal to Nambu. Within seconds, his image appeared on the monitor above Ken’s head.
“Hakase, we have a unidentified aircraft and we need to know if it’s one of Galactor’s creations or if it’s friendly.”
Nambu’s mouth downturned and deepened into a frown as he cradled his chin with one hand, considering this. Then he turned a moment, and typed something into a nearby computer. When he turned back to the team, the look on his face was stoic.
“No, there are no friendly aircraft in your sector. Good luck.”
“You heard him, Ryu,” Joe said, moving so as to better position himself.
Ryu nodded and, instead of flying parallel to the metal saucer-shaped mecha, he turned it so that they would now be flying head on. They had only readjusted their course when the flash of lightening struck the boat and caused enough vibration to be sent through the air to jolt them.
Jinpei clutched Jun around her throat and she grabbed onto the monitor in front of her to keep from being tossed from her seat. Ken held fast to the control panel while Joe placed a steadying hand on the back of Ryu’s headrest. On his part, Ryu merely tightened his grip and kept the Godphoenix on as level a course as he could.
In horror, they watched the ship be pushed down under the waves, a large crystal blossoming around it.
Ryu felt sick and forced down the bile that threatened to rise up his throat. His suspicions about the Salt were now confirmed. Those poor men … their poor families … but no time to dwell on them now ….
“Close in on them,” Ken ordered, his voice tight. “Whenever you’re ready, Joe.”
Joe nodded grimly and glanced at the control panel before re-focusing his eyes back on the cross hairs. Quickly, he made the calculations he needed, taking into consideration how fast they were going, how fast the mecha seemed to be going, wind sheer, drop speed of the missile, and prevailing weather conditions.
Just as the mecha lined up, they could see it readying to fire on them. Ken opened his mouth, but Joe was already firing. Three missiles, three hits, and Ryu pulled the Godphoenix up and safely away from the white-hot flying debris.
Ryu took the Godphoenix out over the open water, where it was apparent that not only was the newest crystal formation still there, it was growing at an even more accelerated rate than the previous ones.
“At least we took out what was creating them,” Joe said grimly.
“But we still don’t know how to deal with those crystals,” Ken added, his voice low and angry.
“Not yet, but maybe from the footage that we just got, Hakase will be able to figure something out,” Jun said, hope in her voice.
Her teammates could only hope she was right and they had a silent ride back to their base, each lost in their own thoughts.
* * *
Berg Katse knew that this summons from Sosai X did not bode well. He, himself, had only heard about the destruction of their latest mecha, so it was no surprise, really, but Katse had hoped he would have had just a bit longer, to formulate his thoughts more clearly. Namely, about how the ineptness of those around them were the primary cause of such failures.
“You wished to see me?” Katse asked as he bent in his customary bow, one arm crossed over his chest, the other behind him at his waist.
“Yes, Katse,” Sosai X replied, appearing before Katse in a swirl of color. “It would seem that your newest captain was a disappointment of the greatest magnitude.”
“Ah, yes, that was unfortunate ….”
“‘Unfortunate’?” Sosai repeated scornfully, his eyes narrowing to mere slits. “The Science Ninja Team destroys the greatest piece of technology that I have provided to you to date and all you can say is that it is unfortunate?”
Katse blinked at Sosai, his mouth hanging open a bit, at a loss as to what to say next without further incurring Sosai’s wrath. Fortunately, Sosai continued, saving Katse from having to comment just yet.
“Luckily, that was merely a prototype and the second phase of our plan is still in effect. According to my calculations, it should only take a few more days before the crystal barriers grow together and the people of Earth begin to feel the full impact of it. Once that happens, we will make our demands for world dominance in exchange for removing the barriers. Do you understand, Katse?”
“Yes, Leader ….”
“I want no further errors. Everything is in place and you are not required to do anything, save wait. This will be the one time that my carefully laid plans will be not foiled by the Science Ninja Team!”
At that, Sosai X disappeared from view, leaving Katse alone.
Those stupid brats, he thought angrily, bringing his clenched fists down on the first surface that he find, in this case, a newly polished table top. He pounded his fists once more, just to delight in the feeling of getting his fury out.
“The day is coming when I will see you all groveling at my feet!” he yelled out, now raising a fist and shaking it at the ceiling. “All the Earth shall be mine and you will be nothing but dust!”
And then he began to laugh, greatly pleased with the mental image his words called up in his mind’s eye.
* * *
Nambu was waiting for them and there was no rest between when they docked and when they got the message to report directly to him.
Once again, the table he stood at was littered with all types of sea salt crystals, some formed on wooden sticks, others on strings.
“Now that we know how they started the process,” Nambu began without preamble the second they walked in, “we are getting closer to figuring out how to stop the process, or at least, slow it down.”
They all stood around the edge of the table, staring at the various cups and plates and crystals, all in various stages of creation. Looking down at a small bit, known as a seed, Jun’s mind made the instant connection.
“Oh, so that’s what you were doing,” Jun gasped in surprise. “They’re using the salt-encrusted anchors and lines as seeds and the base, the lightening then heats up the water so that the crystal forms.”
Jinpei frowned. “I think I like the lollipops better.”
“You’re right, Jun,” Nambu broke in, “but there’s a little more to it than that. Unfortunately, it’s not an altogether natural formation, but a chemically enhanced one, which is why it continues to form crystals at a faster rate and why breaking it apart will only result in it increasing in size.”
“So then how do we counteract this?” Ken asked, folding his arms across his chest, his wings closing tight over them. “Especially since we can’t use missiles on them.”
“No,” Nambu agreed solemnly, “breaking them up just means there would be more to deal with at the end. Instead,” he paused a moment and held up a crystal formation on a string, “what we need to do is look to nature for the solution. Watch.”
The team watched as he lowered the string into a cup of steaming hot water. The crystals melted almost on contact and within seconds only the string remained. Nambu lifted it out the water.
“If we can super-heat the water, as they did with the lightening at the beginning, even chemically-enhanced, the molecular bonds forming the crystals will break apart.”
“So we have to create lightening?” Jinpei asked, tilting his head as he tried to think this through.
“That would be one way,” Nambu said, turning his back on them and walking over to one of the round windows that give the room its underwater vista view, “but it would be too unpredictable for one thing, and secondly, there’s nothing to guarantee that all of the crystal would be melted once the lightening struck.”
“So what are you proposing, Hakase?” Joe asked, his body as tense as his voice.
“What we need is fire,” Nambu said, then let the phrase hang between them.
“As in what?” Jun pressed, not sure she really wanted to know.
“We’ll prepare the Godphoenix for an underwater firebird technique.”
Nambu waited, but when no reply was made, he turned around and saw why. All of their mouths had fallen open in shock.
“Under water?” Jinpei finally repeated, then swallowed hard. “As in actually being under the water?”
“Is that even possible?” Ken asked.
“Oh, yes,” Nambu replied. “In fact, it’s something that our engineers have been working on for quite some time. Due to the circumstances, however, it’s being pushed to the forefront and they are working on it round-the-clock. Now that the Godphoenix has returned, they will begin fitting it with the necessary equipment.”
“Like what?” Jun asked, finding her voice again. “How could it possibly burn?”
“Chemical reactions,” Nambu explained simply. “We’re breaking the bonds that formed the crystals at their most basic level. By allowing the Godphoenix to ignite, and treated to give off certain chemicals, and then continue to heat the water to a high enough temperature in the limited area of the crystals, you should be able to destroy all of the crystals in one flight.”
“And if not?” Ken asked skeptically.
Nambu pursed his lips and ignored Ken’s question. “You’ll all need to remain on stand-by until the work is completed.”
Without another word, Nambu walked out of the room and left the team to ponder the daunting notion of an underwater firebird.
* * *
Ryu shifted his shoulders, allowing his wings to fall in graceful, dark green sweeps dropping from each arm. He did not do it for protection, or to shield himself, but only because it gave him something else to do. He rested his hand on the lever that worked the aerilons, but not because he needed to do any steering. They were already on their underwater course, headed towards the beginning of the crystal formations.
It was a silent ride out. Nambu had assured them that this would work. It was just an exchange of chemicals, really, he explained. Nothing more than adding in certain compounds that reacted with the chemical bond of the crystals, which would then break them down into harmless components that would eventually break down further until finally evaporating as though they never existed.
It was science, pure and simple. Ryu frowned at that. For all of the explanations, it still did not sit well with him, nor any of the others, judging by their reactions. And yet, how much of their lives was dominated by this same science? In fact, how much of them was science?
Every day, they trusted their lives to certain processes that they only had the faintest ideas of how they worked. So why should it bother them so much now?
Ryu’s contemplation was broken by Ken.
“Nearing target,” he tersely reported back to Nambu. “Sequence to engage shortly.”
Ryu sat up straighter in his seat and placed his hands over the buttons he would need to hit. He knew, without even looking, that Ken’s hand was probably resting on the lever that would send the Godphoenix into the red zone, just seconds after he put the Godphoenix on automatic pilot, set to coordinates that Nambu had programmed into the ship’s navigational system, which would take them all the way up the crystal barriers while in firebird technique.
Ryu hated this part of the firebird, even more than the physical discomfort. They all had their roles on this team, and his was defined by the Godphoenix itself. He was its pilot, its captain, and he hated giving up that control. Even when it meant staying behind while the others got the fun of hand-to-hand combat. There were times when the Godphoenix seemed to be all that he had; pure and simple, the Godphoenix was his ship and he jealously guarded his girl.
The single word was like a gun shot across the bridge.
Ryu merely nodded in answer to Ken, and he could hear the soft intake of breath behind him. Jun, perhaps, or maybe Jinpei.
Ryu hit the buttons in sequence, watched the computer banks as they came to life. The second he lifted his hands, he saw Ken’s movement out of the corner of his eye and heard him give the call.
“Firebird technique: underwater!”
All was hot confusion in his mind, though Ryu struggled at times to see if they were still on course, if they were in danger of colliding with something, but the internal and external pressures were too great for him to be able to tell with any great accuracy. He gripped with the lever tighter and trusted his ship as they sliced through the water, his field of vision reduced to bubbles and eerie blue violet light that turned the water to fire.
They pushed the limits of how long they could remain in firebird mode, and the Godphoenix ascended fast, breaking the surface of the water with a bubble of white foam and dissolving flames. Before any of them had a chance to open their eyes, to see if their mission had been accomplished, they heard the laughter of their nemesis through one of the open communication channels.
Ryu forced his eyes open, to look, and gasped in dismay at the sight before them. Ken’s fist tightened, but he did not move. Not yet. Even anger could not dispel the effects of the firebird that quickly.
“Look closely, Science Ninja scum,” Katse crowed, “for you have all walked right into our trap, just as we had planned all along! You are no match for my crystal mecha!”
Stunned silence, combined with lingering after-effects of being in firebird mode for so long, made Katse’s laugh echo throughout the bridge. It was then followed by a flash of bright light that jolted the team.
“We’ve been hit!” Jinpei cried out. Jun’s fingers flew over the console.
“Right pod,” she informed them. “It’s been crystalized.”
That was when Joe pushed himself to his feet and took a few staggering steps towards the front.
“We can beat that, easily,” he said, his clenched fist already in motion towards a certain launch button. Ken caught his wrist.
“But if not?”
Joe ripped his hand out of Ken’s grasp. “What’s wrong with you? I’m not gonna just sit here and let them turn us into a block of quartz. Come on, Ken. Look at it. There’s not that much there ….”
“That’s right,” Ken challenged, rising to his feet. “Look at it, Joe. Think about this whole mission. Think about what they’ve been using and what they’ve been trying to do.”
At that, five pairs of eyes studied the oncoming Galactor mecha. It did not look like much, but Ryu could just barely discern a glint of sunlight, like the reflection from a wave. Only they were far too high up … which would mean …
“It’s not just what we see,” Ryu blurted out as his mind quickly processed what the glints of light meant. “They managed to make themselves invisible.”
“And that ship in front of us is a lot bigger than it looks,” Jun added in, her fingertips quickly flying over her keyboard as the monitor in front of her began to pick up a large mass all around them.
“Like an iceberg,” Jinpei added in, as he leaned to the side and studied the radar over Jun’s shoulder.
“Right,” Ken said with a nod of his head, “and, if I’m not mistaken, it’s also made up of sheets of those crystals.”
“But why?” Jun asked. “Wouldn’t that just make the mecha that much more vulnerable?”
“One good fire …” Jinpei added.
Ken shook his head. “Think of how high the temperature had to be before the crystals in the water could be dissolved. It would take much more than normal heat from machines or the sun to bother them … and the crystals are a good cover. No one’s seen them until now.”
“So,” Jinpei gulped noisily at the next thought, “we have go back into firebird technique?”
“No,” Ken answered with a frown. “The Godphoenix already went through it once, and besides, it’s still programmed for underwater mode. To try to do that now would be suicide. So … what we need to do now, is figure out where their biggest weak spot is and attack from there.”
“Uh, we’d better do it fast, though, big bro,” Jinpei said, swallowing nervously. “That ship’s getting closer.”
“Ryu, try to outmaneuver them,” Ken ordered, “and give us a chance to study this better.”
“The outmaneuvering is easy,” Ryu sighed, snapping buttons on the console ahead of him, “it’s the staying that way that’s hard.”
“Just do your best,” Ken automatically offered as he leaned in, in punched a few buttons that turned Ryu’s field of vision a washed-out pink. The change of color, however, also meant that they could now see the entire mecha.
He flew the Godphoenix close, but at the sight of a warning missile, and several more bright flashes of light that came entirely too close, he took the crippled right pod into consideration and mentally made the necessary adjustments, banking a hard left and circling them out wide. The mecha followed close behind, but its movements were awkward and stilted.
“Not much good on tight turns,” Ryu noted, glancing back to see how far behind them the mecha was.
“Yeah, probably due to the wind sheer off the sheets of crystals,” Ken said, with a pilot’s critical eye.
That was when Joe stepped forward, the corner of his mouth ticked up in a half smile as a wild glint sparkled in his eyes.
“I take it you found an exposed spot?” Ken questioned as he slowly sat back into his seat.
“You mean to tell me that you don’t see the solution too?” Joe answered back, his smile widening. “Now you think.”
Ken stared ahead at the mecha and the answer came to him just as Jun spoke up.
“We create heat, using the bird missiles.”
Joe nodded. “Detonate two together to create a wall of heat, follow those with several more and that should do it.”
Ken drummed his fingers at the edge of the console as he turned this newest plan over in his mind. “In order to do that, you would need a clear shot … and be able to hit the same target dead-on.”
“I can do it,” Joe said confidently, “so long as the Godphoenix is held steady enough.”
“Hey, don’t you worry about it,” Ryu said, raising his head up a fraction. “We’ll be as steady as rocks.”
“All right, then let’s do it,” Ken decided.
Together, he and Ryu took the Godphoenix out wide, eventually circling the slower moving aircraft so that they were facing it broadside. As the mecha was hindered in its turning, Ryu held the Godphoenix steady in the competing air currents as Joe lined up his shots and fired at the exposed side.
The first missiles hit together as planned, creating a fireball that instantly dissolved the protective crystal sheets, its iron skeleton glowing through the smoke. Without hesitation, Joe sent in three more, all through the same hole as the first.
By the time the final bird missile exploded, creating a chain reaction of explosions within the mecha itself, Ryu had turned the Godphoenix up and away, out of range of heat and flying debris.
“Yeah,” Jinpei shouted, punching the air with his fists, “take that, Kat-face!”
Ryu exhaled a deep breath that he did not even know he was holding, relaxing in the knowledge that they had fulfilled their mission.
* * *
The hook and sinker hit the surface of the water with a soft splash and Ryu leaned back, his hands clasped behind his head as he watched his father instructing his little brother how to cast.
Ryu smiled, both at the sight in front of him and at the memory of being taught.
It connected them, he thought. Like the transparent fishing line, they were held together by invisible bonds as strong as those that created the crystals, just as the unity with the Science Ninja Team held him to them, and no force on earth could break that.