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The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea by Samantha Winchester
The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea by Samantha Winchester
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Author's Note: I take a couple of small liberties with canon in this story. Mostly because I started writing it before I had really learned the canon properly... It's set during Gatchaman II, so Joe's a cyborg...but they still have their original vehicles and weapons, and a life outside of G-Town. Apologies to Tatsunoko... :-)

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Part I

by Samantha Winchester

Standard disclaimer: I adore them, but sadly don't own them.


A Kagaku Ninja Tai mission to stop a mecha over the Atlantic Ocean goes terribly, terribly wrong...


 

He was falling.

Endlessly, terrifyingly, so fast the icy wind shrieked in his ears and tore at his birdstyle like a thousand daggers of glass. Wings in shreds, whipping out behind him in useless ribbons the color of blood on snow.

Deafened by the wind, staring down hypnotized at the hard green glass of the ocean, coming at him with the speed of a runaway train. Ashamed of the stark blind terror curling in his gut, turning his bones to liquid, the taste of fear like metal in his mouth. Ashamed that he was afraid to die, glad he was alone to know it.

Five hundred feet. Four hundred. Waves dazzling his streaming eyes, shattering the sunlight into a glittering kaleidoscope of colors.

Three hundred. Always knew one day his luck would run out. Didn't know it was going to be like this, ten miles straight down to see it coming and wonder.

It wasn't going to be a pretty death.

Two hundred. One hundred. Seventy five.

Ken Washio squeezed his eyes shut.

"Don't be a sissy, boy. Washios don't cry."

Wait a minute...what...?

The ocean smashed into him, smacking his breath away. Gasping in distress, swallowing water, how am I still alive, I should be dead, I should be... Hands catching hold of him, huge hands, familiar hands...sweeping him back into the air. This couldn't be happening, it couldn't be, but somehow he was four years old again, swinging up high above his father's head, the clear water of Hontwahl Lake streaming off his body. One quick, dizzy glimpse of Kentaro Washio's face, the sound of his booming laughter, then the long hard plunge back down into the lake.

He struggled as he went under, terrified, lungs screaming for air, and then the laughter above him changed abruptly and his blood ran cold from more than just fear of drowning. It wasn't his father above him any more, it was Berg Katse, roaring maniacally as he pushed Ken deeper, further and further down. The water closed in on him like a tomb, dark and cold and green, the surface light receding to a tiny pinpoint above him, until he couldn't see or hear or feel anything at all anymore...

"Ken! Ken! Baka, wake up!"

What the hell...? Panicking, badly disoriented, gasping for air, Ken struck out toward the sound.

Then something caught his upper arms in a powerful grip, holding him down, pushing him down... He twisted frantically, fighting hard.

"Kuso, Ken! Stop it, it's me!"

His eyes flew open. He was startled to find the hard granite blue of his gunner's stare right above him, only inches away.

"Joe..." he managed to croak out.

Joe Asakura's dark brows drew together in a frown, but there was a twinkle in his eye that he couldn't quite hide. "You done screaming like a girl now? I've got a reputation to maintain."

Ken tried to shrug off his second's restraining hands, calling Joe's ancestry into serious question under his breath. As his surroundings came into focus, he realized he was lying on the floor beside the bed in Joe's trailer - the Sicilian had obviously leaned over and down from the bed to grab hold of him and wake him from his nightmare.

Joe let him go, still smirking a little, and rolled back on to his bed. He propped himself on one elbow, pushing errant strands of dark hair out of his eyes. "They're gonna catch you one day, you know."

"Who?"

"All those women you keep running away from. Even I can't protect you from everything, Ken."

Ken grabbed the edge of his pillow and flung it hard at his second. Joe dodged it swiftly, laughing. "Pillowrang!"

Ken ignored him, sitting up slowly. He concentrated on his breathing, aware that his shirt was plastered to his back with icy sweat. His mind was still filled with fragments of the nightmare, making him feel weirdly disoriented, even in a place as familiar as the trailer.

The trailer. "How did I get...?"

Joe snorted, getting to his feet and stepping over Ken, heading for the tiny kitchen. "Remember last night? Any of it?"

Ken ran his hand through his thick dark brown hair, brushing back the tendrils stuck damply to his temples. He felt like hell, but he knew that wasn't totally from the bad dream. "This doesn't involve any girlish screaming, does it?" he asked warily.

Joe laughed out loud. "It would have, if you hadn't passed out demonstrating that forward somersault in the Fuji Lounge. I'm telling you, you had that Linda girl right here." He jabbed two fingers of one hand into the open palm of the other for emphasis.

"Laura," Ken said, frowning. "I think..."

"Naah, Laura was the redhead with the...no, wait, that was Micki..."

"Micki was the one with the boyfriend."

"Uh-uh...are you sure?"

Ken nodded, rubbing his pounding temples. "Trust me." He belatedly caught the rest of Joe's original sentence. "Forward somersault?"

"Off the bar," Joe said solemnly. "I could have sold tickets."

Ken dropped his face into his hands. "Aspirin," he groaned quietly. "Give me aspirin."

"Lightweight." Joe tossed him a bottle from one of the overhead cabinets.

"Alcohol's not a food group, Joe."

Joe pretended to ignore him, setting up the coffee to brew. To the Sicilian there was something comforting about the fact that after all these years, he and Ken were still flinging mud at each other just the way they had when they were eight. Only the words had changed.

Preparing to rejoin the battle, he found himself raising his eyebrows instead at the blistering string of insults Ken had begun to mutter under his breath. He glanced over his shoulder, ready to protest such unearned vehemence so early in the game - and his mouth twitched with amusement as he realized he wasn't the target of Ken's verbal abuse. He watched, trying very hard not to laugh, as the leader of the deadliest fighting force on the planet struggled - and failed - to open a childproof cap.

"Want some help?"

Ken turned a look on him that could have burned paint off the wall.

Biting his lip to keep the laughter in, Joe swung back toward the refrigerator. Time to bring out the big guns - knowing his opponent so well gave him a distinct advantage. "How about breakfast?" he asked innocently. "I know how you like those really runny eggs... Oh, and I've got some sausage that hasn't gone bad all the way through yet...might be a bit greasy on that stomach, though..."

He heard Ken's blue streak pause in midstream. A moment later the bathroom door slammed. Joe grinned without turning around. "Just bacon, then?"

He only winced a little as the unpleasant sounds of his handiwork reached him through the thin bathroom walls.


 

As it turned out, nobody got eggs.

Ken answered the bird scramble for both of them as Joe grabbed coffee, and then they raced out the door. Still clutching the bottle of aspirin, Ken piled into the passenger seat of the Nissan, saying a silent prayer of thanks that the G1 was safely docked in her berth in the tail section of the God Phoenix after completing a maintenance run just the night before.

"Bird go!" The double shout echoed back from the empty cliffs, the Skyline's alter ego roaring away from the trailer as the brilliant light of transmutation faded. Despite the insane speed Joe always drove at, the fresh ocean air felt good on Ken's face. He leaned his head back to let it flow up under his helmet visor, closing his eyes as they reached the end of the feeder road and turned south on the coast highway.

His bracelet chirped and he raised his left wrist. "G1."

"G1, this is G5." Ryu's voice crackled over the tiny mike. "I've got G3 and G4 on board and am heading for your location. ETA three minutes."

"Roger." Ken signed off, glancing over at his second as Joe flipped open his coffee mug and drained half the contents in one swallow.

Berg Katse's masked face, receding up through the darkening green water, laughing...

"You all right?" Joe asked.

Ken jumped, realized he was staring - and he didn't know how long he'd been doing it. The line of cold sweat was back across his shoulders.

He looked quickly away, out over the ocean. "Katse," he murmured, mind still on the dream.

He'd meant it only for his own ears - but he'd forgotten about Joe's cybernetically enhanced hearing. The gunner gave him a strange look. "Baka," he said. "Katse's dead."

"Yeah." Ken's head was pounding. He remembered the aspirin bottle and began to struggle with it again.

Joe swore under his breath, grabbed the bottle from him and twisted the cap off with one hand. "Push down first, then turn. Don't you read directions?"

Ken glanced at him, eyebrows going up in surprise. "You do?"

Joe snorted. Ken turned away, gazing out over the ocean again, scanning the sky for signs of the God Phoenix. He spotted her almost immediately, northwest of their position, closing in fast. "G5, G2 is ready for pickup."

"Roger that, G1. Stand by."

The other drivers had seen the Phoenix too, now, and were starting to recognize the sleek blue form of the G2 and its famous occupants, the Eagle and the Condor. They honked their horns, shouting encouragement and waving thumbs up. Ken couldn't help a grin. A little honest feedback like this, untainted by the ulterior motivations of PR, meant more to him than a hundred formal decoration-for-brave-deed-of-the-week state functions where platitudes were handed out by the bucketful and everyone knew exactly where the cameras were. Put that in your opinion poll and shove it, President Anderson, he thought.

The Phoenix came in lower and lower, blotting out the sun as she loomed in the G2's rear view mirror. The other vehicles began to scatter to the highway shoulders as they heard the familiar sound of her warning klaxon. After several frustrating pickup attempts that had caused near accidents on the road, it was now a law that the God Phoenix had to be treated like any other emergency vehicle - all drivers were required to yield immediately to her siren.

Ken wondered how the traffic ticket would read for a violation of that law. Obstructing the saving of the world - two hundred and fifty bucks? The corners of his mouth twitching, he watched as the warship's nose opened up and the grab bars began to extend.

"Hold it," Joe said suddenly.

"Joe!" Ken yelled in protest as the Sicilian whipped the wheel hard over. The G2 shot diagonally across oncoming traffic, knocking ten years off the life of two unfortunate motorists in the northbound lane. Over the angry raised voices and screeching of brakes, Ken could hear Ryu swearing over the comlink as the God Phoenix thundered past empty handed. "G2, what the hell are you doing?"

"Don't get your ki in a wad, Ryu. We'll be right back." Joe braked hard, swinging the G2 neatly into position in the entrance to...

Ken's mouth dropped in disbelief. A McDonald's drive-thru. Joe was taking them through a McDonald's drive-thru. In the G2. In birdstyle.

Joe caught the dumbfounded stare. "It's ten twenty five," he said, as if that explained everything. "We can still get breakfast."

Oh, God, Ken thought. Nambu Hakase's going to have a whole herd of cows.


 

They were still arguing about it as they came up the lift tube to the bridge of the Phoenix. "Joe," Ken fumed, "You are in so much trouble."

"You're gonna court martial me for being hungry? It's not my fault all there is to eat on the Phoenix is MREs.

"Joe..."

"He's right, Ken," Ryu put in as they appeared on the bridge and he caught the tail end of their conversation.

"About what?" Ken was getting exasperated.

"About the MREs. You've gotta be desperate to eat those, Ken. Really desperate."

"Ryu..."

"Didn't you pay attention during all those lectures about armies and empty stomachs?" Ryu turned, saw the paper sacks he and Joe were carrying. "Oooh, breakfast."

"McDonalds!" Jinpei came running out of the rear corridor, pulling down one of Ken's bags before the Eagle could stop him. "Thanks, Joe."

Ken fixed Joe with a stare. Joe shrugged and took a big bite out of an Egg McMuffin.

The comline beeped. "Hakase!" Ryu warned. Joe moved like lightning, whipping sideways to his console. He somehow managed to wind up seated innocently in his chair with time to spare, his wings completely concealing the bags from view.

Ken wasn't so lucky. When Nambu's face appeared on the vidscreen a split second later, he was treated to the incongruous sight of Gatchaman standing by the lift tube like a deer in headlights, in full birdstyle, clutching a bag of breakfast sandwiches to his chest. Nambu's eyebrows went up. "Taking on another part time job, G1?"

Ken's stomach sank.

Jun came up behind him, reaching out to brush the front of his birdstyle with a graceful flick of her wrist. "Crumbs," she explained with a deadpan expression, and walked on past him to her seat.


 

For once, the entire Science Ninja Team watched in silence, completely lost for words as the mecha slowly filled the Phoenix's forward screens. "Well," Ryu said at last, "I guess my dad was right. When you're the biggest sonofabitch in the entire valley, it doesn't matter if you're ugly as sin."

"Ryu!" Jun said with mock severity, cuffing him above his ear. Valiantly suppressing his own laughter, Ken almost lost it when he heard Joe's strangled snort from behind him.

"Looks like they started to build one thing and changed their minds in the middle," Jinpei said.

"Yeah, or maybe they had a front end here and a back end somewhere else, and somebody said, you know..."

"Why all those long squiggly things?"

"You got me. Maybe they had a closet full of 'em left over from the last sale."

Ken sat in a self imposed cone of silence, letting the banter and laughter flow around him as he concentrated on the approaching mech. It was massive all right, easily the biggest he'd ever seen by some margin, the size of a small floating city. And it was truly ugly - these things usually resembled some kind of bird, animal, insect or mythological beast, but he was at a complete loss to come up with an earthbound equivalent to this one. If there were creatures that looked like this where Sosai X came from, he didn't ever want to meet one.

A smile quirked at his mouth as he pictured himself sitting at his desk after they'd destroyed it, chewing the end off his lightpen as he tried over and over again to figure out how to write down what this thing actually looked like. "Gruesome hunk of junk" just wasn't going to cut it on an official report, no matter how accurate a description it was.

"Ryu," he said, "Take us once around the park. Don't get too close."

"Tell that to them," Ryu said pointedly, nodding at the squadrons of UN fighters that were fruitlessly engaging the mecha.

Ken glanced up at Joe, standing behind his chair. He could feel the tension radiating off his second as they watched the UN jets playing a self-destructive game of chicken with the huge metal beast. It had been five years since this whole thing had begun, three of them spent in almost continuous warfare, and they still couldn't suppress that sick, helpless feeling when they saw their own side mown down in such a cold, efficient, effortless way. The UN pilots were giving it their all, but they were having about as much effect as a cloud of gnats dive-bombing a lethally armed elephant.

But he couldn't think about that now - he had a job to do if he was going to prevent still more of them dying. Ken forced himself to focus, studying the way the mecha moved, letting it reveal its weaknesses. Its long, blocky body seemed to be composed of roughly triangular scales, making it look like a great bloated pineapple with swollen hips, supported on six gargantuan columns. At one end, a long, dinosaur-like tail whipped back and forth, ending in a massive, spiked club the size of the entire ISO complex in Utoland City. It occurred to Ken as he watched that the sheer power it took to keep this behemoth in the air for five minutes would have kept the lights on in that town for months. And yet it gave off no discernible radiation.

Galactor technology, infused as it was with the twisted genius of a civilization far in advance of their own, was something they still tried desperately to combat, let alone equal. One day, Ken knew, Nambu hoped to turn the knowledge he gained from these beasts of doom and destruction and use it to make the world a better place. What was left of it.

Katse's mask, distorted through the waves, that voice laughing maniacally as he pushed him down...down...

Not now, not now! Ken blinked away the image, squaring his shoulders against the line of cold sweat that had broken out across them. The damned nightmare was hanging on with the tenacity of a drug flashback, but he had no time to worry about it right now. Probably had something to do with all the alcohol he had consumed the previous night. "Harmless fruit drink my ass," he muttered under his breath, flicking a baleful glance at Joe's reflection in the cockpit shields.

He stared determinedly back at the mecha. If the back end loosely resembled a dinosaur, the front end of it was an octopus - twelve spherical heads, each mounted at the end of a long, flexible, snake-like neck. As the monster sailed blithely forward through the attacking squadrons of jets, now and again one or more of the heads would suddenly whip into motion - seemingly able to articulate freely in any direction, slamming out bolt after bolt of bright energy to knock the fighters out of the air. Ken watched the pattern, letting himself become absorbed in the mechanical dance, the way the mecha heads moved.

He felt Joe's curious eyes on him as he abruptly leaned forward, frowning. "Jun, run a scan and tell me where the command center is."

Jun's hands flew over her console. After a moment her frown was deeper than Ken's own. "Scan is negative."

"Backups?"

"Also negative. Either they're jamming our sensors or they've got new shielding we can't penetrate."

"Ken?" There was an edge of impatience in Joe's question.

"Watch the response pattern. Tell me what you see."

It only took him a moment. "They're moving independently."

Ken nodded tightly. He reached over and hit the com switch.

Nambu's face on the vidscreen looked drawn and pinched, as if he hadn't been slept for at least a couple of nights. Knowing the workaholic tendencies of his boss, Ken could believe it. "Hakase, we've got a problem here. Have you seen this thing up close?"

Nambu nodded. "We've been monitoring the satellite feed for an hour now."

"There are twelve heads, any one of which could be the command center...but all of them are operating independently. I've seen five attack at the same time, in completely different directions."

He almost smiled at the spark of interest in Nambu's tired eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Feeding it to you now," Jun said from behind Ken, anticipating her commander's request.

There was a moment while Nambu watched the uplink monitor. "Ken, this is amazing. Send me the data feed. I have to know how they're doing this! The applications..."

"Nothing would make me happier - but the mecha's blocking our sensors. We don't know how, yet."

"Then you'll have to do it from on board," Nambu insisted. "You know how important something like this could be for us, Ken. Learning how to build and use their technology is the only way we're ever going to beat them."

From the corner of his eye Ken saw a piece of that unfathomable technology tighten on the back of his chair - Joe's cybernetic fist. Funny, he'd heard that mantra of Nambu's for years, but all of a sudden it had a much more insidious, personal meaning.

He could imagine all too well what his gunner was thinking right now, but he didn't dare turn round to look at him. This was the very worst moment he could possibly choose to draw attention to Joe, and he knew it.

"Ken," Nambu was saying, "You don't have any time to waste. At its present rate of speed, the mecha will reach its target in less than one hour."

"Roger," Ken said quietly, signing off. If it didn't change its current course, the mecha was headed straight for one of the most populated cities in the world, New Jork.

"Ken," Jun protested, "We don't have time to search twelve heads for the command center, and we can't find it from outside without our sensors!"

Ken stood up, staring down the mechanical monster resolutely. "Then we'll locate it from the inside," he said. "Find me a way to get on board that thing."


 

"ISO warship Phoenix calling UN squadron Bravo Delta Seven Niner, over."

Ken listened as Ryu hailed the UN fighter squadron. The Phoenix sped down the side of the mecha's body, preparing to bank right to clear the immense length of the metal beast's tail.

"Phoenix, Seven Niner reading you five by, go ahead, over."

Ken recognized the voice. This was good news - the UN fighters were being commanded by a man he had flown alongside before. He keyed his com mike. "Captain, you remember the last time we met?"

"Sure do, Commander." There was obvious relish in the UN pilot's response. Attacking Galactor mechas was a brutal, often suicidal job - but when you flew with the Phoenix, the payoff made it all worthwhile. The arrival of the ISO's most famous warship on the scene usually meant one thing...victory.

Ken watched the tail of the mecha begin to respond to their presence, slowly lifting up above the level of its back and swiveling in their direction. "Then you know what I'm going to ask you to do."

There wasn't a second's hesitation. "Roger, Commander. Seven Niner is at your disposal. We will deploy on your signal."

Ken braced himself as Ryu banked hard, standing the Phoenix on her left wing. Above them the tail of the mecha gathered itself like a rattlesnake poised to strike. "Thank you, Captain. Good luck."

"Same to you and your team, Commander."

"Roger. Phoenix out."

"Hold on," Ryu warned sharply. The Phoenix scythed sideways in a stomach-lurching diagonal slip, taking cover under the body of the mecha just in time. The vast spiked club at the end of its tail hurtled down in a heart stopping arc, smashing through the airspace where the warship had been. The Phoenix's wings rocked sharply with the shockwave of its passing.

"Well," Joe said drily, "I think they know we're here."

Ken glanced around at his team. "Then we won't disappoint them," he said.

He felt uncharacteristically tense as he rode up in the lift tube with Joe, Jun and Jinpei. The roof hatch irised open and they were boosted clear of the fuselage, protected only by the Phoenix's clear top bubble. From fifty three thousand feet up, the view of the ocean below was breathtaking, hardly a cloud in sight to mar the endless stretch of glittering sun-kissed blue.

Ken stared down at the waves as the warship wheeled about, arcing up to skim along the back of the mecha. Their target was a lone hatchway embedded in the deck plating just behind the sprouting of the first massive neck.

Three UN fighters roared overhead, preparing to engage the tail section to cover the Science Ninja Team's ingress. The team pressed a code on their bracelets that caused narrow breathing tubes to extend down from the insides of their helmets. Not much oxygen this high up.

"Stand by," Ryu's voice crackled in their headphones. "On five, counting down."

Falling...wind shrieking past his ears...wings whipping out behind him in useless shreds of red and white...

Ken couldn't take his eyes off the ocean, ten miles straight down.

"Five...four..."

"Ken!" Joe's voice was sharp in his ears. He jerked, head coming up to meet his gunner's hard, searching stare.

"Three..."

Ken looked away, fumbling obsessively at his wings with his gloved hands.

"Two...one!"

The team gripped each other's hands in a four pointed star. The bubble split in two and folded back, and for a moment all there was, was the howling of the wind. Then the Phoenix slipped sideways from underneath them as they sprang into midair.

Wings snapped out straight from their shoulders as they spun like a white, blue and gold pinwheel, spiraling down with knife-edge precision to land on the mecha's back just short of the target. The Phoenix was already above them, climbing in a wide arc, laying a thick cloud of cover smoke between them and the mecha's surveillance cameras. Ken watched Ryu play a skilful dodging game among the mecha heads, drawing their attention away, knowing they couldn't shoot if they risked hitting each other.

Jun planted charges along the lip of the hatchway, nodded and motioned them back out of range. They dug in tight against the broad metal scales and waited, wings wrapped around each other in layers of protection.

The compact, powerful explosion sent hard tremors through the deck plating under their feet. Joe was the first back to the site, checking the gaping hole now left in the mecha where the hatch used to be. He drew his cable gun and leaned down into the fuselage cautiously.

A moment later he was waving them forward. Jun and Jinpei responded, springing down gracefully into the interior of the mech. Joe glanced up, looking for his commander.

Ken was standing up on the back of the beast, staring at the ocean. He jumped as Joe grabbed his arm. "What the hell is wrong with you?" the Sicilian hissed.

"Nothing. Let's get moving." Ken whirled around in a flash of white wings and disappeared into the mecha after Jun and Jinpei.

Joe frowned, but all he could do was turn and follow.


 

The interior layout of the mecha was like nothing they had ever encountered before - a vast tangle of tunnel-like corridors, snaking out in all directions like a heap of discarded spaghetti. Ken swore under his breath, realizing that they would very quickly become unable to find their way out again if they didn't leave a homer behind at the ingress point. Unfortunately, if they could find it, it doubled the chances of the Galactors finding it, too.

Damned if you do... He gave Jinpei a tight nod and the Swallow pulled a microminiaturized homing device from his pack, concealing it under the torn lip of the entry hole. They finished the job by stretching a layer of specially developed camouflaging film over the hole, smoothing down the edges swiftly. It wasn't perfect, but its reflective effect helped fool the casual eye, hiding the damage from all but close quarter inspection.

That done, Ken glanced over at Jun, crouched down at the other side of the corridor. She was staring intently at the display on her wafer thin, calculator-sized scanning unit. Feeling her commander's eyes on her, she slowly shook her head. "I can't get a clear reading on anything further than a hundred yards. Look at all this ghosting."

Ken stepped across the corridor and crouched down behind her, watching the display as it shimmered and sparked, images doubling and tripling on themselves. "Can you clear the signal?"

Jun shook her head, teeth set in her lower lip. "Nothing works. Whatever they're using, it's blocking us completely."

Ken straightened up. That uncharacteristic tension was back in his muscles...or maybe it had never really left. "Okay, we'll have to do this the hard way. We have two jobs here - find the control center and download the data Hakase needs, and blow this hunk of junk into the next life. Jinpei and I are team one, Jun, Joe, you're team two. Any questions?"

Silence. "All right, then. No communication unless absolutely necessary. Let's go!"

The Science Ninja Team whipped up their arms to their chests in a silent salute, then broke away at a dead run down the corridor.


Ken and Jinpei found the bottom of the first mecha neck after fifteen minutes of solid running and hiding from passing green-garbed enemy troops. "Shimatta," Ken swore under his breath. "It's a turbo shaft."

"One way up, one way down." Jinpei ran up to it as Ken circled protectively. The Swallow checked the tube over carefully. "No emergency exit. If something goes wrong up there and this isn't working..."

His expression told the rest. Ken nodded - he'd feared as much. "No choice, then," he said softly, meeting Jinpei's eyes. "You know there's no way they won't see us coming."

Jinpei grinned. "Don't sweat it, aniki. I'll protect you."

Ken resisted the urge to noogie the kid's helmet. He reached out with one blue gloved hand and called the turbolift.

They heard the booted footsteps approaching a split second later. Jinpei's eyes went wide with alarm. There was nowhere to go, no place to hide.

Ken jabbed uselessly at the lift button again, knowing it wouldn't help, but unable to help himself. The footsteps were rapidly coming closer...six men at least, judging from the sound.

He glanced over his shoulder. Still no elevator.

The shadows of the leading Galactor guards began to fall across the opening of the intersecting corridor. Ken instinctively stepped in front of Jinpei, gathering himself to fight.

He almost yelped in surprise as he felt himself yanked back by his wings. He swiveled, coming up on the balls of his feet, ready to strike - and saw Jinpei jumping inside the opening turbolift doors.

Ken dived headlong through them after him, tucking and rolling as he hit the floor inside the lift. Jinpei had the doors closing again already, and Ken held his breath.

The doors thunked shut. Jinpei grinned, giving a pleased thumbs up. The guards hadn't seen them.

Ken let his head fall forward for a minute as the turbolift rocketed upward, exhaling in relief. Six or more guards weren't even a hiccup in his plans - he could have dispatched them by himself almost without breaking a sweat. His fear had been that one of them would raise the alarm before he could prevent it. And with the turbolifts locked off and the mecha alerted to the Kagaku Ninja Tai's presence inside, completing their mission successfully would have rapidly become very difficult indeed.

At least this way they had bought a few more minutes.

He wondered how Joe and Jun were doing. He hoped they hadn't gotten lost.


 

"Shit," Joe hissed for the seventh time. "We're lost."

Jun rolled her eyes. "What is that, your new mantra?" she asked.

Joe glared at her. His eyes fell on the wall behind her and he marched forward, slapping his hand against it. "Hah, see?"

"Uh huh. It's a wall." Jun folded her arms.

"Not just any wall. See this mark? This is a wall we've been past three times in the last ten minutes."

"Joe, that's a scuff mark. They're all over the place. And how can we be going round in circles when we're going downhill all the time? What do you think this is, a spiral staircase?"

How do you know we're going downhill all the time?" he demanded.

She sighed, fishing inside her pouch and taking out a small charge the size of a marble. She placed it on the floor and it slowly began to roll forward, picking up speed. "Viola."

Joe's eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth to respond, but then his head suddenly jerked up and around. Jun recognized the momentarily blank look in his eyes - he was listening to something she couldn't hear. Then he was waving her backwards. She scooped up the charge from the floor and raced with him to the last intersection they had passed, flattening beside him against the wall.

She heard it a moment later - Galactor troopers approaching. Three, maybe four? She signed to Joe.

He nodded. The footsteps grew closer. Jun could feel the tension ramp up in the Condor's body. Stay here, he signed to her.

She frowned.

He was gone in a blur of motion, swinging into the corridor, shuriken flying before the guards ever saw what was coming at them. A vicious spinning back kick took out the first guard, his neck broken instantly. Joe's hands clamped down hard on the rifle barrel that scythed toward him, hauling the second Galactor completely off his feet and flinging him like a rag doll into the side of the corridor. He spun back with dizzying speed...but the other two were already dead, the feathered instruments of their demise jutting from their bloodstreaked necks.

When Jun stepped up a moment later, he was hauling the one he had thrown against the wall - the only one left alive - to his feet. She wrinkled her nose, realizing that the man was so terrified at being this close to the living legend of the Condor that he had literally peed his pants.

Joe smiled his best crocodile smile, pinning the Galactor against the wall. "Now you're going to take us on a little guided tour, okay?"

The man nodded quickly, eyes huge in his dead white face.

Joe patted his shoulder encouragingly. "That's good. Now where's the power plant for this big hunk of ugly?"

Jun grinned as they moved off down the corridor. "Real men do ask for directions, huh?"

Joe rolled his eyes.


 

The turbolift sighed to a halt. The Eagle and the Swallow glanced at each other. Ken nodded tightly. Jinpei squared his shoulders.

The doors began to open.

Used to the sound of the turbolift, the twenty or so Galactors in the room beyond didn't react unduly when they heard it arrive. One of the rearmost guards did glance down, puzzled, as he heard the sound of something rolling across the metal deck plating.

"Grenade!"

Green suited bodies scattered in all directions as the explosion flared hot and bright, shockwaves throwing them to the ground. Before the smoke cleared, the Eagle and the Swallow were among them.

It was a short skirmish. Ken mowed through the enemy like a hot knife through butter, a one man invasion force too fast for them to evade, too powerful for them to stop. As they had prearranged in the turbolift, Jinpei left the fighting to his commander, heading for the semi-circular console near the forward viewscreen. He scanned the instruments quickly, frowned. Glanced over his shoulder at Ken.

The Eagle had reduced the field to two opponents by now, the ones that the grenade didn't kill falling swift victims to the deadly precision of hands and feet. He kicked the second to last in the chest, hearing ribs splinter from the sheer force of the blow. The man hung there for a moment, gasping his last, then crumpled slowly to the deck. Ken hardly even looked to see the location of the last Galactor. His hand shot backward in a vicious scything chop that connected with fatal accuracy, crushing the man's throat like an eggshell.

His eyes searched past the Galactor's swaying form for Jinpei. The Swallow shook his head.

One down.


 

Joe and Jun crouched in the shadows on the high catwalk, surveying the vast power plant that stretched out below them as far as they could see in either direction. There was minimal activity around the machinery, which meant the alarm had obviously not been raised yet. Both of them silently hoped that boded well for Ken and Jinpei's progress.

Thirty minutes, Jun signed.

Joe nodded. We'd better get moving.

Jun pulled charges from her pouch and handed them to him, indicating with quick jabs of her white gloved hand where she wanted him to place them. They stood up together close to the railing, waiting for the optimum moment. Then Jun flashed a smile that said good luck, be careful, and don't screw up all at once, swung her body into a precise gymnast's handstand on the top railing and then released her grip, tumbling into the air. Joe grinned, drawing his gun to cover her, watching her wings spread as she sailed in a tight, achingly graceful spiral toward the lower deck. Only when she was safely down and flitting like a pale ghost into the shadows did he holster his weapon again and vault over the rails to join her.


 

Number three, for once, turned out to be the charm.

As the turbolift doors hissed open, both Ken and Jinpei could see instantly that the interior of this mecha head had several major differences to the last two they had invaded. Not the least of which was the presence of a tall, blonde, purple suited figure at the center console, her back to him.

Gel Sadra.

Ken's grin was more like a tiger baring its teeth.

He threw a flurry of signaled commands to Jinpei, and then the guards at the rear of the group were turning as the grenades rolled. "Gatchaman!" one of them shouted, and Gel Sadra whirled toward them, golden hair flying.

A hail of machine gun fire carved chunks from the turbolift doors and the walls on either side, but the Eagle and the Swallow were already in the air. They sailed in opposite directions, too fast to follow, splitting the target. The grenades exploded in a roar of light and flying shrapnel, and for a while no one could see anything through the smoke and the tangle of falling men. White leathers spattered crimson with Galactor blood, Ken heaved green suited bodies aside, carving a path through the enemy toward Gel Sadra.

She shouted something, pointing imperiously with one long white gloved hand. Ten Galactor soldiers, probably her personal guard from their size and speed, swung en masse toward the Eagle. Ken cursed under his breath, trying to keep an eye on her as he launched himself at his attackers.

Jinpei fought his way through to the console, ducking flying body parts as the grenades went off behind him. Doing his best to shut out the struggle and concentrate, he pulled electronic equipment from his pack and swiftly scanned the control panels. The console had been splattered with blood and damaged by gunfire, and there were blackened areas from small wiring fires, but the particular components he needed seemed to still be functional. In seconds he was all plugged up and ready to begin downloading data. He reached down to hit the start button...and was hauled backwards into the air by the scruff of his neck.

"Oh, no you don't, you little thief," Gel Sadra said, closing the fingers of one hand around the Swallow's throat.

Ken had killed five of the ten Galactor guards when he heard Jinpei's surprised yelp. Rage crossed his face as he saw Gel Sadra lift the Swallow up off the ground. He whipped out the birdrang, snapping the blades open. "Gel Sadra!" he shouted, and the steel flashed as it hurtled like a heat seeking missile toward its target.

Just at that moment a Galactor soldier picked himself up off the floor right in front of his leader. The birdrang sliced cleanly through his neck, the man standing there for a moment with a surprised expression on his face, as if he hadn't quite realized what had happened. Then his body toppled forward to the floor, the head rolling clear, arterial blood pumping into the sticky dark mass already spreading across the deck plating.

Ken cursed, catching the birdrang on its return. The soldier's unfortunate timing - both for himself and for Ken - had deflected the deadly weapon's aim just enough for it to miss Gel Sadra completely.

Gel Sadra. Where the hell...?

Jinpei was on the floor, struggling to get back up, but the Galactor leader was nowhere in sight. Ken whirled around, just in time to see her purple suited figure disappearing into the turbolift. He would never reach it in time.

Yelling in rage and frustration, he whipped the birdrang after her with such force it embedded itself three inches into the steel of the closing turbolift door. He swore he heard her laughing at him as the lift shot downward.

She had taken the guards with her. He and Jinpei were left alone in the command center.

It didn't matter, because they were trapped. One way up, one way down.

Ken fought off the sick feeling of failure. The game wasn't over yet. He still had an ace in the hole...or rather, the power plant.

He ran to Jinpei, who was up on his feet now, shaking his head a little. "Are you all right?"

Jinpei nodded. "I'm okay."

Concerned at the slightly glazed look in the boy's eyes, Ken frowned. "Sure?" You'll pay for those bruises on his neck, Gel Sadra, he promised to himself. I'll make you pay for every single one.

"Sure. I need to initiate the download, aniki...she got me before I could get it started."

Ken nodded, standing aside as Jinpei worked to reconnect the leads that had been torn loose when Gel Sadra attacked him. "So we're stuck up here, huh," the Swallow said lightly, making it a statement, not a question.

Ken's mouth set in a thin line. "That's what they think."

Jinpei glanced up at him, grinning. "Joe," he said.

"Uh huh." Ken remembered his birdrang and crossed the control room to retrieve it. He pulled it loose from the turbolift door and raised his wrist to call the rest of the team.

The flash of light was blinding. Ken whipped around, staring in horror as Jinpei was caught by a sizzling bolt of electricity, a grip so powerful it bent his body back in a bone breaking arc. The smell of burning flesh heaved at Ken's stomach. Jinpei was frozen, mouth open in a soundless scream, unable to move, unable to let go.

He was going to die. Ken was already moving, doing the only thing he could think of to do. He launched himself full force at the Swallow, flying through the air, body slamming into the boy with such force that he knocked him clear of the live panel that had been holding him in place. They tumbled to the floor in a heap, Ken rolling to his feet and scrambling over to cradle Jinpei in his arms.

He wasn't breathing.

Ken pushed down the panic, blinking away the vision of Jun's accusing eyes. How could you let this happen to him... He started CPR. Get his helmet off. Clear the airway, ventilate, check the pulse. Start compressions. Count to fifteen, check the pulse again, ventilate. Come on, Jinpei, breathe. Start compressions again, check the pulse, ventilate... Jinpei, don't do this to me...

Without warning, Jinpei's body convulsed and his lungs suddenly inflated. Shaky with relief, blinking the sweat out of his eyes, Ken sat back. "Jinpei, can you hear me? Jinpei?"

Nothing. The Swallow was breathing but he remained unconscious, pulse weak and thready. Ken raised his wrist, about to give the code that the team feared above all others, the one that none of them ever wanted to hear. "This is G1. I have a Code G6. Repeat, Code G6."


 

Joe and Jun had just finished setting the charges in the power plant when their bracelets both chirped in unison. Their blood ran cold as they heard the Eagle's voice. Code G6...

After they had thought Joe lost at Cross Karakoram, and they had lived through the debacle of Galactor's infiltration of the team by the spy pretending to be Getz, the Hawk - Joe's replacement - they had all sworn that they would never, ever again permit another addition to their number. There would never be a G6 for the Kagaku Ninja Tai. And so the term "G6" had come to be used as their code for the only circumstance that could possibly mean a change for them...it meant one of their own was down, injured - or maybe even dead.

"Jinpei!" Jun whispered, her hand clamping down on Joe's arm hard enough to bruise the skin. All the color drained out of her face, leaving it pinched and white.

"Where are you?" Joe demanded into his bracelet mike.

"We're trapped in the control center, top of neck number three. You should find it pretty easily...they know we're here and they'll be waiting at the bottom to stop you."

"Let them try," Joe growled. "Hold on. We're coming to get you."

It didn't occur to him until he was racing for the exit, the Swan in his wake, that he hadn't asked Jinpei's condition. He realized he was afraid of the answer, afraid above all of the look he would see in Jun's eyes. If Jinpei died...the boy she had protected and risked everything for as a runaway orphan, the boy she'd practically raised from a toddler, the boy she thought of as her little brother...

He shuddered and kept running.

And then, just as he had thought things couldn't get any worse, the air filled with the strident sound of alarms.

Kuso, he thought. Now we're in for it.


 

As if they had heard his thoughts, the curved white corridors of the mech were suddenly filled with soldiers in green. Joe and Jun fought their way through, working for every yard they gained, caution thrown to the winds now as wave after wave of Galactors came at them. The sheer numbers were staggering - in a mech this size they probably had four or five times the enemy troops they were used to dealing with, especially when it was just the two of them against the world like this with no hope of relief.

Only Jun's rapidly dwindling explosive charges and Joe's unrelenting cyborg strength kept them on the winning side of the equation.

But slowly and inexorably, the sheer overwhelming size of the opposing force began to tell. Heading toward exhaustion, slipping on the gore and slime that covered the corridor floor, Jun spun to face yet another opponent and her stomach lurched at the look on the Galactor's face. He knew they were beaten. He could see and feel the press of green-suited men behind him, more coming in every second. Even if she took him out, it was only a matter of time.

Jun stared at Joe, his birdstyle black with blood, visor spattered with it. She knew she must look the same. We're never going to get through...we're never going to make it... Oh, Jinpei, I'm so sorry...

For a moment something shifted in Joe's expression as he met her gaze...but then he shrugged, mouth quirking in a hot, hard smile. Fuck 'em, his eyes said. I'm not going down. It's not my day to die.

And as if on cue, the whole mech shook itself violently like a dog covered in water.

The deep rumble of the explosion reached them seconds later. The deck heaved up in front of their eyes, cracking open down the middle like a crevasse in snow. The screams of others ringing in her ears, Jun felt the floor disappear under her, then a sharp jolt all the way through her arm to her shoulder. She managed to get her head up, seeing that Joe was clinging to the edge of the deck with one hand and had her wrist in a vise-like grip with the other.

She looked down. The mecha had split all the way through to the sky, as if they'd collided with a giant can opener. She could see bodies still falling, hundreds of them, some of them bouncing off the jagged edges in sprays of blood.

Then Joe grunted above her, swinging her back and forth to pick up momentum. She realized what he was doing and got ready. Seconds later he flung her upwards and her wings snapped out as she turned in mid air, landing beside where he still hung from the broken edge of the deck.

Another explosion shuddered through the mech, throwing it upward and sideways. Jun threw herself face down on the floor, grabbing Joe's wrist in both hands and gripping it with everything she had. Hold on hold on hold on...

After what seemed like an eternity, the shaking stopped again. She could still hear screams and shouts, hear the crackling of fires breaking out. She concentrated on helping Joe get back up to the deck. "Are you all right?"

He gave her that feral grin again. "As usual, Juney, your timing was perfect."

She smiled back, knowing he was referring to the charges they'd set in the power plant, the charges responsible for all this destruction. "Not on purpose, wise guy."

"All the same." Joe gestured down the corridor. "Come on. We've got to find Ken."

He didn't dare say Jinpei's name.


 

The first explosion threw Ken to his knees. The entire mecha reared up in the air, the control room rocking and rolling as if in the grip of a 7.0 earthquake. The floor slanted crazily and he tumbled into a computer console, helmeted head smacking against the metal with a force that made his ears ring.

Jinpei. Ken scrambled forward and covered the boy's body protectively, freezing in place until the shaking stopped. He knew what this must mean - Jun's bombs had detonated. The mecha was dying.

He had to get Jinpei out of there. Ken dragged himself to his feet and ran to the viewports, stretching around three quarters of the mecha head's diameter. He searched the sky for the sleek blue and red shape of his warship. "G5 from G1, do you read me, over..."

No answer. Ken swore as he remembered the shielding problem, realizing that however the mecha was blocking their signals, it was also preventing their bracelet communication from penetrating the walls. He stared at the Phoenix, circling just out of range of the mecha's deadly laser armature. Black frustration curled in the pit of his stomach. So near and yet so far.

The second explosion threw the mecha head drunkenly to one side, hurling Ken through the air as the floor suddenly became a vertical wall. He twisted like lightning in midair, booted feet slamming into the metal with an impact that jarred every bone in his body all the way to his teeth. Not that he was complaining. Without his training, he would have hit the deck plating broadside and snapped his ribs.

He swung around, hunting frantically for Jinpei, finding him wedged in between two computer consoles and relatively unharmed. Ken dropped and gathered the boy protectively into his arms, pushing his back against the nearest console, bracing for the metal monster's next move.

The mecha head had rocked back to rest with the floor on a thirty degree slant, forward shields down. Ahead of him, through the wide viewports, the ocean glittered in the sun.

Ten miles straight down.


 

"Here it is! This is number three!" Jun put on a last burst of speed as they approached the turbolift.

She stopped a couple of feet short of it and bent over double, hands on her thighs as she gasped for breath. The stitch in her side was agonizing. "Just...give me...a minute..."

His own chest heaving from exertion, Joe stepped up to the lift doors. The panel lights were out...locked off somewhere. No time to try to figure it out. He drew the cable gun, quickly attached the drill implement and drilled a hole in the metal between the two halves of the door. "Juney, give me one of those lipstick bombs."

Jun straightened up slowly, wiping sweat from her forehead up under her visor. She unzipped a pouch and handed over one of the special shaped charges. "I've only got two left, so make it count."

"Don't I always?" Joe pushed the lipstick bomb into the hole and waved her back. They slipped around the corner and waited.

The charge exploded in a bright flash of light and a shower of metal fragments. The Condor ran to check his handiwork. The doors were half gone, plenty of room to squeeze through into the interior.

Only the turbolift wasn't there.

He held on to the blasted edge of one door and leaned in, tilting his head to look straight up the shaft. The elevator was clearly visible to his enhanced vision, sitting at the top.

But Ken had said he was trapped. This wasn't making sense.

It hit him a second later. They'd left the Eagle in the control center and locked off the elevator, thinking they had him on ice and could just keep him there until they figured out what to do with him.

But when the mecha began exploding, they'd gone back up there after him.

Oh, shit.

Joe grabbed the maintenance ladder in both hands and started climbing.


 

"A...aniki...?"

Jinpei's quavering voice was the sweetest sound Ken had heard in a long time. He wrenched his eyes away from the hypnotizing blue-green expanse of ocean below them and looked down at the Swallow. "Shhh, Jinpei, I've got you. You're going to be okay."

"What...happened...?"

Ken managed to produce a smile from somewhere. "You know how I always told you to turn off the power before you stick your screwdriver in the slot?"

Jinpei laughed, the weak sound immediately turning into a chest wracking cough. "Shhh," Ken said, trying to keep his voice calm and soothing. "Just breathe."

A deep groan shuddered through the mecha's skin. Ken squeezed his eyes shut momentarily, fighting down panic.

"Ken..."

The alarm in the Swallow's low whisper snapped Ken back to awareness. Outlined clearly in reflection in the viewscreen, he could see the doors to the turbolift were open again. And coming out of the interior were at least twenty five green-suited Galactors. He recognized some of them as Gel Sadra's guard, noting that they were all heavily armed.

Pulse rifles. They weren't taking any chances this time.

Ken reached deep down into that interior place, that place that years of training had taught him he could go to if he really needed to, that place where his fear and nerves disappeared and he became as cool and emotionless as an arctic river. Feeling the icy wave wash over him, he slipped out from underneath Jinpei, wedging the boy securely out of sight in the gap between the two consoles. He stared down at the youngest member of his team, of his family, wondering if this would be the last time they saw each other in this life.

Stay here, he signed. I'll be back.

He knew even as he transmitted the words that he was lying.

Then he was gone, slipping like a wraith along the line of the console, hard eyes on the Galactors' reflections. Putting distance between himself and Jinpei. His final act as the Swallow's commander would be to draw the enemy as far away from his position as possible.

The Galactor troops were standing in a clump right outside the turbolift, surveying the control center, hesitating at the steep angle of the deck. The sharp expanding ripple of another explosion somewhere down in the mecha's interior tilted the room to the left, the horizon swinging drunkenly past the viewscreens. In the shouting and confusion as the guards hung on to whatever they could find, no one saw the bright flash of steel.

The birdrang was back in Ken's hand before the Galactors realized that four of them were dead.

The Eagle ducked, covering his head instinctively as the remaining troopers cut loose with their pulse rifles. The solid whomp whomp of plasma explosions went on for what felt like minutes, blowing gaping holes in the deck and the computer consoles. Ears ringing from the blasts, Ken scrambled along the line of his cover, reaching an edge where he could peer around to see what was happening. The Galactors were firing at random, fear stark on their faces, as if frying everything in their path could keep the White Shadow at bay.

They had another think coming. Ken let loose the birdrang again, watching it slice cleanly through three more throats before returning to him, blades bright with blood.

But this time they knew where he was. Ken jumped straight up as the pulse rifles fired, turning his hiding place into metal confetti. He flipped over high in midair, snapping his wings straight out, hurling the birdrang once again. Rifle blasts tore holes in the floor as he landed, but he was already in motion again, handspringing backwards behind the cover of another console. Rolling out of the way, jagged pieces of metal flying in all directions from the place he disappeared to.

He fetched up in a corner, hard against a support pillar and a high metal databank. There was nowhere to go, and he could hear the sounds of booted feet approaching.

One direct hit from a pulse rifle and he was dead. The ice rippled through his veins and he smiled. At least he could take a few more of them with him.

He braced himself for one final leap into the air.

And paused as he heard a rifle fire again, but the energy blasts came nowhere near him. Heard yells of surprise. What the hell...?

He scrambled backwards in shock as a Galactor soldier came flying over the console in front of him to land face down, halfway across his legs. He kicked the man away, rolling him over as he did so. Half his chest was blown away.

Joe. It had to be. The rush of relief made Ken's muscles turn momentarily to water.

Then he was scrambling to the blasted edge of the console and peering around. He was greeted by the best sight he had seen in months - the Condor standing there, shuriken hanging out of one side of a shit-eating grin, a pulse rifle in each hand, one dark boot grinding the chest of a fallen Galactor into the deck plates. Dead green suited troopers like a pile of firewood around his feet.

"You want to get out of here, or are you having too much fun?" Joe inquired, seeing the white helmet poke out into view.

Ken picked himself up, shaking his head. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded, unable to keep a wide smile from tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Took you long enough to get here."

"We were a little busy." Joe gestured with his rifle back toward the turbolift, where the Swan's white gloves had just appeared through the lower service hatch in the floor.

Jun pulled herself into view, swinging gracefully to her feet. "Aw, Joe, you didn't save any for me," she said reproachfully.

"You know how he gets," Ken said. "He sees one green uniform and he just loses all control."

Jun's eyes were momentarily bright as they found him, a sheen of relief that he was standing in front of her, unharmed. Then she said, "Ken, where's Jinpei?"

Moments later they were crouching over him. "Onechan," he whispered weakly.

Jun wrapped him in her arms, swallowing hard around the lump in her throat. Thank you, her eyes said to Ken. Thank you for keeping him safe.

"We've got to get out of here," Ken said. "This mech's going nowhere but down. We can't hail Ryu because the signal can't penetrate the shielding - I know, I've tried."

"Uh, Ken..."

He glanced sharply over at the Condor's tone of voice. Joe was staring at the console dead ahead of him, at a large flashing red light on a very familiar panel.

Oh, fuck, Ken thought. Someone's triggered the self destruct code.

More likely something - with all the shooting and mayhem, it was probably the result of a shorted wire. Not that it mattered...this mecha head was going up in less than five minutes and they'd be going with it unless they got out now.

Ken moved Jun aside, picked up Jinpei in his arms and led the way toward the turbolift.

And stopped as more green suited Galactors armed with rifles began to appear through the service hatch.

Ken and Joe stared at each other for a brief moment. Then Joe tossed one of the pulse rifles he was still holding to his commander, bringing up the other one and opening fire at the turbolift. Thinking quickly, Ken shoved Jinpei into Jun's arms. "Hang on!" he shouted above the whomp whomp of Joe's covering fire.

Then he swung around and fired his rifle at the outer skin of the mecha head.

The air shrieked out of the gaping hole the energy beam left. Bracing himself against the drag of the wind, Ken fired again, widening the opening. He grabbed Jun by the shoulders. "Get him out of here!" he ordered. "We'll hold them off."

"Ken, no!" Her eyes were wide with horror at the thought of leaving them there.

"You've got to, Juney, you've got to get Jinpei to safety," Ken insisted, pushing her towards the hole. "Call Ryu as soon as you're clear...he'll have plenty of time to get underneath you and pick you up."

She was still shaking her head. He had her backed right up against the opening now. "Go, Jun. We'll be right behind you, I promise."

"Ken..."

Without warning he shoved her backwards, hard. Unable to regain her balance with Jinpei in her arms, she fell through the hole in the mecha wall.

He stepped up to the opening, watching anxiously, relieved to see her wings snap out as she righted herself. Jinpei's arms went around her neck and her arm came up as she hailed the Phoenix.

She's going to kill me, Ken thought, but at least she'll still be alive to do it. He turned back into the room. "They're clear!" he told his second.

Joe nodded. "Wanna give me a hand here, or am I doing the rest of this job by myself, too?"

Ken grinned, swinging up the rifle and helping him finish off the last of the invading green suited troops. "Okay," he said when it was finally over. "Time to go."

Joe followed him to the opening. Ken put both hands on the sides of the hole, prepared to jump - and froze.

Ten miles, straight down.

"Ken?" Joe asked, concern edging his voice.

Ken couldn't answer him. He couldn't move.

Falling, wings in shreds, whipping out behind him in useless ribbons the color of blood on snow...

"Ken!" Joe was shouting in his ear. "We have to go, now!"

It wasn't his father any more, it was Berg Katse, roaring maniacally as he pushed him deeper, further and further under the dark green waves until he couldn't see the light anymore...

Ten miles, straight down.

And then the whole world went white.


 

Ryu's head whipped around as Jun came down in the lift tube, Jinpei in her arms. "Is he all right?"

"I think so. I have to check him over," Jun said. She came forward, setting the Swallow down in his chair and moving to stand behind Ryu. "Do you see them yet?"

Ryu shook his head.

The mecha was disintegrating in front of their eyes, huge chunks the size of buildings breaking away and plunging in the direction of the water far below. "They're in the third head," Jun said, pointing. "That's the command center."

And then, as they watched, the mecha head detonated. Pieces of it blew outward, fragments cartwheeling viciously in all directions like shrapnel from a claymore mine. What was left of the head broke off cleanly and began to tumble almost in slow motion toward the ocean.

Above it, the great body of the mecha finally split in half, the rest of its metal plating tearing in two. The two halves hung in midair for a long impossible moment, then tilted crazily, picking up speed as they rocketed down after the falling command center.

"No," Jun whispered. "No... Ryu, they have to have gotten out...they have to have..."

But there wasn't a wing - dark or light - in sight.


To be continued...

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