Those who are to blame: Carolyn Lariviere aka Pintail and Naa-Dei. All characters shamelessly sto...erm, borrowed without permission from Sandy Frank and Tatsunoko purely for our own entertainments. So what else is new? Much thanks to Nishiko and to Wendy for beta-reading this.
The GodPhoenix sat ideally parked on the ridge overlooking the base: far away enough that her otherwise distinctive outline was just another extra large boulder silhouetted by the still-strong late afternoon sun to the casual observer, near enough that Ryu could be directly overhead in 45 seconds, as per protocol. Achieving that would require alertness, though.
"I-L-E...that could be Versitile, but it doesn't fit..." Pointless, thought Ryu. "Nothing ever happens," he muttered to the empty cabin. He put down the crossword puzzle and stretched. "Ken be damned, just five minutes isn't going to hurt anything," he said as he settled into the chair.
Outside, a figure looked for and found a hair-wide line on the fuselage immediately before the wing. The figure produced a bevelled disc from a pocket, stuck it next to the crack and waited while the disc went from plain grey to iridescent.
Ryu started to doze to the thought of Ken filling an endless crossword puzzle.
Like a dying fish, the colours on the disc started to flare and fade. When they'd died to the original greyness, the figure gave it an experimental tug. There was a click, and then the line became a crack, the crack spread to outline a rectangle, widened and a door swung out of the GodPhoenix's side. A set of stairs unfolded themselves to reach to the ground. The beginnings of a cheer went up from a group of men massed on the ground but a sharp look quelled it. Pointing to a few of the men to indicate that they were to follow, the figure went up the steps and into the craft.
The doze deepened into a genuine sleep and Ryu started to snore. Somewhere around the seventh snore, the cabin door slid open. To his credit, Ryu was awake and standing before it finished opening. It didn't do him any good. As he turned round, a punch knocked him back. He fetched up against the control panel, braced himself and threw a hard punch of his own with less control than he'd have liked. The figure sidestepped, grabbed his wrist and used his forward momentum against him, propelling him into open floor. Ryu rolled to his feet and his assailant joined him, putting him in a chokehold.
The cabin around him blurred as Ryu squirmed, then collected his mind and broke the grip. He then realized that not all the blurring had to do with being choked. They were on top of the GodPhoenix. His assailant faced him and smiled. "Sayonara," it said in badly accented Japanese and shoved. Ryu staggered, scrabbled and dropped, hitting the ground unmercifully hard before sliding down part of the slope on loose stones.
On the side of the GodPhoenix, the door swung shut as the last of the men got on board. The engines started to power up from their idling state.
Ryu picked himself up and started to run back for the GodPhoenix. The pilot put the craft into VTOL configuration, closing the front vents and Ryu slowed, debating whether to try for a jump to the dome -- and was stopped by movement on the periphery of his vision -- was it? Yes, it *was* Ken and the others, running flat out up the slope. Over the increasing howl of the engines, Ryu couldn't hear what it was that Ken was yelling, but the look on his face... Ryu went towards them, gesturing for them to get down.
The GodPhoenix took off just as they reached him. The lower exhausts opened and as Ryu dove for the ground, a wave of superheated air picked him up and slammed him down the slope even harder than before. The GodPhoenix wobbled as it rose, then its current pilot trimmed the engines and it rose more smoothly, gained a horizontal component to its movement and banked right, dipping its nose into the turn before straightening up. Ryu winced.
A stunned Kagaku Ninja Tai picked themselves off the ground (where the engine blast had thrown them), winners of a half-ruined and largely empty base and watched the craft (their craft!) shrinking into the sunset.
Joe started to say something rude, but stopped as the exact expression failed to come to mind. K'so just did not do this justice.
As the GodPhoenix disappeared into the distance, Jinpei found his tongue first. He pointed to the sky and looked at Ryu, "Our ship! What happened?"
"I - I don't know!" Ryu stumbled.
"You were inside the GodPhoenix, now you aren't," said Joe, "How could you possibly not know?"
"I wasn't sleeping! I wasn't."
"Ryu," Ken started.
"I wasn't! I was ambushed!"
Joe and Ken looked sharply at one another. Joe said, "I should have thought that Katse would have trained more than one of Galack X's ilk!"
"Yes, and no wonder we found fewer that the usual number of men in the base."
"No, it wasn't Galack X," said Ryu.
"Blackbirds?" Jinpei asked.
"No, not them either. It was…" Ryu trailed off.
"Yes? Spit it out."
"…Katse." Ryu hung his head.
Everyone spoke at once. "What?!" "Impossible!" "Ridiculous!" "Katse?"
"It's true," Ryu said.
Ken adopted his characteristic "pre-speech" posture; shoulders squared, spine straight, lids half lowered. "Ryu. Do you realize what we have lost? Galactor is up there right now, sitting in my chair and laughing at us -- and we are stranded here. What will we do if a mecha attacks, Ryu? We have no GodPhoenix! We are toothless. How could you have let this happen? How could you not know?"
"He must have blown the hatch to get inside!" Joe added.
"How could you sleep through that? And then let yourself be overpowered!" Ken slowly shook his head from side to side, "I'm disappointed in you, Ryu."
Without a backward glance, Ken and Joe started walking in the direction of the nearest town. Jinpei hurried to catch up, but looked sympathetically back over his shoulder. Only Jun stayed behind to walk with the chewed-up owl.
"But there was no explosion," he moaned.
There was nothing quite like the smell of fresh brewed coffee in the morning. Tiny folded his hands behind his head and inhaled deeply.
He leaned so far back in his chair that Keyop was sure he would tumble backwards. All the better, the boy thought, less competition for the food. They regarded each other from across the breakfast table, Keyop grinning madly and Tiny clueless to the boy's mischievous thoughts.
"How much longer Jase? I'm starving!" Princess said as she arranged the plates.
Jason flipped a pancake in the air and caught it with the frying pan.
"Just make sure there's enough for everyone this time." Mark cast a warning glance at Keyop and Tiny.
Tiny returned his best "who me?" look just as Jason placed the stack of pancakes between Tiny and Keyop.
With lightning speed, two forks impaled themselves on the uppermost pancake.
"Mine!" Keyop growled.
"Over my dead body!" Tiny growled back.
Mark opened his mouth to lay down the law but his wrist-com cut him off. He looked down at his wrist, a mixture of dread, annoyance and anticipation playing upon his features. Glancing up he saw his teammates waiting for his lead. He nodded silently and rose. They left together, the coffee pot still full and steaming.
Mysteriously, one pancake was missing.
Chief Anderson regarded them from the view screen on board the Phoenix.
"Zoltar up to his old tricks, Chief?"
"I'm afraid so Princess. We just received part of a distress call from Arcturus. Unfortunately the message was cut off before it could be fully sent," he answered.
Tiny's fingers flew over the control panel. A quick nod from Mark affirmed his preparations. Course and coordinates were set for Arcturus. They were leaving Earth's atmosphere even as they spoke.
"Are they under attack?" Mark asked.
"Most certainly. The message was audio only, but it was clear that Spectran ships were attacking."
"How many ships?"
Anderson nodded at Jason. The boy was already running over Arcturus' defences in his mind, and the grimace on his face spoke mountains.
"We don't know for certain how many," Anderson replied. "Assume the worst."
"No problem!" Keyop chirped, "Send Zoltar packing!"
"We're on our way, Chief!" Mark took his place beside Tiny and braced himself for space travel.
"Entering atmosphere!" Tiny called out.
The others gathered around him for a first look. Only Jason stayed at his station, glued to the radar screen. Princess placed her hands on Tiny's headrest and leaned forward. They had already briefed themselves on Arcturus' main military targets, energy stockpile locations and research facilities and as they approached Space Station Omega, large billowing clouds of smoke obscured the view.
Tiny dipped lower, trying to get a better view. While a couple of the buildings had taken hits, most of the smoke turned out to be coming from an overgrown scarab beetle-shaped warship that now lay on its side just outside the station's perimeter. Chips flew off its armour and new fires started as the distinctive black jets of the Galaxy Patrol continued to strafe it.
"Wow, looks like we won't have anything to do for once," Tiny said.
"Should'a brought…popcorn," Keyop added.
"Yeah, trust them to take the easy pickings."
Mark half-turned to rebuke Jason for that, to remind him that if it weren't for the Patrol, they wouldn't even have time to sleep for having to look into every last alarm, but then he realized that Jason was still seated and was now staring hard at something on his screen. " What's wrong, Jason?" he asked.
"It's a decoy," said Jason not taking his eyes from his screen. "Tiny! Change course! They're attacking the capital city!"
"New Chicago?" Princess braced herself against Tiny's chair as he banked sharply.
"What have they got there, Princess?" Mark asked.
"Not much," Princess said after having pulled up the city's file and scanned its contents. "Tourism and a little light industry, but nothing that'd really interest -- oh…"
They were there. There was a clear swath of destruction for Tiny to follow. The centre of the city was nearly flattened. Homes, schools and hospitals lay in ruin. Fires burned uncontrollably, civilians poured into the streets, running in all directions. If any defence had been mounted, there was no evidence of it. There seemed to be no sign of the attackers themselves at all.
"All civilians," Tiny said.
"Why?" Princess whispered.
"I have a feeling we're not going to like finding out," Mark said. "There." Mark pointed to a defensive circle of manta-shaped ships in the downtown square. They surrounded a larger, disk-shaped ship. Tiny magnified the view three times.
"Zoltar!" Keyop said.
He stood atop the ship, waiting for them.Mocking them. He held a terrified woman at gunpoint.
"Land!" Mark ordered.
Seconds later, the protective bubble dome parted and Mark, Princess, Keyop and Jason leapt from the Phoenix to the ground.
"Hold!" Zoltar ordered, holding one hand out.
"The game is up, Zoltar," Mark shouted, "Let the civilian go and surrender!"
Zoltar laughed. Princess glanced at Mark. It was an odd laugh, she noted, but the thought quickly disappeared when Zoltar lifted the pistol to the woman's temple.
"Madame President here is going to serve as an example for those who dare to defy me!" Zoltar sneered.
"Let her go, Zoltar!" Mark began to stride confidently towards the ship, one hand on his boomerang. "You know, hostage taking is pretty low, even for you "
There was no warning. No demand or maniacal laughter. No speeches or threats. The gunshot cut the air, silencing the mayhem around them. Mark stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment, Princess thought he had been shot. He dropped to his knees. Over his shoulder, she could see the lifeless body of the President falling to the ground. Blood was splashed all over Zoltar's costume. He was gleefully spinning the pistol on his index finger, the platform lowering him back into his ship. Stunned and silent, the team watched open mouthed as the ships began to rise into the air.
Mark blinked, dragging his eyes from the President's broken body he slowly became aware of gunfire to his right. In a daze he looked over. Jason was firing maniacally at the ships. Shot after shot. He wasn't even aiming. The barrel was beginning to glow red. He turned to his left. Princess was holding Keyop tightly against her, her own head turned from the macabre scene. He lifted his eyes to the sky and watched as the ships rose higher and higher.
This morning they had been fighting over pancakes.