Ken strode off, leaving the baffled foursome behind him.
Joe grabbed him by the upper arm, holding him back. "You're not getting away so easily. You said you knew, so tell us."
He looked down at Joe's grip, and shrugged. "Good grip, Joe. You can let go now. You don't need to twist my arm to get what you want, y'know."
Joe let go of him, his trust towards Ken now somewhat deterring. It's not wise to trust a Seclusioner, he remembered. They can be anyone they choose.
"The G-Force Project was founded by Dr. Kozaburo Nambu and Agent Samuri Shimada 14 years ago," Ken began as he climbed onto a tree branch and made himself comfortable. "The idea was to form a team of specially-trained agents whose main purpose in the plan was to intercept, infiltrate and destroy the Galactor Organization."
"You mean that terrorist group?" Jinpei questioned, shocked.
"The one no one can find or stop?" Jun added.
Ken smiled, a double-meaning to it. "The same one. From what I've overheard the members of this team have been training since years ago, but separately and at their own pace, and there will come a time when they will finally come together to train together, to work as one." He looked down at them, as though examining them one by one. "I guess the time is now. You guys are it."
They were wordless again. It bothered them, that they should hold such a great responsibility. That is, if everything Ken had said was true.
"So how much truth is there to everything you just said?" Joe asked outright. "How do we know you're not lying?"
Ken was taken off-guard for a moment, surprised at Joe's words. "You don't believe me? Now, why would I want to lie to people I hardly know? I'm telling you only because I have been - as I said - living around the project for so long that I know it as though I'm a part of it. I'm telling you because I think you ought to know what's going on." He dropped down from the branch, rejoining them. "I don't like to be lied to by nature, and I doubt you like it very much yourselves."
Joe was smug. "I'll take in what you've told us, Ken, if you prove your information right."
Jun caught hold of Joe's shoulder. "Joe, don't start any trouble yet. This is only our first day."
He ignored her, as did Ken. "How?"
"There were two founders of the project, as you said. We've seen Dr. Nambu; where's Agent Shimada?"
Ken paused. Long and silent.
"So?" Joe pressed on. "Answer..."
He took a deep solemn breath, and walked away. As he did, Joe's answer came. "My mother died five years ago. She can't be here to oversee the project. Hakase is on his own now, carrying on Samuri Shimada's work as it stands."
Joe could not hide his guilt. He had lost his mother - in fact, both his parents - as well. He was familiar enough with the emotion. "Ken, wait, I'm -"
He didn't hear. He kept walking, as though oblivious to the rest of the world, lost in a shroud of darkness no one else could comprehend.
I shouldn't have done that, Ken thought to himself. I just shouldn't have.
He collapsed on his bed, staring at the blank ceiling. What am I, a baby? They asked, I answered. I shouldn't have let Joe get to me like that. And I didn't have to get all sensitive about it.
He glanced at the bedside table, where a worn photo frame stood. In it was a photograph taken when he was much younger, about nine. Him, Kikei, and their mother. He sighed. "Mother, what am I doing here?" he asked aloud. "You said to just go with the flow, let everything happen by itself. Then I'll find whatever it is I'm supposed to find."
He slid off the bed and paced his room. You said that I'm a part of something big, but I'm not supposed to know yet. I'm supposed to be waiting for something bigger? What? Why? When? After Hakase shoves me into college?
He caught his reflection in the mirror. A spitting image of his mother. And why not? We were born on the same day, he remembered. You, me and Kikei. All three of us.
His foot made contact with a pile of textbooks on the floor. Not completely understanding why, he kicked them aside, despite being taught otherwise.
That is what you expected of me, he thought bitterly. But it wasn't all. You believed in something else. Now this is what Hakase expects from me. Completely.
I don't want to be what he wants.
He removed his glasses for a moment. A pair of clear, deep blue eyes looked back at him in the mirror.
The computer bleeped on.
Ken turned on his heels quick. The glasses found its way back to the bridge of his nose.
A message appeared, flashing repeatedly. Instantly.
He read it over and over again. Immediately, he turned the computer off and raced out of the room.
The study doors burst open as though by a wild windstorm. Never had Dr. Nambu, Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu ever seen Ken in such a panic.
"Hak.... Hakase... I just... I.... mess.... message...."
"Ken, take a deep breath before you choke," Dr. Nambu told him calmly.
Ken took several deep breaths, then began again, " Hakase, I just received a message on the 'Net. From the U.N via the ISO. I think you'd better take a look at it."
He eyed the boy carefully now. The importance of the said message could be seen in his blue eyes, now wild instead of serene.
"Is it big?"
He nodded. "Yes, sir. Otherwise I wouldn't be such a mess."
The other four simply watched, curious and confused, mostly because they hadn't the slightest idea as to what was going on.
"You go ahead, Ken, " they heard him say. "I'll join you later. With them."
Ken looked at them, then back at Dr. Nambu. "You're taking them along?"
Dr. Nambu sighed. "Well, you come bursting in here like a dragon wind with this message in front of them; have I any other choice?"
He gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "It's okay. It's just that I didn't want to so soon."
Ken didn't comment.
And he raced out of the room, just as fast as he had come in.
"The four of you, come with me."
Jun closed the book she was reading. "Where are we going, Hakase?"
He walked to the bookcase on the back wall and pulled out a book from its place. 'The Phoenix and the Dragon'.
"A place I never meant to take you until much later."
The bookcase fell back and slid behind the wall, revealing a passageway leading to God-only-knows where.
Jinpei let out a whistle. "Cool....'
The transport shuttle veered, turned and whipped through the underground tunnels at break-neck speed. No wilder roller-coaster ride existed, at least not to the four newcomers.
"Is this ride really necessary, Hakase?" Joe asked, his nails buried in his seat.
Dr. Nambu was apparently used to the ride; he sat there uncomplaining. "This really wasn't my idea. Samuri should've been an amusement park designer if not for her brilliance and dedication to the ISO."
"Ken's mother did this?" Jun moaned.
The shuttle swung to one side, teetering all its passengers. "Well, I suppose that boy did modify it here and there..."
"When we stop, I'm going to kill that little bastard..." Joe swore.
As though on cue, the shuttle came to an abrupt, screeching halt.
Jinpei peeled himself out of his seat, trying to shake his brain back into position. "Wow..."
"Wow nothin', kid," Ryu retorted. "I think I left my stomach behind back there."
"That leaves a little more for the rest of us at dinner, at least," he shot back.
Jun groaned. "How can you people even think of dinner after a ride like that?"
Dr. Nambu alighted from the shuttle and made his way down the corridor. "I'll have to give that boy a talking to about the speed of this thing."
"Yeah, and while you're at it, tell him to check his brakes," Joe added, following close behind. "I'd say he was going to kill us all."
Ryu scratched his head a moment. "But Joe, I thought you were the one who was going to kill him -"
"Shut up, Ryu."
Jinpei shook his head. "Ryu, are you always this dense?"
He shrugged. "No. But I never keep track anyways."
They walked on until they reached a massive chamber, its walls covered with every possible computer system created. They could almost not see the ceiling, and the chamber was dark save the light coming from a huge screen before them.
The lights then flashed on, and there seated in front of the main console was Ken Shimada.
He corrected his glasses, smiled softly.
"Hi, guys. Welcome to Shadow Mountain."
"How... When did you..."
"I took a faster, more hell-raising ride here, Joe," he answered. "Which reminds me to clean out my closet sometime..."
Joe threw his arms up, hopeless. "I'm not even going to ask..."
"The message, Ken," Dr. Nambu reminded.
"In a minute, Hakase." He placed a metal cuff around his wrist, and once he secured it there, he said, almost as though to himself, "Hinotori, connect."
A stream of fiber-optic nerves darted towards him, nearly cutting right through the four newcomers and embedded themselves in the cuff, as though by command, like they were alive.
The large main screen changed, and a computer-generated image of a woman appeared on screen.
"Identified : Ken Shimada. Connection granted. Access now open."
Jun steeped forward, for a moment touching the cuff around Ken's wrist. "That's your connection?"
He nodded. "This device will identify the user. If I didn't wear it, I wouldn't be able to get in." He turned away from the screen for a moment to look at her. "I'll have to reprogram it to identify you as well. This is going to be your base of operations, after all."
"Ours?" they echoed.
"G-Force's," Dr. Nambu corrected. "Here you will train, research and initiate your assignments in infiltrating and disabling the Galactor Organization. I never meant to take you here until very much later, but Ken left me little choice."
Ken was apparently taken aback by his words, but his expression remained as it was; cold and quiet.
"Why Hinotori?" Jinpei asked. "Why give it a name?"
His fingers never stopped typing on the keys. "My mother gave it the name. Hinotori means firebird in Japanese, and she based the entire G-Force Project around this element. I suppose she had a good reason for it."
Joe looked up to the image on the main screen. "And this is her image? Your mother as Hinotori?"
He gave a nod, but said nothing.
"That was her voice?"
Again, a nod, but no words.
Suddenly a message appeared onscreen. It was short, but the impact it had on Dr. Nambu was something else of another nature:
Message from the United Nations to all members of the ISO board: As of today, March 24 2046, the country of Hontworl has left the United Nations. Reasons and motivations are unknown. Repeat: as of today, March 24 2046, the country of Hontworl has left the United Nations.
Dr. Nambu had to sit down. He seemed to read the message over and over again, trying to accept it. But he remained wordless.
Ken did not fully understand any reason at all to be upset, but he knew it would be good to leave him alone.
"C'mon," he called the others. "I'll show you around."
Quietly, Dr. Nambu could hear them leave. Once he knew he was alone, he let his despair be heard.
"What now? What are they doing? What do they want with Hontworl?"
Then he turned to where his four wards had left with Ken.
"They're not ready yet. And I need one more to complete the project."
The message slowly faded, and the image of the woman - Samuri Shimada - returned, eyeing Dr. Nambu like any ordinary human being.
"Samuri," he said. "Why did you ask for five? Why, when I can't find the last one?"
Hinotori appeared to shrug. "She had her reasons, Hakase. Trust her and her research. She knew exactly what she was doing."
Upon looking at the image onscreen, Dr. Nambu suddenly remembered how much Ken resembled her.
Then it hit him.
Hinotori smiled. "Maybe."