Jun was incredibly nervous.
When the J had run over budget for the third week in a month, and there was no prospect of more money in sight, she had finally gotten desperate enough to take Jinpei and Ryu's suggestion. Drastic times called for drastic measures and all that. It wasn't as if this was actually illegal, or even immoral-- Galactor was Jun's definition of immoral, and this didn't even come near it. And it wasn't as if she herself would have to do any of the work-- she would be hiring women for that. And she really, truly needed the money, and she couldn't ask Dr. Nambu.
But a strip joint was just so-- sleazy.
She sat behind the bar and watched as the scantily clad redhead walked up the sidewalk and pushed open the door to the J. It was time to be professional. Jun had faced down Galactors, terrorists, madmen-- surely one stripper wouldn't be so hard to deal with. She plastered a smile on her face and came forward.
The redhead looked around in disbelief. "Excuse me," she said, with a slight French accent coloring her words, "but is this the correct address? I was looking for an adult entertainment club."
"That's this," Jun said. "Welcome. I'm Jun Minami, the manager. You're here for a job?"
"I thought so, but judging by the way this place looks I wonder. Is the club somewhere else, or...?"
Jun was embarrassed. "Um... we're under new ownership." It wasn't true, but it sounded good. "We're converting this place from a bar and grill to a strip club, and we're hiring dancers. You're the first applicant--"
"Well, that's good, because I can see I have my work cut out for me." The redhead leaned forward into Jun's face. She was very tall, and Jun had to take a step back. "You don't know thing one about this business, do you, chèrie?" she asked. "Whose brilliant idea was this? Your little brother? Some sleazy teenage male friend of yours?"
Both, actually. "Um, I--"
"What you need is a manager. Someone who knows this business, who can take charge of this... conversion... and make a memorable nightclub out of this dive. Someone, for instance, like moi." She draped an arm around Jun's shoulder. "The magnificent Andrée Sordonne, at your service. Dancer, entertainer, singer, and all-around expert on practically everything. How about it, chèrie? You provide the cash, I'll provide the know-how, and together we'll make nightclub history. Splendid, non?"
"Don't worry, chèrie! Neesan Andrée will take care of everything for you, never you fear." She squeezed Jun in a brief hug. "Now, how much cash have you got to play with?"
"Well... you see..."
"You did what?" Ken was livid.
"Hired a woman to help me convert the J into a nightclub," Jun said defensively. "She was very nice. She even offered to lend me money. Which, quite frankly, is more than you ever did."
"But a strip joint? That's outrageous! If Joe were alive, he'd be turning over in his grave!"
Jun chose to ignore the improbability of that statement. "Joe's not here. And what am I supposed to do? We can't reach Dr. Nambu, and with the funding cutbacks since the fall of Galactor he hasn't got the money to give me. It's not like I can ask you for money-- you won't even pay your bills! I mean, Ken, I'm not going to be one of the performers."
"Oh, that's wonderful. So you keep your hands clean while you sit back and profit from exploiting other women."
"I'm not exploiting them! They'll get good wages!" For amateurs, at least. Andrée had suggested hiring amateurs down on their luck, because they'd be cheap and Andrée could train them into shape.
"That doesn't matter! This-- this is-- It's sordid, and it's sleazy, and I thought better of you. Where's that demure, feminine girl I remember, Jun?"
"She died of starvation," Jun snapped. "I've got to put food on the table, Ken. I can't go wandering around looking for some evidence that Galactor survived when we both know it didn't! I've got Jinpei and now Ryu to take care of!"
"Yeah, they closed down his yacht harbor, so I'm giving him a job as a bouncer."
Ken shook his head. "Well, someone's got to worry about Galactor."
Jun spoke as if to a small child. "Galactor's gone, Ken. All that's left are a bunch of third-rate gangs running around in jury-rigged mecha getting their pants whipped off them by independents like that guy Polydor or whatever his name is. The only thing that could unite that rabble into Galactor again is the return of Sosai X, and he took off for a world two million light-years from here. I don't think he'll be back anytime soon."
"We can't take the risk. Someone must investigate."
"Well, then you're the man to do it, Ken," Jun said, wondering what she ever saw in this overgrown child. Couldn't he face facts? Galactor was as dead as Joe, and the Science Ninja Team was obsolete. And if it took running a strip joint to survive, by God that was what she was going to do. Because as God was her witness, Jun was never going to be hungry again!
Actually, she hadn't yet gone hungry, but it was a nice sentiment anyway.
In a very short time, Andrée had completely taken over the direction of the J's remodeling. She seemed to have an unlimited supply of funds-- an inheritance, she said, but left it unclear as to who she'd inherited it from. She also seemed, as she'd said, to know more or less everything-- she had designed the architectural plans for the J herself, written the want ads for dancers, and was taking care of the zoning laws and other legal nonsense. Jun felt somewhat steamrollered. It was wonderful that Andrée wanted to help, and more wonderful still that she had the money and the knowledge to do so-- especially the money-- but Jun felt like there wasn't anything for her to do.
Jinpei was suspicious. "She's too nice, onechan," he said one day when Andrée was out. "I don't trust people who're that nice."
"What're you talking about?" Ryu said. "She's fine. Real fine." He smiled dreamily. It was no secret that Ryu had fallen fast and hard for their mystery woman. It was also no secret, except to Ryu, that he wasn't going to get anywhere with her in this lifetime.
"I understand what you're saying, Jinpei," Jun said, "but what do you want me to do? I mean, it's not like she could be a Galactor."
"Maybe she used to be a Galactor. Or maybe aniki's right and Galactor's coming back. Why would Dr. Nambu be out of contact for three whole months already if Galactor wasn't coming back?"
"Because he's a busy man, that's all!"
"Well, why is she going out of her way to help us? If she's a dancer, how'd she get so rich? And if she's that rich, why was she looking for a job here in the first place?"
"Because you looked sad and pathetic," Andrée said, coming in the front door. "And every so often I feel a compulsion to commit gratuitious acts of kindness. It makes me feel all toasty inside. Besides, I have to figure out something to do with all this money."
"Where did you get all that money?" Jinpei asked suspiciously.
"By being really, really good in bed," Andrée said. "Now, Jun. I've been thinking about a new name for this place. 'Snack J' will never do. We need something new and spiffy."
"What's wrong with 'Jun's'?" Jun asked.
Andrée rolled her eyes. "Nothing, if you want to starve. Do you really want your name on a place like this?"
Jun blushed. Andrée continued. "Besides, jun means purity in Japanese. Not the sort of image we want here. Whereas Juliette Silver was an immensly popular porno actress five years ago, and her name still carries salacious connotations."
"Hey, I remember her!" Ryu said. "She was one of my favorites!"
"Why, thank you," Andrée said. "It's nice to know someone appreciates my talents."
"You were--?" Ryu shook his head. "I don't believe it. No, I just don't believe it."
"Good," Andrée said. "A little skepticism is a healthy thing. Never take anything at face value, that's what I always say. Now the construction crew is going to be here in half an hour, so if we could finish getting ready for them? Get to work, spit-spot!"
Jun shook her head as Jinpei and Ryu got back to moving furniture. They were working twice as readily as they ever did for her, and Jinpei didn't even like the woman.
After the remodeling was complete, they began auditions.
The aging starlet pouted. "What do you mean, I'm not what you're looking for?" she demanded in a shrill voice. "I'll have you know, I used to be a megastar! I brought down an entire civilization with my singing!"
"I can see how," Andrée muttered to Jun under her breath. Jun forced down a giggle.
"Be nice, Andrée," she whispered, and raised her voice. "I'm sorry," she told the singer. "But we're looking for younger women, Ms. Minmei. I'm afraid you just wouldn't work for us. It's not personal."
"Yes it is! It is personal!" Ms. Minmei burst out sobbing. "Everyone hates me. Hikaru hates me. Misa hates me. Why does everyone hate me? What did I do?"
"Oh, please," Andrée said. "Ryuu!"
Ryu came into the auditioning room at a gallop. "Yes?"
"Take Ms. Minmei out and get her something to drink. Give her some comfort."
"Sure thing, Miss Andrée!" He guided the crying woman off the stage.
Andrée turned to Jun. "Maybe he'll get lucky. She always was something of a slut."
Jun turned red. "Andrée, that's horrible!"
"Not for Ryu it won't be. Has that boy ever gotten laid?"
As Jun stared in mingled horror, outrage and amusement, Andrée called, "Next!"
Next was a short red-haired Chinese girl with a long ponytail and a seriously butch attitude. She had a tight, muscular body, and the natural grace of a martial artist. Jun thought she was good, but Andrée shook her head. "Miss Saotome, have you any idea how to look sexy?"
The girl looked outraged. "Are you trying to tell me I'm not sexy?"
"That's exactly what I'm trying to tell you," Andrée agreed. "I have no problem with lesbians, dear heart. Some of the best lovers I've had have been lesbians. But they don't work well as strippers."
"I AM NOT A LESBIAN, YOU BITCH!" Miss Saotome lunged at Andrée with a martial arts attack. Jun neatly blocked it and knocked the girl to the ground. Saotome stared at her.
"How did you do that?" the girl asked. "I've never met anyone that good at kempo who wasn't at least four hundred years old! Where did you train? That's amazing! Can you teach me? Wait till I tell my dad!"
Jun's face burned with embarrassment. Great. Now she'd gone and shown her ability to a decent martial artist. "Um... I don't teach. My own teacher... is unavailable at the moment. But maybe in a few months..."
Andrée looked unfazed by the attack. "Methinks somebody doth protest too much," she said. "Let me put it to you this way, chèrie. If you have ever been kissed by a boy without punching him through the nearest window, I would be very surprised. You move like a boy, you talk like a boy and you strip like a boy. Why did you want to do this anyway?"
Saotome looked down at her feet. "I needed the money," she muttered. "My fian-- uh, a friend of mine's older sister's threatened to, uh, anyway, she's got some pictures of me and I need the money to buy them back."
"Oh. Blackmail! Well, I understand blackmail," Andrée said. "But I'm afraid this really isn't the place. Tell you what, boya." She took out her wallet and handed the girl several bills. "That ought to pay off your friend's sister."
The girl stared. "I can't take this kind of money," she said.
Jun stared for a different reason. Boya? she thought.
"Yes, you can. Consider it a retainer. You are now in my debt, and I plan to hire you as a bodyguard in the near future. In the meantime, go home, pay off your blackmailer and practice your kempo until you get to be as good as Jun here."
The girl left, smiling happily. Jun turned to Andrée. "Why'd you call her 'boya'?"
"Because she was really a boy," Andrée said.
Jun blinked in confusion. "No, she wasn't. We saw her with most of her clothes off."
"Obviously," Andrée said, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Jun-chan. Next!"
Next was a small, perky blonde girl named Teru Namba with grace, talent and no inhibitions whatsoever. "Hire her," Andrée suggested. "She'll go far."
Teru put her hands on her hips. "Exactly how far do I have to go in this job?" she asked.
Jun glared at Andrée. "All we're hiring you for is to dance and take your clothes off. Nothing else is required by the job."
"However," Andrée said, "extracurricular activities are your own business, certainly not frowned on by management."
"I wasn't planning on any extracurricular activities," Teru said. "I just want the money."
"Then you've come to the right place, chèrie. Money is our middle name. Here's fifty, get yourself a sexy outfit and come in at 8:00 tonight for training. Next!"
Next was a shy blonde girl named Luna Kozuki. She was pretty, but Jun could see that she wanted to do this about as much as Jun herself would. She stopped the audition before Luna actually took off her bra. "Kozuki-san, why are you doing this? You hate it, I can see you do. I don't want to hire anyone who'll hate their work that much-- I wouldn't want to do this myself, I certainly don't want to force anyone to."
"I have to," Luna said fiercely. "I need to raise money to pay for modifications to the M-F gun. Casshan is depending on me."
Jun blinked. "Casshan? I think I've heard that name before. Something to do with androids?"
"Yes," Luna said. She looked as if she was trying not to cry. "The android army has taken over most of Central Litheria. We have to stop them before they take over all of Europe."
And why hasn't Dr. Nambu or Ken or anyone mentioned this to me? Jun thought. "I hadn't heard much about it."
"Oh, yeah, I knew about that," Andrée said. "There's been androids running around in the Austro-German area for maybe three months, four months, something like that now. There's a media blackout on the area so no one knows much. Frankly, I'm surprised the Science Ninja Team hasn't done anything."
Me too. "I heard the Science Ninja Team got mothballed for lack of funds," Jun said.
"Sounds about right. Look, Miss Kozuki, you won't make it as a stripper and you won't get rich this way, I guarantee it. No one wants to pay to see a girl who looks like she's being raped. Talk to me after I'm done here and I'll see about loaning you the money you need, okay?"
"Thank you," Kozuki whispered, and ran off the stage.
Jun looked at Andrée. "How much money do you have?" she asked.
"A very rich asshole killed himself and left me a bundle. Next!"
Next was Doronjo, a skinny, tall blonde in a tight black suit, who'd been sitting in the back smoking. Jun remembered her as the woman who'd wanted to bring her thuggish "bodyguards" into the auditioning room, to "protect" her. Jun had vetoed it, wondering why Doronjo would have needed bodyguards in the first place.
She hadn't been up there for a minute before Andrée called her down. "This," Andrée said, "is a reputable place. We don't need the likes of you."
"Of me?" Doronjo was shrilly outraged. "How dare you? I am a respectable citizen--"
"I know who you wish you were," Andrée said tightly, "and you're not him. And you'll never be him, not if you hire five million thugs. And you're a cheap, stupid imitation, Doro-kun, and I don't want your type in a place I'm managing. So take your cheap perfume and get out."
Doronjo lunged at Andrée, pulling a weapon of some sort. Jun grabbed the woman, flipped her and disarmed her in one motion. "I think you'd better leave," Jun said. "Obviously you two have a history."
"I've never seen the bitch before in my life!" Doronjo screamed. "How dare she persecute me like this? I'm an ordinary respectable citizen--"
"Who goes around in her free time using technology she stole from Galactor to blow up safes," Andrée said angrily. Jun wondered how Andrée could possibly know that. Was Andrée perhaps an agent for ISO? Jun knew Nambu had plenty of agents other than the Ninja Team.
Dornojo howled, "You can't prove that! I'll sue you for slander!"
"Fine. See you in court. NEXT!!"
Next was a woman who radiated sensuality the way a chunk of plutonium radiated gamma rays. She was painted like a whore, with an obvious blonde wig and a powdered white face, and her features had a kind of hard beauty to them that carried one message: SEX, in capital letters. She came onto the stage in a tight red corset and a black miniskirt, garter stockings, high heels and nothing else. Licking her lips, she undid part of her corset, then strode over to where Andrée sat, leapt off the stage and put one boot up on Andrée's seat, leaning forward. "You want me, you know you do," she said, peeling off her corset. "Come on, lady. Get'em off and let's do it."
For the first time, Jun saw Andrée look a bit out of her depth. "Very good," she said, somewhat breathlessly. "But maybe you're coming on a little too strong."
"Forget that shit," the woman said. "I need it now. Come on, baby, give it to me." She slid her skirt off her hips. Jun looked away in embarrassment. She had been able to watch the auditions without being overly disturbed, thus far-- she'd seen enough of the boys' pornographic movies, back when they all lived at Dr. Nambu's, that she knew the score. But this was so nakedly, overpoweringly sexual that she couldn't look.
"All right, you've got a job," Andrée said, still sounding somewhat breathless. "Get your clothes back on."
"I mean it. I know you want me. You want to get the girlie involved, we could have a threesome? She looks nice and wet to me."
Jun blushed furiously and turned to face the woman. Just as quickly she turned away. The woman had grabbed Andrée's hair in the back, holding her, and was thrusting her crotch into Andrée's face. "Stop that!" she shouted, unable to look.
"What's the matter, girlie? Didn't your daddy ever teach you what a woman is for?"
"That," Andrée said, "is quite enough." There was a brief scuffling sound.
Jun turned to look again. Andrée was standing up and the woman was in the chair, naked except for heels and a belt and garter stockings. Andrée was holding her there by the shoulders. "You can molest me all you want, I'd rather enjoy it if I didn't have a job to do right now," she said. "But you leave Jun alone. She's a kid."
"My daddy always said that little girls are sluts and they all want it."
"Then your daddy was seriously dysfunctional, madame. So far you're the best I've seen, if you can keep from ripping the customers' pants off and rutting with them on the floor-- that's not what we're hiring you for. Keep the actual sex in the bedroom and don't molest the management, and you'll do fine. What'd you say your name was?"
"I'm the Scarlet Harlot," the woman breathed. She licked her lips suggestively.
"Well, you certainly are. I've heard less silly stage names in my time, but few as appropriate. I'm going to be training most of the others until 11 or 12 tonight. You can come back after then if you still want to and I'll take you to my place. C'est bien?"
"Bring some friends," the Harlot husked. "We'll have a party."
"Honey, we don't need friends. I promise you, I'm enough woman for you."
"I doubt it."
"Well, we'll find out, won't we? Now run along."
After the Harlot had left, Jun, face burning with embarrassment, muttered, "You-- didn't really mean that? About going with her tonight?"
"Well, of course I meant it, chèrie. Did you see that woman? It would take a stronger girl than I to pass that up."
"Then you're-- I didn't know you meant it when you told Miss Saotome you'd-- I mean--"
Andrée laughed. "Oh, chère fille, I have done everything, man, woman and in-between. I'm picky, but I pick on the basis of attractiveness, not gender. Do you realize how many wonderful sexual experiences most people pass up on because they stick to one sex or the other? Life is far too short to limit oneself. You're a virgin, aren't you?"
"That's none of your business!"
"Of course not. But it's stupid of you to be one. What with Galactor over the past several years, and all these small gangs and technologically advanced thugs running around killing people, life isn't safe. My motto is that people should start having sex as soon as they're physically capable of wanting it, and have it as often and with as many different lovers as they like. Eat, drink and get laid, for tomorrow there might be a giant mecha attack."
"Oh, I do hope so, dear girl, I really do. Next!"
Next was an eleven-year-old girl in a combat jacket and a baseball cap that said "Mint". Andrée stared at her. "How did you get in?"
"I went through the back door. I hear you're auditioning for dancers. I can dance really good."
Andrée looked as if she were trying desperately not to laugh. Jun said, "We're looking for older people, honey. How old are you?"
"Sixteen," the girl replied, promptly and implausibly.
"I don't think so. How old are you really?"
"I really am! I am sixteen! Are you calling me a liar?"
"We're looking for women to take off their clothes," Jun said patiently.
"I can take off my clothes. I'm very sexy. And I want to catch a husband. Here, let me show you--" She started to undress in a parody of a strip routine.
"JINPEII!" Andrée shouted.
Jinpei came in. "Yeah?-- Who's she?"
"This is-- uh-- what's your name?"
"Mint," the girl promptly replied.
"Well, Mint thinks she wants a job. But what she really wants is a nice boy to take her out to a movie. So here's fifteen for you both. Have fun."
Jinpei looked disbelieving. "Take her?"
"I don't want to go out with him!" Mint said. "He's too young. I want an older man."
"But Jinpei's seventeen."
"He is not!"
"Is too. Aren't you, Jinpei?"
Jun winked at him. "That's right, Jinpei. You're going to turn eighteen in a few weeks, aren't you?"
"Wow, I guess I am. Time really flies, doesn't it."
"Welll--" Mint scrutinized Jinpei. "Are you really 17?"
"Uh-huh," Jinpei said. "Got my own wheels and everything."
"Oh, well, then I guess it's okay to marry you."
Jun mouthed, "Humor her."
"Oh, okay. Well, maybe we should go on a few dates before we get married," Jinpei suggested. "Come on. They're showing The Rending XIV and I really want to see it."
"Can't we go see Truly, My Love?" Mint asked as they left.
Andrée shook her head. "Kids."
By the end of the auditions, they had three more dancers in addition to Teru and the Scarlet Harlot, and Andrée had begun training them.
"Sylvie" had red, curly hair and wore dark glasses constantly. She refused to give a last name or to take off the glasses. Andrée let it pass, saying that dark glasses would be an interesting shtick. Sylvie was very well-educated, and had apparently recently been widowed, in some kind of horrible accident at sea that had claimed the lives of hundreds. She claimed that she had been a scientist once, but with ISO's budget cuts she couldn't pay the bills, and that after the death of her husband she didn't want to work in cybernetics, or any other scientific discipline, ever again. Jun thought she was seriously messed up with grief, but she was a good dancer and could fake enjoying her work.
Vash was a slim blonde traveler from somewhere, she never specified where, down on her luck and penniless. Apparently, the man she was traveling with had abandoned her in Utoland with no money, no luggage, no place to stay and no way to get home, as some sort of mean practical joke. Andrée suggested that Vash might want to reconsider her taste in men. Vash rolled her eyes. "Yes, people warned me about him. But what can I say? He was very persuasive." She sighed. "And very generous, when he wasn't playing stupid practical jokes."
"And very good in bed?" Andrée asked.
Vash looked at Andrée. "Not that it's any of your business, but we never slept together. He considers sex beneath him."
Andrée looked startled. "I would say your boyfriend needs serious psychological help."
"I would say he needs a good swift smack on the butt. Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to deliver said smack." She shook her head. "I'd like to strangle him, not that it would do any good."
Rogue was another traveler from somewhere unspecified, another redhead, with a white stripe in the middle. According to her, the stripe was natural, not dyed. She had a strong American accent from the Deep South. "Ah'm willin' to take off mah clothes and dance," she told Andrée. "Ah haven't got a problem with that. But you gotta promise me that no one's goin' be allowed to touch me."
"That's what the bouncer's for," Andrée said. "You can initiate contact if you want. But if anyone tries to touch you, they're out on their lecherous butts and not coming back. And we'll make that quite clear to our customers."
"That's good enough, Ah s'pose," Rogue said.
Once Teru found out that everyone else had either a pseudonym or a single word name, she insisted on taking on herself. "I want to be called Terra," she said.
"Fine," Andrée said. "But if you're hoping to fool old friends, it won't work. It's too close to your own name."
"Oh, my friends don't live in Utoland," Teru said. "And they're a pair of deadbeat losers who couldn't afford the door price anyway. I just don't like the sound of Teru."
"I don't blame you," Andrée said. "If my name were Teru, I'd have changed it years ago." She paused to consider. "Come to think of it, I did change my name years ago."
Opening day came and went and was a resounding success. Each dancer made more in tips than Jun was used to the J making in a single night, lately; the house take was more than she'd have expected in a week. It looked like the two weeks Andrée had spent training the dancers had paid off. Delighted, Jun paid about half her bills-- Andrée assured her she could wait until she was in the black again before paying off Andrée herself.
Ken came in after the show and dropped a newspaper on Jun's desk as she totaled up her profits. "Read that."
Obediently Jun read it. The Flying Squirrel Gang had attacked the First Bank of Utoland earlier this morning with a mecha, the Demon Rodent Beast Squirrelon. Jun looked up at Ken. "So?"
"So you see! Galactor is back! I was right all along!"
Jun scrutizined the article again. "Ken, these aren't Galactors," she said. "They're a bunch of third-rate thugs using Galactor technology."
"That doesn't matter! It's the technology Dr. Nambu trained us to fight against. Those who abuse science must fall to the just wrath of the Science Ninja Team!"
Jun blinked, wondering if Ken had gotten even more pompous since Joe died, or if it was just easier to notice now. "In case you hadn't noticed, the just and wrathful weapons of the Science Ninja Team are in mothballs. Exactly how are we supposed to fight this squirrel mech, Ken? With our bare fists?"
"If necessary," Ken said.
"Okay, then you do it. Until Dr. Nambu turns up, gives us our weapons back and sends us out against it, I'm assuming the Science Ninja Team has been retired."
"We can't retire. So long as the evil of those who would abuse science for gain exists, we must rise up out of the abyss of hell like a white shadow."
Jun stared at him for a minute in silence. Finally she said, "You practiced that, didn't you?"
"You like it?" Ken grinned. "It's part of my speech. I'm going to go before ISO and argue that we ought to be reactivated."
"You know what we agreed about Joe. If the Science Ninja Team needs a new member, we'll pick a G-6-- otherwise we'll stay with four. But G-2 will be left as an empty spot forever."
Jun pushed the newspaper back at him. "G-2, G-6... it's just words," she said. "You want to replace Joe and go back into battle like it's still some kind of game, and everything's going to be fine and dandy, and we can keep on having exciting adventures. It doesn't work that way, Ken. These guys are common thugs-- they're after money, not world conquest. And there are plenty of heroes out there to deal with them. It doesn't need to be all us anymore."
"Are you saying that we should just stand back and let other people do our jobs?"
"Ken, until Dr. Nambu comes back we don't have jobs! If we were still the Science Ninja Team don't you think we'd still be getting a stipend from the Doctor? And I can assure you that Jinpei, Ryu and I, at least, are not. I have to worry about putting food on the table, not fighting evil."
"You have to worry about running a sleazy strip joint, you mean." He shook his head. "Well, I'm going to continue to investigate. I'm sure Galactor's on its way back. Perhaps all these stupid mecha gangs are just a diversion to hide the truth."
"Whatever you say, Ken," she sighed.
"We've got a big spender," Andrée said.
She pointed at the back, where a sullen-looking man sat nursing a drink and watching. "He's come back every night this week, tips the girls twenty a night, and gave me a diamond necklace. I think maybe you should go and be nice to him."
"Nice?" Jun frowned. "How do you mean 'nice'?"
"I mean nice. Not naughty, just nice. How's it going, do you have any special requests, that sort of--"
The proceedings were interrupted by a metallic shout. "Jane!!"
Jun turned. The Harlot was on stage, doing her thing. A... robot... was running up to the stage, shouting. "Jane, I don't believe this! What are you doing in this dive? Larry and I have been looking for you for two weeks!"
"Don't call me Jane," the Harlot snarled. "I'm enjoying myself. Why should that uptight bitch be the only one to decide what we do?"
The customers were restless. Ryu approached the robot. "Excuse me, sir," Ryu said, politely, "but I really think you'd better go."
The robot picked Ryu up by the collar. "Listen, kid, I know you're trying to keep things under control, but don't worry about it. I don't care about your bar here. All I want is for Jane to come with me."
"I'm not Jane!"
"Hey!" the big spender in the back yelled. "She doesn't want to go with you, Mr. Roboto! So do us all a favor and get the fuck out of the way!"
Jun and Andrée managed to reach the robot. "Sir, do you have a problem?" Jun asked, wondering if perhaps Ken were right. In her experience, people weren't robots unless they were Galactor.
"My friend here isn't herself," the robot said. "She shouldn't be here."
"You're just jealous because you can't give it to me. Hey, Cliff, get Caulder to make you a dick and we'll get it on."
"In your dreams," the robot-- whose name, incongruously, appeared to be Cliff-- said. Perhaps he was a cyborg who just looked like a robot-- he sounded far too much like a human being to really be a robot.
"In yours," the Harlot said, licking her lips suggestively.
"All right," Andrée said in her best take-charge voice, "this is quite enough. Monsieur Cliff, we are in the middle of a show. If your friend here doesn't wish to come with you this minute, perhaps it would be considerate to wait until she's finished her set-- after all, she won't get paid if she doesn't finish."
"She doesn't need the money! She's a superhero!" the robot Cliff shouted.
"Regardless of her motives, she was hired in good faith. Now if she is a superhero, you would hardly want her to break her word, would you?"
The Harlot said in a completely different, desexualized voice, "Let her finish her sleazy little performance, Cliff. We'll talk later."
"Driver 8, actually," the Harlot said. "We had to give the Scarlet Harlot control for the next few weeks. Cliff, the Harlot's in the middle of her show, these people are depending on her-- please, come back tonight?"
Cliff frowned, an interesting sight on a metal face. "All right. If it's you who's asking."
He returned to the back of the room. Jun and Ryu looked at Andrée in complete confusion. "What was that all about?" Jun asked, as the Harlot began her set again.
"I'm not sure," Andrée whispered. "At a guess, I'd say multiple personalities and a very weird lifestyle."
Every night seemed to bring a bigger crowd. Jun didn't know where most of these men were coming from; she wasn't even sure most of them were men. The creature in bandages who arrived with the robot the next night in an attempt to talk the Harlot into coming back with them seemed even more freakish than Berg Katse. Then there was the seven-foot-tall furry being that spoke in growls, the one that always arrived in the company of a rakish, wiry dark-haired man and a young blond man who looked even more innocent and boyish than Ken did. The blond Englishman who always wore a trenchcoat and smoked British cigarettes was normal-looking enough, but Jun could have sworn she saw him sitting with things out of her worst nightmares every so often. Then there was the elderly fat man and the middle-aged thin man, both vaguely familiar, both wearing obvious disguises, who showed up regularly until Jun came over to their table to 'be nice to them', as Andrée put it-- an exercise that involved friendly curiosity and mild flirtation, nothing more. As soon as they saw her approaching, the tall thin man had said something to the big fat man, looking frightened, and they had both hurried out of the club with trenchcoats pulled around their faces and hats low on their brows. Jun asked Andrée if she'd recognized the two.
"Not... exactly," Andrée said, sounding vastly amused, "but I got the distinct impression that they knew you, chère Jun. Perhaps they were scientists who wished to preserve their reputations?"
"But how many scientists would know me in my civilian form?"
Andrée grinned. "Enough, apparently," she said.
But the money kept rolling in. They hired more dancers, though the original ones remained popular. Some people had regular fans. For instance, a tall Cajun with weird eyes and a short hairy guy with an attitude kept coming in to see Rogue, and paying well for it. They sat in the back and asked that Jun not tell Rogue they were there-- Jun figured them to be starstruck admirers who didn't quite want to admit their identities to the object of their affections, and as she knew just how that felt she kept her mouth shut. Andrée, as manager, danced rarely, but her nights were always a big draw-- not quite as big as the Harlot's, but then the Harlot had gotten temperamental. One night, for instance, she'd gotten intensely hostile, refused to go on, and punched Ryu through a wall. Ryu was unhurt-- the wall was a lot worse damaged-- and the Harlot had immediately become immensely, almost painfully, apologetic and offered to pay for the damage. But she was growing erratic, her moods swinging dramatically and unpredicatably, and with her two weird friends showing up every so often to try to talk her into coming home, Jun was considering letting her go.
The big spender Andrée had pointed out to Jun continued to spend big-- very big. In the course of casually flirting with him, Jun had learned that his name was Darlon, he had the education and manners of street scum, and he was involved with 'a very lucrative business venture'. Jun found herself wondering if perhaps Ken was right about the return of Galactor. She cultivated Darlon because he had money, but more because she wondered if he would let slip information about Galactor's possible rebirth.
"I can't go on," Teru said.
The audience was chanting, "Ter-ra! Ter-ra!" Normally Teru ate up that kind of attention-- Teru was one of the ones, unlike Vash, Sylvie and Rogue, who genuinely loved her work. So for her to come up to Andrée the minute she was supposed to go on and try to bow out was almost unheard-of. "Why?" Andrée asked, puzzled.
Teru pointed at the TV screen that showed the audience-- a way for the women in the dressing room to be warned if nutcases from their past showed up. Enough of the dancers had nutcases in their past that, ever since the robot had disrupted the Harlot's set, Andrée had insisted on installing cameras for a security measure. After all, there were no shortage of nutcases in Andrée's own past. "You see those two losers in the front?" Teru asked.
Andrée scrutinized the viewscreen. There was a tall man dressed in a rumpled white tux, who would have been attractive if his gaping smile hadn't revealed that he had only about three teeth, and a young man with a nerdy expression who bore a striking resemblance to Ken. In fact, he also bore a striking resemblance to the young superhero Hurricane Polymar. Andrée detected a Clark Kent shtick, yes she did. "I see'em."
"I know them," Teru said darkly. "I can't go on with them there."
Andrée checked the screen for backup. Jun was seated at Darlon's table, chatting, Jinpei was getting drinks, and Ryu was at the door arguing with-- with-- oh dear. Andrée recognized the elderly woman Ryu was arguing with, and Ryu didn't have a prayer. "Okay, you're not going on," she said. "Sylvie! Teru's bowing out this set; take over!"
She headed out in her top hat and high heels to introduce Sylvie. Then she headed for the door.
Ryu looked at her apologetically. "Sorry, Miss Andrée," he said. "This lady insists on seeing you."
"I know, I know," Andrée sighed, and switched to French. "Maman, what are you doing here?"
"I need you home," Maman said. "That child of yours is driving me up the wall."
Andrée shrugged. "You always said you wanted grandkids."
"André, that child is a monster! He refuses to sleep, he's already learned to crawl and insists on putting everything in his mouth, he babbles constantly-- one would think he were eight months, not three!"
"You have a three-year-old kid?" Ryu asked disbelievingly.
"I didn't know you knew French," Andrée said, startled. She wasn't about to tell him that the child in question was three months. "Consider who the father was," she told her mother. "And cheer up. You've always wanted a child to mold and shape, and you were too busy with your own career to do it with me. So now you have a grandchild to instill your ambitions into. You should be happy!"
"I was doing important work! Providing for your future! Which you threw away, running around the world sleeping with anything, stealing things--"
Wonderful. Now she was going to mention Galactor and how Andrée should have ended up in it, the last thing Andrée needed mentioned in front of Ryu of all people. "Maman, shut up! I'll come home in a few months. Until then, Danielle is your problem, not mine. Go away, I'm working!"
She went back in and slammed the door before her mother could say anything. Sylvie was still on, singing "Let Me Entertain You" from Gypsy as she slowly removed numerous articles of clothing. Sylvie had class.
A tall, somewhat chunkily built dark-haired young man with glasses bumped into her. Andrée stared. "Will Dysune?"
"Shh!" Dysune said-- she was positive it was him. "I'm in disguise."
It was a terrible disguise. He looked just like he had three years ago, when Andrée had decided to track down the writers of Galactor's underground flyer The Galactor Newsletter and found that one guy produced the entire thing. "If that's your idea of a disguise, I'm even more amazed that you survived."
"So'm I," Dysune said. "It's all a matter of timing. You have to figure out where the most strategic locations are and then not be there. You're Special GN Correspondent Amelia Earhart, aren't you?"
"That's me," Andrée said. "I wanted to be Ambrose Bierce, but someone said no."
"Hey, I like Ambrose Bierce. He's my hero. What are you doing here?"
"Working. What are you doing here?"
He grinned. "Would you believe I'm doing research for a hard-hitting exposé on the sex industry?"
"Good, because I'm not. Is it my imagination, or is the ISO presence heavy around here? I recall seeing Nambu in a silly disguise a few nights ago."
Will Dysune, not his real name-- Andrée had never known his real name-- was a ferociously intelligent computer expert who'd been drafted into Galactor against his will five years ago. He was sufficiently observant and quick-witted that he should have been in Galactor Intelligence, but with the head of that department constantly sabotaging his own people and letting them take the blame from Katse, it was hardly a safe place. Dysune aimed his Galactor Newsletters at a fairly childish level of humor because he figured that was all his audience would understand; producing the thing was the only way he'd kept himself sane in the life he'd been forced into. It didn't surprise Andrée that he'd have recognized Nambu. "The ISO presence is indeed thicker than beeswax. Science Ninjas have been known to roam about the place. Maybe you should pick a safer club."
Dysune shrugged. "I have no record. The Science Ninja Team wouldn't know me if I walked up and said hi. So I figure I'm safe. Besides, I quit close to a year ago."
"You know anything about these persistent rumors of Galactor's rebirth?"
"No, except that if it does come back I'm getting plastic surgery and changing my name to Ralph."
Andrée left Dysune and made her way over to Teru's friends. "Enjoying the show, guys?"
"Oh, well, we're investigating a mystery in Utoland, and we just thought we'd drop in to see if there were any clues," the guy with no teeth said.
"Clues. Yeah. Uh-huh," the one that Andrée thought might be Polymar said. On the other hand, maybe he wasn't.
"Well, a lot gets uncovered in here, but usually not clues to a mystery. What sort of mystery?"
"I'm Joe Kuruma, the best private eye since Sherlock Holmes, and this is my assistant Takeshi. And we're investigating the Flying Squirrel Gang."
"The Flying Squirrel Gang." Andrée wondered if she'd be able to keep a straight face.
"Uh-huh," Takeshi said. "That's right."
If he was Polymar, he was taking the Clark Kent shtick entirely too far. "What is the Flying Squirrel Gang?" Andrée asked.
"Oh, well. The Flying Squirrel Gang is a fierce bunch of thieves with a giant mechabeast they call Squirrelon. They've attacked Tokyo, Osaka, Utoland, all sorts of places," Kuruma said. "So my assistant and I have taken it on ourselves to investigate."
"And you thought you'd find clues at a strip bar?"
"Evil can be hiding anywhere," Kuruma intoned pompously.
Takeshi said, "Wasn't a girl named Teru supposed to come on next? Who's the redhead?"
"Oh, you mean Terra. That's Sylvie, up there. Terra got sick."
"Uh-huh," Takeshi said. "I'll just bet."
A sense of mischief struck Andrée. "If you like, I can arrange for you to meet her after the show..."
Takeshi giggled. "Hey, Mr. Kuruma, why don't we--"
Kuruma giggled too, and then shook his head. "No, no. If it is Teru, we don't want to get her mad-- she'll throw us out of the building."
Andrée decided to send Teru out with drinks anyway. They were running a small enough operation still that most of the girls also waited tables when they weren't onstage. There were also a number of scantily clad but non-stripping waitresses, so there was no need to send Teru out-- but it'd be fun.
As she headed toward the backstage area, a man tapped her on the shoulder. "Excuse me, what does one have to do to get some service around here?"
Andrée turned. A tall man with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and nose and lips big enough to put Bei-chan's to shame was lounging in a chair at a table by himself. He was wearing a red and black outfit that looked like it belonged on some sci-fi TV show, with a delta-shaped gold pin over his heart. "I'm sorry, sir, no one's served you yet?"
"I've been trying to catch the waitress's attention." He pointed at Vash, who was serving drinks ten feet away. "So far, though, she's paid no attention. I think she's deliberately ignoring me."
"Well, we can't have that, can we?" Andrée said. "Let me go see what I can do."
She walked up behind Vash. "Hi, chèrie. Rough night?"
"Not particularly," Vash said. "Why?"
"Well, the gentleman over there would like to know why you're ignoring him."
Vash turned and saw where Andrée was pointing. "Oh, good God."
"You know him?"
"We've met," Vash said coldly, and stalked over to the man. Andrée followed. This might be entertaining.
"What are you doing here?" Vash demanded of the man.
"Watching the show. I might add, you make a charming stripper, Vash. I think you've found your true vocation."
Vash clenched her fists. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't someone's brilliant idea to strand me in this miserable place!"
"Temper, temper. Have to watch that blood pressure, you know."
"Have you come to get me out of here, or do you just want to gloat?"
"Mmm. I think I'll gloat for a bit. You are the one who went on and on about how you could survive anywhere and you didn't need my help, after all."
"Well, I did survive. I don't need you."
"And you've done so admirably. A job as a stripper in a sleazy dive? Supplementing your income with con games, living in a fifth floor walkup with small vermin scurrying all over it, having at best three outfits to wear when you're not removing your clothes professionally-- oh, I'd say you've done a marvelous job."
Vash looked like she was going to dump the tray of drinks over his head. Andrée intervened. "Is this your friend, Vash?" she asked. "The one who stranded you here?"
"Yes," Vash grated out through clenched teeth. "Yes, he stranded me here. But I wouldn't exactly call him a friend."
"You wound me, ma chèrie. After all I've done for you."
"Unless you're here to take me home, you've done quite enough, thanks. Help me out or get out of my life."
"Are you actually asking me for something? The proud Vash, admitting she needs me?"
"Sir," Andrée said, "maybe you might want to continue this conversation at another time. Vash has a job to do."
Vash glanced at Andrée with a look of sudden fear as the man turned, saw her, and smiled brilliantly. "What have we here?" he asked. "How interesting! I didn't know anyone still made you creatures. It's been-- oh, I don't know, a few thousand years since I last saw one of your kind."
Ice closed around Andrée's heart. How could a man who didn't know her from Adam immediately recognize what she was? And what did he mean, a few thousand years? Who was he? "What kind is that?" she asked.
"The same kind as your late unlamented boyfriend," he said. "Do I really need to spell it out for you, dear child? In public? When your employer possesses a somewhat understandable prejudice toward beings of your kind? How long do you think your precious freedom would last if Jun knew what you were? And who the father of your child was?"
"Stop it," Vash said. "She didn't do anything to you, Q. Leave her alone."
"But she's so intriguing," the man said. "You have no idea what she is, do you, Vash? Or what her function is intended to be?"
"You know a lot," Andrée said coolly, regaining some of her composure. "I'd do a lot for an information system like that myself. I thought I'd covered myself quite well."
"Oh, you did, ma chèrie. You did. Or should that be mon?"
"Mon's masculine," Vash said.
"I'm sure he knows that," Andrée said, studying the man. "So how do you know all this?"
"Well, that's simple to explain. I know everything. But never fear, your little secret's safe with me. I may know all, but I never tell all. Ask Vash if you don't believe me."
"I'll handle this," Vash said. "You'd better go, Andrée. He can get really obnoxious."
"Once again you cut me to the quick. Perhaps I'll leave you to reconsider my value to you. When next we meet, keep a civil tongue in your head and I may even take you home." He tipped an imaginary hat at Andrée. "Adieu, mon amie ambiguë. Until we meet again."
Andrée stared at the place where he'd been several seconds. "Vash?"
"Let's go backstage and get Jinpei to make us something. I could use a good stiff drink."
"Me too," Vash said fervently.
Darlon, Jun had discovered, spent bigger when she was with him. He was now on his fifth expensive drink, and had grown friendly-- perhaps too friendly. "How come I never see you up there dancing?" Darlon asked, placing a hand on her thigh.
Jun coquettishly crossed her legs, squashing his hand with as much force as her Science Ninja-trained legs could bring to bear. Darlon hastily yanked his hand away. "I don't dance," Jun said. "I'm no good at it."
"Who cares? It isn't your talent we'd be paying to see."
Jun forced a smile, inwardly wincing. Naked displays of adoring lust were Andrée's thing, or the Harlot's-- not hers. "Oh, don't say that," she said in a modest Japanese girl tone of voice. "I'm really no good at that sort of thing."
"I'd really like to see you do it," Darlon said. "I think you should."
What a possible Galactor thought was completely irrelevant to Jun, but of course she couldn't say so. "Maybe."
"How about if I give you something?"
Jun had no intention of stripping for him, no matter what he had, but curiosity impelled her to ask. "Like what?"
"Like this," he said, and removed a gem from his coat pocket.
It was a large, gorgeous, flawless diamond, perfect in every way-- except that it was stolen goods. Jun recognized it as the Lattimer diamond, recently stolen by the Flying Squirrel gang. She swallowed. Now she needed to get hold of the diamond-- it was evidence. "Oh, it's beautiful," she cooed, hiding the wheels turning in her head. "How much did it cost you?"
"A lot," Darlon said, probably lying. "But it'll be worth it if it means I can see a beautiful body like yours."
"I have to think about it."
After the encounter with her mother and Vash's entirely too knowledgeable friend, Andrée was more than a little frazzled. She was in the back, drinking heavily, when Jun came in.
"Andrée! I need your help!"
Andrée looked at her blearily. This game was starting to seem less amusing. If there was even one person who might betray Andrée to Jun on a whim, she could end up spending her life in prison for the crime of who she'd chosen to sleep with. The Science Ninja Team would never believe Berg Katse's lover had been a relentlessly apolitical non-Galactor, especially not if they learned she shared the same mutation as Katse and was created by X as well. "What?" she asked, feeling heavily depressed.
"There's this guy outside-- the big spender? And I need a gem he's got. I think he may be linked to the Flying Squirrel Gang-- he's got a gem they stole. I need to get hold of it."
The depression lifted slightly-- maybe she'd get to see some action. Andrée grinned. "Swan Jun, back on the job?"
Jun stared. "What are you talking about?"
Andrée realized then that she'd never told Jun she knew Jun's secret identity. "Never mind. If you want to keep playing like neither of us know who you are, that's fine. I've got secrets too. So you need this gem. What do you want from me?" She thought of offering to steal it for Jun, but she was sure she hadn't told Jun she'd been an art thief-- and while there were worse people than G-3 of the Science Ninja Team to learn that Ruby Tuesday was Andrée Sordonne, there weren't many worse.
"I thought about stealing it from him," Jun said. Andrée blinked. Okay, maybe she could have admitted it. "But I'm no pickpocket, and I wouldn't be surprised if he sleeps with the thing. But he said he'd give it to me if I danced."
"And you believe him?"
"Actually, yes. He's a scumball, but he's an honest one. Now I don't know if the Flying Squirrel Gang really has some connection to Galactor or what-- Andrée?"
"You're an ISO agent, aren't you?"
What the hell. It had been occasionally true, after all-- when Andrée's conscience over her relationship with Katse had gotten too loud and obnoxious, she'd generally gone and done work for ISO to balance things out. She hadn't worked for them in a couple of years, but Jun didn't need to know that. "I'll answer that if you tell the truth about being the Swan."
Jun shook her head. "I'm an ISO agent, but I'm not the Swan."
"Semantics. Just because the Science Ninja Team got mothballed is no reason you're not still the Swan. And yes, I am an ISO agent, and your cover is really, really lousy. Do you realize that I found out who all of you were by checking Nambu's back tax records?"
Jun sighed. "Is it really that bad?"
"Oh, chère Jun, if the head of Galactor Intelligence hadn't been so intent on getting Katse's job and sabotaging everything Katse ever did, all five of you would be very cold slabs of hamburger by now. I'd advise legally changing your identities at this point, except that Galactor's pretty much gone the way of the passenger pigeon and so there doesn't appear to be much of a point."
"Okay, okay. I admit-- who you said I am. Which is why I need that gem. I could beat it out of him, but I don't want to tip my hand-- the world thinks the Science Ninja Team's in retirement. Since we more or less are, until Dr. Nambu shows up. Have you any idea where he is?"
Andrée decided not to tell her who the fat and thin scientists who'd scurried out of here the other night were. "I think he's supervising the building of something or other."
"Well, that's more than we know, and we're practically his kids," Jun said unhappily. "Anyway. I don't really want to do this, but it looks like the safest way to get that gem is-- is to dance for him. And I don't know how."
"Ahh!" Now this all made sense. "Well, you should learn! All female ninjas should know how to act like strippers; you never know when the cover will come in handy. Trust me, Jun-chan. In just seven days, I can make you a woman!"
"I already am a woman."
Andrée sighed. Obviously the child had never seen Rocky Horror.
Two weeks later, Andrée pronounced her ready. Jun was extremely nervous. She had always been a proper Japanese girl, after all-- she'd never even taken off her clothes in front of one man, let alone a room full of them. She arranged an errand that would take Ryu and Jinpei out of town, and juggled schedules. Each of the girls had two nights off a week-- tonight Rogue and the Scarlet Harlot would be off. Which was just as well-- Rogue was always kind, but the Harlot had been known to make fun of the other dancers ruthlessly. Jun was sure she didn't want to dance in front of her. Ken hadn't turned up in the entire two weeks, and Jun was mildly nervous about him-- she couldn't get in contact with him, so she had no idea if he would just walk in the door tonight. But she'd take the risk. After all, tonight she was actually doing something for him, more or less, trying to get evidence on the possible rebirth of Galactor. If he walked in and complained, she'd ask if he had done any better.
The house was packed. Darlon was sitting up in the front today. Jun had decided she would come out during the set that all the girls worked together, rather than anyone's independent set-- it would lessen the attention on her herself. As she came out on stage and stared out into the crowd, she tried to remember what Andrée had said. "Remember, in this situation you're the one with the power. These men are paying you money just to look at you. They are completely helpless in the grip of their passions. They aren't allowed to touch you unless you want it; there is nothing they can do to you at all. All this is what you're doing to them. Fleece the suckers and take'em for everything they've got!"
Jun had grown up in a society where male voyeurs were considered to be violating the privacy of the women they looked at; it was hard for her to adapt to a mindset where the woman being looked at was the one in power. She used her ninja training to think of it as an act. She had pretended to be a Galactor in the past, quite successfully; certainly pretending to be a stripper couldn't be that hard. So she thought hard about Andrée's words, psyching herself up, and then stepped out.
The crowd cheered madly, and Jun grinned. It was just like being an actress, that was all. Or a singer on stage. With the grace that came from years of martial arts training, and the buried sensuality she'd always had and Andrée had trained her to bring out, she began to dance. Actually, this was sort of fun. Stage fright became an adrenaline rush, carrying her along on a wave of excitement. It wasn't difficult to get into this, especially since several of the guys were throwing money at the stage. There was no one she knew personally in the crowd; she was completely anonymous and completely safe.
Darlon came forward and tossed the diamond at her. Jun caught it in her teeth-- having practiced with the boys for years at catching thrown pieces of popcorn, she was skilled at this-- and smiled brilliantly. She puckered up and popped the diamond out of her mouth, caught it with one hand, and tossed it backstage to Andrée. Then she ripped off her bra and G-string, to the delighted roar of the crowd.
At that point the wall crashed in.
Jun looked up. The giant mecha Squirrelon had crashed through the wall. Teru started screaming; her voice was almost lost in the general screams coming from the crowd, some of whom had been squashed by the wall. The squirrel's arm reached out for Darlon.
"I'm sorry!" Darlon screamed. "I won't do it again! I just had to see her!" The squirrel picked up Darlon and deposited him in its gaping mouth, kicking and screaming.
Jun shouted over the confusion. "Everyone remain calm! Head for the emergency exits!" Of all times, it had to attack now-- there was no time for her to put her uniform back on and transmute to Bird Style, and Jinpei and Ryu were out of town. How was she going to deal with this? She glanced back at Andrée-- but Andrée was gone. Well, what did she expect? Even an ISO agent couldn't be expected to stand her ground against a giant mech.
The girls ran for the exit. A heavy squirrel foot landed in front of them, blocking their path. "Polymar!" Teru shrieked. "Save me!"
The squirrel reached down and grabbed Jun, Sylvie and Teru, knocking Vash flat on the floor. Jun tried to struggle free, but without her Bird Style or weapons she was as helpless as the other two. She watched in horror as Squirrelon lifted its foot to step on Vash. "Watch out!" she screamed from up in the paw. "Vash, get out of the way!"
She thought she heard Vash yell, "All right already! I admit it, I need you, help!" It was difficult to hear over Teru's shrieking for Polymar. Then the foot slammed down. There was nothing, not even a scream.
Sylvie yelled, "Polymar's not coming, Teru! Calm down and let's try to think our way out of this!"
"He will come! He'll save me, he always does! POLYMAR!!"
The squirrel lumbered forward. Jun twisted around, trying to see the damage, and to her vast surprise saw Vash lying in a squirrel footprint, completely unhurt and looking as surprised as Jun felt. However, the rest of the bar was a shambles. Dead, injured and shrieking men lay or huddled all over the place. It was as bad as any Galactor attack-- the repair bill would undoubtedly eat all the profits Jun'd made. Squirrelon carried them out of the remains of Juliette's and started climbing the nearest skyscraper, with a handful of nude Fay Wrays in its paw. It occurred to Jun for the first time that it might not matter about the repair bill-- for the first time in her life, she was a mere victim of Galactor technology, helpless to fight back, and most people in that situation didn't live through it.
"Oh, God," she whispered. "I'm sorry, Ken, I'm sorry I didn't believe you, I'm sorry I was so callous to you, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I love you..."
Then Squirrelon ground to a sudden halt.
Slowly, very carefully, its paw lowered, releasing the three dancers. A crowd had gathered-- the refugees from the bar had circled around, now that the situation appeared under control. Squirrelon itself climbed down from the skyscraper and came to a complete halt on the ground. Then one of its eyes opened like a door, and Ken stepped out in Bird Style.
"Ken!" Jun whispered, overjoyed.
Someone in the crowd yelled, "It's Polymar!"
Jun, Teru and Ken, up on Squirrelon, all gave the offender a very dirty look. Teru said, "That's not Polymar." She reconsidered. "Though whoever he is, he's gorgeous. Who is he?"
"He's Gatchaman," Jun said disbelievingly. They'd only been out of circulation a year, and already they were forgotten?
"So long as the evil of those who abuse science exists, there we are-- Science Ninja Team Gatchaman!" Ken pronounced, as Jinpei and Ryu stepped out from behind him. Then all three of them leapt down into the crowd.
A general rousing cheer went up. "The Flying Squirrel Gang has been defeated," Ken said. "The Demon Rodent Beast Squirrelon will terrorize the innocent citizens no longer."
At that point a flying man in a red suit, vaguely similar to a Bird Style, arrived and landed next to Ken. "I see you've dealt with the menace of Squirrelon," he said. "Aren't you Gatchaman?"
"That's right. And you must be Hurricane Polymar."
"Yes. I was called away on important business in my home town-- I arrived as soon as I could, but I see you've already got the situation under control. My thanks."
Teru ran forward. "Polymar! I knew you wouldn't abandon me!" She hugged him fiercely.
"I'll see that the proper authorities get this," Polymar said. "If you three have any business elsewhere--"
Oh. Or in other words, he wanted to take the credit for Ken's victory. Jun was outraged. She stepped forward, playing her role to the hilt. "Gatchaman!" she said, in a dreamily happy voice. "Thank you so much for saving me and my friends! By the time Polymar here arrived, we might all have been flung to our deaths!" She hugged him as fiercely as Teru had Polymar, kissed him on the cheek, and whispered in his ear. "Don't let Polymar steal your thunder," she murmured.
"Don't worry, I won't," he murmured back. "Don't you think you should get some clothes on?"
Jun stepped back, mortified. In the excitement of the moment, she had totally forgotten that she was naked.
"Well, I found out what was going on," Ken was saying. "Though it was almost too late."
"What?" Jun asked.
She was back in her civilian clothes. Around her, hired workers were remodeling the J, back to its original style as a bar and grill. It would be a lot spiffier now; she had more money to play with. But its days as a strip club were emphatically over.
Ken leaned on the newly sanded, unfinished bar. "Most of what was left of Galactor when Galactor went under became these gangs of thieves with mecha," he said. "But there's funding coming from a centralized source now. It looks like I was right-- the real Galactor is now using these things as a distraction."
"I'm sorry I doubted you," Jun said fervently. "Can you ever forgive me?"
"Of course." Ken looked a bit confused that she would even ask.
"Why did they attack my bar, though?"
"Well, that guy Darlon apparently wasn't supposed to have the diamond in his possession. It belonged to the Squirrel King, their boss. And when he found out that Darlon planned to give it to you, he decided to recapture Darlon and kill all you dancers to teach Darlon a lesson, as well as getting the diamond back. Whatever happened to the diamond, anyway?"
"I gave it to Andrée. I don't know what happened after that."
"Mm. Well, I've been in contact with Dr. Nambu. He's been building a new base for us, complete with new mecha and new weapons. We're to go in and start training in two days."
Jun found that a tremendous relief. For all the fun she'd had running Juliette's, it was best to be a member of the Science Ninja Team again.
Andrée came downstairs. "Well, I've seen to everyone's goodbyes and severance pay, so I'll be off," she said.
"What will any of them do now? Do you know?"
"Well, the Scarlet Harlot is now dressing like a bag lady and calling herself Jane. She's headed off to Rhode Island, of all places-- apparently that's where her friends live. Teru went with Polymar. Sylvie says she thinks she can go back to science now. Rogue left with a guy in red glasses and a white-haired, blue-eyed black woman-- I swear, where do these people come from? And Vash made up with her boyfriend-- apparently he saved her from the squirrel mech or something like that."
"I saw the mech almost stepped on her. I didn't see her boyfriend anywhere in the area."
"You wouldn't have. He's-- um. There are things we mere mortals weren't meant to know, Jun-chan. In any case, he took her home. And everyone else will probably be getting jobs as dancers somewhere else. So now there's just me."
"And where'll you go?"
"Home to my mom and my kid, at least for a while. After that, who knows?"
"Well, thanks again for all your help." Jun remembered then. "Do you know what happened to the diamond?"
Andrée shrugged. "I must have lost it in the confusion. I'm sorry. Maybe it'll turn up in the renovations."
Jun shook her head. "It wasn't your fault. Don't worry about it."
"Wasn't planning to."
Ken studied Andrée, frowning. "Haven't we met somewhere before?"
"I don't think so. I'd have recognized you, chèri." She went to the door. "Have fun, kiddos, and remember what I said, Jun. Life is far too short."
Jun smiled at Ken. Life was too short. Now that the Science Ninja Team was coming back together, perhaps there was a future for her with Ken after all.
Inside her car, Andrée opened the glove box and checked inside. The Lattimer diamond was still there, resting peacefully.
"Poor Jun-chan," Andrée murmured gleefully. "There are limits to how much one should trust a thief, after all."
She closed the glove box. After all the work she'd done for the poor girl, she deserved something nice in exchange. She put a tape in the car stereo, started the car, and headed down the highway, singing.