Shoes on Other Feet
The firelight flickered over the table, its single occupant casting a long, black shadow over the papers. Berg Katze finished his glass and reached for the bottle to pour another, wincing as the movement stretched a particularly bad bruise. Another mission had failed and the Overlord had *not* been forgiving. He sipped again, glaring at the papers on the table.
He had paid dearly for these pictures and they were worthless, utterly worthless. Five pairs of feet vanishing from the borders of the prints. Disgusted, he scattered them and sat back with a pained moan.
Feet. Now if only that shoe they had captured had yeilded any clues to the identities of the Kagaku Ninja Tai. He had learned a lot about their birdstyle technology from it, but it had given little in the way of actually using it. His eye fell on the picture again. Or hadn't it? Katze moved his head, moving the sharp shadow cast by one mask ear to gaze at the image of stripey bellbottomed legs wearing shoes he was only too familiar with.
The girl. Shiratori no Jun hadn't been seen the entire time they'd had her shoe -- not in birdstyle, at any rate. Katze was almost positive they'd had her in the group from the contest. A girl wearing identical stripey bellbottoms had been in that group. The same girl, he was sure, that he'd held hostage in a mansion, in his female form. Katze pressed his fingertips to his temples, rubbing them through the mask, trying to remember... That girl she'd captured.. had she worn those shoes? He thought she had. So if that *was* Shiratori no Jun, why didn't she make an appearance when they had her shoe? Didn't they have extras? Were the shoes that vital to the birdstyle suits?
Katze stared at the picture again, taking another sip of wine. What if they were? What if they didn't have any extra pairs? He stared at the legs, stared at the shoes.. They were perfectly clear. He had perfect, clear pictures of all five pairs of shoes. He held the picture up, trying to look closer, ripping off the interfering mask with a snarl and bending over to squint in the firelight; so clear he could make out the stitching on the men's oxfords, even in this light. If the shoes *were* the key.. and he had pictures of all five of them.. Maybe these pictures were valuable after all..........
Joe pulled over onto the shoulder of the road behind the gleaming red sports car. The driver was bent over beneath the hood. "Some problem?" he asked, admiring the shapely anatomy revealed by the position.
The woman straightened up, tossing her long blonde ponytail back over her left shoulder. "Lost a cylander," she groused and wiped at a smudge of black engine grease on her smooth ivory cheek. Joe was instantly smitten.
Ryu lay on his back on the grassy hill, having succumbed to the warm sunshine and fresh breeze. When he awoke, he discovered that some scoundrel had stolen his shoes right off his feet.
Jun and Jinpei romped in the surf, their picnic basket and beach blankets left unattended. They had worn sandals, so it wasn't until they returned home late in the afternoon, that they discovered that their shoes had gone missing.
Ken stood at the okonomiyaki stand, waiting for the cook to flip the pancake and smear it with the tasty, tamari-based sauce. He looked up at the cries of "There he is! Get him!" but it wasn't until five guys jumped him and wrestled him to the ground that he realized they were talking about him. Amid shouts of "Grab his shoes!" he struggled, but in vain: He was held down, his shoes wrenched from his feet, then abruptly he was free as the felons disappeared down an alley with their prize. "What the heck was that all about?" he wondered.
In the tiny trailer, Berg Katze sat up, her breathing still rough. She looked over at her sleeping "knight in shining armour", the sweat still drying on his honey-dark skin. Moving swiftly and silently, she pulled on her clothes, then snatched up her lover's shoes and bolted out to her repaired car. Grinning maniacally, she sped off into the night.
Nambu frowned as his team assembled in his office. Joe was wearing a pair of Nike runners and looking darkly dangerous. Ryu wore Birkenstocks. Ken wore his formal wing-tips. Jun wore a pair of pink slip-ons and wouldn't look at anybody. Jimpei wasn't wearing any shoes at all but had taken the opportunity to cover his feet in temporary tattoos. He was the only one looking happy.
"I gather this is not a coincidence," Nambu said.
"Stole 'em right off my feet," Ryu mumbled.
"They jumped me!!"
"We... had them in our picnic basket..."
"I fell asleep.. My fault.."
"We shouldn't've gone to the beach... "
"Onechan lost her shoes again."
"I was waiting for my lunch and they *jumped* me!! In public!!"
Nambu held up a hand for silence, then glanced over at Joe, "And you don't want to say."
"Damned straight," Joe grunted.
"Bet it was a girl."
"Shut up, Ken!"
"So you've all lost your shoes," Nambu interrupted. Five nods answered him. "They were stolen, I take it? How?"
"I was standing at an okonomiyaki stall and these five guys came out of nowhere and jumped me!" Ken exclaimed indignantly, "They kept screaming 'Get his shoes' and then they took 'em right off my feet and ran away with them!"
"They took 'em off my feet too," Ryu said sadly, "I fell asleep on the lawn. It was such a nice day."
"We went to the beach," Jun said, her voice small and she refused to look Nambu in the eye. She'd been through this before. "We put our shoes in our picnic basket so we could go wading. They... went missing while we were wading."
All eyes turned to Joe, who turned purple. "I rescued a chick," he blurted. There were groans and Nambu shook his head. "Well her car had died on her! Lost a cylander!"
"Joe, you are such a hormone case.."
"Shut the fuck up Ken, you're just jealous 'cause you never get any!"
"What are the chances that Galactor is behind this?" Nambu interrupted again, "Pretty high, yes? Given what they must have learned from Jun's shoe - " here he cast a mild glare at Jun, " - and that they did get photographs of your feet in civilian mode."
"Katze has a foot fetish?"
Nambu let the laughter die down. "You know your birdstyles won't work unless all components are present. You *must* get your shoes back or the world is doomed."
Katze brushed her bangs out of her eyes for the millionth time, sweating in the intense heat of the anteroom. On the other side of the glass in the experiment room, another shoe yielded up its identity. Her eyes widened with delight as the midnight blue boot achieved its full length. The Condor? Had that been the Condor? Oh what a lucky break that had been, he'd been half-way through repairing her cylander when she noticed his shoes. Getting them off of him... well that had been pretty easy. She shook her head, grinning with satisfaction. Sorry kid, but one good roll and a car repair didn't quite make up for all the knocks she'd taken off him and his friends. She lit a cigarette as the Giger meters slowly lowered their needles, then sent her men in to retrieve the shoes. She had them arrayed before her, soles up, then she got to work.
A little from here, a little from there.... oh and knock in a little cigarette ash just for good measure...
"Right, then. This is the place," Ken whispered, "Katze was reported to be here, so this is probably where they've got our shoes. He wouldn't trust anybody else with them."
"Not after last time," Jun whispered, eyes lowered.
"Aw its not your fault, Jun," Ryu said sympathetically, "After all, that thing nearly crushed you. You didn't exactly have a lot of time to go after it." Jun smiled, glad for the support.
"There," Joe interrupted, "A couple of likely looking gumby greensuits."
Ken sized them up, nodding agreement, "That's good for you and I, but what about the others?"
Joe shrugged, "They'll have to find their own." Ken scowled. "Okay, okay, maybe we'll find the shoes ourselves."
"We better go after those ones or they'll get away. Come on."
The others - Jun, Jimpei and Ryu - stayed hidden in the shadows as Ken and Joe sauntered up to the greensuited Galactors and asked directions to the laundromat. In French. Or something that resembled it. While trying to make themselves understood, they K.O'd the confused Galactors and dragged them behind some crates. A few minutes later, Ken and Joe reappeared, smoothing down the ill-fitting green uniforms and carrying the masks.
"Alright, we'll go in and see what we can uncover. If you find any likely-looking outfits, grab 'em and start scouting yourselves."
They watched as their leader and gunner slipped into a patrol and vanished into the base. For several minutes all was quiet. Jun gazed up at the clouds spiralling over the base, catching on the tips of the surrounding mountains. Presently she felt a tap on her shoulder.
Ryu was staring off in another direction. An enormous man in the gawdy uniform of a Galactor taicho was lining up his men and giving them instructions. The conclusion was some sort of gesture, involving settng the thumbs of the open, forward-facing palms against the temples. It was the silliest salute either of them had ever seen and they kept expecting the Galactors to wiggle their fingers at each other. The men finished their drill and prepared to return to base; Ryu saw his opportunity and seized it.
"Did anybody see you?" Jun whispered as Ryu dragged his captive back under the bushes.
"Don't think so," Ryu stripped the clothing off the man and eyed it critically, "I'm never gonna live this down.."
"Think of it this way, Ryu: Aniki and Joe only got to be gumbies, you get to be a taicho," Jimpei grinned. Ryu scowled and hid behind a tree to get changed.
"That leaves us," Jun sighed as Ryu slid into the base. She turned and regarded Jimpei.
Jun clutched her gunstrap nervously, grateful for the gloves that hid her white-knuckled hands. This had been a considerable gamble.
"Oneeeechan, let up! You're crushing my hand!"
"Sorry.. sorry.." she whispered. She eased up her grip on Jimpei's hand but did not let go.
"Geez will you relax?? It's not like you're not a Science NiMMPH!"
"SHH will you shut up?? Someone's coming!" Jun straightened her mask and tried to look natural. Their hearts froze as the approaching footsteps proved to belong to a terribly familiar person. She was wearing a body-hugging jumpsuit of moody, swirling purples and her hair was in a cascading ponytail instead of a chignon, but it was the same woman Galactor who had tricked them into joining her for dinner, drugged them, then left them for dead. Apprehension swam in the pit of Jun's stomach: She had deduced their identities then and it had taken a lot of clever convincing and tricks to throw her off. Jun walked straight ahead, hoping she'd take no notice.
"Number twelve!" No such luck. Jun swallowed, but turned to face the woman. She closed the distance with smooth strides, towering above Jun's five-foot-one. Her cold eyes narrowed as she regarded Jimpei. Jimpei, in his plain t-shirt, baggy jeans and Galactor-insignia'd baseball cap, tried to look cowed. "What is this.... urchin doing here?"
"I couldn't find a babysitter.. ma'am.." Jun closed her eyes behind the mask -- she was going to be shot, she knew it. That was the lamest sounding excuse she'd ever heard.
Jun's eyebrows shot up. Again? What incredible luck!! Not only did the assassin she'd stolen the uniform from actually have a child, but she'd used this excuse before!! "Yes ma'am. They... They're refusing. They say he misbehaves, plays pranks, brings bugs home.. He's a terrible brat, but the base doctors say its just a phase.." Oh good, the mommy-babble was working; the tall woman was getting that impatient look. Jun didn't turn to see the look Jimpei was giving her.
"Your mission is due to lift off in an hour," the blonde woman said, "Oh very well, take him to the 'pedophile's pick'n'mix' on the seventh floor and DON'T let this happen again or I'll put him in training!"
"Yes ma'am. Thank you ma'am."
"And if you see Number Two, tell her to report to Katze-sama on Gamma Level in thirty minutes."
"Yes ma'am. I'll pass that on, ma'am."
"Do that," the woman said coldly, then spun on her heel and marched swiftly down the corridor. Within seconds she had disappeared.
"What was all that about 'he's a brat, he brings bugs home'??"
"You do too bring bugs home and you are a brat and I just wish it WAS a phase!"
"I am NOT a brat! I'm gonna tell Aniki! What's a 'pedophile's pick'n'mix'?"
"Will you hush? Now lets check out what's on this Gamma Level.."
"There they are," Ken breathed with relief, "Good work, Jun. Joe, can you circumvent the security systems?"
Joe nodded, fiddling with a screwdriver and prying off the cover of a panel. A few moments later, the magnetic lock on the door popped and the door swung open. "What about alarms?" he asked.
Ken nodded, equally concerned, "Well, once we get our shoes back, we can go to birdstyle -- then we won't need to worry about the alarms any more. Everybody got their clothes?" Everyone nodded. "Good. Get dressed and get ready." Taking a deep breath, he slipped into the room and examined the locks holding the shoes in place.
Several minutes later he emerged with five pairs of shoes and passed them around. Ken breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped into his comfortable loafers.
"Everyone ready? Good..." Ken brought his hand up and spoke the magic words, "Baaaaaado GO!!"
He sighed, relaxing into the familiar, body-caressing tingle, feeling the material of his birdstyle coalescing, the weight of the helmet enclosing his head, the cool breeze on his thighs... Waitaminnit, what cool breeze on his thighs?? And his helmet didn't feel quite right either. Ken opened his eyes and his brow creased in puzzlement: The world was tinted gold, not the familiar blue. Baffled, he looked down at his white-gloved hands and caught sight of..
"GAHHH!!! What am I doing in JUN's suit????"
"Anikiiiiii! I can't see!" Jimpei complained from somewhere beneath Joe's helmet. Ken stared in horror: He was wearing Jun's miniskirt and thigh boots, Jimpei was wearing Joe's Condor suit, Jun was a very shapely Owl and Ryu made a very portly Eagle. Ken totted up the numbers in his head, then turned around, dreading what he'd find.
Jimpei's Swallow birdstyle was giving Joe a very uncomfortable wedgie.
"What the hell happened??"
"Isn't it obvious?" Ken snapped at Ryu, "That bastard Berg Katze dicked around with our shoes!! He knows how to change around our birdstyles!"
"We'd better get back to base," Jun moaned, "Maybe Hakase can straighten us out again." She looked up at the sound of a delighted giggle.
"Coooooooool," Ryu purred with a goofy expression, "Now *I'm* the white shadow who slips in unseen!" He pulled out Ken's Birdrang and soared it around.
"Come off it, Ryu, this is no time for games," Ken snapped.
"Maybe I should leave *you* sittin' on yer ass on the God Phoenix!" Ryu retorted. Ken wound up to reply but was interrupted by a loud bang.
The door burst open, revealing a squadron of Galactor soldiers. "There he is!" they screamed, "Get him! Get Gatchaman!"
The expression on Ryu was truly priceless. He backed away as the gumbies closed in.
"Get him! He killed my son!"
"He killed my brother!"
"He killed my dog!"
"Butbutbut..." Ryu stammered, "I'm not Gatchaman, I'm Mimizuku no Ryu!"
"Yah sure LOOK like Gatchaman!"
Ken slapped his hip where his weapon usually resided and slapped bare flesh. While Ryu tore past him, he patted around his body helplessly, "Jun! Where do you keep your yo-yos??"
"KENNNNNNN!!! How d'yah use this stupid thing, the wings won't open!!"
"JUN!" Ken looked up to see Jun valiently kicking off a couple of goons.
"Don't worry, Onechan, I'll save you! I got Joe's gun!"
"JIMPEI, DON'T.. awwwww..." Joe paused in pounding a Galactor. He cringed as the boy pulled the trigger and the cable slammed into his chin with an audible WHUNK.
"KEN!" Jun screamed, slamming her heel onto a goon's instep, "Ryu's supposed to use his strength! I am NOT a sumo wrestler!"
"Gimme my Birdrang, Ryu!"
"Does somebody wanna help Jun??" Ryu demanded as he dominoed ten gumbies into a wall. "Where'd she go?"
They looked up a few moments later as three Galactors ran screaming from a side room. Jun appeared a moment later, tucking her shirt into her bellbottomed pants. Jimpei looked up at her as she returned to Birdstyle, blushing furiously.
Ken was mortified. They hadn't a clue how to use each other's weapons (not that Joe was even trying, as long as he had his fists) and Jun was at a serious disadvantage. Still, they'd managed to hold their own this far. Now if only....
A hidden panel was sliding up and Ken's heart sank. There, against strong linght, was another platoon of soldiers and at their front was Berg Katze. Katze stared. His jaw fell open. Then, as Ken had known he would, he began to laugh. This time, though, the laughter wasn't maniacal - it was hysterical.
"Kamisama!" Katze gasped out, "Oh this is even better than I'd hoped!"
"Berg Katze..." Ken growled and clenched his fist.
Katze struck a pose, "I am the white shadow who.. shit I'm in drag!" He doubled over howling, as did many of his men. Ken and Joe exchanged a glance, then sprinted at the Galactor leader while the others engaged the soldiers, preventing them from assisting.
Katze bolted, laughing almost too hard to see. Gatchaman -- and that was definately Gatchaman in the miniskirt -- was hard on his heels but the Condor lagged behind, hampered by his too-small Swallow suit.
yo-yo zinged past Katze's ear and he put on an extra burst of speed. Finally, Joe got desperate.
"AAAARGH!" Katze crashed against a wall. Damn those Swallow-bolos anyways! He yelped as Ken leaped on top of him.
"Damn you, Katze!"
"You need a better makeup artist," Katze giggled.
Ken saw red and tightened his grip around Katze's throat, "Damn you, Katze! Fix our shoes or else!!"
"Or else what, you'll powder me, pretty boy?"
Katze considered. He hated pain, but could tolerate it, and if that were the price of humiliating the Science Ninja Team out of Galactor's way.. He wagged his head back and forth, "Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope."
"Ah, fuck this, Ken, let's beat him into it.." Joe wound up, the muscles bunching in his arm, his back..
"OH for... Thong underwear, Joe??"
"Are the wings long enough to cover it?"
"<gasp> And me without my camera <wheeze> AHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!"
Nambu rubbed his forehead tiredly, staring at the shoes on his desk and at the five barefooted, indignant ninjas before him. "Refresh my memory... Why am I doing this?"
"Didja fix my suit, Hakase?"
"I fixed your suit, Jimpei, yes.."
"More importantly, are the shoes fixed?" Ryu interjected.
Nambu sighed again, "I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: I have no idea what Berg Katze did to your shoes. The circuitry is..." He shook his head, "I did my best, and I'm the one who originally designed the technology, but.."
"... They've transformed into the proper birdstyles the last three times I tested them, but I still can't make any guarantees that all of the bugs have been worked back out." There were groans all around. Nambu sighed again, then tented his fingers, "Unfortunately, it *would* have to have been the shoes that Katze got hold of: The shoes are the 'command modules' of the Birdstyles, which is why you all got the wrong outfits, not just the wrong boots. If any other part of your uniforms went missing, you could still access the majority of the Birdstyle weaponry, but without the shoes, you're helpless." Once again, he directed a mild glare at Jun.
Ryu decided enough was enough, "Aw c'mon, Hakase, stop picking on Jun. It wasn't her fault that thing nearly squashed her and caught her shoe in it."
"She should have been more careful."
"And you coulda had more foresight! She got caught in *my* outfit and was totaly defenseless cuz I got no weapons besides my strength!"
"Hey yeah, Onechan, how *did* you get those goons offa you? They scattered like geese!" Jimpei blinked in surprise as Jun blushed a deep purple.
"Whatever it was, she had to go out of Birdstyle to do it," Joe observed.
"She led them off somewhere.."
"What did you do, Jun?"
Jun blushed harder and hid her face in her hands.
"... its..... i..... it's...... that time of the month......."
There was dead silence for several minutes. "EWWWWWW Gross, Onechan!!!!"
"Ohhhh myyyy goddddddd...."
"Those poor Galactors!"
"AAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!" Jun looked up in shock as Joe gave her shoulder a hearty slap, laughing his head off, "Now *THAT'S* original! Don't tell Ken, he'll make up a yell.."
Jun put her face back in her hands and blushed again.
"If we're QUITE finished discussing innovative self-defence techniques," Nambu iterrupted, looking a little pink himself, "Ryu, I take your point about weapons and will consider it at the next upgrade.. For now, here are your shoes back."
"Thank heavens," Ken sighed. They all took their shoes and put them on. "You sure they're alright now, Hakase?"
"I can't guarantee it, but they did transmute properly the last three times.."
"Alright then. Baaaaaado GO!!"
Nambu's jaw dropped.
"I THOUGHT YOU SAID THEY *WORKED*!"
"They *did* work!" Nambu protested, horrified. The Kagaku Ninja Tai were al wearing their proper helmets, gloves and boots... and that was pretty much all! Their wings were nowhere to be seen and their only torso covering was a tiny little g-string. He tried not to notice that the strings all had the Gatchaman bird insignia on them, pointing in its usual direction.
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Nambu-hakase! By now you will have figured out that I have OH MY!!" Amid the shrieks and scufflings of the Science Ninjas diving for cover, Nambu's head sank down to rest on his desk. Great, just great...
Katze stared as Ken, obtusely refusing to acknowledge being dressed like a stripper, shook his fist at him and snarled curses. This was too, too good. "..I don't think I need to gloat. HEY, BRACE, C'MERE Y'GOTTA SEE THIS!!" There was a mad scramble for the monitor power source with a bare-breasted Shiratori no Jun managing to beat the Condor to the switch.
"Do you think he saw anything??"
"I think he saw too much. Hakase, you gotta do something!"
"I know I know," Nambu rubbed his temples, "I'm going back to the original blueprints. I'll compare them to the shoes' scans and see if I can find out what he did to them.." Wearily, he stood up and left the room without another word.
There was silence for several minutes while they tried not to shiver. Jun hid behind a plant. Joe stared up at the ceiling, chewing on a feather shuriken. "Huh. I'm bigger'n you."
Ken turned to direct a nasty glare at him, "Will you shut up? You *would* say something like that."
"You're just jealous," Joe snickered.
"What is there to be jealous of??"
"Its no wonder I get all the dates."
"And they all die after, real good track record," Ryu retorted.
"At least they died happy."
"Joe, will you shut up!"
"I can't believe you!" Jun exclaimed, "What kind of talk is this, in front of a young boy!"
"Even Jimpei's bigger'n Ken," Joe sniggered.
"Stuff it, Joe!" Ryu barked.
"He already does."
"You heard me," Ken chortled, "Your codpiece is all cod!"
"You bastard!" Joe howled and leaped at Ken.
"Whassa matta, Joe? Did I hit a nerve?"
<biff> <sock> <POW>
"..uff.... urgh... What??"
"Gllhhh.. OW!shit.. Who's back? Hakase? Joe, get offa me.."
"No! Katze!" Ken went cold and looked up.
"This is better than Jello wrestling," Katze smirked, then winked out.
"How the hell does he *do* that??"
"HOW DO YOU DO THAT, KATZE?"
Katze looked up, puzzled. He turned around from the video capture board and fixed his creator with a Look, "You mean you don't remember? You're the one who taught me."
"I DON'T MEAN BREAKING IN ON POWERED-OFF MONITORS.."
Katze looked even more baffled, "... Video capturing??"
"COMING UP WITH SUCH LAME-BRAINED IDEAS."
"This isn't lame-brained!"
"WHY ARE YOU PRINTING OFF PHOTOGRAPHS OF SCANTILY-CLAD SCIENCE NINJAS, BERG KATZE?"
"I'm looking for something," His smile turned crooked and he switched to a silly voice, "Hmm, looking.. Found something, I have. Hmm hmm yes.."
"STOP THAT, KATZE, YOU SOUND RIDICULOUS."
"Sorry, couldn't resist. Been looking for birthmarks."
"DO YOUR HORMONES NEVER REST, KATZE? WHY ARE YOU LOOKING FOR SCIENCE NINJA BIRTHMARKS WHEN YOU SHOULD BE DEFEATING THE KAGAKU NINJA TAI AND CONQUORING THE WORLD!"
Katze turned a smug smile to X's image and began counting off on his fingers, "First, production on the war machines is up 150% since nabbing the shoes. Second, progress on the BH Operation is unimpeded and is nearing Phase Two completion. Third, our acquisitions have proceeded unimpeded and the world is beginning to get edgy with Gatchaman's continued absense. And lastly..." His fingers twitched a couple of photographs off the board, "This was taken at BC Island, one of our minor bases. This, at the Africa 9000 race last year. This, at the Indianapolis 500 this year."
"THE SIGNIFICANCE?" X asked, tiredly.
Katze leaned forward, his face lit by an eery inner joy. He held up one more photograph, taken a half hour before: Kondoru no Joe, nearly naked, locked in combat with Gatchaman himself, snarling a snarl that might have been fearsome had he not been dressed like Mr. Nude Utoland. Katze's finger tapped the photo, indicating a pair of moles beneath the thong strap on one buttock.
X regarded the photos, then remembered how Katze had acquired the Condor shoes. "KONDORU... NO JOE?"
Katze nodded slowly, then erupted into laughter.
"EXCELLENT, KATZE, I MAY HAVE TO RETHINK MY OPINION OF YOU. YOU MAY YET PROVE WORTHY OF MY PATRONAGE... *BUT NOT IF YOU DON'T STOP CACKLING LIKE A LUNATIC*!!"