in a very alternative Gatchaman universe
"I forbid you to go by Carterhall any longer." Despite his relatively calm words, Nambu's hands had tightened on the edge of his desk. Jun had regarded him throughout the argument with an expression unchanged either by his ultimatums or Junpei's concern or Ryu's hovering watchfulness. The fact remained that rapes or none, Nambu had long since assigned her that section of Utoland city for patrol. Now that Ken had vanished for several weeks, it became doubly important to maintain watch.
"It's on my way to headquarters." Jun finger-combed the hair from her eyes, unclipping a gold barrette and twisting the hair into a short braid as she spoke. "It's my territory. And I know how to handle myself."
"Onechan--" Jinpei touched her arm. "Maybe Hakase's right. They say that women going through there alone don't come out unhurt, that they get beaten and their jewelry taken, or their clothing stolen, or else--"
"Or else they're raped." Jun nodded. "I'm not dumb. I read the stories in the paper. But that makes it imperative that the territory remain mine--Joe and Ryu aren't going to be attacked by whoever's doing this. I can draw them out. I know I can."
"But you won't," Nambu said. "And that's final."
Jun had zipped up her green jacket and put on a slightly longer skirt than her birdstyle garb, one that extended to a little above her knee. She'd braided her hair to keep it out of her eyes, and then she got on her motor cycle and drove to Carterhall as fast as she could.
The Snack J had its niche in Roxborough, one of the seedier spots of Utoland City, but Jun knew her way around there without problems. Slum thought it was, she knew residents of the area as far away as Miles Cross Square. On the other side of Miles Cross, the neighborhood changed to a commercial section called Carterhall. For the past few weeks, unsolved reports of rapes and thefts had emerged from Carterhall: all happening to young women traveling alone, all of them at dusk. Although the Kagaku Ninjatai normally avoided involvement with the everyday crime of such a large city as Utoland, Jun suspected Galactor involvement. She couldn't define why: pressed by the others, she could only shrug. Ken might have understood, but Ken had vanished almost a month ago after a test flight in a new fighter jet had gone awry. Joe and Ryu had located the downed jet, but Ken had ejected. After a few days, their certitude of his return had wavered. And now Jun drove through Carterhall not wondering about him, not grieving, just laying rubber on the pavement and trying to attract attention to herself.
At the center of Carterhall, in a courtyard created by four skyscrapers, stood a fountain. Jun had come here often to eat lunch, sometimes with the others, once with Ken. Ken had been about to ask her to dinner, but Jinpei had finagled his way into the outing as well. She'd been furious then.
Beside the fountain, someone had left a motorbike. From the design, Jun knew it wasn't your average Mitsubishi--a complete custom job. What caught her eyes the most was the designing of the white bike--the front wheel had a silver rim and spokes; the back half of the bike had been trimmed in a gold she could only describe as burning. She didn't need the Galactor insignia on the body to cue her in to its suspicious nature. Leaving her own bike propped against one of the buildings, she walked into the courtyard listening. The owner of the bike was far away.
Dusk had settled over the city, and in the courtyard the skyscrapers cast shadows. Jun walked along the outer walls, listening for footsteps, her training keeping her informed of any movement nearby. At the corner of one of the buildings, she paused, inhaled, and turned her head.
A rosebush. One of the corporations had planted a recessed garden--she had been here all summer and watched the roses turn from buds into blooms, and then from flowers into faded petals, but now in early October, an entire wall of roses had sprouted from the thorny jumble she remembered. It took only a moment for the smile to overspread her face. No one lingered here. She knew from the silence she was the only one who could see her, who would enter the garden. It took a few steps to cross the garden to the rose bush, and then only another moment to pull two roses from the branches.
"Lady," a voice called, "you'll pull no more."
Jun spun in place, clinging tightly to her roses. A grey-cloaked figure stood in the shadow of one of the walls, and he'd entered the garden unseen and unheard. Although she couldn't distinguish any of his features other than the shapeless cloak that blended with the walls and the dusk, her heart pounded at the voice.
"Why did you pull the rose?" he continued. "Why break the branches? And why did you come into this garden without my permission?"
Jun stared at him, raised her head. "Carterhall is mine. I live here--my father lets me work here. I'll come and go by Carterhall without asking anyone's permission."
She had her ninja training on which to rely. She escaped with her life. She drove back to headquarters as quickly as she could.
No mention of the incident. If Jinpei or Nambu suspected where Jun had gone, and possibly they did, they didn't question her. Ken still hadn't returned four weeks later, despite all their searching, and the reports of random attacks continued to emerge from Carterhall.
"You're looking tired," Ryu said to Jun one day after they talked over an assignment in Nambu's office. Jun shrugged. "Are you feeling all right? You're a little greenish."
"Great." Joe rolled his eyes. "Don't you put yourself out of commission too--all of us will be blamed for that."
"Drop dead, Joe." Jun folded her arms and turned aside. "Or would you care to be more direct with your accusations?"
Joe raised his hands and backed off. "All right, take it easy--no morning sickness jokes."
Nambu's eyes raised, but Jinpei was laughing. "Why--Ken's not here, were you making up for lost time, Joe?"
Jun had turned white. "Joe, I swear, I'd have any other man in the world father my child before resorting to you."
Ryu and Jinpei oohed in tandem.
"Jun," Nambu said lowly, "answer me honestly: when was your last period?"
She flushed. "Hakase?"
She tried to keep her eyes steady on his face. "Six and a half weeks ago." She'd gotten it last the day Ken had vanished.
The three guys fell completely silent.
Nambu spoke mildly. "And do you think you're pregnant?"
"If I am," she said, "then I myself bear the blame. There isn't a man in this room about to have a child named after him." And she left the office.
Jun had zipped her jacket to her neck and rebraided her hair, clipping it with her gold barrette, and then mounted her motorcycle. She broke the speed limit all the way to Carterhall.
I'm not being unreasonable. Her eyes stung with the wind as she rode. If he were just a man...but he's elvin grey...no, I can't just deny what happened or trade him for any other man in the world. I don't understand. But I can't give up on this assignment.
Once again, when she reached the courtyard with the fountain, a lone white bike stood unattended in the square. She parked her own bike and walked into the garden where the roses still bloomed. She drew up her knees and waited ten minutes before standing and approaching the rose bush. Once more, she plucked two roses.
"Lady," came the voice again, "you'll pull no more."
Her heart raced--Ken's voice. It had to be Ken's. But distorted, and so cruel. Yet also desperate. No wonder she hadn't recognized it before. She could hear more than power-madness in the voice: she could hear simultaneous bewilderment.
"Why are you pulling the roses from this garden?" he asked. "Or do you expect me to kill the child inside?"
The hair stood on Jun's arms. "Tell me," she said quietly, "where you come from. How did you get here?"
The figure stepped away from his shadows, and Jun became simultaneously more certain and uncertain that it was Ken. The eyes, the face--none of them matched. But his bearing, the way he could slip forward without a sound, with the grace of a panther--that she recognized. She'd have recognized it in any kind of disguise.
"I--" The figure looked confused, turned aside his head. Jun looked at the shaking in his hands, and suddenly it occured to her that this was Ken--but he was drugged. Drugged so heavily he couldn't think lucidly, couldn't remember who he was or his friends. Possibly left here to die, possibly left here as a petty terrorist to take Utoland City's minds off the larger terrorism the world faced daily. "I don't know. I think it was cold--I don't remember, but I think the wind was blowing. I remember falling. And there was a woman with blonde hair and eyes as chill as ice--she took me to her home. She said I was hers."
Jun's pulse pounded. "And--what has she done to you?"
Ken blinked rapidly. "I don't know. It's pleasant where I live. But--" Jun waited for him to continue. "But, it's eerie. At the end of seven weeks, they pay a tithe. To the overlord. To Sosai X. And I think I'm the one."
Jun stepped forward. "Are you certain?"
Ken nodded. His uncomprehending eyes swept over her time and again. "Does it mean death?" Jun asked.
"I'm not sure." Ken turned away. "But everyone's afraid of him. No one will talk about it, even the woman who rescued me."
Jun said, "Can I bring you away with me?"
"She'll find me. She can track me--Sosai can track me by thinking about me. I shouldn't be talking to you. They said I was supposed to--" Ken shook his head. "I don't even remember now. But tonight is Halloween. And tomorrow is All Saint's Day. And if you want to, I think you can save me."
Keeping her eyes on him in case he attacked again, Jun stepped closer. "Tell me."
"At midnight," he said, "we'll leave Utoland City together. In kind of a parade. Right through Miles Cross. You can wait there for me."
Jun shook her head. "That's not enough--how will I know you?"
"There will be blackbirds up front," Ken said. "Then there'll be regular troops--they'll be wearing green, riding brown bikes. But the last one in the procession will be the white bike, and you have to pull the rider off it."
Ken sat and put his head in his hands. "It's hard to think--I'll be the one on the white bike. They said they owed it to me, whatever that means, because of who I was before. But I think they're telling the truth. I think so."
"Ken--" Jun said, but he didn't acknowledge the name.
"And they'll change me all around," he said. "I'll be like a snake, like an asp or an adder, but hold on tight to me and don't be afraid." He looked up. "I'm your baby's father."
"And they'll turn me into a bear, and into a lion, but you have to hold on. And you'll love your child."
Jun crouched close to Ken. "Go on." He wasn't making sense--she knew this, but she hoped that somehow she could piece it together and make it work. Maybe Joe or Ryu would figure it out--but she couldn't involve them. They'd keep her away, and no one other than she would be able to recognize Ken. She understood that. They never would. No one else had the reason.
"They'll turn me into a red-hot iron brand," Ken said, "but I won't hurt you. And then they'll turn me into fire itself--and you'll have to throw me into the water as fast as you can, and I'll be the one you want me to be. I'll be me again. I'll be safe. I know I will."
"I know, Ken." Jun moved close enough to touch his hair. "Come with me now. Turn into an eagle--you know you can--"
"I can't!" He backed away from her. "They'll find me! I shouldn't be talking to you. But I'm your baby's father--I have to. I can't--Jenny, Janet, Jun--I think I remember you. I don't know--I don't know..." He blinked rapidly. "Just cover me over and they'll never see me again, and I'll stay. You know I'll stay."
Jun stepped forward, but Ken bounded from the garden, and when Jun had leaped to the top of the garden wall to follow, he'd vanished into the dusky city.
The Snack J remained quiet for the brief time Jun returned. If she wondered where Jinpei had gotten to, she didn't wonder too long. Upstairs in her bedroom, she changed into her uniform, binding back her hair tightly; she tested her weapons and made sure all of them worked properly. Tonight. Midnight. Miles Cross. She ought to tell Nambu, ought to get Joe--in case it was a trap. But hadn't Ken trapped her at least once already? And hadn't he let her go for the most part? He needed her help, so he'd made sure she needed him.
From her computer, she accessed ISO files on frequently used Galactor drugs. Ken's training would have kept him firm against truth drugs, but there were some that could induce powerful hallucinations or intense delusions. Without any hint which drug they'd used, Jun found herself scanning helplessly through dozens of unfamiliar sounding terms, uncertain which would be the criteria that would trigger her recognition, what Galactor intended, and what their purpose had been in the first place.
And then--Tamlin. The description hadn't caught her attention so much as a note stating that the drug was typically administered over a maximum seven week period; that it could lower inhibitions; that its effectiveness peaked at five to seven weeks depending on the physical condition of the recipient, after which the recipient generally developed a tolerance to the drug and no longer reacted as well to questions; that therefore agents treated with this drug had to be questioned by an expert at precisely the peak time.
...at the end of seven weeks, they'll pay a tithe to Hell...
Yes, this made sense. Jun printed out the information, then scanned her hard copy for any hints as to treatment. The recipient of the drug often became highly suggestible, sometimes extremely violent; confined, the recipient wouldn't react as well as if he were allowed to roam free, since the confinement would trigger feelings of desperation and terror that would to some extent counteract the drug. Moreover, the drug had to be administered as an inhalant, a mist; it was volatile enough that the recipient's breath contained traces of the drug: like secondhand smoke, it could affect bystanders. It could lower their inhibitions, make them violent or passive. So the purpose was to keep the recipient as pleasant and relaxed as possible while simultaneously isolating him from anyone he could hurt, and to let him work out any urges he might feel whenever he wanted. So turn him loose to roam the city for several weeks, corralling him once a day to dose him again.
After which, presumably, Sosai X would freely question Ken and get whatever information he desired.
Jun donned her leather jacket and headed to the garage.
Low voices greeted her at the door, and she entered unsteadily.
"Where are you going?" Joe asked. He leaned against her bike by the far wall; Jinpei sat on the hood of his car, and Ryu stood by the door to the outside. Jun hit the automatic button anyhow, and Ryu jumped away from the door as it scrolled upward.
"I have something to do." Jun advanced toward the bike, wondering if Joe would lay a hand on her. He didn't. "Get out of my way."
"Tell us where you're going."
"I'm not going to let you stop me." Jun's eyes burned softly. "I'll fight you, Joe."
"You're not the only one you have to care for any longer." Joe kept his voice steady as a cat's purr. "We've all gone solo at some point in time. I've done it myself. But you're not solo."
She flinched. Ryu said, "Especially with Ken gone, we need you now."
"Hakase won't let me work after this." Jun pulled up her bike and lowered her head. "This is my last mission. You and I know it. Let me go."
Jinpei's eyes had rounded. "Onechan--"
She'd mounted her bike. "If I return, it'll be with Ken. I promise you that."
As Joe lunged for her, she gunned the bike and shot out of the garage between Ryu and Jinpei. Keeping the lights off, she sped from street to street, listening for their pursuit, only she found it hard to hear over her engines and the beat of her heart. She couldn't breathe. They'd have stopped her. She'd have lost him.
I'm sorry, guys. But she had to be the one--she had the most to lose. And what if the secondhand drug reached Joe or Jinpei? She'd seen what it did to her already, and she could stay prepared. She had the most important task of her life ahead of her.
Through the gloomy night, Jun guided her bike along familiar streets, transforming in the darkness of one eerie alley. The Halloween night had brought folks from their houses, costumed and traveling in clusters: would she even recognize Ken's procession in the midst of so many strange people?
And thankfully, because of the festivities, no one noticed her either.
At the square at Miles Cross, Jun stopped her bike and waited in the alcove between two tall buildings, among the garbage cans and puddles. Eerie, eerie. The closer to midnight, the more her stomach knotted. She pulled the wings tight around her shoulders and waited.
At midnight, she heard the advance of a dozen or more motorcycles--their regular thrumming engines had a ring as distinctive as any bells, and Jun mounted her bike with a rising gladness. It was as Ken had said--the first bike had a tall, stately woman wrapped in long blonde hair with eyes like blue ice. Cheering and hooting, the Halloween revelers all parted from the street in order to let the procession through. First Jun let pass the black bikes, and then she let pass the brown. But the last bike was white, and she launched her cycle from the alcove over the heads of the pedestrians watching on the sidewalk, and then charging when she landed, she advanced on the last bike and pulled the rider down.
"Ken!" Jun's bike slipped out from under her and skidded down the street alongside his: they remained on the asphalt, tangled together. His eyes had rounded in fright and agitation, and he battered her in his struggling to escape. Flinging her arms around him, Jun grasped with all the strength she could manage. People on the sidewalks shrieked in laughter and howled at the fight, but Jun grabbed him close and held him fast.
And suddenly, as she held Ken, her own drugged Ken, she found him turning in her arms into a tremendous snake, an asp, maybe an adder. He slipped away, but the more he writhed in her grip the tighter she held onto him. Her baby's father.
And then in her arms he turned into a muscular, short-coated animal--a lion. And again she clung to him, ignoring the raking pain as iron-hard claws combed her body. He continued growing, changing, until he towered like a bear, but she held him fast.
Everyone was screaming now--she could hear the crowd in terror, or was it herself?--and there were soldiers ringing her and cheering as Ken struggled harder and harder. A woman's voice shouting about getting off a clean shoot: every time Ken changed, she and he thrashed so violently that the men couldn't risk shooting her without chancing a killing strike to their own.
"Fire!" called the woman's voice.
Jun found herself grasping a burning brand of iron, and she shrieked as it seared through her gloves, through her skin. But she wouldn't let go--not Ken, not Ken--she had to keep him there, keep him close, or they'd kill him and kill her too. She knew this now--no matter what, her life was forefeit. The only thing she could do was protect him.
And now he wasn't even an iron brand but fire itself, a fire burning all her clothing, all her hair and her skin, and still she refused to let go. Beneath the fire she could feel the man, frenzied, kicking and struggling, twisting, crying out as he tried to escape her, escape himself.
Jun held him forever. She wouldn't let go. Now they'd know that--the Galactors would have to pry their dead bodies apart.
The shrieking and screaming took a long time to fade from her ears, and only slowly did she raise her head and find the ring of Blackbirds felled with feather suriken in their necks.
The ice-blonde woman had backed toward her bike, but the green-suited Galactors had drawn their weapons and begun scanning the rooftops. Jun struggled to stand, to haul a limp and naked Ken upright with herself, but her muscles ached and her head spun with dizziness. Jinpei's bolos and Ryu's cable fired from opposite sides of the square, and suddenly there were hands on her.
"I've got Ken." Jun let Ken slip from her grasp as Ryu hefted him over his shoulder. "Follow me."
It didn't occur to Jun until they'd returned to her alcove and Ryu had hidden them both beneath the wings of his cloak that she wasn't seared, wasn't raked with gashes, wasn't hurt at all. Ken, on the other hand, lay naked on the ground between her and Ryu. Ryu kept his midnight green wings spread over Ken so that in the darkness the Galactors couldn't see him, and Jun retreated further down the alley.
Hallucinations? Had she and Ken somehow lived the same vivid nightmare? Suggestions? And now that she had clung to him through all these changes, would she find out if he would grasp as tightly through hers?
"Enough!" the blonde, ice-eyed woman called suddenly. "He's gotten away--fall back!" But she stood near enough to the alcove that Jun could hear what she said next.
"If I had known, Ken," and she kept her low tones clipped, "what I would have seen tonight, I would have taken out your eyes and put in wooden eyes. I'd have cut out your living heart and left you with one of stone."
The wind coursed along the city street and stroked the scattered bodies of Galactors and two abandoned motorcycles lying side by side on the pavement. Jun stared with her breath unsteady, and Ryu kept Ken hidden for a long time after the Galactors had departed.