The square was filled with kids. Teenagers. Laughing, playing, taunting and teasing. Talking about clothes or friends or the secrets, experienced or not, of smoking, drinking, drugs and sex.
High above them, balanced on the back of a gargoyle that gripped the side of a building, the Eagle smiled down at them.
Were we ever like that? he mused to himself, but didn’t pursue the thought. He was no older than those teenagers, but he was no kid. He’d seen too much, become too much, much as he could wish otherwise.
"Any sign of the quarry?" he called into his wristband.
"Not yet," came the answer. "You want me to go undercover down there?"
Ken smiled. "See some girls you like, Joe?"
"Hey, a growing boy needs his play."
"You’re not growing anymore, Condor."
"Tell that to my jeans. They’re too damn short again."
Ken shook his head. At eighteen, the Condor still hadn’t reached his full height and bulk, a source of consternation to the engineers who had to constantly modify his suit’s fit. Jinpei too, but he was to be expected and sometimes didn’t seem to be growing at all. Ken had long ago come to the conclusion that he himself would never grow over five foot ten, which made him smaller than most of the men he knew. Nambu, Red Impulse, Berg Katse... he had to look up to see all of them.
Such is life. Shifting his position slightly on the gargoyle, his wings wrapped around himself, he watched the kids milling around. They looked so carefree, so confident. Ken sighed. If he didn’t accomplish his mission and catch the Galactor agent who was supposedly meeting his contact here with information stolen from the ISO, they wouldn’t stay that way. The Eagle wasn’t even sure what was stolen beyond some computer disks, or even what the man looked like. Still, in a crowd of teenagers, he had to stand out.
"I don’t see him at all," Jun transmitted.
"Neither do I," Jinpei said. "Can I get some candy?"
"No," Jun told him.
"Quiet, both of you," Ken ordered, watching the milling crowds below. Some of the teens were pushing back and forth, acting like a fight was going on. He touched the side of his helmet, bringing up the binocular view built into his visor, and took a closer look. It seemed as though two of the teens were fighting, pushing and punching while a girl stood back, hands shaking around her mouth, and screamed at them to stop.
"You see what I see?" Joe asked. "Still sure you don’t want me undercover?"
Ken chewed his lip. "Can you stop that without starting a riot?"
If a fight started, the agent could be scared off. "Do it."
Teens were crowding around the two combatants, yelling encouragements or insults as a dark blonde form detached itself from the shadows beside one of the encircling buildings. Ken watched his second seem to saunter as he hurried over to the conflict and push his way to the middle. His comm wasn’t transmitting, so he wasn’t sure what was said, but whatever it was, the Sicilian immediately had their attention. The two combatants gaped at him and Ken hid a smile. When he wanted to, Joe could be extremely rude.
A few seconds later and one of the boys was on the ground, shrieking and clutching his knee. The other gaped and backed away. Joe made a gesture and wandered away, losing himself in the crowd to them, but in reality returning to his position.
"Done, boss," he sent a minute later.
"Good work, Joe."
"How come he gets to have all the fun?" Jinpei whined.
"But I’m bored! When’s this guy gonna show up??"
Ken let Jun quiet him down, scanning the crowd. The teens were spreading out again, but not leaving. There was a youth centre in one of the buildings, a movie theatre in another and fast food restaurants everywhere. It was kid heaven. If only they’d leave... he didn’t know what kind of situation would result when he and his team took down the agent. In fact, the kids could riot at the very sight of them. The world knew about the Kagaku Ninja Tai, but they’d never given an interview or appeared on camera for more than an instant at a time. No one knew anything about them other than their code names and the look of their BirdStyles. Not their age, not their personalities. They were legends, which suited Ken well. If they were known, it wouldn’t just be Galactor hunting them down.
Still, the entire Kagaku Ninja Tai sweeping down on that plaza would definitely get a reaction. Those kids may not know much, but they would recognize them and public opinion of the team was enough that they’d probably be mobbed if they all showed up. If only one did, however, it would be different. One ninja could do the job of taking down a single agent without the kids feeling they were being descended upon from all directions by myths.
He decided. "I’m going down alone," he told the team. "The rest of you stay in reserve. There are too many people down there. We don’t want to start a panic." Or an impromptu autograph session, he thought with a smile.
"Hey!" Joe protested. "I’m not staying up here while you have all the fun!"
"That’s an order, Joe. This won’t take more than a minute."
"Quiet!" he hissed. "I see him!"
A stern faced man in his fourties had entered the square, his hands in his pockets and his gaze everywhere as he stared around himself nervously. He made his way through the kids, looking so guilty that he almost glowed. "Bingo."
"He hasn’t seen us. What is it with people that they never look up?"
"Basic human nature, Joe. Basic human nature."
Ken stepped off the roof, wings spread, and glided over the plaza after the man, still high enough that his shadow resembled that of a large bird and not the Gatchaman Eagle. Circling, he began to slowly drop, eyes on the Agent as he searched for his contact. A fat woman sat on a bench fidgeting. It had to be her. He even recognized her from ISO’s files. This would be easy.
"You’ve been spotted, Ken," Joe warned him.
Not by the two Galactors. Ken looked down to see teenagers looking up, nudging their friends to look as well, falling silent as they watched him silently circle over them, dropping in altitude, the sun gleaming brilliantly off his pure white wings.
"So much for people not looking up," Jun commented.
He was only about fifty feet above the teenagers’ heads. Quickly, Ken put a finger to his lips and saw a few of them grin in understanding. Hoping they wouldn’t give him away, he swept towards the agent as he stepped up to his contact, reaching into his coat.
She saw him first and screamed, pointing. Immediately, the agent turned and Ken dove, wings closed, flipping over at the last second so that he crashed feet first into the man’s midsection and used him as a launching pad to throw himself at the woman. Her shriek cut off midway as he caught her neck in the crook of his arm and used his momentum to spin her around. Standing over the two fallen Galactors, he closed his wings over himself, not even breathing hard.
"I could have done better," Joe said.
"Sure you could have," he smiled and bent to search the two. He found the stolen disks in the man’s pockets, along with a gun. The woman was similarly armed.
"Wow, you’re Gatchaman, aren’t you?"
Ken looked up to see a skinny kid a year younger than he was staring at him, flanking by a bunch of other kids in loose clothing, their hair spiked in the current style that Nambu had said he’d have shaved off if the team adopted it.
"I am," he admitted and stood again, slipping the disks into a pouch. They all drew back in awe, then crowded in, touching his wings, asking eager questions, drowning him with their eagerness.
"How do you fly?"
"What’s your name?"
"Can I join the team?"
"How many people have you killed?"
"You wanna go home with me? My mom’s making pot roast."
Ken stammered, backing away, trying to get clear of them, hearing Joe’s laughter over his bracelet. "Condor," he called into it. "Call for a pickup team for these two."
"Oh, WOW! Is the Condor here too??"
"Yeah," Ken groused. "I’m sure he’d love to meet you."
"The girls, yeah," Joe said. Female giggles sounded from all around him.
"Eagle!" Jun yelled but the kids were crowding even closer so that he couldn’t hear her clearly. "Ken!"
"What is it?" he asked, backed up now against the wall of a building now and feeling very trapped.
"Mechanizer!" Joe bellowed. "Ten o’clock!"
Ken leaped, wings spreading as he flew fifteen feet straight up, trying to get free of the teenagers who were unintentionally trapping him. Then he saw it. A camper parked on the street had blown its top off to show the nuzzle of the cannon sized weapon. The only weapon that could knock them out of BirdStyle.
"It was a trap!"
Ken tried to move, but he had a wall to his back and kids just below, reaching up to him and unintentionally obstructing his movement as they touched his blue boots and spread wings.
The Mechanizer fired and energy like lightning speared into the Eagle just before the cannon exploded and a blue winged shape landed on the nose of the camper, firing his gun into the cab at the Galactor troopers sitting there.
The damage was already done, though, and Ken twisted and fell, the energy arching over his body, stealing his wings as he crashed back into the screaming kids, barely aware of the shadows of the rest of his team and the yells of Galactor Goons as they poured out of the buildings. It was definitely a trap.
The world fuzzed to gray, his body shocked into immobility. Faintly, Ken was aware of screams, and panic. Then someone grabbed one of his arms, trying to drag him. Someone else took his other arm, then more his legs. His sides. Carted like a tired mattress or a sack of potatoes, the Eagle was carried away.
He woke up lying on a bed, on his stomach, his head half covered by his arm as though he’d been dumped there. Ken opened his eyes slowly, not betraying his conscious state by movement, and found himself staring at a teddy bear with one eye. The bedspread was covered in pony figures. Blinking in surprise, he let his gaze travel over the rest of the room to see pink walls, toys and posters of teenage movie actors.
Ken sat up. He was on a single bed in what had to be the room of a little girl. Wincing at the headache he had, he listened and heard voices murmuring, a great many voices that sounded as though they were coming from downstairs. No one was in the room with him and he checked his bracelet.
"Eagle calling the God Phoenix," he whispered. "This is Ken." No reply. The Galactors had refined their original Mechanizor. The bracelet was fried. Not even the Bird Scramble would work and he didn’t dare try to go to BirdStyle until he had a chance to make some repairs.
He was a little dizzy as he stood and went to the door, opening it a crack to peer out. He saw a hallway with a carpeted floor, a few doors and stairs leading down. A pudgy kid sat on them, staring downward where talking was going on, his back to him. If he was the guard, he needed a lot more practice at it. He didn’t even hear Ken at all as he paced up behind him.
"What are we supposed to do with him?" he heard someone asking from below.
"We should get him to a hospital."
"That’s the first place the Galactors will look!"
"How do we know they’re not looking for us?!"
"He’s Gatchaman! We have to help him."
"He’s a kid! I look older than he does!"
"Why don’t we call the Condor? He’ll come and help him."
"And how do we get hold of him, stupid? He’s not exactly listed in the phonebook!"
"How do we know they’re not looking for us and him already??"
"Hey, Jeff! Is he awake yet?"
"Nope!" the boy sitting at the top of the stairs yelled.
Ken rolled his eyes. At least it was obvious that these kids weren’t working for Galactor. He knelt behind Jeff. "Guess again," he whispered.
Jeff jumped up with a scream, almost falling down the stairs until Ken grabbed his arm. He heard yelling from downstairs, cries of panic and assertion that Galactor must have found them, then a bunch of teenagers about seventeen years old or less appeared at the bottom of the stairs, armed with baseball bats and a fireplace poker. They relaxed when they saw him.
"Sorry," Ken said to Jeff, who was sucking on an asthma inhaler.
Well, they knew what he looked like now for sure. Silently, Ken rose to his feet and walked down the stairs, the teenagers parting to make way for him like they would for a king. Ken went through them, noting that at least half the kids from the square were packed into the living room of the house he was in, both male and female, sitting on every available surface or standing as he came into the centre of the room. It was a normal suburban house he seemed to be in, with a fireplace and the television in the living room. Ken looked around, wondering which of them decided to risk all of their lives by saving him. As well as how they managed to lose not only the Galactors, but his own team. They all stared at him, silent.
"Does anyone have an aspirin?" he asked at last.
Immediately, there was a scramble and Ken found himself presented with a dozen pills and half that many glasses of water. Picking one randomly, he swallowed it and followed it with a glass of water.
A red headed girl with a mass of freckles on her face raised her hand worriedly. "Um, are you all right? I mean, what was that thing?"
"A Galactor weapon, " he told her. "A nasty one."
"It knocked you right out of that - that -" the boy who spoke struggled with the words. "Spandex stuff you wear."
"It’s not spandex, moron!"
"You can’t fly wearing spandex!"
"Grab a clue. Superman doesn’t exist!"
Ken smiled. "It’s called a BirdStyle," he admitted. "And it’s not made out of spandex."
"What’s it made of?" a fourteen year old asked eagerly.
"He can’t tell us! It’s a secret! Then he’d have to kill us!"
Grateful for the save, if not the form of it, Ken looked around. "Is there a phone here?"
"Over here." The redhead led him over to it. "This is my house. My parents’, I mean. I hope you don’t mind being put in my sister’s room. Mine is kinda a mess."
Ken picked up the phone. "It was fine. Thank you. What’s your name?"
"Thank you, Sandra."
The phone was dead.
Frowning, Ken hung it up. "What’s wrong?" Jeff asked.
"The phone lines are down." He went over to the television and switched it on. There was a lot of static, but he could see camera crews showing a battle over Utoland between the God Phoenix and a scorpion mech. He cursed under his breath and straightened. The damage to the city looked extreme, but he couldn’t hear any sounds of battle.
"Where am I?"
According to Sandra, the suburbs. At least ten kilometres from the city centre where he’d been hit. Galactor had set up a trap indeed. They must have attacked with their mech right after he went down, planning to take advantage of his team’s confusion. "How did I get here?"
"The subway," they told him proudly.
Ken blinked at that. "The subway? You carried me on the subway??" The image of that was enough to make him grin for a moment and they all started laughing.
"It was great! We told everyone you were drunk!"
"Gee, thanks," he murmured, making his way to the front window. He could see the city in the distance, smoke hanging over it and the occasional flicker of flame. "I have to get back there. Do any of you have a car I can borrow?"
"If we did, would we be using the subway?"
Ken started for the door. "Thank you for your help, but I have to get to my team. " He looked back at them. "I appreciate everything you did for me, but I’m afraid that I have to ask you to keep what happened today a secret. If Galactor suspected you knew Gatchaman, they’d come after you." He let the seriousness in his voice show them just how deadly the situation was and saw some defiance, but a lot of fear.
Sandra nodded. "We already took an oath."
Good for her. Ken smiled and nodded. "Where’s the subway?"
"Two blocks to the east."
"Can we come?"
He shook his head at their enthusiasm. "Too dangerous. Better all of you stay here where it’s safe. And thanks again."
He went to open the door, years of training making him look out the slanted window set in it first, and saw a Galactor goon sneaking around the side of a mailbox to take aim at the house.
"EVERYBODY DOWN!" he bellowed, throwing himself at them. Sandra shrieked as he plowed into her and Jeff, and a half a dozen other of the fifteen kids, knocking them and the kids behind them to the floor as others dove for the carpet on their own.
Machine gun fire roared through the wide front window, splattering itself against the far wall and tearing up everything in its path. Ken heard kids screaming in fear and pain and found himself holding down panic stricken teenagers trying to get up and run. Only one succeeded, being beyond his reach, and was immediately cut down.
The second the fire stopped, Ken was up and moving, unzipping a secret pocket in his pant leg and pulling out his birdrang as he dove through the window and rolled, throwing it in a smooth motion as he came to his feet and hurled himself at the nearest goon, letting the birdrang tear through the men who’d been standing before the house reloading while he broke the neck of the closest one and swung around him, kicking at the next. He gurgled and fell as Ken caught his birdrang and threw it again.
He counted ten goons, six down already, but the others aiming for him, and out of BirdStyle, he was at a serious disadvantage. Ken didn’t let that stop him. If he fell, the kids in the house would be only the first ones to die.
He charged the goons, grinning the way Joe did when he was after a kill. The men, Galactor’s standard troopers, hesitated a moment, having probably been told he’d be helpless, and he was on them, kicking one and grabbing his gun, using it to shoot the rest before they could get a bead on them.
Done, he did a quick recon sweep, finding no goons left alive. Gathering their guns, he made his way back to the house.
The kids were still cowering on the floor, crying in terror or sobbing over the two teenagers who were killed in the weapons fire. Ken sighed at the sight of them. For no other crime than helping him, they’d have to live with this memory for the rest of their lives and, worst of all, for their own safety he’d have to take them with him. Galactor would know that these kids had seen the face of Gatchaman. Every one of them and their families would have to disappear.
"Come on," he told them softly. "We have to go now."
Sandra looked at him in horror. "They shot them!"
He nodded. "They did. And they’ll be coming back. We have to go now."
They went to the subway. Fourteen kids together, all of whom looked as though they belonged in high school laughing about their boyfriends and girlfriends, making plans for college or at least the next weekend. Until you looked at the pain in their eyes.
The leader had eyes that no teenager ever should, and most men couldn’t bear. Ken led the way into the subway, a pistol taken from one of the bodies tucked under his shirt and the kids crowding around him. The machine guns he left behind as too noticeable. Nor did he arm the kids. None of them had weapons training and a gun in the hand of an amateur was more of a liability than anything else. Terrified by what had happened back at the house, they were all quiet, following him as docily as ducklings.
"What’s going to happen to us?" Sandra whispered.
Ken patted her shoulder. "You’ll all have to take new identities. You and your families. ISO will arrange it."
She looked at him. "How old are you?"
He hesitated. "Eighteen."
She just shivered.
The subway was mostly deserted when they entered and the subway downtown was, not surprisingly, not running. A train sat at the station, awaiting orders with only three of four people on it. "Stay with me," Ken ordered and walked onto it. Pulling his gun, he pointed it at the other passengers. "Get off."
Wisely, they fled.
Ken made his way up to the driver’s room, opening the door and pressing the gun against the back of his head, careful to keep himself in shadow. The more people who saw him out of BirdStyle, the more people he would have to have hidden and he’d ruined enough lives already. "Take a break," he ordered the driver and kept his face averted as he ran.
"Do you know how to drive this thing?" Jeff asked as he examined the controls. In answer, Ken started the train, sending it down the track.
"Get everyone sitting down," he instructed him. "Stay in the first car."
The train raced down the track, increasing to what Ken hoped was a safe, though fast speed. The radio crackled. "Train 546, why have you left the station? You’re not cleared."
Ken flicked the switch so he could speak. "This train has been commandeered for ISO business," he told them. "Registration number 5966y46576786893. Feel free to confirm that with ISO headquarters, but until then, keep the tracks clear."
There was a confused affirmative and he sat down, looking around the control booth. In a small closet, he found a toolbox, and grinned when he saw the tiny screwdriver inside it. Settling back, he got to work on his bracelet.
He was in white wings when Sandra stuck her head in. She gasped.
"What is it, Sandra?"
"Uh- do you know how long it’ll be?" she asked. "And what’ll happen?"
He turned to face her. "My communicator is only working on short range. We’ll have to get to the surface before I can signal the God Phoenix. I’ll tell it then to come pick us up."
"Then what?" she asked miserably.
"Then I’ll get all of you to safety." He saw her look. "I’m sorry this had to happen, Sandra. I wish I could change things."
She bit her lip. "That’s what you’re fighting to do, isn’t it? Change things?"
He nodded. "Yes."
She came farther into the room. "I keep thinking about Mary and Steven, thinking that maybe I could have done more."
"So do I," he admitted. "Every time someone gets killed."
"Have you ever lost anyone close to you to Galactor?"
He felt an old familiar pain. "My father. A lot of friends. Almost my team a couple of times."
She hugged herself. "How do you deal with it?"
"I don’t give up. I keep fighting. Otherwise they win."
She bit her lip again. "I don’t think I’m much of a fighter."
He smiled gently. "That’s what I’m here for."
They were lucky there was a station to pull into when they reached the downtown. Ken cursed as they pulled into a rubble strewn underground, dust everywhere. He could hear distant explosions shaking everything from above. Joe and his bird missals.
"Keep as close to me as you can," he ordered as he ran out of the train, wings wide. The kids ran after him silently, almost crowding him but giving him the room he needed.
It was good they did. A nervous squad of Goons was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, looking upwards at the dust filled sky. Ken didn’t even bother to warn them he was there with his usual psych speech, not wanting to risk any of the kids. He just killed them and saw the looks of fear and admiration on the faces of his charges once he was done.
The ran up the stairs. Outside, the streets were deserted, the scorpion mech perched in the midst of mass destruction and waving its claws at the God Phoenix as it circled above, firing beams from its stinger that Joe returned with Bird Missiles. The kids started screaming, but to their credit, none of them ran.
Ken raised his bracelet to his mouth. "Eagle here."
Joe’s voice sounded immediately. "Ken, where the hell have you been?? Where are you?"
"On the ground by the subway entrance," he told them. "I’ll be right up." He turned to the kids. "I’ve got to get to the God Phoenix."
"You’re leaving us?" Jeff whimpered.
"No, I’m not," he told him sternly. "I’m going to draw the mech’s fire after me while the God Phoenix picks you up."
They stared at him.
He smiled. "Keep your heads down and don’t be afraid of the Condor. He won’t hurt you, just snap at you a little."
He spread his wings and leaped into the air, rising on the air currents towards the God Phoenix, getting as far from the kids as he could. The God Phoenix swept around the mech and came to meet him, catching him in a pass that barely missed getting them impaled by the enemy.
"Aniki!" Jinpei yelled as he lowered into the control room. "Are you okay?"
"I’m fine." He looked at Joe. "At the subway entrance are thirteen kids. They saved me when the Mechanizer hit me, but they’ve seen my face. Galactor’s already tried for them once. I’ll take the G-1 and distract the mech while you pick them up. There are goon troops on the ground."
Joe nodded curtly. "You got it."
Ken went back into the elevator, this time going down. He headed for his plane and backed it out of the God Phoenix, turning it towards the mech while the bigger ship banked away. Gripping the control sticks, he started his attack run.
The mech roared, swinging at him with its claws. Ken barrelrolled, strafing it with laser fire and was past. Anticipating its tail, he jigged hard to the left, avoiding it, and got in another shot before rocketing upwards to safety and turning.
Beyond the mech, the God Phoenix was hovering low to the ground, undoubtedly hauling the kids in. Ken noted that and focused on attacking again, forcing the mech to pay attention to him, even though he couldn’t do any real damage to it. It obviously wasn’t commanded by Katse though. If it were, it would have realized that he was a distraction only. Not that he was complaining. Mechs were easier to deal with when they were driven by idiots.
The God Phoenix lifted off the ground again, rising straight up as Ken raced to intercept, dodging mech fire before sliding into the back hangar. The kids were all crowded in the control room as he ran in and took his seat, Joe vacating it to make room for him.
"Joe, see how much ammo we’ve got left. Jinpei, examine those beams it uses. Jun, analyze the structure for a weak point. Ryu, get us closer. The rest of you, hang on to something and please keep out of our way."
"Roger!" choroused four voices, followed by thirteen weaker affirmatives.
They were forced to play tag for another minute. The scorpion was a digger, not a flier, so it they tried to lead it out of the city, it would just destroy everything in its path trying to do so. Better to keep it in the area it had already destroyed.
"Got it!’ Jun crowed. "It’s got a structural weakness at the base of its neck."
"Ryu!" Ken yelled. " Get behind it. "Joe, be ready with the missiles."
His team moved flawlessly, perfectly in synch as the God Phoenix swung around behind the scorpion, coming up as it tried to turn. Ken smiled over his shoulder at the kids and then Joe was pressing the firing button to bring them a very heavily priced victory.
"I think my parents are about ready to kill me for this," Sandra laughed shortly, then sobered, her eyes miserable.
Standing at the submarine dock of Crescent Coral, Ken put a hand on her shoulder sympathetically. "I’m sorry."
She sighed. "We saved your life. We can’t be sorry about that, but-"
He looked beyond her to the rest of the kids, all together with their parents and siblings. All of them had been given new identities, new names. None of them would see each other after today, for it was the only way to keep them safe. "But the price was very high." He sighed. "If I could have prevented any of this, I would have."
She looked up at him. "Just stop Galactor," she whispered. "Okay?"
"I will," he promised.
Seemingly impulsively, she threw her arms around him for a quick hug, then ran to rejoin her parents as they all began to board the submarine. Ken watched as it filled and left the dock, sinking and heading for the outer doors. The poor kids. They didn’t deserve any of this. He thought of the teenagers, hanging without a care in the world in the plaza, and remembered briefly wishing that he could be like them.
Not in his worst nightmares had he ever wanted them to be him.