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Playtime by Lori McDonald
Playtime by Lori McDonald
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PLAYTIME  Lori McDonald
October 1997  

The mech rocked with the second of four explosions, each timed to go off in sequence at the intersections of its joined parts. Built to resemble a flying insect, it had a head section, thorax, abdomen and stinger. Each needed to be blown seperately, as it'd already shown it was too quick in the air to be vulnerable to the Hintori effect of the God Phoenix.

The explosion he'd set off in the head was already sending flames pouring down the corridors into screaming men and shorting machines. Owashi no Ken raced ahead of it down the main missle launching bay. It wasn't the route he'd normally want to take to escape, but his choices were limited. The second explosion almost knocked him to his knees, but he only smiled. Shiratori no Jun was right on time, and he had no doubt she'd get out of the thorax without problem.

He ran to the drop bay and slammed into the dozen men fighting over a few paltry parachutes. Kicking one in the stomach, he grabbed another and threw him into freefall, then grabbed the parachutes and leaped after him, his wings spreading to let him glide away from the dying, falling mech. Taking the parachutes wasn't cruelty. They were over the middle of the pacific ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, and there were sharks down there. Even if the Galactors managed to get hold of the parachutes and drop before killing each other, they'd just be food for sharks and exposure. A quick death now would be preferable to that.

He swooped away from the mech, trying to get clear of the winds that sucked back towards it, fighting the currents and barely missing one sweeping antenna as it broke free and plummeted past him, five feet thick at the base and more than heavy enough to have killed him if it struck. There was no sign anywhere that he could see of the Swan.

The abdomen, assigned to Tsubakurou no Jinpei, exploded behind him and the shockwaves sent him tumbling end over end. He'd barely righted himself when Kondoru no Joe finished his work in the rear stinger section and the last of the mech turned into so much flaming wreckage. Belching fire and men, it screamed the cry of tortured metal and vanished into the cloud cover below them, headed for the ocean far below. A minute later, a distant explosion signalled its final death.

The air was clear, cold, thin. Ken ignored that, breathing slowly and easily as he circled above the clouds, staring around himself for any sign of his team.

"This is Eagle," he called into his bracelet. "Come in, anyone." No reply. He hoped they were just circling themselves, recovering from the shockwaves of the mech's death. "Come in!"

"Gangway! Wahoo!"

Startled, Ken rolled, and laughed in relief as Joe plunged past him. Kneeling in mid-air, the grinning Condor dropped, spinning around with arms spread, to vanish into the clouds. That was one, and if the Condor was actually in the mood to play, then the others had to be all right.

"Hi, Aniki!" Jinpei came towards him out of the sun, barrelrolling happily past him. "Some fun, huh? Seen Onechan?"

"I'm right here." Like an angel, the Swan swept gracefully out of a patch of white cloud, like a leaping dolphin, trailing white behind her like beads of water.

Ken breathed a sigh of relief as the two circled around him. Through a gap in the clouds, he could see Joe circling a hundred feet below, waiting for them. That was his entire team accounted for, since he already knew exactly where Mimizuku no Ryu was.

"Eagle to Owl," he called into his bracelet. "Ready for pickup, these coordinates."

"Well, I wouldn't bet on that too much," came the response. "That mech hit the God Phoenix pretty badly. Um, I don't think I'm going anywhere. I lost both stabilizers. Right now I'm sitting a thousand feet underwater waiting for a towtruck."

Ken cursed silently. It would be one hell of a long way to shore without the warship. "Can you radio us some help?"

"Not with the shambles I've got left of the comm equipment. Unless you can reach Nambu, you're out of luck."

Ken shook his head. Ryu would be all right. He could launch a homing beacon from where he was and ISO would head right for it, but they didn't have that luxury and they couldn't just circle and wait. Their birdstyles only allowed them to glide, not engage in actual flight, and they'd already lost about five feet of altitude while Ryu spoke. Better to head for the nearest land and hope they came across a boat, or an island. Otherwise they'd have to find out how impervious the suits were to shark teeth.

"All right, Ryu, sit tight and wait for backup. When they arrive, tell them we're headed northwest. That's the way the wind's blowing, at any rate."

"Roger. Good luck."

Ken looked at the boy and woman flying wingtip to wingtip to him. "Did you hear?"

Jun nodded somberly while Jinpei grinned. "Let's find a whale pod and hitch a ride."

"Let's not." Ken knew well Jinpei's affinity for sea mammals, but he wasn't sure they'd be quite so friendly towards him. "We'd better tell Joe."

Regretting the necessity, he folded his wings and dropped to Joe's altitude. Jun and Jinpei wisely stayed at the altitude they were already at. The higher up they started, the farther they could get, and they were both lighter. He and Joe would be swimming a lot sooner than either of them.

Joe's earlier good mood was gone, but Ken wasn't surprised. He always yoyoed from emotion to emotion. "Do you see that?" He growled, pointed at a faint contrail heading northwards. "Katse got away again."

"I'm not surprised. He always does." Quietly, he filled him in on the situation. Joe regarded him cynically.

"Lovely. Just bloody wonderful." Unexpectedly, he grinned, flipping back into a good mood in an instant. "Oh, well, may as well make the best of it."

Banking, he headed off on a northwestward air current. Shaking his head, Ken followed, the shadows of Jun and Jinpei falling on him from above.


The birdstyle was an incredible creation, a gift of alien technology that was almost impossible to duplicate on Earth. It protected its wearer, yet gave complete mobility, and the ability to glide. For the first time, a human could well and truly fly. But the difficulty was that humans weren't designed to fly as birds did, something Ken discovered as the dull ache in his neck, kept craned up so he could see, turned to a sharp pain and his shoulders and upper back muscles throbbed in agony.

"I'd kill for a massage right now," Joe muttered from behind him. He was riding right behind and slightly above him, letting Ken cut through the thick air with his own body and surfing, in a way, on his wake. They'd been taking turns doing it for more than two hours. Above them, Jun and Jinpei did the same, Jinpei presently being in the lead.

They'd dropped in altitude close to three hundred feet, the clouds now well above them, the ocean flowing by far below, but still uncomfortably close. Even if there were some sign of land on the horizon, he doubted they'd be able to make it all the way before a wet landing. Human bodies were too heavy to really fly either.

"Oh, look," Joe said with sarcastic enthusiasm. "Sharks."

Ken didn't even bother to look. "Shut up, Joe."

A chuckle. "Whatever you say, Commander."

More time passed and they dropped lower, only a hundred feet above the waves and dropping fast. The air temperature was too low to give them much lift anymore. At least, it didn't give much to him and Joe. Jun and Jinpei were a good two hundred feet above them, caught in a warm air current Ken would have loved to share. They dropped even lower and he tasted salt on his lips.

"K'so..." Joe muttered.

"Jun," Ken ordered into his bracelet. "Joe and I are going to be swimming for it in about another five minutes. I want you and Jinpei to keep going. No sense in all of us getting wet if we can avoid it." Or drowning, he didn't add. It was only May. That water was damned cold, and their wings of no use at all in the ocean.

"But, Ken..."

"That's an order," he told her firmly.

"...yes, sir."

"Be careful, Aniki," Jinpei called. "I'll look for a pod to send to you."

Ken laughed. "You do that, Jin-ack!" Hitting a cold air patch without warning, Ken pitched over and plunged, hitting the hard surface of the water and plunging underneath. A second splash behind him showed that Joe hit the same pocket with the same results. Then the world was nothing but water for both of them.


Berg Katse sat sipping a pina colada, the purple umbrella tilted away from hir nose as s/he drank, enjoying the afternoon sunshine as s/he sat on the deck of the ocean liner Water Princess. Losing the mech had been a major let down, and s/he wasn't looking forward to telling Sosai of yet another failure, but she had to admit, passing hirself off as a passenger on a passing liner was a wonderful way to hide hirself during hir escape, and get a vacation at the same time. A group of children ran past, shrieking. The kids s/he could do without though. Deciding to ignore them, s/he tried to get back into the sappy romance s/he'd been reading.

A group of adults passed hir, talking excitedly, followed by still more, and Katse realized that about half the population of the liner was congregating at the starboard railing, and getting in hir sun as a result. S/he heard talking, bits of excited conversation that made no real sense to hir until s/he heard one word.

Gatchaman.

Panicked, Katse leaped to hir feet, staring around hirself wildly, then ordered hirself to relax. S/he was in female form and the Kagaku Ninjatai didn't know what s/he looked like without the makeup and hairstyle s/he usually wore. Right now, hir hair was loose and long around hir face and s/he wore plain jeans and a tee-shirt. S/he looked about ten years younger than normal, and not nearly as psychotic. Plus, s/he was sunburned, replacing hir usual pallor.

Carefully, Katse pushed hir way to the front, pretending to be nothing more than another passenger, then hir eyes bugged out.

It wasn't the God Phoenix bearing down on hir in all its rage, or the Hintori with its blinding fire. Instead, Shiratori no Jun and Tsubakurou no Jinpei dipped and soared, trying to get enough altitude to reach the liner before they crashed into the sea, the crowds cheering them on. There was no sign of the two men s/he knew had helped destroy hir mech, and s/he wondered faintly if they were attacking from the other side.

The Swallow didn't make it to the ship, taking a header into the water only twenty feet short of it, but the Swan did. She landed delicately on the deck in a space that quickly cleared for her and turned, grabbing the railing as if she were about to dive right back over. But the ship's crew already had a rescue team heading out in a boat, and in minutes the Swallow was aboard. The Swan hugged him in front of everyone, in spite of his protests, then turned to the captain as he hurried up, looking stunned at the new arrivals.

"Captain," she said clearly and calmly. "Two of my teammates are in the water approximately five kilometers southeast of here. We have to go get them."

He didn't hesitate more than a few seconds before nodding and hurrying off with her and the Swallow. A few minutes after that, an announcement sounded, informing the passengers that they were detouring off their scheduled route for a rescue mission. The ship turned, lifting up on catamaran pontoons, and headed off at full speed, almost flying over the waves. The children on board stood at the very bow of the ship with the Swallow, loving the speed. Katse would have loved it too, if s/he hadn't hated their destination.


Slowly, Ken raised his heavy head above the surface of the water again, letting the water drain out of his helmet. He longed to take the thing off and let it go, along with his wings and boots, all filled with water, but he couldn't. He was more replaceable than they were, not that that would be much good if they dragged him down and drowned him so that they were never found. All he could do was tread water wearily and hope Jun got help soon. And that the Condor didn't die on him. He was having even more trouble keeping his head above water than he was.

"You know," the Sicilian coughed. "I'm starting to get a serious urge to ditch my wings."

Ken laughed, coughing himself as a small wave swept over his head. "Nambu'd have your ass."

"Great. He can have it anyway when it washes up in Bermuda."

He sounded amused and Ken laughed again. "This sucks," he commented.

"No shit," Joe grinned, his head tilted back so he could breathe. "To top it all off, I've got one shit-kicker of a migraine going on."

"Lucky you."

"Yeah, as always. Wonder how far Jun and Jinpei go-"

Without warning, he went underwater, his arms splashing frantically above the surface. Then he was above water again, waist high, driven up the great white who had him around the leg. It shook him like a rag doll and crashed down again, dragging him underwater a second time.

Ken swore and dove. Water rushed into his helmet, weighing down his head and blinding him briefly. Then his vision cleared.

A fifteen foot long great white had Joe in its jaws, biting repeatedly as it tried to pierce his BirdStyle. Joe pounded on its head with his fists, trying to get hold of his gun, but he hadn't even had the chance to breathe and was starting to panic as more of them began circling in and he couldn't get free.

Ken drew his birdrang and swam in, driving the point of one of the wings into the fish's brain. It shuddered, dying, its blood filling the water, and Ken sawed at its frozen jaw desperately. They were sinking, Joe's struggles lessening, and other sharks, enticed by the blood, were heading in.

Ken's lungs began to burn. He looked up at the surface, only ten feet away, and kicked for it. Hitting the surface, he took a deep breath and dove again. He'd do Joe no good if he passed out.

The sharks had attacked in his absence, tearing the body of their dead fellow to pieces. Ken kicked towards it, deafened by the water in his ears, but there was no sign of the Condor's blue wings in the surrounding water. Desperately, he searched, then drove for the surface again for another breath of air.

There was a liner on the horizon, heading towards him rapidly. Ken screamed at it, waving, then yanked a tiny bomb out of a pouch and hurled it into midair. It exploded and he dove again, searching. Still nothing.

Come on, Joe, he pleaded silently. You'll be pissed as hell if you die by drowning.

Joe wasn't with the sharks. If he had been, there'd be some kind of sign. He must have been shaken loose and sunk farther. Aware that he had only a limited amount of air in his lungs, but that Joe had less, he kicked himself deeper.


"Did you see that?"

"It was an explosion."

"That was so cool. It's gotta be Gatchaman!"

"We're actually gonna get to see Gatchaman!"

Katse barely listened to the inane babbling of the people around hir, staring at the water for any flash of a wing. They'd all seen the explosion, the Swan and Swallow were almost dancing in excitement at the sight of it. Hir eyes better than any human's, s/he saw the blood first.

"Mommy, what's that red stuff?"

"Oh, my God! That's blood!"

Silence fell over the crowd as the liner drew to a stop and everyone stared down at the blood, rapidly dissipating in the waters. "Ken," the Swan whispered. The Swallow took her hand.

Suddenly, the Eagle erupted waist high out of the water, gasping in a great lungful of air. Katse felt the cheer begin to erupt just as he looked up and yelled.

"Jun! Get down here now! Joe's still down there!"

Immediately, she dove overboard and the crew began to push everyone back, except for the shrieking Swallow. The Eagle dove with the Swan and vanished. Everyone continued to watch without speaking, Katse included. S/he wasn't sure what to feel. The Eagle and Swan surfaced once each, then were gone under so long worried murmurs began to start up. The Swallow stood clutching the rail, shivering.

Then the Eagle and Swan surfaced again, this time supporting a limp blue figure between them. The cheer almost deafened Katse, but it ended quickly as the Condor was passed up to the liner and laid out on the deck. He was ashen, his lips blue, his eyes wide and staring. Someone tried to get his helmet off, cursing, then began CPR, exhaling into his mouth around the curved visor. The Eagle climbed on board and began doing chest compressions between the first man's breaths. Katse crossed hir arms, watching, as somewhere in the crowd, a child began to cry.

"Come on, Joe," the Eagle whispered, over and over again. "Breathe."

A minute passed, then two. Then the Condor abruptly rolled over and began coughing up water, and as if on cue, everyone cheered again.

"What the hell happened?!" The Condor demanded shakily, sitting up.

His commander slapped him on the shoulder. "Nothing out of the ordinary."

The Condor just groaned. "That bad, huh?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

Katse smirked.


The liner gave them a room. It was nice, a suite with two seperate bedrooms and a parlour inbetween. First class accomodations.

Jinpei sighed happily, stretching out on the couch. "This is nice, Aniki. But how come we don't just call for a pickup?"

Ken, headed into the room he shared with Joe with a hotwater bottle and a bowl of soup, looked back. "The communication lines on this ship aren't scrambled. I'd rather take a two day vacation until we reach the next port than risk Galactor finding out we're here."

He vanished into the bedroom. A moment later, Joe's cranky voice sounded. "I ordered beer, not soup!"

Jinpei grinned. "Vacation, huh? I better make the most of it." Before Ken or Jun thought to order him not to, he slipped out the door into the hall and headed for the arcades he'd spotted on the way in. He stayed in BirdStyle, though. Ken didn't want to take the risk of someone connecting their civvie identities with the Ninjatai, and they didn't know who was on the ship. Jinpei didn't mind. He loved the attention it got him.

Twenty minutes later, every boy on the ship within five years of his age had declared him to be their best friend and he was happily basking in their awe as he beat the circuits out of the newest video game to hit the market.

"Having fun?"

Startled by the deep voice, he looked up to see Joe leaning against the side of the machine, the kids around Jinpei staring at him in amazement. So were not a few young women in very skimpy bikinis. Joe'd recovered from his near drowning really fast, but he still looked a little pale.

"I thought Ken confined you to bed."

"He did," Joe agreed evenly and Jinpei grinned. Joe wouldn't follow any order he didn't agree with. "He's off talking with the captain. God knows where Jun went. Probably mooning over the boutique fashions they've got overpriced here."

Jinpei grinned. "That sounds like Onechan." His game beeped and he went back to it, furiously blowing up attacking aliens. At the rate he was going, he'd short out the machine. His new followers were amazed, cheering him on loudly. It was great.


Joe watched him for a few moments, then wandered off. Ken would undoubtably want him back in bed, so he'd make himself scarce. Preferably in the cabin of some beautiful, bikini clad woman, though Ken'd kill him if he took his helmet off. No problem. He'd just leave it on. Maybe the wings too.

Chuckling to himself, Joe walked out of the arcade onto the upper deck of the massive liner. He didn't feel bad at all, just a little bruised in the leg. He didn't remember a whole hell of a lot from the shark attack. Just that when it first pulled him underwater, he'd gotten a lungful of water and felt his already aching head explode in agony. He hadn't known which way was up, and he knew if Ken hadn't found him, he'd be dead. Not that he wanted to be babied now. He hadn't had a vacation in ages, and taking one in BirdStyle did give him certain advantages.

Women stopped to stare longingly as he passed in skintight leathers and sweeping wings. Many were old enough to be his mother, and some young enough that he'd be slapped in jail no matter who he was, but quite a few were just right. He grinned at them as they lounged by the pool or swam, ignoring their boyfriends to focus on him, turning on the charm, and all but heard the sighs of attraction. The men glared. He'd have a lot of enemies by the end of the trip, but he doubted there was a single man on the entire ship he couldn't take. Except for Ken, and the Eagle was still oblivious when it came to women. Licking his lips, the Condor headed in for the hunt.

And stopped when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. "Shouldn't you still be in bed?" Jun asked in the sweet tone of voice she used when she was especially pissed off.

"Hey," he protested. "I'm looking to get in one right now." A trio of nearby beauties started giggling.

"Very funny," Jun retorted. Grabbing him by the visor, she led him back to their rooms.


Katse relaxed as s/he saw the Condor led protesting past her like a puppy by its lead. S/he's been lounging by the pool hirself, trying to get back in the mood for hir vacation, and the sight of the Condor had almost sent hir running for hir life. He'd been hunting, that was obvious, and s/he gave a sigh of relief as s/he saw he hadn't been hunting his usual prey. He hadn't even noticed her, other than as another beauty to leer at, so s/he took that as a sign that he hadn't recognized hir at all, which meant none of them would, though s/he wasn't stupid. There was no way s/he was going anywhere near the Eagle.

Still, if the Kagaku Ninjatai didn't suspect s/he was on board, this was an absolutely golden opportunity to find out their true identities. Surely they couldn't stay in BirdStyle all the way to port. Hir face, which had been turning crafty, fell. Yes, they could. They wouldn't want to risk their identies by parading around outside of uniform, so s/he couldn't just wait around to see them that way.

S/he saw the Swan, still scolding the Condor as she dragged him below deck. He certainly had been looking for the chance to get out of uniform. A smile spread over her face. It was part of their dossier on the Condor that he had a serious weakness for blondes and a tendency to think with his dick rather than his head. S/he fluffed her hair and stood up, headed for the shops and their multitude of sexy apparel. S/he had a new mission ahead, one that would be fun as well as informative. Seduce the Condor.

I wonder if he's got as much stamina in bed as he does in combat, s/he thought and cackled evilly.

And if s/he got the chance to kill any of the rest of them during the trip, s/he wouldn't turn that chance down either.


Ken stood quietly at the bow of the ship, regarding the unchanging horizon and sipping at a cup of coffee, his wings sweeping in the wind around him.

He'd just spent close to three hours with the captain of the ship, being toured around the liner, and he could now say with certainty that he knew more about its layout than many of its crew. It was a kind of security he liked, and the captain had been an intelligent, articulate man. Normally, Ken suspected, he'd have let someone else be tourguide, but he'd been in the military before retiring to captain the liner and he felt meeting Gatchaman to be a tremendous honour. Ken was just grateful he was willing to carry them and be quiet about it.

Ahead of them, a whale suddenly breached, and Ken watched with interest, sure that Jinpei would love to see this. More surfaced as well, an entire pod crossing their paths, breathing spumes of water into the sky. Ken smiled in pleasure, breathing in the clean sea air, and felt a tightness inside him begin to relax.

"Excuse me, Gatchaman?"

Frowning, Ken looked over his shoulders to see a short man wearing a loud hawaiian shirt and shorts, carrying a small paper and pen. Reporter, Ken's instincts screamed at him, and he instantly tightened up again.

"Yes," he said coolly.

The man didn't take the subtle hint. "I'm Jack Reitcher of the New York Tribune. I'm on vacation here, but I'd like to ask you a few questions."

Ken turned away, walking towards the stairs down from the raised bow observation deck, back to the main decks. "I'm afraid that won't be possible."

"Oh, don't worry, I won't ask you anything that could be construed as being secret. I just want to get to know the man behind the mask." He scurried after him as he started down the stairs. "I hear that you're just a kid. Is it true that you and your teammates are clones?"

Rolling his eyes, Ken leaped off the side of the stairs, wings spread, and flew across the deck to the other side of a swimming pool, people yelling below him in surprise and excitement.

"Well, I guess I'll talk to you later, then!" Reitcher yelled. Ken just groaned.


With a sad little sigh, Jun stood outside the liner's fashion boutique and watched the young women within laughing as they tried on dresses and slacks, jewellery and hats. She wanted to join them, but Ken had made it clear that they were not to go anywhere outside the cabin unless they were in BirdStyle. And even if they were, she couldn't buy anything. The striped bellbottoms, shoes and tee-shirt she wore were keyed to the BirdStyle. She couldn't change into it unless she wore them, so she always had to have them on, as they were on call 24-hours a day. She'd liked them at first, and had now gotten so used to them that she basically ignored them, but she was the only woman she knew who had just one outfit. She wanted to dress up, or at least dress differently, but she couldn't.

Miserably, she looked at her reflection in the mirrored pillar beside her. White wings swept down her back to her waist and out, over a pink minidress that barely covered her bottom. White boots came up to midthigh, leaving the rest of her legs bare, just as her short sleeves left her arms bare to where her gloves started. It was all right, but it didn't have the same impressive qualities of the massive wings Ken and Joe wore, and the miniskirt left her feeling more cute than intimidating. Not that the Galactors underestimated her abilities anymore. They were plenty intimidated.

She bit her lip. Intimidating was not the look she wanted. Nor was boring same-old-suit-each-day. It didn't matter how much her clothes resisted dirt and odor. She wanted something new to wear, something that would make Ken notice her, rather than the old familiar look he could ignore because he'd seen it so many times.

Quietly, she looked around. Along with the boutique, there was a shoe store, a hair dresser, and a nail care centre. She could use none of them, and with another sad sigh, she walked away.


The main topic of conversation that night, as it had been all day, was the Kagaku Ninjatai. No one saw them once the sun began to go down, though. The excitement of the day had finally caught up to the four and they were all sacked out in their cabin, sleeping like the dead.

Jinpei was the first to wake. Yawning, he lifted his head and looked over at his sister, sleeping next to him in a borrowed nightie which originally belonged to a woman much larger than herself. The rooms they'd been given had only one queen sized bed in each, and the boy grinned at the thought of how Ken and Joe had handled the night sharing one. They'd shared a room while growing up and he knew they handled bunk beds badly. They'd had some wicked pillow fights over the years. As well as some even wickeder fist fights. As he climbed out of bed and headed for the shower, though, he didn't hear either of them.

Grateful to have the shower first for once, since at the Snack, Jun would have a tendency to use most of the limited hot water, Jinpei sudsed himself off, then, once clean, dressed, went to BirdStyle and hopped in again. It was the quickest way to get the uniform clean, not that it needed much since it resisted dirt and odor very well and his plunge into the ocean the day before had done a fairly thorough job. It tended to be blood that most needed to be washed off. He shuddered. Ken and Jun were meticulous at keeping blood off of themselves, a neat trick in white, and he wasn't bad, but he'd had nightmares from watching Joe stand under the God Phoenix's shower, blood pouring down the sides of his BirdStyle and his wings. He wondered if Joe had nightmares about it too, then squeezed the water out of his wings and headed out for the door. He had some serious play to do and he didn't want to think about death.

"Where are you going?" Ken yawned, standing in the door to his bedroom wearing a pair of boxers.

"Um, just out and around."

Ken shook his head, trying to get his hair to settle down into something reasonably controllable. "No. You can goof off later. I want the team together this morning for a workout session."

"Aw, but Aniki!"

"No buts. Now go wake your sister."

"Can't we at least have breakfast first?" he pleaded.

"And have you puke it all over us if you get tagged hard?" Ken smiled. No way. Don't worry, we won't work out long." He vanished back into the bedroom to get Joe.

Grumbling, Jinpei grabbed a pillow and went to wake his sister.


They had an audience.

Ken wasn't terribly surprised, but he would have preferred a little privacy. Then again, it might be good to practice with other people around. To learn better to fight in a situation where there are innocents to avoid. He'd keep his eye on Joe, though. He had a tendency to lose control in training when he got bored or angry. Especially while angry. When he was bored, he mostly just left. Ken smiled. Whereupon he would try to stop him, and THEN he'd be angry.

Since the gyms in the liner all had low ceilings, he'd chosen one of the upper decks for the workout, one usually used to play shuttleboard. Passengers woken by their whooping and traditional insults were gathered on the stairs and the side of the court closest to it, watching and commenting.

Hoping that no one would get too close, Ken sparred with Joe, his usual opponent. They were face to face, only a few feet between them as they circled, throwing jabs and blocking them at high speed, neither tagging each other, though neither was really trying yet. It was more of a warm up exercise. One well built young man on the edge of the crowd was making a few shadow jabs as well, obviously trying to figure out their technique, though they were doing it too fast for anyone to really learn from it.

Joe sped up his punches, forcing Ken to do the same, and he saw the Condor was looking more at a group of young women than him. He grinned. "Distracted, Joe?"

Joe's eyes flickered to his face. "Hm?"

Ken struck. Dropping to one knee, he swept his leg around, hooking Joe's and knocking them out from under him. Joe howled and crashed onto his back, then was instantly on his feet again.

"You bastard!"

Ken just laughed. "Should have paid attention, Condor."

"I'll show you attention..." He charged.


Katse woke in hir cabin to a thump on the ceiling. Thinking the worst, which was usually a wise idea, s/he rolled out of bed and under it, clutching a gun. The thump came again, followed by clapping through the open porthole above hir head and familiar cursing.

Blinking, Katse got out from under the bed, dressed, and headed out. Hir cabin was under the shuttleboard court, supposidly a nice, first-class cabin for one person, and meant to be quiet. But the stairs up to the court we're crowded with people. Using hir elbows liberally, s/he worked hir way up to the top and stopped.

The Kagaku Ninjatai were trying to kill each other.

The Swan was airborne, wings spread as her yoyo bombs whipped out with their lethal zinging sound, arcing straight for the Swallow who backflipped out of the way, then threw his clackers at her. She ducked and pulled her yoyo back for another throw as he caught his returning clackers in one hand. On the other side of the court, the Eagle and the Condor were trading kicks and punches that s/he'd seen them use to slaughter hir men in the past, moving so fast they were blurs.

They were training, s/he realized. Right over hir goddamned head. How was s/he supposed to sleep during this? Still, it was interesting to watch, and informative. They weren't using any especially fancy moves, not wanting to give anything away, but the basics were informative. They'd always fought as a single force before. It was intriguing to see them fighting against one another.

The Swan, she saw, was not fighting at par, obviously not wanting to risk hurting the Swallow. Katse knew the Swallow was good enough that he was in no real danger, but his opponent didn't seem to feel the same way. In the process of trying to protect him at the same time she was fighting him, she was leaving herself open to attack from a third party. The Swallow, however, was goofing off, not really taking the training session seriously. His attention was there and then distracted by a thousand different things, just like any middler. He also kept up a constant stream of inane chatter. Of course, s/he's always known he was easily distractable, but s/he'd never been able to use it effectively against him before, any more than s/he'd really been able to use the Swan's concern for him. Any weakness seemed to be gone when they fought together.

Disappointed, s/he looked at the men. The Eagle and the Condor were brutal, vicious and violent, aware of nothing except the death they were capable of bringing, and neither of them held back at all. Women and not a few men in the crowd stared at them, entranced.

Periodically, Katse would wonder why the Condor obeyed the Eagle, why he would deign to control his hate and take orders from anyone. Now, seeing the Eagle catch the Condor in a crossblow, seeing him toss him over his shoulder to the floor of the court, s/he saw that the Eagle was a better hand to hand fighter. The Condor was deadly, but his rage was too strong, and his Commander had better technique and control. It was simple. He could force the Condor to obey him.

But it wasn't that simple, s/he realized with narrowed eyes. The Eagle could force his gunner, but he didn't. There was no humilation in the way he fought, no attempt to control. He simply sparred, took advantage of the Condor's mistakes, and spoke in a quiet undertone, telling him what he did wrong without condemnation or ridicule. And the Condor, while he did curse and glare, listened as well, and he rarely made the same mistake twice. So the Eagle could force the Condor, but he didn't, and perhaps that was why he was obeyed. Or perhaps whatever was between them went deeper than that.

Katse shook hir head, not feeling any more informed than s/he had the day before. The Ninjatai's secrets were still their own. S/he'd learn nothing this way, and as the Swan finished with the Swallow and started showing a group of young women self-defense techniques, s/he went back to hir cabin to get some more sleep.


For breakfast, they were invited to dine in the Captain's quarters. Jun was relieved. If there was one thing that made her feel selfconscious, it was being stared at while she tried to eat. She was always afraid she was going to drop something in her lap, and eating with her helmet on was hard enough. She had no idea how Owl did it.

Delicately, she nibbled at a strawberry and watched her teammates. Joe was eating hungrily, shoveling down even more food than Jinpei, which was amazing. She'd never know where they put it, since it definately didn't show. Ken was eating with more decorum, almost ignoring his food as he talked with the captain about the career he'd left behind. They were trading some interesting stories, but Jun sighed. They were on a wonderfully romantic ship, on an impromptu vacation none of them expected to be able to take, and he was still ignoring her. She'd always hoped that if they could just get away from work, he'd notice her. It had to be the BirdStyle. How could he possibly see her as a woman when she was tromping around in combat gear? If only she could get him out of uniform. Forgetting her strawberry, she imagined what he would look like out of uniform... and out of his civvies as well.

"Whatcha thinkin', Onechan?" Jinpei teased. "You're blushin'!"

Jun's hands flew up to her face. "What?"

Jinpei grinned at her. Joe glanced up at her briefly, then went back to his food. Ken didn't even notice, as usual. "Uh, ah, that is, I-" Abruptly, she stood up. "I have to go."

Now Ken looked at her. "Jun?"

"Uh, I promised some women I'd teach them some self defense techniques," she lied and ran out. Standing outside, she leaned against the wall, her face red. "Shit," she murmured miserably, then shook herself. Misery would get her nowhere. Determined, she walked off on her new mission.


"I am the Great Swallow Jinpei!"

"And I'm the White Shadow that slips in unseen!"

"And I'm the psychotic Condor! Arrhh!"

"I guess I'm the Owl."

"Hoot-hoot!"

"Well, who am I?"

"You can be Swan."

"A girl?! Yuck!"

Jinpei stood on one of the upper decks, looking over the railing at a group of kids playing just below. The one who'd declared he was Jinpei was a scrawny little native american with the back of his head shaved. The rest were equally as scrawny and they all wore towels tied around their necks for wings. The one who'd been tagged to play Jun declined violently and the honour went to his baby sister, sitting in her stroller. He instead became Berg Katse and they all took off after him, whooping.

Jinpei laughed, then sighed. He wanted to join in, but he felt kind of weird about it. He wasn't sure anyone wanted to be his friend, they just wanted to be able to say they knew the Swallow. And once they did, they inevitably asked if he could introduce them to the Eagle and the Condor. The next one who did that, he was going to toss overboard. Either that or introduce him to the Condor when he was in a bad mood.

Grinning, Jinpei went towards the arcade. If nothing else, he could have fun blowing up stuff electronically. Too bad Ryu wasn't around to do anything with. Then again, he mused, if he were, he'd never be able to get his butt out of one of those pool side recliners.

Some vacation.


Women, women, everywhere, and if I touch any of them, Ken's gonna geld me...

Sulking, Joe stalked along the side of the ship, people quickly getting out of his way. Reaching a set of stairs, he made his way up to an empty observation deck. Most everyone was below, watching Ken beat the shit out of any moron who thought he could take him. He wasn't actually hurting any of them, but people were having fun watching. If it were Joe, he'd be throwing them overboard by now, which was probably why Ken'd told him to go take a walk. That plus he had the urge to throw Ken himself overboard.

The Eagle had had one of his little talks with him after breakfast, where he basically told him in his deeply concerned voice that he wanted Joe to control his 'urges'. That was the way he put it. Urges. Ken wouldn't know an urge if one leapt up and tried to strangle him. Joe had seen red at that point and missed much of what he said next, but he did recall hearing himself be ordered not to drop out of BirdStyle for any reason, and warnings about going on report and possible courtmartials if any little Condors started running around as a result of this trip. Prick.

Yanking a feather shuriken out of his cape, Joe stuck it in his mouth and started chewing, belatedly checking to see if it was one of the poisonous ones. He was mostly immune by now, but some of the poisons he used could freeze his mouth like he'd just been to the dentist and he hated drooling. At least he WAS immune now. The first time he stuck the wrong one in his mouth, he wound up in emergency. Ken definately gave him the speech then. So did Nambu, Director Anderson, Red Impulse, Jun... probably why he still chewed the things.

"You know, that's a very phallic image there."

Startled Joe looked up to see a tall blonde woman sauntering towards him. He looked at her face for a moment, with its suggestive smile and half-lidded eyes, then let his gaze travel down her body and back up. He liked what he saw. She was slender without being skinny, her hips a bit narrow but definately there, her breasts round and small. She was wearing an outfit that clung to her, leaving one shoulder bare with a slit up the front that gave him a very nice view of her legs. Long, wavy blonde hair spilled down her back to her waist. Her voice was deep and throaty, sensual. Dimly, he thought that there was something vagually familiar about her, but put that out of his mind as she came right up to him and traced a fingernail from his belt, up his chest, traced the outline of the G symbol there, then up to his face. Joe was thrilled. A lot of women had been flirting with him on the ship, but always from a distance. Afraid of his reputation as a psychotic, even while they were attracted to it. This woman, however...

Her hand reached his face, under the tip of the visor, and she took the feather from him, putting it in her own mouth. Joe felt a thrill and his arms went around her back, pulling her up against him. She didn't resist and he felt another thrill.

"What's your name?" He asked, staring into her eyes. They were cold, just like his.

"Katerina," she replied smoothly, and increased the thrill by looping a long slender arm around his neck. "Can I interest you in coming back to my cabin for a little privacy?"

Screw Ken and his paranoia. He didn't know what he was talking about. "You bet."


Oh, God, he'd turned out the lights. That was NOT part of the plan.

Oh, God, s/he didn't care.

Katse lay on hir cabin's bed, gasping at the weight on hir, the pressure within hir. S/he clung to hir lover, hir nails digging into his back, whimpering cries escaping hir with each of his movements. Seducing him had been easy, s/he just hadn't expected him to seduce HIR at the same time, but he was moaning too, and every sound he made excited hir.

It had to be the danger of it, that was all it was. S/he was making love with the Condor, the deadliest of all the Kagaku Ninjatai and hir most lethal enemy. S/he was only seconds from death if he realized who s/he was, and sex and death had always been closely tied in eroticism. Or maybe it was just that he was so GOOD at it.

Joe rolled, taking hir with him, and s/he rose above him, bracing hirself with hir hands on his shoulders while he stroked hir breasts, still moving. With the window shut and curtained and the lights out, he was just a black shape beneath hir, and every time s/he tried to feel the shape of his face, he started kissing hir hands in very distracting ways. This was not supposed to be happening like this.

Oh, the hell with it, s/he thought as s/he screamed with the first of hir orgasms. It was hir vacation too.


On the last night of every cruise, there was a dance, to celebrate the trip and socialize. As they were docking at noon the next day, everyone came to the main ballroom. It meant that they were crowded into the space off the dance floor like sardines, but no one cared. EVERYONE had come to the dance.

Ken danced with a chubby young woman with tired eyes and a beaming face, trying to remember his steps. She was the first woman to ask him to dance and he'd been watching her work up her nerve for the last ten minutes. Other women waited impatiently in the sidelines, staring at him, and he got the sinking feeling that once this dance ended he'd be pounced on by a new partner, and on and on throughout the night. Glancing around the dance floor, he saw Jinpei dancing with an entire group of kids, all trying to outdo the others by swinging their heads up and down as fast as they could. Jinpei looked to be winning, irregardless of what that did to his brains. Joe was on the far side of the floor, a wide space around him as he swung a tall woman with wild blonde hair and a feral grin around. He looked happy and relaxed. Ken's eyes narrowed. He didn't...

The song ended and his partner stepped back, smiling happily as she thanked him. Ken smiled back and graciously kissed her hand before turning to see who his next torturer was. Then his jaw almost hit the floor.

Jun stood before him, wearing a dress as white as her wings. It was shoulderless, reaching up snugly above her breasts and following the contours of her body to her waist, where it hung loose, swirling around her legs and shimmering slightly. A slit up one side showed that she was wearing hose, and high heels. Her hair was done up elaborately and for the first time he could remember, she was wearing makeup other than lipstick. A single pearl hung from a delicate silver chain around her neck and she wore white gloves.

"Hello," she said softly, a faint blush on her cheeks. "My name is Jun. Would you like to dance with me?"

Dumbly, Ken nodded.

A slow song started, making him wonder distantly if Jun had planned this, and he began to waltz with her, one palm on her waist, the other holding her hand, her other hand on his shoulder, a half a foot of space between them. Eager to talk to her, he pulled her close and smelled perfume.

"What are you doing?" He demanded in a whisper. "Why are you out of BirdStyle?"

She shrugged, her hand moving to the back of his neck. Even feeling it through superstrong material, he found it somehow distracting. "I wanted to enjoy our final night here, and dance with my Commander. And if the Swan asked the Eagle to dance, it might start some uncomfortable rumours."

That made sense. "All right," he agreed. "I guess with all the women I'll end up dancing with tonight, you won't stand out much."

Her grip on his hand tightened.

As the song progressed, Ken realized he'd done something to upset her, though he didn't have the faintest idea what. He wished he could talk to Joe about it, since he was the resident expert on women, but he was standing a good twenty feet away, ignoring the music in favour of french kissing his dance partner, who was participating eagerly. He'd be pissed if he interrupted him now, and it might just be a little too obvious.

Still, when Joe angered a woman, his usual response was to compliment her, try to suck his way back into her good graces. "Um, you look very nice."

She drew back to look at him. "Just nice?"

"Beautiful," he amended, and meant it. She truly was gorgeous, in a way the other women around them weren't. Suddenly, his heart started pounding. "Uh-"

She smiled. "Thank you, Ken," and leaned in to kiss him. Stunned, Ken let her.

Her lips touched his. Soft, sweet, tasting faintly of strawberries...

The liner shook and an alarm began to sound. People started screaming. Ken jerked away from Jun as the lights wavered, hearing Joe's voice over all the shrieks, mirroring his own.

"WHAT THE FUCK!!??"


Katse reeled against Joe in confusion, hearing him swear and people crush up against them in their panic. The lights flickered and went out, but there was a strange bright glow coming through the windows, giving everyone the appearance of moving corpses. Katse felt hirself slipping under the crush, then Joe spread his wings, pushing people away, and grasped hir around the waist.

He leaped, taking hir with him, and s/he clung to him as he glided over the heads of the dancers and out one of the wide doors.

A mech loomed over the liner, a huge eel half as big as it was, lighting flickering down its flanks as water poured from its steel hide onto the boat and ocean. Katse felt Joe put hir out of the way of the crowd and warn hir to be careful. Then he was gone. Goons were pouring out of the mouth of the eel on lines that led them to the deck of the ship. People everywhere were screaming and running in a panic.

"Oh goodie," s/he murmured dryly. "My ride's here."


"SHIT! GODDAMN FUCKING BLOODY HELL!!"

Jun raced down the corridor to their cabin, the skirt of her long dress hiked up in both hands, stumbling in her high heeled shoes, swearing a bluestreak that would have made Joe sit up and take notice. Elaborating on the dubious parentage of Galactors in general and Berg Katse in particular, she ran around a corner to find a green masked goon standing in front of her with a grin, brandishing a machine gun. Without even breaking stride, verbally or physically, she kicked him in the groin, then in the head as he fell. Leaping over him, she continued screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs until she reached the cabin. There, she kicked the door in, slammed it behind her and started struggling out of her dress.

"I can't believe this! I JUST CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! I HAD HIM! I HAD HIM AND THEY PICKED NOW TO ATTACK??!!!" Her language degenerated back into mindless curses as she yanked the silk off over the top of her head and dumped it on the floor. Ken would be appalled at her words, Joe would be amused, and Jinpei would be laughing his head off. Red-faced and enraged, she yanked on her usual civvies and transmuted. Then she turned and raced back out the door. She was going to KILL someone for this.


Joe was in his element. Not even bothering to try and force his way through the panicking passengers, he vaulted over their heads and ran along the outside railing of the ship. A half dozen goons were on the shuffleboard court, herding the people they'd caught into a corner with their machine guns. Men and women Joe'd come to recognize in the past day whimpered in terror, their dignity gone as they pleaded for their lives. The Galactors were laughing.

Joe hurled himself at them. Flipping over in midmotion, he slammed feet first into the closest one's back with all his weight and strength. There was a massive crack of breaking bone and the man went down, shrieking. Immediately, Joe turned and kicked his startled neighbour in the throat, then threw feather shurikens at the others. Men screamed and died, blood fountaining everywhere.

"It's the Condor!" One of the goons wailed in terror, only now lifting his weapon. Joe shot him through the heart with his cablegun, then brained another with it in his next motion.

Only seconds after he attacked, it was over. Six men lay broken on the floor in pools of their own blood and urine. The familiar stench of death reached his nose and he heard a vomiting sound. Turning, he saw one of the people he'd rescued throwing up. The rest huddled together, staring at him with the same panic they'd shown the goons.

"This... this is what you do?" one stammered.

Joe drew himself up, blood dripping from his wings. "Yes," he answered shortly and leapt over the railing to the lower deck in search of more enemies, not liking at all the look in their eyes and what it said about him.


Why wasn't the mech attacking? Why weren't the goons killing the passengers?

Ken stood in the shadows of the main stairs, watching the goons herding the passengers back into the main ballroom. They were even being polite, for God's sake. He frowned, wondering what was going on. They obviously didn't know the Kagaku Ninjatai was on board. If they had, they would have just bombed the ship and been done with it.

As they weren't killing anyone, he stayed where he was, watching and hoping to learn something. As he waited, he raised his bracelet to his mouth and whispered. "Sound off. Locations and situations. Quietly. Eagle. Main ballroom. They're bringing the passengers in here. Zero kills."

Jinpei sounded. " Swallow here. I'm at the lifeboats, Aniki. Zero kills. They're kinda ignoring us, though they did shoot up the boats. No one's leaving. I'm right under the mech's head and I think I can sneak in. Can I?"

Ken grinned. "Belay that for the moment. Joe?"

"Condor here. Pool area. Ten kills. Don't worry, I've been tossing them overboard. Something's weird here."

"I know. Try not to let anyone know we're here." Ken watched more passengers come in, including Joe's new girlfriend. She looked seriously pissed. "Jun?"

"I'm below decks," she answered coldly. "Twenty two kills." She grunted. "Make that twenty three."

Ken blinked. "Uh, okay. Just keep it down. Watch and wait. Ken out."

He signed off and looked down at his bracelet. Twenty three?! What was with that woman? Just so long as she kept quiet, he decided, and Joe didn't decide this was some kind of competition. He didn't want any bloodbaths with this many civilians around.


Jinpei stared up at the head of the mech. The open mouth was only twenty feet over his head, arched so it was above the deck of the ocean liner. There weren't even any guards.

Boy are they dumb, he thought. Or they didn't know the team was on board. Jinpei had no idea what the Galactors could want on an ocean liner if it wasn't them, but he wasn't going to worry about it. It had occured to him that the Galactors would undoubtably tighten up their security once they found out they weren't alone with the passengers, and his chance to get on board might be gone. Ken would understand that.

With a grin, Jinpei spread his wings and leapt, a little red and orange shadow that vanished into the mouth of the silent mech.


"Hi."

The Galactor goon, newly recruited and on his very first mission, blinked, looking around. His section chief, realizing his limitations, had made his orders simple. Gather up the passengers in the cabins off the pool deck and don't shoot anyone. He'd accepted those orders happily, figuring it was a great chance to bully people, and had expected everyone to be cowering in terror of him. So far they had, but whoever had said 'hi' didn't sound afraid at all.

In fact, he sounded somewhat psychotic.

A gun barrel pressed against the goon's temple and he froze. "Do you know who I am?" The voice growled.

Desperately, the goon shook his head. "No," he squeaked. This wasn't nearly as much fun as he'd thought it would be.

"Does the name 'Condor' ring a bell?"

Having seen the training films, the goon promptly wet himself, and heard the Condor jump back with a curse. Taking the opportunity, he lunged for the nearest exit, but a feather shurikan slammed into the door inches from his hand. "Don't move."

Wisely, the goon froze.

Joe walked around to where he could see him, careful not to get too close to the idiot. The especially stupid were extra dangerous, since it was hard to predict how they'd react, but the idiot might have some sort of information he could be persuaded to give up.

"All right, tell me why you're here and I might let you live. Otherwise I'm going to start breaking off body parts. Got it?"

The goon nodded.

Joe smiled coldly. "Then why are you here?"

"I dunno."

This was going to take a while.


Shiratori no Jun was not in a happy mood. Deep in the bowels of the ship, she'd cornered a goon officer in the engine room and was banging his head against the floor. He'd had quite enough of this several minutes before and passed out, but she was still annoyed and kept it up for a while.

Finally, she gave up and stalked off in search of a new victim, periodically finding passengers instead who she grudgingly led to a central room with a thick door that could be locked from the inside. It wasn't much protection, but it was better than nothing.

Part of her couldn't believe how angry she was. Another part understood what Joe saw in it. But she kept remembering Ken's warm body dancing with hers, as though they were the only ones in the ballroom, and the sweet taste of his lips. She'd dreamed since she was nine years old of her first kiss with Ken Washio, and it had NOT included getting attacked by a stupid eel mech.

With a snort, she went up to the door of one of the engine compartments. The engines were off, the ship basically dead in the water, but she could hear voices within, a few Galactor officers arguing over procedure. One thought they'd handled everything wrong, another thought they were obviously too late. They were looking for someone, and her eyes widened as she realized who.


"Ken! Ken, come in!"

Ken never took his eyes off the officer who stood near the door with several goons. He wore a finned mask, somewhat like an eel with fins on the side to resemble ears. His costume even had an eel tail. "Yes?" he whispered into his bracelet.

Jun sounded excited. "Ken, I found out why the Galactors are here. They don't know about us. They came to get Berg Katse."

Ken raised an eyebrow. "You're kidding."

"No. Apparently when we blew up the last mech, he escaped to this liner. He's on board right now."

Ken felt like slamming his head against a bulwack. Katse had been on board the entire time?

Joe cut in. "Goddamnit, we can't let him escape!"

"But we don't even know what he looks like," Jun protested. "He must be in disguise."

"Hey, believe me, I'd know Katse the instant I saw him."

Ken frowned, thinking. If they came to get Katse, then why all this? Why come at all when they'd be docking tomorrow and Katse could just vanish into the crowds? They'd certainly had no clue he was on board. And why take the ship over this way. If Katse was in disguise so that not even his own troops recognized him, which was typical, then they'd have to worry about shooting him by accident. Only they weren't using their guns. Ken smirked. They'd taken over the ship to get Katse, then rounded everyone up, not knowing which was their leader. He looked at the sweating officer. Someone was being a moron.

"Katse's been screwed by his own officer," he whispered. "I think he's going to have to reveal himself before these idiots do anything even dumber than they already have, just to get control back. Keep your eyes open."

"Roger," Joe and Jun intoned.

"Did you get that, Jinpei?" Ken paused. "Jinpei?"


Quietly, the Great Swallow Jinpei crept down the passageway in the mech, headed for the control room in the head. Peering in, he saw the eyes served as viewscreens and there were only two pilots. Everyone else was on the liner. Jinpei grinned and twirled his clackers. This was going to be easy.

The clackers wrapped around the lefthand pilot's throat, the balls slamming into either side of his head. He collapsed as Jinpei leaped at the other one, kicking him solidly in the solar plexus. He went down as well, unable to breathe.

Jinpei dragged them out of the way and glanced at the controls. They looked simple, he realized, but they had a bit of a problem with them. This was obviously one of what they termed a 'stupid mech', one with huge design flaws built in it, like not operating in daylight. Only this one, apparently, needed someone at its controls constantly, or it would crash on whatever was below it. Including ocean liners.


Frowning, Katse glared at Galactor Commander Tillaman. S/he'd always known he was a moron, but he'd truly surpassed himself now. With hir preternaturally sharp hearing, s/he could hear him discuss with his officers ideas for what to do next. They'd expected hir to just stride forward and announce hirself, and weren't sure what to do now that s/he hadn't. Idiots. Even if the Kagaku Ninjatai weren't aboard, there was no way s/he was going to do that. And it wasn't even necessary. It was probably Sosai's order, but s/he wished he'd just stayed out of it. S/he'd been enjoying hirself. The Condor, after all, was one hell of a dancer.

Again, s/he wondered where the Ninjatai were. This kind of quiet wasn't like them. Normally, they'd have offed about half of hir stupider goons by now and been well on their way to blowing up hir mech. The thought was cynical, but the worry about what they were up to was genuine. S/he wouldn't grieve if Tillaman wound up punctured, but s/he's flip if anything happened to the mech. It wasn't even finished yet. The stabilizers needed constant readjustment to keep it upright. What could Sosai have been thinking? Desperately, s/he began tossing ideas around in hir head for how to salvage this mess.

Where in hell was Gatchaman?!


In the shadows just ten feet behind her, Ken had a similar thought, concerning another ninja.

Where the hell was the Swallow?

He had a sinking feeling he knew.


"Banzai," Joe whispered, tossing the body over the railing. It hit the water with a satisfied splash and vanished under, pulled down by something with a fin. There was quite a collection of sharks down there and he shuddered, resolving never to go swimming again. Above him, the mech loomed stupidly, ignoring him where he hunted the shadows.


Jun had found a new batch of passengers to lead to her safe hole. Unfortunately, one of them was a reporter who just wouldn't be quiet.

"So, why do you think Galactor is attacking this liner right now?" he asked, hurrying after Jun down the corridor, dressed in a horribly loud hawaiian shirt.

"I wouldn't know," she murmured, eyes casting for any Galactors. She was pretty sure she'd cleaned them all out of this deck, but she didn't want to take chances with these peoples' lives.

"All right," he continued, nonplussed by her lack of emotion. "What can you tell me about yourself. Is it true that you've been continually snubbed by the Eagle sexually?"

"SHUT UP!" Jun screamed, pinning him against the most convenient wall by the most convenient bodypart. "Just SHUT UP!"

"Look out!" One of the other passengers yelled.

Jun ducked, instinctively dragging the reporter with her, and machinegun fire chewed up the wall where he'd been pinned. A squad of Galactors had crept up while she was distracted and the passengers ran back down the corridor, shrieking. Jun spun, pulling her yoyo and tossing it. The hardened weight at the end pierced the wall next to the nearest goon and she sent a charge down it, exploding them, the wall, and the floor. They were within the interior of the ship, so there was no danger of water getting in, but the noise was deafening, rocking the entire ship.


"Oh, I knew I should have listened to Aniki!" Desperately, Jinpei yanked on the levers, trying to figure out which one was the right one to use. The eel mech was lurching like a drunk, head swinging back and forth wildly and disorienting the boy terribly as the viewports showed the madly spinning landscape outside.

He yanked on one lever, and the eel abruptly reeled backwards, arching over itself and underwater. Jinpei gasped as the viewscreens stopped showing a night sky and an ocean liner, and started showing an underwater scene, complete with frenzied sharks feeding on dead Galactors. An alarm began to sound, indicating that the main bay of the eel was still open and the mech was rapidly filling up with sea water.

"Uh oh..."


Ken saw the mech reel out of control at the same time the liner rang like a bell from the explosion below decks. The officer in the eel suit gaped, turning white, and started to order something.

Before he could finish, Ken leaped out of the shadows into midair.

"BIRDRANG!" he screamed, hurling the weapon. It flew at the officer, taking out his throat and that of the man beside him before turning back to him. Ken landed beside Joe's date, who looked understandably freaked, and jumped at the remaining guards.

They tried to fight back, but Ken moved too fast for them. He spun and kicked, flipped and dove. Men died or were knocked out all around him, as he wasn't quite so bloodthirsty as Joe. They fell en masse, shooting each other in their haste to get him, until they were all down or dead and he came to a stop in the midst, his wings closed about him. There wasn't a spot of blood on the white feathers.

Joe ran in the door, his gun drawn, and stopped. "K'so! You could have waited for me!"

Ken ignored that. "Are there any more outside?"

"Nah. Turned 'em all into shark food." He holstered the gun. "I think Jun got all the ones below deck."

"I did." She appeared behind Joe, followed by the reporter, still babbling questions. "Oh, go talk to the Condor," she snapped and went over to Ken. "Where's Jinpei?"

Ken shook his head. "I don't know."

Joe stepped over the reporter's unconscious body and joined them. "I've got a bad feeling about this..."

Ken lifted his wrist. "Swallow, report, now!"

"Hi, Aniki!"

"Jinpei, where are you?"

"In the water. I'm looking for a way up."

"Shit!" Joe swore. "There are sharks down there!"

Jun led the charge outside, where they all looked over the railing to see Jinpei sitting below, high and dry on the back of a dolphin.

"How does he do that?" Joe muttered.

The boy grinned. "Hi, Onechan! Meet my new friend. Did you know that dolphins really hate sharks? They came to pick a fight with the ones here and saved me. It was fun!"

Ken and Joe started laughing. Jun just shook her head, same as always.


It seemed the entire ISO forces were around the docked liner, prepared for combat. After all, Berg Katse was aboard, and they wanted to find him, irregardless of what disguise he might be wearing.

Katse stood in the line at the debarkation ramp, trying not to sweat too visibly. They didn't know what s/he looked like, s/he kept telling hirself, and they wouldn't be looking for a woman anyway. But s/he didn't actually have a ticket for the ship, having literally gotten on it halfway, sneaking into the purser's office and entering hir name in the computer. It wasn't on the mainland computer they were using to crosscheck though, and s/he knew s/he'd need a lot of luck to talk hir way out of that. Glumly, s/he realized s/he was probably about to see the inside of an ISO prison.

"Hey, gorgeous, what are you waiting in line for?"

Quickly, s/he looked up to see Kondoru no Joe grinning at her, dressed as always in his blue and indigo BirdStyle. "Uh, waiting for my turn to be interrogated," s/he replied. Which was true.

"Forget that, I'll vouch for you." To hir own amazement, s/he found hirself being led through the gate, and off the boat, right past the military and literally under Nambu's nose. S/he had to fight not to burst out laughing. "There you go," he said, stepping away from hir regretfully. He looked sad, probably because he knew a relationship between them wouldn't work. He had no idea how much it wouldn't. "Nice meeting you."

"It was," s/he said sincerely and stepped up to give him a kiss. It lasted quite a few minutes.

When s/he was done, s/he stepped back and smiled. "Until next time, my Condor." Turning, s/he walked away slowly, knowing his eyes were on hir, drinking in his last sight of hir. Once s/he was around the corner, though, s/he ran like hell. S/he may have been dramatic, but s/he wasn't stupid.


"I can't believe you guys got to have a vacation while I was stuck tightening screws on the God Phoenix!"

It was the third hour of Ryu's tirade, bursts of rage between long stretches of sulky silence. It was making the ride home in the warship incredibly long, though they all had something to bitch about.

"I still can't believe Katse got away again," Ken muttered. "How does he do it?!"

"I can't believe I got that close," Jun mumbled to herself alone. "Oh well, at least I know he's a good kisser."

"Can we go back, Aniki?" Jinpei pleaded. "I'm only fifty thousand points short of beating the top record for Robot Killer 3000."

"No."

"Aww..."

In the gunner's seat, Joe sat smiling at a memory of a wild eyed woman with blonde hair. "What a great vacation."

 

The End
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