Janine Aurant walked into the hangar containing her plane, whistling cheerfully. "Got a job for us, Baby," she told the plane. "Dr. Morton wants me to run out to the Island to test-run her new attack fighters."
"Excuse me," a throaty feminine voice said. "Are you Janine Aurant?"
Janine turned. At the entrance to the hangar stood a tall blonde woman with a slender figure, framed by two men in business suits and sunglasses. *They look like Mafia or something*, Janine thought, *but the Mafia don't employ women, do they? Does Galactor?* She didn't think Galactor did, but she was wary as she said, "Yes. Is there anything I can do for you?"
The woman smiled, and stepped behind the men-- who had guns.
Janine ran for it. She didn't get far.
When the smoke cleared, the blonde woman turned the body over with a kick, and stared at the face. "No," she finally decided. "This one isn't her."
She consulted the list. "Tomorrow we'll do Lori Chibi."
Lori Chibi did not like the look of the car following her.
She looked in her rear view mirror. *Shit!* She was right-- those two men were in Galactor greens!
She floored it. What could Galactor want with her? She was only a flight courier, nothing special. Why were they after her?
Alphabetical order, anatomy, and profession were not explanations that occurred to her before the car caught up to her, and the goons fired.
The car crashed spectacularly. The two Galactors in the now stopped car gave each other high-fives. "Yatta!"
"No. We defeated her too easily," their Captain said from the back seat, the planes of her fine-featured face glittering in the light from the burning car. "That one wasn't Gatchaman either."
"How many left, Taichoh-sama?" one asked.
"There are 13 women left employed by ISO as pilots."
"Are you sure one of 'em's Gatchaman, though?"
A cold smile appeared on the woman's face as she watched the fire fade. "I am positive."
Alison Fredericks was next.
In four days, four women had been murdered. Mari Washio sat at the bar of the Snack J, after closing time, despondently drinking more heavily than was her wont.
"What's wrong, onechan?"
Mari downed the rest of the drink. "Another one, Jinpei."
"I don't know if you should be drinking so much..."
"No, you definitely shouldn't," Jun said, coming over. "Mari, what's wrong?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Mari got up to make her own drink.
"No, it's *not* obvious, dammit," Joe said, coming over to the bar and hovering over her. "I understand that you're upset about the murders, I understand you think it's Galactor and you want it to stop. What I *don't* understand is why you're not investigating Galactor's motives and stopping the deaths instead of drinking yourself into a stupor."
"I am *not* drinking myself into a stupor!" Mari stopped short on her way to the barstools and faced Joe angrily. "And you're not one to talk about *my* health. I'm much better at taking care of myself than you are, Joe. Don't worry about me."
"You're not acting it much, fearless leader." Joe leaned against the bar as Mari sat down.
"Anyway, Mari," Ryu said, trying to defuse Mari and Joe, "why *aren't* we investigating the killings?"
"Because I know Galactor's motive already." Mari took a deep drink. "It's me they want."
"You?" Ryu asked. "That's ridiculous! How can you know that?"
"Why do you think so, Mari?" Jun asked.
"All the women killed have had exactly two things in common. They're young females, and they work for ISO as pilots. And that's it." She looked into the glass. "I don't know if it's somehow my fault, but either way, it's because Galactor's figured out I'm one of ISO's pilots in my civilian identity. Not too difficult, actually-- everyone knows the Science Ninja Team is affiliated with ISO, and Katse would be really stupid not to figure out my specialty is piloting. It's not a big leap in logic to figure out my civilian identity might be involved with planes and ISO's payroll. So he's going to keep killing female pilots until he gets to me."
"Couldn't we put them under protection?" Jun asked, horrified.
"I told Dr. Nambu, and he's already done it. But ISO security isn't up to Berg Katse's devilish ingenuity when it comes to figuring out how to kill people he wants dead, not unless we're there to protect them-- and there's 10 of them, not counting me. We'd have to spread ourselves damned thin, and leave ourselves vulnerable that way."
"Maybe we could... *convince* him to knock it off," Joe suggested.
Mari glared at him. "Oh, right, Joe. We somehow magically locate Berg Katse, and I offer to beat the shit out of him if he doesn't stop attacking female pilots. That'll just persuade him he's right even more. What do you want me to say? 'I'm not a test pilot so leave those innocent people alone?' When has our opinion ever made a difference to Berg Katse? And we don't even know where he is, to try. No..." She took another drink and looked down at the glass. "I can see only one way to stop the killings."
"You try telling me where he is, Joe, and I'll consider it. Besides, that'd only encourage his successor even more. No. I'm seriously thinking of turning myself over to him."
There was a quartet of shocked gasps, and then a fist connected with Mari's jaw, sending her sprawling off the bar stool and into the floor. "Bakayaro!" Joe shouted, furious. "Mari, you're not expendable!"
Mari got up, holding her jaw. "Dammit, Joe, I *know* that!"
"Then why are you saying such stupid things? If you got yourself killed by Galactor, it'd kill us!"
There was a moment of silence, as everyone remembered the exact same words passing between Joe and Mari on previous occasions, only in the opposite direction. Finally Mari said, "I think you have a lot of nerve, saying that to *me.*"
"This time it's different, Mari! *I'm* expendable, you're not!"
Seconds later it was Joe who was flying across the room. "Dammit, you are not!" Mari shouted. "Joe, *none* of us are expendable!"
Joe picked himself up. Ryu stepped toward him, ready to stop an incipient full-scale battle, but Joe was unusually restrained, limiting his attack to words. "Maybe-- but all of us are more expendable than you. Mari, you're the leader. Don't you know what a victory it would be for Katse if he destroyed you? Do you realize what it would do to world morale, to hear that Gatchaman was dead? What do you think it would do to *our* morale? Or our effectiveness in battle? Do you think *I* can lead this team effectively? Remember the last few times I tried, Mari! I could mention Cataroller, or the time when Katse impersonated your father and I had to fill in for you--"
"I know that. But how can I stay in hiding when innocent people are being killed for me?"
"Your job's more important than theirs. You're more necessary to the world than they are."
"My *job* is to protect innocents like them!"
"You can protect a hell of a lot more innocents if you don't waste yourself stupidly!"
"I get this from the man who routinely takes the most reckless risks imaginable?"
"Just because I'm reckless doesn't mean you should be!"
"You shouldn't at all!"
"Stop it, both of you!" Jun cried.
"That's right!" Ryu interposed himself between the two firebrands. "If Berg Katse could see the two of you right now, he'd be laughing his fool head off. I say you should both calm down. Mari, sure you're upset, but don't take it out on Joe. And Joe, don't you go making matters worse for her!"
"When Mari talks about doing idiotic things like giving herself up to Galactor, it's my job to knock some sense into her," Joe said levelly.
"More often she knocks sense into you, Joe aniki," Jinpei observed.
"Watch it, mouth."
Mari grabbed her jacket and stalked toward the door. All three of the older members of the Science Ninja Team were suddenly between her and the door, and Jinpei was holding her hand. "Where're you going, Mari one-chan?"
It would have been funny if Mari had been in any mood to laugh. "Knock it off, people," she said angrily. "I'm not going to go hand myself over to Katse, I just need time by myself. To think. So do you mind?"
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" Joe demanded.
Mari gave him a look that was pure ice. "*You're* the untrustworthy one, Joe. Don't project what you'd do onto me." Joe's eyes blazed. "Why, you--"
"Don't, Joe!" Jun turned to Mari. "Wasn't that really uncalled-for?"
"Yeah, well, I don't like being distrusted. I'll keep my word. And if another innocent dies, it'll be on all your consciences as well as mine." She stalked out.
Mari thought about flying. Whenever she was depressed about something, flying helped distance the problem, the sheer pleasure of being alone and free in the air making her troubles fade... But even if these troubles faded from her mind, they wouldn't from the real world. Ignoring things rarely made them go away, much as Mari wished they would. She would be cheating those innocent women if she let their deaths for her sake fade from her mind.
She walked alone in the park, with none of the fear of the darkness that might be expected of a woman her age. Not that the park was particularly dangerous-- Utoland's crime rate was higher than Japan's but still pretty low. As she walked out onto the bridge, the black water caught her attention, mesmerizing in the way it glittered with the moonlight, flowing and changing endlessly, carrying her away. For several seconds she watched it, letting her mind go blank.
No good. The hurt didn't go away from not thinking about it. She shook her head, angry at herself for letting herself leave the problem behind. Because, dammit, Joe was *right.* Her duty was to her team, to the whole world, and only after that to a small group of innocent women. But knowing other people were dying for her sake, and she was doing nothing to stop it... Partially, it was her sense of honor. It was not honorable to let these women die. It *was* honorable to sacrifice herself nobly, but it was a. stupid b. opposed to her duty, to protect all the world c. giving in too easily to Katse. For these reasons, she could bear the loss of honor. But her compassion and sense of justice did not listen to such rational voices. It was so damned *unfair* that innocent people should die because Galactor was trying to kill her. Like a knife in her gut, a tightening net of acid across her brain, it was agony to know innocents were dying for her, and she had already done all she could... and knew it would not be enough.
She had gotten Dr. Nambu to put protection on the women, of course-- and, since the existence of one unprotected female pilot would be rather like sending flares up to Katse, protection had also been put on her home, though she wasn't likely to go there unless there was a scramble and she needed the Eagle Sharp. Maybe the security would dissuade Galactor-- but more likely, it would just force Katse to come up with creative ways around it-- and, as Mari had told the team, she had never met anyone else as devilishly clever at figuring out how to kill people as Berg Katse.
There *had* to be something she could do.
But she could think of nothing...
Mari spun, recognizing the shadow against the tree. "Dammit, Joe, I asked to be left alone!"
"You've been out here for three hours," Joe said levelly. "Ryu and Jinpei already went to bed, and Jun and I got worried-- you *did* drink a lot, you know, and if what you say's true, there are people out to kill you."
"And you were afraid I'd gone and handed myself over to Galactor."
"Believe it or not, I wasn't. But I don't think we should be discussing this here. It's late, Mari, and your place's gonna be crawling with guards. Jun offered to let you stay upstairs at the J."
Mari was tired, as a matter of fact, and she felt as if her brain was going in circles. Maybe the morning would give her a fresh angle to look at things. "Yeah, all right. Are we walking, or did you bring your car?"
"Brought the car."
They got in, and Joe said, elaborately casual, "Wanted to apologize for what I said back there. Thought about it after you left, and I guessed you wouldn't pull an idiot stunt like that after promising us you wouldn't."
"Well, maybe I got a little out of line, too," Mari said, leaning her head back against the seat.
"You damn well did. But I understand why."
"I'll apologize too-- that remark of mine, about you being untrustworthy, really *was* uncalled for."
"I won't dispute that." They pulled up alongside the J. Jun was waiting for them, just inside.
"Good God, Mari, you look terrible!" Jun exclaimed sympathetically. "Here, I made you some hot chocolate--"
"I don't need it."
"It'll settle your stomach-- keep the nightmares away." Jun looked at Mari critically. "I remember what it's like to room with you when there's something eating you alive like this. Do you want to wake up Jinpei with your screaming?"
"Wouldn't be dignified, Mari," Joe said, remembering numerous nights in childhood when one or the other of them had woken the other exactly that way. "Think of the image."
"The image is why innocent people are dying," Mari snapped, but allowed Jun to lead her to the bar.
"You haven't had anything to drink since you left the J, have you?" Jun asked.
"No-- and I never had much. Three glasses and you people act like I'm turning into a lush. I am stone cold one hundred percent sober. Want me to say 'She sells sea shells by the sea shore' to prove it?"
"You sure you're sober?" Joe asked, amused.
"Yes. Exhausted to the point of stupidity, maybe, but certified non- alcoholic. I could even drive, except I'd probably fall asleep at the wheel." She accepted a cup of hot chocolate from Jun and sipped at it cautiously, since it was steaming.
Jun stood aside, watching her friend. Mari looked ghastly, as if the Galactor killings were drawing her blood from some hidden wound. *Sleep peacefully, Mari. Tomorrow all your problems will be solved. I hope.*
Mari did not quite finish the chocolate before nodding off on the counter. "Help me get her to bed?" Jun asked.
Joe half-carried Mari up the stairs, with help from Jun. "You know," he said musingly, "she never promised she wouldn't pull a stunt like she threatened tomorrow. She promised for tonight."
"Oh, lord, she'd better not," Jun said. "Help me get her into this nightgown." It wasn't Mari's nightgown, but Jun and Mari weren't *that* far off in size. They got Mari dressed and into the bed, and Jun folded her clothes neatly and put them down. "Hey, her boomerang's missing!"
"Oh, I've got it," Joe said, tossing the silver thing at Jun's feet. There was a soft thud, but Mari didn't stir.
"Why'd you take it?" Jun asked, placing the boomerang under the clothes.
"I was going to get a boomerang once, did I ever tell you that?" Joe asked, and Jun followed him out of the room. "It was after Mari and I'd been watching another of those stupid kung fu movies we used to eat up when we were little..."
Later, after Joe had left, Jun went back up to Mari's room.
Mari didn't stir as Jun lifted the clothes, took the boomerang, and carefully put her own yo-yo in the hidden pocket where Joe had taken the boomerang from. For a moment, Jun worried that the sleeping pill she'd put in the hot chocolate, on top of Mari's exhaustion, might cause her to be groggy for a scramble or something. She wasn't worried about the possible effects of the alcohol Mari'd drunk, as she'd made sure there was no alcohol on Mari's breath, and three hours was more than enough time to metabolize three drinks. But if there was a scramble... It was a calculated risk. Katse wanted to take Mari in civilian style, therefore wouldn't risk showing himself as a target for her in Bird Style. He was crazy, but he wasn't stupid.
She thought of taking Mari's Bird Style... but no, the shoes wouldn't fit. For that matter, probably nothing else would, either-- Jun was shorter and had smaller breasts, narrower shoulders, and wider hips than Mari did. So she took only the boomerang, and moved to the door.
*Forgive me, Mari*, she thought to her sleeping friend. *But Joe was right. All of us are more expendable than you, and I'm the only one who can go in your place.*
She headed for bed. Mari would sleep late tomorrow. Plenty of time for Jun to put her plan into motion.
After leaving Jinpei a note-- "Errands to run; I'll be gone all day. Take care of the J."-- Jun headed for Sakurami Complex, to see her friend Herricane G, better known as ISO pilot Gretchen Listendorf. Her Special Security Badge-- the kind that dissolved when anyone other than its rightful owner touched it, that identified her as a high-clearance member of the Special Projects Division-- got her into the complex without trouble.
Gretchen herself was much less trusting.
"Prove you're Jun," the voice came through the shut door.
"Ask me something."
"Who was the Unutterably Gorgeous God the night the Herricane hit the Mirror Jungle?"
That was easy. "Michel D'avignon, of Supersonic," Jun replied.
"Okay-- I guess you're Jun. But just in case you're not, don't try anything funny, or I'll shoot." The door opened just wide enough to admit Jun.
"It's *me*, Gretch," Jun said, slipping into the darkened room. "Herricane J. I'm not out to get you."
The light came on. "I'm not taking *any* chances," Gretchen said. She was a big-boned woman with short, sun-colored hair and alert blue eyes, and at the moment a burningly intense expression and a gun in her hand. "Someone tipped Dr. Nambu that they're killing ISO female pilots in alphabetical order. Guess who's next?"
She moved to put the gun down, but froze and spun back to face Jun as Jun said, "I know. That's why I'm here."
"*What does that mean??*"
"Gretch-- *relax.* And put down the gun. I'm here to help you."
Gretchen sat down, with the gun next to her on the bed. "How?" she asked warily. "I'm a fighter pilot, Jun-- you're just a student with a restaurant. If *I* can't protect myself from Galactor--"
"You'd be surprised at my resources." Jun pitied Gretchen, and felt proud of her, that she was Jun's friend, at the same time. The woman was terrified, but she hadn't gone hysterical or panicked; she was protecting herself as best as she could, from an enemy far more powerful than herself. Mari was right, entirely right. These women didn't deserve to go through this kind of terror. That was why Jun had made this decision.
"Listen," Jun said. "I can tell you why Galactor's doing this. They've somehow gotten the mistaken idea that Gatchaman is an ISO pilot into what passes for their minds, and they're killing all the female pilots to try to get at her. It's my responsibility to see they don't kill any more innocents, so I figured that-- since you're next on the list, and you know me personally and trust me, I can take steps to protect you and all the others."
Gretchen was frowning. "*Your* responsibility?"
"I don't want to go into that right now--"
"How do you know Gatchaman's *not* one of us?"
"I don't want to go into that either. What I want is permission to impersonate you, and the keys to your car. And permission to wreck the car, if necessary-- ISO'll cover the cost of a new one, I think. I'm going to make it too expensive for Galactor to keep this up."
She saw Gretchen's eyes widening. "Jun-- are *you--??*"
"Shh! Not even in here!" Jun said. Her own eyes were intense, boring into Gretchen's. "You understand, I think, why this mess is my responsibility. Will you help me?"
"Yes-- yes, certainly! But how are you going to make Galactor think you're me?"
"They'll assume it, if I'm driving your car. Everyone killed so far has been in her own car, her own house, or near her own plane. They don't know what any of you look like, they need other identification. That's why ISO moved you from your home, and that's how I'll trick Galactor into thinking I'm you. Once they realize who I am, I'll trick them into thinking I'm Lori Chibi."
"I know, so she's safe. If something goes wrong, I don't want Galactor to keep believing Gretchen Listendorf is Gatchaman, after all."
"But-- if it's you they're after, wouldn't it be stupid to walk into their hands?"
"They'll underestimate me. They always do." Jun took the keys Gretchen pressed into her hand. "But... If I don't return in 12 hours, I want you to tell my friend Mari Washio. She's a pilot, too, so she'll probably be under protection. Okay?"
Gretchen nodded. "Does she know?"
"Not everything. Just tell her I went to take care of the Galactor problem. She'll understand." Jun went to the door. "Thanks, Gretchen."
"Thank *you.* And-- your secret's safe with me, Jun, whatever happens."
"I know. I trust you, Gretchen." Jun left.
Sneaking back into her room, Jun put on blue contact lenses, padded her bra and shoulders slightly, and changed to a light blue T-shirt-- though Katse undoubtedly didn't know they all wore numbered T-shirts, G-1 wearing a number 3 would look distinctly odd-- and stashed grenades, explosives, shuriken, a garroting cord and a gun in various locations on her body. Her wallet contained the ID for the dead Lori Chibi. Jun planned to get herself captured, on her own terms, after putting up enough of a fight to "prove" she was Gatchaman. She would inform Galactor-- letting it "slip" in anger, perhaps-- that the woman who had died in Lori Chibi's car had been a friend of hers. Since Chibi had been a half-Japanese, half- Caucasian orphan like both Jun and Mari, and since her remains had been unidentifiable, she was perfect for this. Then Jun would manage to escape, or at least contact the team, leaving Galactor to believe that Gatchaman's real name was Lori Chibi-- who would then vanish thoroughly, because of course the real Lori Chibi was dead.
She hated having to do this. Jun, sometimes more than the others, was conscious that they were a team, that that was where their strength lay. She disapproved of *any* of them going off by themselves, and yet here she was, doing it. But Joe was right that all of them were more expendable than Mari-- whatever Mari herself might think-- and only a female stood a chance of pulling off a deception like this, and only a member of the Science Ninja Team had a chance of surviving it. That kind of narrowed down the number of people who could do this, and it had to be done, so... no choice.
In the converted warehouse/control center of the Gatchaman assassination operation, a certain female fifth-level Galactor Captain was curled in an armchair, smoking a cigarette and trying to figure out where their scheduled next target had hidden herself, when the report came in.
"Taichoh-sama! Satellite reports a car sighted with Gretchen Listendorf's license plates!"
"Where?" The blonde woman was out of her chair in a second, examining the satellite tracking map of the roads around Utoland as she stubbed out her cigarette.
"On Route 52-- looks like she's trying to leave the city!"
"The fool. Does she think we can't follow her? She was safe as long as she hid... or could this be a trap?" The woman thought about it for several seconds. "I won't take chances. Put me through to *Devil Star!*"
The round mecha-- used equally by Berg Katse, the woman captain, and the elite female squad of the same name-- was currently occupied by the woman assassins. Devil Star 35 answered. "This is *Devil Star.*"
"Pick me up. Our next target is fleeing the city. If she's Gatchaman, I want to make sure a competent squad is dealing with her, so I'll take you there."
"Kashikomairimashita, taichoh-sama." With pleasure, Captain.
Jun glanced at the rear view mirror. Three truly bizarre cars were pursuing her, and when she tilted the mirror to see their faces-- *Devil Stars!* There was no mistaking the masked, wigged women-- and there were more of them than she'd thought. *Five of them!* And in that car, in the back-- an unmasked woman riding with a Devil Star pilot-- that was their captain, wasn't it? Jun floored it. *Let's play "catch", girls!*
Two sped up to flank her, while the others hung back, herding her. Jun grabbed one of the grenades off the front seat and lobbed it out the window. Startled, the Devil Star wasn't able to swerve in time, and her car exploded spectacularly. Jun hurled another through the other window, but that one was warned-- she slammed on the brake and went skidding off the road, disappearing into the tall grass. Three left, maybe four if that one wasn't seriously damaged. Not good. Jun had been expecting goons, not Devil Stars.
One of the three took off, and began firing a bazooka at Jun from the air. *Damn!* Jun was really a lot more used to motorcycles. She swerved madly, but she couldn't dodge them all. As one exploded Gretchen's car, Jun leapt free, landing on one of the Devil Stars' hood and breaking the windshield with her gun. The woman threw her exploding rose at Jun's chest- - Jun grabbed it and lobbed it at the one in the air. It missed, but she was already breaking the Galactor's neck with her foot, sliding into the machine and trying to work the controls.
Inside the control car, which was still hanging back, the blonde woman wore an unconscious smile. This one *was* Gatchaman, there could be no mistake! "Give me the wheel, and you shoot at her!" she told the assassin in the car with her, and they quickly traded places. "Devil Star 23, strafe her!"
Jun was unsuccessfully trying to get her stolen mecha into the air when the command car started firing a bazooka at her, while the flying car swept down for the kill. Jun leapt out of the car and onto the flying one, where she swiftly killed the pilot and divebombed the command car. The one she'd sent off the road hadn't turned up again-- that meant this car was the last. With the woman captain at the wheel, though, it was also likely to be the toughest. It went into rapid reverse and took off, firing at Jun with the main guns. Simultaneously, the Devil Star inside it was leaning out the window with a rifle, shooting at Jun. Jun dodged--
--and a massive shock went through her vehicle. Jun spared a swift glance at the rear view mirror. The woman she'd sent off the road before was back, and had blown off the rear of her car/plane. All control was out. Jun leapt free.
Gunfire from both operative vehicles grazed her. One caught her in the side, and she staggered as she landed. It hurt, badly. She'd forgotten how painful getting shot out of Bird Style could be. Jun rolled and hid herself in the grassy field at the side of the road.
The command car buzzed her. With all her strength, she hit it with the last of the grenades, and as it went down, began to run. Only one car left, trying to mow her down. This particular Devil Star was damned good-- Jun tried to leap onto this car, and the woman lifted, making Jun's body smack into the clawlike front of the vehicle. Then she sped up, effectively keeping Jun pinned there, until she went into a barrel roll over the pavement and dumped Jun on the highway.
(Behind her, through the grass, a bruised and furious Galactor Captain, having jumped out of her car just as it and the Devil Star inside it crashed and burned, made her way toward Jun with a gun in one hand.)
Jun stood, shakily. She took out the boomerang and held it up, glittering in the sun. She wasn't terribly experienced with a boomerang, but she knew how to work it well enough that she could kill this last pilot. Her plan had been to get captured on her terms, *not* Galactor's. So she stood and waited for the car to come down for a pass--
--and as it did, a gunshot rang out behind Jun, and pain shot through the back of her neck. The world stretched suddenly, spun, and she fell numbly to the ground...
"Is it her?" the exhausted surviving Devil Star asked her captain. "After all this, is it really Gatchaman?"
The Captain knelt by the fallen woman, taking note of the bracelet on the wrist. She stared at the face. It didn't look quite right, to be Gatchaman-- a trained mimic, she was sensitive to such things. But there was the bracelet, and the boomerang, and that had unmistakably been Science Ninja Team fighting style and Gatchaman's skill-- and the face *was* similar, after all, if not quite entirely what she'd thought... "It is. It must be." Though she felt bruised and exhausted, she found the strength to laugh. "After all this time, Gatchaman is finally my prisoner!"
"You didn't kill her, taichoh-sama?"
"No. She's far too valuable as a prisoner, and I saw the opportunity to take her alive, so I did. Get her into the car. Back to *Devil Star.* We'll take her to Morden Base, and I'll turn her over to Berg Katse-sama."
At the base, a few pills took care of the bruises, and Berg Katse was feeling much better when his prisoner finally awakened.
He had had her strip-searched, and a prisoner's uniform put on her-- he could have left her nude, of course, but that would encourage the men too much, since it wasn't his intention that she be raped. She was shackled spread-eagled to two poles, which were mounted on a wheeled appartus and which had webbing stretching between them, so he could move her about or shift her to a vertical, diagonal or horizontal position, as he chose. It was the sort of device he used to hold prisoners while he was making himself up to impersonate them. At the moment he had her supported vertically, since he didn't want to strain his head to look at her. He was somewhat amazed by how short she was-- he had never noticed that she wore heels in Bird Style, yet she was significantly shorter than she'd been all the times she'd throttled him... Well, lack of oxygen can do strange things to one's perception. Katse smiled cruelly as his prisoner blinked her eyes open. "So, Gatchaman! You've finally seen fit to rejoin the land of the living?"
The mocking words reminded Jun of who and what she was supposed to be. She wanted to close her eyes, to shut out the sight of Katse's smiling face. *No, it's all gone wrong! They weren't supposed to get me this helpless...* But Mari would be defiant, would not shut her unpleasant circumstances away. So she blinked and forced her eyes to stay open, staring at Katse with all the hatred she could muster.
"Come, come, Gatchaman, don't glare so! Did you think perhaps you would escape us in the end? When we *knew* it was you we were after? I think you've sorely underestimated Galactor, Owashi no Mari."
"Considering your usual competence level, that isn't hard," Jun murmured.
"Kindly remember that you *are* speaking to the one who holds you captive. You could die here, you know, at a single order from me-- you should take that into consideration. And casting aspersions on our competence can only reflect badly on your ability, since we *did* eventually take you, no? This time you won't be escaping, Gatchaman. Your days of harassing Galactor have come to an end."
Jun lifted her head. "I don't think so," she said, pitching her voice low and speaking in masculine forms, like Mari. "I think you've underestimated *me*, Berg Katse."
"Really? I can't imagine how. You're shackled here, with your fate entirely in my hands. What is there to underestimate?"
"Why is it you think my being captured came as a surprise to me, Berg Katse? After you killed an innocent friend of mine in *my* car, I decided I had to put an end to this scheme of yours at any cost. So I stole the next victim's car-- bad habit of yours, Katse, killing them in alphabetical order-- and headed out to find you." She smiled. "I do have to say your woman subordinate is a bit more competent than I expect of Galactors-- I thought I'd have to kill a lot more of your goons before getting to see you, Katse. But now I'm here, and my team knows where I am. They'll be here any minute."
"Will they, really, Gatchaman? Don't they need this?" Katse held out her bracelet. "We checked after we'd stripped you, to make sure your body wasn't emitting any radio signals-- and if there's no transmitter inside you, you'd need this little bauble to call your team, wouldn't you?"
Jun could not keep her anger and fear completely off her face. Katse laughed. "So I was right! You *would* like this pretty little trinket back, wouldn't you? Although, I wonder if the drug we used on you broke some of your spirit-- I'd have expected you to try lunging at me."
"It wouldn't do any good, would it?" Jun asked tightly.
"No, of course not, but you're not usually that rational. Are you tired? I regret to tell you that it will be a very long while before you're allowed to rest-- unless, of course, you tell me right away the real names of your teammates. Now that I know *your* true name-- Lori Chibi."
So he'd taken the bait! Jun let herself look startled for a second, then shrugged, smiling-- or tried to shrug, though with her arms shackled it was difficult. "Knowing my name won't help you, Katse," she said. "Lori Chibi is officially dead. You won't find my teammates by connection to me. And as for my telling you anything..."
"Everyone has a breaking point, Lori-kun."
"You underestimate my training. I'll be dead before you get anything out of me."
Katse laughed. "What a strong spirit." He tangled his hand in her hair, yanked her head up, and Jun had to fight not to cry out. Mari wouldn't cry out... "Even if what you say is true, seeing you die would be a satisfactory outcome in itself. If you think it will bother me to torture you for a very long time and get no information, you must understand that simply the sight of your pain will be a reward in itself. And after all, if you die, even if you give us no information your team will be crippled by your loss. Their morale will be destroyed, and without you the Science Ninja Team really has only one effective fighter."
"Don't underestimate G-3, G-4, and G-5," Jun said. "They're not as flashy as the Condor and myself, but they're perfectly capable of destroying you-- and they will. We've had *gloves* on in dealing with you, Katse, because I had orders to take you alive. But with me gone, and the others consumed with rage, what do you suppose will stop them from slaughtering you?"
Jun spoke from her own rage, that Katse should take herself, Jinpei and Ryu so lightly, knowing that if Katse had killed Mari, nothing would stop the other three-- not to mention herself-- from destroying Katse. But Katse only shook his head.
"Gatchaman, it is not my destiny to die at your team's hands. The future will demonstrate my ascendancy, and your destruction. It is simply fate."
"You're even less comprehensible when you try to get mystical, Katse," Jun said.
"Then let me put it to you in terms even one like you can understand. The Ninja Team will burn with rage for a time, yes, but they won't find me. I'll simply stay out of their range until rage turns to grief, until they start to make mistakes. How long can they survive without a leader? And then, when they are gone, there will be nothing to stand between Galactor and the brilliance of our destiny. Reflect on that, Gatchaman, because I think that's the greatest torture I can give you." He threw back his head and laughed.
He was right, of course-- that was exactly what would have happened, had it really been Mari they'd captured. Jun no longer had the strength for defiance-- she knew she had to save it for the ordeal ahead. Her only hope now was that, when the twelve hours were up, Mari would learn what she had done, and come after her-- and how could Mari find her? She had been planning on using the bracelet, and Katse had it now... all her plans had been wrecked...
She closed her eyes. *Forgive me, Mari. I had to go in your place, because your death would be the death of us all. I tried to make a plan that would save us all, but I failed... please forgive me...*
Katse ordered the device lowered, so that Jun was stretched out horizontally. She heard one of the Galactors, with a leer in his voice, say "Hey, she ain't a bad-looking bitch. Katse-sama, are we gonna get to--?" Jun's eyes snapped open, to see several Galactors eyeing her salaciously.
"Control your urges," Katse said coldly. "The women I give you are weak enough to be broken by such a simple thing. This one is too strong for that. It would be a waste of time. No." Katse smiled. "If Gatchaman were the man she pretends to be, the question would not come up, I think. So we shall destroy her as men are destroyed, without rape." Thank God for small favors. Jun and Mari had both been trained to think of rape as simply a form of torture, no more degrading than ordinary pain, but Jun wasn't one hundred percent positive she could see it that way if it actually happened. Katse continued. "Instead, we will hurt her until she wishes we'd used such comparatively mild methods." He looked down at Jun. "I'm not wrong, am I? You would simply ignore being raped. It's very easy to send the mind elsewhere when nothing worse is happening than physical violation, and I want you right here with us the whole time."
*Katse, I only wish I could live to see your face when you next see Mari, and realize you killed the wrong woman.* "I can tell you're an expert on being raped, Katse," Jun murmured.
Katse's fist jerked her head back against the webbing, and loosened teeth. "Restrain your comments to what is useful for us to hear," he snarled. Jun smiled through the pain. Maybe her remark had hit a nerve.
"Will you hurt me worse if I insult you?" she asked mockingly.
Slowly Katse smiled down at her. "That's true. No matter what you say, your pain will be the same. So you may talk as freely as you like, Gatchaman-- but before long, all you will be able to say will be the words we want to hear. And if you should die before you reach that point-- well, you have two and a half years of my humiliations to pay for. I will be satisfied if that payment is all you give me."
He turned toward his men. "Heat up some pins. I think we'll begin with her face."
-- Alara Rogers, Aleph Press