I used the name Mrs Wade from BotP because Gatchaman didn't give the old lady (from ep.98) any name. At least from what I know.
The weather was positively dreadful those few weeks. It was that sort when everyone just wants to crawl under the sheets and stay there for the whole day. Nevertheless Jun had her bar to mind and so she would kick him out around seven a.m. no matter how hard it rained out there. Joe smirked at the thought as he left the great hospital building.
He received a message that Mrs. Wade fell and injured her hip, so she had to have a surgery. Since her son Mikhail was still in prison and she had no other relatives, Joe felt obliged to go and see her. After all he had some time to spare. He still worked for ISO, the whole lot of them did, being too privy to too many secrets to be let go just like that, but most of the time it wasn’t that bad. Stuff like doing test drives or assisting anti-terrorist teams all over the world, helping to destroy whatever was left of Galactor. And with that ‘whatever was left’ one meant the huge number of fractions fighting for power, money, or technology. It really was one huge disaster. Everyone thought that once Sousai was destroyed, things would, kind of, sort themselves out. Only the grim reality chased that petty little illusion out of their heads. As honoured veterans of the Great Galactor Conflict, the Science Ninja Team’s help was requested only with the most difficult missions, but others didn’t have this luck.
Even now, over five years after the destruction of Sousai Z, various pseudo military fractions bared their fangs at ISO and the whole world. True, they didn’t have any big mechas and they didn’t carry out any large scale plans, but current situation was, perhaps, even worse than back in the days. Those cells were armed to the teeth and they destabilized whole countries with their influence. And that was only the start.
Some lands were tied to Galactor to such a degree, most of their politicians were former members. With the rise of a new, aggressive opposition, those countries were now in the middle of violent civil wars complete with assassinations, car bombs and poisons.
Others saw outbursts of violence when the fragments of Galactor started to fight over turfs with local mafias. These were especially indiscriminate. Gunning down innocents, even children who got caught in their crossfire, meant nothing to either side.
Then there were those, who have lost all their bearings and had nothing more to lose. The children born into Galactor, knowing no other way of life.
Naturally a great number of former members was caught and tried, sent behind bars for anything from a few months up to the rest of their lives. In fact the number was so great, there wasn’t enough space for them. Prisons got overcrowded, which caused unrest and revolts.
And so the number of casualties grew.
All in all it appeared that all that the ISO achieved was decentralising Galactor violence and spreading it, literally, all over the world.
But experience has taught Joe that this is not something he should brood about. Long ago he decided to concentrate on the good parts of life instead. Good parts, like holding Jun’s hand in front of the altar and putting the ring on her finger. He had some difficulties with that. Her joints were callused from years of bashing heads. How they laughed about that…
Good parts, like helping her out at Snack J, watching Jinpei enter high school, go on drinking binges with Ken or smuggling booze into his hospital room after he underwent yet another surgery to remove (thanks God) benign tumours, courtesy of the Hypershoot. Visiting Ryu for fishing sessions and then bringing the catch back to Jun to grill it and eat it together while drinking beer on the roof of Snack J while the sun set behind the skyscrapers. Things like that. Even visiting Nambu-hakase’s grave wasn’t as painful as it used to be.
That day he told the receptionist he’s visiting Mrs Wade. He almost made a mistake and said he’s there to see Mr Washio, being so used to quote Ken’s name at hospitals. A nurse showed him the way and the old lady was overjoyed to see her visitor. He gave her some flowers he bought on the way - freesias of all colours – and mandarin oranges which he got on impulse. It was kind of like buying popcorn for cinema. One did it automatically without thinking too hard.
He had a nice chat with the old lady. They talked about the weather, about Jun, about the hospital food, about Mikhail… all that stuff. He had a good time, even though he had to yawn all the time from sleep deprivation. (No, not because of Jun. There was a Lucio Fulci marathon on the telly and Jinpei was home from school and the two of them just had to stay up until morning, eating pizza and laughing at the horrible special effects) However as Joe left the hospital, he noticed a wall of thick fog creeping closer and closer. He didn’t like fog very much. The inability to see things clear bothered him. The way all shadows were deformed and blown out of proportions was unnerving. He buttoned his coat all the way up and quickened his steps to escape the greyish whorls of mist. Despite his best effort they caught up with him anyway. He shuddered. It was really cold. A bit too cold even for late October.
Suddenly he smelled an unexpected scent in the air. Flowers.
How odd, he thought to himself, but then again, it might’ve been the perfume of some lady walking close by. In a fog this thick he wouldn’t notice her until he’d bump right into her.
Next thing that he became aware of was a bit more out of the ordinary.
Ever since he descended the stairs in front of the main entrance he followed a fence, separating the grassy hospital grounds from the street. He could’ve sworn there was no opening in it, and yet he found himself in front of a gate. It clashed horribly with the rather sombre setting of the public hospital. A beautiful, wrought iron gate. Its bars were shaped like rose vines complete with leaves and blossoms, spikes had the form of exquisitely crafted fleur-de-lys.
It was cracked open.
The smell of flowers came from behind it. Joe was sure. Just like he was sure that there was no gate there before. How strange. As he was now deep within the fog’s belly, there was no way of telling what was on the other side.
He put his hand on one of the bars. It didn’t feel half as cold as he thought it would. Somehow… somehow the sensation was nostalgic. He let himself in, closing the gate shut behind his back. Something was waiting for him. He wasn’t afraid, no matter what it was. After all he was a ninja with years of experience. Plus, he wasn’t exactly unarmed.
A pathway of rough stones brought him to a most wondrous garden. It was in full bloom, denying the chilly weather. The foliage was a peculiarly dark shade of green. There were blossoms. Oh, so many blossoms… and they were red. Every single one of them. A rich shade of crimson which seeped into his eyes, intoxicating him with the sight alone. There were roses there, filling the garden and his head with their opulent scent, carmine camellias, giving it an air of refinement, and giant rhododendrons blooming with the shade of pigeon blood ruby. All of these bushes were definitely the biggest ones Joe has ever seen in his life. They towered high above his head, growing untrimmed into whichever shaped they wanted. He followed the narrow path between them. Like mischievous fingers, leaves were stroking his cheeks, ruffling his hair, playing with the fabric of his coat. The ground felt soft against the soles of his shoes. This forgotten pleasure garden was a stranger to autumn.
Then he heard a noise.
A gentle, fragile-sounding tinkling of glass, followed by the splashing of liquid, poured from somewhere high up. He couldn’t imagine the liquid to be anything but the finest red wine.
The source had to be right behind the next bush.
He made ten steps, wiping the tenacious leaves of rhododendron away.
There was a small clearing. A tiny one, in fact, with just enough space for a table with two chairs. A person was sitting on one of them, sipping wine from a glass. Red.
Joe stood there.
For a moment he believed he’s standing in front of a statue. A painting. A strange reflection of his memories. Anything but the truth. And yet, somehow he fitted perfectly into this lavish garden. This painting of red, green and black.
“You are dead.” Joe stated. He couldn’t hear his own words, and yet the man heard him just fine.
An eyebrow was arched. Chin rested against the back of a white hand more delicate than Jun’s. More delicate, since he preferred to run instead of throwing himself into fist-fights. Or was it herself?
“Dead… well… dead is just a word. But I guess you are right. I’m dead.” Berg Katse answered in all seriousness.
“Maybe I became a vengeful spirit. Maybe I came to exact my vengeance upon those who killed me.”
“We didn’t kill you. You yourself did. And not because of us either. Because you were-“
“No, don’t say that. Yes, I admit. I was just playing with you. After all, do I look like a vengeful spirit to you? Have you seen me crawling out of your television?” Katse grinned, most likely imagining the scenario.
“Uh… no. But what are you then? And where is this place?”
Katse stretched his arm out, pointing his index-finger at Joe, who understood that the tip of that finger was meant to rest on his lips.
“The more you ask, the less answers you’ll get. Especially since I’m not at the liberty to answer your questions to being with. For now, just for the sake of our old enmity, how about you join me for a drink?”
Joe smirked, but it came off much sadder than he intended.
“Our old enmity? I don’t hold any enmity towards you, Berg Katse. You died. My grudge towards you was thereby finished. Holding onto useless hate and regret would only spoil my life, since you are dead. I’ll join you, but not out of enmity.”
“Then what other reason do you have?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe curiosity. Or maybe it’s because your death didn’t sit quite right with me.”
“Ooh, didn’t it?”
“No. You killed yourself. No person should hold his life in such a low regard to throw it away like that. If something, I wanted to be the one to kill you.”
Katse chuckled and poured wine in the other glass as well.
“I see. Indeed, you are the one who lived. I am the one who died. You have changed. I’ll never change. I’ll stay here, in my solitude, until kingdom come.”
“To me it seems you changed a lot yourself.”
“Me? Oh, not really. There just isn’t any need for me to try to impress someone, who- oh, never mind. I’m not going to spoil my mood because these things. Sit now, Condor Joe.”
“That’s Asakura-san for you.”
“Asakura-san, eh? Well I think it ought to be Asakura-kun then, if you insist on Japanese suffixes. After all, you are younger than me. Even now you are, though I won’t age anymore.”
“Stupid. I was just joking. Just call me Joe, like everybody else does.”
“I fell for it, I see… well, you call me… whatever you like. I don’t think I had a name to begin with. None of the names I had felt real to me… not that it matters, of course. After all, what’s in a name, eh? And since there’s only two of us here, I’d know it was me you were talking to even if you would use names like Eugene. Or Alvin. Or Amanda or Candy, though I suppose I would crawl out of your TV screen then.”
“Well, I’m not using my real name either. As you said, it’s just the two of us…” Joe said distractedly.
Finally he strode over and took a seat. Both the table and the chair felt entirely real. Cold iron underneath a starched cotton tablecloth. Firm wood. Soft cushioning.
Those wine-glasses and the bottle weren’t the only objects, occupying the tabletop. There was also a big vase filled with red roses and lilies, a box of chocolates, an ashtray, a long cigar in an even longer holder made of black-lacquered wood. Fallen petals of roses lay in-between all that, akin to splatters of blood. They reminded Joe that it wasn’t exactly a cocktail party where he met this other person.
But that was all water under the bridge now.
Once he sat down, he noticed new smells. The heavy scent of roses received an interesting undertone of wine and tobacco. He wasn’t sure if that was the reason, but he fancied the air got much warmer. The discrepancy between the chilly, foggy day on the other side of the ornate gate and the temperature, scents and sights of this clearing convinced him that somehow he must’ve wandered off into a glasshouse, nevertheless the only glass around was on the table. Above him was nothing but the sky, crowded with ragged, ashen clouds.
“Is this where you are now?”
“Most of the time… although you are free to think this is all just a dream.”
Katse gave him a cat smile and Joe couldn’t help but give one back. He took the glass his deceased nemesis poured him and took a sip. The wine went down his throat like velvet and spread heat from the stomach through his entire body like a tiny sun. Surely enough, everything about this place felt like a dream. Remembering the reality, he couldn’t help but frown.
“I thought it would be all over when we… well… once you died.”
“And wasn’t it?”
“Don’t you know?”
“No. I’m not allowed to leave this place. I don’t know what’s going on in the real world. I don’t even know how many years have passed since my death. I would visit my grave, but I don’t think I have any. Only every now and then, when my world and yours approach, on foggy days like this that is, I can sense people who I had connection with and make a gate for them.”
“I see… well, it’s been… ah… close to seven years since you died. Your overlord has gotten himself a new pet, who didn’t last very long either. We nearly killed him then, but he sort of resurrected, and… well, long story short, he’s dead now. Galactor fell.”
“And you don’t look particularly pleased. Let me guess. The destruction of the syndicate’s HQ meant that you now have several million armed, ruthless and desperate people to fight.”
“Yeah, that about sums it up. But I just wonder. Before you became the boss, how did it operate? I don’t think most of your flunkies knew about Sousai and from what I’ve heard there was no supreme commander.”
“That’s correct. There were many branches all over the world, each lead by a more-or-less independent boss. Once our territories were firmly secured, technology reached a sufficient level, and once I was old enough, there was a purge.”
“So you ordered them all to be killed?”
“Well, not me precisely, but yeah. They got a clean death…” Katse then stretched his back and took a puff from the cigarette. Joe noticed that except the sounds created by the two of them, the garden was perfectly silent. “…but I don’t want to talk about these things. I had my fill already.”
“I didn’t mean to talk about them. It’s just something I can’t avoid.”
Katse chuckled and tapped his cigarette, giving the holder a pensive look.
For the next couple of minutes none of them said a word. Joe was sipping on his wine and his companion munched on chocolates. Katse pushed the box towards him and Joe took one. He placed it on his palm, scrutinising it closely with narrowed eyes. It was oval-shaped and dark brown with white squiggles on top. The surface was smooth and glossy. He put the chocolate in his mouth and bit it. Its filling spread all over his tongue. The biting heat of vodka and the taste of strawberries mingled with the richness of chocolate, temporarily blotting out all senses apart from taste. After a moment he opened his eyes again and saw Katse giving him an amused grin.
“These are tasty.”
“They are, aren’t they?”
“How do they make them so glossy even with those white squiggles on top?”
“Well, you have these plastic moulds. First you put some melted white chocolate in a piping bag and swish your hand there and back like this.” Katse demonstrated. “Next you half-fill them with chocolate, wait a moment, and then quickly dunk the frozen centre inside. After that the whole mould goes into a fridge. That’s about it. Of course you can buy already made shells as well. There is more than one way.”
Joe was impressed.
“I didn’t know that patisserie skills were one of the requirements for the position of a terrorist figurehead.”
“I am a man of many talents. Well, I was a man of many talents. And a woman.”
Joe laughed and ate another one.
“So you with your knowledge and experience, do you think the war will ever end?” he asked and pushed the chocolates back.
Katse took one and spend the next several second staring somewhere behind Joe’s shoulder.
“…no. This conflict might end one day, but that’ll only mean that it moved underground. People on both sides will live on, passing their grudges onto their children. The feeling of being wronged by the other side will remain and one day a new war will be born. Or a dozen of them. But that’s okay.”
“Yeah. Okay. Three hundred years from now on, if our civilisation still exists, they will look back and think ‘That time was glorious. It was an age of heroes. Those people were like knights. So romantic…’ and they will write books and create paintings and statues, which might possibly look nothing like you. They will look back and recognise your bravery and self-sacrifice, while smoothing over the not-so-nice parts might I add, and they will try to live that way. They will be inspired.”
“Or they will write slash fiction and post it on the internets.” Joe added with a comically agonised grimace.
Katse burst out laughing.
“Yes, I guess even that is a possibility.”
“So you predict I will become a hero?”
“Well, you already are a hero, from what I can tell. But you can become something even more. After all, the fate of most heroes is to be forgotten. Most heroes, though there are those, who took it one step further; nevertheless for that you have to fulfil one last requirement.”
“And that is?” Joe asked more because he was curious about where was Katse heading with all that, rather than out of some personal vanity.
“Hm… you have to… tackle a riddle.”
“Yes, a riddle.”
“Your riddle. Galahad’s was how to reach something holy through purity. Alexander’s was how the reach of his human hands can encompass the whole world. The Maid of Orleans’s was how to bring a wretched country closer to God. Stuff like that.”
“Well, I don’t have any riddle like that to solve. I’m just a normal guy who wants to live a normal life. I think I had enough of excitement. Those things you named…all of them are so grand, it’s ridiculous. And they just don’t suit me.”
“I’m not saying you have to do this-and-this to become that-and-that. I’m merely saying that I believe you have the potential. Besides, I don’t think any of those people I spoke of really understood the significance of their mission in terms of the history. They just lived and died according to their beliefs.”
“Everyone lives and dies according to their beliefs.”
“In an ideal world, perhaps. But the reality is different. Sometimes you don’t get to do either. And then-“
Suddenly something happened. A loud thud cut the rest of Katse’s sentence off. Glass tinkled as the whole table jumped. Gust of cold wind blew through the bushes, bringing a different sort of smell. A much less pleasant one. Joe’s host wasn’t smiling anymore. He stood up, looking anxiously at the flowery wall surrounding them. The wind got stronger, surrounding the fair-haired ex-terrorist with a rain of crimson petals.
“Well, it was a pleasant chat, but I’m afraid that this’ll be the end of it.”
He sounded sad.
There was a rustle. Something was moving through the bushes. Joe gazed at the flowers and noted with alarm that among those dark green leaves and fragile yet magnificent blossoms he could see ghastly white skulls of animals poking out. Hyenas with massive canines, goats, horses with freakishly elongated snouts. Though they were nothing but bones, each one of those skulls still had its eyeballs. They were observing Katse. Their teeth dripped with blood.
“Move away from there!” Joe exclaimed, but Katse didn’t react.
Pitch-black tentacles appeared, slithering through the grass like snakes.
“Well, I am not planning to stay here much longer… you should leave as well, if you don’t want to become trapped in here. But before you do that, have some chocolate. There are two last pieces.”
Joe looked his old nemesis in the eyes. He didn’t see any fear or worry, but something worse. Resignation. Biting his lip, he grabbed that chocolate and threw it in his mouth. Katse did the same.
“How about you visit again one day? These chocolates are mighty fine.”
The cat smile was back.
“I might do that. On foggy days, when the gap is bridged… or through the TV.”
“Well, I’ll leave the telly on then. So long.”
Joe left the place with an unsteady walk of someone, who drank a glass too many. On the way out he stroked one of the outermost camellias. He had to turn around one last time. From his angle he could only see the chair he was sitting on. Overturned. Tentacles as thick as his thigh grabbed it and smashed it into pieces. Unwittingly he closed his hand around the blossom and started to walk again. Fog began to suffuse that place. The smell of flowers faded.
A second later he passed through the gate and found himself drenched with fine autumn rain just outside the hospital grounds. The mist was gone, the gate likewise, but when he opened his hand he found dried petals the colour of pigeon blood and on his tongue lingered the taste of chocolate, strawberries and vodka. Shoving the petals in his pocket, he turned the collar of his coat up and hurried back home, buying a bunch of white roses for Jun on the way. For some reason he longed to hold her close and tell her how much he’s happy to have her by his side.