The Crescent Coral Base was on the verge of complete destruction, with Galactor lurking out there somewhere in the dark water, ready to strike again. Surely a final, lethal barrage of torpedoes would hit at any moment, sending water surging throughout its interior and drowning him, Jun and Dr. Nambu.
The God Phoenix, even if it survived the impact, intact, might well remain helpless on its back in a docking hangar, where Joe, Jinpei and Ryu now sat on its bridge's ceiling, trapped. The blast-mangled Crescent Coral Base was sunk to 800 meters' depth and teetering on the edge of a deep trench.
If they didn't drown too when another barrage hit, they would fall and sink into the trench and meet their end when the water pressure crushed the last resistance and life out of both the Base and the God Phoenix.
We're all doomed, Ken thought, feeling the creeping cold of resignation as he sat huddled on the door that was now the floor in the corridor outside the room where Dr. Nambu was trapped and, no doubt, injured. There'd been no sound from him for some time.
He must be unconscious, Ken thought. Maybe that was a blessing.
Ken had one final gift from fate though. He wasn't alone; Jun was here with him, sitting with her back touching his. He'd long known that if he had to pick just one person to be with him at the end, it was her. Not that he'd ever told her that, of course. But then, there was all too much that he had never told her…
Like that he was in love with her and had been for years.
Guilt clung to his mind like a weight pulling his thoughts down to despair. It was too late; it was too late for them now. He'd ever vowed that he'd wait until the end of the war. But that was now. This was the end, but it wasn't the long-awaited victory he'd believed would come.
But surely it would be more agony now if he gave voice to his hopes and dreams, and turned to see love in her beautiful face and radiant eyes, mirroring his own -only to have it all ripped away from him and obliterated the instant more torpedoes struck?
And the other secret that he hadn't told her… What about that? Could he tell her about that? Should he, here at the end of the war? Her knowing what he'd done… Well, he wouldn't have to bear that for very long.
He closed his eyes. Jun was a warm presence at his back, but inside, he felt cold and sick.
So much guilt. Jun, Jun, Jun…
And then she spoke.
"What are you thinking about right now?"
"About my Dad and Mom." He had to say something, after all, and in a sense, he was thinking about the past.
He felt her back shift against his. He knew that wasn't the answer she wanted to hear, but to tell her the truth and see the look in her eyes…
He could just take it all with him, into death, spare her from knowing what had been denied her –because of him.
But she didn't press him for a different answer, not even now. But then, she never had pressed him for answers he wasn't ready to give her. Like him, she'd played the waiting game.
Instead, she asked about his mother and he welcomed the chance, really, to think about his mother one more time. And there was a lot he could think about; she'd lived until he was eleven.
But Jun's mother… He winced. He'd had so much and Jun so little. Even as he described his final memory of the beauty of his mother's ashes floating in the wind, he felt that cold weight again in his stomach. He clenched his hands together.
He should tell her about her mother.
"You're lucky, Ken, to have memories from then," she said.
"What about your parents?" he found himself asking, peering over his shoulder at her. Did she remember anything, however fleeting? Some faint image of her mother at least?
"I don't recall," she said sadly, "Since I grew up in an orphanage."
No memories then. So strange, now, that in all these years, he'd never once asked her. Ken couldn't take his eyes off her, even though he was looking just at her back. He still had faint images in his memory, from his early childhood, of his father. But then, he'd been four when his father "died." Jun had lost her mother when she was only two.
He knew a lot about her parents, so much more than she did. He was such a hypocrite; he should tell her…
But he found himself pretending instead, forcing a laugh from his throat.
"Why are you laughing that way?" asked Jun, now turning her head to look back at him, her large green eyes looking sad and perplexed.
"We've worked together for so long," he explained, "But we know so little about each other's private lives."
And that was the truth, in a way. He was hiding so much from her –hiding that he loved her, and hiding what he knew about her parents.
He'd turned away from her again, resting his mouth against his clenched hands.
He should tell her, here at the end. He –of all people- should tell her everything. She deserved to know…
(Eight weeks earlier)
Ken was standing in a corridor of the Crescent Coral Base, staring out a window at the fish swimming by. There wasn't much else to do. Dr. Nambu had peremptorily summoned them all here from Utoland but no sooner had the God Phoenix docked, he'd told them, via a screen on the bridge, that he would call them when it was time for their briefing. In other words, "Hurry up and wait."
He'd given them no explanation at all as to what new mecha or terrible plot had been unleashed by Galactor this week for them to battle and defeat, as they always did, while Galactor survived to churn out a new one for next week, as it always did. He'd caught the beginning of a news story on the radio about some relief planes en route to the famine-stricken county of Wale apparently having crashed -maybe it had something to do with that. But at that moment he'd been summoned to the Base by Dr. Nambu, via his bracelet, and he'd dutifully dashed from his shack to his plane without delay.
But then, keeping them in the dark was certainly nothing new for Dr. Nambu, holding all the cards and doling them out when he felt like it. "Need to know," and all that…
He frowned, putting his hands up to the window glass to lean against it, staring out into the water…
Somewhere, out there in the world –and he sure as hell wished he knew where- Berg Katse was surely laughing. How many mechas had they destroyed? How many Galactor soldiers had they killed? Too many… And nothing had changed, really, since that first day they'd gone up against Turtle King. He barely had a life; everything he had went into being Gatchaman, the White Shadow who battled for justice and world peace. It was a duty he would never shirk, but as the months went on and on, he'd felt it become heavier. Nothing had changed –nothing except that his father had been taken from him before he'd been able to know him, nothing except the amount of blood on his hands and weight of the burden on his shoulders, nothing except the number of months he'd kept his heart hidden from Jun.
They had to win –win this damned war!
He sighed, closing his eyes. Jun… He'd been looking at Jun, just as the word from Nambu to cool their heels had come through. She'd shrugged, managing a smile, and her eyes had met his as she'd changed from her birdstyle to her civvies in a flash of light, releasing her dark green hair to flow over her shoulders.
She was so beautiful… Looking at her was sustenance for his soul, but at no other time did the sacrifice of being Gatchaman hurt so much.
That was why he'd walked away, really, down this corridor that led to nowhere in particular. That was why he was simmering with growing frustration about the stalemate war of attrition with Galactor; they won the battles but seemingly would never win the war.
Somewhere, Berg Katse had to be laughing, the bastard who had brought about his father's death and kept him apart from Jun and was slowly crushing the life out of him…
His fingers slid along the cold glass, his hands becoming fists. He'd win this war yet. He'd get revenge!
And what the hell was Dr. Nambu doing anyway? Blowing up this week's mecha or secret base wasn't going to be any easier to do later than it would be right now.
But suddenly he knew what Dr. Nambu was doing –he was walking briskly along the corridor towards him, from the opposite direction whence Ken had come.
"Ken, you're alone. Good," he said, as soon as he was close enough to not have to shout.
"What's going on?" Ken's irritated impatience was shifting to puzzlement. Nothing so far today was fitting with the standard pattern for a mission –why did the Doctor want him alone?
Even as he looked at him, there was a distant, distracted air about Dr. Nambu, as he'd been lost in thought and hadn't quite reemerged. He was frowning.
"I need to talk to you privately."
Ken just looked at him, an instant from demanding "Why?" but a second later came "I… need your advice on a matter."
Had this ever happened before? Ken couldn't recall a time…
But the Doctor's face was earnest. And worried. Something strange must be afoot for sure…
He accompanied Dr. Nambu to his office.
"I've just received a phone call," said Dr. Nambu, seating himself behind his desk and gesturing for Ken to sit in one of the chairs.
So this was going to take a little while, Ken realized, sitting down.
"From a man I knew well a long time ago. We went all through graduate school together, and for a time, we were practically like brothers. But I haven't seen him in eighteen years. We… didn't exactly part on good terms."
Dr. Nambu had turned slightly to the side, gazing across the room. His distant air, Ken realized now, was a gulf of time. He was dwelling in past memories…
"Why was that?" Joe felt like a brother to Ken, and they certainly didn't always get along. Was the advice sought by the Doctor something to do with that?
"A convoy of ISO planes was on its way to deliver food and supplies to the country of Wale today," continued Dr. Nambu, not answering his question, "They've all crashed under extremely suspicious circumstances."
Aha, thought Ken. He'd been right, at least, about what this mission involved. But this phone call from an estranged grad school buddy?
Dr. Nambu, turning to glance at Ken, seemed to sense his question.
"The man who called me, barely an hour ago, Dr. Demon, he claims to have information about what caused all those planes' destruction. The call was transmitted to me here from ISO headquarters, as Dr. Demon has no idea this place exists."
"But you don't believe him?" asked Ken, eyes narrowing. Old friends from the past certainly had a way of leading to nothing but trouble for all of them –trouble with Galactor. Look at Sabu, Koji, Alan… "Why did you part on bad terms?"
"Short version: I got the job that he wanted –the job that I have right now, in fact," said Dr. Nambu, gazing up at the ceiling , "I recorded our conversation; I'll let you all listen to it shortly."
"Fine," said Ken, feeling the prickle of impatience again. If he'd just hurry up and do that, maybe then they could get out there and find whatever Galactor mecha was responsible for this week's attack. Hell, maybe this would be the mission that would finally reveal the location of Galactor's headquarters, turn the tables and let them make the attacks instead of sitting around passively, waiting for them to happen and only then reacting!
"But," Ken added, "Why did you need to tell me all this privately? What kind of advice do you need here?" He still couldn't figure out what the Doctor wanted from him.
"It has to do with Jun."
What? Suddenly this conversation mattered a whole lot more to Ken. He found himself yanking his chair closer to Dr. Nambu's desk.
"A couple weeks ago, Jun came to me. I think that Joe's misguided visit to BC Island to see his parents' graves had gotten her thinking..."
"Go on," said Ken, leaning to rest his hands on the edge of the desk. If Jun had something on her mind, she hadn't told him anything about it…
"Jun has a copy of her birth certificate; she knows her parents names. And she also knows when her mother died –when she was two. The orphanage that she was raised in, from which I adopted her and Jinpei, had provided her with that much."
"That's all she knows?" asked Ken, surprised. But then, he'd never asked her about it before. Maybe because all of them, except Ryu, had come together as children with tragic losses –some quite recent- in their pasts, they'd unconsciously agreed not to stir up sadness by asking questions about parents who were gone. Jun and Jinpei both used "Nambu" for their surname; he'd never thought about what her original surname might have been. She must have wanted hers to be the same as Jinpei's –she considered him her brother- and his parentage was completely unknown.
"Yes, that is all she knows," said Dr. Nambu, looking Ken straight in the eyes, but tensing himself. "However, it is not all that I know."
Their eyes held. In that moment, Ken thought he finally understood what this was really about. He had grown up here in Dr. Nambu's house and the whole time, the Doctor had told him that his father was dead.
But he hadn't been dead! Secrets had been kept from him, and by the time he'd learned the truth, it had been too late. He'd found his father –learned the truth- just in time to see him take off into the sky in the V-2 rocket and truly be lost to him forever.
Dr. Nambu closed his eyes, even as Ken felt his get warmer, saw that his hands on the desk were clenching up. Maybe he wasn't performing interrogations with the help of fire extinguishers or running off half-cocked after Galactor, guided only by rage…
But the rage was still within him, its flames lower and under more control but its heat still intense. Berg Katse, the true murderer of his father –that was who inspired his most visceral anger. But deep within, Ken knew full well that some of it came from being deceived for all those years by someone he'd trusted completely and being made a dupe, and from all the times he had been with Red Impulse and could have known that he was with Kentaro, his father. But the truth had been kept from him, "for his own good."
But he hadn't been a helpless four year old when he'd first met "Red Impulse" –he'd been the leader of an elite ninja team battling a global terrorist menace!
He realized that he was glaring at Dr. Nambu, who had opened his mouth as if to speak but hesitated for a moment.
"Ken, I have come to regret that you and Joe –but especially you- did not know everything that you could have known about your parents. Protecting a child from truths that will only cause them unhappiness, well… you and Joe haven't been children since the day of your first mission. Jun's seventeen and she's not a child anymore either."
"Right," said Ken, realizing with surprise that he was actually getting something pretty damned close to an apology, but waiting for more. Tell me about Jun…
"Jun's done some research, as much as she's been able with the sources she has access to. She's learned that a man with her father's name, Peter Hogan, was a scientist here at the University in Utoland. She's learned that man died in a lab accident about 7 months before she was born –but she has no details. And, she is also aware that I was myself a research scientist at the University, at approximately the same time. A couple weeks ago, Jun came to me and asked me if I would help her, using my authority, to find out more information about her parents. I told her that I would make inquiries and get back to her."
"You don't have to, do you?" asked Ken, seeing his answer in the sagging of Dr. Nambu's shoulders, "You already know things you've never told her –am I right?"
"Yes," said Dr. Nambu quietly, "But after the phone call I got today… Fate takes such strange turns."
"What do you mean?"
"Ken," said Dr. Nambu, sitting up fully straight again, "I want your advice. I never had proof, but I believe that Dr. Demon, the man who called me today, was responsible for the lab accident that killed Jun's father –and that it very likely was no accident at all."
What? The murderer of Jun's father had just telephoned Dr. Nambu today? Ken's mind raced…
"And now you are all about to go on a mission, and somehow Demon's got himself involved… He was a passionate man, proud and quick to anger and impulsive emotions-"
"He's joined Galactor –isn't that obvious? We have to get him!"
Yes, even if he hadn't been able to avenge his own father yet, he could surely help Jun! Then there would at least be some justice done in the universe.
Dr. Nambu put up a hand, saying "I'm not convinced he's with Galactor. I think Demon's capable of a lot of… personal failings, but he could never be the sort of man who would serve Galactor. His pride, if nothing else, would stop him. I want to try to bring him in, talk to him. But do you think I should tell Jun what I know and suspect about this man?"
There was a long silence. Ken's first impulse was to say "Yes!" But in the silence, he hesitated…
Rage, the hunger for vengeance. He felt it burn within himself, and it was Joe's primary fuel. But it took a toll; it came with risks. He'd nearly gotten them all killed –drowned in ice water- up in the Arctic. Joe had ended up shot up with bullets at BC Island.
Did he want that for Jun? He was hesitating now too.
"Tell me what you know," said Ken finally. He leaned back in his chair to listen…