I felt the light spray of water on my face, as the motorboat bounced across the water. Jun was almost as much of a speed demon as I used to be, and a gentle pace would never satisfy her. Instead, she had taken the boat out into an open area, so that she could run it to its limits, without fear of meeting up with other watercraft. Jinpei and Ryu whooped with every bounce, enjoying the inevitable thump back down onto the water, and the resulting splashes.
I knew I shouldn’t have come along on this excursion. It was just too boisterous and rowdy for me to enjoy myself. I sighed, resigning myself to enduring my teammates’ good cheer for the next hour at least.
Jun glanced back, and saw me sitting in the corner, then gave Jinpei the wheel. He wasn’t as adept at maneuvering the boat as she was, but he had Ryu to help him.
“What crawled up your ass and died?” she asked pointedly, flopping down beside me.
I would have smiled at her joke, but her flippant comment was uncomfortably close to the truth. I did have something foreign in my body, and death was my constant companion.
When I didn’t reply, she pulled out the big guns.
“I can’t believe what a stick-in-the-mud you are!” She poked my shoulder with her slim finger. “You’re even worse than Ken! At least he knows how to have fun once in awhile.”
That did it. I wasn’t about to be told I was worse than Ken at anything.
“I know how to have fun.” I grumbled, “But my idea of fun doesn’t include being bounced around in this sorry excuse for a boat.”
“Oh, really?” Jun asked slyly, “I suppose you think you could do better?”
“Damn straight.” I muttered, knowing that I was falling right into her trap, the moment the words had left my lips.
“Then, why don’t you show us?” she grinned, pulling at my arm. Damn, she was strong! I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, given what she did for a living.
Shaking my head at her persistence, I allowed myself to be dragged to the front of the boat, where Jinpei promptly relinquished the wheel to me, after a stern look from Jun.
Standing there, feeling the vibration of the wheel in my hands, I suddenly felt alive again. Sure, this wasn’t a car, but it brought back memories of racing. And here, there was no track, no forced route. I could go anywhere I wanted to.
I eased up slightly on the speed and adjusted our course relative to the waves, sending us flying in a straight, smooth path across the water.
“Alright, Joe!” Jinpei cheered, thrilled with the ride.
Swiftly, I turned the craft to the right, causing my three passengers to go flying across the boat, where they landed on top of each other in an undignified heap. I laughed out loud at the comical picture they presented.
“You’d better buckle your seatbelts!” I warned them, still smiling.
“Yes, Sir!” Jun grinned, giving me a mock salute as she sat down next to me and strapped in. I could see Jinpei and Ryu doing the same out of the corner of my eye.
For the next thirty minutes I kept them on their toes, alternatively going straight, doing sharp turns, and even moving in tight spirals. From time to time, Jinpei and Ryu whooped appreciatively, but it was Jun who held most of my attention. She sat with her eyes closed, the wind whipping through her hair and molding her t-shirt to the curves of her body.
The look on her face was serene, as if she were finding ultimate peace and relaxation in my breakneck pace.
She was a woman after my own heart.
But then, I didn’t have much of a heart anymore. And the remaining piece was nestled next to the instrument of my death.
I forced the morbid thought aside, turning to Jun.
“Do you want to take a turn, now?” I asked her.
“You’ll have to show me how you keep it going so smoothly.” she replied.
“It’s all about control.” I smirked. I reached my hand out to her, and she took it, getting up and coming to stand next to me. I placed her hands on the wheel, covering them with my own.
I demonstrated how to maneuver the craft, moving around behind her, so that we could both stand in front of the wheel. Jun picked it up pretty quickly, and soon she was controlling the boat all by herself.
And yet, I still rested my hands lightly on hers.
She nestled close against me, her back meeting my front in an exquisite form of torture. At that moment, there was no question that a significant part of me was still a man. Jun laughed, the happy sound carrying on the wind, spreading out across the water, as if to fill the entire world with her joy.
Slowly, I let the sensations she was evoking in me wash through my body. I felt alive, for the first time in… well, I didn’t want to think about how long it had been. Every nerve was tingling with the excitement… the thrill… of the moment.
I never wanted it to end.
“Hey, Jun!” Ryu called out, “Isn’t it getting about time for lunch?”
I was both infuriated and relieved by the interruption. What had I been thinking? How could I have let my guard down like that?
All I was doing was adding to the pain we would both feel when I finally fulfilled my destiny.
Jun spread out the blanket on the sand, doing her best to smooth it out, without getting too much sand on it. She had chosen a secluded cove for our picnic; one that was only accessible by boat. As a result, we had the area to ourselves.
I finished helping Ryu pull the boat up onto the beach, then shaded my eyes with my hand as I admired the magnificent view. The waters were a clear blue-green, and not too far away I could see pristine islands that had been set aside as bird sanctuaries by the local government. It was a postcard-perfect picture, not to mention something I could appreciate without feeling like I was hurting someone else in the process.
Involuntarily, my eyes flicked toward Jun, who had opened up a large cooler.
“Who wants lunch?” she called out. Jinpei came scampering over from where he had been digging in the sand, and Ryu took off as fast as his legs could carry him. I chuckled slightly to myself. Ryu never changed.
Slowly I walked up to the others, and as I arrived, Jun tossed me a sandwich. Her aim was perfect, even though she had her head buried in the cooler.
“Let’s see…” she mumbled to herself, “Colas for Ryu and Jinpei…” she handed soda cans to the Owl and the Swallow, again knowing exactly where they were without looking at them, “Water for me… and…” she pulled a green bottle out of the cooler and sent it in my direction.
I looked down. It was a bottle of my favorite beer.
“I thought you might like that.” she winked at me.
“Thanks.” I smiled at her. I would never have thought of it, but it was exactly what I wanted, at that moment. It was amazing how Jun knew me better than I knew myself.
“Hey, Joe…” Ryu eyed his can, and my bottle. “Want to trade?”
I sent him a look that clearly gave my answer, then for added emphasis twisted off the cap and threw back my head for a long, cool swallow.
Ryu looked disappointed for a moment, then returned his attention to his own lunch. His happy-go-lucky demeanor had returned in a few seconds.
I sat down on the blanket and sighed to myself. If only it could be that simple for me. Sometimes I envied the Owl, with his innate ability to push aside all of the misery and grim realities of his life.
I sat with the others, but was not really part of their group. I listened to them chatter amongst themselves about inconsequential things, understanding that this was part of the outing: a way for them to temporarily escape the constant war we were involved in.
If only it were that easy for me. They could leave the war behind, at least for a short time. But I was a part of the war: its ultimate end physically buried inside my body. I could never forget that, when the cold reminder was present in my every physical feeling and movement.
“Do you want to come with us, Joe?” Jun offered, bringing my attention back to the here and now.
“Huh?” I replied, uncertain of what she was asking.
“Ryu and I are going for a walk along the water.” Jun repeated patiently. “Do you want to come along with us?”
“No.” I shook my head. The flash of disappointment in her eyes cut me to the quick, but that in itself told me that I had done the right thing. “You two, go on ahead.”
“Fine.” she said quickly, jumping up from the blanket and brushing the sand from her legs. “Let’s go, Ryu.”
The Owl stood quickly, and a few moments later they were laughing and splashing as they walked along the edge of the surf.
They were doing just fine without me. I had made the right choice.
If only the right choice didn’t have to be so damn lonely.
Although, I wasn’t completely alone. Not too far away, Jinpei was digging in the sand with his hands.
“What are you doing, Kid?” I asked him, “Aren’t you a little old to build sandcastles?”
“I’m not building sandcastles!” Jinpei huffed, “I’m looking for turtle eggs!”
“Turtle eggs?” I was curious, despite myself. Jinpei had discovered an interest in marine life a couple of years ago, and ever since then had become a font of information about sea creatures.
“Yeah.” Jinpei grinned. “This is the time of year the sea turtles lay their eggs. They lay big bunches of them all together, buried in the sand. I was hoping to find some, just to look at.”
“Big bunches, huh?” I asked, “How many is that?”
“About a hundred.” Jinpei shrugged. “Maybe more, maybe less.”
A hundred. I almost envied those turtles, starting out with one hundred brothers and sisters, all just like them. They never had to worry about being on their own.
“Of course, not all of them survive.” Jinpei continued, oblivious to my train of thought. “Some of them just don’t hatch, and others are eaten by predators as they crawl toward the water.”
That sounded familiar. It reminded me of Galactor, preying on the weak and innocent to fuel their insatiable desire to conquer this planet.
“But enough of them make it to the water to continue the species.” Jinpei added. “And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?”
I supposed he was right.
“Hey, I found some!” Jinpei whispered excitedly.
Despite myself, I crawled over to where the Swallow was kneeling, his hands on the ground in front of him staring in amazement at the cache of white eggs.
They weren’t actually all that interesting. They kind of looked like the eggs I saw in the supermarket. But Jinpei gazed at them as if they were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.
“Can you believe that some people actually eat these?” he asked in disgust.
Actually, I could. Heck, I ate eggs that looked just like these a couple of times a week. But I sensed this wasn’t the right answer to the question.
“No.” I replied solemnly, my face betraying me with a small smile.
“Get away from here!” Jinpei cried suddenly, waving his arms. I looked up to see a grey-white seagull staring at us.
“These aren’t for you!” Jinpei shouted, shaking his fist at the bird. “Go away!”
Maybe it was a trick of the light, but as the bird turned its head, I thought I saw a glimmer of something.
“Did you see that?” I whispered to Jinpei.
“See what?” he asked, confused.
And then, I saw it again. This time I knew what it was.
That wasn’t a seagull. The glimmer was the shine of something metallic in the sun.
“Mecha…” I hissed.
This was dangerous. The only organization I knew of that could build something like that was…
“Galactor!” gasped Jinpei.
“We need to get out of here… now.” I muttered. “Pretend you haven’t noticed anything unusual.”
Quickly, I helped the nervous Swallow re-bury the eggs in the sand.
“Go get Jun and Ryu.” I ordered him quietly. “Don’t run, or make anything seem out of the ordinary. Just make sure you all get back to the boat as soon as possible.”
As Jinpei moved away, I rapidly tossed the remains of our picnic back into the cooler. I didn’t really care about the items, but it might have raised some red flags if we had left them behind. It was pretty obvious that we were under some kind of surveillance.
I surreptitiously kept an eye on the bird, while simultaneously scanning the sky for more. I didn’t see anything, but who knew what else could be out there.
The bird turned its head, looking back toward the way Jinpei had gone. It was obvious that it was about to take flight.
My hands moved so fast, they were practically a blur. I pulled a feather shuriken out of my pocket, and threw it at the mecha, piercing its throat. The device fell onto the ground, sparks flying. I nonchalantly tossed the picnic blanket over the fake bird, hurriedly wrapping it up.
I casually put the bundle under my arm, taking the cooler in my other hand, and moving back toward the boat. I reached it about the same time as the others.
“What’s this about a mecha?” Jun hissed at me.
I moved my head slightly to indicate the bunched up blanket under my arm.
“Can you tell if it has a locator in it?” I asked her.
Surreptitiously, Jun activated her bracelet, scanning the bundle.
“I don’t think so.” she shook her head.
“Then let’s take it back to Hakase and Dr. Pandora for analysis.” I suggested.
Jun nodded in agreement, and we quickly departed the beach with our illicit cargo.