Jinpei said, "How come they didn't just send out somebody's air force instead of us? Anybody could do this."
"Jinpei!" Jun's voice had a whip-like sharpness, and from the corner of his eye Ken saw Jinpei sit up straight in his chair. "For the fifth time, we know you dislike recon. Don't you think we'd all rather be doing something more valuable with our time?"
Ken said nothing. Jun hadn't strung together as many words at any other point so far this mission--well, what of a mission they performed, taking photographs and electromagnetic readings of a suspected Gallactor base in a desolate part of South America. The only one who didn't seem to share Jinpei's restlessness was Ryu, still struggling to pilot the New GodPhoenix with the finesse he'd had over the older model.
Ken glanced at the empty chair behind him to his left. He swallowed hard and looked again at his monitor.
"Passing through the hot zone," Ryu said. "This is as close as we get to the target area."
As Ken zoomed in his camera, he wondered briefly about basketball, and about Joe. An odd combination--Joe had never cared much for sports that didn't involve machines, and Ken couldn't even remember the last time he'd seen a basketball game. He asked, "Jun, do we have any EM readings?"
"The same we've had for the last half hour." He wondered how she managed to create sentences that sounded angry while not having any inflection. "No, wait--I'm picking up some sort of high frequency broadcast with waves generated from forty to sixty gigahertz."
Ken saw Joe out of the corner of his eye, eagerly staring at a monitor, standing near it with clenched fists and brilliant eyes. He almost said something, but when he turned his head to look directly, the image vanished.
Ken's heart pounded. He'd broken into a sweat.
Jinpei said, "The computer systems are going haywire! I have to shut down--"
Ryu said, "I think we passed through some sort of defensive field. All our instruments are out of whack!"
"Ryu, get us out of here," Ken said. "Jun, get Dr. Nambu on the monitor. Let him know we're turning for home."
Beside him, Joe's image turned to him and said something he couldn't hear, then looked back at whatever it was watching. In the act of turning toward Joe to dispel the mirage again, Ken felt a sudden burning in his throat and stomach, and in an abrupt lurch, the world went white.
"Right during the middle of the NBA finals..."
Ignoring Jason, Mark concluded his report over the monitor to Chief Anderson. With a smile, the Chief glanced off to the side momentarily, then said, "Utah by four."
"Blast!" Jason walked to the back of the cockpit, then forward again. "Tiny!"
"You think I'm not hurrying?"
"They do this deliberately," Jason said. "They knew it would probably be Michael Jordan's last game of his career, so Spectra goes and blows up West Cupcake National Park or whatever that no one's going to notice ever, and it's probably just to keep us from seeing the game."
Princess rolled her eyes, then adjusted her stance as Tiny accelerated. "Guys, keep it safe. Safe! No game is worth this."
"Shows what she knows," Keyop said.
Mark fought a smile as he met the Chief's eyes. Behind him, Jason made an imaginary twenty foot jump shot and a swooshing sound. "Next season, guys, just call me Air Jason."
Tiny muttered, "Air Head." Keyop sputtered a laugh as Jason glared at the pilot.
"Chicago just took a two minute time-out." Chief Anderson gave Jason a smile. "You can relax for a moment--you're only missing a commercial."
"Sometimes the commercials are the best part," said Princess.
Jason started to sing off-key, "Sometimes I dream, that he is me..."
Tiny and Keyop joined in, "You've got to see that's how I dream to be," and Tiny did the "Bom-ba-bom-ba-bom." The three of them continued, "I dream I move, I dream I groove--" and while Tiny and Keyop sang, "Like Mike!", Jason sang, "Like Mark!"
Mark rolled his eyes, and when Keyop burst out laughing, Tiny and Jason kept singing, "If I could be like Mark! If I, if I could be like Mark, like Mark, if I could be like Mark!"
Mark got out of his chair long enough to give Jason a good hard shove into the back wall of the cockpit, but Jason was laughing too much to really notice. Mark looked at the Chief on the monitor.
The Chief drawled, "I'm not gonna sing."
Jason, Tiny and Keyop broke apart laughing again. Keyop giggled, "Larry Bird-style!"
"Yeah, yeah..." Mark shook his head as he made his way back to his seat. "What's our ETA?"
"It'll be a few minutes more," the Chief said. "Chicago's down by six. I'll debrief you after the game."
Jason ran from the Phoenix after it docked, shouting, "No one detransmute--you know how that screws up the HDTV for ten minutes, and if I miss even a single second because of one of you nitwits going and..." His voice faded the further he got away. Keyop and Tiny were after him. Princess said, "Only heaven knows why we needed an HDTV in the first place, so we could count every bead of sweat on Karl Malone's face--" and then found herself alone. After a second's hesitation, Mark had raced down the hall to the TV room as well.
Right in front of the TV, Jason stood breathing deeply. "Oh, this must have been a barn-burner...yes!" Mark took a seat at the end of the couch. Jason turned to him, eyes bright. "Utah by three--that's the closest Chicago's gotten all quarter, but there's only 53 seconds left."
Mark leaned forward. Jason had taken a seat on the left arm of the couch while Tiny and Keyop stood behind the couch on his either side. Princess slipped into the TV room as well. No one said anything as Chicago grabbed the ball and handed it off to Jordan, who scored. "Do it do it do it," Jason was murmuring while Keyop and Tiny high-fived one another. Utah raced down the court, passing to Karl Malone, who turned with the ball only to have it stripped from him by Michael Jordan.
Jason was screaming, "He stripped the ball! He stripped the ball!"
Mark suddenly bent forward in a painful flash, hands covering his nose and mouth.
Jason was standing on the couch, his raised hands in fists. "You didn't watch who was double teaming you--YES!" He started jumping up and down on the couch. "Look at that! Look at that--a perfect fake for the seventeen footer! They're gonna do it! They're gonna go all the way!"
Tiny and Keyop were screaming as well, and Jason pumped the air with his fists, then turned to Mark. "They did it! The man's a basketball god! They did it!"
The figure on the couch raised his head, and suddenly all three boys stopped celebrating Chicago's sixth NBA title. He wore Mark's uniform and sat where Mark had been, and he even looked like Mark, but they knew in an instant it wasn't him at all.
Mark kept his hands over his face for several moments until the pain subsided, and when he looked up, he startled and pressed back into his chair.
Where am I?
There was no NBA game, no Jason shouting at the television, no Tiny and Keyop high-fiving one another. Instead he found himself in a cavernous, ornate cockpit, with Chief Anderson on the monitor--only the Chief wasn't speaking with his own voice. Mark's eyes darted to the side--Tiny sat in the pilot's chair, but he looked older. He had a different holster on his uniform.
"Ken!" a high pitched voice said, "You're bleeding!"
Mark hesitated as Princess--only older, with that higher, softer voice--rushed up to him and looked at him. Ken? Mark could feel it, though--he had a nosebleed, and no one else in the cockpit did, effectively making him Ken for now. The woman in the Swan birdstyle virtually pulled him from his chair, and he followed her to the rear of the cockpit where she thrust him some gauze pads from a first aid kit. Mark pressed them to his nose and mouth and bent his head forward.
They all look older--they all sound different--they're calling me Ken. This isn't the Phoenix. Mark kept his head down and tried to breathe deeply and get his thoughts collected. He had about five seconds until he'd have to either raise his head or speak, at which point these others would realize something had happened.
"Aniki?" Mark identified this voice as younger than the others--the boots that showed up at the edge of his vision were Keyop's dark ones. "What's up?"
The woman said, "Leave him alone. He's hurt."
"Huh?" the kid's voice said. "What happened, Aniki?"
There was no fifth person in the cockpit.
Mark took another deep breath, then raised his head and stood facing the rest of the team. He removed his helmet and looked around at the other three, who clearly appeared as shocked as he was.
When his vision finally cleared, Ken felt something warm trickle down his face. With one gloved hand he touched his upper lip and his fingers came away bloody, just as he suspected. The sudden, blinding headache had struck without warning and now that it had faded, he felt sick, chilled all over despite the protection of his birdstyle.
What happened? Where am I?
Instead of the command center of the New GodPhoenix, he found himself seated on a couch in what appeared to be someone's living room, in front of a television that blared the results of a basketball game and the cheers of an approving crowd. He frowned, eyes narrowed. At least the others were here with him. With his head still down he could see the edges of Jun's mantle to his right. And to his left, the deep blue feathers of the Condor.
Ken gasped and his shoulders jerked. He could feel his heart slamming against his ribcage, a deep pit dropping though his stomach. His head snapped up, and with huge eyes, he stared at the man sitting beside him.
The man stared back, startled. Sharp eyes glowed with unmistakable familiarity through the deep violet grey of his visor. The Condor. It was him. It had to be! Ken lunged forward and grabbed his shoulders with both hands, expecting the apparition to vanish in smoke, but Ken's hands clutched solid flesh and bone, muscles taut.
"Joe?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "How is this possible? How can you be here?"
"Hey!" The apparition jerked back, glaring at Ken with confusion and a little bit of annoyance. Ken startled at the wrongness of his voice, not Joe's baritone at all. From a closer vantage point, Ken found other differences: his face was too rounded, too young to be Joe, and now that he took the time to really look, the young man carried himself differently too.
Ken opened his hands and let him go. The Condor backed off a foot or so, perching high on the arm of the couch. "What's with you all of a sudden?"
"Mark?" Another voice spoke. A stranger's voice.
Then he looked at the others, and what he saw jarred him. Although at first glance he could have sworn they were his teammates, now he couldn't recognize them. The features were right, but dozens of tiny details combined to convince Ken he was looking at four entirely different people. They looked soft, closer to the young adults the Kagaku Ninjatai should have been if the Syndicate had never begun its campaign.
All of them sat perfectly still, mirroring his shocked expression.
"What's wrong?" the Swan asked, her voice low. "You're bleeding."
"And your face looks weird," the youngest added. "And your voice."
The Condor glanced at the boy. "Keyop, get the Chief," he snapped. "Now." As the Swallow--Keyop--dashed out the door, the woman snatched a tissue from the box on the coffee table and handed it to Ken. He wiped the blood from his face and pinched his nose until the bleeding subsided.
"What do you mean?"
"Who are you calling Mark?"
"You." The Condor quirked an eyebrow. "Who else would we be calling Mark?"
"I'm not Mark."
"Up until a minute ago, you were." The Owl spoke in a too-deep
voice, with none of Ryu's old slang.
This was too strange to be a snare. Gallactor would try to emulate the team, not provide so many differences. They're not trying to earn my trust. It looks like they're pulling things from the past, not the future. Why?
Ken got off the couch and backed away from them toward the door, then winced as the room tilted around him. "You're not my team. Tell me what's going on."
"You never saw him hit his head," the Condor said quietly, looking over at the Swan. She shook her head. "But he does look different."
"Something flashed around him," the Owl said. "I thought it was just the TV, but now...."
The door opened behind him, and Ken whirled to see the Swallow trailed by a man in a lab coat. Though he appeared younger, he looked more familiar than the rest of the team. Upon seeing Ken, he stopped, and his brows drew together in puzzlement.
"Hakase?" Ken said in as level a voice as he could manage. "What's going on here?"
The man's puzzled look intensified, and as he opened his mouth, Ken dreaded the sound of his voice. But he spoke, and his voice, like the others, was wrong. "That's what I intend to find out."