"Ken, wake up!"
"Huh?" My shoulder was being shaken, hard. I turned over slowly, feeling horribly groggy. Suddenly, a pair of warm, passionate lips pressed onto mine. What the hell?
My eyes snapped open even as I pushed whoever it was away. I looked up into a face that was only too familiar. "Joe!"
It was him, big as life, his helmet set on the side of the bed leaving him free to kiss me. My mind reeled. He'd really kissed me.
"It's me, lover. Come on, we've got to get you out of here."
He took hold of my arm to help me up. Without really meaning to, I resisted. The familiar Sicilian features turned into a half-worried scowl. "Didn't you hear me? It's time to go!"
"I-I--" My eyes flew over his uniform verifying for me that this was still the wrong Joe. This wasn't a dream and I wasn't home. He'd come to take me back still not knowing who I was. This was bad.
"Ken, are you okay? What did those bastards do to you? Have they drugged you? Where's your uniform?"
I looked away and sat up slowly. I reminded myself over and over that the concerned man before me was not my best friend. My lips still burned from his passion. "Y--yes, drugged. I--I don't know about the uniform..." Would he believe me?
"Shit. Nambu said it might be something like this. If I get my hands on that traitorous pig...!" He helped me up to my feet, anger marring his face. He grabbed his helmet and put it back on. "Can you walk?"
I still couldn't look at him. Lying to him felt wrong, but I knew it was necessary. "Yeah, I think so." It looked like all the blame for my disappearance had been dumped on Kentaro. They still didn't seem to have any idea that I wasn't their Ken.
"Don't worry, I'll get you out of here in one piece. Then we'll make the sons of bitches pay!" His face was close and I had to force myself not to jerk away. He took my arm and led the way out into the hallway. "Jun and the others are setting up explosives as we speak. As soon as you're out, we're going to blow this place to atoms."
Damn. I hadn't thought this out that far. Of course they'd want to destroy the base. The base and everyone in it, including Kentaro! I couldn't let that happen.
I dropped to one knee wrapping my arm about my midriff and made a grunt of pain.
"Ken, what's wrong?"
As he turned and looked down at me, I gave him an upper cut to the stomach. Joe doubled over in pain and surprise, and before he could react, I drove my elbow to the back of his neck. He dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
I checked him for a pulse, a wave of guilt washing over me at what I'd done. If only they hadn't looked so much alike. I grabbed my partner's double by the armpits and quickly dragged him back into my room.
I propped him up into a sitting position in the corner and thoroughly searched him, removing all his weapons and explosives. I stuffed them here and there in my jumpsuit's pockets. I was just about finished when his wristcom beeped. Damn, I was running out of time.
I rushed to my door and then stopped, a nagging feeling in the back of my head telling me that I was forgetting something. I turned around, my eyes skipping around the room, when it hit me-- my uniform! I'd appeared here wearing it, I might just need it to get back. Better safe than sorry. Besides, it would keep Nambu from having it.
I palmed the closet open and retrieved the uniform from where I'd stashed it the day before. Then I got out of there.
Kentaro's room was just next door. From what little Joe's double had said, it didn't sound as if he'd known that. I prayed that he was all right as I rushed inside.
I flicked on the lights and before I could say anything, Kentaro had leapt from the bed and rolled across the floor, before he sprang to his feet with a knife in his hand held at the ready.
"Ken!" I saw his face fill with surprise and confusion, but he didn't stand down. "What are you doing here?"
"They're here. Somehow they've managed to find me. They're going to blow up the base. We've got to get everyone out!"
I saw his eyes widen with understanding. Without a word, he activated the computer desk to come out of the wall.
As soon as it had started to come out, Kentaro rushed to the computer and started typing on the keyboard. He hit the enter button.
Klaxons brayed from hidden speakers overhead. The room's lights flashed on and off. A pleasant female voice rose up over the din.
"Emergency. Emergency. This is a Class Beta alert. Please evacuate the area. All personnel are to make their way to the nearest escape chutes. Repeat, all personnel are to make their way to the nearest escape chutes." After several seconds, the message started again.
"That should catch them off guard." Kentaro reached for his uniform where it lay on a nearby chair and quickly got dressed. He donned his helmet as well. "Ken, tell me what happened."
I filled him in as we ran out into the hall, only omitting the part about Joe's troubling kiss. People had already poured out into the corridor and were headed off to the right. We moved to follow.
"You killed him?"
I stumbled. He was serious! "N--no, I didn't."
Now it was his turn to look surprised. I wasn't sure what to make of it. "I know he's not who he looks like, but I couldn't do it. To be honest, it never even crossed my mind."
I saw a flicker of something cross his face but then it was gone. "No matter. Let's just try and get out of here." We plowed on.
As we reached the area by the main elevator, I noticed that the wall with the large mural had disappeared, revealing six dark holes in the wall. Guards in the telltale green and brown stood by each one, helping those who were there to climb inside.
We were about to head in that direction when the vent high in the domed ceiling exploded outwards. Screams filled the air as those below attempted to scatter from the falling debree. Cold, harsh laughter washed over them, originating from the gaping hole above.
"Run, little worms, run. It won't do you any good, for you're about to die."
I stood transfixed at the opening into the room, fighting against the tide of people, recognizing the voice, though I'd never heard it speak in such a way before. I had no doubt as to whom it belonged--it was Jun's.
As if my thought had summoned her, the Swan appeared at the edge of the exploded vent. With more cold laughter pouring from her lips, she casually tossed several small explosives into the panicked crowd below.
The following explosions shook the room. Blood and gore flew from those closest to the blasts. The stench of charred flesh swept over me even as pain filled screams and moans echoed from those who hadn't been killed outright.
I stood there watching what she'd done, numbed to the core. These people had been unarmed--they could have never harmed her. They'd only been running away. And she'd--she'd--it was wrong!
More harsh laughter washed over those below.
Those who'd survived the Swan's attack tried to grab some of the injured as they attempted to flee.
Someone grabbed me and pulled me against the wall as I faltered against the tide of people trying to get away. I barely noticed, my eyes never leaving the cold blooded killer above.
Even at this distance, her face seemed so clear to me. Her lips, her eyes, her curving face, all so familiar; yet the expression on it so alien to me. The Swan's attention was riveted at the moment on the splattered bodies below. Her face was twisted with sadistic pleasure. I felt like I might throw up.
My blood froze as I saw her slowly reach into a pouch for more explosives.
"Ken, snap out of it! There's nothing we can do here. We've got to go." Kentaro pulled on my arm, trying to get us to go in the direction of the others. I shrugged him off.
"No." This was wrong, wrong. This wasn't what the Gatchaman Team stood for. This wasn't what I'd trained all of my life for. These people were innocents! This had to stop.
A cold anger swept through me. Before I truly realized what I was doing, I reached down into one of my pockets. My body tensed. I couldn't allow this to go on. "Jun!"
I stepped out into the room. She turned to look toward me, the explosives still in her hand. A look of surprise and recognition crossed her face. As she opened her mouth to speak, I cocked my arm and threw. Jun saw the feather dart, but wasn't able to react fast enough. The dart buried itself deep into her shoulder. Her face was a mask of shock and pain as she fell back into the recesses of the exposed vent.
I felt something warm slide down my cheek. I felt ill... Jun's expression of pain and betrayal played itself over and over in my mind. But that hadn't been her. Why did it hurt like this?
Kentaro's solemn face abruptly blocked my view of where the Swan had been standing mere moments before. "Ken, we must go. It isn't safe here."
I stared at him, not really understanding what he was saying. His eyes met mine and they were veiled; his face a blank mask. A tendril of dread sneaked its way into my mind. Surely he didn't think... "We're not like this! Never, never like this. We do what we must, but we don't kill like this! Not for pleasure! You've got to believe me!" The tears wouldn't stop. I had to find a way to make him see.
"Ken, I know. I know. But we have to go. We can't take the risk that they'll find you, especially not after this."
I looked away knowing that all that he said was true. Still, I hesitated. These people had been hurt, some killed because of me. If I'd never come, none of this would have happened. How could I think of escaping without even trying to help those that might still be alive?
I pushed past him, toward the gore, not sure how I could express these things to him. "I can't go yet. I'll catch up to you when I can." I didn't look behind me to see if he followed or not.
A couple of the security guards still alive were already busy sifting through the bodies looking for survivors. I checked with them, fighting the constant urge to look back up to where Jun had been last.
We worked quickly, a silent clock ticking in our heads as time ran out for all of us. What few survivors we found, were quickly grabbed up and taken to one of the two escape chutes that were still operational.
The stench of blood and death clung to me, permeating my clothes, my hands, sinking into my skin. It felt like I'd been at this for hours, but in truth, only a few precious minutes had gone by.
"Time to go." I looked up, surprised at Kentaro's voice. His face was hard, leaving no room for argument. I did it anyway.
"No. I can't yet. We haven't finished. And there's bound to be others. I can't leave them here!" Pictures of the atrocities the other doubles could be up to right then flashed vividly in my mind's eye. "I just can't."
I really should have expected something like this, but I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly, because it caught me totally by surprise. Kentaro sucker punched me just like I'd done the Condor not too long before. My breath left me, my knees gave way. Kentaro caught me as I fell and dragged me toward the wall.
"Sirs, this way! You must hurry!"
I tried to fight him, but he pressed something on my back that sent a shot of pain through it and numbed my limbs. He threw me inside the chute.
I fell onto a cushioned pad, which immediately began to move. An opaque bubble snapped shut around it even as it continued to pick up speed.
The ride lasted no more than a couple of minutes. I had no idea as to its destination. Once it slowed almost to a stop, the bubble disappeared. Hands reached in from somewhere behind me and helped pull me out.
The numbness had mostly left me by then, so that when they released me, I was able to stand on my own. I looked around me looking for a way to go back.
I was inside a large open warehouse. From what I could see, there were about ten other chutes that seemed to empty here. Every one them was in use.
Part of the warehouse was filled with covered vehicles. One, a semi, had been uncovered and its trailer doors opened. From what I could see, it seemed to have a makeshift hospital inside. A line of wounded was being quickly carted inside.
"Are you hurt, sir? Do you need medical attention?"
It took me a moment to realize that the short man was talking to me. "No, no. I'm fine." I drifted father into the room to get out of the way.
A soft thunk sounded off on my right. As I glanced back, I spotted Kentaro being helped out of the chute. Our eyes met and he gave me a brief nod. I looked away. I still wasn't sure how to feel about what he had done.
"We should be safe now. At least for a while." His face showed no trace of regret.
"Won't they follow the chutes here?"
Kentaro smiled, it held little humor in it. "They can try. You see, each chute is set to go to a separate location from its brothers. There are also scanning devices in the tunnels. If they pick up anyone not currently logged in its computer banks, it'll shut down and cave in the rest of the passage. After the first three times or so, they stopped bothering to try."
"Oh." I should have been relieved by the information, but found that it did nothing at all. "I assume the chutes are all one way?"
He gave me an odd look. "Yes."
"Then, what happens now?"
"We wait. Orders will come through in a few hours for a rendezvous once things have calmed down." He handed me my double's uniform. I had never noticed that it'd been missing.
"You've gone through this before." I don't know why I was surprised by this, but I was.
"Once or twice." He shrugged. "Come on, there should be supplies stacked inside some of these cars. Let's get you cleaned up a bit and grab you something clean to wear." I didn't argue.
I was in the middle of changing clothes when the warehouse softly rumbled on its foundation. I quickly glanced over at Kentaro. He nodded slowly. The gesture confirmed what I'd already known--the base had just been destroyed. My hands shook as I tried hard not to think about all those who hadn't made it out.
After I dressed, I helped Kentaro and some of the others distribute packages of food, clean clothes, and blankets. I dug into the task with relish. I had to keep busy... There were too many things I didn't want to have the time to think about.
A little over two hours later, the panels of several of the cars lit up and beeped softly.
Excited murmurs wove through the survivors, even as a number of the guards with us headed for the beeping cars.
After about ten minutes or so, the panels went dark. Orders echoed through the warehouse and everyone able to was put to work. First, all the wounded were loaded into the two semi's prepped up for that purpose. The rest of the survivors were split up between the vans and cars.
Kentaro and I turned around. We'd just been about to board one of the vans. "Yes?"
"Katse-sama has requested that you and Mr. Washio come with us."
Kentaro looked slightly surprised by this but said nothing. It made me nervous. "All right."
"This way, sirs."
We were led over to a silver Cutlass parked close to the front of the warehouse. After we'd gotten in the car, we were the first to leave the premises.
The warehouse opened out into a waterfront district. This was the first indication I'd had of my location in the last couple of days. There were signs of slowly dissipating smoke in the distance as it marred the beauty of the dawning of a new day.
The ride didn't last long. After the Cutlass was led onto a fairly empty freeway, the car turned off at an exit to the airport. We drove in through the employee gate.
The driver didn't stop the car until he'd reached the back of a large private hangar. We were quickly taken inside.
A seven-forty-seven was nestled inside the hangar, sporting the tell-tale logo of American Airlines. I risked a glance in Kentaro's direction. He looked as baffled as I felt. Without fanfare, we were promptly led up a set of portable stairs to the interior of the plane.
I hesitated at the door as I caught my first glimpse inside. Instead of the rows of seats that should have been there, the interior of the plane had been converted into a giant laboratory/office area.
I could see a figure folded over on the cluttered desk at the rear of the plane as if he was asleep. We were herded in that direction.
"Katse-sama, they've arrived." The guard's voice echoed in the large space. Instantly, Berg's face had risen from the desk to look at us.
"Kentaro!" A tired smile flickered on the Galactor leader's face as he got up to meet us. He glanced at me for a moment, his eyes guarded, before returning his full attention to my double's father. "Are you well?"
Berg's face was drawn and there were bags under his eyes. His gaze, however, seemed to burn as he asked the question.
"We're fine. You shouldn't have worried." He gave Berg a half bow.
"Yes..." Berg glanced at me again and then turned away to head back toward his desk. I wasn't sure what to make of it. "Thank you, Williams, for bringing them to me. Please, leave us and go to the rendezvous."
The guard bowed and then left us. He closed the airplane's hatch on his way out.
"Any estimates on the casualties?" I cringed at the question, but was glad that Kentaro had asked it anyway.
Berg turned back toward us, and leaned against the desk, a slight smile on his face. I noticed that he held a strange looking pen, which he was twirling idly in one hand. "It seems that we were incredibly lucky this time. Casualties were less than five percent. The alarm made all the difference. As soon as things calm down, I'll find out who was able to spot the invaders so early and thank them properly."
"That won't be hard, since you've already found him and I'm sure that the help you're already giving him will be repayment enough." Kentaro grinned.
"You?" Berg's gaze snapped to me, a brow arced high with disbelief. I looked away, feeling suddenly self-conscious, hoping that he wouldn't make a big deal about it. After all, the attack had been my fault in the first place.
"I didn't really do much. Kentaro was the one who actually activated the alarm. I just let him know they were there."
"Oh?" Berg then made me retell how I had found out about them. "Now, that does bring up a whole set of questions, does it not?" His face turned deadly serious. "The most prominent being, of course, how they were able to find you in the first place."
I had no answers for him. The very same thought had plagued me in the back of my mind all along. I hoped things wouldn't turn ugly. I noticed again the strange pen in Berg's hand. "To be honest, I don't have the faintest idea. Though if there is a way, I'd like to help to make sure that they won't be able to do it again."
Berg nodded slowly. "Yes... That's why you're here. Whether willingly or not, I believe that you had everything to do with their appearance. I won't endanger any more of my people until I can find out exactly how it happened and make sure that it can't happen again." His dead tone cut through me like ice.
I didn't back down from his challenging stare. I knew that my life was probably on trial here. It was totally obvious that if I wasn't somehow able to convince him of my ignorance in the matter, that all of my hopes, and even my life, would soon turn to ashes.
Still staring at me, Berg reached behind him and flipped a switch on a small box on his desk. "Are we ready to leave yet, Bellamer?"
A male voice came from a hidden speaker on the wall. "Yes, Katse-sama, everything is ready."
"Wonderful. Please get us underway."
Berg flipped the switch off. "If you'll both take a seat? We'll continue this conversation once we're up in the air."
Kentaro and I sat down on a couple of captain's chairs that had been bolted to the floor, close to Berg's desk. I risked a glimpse in Kentaro's direction and saw that he had taken off his helmet and that all of his attention was centered on his friend.
After we'd become airborne, Berg rose from his seat and deftly ran his long fingers over a set of controls on the back wall. I was startled as from behind us, a panel swung aside in the middle of the floor. A large man sized machine rose up into view.
"A bit clunky, but still an extremely useful machine."
I'd seen one of these before. It was a medical scanner. I'd been put through one just like it at the base the day before. From what I'd been told, it was vastly more sophisticated than anything we had at home.
"Ah, I see you've recognized it. Yes, it is a medical scanner, but I've had this one modified a bit to extend its uses for me. I want to run you both through it." I was surprised at the plural. "Kentaro, would you mind going first?"
Kentaro nodded and stood. I followed him over there even as Berg pulled out the scanner's sliding bed for him to lie on. Kentaro settled himself on it as Berg turned on the machine and fiddled with the settings. The bed slowly slipped inside.
Berg gave me a cold sideways glance and I moved slowly out to where he could easily keep me in full view. I had the creepy feeling that Kentaro was being scanned as a test for me. I was amazed that Berg was even taking the risk. Surely this plane had defenses that I wasn't aware of though. And there was also the matter of the pen. Berg was keeping it a little too handy for it to be what it seemed. I definitely didn't want to give him any reason to suspect me any more than he did already.
After about five to ten minutes, the bed slid back out. Kentaro quickly got off, glancing at both of us. I could tell he'd had pretty much my same thought about why he had been put in there. Without being prompted, I moved to take his place on the bed. Kentaro flashed me a quick reassuring smile as the bed slid me inside the machine.
The aperture was round and deep. I could see or hear nothing going on outside of it. The minutes slowly dragged by with only the machinery's soft hum for company. I really wasn't sure of what Berg was hoping to find. While I did want to know how the team had found me, I also didn't want it to be something that would tip over my situation anymore than it already had.
I was growing a little worried over how long I'd been in there when the bed suddenly jerked into motion. I was coming out.
"--sure of this?" My ears perked up at the snatch of conversation.
"I saw it. There was no way it could have been staged. And there were the other things as well. I believe him, now more than ever."
I sat up as the two gazed intently at one another. It wasn't hard to guess at the topic of conversation. It's prompting could only mean one thing. "You found something?"
Berg gave me a veiled look. "Yes, actually, I did. If you'd be so kind as to remove your boots?"
I bristled at the lack of information, but did as he asked. I knew that for the moment, at least, he was still giving me the benefit of the doubt.
Berg took the boots and carried them to his desk. Kentaro came over and patted me lightly on the shoulder. He nodded in Berg's direction so I followed.
"I suppose that if blame truly needed to be placed somewhere, it would fall most heavily on my shoulders. Nambu seems to be getting craftier by the day, and I don't seem to be keeping up. I should have been more thorough." His voice was light, but his eyes were cold. Berg opened a drawer on the desk and pulled out a stiff letter opener. He jammed the point of it into the heel of one of the boots. "The whole idea is quite ingenious really."
He pried the heel apart. Inside it sat a metallic looking rock and a small shielded device. He held up the latter.
"A passive homing beacon. Probably set up not to give out a signal until it encountered a specific frequency broadcast within a given range. Wouldn't set off any detectors on your way in and since it only works close range, it wouldn't matter if you were in a place full of external jammers.
"This, however, is the piece of genius." Berg pulled out the rock from the boot with a pair of tongs. "It's radioactive, but not lethally so. It is though, just radioactive enough to leave a trail behind it. They must have picked it up at the hangar. And after breaking in, the passive homing device would have led them right to you. Very clever." He didn't sound amused.
"Sir, I realize that you have no reason to believe me, but I tell you that I had no idea those were there. We don't use anything like this at home." I stared at Berg's blank face, and held my breath, waiting to see what he would say next.
"Do you have the rest of your uniform with you? I'll need to scan that as well."
I picked up my double's uniform from the chair I'd previously sat in and set them on the desk, making sure that I didn't get too close. I tried to read his mood, but all I saw was resigned exhaustion. He caught me looking and gave me a half smile.
"Don't worry, Ken, I'm not planning on throwing you to the wolves. It's well within Nambu's profile to find ways to keep track of his toys without deigning to tell them about it. Besides, Kentaro still firmly believes in your sincerity. And I've learned, from personal experience, that he is not one to be easily fooled." A glimmer of humor flashed in his eyes. "Moreover, now that we know how they found you and can neutralize it, it should prove almost impossible for them to find you again." His smile broadened. "And if we get very lucky, we might just find a way to use this information to our advantage later."
Though I knew that was good news, it still sent a chill down my spine. This all felt extremely awkward.
"I'll check these and get them back to you when I'm through." He picked them up. "If you'll go through that door, you'll find several small bedrooms there. Our flight will take a number of hours and you both look like you could use the rest. I'll let you know as soon as we've landed." He got up and headed for the scanner. We'd obviously just been dismissed.
"Come on, we might as well rest while we can." Kentaro nodded in the direction Berg had indicated. He stopped me for a moment in the short hallway beyond the door.
"You kept your cool in there. That was very good. He respects that and so do I." His blue gray eyes stared into mine a small smile on his lips. He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. I felt a lot of pent up tension flow out of me. "I'll see you when we land. Good night."
I watched him go into the first of the four rooms, as a warm feeling grew inside me. This is what it would have been like if my father had lived, just like this. If only...
I turned away rubbing at my eyes. I was just tired. I opened the door to the room across from Kentaro's and stepped inside. The room was small, barely large enough to hold the twin sized bed inside. I laid down, not caring in the least, only grateful, for the bed. Before I knew it, I'd drifted off to sleep.
A knock at the door brought me awake. I was sure I'd only been there but a moment. My body ached. Surely we weren't there yet. With a small groan, I forced myself to get up and stumble to the door.
I opened it, quickly combing my fingers through my disheveled hair.
"We've landed, sleepy head. Come on, Berg's waiting for us." He handed me my boots and I quickly slipped them on.
"Do you know where we are?"
"No." Kentaro shook his head, a knowing look on his face. "We may be close friends, but there are still a few things Berg feels don't need to be known by everyone. He can be quite an enigma at times."
I nodded and followed him out.
"Ah, there you are." Berg's clothes were fresh, but he still looked tired. His eyes, however, no longer seemed as troubled as they had before. I hoped that was a good sign. "The limo is waiting, so let's be on our way. Shall we?" He came around the desk, picking up a small wrapped bundle on the way. He handed it to me. "I'm through with your clothes. I don't believe we'll be having any more trouble."
"Thank you." I hesitated, feeling I should say something more, but not sure how to put it into words. "I realize that I've been more trouble than I'm probably worth."
Berg waved my bungled attempt at an apology away. "Let's go, we're late. I have a lot to do before I can take the time to try and find a way to send you home." His teasing smile was sincere. I didn't know what to say to that, so I said nothing at all.
The plane was once more within an enclosed hangar. A black limousine was parked at the end of the stairs leading off the plane. A thin woman in a prim black uniform opened the door on the car for us as we came down.
Berg opened a console next to his seat as we got underway. It turned out to be a laptop computer. He activated it, but did nothing with it. Below the console sat a small refrigerator. It was to it that Berg now devoted his attention. Opening it, he pulled out what looked to be thick chocolate milkshakes. He gave one to each of us.
"Drink up. They're pretty tasty, if I say so myself. They're crammed full of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and a few other things. Not as good as a hot meal, but they're great on the go." He drank his down with unabashed relish.
I hesitated until my stomach eagerly reminded me that I'd had nothing to eat since before the chaos had started. To my tongue's great pleasure, I found Berg's concoction to be quite tasty. Ryu would have gone all gooey inside over the rich, dark chocolate flavor. Berg had downed two of them before I was even halfway through with mine.
"These are definitely much better than those others, Berg." Kentaro reached past him into the small fridge to grab another. Berg seemed pleased at the comment.
"Yes, well, it did take me a while to get them just right. I'm glad you like it." His face didn't look as drawn as it had a few minutes ago.
We rode the rest of the way in silence, each left with his own thoughts. I kept wondering where we were going. Where we actually ended up wasn't anywhere near anything to what I'd guessed.
A half-hour after leaving the airport, the limousine pulled up in front of a multistoried, yet squat building. As I peeked out the darkened window, I cold barely see the embossed name over the massive double doorway--The Hallmark Hotel. We'd gone to a hotel?
The chauffeur opened our door and we got out only to be immediately surrounded by eager and helpful hotel staff. Berg ignored them and left us to deal with them as he strolled inside.
The ceiling was a good forty feet high. Thick marble columns made in the ancient Roman style formed a hallway leading from the door to the check-in desk. Thick carpeting sprang on either side of the passage, nestling sofas and settees as well as small hand crafted tables full of complementary coffee, newspapers, and magazines.
Berg looked at none of this as if the splendor of the place were immaterial and made his way toward the front desk. The helpful staff offered us beverages, services, whatever we required. They didn't seem to be at all put off by our half-hazard appearance. I felt queerly out of place in my rumpled jumpsuit amidst the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the thousand dollar suits worn by the customers lounging about. Oddly enough, they also seemed to think nothing of our presence.
Berg booked us into a large suite and then shushed the concierge with a hundred dollar bill as he took the key to our room, insisting that he could find it by himself.
The concierge snapped his fingers and the throng about us stepped away. Berg led us off toward a row of elevators on the right.
The car he chose was mirrored on the inside and bordered with gold. As soon as the elevator doors had closed, Berg went through an odd combination on the button console until they turned into a reddish color. The lights blinked and then the elevator went down. The floor counter insisted in telling us that we were going up.
The elevator descended the equivalent of several floors and then stopped. He led us on out.
The hallway here was metallic and plain. It stretched for about ten feet before ending at what looked like a set of elevator doors. The doors slid open at our approach.
Inside the small room beyond, there were two contour couches that had been set facing each other against the walls.
"Please get comfortable. We should be taking off in a matter of moments." Berg spoke as he moved to sit down. We followed his lead.
As promised, we'd not been sitting long before the room, which was definitely some kind of craft, lifted up slightly and then shot forward. After the small initial jolt, the ride was amazingly smooth. It was hard to tell that you were even moving. Five minutes later, we came to a gentle stop.
"Well, gentlemen, we have arrived." The doors opened and Berg signaled for us to follow. I was brought up short by what lay beyond.
The room was huge--if it could even rightly be called a room. I couldn't see the ceiling, the view being cut off by a canopy of green. Large oaks, firs, cedars, and pines were responsible for that. The floor was made of dirt and lay strewn with leaves and pine needles. There were even tufts of wild grass here and there. The air smelled of loam, sap, and greenness. Birds and squirrels flittered through the tall branches, their chirps and playful calls falling about our ears. I, I had never thought that something this vast and manmade would be possible. I quickly said as much.
"I'm sorry to say that in truth, all that you see here is not real. The animals certainly aren't. But I'm glad to say that it is very hard to tell. And the whole effect can be quite relaxing and pleasant." He looked back at me a bright twinkle in his eye. "Besides, it's great for impressing visitors."
I looked away feeling suddenly self-conscious. Kentaro laughed softly beside me and I felt a slight smile touch my lips. God how I loved that sound, even if it was at my expense. "Yes, you're quite right, it is very impressive."
Berg nodded, a relaxed smile on his face. He took one of the branching paths through the trees, taking his time, letting us absorb some of the forest's tranquillity. We found a guard station at the exit. We each walked past a scanner even as our identities were verified. As before, Berg showed all the patience in the world, silently encouraging his men to be totally thorough. We made it through.
"The layout of the living and entertainment levels here are very similar to our last location's. All the restricted levels are randomized per base though. We wouldn't want to make Nambu's job too easy for him." Berg took a corridor on the left.
After a short walk, we reached an elevator. A young brunette was there waiting for us, an electronic steno pad in hand.
"Ken, Kentaro, this is Elysse."
"Pleased to meet you, gentlemen." Her smile was bright and sincere. I doubted that she was much older than I. She handed Berg the pad. "Here's everything you asked for, Katse-sama."
"Thank you." He ruffled her hair. She didn't really seem to mind; if anything, her smile grew brighter. "Well, duty calls, so I'll be leaving you now in Elysse's capable hands. I'll try and check in on the two of you later." He bowed toward us and left, his eyes already busily scanning the contents of the pad.
"Please, if you'd care to follow me?" She guided us into the elevator and had it take us down.
Our rooms were almost identical to the ones we'd had before. The main difference lay in the color scheme. While my other room had been mostly beige and green, this one favored dark golds and blues.
Elysse hung around, her eyes studying us with intense curiosity. She acted as if she had nothing else in the world to do but to assist us. I could tell her attentions were making Kentaro feel as self-conscious as they were making me. We turned down her offer of a tour using a long night without sleep as our excuse. Elysse took the rejection in stride and left us on our own; but not before she'd made sure that we had her beeper/extension number in case we needed anything.
Left alone, I took the opportunity to clean up and then tried to take a nap. My mind was having nothing to do with the nap part. Instead, it busied itself by reviewing everything that had happened since my arrival to this world. The things I'd seen and heard no longer seemed as strange as they first had. It looked like I might be finally accepting all of it. I hadn't quite decided though, if this was a good thing or not.
After about and hour or so, I gave up on sleep and got up. I brought out the desk and sat down to check the computer. The pop up screen contained a full automated menu and even several search functions. After checking that out for a few minutes, I settled to exploring the entertainment section, though to be honest, a number of others had caught more of my interest. From all I'd seen here, however, I was sure that all my computer usage would be monitored and it wouldn't be worth it to let my curiosity bring anymore doubts to Berg about my sincerity. I'd had enough of that game.
The large assortment of games at my disposal would have kept Jinpei in heaven for a number of months. I stuck to a solitaire card game for a while and then switched to Tetris for a change of pace. I'd thoroughly lost track of time when a knock brought my attention to the door. I put my current game on pause and got up to answer it.
"Did I wake you?" Kentaro looked refreshed. He must have been able to get some rest.
"No, I couldn't sleep. I've been playing some games on the computer to pass the time."
"Feel like getting something to eat?"
"Sure, sounds good. Let me turn off the game and get my shoes."
Dinner turned out to be a little eerie. The cafeteria looked to be an exact duplicate of the one we'd eaten in before. It felt strange to be seated there, eating, knowing all the while that the other had been destroyed. It dampened my mood though I tried hard not to let it. Kentaro didn't seem bothered by the similarities at all. I couldn't bring myself to talk about it. We both turned in early.
In the morning, we met for breakfast before going off to exercise together. The eerie feeling of the night before returned.
I knew that Berg had told us that these levels were very similar in all of his bases, but I still couldn't escape the queer feeling that I'd somehow traded planets again. And, though I tried my best to ignore the whole thing, it ended up throwing off my concentration just enough so that I got repeatedly trounced during our sparing sessions.
I tried not to moan with the aches I'd picked up as my reward for my inattentiveness as we headed to the cafeteria for lunch. To our surprise, Berg showed up and joined us. He looked as fresh as on the day I'd first met him. It was the final piece that made it seem as if the destruction of the previous base had never been. It gave me chills.
Lunch was pleasant, the conversation light. We had just about finished when I suddenly noticed Berg's gaze lock with mine with odd intensity.
"Would you mind giving me a little of your time today, Ken?" His tone was soft, yet somehow strained. I felt myself tense, but I didn't know why. Was this why he had joined us today?
"Sure, I'm free. What do you need?"
"Sosai has downloaded some data that I thought you should take a look at."
"Oh, all right." I felt my lunch turn hard in my stomach. "When would you like to meet?" I tried my best to sound casual.
"Would now be too soon?" His gaze was veiled.
"No, now should be fine." I stood up a little too abruptly. No one seemed to take notice. A part of me was screaming that I didn't really want to know what this was about. Had Berg not spoken about all other facts of this freely? This couldn't be good news if he wanted it discussed in private. I quickly pushed those thoughts down.
"Good." He turned his attention to Kentaro. "I promise I won't keep him long." Kentaro nodded and gave me an encouraging look.
My mind was in a frenzy as we walked down the halls, part of it trying desperately to figure out what this would be about while the other fought not to even think about it. Berg led me into an elevator and went ten floors up. We passed four guard stations on the way, and I felt my tension rise as we crossed each one. We finally reached our destination.
The room was spacious, almost huge. In many ways, it resembled the laboratory/office Berg had set up in the plane. The only major difference was a large TV screen that had been mounted on the back wall behind the desk.
"Please, take a seat." I did. And so did he. "How are Kentaro and you getting along?"
The question caught me off guard. Surely he hadn't asked me here for that. "Ah, fine, we get along great."
"Good, good." He tapped the fingers of his hands together. "I believe you'd told us that in your version of the world he had died? Is that correct?"
"Yes, that's right." I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. What was this about?
"Is, is Kentaro very different from your real father?" I saw an eagerness in his eyes that I didn't totally understand.
"Not in anything that matters, as far as I can tell."
Berg smiled making me even more confused. "Meeting you, I think, has meant a lot to him. He's happier than I've ever seen him, and I've known him for a long time. Thank you for that."
"He's done as much for me..." I saw Berg nod with understanding. It made me want to ask why he'd asked me these things, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Silence stretched between us. Berg rose from his desk and came around. He leaned up against it, facing me.
"Well, we might as well get on to the real reason for this meeting, right?" I said nothing, somehow sure that the former had really been what this meeting had been about--I just didn't know why. "Sosai-sama has gone through the data on the trap mechanism, the data on you, and data on anything else he thought might have influenced things to get you here." I held my breath. "As best as he can estimate, you shouldn't be here."
"But I am here." I felt cold all over. Were they giving up? So soon?
"Yes, there is that. And going on the assumption that you are who you say, I can only conclude that we're missing some key piece of data."
I wracked my brains for something that might fit what he needed, but nothing came to mind. "Do you have any idea on what might have been missed?"
Berg's eyes would no longer meet mine. "Perhaps... but I'll need your help to find out if I'm right."
"Yes, anything." I had an awful feeling at the pit of my stomach.
"When I scanned your clothes on the plane, I noticed some anomalies in the fibers. At the time, I was pretty sure that whatever they were had nothing to do with communications, so I didn't follow up on them. Now though, these anomalies could prove extremely important. What can you tell me about them? Were they there before the accident or should I assume that they are somehow a residue of the exchange?"
The clothes... My double's uniform... What should I tell him? If I tried to explain, I'd also have to tell him about the bracelet. Dread flowed through me. What if this was what all this strangeness had been about in the first place? Could this really be some elaborate trick to find out about the team's secrets? Such a thing wouldn't be beyond Galactor's efforts. It wasn't like they'd never tried anything like it before.
I felt Berg's gaze boring into me. I couldn't look at him; I just wasn't sure as to what to do. The Galactor leader said nothing. I suddenly had the strange feeling that if I lied, he wouldn't contradict me even though I was sure he already suspected the truth. He was giving me an out. But what good would that do? Either I gambled that everything I'd seen and heard was real and told him what he wanted, or I lied and resigned myself to staying here forever...
Surely all of this couldn't have been faked. There was too much detail, too many things that Galactor could have never found out about to fake--and my father... Kentaro...
I met Berg's calm gaze head on. "The clothes, I'm sure, are just like they're supposed to be. They're an intricate part of the Science Ninja Teams's uniforms. They have altering properties, and these are activated by the bracelet you took from me before."
Berg nodded slowly. "This could very well be the piece we have been looking for." His eyes softened. "I know that just telling me this much took a lot, and though I know it will go against your every instinct, I need for you to tell me everything that you know about how they work and how the two interact."
I exhaled slowly, not having noticed until that moment that I'd been holding my breath. "All right."
Over the next couple of hours, Berg poured over changing computations as I gave him what limited information I had on my uniform and bracelet. I was a little surprised, once we'd finished, as he thanked me for the information and then opened a desk drawer. He took out my bracelet and handed it over without batting an eye. I put it on, glad to have the familiar weight back on my wrist.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I'd like to see you transform."
I nodded and with that, he quickly called for someone to go retrieve my uniform for me.
More nervous than I cared to admit, I brought my wrist over my head and down toward my chest, and called out the familiar phrase. "Bird Go!"
My skin burst with goose pimples as the familiar energies flowed around me changing my double's clothes into the black Gatchaman uniform.
"Amazing! Utterly amazing!" Berg circled around me in a cautious way, before finally daring to reach out to touch the uniform. "Please, change back and we'll go to one of my bigger labs. I want to scan you while in uniform--but I can't have the Shadow of Death walking the halls even if he's here to do no harm." His eyes were dancing.
I did as he asked, buoyed by his growing excitement.
The scan took longer than any he'd done on me before. I was getting a little claustrophobic by the time he finally let me out of there.
"I'll send this information to Sosai immediately. I think it is the very thing he's been looking for." Berg's smile was bright.
I decided to get bold. "Excuse me for asking, but who is this Sosai?" I detransmutted back into civilian mode.
"Sosai-sama, yes... I suppose you have a right to know." His eyes got a faraway look. "Sosai is not from our world, yet he is the one that discovered the danger to our planet, something he even feels partially responsible for, since it was one of his own people who gave Nambu the power he now wields.
"Sosai is my mentor, my friend--his vast knowledge a boon to all--he's the only thing that has stood between the Earth and disaster. We all owe him a lot."
I nodded slowly, not sure if I dared believe all that it seemed he'd just said. Berg's words seemed to imply that Sosai was the power behind the leadership of Galactor. Could something similar to this be in play back home? And what about his allegations that Nambu had gotten the technology for our suits from an alien?
"I'll let you know what he says once he's gotten a chance to look at this data. I doubt that it'll take him more than a few days."
"That'd be great." A few more days--I'd have to wait for a few more days.
Though he hadn't asked for it, I took off my bracelet and handed it back. It felt odd to do it, but I knew it was for the best. This wasn't the time to start making stupid mistakes. "Here, you'd better take this."
Berg's brow shot up. I think I'd actually surprised him. "Yes, thank you. I'd almost forgotten." He smiled warmly as he took it. I smiled back, even though I had the sneaking suspicion that I'd just passed another test. Stranger still, I found myself thinking again that I liked this man, even though his counterpart left much to be desired. I also had the queer thought that the feeling might just be mutual.
As soon as I could, I changed out of my double's clothes back into my jumpsuit. After I'd put the uniform away, I decided to go looking for Kentaro. As luck would have it, he found me before I'd found him.
I turned around and there he was. He wore a half smile as he moved to join me. "Is your business with Berg over? It was good news?"
"Yeah, I think so."
An amused expression took over his face. "Well then, how'd you like to go flying?"
"I'd--I'd love to! But I thought--"
"Don't worry about it. Come on." He moved off leaving me to follow. I wasn't sure exactly how he planned to pull this off, but I eagerly went after him. It'd been days since I'd had a chance to fly.
The visuals were incredibly realistic. The controls responded as if we were in the real thing. Kentaro had found the best simulators I had ever seen. You could just about forget that you weren't out doing the real thing. I wanted to take them home with me. Maybe with these, I could get even Joe to learn to fly properly.
Kentaro took me on a long game of follow the leader. He had the greater experience; I had the better reflexes. Though to be entirely honest, they weren't better by much. By the end of it, we'd come out about even, but I'd had to work for it! I was exhausted by the time we ended it, but was also feeling extremely satisfied with myself. God that felt good.
Kentaro threw his arm about my shoulders when I'd gotten out of the virtual cockpit. "Good job. Very impressive."
I grinned like an idiot. I just couldn't help myself. "Th--thanks. That means a lot coming from you."
He playfully mussed up my hair. I suddenly understood why Elysse had put up with it from Berg.
When we went to dinner, it was immediately obvious that things weren't as they should be. The normal throng was in the cafeteria as usual, but they seemed unusually subdued. The buzz of laughter and conversation that normally permeated the place had been replaced by somber faces and soft whispers. As we made our way through the line, I felt eyes roaming over me. Whenever I turned to look to see who was watching, I noticed that everyone avoided my gaze. I suddenly didn't feel all that hungry anymore.
"Kentaro, has something happened?" I watched him coolly analyze the strange mood in the room as we sat down.
"I don't know. But this is not normal." He looked as troubled about it as I felt.
I was just about to suggest that perhaps we should try and find out when Elysse appeared before us. She looked as somber as everyone else, if not a little nervous. It was a far call from the way she'd been with us before.
"Please excuse me, but Katse-sama wanted to know if you would like to join him for dinner. He apologizes for the short notice, but begs you to indulge his request."Kentaro and I looked at one another and then nodded. Surely Berg would know what was going on.