The Other Side by Maya Perez
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            Leaving our untouched dinners behind, we followed Elysse to the nearest set of elevators.  After an intense security scan, she quickly took us up to the level where I'd gone with Berg before.  The room she took us to wasn't far from his office.

            "Ah, welcome gentlemen.  Come in, come in!"  Berg was all smiles as he moved to greet us by the door.  The room was small but cozy.  A round, cherry wood table sat in the middle of it, with food steaming from the heaping plates there, looking as if they'd just been served.

            "Thank you, Elysse."  I noticed that she still wouldn't look directly at us as she took her leave.  It made me uneasy.

            "Please, sit down and eat before the food gets cold."  Berg sat down on the chair facing the door and served us himself.

            I saw Kentaro throw Berg a questioning look, but the latter did nothing to acknowledge it.  He gave us back our plates, still smiling, and encouraged us to eat our fill.  Something seemed forced about his easy manner.  I didn't know what to make of it.  None of us said much throughout the meal.

            "I realize that this has been somewhat unusual, but there's been an... incident... and I felt it would be better if you heard about it from me before rumors and gossip had blown it way out of proportion."  The Chinese noodles we'd had for dinner turned to rocks in my stomach.

            "It would seem that Nambu didn't take well the fact you weren't rescued, Ken."  Berg's eyes met mine.  They in no way mirrored his light tone.  My blood turned cold.  "In fact, he decided to attack a small scientific outpost in retaliation and has taken all the people there hostage.  He left one of the members there with a specific message to deliver to me."

            My whole body tensed as I anticipated what Berg would say next.

            "It seems he would like to arrange an exchange--you for the lives of the hostages."  His eyes narrowed.  "Of course, this is totally out of the question, and I want to reassure you on that account.  I didn't want you to get the wrong idea about this, so please rest assured that I have no intentions of handing you over to him.  Only a fool would deal with Kozaburo Nambu on his terms."

            "You have to!"  I was on my feet before I realized what I was doing. 

            "I can't.  There's no choice in the matter."  Berg's eyes were hard.  Kentaro nodded in agreement.

            I felt my face grow hot.  "You can't let those people die for me.  I'm sure we can arrange this so that we can get them out.  That we can trick him into it, or just hand me over to him and I'll try to get myself out.  You have to at least try!  My life is not worth theirs."  The thought of being handed over to Nambu made my knees weak, but rather that than have those people's death on my conscience.

            "It's not possible.  I can't take the risk.  You've seen too much, you know too much.  And there's no guarantee Nambu would make good on his word.  I can't give in to terrorists.  I can't afford to if the Earth is to be saved."

            I looked into his eyes and saw that he was not to be argued with.  Though he hadn't moved, I could feel the tension radiating from him.  There were rigid lines around his eyes and mouth.  He didn't like this anymore than I did, but he wasn't going to do anything about it.

            I felt an anger rise in me I wasn't sure I could control.  Behind it lay other things I really didn't want to look at too closely, like feelings of guilt, frustration, and even a little relief.  What could I say?  It didn't seem there were many options at this point.  It seemed Berg felt that he could live with his conscience at the deaths of those people.  Could I?

            I stomped out of the room before I did or said something I might regret later.  I knew they had my best interest at heart that they wanted me to be safe, but what right did I have to that?  Ever since I'd landed in this world I seemed to have caused nothing but death and misery.  The scientists Nambu had captured were innocents--they had nothing to do with why I was here.  Something had to be done.  They couldn't just be allowed to die.

            I punched the button to summon the elevator with my fist trying to vent some of the frustration that was still building inside me. 

            "Ken, wait!"

            I turned away from Kentaro's voice not wanting to see him.  As soon as the elevator doors opened, I stepped inside.  My knuckles throbbed.  I punched the button for my floor.

            There was no question that I had to do something.  The problem now was what.  I had to stop being Ken Washio and act more like Gatchaman.  There had to be a weakness to this place.  Something I could exploit to get myself out.

            I was halfway to my room when an idea came to me.  I wasn't sure if I could make it work, but I could think of nothing else to try.  It had to work.

            I turned around and moved back to the main hall and its mural.  According to Berg, this base would be very much like any other.  Behind that mural should be a set of escape chutes.  The fastest and easiest way out of here would be through them.

            I looked carefully about the room looking for any of the tell-tale patches of off-colored squares.  Surely Berg wouldn't leave something this important under the strict control of a computer--I was betting that his cautious nature would have had him install somekind of manual override.  Ah, there!  I quickly pressed on the square and out popped a set of controls.

            "Hey, what are you--"

            I pressed the button to raise the mural wall and raced for one of the chutes.  Lights blinked behind me even as a klaxon burst loudly overhead.  I jumped in and never looked back.

            Only as the protective bubble snapped around me did I dare let any doubts sneak into my thoughts.  Subconsciously, I rubbed at my bare wrist, missing my band, my uniform but knowing that it was probably best to go without them.  If Berg was right, and Nambu could not be dealt with, at least I wouldn't be giving him the suit so that he could just give it to another.

            The chute stopped in a large warehouse.  Sure that there would be somekind of pursuit, I wove in and out of its contents looking for a way out.  As quickly as I could, I put as much distance between me and the warehouse as I could manage.

            The dark city I found myself in didn't look familiar.  That didn't make much of a difference though, I only had one goal in mind.  I would trade myself for the hostages...

            I had no money with me, so I kept my eyes open for a hotel.  Once I found one, I strolled in as if I had every right to be there and then searched the lobby for a courtesy phone.  I didn't have much trouble finding one.

            "Operator.  May I help you?"

            "Yes, I need to place an emergency collect call."

            "Could I have the number and your name please?"

            I gave them to her.  I wasn't sure if the number would work in this reality, but I had nothing else to go on at the moment.  It was Nambu's office number at Crescent Coral.

            I heard a number of clicks come over the line as the call went through a myriad of switch boxes specifically set up to keep the call from being traced.  It finally rang.

            click

            "This is Nambu."  The familiar voice sent a quiver down my spine.

            "Hakase, this is Ken.  I've been set free in order to be exchanged for the hostages."

            "Where are you?"

            I hesitated.  "I'm, I'm not really sure.  At the moment I'm in the lobby of a Courtyard hotel, but I don't know what city it's in."

            "Give me the number."  I wasn't sure if the curt tone was unusual--I didn't know this Nambu at all.  I gave him the number.

            "Hold for a moment."  Dead silence kept me company for about a minute and a half.  "There's an ISO facility close to your location.  A car will be sent to you to pick you up."

            "Roger."

            The line went dead.  It didn't do much for my confidence.  There was something about the way that things were going I didn't like at all.

            Having no real choice, I waited in the lobby, staying out of sight yet with a clear view to the door and the parking lot beyond.  After about twenty minutes, a black limousine pulled up to the front.  My heart skipped a beat as I had the sudden thought that it might be Berg's.  It wasn't.  A man wearing an ISO security uniform got out of the driver's seat.  My ride was here.  Hoping I was doing the right thing, I moved out to meet him.

            As soon as the driver spotted me, he opened the door to the limo and then stepped back a safe distance away until I'd climbed inside.  He pushed the door shut.  I couldn't help but notice that the privacy screen between the driver's and passengers's area was up--it was black-and so were the windows.  I couldn't see out and no one could see in.  Just as the thought trickled through, the doors made an audible click as they were remotely locked.  It looked like Nambu didn't want to take any chances with me.

            The drive seemed long and made me restless.  It was too quiet in the limo.  What was Kentaro thinking of me about now?

            The limo came to a stop and the doors unlocked.  Before I could do anything, both doors were yanked open and five machine gun barrels poked in in greeting.

            "Please get out on this side, Mr. Washio."

            I complied, not feeling good about the situation but determined not to let them know it.  Ten men had the side I got out on surrounded, their guns pointed directly at me at point blank range.  The air reeked of nervousness and it wasn't mine.  A number of the guards looked afraid enough they might just go ahead and pull the trigger.  I wondered what my double had done to instill such fear in his own people.  After a moment, I decided I didn't really want to know.  I made myself stand very still.

            "Mr. Washio, the doctor left some explicit instructions for your care, so please do as we ask so that we won't have to kill you."  The short man wouldn't meet my gaze.  Everyone seemed even more nervous than before. 

            Obviously Nambu expected some kind of duplicity on Berg's part.  I was also sure that by now he had gotten the reports from the others as to my odd behavior.  I was probably not to be trusted.

            "We'll need to put these on you, sir.  Please cooperate."  The short leader held up sets of wrist, arm, and ankle restraints.  This was starting to look worse by the minute.  I forced myself to stay still as they gingerly put them on.

            "We have a truck waiting... Dr. Nambu wants to see you as soon as possible."

            I glanced in the direction he pointed.  There was a small U-Haul truck with the door up--a traveling prison.  Great.

            I hobbled over to the truck and had to be helped up into the empty interior.  As soon as I was inside, they brought the door down and locked it.  I was left in total darkness.  I heard the truck's motor come to life and fell down as it abruptly lurched forward.

            The U-Haul was cold and uncomfortable and so were the restraints.  I pushed myself over into a corner and tried to relax as well as I could under the circumstances.  If they were taking me to Crescent Coral, as I suspected they were, it was going to be a long trip.

            I was nice and battered by the time the truck drove into the belly of an airplane.  I fell asleep out of sheer boredom and exhaustion somewhere in the interim.

            I awoke as the plane bounced onto a runway.  The U-Haul's motor started up again and we were soon on our way once more.  Well, whatever fate awaited me, it would probably soon be over--I was sure we were almost there. 

            The truck stopped and my stomach tried to rise into my throat as the U-Haul suddenly dropped.  My teeth jarred as we came to a stop.  My ears were still ringing as the U-Haul got underway again.  I heard a heavy door slam shut somewhere outside.

            The U-Haul stopped and then shut down.  I felt my empty stomach tighten.  Doubts nibbled at me from the back of my mind, but I shut them out.  There was nothing I could do about any of it anymore.

            I guessed that I must be inside some type of transport ship especially when I heard the sound of metal against metal.  The U-Haul started up again and quickly rolled out.  I struggled to get on my feet, sure that it would be only a matter of minutes before I would be greeted.  The truck stopped.  I cold hear the sound of muffled voices just outside. 

            The latch clicked as it was turned and then the door rose upwards.  Bright light invaded the darkness blinding me.  I turned partially away, my eyes burning, even as I heard the sounds of someone climbing inside.  I blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the light, to see who had come for me.

            I stepped forward even as a part of me noticed the doctor's stiff pose and the raging anger in his eyes.  "Hakase..." Before I could say anything else, the back of his hand whipped out and smashed against the side of my face.  The blow caught me totally off guard.  I went down.

            I stared at Nambu in shock, my cheek still tingling.  He glowered down at me.

            "Where is your uniform?  Your bracelet?  How dare you come back without them!  You're nothing to me without them."   His foot reared back to strike me, I couldn't move.

            "Hakase, don't!"  Jun leapt into the U-Haul followed closely by the others.  I felt a tinge of guilt as I noticed her bandaged shoulder and her arm in a sling.  "He's not himself.  We don't know what they've done to him.  He can't be held responsible!"  Jun bodily placed herself between us.  It made me feel even worse about what I had done to her than I had before.  It didn't matter that I'd had every reason to stop her, that she'd been killing innocent people, for despite what I'd done, she was here, now, protecting me.

            Nambu hesitated as he seemed to consider Jun's words.  His face cleared.  "Yes, yes, you're absolutely right."  He smiled brightly down at me for a moment before turning toward the others.  "Joe, help your commander to his feet."

            "With pleasure."  Joe sauntered over to me and drew me up by the arms.  I tried not to wince as he did so, glad to get on my feet again.  I noticed his eyes roaming over me an odd look on his face.  I didn't like it, but I couldn't afford the time now to try and figure out what it meant.

            "Hakase, what about, what about the hostages?"

            Nambu turned to face me with a raised eyebrow.  "They're dead, of course.  They had no real value, so what was the point?"

            I felt my whole body go numb...  Berg had been right after all...  I should have never come here.  I'd most likely just blown my only chance to get home.

            "Joe, take him to Braun.  I want him checked out immediately.  Tell Braun to figure out what has been done to him and how to reverse it or he'll have to deal with me."

            "Whatever you say, Nambu-baby." 

            Joe leered at me, but I barely noticed.  I'd made a terrible mistake and it looked as if I might just have to pay for it.  I was as good as dead if I remained here.  And if I didn't find a way out before Braun got through with me and discovered that I was all right--it would all be over.  I'd have to keep alert and watch for my chance.  Unfortunately, Joe decided to make my job a lot harder about then.

            "Ken, I wanted to give you a little something for the nice thing you did for me the other day."

            I saw the punch coming, but had no way to try and avoid it.  I doubled over reeling in pain, but he caught me before I could hit the floor.  With a hearty laugh, he lifted me up and threw me over his shoulder.

            "Way to go, aniki!"  Jinpei and Ryu both chuckled as he carried me past.  I refused to look in their direction.  Jun followed after us.

            "Don't worry, Ken.  Dr. Braun will get you back to your old self in no time."

            "Yeah, and then, it'll be our turn."  The others laughed even harder at Joe's comment.

            I stubbornly stared at the floor and the back of Joe's legs as he deftly carried me along.  We left the others behind.  I stiffened as I felt his hand pat my rear.

            "You know, maybe it would be okay if we made a side trip for a little while.  It's not like I see you trussed up everyday.  And no one would have to know."  Joe chuckled evilly even as his hand reached over to caress the inside of my thigh.

            A wave of revulsion swept through me at his words and actions.  I thrashed on his shoulder, and spoke before I realized what I was doing.  "Move your fucking hand!" 

            "Whatever you say, commander."  His hand moved from my thigh to other places. I cursed at him thrashing even harder wanting to do nothing more than pound his face to shreds against the floor.  Joe laughed merrily, my resistance only making him that much more eager.

            With all I could muster, I forced myself to go limp.  If he did take me somewhere, regardless of the reason, I might just get the chance I was looking for to try and escape.  I didn't let myself think about what might happen to me if I didn't find a way to get free.

            Despite my resolve and Joe's earlier words, when we got off the elevator, I found myself in the medical section of the base.

            "Where's Braun?"  Joe's request came across as more of a bark than a question.

            "In his office, where else would he be?"  The nurse gave back as good as she got.

            Joe turned and headed down the hall.  As we moved, I worked one more time at trying to find a weakness in my bonds but found nothing just as before.  The wrist restraints were set too tightly on my wrists for me to try and dislocate my thumbs to squeeze my hand through.  The upper arm restraints had shut out any chance of at least manipulating my arms to the front of my body.  And at the moment, I couldn't even attempt to reach my feet.

            Joe's body shifted beneath me and then I hear a loud crash--Joe had kicked Braun's door open.

            "Condor, how many times have I asked you not to do that?"  Braun sounded livid.  I wasn't particularly sure that was a good thing.

            "Chill, Doc.  I've brought a patient for you.  Nambu wants you to find out what's wrong with him and then fix it or else."  There was a tone of glee lacing Joe's words that I wasn't sure what to make of.  "So, where do you want him?  And can I watch?"

            "Interruptions! Always interruptions."

            "What are you complaining about?  Didn't Nambu give you all those scientists to play with?  Weren't they any fun?"  The non-challant way in which Joe talked about the torture and murder of those innocent people made me bristle with anger.  I wanted nothing more than to slam his face into the hard tile floor.  How could such cold-blooded bastards exist?

            "Yes, they were quite nice, but I've yet to finish tabulating all the data on the experiments I ran on them.  Couldn't you give him to one of the other to play with?"

            Joe patted my rear again and I stiffened, but made myself stay still.  "Sorry, hakase asked specifically for you.  And what Nambu-baby wants, he'd better get or else."

            I heard Braun sigh.  "Fine, I understand.  Bring him along."

            Joe turned to follow the doctor out of the office and I looked up trying to see if we'd come close to anything I might be able to grab hold of that might be of use to me--nothing.  On the desk across the room, I noticed that Braun's strange tools were once more spread about the top of it.  I looked away, my stomach feeling ill, as I realized that a number of them looked as if they'd been recently used.

            "Drop him off over there.  Face down."

            Joe heaved me over onto an examination table and I landed on my arms.  I grimaced at the pain but didn't cry out.  Joe was smiling at me with devilish intent.  "Okay, Commander, you heard the doctor, upsy-daisy."  He roughly turned me over onto my stomach, while caressing places I'd rather not think about.  If I ever got out of this...

            "Thank you, Condor.  Now get out!"

            I felt Joe's warm breath come close to my ear.  "I really do like you this way.  I think I'll sneak in here and have at you tonight."

            I squeezed my eyes shut and said nothing.  I wasn't about to give him any encouragement either way.  Playfully, he ran his hand slowly down my back and pinched my rear.  I wanted to do nothing more than tear him limb from limb.  It took all I had not to scream out in frustration.  His soft laughter lingered about the room as he made his way out.

            After Joe had gone, I heard Braun moving quietly about so I tried talking to him.  He totally ignored me.  That looked like one avenue I would not be able to pursue. 

            "Stay still."  I stiffened at Braun's touch, even as he moved my hair and then held my head to the side.  He was behind me so I couldn't see what he was doing, but I felt him dab something cold onto the side of my neck.  This was soon followed by a rather painful stab.  Braun removed the needle after several seconds and then pressed something sticky onto the side of my neck. 

            I heard Braun walk away and the hum of motors as machinery was turned on around the room.  I turned my head trying to get a look at what he was up to.  Yet, even as I did so, the examining table was moved and slid into a dark opening.

            "Stay still or you'll ruin the scan!"  Braun's voice burned with his impatience.

            "I'd be more cooperative if you would remove these restraints."

            Braun didn't answer.  I sighed and hoped fervently that something would turn my way soon.

            After about ten minutes, Braun switched off the equipment and pulled me out.  From that point, he inspected every inch of me.  I didn't enjoy this at all, but there wasn't much I could do about it.  When he was through, I heard him sigh softly and then he left the room.  I could tell that he was getting closer to figuring out that nothing had been done to me.  I was running out of time--I had to get out now.

            I lifted my feet up and over as close as I could to my hands.  The bar that kept my feet apart was linked to metal cuffs.  I found the hole for the key, and they felt small--probably about the same size as handcuff keys.  Hopefully that meant that they'd be as easy to unlock.  Now all I had to do was find something to pick them with.

            I swung my legs off the examining table and quickly got off.  I did a search of the room with my eyes looking for anything that would suit my current needs.  On a small counter off to the right was a tray of wrapped needles and injectors.  I shuffled over to them as fast as I could, not sure when Braun would return. 

            I stuck myself three times just trying to get the wrapper off the needle and another two trying to grab it afterwards.  I knelt down on the floor giving my hands as good a reach to the cuffs as I could.  After several tries, the one on the right gave an audible click.  I shook my ankle out of it and started to work on the other one.  I stood back up as soon as the second one had come loose.

            I'd just reached my feet when the door opened.  Braun took two steps into the room, holding a tray full of strange instruments, before he noticed that I was not where I should be.

            Before he could react, I ran and crashed into him with all the speed and force I could muster.  He slammed into the wall and dropped like a rock.

            Ignoring him, I quickly took a look out into the hall to make sure that no one had heard what had gone on inside.  I then checked Braun to make sure he looked like he was going to be out for a while, before leaving the room and locking the door behind me.  I headed toward his office.

            Once there, I headed straight for his desk.  Ignoring the dried blood that was still visible on a number of them, I reached for the sharpest looking tool he had there and holding it up between my tied wrists started to work on my bonds.

            Several minutes later, I was able to cut through the restraint and pull my wrists's free.  Twisting my right arm as far as I could, I worked on the arm restraints next.  In another couple of minutes, I was free again.  Now all I had to do was find a way out of the base.  The easiest thing would be to sneak into one of Crescent Coral's outbound subs.  I started off in the direction of the bays.

            I had sneaked my way down several levels when the sound of alarms inundated the halls.  Damn.  Things would be harder now.

            I continued toward my goal using access corridors and shafts to make my way.  My speed decreased by a great deal as I was forced to avoid the security teams that had been sent out to track me down.  It wouldn't be hard for any of them to figure out where I was going.  Though all traffic out of the base would be stopped, the subs were still about the only way to leave.  No matter how I looked at it, I was trapped and they knew it--it was only a matter of time before they found me, but damn if I was going to make it easy for them!

            Then it struck me--there might be one actual way to get out.  Yes, none of the subs could make their way out of the closed bays, but there was one ship here that could.  One ship whose loss might just help make up for the lives that had been lost because of me--The God Phoenix!

            I changed directions and started off toward the main dock area.

            The bay was filled with security guards, yet with a little patience and stealth I was slowly able to sidle my way to the ship.

            The lower hatch was up, so to get inside I'd have no choice but to go through the top.  That was the tricky part, because when I did so, I would be leaving myself exposed.  I'd have to time it just right...

            I made it over the top and onto the platform.  It automatically lowered me into the inside of the ship.  I'd find out soon enough if anyone had seen me.  With any luck, it wouldn't do them any good if they had.  I ran to the lift and used it to get to the bridge.  Everything there was quiet.  Maybe I'd be able to pull this off after all.

            "Hold it right there, aniki."

            I turned away from the navigation controls at the sound of the familiar voice.  "Jinpei."

            His young, angular face was filled with a confident grin.  He had a gun pointed in my direction.  "I just knew you'd come here, aniki.  I knew I'd be the one to find you."

            His certainty shook me a little but I tried not to show it.  There was an intensity to his gaze that gave me the willies.

            "You've always dismissed me because I'm too young.  Well now I'll be able to prove to everyone that I know what I'm doing.  Even hakase will have to admit to it."

            "Yes, you're right.  You did figure out where I was going, even when the others couldn't."  I took a slow step forward.  I was hoping to be able to get close enough to catch him off guard.  "I should have noticed this in you before."  Just a couple more...

            "That's far enough, aniki!  I know all about what you did to Joe and Neechan.  I'm not going to be that stupid.  I know you'll reward me for this as soon as Braun fixes what's been done to you."

            I leapt forward knowing that there was no way I could reach him in time.  Jinpei squeezed the trigger.  A dart embedded itself in my shoulder as I batted him aside.  I stumbled into the lift not sure if he had others.  My only hope lay in reaching the medical room--there might be an antidote there to whatever he'd hit me with.  I had to hurry.

            When the lift stopped, the room was spinning around me.  I clung to the wall, forcing myself forward as a wave of nausea washed over me.  Just a few more feet.  Come on, come on!

            I was desperately gasping for air before I'd made it ten feet down the hall.  My arms and legs had turned numb.  I could see my goal before me except it suddenly turned sideways.  I barely felt it as I slammed onto the floor.  I tried to get up but found that I could no longer move.  The hall spun about me faster and faster.  A black haze appeared at the edge of my vision and worked its way inwards.  Soon there was nothing left but darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

            I regained consciousness as I noticed a constant pounding ringing in my ears.  I opened my eyes to try and see where it was coming from only to realize that it was from the inside of my head.  I jerked my eyes closed as the pounding suddenly turned painful.  I tried to bring my hand over to rub my temples but it was jerked back as I brought it forward.  I made myself open my eyes again.

            The light in the room was dim, barely bright enough to see by.  Cold metal walls stared at me barely six feet from one another.  I was laying on what looked to be a thin cot.  My arms were cuffed at the wrists and linked to a chain that was bolted to the wall.  Another chain linked my wrists to a metal collar around my neck.  Cuffs had been placed on my ankles as well, holding them apart by a thick metal bar.

            I tried to sit up and immediately regretted it.  The pounding in my head got three times worse and the room spun around me.  I forced my head to rest between my knees until these feelings subsided a bit.  To hurry it along, I took deep, long breaths and tried centering myself.  It was only then that I noticed the putrefying stench of the place.  The cell had no facilities except for a couple of gullies running down either side.  The floor was littered with brown splotches and other dried marks.  The cot itself smelled of sweat and fear. 

            I was on the prison level...  They'd obviously decided not to take any more chances with me.  I'd blown it...  Probably for the last time...  How could I have been so stupid?

            The stench and I kept each other company as the hours passed by.  Had they already figured out that there was nothing wrong with me and were just going to leave me here to rot?  My stomach rumbled noisily.  I told it to be quiet; I doubted anything would be coming for it soon.  I wasn't wrong.

            I'd fallen into a light doze when the sound of the cell's door opening brought me totally awake.  I rose to my feet, my chains clanking together, even as I tried to see who had come.

            "Well, well, nice to see you awake, Washio."  Braun walked in followed by two guards.  I noticed a purpling bruise on the right hand side of his face.  I didn't have to think hard to realize where it had come from.  "You gave everyone quite an exciting time.  Be reassured though that we won't be giving you a chance for a repeat performance."  He signaled for the two guards to come forward.  "Restrain him."

            The two men moved to do as they'd been told.

            I considered fighting them, but dropped the idea because it would get me nowhere.  Even if I somehow managed to overpower them, I still wouldn't be able to get loose from the chains.  The two guards roughly grabbed my arms and forced me to sit down on the cot.  They didn't look too happy to be here.

            "I've been going over your test results and have been having a few problems.  You see, I'm having a hard time finding anything wrong with you.  That has got to change...  Nambu doesn't take well to failure.  I'm sure you understand."  His expression told me that it didn't matter whether I did or not.

            "As you know, Nambu is not what any of us would call a patient man, and he is rather eager to find out how they were able to change you so quickly.  It occurred to me that maybe the best way to find out was just to ask."  He moved closer his eyes glinting.  "Of course, I don't expect that you'll answer my questions willingly...  That's why I brought these along."  A third guard entered pushing in a small cart.  On it was Braun's velvet sheet and all his shinning instruments.

            "Nambu won't stand for this."

            Braun smiled.   It had no warmth whatsoever.

            "Oh, he will.  Especially if it means that I can get from you the means that would allow him to easily turn prisoners into his puppets in just days.  Oh yes, he will."

            I swallowed hard, my body tensing.  Braun was serious, and if what I had seen of Nambu was any indication, he was probably right as well.  I felt a coil of fear wrap itself around my heart.  The only way out of this would be to give him what he wanted--except no such information existed!  And telling him the truth would be no better.  Not only would it not get me out here, but it might give Nambu the notion of trying to get to this other world because it might be even easier to exploit than this one.

            "Here, we'll start with something easy."  I saw his hand reach up to caress his growing bruise.  "Let's touch up your face a bit."  Braun studiously picked up a corkscrew looking implement.  My blood turned cold.  I had to find a way to get out of here.  He brought it toward me.

            "No!"

            I bashed my head into the face of the guard on my left even as I threw my elbow in the opposite direction and caught the other guard on the shoulder.  I heard something crack.

            "Stop him!  I don't have time for this."

            The first guard fell to the floor, his nose bleeding and his gaze unfocused.  The second was still on the cot, at the moment howling with pain.  I stood up, hoping to try and reach Braun's tray and possibly gain a means to removing my chains.  I'd barely taken a step, when the third guard threw himself at me.  We both crashed onto the cot.  My head hit the back wall and the breath was knocked out of me.  Everything in the room tried to go dark.

            "Use the hooks, fools!  Get him down or you'll be next on my table!"  Braun kicked the man on the floor with the glazed eyes.

            Something hit me on the side of the head.  I tried to focus my eyes and move, but my body wasn't cooperating.  My wrists got dragged over my head to one end of the cot, my feet shoved to the other.  There was a sound of metal against metal.

            "There's really no need to make this any harder than necessary, Washio.  If you cooperate, it'll be through before you know it.  And who knows, you might even like it."

            I tried to get up, to get free, but got nowhere.  As my eyesight continued to spin, I was able to make out the fact that there was a hook holding the bar between my ankles holding it down.  I was sure the same had been done to my wrists.  I was helpless, and with that realization came a frantic bolt of fear.  "Let me out of here!"

            Braun was smiling as he came to loom over me.  He had the look of an eager child about to play his favorite game.  "It's such a pity that I'll have to mar your pretty face..." His eyes told me differently.  "Don't worry though, Tessa can do wonders with plastic surgery, and we'll get you over to her as soon as we are through."

            I tried frantically to jerk my way loose, but two of the guards piled down on top of me denying me even that much movement.

            I glared at Braun as he came closer despite my fear, determined not to give him any kind of satisfaction.  Braun snickered loudly as if the defiance only made his job that much sweeter.  He held my face down on the side and as I tried to fight him, there was a pinprick of pain against my right cheek.

            The floor trembled.  The prick of pain abruptly moved away.

            "What's going on?" 

            The whole room rocked.  The dim light flickered off an on.  Sirens started screaming overhead. 

            "You, go find out what's happening!"  Braun kicked the still partially glazed guard toward the door.

            He'd not gotten two steps outside the cell before he was flung back inside.  He smashed into Braun's cart spilling its polished contents to the floor.  The other two guards leapt over him and ran for the door.  One, and then the other, fell back inside, both with identical deadly holes in their foreheads.  The cell shook again.  Braun screamed and fell back as if to reach for me.  A red blur rushed in and smacked him to the ground.  Braun moved no more.

            "Ken, are you all right?"

            Kentaro's masked face hovered over mine.  I'd never felt so relieved in all my life.  "You found me!"  I just couldn't quite bring myself to believe it.  He smiled lopsidedly down at me as he reached up past my head.

            "It wasn't all that hard.  I have connections here at Crescent Coral, so it didn't take all that much for me to find where it had gone.  As for finding you inside, that Berg's doing.  He removed the radioactive material from your boot, but left the transmitter in case he might ever need it.  I warned you that he tends to be a little paranoid."

            The room shook.  There was the sound of far off explosions.

            "We've got to hurry.  It doesn't look like we've got much time left.  Berg's outside giving the base a hard time.  I think he might be doing just too good a job."  He helped me sit up.  I wave of nausea washed over me but I forced myself to stay still.  God it was good to see him again!

            Kentaro left me for a moment and quickly searched the bodies of the guards.  "Damn, nothing.  I was afraid of that.  Oh well, don't worry I came prepared."  He pulled out a vial from a small pouch at his side.

            "This will burn the lock out, but you'll need to get your wrist out of the way before it burns through to your skin."  I nodded.

            With great care, Kentaro unstopped the vial and almost dropped it as the room gave a large lurch to the right.  "Get ready."

            Gold liquid poured into the lock and instantly the latter began to hiss.  I pulled as best I could against the clamp until my wrist finally came free.  We followed the same procedure on the other ones.  My extremities started tingling painfully as unobstructed blood flow was resumed.  I tried to stand but my legs wouldn't hold.  Kentaro caught me before I hit the floor.  The room shook.

            "I'm sorry."

            "It's all right."

            I looked up at him and suddenly felt guilty at the fact that I was being saved.  "They're all dead.  Berg was right."

            "I know."  He gave me a sad yet reassuring smile.  "Here, put your arm across my shoulder.  We have to try to hurry or we might never get out of here."

            Kentaro half-helped half-dragged me out of the cell and then made our way toward the emergency stairs.  We went up.

            The base trembled and threw us to the side almost sending me over the rail.  Kentaro grabbed hold of me and we continued up.

            My ears popped.  The pressure inside the structure was changing.  Crescent Coral was taking in water.  Trying to ignore my aches and continued dizziness, I forced myself to go faster.

            Kentaro opened the door out of the stairwell.  I followed, a little more steady than before, but confused at his choice.  We were nowhere near the bay level--why were we getting off here?

            Kentaro was forced to shoot three men that decided to get in his way.  The still screaming siren and echoing explosions hid the noise of the shots.  The base trembled again, but this time it didn't stop.  We ran.

            "In here!"

            Kentaro threw a door open and pulled me inside.  There was an armed man in the room with a patch over one eye.  I thought Kentaro would shoot him, but he did nothing of the kind.  It was then that recognition hit me.  "Oniishi!"

            The guard turned to look at me a startled look on his face.  Though in my world, the man had lost his voice from having his throat cut rather than lost an eye, I would have recognized him anywhere.  He'd once helped to save my life.  It looked like he was about to do so again.

            "Took you long enough, Kentaro.  I was starting to worry."  Oniishi hurried to the other side of the room, the living quarters for an officer, and pulled down a large wall hanging.  A pressure sealed hatch lay revealed on the other side.  Oniishi quickly opened the hatch and herded us inside.  He came in last and closed the hatch behind him.

            "Sorry about that.  I think Berg has gotten a little carried away with his diversion."

            "Yeah.  Just a little." Oniishi smiled.  I found a small grin growing on my face at the sight.

            Kentaro led me to a seat next to his and I strapped in.  The ship detached from the side of Crescent Coral and dropped.  As soon as it hit ocean bottom, it took off away from the base.  Through one of the portholes, I caught a glimpse of Crescent Coral as we left it behind.  Several of its main struts had either been bent or destroyed.  Dark gaping holes littered the lower levels.  It was a sight I'd never hoped to see.

            "Oniishi, send Berg the signal."

            "Right-o!"  To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the sound of Oniishi's voice.  "The signal's been given and acknowledged.  Let's just hope we get them this time."

            Oniishi's words sent a shiver down my spine.  We'd not gone much further when the small sub was rocked by a massive shock wave.  I didn't need anyone to tell me that Crescent Coral was no more.  Images of Joe and the others floating dead in bloodied waters flashed through my mind.  I suddenly found it hard to breathe.

            "Ken, are you all right?"

            I nodded quickly, not trusting myself to speak.  I should have felt happy, happy that this world might have just been liberated from a great evil, but I couldn't.  What if something like this was happening in my own world as well?

            "If you're worried about your teammates on this world, don't be.  They're very hard to get rid off, so I pretty much doubt we got that lucky today.  Though this should give Nambu pause next time he decides he wants to try and blackmail Berg."

            I looked away feeling guilty that my concerns were so obvious.  "If, if you could always find out where Cres--the base was, why didn't you have it destroyed before now?"

            Kentaro shrugged.  This time he was the one to look away.  "Like I said, they're almost impossible to get rid of and we could never be quite sure of having them all in the same place at the same time.  And there were other reasons..."

            He didn't look as if he wanted the subject discussed further, so I didn't push it.  I could feel Oniishi's eyes studying us from the back.

            After about an hour, the small sub sank down to the bottom of the ocean floor and stopped.  Within minutes, a humongous sea anemone appeared before us.  The sub rose up to meet it.

            "Our ride's here." Oniishi's tone was cheerful.  I felt quite the opposite.

            I had caused Berg and his people a lot of trouble during my stay so far--this being but the latest on a long list.  Everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours and more all caught up to me at once.  I doubt I'd ever felt so tired.  The last thing I wanted to do now was to have to confirm to Berg that even more people had died because of me.

            When the sub docked inside, I got up with the others determined to face my medicine with as much grace as possible.

            A medical team converged on me the moment I hit the deck.  The nurses and doctors badgered me into a wheelchair and then carted me off without a word to anyone.  I never even saw Berg.  I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

            I fell into an exhausted doze somewhere amidst the test and scans the doctors assured me were absolutely necessary.  When I woke, I found myself tucked in a nice comfortable bed in what looked to be some sort of hospital room.  I found Kentaro sitting in a low chair, seemingly asleep.  Looking to my right, I found Berg leaning against the door frame staring at my father's double intently.  He stopped as soon as he noticed that I was awake.  Quietly, he walked on over to the side of my bed.  "How are you feeling?"

            "All right."  We kept our voices low.

            "The doctors's say that you only have a mild concussion.  You should be fine as long as you get plenty of rest and don't overdo things."  Berg seemed genuinely concerned about me.  It brought my previous feelings of guilt screaming back like a ton of falling bricks.

            "I--I want to apologize to you.  What I did, what I did was wrong..." I stared at my hands not wanting to lose my nerve.  "Things are different here than at home.  I should have deferred to your judgment.  I'm sorry for all the trouble I've caused you."

            "You're definitely your father's son."  I looked up into his strangely delicate face, surprised at the strange answer.  He was smiling at me.  "I would have been concerned if you'd just taken my word for it and considered the topic closed.  Yes, you did react in a rather quick and unexpected way, but the right feelings were there.  I couldn't have asked for more."

            I felt myself blushing though I wasn't exactly sure why I was doing it.  Maybe I actually cared about what the Berg Katse of this world thought about me.  Who would have ever guessed at such a thing?

            After another day of more sleep and rest, I was eventually released in Kentaro's care.  Berg went back to trying to find a way to send me home.  And though there was no immediate retaliation for the destruction of Crescent Coral, Berg assured us that his informants had verified the fact that Nambu and the others had escaped.  My feelings were quite mixed over the whole affair.

            Kentaro and I spent almost all our time together over the next day and a half.  The hours just seemed to fly by.  But always in the back of my mind was the fact that I might soon be going home.  Now that there was a chance I would no longer be the ISO's main concern, I found myself wishing there was away to slow down time and keep that moment from coming.

            We were sparing in one of the matted rooms one afternoon, when Berg found us.  Kentaro spotted him first.

            "Berg!  Why don't you join us.  Ken needs more of a challenge."

            I leaned against the wall trying to catch my breath.  I shook my head slowly, in no way feeling that I wasn't already being challenged enough. 

            Berg quickly declined the invitation.  "I have enough trouble when I spar with one Washio.  I'm not insane enough to try and go against two."

            Kentaro laughed.  All I could work up was a grin.  Then I felt Berg's eyes on me.  My sweat turned cold.  I pushed my wet hair out of my face and looked up at him.  I suddenly knew why he was here.

            "Ken, I have news."  I slid down to the floor and sat down.  "The information you gave me the other day was exactly what Sosai had been looking for.  He thinks that he'll be able to get you home."

            "That's great."  My face looked right, my words sounded right, but I found that I really was feeling nothing at all.  I glanced over at Kentaro and found him looking at me.  His face was guarded.  "When, when will I leave?"

            "I believe that we should be ready to try it by tomorrow."  I noticed that Berg's gaze kept drifting in Kentaro's direction.  "Right now, I'm having the trap reconstructed into a portable version.  Sosai feels that the best chance for success will occur by recreating all this at the original site of the incident.

            "I'll let you know when we'll leave as soon as things get a little more finalized.  All right?"

            I forced myself to get up.  "Yes, that's fine.  Thank you, thank you very much."

            Berg glanced at Kentaro again.  "Don't mention it.  I'll see you." 

            He left.

            The room got too quiet.  I tried to make myself say something, anything, but nothing would come.

            "Well, we should go out and celebrate the good news, don't you think?  It won't be long now."  Kentaro seemed awfully happy for me.  Why couldn't I?

            That night, I couldn't sleep.  I stared at the ceiling feeling incredibly guilty.  The perfect mood of the last couple of days had left with Berg's announcement.  I doubted I'd said more than ten words to anyone all evening.  There I was, stupidly ruining the last few hours I'd ever get to spend with Kentaro and I couldn't stop it!  What was wrong with me?  The man had given me a great gift--I'd been able to experience what life might have been like if my father had lived--and this was how I repaid him for that?  I was going home for Pete's sake.  Why did I feel nothing?

            The questions went round and round but I couldn't come up with any answers.  Eventually, I just gave up on sleep and played more games on the computer.  I kept at it until my mind numbed and I felt exhausted enough to sleep.

            A knock at the door brought me awake.  I sat up momentarily disoriented.  I stumbled out of bed to go answer the door.  It was Berg.

            "Ah, you are here.  Kentaro said that he'd yet to see you this morning."

            I felt a touch of panic. "Wha--what time is it?"

            "It's almost nine."  He smiled.  "Don't worry, you haven't missed anything."

            I felt myself blush.  "Ah, come in, come in.  I'll just be a minute."  Berg did just that.

            I tried to put him out of my mind as I fished for my double's clothes and rushed into the bathroom.  I hurried to clean up and get dressed.

            Berg was lounging easily in one of the chairs, typing into palm computer, when I got out.  He shut the computer off when he saw me come out.  "Ready?"

            I hesitated.  "I--I know you've done a great deal for me already... but, I'd , I'd like to ask for one more thing if I may."  I could feel my shoulders twinge from my pent up tension.

            "Of course, what do you need?"

            My throat was dry as I opened my mouth because I knew I had no right to ask, but I really wanted, needed this.  "Would it be possible, if he agreed to it, for Kentaro to be allowed to come with us?"  I half hoped he'd refuse.  Where we were going might turn out to be dangerous, especially if Nambu had been able to put enough of the pieces together, and I couldn't bear the thought that he might get hurt because of me.  At the same time, I wanted nothing more than for him to be there.

            Berg burst out in laughter.  "It's already done!  I doubt I could keep him from coming even if I wanted to."  He appeared really amused by the whole thing.  Now that it was out of my hands, I felt my tension ease a bit.

            Kentaro was waiting for us by the elevator.  He had his Red Impulse uniform back on, his helmet sitting in the crook of his arm.  He greeted me heartily and then handed me a small package.  "Thought you might be hungry."

            "Thanks."  I'd forgotten all about breakfast.

            The elevator took us up.  When it came to a stop, we took a small transport that was sitting there waiting for us.  The hallways in this level were tall and wide as if to allow for cargo to be brought through.  The transport followed these halls out into a huge hangar that was filled from wall to wall with all manner of vehicles.  We got off, and Berg led us to a squat, golden flying saucer.  We were going, we were really going!

            Berg led us inside the saucer to a round room with plush white couches that hugged the walls.  "I've got to take care of a few details before we can get underway.  Please wait for me here."

            I glanced around the room, but other than for the blank walls and the couches, there wasn't much to look at.

            "Nervous?"

            I realized at the question that I'd been subconsciously tapping my foot on the metal floor.  I made myself stop. "Sorry.  I guess I am... a little."

            "You shouldn't be.  Berg wouldn't be letting you try this if he wasn't pretty sure of its success."

            "I know, I know."

            A vibrating hum sprung up all around us.  Within moments, we felt out stomachs being left behind as the ship rose.  We were on our way.

            I stared at my knees, terribly conscious that my time was running out, and still I couldn't find anything to say.  It was maddening!

            "So, Ken, do you have someone back home?"

            I grabbed the question like a drowning man might grab a life preserver.  "Yes, I mean, no, not really, no one serious, just the team.  They're everything to me, they're family.  We take care of each other."

            He nodded slowly.  "Any plans on what you'll do once the problems with Galactor are over?"

            That brought me up short.  It wasn't something I'd spent a lot of time contemplating.  It had never been necessary.  "I don't have anything really definite."  I shrugged.  "I'll probably go into the courier business full time, see if I can make something of it."

            Kentaro nodded again.  "Ever thought of getting married?  Maybe starting a family?"

            I couldn't meet his gaze, though I wasn't quite sure why.  "I--I suppose, someday...  I haven't really had the time to think about that end of things."

            "I see."  I wondered at what he saw.  "You're the only one of your line left, are you not?"

            "Ah, yeah."  I got a funny feeling at that.  It really wasn't something I'd thought of in quite that way before.

            "It might be something to keep in mind for the future."

            I was about to ask him to explain when the door to the room slid open.

            "How are we holding up?"  Berg walked on in and made himself comfortable across from us.

            "Fine."

            "Our ETA should be about a half hour.  With any luck, we won't be noticed by any of Nambu's spy stations and can conclude our business before anyone is the wiser."  He leaned forward.

            "Here, you'll need this."  He pulled my bracelet from his pocket and handed it over.  I gratefully put it on my wrist.

            Berg talked on and quickly detailed for us the installation of the portable trap and its generator and what else we might expect.

            He left us just before we landed, but came back not long after we'd touched ground.  He had us follow him outside.

            Debree lay everywhere around us.  What grass hadn't been crushed or burned by the small science station's destruction, had been later been trampled to death by looters, rescue parties, or both.  I glanced to the east, in the direction of the decimated town of Queekak, but a hill stood in my way.  I made no other effort to go look at the town the team's doubles had decimated.

            Workmen poured out of the saucer even as Berg personally moved to supervise the unloading of the trap.

            I watched them moving around like worker ants, getting more nervous by the minute.  It wasn't that I didn't think the process wouldn't work, but that it would.  My gaze moved to follow Kentaro's vigilant form.  His helmet was back in place, hiding most of his features as he checked the horizon for any signs of trouble.

            I stood there, studying him, trying to ignore what I knew was bothering me.  In truth, I think I'd known about this all along, but just hadn't wanted to admit it to myself.  Now that the time was almost on me, though, there was no way to make it go away.

            "Ken, come over here.  We're all set up. It's time."

            Berg's call chilled my blood.  I tried to head toward him, but I couldn't.  I just couldn't!

            "Ken."  I turned and found that Kentaro had come up beside me.  "Time to go."

            I shook my head, my eyes studying his through his visor.  "Do you want me to go?"  His eyes turned from mine for a moment, but then locked on mine again.

            "It's not a question of what I or anyone else wants.  It's got to do with what's right."  His expression turned stern.

            "Yes, I know that, but how do we know what that is?"  He said nothing.  I plunged on.  "My father is dead, yet here I've had a chance to see what it would have been like had he lived.  Who is to say that my staying here isn't the way things were meant to be, that staying here isn't what's right?"  I studied his face looking for any sign of rejection.  He wanted me to stay, I knew it!  Just like I had come to realize the same thing about myself.

            Kentaro abruptly grabbed my shoulders and pulled me forward into a tight embrace.  His voice was soft as it whispered in my ear.  "Your duty tells you all you need to know.  It says that you must return."

            I tried to pull away, to try to argue with him, but he wouldn't let me.

            "In your world, you and the rest of the ninja team are all that stand between survival and chaos.  What would happen to your world if you didn't return to it before the evil was stopped?"  He pulled back.  I looked away knowing the answer to his question but not wanting to admit it.

            "You know I'm right.  Just as you know that though keeping you here with me is my greatest desire, I would never ask it of you and wouldn't respect you if you did.  Our roads follow different paths.  Be grateful, as I am, that at least they got to cross for a little while."

            It was true, all that he'd said was true.  I closed my eyes, shutting in the tears I could feel gathering there and not wanting him to see.  Duty did demand I go home... back to my friends, my family, my world.  They were all depending on me, I couldn't let them down.  I couldn't ignore that, no matter how much I wanted to.  "I understand.  I'll go."

            Again, I found myself pulled forward in an embrace.  This time, I gave back as much as I got.  "Thank you, thank you for everything."

            "No, Ken, my son, thank you."

            We pulled apart, our eyes bright, and studied each other for the last time.  Tears ran freely down our cheeks even as we tried hard to pretend they weren't there.

            "I'm proud to have known you, Ken.  You are all your father could have ever wished for."  He held out his right hand.  I took it gladly.

            "The same goes for me."  I shook his hand hard.

            I stepped back, my eyes never leaving his.  I brought my arm up slowly into the familiar arc.  "Bird Go!"

            As soon as the transmutation was over, I gave him a crisp salute and turned away.  I ran toward where Berg was waiting, before I gave myself the chance to change my mind.

            I glanced at the Galactor leader as I moved to stand by him.  His face was unreadable, his gaze fixed beyond me to Kentaro's form.  Was that sympathy I saw reflected in his eyes, or was it something more?

            His eyes brightened as he turned to look at me.  "Are you ready Gatchaman?"

            I nodded slowly.  "Just tell me what to do."

            Berg pointed to the open trap on which all of this had rested on from the start.  I slipped inside and turned around to face the way I'd come in.  I tried to feel nothing as Kentaro slowly moved to stand at Berg's side.  All other personnel had quickly removed themselves to the saucer.

            "I--I have one last question before we start."

            "Go ahead."  Berg's right hand had stopped to hover over a large button on a remote control unit on his left.

            "What, what will you do with... with my counterpart when he returns?"

            Berg's brow rose, but he deferred the question over to Kentaro.  The latter's face was blank.

            "I'll try to undo the damage Nambu's done to him over the years.  If that doesn't work, then I'll quickly rid the world of a great evil..." His voice held no emotion at all.

            I was sorry to have burdened him with the question.  "I understand.  I wish you luck."

            He nodded but said nothing.

            I glanced over at Berg.  "I'm ready now."

            "Take care of yourself, Gatchaman."  The blond hared man who would soon be my enemy once more, smiled.

            "Thank you for everything..."

            Berg pressed the button.

            Clear walls fell before and behind me, closing off the cube.  The inside was quickly flooded with pink gas.  A high pitched hum reverberated through the air as small bolts of lightning played along the walls on either side of me.  I took a deep breath trying to prepare myself for what I knew would come next. 

            The metal rods slowly protruded from the walls.  The humming changed to a shrill scream.  Bolts shot from one side of the cube to the other.  Pain flooded me from every side.  Though I tried my damnedest, I couldn't hold back a scream.

            Instead of falling in a hundred different directions as I had on my way here, I was hurled this time.  The sense of unraveling consciousness swept through me faster than it had before.  I fought for cohesion, clinging to the thought that I was going home, trying to use it as an anchor in the maelstrom I was trying to become.

            Suddenly, gravity once more became a reality as I was roughly slapped back together.  I fell.  The world abruptly went black.

 

 

 

            "But is it him?  Is it our Ken?"

            "We won't be able to determine that with any degree of certainty until after he's regained consciousness."

             The voices that poured over me seemed reassuringly familiar somehow.  Had I made it then?  Was I... home?  My eyes flickered open.

            "Hakase, look!  He's opened his eyes.  He's awake!"

            My gaze swirled but slowly steadied as a face came to stand over me.  The worry lines were where they should be.  The rimless glasses were clear just like they had always been.  The conservative suit was as fresh and pressed as always.  Nambu?

            "He's awake!  He's awake!"

            "We can see that, Jinpei."  I caught a glimpse of Joe standing not far behind the doctor.

            "Quit being so cranky, aniki."

            "Who are you calling cranky, short stuff?" 

            "You know exactly who!"  Jinpei stuck his tongue out at Joe and quickly zipped around the bed before the older man could grab him.

            "Guys, knock it off!"  It was Jun.  The real one!  She glared mercilessly at both of them.

            "Yeah, knock it off, or you might make Ken wish he'd not come back!"  Ryu filled his immense chest out to push his point.  He got scathing looks of death for his trouble. 

            I laughed, I couldn't help it.  That brought them all up short.  God how I'd missed this!  Missed them!  The bell bottomed jeans, the numbered T-shirts, everything looked to be as it should be.  It was them.

            "Ken?  I just have a few questions if you're feeling up to it.  We need to make sure of who you are."

            "Sure, Hakase, I understand."  I had a smile on my face and I could feel the loopy thing getting bigger and bigger.  I saw equal smiles growing on the others as they gathered close.  It was then that I remembered the one thing that had bothered me most while I'd been gone.  Though Nambu had yet to ask any of his questions, I felt obliged to ask one of mine.

            "Hakase, my, my double, did you realize--what did he--is everyone okay?"

            Nambu smiled seeming to understand what I'd been trying to say though I was sure I'd been anything but clear.  "He did no damage.  We found out early that he wasn't you thanks to Joe."

            I looked over at my second in commands wondering how he'd done it.  Joe just looked back at me, his eyes clouded, and shrugged.

            "I bet aniki is wondering how you did it, Joe-aniki!"  Jinpei had a teasing smile on his face.

            "Stay out of it, Jinpei."  The death promised in Joe's tone was hard to miss.  It made me truly curious about what was going on.

            "He has a right to know, aniki."

            "No he doesn't!"

            "Come on, he'll only find out sooner or later anyway."  Jinpei's mischievous smile had spread to Ryu's face.  It suddenly made me feel a little weary.

            Joe glared death at both of them.  Suprisingly, it was June who spoke next.

            "Joe was the one who found your double after the trap had gone off.  He wasn't in any shape to escape on his own so Joe helped him out."

            "Jun!"  The others's mischievous smiles had now spread to her as well.  I glanced at Nambu looking for some clue as to what was going on and found him trying hard to keep a straight face through it all.  My dread increased.

            "The other Ken was leaning real heavily on Joe-aniki, aniki.  Then he acted as if he was having trouble breathing and got Joe to take of his helmet and then got aniki to take his off as well."

            I glanced at Joe and the latter looked as if he were about to explode.  Everyone else was ignoring him.

            "Yeah, that's when the double reached out and planted a great big kiss on his lips!"  Ryu chuckled.

            "Joe punched him right out after that."

            "I still say that he stayed in the liplock a little longer than he should have before punching him out."  Jinpei was clearly enjoying himself.  He made sure not to be anywhere near Joe's reach.  I felt my cheeks grow hot as I remembered a very similar experience.

            "After that, Joe insisted that we tie him down in the med bay, that something was wrong with you.  When the double woke up, he said, he said a number of things that I can't willingly repeat, until he realized that wasn't the reason he was tied up for..." Jun's gaze wouldn't meet my own.  Her cheeks had colored slightly.  Oh my God!

            "That's how Joe aniki figured it all out and Nambu Hakase started working on a way to get you back."

            I found my gaze straying toward Joe.  As our eyes met, I saw that his cheeks were flushed.  For some reason this made mine burn even hotter.  He looked away.  Everyone else in the room burst out laughing, even Nambu.  They'd never let Joe live this one down.  I'd have to quickly figure out a way to edit my own account or I would be in for similar torture for who knew how long.  A grin tugged at the corner of my mouth.  I was definitely home!

 

 

                                                The End

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