By Maya Perez
Helpful prodding by Wendy Dinsmore
Joe and Ken didn't show up for lunch.
Jun sat at the iron rod table and looked around. Her attentions divided between worrying about them and waiting expectantly for their host.
Frost greeted them as he came out to the lawn and seemed well at ease. Jun watched him carefully as he approached, trying to see if she could spot any of the stiffness Jinpei had mentioned earlier. With some relief, she noticed that Frost's coloring was back to normal, and if he was feeling any kind of discomfort, it didn't show.
Colten joined them a few minutes later and they all made small talk while they ate. Colten even gave them an update on the progress of the construction on the city beneath them.
"Will your people be going back to their villages now?" Jun stared intently at Frost as she asked the question, still trying to convince herself that he was all right.
"No, not just yet," he said. "It's been agreed that they'll remain until the construction is finished. It will help everyone become familiar with the city and we felt that for now it would also be safer for everyone concerned."
Jun nodded slowly before taking another bite out of her large sandwich. "It really isn't very likely that Galactor will try anything for a while."
"Yeah! Not after the trouncing we gave them!"
A small grin lit on Frost's face at Jinpei's exuberance.
"Well, it was also the easiest way to make sure everyone would attend the coronation." This came from Colten.
"Coronation?" Jun noticed that Frost's cheeks had suddenly taken on a bit of color.
"Yes," Colten said with pride. "A coronation." Frost's cheeks colored even more. "We would have done it months ago, but his Highness wouldn't allow it. And our country needs it's king."
"Colten, please," Frost's voice was low. "I will only be crowned once certain things get done."
Jun felt a thrilling chill spin through her as Frost slipped a veiled glance in her direction. She looked away, blushing, wondering why she was making such a big deal out of the momentary attention.
"Still, my prince, we'll all feel much better once you've been crowned and have properly assumed your rightful place."
"You've always been such a traditionalist." Frost gave Colten a raised brow and a half smile before leaning in a conspiring way towards the others. "He's been the one actually running the place for who knows how long. He just wants a well dressed figurehead so no one will figure it out and give him the job."
Frost winked at his guests before turning a very serious face towards his father's aide. "Yes, Colten?"
The question dripped with sweetness and was followed by the innocent batting of lashes. As Frost placed his chin over his laced fingers, the scene quickly became more than the others could stand.
Jun hid a smile behind her hand while Ryu and Jinpei tried their best not to choke on their food and laugh outright. Frost kept his smiling gaze on Colten until the latter began to blush.
"That wasn't very amusing, your highness." Much to his own chagrin, Colten's injured tone was belied by the enormous grin that insisted on curving his lips, despite all his attempts to stop it.
"By the way, where are Ken and Joe?"
Jun's smile faded at Frost's question. "Oh, I'm sorry, I guess I forgot to tell you." She tried to think fast. "They'd asked me earlier to please pass on their apologies for skipping lunch. They had to -" Jun hesitated still unable to come up with a believable lie.
"Check the God Phoenix!"
Ryu and Jinpei had spoken out at once. Both realized their blunder too late.
Jun stepped in. "Actually, they're doing both. You see, the two of them get rather, uh, tense before major meetings..." She avoided Frost's direct gaze, not sure she could maintain the lie if she saw him looking at her. She totally missed the troubled expression that momentarily crossed his face.
"I see," he said.
In the suddenly awkward silence that followed, they all returned to their meal. It wasn't long, however, before Colten distracted them with a different topic of conversation.
Once lunch was over, Jun lingered behind, nimbly intercepting the prince as he got ready to go. "Frost, how are you feeling? Really?"
He glanced over at her a small look of surprise on his face. He smiled. "A little tired, to be sure, but otherwise okay."
Jun wouldn't let him go just yet. "What about the bruised ribs? How are they?"
Her serious tone made Frost's smile widen. "They're a bit touchy, but they're wrapped up tight so it's not bad if I take it easy." His gray eyes trapped her own. "I appreciate your concern."
Something about the way Frost said that made Jun feel unusually self-conscious. "Why shouldn't I be concerned? I would feel this way about any of us." She dared to look at him and noticed that his smile had grow yet again. Jun felt her face turn warm.
"How much do you know about the upcoming meeting?" he asked.
Jun fell in beside him as Frost started back towards the castle proper. "It's going to be about your other mission for us?"
He nodded. "Yes, I spoke to your director this morning. He reiterated his consent for the operation as long as you and your team are willing to take it."
"Do you really think it's feasible?" she asked.
Frost shrugged. "All I can do is try. And I'd rather have you all in on it if I can." He glanced over at her. "Things will be difficult enough as it is. It's a real pity you didn't have the time to get the records I needed."
Frost started forward again but Jun didn't follow as a look of excitement blossomed on her face. "But, we do have them!"
Startled, Frost turned around. Jun leaned down to unzip one of the secret compartments in her stripped slacks.
"I'd got them on the day you were attacked," she said. "So much has happened since then that I completely forgot about them."
As Jun straightened back up, the copies of the microfiche in hand, she gasped as she suddenly found herself in a tight and warm embrace. Before she could fully realize what was going on, she was being enthusiastically kissed. Breathlessly, she didn't resist, and found herself feeling rather disappointed when it was quickly over.
"Come on, let's get these analyzed." Frost's eyes were bright, his own excitement brimming in every word. "They might just make a world of difference!" He took hold of her hand, a broad smile on his face and led her inside. Jun followed, a smile of her own trailing after him.
Less than two hours later, the two of them joined the rest of the ninja team in the sitting room.
Refreshments abounded but they'd been totally ignored. Upon entering the room, Jun immediately noticed Ryu's and Jinpei's subdued looks and after a moment the reason for them. Ken and Joe were in the room as far from one another as the place would allow them. Joe was leaning against the wall near the doors while Ken sat in a chair close to the painting on the back.
Jun sat down, trying not to care about the grim expressions on their faces. She couldn't help but frown a little though as she heard Frost sigh in relief as he sat down.
"Thank you all for coming," he said. "If you aren't already aware, Dr. Nambu has graciously consented to allow me to sway you to a second mission.
"It's my hope that once I've explained my plan in detail, that you will decide to accept it." His eyes traveled to each of them. "If you decide not to, I will understand. The final decision will be yours."
Everyone remained silent as he moved to spread out a large map on a nearby table. "As some of you already know, I've had some opportunity to pick up on a number of little known facts about Galactor. While none of them are sufficiently sensitive to really be used to hurt the organization, some of them might still prove good enough to throw them off balance."
Frost spread out the copies of the microfiche on top of the map. "If you'll please look closely at these, you'll notice some dark spots here, here, and here, which don't seem to correspond with the rest of the terrain." He paused for a moment. "It's my contention that these dark spots are huge air vents and that somewhere beneath them, Galactor has built a base solely for the purpose of containing its members' families."
Jinpei inched forward to the table to curiously take a look at the satellite pictures as Frost spoke. The rest of the team remained where they were.
"It would be my intent, with your help, to free these families from Galactor's grip."
"Why would you want to go to the trouble? Why would they come with us?" Ryu scooted to the edge of his chair, his broad face showing his confusion.
Frost laced his fingers and leaned back, his eyes focused on no one in particular. "When someone is recruited into Galactor, they're told that in order to guarantee their loved ones' safety, they must all be relocated to one of their civilian facilities. Life at these facilities can be quite pleasant, if unchanging - that is until the member that joined dies or tries to leave the organization." He paused letting the unvoiced consequences sink in.
"Eventually all recruits realize the truth of what they've really gotten into, how in assuring their families safety by taking them into an organization's safe-haven they've drawn a two edged sword. This is one of the reasons why there are very few defections in Galactor. This is but one of the ways the organization uses to keep its people in."
"That's... that's..." The pain on Ryu's face told them that which he wasn't able to express.
"Yes," Frost said. "And that's exactly why I want to so something about it."
"But, what, what do they do with, do with the families of the men that die?" Ryu's eyes were filled with sorrow as if he already suspected the answer.
"The families are never told of their loved one's demise. Rather, they're informed that they're to be honored by being transferred to a better facility. Once en route, however, the children are quickly separated from the parents. Every member is then tested, and if they have skills or potential that could be useful to the organization, they become new employees. If so, then the rest of the family is shuffled once more back to one of the family facilities. If they have no talents that can be exploited, they're drafted into labor camps, prostitution, or worse - Galactor wastes nothing."
Jun felt a chill sweep through her and averted her gaze, unable to handle the looks of shock on Jinpei and Ryu's naïve faces. Despite herself, she wondered how many people the team had inadvertently sent off to that kind of hell. She looked up again, as Frost gently squeezed her shoulder.
"These people aren't stupid. No matter what Galactor does, rumors get around. But they normally learn too late what kind of fate awaits them, and there's not much they can do to stop it. I'm hoping to try and change that, if I can."
Ryu leapt to his feet, a rare strain of steely determination in his voice. "I'll help you."
Looking startled for a moment, Jinpei recovered quickly and joined his friend. "I'll go too!"
Though she had half expected it, Jun didn't see Frost exhibit any pleasure at his easy victory.
"I appreciate your decisions, but I can't accept them yet. There are some conditions to this expedition, and you may very well change your minds on the matter before I'm through."
Nodding slowly, both Ryu and Jinpei sat back down. Ryu's expression, however, clearly declared that there was nothing that would change his decision.
"First off," Frost said, "I believe it would be prudent if you didn't come along as the Science Ninja Team."
All eyes focused on Frost at the statement. Ken's face appeared more lively than it had so far. "Why is that, if I may ask?" There was a tinge of antagonism in his question that Jun was very surprised to hear.
"Commander, this is not something that I came up with out of dissatisfaction with you or your team," Frost quickly explained. "I insist on this point only due to the soiled reputation that Galactor has spread about you within the organization."
"So? What difference does that make?" Ken's eyes were hard.
Frost sighed and hesitated a moment longer before answering. "The mere whisper of your name chills Galactor blood -- literaly. The high death rate within the organization has been hyped up to be entirely your doing rather than attributed to the sometimes rampant incompetence of commanders or the self-destruct mechanisms used by the organization." His gaze met Ken's dead on. "The current propaganda paints the five of you as murderers who don't care who they kill as long as they are somehow connected to Galactor. Pictures of the team have been plastered at every single installation showing the hideous acts that you've supposedly commited." His voice grew soft. "I grew up with this propaganda. I've seen how it has affected others, even myself. If any civilians saw you in costume, they'd run in terror rather than take the risk that even a tenth of the terrible stories about you are true."
"That's stupid! We're the good guys." Jinpei's angry stare shot out at Frost daring him to deny it.
"You'd be truly amazed at the number of atrocities that have been attributed to your name alone."
Jinpei's face paled at the sudden coldness in Frost's voice. It was only too easy to imagine what types of things Galactor might have accused them of.
"All right, we can deal with your first condition - what's next?" Joe moved away from the wall he'd been leaning against and moved to stand behind where Ryu and Jinpei were currently sharing a settee. His face had the look of a man who expected things to get even more distasteful than they had already.
Frost smiled at what he saw, but the smile held no mirth whatsoever. "My second condition is that we will stun the guards, not kill them."
"Are you nuts?" Joe stared at their host in disbelief. "How do you think we've been able to survive as long as we have? Galactors enjoy killing people, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Joe!" Jun stood up, surprised by her friend's vehemence.
"No, it's all right." Frost sent her a reassuring glance before turning his full attention on Joe. "I realize what you're saying -- I'm only too aware of Galactor policy. But it's still not a good enough reason to stoop to their level."
Joe frowned at him.
"Besides," Frost continued, "how much more of a slap in the face will it be for Katse if not one of his men is killed in the raid?" His sudden mischievous smile was infectious.
Joe wasn't ready to give in yet, however. "That's all well and good, but we've been trained to kill instinctively. We might be slaughtered if we try and curb ourselves, if we hesitate and think about every move. It would require too much of a conscious effort; it could critically slow our reactions down."
Frost's smile never faltered. "In the last few months, we have created weapons that shoot very potent tranquilizer darts. Security should be nowhere near as tight as what you're used to. With stealth, we should be able to avoid the need for any hand to hand combat. The tranquilizer guns are accurate to thirty yards. Anyone hit by them will remain unconscious for at least four hours."
"You've thought this out pretty well, haven't you?" Joe's tone was not as antagonistic as before but it still wasn't welcoming.
"I've been planning this raid for a very long time."
"Are there any other conditions?" Ken's expressionless stare didn't waver under Frost's scrutiny.
"None as major as these, and the rest are mostly negotiable."
"I'm still going then!" Ryu stood up again his determination as strong as ever.
"Well, okay... me too." Jinpei stood up slowly, his face looking uncertain.
Jun smiled at their host. "I'll be glad to go."
Joe shrugged, moving forward to take a chair. "What the heck, it'll be a challenge." There was an odd gleam in his eyes.
Glancing worriedly at Ken, Jun saw him nod as Frost sent an inquiring gaze in his direction.
"It's settled then... I want to thank all of you for your willingness to help me make this work." Frost said cheerfully. "I'd like to share the rest of my plan with you now, and then we can discuss your opinion and any suggestions you might have."
The afternoon went by swiftly as Frost first outlined his plan and then made alterations from their suggestions. The next day went quickly as well as preparations were made for the journey. That evening, before they all turned in for a few hours of sleep before their departure, Ken gathered the ninja team together for an impromptu meeting.
"Look, I know it's unnecessary, but I still feel the need to ask you guys to be extremely careful on this mission." Ken's voice was low as the five of them stood in a half circle in his room. "The suits Frost is providing are good, but don't offer as much protection as our own. Remember not to get careless, to watch out for each other. And if we actually pull this off, there'll be every reason for us to be very proud of ourselves."
Joe snorted. "You're staring to sound way too much like Nambu."
Ken met Joe's frown with one of his own. "I could do worse. I could sound like you."
Jun bit her lip and then quickly stepped up to intervene. Whatever had happened between them was obviously still unresolved. "Joe, tell me, why did you decide to go on this mission?"
Joe glared at Ken before looking over at her and answered her question. "There really isn't a reason. You see, it didn't look like you guys could be talked out of it and someone had to come along to make sure you kept out of trouble." He shrugged lightly.
"Sure, aniki, whatever you say." Jinpei rolled his eyes. He also moved quickly out of reach as Joe made a half-hearted grab for him.
Jun smiled, having an inkling at least of part of Joe's motivations. Though she knew he'd never admit it, she was sure that it thrilled him in a small way to be working towards preventing others from living with the pain and torment that he had grown up with. Jun saw that some of the others thought the same as light smiles grew all around. Joe staunchly ignored them.
"Was that all, commander?" He glared at Ken again, who wasn't smiling at all.
"Yes, unless anyone else wants to add anything?"
No one did, so the group quickly bid each other ‘good night' and started to go their own ways. Jun hesitated as she heard her name called out.
Her teammate waited in silence until all the rest had gone. Jun frowned slightly as she spotted Joe's thoughtful gaze looking over at them as he went out the door.
"Jun, I just wanted you to know that I've tried several times to convince Frost not to come with us." His clear blue eyes met her own and then looked away. "Even when I threatened canceling the mission, he wouldn't budge. He insisted that he'd do this with or without our help." He hesitated a moment. "His doctors say he's fit enough, as long as he doesn't overdo it."
Jun stared at Ken in surprise, wondering how he'd known about her secret worries, and perhaps even her own efforts to dissuade the prince from coming with them.
"He's not at full strength," Ken continued, "and I've no idea of his capabilities. So, since you know him best, I'd like to assign you to stick by him in case things get out of hand. Will you do it?"
Jun didn't quite understand the guarded expression in his eyes. "Sure, I'd, I'd be happy to. Sometimes Frost can be too stubborn for his own good."
Ken nodded but didn't say anything else.
"I really appreciate that you tried," she said. "It means a lot to me. Thank you"
Ken turned away so that she wouldn't see the pain in his expression. "Good night, Jun."
At one in the morning, Frost, Ken, Joe, Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei assembled before the God Phoenix, which had once more been outfitted with the cargo plane façade.
Colten slowly limped past each member of the team, checking their uniforms and equipment of the umpteenth time.
Joe tested the grip of his tranquilizer gun and then twirled it, comparing it to feel of his own standard weapon. A black holster hung low on his hip, its black material both belted and velcroed to the side of the not-quite skin tight suit. Holstering the gun with a well practiced flair, Joe then lightly pounded his fist against his chest and the thin layer of kevlar underneath. His light weight helmet housed the latest in miniaturized communications gear as well as a mirrored visor made of light intensifying material. With a flick of his wrist, Joe lowered the visor, noting that he could see through it perfectly, without the slight color distortion of his bird style helmet.
Glancing at the others, Joe noticed that the lowered visors hid every aspect of their features. With an unseen grin, Joe realized that for the first time, he and the rest of the team actually looked like the ninjas they tried so hard to emulate.
"All right everyone, let's get on board. We've got a schedule to keep."
Ken's voice came through clearly over the helmet's headset. Several responses of ‘roger' echoed through as well. Joe followed the others into the redisguised God Phoenix.
Giving them all a last worried good bye, Colten quickly hobbled out of the bay and headed for the control room.
The double doors over the bay soon opened overhead and the God Phoenix's engines came to life. With an ear splitting roar, the ship lifted up into the night.
In less than two hours, after an uneventful flight, Ryu informed them all that their pre-planned landing site was almost in range.
Silently staring out the front view screen, Jun inspected the dark enshrouded, desolate land that waited below.
With a soft roar, the God Phoenix soon landed amidst a field of rocky hills, which would protect it from any prying Galactor eyes.
Ken stood up as they touched ground. "All right, the nearest vent leading down into the installation should be approximately two point five miles from here." His visor turned to look at each of them. "The backpacks with the extra ammo and tools are waiting for us down by the lower hatch." He turned towards the team's pilot. "Ryu, we'll contact you as soon as things are ready. We probably weren't spotted landing, but keep your eyes peeled just in case."
"Sure - though, I still think it would have been a better idea for me to be coming along..." Ryu sounded as if he were pouting.
"Well, if you want to go that badly," Joe quipped, "I think I could be persuaded to stay here and fly the Phoenix when it's time."
"No! That's all right," Ryu protested in panic. "I'll stay, I'll stay!"
With his visor down, Ryu wasn't able to see the large smile broadening Joe's face.
Leading the way, Frost hid his own smile as he approached the lift on the back of the bridge. In expectant silence, the rest of the team lowered their visors and followed. When they reached the ramp in the lower levels, they each picked up their backpacks and slipped them on. Moving quickly down the ramp, they merged into the night.
"Team, remember that the default for communications is line of sight only," Ken said. "You'll need to manually switch the setting for longer distances - in both cases, keep the use to a minimum."
Forming a straight line with Joe in the lead, the group set off at a fast pace to the north. As they came within a half mile of their destination, Ken signaled for them to slow down and spread out. Their black clothed, silent forms were barely visible as they began their search for the way in.
"Aniki, I think I've found it!" Jinpei's excited whisper rang in each of their helmets. The team moved to converge on his coordinates.
As she'd been asked to, Jun had been sticking quite close to Frost. Therefore she didn't miss the fact that he'd slowed considerably as he moved to join the others. Lifting her visor and cupping her hand over the helmet's mouthpiece so that the others wouldn't hear, Jun reached out for his shoulder and brought Frost to a stop. "Are you all right?"
She could see nothing but her own reflection as Frost turned slowly to face her. He didn't lift his visor, but only gave her a slight nod.
Jun thought of pushing the point but didn't. It was too likely that his sensitive ribs were letting him know just how much they didn't appreciate all the running they'd been up to. Lowering her visor again, she walked silently beside him to meet the others.
The vent Jinpei had found was set low to the ground, colored to match the desolate landscape. A bent rectangular grate lay beside it, with a mangled heat diffuser still attached. A long coil of rope was anchored to the ground with a pair of heavy stakes even as Ken and Joe eased the rest of it down the opened shaft.
As the two of them worked, the communicators crackled to life. "I can't find any monitors or anything else in here, aniki."
"All right then, Jinpei," Ken answered, "keep going, but be careful."
For long tense moments, they waited to hear from Jinpei again. Joe helped stabilize the rope Ken was still feeding into the vent, while Frost and Jun kept an eye on the surrounding landscape. The wait was starting to feel too long, when Jinpei finally called back in.
"Aniki, I've reached the end of the vent." His voice came through with barely controlled excitement. "There's a whole town down here!"
"Take a careful look from your position," Ken advised. "Check for sentries and any electronic watchdogs."
The communicators were silent for several long minutes.
"Come on, Jinpei, hurry it up!" Joe growled into the mike.
Ken turned to look at him. "Just leave him alone, Joe."
"Yeah, just leave me alone, Joe." A light boyish giggle and an answering snarl poured clearly over the ear pieces of their helmets.
"Aniki, I haven't been able to spot anything. This place is lax." Jinpei quickly added. "It's gonna be so easy!"
"All right, can you estimate the distance from the end of the vent to the ground?" Ken asked.
"Um... ah... yeah, aniki, it looks to be about fifty feet."
Jun noticed Ken nodding to no one in particular. "Jinpei, we're going to send the rest of the rope down. Stay in the vent, out of sight, and watch for any kind of reaction." His voice grew serious. "No ‘hot dogging', understand?"
"Ah, why do you guys always have to ruin all the fun?"
Ken didn't answer the youngest team members age old question but continued feeding the rope down the vent. Rechecking to make sure the stakes would hold once the rope ran out, Ken slipped the metal ring connected to his belt around the rope and slid into the waiting vent. "Jun, Frost, follow me in. Joe, bring up the rear."
At first, the climb down was fairly easy, the vent slopping at a gentle angle. As they moved farther on, however, the vent abruptly dropped straight down. Held up by their hooked belts, the group of four slowly made their way down, their backpacks pulling at them. Jun began to worry as labored breathing quietly intruded through her ear piece. She wanted desperately to ask Frost how he was and if he needed help, but knew that everyone would hear it if she did. Resigned to silence until he asked for the help, she continued on down, trying to keep an eye on him from above.
After a seeming eternity, the vent sloped again, giving them a place to stand once more. Ken stopped and waited for the others to catch up to him, which gave Frost and unasked for moment of rest.
Continuing on their descent, they were soon able to meet up with a fidgeting Jinpei. "You guys sure took your time!"
"Only because you had it easy, short stuff." Joe reached out to cuff Jinpei on the side of the head, but the other dodged.
"Have you spotted anything at all, Jinpei?" Ken asked.
"No, aniki, everything's been quiet."
Ken nodded. "All right then, we'll go down one at a time. As soon as the first one is clear, the next will go." He pointed out toward the vista below. "Use that building over there as cover until we're all down." Ken tapped Jinpei's shoulder, picking him to go first.
"Wings would sure be nice about now..."
"That kind of attitude won't do you any good, Jinpei."
The young boy almost cringed at the tone of disapproval in his sister's voice. "Sorry, neechan." Before he could blunder again, Jinpei slid down the rope and deftly leapt the few feet it ran short from the ground. Waving back towards them, he scooted into the deep shadow from the building across the way.
Joe went next, and then a hesitant Jun. As she ran towards the building to join the others, she glanced back, knowing Ken would assign Frost to go next. She watched him as he came out of the vent, and in her distracted state almost ran into Jinpei. She stood in the shadows watching the prince as the lowered himself quickly down the rope and then dropped to the ground.
Frost's landing was good, but he stayed crouched on the ground making Jun suddenly wonder if he was all right. After a moment, she saw him stand, his left arm wrapped protectively about his side. He moved towards them to allow Ken to begin his own descent.
He waved Jun away as she came forward to help him. "I'm all right. I just landed a little hard. I'll be fine in a minute."
Joe and Jinpei looked over at them but said nothing. Ken joined them a few seconds later.
"All right, team, this should be the hard part," Ken said. "Frost, Jun, Jinpei, you three spread out and recon the town. Look for a command center and keep an eye out for the main way out of here."
The three of them nodded.
"Joe, you take the left hand side of the wall and I'll take the right." Joe nodded as well.
"If anything untoward happens, call in. Remember to be careful."
"Yes, mother Nambu," Joe crooned.
Ken went on as if nothing had been said. Jun moved closer to Joe to kick him if need be. Ken released the tranq gun from its holster and held it at the ready. "If you meet anyone, tranq them. If they're out this late, it's bound to be someone we don't want aware of our presence."
There was a long sigh over the comm. "Come on, Ken! Quit babying us." Joe sounded exasperated. "We know the routine. Let's go already!"
Jun saw her brother's head bob with agreement even though he never said a word. Ken stared at Joe's annoyed stance and then nodded. "Okay then, let's go."
Silently, the group spread out from the building's shadow. Joe and Ken headed in opposite directions towards the base's outer walls. Jinpei zoomed out randomly into the town proper. Frost's lithe form moved off to the left of Jinpei's direction. Jun followed after him on a parallel course.
The small town spread before them in death like silence. The streets were wide and evenly spaced intersecting one another to form neat square blocks. The small, tall three bedroom houses lined up on each side of the street like clones. Their boring uniformity was occasionally broken by a small warehouse set between them or an odd looking store. Large square mailboxes stood at each intersection, their slots numbered to match those set above the small houses' doors.
Each warehouse and store contained large bulletin boards on their outer walls. As Jun slowed to take a closer look at one of them, she came to a complete stop, startled by what she saw.
All across the top portion of the board were posted eight-by-ten glossies. In them, figures dressed to look like the Gatchaman team. Jun's eyes grew wide as she realized what these impostors were doing in them. The first, with a man dressed to look like Ken, showed the Eagle stabbing an obviously unarmed lab technician while laughing maniacally. The next was of the Condor slapping a woman with her clothes already half-torn off her body. The Owl and the Swallow were playing ball with an unattached head. With a cold chill making its way through her, she saw a picture with a woman dressed as the Swan using her yo-yo to rip away a man's privates. Feeling slightly ill, Jun couldn't help but wonder what other horrible atrocities had been fabricated and then blamed on them. Would Katse take what they were doing today and attribute the loss of the people here to be a Gatchaman murder spree, instead of the liberation it was meant to be? The fear and murderous zeal of some of the Galactor men they had encountered over their career was now so much easier to understand.
Though the voice had come through the comm, Jun turned around feeling a presence somewhere behind her. Frost's black dressed form signaled to her from a nearby house. His reflective visor stared at her even as he repeated the gesture.
Holding her tranq gun tightly in one hand and putting the grisly pictures out of her mind, Jun quickly crossed the street to join him.
Without saying a word, Frost signaled her to follow. Within moments, they reached the side of a yellow house and he pointed past the corner towards an isolated building in the midst of a small park.
Every side of the building had huge bulletin boards, all of them filled to overflowing. While all the other buildings they'd seen so far had been made of wood, this one looked to have been built out of one immense block of stone.
From where they hid, Jun could see a set of steps leading up to a large metal door. On either side of the door stood a brown and green clad guard. Sets of speakers protruded out of each corner of the flat roof, a number of cables rising from them and joining others that went up towards the high, domed ceiling above.
Jun moved slowly back behind the house, and reaching up to the side of her helmet, switched her comm unit to the mid range communicator. "Ken, this is Jun. We think we've found some kind of communications center in the middle of town. We're going to go check it out."
There was a slight pause. "Roger. Call back when you can."
Jun moved back to where Frost was still watching the building. When he saw her, he pointed up towards the roof.
"Did you see me, nee-chan?" Jinpei's voice whispered over the comm.
"Where are you?" Jinpei's head rose above the edge of the roof as he looked around for them.
"We're across the street. Forty five degrees from the southeast corner of the building."
His head turned in their direction. "Are you planning on spoiling this for me, nee-chan?"
Jun shook her head in wonder. Though she couldn't see his face, Jun was sure that Frost was smiling. She sighed. "No, Jinpei, I wasn't planning on it. We'll just cover you."
Nodding from his perch, Jinpei crawled along the edge of the roof towards the main door. With infinite care, he slowly inched his way over the lip and looked down. Jun watched with held breath as he brought his arm down, tranq in hand. After he'd pulled the trigger twice, both guards slumped slowly to the ground.
"Hah! Piece of cake!"
"Don't get cocky, Jinpei, this isn't over yet," Jun said. "Keep watch while we cross over."
Slipping silently past Jun, Frost carefully checked the sides of the open park area. Before she could think of stopping him, he made a dash towards the far stone building. Forcibly holding herself in check, Jun waited until he was past the halfway mark before going after him. Inwardly, Jun fumed at his stunt, even as she was flattered by it. For though his trying to protect her was a sweet gesture, she was the expert here, not him. He could be hurt. It was up to her to take the risks. She wouldn't let him do it again.
Reaching the stone steps, Jun held Frost back for a moment as she took out a small device from the side of her backpack and scanned the area for any surveillance devices. "It looks okay." She put the device away. "Let's prop these guys up before anyone notices that something's amiss."
"Your wish is my command."
Jun's head snapped around to stare at Frost, just as a momentary gasp turned into a string of soft giggles in her ear. Up to this point, Frost's staunch silence had been a little unnerving, but it might be that soon she would learn to prefer him that way.
As if he had no idea of what he'd just said, Frost moved by her to do as she'd suggested. Shaking her head slowly, Jun moved to do the same.
Grabbing one of the unconscious Galactor guards, she carefully lifted him into a semi-upright position. Reaching down, she locked his knees into place and leaned him up against the wall. "How does it look up there, Jinpei?"
"All clear so far, nee-chan."
Nodding at the answer, Jun then turned her attention to the building's metal door. There were no handles visible on it, but there was a numbered keypad embedded into the wall beside it. Distractedly, Jun removed her backpack and reached for a small toolkit inside. Prying the keypad's outer panel open, she stared intently at the mesh of wires and sensors within. Working quickly, she added some new connectors to bypass the main system and reset it with her own code.
Slipping her backpack back on, Jun nodded at Frost before triggering the door. It slid upward with a silent rush. Jun instantly rolled into the room tranq gun in hand.
The interior hallway was dark save for the light flooding in from the outside. Seeing no immediate danger, Jun moved back outside and quickly replaced the keypads outer casing. "Jinpei, we're going inside," she said. "Keep an eye on things out here."
As soon as she and Frost had made it inside, Jun shut the door behind them. The light intensifying aspect of their visors lit up the darkness. So, for the moment, Jun ignored the large switch she spotted on the wall and instead turned her attention to the contents of the room.
A functional desk as well as several chairs crowded the end of the hallway. A drinking fountain filled a recess in the wall. Propaganda covered all the walls, with a large picture of Berg Katse hanging near the front door. Two other doors stood closed on opposite sides of the hallway not five feet before them.
Frost signaled that he would take the door on the right. Giving him a slight nod, Jun started towards the other. Both quietly approached their objectives from the side. Acting in unison, they threw their respective doors open. They both lunged in and rolled, Jun clearly hearing Frost's pain filled grunt as they did so.
Jun's room was unlit and appeared to be empty of life. Keeping her tranq gun at the ready, she slowly retreated to the doorway, looking for any signs of movement.
From her vantage point, she could see an array of instruments crowding the room from one side to the other. A number of headsets rested on the long table among them. There was a matching stool for every headset. Also a large video screen looked down into the room from one corner with a large switchboard set on the side. After taking a quick, but more thorough survey of the equipment within, Jun left the room to go check on Frost.
As she entered his room, she found the prince busily checking over the large span of equipment that filled that room as well. "Ken, this is Jun. The building is now secure. I'm pretty sure that it's the communication center for both the town and the base." She watched Frost as he continued working. "So far, we've found an elaborate switching system with a number of overrides and tapping devices. From what I can tell, they shut down all communications in town at night."
"Good," Ken's voice whispered to her over the comm system. "Keep the lines shut and see if you can fix the system so it can't be activated from the outside. Maintain your position until we've found all the guards."
As Jun switched her communicator back to its default setting, Frost slowly raised his visor after turning on the lights in the room.
"All this scanning equipment is set on standby," he said. "They wouldn't have known we were coming even if we'd landed on top of them... Very sloppy."
Jun raised her own visor. "You make it sound as if you cared."
Frost smiled. "Of course! It's making our work all that much easier. I'm always for that."
Jinpei remained outside on the roof as a lookout. Jun set Frost to disabling the scanning equipment while she tackled the communications setup in the next room. She'd set her backpack against the wall and was about to immerse herself in her work when a call came over the comm.
"Ken, I've found the main entrance." It was Joe. "It's northwest of our entry point. It has a pretty sophisticated looking security lock on it, but it shouldn't give us too much trouble when we're ready for it."
"Have you seen any signs of the guards' main quarters?" Ken asked.
"Not yet." Joe's tone implied that he'd have the situation remedied before long.
Ten minutes later, Jun joined Frost and began poking through the papers of an - until recently - locked cabinet. While they were sifting through them, Ken's voice came up on the comm.
"Team, I've found the guards' sleeping quarters. They shouldn't be bothering us for some time."
Jun smiled at the words, guessing at Joe's chagrin for not having made the discovery first.
"It doesn't look like all the guards were here, however, so everyone keep your eyes open, we may need to deal with some stragglers."
"Roger." Jun went back to what she'd been doing.
"It looks like it won't be long before the show begins."
Jun glanced over at Frost as he laid down a numbers of papers he'd been skimming through to stare at her expectantly.
"With any luck, everything will go as planned and we can get you back to Colten so he can stop worrying about you," she said.
Frost's gray eyes danced lightly at her remark. "With that, I'd only be too happy to oblige." He bowed deeply before her and bade Jun to lead the way. "Have you ever thought of what you'll do once the fight with Galactor is over?"
Jun threw Frost a quick glance over her shoulder, curious as to why he was asking her such a thing. "I - I've always tried not to think about it," she admitted. "Though everyday I pray that this conflict will come to an end, sometimes I'm not all that sure that it ever will." Jun looked away, surprised she was telling him this. She'd never even mentioned these things to Jinpei. "We've defeated Galactor so many times, but we seem no closer to stopping them now than when we started... I dread that someday our luck will run out and we'll lose." She felt a light shudder run through her. "If something happened to us, there'd be nothing standing in Galactor's way. The world might lose all hope then..."
"You five carry such a great burden."
Jun heard him walk up behind her and she didn't resist as he gently embraced her from behind.
The warmth, the comfort was so great and unexpected that Jun eye's instantly filled with tears. She wanted to let go, to weep freely in the protection of his arms - and for the first time truly share her doubts and fears with someone who'd understand yet wasn't directly connected to her work. It would be safe to share her innermost secrets with Frost, she knew this in her heart. But, but she couldn't afford to do this now. It wasn't the right time or place. Still it was so tempting!
Hesitatntly, Jun forced herself to push away from Frost's protective warmth. She dared not look at him, as a part of her yearned to do nothing but return to it. "We'd better get busy. It shouldn't be long now."
Trying to ignore his unignorable presence, Jun moved on to the last set of controls, making the equipment ready for what was to come. They didn't have long to wait.
"All right team, we're set here." Ken's voice came clearly over the comm set. "Jun, if you and Frost are ready, go for it."
Her reflective visor back in place, Jun nodded towards Frost. Nodding back, the prince began flipping a low row of bright green switches on the wall.
Lights that had lain dormant over the town outside, blazed to life.
"Oh! That's bright!" Jinpei's surprised voice rang just a little too loudly in their ears.
"Are you ready?" Jun glanced at Frost, sliding up a number of the horizontal bars on the console before her.
Removing his helmet, Frost sat down on the stool next to her and brought forward a large microphone from the wall. Jun turned a large dial as Frost stared at the waiting microphone in silence. He slowly ran his hand through his light hair before he spoke.
"People of station A-137, good morning." Frost paused as his voice roared over the town through the building's external speakers. Jun winced at the slight whine of feedback that followed.
"My name is Michael Frost and I have come today to give you an opportunity. It is one which, in all likelihood, I'll only be able to present to you this once." He paused for a moment, before pressing on.
"I was once, like you, an unwilling guest of the mighty Galactor machine. Like you, I'd heard the whispers, the rumors, about the unspeakable truths regarding the organization. Yet, unlike you, I am now free of their grasp! Yes, free." Frost paused again. "It can be done, it has been done. And now I wish to extend an opportunity to you to gain that same freedom. I offer you a haven from those who would oppress you and use you against those you love."
Jun turned to her left, a small red warning light catching at her attention. She activated her comm link. "Ken, someone is trying to communicate with this facility from the outside. We might be running out of time."
"All right," he answered. "Try to speed things up as much as you can then. We need to get these people out of here as soon as possible."
Lifting her visor, Jun cupped her hand over the comm and spoke to her companion. "Frost, we may have a complication. We need to try and move them out now."
The prince nodded slightly, acknowledging Jun's whisper, before speaking into the microphone again. "As quickly as you can, gather up your loved ones and start moving towards the main doors of the station. I realize that you have no reason to believe that my offer is genuine and unfortunately I don't have the time to try and convince you otherwise. No one will be forced to come with us. The choice will be entirely up to you. But remember, I'll only be able to give you this offer this once. It may be your only chance to ever escape Galactor." He took a deep breath. "My companions and I are dressed in black. We will meet you at the doors. Please hurry."
Frost pushed away the microphone and shut it down and then reached for his helmet. He glanced once at Jun as he put it in place.
"Jinpei, we're coming out."
Frost quickly followed Jun out of the room. Once they'd made it outside, they met Jinpei at the building's steps. Her brother was impatiently swinging one of the unconscious guard's arms back and forth.
Jun couldn't believe it. "Jinpei!"
He jumped back as if stung. "I'm not hurting anything, nee-chan! Besides, they're kinda cute this way, ne?"
"We'll talk about that later." Jun grabbed her brother's arm and led him down the steps, with a grinning Frost bringing up the rear.
Following the wide road on the other side of the small park, they quickly moved in the direction of the main doors. Unlike before, they made no efforts to disguise their presence and instead walked down the middle of the street where they'd be easily seen. People slowly came out of their homes and stared at the three of them, their faces filled with confusion and fear. Jun, Frost, and Jinpei tried to beckon to them as best they could, trying to encourage them to follow.
By the time the three of them reached the doors, a trickle of townspeople were timidly approaching.
The large, twenty-foot door was only slightly open as a frustrated Joe kicked violently at the disassembled panel beside it. "Open damn you!"
The door hesitantly slid open the rest of the way.
"Hah! I haven't lost my touch." Joe stared smugly at the open door.
"Don't congratulate yourself quite yet, there's still the outer doors to be taken care of."
Joe snapped around to stare at Ken, and though they couldn't see it through the visor, Jun was sure his expression wasn't pleasant. "Maybe we could blow that one up? I definitely could do that." His voice filled with excitement. "It's been just too quiet around here. We need a little bang."
"No, we don't want to scare these people," Ken answered. "I'm sure with a little patience, you'll be able to open those doors the old fashioned way."
Jun turned from where she'd been inspecting the butchered panel to look at her two teammates. "We'll take care of it, Ken. If the outer door system is the same as this one, it shouldn't prove to difficult." She felt herself smile. "You two can deal with our arriving visitors." Before Joe and Ken could say anything, Jun grabbed Frost and moved quickly up the ramp in the direction of the outer doors.
They almost jogged up the rising incline until they reached a set of horizontally placed metal slabs. As Jun looked over the controls off to the right of them, Frost's labored breathing came through clearly over the comm. She frowned. "This shouldn't take long."
"Anything... I can do to... help?"
Jun shook her head no, but then changed her mind. "Sure. Would you hold these for me?" She handed him the small tool kit from her backpack and opened it in his hands.
Jun had been concentrating on the panel before her when Frost's voice broke the silence. "It seems... like old times, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?" She frowned, still concentrating on the work before her.
"Well, you and I are here, in a Galactor facility, alone in a deserted corridor, surrounded by softly glowing red lights."
Jun stopped what she was doing and looked about her. What Frost said was true. Because of the properties of the visor, she hadn't noticed the red lighting until now.
"And once again," he continued. "We're stuck working on a door. One which could make the difference between freedom or becoming lost forever."
Jun shook her head, goose bumps rising on her arms at the strange similarities. "I'm sure we'll be as successful here as we were there."
"I never doubted it." Was the prince's soft reply.
With a small smile, Jun returned to work.
Almost five minutes later, the giant slabs opened silently before them. A cold breeze poured in hungrily towards them as a bright field of stars was revealed above. With a satisfied smile, Jun reached up to change the setting on her communicator. "Ken, the doors are open."
"Great." His voice came through loud and clear. "We're still gathering the townspeople together. We'll start sending them up as soon as the majority arrive. Meanwhile, I'd like the two of you to check the area outside and make sure it's clear. Try and find a likely landing site for Ryu as well."
Jun retrieved her backpack and placed her tools back inside. Looking up, she found Frost at her side. "Are you up to this? I could go at it alone."
Frost bowed slowly in her direction. "Please lead on."
Jun would have preferred he'd replied otherwise, but didn't say anything. Instead she slowly scanned the area beyond the doors, glad that the visor kept him from seeing the concerned expression she knew she wore.
Seeing nothing unusual in the rocky, lifeless landscape, Jun stepped out into the open. Frost moved up silently beside her. They circled the immediate and finding it clear, moved on farther out.
"Ken, the best landing area seems to be right around the entrance itself," Jun spoke softly into her communicator. "The rest of the region is too cluttered for the God Phoenix."
"Any sign of any more guards?"
"Not yet, but this area is much rockier than what we ran across before. It'd be awfully easy to hide here if you didn't want to be seen." Jun's eyes never stopped roaming over the crag filled terrain.
"I'll call Ryu and have him land as close to the doors as possible," Ken said. "That should give the civilians some cover if something goes wrong. In the mean time, keep an eye out but don't take any risks. Meet us back at the entrance in fifteen."
"Roger." Jun glanced over her shoulder at Frost, and then frowned as she noticed his back was to her, his body tense. "Frost, what is it?"
"I'm not sure... I thought I saw something."Jun followed the direction of his gaze but could see nothing untoward. It didn't reassure her. "Let's stick to the shadows and start back."