It must have been an impressive city once, but no one could tell that now, not after the last series of attacks. The taller buildings had been knocked down to near ground level; the smaller ones had been crudely braced with wreckage from the others and made into primitive forts and shelters. No life could be seen on the streets; the few survivors kept themselves well hidden until after dark, when they'd emerge to forage. In daylight they disappeared out of necessity. But within the shell of an old church five figures were very much awake and alert as they kept watch.
"You really think they'll come back?" asked the Owl.
"They'll have to," replied the Eagle. "They'll keep sending in troops until they finish taking over an area."
"That's them all over," from the Condor. "Never stop until they crush a place.
The Swan and the Swallow had been scanning the skies and listening for the sound of the enemy. Then they all stiffened as they caught the familiar hum of the great carriers. Quietly they took their positions as the massive doors slid open and the green-uniformed men swarmed over the area, ready to take anyone they found. But they weren't ready for Gatchaman. The five swooped down on the troops and dozens fell before they could grasp what was happening. The fighting was fast and furious as always, and in no time the remaining troops had beaten a hasty retreat.
Suddenly the dark form of the Condor was encased in a shimmering white light which grew brighter and brighter until nothing more could be seen. Then it started to fade until he could be seen again, blinking and looking stunned.
The Eagle was the first to reach him.
"Joe, what happened? You okay?"
The familiar blue eyes turned to focus on Ken, who repeated, "Joe?"
And a stranger's voice asked, "Who?"
* * * * *
When the lights first appeared, Joe's first reaction was, "Oh, NO, not again!" He felt himself being spun around, helpless, worse than the last time when he was dying. But when the lights cleared, he wondered if he HADN'T died. He was back at what looked exactly like Crescent Coral with the others gathered around him. Stiff and perplexed, he sat up and asked, "What happened? Where am I? Why are you wearing your old clothes?
They all blinked at him in puzzlement, and Jun said, "You're at Centre Neptune, of course. Jason, are you all right?"
"My name isn't Jason and you haven't answered my question. What happened?"
Ken asked, "Don't you remember? You were chosen to test-run the new transporter system. You were phased out and then brought back. How do you feel?"
Joe said nothing but glared around at his surroundings. "Just what's going on here?" he thought. "I'm not dead, I'm asleep and having the mother of all nightmares. Any moment I'll wake up and..."
Jinpei put his hands on top of his head, looked at the ceiling, and said, "Arrrr...broop-beep...must have...whirrr...scrambled his....toot toot...brains."
Joe's eyes bulged and his jaw dropped. "What the %*#@ was THAT?"
Horrified, Jun clapped her hands over Jinpei's ears. "JASON!! Your language!!!
Finally realizing that this wasn't a dream, Joe got up and said, "I'm NOT Jason; I AM losing my patience; and I want to know WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?!?!"
Ken put a hand on his shoulder and started to say soothingly, "Take it easy, buddy. You're just...UULLLRRRGHHH!!!"
Joe had grabbed him by the T-shirt and was holding him out at arm's length.
"ENOUGH! Who are you and what am I doing here?"
"I...hey...I told you...c'mon....you're at Centre Neptune...with us..."
Joe growled in frustration and flung the leader at the wall. But instead of his usual countermove (which was twist in mid-air, spring off the wall, cartwheel and attack) he hit the wall flat on, with a sickening crack, and then dropped on the floor, out cold. The others were speechless with shock until Jun gasped, "Jason, how COULD you?"
Joe howled, "FOR THE LAST TIME, I AM NOT JASON!!!" and stormed out of the room.
Tiny waited until he was well out of earshot before muttering, "I'll say you're not..."
* * * * *
It took Jason a few moments to realize that he wasn't back where he'd started from - they were outside, and in uniform. The others were all looking at him, quite concerned. Mark asked, "What happened?"
Jason tried to clear his head. "I don't know...I was testing the new transporter..."
"The new one, back at Centre Neptune..."
"Centre Neptune, remember?"
"Joe, what are you talking about?"
"My name isn't Joe..."
"I know, it's really George..."
"...but that's what we always call you."
Key-Op snorted, "Doesn't even remember his own name!"
Jason stared at him in surprise. "Hey, what happened to your voice?"
The boy glared at him. "Whaddaya mean, my voice? YOU sound like you been suckin' helium!"
Suddenly Tiny yelled, "Heads up! Reinforcements!" as new troops appeared. This time they aimed directly for the five, who sprang into action at once. Jason joined in, as always, launched his own attack on them as always - and found himself being creamed three ways from Sunday. Several of the goons, seeing the Condor unable to fight, jumped on him as well and kept him down.
"Hang on, Joe. we're coming!" Tiny had what looked like a long chain with a vicious hook at the end. This he swung aound the neck of the topmost Spectran, pulling him off and taking a few others along as well. Key-op had something like his old weapon, but he was using it to full advantage, taking out a few more. Princess kept touching her shoulder, at which point a glowing light net sprang out and stunned anyone it contacted. And Mark...Jason could only stare at him: He's never fought like that before! And where did all those weapons come from? Finally he drew a light sabre and routed the remaining troops.
Slowly Jason got to his feet, the others gathering around him again, looking quizzical and worried.
"Joe, what happened back there?"
"I'm NOT Joe!"
"Of course you are!"
"You sure, aniki?"
"Sorry, O-nee-chan...but he wasn't much help."
"It was the light, wasn't it, Joe? What did it do to you?"
Jason looked all around, at the ground which was littered with the fallen ranks, and at his team, who had suddenly become very unfamiliar.
"I'm NOT JOE!!!" he wailed.
The Owl looked at him in disgust. "I'll say you're not."
Suddenly one of the wounded made a rush for the Condor. The Eagle reacted first, slicing him in half with his sword.
* * * * *
Joe's wanderings took him in and out of the building, whose resemblance to Crescent Coral was beginning to fade. Oh, most of the rooms looked the same, but they were in the wrong order and many were missing. Nobody stopped or questioned him, though he did hear the name Jason, and "Hey, nice shirt!" a little too often. He found a room he didn't recognize at all, with bright colours on the walls, little furniture, and a giant vid-screen on one wall. He started checking it out, while sorting out the last few minutes in his mind.
"So," he thought, "Suddenly I'm not where I was. I'm somewhere else. And the team - if it IS the team - is acting very strangely. Possibility one: it's a Galactor trap. They did this before, with Ken, making him think he was in the future. That could be it; they're clumsy enough to be Galactor....aw, no, even Gel Sadra wasn't this bad. It's their idea of a joke, that's what it is. Let's confuse Joe. Right, wait til I get hold of them..."
While Joe pondered several possibilities for revenge, the vid-screen lit up with the image of a silver and gold robot.
"There you are, Jason!" it said. "What on earth got into you?"
He regarded it with some amusement and went on with his search. It continued, "Report to security immediately!" Joe still ignored it, but the voice was beginning to grate on his nerves. "Jason! Didn't you hear me? You're to report to..."
A well aimed ping pong paddle put an end to the chattering. Joe moved on in his explorations, thinking, ...but if this is a joke, where did this building come from? Maybe it is Galactor, and they're trying to drive me crazy. And at this rate, they may well succeed.
He thought of the robot and shook his head. As he passed down the corridor, a number of security guards appeared beside him. They regarded him warily, and one stepped forward.
"Uh, Jason? Uh...you're to come with us."
"To, uh, security. They, uh, want to ask you some, you know, questions."
"Suppose I tell you I'm not Jason?"
They looked taken aback and the others clustered around the spokesman.
"Then...they'd still want to see you. Now, come with us...please?"
Well, why not? thought Joe. Maybe I'll get some answers to all of this. And if not, at least I'll know who to ask.
They led him to an area which seemed more familiar; it used to be Dr. Nambu's office. The guards led him up to the door.
"Right in here," the leader said. "They're waiting for you." And the others backed away, grateful their job was finished. Joe opened the door, to find the team clustered around a desk. Whoever was in the chair had their back to them, until the Jun-clone tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The chair swivelled around, revealing...
"Hakase?!" gasped Joe. "But you're dead!"
The others flinched in shock, but the Chief recovered quickly. "Don't you wish," was his dry retort. "I think a few explanations are in order."
"Certainly. Go ahead."
"I wouldn't be too flip if I were you, Jason."
Joe leaned forward, his eyes going cold. "The next person who calls me Jason - and I don't care who it is - is going to find themselves having an intimate relationship with a shuriken."
Several pairs of eyes glassed over and the Ken-clone leaned towards the Chief and said, "He's been like that since we got back."
"I see. All right, what do we call you?"
"What are you playing at?" demanded Joe. "You know who I am: Joe Asakura, known as the Condor, known as G-2, known as Oh-God-it's-HIM-again...."
"Any other names?"
"Yes, but there's women and children present."
"I see. You can go now, but don't leave the complex. I'll want to run some tests later."
Joe left, leaving a very puzzled G-Force behind him. Princess asked, "Chief, you're not going to just let him go, are you?"
"Don't worry, I'll have Zark keep tabs on him. In the meantime, I want that transporter checked out end to end. I want to know exactly what happened in there!"
* * * * *
Back at Fort Phoenix, Jason was lying on a table in the medical wing. After recovering from his ordeal, he proved to be in such bad shape emotionally that Ken ordered a sedative.
"That won't stop Joe," snorted Jinpei.
"If that's Joe...which I doubt," retorted Ryu.
Jun looked at the semi-conscious form, said, "Wait a minute," and dashed out of the room. She returned a moment later with a small black plastic box, about three inches by two, with miniscule red lights on it. She ran it over Jason from head to toe; it flickered briefly over his belt and bracelet, but otherwise remained unlit. She frowned at this and turned to Ken. "That's NOT Joe."
She explained briefly and Ken summoned security to run some more tests. The results were puzzling in the extreme: what they had was someone who looked like Joe, right down to the fingerprints, but minus the cybernetics. And absolutely no memory of who he was. What he could remember bore no relation to Joe's life.
This was the dilemma faced by Gatchaman as they consulted with Kamo, their co-ordinator.
"All right," said Ken. "Input. What are we dealing with?"
From Jinpei: "It looks like Joe..."
"...but it sure doesn't act like him," finished Ryu. "Someone else?"
"A Galactor spy?" guessed Jun.
"He's clumsy enough to be one," muttered Jinpei.
"Aw, come on, even Gel Sadra wasn't this bad!"
"He doesn't act like a spy. There's another possiblity: a clone."
There was silence for a moment as they considered this angle, then Jun said, "It would explain the fingerprints. But is Galactor capable of that?"
"They were responsible for Berg Katse and Gel Sadra." said Kamo.
Ken was still brooding. "What bothers me is that memory of his. A spy, any spy, would have to be as much like Joe as possible. This one acts like somone wiped his memories and rewrote them."
He looked over at Jun, who was studying Jason with a look of troubled concern.
She started, then came back to the table. "I'm sorry, it's just that he looks so much like Joe. And he's miserable, poor thing."
Ken looked at her, then at Jason, then at Jun again, and then burst into a wide smile.
"That's it! Good thinking, Jun!"
"I want you to ask our friend some questions."
Sometime later, armed with a stack of photographs, Jun entered the room where Jason had been trying to get his mental bearings. She approached him with a warm smile.
"Hi, how are you feeling now?"
"Not bad, all things considered."
"Good. Why don't you tell me what you can remember?"
"About anything. Start where you like."
"Well, like I said, I was doing the test run on the new transporter and it worked fine when they sent me out. But when they brought me back I was in the field with you guys, and then the Spectrans attacked, and then you started fighting...where did you get all those neat weapons? Are they new? What's mine like?"
Jun's eyes got wider and wider. I don't believe I'm hearing this, she thought. "Ummm....we want to run some more tests, to see how you were affected by the, um, transporter."
"Sure thing, Princess."
Who?! "Ah...right. Tell me what you can about yourself."
"Name, Jason Thomas; age, eighteen and six months; ID number 479325; weapons expert for G-Force; I race cars when I can and you all think I'm too hot-headed."
"You?" thought Jun. "I'm going to show you some photos and I want you to identify them." She held up a picture of Ken.
"That's Mark, of course."
She smiled weakly. "Of course." She continued with a shot of Ryu. "That's Tiny." he said. And so it continued: he identified Jinpei as Key-Op, Nambu as Anderson, Anderson as the President, and Berg Katse as Zoltar; denied ever seeing Fort Phoenix, Kamo, or G-Town; and fell into hysterical laughter at GelSadra.
"Is that it?" he asked, finally.
"I guess so." Jun's brain was still reeling.
"When do I get to see Zark?"
"7-Zark-7, our robot co-ordinator."
She riffled through the photo's for the New God Phoenix's robot pilot. "You mean Pimer?"
"No, quit playing games. I mean Zark. Hey, is Mark in trouble about that Spectran? He'll be all right, won't he? Hey, you don't look so good; you feel okay?"
Glassy-eyed, she strode out of the room, past Ryu, past Jimpei, threw the photos at Ken, and screamed. Loudly.
* * * * *
In his office, Chief Anderson watched the images on one of the many video screens. It was a computerized breakdown of the new transporter system and the tests they had been running on it, but so far there didn't seem to be any weak spots or malfunctions. 7-Zark-7 appeared on another screen.
"I simply can't understand it," he sighed. "I've checked out that entire system from stem to stern and there doesn't seem to be anything mechanically wrong with it."
"That doesn't explain what happened to Jason," was the curt reply. "Something happened to him in there and now he's acting like a refugee from a Clint Eastwood movie."
"Well, my calculations indicate that the only possible area for error is the effect of the matter-shifting energy on the human brain cell."
"In other words, the action of transporting caused a personality shift."
"Or as you scientists would say, he scrambled his egg - heeheehee. Er - that was just a little humour, Chief."
"EXTREMELY little, Zark. Continue your tests and monitor Jason at all times."
"That won't be easy, you know. Every time I contact him on a vid screen, he throws something at it. Just now, it was his fist."
The Chief sighed. "Get maintenance on that at once. And don't let Jason out of your sight: follow him yourself, if you have to."
The communication ended abruptly and Anderson went back to trying to work out the puzzle. He tried contacting Jason on his bracelet but there was no response. He then contacted Princess and summoned her to the office.
"I need your help with this. So far Jason's resisted all attempts to determine the extent of the damage to his system. You've always been closer to him than the others; try to find out what happened, and see if you can't talk him into co-operating."
"But can't you get the security guards to bring him in?"
"We're already low on manpower, I can't afford to have any more in sickbay. Force doesn't work, but perhaps you could persuade him."
"Is that a request or an order?"
"Let's consider it a request."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then it's an order."
She sighed gloomily. "Okay, Chief. My will's in the top drawer of my desk."
Joe completed his exploration of Centre Neptune and returned to what they'd said were his quarters on base, where he tried again to fit the pieces together. It was like being in the middle of a very bad parody of Gatchaman -rather like some fanzines he'd seen. What had happened was obviously tied into this transporter they kept talking about. It seemed the best place to start.
Princess knocked at the door, and upon hearing his gruff "Yes?" timidly poked her head inside. "Hi. I, um, was wondering - how are you feeling?"
Joe looked at her, dismissed her as any threat, and decide to play it cagey. "I don't know. How am I supposed to feel?"
"You certainly weren't yourself earlier."
I'll say I wasn't, he thought "I suppose not. Tell me something..."
"If I can."
"Just what happened?"
"That's what they're trying to find out now. Tell me what you remember."
"I mean I keep getting called by a name that's not mine, I don't remember half the rooms here, all the names are different, and who's that crummy robot that keeps popping up everywhere?"
"You mean Zark?"
"Whatever. Look, my name's Joe Asakura, I work for ISO with Gatchaman, and we're stationed at Fort Phoenix. Now what's your side of it?"
Princess was momentarily stunned by the onslaught. Then she began timidly, "Well, your name is...I mean, we've always known you as Jason, we've always been G-Force, and we've always been here at Centre Neptune. Look, why don't we go and get you checked out with the medical department? I'm sure they..."
"Never mind them - what about this transporter?"
"They're still running tests on that as well."
"Then let's check it out, too."
"Oh, I...I don't think we..."
But he was already pulling her along by the hand. "Come on. Maybe I can help them." He half-dragged, half-coaxed her along until they reached the room where the equipment was kept. It was now surrounded by security guards, who said, "Hey, you can't..." just before they were bowled over by Joe.
Inside, 7-Zark-7 (unably assisted by 1-Rover-1) and several technicians were still running tests on the transport ray section.
"Princess! This is a surprise. What brings you here?"
She pointed at Joe. "He wants to help."
"Oh, my...are you sure you're up to it? That was a terrible shock you had. You haven't been yourself at all."
1-Rover-1 had come over to where they were standing and started nudging at Joe.
"What the #%&@?!"
Princess cringed. "He just wants to play, that's all. Here, boy, fetch!" She picked up a screwdriver and flung it across the room, Joe watching in disbelief. But when the blasted thing started spinning its tail and flew over to retrieve it, Joe was for once speechless.
"Now that's quite enough, 1-Rover-1," scolded Zark. "We're not here to play, you know. This is serious business!"
Princess said, "Ja - uh, I mean, Joe, maybe we should go back?"
Zark chimed in, "Perhaps we can run those tests on you now. They won't take long."
Before Joe could refuse, 1-Rover-1 (having failed to get his attention) gave him a short nip on the leg. Joe bellowed in rage and booted the thing through the wall. The guards, who were coming in to see what the noise was, were knocked down again by the Condor's exit.
"And he was doing so well," lamented Princess.
All Zark could say was, "Oh, my."
To complicate matters, the battle alarm sounded just then, and G-Force raced to Anderson's office. They found Joe already there, engaged in hot dispute.
"I feel fine," he insisted. "And a good fight will make me feel even better."
"Are you sure you're up to it, though?"
"Chief!" Mark was horrified. "You don't mean he's coming too?"
"Why not?" smiled Joe. "Someone's got to be in charge."
"That's enough," Anderson interjected. "This will let us check his reflexes in action." He continued to brief them, with Joe listening closely. Except for the names, everything sounded pretty much like it usually was, with one notable exception...
"Outer space? Since when?" asked Joe, as the Phoenix shot through the galaxy.
"For the last several decades," replied Mark. "Of course, you wouldn't remember the first Intergalactic Federation..."
"I sure don't.. So where are we headed, exactly?"
"Planet Riga, our closest ally. Planet Spectra has been trying to take it over for years.."
They landed on what looked, felt, and smelled like any city on Earth. Mark, Princess, Key-Op and Joe set out through the deserted streets.
"All right, we've only got two hours to find and destroy the Spectran base."
"Fine; what do I do with the other 110 minutes?"
"Stop joking, Ja---OWW! Princess, what are you..."
"His name, Mark," she muttered under her breath. Joe took this moment to start playing with a steel dart.
Mark glared at him. "Names, huh? I can think of a few names for him."
"But you're not allowed to say them, right, boya?"
"Why you..." Mark was never sure if he'd actually made contact before he was flung into a tree.
The noise of their fight led a team of Spectran soldiers to the area and they marched in, weapons ready. No sooner had G-Force and Joe noticed them than they sprang into action, Joe leading the way before anyone could stop him. He'd always made quick work of the Galactors, but these guys made it so easy that there was no satisfaction in it. Where he could normally clear five Galactors at once, he cleared ten of these with no problem. He continued through them at a great rate until the rest of G-Force finally gave up and just watched as he decimated the ranks. When it was all over he dusted his hands, gave Mark a cool look, and said, "Fine for starters. What's next?"
Mark found his voice and squeaked, "What are you DOING?! You KNOW we're not supposed to use undue force. How am I ever going to explain all this to the Chief?"
"Easy," grinned Joe. "Just tell him we won. Anything else?"
"The base, remember? We've got to find it."
"No problem: just follow the ones who got away." He went jumping off along the route. Mark rubbed his sore ribs and sighed, "I suppose we'd better follow him."
"I'm afraid so. Problem is, where'd he go?"
Just then the ground was rocked by a massive explosion.
"I, uh, think he's over there," said Princess.
Later, back at Centre Neptune, Anderson was having ten different kinds of fits. "How could you let him DO that?!" he stormed.
Mark bridled. "How was I supposed to stop him?"
"Have you any idea what this means? He's broken practically every by-law in the Jupiter Convention. Earth stands a good chance of being barred from the Galactic Federation. I don't know how I'll ever explain this to the Council!"
Mark drooped under the tirade and sighed heavily. "Still," he reflected, "It IS the first time we've done better than break even!"
* * * * *
"Well, what do we do with him now?" asked Ken.
Kamo scratched his head. "Good question. There doesn't seem to be any way to explain this."
"If he is a Galactor, how did they bring him in?" asked Jun.
"It started right after that bright light," offered Jinpei.
"Cloaking device? A diversion?" asked Ryu.
Ken thought about it. "It would have to be incredibly exact: pinpoint Joe and make the change. If this isn't Joe, then Galactor must have him."
"Maybe. Problem is, I can't make any kind of contact with him."
"And I'll tell you something more," broke in Kamo. "We checked out that bracelet of his. He can change into bird style, same as Joe, but it runs on a different energy source. And it broadcasts on a different frequency."
Ken thought this over. "It would seem, then, that our best move is to infiltrate Galactor and see what we can find."
"What do we do with this guy?"
"Keep asking questions until we find out where he comes from."
"He's still sticking to his transporter story..."
"Then start him on truth serum. We've got to have answers. The rest of us will check out Galactor."
* * * * *
Back in his quarters, Joe continued checking out the weapons they'd said were his. On the surface they seemed familiar enough, but not one worked well enough to provide any sort of protection - even a salt shaker would have been more lethal. His steel darts, for instance: regular darts would have had more effect. He'd tried sharpening the tips, but the balance was all wrong: either they flew off course or they had no impact. And his old airgun (or what looked like it) wasn't much better. Joe took it apart for the tenth time, trying to figure out how to adjust it, when a smooth but incredibly irritating voice cut in.
"There you are, Jason! I've nearly slipped a sprocket looking for you! Why haven't you gone for your tests, as ordered?"
"Because I'm not Jason and what's it to you, anyway?"
Zark's lights blinked rapidly. "Why, it's my job to know where you are; I am part of security, you know, and we've been terribly worried about you. I just know something terrible happened to you in that transporter, and that's why you're acting like this."
"Look, there's nothing wrong with me that getting out of here wouldn't cure. I don't belong here."
"Oh, I quite agree. And the sooner you cooperate with us, the sooner you can rejoin G-Force."
"If you want me to cooperate, either get me some real weapons, or %#@& off."
The robot sighed. "I don't understand. You've always been difficult, but never like this. I'm not programmed for hostility."
Joe picked up a screwdriver and waved it menacingly. "Then listen: if you're not out of here by the time I count five, I'm going to reprogram you with a can opener. Do you understand THAT?"
Zark sputtered a bit, then said huffily, "WELL. I'm sure this is beyond me. I'll have to report it to Chief Anderson." And he wheeled away in offended silence, Joe watching coldly.
"You," he thought, "will have to go." He finished putting the gun back together and aimed at a book on the shelf. The missile knocked it over without even denting it. "You couldn't cut tofu with this thing," he thought as he took it apart in disgust. "If I could get my hands on some spare parts, I might be able to rebuild it. But where do I get them? There's still the car, but..."
1-Rover-1 wandered in and sat down, looking at Joe expectantly with that loopy look of his. Joe cursed the interruption and went back to his work, thinking, "Blasted robot dog..."
...robot dog. ROBOT dog! Joe looked again; it was still there. He picked up a wrench and dangled it invitingly.
"Here, fellow," he coaxed. "Come on - good boy. That's a nice, dumb, doggy!"
A few minutes later 1-Rover-1 was in little pieces, strewn across the worktable. From the components Joe chose the ones he'd need for his plans. The secret lay in the transporter and Joe had a pretty good guess as to what happened. Judging by everyone's reaction, he obviously had a counterpart who had made a test run, and somehow they'd got Joe instead. His best bet was to try the machine again - if he could get that pesky robot out of the way. And even if it didn't work, it couldn't be worse than being stuck here.
Oddly enough, he'd always been the one who snorted in derision whenever the topic of parallel dimensions had come up. Dr. Nambu had strongly believed in them. "It's a possibility we should be prepared for," he used to say. "It would be me that proved him right," thought Joe wryly. Then he thought, "I wonder what my double's like?"
* * * * *
His double, at that moment, had a potent dosage of sodium pentothal in him and was bleakly reiterating all the information about himself that they kept asking.
"Honest, I know as much about this as you do," he protested to an unconvinced Kamo. If he hadn't been such an ineffectual wimp, the older man might have felt sorry for him.. Instead, he desperately wished for anything to break this impasse.
"Look," he said finally, "All we want is to know where Joe is and why you're here."
"I DON'T KNOW!!! I keep telling you, all I know is what I said!"
"You mean that tale about a transporter."
"IT'S TRUE!!! It's still at Centre Neptune!"
"Never heard of it. Where is it?"
Jason gave him the coordinates, Kamo did some rapid checking, and came back more confused than ever.
"That's where Crescent Coral used to be, and it never had a transporter."
"It's called Centre Neptune and it HAS got one, I was just there! You can ask Chief Anderson."
"You mean President Anderson, and he's been dead for several months.," was the reply.
Jason looked startled. "Dead? He can't be, I just saw him..."
He picked up a photo from the stack. "How can he be dead?"
Kamo looked at it, then pulled out another. "THIS is President Anderson. That," tapping the one Jason held, "is Doctor Nambu."
"But he was killed a week ago."
The coordinator checked his watch; it was too soon to administer another dose.
"I'm going to leave you alone for a while. The sooner you cooperate, the sooner you can get out of here."
Jason sank back into the couch, hurt, confused, and very unhappy. It was all so different: the places were different, the names were different, the weapons...there was no Chief, no Ready Room, no Zark...
No Zark. For the first time since his ordeal started, Jason smiled.
"This is too easy," thought Joe as he ran through the computer files, retrieving the information he needed. "I mean, even if they really think I'm this Jason jerk they ought to doublecheck it. Dr. Nambu would have had a fit; I could have been anyone. Berg Katse would've had a field day here."
He continued his work, thinking that the only advantage to this place was the amount of information that was logged and accessible. From the records he could trace the routine of any employee; check the atmospheric conditions at any time, as well as any changes; and projected forecasts. From all this, Joe discovered that during the transporter run there had been a meteor belt passing between the origin point and the destination. According to the computer it was a wide belt which would move out of the area in just over an hour. That meant he had to get them to recreate the experiment, and soon. Problem was, the machine was still being tested and would need to be reassembled. And the information on how to do that was kept in only one location: Zark's memory banks. Maybe with a little smooth talking a lot of sophistry he could con the robot into cooperating. Checking his equipment once more, he set off for the transporter room.
* * * * *
Kamo paced around, puffing on his pipe like an antiquated steam engine. He was still getting nowhere, nor had Gatchaman contacted him. He was reluctantly about to resume the interrogation when Ken and Jun raced in.
"What happened? What is it?"
"They must have been expecting us," said Ken. "It was a trap."
"So they have got Joe, then."
Jun shook her head. "We didn't see him. But now they've got Ryu and Jinpei."
Ken jerked his thumb towards the room.
"None. It's like playing a broken record."
Ken looked thoughtful. "Can we really be positive that this isn't Joe? Apart from his attitude, I mean."
"He's no cyborg, but he's got some gizmos in him," offered Kamo.
Jun looked puzzled. "Like Joe's?"
"No, much smaller and compact."
"Oh, so that's why..."
"Why what?" asked Ken.
"Not important. But you don't really think this can be Joe, do you?"
"Not Joe exactly, but....do you remember something Dr. Nambu mentioned once? He called it a parallel universe, one similar to ours but existing on another plane?"
"I remember him talking about it, but I never really understood it. What are you getting at?"
"Nothing this guy remembers matches Joe in any way - EXCEPT for that bright light. It's exactly the same as the one we saw.."
Jun and Kamo still looked blank, so he continued.
"Everything we've been going on has been guesswork, based on what we know. What if we bring in the unknown? Maybe this isn't Joe, but if there is such a thing as a parallel universe, this could be his counterpart."
"It would explain a lot," said Jun, thoughtfully.
"If we took him with us, we could see if there's any other similarities. He must have been trained to fight at some time."
"It's too risky," objected Kamo.
"I'm willing to take that risk. We've got to go back for the others, and we'll need all the help we can get.
* * * * *
Joe approached the transporter room, immediately putting the guards on the defensive. With his best attempt at affability, he put a bland expression on his face and in his voice."Hi, fellas. What's up?"
Nonplussed, they lowered their guns and looked at him.
"What are you doing back here?"
"Zark sent for me. It's about what happened during the test."
The guards looked at each other, then at Joe, then finally said, "Yeah, well, then I guess it's okay." They stepped aside.
Inside, Zark looked up from his tinkering. "Why, Jason! What a surprise! What brings you here?"
With difficulty, Joe force himself to sound pleasant. "About the transporter: I think we should try it out again."
"Oh, but we haven't finished all our tests yet..."
"You mean you haven't found an explanation yet. Never mind those; if we try the run again, things might sort themselves out back to normal."
"Oh, that WOULD be nice! But it isn't in working order right now."
Joe looked at the clock, heart sinking. "How long to get it working?"
"Not long, but I don't have the authority to fix it."
"I thought you said YOU were in charge of security here."
"Oh, I am, but I have to be cleared by Chief Anderson first. And he's in a meeting right now."
And I couldn't buffalo him anyway, thought Joe grimly. It'll have to be the hard way.
"I want that machine ready to go in five minutes. Are you going to cooperate?"
"Now, Jason, you've always been impetuous, but..."
"ARE YOU GOING TO COOPERATE?!"
"I'm not programmed to deal with insubordination.."
Joe produced his rebuilt airgun and pointed it straight at the robot. "Put it back together...NOW!"
"Well, really! This is most irregular!"
"YOU will be most irregular in another second. Get to work!"
Zark hesitated and Joe shot out a brand new vid-screen. Quickly the robot began work, albeit under protest.
"Really, I don't know what the Chief will make of this!"
"He told you to work on this transporter problem, didn't he? That's just what you're doing. Speed it up."
The guards, heard the breaking glass, went to investigate, and found the door jammed close. Rather than tangle with him themselves, they went to contact G-Force.
* * * * *
Inside the Gatcha Spartan, Jun (in spite of the situation) was having difficulty keeping a straight face. Ken, who was acting as pilot, was briefing Jason on their mission and was getting pretty much the same reactions she'd gotten. Still, he weathered it fairly well. As for Jason, he seemed relieved that they finally believed him and was eager to help out. Now, if he could just learn to fire his airgun without falling over...
"Remember," Ken was saying. "When we get there, stick close by. Don't try anything on your own; just follow my lead, understand?"
"Sure thing, Skipper."
Ken winced and Jun giggled. "Still think it's Joe?" she murmured, and got a dirty look in return.
Ken landed the ship well away from the Galactor base and the three set out. Once inside, they rapidly made their way to the holding cells.
"You seem to be very familiar with all this," said Ken to Jason suspiciously.
"Hey, you see one Spectran base, you've seen them all."
"Yeah, the guys in the green suits and brown hair, remember?"
"How could I forget?"
They knocked out the guards, found Ryu and Jinpei, and set them free. Their first reaction was, "Joe?" and then, "What's HE doing here?"
"Doing okay, so far. Any chances the guards were talking?"
"Yeah," groaned Ryu. "All about last night's poker game."
"We tried to steer them around," added Jinpei. "But it didn't work."
Ken swore and thought hard. It was still possible that this was an imposter and that Joe was a prisoner. Best to make sure...
* * * * *
G-Force was spread out over the Ready Room, licking their wounds and trying to regain some composure.
"Was it bad?" asked Princess, sympatheically.
"Really bad. I can't remember when he's ever been that angry."
"Can't say I blame 'im," mused Tiny. "Wouldn't wanna hafta face the Council myself."
"Be worse...arrrr...when he...toot-toot...gets back."
"That's for sure," sighed Mark. "I'd hate to be in Jason's shoes when he does."
Princess sighed. "Somehow I don't think he's particularly worried about that,"
Suddenly the guards burst in. "QUICK!!! The transporter room!! Jason's locked in there with Zark!"
Four faces went pale as four minds shared the same horrible thought. They took off like lightning.
* * * * *
"Remember," said Ken to the other three (Ryu having been sent to retrieve the ship), "let him think it's just me. Joe...I mean, Jason, if I say, 'Don't be too sure,' that's your cue to jump down. But don't say anything."
"If they've got Joe, they'll be surprised to see you, as long as they think you're Joe. Try carrying one of your shurikens in your teeth."
"Steel darts, remember?"
"You mean these?" and Jason pulled out a pale facsimile.
Ken groaned. "Here, I've got some extras. Like this." And he struck up Joe's familiar pose. Jason tried to imitate him.
"Cut my tongue."
They got to their position over the room where Egobossler was planning his next move. Ken jumped down, and the blue skinned man rose to face him.
"You! I wondered when you'd be back."
"Release your prisoners, Count. All of them."
"Your two young friends..."
"I said ALL the prisoners!"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Gatchaman. But those two are staying."
"Don't be too sure."
Jason landed neatly beside him, but the Count looked only mildly surprised. "But of course; I should have expected the Condor. I hope you brought the Swan as well, so I can complete my collection."
Several panels in the walls opened and teams of Galactors swarmed in. Jun and Jinpei leaped into the fray, and Gatchaman began to get the upper hand. Egobossler chose that moment to escape, but two burly Galactors got the drop on Jason.
"Freeze, Gatchaman!" one yelled. "Surrender or the Condor dies!"
Mentally, Ken tore a strip off himself for not seeing that coming. "You'll kill him anyway. And we can get you ourselves. Let him go and you can live."
"No chance, I'll get a great promotion for this. Maybe even Kempler's old job!"
Jason had been struggling and now shouted, "Save yourselves! Get out of here!"
His voice took them by surprise. "HUH?! YOU'RE not...OOOOOFFFGGHH!!!" Jason disabled one guard and Ken took out the other. The four then made a dash for the exit, but reinforcements were already pouring in.
"Split up!" ordered Ken. "Meet back at the Gatcha Spartan!"
They were nearly outside when a boobytrap went off, leaving Jason caught inside.
* * * * *
"Nearly done?" asked Joe, checking the clock again.
"There. It's just as it was before."
"Good. Now set it for exactly the same coordinates and time as before."
"But...I....couldn't we talk this over? This is terribly wrong!"
The gun came closer. "Do as I say. If it's just like before, I'll come back and maybe I'll be normal. If you try anything funny, I won't be back and you'll be up to your transistors in trouble."
"But I was forced to do this!"
"Where's your proof?"
There was silence, then the robot began setting the controls.
"Now move away from there."
It did, but just then the doors were blown open and G-Force ran in.
"Jason!" yelled Mark. "What are you DOING?!"
"Don't interfere. I'm warning you."
"Have you gone crazy? Put down that gun!"
As the fracas heated up, Zark moved silently to deactivate the transporter. Quick as ever, Joe turned and fired, blowing the robot into a hundred pieces. Aghast, the others stood frozen until Princess managed to gasp out, "You...you didn't have to..do THAT.."
Joe flipped the switch and jumped into place.
"Oh, yes I did."
* * * * *
Jason clawed at the pile of rubble that kept him inside. The two Galactors, having recovered, closed in on him.
"This can't be happening," he thought frantically. "It's never been like this! What am I..."
The image of the guards began to fade as a bright light spun up around him, glowing brighter and brighter until he could see nothing. When at last it faded, he blinked and looked around, and looked warily at the others.
"Centre Neptune?" he asked uncertainly.
"Yesss..." came the chorus in a tone he couldn't quite place. Still, he sighed in relief.
"Mark - you ARE Mark, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm....OOOOOFFFF!!! LEGGO! Those are the only ribs I've got!" And Mark tried to break free of Jason's bear-hug. Jason let him go, and then did a double-take.
"Hey, where'd you get all those bruises?"
Mark smiled evilly and grabbed him.
"Like THIS!" he snarled, and threw his partner into the wall.
"Hey, what was that for?"
"For the last eighteen hours, that's what for!"
"It wasn't my fault..."
"Tell that to the Chief."
Jason remembered. "The Chief! Omigosh, is he okay?"
"You'll see for yourself," said Princess coldly. "He wants you in his office. BEFORE he gets back form the Galaxy Council."
"Why?" Jason wondered. "What's wrong?"
"Arrr...toot-toot...won't be happy...broop-beep...with the way you...whirrrr...trashed Zark."
For the first time, Jason noticed the heap of smouldering electronics and turned white.
"They might be able to fix him up," continued Mark. "But the repairs are coming out of your pay."
"Along with all the vid-screens you smashed," added Tiny.
"Shouldn't....broop...take more than...whirrr...forty years."
Jason slumped down on a chair, put his head in his hands and moaned, "It wasn't my fault, I wasn't even here..."
The others snorted in disbelief and left. All except for Tiny, who regarded his teammate with some sympathy - he was, after all, in for a very rough time of it.
"Relax," he said. "The Chief won't be back for a while. Let's get a bite to eat."
"I'm not hungry."
"Aw, come on, I'll buy ya a space burger. Whattaya want on it?"
Jason sighed. "Ketchup, pickles...and cyanide."
* * * * *
Joe gritted his teeth while the lights flared up, and when they died down he was surprised to see two Galactors trying to recover their sight. He dispatched them both and then knocked his way to the outside. The others looked at him in some surprise.
He returned the look. "Well? What are you all staring at?"
They seemed to relax then, and Jinpei laughed, "It sure sounds like Joe."
Ken suddenly threw a punch that Joe blocked without even trying.
"It's Joe, all right."
"Let's make sure." Jun produced the small plastic box from her belt and ran it over Joe. The lights glowed brightly.
She threw her arms around him. "It IS Joe!"
He laughed. "Of course it's me - who were you expecting?"
Ryu groaned, "Wait'll you hear. Unbelievable!"
"It was quite an experience," their leader confirmed.
Joe smiled, but said nothing of his own misadventure. There would be plenty of time to compare notes later. He took the device from Jun.
"Just what is this, and how does it tell you it's me?"
"It's a kind of magnet. I figured your cybernetics would show up on it."
"Where did you get it?"
"Any hardware store sells it."
He turned it over, saw the raised letters, and burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" asked Jun, somewhat miffed.
He drew her attention to the lettering.
It read, "STUD DETECTOR."