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LITTLE EARTHQUAKES

Emby Quinn (savageredhead@aol.com)

Chapter 3: Give Me Life

Give me life
Give me pain
Give me myself again


* * *

Andy got off work early for once. He left the Black Hole through the back entrance. The sun was just coming up, and the sky over southern Utoland was lit with fiery shades of red and purplish-gold.

Andy was rather fond of sunrises. He almost never got to see sunsets; most mornings he didn't get home till eight or so, and he would sleep at least ten or twelve hours before getting back up to shower, shave and report for bouncer detail at the bar. Oh, well, at least the pay was good.

He noticed a battered old pickup truck in the parking lot. His own car was the only other vehicle in sight, so naturally Andy took notice of the truck--it wasn't exactly the type of vehicle most Black Hole patrons were likely to use.

Then he saw the pretty girl standing by the truck, bending over what looked like a flat tire. He couldn't see her face very well, but she had the type of body he liked--what the trendsetters liked to call "heroin chic", all long thin limbs and angles.

He shouldered his jacket and strolled over to see what he could do to help. Knight in shining studded leather, and all that. Besides, it had been at least a week since he'd gotten any.

"Morning, miss. Can I help you?"

The girl looked up--actually, she was hardly in the "girl" category from the look of her; she appeared to be at least thirty or so. Andy balked momentarily, but he was too much of a gentleman to turn and walk off. She still had a decent body, and he could always do her with the lights off. The sun wasn't completely up at the moment, and most of her face was in shadow.

"Looks like you could use a hand. You--" He glanced into the cab of the truck and saw an old man sitting there--half lying back on the seat, apparently dead to the world. "You and your, uhm, father?"

The breeze picked up, and it brought the unmistakable stench of decay to his nostrils. He took a good look at the old man in the growing light, and realized he was "dead to the world" in the most religious sense.

"Oh, my God, lady--I think that guy's--"

He froze when the woman grabbed his arm. He looked down and saw her glowing red eyes, and didn't even have time to scream as the white darkness clamped down over his mind and snuffed it out.

* * *

Miya woke up to an otherwise empty bed. This, in and of itself, was not particularly unusual, but nevertheless she felt a vague sense of uneasiness. She opened her eyes and sat up, looking around for any sign of her bedmate.

Joe was sitting on the windowsill, staring out at the fields below. He was dressed only in his jeans, and he didn't look around when she moved. Miya slid out of bed and pulled on the button-down shirt he'd discarded the night before. She walked up behind him and leaned against his back. "Morning, lover. Another rough night?"

He didn't say anything at first. Then he heaved a sigh and put a hand over the one she had on his shoulder. "Rougher than you know, cara."

"Care to talk about it, or do you want to get breakfast first?"

"I'm not hungry." He shifted and put his arms around her waist, leaning his forehead against her breasts. "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."

"Try me."

"I'm serious."

"So am I."

"Okay." Without looking up, he held up his hand. In it he was holding an object that looked vaguely familiar. It took Miya a moment to place it.

"That...that's what Ken was holding when you...when you came back."

"Hakase's keepsake. We call it a pendant, but we don't really know what it was supposed to be. Ken gave it to me before he and Jun left on their honeymoon. That's when the dreams started."

"Well, there you are. No wonder--"

"No, Miya. They're not dreams. They're messages."

She blinked. "What do you mean? Dreams are just dreams, Joe. They can seem very real, but they're not--"

"Hakase told me last night. It's not over. Z, or what's left of Z, is back. He's getting stronger. Pretty soon he's going to be a threat again, and we have to find him before it gets that far."

"Joe--stop it." Miya put her hands on his shoulders. "You're not the sort to get carried away by fantasies. You're as practical as I am."

He chuckled. "That's just what Hakase said."

"Nambu is dead, Joe. I'm sorry, but he is. He's been dead for a year now. He can't tell you anything. There are no such thing as ghosts or visits from beyond the grave."

"That's what I believed, once." Joe lifted his head and looked up at her. "Do you see this?" He touched his cheek.

Miya stared at the bruise near his jaw. "What the hell did you do to yourself, Joe?"

"Hakase did this. He hit me last night, to prove he was real. The mark was there when I woke up this morning."

She shook her head. "Listen, that's just--you must have hit yourself, or bumped something in your sleep. That's the only--"

"I told you you wouldn't believe me!" Joe shoved her away and got to his feet, stalking halfway across the room. He stopped and turned to face her. His expression was livid, but his eyes pleaded for her to try and understand. "Don't you think I know how crazy this sounds? I didn't believe it either. I didn't want to believe it. But Hakase raised me. He was practically my second father. I'd know him anywhere, spirit or not, from a simple figment of my own twisted imagination. He's real." He held up the pendant. "He's here. I can't explain it, I don't know how, but it's the truth."

Miya folded her arms and took a calming breath. "Joe...listen to what you're saying. Even if consciousness can survive physical death--and that's never been proven--how can Nambu's...persona, spirit, whatever--be inside that trinket you're waving around?"

"How did we survive the explosion of that satellite? The freefall to Earth?"

"Oh, not that again. Ken said it was probably the Spartan, and it burned up on re-entry, but the Hinotori protected you until you reached the ground."

"The Spartan didn't have a Firebird mode."

"Well, obviously it did."

"No." Joe shook his head. "Miya, I was a cyborg. I was more machine than human, and I couldn't live without the cybers. But here I am, fully human again. Whole again. Your Spartan theory can't explain that."

Miya stared at him. "So what are you saying? That you're a ghost?"

"Miya...please--"

The ring of the phone cut Joe off. "That's probably Jun," Miya said, crossing to the bedside table to pick up. "Cygnus Lodge." She listened for a moment, a puzzled expression crossing her face. "Uhm...Chief Kamo? Yes, he's here." She held the handset out to Joe. "He...wants to speak to you. He says it's...business."

Joe's olive face drained of color. He took the phone from Miya's hand, and she sat down hard on the edge of the bed as he spoke into the handset. "Chief? What's happened?"

"Something terrible, Joe...and something more terrible may well be coming. I need to assemble the team here at G-Mountain. Can you get in touch with Ken and Jun?"

"Chief, they'll be home in a day or two...is it necessary to--"

"Very necessary. I'm sorry, but this is a serious matter. I need all of you here as soon as possible."

Joe paused a moment, looking at Miya, who met his eyes questioningly. He forced his next question out through lips that had suddenly gone stiff and numb. "Are you reactivating the team?"

"It may well come to that. Please, just get here as soon as you can."

"Roger." Joe hung up the phone and looked down at Miya. "I have to call Ken. We have to go to G-Mountain."

"No." Miya gripped Joe's hands with both of hers. "No, it can't be happening again. It's finished. It's over. Please..."

"Miya." Joe knelt in front of her and met her shimmering eyes. "Don't fall apart on me now. We have to be ready for anything."

She closed her eyes tight. "It's true..." Her voice was a cracked whisper. "What you were telling me...it's all true."

"Cara." He kissed her forehead, then got up to dial Ken's rented beach house in Halai. Miya lay down on the bed, clutching Joe's pillow to her stomach and curling up around it.

* * *

The ringing of the phone woke Jun, who heard Ken answer and elected to drift back off to sleep. Something about the tone of his voice as he spoke--low and urgent--kept her from achieving more than a light doze. When she heard him hang up, she opened her eyes and looked up at him.

He sat at the edge of the bed, his back to her. As she watched, she heard him sigh deeply, and he put his head in his hands.

Her stomach gave an odd clutch. She sat up and put a hand on her husband's back. "Ken...? What is it?"

He looked over his shoulder at her. Even in profile, his expression looked bleak. "We have to go back."

"What's wrong? Has something happened at the lodge?"

"No, Jun. We have to go back."

The implication of his words sank in. "You mean..."

Somberly he nodded. "Kamo is recalling the team. I don't know what's happened, but..."

Jun closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against Ken's bare shoulder.

* * *

"I'm going with you."

"You're staying here."

"No."

Joe bit back a growl and turned on the redhead who was following him towards the door. "Miya, I want you to be where you'll be safe."

"If it's as serious as you think it is, then nowhere's going to be safe." Miya stuck her chin out defiantly. "If the world's going to end, I'd rather be with the people I love. I don't want to be alone."

Joe opened his mouth to protest further...but he couldn't find a counter-argument for that logic. With a shake of his head he reached out and took her arm. "C'mon, short stuff," he said to Jinpei, who was lingering in the open doorway. "Let's get on the road."

* * *

Saburo Kamo was sitting at his desk. It was mid-afternoon before the entire team was assembled; Ken and Jun were the last to arrive, and they entered the office holding hands. Wordlessly Jun went to Jinpei and enfolded her foster brother in a hug. Miya sat tensely beside him on the couch, and Ken patted her shoulder in passing before he sat down. Ryu sat in a corner, his normally cheerful face bleak, and Joe--true to old habit--stood against one wall, his arms folded, scowling at nothing in particular and everything in general.

Just like old times, Ken mused. "Chief? What's happening?"

Kamo sighed deeply and glanced over his notes. "I'm sorry to have to call you in on such short notice. If it were any less grave a matter...but unfortunately, it seems our worst fears may yet be realized."

"Skip the preliminaries," Joe rumbled. "Now that we're all here, just tell us what's going on so we can stop it."

"Joe!" Ken admonished.

"No, he's right, Ken." Kamo's dark eyes met his grimly. "Over the past week there have been a series of bizarre and unexplained disappearances. The victims fit no specific profile, and invariably, they have been found hours after their disappearance...quite dead, I'm afraid."

"Chief..." Jun cleared her throat. "Forgive me, but aren't there agencies to deal with that sort of thing? How does it involve the ISO? Or us?"

"Let me explain." Kamo opened a folder and took out a handful of photographs, passing them to Ken. "These are crime scene photos from various police departments between here and the Midwest. You'll notice that each of the victims are emaciated, in a state of advanced dehydration...and each one appears to be a person of advanced age. However, according to identification found on the bodies, and subsequent DNA tests, none of those people were over the age of thirty-five--and one was a girl of fourteen."

"Damn," Jinpei muttered.

"Language," chided his sister.

"Sorry."

Joe's eyes were fixed on Kamo. "Go on...tell us the rest of it."

The Chief stood, head bowed. "Early this morning, there was an act of severe vandalism in Utoland Cemetery. After the attack by Egobossler, Nambu's grave was carefully restored. This morning...it was broken into."

Jun gasped aloud. Ken dropped the photos he'd been holding. Ryu sat forward, eyes wide. Jinpei's face went white, and Miya put a hand to her mouth. Joe's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Hakase's...remains..." Kamo shut his eyes tightly. "His body was...stolen. We don't know by whom. Whoever managed the theft left virtually no clues. Just an empty grave and an open coffin. It would have taken phenomenal strength to--"

"Never mind that!" Ken was on his feet, eyes blazing. "There's got to be some way to track them down. Whatever sick reasons they had for this, we can't let them get away with it. It's inhuman!"

"Yes," Kamo said, raising his eyes to meet Ken's again. "That's precisely what I'm afraid of."

"You mean aliens?" Jinpei said. "Like X--I mean Z was?"

"He means Z." All eyes turned to Joe. "Or what's left of him, anyway."

"Joe..." Ken took a step towards him. "How could you know that?"

Joe reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out Nambu's pendant. "I get my information from a very reliable source."

* * *

"I don't like this." Arashi watched his lover scurry around the penthouse they shared, gathering and abandoning objects seemingly at random. Berke moved at a frantic pace, like a bipolar sufferer on a manic high.

"It's the only way," Berke muttered, half to Arashi, half to himself. "It's the only place he won't think of looking for me. The only place I'll be safe from him." He stopped and looked at Arashi, and the desperation and panic was plain in the china-blue eyes. "You can stay here if you want, but I'm going."

"Are you crazy? Of course I'm going with you. I just don't understand why you'd be safer in the middle of nowhere than you would be here with me."

"There's a lot of things I've never explained to you, leibling." Berke passed a hand over his weary, feverish eyes. "I swear to you, I'll explain everything to you when we get there."

Arashi sighed and nodded assent. "Where are we going again?"

"You wouldn't have heard of it. It's in the Himalayas. Its name is--"

* * *

"--Cross Caracolm?!" Ken scoffed. "Joe, you're crazy. Why would X--Z--whatever--go back there, of all places?"

"I don't understand everything yet, but there's something there he wants. Something he needs to accomplish what he wants."

"And that is...?" Jun asked.

Joe fixed her with a look. "What he's wanted since the destruction of his homeworld Selectro. He wants Earth destroyed."

"But why?" Ryu scratched his head. "If the planet goes boom, won't he go with it?"

"No. According to what Hakase told me, the release of energy from the Earth's destruction will give him a massive influx of raw power. He'll be able to create his own world--perhaps even his own vision of Selectro. Or perhaps he plans to restore the original Selectro. That didn't seem very clear."

"Is that even possible?" Jun wondered.

"That's not the issue. The point is that, whether Z can actually accomplish his ultimate goals or whether he's just an extradimensional crackpot, the Earth will be just as dead either way."

"But how can Z still be alive?" Jinpei's face was pinched and pale. "We destroyed the satellite. It blew up around us. There was nothing left!"

"Some of the debris fell to Earth," Joe explained. "Not all of it disintegrated on re-entry, either. Z rode in on one of the larger fragments, and he waited for someone to wander past...and jumped into their body."

Jun shuddered.

"He's like a parasite, or maybe a virus, jumping from person to person. None of his hosts last long, because he...uses them up. That's why the bodies he leaves behind look so dessicated. Even as he's inhabiting them, he's also absorbing his host's life energy, gaining power. By now he might well be able to jump to a mechanized form again--and that may well be what's waiting for him at Cross Caracolm."

"But you're not sure," Ken reminded him.

Joe tapped the pendant in his hand. "Hakase isn't sure."

"Is Hakase really in there?" Jinpei leaned over the back of the couch. "Hey, Hakase! Can you hear us?"

"We were never able to definitively scan or examine that object properly," Kamo said. "I knew only that I was supposed to give it to you, Ken, when all hope seemed lost. My only guess is that it's a sort of highly advanced recording device. It's possible that President Nambu made a recording of his brain-wave patterns and select knowledge using that pendant as a focus. Of course, that's only a theory, but it's the only one I can think of that makes logical sense."

"Then how would he know about Z's return?" Joe countered.

"Extrapolation. Perhaps it's capable of globally scanning for Z's energy signature. Again, I'm only speculating. In any case, it would seem, Joe, that whatever information you received from that pendant is reliable as far as we can determine."

"There's only one way to find out." Ken turned around and looked at his team. His family. "We're going to have to go check it out for ourselves."

Kamo nodded. "During the past ten months of downtime, I've commissioned the construction of new vehicles for you."

"Another Spartan?" Ryu asked.

"So long as it's not another 'chicken ship'," Jinpei muttered. "That thing was ooglay."

"You'll find it waiting for you down in the hangar bay. The God Phoenix III."

"Let's go," Ken said, heading for the door.

Miya got up as Ken passed her, and he paused long enough to hug her before walking out with Jun close to his side. Miya took a step after them, but Joe stopped her. "Not this time, cara," he said. "Don't wait up." He kissed her soundly, then headed after the others.

Kamo was on the phone almost immediately. "Prep the GP3 at once, and mobilize the ground and air troops for an approach to the central Himalayas. We need to provide backup for the Science Ninja...and, if God forbid they fail, we're going to have to try and stop Z ourselves, somehow."

After he hung up, Miya caught his attention. "Sir...please, let me go with you. I know I can't fight with the Ninja, but...they're my family, too. I want to be near them...just in case?"

Kamo saw the look of desperate hope and fear on her face, and nodded. "Of course. I completely understand."

* * *

"Woo-hoo! Now this is a jet!"

Ryu's large hands moved over the controls of the sleek God Phoenix III with his usual surprising dexterity. The controls were remarkably like those of the original God Phoenix; the exterior lines of the ship recalled its original predecessor as well, but the lines were sleeker, more aerodynamic.

"This isn't a joyride, Ryu." Stern and sober in his BirdStyle, Ken stood on the deck behind him, watching the forward screen. "Joe...can you tell us anything else?"

"You know what I know now. There's something at Cross Caracolm that Z wants--that he needs--and we have to get to it before he does."

"I don't get it..." Jinpei shook his head. "If the pendant was some kind of mental recording device that could affect sleeping brainwaves...why didn't you get anything from Hakase, Ken-aniki?"

Ken's shoulders stiffened.

"He did," Joe answered for him. "He thought they were just dreams, and he ignored them." He smirked and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. "Some things never change--Ken's still thick as a brick in the uptake department."

Ken's glare was lost on the Sicilian.

* * *

The passenger flight to Tibet had landed hours ago. Berke hired an all-terrain vehicle and had driven the mountain roads like mad--some of them could hardly be called "roads", barely clear spots on the mountainside--until finally he parked at the top of a hill and got out, taking off at a run.

"Berke--wait!" Arashi ran after his lover, his breath puffing in the chill, thin air. It was near the end of June, yet here there was still snow on the ground.

Berke scrambled down an almost sheer slope, heading for a tumble of ruins that might once have been set up in a definitive shape--like a flame, or an arrow--but were now a seemingly random assembly of stones in the shape of strange idols. Arashi feared that his lover might break a leg, or even his neck, in his haste, and followed more carefully.

By the time Arashi reached level ground again, Berke was just disappearing into what looked like a hole in the ground. Down the rabbit hole, Arashi thought, and what did Alice find there?

The opening in the ground revealed a flight of weathered steps that led down into darkness. Arashi heard Berke's footfalls descending below, and with a resigned shrug, he went down after him.

The stairs led to what had apparently been some kind of underground facility of some sort, possibly military in nature, from the look of things. Large rents in the ceiling allowed watery sunlight to filter in, casting a ghostly light on everything. Arashi moved cautiously, casting his eyes about for Berke.

He found him in a long, vaguely cylindrical inner chamber. At the far end was what looked like a window of some sort--or it had been, at any rate, now shattered and broken. Berke was kneeling before it, arms wrapped around himself, trembling.

Arashi knelt beside him, putting his arms around the thin shoulders. "Anata...?"

"It was...it was here," Berke gasped in a shaky whisper, "it was here that I died."

"What...?"

"Berg Katze."

"What? The first Galactor leader? But he's--"

"Dead. Yes, I know." Berke giggled brokenly. "I was Berg Katze. Sosai was going to destroy the world instead of giving it to me like he promised. I threw myself into the lava pit...but I didn't die. Couldn't die. I wanted to, but I couldn't. God, it hurt so much...the pain nearly drove me insane. No...I was insane. By the time I had pulled myself up onto a ledge to finish healing, I'd been driven...sane."

Arashi shook his head. "Berke, you're not making sense."

"None of it made sense. I left here before the ISO troops arrived to finish cleaning up the mess left behind by the Ninja. I got to Switzerland, adopted one of the identities I had constructed--two of them really, since there are two of me..." Another crazy giggle. "I went to Ameris to start a new life, a secret life. I wanted nothing more to do with Sosai or Galactor or anything associated with them. And then I met you, and I had a new reason to live."

"Berke..." Arashi held on tightly to his lover. Somehow he knew that every word was true. This was Berg Katze, the first leader of the terrorist organization known as the Galactor Syndicate, a man who'd murdered millions of innocent people with his terrifying war machines. Arashi grasped the implications completely, and it didn't matter a whit to him. This was the man he'd loved and nurtured for four years, and whatever he'd done in the past no longer mattered. By his own admission, Berg Katze had died for his sins. Berke Castille's hands were clean.

"Berke...why do you believe you're safe here, of all places? I would think this was the last place you'd want to be."

"I don't know, Arashi...I don't know, I just felt I...needed to come here. I knew this was the one place he wouldn't think of looking for me. I...I thought I knew, but...now...now I'm not as sure. Oh, Arashi, I'm more frightened than ever..."

"Then I'm getting you out of here. Right now." Arashi pulled Berke to his feet. "Whoever this "Sosai" of yours really is, there's got to be places safer from him than here."

"Oh, there are, human...but you'll never reach them now."

At the voice from the shadows beyond the shattered window, Berke moaned and went limp in Arashi's arms.

A tall, wasted figure emerged jerkily from the broken portal. It didn't walk, exactly; it floated, its feet nearly a meter above the dusty, rubble-strewn floor. Its eyes glowed a hellish ember-red. "So, Berg Katze, you finally will serve a useful purpose to me. Because of your ability to heal yourself so rapidly, you alone can sustain my essence for a prolonged period of time. Unlike my other human hosts, you will not age and decay around me. You alone will last long enough for me to finish what I have set out to do."

"No...no, Sosai, please..." The figure drifted into a shaft of light, and Berke screamed at the sight of it.

Arashi steeled himself and gave Berke a vicious shove towards the exit. "Berke--run!!" he shouted as he threw himself at the approaching apparition.

"Arashiiiiii!" Berke wailed, but his feet were already carrying him towards the stairs to the surface.

* * *

"One thing's for sure," Ryu muttered, looking down on the ruins of Cross Caracolm. "This place hasn't changed much."

"Okay, there's nobody here. Can we go now?"

"Hush, Jinpei." Jun looked over at Joe, whose face was as still and unreadable as a sheer stone wall.

Ken's eyes swept over the forbidding landscape. "Someone's been here, and recently. There are footprints in the snow down there."

Jinpei swallowed hard. "D'you think maybe it was...?"

"We're only going to know for sure if we go find out. Come on."

Staying close together, the five of them swept down the snow-crusted hillside. Jinpei was shivering, and not just from the cold. "This is really creeping me out...if Z-whosis is around here, what if he decides one of us looks like a good somebody to jump into?"

"Our helmets should prevent that," Ken assured him. "They're shielded, remember."

As they crossed the uneven ground at the foot of the hill, Joe suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. He raised his head, listening intently.

Jun paused and looked back at him. "Joe...?"

"Hush. I thought I heard--" He turned towards the center of the stone-littered clearing and saw a figure emerge from a ragged hole in the ground. As they watched, tense and ready, the person stumbled and sprawled, then got to their feet and continued on, fleeing as though all the demons of hell were snapping at their heels.

Ken moved to intercept the fugitive, catching the thin arms in his hands. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"Ken, be careful!" Jun warned. "That could be--"

"Let me go!" the man Ken was restraining sobbed, and all the Ninja froze. "Please, just let me go--I don't want to--"

Ken shook the man, and the blond hair flew back from his face. A face that was unmistakable.

"Berg...Katze?!" Ken gasped.

The china-blue eyes looked at him, wide with terror. "Ga-Gatchaman! It's horrible--it's down there--"

Ken threw the mutant to the snow and pulled out his Birdrang, glaring furiously. "You're supposed to be dead. How can you be here, after all this time?"

Katze shook his head furiously, on his hands and knees. "It doesn't matter--we've got to leave this place, before--" A scream from below made him jerk his head up. "Arashi?! No!"

Movement from behind Katze attracted Ken's attention. A body--another man, one with long black hair--was hurled up out of the opening and landed in a broken heap upon the ground. Whimpering, Katze scrabbled over to him and took the unconscious man in his arms. "Oh, God...Arashi, forgive me..."

Ken's look of confusion was almost comical. He was staring at Katze as though expecting him to vanish into thin air at any moment. He was distracted by Jun's sudden, piercing scream. A heartbeat later, he could hear Joe's voice, rough with shock: "Holy Mother of God..."

Ken tore his eyes from Katze and looked towards the underground entrance. What he saw almost made his heart stop dead.

The floating corpse pivoted to face him, and grinned at him with Kozaburo Nambu's dead, almost mummified face. The suit Nambu had been buried in hung off the wasted body in rags. The eyes, glowing like coals, seemed to burn into Ken's shock-frozen brain. Then the nightmare's jaw moved as it spoke in an echo of Z's voice.

"What a pleasant surprise, Gatchaman."


* * *

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