Gatchaman v5.1: "One More Victim"
ONE MORE VICTIM
Emby Quinn (email@example.com)
I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets
Author's Note: This story takes place shortly after episode #70, "Uniting Goddesses of Death". Ken is gung-ho to bring down Galactor, Joe is beginning to question his own mindless crusade for revenge, and Katze is getting desperate.
Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets
I've been raising up my hands
Drive another nail in
Just what God needs
One more victim
"Crucify", Tori Amos
* * *
"Shh...somebody will hear, Kiku."
"There's nobody around, Bara."
"*She* is." The blonde pointed at a far cliff overlooking the ocean. The dying rays of the western sun limned the lone figure at the summit in glowing red-gold, turning her hair into a banner of fire.
"She can't hear us," but Kiku lowered her voice anyway. "Even Poppy's ears aren't that good. I just want to be away from here."
"And we will be, Kiku. Be patient." Bara shoved her lithe body off the rock on which she'd been perched. "Come on. Let's go join the others."
She headed several steps off before she noticed her companion wasn't following. She looked back over her shoulder. "Kiku?"
The tiny doll-like girl was still watching the redhead on the cliff. "She looks so lonely up there."
Bara snorted. "She's alone by choice. She can stay on this gods-forsaken island till it sinks back into the sea for all I care; I want to live." She took Kiku's hand and fairly dragged her back into the trees beyond the wide strand of beach.
* * *
"I AM GROWING IMPATIENT, BERG KATZE. YOU HAVE YET TO SHOW ME ANY REAL PROGRESS TOWARDS OUR GOALS."
Katze's hands were sweating inside hir long gloves. "The incident with the Van Allen belt was a mere fluke, Overlord...a bizarre coincidence which--"
"SPARE ME YOUR EXCUSES. I TIRE OF THEM. REPORT ON THE CURRENT PROJECT."
Katze swallowed hard and forced hir voice steady. "Anastasia's program is near completion. From the original hundred subjects, she has gleaned those who are the most worthy. Twenty-five subjects, any one of them a match for any member of the Science Ninja Team."
"YOU HAD BETTER BE RIGHT, KATZE. FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR POSITION. DO NOT DISAPPOINT ME AGAIN."
Katze bowed so low the flares of hir mask nearly scraped the floor as s/he backed out of the audience chamber. When the door was safely shut behind hir, s/he leaned against it for a moment, eyes shut tight, gasping and shaking.
Damn those Science Ninja! How can they be so lucky?! However skilled they are, they can't possibly be a match for my genius, yet they interfere with my plans again and again. I was born to be the world's ultimate leader...it's the only reason for my existence. Whatever it takes, I can't allow those hopeless brats to ruin everything again. Even if the Overlord doesn't kill me outright, he could cast me out, banish me, abandon me to the mercies of the lesser powers which currently govern the Earth, and that would be ten times worse. I must succeed at all costs. If I can't have the world...what else is there for me?
Footsteps to hir right make hir push hirself away from the door. By the time the two soldiers came into view, their leader was standing before them, upright, shoulders thrown back, regarding them with the blank soulless eyes of the mountain-cat mask.
"Lord Katze!" the guards chorused, bending over almost double in obeisance.
"Where have you been?" Katze snapped coldly. "We have little time to prepare. Get moving!"
"Yes, Lord Katze!" The two of them scrambled past Katze, visibly trembling, obviously wondering which of them would be struck down first.
Cowards, Katze mused as s/he fell into step behind them. As if their lives held any importance in comparison to mine. How dare they fear for their safety when to join Galactor means to sign your life away...?
* * *
The brief tropical night had ended. The sun was only halfway up to the pinnacle of the sky, but it was already steaming hot. The tiny Pacific island was more moderate in temperature than those on the equator, but it could never have supported human life without the resources at Galactor's command.
Anastasia Illenov surveyed her girls. They were always her girls, never Galactor's. Hadn't she hand-picked them herself, every single female child of the hundred she'd begun with almost twenty years ago? How many hours had she spent poring over family histories, choosing only the best Galactor had to offer, only those infants with the greatest potential? When she managed to fill only two-thirds of the expected quota, and she refused to compromise her high standards, who but she herself had spent the better part of a year seeking out the young children of promising families allied with other interests--yes, even the offspring of world leaders--and then going personally out into the field and taking the children with her own hands?
A hundred girls had been brought to the island. Of that hundred, only a score and five remained--the best, the brightest, the most skilled and resourceful. Over the past two decades, a few of the girls had attempted escape (a foolish proposition, with five hundred miles of open ocean on every side), but none had ever managed to successfully flee. Certain others with dangerous idiosyncracies--those who asked the wrong questions or showed inappropriate compassion, for instance--had had to be carefully weeded out. Most of the seventy-five casualties had simply succumbed to the rigorous training all the girls had received.
Now, however, her girls were ready to be released--unleashed on an unsuspecting world. There wasn't a thought in any of their pretty heads that Anastasia hadn't put there herself. They had been exposed to the appropriate influences, sculpted and molded--even the seeds of rebellion had been carefully sown and nurtured, in order to create the proper atmosphere of friction. After all, she had only promised to deliver twenty girls, not twenty-five. Further attrition would be of no harm.
Her iron-gray eyes swept the uniformed girls assembled in the buzzing heat. Bara and Kiku stood together, near the back--ahh, those two were most likely to need weeding out of her garden. They kept to themselves far too much, building elaborate escape plans that had no hope of fruition. Anastasia knew too well that they would attempt defection the moment they set foot on any mainland. Their existence had been tolerated this long because Anastasia had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that the pair would come to their senses. Perhaps Kiku could still be saved, but Bara was too much of a wild horse. She would sadly have to be put down.
Anastasia took one more moment to study her prize pupil, who stood defiantly before her at the center of the front line, tall and proud, her hair blazing in the morning sun the color of her namesake. Poppy. Behind the flower-shaped mask she wore, her sky-blue eyes met Anastasia's directly, with a touch of arrogance but no sign of rebellion. Of all her girls, Anastasia felt surest of the tall, sturdy redhead--Poppy who killed with an expression of blissful contentment on her face, Poppy who could pass herself off as an astonishingly beautiful young man when she chose, Poppy who had never once in her life asked the wrong kind of questions or shown an ounce of compassion, Poppy who never formed alliances and answered only to Anastasia herself.
The whispering roar of a hovercraft cut into her thoughts as a huge black shadow blotted out the sun. Several of the girls looked up; a few even gasped openly. Poppy, as usual, showed no reaction, but she almost never did. Anastasia smiled.
She said to the assembly, "Our master has arrived."
This announcement was necessary to prevent the girls from attacking the troops of soldiers the moment they appeared. They had to be made aware that this was not a training exercise. The soldiers formed a semi-circle behind Anastasia five men deep. Then, from their midst, a cloaked and masked figure appeared. A murmur rose from the group gathered in front of Anastasia; this was the first time any of the girls had seen Berg Katze in the flesh, and it was an intimidating sight indeed.
Anastasia turned to face Berg Katze as the leader of the Galactor Syndicate approached. Before her girls, she took Katze's offered hand and went down on one knee, bowing her head in respect. Then, at the nod of their leader's head, she rose and stepped aside to let Katze take the position of command.
It was impossible to read Katze's emotions accurately behind the ever-present mask, but Anastasia caught a slight curving of the full lips which showed her superior was pleased.
"You have all been chosen for a reason." The voice was so loud and sudden in the morning silence that several girls visibly started. "Your genetic structures as perfect as natural selection can make them. You were selected because of the phenomenal potential each of you has realized. Have pride in your accomplishments, and be grateful for your excellence to the organization which allowed you to achieve it."
"Hail Galactor!" Bara shouted from the rear, and the cry was quickly taken up, chorused again and again.
Only Poppy stood, stoic and silent as always, and Katze noticed her. The redhead looked fearlessly up at the most powerful leader in the world and smiled. Katze smiled in return, an expression with remarkable potential for intimacy, and Anastasia watched with a twinge of jealousy which she quickly repressed. She knew Poppy was special, and the fact that her prize student had caught Katze's discerning eye should make her proud, not envious.
* * *
Anastasia poured English tea into the delicate Limoges porcelain cups and sat opposite the captain. "How was your trip?"
"Dreadful." The captain lifted hir cup and sipped delicately. "Mn. Earl Grey?"
"I thought it would make a nice change." Anastasia sat back in the other parlor chair and smiled in a familiar fashion at her guest. "My finest pupil," she said, smiling at Katze. "I'm so proud of you, Kosha."
"Indeed? I should think you'd be jealous. It's not every day the pupil surpasses the teacher."
Anastasia bore the comment without resentment. "You're doing what I trained you to do, and may I say your training shows."
"Say away. It's the truth, after all." The captain tucked an escaped strand of golden hair behind hir ear. "I truly believe you've outdone yourself, Ana. These girls certainly bear your distinctive stamp. I only hope that they live up to your admittedly high expectations."
"I have complete faith in my work, Kosha. My girls won't disappoint you."
"We shall see." The captain looked around at the parlor, startlingly luxuriant for all of its small size. Finely-woven tapestries decorated the windowless walls; in a tall glass-front cabinet stood several fine works of spun-glass flanking an elaborate Faberge' egg holding a tiny replica of the Russian crown jewels. "Tell me, do you still have that ridiculous cat?"
"Boxer? Yes, of course. He's out on his morning prowl. There'll be a few less birds in the trees tomorrow morning, I fear."
A soft, delicate laugh. "Cats will be cats, my dear Ana."
"Yes." Anastasia smiled maternally at hir. "And cats eat birds."
* * *
The tidal pool was cooler than the surrounding seawater, pleasant to swim in after the sultry heat of midday. Kiku floated on her back, eyes shut, the warmth of the sun contrasting with the coolness of the salt water on her bare skin.
She straightened up, her feet touching the rocky bottom, and looked at the blonde who was keeping careful watch to make sure they weren't disturbed. "Tell me again what we're going to do when we get there."
A soft sigh of impatience. "I've told you three times in the past week, Kiku."
" I want to make sure I don't make any mistakes. Please, Bara-chan."
Bara shrugged slightly. "The moment we disembark, we lose ourselves in the crowds."
"How do we know there'll be a crowd?"
"We're going to Ameris, baka. There are crowds all over." Bara flipped a damp strand of sun-blonde hair from her face. "We find the nearest police station and turn ourselves in. We offer to give them the names of the others in return for our freedom."
Kiku frowned. "I still don't like it. We're betraying our sisters."
"Our 'sisters' are going to go on a killing rampage if we let them. We have to stop them somehow. This is the only way--" Bara stiffened.
Kiku hunched down a little in the water. "What--?"
"Hsh." Bara reached down without looking; her hand unerringly found the scean dubhe she always kept with her, even in intimate moments. Then Kiku heard it: the softest footfall on the grass beyond the rise of rocks...
Bara sprang as a figure emerged and bore the intruder down to the ground.
Green eyes looked up at her without flinching. "You get a lot of dates this way, Rosie?"
Bara choked off a curse. "Yuri! Baka! I could have killed you," and rolled off her.
"I knew you wouldn't." Yuri sat up and shook the sand out of her brilliantly white-gold hair. "You two need to be more careful about where you discuss personal matters, though. I could hear you whispering clear up the path. How many times do I have to tell you, Chrys, that whispers attract more attention than a normal voice?"
"I'm sorry, Lily-chan!" Kiku climbed up out of the water and sat on a flat sandstone to dry herself. "It's a good thing you're in this with us, ne?"
Bara rolled her eyes; Yuri just chuckled. "Little Chrysanthemum, how did you survive in this hellhole for so long?"
"Bara-chan protected me," Kiku answered proudly, grinning.
"Well, it's a good thing everyone else is too busy showing off for the brass, or we'd all be in it for sure. Speaking of, we'd better head back and put on a good show ourselves. We don't want anyone to suspect us at this crucial point."
Bara nodded. "Dress, Kiku. Yuri's right."
* * *
Nils was bored.
The Petal Island rotation was one of the most sought-after assignments; what red-blooded virile male wouldn't want to be stationed with a couple dozen beautiful, athletic females on a desert island?--but the reality was far duller than the fantasy. Instead of watching the local scenery, he was stuck inside a shielded metal booth every waking moment of the day. He'd scarcely seen the sky for the past ten days, never mind anything more interesting.
He started awake. DAMN! He'd fallen asleep at his post again. That was the fourth nodding-off in the past week; if he got caught, he'd be shot for certain. Or worse, given to the bevy of lovelies on the island for (shudder) training exercises.
As usual, he was too busy making sure no one had seen his lapse to scroll the log screen before him. By the time he shut down and saved the log, the message that had been sent during his induced "nap" would be scattered free electrons, indecipherable, dismissed as random clusters of channel noise...and none would be the wiser.
In theory, anyway.
* * *
[The moon slowly turns his face away. When he comes around again, the red devil is swallowing his mother. The sun is beginning to set, and the flowers are beginning to blossom.]
The voice that spoke the words was little more than a hoarse whisper distorted by static. It was impossible to tell whether the speaker was male or female, young or old. The harshness of the tone was a sharp contrast toe the poetic beauty of the words.
"Pretty," Jun remarked.
"Strange that poetry would be bounced off a communications satellite," Ken mused.
"It has a nice beat and you can dance to it," Joe remarked from the back wall he was leaning against.
Ken shot a glance at his second-in-command, warning him quiet. "What does it mean, Doctor?"
Kozaburo Nambu rose from his desk and turned his back on the five youths in his office, looking out instead at the seascape outside the thick glass of the wide picture window. A school of brightly-colored sunfish swam lazily past, darting in and out of the sheltering coral reef surrounding the secret underwater base. "The message is of course a form of code," he remarked to the reflections of the team behind him. "Jun, isn't that your specialty?"
Jun smiled, a bit wryly; Nambu seldom handed out information he thought they should find self-evident. You never stop teaching us, do you, Doctor? "It's obviously a warning."
"Or a threat," Joe offered.
But Jun shook her head. "Galactor wouldn't issue a coded threat."
"How do you know it's from Galactor, Sis?" Jinpei sounded at once impatient and bored.
"The reference to the 'red devil'. Even you should know that."
Jinpei stuck his tongue out at her.
She ignored it. "The moon is obviously a time reference. One turning of the moon--about a month's time."
"The red devil swallowing the Moon's mother..." Ken scowled thoughtfully. "Galactor attacking the Earth?"
"Like that's anything new," Ryu observed.
"That's no miraculous prediction," scoffed Joe. "Happens all the time."
Jun shook her head, impatient at the interruptions. "This is something specific. 'The flowers are beginning to blossom'...that's too vague to interpret."
"Killer flowers? Again?" Jinpei wrinkled his nose.
"It does seem strange that Galactor would try the same trick twice--which means they probably won't." Jun drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "'The sun is rising' could be either a reference to the West Coast, or a directional allusion. It's impossible to be sure which." She looked at their mentor. "Where did the message come from, Doctor?"
"According to the communications division, the message originated from a location far out in the Pacific--where there are no charted islands."
"From a ship, maybe?" Ryu guessed.
But Nambu shook his head as he turned to face the group. "No, the background noise of the tape indicates otherwise." He reached out for his desk and toggled a switch, letting the message play again.
[The moon slowly turns his face away. When he comes around again, the red devil is swallowing his mother. The sun is beginning to set, and the flowers are beginning to blossom.]
There was a definite sound behind the voice, discernible even through the static--a soft, whispering roar in the background, rising and falling in a natural cadence.
"Waves." Joe's voice was cold and oddly flat. "Waves on a beach."
Nambu nodded once. "There's a small group of islands in the general location of the origin of the message. Too small and remote to support habitation...normal habitation, at any rate. However, several aircraft have disappeared in this area over the years, never with any survivors. The islands have been thoroughly searched on each occasion...but Galactor is expert at hiding their secret bases. A flyover by the God Phoenix is perhaps in order. Perhaps its instrumentation will detect clues conventional technology might have missed."
"And if it's a trap?" Joe asked, already shoving himself away from the back wall.
"Then we escape it." Jinpei grinned at his grim teammate. "We always do."
Joe grunted noncommittally in response.
"At the first sign of any attack, you are to retreat immediately." Nambu's voice was firm and brooked no argument. "If it is a trap, you should be able to escape it before it's sprung. If it's a genuine warning, it must not be taken lightly."
"Let's go," Ken ordered, nodding once to Nambu as he turned towards the door.
* * *
[The moon slowly turns his face away. When he comes around again, the red devil is swallowing his mother. The sun is beginning to set, and the flowers are beginning to blossom.]
"Very pretty." The captain sat forward, a mild scowl marring hir exotically lovely features. "So one of your girls is a traitor to the Syndicate."
"Oh, far from it." Anastasia smiled indulgently. "I'm actually rather indebted to her; if she hadn't come up with the idea to call the outside world for help, I might have been forced to take some other action to attract attention. As it is, the ISO will doubtless send their greatest heroes to investigate. Soon there will be no more need for this base, so the disclosure of its location will be no loss to our cause. The girls are ready for graduation...and what better graduation exercise than to destroy the Science Ninja Team for our glorious leader?"
"Your foresight is commendable, my dear. And the traitor?"
"You forget how well I know my charges--all of them," Anastasia said with a significant look at the captain. "The traitor has already been identified and dealt with. Poor Yuri...she showed such promise, too."
The captain smiled to hide a sudden clutch of unease in her chest. Anastasia had always been clever...too clever for her own good. Or for anyone else's who might get in her way. If Ana's pet assassins succeeded where all of Berg Katze's elaborate machinations had failed...if the Flower Girls really did succeed in eliminating the Science Ninja Team...wouldn't Overlord X himself take notice? If X realized Anastasia's true potential, what need would he have of an emotionally unstable mutant? Katze already suspected that X considered hir a failed experiment, and was looking for an excuse to get rid of hir. Anastasia would be a fitting replacement, and would require no augmentation to perform an excellent job as Galactor's new leader. Most likely no one would even realize that the face of leadership had changed...a mask could fit one face as well as another.
The captain smiled, but hir palms had begun to sweat.
* * *
"There they are." Jun tapped one white-gloved finger on the radar screen in front of her. "The Petal Islands, zero-point-three."
Jinpei peered curiously over his sister's shoulder. "They do kind of look like a flower."
"Any signs of life, Jun?" Ken asked from the fore position.
"None. No radio signals, no surface activity, no signs of human habitation...nothing."
Joe was sitting back in his chair, his feet propped up on his console, his air-gun in his hands. He studied his weapon idly, turning it over in his long fingers. "Maybe we should land and have a look around."
Ken opened his mouth to reply when a shudder cut through the God Phoenix. The lights flickered and browned out, nearly extinguished. The engines wailed, sounding oddly like a sharp cry of pain, and then cut out completely.
Jinpei was thrown backwards, landing on his rump with a hard smack. "OW!!!"
"What the hell--?!" Joe snapped, jumping to his feet.
"Ryu?!" Ken demanded, lurching forward and grabbing the console.
"The controls are dead, Ken!" Ryu yanked uselessly at the lever in front of him. "Nothing's responding. Hang on, people, we're going down hard!"
* * *
The impact shuddered from the southern lagoon like a minor quake. Anastasia smiled on the assemblage of her proteges. "The time has come," she said to them, "to prove your true worth to our organization. Go now, and destroy the Science Ninja--but bring their leader to me, alive, if you can."
Their jungle-flower masks in place, four and twenty figures flowed silently into the verdant tangle and disappeared from view. Poppy was the last to disappear, with a final glance back.
Anastasia watched them go with a small, measured smile. The Ninja might well be skilled warriors, with legendary abilities augmented by their equipment--but the odds were five against one, and her girls were of a far higher caliber than the common grunts with which the Ninja were accustomed to dealing.
"The interruptor worked on the God Phoenix quite well, it seems," said a voice behind her.
Anastasia smiled over her shoulder at the masked leader of the Syndicate. "As I said it would, my Lord. The Science Ninja are as good as dead."
Katze took one more step and was directly behind Anastasia, who didn't realize what was happening until the knife slid smoothly into her back. Her eyes widened, and she dropped without a sound, choking on her own blood at Katze's feet.
Katze cleaned hir knife off fastidiously on Anastasia's sleeve and put the blade away. "You're too clever for your own good, Ana," s/he murmured. "Do you think I was blind to your ambitions? As you used me for your own agendas, so I have used you for mine--and your usefulness is now at an end."
Anastasia gurgled with the effort to speak. One trembling hand reached up and clutched at Katze's cape, then fell and was still.
Katze shook hir cape free and turned away. Behind hir stood a full cadre of hir own men--not common soldiers, but clad in featureless black. "Go," s/he ordered. "Allow the Flower Girls to destroy the Ninja...and then kill them in turn. We cannot allow any of Anastasia's subversive ideas to contaminate the purity of our Syndicate's purpose."
"Glory to Galactor!" the Black Guard chorused before stealing into the jungle to await and ambush their prey.
Unnoticed, wide black-pearl eyes witnessed the entire spectacle. Kiku had held back, unwilling to rush to slaughter--she'd always had a certain reluctance to kill outright, and only her affiliation with the much harder Bara had spared her this long. Katze's voice had lured her back, and she'd had to stifle a cry when Anastasia was killed. I have to warn them, she thought. Katze's going to murder us all!
* * *
The God Phoenix lay at an awkward angle, its angled nose half-buried in wet sand while the surf pounded at its hull. Inside, Ken struggled to right himself; the flight deck was canted at almost a thirty-degree angle. "Is everyone all right?"
Responses ranging from Ryu's muffled grumble to Jinpei's petulant whine to barely-audible curses in Sicilian gave Ken his answer. Only Jun was quiet, but when he looked in her direction, he saw that she was studying her readout screen--as best she could from such an awkward position. "Something, Jun?"
"I got a pretty good fix on the signal burst that disrupted our onboard systems right before the sensors went out," she said. "It definitely came from the island, probably underground. It's still broadcasting, as far as I can tell."
Ken peered out the port viewscope. A wide swath of white sand gleamed between the surfline and the shelter of the first trees. "Don't see anything moving out there...we might be able to make the jungle. I don't like being out in the open for even a second, though. This is too much like a set-up."
"Now who's being paranoid?" Joe muttered, smirking a bit. "What's the alternative? Sit here until Berg Katze shows up with a giant can opener to pry us out?"
"We've got to take that transmitter out, Ken," Ryu grunted as he pushed his bulk upright. "Unless we deactivate it, we're never going to get this ship airborne again."
"Then we don't have much of a choice, do we?" Ken made his way towards the rear exit. "Let's go, everyone--and be careful."
Five winged shadows dropped to the sand. Keeping low, they swept silently towards the line of trees.
They almost made it.
A chorus of wild cries burst from the treetops as the jungle seemed to explode into life before them. Slender female figures, each an image of grace and beauty, each with a face like a tropical flower. Twenty of them at least, possibly more.
"I hate it when you're right," Joe grumbled in Ken's direction as he reached for his feather shuriken.
If either side expected a quick and easy victory, such expectations were quickly proven unfounded. The Science Ninja were almost superhumanly skilled--but the Flower Girls had been trained from babyhood in their deadly arts. They were very nearly as coordinated in their teamwork as the Science Ninja, who found themselves well and truly outnumbered. Blood was spilled, but no combatants fell, and the lighter clothing of the Galactor assassins might give them a slight edge in the long run, because of the oppressive tropical heat.
Jun's yoyo flashed, knocking the assassins aside--but there was always another to take a fallen one's place, and she couldn't seem to land a killing blow. Ken's birdrang drew blood, but not fatally, at least not immediately. Even Joe found his targets difficult to hit--they moved so damned fast, and ranged weapons were of limited use in the pitched brawl this battle was fast becoming.
Jinpei was easily as nimble as any of the Flowers, but it was all he could do to keep from being struck at himself. Of the lot of them, Ryu seemed to be faring best--he could take an amazing amount of punishment--but he was tiring. Too quickly.
Things weren't looking good for the visiting team.
A high clear voice rang out over the din of battle, freezing the Galactor females in their tracks:
"Anastasia's been murdered!"
A blonde in a rose-petaled mask called out. "Kiku?"
The newcomer wore a white mask which framed black-pearl eyes. "I saw," she panted. "Katze killed her. He's going to kill us too!"
Shots rang out behind her, and all the combatants scattered. As the girl called Kiku fell, Joe rolled to the sand and cast a handful of shuriken at the shadows moving in the trees. A few strangled shouts, quickly cut off, and the guns fell silent.
The rose-masked woman crawled to the dead girl's side. "Kiku-chan..." she whispered.
A cadre of black-clad Galactor soldiers emerged from the jungle--replacements for those Joe had felled. Bara screamed and charged at them, and the others seemed to take a cue from her, turning their attention on the Black Soldiers. As the two factions closed ranks, the Science Ninja found themselves all but forgotten. Unnoticed by either the soldiers or the assassins, they stole into the shadows of the jungle and regrouped.
Ken spoke in a quick urgent whisper. "Joe, Ryu, keep a watch out on our back. Jinpei, scout ahead, but don't let yourself be seen. Jun, do you know where the signal was coming from? Think you can find the exact location?"
Jun nodded once.
The sounds of combat faded behind them; no one seemed to have noticed their absence, but Joe kept a careful eye out in case, waiting for any pursuers to break cover. "Explain to me, noble leader," he hissed in a gruff stage whisper, "why we're running from a fight."
"If Katze's people want to slaughter each other, more power to them. Don't worry, Joe; we get to take on the survivors--after we find that damned transmitter."
The central compound wasn't difficult to find; Jinpei made short work of the security system that would otherwise have sounded every alarm on the island once they entered. Inside the boundaries lay a woman who'd obviously been knifed. Her eyes stared sightlessly up at the cloudless sky.
"I've seen her face somewhere," Joe mused. "She's a Galactor--or was. Can't recall the name, though. I don't suppose it matters now."
There was only a podium and a watchbuilding aboveground; the real heart of the complex was obviously below the surface.
In the watchbuilding sat a lone guard who didn't move as Ken approached. The Ninja leader reached out a blue-gloved hand, already suspecting the truth, and found his suspicions confirmed when he touched the man's shoulder and he fell over unresisting. "Dead," Ken muttered. "Not long ago, either."
"There's more down here," Jinpei said, peering down a stairway. "A lot more. Looks like it was one hell of a fight."
"Watch your language," Jun scolded absently, peering over her adopted brother's shoulder. "And keep your voice down. We don't know who might still be here."
Yet a running exploration of the underground floor turned up no survivors. Furthermore, the dead guards--almost two dozen of them--showed no signs of having been shot or drugged. Necks had been broken, spines snapped, eyes gouged out, faces smashed to pulp. Whoever had killed them had done so quickly and efficiently, with absolute silence--and bare hands.
"Know what I think?" Jinpei said. "I think one guy did all this."
"Impossible," Ryu scoffed. "There wouldn't have been time."
"I know what I'm talking about!"
"One of us could've done it," the boy pointed out.
"Yeah, but one of us didn't."
"Then who...?" Jun wondered aloud.
Ken shook his head. "Let's find that transmitter and shut it down. Time to question our good fortune later."
Jun smiled and patted her sling-pouch. "No worries. I've got enough explosive here to blow this whole island sky-high."
"Just the complex will do, I think, Jun. We still need an island to take off from, remember."
* * *
How had things gone so wrong so quickly? How did they always manage to do so?
Berg Katze darted through the jungle as though all the demons of Hell were at hir heels. As far as s/he was concerned, they might as well have been.
Damn those Science Ninja! Damn Anastasia, for not training her charges to take them out quickly enough! And damn me for a fool for thinking she could succeed where I have so often failed. At least the leader of the Black Soldiers returned to warn me of the Science Ninjas' escape--it's almost a pity I had to shoot him for dereliction of duty.
S/he spotted the escape craft and redoubled hir pace. When she broke through the trees, s/he immediately barked orders to hir lieutenant. "Don't just stand there, you fool! Get aboard, we have to leave now!"
The masked lieutenant stood motionless for a moment--then fell over into a boneless heap. His face hit the sandy soil with a dull smacking sound.
Katze slid to a stop. Sitting on the top of hir escape capsule was one of the Flower Girls. The sun gleamed brightly off a shock of fiery-red hair, and the eyes behind the red-petaled mask were a cool, remote china blue.
"Poppy," Katze named her. "I remember you, girl."
She nodded once. "I'm flattered, Katze-sama."
"What are you doing here?" Katze took one step forward, frowning under hir mask. "You should be with the others, fulfilling your destiny."
"The moon slowly turns his face away. When he comes around again, the red devil is swallowing his mother. The sun is beginning to set, and the flowers are beginning to blossom."
Katze half-recoiled, as if from a blow. "The one who sent the message. It was you?"
Poppy nodded once. "I never intended Yuri to suffer the consequences for my actions. She wanted off this island too, and Anastasia knew it--and blamed her instead of me."
"Anastasia knew you'd sent the message. She allowed it."
"I should have known that, but I didn't realize it at the time. Of course the Science Ninja would be sent--and that was our graduation exercise. Silly of me. Still, they say hindsight is twenty-twenty."
Katze smiled in spite of hirself. "What a clever girl you are. And now, I suppose, you're going to kill me? As revenge for your mentor's murder?"
The redhead laughed, a throaty chuckle. "Are you kidding? The only reason I'd be annoyed with you for that is because you robbed me of the chance to kill Anastasia myself."
"I hated her. I've hated her all my life. For what she did to me." Poppy's voice was steady, but the eyes behind the mask were cold and narrow. "She stole me from my mother's arms. I learned quickly that fighting her directly wouldn't do any good, so I determined to learn everything she could teach me...before I used it on her."
"And I beat you to it," Katze mused. S/he was beginning to see possibilities. S/he could understand hating, and hiding that hate for a long time. Years, even. A small spark of kinship glimmered, and s/he smiled encouragement. "In that case, we have no reason to be enemies. If you're interested, koneko-chan,I seem to have an opening for a new lieutenant."
Poppy pretended to consider. "A generous offer, seeing as how you won't get off this island alive unless I let you--but no thank you. I don't care for your retirement plan."
"You're arrogant," Katze chided her.
Poppy slid nimbly to the ground. "I want to know where I come from," she said. "Before I kill you, or let the Science Ninja take you, you're going to tell me."
"Really, there's no need for us to fight over this." Katze flashed a teasing smile. "If you come with me, pussycat, I'll tell you whatever you want to know...eventually."
A heartbeat later, Katze's gun was in hir hand. It was kicked out of hir grasp as s/he was pulling the trigger. The shot went wild, and the gun fell into a dense patch of undergrowth. Before s/he could attempt to recover it, Katze found hirself forced to sidestep Poppy's next attack. It nearly took hir off-guard--would have, had Katze ever allowed hirself to be off-guard. The girl's speed and skill were phenomenal, indeed--another of Anastasia's star pupils.
But she's still not better than I am. Katze's knife flashed into hir hand and s/he swung for Poppy's throat. S/he managed only to slice some of the petals off the right side of the mask. A thin line of blood ran down Poppy's neck--the tip of the blade had caught her cheek beneath the mask--but it didn't slow her down. One hand struck the knife from Katze's grasp while the other slammed heel-first under hir jaw. S/he fell to one knee, choking and gasping for breath.
Poppy was about to drive a killing strike into the back of Katze's neck when an explosion sounded from the jungle. The sound of the Flower Girls' base being destroyed distracted Poppy only for a moment--but it was long enough for Katze to reclaim hir knife and drive it into Poppy's torso, just under the ribcage. She twisted at the last moment, so the blade missed piercing her heart; but she fell with a grunt to the sand, clutching at her right side as blood began pooling beneath her.
"An elegant attempt, little flower," Katze murmured. "I've so enjoyed our little dance. Pity it had to end so soon." S/he pulled out the knife and readied to plunge the blade into the girl's white neck.
A whirring, whistling sound forced Katze to dodge out of the way. A blue and silver flash arced through the air where hir throat had been a moment before. A scattering of feather darts landed at hir feet, between hir and the dying Flower Girl.
"KATZE!!" The leader of the Science Ninja charged from the jungle, reaching for hir. Ken only got a handful of cape as the rest of Galactor's leader escaped into the pod. With a curse, Ken dropped to one knee and shielded himself and the wounded girl with his own cape as Katze blasted off.
"Damn!!" Joe and Jun burst into the clearing too late to offer any assistance. "We almost had him that time..."
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," Jun chided. She knelt beside Ken and the fallen girl. "She's still alive," she murmured to Ken, "but she's got an open abdominal wound. She's losing blood fast. If we don't get her to a hospital soon, she'll die."
"So?" Joe scoffed. "The sooner, the better." He leveled his gun at the girl's head.
"Joe--stop!" The sharp command in Ken's voice was enough to still Joe's finger on the trigger.
Ken looked down. The girl's mask had almost fallen off, and he gently removed it. Most of her face was smeared with blood from the wound on her cheek. Her blue eyes stared up at him, desperate, fever-bright. "Please..." she whispered, "...let him shoot. Just...don't let them take me back. The Flower Girl Plan is finished. Let me die...just let me die."
"That's not going to happen," Ken promised her.
She sighed, almost a whimper, and her eyes closed.
Joe bit back a growl of frustration, but he lowered his gun. A crashing sound from the jungle made him turn and take aim. He relaxed only marginally when Jinpei and Ryu appeared. "You two are going to get your heads blown off like that someday," he growled.
"We've been all over the island," Ryu huffed. "There's nobody left alive but us."
"The guards? The assassins?" Joe questioned.
Ryu's round face took on a grim cast, and he drew a thumb across his ample throat.
"Who's she?" Jinpei asked, pointing at the injured girl.
Ken bent and picked her up in his arms. "We're taking her back with us," he said. "She may be able to provide some useful information."
"If we can keep her alive," Jun cautioned.
Ken started for the line of trees, carrying the girl. Joe stepped into his path and brought him up short. "Why are we bothering with her?" Joe demanded. "She's one of the bitches who tried to kill us!"
"She was trying to kill Katze, not us. She wasn't one of the women we were fighting on the beach. She might even know where the main Galactor base is, and that information will be lost if we let her die."
"If we don't get her stable soon, she will die," Jun said. "If we're going to try to help her, we've got to hurry!"
Ken stepped around Joe carrying his unconscious burden and headed off. Jun, Ryu and Jinpei followed without another word.
Joe watched them walk away, then spat on the bloody sand where the girl had lain. "Kuso," he muttered as he went after the rest of the team.
The instant they were on board the God Phoenix, Jun worked frantically to staunch the prisoner's bleeding. The girl had already lost so much blood--almost too much. Jun couldn't help but ponder what internal injuries there might be, but there was nothing she could do except keep her from bleeding out externally. Her pulse was irregular, but surprisingly strong, and her breathing was slow and steady. Jun took that as a marginally hopeful sign.
As she was carefully cleaning the superficial face wound, Jun noticed something strange. She blinked, then tilted up her head to remove the gold-tinted screen of her swan visor. Could she be imagining it? The same strong cheekbones, the same dark lashes, the mouth only slightly fuller in shape...She glanced up at Ken's back, draped in his snowy white cape, but held her tongue for the moment. Ken was too busy for her to voice her suspicions.
It took Ryu about ten minutes to dislodge the God Phoenix from its sandy landing point. When the ship was safely underway, Ken drifted back to watch Jun's ministrations. "Will she live?" he asked.
"I hope so," Jun murmured.
Ken looked closely at the girl, now able to more clearly see her face. The bloody red line of the knife-slash across her right cheek marred features that might have otherwise been considered attractive, almost pretty. She was still unconscious, but there was something about the cast of her features that seemed oddly familiar.
"Ken," Jun said, her voice small and quiet, "she looks...she looks like you."
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