The team of five exhausted ninjas had arrived back at Crescent Coral Base as the pre-dawn glow was appearing in the sky. As one, as if in answer to an unspoken command, they transformed back into civilian attire while the elevator ascended to the level that housed their living quarters. Dr Nambu had explained that he had pressing matters to attend to before they could debrief, but had insisted he would summon them soon.
“We should wait in the common room until Hakase is ready for us,” Ken suggested.
Five weary pairs of feet trudged through the common room door. Ryu headed straight for the kitchenette – he was hungry.
“Anyone else want breakfast?” he asked, setting about making toast, fried eggs and bacon - and coffee.
No one else spoke. Jinpei clicked on the TV and flopped onto the couch. Jun sat next to him and Ken commandeered an armchair. Joe was last through the door. He closed it behind him and went to sit at the table. He let his head rest on the table, cradled in the crook of his left arm, then closed his eyes.
Ken, knowing his second had been through a number of sleepless nights over the past few weeks, considered suggesting Joe go back to his room to try and get in some sleep, then quickly changed his mind. Joe would not appreciate being singled out – they were all tired. Questions would be asked by the others and the reason for the sleepless nights was a matter Joe didn’t want known. He turned his attention back to the TV news reports of their latest efforts.
“. . . timely intervention of the Science Ninja Team preventing Galactor’s latest metal monster from wreaking more devastation in the area,” continued the news anchor. “The ISO research facility destroyed yesterday remains a smouldering pile of rubble, and the damage done to surrounding communities is inestimable. It has been reported that both the monster and another Galactor base were destroyed in the early hours of this morning by the daring . . . “
“It’s been a long day,” Jinpei yawned. “Actually, how long was that mission? A day and a half?
“Almost,” Jun replied, wearily. “Thirty-four hours from rendezvous to return to base.”
“No wonder I’m hungry,” Ryu posited, sitting down to a heaped plate of hot breakfast goodies. “Want some, Joe?”
Ryu didn’t wait for a response before tucking in to a large mouthful, but he wouldn’t have got one anyway. Joe was asleep. Usually a notoriously light sleeper, the Condor was oblivious to the harsh, humming fluorescent lights, the conversation, or the noise and flickering light from the TV. Any one of these would normally keep him from anything other than dozing, but he was dead to the world.
“Hey, that smells really good!” Jinpei exclaimed as he crossed the room. “Is there any more?”
“Over there, mighty Swallow,” Ryu chuckled, indicating the plate of toast and frypan still containing eggs and bacon by the stove top.
“Thanks, Ryu!” After helping himself to a heaped plate of breakfast of his own, Jinpei sat at the table, opposite Joe. After his first huge mouthful he pointed towards Joe with his fork and asked, “Is he asleep?”
Ryu shrugged and continued devouring his breakfast. The young ninja waved a slice of bacon in front of Joe’s nose and got no reaction.
“That would work on you or me, but I’m not sure Joe has the same fondness for bacon as us,” Ryu suggested.
“Hmm. Wait! I know – coffee!!” Jinpei brought Ryu’s steaming mug as close as he dared to Joe’s face, but there was not even a twitch. “Wow. I’ve never, ever seen him this asleep.”
Ken and Jun had begun to pay attention to the activity around the table. Ken opened his mouth to say something about how tired they all were, but he could see Jinpei’s expression revealing the turning of cogs as a devious plan began developing and the words that formed became a warning.
“Jinpei, don’t even think about it.”
“What?” Jinpei’s expression became one of feigned innocence.
“Whatever it is you’re planning on doing to Joe,” Jun joined in, “don’t!”
“Aww, c’mon!” Jinpei pleaded. “It’s the perfect opportunity to get one over on him. I’ll never have this chance again.” He looked from Ken to Jun and then to Ryu, but found no support. He tried one last argument. “I need to get him back. I owe him for . . .”
“For correcting your gaffe with the sensor readings?” Jun finished for him.
“Yeah,” Ryu added, “if we’d followed your info we’d have ended up taking the God Phoenix into a deep crevasse that would have had us at the mercy of the base’s defensive weapons with nowhere to go.”
“I said I was sorry about that,” Jinpei mumbled, suitably abashed.
“It’s okay, Jinpei,” Ken soothed. “That’s the good thing about being part of a team. We work together, we back each other up, support each other. We know we can count on one another.” He could see apprehension dawning on the young G4. “Besides,” he added, “do you really want to know what happens when you disturb a sleeping condor?”
Jinpei could imagine incurring the wrath of a sleep-deprived, highly trained fighter and expert marksman and decided it was best to let Joe sleep.
“I was only gonna put his hand in warm water to see if it would make him wake up to use the bathroom,” he whined.
Jun brought a blanket over to the table and draped it over Joe’s back.
“Ken, he’s really out to it.” She tucked the blanket around Joe as best she could and he still didn’t stir. “I mean he’s really deeply asleep.”
The look she gave her commander as she spoke expressed a depth of concern that Ken felt too, but tried not to let show.
“Don’t forget what Joe’s been through in the last few days,” Ken reflected.
“What about the rest of us?” Jinpei expressed his indignation. “We’re all tired from the mission too. It’s not like fighting that purple freak and his goons is easy.”
“Ken’s not just talking about the mission,” Jun explained, patiently. “Everyone – including Joe – played their part while we were on duty. We’re not going to get into a discussion about who fought the most Galactor soldiers, or how many times our weapons were used, or whose contributions were more valuable. You might not like the results!”
“He’s talking about what Joe was doing right before we got the call-up,” Ryu said as he finished his breakfast. The PanPacific 6 Hour production car race.”
“Right,” Ken continued. “Joe was driving the ISO’s new experimental hybrid. Saturday’s practice was the first time he’d driven it, and you know what Joe’s like. Between practice sessions and qualifying, whenever he wasn’t behind the wheel, he would have been giving the mechanics and engineers a run for their money trying to get the set up perfect for the race on Sunday.”
“He was up against some pretty formidable opposition, too,” added Ryu. “Those manufacturers take this kind of race seriously, and they pay big money to get the best drivers – guys who drive like demons for the whole six hours. There was a lot of paint swapping and panel damage during the race.”
“Not to mention the added stresses of pit strategies, changes in track condition, tyre degradation, brake wear and component failure that are part and parcel of an endurance race,” Jun continued. “That all takes a toll on the drivers.”
“And all the media stuff after he won,” Jinpei joined in. “He hates that stuff at the best of times.”
“That’s where he was when we got the call to assemble,” Ryu stated.
“How did he get out of it this time?” Ken asked.
“Some motor-mag journalist made it easy for him. Asked him a stupid question about whether the light-weight materials the ISO used in construction had compromised the car’s structural integrity.” Ryu chuckled before going on. “Joe shrugged, said ‘This car made it through six hours of on track dicing in one piece. A dozen others didn’t. We completed the most laps and finished in first place. Enough said.’ Then he just walked away.”
Ken found himself smiling at the thought of the withering glare Joe would have given the journalist before answering the ill-directed question. Just then his bracelet chimed.
“On our way, Hakase, but Joe’s not gonna make it to debrief,” Ken answered the summons.
There was a brief pause while Dr Nambu considered sending all of them to their quarters for some much needed sleep, and decided against it. Regrettably, past experience had shown he needed to get at least a preliminary report from the team while the mission was still fresh in their minds.
“Let him sleep. We’ll keep it brief and I’ll talk to Joe when he wakes up,” He finally said.
“Roger,” Ken acknowledged, and led the team from the room.
Jinpei, the last out, looked back at his sleeping team-mate and whispered good-night to Joe before turning out the lights on the way through the door.