The war is over; X has gone, returned to the far reaches of space from whence he came. Berg Katse is dead, having taken a suicidal leap into the magma, unable to cope with X’s abandonment and betrayal. The rest of Galactor’s forces have disappeared, scattered, gone to ground avoiding detection by UN forces and ISO agents. The nations and people of Earth are beginning the process of returning to normal after the evil Black Hole Operation was halted at the last moment. Clean-up and rebuilding are beginning, but there was so much destruction . . .
Joe’s gone. Of the five I had always worried most about Joe, but I never expected to lose him like this. I failed him. He would never have said so, but I have. He had so much anger, so much venom toward Galactor, even as a boy. Of course he didn’t know who Galactor were until I told him who was behind the assassination of his parents and the attempt on his own young life. Even before his injuries had fully healed he was hell bent on vengeance. He needed love, compassion, nurturing. I tried to give him those things, but in reality I press-ganged him into the program, used the strength of his anger and determination and turned it to my own purpose. As proud as I am of the young man he became and the things he has achieved, how can I ever be sure I did the right thing by him? Did he know I was proud of him? I was never good at showing them that, telling them I loved them as if they were my own children.
The others have asked if there will be a memorial, a ceremony, a burial . . . there’s no body to bury. I don’t think I can bring myself to bury another empty coffin for this boy. Officially Condor Joe remains listed as Missing-In-Action, but with his medical condition deteriorating so quickly, and the injuries the others observed at Kross Karakorum . . .
Then there’s the difficulty of Joe Asakura the race driver. Figuring out a plausible explanation for his disappearance - death - won’t be a simple task. If I fabricate a car accident it will fit his cover occupation, but the racing community will know that there was no such crash . . . So many details to finalise when I just want to be able to grieve for my son!
I feel so much guilt. It’s my fault. I should have insisted on more checks – more frequent, more thorough – to make sure there were no lasting effects from the shrapnel injury, to make sure it had all truly been removed. It would have meant forcing him to undergo medical tests, physically restraining him if it came to it. It’s not surprising he hated doctors, medical procedures and tests so much. He endured so many months of treatment after the explosion, at only eight years of age. Being part of the team has meant regular physicals and a regime of inoculations and desensitisation to various toxins, not to mention the treatment of wounds. Then there are the treatments I exposed him to when the missile fragments embedded in his skull were deemed too difficult to operate on . . . it’s my fault. I worried that his anger, his determination to wipe out Galactor, his stubborn tendency to “shoot first, worry about the rest later” would get him killed. In the end it was complications from that injury.
The team. They all feel this loss deeply too. We should be revelling in this new-found peace, enjoying the moment, knowing the Earth is safe. The victory is hollow. It has come at such a high price, so many lives lost . . .
None of us would be here without Joe, but here we are, without him.
Time passes, work and life go on. A small memorial stone is set in place in the grounds of the old villa, and a private ceremony has been held by the team as a farewell to Joe. The Asakura cover story has been finalised and the racing community has mourned his loss. Unable to bear the thought of clearing out Joe’s trailor, I had it towed and stored “as is” in the garage at the villa. Ken gave me his copy of the key. I guess he feels the same as I do about going through Joe’s things.
The small amounts of data, equipment and evidence we were able to salvage from Kross Karakorum have so far yielded little in the way of useful information. ISO staff and UN personnel scoured the entire area for almost five weeks. We still don’t know what caused the Black Hole machine to explode, averting certain catastrophe. And no trace of Joe was ever found.
The UN has officially asked the ISO to provide assistance in rebuilding essential infrastructure in some of the poorest and most isolated areas affected by the devastation of the Black Hole Operation. This extra work on top of the continued re-establishment of the Mantle Project will be enough to keep the departments I oversee busy for some months.
With no sign of any significant news of Galactor being active anywhere the ISO sees no need for the Science Ninja Team to remain on active duty. They have essentially been disbanded indefinitely. I suspect Ken has warned them all to stay fit and alert in case the need to return to duty should arise. They’ve trained and worked together for almost eight years. Hard habits to break, especially since they are all still so young. I just hope they all adjust well to civilian life. They deserve to be able to enjoy the peace they fought so hard for.
Little by little a year goes by. ISO and UN field agents have had little if anything to report about Galactor activity. There are known “pockets” of former Galactor employees that have banded together, but they remain quiet and unthreatening. They seem to have no strong leadership. Ken periodically questions the perceived lack of information, but the truth is there is nothing to tell. I know he would investigate for himself if I gave the word, but it is not necessary. The agents have been thorough in their investigations and found no significant threat.
The team all came together at Joe’s memorial stone on the anniversary of . . . the end of the war. It was good to see them all together again, but painfully obvious that an important piece was missing from the family portrait. His absence affects the way they interact with each other. I found myself waiting for his voice to fill the silences the others periodically left, and looking for him in the background of their activities.
Ken was solitary for most of the day – as though he wanted to keep the whole event at arm’s length. They were so close for so long, like two sides of a single coin in many ways. Such an unlikely pairing at first, thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, reluctant friends. Having little experience with children myself at that time, the two of them were there for each other in ways I did not know how to be. They each had a different way of approaching any given task, different challenges to face, but both would stubbornly persevere until the challenge had been met and the task completed. They competed with each other in everything – ruthlessly at times, but when they found a need to come together to achieve something they were ingenious. Within a few years they knew each other so well they could instinctively read each other – one would know what the other was about to do without having to communicate in any way – an invaluable resource for a combat team. The emotional bond between them was a strong one, one that perhaps even death has not been able to completely sever.
Joe would have turned 21 not too long ago, a milestone Ken reached just a few weeks ago. Jun tried to organise a celebration, but Ken was strongly opposed to making a fuss. I suspect Ken is feeling at a loose end without the responsibility of leading the team to keep him occupied. He has expressed interest in a mission for the ISO requiring a pilot. If I agree to give him this posting he will be based in Agrika for three to four months. It could be good for him, and he has more than the required qualifications. He would be an asset to the mission.
Another six months and reports have begun coming in suggesting these “pockets” of Galactor are growing in numbers and beginning to communicate with each other on a regular basis. It seems they may be rebuilding their ranks, organising themselves, preparing. There’s no indication of what they might be preparing for.
I’ve begun making plans of my own. If the team needs to return to active duty they will need new vehicles, new weapons, a new base . . . a new member.
The God Phoenix has been restored, but I’ve decided to keep it at the mansion base as a back-up, or a museum piece. There are new designs, newer technology, new weaponry, safer features – a New God Phoenix in the works. And the new base being designed and constructed offshore to house everything and everyone we need for the Mantle Project will be capable of acting as a base of operations for the team as well.
It’s going to be difficult finding a fifth team member who will bring the right qualities to complete the team dynamic. It will be harder getting the others to accept a new member. They’ll think I’m trying to replace Joe. Impossible shoes to fill. He was their brother. No one will ever be able to fully fill that role. But they will need a fifth. If the team are required again they will be on their own this time – there is no Red Impulse Squadron to back them up any more. So many lives lost . . .
Three more months pass and I’ve begun receiving anonymous reports on Galactor activities. Whoever is sending them seems to have a familiar turn of phrase, the wording, the grammar, the coding used are all so familiar, but I can’t place why. After a month of sporadic reports from this mysterious “friend” it suddenly hits me – it’s like reading through old mission reports written by Joe.
I know it’s not possible. I know it can’t be Joe, but I find myself hoping . . . No, it’s not him. It can’t be him. I need to stop letting my emotions cloud my thinking, stop formulating hypotheses about how he could have survived. It’s too much to hope that he could be alive. But whoever this “friend” is, the information is accurate and reliable. It’s worrying enough for me to tell Ken to start the team on a regular training schedule. I suspect they have been doing so unofficially since Ken returned from Agrika. They can use the training facilities at the offshore base – it’s nearing completion.
Galactor’s activity is increasing faster than I had anticipated. The new vehicles are not quite ready, the shortlist of potential new team members is still too long on names and too short on suitable qualities and I still haven’t found a way to tell the team they will soon be joined by a new G2 – the Hawk. At least they are ready. The team have been working hard – they are as fit, fast and strong as I had hoped they would be. They have grown so much in so many ways since the last time I faced the prospect of sending them into battle for the first time.
X has returned. It’s been confirmed. He arrived shortly before our new “friend” began sending me information. After two years of fretful peace X has come back, appointed a new commander and begun new attacks on new targets with the same callous disregard for innocent lives. Scientists have been kidnapped and a transport ship has disappeared close to Easton Island. The UN and members of the ISO board have requested Gatchaman.
The Science Ninja Team is back on active duty, the New God Phoenix has successfully launched from G-Town with their new G2 – Getz, the Hawk, and all my old anxieties have returned.
I pray for their success.