The Condor had fallen.
That was the news that was flying through Cross Karakorum. The Condor had tried to infiltrate the base and been shot. He was a prisoner and they were bringing him to Lord Katze.
I ran down the hall towards the main enterance of the base, sweating in my green suit but determined to see if the rumours were true. A low quake knocked me off balance and into a wall, but I just pushed off and kept running. I had to see him. I wasn't the only one who did either. There were a lot of us who'd feared the Condor's ruthlessness for a long time, though few if any of us had actually met him in person and survived. We wanted to see HIM bleeding on the ground for once. And I wanted to know that my nemesis was defeated for real.
I reached the main enterance, hidden from the outside, and slipped out, then stopped. The statues outside were covered in blood, the ground marked by dead bodies. I shuddered. I'd seen this kind of carnage before, but this time it was different. This time there were living men standing there, some leaning against the statues in exhaustion, some moaning with obvious wounds. I saw one soldier scream as another pulled a feather shuriken out of his shoulder before staunching the bloodflow with a bandage. Most of the people there were crowded around a boulder, staring at something, and with a hurried motion, I pushed my way through them.
There was a boy lying on the ground below the boulder, dressed in, of all things, a numbered red tee-shirt and jeans. He wasn't moving and his eyes were closed. Blood covered him from where he'd been hit, but I could see his chest rising slowly and hear his laboured breathing. He didn't look more than eighteen years old.
"Is that him?" I asked in an undertone. For some reason, it was very quiet. The Condor was down. It felt surreal.
"Yeah," someone answered just as softly. "Doesn't look like much, does he?"
I nodded slowly. He didn't look like a Science Ninja at all. For a moment, it occurred to me. He looked like a victim. Then my lip twisted. He was no victim. The Condor had killed more Galactors than any other of the Ninjas except the Eagle, but he enjoyed it. He slaughtered us without mercy and laughed while he did it. There wasn't any among us who hadn't lost a friend or a relative to him, myself included. I'd lost my brother to him, his throat ripped out by this man, who left him to die without even a backward glance, as though his entire life meant nothing. I'd hated him for that, hated him with a passion. My own personal demon, my nemesis. I'd dreamed of meeting him, of ripping HIS throat out, even as I quailed in terror at the thought of facing those deep blue wings. I wanted revenge, but the Condor was too powerful, too indestructible for anyone to face and survive and my need for revenge went into my efforts to conquor the Earth.
But now, now the Condor was helpless before me, before all of us, and the hate in me was overwhelming.
"Bastard!" I screamed, and kicked him in the side as hard as I could, hearing a rib crack. His eyes flew open, the pain shocking him awake, and gasped, but he didn't have the strength to rise. He couldn't fight anymore. We all realized it, then we were on him, kicking, hitting, for once the ones who inflicted the pain. We would have killed him if not for the officers who pulled us off his body.
We took him to Katze. I stood in a corner on guard duty with a dozen other men and watched silently, proud of my leader's success, the pride growing with each shake of the earth. The Black Hole Project would win us the Earth itself. We were the conquorers and I would have all the power promised to me when I joined, so long ago. But my eyes kept drifting to the Condor. He'd blacked out during the beating and hadn't regained consciousness yet. I was beginning to think he never would and I tried not to think of how Lord Katze would react if his prisoner died before he got the chance to interrogate him personally. I also wished I'd had the nerve to speak up. Two of the other guards had asked for the broken bits of his bracelet and gotten them. I wanted a momento too, preferably his head to put over my fireplace, but I suspected that was going to go over Katze's.
I kept thinking of my brother. We were very close when we were kids, lived in the same dorm room in college, fought over the same girls. He'd been all the family I had, or wanted, and when he joined Galactor, I went willingly, even though they had a tradition of recruiting family members anyway. I'd had no regrets, save the fact that we were assigned to different sections. Then the Condor killed him. I hadn't been there, instead busy firing at the Swan with a dozen other men, whose bodies between her and me were the only reason I was still alive. I knew it was the Condor who killed him though, because when we were evacuating, I ran to find him, risking my life to do so. I'd been lucky, if you could call it that. The ninjas weren't covering the route I'd used and the Condor had finished his bloody work and gone on. I found my brother dead with a feather shuriken in his heart and his throat slit. Hadn't the damage to his chest been fatal enough? He hadn't had to cut his throat too, leaving him with that hideous grin below his endlessly screaming mouth. He'd died in horrible agony and I didn't even have the ability to carry him away from there. I had to leave him behind. My own brother. My only family. I was denied my whole life with him and I wanted the Condor to die.
Now he WAS dying. Katze had time to notice him at last and ordered us to take him to the infirmary and wake him up. He needed him to answer a few questions, and knowing Katze, he wanted to gloat. So I and another guard grabbed an arm each and dragged him there. The doctors looked him over and laughed. He was dying, they couldn't change that. They could only delay it, and they did with an injection of something with a long name. It hit the Condor like fire and my heart almost stopped when he sat bolt upright. For an instant, I imagined the bloodbath he could cause in here, but there was a funny look in his eyes, a distance as though he weren't completely there. An emptiness in him, and he only stared as the doctors taunted him about how painful his death would be once the drug wore off.
Then we took him back to Katze.
"Well, it seems you've lost your chance to die, dear Condor Joe," Katze said. "I hate to disappoint you, but we need you to stay alive for us just a little while longer, so we can prevent the Science Ninja Team's attack. So, why don't I show you something interesting? Listen carefully, little Condor. In a very short while, the whole world will belong to Galactor."
I swelled with pride at his words, but the Condor looked sick and confused. "What?"
"This is the heart of that plan, called the Black Hole device!"
Katze laughed, pacing before him where he stood on his own, having pushed away from us. He was no threat anymore so we let him have his last few moments of pride. They wouldn't last long. "That's right. I imagine you're thinking, 'what could that be?' Well, I think the whole thing might be just a teensy bit too difficult for your intellect to comprehend, but I'm sure you can understand this much. When that gauge reaches zero, the Earth will be completely destroyed!"
The Condor blanched in horror and I had to hide a grin. "What did you say??"
To my surprise at least, he started to laugh.
Katze just grinned. "It looks like learning about our plans has snapped your mind."
Even dying, the Condor's grin matched his. "Oh, it's just great, Berg Katse. Even as your enemy, I have to respect the depths your evil can go to..." His voice trailed off as he swayed, his face white. Katze snorted and turned his back.
"Apparently the effect of the medicine is wearing off," he assured him coldy. "Now all that's left to you is an agonizing death."
Suddenly, the Condor moved. He was faster than I would have believed possible with his injuries, faster than I'd imagined anyone could be. He grabbed the gun barrels poking into his back, used them as supports to flip over and behind, then threw a guard over his shoulder. Then he kicked me, hard, and before I could recover and get my gun up, had pulled a feather shuriken out of his pocket and hurled it at Katze. He dodged and the feather vanished into the bowels of the machinery behind him.
The Condor had missed.
I couldn't believe it. He missed.
Katze turned eyes blazing with a hate as deep as my own on him. "I regret to inform you that I'm not one to be taken down by a dead man," he spat. "Shoot him while he can't move!"
That was the order I'd been waiting for. The moment of vengeance for my brother's death. My gun came up and I fired. I wasn't the only one, either. The Condor collapsed. It wasn't enough though. Not even a thousand bullets could be enough. I wanted to fill him with lead, turn him into meat. I stepped forward, aiming the nozzle of my gun at his chest. "How'd you like that?" I sneered. "Next time I'll get you straight in the heart!"
"Don't waste ammo," Katze ordered, staring down at the bloody form. "He's dead already, whether you shoot or not."
Suddenly, another guard ran in. "Katse-sama! The God Phoenix is approaching!"
All the blood in me went cold and I felt our victory falling away from us. The Kagaku Ninjatai would want the Condor, would want to kill whoever had harmed him. I remembered the Swan, so beautiful and so deadly, and imagined her yo-yo blowing through my flesh instead of just the men before me. I heard Katze ordering that they be fired on as I tried to control my fear. The Condor was still alive. I had seen him breathing, still struggling to get up. If the other Ninjas found him, he might live. Then he'd be after me, after all of us. I didn't want to die the way my brother did. I only wanted to avenge him. Somehow I found the will to control my sudden terror and looked down at the Condor again. Maybe he'd died from his wounds while I panicked. Maybe I wouldn't have to worry about him coming after me.
He was gone.
"Katse-sama!" I screamed. "There's an emergency!"
"Katse-sama, there's a... *What??* What are you bothering me for *now?*"
I swallowed convulsively. "Condor Joe of the Science Ninja Team has escaped!"
Katze gaped at me. "What the-- in his condition?"
We had to find him. If he found his way outside and told the Kagaku Ninjatai where the enterance was, we were all dead. The ground shaking now almost continuously, I hurried with 50 or more guards other guards up the stairs and out one of the secret doors. The mountains outside were covered in fog, the stone heads rising disembodied and etherial out of it to stare at us solemnly. The fog hid us, but it hid the ninjas too and more than once as I stalked them, I heard a sudden scream in the fog that alway cut off into silence.
There was no sign of the Condor, or anyone else, whether ninja or Galactor. Lost, I stumbled through the fog. At this point, I just wanted to find my way back inside the base. The earth was breaking from the continuous quakes, trees shaking down, boulders rumbling past me down to the valleys far below. Finally, I couldn't keep my feet anymore and knelt on the ground, clutching my gun, praying for it just to stop.
Finally, it did. I didn't know what that meant. Communications were out, having been cut off with enough screams to indicate that we'd failed to stop the Science Ninjas from getting into the base. We'd have to evacuate again, though I never dreamed we'd ever desert THIS base. We'd have to regroup and start over.
The fog was starting to thin. Finally, I could see where I was and I hurried down a trail to where the escape ships were. Even here, Katze planned a way out. Before me, the trail opened up into a clearing surrounded by stone heads and I stopped.
The Condor lay in repose in the grass before me, his breathing so laboured I could hear it where I stood. He was covered in blood, his skin an ashen gray, and his hands were folded on his chest, holding in their grasp a sleek, birdshaped boomerang. He was alone. I'd never have gotten even this close to him if any of the other ninjas were still around, which meant he was helpless.
"Brother..." I whispered. It looked like the gods were smiling on me after all, to give me such an open chance to get my revenge.
Cautiously, I approached. The Condor had shown he was capable of just about anything already, but he didn't move. There was no strength left in that body anymore. I stood over him and pointed my weapon at his head, then sneered and tossed it aside. Kneeling beside him, I drew my knife. He would die the same way my brother had.
I pushed his head back with one hand to expose his throat and his eyes opened. "Ken," he whispered.
I froze. He was looking at me, but there was something wrong with his eyes, and in a flash of insight I realized he couldn't see me. I brought the knife down. This was for my brother. Then he said the last thing I ever expected.
"Did I avenge them?"
I gaped at him. "What?"
He shuddered in a pain the drugs couldn't entirely hide. "Momma..." he whispered, so low I had to bend down to hear him. "Poppa... did I avenge them...?"
I stared at him. His parents...? All the death, all the murder, was to avenge his parents? I wanted to hate him, wanted to cut his throat from ear to ear, but in that moment I couldn't. I saw my brother's dead body in my mind, heard myself swearing vengeance. It never occured to me that my nemesis had sworn the same thing. That he and I... were the same.
I didn't know who this Ken was, but the Condor was obviously too far gone to understand that I wasn't him. I swallowed a lump in my throat, missing my brother so much I thought the pain would never go away. "Yeah," I told him. "You avenged them."
He smiled a little. "Good..." He lay there gasping for a few moments then: "I didn't say... my goodbye... to you..."
I could barely hear him and leaned down, my ear close to his mouth. "What?" I urged.
"...I'm... s-..." The word was never finished. He just relaxed beneath me and was gone.
I sat there alone with the Condor for a few moments, brushing dirt and dried blood from his skin and clothes and smoothing his tangled hair. I wiped a tear away and couldn't believe it. I don't think I was really grieving for the Condor. It was more for my brother, and the fact that I'd turned myself INTO the Condor because I wanted to avenge his death so badly. I just hadn't been as good at killing as he had.
Distantly, I heard a footstep and dove in a panic for the bushes. The Kagaku Ninjatai were back. It had to be them and I still had a lot of living left to do.
It wasn't them. Instead an old man with a falcon on his shoulder and a half dozen men in uniforms I'd never seen before came into the clearing. He knelt beside the Condor and put a hand on his throat. "He's dead," he said coldly. "Only a few minutes though, so cellular decomposition hasn't set in. We can still use him. Bring the equipment."
One of them came forward with some kind of coffin or capsule that floated and they lifted the Condor into it. The boomerang they just tossed away. The coffin lit up with lights and the old man nodded in approval. Then he turned and they all went away, taking my nemesis with them.
I didn't stay, of course. I wasn't stupid enough to wait to tell the Science Ninjas what happened to their friend even if I wanted to. I just ran into the last of the fog, heading towards the escape ships, wishing I could escape from myself so easily.