There was someone flashing a light in his eyes. A green light. A very bright green light.
Joe Asakura fumbled his way blearily out of a deep sleep. The blow he’d taken to the head from a Galactor goon’s rifle butt the day before might not have been able to damage him the way it once could have, but it had still given him a headache that could split concrete. It had taken a hefty dose of painkiller the night before he could finally lie down and rest comfortably.
Wait a minute. How did anyone get...
Eyes fully open now, alertness returning, he realized he was still quite alone in the trailer. He lay there staring at the light, blinking annoyingly in the upper right corner of his vision. He moved his head to the right, it was still there. To the left, again still there.
He closed his eyes.
It was still there.
He opened his eyes again hastily. What in the name of...
Active-matrix electroluminescent display enabled scrolled helpfully across the bottom of his line of vision.
Joe stared at it as realization finally dawned. Well, waddya know. A heads up display!
Joe sat up and turned on the lamp above his bed. The slowly blinking display remained perfectly contrasted for the new light level, he noticed. He tried turning his head one way and then the other, focusing on different backgrounds, and the display kept pace with all of them.
Please set display preferences.
“What? How do I do that?”
Please set display preferences.
“I’d prefer you to go away and let me sleep, that’s what I’d prefer,” Joe growled.
Are you sure? Y/N.
“What the hell do you mean, am I sure?”
Are you sure? Y/N.
Joe gave up in exasperation. “YES!”
Sleep mode activated. The green faded to a duller, much less intrusive shade and stopped blinking.
Joe exhaled noisily and sagged back against the pillows, watching the subdued display warily, as though it could rise up like a snake and and lunge at him at any moment. What the hell was Raphael thinking, not telling him that something like this could happen? He was going to have to find a way to talk to the elusive scientist as soon as possible. What if it had happened in the middle of battle? One second’s hesitation at the wrong moment could get all of them killed. And it was just this sort of unexpected discovery about his new body that might cause him to slip up and give himself away to Nambu and his teammates.
Above all else, he did not want to do that.
He wondered if the blow on the head the day before could have knocked something loose. Then he started thinking about what else might have been dislodged, and got a cold trickle down his spine. Even after working with Dr. Rafael for nearly two years during his rebuilding and rehabilitation after the rogue former Galactor scientist had rescued him from the battlefield at Cross Karakoram at the end of the First War, there was still so much he didn’t understand about the mechanics of his cyborg self. He had the feeling he might never fully grasp it all.
The sudden reappearance of the green letters made him jump. Communication imminent.
“Huh? Joe said – just as his bracelet began to beep.
Met? What the hell does that mean? Joe thought, frustrated. He hadn’t managed to get a moment to contact Rafael in the rush from mission briefing to launch, and in the space of the last few hours, the display had gone from startling, to kind of cool, to really, really annoying. It had a habit of popping up all the time without warning with some kind of electronic comment, probably considering itself helpful.
Joe had another word.
It was hot out here, and so humid that all you had to do to become instantly soaked in sweat was stand still and breathe. The air was thick with the almost deafening chittering and screeching of insects and birds and the stink of overripe fruit and rotting vegetation, and Joe was grateful for the hard-learned ability to mentally dial down his cybernetically enhanced senses. Not for the first time he heartily thanked Rafael’s insistence on all those long, grueling sessions at the biofeedback machines.
He swatted at yet another gross-looking flying bug the size of a small pony as he followed Ken’s white wings through the thick jungle foliage of the Malaysian island of Daat, from the air a vaguely rhomboid-shaped splash of brilliant emerald green against the deep blue backdrop of the South China Sea. Behind him he could hear Jinpei whispering to Ryu about an interestingly striped rodent-like creature he had spotted in the undergrowth – he was careful not to react as if he could hear the conversation, though, since before his cybernetics there would have been no way, especially over the raucous chorus of the local invertebrate population.
He realized he was hunching his shoulders again, and swore under his breath as he deliberately let them relax into a more normal position. Keeping his new abilities a secret from his teammates took constant vigilance, and the strain of keeping up that level of hyper self-awareness, not to mention the ever present fear that he would somehow slip up, was beginning to take its toll on him. His jaw seemed to be permanently clenched from the stress, and he frequently woke in the middle of the night from bad dreams that he couldn’t quite remember. It was something he hadn’t shared at all with Rafael during his clandestine visits to the old man’s laboratory, but he suspected that the scientist probably guessed. After all, Rafael knew only too well that his personal benevolence – even love – toward cyborgs was not exactly a sentiment shared by too many outside of the Galactor organization itself.
Most people thought they were monsters.
104oF 98H, his display informed him. At least he knew what that meant. In other words, it was like a freaking sauna out here.
He was jerked out of his preoccupations by Ken’s sudden halt a foot in front of him, and he only just managed to stop himself before he ploughed into the Eagle’s back. He had missed the signal, and Ken flashed him a brief funny look before doing a quick visual sweep of the rest of the team.
Relax, Asakura. Shake it off. It’s not like it’s the first time you weren’t paying attention when you were supposed to be.
He glanced past Ken’s shoulder and realized they’d reached a wide clearing in the island’s inland rainforest, something that hadn’t been visible from the air. He lifted his eyes toward the tops of the trees, confirming his suspicions that the clearing had been heavily camouflaged.
In front of them was a large, square building, its concrete facade painted in the greens and browns that would help it blend in with the jungle foliage around it. It was about three stories high, and Joe’s enhanced vision could easily pick out the narrow black lines of the massive double loading dock doors that took up two thirds of its frontage. This was the surface installation of the vast mech factory below it, right where ISO intelligence had said it would be. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jun working with her portable scanner, nodding her head over its display. “They were right when they said it was big,” she said at last. “Two hundred and sixty feet deep, radius of a quarter mile from the center point. It takes up more than half of this island, underground.”
Joe didn’t need her to tell him. His display was giving him the same information. He also knew there were two guards concealed outside a smaller access door in the front entrance, and a whole mess of electronic booby traps behind them.
Joe forced his concentration away from the display and onto Ken, who was saying something to them. “...know what your jobs are. Radio silence unless absolutely necessary. Let’s go!”
Joe joined automatically in a silent salute, and then he was following Ken into the clearing.
They didn’t bother with the front entrance. Jun jammed the electronic eyes that crisscrossed all the sides of the long building, keying in a quickly obtained digital recording of the view that would play on the Galactor scanners inside until they were ready to move on. She kept her scanner at the ready as Ryu and Jinpei went to work on a spot near the rear corner with the low noise laser cutters the big man had carried in a pack slung over his shoulders. Joe and Ken stood by on either side, back to back, watching to make sure no random Galactor goon decided to wander out and take a scenic leak at the wrong moment.
After what seemed like an eternity, during which Joe wished several times that he could reach up under his visor to mop his sweating brow, the hissing of the cutters stopped. He turned to see that they’d broken through into what looked like a large men’s room, painted the usual industrial gray with what used to be white tile. Fortunately nobody dressed in green was taking an inopportunely-timed leak in here, either.
Ken took a quick glance around and waved them all through the hole into the building. Joe had a moment of disorientation as his heads up blinked and swam with a confused tangle of lines. Then it resolved into a subtle background of what he had to believe was the layout of the floor they were on. The perspective changed as he turned his head experimentally one way and then the other.
This might turn out to have its uses after all.
“Time check,” Ken was saying.
Joe jerked, realizing his commander was talking to him. “14:37,” he read smartly off his display, then remembered just in time to look down at his chrono as a reference. Ken would really think he’d gone off his rocker if he suddenly started plucking the exact time out of thin air. “We have ten hours and thirteen minutes until the mech launches.”
“Let’s get to it, then,” Ken said tightly.
It was only then that Joe saw his display confirming what he had just said, only in reverse...and it finally dawned on him what MET meant. Mission Elapsed Time.
Yeah, yeah, I know, he thought, watching as Jun scrawled “OUT OF ORDER” across the corridor side of the men’s room door, and then proceeded to swiftly jam the lock to further discourage entry. We’ve got all the time in the world.
The intelligence that had led them to this vast underground Galactor installation between the coasts of Malaysia and Borneo had cost the lives of at least six ISO operatives, Nambu had told them during their briefing. Gel Sadra was on the warpath, and the mech stashed here promised to be particularly vicious in its attack path. Exact details had been hard to decipher from the damaged data disk they’d found on what was left of the sixth aforementioned courier, but one thing was clear, Galactor had a new superweapon of terrifying proportions, built with technology stolen from one of the dozen black laboratories somewhere in the heart of China that didn’t officially exist, and they weren’t a bit afraid to use it.
The short term solution was clear and simple – infiltrate the base and hit the mech before its scheduled launch time...which had been precisely 13.5 hours from the time the Kagaku Ninja Tai had taken off for the South China Sea. Destroy it and its terrible payload long before it had a chance to rain destruction on an unaware and innocent civilian population.
Piece of cake.
Joe let Jun lead with her scanner, even though his own display was probably giving him the same, if not superior input to what she was getting. They couldn’t risk the elevators, so there was nothing for it but to endure the rat-in-a-trap claustrophobia of the stairwell for eighteen flights. As was his habit, Ken put Joe in front and brought up the rear himself, half turned backwards the entire way. Joe knew his commander had never forgotten the incident halfway through the first war when the whole team had almost been wiped out by a surprise pulse rifle attack from behind in a stairwell exactly like this one. Ken got obsessed by things like that, spending inordinate amounts of time figuring out how to never, ever let it happen again. Joe thought the Eagle’s control freak tendencies were at their finest during times like that – but even he couldn’t fault his motivation.
The sudden splash of red on his display jerked his attention back to their downward progress. Two hostiles within his target radius, headed rapidly in their direction. Without thinking, Joe grabbed Jun and lunged behind the door, just as it began to open.
It was a short fight. Joe kicked the nearest one, sending him crashing into his companion and setting up a neat shot for Ryu, who lifted them up and bashed their heads together. They collapsed in an unconscious heap and Jinpei swiftly disarmed and bound them. Jun found a service door a flight below them and Ryu and Joe carried the goons down, stashing them securely away where they could do no damage.
“Good catch, Joe,” Ken said, frowning a little, his features washed in blue from the tint of his visor.
Joe shrugged as he closed the service door again. “Good hearing,” he said. “It comes in handy.”
“Uh huh.” Ken still had that furrowed look of concentration on his face, as if there was something right in front of him that he knew was there but couldn’t quite focus on.
Joe made himself turn away before the Eagle could comment further, striding purposefully toward the next flight of stairs.
They went on down.
They entered the outer corridor on the mech hangar level without incident. It didn’t surprise Joe – prelaunch times were pretty tense, and base personnel weren’t exactly encouraged to wander round the hallways. His display told him that the control center was located toward the north end of the hangar, but he had to restrain himself from heading in that direction until Jun had indicated it herself.
At the point where another stairwell appeared on their right that led down to the access tunnels beneath the hangar floor, the team paused again. This was where they split up. It was Ken’s job to make sure his half of the team got into the nerve center of the complex in one piece without the alarm being raised, and then protect Jinpei and Jun while the Swallow extracted whatever data he could from the central computer and the Swan planted explosives to destroy what they left behind. Joe and Ryu were headed for the mecha itself with instructions to use the Owl’s pack full of C-4 to make sure that it was one flying machine that would never feel the wind beneath its wings.
Or whatever it flew with. You could never tell with Galactor mechs.
Ken gave them all his usual intense don’t get killed stare. “Remember, nobody sets off anything that does damage until we’re all clear and accounted for. Understood?”
“Hai,” they chorused in low whispers. Ken spared one more penetrating glance at Joe, then whirled and was gone down the corridor in flash of red and white, Jun and Jinpei on his heels.
“What was all that about?” Ryu said, looking after their commander.
“Who knows,” Joe shrugged. “Probably got indigestion from that onigiri he was eating on the way over, and he’s looking for a way to make it my fault. Like he does with everything else.”
“That’s because it usually is your fault,” Ryu grinned.
“Well, there is that. But you know what his cooking is like.”
Ryu started to laugh out loud, then abruptly remembered where they were and cut it off. “Come on, baka. We’ve got a mech to cripple.”
They took the stairway to the tunnels, Joe having no trouble navigating them with the help of his built-in electronic floor plan. The intelligence he and Ryu had memorized during their flight had been pretty damned accurate, he realized fairly quickly after they began picking their way through the underground maze. He silently swore a promise to the six operatives who had died to bring this information home that if he had anything to do with it, they would not go unavenged. The blood of their enemies would pay for their deaths this day.
There was that red spatter again, the warning of imminent discovery. Joe shot out his left arm, flattening Ryu against the wall of the tunnel right before they reached the t-junction ahead of them. Ryu’s startled expression switched rapidly to understanding, and they both tensed in readiness.
And then Joe’s display went nuts, and he was throwing himself and the Owl to the deck as a deep whump shook the tunnel behind them. Chunks of concrete flew from the opposite wall, and somebody was screaming. Two more shattering blasts from the pulse rifle, and Joe scrambled backwards, dodging the jagged gray chips that pinged off his visor and trying to get himself turned around so he could see what the hell was going on. The plasma bursts had taken out a section of the ceiling illumination, and he couldn’t see a thing through the thick cloud of concrete dust. But his cyborg sensors could, and his display told him what he needed to know. Three goons were approaching from the rear, heavily armed. The two on the other side, the ones that had been about to reach the opening to the corridor in front of Joe and Ryu, had been caught in the blast from their compatriots’ rifles. Judging from the stink of copper in his nostrils they were either dead or dying in the rubble.
The ones coming at them were hesitating, blinded by the miasma of concrete dust just as he should have been. “Stay down!” Joe hissed as Ryu tried to rise from the floor, coughing. He used his display to target the goons through the choking gloom, and let fly with a half dozen shuriken without even needing to stand up.
Every one of them found their target. The three bodies halted, convulsed and collapsed to the ground, and the imminent threat was over.
“Guess somebody really needed to take a leak,” Ryu said, after a moment.
Joe stared at him for a moment uncomprehendingly...then Ryu nodded his head toward the ceiling and he got it. He rolled his eyes.
They got to their feet, wiping the dust off their visors with their gloves. Joe glanced down at his bracelet longingly. He couldn’t communicate with Ken and he knew it, couldn’t risk giving away the position of the rest of the team, but it didn’t stop him wanting to. “They’ll be all right,” Ryu said, clearly able to read the Condor’s thoughts. He was bending over the dead goons that had tried to surprise them, picking up their weapons. He tossed one pulse rifle to Joe. “Let’s go. We don’t know how much time we have before somebody sets off a general alarm.”
“If we get lucky, Gel Sadra won’t want to interrupt the launch countdown and she’ll just send more goons to find us,” Joe said.
“If we get lucky.” Ryu turned to follow his teammate as they dodged past the rubble on their way into the corridor beyond.
Activity in the corridors had definitely increased. Joe could see the heat signatures approach and disperse around them as more and more teams of goons tried to hunt him and Ryu down. They were forced to slow their progress down to a crawl in order to dodge the crisscrossing squads, not wanting another firefight to reveal their new position. Joe’s secret display made it easy, and he didn’t hesitate to use the advantage it gave him, but after he had miraculously looked through walls to spot their pursuers in advance a fourth time, he saw the beginnings of the Eagle’s puzzled frown on Ryu’s face.
“I’m just having a really good day, all right?” he growled as they stepped out of the shadows again. “Don’t look at me like that.”
He swung around and stalked off down the tunnel, hoping that Ryu’s usual reluctance to push past the patented Condor scowl would be enough to discourage further discussion.
It worked. “Oookay,” Ryu said as he followed. “But whatever you had for lunch, I want some.”
Joe had to crack a grin.
They were nearly killed climbing up out of the stairway access into the open belly hatch of the mech. Joe’s display warned him a split second before the automatic intruder system kicked in and fired a lethal dose of plasma across the entrance. Only his cybernetic speed saved him as he let go of the ladder and leaped backwards, yelling at Ryu to get out of the freaking way and fast. The Owl swung to one side just in time to avoid the Condor’s boots as he hurtled down the forty foot stairwell in free fall. The explosion ripped the hatch cover off its mountings and threw it across the mecha, but the energy went across the stairwell and not down it. Thanking the gods for small mercies, Joe shot out a hand and grabbed a rung of the ladder, feeling the metal crumple in his fist but not break as it halted his descent.
He shoved his boots against one of the lower footholds and let his body sag against the ladder a moment. Then he looked up at Ryu’s open mouthed stare. “Joe...”
The ear splitting wail of the alarms cut the air then. Saved by the bell. “Move it, Ryu!” Joe barked. “We’re out of time.”
He quit even pretending he didn’t know where he was going at that point. Judging from what his display was telling him, they had about three minutes before this mech would be overrun with goons trying to take them out. And even a cyborg had to hesitate at those odds.
Ryu ripped the backpack off and they ran from one advance-planned critical stress point to the next, planting the C-4 and the radio controlled detonators. After what seemed like hours the pack was finally empty and it was time to get the hell out of there. But Joe was at a loss to figure out how. No way would the belly hatch be safe now, and from the looks of it the mech was completely surrounded by a sea of Galactor soldiers who were about to come in after them.
“Up,” Ryu said, suddenly.
Joe nodded. “Let’s do it.” It was the obvious choice – the only one that gave them the advantage of surprising their pursuers, who, unlike the Condor, couldn’t see through walls. Joe followed the Owl as they raced back up the last corridor and up the vertical stairwell toward the upper levels of the ship.
They hauled themselves out through an upper access hatch on to the surface of the mech a couple of minutes later, and for the first time Joe got something of an idea of what this beast actually looked like. “I think it’s supposed to be a bat,” Ryu said at last, echoing the Condor’s thoughts. “A great big bat.”
“Well, this is one bat that is never gonna fly,” Joe growled.
“Speaking of flying, we’d better do some of that ourselves if we want to get out of here in one piece,” Ryu said. He was looking at the hatch he had just locked shut after them, and they both heard the banging of rifle butts against the metal.
It was only a matter of seconds before somebody thought to fire a pulse burst through the hatch cover. Joe signaled to Ryu and they took off across the hull towards the south end of the hangar, where they had come from. At the edge Joe paused, stared behind him at the huge viewing windows of the command center, looming high above them a hundred feet away. He could see chaos within, a roiling swarm of green uniforms, and the flash of the Eagle’s red and white wings. As he watched, a pulse blasted out the command center windows, glass exploding outwards in a glittering, deadly shower.
“Joe, we have to go!” Ryu yanked at his arm.
The bay below the mech was clear, all the goons having poured into the mecha in pursuit of the Owl and the Condor. The hull shuddered as the lead goons blasted the surface hatch and started climbing through. Joe risked one more glance back and then launched himself into space, wings spread to glide toward the far end of the hangar.
There was always one independent thinker in the group. Joe’s display warned him about the incoming blast seconds after they landed on terra firma and started running the rest of the way to the stairwell entrance door. He kicked off with his enhanced cyborg legs and zoomed through the air at Ryu, knocking him to the ground hard. The plasma charge shot over their heads and made instant confetti out of two Galactor jeeps, raining wreckage and superheated metal into the air. Joe scrambled to his feet, dragging Ryu with brute force, ignoring the shocked look on the Owl’s face. “Move!” Joe yelled at him.
Several squads of goons were rushing toward them from under the mech. Ryu swung around and raced for the doors, Joe right on his heels.
The next blast shot out a support column to their immediate right, and Joe threw his arm over his visor to ward off the flying chunks of stone. Ryu wasn’t so lucky, a heavy section of the column catching him in lower legs and throwing him sideways to the ground. Joe grabbed his teammate by the arm and towed him back to his feet, unable to stop even for the seconds that would have told him if Ryu was conscious or not.
The sudden ominous groan above him made him jerk his head up. With a sound like a rifle shot, a long, deep crack burst through the thick concrete above the collapsed support column. The ceiling was coming down.
It was only then that Joe remembered the Galactor pulse rifle he had slung over his back. Cursing himself for his slowness, he whipped the weapon forward and aimed at the stairwell access door, blasting a hole through it that was easily big enough to dive through. Then he grabbed Ryu, threw the big man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and launched them both forward toward the entrance to the stairwell.
Ryu didn’t regain consciousness until after Joe had gotten him all the way out of the building and carried him to the edge of the jungle clearing. Halfway up the stairs the whole building shook with a series of explosions and their pursuit abruptly stopped, much to Joe’s relief...although it made a sharp knife of worry for the others twist in his gut.
First things first, though – he had to get Ryu to safety. He lowered the unconscious Owl to the ground, taking off his helmet and checking him over with brisk efficiency for injuries. When Ryu opened his eyes, he studied his pupils for signs of concussion. “I’m all right,” Ryu grumbled in protest, trying to sit up.
“No, you’re not,” Joe countered. “That last chunk of concrete broke both your legs. You’re going to start feeling it in a minute.”
“Crap,” Ryu said. “I hate regen.”
“We all hate regen,” Joe grinned darkly.
He helped Ryu prop himself up against a tree trunk. “Thanks,” Ryu said. “For getting me out of there. Although I’ll be damned if I can figure out how you did it.”
Joe ignored him, staring back at the surface building. He could hear the sounds of the fight below ground, although nothing was visible yet in the upper parts of the installation. Come on, Ken, come on, Jun...where the hell are you, Jinpei...
Then his blood ran cold with horror as he read the new words that scrolled across the bottom of his display.
Warning: target installation has enabled self destruct mode.
“How long?” he burst out, heedless of Ryu’s startled stare. “How long have we got, dammit?”
“Stop that fucking blinking or I’ll rip you out of my head myself!” Joe hissed under his breath. He had to think.
The blinking, wisely, stopped. The time now shone steadily, the only change the inexorable counting down of the numbers. 00:04:47. 00:04:46. 00:04:45.
“What?” Ryu said, confused. “Joe, what’s wrong? Did you get hurt back there...?”
“No,” Joe snapped. “But I’ve got to go back in and get Ken and the others. That installation’s about to blow.”
“What are you talking about, Joe? We haven’t triggered the detonators. And Ken said...”
Joe’s mind was going a mile a minute, the wheels spinning so fast it felt like the top of his head was going to come off. He thumped at his helmet in frustration with the heel of his hand. Catch fucking 22. If he told Ryu what he knew, then the jig was up for him. Game over. But if he didn’t...
“You’re going to have to trust me on this one, big guy,” he said to Ryu, handing him one of the pulse rifles they had escaped with. “That place is going up in less than five minutes. I have to get them out of there before that happens.”
“Joe, if you’re right, there’s no way you’ll make it! You’ll be killed!” Ryu’s eyes were wide, and Joe realized that the Owl was facing the very real possibility that none of them would survive this one.
Joe’s mouth twisted sideways . “I have a habit of that not happening,” he said, “in case you haven’t noticed.” He pushed himself to his feet, picking up the other pulse rifle.
“But how do you know, Joe?” Ryu shouted after him.
Joe paused, twisting round to stare at him. Cold panic roiled in his gut, but there was no answer he could think of that would make sense. So after a second he simply swung back in the direction of the building and launched himself into a run.
He would just have to figure out some way to talk himself out of this mess afterwards. Right now, he had the other half of his team to save.
Joe started yelling into his bracelet halfway back to the surface building. “Ken! Ken! Answer me!”
Nothing. Something inside was probably blocking the signal. He was going to have to get inside the building before he’d be able to hail them.
There were no guards now at the front of the building. Joe blew a gaping hole in the doors with the pulse rifle and ran across the vast equipment access hall in the interior, dodging to the right past what looked like a massive freight elevator toward the stairwell door beside it. The sounds of battle were louder now under his feet, but there was nobody at all on the upper levels.
He didn’t hesitate on the way down – the few times that anyone showed their face in the stairwell he simply opened fire. Once he almost destroyed the stairway under him and had to hold his breath for a while, until he was sure that it wasn’t going to collapse on his head as he raced downward beyond the break he had inadvertently created. Every flight he yelled into the bracelet again. “Ken! Ken! Where the hell are you?”
It wasn’t until he was in the corridor at the bottom that he heard the harsh crackle of static and Ken’s voice, clearly strained. There was no visual, only snow. “...say again...Condor...say...”
“Ken, the building’s going to blow! You’ve got to get out!”
“Get out! Get out now!” Joe screamed at his bracelet. He kicked through the first access door he found in the corridor and burst out into the open hangar.
The command center was on fire, the flames a spectacular yellow-orange against the dull battleship gray of the hangar walls. A thick pall of smoke hung in the air. Joe stared around him, searching for his team. Finally a flash of white alerted him and he spotted Jun and Jinpei, pinned down against one of the mech struts by what looked like four squads of green-suited goons.
He couldn’t see the Eagle anywhere.
Joe launched himself forward, firing as he ran. The rearmost goons menacing his teammates exploded in a sickening rain of red. By the time the ones in front of them figured out what had happened, the Condor was upon them.
And if they’d thought he had no mercy before, they were about to find out that things could be much, much worse.
Joe gave full rein to his cyborg strength now – he had no choice, there was no time for pretenses anymore – and he carved through the enemy like they were wet tissue paper. He vaguely saw the shock and disbelief as Jun and Jinpei saw him do the impossible, things that no normal man could ever have done, at a speed no normal man could ever have moved at. Inside he was dying at the looks on their faces, but there was no way to stop now, he had to save them, he had to get them out of there.
And then, all at once, it was over, and the goons were all littered at his feet in bloody heaps but he couldn’t look at them, could only focus on his family, safe in front of him. Jun rushed to him, gripped his arm. He realized then that she was injured, her left arm bent at a funny angle. “Joe...oh, gods, Joe...”
He shook her off, although it killed him to do it. “Where’s Ken?” he rasped. “There’s a self destruct. The building’s gonna go up.”
He tried to ignore Jinpei’s penetrating stare.
“There he is!” Jun shouted suddenly, pointing upward. Joe twisted around to see the Eagle perched on the edge of the command center shelf, framed by the ragged hole where all the windows had been. Ken saw them at the same moment and waved.
And launched himself into the air toward them, white wings spread wide.
Joe’s display spattered red again. He swung to the right and spotted the goon who was taking aim at the flying Eagle. He opened fire, making dog food out of the Galactor but not in time to prevent the soldier from getting a shot off at Ken. Joe stared anxiously upwards, watching the blast miss Ken but suck all the air out from under his wings as it passed. Ken dropped out of the air like a stone, falling twenty feet toward the concrete hangar floor.
“No!” Jun shrieked. She took off toward the tumbling Eagle, Joe and Jinpei in hot pursuit. At the last moment Ken managed to get his wings out level again, but it was too late to slow his descent more than a fraction. He hit the ground hard, rolled instantly, but didn’t get up again.
Joe overtook Jun easily, and was beside the downed Eagle in seconds. “Ken! Ken!”
Incredibly, Ken was conscious, and he was now indeed trying to get up. As well as swearing loudly and colorfully under his voice. “Ken,” Joe said, grinning, “You really want Jun to hear any of that?”
Ken grimaced as he tried to stand, and Joe caught his arm. “Gonna be quite a little line for the tanks when we get back,” the Condor promised.
“Shimatta,” Ken muttered. “I hate regen.”
Jun and Jinpei caught up to them at that moment. Jinpei plucked at Joe’s sleeve. “How did you do that?”
“Windsprints,” Joe winked.
Joe looked back at Ken. “Can you walk? We have about a minute before this entire building goes up.”
“What?” Ken stared at him.
“I have no time to discuss this with you right now,” Joe grated, dragging him bodily forwards. “We have to go. Right now.”
The Eagle was obviously in pain but he managed to hobble forward in something approaching a run. Jun and Jinpei followed, Jinpei swinging around as he ran to make sure their retreat was covered. When they got to the far end of the hangar Joe stared at the stairwell, knowing full well that the Eagle was never going to make it up all those stairs, and even if he could, there wasn’t time.
There was nothing else for it. They would have to risk the freight elevator.
He jabbed at the call button. A little to his surprise, and a lot to his relief, it lit up instantly. Then again, considering the load it had to be designed to take, it was probably one of the sturdiest mechanisms in the entire building.
Come on, come on... The big doors rumbled open abruptly and Joe hustled them all inside. He heard Jinpei’s shout as the doors began to close again, and got off a couple of hasty shots at the flash of green that crossed his vision. He never saw if he hit anything, because then the doors were closed and the elevator was whisking them upwards.
Joe was pushing them out of the elevator before the doors were fully opened on the ground level. They crossed the upper equipment access hall and burst out through the hole he had blasted in the doors on the way in.
His nerves screamed as the glowing green numerals counted down inexorably in front of his vision. The best he could hope for was that if he stayed between his team and the explosion, the superior durability of his new body would help shield them from the blast. There was no way on earth that they were going to make it to the treeline in time.
Joe shut his eyes. The last thing he remembered, he was airborne on a great rushing wind, and then everything went black.
“I still don’t know how you knew that building was going to blow, Joe,” Ryu said to him as the Condor lounged beside the long permaplex regen tank the Owl was unhappily submerged inside. “And neither does anyone else.”
Joe shrugged. “You know how it is. You do this enough, you develop an instinct about these things. I guess I just have this secret affinity for things that go boom.”
“Jinpei thinks you had a near death experience when you were gone those two years, and you came back psychic.”
Joe laughed out loud. “That boy’s been reading Tales of the Weird again. That stuff’ll rot his brain.”
“Says the guy who had a stack of Playboys under his bed that was so high it pushed up the mattress,” Ryu grinned.
Joe snorted. “But we’re getting sidetracked, Joe,” Ryu continued. “I want to know what really went on back there. Seriously.”
“Sorry, Ryu, maybe some other time,” Joe said, standing up and wrinkling his nose. “I gotta go see Nambu. Besides, I can only take so much of the smell of that stuff before it gives me a headache.”
Ryu glanced down ruefully at the pink goo he was suspended in. “And I’ve got another hour to go. Yuck.”
Joe laughed, making his retreat. "Be happy you didn't break your face."
"Thanks." Joe could hear the face Ryu pulled even though his back was turned.
"What’s Nambu want, anyway?” the Owl called after him.
“Dunno. Something about this new executive assistant he’s hired. I think he wants us to do a pickup.”
“Weird.” Ryu shook his head. “Oh, well, I guess it will all make sense when he explains it to us.”
“Dream on,” Joe said, flipping a hand. “This is Nambu you’re talking about.”
It was Ryu’s turn to laugh. Joe made good his escape, thinking the whole way about how lucky he was to have dodged the bullet this time. He was quite willing to embrace his new heads up display, despite its more intrusive moments, if it helped him again in the spectacular fashion that it had done on the island of Daat. Thanks to some very fast talking on his part, his terrible secret was still safe, and there had been so much chaos to clean up after the mission that none of the team had wound up making enough of an issue out of what they’d seen that he couldn’t explain it all away by citing things like cases he’d read about of mothers who had lifted cars off their loved ones when the situation had demanded it. No one knew how they’d done it, either, he pointed out. But it had happened, and more than once.
And eventually, they’d all left it pretty much alone.