"Hey! Leggo of my leg!"
A tall kid in a varsity jacket, ball cap, and jeans tugged at his leg with both hands. This was humiliating. He'd lunged with a powerful side-kick at one of the two people he'd been hired to stop, but she'd caught his leg easily. Her partner had disappeared, and he didn't like that one bit. They looked like ninja, they moved like ninja, they had ninja weapons...hell, they were ninja. Her partner was probably going to appear any second now and...
On cue, the other person he'd been hired to stop came flying in from the right with a soaring dragon kick that connected with his torso right below his sternum. He went flying backwards onto concrete that was dusty from long disuse, sliding along its surface on his shoulder. Dammit. That bitch now had his right shoe, and her asshole of a partner had caused him to tear his favorite jacket. They both stood together, watching him silently. That pissed him off even more. He stood up, discarded his other shoe, and charged at the male ninja.
They both stood stock-still until he was within striking distance, unafraid of his attack. Then, just as he darted in with a rushing right-cross, they both vanished. The female ninja reappeared behind him and to his left, nailing him in the kidneys with a power lunge. This knocked him off-balance and added to his already considerable forward momentum (the varsity jacket didn't have a track letter on it for nothing), delivering him into a prime position for the waiting devices of the male ninja.
"Oh, Christ, here we go..." he breathed.
The male ninja grabbed him by his right underarm and flipped him onto the ground using only one hand. He lay on his stomach with one arm hyper-extended behind his back where the male ninja still gripped it firmly. For the first time, he spoke.
"Where is Garuda?" he asked.
"Garuda?" the one with the hyper-extended shoulder retorted. "I got no idea what you're talking about, man."
The ninja levered his arm further backwards, and the young man yelled in anguish.
"I ask you again: where is Garuda?"
Okay, plan B. With his other hand, the young man grasped a small medallion that his employer had given him. The instructions were not to use it unless they proved to be too much for him. Well, this qualified as "too much," in his opinion.
"What was the activation phrase?" he wondered aloud. "Oh yeah..."
"What was that?" the ninja inquired. "I did not understand that."
"Sho-ma-en ha!" the young man cried, by way of reply. "Fuck off, man!"
A large bird of prey that had been circling overhead swooped down upon the ninja, attacking him with razor-sharp beak and talons. The ninja released his grip on the young man's arm and back-flipped several times until he was well out of the bird's range. The bird didn't pursue him, but rather hovered over the young man's prostrate body and began to glow. So did the young man. Their bodies merged, creating an apparition with the wings and head of a bird, but the powerful torso and legs of a college athlete.
The two ninja observed this transformation with a strange calm. The girl spoke to her partner.
"Look, genetic splicing. Garuda would surely have powers similar to this, but more potent. We must be prepared."
The Demon Phoenix rose into the air and opened its mouth. A blazing globe of energy collected in its open beak and discharged towards the two ninja below. They dove in opposite directions away from the blast, streaking towards the other end of the abandoned highway. The Demon Phoenix pursued them closely, swooping down upon the girl and grasping her in its taloned feet. It lifted her up into the air to an altitude of about ten meters and dropped her.
"Kaede!" her partner cried. He sprinted underneath her, leaping to catch her before she struck the pavement. They alighted on the concrete relatively unscathed, though Kaede had minor puncture-wounds from the Phoenix's talons.
But no sooner had they landed than the Phoenix attacked them from the side, plowing through them feet-first. It knocked them apart, sending them tumbling laterally on the ground. They each sprang to their feet.
"Hayate!" Kaede called. "X-form!" Her partner nodded.
They ran to meet each other, then dropped into their offensive stances and turned to face the Demon Phoenix as it charged them again. They waited until it was less than one meter in front of them, then they dove apart, avoiding the Phoenix and executing forward hand-springs. As soon as their feet touched the ground at the end of the hand-spring, they pounced on the Phoenix before it rose into the air again. They kneed it in the solar plexus and tossed it up into the air before it had a chance to recover. They leaped up after it, pummeling it from opposite directions in an "x" pattern, using the streetlights as rebounding points to propel themselves ever higher. As they reached the tops of the lampposts, they drew their katana blades and rushed the Phoenix once more. They each cut a wide swath from his hip to the shoulder on the opposite side, dismembering both his arms and his legs in two swift strikes. The Demon Phoenix's pieces dropped to earth, lifeless.
Hayate and Kaede each alighted on a streetlight and dropped to the concrete from that perch. Kaede strode over to the Phoenix's legs and searched the jeans' pockets. She turned up a small note on which was written the following:
"When you have destroyed your two targets, come to the Murrah-Hughes building at midnight to collect the other half of your payment."
"Guess that's our next lead," she said, tossing the bloody wad of paper onto the Phoenix's discarded legs. "Such a waste of a life."
When he awoke, he couldn't feel his extremities. In fact, he couldn't feel anything below the level of his heart. He looked down. From the neck down, he was imprisoned in a...in a...in a tank of sorts. It was metal, he could tell that much. But it closed over his neck as though it were an injection-molding machine or something.
"Hey!" he yelled to anyone who could hear. "Where the fuck am I?"
There was a rumbling sound, and an overly large metal door on the opposite side of the room slid up into the ceiling. An impossibly old man clad in a red-trimmed black cloak hobbled into the room. The old man approached the machine that imprisoned him, and looked up at him with a deep sadness in his eyes.
"Who are you?"
"You may call me 'the Grandmaster,'" the old man replied in a thick, gravelly voice. "You did so very well in your attempt to stop them. Pity that we cannot reward you better than this."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you remember your battle?" the old man asked. "Do you remember the two ninja?"
Images flashed unbidden through his mind. He remembered...everything...
"I died! Oh my god, my arms and legs are gone! They cut me up like a frog! No! No no no!" he began sobbing.
The old man looked at him with compassion etched in the ancient lines of his face. "It gets worse, son. Behold."
A hologram appeared before him which assumed the shape and properties of a common mirror. He looked at his own face. "No! I'm a bird! I'm a stupid fucking bird!"
"Unfortunately, the medallion's effects are irreversible," the old man stated. "However, the trauma inflicted upon your body has caused your mind to revert. I am unsure how this is possible, but you are evidence that it is possible."
"Let me die!" he cried. "How can I live like this? No arms, no legs, but the face of a bird?!? Kill me now!"
At this, the old man leaned forward, and his eyes took on a rapacious gleam. "Wouldn't you rather inflict harm and exact revenge upon those who did this to you?"
"B-But I can't! Look at me, dammit!"
"The device that you are strapped into is a bionic generator. It is growing you a new, cybernetic body that will integrate with what is left of your present body and replace nearly everything you've lost. In addition, your new body will be far more powerful and responsive than your previous one, and you will be outfitted with a suit of battle armor that will further enhance your already considerable abilities."
"Why would you do that for me?"
"Like you, I have an account that I need to settle with those ninjas. It so happens that there are seven more of their clan, and I desire that they should be eliminated. What better motivation is there than personal injury for instigating revenge? You would be an ideal agent."
"What's the catch?"
"After I do this...small favor...for you, you belong to me. You will do my bidding, and only my bidding, the instant I command you to."
"No thanks, I'll pass. Kill me now."
"You have no choice in the matter; the process has already begun. Already the command node has been placed in your primitive brain, and you will do as I order you from now on."
"You are now...and forever will be...MINE!"
And the old man threw his head back and laughed, a reverberation of pure, unadulterated evil. The Demon Phoenix's head screamed.
"Look, I don't care what the Grandmaster ordered you to do. I despise this shell of a body, and I don't want to see it anymore."
"But you are not allowed to merge yourself with that astral exo-forge!" a wizened gnome exclaimed. "You were given an entirely different suit of battle armor."
"Yeah, one that I can take off. I don't want that. I don't want to see my body anymore, I don't want to see that it's made of metal, and I'm sick of looking in the mirror and seeing this face. Now, lemme at that astral exo-whatsit!"
He shoved the gnome out of the way and touched the exo-forge. His cybernetic body melded with the olive-drab and yellow suit of armor, grafting itself into the suit's circuitry. His right arm extended and melded with the circuitry of an enormous triple-barreled plasma cannon and the locomotor circuitry of his shoulders extended outward into the rocket boosters, taking control of them as though they were parts of his original body. A yellow visor grew out of the armor around his throat, covering his skull and obscuring his now-hideous features from view.
"Meio isn't going to like this..." the gnome whimpered.
"Like I care. Fuck it all...tin can body, little lightning bolt in my head, shitty bird-face... fuck...it...all. I work for me, now."
"What about the command node?" the little gnome asked.
"The Grandmaster can have his stupid chip back...the exo-forge doesn't like it," he said, reaching into the back of his neck, pulling the node out, and hurling it across the room. "He can shove it up his ass if he doesn't like not being able to control me...hey, what's the deal?"
The armor blinked to life, throwing a heads-up-display onto his retinas. It read:
calibrating master language commands...
current vocabulary unacceptable.
generating new database... done.
installing database... done.
retrieving first-boot instructions...
YOU ARE PILOTING THE ASTRAL EXO-FORGE SERIAL NUMBER W6Z-RJ00054388, MODEL NAME "SOLO". ALL SYSTEMS ARE NOW ONLINE AND FULLY OPERATIONAL. THE ON-BOARD COMPUTER'S COMMANDS ARE VOICE-OPERATED AND WILL RESPOND ONLY TO YOUR SINGULAR VOICEPRINT. NOW ENTERING STANDBY MODE.
"'Solo,' huh?" he mused. "I like that. It suits my new posturing and attitude. I feel ten times more intelligent in this exo-forge. I believe I will keep it."
He strode out of the palace's armory into the hallway, making straight for the Grandmaster's throne room. He was accosted by the Grandmaster's two bodyguards at the door, who completely failed to recognize him in his new guise. He pulled a small blaster pistol out of an integrated holster on his thigh and shot both of them, then aimed his plasma cannon at the double doors. He held the charge for a count of five, then unleashed the fury of his new arsenal upon them. The blast shattered the doors into splinters of wood and fragments of unearthly metal, and continued on towards the throne itself, as he'd hoped.
The blast stopped mere inches away from the Grandmaster's face. He sat upon the throne with partial amusement playing about his features, his elbows propped on the throne's armrests and his hands folded before his face. Solo continued to pump more plasma into the blast, and the globe of energy swelled, backing up into the pipeline that fed it.
"My Demon Phoenix," the Grandmaster began. "If you continue firing that abysmally pitiful weapon, not only will your life energy diminish, but it will back up into your cannon and detonate. I assure you it will not move forward one more inch."
"The Demon Phoenix is dead! I am Solo! I am yours no longer!"
The plasma had backed up to within three centimeters from the tip of his cannon's barrel. Inside his armor, the biological parts of him were sweating bullets.
"Solo, is it now?" the Grandmaster waved a hand and the entire length of plasma vanished. Solo fell forward onto the carpet, completely spent. "I believe you are mistaken. You are not freed from my control, it has merely taken a new form."
Solo propped himself up and glared at the enthroned one. "What...do you mean?" he panted.
"The armor you have now...is the armor that I promised to you when you were encased in the bionic generator."
"The...the gnome said...said that..."
"He did not lie. I did order him not to allow you to take the exo-forge; but I did so to increase your desire for it. It is the very suit of armor I had intended to give you. It fulfills all my promises, does it not? It increases your powers and abilities far beyond anything you could have ever imagined?"
"Yes...but...it rejected...the command node...discarded..."
"As it should have. That matters little: while your will may now be freed from mine, I still control the integrity and stability of every exo-forge ever assembled. If I will it so, you will erupt into flames, detonating in a brilliant shower of phosphorus and hydrogen. Your life is still mine, my Demon Phoenix..."
Solo winced and hung his head.
"Do not be embarrassed, my servant. You will find that there are far worse things in the cosmos than living a life of indentured servitude to me...such as the misery and agony you will inflict upon that wretched clan of ninjas. My task force is assembled and waiting in docking bay forty-three for you to lead them in the assault."
The Grandmaster waved his hand again and Solo abruptly felt reinvigorated.
"You see? There are innumerable benefits to being my servant. Now go! I want not one of those nine to survive this assault!"
Solo exited the throne room, heading for docking bay forty-three.
A smoke blacker than ebony filled the air, rising from four columns of flame that licked and consumed four separate pagodas. The sound of wailing and cursing wafted through the air alongside the smoke, a completely wretched sound that was like music to Solo's ears. The Grandmaster's team of bounty hunters had made short work of these ninjas, excepting only the two who were presently before him. These two had put up a considerable fight, until he himself had entered the fray. Now, Hayate lay propped up against a large stone, both arms and legs useless. Solo had seared his joints with his blaster pistol, frying the tendons and nerve endings that controlled his limbs. In his left hand, Solo clutched Kaede's mauve gi, holding her up off the ground. She was unconscious. Hayate, however, was very much awake.
"I wonder, Hayate, if you have the slightest clue who I am," Solo stated. "Do you?"
"You are a demon from the pits of Hell, as far as I care!" Hayate snapped. "So help me, when I heal, you will wish that you had never lived!"
"Oh, believe me, I already do. And I owe it all to you, Hayate."
"I swear by the twelve signs that I do not know who you are! Unhand my wife!"
Solo cocked his head. "So she is your wife, is she?"
Hayate sat stone-faced, refusing to say more.
Solo needed no further confirmation. He pointed his plasma cannon at Kaede's right knee. "This has suddenly become immensely more enjoyable. Tell me, do you remember the time you assassinated Emperor Garuda?" He fired the cannon. Kaede's lower leg dissolved in a stream of superheated plasma.
Hayate winced and screamed. "No! Stop it! I remember that, yes! What about it?!?!"
He placed the cannon's muzzle on her left shoulder. "Do you remember battling a youth who transformed into a bird-like creature?" He fired it. Her arm was gone.
Tears streamed down the staunch ninja's cheeks. "Yes. Of course. He was one of the most difficult agents we fought."
Solo stepped forward, leaning in so that his visor was mere millimeters from Hayate's face. "I was that youth. I have become this creature of your nightmares; I haunt you now with this hatred and this cruelty that cannot be surpassed."
Hayate's expression melted from extreme sorrow to a look that combined comprehension with ultimate and total horror.
"You created me. You and your wife. Had you not killed me in that fashion, I might have been restored, but now..." Solo trailed off. His visor disappeared into his armor. "Look at me, Hayate! Know the face of the one who has wreaked this destruction!"
He turned his attention to Kaede, who was still unconscious. "I suppose I am through with you." He tossed her up into the air, charging his plasma cannon as he did so. "Farewell, O plague and incubus of my youth!"
He discharged the cannon. She disappeared, enveloped in yellow-white plasma. Hayate wept.
Solo aimed his cannon at Hayate. "Her death was relatively swift. You...you will burn." He fired the absolute minimum of plasma at Hayate and slowly cranked it up as the ninja screamed and writhed against the rock. He watched as the plasma slowly ate away the layers of skin as he increased the plasmodial output...epidermal, dermal, subcutaneous...frying the muscles underneath, stripping them away from the calcium-based bones they were attached to, and finally charring the bones themselves into ash.
He willed his visor back into position. "I hated to see my ki going to waste on that imbecile."
He engaged his rocket boosters, and went to find the others.
Several years later...
...a young man dressed in a gi suspiciously similar to Hayate's stands over Solo's prostrate body, thinking he is dead.
"So you've never failed to bring in your quarry, huh?" he says. "Your ass just got owned."
And with that, he turns and descends the mountain, fleeing the mines that Solo had placed on its side. A gurgling sound emerges from Solo's helmet, and he passes out.
He opened his eyes. Greenish-yellow blur. The outline of a hand seemed to emerge from this blur, but would not come close enough to touch him. He attempted to speak, but found that he could not. There was a mask covering his mouth that prevented his beak from opening. He reached up to yank it off, only to find that he had no arms. Nor did he have any legs.
Regeneration tank. That was where he was. He remembered his skirmish with Hiryu, recalling the injuries he'd sustained during the course of that battle. Of course. That was why he was here. The Grandmaster had rescued him from the mountain shelf. Good. Rest and regeneration was what he needed now, and that he would receive in abundance.
He allowed himself to slip back into unconsciousness slowly, burying within his beta waves one singular thought: destroy Strider Hiryu.