A withered fist smashed down onto an ornately carved armrest, and the sound of the impact echoed around the chamber walls like so many ping-pong balls.
"How?" Meio, the Grandmaster, asked through clenched teeth. "How did he destroy Ballog single-handedly?"
"He entered the gravity core's chamber and destroyed it by allowing it to pick him up in its own gravity field. As he orbited it, he plunged his sword into its surface and used his momentum to carve deeply into it. On one of his passes, he severed the main coolant supply tube. As a result, the core overheated and exploded," a female voice answered.
Meio's yellow eyes narrowed.
"How is it that you know this?" he inquired.
"As I left the gunship in my barge, I uploaded transcripts from each of Ballog's surveillance cameras and from its flight recorder onto the barge's computer," she stated weakly.
Meio looked at her. She was kneeling on the floor, but she did so out of fatigue and not respect. He had bred these assassins well, he decided. The one before him had a severe stab wound below the left side of her rib cage and was bleeding heavily; but she had still managed to escape from the flanking gunship before it had been destroyed by Ballog's railgun and retrieve the information on Ballog's destruction and make it back to his base of operations alive. The infusion of his homeworld's DNA with the basic human stock had made a truly sturdy, formidable agent that was yet pliable and easily commanded. Still...the ease with which the Strider had defeated all three of them was disturbing. The fact that said Strider had also decimated his main instrument of terror was no less agitating.
"Sai Pooh," he addressed her. "Did either of your...sisters...escape as well?"
"No, Grandmaster," she replied. "The Strider threw Nam Pooh over the gunship's side, and sliced through Ton Pooh's heart. He interrogated her for a few moments before she died, however."
Meio sat up, alarmed.
"I certainly hope that he did not learn anything of value to him...for your sake," he said.
"In her weakness, Ton Pooh told him who his adversary was," Sai Pooh responded, with quivering voice. "She told him your name. She appeared to be quite taken with him."
"No!" Meio roared. "This is unforseen, unexpected, and unacceptable!"
He rose from his throne and extended his hands towards her, regaining his composure as he did so.
"You will make remuneration for your comrade's fault," he stated flatly.
Greenish-white lightning emanated from his fingertips, enveloping Sai Pooh's crippled frame and exploring it for a brief moment before violently electrocuting her. She screamed, evaporating in a cloud of smoke as her body charred into a pile of dark grey ash.
He sat back down, and gestured to one of his personal bodyguards who was standing by the doorway.
"Get someone to clean that up," he ordered.
"Hai, Grandmaster," the guard replied, and exited the throne room.
Meio's head drooped forward in thought until his chin touched his chest. He clasped his hands and brought them up before his face. He continued to sit and ponder these things for a long while. Every now and then, nagging doubts crept in and he forced them back with the same determination that he had used to execute Sai Pooh.
However, he was unable to destroy them as completely as he had destroyed her.
Water. The gentle, pulsating action of river wavelets washed over Hiryu's body as he lay spent on the sand. He awoke with a start, and quickly backed away from the rising water level, wary of piranhas. The tide was coming in. He scooped some of the water into his palms and drank greedily, for the first time aware of how physically exhausted he was. At the first sight of fish, however, he drew back rapidly from the water's edge. He backed into a rocky overhang, and craned his neck, inspecting it. It was a rusty black in color, with various types of vegetation growing on it. Most notable of these types were the rugged yet graceful vines that extruded from the cliff face and dangled like spider's legs from the lofty heights above. Hiryu stood up, brushed the sand off of his face and clothing, then grasped one of these and began to climb. The ancient rock that composed this crag was volcanic in origin, and tended to be on the friable side; his ascension, therefore, was somewhat slow going, as footholds tended to crumble beneath his weight. His hook availed him little, as it was more likely to tear through the porous surface than to bite into it.
After about an hour's hard climbing, he finally clambered over the ridge. He stood erect and looked straight ahead. What he saw took his breath away.
"Where am I?"
The ground dropped away a few meters in front of him to reveal the sprawling ruins of an ancient civilization. Yellow stone gleamed like unsmelted gold in the rising sun, once-tall structures dotted the landscape like tiny crowns, and primeval dwellings jutted out from the treetops, their liveliness contrasting with the apathetic stasis of the ruins below. The slope before him dropped off into the Amazon river, but there was a steep wooden bridge that ran from the bottom of the slope to the crest of the next hill. It was the only way into the unexpected ruins before him. He raced downhill, hitting full stride halfway down. He passed the lowest point in the narrow valley and shot up the aged bridge. It crumbled beneath him as he passed over it, betraying its age in doing so.
He reached the pinnacle of the next hill and skidded to a halt. This too dropped away into the river, forcing him to take to the tree branches if he intended to continue further. He leaped into the awaiting boughs of a particularly gnarled one, catching it with his hook and swinging himself up as his tiptoes trailed the water's surface. Piranhas leaped up out of the river, attempting to latch onto him and take chunks out of his flesh. He ascended the tree before they had a second opportunity, scaling it until he reached the lowest arboreal scaffold.
As he began to pull himself up onto it, a crude hand axe struck the wooden plank before him and stuck there, quivering. He looked at it for a moment, then looked up. A savage female warrior clad in banana leaves, natural fibers, and a monkey-fur head-dress stood five meters away from him, brandishing another similar weapon. She hooted a savage war cry at him, a sound that curdled the blood in his veins.
He hauled himself over the edge, rolling away from it as the second axe thudded into a plank behind him. He leaped to his feet. The female warrior dropped her shoulder and charged at him. He side-stepped easily, and she collided with the tree's trunk. He kept Falchion sheathed, as it would be more than a bit unfair for him to fight her with an advanced weapon like that. As it was, he wasn't sure that it wasn't unfair for him to fight her at all...
...then she lunged with her left fist and connected unexpectedly with his jaw, sending him sprawling backwards onto the scaffold. That did it. No more pity for the "helpless" female warrior. He planted his palms behind his shoulders, kicked his feet out, pushed off of his shoulders, and flipped himself back into a fighting stance. She feinted at him with a forward kick, then, as he caught her ankle, she leaped into the air and brought the heel of her other foot crashing into the juncture of his neck and right shoulder. He slammed into the tree trunk and fell forward on his hands as she stomped down on his shoulder blades with her heels, knocking the wind out of him. He rolled violently to the left, hooked his right arm behind her knees, and twisted back to the right, throwing her back-first onto the scaffold. They leaped up at the same time, and resumed fighting simultaneously. She feinted with a side kick. He caught her ankle. She attempted the heel trick again, but he twisted her ankle in the opposite direction that her other leg was traveling, and she struck the platform while still spinning. She collided with the planks forehead-first and rolled over on her back, groaning. Hiryu took a step back. She sat up, then rose unsteadily to her feet. She attacked him with a right-handed back-fist. He caught her wrist with his left hand and twisted it, exposing the underside of her forearm. He brought his forearm smashing down across its three pressure points, and she went limp immediately. She lost consciousness so quickly that she didn't even have time to prevent herself from falling headlong onto the scaffold, and she struck it heavily on her right shoulder.
At this point, whole hordes of hooting Amazonian warriors began dropping out of the limbs above him, alighting on similar platforms on other trees near him. He took a running leap off the end of the scaffold he was on, grabbed a hanging vine, and flew through space for the better part of thirty meters before grabbing another one and continuing onward. The female warriors chased him as he fled, up to the point where he swung straight into a cliff face and scaled it using his hook. He pulled himself up onto its ridge just as he heard a solid crunching noise above him. He looked up and saw several Amazons levering a large stone into position. It rolled down a slight decline and smashed onto the ridge behind him.
"Shimatta..." he muttered.
He took off full stride down the ridge's decline as the stone pursued him. About fifty meters ahead, the ridge disappeared into the river; but one-third of the way there, a low-hanging bough promised to make a convenient escape from his inanimate pursuer. He leaped off of the slope and alighted on the branch as the boulder tumbled underneath him. He watched it strike the river and sink slowly into the murky water, then, turning around, he stood up. He surveyed the landscape below him and exhaled in relief as he saw that he had finally reached an expanse of solid ground. Then he saw something that caused him to draw another sharp intake of breath.
A brontosaurus was grazing below him.
In addition to that, flocks of pteranodons flitted about its head and the occasional tyrannosaurus rex wandered around its legs. Amazon warrior-esses rode on triceratops below him, as well.
Hiryu sank to a crouching position as he balanced himself against the tree trunk with his left hand. For centuries, there had been rumors of a "lost world" in the South American jungles, but he had never taken them seriously. Now, by sheer accident, he had stumbled into it. The question was, of course, now that he had found his way here, how did he make his way back to civilization?
"<He is over here!>" an Amazon warrior cried somewhere behind him. "<We must avenge our chief's disgrace!>"
Hearing the shouts and war cries, Hiryu launched into the air and landed on the bronto's back. He shinnied up its neck to stand on its head, and rode there for a short distance. The bronto reached a circular depression in the forest floor and stopped at its edge, lifting Hiryu up to the lofty uppermost boughs of an ancient hardwood. The depression cracked neatly along its diameter, and the two halves slid apart, revealing an underground chamber. A gleaming, metal-plated T. Rex skeleton emerged from this, lifted by a circular elevation platform. It was no less than fifteen meters tall, and brandished razor-sharp teeth and extendible talons. The platform locked into place with a rusty clang, and Hiryu heard the hiss of hydraulics as the skeleton leaped backwards twenty meters. The bronto, for its part, took one look at the contraption and then left the area as swiftly as its four legs could carry it.
"Fight first and ask questions later," Hiryu grumbled to himself, and threw himself at the embossed carcass.
As he touched the forest floor, it opened its jaws and spewed forth three snake-like tails of magma that wriggled through the air as though it were as solid as ground. Hiryu drew Falchion and eliminated them with two swipes, then sprang skyward and stabbed at the skeleton's lower chin, where the power source for the creature was attached. He missed by millimeters. He returned to earth and immediately cartwheeled to his right to avoid its talons, which missed him by no more than a half meter. They struck the ground with unexpected speed, digging deep furrows into the rich earth of the rainforest's floor. Hiryu sprinted towards the skeleton's lower appendages and sliced through one of the hydraulic pumps that powered them. It stayed rooted in place, but pivoted to his new position and extended its talons towards him once more. He dove and slid to his left, skidding to a stop just as it began to pull its talons back to its chest.
As they retracted, Hiryu leaped onto the hand to which they were attached and rode it to a strategic position beneath the skeleton's chin, where its power source was mounted. He struck a vertical blow with his cypher, slicing through the power source's casing. He re-directed the slash and cut across the power source's narrowest point, bisecting it. It detonated in a terrific shower of coursing electricity. He replaced Falchion and dove off of the skeleton's claw-hand, rolling to a safe place beneath the ancient tree from which he had begun his assault. The skeleton followed its power pack's lead, and shattered into dozens of pieces which flew outward with the force of a shrapnel bomb.
When the smoke cleared, Hiryu walked to the edge of the metal lift that had hoisted it up from beneath the bowels of the earth. He knelt down on the ground at its fringe and ran his fingers over its surface. It had a slightly greasy, rubbery feel, as though it was not made entirely of metal. Perhaps it was a metal-plastic alloy.
A light, spidery hand touched his left shoulder. He caught its wrist, pulled its owner over his back onto the platform before she could even voice an alarm, and clamped his free hand over her mouth. It was an Amazon. She struggled for a short while, but ceased doing so when she discovered that she couldn't free herself from his grip.
"Why do you attack me?" he hissed through clenched teeth. "I crash-landed here. I didn't trouble you or your people until you tried to kill me."
He removed his hand from her mouth.
"<Don't kill me!>" she shrieked. "<Are you a god, that you destroyed Lago and defeated our chief?>"
Hiryu shook his head.
"I don't speak your language," he said gruffly. "And you, quite obviously, don't speak mine."
He released her wrist and shooed her off.
"Go away," he motioned to her. "I need to find out what this is."
She refused to leave, however. She returned to where he was crouched and touched the whip's scar on his left shoulder, noting the blisters that had begun to form on it where the explosions had flash-burned his arm.
"Itai!" he exclaimed. "Look, don't do that. Don't bother me right now!"
She reached into a fur-trimmed satchel at her waist and pulled out a few leaves from a plant that Hiryu failed to recognize. She crushed them between her palms and rubbed the juices on his shoulder. The inflammation began to go down as she did this, and the spot no longer felt as raw as it had.
"Hey, now..." he began. "What are you doing?"
She tossed the used, crumpled leaves aside and reached into her satchel again, pulling out a leathery fruit this time. This she peeled, and offered him a section. He looked at it curiously. She shrugged and popped it into her own mouth, then offered him another. He took it from her and nearly swallowed it whole, he was so ravaged by hunger. Smiling, she split the rest apart and handed them to him one-by-one, and he gobbled each of them down in turn.
When he finished, he looked up at her face and into her amber-brown eyes, which sparkled with amusement. She was beautiful of both form and face, with darkly tanned skin and chestnut-brown hair that cascaded past her shoulders; he judged that she was about his own age physically, and that she had undergone a similar type of schooling in the war-arts. At least, she had as much muscle tone as he did, and moved with an easy fluidity that seemed to speak of such conditioning. In addition, unlike the others of her tribe, she was trying to help him.
He pointed to his chest.
"Hiryu," he said, then repeated it more slowly. "Hi-ri-oo."
She repeated his name haltingly. He noted that she was not having trouble with the sounds themselves, but that she was phrasing them slowly so she would be sure to pronounce them correctly. Smart girl. When she finished, he nodded in approval. She grinned sheepishly, then pointed to herself.
"Sheena," she said, then repeated it as he had done. "Shee-nah."
He said her name.
They looked at each other for the space of seven heartbeats, then the rest of the tribe encircled them with weapons drawn. They brandished their crude arrows and primitive stone axes, aiming them at Hiryu's heart. Sheena spread her arms and threw herself in front of him, facing her comrades.
"<Don't hurt him!>" she pleaded. "<He's not one of them. He won't hurt us if we don't try to hurt him!>"
"<How do you know?>" one of the others shouted. "<It could be a trick!>"
"<Why would one of them destroy Lago?>" Sheena asked this one. "<They built him. He defeated Lago without a second thought. He can't be one of them!>"
"<Maybe they didn't like Lago,>" the same one replied. "<They kill their own people if they stop liking them.>"
"<Then why didn't he kill me when he had the chance?>" Sheena asked. "<You saw how he had the opportunity to hurt me just now!>"
"<He defeated Maiana, our chief!>" a different one cried out. "<He put her to sleep! How can you say he won't hurt us when he did that to our chief?>"
"<She attacked him first!>" Sheena defended him. "<He had to fight!>"
A low, uncertain murmur spread throughout the circle of Amazons, who had lowered their weapons as they listened to Sheena's arguments.
While this was going on, Hiryu, who naturally didn't understand a word of the conversation, was busily searching the fringe of the metallic platform for a switch of some kind. He found one recessed in a groove near the edge and pressed it as the murmur rippled through the crowd of Amazon warriors, causing the platform to retract and the Amazons to jump back.
He grabbed Sheena by the waist and jumped onto it, riding it down to the bottom of the underground cavern. The hatch began to close just as Hiryu spied a control panel on the wall. He darted over to it. He pressed a green touch-panel and row after row of white glow-globes came to life on the ceiling, lighting up an immense chamber filled with highly advanced technology. The hatch shut completely.
"<Amazing,>" Sheena gasped.
Hiryu strode over to a plexiglass door and opened it with a modicum of effort. He walked past some long-abandoned shelves with various devices on them, lightly touching the different devices as he passed. The technology contained in this lab was quite advanced. The devices also bore tell-tale signs of belonging to the same technological grouping that the cybernetic ape and Ballog belonged to. Curious, he picked a tetrahedral-shaped object up off of one of the shelves and twisted it. There was a short burst of static, then a life-sized solid-light hologram projected from an aperture he'd exposed.
"...bzzt...on schedule," a technician in a white lab coat stated emphatically. "There will be no further delays in the...hsshheerrr...the siphon is now complete. Stasis will be achieved when Gaia's energy is...whirrzzzt...ideal storage tank. We will complete this objective shortly, Grandmaster..."
With that, the tetrahedral holoprojector died. Hiryu set it back on the shelf. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the shelves, considering the things he'd just heard.
"Gaia's energy?" he wondered. "The earth? Siphon? What's Meio up to, anyway? I must have stumbled onto the biggest assignment on record..."
Sheena appeared out of nowhere and grabbed his arm, snapping him out of his ruminative state. She tugged at it firmly, dragging him towards a pair of long tables with more devices on them. He stopped at the end of one, completely failing to understand what she was wanting him to see. She ran along the length of another and picked up two small devices that looked like behind-the-ear headphones. She returned to where Hiryu stood and showed them to him. He looked at them blankly. She smoothed her hair back and fitted one onto her ear, then handed the other to him and motioned for him to do the same. Once he did so, she spoke again.
"I've seen the others use these when they want to talk to my people," she said.
"I understand you now..." Hiryu said. "Is that what these earphones do?"
"Yes," she said. "They let two people who speak different tongues understand each other."
"Ah," Hiryu replied. His mind was suddenly flooded with questions. "What is this place?"
"This cave? Or the valley?"
"This chamber was built by the Others. They came from the Third Moon with ancient monsters. They built Lago, the one you defeated, from the bones of a dead creature. This valley is the Valley of the River People. All the warriors are women; men stay in the village."
"These...'Others': what did they look like?"
"Like you, fair-skinned and using weapons that could kill from a distance."
"And the Third Moon? What is that? And how did they get here from there?"
"It is a big piece of land that they built in the sky, so they say. They use a swift flying machine to travel between there and here. It has been many moons since they visited us last, and we feared that you were one of them who had come to torment us again."
"They torment you?"
"Yes...many have died from their weapons..."
She dropped her gaze and said no more. He took her hand.
"Well, perhaps I can put a stop to that," he said.
"How?" she asked.
"By killing Meio, and destroying the Third Moon. He's the one who's behind all of this."
"All of what?"
Briefly he told her of his assignment, how it had turned out to be more than it seemed, and how it had led him here, to the jungles of South America.
"...so, I think that this "Third Moon" you told me about is where he plans and executes his operations from," he finished.
"Maybe I can help you," she said. "The flying machine usually takes off from this cave, and is raised to the surface by the same platform that we rode down on. It is noisy, and gives off a great deal of smoke, so I was thinking that perhaps it failed to fly from time to time..."
Hiryu began to catch on to her reasoning.
"Are you saying that there might be another ship down here?" he asked.
"Then let's look around down here and try to find it."
He led her back out the door into a long, well-lit corridor which was adjacent to the armory and extended due north. The corridor's floor was covered with a thin layer of metal that was heavily scuffed and scratched; something of considerable weight had apparently been dragged numerous times across its surface. At the end of this hallway were two tall, broad bay doors, which were sealed by a handprint ID scanner. Next to this was a small keypad, marked in characters that neither Hiryu nor Sheena recognized.
"Well, the handprint's out," Hiryu mused. "But I have an idea on how to get these open."
He reached into the folds of his clothing and pulled out a small amount of dust from where it had collected there. He placed this in the palm of his left hand and blew it at the keypad. The dust stuck to the keys that had been touched, the ones with skin oil still on them. He pressed each key in turn, and was rewarded by a whirr, a click, and a beep. The doors began to slide open. Gleaming metal and shining glass peeked through the widening crack as the doors slid apart.
"I believe we just found what we were looking for, Sheena."