Editor: Dave Munch
The Underground Revised Proudly
Hikaru had spent so much time in New York that he had almost forgotten what Chiba City, Japan, was like. True, he was born in New York, as were most of his family, but he'd attended universities here, and he'd made infrequent return trips to Japan's current capitol since then. There were superficial resemblances to New York, to be sure -- such as miles of skycrapers supported on a superstructure frame -- but the architecture, the roadways and tramways that connected all of Japan's many islands (built high above sea level to allow for tsunami activity), the strict pollution control, all made Chiba City a much different experience.
Still, the CEO of Stark-Fujikawa Industries found that more often than not, his annoyances one side of the world had a habit of following him to the other side. Case in point: the grungy man in ancient rainsoaked black leather who had invaded his penthouse suite."You an' me," the man growled, "we've got business to settle, bub." Each of his clenched fists sprouted a trio of long metallic blades with a loud snikt noise.
Hikaru refused to be intimidated. "If that is the case, you would have been well-advised to make an appointment. Stealing into my penthouse is not appreciated, American."
"Canadian," the man corrected, then gestured toward the pair of defeated security guards at his feet. "You kiddin' me? With help like this, you're practically beggin' for visitors."
"I find myself unimpressed by your bravado," Hikaru commented as he carefully snipped away at the bonsai tree next to him. "But then, bravado was all you were famous for back in the twentieth century ... wasn't it, Wolverine?"
The man smiled grimly, his wrinkled face hinting at his age and his wet mane of wild black hair glistening as brightly in the light as his claws. "You've done your research."
"I find it a necessity in this day and age. Figures from the former Heroic Age have been reappearing for several months now. There seems to be no forseeable end to this, as your presence before me illustrates."
"Yeah? Believe me, I had a reputation for a lot more'n bravado in the old days. Fact is, I was an' still am the best there is at what I--" Long chains from either side of him snaked out from the shadows to wrap around his arms, while a dark-red-clad figure dropped behind him. As the Wolverine struggled against the pull of the chains spreading his arms apart, the figure behind him grabbed his jaw with his left hand.
In the figure's right hand was a shiny dagger, which the assassin used to slit the Wolverine's throat in a swift motion. Hikaru winced as the assassin then jammed the blade deep into the Wolverine's eye socket.
The resulting scream of feral rage echoed through the suite as Wolverine yanked sharply on the chains binding his arms. His claw-blades -- adamantium-laced, if Hikaru's research was accurate -- sliced through the chains, raining the severed links to the floor. He attempted to sink the claws into the assassin with the dagger, but that one had already withdrawn, leaving the dagger in the Wolverine's head.
Hikaru watched the mutant's reflexes and coordination drop drastically as the battle with the assassins continued. Five of the dark-red ninja had emerged from the shadows, wielding bladed weapons to slice away at the injured Wolverine. The weapons were antiquated to be sure -- Hikaru recognized the designs of some of them dating back centuries to feudal times -- but they were no less effective. Each slice and stab was in a vital area that would deal immense damage to the Canadian. A normal man would be dead several times over by this point, but Hikaru's research had revealed that the Wolverine possessed an ability to heal his own wounds and regenerate tissue at an accelerated rate. Thus, he realized, the opening strikes to areas like the throat, eye, and brain would be essential -- his body would attempt to repair those wounds first while subsequent injuries added up.
The Wolverine continued to lash out blindly at the assassins, who moved in and out of reach to deliver more deadly strikes. His blood stained the wooden floor beneath him ... until finally, in a final burst of rage, he leaped at the nearest ninja he could reach. The ninja in question sidestepped the attack and quickly pulled the dagger from Wolverine's eye socket. The feral mutant fell to the blood soaked floor, convulsing as the poisons in his system took effect. He was finished off by one ninja crouching over him and jamming the dagger into the back of his neck, at a precise spot between two neck vertebrae.
"Impressive," Hikaru commented to the quintet of assassins as they bowed to him. "You have succeeded in bringing an end to one of the Twentieth century's most notorious killers in scarcely a minute ... without the Wolverine even scoring a single counterattack. However ... had this been an actual situation instead of a virtual simulation, would you have performed as well?"
"Undoubtedly, Hikaru-sama," one of two identical men sitting on either side of him answered as they resolved into view and Wolverine, the penthouse suite, and the rest of Japan faded away into an endless white room. Besides the kneeling assassins, the twins, and Hikaru, only the virtual bonsai tree remained, because the CEO willed it. "The only difference would be that the Wolverine's blood would be much more difficult to clean from an actual wooden floor." He paused, then asked, "am I correct in surmising that you chose a nearly-forgotten figure from the Heroic Age both because of his inability to be easily killed and his lack of a representative in this day and age?"
"Correct," Hikaru replied. "I wished to test your combat and organizational skills against a foe who could heal from all but the deadliest attacks, as well as your prowess as information-gatherers. In both cases, you succeeded admirably. My confidence in enlisting the Hand has not been misplaced."
"We are but humble servants," the other twin went on. "Before Stark-Fujikawa deigned to notice us, we were a dying clan fated for obscurity. Our partnership will allow the Hand to one day reach its former glory, now that we once again have a use in this world."
Hikaru's demeanor grew deadly serious. "It is my understanding, ninja, that the Hand in the days of its 'former glory' would sell themselves to the highest bidder. See that your loyalty in this day and age remains with Stark-Fujikawa."
"We will, sir."
"This will prove to be a grave mistake," Nobutada Jiro commented hours later, as he and his twin brother Ichiro watched their ninja brethren engage in sparring matches.
"You are referring to our partnership with Stark-Fujikawa?" Ichiro asked, studying the precision with which his charges performed their techniques, alert for any imperfections.
Jiro's focus was on his twin. "I am referring to Stark-Fujikawa's ownership of The Hand. Make no mistake, Brother -- that is what you have allowed to occur."
"Hikaru-sama's corporation serves as our ally, not our master," Ichiro replied, turning to his brother. "They do not own us. No organization has ever owned or controlled The Hand. You are the historian, after all; you should know that much."
"True, our clan has traditionally allowed its allies the illusion that The Hand is subservient to them," Jiro admitted, moving his gaze to the sparring area.
"You see? We are only doing what is best for our clan. Only seven of us remain, and Stark-Fujikawa has the resources to expand our ranks."
"And when the corporation's help is no longer required? What then? Do you believe we can shed them as a snake sheds dead skin?"
"When that becomes an issue, we will have more than enough power and information to do that. Information they themselves will have provided us."
Jiro frowned and shook his head. "As you say, Ichiro-chan, I am the historian. I see history repeat itself over and over. So it was that in Feudal times, the strength of the Ninja was most greatly undermined when they became dependent upon a government that saw them only as expendable soldiers. When the need for war had ended, the ninja became little more than glorified security guards. Little more than objects to be ridiculed. The way of the ninja had just barely survived into the Twentieth century, and then it was exploited even further in the form of popular entertainment." His voice had not risen during all of that, yet the intensity of his words had increased. "Your pact with Stark-Fujikawa will start an already-weak Hand down that same path ... a path that will surely kill us. If this deal is allowed to pass, we will not live to see the Twenty-Second century."
Ichiro clenched his jaw as his brother's words stung. Never before had the two of them disagreed to strongly on an issue. They were both jonin, the 'high men' of the clan; they made the decisions that defined the path of their eight subordinates. "For the first time ... it seems as if we have reached an impasse."
"Then you will not heed my warning."
"Do you have an alternative?"
Jiro allowed himself an almost imperceptible smile. "As a matter of fact ... the recent 'heroes' who have surfaced ... the avatars of the Heroic Age...."
Ichiro couldn't believe what his twin was implying. "You wish The Hand to follow their methods? I thought you were the student of history; The Hand has traditionally opposed such heroes."
"The Hand had traditionally sold their services to the highest bidder," Jiro clarified, "and some sects even believed themselves to be the right hand of evil on Earth. The latter no longer applies, and the former, as I have said, will bring about our ruin. More to the point, ninja have regarded as honorless ... as peasants who are not bound by the code of Bushido as higher classes are. This perception has caused our kind much scorn ... and it has allowed us to accomplish our objectives. But consider this: honor has become an outmoded concept in this day and age, even in Japan."
"Meaning, dear brother, that honor is not the exclusive province of the samurai. Honor is believed to be a deceased concept, but I believe it still exists. The modern day heroes prove that. If we follow their example, we could escape the fate of entropy in a manner that does not involve selling ourselves to Stark-Fujikawa."
Ichiro fixed his gaze on the sparring matches taking place. The combatants were evenly matched; a stalemate was taking place on the dojo floor just as one was taking place among the brothers. "Yes, that manner would allow us to embrace extinction in a completely different way. Our chances of surviving to see 2101 would be even slimmer."
This time, Jiro allowed a genuine broad grin to show. "If so, we will die as heroes. Historically, ninja have been many things, including protectors."
"You are insane."
"We will discuss this another time." Ichiro strode over to the sparring subordinates, stopping their conflict by drawing a small energy pistol from his kimono. "That is enough," he told his students. "Now we will begin our modern weapons training for today."
But when he glanced back to his brother, Jiro had vanished.
"You can feel it, can't you?" Ryobe asked his fellow *genin* ninja, all of whom shared living quarters in the particularly run-down district of Chiba where the dojo was located. None of them particularly cared for the squalid conditions, but they had to wonder if the deal with Stark-Fujikawa would improve their lifestyle. "You all can feel the growing rift between the jonin."
"Go to sleep, Ryobe-kun," Hitomi grumbled from the top bunk, buried under her blankets. While she was currently the only female member of The Hand, she still shared the sleeping area with the others of her rank; she was considered 'one of the boys.'
"I feel it," Junichi confirmed, lying on his bed and slowly whirling a shuriken star between his fingers. What little available light there was glinted off the metal points and danced across his face and the walls; it helped him think, and his childlike fascination with this activity amused the others. "The brothers are at a crossroads. The path they will take will lead The Hand to a new golden age, or snuff us out like a candle flame against a soft breath."
"Since when have they ever argued about anything?" Hitomi wondered, having decided that she would be unable to sleep as long as this discussion went on.
"Rarely if ever, I would guess," Junichi replied, gazing at the kaleidoscoping patterns of light that played along the wall. "However, I'm sure they have disagreed on different matters since birth. They have been able to leave it unspoken until now. Until this matter. They have kept The Hand alive because they have nothing else."
Ishiro thought about this, recalling previous interactions between the two jonin to figure out whether or not Junichi's suspicions were accurate, or if he was just playing with their minds. "I bet my next meal that you're full of it." He punctuated his sentence by catching an annoying housefly between his fingers, ending its infernal buzzing once and for all.
Ryobe found this hilarious. "Your next meal? I didn't think you could possibly be that skeptical. But the idea has merit. Anyone want to open a pool to see when our revered masters will part ways? I say two weeks."
"I predict two months," Ryu whispered, contributing as little to the conversation as possible.
"Put me down for two days," Hitomi chimed in with no enthusiasm whatsoever. "Anything to get you to quiet down and go to sleep."
"I say they're never gonna break up," Nobuo drawled, slipping into English as he usually did. "They have to keep the rest of us together, right?"
"You make them sound like a married couple," Hitomi remarked with a roll of their eyes they could all somehow perceive.
"I was trying to make them sound like a musical group, actually," Nobuo clarified. This elicited an audible groan from his bunkmates, who were well aware of his interest in Twentieth century J-Rock.
"He has a point," Ryobe said. "Without The Hand, we would still be homeless, and possibly dead."
"Leave it to you to see the bright side in all of this," Hitomi muttered under ratty blankets.
"I heard this deal with Stark-Fujikawa could bring more genin into the fold," Hiei mentioned. "And if that happens, I could finally make chunin level!" He glanced around at the others and shrugged. "Well, I could." Hiei wanted to become the 'middle man' between the brothers and the genin so badly they could all taste it.
"Do you realize," Hitomi announced, peeking out from under her blankets, "that the last time we stayed up talking this long instead of going to sleep, we ended up paying for it during the next training session?"
That effectively killed the conversation. They all turned in for the night, swifty drifting to sleep.
In the peaceful hours before dawn, rain pattered softly against the window panes in the Stark-Fujikawa highrise headquarters. The building was all but empty, save for janitor robots and a few Research & Development employees whose deadlines precluded sleep.
One particular room in the R&D section held a curious invention. Quite a few bugs had to be worked out of it, but it was intended to not only record data on training and physical techniques, but also 'upload' the data onto another person. The Hand would recieve new practitioners this way, with the brothers' methods written onto the mental and physical memories of Stark-Fujikawa employees. Hikaru had yet to inform the Hand of this particular aspect of their agreement, but the CEO was apparently confident they would agree to this method of rapidly increasing their ranks.
Jiro wanted it to be destroyed.
He crouched amid the complex machinery, remaining unseen from the lab technician. He wasn't particularly hiding from the employee -- who was too tired to concentrate on her own work, let alone notice Jiro; the building's security sensors were much harder to fool. Luckily, his shinobi shozoko, his outfit, was made of black-market sensor-dampening material. In fact, it was his and Ichiro's acquisition of ten yards of it -- enough to properly clothe The Hand -- that alerted Stark-Fujikawa to the existence of the ninja group. At that point, negotiations regarding the group's survival had begun.
Reaching into his outfit, he produced a handful of tiny caltrops. These testubishi worked well in crippling or poisoning those who stepped on them, but in their current modified state, they also worked as explosive mines. There were nine in all -- nine was considered by the ninja to be the highest level of personal achievement -- and with a flick of his hand, Jiro could give the machinery around him the mother of all system glitches. If that didn't work -- or if he encountered resistance of the human kind -- he wore a sheathed pair of kodachi -- small swords -- strapped in a crisscrossed fashion to the back of his belt.
Still, he put them back in the protective pouch in his clothing when he realized there was another presence in this room. The technician was still fighting a personal war against REM sleep, but on the ceiling above her clung Ichiro, clad in his own ninja garb with a ninjato sword strapped to his back. It seemed the two jonin were both clad as genin for their respective missions this night.
Neither brother made a sound, but their gazes to each other and subtle body language communicated quite a bit.
What are you doing here, Ichiro-chan?
I could ask you the same thing, Brother.
I am prepared to end our deal with them.
Do you realize what this is?
Then surely you realize that once they have enough data on The Hand, they won't need us.
As I said, this would destroy our way of life. It would destroy our control over our own destiny.
You may be right.
I might be?
About some things, but not all.
Let us leave this place.
Of course, but first....
Ichiro flung a handful of testubishi at the machine. The tiny caltrops -- nine in all, just as in Jiro's collection -- activated their explosive systems in midair in response to the sudden whipping of kinetic energy. Their points clung to the delicate scanning and data storage systems, at which point they exploded in a shower of fire and sparks.
As soon as he flung the caltrops, Ichiro dropped to the floor, grabbing the female technician and covering her from the fallout in the process. Jiro had barely enough time to leap out from the midst of the damaged equipment before it exploded around him. He rolled forward into a ball upon contact with the floor and came to a stop, rising in a crouch to see if Ichiro and the technician were okay. They were, so Jiro caught his brother's gaze and conveyed that they should get out of there. Alarm klaxons were sounding, and wall-mounted foam sprayers coated the area with a flame-retardant substance.
Jiro began to take off in the direction of the laboratory's exit, but he found himself staring at the extended blade of Ichiro's unsheathed ninjato, held at Jiro's eye level. Jiro stopped in his tracks, confused, then swayed backward limbo-style to avoid the blade when Ichiro swung it at him. Their sword blades were made of a nonmetallic polymer to avoid setting off security sensors, but they were every bit as sturdy and sharp as the metal blades of old. Jiro quickly unsheathed his kodachi as his brother followed up with a downward slicing motion, and he managed to intercept the ninjato's blade between the crisscrossed edges of his own weapons.
Ichiro withdrew his sword and quickly whipped it downward into a rising arc, which Jiro again blocked with his kodachi. This time, Jiro trapped Ichiro's blade and twisted it out of his hands. Betrayal marked the faces of both brothers, but for different reasons.
The discarded sword flew end over end toward the exit, and narrowly missed cleaving into one of the dozen Stark-Fujikawa security officers now entering the laboratory. The guards took that as their cue to open fire with energy pistols, but the intruding brothers quickly vanished, leaving no indication of whether or not they'd been hit.
"You've been hit," Ichiro observed as he and his brothers met up outside the Stark-Fujikawa building. It had taken them the better part of the half hour to escape from the building undetected and without further incident, but they managed to pull it off.
"Yes, it appears I have," Jiro replied mildly as he studied the scrap of fabric he'd torn from his outfit and wrapped around his wounded arm during his escape. The fabric was drenched with his blood and would need to be replaced; it was originally dark red in color but was now almost black in the dawning sunlight. "Luckily I didn't leave a trail of blood for them to follow." He looked up at his brother. "Still, it won't take long for them to find us, so we need to keep moving."
"Back to our dojo?" Ichiro asked incredulously. "The same dojo whose location is known to Stark-Fujikawa? I'm sure their guards recognized us."
Blood loss, fatigue, and unresolved anger caused Jiro to lose his temper. "That wouldn't be a problem if you hadn't made a deal with them in the first place!"
"The bargain was necessary for our survival! Both to prevent them from wiping us out when they first learned of our existence, and to--"
"To ensure that we live to see the next century," Jiro spat back. "Yes, you've told me this time and again. But is it necessary now? Do you finally see what they're planning to do with us? Their machine would have made us expendable."
Ichiro turned to look away from his brother, gazing at the sunlight as it encroached on the dingy alley. Watchdog vehicles could be heard in the distance, making their rounds. "I believe ... I have in fact come to my senses. About The Hand. About Stark-Fujikawa. About everything."
Jiro nodded. "So we will sever our ties with the corporation then."
His twin shook his head. "Actually, Jiro-chan, I am going to renegotiate with Stark-Fujikawa under different terms, apologize for the damage to the machine ... and take full control of the Hand."
Each word was a fresh sledgehammer to Jiro's chest. "I-Ichiro-chan? Are you serious?"
Ichiro's expression left no doubt that he was. "For as long as we've lived, we have been defined by one simple fact: you look to the past, and I look to the future."
Jiro scowled. "Those who forget the past condemn themselves to repeat its mistakes. You know that, brother."
"Even so, our clan cannot be governed by leaders who contradict each other."
"Is that why you attacked me in there? You wish to remove me from the picture?" His hands gripped his kodachi, ready to draw them. The idea of fighting his brother was repulsive to him, but he was beginning to see that his options were limited.
"If that's what it takes to unify The Hand's purpose, I will do it," Ichiro replied, his hand moving to unsheathe the ninjato. "You know, I've studied the Hand's history as well. I'm sure you are aware that they once fought an ongoing war against a clan called The Chaste."
"Yes. The Chaste represented purity while The Hand represented darkness." His gaze remained locked on his brother, ready to wage war of his own if it came to that. "Your point?"
"My point is that the Chaste claimed to fight on the side of the heroes. They believed themselves to fight for righteousness. I'm sure you'd have gotten along quite well with them." He slowly drew his sword from its sheath as he continued. "The problem is, The Chaste are dead. They have lost the battle with time and history, and The Hand remain. They were once two sides of the same coin, but time has proven that one side can exist without the other. Time has proven that The Hand's way is the correct way."
"And what way is that? Of brothers killing brothers?" Jiro slowly slid his kodachi from their sheathes.
"No, The Hand's way is that of using any method to achieve a goal. Like distraction." Ichiro whipped out his right hand at his brother, releasing a dust cloud in Jiro's eyes. Blinded by the stinging cloud, Jiro swiped at his brother with his kodachi, but Ichiro was nowhere to be found.
Jiro stopped in place and calmed himself, attempting to use his remaining senses to home in on his brother's whereabouts. He found Ichiro sitting on a nearby rooftop overlooking the alley. He also sensed another precence nearby as well -- several presences in fact. No less than twenty Stark-Fujikawa Watchdog officers converged on him, shouting for him to drop his weapons and surrender.
Giving the idea a moment's consideration, Jiro leaped straight up and clutched the side of the building, quickly scaling up it. While his blinded state was little hindrance in climbing the building, his injured arm slowed him down considerably. The Watchdogs pelted him with bullet after bullet, riddling him to such an extent that it was a wonder that he managed to reach Ichiro. "You ... traitor...."
Ichiro's tone was conversational. "I forgot to tell you ... Stark-Fujikawa guards have started using tracker bullets, so once they've shot a suspect, then can easily home in on him. I just had to stall you long enough for them to reach you."
"Set me ... up...."
"Yes, I set you up from the start. Hikaru and I agree that your views are a detriment to The Hand, so the machine was a ruse to cause you to overstep your bounds."
Jiro coughed up blood. "There will be ... retribution..." His hands trembled before they finally lost their grip on the rooftop.
"Not from you," Ichiro replied simply as he watched his brother hit pavement at the feet of the Watchdogs. He quickly slipped into the shadows, uninterested in filling out police reports.
He had a deal with Stark-Fujikawa to renegotiate, and a bold new era for The Hand to finalize.