Chapter 1

"Ryan, could I please see you for a moment?"

Ryan nodded to himself as he finished his last set, straining to get the last few reps.  With a groan, he brought the eighty-pound dumbbell up one more time and then set it on the floor.  He wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead, stood, quickly moved through his cool-down exercises, and stepped out of the weight room.

Sean sounded a bit on the urgent side, Ryan thought, remembering his voice over the intercom.  Ryan decided that he would skip his usual after-workout shower and just head straight up to Sean's office.  He walked down the hall to the staircase near the basketball courts and opened the door to the stairs.  He ran up them, taking the steps three at a time.

Thirty seconds later, he stepped out of the staircase, his breathing only slightly faster.  He walked around the corner, then traversed the distance to Sean's office.  He rapped lightly on the door and dropped automatically into an "at-ease" posture.

"Come in," came Sean's voice from the interior of the room.  

Ryan opened the door and walked in, standing with his legs shoulder-width apart and his arms clasped loosely behind his back.  He stared at a point approximately three feet above Sean's head.  "You wished to see me?"

Sean nodded.  "Have a seat," he offered, a touch wearily, indicating the chairs on the other side of the desk.

Ryan promptly sat in the offered chair.

"Relax," Sean suggested.

Ryan almost imperceptibly relaxed in his chair.

Sean shrugged.  

Ever since Sean had returned from New York and his encounter with Davidson, he had been trying to change his more serious demeanor, an attitude that Ryan had admired and emulated to a certain extent.  Now, despite the fact that Sean had seemingly regained his sense of humor, Ryan continued to become increasingly grimmer.  In fact, he was approaching the way Sean had been, only rarely cracking a smile.  And that's the way I like it, Ryan thought.  I like the way that my attitude seems to command respect, respect that Sean automatically gets but that I have to work for.  He still wasn't as imposing as Cop, though.  He smiled inwardly at that.

"I assume you're aware of our database search?"

Ryan nodded.  "Am I to assume that you are speaking of the search which you were conducting to find new members?"

"Right," Sean said with a nod and the hint of a smile.  "That database search."

"Yes, I was aware of it.  I'd heard that you finished it quite a while ago.  Am I to assume that you want me to personally contact one of the choices?" Ryan queried.

"Exactly."  Sean reached into a desk drawer and removed a folder.  Out of the folder he extracted a sheet of paper.  He slid it across the desk to Ryan.

Ryan leaned over and picked it up.  He perused it briefly, then looked up at Sean, a questioning look on his face.  "Is there any particular reason that you're sending me to Japan?  After all, I don't know Japanese and I've never been there.  To Japan."

Sean nodded.  "I know.  But I wanted to send you on one of these missions," he said, leaning back in his chair.  "I'm not sending you to France because, even though you don't know French, either, Tyler does.  He's my logical choice there."

"I agree."

"I sent Jay and Ruben to Egypt to contact a Bishop prospect, as they're stationed in the comm room.  I figured they'd be best able to explain the aspects of the job, even though they don't speak Arabic," Sean said with a smile.

"I agree again."

"So that left New York and Japan for you and Clayton.  I figured it would be better to send you to a foreign environment that it would be to send Clayton.  So I sent him to New York and am sending you to Japan."  Sean paused.  "Does that make everything clear?"


Sean nodded and took a deep breath.  "Your objective, then, is to contact Miss Sang Li and convince her to join Checkwolf.  Use any persuasive tactic you can think of to do that, short of outright violence, of course.  Jesse will give you the information you'll need.  All expenses will be covered by Checkwolf, of course.  Your first-class flight to Tokyo has already been booked, for later this evening.  I'd like you to leave as soon as possible.  You have complete discretion in this matter."

Ryan inclined his head.  "If that's the case, then I'll need to change those flight plans."

Sean looked back up.  "Excuse me?"

Ryan raised an eyebrow.  "Since I'm totally unfamiliar with the customs and language of the Japanese and don't know the layout of the city, I think it would be a good idea if I oriented myself with those aspects before leaving.  Also, it seems somewhat foolish to just go off to some foreign country looking for someone when they aren't expecting you.  So, I'll probably contact Miss Li beforehand to avoid that issue."  Ryan paused.  "If that's all right."

Sean nodded.  "Yeah, that's fine.  Like I said, you have complete discretion."

Ryan nodded curtly.  He stood and held out his hand.  Sean grasped it.  Silently, Ryan left the office and headed into the communications room.  He strode across it, over to Jesse.  "Jesse."

Jesse turned.  "Oh, hi, Ryan.  You want your information?"

"Yes.  Please."

Jesse handed him a thin sheaf of papers.  "Have fun," he said before turning back to the comm board.

Ryan turned and headed for the staircase again.  He went up another flight of stairs to the second floor, walked the dozen feet or so to his room's door, and entered.  He flicked on the light and shut the door.  He sorted through the various papers until he found the one that he was looking for: his first-class ticket to Tokyo.

Ryan stepped over to his desk and sat down, setting aside the stack of papers.  He picked up his phone.  He punched a button to get an outside line, then punched in the number for the Concorde Airport.  He waited patiently as the phone rang.

"Concorde Airport.  How may I direct your call?" came a bored male voice.

"Could you please connect me to TransContinental Airlines?"

"One moment."

A tone sounded and a moment later, a pleasant female voice came on the line.  "TransContinental Airlines.  This is Candace.  How may I help you?"

"Yes.  I have reservations for the first-class flight to Tokyo this evening.  I would like to cancel those and reschedule them.  Is it too late to do that?"

"Not at all," Candace said.  "Could I have your name, please?"

"Ryan Spencer."

A few seconds of silence followed, with only a background tapping heard as Candace looked up the information.  Then she came back on.  "We have you down for the first-class flight to Tokyo leaving at nine-thirty this evening.  Do you want me to cancel that?"

"Yes, please."

"And when did you want that rescheduled for?"

"Two days from now, if possible."

There was another short pause.  "We do have a flight leaving for Tokyo at two P.M. on Sunday, February third.  Would you like a first-class ticket on that flight?"

"Yes, please."

"Very well.  You're all set."

"Thank you."

"Thank you for using TransContinental Airlines.  Have a nice evening."

"Goodbye," Ryan said, terminating the conversation by hanging up the phone.  Okay, now that's taken care of.

Ryan grabbed a nearby notepad and pen.  He thought of the things that he had to do before he left the country.  He needed to familiarize himself with the basics of the Japanese language and culture; he needed to familiarize himself with the layout of the city of Tokyo; he needed to make sure that his passport was current; he needed to alter the reservations at his hotel; he needed to get a special waiver so that he could take his stun pistol on board the plane with him; and, of prime importance, he needed to contact Miss Li to set up a meeting when he arrived.

He got to work.

Over the past day, Ryan had accomplished most of the things he had set out to do.  It was now one o'clock Sunday morning and Ryan was ready to set up his meeting with Miss Li.  Or should it be "Miss Sang"? he asked himself, remembering his research about Japanese names.  He rifled through the papers, looking for her phone number.  He frowned.  He double-checked and triple-checked all of the information that he had been supplied, but nowhere did he find her number.  That's odd, he thought.

With a mental shrug, Ryan turned back to his computer and navigated to a white pages website.  He typed in "Sang Li" and "Tokyo, Japan".  In his research he hadn't noted either of those names being particularly common in Japan, so he didn't expect to have too much trouble narrowing down his results.  After a few moments, a results screen appeared.  "No records found match your request," it said.  Ryan leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.  Is this why they didn't provide me with her phone number? he wondered.  Well, whatever the case, I'm not going all the way to Japan without talking to her first.

Ryan picked up his phone and punched in the extension of the comm room.

"Matts," came the prompt response.

"Sean, it's Ryan."

"Yeah, Ryan.  What can I do for you?"

"I can't seem to find the phone number for Sang Li," he responded.

"It's not there among the papers Jesse gave you?"

"No," Ryan answered.  "And I've checked on the 'Net and come up with nothing."

"Hm.  That's strange," Sean said.  "What can I do to help you?"

"I'm thinking that the information I was provided here is just a summary of everything Jay and Ruben discovered about Sang Li," Ryan continued.  "What I'd like is for you to send me the unedited version."

"Yeah, okay," Sean said.  "Give me a second to find that and I'll get it to you."

"Thanks, Sean," Ryan said.

"No problem."  With a click on Sean's end, the connection was terminated.

Ryan nodded to himself and finally wrote down a number on a piece of scratch paper.  He glanced at the clock.  Three-oh-two.  It had taken him two hours to reconstruct the information that he had been given, find the glaring error, and track down the phone number he had needed.

Ryan had some serious reservations about the way this program was being handled.  He had been a bit troubled at how rushed Sean had made him feel when giving him the assignment, though he would never have said so out loud.  But it wouldn't have been a big deal if all of the information that he had was accurate.  Or complete.  Ryan knew there were three other targets spread across the world and hoped that Tyler and Clayton, at least, were provided with better documentation than he had been.  At this point, he hoped everything went wrong for Jay and Ruben.

The lack of a physical address-where she lived-was the first piece of missing information that Ryan would certainly need.  The lack of a phone number-a simple way to contact the prospective member-was another huge problem.  As Ryan now knew, she did have a number; actually, he had found three different ways to contact her, depending on the time of day one called.  Which had been another thing that Jay and Ruben had left out: her schedule.  It had been fairly simple for Ryan, using Checkwolf's resources, to find that out.  But as big as those blunders were, they paled next to the largest gaffe that Jay and Ruben had made.

They had gotten her name wrong.

The woman that Ryan was to contact in Japan was actually named Sòng Li.  That was why Ryan hadn't been able to find her before: he hadn't had her actual name.  It wasn't just a simple transcribing error; that would have been completely unforgivable.  But one of their primary sources of information had a typo in it and neither of them had caught it.  Ryan shook his head again in frustration.

But he had the number now and could proceed with his first contact.  He glanced at his watch, which he had already set to Tokyo time.  A little after six in the evening.  He double-checked his screen to make sure that this would be the number to try her at now, then lifted the phone and dialed the number.

After the third ring, he heard a woman's voice.  "Sòng Li."  There was a distinct questioning tone in her voice since she didn't recognize the number.

Ryan knew from the information he had been given that she spoke English fluently.  They had gotten that part right, anyway.  "Miss Sòng, my name is Ryan Spencer.  I'm from a police organization in America called Checkwolf.  We're interested in speaking with you about an affiliation."

"Checkwolf?" she said, a different sort of questioning tone in her voice now.

"Yes," Ryan continued.  "I'd like to come by your residence and speak with you personally about the details."

"You will come here?  To Tokyo?"

"Yes," Ryan responded.

There was a pause on the other end.  "Do you have some credentials?"

"Yes, I've prepared a package of information about myself and my organization along with sources for you to use to check us out.  Would you like me to send it to your phone?"

"Please," she replied.

Ryan clicked a couple of times on his computer, then clicked "Send".  "You should be receiving it momentarily."

After a brief pause, Sòng came back on the line.  "Yes, I have it.  You said you wanted to come and speak with me?"

"If I may."

"But you aren't even in the country, isn't that correct?"

"Yes," Ryan said.  "But I'll be arriving there tomorrow evening."

"Please call me when you arrive and we'll make further arrangements then."

"Very well.  Thank you for your time Miss Sòng."

"Goodbye," she said.

Ryan tidied up his papers, then stood and left his room.  He had one more stop to make.  He had gotten his waiver for a stun pistol the previous day.  Now he was going to the armory to get one.  When he arrived there, he picked one up and checked it to make sure it was in prime working order.  He then took a few charges and headed back up to his room.

Ryan was already packed for the trip.  He had his clothes for the next day laid out, along with his passport, plane ticket, trench coat, and holster.  He placed the pistol near the holster and set it on top of his trench coat. 

He checked his watch.  Six-fifty.  He smiled slightly, then glanced over to his room clock.  That read three-fifty.  Normally, Ryan slept from about an hour after he got off duty until a little past noon.  Since he had to be up a little early to catch his flight, he had hoped to get to bed a little earlier than usual.  His research project to find a phone number had robbed him of at least an hour of sleep.  Ryan took a deep breath.  No point in getting worked up about it now.  With the fifteen-hour time differential between Tokyo and Kewanee, his schedule wouldn't be affected much; he would just be a day off and up at sunrise.

As he prepared himself for bed, he thought about his trip that afternoon.  The plane would head west, across the continental United States, then across the Pacific Ocean, across the International Date Line, and to Tokyo, Japan.  It was a three-hour flight to Seattle, followed by a one-hour layover, and then another nine-hour flight across the Pacific.  He would arrive at about eight in the evening on Monday, the fourth. 

Ryan drifted off to sleep, still mentally planning for the trip.

Chapter 2

Ryan gazed out the window as his airplane touched down at Tokyo International Airport.  He sat for another minute or so while the plane taxied to a stop.  Then, over the intercom, a pleasant voice began speaking.  "Thank you for riding TransContinental Airlines.  We hope you have enjoyed your trip.  Welcome to Japan."  She then went on to give directions on how to leave the plane.  Ryan, an air veteran, knew these already.

He cycled through customs upon entering the airport, having no problems concerning his weaponry.  He carried his luggage over to the exchange desk and converted all of his American dollars into Japanese yen.  After that was done, he headed for the exit and hailed a taxi.

One promptly pulled up and Ryan got in.  The taxi driver said something in Japanese that Ryan didn't quite catch.  Ryan then said, "Watakushi wa America-jin desu.  Nihongo wo benkyoshite imasu.  Eigo go dekimasu ka?"

The Japanese cabdriver smiled.  "Yes, I speak English quite well.  You have to in this business," he added with a wink.

Ryan nodded his head.  "Good.  I'd like to go to the Irrashaimase Hotel, please."

"Very well," the driver said, inclining his head.  He pulled out into the dense traffic and took Ryan on his way.  The Irrashaimase was located in the central part of Tokyo, in the Chiyoda Ward.  It was a fairly new building, thirty-five or forty stories high with nearly two thousand rooms.

After an hour of driving, the driver pulled up in front of the hotel.  Ryan got out, inquired as to the amount that he owed the cabdriver, and paid.  He then headed inside, for the registration desk.

Ryan set his baggage down and waited to be served.  The same woman that had answered the phone when he had called to change the reservations, Hoshi, was at the desk.  "Ohaiyo gozaimasu," she said.

"Ohaiyo gozaimasu.  Eigo go dekimasu ka?"

"Yes, I do.  How can I help you?" Hoshi continued, in English.

"I have a reservation for a room."

"Your name?"

"Ryan Spencer."

Hoshi turned to the computer near her on the desk and typed in the name.  She scanned the information and saw that it was already paid for.  "Indefinite stay?" she inquired.

Ryan nodded.

"I will need to see some identification and then I'll need your signature here," she said, sliding a pad across the desk.

Ryan accommodated her and then received the room key from Hoshi.  "Thank you," Ryan said as he picked up his bags and headed for his room.

"Have a nice day," Hoshi said in her cheery voice.

Not responding, Ryan stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the sixteenth floor, where his room was located.  He was the only one in the car as it smoothly rose up fourteen stories into the air.  A tone sounded when the car arrived at the appropriate floor, and the doors opened.  Ryan stepped out past an older couple that was waiting for the elevator, took a moment to get his bearings, and then headed in the direction of his room.

He slid the electronic keycard into the lock of his room's door.  After a brief moment, the small light indicating the lock status changed from red to green.  Ryan opened the door and entered, deftly taking the keycard out of the lock as he did so.  He looked around the small, but adequate room, deciding that it would suit his needs just fine.

Ryan placed one suitcase, the one containing his clothes, on the luggage rack provided.  He opened it and sorted through his clothes.  After he finished with that, he placed his other suitcase on the bed and opened it.  Inside were his toiletry items as well as his stun pistol, charges, grapple gun, and a couple of other items.  He took out the toiletry bag, set that on the bed next to the suitcase, pulled out the gun, charges, and holster, and set those aside as well, then shut the suitcase.  He looked around for a good place to store the suitcase and finally decided on the top shelf of the closet.  He put the gun in the bedside table and the toiletry bag in the bathroom.  After all of this was done, he checked his watch.  It read ten twenty-three.

Ryan consulted an index card he had brought with him.  On it he had written down Sòng Li's schedule.  She worked during the day and it appeared that she was probably awake right now.  He decided to call her.  He dialed the number off the other side of the card, then turned to the side and yawned as he waited for her to answer, blinking his suddenly watery eyes.

"Sòng Li," came her response within moments.

"Good evening, Miss Sòng," Ryan stated.

"Ah, hello.  Mr. Stenson, isn't it?"

"Close," Ryan said without cracking a smile.  "Spencer."

"Yes, of course," Sòng replied.  "You are in Tokyo now?"

"Yes, I am," Ryan answered.  "I was hoping to set up a meeting with you, perhaps for tomorrow evening."

"That would be fine," Sòng said.  "How about five o'clock?"

"Five o'clock it is," Ryan said.  "Let me double-check on your address first," he continued, reading her address off the card.

"That's right," Sòng acknowleged.

"Very good, then," Ryan said.  "I will see you tomorrow evening."

"Hello.  I'm Ryan Spencer."  Ryan flashed a badge at Sòng Li.

Sòng looked at the badge for a moment, then nodded.  Indicating herself, she said, "Sòng Li."

Ryan inclined his head deferentially.  "Pleased to meet you," he said.  He was struck suddenly by her exquisite beauty.  Her attractiveness was certainly not conventional, and Ryan had actually not found her attractive in her pictures, but in person, she seemed to radiate beauty.  He squelched any budding attraction, though, and turned his mind to the matter at hand.  "May I come in?" he asked.

Sòng nodded.  She stepped aside and indicated with an outstretched arm that Ryan should enter.  Ryan did so, feeling like he needed to duck as he stepped through the doorway.  He looked around at the tiny apartment, even though in Japan, especially for one person, it could almost be considered large.  Sòng took a brief look in both directions at the corridor outside, then closed and locked the door.  She sat down in a large easy chair and indicated that Ryan should sit in the one facing her.  He did so, after taking off his long trench coat.

"So," Sòng said, starting the conversation.  "I looked over the package you gave me."

"Good," Ryan said, nodding.

"I also investigated you with methods other than the ones you suggested."

Ryan smiled slightly and nodded.  "Excellent.  What did you find?"

Sòng raised her eyebrows and nodded.  "Everything was very impressive.  Your organization does good work."

"Thank you," Ryan said.

"And what exactly do you want with me?  What sort of affiliation?" Sòng asked, using the word that Ryan had used on the phone on his original call.

"We'd like you to join," Ryan said simply.  "You see, we conducted a worldwide search for candidates and you were one of the finalists of that search.  You're quite qualified, or else you wouldn't have been one of the ones chosen."

"Why was I chosen?"

Ryan nodded.  "That's a good question.  For one thing, you're well-qualified: you're already involved in police and undercover work, so it will be a relatively easy transition for you, and you a recognized martial arts master.  Plus, I can see definite advantages to having you present since we do have a large population of Japanese immigrants in Kewanee."

Sòng sat in silence for a while.  "I see.  What, exactly, would being a member in your organization involve?"

"If you were to join Checkwolf," Ryan began, "first, you'd have to move over to America, where you would be provided with room and board, as well as a salary of about thirty thousand dollars per year.  You would be part of a squad consisting of four people that patrol the city for an eight-hour shift, stopping, investigating, or preventing crime."

Sòng nodded.  "But this is different from normal police work?  What's special about you people?"

"Well, quite often the police pass on cases, many times simply because the situation is too delicate for a police presence or because nothing has actually happened yet.  We're able many times to take preemptive action.  Also, we have the ability to cut through some of the red tape that sometimes hampers the police and do our job."

Sòng frowned.  "'Red tape'?"

Ryan nodded.  "Yeah.  Unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles."


"In addition, we often seem to encounter quite a few crazies that have some superior firepower, money, or influence.  We've only had one major problem with any of those."

"What was the problem?"

Ryan paused and closed his eyes.  "About a year ago, one of our members-Brian Michaels-was killed by one of our adversaries," he stated in a near-monotone voice.  "We had been friends for a long time."  Although Ryan's family hadn't been as close to the Michaelses as Brent and Scott had been-especially Scott-they were all good friends, and Brian's loss still struck a chord of pain.  "It was a lesson in mortality, I suppose," Ryan continued.  "He was my age at the time, only twenty-five years old.  A waste."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Sòng said sympathetically.

Ryan nodded.  He shook his head.  "Sorry about getting sidetracked there."

"Not a problem," Sòng said with a smile.

"Any other questions?"

"None that I haven't already gotten answers for," Sòng replied.  "Everything you've said so far lines up with what I have discovered on my own."

Ryan nodded.  "Are you interested in joining?"

"Yes, very," Sòng said.  "A change of location would actually do me a world of good right now."

"Good," Ryan said, cracking a rare smile.  "When will you be able to leave?"

"Well, there would be several things I have to wrap up here before I leave, but I should think I'd be ready within a week or so," Sòng said.

"Good," Ryan said again.  "Is there anything else, then, Miss Sòng?"

"Well, since we're going to be associates, you can drop the 'Miss.'  Just call me Li."

"Very well, Li.  Is that all?"

"Actually, no," she said.  Li leaned forward and touched the diamond wing dangling from around his neck.  "May I see this?"

"Sure."  Ryan slipped it off over his head and placed it in her hand unhesitatingly.

Li sat back in her seat and inspected it more closely.  "Are you aware of exactly what this is?"

"No.  We picked it up off of one of the people we fought," Ryan said.  He shrugged.  "I only have it because I like how it looks."  He refrained from mentioning his continuing theory about the ability of the wing to heighten his abilities.  Suddenly, he noticed that Li's breathing had changed.  When she had asked that last question, her breath came more quickly, as if she were excited about something.  "Why?  Do you know what it is?"

"Yes, I do."

"Really?" Ryan asked, somewhat surprised, leaning forward.  "Could you tell me?"

"Yes."  She paused, as if for effect.  "This is an artifact from an alien civilization."

"Wait," Ryan said.  "Alien?  As in, from outer space?"


"So that must not be actual silver," Ryan mused.  To Li, he said, "But that looks like a flawless diamond."

Li examined the wing more closely.  "Yes, I suppose it does."  She straightened in her chair.  "But it's not.  It's definitely alien."

If that's true, Ryan thought, then Sean must have found that out, or found something out.  Why didn't he tell me?

"I don't know why it's here on Earth," Li continued, "but it is.  It was intentionally left here, for some definite purpose, though I don't know what that is."

Ryan felt like his head was swimming.  In one fell swoop, he had been informed not only that aliens existed, but that they were highly advanced, and had left some sort of technology on Earth for some unknown reason.  He shook his head.

Li looked momentarily abashed.  "You must think I sound crazy."

Ryan's eyes widened.  "No!" he exclaimed.  "This actually confirms some of the things that I've thought about it.  Tell me," he continued, "does it actually do anything?"

"Yes, it does," Li continued slowly.  "It is specially linked to one person on the planet, one person that can use it to its fullest potential.  When this one person activates the machine contained within this wing, he will undergo a transformation that will heighten his abilities in every facet."  Raising the wing into the light, Li continued.  "This is nothing more than an extremely advanced supercomputer coupled with a phenomenally powerful energy source, capable of transforming the bearer into a one-man war machine, though I don't know what that would involve for this particular artifact."  Li smiled, almost shyly.  "I seem to be saying 'I don't know' a lot."

Ryan shook his head.  "You know far more than anybody else."

Li smiled slightly again, then returned to peering at the wing.

"You said 'this particular artifact'.  There are more like this?" Ryan asked.

"At least one."


Li smiled.  "An acquaintance of mine had something similar to this.  He then found out from the computer inside some of what I'm telling you now."

"I see.  That's how you know so much."

"Like I said, there's one person that it's specifically bonded to, one person that it's specifically designed for.  But there are also up to a dozen or so others that can bring about the transformation and use the powers and abilities of the artifact to a limited extent.  For everybody else on the planet, the abilities can only be used to a very limited extent, something like a billionth of its full potential; effectively nothing."

Ryan nodded.  "I wonder if I'm of the second group."

Li shrugged.  "The odds are against it."

"But I sometimes feel like I'm tapping into something," Ryan said.  He shrugged.  "I don't know.  Half the time I feel like I'm just crazy."  He looked up at Li.  "Is there any way I can find out for sure?"

"Well, I think I might be able to help," Li offered.  "I watched my friend go through this once, though."

"And?" Ryan asked as he slid the necklace back over his head.

"It looked like it should have been very painful, though he said it didn't hurt," Li explained.

"So, it might hurt," Ryan said.

"I don't know," Li replied truthfully.

 "I think I'll take the risk, anyway," Ryan said.  He enclosed the diamond wing in his hands.  "How do I do it?" he asked.

"My friend just closed his eyes and concentrated.  Then he was like a whole new person."

Ryan nodded.  He closed his eyes, trying to tap into the power that he now knew to exist inside the little artifact.  His awareness of his surroundings diminished somewhat as he tried to allow his mind to relax enough to contact the computer inside the wing.

"That's right," Ryan heard Li say in a soothing voice from off to his left.  "Relax.  Let the tension flow from you.  Let the concerns of this life depart from you.  Concentrate on the artifact."

The sound of her soft voice in itself relaxed Ryan noticeably; her words increased the effect.  She then fell silent.

"Ryan?" Li said after quite some time.

Ryan opened his eyes.  He blinked, as they were watering due to the light in the room.

"Are you all right?  You've been sitting there for several minutes."

He shook his head.  "It's no good.  I can't feel it."

"That's understandable," Li reassured him.  "Like I said, the chances that you would be the one to be able to link with the computer are six billion to one."

"Still, I thought it would work for me."

Suddenly, the front door buckled and flew into the room, followed subsequently by several masked men.

"Oh, no," Li said quietly before she leapt to her feet, evidently with the intention of attacking them.

Ryan quickly sized up the situation.  Even though Li was a martial arts master, Ryan knew she most likely wouldn't be able to take on three men at once.  He rose quickly from his seated position on the floor.  The three lithe men were masked and wearing black outfits.  They had demonstrated martial arts skills upon entering the room.  Ryan's first guess would have been ninjas, but he didn't think that those existed in real life.

The "ninjas" had been expecting some resistance, evidently, for the one on the right advanced as soon as he saw Li approaching them.  He jumped directly toward her, leg tensed, ready to lash out.  But Li dodged easily out of the way and confronted the other two.  Ryan decided to take out the first aggressor.  He headed for the man and brought a powerful punch to bear.  The ninja tried to dodge the surprisingly quick blow, but still received the brunt of it.  He stumbled backward, winded.

Ryan advanced on the winded ninja with a menacing look in his eye.  He cocked his arm back and connected solidly with the man's face, lifting him into the air and slamming him violently against the nearby wall.  The man's head cracked loudly on the wall, his eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the floor, quite unconscious.  Ryan turned to see how Li was faring.

Li blocked the center ninja's attack and responded with an astonishingly quick, light jab of her own, hitting the ninja directly in the nose.  As she did so successfully, hearing an audible snap as the man's nose broke, the third ninja decided to try to blindside her.  She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and barely dodged the punch.  She flung a poorly aimed punch at him, which came nowhere near the target.

Ryan saw her fling one arm blindly at one of the ninjas, to her right.  She missed.  That same man responded by bringing his right leg back in a reverse roundhouse kick that connected solidly with her head.  A small yelp of surprise escaped Li's lips before she was lifted into the air.  She seemed to hang in the air for a moment, fighting against gravity, before finally falling heavily to the floor, out cold.

The remaining ninja saw Ryan and rushed him.  Using a solid uppercut, he connected with the underside of Ryan's chin, a surprising amount of power behind the blow.  Ryan's head flipped back and he felt blackness descending around him.  He fought it off.

The ninja responsible for Li's current unconscious state advanced on Ryan, as well.  Ryan steadied himself.  Before he realized it, a hand lashed out and whipped his head to one side.  The rest of his body followed and he found himself resting on the chair where his trench coat was.

Ryan raised one hand to the side of his mouth and felt a sticky wetness.  He smiled.  "You'll have to do better than that," he told the two poised ninjas.  He pulled his stun pistol out of the holster in his trench coat, aimed it quickly at the first ninja that had punched him, and fired.  A thin beam of energy was emitted from the pistol, hitting the ninja directly in the center of the chest.  Accompanying the smell of ozone was a cry of momentary discomfort and surprise just before the man toppled to the ground, shaking, his nervous system temporarily shorted out from the electrical energy that had just coursed through his body.  "I guess it's just you and me now," Ryan told the remaining ninja as he aimed the pistol directly at the man's head.

The ninja showed no fear, no trace of anxiety in his eyes.  He sprang toward Ryan.  Ryan dropped to one side, tracking the man with the pistol, then firing as the man was directly overhead.  The electrical current struck the man in the stomach, with the accompanying effect being almost as quick as it would have been had Ryan hit him in the chest.  He twitched with convulsions as he hit the ground before succumbing to unconsciousness.

Ryan took a deep breath and lowered the pistol.  He didn't know exactly who these three masked men were that he had just taken down-whether they were ninjas at all or something else.  He did know, though, that he had been more lucky than anything else, as in a direct confrontation he knew he wouldn't have been able to take them.  The stun pistol had saved the day.  He surveyed the three.  The two he had taken out with the stun pistol would be out for at least fifteen or twenty minutes; the first one he had taken down would be out for a long time.

Ryan moved over to Li.  Hopefully she has an idea of who these guys are.  He knew he didn't have a lot of time.  He shook her gently and received no response.  He slapped her face gently, then more forcefully.  After several slaps, Li's face was starting to redden.  Ryan lifted his other hand, so as to not sting one cheek too badly, and moved to strike again when her hand darted out and caught his in a surprisingly strong grip.

"Are you awake?" Ryan asked needlessly.

"Obviously," Li replied as Ryan helped her sit up.

"How are you?"

Li sat with her knees up, resting her elbows on them, rubbing her head.  "I have a headache."

"Sorry," Ryan said.  "It's urgent that we get out of here before these other guys wake up."

"You're right," Li agreed, getting to her feet.  She wobbled momentarily, holding her head. 

Ryan steadied her.  "Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

Li showed a wan smile.  "I kind of have to be, don't I?"  She moved quickly into her bedroom and grabbed a suitcase.  "Let's get out of here."

"Where to?" Ryan asked, grabbing his trench coat and slipping it on.  He fastened his holster along his shoulder and covered it with his trench coat.

Li haphazardly tossed clothes into her suitcase.  "Away from here.  Away from this country, in fact."

"Aren't there some arrangements that you need to make before you leave?" Ryan asked.

Li slid on an overcoat and hefted the bag.  "There's no time," she replied.  "Besides," she added, muttering, "he doesn't need any more help than he already has to find me."  She looked around her apartment for what would be the last time, taking one last look at possessions she didn't have time to take along.

"Who?" Ryan asked.

"I'll tell you once we're on our way," Li said as she ushered Ryan out of the apartment and set off at a trot down the hall.  "There's no time now," she called back over her shoulder.

Ryan ran after her, trench coat trailing along, flapping in the wake.  He quickly caught up with her and they descended a staircase.  "Do you have a car?" he asked.

"Yes, in the garage."  Li stopped short.  "Unless they've sabotaged it."

"We'd better get a cab, then," Ryan suggested, nodding.  

Li nodded in agreement and continued at her former breakneck speed down the stairs.  

"Were they trying to kill you?" Ryan asked Li.


"Then they may have sent backup."

"They should have," Li said, a suspicious glint in her eye as they came to the final landing.

Someone nearer the top of the stairwell shouted something in Japanese that Ryan didn't quite catch.  Ryan and Li both looked up quickly.  They heard feet pounding down the stairs toward them.  Ryan turned to Li, only to see that she had already fled into the parking garage.  He wasn't in any particular hurry to wait around and see what they wanted, either.  He followed her into the garage.

The door to the garage opened inward, away from the stairwell.  Ryan moved through it, hearing rather than seeing some bullet go past his head.  He pushed the door shut hurriedly and looked around quickly.  He spotted an emergency fire ax.  He grabbed it and wedged the door shut with it, hoping that it would hold.  He turned and saw Li, who had stopped next to a car.

"Is that your car?" Ryan called, running over to her.


Ryan dropped to his hands and knees and checked the places that were most likely to hold explosives of some sort.  He found nothing.  "It's clean," Ryan said.

"Good," Li replied as she opened the door and started the car up.  

Ryan slid into the passenger side, hearing a loud bang as he did so.  He turned and saw that their pursuers had managed to get the door open.  Seven black-garbed "ninjas" ran toward the car, accompanied by one man in a black suit and dark sunglasses.  He held a gun and was in the process of emptying the clip in their direction.  "Duck!" Ryan yelled, ducking himself.

Li ducked down as she pressed the accelerator to the floor.  A loud crash sounded as the rear window was blown out.  A few seconds later, several bullet holes took out the windshield, as well.  Then, Li rounded the ramp out and was out of the direct line of fire.  "That was a bit close," she commented, narrowing her eyes against the wind as she whipped out onto the busy street.

Ryan nodded.

"Is there anything you need from your hotel before we leave the country?" Li asked.

Ryan quickly reviewed the contents of his luggage.  He decided that there was nothing there that was irreplaceable.  He shook his head.  "Nothing.  Let's just get out of here as fast as possible."

Li nodded.  She continued to hold the accelerator down as she darted in and out of the dense flow of traffic expertly.  Finally, she hit a reasonably clear stretch of road and went all out.  Suddenly, her left side mirror shattered, followed quickly by her rearview mirror.  "Hold on!" she exclaimed as she started swerving all over the road.

Ryan risked a look back.  There was a car following them with a man in a business suit and sunglasses, strikingly similar to the man from the garage, hanging out of one window, gun in hand.  He was currently reloading.  "This isn't going to be easy, is it?" Ryan asked Li.

"Doesn't look like it."

Ryan nodded and drew his pistol.  He aimed and fired through the missing rear window of the car at the gunman.  His first shot went wide.  The second rebounded harmlessly off of the windshield.  As he fired his third shot, the car hit a particularly nasty bump, throwing off his aim.  When the chasing vehicle hit the same bump, Ryan squeezed off his fourth shot.  It grazed the gunman in his temple.  He jerked twice, and fell limply, dropping the gun to the pavement as he fell inside the car, presumably unconscious.

"Good shooting," Li commented.

"Thank you," Ryan said, reholstering his pistol.

"Hold on again."  Li wrenched the wheel to one side and tore off down a relatively deserted side street.  The car behind them managed to follow.  Li then slammed on the brakes and pulled the wheel all the way to one side, sending the car into a controlled spin.  She turned it one hundred eighty degrees and headed directly for the other car.  At the last instant, she swerved away from it and shot back out onto the main road.  Ryan looked behind them and saw the car spin out and crash into a nearby building.

"There goes that problem," Ryan told Li.

"Good," Li said, showing a little, relieved smile.

Chapter 3

Sòng Li leaned back in her seat.  She took a deep breath and then released it slowly.  She had been on the move for most of the past two hours; now they were finally in a plane.  They were in a chartered flight in a private plane, heading for a major airport elsewhere in Japan for a transfer out of the country.  She could finally relax.

Ryan, next to her, was also relaxed, although the changes in his outward appearance were so minimal that he appeared the same as always.  But he was certainly relieved that they were away from all of that madness and headed back to America, though certainly far sooner than he had expected.  A thought occurred to him, concerning a matter that he and Li had began discussing earlier.  "Li?"

Li turned to him.  "Yes?"

"Who were those men that were chasing us?"

Li closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat.  "Do you want the full story?"


Li nodded.  "Very well.  About four months ago, I assisted in putting away a major drug lord, one of the five biggest in the entire world.  Nagoya Tadashi is his name."

Ryan nodded, his eyebrows raised.  He was very impressed.  He had heard of Nagoya and his legendary ability to remain untouchable as far as the law was concerned.  To be able to take him down was quite an accomplishment, indeed.  "So what does this have to do with those men?  Were they some of Nagoya's hired men, looking for revenge?"

"No.  Not quite, anyway.  I recognized them as soon as they broke into the apartment.  They were Black Ninja Soldiers."

"Black Ninja Soldiers?"  Ryan could hear the capitalization in the way Li said the name.

Li nodded.  "They're the bulk of the force run by a mystery man that we know only as Black Ninja.  He's an assassin that some years ago trained a select group of men to be his agents.  They are hired if one wants to kill someone else.  The price is very steep."

Ryan nodded, following Li's train of thought.  "So Nagoya hired this Black Ninja person to kill you, is that it?"

Li nodded.  "Exactly."

"So what do we do about him?"



"There's nothing we can do," Li said wearily.

"Why not?"

"First of all, we have no idea where he bases himself; we've tried to find him and have always failed miserably.  So in that way, he's practically untouchable.  He also holds to a high code of honor, and so do his disciples.  That means that even if you succeed in catching one of the ninjas, which in itself is highly unlikely, they won't tell you anything.  They'll even kill themselves to protect the secret."

"Interesting," Ryan said.  "Were those guys in the suits back in the parking garage and in the car part of all of this?"

"Yes," Li said, "though they're another class entirely.  The Soldiers try to blend in with their surroundings and usually do their work at night; that they were seen even this early is highly irregular.  They make up the bulk of Black Ninja's force.  The next larger group of operatives, called Suited Ninjas, do their work in undercover situations and normally work in broad daylight."  She creased her brow.  "Odd that they send Soldiers to do a Suited job," she mused quietly.  She shook her head.  "The final group is the most elite of all, hence their name: Elite Ninjas.  There are only a dozen or so of these highly trained men.  When I say 'highly-trained,' I mean it.  They would all be ranked among the top fifty martial artists in the world."

"That is highly-trained," Ryan agreed.  "What do you know about the Black Ninja himself?"

"Not much," Li admitted.  "If he isn't the best martial artist in the world, he is very nearly that.  He is also quite rich after years of fulfilling contracts, we assume."

"Does he ever fail on a contract?  Or do you know?" Ryan queried.

"Occasionally his disciples fail.  When they do, they pay the price for it.  All of them, whether they were involved or not.  Some of his men have been found dead, beaten very badly after a known failed contract," Li explained.  "But after his disciples fail, Black Ninja himself goes after the target.  He is very efficient and will go to any lengths to keep his reputation, and his honor, intact.  So far as we know," Li continued quietly, "anyone that has had a contract on them by Black Ninja has not survived."

"Well, you'll be the first, then," Ryan assured Li.

"Thanks for your optimism," Li said with a little smile.

Ryan turned and locked eyes with Li.  "It was a statement of fact.  You will not die as long as you are a member of Checkwolf."  He then looked forward again.

Li eyed him strangely.  

Suddenly, they heard an explosion behind them.  At the same instant, Li felt as if her stomach had flown from her body.  The plane had entered a steep dive.  "What's happening?" Li asked.  The wind whistled around them as the plane dropped even faster.

Ryan got out of his seat, quickly and cautiously, and headed for the cockpit of the plane.  He kicked open the door.  The pilot and copilot were wrestling with the plane, trying to lift it.  Through the cockpit windows, Ryan could see the mountains of northern Japan rearing their ugly heads.  The plane was headed directly for them.  "What happened?" Ryan yelled over the screaming wind.

The copilot gave Ryan a quick glance before turning his attention back to the task at hand.  "There was a massive explosion in the back.  We just lost control of the plane," the copilot yelled back.

"How can I help?"

"You can't," the pilot said.  "You two had better get out of here, now!"

"What about the other passengers?" Ryan asked, remembering the two other people that had come on board and had immediately retired to their sleeping compartments.

"The entire back of the plane is gone!" the copilot said.  "Save yourselves!"

Ryan nodded briefly and then climbed back up the aisle, fighting against the ever-steepening angle of the plane as it dropped like a proverbial rock.  His ears started popping as he reached Li, who was already in the emergency supplies area of the plane.  "We have to get some parachutes!"

Li handed one to him and he immediately started putting it on.  She then put hers on as Ryan turned to the cabinet and grabbed all of the emergency rations that were available.  Li had already gotten to the door and was now struggling to open it.  Ryan joined her and placed all of his strength to the task of opening the evidently unused and obviously jammed emergency door.  He finally wrenched it open; the wind outside instantly slammed it back against the side of the plane with a loud crash.  Ryan looked down.  They were, at most, three thousand feet above the ground.

"Jump!" Ryan yelled, pointing out the door.  Li nodded and jumped out of the plane.  Ryan quickly followed.  As soon as possible after they were clear of the plane, they pulled their ripcords.  Both parachutes blossomed into existence, slowing their fall tremendously.

Ryan looked down at Li.  She was intently watching something.  Ryan followed her gaze and saw the plane, now spinning out of control, flames coming from the wreckage of the tail, getting ever lower to the ground.  It disappeared over the next mountain.  A few seconds later, Ryan saw and heard a large explosion.  He hadn't seen anyone jump out before it had gone out of sight.

But there was no time to worry about that; they had a plight of their own to attend to.  Ryan saw that they were only a few hundred feet from the ground now.  He steeled himself for the landing which, as chance would have it, was on the side of a fairly steep mountain.  Ryan risked a quick glance in Li's direction and saw that she was headed directly for a tree.  As long as she doesn't hit any big branches, she should be pretty much okay.

Ryan was now less than a hundred feet from the ground.  He fought down the waves of nausea and vertigo that washed over him as he descended.  He closed his eyes as he felt a bone-jarring thud.  He had touched down on the mountain, facing toward the peak, then promptly fell backward and did a couple of involuntary backward somersaults before bringing himself to a stop.  He lay there for a few moments, catching his breath and feeling for any breaks.  He could detect none.  He had come out of that in remarkably good shape.  Ryan stood, untangled himself from his parachute, and detached it, letting it fall to the ground.  He then headed for the tree near which Li had come down, which was a few yards uphill.

When Ryan came to the tree that he had seen Li headed for, he looked up.  He couldn't see the bright colors of the parachute anywhere in the tree.  He then walked a little further uphill, scanning the ground.  He saw her lying flat on her back a dozen yards away.  He picked up his pace and headed over to her.  "Are you all right?" he asked after he had knelt beside her.

Li opened her eyes and looked at Ryan.  Her eyes were slightly glazed, but quickly cleared and became alert.  "Ryan?" she said.  "Yes, I'm fine, mostly.  Except I think I sprained my ankle."

"Let me have a look," Ryan said.  "Which foot?"

"The right one."

Ryan nodded and eased the shoe off of Li's right foot.  She grimaced slightly as he did so, but kept silent.  The short sock that she had on wasn't in the way, so he left it alone.  It was clearly evident that the ankle was sprained; it was already starting to swell.  "Yes, it's sprained," Ryan said.  He quickly set about ripping a length of material from Li's nearby parachute.  He then moved back to Li.  "Hold still.  This will probably hurt a little."

Li nodded.

Ryan sat on the ground and gently propped Li's leg on his.  He then took the material from the parachute and tightly wrapped it around Li's ankle.  She groaned once, but quickly stifled the response.  "That's all I can do for it; we don't have any ice or heat available," Ryan said in a somewhat apologetic tone.

"Thank you," Li said.  "Let me try to test it."

Ryan offered his shoulder for Li to lean on as she stood up.  Balanced on Ryan's shoulder and arm, she stood up on her one good foot.  Then, gingerly, she put her right foot on the ground.  She instantly grimaced.  But she continued until most of her weight was resting on it.

"It's not too bad," she said truthfully.  "We should try to get to one of the nearby villages, though," she suggested.

"Right," Ryan said.  "Except I didn't see many villages around here on our way down."

"That's true," Li acknowledged, looking up.  

Following her gaze, Ryan saw that directly overhead a plane had started coming across the sky in their direction.  "It's probably coming to check the wreckage of the plane," Ryan said as he moved out from under the cover of the tree they were standing under.  He started waving his hands emphatically.  "Down here!" he yelled, although he knew fully well that they couldn't hear him in the plane.

But the occupants of the airplane evidently did see him.  Six figures jumped out.  Parachutes appeared shortly thereafter and they started drifting towards the earth.

Ryan turned to Li.  "We didn't get stuck down here long, after all."

Li nodded, distracted.  She was gazing intently at the parachuters, now less than two hundred feet above the ground.  Her expression suddenly changed.  "It's them!" she whispered.  "The ninjas!"

"What?" Ryan said, whipping his head around to look for himself.  He had to admit that they did, indeed, look like Black Ninja Soldiers, like the ones they had fought back in the apartment.  "How did they find us so fast?" he asked, totally astonished.

"Unless . . . ," Li began.

"Unless they're the ones that sabotaged the plane."

"Or shot it down."

Ryan smacked his fist into his palm.  "I should have seen that coming!" he said as he drew his pistol.  He checked the charge.  It showed a forty percent depletion, which translated into nine shots.

They were now fifty feet over the ground and were drawing weapons.  Ryan aimed randomly and fired.  He hit the nearest one in the leg and saw him begin to twitch, but the ninja still looked conscious.  Ryan fired again.  This time he struck the ninja directly in the chest and temporarily shorted out his nervous system.

One down, five to go.  Seven shots left.

The next four ninjas he took down in rapid succession; the first three he hit while they were still a few feet above the ground; the fourth he hit mere seconds after touchdown.  They all crumpled, unconscious.

Five down, one to go.  Three shots left.

And now the final ninja was on the ground, away from his parachute, and moving around very quickly.

Suddenly, Li called out.  "He's an Elite!  Be careful!"

Ryan revised his estimate of the situation.  He aimed his pistol at the Elite Ninja.  He fired and went quite wide.  He tracked the ninja for his second shot and then fired again, anticipating where the man would be standing.  The Elite, though, had stopped dead in his tracks just before Ryan had shot and allowed the burst of electrical energy to burn into the ground at his feet.  Ryan then fired his last shot, while the ninja was standing still.  But the ninja dove aside at the last instant, rolled, and jumped back to his feet.

Ryan had lost his one major advantage.  He now had to face one of the top martial arts experts in the world using only his brute strength and hope it was enough.  Out of the corner of his eye, just before he dropped into his fighting stance, Ryan saw that Li was no longer lying on the ground where she had been.  He hoped that she was going to help him attack this man; he knew he'd need the help.  "Let's go," Ryan beckoned as he assumed a fighting stance five yards from the ninja.

"I don't even need my weapons for you, American," the Elite said.  

Ryan could imagine a sneer on his face.  "We'll see."

The Elite leapt toward Ryan.  He landed inches in front of Ryan instead of trying to batter through Ryan's defenses, with the intent of throwing Ryan off-guard.  He then lashed out with a lightning fast jab. 

Ryan had already steeled himself, nearly falling for the ninja's trap.  Whereas he did feel the blow, it didn't do him any damage.  He retaliated instantly with a vicious uppercut, standing up as he brought his fist into the underside of the ninja's chin.  The ninja's gambit had been turned back on him; Ryan was best at close range.

The ninja's head flipped back hard.

Ryan didn't let up for a second.  He punched again and whipped the Elite's head to one side.  The Elite tried to block but Ryan lashed out with a hard, fast kick and blew through the man's weakened defenses, connecting with his head.  The ninja reeled back, downhill, and then finally fell.  He did a couple of backward somersaults and then rolled a few more times before coming to a stop some twenty yards from where Ryan had kicked him.

"Good job, Ryan," Li said from behind a nearby tree.  "I was about ready to come out and help you, but you managed to send him down the hill.  I'm impressed.  There aren't many who can knock out one of Black Ninja's Elite."

"He was too cocky," Ryan said contemplatively as they walked to where the Elite lay.  "He shouldn't have been; he had just seen me take out his whole squad."  Ryan took a deep breath.  "He had incredibly fast reflexes."

Li nodded.  She knelt next to where the Elite lay.  She pulled back the face mask, which was slightly different from that of the Soldiers.  She gasped.

"Do you recognize him?" Ryan asked.

Li nodded.  "His name is Takara Shisitsu.  He's ranked fifth in the world, or was before he disappeared a couple of years ago.  I had no idea that he was working for Black Ninja," Li said.

Ryan stayed silent for a moment.  "We should really get moving," he said quietly.  "They'll surely circle back here soon enough.  And we don't want to be here when they do.  What we do want to do is find a village, or something.  It'll be dark soon," he said, looking at the sky.

"Right," Li said.  "By the way," she said as they headed off across the slope, still resting slightly on Ryan's shoulder, "how many shots does that gun still have in it?"

"None.  And I left the recharger in the plane."

"That's not good," Li said, knowing the response.

"No.  There would have been no way I could have taken any of those ninjas without shooting them," Ryan said.  "Hopefully we won't meet any more, but if we do, our chances are going to be drastically altered.  In their favor."

Li nodded somberly.  They continued to trudge across the darkening landscape.

Li touched Ryan on the shoulder.  Ryan, startled, glanced up at her.  Then he relaxed as he realized who it was.  "Sorry.  I didn't hear you coming."

"I didn't mean to startle you."

Ryan shrugged.  "It's no big deal."

Li sat down next to him.  "Were you trying to find the computer in that again?" she asked, glancing at the diamond wing, which Ryan still had in his hand.

Ryan let the wing dangle once more.  He nodded.

"Did it work?"

Ryan shook his head.  He narrowed his eyes, as if just remembering a question that he wanted to ask.

"What is it?" Li asked.

"There's something about your name that doesn't seem quite right, but I haven't been able to put my finger on it."

Li smiled slightly.  "Yes?"

"I think I just figured it out," Ryan said.  "It's not a Japanese name, is it?"

Li shook her head.

"It's Chinese?"  Ryan's voice tailed up at the end, indicating uncertainty.

Li nodded.  "Yes, it is," she replied, calmly meeting his eyes with hers, a hint of humor sparkling deep within her gaze.

Ryan nodded, having satisfied his curiosity.  He found himself unable to tear his eyes from Li's face, a gaze that she returned.  As the glint of humor in her eyes was starting to be replaced by curiosity, a question beginning to form, Ryan recovered.  "And that explains your features, too," he said abruptly.

A confused look flitted across Li's face; she hadn't been expecting that comment.  "Yes," she said, nodding, realizing the direction that Ryan was taking the conversation.  "My mother was Japanese, but my father was Chinese.  They met and married in China, which is where I get my Chinese name.  But my father died when I was only two and so my mother moved back home, to Japan."

"I'm sorry about your father."

Li nodded.  "Thank you."  She paused.  "As am I.  I would very much liked to have known him."  Li repositioned herself to get more comfortable, grimacing slightly as she did so.

Ryan noted the way she still favored her right foot.  "How's your ankle holding up?"

Li shrugged.  "It still hurts quite a bit, but I'm learning to ignore it."

"Let me have another look at it," Ryan offered as he moved close to her.  He unwrapped it and tried to examine it in the flickering light.  It was still quite swollen, but at least it was only a sprain, not a break.  "It'll be all right eventually," Ryan assured her as he rewrapped the sprain.  He then sat back on his haunches and again gazed at her in the firelight as she leaned against the wall of the cave.

They had traveled for three hours, possibly longer, with at least half of that time in pitch-blackness, before happening to discover the cave that they were now in.  They were spending the night here, away from the harsh February cold outside.  Although it wasn't as cold in Japan as in Illinois, it still dipped near the freezing mark.  So Ryan had propped Li against a wall and had covered her with one of the parachutes that he had brought while he went to find some firewood.  Since they were beneath the tree line by a solid half-mile, finding wood was no problem.  Ryan had just finished building the fire and Li had returned from outside the cave.  She set about recovering herself with the parachute, then glanced back up at Ryan.

Again, a question arose in her eyes; this time it surfaced.  "Does my face interest you that much?" Li asked, breaking Ryan's reverie.

Ryan felt embarrassed, though he didn't let it show much.  "Sorry," he mumbled as he diverted his gaze.

Li smiled.  She leaned forward and turned his face so that their eyes were locked.  "I very much appreciate all that you have done for me.  You've saved my life," Li said.  She then leaned forward and tenderly touched her lips to Ryan's briefly.  "Thank you."  After that, she reclined against the wall again, repositioned the parachute, and went to sleep.

For a long time after that, Ryan gazed into the fire, before finally dozing off himself.

Halfway through their third day on the run, a village came into sight.  Ryan and Li hurried toward it.  Several times over the past three days, a plane had passed overhead, one of which could very possibly have been a rescue party.  But rather than risk ninjas coming down for them, they had hidden as well as they possibly could, and had thus far been successful; they hadn't met with any more ninjas.  And three days of almost constant walking had made the swelling go down in Li's ankle, rather than the exact opposite, which is what Ryan had expected.  Their rations had been holding up quite well, also.  They still had more than half left, since they had managed to find numerous indigenous edible berries and plants, which had helped their rations last longer.

A half hour after spotting the village, Ryan and Li entered it.  They immediately realized that it could hardly be called a village; rather, it was just a loose agglomeration of a few houses.  And, to their dismay, it seemed to be completely deserted.  "No one lives here," Li said.

"It certainly looks that way," Ryan said.  "But maybe there's some sort of transportation around here somewhere that we can use.  Or possibly some other supplies."

"Perhaps," Li agreed wearily.

As they walked along the deserted, narrow, unpaved avenue, Ryan caught a flicker of movement between two small huts.  "Hello?" he called out.  "Is anyone there?"

"Did you see something?" Li asked.

Ryan turned to face her.  "I thought I saw something over there."  He glanced back.  "It must have been an animal or something."

Suddenly, Li pulled Ryan to the ground with all of her strength.  Surprised, there was nothing for Ryan to do but try to land gracefully.  He hit the ground and rolled to his back.  Standing right where he just had been was one of the Black Ninja Soldiers, wielding a knife.

Slowly, Ryan got to his feet.  "Where are your buddies?" he asked.

The ninja responded in Japanese.

"What did he say?" Ryan asked Li, warily eyeing the Soldier.

"She cannot answer."

Ryan spun and saw another Soldier, holding a knife to Li's throat and covering her mouth with his hand.  He knew that if something weren't done to stop that ninja in the next few seconds, Li would be dead.  His presence was the only thing that had kept her alive this long, but there was nothing that he could do now without ending her life that much more quickly.

Realizing this, Li brought her foot straight back into her captor's knee.  The ninja briefly howled in pain, losing his grip on Li.  She rushed quickly to Ryan's side to provide a united front for the second Soldier.  The other ninja barked out something in Japanese and two more Soldiers appeared from inside some nearby structures.

"You see, there's no escape," the evident lead Soldier, the one that had been holding Li, said.  "We've evacuated these homes and all others in a large radius around your drop site.  In each one we've stationed Soldiers.  You have no hope."

"We'll see about that," Ryan commented.

The first ninja, the one that Li had pulled Ryan to the ground to avoid, leapt toward Ryan.  Before Ryan could even react to the existence of the attack, the ninja was upon him.  With two lightning fast kicks, he dizzied Ryan.  The ninja then followed through with an elbow into Ryan's stomach and a palm into Ryan's forehead.  Ryan tried to fight off the darkness of unconsciousness but failed when the ninja finished him off with a kick.  He dropped to the ground, unconscious, incapacitated.

The lead Soldier and one of the new arrivals attacked Li simultaneously.  She ducked the first one's attack and dodged the second's kick.  She then retaliated by jumping into the air with her legs stretched to the sides and kicking in the face both of the ninjas that had just attacked her.  While they were reeling, Li simultaneously punched them in the face, rendering them unconscious.  She turned in time to see the fourth ninja attacking.  Li grabbed his arm when he jabbed at her and tossed him over her head.  He wasn't fazed in the least and leapt back to his feet.  Li hoped that Ryan was doing just as well as she was.

When she took the opportunity to check, she saw the ninja that Ryan was fighting kick him once more and knock him out, blood trickling from Ryan's nose and mouth.  She realized that her chances had just dropped drastically.  She had wondered why they didn't try killing Ryan until she realized that they had no contract on him and wouldn't kill him unless he personally witnessed her death.  One thing that Black Ninja's organization did was follow their contracts to the letter.

In the moment that she took to check on Ryan, the ninja she had thrown advanced on her again.  She heard his footsteps falling lightly as he ran toward her and tried to block his punch, but he was far too quick.  She felt a jarring as he connected with her chin, further proof that they had no compunction against hitting women.

Likewise, she had no compunction against hitting men.  With a lightning fast punch, Li connected with the Soldier's jaw.  She swung at Ryan's attacker with her left fist as he came at her, and connected, as she brought her right foot into the other ninja's face, managing to knock him out, she thought, but at the same time seriously hurting her sprained ankle.  Gritting her teeth, she spun on her left foot and brought that same right foot around with a reverse roundhouse to the fourth and final ninja, connecting with him as he recoiled from her punch and sending him sprawling, out cold.

Li was breathing heavily, her heart was pounding, and so was her right foot.  But she realized that she had to get Ryan awake, and quickly.  She produced a plant that Ryan, with remarkable foresight, had wrapped in among the rations a few days before, a plant that smelled horrible.  She placed it under Ryan's nose and went about tying up the ninjas with their own clothing, tying them as securely as possible in hopes of holding them for awhile after they woke. 

After she finished with that, about ten minutes later, she returned to Ryan just as his eyes flitted open.  He wrinkled his nose in distaste, knocked the plant away, and sat up.  He brought his hands up to his forehead immediately thereafter.  "Don't sit up too fast, Ryan," Li cautioned.

"Thanks for telling me now," he replied with more than a hint of sarcasm.

"Now I only owe you one," Li said, smiling.

Ryan nodded, but stopped that instantly, because it hurt his head.  "Right," he said instead.  He slowly glanced over to the four unconscious ninjas.  He raised an eyebrow and looked back at Li, who showed no trace of pride in her expression, only concern over Ryan's welfare.  I'll have to have her show me that trick sometime.  "Right now, we'd better get out of here."

"My sentiments exactly," Li said.

"Rise and shine," Ryan said.

Li opened her eyes, squinting against the bright sunlight coming through the cave entrance.  "I'll rise," she said.  "But a woman can't shine after being deprived of all of her beauty essentials for more than a week," she added with a grin.

"Try your best," Ryan said.  "You still look beautiful to me."

Li smiled radiantly.  "Why, thank you."  Ryan faced the other direction as Li got out of her parachute "blanket" and got dressed in the clothes that he had washed the previous night.  "How are our rations coming along?" Li asked.

"Well," Ryan began, "we're down to about a quarter of what we had to begin with.  But as long as we can keep finding nuts, berries, and other things to eat, we'll be fine for a little while longer."

"All right," Li said.  "You'll have to excuse me.  I have to visit the 'little girls' room'," she said with a smile, borrowing a phrase that Ryan had introduced to her a few days before.  She stepped outside of the cave.

Ryan closed his eyes and grasped the diamond wing once more.  Even after dozens of attempts to communicate with the computer inside the advanced piece of technology, Ryan had made no progress.  Yet, he still felt impelled to keep trying.  Though he would have liked to believe that it was the computer that was compelling him to persist, he realized that it was more reasonable to believe that his own subconscious was pushing him along.  He wanted to prove to himself that his initial feelings about the wing's powers were true.

As before, he tried to clear his mind of distractions, concentrating solely on the tiny marvel lying in his hands.   He heard a noise, distant, muffled.  It sounded as if it were the murmuring of thousands of voices, the echoing of thousands of conversations, the sound one might hear in a relatively quiet sporting arena.  Quickly, the noise grew louder and louder.  Ryan nearly opened his eyes to see where the noise was coming from when he realized that the noise wasn't external at all; it was inside his head.  His ears were still picking up ambient sounds from the forest, but the aural center of his mind was also picking up this sound of voices.

Ryan strained to hear what some of the voices might be saying, but it might as well have been a foreign language.  The voices continued to get louder and louder.  Soon they were accompanied by a prickling sensation all through Ryan's body.  The hair on his arms stood up on end, as if he were chilled.  "Ryan?" he suddenly heard clearly.  Moments later, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Simultaneously, Li yelped and Ryan jumped to the side.  The wing dropped from his hands and the voices instantly abated.  "Li?" Ryan said, somewhat confused, his heart pounding in his chest.  He was trying to return to the real world, but found himself very groggy, the feeling as if he had just awoken from a deep sleep.  He noticed that Li was holding her hand.  Instantly he was wide awake once more.  "Are you all right?" he asked, getting to his feet and going over to her.

"Yes," she said.  "I just got a little shock, is all."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."  She smiled.  "You were sure deep in concentration, there."

Ryan nodded, a distant look in his eyes.  He couldn't hear the voices anymore, but the memory of hearing them was fresh in his mind.  "I think I contacted the computer."

Li's eyes opened wide.  "Really?"

Ryan nodded.  "I think so."  Then he shook his head and smiled slightly.  "Let me correct that.  I know so."

"What happened?" Li asked.

"Actually, all I heard was the sound of voices, almost a white noise."

"What were they saying?"

"I couldn't actually pick out any individual words.  But this sound of a crowd just kept getting louder and louder.  It felt like something was about to happen."  He looked at her, trying to bring his focus back from that distant place.  "That's probably why I shocked you."

Li nodded.  "I'm sorry I interrupted you."

"It's all right," Ryan said, reassuring her.  "I got it once; I can get it again."

"Okay," Li said with a smile.  She glanced at their rations.  "Are you hungry?"

Ryan frowned.  "Actually, yes.  I'm very hungry.  I didn't notice that before."

"Go ahead and sit down.  I'll bring us something to eat."

Ryan nodded and took a seat by the smoldering remains of their fire.

Moments later, Li walked up to Ryan and sat next to him, facing out of the cave they were encamped in.  She handed Ryan some berries and nuts.  "It seems to me that we've been going basically uphill for the past couple of days," Li said.  "Would you agree with that?"

"Yes," Ryan said.  "But the trail we've been following happens to lead up occasionally."

"We've been following a trail?" Li asked disbelievingly.

"Yes.  You hadn't noticed?"


They sat in silence for a few moments.  Partly, Ryan was silenced by the experience he had been through, the fact that he had just had contact, of some sort, with an alien race.  However, just yards in front of them was a sheer cliff.  Past that was a spectacular scene of mountains, verdant with trees and capped in pristine white by snow.  "This is a beautiful view," Li commented as she rested her head on Ryan's shoulder.

"Yes, it is," Ryan agreed softly.  A few moments later, he glanced sidelong at her foot.  "Let me look at your ankle."

Li shrugged and propped her leg on Ryan's lap again.  "It doesn't hurt much at all this morning," she said as Ryan unwrapped it.  The swelling had gone down considerably and now was barely discernible.  It looked more like a rash than a sprained ankle.

"You're right.  It looks much better," Ryan said, rewrapping it.  "But I think I'll keep it wrapped as a strengthening agent."

"Whatever you think best."

After finishing, Ryan gently moved Li's foot from his leg and stood.  "We'd better get moving."

Li nodded in agreement.

"Do you hear something?" Ryan asked suddenly.

Li stopped.  She cocked her head, listening.  Her brow furrowed and she glanced up at Ryan.  "Is that a helicopter?"

"Then I'm not going crazy."

"Where's it coming from?" Li asked.

"Above us, would be my guess," Ryan said.  He pointed.  "There may be a plateau at the top of this trail."

"Do you think it's landing there?"

"Maybe.  Let's just hope that it isn't more of the Black Ninja's men," Ryan said as they continued along the winding trail.  The trail, which gripped the side of a mountain, wasn't incredibly wide and had a dangerously sheer drop to the bottom of the valley.

Seconds later, two Soldiers and an Elite appeared in front of them.  "Evidently that was too much to hope," Li said as she prepared herself for battle again.

The Elite Ninja launched himself at Ryan, evidently aware that this companion to their target could cause much damage, knowledge he probably received from the last Elite Ryan had downed.  He lashed out with a fast, but weak, kick that glanced off of Ryan's arm.  Ryan was no martial arts expert, but that didn't mean that he couldn't fight.  As the Elite was attacking, Ryan reared back and swung his left arm into the right side of the Elite's face.  The ninja stumbled from the power of the blow, but to his testament, managed to stay on his feet.  Ryan then brought his foot into the Elite's face.  As the Elite stumbled backward and Ryan dropped to the ground, Ryan balanced himself on his hands and kicked up into the Elite Ninja's gut.  With a surprised look in his eyes and a grunt, the Elite slammed against the rocky mountain wall and fell to the ground, thoroughly unconscious.

Li faced off against the two Soldiers.  First, the one on her left attacked, lashing out with a low kick aimed at her kneecaps.  When she jumped over the Soldier's leg, the second ninja brought a blow aimed at her midsection.  Li brought her knees up to her chest and deflected the blow with them.  While still in the air, she kicked her right foot out and caught the second ninja in the jaw, sending him reeling against the rock face.  As she dropped, she directed her left leg into the first ninja's face.  His head smashed back against the rock of the trail, rebounded back into Li's foot, and then crunched into the trail again.  He slipped into unconsciousness, as well.

Ryan turned and saw Li dispatch the second of her two foes.  She landed, tensed, then relaxed when she saw that the three had been neutralized.  "Are you all right?" Ryan asked her.

"I'm unharmed, yes," she replied.  "If they came in that helicopter, perhaps that can be our ride out of here."

"Let's go," Ryan urged.  He and Li broke into a run, heading up the trail in the direction the ninjas had come.  After a few hundred yards, they reached the summit.  It was, indeed, a plateau and there was, indeed, a helicopter.  The driver was still seated in it while his fourth and final passenger stood outside, watching carefully.

Ryan vaulted over the edge of the plateau and ran for him.  Following behind, Li did the same.  Ryan ran for the man and leapt into the air.  He straightened his leg and aimed directly for the man's face.  The man only saw Ryan at the last moment, but managed to dive to one side.  Unfortunately for him, that put him directly into the path of Li's oncoming fist.  He crashed ingloriously to the ground and rested there, consciousness slipping from his grasp.

The pilot had seen what was happening and had started take-off procedures.  Ryan ran over to the pilot's side of the 'copter.  He jumped up and grabbed the handle of the door, wrenching it open.  He reached in and grabbed the pilot by the collar, pulled him out, and threw him to the ground.  The pilot hit the ground hard and laid still.

Ryan pulled himself in as Li did the same on the other side.  "Sayonara!" Ryan called with a smile as he lifted the chopper into the air.  Li smiled back.

"What in the world are you doing in Colorado?" Sean asked.

After escaping from Black Ninja and leaving Japan, Ryan and Li had gone to Ryan's cabin in Colorado and had been there for a week and a half before he finally got around to calling Sean.  "Well, we ran into some difficulty in Japan.  I'll fax you my report later."

"That still doesn't explain what you're doing in Colorado."

"You remember the diamond wing, right?"

"Right," Sean said impatiently.

"Well, Li knows all about it," Ryan said.  "But Sean: this thing is alien.  Why didn't you tell me?"

"Alien?" Sean said.  "As in, not from this earth?"

"Yes," Ryan replied. 

"How do you know this?"

"It turns out that the wing is like this miniature computer, but it also has an incredible amount of power inside of it, power that I've tapped a part of.  More power than you can imagine.  More power than I can imagine, and I've only seen a glimpse of it."  He paused.  "So why didn't you tell me?"

"Well," Sean said, "Jay and Ruben figured out that the components were not of Earth-origin-and there was some discussion of whether or not that meant that it was alien-but ultimately none of us thought that it was."

"Well I can tell you unequivocally that it is," Ryan said, more excitement in his voice than Sean had heard in some time.  "I was right, Sean!  It did help out my abilities.  We think it may even allow the wearer to fly!  Can you imagine that?"

"That sounds great," Sean said, sounding more and more impressed.

"So Li and I are going to stay out here in Colorado for awhile so I can get the hang of how to use it effectively," Ryan explained.  "Unless that's going to cause a major hassle back there for you."

"No, that's fine.  If there's a lot of power in that wing, we could use that on the team."

"That's what I thought, too."

"All right, then," Sean said.  "Take as long as you need.  We'll miss you till you get back."

"Same here, Sean."

"Talk to you later, then," Sean said.  

Ryan heard a click on the other end and hung up the phone.

"All set then, Ryan?" Li asked.

"All set."  He took a deep breath and shook his head.  He lifted the diamond wing, which still hung from a chain around his neck.  "I'm a little apprehensive about this little thing, though.  After that last time, I wonder what it's going to do to me."

"Well, I suppose we'll find out."

Ryan nodded.  "I just wonder if I'll be able to use this thing like it was designed."

Li smiled and gazed into Ryan's eyes.  "I think you can do it.  I have confidence in you."

Ryan gazed at Li.

He smiled back.