Gatchaman struggled to rise, but found his body lacking. His strength had been entirely drained in the fight. The dark, metal walls of Sosai Z's pyramid seemed to close in on him, crushing him beneath their weight. Ken mustered all of the rage that was flowing through him, screaming out in defiance, yet it was not enough. Barely a whimper passed through his lips, and it was then that he knew the bitter taste of defeat.
Around him lay the broken and battered bodies of his teammates. He had let them down, in more ways than one. He was their leader, it was his responsibility to ensure that they survived, that they lived to fight another day. He had failed not only them, but himself.
Ken fought to stand, to raise his Fencer in defiance, but barely managed to lift a finger. He gasped for air, his throat choking him from within…
Yet this time it was not a dream but a living nightmare: one that was all too real. The Gatchaspartan had been launched into space, in a last ditch attempt to prevent Galactor from bringing the Poison Apple asteroid to Earth. They had managed, at great cost, to destroy the numerous Galactor ships around it, by confronting Galactor head on. Yet in the end, it had not been enough. The asteroid was still headed for the Earth at an alarming pace, and in desperation Ken had led his Team, for that matter the entire Gatchaspartan, literally into the belly of the beast. Count Egobossler's men had blown a hole into the side of Sosai Z's pyramid, and seizing upon something… anything… he could use, Ken had ordered Ryu to fly through it, taking them inside the dark pyramid.
Since then everything had gone from bad to worse. They had been separated, taunted, battered, bruised, and then finally, they had come together to achieve their goal. Jun, Jinpei and Ryu had distracted Z long enough for Joe to use his cyborg strength to break the casing surrounding Z's heart: the glowing red fragment that had once been Sosai X. But Joe had expended all of his energy, and it had been up to Ken, already weakened by his cancer, to take out his Fencer and finish the job of annihilating their enemy, for once and for all.
Z had been destroyed… but gone with him were their hopes of stopping the Poison Apple. The alien creature's terrifying legacy remained in the asteroid still hurtling toward the Earth. Ken's energy was gone, his teammates unconscious from their fight. There was nothing else they could do.
The people of Earth were counting on them… and they had failed.
Ken blinked rapidly, hardly believing his eyes.
"You have power within you, Ken. More than you know." Dr. Nambu's ghostly image flickered as Ken stared at him. "I had to leave before I could explain my last achievement to you. The answer lies in the pendant."
"Use the pendant. Ken. Draw on its strength to do what must be done."
Dr. Nambu vanished, and Ken found himself back inside the ruins of Sosai Z. He reached into his belt, pulling forth the silvery pendant that Kamo had given to him. The Phoenix on its front stood aggressively, defiant against anything that might attempt to thwart it.
Ken's eyes widened. Had it moved? He wasn't certain, yet he knew he was out of options. Gently he pressed down on the pendant, activating whatever mechanism was inside.
Even that small effort proved to be too much for him. His eyes closed, and the pendant fell from his hand onto the floor. Yet he was aware of what was happening, as if his mind was somehow linked with the device.
The pendant began to glow, taking Ken's life force from within and setting it free. Full of his life energies, the pendant rose into the air, taking Ken's consciousness with it as it transformed. He was simultaneously aware of himself lying on the ground, and also hovering in the air. The glowing force studied the downed forms of his teammates, lingering infinitesimally longer over Jun, noting her close proximity to Ken's physical body. They were not near enough to touch, yet somehow he was instantly conscious of her presence both in front of him and below him, his physical and emotional selves responsive to her body positioning and the slow beating of her heart. This awareness remained with him as his glowing life force flew past the others, toward his G-1.
With a thought the hatch slid back, opening, allowing the glowing energy orb to enter. It flew into the engine itself, activating the vehicle and causing it to lift into the air. It analyzed the G-1's interior systems, hesitating only briefly when it found the connections to the other G-machines, recognizing that the full Gatchaspartan was needed to access all of the vehicle's capabilities.
Slowly, Ken pulled the life force from the other members of the Science Ninja Team, sending their essences into the air and setting them free to seek out their own G-Machines. Four more vehicles activated, hovering in the air. Distantly, Ken could sense Joe, Jinpei and Ryu merging with their vehicles. His connection to Jun was much stronger, and Ken actually felt her with him as they rose into the air, letting the energy flows guide them to their places.
The Gatchaspartan united with a hum and a click that resonated deep within Ken. It was not merely their vehicles joining, but their minds: all of them were together, working toward one goal, knowing instinctively what must be done.
From their hearts their power swelled, bursting forth and enveloping them just as Ken activated the Hypershoot. Yet this time, rather than standing atop the Gatchaspartan, separating himself from the others, he remained inside, allowing them to share in his burden, each of the five participating equally in the generation of Delta Power.
A wall of fire surged forth, washing over him, surrounding him, taking over the Delta Power and making it its own. The flaming sensation was both painful and achingly familiar. As it always had, the Firebird consumed him, draining his essence even as it fulfilled him, using his mental and physical energies to sustain itself as it burned around their ship. Ken had not experienced the Firebird in so long; it was only now that he realized how much he had missed it, how much it had been a part of him.
He lingered over these feelings for so long that he almost missed another sensation stealing over him. The Firebird was not simply burning around him, burning through him, but it was also seeking out the cancer inside of his body, taking it over and leaving ash in its wake. He writhed, screaming in pain as he felt new tissues growing, replacing what had been taken away, yet in his heart he knew that it was good: this pain was one of regeneration and rebirth, one that had been with him for as long as he could remember.
The Firebird burst through the side of Sosai Z's pyramid, forcing it away, into the Poison Apple asteroid as the now-empty metal chamber became lost in the eddies of their ship's wake. Beating its wings, the Firebird flew around the Earth, wrapping it in the sphere of its protection, forcing the pyramid back into the destructive forces surrounding the crackling ball of sickly, green light.
The asteroid rebelled, emitting its destructive powers to obliterate the pyramid, creating an immense explosion in space. The force of the detonation hit the asteroid in turn, propelling it away from the Earth, harmlessly pushing it out of the solar system and into the universe beyond. Well satisfied with its efforts, the Firebird screamed its delight, crowing and preening with its dominance, reveling in the power of its rebirth.
Yet it wasn't only the Firebird that had been reborn. All of them were flowing through its flickering flames, their bodies reconstructing themselves, taking away all of their darkness and replacing it with light. When the Gatchaspartan began to cool they awoke, eyelids fluttering even as the flames diminished. Ken looked around, realizing that he was in the cockpit of the G-1. Mechanically he activated the interior ejection, sending his chair backward into the Bridge of the ship.
As he entered he felt the eyes of the others upon him, staring at him in happiness and awe.
"That was… amazing!" Jinpei blurted.
"I didn't realize how much I'd missed the old girl." Ryu grinned.
"How did you do it, Ken?" Joe asked curiously.
"He surrendered." Jun replied. Everyone turned to stare at her, recognizing the truth in her words, and curious as to how she knew. Yet Ken understood. She had been with him from the beginning, and had been a necessary part of his rebirth. Jun was his other half, and as such, she was aware of all that had happened within him, just as he was with her.
"The pendant…" Ken attempted to explain further.
"Where is it?" Joe questioned, before suddenly realizing the answer. "It's inside of us, isn't it?"
"We joined with it." Ryu whispered in astonishment.
"We really were soaring with the Firebird." Jinpei gasped.
"The Science Ninja Team's greatest strength has always been when we were joined." Ken stated. "When I was using the Hypershoot, I forgot that, attempting to take all of the burden onto myself. I guess Dr. Nambu was trying to remind me that I need you all… Gatchaman can't do it alone."
"Together, we can overcome anything." Jun whispered, and the smile that lit up her face put the beauty of the Firebird to shame. The lines had fallen away from her eyes, her skin was no longer dull, and her body glowed with energy and strength. As Ken looked around at the others, he realized that it was true of all of them. They were no longer old, but young, filled with the power of their unity.
They had survived the final battle, and would live to grow old once more.
It was all he had ever wanted.