More from my Kindle Worlds novel, available now...
“No offense, but I didn’t ask for company,” Falcon told Jinx, lining up a shot at the nine-ball.
The Joes could often be found at Rhonda’s, a pool hall located an hour’s drive from their homebase, an island of almost-civilization out there in the desert. They kept the tables busy, those nights duty wasn’t chaining them to the base. This evening, Falcon had been alone at the corner table, duffel bag packed with clothes and toiletries still resting inside his jeep, practicing a game of Three Ball.
He could’ve extended his bereavement leave; wasn’t sure why he declined the General’s offer. Didn’t know why he hadn’t returned to base, either. Uncomfortable at home, uneasy about returning to work, not particularly invested in this solo billiards match…Falcon recognized the sour mood, just hoped it wouldn’t last.
“Didn’t even know you’d be here, soldier,” Jinx responded, stepping out of his way as he maneuvered towards the opposite side of the table. “Things were slow, so I came here to break Sci-Fi’s top score on Space Commandos.”
Falcon racked up the same three balls, took another opening shot. “Uh-huh.”
“But if I did want to speak to you, to find out how you’re doing, would that be so bad, huh?”
He didn’t answer, just lined up another shot. In the corner of his eye, he spotted a flea-bitten derelict brush past Jinx. “Excuse you,” Jinx called to the man.
The peroxide blonde on his arm snapped her gum. “Sorry, babe,” she spoke with questionable sincerity.
“What’s your problem, guy? You’ve been hoggin’ this table all night,” the fleabag inquired, leaning over the side pocket. Halitosis breath, chapped lips, thinning hair pulled into a ponytail, sunglasses indoors. Real catch, here.
“Plenty of others free,” Falcon answered bluntly, taking his shot, not caring if the seven-ball whacked the guy on his dingy fingers.
“Yeah,” the missus butted in, “but we want this ‘un!”
Jinx stepped to the couple, ignored her instincts and tried to diffuse the situation. “Guys, I think it’d be best for everyone if you took an open table.”
“You don’t understand, toots.” The fleabag snatched the eight-ball from the table. “My lady wants this one, and what my lady wants, she gets.”
Falcon aimed his cue in the punk’s direction. “You’ve got some nerve, pal.”
“Do I? Only person I see hoggin’ a table ‘round here is you, buddy. You one’a those servicemen stationed out in the boonies? Think that entitles you to a table, Mr. American Hero?” The fleabag wheezed, proud of his observation. “Way it sounds, you folk are mostly just cleanin’ up a mess your own organization started.”
The Lieutenant scoffed. Began a slow walk around the table, asked, “Is this a conversation we should be having in the parking lot?”
The missus clapped her hands together with glee. The fleabag laughed, positioned his girl behind him. “May be, buddy.”
Jinx slipped between the men, lifted her hands as a peaceful gesture. “People, this is nothing to be fighting about.”
Falcon spent a second studying the fleabag; chose not to acknowledge the plaintive look in Jinx’s eye. “Probably isn’t, but I think this mutt caught me in the right mood. I’m not looking to bust up Rhonda’s establishment, but if you want to settle this outside, I won’t be hard to find.”
Dr. Mindbender approached the door reading “Manager’s Office,” fast food dinner still weighing heavy in his stomach. The Commander always declared Mindbender’s ensemble to be the most ridiculous of the Cobra elites; his melodramatic cloak, ornate gloves, beryllium steel codpiece, and bare chest perhaps better suited for a late-night showing of some ‘70s cult movie.
If changes weren’t made soon, if they were incapable of rebuilding the infrastructure, of eating food with real nutrients again, Mindbender questioned if perhaps he should retire the look. A theatrical rebuke of his abandoned life as an orthodontist, true, but not too forgiving of the phenomenon known as “middle age spread.”
A refurbished Battle Android Trooper followed behind, carrying the six-foot case across his shoulders. “I have a suspicion, my metallic companion, that today is perchance the day. After weeks and weeks of disappointment, we have finally stumbled across the perfect design. And by ‘we,’” the doctor turned to the B.A.T., “I don’t mean us, naturally. Excellent work carrying that weight around, though, trooper. I knew I rescued you from the battlefield for a reason.”
In actuality, the reason was money. The days of salvageable equipment carelessly being left amongst the shrapnel of battle, of new fleets of futuristic vehicles arriving almost monthly, of balanced rations developed by Oxford-educated nutritionists and sessions from trainers with Olympic pedigrees, were now over.
Even the baroque multistoried castles, with those magnificently exquisite snake themes, were today chapters in Cobra’s history. When Mindbender signed on to this organization, he could’ve never dreamed of one day hiding out in the halls of a South Carolina water park, closed for the winter. So pedestrian, so unworthy of the grand design of Cobra.
His mind turned, retraced the steps. Numerous assets lost in battle, Serpentor dead, the Commander…indisposed, Cobra’s checkbook had become its greatest liability. Naming hedge fund geniuses Tomax and Xamot as intermediate heads seemed a wise decision at the time.
Did Mindbender, some part of him, desire the position? Naturally. Was he cognizant of his dearth of charisma, of his inability to fulfill the demands placed upon a leader of men? Regrettably.
Tomax and Xamot were diligent in assessing Cobra’s financial situation. Devised a means of rescuing the organization from insolvency, wasted little time locating buyers for Cobra’s most prized resources.
And, as soon as the checks cleared, exited Cobra’s makeshift headquarters in the black of night. Several billions in the sale of Cobra real estate, eagerly snapped up by every oil-rich dictator on the planet, made their way into the parasitic twins’ private accounts.
The rank and file knew nothing of this, the Vipers continuing the assortment of operations begun under Serpentor’s command. Occasionally, the paychecks didn’t make their way into the mail, leaving Dr. Mindbender with the unenviable task of communicating assurances that Cobra had experienced but a setback, that the most glorious days were still to come.
Cobra needed a leader. If nothing else, a figurehead with a knack for recruiting the unwashed and keeping them motivated for battle. The doctor, lamentably, was forced to select the most disagreeable of options.
And, so, here he was, knocking on the wooden office door of one Clifford Muggridge, seasonal employee of The Great American H-2-Whoa! & Fireworks Emporium. The voice that beckoned Mindbender inside did not belong to Mr. Muggridge.
It carried more of a serpentine inflection.
“Come in, if you mussst…”
I don’t want to beat this guy up.
Falcon thought back to the look on the fleabag’s face, interrupting his game, making those cracks, just pleading for this lesson.
Actually, I do. This almost caused a smile. But I probably shouldn’t.
“Falcon, I can’t let you do this,” Jinx told the Lieutenant, hand on his arm.
“Don’t recall you outranking me. I miss a ceremony while out?”
She tugged at his sleeve. “I mean it. Let’s just get out of here.”
Falcon watched the fleabag approach; he’d replaced the woman by his side with a cold bottle of liquid courage. What a shame. Didn’t the tough guy want his old lady to enjoy the show?
“Jinx, just go back inside, or back to base, or whatever. But don’t --”
He turned, and she wasn’t even there. Already approaching the fleabag, her posture indicating she’d be asking far less nicely now.
“Listen, pal,” she said midstride, “you need to consider yourself lucky you’re not wearing that ponytail as a necktie and get the heck out of here.”
This seemed to amuse the mutt; had him laughing so hard he couldn’t even speak. What he could do was pour out that bottle, every last ounce atop Jinx’s head.
Truth is, Jinx could’ve kicked the shins out of the loser before the first drop reached the tips of her moussed ‘do. But the ninja showed the proper discipline; remembered the teachings of not only her blind sensei, but every superior officer on the Joe team.
Not that she wasn’t tempted, of course. She wished for nothing more than a clean shot to take down the punk.
Falcon, conversely, didn’t keep those wishes in reserve. Charged in at full speed, kept his head up, and used the front of his shoulder as a blistering point of contact.
“No, don’t --” Jinx tried to warn, stepping aside just in time to watch her teammate’s blurry body collide with the fleabag.
He hit the pavement hard, but surprised Falcon with just how well he could take a blow. Maybe some part of the soldier was curious about this punk’s ego; just how many brawls he’d gotten himself into that must’ve turned out all right. Mainly, though, he just wanted to keep the punk on the ground.
Falcon got in one easy hit as the fleabag tried to position himself off the pavement. Felt his next punch blocked, right as the fleabag took advantage of the space between their bodies. Filled it up fast with his knee.
Breathless from the knockback, Falcon’s face narrowly avoided a follow-up hit. Not due to his own dexterity, but thanks to Jinx pulling him off the ground in time. “Jinx!” he admonished. “I don’t need you to baby me!”
She had no time to rebut, only a half-second to gesture towards the animal as he rose from the pavement. Falcon welcomed the punk back up with a roundhouse kick that sent him rearward two full feet.
“Just let this go, Falcon!” Jinx shouted, needlessly. Falcon’s back was already turned to her. Approaching his wobbly opponent, Falcon was stunned when the queasy fighter stiffened up, nailed him with a solid hook.
The Lieutenant, foolishly, assumed he’d kept a safe distance. He took the sore chin as a lesson, made sure he’d take the punk as fast as possible now. His resolve was iron, but that didn’t mean his rival would play along. It took one hundred-sixty more seconds of this ridiculous choreography -- jabs, blocks, elbows, cheap shots -- to get the fleabag on the ground for good this time.
The battle done, Falcon was gasping, patting down his face, thanking the heavens he didn’t feel any cuts. He turned to Jinx, thought he’d offer an apology.
She was gone.
Mindbender and his droid companion passed the threshold, beheld their leader. Fluorescent light reflected off his bald head, a powder blue color. The grand revelation of those days in the Himalayas, the truth of the Commander’s previous identity, had been a hammering blow to Mindbender. The other Cobras seemed unfazed, excited even, but with the aid of hindsight, the doctor dismissed the jubilation as a show for the dangerous clan revealed as the Commander’s superiors.
Nasty, hideous freaks. Not the kind even the most hardened Cobra fighter would choose to cross.
The Commander’s abysmal posture had him slouching over Mr. Muggridge’s desk, videogame joystick taking a punishment from his thumb. Bubblegum bubble popped in his mouth. This was an image of the great Cobra Commander the average Cobra underling could never envision back in the glory days, one not likely to inspire unwavering loyalty.
“I wasss almost through with this level, but never mind, I sssuppose…”
The doctor stepped around the desk and unplugged Mr. Muggridge’s desktop computer, which amazingly, had never known the joys of action platform gaming until the previous three weeks.
“Hey! What’sss wrong with you?!” the Commander shouted.
“Commander, we’ve been through this. You have game time after dinner, and not before. You have many schemes to be plotting out, yes? Now, up against the wall. It’s time to measure again.”
The Commander muttered what were surely curses under his breath, even while complying with Dr. Mindbender’s order. Against the faux-wood paneling, the Commander corrected his posture, stretched his arms, and clicked his heels together.
“Never any fun…”
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Ssso…what’sss with the B.A.T.?” he asked the man who possessed too much attitude for an underling.
“You’ll learn in a minute,” answered the doctor, marking with a pencil the top of that blue head. “One and one-half centimeters since yesterday. Not bad, but not very good, either. Tell me, Cobra Commander, do you feel comfortable leading your soldiers into battle at the intimidating height of five foot four? Remember, the tales of Napoleon’s lack of stature were apocryphal...”
“I’m ssstill growing, that’s what’s important,” said the Commander, gesturing towards the other pencil marks on the wall. Hand folded behind his waist, the Commander marched over to the nearby terrarium, examined his pet cobra.
“Yes, but at what rate is this growth? How much longer do you wish to hide out here?”
The Commander had no response. Removing a plastic storage container from the cabinet above, he popped the lid and extracted a pet store gerbil by its tail. The cobra slithered away from his corner, craned his head and happily accepted his meal. The joy the Commander took in watching the display could only be described as unnerving.
A striking golden color, the snake might’ve been a prized exhibit at the local zoo, likely outshining its fellow reptile prisoners in the glass displays. A closer look at the serpent, however, exhibited a different truth. Were it revealed to the public, this snake would have been subject to new fields of zoological inquiry.
Its possession of ten eyes, five divided evenly on each side of its head, would cause a stir, there could be no doubt. And that’s before the researchers even discovered the snake was, as he was so fond of uttering in his final days of verbal articulacy, “onccce a man…”
“Would you not prefer help in the matter?” pressed Dr. Mindbender, instructing his B.A.T. to unlock the case. Inside was revealed a battle suit, polished silver and cobalt, the proud Cobra emblem a crimson brand perfectly centered on its helmet.
Arms crossed, the Commander made his assessment. “Asss you stated earlier, Mindbender, ‘not bad…but not good, either.’ I prefer my previous dress, if we’re to be honessst.”
“Aesthetics are not what’s important, my dear Commander. Understand, this is no typical suit of armor, even if the designs are exquisite in that respect. This shall provide you with something greater, something our reduced organization greatly requires.”
“Which would be…” he asked, examining the suit.
Mindbender typed a code into a hidden keypad located on its shoulder. Hydraulic hisses accompanied the loosening of the suit’s joints, allowing the Commander to try it on.
“…the return of our leader, as we remember him. Strong, glorious, tall, out in the field of battle. The cloning process was a success, Commander, but the niceties of instantaneous cloning, of returning you to the age of that original cell sample…those are cumbersome, I’ll confess.”
A florid way of phrasing it. The Commander had spent the previous month in this new form a hormonal mess -- moody in the mornings, inattentive in his daily plots of skullduggery, and far too obsessed with the mirror, bemoaning his latest acne outbreak. Popping on each modular component of the suit, the Commander eyed Mindbender, beckoned him to continue.
“This suit, however, should be the answer we were searching for. I realize it’s a voluminous fit at the moment, but just be patient. The suit is transmitting high-frequency signals, stimulating the relevant glandular tissues, coating you in a mega-megahertz layer of accelerated adolescence.”
The Commander studied his hand, wagged his fingers and watched his baggy glove dangle in response. “How long…?”
“Within twenty-four hours, Commander, I believe you’ll be through the worst of these pubescent years. You might even wake to find yourself in the physical prime of your life, assuming the fates are kind.”
Patting down the suit, the Commander discovered a sidearm. After straightening out his gloves, he took the pistol in hand and recreated the stances of his favorite Wild West villains of the past. “One more day to live out my childish fantasiesss, hmm? B.A.T., present yourssself!”
Dutifully obeying, the android took its position before its commander. He responded by blasting off its right hand.
“Commander! We have limited resources, as is. This is most --”
“Silenccce, you!” he snapped back, blasting the remains of the hand, dancing about on the floor. “I won’t have to listen to your orderss for much longer, will I? Meantime, I want to smash sssomething!”
Five more shots severed the B.A.T.’s right arm. Tittering with glee, the Commander tossed the gun to the side, making a mad dash towards the android. He crashed straight into the B.A.T.’s chest, knocking it into the pair of filing cabinets positioned by the door. Whatever files Mr. Muggridge had meticulously catalogued now spilled onto the carpet, inadvertent confetti for this parade of violence.
The B.A.T. then found itself under assault by its own right arm, the Commander unfazed by the electrical sparks and miniature explosions.
That hysterical, high-pitched laughter Dr. Mindbender knew so well. And, were he being truthful with himself, he’d missed it. Sullen, isolated Cobra Commander, working his way out of puberty in this new body, had been a dull partner in crime. The man-child before him, relieving his teenage aggressions at the expense of a B.A.T. held together by wire and paperclips, was at least enjoying himself again.
More exercise than those silly computer games provided.
“If you’re quite done, Commander, I’ve brought along the technical specs for the armor. The removal of the helmet can be quite the bother, given the amount of C4 lining its interior. You’ll want to read up on that.” Mindbender handed the papers to the Commander, still giggling, still gripping that B.A.T. arm with one hand, even though his opponent was now little more than ashes staining the carpet.
“Also, I’ve compiled a list of nutrients that can aid you in your transition into true adulthood. This would require you to eat something outside of french-fries and milkshakes for a few days, but…ah, what’s this?”
“What’sss what?” asked the Commander, now catching his breath.
“Your eyebrows. I do believe they’ve moved northward almost an inch since you donned the armor ten minutes ago. Most impressive, Commander!” Reviewing the face before him, specifically the flesh surrounding the helmet’s bulletproof glass visor, Mindbender’s mood changed.
“The skin tone is still an issue, however. How will our remaining recruits react to your true mien? Those around for the unveiling in the ice dome are no longer among the living, so their opinion is rather inconsequential. But those grunts scattered across the country, those still waiting to see their commander…?”
The Commander cackled. “Funny you should mention thisss. We faced a similar issue, back in the days when you were far more concerned with missing lateral incisorsss and malocclusions. Quite the story, I’d sssay…”
The fleabag stepped back into Rhonda’s, ignored the assorted comments from the regulars, pushed away the peroxide queen who wanted to nursemaid him. Stepped to the payphone by the restrooms. Waited his turn this time, as a lonely traveling salesman was calling his girlfriend back home.
When the sap was done, he inserted his quarter, tapped in the number. Waited for the third tone, tapped in more numbers, a perplexing combination for any strangers who would’ve been watching.
The doctor wasn’t answering. Typical. Had to leave a message; how he hated talking into these things.
“Last day in Utah. Found a potential.” The affected drawl began to slip during the final words. “Jaw is pretty sore.” He grumbled softly, wiped his lip with a napkin. “Anyway, New York tomorrow.”
He returned the receiver, had a look around. Decided to go find that blonde.