Monday, January 28, 2019

G. I. JOE Season 3.5: Endings without Worlds - Part Four

More from my final G. I. Joe novel. I can only hope I did Raptor's legions of fans justice. Download for free over at Smashwords.



THE GENERAL MARCHED INTO THE LOBBY. Had a thought about too many Joes occupying too many hospital beds recently.

Those casualties on the island were also weighing heavy. Three Renegades, one greenshirt. Even more hospitalized. At least one given the prognosis he’ll never walk again. Hawk still hadn’t allowed himself to feel those losses. The general maintained his composure as he was greeted by Quarrel, the only Joe involved with the Salem County imbroglio who didn’t require hospitalization.

“Psyche-Out should be released by tomorrow,” she stated after saluting. “But that daft Cobra git did a number on Big Lob. The doctors are afraid there’s some severe tissue damage.”

“Blast it. And the boy?”

“They took him into surgery. Haven’t heard anything since then. And, given that we’ve yet to ID the kid, I haven’t the faintest on who to contact.”

“So if the doctors need permission from a next of kin for further procedures…”

Quarrel shook her head. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, General.”

The general nodded his agreement. “We’ll have to pray for the best. Maybe when he comes to, he can give us some answers.”

“Yeah, here’s hoping,” Quarrel answered, not entirely hiding her skepticism. Her voice ticked up as she said, “One bit of actual good news? It seems their tar-haired leather girl might’ve actually gone straight after all.”

“Every psyche exam she was given last year told us this. After Intel reported Cobra had a master hypnotist in their employ, though, we assumed she’d merely been placed under deep cover.”

“I’m not telling you not to be cautious. But she could’ve turned tail with the Romanian. Instead, she—”

“Have you spoken to her since the accident?” Hawk interrupted.

“Oh, yes,” Quarrel said with a slight grin. “We…talked.”

THE STINK HIT YOU FROM DOWN THE HALL. Numerous complaints had been registered, but Raptor’s status as the organization’s transcendentally skilled accountant enabled him some leeway in such matters.

A silver-morph gyrfalcon skree-ed a bloodcurdling cry, forcing Hector Ramirez to take a step back. He collided against the Tele-Viper given the unenviable assignment of filming this debacle. Nearly caused him to drop the state-of-the-art camera.

Hector grinned anyway. Did his best to make nice with the beast. “And this is that lucky fella’s lady?” Hector asked, as the gyrfalcon hovered only inches overhead. Perched on Raptor’s arm was the male of the species, carrying a far more passive demeanor. Perhaps he’d been sated by the Guinea pig he consumed earlier. “She’s nearly twice his size!”

“Sexual dimorphism, Hector,” Raptor responded in a pedagogical tone.

Ramirez turned to camera. “Uh-oh! Can we say that on air?”

“It means the female of the species is typically larger than the male. You’ll find the same is true with hawks and owls.”

A subconscious thought forced the words “Kill Me” to scroll across the Tele-Viper’s reflective visor. The surroundings, picked-apart rodent carcasses and droppings-stained antique furniture, were as foul as any he’d encountered during his years with the organization.

Ramirez, however, couldn’t repress his smile. He opened his arms, asked the Viper to capture the ambiance of the entire room. “Y’know Mr. Raptor, I’ve got to say—this used to be my seven-year-old daughter’s bedroom. I still remember the night my wife and I brought her home from the hospital, rested her in the crib that used to sit right over there.” He gestured towards the wood plantation shutters. A spotted kestrel was on the floor, busy picking the meat from the bones of a bulldog rat. “This was like our little sanctuary from a world that’s grown pretty crazy. But, you, Raptor…I think you’ve really spruced up the place.”

“Very kind of you to say, Hector,” responded Raptor as the male gyrfalcon took flight. “Oh, and please let your daughter know how sorry I am about my red-tailed hawk and that unfortunate incident with her kitty.”

Ramirez’s grin couldn’t stop. “Think nothing of it, Mr. Raptor. Taught the scamp a lesson, I suspect.” Ramirez turned to camera, shifted tones just as he always did when transitioning from fluff to the real news. “A moral we should all learn, really, as we prepare ourselves for Cobra’s inevitable victory.”

Hector’s viewership had dwindled quite a bit since that run-in with the autograph hound outside of Tavern on the Green. He viewed his new audience, the gaggle of entertainment-deprived Cobra grunts addicted to their “C-TV” as more than fans, though. More like family.

“The small, the weak…this isn’t their world. And many will be consumed.” Ramirez then pitched up his voice, went for the “uplifting final thought” bit. “Luckily for them, Cobra is benevolent enough to—”

The door crashed open. “There you are! Didn’t you hear the evacuation call?” shouted the Romanian, over the flutter of a thousand wings rustling.

“I assumed it was just a drill,” answered the man in the bird suit. “Hector and I were just beginning to scratch the surface of the true Raptor, the lost accountant who found his proper self in the transcendent art of—”

The Romanian slapped the camera to the floor. Mindbender missing, the Salem County op a bust, and Baroness back in Joe custody, in that state, no less…he was not adjusting well to the pressures of leadership. “It’s no drill you dolts! Leave—now! The Joes could be here any moment!”

ALPINE’S FAVORITE RECORDING ARTIST, William Joelson, had a home in this chi- chi neighborhood. He’d never admit he watched that episode of Luxurious Lives & Diversions of the Stars, that he even kept a VHS copy of it, but he recognized the block immediately. Some part of him was hoping this was all some mix-up. That he’d be able to discreetly take a peek at Mr. Joelson’s home after completing this fruitless search. Maybe even run into the diminutive balladeer walking his dog around the curb.

“You really think the king snakes are hiding out here in the fancy suburbs, ‘Zook?” Alpine asked his friend.

“Could be,” Bazooka answered, after snapping his gum.

Alpine dropped the conversation for a moment, losing himself in the surroundings. Three stories, a dozen bedrooms, covered porches, two garages, a sunken fire pit, a blessed tennis court…the yearly maintenance on that hedge maze likely cost more than his parents’ mortgage back in Ohio.

“I know they sold off those extravagant secret bases,” said Alpine, offering Bazooka a lift over the back fence. “It’s just weird, y’know, the thought of them hanging out here with the canapés and spanakopita crowd.”

“Guess so.”

Alpine hopped over the wooden lattice fence protecting the garden, landed a foot away from his friend. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a dazzling conversationalist, ‘Zook.”

The back yard looked ready for a photoshoot. Roses cascaded around a stone grotto. A marble bench and fountain cast a nearby shadow, surrounded by dahlias, hollyhocks, and hydrangeas. Beneath the Joes’ feet, basil from the vegetable garden. It smelled like heaven. And money.

Bazooka pointed directly forward, gum disappearing down his windpipe. “Look!”

The figure carefully tending to the prized delphiniums was dressed like a grandmother from a Norman Rockwell piece. Floppy sunhat covering her face, a breezy floral pattern dress catching a hint of the wind. The metallic glint on her left hand, however, was no wedding ring.

“It’s a B.A.T.!” Bazooka whispered, eyes wide.

“I know that, dummy!” Alpine shot back. “Let’s just try to take it out quiet.”

Also quiet was the B.A.T. garbed as a scarecrow, standing guard over the herb garden. Alpine didn’t notice it coming to life, reaching for his neck from behind.

“Alpine!” his buddy exclaimed, nailing the android with three shots in the center of its faceplate.

Yards away, in a surveillance van parked by the corner, General Hawk kept up with the action via Alpine’s open transceiver. A heartbeat after the shots began, he barked out orders.

“Repeater! Spirit! Go check that out! Shockwave—”

“On it, General!” shouted Shockwave, a member of the latest wave of recruits. Unlike the rest of the unit, Shockwave wasn’t promoted from any branch of the armed forces. He came to the Joes fresh from the Detroit Police Department, eager to take on even more heavily armed foes. The recruiters were incredulous anyone would willingly take the cut in pay, but Shockwave had more than proven himself, surviving Beach Head’s rookie abuse at Fort Dix with a smile on his ugly mug. Luckily for the team, that Cro-Magnon forehead and broken nose remained covered during missions, obscured by a cap and face mask.

“Open up immediately!” he screamed, pounding on the front door. “You have to the count of—”

As the door cracked, a sliver of a face appeared. The graying British resolve of Hector’s longtime butler, Edwin Wadsworth. “What is the meaning of this? I demand—”

Shockwave used his body weight to force the rest of the door open. Edwin found himself on the floor. “We’ve got an opening. Move, people!”

Past the foyer of the mansion was a collection of blueshirts and Vipers, all preparing for evacuation. They collected themselves in a hurry, took up arms against the invading Joes—Shockwave, his fellow rookie Hardball, Quarrel, and General Hawk.

“Hard and fast, people!” shouted the general. Even the sight of television superstar Hector Ramirez, racing down the stairs with the Romanian, wasn’t enough to throw Hawk off his game. He broke free of the pack, evaded fire while approaching the two men.

Crystal Ball, horrified to see his worse fear coming to life, could only stammer out profanities in a strange tongue, as the grim-faced Hawk approached. Fist connected with jaw. Went down on the carpeted steps like the lightweight the general guessed him to be.

“Ramirez!” Hawk shouted, taking the reporter by his shoulders. “What’s the meaning of this?!”

No response. None outside of doe-eyed terror and utter confusion.

Hawk snorted through his nose, grabbed Ramirez by the arm. “Keep your head down, Ramirez! Can you understand that much?”

The reporter nodded. The general, against his better judgment, escorted Hector to their right, out of a side entrance. “So help me, Ramirez, if any of my men are injured in this…”

Yards back, Shockwave had kicked over the vintage mahogany end table in the foyer. Didn’t provide the ideal cover, but it was keeping his fellow Joes alive. “Hardball!” he yelled to his rear. “I think a thorough ‘bloop’ing is in order!”

Hardball didn’t voice any agreement, merely rolled into the field of fire, nearly losing his trademark ballcap in the bargain. Weeks earlier, Hardball had graduated from the same torture class as Shockwave and Repeater. Gave up a shot at major league ball for the opportunity to join a true team. The same eyes that served him so well out on the diamond came to the Joes’ rescue on this day, as he perfectly eyeballed the proper spot to fire his massive “bloop” gun.

“Everyone remembered to bring their masks along, right?” asked Hardball, as the gas charges detonated behind the Cobra agents. Smoke filled the hall for a solid minute, silencing any fire.

At one minute and one second, however, came the familiar ring of automatic fire. The Joes returned to defensive positions, did their best to eye these new opponents.

It was a Cobra class immune to potassium chlorate and organic dyes. It was a battalion of B.A.T.s.


“ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME?” asked Repeater, as the silver-morph gyrfalcon’s talons ripped through his uniform.

“Stay calm,” admonished Spirit, stepping cautiously towards the bird.

Repeater might’ve been new to this unit, but not the service. His twenty years in the Army had provided more than one lifetime’s worth of stories. He’d stepped on a snake once out in the jungle, nearly lost his leg thanks to the poison. Always assumed that’d be his worst experience with a member of the animal kingdom.

“You stay calm! You’re not the one he’s—arrgh!” The gyrfalcon’s beak located a tender spot on the infantryman’s neck. Ripped off a respectable amount of flesh. Repeater responded by dropping to his left, then swinging wildly with his service rifle. Landed a lucky hit, sent it to the ground.

An unearthly scream was heard from above.

“You animal!” exclaimed a voice from the third floor. Spirit and Repeater looked northward, caught the preposterous sight of a grown man dressed in a bird costume.

“By my ancestors,” Spirit whispered, hand lifted to block his eyes from the sun. Charitably, the stranger might be described as someone adopting the look of a comic book superhero. If this made him more or less insane than an adult choosing to dress as a bird of prey, the Joes couldn’t say.

Repeater noticed the movement first. He didn’t want to believe this nut would be crazy enough to leap from the window, but Repeater had learned years ago to trust those instincts. “Spirit, stay sharp!”

The stranger took to the air, using homemade wings to glide in the Joes’ direction. His face was contorted into a pained expression of hate. Whatever words he was shouting their way likely wouldn’t have been suitable for broadcast.

“I’ll make sure you’ll pay! You won’t be able to—”

He didn’t speak another syllable after taking a blast to his shoulder. Spirit, tender heart that he was, could’ve gone for a fatal shot, but chose not to. Ending the life of a clearly disturbed man would dishonor his entire bloodline.

QUARREL EVADED FIRE, flanked three of the android troopers while maneuvering towards the next room. The B.A.T.s continued to emerge from the back, pressuring the Joes into dispersing in various directions around the house.

She spotted a line of them, climbing in through the kitchen window like ants with a taste for spilled sugar. Using the doorway as cover, she engaged the latest round of bullet-sponges. “At least they’re dumb…” she told herself, as two B.A.T.s inadvertently mowed down a fellow android who’d wandered into their path.

Quarrel aimed a grenade towards the window, yelled out a warning to the Joes stationed outside. While the explosion distracted the B.A.T.s, she dived to the right of the dishwasher. Only spotted one active android left in the kitchen; she refused to count the detached torso, still flailing like a turtle on its back, as a true threat.

She engaged the remaining B.A.T. Avoided three shots; cursed herself when she realized she’d maneuvered directly in the path of the gas stove.

“Hey, now!” she shouted, lifting her hands. “They did program you not to do anything that stupid, didn’t they?”

The android took aim, certainly implying that “they” had not. Quarrel barreled towards the B.A.T., used her judo training to shift its superior weight to the floor. Couldn’t do anything about the round it got off in the midst of the struggle, though.

The bullet pierced the air, connected exactly where Quarrel didn’t want it to. The gas ignited, generating an explosion that eliminated the wall behind the stove, and most of the kitchen. An incredible amount of luck enabled the blast to consume four android troopers, invading from the back patio and arriving just in time for the fireworks.

Quarrel would later be found beneath the tattered remains of the B.A.T. responsible for the mess. The android didn’t provide enough shield to circumvent all injuries, but its metallic mass was responsible for saving the Joe’s life. She never once considered sending it a thank you card.

“YOUR BIRD SHOULD BE FINE,” spoke Spirit in his distinctive cadence. The gyrfalcon, still not prepared for flight, rested on his forearm. “He’s a magnificent creature. I will consider it my duty towards nature to ensure his survival.”

Raptor, shoulder bandaged, hands cuffed, eyed the Joe with suspicion. This was the man who shot him out of the sky moments earlier, now promising to take care of his prized bird. The butt of a rifle nudged his back.

“Say thank you to the man,” barked Repeater, prodding Raptor towards the curb. The Joes’ prisoner transport was due to arrive in five minutes.

Spirit shook his head. “His gratitude is not required. If our enemy’s soul is not attune to altruism, force will not alter his ways.”

“Uh…right,” answered Repeater, stepping by the bird with caution.

A dozen yards away, Alpine and Bazooka were inspecting the hole in the mansion’s wall. The smoke was only now beginning to clear. “Just think, Bazooka. If we hadn’t been preoccupied with those robo-dorks in the garden, we could’ve been standing right here when—”

Bazooka’s gum cracked. “You think too much. Makes ya paranoid.”

Shockwave passed by at that moment, escorting Crystal Ball to the curb. “Dude’s right. This one might’ve been messier—and louder—than we wanted, but look how it turned out?” He gave his prisoner a small lift off the ground. “We’ve even made some new friends!”

“Unhand me, you jackbooted flunky of the—”

Alpine pressed his index finger against the Romanian’s lips. “Isn’t he the one Quarrel warned us about? Said we oughtta bring some extra socks on this op, didn’t she?”

Shockwave snickered, removed a grenade from his belt. It entered the hypnotist’s mouth soon after. “I’m not personally worried about this feeb.”

“See, Alpine?” Bazooka asked, inserting a new stick of fresh-mint. “Things are finally lookin’ up!”

He’d barely finished that sentence when the shadow of the Cobra Transport Helicopter spilled over the ground, consuming the landscape.

June 5, 1973

SOUTHERN AFRICA. A three-way civil war in an unrecognized nation. Perfect environment for the stranger and his bodyguard to do business. And, perhaps, make a new ally.

“I think you’ll find I do good work,” says the odd creature known as Zartan. He’s handing Keone’s employer a tin storage case the size of a photo album.

The stranger is making a rare excursion without his coat, this day. Still has much of his face covered with the hat and shades, but is allowing his baby blue skin to touch the sun. “I’ve been told you’re not one to judge another’s appearancce,” he says.

If the stories were true, the face before him was very likely not Zartan’s. Rumors of a mercenary, one with skin a hue closer to the stranger’s, had been going around. The stranger was, naturally, curious enough to arrange a meeting.

He examines the texture of Zartan’s skin; tells himself if anyone can spot prosthetic work, it’s him. But if Zartan is coating himself in a lie, the stranger is hard-pressed to notice.

He unclasps the locks, examines his purchase. Resting within, a doughy representation of a Caucasian male’s face. Skin the tone of Bobby Redford’s. Lovely shade of pink. He thanks the odd man, tells him he does indeed do splendid work.

Zartan. Interesting to find him out here, off what passes for a road, in the midst of the blistering heat of the savannah. He questions if the merchant knows his name is “Tarzan” spelled sideways. He’s seen those movies, too.

The stranger nods towards Keone, instructs him to provide this Zartan the rest of his payment. “A pleasure to do business, good sir,” he says, that peculiar echo chasing each syllable.

Zartan mounts a motorbike, is gone within a second. Keone and his employer return to their jeep, continue down the path.

“We’ve reached a stage in our operations where I’ll need to be making more personal connections. Please, take no offenssse,” he says, examining the mask once again.

“I offer no judgment,” Keone responds, not looking away from the makeshift road.

Distantly, he spots two figures of modest size. Getting closer, he recognizes them as teenage males, likely no older than seventeen. They’ve erected a barrier on the makeshift road; are guarding it with machine guns.

“Most likely members of the National Liberation Army,” Keone’s superior tells him. “Given their reputation, I suspect we won’t be able to talk our way passst.”

“They’re children,” Keone answers, just above a whisper.

The boy soldier on the left raises his arm, instructs Keone to stop. He obeys, allows the jeep to idle.

“What brings you here?” asks the soldier as he approaches. Keone’s employer tersely informs the boy he has no business asking the question. The young man is momentarily stunned by the stranger’s flesh; when he does react, the distress is evident in his voice.

“Out of the vehicle! Both of you!” shouts the boy as his companion jogs forward to join him.

“Asss I suspected. I fear there can only be one conclusion to this, Keone.”

Keone eyes his superior, allows too much of his agitation to surface.

“Do you quessstion me?” the stranger asks, as both teenagers take up their arms. “Don’t tell me you’re having moral qualms about your duties now, Keone.”

Keone reaches into his breast pocket for his hira; the blade is lodged into the boy’s larynx. His eyes never stray from his employer during the action, not even as the boy falls to the dirt. The other soldier, the one with the gun aimed two inches from his superior’s face screams in disbelief.

The barrel reaches his superior’s forehead. He doesn’t break a sweat, doesn’t show any obvious loss of cool as he instructs Keone, “I think you’ve left a job half-finissshed…”

Keone contemplates allowing the boy his justice. A passing thought. A foolish one. Keone reaches forward, snatches the barrel away. The boy’s trigger finger snaps as the weapon is seized from his hand. The butt of the rifle loosens three of his teeth.

Whatever it is Keone does next, the boy isn’t aware of it.

Fifteen seconds later, Keone has his katana blade drawn, is slicing the roadblock into splinters. He’ll have to ask forgiveness later. Even a hint of insubordination could not be tolerated now; he realized that.

All ties to the past had been severed. He’d gone above and beyond to prove that. He knew his role, understood fully who he served.

Resisting this would be more than foolish.


“WHY LEAVE IN SUCH A HURRY? We threw this shindig in your honor!” asked Lift-Ticket, not allowing any nerves to enter his voice.

He was speaking via transceiver to the Cobra Transport Helicopter, the two-way monitors allowing him to see Cobra Commander had been joined by his bodyguard Storm Shadow and an AWOL Falcon. The sight of his friend twisted the Tomahawk pilot’s guts in a knot. Would he have to be the one to take that shot?

The Commander, clad now in his regal, navy blue garb, had seen the chaos below. Assumed, correctly, that the Romanian had bungled things badly. He ordered Storm Shadow (still in the doghouse for waiting almost a day before answering the Commander’s calls) to turn the Transport around. Falcon, predictably, made a comment about those serpents and the damage they always caused. Cobra Commander questioned just how long he’d tolerate this inanity. The joke had worn quite thin.

The Tomahawk emerged seemingly from nothingness. That redneck pilot had them caught dead to rights. The Commander would have to schedule a private session with his bodyguard; determine just what was going on with the lad.

“Lousy snakes; trying to provoke us into an air fight over the taxpayers,” spoke Falcon, slamming his fist into an open palm.

“A sssymptom of their depraved minds, brother.” He hadn’t even considered the option, but of course Falcon was correct. The Joes would not fire here unless fired upon. Actually, even if fired upon, it’s unlikely the fools would offer any real retaliation.

The Commander returned to the console’s microphone, addressed the Joe with the tone he deserved. “No, Lift-Ticket. I think we’ll find a more hospitable landing place elsewhere.”

“Suit yourself, slick,” returned the voice over the speakers. “But be warned we’re gonna tail you, and at some point you won’t have pretty manicured lawns underneath.”

Under Cobra Commander’s mask, a sickening grin. “Are you forgetting the cargo in my possesssion?”

Lift-Ticket had to draw a breath before answering. “Sadly, I am not. But I’ll do what has to be done. Why not save us all some grief and land that bird?”

The Commander pondered this for a moment. “Very well. I think Mr. Rameriz’s lawn—what remainsss of it—should provide a sufficient landing space.”

Falcon opened his lips to protest; he was silenced instantly by his beloved “brother.”

Following orders, Falcon and Storm Shadow departed the craft. The Commander was the last to leave, making a detour to the instrument panel. He removed a portion of the cover. Underneath was a keypad and red button. A button pressed very casually by the Commander. He was even whistling a tune while doing so.

“What’s going on in there?” Hawk shouted over his megaphone.

The Commander sauntered out, placed his hands over his head. “Nothing, I asssure you.”

Alpine and Bazooka patted down the trio. Removing the ninja’s personal arsenal took a solid three minutes; the Joes called Spirit in to help.

Spirit approached his common adversary, didn’t break eye contact while reaching for the small dagger he knew Storm Shadow kept pressed against his chest.

“I see you remain on the dark path, ninja,” spoke Spirit in a tone indicating more disappointment than anger.

Storm Shadow sneered. “And you, Indian, cling to foolish values.”

“Do I?” he asked, looking closer into those eyes. He saw something different there. Something he couldn’t articulate. He’d have to meditate on this later.

Falcon, with great care, was chaperoned to the west by Hardball. This was his first encounter with the lieutenant, a fact he could scarcely believe. He hadn’t been with the team for long, but he’d heard the stories. Understood just how much Falcon meant to the team; how badly the Joes wanted to do right by Duke’s brother.

What Hardball didn’t realize was the foolishness of pairing Falcon with the mystery piece of Eurotrash. The Joe’s back was turned as Falcon eyed his neighbor.

Images began to flash. Memories of dreams. An atavistic sense of being wronged, of some unspeakable violation.

The Romanian, still muffled, adopted an innocent look. Tried to smile with his eyes.

Falcon kneed him south of his belt buckle. Didn’t let up when the Romanian hit the grass, ripping the Joes’ plastic restraints open and pounding mercilessly on his target.

Repeater and Shockwave swarmed, pulled Falcon off before too much damage could be done. The grenade, pin intact, rolled across the grass. Repeater palmed it while dragging Crystal Ball to the curb.

“This is an outrage! How dare you subject me to—”

“Zip it!” commanded Repeater, removing a tissue from his pocket. He literally had to wipe this punk’s (bloody) nose. What a job.

General Hawk eyed the commotion. Caught the look on Falcon’s face and couldn’t repress that doleful headshake. After confirming his men had the situation in hand, he turned back to his personal guest. Motioning towards the copter, he said, “I’ll be honest, Commander—didn’t think you had that much dignity in you.”

“Perhapsss you give me too much credit,” Cobra Commander said confidently. “Did it occur to you that this was my best possible action?”

“Didn’t trust your pilot’s skills against ours? Maybe you should look into real airmen, not mystery ninjas from the Orient.”

That gasping laugh entered the wind. “I’m thinking more of a trump card. One made of nitroglycerin.”

Hawk stepped closer, glared. “What was that?”

The Commander refused to back down. “In a compartment under the cockpit. Enough explosives to turn half this neighborhood into a cinder. Triggered the moment we stepped off—I’d estimate you have twenty minutesss before detonation.”

Hawk turned away immediately. Ordered the Joes to confirm the boast.

“Oh, pleassse verify,” said the Commander as he witnessed the Joes race towards the Transport. “I’d hate for my reputation to be damaged…”

Shockwave was the first back. The disgust and anxiety in his eyes couldn’t be masked. “He’s right, General.” Shockwave leaned closer, lowered his voice. “And the detonator is state of the art. No way we could beat it in the timeframe he’s given us.”

Hawk’s teeth gritted as he turned back to the Commander. “For argument’s sake,” he spoke, hating himself with every syllable, “what are your demands?”

Cobra Commander had no hesitation. “The immediate release of myself and my compatriots; free passage through the skies. And, within the week, a transfer of a million dollars as an apology for thisss…inconvenience,” he said, nodding towards the ruined mansion.

“Counteroffer: We drag you to the cockpit, let you feel the cold touch of a barrel against the back of your neck, and you disarm the explosives.”

The Commander found this amusing. “Threatening death, General? As if the detonation of the explosive wouldn’t have the same effect…while also ridding the world of my most hated of enemiesss? Think, man.”

Would the king snake be willing to die with the Joes? Hawk maintained a suspicion the man’s liver was more yellow than pink. But was it a hunch he could risk a civilian neighborhood on?

Cobra Commander sensed the apprehension. “A little something to sweeten the pot. The missing drive that could cause your leader so much trouble in a few days—what if you received it before the twenty minutesss are up?”

“Are you saying it’s on that transport?”

“I’ll show you personally…”

Hawk directed his enemy towards the copter. On the grass, a team of medics was providing oxygen to the home’s owner. His condition was not improved by the world’s most infamous terrorist passing by, offering a friendly hello.

“Ah, Mr. Ramirez! A pleasssure to see you again.”

“Quiet!” ordered Hawk, nudging the Commander in the back.

The Joes kept watch over the copter; both Hardball and Shockwave discreetly took up positions by the exit doors.

Only a minute passed before Hawk appeared at the doors, his right hand gripping the Commander’s arm. In his left, the stolen drive.

He pulled the Commander close. Through clenched teeth, he spoke slowly, “My offer—no negotiations: you and your bodyguard can leave. The Romanian, and the soldier you’ve twisted far out of shape—they all stay with us.”

The Commander pouted. Felt that grip tighten. “Fine. I agree.”

THE COBRA TRANSPORT HELICOPTER was back in the sky in under ten minutes. The explosives lining its interior were disarmed by the Commander, not long before he gave his bodyguard a silent examination.

“What? Does something displease you?” asked Storm Shadow.

The Commander didn’t respond. Instead, he turned to the back of the copter. Took a seat and opened his portable computer. After a few clicks, he’d retrieved the online “B.A.T. Mobile Command System.”

On the ground, Repeater and Spirit were escorting Crystal Ball towards the Joes’ prisoner transport.

“Unfortunately, the fates were far from generous today, my friend,” Spirit said, his voice signaling the frustration felt by many of the Joes.

Behind them, the arm of a severed B.A.T. torso stirred. Inches away in the grass was its Cobra-issued pistol.

“We’ve got this guy, right?” asked Repeater, lifting the Romanian an inch off the ground. “Word is, he’ll be the one to set Lt. Falcon straight.”

The B.A.T.’s sensors registered the heat signature of the assigned Cobra agent. It obeyed orders; opened fire. Spirit intuited a foul spirit in the area. Wasn’t able to move their prisoner in time.

The bullet pierced Crystal Ball’s lungs. First aid provided by the Joes proved ineffectual. He bled out on the Ramirez lawn in less than three minutes.


“AND THE UNIDENTIFIED COBRA AGENT, the one we suspect turned Falcon…did you locate him?” asked Mainframe, the rest of the on-duty Joes clustered behind his computer chair.

“We believe we did,” spoke the video image of General Hawk. The breath he took before finishing his statement was perceptible to only those who knew him best. “Also regret to inform you that he’s the lone casualty of this encounter.”

Every Joe felt that simultaneous gut-punch. This weirdo from Transylvania or whatever, he was supposed to be the key. The man responsible, based on Intel’s speculation, on Falcon’s aberrant behavior. The man who could make all of this right.

Before signing off, Hawk asked for an update on Jinx. Mainframe apologetically informed the general that there’d been no change in her condition. Ol’ Snakes remained at bedside, though, and promised regular updates.

After Hawk’s image disappeared from the screen, Mainframe pulled up that footage uncovered a few days earlier by Intel. Home video of a Romanian carnival attraction, one suspected by Interpol of selling his talents to assorted terrorist organizations.

“So, that’s the snake we think turned Lt. Falcon,” said Mainframe, anger rising. “And the little jerk dies on us before we can do a blasted thing about it.”

“Huh! You’re kiddin’ me!” came a voice over his shoulders. Mainframe turned to see Steeler, only one day back at base, following that disastrous Camp Alpha assignment.

“You got something to say, Steeler?”

Steeler grunted. “I do. But, no offense, it’ll have to be behind closed doors with the general.”

COMMUNICATIONS SUITE. General Hawk, still jetlagged, still mulling over that odd conversation with Steeler, was examining the video monitors. Three images appeared side-by-side, split-screen views of Falcon, Raptor, and the Baroness. All in custody, right or wrong.

The sight of a fellow Joe in a prison cell turned Hawk’s stomach. This new Cobra operative, the man with the laughable bird fetish, provided some distraction. The third prisoner wasn’t a bad conversation starter, either.

“Maybe she’s the one with the hypnotic talents, convincing you to release her restraints like that.”

“Weren’t enough of us to perform CPR on all of the civilians who needed help.” Standing next to Hawk, leaning against her crutch, was Quarrel. She’d recounted the events from Salem County at least five times, but didn’t exhibit any weariness. “Crystal Ball escaped in the confusion, no surprise, but I guess that’s irrelevant now.”

The general released an involuntary groan. Just another failure from recent days. Any hopes of proving beyond a doubt that Falcon wasn’t in his right mind, or undoing the damage caused to their brother, died with that European eccentric.

Hawk turned the conversation back to the more comfortable topic. “And she didn’t hesitate to give up Cobra’s hideout in the Hamptons.”

“What it’s worth, I’d say it’s not an act. She could’ve done us serious dirt back in Salem County, but apparently some angel on her shoulder kept her honest.”

“She fooled everyone last year,” answered Hawk, eyeing the sleeping Baroness in her cell. Contemplating if someone with her past could ever truly change. “Passed every polygraph test and psych exam the boys in lab coats dreamed up. Not equivalent to your personal testimony, though.”

Quarrel nodded. “Yeah, I’d trust actions over inkblot tests. Just my opinion, General, but I have a feeling it’s possible.”

“Question is, Quarrel, what would you be willing to bet on that gut instinct?” asked Hawk, as familiar footsteps entered the suite.

“General, I have a few thoughts on the subject,” spoke Lady Jaye, deferential but not hiding her conviction. She’d spent the previous twenty-four hours fuming over the situation with Lt. Falcon. Had finally convinced herself she’d discovered some plan to alleviate that sense of helplessness.

“Let’s hear them.”

“Odds are, given her past, it’s another con she’s running. And, no offense,” she said, turning to Quarrel, “but it’s very likely she was willing to sacrifice those Cobra assets just to end up in this position.”

Quarrel considered her response before offering it. “Not gonna say that’s impossible, but...”

“Thing is,” Jaye interrupted, “tempted as we might be to leave her in a cell, we can’t forget how important she is. Her connection to this Colin Kristofer mess, the full scope of whatever they were plotting last year, we still don’t have real answers on any of that.”

Hawk mulled it over. Eventually came back with, “I have a feeling that when the orders come down, she’s going to end up in a room with the same shrinks and profilers from before. And we’re going to be getting the same answers.”

Quarrel offered a reluctant agreement. “And the longer she stays here, the more likely she is to attract another Cobra extraction. Either for revenge or…”

“I propose we try something different,” said Lady Jaye, perking up. “Let’s take her out to a safehouse, keep it as quiet as possible. Give me a few days with her, out in a new environment, some place she can drop her defenses. See if I can get real answers from her.”

The general stroked the dimple in his chin a few times before answering, “You’d likely only have a few days, if that. The Brass is going to be expecting something out of her soon, and a dozen agencies have already put in their requests.”

“We’ll just have to work fast, won’t we?”

“You will,” Hawk spoke confidently. As Jaye turned to leave, he added, “Take Flint with you. He spent time with ‘Leigh’ as well; I’d like his perspective on this, too.”

Jaye didn’t realize she’d made a face. The general’s tone changed. “You don’t have any issues with that, do you?”

“None whatsoever, sir.”

“THERE’S NO WAY this isn’t going to sound condescending…” Psyche-Out said with reluctance.

“Go ahead an’ spit it out.”

“Multiple degrees from Berkeley. Six years in the Deceptive Warfare Center. And a dozen or so deprogramming courses you don’t have the clearance to hear about.”

Low-Light fought the urge to make a crack about Psyche-Out’s oh-so-impressive résumé. “And where’d it get you with the lieutenant?”

“Not one solitary inch. But you think you can do better?”

“I do. With help from our ol’ bald buddy in the cloak.”

The mental image wasn’t hard for Psyche-Out to pull. His absence in the Hamptons had yet to be explained. “Mindbender. You really think he’d be willing to help us out?”

“Nope. But last year, when that Cobra songbird was singing and we scored those easy layups...well, there was something curious in those papers we recovered.”

Low-Light pulled off the sheet. Revealed the freakish electronic monstrosity developed by Cobra months earlier. Psyche-Out wasn’t a member at the time of the mission code-named “Nightmare Assault,” but he’d studied all of the reports. The serpents had developed a means of invading the Joes’ dreams. Had them too weary to perform in battle, the entire lot too paranoid to ever fall asleep again.

To see this horrid thing before him now, inside the Joes’ headquarters, caused a momentary lack of speech.

“And you built this from those plans?” he finally asked, deigning to touch the thing.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Low-Light. “I re-built this, with help from Mainframe and Dial-Tone. We saved the remains of this device two years back; wasn’t too much effort to rebuild it, once we recovered the original blueprints.”

Psyche-Out bent down, clicked on the miniature flashlight attached to his keychain for a better look. “So, with this…thing, you can deprogram the lieutenant?”

“Didn’t attend any fancy research universities. Wouldn’t be prudent to be making any promises.” The uneasy sound of Low-Light’s titter entered his voice. “I’ll merely state that I’m relatively optimistic.”

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