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PART III: BACK TO THE BEGINNING
ARMS THICKER THAN TREE TRUNKS, wrapped around his chest. By Falcon’s estimate, only fifteen seconds remained before his oxygen would fully give out. Before this inhuman beast squeezed the literal life out of him.
Wasn’t how the lieutenant ever figured he’d leave the service, on the receiving end of a bear hug. One delivered by a living bat creature with a monosyllabic vocabulary and rancid squid breath.
Desperate, no other options left, Falcon made the move. Not one he was proud of, maneuvering his head like a snake and biting the wrist of that creature. Humiliating. He could just hear Tunnel Rat and Law giving him grief over this one. Solid month of heckling, easy. Assuming it even worked, that Falcon could tear through enough flesh and evoke the proper response from those nerve endings.
The creature groaned out more nonsense, clearly irritated, but did nothing to release his grip. For just a moment, Falcon thought he heard the beast’s guttural babble come out as rhymes. He told himself he really was getting delirious now.
Still trapped in that bodylock, Falcon had no choice but to accept the inevitable. Just embrace that darkness, and have a sweet thought or two about those loved ones he was about to rejoin.
His father Adriano. Grandmama Giorgia. Uncle Tony. Big brother Conrad.
No, that last one wasn’t right. Why would he think that?
The sound of the fire extinguisher’s metal clang against the beast’s cranium aroused Falcon from this funk. The grip of his opponent reflexively loosened, freeing Falcon from the bodylock. Falcon stood, watched with pride as his hero took another swing with that dented fire extinguisher. Smashed the monster right in his wretched teeth. Had to leap over a foot in the air to connect, but this did nothing to diminish the coolness of the move.
“Jussst grab the drive. I’ll keep him busy!”
Falcon nodded, told himself he didn’t hear that fear in his brother’s voice, as he headed for the intricate computer setup lining the wall of this backroom. Judging from the outside, the building was indistinguishable from any other county extension office populating the rural roads leading to Fresno. You’d never guess what was stationed inside. Never dream just what those spooks were digging up, just how deadly it could be for international relations.
The lieutenant calmed himself enough to recite the steps explained to him earlier; typed in the command prompt, ordered the release of the drive. Directly south of the 55" monitor, the drive jutted out of its home—gentle pfff sound, release of steam accompanying its exit.
Falcon eagerly removed the drive from the computer, all eight inches of space age chromium menace, and placed it under his armpit. Shaped like the pneumatic tube containers his father once kept at his office, the computer illiterate Falcon couldn’t begin to appreciate the technological marvel in his possession. An astonishing thirty-two megabytes of information, an exponential leap over the computer power required to send man to the moon, all wrapped up in a sleek, easy to carry cylinder.
Thirty-two megabytes of the juiciest secrets divined from various telephone and computer correspondences within the USSR. From the lowliest state budget analysis to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, no dirty laundry was safe. Maybe Falcon didn’t know the first thing about computers, but he knew the importance of keeping this info out of the hands of certain lowlifes.
“I’ve got the drive! We need to blow this stand!” he announced to his companion. With apprehension, Falcon observed his fair-haired hero dodge the advance of the inhuman beast. He needn’t have worried–two lucky hits from the fire extinguisher were enough to exhaust the beast. As Falcon’s idol parried, the monster lost his footing, collapsed like a decrepit bridge onto the floor.
Falcon and his ally didn’t waste the opportunity, racing out of the backroom, down the hidden hallway, into the main office area. In addition to Falcon’s terminated robotic allies, bodies of fallen Cobra creeps littered the floor. The Crimson Twins. Copperhead. Scrap-Iron. Two or three Dreadnoks. Falcon had no opportunity to count the bodies, didn’t realize one was missing until he heard that heinous voice from behind.
“Think yer gettin’ away that easy, are you?” asked Major Bludd, his black rocket pistol aimed in the brothers’ direction.
“You’re one to talk about ‘easssy,’ with that glasss jaw,” teased Falcon’s idol. He had a point; Bludd was the first viper to fall during the battle, out like a light with just one punch. Only now did Falcon realize the rabid dingo could’ve been running a con.
“We still outnumber you, Bludd, even if you got the drop on us,” Falcon warned.
His lips twisted to form a grin. “Doubtin’ how fast I am with a pistol? Dangerous odds you’re runnin.’”
Falcon was forced to pause, take a moment to compose himself. Not because Bludd had a point, no. But for just a second there, it sounded as if his Aussie accent turned a bit…Cajun. The lieutenant was sorting through the contradiction when his brother, hands now raised, stepped forward.
“You’re right. No need to risk the loss of an innocent life. I’ll surrender myself. You can brag about taking in the Grand Poobah, get whatever promotions you can out of your bosses,” he said as he slowly approached Bludd. “Just leave my brother out of thisss.”
“Yeah, right,” Bludd responded, on the edge of laughter. “You think I’m lettin’ him get away with—”
Bludd didn’t finish the sentence, thanks to the searing gunshot connecting with his right wrist. Falcon might’ve been slightly out of sorts, but he didn’t need a building to fall on him. As his brother offered his “surrender,” Falcon surveyed the landscape. One of those Dreadnok slime had a hand cannon still tucked into his chest holster. Less than a foot away from the lieutenant.
“Let’s get out of here!” he shouted, already moving towards the front door. Falcon’s ally took a quick glance in his direction—then turned back towards his opponent.
Couldn’t resist the urge; just had to slug that creep one final time. Prove just how fragile that jaw really was.
GUNG-HO, appearing via the advanced technology of telecommunications, spoke solemnly from his hospital bed.
“The B.A.T.s entered first. Just laid down a field of fire, had all of us duckin’ for the floor. Took a few seconds for us to realize who was coming in after ‘em. And, gotta say, I’m not sure which was the worst surprise.”
Not that he’d complain, but the Marine nearly lost his life over something he still didn’t entirely understand. Spooks would come in every few days, check the computers, and leave. Occasionally, you might cajole one of them into discussing last night’s game, but that’d be the extent of the conversation. Until recently, the Joes viewed the mission as an easy, but infuriatingly boring, assignment.
“Understood, Gung-Ho,” answered General Hawk from eight hundred miles away.
Standing next to him was Scarlett, putting on the bravest face imaginable. “Can you give us an update on the other Joes?”
“Footloose, Barbeque, Rock ‘n Roll and I should be discharged in a day or so. Roadblock, though, got the worst of it. Always thought that guy could withstand any kind of beatin’, but I suppose several rounds with a fire extinguisher would do it to anybody. He’s regained consciousness, but the docs say he’s not gonna be released for another week, at least.”
Hawk nodded. “We’ll have a good thought for him. Meantime, I want every one of you goldbrickers to listen to what the doctors have to say. Nobody has to play the hero; the team’s gonna reclaim that drive.”
Omitted from this pep talk were any revelations about the events at Camp Alpha.
“All due respect, sir, if that drive isn’t recovered—”
The televised image of Gung-Ho contorted, got twisted into oblivion, before it was replaced with the prognathic jaw of the team’s erstwhile First Lieutenant.
“Well, well. If this ain’t a grisly sight,” he spoke with his characteristic condescension.
“Lt. Falcon! Do you have any idea—”
“Calm yourself, snakebreath. I won’t be hogging your airwaves for long. Just wanted you Cobra creeps to understand the severity of the situation.”
“Falcon, what in blazes are you—”
Scarlett squeezed Hawk’s shoulder. “Let him finish, General.”
“You know by now that we have your precious drive. And we’re not dopes. We realize what kind of leverage this gives us. So, lucky you, I won’t waste your time. We’re prepared to return this tin cylinder of ohs an’ ones, if you can meet our price.”
Scarlett took a breath. Answered calmly, “And, Lieutenant, what would that be?”
“Glad you asked, four-eyes. You snakes thought you pulled one over on us, overtaking the Defiant space shuttle’s construction team. Yeah, didn’t think we knew about that one? I had to clear this with the Brass—and, trust me, they weren’t thrilled—but they agreed to a peaceful resolution. You get this drive back, provided you clear out the Defiant crew of all reptilian personnel. No space shuttle for you snakes, sorry ‘bout that, but you can retrieve this chrome doohickey here without a single shot fired. Sound fair? Okay, don’t really care if it does. But it’s the smartest—and safest—move your sorry organization is ever gonna make.”
Hawk’s fist clinched. “This is unbelievable…”
“Well, you’d ‘bessst’ believe it, lisp boy. Contact this freek when you have the answer. You snakes have twenty-four hours…”
“QUITE THE PERFORMANCE,” complimented the Commander, seated next to Falcon.
“Just hope those reptiles got the message, brother.”
Falcon’s “sibling” did not respond. Too distracted by his own transceiver, and the loyal agent who wasn’t answering the call.
He was cursing the silence, questioning what on earth could be distracting his faithful ninja…
STORM SHADOW CREPT INSIDE a third-story window. Wasn’t certain of the exact room, just relying on the peculiar whispers that led him here in the first place. Why he should care about this hospice, why some song in his soul would keep whistling its name, he couldn’t say.
Down the hallway, a conversation was occurring. The fading voice of a life tempered by hardship and regret—sentiments that could only now be expressed. Final confessions, the revelation of half-truths and outright lies. The old man prays this surrogate family understands his motivations held no malice.
Storm Shadow could hear his name being evoked, hear it through a different set of ears. A name he no longer used, an identity long abandoned. How could this old man know?
The squeak of an orderly’s sneakers entered the hall, broke the ninja’s concentration. Storm Shadow located a hiding place behind a janitor’s cart. Irritation was short-lived. He recognized the young man’s entrance as fate—they were the same size, after all.
SURROUNDING THE BLIND MASTER were Jinx, Tommy, Keiko, and (behind a rubber mask) Snake Eyes. His condition had worsened in the previous twenty-four hours; he caught on to this before the doctors realized it, actually. Jinx recognized the change in his demeanor. No more busting of chops and kidding around. The sensei ordered his former pupil to make the phone calls, ensure the family would be reunited.
“Was tryin’ to save everyone all of that hurt…my fault I screwed up so bad…”
Those were his opening words, once Tommy and Keiko arrived. They tried to calm him, give him permission to depart this world in peace.
Blind Master admonished them for patronizing him. Wanted to know for sure Tommy was close. A squeeze of the hand confirmed it.
The old sensei thanked the family for taking him in, during those days after the war. For giving an angry blind American purpose—purpose, and a new home.
New home, new family, new way of thinking…new appreciation for this world.
The first tears hit Tommy’s cheeks, as childhood memories flashed. The odd, dark man who wandered across his uncles’ path one day. Their deep affection for the man, the first outsider in a dozen generations to be accepted by the Arashikage.
Their blind friend was still young then. Tommy only realized this now. Hands were clinched tighter, letting the man know he needn’t offer any thanks or apologies.
“No…too many sins to leave without a confession, boy,” the old man whispered. “The accident that cost you your uncle, you know I always carried that with me…told myself I’d do anything to pay my debt…”
Tommy’s free hand reached the sensei’s chest. “There is no debt, yūjin.”
“Just listen. There are things I’ve kept from you, Tomisaburo. You have to understand…about Keone…”
Keiko, hearing that name for the first time in years, gasped. Jinx, standing behind her, felt the room’s temperature change. Blind Master recognized the weight carried by the name; had to take a moment to collect himself. A nurse arrived with water, did what she could to calm him down.
Tommy stepped away, pulled the doctor aside. Asked if the old man was possibly speaking out of his head. The answer was noncommittal. The nurse, meanwhile, was dismissed from the room.
“Come over here, boy,” Blind Master bellowed, best he could. Tommy obeyed.
The words were too obscene to be believed. He spoke of a sickening discovery at the compound one afternoon. Of a lie devised to protect what was left of the Arashikage.
“Keone…” the master breathed. “He’s the one…no rivals…had to tell you…so sorry…”
The machines began to speak louder than their patient. A lone doctor was soon joined by three others, in addition to a team of nurses. The family was pushed away from the bed.
“No!” cried Jinx, as Snake Eyes attempted to pull the hellcat into the corner of the room. “He needs to finish this! He can’t just—”
Jinx found her body twirled around, face to face with Snakes. His index finger pressed against the rubber lips of his mask. The meaning was clear.
She grunted, then eased her body. Nodded an agreement. Stepping away, she watched as Snake Eyes joined Tommy and Keiko. She wanted to be there for them. Desired more than anything the comfort of family at this moment.
Blood demanded a higher obligation, however. And, against her better judgment, she’d have to answer it.
Lotus position on the floor, not even noticed in the bedlam, Jinx drew in a breath. In under a minute, she’d entered the proper breathing pattern.
Her mind connected to a memory from the previous weeks. The sensation in her subconscious, as an outsider crept his way inside. She cursed the violation at the time. Today, she was determined to retrace his steps.
Unbeknownst to her, another invader stood above her shoulders.
He could’ve slit her carotid, slipped away without a soul noticing. The thought barely occurred to him.
Storm Shadow stepped closer to the bed. Stepped past the remnants of the Arashikage. The old man with the doctors hovering over, he was the source. He was the heretic speaking the ninja’s name.
Curiosity overtook anger, however. The disguised ninja placed his hand on the shoulder of a nurse; had a moment of clarity, preventing him from tossing her aside. He drew a breath, told himself he’d never met this man. To ignore this throbbing déjà vu…cast it away. Dismiss it as the enemy trick it had to be.
The thought inspired him to look around. What other Joes could be hiding?
His face connected with another. Skin became instantly cold.
The ninja abruptly turned towards the door. Muttering nonsense, he exited with only one soul noticing. Tommy’s steps traced the ninja’s. He searched the hallway, found nothing.
Told himself he must’ve saw something that wasn’t there. That the Blind Master’s words had evoked some foolish thoughts. Dredged up a fantasy of something that could not be.
Keone, his long dead twin, could not be here this day.
“ARE YOU SURE, Mrs. Cooper?” asked a mystified Detective Rawlings, standing on the front porch of the Coopers’ residence. He’d been working this case for a few days now, coming up with one worthless lead after another. Still, he couldn’t have anticipated her response this afternoon, when Rawlings arrived with his partner for a round of follow-ups.
“I was one of the detectives who spoke to you the night your boy disappeared. Do you remember that?” (Do you remember being so panicked and irrational the EMTs had to administer meds to calm you down? he wants to ask.) “I’m glad you’ve been able to find some peace, but—”
Diane Cooper’s pleasant, yet stone, face remained. “I’ve already said my piece. I’ve asked you to drop this investigation and I won’t be giving any more statements. If you’ll excuse me, I was in the middle of—”
Rawlings’ partner, Nobles, slid into the role the six-foot-seven former boxer so easily played. The Heavy. “We’re talking about your son, ma’am,” Detective Nobles spoke, inserting his foot into the doorway. “I can’t believe you’d ask us to just give up, as if you didn’t even care.”
Diane didn’t acknowledge the foot. Just kept closing anyway. “Good day, detectives,” she said as Nobles hopped out of the way.
Within eight seconds, she’d returned to the phone. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“It’s nothing,” spoke the Slavic accent on the other end. “I trust you stood firm?”
“I’ve told them to stop bothering me about the subject. Maybe they’ll listen this time. And, Dr. Stevens, thank you so much for your help in this affair.”
“Oh, thank you, dear.” She could feel his smile through the receiver. Gave her quite the warm feeling. “For having the good sense to pick up the phone and listen to my friendly advice.”
Outside, a member of the Cobra Triad maintained his watch of the home. Gripped the steering wheel as he observed the detectives’ unmarked car depart. Made a note to exploit Cobra’s resources and learn what exactly the Brea Police Department had uncovered so far.
Not that he was optimistic.
He’d arrived in Orange County four hours earlier. Still wasn’t certain where to begin his investigation. Arriving outside the Coopers’ home, parking his rental in a neighborhood he knew so well…he hadn’t prepared himself for the sentiments the environ would stir up.
“Bobby…” he whispered, his gaze returning to the faded Polaroid.
Tap at the window roused the doctor. For a moment, he questioned if the detectives had returned. Couldn’t blame them, asking questions of a mystery figure hanging around a recent crime scene. Turning to his left, he realized his mistake. More of a soldier’s stance than a cop’s.
And the black Semiautomatic Carbine Uzi in his hands was unlikely to be standard police issue.
THE DOCTOR, escorted by four Iron Grenadiers, entered the private quarters of his former associate. The chains on his wrists were largely ceremonial.
“Ah, Destro,” Mindbender spoke derisively. “I see the international arms trade has been good to you.”
His chambers were as ultra-modern as could be imagined. In fact, there was a hint of something almost alien about the room, if not the entire complex. The weapons manufacturer never lacked for imagination, and a taste for the cold indifference of steel, but his current hideaway brought the quirk to new levels.
Destro, seated upon a literal throne of glistening metal, released a deep laugh. “Was there ever any doubt? Let’s not mince words, Doctor—staying with Cobra was an utterly foolish decision on your part.”
“An argument could be made for that. Am I to assume this is your second recruitment attempt?”
Destro removed himself from his throne, gestured for Mindbender to follow him to the next room. “I have reason to believe it will be my last. And not merely because I’ve found you at such a disadvantageous position.”
He looked down at his former associate, noticed the chains, and ordered his guard to remove them. “Let’s act under a pretense of civilization, gentlemen,” Destro spoke with another chortle. He was delighting in the suspense; Mindbender knew the mogul that well. Just didn’t know what Destro was holding as his trump card on this day.
Mindbender, still dressed in the civilian garments he’d adopted in Orange County, stood with Destro at the entrance of the locked mystery room. Stood for an interminable amount of time. In different circumstances, he’d have snapped at the metal-plated fool to just get on with it.
Destro turned to the doctor, gave a look to question if he was in fact ready to enter. Recognizing how irritated his companion was growing, Destro stepped forward and typed in the entrance code.
“I’m assuming you don’t need a reintroduction to these old friends, Doctor?”
Standing before Mindbender was a recreation of his finest work. The earliest steps, at least. A collection of DNA vats, all full, surrounded by the bio-tech equipment necessary to perform the most advanced act of gene-splicing known to man.
“You’ve…how?” he could finally ask. “How have you recreated this?”
Destro placed a hand on his shoulder. “It was no simple act, Doctor. The true question is whether you’d be willing to reenact your greatest act of scientific genius.”
“Destro, you were there…you know as well as I do that this procedure, that the dream that inspired it…”
“Was not truly your own? I remember. I also know that the sovereigns so eager to dismiss your work weren’t present during the creation process. That they were not the ones who risked their lives, who poured blood and sweat into the experiment…were not the ones to look this creation in his eyes and witness the birth of a new breed of man.”
The doctor considered the compliment, but found himself shaking his head in disagreement. “But without their inspiration…without the dream they sent…”
Destro gripped the doctor, pulled him close. “Mindbender, regardless of the stimulus, you are the scientist who shepherded this project to life. And within you, I know the knowledge remains.”
Mindbender wouldn’t deny the truth. He could transcribe every step of the process from memory, if need be. Who else but the doctor could be worthy to ever complete such an experiment? A thought passing through his mind, some irritating gnat, was reminding him of why he traveled west this morning. Of how Destro had caught him so badly unaware. He dismissed the notion.
The doctor turned to the DNA vats, stepped closer to give his inspection. “This…this was my finest work.”
Destro followed, confident in his hand. “So can I count on you again? Can I trust your intellect in the rebirth of the finest military mind of the century?”
“For the sake of Serpentor?” A twinkle appeared in his eye. “You have my undying loyalty.”
“BLIND MASTER,” she spoke, gazing into a wall of white. The sounds of the doctors and the machines were still there, but silenced to just above a whisper.
“If you’re there, you need to say something. You can’t just leave us like—”
The cane connected with her abdomen. She didn’t have a chance to question just how it could exist, here in an evaporating corner of the Astral Plane.
“Girl, you can’t even give a dying man his moment’s peace?” asked the Blind Master, or what remained of his consciousness here.
Jinx turned to face her sensei. Still in denial, still determined to ring his neck. Not noticing the white of the room was blurring into a hot glow.
“Not when he tries to go out with an exit line that weak. Tell me, now! While there’s still time—what were you trying to say? Why were you talking about—”
The cane whacked her again. “‘Still time?’ Kimi, I knew you were stubborn but this is crazy. You have to go, girl. Now.”
“No!” she protested, stepping closer. “Not until I hear everything!”
The fuzzy white continued to expand, to consume the landscape. Blind Master gripped her shoulders, screamed out, “You have to wake up! If you stay here, you can’t ever—”
The heat consumed her sensei before he finished his thought. Staring off into the blank, the formerly searing temperature now growing cold, she had no trouble guessing that final word.
YOU CAN SEE THE LOGIC IN IT. Your leader has provided you so much. Given you a journey across the globe, offered you pleasures of both the physical and psychotropic, introduced an entirely new way of thinking.
You recall your previous life, think of the claustrophobic worldview, the delusional elevation of prudence and self-denial. You’ve come so far this past year.
But what have you done to prove your devotion, Keone? What validation have you offered the strange man? You journey into the world for him, see to business he can’t personally attend to. Yet this barely elevates you above the status of errand boy.
He demands more. He deserves it.
You can’t recall how the thought first wormed into your head. If he suggested it, or if you spontaneously conceived of the idea. Either way, he warned you. Cautioned against any rash moves, any actions you could never take back.
Very considerate of the man. Typical of his generosity. But there’s an iron certainty within you, a steady voice confirming this as the proper path.
Your companion isn’t with you. Is over a thousand miles away, actually, attending to matters he’s deemed irrelevant to you. When you slink into the Arashikage Compound, you do so alone.
Two cousins greet you within seconds. Both are weary from a day’s training. Hisanori is stunned to see you, offers a warm welcome. Daisuke is more reserved. Once the shock starts to wear off, that irreverent personality returns. Decides to poke fun of you for that mohair suit. Is stunned to learn you purchased it in America.
“You travel there with Tomisaburo?” Daisuke asks.
You ignore the question. Ask instead to speak to the Soft Master. You’re granted an audience after thirty minutes pass, when he’s finished his afternoon meditation.
“What is it you seek, Keone?” he asks, inviting you to join him as he practices his archery. The Soft Master receives his hankyū bow from your cousin, Haruko. You can’t believe how much she’s grown since you left. As she exits, you lament the barren life she’s experiencing behind the walls of this compound. Give thanks that you were so privileged to escape it.
“I’ve come as a representative,” you answer. “As a spokesperson for a great man, one who can finally guide the Arashikage into the twentieth century.”
The Soft Master’s lips turn up, morph into that guileless smile. “You still sound like a boy. What leads you to believe we want such a thing?”
“This life here…the prayers, meditation, training…if we continue to isolate ourselves, what purpose does it serve?”
Soft Master takes careful aim, releases the string. The arrow drives into the straw target; yet another perfect shot from the master. “Those who were meant to reach us find their way.”
“You mean like the blind man?” you snort. “The dog responsible for the Hard Master’s death?”
“What you speak of was a horrible accident.” The Soft Master lowers his bow. Tone grows more serious as he tells you, “It was a fishing mishap, Keone. My brother passed saving the life of a man we called friend. Someone who humbled himself, adapted to our lifestyle. A good man who brought us great joy.”
“And the blind fool was meant to find us? My uncle spent his entire life quarantining himself from humanity, perfecting the arts of our ancestors, only to drown—saving the life of some American?”
“Yes, Keone. That was his fate. Resisting it, wishing so desperately for something else, is childishness.”
This is one insult too many. “I’m no child, Soft Master. I promise you, I’ve seen far more than anyone here.”
“And what you saw out there in this corrupted world, does it please you so much?” he asks, setting his hankyū on the grass.
“There’s life out there,” you try to tell him, realizing you’re speaking too loudly, but unable to contain yourself. “Opportunities. And I know a man who needs people with our abilities. Who will reward our loyalty.”
Your uncle’s still looking at you, the mix of joy and irritation in his eyes from just a second earlier is mutating into something else. Soft Master’s body language shifts. You tell yourself you’re not seeing this, that he couldn’t possibly be plotting such a move…regardless of what your gut’s telling you. “I suspect you’ve met a charlatan, young Keone. And what he has to offer, we have no desire to possess.”
“How is it you’re more blind than the American?! Why can’t you see the need? Why would you condemn another generation of Arashikage to—”
Worst suspicion, that sickening paranoia, is confirmed, as the Soft Master withdraws a thin tantō from his vest. Makes a rapid movement towards you. Makes what would’ve been a lethal strike, had you not moved in time.
“Keone, I sense what this ‘man’ has done to you,” Soft Master says as an apology, regrouping for his next strike.
Your reach exceeds your uncle’s. You find his wrist is now in your hand. “You’d dare strike at me, uncle? You, the one who always speaks of family? Of protecting our own?”
“I…I do what’s necessary!” he says while struggling, tears pooling in his eyes. “I can see…what you’ve become, Keone. Recognize you as a cancer. I…must protect the Arashikage, even from—”
“Even from your own nephew?!” you shriek in disbelief, not realizing at first you’ve broken his wrist. The tantō falls towards the grass. You swipe it from the air before it connects.
You see the Blind Master remains resolute. With his good hand, he’s reaching for his next strike.
What you do next with the blade, the look in the Soft Master’s disconsolate eyes, is a blur. As is your response to Haruko, who comes running breathlessly into the grass.
An hour later, you exit the compound. Your suit is ruined, your entire chest exposed, a landscape of cuts and bruises. Your face, your hands, covered in blood.
A decision is made, one you don’t consciously recall. But the wickedness performed here this day must be cleansed. Must be erased with fire.
JOCELYN’S HOME SMELLED OF fresh-baked butter pecan cookies. The Romanian’s briefcase rested on the kitchen linoleum, propped against his leather dress Oxfords.
“This strapping young gentleman’s name is Bobby. He’s visiting from the west coast. And, truthfully, he might be here for a while.”
Jocelyn wiped off her hands with a dish towel before reaching forward for a greeting. “Hello, Bobby. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hey, Granny,” Bobby answered. He removed a cookie from the plate resting in the center of the table. “Sorry it’s been so long since my last visit,” he said after his initial bite. “Mom says I can spend Spring Break here with you, if that’s okay.”
“Did he just call me…?”
The Romanian’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed he did. It’s an inviting thought, isn’t it? Poor Jocelyn, deprived the dream of grandchildren due to…circumstances beyond her control. Wouldn’t you be proud of such a fine young man?”
“I…think that I would, yes,” Jocelyn answered after only a brief silence.
The Romanian made his fingers into a tent, leaned closer. “And isn’t the thought of spending time with the boy quite appealing? Aren’t you just so eager to break out those scrapbooks and tell him about his father? To share some of your famous blueberry pancakes with the young man in the morning?”
“That does sound tempting. He’s…such a nice boy.”
“Oh, he’s a prize,” the Romanian answered, looking over to Bobby, now beginning work on his second cookie. “Yes, quite valuable. But if young Bobby turns out not to be the asset I believe him to be, you are prepared to do what needs to be done, aren’t you?”
Jocelyn blinked thrice before responding. “I’m…I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Oh, I think that you do. I think you understand that, if a particular individual doesn’t take a rather sizeable hint, Bobby turns from asset to liability. That he must be dealt with. Perhaps with a…special blend of your blueberry pancakes. You do grasp what I’m saying to you, Jocelyn?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the simultaneous ring of the doorbell and the pull of the front door. Entering was a vision of beauty, albeit one dressed in the latest K-Mart fashions. She could barely see over the bags of groceries.
“Sorry I’m late, Mrs. Kristofer. Had to go to three different stores to find the right—” The lovely caught sight of Jocelyn’s guests. Setting down the groceries, she coolly added, “I didn’t realize you had company.”
Jocelyn perked up, took the visitor by the arm and made introductions. “Oh, Ana. I’d like for you to meet my grandson, Bobby.” Jocelyn’s friend had to restrain herself from giving a perceptible reaction. She caught a family resemblance immediately—just not the one Jocelyn intended. Leaning over the teenager, now on his fourth cookie, Jocelyn beamed. “My friend Dr. Stevens here just brought him over from the airport.”
“Is that so? Well, very nice to meet you, Bobby.”
“Hey, Granny’s friend,” he answered in a half-asleep cadence. “Sorry it’s been so long since my last visit. Mom says that I can spend Spring Break here with Granny, if that’s okay.”
The Romanian clenched his fist in frustration under the table. He forced his lips to turn upward, reached over to good-naturedly rub Bobby’s free hand. “Ah, the young man’s a mite jetlagged. Might I inquire what brings you here, Miss…? Oh, I didn’t catch your name, did I?”
She ignored the question, instead turning to Jocelyn to ask, “Would you mind if I have a chat with your friend, Mrs. Kristofer? Thanks.”
The Romanian obeyed the request, carrying the briefcase with him. Safely out of the room, she barked, “What are you doing here?”
“Simplifying a few plot threads, dearest,” Crystal Ball replied, as if he were explaining the most obvious concept in existence. “That greasy-faced weakling is integral for Cobra’s future. I felt Mrs. Kristofer possessed the maternal capabilities necessary to keep him safe until the plot reached fruition.”
The Baroness fought off the urge to slap him. “As a member in equal standing in the Triad, when was I to be notified of this?”
“Perhaps when you explained to me why you’re still engaging with this woman? Why you disappear from the base for hours at a time? Why you now favor these department store rags over your leather?”
“I suspect, ‘Dr. Stevens,’ you do know the answer to that,” she said with a knowing smirk. “And that you’ve been scheming some way to resolve this issue? To revive the woman you once knew?”
“Perceptive as ever,” he offered as a reasonably believable compliment. “Other concerns have occupied my time. And, truthfully, I didn’t foresee the effects of our previous therapy session. I would’ve preferred a more subtle method of undoing my mistake.” He moved closer, reached for her hand. She surprised herself, taking it.
“One that involved your favorite composer, a bottle of Louis Roederer, Cristal 1967, and a night out at the finest ballroom in Paris. But, alas, if fate has forced my hand—”
She didn’t see the nerve pinch coming; wasn’t a skilled enough maneuver to knock her unconscious, but the Romanian was able to stun his fellow Triad member into a temporary paralysis. He shoved her into the adjacent bedroom, mentally rebuking himself for allowing the situation to deteriorate to this point.
So much drama, ever since he prepped her for that undercover mission. Removing that memory from her past, the icy fall night that warped her into her true self, made sense at the time. Perhaps she could’ve faked her rehabilitation for the sake of a few interviews, but eventually the authorities would see through her. But if the blackest portion of her soul had been excised, if she could no longer reach the fetid part of her that enabled those heinous acts to be committed…would this not enable the perfect performance?
As he dropped the briefcase to the floor, unlatched the top, he fought off the competing thought. The condemnation that he’d been showing off for her. That he’d taken pity on the wounded bird. Perhaps even developed something of a crush on the lass, told himself she’d appreciate the act. Offer the pour soul some relief. Who wouldn’t want their darkest, most shameful act erased from memory?
She should’ve gone about her Cobra business even without the remembrance. That’d been his assumption, that the work of the organization was essentially muscle memory by this date. Why’d she have to be so stubborn?
“Such a mess…such a mess…”
The hypno-shield was removed from his briefcase. Leaning against the bed, she’d already regained some movement. “There are facts you must understand, my Baroness. As distasteful as this is, I fear it’s become necessary,” he told her, the shield spinning a charismatic portrait. “That woman you view as some mother figure? She’s nothing to us. Just a plebian with a tangential connection to our organization. Her life here will remain anonymous...of no concern to you. Her home is a safe place for this child.”
The Romanian’s voice lowered, spoke with even more purpose. “And his life is as meaningless as hers. If he proves to be an inconvenience, he will be dealt with. If Jocelyn for some reason cannot perform this function, then it falls to you.”
“No…absolutely not. I…not possible…” she said as a whisper, unable to turn from the image.
“Another thing. This newfound moral code you’ve developed? It’s sickening,” were the evil words to follow. “You seem to have erected quite the high opinion of yourself, ‘Ana.’ Would you care for me to remind you of what you really are?”
The Baroness fought an unbelievable fight. Managed to close her eyes, grit her teeth, and answer, “I know what I am. But if you think I’m going to hurt either of them—”
“Of course you will. Because you are the Baroness. The witch who stared down the Worms of Death. Who, according to legend, found the spores sent to annihilate all humanity ‘beautiful.’”
The conspicuous sound of air escaped her lungs. “No…I would never…” she whispered, eyes now wide.
“You would. Because you’re the same woman who turned your back on your family’s beliefs. Who rejected the country they viewed as a haven from oppression.” He stepped closer. “Even joined others to undermine it. You’re the woman who willingly aligned yourself with a snake. Who didn’t give a second thought to his command, his edict that you prove yourself. Verify the connections to your past life were dead.”
She ordered her lids to close once again. They refused to obey. “Shut up. Don’t you dare—”
He was nearly nose to nose with her now. “You’re the one who traveled to that cemetery on a cold November evening. You were the one with a shovel in your hand, dearest.”
Baroness, beats of her pulse shaking her entire body, found the temerity to scream. “No! I told you to shut up!”
Scream, and with tears rolling down her cheeks, to strike her harasser. A haphazard blow, far from her best, but enough to send him back a few inches. He responded by dropping the shield, freeing both hands to reach around her thin neck.
“You would…dare…?” he grunted, the normally calm façade melted into a hideous expression of rage.
Her fists slapped against his back, but he’d gotten too good of a hold, too fast. She’d witnessed too many scenarios like this, participated in far too many on her own, to deny what was coming.
He was furious enough to do it. The wild hatred in his eyes revealed that much. And given his size, his leverage, she couldn’t do a blessed thing to stop him.
So why did those hateful brown eyes suddenly roll to the back of his head? Why did he groan with such horrid force as he hit the floor?
Perhaps her friend Jocelyn, standing above his body, had the answer.
“For one, I just saved your life, dearie,” spoke “Jocelyn,” in an accent that stunned her friend. “Additionally, I’d suggest you place your hands behind your head peacefully. We could avoid any more unnecessary violence that way.”
YOUNG BOBBY, still lacking numerous life experiences, didn’t know enough to describe the sensation as “hungover.”
Standing beside him were Psyche-Out and Big Lob, fresh from the surveillance van parked nearby.
“Hello, sir. I’m Lieutenant Rich,” Psyche-Out told the young man, electing to use his proper title. “I realize you’ve been through an incredible ordeal. I just want you to know that we’re here to help, okay?”
Bobby’s view of Jocelyn’s kitchen hadn’t quite stopped spinning yet. “I think…I think I just want to go to sleep now,” he said, reaching for his temples.
Big Lob, standing over a foot above the young man, patted his shoulder. “I can take him to the van if you’d like, Psyche.”
Psyche-Out, looking past him towards their fellow Joe, answered, “Yeah, go ahead.”
“Hey, didn’t you used to play pro ball?” asked Bobby as they entered the front lawn.
Behind them, a statuesque blonde was shepherding Crystal Ball into Jocelyn’s living room. An athletic sock had been shoved into his mouth, strapped in with rubber bands.
“You realize you have a tendency towards overkill, don’t you, Quarrel?” asked Psyche-Out.
Quarrel, on loan to the Joes from Her Majesty’s S.A.F. crew, gave the Romanian a less than gentle shove in Psyche-Out’s direction. “Maybe that’s what your unit needed a touch of?” She took in Psyche-Out’s uniform—chromium headset, flashy green shirt with a black and silver vest, plus detachable radar dishes hanging from his shoulders—and her pale cheeks dimpled. “Not that you Americans are known for subtlety.”
In fewer than ten seconds, she’d returned from the bedroom, now dragging Baroness along as her guest. “Just make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble, yeah?” Quarrel said over her shoulder, exiting the front door.
The women walked down the front yard path, heading away from the van that now housed Bobby and Big Lob. On the curb was parked the Baroness’ driver.
“So where’s the real Jocelyn Kristofer?” asked Baroness, silently amazed at this Joe’s ability to impersonate so credibly the woman she’d known as a close friend.
“Where she’s been ever since we realized she was a potential Cobra target. The same place young Bobby is being sent. And that’s all I’m going to be revealing to a snake.”
The rebuke stung, in a way that surprised the Baroness.
“Now, I want you to speak to your man inside,” she said, gesturing towards the nondescript sedan. “Tell him that the mission’s a bust, and it’s in his own best interests to surrender peacefully.” Quarrel turned, looked Baroness in the eye. “Can I trust you to do this?”
Baroness looked away, snorted. “I suggest you look closer, blondie. That car’s empty.”
A brief turn of her head revealed the driver’s location to Quarrel. He was standing over the neighbor’s bushes, zipping up. She guessed the car didn’t contain any empty soda bottles.
“Lucky day. My keen reconnaissance skills have located him,” Quarrel said, pulling Baroness along. With her free hand, Quarrel unholstered her sidearm.
“Okay, blue boy. I see you’re done with your business. What I need you to do now is to slowly raise those hands and turn around.” Quarrel then coughed in Baroness’ direction.
The Baroness sighed. “Ross, I think you should listen to her.”
With his fly still open, the plainclothes blueshirt obeyed. Perhaps the embarrassment motivated him to surrender without incident. Within a minute, he was cuffed and seated in the back of the Joes’ van. Ross The Incontinent Blueshirt, as Quarrel planned to identify him in her AAR, was joined by Quarrel, Psyche-Out, Crystal Ball, and his former boss. In the front seat, Big Lob was driving with a star struck Bobby as the passenger.
The Romanian, still gagged, had something to say. His bugged-out eyes and neck movements called for the Joes’ attention. Psyche-Out, seated next to Quarrel, stood.
Quarrel’s eyes rolled. “C’mon, head shrink. Don’t tell me you’re gonna fall for that.”
Psyche-Out’s shoulders shrugged. “Man has something to say.” He removed the gag.
“Ah, a thousand ‘thank-you’s,” spoke an European intonation, after drawing a breath of air.
“If that sock belonged to Quarrel, no telling the last time it was washed. Might’ve been some violation of international humanitarian law, for all I know.” Psyche-Out motioned for Ross to scoot over. Took the seat next to Crystal Ball. “You have something you wanted to tell us?”
“Only that I hope you understand the…the depths of my gratitude.”
Quarrel’s lip curled. “Oh, really?”
“No question,” the Romanian responded, briefly closing his eyes for emphasis. “This organization I’ve found myself ensnared in…just a despicable pit of vipers. No pun intended. I’ve been wrestling with my guilt for weeks...”
He scrutinized Quarrel’s sapphire eyes. “You’re skeptical. Understood. But, truly, I feel as if I’ve received a blessing.”
Psyche-Out lifted a hand. “Let’s hear him out, Q. I’m thinking he might’ve been scared straight by this ordeal.”
“A perfect choice of words. Yes, you can’t begin to believe the depths of my regret.”
“Mm-hmm. And you’re overwhelmed with so much remorse, you’d be willing to spill a secret or two about this nefarious operation?” Quarrel sneered.
“I’ve been considering just that, my dear. I’m a mere cog in this machine, mind you, yet I’m in possession of no shortage of valuable ‘intel,’ as I believe you military types refer to it.” The Romanian released a faint titter before finishing his thought. “But, understand, certain conditions must be met.”
“Okay,” Psyche-Out responded. “Name one.”
“First of all, and I pray this isn’t too bold, but I must ask for these restraints to be removed.”
“Not too bold, he says…” Quarrel shook her head in disgust.
Psyche-Out motioned for Crystal Ball to move over so that his bonds could be examined. “Now, now, Q. Maybe you just fastened him in too tight. Wouldn’t harm a thing, just loosening the restraints a bit.”
The Baroness and Ross, previously irritated by the banter, both raised eyebrows. Could the Romanian possibly talk his way out of even this?
Quarrel laughed to herself. “Well, since he is promising to hand over all of this precious intel. Y’know, I hope I’m there for the interview. There’s just something about that voice, right? Like you could listen to those melodious tones all the day…”
Psyche-Out eyed the restraints. Held back a smile before making his move. “Oops. Did I just tighten those pesky things?”
Crystal Ball stomped his feet. “I don’t think you’re listening to me, Joe. You intensely desire to free me from these restraints. And you will do so immediately!”
The Joe pointed to his ear. “Cochlear implants, bud. Same design that ‘Jocelyn’ over there’s been wearing, ever since you sought her out. Whatever scheme you had planned for Cobra Commander’s ‘mother,’ I hope you realize it’s deader than disco.”
Quarrel snickered. “Speak for yourself, Psyche. I’m never tossing out my ABBA LPs.”
Psyche-Out lifted his pointer finger. “Quarrel, darling. ABBA was many things—chief among them, brilliant—but they were certainly not disco.”
“This is all so precious, I’m sure,” spat Crystal Ball. “I’d be curious to know, however, if every passenger in this van was in possession of these implants.”
The realization hit Psyche-Out immediately. He reached for the sock, tried to shove it into the Romanian’s maw before he could finish.
“Boală! Psihoză! Deranjat! Execuţie!”
The Joe was too late. Behind him, Ross’ pupils had grown small. His front row of teeth grinded against the bottom, releasing a chemical compound hidden inside a false molar. The agent entered Ross’ bloodstream, had him amped up and howling with rage in under three seconds. Psyche-Out reached for his shoulders to put him down; lost his breath when Ross’ arms emerged from behind his back.
“How?” Psyche-Out asked, just as Ross’ double-fisted haymaker, each wrist hugged by a broken restraint, sent him into unconsciousness.
Quarrel leapt into action with a butterfly twist kick. Ross, eyes larger than silver dollars now, shrugged it off. The monster swatted her aside when she attempted her second maneuver.
Like a rhino, he charged towards the driver’s seat, wrapped his arms around Big Lob’s shoulders. Bobby’s horrified shriek nearly drowned out the guttural scream Ross couldn’t stop shouting.
“Foul play, man!” the Joe exclaimed, attempting to keep the van on a steady course. He was no match for the strength of the chemically-enhanced behemoth, however.
The van crossed the yellow line, made brutal contact with a late-model Ford pickup traveling in the opposing lane.
It was on its side, colliding with a Cadillac DeVille before skidding all of the way into the guardrails. The final collision sent Ross crashing out of the windshield, flopping down the hill into the Jersey wilds below. Later reports would have him DOA, a victim of a severe heart attack.
Big Lob would have no time to reflect on his denied vengeance. With a face blemished by steam and broken glass, the Joe turned to his right to check on their charge. Saw Bobby, his newly discovered biggest fan, pressed against the passenger door.
The boy wasn’t moving.