PART V: [ARE MADE OF THIS]
HIGH-PITCHED TRILL OF THE COBRA-LA DRONE WARRIORS was giving Low-Light a headache. The sniper was out of breath, sprinting through the crowd of crunchy bug-soldiers, trying to keep up with Duke and Falcon.
“Sniper for a reason…” he muttered to himself, in-between pained breaths.
The scenario was familiar; that final battle between the Joe team and the Cobra elites. The cowards hiding out in their ice dome, confident they could survive the end of the friggin’ world scenario they’d just triggered. Their hubris was crashing down on them, as the earth split open and their precious dome collapsed.
Serpentor was in the midst of it, exchanging blows with Falcon. This much was historically accurate. Unlike the addition of Duke. That’s pure fiction. The poor soldier was already wounded, already in the slow process of dying, as it turned out.
Yet, here he was, charging in to save his baby brother’s life. Blocks a jab from Serpentor, sneaks in an uppercut when the serpent isn’t expecting it. Knocks out teeth from his jaw and that silly golden headdress.
“You will not defy us in our brightest moment of glory!” protested the chump, regaining his footing. “Cobra will achieve our ultimate victory. This…I com—”
Falcon, sporting a bloody lip, appeared from behind. Took a cheap, but justified, shot. Tossed Serpentor in Duke’s gentle arms. Big brother didn’t hesitate, lifting the Emperor Dork over his shoulders, hurling him into the growing chasm consuming the dome.
“Say hello to that gentleman with the pitchfork and hooves for me!” quipped Duke, laughing into the void.
What’s funny is that the tremors stop there. Low-Light looked around, saw image after image of the drone soldiers just fade into nothing.
He shrugged it off. Approached the brothers; figured his best option would be to play along, offer both a congratulatory handshake. He found his path blocked by a battalion of Vipers. Shifting his way past the throngs, he finally caught up to the first row. Looked in horror at the sight above.
On the dais were the higher-ups of Cobra Command. In the center, Duke, clad in a familiar navy uniform. Cobra Commander’s.
One difference, though. All of those Cobra emblems had been replaced by miniature American flags. Low-Light didn’t experience a burst of patriotism.
“Falcon!” the sniper shouted to his teammate, standing behind his brother. “Don’t give in to this!”
The brothers ignored him, went on with the ceremony. After reciting a grotesque pledge to some unspeakable Lovecraftian gods, Duke completed the ritual, donned the familiar hooded mask of the Commander.
Falcon stepped to his brother, offered a manly handshake. Both had tears in their eyes.
“This isn’t what happened, Falcon! Can’t you see that?”
Falcon, finally, turned to the crowd. “You need to stop making a pest of yourself, sniper.” He hopped off the dais, approached Low-Light. Dark intent evident in his eyes. “Yeah…I think you need to learn when to keep your mouth shut.”
“It’s all a trick!” Low-Light shrieked. “Those snakes are behind all of this!”
Falcon took advantage, landed an easy punch against the sniper’s chin. “We just beat the snakes, Low-Light! You need to stop talking crazy.”
“It’s all a lie, Lieutenant,” said Low-Light, blocking the follow-up. “They want you to believe your brother is the man behind that mask…but look at it!”
“I’m warning you—”
“That’s Cobra Commander!” Falcon responded with a vocal curse, then a fast jab to Low-Light’s stomach. He stepped back, regained some air. “Duke isn’t the man under the hood…it’s the viper that’s always been there!”
Falcon charged the sniper. “Liar! How dare you?!”
Low-Light gave in to his instinct, finally presented a defense. Connected two fists against Falcon’s back before kicking him off. The rumble of combat boots announced the return of the Viper battalion, swarming on Low-Light like flies.
Joined by the hooded Duke, Falcon had a great laugh as the Vipers lifted Low-Light overhead. They marched his bruised body towards the re-opened chasm, tossed him into the darkness.
Low-Light screamed with uncharacteristic terror, plummeting those thousand feet. In a flash, he discovered his journey was over. He awoke under fluorescent lights. Patting his chest in a panic, feeling the diodes and wires, he took a full minute to convince himself he was truly alive.
Ripping off the instruments, he swung his body out of the bed. Spent a few seconds studying Lt. Falcon, asleep in the bed next to him.
“That coulda gone better,” he said with a sigh.
“DR. MINDBENDER,” stammered the M.A.R.S. technical agent, “I’ve told you, you simply don’t have the clearance—”
“I’m telling you, worm, that ‘clearance’ is an insignificant concept for one tasked with the future of this organization,” the doctor responded. “And if you continue to defy a direct order, you’ll discover how exactly my reputation in the Cobra torture pits was forged…”
The technical agent gave a frustrated sigh, returned to his computer and typed in a few prompts. Standing to leave, he said, “I’ll give you five minutes. Best I can do, Doctor.”
Mindbender didn’t acknowledge the agent’s departure. Wouldn’t have been bothered if the man paid the ultimate penalty for breaking the rules. His only concern was locating the information he suspected Destro had already collected. Officially, none of the Cobra higher-ups would acknowledge their awareness of another’s past. Destro, with his idiosyncratic sense of honor, likely wouldn’t use the intel maliciously.
Not so, the Romanian. The Serpentor distraction was more than enough to occupy the doctor’s mind for hours, but eventually thoughts returned to another pressing issue. It was only natural for Mindbender to assume the worst. Still didn’t prepare him to have the most horrible news confirmed via green text on black background.
Color drained from his face as he frantically left the room, half-dizzy, half-sick, searching for a phone. The computer dossier, the cursed thing, was shockingly thorough. Listed the number of the hospital.
He dialed, went past two levels of receptionists before reaching the room.
“You…how dare you?” came the acidic voice that greeted him.
“You know why I’m calling. Please tell me there’s some good news.”
“It’s been four years, Brian. You don’t get to call here and act like nothing—”
“I offer no pretense. But I need to know about the boy.”
“Stop talking like that! Stop acting like this…this thing you turned into.”
Mindbender resisted the urge to throw the phone against the wall. Had to settle for merely punching it before returning his stinging hand to the receiver. “Again I ask you—is his condition as dire as I’ve heard?”
“I can’t…I can’t even talk to you. I’m sorry, Brian, but it’s too late.”
“The doctor, then. Let me speak to him.”
Twenty seconds passed. Mindbender demanded a passing Iron Grenadier fetch him some ice for his hand.
“This is Dr. Cohen. To whom am I speaking?”
“A family friend. Tell me, how is Bobby?”
“He’s still in critical condition. The cranial damage is extensive, sir. I don’t know if there’s much we can do.”
More words were spoken. Talk of grim probabilities. Cellular damage. Life support. Miracles. He could only tolerate so much.
“You. Give Diane the phone.”
“It’s an urgent matter. Do this, now!”
The tart voice returned. “Brian, why are you doing this to us?”
“Diane, listen to me. Whatever the outcome, do not remove this boy from life support. Regardless of what those hacks tell you, regardless of how bleak the outlook, do not murder this child.”
INSIDE THE TEAM’S BREAK ROOM, Law was heating up a meal for his loyal mutt. Gung-Ho’s shrimp and sausage gumbo was barely edible by human standards, but it appealed to the taste buds of the trusty K-9 soldier known as Order.
“That’s a good dogg-o,” Law said while stroking Order’s thick coat. “I save fifty cents a can on dog food and the ol’ Cajun’s feelings don’t have to be hurt.”
While Order finished the meal, Law leaned back in a cheap folding chair. Turned on the television. He sighed when the very familiar image appeared onscreen.
“Have you struggled with losing weight?” asked the electronic nuisance, which apparently owned this timeslot.
This caused a laugh. “Realmente no, señor.”
“Well, don’t lose hope! The answer has arrived, thanks to the miracle technology of subliminal message cassettes!”
The host, a four-eyed nerd Law recognized from a failed game show last season, approached the nearby table. He opened his hand to “present” a collection of audio cassettes. “Just insert one cassette into a portable player, pull on those headphones, and turn in for a relaxing evening. As you sleep, subconscious messages will mingle with the soothing music. Don’t believe us?”
“Don’t take my word for it! Just listen to these personal testimonials!”
Silent, Law absorbed the montage of faces. One underpaid aspiring actor after another, boasting of their changed lives—changed minds—thanks to the magic of these cassettes.
“Man…abofetearme la boca…” he groaned, knocking the chair over in his hurry to find General Hawk.
THE DOCTOR’S HAND REACHED FOR THE PHONE. His phone, the cordless model located in his private office.
He laughed at the thought. “Private.” Mindbender knew the line was monitored. That if he did what he couldn’t believe he was even contemplating, Destro would likely know within the hour.
Only question now was justifying the risk. He couldn’t escape Destro on his own. But, would they believe his story? Allow him to do what must be done?
After all of these years, could he trust the Joes?
The open line hummed in the background. To his left, the protoplasm armature. Destro’s agents had collected the DNA of dozens of history’s greatest rulers from that other world. (A supply Mindbender had no small role in exhausting in his own reality.) The armature was undulating with a gooshy taupe mockery of life. The process to recreate his finest design was only hours from completion.
Or, it could serve another purpose entirely.
He returned the phone to its cradle. Decided to sleep on the decision, assuming any rest could come this evening.
Two hours later, a familiar voice entered his dream. Serpentor, thirty feet tall, berating him for his mawkishness, for being the worm that he is. Calling him a weakling, a milksop…a traitor.
“Did you not realize when you joined our order that all ties to your past were no more?” the giant bellows, swooping the doctor from the ground. “Did you not know that Serpentor demands total fidelity? You would consider depriving me, your most blessed son, of life?”
His punishment is a multi-story drop to the ground. The impact of every bone breaking clatters through his body. When the doctor awakes, he’ll declare it a fitting sentence for betrayal.
TWO STURDY GENTLEMEN IN THEIR MID-THIRTIES stepped out of the elevator. Orders had them wearing civilian clothing during this assignment. Bazooka traded his standard Steve Grogan jersey for John Hannah’s instead. Alpine made sure his pal removed that famous brim-strap helmet, though.
“Yeah, it’s guard duty,” said Alpine, carrying their tray of coffees, “and it is boring, but…Bazooka, that doesn’t mean this isn’t important.”
“Sure. But hospital food? No thanks.”
“Just be grateful you’re not Mutt or Quick Kick. They’ve been stuck here on watch ever since the kid was checked in. And thank the heavens that doctor came back from California when he did. They might never have located Bobby’s family otherwise.”
A doctor on-staff at the hospital had been in Anaheim on a family vacation the week prior. Remembered Bobby’s face from the local news reports, connected him immediately with the young John Doe admitted after that van accident. Bobby’s mother was contacted, and after shaking off whatever cobwebs surrounded her in those early hours, had remained a steady presence by her son’s side ever since. A rare bit of good luck for the Joes, lately.
Bazooka was the first to reach Bobby’s room. Poked his head inside, then turned back to face his friend. “Hey, Alpine. Did General Hawk explain how we’re supposed to be guarding an empty room?”
“Can’t be right,” Alpine answered, popping into the vacant room to check for himself. “I asked the desk nurse for his room number. 08-28; easy to remember. My mom’s birthday.”
“Guess we better go check again,” Bazooka said with his typical languid cadence, the one that’d earned him a reputation for being a mite sluggish on the uptake. The scuttlebutt was, arguably, unfair. Ol’ slow Bazooka already had a feeling something was wrong.
Downstairs at the nurse’s station, the Joes approached the LPN on duty. “Ma’am, why’d you send us to an empty room?” asked Alpine, ready to again recite his mom’s birthday if the lady resisted. “This is important business, and—”
“There you guys are. Why aren’t you with Bobby and Diane?” interrupted Mutt, entering the station with Quick Kick.
Bazooka quietly condemned Quick Kick’s Dodger’s t-shirt, while granting Mutt’s Mosi Tatupu jersey his blessing. “Got bad directions. Why’d you leave the post?”
“The doctors escorted the boy and his mom out of the room; said he needed x-rays.”
“Our shift was almost up, so we called the desk,” added Mutt. “Told them to tell you—”
“To meet the Coopers at the x-ray room? So, Nurse, why didn’t you relay the message? Why this goose chase?”
The nurse, nearly a foot shorter than the Joes, sank even lower in her seat. “It’s because…I…”
No words were spoken, but every Joe could recognize the voice of someone just a bit too nervous. Alpine’s knuckles slammed into the desk. “He’s not getting x-rays, is he? Where’s that boy?!”
Quick Kick nudged his partner’s side. “Mutt, let’s go check the parking lot. You guys stay here,” he added over-his-shoulder to Alpine and Bazooka.
They reached the parking lot in just over a minute. Caught sight of a 1979 Dodge van skidding towards the exit. Mutt turned to Quick Kick. “Not suspicious at all, right?”
“Hurry! Maybe we can catch it.”
The Joes raced towards their rented vehicle, a Ford Escort so non-descript the clerk probably hadn’t noticed the thing had left the lot. “Okay, realistically, what are our options here?” asked Mutt, adjusting the passenger seat safety belt.
“Worst comes to worst, you’ll probably have to shoot some tires out.”
Mutt gestured towards his temples. “Think about that, Kung-Fu Fighting. We don’t want to do anything to endanger that van, given who we think is inside. And if we’re wrong anyway—”
“Then we just attacked an innocent civilian vehicle.” Quick Kick groaned. “Nuts. But we can’t just let them go.” The Escort blew past the parking lot, ignoring the 10 MPH speed limit.
“Of course,” replied Mutt, as they reached the exit. “We’re going to have to keep following, radio for some back-up, and…hey!”
Quick Kick slammed his fists against the steering wheel. “You’re darn right ‘hey!’ Where the heck did that van go?”
“I UNDERSTAND LOW-LIGHT’S FIRST ATTEMPT WAS A BUST,” said Beach Head, crumpling a paper coffee cup in frustration.
“He’ll keep trying,” General Hawk said with authority. “He has to.”
Scarlett took her place in the debriefing table’s third seat. “Even if Falcon is deprogrammed, have you given any thoughts to what happens next?”
Beach Head shook his head with disgust. “Four Joes dead at Camp Alpha, all at his hands.”
“I’m confident he won’t be held criminally liable,” Hawk answered, praying his instincts were right. “However, the investigation into this could take months.”
“Then there’s the issue of provin’ he’s truly been deprogrammed. That he won’t snap back under Cobra’s control one day.”
Scarlett closed her eyes, held a breath. “Even worse, there’s the burden Falcon’s going to carry for the rest of his life. I can’t begin to imagine what he’s going to be living with…General, realistically, do you think Falcon’s ever going to be able—”
“I’ve discussed this with Psyche-Out,” Hawk responded, attempting to quell any more unproductive speculation. “The precedent for this is negligible. Unfortunately, we’re in unknown territory here.”
Beach Head opened his mouth to add another thought. The emergency broadcast signal drowned out whatever he was going to say. Soon, the dejected image of Alpine appeared on the screen. Reporting from the hospital, he offered the Joes yet another round of bad news.
TWENTY-THREE MINUTES PRIOR, Mindbender had delicately introduced Hannibal Barca’s DNA extraction into the protoplasm armature. He was in the process of collecting samples, of testing the chemical reaction to this latest addition, when one of Destro’s flunkies entered.
“I heard you the first time,” the doctor told the Iron Grenadier, annoyed by his presence in the doorway. “And my response is the same—I’m busy.”
“But Commander Destro was adamant,” the flunky countered, showing more spine. “He’s not one to be kept waiting.”
Mindbender used a Pasteur pipette to dribble one last agent into the stewing bath. Waited another thirty seconds for the non-response he’d been expecting. Content the process was going according to plan, he finally stood. “Fine. We’ll get this over with.”
The Iron Grenadier didn’t direct him towards Destro’s chambers. Instead, they took a detour into a section of the base Mindbender had yet to visit. Three floors below his lab, Mindbender was ushered into the middle room in the Section C-8 hallway.
“I’m going to assume you have a good reason—” he blustered upon entry. The thought was left incomplete, his jaw aiming for the polished floor. The doctor had entered a makeshift hospital room. In the midst of the nurses and doctors were two familiar faces.
“Before you depart into hysterics,” spoke the voice behind Mindbender, “please understand that he’s receiving the best of care imaginable.”
The doctor didn’t turn to face Destro. Eyes closed with fury, he spoke with clenched teeth, “You have no right. No right to—”
“I have every right, Mindbender. To protect my interests, to defend the dignity of my subordinates, whom you seem to abuse at will…yes, I reserve the privilege to ensure you stay focused on your assigned task.” Destro breezed past Mindbender, stepping closer to Bobby’s hospital bed. “Even if the measures taken might be perceived as distasteful.”
“This is all your fault, Brian,” the woman seated next to the bed spat with anger, tears forming. She stood, rushed towards Mindbender. “You understand this? I blame you!”
Destro made a “tut-tut” sound with his tongue before gesturing towards his men. “What did I say earlier about hysterics? Guards, make certain she doesn’t interrupt again.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you this merciless, Destro,” said Mindbender, observing with disgust Diane’s removal. “When did you learn—?”
“About the dreaded Dr. Mindbender’s prosaic past as an orthodontist? The medical experiment that twisted his mind beyond repair? It’s an open secret amongst our former organization, Doctor. And, truth to tell, one I’ve rarely viewed as relevant.” The civility in Destro’s tone began to diminish. “Yet, when I discovered your unauthorized access of our files, and monitored the call logs…I felt compelled to act. Ah, why the sour expression?” He gestured for his men to escort the doctor to the boy’s bed.
He allowed Mindbender a moment to take in Bobby’s face. To reflect on the wages of sin.
Destro took a careful step towards the doctor. Dared to place a hand on his shoulder. “You should be happy, Doctor. A family reunited. And, assuming you behave, an opportunity for you to personally oversee the treatment of your boy. Would Cobra Commander ever exhibit such compassion?”
Mindbender couldn’t feel the presence on his shoulder. Only registered the soft texture of the young man’s diaphanous skin. He clenched Bobby’s hand tighter, made a silent vow.
And, only a moment later, left these chambers and returned to his work.
LADY JAYE HAD LEFT THE CABIN FOR A GROCERY RUN. Left in the mood she was typically in, following another pointless round with their guest. Flint was left behind, stomaching the stench of eintopf, some nasty European stew the Baroness was adamant about preparing.
They weren’t keeping her in cuffs. Psyche-Out advised against it, and as exasperating as the woman could be, the Joes saw no evidence she truly wanted to escape anyway.
What she did want, however, was beyond inscrutable.
Flint entered the kitchen with his coffee mug. Adopting the friendly-yet-serious tone he’d mastered in recent days, he asked, “You want me to warm up that stew?”
The Baroness, wearing jeans and button-up flannel, withheld her sneer. “It’s fine. I take it you’re going this round alone?”
“You don’t have to view every interaction as conflict, Baroness,” he replied, taking the seat opposite her. “Or should I call you ‘Leigh’?”
She dropped her spoon into the bowl. “If you so desire, ‘Mr. Dugard.’ Let’s not pretend your side is above deception.”
“Touché. It’s a shame what this conflict has done to both of us. Not easy, adopting new roles. New faces. Not knowing for sure just who’s staring back in the mirror, which lies you’ll have to keep straight today. Can really play games on you. Isn’t that right…Anastasia?”
Flint recognized the look. The practiced countenance of someone withholding a severe reaction; most likely, a negative one. The moment lingered.
“I’ve been wondering how long you’ve kept that one in your pocket, Flint.”
“Then you also know that we’ve looked into your connection to Jocelyn Kristofer. Kept the Cisarovna family’s floors spotless, did she?”
“She’s a good woman. And she deserves better than to be used as a pawn…for either side of this nonsense,” Baroness said, her voice exposing a sense of regret. A sincere reaction, nonetheless. One Flint wouldn’t hesitate to exploit.
“Colin Kristofer. That was her son. And he was more than a passing acquaintance, wasn’t he?” Flint leaned closer. “I want you to explain to me how that snake is wearing his face right now.”
Baroness locked eyes with her host. Let him wait it out for a moment before responding, “I’m not obligated to provide you any answers.”
“But you want to, don’t you?” Flint answered, channeling sentiments he knew to be true. “Some part of you is sick of this life, I can tell. When you turned state’s evidence last year, that wasn’t a scam, was it? Some part of you really wanted to escape the serpents. Wanted a life outside of this lunacy.”
“You’ve been eager to believe that, haven’t you?”
“Maybe. And, just as possible, I’m a chump for buying it.” He couldn’t help thinking of Lady Jaye, of numerous “disagreements” during recent months. “Could be, Cobra had a new agent on their payroll. And us dumb grunts, we weren’t aware of his capabilities. Didn’t know his talent for…coaxing certain performances out of people.”
Flint recognized the tone of someone hiding more than she knows. Spotted that subtle shift in body language. “What’d he do to you? How’d he convince you to turn yourself in? To tell a story so believable every profiler and psychoanalyst with a government pension bought it?”
“This has grown tiresome, Flint.”
“Has it?” Flint stood. “I thought we were getting somewhere good. I thought we were circling in on that little quirk in your makeup the Romanian creep exploited. That tiny doubt, that nagging voice…that buried memory that needed to be nudged.” He stepped closer, placed his hands on her chair. “Maybe to the fore, maybe back into the darkness, but either way, he sure knew how to play you.”
She refused to look his way. Kept her eyes straight on the opposing wall. “That’s enough, Flint.”
Flint leaned closer. Directly into her ear, he teased, “Did he do too good of a job? Is that why you can’t figure out who you’re supposed to be now?”
Flint smirked. Took a step back, motioned as if he were only obeying her commands. Then, she caught him moving towards the door. “I think there’s only one way to find out. And that’s going to the source.”
The Joe opened the door and welcomed their guest. Every hair on her body stood erect, every sense told her this could not be. He walked in like he owned the place.
“Hello, dearest,” spoke the Romanian. “I trust you’ve been a good girl in my absence?”
POLYESTER ITCH FROM THE MONKEY SUIT had Low-Light in a bad mood.
Not that it wasn’t an honor to be asked to stand as Falcon’s best man. One more opportunity for Low-Light to pay his debts to Duke, to show respects to everyone’s favorite first sergeant. Just hard to believe Falcon would ask him of all people. Hadn’t he made much closer friends with the Rawhide crew? Didn’t he have any buddies, here in his hometown?
Low-Light examined the church, every pew packed with Cobra officers. Copperhead was offering Major Bludd a stick of gum. The shock forced him to take a step back, reevaluate his surroundings.
“Ah, makes sense,” the sniper whispered, the chimes of the wedding march drowning out his monologue. He’d entered this holy place through the refurbished dream device. Boasted earlier about his ability to subvert the contraption, to enter Falcon’s dreams and erase that Eurotrash’s conditioning.
Now was his chance to prove it.
The bride made her stroll down the aisle, accompanied by a Viper regiment. The full veil covered a portion of her beauty, perhaps, but nothing could distract from that uniquely feminine gait, the shimmering black waterfall of her hair, flowing over her right shoulder. A Mollucan python slithered its way through her bouquet.
Falcon sucked in a breath, turned to his best man. “Tell me I ain’t the luckiest sonuvagun living, Low-Light.”
He leaned close to Falcon’s ear. “You sure you want to go through with this, though? Positive there ain’t something amiss?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just don’t want you to fall for something that comes too easy. Too caught up in what feels right, not realizing that it’s nothing but a…dream.” The sniper patted his breast pocket, reassured himself he knew how to play this round.
He’d been too pushy the last time. Yelling at the lieutenant, warning him of the dangers of not seeing the truth. That might work on a timid mouse like Tripwire, but this was one arrogant soldier Low-Light was dealing with here. He couldn’t have his mind made up for him.
“She have any troubles flying her family in, though?” Low-Light asked, as the bride loomed closer.
“What’s that mean?”
Low-Light moved even closer. “Her aunt and uncle. Folks we met in New York. I don’t spot ‘em anywhere.”
Falcon was thrown off for a second. Was going to question what Low-Light was talking about, when the minister’s stage cough ordered them quiet.
The bride reached the dais. Her hands slipped into Falcon’s. Low-Light stayed quiet during the minister’s delivery, even that part about “speak now or forever hold your peace.” He’d hoped their talk would trigger some feelings within the lieutenant. Force him to realize he didn’t want any part of whatever was behind that veil. No such luck, it seemed.
After the usual spiel, delivered with just a hint of a sibilant hsss, Low-Light was asked to present the ring. Innocent as possible, he handed over the felt box. Before walking away, however, he clasped Falcon’s arm. Whispered a joke in his ear about not having to learn how to pronounce “Arashikage” now—not unless Kimi was one of those “liberated types.”
“Something the matter, dear?” asked the bride, pulling Falcon closer.
An awkward moment later, he came to, removed the ring, and began repeating after the reverend. The ring was slipped on her finger. Orders were given to kiss that bride. Falcon moved in for the kill, finally peeling back that veil.
Pythona offered a smile, embracing Falcon with talon fingers and forked tongue. She closed her slit eyes, greeted her groom’s syrupy tongue with her own. Falcon pulled himself away, spoke more with his eyes than his mouth as he beheld his bride with horror.
She reached for his tux, inadvertently piercing holes through his lapels. “It’s your darling bride, Falcon. Who else were you expecting?”
Low-Light attempted to step between them. “So you finally picked up those hints I was dropping, Lieutenant?”
Pythona responded by having her talons grow extra inches, then swiping violently at Low-Light’s face. “You need to butt out of this!”
The sniper chuckled to himself, so proud of the patience he’d exhibited earlier. “Guess I’m just a buttinsky, sister.”
“Eeeigh!” she shrieked, taking her left hand into her right. Blood was dripping into the carpet. Low-Light showed no mercy. Concentrated harder; made certain that ring grew even more thorns. That the tips piercing Pythona’s skin were forming new tips, sharper ones that would enter her bloodstream. Just keep cutting from the inside.
As the congregation descended into panic, Falcon grabbed Low-Light. “What’s going on here?!”
The sniper answered honestly. “You’re starting to see these freaks for what they are, Lieutenant. This is a dream, and if we don’t defeat Cobra here, you might never escape these bellycrawlers!”
“Get them!” screamed the Crimson Twins, in unison, from the back row. The assortment of snakes sprang from the pews, all hungry for blood. Low-Light mentally commanded the floors to become lava, a trick he pulled from a childhood game.
“Remember ‘Don’t Touch the Floor,’ Lieutenant?” he asked. He expected Falcon to laugh in agreement. Instead, Falcon was clutching the sides of his head, fighting against the migraine of a lifetime.
“What is this…these are my friends…can’t let them…” he said with his jaws grinding, collapsing to the floor.
Low-Light bent over, tried to speak in a soothing voice. “It’s all right, Lieutenant. You might feel some pain in the short run, but trust me, I—”
Falcon’s fist snapped against the sniper’s chin. “You’re not helping! I’m sick of you coming here!”
Low-Light restrained himself. The lieutenant had a point. These were his dreams. Low-Light was the intruder here. And if he chose not to take the sniper’s advice, if he didn’t care one whit about how this oddball trained himself to fight against the nightmares, then Low-Light had no shot in this fight.
Zartan reached the dais first. Followed by Firefly and Major Bludd. Low-Light kept them back a few inches with the ol’ one-two, but was down on the carpet in less than a minute. Scrap-Iron joined the dogpile, followed by a dozen Vipers, consuming Low-Light in a mass of fists and teeth.
“Step aside, vermin,” spoke the voice of Pythona. Cobra’s mass subsided, obeyed their queen. The sniper rolled over, through the haze caught an image of the beautiful beast approaching. Her ring finger was missing. That made him smile, at least.
Those other fingers, though, were growing even longer talons. Acid seeped out of the nails, devouring the carpet. Feet away, Falcon, cradling his face against his knees.
“Not real…not happening…not to me…” he muttered.
“Pay no attention to the cripple,” Pythona said with an icy intonation, lifting Low-Light by that itchy tux. “You’ll be reunited soon enough.”
Her nails reached for Low-Light’s eyes. Merciful, perhaps, ensuring he wouldn’t have to witness the rest of this slaughter.
BACK ALLEY BEHIND A CHINESE RESTAURANT. Pungent street smells—urine-splashed dumpsters, old cabbage, decaying rats—take her right back. Kimi’s thirteenth birthday. Only one the Blind Master ever acknowledged.
She hadn’t thought of it for years. The gift of an Arashikage relic, a tantō blade passed from one generation to the next. Blind Master gave her quite the speech, laying on the importance of the blade. Another masterpiece from the Onihashi legacy. Today, just one piece in her arsenal.
Kimi examined the tantō, watched as the alley liquefied, reformed as that Irish boathouse. She didn’t make the connection, then. Why stabbing the monster in white with that particular blade should’ve held such significance.
And, at this moment, couldn’t quite grasp why the point of view was shifting. Why she saw the incident through that monster’s eyes.
“Jinx…” came the call.
She ignored it. Thought she was hearing things.
Too caught up in the latest reality shift. Life on a mountain. Bizarrely, she knew it to be the Hkakabo Razi. How? Why were men in gaudy polyester suits hosting parties and backroom deals here? No one dressed for the weather. Weather she’s proud to be beating, even though she’s from southern California and despises the snow.
What happened to that sudden burst of civic pride? Why recoil at the thought of being a proud American?
The surroundings became expressionistic nonsense. She heard a voice call her name again. The name she’d pompously chosen for herself, the one she’s now stuck with. Around her now, the home of her family.
Not the two-story out in Fremont. The place her father called home, before he rebelled, chose a different life. One that took him half a world away.
She’d never visited before. But the Blind Master came to her dreams, not so long ago. Brought along an image, a sensation. A taunt, really. Pacific breeze on her tongue. Noontime sun rippling off the rivulet.
Weeks back, the urge to visit, to reconnect with that part of herself, was instantly buried. Was she wrong? Why resist such beauty? Why did she believe it’d been burned away?
Burn? Why think of that word?
First crackle of the blaze surfaced in the distance. She rushed to the danger, saw the landscape eaten by fire. Fought off some dark urge in her skull, saying this is just. More than just, a thing to be admired.
She couldn’t resist the call now. Kimi ran from the fire, ran towards that voice. The call of the man she knew she could no longer deny.
The fire was reborn as timber, a small country church out in the woods. The congregants all serpents, terrorists she’s devoted her life to fighting. Near the pulpit, she eyed the man calling her name. He’s a shell of a man, really. On his knees, crying out in frustration.
The snake congregation stood proud, as a freak Jinx recalled from the madness in the Himalayas sliced acidic claws into her teammate’s flesh. Low-Light’s scream of agony was the loudest sound she’d ever heard him make. Jinx cursed herself for being too late.
Looking down, Jinx realized she was dressed for battle. Three shuriken were released without a thought. The freak, Pythona, dodged two of the stars. The third removed a portion of her ponytail.
“So, come to interrupt our big day?” Pythona teased, now standing above Falcon’s broken form. Jinx noticed then their garb. Nearly spat with anger. Made a crack about virginal white clashing against Asparagus colored skin.
Somehow, the tantō was in her hand. No memory of reaching for it. No real thought put into flinging it in the freak’s direction. It connected with one of those slit eyes.
The freak screamed. Didn’t stop until Jinx had finished the work. One voice reminded her this was a dream; feel free to release those dark urges. Another stated the ninja was merely giving into her base instincts. Exposing her true self. She told both to be quiet.
“Falcon, can you hear me?” Jinx asked, on her knees, arms wrapped around her man.
He kept whispering, “Not real…not real…”
Jinx held him closer, assured him that she was real. “Only thing that matters. You an’ me, you mope.”
Her hands on his face, she watched as the tremors stopped. Falcon’s eyes opened again, grew less glassy, began to resemble the real thing.
Lips met for a kiss. Another shattering of reality. In Utah, the lieutenant’s body lurched from the bed, as if it’d been repelled. Low-Light, still fighting off the shakes, had just entered with a fresh cup of coffee. It spilled across his boots, got crushed as the sniper raced to greet his teammate.
In California, Tommy and Snake Eyes were in for a more severe surprise.
FLINT EXPECTED SOME KIND OF REACTION. Truth to tell, he wanted a radical response. Anything to shake Baroness out of her pose of indifference.
Did the job too well, though. Just the sight of the Romanian was enough to drive the woman into a panic. To have her shouting foreign obscenities as she lifted her bowl, hurled it at the ghost’s face.
Flint put his arms around her, tried to talk her down. Didn’t notice she still had a fork clutched in her hand. Didn’t notice until she stabbed him in the fleshy portion between his thumb and pointer finger, that is.
The panicked action was enough to break his grip. Enable her to run to the left, reach the kitchen window. The Romanian attempted to reach her, but just missed the tip of her heel as he lunged over the sink.
Baroness had been wandering the woods for nearly an hour now. Lady Jaye was still processing this info.
“Yup. An idea so bad, it could only be conceived by two blockheads,” she said, flashlight passing over the demonic night eyes of a perplexed raccoon.
“Cut us some slack, Jaye. We had to try something drastic,” Flint said in defense, standing to her left.
“So drastic you had to keep it a secret from your teammate?”
“Was afraid you’d object to it, Lady Jaye,” came the voice to her right. Chuckles, no longer incognito.
“And I wonder why! By the way, even if you nailed the dialect, I don’t see how you got the specific voice right.”
Chuckles rested his Maglite against his hip. Used his free hand for emphasis, not that Jaye was truly invested in his answer. “Those tapes Law told us about? Mainframe isolated the audio, pulled out the reprobate’s vocal track.” The Rawhide shivered. “Vincent Price has nothing on that ghoul.”
Flint was a few inches behind. Squatting, flashlight trained on the dirt, he lifted a finger. “Hold on; think I’ve picked up the trail again.”
Jaye turned back, murmured her agreement. “Definitely looks like it. Any idea what’s in this direction?”
SHE’D GOTTEN THE CALL twenty minutes earlier, confirming Falcon was out of the woods. Any specific details, regarding what the lieutenant had done while under Cobra’s influence, and how The Brass wanted the Joes to proceed, were listed as Confidential. Jinx, still high on her victory, still savoring that kiss from her sweetheart, didn’t fully appreciate the ambiguity in Dial-Tone’s message.
Standing above her hospital bed were Tommy, Keiko, and Snake-Eyes. (Still in his rubber mask. She knew it was impossible, but she could’ve sworn she caught a grin beaming under that molded rubber.)
Tommy handed her a paper cup of water. “You didn’t have any run-ins with Shirley MacLaine while in Psychic Dreamworld, did you?”
“Dreams, the Astral Plane, Alcheringa, the Binghi spirit land…who’s to say where one ends and the other begins?” Jinx asked, imitating Mr. Nimoy, host of their favorite show. One of the few bonding moments she shared with Tommy during her early years with the family were Wednesday nights, glued to the set.
“We’re just glad you’re okay, honey,” said Keiko, reaching in for her fifth hug.
Tommy’s expression took a turn. “We don’t know that yet, Keiko. The doctors say Kimi might need to stay for a few more days. You were practically in a coma, girl.”
Jinx handed back the cup, then stretched, best she could. “Honestly, way my body aches, I believe it. Don’t feel like I’m in a fog, though. Mentally, I’m sharp as a tack. Ready to take on any of those nerds on Jeopardy.”
Snake-Eyes offered an “okay” sign. Keiko giggled, then touched Jinx’s leg. “Good to know, honey.”
“Seriously, I feel like things are finally making sense. That I’ve gotten enough clues to piece together the answers.” She hesitated. “To finally make all of this right.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tommy, taking the seat closest to the bed.
“Uncle Tommy, I know you don’t want to hear this. But the Blind Master wasn’t lying. Not this time.”
Tommy waved his hand, didn’t hide the irritation. “We’re not discussing this. You need to rest, not indulge that old man’s bull—”
He was interrupted by Snake Eyes, pressing on his shoulder. Tommy looked to his friend, then his cousin. He grudgingly nodded, gave her permission to continue.
“I’m sorry, Tommy,” said Jinx, searching for the words to follow. “But I know the truth now. There was no rival clan, no war against the Arashikage.” She reached out to touch hands with her cousin. “Tommy, it was Keone,” she said with steely eyes. “It’s still Keone. He’s still out there…and I’m doing anything I can to finally stop him.”
“HOLD IT, Baroness. I didn’t come to fight.”
The trail led to an abandoned village shop, a good eighteen miles from the cabin. Old Man McAllister’s place was once the main store for the community. A place to stock up on needed supplies for the winter, to fraternize with the local farmers or argue politics. Now, it housed mostly squirrels, and the occasional drunken teenage couple looking for a little privacy.
“I’m certain,” the Baroness answered, flashlight blinding her. Lady Jaye motioned for her to come closer, arms raised.
Flint and Chuckles had been convinced to stay behind. Not a hard argument to make, given how badly they’d screwed up earlier. Jaye wasn’t entirely certain she could pull this off, could actually talk this hateful (and hated) woman down, but it was her job to make the impossible look easy, after all.
“I realize you had quite a scare earlier. Way I see it, a hardcase like yourself wouldn’t have a reaction like that over nothing.” Jaye patted down her opponent, confirmed the snake hadn’t forged a weapon out of tree bark or the like.
“So they told you—? Flint, how is his hand?”
“He’ll be fine,” Jaye answered, pretending she heard no sincerity in the Baroness’ question. “And, if circumstances permit, that incident doesn’t have to count against you.”
Baroness felt the bracelets grip her wrists. “These lies grow increasingly insulting, Joe.”
Lady Jaye escorted her prisoner to the store’s front porch. Invited her to have a seat. “Listen, we need you. Doubt that’s a big shock. So, certain things can be forgiven.” Jaye swallowed more than a little pride before continuing. “What we have to know is if we can trust you in the future. If you’re willing to live a quiet life somewhere far away from all of this, or if we’ll have a repeat of that incident in Wisconsin every time we do you a favor.”
Baroness looked away. “That wasn’t…this is impossible to explain. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Who would, Ana?”
“I don’t want you using that name,” she answered, still refusing to face Jaye.
“Why wouldn’t I? Seems to me, it suits you better than ‘Baroness.’”
Her prisoner had no immediate response. Jaye began to wonder if this was actually working. If appealing to some portion of the Baroness’ humanity, however that might be defined, could crack the woman. Jaye still didn’t believe a word she’d been saying, all of this talk about “Ana” and this serpent’s “true self,” but if it got the desired results…
“You think you’ve discovered this soft side of me,” Baroness finally said, looking back in Jaye’s direction, moonlight revealing the callous face Jaye knew so well. So much for optimism. “All because of my time with Jocelyn. Who didn’t even turn out to be…” She had to turn away again. “You Joes. I should’ve known you couldn’t leave her out of this.”
“Leave her as an open target for Cobra? No, Ana, we couldn’t do that.”
The Baroness collected herself. The body language shifted, grew less tense. “Is she safe?”
“You mean, are we certain your friends won’t be slithering in her path?” Jaye was prepared to spew fire, let “Ana” know just how deeply she resented the snakes for what they’d done to Mrs. Kristofer. Instead, Jaye held in a breath. Channeled her sweet Aunt Harriet. “We’re doing what we can.”
“Could I possibly…could I see her?” the prisoner shyly asked.
“Y’know what, Ana? That might be arranged.”
WHAT DID KEONE CALL IT? The “Phoenix Sleep?” Something like that.
It’s delightful, really, the techniques these humans have developed here in this fallen world. Your loyal Keone, slowing all of his bodily processes down to less than a crawl. Healing his wounds by meditating, like some lesser form of mammal.
He requested you bury him in the snow, up here in the mountains. Said it would aid in the preservation, act as a natural form of cryogenics. A logic to that, true. But you’ve seen the wounds. Somehow, your trusted guardian allowed that blind fool to damage several of his internal organs.
Critical wounds. Wounds that portend an unhappy fate for your companion.
You lean over his body, pull down the mask. A vial is removed from your pouch; inside are countless lepidopterans. A phalanx of moth allies, a species these hairless apes will never discover in their realm, to aid your friend.
It’s been so long since you’ve relied on the old technology. So long since you’ve given home more than a moment’s thought.
The winged specs of mercy flit free of the vial, follow due course and travel into Keone’s nostrils. They’ll do their job there, nurturing the tissues, repairing the broken cells.
It’s a three-hour trek back to the road. A nagging voice reminds you of how long it’s been since you engaged in such manual labor. You tell yourself you don’t mind. Keone has his moments, but he’s been exceedingly loyal. When he recognized the barnacles that needed to be scraped off, the sacrifices he had to make to prove his devotion, Keone acted accordingly.
Acted far beyond what his commander could’ve asked, truthfully. Did Keone need to travel to America, to hunt down the remaining bloodline?
No, it was overkill. But a joyous thing to behold, nonetheless.
The pistons in this primitive internal combustion engine are coughing up filthy murder. You exit the truck, express some of the colloquial profanities. You’ve journeyed nearly three miles on foot before you catch the distant headlights.
You pat your face, make certain you remembered that movie star mask.
A father and his ten-year-old son greet you in the pickup truck. They ask your name, and you realize you’ve yet to choose an American name for yourself.
You tell a lie. Tell proud papa William that you share the appellation his adorable little boy has adopted. “Billy,” you say with a smile, confident the mask is conforming to your lips.
This seems to amuse the senior William.
Three Williams in a truck together, riding the roads, making small talk over the radio news broadcasts.
“You heard about them Saudis? Claim they’re doing us a favor. That we owe ‘em for keepin’ gas prices so low? Pfft.”
Yes, you’re well aware of global petroleum issues, of how this modern world relies so heavily on the energy derived from old bones.
And you’re taking notes.
Twenty minutes and the Billy Crew has inched closer to civilization. William’s declared he’s hungry; suggests a steak at a truck stop. Billy sees golden arches ahead and demands fast food.
How many of these gaudy gold and brown buildings have you passed by in the preceding years? Never stepped inside one, never had the reason. The décor is nauseatingly plastic. You catch a glimpse of a packed tray passing by, make a mental note the food seems just as artificial as the tables and chairs.
The smell, however, nearly knocks you over. So rich, so indescribably enticing. It’s the scent of salt, potatoes, and tallow—you could pick them all apart separately, but you’ve never experienced this combination all at once.
The food arrives in under five minutes. Quite a feat for this species—sautéed mollusks from your clan’s most skilled chef require nearly an hour of preparation.
Billy is prodded by his father to be a good host. He offers you one of his “frenchied fries.” The salt, the aroma, are addictive.
You look around, witness this sea of humanity around you. The mutually beneficial exchange of currency and goods. The freshly waxed floor and the yellow caution sign. The mix of smiles and bland, bored expressions, as one family after another approaches the counter and exits with a brown, grease-stained bag.
Such an intriguing society. So much more complex than you initially assumed. This system they’ve created, the trivial yet momentous feats they’ve accomplished, have to be seen to be believed.
Some part of you is appalled. The other…