Attack of the Wereworms

Challenge fic: to use a whacked out idea in a story that actually makes some kind of sense, in homage to the craziest storylines the cartoon gave us.

I don't own GI Joe (and considering this, it may be a good thing) and make no profit from any of these stories – I just do them for fun and out of a slight obsession over some of the characters. I do greatly enjoy reviews, however. :D

This is my second and last entry for this challenge, and is outside of my usual continuity. Please enjoy!

"Crikey," Major Bludd muttered.

The feeling was shared by most of the small group of Cobra operatives who were currently half walking and half running along with the Australian mercenary down the small forest path, but with the Joes hot on their tails, turning around was not an option. They all wished it were.

Fleeing from the Joes was far from a novelty, and as far as operations went, this one was still a success: the Joes had found them, granted, but not before Mindbender had successfully gathered the readings he needed to conclude the experiment he had been conducting in the area. Most of the group had been in a fairly good mood even as the Commander had ordered the retreat, but then they had entered the thick forest that had been the planned escape route due to the hiding and ambushing potential, and their high spirits had evaporated pretty much instantly.

"Quiet, you fool!" the Commander hissed, addressing the Major. "It's just trees!"

"This place doesn't feel natural, Commander," the Baroness growled. "Just ask the ninja, his face is as white as his mask!"

Storm Shadow levelled a glare at her but reluctantly nodded, resisting the urge to accelerate his run and leave them all behind; doing so would not help his cause at all. It WAS tempting, however: the forest was obviously haunted, even to one such as him who had not been certain of the very existence of ghosts until he had passed the tree line. He was not about to admit he was spooked, however: he couldn't afford to damage his reputation, not when he'd worked so hard to get to where he was now within Cobra.

"My guess is that Mindbender's experiment caused some kind of mutation," he lied.

Mindbender and the Commander both briefly perked up, but even the happy thought of having accidentally created something dangerous was no match for the overwhelming impression of danger and wrongness that oozed from their surroundings.

"I doubt it," Destro said, further squashing the small hint of good mood in the Commander and Mindbender . "As distasteful as they can be, Mindbender's experiments have never had this kind of… flavour."

Nobody cared to argue, and the conversation died as the small group kept running and walking as fast as the narrow path allowed, constantly casting nervous glances around or, in the ninja's case, listening intently for any unusual sound.

"Add this to the list of reasons why I hate Cobra," Duke grumbled.

Scarlett, Snake Eyes, Stalker, Mutt, Junkyard and himself were hurrying down the path after the terrorists, and the First Sergeant was quite certain that they all felt the same way he did, including Junkyard.

As if to confirm, the dog whimpered.

"Yeah, I know, Junk," Mutt said soothingly, "it's crazy spooky in here."

"Cobra's feeling the same way I think," Stalker said, his eyes on the trail. "They're still hurrying, and none of them has left the group for an ambush yet."

"Are you sure one of them didn't jump out of the trail without leaving a trace for you to see?" Scarlett asked.

Snake Eyes shook his head, answering for his friend. He signed that even Storm Shadow was still in the group, pointing at a spot of track that Scarlett presumed he was identifying as having been made by the other ninja.

Stalker nodded in approval. "Snake Eyes is right," he said, "Storm's still with them, and he must be nervous too; he's not trying to hide his tracks very hard."

Duke frowned. "The NINJA is spooked? Okay, this officially puts this place square into the 'beyond creepy' category."

"Speaking of Storm Shadow, we should hush. No reason to keep telling him where we are," Stalker said.

"Right," Mutt said. "Junk, that's you too. Quiet now."

Junkyard immediately stopped whimpering and flattened his ears a little in submission to the command.

Duke nodded and signalled the others to follow quietly. The five soldiers, the dog in tow, hurried after their quarry, carrying with them the distinct impression that something unnatural was all around them, observing them. They assumed that their imaginations were just getting away with them.

They were wrong.

The Joes caught up with Cobra shortly after the sun had sunk below the tree line. Unsurprisingly given that one of them had probably picked up on their footsteps a good while before they were within sight, they found their enemies waiting for them and both groups engaged on sight.

The darkness became complete within minutes, and Storm Shadow grinned to himself: he had the advantage now; he could end this quickly and get some serious brownie points with the Commander.

As the Cobras continued to fire aimlessly in the Joes' general direction, answered in kind by the elite soldiers, the ninja jumped out of the cylinders of light projected by the many flashlights that were already turned on and went for Duke first – he fully suspected the man was capable of pulling a pair of night vision goggles out of his pants and he was a closer target than Snake Eyes - knocking the First Sergeant out by pinching the right pressure point and moving on to the dog, who was already jumping towards him. He dodged the animal's attack and put him to sleep with a strong poke under his ear, ducked under a beam of light, and ran towards Snake Eyes.

He was just about to disarm his brother when he felt something – or more accurately, many things - crawling very fast up his legs. He barely had time to glance down and see what it was before the worms engulfed him completely, and he didn't get a chance to so much as try and brush them off before they started biting.

Perhaps by thought association, he realized two things when he felt the tiny teeth that worms should not even have sink into every inch of his skin: there were no animal sounds around at all since the sun had set, and he'd been the only person actually moving in the battle: everyone else was stationary, simply firing their weapons or shining their lights. He just had time to scream before his consciousness slipped away.

Snake Eyes whipped his flashlight towards the very close scream, eyes wide under his visor: beyond the fact the scream had been blood-curling in an already spooky forest, beyond the fact it had originated from right behind him, he recognized the voice as Tommy's and as much as his brother was now an enemy, old habits die hard and besides, Tommy did not scream like that. Ever.

Most everyone did the same, and the combined beams allowed both the Joes and the Cobras to see a mass of worms that had been completely covering him suddenly retreat from Storm Shadow's blood-covered form, as if scared by the light. As soon as the squirmy mass left and therefore stopped supporting him, the ninja collapsed to the ground.

The Cobra Commander knew the time to cut his losses when he saw it: the Joes were bad enough, he was not about to try and deal with men-eating worms as well. GI Joe could worry about his bodyguard's corpse; he certainly had no use for it worth sticking around long enough to pick the thing up.

"COBRA!" he bellowed. "RETREAT! Keep your flashlights on!"

His followers were all too happy to oblige and ran off after him. Stalker cursed and briefly debated following, but with Duke and Junkyard down, it was out of the question: they'd never catch and apprehend the Cobras while carrying them, and he was not about to leave them on the ground as worm-feed.

"Mutt, you carry Junkyard," he ordered with a sigh. "I have Duke. Snake Eyes, is Storm Shadow alive?"

Snake Eyes was already kneeling by the other ninja, inspecting him. He nodded at Stalker and signed that their foe was not faking and was definitely out for the count.

"Good, you carry him; we're taking him prisoner. Let's go! Scarlett, we're counting on you to keep us well lit and to use flares or anything else necessary if these things come back."

Scarlett took a second flashlight and moved both beams in rapid sequence from one pair of feet to another as the group made their way out of the forest. She spotted worms approaching a few times, but they shrank away from the light every one of those times and gave them no trouble.

Duke and Junkyard came to at almost the same time, about half an hour later. From there, Duke helped with the lights and Stalker took over carrying Storm Shadow's gear, therefore making the load easier on Snake Eyes who refused to let anyone else carry their prisoner, arguing that he could still suddenly wake up.

They made it out of the forest about two hours later, and let out a collective sigh of relief. That sigh was the last of the discussion on what had happened until they were back in their well-lit transport and a few thousand feet in the air.

Storm Shadow woke up in a small cell that he guessed was within the Pit – there weren't many other organizations than Cobra and GI Joe with cells closed by force fields. Also, he could hear Snake Eyes nearby, just beyond the buzz of the force field. He heard the sound of the safety being released on a UZI, sat up on his bed and locked eyes with his brother, who was standing on the other side of the force field with the weapon pointed straight at him.

"That may not be a bad idea," the Cobra agent said, jerking his chin towards the gun, hands clenched into fists on his thighs. "How long was I out?"

Snake Eyes cocked his head at the first comment: Storm Shadow's voice was altered to a slightly higher pitched than usual, as if he were… Snake Eyes couldn't quite bring himself to think that his sword brother turned traitor and assassin for hired was afraid, but that was certainly what it sounded like.

"I thought, when we entered the forest, that I had just confirmed the existence of ghosts and spirits because I could feel an intelligent presence surrounding us," Storm Shadow continued, pulling his knees to his chest and not waiting for an answer to his question. "Did you notice, when the sun set, that there weren't any animal sounds anymore? No owls, no tadpoles, no wolves or other night time critters. What time is it now?"

Snake Eyes shook his head: he hadn't, he had been absorbed by the fact he was in the middle of a blind gun fight. He glanced at his watch to answer the second question, but Storm Shadow was already talking again.

"What are the blood samples showing?" he asked, looking at his arms. They were covered, much like the rest of his body, in pairs of small round bite marks.

Snake Eyes signed that the worms had given him some kind of bacterial infection and, finally breaking, asked the other ninja why he'd said the gun may be a good idea.

Storm Shadow chuckled nervously. "You still haven't put two and two together, have you? It'd be funny if only I didn't really need to convince you so that you'll do something about this…" He sighed. "Worms aren't pack animals, brother, and they don't usually hunt. The overwhelming malevolent presence I felt upon entering the forest, the one I'm sure everyone felt, was them. What time is it?"

Snake Eyes' eyes widened under his visor. Was Tommy trying to make him believe the flesh-eating worms were somehow supernatural? The ninja commando wouldn't have dreamed of denying the forest had been creepy, and the worms were certainly not your everyday garden diggers, but it was still quite a leap to start talking about paranormal things; one he was certainly not ready to make. He dismissed the Cobra operative with a wave of his hand and took a step back, expressing he wasn't going to waste his time listening to him.

Storm Shadow sprang up and stepped right up to the force field, a look of near panic on his face. Snake Eyes rolled his eyes at the theatrics and crossed his arms, tapping his foot.

"LISTEN TO ME!" Storm Shadow cried out. "They had a hive mind! Nothing else explains what we all felt OR how they all coordinated like that! And there aren't any animals in there at night other than them! And they BITE!"

Snake Eyes levelled his UZI at him again and signalled him to step back from the force field.

"They are some kind of collective were-worms," Storm Shadow snarled, quickly losing patience with his stubbornly disbelieving brother. "That's why they felt so unnatural and why it felt like a single presence to me! That's why there are no animals at night in that forest, they turn into those worms! They infected me, and when the sun sets, I will turn into more of them as well! You need to plug the vent and the plumbing, you can't let me escape this cell! And if you can't do that, you need to shoot me now!" The rant seemed to release a bit of pressure or alternatively, to make the ninja lose what little sanity he had left, because Storm Shadow actually managed a bit of a smirk as he continued in a tone closer to his normal sarcasm. "I'm sure you'll lose any urge to keep me alive once I transform anyway, and if you're going to kill me, I think I'd rather you do it before I turn into a mass of worms. Call me crazy, but for some strange reason, I'm just not looking forward to that."

Snake Eyes sighed and palmed himself, before signing to ask whether Tommy was trying to plead insanity to explain his betraying his clan and murdering his own uncle.

Tommy's mouth fell opened briefly, and then his whole face was tensed in a fierce scowl that forcibly reminded Snake Eyes of the very Master his brother had cowardly assassinated.

"Some brother you are," Storm Shadow growled. "How dare you still believe I killed my own kin? Why do you think I joined Cobra? For the sheer pleasure of working with insane idiots led by a psychopathic mad men? The Commander knows who framed me, and I intend to earn that information and avenge the Hard Master! And now I can't," he finished, his voice dropping to a whisper and his eyes widening in sudden realization. "I… I can't. There's no way I'm going to survive this, the Joes are going to stop me sooner or later…" He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and locked eyes with Snake Eyes again. "I swear on my blood and honour, I did not kill the Hard Master. Please, brother, since I'll soon be dead, YOU will need to find our Master's real assassin and take revenge."

Snake Eyes swallowed. He was nowhere near believing Storm Shadow was really going to turn into worms, but between the oath and his brother's tone and general demeanour, it was just about impossible not to believe the rest. It wasn't the first time Storm Shadow claimed he hadn't killed the Hard Master, but last time, Snake Eyes and his brother had also been in the middle of a fight that could very easily have been to the death, and it had been impossible to guess whether the claim was true or merely a distraction tactic.

This time, however… Snake Eyes cut his own train of thought before it could get too wishful on getting his former best friend back to his old self, but it occurred to him that refusing to do a little thing that would make the obviously distressed Tommy feel better would be petty and cruel. As well, once Storm Shadow found out he was not in fact going to turn into some kind of monster, they may be able to have a meaningful talk. He decided to humour the man as much as he reasonably could and, ignoring how silly he felt about it, he signed to ask whether his brother thought the worms could swim.

"No," Storm Shadow answered after a moment's reflection. "The thought of being submerged is filling me with dread even now, and I'm not even transformed yet. You're right; the plumbing is not a problem. What about the fan? Can you close it?"

Snake Eyes nodded and walked to the climate control panel for the cells. He flicked a switch and the vent shut itself off by way of a metal panel sliding over the grilled opening and clicking into place.

Storm Shadow glanced at it and sat back on his bed, his legs a bit shaky. "I'm feeling claustrophobic," he said. "I think you've done it. Thank you… who knows, maybe I can be cured if you can keep me contained long enough. What time is it?"

Snake Eyes looked at his watch and put three fingers up. His brother sighed and lapsed into silence.

Storm Shadow paced for a while; he'd told Snake Eyes everything he needed to, he felt repeating himself would actually diminish his credibility, so he could only wait for the inevitable.

He eventually sat down and tried to meditate. He wasn't particularly successful, unable to pry his mind away from what he'd become in just a few hours, but trying at least kept him relatively calm, which, if nothing else, was still less unpleasant than panicking.

By the time Stalker came in to replace Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow was down to going through his katas and making mistake after mistake as his mind grew more restless.

Stalker scanned the cell and the area in front of it and turned to Snake Eyes with one eyebrow cocked questioningly.

"Why is the fan sealed?"

Snake Eyes signed that the prisoner had requested it and that it had made him calmer. He ended by commenting that it was better to not induce a dangerous ninja to panic.

"I hate to break this to you, brother, but I AM panicking and I will soon be a lot more dangerous than a spooked ninja. Stalker, please, don't stay here by yourself. I have no idea why, but the feeling of claustrophobia is gone. I think the worms will be able to get out."

Stalker glared at him. "Can it, Storm Shadow. Snake Eyes reported your supposed concerns, we're not buying it. Whatever mind game you're trying to play, it ain't working."

"It's not a game!" Storm Shadow insisted. "What time is it? I'm thinking close to six o'clock? Is that right? The sun should set in a few minutes… you need to figure out a way to contain me!"

"The sun is setting NOW," Stalker said. "So let's see it, Mr Wereworms. Let's see you transform. Should be fun, seeing those worms were afraid of light and it's nice and bright in here." The Ranger sounded somewhere between irritated and bored.

Storm Shadow's eyes widened and he scanned the cell nervously, looking for the exit he couldn't see but that the worms' mass consciousness seemed to have detected. He wasn't really connected to the consciousness, not yet, but he already felt some of what it was feeling – he had felt a fear of water, he had felt imprisoned when the fan had been sealed, and now, much to his chagrin, he felt exhilaration coming from the strange presence in his mind. He had been trying to figure out how the worms thought he'd be able to escape ever since the trapped feeling had disappeared over an hour earlier, but even now that he only had moments left, he simply had no idea: the cell was perfectly sealed. Why the consciousness was not worried about the light was easier to answer: the worms would come into being with light all around them; unlike what was the case for the worms living in the dark forest and only existing at night, light would be normal to the worms that would be born here and they would have no reason to fear it.

He swallowed, feeling his last thoughts finally giving way to panic. He didn't want to transform, and if he did, he was very keen on staying harmless and alive, and eventually maybe free of the curse. If the consciousness was right and the worms broke free, he'd be dead before morning, he was sure of that much. Chances were several Joes would be as well, or at the very least infected like he was, which although they were technically enemies, was no comfort at all. Much like the fact his oh-so-clever brother, whom he knew was only humouring him, would have the shock of his life in a few moments, along with Stalker.

It felt a lot like his skin crawling when it started, and for about one quarter of a second, he was able to hope it wouldn't get worse. This hopeful moment passed and the pain started as his body was ripped into thousands of independent pieces and his mind scattered across all of them. The transformation was almost instantaneous, and Storm Shadow's scream was dead before it fully left his throat.

For almost a full two seconds, Snake Eyes stood frozen in shock, his mind temporarily wiped blank of everything but what he had just seen and what he was now looking at. Stalker emitted a barely audible noise somewhere between a soft whimper and a groan, and the spell broke just enough for the ninja to turn to his friend.

Stalker was staring into the cell with his eyes wide and his mouth slightly opened; all the blood had drained from his face and he was shaking. Snake Eyes knew exactly how he felt, and only his years of ninja training were allowing him to push past the horror and the shock of seeing a man, who also happened to be a former friend, transform into a mass of thousands of worms.

Not that he had managed to get very far past it. His mind was drawing a blank on what to do next. He suddenly remembered Storm Shadow saying he thought the worms would escape after all, and looked back into the cell to reassure himself that they were still there.

They were indeed still in the cell, wriggling in and around Storm Shadow's clothes. For a blessed split second, Snake Eyes thought Tommy had been wrong about their escaping, but he then noticed the smell and the noise coming from under the pile of worms. The floor beneath where Storm Shadow had been standing was hissing and soon started to smoke as the creatures that had once been a human ninja glistened, secreting acid that was eating right through the steel reinforced concrete.

Snake Eyes fought the urge to bolt and grabbed Stalker, dragging him further from the cell, buying a few extra seconds. The movement finally snapped his friend out of the shock and Stalker let out a string of curses that would have made a sailor proud, directed at the worms in general, at the fact they were escaping, and at Cobra for dragging them into the forest and leaving their presumed dead ninja behind for them to go and bring here.

"General!" he called into his radio. "Hawk, we have a problem, listen up and before you ask, I am NOT kidding. Sort this one in the same file as a human chameleon, telepathic twins and a machine that reads minds, okay? Storm Shadow's just turned into a few thousand worms, and they're eating through the floor. We're assuming they'll tunnel through to us since there's nothing under this level. Permission to engage?"

Snake Eyes, strictly out of nerves, silently snickered at the request before his brains caught up with the situation: if they somehow managed to kill the worms, they would be killing Storm Shadow, assuming the man was not gone for good already and would, as implied by Tommy the forest creatures did, return to his true self in the morning.

He clenched his teeth and pointed his gun at the worms, waiting for the order.

"Stalker, if this is a joke, you're on KP for a month," came Hawk's voice. "Assuming it's not, are the worms dangerous?"

"They're secreting acid that's eating through steel reinforced concrete right now and they also have teeth, just like the ones that attacked Storm Shadow in the forest. I think we can assume the prisoner was right and that they can bite people and turn them into more worms. Sir, they're in the floor and I can hear them coming this way. Snake Eyes and I are going to start shooting unless you order us not to."

"Engage," came the reply. "Reinforcements are heading your way."

"Thank you Sir."

A spot in the floor right in front of them started smoking and bubbling a mere second later. Both men backed up another step and pointed their weapons at it. As soon as the worms started emerging, they started firing.

The strategy proved ineffective: a few worms died, but there were simply too many targets, too small, and the ones that were hit more often than not carried on with whatever was left of their body.

Snake Eyes jumped for the ceiling and grabbed Stalker to pull him up, but the Ranger's boots were already covered in worms. Snake Eyes tried brushing them off with his UZI, unwilling to give up just yet, but Stalker cried out: the worms were biting right through his boots.

There was no time for Snake Eyes to agonize about whether to release his friend or not: it was already night, so Stalker's body started breaking apart right away. Snake Eyes let go, fleeing through the vent and activating the panic button on his radio to sound the alarm.

The worms followed, climbing up the walls and along the ceiling without so much as slowing down, and proved themselves to be faster crawlers than even a ninja.

Most of the Pit, that is to say the secret underground part of it, had been custom built to very precise specifications, and every room had been made at exactly the size it needed to be to best serve its purpose. The reason for some of the long term storage rooms in the lower levels being twice as big as they needed to be was therefore something of a mystery.

Flint and Lady Jaye had a theory that involved architects being sympathetic to the needs of on-base couples, and were, for the third time that week, testing just how plausible that theory was. The presence of mattresses and the lack of anyone nearby to hear any potential noise coming from the room never failed to convince them that the use they were putting the room to was indeed the intended one.

Not that either of them were doing much coherent thinking at the moment. In fact, they were completely absorbed in each other and in purely physical and biological considerations, which is perhaps part of why the alarm startled them so badly when it went off.

As engaged as they had been, they were both highly trained elite soldiers, and they were up and pulling their clothes back on within seconds, both of them muttering curses under their breaths.

"Breaker, what's going on?" Lady Jaye called into her radio.

Predictably due to their position in the lowest basement of the base, only static answered her. Radios, down here, were pretty much only good for sending pre-determined signals - such as an alarm.

"There's a phone five doors down, just before the corner. Ready?" Flint asked. He was holding the door handle with one hand and his gun with the other.

"I'm ready, all right," she replied. "Whoever is responsible for this thing going off is going to regret it, and if it's a Cobra, all the better."

"Just leave some for me, okay?"

Flint opened the door and looked out both ways, listening intently for any suspicious noise. He neither saw nor heard anything, so he signalled Lady Jaye to follow and they started running down the hall towards the phone. They were about halfway there when they heard a noise behind them and whipped around as one, guns pointed straight at the source.

"What the…" Flint muttered.

"No idea, but they just ate through a wall and they're coming straight at us!" Lady Jaye replied, opening fire.

Flint nodded and opened fire as well. "I'll bet you anything they're the reason for the alarm, too!" he said. "I say it's time for some worm puree!"

Despite the brave words, they never had a chance: their bullets had no significant effect on the thousands of worms, and when they turned tail and ran, the mass accelerated well past any speed ever achieved by any natural worm and overtook them. It was over in an instant, and twice as many worms left the hallway as had entered it, leaving behind two empty sets of clothes and an assortment of weapons.

Hawk cleared his throat to silence the room. The Joes gathered in the motor pool automatically stopped nervously talking amongst themselves and came to attention.

"First," Hawk started, "a short summary of the situation for anyone who either doesn't know yet or thinks what they've heard is a joke. Our time is short, so be assured I'm deadly serious and that I will not tolerate anyone wasting my time by questioning the reality of what I'm about to tell you." He paused briefly and scanned the room with a stern look that somehow made the already silent soldiers even quieter. "As most of you are aware, the Cobra ninja Storm Shadow was in our custody. I say was because he's currently loose and arguably, he's not Storm Shadow anymore: he has transformed into a mass of worms with very sharp teeth, a group consciousness, an ability to secrete acid that has proven to be strong enough to eat through any material present in the Pit, and a high degree of resistance to fire. These worms will turn anyone they bite into more of themselves, and at least fifteen Joes have already been transformed."

"Sir? I'm sorry to interrupt, but I… I think you could be wrong about that."

Hawk turned to the person who had talked, imitated by most of the other Joes, several of whom audibly gasped at the nerve of what turned out to be a greenshirt. Hawk clenched his teeth at the thought that if Beach Head hadn't already fallen to the worms, he would probably have bellowed at the hapless soldier. As it was, nobody seemed quite sure how to react.

"How so?" Hawk asked. "Speak up, son, we really don't have any time to waste."

The young soldier cleared his throat. "Well… generally, were creatures strive to satisfy two basic needs: reproduction and sustenance. What I'm saying is… they're not going to keep turning everyone they bite into more worms. They're going to start just… consuming them, if they haven't already."

Hawk frowned. "Just to clarify Private Hart's comment," he said, addressing the whole assembly, "due to the timing of Storm Shadow's transformation and to some other clues, we believe there is a chance that what we are dealing with has characteristics often associated with werewolves in fiction. As for the worms' need for food, we're working on the assumption they haven't fed yet because of the absence of blood or other remains. Is that all?"

"Yes, sir," the greenshirt said. "Sorry, sir."

Hawk nodded again and focused back on the rest of the assembled Joes.

"Aside from the possibility of fatalities right here among us, I'm sure you all realize that even if the worms were to content themselves with turning people, they would not stop at the Pit. If nothing else, we would still need to stop them to prevent this infection from spreading to the rest of the city. Doc has been transformed, but Lifeline is working on a cure. You," he pointed at the greenshirt, "will assist him, you're obviously well versed in this kind of phenomena. I want five more volunteers to help them, everybody else is on worm duty: we know we can't stop them, but we can slow them down and clear areas as they approach. Water has proven somewhat effective in making them retreat, but not in drowning them because they simply cling to the walls or ceilings when the floor is flooded. They do not go through force fields, but they dig around them. Dismissed, and good luck to you all."

"I think we have something, sir," Lifeline announced in his phone with a shaky voice.

"Use it," Hawk pressed. "Go!"

"I have no way to test it," Lifeline reminded him. "What if…?"

It was all Hawk could do not to scream at the medic and to consider the situation as carefully as he could afford: the worms had thankfully trumped their expectations and continued to only convert more people, but the good news ended there. Even counting Lifeline's team, there were only a handful of Joes left, and he didn't expect them to last long.

"We're out of options, Lifeline," he said. "I want whatever you have circulating NOW."

"Aye, sir."

Lifeline hung up and turned to his team of six. They all looked as nervous as he felt, and for what he thought were very good reasons. The 'cure' they had would, in the best case scenario, reverse the transformation by restoring full bodies out of the mass of worms. Alternatively, it may kill all the worms or reverse the transformation but leave a mass of unsorted worm-sized body pieces as each worm reverted back to exactly the bit of Joe they had been before the transformation without actually assembling themselves back into working organisms.

Building on the wishful thinking that the worms were indeed classical were creatures who reverted back to another form during the day, they were assuming that the worms had a mechanism to allow orderly de-transformation in the mornings, since they would otherwise never survive to see a second night, but they had no guess on whether that mechanism would kick in if they forced the transformation early by ending the curse, or infection, or whatever you wanted to call it. There was also a distinct possibility that the cure would do nothing at all.

In fact, the medic felt smart money was on that last possibility – not that there was anyone to take the bets: Ace had long since joined the mass of worms. They had compared tissue samples from one of the worms to non infected samples from themselves, had identified a hormone that was absent from the worms, and had synthesized that hormone as well as they could. On Hart's advice, they had added silver dust and holy water – the paranormal aficionado always kept a bit of both on hand – and to ease distribution, something to make the liquid evaporate at room temperature; that was their cure. It was the best they could come up with in one night, it was their only hope, and it was basically snake oil.

Lifeline's greatest wish, at this point, was that the worms would not reach anymore humans before morning, that they really would transform back into humans, and that they'd then have another day to find a cure or kill themselves. It wasn't a particularly cheerful thought, and he had not shared it with his team.

He had called Hawk from the climate control centre, and already had the subsidiary intake valve for the air supply opened – the one meant for the very purpose of distributing airborne chemicals such as antidotes or antitoxins. With one last gulp, he threw the still cold vial in the vent. He closed the vent a millisecond later and watched the vial smash open and the solution evaporate on contact with the warm air through the tempered glass.

He picked up the phone and called Hawk's extension again. There was no answer. He shook his head significantly at his team and sat down: here was just as good a place to wait for his fate as another.

Minutes later, the worms ate through one of the walls to the climate control centre and at precisely 2:23 AM, the last humans in the Pit were assimilated into the wereworm collective.

Storm Shadow woke up with the worst headache he'd ever had. He could hear a lot of people sleeping all around him, and knew even before he looked around that the whole nightmare had been real.

Opening his eyes confirmed it: he was in some kind of control centre, surrounded by a good two dozen naked, unconscious Joes. A clock on the wall informed him that it was 3:04 AM, which strongly suggested that the Joes had found a cure. Judging by Lifeline's clothes near a glass panel labelled as the subsidiary intake valve, the medic had inserted the cure in the air flow very shortly before the worms had caught up with him.

He gingerly got up, located the closest air vent, and disappeared through it. He would find some clothes in an area that was NOT filled with enemies who were in all likelihood about to wake up.

"Any trace of him?" Hawk asked as soon as Snake Eyes walked in his office.

Snake Eyes handed him the note he had found pinned on the door to his quarters and signed that one of his gi was missing.

"Many thanks for the medical care, the squirming is much better now. Sorry I couldn't stay, may you keep smiling rather than sliming," Hawk read aloud. He rolled his eyes at the note and threw it on his stack of paper to be filed.

"Very well. Go prepare your report, I want to finish documenting this and then, forget it ever happened."

Snake Eyes saluted and was off again, fully sharing his Commanding Officer's desire to put the incident behind them.