Haha! Hi! I'm back! Finally!
Argh, I know it's been freakin' AGES since I last updated this one...I've been so slack lately, I haven't written ANYTHING. Good thing the new Joe movie came out...I went and saw it, and got motivated :) I didn't think it was too bad :D
I had a lot of trouble with this chapter, which is mainly the reason I took MONTHS to get it finished. In the end, I just kinda figured to hell with it, what I've got will do. So it's a little bit jumpy, not the best I've written...but it's up. And I have some ideas, which is more than I've had in a little while...
So anyway, sorry for keeping everyone waiting, thanks for being patient, and I hope it's not too disappointing, considering the wait :)
Nomad stared. The only thing she could think of to say was, "He what?"
"Yeah," the laser gunner answered. Then he added quickly, "I don't think it's anything big, though."
Again, her brain failed to supply her mouth with words. "Oh," she said, sounding stupid even to herself.
The lift door slid open. Nomad and Sci-Fi stepped aside as several greenshirts, Muskrat and the burly Tollbooth, who usually manned the Joes' heavy-armoured bridge-laying vehicle, filed out. Sci-Fi entered the lift and held his finger on the 'Open Doors' button. "He really didn't tell you?"
Nomad shook her head.
Sci-Fi shifted again. "Hey, look…I dunno what happened with you two -" He held his hand up to cut Nomad off as she opened her mouth, "but I'm sure he would've told you if he could've. Maybe he just didn't have time. Right?"
"Uh…right," Nomad said, forcing a small smile as she nodded. "That's probably it."
Sci-Fi clearly wasn't satisfied. "So…um…is everything okay? I mean, with you and him?"
"Yeah, everything's fine," she said quickly. She wasn't exactly sure if it was a lie or not. Either way, it didn't sound very convincing. but Sci-Fi took it for what it was - an excuse for him not to have to hear about it. "Oh, well, that's alright then," he said awkwardly. "Sooo…" He very obviously fished around for something else to say. "You still up for the NV tonight?"
That's right; there was a game of paintball going on in the trenches tonight. She'd forgotten about that. "Sure," she answered, again a little too quickly. "Why not?"
Sci-Fi grinned. "Awesome. You can be on my team. We've got Outback and Spirit as well; we'll kick ass."
"Sounds like a plan."
The laser gunner punched her affectionately on the arm, all awkwardness forgotten. He never dwelled on stuff like that for very long. Nomad backed away, and he let the doors slide shut.
Nomad leaned against the wall, biting her lip and - while she had a few moments alone - allowing her dismay to show. It felt like her heart had sunk right down into her stomach.
Why hadn't Lowlight told her he was going somewhere? It wasn't like they were fighting, exactly. They just…weren't really talking.
…And why was that?
Because she'd fucked up.
Well, maybe Sci-Fi was right. Maybe Lowlight had been in a hurry to go and just hadn't had the time to tell her. Or maybe he hadn't been able to find her.
So why hadn't he left a message with someone?
Maybe he'd already changed his mind about her. Snake Eyes had warned her not to make him wait too long. What if she'd missed her chance?
Nomad sniffed and rubbed a hand over her face. Then another thought hit her.
What if Lowlight hadn't changed his mind, and something happened, and she didn't get the chance to talk to him?
No. That wasn't worth thinking about. That was a 'what if', and Psyche-Out had drilled her about those far too many times.
No. No, Lowlight was coming back, and when he did, she was going to tell him everything. She'd worked it all out last night; she had her little speech all planned out. This was just…an unexpected setback.
Nomad pushed off the wall. Sci-Fi was right; it was probably nothing serious. If it was, the sniper would've told her, whether he was angry with her or not. Hell, the way news travelled in the Pit, she would've heard about a big mission by now anyway. If there was one. So she had nothing to worry about.
"Well, you're getting better," Scarlett said, wiping the sweat from her face with her towel.
Nomad looked up at the redhead from the floor where she'd sprawled out to catch her breath. "I'm getting better, but…?"
Scarlett grinned. "No but. Just you're getting better. Slowly."
"Huuuh," Nomad groaned, patting her battered body down. "It doesn't feel like it. You know, I think you're only saying that so I don't just quit."
Chuckling, Scarlett offered her hand to pull Nomad to her feet. "If it makes you feel any better - don't tell him I told you this - but Tommy thinks you've gotten better, too."
Scarlett held her fingers an inch apart. "A little bit."
"Oh, of course. He couldn't be too generous." Nomad grinned as she grabbed her water bottle and towel and started to wander toward the door.
The redhead grabbed her gear and followed. "So, you're on Sci-Fi and Outback's team tonight?"
"And Spirit, too. Apparently we're going to…I believe Sci-Fi's words were 'kick ass'."
"Not if I can help it," Scarlett retorted. "We've got Dusty, Beachhead -"
Nomad groaned again. "Oh, crap…"
"- and Psyche Out."
"Psyche Out? Really?"
Scarlett nodded. "Uh huh. You might find it hard to believe, but even he likes to get out of his office sometimes."
Nomad groaned. No doubt the shrink would find some way to get into her head even during his time off.
Reloading her paintball gun, Nomad crawled forward and rolled silently into the trench, landing lightly on her feet. A moment later, Outback dropped down beside her, grinning broadly at her before slinking away and disappearing around a corner.
Nomad had to admit; she was enjoying herself, too. It had been a while since she'd got out on the range in the dark. It was nice just to have a bit of fun, especially after the last couple of missions.
She'd almost even forgotten about Lowlight.
She pressed herself back against the dirt wall of the trench as a small movement caught her attention - somebody creeping past the intersection to her left. There was no need for night vision gear tonight - as it wasn't a proper training run, the floodlights that lit the base had been left on. It actually created an entirely different environment than being in full darkness - the floodlights cast deep shadows into some of the trenches while brightly illuminating others.
Nomad waited a few more seconds before moving, her combat boots making no sound at all on the ground. Here, it was hard packed dirt - in other places, the trench floor was covered in gravel that crunched, or fine sand that made it hard to run. Sometimes they were flooded with water, but that wasn't very often, because the drainage wasn't too good.
Peeking around the corner, she saw her target hugging the trench wall, keeping to the shadows. It didn't do much - Psyche Out hadn't covered his blonde hair. None of them had bothered much with camouflage; Outback was wearing his white shirt, the one that had 'SURVIVAL' emblazoned across the chest. Nomad herself was wearing a black tank top - it wasn't like she had many colours in her wardrobe to choose from, as Lady Jaye had pointed out disapprovingly on many occasions - but as Sci-Fi had pointed out her arms were almost as white as Outback's t-shirt anyway. Her tan from Hawaii had faded quickly.
Nomad and Outback weren't the only ones who stood out, though - somewhere in the trenches was a third team, put together by Jeckle when she heard there was 'a fun game of paintball' going on, and she was wearing fluoro green shorts, multicoloured runners (which, she added proudly, had glow-in-the-dark bits on them) and a tie-dyed t-shirt she'd borrowed from Footloose. Oddly enough, the outfit kind of suited her.
Psyche Out paused. Nomad drew back as he looked over his shoulder - she wasn't in the right position to shoot him without putting herself in full view of anyone else who might turn into that stretch of trench. She wasn't taking this seriously…but that didn't mean she wanted to get shot. Ever since Sci-Fi had shot her in the ass that time, she'd had to put up with light-hearted wisecracks whenever she had a paintball gun in her hands.
Besides, it'd do Psyche Out good to feel a little uneasy. Damn shrink had done it to her enough times, she was due some payback.
She stayed a few seconds behind him, stalking him through the maze. Every now and then she heard the pop of the others' paintball guns. She was sure Psyche knew he was being followed - he was too clever not to know.
Glancing around a corner, she quickly ducked back as she caught sight of Beachhead peering cautiously into the trench she was walking in; luckily, he was looking the other way, watching Psyche Out's back. As much as she wanted to, Nomad couldn't shoot the big Ranger in the head. She wanted to live.
She also had no doubts that Beach probably wanted to shoot her as much as she wanted to shoot him. Sure, he got to run her into the ground in PT, but as if he'd pass up the chance to actually shoot her.
Nomad hoisted herself up out of the trench and flattened herself to the ground, glancing around before slithering toward Beachhead's position, using the small stack of tyres nearby as cover. There were several blinds dotted around the trenches - stacks of tyres, camouflage nets…anything that could be used as cover, yet still could be moved around easily.
"Cosy, ain't it?"
Nomad almost fell back into the trench in surprise. "Son of a - Sci-Fi?" she hissed, squinting.
Right beside her, in the shadow of the tyre stack, the corner of a camo net twitched slightly. "Son of a Sci-Fi," the laser gunner murmured thoughtfully. "Is that an insult?"
"Totally." Nomad rolled beneath the net beside him. "I didn't even see you there."
"That's the whole point."
She elbowed him. "The point is to have fun."
"This is fun." Sci-Fi gestured toward the corner that Beachhead was still hovering around. "Got my eye on him. Psyche Out's not far ahead, either."
"I know. You can have Beach, but the shrink's mine."
"Deal. Go get 'im, Tiger."
"Take Beach out first."
Sci-Fi grinned mischievously. "You just don't want him to get you."
"Yeah, pretty much."
With a smirk, Sci-Fi shifted his aim ever so slightly, breathed out, and squeezed the trigger.
Nomad waited just long enough to snigger at the gruff cursing coming from Beachhead's direction, then clapped Sci-Fi on the shoulder and rolled back into the trench.
She didn't worry about being cautious until she reached the Ranger. He was leaning against the trench wall, rubbing his broad chest where Sci-Fi's paintball had hit.
"What're you smirkin' at?" he growled.
She didn't bother trying to keep the smug tone from her voice. "Shush. Dead people don't talk."
He took a half-hearted swing at her (which, had it connected, probably still would have dazed her). She ducked under his arm, chuckling, and jogged away, leaving him muttering something about smartasses to her back.
She found Psyche Out a few minutes later, heading toward the western fence of the base. She tailed him for a little while - she couldn't stop herself from grinning in satisfaction when he began to look a little unsettled.
Still…she felt a little mean.
But only a little.
Raising her rifle, Nomad deliberately kicked a clod of dirt along the trench. Psyche Out spun fast, but not fast enough - a splat of green appeared on his shoulder before he could lift his gun.
With a sigh, the shrink sat down on the ground. "I should've known it'd be you," he said, grinning wryly at her.
"Because I doubt anyone else on the range tonight wants to shoot me as much as you do."
"That's probably true," she agreed, strolling over to him. "But really, you should've exp -"
"Hold it right there."
Nomad winced, then groaned as she turned to see Jeckle looking down at her, crouched on the lip of the trench. Despite her brightly coloured clothes, she looked slightly alarming - apparently, she'd gathered 'trophies' from the Joes she'd shot; Scarlett's wristbands, Dusty's goggles, Spirit's bracelet. She also had Outback's green headband on. It made her shaggy hair stand up in all directions, adding to the bandit-ish look. The sleeves of Footloose's tie-dyed t-shirt were rolled up to her shoulders, the rest of it was gathered and knotted at her waist - otherwise, the hem probably would have reached her knees.
Jeckle gestured to Nomad's rifle. "Drop it, please."
Curious to see where the diminutive Joe would go from here, Nomad didn't move. From the corner of her eye, she saw Psyche Out grin. No doubt he was psychoanalysing both of them.
"I said drop it." Jeckle's voice would have sounded dangerous, if not for the slight shake of suppressed laughter.
"Or what?" Nomad pressed, also trying hard not to laugh,
Jeckle sighed and rolled her eyes. Then she lowered her gun and fired a paintball into Nomad's thigh.
"Ow! Hey!" Nomad swore, clapping a hand to her leg and limping around a bit. Psyche Out sniggered; she kicked him gently with her boot. "You shut up, shrink."
"Now, are you gonna drop the gun?" Jeckle pressed.
Nomad turned and went to bring her rifle up. Jeckle fired another shot, this time into Nomad's other thigh.
Playing along, Nomad staggered and hit the ground beside Psyche Out. "Alright, alright," she said, throwing her paintball gun aside and peering up at the other woman. "You got me."
Jeckle grinned in genuine delight and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. "Really? We won? That was easy. Jeez, Nomad, I thought you were tougher than that."
"I am," Nomad replied with a grin. "I just happen to like you, that's all. Think yourself lucky."
Jeckle stuck her tongue out. "Hey, 'Wreck!"
As the other woman waved to Shipwreck, somewhere out of sight, Nomad flung herself sideways over Psyche Out and grabbed his gun out of his hands. Before she could squeeze the trigger, though, a paintball pellet slammed into her chest, covering her in Jeckle's favourite bright green paint.
"And now you're dead," Jeckle sighed. "Too bad, Nomes. I really didn't want to have to do that."
Laughing and shaking her head, Nomad leaned back on her elbows. "Sure you didn't."
Psyche Out patted her shoulder. "Nice try, though."
Jeckle pointed at him. "Shush. You're dead."
He held his hands up. "Sorry."
"You are forgiven."
A shadow fell across them as Shipwreck appeared on the opposite side of the trench. He smiled broadly across at Jeckle, obviously proud of her. "Well, looks like we win," he gloated.
Jeckle smiled sweetly at him. "Uh…we, Shipwreck?"
The sailor's expression turned to one of confusion. "Huh?"
"I'm sorry, Shipwreck," Jeckle said dramatically, "but these trenches are only big enough for one of us." Without warning, she raised her paintball gun and shot Shipwreck square in the chest.
The sailor clutched at his heart. "Jeckle…how could you?" he gasped, falling to his knees. "I thought…we were…a team."
"Meh. I lied," she said with a shrug. "And now, these trenches are mine! Bwahahaha!"
"I…don't think…so!" Shipwreck whipped his own gun up and pulled the trigger.
Jeckle gasped, staggering backwards and touching her fingers to the bright paint blending into the belly of her trippy t-shirt, her eyes wide. "Nooooo!" She fell flat on her back, making gurgling noises and twitching.
Nomad glanced across at Psyche Out, who looked like he was trying to hold back his laughter as much as she was. "Who needs movies?"
Jeckle lifted her head. "Oi. Not done yet!"
"Oh. Sorry, Jeck."
The other woman grinned cheekily, flapped her arms and legs one last time, and lay still. "Okay, now I'm done."
Psyche Out rolled his eyes and gestured to Shipwreck, now lying on his belly with his head in his hands. "She learns from the best," he muttered to Nomad.
Jeckle sat up abruptly. "So…how 'bout we call it a draw?"
Still towelling her hair dry, Nomad pushed open the mess hall door, ready to get her coffee fix for the night before parking her ass in front of the TV in the rec room, and stopped in her tracks. There was somebody sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room, his back to her.
For a moment she thought it was Lowlight, and her heart skipped a beat. Then she looked again. "Ripcord?"
The sandy-haired man started a little, turning in his seat. "Oh…hey, Nomad. How was the paintball game?"
Nomad grinned, heading for the coffee machine. "Oh, you know…I got to take out Psyche, Jeckle killed everyone, stole their stuff and then killed off her own team before being shot by a betrayed Shipwreck…the usual. How come you're up so late? You're never up this late if you can help it."
Ripcord gave her a small grin, then shook his head, declining her offer of coffee as she held up a mug. "Ah, just thinking. It's nice to have the place to yourself every now and then."
She chuckled. "True. Though I'm usually here with Lowlight. Or sometimes Bazooka comes and sits with me when he's sneaking a midnight snack." With a full mug of freshly brewed caffeinated goodness, Nomad joined Ripcord at the table.
Uncharacteristically, the usually talkative man said nothing else. He just sat there, looking at something in his hands; Nomad craned her neck to see a heavily creased photo of a pretty blonde woman. Ripcord glanced sideways at her, then handed the photo over.
"Who is she?" Nomad asked. "And…is she wearing a bear suit?"
Ripcord laughed quietly. "Her name was Candy Appel. We kinda had a thing going, a little while ago."
Normally, Nomad would've said something like, 'Candy Appel? Seriously?'. But not this time. She'd noticed the use of the 'was'. Past tense. It could mean one of two things, but in a situation like this - in a place like this - she assumed the worst. "Ah, Rip, I'm sorry."
He waved a hand. "It's okay," he said, "don't worry about it. It was years ago."
Nomad nodded awkwardly, not really knowing what else to say and unsure whether to press it, in any case. She was used to being on the other end of the questions - trying to avoid them, rather than ask them. "And…the bear suit?"
Ripcord grinned. "She used to do kids' parties, and stuff. Bongo the Balloon Bear, she was called."
"The Balloon Bear."
Nomad stared into her coffee cup, already half-empty. "So…what happened?"
Ripcord looked at her, and she immediately cursed at herself. "It's none of my business, I shouldn't've -"
He laughed again, this time sounding more like his usual self. "Relax," he said, nudging her with his shoulder. "It's okay. Seriously."
Nomad handed the photo back to him. He looked at it for a moment before tucking it into his pocket. "I don't even know if it would've worked out," he said. "I mean, she was a civilian. I couldn't exactly tell her anything. She didn't like that. I guess I couldn't really blame her…I never even told her my real name." Ripcord paused, then grinned gave her a wry grin. "Then again, with a name like Wallace Weems, I suppose that's a good thing, right?"
Nomad grinned back, still feeling a little awkward. "Gotta admit, I do like Ripcord better."
"Turns out her father worked for Cobra Commander," Ripcord continued. "Candy got dragged into it, and…well, you know how it goes, right?"
Nomad sighed. "Yeah, I think I can guess."
"Still, I like to think that maybe if she hadn't…well, maybe we could've worked something out." Ripcord glanced sideways at her. Maybe she wasn't hiding how awkward she felt as well as she thought, because he chuckled again. "And that's my emo moment done for the day."
Nomad drained her coffee and clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, after all the emo moments everyone's put up with from me, I think you're entitled to one every now and then."
Ripcord stretched his arms out over his head. "Well, this one's done," he said, smiling. "No point worrying about things we can't fix, hey?" He pushed his seat back and stood. "And speaking of done, I think I am for the day, too. Unlike some people around here, I like to sleep."
Nomad turned in her seat, lightly punching his arm as he stood. "Hey, I like sleep. I just can't seem to get the hang of it, that's all."
Ripcord grinned. "Keep trying, Cutie."
"No worries, Sweetheart."
She waited until he was out the door before going to refill her coffee mug. Things that couldn't be fixed…she had a few of those. She wished she was as good at dealing with them as everyone else around here seemed to be. Still…she was doing what she could. She'd be doing a whole lot worse if she wasn't here at the Pit.
But that was enough of that. She was in a good mood after the game, and she wasn't going to let anything bring her down. Not tonight. She wasn't even going to think about what was going to happen when Lowlight got back. And she definitely wasn't going to think about what it would be like if she lost him, like Ripcord lost his girlfriend.
Not at all.
She was lucky, though, wasn't she? That she could tell Lowlight everything?
Well…almost everything. But she'd fix that once he was back. Because that could be fixed.
Unless he'd changed his mind about her.
Nomad sighed in exasperation. So much for not thinking.
Nomad glanced around the War Room surreptitiously, and was happy to see that she wasn't the only one responding to Airtight's announcement with a blank stare. So she wasn't the only one who sucked at science.
The news had come when she'd been having breakfast after PT. Lifeline had hurried into the mess hall and proclaimed that Airtight had finished his tests on the samples he and Doc had taken from the village Cobra had decimated, and a briefing had been scheduled for 0900. Almost immediately, the mood in the mess hall seemed a little brighter; the neurotoxin situation had been weighing on the Joes - and the greenshirts - more heavily than anyone really wanted to admit.
Maybe now, Duke would lighten up a bit.
…Nah, not likely.
"Can we have that again in stupid, please?" Clutch asked, raising his hand and earning himself a few chuckles.
Airtight sighed. "C4H10FO2P. Sarin," he said, as if he was talking to a bunch of five-year-olds. "I assume everyone knows what that is?"
Nomad nodded - she'd heard of sarin gas, the deadly neurotoxin, although she didn't know the exact details. She had the feeling Airtight was going to explain, anyway. Probably using a lot of big words. He did that a lot - not to make everyone else feel dumb, he just tended to get a little carried away when he was talking.
She was right. "Sarin is a nerve agent about five hundred times more toxic than cyanide," Airtight said. "It's an odourless, colourless liquid, usually vaporised for use. Just a tiny concentration of it can be fatal; breathe it, you die. Get it on your skin, you die. Clothing can continue to release the vapours for up to half an hour after the initial contact. Obviously, it affects the nervous system; the victim usually suffocates when the muscles around the respiratory system fail. And it works very, very quickly, inhibiting the enzyme cholinesterase by forming a covalent bond with -"
General Hawk, leaning against the desk at the front of the room, quickly opened his mouth before Airtight could get too scientific. "So, Cobra's neurotoxin missiles are filled with sarin?" He shook his head and scanned the room. "That can't be right. Not if Destro was making as big a deal as what Nomad and Storm Shadow say he was."
Airtight shook his head. "That's the thing," he said. "Normally, sarin works very quickly, sometimes in only a minute. The toxin in Cobra's missiles worked slowly. But the missiles don't just contain sarin - the toxin has the chemical components of sarin in it, but it's not just sarin alone."
"Why would anybody want to make a nerve gas work slower?" Hawk wondered, narrowing his eyes. "What's the point?"
Doc, seated in the front row beside Lifeline, shrugged. "For the sheer horror of it?"
"Because they're insane?" Storm Shadow added. For once, Nomad agreed with the ninja.
Hawk nodded to Airtight. "Go on."
The other man nodded, running a hand through his receding hair. "It's actually quite brilliant," he admitted reluctantly. "I think Destro's actually created his own neurotoxin. It's a concentrated dose - extremely potent - which causes paralysis and, after death, rapid cell decomposition. As soon as the toxin is exposed to oxygen, it begins to break down, eventually leaving no trace at all. That's why it took so long to get the results. We had to find a way to test the samples properly without them breaking down. We were lucky they lasted as long as they did."
Breaker raised his hand. "But we saw the bodies," he pointed out. "They were still there."
Doc nodded. "Yeah, but they were already starting to liquefy when we got there. A few more hours and there'd be nothing left but black stains in the dirt."
Nomad, remembering the way Doc's hand had broken so easily through the skin of one of the bodies at the village, failed to repress her shudder.
"So Cobra Commander has his very own brand new biological weapon," Hawk said grimly. "And he's got who-knows-how many bases producing them. And by now he knows how well they work."
Doc and Lifeline stood up. "We're already working on developing an antidote," Doc said, gesturing to Airtight. "But…this is big, Hawk. Even if we do find one, I'm not entirely sure it'll help."
"Keep working on it," Hawk said, nodding. "Hopefully, it won't come to that, but we'll take what we can get." His sharp eyes searched the room again. "Mainframe, Dial Tone, Breaker, find Destro's suppliers. We'll send a team to the Extensive Enterprises building if we have to."
Nomad sat up a little straighter. If there was a mission to break into Extensive, she wanted in on it; the company was run by Tomax and Xamot, the twin brothers who were part of Cobra's upper echelon.
They were also the ones who'd attacked her, taking her by surprise in the rainforest of Sierra Gordo, just before Lowlight had been shot. For all she knew, it could've been one of them who'd shot him. And if it was…
"The rest of you," Hawk was saying, "be ready for anything. Anything. I don't know what's going to happen, but whatever Cobra Commander's got planned, we're gonna be there to stop him."