The body of water turned out to be a sea. Dusty liked hot weather, but even he could admit that the fresh salt breeze blowing inland felt good after the heat of the desert. This was particularly true when, as now, the personel of G.I. Joe were loaded down with more or less the entire stores and armory departments. It had taken some inventive thinking, but eventually sledges had been cobbled together out of tent poles and everyone had been loaded down with double field packs. There had been some grumbling about this, but it was mostly cosmetic. Everyone pulled their weight (in some cases, nearly double it).
It had already been afternoon when they'd been transported to wherever this place was. Dusty hadn't said anything yet, but he had sinking feeling that the situation was about to get even weirder than it already was. Some of the plant life was familiar, but not quite right. The scorpions and spiders were more or less the right shape but not quite, and were colored in patterned in ways that he'd never seen before. The desert hare that he saw bound away before them was a type he'd never seen. The snake he spotted sunning itself on a rock was entirely unfamiliar; based on the diamond-shaped head, he gave it a wide berth.
Dusty Tadur had been to every desert on Earth. He was intimately familiar with the plant and animal species of each; knowing where you could find food and which plants indicated water was the difference between life and death in the desert. He didn't want to say it out loud, because it sounded crazy, but he was having a hard time disputing the evidence of his own eyes.
He knew every desert on Earth. He didn't know this one. One plus one were adding up to impossible, but then Dusty had seen the impossible happen enough times to know to keep an open mind.
When the sun started going down, though, there wasn't any doubt at all. Hawk ordered them to stop for the night, and the Joes settled in with all the speed and efficancy of career soldiers.
The stars were brilliant here, in a way that Earth hadn't known since the invention of the incandesent bulb and air pollution. And not a single star was familiar. No Northern Star or Southern Cross. No Big Dipper or Summer Triangle. And while there was a band of light that somewhat resembled the Milky Way, the darker dust bands were all wrong.
It was Roadblock who finally broached the subject, as they were sitting around a small brushwood fire eating an MRE dinner.
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more." The big heavy machine gunner tossed a food wrapper into the fire.
"We're not." Dusty shook his head.
"Understatement of the century there, man." Tunnel Rat had his feet propped up on a largish rock and was lounging back against his field pack. "Unless I forget my high school science classes, which to be fair is possible, our stars have never looked like this. So, Toto, I don't think we're on earth any longer."
"What do you suppose happened?" Heavy Duty poked at the fire and threw another couple of branches on it. "This has Destro's fingerprints all over it."
"Wouldn't suprise me." Roadblock frowned. "But why hasn't he turned up to gloat about how well his new toy worked, then?"
Dusty shrugged. "Could be he just wanted us out of the way, and we lucked out and landed somewhere with breathable air."
"You know the odds against that?" Alpine raised his eyebrows over the top of his water bottle.
"Yeah. But you got a better explaination?" Dusty shrugged again.
Alpine mulled that over for a moment. "No."
"So how the fuck are we getting back?" Tunnel Rat swung his feet off of his rock and sat up.
There was an uncomfortably long period of silence.
"Great." 'Rat flopped back down. "We're screwed."
"Now, when have we ever been in a situation we couldn't get out of? First step would be finding out if anyone lives around here." Dusty pointed towards the surf with one thumb. "There's hoof prints down there in the damp sand. I don't know if the horses had riders, though."
Everyone turned around. Stalker was standing behind them. "I followed them up the beach for a bit. The prints here got trampled too much for me to make out details, but further up that way there are some good ones. Those horses had shoes, and the prints were deeper than they should be for just horses. They were carrying riders. I already breifed General Hawk."
"They're horse prints?" Tunnel Rat frowned. "You're sure?"
Stalker looked mildly insulted. "I can identify four hundred animals based on prints alone. I know a horse track when I see one, 'Rat."
"Just making sure. Alpine, you were talking about odds...what're the odds that a planet aside from Earth has horses?"
Everyone was quiet for a moment.
"Boys," Roadblock broke the silence. "In my professional opinion, there's some weird shit going on. I've seen some weird shit in my day, but this here is some really weird shit."
Alpine raised his water bottle. "Amen to that, buddy."
Dusty spent some time later after he'd eaten poking about the local flora and fauna outside the camp with a flashlight. Like the deserts he was accustomed to, the animal life here was mostly nocturnal to escape the heat of the day. He counted six different types of scorpion, four different types of snake, about ten different kinds of spider, roughly a billion varied insects of varying types, a small slim-bodied fox with dun-colored fur, and far off he heard the distinctive yapping of coyotes.
One of the scorpions was large, nearly the size of an emperor scorpion. This one, however, was a dull rust-red with darker markings on its carapace. Dusty poked it with a stick; it snapped one pincer at him in a halfhearted sort of way but seemed more interested in the cricket it was eating.
"Aren't you a pretty girl?" Dusty gently ushered the scorpion into his helmet; it went docilely enough. "You look like a Ruby to me. You stick with me, my girl, and I'll make sure you get all the crickets you can eat."
Ruby, being a scorpion, didn't say anything. She did twitch her stinger in what Dusty thought was an agreeable sort of way.
Back in camp, Dusty set Ruby up in an empty ammo box, grabbed a sleeping bag from the hassled-looking greenshirt who'd been appointed as the makeshift stores clerk, and went looking for a good place to bunk out for the night. He finally found a nice soft patch of sand, which happened to be right next to where Storm Shadow had chosen to settle in for the night.
Storm Shadow, like most soldiers, could sleep just about anywhere on just about anything. Junko, however, was not a soldier. From what Dusty had gathered earlier when the sleeping situation had been made apparent, she wasn't even that big on camping. Not that she had complained, exactly, but the look of resignation in and of itself had conveyed the message.
Her prior misgivings notwithstanding, she was snoring quietly, snuggled down so far in her sleeping bag that all that was visible of her was forehead and hair. Tommy was still awake, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping bag and frowning intently at the edge of a knife.
To Dusty's eyes, the knife didn't appear to need the attention, and while he wasn't a ninja Dusty still knew a few things about sharpening cutlery. But then, Dusty suspected that Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes sharpened knives and cleaned firearms not because the weapons actually needed it, but because the ninja needed something to do to keep themselves occupied. In a strange sort of way, they reminded Dusty of his grandmother, who liked to crochet "to keep her hands busy."
Momentarally amused by the sudden mental image of a ninja surrounded by yarn and sweater patterns, Dusty ambled over and plonked himself down next to Tommy. "This spot taken?"
"No. Pull up some sand." Tommy fished a small whetstone out of his sack of gear. "I've shown her I don't know how many times how to properly sharpen a knife, and she still can't get an edge like I can." He eyed Dusty's ammo box warily as he oiled the stone. " Do I want to know what you have in there?"
"Probably not." Dusty opened the box and checked on Ruby; she was happily nibbling on a second cricket he'd caught and dropped in. "Ooh, you were a hungry girl."
Tommy shifted slightly further away, still eying the ammo box as if it was holding a switchblade. "Please shut that thing. Whatever that is, I really don't want to wake up with it in bed with me."
"She wouldn't hurt you." Dusty paused. "I don't think. The big ones usually aren't that venomous on Earth, but I suppose the rules could be different here. Oh, fine." He shut the ammo box again and secured the lid. "Happy?"
Tommy relaxed. "Yes. Thank you."
Dusty settled in. After a few minutes, though, he spoke again. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You can ask. Can't promise I'll answer."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Dusty nodded at Junko. "Lots of guys have a girl at home. You could have just said 'hey, I'm going home to see my lady for a week.' No one would have thought less of you for it. You didn't have to lie about it."
Storm glanced down at the woman and smoothed some hair back from her forehead. "It wasn't that. And to be fair, I didn't lie. I just said that I was going home to take care of some things. You filled in the blanks on your own; it's not my fault if you were wrong."
Dusty waited patiently.
Tommy sighed. "I have made a great many enemies over the years. Nearly all of them would be thrilled to get their hands on someone I care about. I don't want her put in danger or hurt just because she had the poor sense to get involved with me." He almost absently smoothed Junko's hair back again. "Gods know, I tried to discourage her. I wanted to do anything but, but I tried." A little smile. "She wouldn't have it. I can't say I'm sorry that she proved more stubborn than me."
"Never try to out-stubborn a woman." Dusty nodded sagely. "It never works. So why not tell us? We're not your enemies any longer."
"No. But many of your enemies are my enemies, and I know better than anyone that Cobra can be very, very good at getting information out of people. I told Snake Eyes and my aunt, but no one else. She was safer when no one knew about us. Even the Joes."
"Oh." Dusty mulled that over for a moment. Ninja. They couldn't do anything normally, even relationships. He thought of Snake Eyes and Scarlett, and quickly amended that thought. Especially relationships.
Still…Tommy was a good guy, once you got past the shell of cynicism, the tendency to mouth off, the my-issues-have-issues psychological trauma, the tendency towards casual violence, the seemingly universal ninja penchant for appearing right behind people without warning, and of course the fact that Dusty could remember several occasions when the ninja had killed friends of his. In a strange, ninja-y sort of way, Dusty supposed that hiding his girlfreind's existance from pretty much everyone was about as close to 'showing he cares' as Storm Shadow knew how to get.
Tommy glanced down at Junko again and smiled. Dusty blinked; it wasn't that normal smug, sly little knowing smirk that everyone on the team had come to associate with Storm Shadow. It was a true smile, one that crinkled the corners of the ninja's eyes and took at least five years off of his apparent age. "You know, whatever happened to bring us here, I can't really complain too much. I don't see her as often as I'd like. I'll take what I can get."
"Fair enough." Dusty settled in and closed his eyes. "Stalker says there's people here."
Dusty cracked an eye open again. "What?"
Tommy tapped an ear. "I put them at about fifteen miles down the coast; the water's helping carry the sound. Some sort of settlement. I can hear people shouting every now and then, and horses."
"People as in people? Like, human people?"
"Sounds like it." Tommy shrugged.
"Roadblock was right. This is just weird."