This fanfic is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and language.
of security really didn't come up much at HEAT headquarters. Oh, sure,
Monique Dupres had the official title of "Head of Security," but for the
members of HEAT, titles were just that, official. In reality, duties tended
to fall to whomever had the knowledge or talent to carry them out. So while
Monique might be the security chief, it didn't necessarily follow that
there was a great deal of security for her to be in charge of.
And why not? After all, Monique was a French secret agent, skilled in all manner of armed and unarmed combat techniques. And while her teammates weren't on her level, they were hardly helpless. Randy Hernandez had already proved himself quite a scrapper, and Monique was teaching him a few moves that would make anyone think twice about tangling with him. Elsie Chapman swung a mean blunt instrument, and even Mendel Craven was much handier with an energy rifle than you might guess.
As for Nick Tatopoulos, biologist and team leader, well... there was someone you simply did not want to mess with. Far from the stereotypical absent-minded professor, Nick was in excellent shape, and had a surprising amount of hand-to-hand training. Beyond that, however, was Nick's iron determination and fighter's spirit. He simply did not give up, and if he had to go through you to achieve his goal, so be it. And lastly, threatening Nick Tatopoulos was hazardous to your health for one very large reason.
That reason was Godzilla; several tons of lean, mean, fighting lizard, and very protective of his daddy." Somehow Godzilla always knew when Nick was in trouble, although no one was quite sure why. Elsie's latest theory was pheremones. Nick didn't really care, one way or another.
Considering the general abilities of the HEAT team, it wasn't surprising that the doors weren't locked during "business hours." But the sudden appearance of the gray-haired man in the front office did startle Elsie. HEAT didn't usually get any visitors other than the military.
"Can I help you?" Elsie asked, coming closer. She didn't like this man, and she could not figure out why. He was attractive enough, she supposed; his iron-gray hair was still full and thick, and cut neatly enough. His features were regular and finely cut, although his chin was perhaps a little too sharp. It was the eyes that bothered her, she decided. Dark and shrewd, they seemed to be assessing her. Then he smiled, and Elsie felt her dislike of him ratchet up another notch.
"Why yes, missy, I believe you can. I'm here to see Nick Tatopoulos. Is he in?"
"He's working on something right now," Elsie replied, her voice making liquid nitrogen seem balmy. "If you'd like, I can take a message and have him call you back."
"That won't be necessary, Dr. Chapman," Nick replied, striding out of the back room. "I'll make time for this. If you could go back into the lab and check on my experiment, though? I don't want the solution to burn."
The icy, over-controlled note in Nick's voice told Elsie that it was useless to argue. Besides, he'd just called her "Dr. Chapman," and Nick had never been one for formality. He seemed to be trying to hold onto his temper with both hands, and Elsie wasn't going to be the one to make him lose it. Excusing herself, she headed into the back room.
"Not bad," the newcomer observed, watching as Elsie left. "Your taste is improving, Nicky. Better than that little reporter, anyway."
"Elsie Chapman is a respected paleontologist and a valued colleague, not that I'd expect you to understand anything like that," Nick replied tightly. "How much?"
The older man placed a hand over his heart in obviously feigned shock. "Really, Nicky, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Save it," Nick replied, almost savagely. "You and I know there's only one reason you'd come looking for me, and that's money. So how much do you want this time?"
"Really, Nicky, you wound me. Maybe I just wanted to drop in and see how you were doing, hear about your latest project. You're studying that big lizard, aren't you?"
Nick's eyes flashed. "Congratulations, you've been watching the news. And I never figured you for the scientific type, so why don't you cut the shit and tell me what this is all about?"
The gray-haired man's gaze roamed around the room, noticing the patched walls and old paint. "Not exactly a cushy set-up, Nicky. Im not sure you're up to paying out what I'm after this time."
"Give me a number and we'll see."
"Oh no." The older man laughed. "See, I'm not just after hand-outs this time. It's time I went after the whole enchilada. You owe me, you little brat, for twenty years lost, and it's about time I collected."
A soft snarl was Nick's response, for a moment making him resemble the creature he studied. "You're talking in riddles, and I'm tired of it. Tell me what you want, or get out of my labs."
An eyebrow raised in reply. "Is that a threat, Nico?"
Nick opened his mouth to respond, but a third voice cut him off before he got the chance.
"You better believe it, buddy," Randy replied. Nick didn't have to look behind him to know that his friend had both arms folded over his chest, and was glaring daggers at the man before him. The two had only met once, but Randy had hated him on sight. And people say Randy's got no taste, Nick reflected dryly.
"Dr. Tatopoulos has asked you to leave," Monique's softly accented voice added. "Do not force us to remove you."
The stranger sniffed. "Well, I can see I'm not wanted here. I'll just be moving along then, Nicky. But keep in mind what I said... because I will be back." Turning, he headed for the door, Randy quickly falling into step beside him.
"Allow me to escort you out," the hacker explained. His over-enunciated tones and predator's smile convinced the other man to keep his mouth shut as Randy accompanied him outside.
Nick dropped his face into his hands, feeling his friends' curious stares on him. They knew better than to press him for information that he didn't want to give, but he could feel the weight of their internal questions all the same. And he did owe them an explanation, right? They were his friends... he needed to explain just why everything had suddenly turned to shit.
Randy came back in the door, dusting his hands off in disgust. "Well, he's gone, jefe, and in his own car, before you ask. I did manage to avoid introducing him to the underside of a city bus, although I can't say I wasn't tempted."
Looking from Nick to Randy, Elsie was the first to venture a question. "Nick... what exactly was that all about? Who was that?"
Raising his head from his hands, Nick studied his four teammates. Monique was impassive as usual, but he could tell she was as curious as the others. Mendel and Elsie were regarding him with inquisitiveness mixed with a healthy dose of worry. And Randy had his arms folded again, his expression saying, clearer than words, "Tell them, or I will."
Nick bit his lip. He didn't want to explain. Randy was the only person who knew, and that had been the result of an accident back in college. Still, they were his friends, the only people who really stood by him. They deserved to know the truth. His voice was old and tired as he spoke.
"That... was my father." Then the shame and embarrassment overwhelmed him, and Nick was headed for the pier.
Mendel exclaimed, as Nick dashed out of the room. None of the team was
particularly worried about that. Nick often went to the ocean when his
emotions got the better of him. Somehow, being close to Godzilla brought
a comfort that none of them could understand.
Randy nodded grimly. "Gregory Tatopoulos is a poor excuse for pond scum trying to pass itself off as human," he explained. "Nick would just as soon nobody knew his dad existed at all. He never went to college or became anything but a blue-collar worker because he had to work to support a family, and he blames Nick for that fact. Nick doesn't talk much about his childhood-- I only got most of this because the scumball showed up for a handout when Nick was in grad school, and I happened to be there. I was also the one who had to drag our worm expert home from the bar afterwards."
"He got drunk?" Elsie exclaimed, appalled. She'd seen Nick with a beer occasionally, but that was about it. The biologist was too much of a control freak for strong spirits.
"Plastered would be a better word for it," corrected Randy. "He told me everything; was really embarrassed about it the next morning, too. I can't tell you guys everything, but let's just say that Nick's childhood was pretty much Hell on earth. For the most part, he's moved past it, but something about his dad showing up tends to undo the progress he's made. His self-confidence is gonna be shot for a couple days, and it's going to be worse because you all saw it."
Monique nodded. "He thinks that we will think less of him because of it?"
"Can you blame him? As a kid, he got told he was worthless, day in and day out. That he ever managed to think people saw something GOOD in him is a miracle. When his dad shows up, he just... backslides a little."
Mendel shrugged. "Well, what are friends for, if not to pick you up when you've fallen? We'll be here for him, whenever he needs us."
The next few
days reminded Nick exactly why he'd chosen to call these people his friends.
Though his father's appearance and the subsequent revelations had thrown
them all for a loop, they weren't treating him any differently than normal.
There was no disgust in their eyes, and no pity, either. Idly, Nick wondered
exactly how much Randy had told them, but he dismissed it as unimportant.
Randy's energetic entrance distracted Nick from his thoughts. The computer expert was waving a file and radiating excitement. "I think we've got a job," he explained. "Just got a call from the Washington State Police. There've been sightings of some type of huge bird out there, and it's apparently started attacking cars and stuff. This came over the fax."
Nick took the file from his friend, examining the data there. Included were photos of cars that had obviously been thrown around by some powerful force. Claw marks here and there seemed to indicate that they'd been picked up by some type of giant bird.
"Looks like a job for HEAT," Nick confirmed, passing the file to Elsie. "Did you tell them we'd take it?"
"I said we'd get back to them," replied Randy, grinning. "So? What do you say?"
Elsie smiled. "I say we take it. That is how we make our living, isn't it?"
The rest of HEAT was in agreement, and a quick phone call later, the team began preparing the HEAT Seeker for the trip to Washington State. Mendel, of course, insisted they stock up on slickers and umbrellas, not to mention galoshes.
"Have you ever BEEN in a Washington forest?" the roboticist replied, in response to his teammates' expressions. "Let me tell you, rain forests are not only in South America."
"Yeah," Randy snorted, "but last I checked, monsoon season was confined to southern Asia. Tell me, Doc, got any rain booties for Nigel there?"
Mendel sniffed. "I've waterproofed him, thank you very much."
A few loads later, Randy spoke up again. "Hey, you know what that mutation reminds me of? The old Thunderbird legends."
"You know about the Thunderbird?" Monique replied, startled. He grinned.
"Hey, I'm just a storehouse of obscure information. The legends say that the Thunderbird was this huge bird, who made the rain and the thunder by flapping his wings. Maybe that's what we're up against here."
Elsie snorted. "The Thunderbird is just a legend, Randy. It's not real."
"Hey, what do you call 'real?' Besides, we went up against the inspiration for Quezacoatl once. Maybe this is the same type of thing."
"And maybe you've been spending too much time with my cousin Ray," Mendel replied dryly.
"A big enough bird COULD have wingbeats that sounded like thunder," Nick threw in, smiling slightly. "And in the Seattle area, it wouldn't take much to associate anything with the coming of rain. Besides, Thunderbird's as good a name as any for it."
Elsie and Monique traded glances, then shrugged.
A few days later,
the HEAT Seeker was tying up at a small inn on the undeveloped side of
Vashon Island, out in Puget Sound. The day was gray and windy, with a silvery
shimmer of moisture in the air, but the rain hadn't started yet. As the
boat was secured to the dock, Nick looked over the side of the ship and
raised an eyebrow at the familiar figure waiting on the pier.
"Major Hicks?" Elsie blinked, staring over Nick's shoulder. "Now what's he doing here? Don't think there are any military bases in the area."
"Well, the gangplank just went down, so we can go ask him," Nick replied.
As HEAT disembarked from the ship, Major Hicks was there to meet them. Shaking Nick's hand, he explained, "The State Police are pretty much required to report mutations to the Army, as well as calling in HEAT. Considering this thing's flight capabilities, the Army decided it would be a good idea to have some military presence here in case things went sour. So, here I am."
"Here we all are," Nick replied. "It was nice of the State Police to put us up out here; I wasn't looking forward to sleeping on the boat."
A young man wearing the uniform of the State Police tipped his hat to Nick as he approached. "Name's Clyde Sutter," he introduced himself. "We're just glad to have you here, Dr. Tatopoulos. So far, this thing hasn't attacked any people, just cars and stuff, but who knows how long that'll last. We've got this place set up with some computer equipment for you. Anything else you need, you just ask Earl. He runs this place." The officer indicated a tall, thin man with sandy hair and deep-set gray eyes.
"Thanks, Officer Sutter," Nick replied. "We'll get settled in, and then discuss what our game plan is going to be."
"I'd almost forgotten
what a beautiful place the Pacific Northwest is," Elsie remarked, stopping
to admire a large pine tree. Beside her, Mendel nodded.
"If you don't mind the constant rain," he replied. "It's very lush."
Elsie hid a smile as she looked at the roboticist. He was definitely making progress; while he'd insisted on bringing an umbrella on the trip, he'd forgone the slicker and galoshes, settling for a blue windbreaker and hiking boots.
From the front of the column, Randy called back, "Hey, you two gonna spend the day admiring the scenery or what?"
"Hold your horses!" Elsie shot back. "We're coming."
With a sigh and a half-smile, Mendel offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
"Let's," she replied, threading her arm through his.
After unpacking and settling into their rooms at the inn, HEAT had taken the HEAT Seeker out to investigate the scene of the bird attacks, guided by Earl, one of the witnesses. The trip had taken them out to the less-developed side of Marrowstone Island, another of the many small islands in the Sound. Now they were hiking on a dirt path through the woods.
"Not much farther," Earl informed Nick, as they walked at the head of the line. "Of course, we'll have to cross the ravine... hope you aren't afraid of heights."
Major Hicks, walking slightly behind the two, almost choked. "You're talking to a guy who makes a habit out of dangling from helicopters, Earl."
"Only two so far, Major," Nick returned, smiling slightly.
"Yeah, but twice is enough, considering the circumstances. One giant oil-eating blob, and one homicidal battle robot."
The biologist laughed. "Comes with the territory, Major."
Earl shook his head. "I think I'm glad I run a hotel." Stopping, he pointed ahead. "There's the ravine, and that's the bridge."
The members of HEAT stared at the small rope bridge that stretched across the gap, which had to be at least twenty feet deep. Randy swallowed.
"You know, I think I might be developing acrophobia," the hacker announced, to no one in particular.
Taking a deep breath, Nick stepped forward. "I'll go first," he declared, forcing his voice to stay level. He wasn't particularly afraid of heights, but that didn't mean he wasn't afraid of falling! Still, that bridge was their only way across, so somebody had to test it. Gingerly, Nick stepped out onto the swaying bridge, refusing to look down. One step, then another...
Suddenly there was a sharp "twang," as if someone had plucked a tightly stretched piano wire. The bridge shuddered, and Nick knew it was about to give way. Before he could move to get off, the noise was repeated, and then he was in free fall. Briefly, he felt hands grab at his shoulders, but he was falling too fast. There was a jerk, then the grasp was gone. With a thud, Nick hit the side of the ravine and began to slide downwards. His head struck against a rock, and the world fell away to nothing.
Nick woke up
to a pounding headache, various minor aches other places on his body, a
mylar blanket covering him, and the sound of someone moving around him.
With more effort than he would have thought necessary, he forced his eyes
open. He regretted it instantly, as even the gray-green twilight of the
forest sent bolts of pain flashing through him. Gathering what little bit
of his wits remained, he attempted to push himself into a sitting position.
"Oh no, you don't, Worm Guy." Major Hicks' voice cut through the spinning nausea in his head, as the older man gently pushed him back to the ground. "You stay put. The last thing we need right now is you puking your guts out on top of everything else."
"Major," Nick responded, his mouth feeling like it was packed with cotton wool. "What happened?"
"A bridge fell out from under you," Hicks replied casually, returning to his task. Squinting, Nick realized he was building a fire. "I tried to grab you and haul you back, and got pulled down with you instead. You're heavier than you look, Tatopoulos."
"S'all the exercise I get," the biologist replied. "I-- remember falling now. I hit my head?" Gingerly, he reached a hand towards his forehead, only to have the major pull it away gently.
"Yes, and it bled like hell, so I have it bandaged. Near as I can tell, you have a slight concussion. Nothing life-threatening, but I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't go to sleep on me."
"I'll try. You okay?"
"Bruised my ribs up some, but I'm fine. Got a little more experience falling than you do."
There was silence for a moment, then Major Hicks finally managed to get the fire to start. "There we go," he said, satisfied. "Nice packs you've got, Worm Guy. Prepared for everything. Boy Scout?"
Nick laughed, but it was a dry, dark sound. "For a while. Anything to get out of the house. Then it got too expensive... Dad sure as hell wasn't going to pay for it."
The older man had no response to that. He'd done a thorough background check on Nick, when the whole mess with the first Godzilla had started, so he knew a little about Nick's home life. Looking up, he noticed the biologist slowly drifting off.
"Nick!" he called sharply, and was relieved to see muddled blue eyes open sleepily.
"What is it?" the younger man muttered.
Hicks sighed. "Don't go to sleep. You've got a concussion, remember?"
"Right, right," Nick responded. "And the headache to prove it. I'm just so tired..."
"I know, kid, I know. But you've got to stay awake. Why don't you tell me a story?"
One brown eyebrow arched, a flash of the normal Nick despite the pain. "What kind of story would that be, Major? You already know most of the exciting things that happened in my life."
Major Hicks dismissed that with a snort. "Somehow, Worm Guy, I seriously doubt that's the case." Making himself more comfortable as he sat against a tree, the older man tilted his head to one side. "I already know how you met most of your merry crew, so why don't you tell me how you came to know Randy? I gotta say that I would never have pegged you for friends if I hadn't known better."
"Randy... now that's a story." Nick swallowed, trying to moisten his throat. "We met in college, obviously. He was a freshman, I'd just started my work as a grad student. Wound up tutoring him in freshman biology. I had a scholarship, but any extra money was a big help. He was the most annoying, obnoxious, obstreperous person I had ever met. He was also absolutely brilliant, and it only took me slightly longer to reach that conclusion than the other two. He decided he liked me, and to my utter surprise, I realized I liked him back. Next thing I know, he's dragging me out to a campus basketball game, instead of letting me stay in the lab and listen to it on the radio while working with my worms. I remember the first time he hauled me downtown and introduced me to his cousin Gino, who ran this pizza joint. Gino said I needed feeding, and bam, there was this huge pizza sitting between us, on the house!
"Didn't take long after that before he was hauling me home with him on the holidays. I could have said no, but... I never wanted to. You've seen Randy when he's intent on something. He's a force of nature. And his family... for the first time, I really felt wanted. You know his mother sends me birthday cards every year?" Nick's voice broke, and he forced himself to swallow again.
"I never had anyone I considered 'safe' before I met Randy. He liked me for me, not because I was some whiz kid who could bring big bucks and prestige to the university. He didn't clear out, even after he met my dad. I'd never had anyone like that before."
Suddenly realizing he was rambling, Nick cut himself off. "I can't believe I just spilled that."
Major Hicks smiled. "It's okay, Worm Guy. Head injuries do strange things. I won't tell if you won't."
His eyes slipping closed, Nick returned the major's smile. "You've got a deal," he replied thickly.
"Nick! Wake up!"
Sounds of crashing brush, strange voices...
"You doing okay,
Dr. Tatopoulos?" Earl inquired, hovering anxiously as the biologist gingerly
sank into a chair in what had been the inn's kitchen/breakfast area. Smiling
gamely, Nick waved the man aside.
"I'm just stiff and sore, Earl, don't worry. It was just a mild concussion, the doctor said."
Major Hicks entered then, stretching carefully so as not to jar his ribs. "Yeah, Worm Guy, but he still told you to take it easy today. Which is why you are going to be sitting this one out, and I'm going to be the one keeping an eye on you."
Nick scowled. "Thanks, Mom," he shot back, sarcasm dripping from his words.
"Speaking of that, Earl, you'd better get going," the major continued. "I think the rest of the team is anxious to leave."
Earl nodded. "Probably a good idea. You take care, Dr. Tatopoulos, and we?ll be back this evening." Obviously reading Nick's mood, the hotel manager quickly dashed out the door.
"I hate this!" Nick burst out, hearing the HEAT seeker pulling away from the dock. "I should be out there with them. I'm supposed to be in charge of this team."
"Being in charge does not mean you have to push yourself beyond the bounds of health," Major Hicks pointed out, handing the younger man a mug of coffee. Sitting down, he took a careful sip from his own mug.
Nick shot him a look almost as dark as the coffee. "And if the Thunderbird turns out to be hostile? We don't know if the call will bring Godzilla if I'm not there."
"Good a time as any to find out. Besides, your team members are smart, and resourceful. They can take care of themselves in almost any situation. And furthermore, they have a radio-phone and Randy's little portable communicator. If something comes up that they can't handle, they'll call you. Relax."
With a sigh, Nick seemed to deflate. "You're right, I guess. I've got a couple computer analyses to run on those claw marks anyway. Guess this is a good a time as any." Rising slowly, Nick headed for the small study that had been rigged up with computers for them.
Major Hicks rose as well. "Great. I'm going to conduct a perimeter sweep, just in case. I'll come and get you when it's time for lunch."
Nick focused his interest on a project, he became so involved in it that
he didn't notice the passing of time. Recent experiences, however, not
to mention Monique's training, had given him an almost hypersensitive awareness
of his surroundings. So at the first near-silent footfall on the polished
hardwood floor, Nick was alert and processing.
He whirled quickly, hoping that Major Hicks was simply trying not to disturb his thought processes. No such luck, Nick realized. Behind him stood a man, mid-forties, in the hiking clothes common to outdoorsmen of the state. In his hands, however, rested a rifle, a rifle that was pointing towards Nick. Realizing he'd been seen, the newcomer grinned.
"Nighty-night, doc," he chuckled, raising his gun.
Nick's brain slammed into overdrive. Completing his turning motion, he grabbed his coffee mug and hurled it at the man holding the gun. At the same time, he threw himself out of his chair.
The coffee hit its mark just as the gun went off. A dart thudded into the table only a few inches from Nick's head. Had he not moved as quickly as he had, it would no doubt have struck him directly in the torso.
Tranks. They're using tranquilizer darts, Nick realized. He didn't know why, and there wasn't time to figure it out. On his feet once more, the biologist plowed into his attacker before the other man could finish clearing the coffee from his eyes. Their momentum carried both men out of the study and directly through the plate-glass window that adorned the front of the living room. As the struggling pair crashed to the deck, Nick's assailant managed to get a foot between them and send Nick flying backwards.
The younger man hit the wall of the inn and fell, striking heavily against the side of a bench. Pain flared in his ribs, but Nick had no time to think of that. His attacker was on his feet again, and approaching rapidly. Putting out his hands to rise, Nick found himself holding an oar for a canoe, carved out of solid wood. As the other man came closer, Nick put all his strength and desperation into one powerful swing. It connected with the man's jaw, and Nick heard the distinct sound of bone snapping. The man fell to the deck and did not move. Only the rise and fall of the man's chest indicated that he was still alive.
Voices around the corner indicated that the fight had attracted some attention. Peering around the front of the inn, Nick saw two more men, in similar clothes as the first, rushing up onto the deck. Unlike the first man, though, these were carrying shotguns that Nick had no doubt would be lethal.
I need a distraction, he thought, absently pressing a hand to his aching ribs. Just then, his gaze fell on Nigel. Mendel had left the little robot behind on this trek, since Earl's alternate route to the attack site was supposed to be harder to navigate than the overland route they'd taken the day before. Grabbing the control computer, Nick quickly booted the machine up and guided it around the corner.
A shout of surprise told Nick that Nigel had been sighted. One of the two men must have been a bit trigger-happy, because there was the sound of a shot, followed by a rather large explosion. Nigel'd been sacrificed for the cause-- again.
Mendel is going to kill me, Nick mused, even as he flung himself around the corner. Both gunman had been stunned and temporarily blinded by Nigel's pyrotechnics, and Nick made short work of them, thanks to his oar.
With the threat temporarily neutralized, the adrenaline began to drain out of Nick's system. What the hell was that all about? he wondered. And how'd they get in here and past--
"The major!" Nick breathed, his face going white. The inn didn't have much of a perimeter, being surrounded on three sides by ocean. There was no way the Three Stooges could have made it past without encountering the older man. Even as he thought that, Nick was running, heading in the direction that he'd seen the intruders coming from.
He's all right, he's got to be. I would have heard the shot, there's no way to muffle a shotgun, Nick assured himself. Of course, if any of the men had been wearing a sidearm... The biologist clamped down ruthlessly on that thought.
The sight of a crumpled form on the grass ahead of him caused Nick to speed up. Even as he reached the fallen man, Nick could see him trying to sit up, and nearly blacked out in relief.
"Major!" he cried, skidding to a stop next to his friend. "Are you all right?"
Hicks raised a hand to his head, leaning gratefully into the support Nick offered. "I think so. Feels like I have a bad strain of the stomach flu, though. What'd they hit me with, a trank?"
"Looks like it," Nick agreed, helping the older man to his feet. "They were trying to take us alive, I think... at least, that was their first choice. They had some shotguns to back up their plans."
"Shotguns! How many?"
"Three men, two shotguns," Nick replied. His ribs were screaming at him now, but he ignored them with an ease born of long practice. "Don't worry, they're out of commission."
Major Hicks raised an eyebrow. "Immobilized? Unconscious?"
"Well..." Nick ducked his head slightly. "One definitely has a broken jaw, and they'll all likely have concussions. That oar was pretty solid."
That brought a bark of laughter from the major. "OAR? You never cease to amaze me, Worm Guy."
Nick smiled slightly. "Thanks, Major. But we have another problem. If these guys came after US..."
"Then the others are probably in danger, as well," Major Hicks finished. "Come on. We'll finish immobilizing your playmates and see if we can't get in touch with the rest of the team."
was getting worried. In the first place, he didn't really like being out
in the field without Nick. Although HEAT's teamwork had come a long way
since the team's inception, they still didn't work as well together without
Nick to coordinate them. Besides, there was something oddly jumpy about
their guide this trip. Earl kept looking over his shoulder. It could be
that he was just worried about the Thunderbird, not to mention still on
edge from Nick's accident. Somehow, though, Randy didn't think that was
A quick look at Monique told him that the French agent shared his suspicions. Her light blue eyes moved ceaselessly, obviously on the alert for attacks. As casually as he could manage, Randy slipped one hand into his jacket pocket. His fingers brushed against the casing of his palmtop computer, sliding to where the switch for the transponder was located. One click, and the computer would broadcast a distress signal to all of the other computers on the HEAT network. Nick would be able to track them easily.
"Just a little farther," Earl informed them, from the head of the column. "In fact, the last sighting was right over that rise, in that clearing up ahead." The team followed him into the clearing-- and stopped dead as they found themselves the targets of three shotguns.
"Damn," Randy said lightly, giving the transponder in his pocket a quick squeeze. "Hunting season starts early around here, huh?" Carefully, he removed his hands from his pockets and raised them above his shoulders. From the corner of his eye, he saw his teammates doing the same. Even Monique, although she looked mad enough to spit nails.
"Honestly, Hernandez, I don't know why nobody's ever shot you before," a gravelly-- and very familiar-- voice responded. From the trees on the other side of the clearing emerged Gregory Tatopoulos, regarding them all with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Good job, Earl, you did well," he continued.
The sandy-haired man grinned, picking up a shotgun as he did so. "Thanks, boss. Any word from the inn yet?"
Gregory shook his head. "Not yet, but they're professionals. I'm sure they have the situation well in hand."
Elsie and Mendel simply gaped as Nick's father approached. Monique just stared at him, impassive as always. Randy, on the other hand, folded his arms across his chest and stared at the older man with obvious disdain.
"You sent goons to the inn? I knew you were slime, Greg, but I didn't think you'd try and kill your own son. Wouldn't that put a sizable hole in your blackmail accounts?" Acid dripped from the young man's voice.
"Oh, no, you misunderstand," Tatopoulos laughed. "I've got no intention of killing Nick. Just the four of you. Or, more appropriately, the Thunderbird is going to take care of you. You came out here, met up with it, and it herded you off a cliff. Real shame. Maybe if your fearless leader had been with you, your lizard could have helped you out."
Elsie's eyes lit with realization. "You set this whole thing up! You knew Nick would blame himself if anything happened to us."
The man nodded. "That boy's got a guilt complex almost as big as that lizard of his. Don't know where he gets it from."
"I can hazard a guess," Randy snarled. "There never was any Thunderbird, was there? You faked the attacks so that the State Police would call us in." Gotta keep him talking, the hacker thought frantically. Got to give Nick more time.
"The sightings were real enough. People have been catching half-glimpses of some type of huge bird for years. That's why I picked this area. We just faked some of the more physical evidence."
It was Mendel who finally asked the question that had been bothering all four of them. "WHY? What possible motive could you have for ANY of this?"
The gray-haired man smiled nastily. "What motive does anybody have? Money. I've got an... ally willing to pay quite a bit of money for this job. And the fact that he wants to see that brat of mine completely miserable is just an unexpected bonus."
Monique spat at his feet. "Obviously, Nick took after his mother," she remarked coldly.
"His mother was a dishrag. Pretty enough, but a dishrag. It's why I married her. I never expected her to die right in the middle of having her first kid." Gregory Tatopoulos shrugged. "Now, if we're done stalling, we?re going to take a little walk. That way. I'd rather not have you found with any bullet holes, but give me trouble, and I'm willing to be flexible."
He headed into the forest, and, not wanting to argue with four loaded shotguns, the members of HEAT reluctantly followed.
low curse took Major Hicks' attention from the three goons he was tying
up. Standing straight, he took a quick moment to breathe as a lingering
surge of nausea made itself evident. Then he moved to stand behind his
"What is it, Nick?" Hicks asked quietly, one hand on the younger man's shoulder. He didn't like the way the biologist was hunched over, protecting one side, and he was sure he'd rarely seen less color in Nick's naturally pale face. Unfortunately, he was well acquainted with his friend's stubbornness as well, and knew it was no use trying to get Tatopoulos to rest.
"Randy's activated the homing beacon on his computer." Nick indicated a small flashing light on the screen of Nigel's palmtop control module. "Looks like they ran into some trouble of their own."
"Not surprising. Looks like they're still on Marrowstone, even if they are moving. Think we can catch up to them with the boat gone?"
Nick smiled. "They left me the HEAT Foil, just in case," he replied. "It should be more than fast enough to get us where we want to go."
"Just a second." Leaning down, Hicks picked up the tranquilizer rifle and one of the shotguns that their recent visitors had brought. "How's your vision, Worm Guy?"
"Better than yours right now, Major," the younger man replied, taking the shotgun. Quickly and expertly, he checked the gun and clicked on the safety.
Major Hicks shook his head. "One day you're going to have to tell me where you learned that."
A chuckle answered him. "Randy's got an uncle who loves duck hunting. He dragged me out once... I didn't care for it much."
No, Hicks agreed silently, as the pair headed for the HEAT hydrofoil. It was unlikely the young biologist would care much for sport hunting. He was entirely too compassionate for that, something the Major was sometimes surprised had not been beaten out of him in youth. But Hicks had no illusions that this same compassionate young man would hesitate to use the shotgun in his grasp on anyone that threatened his friends. Nick Tatopoulos could be quite ruthless, under the right circumstances... and given the right motivation.
After a considerable
walk, HEAT found themselves in a clearing on top of a tall bluff. Nearly
two hundred feat below, the ocean crashed and roared against the jagged
rocks that lined the coast. Mendel took one look down and turned bright
green. Randy wasn't unaffected by the view either, but he did his best
to appear so.
"Very scenic, Greg," he drawled. "I suppose this is where we, running in terror from the Thunderbird, plunge to the rocks below?"
"Something like that," the older man replied. "I wouldn't worry too much; considering the length of the drop, it'll be over before you know it."
Randy and Monique traded glances, and the French agent nodded sharply. "No," she declared.
Gregory Tatopoulos affected surprise. "What? I don't think you have any say in the matter." His gesture took in the shotguns of his crew.
"Sure we do, Greg," Randy replied, eyes narrowed. "If we're gonna die one way or the other, I'd prefer it if you had a mass of bullet holes to explain. Especially considering that mutations are not generally known for shooting back."
"Even you would find it kind of hard to make this Nick's fault," Elsie chimed in, green eyes flaring.
"I wouldn't have to, sweetheart, he'll do it all by himself. As for explaining things, it might be a little tougher, but it's not going to be a problem. So if you're all determined... Shoot 'em." This last was directed at the four men standing to either side of him.
There was a quick hissing sound, and two of the men suddenly crumpled to the ground. The remaining two turned to aim their guns at the forest, and a third hiss led to Earl falling over, clutching in dumb surprise at the dart protruding from his chest. Then came a voice that the members of HEAT were only too happy to hear.
"Put the gun down, now," Nick Tatopoulos ordered, stepping out of the trees. Seeing the shotgun aimed at him, and that the man holding it obviously knew what he was doing, the last gunman reluctantly did as he was told. Nick's attention then turned to the last occupant of the clearing, and stopped in utter shock as he saw his father.
Gregory smiled and waved. "Hi, Nicky," he greeted his son. Then he turned on his heel and dashed off into the forest. With a muffled curse, Nick dropped his gun and bolted after him, just as Major Hicks came out of the trees as well.
Seeing that there was no one holding a weapon on him, the last goon made a move for his discarded weapon, only to be laid out flat by Monique.
"Sorry about that," Hicks apologized as the Frenchwoman dusted off her hands. "I ran out of tranquilizer darts."
"Forget about that!" Elsie broke in impatiently. "What about Nick?"
Major Hicks sighed. "We don't have any way to track him. Let's get these guys taken care of, and then we'll see about catching up with him, all right? I wouldn't worry too much, though. He's more than proven he can take care of himself."
The sound of
a boat engine cut through the air, just as Nick stumbled out onto the beach.
Several yards out into the water, a speedboat was pulling out, and Nick
knew exactly who was piloting it. Without breaking stride, Nick headed
for a rock outcrop that projected over the only exit to the cove. He reached
the rock just as the boat began to pass underneath. With a powerful jump,
he hurtled off the tip of the rock and landed in the back of the boat.
"The hell?" Gregory Tatopoulos whirled as the boat shook under the impact. Seeing his son standing in the back, he did a double take. Then he smiled nastily.
"You just don't give up, do you? I'll admit, you're a bit tougher than I gave you credit for."
Nick's eyes blazed like gas flames. "WHY? You made my life a living hell for almost twenty years. Even after I left for college, I never knew when you were going to show up and send it all into the trash. And now this. WHY?" The two men faced each other, as the driverless boat screamed out towards the open waters of the Sound.
"I could have been somebody if I hadn't had you. My parents would have disowned me if I'd given you up, so I had to take care of you. Twenty years I wasted on you, and you OWE me!"
"The only thing I owe you is twenty to life for attempted murder," Nick snarled. "Why my friends? Why not me?"
Gregory Tatopoulos shrugged. "That's what my boss wanted, and he was paying the bills. Now, though, I think I'm just going to cut my losses." Reaching under the console of the boat, he brought out a handgun. Before he could aim it, however, Nick had plowed into him, knocking him back against the controls.
For long moments, the two of them struggled over the gun. Then somehow it went off, sending a bullet into the console of the boat. The front of the boat exploded, sending both men hurtling through the air. Nick felt the impact as the water came up to meet him. Then everything went black.
The rest of HEAT
made it onto the beach just in time to see the boat explode, out on the
"NICK!" Elsie screamed, eyes wide with panic. Mendel put a hand on her shoulder, either for comfort or to keep her from doing something stupid.
"My God," Major Hicks choked. None of them had any doubts that Nick had been on that boat.
Suddenly a reptilian shriek cut the air as a bow wave made it's way towards shore. Godzilla loomed out of the water, holding something in his hands. Leaning down, the giant lizard deposited two human figures on the beach, before turning back to the ocean.
In a flash, the members of HEAT were beside Nick, one of the two bodies that Godzilla had brought in. "He's not breathing!" Randy reported.
"No pulse," added Monique, pressing two fingers to his neck. "Randy, CPR."
The hacker nodded. "Right." He began chest compressions, as Monique started the breathing. Mendel, meanwhile, had whipped out his cel phone, and was already calling for medical assistance.
A feeble motion turned Major Hicks's attention to the second person on the beach. Gregory Tatopoulos was attempting to crawl away from the group, and not making a lot of headway. However, considering everyone's focus on Nick, he had some chance of escaping.
"Going somewhere, Mr. Tatopoulos?" The major strode over to the other man, hauling him unceremoniously to his feet. Then, with one right hook, he knocked him completely unconscious.
That had probably been unnecessary and unprofessional, Hicks decided, massaging his stinging hand. But damn, it had felt good.
He went back to join the others, just as the sounds of helicopters echoed over the island.
The vast majority
of hospitals, Elsie reflected, really did resemble each other. The waiting
areas were all tastefully decorated in the most absolutely neutral shades
imaginable, with magazines that dated back to the Truman administration.
After re-reading a paragraph from National Geographic for the eighth time,
Elsie put the magazine aside and regarded her teammates.
Randy had his palmtop out and was fooling around with it, putting the finishing touches on one program or another. He wasn't making a great deal of headway, however, since he kept looking towards the door every five minutes.
Beside him, Mendel was lost in an issue of "Popular Mechanics" old enough that the cover photo was a picture of the original Multivac computer. She didn't think the roboticist was actually paying much attention to his magazine, however. He hadn't turned a page in the last five minutes.
Monique sat motionless in her chair, staring off into space. Elsie had no idea what the other woman might be thinking about; her face was a complete blank. One way or another, Elsie didn't suppose it mattered.
Last of all was Major Hicks. He'd been in and out of the waiting room, spending most of his time on the phone. Occasionally he came back and gave the members of HEAT terse reports on the round-up and investigation of their attackers. He'd recently run out of calls to make, though, and was now sitting with the rest of them.
Rising from his chair, the major made his way to the nurse's desk outside. "Excuse me, I was wondering if you could give me some information on a Nico Tatopoulos? He was just brought in."
The nurse looked up at him. "Are you family?"
"He's my son," Hicks replied instantly, long familiar with the ways of hospital administration. It was likely the only way he'd get to see Nick... and it wasn't as if it was a complete lie.
The nurse gave him a look that said she didn't believe him, but she wasn't going to call him on it. "I think he's just been moved to a room, sir. A doctor should be out to deal with you shortly."
Thanking the woman, Major Hicks returned to the waiting area.
True to the nurse's words, it wasn't more than a few minutes before a doctor came out of the ER. He looked frazzled, dark hair mussed and blue eyes tired, but not unhappy. "Is there someone here for a Nico Tatopoulos?"
"That would be us," Elsie replied, gesturing to the rest of HEAT, as well as the major. The doctor blinked.
"Uh... are any of you family members?" he asked hesitantly.
Randy nodded. "We're all his family, or as close as he's got. Come on, Doc, what's the prognosis?"
With a shrug, the doctor looked down at his notes. "I'm Dr. McCandless, by the way. Your friend is going to be just fine, I think. There's some slight inflammation in the lungs, considering that he nearly drowned, and we'd like to keep him for a day or so, just to make sure he doesn't get an infection or have breathing problems. It says here that he's recovering from a concussion-- luckily, he doesn't seem to have aggravated it. He probably passed out when he hit the water. Surface tension is usually more than sufficient to knock the wind out of someone. Oh, and he also has two cracked ribs. They're not broken, fortunately, just cracked."
"Is that from when he hit the water?" Mendel asked.
"Actually, I wanted to ask about that. They seem to have resulted from a blunt trauma to the side. Do you know how that might have happened?"
Hicks nodded. "He was in a fight earlier in the day. He must have fallen against something. I noticed him favoring his ribs, but he didn't say anything, so I figured they were just bruised."
Elsie snorted. "This is Nick we're talking about. He wouldn't have complained if they were broken."
"Well, they were only cracked, so they should heal nicely if he just stays out of trouble for the next few weeks." Noting the collective eye roll, Dr. McCandless smiled. "I take it that's not easy for him?"
"Try impossible," Major Hicks muttered.
Monique nodded. "Dr. Tatopoulos has a tendency to... find himself in unpleasant situations."
Randy broke in with a shrug. "Don't worry about it, Doc, we'll sit on him, if it comes to that."
"I have no doubt you will," the doctor replied.
"Can we see him?" Elsie asked.
"Well... he's under sedation right now, but since you ARE family... yes, you may sit with him, but only one at a time, all right?" HEAT nodded.
"Major, why don't you take the first watch?" Mendel said. "We can go get some sleep, and somebody can come and relieve you in a couple hours."
The older man smiled, acknowledging that. "Thank you, Dr. Craven. That will be fine."
His side hurt,
and it felt as though somebody had packed his head with cotton balls. That
was the first thing that ran through Nick Tatopoulos' mind as he slowly
swam to awareness. The second thing that caught his attention was the quiet
beeping of machines next to the bed in which he lay.
Hospital, he thought muzzily, trying to collect his thoughts. Finally, he forced his eyes to open. The first thing to meet his gaze was a green and brown lump in the chair beside his bed. Squinting, Nick caused the image to resolve into Major Hicks.
"Major," he managed, before his parched throat closed up. The older man looked up from the book he was reading.
"Nick, you're awake!" Putting aside the book, he reached for a glass of water that stood on the bedside table. "Sip slowly, Worm Guy," he cautioned, holding the glass so that Nick could reach the straw without moving.
The biologist did as he was told, sighing as the pain and dryness in his throat eased. "Thanks," he croaked.
"No problem. I'm just glad to see you back in the land of the living," Hicks replied.
"How long have I been out?"
"Only a day or so. The doctors wanted to keep you sedated for a while, let you heal a little better. You'll be happy to know your lungs weren't damaged, despite inhaling half of Puget Sound, and you don't have to worry about pneumonia. Your ribs are healing nicely, and you didn't aggravate your concussion. As for the explosion, you came out of that with nothing but a few more bruises.'
"The explosion." Nick touched his head cautiously. "I remember the boat blowing up, and then hitting the water. What happened next?"
"Godzilla picked you and your father up out of the water and brought you in. Damnedest thing I ever saw. He probably saved your life, gave Randy and Monique enough time to start CPR."
Nick's eyes darkened. "My dad. What about him?"
"He's a little banged up, nothing serious. However, he's sitting in a Washington State lockup right now with four of his cronies, awaiting trial on several counts of attempted murder. He's going down hard, Nick. And when it's all over, you'll never have to see him again."
"That's a relief. On the boat, he mentioned a 'boss.' Has he said anything about who he was working for?"
"I'm afraid not. The police are looking into it, but whoever it is covered their tracks pretty well."
"Great. Wait a minute, you said four cronies. What about the other three?"
"Well, the three who attacked us at the cabin have some hospital time coming. One's got a broken nose, one's got his jaw wired shut, and they're all nursing concussions. You put the fear of God into them, Nick. I think they're all going to plead guilty just so they won't ever have to see you again."
Nick smiled, but there wasn't much real happiness behind it. "Yeah. I guess I can really dish it out."
"That bothers you, doesn't it?" Major Hicks asked softly. "Why? Those three would have killed you, or your friends, without a second thought."
Unable to meet the older man's eyes, Nick pulled at the covers on his hospital bed. "Have you ever heard about the cycle of abuse? How kids whose parents mistreat them are likely to repeat the actions with their own children?"
"Yeah, I've heard about it. Is that what you're worried about? That you might turn out like your father? Never in a million years."
"Major, I put three men in the hospital yesterday."
"Three men with deadly weapons and no qualms about using them. Everybody's got a capacity for violence, Nick. It's the circumstances and applications that separate normal people from monsters. You will never turn out like your father, Nick. He was short-sighted and stupid, never realizing what a gift he had. He should have been proud of you." The major paused for a second. "I know I would be."
Nick looked up, startled. "You would?"
"Hell yes! You're the world's only expert in mutation biology, you've managed to gain the trust and respect of the most misfit group of experts on the planet, and you can understand and communicate with one of the most powerful mutations of them all! Half the Army's scared to death of you, and the other half wants your signature for their autograph books. You're smart, smarter than anybody I've ever met, and you've got more courage than some veterans I know. If you were my son, there wouldn't be anything in the world that could stop me from telling everyone. And you know what? I think you'll make someone an excellent father someday.'"
"I don't think so. I wouldn't want to take the risk."
"You already have, Nick. With Godzilla. He obviously thinks of you as his parent, and I've never seen you shirk that responsibility. You protect him, respect him, and you're willing to go to the wire for him. If that's not good parenting, I don't know what is."
A slow smile spread across Nick's face, like the rise of the morning sun. "Thanks, Major. That really does help."
"Glad to oblige, Nick. Always." The older man rose from his chair. "Now, I'd better go tell the doctors you're awake... not to mention the rest of your team. You're about to have an invasion, Worm Guy."
"I can't wait," Nick replied.
And that was the absolute truth.