The jungle was dark and damp; the air was humid and heavy

THE BLACK THAI AFFAIR

By: Jenny Lambert

The jungle was dark and damp; the air was humid and heavy. Amir and his older brother Arad had been playing, running between the trees while engrossed in a game of tag. They'd paid no attention to where they had headed, and now, lost somewhere in the middle of the vastness, they were concerned.

"Arad! You said you knew the way!"

"I did, but that was before you started chasing me. Now that we've been running, everything looks the same!"

"Oh great. Father is going to be furious, and I'm going to get blamed for it, AGAIN."

"It's not all my fault you know. Come on, I think we need to go this way!" The two boys headed in the direction Arad pointed; it only seemed to add to the confusion.

Three hours later, the realization came that they were truly lost. Clutching his older brother's arm tightly, Amir started to cry. "I'm scared! I don't want to be left out here all night. Who knows what will get us!"

"Don't worry Amir. All those stories about monsters in the forest are myths. They are meant to scare little boys like you, so you don't end up wandering around the forest and getting lost." He chuckled, sensing the amusement in his words. "Guess I should've listened to them more carefully myself, huh?"

"Yea! I want to go home!"

"I know, I know! I'm working on it!"

A shuffling in the foliage behind attracted their attention; Arad, anticipating that it was one of his fellow tribesmen, sighed with relief. "See, someone's coming now. I knew they'd find us." He turned, then his eyes widened in surprise and he cried out in fear. "What's that? Oh my God!"

The screams of anguish echoed in Amir's ears. "Run! Get out of here!" He could not obey his older brother; he stood frozen, horrified, as something appeared from the shadows and slowly moved towards him.

************

"Thanks for coming so quickly team."

They were in their usual positions; Ace, Aggie, Hootie and PeeWee were sitting on the couch, while Dirk stood beside them, nervously shuffling his weight from one foot to the other. "So, what's the hurry? Got a new mission for us?"

"I'm afraid so. The island of Marco has experienced a number of disappearances these past few months. No one knows who is doing it, or why it is happening."

"Who's being targeted? Adults or children?"

"Both. Right now we do have a lead, but unfortunately, he can't tell us what happened." Doctor Brighthead pulled a picture from a manila file and passed it to Ace. "This is Amir Shetan. He spent two days lost in the jungle, and when he was found, he was unable to communicate. The doctors say he's suffering from posttraumatic stress. It's left him mute."

"Past traumatic stress? From what?"

"We don't know, which is why you're being sent in to investigate. The boy's older brother Arad was with him in the jungle, but now he's vanished. I think Amir knows what happened to him."

"Great," Dirk grumbled, "Another babysitting mission. This'll be fun."

Hootie also disapproved. "Yea, and it gonna be a hot and muggy one too."

"Hootie, Dirk,, if you dislike going on the mission so much, why don't you stay behind. I'm sure Doctor Brighthead could find a lot of good uses for you." He turned to his mentor and winked. "Right?"

The Doctor smiled and nodded. "Sure could. I'm sure my chauffeur would love a few days off. What do you say?" He paused a moment to look around his office, which was in dire need of an overhaul. "And come to think of it, my office could use a thorough cleaning. So could my house, and my car, and the lab…"

They got the point. "Ok, ok. We'll stop complaining! I just hope this trip is worth it, and this Amir has something good to say. If it's one thing I can't stand, it's an uncooperative kid." Dirk's eyes moved toward PeeWee, whose scowl proved that he did not like the comment. "Oh sorry PeeWee. I completely forgot that you're just a kid too."

The boy knew better; Dirk was always trying to rile him up. "Sure you are Dirk. Sure you are."

************

It was just as Hootie predicted; hot, humid, and very, very damp. "Whew! I knew it was going to be warm, but I didn't expect this! When's it gonna cool off?"

"Quit your complaining! The people here on Marco Island live like this every day, and you don't hear them griping about it! I can remember one time…"

Dirk sighed. "Great. Ace is going to give us another 'I can remember' lecture. This ought to be interesting."

"Yea" Aggie chuckled, "Aren't they always?"

"I heard that! What is it with my lectures anyway that everyone complains about them?"

"Everything! Let's face it Ace, your head is filled with way too much useless knowledge."

The comment earned Dirk a jab to his ribcage. "At least it's not empty like yours is."

"Talk about a lame comeback! Was that really the best you could come up with?"

Aggie and PeeWee rolled their eyes; their brothers were at it again. Hootie interjected, "If that was the best you could come up with Ace, you'd better stick to lecturing."

"Come on! Aren't any of you on my side?" When no one to stepped forward in his defense, he mockingly pleaded. "Please? Anyone?"

"The general consensus says no. Sorry."

Ace turned on his brother and punched him in the jaw. "Oh shut up Dirk!"

Retaliation for the cheap shot would have been in order, had they not had been interrupted by a tall dark complexioned man; he cleared his throat to announce his presence. "So, you must be the infamous G-Force Team. Not quite what I'd imagined, but then again, I didn't know what to expect."

"Uh, yes, we are the G-Force Team." Ace blushed, then regained his composure and introduced himself. "I am Ace Goodheart, leader of the team. Behind me is my second in command, Dirk Daring, then there's Aggie, PeeWee, and Hootie. As each member of the team was introduced, they bowed respectfully. "And you are?"

"I am Amad Shetan, the chief of this village. Thank you for coming." As soon as the formalities were finished, he went right to the point of their visit. "Many of my fellow tribesmen have disappeared and we don't know why. I hope you can find the answer."

"I was told a young boy named Amir might be of some help. Apparently he might have seen something, but won't talk about it?"

"Yes." The chief lowered his head in sadness. "He is my only remaining son. Once he was an energetic young man, like the other children are, but since his older brother Arad disappeared, he's become quite reclusive. Every day he sits and waits for him to come back."

"Do you think Arad is coming back?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Only death could've brought Amir back alone. The two were inseparable."

"I see. Does Amir know what happened to his brother? Has he explained anything to you?"

"No. He never speaks or interacts with anyone. If he knows something, he will not tell us about it. Let me take you to him. Maybe then he will open up."

************

Amir sat cross-legged at the edge of the jungle; his head was placed in his hands, and it was obvious he had been crying. Immediately the young boy tugged at Aggie's heartstrings, and she went to him. "Hi, are you Amir?" His dark eyes looked up at hers, and he silently nodded in reply.

"Why aren't you playing with the other children?" He shrugged, then looked away; it was obvious he wasn't in the mood for conversation. "Can you tell me why you're just sitting here? Why aren't you playing with your friends?"

The boy shook his head no, and then he shrugged again. "What? You can't tell me why you're sitting here alone?"

A nod confirmed a yes; he could tell why. "Are you waiting for Arad to come home? Do you want us to help you find him?"

At the sound of his brother's name, the boy's eyes widened in fear. He pointed into the jungle and shook his head back and forth as if to say, "No, don't."

"What? You don't want us to go into the jungle?" He continued to shake his head. "But why?"

The boy did not respond. "Amir? You don't want anyone else getting hurt, do you? We need your help to stop whatever is out there."

He shook his head; he didn't want to help. "Do you know what happened to your brother? Is he coming back?"

He nodded a yes, then his eyes filled with tears and he shook his head. "No."

************

"Well, that little conversation got us answers, didn't it?" As usual, Dirk was sarcastic, and lacking patience. "That kid isn't going to say a word. Why don't we just go out there and investigate it ourselves?"

Ace nudged him with his elbow. "Stop being such a pessimist Dirk. He'll talk to us when he's ready."

"Oh really? The entire village will be dead before you'll be able to loosen his tongue."

"If you're so certain of that, why don't you try it then?" Aggie was angry, and her tone of voice reflected it. "You have no compassion Dirk, that's your problem. If you were in his shoes, what would you do?"

"Aggie, you forget, I WAS in his shoes."

"So why don't you go talk to him then?"

PeeWee smiled. "Aggie, if he was scared before, he will be even more so after Dirk talks to him."

"Oh really?" Dirk snorted in disgust. "I know it may be hard to believe this PeeWee, but I do have a way with children. You're the exception. You drive me crazy."

"It wasn't me that drove you crazy Dirk."

************

Nightfall came, and with it came a restless yearning for exploration. Dirk wanted to find out what was lurking in the jungle, and what caused the psychological damage to the six year old Amir. Did a Galactor experiment go awry? If Ace had his way, they'd never find out. He'd insisted that no one go into the jungle until there were more answers.

"Ace, you're an idiot. You really think I'm going to sit around and wait for that kid to talk?" Though his shirt was drenched with sweat from the damp humid air, he continued to trudge on. "Someday you'll learn!"

Two hours later, in the thick of the jungle, his worst fears were confirmed by the discovery of a Galactor base. It was concealed perfectly; its camouflage consisted of dirt, vines and greenery. "I figured Galactor fit in here somewhere. Even in death he's still causing trouble!" Raising his wrist to his mouth, he signaled to Ace. "Dirk here. You'll never guess what I'm standing in front of."

"Where the HELL are you? I thought we had an agreement that no one was to go searching alone! What part of that didn't you understand?"

"The whole part. I got restless. Sorry. Anyway, it's Galactor. They've got a base here in the jungle."

"A base? Are you serious?"

'I'm standing right in front of it! Tell you what. I'll send you the coordinates and you can come and see it for yourself. Ok?"

"I should just leave you there alone Dirk, but then I'd never hear the end of it from Doctor Brighthead."

"Or me."

"If anything happens to you, it's your own fault, you know."

"Yea, I…." There was a pause as he heard movement behind him, then felt something tug at his arm. When he spun around to face the unsuspected intruder, his mouth dropped open and he screamed.

************

"Dirk? You there?" There was no reply; the signal went dead. "Damnit!" Quickly he aroused the others and explained the situation. "Dirk's run off again, and I think something has happened to him. He told me he found a Galactor base in the jungle, and just after he sent me the coordinates his transmission went dead."

"Oh great! We get to bail him out of yet another mess. When are you going to learn to lock him up Ace?"

Oh don't worry Hootie. After I find him, he won't be going anywhere for a long while. I'm gonna break both his legs!"

************

"If you ever sneak up like that on me again and I'll kill you!" It was very hard for Dirk to conceal his anger. "What the hell are you following me for anyway? I thought you were afraid to go into the jungle?"

Amir gave his typical response; he shrugged. "Aw hell, I don't have time for this! See that over there? It's a Galactor base, and I'm about to infiltrate it. I don't need some brat tagging along with me. Understand?" He turned to walk away, but the boy grabbed hold on his hand and tried tugging him in the opposite direction.

"What? You're not going to tell me I'm going the wrong way are you?" Nodding a yes, Amir pointed away from the base. Dirk sighed heavily in understanding, "You don't want me to go into the base? Why? Is there something in there that scared you?"

There was another nod. "Were they men dressed in green suits?" Amir shook his head. "No? What then?" The boy extended his hand and bent his fingers, then wiggled them to represent something crawling. "What? A spider? You're afraid of a spider? That's crazy! You're surrounded by them!"

To justify his point, he reached to his left to retrieve a small arachnid that was spinning a web nearby. "See? It won't hurt you." He extended his hand to show Amir the harmless creature; the boy shrieked and shied away. The reaction was puzzling, but it confirmed Dirk's suspicions. Amir, do you know how you conquer your fears?"

He shook his head. "No."

"Like this". With his other hand, Dirk crushed the spider. "You kill them, that's how. Destroy it before it destroys you. You can be strong, and you can face your fear, or you can choose to submit to it. Understand?" Amir nodded.

"Good. Now, I'll tell you what. I usually don't do this, but since you've followed me this far, I guess it can't hurt for you to come the rest of the way. Are you up to it?" He nodded again.

"Ok, but if we're going to be partners, I have one request. I'll need you to watch my back and tell me if something is there. Can you do that?" Amir shrugged, then tried to speak, but he couldn't find his voice. Frustrated, his mind reflected on Dirk's words, and he fought harder to break the silence. "I have to destroy it, before it destroys me." Determination flashed in his eyes. "I will be strong. I won't submit to it."

Dirk was completely taken off guard by the boy's audible response. "Ok, I will."

************

The minute they entered the Galactor base, Dirk wished he'd left Amir behind. It was obvious the boy was scared to death; he was clamped tightly onto Dirk's hand and refused to let go. "Come on Amir. It's not so bad."

"It's dark, and it's so quiet."

The boy was accurate with his statement; it was too quiet. Even Dirk had to admit he felt a little edgy. "Is this an abandoned base? If yes, why? If no, where are all the guards?" A few minutes later he found the answers. In a small laboratory, five men lay dead, the result of something even Dirk could not fathom. It appeared as though 'something' had somehow removed all their internal organs and bones, leaving only the outer skin casing behind.

When Amir saw the bodies, his face paled visibly. "It's here."

"What's here? You know what did this?"

He nodded; his voice shook slightly as he replied. "A spider."

"A what? That's ridiculous."

"It was big, and hungry, and it came after us. Arad asked me to run but I froze. It left me then. I don't know why and it…it ate Arad."

Dirk's dubious look turned to concern when he saw the Amir's honest expression. "You are serious aren't you? It really was a giant spider?" Hearing himself say it made it seem all the more unbelievable, but for some reason, he believed the boy's words. "Just exactly how big are we talking?"

Amir spread his arms wide; Dirk groaned. "That big huh? Great, how am I going to get Ace to believe this one?" Glancing around the room, he took note of the numerous files and piles of paperwork that was scattered about. He picked up a couple of loose papers that lay at his feet and read over them briefly. "There's got to be notes or lab reports somewhere in this mess."

From across the room, Amir held up a large manila folder. "Dirk! Is this what you're looking for? It's got calculations and pictures of spiders in it."

"Probably kid. Bring it here and let me take a look at it." Dirk took the folder from the boy and opened it; the contents were sobering. "Well what do you know? Galactor is responsible. He's been trying to genetically alter some species of tarantulas. The most successful seems to be the Thailand Black. Figures—it's the most aggressive." He pulled a picture of a large black spider from the pile of papers and showed it to Amir. "Is this like the spider you saw?"

Amir shook his head. "It was much bigger than that. It was bigger than you."

"Bigger than me? Are you sure?"

"Yea I'm sure. It was as big as Arad, and he was about your size. Are you going to be able to stop it Dirk?"

"Sure we will. Let me contact Ace and the others, and then we'll get out of here. With the information in this file, we should be able to find out its weaknesses."

*************

They were lost, and all eyes were on Ace. "I thought you said you had the coordinates!"

"I did, but this jungle is pretty dense!"

PeeWee muttered under his breath, "Sort of like your head."

"Ok 'Dirk', you can stop it with the insults. I'm not in the mood!" He turned away from his teammates and looked towards the ground; concern etched his features. "Why Dirk? Why do you always have to do this?"

Aggie put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure he's ok. Dirk's always been good at giving us a scare."

"Last time he took off like this…." He paused, then choked out the rest of the sentence. "He was gone for eight months, and we thought he was dead. Why doesn't he ever think of the rest of us?"

"Because that's just Dirk. He's always got to be the hero. He's not a whole lot different than you are."

"Oh?" Ace's stare hardened. "And how so?"

She didn't get the chance to explain; Dirk's voice interrupted. "Ace? You out there somewhere?"

"Yes, SOMEWHERE!" His voice was laced with sarcasm. "While looking for you we took a wrong turn and ended up lost." He thought he heard laughter, and it irritated him. "You jerk! Are you laughing at us?"

"Not us, just you Boy Scout. I should've known you'd get lost. You couldn't even find your way out of a paper bag. Makes me wonder how you ever managed to obtain that pilot's license." His tone then went serious. "Look, I know you're not going to believe this, but Amir said a giant spider at his brother."

Ace looked down at his transpower band in disbelief. "A what? Giant spider?"

"Yea. We're inside an abandoned Galactor base…"

"We?"

"Amir and I…"

"Amir?"

Will you stop interrupting and let me explain? I said you wouldn't believe me. I wouldn't either if I didn't have the lab reports right here in front of me. Galactor was genetically experimenting with Thailand Blacks, and as usual, the experiments failed."

"And this thing is loose on the island."

"You got it, and from what I've heard, it's huge, and very hungry."

"Great! Fighting killer arachnids was not on my agenda. Send me your coordinates again and we'll try to locate you. And Dirk, try to stay out of trouble, ok?"

************

After ending the transmission, Dirk turned to Amir. "Ready to get out of here?" The boy remained still; his eyes were fixed on the hallway. He wanted to speak, but like before, the words would not come out. His only reply was a nod. "What is it?" A low grumbling noise from behind made him inhale deeply. "Amir, tell me that was your stomach." The boy shook his head.

"Great. It's behind me isn't it?" Amir nodded. "Is it close?"

Dirk turned his head slightly, and from the corner of his eye he could see the shadowy figure; it was enormous and intimidating, and definitely not what he'd imagined. Its hairy black legs made no sound as it carried its eight-foot body closer and closer. "Listen, Amir, don't move ok? It's going to be all right. It's attracted to movement, so if we just remain still…"

The boy wasn't listening; he was already in a panic. "Don't let it get me. Please don't let it eat me."

"Amir, stop and calm down. You're attracting it to yourself." He watched helplessly as the spider's numerous eyes honed in on the boy's movement. "Amir, you told me the first time you saw it you froze. That's why it didn't attack you. Do it again, ok?"

"Dirk, it's going to eat me. I don't want it to."

"Don't worry. I won't let it eat you." He knew Amir was not going to calm down, and if he didn't come up with some kind of plan, the boy was going to lose his life. But what could he use to defeat a giant tarantula? His eyes glanced nervously around the room, then fixed on the fire extinguisher by the north wall. "If I can blast it with CO2, maybe that will temporarily stop it. It's a risk, but I've got to do something!" He lunged out; the sudden movement caused the spider to react instantly.

Feeling threatened, it raised its abdomen in the air and flicked thousands of needlelike hairs at Dirk. Though he had the protection of the birdstyle, they still imbedded themselves in his arms, legs, and body, each one piercing his skin like red-hot pokers. He screamed, then was overcome by an extreme panic as his vision began to fluctuate. "Damn! They must have gotten in my eyes too!"

Amir was sobbing. "Dirk! Dirk! Help me!"

His mind thought only of the boy, and of how to save him. "I can't do anything with my vision like this! Damn it, where's Ace?" Reaching for his transpower band he signaled to him. "Ace! Ace!"

Amir screamed. "Dirk! It's going to get me!"

"Amir!" He shook his head, trying desperately to sharpen his vision, but it would not come. "I can't see you Amir. I can't help you!"

"Dirk! Please help me!"

"Dirk? You ok?" It was Ace. "We're coming up on the Galactor base right now."

"No! I'm not ok! It's…it's gonna kill him."

Amir screamed again, this time in sheer terror. "Dirk!"

"Amir!" In the silence that followed, Dirk prayed for a response. "Please God, don't let him be dead." He called the boy's name again; there was no reply. "Amir!"

"Dirk? You still there? What's happening?"

"Ace! Don't come in here, ok? Trust me on this one." Something brushed against his leg and he flinched.

"Why?"

The spider struck out, digging its long slender fangs deep into Dirk's thigh and calf and releasing its poisonous venom. The pain surprised him: it was intense. "Because it'll kill you, that's why."

"And it won't kill you?"

He gritted his teeth as once again he was bitten, this time in the stomach and shoulder. "I can take it. You can't!"

"Oh? Don't start pulling this 'I'm better than you' crap again!"

"Ace!" The venom was beginning to paralyze his nervous system, and he was angered by it. Being part cyborg, he was not supposed to be affected by drugs or pain. For some reason though, this creature was getting the better of him. "You don't know what you're up against." His words grew heavy and unintelligible. "Stay away."

"I'm not leaving you Dirk. We're coming, ok?"

As his consciousness began to ebb away, hazy visions of an eight-foot tarantula appeared before him, its bared fangs dripping red with blood. He'd hoped it was a hallucination, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it was reality.

************

Ace called out to his friend, but received no response. "Dirk! You here?" The lab was empty, but the scattered remains of test tubes and paperwork proved that someone had been there, and that there'd been a struggle. "Dirk?" He shook his head in frustration. "Where could he have gone?"

"Maybe he went on without us. It's not like him to wait up for us you know."

"Go where?" Ace reached down and picked up one of the manila folders that lie on the floor. "I think this was the information he was talking about. Why wouldn't he take it with him?"

"Hey, look!' The others turned to where PeeWee was standing; he was pointing towards the ground. "There's some blood over here, and a lot of this too." He held up his hand; thick strands of spider webbing hung from it.

Aggie's eyes widened with concern. "You don't think it got Dirk do you?"

Ace sighed. "Probably, knowing Dirk. Does the blood leave a trail to anywhere?"

"It starts here…" PeeWee walked to the right side of the room, to an area that was filled with numerous locked cabinets. "Then it seems to disappear here."

Hootie furrowed his eyebrows. "But it can't end there! You're standing in the middle of the room!"

"I know that!"

"So what, did he get half way to where you're standing and then decide he wanted to stop bleeding?"

"If I had all the answers we wouldn't still be here!"

"Will you two shut up a minute?" Neither PeeWee nor Hootie paid attention; to emphasize his point, Ace slammed his fist on a nearby counter. "Shut up!" Everyone quieted. "Do you hear it?"

"What? I don't hear anything."

"It's coming from over there." He pointed to where PeeWee was still standing. "Listen." It was very faint, but the sound was apparent; a little boy was sobbing. "Dirk? Dirk?"

"Amir? Is that you? Where are you?"

One of the cabinet doors opened slightly to reveal the boy's hiding place; he was huddled tightly in a ball and crying. Jun immediately went to comforting him. "Amir? Are you ok?"

The boy shook his head no. "Dirk told me to be strong, but I wasn't. I gave in to my fear and that got him hurt."

"It's ok Amir. I'm sure you did the best you could. Do you know where Dirk went?"

"No. He told me to hide, so I did." Tears welled up in his eyes. "It killed him didn't it?"

Ace knelt down beside the shuddering young boy and smiled weakly. "Amir, nothing can kill Dirki. He's tough. We'll find him, and you're going to help us, ok?"

At first he hesitated, then he replied. "Ok."

*************

His vision was still hazy; in the darkness he could make out nothing. Besides the echo of his beating heart, it was deathly quiet and still. "Where am I?" He'd remembered the attack by the spider. It had impaled him with its fangs and then carried his body off. Any normal human would've died instantly from the shock and/or toxins in the bloodstream, but Dirk's cybernetic enhancements had saved his life. For now anyway. If he didn't get help soon he was going to die. That was a given, regardless of his humanity.

"Ace? Hootie? Anyone there?" There was no response. Though he could see no shapes or forms in the darkness, he was overcome by the dreaded feeling that he was not alone. Every so often he'd feel something light scurrying across his body; he knew all too well what it was. "I'm really starting to dislike spiders!"

They didn't like him either. As if on cue a number of them started biting him. Annoyed with the nagging little bursts of pain, he tried to brush them away, but for every two or three he'd shake off, at least ten more would appear. Before long, there were hundreds of tiny spiders crawling over him; feeding ravenously off his flesh. "Ace! Answer me! They're everywhere!"

He finally received a response to his transmission. "Dirk? What is?"

"The damned spiders! There's hundreds of them and they're all over me!"

"What? Where are you?

"Get off me and go find something else to eat!" Dirk began to flail around wildly, but it was to no avail. There was no escaping their massive numbers. "Ace, I can't get them off me!"

"Dirk, calm down. Where are you? Send me a signal so I can home in on it."

************

The corridor was dimly illuminated; numerous spider webs hung about, and the air was damp and heavy. Amir shuddered from the cold and fear, his eyes moved quickly around, taking in everything that surrounded him and the others. "Ace, I'm scared."

"It's ok Amir." Ace tried to keep his own voice calm; the inflection was hard to hide. "We're going to find Dirk. He's close."

"But it hurt him. What if it hurts you too?"

"I won't let it, ok? We'll get out of this. All of us will."

************

He'd managed to rise to his feet and was running; his hands felt along the walls as he stumbled along in the darkness. "I'll be damned if I let something so small and insignificant get the better of me!" A few unsteady steps later the earth gave way underneath his feet and he found himself falling steadily downwards. He reached out for something, anything to stop his decent, but neither the vines nor branches that he connected with on the way down were strong enough to hold his weight.

His left arm hit first against the ground, the force of the impact dislodging his transpower band and sending it flying off into oblivion. "Oh, that's just great!" In the sudden glow of the detransformation he was awakened to the reality of the situation. There were not hundreds, but thousands of squiggling baby spiders surrounding him, and they were all hungry.

************

He was close; Ace could hear his plethora of curses. "Dirk! We're coming! Just hold on a few more minutes!" He took a step forward, then froze as a massive shadow, emphasized by the presence of eight long legs, appeared in front of them. "Uh oh. Is that what I think it is?"

Amir huddled close to his side and squeezed his hand tightly. "It's here again."

"Calm down Amir, it's ok."

The spider methodically carried it's bulk down the corridor; it's numerous eyes scanned the surroundings for intruders. Instinctively, it was only attracted to movement, so if the team stood completely still, it would not be aware of their presence. At least that's what Ace had hoped. "Ok everyone. We know the rules. Don't move, don't breath, don't blink, and maybe it won't attack us. Got it?"

He was unsure of sound though. Could the spider hear his heavy breathing or his rapidly beating heart? The answer came soon enough, when without fair warning Amir sneezed. Ace looked down at the boy, then back up at the spider. It stopped, then turned in their direction.

PeeWee's eyes widened. "Ace? Why did it stop? Did it hear that?"

"I don't know, but we'd better come up with a plan. I don't like the looks of this."

************

Dirk's fingers groped across the ground; they passed over something cool and metal and he breathed a sigh of relief. "At least one thing is going right. It's still in one piece." He picked up the transpower band, snapped it back on his left wrist, and gave the command to transform into birdstyle. "G-Force, Transform!" Nothing happened. "Damn it all! Why does this have to happen now?"

He'd lost count of the bites after 300, but was certain, based on how quickly he was losing energy, that they were in the thousands. There was nothing he could do to stop the onslaught; and he felt too weak to continue fighting. "Guess Doctor Brighthead was right, I'm not immortal."

Angered with himself for the predicament he was in, he screamed. "Anyone up there?" Seeking warmth and a new place to hide, the spiders crawled into his mouth; he gagged, then forced himself to swallow. "Well, I guess that one way to get rid of them." A moment after doing so he thought about what he'd done, and it made him vomit. "Ace! Where are you?"

************

It advanced closer; PeeWee started to panic. "Uh Ace, about that plan?"

"Still working on it. Anyone have a suggestion?" No one answered; Hootie and Aggie were dumbfounded, and Amir tried to remain invisible by hiding behind Ace's cape. " Ok, great. Well it looks like it's up to me then." For a moment he paused, then he shrugged his shoulders. "I've heard the Thailand Black attacks anything that moves. Let's prove that theory, shall we? PeeWee, hand me your bolos." He complied. "Ok, when I throw these at the spider, fly to the rafters. Hootie, you take Amir. Any questions? There were none.

"Ok, on my command…NOW!" The bolos flew through the air towards the spider, and as anticipated, it attacked them. "Fly to the rafters!"

It happened too quickly. Seeing new movement and realizing that there was a much bigger catch to obtain, the Black Thai did the unimaginable. It jumped, and lunging at its newly found prey, knocked Ace back to the ground. Aggie screamed. "Ace!" The others voiced their concerns as well.

It was suddenly overtop him; it's fangs bore down and pierced through the protection of his birdstyle. He screamed, then in desperation, reached for his boomerang and threw it. His aim was true; It sliced the electrical wires that ran along the ceiling, and as showers of sparks and flames cascaded downward, the newly cut ends touched the spider and sent a surge of electricity throughout it's body.

From above PeeWee's victory cry could be heard. "All right! You did it Ace!"

Ace was breathless; he stared blankly at what remained of the Thailand Black, then at the electrical lines that hung limp from the ceiling. "Damn, why didn't I think of that sooner?" The wide gash across his shoulder was bleeding badly, and he already felt the paralyzing venom in his veins. "I can't believe it worked."

************

When they finally found Dirk, he was barely conscious. Hundreds of baby spiders continued to crawl all over him, yet surprisingly enough, he didn't seem the slightest bit phased by it. "You finally came…great. Now, can you do something about these spiders for me?"

"Uh…yea. Ok." Hootie was trying hard to suppress the urge to vomit. "PeeWee, hand me that fire extinguisher from over there, will you?." He took it from the boy, then sprayed Dirk's body, freezing the tiny arachnids with the cold CO2. "Sorry it took so long. Are you ok?"

"Define ok."

PeeWee laughed. "He's ok Hootie."

"Dirk!" Amir ran to his side and gave him a hug, being careful not to squeeze too tightly. "I thought it killed you!"

"Of course not. I told you it wouldn't."

"But you're hurt. See?" He pointing the gaping wounds across Dirk's chest, shoulder, and leg; a steady stream of blood flowed from each. "You need help."

"Don't worry, it's not as bad as it looks. Doctor Brighthead will take care of me."

Hootie knew the truth; he could tell Dirk was putting on quite a show for the boy's sake. "Auto is on his way with the Phoenix. We'll get you to Doctor Brighthead as quickly as we can. Just hold on, ok?"

Dirk nodded, then closed his eyes and replied softly "He's not going to like what he sees, is he?"

Hootie shook his head. "No Dirk, he most certainly isn't."

************

"Ace? Ace?" His eyes fluttered open and he replied weakly. "Aggie? Where am I?" He tried to rise, but her firm had pushed him back down. "Not yet. You're still weak. Doctor Brighthead said to give it a little more time."

"Doctor Brighthead? When did we go back home?"

"You don't remember? Auto picked us up and brought us here in the Phoenix."

His memory was a complete blank. "I don't remember anything except the spider. It is dead, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. Doctor Brighthead said you were lucky the wound was only superficial. Had it been any worse you might have died from the shock of the toxins."

"Guess I had Dirk's luck with me this time. How is he anyway?"

Aggie smiled optimistically. "He's being his usual self. He suffered major internal injuries, but because of his cybernetics, they weren't fatal. Doctor Brighthead had a quite a time putting him back in one piece, but he was successful."

"That's good to hear, but I tell you what, we're going to have to have one heck of a talk as soon as I can see him. He's got a lot of explaining to do!"

************

Amir put his hand on Dirk's shoulder and shook him slightly. "Hey Dirk, you awake?" He opened his eyes and was surprised to see the young boy standing over him. "Amir? What are you still doing here?"

"I wanted to stay with you. The Doctor said I could. How are you?"

"Not bad, better than I was. How are the others?"

"Not much better than you I'm afraid!" Ace stepped forward; his left shoulder was bandaged and his arm was in a sling. "Whenever you go running off by yourself, I usually end up paying for it!"

Dirk laughed. "Is it my fault you can't defend yourself?"

"Look who's talking! I'm not the one who's got more holes than Swiss cheese!"

"Well at least I…" He paused, then pursed his lips and gave a pouting look. "Damn, I can't think of a good comeback."

Ace's tone was suddenly serious "Good, that's not why I'm here anyway. We need to talk. Amir, can you leave us alone for a few minutes?" The boy nodded. "Thanks, I'll let you know when we're done." They watched as he left the room, then Ace turned his attention back to Dirk. "Now that Amir is gone, how are you really feeling?"

"Not as good as I'd like to be. If you want my honest opinion…I was scared to death. I've never seen so many spiders in my life, and they were all in the same place…on me."

"Scared us too. We thought we lost you…again." The final word was spoken with emphasis, as if to convey a point without coming right out and saying it.

"Uh oh, is this where the lecture on my disobedience begins?"

"Dirk, I'm serious. We're a team remember? Every time you go off on your one-man solo missions, you affect us. Did you ever stop to think once of how we might have felt if something happened to you?"

"No, I didn't. How did you feel?"

"You dare to ask me that?" Ace's voice softened slightly. "It felt like something was missing, like we lost one of the family. It just didn't feel right."

"I'm sorry Ace, but you know how I get. I don't have the patience to just sit around and do nothing."

"Yea, I know that, and I can't tell you how many times we've had to bail you out because of it!"

"Look, I said I was sorry, are you gonna accept it?"

"I think I can." He wanted to continue, but PeeWee's voice from the hallway broke his concentration. "Hey guys! Looks like Ace and Dirk are back to normal. They're arguing again."

Hootie agreed. "Yup, and now we can get back to normal, since that spider is gone."

"Are they both gone?"

Ace looked at Dirk; his eyes narrowed. "Both? Why do you say there were more than one?"

"I know you're sort of naïve when it comes to women, Ace, but in order to make babies, there has to be both a male and female."

"Aw man, I never even considered that!

"Great!" Hootie grumbled, "So the mission isn't over just yet?"

"Nope. We've got one more obstacle to overcome." Dirk rose from the bed; his legs were weak and could not support the weight of his body. As he pitched forward, Ace reached out and caught him "Hold on. You're in no shape to be going back into battle."

"You don't understand. That spider and I have a score to settle. You can try to stop me, but you won't get far. I'll find a way to get there, even if it's not aboard the Phoenix.

Ace sighed. "Dirk, why do you always have to be stubborn? Tell you what, if you can walk, you can go. Deal?"

"Sure." With ease, Dirk let go of Ace's arm and walked to the door. "I knew you'd fall for it. See you on the Phoenix!"

************

Upon first sight it was obvious something had laid waste to the small village. Numerous huts were in shambles, and crowds of people were gathered in the streets, most nursing the wounded or mourning the loss of their loved ones. Ace was furious by the spider's quick retaliation. "Damn, it must have seeked revenge because we killed its mate!"

"Yea. Galactor's done it again. Only this time, it was by accident."

"The experiments on the Thailand Blacks weren't accidents Dirk. They were purposefully done, to invent a new weapon for mass destruction."

"Looks like they got their wish, didn't they?"

Not far away, Amir could be heard calling for his parents. "Momma! Poppa! Where are you?" Their bodies lay near the edge of the jungle, neither moving nor showing any sign of life. Panic stricken, and with tears in his eyes, he knelt down beside his mother and shook her violently. "Momma? Wake up!" There was no response. He did the same to his father. "Poppa?" It wasn't sinking in; he continued talking to them. "Dirk and the others are here. They'll help you." He turned and pointed. "See him? Dirk was brave, and he taught me how to conquer my fears."

Dirk watched the boy sympathetically; the corners of his eyes were wet with tears. Memories of his own parents' deaths flashed in his mind, and with it burned an unsatisfied desire for vengeance. This time though, it was not for himself, but for Amir.

Ace put a hand on his shoulder, sensing his friend emotional turmoil. "Why don't you go to him? He needs to understand. You can be there for him."

"What would I tell him?"

"That he's not alone. When it happened to you, what did you want to hear?"

"That it didn't really happen. I can't very well do that, now can I?"

"No, but you say something to make him feel better." He pushed Dirk in Amir's direction. "Now go on! He needs you."

When Amir saw Dirk approaching, he ran to him with open arms. "Dirk! It killed momma and poppa!" Sobbing, he wrapped his arms around Dirk's waist and hugged him tightly. "They're gone. Momma and Poppa are gone!"

"I know Amir. I'm sorry, but you'll be ok. I'll take care of you." It seemed like such a lame comment, but he could think of nothing better to say. Even at twenty-one, Dirk was still unsure of how to handle his own emotions. He still mourned the loss of his own parents, and was plagued with nightmares and vivid remembrances of that fateful day. He knew Amir would eventually be doing the same. "I will help you get through this."

As the sobs grew harder, Amir buried his head deeper into Dirk's chest. "I want them back. I want momma and poppa. I want Arad."

"I can't bring them back Amir. I wish I could. All I can do is try to help you through it now. I know how you feel. I lost my parents too, when I was eight. My world was destroyed, but I overcame it. So can you. You just have to be strong."

The boy looked up; Dirk saw the anger that flashed suddenly in his eyes. "You'll kill that spider, won't you? Make it pay for what it's done!"

Dirk nodded. "Yea, you can bet I will. But you have to promise me that you'll leave your vengeance behind. It's a bad thing for you to hold on to. If it's all you have to live for, then you have nothing. Understand?"

"I understand." He paused, then took Dirk's hand and squeezed it. "Dirk, are you going to be my big brother now?"

Dirk had only known Amir for a few days, but in that short amount of time, he'd grown surprisingly attached to him. Their lives were parallel; they'd both faced devastation at a young age, and both were strong willed and defiant. At times, Dirk could almost see himself in the young man.

He put his arm around the boy and smiled. "Of course Amir, I'll be your big brother."

************

Later that night Dirk was awakened by a frantic Aggie. "Dirk, wake up!" He didn't budge, and she pulled off his covers, exposing his bare flesh to the cold, damp air. "Get out of that bed, now!"

He grumbled something slightly incoherent and covered his head with a pillow. "I'm trying to sleep. What do you want?"

'It's Amir. I went to check on him, and he's gone."

"WHAT?" It worked; he was very much awake now. "Where the hell did he go?"

"PeeWee said he was with him most of the night, and all he talked about was killing the spider."

"Alone? He wouldn't be stupid enough to think of doing that would he?"

"He looks up to you Dirk, so put yourself in his shoes. What would you have done."

"You know the answer! I would have gone after it!"

"Which is why I woke you up. He's gone off alone to fight that spider."

"Dumb, dumb, dumb! That kid will be dead in seconds!" He pounded his forehead lightly with his fist. "Why didn't I foresee this happening?"

"You couldn't have Dirk. None of us could have."

"I should've! " Grabbing Aggie's hand he pulled her towards the door. "Come on, we don't have much time!"

**************

It was dark, and Amir was afraid. The RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) was heavy and bulky, and it weighed him down. He wasn't even sure he knew how to use the weapon, but it's what Dirk would've taken, so he had to bring it along.

At times he'd thought of doubling back, but the memories of Arad and his parents deaths replayed in his mind; they kept him going. As he stopped to catch his breath; his ears listened intently to the scurrying and rustling around him. Somewhere in the vastness the spider waited. It had to be destroyed; he had to avenge his parents and his brother. It's what Dirk would've done, and he wanted to make him proud.

***************

"What?" Ace's expression was one of dubiousness. "He went off in the jungle alone, and he took the RPG? It's as big as he is!"

"I know that, but it's true. I guess he's trying to make some sort of impression on me, that he's tough or something. If you ask me, it's pretty stupid."

"Sort of like when you go running off on your own?"

"Touché. Save the lecture."

"Sorry, had to throw that in."

"You always do Ace."

Aggie interjected. "Children! Can we please stop this and get down to business?"

Separating into their individual vehicles, each began to perform a surface scan of the jungle floor. For over an hour they were unsuccessful; nothing came up on radar and there were no signs of life. Dirk was beginning to fear for the worst. "You see anything out there? That kid's got to be somewhere!"

"Nope, nothing on my radar. Hootie? Aggie? PeeWee? You got anything?"

"If that's spider's here, I don't know where."

"Same goes for Amir. He's vanished."

"Sorry Ace, there nothing on my end."

It was then that the blip then appeared on Dirk's radar; he inhaled sharply. "Got something! Based on the size, it's the spider." A few seconds later a second blip appeared, much smaller than the first. "Damn it Amir. Your timing is impeccable!"

***************

Amir saw the spider first; he screamed, then dropped the RPG and started running. Its movements were quick, and before he could even get a few steps away, the spider was at his heels. It grabbed at his leg, and as he lost his balance and stumbled, he felt something long and sharp pierce his ankle and pull him backwards.

He screamed again. "Dirk, help me!"

************

Dirk didn't wait for Ace's orders. Immediately, he took down the Falcon Tracker and began firing on the Black Thai. The missiles exploded on impact, yet produced nothing more that a scratch on the spider's exoskeleton. "I don't believe it! What the hell is that thing made out of?" In frustration he fired a few more shots; the results were the same. "Ace! I'm firing everything I got at it and it's doing no good! What are we supposed to do?"

"I'll cover you. Land the tracker and get Amir. The four of us will concentrate our firepower on it and see what we can do. Ok?

"Ok. I'll do what I can."

As Ace and the others combined their weaponry and attacked the spider, Dirk made his way to where Amir lay. His condition was not good; the large gash across his left ankle was bleeding heavily, and he was already going into shock from the toxins. From Dirk's standpoint, being a paramedic himself, he was certain the boy's chances for survival were few.

"Amir? Stay with me ok?" He scooped the boy up in his arms and headed back to the safety of the Falcon Tracker.

Amir smiled weakly. "Dirk. I knew you'd come."

"I…I couldn't let you take on that spider alone, now could I?"

"No." He closed his eyes and for a moment was still. Dirk shook him and tried to keep him talking. "Amir, hey. You've got to stay awake, ok?"

"Did I do a bad thing Dirk?"

"No, you did a brave thing Amir. You did something most people wouldn't even think of doing. You faced your fear and you're going to beat it, because you're strong."

"Like you?" The boy's voice was filled with pride. "I want to be like you."

Dirk sighed heavily; he knew he didn't have time to explain how he felt, but he had to say what was on his heart. "No you don't. I'm ruthless and insensitive. My only motive for living is vengeance. People don't cross me. If they do, they pay dearly for it. I can't get attached to anyone. I won't allow it. If I do, they always…"

He paused, realizing suddenly that what he was about to say was happening again. "…Die. You need to be yourself Amir, and not like me. That's what I've been trying to tell you from the beginning. DON'T be like me, because if you are, you destroy all that is innocent, and all that is good. "

Amir nodded in understanding, then shivered. "Dirk, I'm cold. Hold me until it's over, please." Dirk wrapped his arms tightly around him and squeezed for reassurance. The tears were flowing freely now, and despite the boy's mild reprimanding, he did nothing to hold them back. "Don't cry. I'm gonna be with momma and poppa soon. Arad too, and your momma and poppa. I'll tell them hi for you. Ok?"

He choked on his own words. "You're not going to die. I won't let you."

Amir's breathing became very shallow, and his eyes closed again. He murmured, "You're always gonna be my big brother, like Arad is. I love you Dirk." His words grew more and more quiet, then he went silent.

"Amir? You still there?" Dirk reached down and felt for a pulse. "Amir?" There was none; the boy was gone.

************

"Ace, nothing is working! What are we going to do?"

"I don't know! Keep firing!"

Hootie interjected. "But that's what we've been doing!"

Dirk interrupted their bantering; his voice was like ice. "I've got a score to settle with that thing. Cease your firing."

"Excuse me, but when did you get put in charge?"

"Ace, take that leadership of yours and shove it up your ass! I'm NOT in the mood."

The airwaves were silent for a few moments, then Aggie asked. "Dirk, how's Amir? Is he ok?" The lack of a response gave her the answer she dreaded. "I'm sorry. He was a brave little kid."

"No time for mourning Aggie. I've got a job to do." Dirk's tracker turned in the direction of the spider and started speeding towards it. "Hey PeeWee, do you remember any of your biology lessons?"

"Some. What do you want to know?"

"Where the weak spot would be on the tarantula. Have any ideas?"

"Well, I remember something about a spot below the carapace."

"The what?"

"Carapace, the outer shell of the body. There a soft spot on the underside that could probably be penetrated."

"Oh really? Well, looks like that's where I'm headed. Wish me luck!"

They watched in stunned silence as the tracker accelerated, then crashed sideways into the spider, sending it careening off to the left. Quickly it regained control of the situation by rearing up; it's legs delivered a crushing blow to the top of the G-2, caving in the roof and shattering the windshield. "Oh oh, I think I ticked him off!" He heard Aggie and the others scream his name. "Don't worry, I'm fine. Time to take another crack at it."

Ace was taken aback by his friend's persistence; he couldn't help but ask. "Just what are you trying to do Dirk?"

"I'm trying to flip it over on its back so I can get a clear shot at its underside."

"So why don't you flip it over and let US take the shot? Remember, there are FIVE of us."

"And do you remember what you're always spewing out before we attack? 'Sometimes one, sometimes five.' You set yourself up, you know."

"Dirk, why do you always have to be so literal?"

"'Cause I know it makes you mad. Sorry, gotta fly." The second ramming was harder than the first; the spider was hurled backwards, then it raised itself upward in preparation for another blow to the G-2. "Time to die, you son of a bitch!" Dirk fired two missiles; they found their mark on the underside of the carapace.

He waited for the explosion, but it did not come. "Damn it to hell! The tracker couldn't have possibly been loaded with two duds!" In the wake of his own frustration, he could hear Ace's frantic warning. "It's coming at you again. Take cover!" The spider's fangs pierced through the reinforced steel of the roof, and as Dirk jumped clear of the wreckage and ran for cover, he saw Ace's plane make a low pass near the spider's head.

"Ace, what exactly are YOU trying to do?"

"I'm distracting it so you can get to that RPG Amir dragged along. I'm sure from where you're standing you can get off a clean shot."

"Hey, thanks. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Don't mention it. I wasn't about to let your stubbornness get you killed again."

"You have to take the fun out of everything don't you?"

He reached for the RPG, then steadied himself for the coming attack. "Come and get me you bastard!" At the sudden sound and movement, the spider turned his attention towards him; without warning it reared up again and lunged out with it's fangs, catching Dirk in the left arm. "Damn it! That's one bite you're gonna regret!"

He fired the RPG at the spider's soft, fleshy underside; it exploded on impact. Brilliant red and yellow flames towered high into the air, than as it died down, it left in the aftermath a thick covering of smoke and ash. For a moment everyone was lost in silent admiration, then Ace replied. "Nice shot Dirk."

**************

EPILOGUE:

He sighed heavily as he dumped the last pile of dirt over Amir's grave. Though he felt remorse at not being able to save the boy, he knew he'd been reunited with his parents and Arad, and that realization brought him peace. He knew that in some strange way it was what he had wanted, and in the long run was probably better. The world was too cruel for an orphan; Dirk knew that all too well.

"Am I intruding?" It was Ace's voice from behind. "I can come back if you want to be alone."

"No, I'm almost done here."

"I know what Amir meant to you, and I'm sorry. Are you ok?."

"As good as I can be, all things considered." For a moment his thoughts lingered on what could've been. He and Amir's bond had been strong; he'd loved the boy, and really had thought of him as a little brother. Losing him was like losing one of the family. It would be a while before his sorrows ended, but it wasn't anything he wasn't already used to. For Dirk, losing a loved one was commonplace, and he was well conditioned for it.

"He was a good kid, and a brave one too."

"But he had one fatal flaw. He wanted to be like me."

"Don't blame yourself Dirk. It was Galactor's invention that killed him, not you."

"Yea, I guess, but if he'd wanted to be more like you, or Hootie, or even PeeWee, he wouldn't have run off to play the hero like he did."

"Oh? Not to sound like I'm trying to rub it in, but do you see now how we feel when you decide to take off on your own?"

Dirk smiled weakly. "Point taken Ace. I'll keep that in mind the next time I do it."

"The next time you do it?"

"You can lecture me about it all you want, but I'll never change. It's who I am."

"Who says I'm trying to change you? I'm just trying to keep my sanity!"

"Your what? You never had any to begin with."

"Lame! I expected better from you!"

"What can I say? I don't have much on material to work with." They both laughed, then the mood became serious again. "Ace?"

"Yea?"

"Thanks for always being there for me. I really don't know what I'd do without you."

" You're welcome Dirk. That's what brothers are for, aren't they? They help each other through the toughest of situations. I know that sometimes my lecturing can be a real pain, but…"

Dirk interrupted. "Sometimes?"

'Oh, all right, my lecturing is ALWAYS a pain, but I hope you get something out of them."

"I do. A massive headache!"

Ace shrugged. "Well, at least it's something."

Dirk shook his head and sighed "Are you finished?"

"Are you?"

"I think so, just give me a minute alone, ok?"

"Sure Dirk. Take as long as you need." He put a hand on his shoulder, then turned and walked away. Dirk watched him leave, then gave a final look to Amir's grave. "Well kid, looks like it's over for both of us. Take care of yourself, and your family, and do something else." He paused, then gazed upwards and smiled. "Say hi to mother and father for me, will you?"