Out To Launch

Author's Notes: This story (and every other "Urban Legend") is set in a variant of Gryph's "Deep Water" universe, developed by Gryph and Laura Boeff. For those who haven't seen "Stargate:SG-1", the military has an interstellar portal under Cheyenne Mountain; Dr. Janet Frasier is their main doctor. Stargate belongs to Showtime, MGM, Gekko, and Double Secret; Godzilla: The Series belongs to Toho and Tristar. Inspired by "Witnesses' Waltz", by Leslie Fish and Kristopher Klover.

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"Remember to keep enough spare change for the pay phones," Janet reminded her daughter, easing her camper around a glossy brown Cadillac. Smoothing her blue sundress, the doctor peered across the crowded parking lot. White Sands. Literally thousands of people, all crowded into this stretch of shore in one brash, noisy, excited party. Heck of a place to meet, Tony. But when her old friend's furlough coincided with hers… who wouldn't want to watch the Shuttle take off? "And put on sunscreen every time you come out of the water."

Cassandra Frasier stuck out her tongue. "It's not the first time I've been to the beach, Mom."

"It's not?" Sometimes Janet thought she'd never know everything about her little girl from beyond the Stargate. Given the circumstances SG-1 had found her in… when your whole world had been wiped out by a psychopathic Goa'uld, you didn't talk about it much.

Scream, sometimes. Definitely scream. But the nightmares had been fading.

"It's… okay." Cassie managed a smile. Peered out the window toward tall metal towers in the distance, bearing their white-hulled burden. "We didn't have anything like this."

Pulling in, the Air Force captain risked a glance out her window. Midnight-blue F-150 pickup, dented by passing years, still bearing a faint coat of red dust from the clay hills around I-10. Complete with a few faded bumper stickers, familiar to anyone who'd ever hung around military bases. Fourth Amendment Supporter. Sniper: if you run, you'll only die tired.

Go Army! The Other Way, Please!

Stepping out of the truck, she blinked. Okay, that one was new.

Shading her eyes, Janet grinned. "Tony!"

"Hey, Genghis." A heavily-built guy in a t-shirt, swim trunks, and dark baseball cap hugged her one-armed, grin stretching a tan face.

"Genghis?" Cassie asked in an undertone. She'd heard Colonel O'Neill call her mom Napoleon more than once, but this was a new one.

"Wound up on the wrong end of her IV once," Major Tony Hicks replied, offering a hand for the young girl to shake. "Think I'd rather face enemy fire."

Janet jabbed him in the ribs.

"But only if she was manning the OR afterward." A rough smile. "So… you must be Cassie. Heard a lot about you."

Cassie's eyes went wide. "You did?"

"Why don't we talk about that over the picnic." Janet smiled as her daughter jumped in after the cooler. "She's okay. It's just that Florida's really different, after Toronto." Hanka, actually, she thought. Far as Cassie's concerned, the whole planet's different. "I like your new sticker."

"Sticker? What - oh, sh-oot," Tony managed, casting a wary eye back toward young ears. "Hernandez!"

"Who?"

"Long story," Hicks groaned as Cassie handed out folding chairs. "Believe me, there's a reason I had to get out of New York for a while. Six reasons," the major grumbled under his breath. Shook it off. "Think I saw a good spot down this way."

White sand drifted over sandals like salty sugar, streaked with eelgrass like brittle brown ribbons. Janet found her footing within a minute; white, black, or iron-red, sand was sand.

Hicks forged through, though his eyes spent more time on the wet strand. "So… you still working with Colonel Jack O'Neill?"

"Yes…?" Where was this going? She might be cleared for the whole Site Omega mess, but there was no way Tony had need-to-know for what was under Cheyenne Mountain.

The major waved the question off. "I know a few people who lost bets on him a few years back." A surprised smile. "He looked okay."

As compared to the suicidal Black Ops colonel who took the first Abydos mission through, Janet filled in the blank. Yeah. She'd heard about that guy from General Hammond. Daniel and Skaara had saved more than just Abydos. "I, ah… heard he had a few things to say to you." About one stray archaeologist lost on Long Island. Though the bureaucratic tangles around the multiply-deceased and resurrected Dr. Daniel Jackson were enough to give far better men than Tony Hicks headaches.

Jack had had far more to say about the whole Site Omega mess. Though to be honest, Tony had apparently been ordered not to say anything about H.E.A.T.'s involvement in smashing the Hivemind invasion. Still doesn't make it right, Janet thought.

"Didn't say I liked him," Tony pointed out. "He's got his job, I've got mine. Hey." He gave her a wry grin. "Let's show the kid we still know how to build sand castles, hmm?"

Castles, ha! Sand forts, if I know you, Tony….

"Mom?" Janet cracked an eye open, just enough to see Cassie's finger point over the sparkling Atlantic. "What's that?"

Blinking away water-dazzle, Janet bolted out of her chair, pulling Cassie back. "That's a shark."

"Whoa. Big." Cassie shaded her gaze, stumbling over Janet's toe. "Ah, Mom... they don't usually have spikes, do they?"

"Oh no," Hicks muttered.

"No, they don't," Janet affirmed. "And - what's that?"

A double row of gray-green scales cut through the water, arrowing straight toward the gigantic dorsal fin. Not far behind swerved a small white ship, hydroplaning over the waves, rakish shark's grin painted on the bow.

"No, no, no." Hicks crumpled his ball cap in his hands. "Augggh!"

"That's a… really big lizard," Cassie said uneasily.

"Running sounds good to me too," Janet agreed. Water was boiling out there; steam, waves, and scales surging past the intrepid ship. Figures in wetsuits and regular clothes scrambled over the deck, aiming a harpoon at the center of the fight.

"Wouldn't do any good," Hicks growled, glaring as if he wanted to rip the boat out of the water. "That thing can top two hundred miles per hour."

A roar rattled car windows, setting off an alarm somewhere back in the parking lot. White smoke puffed from the harpoon gun; a meaty smack echoed over the waves.

Waves that suddenly drew back from the beach, exposing water-grayed sand.

What the-?

Cassie was yanking on her arm, pulling her along as she headed for the grassy dune behind them. "Get back!"

A wall of water crashed down.

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Ow, Dr. Niko Tatopoulos thought, cradling his left wrist. Pale skin was unbroken, but it felt like the Hybodus' spine had jabbed home in his own flesh. Hot, and woozy, and stinging like acid. Venomous and mean. Ow, ow, ow.

Dr. Elsie Chapman swiped wet red hair out of her eyes, clinging to the H.E.A.T. Seeker's rail. "For a filter-feeder, it's got one heck of an attitude."

Godzilla snarled as the prehistoric shark raced for the open sea, drawing his injured forelimb close. Already the wound itched with healing, but the venom stung.

"Score one for the big guy!" Wetsuit squelching, Randy Hernandez danced over the deck.

"Tag's up and tracking," Dr. Mendel Craven reported, peering at his laptop screen.

A silent, black leather presence beside him; Monique. "The pain is not yours," the French agent reminded him.

Nick gripped the rail. "I asked him to help."

"And he chose to." Dupres lifted a dark slash of brow, headed back to the helm. "You do not both need to suffer."

Nick sighed. Shivered.

Red-nailed fingers felt his cheek; Elsie frowned. "You need to get warm."

"He needs to get warm," Nick corrected. Gigantotherm or not, repeated deep dives after a wary shark were enough to drop even Godzilla's core temperature. And the venom wasn't helping. "But there's so many people over there." If a two-hundred-foot lizard should venture onto that crowded shore - the panic alone could kill.

The paleontologist caught her lip between her teeth; let it go, half a second before the Seeker's motion would have drawn blood. "I think I can handle that."

Blue eyes narrowed. "Are you sure?"

"It's… pretty simple. Really." Elsie waved off concern, heading below. Towards H.E.A.T.'s mobile lab, and a certain tome Monique kept chained with cold iron. "People… see things they don't notice all the time. We'll just be one more of them." She cast him a quick smile. "Give me a few minutes."

"She gonna make with the mojo?" Randy whispered, hand shading his mouth.

"Controlled invocation of other-dimensional psychokinetic energy," Mendel corrected, locking down the shark's transmitter tag.

"Right. Magic. Wicce. El mumbo-jumbo. The voodoo hoodoo-"

"That's enough. Both of you." Nick skewered the computer-oriented duo with a look. "You know she's still upset about that. Don't make it any harder than it has to be."

"Sorry," Mendel muttered.

"It's just… weird, you know?" Randy offered, tossing back dreadlocks with an apologetic shrug. "I mean, you and the G-man, that's cool, but…"

A fine pink mist rose from the deck, whispered out to wreathe them all in a veil of distraction.

"…This is just - muy extraño." Randy eyed the biologist. "And I'm not helping, huh?"

"Don't tell me. Tell her." Shore? Nick asked silently, picturing the massive lizard stretched on warm sand, H.E.A.T. prying the shark's spine from sore flesh.

Pleased agreement. An image of Nick scratching a massive jaw, teasing loose old scales and barnacles.

The biologist chuckled. Yes, you definitely get a scratch. Levering a shield into place against phantom pain, he headed for the medical supplies. "Let's find a good place to pull in."

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"I'm going to kill him." Hicks' voice was murderous as the H.E.A.T. Seeker tied up to the park's pier. Water dripped off every inch of him, shorts and t-shirt squelching as he moved. "I'm going to tie him to an anchor line and go fishing..."

Houston, we have a problem, Janet thought. Everyone but Tony was dry. The shark had quite obviously headed back out to sea. And H.E.A.T... hadn't.

She hadn't caught all of Tony's mutters, but "air strike" was in there somewhere.

So much for furlough, the doctor thought, seeing white spray puff from gaping pits of nostrils. Cassie was clinging to her, small knuckles pale.

Frankly, Janet felt like clinging herself. After the Long Island incident, she'd gone out of her way to make sure Daniel saw Victor Palotti's footage from the first Godzilla's attack on New York, as well as any film the SGC Research Department could lay hands on from places this Godzilla had trashed.

It was a lot of film.

Two hundred feet long. Eighteen stories tall. Scales that shed bullets like stinging rain. The fastest creature on land or sea, whose fiery breath melted steel like butter. The mutation could step on a tank and not slow down.

A slim, distracted man strode past, knapsack on his shoulder and needle-nose pliers in hand. Blue eyes flicked over them, came to a startled halt on the man beside her. "Major?"

"Tatopoulos." Tony's tone could've seared paint. "What are you doing here?"

"My job." The biologist kept walking. "You might want to stand back."

"Stand back-"

Water foamed off a wall of scales, breaking around massive talons. Taller than Teal'c, an amber eye blinked away waves. A creature out of nightmare settled on the beach, curling up with a gusting sigh.

Hicks was turning red. "There are civilians here, Worm Guy!"

"Oh, you noticed." Dr. Chapman led the rest of the boat's crew toward the resting mutation. "Hear that, guys? I guess we're here after all."

Janet ignored the brewing sarcasm, intent on the slender man walking into a monster's reach. The massive forearm tilted, crushing water out of white sand.

"Ouch," the biologist murmured. Following at a distance, Janet caught a glimpse of red staining emerald-gray scales. "Okay, big guy. Let me take a look at this..."

Janet managed another stealthy step before a red-nailed hand caught her shoulder. "Whoa, whoa." She might be a civilian, but Elsie Chapman's grip was firm as rock. "Hold it right there. Safe for Nick is not safe for the rest of us."

"That's safe?" Janet demanded, keeping her voice low as amber eyes gazed their way.

"For Dr. Tatopoulos - oui." Dark hair, dark eyes chill as Teal'c's in hostile territory.

Monique Dupres, Janet recalled; the one member of H.E.A.T. who never showed up on any tapes that weren't military.

Gloves on, Nick reached into the gash in thick scales. "Easy, big guy. This is going to hurt."

A subdued snarl, as Nick tugged something gleaming ivory out of torn flesh. Yard-long teeth snapped at empty air, rumbling like distant thunder.

Spike bagged, the biologist uncapped a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. "And this is going to sting."

Water squelched behind Janet. "What the hell is he doing?' Hicks demanded.

"First aid?" she ventured. Careful, she told herself, ignoring the frantic hiss behind her. Don't make any sudden movements...

An amber eye lowered, focussing on her with a soft growl. Nick glanced up. "You really ought to back up," the biologist said gently.

Janet stopped, tilting her head back to take in the rippling curve of scaled muscle. Part of her took in the easy readiness of Nick's stance, the deceptive stillness in blue eyes. All at odds with the gentle patience in his voice, and yet... not. He doesn't want a fight, the doctor thought. But he's ready for one. "We're unarmed."

"Like that makes a difference?" came Hicks' low snarl.

Scales shifted. Quick as a cat, the creature went from curl to crouch. Fangs long as Tony's arm gaped near her head, white and gleaming as fresh-built pyramids...

Sniff.

Red-brown strands tickled Janet's face, sucked forward into the gale of breath. Her pulse drummed in her ears; her hands shook so hard she couldn't have aimed a P-90 if she'd had one. Orange eyes weighed her, studied, considered-

Quiet rumble. Godzilla settled back into a loose curl, sand crushing to dry white around his claws.

Janet started breathing again. "Oh… my."

"Mommy," Cassie whispered, head tucked under her am.

"Dammit, Tatopoulos!" Tony was almost shaking beside them, Janet saw; red anger flushing his face. "Get that thing out of here!"

With a monster snarling over his head, Nick hadn't so much as flinched. Now he winced. "Major. No one's going to get hurt-"

Tony snorted. "You don't know that." He jabbed a finger out toward the Atlantic. "You let that thing get away, didn't you?"

"That thing happens to be a planktivore, Major. A filter-feeder," Elsie elaborated, releasing her grip on Janet's shoulder to stand, arms crossed, between the Army officer and her leader. "It's harmless."

"Unless you're a little tiny protist," Randy held his fingers a hair's-breadth apart, grinning.

"We were just tagging it for the University of Florida's Marine Studies department," Mendel offered, displaying a sensor map of the Atlantic coast on his laptop. "If they can keep track of it, maybe Miami will stop panicking every time it shows up offshore."

"So far, it seems to be following the red tides," Elsie shrugged. "I don't know about you, Major, but anything that's willing to eat Pfiesteria and Pseudo-nitzschia multiseries gets my vote as a keeper."

"Seems to," Tony jabbed. "You don't know."

"Yo. That's why we tagged it?" Randy rolled his eyes. "UF can keep an eye out, collect the data."

"Not you?"

"We're a little too busy chasing all the new mutations that pop up to spend a few months following one all current evidence indicates is harmless around the Atlantic, Major," Elsie pointed out.

"A few months?"

A weary stubbornness came into four sets of eyes; with a shock, Janet recognized the same look she'd seen on Major Sam Carter's face, when the astrophysicist tried to explain to higher brass that yes, they had been studying the Stargate for over five years, but no, they didn't know how it worked, though they had some ideas.…

Nick wasn't even watching. Just… standing there, back to them, whispering soft words to an eighteen-story monster. Defensiveness in every line of that stiff back, mixed with casual wariness when he moved. Blue eyes scanned the sky, covering every quadrant with a thoroughness a spotter would have envied.

My god, the Air Force captain realized. He's expecting that air strike.

"Tony." Janet tugged on an unyielding arm. "Tony, can we talk for a minute?"

Reluctantly, muscle yielded. "This better be good."

Janet led them all down the beach out of earshot, soothing Cassie's shivers. Absently she ducked a stray Frisbee, watched it soar back into the hordes of beach-goers still waiting for the takeoff. "Do you want to go back to the car?"

The young woman shook her head violently, wide eyes going back to the massive coil of scales. "I want to see."

Of course she would. Nirrti had taken her away from her parents to implant her bomb, out of their sight, and then when she'd been returned everyone was already dying…. "It'll be okay," Janet promised. "Just sit there for a while, all right?"

"It'll be okay?" Tony snarled when they'd stepped to the water's edge, masking their words with surf. "How could you tell the kid that? That thing-"

"Looks like it's basking, to me," Janet stated evenly. "I've heard lizards do that."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "That thing's not a lizard."

"Research says it's more like a crocodile," the doctor agreed. "Tony. It's cold, it's injured, and Dr. Tatopoulos - who's supposed to know this creature better than anyone - says there won't be a problem." So what's yours?

Tony snorted. "That's what he thought about Audrey, too."

"Poor guy," Janet sighed. Once she'd gotten Daniel started on the films, the archaeologist had dug into the human side of the equation on his own time - and those messy details were also in the files. At least Tatopoulos had the sense not to go after her when she dumped him. "So how did a reporter get past your security perimeter to get that tape?"

Tony scowled; reluctantly sighed, shoving short dark hair back. "New York was a mess," he admitted. "Between trying to evacuate Manhattan, and the first Godzilla getting away, and every politician between there and Alaska sticking his nose in… man, Janet, it was all we could do to keep the people who said they were reporters out." A shrug. "She walked in with the worm guy. Guess they figured she was just another scientist." Dark eyes rolled. "Wasn't like we didn't have enough of those underfoot."

"I like women. It's scientists I have a problem with." Janet hadn't been in the briefing room to hear those words from Jack, but she knew the attitude. "Tell me about him."

"Tatopoulos?" Tony looked at her as if she'd grown an extra head. "What's to tell?"

"Humor me."

Tony's lips thinned, looking down the beach toward the scaly glint of emerald-gray. He bent to the water's edge, scooped out a handful of dripping sand. "You know, when they dragged him out of Chernobyl, he was this quiet little guy. Studied worms." Pale gray grains seeped between tan fingers. "Showed up with a ratty backpack and no clues in Panama, yammering on about how we interrupted a three-year study of the Chernobyl earthworm. Like anyone cares about the Chernobyl earthworm?"

Nick did, Janet thought. Still does. At least if the papers Research had dredged up were any indication.

"Told him to take a sample and it took him a minute to realize I meant right where he was standing. Like he didn't know a footprint when he saw one."

And you did? Janet wondered. You got briefed because it was your job. He got dragged out of his.

"Anyway. You know what happened in New York. The guy had great ideas, but as far as people go… sheesh. Doesn't have the people sense God gave a turtle."

"H.E.A.T. seems to work," Janet observed.

"'Cause they're all as crazy as he is," Tony snorted. "He teamed up with Roache, for goodness' sake!"

"Was anybody else going to listen to him?" the doctor pointed out. "He's a scientist, Tony. Not a soldier. Following orders isn't part of their job description." Jack's perennial complaint about Daniel; though at least that scientist had an inkling when to shut up and shoot. "He knew the nest was there. He was trying to protect people. And your chain of command threw him out. What else was he supposed to do?"

Tony gaped at her. "I don't believe this. You're defending him." He waved a hand toward the distant figure in black and purple. "Do you know who Dupres works for?"

"French Secret Service," Janet nodded. "She's the team's bodyguard."

"She's-" Tony looked at her cross-eyed. "They're scientists, Janet. What the hell do they need a bodyguard for?"

"You want that in order or alphabetically?" Janet said dryly. "Winter, Tony. You think he stopped with those walking mechanical tanks? The Hivemind, if they ever drop in on the planet again. NID's tried to grab Tatopoulos twice; I'm not cleared for details on who stopped them, but I know it was a joint effort between one of our agencies and the French. Shanee Kaplan."

That name brought a wince. Damn well ought to have, Janet thought grimly. Kidnapped, shot, drugged…. Drugged with what was still a good question. Hospital records of Dr. Tatopoulos' blood work showed high levels of a sedative, but Research had finally figured out those records had been altered. By who, nobody knew. H.E.A.T. sure as hell wasn't talking. "How would you know about this?" Tony demanded.

"One of my co-workers is an anthropologist, as well as an archaeologist," Janet said dryly. "H.E.A.T.'s sort of his hobby. Something about the…." She cast her mind back to the phrase Daniel had used. "Socio-cultural adjustments of a multidisciplinary international effort to study, neutralize, or contain large, potentially homicidal creatures of radioactive and/or teratogenic origins."

"Oh, no." Tony stared at her. Evidently the rhythm had clicked. "You gotta be kidding."

"Dr. Jackson has his own bed in my infirmary," Janet shrugged.

Tony buried his head in his hands. "Oh, man…."

"Hey." She patted the broad shoulder. "Daniel doesn't blame you for picking him up on Long Island." Even if he ought to. "You should see the messes we've had to straighten out with other agencies. Get reported MIA once, you're lost in the system forever." Time to turn the conversation around, before Tony could pry after details she couldn't give. "Has Nick talked to you about Kaplan? At all?"

A defensive shrug. "Figured he'd say something when he's ready."

Oh, Tony. "He was kidnapped and tortured, Tony," Janet said softly. "By people he'd never met, never done anything to, never even imagined had any reason to want to hurt him. He's never going to be ready to talk about it. No one is."

"And you know all about that, huh?" But some of the challenge had dropped out of Tony's voice.

Try talking down a woman who had an alien set up housekeeping in her head, then commit suicide to save her, Janet thought. Sam still woke up crying in the night, shaking with the nightmare certainty Jolinar had killed Cassie to protect her secret. "You could say that-"

"Mom?" Cassie was heading toward them, perplexed curiosity drawing down blonde brows. "How come nobody else is looking at them?"

"What the heck are you…" Tony glanced at empty sand surrounding the team-and-lizard camped on the beach, stared at the boisterous crowds along every other inch of beachfront. "Janet?"

"I see it," the doctor said, stunned. "I don't believe it, but I see it."

Swimmers and would-be fishers were walking down the pier, completely ignoring the rakish shark's grin. Crowds more shouted and played along the beach. A news helicopter hovered overhead, filming the waiting towers, apparently oblivious to a team of wet scientists and their sunning monster.

No one else was within thirty feet of Godzilla.

How the hell are they doing that?

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"So how come they see us?" Randy wanted to know.

Elsie spread a clueless, empty hand. "It's not like mixing one molar HCl with an equal amount of NaOH, Randy. I tried." Freckles stood out against the tired pallor of her face. "Maybe I read it wrong…."

"Doubtful." Monique scanned the crowd, but kept her main focus on the fuming soldier down the beach. "Major Hicks is well aware he must not ignore Godzilla. And all reports indicate that Dr. Fraiser is quite adept at observing the unusual."

"Is that who she is?" Mendel asked, fine-tuning frequencies on his laptop. "Who is she?"

"A captain in your Air Force. Chief medical officer at a certain military facility in Colorado," the spy said frankly. "One of the few we have not wreaked havoc upon."

"Hey!" The teen hacker contrived to look put-upon. "I resemble that remark."

"Isn't that the truth," Mendel jabbed wryly.

Elsie crossed her arms, bunching her sweatshirt in wet green wrinkles. "So what are you not telling us?"

"Many things," Monique allowed. Her dark gaze slid to the mutation biologist. "But I doubt she is here in any official capacity. Dr. Fraiser would not bring her daughter into peril."

Nick nodded. Rubbed absently at the phantom ache in his arm; though that was fading, as sun and time did their work. "Is there anything specific we shouldn't say?"

A Gallic shrug. "Say nothing you would not speak of near Ms. Timmonds," the agent advised. "Upon occasion, she deals with those who have no love of your country. Nor mine."

Nick turned that over in his mind for a minute, nodded. "Keep an eye out?"

"As ever."

"That's it?" Elsie asked in an undertone, as she followed him back toward Godzilla. "You're letting Frenchie walk?"

"If we need to know, she'll tell us." Nick cast a glance over his shoulder as the paleontologist slowed, reluctant to come too close to massive jaws. "She has gotten better about that."

"Sometimes," Elsie admitted grudgingly, planting her feet in white sand. "Have fun with the kid."

He planned to. Touching Godzilla was pure joy, the wonder of knowing this improbable creature existed and meant him no harm. That the mutation looked to him to teach, learn, protect. But given the strain on Elsie's face… spellcasting always took more out of her than she'd admit. "Come on."

"What-" Alarm flickered in green eyes. "Nick - no. Bad idea. Really-"

He hesitated, one hand outstretched. "Trust me?"

Slowly, red-nailed fingers slid into his.

A few steps more, and Nick could reach the lowered jaw, dragging callused fingers over armored skin. Research and observation had proved there were accessible nerves here; much like an alligator's jaw, with its honeycomb of sensory bumps that could track falling drops of water. Crocodilian, some avian, a little bit of marine iguana… where did you come from? Nick wondered.

Amused curiosity rippled in the back of his mind, mixing with the warm pleasure of contact. Under the city, came the plain reply; images of cracking tight shell, the dark rock of dug-out subway tunnels, a small human form with the scent and taste of parent. You were there.

Oh, yeah. The rockfall that might have saved Manhattan. You were cute. Even though at the time, he'd been halfway convinced the seven-foot hatchling was going to have him for lunch.

Scared then. Bright light. No parent… then Nick called.

Nick started. You remember?

"That feels… weird." A bare breath near his ear, as Elsie held herself still.

The scientist in him pricked up ears at that. "What do you feel?" For him, being linked to Godzilla's mind was like surfing a dark ocean; no matter how gentle it was one moment, the next might see the wave that would pull him under. At least you're learning to swim, Nick told himself wryly. And hold your breath.

"Warm," came the surprised observation. "Strong. Like - standing in a hurricane." Slim fingers experimentally left his, came back with a determined toss of red hair. "Is it like this all the time?"

"Most of the time," Nick admitted. Unless Godzilla was taking on an invader in his territory. Then it was up shields and try not to get too close to anyone; he'd never attacked anyone yet, but that one time something had snuck up on the lizard at the same time H.E.A.T. had been practicing self-defense techniques…. Lucky it was Monique.

Scales tensed under his hand; a flicker of images, familiar not-quite-enemy and unfamiliar pair of female human with young striding down sand toward them. "Heads up."

Elsie glanced toward the approaching trio, shook her head. "No offense, Nicky, but that's weird."

Nick grinned, finally able to take that word in stride. "Join the club." He raised his voice as Hicks came into earshot. "Major."

Tony shot a scowl toward the sun-warmed monster, visibly reined in his temper. "So you're not staying."

Not friendly. But at least it wasn't threats of an air strike. He'd take it. "Not too long," Nick allowed.

"Good."

Dead silence. Think of something, Nick told himself fiercely. He's talking to you, not yelling. Don't just leave it like this. But half his mind was holding back a suddenly unhappy lizard, who was currently remembering that this human's scent tended to come with missiles, and helicopters, and pain. Easy, big guy. Easy….

"So… how does an Army major run into an Air Force doctor?" Mendel dared to ask.

We get the next three circuitry packages on your wish list, Nick decided.

"With a Huey," Janet chuckled.

"It was a controlled landing," Hicks defended himself.

"Crash," Janet corrected. "His helicopter started coming apart and we were the closest airfield."

"I missed you, didn't I?"

"Luck," Janet shot back.

"Aim," Hicks corrected.

"Good or bad?" Randy couldn't help asking.

Cassie stuck out her tongue at him. "Look!"

White puffs shrouded the far-off base of metal towers. A wild cheer went up from the hordes around them; variously sunburned and jet-lagged, wearing swimsuits or business suits or outfits from a dozen sci-fi universes. All here to see humanity touch the stars one more time.

"Five!" Came the massed shouts. Drumbeats rolled out from a dozen locations up and down the shore; beer and champagne flowed from a multitude of coolers. A shell horn sounded, echoed by companions up and down the sands. "Four! Three! Two-"

The Shuttle climbed on a pillar of flame, thunder in a clear blue sky.

So come, let's go witness the takeoff today,
While the world's biggest beach party cheers her away.
We'll bang the drums proudly and blow on the conch;
Leave a sign on your door that just says "Out to launch!"

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Endnotes:

Muy extraño - Spanish, "Very strange."

Pfiesteria - also called the "cell from Hell". Major problem in the Chesapeake Bay area. Its neurological toxin causes major problems including memory loss in those affected.

Pseudo-nitzschia multiseries - a protist that causes amnesiac shellfish poisoning.