It was a usual late Friday afternoon in Wellington and Howard Heller was going home from school. His mother had picked him up late, and he was tired and a little annoyed. Howard sat in the back of their rust red van as it sped down the suburban streets, rolling past piles of fall leaves and skeletal trees. Wellington was a small suburban town in Upstate New York, perfectly normal in every regard. Howard didn't know if there was anything more in life, but he kind of hoped there was.
"So," his mother finally said. "How was school?" Molly Heller worked as a marketing executive in Manhattan. Her husband was a political analyst. Both of them put a great deal of effort into their work, but more out of sense of duty than because they truly enjoyed it.
"Fine," Howard replied curtly.
"And did you learn anything?"
Howard wracked his brain, trying to think of something to say. His private school, as exclusive and expensive establishment, kept hurtling a great deal of homework his way, and he couldn't say he appreciated it. "Not really."
"Well, that's great. We send you to the best school in the area and you don't learn anything at all." She looked over her shoulder, her kind eyes framed by short dark hair. "Are you asleep all the time, is that it?" She let out a large snore and Howard smiled.
"No…" he said. He pushed his glasses up on his upturned nose. He had a freckled face, curly dark hair and bright eyes. Howard wore a pale collared shirt under his navy blue jacket, with the school crest marked over the breast pocket. The boy was small for his age, a little past entering adolescence, and seemed dwarfed by the cavernous interior of the van. "Actually, do you think I can call Nana and Papa tonight? We have to interview a relative and our presentations our due on Monday. I know Papa has all kinds of great stories."
"Howard, I wouldn't turn Papa's stories in." His mother turned around the corner and slowed the car as it rolled down the wide avenue, bordered by large suburban houses draped in falling leaves. She pulled up to the curb next to their house. "They're just a little unbelievable, if you know what I mean."
"You don't think they're real?" Howard demanded. He loved his grandparents, and the thought of doubting Papa Harvey's words never occurred to him.
"Come on, Howard. A talking gorilla? That's right out of comic books." Molly stopped the van on the curb and looked at the driveway. An old station wagon rested next to her husband's car. "Look at that," she said. "Looks like Nana and Papa stopped by for dinner. You can ask them then."
"They're here?" Without pause, Harvey unbuckled his seatbelt and slammed open the door. He stumbled out onto the sidewalk and ran across the lawn, kicking up fallen leaves as he hurried to the door. Harvey rang the doorbell and waited, tapping a foot expectantly as his mother joined him.
The door opened and Henry Heller looked down at his son. Howard's father had lost a great deal of his curly hair and had a small gut pressing out from his collared shirt, but he still had the upturned nose and bright eyes behind glasses. He knelt down and embraced Howard and then kissed his wife as he ushered them in. "Hey there, son," he told Howard. "Go on. They're waiting for you." He looked up at Molly and smiled. "My parents are here for dinner," he said, shrugging. "But I guess you already saw that, huh?"
Howard hurried inside to the living room, where his Nana and Papa were resting on the large armchairs before their TV. His grandmother, a thin woman named Rose with kind eyes and pure white hair, smiled grandly as she embraced Howard. "How are you, my dear?" she said, speaking with the careful manners of an earlier age. She kissed Howard on the forehead and looked up at her husband. "Look at him, Harv. He's getting bigger and bigger."
"He'll be bigger than me next time we see him!" Harvey Heller laughed. A few wafts of snow white hair topped his wrinkled head, and his glasses seemed large as dinner plates. Harvey Heller dressed well, wearing a dark suit, vest and tie. A fedora rested on the coffee table. Harvey, a retired history professor, hadn't caught up with current fashion. He stood up, wincing a little as his old joints straightened and gave his grandson a hug. "And so strong! You're a good boy, Howard. You're doing good in school?"
Molly and Henry stepped inside and joined the grandparents. "His report cards are very good," Molly agreed. "He even seems a little bored."
"I'm doing okay, papa," Howard agreed.
"Ah. Good, good." Harvey reached into his wallet. "Got a present for you." He pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill and pressed it in Howard's pocket. "You spend that on something frivolous, you understand?"
"Yes, papa," Howard said, smiling at his grandfather's enthusiasm.
"Dad, you're gonna spoil him." Henry walked over to stand next to his father.
"Cripes! His childhood should be a good time, you understand? It's a special time, and he'll be grown up before you know it. He should treasure it, when he gets older." Harvey leaned on his grandson's shoulder and Howard helped him stand up. "All right, all right," Harvey said. "Let's have some dinner already."
They moved over to the kitchen. Molly brought out the Sabbath candles and a few yarmulkes and they preformed their little ritual, just like they did every Friday. Howard read the blessing over the wine, memorized through careful repetition, and Rose and Harvey applauded and praised him, even though it wasn't that hard, as he tried to tell them.
After they sat down and started eating, Molly brought up the subject of Howard's school assignment. "He has to do a little interview with you guys," she explained, nodding to the grandparents. Howard sat between them, and they both were constantly taking food from their plates and setting them on his. "Just a few questions, about your pasts."
"Like when I was his age?" Harvey asked, his eyes going wide behind his thick spectacles. He patted Howard's shoulder. "I never really told you everything about him, you know? And all the adventures we had. I realize now it was dangerous – no place at all for a little boy. But I loved them, just the same, and I still love him. Wherever he is."
"Who?" Howard asked. "You mean, the…the gorilla?" He lowered his voice. He didn't know much about the gorilla, but it was a matter of contention amongst his family, and he didn't want to anger his parents or his grandmother.
It was too late. "Dad, his school teacher won't want to hear about Cooper Grey," Henry said between mouthfuls. "They want true stories of the Great Depression, and the war, and the time afterwards. You know, things that are believable."
"His name is Cooper Grey II," Harvey explained. He looked down at his grandson. "It does seem a little farfetched," he said. "But he's the last member of an extinct subspecies of intelligent gorilla known as the Silver Ones. He was raised by a British explorer and nobleman and worked to make the world better after the Great War."
"You mean World War One?" Howard asked.
"Yes, that's the one. He adopted me, and fought evil and injustice all over the world."
Howard nodded gravely. "I believe you, Papa," he said.
Howard's grandmother shook his head. "He wasn't such a good animal," she said. "I remember when he visited us, right after your father was born, Howard. He was gonna ask Harvey to go with him, out of the country. Can you imagine? I mean, the gorilla had been exiled. I told him he wouldn't do it, and he didn't."
"Those bastards in the House of Un-American Activities forced him out!" Harvey slammed a fist on the table. "Those sons of---"
"Dad," Henry said firmly. "Please."
Harvey mumbled under his breath as he looked at his plate. There was quiet at the dinner table for a few seconds. Harvey Heller took his slice of bread and handed it to Howard, who handed it back with a shake of his head. "Papa?" Howard asked. "Why did the House of Un-American Activities kick out Cooper Grey II?"
"They said he was a communist, because he wouldn't work with their stupid CIA," Harvey explained. "He had connections to left wing groups all over the world, and had worked with the Russians during the War. Of course, that was only through the OSS and he cut his ties with the USSR in the 30s, when they started killing their own people. But McCarthy and Cohn – a curse on their black souls – wouldn't have it. They hauled him before a subcommittee. They told him he had to turn over his technology to the US government. Then they did something they shouldn't have – they threatened to kick me out of the country."
"Why?" Howard asked. He had heard a little of this story before, but was anxious for more. "You're a citizen, aren't you? I know you were born in Germany and—"
"And my parents were murdered, by the Nazi assassin known as the Blood Eagle." Harvey sighed as he looked at his knees. "Cooper killed him, before the war began. And I was adopted by Cooper and made a naturalized citizen. But my parents were communists, you know, and that changed everything in those days."
"So what happened?"
"Well, when they threatened me, Cooper got pretty steamed. He threw a desk at them!" Harvey laughed. "He stormed right out and left the country. And he's been hiding out, fighting against evil and keeping the world safe, ever since. He's immortal, you see. Can't be killed, except by violence."
"Wow." Howard found it difficult to believe, but not impossible. And he would trust his papa with his life. Harvey Heller was old and very wise, and there was no way he could be lying. "I should tell my class about that. Do you think I could see Cooper? Or maybe have a picture of him?"
"Dad, we've been through this a dozen times," Henry said, interrupting his father's enthusiasm. "We don't have any pictures of Cooper Grey. There's not much evidence that he existed, beyond a few rumors and some stories in those pulp magazines you showed me." He shook his head. "I've even sent request after request to the State Department to ask about him. They all deny Cooper Grey 's existence. They even laugh at me, for talking about some intelligent, immortal gorilla. They say I'm going bananas."
"They would want that. Those pissers in power, always thinking they know what's best – it's disgusting. Just as bad as it was in my day, if not worse." Harvey never hid his politics, which were as radical as possible. Howard loved him for it. "All these conservative idiots, marching around and talking about 'real America' and hating immigrants. It's like the Germany my parents fought against before the Blood Eagle murdered them."
"Don't you think that's a little strong, Harvey?" Molly asked. "Many of these conservatives provide vital support to Israel—"
"Israel? Let me tell you about Israel. They have mistreated the Palestinian people, causing untold damage and—" Politics filled Harvey's mind, and he didn't mention Cooper Grey II again. Howard listened to his grandfather's grand speeches while he finished his dinner and helped clean up.
They had dessert and then Howard watched TV with his grandparents, sitting snugly between them as he tried to explain what they were seeing. It was difficult, but he didn't mind. After that was over, Howard kissed his grandmother goodnight and let Harvey lead him upstairs and to his room.
Howard sat snugly in his bed, while Grandpa Harvey looked around the cluttered room, with toys, posters, books, souvenirs and all the detritus of boyhood scattered around like the result of a whirlwind. He tucked Howard in and patted his head. "You don't have to tell your classmates about Cooper Grey," he said. "I know it's a little unbelievable."
"You said he's still around?" Howard asked.
"He is. He fights evil in secret now, but he's still around." Harvey kissed his grandson's forehead. "Maybe, someday, you'll get to meet him. I bet he'd like you a lot. You're polite and intelligent and shy and good – very much like me. He'll like you a lot." Harvey stepped back and fiddled with the light switch. Howard hopped out of bed and helped him figure it out and then darkness filled his room.
After Harvey left, Howard Heller returned to his bed and snuggled under the covers. He looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and thought about an immortal intelligent gorilla named Cooper Grey, going on adventures with his papa.
The next day, Howard had Hebrew lessons at Wellington's small synagogue. His Bar Mitzvah was drawing nearer with each passing day, and lay before him like an ominous storm in the distance. Howard didn't quite like his Hebrew tutor and the words were difficult for him and hard to memorize, but he struggled through, more out of fear than anything else. Today, he had finished the usual forty-five minutes of lessons and sat on the bench outside of his synagogue, looking out at the empty street and waiting for his dad to pick him up.
He checked his wristwatch and found that his father was ten minutes late and the seconds kept ticking up. "Crap," Howard muttered, leaning back against the brick wall. A few cars sat in the parking lot, but the temple was mostly empty. The Heller Family weren't particularly religious, But Howard had Sunday school here almost every week, and he knew the familiar benches, old playground, and small park across the street beside the stately brick temple as well as he knew his own home.
And he had spent a lot of time there, just waiting for his parents to pick him up. He could have asked a friend for a ride, but part of him didn't want to bother anybody, and he found conversation with others awkward enough without asking for help. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and kicked at a pile of leaves, sending them scattering across the dark paved parking lot like clumps of orange and reddish brown flame.
But some of the leaves didn't hit the ground. Howard stared as the leaves, wet with the night's rain and pressed against some kind of surface he couldn't see. It was like an invisible figure stood before him, and Howard felt a sudden chill. He saw the leaves fall away slowly, but the figure remained. It stepped closer to him, resembling someone walking out of a cloud of mist, and Howard gulped as panic blazed to life inside of him.
"H-hello?" he asked. He saw a khaki leather jacket over a gray uniform, glaring dark eyes in a rubber gas mask, and the sunlight glinting on the barrel of twin luger pistols. The strange figure seemed somewhat luminous, like he was composed of pure moonlight.
The man become more and more clear by the second, and then Howard saw the arm band and the insignia, as awful as a glimpse of Hell for someone like him. He had seen it before, in countless documentaries, in history books and movies, and always felt a tremor of fear after he learned what it stood for. It was a swastika.
Howard threw himself to the ground as the Nazi specter fired. The bullet cracked into the brick above him. "Oh god," Howard whispered, scrambling to his feet and running out of the parking lot. The Nazi fired again, and Howard heard the wine and crack as the bullet bit into the asphalt behind him. He tumbled to the ground, wincing as his coat tore and he bruised his leg. He looked back. "Oh god," he said again. He couldn't think of anything to say. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"The Blood Eagle." The notorious Nazi assassin towered over him. Howard hadn't seen him change weapons, but now he carried a long bladed dagger in a gloved hand. The voice was emotionless, without a German or any other accent. Fingers like pointed icicles grabbed Howard's shoulder, pulling him up. "And I have come to finish the job."
He struck down with the dagger and Howard leapt forward. He felt the blade slash his upper arm, cutting his shirt and drawing blood. Howard could feel his blood trickling down his arm, and he cried aloud at the sudden sting. He ran forward, letting fear fuel his legs as he left the parking lot of the temple and dashed into the empty street. He started running down the street, looking around for anyone who would help him. He couldn't find anybody. He thought for a few seconds that he was in a nightmare.
He crossed the street and ran onto the sidewalk. Finally, he collapsed onto the cool green grass of the park, under a few tall and skeletal trees. He sank down to his knees and tried to catch his breath, risking a look over his shoulder. The Blood Eagle was gone. "W-what?" Howard asked. "Where'd he go? Oh God. I need…I should tell someone. I should get help or something…"
The rumble of a set of engines distracted him. Howard looked down the street and saw a pair of dark green hummers speeding his way. They were angular vehicles, with armored plating set on their sides. Howard didn't notice. He waved his hands. "Hey! Help!" he called, and then heard rubber burn as both squealed to a stop.
The door of the foremost hummer opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man in a white suit and neat collared shirt stepped out. He was bald and had several curling scars running from his lips and up to his nose and down to his chin, like octopus's tentacles. He was smiling and had a pair of sunglasses. He approached Howard, his hands in his pockets. "Howard Heller?" he said.
"Y-yeah," Howard said. "Look, there was some kind of crazy guy with a gun, dressed up as a Nazi – the Blood Eagle – in the temple and—"
The bald man looked over his shoulder. "I don't see anything," he said. "It's empty."
Sure enough, the parking lot was empty and silent. "But h-he cut me. Not deep, I mean, but it still kind of hurts." Howard checked the slash on his shoulder. He paused. "Wait," he said. "How did you know my name?"
The big man shrugged. "I read the mission briefing on you, kid." He pulled his hand out of his pocket. He was holding a wickedly serrated combat knife, big enough to hack off Howard's arm. "Sorry, Howard," he said, grabbing the boy's shoulder and putting the tip of the blade to his throat. "Today ain't your lucky day."
Howard closed his eyes. He wanted to cry or scream, but he felt anger and outrage boiling inside of him. More than anything, he felt sadness. He thought of his friends and his nana and papa and of his parents, and wanted to see them again – just to say goodbye. Then he looked up, to see the pale sunlight streaming in through the thin branches of the tree. But something large was there, balanced on one of the branches and blocking the sun in a great splotch of darkness.
It swung down and landed in front of them. Howard sucked in his breath as he realized who it was. "Scorpion," said the gorilla with shimmering silver fur, wearing an impeccable pinstriped suit, vest and bowler hat. "Get your hands away from the child."
Howard recognized him instantly from his grandfather's story. It was Cooper Grey II. The gorilla seemed larger than life and strode forward on his knuckles and feet with an easy, primordial grace. He leveled his dark eyes at the man called Scorpion as he crossed the ground. Howard heard the doors of the hummers behind him slamming open. Several armed thugs, dressed in bullet-proof vest, cameo leggings and green ski-masks, leveled assault rifles at the gorilla.
Scorpion kept his knife close to Howard. "I'll slit his belly open, Coop. Let his guts run out. How'd you like that?"
Cooper Grey lunged for Scorpion with bestial speed. Cooper's arm sinuously lashed out, moving far too fast for something of its size, and planted a heavy fist into Scorpion's forehead. Scorpion cracked backwards, the knife and Howard falling from his grasp. In the same smooth motion, Cooper swept up Howard and ran backwards. Howard felt the silky, scratchy fur of Cooper brushing against his skin as he heard gunfire crackling to life around them.
"Waste them all!" Scorpion shouted, as Cooper and Howard ran back to the trees.
Cooper swung behind the boughs of one of the trees and set Howard down on the leafy grass. He looked at the boy and Howard was surprised to see real fear and pathos in those dark eyes. "Good heavens," Cooper said. "You are so like him."
A bullet struck past them, gouging the wood of the tree. "Cooper Grey II, or Cooper, or um, Mr. Grey, we have to get out of here!" Howard cried, trying to keep his head down. "Thanks for rescuing me and everything, but those guys will shoot us to pieces!"
"S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s goons," Cooper replied. "Leftovers from the Cold War find new employment in an organization catering to war criminals and terrorists. S.P.Y.D.E.R. has caused me and my organization, G.R.A.E., all manner of trouble over the years. It's a pity they're still around." He reached into his coat with both shaggy hands, drawing out a pair of revolvers. "But don't worry, my dear boy – for I didn't come alone." He cleared his throat and stamped a prehensile foot on the ground. "Silver Squad – on me!"
Four strange individuals followed his command, emerging from behind trees, hurrying out from the street and even popping out from under a manhole cover. They hurried over to join Cooper and Howard, who couldn't believe his eyes. There was a clanking metal robot, twice as tall as a man and with a glass dome for a head and two buzzing, sparking Tesla toils for eyes, two large metal hands ending in curved claws, and made of riveted chrome. "Electron, reporting for duty," the robot announced.
"Holy crap," Howard said, almost forgetting his terror. "A robot!"
But that wasn't all. A strange frog-like creature, about as tall as Howard, came scrambling up from under a sewer manhole cover and hurried to Howard's side. The Frogman wore a dark combat vest and a belt laden with various grenades and explosives. Its green speckled skin was shiny with moisture. The giant frog reached out to Howard with a webbed hand. Howard waved back.
"Carl, our Frogman and demolitions expert," Cooper explained. "Your grandfather was quite fond of him."
A powerfully built lanky man wearing a roughly knit shirt and trousers, a thick brown beard covering his face, swung down from the trees with a long spear in one hand. A pair of curved sickle blades hung on his rawhide belt, and a bow and quarrel of arrows rested on his back. "I am Culpug, called Cavelord." His voice was rough and weathered. Howard noticed traces of steel gray in his beard and hair. He hunched over, like he was expecting to be attacked at any moment, and his nostrils sniffed the air constantly. "The foemen hurl fire at us, Cooper Grey. Shall we send them screaming into the afterlife?" Howard realized that his spear and blades were carved from mammoth ivory.
"Wait," Cooper said. "We need one more. And there she is now, by gad." He pointed down the street. The final member of Silver Squad was no robot, caveman or frog. Instead, she was a thin Japanese girl, just a few years older than Howard, wearing a white and blue school uniform and skirt with a sailor's collar. Her dark hair was cut short, just over her ears, and she held one hand behind her back. She walked in swift paces to join Cooper and the rest of Silver Squad, and gave a quick bow. "Miss Kunoichi," Cooper said. "It is good to see you."
"It is good to see you, Master Grey," she replied, with flawless English. She looked at Howard and he gulped when he looked into her eyes. They were dark and pitiless, hard as concrete and cold as ice. "Is this the boy?" She ignored the bullets flying past them, speaking calmly and clearly.
"Indeed. This is Howard Heller."
"H-hello," Howard said, nodding to Silver Squad. "It's good to meet you."
"Kindly excuse us, Howard," Cooper said. "Culpug, Carl, Electron – you're with me. Miss Kunoichi, kindly remain here and guard Howard. We won't take long."
"Yes, Master Grey," Miss Kunoichi replied, as the gorilla, caveman, frog and robot raced forward to attack S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s soldiers.
Howard didn't look at the battle, but leaned against the tree and stared at his shoes and then at Miss Kunoichi. She was beautiful, he realized suddenly, and he felt very bashful. But he couldn't imagine what her purpose was alongside all these other strange creatures and warriors. He tried to think of something to say to her. He finally settled on something. "Hi," he said, and offered her quick smile.
Miss Kunoichi suddenly spun around, a sleek katana sword held in one hand. Seemingly without looking, she slashed it through the air behind her, decapitating one of two S.P.Y.D.E.R. agents who were attempting to sneak up on them. A severed head splattered to the ground as a spray of blood reddened the grass in front of the would-be assassin. Howard let out a gurgling yell of panic as the second S.P.Y.D.E.R. thug tried to raise his machine pistol. Miss Kunochi pulled a ninja throwing star from the pocket of her skirt and hurled it between his eyes. He tumbled backwards, the pistol falling from his hands. Both men were dead in less than two seconds.
"Oh my god," Howard whispered.
"I was raised in a ninja academy, trained to be the greatest assassin of my clan," she explained. Behind her, Howard caught a glimpse of the battle, with Cooper punching a S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldier with one of his feet and Electron picking up one of their hummers and hurling it away. "Master Grey rescued me. Now I serve him, to honor his kindness. He has told me to protect you. This I shall do."
"T-thanks," Howard stammered.
By then, the battle was over. Cooper and Silver Squad hurried back. Electron was buzzing and clicking. "Communication incoming from the Sparrow. Commander Caldwell demands immediate evac. Police are en route."
"Tell her to send down the dropship to my location immediately," Cooper replied. "We're all done here." He looked down at Howard. "My dear boy," he said. "I'm afraid I must tell you something rather difficult."
"What exactly do you mean?"
"Well, S.P.Y.D.E.R. has discovered your existence and appears to be trying to kill you. I promise you that I will work tirelessly until I have found out why and put a stop to it, and I will keep you safe. I owe your grandfather everything, and I will not allow you to come to harm." He held out his hands. "We'll contact your parents once we're airborne."
"Airborne?" Howard wasn't sure what he was hearing. Everything was moving impossibly fast. It seemed that his Hebrew lesson had been in another lifetime. Now he was speeding forward into some strange and unknown world and he couldn't slow down. "Well, I guess so. Papa, I mean, my grandfather told me I could trust you, Mr. Grey. I'll go with you."
Above them, Howard heard a rush of air. He looked up to see a sleek cylindrical silver aircraft, resembling one of his mother's old toy rocket ships. It was twice the size as his family's van, and it hovered above the park and extended a rope latter. Cooper picked up Howard and hoisted him in the air, like a child would carry a prized toy. "Easy there, dear boy," Cooper said, as Howard clung to the rungs of the ladder. "Up you go."
Howard started climbing. Every bit of him wanted to panic, scream and run crying to the police or his parents. But he focused on clambering upwards, and on trusting Cooper Grey.
A few minutes later, their dropship soared upwards and took them to a large airship hovering in the sky. Howard pressed his face to the porthole to see the Sparrow, which Cooper explained was one of G.R.A.E.'s largest and most high-tech airships. It was the size of a battleship, and composed the same sleek silver chrome as the shuttle that carried them, with no riveting or plates visible. It seemed to glow faintly, with an inner cool blue light.
"G.R.A.E. utilizes the height of modern technology for its airship fleet," Cooper replied. "Every expense must be paid to keep the world safe." He folded his arms and leaned back in the Spartan steel chair. Electron was piloting the dropship, bringing it smoothly into the underside of the airship. "The Sparrow maintains an excellent communications array. We can contact your parents immediately."
"Okay," Howard agreed. "They'll probably be pretty scared." He looked up at Cooper. "Um, Mr. Grey, there's something else I should tell you…"
Culpug Cavelord suddenly sniffed the boy shoulder. "Lor's blade!" he muttered. "The young cub bleeds!"
Before Cooper could stop her, Miss Kunoichi pulled away his jacket and rolled up his sleeve, pointing to the cut on his arm. "A thin blade did this," she said. "Unlike a modern combat knife. It was not the weapon of Scorpion." She grabbed the first aid kit from the side of the dropship and began patching up the wound. "It is not deep, Howard," she said, as he winced at her fingers. "Do not be a weakling and show pain."
"I'll t-try not to," Howard agreed. He looked back at Cooper. "Yeah, it wasn't the Scorpion guy. He didn't get a chance. It was actually, the guy in a trench coat, and a gas mask, with two Luger pistols." He recognized them from video games and movies. "And he said he was—"
"The Blood Eagle." Cooper frowned and his dark eyes flashed. "That's impossible. I tore the Blood Eagle into pieces with my own hands, decades in the past."
"Well, he wasn't really all there. I think he might have been ghost." He shrugged. "I mean, if there's talking gorillas, maybe there could be a ghost. Maybe he's working with the S.P.Y.D.E.R. guys."
"Perhaps," Cooper replied, his frown remaining.
By now, the shuttle had entered the loading bay of the great airship. It flew up a small tunnel and then settled down on a round platform, and the sleek doors opened with a quiet rush of air. Howard followed Cooper out, staying in the shadow of the great ape. They walked through a neat hallway, past a bank of computers manned by G.R.A.E. operatives in black jumpsuits and berets and then into a wide round chamber, the walls full of blank screens.
A middle aged woman, lean as a vulture and with a neat pony tail of graying hair, walked over to meet them. She wore a neat G.R.A.E. jumpsuit and carried a velvet robe in her hand. "Good to see you, Coop," she said, helping the gorilla out of his coat and into the smoking jacket. She handed him a cigar. "We've got the Air Force shouting their usual threats, and even a line from Washington. They want you out. Our cloaking device should keep the satellites from pinpoint our exact location, but they know something's up."
"And our new president was so keen on announcing 'change' as a campaign slogan," Cooper shrugged. "Still, he's having enough trouble enough keeping his constituents in line without me looming about. I see no need to trouble him." He nodded to the woman and then to Howard. "This lovely lady is Miss Cassandra Caldwell. Though my name in the title of the organization, you can credit her genius in running most of G.R.A.E."
Caldwell fixed Howard with an examining stare. "So this is him, huh?" she asked. "I guess he's kind of like your great grandson, then?"
"I guess I am," Howard agreed. He heard the sudden rumble of the engines. "Wait. Where are we going?"
"I was considering returning to Silver Station, the secret base of G.R.A.E.," Cooper explained. "But if the paranormal is involved, then perhaps a stop in the Scottish highlands to visit a good acquaintance of mine might be in order." While he talked, Silver Squad spread out through the bridge. Culpug and Miss Kunoichi remained at attention behind Cooper, while Electron rolled over to the nearest control panel, and Carl scampered to Howard's side. Caldwell took her place at the main control panel, and started fiddling with the various dials. "Cassandra? Set a course for Mr. Byron's residence."
"You got it, Coop," Cassandra agreed.
Howard shook his head. "What about my parents, I mean? I thought you said I could see them." He felt a need to see their familiar faces, for something to remind him that normalcy still existed. But more than that, he just missed them. "You can't just fly off with me."
Cooper shrugged. "We can't risk it. S.P.Y.D.E.R. still has agents in Wellington. It's you they want, not your parents, and you'll only be safe up here." He paused as he reached into his smoking jacket and removed a thick cigar. "Harvey wouldn't mind."
"I'm not Harvey, Mr. Grey!" Howard felt his anger rising. He looked at the cigar. "And you're smoking! That will give you lung cancer! It's dangerous!"
"I'm immortal, my dear boy," Cooper explained as Caldwell lit the cigar for him.
"Well, I'm not – and what about second hand smoke?" Howard shook his head. "It's not the 1930s anymore, Mr. Grey!" He stared down at his shoes and caught his breath. "Oh god," Howard muttered. "I'm sorry. You saved my life. I shouldn't be complaining."
"It's understandable. Times change. I do not." Cooper pointed to the view-screen. "Electron, you should be able to look up the number for the Heller household. Kindly dial it now, if you please." He waited while Electron's metallic claws nimbly punched in some keys on the main control panel. The ringing of a phone filled the bridge and Howard closed his eyes and listened to it.
The phone was answered on the third ring. It was his mother's voice. "Hello?" she asked. "Who is this?"
"It's me, mommy." Howard didn't notice how scared he sounded. "It's Howard."
"Howie, oh god. Are you all right? Are you in trouble? Here, let me put it on speaker." He heard the sound of footsteps and muffled shouts. Howard could imagine his father and grandparents hurrying to hear him. "There was some kind of gunfight at the temple and the police are all over it, and we couldn't find you. You didn't answer your cell phone and—"
"I'm okay," Howard said. "Cooper Grey II saved me. I'm with him now, in his airship."
There was a pause. Harvey Heller spoke fist. "Mr. Grey? Are you really there?"
"That's right, Harvey." There was a crack in Cooper's voice. Howard realized that it must be very strange for the immortal gorilla to hear his adopted son as an old man. "I'm here."
"That's good. You take good care of Howard, okay? I'd give the world for him, you know that. He's a good boy. Real smart, and we all adore him. You bring him back safe, as soon as you can." Harvey chuckled. "Oh, Mr. Grey. I don't have to tell you that. You'll keep him safe."
Howard's mother was more skeptical "Cooper Grey?" she asked. "Howard, you're really with a talking gorilla?"
"And a robot, and a frog and a caveman. And a ninja," Howard added. "In an airship." He sighed. "It's really not safe for me to be back there right now, okay? Mr. Grey is going to get it figured out, and then I'll come back. I'm being haunted by a ghost or something, and S.P.Y.D.E.R. is after me and—"
"Grey?" Molly Heller spoke again and she sounded angry. "I don't know who you are, I don't know what you are, but I know you have my son. If he is not returned to me, unharmed, immediately, then there will nowhere in the world you can hide. You understand that?"
"I do not mean him any harm, my good woman, I promise you—" Cooper started.
"You better not."
"I swear I'm okay, mommy," Howard said. "I'll be back soon." He looked at Cooper Grey. "Right? You'll get me back home soon?"
"As soon as possible," Cooper said. "You have my word, Mrs. Heller."
"Coop, we're gonna start heading to Scotland now," Cassandra Caldwell called from the control panel. "We gotta cut the connection or the Pentagon's gonna hear Mrs. Heller insulting you."
"Mommy, daddy, nana, papa – we have to go," Howard spoke quickly. "Don't worry. And I love you."
They were calling back to him, all talking at once in a chorus of well-wishes and expressions of affection. Howard blinked several times as the call ended and silence filled the bridge. He sank down on one of the chairs and sighed. Then he felt a great furry arm resting on his shoulder. He looked up and saw Cooper Grey's dark eyes, now large and sad.
"Miss Kunoichi, please take Howard to one of the guest quarters. I think he should get some rest before we reach the Scottish Highlands."
"Yes, Master Grey," Miss Kunoichi said. She stepped next to Howard. "Come and hurry, Howard. Follow me."
"Okay," Howard agreed. He stood up and shivered in his navy blue coat. He looked back at Cooper. "And thanks, Mr. Grey. For everything."
"Think nothing of it, my dear boy." Cooper looked back to the bridge's data display as Miss Kunoichi led Howard away.
Neither of them said a word as the deadly ninja led Howard to a cozy guest room down the hall from the bridge. Howard collapsed onto the small cot and wrapped the blanket around him. His fear and excitement had sapped his energy away and he was asleep before he knew it.
Miss Kunoichi woke him up by gently shaking his shoulder. Howard's eyes flicked open and he sat upright. He stepped out of the bed and looked out the porthole. He wasn't in New York anymore. Rolling hills of green grass, verdant and beautiful, stretched out below the Sparrow in an endless emerald carpet. "Scotland," Howard whispered. He struggled to wrap his head around it.
He turned to Miss Kunoichi, his cheeks going red as he remembered that she was not only a teenage girl, but a lethal ninja killer as well. "Um, good morning," he said, trying to straighten his collar. "I guess we arrived, right?"
"Yes, Howard Heller. Cooper and Silver Squad are departing in a dropship immediately." She started to the door.
"Hold on for a second!" Howard hurried after her, and stepped outside of the guest room. He followed her down the hallway to the loading bay, struggling to keep up. He tried frantically to think of something to say. "So, you were raised in a ninja school?" he asked. "Wow. I'm doing okay in my school, even though there's a lot of homework and stuff, but I guess being trained as a ninja must be—"
Miss Kunoichi suddenly stopped walking and turned to stare at Howard. "Let me speak my mind, Howard Heller," she said. "You are a weak kitten, mewling pathetically for help as the winds of the world blow you about and you insist on making trouble for Master Grey. I killed my first man when I was six-years-old. He was Yakuza crime boss. I beat his brains out against marble flagstones."
"Oh…" Howard whispered. So—"
"So, as you can see, we have nothing to say to each other." She doubled her pace and Cooper hurried to keep up. They didn't say anything else until they reached the dropship.
Cooper and the rest of Silver Squad were already there, strapped in to their seats in the dropship and waiting. Electron was at the cockpit, his metal claws poised over the glowing controls. Cooper nodded to Howard, and the boy sat down next to the gorilla. Miss Kunoichi sat opposite them and lowered her eyes, busying herself with buckling in.
"Take us down, Electron," Cooper commanded. "Mr. Byron will be surprised to see us – pleasantly so, I hope." He leaned back and looked down at Howard. "Gaz Byron is a Scottish mystic and chaos magician, perhaps the individual who is most profoundly connected to the universe's magic currents. He studied under Milton Keefe, better known as the legendary Professor Guru."
Howard hadn't heard of any of those people. "Oh," he said. "That sounds cool." The engine of the dropship suddenly roared to life and it shot forward, zooming through the loading bay and arcing like a comet into the clear blue sky. "Mr. Grey?" he said. "What exactly is S.P.Y.D.E.R.? And why are they after me?"
Cooper considered the question, resting a thick finger on his hairy chin. "They were created in the early days of the Cold War as a freelance espionage organization. Their goal was to be spies for hire, and make a fortune off of the numerous little wars that stained the world in those days. But S.P.Y.D.E.R. soon changed, becoming an employer of war criminals, spooks, and criminals desiring ultimate power."
"What does their name stand for?"
"I don't know. I don't believe anyone knows. They've built armies and maintain large intelligence gathering networks. We've clashed numerous times over the years. And now it appears they have a new leader – Anton Blake."
"Blake?" Howard had heard the name. "Wasn't he the guy who was busted for white collar crime? Papa, I mean, my grandfather, was very happy when they arrested him, even if they did send him to a minimum security prison. But didn't he die there?"
"He faked his death and escaped. He's graduated from corporate crime to world domination." Cooper looked down at Harvey. "But what he has in mind for you, and why he summoned the specter of the wretched Blood Eagle, I have no idea. Perhaps Mr. Byron will be able to help us."
The dropship's engine lowered from a blistering roar to a slow simmer. It settled down a patch of dirt and a gangplank extended with a silent rush of air. Howard stood up and followed Cooper and Silver Squad outside. Culpug the Cavelord crouched in the dirt and sniffed the air, then nodded to the rest of Silver Squad. A small brick cabin stood before the dropship, well kept and standing out brilliantly against the green hills of the highlands. The door creaked open.
"Mr. Byron!" Cooper called. "It's Cooper Grey II. I have a bit of a job for you, old fellow."
The door opened and a tall completely bald fellow stepped out. He wore a pure white suit, round black sunglasses, and more piercings on his ears and nose than Howard could count. "Cooper, it's good to see you, mate." His Scottish accent was thick as mud, and he hurried over to stand before the gorilla. "I've got me a kettle on. You want a bit to drink?"
"No time, I'm afraid." Cooper patted Howard's shoulder, nearly knocking the boy to the ground. "This child is haunted, by a ghost that is distressingly familiar to me. I'd like you to find out who is behind it."
Byron nodded. "Aye, aye," he said. "Well, come on in, my son, and I'll see what I can do." He looked back up at Cooper. "You'll just wait out here, then? With all your Silver Squad mates?"
Cooper nodded. "No reason to burden you."
"Aye, I suppose there ain't. Come along then, lad. What's your name, if you don't mind me asking?" Gaz Byron steered Howard inside. His house was extremely cluttered, with piles of newspapers, comic books, and plates of uneaten food forming precarious pillars of refuse. Byron led Howard to an oversized couch and sat him down.
"Howard Heller," Howard said. "And thanks for your help, Mr. Byron."
"Gaz, lad. This ain't Thatcher's England. We don't got to behave pompous." He looked out at Cooper. "The ape does, but he's from a different time, ain't he? I'm not and you're not. You're the future, you are." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pearl-handled razor. "I'm gonna need to prick your thumb. It'll sting a bit, but I got a band-aid, and I can give you a sucker after we're done."
"Okay." Howard held out his thumb. He barely felt the razor scratching his skin. Byron caught the drops of blood in his open palm, and then placed band-aid on the cut. Byron stood up, rubbing his hands over a copper bowl. Howard clutched his hands. "Do you know Cooper very well?" he asked.
"A wee bit. He's a friendly enough ape. But he's a little apart, I think, from the rest of us." He smiled as he lit a black candle and started dripping wax into the bowl. "Well, he ought to be. He's a bleeding gorilla, after all."
"He's polite and good, though," Howard explained.
"Well, that was your grandad's doing, weren't it? I bet if he weren't around, Cooper would have got fed up with humanity and chucked us all away to go into space a long time ago." Gaz sat down on the couch next to Howard, and started flipping through a tattered hardcover of DC comics while he mumbled to himself. "I put that list of sigils somewhere in here, I think…"
Howard looked out the window. Cooper had lit another cigar and was pacing about as he puffed at it. "He hasn't changed that much since he stopped taking care of my grandfather, I think. He still kind of acts like it's the 1930s, though he was really progressive for that time. But he still has the same mannerisms." He looked back at Gaz Byron, who was spilling the bowl of wax and blood onto an Atlas. "Do you think that's true?"
Gaz paused. "He's apart from us, more than because he's a gorilla – he's a sigil. A symbol. A character. He's a product of his times, but there's a way for him to exist at any time, in any part of popular culture. He's a bit like Batman, in that regard – more real than any of us, by being fictional."
"Oh, aye. Think about it – Batman was here long before you or I was ever born. Batman has been around our entire lives. And Batman will exist long after we're gone. And Cooper, and the forces that made Cooper Grey II what he is, is the same way."
"That's pretty cool," Howard said. "I'm not sure if I can figure it all out."
"Well, it's just one of my many theories. I got another that we're all fictional characters, serving out our roles in some crazy stories. Right now some bloke could be reading about us, hearing our every inner thought." He shrugged. "It's chaos magic, Howard. It opens the brain." He looked down at the Atlas. "Right," he said. "I know what the curse is from. Let's go have a talk with Cooper."
Gaz and Howard hurried outside. Cooper hastily tossed away his cigar when he saw them coming. "Mr. Byron," Cooper said, nodding his shaggy head. "What conclusions have you arrived at? What manner of specter haunts this poor boy?"
"The source of the curse is Moscow," Gaz explained. "And it's a little weird. It's a blood curse, setting the angry spirit at the young male heir of a family line." He scratched his pierced ears as he looked down at Howard. "It will seek out the heir that family no matter where it is. They must've been using it to try and find him, and then they'd go in for the kill."
"Using the Blood Eagle as a bloodhound," Cooper muttered. He frowned. "But it still doesn't explain why poor Howard was chosen by those S.P.Y.D.E.R. fiends."
"Can't help you there, mate," Gaz replied.
Cooper nodded. "I thank you for the vital assistance you could provide." He looked back at his troopers and at Howard. "Silver Squad," Cooper announced. "We're going to Moscow."
"I still can't go home?" Howard asked. "Maybe you guys could drop me off on the way or something? Well, maybe that wouldn't work, but I'm sure we can think of something."
Silver Squad looked at Howard. "The foemen can still follow you," Culpug said. "Would you rather have our fine swords at your side when they find you? Or face them alone?"
"You should not attempt to question Master Grey," Miss Kunoichi said.
"Your attempt to go home will lead to termination," Electron said in his mechanical voice.
Carl merely nodded and shrugged.
"I'm sorry," Cooper told Howard. "But you should stay with us, for your own good."
Howard thought about complaining. "I understand," he said. "All right. Let's go to Russia." He turned back to the dropship. They hurried inside, and Electron sent them flying back to the Sparrow. From there, the great airship took them straight to Moscow.
A few hours later, they were whizzing through the crowded, snowbound Moscow streets in a G.R.A.E. armored car. Howard pressed his face to the window of the limo, staring out at the shining towers of the new capitalist powerhouses and the clusters of Soviet-era housing projects. Snow was falling slowly, forming think banks around the edges of buildings and filled in back alleys.
Cooper had loaned him a dark black G.R.A.E. standard issue overcoat, which Howard wore over his usual jacket. It hung heavily on his thin frame. He leaned back and looked over at Cooper as the limousine turned into the mammoth Red Light district of Moscow. Electron was driving, his large frame plugged directly into the interface of the large shining vehicle.
Howard watched as Cooper stared out the window. "It is strange to see capitalism flower here, in soil that proved so inhospitable to it, years ago," Cooper said. He looked over at Howard. "We're going to meet with an old acquaintance of mine. Not exactly a friend, but I believe he will help us."
"Do you think he'll know where S.P.Y.D.E.R. is?" Howard asked.
"Indubitably. S.P.Y.D.E.R. has big connections to Bravta, Russian Organized Crime. And my friend, a veteran of countless Soviet military campaigns turned underworld assassin, has an unmatched knowledge of the Russian mob." Cooper looked into the pale sky, resting his large hands on his knees. "We first met in the Battle of Stalingrad."
"Wait – Stalingrad? That was in World War II. Is this guy is old as you, Mr. Grey?" Howard realized the truth as the G.R.A.E. armored car slid to a stop before a sleek modern nightclub, which a glaring a neon sign proclaimed as the Cashmere Club. "Is he a Silver One, like you?"
"He is a chimpanzee, the result of Soviet medical experiments in the 30's." Cooper opened the door, then waited as Culpug the Cavelord hopped out into the snow and sniffed the air to search for danger. Culpug nodded to the gorilla, and allowed Cooper and Howard to step onto the sidewalk. Cooper looked up at the double doors of the Cashmere Club and nodded to the bouncer, who moved to open the door. "But no. He's really nothing like me."
They stepped inside, leaving Electron behind with the car. Carl, Miss Kunoichi, Culpug Cavelord, Cooper and Howard entered the club – and into another world. The Cashmere Club was very dark, with some pounding roar of techno music blaring out Howard's thoughts and a pulsing bass pounding into his chest like a physical blow. Shafts of white light illuminated a wide glass dance floor where several couples weaved together to the blistering music, while others watched in clear tables and booths in the corner. The bouncer, a bullnecked Russian in a leather jacket, recognized Cooper and led him behind a velvet rope to the basement, where the music wasn't so blisteringly loud.
The basement was kept dark, full of red velvet couches that seemed to glow in the faint beams of light. The walls were covered with wide mirrors, multiplying everything in the room. All of the couches were empty, except for one in the far corner behind a table of clear glass laden with empty bottles of Vodka. A chimpanzee sat on the couch, two blonde women in amazingly short sequined dresses on either side of him. The chimp looked straight at Howard through a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He wore a shining khaki jacket, golden chains glittering around his wrists and neck, and a thin cigarette smoldered in his mouth.
"Cooper Grey," he said, speaking slowly and enunciating each word.
"Comrade Leshi," Cooper said.
"Mr. Leshi. I am through with that sort of life." He patted the backs of the two blondes. "Leave us," he commanded, and they hurried away, not staying to look back at Cooper and his strange friends. Leshi pointed a hairy figure at Cooper. "I haven't seen you since—"
"Afghanistan," Cooper replied. "You nearly crashed a Hind helicopter onto me."
"And you nearly hit me with a Muhajadeen RPG." Mr. Leshi raised one of his glasses. "To those happy days, eh, Cooper? When my life had purpose, as pointless and stupid as it was." He pointed to Howard. "Who is this child?"
"My adopted son, Harv—" Cooper stopped. "No. He is the grandson of Harvey Heller. His name is Howard, and he has been cursed by a spell originated in this city. From S.P.Y.D.E.R."
"Oh. Those bastards." Leshi nodded. "Yes, S.P.Y.D.E.R. has been working its way into the Russian ever since '89." He tapped his finger on the glass table. "Many of them have tried to wrestle control of the Moscow Rackets. Many of those fools have found their way into my gun sights. I will gladly help you."
Before Cooper could respond, the radio in his coat burst to life with a crackle of static. Cooper held it up. Howard could hear Cassandra Caldwell's dry voice in an electronic rasp. "Coop, I think you're about to be hit. Six—no, seven S.P.Y.D.E.R. vehicles are heading your way, and I bet they've got more inbound. They know where you are, and Moscow PD are nowhere to be found."
"Typical. S.P.Y.D.E.R. knows just who to pay." Mr. Leshi took a drink from one of the many vodka bottles on his table. "Welcome to capitalist Moscow." He came to his feet, removing his coat to reveal a pair of Skorpion submachine guns in crossed shoulder-holsters. "I'll close the place down and force out the civilians. The owner is too afraid of me to argue. How do you want to play this, Cooper?"
Cooper's response was instantaneous and well-practiced. "Carl, go and set up a perimeter with Electron in the lobby. Culpug, you and I will take up fallback positions at the main bar. Howard, I'd like you to stay here with Miss Kunoichi." He paused and looked at Leshi. "Would you care to stay here with him, Leshi?"
"I wouldn't mind the action that I am sure to see," Leshi replied. "Good hunting, my old comrade."
Cooper turned to Howard as Carl and Culpug hurried up the stairs, already reaching for their weapons. "Stay here, my dear boy," he said. "We'll fight like Hell, by gad, absolute Hell, to keep you safe."
For some reason, Howard wasn't afraid. "Okay," he said, nodding his head. "I'll just stay here. Please be careful in the fight, and don't worry about me."
The gorilla was already pounding up the stairs, reaching for the revolvers in his coat. Mr. Leshi talked into the intercom, speaking rapidly in Russian. Howard could hear the rapid stamping of feet as the Cashmere Club's customers hurried outside and then sudden silence as the muffled music switched off. He sat down on one of the couches, dwarfed by the large piece of furniture. He felt very small.
Mr. Leshi walked over to him, sloshing around a cup of vodka in his hand, while Miss Kunoichi walked to the end of the stairwell, her katana held loosely in his hand. "You nervous, my child?" Mr. Leshi asked Howard. "This is not your world. Grey's first son, Harvey, he was adopted into such a life, and raised to travel around the world and living in daredevil adventure. But it is different for you."
"Yeah," Howard agreed. "I don't know too much about it, but most of the people – especially Cooper – seem nice." He looked up at Miss Kunochi. Her eyes flashed to the mirrored wall. "But some aren't."
Suddenly, Miss Kunoichi turned around, a shuriken hurtling from her thin fingers and straight towards Howard. The boy opened his mouth to cry out, expecting the throwing star to slide between his eyes, hack off his nose, or slice off his ear. But it whistled past his head, and shattered the glass behind him. Howard turned around. He looked at the mirror, now defaced with a spider's web of cracks.
But Howard's reflection wasn't looking back at him. Instead, he saw two dark goggles of a black rubber gas mask, and a long trench coat over a green SS uniform. It was the ghost of the Blood Eagle. Howard stumbled backwards as the Blood Eagle advanced, walking out of the mirror like he had stepped through an open window. The Blood Eagle leveled his pistol at Howard.
"Get down!" Miss Kunoichi moved faster than the ghost. She grabbed Howard's shoulder and pulled him behind Leshi's table. Mr. Leshi drew both his machine pistols and opened fire at the ghost. The air went thick with gun smoke as Mr. Leshi emptied both clips into the Blood Eagle. Glass shattered, from the mirrors and the empty vodka bottles. Howard clung to the carpet. Miss Kunoichi held her sword loosely in her hand, her keen eyes looking around.
The Blood Eagle ignored the bullets that had passed through him. His body rippled like water, and grew a little more indistinct. Howard had no idea how to put a stop to the ghost, and he didn't know if Miss Kunoichi or Mr. Leshi did either.
But just as Mr. Leshi's machine pistols clicked empty, the Blood Eagle vanished, seeping away like a colored cloud of smoke dissipating into the night air. Howard sat up, blinking his eyes. His ears were ringing and he felt sick. He looked over to Miss Kunoichi, who put a finger to her lips. Above them, Howard could hear the sounds of battle.
He heard the seemingly endless blare of heavy machine guns, followed by the distinct cracks of Cooper's revolvers. Shouts and screams echoed, and then an explosion that made Howard cover his ears and cry out loud in surprise and fear. Miss Kunoichi grabbed his shoulder and threw him across the room. Her slim arm tossed him aside like he was a pillow, and he felt into a couch opposite her and Mr. Leshi, all the way across the room.
"What did you do that for?" Howard asked. "Look, Miss Kunoichi, I'm very grateful for saving my life and everything, but I'd really like you to tell me before you pick me up and throw me around! If you were a little nicer about it, I'd—"
The floor exploded, just where Howard had been sitting. The fine carpet and marble floor erupted outwards, crashing against the mirrored wall, overturning the couches and upsetting the coffee table so that a blizzard of shattered glass flew into the walls. Howard closed his eyes until the blast went away, and saw several figures in green cloth robes and face-concealing masks. They were ninjas, dressed all in green.
Miss Kunoichi and Mr. Leshi hastened to Howard's side. They reached for their weapons. "I am a fool," Mr. Leshi muttered. "I should have known about the sewer line under the Cashmere Club."
"They are the Green Spider Clan," Miss Kunoichi said softly. "S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s loyal ninjas." She smiled. "They will die easily." She held her katana over her head and leapt forward, diving into the midst of the enemy ninjas and removing two of their heads in a single strike.
"Stay down!" Mr. Leshi shouted, reloading his submachine guns and opening fire. One of the ninjas charged him, swinging his sword at the chimp, until a burst of bullets stopped him in his tracks.
Howard crawled backwards, staying close to the ground as the ring of steel against steel and gunshots filled the room. He reached the wall and lay there, until he felt a shadow fall over him. Howard looked up and saw Scorpion. The big, thuggish S.P.Y.D.E.R. tough grinned down at Howard. "Hey, hey," he said, pulling back his fist. "We meet again."
He swung his fist at Howard, and the boy ducked down as fast as he could. Scorpion's fist glanced his forehead, pounding him to the ground. "Come on, kid," Scorpion said, grabbing Howard's neck and slamming him against the wall. "I iced Green Berets and Navy SEALs in hand-to-hand. What chance do you got?"
Though he was dazed and bloody, Howard opened his mouth and bit Scorpion's hand. He felt skin under his teeth and chomped down as hard as he could. He was angry of being targeted and doing nothing to defend himself. Scorpion yowled in pain as he let Howard go. "Oh man!" Scorpion snarled. "That stings!" He glared down at Howard. "Kid," he said. "You just pissed me off a little. That was real stupid of you."
"Shut up!" Howard yelled. "Cooper will find you and kick your—"
He received a kick to his chest that knocked the breath out of him and sent him gasping to the ground. His vision went red and something burned behind his eyes. Howard wanted to cough or scream, but he didn't have the breath. He looked back up at Scorpion and saw the big man's boot coming down again. Howard didn't have time to scream before the boot struck him again, and then he didn't see anything.
When he woke up, his head was pounding and his throat was so dry that it burned. He kept his eyes closed for a little and then slowly peeled them open. The air tasted rusty in his mouth and he saw that he was inside an empty warehouse, lost somewhere in Moscow's post-Soviet sprawl. A few shafts of light reached down from wide windows and holes in the ceiling. S.P.Y.D.E.R. has turned the warehouse into a mobile base, with a few armored cars and vans parked on the cement floor. Howard was lying on a cot. A dozen S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldiers, including Scorpion, were watching him.
Scorpion walked over to Howard Heller and smiled down at him. "Woken up?" he said. "Too bad for you." He looked over his shoulder. "Yo, Anton. We got a live one here!"
"That's Mr. Blake. Please, Scorpion. Let's keep this formal." Anton Blake stepped out from inside the armored car and briskly walked over to Howard as the boy sat up and wiped a hand over his forehead. He wasn't tied up, but escape was impossible. He folded his legs and looked at Anton Blake.
He recognized the thinning white hair, dark pinstriped suit and tie, and strong Roman nose from the newspapers, but Blake's eyes were different. There was a strange softness to them, like he was almost bored with what he saw – or more likely, he just didn't care. He walked over to Howard and smiled slowly and emotionlessly at the boy.
"Um…hi," Howard said. "You're Anton Blake."
"Hello, Howard Heller," Blake said. "You've recognized me from the newspapers. I don't really care. No one will believe you, even I you do manage to survive this – which you won't, by the way. I'm just telling you the circumstances now so you won't be surprised when the knife comes down."
"Cooper will rescue me," Howard said. He was surprised how confident he was. "He'll track you down and barge in here any time, then stop you and whatever your scheme is and get me to safety."
"Will he now?" Blake turned away and nodded to the S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldiers. They wheeled over a small metal cart containing a computer and a webcam. One of their technicians was already punching a number onto the keyboard. "He'll find us. I'm counting on that. Stand up, Howard Heller. It's your time to shine."
Howard watched as Blake pulled a pocket knife, some simple tool, from his suit jacket. He pulled out the blade and then paused when he noticed Howard looking at him. "Oh?" he said. "This? Just a little thing I picked up at the airport on my way here. Not at all like the kind of knives Cooper is used to seeing, so it will make him a little uneasy. And not at all like the steak knife my father used to nick me with when I was little and he thought I'd been bad. He's in hell, my dear old dad is. I sent him there, when I was just about your age. Then I went to conquer Wall Street and the world."
"You're some kind of psychopath," Howard whispered.
"What I am, Howard Heller, is a man of the future. I've realized morality is just going to hold me back, so I've done away with it. International law and other legal parameters are similarly constricting, so I've chosen to ignore them." He cupped Howard's chin. His fingers were cold as ice. "What I am, Howard Heller, is someone who is completely unrestrained. And all good things will soon be mine."
The computer screen flashed to life and Howard saw the nervous face of Cooper Grey II, now wearing a stealth black jumpsuit with the G.R.A.E. logo on the collar. Cooper carried a silenced submachine gun in his hands and glared at Anton Blake. "Release him immediately or you will die," he said, his dark eyes glowing with dark import.
Blake shook his head. "Come now, Cooper Grey. I've negotiated trillion dollar deals while on the crapper. You'll have to try a little harder than that." He took off his sports coat and handed it to Scorpion, who took it with a grumble. Blake's hand shot out and grabbed Howard's neck. Howard coughed as he felt the cold fingers wrapped around his throat and forcing him back. Blake held up the pocket knife, the blade down. "Let's talk, Mr. Grey."
"What the hell do you want?" Cooper asked.
"I want the total destruction of G.R.A.E.," Blake explained. He didn't release his grip on Howard. The boy felt pure panic boiling through him, with ice in his chest and fire in his forehead. He wanted to cry or scream, but all he did was look at the bare cement ceiling and try his best to breathe. "You see, after I purchased the remains of S.P.Y.D.E.R., I did a little research. G.R.A.E. thwarted seven separate attempts to plunge the world into nuclear war between the United States and the USSR¸ stopped S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s zombie plague from being unleashed in eight crowded world cities, and destroyed our power base time and time again. That is something which is at an end."
"So that's what this is all about?" Cooper asked. "You target the boy to reach me. By gad, sir, you are a disgusting excuse for a human being."
"So the world keeps telling me. But let's not waste time, Mr. Grey. I want the location of Silver Station and I want immediately." He looked down at Howard, and the boy shivered when he felt Blake's eyes on him. "If not, well, let's start with an eye. Or maybe just a little cut, to get the blood flowing."
"No!" Howard struggled to pull away from Blake, but the former executive held him, his grip like steel. Howard saw the blade coming down, glinting slightly in the low light as it neared his cheek. "Don't do it, Mr. Grey! I'll be okay! Don't give up!"
"Wait." Cooper's voice came clearly through the computer. "I'll give the longitude and latitude, if you don't harm my boy." Cooper hung his head, his eyes downcast. He read out the coordinates and Blake jotted them down on a notepad, which he handed to Scorpion.
Scorpion looked at the notepad. "I ain't your goddamn houseboy, Mr. Blake. Why you—"
"Jangala Island, is it not?" Blake said. "The place of your birth is now the home of Silver Station and the world headquarters of G.R.A.E. How clever." He reached for his sports coat and looked down at Howard. "Is he dear to you, Cooper Grey? Maybe I should cut his throat, just before I leave for Jangala Island and lead every army of S.P.Y.D.E.R. against you."
Cooper's shook his head. "You won't have a chance. You see, Blake, I've had Electron tracing the source of your call. You used all sorts of complex encryptions and other computer gobbledygook that I won't pretend to comprehend. But my dear robot found it out. And now we're coming for you."
Blake turned away from Howard and started running to one of the armored cars. "Evac immediately!" he shouted. "Scorpion, I want you to lead a rear guard action and allow me time to reach the helicopters!" He grabbed a suitcase and turned away, dashing for the exit.
Scorpion shook his head. "Dumb bastard wants me to stay behind. S.P.Y.D.E.R. didn't used to be this way." He grabbed an M60 heavy machine gun from a small ammo dump beside one the cars, and brought it up to his shoulder. All around them, S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s soldiers scrambled to follow Blake in the evacuation or take up defensive positions. Howard hopped off the cot and flattened himself on the ground. No one was paying much attention to him. "Now where the hell are they?" Scorpion demanded.
The front entrance to the warehouse exploded. Aged metal spun crazily as bricks tumbled down from the ceiling. Dust rose in a choking cloud, followed by a deadly barrage of gunfire. Howard risked a glance into the fight, craning his neck to see what was happening. He saw Silver Squad charging inside with guns blazing, and the S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldiers falling like dominoes before them.
Carl hurled a pair of grenades under one of the armored cars, blasting it onto its side in a scream of twisting metal and cloud of fire. Electron sent a long pulsing tongue of electricity from his open claws, burning like lightning through a S.P.Y.D.E.R. trooper and leaving a smoldering hole in his chest. Culpug the Cavelord leapt into the ranks of the enemy, his sickle claws out and leaving a trail of blood with each slashing strike. Miss Kunoichi followed him, hurling a flurry of throwing stars before hacking down the S.P.Y.D.E.R. solders with her katana. Mr. Leshi was with them, an AK-47 roaring away in his hands.
In the middle of Silver Squad, a submachine gun blazing in each massive silver-furred hand, was Cooper Grey II. He roared as he charged inside, tossing the emptied guns behind him and leaping straight for Scorpion. Though a bullet chewed through his arm, Cooper didn't stop until he had slugged Scorpion in the chest. Howard heard bones break with a sound like the snap of dry wood.
Scorpion turned to run, clutching his chest. "Not worth it!" he muttered. "Not worth it!"
A S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldier charged Cooper, raising an assault rifle to gun down the ape. Cooper was faster. He grabbed the waist of the soldier and hoisted him up, then barred his long white teeth. Howard turned away from the ripping flesh and the spilling blood.
When he looked back, Cooper was standing over him. Cooper's large pink tongue slipped out, licking the blood from his furry chin and lips. "Harvey," Cooper said, looking down at Howard. "You're safe? You're unharmed?" He offered a hand. Howard was almost afraid to take it.
"I'm a little bruised, Mr. Grey," Howard said, as Cooper helped him up. "And Harvey's my grandfather, remember?"
"Right. Of course. I apologize." Cooper turned back to his soldiers. "Silver Squad!" he roared. "Fall back to the LZ. We'll leave for Silver Station immediately!" He dashed forward, holding tightly to Howard as he barreled through the surviving S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldiers.
Howard held tightly to Cooper's furry arm. He had a feeling he should be afraid of Cooper. The Ape Adventurer was pure beast, a living engine of fury that destroyed men in seconds. But when Howard looked up into Cooper's dark eyes, he realized that the gorilla was something else entirely, something he would have thought impossible until a few seconds ago when Cooper called him Harvey. Cooper Grey, high in command of a freelance spying organization with a squad of exotic warriors at his command, was lonely.
They hurried out of the warehouse, as Silver Squad provided suppressing fire. Cooper set Howard down in a snowy back alley. A chrome silver dropship rested on the snow-clogged street. Cooper and Howard hurried to the dropship, while Silver Squad followed them. Electron moved through in the street in slow, jerks, stirring up snow with each footstep.
Behind them, S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s soldiers poured out of the warehouse, their weapons blazing. Carl tossed a grenade at them, throwing up snow, smoke and fire into the alley in a crackling explosion. Howard's ears rang as Cooper opened the door and helped him inside. "Take us to the Sparrow!" he bellowed. "And then to Silver Station! We don't have much time!"
The automatic door shut painfully slowly, as Howard scrambled into his seat and struggled to his seatbelt fastened. Carl, who sat next to the boy, leaned over and snapped it shut in a single motion, then offered Howard a toothy grin. The dropship's engine reared to life and the aircraft lifted off the snowy ground. Bullets pinged on the sides of the ship. Howard looked outside and saw Scorpion stepping out, blood on his mouth and his M60 blazing in his hands.
But then the ship was up and flying away, speeding into the gray sky. Howard leaned back in his seat. He realized how much his chest, neck and face ached, but he didn't want to say anything. Cooper was talking to Caldwell through the dropship's com system, giving her detailed instructions about the coming battle.
"I doubt we'll have time to pull in many of our agents who are on assignment, and Silver Station maintains a very small garrison. S.P.Y.D.E.R. doubtlessly has amassed a powerful and mobile strike force, which they intend to use against us. This will be a brutal battle. We can't evacuate the civilians, as their simply isn't time. Silver Station does maintain excellent fortifications, so they should be safe." He paused. "And Cassandra? Kindly radio ahead to Silver Station and tell them to begin preparations for Operation Jurassic. We may have need of it."
Caldwell's voice came back over the shuttle's radio. "You got it, Coop. With any luck, we'll get there in time." She paused. "Just one question – how the holy hell did Blake find out where Silver Station is? Jangala Island ain't on any map, and there's only suspicion as to where it is. We've even blocked it out from satellite photos."
"I told him, Miss Caldwell. I told him the exact location." Cooper sighed. "I'll explain the rest later, but I was under some duress. See you shortly." He ended the communications link and leaned back in his seat, sagging like a tired old ape.
There was silence in the ship, until Miss Kunoichi coughed. "Why did you tell them, Master Grey?" she demanded. "You gave away the position of our base to the enemy. Now G.R.A.E. might be destroyed. Why have you done such a thing?"
"It was the boy," Cooper said softly. "I could not stand to see him hurt."
"Why?" Miss Kunoichi's question was sharp and painful. "He is a weak boy, who whines constantly and causes you nothing but trouble."
Howard hung his head. "I guess I am, a little," he said. "I'm s-sorry, Mr. Grey. I'm really not worth much of anything, I think, certainly not giving away where your secret base is and stuff."
"That is complete and utter nonsense." Cooper Grey pointed a thick finger at Miss Kunoichi. "You were raised in a secret mountain fortress where mercy was anathema and any emotion was seen as a weakness. You operate on cold logic, but I am a beast of emotions. And when I entered the world of man, many years ago, I was disgusted by what I saw. What reason was there, to save such a vindictive, petty and heartless species? I found the answer in a little boy named Harvey Heller. He is the grandfather of the boy you see before you, and for Harvey's sake, I will let no harm come to him. But I believe Howard is far from worthless. I believe that, like his grandfather, he has boundless courage and endless virtue. I will not let him down."
Howard felt a bit of warmth burn inside of him, and pride for his grandfather and himself. "Mr. Grey," he said. "I-I don't know if—"
"Hush for now," Cooper said. "You have been through too much already. And I fear you must through more before this wretched business is concluded."
The dropship continued to fly onwards, heading to the Sparrow. Then, there was Jangala Island, Silver Station -- and the coming battle.
They arrived over Jangala Island a few precious hours later. The Sparrow itself descended into the center of the jungle base, onto a large landing strip in the middle of Silver Station. The global headquarters of G.R.A.E. was a sprawling compound of interlocking chrome structures, all smooth with sharp angles, made of shining silver steel and wrapped with intersection walkways and jungle vines. A few soldiers in G.R.A.E. uniforms stood at sentry positions, armed with high-tech assault rifles. The base was abuzz with activity, as white-coated scientists and G.R.A.E. personnel in dark blue uniforms dashed about on the intersecting walkways to prepare for the airship's landing.
Jangala Island itself was a place of amazement. Silver Station was situated in a patch of jungle, with high plains to one side, a darksome swamp on the others, and near a large cluster of overgrown ruins, the stones sun-blasted to a dull yellow and the ancient statues of gorillas crumbling with age.
Cooper saw Howard's interest of the ruins. "The final bastion of my species, dear boy," he explained. "The lost city of the Silver Ones. I have allowed many scientists to study them, for evolutionary and anthropological information. Richard Leakey visited in a notable excursion, and the charming Jane Goodall is a frequent visitor and personal friend."
"Wow," Howard whispered. "That's amazing. This whole place is amazing."
Cooper smiled, a strange expression for a gorilla. "I often forget that – about Jangala Island, and the world at large." The Sparrow touched down on the landing strip, and settled into a resting position. "Those ruins may be our salvation as well," Cooper mused. "Stay with me, Howard, and do your best to follow my instructions."
They walked out of the airship, along with Silver Squad and the soldiers and crew, and headed into Silver Station. While G.R.A.E.'s operatives hurried to set up the defensives, Cooper, Silver Squad and Caldwell went to a command center in the top story of the largest building. Wide windows allowed them to overlook their surroundings, and a holographic display sketched a map of the island in sparse blue lines. Cooper left Howard as he and Caldwell talked of the defense.
"Radar's picking up tons of contacts," Caldwell said, as Cooper sat down and pulled a cigar from his pocket. Howard didn't criticize him. "S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s bringing in everything they have. They must've pulled their Tarantula heavy infantry mercs from guarding of Afghani poppy fields and Colombian coca farms. Wouldn't be surprised if they're bringing in ninjas too, not to mention some real heavy metal."
"True," Cooper said, taking a long drag of the cigar. Culpug the Cavelord stood at his right, his spear on his shoulder, while Miss Kunoichi was moving her fingers along the edge of her katana on his left. "But I chose this position for Silver Station for a reason. The swamps deny access except from one point – the plains. We can establish defensive positions here and here, and force them into our fields of fire. We can put mortar teams and snipers in the ruins, and create a deadly flanking barrage."
"But that means, if things go badly, there's nowhere for us to retreat," Cassandra pointed out. "We'll go into the swamps, and S.P.Y.D.E.R. can pick us off at their leisure." She looked up at Cooper. "What's our back-up?"
"Operation Jurassic. Before their collapse, my species was experimenting with mind control of the island's very carnivorous fauna."
"You mean dinosaurs?" Howard asked. "It just kind of seems like there'd be dinosaurs here…"
"There are, and we may be able to use them." Cooper turned to Culpug Cavelord. "My dear prehistoric friend, three years ago the modern world found you frozen in a block of ice. G.R.A.E. protected you from the outside world and kept you safe. Today, I ask you to return the favor. Go into the ruins. The scientists there should help you prepare the ancient machinery. I wish for you to lead the dinosaurs in our counter-attack."
Culpug's nostrils flared. "By the blade of Lor," he said, raising his spear. "You have no need to doubt me!"
"By gad, I shall not." Cooper nodded to Carl and Electron. "You will stand with me on the front lines. Electron's electric blasts and Carl's explosives will be vital anti-armor weapons."
"And my place, Master Gray?" Miss Kunoichi asked.
"Stay here. Keep my great-grandson safe," Cooper said.
Miss Kunoichi frowned. "Why must I do that?" she demanded. "Why not have me in the battle, where I can slaughter S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s warriors?"
"Because you're the best," Cooper replied. "And I want him safe." He nodded. "Everyone understand? Excellent. They'll be arriving shortly. We have little time to prepare."
They dashed off, pausing only to grab weapons, and before Howard knew it, he was alone with Miss Kunoichi and the other civilians in the command bunker. He walked over to the corner and sat down, wincing a little as his bruises brushed against the wall. He was still wearing his G.R.A.E. jacket, and found it comfortable instead of suffocating. Howard looked out of the viewing window, just as alarms starting screaming throughout Silver Station.
A cloud of dust rose from the plains before Station Silver. Howard stood up and peered through the window, feeling his heart grow cold as S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s army made their appearance. The invasion had begun. Spider tanks came first – each a boxy chassis and turret mounted on eight jointed metal legs. They walked forward in a unified gait, their turrets swiveling to face Silver Station's defenders. Columns of infantry, some in simple green ski-masks and others in full body armor, helmets and heavy machine guns followed, accompanied by a scattering of swiftly moving ninjas. They charged straight for Silver Station, using the tanks as cover.
"Oh god," Howard whispered. He looked down at G.R.A.E.'s defenders. There were only a handful of them, manning machine guns and preparing their rifles in the bunkers around Silver Station's entrance. Howard saw a large silver shape in a black uniform, a heavy assault rifle resting on his shoulder, that had to be Cooper Grey. A second later, everything was obscured with gunfire.
Howard stumbled backwards as fire and smoke filled the battlefield. Machine guns blared away in endless drones, dirt and grass were kicked into the air by falling shells, and steel shrieked as explosions tore tanks asunder. Howard turned away from a bright explosive flash and walked to the rear of the command center. He couldn't stand to watch.
But hearing the noises made it even worse. Howard faced the wall and sat down, his heart racing with every scream and gunshot. Had Cooper Grey fallen in battle? It seemed impossible for a titan like Cooper to die. Gaz was right – the Ape Adventurer was like Batman, some fictional character who would always exist in some form to combat evil. But then Howard remembered the fear and loneliness of Cooper when he saw him in the dropship. He wasn't so invulnerable after all.
He tried to cover his ears, but the battle was too loud for that. Instead, Howard looked up and saw Miss Kunoichi standing in the center of the room, staring down at him with her cold dark eyes. She took a step towards him. "You dislike this as much as I?" she asked.
"Y-yeah," Howard agreed. It was no secret she didn't like him. "But I don't know what else to do. I can't just stay in here and hide away. But Cooper wouldn't want me to go outside. But I can't let him run into danger while I hide back here!"
"Perhaps you are not so scared after all."
Howard stood up and walked over to her. He risked a glance outside and looked down at the G.R.A.E. positions. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Oh god!" he cried, pointing down to the space of dirt behind the bunkers and trenches. "Look! It's the Blood Eagle!"
The ghost of the Nazi assassin had appeared right behind the G.R.A.E ranks, his lugers in his hands. His spectral trench coat seemed to flutter slightly in the island breeze, and he had leveled both of his weapons at Cooper Grey's back. The ghost was utterly silent and none of the G.R.A.E. soldiers expected it.
"We have to warn him!" Howard cried. "Miss Kunoichi, there's gotta be some kind of communications system where we can—"
"No time." Miss Kunoichi grabbed Howard's shoulder and pulled him to the window, drawing out a shuriken with her free hand. "Let's see how brave you really are," she said, and leapt forward, carrying Howard with her. She hurled the shuriken forward, and it broke the window apart, shattering the glass in a rain of fragments. Miss Kunoichi and Howard followed the broken glass out of the window.
The wind rustled through Howard's hair as pure panic boiled inside of him. Then he crashed down on the grass, gasping as he felt the shock of the impact race through his body. Miss Kunoichi landed on her feet and held her katana over her head. She leapt forward, her blade poised to hack into the skull of the Blood Eagle.
Without a moment's pause, the Blood Eagle turned around, a dagger in his hand. He blocked Miss Kunoichi's blow and pushed her back. Howard stared at Miss Kunoichi's face and saw real fear and surprised on her face. "Impossible," she whispered. "I can slice a rain drop before it hits the ground. No one is that fast."
"I am." The Blood Eagle stabbed a dagger into her leg, driving it deeply through pale flesh. Miss Kunoichi leapt back, but still sank to ground as a broad line of red ran down her leg. She gasped as he looked down at the wound, and for just a few seconds, seemed like a frightened teenage girl.
Howard couldn't stand it. Though he was afraid, he knew he couldn't let Miss Kunoichi die. He had been the victim, causing nothing but trouble for Cooper, Silver Squad and G.R.A.E. Thinking of his grandfather, he grabbed a jagged shard of glass. "Hey! Nazi!" he cried. "Leave her alone!" He charged the Blood Eagle.
The Nazi assassin delivered a swift kick to Howard's forehead. Dazed, Howard sank to the ground as blood trickled down his face. The world went muddy around him, and he felt grass between his fingers and on his face. He managed to look up, just in time to see Cooper Grey come charging up the hill on his feet and knuckles, his assault rifle lashed to his back.
"Blood Eagle!" Cooper cried. "You were at peace! I laid you down and now you come back to cause more trouble!" His growling voice cracked and broke. "I laid you to rest," he muttered. "Why, in God's name, did you come back?"
"The job wasn't done." The Blood Eagle turned to face Cooper. He raised both of his pistols. "Cooper," he said, sounding strangely intimate with the gorilla. "I've missed you. I've missed everything. Now come up and put me down again."
Cooper roared. He tossed aside the assault rifle and barreled towards the Blood Eagle. The Nazi assassin raised his pistols and opened fire. Cooper was on him in seconds, and Howard looked away as the gorilla clawed and tore at the Blood Eagle. He heard something that sounded like silk being ripped, and felt absolute terror at what was happening.
After a few seconds, Howard heard heavy breathing above him. He looked up to see Cooper Grey standing over him. Cooper's chest was bloody with bullet wounds and his uniform was in ribbons, revealing the silver fur underneath. His eyes were like black steel. "Damnation," Cooper said, looking down at Howard. "It is finished."
"D-did you know him, Mr. Grey?" Howard asked. "It sounded like you were almost…friendly with him?"
"I was. Once. Which makes destroying a second time all the more painful. But it is finished, by gad. I finished it." Cooper looked up at the battle. "Oh no," he whispered. "They've reached our lines."
All around them, G.R.A.E soldiers were falling back. They pounded over the grass to the entrance to Silver Station, dragging their weapons and their wounded with them. Howard looked at the ranks of S.P.Y.D.E.R. and saw that though they were thinned, they were pouring over the bunkers and trenches, and heading towards their position.
"Run, my dear boy!" Cooper commanded. "Get back inside and to safety!"
Howard looked at Miss Kunoichi. "I won't leave her!" he cried and hurried to her side. "She defended me and wanted to protect you, and it's my fault!" Howard turned his back to S.P.Y.D.E.R. for just a few seconds, and that was his mistake.
A strong hand grabbed the back of his coat and hauled him back. A familiar serrated knife was pressed to his throat, and a sneering scarred face leaned over his shoulder. It was Scorpion. "Hello again, kid," Scorpion said. "Don't try and run. You're my ticket out of here."
Quick as lightning, Cooper grabbed his fallen assault rifle and aimed it at Scorpion. The two men faced each other, with S.P.Y.D.E.R's remaining soldiers standing all around them in loose semi-circle, their guns aimed at Cooper. Miss Kunoichi lay between them, her leg wound preventing her from moving, and stared at Scorpion angrily. Cooper kept his gun level. "Let the boy go," he ordered.
"I don't think so," Scorpion replied. "It's a changing world, but some things remain constant. Like you, for instance. That new guy, Blake, he's murdering us down here. I lost eighty percent of my men – eight percent of S.P.Y.D.E.R.'s top soldiers – but I still managed to defeat you. Drop the gun or I'll kill the kid."
"No!" Howard cried, but it was too late. Cooper's assault rifle fell to the earth.
Scorpion grinned. He dropped Howard and approached Cooper, his combat knife held high. He kicked Cooper to the ground and slashed him across the chest. Cooper made no noise. "That was easy," Scorpion said. "I'm gonna kill you, Cooper, and then I'm gonna wear your pelt as a coat."
Howard lay on the ground. He was beaten, bruised and so scared that each breath was difficult to take. But he couldn't see Cooper hurt. He stood up, slowly resting his weight on his legs and took a step to Scorpion. He took another, and then broke into a run. "Don't hurt him!" he cried. "Don't hurt him!"
Scorpion turned around and grabbed Howard's arm, twisting it painfully. "What do you care?" he asked. "What's this dumb ape mean to you anyhow?"
Howard's response was instant. "He's a hero!" Howard cried. "He's the best hero of all! My grandfather knew that and so do I! He'll never give up, he'll never let an innocent person get hurt, and he'll never stop fighting evil, no matter how much times change! He's Cooper Grey II! And he will never die!"
In the distance, Howard heard a chorus of rasping roars, followed by the pounding sound of a stampede. The ground shook, an earthquake ripping through the dirt and making pebbles dance madly. Howard saw Scorpion's eyes go wide and then turned around and saw why. Operation Jurassic had worked. Their reinforcements had arrived.
An army of dinosaurs galloped towards them. There were all species in the roaring pack, from snorting triceratops' waving their horns to snarling raptors with their sickle claws poised. A Tyrannosaurus Rex led the horde of dinosaurs, and Culpug the Cavelord rode on the back of the mighty reptile, holding his spear high. "For Cooper Grey!" he shouted, his battle cry echoed by the roars of the dinosaurs.
The dinos smashed into the surviving S.P.Y.D.E.R. soldiers like a scaly tide, washing away any resistance. Men screamed and a few fired off a couple rounds before the dinosaurs destroyed them under flashing claws and teeth. Scorpion let Howard go and tried to run, only to receive a clawed foot against his back that sent him crying to the ground. Cooper ran to Howard and held him close. His fur was warm and comforting, as dust and death cries came all around them.
In seconds, their fight was over. The dinosaurs chased the fleeing S.P.Y.D.E.R. troops down, snapping up in their jaws or pounding them to death under their feet. Cooper set Howard down and moved to help up Miss Kunoichi, as the other G.R.A.E. soldiers ran over to join them. Miss Kunoichi came to her feet, gritting her teeth as she used her katana as a crutch.
Howard looked over the battlefield, trying not to stare at the countless corpses. He looked down at Scorpion and saw the white-suited thug was still alive. He crawled over to them, and slowly came to his feet. Cooper, Howard and Miss Kunoichi stared at him. Cooper reached for his rifle.
"No," Howard said. "He's beaten. We don't have to kill him."
"Mercy?" Scorpion asked. "Why?"
"Because it's right," Howard said. "Killing people is cruel and unnecessary." He looked up at Cooper. "It's not something heroes do, right?"
"Right," Cooper agreed. He lowered his assault rifle.
Scorpion sank down to his knees, and reached into his coat. "Yeah," he said. "Sucker." He pulled out his pistol and Howard saw a flash of steel and then Scorpion's hand was flying through the air, leaving a trail of blood behind it. Miss Kunoichi had hacked off his hand with his katana, and then returned to leaning on it.
Standing on one foot, she pointed the blade at Scorpion. "Go," she ordered.
Clutching the bleeding stump of his hand, Scorpion hurried away into the jungle.
Cooper looked down at Howard. "It's finished," he said. "I believe it's time to go home."
As they started walking back to Silver Station, Caldwell came running out. One of her arms was in a sling from the battle, but she still moved in lanky strides towards Cooper. "Coop!" she cried. "It's Blake! He's called us on the main com line. He wants to talk."
Cooper hurried inside to the lobby. Above the central desk was a wide screen, filled with the emotionless face of Anton Blake. The tycoon turned S.P.Y.D.E.R. leader leaned back in a leather chair, his hands folded. "Cooper Grey," he said. "Good to see you again."
"Your organization has just experienced its greatest defeat, Mr. Blake," Cooper said. Despite all his wounds, Cooper still stayed upright and spoke with conviction against Anton Blake. "S.P.Y.D.E.R. is finished."
"Is it?" Blake shook his head. "In my younger days, when I believed one could achieve absolute power purely through financial means, there was a certain ritual I went through after buying out another company. I'd take a look at all the employees who had working habits, personal philosophy, habits, or traits which clashed with my vision. I would fire these employees. What I've just done, albeit with bullets and a chance of destroying G.R.A.E., is akin to that."
"You sent all your men to their deaths," Cooper said.
"True." Blake shrugged. "But it's necessary. Under my helm, S.P.Y.D.E.R. will change from a Cold War holdover to the ultimate tool of modern power. We'll be everywhere, using terrorism, corporate crime, technology and modern fears to strike at the world. We'll be the ultimate decentralized powerhouse, ineffable, unknowable and utterly unstoppable."
Cooper just stared back. "And we'll be right here, Mr. Blake, ready to defeat you at every turn. And that's really all I have to say to you. Miss Caldwell? Kindly end communications." The screen flicked off and Blake's face disappeared. Cooper looked down at Howard. "Now, after seeing to your wounds and giving you some time to rest, I think you'd like to be returned to your family. Is that so?"
"Yes, Mr. Grey," Howard agreed. "And thanks for everything."
"You're welcome," Cooper said. "You are very welcome."
Two weeks later, Howard gave his presentation on his family history to his classmates at his private school in Wellington. After a tearful and wonderful reunion with his parents and grandparents, and a few days home to rest up and recover, he had worked hard to hammer out a decent family history. He had left nothing out.
Now, wearing his G.R.A.E. coat over his collared school shirt, he looked out at his classmates. He felt a little nervous, but looked to his right and at the reassuring smile of his grandfather. Harvey Heller had been happy to come with his son, and help with the presentation.
"Okay," Howard said. "This is my grandfather. He was born in Germany and his parents were very radical. They were liberals."
"Communist and anti-fascists," Harvey said. "Bolsheviks, not that any of you kids know what that means."
"Yes, papa," Howard agreed. He looked down at his notes and then back at his classmates and teacher. "But they were murdered, by the Blood Eagle, an agent of the early Nazi organization called the Thule Society." A murmur of surprise moved through the classroom. "But he was okay though, because he was adopted." Harvey pointed to the display board he had filled with copies of family photographs. He pointed to the lurid cover of an old pulp magazine, showing a gorilla in a pinstriped suit punching an attacking robot. "He was adopted by Cooper Grey II, an intelligent and immortal gorilla."
The surprise and sympathy for the death of Harvey's parents vanished in a titter of laughter. Howard looked up from his notes and then back at Harvey, who nodded. He continued reading. "Cooper Grey had been adopted by Lord Cooper Grey, an English aristocrat, and raised as his own son. After World War One, Cooper inherited all of Lord Grey's money and created Apex Incorporated, a private humanitarian organization devoted to protecting humanity and—"
"Howard." His teacher was a bespectacled young woman in a floral gown. "Howard, what do you mean?" she asked. "Is this some kind of joke?" Howard liked her, and his face burned when he heard her comment. His classmates started whispering amongst themselves.
"No joke, young lady," Harvey said, waving a finger. "Cooper Grey is very real. And believe me, he was an excellent father."
"Mr. Heller, I don't want to offend you, but that does sound a little—"
The door to their classroom swung open. Cooper Grey II stepped inside, and a gasp ran through the students and the teacher. Cooper wore his spotless pinstriped suit and bowler hat and walked over to join Harvey and Howard. He ignored the looks of the students and focused on Howard.
"I was told by your parents that I could find you here. I want to ask you to take a greater role in my life. Maybe I can show you some the exotic parts of the world that would interest you, and the marvels that I have come to take for granted."
"Of course!" Howard said. "But why? What can I offer?"
"You remind me of the goodness of your species," Cooper said. "You remind me how heroes are supposed to act. You remind me that there is a purpose to my fight." Ignoring the surprise of the students and teacher, Cooper looked up at Harvey. "Hello, Harvey, my dear boy."
"Hello, Mr. Grey," Howard said, his wrinkled face splitting in a smile. "My grandson's talking about the family history. It wouldn't be complete without you."
"No, I suppose not." Cooper looked back at the classroom. He offered the students a toothy grin as he sat down on a chair next to Harvey, nearly breaking the flimsy plastic piece of furniture with his weight. "Now then," Cooper said. "I suppose I should answer some questions. Does anyone have something they would ask an immortal, intelligent gorilla, who has been fighting evil across the globe since the 1920s, and will do so for all time?"
Every hand in the classroom shot up. Howard and his grandfather watched as Cooper Grey II started to answer the questions. He felt a wonderful sense of purpose, of belonging, and of happiness.