Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy,
or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage
can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter...
Once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy,
but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events...
~ Winston Churchill ~
Part One: Pupae
It was cold beneath the night-spangled sky, cold enough for her exhaled breath to steam before her eyes.
Solid ground beneath her feet, flat and stable. Icy rock, uneven and biting when she put out a hand to stabilise herself, dizzy and breathless and stunned as she looked up.
Galaxies spun slowly overhead across a velvet dome, a great spatter of stars smeared across a canvas of midnight blue. And yet there was emptiness out there – a great black vacuum of space and energy and time that tugged at her senses.
Something whispered past her, the echoes of sibillant voices snaking through the twists and turns of the rocky maze she was in – high walls, flat path, and the shadows cast by the billions of ovehead stars...and something more.
She felt it here – the sense of ‘other’ that crawled down her spine and made the hairs at her nape prickle. As though there was someone else – something else watching her, aware and interested.
Turning slowly, listening for the sound of anything beyond her own heartbeat, her own rasping breath, she heard nothing but silence, saw nothing but the shadows and the rock...
She exhaled as her heart pounded then froze when the echoes of her sigh whispered back. “Who’s there?”
Her voice skittered away along the craggy, cracked surfaces of the rock walls. Then the echoes murmured back at her with the voices of the dead and dying. Shadows grew deeper, dragging themselves out of the icy rock as she reaching for a weapon she didn’t carry in her dreams.
She backed away, but cold slid around her, across her, through her, crawling through her flesh and her bones, turning her to ice…
Maria jerked up in the bed, clawing off the sheets that clung to her sweat-laced skin, to sit, panting in the darkness.
Uncertainty clawed at her gut in the soft darkness before her eyes adjusted to the faint fringe of light coming from the phone screen lit up beside her hand, and her mind recalled her to where she was.
A safehouse run by S.H.I.E.L.D in Gdansk, Poland.
She glanced at the display on the phone: Romanoff – Eastern Europe. Maria sat up, dragging the patchwork covering with her and hummed a little to get the sleep out of her voice before she answered the call.
“This is Hill.”
“They’re loading the shipment,” said the Black Widow on the other end of the line. “They should be on the move by midnight.”
Maria ran the plan through her head again. “Then we’ll time it from when they leave the depot. Narrow window, full caliber.”
“Copy that. Heigel’s already on his way out and Clint is going over the chopper with Steve.”
“You’re intent on bringing Rogers into this?”
“We’re down two men, and he needs to see more of the modern world than the US if he’s going to work with us. Europe’s a start, and he’s been here before. ”
“Seventy years ago.” Still, Maria wasn’t about to dismiss Natasha’s estimation out of hand. “Your assessment of his skillset?”
“The training he’s had so far has been pretty thorough on basic techniques, weaponry, modern warfare. The Rangers took him through long term, modern-day survival. Clint’s taking him through street-smart 101 now, but he won’t need that tonight. He’s up on the basics of our procedures, and if you’re pulling both Clint and myself on this, then we’ll be there to keep an eye on him.” A pause. “He needs to learn to work with S.H.I.E.L.D, Maria.”
The part that was sticking in Maria’s throat was taking an untried operative on this mission – and, for all his experience in WWII, Rogers was an untried S.H.I.E.L.D. operative in the modern world, even if the Black Widow was recommending him.
“You’re sure he’s up to it?”
“We’ll never know if we don’t try him.”
She was tempted to ask exactly what Natasha Romanoff had tried with Steve Rogers. One of those questions Maria knew better than to ask. Then again it might simply be the Black Widow’s appreciation of a man who respected her skillset and valued her as an operative without regard to the fact that she was a beautiful woman.
“He’s with you,” she said, and it was blessing and warning both. “Abrahams, Gibson, and I will be on the road within the hour, we’ll be pacing you. I’ll send further updates by text.”
They rang off briskly, neither of them prone to the awkward niceties of ending phone conversations.
Maria sat for a moment in the darkness of the room, then tossed the phone into the sheets beside her, and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.
The dreams were getting worse.
Icy shadows snaking through her soul--
Maria shivered, then threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, heading for the bathroom. She needed a hot shower - something to wake her up, to push away the cold that always invaded her after one of these dreams.
Under the hot spray, she could almost dismiss the dream – the latest one in a long series stretching back two months.
Cold rock, cold stars, emptiness that pulled at something inside her – and a lurking, lingering dread...
Even the heat of the shower couldn’t fully dispel the coldness inside her.
“You did know that lying in a bed alone with your eyes shut usually involves sleep, right?”
Maria shot a glare at the driver of the S.H.I.E.L.D. communications van as they took the entrance onto the motorway. The traffic flow was easy – more or less expected this close to midnight. They’d be at the contact point well in time for the mission. “I’m surprised you didn’t just say I looked like hell, Miri.”
“I would have said you look like hell warmed over. Only I think hell warmed over would look better than you.”
There were few in the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. who would have said such a thing to Maria, but Miri Abrahams had known Maria for the entirety of their careers, since the day they’d both walked into HQ in New York for the first-day induction class of 2002. In the back of the van, young Agent Gibson was staring at them, wide-eyed.
“Thanks,” Maria said dryly as the Israeli-pop that Miri preferred for driving launched into a ridiculously up-beat chorus.
“You know, I realise you’re on clean-up duty after you gave the Council the finger, but surely Thorpe or one of his seniors could have handled this?”
“Alan was the one who asked Fury to send me in.”
“Are things that busy in the office?” Miri frowned. “So far as I know, most of the hunting for Loki’s mercenary force is being handled from Delhi.”
Maria pondered how much to say with Gibson listening in the back, and figured it was time the young man got a few lessons in internal politics at S.H.I.E.L.D. “I suspect it had more to do with the people-managing side of this mission.”
“Ah.” Miri shot her a curious look. “I’m surprised you’re not of his party.”
“I heard Fury assigned you as liaison for the Avengers.” Alan said, swivelling idly from side to side in his chair. Maria met the gaze of the head of S.H.I.E.L.D’s European Operations without blinking.
“Someone had to, and Phil’s no longer available.”
After two months, she no longer got the lump in her throat when she spoke of Phil, but something in her chest ached.
“Become a supergroupie?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You know me better than that, Alan.”
“I do.” He admitted it with a little tilt of the head. “But people change. You might have turned dark-side after New York – there are enough people waving the superhero banner these days.”
“Even over here?”
“Even over here.”
“Who says I’m not of Alan’s party?”
“Well,” Miri navigated around a couple of cars which were chugging along. “You went in to bat for Fury against the Council. You’ve been handed management of the Avengers Initiative when there’s nearly a queue for the job. And you’re here, in Europe, when you’re technically in charge of helicarrier operations and the helicarrier is presently hovering off the east coast of Africa.”
When all put together, it could look that way.
When all put together, it was wrong.
“I’m seconded to clean-up for the duration. Which includes this shipment. The fact that Romanoff, Barton, and Rogers are part of it is incidental.”
“If you say so.” But Miri didn’t sound convinced as they turned south, heading towards Torun.
“I do,” Maria said, pulling out her phone and sending off the text code for ‘on the road’. It would be received by all units, to indicate that they were still green for the op. She unbuckled her belt and climbed into the back of the truck, indicating to Agent Gibson that he should start up the equipment monitors.
It was at least ten miles to the first contact point, after which they had some sixty miles in which to pick the perfect point to hijack the targeted truck, get it to a depot where they could offload its cargo, and get the purloined cargo away.
And all of it to happen before the sun came up.
Piece of cake.
“Comms encryption is up,” said Gibson, typing in the codes to start the encryption algorithms. He was young, but efficient – solid field agent material. “I’m running a pingback check on all comms units. Should I get them to call in?”
“Stick with the pingback unless there are issues. Otherwise we’ll leave the comms check until T-minus-fifteen.”
Maria pulled up the notes on the shipment – one chilled unit full of Chitauri corpses, the information passed on from a reliable contact in Newfoundland. She was pretty sure she could recite them from memory by now, but there was always the possibility that something new would jump out at her.
In the aftermath of the battle of New York, the relief at the Chitauri defeat had rapidly given way to despair at the magnitude of the clean-up job. As had happened after 9/11, crews had worked in shifts, day and night, to clear the streets of the Chitauri corpses and the debris caused during the attack and subsequent battle.
And people, being people, had started collecting trophies.
Within a day after the battle, an intact Chitauri head was selling for $2,000 US on eBay, and a complete body was selling for $10,000 easy.
S.H.I.E.L.D put a halt to that fast. Trophying was one thing, but the alien corpses themselves were another. Bone matter, brain matter, ichor, and DNA… That wasn’t even counting the matter of the carapaces or the flying technology they held – ‘skimmers’ someone had called them and the name had held. Technology and biotechnology beyond what Earth knew. Biotechnology that certain people – certain groups – would pay a great deal to have.
Biotechnology that S.H.I.E.L.D didn’t particularly want them to have.
“Pingback check successful, Lieutenant,” Gibson said.“All comm units responding.”
Maria nodded. “Good. Barton will drop us a text once they’re lifting off, and then we’ll do the full status check-in. Now ping the GPS units.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gibson hesitated with the catch of breath that meant he had a question to ask and was thinking whether to ask it. Maria counted silently to five before he spoke again. “You don’t like the Avengers, do you, Lieutenant?”
Up the front, Miri made a noise like a snort. And this was the kind of territory that had tended to get Maria into trouble lately. Although, by now, she was rather used to both the question and the trouble.
“That would be correct, Agent Gibson.”
The young man seemed to be considering how to phrase his next question. Maria pre-empted him. “You want to know how I can not like the people who saved the world from the Chitauri?”
“Gibson, you’ve heard the saying that we can’t all be heroes because someone has to clap as they go by?”
“Has it occurred to you that S.H.I.E.L.D shouldn’t be among the people clapping as they go by?”
“I—” He hesitated. “But Director Fury pushed for formation of the Avengers Initiative.”
“Yes, he did. He wanted a first-response team. Which he got.” Maria sighed a little. “I’m grateful the Avengers saved Earth from the Chitauri. But when people tell me that the Avengers are heroes and should be treated as such, I get angry. Because S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t about heroes saving ordinary people, Gibson – or it shouldn’t be. It’s about protecting Earth from anything and anyone who would attack it – and sometimes from ourselves. Captain Rogers, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye are tools suitable to get the job done. If we forget that as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, if we treat them like heroes – like they’re too good to be breathing the same air as us, we’re not doing our job and we’re not letting them do theirs.”
He was thinking about that rather than answering immediately – a young man with a brain and a willingness to use it. Younger than Maria ever remembered being but not stupid – just naïve, and with a mild case of supergroupie.
That wasn’t uncommon after the New York attack, even in S.H.I.E.L.D.
Hell, it hadn’t been uncommon in S.H.I.E.L.D before the New York attack.
Tony Stark might be a pain to deal with, but he’d had his fans; and if anyone hadn’t known about Coulson’s crush before S.H.I.E.L.D dug Rogers out of the ice, they certainly did after.
But Coulson hadn’t gone supergroupie on the Avengers. He’d dealt with Rogers professionally. He’d done the job.
He’d got himself killed.
Maria still wasn’t ready to forgive him for that.
“We’re S.H.I.E.L.D. We protect the earth by whatever means necessary,” she said to Gibson. “If that means using superheroes one day and wading hip-deep through rotting Chitauri corpses the next, well, that’s the job we were hired to do. And who better to do it right than us?”
“Someone else?” Gibson grinned, then stifled the smile. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Maria’s mouth twitched. A sense of humour, then. Not a bad thing in an agent. “If I could find an organisation I’d trust not to turn those Chitauri into the next biogenetic experiment, I’d be happy to let them do the clean-up.”
“This wasn’t in the hiring brochure.” Gibson managed to sound both amused and resigned, but turned as his terminal pinged and he turned to check on it.
Maria glanced forward and saw Miri watching her in the rearview mirror. She arched her brows and noted Miri’s shrug of the shoulders. Whether or not she agreed, Miri at least understood Maria’s point of view – that superheroes weren’t always the answer.
For a little while, Maria had hoped that Phase 2 would be the answer – weapons of power that could be used to drive back an invading army. The danger of weapons was always that someone had to wield them – and you had to trust that the person wielding them wasn’t going to turn them on you. Power corrupted, as the Tesseract showed.
Maria didn’t know what the answer was anymore. She didn’t know if she even wanted an answer for what was rapidly becoming a far more complicated question than she’d ever envisaged.
A glance at her watch showed that it was nearly half-past two. Must be just about time.
“Coming up on the engagement zone,” Miri reported from the front.
“One truck, four escorts.” Gibson paused. “Wasn’t it three escorts in the briefing?”
“They upped security.” Maria frowned. “Text all units and request response.” If they’d increased the escort, then there might be other measures to improve security – measures that they couldn’t see and couldn’t prepare for.
Then again, being ready for the unexpected was part of every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s job – to deal with the situations they couldn’t see coming; to take action when the unexpected happened. From taking control of a city, ruthlessly cleaning it out from rooftops to cellars, to diving for cover when an agent was suborned to become an enemy.
Still, forewarning never went astray.
A little window came up on her terminal screen, rerouted from her cell. She glanced at it. “Hawkeye’s in the air. Tell them the mission is on, inform them of the increased security measures.” She didn’t need to tell Romanoff to keep an eye out for unexpected countermeasures – there was a reason the Black Widow was legendary in the Intelligence Operative community.
Gibson reported out and the responses started coming back. Romanoff, presently riding shotgun with Hawkeye, confirming Rogers and Dr. Seuss with her for the truck takeover. Unit Nine backing them up, and Unit Four in the depot in Stogi, ready for the transfer of cargo from the chilled transport unit to the lift cradle, ready to be flown out to a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility standing ready to receive it.
Maria waited for the call-in from the sniper position, her unease growing with each minute that passed.
“It’s not like Matt to keep us waiting,” Miri said from the front.
“No.” Matthew Heigel was another operative who’d been there from Maria’s first day at S.H.I.E.L.D. Unlike either Miri or Maria, he’d specialised in one area – sniping – and was considered one of the best in his area. He didn’t have the range and skill that Barton had, nor the ability to think his way out of a complicated situation, but when it came to aim and execution of the mission parameters, he was one of the best.
He usually took a while to get his message in – he preferred being set up before he gave the all-clear signal – but this was pushing it.
“T minus ten minutes,” Gibson reported, and there was doubt in his eyes. “Lieutenant, we’ve got a narrow window for convoy visibility...”
Maria didn’t snap that she knew the timing. She’d rehearsed it in her head over and over, ever since she’d worked this plan out – a quick takeover, before diverting truck and cargo to a pickup point where they’d leave the truck and take the cargo.
On her terminal, Maria typed out a message to Heigel, adding a code for urgency. The sniper was the key – to keeping everything from spiralling out of control. The last thing S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted was four cars of heavily armed, mobile operatives following the truck and its cargo to the pickup point.
Maria let the moments pass by, waiting for Heigel’s response.
Then her terminal dinged – incoming message.
Sight lines fouled. Needed to reset. Clear to take the shot.
Maria read it and felt dread settle in her stomach. What had seemed simple and clear at first suddenly yawned with uncertainty.
“Five minutes out of the engagement zone,” Miri reported. “Are we good?”
“No,” she turned to Gibson. “Get me Hawkeye.”
“Yes.” She stared at the message and willed it to magically become more than it was. A moment later, Barton was in her ear.
“Are you in sight of Heigel’s position?”
“If I’m in sight of Heigel’s position, then he’s in the wrong location,” Barton replied, drolly. “What’s up?”
Maria pressed her lips together, tight and tense. She took a breath. “Nothing. Carry on as planned and wait for the security cars to be taken out.”
“Okay, copy that.” There was a moment when she wondered if Barton intended to say something more, before he rang off.
Maria pulled off the headset, and stood, hauling her jacket off the chair so she could drag it on. She yanked up the zip and swept an earpiece off the rack, fitting it into her ear.
“Lieutenant?” Gibson was watching her with alarm.
“Something’s gone wrong with Heigel. I’m taking the bike up to the sniper point.”
“But—Lieutenant—” Gibson looked momentarily bewildered. “Agent Heigel called in—”
Maria pulled a helmet out of one of the storage cabinets in the back of the van. “He didn’t send the urgency acknowledgement.”
“Maybe he forgot?”
Up the front, Miri turned her head briefly. “You’re sure something’s up?”
“‘Time Crisis,’” Maria told her, pulling out her ponytail so the helmet would sit comfortably on her head. She plaited her hair with quick fingers, watching Miri over her shoulder.
“Three, two, one—GO!” Miri exhaled. “I hated playing that against him.”
“He would never forget that.” Maria opened the narrow storage space and pulled out the bike – more of a trail bike than a motorbike, small, but powerful enough to get her to where she needed to go. “Something’s gone wrong.”
And the backup they usually had was down with a bad case of food poisoning. You’ll be alright with one? Alan had asked with a frown. I can assign Lucien if you need.
No, she’d said, not wanting to pull anyone else off duty. Matt’s reliable.
“Lieutenant,” Gibson was pale. “Who’s going to run the mission if you go? Shouldn’t I be the one—?”
“Can you shoot a fly off a lightbulb at one hundred yards?”
“I—No. Can you?”
“Now and then,” she said. “Look, I trained at the same time as Heigel, and I’ve a damn better chance of doing so than you. Hold the fort and manage the troops. You know the plan; they know what they have to do.” But Gibson looked terrified – as well he might, she supposed. It was a hell of an op for a newbie. “Agent Gibson?”
“I wouldn’t be leaving this to you if I didn’t think you could do it,” she told him. Firm and assured, no room for doubt. “I’ll need you to activate the tailgate halfway – just so it’s flat and then close up behind me. Keep calm and carry on. Yes?”
“I... Yes, ma’am.”
“Miri, slow it down at the next straight and I’ll jump off. Take it down to fifty if you can.”
Miri snorted. “And they think you’re not a risk taker.”
“Calculated risks,” Maria corrected.
“Still risks. All right. We’re coming up to a straight... Slowing... One hundred, ninety, eighty, seventy, sixty...”
It didn’t feel like fifty to Maria, but Miri was the one with the speedometer.
Gibson had activated the tailgate, and Maria nodded briefly at him. Then she pulled down the visor, kicking the bike into gear, and gunned it out the back of the truck, using the tailgate like a ramp.
The bounce of the bike jarred a little as she hit the tarmac, even though she’d loosened her joints in expectation of the impact. There was a moment when she wobbled, perilously close to losing control of the bike before she wrestled it straight again. She took a moment to get her balance, to take a deep breath and centre herself.
Then she circled the bike around in a tight circle on the empty tarmac and sped off past the van and out into the cool night.