FIVE MINUTES EARLIER…
"It's got a passcode on it. I think I only have one shot, Simmons." He looked around the glass enclosure for something that might help him gain access to the serums inside, but he soon realized that the only way anyone could get behind the door was by entering the passcode. Which was connected to explosives.
A beat passed before he noticed he hadn't heard a response from the Bus.
The following silence made Coulson's blood run cold. Something wasn't right.
"Garrett? Ward? Does anyone copy?" Nothing.
"Damn." Something must have scrambled with their comms, which meant that someone at S.H.I.E.L.D. had been alerted to their presence. He was just about to take his chances with the glass and hope that Garrett had disabled the bombs when he suddenly heard the sound of footsteps behind him.
"Coulson, Coulson. You always were so predictable."
Coulson clenched his jaw together and made sure to keep his expression impassive as he turned around to face Director Fury. Fury was looking at him with a mixture of anger and disappointment, and Coulson noticed him slip a small object into his pocket that looked a lot like the localized EMP devices Fitz was so obsessed with. So that's what had taken out their comms.
"What's going on here, Fury?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Last time I checked, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents don't make a habit of breaking into their own facilities to steal serums they know nothing about, in order topossibly save a girl they also know nothing about."
Coulson fought to control his rage. "Skye might have a past, sir, but she's a part of this team. My team. And she sure as hell doesn't deserve to die. Not when S.H.I.E.L.D. can do something about it."
Fury lost his composure. "But you don't even know what this is!" he shouted, gesturing towards the glass case.
"Why don't you explain it to me, sir?" Coulson made sure to put as much venom as possible into his last word, knowing that it would further infuriate Fury. "After all, who was it that was forced to go to T.A.H.I.T.I. against his will and then lied to about it? Oh, right. That was me." Coulson didn't know where any of this was coming from, but once he had begun voicing his fears, he couldn't stop. He realized that as soon as he had seen the word on the bottom of the page in Fury's manual, he had begun embarking down a path that led him right here, to this very warehouse, in order to find out what had happened to him after the Battle of New York. "I've spent the past few months terrified, unable to sleep, thinking that something was wrong with me, all because you insisted that I be brought back. Not only brought back, but have my memories changed too. And then, on top of that, one of my agents is shot, and S.H.I.E.L.D. refuses to help her? When they obviously have been working in the same capacity as organizations like Centipede on a serum that specifically helps heal damaged tissue? You have to at least see how it looks from over here, sir. You have given me very little to work with." His voice had started to waver. "Yeah. Sure. I don't know what this is, but I do know that it's the only thing I can think of to help save Skye. If you have any other ideas, I'm all ears."
He breathed out slowly, focusing on keeping his muscles taut. He couldn't start shaking now. He needed answers. Fury's expression had gone from anger at Coulson's disrespect to fear of what he had already discovered about his past. His appearance had relaxed toward the end of Coulson's tirade, and his eye now reflected both exhaustion and pity. Fury glanced down at the ground and ran a hand over his face, visibly defeated.
"What do you want to know?"
Coulson froze. Was Fury really going to answer the questions that had been haunting him for so long? He fumbled over the ideas in his head, trying to decide what he should ask first. Something in the back of his mind was telling him that he should be focusing on figuring out how to save Skye, but the first thing that came out of his mouth was:
Fury looked up at him in surprise, but sighed when he saw the distress on Coulson's face. "Look, Coulson, I know how this might not make much sense given the circumstances, but the T.A.H.I.T.I. project actually has very little to do with you."
Coulson was confused. "What are you talking about? Obviously it has to do with me. I was there!"
Fury appeared as if he was trying very hard to explain everything patiently. "What happened to you, Coulson, was the beginning of trials for Phase One of T.A.H.I.T.I. You were our first test subject."
"Test subject for what?"
Fury eyed him warily.
"Test subject for what?"
"Memory alteration." Coulson didn't know what he had been expecting, but it definitely wasn't that.
"I already know you altered my memories. Dr. Streiten told me."
"Then you probably know that this is one of the most revolutionary concepts the world has ever seen." Fury could hardly hide his incredulity. "The ability to alter memories? To be able to go into someone's head and change what's there? That isn't mind-blowing to you?"
"I've been stabbed through the heart by an alien god, sir. Not a lot surprises me anymore." Coulson didn't have time to go over things he already knew. "You said the memory alteration was Phase One. What's Phase Two?"
Fury shook his head, looking irritated with Coulson's indifference. "You weren't involved with Phase Two. We just wanted to see if we could give you a new memory after we revived you. And it worked. You were in a lot of pain, Coulson. Those memories would have haunted you for the rest of your life."
"So you thought keeping the truth from me would solve that problem?" Fury was about to retaliate, but Coulson decided that they were wasting time. "You know what? Never mind. What's Phase Two? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been working with Centipede to develop Extremis, would it?"
"Not with," Fury replied. "Against."
Coulson was more baffled than ever. "Then why all this secrecy? What could possibly be so compromising about combating Centipede? Isn't that what we've been trying to do all along?"
Fury looked like he was choosing his words very carefully. "The T.A.H.I.T.I. project has been heavily classified due to the…nature of the subjects undergoing treatment."
"Enough with the vague allusions, Director." Fury glared at him. Despite his newfound assertiveness, Coulson chastised himself. He was finally getting answers to the mysteries that had been surrounding him and his team for so long, and Fury could change his mind about talking to him at any second.
"We're not alone in this universe, Coulson."
"I think we all know that now, sir. You know, with the giant portal opening over New York City spouting out alien mercenaries and all."
"No," Fury shook his head. "I mean…we haven't been alone for a while."
Coulson felt a chill run up his spine. "What does that even mean?"
"It means," Fury replied with affected patience, "that people the likes of Thor and Loki and the Chitauri and God knows what else have been coming to Earth for centuries, hiding amongst us, in plain sight. Sometimes they just come to check things out. Sometimes they decide to stay for a while, like your Spanish friend Professor Randolph. And sometimes," he paused. "They get…involved."
"Involved…how?" Coulson had a feeling he already knew the answer, but needed to hear Fury say it himself.
Fury looked uncomfortable. "There's more than one Index in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s system, Coulson."
"You mean…it's happened already? There are-"
Knowing it was coming did not minimize the shock Coulson felt reverberate through his body. He felt like he was going to puke. "And…Skye is-?" He couldn't even finish the thought, too horrified by its implications.
"We're not sure," Fury replied. "She's been on T.A.H.I.T.I.'s radar for quite a while now, but with her habit of leaking classified information online, we didn't want to risk bringing her in for treatment and have her potentially compromise the project."
Coulson was stunned. "Treatment? What kind of treatment?"
"Treatment Against Hostile Invasion and Terrestrial Integration. Or as we like to call it, T.A.H.I.T.I."
In spite of himself, Coulson couldn't help but scoff, hearing Skye's derisive snort in his head. "Seriously? What kind of name is that?"
Fury shook his head. "I don't know, man. I just kinda roll with it at this point. But someone obviously wanted it to spell out Tahiti."
Coulson tried very hard to maintain his surly frown. "And there are…others? Others who have undergone this treatment?"
Fury nodded. "T.A.H.I.T.I.'s been pretty successful so far. You'd be impressed, Coulson. These kids – you wouldn't have any idea they weren't completely normal. They don't show any bizarre abilities, they don't go around swinging hammers and causing mass destruction. They can bleed, they can get hurt. They're not invincible. But because of something in their genes, their blood is resistant to normal human antibiotics."
Coulson still couldn't wrap his head around it, but a warning bell sounded off in his head at the mention of antibiotic resistance. "But…wouldn't people have figured out something was wrong with them? Kid gets sick, they go to the doctor, nothing makes them better?"
"That's the thing. These kids don't get sick. They're immune to antibiotics, but they're also immune to viruses…or at least any found on this planet."
Coulson searched his memory of the past few months, trying to remember if Skye had shown any signs of sickness. There was that one week on the Bus when everyone had gotten the flu. Skye had been the only one unaffected and had turned into the mother hen, constantly taking temperatures and making soup, ensuring that they were all taken care of. When asked if she was bothered by it, she had said, "Oh, I'm always the one taking care of the sick people. Probably because I, like, never get sick. So don't worry. You guys can't hurt me." She had aimed that last comment at Ward, who had been trying to cough on her the whole day, determined that she catch whatever had debilitated them all. Coulson had thought she'd been exaggerating about her immune system, but now he wasn't so sure.
"What does any of this have to do with Extremis?"
Fury hesitated. "The Extremis…it doesn't have the same effect on these…subjects…as we've seen so far."
Coulson fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Obviously, sir. What effect does it have?"
He saw a glint of something in Fury's eye that was slightly unsettling. "They heal. Fast."
Coulson was getting fed up with this conversation. "Yes, sir, I realize this. That's what Extremis does-"
"No. They heal faster than fast. The Extremis somehow activates something in their genes, effectively tripling their cells' reproductive process. And," he paused for effect. "There's no heat signature. No heat, no bodies exploding all over the place."
"That's it? You're taking these half…humans and giving them healing powers?"
"Not just healing. We actually ran into a rut for a long time trying to figure out how to maximize their abilities, but it wasn't until your team used the NNP-45 on Mike Peterson that we started to play around with the dendrotoxin."
Coulson was confused. "NNP? What the heck is that?"
Fury looked puzzled as well. "The Neural Neutralizing Pistol. You know, the gun FitzSimmons developed as a non-lethal alternative? They uploaded the specs to HQ months ago."
Neural Neutralizing Pistol? NNP?
Surely he didn't mean-
"You mean the Night-Night Pistol?" Coulson asked incredulously.
The look on Fury's face was a mixture of bewilderment and tried patience. "Yeah, we're not calling it that."
Coulson shook his head, trying to get his thoughts back on track. "So…what does the dendrotoxin do?"
Fury smiled, but it didn't shake the unsettling feeling Coulson had in the pit of his stomach. "The same thing Extremis does to normal people. Except bigger. These guys are stronger, faster, and more powerful than anything we've ever seen Extremis do so far."
Something clicked inside Coulson's head.
Treatment Against Hostile Invasion.
"You're building an army."
Fury was silent, but Coulson didn't need him to confirm it. He knew.
"So how come we haven't seen these guys flying around? A bunch of super-powered human-alien hybrids would be kinda hard to miss."
Fury looked uncomfortable again. He hesitated before saying, "That's where you came in, Coulson. Due to the success of your memory alteration, we've been able to do the same thing to these subjects. They come in, are given the Extremis, the dendrotoxin, and a tracker that both lets us know where they are and represses their abilities until we need them. Then we give them a nice little memory of Tahiti or wherever else we choose and send them on their way. Most of them are living normal lives right now, completely unaware of their hidden abilities."
Another warning bell went off in Coulson's head. "Why do you need to erase their memories?"
"The effects of the dendrotoxin are not exactly a painless process. And…" Fury hesitated.
"They're not exactly…volunteers."
There it was.
Before Coulson could go off on another rant, he noticed a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. He decided to keep Fury talking, and tried to keep his voice from trembling too much with rage.
"Using unwilling participants? Is that really what S.H.I.E.L.D. has become?"
Fury lost his patience. "You were there! In New York, Coulson. You personally saw the threats we're now up against, and actually died because of them. The world has effectively been turned upside down. We can't always expect that the Avengers will be able to swoop in and save the day. We need more options. Now we've got this Clairvoyant on our hands building an army, and we need to be able to face it. The only way we can do that is if we level the playing field."
"And you're just expecting these subjects to follow your orders blindly?"
Fury shook his head. "That's why we need Skye. Her influence over the Rising Tide has shown us that she's exactly the kind of leader we need. She's been able to bring people together under a common cause in ways that we could never do on our own."
Coulson scoffed. "Skye would never go for that. Ever." As soon as he said it, the warning bell in his head rang at full blast.
"You've given it to her already, haven't you?"
Fury placed his hands on his waist. "I told you, Coulson, to trust the system." Coulson felt his hands ball up into fists and shoved them into his pockets. His right hand brushed up against a small object, and he carefully enclosed it in his palm as Fury continued. "We weren't sure about Skye's past, but her response to the antibiotics proved what we had already suspected. I sent a team over there to administer the serum right after you hacked into my computer."
At Coulson's surprised expression, Fury gave him a skeptical look. "Oh, please. Did you really think I wasn't going to notice? And you came right here. Like I said, Coulson, you're very predictable."
Coulson made sure his voice remained calm. "How long until they give her the dendrotoxin?"
Fury inspected his watch. "You should be thanking me, Coulson. I'm saving her life. If we were right about her heritage, and her body has accepted the Extremis, they should be administering the dendrotoxin…right about now, actually."
Coulson knew that the next few moments were crucial. He removed his right hand from his pocket, the pick-lock device glowing in his hand. When Fury's eyes widened, Coulson shouted:
Fury's body crumpled to the ground as he was hit from behind, the surprised expression frozen on his face.
Ward had done some pretty daring things in his time as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but knocking out the Director with the Night-Night gun took the cake.
Of course he hadn't left when Coulson had ordered him to. He had instead rounded a corner up on the balcony, where he had watched the scene below him unfold. He hadn't been able to hear the exchange between Fury and Coulson, but the looks on their faces told him that it wasn't a very friendly conversation.
After the shot, there had been the sound of shattering glass as Coulson had used a device to explode the door. He had grabbed the rack of vials and the binder sitting on the table behind him, shouting up at Ward, "Grab the Director. We need to get out of here. We don't know if Garrett was able to defuse the bombs."
Fear for his S.O.'s safety made Ward reply, "Shouldn't we go find him?"
Coulson was kneeling next to Fury, looking for a pulse. "Not enough time. Garrett can handle himself. He probably knows we've at least set the timer off. I'll grab the stuff, you get Fury. Let's go."
They were now jogging at an uncomfortable pace behind the warehouse, putting as much distance between it and them as possible. Ward was a strong guy, but the weight of the Director on his shoulders made his breath come out in short puffs.
"Damn it, Coulson, you couldn't have waited until after we cleared the building to have me knock out the Director?"
"Didn't have a lot of options, Ward. He wasn't going to let me just walk out of there. And we need to get back to Skye. ASAP." Ward noticed a fear in Coulson's eyes that sent panic through his body.
"What are we going to do about him?" Ward said, gesturing to the 6'2" man atop his shoulders.
Coulson smirked. "Oh, he'll be fine. We'll drop him off at a nice little spot on the French Riviera."
That's when the night exploded.
This time, she knew her heart stopped.
"No," she breathed.
The sound of the blasts still pounded in her ears, drowning out all of her thoughts and turning the world around her into a blur of color. Time slowed down. If she hadn't been sitting, she would have fallen to the ground. She was vaguely aware of May saying something to her and heading towards the cargo hold. She somehow found herself following her down the stairs, despite having no control over her own body. She was coaxed back into reality when May placed her hands on her arms and forced her to look her in the eyes.
"Simmons, look at me. I need you to stay here, okay? Do not open the cargo door for anyone."
Jemma felt herself nodding when she heard the sound of the cargo door being opened. May spun around abruptly as a very strange spectacle entered the plane. Jemma nearly collapsed with relief as she saw Coulson run up the gangway, followed closely behind by Ward, who was carrying something over his shoulders. Not something. Someone. Was that…Director Fury?
Coulson wasted no time closing the cargo door. "Time to go," he ordered.
May exchanged a concerned look with Coulson before heading up to the cockpit. Jemma had grabbed a blanket from the lab and was about to tell Ward to set the Director down when she remembered.
"Where's Agent Garrett?"
Ward avoided her eyes, so she turned to Coulson, who had a pained expression on his face. "He was trying to dismantle the bombs when we were in the warehouse. He didn't make it."
Jemma felt her heart ache, not so much for the man she barely knew, but for Coulson and Ward. Poor Ward. She knew he had been close to his supervising officer.
There was a heavy moment of silence before they felt the plane's engine start up.
"Better get strapped in," Coulson advised.
Just then, they heard the sound of a loud pounding on the Bus's cargo door. Ward pressed a button on the control panel and headed towards the opening.
"Don't, Ward!" Coulson shouted, but the door had already lowered. They could feel the plane start to ascend, and Jemma grabbed on to the wall to balance herself. Ward struggled as he lifted Garrett up onto the platform, and she quickly stumbled over to close the hold. They all held on to the nearest fixed object as the plane continued to rise. Garrett shouted over the noise, "Trying to get rid of me already? I just got here!" No one laughed.
Jemma looked over at Coulson, who had one hand on Fury's arm and the other on the lab door. She noticed he had placed a large binder and a small rack of capped vials on the ground next to him.
"Simmons," he gasped, gesturing towards Fury. Jemma inched her way over to the Director, firmly placing her hand on his arm to keep him from sliding. Coulson released his grip on Fury and whipped out his phone with his free hand. The next words she heard made her stomach drop in a way that was very distinct from the effects of the changing altitude.
"Agent Fitz, we're on our way. Do whatever you have to do, but don't let anyone touch Skye."