“-And as you can see, we’ve implemented your protocol into the system.”
Jane wasn’t really listening to what their liaison was telling her until he indicated a panel sliding open in the center of a workstation. A blue-tinted screen emerged from it, and after a few touches he brought up the program to detect artificial non-terrestrial energy signatures she’d been developing with her team since shortly after Thor's return to Earth. It was still in its rudimentary testing stages, but SHIELD insisted and Tony Stark agreed that anything was better than nothing when it came to defending the Earth from threats they hadn't known existed until recently. So here she was, taking a tour of Avengers headquarters to make sure it was installed properly and everything worked, more or less.
“It looks good so far,” she said finally, when she realized she'd been silent for too long. She tested a few commands, and it seemed to work the same way it did on her own system, but she was still glad it probably wouldn't be necessary to use it until she had enough time to work out any unforeseen problems.
In the end it wasn’t Jane’s research that brought Thor back to Earth. She opened new lines of inquiry into the physics of multiple dimensions and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In two months a paper she authored would come out and revolutionize the understanding of sub-atomic particles. But repairing what Thor called the Bifrost was apparently something best left to the people who built it. She was only beginning to understand the mechanics of it, how it could fold space and time between dimensions. Maybe someday she could use it in her research, but she was only just getting started. The universe was vast, and she was only one small person trying to make sense of it.
Sometimes when her research reached a lull and Thor didn’t have to face any imminent disasters, they went to the roof of her building and lay on their backs, watching the stars. Thor told her stories about war, magic and intrigue. She dreamed of mapping out distant places in numbers and lines, of translating magic into mathematical language.
“-a trial run yesterday, and everything went fine,” her liaison said, interrupting her thoughts. She shook her head and refocused her attention. The truth was that there was nothing she could do today to make sure everything would run smoothly. The program needed more testing than she could do in half an hour.
Darcy – her assistant again, because she found it easier to work with someone who didn't constantly gawk at everything she dealt with - was examining a second screen, occasionally poking at it. “Hey, cool,” she said, but whatever she thought was cool had to wait.
“There were multiple confirmed sightings,” a woman clad entirely in black was insisting, pointing at one of the screens.
“We're still working out the kinks,” the man seated at the workstation insisted in turn. His fingers flew over the keys as he tried to correct whatever error he thought he'd found.
Jane recognized Natasha Romanov from press releases and from Thor's descriptions during their semi-weekly meetings for lunch and occasionally ice cream. (Thor told her it was a delicacy the likes of which he had never known, and she rolled her eyes and kept buying it for him.) He told her about all of his colleagues – companions, he called them – and their exploits together. Natasha was good with guns and reminded him of a friend from home. Jane was about to return to examining her program when Natasha looked up and happened to see her.
“You're Dr. Foster?”
“That's me,” she said, with a tentative smile, as Natasha eyed her up and down, sized her up. Maybe decided whether or not she was worth paying any attention to. She might have heard of Jane because of her research, or because of the purpose of her visit, or Thor might have said something. Before Jane could say anything else, though, she turned away, back to whatever was troubling her on the computer screen. Jane went back to her own work, trying to listen attentively to what her guide was telling her while she fought the urge to let her mind wander to more interesting and complex questions than the minute details of an early warning program.
“We're having a few problems with your program. This morning-”
Before she could hear his actual question or start to answer, the sound of glass cracking and then crashing onto the floor interrupted their conversation. The next thing she knew, she was being thrown to the ground as a flurry of movement took place above her. A few guns went off so loudly her ears rang. Someone to her left fell to the ground as something large took a swing at him. She caught a glimpse of claws and scaled skin. Something not human, but she didn't have time to process that yet. A second later the lights flickered and went out as red warnings flashed on all the screens in the lab; then those went dark too, leaving only emergency back-up lights. The last thing she saw before she dived under one of the workstations was Darcy disappearing through a door, pulled (hopefully) to safety by a pair of agents in black suits.
Really she should have expected this, she thought wildly, as she glanced around for some indication of what she should do next. She didn’t know what else she expected would happen if she visited Avengers headquarters. She was frantically thinking up scenarios when she heard something, and she froze, not daring to move. The noise that came from behind and above her was unearthly – probably literally, she thought, quickly working through what must be happening. Multiple confirmed sightings – her program was working as intended, detecting non-terrestrial energy signatures of some kind. She thought to question how this was happening, and why it was happening now, but her life since she met Thor had been a constant series of what-nows with a few not-this-agains tossed in for good measure. She was used to this. Well, not this, but she was used to waking up to find an entire branch of science confirmed or discarded, and that amounted to about the same thing. Before she could gather herself enough to try to react somehow, she spotted Natasha, crouched under another workstation.
“Come with me,” Natasha hissed, when she caught sight of Jane. She waved Jane over to where she was keeping out of sight, and after a moment’s consideration, Jane crawled across the floor to join her. Shards of glass found their way into the palms of her hands, but she was out of sight again before anyone - or anything – noticed. She got there just in time to watch Natasha curse quietly and discard her empty gun.
“Where are we going?” Jane whispered, as she picked glass out of her palm, wincing at the momentary sting each time. The cuts were shallow, though, and she was more worried about whatever else was in the room with them than the blood on her hands.
“Away from here.” Natasha took her elbow and started to edge forward. She paused at the corner of the workstation to peer around; apparently their way was clear, because she pulled Jane along after her. The first door they came to was locked from the outside. Natasha tried the handle but it didn’t give. A flapping sound somewhere behind them quickly urged them on. The next door they tried opened easily. Natasha pushed Jane through first and followed after her, pulling the door shut and bolting it behind them. They made their way down a long darkened hallway lit only by the soft yellow glow of emergency lighting at each corner, then down another similar hallway before Natasha let them stop.
For at least a minute, they crouched with their backs to the walls, breathing heavily. Jane's heart rate slowly returned to a normal rhythm. Finally she decided to be the one to break the silence. “What was that?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
Jane wished she had an answer for her, but she only designed the program. She didn't know anything about dealing with it once it detected something. Her expertise ended where the practical concerns of dealing with the implications of her research began. “I study physics. I'm not a biologist.”
Natasha looked at her sharply, but seemed to accept her answer. “I guess you can all spend as long as you want figuring it out later. We should at least let the others know we're alive. There's an emergency communications unit down the hall. Should still work.”
Another thirty seconds and they were on their feet again. They encountered no resistance between their temporary resting place and the communications unit, but they heard scuffling and shouting from a distance, first above them and then from another direction. Whatever it was that attacked them in the lab, it wasn't alone. They found the comm unit behind a shelf in an office three rooms down from where they'd stopped, set into the wall and painted over to look like it was part of it. Like the rest of the building it was new, but it had obviously never been used before. There was still a plastic factory sticker covering the switch to start a transmission. Natasha ignored the sticker and flicked it on; the auxiliary generator powering it whirred into life, and the sound of static crackled from the speaker.
“This is Natasha. I have Dr. Foster with me.”
There was a long pause, filled with nothing but static. Every second made Jane more anxious. She didn't need Natasha's training to realize staying here, making noise, was probably a terrible idea. Her fears were only slightly allayed when Tony Stark finally answered. “Have I ever told you I love the sound of your voice?”
“All the time.” Natasha sounded unimpressed.
“Great. Listen, the power's out above the tenth floor. I'm assuming that's where you are.”
A noise from the corridor caught Natasha's attention, so Jane took over while she approached the door to peer outside. “We were in the lab on the-” She had to concentrate to remember, but she'd always had a good memory for numbers. “The fourteenth floor. I think.”
“I guess that's-” Tony's voice faded into the static for a few tense seconds before she heard it again. “-haven't heard from anyone else yet.”
“So... what should we do?” She looked at Natasha for help, but Natasha was rooting through the contents of the office, no doubt looking for something to use as a weapon. In the space of a few seconds she came up with two knives and a letter opener. She tucked the latter into her belt but kept the knives in her hands. It didn't really surprise Jane that people here kept knives in their offices. She'd seen the Avengers in action on the news, and on the internet, and she worked for SHIELD.
“Everything between ten and thirty is quarantined, we’re trying to get in-” Tony's transmission momentarily became impossible to decipher with what sounded like muffled cursing through the sharp crackling. “-cut off. Can you reroute it through the secondary systems?”
“Can I-” Jane glanced back and forth, all around her, but the only other person there was still Natasha. “Me?”
“I'm an astrophysicist, not an engineer. I don't-”
“Not really a lot of other options right now. You made the program, now your program locked us out-”
“I told you it needed to be tweaked-”
She could almost hear Tony's dismissive hand wave. “No one's blaming you. Anyway, if you can get the power back on, we can figure something out. The secondary power control console is on the nineteenth floor, near the...” He paused to consult something. “... north... east stairwell.”
“Jane,” came Thor’s voice, from somewhere behind Tony, quieter and more distant, “You must-”
It cut out again before she could hear whatever Thor thought she must do. Be careful, maybe. They waited as long as Natasha could stand to let the static continue, but after a minute or so it became apparent the unit wasn't going to work anymore. Jane flicked off the switch after a nod from Natasha. There were probably more instructions Tony wanted to give them, but they were on their own now. She took a deep breath and held it for half a second. Then she released it and nodded at Natasha. “Nineteenth floor?” she asked, in a voice she was surprised to find steady and confident. She didn't feel steady or confident.
“No problem,” Natasha replied, the corners of her lips curving. Whether it was at Jane's apparent confidence in their situation or just for the sake of maintaining appearances, Jane couldn't be sure. “You want the fastest way, or should we take the scenic route?”
“Normally I'd say to show me everything, but today I think faster is better,” Jane tried to joke.
“Then follow me. If I tell you to run, do it.”
They made their way along the hallway towards the corner of the building, where there was a stairwell with access to the higher floors. Natasha led the way, pausing at each corner to check before they darted across the open space. At one point there was a loud crashing sound off to their right; Natasha shoved Jane back against the wall and held her there, one hand outstretched gripping one of her knives until she seemed convinced the danger had passed. At least for now.
They hadn't spotted a single other person or seen any sign of the intruders by the time they reached the heavy door to the stairwell. Jane was starting to feel like they were out of danger once Natasha opened the door and they entered the stairwell – until she turned around and saw one of the creatures rushing up the stairs from the lower floor towards them. She had just enough time to note that it was relatively human-sized and human-shaped, except for the bluish tint of its scales, its wickedly long curved claws, and the leathery membranes attached to its back that she realized must be wings, before Natasha threw her back against the wall and threw herself at their assailant. Her knee connected with its face with a crunching sound, disorienting it just long enough for Natasha to grab her arm and push her up the stairs. “Go. Go!”
Jane didn't need any further urging. They sprinted up the stairs from the fifteenth floor to the sixteenth, then to the seventeenth, Natasha on Jane's heels, fending off their pursuer with a deadly combination of her feet and the knives in her hands, but it didn't seem to deter the creature at all. If anything, it seemed angrier. It shrieked at them with that same unearthly sound Jane heard in the lab before. She thought she could almost make out distinct sounds, like words, but there was no time to think about that now.
The stairs stopped abruptly at the eighteenth floor, which would have been a good thing if they weren't being chased by an enraged alien creature. Jane was already exhausted. The only exit was a heavy door identical to the one they'd entered the stairwell by, so she flung it open and flung herself through it. She slammed the door shut the moment Natasha was through and sank to the ground, breathing hard. The sound of claws scrabbling reached her through the door, but it was at least six inches thick and made of steel. They were safe again. For now.
“We shouldn't stay still too long.” Natasha was already creeping forward, her feet making almost no sound on the floor. Jane followed and winced every time her footstep echoed through the silent, darkened corridors.
“Why do the stairs stop there?” she whispered, after a reasonable amount of time passed and they seemed to be alone.
“Security. Can't access the whole building from any single entry point except the elevator, and we can control that.”
“What if there's a fire?”
Natasha just shrugged. Maybe she and Jane had a different set of priorities.
They found Steve Rogers barricaded in a supply room on their way to the stairwell that would take them up one more floor. He was smaller in person than Jane had always assumed he would be from watching him on TV, and he looked wearier, but he was still wearing his trademark red, white, and blue.
“You okay?” Natasha asked shortly, while she swiftly checked the room for anything useful.
“I’m fine,” Steve said, with a grimace, holding his side. There was a gash through his uniform, staining it dark with blood. Jane could see he wasn’t exactly fine, but she wasn’t that kind of doctor, and he stood without any help. “Where is everyone?”
“Tony's outside with Thor. I think Clint's locked out upstairs. Bruce is still at that conference,” Natasha said, counting off her teammates on her fingers. “And we're here.”
“Just the three of us? Did anyone else make it?”
“Couple of agents died in the labs. The rest got out. Everyone else is either dead or hiding.”
“Did you see those things that are attacking us? What are they?”
“That new program Dr. Foster made detected something this morning. We thought it just wasn't working.”
“So they're aliens?” He didn't look surprised or incredulous, exactly. Just curious. Jane wondered sometimes what kind of lives these people must live, but then she remembered her own life and it didn't seem so strange. If she could believe in alien gods using science to cross dimensions, none of what they saw was very shocking.
“Looks like it," Natasha said. "Tony wants us to go upstairs and reroute the power through the secondary system so they can get in and we can get out. Are you coming?”
“There's no point in staying here,” he said grimly.
Steve's injury didn't seem to slow him down very much. He brought up the rear, checking behind them frequently, though Jane wasn't sure what he would do if he saw anything. He seemed to have lost his shield somewhere. Maybe he hadn't brought it with him in the first place. Natasha led them, her knives held ready. They all froze when they heard a scream, but it sounded like it was coming through the floor, so they kept moving – just with more urgency than before. This time the stairwell was empty behind its heavy door, and they only needed to ascend one floor. By some stroke of luck Jane hadn't realized they still possessed, it turned out to be the northeast stairwell, and the secondary power console was in an alcove a few feet into the corridor, set into the wall like the comm unit downstairs. Natasha set herself up at the corner of the alcove, to keep watch over both possible ways to approach their position. Steve let himself sink down the wall to rest beside Jane.
She knelt in front of the console. For a moment she started to panic, unable to find even the power switch, but she made herself stop. Think. She knew how to figure things out. Start at the beginning. Work her way through the problem one step at a time. Find all possible solutions. Try them until one worked. She tapped the screen and it lit up. That was easy, then. The menu that it displayed seemed dauntingly long, but she forced herself to breathe and go through each option until she had a grasp of what she was looking at. The basic parameters seemed simple enough. Similar at least in type to programs she'd used in the past to control her equipment. She fiddled with a few settings, typed a few commands. It was too bad Tony hadn't had enough time to explain exactly what to do. This was his field of expertise, not hers.
“Thor talks about you sometimes,” Steve said, while she worked to figure out how to reroute power from the main to the secondary systems. His face had grown increasingly pale since they found him, and he kept losing blood. She could see it on his fingers where he held his side. He seemed to be holding up better than she would, under the same circumstances, but even super soldiers clearly had limits. “He told me once that you're 'the most brilliant scientist in all the realms.'”
“I'm not sure about that,” she said, but she let her lips quirk. It took her awhile, but she found what she needed. It took her another few minutes to configure the settings to something she thought might work. The first three configurations she tried did nothing, but then she realized she'd forgotten to unlock the security preventing her from making changes. She hit enter with a triumphant flourish – and nothing happened.
“No, no, no- It should have worked!” She adjusted another of the settings, but nothing changed. The panic from before began to return, but she swallowed it down, forced it away. She had to be calm and rational about this. It wasn't like they were in imminent danger of being killed by alien reptile creatures. She tried changing another setting and tested it again.
“Not to rush you or anything,” Natasha warned, from her vantage point. The sickening screeching sound the creatures made before came from somewhere close, followed by the sound of claws clicking on a metal surface.
“I know, I know-” Two more adjustments and the lights in the corridor began to flicker into life. “There! Ha.”
“-Wait- wait- I think they got it working-”
Jane turned her head instinctively towards the public wall comm above her, crackling back into static and sound as the power came on. Tony Stark's voice had to be one of the most comforting things she'd ever heard in her life. A second later Natasha was at the comm, holding down a button and calmly informing Tony of their location. A door behind them slammed shut just in time to stop one of the creatures from reaching their alcove. As Natasha sank to the ground beside them, and another door on the other side of the hallway slammed shut, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief. They were safe here until someone figured out what to do.
“Now what?” Jane tapped the screen to exit from the menu to make sure no one made any accidental changes, then let herself sag against the wall.
“Now we wait.” Natasha settled in beside Steve, peeling his hand away from his side to check his wound. He said nothing, either because he was too tired or because he trusted her enough to let her do what she wanted.
It turned out they didn't have to wait long. Jane hadn't noticed before, but the lack of light in the hallways wasn't from the lack of windows. The entire building – literally every part of it – locked down in the case of an imminent threat. The metal panels that had slid into place to cover the windows unlocked and retreated into the walls, and it didn't take long for Tony to find them once the panels were gone. He hovered outside until Jane figured out how to unfasten the bolts of the window frame.
"Here, take him first. He's hurt." Natasha helped Steve to his feet and passed him off to Tony, leaving Natasha and Jane to wait and listen to the sound of claws scratching at the door behind them until he returned to take Jane.
"You ready?" he asked, stretching his hand out to her. Climbing onto a window frame on the nineteenth floor might have made her apprehensive if she wasn't so tired, but all she could manage was a quiet awe at the ingenuity of Tony's invention as he flew her to the ground. He left her with a group of SHIELD agents and went back for Natasha. Apparently he'd already found Clint Barton, who was instructing a team of agents around a table with papers scattered across it.
She spotted Thor at the same time he spotted her. He dropped the electric rod he was testing and came to her side. His eyes immediately went to her bloodied hands, and the cuts she'd forgotten entirely about.
“Are you unharmed?” His tone contained a controlled urgency she couldn't recall ever hearing in it before. At least not since shortly after they met.
“I'm okay,” she said, smiling at him. He seemed to want to say more, but Natasha and Tony rejoined them before he could, refocusing his attention. Jane finally allowed herself to exhale and relax while the Avengers regrouped to listen to Tony's plan, then argue among themselves about Tony's plan. They seemed to resolve it eventually, because they split up to get their gear. Natasha came over to Jane briefly.
“Good work in there,” she said, nodding to Jane to stay there while they cleaned up. After spending time alone with her, Jane figured that was probably the highest praise she was going to get. As an agent came to lead her away, Tony zipped past her, hands glowing, and Thor’s hammer crackled and flashed with lightning. Clint readied his bow and Natasha finally had a gun in each hand. They were back in their element.
Whatever happened next seemed almost anticlimactic compared to the first part of Jane's day. Within thirty minutes Jane was informed that the Avengers and a squad of SHIELD agents had the building under control, and the creatures in containment - to be studied or even communicated with, if that was possible. Jane stayed where she was told to wait for her debriefing, in the back of an unassuming white van parked in front of the building. There was a laptop, sitting open and inviting beside her. She had to tell herself repeatedly that breaking her security clearance to read confidential files was illegal and could get her fired, but that had never stopped her before. Her curiosity overrode her common sense far too often. But there was probably information about the alien incursion, and she couldn't resist at least looking.
“Dr. Foster?” The door opened as Jane was just about to finally reach for the laptop, and two agents in black suits, a man and a woman, let themselves into the van. They sat across from her, uncomfortably close in the cramped space of the van. “We're here for your debriefing. Can you tell us what you know?”
“I don't know if I can help, but I can tell you what I saw?” She tried not to look too disappointed. Later. Someone would have to tell her everything later. They would want her help on this. No one on Earth had more experience than her dealing with this kind of situation.
“That's fine," the man said.
She recounted a condensed version of how she rerouted the power, and gave them the few speculations she'd allowed herself to have without having all the data present. They nodded and noted down everything on a sleek hand-held tablet she decided was of Stark design. Then they let her go. She was looking for Darcy when she ran into Tony Stark, a little too conveniently to be anything but deliberate on his part. He was still wearing his suit, without his helmet. His hair damp with sweat, but he at least lived up to Jane's preconceived notion of what he should look like. A sweaty, tired billionaire in a fancy suit of electronic armor.
“Well, I'm glad you were here today," he said.
“I'm sure you would have figured something out,” Jane said dryly.
“Probably. Eventually. We usually do. You know, we could use people like you-” He leaned in close – a little too close. Jane stepped back and put on her best polite smile, the one she saved for when she was trying to convince someone to give her a grant to fund her research.
“No thank you, Mr. Stark. I like my job.” She had years of research before she would even begin to truly understand the implications of most of what Thor told her. Giving that up now would feel like losing a part of herself. Besides, they'd still want her and her team to take a look at all the information they gathered today no matter who she worked for.
“Okay, okay. I get it. You like being paid almost nothing to work for the government. If you ever change your mind, though...”
“I know where to find you.” She left Tony standing there when she saw Darcy, waving her arms and looking equally irritated and excited as she rushed over to Jane's side.
“Oh my god, are you okay? That was so weird. You were trapped in there! With aliens! I mean, I guess you see an alien a lot, but- aliens!”
Jane's tired smile came as much from relief as it did from amusement.
Later, when everything calmed down again and Tony finally let everyone go home, Thor came to her apartment. They went to the roof of her building, where they lay on their backs and watched the stars. She drew pictures with her hands, traced shapes in the sky and explained how she saw the universe in numbers and lines. Thor listened.