Thump. Thump. Thump. Clink – the chain shifting as the bag spun. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump – thud.
The sandbag flew across the gym, hitting the opposite wall with a thump.
Jayne grunted and hooked another one up. Verdammt. Two down, six to go.
“Captain Cobb,” said a strong voice.
Jayne looked up. Colonel Reynolds was crossing the gym, in his usual all-brown ensemble but missing the coat. Even the file folder he carried was brown. Without the coat Jayne could see the holster, old and worn, strapped to his hip. It looked to be about as old as Jayne himself.
“Colonel,” he said shortly.
Reynolds surveyed Jayne with a critical eye for a moment. “I can tell you’re not the kind for small talk, so I’ll get right into it.”
“You got a mission for me?” interrupted Jayne.
Reynolds raised a cocky brow, undeterred. “If you’ll take it.” He offered the folder.
Jayne snatched it out of Reynolds’ hand. “You could make me do it,” he said, matching Reynolds’ one-eyed stare with his own.
“That I could,” Reynolds conceded, nodding once. “But I’d like to let you decide.”
Jayne flipped open the folder. “Alliance?” he said, unable to keep the surprise – or was it dismay? – out of his voice. “They’re still around?”
“A few cults,” said Reynolds. “We managed to flush most of them out, ending a few years ago.” The flesh around his eye patch twitched. “But the ones that remain have gotten their hands on a mighty powerful weapon. One you might recognize.”
Jayne nodded, his eyes fixed on the image of a gleaming, cylindrical weapon. “Vera.”
Zoe assessed the situation: tied to a chair in a disused factory with a drug lord and his lackeys, who possessed means of torture and four guns between them.
“You thought you would infiltrate my party?” said the short, bald African. “You thought you could use me to find out about my dealings? You have made grave mistakes, Black Widow.”
Zoe stared back placidly. She was too busy untying her hands from the chair to engage in macho displays.
“I have heard much about you,” Babangida continued, stalking closer to her. His tattoos rippled over his muscles in the dim light. He was small, but stocky; and he was mean. She could see it in the way his lips curled over his teeth, like a dog’s. He grabbed her chin in his hand and jerked her face up, the better to see it.
Zoe counted threats: one drug lord; two bodyguards in the room; three more outside.
“But the rumors, they disappointed me in the end,” continued Babangida. “The Black Widow follows me to find out about shipments when they have already been sent to my associate across the bay. The drugs will be gone soon. Too soon for you to get to them – you will be busy for a long while, Black Widow.”
Zoe counted the exits in the room: two doors; five windows; one metal chute in the floor behind her. Fifty-foot drop, straight down.
The drug lord opened his hand, and his hulking bodyguard placed metal pliers into his palm.
Babangida smiled. “Open wide,” he said.
The bodyguard’s phone rang.
“Sir. It’s for her.”
Babangida turned his head, still gripping Zoe’s jaw with iron fingers. “What?” He looked at Zoe, then gestured for the phone. “One last phone call for the condemned, yes?” he said, grinning at Zoe. He put the phone to her ear.
“Agent Alleyne, you’re needed at base oh-two-three,” said Reynolds’ voice.
“Can it wait, sir?” said Zoe. She eyed the African in front of her. “I’m in the middle of an interrogation.”
“Agent Book has been compromised.”
“If that’s all, sir,” said Zoe, unruffled, and gestured for Babangida to take the phone back.
As his fingers wrapped around the phone, Zoe brought both hands up to yank him toward her by the shoulder and elbow. At the same time she tipped her chair back, onto his back legs and farther, pulling Babangida with her. She lifted her foot into his torso.
For a millisecond, Zoe held him up with the strength of one hand and one foot. Then she propelled him up and over her head, sending him with perfect accuracy down the metal chute. His yells redoubled with each bang against the walls.
Zoe sat up, releasing the safety on the gun she’d swiped from Babangida’s holster.
One; two. The bodyguards dropped.
Babangida hit the ground.
Three more to go; then, base oh-two-three. Zoe picked up her boots on the way out.
Even in the suit, Simon’s hands were gentle as he nudged the delicate pieces of metal together.
“Computer – JARVIS – begin conducting power. Please,” he added belatedly.
“Yes, sir,” said a generated voice. “Energy readings are stable.”
Simon smiled at the readouts. “Tam Tower is up and running,” he said. “Do you hear that, Kaylee?”
“I do.” Kaylee beamed at him through her live feed. “Tell me how it looks.”
The Iron Man suit erupted out the harbor and, with barely a pause, turned toward the bright lights of the city. Ahead, Tam Tower light up the skyline. No words decorated its front; Simon wasn’t nearly so self-obsessed for that kind of thing. Instead, his company’s logo beamed white light over the financial district. Pure, clean, energy now officially supported all Tam buildings – of which there were quite a few.
Simon landed with pinpoint dexterity, shedding his armor as he walked inside. Kaylee was waiting for him.
“It looks beautiful,” said Simon, drawing her close. “As beautiful as you.”
Kaylee frowned, drawing away from Simon’s kiss. “As beautiful as me?”
“No,” said Simon. “Er. Almost as beautiful?”
“Is that a question?”
“It’s only that, well, I’ve spent a long time on this – “
“We – well, mostly me – I mean – “
“Who designed the stability ports?” challenged Kaylee. “And who converted your ARC reactor energy for green use?”
“You, but – “
“And who plotted the coils?”
“That was maybe twelve percent you.”
“Twelve?” Kaylee’s tone was dangerous.
“Fifteen?” Simon tried.
“Am I interrupting something?” said Agent Washburne.
Simon jerked away from Kaylee. “Agent. How did you get up here?” He frowned at his watch. “Computer – “ Kaylee poked him – “JARVIS, why did you let Agent Washburne in?”
“He asked politely, sir,” said the computer.
“This is what happens when you start treating Artificial Intelligence like people,” grumbled Simon.
Kaylee was already moving toward Agent Washburne. “How nice to see you,” she said, pecking him on the cheek. Simon scowled when he blushed. No respectable government agent should blush like a schoolboy.
“What are you doing here, Agent?” he asked.
“Just a quick drop-off,” said Washburne, waving a tablet genially. “And a mission… should you so choose to accept it.”
Simon rolled his eyes and stepped forward to take the tablet. Washburne snatched it away before Simon could take it.
“Ah-ah-ah,” he said. “You have to agree to the mission before you see the contents.”
Simon’s eyes narrowed. “Classified?”
“Yep,” said Washburne.
“Oh, very.” Washburne grinned.
“Is there a potential threat to the citizens of this country?”
“Am I consulting on this one, or is it more… hands-on?” Between the two men, Kaylee watched the exchange with dark, worried eyes.
“I would say you’re more hands-on with this, Mr. Tam,” said Washburne. “So. Are you in, or are you out?”
Simon grasped the tablet and grinned, tight and full of teeth. “I’m in.”
The girl found her on the street corner, eyes glazed over, rocking slightly side to side on a reed mat. River smiled when the girl hesitated, taking in her glassy eyes and faraway expression. The girl thought she was drugged, on purpose. River had never drugged herself, but others had done it for her.
“You have a story for me, little one,” she said.
The girl startled badly, then said, “Please, my papa, he sick – “
“The loom is unraveled,” River said, standing up in a single fluid movement. The girl startled again; River had been too quick for a normal human. “Stitch it again for a stranger man than I.”
She reached down and plucked a single note from the wad of cash in the girl’s hand. “Fetch yourself a looking glass,” she said, then left the girl behind.
She knew where the girl would have led her, had River listened to her weave her tapestry and followed her through the winding, dusty streets, through hordes of shades on shades; through roiling tempers and shaded apathy. The city was darkening, the shadows full with nightmare children in their bellies.
River came to an empty home and pushed through the door. In the corner of the one-room house was a woman. She was unnerved because River had come alone, and she wore a promise around her neck. Posies covered her eyes. River blinked, and the woman’s eyes were dark brown instead.
“Doctor,” said the woman. She was the Widow – no, she would be the widow. Would be, was, never was. River knew them all.
“You have set a web for me,” said River. “But I am no fly.” She put one foot in front of the other, very slowly. She repeated this once, then again.
The Widow watched River’s feet warily as they circled the perimeter of the room. “I have no intention of trapping you, Doctor. I’m here on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. We want to bring you in to consult on a high-level security threat.”
When River made no response, she pressed on. “We realize you have history with the terrorist group who call themselves The Alliance.”
River shook briefly, a full-body horror. “Their work with molecular separation and highly defined gamma rays,” she said.
“Yes.” The Widow was taken aback. River could understand. River did not usually seem like a lucid person. She usually was, though. “Right now they’re planning another attack on innocent civilians,” the Widow continued. River shook again. “We need your help to understand their technology.
River was silent.
“There are other parties trailing you,” said the Widow. “With them, you may not get such a nice offer.”
River stopped in front of the window, tilting her face up to the moonlight.
“Doctor, we’re facing catastrophe on a global scale – “
River lunged at the Widow, her body streamlining into a spear, into a scabbard, into a weapon. Her feet kicked the Earth away and her arms sliced the air, each molecule splitting around her.
There was a single gunshot.
The Widow sat frozen in her chair, her knife extended, half an inch away from River’s breast. River’s arm was also extended, holding a dollar bill between two delicate fingers. The edge of the bill rested just below the Widow’s eye. A bullet hole neatly punctured the eye atop the pyramid.
River unfolded her body and offered the note to the Widow. “You do not see,” she said gravely. “Not yet.”
Then she grinned and said, “Take me to your leader.”