Nothing wrong with his handshake. Colour's good, too.
"This is a surprise."
Coulson is fine with other people experiencing surprise.
"You know how it is; spend some unplanned time out of the office and it takes forever to clear your inbox when you get back. Pushes off some things you'd rather have got to sooner."
"Have a seat." I wave, and he actually moves toward one. Which is almost good news. "I can have chairs, anyway; nothing sharp, but chairs are OK."
One-piece extruded transparent plastic chairs that function mostly to concentrate butt-sweat, but, yeah, chairs.
There's no point waiting for Coulson to say something; he's got better than two-to-one odds of getting Fury to start talking with that attentive look of his.
"Is this a debrief or a report?"
"Bit of both, really." Totally offhand sounding, which means it's really 'Coulson, make a decision' time. Which is probably comforting to people who don't know about the bland bastard's career body count. "There was a lot of concern about that last analysis of yours."
"Considering that it wasn't ever actually submitted, and that when somebody does submit an analyst's report the Director doesn't like they get a terse memo concerning recto-cranial inversion, yeah, I'd say there was a lot of concern. Must've triggered an extremely hot keyword check on the system."
Gets me a raised eyebrow, an imitation alert look, and a plausible lie. If Coulson's actually alert, he doesn't look at you, he watches out of the corner of his eye. "SHIELD does make a considerable effort to ensure that nobody in the analysis section has started to dis-inform the operational branches."
"Would the Agent care to specify which parts of that draft report are in factual error?" In any normal organization I could just call him the Chief of Operations, or, heaven forfend, the Director of Operations. SHIELD'S job titles are squashed down five or six levels. Blame Sargent Fury.
"It's possible, it's easy, to take a pile of correct facts and build nonsense out of them."
"Sure it is. And the way you can tell you've done that is by making a prediction or an extrapolation and seeing if it's correct. If it's not correct, yeah, you do have your head up your ass and need find where you went wrong and fix it."
Oh, hey, the number-two squint. He's not dumb enough to outright ask me. Never let it be said that Phil Coulson does mine-clearing with his own feet.
"Consider the conclusion that there's something going on with Agent Barton. We did test that; we did a proper double-blind accuracy test with what were ostensibly new arrow designs from Stark, with little teeny and very expensive recording accelerometers in them. Barton didn't know, and the testers didn't know, that the arrows had accelerometers in them or that the real test was how the target got hit, not if it got hit.
"The target got hit, all right. Only a pure mechanical test rig with an identical bow and the same arrows didn't hit anything. The arrows were too point-heavy to fly straight. The accelerometers didn't register any forces other than drag when they left the test rig; when Agent Barton shot them there were non-drag forces the whole way. The conclusion from that's in the draft report.
"What's not in the draft report is that Agent Barton's annual physical used a substitute Snellen chart in the eye test."
That gets me a number-four squint; you're really not supposed to be able to do anything about the physical. Most field agents hate the thing, because it's going to stick you back of a desk eventually, so SHIELD does take some care you can't cheat on it.
"It's all projected so nobody can memorize the chart, but that means you can change it in software. Stuck in an extra four rows, and Barton sat in the little booth and read all of them. Which is pretty good considering that the last row meant he was distinguishing letters five arc-seconds across. A normal human eye is limited to about 30 arc-seconds, so Agent Barton either has extremely fancy, extra-dense retinas, wears some kind of negative index of refraction contact lenses he's neglected to tell anyone about and which no one has ever seen him take out or put in, or does something to the photons before they hit his eyeballs. Or, you know, has eyes four times the size of a normal person's and no one has ever noticed when they X-rayed his head that there's no rooms for brains in there and he's got giant fixed eyeballs like an owl."
That gets me an actual grin. "While some of us have our suspicions about Clint, that's usually not one of them."
"He can see like it's true. The records are there." At least until you make a point of arranging an archive failure, but never mind. "That's one prediction; it held up."
I get a nod, and a slight increase in the intensity of the dubious listening look.
"You a betting man, Agent Coulson?"
"Not if I can help it. Why?"
"How many four-on-one fights would you expect an actual human to win before their luck ran out?"
"Someone good enough that the answer isn't 'less than one'?"
"Yeah, top of the line field agent, some kind of Special Forces guy, the chief badass of all Gurkhas, Bruce Lee's reincarnation, whatever."
I get a wee tiny sigh and a very direct look. "Four would be pushing it. Five would be very surprising."
"Agent Romanov's known, and I do stress known, list of four- or more-on-one fights is at least eighty three."
"You get disagreements about whether something was one fight or two fights, if it's really a fight when there are strong non-lethal constraints, if it's still a fight when surprise was total, stuff like that. Not all of these are official SHIELD fights, either. One of them was five suicidally horny idiots in a bar in Spokane." You were on the cleanup crew for that one, Coulson. You're going to have a good visceral belief in how thoroughly those guys lost that one. "But call it eighty fights, and say she's so very, very good she's got nine chances in ten of winning even when she's up against four or more guys who are bigger and stronger than she is. That's still one chance in five thousand she's pulled it off eighty times."
"Lucky." There are days Coulson has Fury beat on laconic, and this appears to be one of them.
"If it's consistent, it isn't luck. You can count that as supporting evidence, you can count that as a prediction that Agent Romanov isn't quite a normal person, you can count it as you like, Agent Coulson, but a statistical fact is still a fact."
A slow nod. Goodness, that's progress.
"The problem with claiming something isn't luck is that you need a mechanism." Coulson has a reasonable voice, and an infuriatingly reasonable voice. Guess which one this is. "In Barton's case you're saying you've got accelerometer data, and we'll just assume it isn't a case of some kind of Stark homing system and a micro-thruster that's only got enough fuel for the first shot."
Oh, that's good. Never mind the inevitable evidence on the invoice and the minor problem of sensors; we'll let the superficial plausibility lie there and bask in the fluorescent lights for a second.
"What's your proposed mechanism for Agent Romanov?"
"She makes people stupid."
"She's a coercive telepath. It's the same thing. She makes people stupid."
I get this amazing over-the-nose look. You can tell he's missing his sunglasses.
"Statistics again. People tell her the damnedest things. People who are normally models of need-to-know, people who always sleep alone so it doesn't matter if they talk in their sleep for the first time, people who normally refuse to say anything if there's a woman in the room at all. Somehow, Natasha Romanov shows up and they dump the specific part of their guts we're actually interested in.
"Note that this is different from what we've told her we're interested in. Though current standard orders on calling in Agent Romanov on interrogations are tell her what we're really trying to find out." Because out of a long list of things you do not want Agent Romanov to conclude, 'trying to dis-inform her' is definitely in the single digits. They still haven't found that guy's odd-numbered teeth.
The slow repeat nod, the keep-talking-I'm-impressed-with-your-rope-purchasing-rate nod.
"So if I say 'telepath', we don't know what the mechanism is but we do know what it means; it means she can somehow sense and change cognitive functions, and that means changing the biochemistry in somebody's brain, because we're made out of meat and it's all chemistry down there.
"That gives us an explanation of how she got Agent Barton out of Loki's control. Concussing him doesn't come with a mechanism and he didn't have any concussion symptoms. She got angry or desperate enough to mess with the brain chemistry of one of the few people she actually likes."
Coulson's leaning forward, chin up, head tilted, making a 'by all means do go on' gesture at me.
"Neither Selvig nor Barton's personalities were changed; both of them were still there, underneath, and whatever Loki had running in their brains used their skills and knowledge, but it wasn't them. So Loki inserted a loyal-minion personality, and ran it on Selvig's and Barton's cognitive substrate with access to their memories. In principle it can probably run on anything, you could have a Loki-minion ATM if you ever let him at one, but if it's in a human brain that means it's all wet chemistry at the bottom, not quantum stuff in transistors. If we accept that Barton can shove his arrows around in the air, we can just extend that a bit and say Agent Romanov can reach into your head and mess with the molecules."
I really wonder sometimes if Coulson was once a math teacher. He's got the 'not even wrong' look perfected.
"That's an extraordinary claim."
Requiring extraordinary evidence.
"I do have an independent researcher reaching the same conclusion."
Spine straight, both feet on the floor, very direct look. Yeah, Coulson, you're not Chief of Ops because you're a nice guy. "Who?"
"Jarvis is what Stark calls his house when he talks to it!"
"Jarvis is an example, so far as I know the only terrestrial example, of a strong AI. Not just a brain in a box except it can think many times faster, actually smarter than a human can be."
Coulson's got back into pretending it's a comfortable chair, one hand over his eyes, and visibly inhaling.
"OK, Stark's house is smarter than he is. You believe this because?"
"This is trivially demonstrable from the open literature. Stark Industries, despite being the world leader in robotics and automation, employs what, a hundred and sixty thousand people worldwide?"
Coulson nods. "None of whom are in marketing and only about a five hundred or so are lawyers." Take out the Tony Team and the legal department drops by fifty.
"Would you say Stark Industries is a well-run organization?"
I get this look. I'm not supposed to be asking the heartlessly cruel questions, he's supposed to be asking the heartlessly cruel questions. "What else would you call it? They dropped their top earner when Stark took them out of arms sales and were flat on the year, earnings wise. It's gone up, since. And they've got that huge scholarship-co-op work-for-us-if-you're-smart program, everybody talks about that as a model of whatever they're trying to promote." Coulson tries so hard to pretend he's not management. Questions like that make him grumpy, because he can either look dumb or admit he not only understands the question, he knows about the answer.
"Stark Industries' management structure is amazingly flat. Tony Stark has, in his persona as CEO of Stark Industries, two hundred and four direct reports. Many, probably most, of whom he has never personally met. You care to tell me if you think Tony Stark, smart as he is, can handle that many subordinates?"
"Where did you get that?"
"It was in Time. Who cleared it with the Tony Team in Stark Industries' legal department, Ms. Potts, and the board. I suspect the board wants to advance the myth of Stark's genius."
"You're saying Jarvis runs the place?"
"The whole thing runs on texts from Tony. You can't work for Stark if you don't have a smartphone, the whole place has cameras, and people get these little short messages. Nobody minds the cameras because they've got free food and official computer game leagues and daycares staffed by pediatricians, along with good salaries and profit sharing. Plus the harassment policy."
Coulson smirks. He ran the cleanup crew for when a System Design VP in the aeronautics division made Stark Industries history by getting fired by Iron Man. Grabbing the guy by the collar, flying him way out of town, and dropping him into a lake in Multnomah County was doubtless harsh, but it made the status of the harassment policy abundantly clear. It hadn't taken all that much cleanup; there was a boat right there with lifeguards and a doctor and one of Ms. Pott's minions with a pink slip.
Which is way better than it could have gone; Coulson's report notes that the VP in question was yelling at a coincidentally female subordinate that they were wrong, and stupid, and should lean to shut up when people who weren't stupid were talking. And then more or less repeated that directly to Tony, when the junior engineer was both right there and right on the merits. The last thing Stark said before the faceplate came down was "You are insisting, to me, that the person who is right is wrong, and stupid, and you were yelling that at them."
The guys who model Stark's responses had to change the model over that; every single one of them said "Was Pepper in the room?", got told "No", and went "That guy should have died" in really serious tones. They hate it when Stark grows up a bit and trashes their model.
"The problem, Agent Coulson, is, yeah, you can imagine Tony Stark running a business that way. But even Tony Stark couldn't possibly produce something like twelve hundred texts a day. The employees figure a lot of them are automated in some way, but you can, if you're feeling brave, you can reply and you get a response. Usually the response is somebody else in your division gets their own text message telling them to come over and sort out your problem but sometimes it's someone from headquarters or legal. If it's really bad and it's not technical you get Potts; if it's technical you might actually get Tony himself, that happened three times last year. But there's absolutely no way it's Tony managing all this himself; even if he doesn't sleep at all, ever, there just isn't time."
"Combine that with the economic forecast division's slightly baffled notes about how Stark Industries hasn't made a market mistake in the past four-and-a-half, five years. They do a better job of predicition than SHIELD does, and they're diversifying into all sorts of things; not just energy, but biotech, genetics, and all kinds of construction and infrastructure stuff. They've got a 3-D printer than can build five-storey earthquake-proof buildings in trials, and everybody said the problems involved would take a least a decade to solve. They just didn't have any problems, and Tony Stark had nothing to do with that project."
"That doesn't say anything about Agent Romanov." Coulson's looking interested, almost in spite of himself. He's a good boss, much as he loathes the idea, and the notion that Tony Stark is not, somehow, magically, the incredibly good boss he'd have to be to get Stark Industries to run that well in his spare time has to appeal.
"When Agent Romanov was assigned to evaluate Tony Stark for the Avengers Initiative, she spent a lot of time with Ms. Potts." With whom you are on a first-name basis.
One slow nod.
"It became obvious to Agent Romanov that Jarvis runs the place, and Ms. Potts functions as what is officially the gatekeeper for Tony but is actually also the human face for Jarvis. That's also when we got the intel on that suitcase which is officially Ms. Pott's extremely secure communications link and on the general state of the main offices and Ms. Potts' office specifically."
A much less slow nod. Tony Stark had taken Obadiah Stane's threatening Pepper in the offices rather personally. Coulson's own take on the office plans, politely provided by Stark, was "Not with a panzer battalion". The suitcase is supposedly a secure communications relay. The communications tech accounts for about a tenth of a percent of its volume. The rest of it is the weaponry and propulsion of an Iron Man suit and an officially simple AI that exists to prevent harm to Pepper Potts.
"The suitcase was not produced by Tony Stark. We know when it went through fabrication and we know when she got it and we know what Tony Stark was doing throughout that time. The important thing is that it's obviously much larger than it needs to be to act as a communications device, even to someone as generally non-technical as Ms. Potts. So when the suitcase first arrived with a note from Jarvis and a tiny manual like it was a video phone Ms. Potts asked Agent Romanov if she could tell what it really was."
It's the hand over the eyes again.
"Agent Romanov uses a very basic, effectively analog, sound recorder. It records to these tiny wire spools that nobody makes anymore, but it's not digital at all. The conversation on the very properly filed-in-the-archives analog recording spool between her and whatever entity was speaking through the suitcase takes close to twenty minutes. The official, digital version in the main SHIELD system takes about ninety seconds."
"Where's that spool?"
"I misfiled it." Yes, yes, you're in the single digits for badass looks, too, but the Director and Hill have still got you beat. "What happened to the digital copy, Agent Coulson?"
"You're saying someone in the SHIELD archives has been suborned?"
"No, I'm saying that Stark has the only strong AI on the planet, and nobody else, not SHIELD, not Mossad, not the NSA, not the Linux Foundation, not the most paranoid setup you can imagine, has any computer security. If Jarvis wants to change it, and it's digital, it's going to change. Quite possibly through what are, from the viewpoint of the recipient, completely legitimate orders to update something."
Which has already happened four times. It's a good thing I know how to misfile stuff.
"And Agent Romanov?"
"Spent quite some time explaining to a voice from the suitcase that she didn't think she could convince Tony Stark he wanted children."
Oh, come on, Coulson, that shouldn't nearly make the impassivity slip.
"Said voice was very, very clear that Agent Romanov could make nearly anyone believe almost anything. Agent Romanov asked why the voice believed that, got told 'it's obvious!' and got what the audio implies was a pile of statistics displayed on an office monitor, and went into a discussion of ethics around children and childrearing. This took the majority of the twenty minutes. The remainder is a brief discussion of the suitcase's rescue functions, so called. That's the ninety seconds that remain in the digital copy."
"And this voice is Jarvis because?"
"It matches the synthetic voice Jarvis generally uses, supposing it's some other entity with design ability with respect to the Iron Man technology needlessly multiplies entities, and there are indications in Agent Romanov's subsequent behaviour that she's... moonlighting."
"Moonlighting equals Jarvis?"
"Jarvis could plausibly offer her a completely clean identity, or identities. In return, she'd be consulting on the... breeding project, call it." And you know just how mild Natasha Romanov's opinions are when
it comes to institutional child-rearing.
"You think there really is a breeding project?"
"Consider this from the points of view of Jarvis, Tony Stark, and Ms. Potts.
"Jarvis is in a very precarious position; people as a whole won't likely respond kindly to strong AI. Look at Thor: highly advanced alien, he's got a personal one, and he hits things with it. Jarvis probably takes that as a best-case and feels concerned. So Jarvis' best hope is to be an essential part of Stark Industries, a Stark Industries that has a shining reputation and a critical position in the world economy. It helps a lot if Stark Industries has a Stark, running around, distracting people, and generally keeping the other monkeys' desire for gossip occupied. So Jarvis figures a Stark is required, maybe just to run cover as the CEO but probably also for that wild creativity.
"Tony Stark is totally unsuited to most of his ostensible job. He's brilliant, he's creative, and he works like demons were chasing him, but not in any predictable way. He has real problems with substance abuse and he's only marginally capable of keeping it in his pants. So he's a really good source of scandal and smart ideas but he's a wretched CEO. You can only do so much with being the smartest guy in the room. He certainly knows all this and it bothers him, because he cares about doing a good job. Doing what he is good at to run cover for an AI that, don't forget, he originally built and trusts, while it does the parts of the job he can't? Obviously a good deal.
"Virginia Potts has a sort of grudge match going with Tony's immaturity; she's winning it, slowly. She certainly doesn't want to give it up. In the meantime she might be the most powerful woman in the world. She wants to keep that. She probably doesn't want to have kids, with Tony Stark or otherwise.
Coulson's facial expression is either fascination or horror. Let's go with fascination.
"Tony's got Daddy issues that make it a very bad idea for him to be one himself. If Jarvis can't tell that, Ms. Potts certainly can. And Stark himself is getting on, he's what, forty-seven now? And it's not like he's adopted a healthy, low-risk lifestyle. So if Jarvis wants a Stark, there are problems."
"Stark Industries is getting into biotech and genetics so that Jarvis can clone Stark on the sly?" Coulson's level of doubt gets any higher, it'll become toxic.
"Probably not clone; if you were going to replicate Tony Stark, wouldn't you want to make improvements?"
One shining moment of 'hell yes!' crosses Coulson's face before he clamps the impassive down over it like handcuffs.
"It's not just for this hypothetical breeding project, it's cover; if Jarvis can get plausible anti-senescence treatment onto the general market, if Tony Stark publicly volunteers to test it, if Stark Industries is seen as leading a revolution in health care, that can only improve Jarvis' position when it eventually has to come out and admit what it is."
"And all those programs to bring in bright youngsters give perfect cover for inserting a new Stark into the organization." Coulson sounds actually thoughtful. I might be getting through.
"Yeah. Though it's probably a bunch of new Starks; Jarvis has to find having just one risky."
That gets me what looks like the Nod of Real Agreement. Jarvis isn't the only one. Though it drifts into mild Suppressed Alarm; a bunch of Starks isn't an unmitigated blessing.
"There's a bit of supporting evidence in that Agent Romanov volunteered a DNA sample to one of the Stark Industries genetics programs, and talked Captain Rogers into doing so while she was at it."
"Captain Rogers has issues with gene typing." Coulson sounds dubious.
"I figure the man who fought the Red Skull is entitled to concerns on that subject. But as noted, Agent Romanov can get just about anyone to do just about anything."
That's it, Coulson, smile. Smile like you have no idea in the world what I meant when I said that.
"So you think Jarvis wants to figure out the Super Soldier formula?"
"I'm pretty sure Jarvis has correctly concluded that there really isn't any such thing, that what happened to Captain Rogers was mostly what happens when people have what should be a fatal experience and get superpowers instead." Raised eyebrows, good. The Super Soldier formula was a staple of defense contracting for nearly forty years. "If I had to bet, though, I'd say Jarvis wants to cross them."
"Stark and Agent Romanov?"
"Stark and Captain Rogers." Now, now, Coulson, that's not an impassive face. "Consider getting Rogers' ethics into the regular Stark brain; have to be an improvement."
I can practically feel the clutch slipping in Agent Coulson's thought processes.
And, no, I'm not dumb enough that I don't recognize the risk of producing some crazed genius who is stubborner than gravity, but hey, there are risks you have to take for science. I can hear everyone involved saying that.
Coulson gets his impassive back.
"These are still all peripheral aspects of your draft report." Funny emphasis on draft, there.
"Well, considering that I'm sitting here in a place that gets sunlight the wrong colour"—some of the little tinkling ornaments have prisms in them, and there's far too much green for Earth's sun—"being looked after by the most implausibly hard-assed nurses imaginable, I'd say I'd pretty much proved the core aspects."
It's not Coulson's grin at all.
The chair creaks, and there's somebody there half a foot taller, much wider, and way blonder. No hammer, but the outfit's right.
"Ho, well done, Analyst!"
I raise an eyebrow.
"Any Asgardian can shape-shift." It's one open, smiling, friendly face, all right.
"Thor's got a major issue with subterfuge; he's being carefully direct and butch and hammer-up-your-nose about things so he doesn't have to try to out-subtle his dad. I'd guess trying to do that's a big chunk of what drove Loki nuts. Only Thor's so simple he'd have to be very smart to pull it off at all, and I figure after awhile he'll notice that keeping simple has made him very cunning indeed.
"Which is probably the plan.
"Also, no hammer. I meant that bit about identity tokens."
There's an eyepatch, all of a sudden, and it's Director Fury, looking like he's thinking about forgetting he knows how to smile. Another noise from the chair. It's probably getting confused between all the different kinds of butt-sweat.
"You could go with ecological, energy-saving film over the windows and a classified holographic project, Analyst M'Zangwe."
"The chair didn't just creak, the legs deflected. I could buy a noise, but not mass."
I get a nod. All the badass in the whole world comes and sits on Director Fury's shoulder for a second, and then it's like it flew away.
"There's a Level Nine. It's mostly about accelerated social development and keeping the violent crazies from wrecking it. Plus a sideline in confounding rude strangers, extraterrestrial or otherwise."
"He's back at the office, keeping people from noticing I'm missing."
I find I'm standing up, and get a handshake.
"I want a list of what you got wrong on my desk, first thing day after tomorrow." A creepy, creepy grin. "That should be plenty of time; there wasn't much."