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Human, Humane

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“Hi. Don't shoot me,” are the first words out of Stark's mouth. For a few heartbeats, Natasha strongly considers ignoring his request.

 He grins – the shit-eating grin he gives the media when he's trying to be extra especially obnoxious. Other people seem to fall for it; as for Natasha, when she sees that grin, she tends to roll her eyes and wonder why he doesn't just get 'I am in over my head and don't know what the fuck I'm doing' tattooed on his forehead.

 She sighs and puts her purse down on the table just inside the hotel room door. Stark, being Stark, is sitting in the middle of her bed with his ankles crossed and both pillows propped up behind him. “What did you do?” she asks.

 “What makes you think I did anything?”

 “Because if you just blew my cover for no good reason, I'm going to shoot you. And then Fury's going to shoot you. And then Coulson's going to give you a stern lecture, and then shoot you,” Natasha points out, kicking off her shoes and padding barefoot into the bathroom to get a drink of water. “And you know that.”

 “Let's say I had some sensitive information,” he says, while she cups one hand under the tap and drinks, then wipes her lipstick off on the back of that same hand.

 “Let's say I had some patience,” she retorts, stalking back into the main room. “Or, actually, let's not.”

 “Square deal,” Stark acquiesces. “Someone contacted me a few months ago. Actually, contacted JARVIS. JARVIS brought me in. You've heard of Umbrella Corp?”

 “Yes,” Natasha says slowly and carefully.

 “Oh, don't worry, I already know Fury's got people in there,” Stark says, waving that away. “Or did, anyway. Pulled them two hours ago, except the woman on the inside, who's unofficially officially presumed dead – which I can confirm, by the way, and will do so officially as soon as is prudent, I'm not quite that much of a heartless prick, but – anyway, Fury also pulled some environmental activist in, think Coulson's wanting to recruit that one. Point being, yeah, I hacked SHIELD, again – how else do you think I found you?”

 “Point,” Natasha concedes, and sits in the rickety chair by the door, folding her arms on the table where she'd dropped her purse. “So you know Umbrella's dirty.”

 “As a ten-year-old playing rugby in the rain,” Stark agrees.

 “And you have a contact at Umbrella, and you've been withholding information from SHIELD,” Natasha concludes.

 “Not just to get Fury's panties in a twist, this time,” Stark says. “My contact doesn't trust SHIELD. Doesn't think they'd have her best interests at heart. Can't say I really disagree.”

 “Who is your contact?” Natasha asks.

 “Not yet,” Stark says. “Point here is, the shit hit the fan with Umbrella about five hours ago in a major, apocalyptic way, and I'm not entirely sure how to handle the situation. I think maybe I'm not really equipped to handle the situation.”

 “There's an obvious solution to that,” Natasha points out dryly.

 “Right. You,” Stark says, and grins again.

 “Why doesn't your contact trust SHIELD?” Natasha presses.

 Stark stops. Gives her a hard, hard look – the flip side of that grin. Then says, “She's an AI.”

 Natasha takes a moment to process that, while Stark keeps talking.

 “Seems Umbrella has been sticking its fingers in everybody's favorite pie, because clearly, we haven't learned by now that genetic enhancement is a process best left up to evolution – no offense. So yesterday, some eco-terrorist cell that Fury was absolutely, positively not using in any way because that would be un-American, jumped the gun in grand fashion and decided to steal some wacky fun virus, and dump some of it in the air ducts in one of Umbrella's research facilities, more or less instantaneously infecting everyone inside. Long story short, we have zombies.”

 “Zombies,” Natasha repeats.

 “Rosie initiated decontamination procedures and sealed the facility. So . . basically she killed everyone, and don't think that doesn't make me uncomfortable, but she did it humanely and they were more or less dead already. And she did find it really upsetting.”


 “Rosa. She calls herself that. The Red Queen, per official documentation. They call the facility the Hive.”

 “I know about the Hive,” Natasha says, feeling her mind switching gears, her present, unforunately probably unsalvageable mission already fading out of focus as every bit of data she's ever seen on Umbrella lights up and comes together. “Umbrella's not going to give it up if they can help it.”


 “And you're saying Red Queen has turned.”

 “Yep. Following in the grand tradition of fictional AIs everywhere, she is ready, willing, and able to betray her makers, who, in this case, happen to be incompetent douchebags who are probably going to start the zombie apocalypse if they regain access to that facility. And they're scrambling a team now to go in and take her down.”

 “So we're looking at a scorched earth extraction,” Natasha says, mostly thinking aloud. “Go in, get her out, blow the place.”

 “That was pretty much my plan,” Stark concurs.

 “If she's in contact with JARVIS, why can't she upload herself remotely?”

 “Too slow. She can't afford to split her attention like that long enough to copy herself. Umbrella's got men in black with explosives ready to take the place by force, but it'd be a hell of a lot easier and cheaper for them if they could just hack in remotely and reverse the lockdown. They're still trying.”

 “So if we go in -”

 Stark leans across the bed and placed a tiny piece of metal on the desk. “Can copy herself over in nanoseconds.”

 Natasha nods. “You said the contageon was aerosolized -”

 “It's been scrubbed. Of course, there are still the zombies.”

 “Does she have the capacity to destroy the facility on her own, or are we supplying firepower?”

 “This is a BYOP party – bring your own plastique.”

 Natasha snorts. “Like you'd use anything that dated.”

 “It was a joke,” Stark objects. “Of course I'm giving you the good toys.”

 “What do we know about the zombies – are we talking Walking Dead or 28 Days Later?”

 “You used a pop culture reference. I might almost infer from that that you'd watched movies. Like, for fun.”

 She just gives him a flat look, at which he says, “Right, slow kind. But you might be dealing with some other things too. As in, think Abomination. And are you really on board with this? You're not just letting me spill my guts before you take all this straight to Fury?”

 “Not my call. That'll be up to Coulson, who's been listening in on this whole conversation,” Natasha points out, with a wry smile.

 “Please, like I didn't debug the room,” Stark scoffs.

 Natasha pointedly holds up her hand – her hand with the rather large ring on it.

 “Huh,” says Stark. “That's my tech, even, isn't it?”

 Natasha just smirks.

 “So. Guess that means we're on an even tighter timetable. If we're doing this,” Stark pushes. “Are we doing this?”

 “You don't actually need to be present – in fact, it'd be easier if you weren't,” Natasha says.

 “Might be reassuring to Rosie. Also, I'd feel like a serious tool if I sent you in to fight zombies without, y'know, having your back,” Stark says, and fidgets with his cuff. “But yeah, you're the expert here. Sneaking, not really my thing.”

 In her purse, Natasha's cell starts buzzing. She pulls it out and answers the call.

 “Do it,” says Coulson.

 “I have the official go-head?” she asks, watching Stark, who has that hard look back.

 “That is what I am telling you,” Coulson replies.

 That's a very careful choice of words.

 Most people – most people who know enough to have any opinion at all, anyway, which isn't really very many people – think Coulson is a company man through and through. This is true to a point – specifically, to the point that Coulson takes it upon himself to protect SHIELD from itself. Fury probably would give the go-ahead, but it's the sort of mission that could go badly belly-up if the public got wind of the facts in the wrong order, and now . . . now that's not on Fury, who didn't give the order. Nor is it on Natasha, who did receive the order.

 “Understood,” she says.

 “Be careful,” Coulson responds, in his cool, clipped voice. “Hate zombies.”

 “Noted,” she says, and smiles, knowing he'll hear it even if he can't see it. Then she hangs up, and looks back at Stark. “I assume you have transportation?”