"Sir, can I ask what exactly the agency you're scouting for is and what it does?" Staff Sergeant Phil Coulson knew how to wait. If there was one thing the Army was good for, it was teaching you to wait. Particularly the kind of pointless, unending boredom caused by the wheels of bureaucracy as they ground ever onwards.
But usually, even when he had no clue what he was waiting for or why the Army had sent him somewhere, he at least knew the name of the organization jerking him around. And had other soldiers to bitch about it with, and maybe even play cards or something.
"The name was on the orders you received." The civilian behind the desk didn't look up from Phil's file. He'd commandeered an empty office on base for this interview, so all Phil had to go on was his looks. Salt-and-pepper hair, probably close to retirement, average build, suit. Oh, and clearance high enough to read Phil's file. From what Phil could see, reading upside down, it was even complete, with none of the classified bits blacked out.
"Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate is pretty vague, sir," Phil said. He hadn't gotten to where he was by mouthing off to superiors, but it wasn't his superior, and Phil wasn't particularly interested in leaving the Rangers for a desk job. Particularly if he didn't even know what kind of an agency it was.
Phil had had more than enough covert experience in the Army to know that when the spooks came calling, it paid to ask questions. Lots of them.
"It's supposed to be, Sergeant." At last the bureaucrat looked up from the paperwork. Middle aged civilian he might be, but there was a calculation behind his eyes, a focus not normally seen in desk jockeys. Ex-military, maybe? "Sometimes obscurity has its uses. If it's too much of a mouthful, you can call it SHIELD in private."
"Yes, sir," Phil said neutrally, keeping his exasperation off his face. Taking an interesting word and making an acronym to fit it—what was this, the 1960s? He'd watched Man from UNCLE reruns as a kid, and though his eight-year-old self might have jumped at the chance to become Napoleon Solo or Illya Kuryakin, the adult Phil was deeply skeptical. Particularly in a group run by the kind of people who played that sort of name-game with actual government agencies.
The other man sat back in his chair. "You're quite a man, Sergeant. Not many soldiers reach Staff Sergeant with only ten years of service. And a Ranger, too. There aren't many conflicts of the last ten years you didn't serve in, one way or another, except the big one, and you've received several commendations for quick thinking under fire."
"Thank you, sir," Phil said. Only the First Battalion of the Rangers had gotten to go to Desert Storm. He'd been in the jungle, not the desert. "If this is a recruiting pitch, you should know that I'm quite happy with my current career. And I've never been one to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence."
"Call me Agent Delaware," he said. "I do have a question, though. Is it the Army you're happy with, or your team?" When Phil opened his mouth he went on. "By the way, remember that I know just exactly how screwed up your last couple of missions got."
"Wasn't the Rangers' fault," Phil said. Arriving to find their contact already dead, their target waiting for them. Fighting their way out of a jungle with no supplies, no backup, and the local guerillas all over them. Half his squad gone for nothing other than pure idiocy on the part of the ones who sent them in. Phil didn't have nightmares, but he did have fantasies about tracking down the fuckwits who'd done the assessments and catching them in a dark alley somewhere. He pushed that thought away. "We had bad intel."
Agent Delaware nodded. "To put it mildly. That thing in Columbia, there was no way that could have been anything but a disaster. Too many things went wrong before you even got your orders. They'd been reinforced before you even left the base. Here's what SHIELD can offer you, behind the bullshit, Staff Sergeant: join us, and you can be the one gathering and evaluating intel so that fuckups like those don't happen."
Phil raised an eyebrow. "And how is SHIELD any better than Military Intelligence or the CIA?"
"Well, for one thing, we've got better people," Delaware said. "Instead of chasing Yale grads, we recruit people who already know their ass from their elbow. For another, we're a multinational organization tasked with maintaining world stability. It gives us a broader view of what's actually going on. Fewer blinkers, fewer politicians trying to yank our chain and use us to score points."
A multinational covert intelligence agency with an acronym for a name. This was sounding more like UNLCE all the time. Either Delaware was off his rocker or there was some seriously weird things going on. Though Phil had to admit, having fewer politicians to get in the way would be nice. If you had a stupid mission—and Phil had had more than a few of those, mostly with political objectives—even good intel couldn't always salvage anything. "Multinational," Phil said. "You know, I didn't think most countries liked sharing information even with their friends."
"Sometimes outsiders can give you a better perspective and plausible deniability, both," Delaware said. "And while each nation focuses on its own individual goals, it's good to have people looking at the bigger picture, who can act or pass on timely warnings as needed. And there's times when there are threats that are simply too big, too important, for any one government to be solely responsible. Proper, normal channels are great for proper, normal things. But sometimes you have to throw out the book and make up a new one. And that's where we come in." He spoke with complete authority; he really believed what he was saying. "I will admit, it can be tough to balance security and cooperation. But we're very, very good at what we do. We think you could be good at it too. Pay's better than what you get now, and most of the time you're in less danger."
"And the rest of the time?"
"Sometimes you're in more danger," Delaware said.
"Thanks for the offer," Phil said. "But like I said, I'm happy where I am."
Delaware nodded. "All right," he said. He handed over a card. "If you change your mind, this number will reach me." He flipped the folder closed, slipped it into a briefcase, and walked out the door.
Phil watched him go, considering his words. Then he stuck the card in his pocket and went back to his post.
"You will not let anything, or anyone, out past your cordon, for any reason whatsoever until 1000 hours tomorrow. That includes me, General Sullivan, President Bush, or your sainted grandmothers." Colonel Briggs gave them a hard stare, daring anyone to comment. "This is why you have been issued tranquilizer guns in addition to your normal gear. If someone approaches and refuses to be turned around, you are authorized to shoot them with a tranq."
In front of Phil, Lieutenant Santos raised a hand. "Sir, does that include the President?"
Briggs nodded. "Yes, Lieutenant, it does."
Phil raised both eyebrows. What in hell could they be doing in there? Rumors had been flying—it wasn't every day a little backwater American town had martial law declared and not one but two battalions of Rangers sent in. And then not even allowed in to the town. Phil had heard everything from disease to neo-Nazis to aliens. None of which would explain that order. Well, aliens might, if Phil had believed in them. Hallucinogens, maybe?
There was quiet as the room digested it. "Sir, can we get that in writing?" someone asked from behind Phil.
"You'll have written orders by the time you deploy," Briggs went on. "If you do not shoot anyone, you will turn in the written orders so they can be properly disposed of. As you have already been told, this mission is extremely classified, and once you leave you will not discuss it with anyone, not even amongst yourselves. You will not speculate about it even in the privacy of your own mind. You will, in fact, forget that you have ever been to Stanley, Idaho. You will forget the Army has ever been to Stanley, Idaho. If you ever so much as hint that there is anything to remember about this last week, there will be severe consequences."
Phil believed it; Briggs had quite the reputation as a hardass, and this op was weird.
"Grab your gear and be ready to move out," Briggs said. "Dismissed."
"The fuck do they got in there?" Semovoski asked as the squad got to their feet and went to get the tranq guns they'd been promised.
"Not our job," Phil said mildly, squinting in the early morning light. He supervised his guys getting the tranq guns, checking his own over. He'd never used one before, and it would've been nice to have some range time with them before actually having to use them in the field. He let them bitch and speculate, get it out of their system. God knew it was the last chance for that they'd have.
Phil glanced up at the mountains and ridges around them. This wouldn't be a bad place to defend, if you had to; the rugged mountains surrounding the town meant there were only a few directions an attack could come from, and the small river that ran next to town gave further protection from that direction. But they weren't here to defend against an attack (and who would attack a town in the middle of nowhere in Idaho?). He was glad there weren't many people in town. Hopefully, they'd all keep their heads down until this blew over. He didn’t want to shoot civilians, even with tranquilizers.
Within the hour, Stanley was sealed off from the outside world. Phil's squad was assigned to the roadblock on Highway 75 northeast of town. 75 wound through the mountains alongside the small river whose name Phil didn't know, dipping down to the valley floor to pass through Stanley. Between elevation changes and winding through passes, they couldn't see very far down it. Just as well they were there mostly to keep anyone from getting out, instead of coming in.
He started out with one of his fire teams facing in towards town, and the other out towards the mountains. The squads on either side were within eye and earshot; nothing was going to get between them. Town was where the action was, as proven not only by the weird orders but also by the occasional strange noise echoing out. The hassle was keeping the fire team facing out focused on their sector.
By three in the afternoon, they'd been there almost nine hours, and word had come down to settle in for a long night—no relief coming. Phil was setting up watches when Corporal Yost signaled him. "Sarge, someone's coming down 75."
Phil looked up to see a late-model pickup coming into view. There was something tall and blue in the bed of the truck, though he couldn't tell what it was from this angle. The driver was a black man in his late thirties, in a black turtleneck and a jacket. He pulled his vehicle smoothly to a stop at the barricade.
"This area's restricted," Phil said. The blue thing was a box about the size of a phone booth, with a big lightbulb on top. It was lashed to the back of the pickup with a web of bungee cords. Someone wasn't taking any chances of it coming loose. There had to be something in it; the pickup was riding awfully low.
The man in the pickup held out a wallet. "I have permission to be here," he said.
Phil took it and looked at the badge inside. Agent Nick Fury of … he raised an eyebrow. The Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate wasn't any less of a mouthful the second time he saw it. He checked his clipboard with the list of those allowed in. Yes, Agent Fury was on it. (Although, was that his real name or did SHIELD just attract people named things like Nick Fury and Canton Everett Delaware III?) "All right," he said. "But just to warn you, nobody is allowed out until ten AM tomorrow morning, no matter who they are."
"I know that, soldier," Fury said.
Phil gave the wallet back and watched as his men let the truck through.
"Police Public Call Box," Yost read as they watched it drive into town. "What the hell is that?"
No one else tried to enter or leave Stanley for the rest of the day, but odd noises—and the occasional flash of brightly-colored smoke—came from the town at irregular intervals. Well, it did mean there wasn't any problem keeping attention on the town, though it was a good thing the road was so lightly travelled.
Day turned to evening, and Phil divided his men into watches for the night so that each could get a couple hours of sleep. There was some grumbling over having MREs when sitting just outside of an American town, but no more than Phil would have expected.
Things didn't quiet down in town. Phil wondered what the residents thought of all this.
By three o'clock in the morning, Phil had taken his turn napping on the cold, hard ground, and was back up on watch. He wondered when sunrise would be—with the mountains all around them, the sun would have further to go than normal to reach them. He couldn't see his breath, although it was cold enough; the lights from town killed his night vision, even though he knew better to look directly at them.
Something caught his attention; a movement in the dark. Yes, there it was—something was walking along the road from town. A flashlight flicked on. Why now? Whoever it was had been out of range of the streetlights for a ways before turning the flashlight on. If they didn't want to be seen, why turn it on at all, and if they had nothing to hide, why wait until they were away from town?
"That's far enough," Private Danio barked.
"At ease, soldier," came a familiar voice from out of the dark.
"You're shitting me," Yost breathed.
Phil turned on his own flashlight and shone it in the intruder's face. Yes, that was George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States.
"Get that out of my eyes, soldier," the President snapped, holding a hand up to shield himself and turning away from the light.
"Sorry, sir," Phil said, shining it on the ground between them as the other man continued to advance towards them. "But this is a restricted area. No one is allowed out until ten AM tomorrow morning. I'm going to have to ask you to turn around and head back into town."
"Son, I'm the Commander in Chief of the US Army. I'm ordering you to stand down and let me through."
The words were … oddly flat, Phil noted. "Sorry sir, but that's not possible. Please stop where you are."
"Name and rank, soldier," he demanded.
"Staff Sergeant Phil Coulson," Phil said, and shot him with a tranquilizer.
"Sarge!" yelped Danio as the President collapsed in the road. He was only about ten feet away from them. If Phil hadn't shot him then, he wouldn't have had a chance to.
"You shot the President!"
Phil ignored that as he shone his light on the prone body. "I don't think that's him," he said. It … looked vaguely like Bush, but he couldn't think why he'd been so sure it was the President. "He's campaigning in Pennyslvania, today—someone would have noticed he wasn't there. And where's the Secret Service? Why would the President be trying to get past a military road block, alone, on foot, in the middle of nowhere in Idaho?"
Danio was advancing towards the man on the ground, gun at the ready.
"Stay back, Danio," Phil said.
Danio nodded and returned to his spot. "It isn't him," he said. "I dunno what it is, but it's not the President."
Phil nodded, holding back a sigh of relief. He'd been sure, but … not completely sure. "Somebody call it in, ask for instructions."
It took less than ten minutes for someone else to come out of town, walking towards them. "Don't shoot! I'm only here to collect your intruder!" called a man with a British accent as flashlights hit him from several different angles. He wore a bow tie and an old tweed jacket, like a professor, but he couldn't have been older than thirty.
"Keep your hands out where we can see them, and move slowly," Phil ordered.
"Yes! Right! Good job not being fooled by the Kriklimzklinian, they're very good at fooling people, so well done. Particularly not knowing what you're up against, I told them they needed to tell you, not fair to you leaving you in the dark like this and also it's too easy for the Kriklimzklinian to use that against you. So, well done. And oh, yes, excellent that you used the tranquilizer instead of bullets. You humans seem always to want to go for fatal attacks, instead of leaving the possibilities open for making friends later. You were very, very good. Did any of you touch it, by the way?" The man had kept his hands out, and was walking slowly, but he had quite a mouth on him. Phil glanced at his men, and was pleased to see that some of them were covering the larger area in case the man wasn't alone.
"We didn't touch it," Phil said. "Who are you?"
"I'm the Doctor," said the man in the bow tie. In his right hand he had something Phil had thought to be a pen, but it started glowing and the man pointed it at the body. "Ah! Yes, good, good. I told you it wouldn't work," he said. Was he talking to the unconscious man?
"Well!" the Doctor said. "If you haven't touched him, I'll just take him back with me." He grabbed the body and slung it over his shoulder in a fireman's carry; Phil wouldn't have thought he'd have the strength. He took a few steps towards the town before swinging back to the Rangers. "Oh! One more thing. I'd avoid that patch of ground for the next few hours, if I were you. Don't think it'll hold any spores, but you never know."
Phil watched him walk back towards town. "All right," he said, "you heard the man. We're backing another twenty feet up the road."
"What did he mean, spores?" Yost asked.
"I don't know," Phil said. "But I'm not about to take any chances."
Two years later, Phil sat on his bed staring down at his newest set of orders. He would miss his team. They were the best men he'd ever served with, but he'd probably lose touch with most of them. He was being transferred from the 3rd Battalion to the 2nd, from Fort Benning in Georgia to Fort Lewis in Washington. Transfers happened all the time, in the military; routine. Phil had been moved around before and would be again.
If he stayed in.
By the time he'd been in the Army for five years, Phil had decided he liked it enough to make a career out of it. Twenty years service, then retire at half-pay, seemed a good deal to him. But what had seemed perfect in his mid-twenties … didn't, in his thirties. Getting screwed around by the brass, no say in where he went or what job he did, the aches and pains from years of pushing his body to the breaking point catching up with him … did he really want to stick it out that long? Putting his life on the line for other peoples' stupidity?
It might have been different if he were an officer. A sergeant needed smarts, but didn't do the kind of analysis an officer did, and Phil was starting to get bored. He could go mustang, buck for officer, but that was a lot of work for something he wasn't sure he wanted, any more.
But what would he do outside the Army? He didn't think he'd be very good at a regular nine-to-five job, and construction held no appeal. Truck driving held even less.
He got up and went to the filing cabinet, looking through his files for the "miscellaneous" folder. A few minutes of flipping through it, and he found what he was looking for.
Agent Canton Everett Delaware III, the card said. Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate was still a stupid name. But it wouldn't hurt to see what exactly the job was and what they were offering. If nothing else, he might finally find out what the hell that weird night had been about, in Idaho.
"Staff Sergeant Coulson, we meet again."
Phil looked up to see Agent Delaware approaching his table. He'd been instructed to meet him here for breakfast before his first day of training. "Agent Delaware," he said, nodding a greeting.
"I'm glad you came on board," Delaware said. "I think you'll enjoy your work with us."
"So do I," Phil said. "Can I ask what we're doing here?" He gestured around at the bland décor of the restaurant. Perkins Restaurants had fairly generic food, that was the same whether you were in New York or Georgia. It wouldn't have been his first choice for a place to eat at in New York City.
"We're going to have breakfast, and then I'm going to teach you urban camouflage." Delaware slid into the seat opposite Phil and picked up the menu.
"I do already know a lot about urban camouflage," Phil noted. He even had his urban cammies back in his new apartment, if they wanted to swing by and get them.
"Not that kind of urban camouflage," Delaware said. He caught the waitress' eye and gave her his order.
"Sears?" Phil stared at the store, then swung back to face Agent Delaware. "What are we doing here?"
"Buying you a couple of suits," Delaware replied. "What's the first principle of cammo, Coulson?"
"To not be seen."
"And how do you do that? Those clothes, that greasepaint, the twigs and branches you stick on yourself, how do they help you not be seen?"
"They confuse and distract the eye," Phil said slowly, "so that you blend in to the background." He turned back to the store.
"You're not blending in with bushes now, Coulson," Delaware said with a nod. "People see a cheap suit on an average-looking guy who spouts off a long acronym when asked where he works, and they think they have you pegged. Minor government flunky, no need to pay attention."
"From what I've seen, 'inconspicuous' is not what I associate your organization with," Phil said dryly.
"Sometimes you have to stand out to get the job done," Delaware said. "But inconspicuous will get you in the door unnoticed so you can be in the right place, at the right time."
As they walked into the store, Phil noted that they walked with no urgency, but not dawdling, perfectly with the flow of traffic. Blending in. When they got to the mens' section, they were the only ones there. "So, if you want subtle, why pick a Ranger? We're not exactly known for being bland and boring."
"Sometimes we need flash and dash, too," Delaware said. "But you look so incredibly ordinary it would be a shame to waste it. He paused. "Do you know how to tell the difference between a cheap suit and an expensive one?"
Phil shook his head. "Not unless I have the price tag in front of me." He'd never paid much attention to what he wore, one way or the other.
"That's okay. You can learn."