Bruce sighed at the diagnostics spread out on the monitor in front of him and pinched the bridge of his nose. Three hours of staring at readings from a lost undersea probe, and he still had no idea why it had gone dark.
“Nothing?” Jane asked, glancing over her shoulder. He shook his head, and her expression turned sympathetic. “It sucks when that happens.”
“Yeah. Six months designing all those instruments, and it just,” he flicked his hand at the display, “disappears.”
“Nothing from the S.H.I.E.L.D. satellites?”
“Nothing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, gone. Just like that.” A subtle pressure was building up behind his temples, which was Bruce’s cue to take a break. He gathered the data into a single file and sent the report off to Fury with a swipe, then turned towards the physics lab door, his mind set on the kitchenette and its promise of coffee. “Want anything? Tea? Coffee? Hemlock?”
“No thanks, I’m good.”
Clint, Natasha, Thor, and Erik were gathered around the briefing room table, going over at what little data the probe had spat back. There was no sign of Tony or Steve, and Bruce suspected they were making one last sweep before they called it a loss. He poured himself some coffee, taking care to avoid the pot of battery acid that Thor was particularly fond of, and joined them.
“Hey, Doc,” Clint said as he spread out charts and images with flicks of his hand. “Sorry about your robot.”
Bruce shook his head and sipped from his mug. “It happens.” One of the ocean maps had a path laid out that detailed the probe’s route just prior to its disappearance. It had come within a mere five hundred meters of their target: the site where Howard Stark had recovered the Tesseract.
Erik was already organizing the charts and tables into piles which, at a quick glance, Bruce suspected could be loosely labeled ‘Jane will want to see these’ and ‘Tony and Bruce get to deal with these’. “Have you looked at these data, Bruce? I know there’s not much, but some of it’s fascinating. We could still do quite a bit with just this.” Erik pointed at a series of graphs. “There’s clearly a trail from the Tesseract being moved by the ocean currents before Howard Stark recovered it, even all these years later.”
“What I was really hoping for was video footage,” Bruce admitted. He couldn’t help how despondent he sounded; it had been a half a year’s worth of work, after all. He leaned against the table and gave their meager collection a bleak look. “A good, live, in progress view of any lingering effects from the Tesseract.”
Clint offered Bruce an apologetic half-smile. “Sorry--vid feed was black. These were interesting, though." He tapped a set of image files and they expanded into the main viewer area of the table.
The probe had been equipped with two separate cameras, one for live streaming video and one for single-frame, high resolution capture. While the former had died minutes after the probe had first detected low-level gamma radiation, the later had functioned for a good hour before giving out. Clint’s selected images were a little cloudy and low-contrast, but Bruce could still discern a vague shape in them: a long, enormous wedge that suggested a serpentine head, resting against--or holding?--a thick appendage.
Erik leaned in and turned the images this way and that. He adjusted the display settings, and the ‘head’ shape became easier to recognize, complete with eye ridges, nostrils, and a jawline, and it was definitely holding something in its mouth.
Incredulous, Bruce said, "A sea monster," and Clint shrugged.
"No idea. They did a couple passes with the sub as close as they could get and couldn't find anything. Given the size,” he pointed at the scale bar, “it should have been impossible to miss, even from where they were. None of the satellites are picking up anything either. This is all we’ve got.”
Next to him, Bruce heard Erik murmur something under his breath as he traced the outline of the thing’s head.
"What was that?" Natasha asked.
Erik repeated, "Jörmungandr," and he looked up at Thor. Natasha went still in that way she did when she was on guard and wary.
Thor, of all of them, was the only one not amazed, perplexed, exasperated, or some combination of those things by the pictures. (Though near as Bruce could tell the only things that ever fazed him were Earth's backwards technology and cultural oddities as compared to what he was used to in Asgard.) He examined the images with mild curiosity, then met Erik's gaze.
Clint raised an eyebrow. "Come again?"
"In the old stories, Jörmungandr is the Midgard Serpent," Erik said. He kept watching Thor, who made a low sound and went back to the pictures. "He lives in the ocean and encircles the Earth, holding his tail in his mouth. When he lets go and rises from the deep, he will lay waste to Earth’s sky, and Ragnarök will begin."
No one said anything for a few seconds. Bruce cleared his throat. "So, ah, we shouldn't wake it up. Is what you're saying."
Erik turned to Bruce, his eyes wide. "Oh certainly not. But it won't be a matter of anyone waking him. He'll come forth on his own, when he knows it's time."
Clint groaned and ran a hand over his face. "And then we're all really screwed?"
Natasha turned an image so it was facing her. "In the stories, a warrior fights him. He wins and saves Earth, then takes nine steps and dies from its venom."
Erik nodded in agreement. Bruce ran a hand through his hair. "And do the stories say who this warrior is?"
Erik and Natasha both looked at Thor.
"Oh," Bruce said. Clint blew out a breath.
Thor reached out to touch one of the pictures, zooming in on it. After several seconds, he said, "They are merely stories. After all--do these tales not also say Jörmungandr is Loki's child, and that Loki will fight Heimdall to the death?" He cast a somber look among them, implying the inherent impossibility of the later given recent events.
They all stood in silence until Clint broke the heavy mood by shoving away from the table. “Either way, it was there, then it wasn’t. Kind of a moot point unless we find it again.”
“Indeed it is,” Thor agreed, and went into the kitchenette. They all watched him go, then Erik closed the images with a gesture, and he and Bruce went over what little data the probe had sent back while Clint and Natasha prepared a report for Fury.
Some time later Bruce saw Thor standing out on the deck, staring into the distance with a pensive expression. The leaden winter sky had finally given up pretenses, and the snow was falling so thick that the city was a cluster of dim, gray shapes lurking beyond a hazy white curtain. The forecasts were calling for at least four inches in the next twelve hours.
Bruce bundled himself up and joined Thor without preamble. Thor looked askance at him.
“Was any of the information your machine gathered of use?”
“Some. The Tesseract definitely had an effect down there. Now we have to decide if it’s worth trying to send another one to see how much of an effect.”
“Is it possible the Tesseract’s lingering influence might have been what damaged the machine?”
“Hard to say, really.” Bruce grimaced. “It’s one of those fun things we call an unknown unknown. We sent something down there to see what it might have done to the surrounding environment, and the probe died. So did the probe die because of what we were searching for, or did one of us just make a huge mistake somewhere along the way?”
“You and Stark are the most skilled artificers on all of Midgard. If there was a mistake, I doubt that it was yours.”
Bruce coughed a laugh. “Not that I don’t appreciate the vote of confidence, but it’s not like Tony and I don’t fuck up in spectacular ways on a regular basis. Just, we usually manage to keep it in the lab, where no one can see it happen.”
“But you have Jane and the rest of the scientists under Fury’s command to check your work for such instances.”
“Hey, no fair bringing Jane into it. Then I can’t say it was designer error without insulting her and pissing you off.”
Thor’s mouth twitched in a repressed smile, and his eyes went back to the city. Tony was always saying Thor didn’t have a sense of humor, but Bruce wasn’t so sure; his brother hadn’t been called the God of Mischief for nothing, and he’d heard Thor yank Tony’s chain on more than one occasion.
Bruce found that Thor’s teasing did help assuage some of his battered ego, which he appreciated. He willed himself to let the perception of failure subside. “There’s no way to know without sending another one. The subs can’t get close enough to where we really want to examine, and don’t have the right instruments.”
“A smaller machine, then? One that will not be so costly if it, too, is lost?”
“Maybe.” Bruce scuffed at the snow piling up on the deck. “I’ll make sure there’s a camera. In case, ah, we see it again.”
Thor grunted. “You will not. I suspect it was merely an accident you did this time. Perhaps the Tesseract had revealed it, and it did not know until your machine sensed it, or perhaps it has grown sloppy. No matter the reason, it will not expose itself again.”
Bruce blinked at him. “So you think it’s really down there? That wasn’t just an artifact, or the camera randomly glitching?”
“Our parents told us a great many tales when we were children to frighten us into obeying them. The Dark Elves were one such tale.” Thor paused there, letting the reality of some months ago speak for itself. “The Jörmungandr was as well.”
“Did that include the part where you die fighting it? Because that’s one hell of a bedtime story.”
Thor laughed, though the sound held no humor. “That part they did not mention. I found it some time later, while picking through my mother’s library.”
“Well, I mean--doesn’t that worry you? It’s supposed to kill you.”
"I do not believe in destiny."
Bruce snorted. "That's kind of funny coming from the guy who rides around on a rainbow bridge and has a magic hammer no one else can move, not even me."
That got another laugh out of Thor, and when he turned to Bruce his expression was one of genuine mirth. "I suppose to you it must seem so." He tilted his head. "Anyone may make predictions of the future based on what they see, and be right or wrong due to many things over which they have no control. You have people here who study the weather in an attempt to predetermine its course,” he nodded out at the snow, “that you may make wiser decisions. Yet with little effort I could invalidate all of their predictions, and it would be no shame to them or their science. So it is with destiny. Either you expend effort in making it come true, and so it was not destiny save that you strove for it, or you work to actively prevent it, and if that is successful, it was not destined."
"But what about when you try to prevent it and it still happens, or happens because of what you did?"
"Then you have merely given a special name to your plans and efforts coming to naught."
Thor was clearly holding something back, and Bruce knew what that meant by now. "Which is something we short-lived beings do when we can't accept that sometimes life is capricious."
Thor had the decency to look at least somewhat apologetic. "As you say."
"Uh huh." Bruce toyed with the fringe on his ratty scarf. "So you're not concerned? If that really is the Midgard Serpent down there..."
"There is nothing to be concerned about. If Jörmungandr rises and attempts to destroy Midgard, I will fight him, as will all of you if it happens within your lifetimes. If he is a foe capable of killing me, then I may die. It is no different than facing Malekith, or my brother, or the Chitauri, or the hundreds of other powerful foes we have and will yet meet in battle."
"There aren't old stories about any of them killing you."
"There may be, but we simply do not know of them. Would knowing of them matter? The mere existence of such an omen does not guarantee it will come to pass.” Thor raised his eyebrows. “After all, do your people not believe my father's horse Sleipnir was born of Loki?"
Thor’s answer was a sly smile. Bruce rolled his eyes. "Right. Not getting that one out of you."
“You cannot expect me to confirm or deny every tale relating to me and my people that Midgardians have come up with in the last two millennia. It would ruin the mystery for you.”
“How about just the more interesting ones?”
“They are all of them quite interesting.”
Bruce held up a hand in defeat. “Okay, okay. I get it.” He shuddered and nodded at the door. “Natasha’s making spiked cocoa. Want to try some?”
“The chocolate drink, but with spirits?”
“Yeah. Though knowing her it’s not gonna be just anything. Some combination of vodka and a half-dozen liqueurs if that collection of bottles was any indication.”
Thor turned to join him. “That sounds like it will be worth investigating.”
As he slid open the door, Bruce said, “Maybe we can get you drunk enough to spill on some of those stories.”
Thor’s eyes glinted. “You are welcome to try.”