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Around the Worlds

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The Initiative spent the next few weeks tightening up their security - around the island, around their allies, and especially around the portal generator. And they decided to try to avoid the various iterations of the Lantern Corps by having Jarvis pick a new starting location which was just outside that general area of inter-universe contamination but close enough that the heroes there would still need a heads-up about Thanos and the Skrulls - and about the Lantern Corps as well, just in case. Even with all of the precautions, though, Tony and Reed were more than a little nervous the next time they sat down to start passing along warnings again, even with Josie listening via Jarvis and Stephen standing ready to pop in, as well as both of them being ready to call in Max if he was needed. Only if he was needed, though; it had been generally agreed upon that Max shouldn’t be seen by anyone on the other side of a portal unless he absolutely had to be.

The first new universe they encountered brought them into contact with, somewhat surprisingly, a group of paranormal researchers on an Earth that had problems with aggressive ghosts and magic-using megalomaniacs. It also had Skrulls, though, and one of those Skrulls was disguised to look exactly like Thor, which pissed the thunder-god off immensely; he insisted on going through the portal to protect the four female researchers while they figured out what his doppleganger had been up to. While he was there the others encountered multiple other universes that had Ghostbusters: one with four older men, one with four younger men and a woman, one with one of the men, the woman, and several much younger people they were apparently training, and two with two completely different men and a talking gorilla. They were all at different points in their respective historical timelines but still technologically very similar, so Stephen and Reed decided to get them all in contact with one another and let them do their own reaching out via their own versions of the portal, which a few of them had already been using to access the Netherworld. Thor came back home via that route with the news that those universes were also the result of cross-contamination, not merely the natural variations inherent in the multiverse. “The older, male versions were using technology which they did not fully understand,” he explained. “It was necessary to defeat their enemy, who was a god of destruction called forth to enslave their world, but the opening of the rift and the explosion of power they initiated to close it caused their particular pattern to replicate in the fabric of nearby worlds.”

“Just like what happened in the Lantern Corps universes.” Reed shook his head. “The warping the originators of the Corps caused in the fabric of that part of the multiverse may have been what allowed it to happen in the first place.”

“True,” Stephen agreed. “That sort of replicatory crossover isn’t a common occurrence, even with the rift the originals opened factored in. Any idea why the Skrulls wanted someone there who looked like you, Thor?”

Thor nodded. “Two reasons. The first was because my appearance would serve to distract Dr. Gilbert from her work, and ‘Kevin’s’ apparent rejection of her in favor of her teammates might have caused disruption in their team. Dr. Yates explained the problem to me in more detail: she said Dr. Gilbert had been somewhat desperate to find an appropriate mate due to her age, and that putting her into close quarters with a ‘perfect male specimen’ such as myself had been a cruel but at least temporarily effective tactic. I offered apologies to Dr. Gilbert for this, as my Jane also complains that my presence in her lab is a distraction. As to the other reason, I believe they were using my likeness to track our movement through the multiverse. It was a trap, but one I am not sorry we sprung, as I believe the Skrull would have eventually sabotaged Dr. Holtzmann’s equipment, causing a cataclysmic event in the city center.”

“After thumbing through her schematics, I’d say you aren’t overstating that,” Tony snorted. “At least the older guys have alarms and things built into theirs in case something goes wrong, she doesn’t even put in warning lights. What about the other Skrulls?”

“Taken care of,” Thor said. “With Miss Patty’s knowledge of the city it was fairly simple to track down their cell and destroy it; the relevant authorities blamed a combination of faulty gas and electric lines, as the building was old.” He smiled. “She is a warrior maiden worthy of Asgard. She, too, had been unable to find a mate, as most of the men there are weak. I found three who were worthy of her while I was hunting down the remaining Skrulls and advised them on how best to seek her favor.”

Tony decided to let that one pass without comment. “So the bad guys not only know we’re out there, now they have a way to know where we’re going. But if we don’t spring those traps, we’re pretty much giving those worlds to the Skrulls. So we should just…keep going, I guess?”

Thor nodded, and Reed shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Nothing has actually changed.”

“True, it hasn’t,” Stephen agreed. “This has always been dangerous, we knew that going in. The Skrulls were probably already on most of those worlds, or at least nearby and planning to infiltrate. So we really don’t have anything to lose by continuing on.”

“That we do not,” Thor said. “And the others we contact have much to gain - not the least of which may be their continued survival.”

 

Clay agreed with that assessment when he got back to base, and so did the rest of the Initiative, so they kept going. The ‘route’ they were taking gradually started putting them in contact with universes which relied less on magic and more on tech, which led to a few consecutive universes where the portal connected to some kind of military base, all but one of which started shooting before anyone could so much as say hello. That last one did let them pass on part of their message, but insisted that they already knew all about aliens trying to take over the planet and had it under control, thank you very much. Tony got pretty huffy about that. “So you’d rather we hadn’t tried to warn you?”

The officer he was talking to, an older man in a wrinkled uniform with a patch that said ONEILL, rolled his eyes. “We’d rather you hadn’t opened up an unshielded portal right in the middle of our base to do it, yeah.”

That got Reed huffy too. “This portal isn’t unshielded! That would be incredibly dangerous. Not to mention unethical in the extreme.”

A woman with short blond hair, also in uniform, came cautiously up beside O’Neill. Her patch said CARTER. “Wait, that’s a shielded portal, and it’s that small? What are you using for the power source?”

“Tesserium, it’s an element I invented,” Tony said, calming back down. “What are you using for yours? And don’t say you don’t have one, because you recognized ours the minute you saw it.”

“We’re using…an element from another planet,” she said, and looked relieved when he just nodded. “You invented yours?”

“I kind of had to, the one I was using before was killing me.” Tony pulled up his shirt so she could see the arc reactor. “I got the problem I originally needed this to solve fixed, so now it just powers my suit. I have Dr. Richards’ portal generator hooked up to one just a little bit bigger than this one, but the one we use to power our base is about the size of a coffee table.”

Carter had a look on her face Tony saw a lot on Reed and Bruce, and occasionally on himself; it was scientific avarice. “Would you be willing to give us the plans?”

Tony sat back in his chair, smoothing the fabric of his shirt back down. “If I could be sure you were the good guys, yeah, sure - that’s what this whole portal-calling circle is about, like I tried to tell you before. We’re trying to head off an extradimensional being who wants to take over the multiverse. Someone else warned us - and saved our asses - so now we’re paying it forward.”

O’Neill folded his arms across his chest. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?”

Tony did the same thing. “How do I know that if I come over there you won’t shoot me and steal my arc reactor? Or try to send guys with guns through to take all our toys?”

For some reason, that made both of the military people jump. “Wait,” Carter said, blue eyes widening even more. “You’re saying this portal is two-way?”

“It would be very inefficient if it wasn’t,” Reed huffed. “My initial prototype was one-way, but that’s because I hadn’t finished it yet.” He got a horrified look on his face. “You people have been using a one-way portal?!”

That time O’Neill’s eyes widened in alarm. “You say that…like it’s a bad thing?”

“It’s a terribly dangerous thing,” Reed scolded. “Not being sure of your way back aside, the lack of a two-way connection can cause torsion in the wormhole. At the very least it’s bound to be a very rough ride, at worst…well, I’m guessing if you’d seen that you wouldn’t still be using it.” He frowned. “Let me come take a look. If you’re using alien technology, it’s possible they limited their portal’s functionality just in case it fell into someone else’s hands.”

Carter raised an eyebrow at him. “You’d trust us?”

“You’d have a very difficult time harming me,” Reed told her. “How volatile is your power source?”

“Beyond nuclear,” O’Neill said dryly. “Even in the tiny little amounts we have of it.”

“Radiating?” Tony wanted to know.

“Not a whole lot.”

“Not at a level that’s dangerous to humans,” Carter corrected.

“Is it shielded?”

Carter and O’Neill looked at each other. “We think so?”

Reed swore. “Jarvis, I need Sue and Johnny!”

O’Neill took in Tony’s reaction to that. “Um, that’s bad too, I take it?”

“It’s always bad if you make Reed swear,” Tony told him. “Jarvis, get Jake and Steve…”

“Captain Rogers is on the mainland, sir.”

“Then get Colonel Clay. And Josie.”

“I had Mrs. Rogers patched in, sir. She says they are telling the truth, they are ‘the good guys’.” A pause. “She is laughing, she says yourself and General O’Neill should not be in the same room together, the two of you would never stop trying to mark your respective territories.”

That made Carter crack up, even though she tried not to. O’Neill gave her a dirty look. “I can send you to Antarctica to work with McKay, Carter.”

“Not if you want him to stay alive, sir.”

“Point.” He returned his attention to Tony, who looked disgruntled now. “Glad I’m not the only one who has to put up with that.”

“Oh, we all do,” Tony told him. “I can only blame myself for Jarvis, though - I programmed him to talk to me that way.”

Carter’s eyes had gone wide again. “A.I.?”

“A.I.” Tony confirmed. “Snarky British A.I., to be specific.”

“Thank you, sir. I exist to serve.”

That even got a snicker out of O’Neill. “No, you can’t have one,” he told Carter. “I get enough of that from you and Teal’c and Danny.”

Clay came jogging into the room. “Jarvis said we’re talking to the military…oh, hey General, Major,” he said. “I’m Colonel Clay, the administrative leader of the Avengers Initiative.” He saw O’Neill react to that. “Heard of us?”

“I’ve heard of the Avengers, yeah - in comic books,” O’Neill said. “Coincidence?”

“Probably not - we’ve already been somewhere where a bunch of our comic book characters were real people,” Tony told him. He waved. “Hi, I’m Iron Man.” He saw O’Neill get that reference but Carter didn’t. “Shame on you,” he said, shaking his finger at her. “You chose science over comic books instead of choosing both, which means you’ve been deprived of knowing how magnificent I am.”

“You were actually kind of a jerk,” O’Neill pointed out.

“Not in this universe,” Reed put in. “He is in some of the others, though.” Sue and Johnny had arrived, both in uniform, and he shed the lab coat he was wearing, draping it over the back of the chair. “Keep the portal open,” he told Tony. “Anyone who detects it will no doubt think it’s theirs. And I might need you to pass through tools.”

“I can pass through our spare reactor if they need it,” Tony told him. “While you’re working, Jarvis and I can check to see if the tessarium will be stable over there. And be sure and tell them about the other you, the careless one.”

“Other…”

“That happens when you communicate with alternate realities,” Carter told O’Neill in a reminding tone. “You run into different versions of yourself.”

“We’re actually pretty well used to it at this point,” Tony said. “We’ve only got a few people here who don’t exist anywhere else so far.”

“So far,” Reed echoed. He stepped through the portal, very cautiously, and then waved Sue, Johnny and Clay through. “General O’Neill, Major Carter. This is my wife, Sue Storm-Richards, and her brother Johnny Storm.” He raised an eyebrow at O’Neill, who had reacted again. “The Fantastic Four are here in comic-book form as well?”

“They are,” O’Neill said, offering his hand. “Dr. Richards, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Accident in space?”

“Accident in space,” Reed confirmed. “I can have Ben come through later if you’d like to meet him as well, but first we need to have a look at your…” O’Neill stepped aside, and Reed’s eyes widened. “Oh dear, it must have been designed to fly through. Tony, can you see this?”

“Thank god they don’t have it hooked into the grid, that would blow a nuclear plant right through the mantle,” Tony said. “I’m not sure the spare reactor would power one that big. I’ll do the math, we’ll see.”

Clay had already greeted O’Neill and Carter and was frowning at the giant ring. “That could also have been used for troop movements,” he observed, and grimaced when O’Neill nodded. “Well crap. You don’t have Skrulls here, do you? Lizard-looking warrior aliens that can camouflage themselves to look like humans?”

O’Neill was looking alarmed now. “We have nutjobs saying lizard people have taken the place of world leaders.”

“Then you might have Skrulls,” Clay told him. “Tony, we may need that reciprocating thingamajig you guys got from Dr. Holtzmann.”

“It’s a reciprocating quantum ion-based plasma projector,” Tony corrected. That device had been a find and a half, because it meant they could uncover a disguised Skrull from a distance and without needing to have Josie or Max present. “I’ll send through the schematics, they can build their own - or they might already have something like it they can tweak, we’ll see.” And then he giggled, because Reed had stretched up to examine the top mechanism on the ring, Carter’s mouth had dropped open and O’Neill looked like Christmas had come early for him. “I’ll send them through with Ben, this one’s gonna make him happy. Do you guys have magic over there?”

That made O’Neill jump and turned Carter’s smile into a frown. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

“Over here there is,” Tony corrected her. “I’ll take that to mean you don’t have any. No gods either?”

“Those are just aliens…”

“Yes, but they’re still gods - trust me, we do know the difference. We have Asgardians here, and apparently the Greek contingent are around somewhere too but I’ve never met any of them. Do you have any aliens like that?”

“We have Asgardians,” O’Neill confirmed. “Little gray dudes.” Tony’s eyebrows went up. “Not little gray dudes?”

“Not even close. Jarvis…”

“Prince Thor is already on his way, sir.”

Thor showed up in the doorway a few seconds later, hammer in hand. “Jarvis says my people are there, but yet they are not?”

Tony shook his head. “These guys think Asgardians are little gray people.” Thor’s expression darkened, and somewhere outside thunder rumbled. “You know them?”

“There are stories…” Thor held out Mjolnir, letting it just barely touch the surface of the portal; he jerked it back quickly and thunder rumbled again. He offered the startled O’Neill a short bow. “These creatures are acting as your allies, so I will not come through and avenge the deaths of my people in your universe; their own race appears cursed to die, it is enough. But do bear in mind that they will destroy any they believe are too powerful, or seek to stunt development to prevent power’s growth.”

He stalked back out, and Tony traded a look with O’Neill, then shrugged. “I don’t know what that was all about. Yours are helping you?”

“When they feel like it. We’ve been fighting some common enemies. And Thor likes me - my little gray Thor, not your really buff Nordic Thor.”

“He is that.” Tony sat back in his chair again. “I don’t suppose you had Captain America over there, did you?”

“As a comic book, just like you. He’s real?”

“Yep. Right now ours is over on the mainland, probably doing his tour guide shtick to amuse the tourists.” He considered for a moment. “Tell you what, once he comes back for the evening, come on over and meet everyone. I can control my urge to mark territory if you can.”

That made O’Neill chuckle. “Yeah, I can too. I would like to see your setup over there. That just looks like…a conference room.”

“It is. Well, was. We inherited our current base from a cartel boss, it was tricked-out like a Bond villain’s lair.” Tony squinted through the portal. “I’m guessing you guys are underground, that looks like government-issue rabbit-warren construction. I keep trying to get our NORAD to upgrade, but they’re cheap.”

“Tell me about it. Half my paperwork load is budget stuff - as in, trying to convince some bean-counter that I should have one.”

Clay re-entered the conversation then. “Covert?”

O’Neill snorted. “All the way to hell and back. You guys?”

“Not anymore. Or at least, not the way my team and some of the others had been.” It was Clay’s turn to snort. “Right now, of course, we’re trying to keep an interdimensional intergalactic war and a foothold situation under wraps, which is a whole different level of covert.”

“Tell me about it,” O’Neill said again. “Some days I’m amazed people buy the bullshit stories we keep having to tell.” He grimaced, though. “Of course, the ones who don’t…”

Clay nodded. “Yeah, that part sucks. He clapped the other man on the shoulder. “Tell you what, after dinner we’ll go up on the patio and have a few cold ones, trade some stories - our base is on an island, it’s got one hell of a view…”

 

Jack O’Neill had never seen anything quite like the Initiative’s base - except in comic books, of course. Which made sense, since almost everyone who lived and/or worked there was a comic book character. On his Earth, anyway. Aside from that, though, they were a really great bunch of people and he went back to his own government-issue base feeling like the fate of the multiverse was in good hands. And weirdly feeling personally just…better, although he wasn’t exactly sure why or about what. He’d had a great dinner, shot the shit with Clay and another colonel named Rhodes who they’d brought over from their Air Force just to meet him, and got to see some magic and some sea monsters - holy shit, they had actual sea monsters - and met Captain America and his wife. Who, weirdly, had hugged him before he’d gone back through the portal, then looked him in the eye and said, ‘It wasn’t your fault’ apropos of nothing, which none of the other people present seemed to think was weird at all.

Carter was sulking when he came back through, and Jack raised a hand to stop whatever was about to come out of her mouth once the portal had closed behind him. “If that’s a complaint, I don’t want to hear it. The ‘Gate is fixed now?”

She made a face. “Yes. The Ancients apparently did have the full functionality locked down to try to keep unauthorized people from using it. And it had a shield of its own, Dr. Richards turned it on and showed me how it works. And then he had a talk with Janet about the radiation and recalibrated some of her equipment to be able to monitor it. I already took the schematics for the quantum ion-based plasma projector down to R&D…”

“Not…”

“No, the one who isn’t working for Area 51. He said we can build it, it’s actually a little bit below our current level of technology so he doesn’t think we’re going to have any problem building it at all. Unlike the reactor schematics they sent over, which I’m probably going to give to McKay to figure out.”

“Okay.” Jack raised an eyebrow. “So, what’s the problem? They didn’t bring any magic or their resident god over here. Didn’t you like the Fantastic Four?”

She made the face again. “You left me here with four superheroes who science says shouldn’t exist. And Janet went fangirl over Mr. Grimm.”

Jack smiled. He wasn’t touching that one - Janet had needles, big ones. “And?”

A sigh. “Johnny Storm told me he was glad he didn’t live in this universe, because he’d probably have to stand in line just to ask me out for coffee.”

“Coming from him, that’s a pretty amazing compliment,” Jack told her. “What else?”

“They’re all convinced that magic exists.”

“Magic does exist - in their universe. One of their teammates confirmed that we don’t have any here.” Actually what their resident sorcerer Dr. Strange had said was that they didn’t have his kind of magic, but Jack didn’t want to start splitting that hair with Carter. Or even thinking about it too hard - he’d let that sleeping dog lie until it walked up and barked at him. “Anything else?” She shook her head. “Okay, we can do a full debrief tomorrow. For right now, though, there’s something I need you to quietly get someone looking into. Their base is on an island surrounded by sea monsters - genetic mutations from an irradiated trench their government sort-of-kind-of-probably had a big hand in creating through illegal dumping and unreported spills,” he told her. “It’s around 180 miles off the coast of New York, and they’ve found similar trenches on other Earths. If we’ve got that same problem brewing, I need a report on it yesterday. Because one of those mutations is a dead ringer for Godzilla, and we don’t have superheroes running around who can keep that sort of problem under control the way they do. I guess the smaller ones popping up in the Bay have become such a common occurrence that people in the area line up on the rooftops to watch now instead of running for their lives.”

He could see the exact moment her science-brain kicked back in, which was what he’d intended. “Did they say how long the situation took to get to that point?” His answer was to pull a sheaf of papers out of his jacket and hand them over. “I know just the person, General. I’ll get hold of him tonight.”

“Don’t give him too many details,” he warned. “We’ll have a meeting tomorrow before the debrief to discuss the rest of the information they gave me, and then you and I will decide how best to write up our report so we don’t get thrown in a padded room.” He turned and headed for the doors; he’d stay on base tonight, their beer had been a little stronger than what he usually drank. Okay, a lot stronger. “Good night, Carter.”

“Good night, sir.”

 

Back in the Avengers’ universe, Clay had returned to the patio for another beer after seeing O’Neill back through the portal. Rhodey was still there too, but he’d declined the offer of a second bottle. “I do not want to go debrief tomorrow with an Asgardian hangover,” he said. “And no, I wasn’t lying to him. Our Area 51 has only ever been used for regular testing - planes, drones, and weapons. And most of the weapons got there by way of Tony’s workshop.”

“Yeah, I think our version of their Area 51 is SHIELD,” Clay agreed. “What about that NID thing he mentioned, I’ve never heard of it.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Rhodey told him. “It was the National Internal Defense Department, it was only active for around twelve years and then in the early sixties they shut it down - the only place anyone ever sees it mentioned is in reports connected to really old super-classified files. They were basically a watchdog agency, keeping an eye out for things that the government didn’t think should be happening on American soil. They’d investigate sightings of unusual or unnatural things, monitor private labs to see if someone was pursuing research they shouldn’t be, and keep tabs on groups whose activities might be considered suspicious. They weren’t crackpots,” he said before Clay could comment. “All that weird shit Steve saw in Europe, that’s the kind of thing they were on the lookout for. They were supposed to stop it before it could get started.”

Clay frowned, taking a pull from his bottle. “Did they get rolled into SHIELD?”

Rhodey shook his head. “SHIELD was what got them shut down. Most likely for all the wrong reasons, given what we know now.”       

“Hmm. Jarvis, are there records you can access about that?”

“Very few, Colonel,” Jarvis answered immediately, and Clay spared a moment to reflect that he was getting pretty fucking spoiled by having the world’s most advanced A.I. ready to present him with any information he wanted at a moment’s notice. “I will put together a report for you with pertinent files. Shall I incorporate the information Captain Rogers has given me about related incidents as well?”

He liked being spoiled, being spoiled was awesome. “Yes please,” he said. “And set up a meeting for me with Steve, Bucky, Tony, and Colonel Rhodes to go over that information sometime this week, whenever everyone’s schedule allows.”  

The very slightest pause. “Thursday evening at nine-thirty, Colonel Clay. Colonel Rhodes, shall I arrange transportation for you?”

“Yes, thank you Jarvis. Magic or cat?”

“I will make sure a lint brush is provided for you, Colonel.”

Rhodey chuckled. “I appreciate that, thanks.” Blue popped into being next to him, giving him a look of feline contempt, then very deliberately rubbed against his leg before popping out again. He rolled his eyes. “Are you sure that thing isn’t sentient?”

“You’re just asking to have her rematerialize in your lap,” Clay warned him, taking another drink. “And the answer is sort of, maybe, and nobody’s really sure. What she just did, though…that was mostly just because she’s a cat.”

The other man blinked at him, then shook his head and leaned over to grab another bottle of beer. “Jarvis,” he announced, “reschedule that meeting for tomorrow and let my superiors know that I’ll be back once we’re done trying to sort out the information General O’Neill gave us. Tell them I said I’m hoping none of it’s relevant to us but we’re not taking any chances, and sign the message with code Zulu-Peter-Beta-5-8-1.”

A pause. “Done, Colonel. And I have taken the liberty of adding Mr. Bryce-Tegan to the meeting roster so that he may assist with identifying relevant patterns in the gathered data.”

“Sounds good. Thank you, Jarvis.” Rhodey popped the top off the bottle and took a long pull. “Holy shit we’re all spoiled.”

Clay just laughed into his beer.