Undisclosed location, Kazakhstan
-11ºC. Light Flurries.
“Fuck, it’s cold.”
The words were loud in her earpiece— just the latest in a stream of pointless commentary from the man who was now approaching from the cover of darkness, less than twenty yards away.
Agent Fromm chose to ignore him, just as she’d ignored his earlier observations on the moon (“Like a fuckin’ light bulb,”) the stale, sulfurous smell of the earth (“God, it’s like a backed-up drain,”) or his errors in judgment (“Knew I shoulda taken a leak when I had the chance.”)
Muñoz liked to ramble on, but that didn’t mean she needed to respond. He’d keep on talking, either way. She filtered out his voice, along with her own extraneous thoughts, as she rounded the dark corner of the building, trying to keep her eyes steady and her mind focused, even as she felt Muñoz come up from behind to join her.
Fromm was a tiny wisp of a woman: at only five-foot-two, and wearing almost her own weight in tac gear, she didn’t tend to inspire fear in those who beheld her, which was precisely why Coulson favored her for this kind of work. Agent Fromm was chronically underestimated.
She and Muñoz were almost done with their sweep, having split up to circle the entire warehouse. Now that they’d met up on the opposite side, they began to creep back around together, to the set of doors on the front of the building: apparently the only potential point of entry, other than the sealed-up loading dock.
Fromm had been expecting more chatter from Muñoz as they made their way back, but maybe the man had finally taken the fuckin’ hint, because he kept his mouth shut for a few blessed minutes.
For a time, the only sounds in the dead of night were her own breathing, the soft, barely-there hiss of the open channel in her ear, and the crunch of their boots on the straw-like grass that covered much of the surrounding property, spreading its way over walkways and filling in old tire-tracks: reclaiming the land, in the inevitable way that only the relentless press of nature, and time, could do.
Without the buildings, it would have been almost idyllic, at least in warmer weather: the open plain, endless carpets of waving green undulating in the breeze like sea grass on a vast ocean floor. But now, in the gloom of the dark and the cold, it was just another reminder of the harshness of life. Frozen brittle, straw-brown and dead, it stretched for miles in all directions, poking up through the scattered patches of snow like tufts of desiccated fur.
Muñoz, for all his faults, had been right about the temperature: it was definitely cold for March— even for Fromm, who was no stranger to a challenging climate, having grown up on the tip of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. But even there, the third month of the year often brought the first flush of annual renewal: hopeful hints of green, as the tips of spring bulbs pressed up through the thawing soil, the cheerful twittering of birds returning to build their nests, and even the odd rain-shower, as the temperatures steadily climbed toward something more comfortable for human beings.
There was none of that here, in this bleak, sparsely populated plain, where the steppe gave way to its Siberian neighbor to the north… where herders, almost unchanged in their ways of a century ago, shared the polluted territory of distant smokestacks, and where winter hung on with cruel, icy claws.
The temperature had crawled even lower in the little time they’d been on the ground, made even colder by a biting breeze that was just intermittent enough to preclude any gradual getting used to it. If it’d been a sentient thing, she could’ve imagined it enjoying the way it toyed with them: having mercy for a stretch, only to return with a vengeance, like a reminder of just how unpleasant the life-giving air could be, if it so chose.
To Agent Fromm, it was just another shitty night on the job, and yeah: it was fuckin’ cold. But stating the obvious didn’t make it any less shitty, and she just wanted to get the job done— with as little bullshit as possible.
“We’re all clear,” she said into her mic, even as her eyes instinctively continued to sweep the lines of the massive building, resting finally on the heavy doors set into its north side.
The other two teams were reporting similar findings: no signs of life— no hints of any recent activity of any kind, in spite of the promising bit of intel that’d brought them here.
It was shaping up to be a dead end, but that was just fine with Fromm. If there wasn’t gonna be any action, then the sooner they could get out of here, the better.
The earpiece made a scratching burp, and then the clear, steady voice of Phil Coulson came through a second later:
“Roger that,” he said, and then added, “No sign of him here.” He sounded almost cheerful about it, though anyone who’d spent any time in the field with Coulson knew not to read too much into his manner.
After a pause he spoke again: “You want to get started on those doors?”
“Glad to,” said Fromm immediately, pleased that her boss trusted her to take lead on it, and she tilted her head to her partner, who reasserted his grip on his sidearm, nodding before he joined her in cautiously approaching the entrance.
A short set of steps led up to the double doors, with the loading dock to their right— a large, handleless square of battered corrugated metal, with no apparent mechanism to open it from the outside. It was a standard freight opening— big enough to accommodate a semi-trailer truck unloading cargo— but, like everything else on the site, had the feeling of not having been used in a very long time.
More of the straw-brown grass was creeping up through cracks in the crumbling cement steps, and the stair-rail’s paint was flaking away, revealing dirty rust beneath. The heavy steel doors were painted a murky, peeling maroon, each with a simple brass pipe-handle, deeply tarnished. A scuffed-up, dirty-white “14” was stenciled onto the left-hand door.
In another sign of age and long-standing disuse, the entire site was eerily bare of the usual modern electronics for lighting and security; the only visible fixtures were a pair of vintage gooseneck industrial lamps mounted above the double doors. Muñoz shined his field light at them; their domed shades were a well-worn, deep-green enameled porcelain.
“Dude,” he said, nodding at the fixtures. “We could totally sell those for a couple hundred bucks each. Like, to some hipsters in Brooklyn or something. They love that crap— like, that antiquey boho steampunk bullshit.”
Fromm actually snickered at that: not only because it was funny to hear Muñoz talk about decor, but also because he was probably right.
It seemed silly to simply go up and try the front doors, but after a moment of hesitation, she did just that: wrapped her gloved hand around one of the brass-handled door pulls, and gave it a little tug. As expected, it didn’t budge— nor did the other when she tried it; both sides were locked up tight.
“Here,” said Muñoz, indicating a worn panel mounted to the wall next to the doors. The cover was stuck, and he tapped on it clumsily a couple times with the grip of his sidearm until it came loose, and he lifted up the cover to reveal an ancient, analog keypad.
“Huh,” said Fromm, as Muñoz moved over for a minute, letting her get a look at it. “Never seen one of these in the field.” And then it was her turn to state the obvious: “I mean, that thing’s really old. Think it’s even still hooked up to anything? Operational?” She stepped away again, so he could get back in there.
“Doubt it,” he said, feathering a couple of the keys with his gloved finger. “We may have to blow the door. But let’s give it a whirl.”
Fromm stepped back, instinctively covering him while he was vulnerable, working on the panel. There was nothing to suggest there was anyone else around for miles, other than their own team members working the other buildings, but letting down your guard was how otherwise capable agents tended to fuck up an op, or even get themselves killed.
“Huh,” said Muñoz, echoing Fromm’s earlier reaction. He’d carefully pried and pulled the keypad a few centimeters out from the wall, careful not to dislodge its wires, and was applying the leads of his field multimeter to the connections. “We got current,” he said, with some surprise.
“Can you open it?”
“We’ll see,” he said. “One sec…”
After another few minutes of tinkering, there was an audible click from the general area of the door handles, and they both held their breath, which was also a bit silly: if something had been rigged to blow up, it would have already happened.
“I think that’s it,” said Muñoz. “Give it a try.”
She nodded silently and approached the door, pressing against one of the handles again, looking back to make eye contact with her partner as she felt the door give: it was unlocked.
They readied their weapons again, instinctively lowering their centers of gravity, and then both of them winced when Fromm pressed a bit harder on the door, not expecting the shrill and sustained creak, like a cry in the night, as the rusty hinges gave way under pressure, allowing the door to swing slowly inward. There was nothing to indicate any living soul would be awaiting them within, but if there had been, those noisy hinges had been as good as any security alarm.
Neither of them spoke after that, falling back to silent hand signals, as they stepped slow-motion through the doorway, one after the other.
It was pitch black inside, and they both quickly and quietly pulled down their night-vision goggles, splitting up to clear the interior— Muñoz going east, while Fromm went west. They were both scanning their way methodically, leading with their pistols in double-handed grips, their steps silent and sure, their training making all of it automatic.
The warehouse was massive, especially for something that looked to have been built in the mid-twentieth century: over thirty thousand square feet of storage space, with ceilings well over twenty feet high. Most of the space was filled with row after row of towering stacks of dusty wooden crates and old cardboard boxes, pushed tightly together to make the most use of the available storage area. Narrow lanes were left in between the stacked rows, barely wide enough to accommodate a small forklift.
It was cold— no warmer than it’d been outside— and they could see the cloudy-white puffs of their breath as they began to clear the building efficiently, professionally, one lane at a time on their respective sides, assuming nothing… though Fromm didn’t expect to find anything to support the intel, which was increasingly seeming more likely to be— to use a technical term— bullshit.
The entire place reeked of a lengthy state of abandonment. It was something you could sense in the air: a staleness… almost a kind of spiritual vacuum, if one could tune in to that sort of thing.
“I think it’s a dead end, sir,” she said into her mic, keeping her voice low, as she finished the sweep of her lanes.
“Just a lotta dust,” agreed Muñoz, over the link. He’d paused on his side, running a gloved hand along the top of one of the boxes, and then failed to stifle a sneeze as an enormous plume of dust rose from its surface.
“Remain vigilant,” came the response through their headsets.
“Fuckin’ creepy,” muttered Muñoz, to whomever was listening. “Reminds me of that scene at the end of Indiana Jones,” he said. “You know, the first one?” He paused for a second, glancing down to his boot, which had brushed against something on the otherwise smooth floor: it looked to be an ancient, mummified rat, and he kicked at it, knocking it toward the line of boxes to his right. He took up the slow sweep of his lane again, stepping carefully, the pistol still gripped in both hands, his elbows slightly bent.
Fromm had thought— hoped— that he was done with his story, but no such luck.
“It was the one where they crated up the Ark at the end— puttin’ it into deep storage with all that other shit— like, maybe forever.”
There was a pause— maybe waiting for Fromm to reply. When she remained silent, he went on: “Gave me the heebie-jeebies, somethin’ that powerful just hidin’ out for another who-knows-how-many years with all those other containers, all of ‘em lookin’ exactly the same…”
“Never seen it,” said Fromm, hoping that would put an end to the topic. She’d just completed her own sweep on the west side, and then headed cautiously around a corner, between a tall tower of wooden crates to another, smaller area, almost hidden behind the main room.
“What you mean, you never seen it,” said Muñoz. “You tellin’ me you never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark? For real?”
Her silence was answer enough, and Muñoz made a humored, scoffing noise into his mic. “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Grew up in foster shit-holes,” said Fromm, simply. “Missed a lot.”
“Well, we’re watchin’ it when we get back,” said Muñoz. “Because that’s a fuckin’ travesty.”
“Whatever,” said Fromm, hoping the guy would shut the fuck up so she could concentrate. She wished she’d been paired up with Jefferson; he had social anxiety and barely spoke unless asked a direct question, which, in her opinion, made him the perfect partner.
“There’s nothing here, sir,” she said into her mic. “Definitely nothing to indicate the target was here. Place is empty. I mean, we got a lot of boxes and crates, all sealed up, but no sign of life, not for a long time. Floor is covered in dust, no footprints but our own.”
“We’re done over here,” came the reply. “Heading your way. Hold your position.”
“Understood,” she said, turning the final corner, and then she stopped short, sucking in a breath.
“You got something?” asked Muñoz.
“Don’t know,” she said, and then realized she was whispering, and cleared her throat before speaking in a normal voice. “Maybe. I mean, yeah.”
“What you got,” said Coulson, in her ear.
She was still frozen in place, unsure how to describe was she was seeing.
Coulson again: “Fromm, report.”
She was fumbling, struggling to find the right words. “It, uh… God, what the hell is that?”
“Report,” said Coulson again. “What are you seeing? You got eyes on the target?”
“No,” she said, and then flinched when Muñoz was suddenly there, right behind her, at the end of the narrow alley between the last rows of crates. “Fuck, don’t do that,” she said to him, embarrassed that he’d managed to sneak up on her. She pushed her night-vision goggles up, out of the way, and scrambled to switch on her regular headlamp, trying to get a better look.
Muñoz didn’t bother with any snarky comebacks— he too had pushed up his goggles and, like Fromm, was simply staring, open-mouthed, at the thing at the end of alley.
“Whoa. Is that… that can’t be real, right? Gotta be some kind of joke. Like a mannequin.” Muñoz was still speaking into his mic, but his voice was right next to her other ear now, so she was getting him in stereo.
“Someone gonna tell me what you got?” said Coulson, his voice a little breathless, as though he were walking at a brisk pace, wherever he was.
“We, uh… I think it’s a man,” Fromm finally said, her eyes tracing down the shadowy shape in the… was it some kind of preservation tank?
“Dead or alive?”
“Unknown,” she said, stepping a little closer to it.
“What do you mean, unknown,” said Coulson. He might have sounded irritated, if he’d allowed that sort of emotion to come through his voice, which he didn’t.
Fromm moved in a little closer, trying to find the appropriate words to describe what she was seeing.
“I’m sorry, sir; it’s just… I’ve never seen anything quite like this…”
The over-ten-foot-tall tube-shaped tank looked as forgotten as anything else in the building, made of ancient-looking metal and some kind of smoothly-curved, reinforced glass that granted a complete— albeit shadowy in the minimal light—view of its occupant. Going by the shape of the thing inside, it looked to be a full-grown human being— most likely male, judging by the breadth of the shoulders— his body suspended, motionless, like an upright corpse in a showcase coffin. It was ancient tech, going by SHIELD standards, yet still succeeded in looking futuristic, nestled as it was among the thousands of featureless crates and boxes that filled the rest of the warehouse.
“You better get over here, Coulson,” said Fromm, her breath coming a little quicker.
“Already on my way,” came the reply.
She tried again: “It’s like—”
She didn’t know what it was like, but one thing was for sure: the assignment had taken a complete turnaround— from snooze to spine-tingling in a matter of seconds.
“It’s like somethin’ outa a fuckin’ sci-fi movie,” supplied Muñoz, under his breath, as he stood next to her, gazing up at it.
“I don’t know what this is,” she said, still speaking to Coulson, “but you just… you gotta see for yourself.”
Fromm took the last few steps that brought her within arm’s reach of the tube. She still couldn’t get a clear look at the man inside— she could see now that it was definitely a man— athletically built, with longish hair, dressed in dark clothing: featureless black pants and a black tank-top. He seemed to be missing an arm. She leaned in and brushed her glove across the dusty glass, trying to get a better look inside— to see his face— but it was too dark, and her headlamp just reflected off the surface of the curved glass.
Muñoz had found his courage as well, approaching the tank warily. He holstered his weapon and then crouched down, running his hand across a metal plate bolted to the base of the tube, wiping the dust away so that he could see the inscription.
“Special Item,” he said, his head tilted at an angle to translate the Cyrillic characters etched into the plate. Like all of the agents on this op, he was fluent in Russian. “Number 2567.”
They both looked up again, toward the shadowy figure of the man within, to where his face must be, and Fromm found herself addressing him. “You something dangerous, Number 2567?”
“Why you talkin’ to him like he’s alive,” said Muñoz— uneasy, in spite of his words. “No way that dude’s alive. He’s gotta just be… preserved or somethin’.”
“We don’t know that,” said Fromm, shaking her head. “The keypad out front still had power; maybe this thing runs on some kind of internal generator. Why would someone leave him here like this— in this weird-ass tank— if he’s just a dead body?” Muñoz hadn’t been in the field as long as she had— didn’t know just how weird things could get in this division.
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe he’s, like, some kinda anomaly— some one-of-a-kind mutation, and they wanted to preserve him, for future study or somethin’.” He rolled one of his shoulders and then absently itched at his balls through his tac pants. “If that guy’s alive in there, I’ll buy you a steak dinner when we get back.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that,” she said, and then they both spun around in a half-circle, weapons drawn, at the creaking sound coming from the warehouse entrance, acting more like a couple of frightened kids, than two highly-trained SHIELD agents.
“We’re here,” came Coulson’s voice through the earpiece.
“Southwest corner,” said Fromm, as they both relaxed again, lowering their weapons, and in just a few seconds, she could hear the rest of them coming to them through the building, and then they were there: the three-man group that included her boss, and the other team of two, rounding the corner at the other end of the dark lane.
“Sir,” she said in greeting, holstering her weapon as she and Muñoz stepped away from the tube to give Coulson a better view.
Phil Coulson was a bit of an enigma: at first glance— and second, and third— he seemed like a man who’d be more at home in a corporate boardroom than in any kind of field. Nothing about the short, middle-aged, averagely-built man screamed super-spy. Those who encountered him— whether as a member of his team, or in opposition to it— invariably learned not to judge a book by its cover.
He didn’t make eye contact with either Fromm or Muñoz as he stepped forward, his gaze already locked onto the containment tank as he slowly approached it, the other agents fanning out behind him.
“Well,” he said, as he stopped in front of it. The others had followed cautiously, and now all seven of them were staring at the dark figure inside.
Coulson finally turned his head to look at Fromm, raising his eyebrows as though impressed. “You don’t see that every day,” he said. And damn if the guy didn’t sound utterly delighted beneath his calm exterior.
“It says ‘Special Item Number something-or-other’ on the bottom,” said Muñoz.
“Show me,” said Coulson.
“Some kinda experiment maybe?” said Muñoz, as Coulson crouched down to look at the metal plate.
“Could be,” said Coulson, his face now completely unreadable as he stood up again and stared at the tube, considering the mystery man inside. “Whatever it is, we’re taking it with us.” He turned and spoke into his headset as he contacted the support team, back at the Quinjet. “Coulson here. Yeah. We’re gonna need equipment to remove a large… artifact. Yeah. Yes. Make it quick.”
“You think it’ll fit?” said Muñoz skeptically.
“We’re not leaving it here,” said Coulson, and then swiveled to address Fromm. “You clear the rest of the space?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “No sign of the target. No sign of anyone, for that matter. I don’t think anyone’s been here for… a long time.”
“I concur,” said Coulson, but his eyes were far away, his thoughts already hijacked by the puzzle now before him, seemingly unconcerned by the disappointing outcome of the original assignment. He looked back at the tube, and pulled off one of his gloves, pressing his bare palm to the glass as he tried to see inside.
“There’s a… subtle vibration,” he said, pinching his eyebrows together a fraction. “What’s powering it?”
“Unknown, sir,” said Muñoz. “We didn’t want to disturb it.”
Coulson wiped at the glass with his hand— like Fromm, he was trying to get a better look— but it was useless in the poor light.
The man inside, for his part, seemed to gaze down at them all; though they couldn’t see his eyes, and though he seemed frozen in place— almost certainly dead— it felt like he was somehow judging them.
Coulson, unfazed, pressed his hand against the glass again, speaking softly, almost a whisper, as he addressed the man inside…
He couldn’t have explained what made him say what he did, but something about the words made a shiver trickle down Fromm’s spine…
“We got you, Soldier. We’re getting you out of here.”