“I suddenly realized it’s no coincidence the two middle letters of life are if. For every action we make, there is a reaction. The outcome often beyond our control, fragile and fraught with ruinous consequences. Like a soap bubble made real by a gentle breath only to be taken by it.”
― Michael Faudet, Dirty Pretty Things
May 4, 2012
Rushing across the crowded parking lot, Lauren ignored the persistent buzz from her jeans pocket. Not that she had much choice since she was currently juggling a stack of research notes, her laptop tote, and the largest coffee she could get her hands on. It was probably her advisor… again… reminding her that she was late for their meeting. “Probably because you changed the time thirty minutes ago, you arrogant prick!” she mumbled to herself as the building that housed his office came into view. Apparently, he hadn’t been happy when he’d been coerced into taking her on as a Ph.D. student. She was too old, too opinionated, and too female for his liking – although he’d never admit any of that. But SHIELD was insistent, and history was her strength, so here she was running an undercover op while earning a degree studying under a man who seemed determined to make both impossible.
As soon as Lauren approached the building, she knew something was very wrong. Usually, this part of campus was a flurry of activity, students and professors on their way to or from classes and meetings. Today, things were too quiet, the usual noise muted and students either alone, in pairs, or small groups huddled over cell phones and tablets, disbelief etched on their features. No one seemed to move except those, like her, who weren’t tethered continually to their screens.
As if seeing all those devices was a signal, her own phone began vibrating again just as Lauren passed through the building’s entrance and into a small side hallway. A small lounge opened to her right, it was a place where grad students worked or hung out between classes. A few were there now, gazes fixed on the television screen mounted to the opposite wall. It showed her what should have been impossible, and now she knew why the calls had been so incessant for the past 15 minutes.
New York City was under attack, not by terrorists this time, but by aliens. Actual, strange beings that defied description. A blue flare shot straight from the top of the new Stark Tower to a shifting black hole in the sky… and… aliens were pouring through it to rain destruction on the people of Midtown Manhattan.
Stepping further into the room, closing her slack jaw with an audible click, Lauren dropped her notes onto the nearest available flat surface, fumbling in her pocket for her phone. It began vibrating almost as soon as her fingers brushed the surface. An unknown voice began to speak as soon as she accepted the call.
“Agent Walsh, we have a situation. You are to report immediately…”
“Understood,” Lauren responded, interrupting him, shock melting as she fell back on years of training. “I’ll start for DC immediately. ETA 2.5 hours.”
She hoped she was far enough away from anyone else so that she wasn’t heard. A slip like that could damage her whole op.
As she spoke, she scooped up her notes, leaving her coffee behind, and retraced her steps from just minutes before, brain scrambling to plot the fastest route from Charlottesville to Alexandria. The voice on the line cut into her thoughts sharply.
“Negative, Agent. You’re needed on the helicarrier. Director’s orders. Make your way to the provided coordinates for extraction.” The click of the call disconnecting left no room for discussion.
Lauren popped the trunk of her old Toyota with the word “extraction” pinging in her head. Did that mean the end of this op? The end of her academic career? She tried not the let her selfish desire for the degree overcome her duty to SHIELD, but she couldn’t help but experience a pang of regret as she tucked away her research notes and grabbed her go-bag. “Alien invasions trump terrorists, nevermind a seemingly useless advanced degree.”
With a few practiced movements, she tucked her sidearm into its holster at the small of her back, slipped a blade into her boot, and changed her entire persona. By the time the ignition caught, the driver was no longer an overwhelmed graduate student, but an experienced agent working a shadowy secret entity.
Being called in for small side missions was normal. She had led teams in the past and was known for seeing things that others didn’t. Usually, her work took her to small towns in North and South America. “Never Europe!” she thought to herself with a wince. This wasn’t a small mission. It wasn’t quiet. This was huge! And public! And she never reported to the helicarrier… ever!
A scant fifteen minutes later found Lauren at a secluded farm outside town, a quinjet waiting in an empty field with an agent stationed at the open hatch. He nodded as Lauren moved past him, handing her a tablet as he made his way to the cockpit. She barely had time to secure her own harness before he took off, heading north. Logging in, Lauren took in the flood of information she never would have believed if not for the “Highly Classified” warning on the file before she opened it. It was all too fantastic to be real. Apparently, a secret SHIELD installation in the New Mexico desert was now nothing but an enormous crater, the helicarrier had been attacked, Norse gods were real, and one was leading the alien army descending from a portal to space above Stark Tower.
Shifting her focus to the images streaming in from the battle, Lauren couldn’t help but think that it all looked like some version of a Hollywood movie – the space version of Ghostbusters or something. The events had unfolded over the past 48 hours, and Director Fury had responded by bringing in some unlikely people to deal with the threat, referred to simply as “The Avengers Initiative.” Tony Stark, or Iron Man, and Dr. Bruce Banner had tracked some alien artifact to New York just in time for the sky to open up and rain down destruction.
“Holy shit!” Lauren couldn’t help the exclamation, “Captain American is alive!”
“It would seem so, ma’am,” the pilot answered with a hint of awe. “I passed him earlier today on the helicarrier. Looks just like his pictures from the history books.”
A flick of her finger confirmed that Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, was indeed alive and well after being frozen in the Arctic for 70 years.
“Well, I’ll be damned. What next?” she mused aloud.
“I don’t think I’d ask that today.” The agent’s voice flattened again.
Things must be really bad on the helicarrier. Something else was going on, other than the actual attack and what she’d been given clearance to see in the briefing file. Lauren knew she wouldn’t get any more information until they reached the carrier, so she turned her attention back to what had been and was happening in New York. The first wave of creatures had appeared piloting what could best be classified as hovercraft, weapons discharging with a blue-white light and causing massive destruction. People fled the carnage, some more successfully than others, many caught up in explosions or crushed by falling debris. Other flashes of light and color provided evidence that Iron Man was putting up some resistance. A quinjet entered the fray and was damaged, disappearing into the concrete canyons below. Just when Lauren was beginning to quell her disbelief and began to look for a way to be of help, something slithered, if anything the size of a large whale can do such a thing, through the rip in the sky. The video feed shifted, showing another angle on the fight.
There was a pause, as if the universe was taking a deep breath – and then it seemed to exhale in the form of an extraterrestrial apocalypse. Lauren recognized more figures from the file she’d just finished reading and might have been impressed with what they were doing if she hadn’t been shocked by what she was witnessing. Lightning flashed, explosions from alien weapons ripped gashes and gaping holes in skyscrapers, and terrified people ran for their lives.
Then, there was Iron Man, shooting toward the void with a missile. Where had it come from? Did he bring it into the fight? Was he going to defeat an alien army by taking out an entire city? Before Lauren could shake off that thought as unimaginable, he flew his payload directly into that blackness. Time stopped… again… Lauren’s breath caught in her throat, waiting with anyone else who was watching for him to reappear as every alien suddenly dropped as if they were puppets on broken strings and the blue flare from the tower shot upward to close the sky.
“C’mon! C’mon!” she muttered at the screen. It seemed hours, but it was less than a minute before there he was, falling through the rip just at the last moment. Falling! Not flying! Falling!
“No way, you asshole! You don’t get to save the world and then die like that! You don’t get to be a fucking martyr!” Shouting at the video feed would do nothing, but Lauren was past rational thought.
“Ma’am, we’ll be landing in five minutes, might want to strap back in.”
Lauren barely paid attention to him, but buckled into the harness she had only slipped out of a few minutes before, eyes intent on the information still flowing across the screen. There! Confirmation! Iron Man had survived and the battle was all but over. Loki was under the watchful eye of the Hulk until he could be taken into custody. All that was left was the massive clean-up. Every alphabet agency would want jurisdiction and settling it all would be a pissing contest of epic proportions where they all would want the credit for being the heroes while avoiding and criticism for what had gone wrong.
Lauren knew better than to try to suss out her particular role in this situation. Her pilot would have nothing and trying to pry into the mind of the Director was something she’d rather not attempt. He was a master spy and politician – a man who always had at least one hidden agenda.
The thump of the landing brought Lauren out of her thoughts and reminded her of who and what she was. An agent of SHIELD, stoicism and control bred and beaten into her very DNA. From the small window in the jet, she could see the still smoking damage to one of the carrier's engines and as soon as the ramp was lowered, the tension in the air seeped around her. To her surprise, she was greeted by the stern face of Commander Hill, Fury’s right hand, sporting cuts and bruises to the right side of her face, her expression tight. The knot that had steadily been forming since she’d heard she was coming here under the Director’s orders tightened almost painfully.
“Agent Walsh, Director Fury is waiting to see you.”
Not waiting for a reply, she turned with military precision, back straight in spite of her battered appearance, leading the way through a warren of passages to his private office below the operations deck without another word. She rapped on the door, announcing their presence the presence and walked away.
“Enter.” Fury’s voice was tight and tired.
If asked later, Lauren would have been hard-pressed to remember most of the next hour. She could tell you about the beam of sunlight that fell across the floor from the window, about the scuff on Fury’s coat that was testament to the day he’d had. She could describe in detail the smell that permeated every breath, hot metal and burning electronics. Nothing else registered once she heard the words, “I didn’t want you to hear it through channels. Phil Coulson is dead.” Later she would read and re-read the entire report, would watch the surveillance video Loki’s Scepter slicing through Phil’s chest leaving her heaving and sobbing until she was exhausted. That would be later. Right then, she had one brief hour where she was completely numb, coming to grips with the loss of one of the few people left on earth who cared enough to save her from herself.
At the end of that blessed hour, the sharp rap of knuckles on Fury’s door shocked Lauren back to reality. Maria Hill didn’t wait for a response, stepping a foot inside the door and setting off another round of chaos.
“Sir, the Council wants to speak with you, and there have been developments at Stark Tower.” She gave Lauren a sideways glance, obviously not willing to discuss anything in detail.
“The Council will just have to fucking wait after the dick move they pulled. And what do you mean by developments?” Every work was perfectly enunciated, betraying his impatience.
“Sir,” the second glance in Lauren’s direction and the slight inflection almost made it a question.
“You damn well know how high her clearance level is, I read her into the Initiative.” he paused to take a breath lowering his head slightly eyebrows rising. “The situation?”
“Sir, Loki and the Tesseract disappeared from the lobby of Stark Tower while we were attempting to take both into custody. Loki attempted to get his hands on the Scepter in the guise of Captain America but was defeated by the real Captain. Secretary Pierce, Agent Sitwell, and Strike Alpha are on scene with the Avengers.”
Every muscle in Fury’s body tensed. Coulson had been much better at handling these personality conflicts. He didn’t have the patience for this shit. He settled his shoulders, steeling himself for dealing with this kind of problem for the foreseeable future.
“Just get me to the god damned city. They can kill each other once we find Loki.” Moving toward the door, Fury spared a glance for Lauren, where she sat hunched against the far wall, knees drawn up to her chest. At least she hadn’t run this time. “Get Agent Walsh some coffee, start arranging clean-up teams, and get me the surveillance video of what the hell happened in that tower.”
At the mention of her name, Lauren pulled herself to her feet, pushing down the emotions that had kept her pinned to the floor. There would be time to grieve later. For now – she had a job to do.