uilebheist (scottish gaelic): monster
ironside (tony stark): giant monster-punching robot
part i: why
There is a rumbling deep beneath the sea.
It starts as a tremor, then grows to a minor earthquake – a mere two or three on the Richter scale, most cities wouldn’t even take notice – then crescendos, one timpani to two to five to a whole armada of base drums – and soon the ocean floor is falling apart, like a volcano erupting but this is no magma, this is no earthly substance, it is no color this planet has ever seen before.
The fish flee in swarms thousands deep, there are more plankton on one course than grains of sand on Miami Beach – but they cannot escape it. For every creature that manages to get away, two are sucked down, down, down into an alien sinkhole of mountainous proportions. The sharks are swimming a frantic freestyle, not chasing the fish but fleeing their shadows and losing. The whales call out, cry out, scream out – slowest of the pack surrounded and picked off like baby gazelles in a lion hunt. The sea flashes – bright blue and green and orange and a hundred new colors – and then something roars.
There is a crack widening deep beneath the sea, and nobody has noticed. Not yet.
The first monster hits a tiny coastal town in Maine.
It explodes up from the ocean like a zombie hand up from the grave but twice as terrifying and rips a fishing boat from its perch. Nobody hears the screams of the fishers, but a thousand people gasp when the lighthouse collapses, toppled easily as a tower of Jenga blocks. And a million people run when the monster rips apart the coastline all the way down to Boston.
It’s not a bird and it’s not a plane. It’s something out of a bad science fiction movie. It’s your worst nightmare, painted in the opposite of magma and the blood of all the people you ever cared about.
By the time the rest of the world believes it’s real, it has reached New York City.
They stop it – the army sends everything it’s got, tanks and trucks and planes, all loaded down with enough bombs to end a fleet of enemy warships. This monster is no fleet, it is an armada contained in sharp teeth and cruel eyes and strangely patterned scales. Ten planes together carry an atomic bomb to burst into flames above the monster’s bulletproof head.
It collapses. So does most of Manhattan.
The second monster surfaces a few weeks later and makes London pay for centuries of imperialism. The third rears its ugly head a month after that and takes a gaping bite out of Greenland.
By this time, it is clear to most world leaders that they need to do something, but they have no idea what, so they fall back on their old standard: blame everyone else. It is America who finally calls a summit and forces cooperation with a punch to the gut and threat of nuclear warheads.
The most powerful people in the world sit at a long conference table and stare at each other with ashen faces. Nobody wants to admit that they have no clue how to slow down the end of life as they know it. Silence reigns, and a few can imagine they hear roars approaching.
One hand goes up.
All eyes turn to the man with the perfectly pressed suit and pointed goatee. (“Why is he here?” they whisper. “Who invited him?” “Should we really listen to this guy?”)
“I have an idea,” Tony Stark says. “It may sound a bit out there, but hey, none of us ever thought monsters from another world coming up from beneath the Atlantic Ocean would be real, so hear me out, okay? Give this a chance. Let it permeate. Sleep on it, if you will.
“In twenty years, they’ll call me a hero for telling you to fight giant monsters with giant monster-punching robots.”
By some kind of unspoken consensus, they call the monsters uilebheist. Tony Stark names his robots ironsides.
And with the help of the Stark corporation’s collected savings, a few other wealthy investors, and millions of taxpayers on both sides of the Atlantic, the Ironside Program is born. Research isn’t easy – strapping people to what are essentially walking nuclear reactors always looks so much simpler in the movies – but Stark gets his best scientists and engineers on it, and himself spends weeks in the lab with very limited breaks for food and sleep. At first, they hit a major setback when the initial model is too much of a neural load for one brain to handle, but then some lowly technician says, “Sharing is caring,” and they invent drifting.
The call goes out – not only to America, not only to England, not only to countries on the Atlantic but all over the world – that they need all hands on deck. Pilots, technicians, researchers, coordinators, engineers, builders, medical staff, fighting instructors ... They need it all.
The Pan-Atlantic Defense Corps sets up recruitment stations in every major city Tony Stark can think of, and lines to join up go out the door and down the block.
Bruce Banner is the first scientist Tony Stark calls when he’s stuck on something.
With the ironsides, this begins to happen a few times a day. Tony needs someone to bounce his ideas off of, or he needs someone to better explain the human nervous system, or he needs someone to listen to his rants about how uncooperative his sponsors are, and Bruce is the man for the job. Eventually, Bruce stops being patient and starts asking when he can get back to his own projects.
“Your own projects?” Tony echoes, confused. “You have your own projects?”
Bruce’s sigh comes out long and scratchy on the other end of the phone. “Yes, Tony. Believe it or not, my life does not actually revolve around you.”
“What kind of projects?”
“Well, right now I’m doing some research into the biology of the uilebheist –” Bruce starts to explain, but he’s quickly cut off with:
“Uilebheist biology? We could use you in the lab. Like, majorly, huge-ass salary, you can have five research assistants use you. Want to come work for me?”
The offer is so sudden and so generous that Bruce Banner, formerly non-funded xenobiologist with too many degrees and no interesting jobs, doesn’t even consider rejecting it.
Nick Fury hears that they’re building a multinational defense force to stop the uilebheist, and he knows exactly what he has to do.
He can’t pilot an ironside, that much he knows – he’s not as young as he once was, and he has scars to prove it – but there are decades under this man’s belt. The streets growing up, and the military academy, and the Marines, and the FBI – all of it has only been training.
He applies for a command post at a Shatterdome, any command post at any Shatterdome, and the interview takes five minutes. And then, he spends the next five weeks finding the best recruits from around the country and assembling a team that, well, if they can’t save the world, nobody can.
When the footage of the monsters broadcasts nationwide, Jane Foster is the only girl who does not scream in terror.
She screams in excitement – and then shrieks in excitement, and then dances around the room in excitement, and then finds every piece of information she can on the uilebheist and prints it out and tapes it to the walls in excitement. The next few weeks, she spends every free moment locked in her dorm room, hunched over her laptop, frantically trying to find the algorithms to explain. This scientist demands to know where the uilebheist come from, what they want, and how they’ve managed to surface on Earth. And if you ask her what she’s doing, she won’t stop talking for at least half an hour, detailing every single breakthrough she’s made so far, no matter how many times you tell her you have no clue what she’s saying.
They told her there was no proof for her multiverse theory. Well, now she’s got proof – twenty-five hundred tons of awesome proof – and she’s damn well not going to stop there. She is going to crack these monsters’ secrets if she has to go without sleep for months.
And then one day, Darcy turns to her and says, “Y’know, if you’re gonna go this crazy about all this science crap, why not join the PADC? That way you’ll at least get paid for it.”
Two days after London falls, Thor and Loki Laufeyson lie awake in their dark bedroom.
“Loki,” Thor says. “Brother, are you asleep?”
Loki makes a muffled groaning noise that can only mean, “No.”
“Good.” Thor turns on his side so that he’s facing his brother – looking at Loki and past Loki, to glass windowpanes and the multitudes of stars beyond. “Look, I have something I need to ask you. I’ve been thinking really hard about this, and ... I want to join the PADC.”
Loki opens his eyes, and they glint ever so slightly in the starlight. “Why are you telling me?” he asks. “You don’t need my permission.”
“No, but I need your help. The ironsides, they take two. Pairs. People who are drift-compatible.” Thor’s eyes are wide and earnest, begging for approval.
Loki laughs. “What, and you think we are?”
“Oh.” Loki turns away from his brother and instead gazes out, his face unreadable in the faint light. “Why do you want to join, then?” he says quietly.
“Because the world needs saving, and I want to help,” Thor replies simply.
Loki considers that for a minute – turns on his back, scrutinizes the ceiling, then looks back at the stars, then, finally, back at his brother.
“Okay,” he says.
And when they show up at the nearest recruitment center, they’re the only drift team who already has an ironside name.
Peggy Carter has always been an army unto herself.
Years of missions as the only woman in her department have taught her that you can’t rely on anyone for backup. The other agents thought that she was weak because of the extra cartilage on her chest and her monthly cycle, so she knew she had to prove she was ten times stronger than any male agent could hope for.
She hides pistols in her purse and poison in her lipstick. She approaches targets with a smile and guns them down with a grin. Her skirts are always immaculate, her posture always poised, her diction always expert. It didn’t take long for the higher-ups to stop giving her back-up – not because they wanted her to fail, but because she didn’t need it.
The call goes out – the nation’s finest are needed, now more than ever before – and the men all clamor for glory just like their favorite sci-fi heroes, but Peggy’s tone one whose name ends up first on the list.
Give Maria Hill two paperclips, a banana, and a roll of duct tape, and she can craft them into an arsenal.
She spent long years training for the FBI – martial arts, advanced physics and chemistry, keeping up to date with the latest technologies, watching old James Bond movies and picking out every mistake – only to be stuck at a desk job, issuing weapons to the agents who went out. So, she decided to make the best of it – by carefully examining each new device before handing it out, then going home and crafting one better.
By the time she finally got out onto the field, she was so ahead of the curve that her targets barely lasted five minutes. She gets out into the field much more often, now.
And when Nick Fury decides to assemble a team of the best in the nation, she’s his first contact. She waits with him above the main Shatterdome floor now, watching the new recruits spar down below. Most of them are good, moving with each other in fighting dances ranging in appearance from stunningly choreographed to sloppily improvised, but there is one woman who stands out.
Her suit is elegant and her hair pulled back in a perfect coil, not one lock out of place, and yet she moves like a lioness, fierce and strong and giving no quarter. She takes down every partner she’s put up against in two moves or less.
Maria turns to Nick Fury and says, “Her. I want to meet her.”
She doesn’t even have to point.
The recruiters are skeptical when they meet Steve Rogers.
He’s puny, and he’s scrawny, and he carries an inhaler in his pocket as though it’s his only hope for survival. He doesn’t back down from a punch, but he can’t land them when he throws them back. He’s got tactical smarts, but he couldn’t run a mile under eight minutes even if ten uilebheists were on his tail. “I just don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they come from,” he says, and sure, he’s noble and brave and born on the fourth of Jul, but who would ever want to pilot an ironside with someone who looks like he just stepped out of a soup kitchen? The officer is about to tell him, “Sorry, kid, try for a desk job,” when they meet the next recruit in line.
Bucky Barnes is angry and fiercely protective, like a mother bear with a litter of cubs – only this bear’s just got one cub, and its name is Steve Rogers, and its mama is determined to teach it the laws of nature with a fist to the face. When the two of them spar, it’s easy to forget that Rogers ever needed an inhaler, much less failed the push-up test. They move like one person split in half, or two magnets desperately pulling together, or an Olympic relay team in the two seconds between one runner and the next. Rogers is scrawny, but he doesn’t give up, and Barnes is broad, but he’s got finesse. They fight – or they dance – without words.
One of the officers goes to ask if Barnes was going easy on Rogers, but his supervisor stops him. “How soon can you two get to the Shatterdome for training?” she asks instead.
Natalia Romanova is tired of dreary old orphanages.
The walls are gray, and the floor is hard, and it is always just a little bit too cold. She dreams of color and light – of ballerinas twirling up on stage at the Mariinsky Theater, surrounded by purples and blues and beautiful music – then wakes up and eats her one bowl of porridge for breakfast and one bowl of stew for dinner. Bland food, bland colors, bland life. She is only sixteen, yet she is already so tired.
And then, everything changes. Natasha watches on the tiny TV, crowded into a room with ten other girls trying to peer over her, as the monsters attack every major city on the Atlantic. They gasp, eyes wide, and she watches carefully.
She starts to get up hours before dawn, tiptoe outside, and do pull-ups on the iron fence. She doesn’t know quite how yet, but she’s sure these monsters are her way out.
It takes a couple of months for the news to reach Russia: the PADC is forming, a coalition of every country on the Atlantic, and they need volunteers. The best and brightest of America, Western Europe, South America – all stepping up to protect their countries.
“Но, кто будет защищать нас?” the girls ask, their faces pale. Who will protect us?
Natasha grins. It is the first time they’ve seen her smile in years.
“Я буду.” I will.
Clint Barton has never felt comfortable in xyr own skin.
When xe was little, barely knee height, xe didn’t have the words for it, but xe knew something was wrong. Xyr clothes were too tight, and xyr name was too many syllables, and xyr room was too pink. Xe would sit up late at night, long after xyr parents kissed xyr goodnight, and stare at the dark ceiling, counting sheep after sheep until they all merged together into one huge mess of white confusion.
Clint grew older and found clothes that weren’t too tight and a name that was the right number of syllables – but xe could never quite explain it to anyone else. Xyr classmates would call xyr names and xe would sit there quietly, wondering if they were right.
The monsters came along, and with them, the fighters, and Clint watched with a fascination nobody had ever seen in xyr before. The people who talked on those broadcasts, they cared more about beating the uilebhesit than anything else. So why would they care about a couple of misplaced letters? They wouldn’t, that was it. They wouldn’t.
Standing on the floor of the Shatterdome’s largest training room among a sea of new recruits, Clint doesn’t feel uncomfortable, but xe doesn’t feel particularly noticed, either.
And then, the fighting begins: sparring with anyone and everyone in the group, two bodies two minds two souls – can they combine, can they dance, can they drift. Clint goes up against five people, or maybe ten, or fifteen – xe quickly loses count amid the sticky sweat and pounding feet. Most of xyr matches aren’t too difficult, just a few hits and then they’re done, not much connection to speak of.
At least, until Clint meets her. Her clothes are black, her hair is red, and she moves like a spider poised for the final blow. Clint has never really felt attracted to anyone before, but there’s something about this girl that just captivates xyr, draws xyr in and invites xyr to care and – oh, no, that’s the match. That’s the match, the girl won, she’s moving on.
“Wait!” Clint shouts. The girl turns, her face is cold, and her eyes are very, very blue.
“Let’s try again,” Clint says, more quietly.
They try again, and Clint wins. Then, they try a third time, and it goes on for twenty moves or ten minutes or a small eternity, and the girl wins. Clint lies on xyr back on the mat, eyes closed, and focuses on her breathing. When she finally looks up, the girl is standing directly over her, offering one calloused hand.
There’s the tiniest hint of a smile in her sky-blue eyes.
“Thanks,” Clint says. “The name’s Clint Barton and the pronouns are xe, xyr, and xem. Nice to meet you.”
“Natalia Romanov,” the girl replies in a Slavic accent, long a’s and hard consonants. “Natasha. And, ah, she and her. Nice to meet you, also.”
Clint takes her hand, and they stand together.
Two months later, they stand in their ironside for the first time, and Clint doesn’t feel uncomfortable in xyr own skin any more.
part ii: how
The New York Shatterdome has four ironsides.
There’s Emerald Thunder, piloted by the adoptive brothers who fight like a hundred storms. There’s Poison Hawk, piloted by the terror in high heels from a St. Petersburg orphanage and her quiet-but-deadly nonbinary partner. There’s Captain America, piloted by two kids from Brooklyn who’ve got too much courage for any ten men. And there’s Whisper Rouge, piloted by the best secret service agents to come out of the business in the past fifty years, and if it surprises you that both of them are women, they’ll take you out before you can even begin to see them coming.
New York has four. Sometimes others will come in, sometimes they’ll fade out – get hit badly or travel for repairs or go fill positions at new Shatterdomes – but there are always four constants. Four ironsides standing silent and tall, a little rusted and a little bruised and a lot ready for a mission. Four bunks with pilots who hold each other close at night. Four reasons for New Yorkers to get up in the morning and live their lives, knowing that if anything tries to take this city down, it’ll be stopped right in its tracks.
These four ironsides, well – they’re good. When the uilebhesit come calling, plenty of people don’t run for the shelters anymore. Instead, they take out their cell phones and start videotaping, waiting for one of their giant, metal-plated heroes to arrive.
This city never sleeps and never dies. It’s been hit with an incredible amount of shit, perhaps the most of any city on the planet by now, and life just refuses to stop. Maybe that’s why their Shatterdome is the best in the country.
The first time Thor finds himself in the basement research lab, it’s because he got lost looking for the cafeteria.
The woman he meets there – the only science officer currently on duty, it seems – is no help at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: she laughs at him, insults his intelligence, and flat-out refuses to give him directions. And yet, she is enchanting when the laughs.
Thor considers her for a moment, then says, “Alright, then, instead of finding the cafeteria, can I stay here and assist with your work?”
Her eyes widen, expanding like bacteria samples on the fourth week of reproduction. “Just ... Stay here? Just like that?”
“I do not know where to find the cafeteria,” he replies, “and I do not trust my ability to find my way back to the dormitories, so why not make myself useful here?”
The woman shrugs. “I don’t see why not. Now, the research I’m doing right now is to try and figure out how the breach between the two universes works. I believe it’s structured like a tunnel, but I need to somehow prove which materials it’s composed of and how exactly it opens and closes so that he can infiltrate it. So I have these instruments that measure spikes in radiation, and ...”
She goes on for at least half an hour, explaining her research to the pilot who only understands about one-tenth of what she’s saying, but asks more than enough questions to make up for it. And then, once that’s done, she lets him stay for dinner – ramen, cooked in the research staff’s prize microwave. It’s better than any cafeteria meal Thor’s ever tried, and he doesn’t want to leave.
The scientist – Jane, he learns, her name is Jane – shows him the way back to the dorms and leaves him at his door, mind and heart spinning.
The second time Thor finds himself in the basement research lab, it’s because he navigated there on purpose. The third time, it’s because he was invited.
Tony Stark does not pilot a single ironside.
When people ask him about it, he usually shrugs and says that he’s happier designing the robots than fighting in them. Farther away from the danger, he says. Easier to sleep at night.
He doesn’t tell anyone that when he first saw the ironsides in his dreams, he was the one in control, marching through the ocean to wrangle alien monsters. He doesn’t tell anyone that every time he watches an ironside go out, he wishes he was inside. He doesn’t tell anyone that he grew up reading comics about superheroes who saved the world with brains and brawn and now he doesn’t think he’s worth anything – Tony Stark can design and fund all the weapons he wants but he’s no hero compared to the people who actually use them.
When the ironsides were still being built, Tony sparred with all of the top pilot candidates. He told them it was a test – just didn’t tell them that he was the only one who failed.
Pepper Potts has never been more busy in her entire life, and she’s loving every minute of it.
When Tony Stark, CEO of the premier technology developer in the Western hemisphere (and also her boss, friend, and frequent babysit-ee) told her that he wanted to build an army of gigantic neurally-linked robots to fight the uilebheist, she raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow and said he was insane. But then, he started to explain all the details of the plans, the models he’d been working on in the basement (instead of sleeping, of course) since the moment the first monster appeared on the eastern seaboard, and she started to realize that this had the makings of the best idea he’d ever had.
Sure, Tony Stark may be the creativity and the brains behind this operation, but Pepper Potts is the finesse. She wrote the speech he used to convince the world conference; she directs the good, less-biased media outlets to report on his work; she drafted the promotional PADC recruitment posters; and she spell-checks all of his emails to government officials. Without her, the alliance Tony Stark’s ironsides work so hard to protect would crumble like a house with no foundation.
There is little acknowledgement for Pepper Potts. Nobody writes magazine articles on her or invites her onto talk shows, and nobody gives her medals for helping save the country. But that’s okay, really. She doesn’t mind.
She’s just glad that everyone’s too busy thinking about the ongoing alien apocalypse to bother asking whether or not she’s sleeping with her boss.
Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes quickly become the nation’s golden boys.
Sure, all of the ironside pilots from Shatterdomes across the globe appear in news story after news story and on talk show after talk show, describing their daring feats for the spellbound viewers at home, but those two boys from Brooklyn get more interview requests than the rest of the New York Shatterdome combined.
Any kid in America could tell you about their heroes: Steve Rogers, who spent more time in hospitals than in kindergarten but still managed to come out of it ready to fight any bullies he could find, and Bucky Barnes, who worked three jobs his senior year of high school to help support his family and Steve’s. These men never lose a mission, never let the uilebheist beat them down, but never brag about it. When interviewers ask them about their accomplishments, they simply shrug and list all of the people they’d like to thank.
“It’s what anyone else would do, if they could,” Bucky says to a reporter from the New York Times.
“We’re just doing our duty,” Steve adds. The line ends up on a poster, and the posters sell millions of copies.
And then, it doesn’t stop with posters. Tony figures he might as well capitalize on the golden boys, he’s running a bit low on funds anyway, and he starts selling T-shirts mugs, bracelets, hats, sexy pin-up calendars – anything he can think of. He produces them for all of the New York pilots, but Steve’s and Bucky’s are the most successful by far. An entire online fanbase develops for them, full of teenage girls and teenage boys and hopeless college students who know time could be running out and are content to spend what they have drawing fanart and writing something they call RPF.
The pressing question emerges soon enough, after that. Well, it’s been there since recruitment, really, but now it’s asked by every journalist, Shatterdome resident, and fan on Twitter: are Steve and Bucky together?
They get pretty good at avoiding it. “So, does either of you two have a special someone?” “How about we talk about the new Shatterdome in Montevideo? Cool, right?” “Are you ... seeing anyone?” “Who’d have time, with our busy schedules fighting monsters?” “What do you look for in a partner, romantically?” “Um, not an asshole, basically. Sorry, am I allowed to use that word on here?”
Eventually, most of America just accepts that they’re not going to get a straight answer (or a gay answer, or any good answer at all.) Until one TV interview, when someone asks about sci-fi and Bucky’s eyes light up as he describes everything he adores about every single series of Star Trek and Steve simply can’t do it any longer. He leans over, grabs Bucky’s face, and kisses him long and hard.
So Steve and Bucky come out on national television (as bi and gay, respectively), the fandom explodes, Nick Fury would get gray hair if he wasn’t already bald, and Tony Stark throws them a coming out party to which he invites the entire city. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly the worst that could’ve happened.
Maria Hill and Peggy Carter almost try fucking once.
After a long mission, the two of them race back to their dorm room high on adrenaline. They won, it was hard and they almost thought they couldn’t do it this time but they won, they are on top of the world nothing’s ever gonna get any better than this –
And halfway through tearing off their clothes drenched in sweat their eyes meet across the room, and by some unspoken agreement they move closer and jaw is set and closer and Maria’s eyes flutter closed and closer and they fit their bodies together and closer –
They kiss, once. Pause to breathe, look at each other, kiss again. Pause to breathe, look at each other – burst out laughing.
“Bad idea?” Peggy asks, still breathless.
“Not our greatest, yeah,” Maria replies. She takes a step back, but her hand remains on her copilot’s waist.
“We’re okay, though, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, we’re okay. We’re always okay.”
Peggy grins, and reaches up to poke Maria in the shoulder. “Good,” she says. “So, want to take a shower?”
They shower together in one of the tiny stalls of the communal bathroom. There is no kissing or long, passionate embracing beneath the warm water – no spark, only the slow, golden burn of getting clean after a hard fight. And then afterward, they go back to their dorm room and sleep on opposite sides of the queen-sized bed – holding hands.
Some copilot teams make love after a mission. Some put on an old movie and cuddle, not speaking for hours. Some don’t have any kind of special routine – they just need to keep touching. But Maria and Peggy are content with lying in the same bed, reading two different books, and occasionally reading out loud to each other when they find a good part.
It works for them.
On Friday nights, whenever the pilots of Poison Hawk aren’t fighting uilebheist, they’re watching Disney movies.
Clint found out a few weeks into their partnership that Natalia Romanova has only seen one American animation film in her life, that film was Anastasia, and she hated it. Xe immediately declared it a horrible gap in Natasha’s education and decided that it was xyr duty to fix that problem.
So, xe went on a mission: searched for old DVDs, scoured the internet, found clips and soundtracks and sites to order princess costumes and even a couple of boxes of microwave popcorn. Now, every Friday, Natasha and Clint settle down in their dorm room with several blankets and a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie – Disney movie, or Pixar movie, or other animated movie.
Natasha pretends to hate them, of course. She complains about the irregularities in the plot, the idiocy of the main characters, and the impractical nature of any kind of princess dress. What she doesn’t tell her copilot is that she’s never really been treated like a princess before – not by any of the people at the orphanage, not by any of the boyfriends she had and quickly discarded, not by anyone – and finding all of these movies to watch with her is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for her.
Of course, Clint catches more than xe cares to let on when they drift. And nobody is particularly surprised when the pilots of Poison Hawk start listening to I’ll Make a Man out of You before they drop.
The New York Shatterdome’s basement laboratory somehow becomes the place to be.
This is not Tony Stark’s lab, it must be clear. He does visit sometimes – if one of the ironsides develops a bug, or if he gets a new idea for how to improve their weaponry, or if he just needs to be alone for a little while – but it’s usually at night, when nobody else is around. He’ll stay for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days, however long it takes to get the job done, and barely say two words to anyone save muttering to himself and shouting at any interns who get in his way.
Tony Stark may have built the Shatterdome, but Jane Foster and Bruce Banner run the lab.
Jane directs the physics research, running computer simulation after computer simulation in the hopes of finding out how the breach works. She’s making slow progress, but it’s progress, and she still shouts excitedly whenever something goes right.
Bruce directs the biology research, investigating every piece of uilebheist material that he can get his hands on. Every piece of uilebheist material that he can get his hands on is still pitifully little, but with each new organ or tissue sample, he learns more.
A couple of months into their tenure at the Shatterdome, Jane and Bruce were given a couple of interns. Now, two years later, they somehow have acquired a whole army. Not all of them are interns, to be fair – some are former university professors and world-class researchers who dropped everything to help save the world – and none of them are stupid, for sure, but it’s still a bit crowded in this lab. It’s definitely never quiet, between blaring music (they have a calendar up deciding who gets to pick the music when), people calling out ideas to each other, and arguments over who can use which counter or what happened to the tenth pair of safety goggles or why OneDirection deserves some respect.
Six months into her time in the lab, Jane made a list of rules, wrote them down on a piece of poster board, and duct-taped it to the wall. “Welcome to the lab,” it reads. “Rule one: don’t be an asshole. Rule two: no running (unless you’re late for a meeting with Fury.) Rule three: there are enough safety goggles for all the bio interns, so wear them. Rule four: the microwave and mini-fridge in the break corner are for food only. Rule five: if you bash someone’s music choices, you miss your next picking day. Rule six: don’t mess with Jane’s blackboards. And rule seven: if the uilebheist come calling, do not under any circumstances let them see Mike’s caricatures of them.”
The lab is never quiet, whether it’s during the middle of the day and ten experiments are going on at once or it’s one A.M. and Jane and Bruce are the only two still around. (The two of them work well together despite their differing fields – and, unlike anyone else in the lab, they actually have similar tastes in music.)
Late one night (or early one morning), Peggy Carter tiptoes into the dorm’s communal kitchen to get a glass of water and instead finds a Russian ironside pilot sitting on the floor.
Natasha Romanov is curled up in a tight ball, arms pulling her knees to her chest and eyes staring blankly out at the dark wall in front of her. She looks like a child playing hide and seek, trying to make herself look as small as possible so that she won’t be found until the last possible moment.
Peggy crouches down beside her and gives her a warm smile. “Hey,” she says. “Can’t sleep?”
“I’m sorry that Clint’s stuck in medical until next week,” Peggy continues, undeterred. “That must suck.”
Natasha shrugs again.
Peggy turns around and shifts backwards until she’s also sitting with her back against the wall, facing the same direction as Natasha. “Want to talk, instead of just sitting here?” she asks.
Natasha turns and looks at her, attempting to bore right through into the other woman’s soul. Where Natasha comes from, women don’t help each other. They fight with false smiles and cutting words, trying to secure the last piece of bread, or the last container of makeup, or the last available man. When a girl said something nice to you, it usually meant she wanted something.
But hey, this is America, right? Anything’s possible in America. So Natasha answers.
The next week, Peggy and Natasha meet late at night in the communcal kitchen again, but this time, it’s planned. Peggy brings brownies, a deck of cards, and Maria. The three of them are halfway through an intense game of poker when Pepper Potts strides into the kitchen in search of yet another cup of coffee – it doesn’t take much convincing for her to put down her work and help keep score. And then, the week after that, all four women head down to the lab and woo Jane Foster with illegally acquired booze and a decades-old game of Cards Against Humanity.
In a Shatterdome that has six men to every woman, even in this day and age, five of the best in the business decide to stick together. They meet once a week, to talk, eat, play cards, and forget how hard their lives are, just for a couple of hours.
They call it the secret sorority, and no boys are allowed.
New York begins to believe it is protected.
The uilebheist are no longer the terrifying monsters of legend, not really. Now, they’re the posters you see on billboards, and the costumes kids are wearing on Halloween, and the toys you get in McDonalds happy meals. They have been reduced in size and painted in more vibrant colors to make them appealing to consumers.
The ironsides always win, these days. A victory is no longer cause for celebration – it’s just normal. Expected. The Shatterdome operates at one hundred percent capacity and nobody expects anything to change – this is just how the people of New York live now.
It should be only too obvious that everything is about to go wrong.
part iii: because
Captain America is the first to go down.
It starts as a regular, routine mission: category three uilebheist coming up near Long Island Sound, could head down the coast towards more populated areas if not taken care of soon, no different than any other uilebheist that any other ironside team has taken down in the past few months. Steve and Bucky tumble out of bed and suit up, ready to kick some ass.
As they strap into their star-spangled robot, Steve turns to Bucky and grins. “Ready for this, Buck?” he asks.
“Ready when you are,” Bucky replies.
The neural link comes naturally to them – so many shared memories, sunlit streets and hide-and-seek in Central Park and video games with rain coming down outside and a hundred fistfights with good-for-nothing punks who thought they weren’t tough enough – and they clench four fists into two, ironside ready for action and powered with the strength of all the kids from Brooklyn who were ever too skinny too weak too poor to grab their dreams. Captain America can take down this uilebheist. They’ve taken down so many.
And so, they drop into the cold Atlantic Ocean, and they stride cocky and confident, and they punch that monster’s lights out. The fishing boat just off the coast doesn’t have to worry about losing its catch any more – the protector is here. It doesn’t take long for one more uilebhesit to be dead on the ocean floor.
Steve and Bucky share a victory yes, turn to head home, and –
“Wait, guys!” someone shouts in their ears. “It’s still giving out life signals! Don’t walk away, don’t –”
There is a roar. There is a roar, as though the sky is coming down around their ears. Atlas has given up on hoisting the world on his back, he stepped out from underneath and now there is nothing holding it up and nothing else can – not even a pair of iron shoulders.
Bucky is ripped away before Steve even has time to tell him no.
Two boys racing through the streets of Brooklyn turns into one, sitting in a blank white hospital room and coughing until his lungs give out. There is so much white around him, it’s easy to believe that he’s fading, too – colors turn to gray turn to white and soon he will only be a part of the background, a spot of paint, a memory forgotten – but no, no, Steve is still here, Steve still has to finish this fight and pilot this ironside because no more backup is coming and somebody has to be the one doing this screaming –
Captain America has become all Captain and no America. All iron and no core. All anger and no honor. The monster goes down, and the savior collapses on its side on a beach somewhere too far from home.
They open the ironside and a shattered man falls out – head bleeding, arms curled around himself, whispering, “Not without you.”
One night late in August, Thor Laufeyson invites Jane Foster up to the roof of the Shatterdome.
He gives her his jacket, even though the breeze is not too biting. He attempts to casually recite a poem that he spent weeks memorizing. He compares her eyes to the stars far above. And then, he gets down on one knee.
The next night, Jane goes up on the roof alone. She screams obscenities into the wind, wills away the sting from unshed tears in her eyes, and tosses her ring out into the ocean below.
Whisper Rouge sets out to patrol the coastline.
It is the best ironside for long missions because its pilots are tough, bristled, sharp as steel and twice as deadly. They march through freezing waters easily, eyes at attention and minds blank save a steady surveillance, back and forth, back and forth. There is no need to talk, barely to think. Peggy and Maria could do this for hours.
And then, the uilebheist breaches. A category four, bigger than any monster that’s come up yet with hard scales and gleaming eyes, four flailing fins and a spiked tail.
“Whisper Rouge, do you need backup?” someone back at the Shatterdome shouts. “I repeat, do you need backup?”
“No,” the two pilots answer in harmony – almost more terrifying than the beast almost upon them. “We can handle this.”
Whisper Rouge curls its massive hands into two perfect fists, and begins to box. One two three, one two three, slamming into the uilebheist until something is bound to break – and it tries to fight back, it tries to snarl and lunge but there is no stopping this bombardment. A strange kind of dance emerges, one partner pushing in and the other pushing back, tsunami waves spilling out from around them.
But, of course, ironside pilots are only human. The fight cannot last forever. And so, it seems unthinkable and it seems inevitable that the rhythm must slow, the ironside must go on the defensive, the water must close up around it – dark curtains draw together and no lights remain, not even those of the stars.
“Stubborn idiots, thought they could do everything,” Natasha mutters as she and Clint strap into their ironside moments after Whisper Rouge’s coms go dead. Clint simply nods.
Hours later, they find a waterlogged ironside deep beneath the Atlantic, Peggy Carter bleeding from twenty places, and Maria Hill paralyzed from the waist down.
It does not happen quickly, but it happens, nonetheless: New York City evacuates.
One day, it’s two. The next day, five. Then ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred. And soon, entire extended families and city blocks and companies are picking up everything they can carry and moving on to far, far away. The bridges are packed with traffic jams every hour of the day, the airports are full to capacity, and the bus stations are running out of benches for makeshift beds. There has no television announcement or internet trend or psychic link – only an entire city deciding that now is the time to abandon home.
They might build a wall, the government claims. A wall that will stretch so high and so wide, it will encircle the city in a cocoon and no uilebheist will dare enter the fortress. They might build a wall. The uilebheist might decide they’ll forfeit and go home. Pigs might learn to fly.
This city is tired of being ripped up and put back together every other day. There are only so many nameless casualties you can list on a street message board, you know.
A couple of months pass, and the streets are not so alive in early hours of the morning any more. Police cars and fire trucks and ambulances screech by, and people stop and look. If you look up at night, you can almost see the stars.
Tony Stark opens the door of his rarely-used bedroom at two o’clock in the morning and finds his secretary (or babysitter, or best friend) curled up into one corner of the perfectly-made king-size bed, answering emails.
“They’ve lost hope in us,” he says, and he falls into place beside her. She doesn’t have to ask who he means.
There is a line drawn on the floor of the laboratory.
Well, it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, the lab was always noisy. The researchers would be arguing, or someone would be playing music, or a few pieces of machinery would at least be humming in the background as experiments ran their course. On Fridays, they had parties, when everyone shared how their projects were going, they watched old movies, and had drinking contests with now-illegal whiskey. There were no lines and barely any harsh words, everyone working together to save the world.
Now, there are only three people in the lab, and it is always quiet.
Tony Stark spends every spare second trying to fix ironsides. They are falling apart faster than he can put them back together and the funding is running out. The government says it wants to build a wall around the eastern seaboard and he knows that won’t work, he knows the uilebheist will crush that like a tower of cards but nobody wants to help him anymore. The Shatterdome is expected to fail, and he’s determined not to let it but there’s little he can do – he’s just one man, not a hero.
Jane Foster is dissolving into her equations. She’s all chalkboard, all the time – covering inch after inch in white figures, scratching away as though if she goes on long enough, something will make sense. Her computer simulations are running on overtime, all of her equipment is overheating, and she just keeps going. She doesn’t talk much – doesn’t banter, unless it’s to yell at Bruce to keep his uilebheist guts on his side of the lab – just scratches away until her hands are pale white.
Bruce Banner refuses to give up. He has a plan for how to figure out what’s in the uilebheists’ heads once and for all, and it’s incredibly dangerous but it’s got to work. He spends all his time in the lab trying to figure it out, making sure that every little detail is perfect before he shows it to Jane. She’s going to think he’s insane, but he needs her help.
Bruce might be the only one who realizes that this research team can’t solve any puzzles unless they do it together.
“I have a plan,” Nick Fury says.
Decades ago, if this man said he had a plan, mountains could have moved for him. Oceans could have run dry. The very ground upon which he stood could have burst open. But he’s learned to never expect the best from people anymore. Not unless he can push them.
Tony Stark raises one perfectly shaped brow. “Will it work?”
They find Steve Rogers scaling walls in southern Portugal.
He’s changed, in the years since he left the PADC. His hair is longer, a scratchy beard covers his chin, and he covers his face with a faded baseball cap. He is taller, broader, and stronger than before – not by too much, but enough that he’s not quite recognizable when Tony Stark first spots him. Steve Rogers is a lion forced to eat with the hyenas, grown accustomed to begging for scraps.
Nick Fury goes to talk to him while Tony hangs behind and watches.
“We need you, Rogers,” Nick tells him. “I have a plan that just might end this war once and for all, but it needs more than just one ironside to get it done. Clint and Natasha can’t do this one on their own.”
Steve just shakes his head. “Can’t do it. Can’t lose anyone else.”
Nick puts on a stern face and begins listing – numbers, statistics, the children in New York who will die first and the children in the rest of the United States who will die later. He talks of duty and determination, voice steadily rising as Steve continues to simply shake his head.
Finally, Tony refuses to watch any longer. He steps forward.
“Steve Rogers, one of America’s golden boys,” he drawls. “I can’t believe this. What would Bucky Barnes say, huh? You working construction to build walls at the end of the world? First, walls can’t keep the demons out, and second – it’s the end of the world, all right. I know it, you know it, I know you know it. So what’re you still standing here for? When shit hits the fan, where would you rather end up? Here,” – Tony spreads his arms wide, showing the wide expanse of dirty floors and unkempt men jostling for work so that they can make enough money to buy just a few more drinks of beer – “or in an ironside?”
Steve stares at him for a long moment, blue eyes bright and unreadable.
“Fine,” he says. “I’ll do it. But you’re gonna be my copilot.”
Tony smirks. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Bruce Banner has never been very good at keeping secrets.
It’s five A.M. and he’s down in the lab, making final adjustments to the secret project to which he’s devoted weeks of late nights and probably gallons of coffee. There’s only one more part he needs to fix, and it’s about to fall into place, all he needs to do is pull that out and turn this just a little and –
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Bruce spins around so quickly, he nearly knocks over his project. There is an angry woman in a white lab coat standing behind him, and he honestly shouldn’t have expected anything else.
“Jane, you have to listen to me,” he says.
She crosses her arms. “Listen? Why? What part of your messy, inconclusive, practically daydream-level work could possibly be of use to me?”
Bruce stands and crosses his own, then replies, “This is important.”
“You’re wasting valuable time and resources on a project that will never work and probably kill you. Please, explain how that’s important – actually, don’t, I have better things to do with my time.” And with that, Jane Foster turns on her heel and begins to march to her side of the line.
“Wait!” Bruce shouts. “Please, you have to listen to me. This isn’t all messy daydream stuff – I’ve done the calculations, and I should be able to drift with an uilebheist and recover all the information it knows, find out how to get through the breach, so many answers to questions we don’t even know yet – but only if you do it with me.”
Jane takes one step back towards him. “Okay,” she says slowly. She pauses, then takes another step. “Pilots share the neural load, so you think we should do the same thing. I’m listening, that’s logical. But what makes you think I’ll agree?”
“Because you’ve got no other choice.”
He could give a whole speech, in these precious few moments – remind her of the entire world at stake, all of the work she’s put into trying to learn about the uilebheist and where they come from, the excited young scientist who shook his hand so eagerly on their first day in the lab, the man who gave his life to protect the people he loves, her most of all – but he doesn’t really need it, and neither does she.
Jane nods, crosses the line in the center of the room, and takes Bruce’s hand.
“I’m sorry I’ve been a bitch,” she says. “You don’t deserve it.”
He shrugs. “It’s okay,” he tells her. “Apology accepted. Now, are you ready to do this thing?”
She grins, really grins, for the first time in years. “I was born ready.”
Natasha Romanova and Clint Barton sit on the roof of the Shatterdome and watch the sunrise.
It’s a beautiful morning. The sun is just poking its weary head over the bay, casting reds and golds and purples across the dark waters in layers of color more artistic than any impressionist painter could capture. There is a slight breeze, just enough to serve as a reminder that a cold front is just over the horizon. No ships are braving the water below, leaving it clear and smooth, perfectly reflecting the sky.
The two pilots on the roof pass a vodka bottle back and forth. They emptied the bottle hours ago, but there’s something comforting in passing it from one pair of hands to the other, so they do not throw it away.
“The world might end today,” Natasha says, looking out at the empty sea.
Clint shrugs. “It might not.”
The five hundred twenty three remaining residents of the New York Shatterdome cheer so loudly, they imagine the uilebheist worlds away can hear them.
They’re cheering for Nick Fury and what any of them would call easily the best speech made in human history to date. They’re cheering for the pilots in whom they put their faith and the leaders who refuse to let the monsters win. They’re cheering for the people in houses and apartments and shelters all around the world and the people who leave spaces in their hearts now. They’re even cheering for the people who have given up. But most of all, they’re cheering for themselves.
“Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!”