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Inquiries into Orbital Dynamics (The Mission Controllers' Remix)

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When Roger Scott, one of the great flight directors of the Apollo era, man of a hundred legends, most of them understated, saunters into your office and sits on your desk, you know it's either extraordinarily good fortune, or a minor cataclysm. In this case it was both.

"What can I do for you, Flight?" Elihu asked, unabashedly sucking up with the old title, even though he hadn't been an EECOM in as long as Scott hadn't been a flight director, which was about the same time as the United States of America had last put a human being in space.

"You busy, Mr. Dickerson?" Scott asked, oblivious to the piles shuttle off mission rules that he'd shifted to the floor to acquire his perch. "Because I got got news and I got bad news."

That was not the kind of conversation that ended well at NASA these days, but Elihu gritted his teeth and asked. "So what's the bad news?"

"There is no way NASA can have a rocket with any kind of payload ready to send a probe after your mystery object," Scott said bluntly, though that wasn't really news. It'd been less than a day since NASA had spotted the unidentified satellite orbiting the moon, and chances of getting anything up there before its orbit decayed and it went splat had always been negligible.

"One more mystery," Elihu said, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He'd put an all-nighter into that proposal. Oh well, back to hoping that someday they'd fly shuttles and he'd get back into MOCR for something other than a simulation. "So what's the good news?"

"Well, I just got off the phone with Tony Stark," Scott said, sounding exactly as dubious as Elihu felt, "And he said the Avengers are planning to put something up there."

Of course they were. "That's good." If the object was alien invaders bent to destroy the Earth, again, the Avengers would put a stop to it. "The Fantastic Four didn't stake it?"

"They're in another dimension," Scott waved his hand dismissively. "Well, the thing is, son, Mr. Stark said he'd be happy if NASA wanted to put some instrumentation on their jet, so I got to thinking that maybe you would be able to adapt that proposal of yours to fit."

Elihu thought of every reason why it wouldn't work. The instrument platform, mostly built by JPL, was meant for that cancelled Venus probe, not whatever Stark Technologies monstrosity the Avengers flew. Who knew if it'd even integrate. And how were the Avengers getting to space anyway? Was Thor throwing them? What kind of delta-v was this stuff expected to survive? "Uh... how long do we have?"

"Stark said Iron Man and Captain America are launching in three days."

Elihu started to laugh.

They couldn't quite hear JPL's screams all the way to Houston, but that might have only been because NASA admin drowned them out. Elihu was very suddenly too busy to care. Well, he may have cared a little bit when he found out that he was director of this project because the first three people Scott had asked—all also old hands from the Apollo days—wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, but mostly he didn't have time.

He was in MOCR trying to to sort out frequencies when the oddest couple he'd ever seen walked in like they owned the place. She was a white girl about five feet in boots, dressed in skin-tight yellow and black body armour with a hair bob that should have been on a fashion magazine. In fact, it had been, two months ago. The brother was over six feet of solid muscle, in jeans he must have shimmied into, a plaid shirt with three buttons undone and a five-gallon hat jammed onto his mid-length 'fro.

"We're looking for someone called Flight," she said, and everyone tore their eyes away to look at Elihu.

"That's me." He held out his hand. "Elihu Dickerson, uh, flight director for... whatever we're calling this rodeo." More than a few memos had had Project WTF scrawled on them, but no one had come up with a proper name. "You're Wasp, I guess."

"You guessed right," the man said, holding out his hand next. "Jim Rhodes, Chief Aviation Engineer, Stark Industries. And Project Rodeo sounds good to me."

"Perfect. Jim's already dressed for the part," Wasp said, bumping her shoulder into his ribs. "He thinks he'll have time for cowgirls."

"There's always time for cowgirls," Rhodes said, smiling complacently. "But that's after we get you folks hooked up, dialled in and otherwise electrified."

"We come bearing specs," Wasp continued, picking up his line. "Take us to your mainframe."

"Okay," Elihu found himself saying, because what else was there. He ended up handing Wasp off to Sally Calhoun from the programming section to go set up all the data inputs and comm channels, while he huddled with Rhodes in the Trench. "Look," he said in a voice low enough to stay confined to this row of consoles, "I know that SI and the Avengers work pretty differently from NASA, and that you're doing us a favour taking out gear up there, but..." he took a breath trying to work out the words. "This mission means a lot to me, and to NASA. Fighting off alien invasions might be every second Tuesday for you hero types. We put our careers into those instruments, into science. So don't..."

Rhodes was watching him seriously, and paused, waiting for Elihu to finish. When he didn't, he took off his hat and tucked it under his arm, neat as any soldier. "I hear that," he said. "We don't mean to disrespect you folks, no matter how we rolled in. I've spent more hours on the Avenjet—on the stick and under the hood—than anyone who isn't Tony Stark or an Avenger, and I'm here to answer any questions you want, until we put this thing to bed. We'll get your pictures back, Flight."

"I appreciate that," Elihu replied, meaning it. "I don't want to pull down your operation, you just realise that, well, we usually take about six months to ramp up to this kind of thing."

"Yeah, I know."

"And the astronauts train for years."

"I know that too."

"And there're simulations and mission rules and check lists and... and.... and the astronauts have to do what Flight says."

"I hear that, too," Rhodes said after a pause, while Elihu bit his lip to keep from yelling. "The Avengers usually just load and go. Way I see it, three days is a compromise."

He smiled at Elihu, that same, cocky cowgirls smile, and Elihu couldn't help laughing. "Fine, fine," he said. "I'm sorry. It's been a heck of a few days."

"'S'alright," Rhodes answered, slapping Elihu's shoulder hard enough to stagger him. "Oh, I've been meaning to ask, where around here can Captain America get fitted for a space suit?"


After more or less not sleeping for three days, Elihu got one of the flight surgeons to give him some whoa pills and crashed out in the bunk room. When showed up in MOCR six hours later, just in time for launch, Rhodes was already there, looking freshly pressed, still in jeans, though he'd lost the hat, thank god. Sometime in the intervening rush, Elihu had become what his beatnik roommate at Howard would have called zen to the jive, or some such. As long as they got some data before the Avengers blew the thing up, he'd call the mission a win. Hell, he'd settle for scanning it while exploded.

Thor did throw the Avenjet.

Down in the Trench, Guidance put his head in his hands, covering his eyes for the following twelve minutes, while Retro seemed to take working out what their return path might be as a particular challenge. The click of his fingers on the calculating machine and the snap of his slide ruler were the main sound in the room. They were playing this like a real mission, reading every data feed that wasn't video or voice—which the Avengers were sitting on, because they said it would risk their secret identities—but most of the loops were eerily quiet.

Rhodes was sitting next to Elihu, watching the room with a lively interest. "You folks are really going all up on this," he noted.

"It's good practice," Elihu answered, which was certainly how he'd justified it to management. "And if something goes wrong, we're pretty good at recovery ops." Someday, they were going to have to stop resting on the laurels of Apollo 13 and Skylab 2, but Elihu profoundly hoped that wasn't going to be this mission.

He pressed his ear, listening to Wasp's high voice relay the check in as the Avenjet reached orbit. This system had been designed with men's lower voices in mind, and Wasp came out a bit squeaky. Still, she was saying A-ok on the orbit, with TLI coming up, when the Avenjet would break out of low Earth orbit and head for the Moon. He wondered if the Avengers planned to give them censored comms logs after splash down, so he could make his own impressions of their flight, but it was a point on which they'd been non committal. Elihu wouldn't have been able to honestly say that didn't gall him. The astronauts' impressions were the big difference between sending a robot and sending a human, and he was used to getting them unfiltered.

Elihu went around the horn, checking in with everyone more out of form than anything else. It was all green, except for the surgeon, who said that Captain America was napping as they picked up velocity.

Rhodes laughed when he heard that. "Sounds like Cap."

"They're going in pretty hot," Elihu said. It had been on the flight plan, such as it was, but seeing the numbers now made his gut clench. "Iron Man does know he's going to have to deal with some serious delta-v to make orbit, right?" He could see FIDO and Guidance's heads together, but they weren't talking into their mics.

"Figure they wanted to get there faster," Rhodes said. His chair was tipped back, and he didn't have his boots on the desk in front of him, but he looked like he wanted to.

"What're they like?" Elihu asked. He'd always thought you could tell a lot about a man by how he flew a spacecraft, and was hoping now the reverse was true. They just hadn't had the simulator time to get to know these two. Or, for that matter, any simulator time at all.

Rhodes straightened marginally. "I mostly work with Mr. Stark, but the Avengers are the real deal," he said. "They both take risks that would give me nightmares, but they've usually run the angles first. Cap wants to come back alive, and he wants Iron Man to come back alive, and Tin Man out there'd give Cap the sun in the sky if he could. They'll look after each other."

Elihu had only meet Cap in passing, when he was down to get his suit fitted, but even just shaking the man's hand, he could understand the urge. "I used to think it was a bunch of bunk, you know? The whole Captain America and apple pie thing."

"How about now?" Rhodes was watching him critically, and for the first time it occurred to Elihu that he'd been sent to Houston to watch Iron Man's back as much as to help NASA.

"You can't say he doesn't care," Elihu said cautiously. He wondered if Rhodes knew about Isaiah Bradley, the original Captain America, but of course you couldn't just right up and ask someone that, not even a brother. "And he seems like he's got a level head, which you need out there."

"Like I said, real deal." Rhodes had relaxed again, taking Elihu's guarded approval for what it was. "I'm going to get some rack time," he said, levelling the chair level and rising in the same motion. "I'll be back for the Moon part. Page if you need me."

"Roger that," Elihu said absently. He was watching Dan Beverley on INCO, who was clearly working harder than he should have been just then. When Rhodes had cleared the room, Elihu dropped down a row to look over his shoulder. He had a stream of readouts that didn't look like either the systems link from the Avenjet, or the comms from the Avengers in New York. "Anything interesting, Bev?"

"Maybe," Beverley said, drawing out the word. "Not sure yet. Gonna send it to the backroom."

Elihu watched him for a moment more before what he was looking at came into focus. "You've found the..." he broke off, not wanting a record of INCO having worked out the Avengers secure frequency. "Can you read it?"

"Cipher," Beverley replied. "We'll see."

What Elihu knew he should do was tell INCO to drop this and stick to getting good copy on the official channels, like NASA had agreed. Only he wanted to know, dammit all. "It's not a priority, Bev, but keep it on it," he said, and was very glad Rhodes wasn't there to see how guilty he must look.

If the entry into lunar orbit—with the Avenjet screaming in high and dumping velocity by whipping around the Moon a couple times as it dropped and slowed to match pace with the object— made Elihu's blood chill, the first EVA took years of Elihu's life. It started out fine, or as fine as an EVA with no tether using propitiatory Stark Industries tech that wouldn't upload to EECOM could start. Iron Man was on a hot mic, but only to the Avengers, which left everyone in MOCR waiting for Wasp to relay what was going on.

Rhodes was back, chair again tipped onto the back legs, but Elihu could see his hands tightening as they lay supposedly relaxed in his lap. The hat was back, tipped forward to shade his expression, but his mouth was pressed into a line.

"Wish you were flying?" Elihu asked.

The corner of Rhodes' mouth twitched up. "That's a rog."

INCO had thrown all the footage they had so far up onto the side screen, next to the real-time lunar orbit plot, and too many people were looking at it and not at their numbers. If no one in MOCR liked the EVA, at least the beakers in the backrooms were delighted. The object was clearly artificial, looking like someone had carved out the middle of an asteroid and run a portico across the front, and when Elihu looped into the conversation, he caught a good deal of cooing over the radiation signatures.

He had rather less enthusiasm from GNC, who didn't like the orbit, and kept rerunning the numbers to make sure the object wasn't going to plummet into the Moon, possibly taking with the Avenjet with it. "It's not moving logically!" he exclaimed when Elihu asked for a call.

"Is it moving illogically toward the Moon, or around it?"

"Standby on that, Flight."

"Rog." Elihu pinched the bridge of his nose and shifted to following Wasp's reports of the EVA. Iron Man was recording video footage of the object, circling closer and closer.

"He's going to try get some close ups," Wasp said. Her voice was crisp and clear, not the static-laden time lag that she herself would be fielding from lunar orbit. They'd just come out from the far side of the moon, signal popping up without fanfare. The very concept of an EVA outside of communication with the Earth tied knots in Elihu's stomach, but asking them to be careful was mostly pointless. In that spirit, he acknowledged Wasp's message, but kept his opinion to himself.

Then he heard Wasp take a sharp breath, and every head in the room came up at once, as though she'd pulled a string.

"Wasp, status," Elihu snapped.

"Standby," was her only answer.

Rhodes was sitting straight now, watching the reactions in the room more than listening to the loops. He raised his eyebrow, and Elihu shook his head slightly.

"All systems nominal on the Avenjet," EECOM said, and GNC echoed that.

Elihu found himself looking at the surgeon out of habit, but the woman just just said, "Cap's heart rate is up." Because of course she didn't have readings on Iron Man.

He was about half a second from prodding Wasp for a response when the link clicked open again. "Iron Man isn't answering Cap's calls. He's called three times in the last two minutes, no reply."

"Roger," Elihu said, feeling his own heart rate pick up, and forcing himself not to show any outer sign of panic. "Does Cap have eyes on Iron Man?"

"Standby." Again she switched channels, again leaving MOCR out of the loop.

Elihu listened to the various loops, each station chattering with the backroom, but the truth was that no one had any more data than Elihu had. Two people were up there, over two-hundred thousand miles from their home, one outside in hard vacuum investigating an unknown object, and Elihu could do fuck all to help them, not even offer advice.

It wasn't more than thirty seconds before Wasp came on again. "Cap says he can see Iron Man, and he appears to be manoeuvring normally, but is still not answering hails."

Filtering through the now multitudinous suggestions coming through the loop, Elihu asked Wasp to relay a couple of comms checks, all of which came up duds. Rhodes pitched in something about cycling through transmitters, same.

"Cap's talking about going out there and getting him," Wasp said, and Elihu considered throwing up.

"Hold that off, if you can," he said as mildly as he could. "The uh... the ship has a spot light, right? Forward lights? Tell him to strobe them, maybe catch Iron Man's attention. It could be an issue with his suit."

Rhodes shook his head, but didn't actually have anything to add, so Elihu ignored him.

"Copy, I'll..." Wasp started, then broke off. "Okay, Iron Man just made contact. He..." another pause. "He's okay. He didn't hear any of the calls. Now they're arguing, but they both sound okay."

"Roger, see if you can get them to source the problem," Elihu said, then swore too quietly for the mic to pick up. A minute later, the Avenjet swung back behind the Moon, and Elihu took a moment to breathe before he got up and went over to INCO, and leaned in to say into Beverley's ear, "What I said about priorities, turn that back burner on high."

"That's a rog," Beverley said in the same low tone. "I've already got a few of my boys on it."

"Outstanding." Elihu patted his shoulder, then moved down the line to make it look like he was checking in with everyone. He knew that Dan Beverley had been having enough luck with cosmonaut codes that he'd just about been poached by the CIA, and Elihu thought that with this much parallel data, he'd have a good chance at the Avengers' secure comms as well.

Elihu would be damned if he was ever going to have a man in trouble up there where he couldn't talk to him. Not again.

The second shift had taken the sleep cycle, and Elihu was just getting up when Roger Scott button holed him. "Have you seen the pictures coming back?"

Elihu rubbed his eyes and wished he'd taken a go pill. Probably too late now, he'd have to hunt up some coffee. "Just the stuff from the Avenjet yesterday."

"Iron Man uplinked some of the images from his EVA," Scott said and handed Elihu a stack of Polaroids. They'd been taken off the monitors as the data stream came in, and weren't great resolution.

"I don't see..." Elihu squinted, trying to make the harsh shadows form a picture. He could see the shape of the pillars, and some kind of carving on them which looked like... "Jesus."

"Son, I hope not," Scott noted dryly, as Elihu continued to peer at the shapes of what appeared to be many-tentacled creatures all doing something Elihu wished he hadn't seen prior to coffee.

"These are obscene," Elihu said, and stacked the pictures to hand back to Scott. "I mean that literally. NASA can't... boy, I'm glad I don't have to make that call."

"You mean the one where I tell James Fletcher that NASA has co-run a mission with the Avengers to investigate a potential alien artefact, and what we've found is the first known example of extraterrestrial pornography?" Scott jammed the pictures into his shirt pocket. "If we're ever funded for anything again, it'll be a goddamn miracle."

"Good luck, sir," Elihu said, and made his escape.

There was a joke that NASA mess coffee was brewed in the tanks they used to use to formulate the rocket propellant for the S-IC, which no one thus far had disproved. Elihu had two cups, then headed down to MOCR for his shift.

Inside, GNC was having a heated debate with Guidance about the stability of the orbit. It wasn't a screaming match, but only because people who screamed in MOCR found themselves outside it pretty damn quickly. The screen showed the Avenjet as behind the moon, but coming Earth-side in ten minutes.

"Summary?" Elihu asked Flight, sitting next to her and looping in for the hand over.

"Iron Man called down and asked if we thought the object's orbit was stable enough for another EVA," she said, keeping half an ear on the progression of the debate. Lunar orbit had always been a tricky business, given how irregular the Moon's gravity field was. "I guess it's got a pretty good wobble every time it goes over a mascon, and Guidance thinks it's too risky. GNC says it'll give enough notice when it starts to decay to get clear."

"GNC should join the Avengers," Elihu muttered. "How much notice?"

"They're still running the numbers on that in back," Flight stood. All through the room, the shift was changing over. "But they've also worked out that the comms blackout you had was due to proximity to the object, and no one knows why, so I'd like the margin to be a bit longer than the planned time for the EVA."

"No kidding," Elihu told her, and switched on his mic. "Okay, guys and gals, let's get some answers here."

"You gotta be zen to your jive, man," Elihu said low enough for only Rhodes to hear. Rhodes snorted and patted Elihu's shoulder sympathetically.

The boys were just coming in from their fourth EVA, since apparently they were both going out now, and just tying their spaceship to the floating alien sex temple like it was a pony. The depressing part was that Elihu was getting used to it. Less than a week, and they'd broken him.

"Any more on that inscription?" Rhodes asked. He was in yet another plaid shirt, the latest in a seemingly endless supply, though Elihu was pretty sure Wasp had been right, and he hadn't had time for cowgirls. Now he pressed his hand to his chest and declaimed, "'Partake of the fruits of the god's joy and remain in peace until the tides have passed o'er thee, bathing thee with truth, love, and serenity.' Are we sure Thor didn't make it up?"

Elihu shrugged. "Not really," he said. "Everyone's still baffled by why what we assumed was ET had an inscription in languages from Earth. We don't keep linguists on staff, and had to send out to Yale for it, so conference calls all around." No few of the consuls had a print out of the inscription taped to the sides, though more still had images of the half-man half-squid figure that had been at the centre of the temple. H.P. Lovecraft quotes had been far too abundant for Elihu's liking. He was as into science fiction as the next NASA nerd, but there were limits.

"You're a flight director, not a riddle master?" Rhodes said, not quite laughing.

"Something like that, I'm..." Elihu broke off as Wasp relayed that Cap had checked in for them, and that Iron Man was going to process some samples they'd taken. Meanwhile, they should prepare for the next data dump.

"Outstanding," Elihu said. "Ready for more dirty pictures, INCO?"

"Ready and waiting, Flight."

Elihu had mostly been ignoring the press, but he was sure NASA's spin must have been a humdinger, probably couched in all kinds of fancy language about the xeno-anthropology, and cultural understanding.

"Flight, I've got some odd readings here," the surgeon said. She sounded engaged but not worried yet.

"Go ahead."

"Cap's pulse, BP and temp are all rising. Initially slow, but accelerating."

"How fast?"

"He's come up to the equivalent of a sustained jog in about a minute, but I don't know what that means for a super soldier," the surgeon was sounding worried now, her head bent to study the readings. "I think..." She stopped. "Flight, Cap just pulled his monitors. I've lost signal."

Elihu paged the Avengers, "Wasp, this is Huston. See if you can get a hold of Cap. We've lost his bio."

"Wilco," Wasp said, but she didn't answer for a few minutes, and when she did it was to say that she couldn't raise the Avenjet.

"GNC?" Elihu asked.

"All green, Flight."

And they'd just confirmed that the orbit was currently stable "INCO, could they have drifted into that communication black zone around the object?"

"Negative. Still getting telemetry."

Elihu went over to INCO's consul, making a pretence of reading over his shoulder, and asked in a low voice, "Anything on the back burner?"

"Found the burner," Beverley replied. "All quiet there too."

"Damn." He wanted to ask the surgeon if it was possible that they were having some kind of medical emergency, or were perhaps under alien influence, which apparently happened to the Avengers, but Elihu knew that if the surgeon knew, she'd tell him.

The Avenjet had not come back online by the time Elihu handed off his shift. He wanted to sleep, but even the surgeon's pills didn't knock him out.

He must have slept eventually, because the alarm dragged him out of it. Dan Beverley caught him on the way to coffee, and pulled him aside.

"Have you heard?" he asked.

"Why does everyone expect flight directors to know everything, even when they're sleeping?" Elihu asked rhetorically. "Heard what?"

Beverley glanced around, like he was expecting eavesdroppers. The move was so obvious, that if Elihu had seen it from afar, he'd have made sure to know what Beverley was saying. For a decent cryptologist and an excellent signals man, he was a lousy spy. "Cap and Iron Man came back online about an hour after you crashed. Wasp told us that something in the samples from the temple knocked them out."

Now it was Elihu who glanced around. "That doesn't..."

"Match what the surgeon said, I know," Beverley finished. "And I'd managed to break their comms. That's why I was still up; I was working on old messages." Now that he mentioned it, Beverley did have the hyper-focused intensity of someone who'd been up for thirty six hours and was subsisting mainly on a coffee-kerosene hybrid. "Listen: Wasp asked what had happened, and Iron Man said that they'd found some samples that 'seem to lower inhibitions quite drastically.'" When Beverley made the appropriate air quotes, and Elihu saw that his hands were shaking. "He said it was like being drunk, and he was going to destroy the samples because they weren't safe."

"But alcohol's a suppressant," Elihu said. Some of the old-school flight surgeons even passed out whisky instead of whoa pills. Being drunk would have made that spike in heart rate either. "Did he say anything else?"

Beverley shook his head. "Just that he'd fill Wasp in on the ground."

Elihu almost voiced the growing suspicion in the corner of his mind, but caught himself in time. "Good work, Bev," he said.

Rhodes was already installed in MOCR, listening to the latest EVA prep. Iron Man had said he wanted more samples, though of what, when he was planning to destroy the ones he already had, Elihu didn't know. Maybe of the rock itself. The Apollo astronauts had had every rock they were going to pick up scheduled in advance, with these two, who knew.

"I lost a bet," Rhodes said as Elihu took over as flight director.

"Oh yes?"

"I put a sawbuck on Iron Man blowing that thing up. Now Ms. Cabe is going to be smug as hell."

"They're not out of there yet," Elihu replied. He was thinking he should have laid odds on something else entirely.

"Nah." Rhodes waved his hand dismissively, like he was flicking away black flies. "If they haven't yet, they ain't gonna."

He was right, too. The final EVA passed without incident, as did unhitching from the temple, and TEI. Then the mission was over, and the Avenjet was on its way home, leaving the object to its gently decaying orbit and eventual impact on the surface of the Moon.

Elihu almost let himself relax. He would have, if he hadn't known how many things could go wrong in space, even on a set return path. Though the surgeon didn't seem to mind that Cap was no longer wearing his bio monitors. In fact, he hadn't been since the day before.

Right around the point where the Avenjet tipped out of the Moon's gravity well and into the Earth's, GNC said, "They've just toggled the nav system off then on again."

A minute later, Thor, who was playing Avengers CapCom that day, said that Cap hadn't reported any problems. "Run it anyway," Elihu told Retro. "If they're having computer problems, I want to be able to feed in our numbers."

"Roger, Flight," Retro said, and leaned over to Guidance as they worked it out.

Beverley caught Elihu's eye, and he made his way over to INCO, again bending down to cover their conversation. "They've got a hot mic," Beverley murmured.

"What..." Elihu started to ask, but Beverley motioned him down and jacked his comms into a secondary port. He wanted to protest. They'd promised the Avengers that NASA would let their comms be to protect their identities, at the same time he wanted to know what the hell was going on up there. "Oh, my," he breathed when the headset went live.

There weren't a lot of words, and certainly no one's secret identity was revealed. In fact, the sounds, mostly off Cap's mic, could be summarised as, Oh, God, please. Yes. Fuck me hard. Combined with some truly filthy sounds that no one should ever have to hear their national icon making.

After about ten seconds, Elihu pulled the jack and leaned in even closer. "If you're keeping a record of this, scrub it. I want it so blank Nixon will wish he'd hired you."

He went back to his station, only to find Rhodes watching him with an expression that could only be described as knowing.

"Lose another bet?" Elihu demanded, not liking the feeling that he'd just been caught out.

"No, I think I just won one," Rhodes replied. He was still watching Elihu, gaze sharp and assessing. "Though Ms. Cabe's going to have to take my word on that, isn't she?"

Damn right she was. Elihu leaned in so that no one else could hear, and said as neutrally as possible, "Official NASA policy is that the sixty-two-mile-high club has no members." Though Beverley said he had his suspicions about the goings on in Salyut 4, but that was the Soviets, and one never admitted being beaten by them if one didn't have to.

"Glad to hear it," Rhodes said.

Elihu wanted to say more, like that he hoped that Cap and Iron Man were okay up there. As much as they were royal pains in the ass, they were still his crew, and he wanted Rhodes to know that. Whatever was going on up there, with the alien influence and the frantic sounds he'd just heard, Elihu wasn't ready to write it off as more Avengers shenanigans, and he certainly didn't want it to be a joke, like the pictures of the object that the press were currently glorying in. "Look after them on the ground, will you?" he finally said.

"Always do," Rhodes answered, sounding as though he had the weight of the Earth on him.

"Good man."

Elihu just hoped to God Iron Man had destroyed those samples like he'd said he would.

Later, when they were all tucked away safely in their own gravity well, breathing their own air, and NASA had them all up to their eyebrows in mission reports, Elihu switched on the news.

There were Captain America and Iron Man, standing shoulder to shoulder talking to the press. Iron Man was in the middle of some smart reply about tentacles, which made Cap's cheeks colour. For all that, however, Elihu caught a small exchange in looks when the reporter paused, and now that he knew better, he saw, for the barest instant, their fingers touch.

"Yeah, they'll be fine," he said to himself, and turned back to the flight rules for the shuttle. Someday, they'd fly again.