Disclaimer: Any recognizable characters here belong to Marvel Inc., and are being borrowed for the purpose of storytelling. No money or other compensation has been received for the writing of this story, other than personal satisfaction (and a sense of relief). I've done the "write for money" thing before, and I'm much happier as an unpaid author, thank you very much.
Thanks to Caduceus for agreeing to beta-read this. He's more than earned every comic book I'm sending him...
Although there should be enough information in this story to introduce the original characters, you might want to stop and read "Sentinels", "Spider Story", and "Blessings in Disguise", as they introduce Miranda Evans and some of the "background" I've developed for these Ultimate characters. All three are very short, "Sentinels" being about 10 pages, and the other two fewer than that. The address is listed in my author account; "Sentinels" and "Spider Story" are both posted here at FFN.
At half-past midnight, the conference center's auditorium was almost empty. Finally. Harlow Jefferson yawned, rubbed his eyes, and folded his arms wearily. He'd been warned about the crowds and the fact that his assigned charge would stay in the room until he'd spoken to everyone who wanted to meet with him. The formal program had ended two and a half hours ago, and the majority of people had stayed afterward.
"You can't blame them," one of the secretaries at Masthead Publishing Company had remarked before Jefferson had left for Chicago. "How often do people get to meet a real god?"
Well, Thor certainly seemed to have god-like stamina, if nothing else, Jefferson reflected, glancing around the room as the last of the audience began gathering up their belongings, having gotten their books signed and a few private words with the author. He spotted one lone woman sitting at the end of a row, head bowed and eyes closed. Send that one on her way, and we can call it a night.
He approached her and bent down. "Excuse me, ma'm, but the program is over. It's time to wake up."
The woman glanced up at him over the top of her glasses. "I wasn't sleeping, thank you." She raised her hand, revealing a hardcover book; she carefully laid a ribbon between the open pages and snapped the volume shut. "I was waiting for the crowd to clear. I would like to speak to Thor, if he can spare me a minute." Her gaze flicked up and down him. "Thialfi, I presume?"
The woman blinked in surprise. "You work for a Norse god and you don't know the mythology?" She gave him a stern look. "I'm surprised at you, sir."
Chuckling, a broad-shouldered, blond-haired man walked among the chairs two aisles ahead, pulled one out, turned it around, and sat in it backward. Thor rested his arms on the chair's back. "Someone's done her homework."
The woman inclined her head slightly at the compliment. Then she turned to Jefferson. "Thialfi was Thor's servant in the myths. If you want the whole story, I highly recommend Kevin Crossley-Holland's collection, entitled The Norse Myths. He has explanations, background, and everything. Although I must warn you that his adaptation of the myths is very much geared to adults."
Thor indicated the aide with one hand. "This is Mr. Jefferson. He's on loan to me during my lecture tour, courtesy of my publisher."
"Ah. My mistake, then. My name is Miranda Evans, and as I mentioned, I would like to speak with you if you have a moment."
"I do indeed have a moment, or several moments, if you need them," Thor replied. Jefferson sighed wearily.
Evans hesitated, glancing at Jefferson. "This is a private matter of some delicacy."
"Oh," said Jefferson. "Should I look into getting you two a room?"
Thor shot him a look of mild disapproval, but Evans smiled. "Yes, please." Jefferson stared at her. "A small meeting room with a table would be immensely helpful, thank you. And if it included equipment for making tea and/or coffee, that would be even better." She glanced at her watch. "I'm up quite a bit past my bedtime, since I live and work in the next time zone to the east, and this might take a while."
Jefferson opened his mouth to protest.
"Mr. Jefferson," Thor said gently, "would you please ask at the check-in desk if a small conference room is available? I doubt anyone is using them at this hour of the night. And after that, you might want to turn in and get some sleep."
Jefferson shut his mouth, shook himself, and muttered, "Yes, of course." He stalked away toward the exit.
Thor waited until Jefferson left the auditorium before turning his attention back to Evans. "You don't really need a conference room, do you?"
Evans reached into the briefcase at her feet and withdrew a plain manila folder. "No, it was more an excuse to get him to go away for a while, although I do have some documentation you might want to see." She squared her shoulders. "I represent a group of people who can't come themselves, but who need your help."
The good-natured smile vanished from Thor's face. "Then I suggest you discuss the problem with your superiors at S.H.I.E.L.D. and let them deal with it."
She blinked several times in confusion. "I don't—"
"General Fury has tried contacting me several times, and I really am not interested in working with him or anyone else in his organization."
Evan's mouth tightened. "If I might finish my original sentence—"
"The answer is 'no', Miss Evans. I'm sorry you've wasted your time. Good night." He stood up and turned away.
She was silent until he reached the end of the row of chairs. "Well, I suppose this hasn't been a completely wasted trip. I can at least go back and correct the section of your file that suggests you're capable of telling the truth of someone's words just by looking at that person." She rose and picked her coat off the back of the chair. Seeing that he hadn't slowed, she added, "Not to mention the part that states you'll help anyone, especially if lives are at stake."
"Are there?" Thor had finally stopped about mid-way up the auditorium's center aisle and turned back to face her.
"Three different groups. One is the people I work with directly. The second is a group of mutants who are, for various reasons, living in seclusion. And the third..." She shrugged. "I'm not sure they even qualify as intelligent life, but my friends think they are." Pausing with coat in hand, she added, "Make that four groups. The solution proposed by my superiors involves a lot of shooting and S.H.I.E.L.D. security troops running around in poorly lit sections of the New York City sewer system. I'm guessing there's a good chance that someone's going to get killed. The people I'm representing thought you might be able to prevent all that."
As Evans was speaking, Thor had returned to almost the same place he had been sitting earlier. For a few heartbeats, he stood and studied her face. At last he pulled a chair around and sat down. "All right, Miss Evans. What can I do for you?"
She perched on the edge of her chair and laid her coat aside. "Well, perhaps you could begin by telling me everything you know about dragons."
Three days before Chicago:
"Do you mean to tell me you think there are dragons in the sewers of New York, Mr. Urich?" Gerald Dixon asked, leaning back in his chair. He and his visitor were seated in Dixon's office in the New York City Water and Sewer Department.
Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich smiled tightly. "I don't know, Mr. Dixon. Are there dragons in the sewers of New York?"
Dixon smiled back. "I'd say it depends on how much you've been drinking or what you've been smoking."
Urich glanced down at his notebook and began flipping through the pages. "I have statements from three people who claim to have seen something they say looked like extremely large reptiles while they were working below ground level. Two of them are maintenance workers, and the third is a security guard."
"Mr. Urich," Dixon interrupted, "you do know that the idea of alligators in the sewers is just an urban legend. There hasn't been a single confirmed sighting –"
"— since 1935. East Harlem. Yes, I know. That doesn't mean there isn't anything down there, just that no one's seen anything. Until recently."
"Within the last two years. The two maintenance workers saw something in the spring of last year, and the security guard said her sighting was less than a month ago."
Dixon leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. He was a middle-aged man with brown hair graying at the temples. "This is news to me. None of these people have any reports on file. Something like this usually makes for office gossip, if nothing else." He shrugged. "Mr. Urich, as any number of experts have pointed out, the likelihood of monsters existing in the sewers is preposterous. The food supply is limited. The environment really can't support anything bigger than rats or bugs. And as you know, the last documented case of alligators or other large animals caught in the tunnels was in 1935."
"Then you won't mind if I ask to see for myself."
"Not at all." Dixon shook his head to give his words emphasis. "I'll look into arranging a guide for you, although it will take a week or so before I can shift someone off their regular schedule. Like many departments, we're short-handed right now."
"I understand." Urich stood up and held out a hand; Dixon stood and reached across the desk to shake it. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Dixon."
"You're welcome. Someone from this office will be in touch with you shortly."
One day before Chicago:
In a private conference room of the Triskelion, General Nicholas Fury glanced up as Gerald Dixon entered. "Miranda Evans has gone to Chicago," Fury said, without preamble.
Dixon scowled in disapproval. "She was told that the option of contacting Thor had not been approved."
"I'm approving it now," Fury told him. "Unofficially, for the time being."
"Evans has no authority—"
"She does in this instance." Fury watched the other man calmly. "Sit down, Gerry." Dixon sat. "I heard your report. I've also read hers. She was asked to contact him specifically."
Dixon grimaced. "General, you know how uneasy I am about her... interaction with them."
Fury nodded. "I know. And I understand. Psi Division has been scanning her regularly and they've reported no signs of tampering. Besides, there are other things to consider. You know we've been trying to recruit Thor for the superhuman team I've assembled?"
"He's refused. Several times, as a matter of fact. After bailing us out during the Hulk incident last month, he won't return my calls or e-mails. Ms. Evans has taken five days of her own vacation time, and has paid for the entire trip out of her own pocket. I haven't given her the go-ahead on this; all she knows is that I've received her report. She can honestly claim that she's not working on our behalf. I'm letting her go, not because I want to undermine your authority, but because I want to see if she has any luck getting him to accept this job."
"He doesn't have the security clearance," Dixon warned.
"I know. If he refuses, we're not out anything. If he accepts..." Fury drummed his fingers on the table, "...we'll deal with it." He glanced at the computer screen beside his right elbow and tapped a key. "What's the story with Mr. Urich?"
"All he seems to have are rumors. We've made certain the reports of any sightings of anything 'monster'- or mutant-related have been, shall we say, misfiled. I've offered him a tour of the area in question, next week if I can find anyone. I can probably stall until the week after."
"One way or another, the whole thing should be over long before then."
"Exactly. We'll walk him around, answer some questions, and send him on his way."
Fury nodded. "Good. The continued lack of evidence might not dampen his enthusiasm, but it should keep him from publishing anything."
"Did Miranda engineer that contact, too?"
"No. Apparently she just happened to be in the right place at the right time to rescue that poor kid during the Sentinel attack, and after Urich mentioned his interest in sewer monsters, it seemed like a good way to keep an eye on him. We've got other arrangements like this in place. Every so often information comes along that should be leaked to the press, and sometimes reporters ask for information we can provide legally. They don't know their contacts are S.H.I.E.L.D. employees, we get to do some public service that doesn't compromise anything. It's a win-win situation."
Dixon nodded. "Let's hope this business with Thor turns out the same way."
Two days later:
Peter Parker dumped his backpack on the floor at his computer station in the Daily Bugle newsroom. The activity level in the room was slow but purposeful; the next deadline was over two hours away, and many of the staff members were sipping coffee as they worked. Peter could smell fresh popcorn as two photographers sauntered by, tossing the bag back and forth to cool it before they opened it.
A few cubicles way, Managing Editor Joe Robertson glanced away from reporter Ben Urich to offer Peter an acknowledging nod. Gesturing at Urich to continue talking, Robertson picked up a handful of papers and passed them to Peter. Most of them seemed to be classified ads, along with a couple of obituaries.
Peter logged onto the computer as Robertson turned back to Urich. "I received a phone call from a man named Trent Archer," Urich was saying. "He works for the Water and Sewer Department, and tomorrow he's taking me down into the tunnels to where the maintenance people say they've seen the monsters, or whatever they are," Urich was saying.
"That was fast." Robertson leaned on the corner of someone's cubicle.
"Yeah, I didn't expect anything until next week."
"You're meeting him where?"
"Pump Station Number Eight, off Kelter Avenue. It's supposedly the closest place to the sightings."
Peter glanced around to see if anyone was watching, then called up the Internet and found a map site. Two minutes later he jotted down a set of directions to the station, logged off the 'Net, and called up the newspaper's webpage. I can be there tomorrow, he decided. I've been down there. I've seen some of the things that run around down there. One particularly memorable encounter had been a battle with a man-sized lizard, the result of a rejuvenation experiment by Dr. Curt Connors. Peter knew what had happened to Connors — the researcher, back in human form, was currently working at Empire State University — but there had been something else down there during the encounter, something oddly hunched and mysterious that had melted away into the darkness by the time the fight had been over. Whatever the strange creature had been, there was a chance it was still moving around the sewers, and the Kelter Avenue station wasn't far from where Peter had seen it. I'm hoping Ben Urich spends tomorrow afternoon wandering around in the tunnels talking to some Water and Sewer employee, but just in case, I think Spider-man should go on a field trip.
He glanced over his shoulder at Joe Robertson, who was shaking his head. "Okay, go do your inspection tour tomorrow. But if you don't turn anything up, this is the last I want to hear about this." Robertson stabbed a forefinger at Urich. "And Ben, I swear, if you come back and tell me that this is a case of the U.S. government covering up a colony of space aliens, I will personally haul you off to a shrink."
Peter chuckled and turned back to his work.