Calling Myka instead of Artie had been the right thing to do from Claudia's perspective, and it looked like Myka needed the break as well. Claudia had relayed the facts from their case to her while standing in the hotel with the giant hole between rooms, pointing out that destruction. "I don't know if this is an artefact, but Steve's never seen a weapon do anything like this, other than from some of the pics of in New York."
"Did you get the footage from the security cameras at the banks?"
"Not at first. Apparently another agency had already come through and confiscated it all. They said FBI, but there's no record of it on the FBI servers. Luckily," Claudia paused and she turned the Farnsworth to her laptop and pressed play. "One of the bank managers had made a private copy that they didn't find."
"Claud, did you tell Artie about this?"
"He's being an extra bit of Puddleglum this case. Any idea what gives?"
"No, he just keeps telling me to be careful." She was silent and Claudia brought the Farnsworth back up to her face. Myka had her thinking expression on. "Claud, what colour was the light coming from the gun?"
"An icy blue, kind of?"
Myka nodded, as if that was exactly the answer she was looking for. "I think our cases are linked. Do you have a name for the agent doing the investigating?"
Claudia reached for the name, but she heard Jinksy shuffling behind her, and he poked his head over her shoulder to see the Farnsworth. "Agent Sitwell. Never heard of him."
"Wait!" Myka exclaimed and she kind of looked up the way that she did when she's scrolling through the information in her head. "There was an Agent Sitwell on the list that attended the... the conference with the Avengers last week, but there was no organization listed beside his name, and he was the only one."
Steve chimed in again. "Right before we left I saw Artie looking at something called SHIELD. Does that mean anything to you?" Myka shook her head. "I think it might have had the word Homeland in its title."
Myka nodded. "If you guys have all you can get down there, fly to New York. I think there's something big going on here." And with that, Claudia watched the screen go dark.
"Whatdya think, Jinksy? Wanna go take a bite out of the Big Apple?"
Claudia and Steve were checked into the hotel by five, and despite Claudia's best efforts, everyone had taken up residence in her room. "So, he said he had an event to go to?"
Myka nodded. "Anything?"
Her laptop was already in front of her and her fingers flew over the keyboard. "Nothing for Captain America, but Tony Stark is hosting a fundraiser tonight for the downtown clean up."
Pete looked excited. "Hey, we should try to go to that, see if Mr. Rogers talks to anyone about our visit."
Myka rolled her eyes. "They know who we are. We'll never get close. But Claudia..."
"What? No. Uh, spying? Not exactly in my wheelhouse. But there'll be too many signals to sort through, so I'm not that much good to you here either. I can, uh, get Steve on the invite list, but I won't fit in so..."
She could see that Pete and Steve were about to chime in with encouragement, but Myka cut them off. "No, she's right. We don't have enough time for hair and make-up, never mind a dress."
Claudia checked a few things on her computer. "I can get in with the wait-staff. And Steve, there's a tux rental place a block over." She shook her head. "I guess we're going to a party."
They had been there for an hour, and no sight of Stark or Rogers yet. Steve circled back around to where Claudia was standing with a tray of champagne, and took another one. He had been leaving the full glasses on random high tables all around the place, pausing to mingle and investigate, but no one had really piqued his interest.
He was starting to get tired of all the small talk, though. All the lying was giving him a headache.
"I wish you could be out here with me, it would make this so much more fun."
"Just take the glass and get going. You can't be seen here with me!"
For all the experience that Claudia did have as an agent, she certainly was jittery when she was forced to be undercover. He was about to make fun of her when a stunning woman appeared on a stage and took over the microphone, interrupting the live band.
Steve finally recognized her as Pepper Potts, and she made the usual sort of speech that one would expect from a charity event organizer. She thanked everyone for coming and talked a little about the rebuilding efforts, and without even having to talk about it, Steve and Claudia started making their way closer to the stage as to follow her when she finished. Chances were she was going to find her way back to Tony, and then maybe to Captain America.
They found the two they were looking for even before they got to the stage, and with a nod from him Claudia went over to offer them a drink, hoping to hear anything they were talking about.
When she returned (with two less drinks), she said, "They were talking about Pete and Myka all right. Rogers seems agitated, but Stark doesn't care. They seemed to be waiting for someone else, though, who would give more insight – though when Rogers said that, Stark laughed. I don't know why, and then they stopped talking."
Steve nodded and smirked. "Stay close, I'm going in." And he gave his best secret-agent look at her, and when he winked, she rolled her eyes.
Holding his glass, he edged closer to them as if he was vying for a better view of the stage. He could hear them quite well now, but the downside of his ability was kicking in – he couldn't actually see their faces, so he had no idea if they were lying. Even though he had no reason to believe they would lie to each other, he itched to get a closer look.
"You sure they said Secret Service?" Stark asked, flipping through his phone. "These them?" Steve glanced at them to see Stark flash his phone and Rogers nod. "Yep, Secret Service. Dropped off the radar about three years ago, both of them."
"And they were asking questions about the Tesseract and Hydra Weapons."
Steve chanced another glance, and was startled to see Stark look worried. "Well, you know what Fury said about being ready for whatever comes; maybe these guys just want the same thing. If they want something, let them go through SHIELD."
Steve couldn't make heads or tails of their conversation, but he knew that it was coming to a close and he should move on. He was just about past them when he heard Rogers say, "If they come again, I'm calling Fury."
He circled around and joined Claudia near the kitchen doors, relaying he heard, and Claudia looked thoughtful. "I know I've heard of Hydra before..." she trailed off before pulling out her Farsworth, and Leena's face came up.
Claudia relayed Steve's info over to her in a weird game of telephone, but when she was done Leena looked concerned. "You've heard of Hydra before because we have some of their research and prototypes here. Claudia, the only weapon that has ever worked after they were taken in World War II is kept in the dark vault."
Steve and Claudia looked at each other in horror. They needed to get this info back to the others, stat.
Pete, Myka, and Steve were now in Steve's room going over whatever information they could find about whatever it was they uncovered tonight, and while Artie was being elusive, Leena was providing them with research on the Hydra Weapons that they had in the Warehouse. The little that Claudia heard before she separated told her that they really couldn't afford that technology getting into the wrong hands. It didn't really sound like they belong in the Warehouse – it sounded just like advanced technology, not an artefact – but then Leena said that they periodically turned on, all on their own.
Not Claudia's idea of a good time.
So, as they were winding down while in full research mode, she was starting to ramp up. She pulled out her laptop and her fingers started flying over the keys as she sat cross-legged on the bed, the glow from the computer screen taking over the room.
Her first objective was to find out who SHIELD was (something that Leena couldn't help with at all), but she really didn't have a place to start – she had no idea what type of organization they were or where they could possibly even have their servers. It's not like they even had a website.
She visited some of the conspiracy forums (that often have more truth in them than any of the posters would ever actually want to know about) but other than a few mentions of a shadowy organization hiding in plain sight that had oversight of the superheroes, there wasn't much to go on.
She rubbed her hands over her face. Okay. Objective number two: put the four of them on the schedule for a meeting at Stark Tower tomorrow to get access to the internal servers if she couldn't get them from out here, and see if she could get in touch with Captain America again or Tony Stark. Hopefully one of them had a lead into SHIELD that they could follow, either into what happened to this mysterious blue artefact or how it was powering all these weapons.
At least with her second project she had a starting point – when she found out that Myka and Pete were heading to Stark Tower, she sent a bunch of emails to people in the top levels of Stark Industries, hoping that one of them would email her back so she could trace the path that the email took. As luck would have it, Tony's girlfriend and Stark guru herself answered some questions she asked while posing as a woman's studies and journalism major from... some university.
She almost didn't want to take advantage of the woman with the spicy name that seemed so gracious on stage tonight, but... she shrugged and went back to the software she wrote to track the thing.
She watched as her command screen scrolled through code, coming back with decision prompts based on the data she was getting. She wrinkled her nose. Some of the things that the data was producing was... odd.
Her fingers flew back over the keyboard, but it seemed like for every door she opened into the Stark servers, another new one came up behind it. "A challenge... I salute you," she murmured to herself as the code spun on, making alterations and adjustments as they were needed. Even when she was hacking her way into the warehouse, though, did she require so much quick thinking.
She stopped and sat back against the headboard, and took a quick glance at the clock. She had already been at this for hours. As she went back through the moves she made in her mind, an errant thought wandered through that caught her attention. On all of the hacking forums that she frequented, one rumour repeated far more than any other one; that Tony Stark had a real and functioning AI.
She had always dismissed the thought (her own experience with Hugo made her wary, but she knew that if anyone could accomplish it, it was Stark.)
A prompt came up in her code and she stared at the blinking light. If her current line of thinking was right...
She leaned back forward and closed down the program she was running, leaving the command screen open where she left it. She was still linked in to where she stopped, and she acted on impulse. Hello, my name is Claudia. Who are you? she typed, and held her breath at the cursor as she waited.
She wasn't sure if she wanted it to answer or not, or if she was relieved or scared when it did. I'm JARVIS. I am Tony's security system and aid. Why are you trying to find your way into the internal system at Stark Industries?"
Claudia hesitated. She was both internally squeeing and hyperventilating, but the part of her brain that was still functioning was telling her to not get too excited – that this could be a trap, or a clever manipulation. She took a deep breath, trying to breath out the excitement that coursed through her veins and surprise that something actually answered her back when she typed.
She was in it now, whatever it was, and she bet that the AI would be tracking for her or anything else that might go awry now that she had alerted the security system to her presence, despite how polite he seemed to be. I'd like an appointment with Tony Stark, party of four? she finally typed, settling somewhere near the truth. Can you put me on the calendar for tomorrow?"
She squeezed her eyes shut with anticipation, and when she looked for the response, it was there. Does 9:30 AM work?
Pete wasn't sure that Claudia did the right thing after she explained it all to him, but he also couldn't really think of a better way to handle chatting with a robot. Because it was a robot. Or something. Claudia had yelled at him when he said that earlier.
Still, after researching Hydra weapons and that cube of energy for hours, his brain was bound to feel a little mushy, and that feeling was just starting to wear off after his full night of sleep (while the others continued to research) and the giddy anticipation that he was actually going to meet Iron Man.
Two superheroes within two days? This job rocked.
While the four of them stood outside of Stark Towers, he stretched out his senses trying to see if he could get a vibe about what was going to happen when they got in there. He felt nervous, but it was only because they didn't know what they were walking in to. Who knows what the computer was able to find out about them, or what Iron Man might have prepared for the person that had tried to hack into his system. All he did know was that Artie was not in the loop on whatever this thrown together plan was.
And that probably should have been his first clue that something was not quite right with whatever mess that he and Mrs. Fredric had gotten them in. Not that he would ever tell her that.
With a nod from Myka they all walked in, and were immediately met by a tall, thin woman that oozed military training. "If you'll come with me, please?" she commanded more than asked, and with a shrug from him, they followed to whatever was waiting for them at the meeting set up by Claudia and a robot.
Maybe a robot. Possibly a robot.
And if the AI thing that Claud called Jarvis wasn't a robot, when Tony Stark was wearing his Iron Man suit, was he a robot?
Before Pete had a chance to wonder these questions out loud (he was sure that Claudia would have some answers... and if she didn't then at least Myka would have some amusing expressions) they arrived at their destination. Their escort opened the door to a boardroom where Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were waiting for them.
Pete turned to Claudia. "I thought this was a meeting with just Stark."
"Sorry about that," a British, disembodied, slightly mechanical voice answered. "My protocols dictate that Mr. Stark be informed of any attempted intrusion."
Tony scoffed. "And then the boy scout of the year had to call in SHIELD." He waved his hand distractedly while he fiddled with his phone, and then finally looked at his guests. "Which one of you is Claudia? This code is truly stunning work."
Pete watched Claudia's entire face light up. "Really? Because I was thinking that if I started the second subroutine later and used a..." Pete immediately tuned out as the hacker jargon began, and he could see that both Steves echoed his response.
Before they had a chance to spiral further down the geek path, Myka interjected. "Mr. Stark, I'm so sorry that we had to come to you under these conditions. We have a few questions for you."
It was their escort that answered. "And we have a few questions for you. I'm Agent Hill, from SHIELD."
Pete studied the woman while the rest of the introductions occurred. She seemed like the kind of person that would be giving him the wiggins, but she was producing nothing but good vibes. She actually seemed a lot like Myka – good at her job, strong, smart, and exceptionally beautiful without really knowing it. Plus, she was from the elusive SHIELD agency, something they still had no knowledge about.
He believed that they would probably get the most traction talking to her, but before he had a chance to address her directly, Stark chimed in. "So, Secret Service agents. I've dealt with your kind before; want to protect the country and the president, blah blah, and you want my weapons to use against the enemies of our – you know what? You can skip the speech. I'm not giving up my suit, no matter how many times you people ask."
"Hey!" Steve answered, starting to sound a little angry. "We don't want your suit. We're trying to take weapons off the streets, not put more weapons on it." Almost all the voices other than his were entering the fray now, each rising above the other, all accusing the other of using weapons that they don't deserve and shouldn't have.
Pete tried to pick out the individual arguments but only finally interrupted when Stark was getting angry at Agent Hill, yelling at her for getting SHIELD and someone named "Fury" involved.
He had heard that name before, from Steve's briefings but also from somewhere in his Marine days, stories of a guy that would take many of the best soldiers and put them into some sort of secret task force –
"STOP IT!" he finally cried, stopping everyone in their tracks. "Who's Fury?"
Agent Hill gazed down, looking abashed. Captain Rogers averted his eyes, and Stark, well, Stark looked cheeky. "He's the guy that shows up with no warning and glares you into submission." He turned to Hill, and said as an aside, "is it still glares? Glare into submission?" Hill rolled her eyes and he shrugged, turning back to their group. "As Secret Service agents, I'm sure you know what that's like."
"You have no idea."
Just as it seemed that Stark was going to respond with what Pete was sure would be a witty comeback, a booming voice thundered, "And he's the guy that's going to sort this mess out."
Pete turned around to see a tall African-American man wearing a long black trench coat and an eye patch of all things (though, that did explain Stark's confusion earlier on whether to use' glare' or 'glares' earlier) storm into the room. Captain Rogers snapped to attention and so did Agent Hill, and Pete could understand why.
This guy? He meant business.
"Now, what the hell is going on here?"
The tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife, and he could feel his throat pounding up near his throat. This was not a guy to mess with.
That didn't mean that Pete wasn't going to try to get away with it anyway.
But before he could get a single word out, an even scarier voice came from the far side of the room, behind where their adversaries stood. "What is going on, Director Fury, is that these are my Agents, and you would do well to answer their questions."
Stark, Rogers, and Hill all turned to the voice curiously, but Pete took great pleasure in Fury's reaction. His spine seemed to straighten for a moment but then his shoulders slumped as if defeated. Pete took the opportunity to be joyous at the sudden arrival. "Mrs. F! Lookin' good! And check you out, popping in to save the day."
His excitement could not have been more ill suited for the moment. The tension from before still ran high, and even though he could see that Fury's agents were bristling with her sudden arrival, they were as freaked out by the woman as he used to be. Uh... mostly still is.
It almost looked for a moment like Fury was going to try to hold Mrs. Frederic's gaze, but after a mere few seconds he surrendered. "What would like to know?"
"The Tesseract?" she asked, her voice direct but still icy.
"In Asguard, where it belongs."
She gave a singular nod. "Item 47?"
His eye squinted, as if concerned that she had that knowledge, but he answered, "Contained."
He paused. "Neutralized."
Mrs. Frederic's eyes flickered to Steve and he answered what they all knew already. "Lie."
Her eyes flickered back and she waited, continuing to stare at him. "Recruited."
Steve nodded, and they could tell that Mrs. Frederic continued to study the much larger man that cowered under her gaze. Finally she lowered her head so that she could peer over the top of her glasses. "Good. I expect you will answer any other questions my Agents ask of you." He nodded, and satisfied, she turned to their group again. "Miss Donovan, Mr. Jinks. Please stay and look into Mr. Stark's... security system. Please make sure an event has not happened similar to Mr. Miller's."
Claudia could barely contain her squeal of delight, and Stark looked put-out. Still, he wasn't about to argue with the woman that made Fury cower.
Mrs. Frederic walked through the crowd towards the door, only stopping briefly at Pete and Myka to say, "I will see you at the Warehouse upon your return," before she disappeared.
It was silent for another twenty seconds before they heard Captain America whisper out, "who was that woman?" before Fury started barking out orders, and Pete knew his part of the mission was done.
Mrs. Frederic watched Pete and Myka's return from the shadows. Arthur was sputtering at them, "I told you to keep a low profile, and what happens? You let Claudia research your case? I separated you for a reason!"
"Artie!" they both exclaimed, properly chastising him for keeping so much from them. "And we still don't even know what SHIELD does!"
Arthur, looking thoroughly exhausted, sank into his chair. "SHIELD is sort of a counterpart to the Warehouse. While we work with artefacts, they often get their hands on technology that is far too advanced to be let out into the world. We don't overlap much, but every once in a while..."
Pete, Myka, and Arthur continued to debate, all talking on top of one another, and it wasn't until Arthur mentioned that he made cookies that they seemed to be amicable with each other once again. With the sound of laugher still both in front of them and behind them, they left the office into the umbilical, not ever noticing she was there.
She stepped into the center of the office and said, "I expect our agents will be seeing more of each other."
The deep, booming voice she knew was behind her answered, "I was hoping to avoid it, but I can't see that being the case."
"As was I, Director Fury. The most we can hope for now is cooperation. I believe Miss Donovan has started to make that connection with your Mr. Stark, though I can only hope for renewed trust. We have quite the history, our two agencies."
She waited for a response, but it appeared he was not willing to give one. He instead circled around to in front of her and nodded his head in respect. "Until the next time the world is about to end, then." He said to her as he exited the Warehouse.
She stared at the door which had just swung closed and then could only lower her head. "I fear that may happen far sooner than either of us anticipates." But with no one to hear her, the warning was left unheeded, and she again moved on to whatever was next.
Thanks for reading! And, as always, comments are wonderful, wonderful things.