#18 - From The Earth To The Moon
Somewhere on the Moon, Sol System-
Carol Danvers stared at her reflection in the clear surface of the airlock porthole as the door behind her hissed and slid open. She turned, the nega-bands glinting under her coat sleeves in the harsh emergency light of the currently off-line space station. She tugged the edges of the leather jacket down over the bands as she reached out to shake the hand of the man standing before her in the doorway. Commander Harker Cole smilled crookedly as he took her slender hand in his scarred one and gave it a gentle shake. "Danvers. Glad you could make it." he said, turning to lead her through the airlock. "Welcome to Argus Station. Pardon the mess."
"She's not online yet?"
"Still working the bugs out of the cloaking systems our new head tech installed." Cole smacked a flickering light and grunted in satisfaction as it resumed working normally. "We should be up and running in the next few standard hours. Give or take."
"So what exactly does Project Pegasus want with me commander? I'm a busy woman. I've got things that need doing." Carol said, cutting to the heart of the matter as the two of them began to move deeper into the station. Cole grinned nastily and tapped the nega-band on her left wrist with one fingernail.
"Like what? Playing defender of the universe? Any reason you haven't given those back to their rightful owner? Addictive personality resurfacing Danvers?" he said quietly, smiling blandly as she reddened. Resisting the impulse to smear him against the nearest bulkhead, Carol shoved her hands in the pockets of her jacket and pushed past him.
"That's behind me and you damn well know it Cole. Otherwise you wouldn't have called me up here. And why I'm keeping these bands is none of your business. It's between me and Genis. Now answer my damn question!"
"Cool your jets Ace. Let me start at the beginning. First, there was Adam and Eve and then-"
"I'm warning you Cole..."
"Fine. Reader's Digest version it is. Since every other group with an agenda and a bank account was building a space station up to and including your old comrades in arms the Avengers after the recent unpleasantness with our latest extraterrestrial visitors, Project Pegasus decided to get in on the act. Our whole mandate is centered on studying threats to society and then designing ways to eliminate those threats. Until now, everyone assumed that meant supervillains and the occasional alternate world exile. But with the Stark, we suddenly got a bigger budget and a bigger definition of 'threat to society'. I decided to capitalize on that and hey presto-Argus Station." he gestured at the corridor around them. Somewhere behind them a wire exploded, sending a shower of sparks crackling to the floor. Carol raised an eyebrow.
"Don't give me that look Ace. It's a fixer-upper I know, but we're trying to blend at least three different tech styles here. But back to the story...the purpose of Argus Station is to isolate, identify and nullify any threat to the planet and America in particular. By threat I mean extraterrestrial, metaterrestrial, and extradimensional. We get to cover aliens, super villains and the odd other-dimensional looney. And by cover I mean kill. Or terminate if you're uncomfortable with the 'k' word."
"You mean you-"
"Can fire off an atomic missile into the Negative Zone if we feel like it? Yeah, pretty much. Though that's more of a 'Plan C' thing really. Which is where we come to why you're here. We need a team-leader. For our response teams."
"Why me?" Carol's face was tight.
"One, you're an ex-Avenger. That's good practice for the real thing. Two, you got enough power to level a small mountain. Yes, we were watching, wipe that stunned look off of your face. Three, you know how to take orders. And give them. Four, you got the whole 'it's them or us' concept down real well. You are quite capable of taking a life if it's necessary, unlike a lot of the spandex crowd. And five, you got better legs than USAgent. Sound good?"
"So far, especially the legs part." Carol smirked and ran a hand through her hair. "Still, questions remain." she continued as they passed through a sliding door and entered a cluttered room, the walls of which were coated in immense television screens and the floor was choked by a set of circular lab tables piled high with electronics and alien devices, aall of which centered on a swivel chair in the center of the room, whose occupant abruptly swung about to face the two of them as they entered.
"Save 'em. I want to introduce you to our head tech. Carol Danvers, meet-"
"Doom!" she snarled, falling into a crouch, cosmic energies suddenly swirling around her fingertips. Cole moved in front of her, blocking her line of fire to the armored figure that abruptly rose to meet her, arms crossed over a green jerkin.
"Whoa there Ace! Settle down!" Cole barked.
"Indeed. Do settle down Miss Danvers, before I'm forced to settle you down." the harsh, mechanical voice grated. Cole spun about and poked the ominous figure in the chest.
"What I said goes for you too punk. Sit down."
'Doom' sat. As he did so, Carol had more time to scrutinize the figure she had taken for the infamous ruler of Latveria. The costume was Doom's, but several years out of date, from when he had first struck out at the Fantastic Four. The armor too was slightly different, sleeker, less bulky. And then there was the fact he was much shorter than Doom. At least a foot and a half difference. Cole shook his head and turned back to her. "As I was saying...meet Kristoff Vernard, Doom's heir and general lackey-type wunderkind henchman."
"Excuse me? I am no man's lackey!" Vernard spluttered, making as if to rise again. Cole held him in his seat with one big hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Appearances to the contrary, Kristoff is actually quite useful and we get him free and clear, courtesy of Latveria's new 'open-door' policy in regards to the UN. Hell, Doom practically threw him to us. Said he needed to broaden the boy's horizions. Teach him to think for himself. Personally, I think Doom just got tired of the little rat trying to take over his throne every time his back was turned. Irregardless, he does good work. Designed half the station's defenses by himself, including the AI that runs most everything..."
"And we can be sure this isn't a first step on the road to making the base his why?" Carol asked. Cole laughed.
"Because...because I-" he abruptly stopped and shot a look at Kristoff, who Carol knew was smiling innocently behind his mask. Cole rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly for a second then suddenly cheered up. "Because, you're here now and he knows you'll kick his tinplated ass back to Doom if he causes trouble. Don't you Kristy?"
"Don't call me Kristy."
"Kristy is a lovely name. Quiet. You said something about an AI?" Carol said to Cole.
"Not just an AI! The ultimate artificial intelligence to ever exist! Behold...I give you ULTRON 1.5!" Kristoff interrupted self importantly. He made a theatrical gesture, spreading his arms wide as all of the monitors in the room suddenly sparked to life, displaying the hateful jack-o-lantern leer of one of the Avengers' oldest foes.
"Destroy." an inhuman voice echoed throughout the room. Kristoff dropped his arms. Cole's gaze slid from the monitors to the armored youth.
"What did he just say?"
"Destroy." Ultron 1.5 repeated hollowly.
"I'm still programming his vocabulary." Kristoff replied defensively. Cole visibly restrained himself from strangling his head tech.
"So the first word you taught him was-"
"Destroy." Ultron interjected. Cole screamed and stormed out of the lab, Carol on his heels, trying to hold back the laughter that threatened her composure. Said composure didn't last long. Once out in the hall, she almost keeled over, guffawing in the most unladylike fashion. Cole cursed and punched the wall.
"It's not funny! That thing runs half our systems!"
"Better hope it's the half with the weapons is all I can say Cole." Carol struggled to catch her breath. Cole shot a glare at her then continued on down the hall. "Still, are you sure it's a good idea to have that little maniac and his pet Ultron running around?"
"Not really no. But I figure half a Doom on our side is better than nothing. That brat has all of the good doctor's memories and technical know-how shoved into his noggin like sardines in a can. Unfortunately, he's got Doom's attitude as well. Luckily he can't back it up. Not yet. Besides, I figure he'll loosen up when we start moving along. Or we'll toss him out an airlock, either way's good."
"You know, the more I see, the less I like." Danvers said stopping in the corridor. Cole turned and leaned against a bulkhead, watching her steadily. "This can't all be above board."
"Well...it's not. And if you didn't like that, you certainly ain't gonna like this." he motioned for her to enter the room behind him. Carol went through the door with only minor hesitancy. The far wall was dominated by a large, plexi-glass barrier that looked out onto what could only be a training room of some type. Carol's breath caught in her throat as a panel in the wall of the training room opened and something skittered out, crimson eyes flashing over slime-dripping fangs.
A Brood warrior. A big one.
It shrieked soundlessly and buzzed around the room, looking for an exit, yellow wings cutting through the air. Carol jumped suddenly as it slammed against the glass and rebounded off into the opposite corner. "Two way mirror effect. Can't see us." Cole said quietly from behind her.
"Why is that thing here?" Carol snarled, the nega-bands suddenly flashing on her now exposed wrists. "How could you bring something like that up HERE? What if it escapes? What if-"
"Shhh. Watch. We caught it a few months back, after a failed infiltration by a skrull commandoe team. One of them had been implanted somewhen and this little sucker popped out in captivity. We decided to use him as a field test for the boys."
"Like I said Ace...watch."
Another panel slid open, drawing the alien's attention. It whirled, scaled flesh rippling under the flickering lighting as it dove towards the perceived exit. But the man coming out to meet it was far quicker. He dove under the creature's instinctive swipe with it's tail stinger, and rolled under it, coming up behind it, weapon in hand. To Carol's experienced eye it looked like a modified Kree blaster, but she couldn't be sure, the way the man was ducking and weaving around the frenzied Brood drone, staying out of it's reach, but only just.
He was tall and rangy, with skin the color of dried leather and a thatch of brownish hair situated like a haystack on his head. A truly terrifying snarl marred his otherwise handsome features as he blew one of the Brood's wings off with a well placed running shot.
"His name's MacReady. That's all we know. He was a captive in a Hydra detention camp in Antarctica when SHIELD did a purge sweep up there last year. Don't know why they had him or what they were doing to him. Rumor has it, he's a survivor of some sort of hush-hush alien encounter."
"He a mutant?"
"Nope. Just real fast and real nasty." This last was punctuated by the Brood warrior, now grounded, managing to slap the gun out of MacReadys hands, whereupon the tall man yanked two long bladed knives from the webgear that hung on his frame and leapt upon the insectile monster, hacking and slashing with a level of ferocity Carol had only seen displayed by the X-Man Wolverine before now.
"Nasty." Carol repeated as the Brood screamed and staggered under the berserk assault, it's green blood splattering the glass. "How's he with the others?"
"Bout the same really. Luckily we don't let them get near each other with weapons."
Suddenly, MacReady's body smacked against the glass as the Brood whipped and writhed, it's form elongating and mutating as it fought back. Cole glanced at Carol. "Well, it did have a skrull for a host, what did you expect?" he said as her features tightened in concern. As MacReady slid towards the floor, the Brood lunged for him. A flurry of shots drove it backwards as the panel opened again to allow two more figures, these decked out in Project Pegasus jumpsuits where MacReady was wearing civilian clothing. "And right on cue, after letting MacReady soften up the beastie...Plisskin." Cole pointed out a shorter man with longish hair and sinister looking eyepatch over one eye. He was wearing a black leather jacket over his jumpsuit and his hands were filled with steel as he leapt around the door as it slid away, firing the twin pistols with more accuracy than Carol believed a one eyed man could possibly possess given the weakening of his depth perception. "Plisskin. Former Secret Empire gunman, former AIM courier, former Maggia enforcer. Former SHIELD agent. Once saved Nick Fury. Current pain in my ass." The Brood recoiled from the bullets bouncing off of it's armored hide and lashed out with it's tail. Plisskin leapt over the tail and slid behind the monster. Before it could turn to follow, a bright blast of energy hit it square in the head, sending it sprawling. A broad man with rough, craggy features stood in the doorway, a plasma cannon clutched in two muscular arms, a power pack on his back. Reaching up, he slid his ball cap around so that it's brim faced backwards and then brought the cannon up to his shoulder, a smirk on his face.
"And the third stooge...Burton. Got in trouble in LA with an chinese crimelord. Former getaway driver for Doctor Otto Octavius and the Rhino. Worked for Hammer Industries transporting super-human operatives back and forth on assignments. Once supposedly got in a bar fight with Skurge the Executioner and slept with the Enchantress. And Gypsy Moth. And Moonstone. And-"
"I get the picture. So they're all criminals?"
"Except MacReady...I'm pretty sure he's just nuts."
"Oh that's perfect."
"Isn't it? All of them highly xenophobic...hardcore alien killers. Of course, I think Plisskin would kill anybody for a sawbuck, human, alien or otherwise." Cole clapped his hands. "Meet your team Miss Danvers. Argus Station's Response Team Alpha...aka the Losers."
"Whoa kemosabe! What do you mean 'my' team? I haven't agreed to anything yet..." Carol crossed her arms and leaned against the window, watching as the Losers systematically dismantled the Brood warrior. She had seen worse teams. MacReady looked about half past brain-dead, a thousand yard stare already slipping into his eyes as the Brood twitched in it's final death throes. Plisskin lit up a smoke off the thing's burning exoskeleton. Nerves of cold iron that one. Either that or he was a sociopath. Burton slung his cannon over his back and began talking. A lot. Likely loudly and crudely from the way Plisskin was rolling his one good eye. "They look experienced enough. Why do you need me?"
"Experienced in killing yes. But I've got the feeling our agenda is going to have to broaden up some as we progress. Wheeling and dealing are going to come into as well as diplomacy on occasion. Knowing when to shoot is almost as important as knowing how to shoot. And since you're on a first name basis with practically every alien species we'll encounter...I figure, who better? Besides, what else do you have going?"
The sad fact was...Cole was right. Carol sighed and leaned her head against the cool surface of the plexi-glass. Her life on Earth was, while not over per se, at least at a crossroads. Old accquaintances drifting away, new ones outright leaving. Tack on the stresses of the Stark War and the repercussions of her battle with Nebula...she looked at the bands on her wrists. She couldn't even really call the Avengers a family anymore...at least, not for her. She needed to get away from the familiar, from the rut she had been in. But was this the answer...
"What's the pay like?" she said, her decision made. It had been too long since she had been in space. On her own. Time to get back to basics.
"Good to excellent. Too bad we never get to spend it."
"Ever hear of e-bay Cole?"
"This mean you're in?"
"I knew you'd come around...c'mon let's go meet your team Ace." Cole punched a button and the window slid back, allowing the stink of dead Brood to wash over her. All in all, she'd count that as a good omen...
In another part of the base, an ordinary looking man stood before an ordinary looking door and produced a definitely unordinary looking device. Touching it to the door, he disabled the time locks and stepped back as it slid open with a hiss of depressurization. Inside, the room was empty, all except for a stasis field in the center, a small crimson stone floating suspended between magnetic beams.
AIM would pay well for this little trinket, even if it was supposed to be inert. In one swoop he would prove his worth in infiltrating this new moonbase and significantly increase his bank account. Not that he was unique by any means. For the most part, all of the new stratospheric defenses being put up in the wake of the Invasion had already been compromised by the various agents of AIM, Hydra, the Secret Empire and other criminal organizations. Even the Avengers First Watch station was riddled with would be sabotuers.
But Argus Station had been considered worthless by AIM, Project Pegasus' secrets already plundered years before by other operatives. Of course, he would prove his employers wrong. And all he had to do was reach out and take the stone...
As the ordinary looking door slid shut behind him, the ordinary looking man let out a scream of purest terror and agony as something quite out of the ordinary happened.
And then moments or hours later, in the depths of Argus Station, something, once human, but now anything but, began to howl a low mournful cry and claws cick-clacked through darkened steel corridors...