#26 - Twenty Eight Hours Later
Julia Carpenter had the weirdest feeling of being called into the principal's office as she stepped into Hank Pym's office. Not surprisigly, he was busy packing up the various nick-nacks and mementos that made the space uniquely his. When she arrived, he was holding the hollowed out head of one of the Ultrons in his hand before putting it aside on top of the filing cabinet.
"Hey, Hank," she said with a timid, uncertain wave.
Hank looked to her and smiled. "Hi, Julia. Thanks for seeing me. Sit down. You want some coffee?"
She lowered herself into the small armchair on the other side of Hank's desk. "No, thanks."
Hank nodded. He looked back at the Ultron skull. "I think I'm going to leave this here. Too many bad things to remember when passing it by," he said softly, more to himself than to her before placing one of the cardboard boxes of stuff on the floor and sitting down. "I'm sure you heard the news."
Julia nodded. "It's hard not to notice with everyone leaving."
"Well, not everyone. Paige is staying, as is Simon. But as for me...well, after what happened..."
Tigra screamed--a scream that struck Hank as maybe the most gut-wrenching sound he ever heard. He rushed to her side and held her, looking up at the other Avengers beseechingly. Underneath her fur, her skin visibly writhed and grew larger. He felt for some indication, some sign as to what was going on with his wife.
"What's..." Paige gasped.
Damion Hellstorm removed his hat and approached the couple "Greer Nelson is a pregnant woman....she has life developing within her," he explained with an unnerving calmness, "and unformed life tends to attract minor imps, demons, shades and the like who seek to be reborn into the Narrow World--and that's not even counting the recently damned who are desperate to claw their way back for a second chance they really don't deserve. That's why I don't recommend they visit me."
Greer arced her back in pain and let loose with an inarticulate bellow of pain that didn't even sound human. Around him, Hank saw how the other Avengers stood, eyes stricken with fear and confusion. "You have to do something!"
Hercules stepped forward, gesturing with his mace. "Yea, foul demon lord, if you can save fair Tigra--"
Diamon smiled a smile full of small pointed teeth. "Oh, I can save her," he assured the Prince of Power before looking directly at Hank. "But you know the terms of the contract, Pym. It will cost you."
Hank looked down to see the way Greer's stomach churned and distended. Something disquietingly like a claw forced its way upwards before sinking down again. Greer began wimpering. "Oh, God....oh, god...."
He felt his eyes go moist as he said, "Do it."
"As long as you--"
"DO IT!" Hank shouted.
Daimon smiled. "It'll be a pleasure doing business with you," he murmured as he knelt besides the stricken were-woman. His hands glowed an infernal red, and for a moment, Hank wondered what he had agreed to.
"...Greer and I...we have to take a break," Hank said after a moments of silence. "And let's face it, I'm a better scientist than I am a super-hero. I'm happier doing research, and I've already offered being the Stay-At-Home-Dad--"
"But what are you going to do when Hellstorm comes back?" Julia asked.
"I didn't say we're not going to keep our hand in...but I'm getting ahead of myself," Hank sat back with a sigh. "And I know I can count on the Avengers to be there when he comes looking for his pound of flesh."
"Like you had to ask." Julia looked over at the cardboard boxes piled with mementos. "I would have thought Greer would be here helping you clear out the office."
"She had to talk to Simon about something."
Simon put down the script and went to open the door. Ever since the Gatherer Crisis, he had subtly let it be known he was interested in returning to acting. It wasn't just the idea of getting back into the spotlight (although the lure of the spotlight was there); it was establishing an identity--a working identity outside of being 'that guy with the sunglasses in the Avengers. Unfortunately, like the one he was skimming when there was a knock at his door , the scripts he was being sent were fantasy adventurers and dim-witted action movies. The urge to stretch his craft was still there, and Simon was reluctant to give in to the impulse to go with the safe and sound.
Tigra was there on the other side of the door. She had powered down and gotten dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. She seemed fidgety, nervous. "Hi, Greer. Come to say goodbye?"
"Not yet, Simon," Greer replied. "We're still packing up the bungalow. Can I come in?"
"Sure." Simon stepped aside to let the were-woman walk in. "Sorry the place is a mess."
"That's okay." She took a moment to look at the various movie posters and mementos that hung on the wall before turning to face him. "You know, don't you?"
"That I'm not your reality's Wonder Man? Yeah."
"When did you..."
"Find out?" Simon leaned against the entertainment center. "I think I figured it out subconsciously almost immediately...but what Dr. Druid told me when we were merged, and what Erik said when we were fighting in Pandemonium's lair drove it home. I think there was some sort of cosmic reshuffle during the whole Gatherers mess and I ended up here instead of on that world where I was Imperion."
Greer smiled uncertainly. "You seem to be taking it well."
Simon shrugged. "I'm not saying I didn't get all freaked out at first, Greer, but I thought about it and I realized I've been this reality's Wonder Man for a month and change now. Where I came from is different, but what makes me me is still the same as the Simon you knew and loved."
She pointed to the open script. "Is that why you're trying to get back into acting? And staying with the Avengers?"
"I'm staying with the Avengers because right now I'm comfortable here," Simon replied with a shrug. "And I'm accepting scripts because I want to have a life outside of the team. Doesn't mean I won't throw my everything into every case."
"That's good to hear. They're going to need some help. With Mockingbird being re-assigned and SHIELD insisting the team accept two government liasions, they could use another strong, veteran presence to keep things straightened out."
They took a moment of silence in each other's company. Simon stepped forward and asked, "How's the baby?"
"Dr. Foster says she's fine," Greer replied uncertainly. "I still worry Hellstorm will pop up and do something to her, but...."
"I know." Simon wrapped his arms around the woman who once was his lover, and now was one of his closest friends. "You know if anything happens, you just have to whistle. I'll come running."
"I know, Simon. Thank you for being there."
"Come on, Greer. You're one of my best friends. You'll always have me backing you and Hank up."
Greer seemed to sigh happily. "I don't care if you're Imperion or not. You're my Simon."
"It's what I've been trying to tell you."
"So Simon's staying?"
"Yeah." Hank leaned forward. "So is Paige...and yourself, of course. I had to leave two slots open for these government boys SHIELD wants to force onto the team--"
"I so don't like that," Julia interrupted.
"I know. I liked breaking the news to Tony even less."
Tony'x expression was sour--maybe even edging on contempt--when Hank broke the bad news. He leaned into his cane to lift him up from the chair. "Big deal, Hank. We've dealt with the worst--we dealt with Gyrich for years off and on, for Heaven's sake. Whoever they force down our throats can't be any more bothersome than him."
"It's more than that, Tony," Hank said. His voice went lower as he added, "If we're to keep our air rights and our security clearance, Iron Man can't be on the team right now."
Anger flashed in Tony's eyes. He smacked the side of the two-way monitor with his cane. "What the f@#%? I spent a long time developing that armor for Brendan O'Doyle--"
"I know! Believe me, I know! But when you refused to cooperate with MI-6*, the British goverment complained...as did the Chinese government, who didn't appreciate your Iron Man Squad shooting up what they consider to be an archeological site. We need the trust of the world if the Avengers are to be truly effective--which means Iron Man can't be part of the Squad."
*--see recent issues of Iron Man to see what Hank means.
"I finance the Avengers, Hank. If my man isn't on the squad, I can cut your funding."
Hank blinked. He had expected Tony Stark to be upset, but he was being nasty, vindictive. He wondered if something James Rhodes had said about the Stark Invasion changing Tony was true. "And if that happens, I can pitch in, as could Janet, as could...it would mean some restructuring, but we can make it work."
Tony stared into the monitor for a long time. Finally, he said, "Fine. But when the time comes when you need to borrow Donnie or Brendan, don't bother calling me...."
The industrialist whose name was practically synonymous with The Avengers shut off the feed without saying goodbye.
"What do you know about these guys?" Julia asked. She tucked a lock of her sunset-red hair behind her ear.
"One's been helping out the FF; the other one's The Speed Demon--I ran into him a couple of times when he was The Whizzer. I guess SHIELD feels the best place to keep him is amongst people who handed him his ass before."
"So we've got Paige, Simon....these two....Herc--"
"Wellll," Hank said sheepishly. "Doesn't look like it."
"Are you sure about this?" Hank asked, his arms folded. The silver-sheathed woman named Chrome had walked away with Valerie Kodiak, and he waited until they were out of earshot before speaking his concern.
Captain America watched where the two women was out of view. "I asked Hercules to do this."
"Do not worry, friend Henry!" The Prince of Power said jovially, thumping his chest. "The Lion of Olympus will ne'er be far from fair Chrome....and we both will return once evil Superia is brought to justice."
"I have to return to the East Coast branch, Hank," the Star-Spangled Sentinel added. He folded his arms over his broad, chain-mailed chest. "SHEILD wants to take over the search for Superia, but...."
"But what she did to Free Spirit made it personal?" Hank asked.
Cap nodded, ever so slightly. "They've reached out to Chrome, which isn't surprising considering how they reached out to this O'Connell fellow. They've been making a habit of reaching out to these 'New Universe' expatriots. Herc will make sure The Avengers stay in the loop so that when Superia is caught dead to rights....we'll be there."
"And with the beauteous woman of metal and the Prince of Power at her heels," Hercules proclaimed, "this harpy will come to justice in a matter of days! For who could stand against us?"
Hank chuckled. "I'm betting on you, big guy."
"Do not worry," the Greek demi-god said, his voice taking on a softer quality. "I shall not leave your ranks depleted for long."
It occured to Hank that no one had told Hercules about his eminent departure, nor of Julia's appointment to the chairman role. Rather than break the news, he offered his hand. "I'm gonna miss you."
Hercules took his hand--it look like his hand had engulfed Hank--and pumped it vigorously. "Aye, and I you, Henry--but by Zues' beard, our adventures together are far from over!"
"I'm holding you to that."
"What? So you're telling me our active roster is reduced to the three of us?"
"And Kenneth O'Connell--he's another New Universe refugee who calls himself Starbrand, has incredible powers supposedly--and Speed Demon."
Julia rolled her eyes. "Great. An unknown quantity and a known super-villian."
"A known pardoned super-villain."
James Saunders walked into the small meeting room at the fore of the Helicarrier. In his front pocket, the papers that authorized his assignment to the west coast branch of the Avengers pressed against his chest. Not bothering to wait to be invited, he took a seat and waited for the man looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the clouds to acknowledge him.
It took a full minute for the African-American man with hair so white it practically glowed to turn toward him. Even thought Saunders knew Assistant Director George Washington Bridge was on that threshold where middle age gave way to becoming a senior citizen, he didn't doubt the man could tear him in two. His massive physique was barely contained by his regulation SHIELD uniform. Hell, Saunders had seen Bridge carry guns in one hand that weighed more than he did.
"You know why I called you here, Saunders?" Bridge asked bluntly.
Saunders shrugged. "To finish the debriefing about my re-assignment?"
"No. Carter's told you and O'Connell everything you need to know." Bridge stood before Saunders, hands behind his back. "I want you to do something else for me during this tour of duty."
Saunders smirked. "It's not like I have a choice. What do you need?"
"Officially, SHIELD welcomes the aid of this Starbrand...but quite frankly, his power level worries us."
The smirk became a singular barking laugh. "I'm not surprised. You'd be crazy not to worry."
"After the Invasion, a number of governments expressed concern with some of the more powerful heroes. I can't say I blame them. We're been setting up failsafes on the most powerful. Since you seemed to bond with O'Connell, you're becoming part of the failsafe on him. He trusts you," Bridge pointed out. "We want you, in an unofficial capacity, to keep an eye on him, to help him acclimate and make sure he fits in."
James nodded. "And if he doesn't...fit in?"
"You're to notify us, and we'll take him out."
"Somehow I doubt that," James replied.
"It won't just be SHIELD," Bridge countered. "But you don't worry about that. For all we know, you'll never have to pull the trigger."
James rose from his chair. "I don't know how I feel about this, Director. I may not be a felon anymore, but I still like to think I have a loyalty to my friends...and Ken's been a good friend."
"This is part of the conditions of your pardon, Saunders," Bridge said firmly. "As you told me before, you don't have a choice."
"So I have to keep an eye on this guy while going on missions?" Julia sighed. "Hank, this is my first go 'round in the chair and you're asking a lot of me. Maybe you should see if we could get Photon to transfer--"
Hank rose up from his chair and came out from behind his desk. A slight twinge of sadness surfaced deep inside him as he realized this might be the last time he sat before another Avengers as West Coast chairman--a position he had kept since the decision had been made to reactivate the branch. He lowered himself onto the edge of the desk and put a hand on Julia's wrist. "I got approval for you to take over the WAC, and I want you to take over the WAC. Julia, of all the people here, you're the one with the longest history with the group save for Simon...and Simon has no interest in leading. You gained a ton of experience working with Lady Creighton in Britian co-ordinating their meta-services. You're the best woman for the job."
Julia was silent for a minute. "Well...thanks. That means a lot coming from you. But I've never recruited before."
"I think I can help with that," Hank replied. He made sure to keep eye contact with the woman who served in the original incarnation of The West Coast Avengers as the second Spider-Woman. "Remember I said Greer and I wanted to keep our hands in?"
Julia nodded. "Yeah."
"Well, part of that hand involves funding. You know, I've got some money invested from some patents I sold, and if Tony makes good on his threat and pulls the Maria Stark Foundation's funding I want to help make up for the lost monies. And the other part..."
He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "When the team decided to re-activate the West Coast branch, it was originally meant to be a training facility. Frankly, I wasn't entirely happy running the place then. It was too chaotic, too many people from too many angles running around doing whatever they wanted to do. We've moved away from that, become something akin to what we used to be again--but since the Stark Invasion, I've been thinking that we need to get back into that on a limited basis."
"So you want us to, what, open a gym?"
Hank smiled faintly. "No. But there's a constant influx of new metahumans into our populace, Julia. Now prior to the Invasion, there were a couple of teams that were geared toward giving those metas a place to belong....teams like the New Warriors. And with the Warriors re-oriented towards a new goal, I was thinking that the West Coast Avengers could provide a similar place for a small number of these newcomers. A sort of...team within the team, with a mentor and a trainer answerable to you who'll spend extra time giving these heroes the attention and nuturing they need.
He stood up from the desk and went to one of the cardboard boxes. "If you'd let me, Julia, I'd like to act as a sort of...advance scout for this program, evaluating new heroes and, if I think they'd fit, extending invitations. I have some idea as to who I'd like to take on the training and mentoring, but I won't install them until the program is instituited, and not without your stamp of approval."
Julia shifted to face Hank. "It...seems doable."
"Well, it'll take time to set up," Hank replied. "Ah, there it is!"
Hank took a jewel case out of the box. He handed it to her. "Well, think about it first...like I said, I won't do this unless you approve of it. But if you do....here's infornation on the first recruit. I've got my eye on two other prospects--one's a powerful guy on the level of Thor who seems...off somehow, and I don't mean because he looks like a Don Simpson cartoon. He's out in DC, so it'll take some time to finesse him. The other's a local kid, seems to have some control over gravimetric force in a limited area around him. But she's ready to be called up now--and Lord knows she's had the best trainers in the world when it comes to super-heroing."
Julia looked down at the jewel case. The CD bore no label save the name scrawled across its surface.
"Valeria Richards. Daughter of the First Family of the Metahuman Community. Genius IQ, force field generation, invisibility, and a pair of gauntlets based on Dr. Doom's. Could prolly hold her own in a firefight and then some. I already talked to Reed about it, and he's all for it. So," Hank told her smiling. "Should I make the call?"
Julia smiled faintly. "I think we can do that."
"Good," Hank Pym said. He shook her hand. "I'll leave you to setting up your new office, Madam Chairperson."
"Madam....I don't know if I like that," Julia said with a nervous chuckle.
"Don't worry," the now-former Avenger said. "You'll get used to it."
Next: It's the beginning of a new day, as Barry Reese steps up to the plate for a wild and wolly run . Julia Carpenter, the second Spider-Woman gathers together her team of West Coast Avengers while an old enemy waits in the wings! You don't want to miss the bi-weekly thrills as Barry Reese pilots the WCA into a new era of greatness in two weeks!
And finally a very important run of AVENGERS WEST COAST comes to an end. Gary Halprin was the author who really, really took the Av2K AWC to new heights, changing it from Alex Maggi's original concept of an Avengers training compound to something that was similar to the classic, weird-ass AWC style but also distinctly his own. I personally was a big fan and, while I'm sorry Gary couldn't be involved in ringing down the curtain on his vision, his mix of old-school characterization, smart twists and turns and big screen heroics will be a high watermark for people wanting to do quirky super-hero fanfiction.
But for every door that closes...
Starting next issue and running through issue #31, Barry Reese will be onboard for a short run that will be presented bi-weeikly to bring the series up to speed with the rest of the Av2K Universe. I've read his issues, and I'm being brutally honest when I say you have not read anything quite as odd or as entertaining as his major storyline (all I will say is that the main villian is a certain island-owning Doctor with a long history with the AWC). Then Barry and some weirdo named Deja will collaborate on issue #32 before that nutcase takes over for what I hope will be a...tolerable run.
So stick around, you hear?