Infiltration Part 2
Natasha lay on her stomach, her torso and legs pressed to the cold ground, her elbows resting on the incline of the bank. Rogers was beside her, laying much the same way, though his left arm was outstretched, his shield strapped to it, and his head was angled for the best view of the road.
An hour passed and then another, the shadows of the trees around them shifting as the moon traveled slowly across the sky, marking the passage time.
A faint breeze picked up, stirring the branches above them, and that’s when they heard it: the low rumble of an engine. The noise grew louder and headlights appeared in the distance, cutting through the darkness and shining over the snow. For a moment, it was difficult to see what sort of vehicle was approaching. But as it drew closer, it coalesced into a more familiar shape.
They were in luck.
It was a large utility truck, painted a greenish gray, with a three-person cab and a long bed that was covered by a tied-down canvas tarp. Natasha recognized it as a KamAZ Mustang - they had been a staple vehicle of the Russian military for decades, and were a familiar sight around the compound even when she was a child (during what little of those years she could remember, at least).
It was exactly what they needed.
Rogers nodded as though he’d somehow heard her thoughts, then touched the comm at his ear. “Okay,” he announced. “This is it.”
Natasha pushed herself up from the bank, and Rogers did the same, moving into a crouch and setting down his shield so that his hands were free.
Natasha followed him, keeping low but getting to her feet and flexing her knees.
Rogers hooked his hands together, lacing his fingers, and forming a small platform just large enough for her boot.
“Ready?” he asked.
Natasha nodded, lifting her foot and pressing it against his hands, already beginning a mental countdown.
As soon as the truck drew close enough, Rogers threw her towards the road; she turned in mid air, twisting into a flip. The truck wasn’t moving very fast, but her landing wasn’t particularly neat - her torso hit the top of the truck bed, while her legs dangled down the side. Still, it was easy enough to catch the central metal support giving the tarp its shape, and from there she was able to shimmy down the side of the truck. Then, she began working her way around to the opening in the back.
Rogers appeared beside her a moment later, his own landing not much better than hers had been. The shield that was once again strapped to his left arm made a very faint metal clang from the impact, but it was quickly lost in the rush of the wind as the truck moved down the road.
Thor was next, though Natasha heard rather than saw him make the jump on the other side of the truck, the low sound barely carrying over the noise of engine. Stark waited until the truck was a little farther down the road, then wrapped his arm over Banner’s shoulder and pulled him up into the air. A moment later, Banner was being deposited on the roof of the truck bed, Stark landing beside him lightly, the repulsors in his suit winking out.
Through it all, the truck hadn’t slowed or swerved, so, for the moment, it seemed that their arrival had gone unnoticed. They were fortunate, at least, that the truck was designed to carry large, heavy loads to begin with, so their combined weight barely caused a discernible dip in the body of the vehicle.
The tarp was tied over the back of the truck, the ends bunched together, stretching over the half-octagon that formed the bed’s roof. The tarp was held in place by a black rope that was woven through metal eyelets, and though it was knotted tightly, it was relatively quick work to untie it and create an opening large enough for them to squeeze through. They tightened and retied the rope as soon as they were all inside.
It looked as though they were truly in luck - even in the limited light, it was clear that the truck wasn’t carrying a full load. Large stacks of wooden crates lined both sides of the bed, but there was an aisle in the middle with enough space for them to be able to make their way along it. They did so, quietly moving closer to the cab.
Natasha was in the lead, since it was the easiest for her to move in the confined space, and she let her gaze sweep over the crates, searching for something, anything they might use for cover when they reached the check point. The crates themselves were out - none of them were large enough to conceal a full-grown adult, let alone men who were the size of Thor and Captain Rogers.
When she reached the end of the narrow passage, she turned and her gaze landed on the sides of truck bed, which were cast in shadow. It didn’t look like the crates were braced against the walls - maybe they had been at one point, but the journey had shifted them. Frowning, Natasha slid along the wall until she reached the darkness and stretched out her arm. Her lips curved faintly when her hand met only emptiness. It wasn’t a large space, maybe half of the size of the aisle, but just large enough, perhaps, to be what they needed.
By the time they felt the truck pulling to a stop, they were all hidden behind the crates, pressed against the walls of the truck as tightly as they could be without disturbing the tarp behind them.
It was utterly silent as well. Stark had even deactivated his suit so that it was soundless and dark, missing the usual glow of his helmet’s eye slits and the whir of the servo motors.
Russian voices filtered in from outside, exchanging brisk greetings and verifying ID before there was a noise at the back of the truck as the tarp was opened and the tailgate was unlatched for inspection.
From her vantage point, Natasha could see only the silhouette of the solider who climbed into the truck, shining a flashlight over the crates as he examined them. For a moment, she held her breath, wondering if the beam would land on a piece of reflective armor. But, after a few seconds, the soldier clicked off the flashlight, then turned and hopped down from the bed of the truck, closing the tailgate and calling out the all-clear.
They were in.
The truck rumbled to life again as it pulled into the base, making a brief circuit around the compound before pulling into what Natasha assumed was one of the warehouses they’d seen earlier. The engine shut off, then doors in the cab opened and the murmur of voices followed a second time as the soldiers left the vehicle.
Again, there was silence.
Natasha slipped quietly from her place behind the crates and cautiously made her way to the back of the vehicle. The truck was obviously set to be unloaded, because the tarp had been left open, but for the moment, no one was nearby.
She signaled to the others, and they followed behind her, easing out from the behind the crates, climbing over the tailgate, and landing quietly on the warehouse floor.
The warehouse was organized almost like an industrial one, with large metal shelves arranged in rows, holding stacks of supplies. The area where their truck had been parked was obviously designated for loading and off-loading, because there were a number of other utility vehicles nearby.
Both the vehicles and the shelves made good covered as the group moved deeper into the warehouse, keeping low, but moving at a quick jog as they searched for an exit. They found one at the back of the warehouse and slipped silently out into the night.
Here in the compound, amidst the buildings, it was far more difficult to distinguish the base’s layout. Asphalt paved the pathways between the buildings, making the compound a dark, utilitarian maze, though two large, open areas had been deliberately preserved and were covered in a light gray concrete. The first was adjacent to the training center, and it served as the parade grounds. Natasha remembered standing there herself, at strict attention, one of many in the perfectly straight rows of young initiates, though the faces of those around her were blurry and indistinct in her mind’s eye. The other tract of open space was even bigger, almost a courtyard or a field, and it was used as a staging area, or sometimes an outdoor training ground.
It was easy enough to avoid the open spaces and stick to the shadows instead, so that the group’s trip across the compound was relatively quick. Thankfully, it was late enough now that aside from the guards stationed at the perimeter, and the occasional soldier making his rounds, the compound itself was mostly silent, many of the buildings dark.
The training center, when they reached it, was not dark, however. It was past lights-out, and the initiates would be in their bunks as ordered, but as always, the trainees were watched, the doctors performed their research, and the scientists conducted their experiments.
It didn’t stop. It never stopped.
Natasha stared up at the building, her hands finding the guns at her sides almost unconsciously, a burning ache flaring in her chest once more.
It was harder, this time, to push the feeling aside.
The group had stopped on the pathway beside the parade grounds, and were hidden in the shelter offered by the L-shaped building’s shortest portion, the lower hook of the “L.” But, beyond the parade grounds behind them was the largest of the concrete spaces, meaning they had no cover whatsoever from that direction. They would have to be quick.
They’d agreed earlier that the best way to enter the building would be from the roof, since security was likely concentrated on the main floor, and fortunately, climbing equipment wasn’t an issue. Not when they had two men who could fly.
Natasha moved to stand next to Stark, who also had his head tilted back to study the training center
“Third floor: mad scientists, psychopaths, and brains washed while you wait,” he muttered darkly.
It might have seemed flippant if it weren’t for the tension in his voice…the underlying disgust.
Natasha could appreciate that.
She reached out to wrap her arms around Stark’s neck so he could carry her to the roof, and that’s when she heard it. It was the sound of something small cutting through the air, barely perceptible even in the quiet.
Natasha wasn’t sure what to make of it until Dr. Banner slumped to the ground, unmoving.
She jumped away from Stark, drawing both guns automatically and spinning away from the building, turning to face the clearing instead. The others did the same. Stark dropped into a half crouch, both hands outstretched, the stabilizers on his arms whining as they charged. Rogers and Thor took up position on each side of them; Rogers, who was closer to Natasha, had his shield held high, and Thor, on Stark’s other side, had his hammer raised, but for the moment, there was no other sign of an attack.
The compound remained quiet, and the guards stationed at the perimeter still seemed unaware of their presence.
Eyes narrowed, never dropping his guard, Rogers crept forward and quickly knelt down beside Banner, pressing the fingers of his free hand to the fallen man’s throat.
“He okay?” Stark asked.
Rogers stood, a muscle ticking along his jaw. “He’s alive. But he’s out.”
He held out his hand, palm open, revealing a small dart.
A dart. A dart that must have been loaded with an incredibly powerful sedative. A sedative obviously designed with Banner in mind.
It was an ambush.
The realization came just before another, different sound, one Natasha felt, rather than heard.
The pain began in her ears, a dull ache that rapidly turned into something much sharper, and then it seemed to spread outwards until every muscle in her body spasmed, clenching and unclenching in rapid succession, until, suddenly…they stopped.
She couldn’t blink. She could barely breathe.
A small, choked sound escaped her throat and her legs suddenly gave way so that she found herself face-down on the cold ground beside Banner.
Her head was turned just enough that from the corner of her eye, she could see that she wasn’t the only one affected. Rogers was doubled over, fighting a slow battle to remain upright, but eventually he landed on his knees, his teeth clenched.
She couldn’t see Thor, who was on Stark’s other side, but judging from the ragged breaths and stumbling steps she that heard over the pounding in her own head, she assumed that whatever this was, he hadn’t escaped it either.
Stark, however, seemed to have done just that - his suit was probably designed to filter sound, if that’s what had caused this. He stood there for a moment, his head turning as though he were scanning the base, then he shot into the air, the glow of his repulsors bright in the night sky as he gained altitude.
She understood why he’d done it a moment later when she heard the footsteps surrounding them. Dozens of soldiers were emerging from the shadows and the nearby buildings, their weapons drawn, the red beams from their targeting sites scattered over the snow.
Her back was probably covered with them.
A sudden explosion ripped through the air - Stark’s doing, she assumed. She couldn’t see what he had hit, but either he’d found something combustible, or his suit was equipped with missiles. Whatever the case, the force of the blast was enough send the soldiers staggering back; a few were knocked off their feet completely.
But the detonation wasn’t close enough to do any real damage - it couldn’t be, not unless Stark was willing to risk losing one of his teammates to friendly fire. There was another explosion a second later, a little farther in the distance, and Natasha knew that he was probably hoping to draw away the troops surrounding them.
It might have worked, if it weren’t for the sudden press of cold metal at Natasha’s temple. She would have tensed, if she could have - the noise of the explosions must have covered the soldier’s approach.
She wasn’t alone. Beside her, Rogers, who was still on his knees, was now being held upright by a soldier almost as large as he was. The soldier had one muscular arm wrapped tightly around Rogers’ throat, his gun pressed to Rogers’ head.
She heard a struggle behind her as well, grunts of pain and the sound of flesh hitting flesh. It was clear that Thor wasn’t as weakened as she and Rogers had been; he seemed to still be on his feet and able to fight, given the way that many of the soldiers around her had run in that direction. But the noise eventually died down, reduced to frustrated, unintelligible growls on Thor’s part.
As soon as he was restrained, the soldiers in her line of sight parted, and a gray-haired man stepped forward, somehow looking as though he belonged there, despite the charcoal business suit he wore.
He hadn’t changed much since she’d seen him last; the lines on his face were perhaps a bit deeper, the gray in his hair slightly more pronounced, but he carried himself the same way, his shoulders back, his spine straight, his slim frame held almost at attention.
His blue eyes swept the scene, and when his gaze landed on her, his lips curled in a very faint smile. Natasha’s heart lurched in her chest, fear skirting down her spine and curling in her stomach before the Polkovnik moved on, striding past her and further out into the open.
Whatever Stark had destroyed was still burning, and the red-orange light reflected off the Polkovnik’s glasses, obscuring his eyes as he tilted his head towards the night sky.
“Mr. Stark,” he called. His voice was deceptively mild, but there was no mistaking the tone of command.
Stark must have heard it too, because he paused his attacks long enough to draw closer to them, but he stayed far enough away to avoid making himself an easy target, and he remained in the air, hovering in place.
Stark cocked his head “Yes?”
“Surrender or your friends die.”
“Friends? Not really.” Stark shrugged. “I just met them. Don’t even like most of ’em.”
“So you will not mind if we kill them, then?”
Natasha felt the barrel of the gun press harder against her temple.
“Surrender, Mr. Stark, or they die,” the Polkovnik repeated. “You are fast, but not that fast, I think. You cannot save them.”
Stark was silent.
The Polkovnik smiled a thin-lipped smile. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order.” He glanced at the soldier guarding Natasha. “Demitri.”
The gun by Natasha’s head was cocked, the soldier’s finger tightening on the trigger.
“No!” Stark shouted. “Wait! Just wait.”
Stark raised his hands and slowly began his descent into the clearing.
“Excellent,” the Polkovnik said. “I had hoped you would be cooperative. You understand, of course, that in this same…cooperative spirit, as a condition of your surrender, you will leave that marvelous suit.”
Stark didn’t respond, but the moment he touched the ground, his suit opened, splitting along an invisible seam, and he stepped out of it, his hands still raised, his jaw clenched, eyes blazing. The suit closed behind him an instant later, empty, but sealing with a pressurized hiss. Stark strode forward then, stopping only when he was a few feet away from the Polkovnik.
The Polkovnik seemed amused by that show of subtle defiance, and he tilted his head thoughtfully as he regarded the billionaire. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and removed a small, gray cylindrical device, holding it up for Stark’s inspection.
A look of horrified recognition flicker across Stark’s face.
“How did you…?” He trailed off, his eyes locked on the device once more.
The Polkovnik offered an elegant shrug. “You are a genius, are you not, Mr. Stark? Surely you already know the answer to that. Obadiah Stane drove a hard bargain, but it was always well worth it.”
Stark looked almost ill now. “He sold to you?”
“He did indeed. This device, among others.”
The Polkovnik slipped the device back inside his jacket. Then he reached for his ears, which Natasha realized, were blocked by some sort of earplug that glowed faintly blue. A quick glance at the soldiers showed that they were similarly equipped. The Polkovnik removed the plugs and clipped them together, resulting in a soft, electronic chirp; they joined the device in his pocket.
As though the move was some sort of signal, a group of soldiers broke away to surround Stark, their guns raised. They barked at him to put his hands behind his head, and when he did, they pushed him roughly to his knees.
Thor must have seen that as a moment to act, because she heard him struggling again, yelling out a challenge.
Mocking laughter followed, but it wasn’t from the Polkovnik.
It took Natasha only a moment to place the voice it belonged to, though she’d only heard it once, in the underground lab. She managed to turn her eyes in the direction the laugher had come from, and she watched as Loki materialized from the shadows. He was grinning widely and holding his staff, the blue glow casting his features in stark relief, and he was dressed in a dark suit, as though he’d decided to embrace Earth’s fashions. He wore a black tie as well, and a matching trench coat that hung to his knees. The only color he wore came in the form of a green and gold scarf that dangled around his neck. Natasha wondered if it was a deliberate nod to the green and gold armor he had worn when he arrived.
It was the man standing behind him that held Natasha’s attention, though.
He was as still as a statue, his eyes glowing that unnatural blue. It shouldn’t have been a comforting sight, but in a strange way it was, if only because it meant that that Red Room hadn’t reclaimed him, not yet. He was under Loki’s control, not theirs.
He held a gun in his hands, a dart gun, recognizable because of its long, slender barrel. He had obviously been the one to shoot Banner. That, too, was almost encouraging. It meant that he was still seen to have some value, if only for his skills as a sniper. Perhaps Loki didn’t plan to give him back to the Red Room after all.
An angry snarl drew Natasha from her thoughts.
“Loki!” Thor spat, his breathing ragged. “What have you done? What sort of magic is this?”
Loki strode forward, walking around Natasha as though she weren’t even there. He moved beyond where she could see, but his voice carried.
“Not magic. Technology. This world is rife with it. Even we are not immune to some of their creations.” There was a deliberate, amused pause, then: ”Obviously.”
Thor growled, and he must have been straining against the soldiers holding him in place because she could hear feet scrapping along the ground, as though they were being dragged.
“Release us!” Thor demanded. “Now!”
Loki laughed again. “Oh, you’re through giving me orders, brother.”
There was a flash of blue light from that direction, one that reflected on the snow around Natasha, followed by the unmistakable sound of a body falling limply to the ground.
She instinctively reacted to it, trying to move, but her body simply refused to obey her mind’s furious commands. Her fingers didn’t so much as twitch.
An instant later, another explosion ripped through the compound. Natasha shifted her attention back to the clearing where Stark had landed, and she immediately saw the cause: where Stark’s suit once stood, there was only a scorched patch of earth and a few twisted pieces of metal.
Another quick look at Stark showed her that he was smirking darkly, obviously satisfied, and she knew that the explosion was also his doing. She wondered if the self-destruct had been set on a timer, or if Stark had some way of detonating it whenever he wished.
The Polkovnik studied the destruction much the way she had, a small flicker of irritation visible before his face slid back into its usual composed mask.
“You try my patience, Mr. Stark. But no matter. You will build another.”
Stark scoffed. “I’m not building anything for you.”
This time, the Polkovnik’s smile was chilling. “You say that as though you’ll have a choice.”
The Polkovnik waved his hand and the soldier behind Stark struck him on the head with the butt of his rifle. Stark slumped over, crumpling to the ground, and to her right, Natasha saw Captain Rogers suffering the same fate.
When the gun left her temple, she knew that she was next, and her eyes immediately found Clint again, still standing in the shadows where Loki had left him.
His unnaturally blue eyes were the last thing she saw before there was a sharp blow at the back of her skull and then everything went black.