April had been an awful, awful month, and the beginning of May hadn't been much better. Sure, a lot more (deserved) downtime, but it wasn't like we were actually enjoying it, being borderline comatose recovering. This weekend had been looking up, though - there had been intriguing rumors of a get-together, and maybe even a whisper of "cake" through the ranks - but I should have known anything that promising would not only be a lie, but was just the lead-in to something of equally opposite appeal:
Can the universe not find anything to occupy these supervillains for longer than a week at a time? Seriously, my 4-year old nephew has a longer attention span. (And I really don't get how the human race has not already irradiated themselves into extinction when all these "objects of extreme power" have just been literally raining out of the sky. Surely this can't have been the only time in human history this has been happening, especially if the Asgardians visited enough times in the past to have sparked an entire religion on Earth.)
And ugh, if I've told JL once, I've told him a million times, he's got to set the record straight for that poor -
Man, do I miss Stark tech. I'd offer to give Director Fury a pedicure for a month if it might bring the quinjets back. But considering that the relationship between SHIELD and Stark is more volatile than the stock market, I guess we should feel lucky we even got a nice view and an insertion point within a mile of the area of interest. (An extra 600 feet of elevation that we didn't have to scramble up on hands and knees with extra gear would've been nice too. Just saying, if Santa - or Stark - wanted to be early this year.)
MC: SHIELD satellites online. Uploading visual scans to you now.
JL: We're going to do Monkey Dance.
MC: Acknowledged. Update when object is secure. Agent S****** is currently tracking other similar energy signatures.
JT: Copy that Mission Control.
JT: I'll forego forwarding Agent L**'s non-mission critical inquiry for Agent S******.
(Because it's not as if we're on some world-critical mission here and can reliably make appointments for dinner. Really, JL, I'm saving you the trouble of having to make up excuses.)
May-: ztomzhz mzvydibn di qdxdidos ja njpoc atmopiv nphhdo. Pnz xvpodji, ncdzgy cvn wzzi ndbcozy di hdnndji omvdgn, da zixjpiozmzy ozmhivoz rdoc kmzepydxz.
I'll give JL this much, though. He may be easy to distract at times, but he's no slacker - he jumped on the code before I had even managed to turn around to rappel down again:
JL: Partial decryption:
Eytreme readings in vicinity of South fyrtuna summit.
MC: Those crafty HYDRA agents with their typos are trying to deceive you again.
(If I had a quarter for every time MC threw in a dig on HYDRA's minion education ... well, I'd be on some private beach somewhere. Lounging, mind you, rather than storming the sands on some moon-less night, thank-you-very-much).
JL: Full decryption:
Eytreme readings in vicinity of South fyrtuna summit. Use caution, shield has been sighted in mission trails, if encountered terminate with prejudice."
Well, that certainly made me feel all warm, fuzzy, and welcomed. Thankfully, it was soon followed by a much more decisive victory:
(You bet your sweet tush I would, particularly after the news of an added 7 miles and few thousand feet of elevation to scramble through while ducking HYDRA agents in a non-major-denominational god's equivalent of a scavenger hunt.)
MC: What's your status? We show HYDRA activity near the Fortuna Saddle.
JT: Performing clean up and final sweeps. Moving out in ten.
MC: Have you planned your route to ascend the summit?
JT: The river crossing trail starting from the secondary spillover parking lot by the visitors center. Requesting confirmation that this is most efficient route, over.
MC: Sat nav confirms that as most direct route from your current location.
JT: At checkpoint. Gearing up.
MC: Double-time it agents, HYDRA is on the move!
Yeah, yeah, it wasn't as if we were loitering in some air-conditioned sedan chowing down on chicken sandwiches and chocolate bars. Still, the faster we wrapped this up, the faster we got to go home to hot showers and hot food.
That brought me hustling back. The guy liked to decrypt things in his downtime for fun. What on Earth or Asgard could have made him give up so quickly after just a single -
MC: New HYDRA intercept:
Ah, JL's one achilles. EL gave him a sympathetic pat and took over. "HYDRA's detected SHIELD's electronic incursions," she translated. "They're switching communications networks." Then a funny look came over her face and she added, "They messed up their name."
Well. Nice to know that HYDRA was so consistent, even across language boundaries.
Swampy crevices where run-off had gathered and stagnated, hidden by lush patches of greenery until your next step was sucked into slime and mud. Vegetation that was an inconvenience at best, perhaps even lethal at worst - both JL and CL fell victim to one, though thankfully with only minor wounds. Rattlers and other poisonous fauna that could be more dangerous than any HYDRA - at least the latter were much easier to spot in this arid landscape. Navigation was challenging with only a few distant peaks to act as landmarks, and making course corrections for straying even just a few hundred feet was becoming taxing as we ran low on adrenaline and water.
When we finally reached our next waypoint, the sight was both gratifying and daunting. It was one of the first concrete, unequivocal signs we were on the right track since we lost our electronic taps, but this was definitely not going to be an easy trek.
JL: The stairs are in view.
MC: Proceed with caution. We are detecting HYDRA activity on the slopes of both north and south Fortuna.
MC: Third piece found. Uploading visuals.
The visual confirmation was a bit of a mood-lifter - we now knew what we were looking for and where (albeit in a very limited sense).
But then it all paid off - EL, in particular, seemed to have a special affinity for zeroing in on the pieces once we were within a certain range:
JT: Target acquired
MC: Excellent! Proceed to final objective.
Here, we came to a crossroads. Time was short - we were in a very tight race with HYDRA for the last piece. We had also been woefully unprepared for the sheer length of the mission - we had started rationing once it was confirmed there was a third piece, but it might still not be enough to get us through, especially if we ran into HYDRA during the retrieval. But after an intense discussion, we decided that the objective was important enough to justify the risk.
JL: OK heading to north Fortuna summit.
Or so we thought. But it turned out luck had very little to do with it - Hydra had simply already come and gone.
EL: Hydra got to it!
MC: Oh no! How could they have bested you!
MC: I'll have our Sat Techs see if we can trace them. Our surveillance teams are tracking their communications since they switched systems, but we haven't been able to capture anything yet. Head back to the safe house and we'll send you updates as we have more information.
JT: Jon intercepted a suspicious character, but he knows nothing about the scepter.
Looking behind me, the two peaks that we had chased for over half the day seemed so small and insignificant - I turned back around, swallowing against the dryness in my throat.
MC: Status update? Agents?
JT: Made it to the extraction point
Finally. We had all fallen upon the extra water supplies and made ourselves nearly sick drinking our fill.
MC: Good. HYDRA agents detected in Roardrunner park. You'll need these:
Well. Maybe there was a god (who's not Thor) and they actually did want us to have nice, shiny things (for once).
I could hear the pounding footsteps of another Hydra agent at my five - far too close - but didn't let myself turn, just shot blindly over my shoulder to slow him down. I had my sights set on a veritable hand cannon that had been left oh-so-conveniently behind with their entire cache of ammo, and I swore by whatever gods were out there, they weren't going to steal something right out from under my nose again.
I dropped my near-empty sidearm as I swept the new piece up in a clumsy scrape of plastic on stone. Didn't even shorten my stride as I dove right into the stockpile for a recharge. Swung around, muzzle-first, as I felt the sting of a near-hit zip past my ribs - and blasted my tail at near point-blank range as he ran straight into the shot.
Hydra belated realized their mistake when I started to take them out with their own weapons.
In short order, the rest of my fellow agents rallied around me, and now the tide had turned as we stood our ground at the top of the proverbial hill, dropping Hydra agents left and right. I whooped, smelling imminent victory ... but it wasn't until EL yelled over the din, "He's getting away with the third piece!" that I even realized there might be an even more important objective than clearing out some random Hydra outpost.
Honestly, I still have no idea how I was able to cover the ground I did to catch up with her and the figure - hunched protectively over something in his hands - fleeing from the melee. The stand I had made over the stockpile had been one of half-stubbornness, half-practicality - I hadn't moved because I hadn't thought I would be able to move once my feet were planted and my knees locked. But it turned out that if you waved the cape in front of the bull enough, it didn't matter what shape the bull was in ... it was still going to lumber after you and do its bloody best to stomp you into the ground.
It didn't take long. The rest of the SHIELD agents were beginning to stream out with us, sensing our urgency, leaving a skeleton crew to handle mop-up. The few Hydra still standing were also making a weak attempt to help their comrade escape - all of us spilling out into the open, thinning into individual skirmishes. I saw the target go down, but had barely enough time to hope that one of our own was close enough to scoop up the third piece before I had to focus on keeping my own skin intact.
(I think that's pretty incontrovertible proof that she's the staff's favorite.)
(And then there was CAKE! There really are happy endings.)