The alien craft had risen slighter higher - prompting Neil to wonder just how high these things could get airborne - and it was all the tip off Natasha had needed to know that their helicopter was coming.
Clint pushed open the door to the roof and peered out. “Please tell me you brought back-up,” he said into his comm.
The whole building shook, as if the alien ship was moving down on ground level and then there was a great whoosing noise and just as suddenly something, or someone, was hovering over the landing pad.
Neil had watched enough news footage to know this was Iron Man. Or, rather, Tony Stark, billionaire playboy genius philanthropist himself.
“I’m like your Visa card,” Tony answered, his visor flipping up to reveal the man beneath the suit. “Never leave home without me.”
“Catchy,” Clint told him. “How about you make yourself useful and go be a distraction?”
“I am shiny to look at,” Tony quipped and then he was off, soaring through the air, leaving only the smell of his burning boosters behind him.
Clint herded them all out onto the roof, motioned for them to stand against the wall. The building was still shaking from whatever force the ship was emitting, but Neil had to see. He went to the edge and leaned over.
Down below, he could see the alien ship hovering about fifty feet above the pavement - the highest Neil had seen it get yet. Tony was levitating in front of it, almost taunting the thing, or whatever was inside it. The ship made an awful clicking noise and lit up from the inside and then suddenly Tony was off, flying through the streets, the ship on his tail, firing as it went. It was the most high tech game of cat and mouse that Neil had ever witnessed.
“Careful there, Professor,” Clint said, pulling up to his side. “Let’s not get this far just to have a shockwave plummet you to your death.”
Neil moved back and the helicopter came into view.
“Let’s make this quick,” Natasha said and Neil couldn’t tell if she was speaking into her comm or to the group in general, but he nodded in agreement.
The helicopter landed and a man waved them in. Neil was pushed towards the chopper, its propeller whirring overhead and then they were loaded on, Clint and Natasha flanking the outside edges, feet dangling in the air.
“Can that thing shoot this high?” the pilot asked.
“We’re about to find out,” Clint told him.
Neil braced himself in his seat.
The respite they received from Tony using himself as bait was short-lived.
The ship was coming towards them at an alarming rate.
They had all been quiet for the two minutes of breathing time they had actually experienced. Neil had wanted to remark on how fast the helicopter was, but that almost seemed like jinxing it. He had never been much of a superstitious man, but he decided now was not the time to test that out. Instead he had sat still, no movement except for the way his thumb seemed to involuntarily rub over his wedding ring. In the seat next to him, the SWAT man with the broken arm was wincing in pain at every air pocket.
Scully leaned forward in her seat, partially to speak to them and partially, Neil suspected, to block the rest of the unit’s view of Langly, who had finally taken a moment to realize everything that had happened. Of those three men who had accepted Neil into their home, Langly was the only one left. His shocked expression clearly showed that reality.
“Brace his arm with yours,” Scully told Neil then and gestured at the man next to him. “Don’t touch the broken area, just lean a bit against him, make a sort of nest for his arm against your side and support his wrist. It’ll soften the shock of the rocky ride a little.”
Neil pressed in closer, one arm coming up to support the wrist, and the man nodded gratefully at Neil.
That’s when the first shot went whizzing by their head. Or more precisely, came blasting just past the front end of the helicopter.
“Awsonofabitch,” the pilot grunted.
“They’re still way below us. How are they doing that?” Neil asked and leaned over to take a look once more.
There was a red glow emitting from the top of the ship, dead center in the middle of what was most likely the roof of the thing. The aliens had a laser shooter on the top as well as the front.
“Professor,” Clint said mildly. “I thought we talked about you plummeting to your death.”
Neil leaned back just as the pilot said, “Under the seat. Long black box.”
Darcy reached for it and opened it up before sliding it across the floor to Natasha. From this angle, Neil couldn’t see what was inside. But Natasha was smiling; big and shining and gorgeous.
Her smile was the most terrifying thing Neil had experienced yet.
She pulled it out then; a large gun, resembling some sort of high tech flame thrower. The helicopter swung outwards and Natasha pointed the gun at the ship below.
Neil heard the awful clicking noise coming from the spaceship at the same time he saw Natasha fire up the mammoth gun.
It was a coin toss - whose shot would get there first.
Natasha fired. Langly yelled and dove for her.
The alien ship had fired too.
Someone pushed Neil to the floor of the chopper. The whole thing shook, hard and violent, and Neil waited for them all to be incinerated, like the crowds on the ground had been.
It took three whole seconds before Neil realized that he wasn’t dead.
It was the sound of Langly’s voice that shocked him out of it. “Would you people stop doing that?!” the man cried.
Neil looked up to see Langly had thrown himself over Natasha and was now pulling himself upright again. There was smoke billowing up from below them and when Langly righted himself, there was a burn stretching from his wrist up to his forearm.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Natasha snapped at him, and though it wasn’t even close to a yell, it spoke volumes.
“You have to stop trying to shoot it! Guns don’t work!” Langly snapped back.
Neil could see the man was sweating and between the flesh wounds across his chest and the burn, he was in desperate need of some medical care.
“Did it work?” Scully asked. She was on her knees next to Neil and he looked over to see she was checking the pulse of the man who had been sitting beside him. The pain of the blast had been too much, with multiple broken bones in his arm, he had lost consciousness.
“It didn’t blow up the ship,” Clint said. “But it seems to have diverted their laser somehow.”
Neil leaned over the side again and when Clint gave him the most exasperated expression ever cataloged, Neil just smiled politely at him. “This time I’m plummeting to my death for science.”
There was smoke everywhere but the alien ship was still intact, though the red glow on the top, the source of the most recent shots, was fairly diminished and almost seemed to be pulsating, as if it were cycling itself back up to full power.
Neil righted himself and leaned forward into the pilot’s space. “We have a very small window of opportunity here,” he said. “Let’s not waste it.”
The pilot nodded and pushed the chopper into high gear. The engine was grunting and protesting under the force. It was possible they would burn out before they got where they were going.
Assuming the aliens didn’t fire again first.
And then, out of nowhere, Iron Man was flying alongside of them.
“Sorry about that,” Tony’s voice said, coming in over the helicopter’s radio. “I had to rescue a puppy.”
“Is he serious?” Scully asked.
“I can never tell with Tony,” Natasha answered.
“Would you ladies and gents care for an escort?” he asked then.
“If you don’t mind,” Natasha said into her comm, “Maybe with a little less flair this time.”
“Aw, sweetheart, you know that’s not my style,” and then Tony was diving below the chopper and out of sight.
The pilot kept them soaring and Neil closed his eyes and thought of his family.
In the end, it wasn’t Tony’s darting and weaving and shooting of his own lasers that kept the alien ship off them long enough to get away. It was the arrival of several fighter jets and three Blackhawk helicopters, that served as the best distraction.
The aliens had too many things to focus on at once and their little, though by no means measly, chopper was just a footnote now.
“They don’t stand a chance, you know,” Clint said softly, as the spacecraft rebooted its laser and prepared to fire.
“Let it go, Clint,” Natasha said, but somehow Neil suspected that neither of them ever let go of anyone they left behind.
“We’re coming in,” the pilot said and Neil furrowed his brow.
That couldn’t be right, since they should be above water at this point. Neil leaned over the edge one last time and that’s when he saw it.
An aircraft carrier, floating in the water, and what looked like a city’s worth of activity on the deck. Someone was waving them in.
The pilot put them down a little quicker than Neil would have liked and he saw then that there was smoke coming from the front of the vehicle. They had pushed themselves almost to the point of crashing and, in this case, drowning. Tony set down beside them and Neil watched as his Iron Man suit literally folded away from his body and morphed itself into what looked like a standard briefcase.
Clint jumped off the chopper and the two men embraced each other briefly, Clint leaning against Tony’s side, the shirt wrapped around his knee still soaked in blood. Then Tony was there at the interior of the helicopter, pulling Darcy out and into his arms before setting her down on the carrier.
“Lewis, who would have thought that going into work could save your life?” Tony asked her and she grinned up at him.
“Coulson always says we’re like the post office; rain or snow or sleet or alien invasion.”
“Especially alien invasion, Ms. Lewis,” a man in a crisp dark suit told her. Neil hadn’t even seen him approach. “Dr. Tyson,” the man said and then turned to where Neil was standing awkwardly next to the helicopter, wondering where this day would take him next. “My name is Agent Phil Coulson and I am extremely grateful for your assistance here today.”
Agent Coulson held out his hand, but Neil just stuck his own torn and damaged hands into the pockets of his ragged, soot-stained slacks, wishing in vain for his sweater.
“I wasn’t aware I had much say in the matter,” Neil told him dryly.
“Well, we could have left you out there to die,” Natasha said.
“Agent Romanov,” Coulson told her with a look that probably even made The Hulk himself jump, “Please escort your injured to the medical bay. Ms. Lewis, I see we’ve had a few stragglers come in with us. If you could get them some accommodations. And a fingerprint check,” he added as an afterthought. “Dr. Tyson, you may come with me. There is someone who has been waiting for your arrival. You too, Mr. Stark.”
“Are you sure we are safe here?” Neil asked, puffing out his chest a little against the stare of the man. “They could very well track us to this location.”
Coulson gave him an assessing look. “We do have a near-invisibility option, if needed, as well as the ability to go airborne, though I think currently staying out of their line of sight is the better option, don’t you?” Then a slow smile crept across his face. “Trust me, Dr Tyson, even you’ve never seen science like ours,” and he walked off towards the large entrance.
Neil followed reluctantly; Scully, with Langly and the rest of the company in tow.
They went in through the main entrance and down a long corridor that led into a huge room. The place was full of people running to and fro in a frenzy, checking this and that on the numerous computers and monitors throughout the room. Someone ran up and handed Agent Coulson a piece of paper. He looked at it, frowned and said softly to Natasha, “We’ve lost Memphis.”
“How about New York?” Natasha asked him, concern in her voice.
“Xavier’s people have held onto it, but there has been a heavy price to pay for it,” he told her.
Natasha turned on her heels and Clint grabbed her arm, stilled her movements.
“Just give me five minutes to get the wound cleaned out and get restocked,” he said.
“Clint,” she replied, and it was both placating and warning.
“Five minutes,” he said again, but he already sounded beaten.
Natasha brought one hand up to touch his shoulder gently and then she was pulling away from him and out of his grasp. “I’ll see you back out there. You know the spot,” she told him. “Let’s get a chopper fueled up and get back in the air,” she said and several SWAT members hurried after her, many of whom were the same men who had just come in with them.
“Where is she going?” Neil asked when Clint turned back towards them.
“Back out,” he answered without preamble. “There are civilians out there. And some of our own damn men. We don’t leave anyone behind. Any other questions, Professor?”
Neil shook his head and let Coulson lead him down another corridor and into yet another large room. It took a security code to get in and Darcy hurried off with Scully and Langly for fingerprints and some medical attention, promising that they would be returned to Neil in one piece. He didn’t like it, but he conceded that Scully would watch their backs.
When he stepped into the room, the door behind him hissed and slid shut and Neil saw then the most incredible futuristic laboratory he had ever seen in his life. It was a spacious shining room with several long tables, huge pieces of machinery, a row of computers and what looked like several large projected light monitors on the back wall.
A tall man in a lab coat came rushing over, dark curls on his head and wearing glasses on his face. Neil recognized him at once.
“Dr. Banner,” Neil said, ecstatic. “This is a pleasure. I am a huge fan of your work. I’ve read everything you’ve ever published.” Then he laughed nervously and added, “And even a few things you haven’t yet.”
“Please, call me Bruce,” Dr. Banner said politely and offered out his hand.
Neil actually felt like he was trembling, which was absurd and clearly had to do with his lack of food and sleep, and not that he was star-struck. Neil was only ever star-struck by actual stars.
Tony came in behind them then, the door hissing as it slid open and closed again. “All pretty impressive, isn’t it?” he asked, up against Neil’s back. “We’ve spared no expense.”
“Why am I here?” Neil asked slowly, suddenly overwhelmed by everything.
“There are 982 meteors that have landed across the globe. We managed to get close to several of them when they first landed,” Coulson said and Neil jumped a little because he had forgotten the man was even standing there. “We didn’t get much of a chance to do any tests though. A friend of yours showed up and ruined our party.”
Coulson pulled out his tablet and held it up so Neil could see the picture on it. It was the man in black, the man who had killed Dr. Linden two days ago in Kansas.
“He’s not my friend,” Neil replied, bitterly.
“I would think not,” Coulson told him. “Bad choice of words on my part. At any rate, we believe your friends at the Space and Science Observatory managed to get their hands on something that we could not.”
“And now we think you have it,” Tony whispered conspiratorially in his ear.
Neil took in a deep breath, hesitating on his answer. These people certainly had the means to help and he was pretty sure now, despite their backdoor kidnapping techniques, that they were the good guys. But a lot of people had died to protect this bit of rock and a lot of people were after it and Neil had to be sure these were the right ones to trust.
He looked at Coulson then and saw the piece of paper still in his hands, the one that said that the city of Memphis had been completely destroyed. That was over half a million people, all dead now. And, apparently, there were a hell of a lot more of these things out there than Neil had realized.
Neil had to trust someone.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the only piece of rock that anyone had managed to acquire. When he held it up, Bruce squinted at it and then reached out and slowly took it from Neil’s hands.
“Interesting,” he said and held it up to the light. “Now we just have to find a way to destroy you,” he told it.
Neil smiled. “I think I may have an idea. Does anyone have a magnet?”
“You want us to do what exactly?” Tony asked. “Make the world’s largest magnet and use it to suction all the spaceships up? And then do what with them?”
“No,” Neil said and then winced as the medical assistant finished tending to the torn flesh on his hands, wrapping them in bandages but leaving the fingers accessible at Neil’s insistence. “I just want to use the magnets to destabilize their ability to move long enough for us to get some shots in.”
“Shots with what?” Tony asked and hopped up onto the edge of one of the laboratory tables. “Guns don’t work on it. Or did you forget Natasha almost blowing you out of the sky with her little stunt?”
“Their laser took time to recharge after she blasted it though,” Neil told him. “If we can destabilize their movement and keep them from loading their laser for long enough, we might be able to get a precise hit.”
“Right into the eye of the thing,” Bruce said and he sounded a little impressed. “I never would have thought of trying a magnet. How did you discover this information?”
“Actually,” Neil said, “it was one of Langly’s associates. He’d be here now to tell you that story - it was kind of funny really - but your people shot him and then left him for dead.” Neil wasn’t going to hold back any punches on that one.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Tony said. “Time was of the essence and all that.”
Neil just stared at him coldly and Tony squirmed a little where he sat.
“We’re sorry for your loss,” Bruce told him and he sounded genuinely sincere. “So, we need to power something with magnets to fly back and forth over the ship, thus destabilizing its ability to move, and we need a laser to continually blast every time they shoot their own laser, and we also need the world’s most precise explosive to shoot into the eye of their laser once it’s been rendered useless and thereby, hopefully, blowing it up from the inside out.” Bruce sat down hard on a stool and he suddenly looked very, very tired.
“And we need to do all of this as quickly as possible, before we lose any more cities,” Neil said.
“Then you had better act fast,” a voice told them and they looked up to see Coulson’s face on the wide monitor behind them. “We’ve lost Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington DC and seven other major cities in the last hour. The ships are moving onto the next cities as we speak.”
“Any survivors?” Neil asked him and thought of the teenage boy who had held his sister aloft and yelled for them to help her.
“We’ve heard from our people on the ground and they are holed up with some civilians. But we won’t know about the other cities until we can get in there. And that, unfortunately, is not a top priority right now.”
“Okay, have you just been listening in the whole time?” Tony asked suddenly.
“Of course,” Coulson answered him without hesitation. “Is that a problem?”
“No, no, it’s cool,” Tony said quickly. “But I mean, I am an exhibitionist, so I like when people watch me,” and then he winked at the man.
“Have a little focus, Stark,” Coulson said.
“Don’t you know being an asshole helps him think better,” Bruce said and Coulson just rolled his eyes and then his image flickered away and the monitor went dark.
“So,” Neil said to the room at large, “suggestions?”
“What did you do to my fighter plane?” Coulson asked and his face almost looked red, though Neil suspected that his face never really got red. Self-control was something one would be required to have if they were meant to work with these competent and yet highly annoying group of people for long.
“We added a new compound type of an alnico and ferrite base to the exterior, a basic microcrystalline structure, as to attract ferromagnetic material, which we believe the alien spacecrafts are made of,” Bruce told him.
“Try again in a language I speak,” Coulson said.
“We coated it in magnets,” Neil explained. “If it flies back and forth at a fast enough rate, it should throw off the spaceship’s ability to move. Here, try this,” Neil told him and stood in front of Agent Coulson, who was alternating between looking at Neil and glaring in the direction of his fighter jet.
Coulson focused his attention for the moment and Neil held up one finger. “Okay,” Neil said, “now I want you to track my finger with your head, not your eyes.” Neil held up one finger and began moving it back and forth at a slow rate. Coulson turned his head from left to right and followed the movement.
“Okay,” Coulson said. “Now what?”
Neil sped up his finger, moving it faster and faster until Coulson was barely able to turn his head in one direction before he had to turn it back in the other direction.
“Until eventually,” Neil said, slowing his finger down again before stopping its movement altogether, “my finger would be moving so fast, you wouldn’t have time to turn your head at all. You’d just hold it in one place. Just like we hope to do with the ship.”
“This was your idea?” Coulson asked him then.
Neil shrugged. “It was a group effort,” but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bruce and Tony shaking their heads ‘no’.
“Once it’s immobile, then what?” Coulson asked.
“We have to fire directly at its laser at the exact moment that it opens up to fire itself. It’s all about precision,” Bruce explained.
“That’s going to be my job,” Tony told him.
“Which is all well and good for us,” Coulson said dryly, “But most countries aren’t so lucky as to have an Iron Man on pay.”
“It doesn’t have to be a laser,” Neil said. “It’s more about the timing than anything and Natasha’s giant flame thrower seemed to work just fine.”
“And all of that will blow it up?” Coulson asked.
“Not exactly,” Bruce explained. “While those two things are keeping it busy, someone has to get close enough to shoot directly into the eye of the laser.”
“It’s a three-fold plan,” Tony quipped. “Our intention is to blow them up using their own laser.”
“We’re going to try one of Clint’s explosive arrows, but the hope is any incendiary device will work.”
“It sounds like a lot of guess work that your plan will work, followed by a larger gamble that other countries will be able to mimic your actions.”
“Yes, we’re all very excited,” Bruce told him sarcastically.
Tony gestured at Neil with his head then and said, “Take a walk with me, Tyson.”
Neil followed Tony off from the jet, watching the activity as people loaded up the supplies Bruce had asked for, in case he had to make adjustments to the plan in the air.
“With Banner being our on-site nerd, and me being in the air, we’re going to need you to be our on-the-ground guy.”
“I figured as much,” Neil told him.
“Yes, but my friend Rhodey is coming in. He’s kind of our military liaison. If this plan works, he is going to have to rely the information to commanding generals around the world. And frankly, I love the guy, but you,” and Tony pointed at Neil’s chest, “are going to have to explain the science to him. Cool?”
“Yes,” Neil said. “If it means I don’t have to go back up in the air and get shot at, that is all very cool.”
“It’s been a pleasure,” Tony told him and offered out his hand.
Neil took it and wondered if this would be the last time they ever saw each other.
Neil was waiting in the command center room. The plane was in the air, carrying a SWAT unit and Dr. Banner. Clint was on an accompanying helicopter, his legs wrapped in bandages from knee to ankle. He had insisted the injuries wouldn’t impair his shot. Coulson had sent some other people on the chopper with Clint, but Neil hadn’t had time to meet them all. In the rear of the miniature convoy came Tony, waiting for his chance to fire.
“Explain something to me, Doctor,” a deep voice said behind Neil. He turned to see a man standing there; black, bald and sporting an eye patch. “If our jet is now a giant magnet, won’t it attract everything else around it made of metal, including our helicopter and the illustrious Mr. Stark?”
“Ah,” Neil said and held up a finger, “That’s a good question. The thing is, it isn’t a standard magnetic compound. Dr. Banner whipped something up that had magnetic properties and seemed to work on the piece of metal we had to experiment with, but managed not to attract most bits of metal in the room.”
“Most bits of metal?” Coulson asked, one eyebrow raised. “You didn’t mention that part earlier.”
“Uh, yeah,” Neil said and blamed a distinct lack of sleep for his complete and utter inability to articulate.
“Hmmm,” the eye-patch man said. “I hope you were worth all the trouble it took to get you.”
“I’m sorry,” Neil said. “Who are you again?”
“Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, meet our director of operations, Nick Fury. Who apparently thought it was okay to take his sweet time getting here.”
Fury nodded at Neil and then grinned over at Coulson. “I thought I’d left the place in competent hands. Were you not up for the task?”
“That,” Coulson said and pointed a finger at the man, “is not even the point.”
“Sir,” someone said from the other side of the room. “They are getting ready to start the mission.”
That got everyone’s attention real fast.
They had an excellent view on the monitor along the front wall of the room. This was both a good thing and a bad thing, as they could see everything that was happening, including that a few various pieces of metal had, in fact, attached themselves to the side of the plane.
“I think the lamppost is my favorite,” Coulson said. “Or maybe the fire hydrant.”
Neil didn’t say anything. He was too busy watching the alien spacecraft. It was rocking, first in one direction, then in another, like a baby’s cradle, moving of its own accord. Except it wasn’t actually moving on its own - the magnetic laced plane was the one doing all the work. Or more accurately, the amazing pilot behind the wheel who was flying back and forth over the spacecraft, whipping the plane about, pulling it to come around again before the ship could recover.
Tony was coming in now for his first run, the laser already opening on top of the alien craft.
“I need a comm,” Neil said suddenly and looked around wildly. “A comm, somebody get me a comm!”
A young man sitting a ways off at a smaller monitor jumped up and ran about, bringing Neil a comm as quick as he could. Neil pushed the device in his ear.
“Tony? Can you hear me?”
“What’s up, Tyson? Little busy here,” Tony came back, as if he were standing right next to the man.
“You have to wait for the clicking noise. It comes a half a second before they open fire and it will tell you when the laser is as vulnerable as possible. That goes for you too, Clint.”
“Yeah,” Clint answered him. “I remember that. Of course, this increases my chances of getting killed, but whatever.”
“Price we pay, Agent Barton,” Director Fury said, but he nodded in what might have actually been gratitude at Neil.
Even with the comm in his ear, Neil couldn’t hear the clicking noise himself, but he could tell when it went off because Tony opened fire, blasting it with his own explosive shot. The laser from the spacecraft collided with Tony’s and for a moment it looked like two warring beams of light, both trying to push each other out, lights and sparks flying off on all sides. Then an explosion came, big and bright and nearly beautiful.
Tony had barely flown out of the way.
The alien spacecraft made a grinding noise and Neil could see the laser’s light flickering all ready, recharging itself without pause.
“Stay on it, Stark,” Coulson ordered and Tony went flying back in.
It took a moment to charge up this time and then Tony was firing and darting out of the way before the explosion erupted. The ship was still rocking back and forth under the direction of the plane and the helicopter was pulling in closer.
The third time the laser fired, Tony missed his beat.
He fired just a millisecond after the alien laser, which gained more traction, pushing up higher than the laser shot had the last time. If it was a war between the two beams, the human side was losing. Tony flew back in, hovered over the top of the blasts and fired his rockets.
The extra push from the boosters sent the alien beam spiraling back downwards, but the accompanying explosion sent Tony flying through the air. He spun out of control, unable to right himself, and plummeted to the ground.
“Stark?” Coulson said. “Stark? Tony, are you on-line?”
There was no answer from Tony, but another voice came in over the comm device, one Neil had not heard before.
“He’s down. I’m jumping.”
“Captain, you’ll be exposed. They have a laser on the front of the ship as well and there will be no protecting you from it, Steve,” Coulson said.
“That means there will be no protecting Tony from it as well,” the voice answered him. “I’m jumping.”
“I suspected as much,” Coulson said and shook his head.
Then two more voices joined the first; one with a slight accent that Neil had never heard before and the other was Clint. “We’re jumping too. Tony isn’t moving.”
“Wait!” Neil shouted into his comm. “Clint, you can’t. There is no one to deflect the laser. You have to take your shot now. The chopper has to get in. You have to go now.” Then Neil paused and looked a little sheepishly at Coulson. “I mean, uh, you give them that order, I guess.”
Coulson did not look pleased but over his shoulder, Director Fury was grinning wide and amused.
“Do it,” Coulson ordered.
The helicopter started swinging in towards the alien ship and Neil saw two figures jump from the helicopter - one with a parachute that opened immediately and the other with a large hammer in his hand - to the ground below. He recognized them on sight, even though he had never met them; Captain America and Thor.
The helicopter dropped lower and Neil watched Clint literally plummet to the top of the spacecraft, where he landed hard and sharp. Neil wondered if the man’s knees would ever be the same.
“Iron Man is up,” Thor said into his comm. “We are on our feet.”
“That’s great,” Clint quipped and even Neil could hear the pain in his voice. “Because he’s kind of my ride off this thing.”
There was a horrid noise then and even through the smoke of the previous explosions, Neil could see a fresh wall rising up.
“Shit, shit,” Tony muttered. “Come on!”
Neil pulled his earpiece out and leaned over to Coulson. “Clint has to do it now. The laser is almost all the way open. They’re going to shoot,” he said, before slipping the comm back on.
“My boosters won’t fire. I’m fried,” Tony said and his voice broke on the last bit. “I can’t fly.”
“Clint,” Coulson said. “You have to take the shot.”
“I know,” Clint answered and he sounded oddly serene. “You three get off the ground. If this works, the whole block is about to go up.”
“We’re not leaving you,” Steve told him.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Clint snapped back at him, angry. “Thor, get them out of here!”
Neil could see the eye of the laser through the video feed from Clint’s vest.
It was time.
“Bruce, get your plane out of there,” Neil said. “You have to go now, Clint.”
The arrow was a brilliant red as it shot straight down. Clint leaned over and they could all see the arrow firing downwards, inside the device - hopefully, deep enough down to blow the ship up from the inside out. Clint was leaning far over the eye of the laser, watching his last arrow soar downwards.
“Clint,” Neil said softly. “Haven’t we talked about you not plummeting to your death?”
Clint laughed then, full and loud and real. “Good luck to you, Professor,” he said and then, “Coulson?”
“Yes, Clint?” Coulson said and when Neil looked at him, the man was pale but steady.
“Just…take care of her.”
Neil didn’t know if the man meant Darcy or Natasha or both, but he was sure Coulson knew.
The explosion was loud and crackling and they could see the wall of fire shooting upwards. It came flying towards the camera feed, towards Clint, spiraling and expanding as it came.
And then it was all gone in a blaze.
The alien spaceship. The block the three other Avengers had just been on. And Clint Barton.
There was a long silence that followed afterwards and the screens all went dark and no one moved.
Then there was a crackle over the comm device and the very faint sound of Thor’s voice. “Hello? Agent Coulson?”
“I’m here,” Coulson said.
“So are we,” Thor told him. “All three of us.”
“Do we have confirmation of the ship’s destruction?” Fury asked.
There was another long silence and then Bruce’s voice this time, “We have confirmation. It worked. The damn thing worked.”
Then there was cheering; loud and whooping and filling the room like static electricity, building to an unending crescendo that shook the floor beneath them.
“Well then,” Tony said, “Let’s get on the wire and tell them how to bring those sonsofbitches down.”
Coulson came over and clasped Neil on the shoulder and Neil clasped him back and they stood for a good long while.
Neil didn’t miss the tears, but he never mentioned them to anyone.
If Neil had thought he would get to sleep now, he was wrong.
Instead he was introduced to the military liaison, James Rhodes, and immediately set to work showing him how Bruce had made the magnetic compound. Several lab assistants were brought in to help, along with translators in every language imaginable and even Darcy Lewis turned up, darting to and fro like a bee helping with various things.
When Neil offered his condolences, Darcy merely looked away and said, “We have work to do, Dr. Tyson,” in a stern little voice.
At any rate, it was only when the whole room tilted and Neil had to reach out and hold onto a table to steady himself, did anyone take notice.
“Dr. Tyson?” Darcy asked him then and she sounded softer this time.
“I’m fine, fine,” he said. “Just a little tired.”
“And hungry and completely and utterly spent,” she said with a knowing look. “Come on, let me take you somewhere to lay down.”
“I’m all right,” he said and yet somehow found himself being led away by the tail of his shirt anyway.
She got him some food and then took him to the medical bay, where someone redressed the bandages on his hands. He was sat down on a hospital bed and noticed right away his companion in the next bed over.
It was Langly, and he was sound asleep, though it occurred to Neil it had actually only been six or seven hours since they had first arrived.
“He looks almost peaceful,” Neil commented and the medical assistant tending to his hands just snorted.
“He ought to be,” she said. “He’s been sleeping off a lovely morphine drip since he got here.”
“Can I get one of those?” Neil asked and the assistant just shook her head and shoved Neil back onto the bed.
“Get some sleep, Dr. Tyson. This is far from over yet.”
That was the last thing Neil knew for some time, until someone was shaking him awake.
“Dr. Tyson,” a voice said and he opened his eyes to see Darcy staring down at him.
“What’s that now?” Neil asked and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“I thought you’d like to know,” she said softly, so as not to wake the few other patients in the room. “We’ve had a 70% success rate so far.”
Neil sat up and blinked, a little confused for a moment about where he was. Then he asked, “Only 70%?”
Darcy nodded. “Some places haven’t gotten in the air yet. Having a harder time finding the compounds they need for the magnets. Dr. Banner is working with them on alternative options. And the President has authorized us sending help to other countries in need of it. Not that Fury really would have cared if the President had said ‘no’ or anything, but now that Tony has gotten his suit up and running again, I suspect The Avengers will be off.”
“I should go back to the laboratory and help Dr. Banner,” Neil said, pushing away the last dredges of sleep.
“Come eat with me first,” she told him with a small smile.
Neil just smiled back at her and found himself staring at her for a long while.
“What?” she asked, a blush spreading across her face.
“No, nothing,” he told her. “You just remind me of someone I know.” He paused and added, “Her name is Jenna and she’s out there now. Somewhere.”
“Alone?” Darcy asked.
“No, she’s not alone. She has a friend with her.”
“Well, that’s all anyone can ask for, I suppose,” she said and offered him her hand.
He took it.
Neil refused to leave the laboratory until it was all over. Until the last of the spacecrafts had been obliterated.
The last one to go down was in Poland, of all places. They had managed to make the magnetic compound but their plane had somehow been pulled down by the alien spacecraft’s own magnetic pull. While neighboring countries rushed to try to get to Poland’s aid, a single jet arrived carrying a man named Erik Lehnsherr, who seemed to do the job just fine on his own, though Neil couldn’t quite understand how.
This time there was no whooping and cheering. Everyone was too exhausted for that. Instead the lab assistants all leaned on one another and James Rhodes embraced Coulson in a rather boisterous hug and Neil just sat down hard on a stool and for the first time in what felt like a long while, rubbed his thumb back and forth over his wedding ring.
“You know,” someone said next to him and Neil turned to see Director Fury standing there, “I think it might be time to talk about a more permanent placement for you here.”
“Oh, no, thank you,” Neil said quickly, holding up his hands. “I already have a job. Two, in fact.”
“We offer dental,” Fury told him.
“No, really, thank you,” Neil said again.
“Pity. I guess we’ll just have to talk about a retainer fee then. Some sort of on-call system. Coulson will get your information,” Fury told him before walking away.
Neil turned to look at Coulson, who was grinning over at him.
“Did he just hire me?” Neil asked the man.
“I believe so,” Coulson told him.
“Even though I declined his offer?”
“I believe so,” Coulson told him again.
“No one ever tells him ‘no’, do they?” Neil asked.
Coulson just grinned. “I don’t believe so. No.”
Darcy came over then and looked at Neil with a rather pleased look on her face. “Dr. Tyson,” she said, “we have to fly Director Fury out to meet with the President and he would like to know if there is some place we can drop you?”
Neil knew exactly where he wanted to go.
The mountain resort was surrounded by trees all on sides, but it had a parking lot and that was where the helicopter set down.
Neil was out before the pilot had waved to him that it was safe. He stepped into the main office area and saw through the large plate glass doors that there was a group of people in the common room. They must have heard the helicopter coming in for a landing because several of them had shotguns pointed at Neil’s head.
“Well, he doesn’t look like an alien to me,” someone said and then Neil heard a loud long shriek.
Then his wife came running forward and Neil was pushing through the glass door and stumbling into her arms.
He lifted Alice up and clutched her to his chest and then two sets of little hands were tugging on his pants and Neil dropped to the ground, sobbing and pulling his children against him.
He stayed like that for a long while; his wife holding his head, his son’s arms wrapped around his neck, his daughter’s around his middle, all of them in a tangled heap together. Neil was not conscious of the murmurings around him or even the happy clapping that the crowd was offering at the family reunion.
All Neil knew then was the heartbeat of his family against his chest.
Finally, he pulled away enough to check them over, looking up and down their bodies, running his fingers along their skin, looking for any sign of damage.
“We’re fine,” Alice said, and took his own bandaged hands in hers. “Which is more than I can say for you. What happened?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Neil said with a chuckle, wiping away the tears of joy from his eyes.
“Actually,” someone to his left said, “I think she probably will.”
Neil turned to see who was speaking to him and there he was.
Alive and well and standing not six feet away from him.
“What?” John asked. “You look surprised. I told you I’d come for them.”
“Yes,” Neil said. “Yes, you did.”
This was more than Neil had hoped and he was glad for the return of his friend, if not as glad as he was to have his family in his arms again.
Neil was looking over his calendar for the fifth time that day. He hadn’t agreed to do many appearances - and many media studios weren’t operating yet anyway - but still his schedule was jam-packed somehow. He had a meeting after this with Director Fury about some project he wanted Neil to work on with Dr. Banner and someone named Jane Foster. Neil didn’t think he would agree to the project in the end, but he was kind of looking forward to seeing Bruce and possibly Tony again. Clint’s memorial had been family only, so he unfortunately hadn’t been able to attend. Neil suspected for Clint Barton, ‘family only’ meant The Avengers.
Tomorrow morning he was having breakfast with Agent Scully and her partner, who Neil had met the previous day at Frohike’s service. Neil had made sure to dig out one of his old books to autograph for Agent Scully, just like they agreed to that day at The Lone Gunmen’s old place. Then he was flying out to the Space and Science Observatory, where Neil was spending a week helping Sam and Jenna get everything up and running, now that The Observatory had been given several jobs by the federal government and Sam had been appointed the new head of Space Operations.
Neil also had five appearances on talk shows and news outlets in the next two days, but none of them meant as much to him as this one.
After all, if he hadn’t been up waiting for The Daily Show to come on, he never would have fielded that call from Sam Marion in the first place.
“Oh, honey,” Alice said and gestured to the TV in the corner. “I think they are almost ready for you. They went to a commercial break.”
Neil kissed her and then looked fondly at his family, his kids in the corner coloring away in a Stephen Colbert coloring book some staff member had found for them.
Things had gotten bad for a while there and the country would take years to repair itself - and Neil knew some people would never fully recover from the wounds they suffered - but right now, Neil was a contented man.
He followed the intern down the hallway and waited for his cue to come out on stage.
Jon Stewart announced his name with an exuberant, “Neil deGrasse Tyson!” and then jumped from his chair and dashed to Neil’s side. Neil hugged the man, because he was beyond happy to see his friend, alive and well and back to doing what he’d always done best; making people smile.
Neil took his seat and waited for the roar of the crowd to die down.
“So,” Jon asked, chin in his hands and goofy grin on his face. “What’s been going on lately? Same old, same old?”
Neil just leaned forward in his seat. “Actually, Jon, I wanted to talk to you about something serious for a change.”
Jon sat back and nodded in all sobriety. “Sure, sure, what do you got?” he asked.
“I just think you should know…the Earth graphic in your opening credits still rotates the wrong way.”