Fitz was on his feet and sprinting for the portal before he had even fully processed what happened. He heard yelling behind him, and more gunfire, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that Jemma had been standing there a second ago, and now she wasn't, and they had no idea where she was now or if she was safe. If he could get to the portal, he could see-
A strong arm grabbed him around the middle, pulling him back.
He fought against it, struggled, his feet sliding on the stone floor, but the arm was stronger. In the distance, he could hear Mack shouting.
"Turbo! Man, stop! You need to get down. Fitz!"
Then he was being pushed down to his knees. The world suddenly came rushing back in: time went to normal speed, sound got louder, he was aware of his surroundings. But the blind panic remained.
"I have to get Jemma," he choked out, starting to stand. The white room beyond the portal still looked empty; that couldn't be good. Mack threw his arm out to keep Fitz back again as more bullets ricocheted off the wall and flew past them.
"You can't do that if you get shot." Mack turned to look at the cave passage. May and Bobbi were taking out a Hydra soldier who had managed to get into the room proper while Hunter traded fire with more that they couldn't see. "We need to make it out of here alive first."
Taking cover behind Mack, Fitz sank numbly down against the D.W.A.R.F. case, feeling useless and frustrated and terrified. Jemma was gone. They were under attack. Jemma was gone, and the only way to get to her was through a machine they didn't understand. Jemma was gone.
Just then, a stray bullet hit the machine console, making it explode in a shower of sparks. A second later, the portal image distorted sharply before blinking out, leaving the frame empty again. Fitz jumped back up to his feet as he cried out in horror.
Bobbi looked back at the machine before turning and charging down the passage, her jaw set. After a few more gunshots and several loud thuds, silence finally fell over the cave. A moment later, Bobbi walked back in.
"All clear?" May asked, already edging toward the passage.
"All clear," Bobbi confirmed. Hunter slumped in relief. Fitz took that as his cue to run for the machine to assess the damage.
"What happened down there?" This time it was Skye coming over the comm instead of Coulson. "All we heard was a lot of yelling and guns. Is everyone okay?"
He was aware of May looking over to him. "Small Hydra ambush," she said. "Might have been an advance party. We…lost Simmons."
"What do you mean, you lost her?" Skye cried.
"She went through the-the portal." Fitz's eyes were raking over the console, looking from the cluster of switches that had been blown off by the bullet to the power button, which was still lit. "Fell through trying to-to, um, dodge some gunfire."
Skye's response was a long moment in coming. "Shit."
"You're telling us," Hunter mumbled.
"You can get her back, though, right?" Skye asked, a note of hysteria rising in her voice. "Get her to come back through that portal or whatever it is, or go through yourself and get her?"
"We can't," Fitz bit back. His stomach lurched as the magnitude of what had happened finally started to hit, and for a second he feared he might be sick. "The-the m-machine got-got-it-"
Mack, sensing he was about to seriously start spiraling, came over to stand next to him. "Deep breath, Turbo."
Fitz squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands into fists. He was stressed and panicking and his head was a jumble of half-forgotten words, and he would be of absolutely no help to Jemma this way. Jemma. Focus on Jemma. Forcing himself to take a deep breath and let it slowly out went a small way toward easing the frantic thudding of his heart.
"The device took a hit and went offline," Bobbi said, filling in for him. "Fitz is looking to see how much damage was done."
He shook his head, eyes still closed. "Not. Not offline." He reached out and thumped a fist against the console. It was still humming. "P-Power's still on."
"Okay. Power's still on, but the portal's down." It was Coulson again; Fitz imagined that Skye had walked away from the comm for some emergency meditation. "Fitz, Mack, can you get it back up and running?"
"Yes. Maybe. Yes." Honestly, realistically, he didn't know. But yes was the only option he allowed himself to think about, because yes was the only way of getting Jemma back. He opened his eyes. "I just need…I need…" He snapped his fingers.
"Tools?" Mack suggested. Fitz nodded. "D.W.A.R.F.s?" When Fitz nodded again, he nodded back and moved away toward their cases.
"Okay." May was taking charge. "I'm heading back to the Bus to clear our path of any more surprises. Bobbi, help me get these Hydra soldiers out of here and then take point outside the cave. Hunter, stay here with Fitz and Mack." Hunter sketched a small salute at her as both she and Bobbi turned to pick up the one soldier who had fallen inside the room, carrying him out.
Fitz kept his attention on the console. His hands were shaking badly as he ran his fingers over the shattered buttons, trying to see if there was a way to pry the top panel of the console off. When Mack came back with a toolbox and handed him a flat-head screwdriver, his hands only shook worse. Growling in frustration, he set the screwdriver down before ripping his gloves off and flinging them across the room toward the D.W.A.R.F. case. He reached for the screwdriver again, but Mack held out a hand to stop him.
"Woah, Turbo," he cautioned. "What happened to 'no touching the machine'?"
Fitz pushed his hand away. "We know what it does now," he muttered irritably. "No sense in-in not." He picked the screwdriver back up, but when his hand kept shaking enough to make the tool visibly wobble, he sighed and turned and gave it to Mack. "Here. You-you see if you can get the top off. I'm just going to-" He pointed back at the D.W.A.R.F. case. "Yeah."
It chafed, being unable to handle the console, but Fitz realized he'd need to accept the hit to his pride if he wanted to get the machine repaired as quickly as possible. Opening the case, he got his trifold tablet back out and powered up a few of the drones. While Mack worked on getting the panel off, he could do more scans of the inside of the console to check for possible damage to the power core and anything else they couldn't see.
As the drones buzzed over to the machine to start working, he went to the side to look at the small screen attached to the console. It was still lit up with the image of the white room, though the interference-if that's what the periodic distortions and fritzes were-was worse now. The room still looked empty. Swallowing down the dread rising within him, he went to look back at his tablet, but before he could a dark shape moved across the screen. He startled. "What the-?"
Mack looked up from where he had a corner of the console panel pulled away. "What is it?"
Fitz pointed at the screen just as the dark shape crossed the screen from the opposite direction. "Look."
Unable to contain his curiosity, Hunter came to peer over Fitz's shoulder. "Is that…?"
The object was blurred and fuzzy around the edges, moving rapidly from point to point around the room, sometimes lingering in one spot, sometimes going out of sight. It seemed to hover most often near the door set into the far wall or closer to whatever was capturing the video (and Fitz was certain that was what it was now, a video link). He couldn't be certain, but the closer to the camera the shape got, the more it began to take on a distinct shape.
A distinctly human shape.
Almost like footage of a person in motion, rapidly sped up.
The dread in the pit of his stomach swelled again.
"I…don't know," he said, eyes fixed to the screen.
"Why is she moving so fast?" Hunter, at least, was running with the assumption that the shape was Jemma. "That can't mean anything good."
It really couldn't. Half-formed theories and possibilities swept through his mind, but he couldn't grasp on to any of them. He let out a short huff of breath. "Right. Okay. Let's-let's-" He tore his eyes away from the shape on the screen to look at the data readout streaming across his tablet. "Mack, how's that panel coming?"
"It's coming," Mack grunted. He'd used the screwdriver to pry up the one corner he'd managed to peel away, but the metal was too dense for much more than that. He bent to retrieve a laser cutter from the toolbox and switched it on. "This should really get things going though."
Fitz nodded before consulting his tablet again. "Not seeing any diff-any changes in the power core, so…that's good. Those buttons aren't connected dir-directly to it. And taking that panel off shouldn't mess it up." He mentally cursed himself for his inability to use more technical terms. A glance at the screen and the maybe-Jemma shape still moving around on it had him cursing everything else. If what he thought was correct, they had to hurry.
They settled into some semblance of a groove. After Mack finally got the top panel off and both he and Fitz got a look at the extremely complicated-looking circuitry inside, Fitz instructed him as best he could on what to do when Mack's knowledge hit a wall. He kept the drones monitoring the power core, staying alert for any energy fluctuations. It probably wasn't the wisest decision, working on the machine while it was still on, but Fitz was afraid if they turned it off completely they would never get it back on, and then Jemma might be lost to them forever.
Hunter offered up the occasional quip or dry observation, having stationed himself as the unofficial monitor of the screen. Mack seemed to appreciate it, but it just made Fitz feel even tenser. He knew it was the other man's way of coping (or avoiding), but how anyone could even attempt humor right now was beyond him.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when he heard footsteps approaching down the stone tunnel. They looked over to see May come into the room, followed by Skye.
"We're clear of Hydra for now," May said. "But I don't like this. There could be more at any moment. How's the progress here?"
Fitz sighed. "Not good. The b-bullet didn't damage the power core, so it's still on, but we don't know what any of-of these buttons and switches do. If that's what turned the portal off. Or if they affect it at all."
Skye had come to stand close to him. "Coulson thought I might be able to help," she said quietly. "I know I'm not up on all the tech and gadgets and stuff like you are, but who knows. There might be code in there somewhere."
He couldn't smile right now, not even for Skye, but he managed a slight nod of his head. She accepted it for what it was and nodded back.
"Plus, there's this," Hunter said, bringing their attention back to the screen. The dark shape was still visible moving around the white room, but it had started going offscreen for longer intervals. Fitz didn't want to think about why. "We think it might be Simmons."
"How?" May asked.
"Well…it only appeared a-after Jemma went through the portal," Fitz explained. "And we didn't see any-anything else come in the room. So." He licked his lips. "It might be her, but for some reason the video's…sped up."
"Why?" Skye was frowning as she moved to get a closer look.
"No clue," Mack said, switching off the flashlight he'd been using to look inside the console. "We're still trying to get this fixed."
Suddenly the machine shuddered before the low-level hum it had been emitting grew louder. Everyone jumped and started to back away, but by the time it made a loud pinging noise Fitz had recognized it as the same sound it had made before, which meant-
He turned to look just as the large frame flashed a bright white light and the portal flickered back to life, rippling gently as it filled up the empty space of the frame.
His heart leapt into his throat when he saw Jemma on the other side, standing near the door. She turned just as the portal surface evened out, her eyes growing wide, and then she was running toward them. Not even aware he was moving, Fitz rushed to meet her.
But just as they both reached the portal, a loud, ominous noise came from the console and the portal blurred before snapping back into focus, the edges glowing an angry red. Both Fitz and Jemma jumped back as if they'd been shocked. Behind him, Hunter and Skye took a few cautious steps closer.
"Fitz!" Jemma's voice was slightly muffled, as if they were hearing it from underwater. She was wringing her hands.
"Jemma, thank god, are you-"
"Where have you been?"
Fitz stopped, gaping at her for a second. "What-what do-what? The machine, it broke-" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the console. "We've been trying to f-fix it-"
"I've been here for a week!"
"A week?" Fitz and Hunter cried in horrified unison, just as Skye shrieked "What?"
It was only then that they fully took in Jemma's appearance: she was no longer in her protective suit, just the jeans and blouse she'd been wearing underneath it. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hair was messy as if she'd spent a great deal of time tugging at it and running her hands through it. And she was visibly upset.
Fitz's mind was an avalanche of competing thoughts and sentences mixed with a renewed panic. "Wait-how-okay." He briefly squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Where is here, Jemma? Are you okay? Hurt?"
Jemma looked behind her before turning back to face them, pressing her lips down into a thin line. "I'm fine. And I'm not sure where here is, exactly, I've not left this room much for fear that I'd miss the portal opening back up. There's another empty room before this one, and then an empty corridor that leads to who knows where."
"And you haven't seen or heard anything else? Is the room you're in now empty too?" Skye asked.
Jemma shook her head. "I haven't seen anyone, no. And all that's here is another device like the one you have." She paused, looking away uncomfortably. "Well…not quite. It's got the console and large frame that yours does-" She pointed to the frame in front of her. "-but it's not got any of the buttons or switches save for the one that turns it on."
"So it's a one-way trip," Fitz murmured. "Or, at least…you can only control the de-where it goes from here." He considered the idea that, with the console damage, they were extremely lucky the portal had stayed connected to where Jemma was.
"Wait, wait," Hunter said suddenly, stepping closer. "If you've been there for a week, and you haven't really left that room, how are you-you know." He gestured vaguely at her. "How are you even alive? What are you eating over there?"
Jemma's eyes widened slightly, as if she'd hadn't considered that yet. "I…I don't know," she said with a frown. "I just…haven't felt hungry."
Fitz was thinking furiously. A glance at the screen attached to the console confirmed one theory-it was now showing exactly what they were seeing in the portal, Jemma in real time. So if the video link was current, and what they had seen before was indeed Jemma moving around the room at a rapid pace, and she had been there a week while for them it had only been…
He glanced at his wristwatch. "How long's it been here since she-s-since she went through?"
Skye hummed, checking her own watch. "Um…about an hour, I think?"
A terrible hypothesis was forming in his head, with a vaguely nauseous feeling to accompany it. "Okay. Okay…Jemma, before, when you said-that it could be a portal to anywhere, even another di-di-place. Another-"
"Another dimension?" Jemma asked.
He snapped his fingers once. "Yes. That. What if…and I know this is crazy…what if it is. Another dimension. One where time…time moves faster."
Jemma went still. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, and resisted a grimace as he felt heat start to crawl up his neck. "It's the only reason I've got f-for why so much time has passed for you," he added.
"And it would explain why I haven't been hungry," she said, nodding slowly. He could see understanding spark to life in her eyes, the gears in her head turning as she started to put things together. "If time really is compressed here, and my body is set to the pace where you are, on Earth, I could go for longer periods without food."
"That sounds like the stuff of science fiction," Mack said, a bit lamely. "How do we know it's right?"
"We don't," Jemma replied, as if she were discussing the results of an experiment. "But it's all we've got to go on right now. It's all theory, really, quantum physics-there was an elective course on it back at the Academy. It's more Fitz's field of expertise than mine."
Was, Fitz thought darkly. He was already struggling to remember most of the concepts.
"Well, that's great, but how does that help you get back?" Skye gestured at the portal and its red edges. "What happened when it first opened? You looked like it zapped you or something."
Worry had started to edge back into Jemma's expression. "It did. When I got too close the machine sounded an alarm and it felt like I'd received an electrical shock. Was it the same for you, Fitz?" When he nodded, her face clouded further. "It must be from the damage on your end. Here, let me try-" She took a step forward, reaching out, but the warning tone blared again and she flinched back.
"Yeah, I don't think it likes you," Hunter said.
Jemma took a deep breath. "You'll have to fix it on your end, then. There's nothing I can do from here."
Fitz could tell she was close to unraveling; she was twisting her hands together again, fidgeting, her lips pursed. He could only imagine what she must have been thinking, alone there for an entire week. Something surged in his chest then, and he turned to hastily hand his tablet to Skye.
"Look, Jemma," he said firmly, looking back at her and taking a step forward. "We-we're going to figure this out. Yeah? You just-you stay there, and I'll fix it." Not caring that the others were watching, he raised a faintly trembling hand to hover, palm flat, as close to the portal's surface as he dared-close enough to feel the fine hairs on his arm prickle and raise. In his mind's eye he was no longer in the cave, but rather back on the Bus, his hands pressed against the glass doors of the lab as he watched Jemma fall away from him into the sky. The space between them now felt just as impenetrable as it had then, and he felt just as helpless and desperate, but his determination was the same too. Suddenly all of the hurt and pain that had existed between them since he woke from his coma felt very small. It was still there, of course, but he loved her more than that. That hadn't changed either. "Jemma," he said again, quieter. "I'm going to get you back."
Her eyes met his then, and the emotion in them made his breath congeal in his throat. There was vulnerability there, as much as she had ever let him see, and fear and trust and above all, something else he couldn't define that made his heart constrict. Slowly, she raised a hand to mirror his on her side of portal.
His world had narrowed down to just the two of them and their hands, close enough to touch yet so far away. "I'm going to get you back," he repeated.
Jemma swallowed once, licked her lips, then opened her mouth to speak.
But the portal flickered once and blinked back out before she could.
"No-!" he heard Skye cry behind him. Hunter swore loudly. Breathless with shock and dismay, Fitz spun to look back at the console. Mack was backing away from it, hands raised.
"I didn't touch it, man," he said, eyes wide. "I swear. It wasn't me."
Fitz wanted to scream. "Then what-how did-why--?" He started pacing, fists clenching and unclenching; his hope had been snatched away and he was dangerously close to a full-blown panic attack.
"She's still there, mate, look," Hunter said, pointing at the screen. Just like before, there was a dark, fuzzy blob moving around the white room, but this time it seemed to be staying closer to the camera.
"But-that means-time-fast." It was the most he could get out. Stopping mid-pace, Fitz shut his eyes and forced himself to take two long, slow breaths. "Time's sped back up for her."
"We need to get this machine working now," May said. It was the first time she'd spoken in awhile. "We can't leave her there any longer than she already has been."
"Um…" Skye was looking at her wristwatch with a frown. "We might not have a choice."
The glare Fitz gave her could have melted steel. "What?"
She looked at him apologetically. "Okay, so, this is just a theory, like everything else. But, I noticed the time when you guys were attacked and the portal first came on. It was right at the top of the hour, two o'clock on the nose. And when it came back on just now, I said it had been about an hour since Simmons fell through." She raised her wrist. "It's ten after three now, and the portal couldn't have been open for more than ten minutes. What if...and like I said, it's just a theory...what if it's on a timer?"
Fitz mulled it over. It made sense, somewhat, but he didn't like where it was headed.
"So the machine getting shot earlier didn't close the portal?" Mack asked. "It just closed on its own?"
Skye shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. Maybe. But let's say it opens up once an hour, for just a few minutes."
"Well, that certainly gives us a deadline to get it fixed," May said tightly. "One hour."
"But-" Fitz looked despairingly at the screen. "It'll be another week for her."
"Look, I don't like it either." May folded her arms across her chest. "But Simmons is a good agent. She's capable. She can take care of herself until we get this fixed. Get the portal working first, then see if we can switch it to manual."
Logically, Fitz knew all that. He knew Jemma would be fine, as long as she stayed in that room and waited. It was just the thought of her having to in the first place, alone and cut off from help, that he didn't like. Standing around worrying was wasting precious time, though.
"Right." He turned to Skye to take his tablet back, then nodded at both her and Mack. "Okay. Let's do this."
Once they actually got started, it wasn't as difficult as he'd feared. It appeared that the hit the console had taken had either switched off or disabled the affected buttons, but hadn't destroyed the connections. Mack fashioned some new button faces with bits of metal taken from the console panel they'd removed and soldered them back on. Fitz put the D.W.A.R.F.s in monitoring mode to keep an eye on the energy readings again. Skye, with Hunter's help, discovered that the small screen was actually detachable from its pivot arm and could be carried around like a tablet, still fully functional. May kept Coulson and Bobbi updated on their progress over the comm.
By the time Mack had finished replacing all the buttons and set them so that the energy flow matched that of the original settings one of the drones had recorded, they had five minutes left. Fitz sighed heavily and resisted the urge to start pacing again. Instead he looked at Skye, who was holding the screen in her hands, knuckles gone white from gripping it too hard. The shadow that was Jemma had disappeared from view some time ago, but he refused to let his thoughts travel down that road. She was just out of view, he told himself. Maybe she was sitting down, or she was sleeping.
As the clock ticked toward the top of the hour, they all found themselves gathering around the portal frame, tension high in the air.
When the timer on his tablet beeped and the machine's noise revved up, Fitz let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. The console pinged, followed by the expected flash of light from the frame, and then the portal was open again. This time it looked just as it had at first, the edges glowing blue instead of red. Beside him, Skye let out a breath too.
After a few seconds had passed and Jemma hadn't appeared, Fitz swallowed. "Jemma?" he called out.
Silence. The room remained empty.
Skye leaned forward. "Simmons?"
His panic and worry had dimmed down to a low-level roar as they worked, but now it was rushing back up to slam him in the chest. "Jemma?" he called again, louder.
On his other side, May shifted slightly. "The door's open."
Forcing himself to focus, Fitz saw that it was. The door on the far end of the white room was wide open. And there was still no sign of Jemma. He looked at May, then turned to look at Skye. Her face said everything he knew, but didn't want to acknowledge.
Jemma was gone.