The SHIELD Codex: Escape Velocity

You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now ~ Sicario

1. Scent Trail

. . .

It was difficult and tiresome to constantly explain things to outsiders, particularly when a specific matter is wrapped in a multitude of layers of meaning and intent, all of which were critically important to the full translation. It seemed plain enough as a concept in Okoye's mind, anyway, but she'd grown up with these words. Izinja zemfazwe said the Xhosan loan-phrase, calling to mind the cleverness and mythic distance of the hyena, that beast so maligned by the West, and old Wakandan itself had the rougher title for this duty, Hatut Zeraze, which added a uniform undertone to the concept.

But tell a white man your men and women that form your uniquely qualified special intelligence agency are called 'war dogs' and they became intensely stupid and simple about it. Too many foolish movies, she figured. Stereotypes. Colonialist propaganda. It was exhausting, that much naivety. Not all of it was benign.

Fortunately, King T'Challa hadn't bothered to be all that upfront about every little detail about their country during emergence. A good man with a full and open heart, but no idiot. These were not conversations that happened often.

Okoye crossed her arms across her formal red armor and watched as the multi-feed streamed flawlessly from the ten men and women on active operation, their kimoyo beads heavily encrypted as they fed into the secure room she was observing from. As the general of the Dora Milaje, she was perfectly and technically aware of how the War Dogs operated, but they were not hers to command. They were more fractional than her warriors; they might have several operation commanders or one, and it may be that only certain trusted individuals knew what the current command structure was. Fortunately for Okoye that she was so trusted to know these things and to be involved, as this operation was being watched over by one of the greatest living War Dogs Wakanda yet knew. It was a pleasure to see her work, and such work was rare now. This was a matter that needed the keenest eyes, however.

Queen Ramonda frowned as the three lead War Dogs infiltrated deeper into the target territory. She flicked a hand across the beads on her wrist, controlling the triple-encrypted stream and getting a panopticon-style view of the faraway outpost. A single pixel seemed to pop out, as if forced into sight by her will. "The material signature. Still mixed. On the flatbed."

"I see it," said Nakia, low to not interrupt the Queen's train of thought. She plucked a sub-stream from their view and expanded it for a detailed look, turning the pixel into a rough 3-d shape attached to a more recognizable F-450 vehicle, an import in that part of the world. She was second operations command in this room, though Nakia now seldom went afield the way she used to. It had been one of her former, still active colleagues that had gotten the first sniff of new trouble and called out to her, skipping to the top due to the nature of her intel. "Yes, it's the one Phozisa tracked out of Morocco." She looked up from the stream at the Queen. "It's still an unstable signature."

Okoye shook her head. "One cannot change the nature of vibranium. It either is, or it is not. If they are moving vibranium, how can our tracking systems be confused? We know this material like none other. It cannot be masked, not by any normal means. Something is very strange here."

Ramonda continued to track the signature, cocking her head to listen as the closest Dog slipped through the crowd at the Jordanian dock. "There." She tapped at the streams, focusing on the track signature of one of the men close to the vehicle. "Watch him move."

Nakia rolled her chair over to study the figure, watching layers of information turn the initial wireframe and heat identification into a person - a white man, rather generic looking, with a stony face and deep-set eyes. He had a slide to his gait. Like a limp, as if his body was heavy. "Previous injury."

"No, look closer." Ramonda pulled the feed wider, her stare never leaving the man's face. "Enhance the temperature overlay."

Okoye saw what her Queen did. "Armored suit. Lessened range of motion. Not a limp."

"Sabelo, I want another look at him." Ramonda waited for the subvocal grunt of acknowledgement from the field operative. Shuri had shrunken the lag-time across oceans by another second, making the feed almost perfectly synched. She was still looking to better that almost. Half-seconds mattered in the field, sometimes more than life itself. Shuri understood that, though Ramonda would personally die to keep her from having to know it too intimately. "Very good. See if he gets distance from the truck. Keep tracking."

"What do you see, my Queen?" Now Okoye was out of her element. Ramonda was busy collating hunches, data, predictive probabilities. She was the finest operations tactician in a hundred years - but, she was quick to point out, she knew this was only because her information was so complete, given to her by the bravery and hard work of others.

Ramonda studied in silence a minute longer. Then, coldly, "He is wearing vibranium weave. Poorly made, heavy, not of our make. Watch his posture. Cocksure. Proud. He has no fears left in him."

Okoye shook her head, believing in her queen, wanting to disbelieve the assessment. An unusual but frighteningly familiar material signature, and it was accompanied by processed material, no less. "That must be impossible. Scant material is unaccounted for across the globe. We have finished sweeping Klaue's trail and reclaimed most of it. The rest is in hands we trust."

"Nonetheless." The Queen let that hang there, a pedestal for the bad news she had concluded must be the truth. "There is now another source." She turned away from the feed, to her son and king, who had watched in silence from a stool by the sealed door. "In uncontrolled and dangerous hands, T'Challa. Beyond simple reach."

T'Challa's hands were steepled in front of his face as he thought. "Beyond simple Wakandan reach." He lifted his chin, still thinking. "I have made the politics of this into something complicated. This may be a matter for several hands, not just our own."

Ramonda studied him. "I trust in you, my son."

"And I trust in Wakanda. Our dogs need to withdraw now, before we cause an incident." T'Challa looked to her side. "Okoye. I must ask you to travel in my stead. On official business, of course."

Oh, dear. She bowed her head, keeping an amused but accepting roll of her eyes to herself. "Of course, my king."

. . .

Okoye looked around the grey-walled room as her bead continued to project the information along the wall behind her. The current acting Director of SHIELD sat across from her on the other side of a long conference table. She did not know Phil Coulson well, but he seemed attentive, affable, and he was not looking at her. He was absorbing her report with lips pursed in deep thought. A good sign, a good man. The girl, Daisy, let her eyes flicker around. Harder to read. Clever enough. She had already asked several pointed, useful questions about the data given, and knew when not to ask too closely about their technology. Others were sitting on their questions, waiting for the right opening. Good people. Mostly.

She disliked studying one of them overmuch. The god-man, Loki. An unnerving individual, even as he behaved with almost painful respect towards her and the holographic image of her king where he gleamed in the corner, observing the briefing. Too clever by half, and being not of Earth, not a creature of their grass and soil, she privately shuddered at the pure alienness of his presence. He stuck out, if one knew how to look. Most men let him slip among them, the illusion of humanity near perfect. To her, her entire life about dispelling illusions in order to protect the truth of her world, he gleamed falsely. But he knew this about himself, and his manner was good despite the weight of his past, so she simply dealt.

The last man present that was worth noting at this point, well, that was a riddle King T'Challa had left for her to puzzle at. Of course it was useful to be multi-agency, so long as those agencies could be trusted within reason, and of course the CIA had plenty of practice with multi-national arms conspiracies. It had gotten a representative butt in the seat, anyway, without an argument with Wakanda's king.

But Agent Everett Ross seemed as out of place among this crowd as Loki, if for different, more innocent reasons. Yet this had been the king's specific request, so, very well. He seemed to fidget somehow, Ross, even when sitting perfectly still. The information washed over him, absorbed, and he too had asked a few useful questions as befit the quality of his training. His face was equally rabbit-like, eyeballing the strangeness of his surroundings, uncomfortable. A cyberized leader, a genetically-changed girl imbued with massive power, an alien god, the captain of the Dora Milaje, and the image of a king who was his country's Panther and protector.

And one small, good-natured white man.

Oh, he knew his place, said the look on his face, and he knew to his bones it wasn't here.

. . .

Fitz took over the job of breaking the post-brief silence, his fingers steepled atop his tablet like it was a stack of professorial material. "Sorry if I'm treading on iffy terrain here, but I need to ask about the tracking mechanism you use to identify vibranium at distant range. I assume it's sonic in nature, looking for the specific resonance absorption signature of the material? Sort of like tracking a black hole?"

Okoye tilted her chin towards him, mildly impressed. "A good assumption."

"Okay, so, when you found this material's track, and you say you've got something weird about it, about its potential sourcing, that means the resonance signature itself is wrong somehow. Unstable, the report said." His fingers kept tapping, not looking at her. "What interferes with that sort of signature? Because we know from the reports on the London incident that Killmonger's intel plus homebrew resonance tracking identified a vibranium axe of indeterminate age. It was plaqued with rust and other organic material, and they ID'd it fine. So it's not as simple as throwing a weighted blanket on it. Vibranium, then, tracks easily if you know how."

"Correct."

"You didn't know, either. Not for certain. But you've got a really good guess." He looked up at Okoye, eyes bright with quick thoughts. "Something specific is different here."

"High energy ionized radiation." Loki leaned back in his seat, saying aloud what Fitz had already concluded. Fitz was nodding along as Loki spoke. "This is half request, half test. Your 'guess' is more a highly educated theory looking for any unlikely flaw that might derail it."

Fitz picked up the thread to keep it going. "The radiation interference is muddying the signal. And that kind of radiation is very likely going to be cosmic." He leaned forward, intellectually excited and momentarily forgetting that this was actually intensely bad news. "So it's not Wakandan vibranium, because your meteor has been earthbound long enough to surpass any radioactive half-life. This is new material - new in the sense that it recently came down." He whipped his head towards Coulson. "Have we tracked any unusual asteroids or other low-space events recently?"

"Ran the search before Okoye got here, since His Majesty was good enough to zip me the heads-up for briefing prep. Nothing." Coulson leaned back in his seat, listening to the plastic undercarriage squeak for emphasis. "Well, okay, not nothing. The annual Gemenid shower dropped a couple interesting sparks over the Philippines just last December, but we've got word everything burned up, as usual. No landfall."

"And since someone did something you might consider stupid almost a decade ago, Earth's skybox is rather well observed these days. Far better than past years." Loki's drawl was perfectly sardonic, his self-deprecation draping on him like a silk cloak. "A vibranium meteor of any size would cause a stir. Even a very small portion would cause a trackable seismic event on impact."

"It's possible something got missed. Maybe the grid's got a blindspot, maybe someone with ambition calc'd the drop and netted it." Coulson reached out to scroll the relevant bits of data back to look at. "It's always possible."

"Nothing on international channels." Ross murmured it, almost hesitant. He looked around as the more than half-dozen SHIELD agents present fixed their attention on him. "Usual uptick in arms deals because of increased tension in several regions."

"But nobody's dropping vibranium bombs yet," Daisy made it sound teasing. "CIA would notice."

Ross's default option was to get defensive at that sort of tone. "If someone new had gone all District 9 pig launcher on Russian asses at the border with Ukraine, it'd get around."

"All right, man." She leaned back with a cheerful smile, having taken her measure of the interloper. Secretly prickly. Had a temper under the bland nature. She looked to Okoye next, and then the hologram of T'Challa. "And taking a leap here, you're coming to us because you can smell a few of the usual suspects getting squiffy about Wakanda interfering on the global field for Wakandan interests alone. Word gets around you guys are trying to track a new source of vibranium, and they're going to have a big ol' no-fair tantrum."

The holographic figure was life-perfect, carrying the small, sardonic quirk of his mouth across thousands of miles. "The irony of men who profit richly from war and politics crying out that we would treat them unfairly in both war and politics is not lost on us. A few years ago, it might be that we would attempt to resolve this privately. But we are not entirely private anymore, and appearances must matter - to a reasonable extent. Hence, we withdrew our on-site security services from the current location of the material, owing to the complex nature of the situation.

"Fortunately for us, we have decided that there are those out there we may trust in difficult situations. Also to reasonable extents." T'Challa took a step forward, commanding the room. "So now we will make our formal requests. We ask that SHIELD assist in picking up the trail and discovering the nature of this new acquisition and its processing. Okoye will, for now, remain with your HQ team to coordinate our tracking procedures with yours. A trapeze act, if you like, to pick up where we had to leave off. You will undoubtedly launch a field team, and there we do not wish to risk exposure of direct Wakandan interference in this operation. So we are asking CIA Agent Everett Ross to act as our advocate in that respect."

"What?" It came out of Ross flat and dead with surprise.

"He will blend more naturally with any chosen team of yours, and for a multitude of reasons, I am confident in my trust in him." The switch from the royal we to a personal I did not go unnoticed. Ross stared blankly at the hologram, honored but also slightly horrified. Loki hadn't moved, but his aura all but screamed his silent grin at the human's discomfort. It wasn't easy to be favored by a royal house, he knew, but it almost always made for a good show.

"We can work with that." Phil slid easily back into command. "Agent Daisy Johnson, this is going to be a mess of intel and sudden political knots. You're in charge of the field operation, do your best, I'm next on your food chain. Agent Loki, you're with her on this. It meets the weird stuff threshold, and if someone's gonna put on knock-off vibranium drop-kicker boots in front of you, I want you there to grab ankles and remind 'em they don't get to be badasses just because they're fashionable."

"Acknowledged." Loki sounded downright cheery about the fact about not being in charge on this one. Or about the high potential for tossing idiots. Maybe both. One seldom knew for sure with Loki.

"Agent Ross, I'll clear everything with your bosses and work with them as we bring in any international and inter-agency information of use. That's my job. I'm gonna ask that you defer to Agent Johnson in the field, and if there's any inter-agency strife that comes up out there, you guys also bring that to me."

"Errruhhh….Uhhh…" It came out in a reluctant gurgle. T'Challa's hologram was also grinning. Okoye looked delighted. Ross's expressions were precious. "Right?"

"That makes a standard base team of three. Daisy, you'll have backup on standby wherever you need it. Fitz, May. Fitz, you're gonna work the lab, track and assess incoming sciencey stuff. If you don't have Princess Shuri's email yet, we'll get you set. Is she still using email?" Phil abruptly looked at Okoye.

"Technically."

"Don't tell me more, I'll get a headache. She's probably using a homebrew Vine app to send messages because it's funnier. Whatever. You guys can figure that out. May, you'll work with Okoye here as liaison."

Melinda May inclined her head in the barest of nods. "Of course."

"Any questions?"

Loki raised his hand.

Phil paused, not sure if he wanted to walk into whatever was about to happen. Loki was oddly quite responsible when in charge, but place him in second and he could get cheeky in a hurry. Phil blamed his family, which was probably a dead on assumption. "Yeah?"

"I've a ridiculous amount of mileage points stockpiled, I would like to be considered for authority on renting any vehicles we may need."

Okay. Unexpected, but not that bad. Phil leaned in and played along. "We've got plenty of SHIELD company cars on the lot. No bluetooth, manual windows, some still got a tape deck, and you can choose from exciting paint jobs like brown, browner, and sort of black!"

The noise of disgust Loki made was indescribable.

"Okay, but Daisy gets to override you if you gravitate towards a Maserati. Unless you can argue it is specifically operations necessary." Honestly, it was giving Loki a bit too much rope, but whatever. If he did something terrible with the leeway granted, at least it would probably be funny - and Phil could always make Loki cover any accrued extra costs himself.

Loki nodded once, probably thinking about the same. "Fair."

Phil pushed himself away from the table, unable to keep himself from enjoying the shellshocked look on Ross's face. "All right, kids. Let's get rolling. Agent Ross, welcome to the floor show."