Sewer Monsters

Seldes Katne

Site mom
Nov 8, 2004
New York State
Disclaimer: Any recognizable characters here belong to Marvel Inc., and are being borrowed for the purpose of storytelling. No money or other compensation has been received for the writing of this story, other than personal satisfaction (and a sense of relief). I’ve done the “write for money” thing before, and I’m much happier as an unpaid author, thank you very much.

Thanks to Caduceus for agreeing to beta-read this. He’s more than earned every comic book I’m sending him....

Although there should be enough information in this story to introduce the original characters, you might want to stop and read my three other short stories first, as they introduce Miranda Evans and some of the “background” I’ve developed for these Ultimate characters. The stories can be found here: Sentinels, Spider Story, and Blessings in Disguise. All three are very short, “Sentinels” being about 10 pages, and the other two fewer than that.

The story is finished as I post this, so barring unforeseen circumstances, I expect to complete this story in about six weeks or fewer. Reviews are absolutely not necessary, although I can’t stop anyone from posting them. (I’d suggest that you wait until the entire story is finished, though.) Thanks for reading!
Sewer Monsters

At half-past midnight, the conference center’s auditorium was almost empty. Finally. Harlow Jefferson yawned, rubbed his eyes, and folded his arms wearily. He’d been warned about the crowds and the fact that his assigned charge would stay in the room until he’d spoken to everyone who wanted to meet with him. The formal program had ended two and a half hours ago, and the majority of people had stayed afterward.

“You can’t blame them,” one of the secretaries at Masthead Publishing Company had remarked before Jefferson had left for Chicago. “How often do people get to meet a real god?”

Well, Thor certainly seemed to have god-like stamina, if nothing else, Jefferson reflected, glancing around the room as the last of the audience began gathering up their belongings, having gotten their books signed and a few private words with the author. He spotted one lone woman sitting at the end of a row, head bowed and eyes closed. Send that one on her way, and we can call it a night.

He approached her and bent down. “Excuse me, ma’m, but the program is over. It’s time to wake up.”

The woman glanced up at him over the top of her glasses. “I wasn’t sleeping, thank you.” She raised her hand, revealing a hardcover book; she carefully laid a ribbon between the open pages and snapped the volume shut. “I was waiting for the crowd to clear. I would like to speak to Thor, if he can spare me a minute.” Her gaze flicked up and down him. “Thialfi, I presume?”


The woman blinked in surprise. “You work for a Norse god and you don’t know the mythology?” She gave him a stern look. “I’m surprised at you, sir.”

Chuckling, a broad-shouldered, blond-haired man walked among the chairs two aisles ahead, pulled one out, turned it around, and sat in it backward. Thor rested his arms on the chair’s back. “Someone’s done her homework.”

The woman inclined her head slightly at the compliment. Then she turned to Jefferson. “Thialfi was Thor’s servant in the myths. If you want the whole story, I highly recommend Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection, entitled The Norse Myths. He has explanations, background, and everything. Although I must warn you that his adaptation of the myths is very much geared to adults.”

Thor indicated the aide with one hand. “This is Mr. Jefferson. He’s on loan to me during my lecture tour, courtesy of my publisher.”

“Ah. My mistake, then. My name is Miranda Evans, and as I mentioned, I would like to speak with you if you have a moment.”

“I do indeed have a moment, or several moments, if you need them,” Thor replied. Jefferson sighed wearily.

Evans hesitated, glancing at Jefferson. “This is a private matter of some delicacy.”

“Oh,” said Jefferson. “Should I look into getting you two a room?”

Thor shot him a look of mild disapproval, but Evans smiled. “Yes, please.” Jefferson stared at her. “A small meeting room with a table would be immensely helpful, thank you. And if it included equipment for making tea and/or coffee, that would be even better.” She glanced at her watch. “I’m up quite a bit past my bedtime, since I live and work in the next time zone to the east, and this might take a while.”

Jefferson opened his mouth to protest.

“Mr. Jefferson,” Thor said gently, “would you please ask at the check-in desk if a small conference room is available? I doubt anyone is using them at this hour of the night. And after that, you might want to turn in and get some sleep.”

Jefferson shut his mouth, shook himself, and muttered, “Yes, of course.” He stalked away toward the exit.

Thor waited until Jefferson left the auditorium before turning his attention back to Evans. “You don’t really need a conference room, do you?”

Evans reached into the briefcase at her feet and withdrew a plain manila folder. “No, it was more an excuse to get him to go away for a while, although I do have some documentation you might want to see.” She squared her shoulders. “I represent a group of people who can’t come themselves, but who need your help.”

The good-natured smile vanished from Thor’s face. “Then I suggest you discuss the problem with your superiors at S.H.I.E.L.D. and let them deal with it.”

She blinked several times in confusion. “I don’t—”

“General Fury has tried contacting me several times, and I really am not interested in working with him or anyone else in his organization.”

Evan’s mouth tightened. “If I might finish my original sentence—”

“The answer is ‘no’, Miss Evans. I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time. Good night.” He stood up and turned away.

She was silent until he reached the end of the row of chairs. “Well, I suppose this hasn’t been a completely wasted trip. I can at least go back and correct the section of your file that suggests you’re capable of telling the truth of someone’s words just by looking at that person.” She rose and picked her coat off the back of the chair. Seeing that he hadn’t slowed, she added, “Not to mention the part that states you’ll help anyone, especially if lives are at stake.”

“Are there?” Thor had finally stopped about mid-way up the auditorium’s center aisle and turned back to face her.

“Three different groups. One is the people I work with directly. The second is a group of mutants who are, for various reasons, living in seclusion. And the third....” She shrugged. “I’m not sure they even qualify as intelligent life, but my friends think they are.” Pausing with coat in hand, she added, “Make that four groups. The solution proposed by my superiors involves a lot of shooting and S.H.I.E.L.D. security troops running around in poorly lit sections of the New York City sewer system. I’m guessing there’s a good chance that someone’s going to get killed. The people I’m representing thought you might be able to prevent all that.”

As Evans was speaking, Thor had returned to almost the same place he had been sitting earlier. For a few heartbeats, he stood and studied her face. At last he pulled a chair around and sat down. “All right, Miss Evans. What can I do for you?”

She perched on the edge of her chair and laid her coat aside. “Well, perhaps you could begin by telling me everything you know about dragons.”


Three days before Chicago:

“Do you mean to tell me you think there are dragons in the sewers of New York, Mr. Urich?” Gerald Dixon asked, leaning back in his chair. He and his visitor were seated in Dixon’s office in the New York City Water and Sewer Department.

Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich smiled tightly. “I don’t know, Mr. Dixon. Are there dragons in the sewers of New York?”

Dixon smiled back. “I’d say it depends on how much you’ve been drinking or what you’ve been smoking.”

Urich glanced down at his notebook and began flipping through the pages. “I have statements from three people who claim to have seen something they say looked like extremely large reptiles while they were working below ground level. Two of them are maintenance workers, and the third is a security guard.”

“Mr. Urich,” Dixon interrupted, “you do know that the idea of alligators in the sewers is just an urban legend. There hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting –”

“— since 1935. East Harlem. Yes, I know. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything down there, just that no one’s seen anything. Until recently.”

“How recently?”

“Within the last two years. The two maintenance workers saw something in the spring of last year, and the security guard said her sighting was less than a month ago.”

Dixon leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. He was a middle-aged man with brown hair graying at the temples. “This is news to me. None of these people have any reports on file. Something like this usually makes for office gossip, if nothing else.” He shrugged. “Mr. Urich, as any number of experts have pointed out, the likelihood of monsters existing in the sewers is preposterous. The food supply is limited. The environment really can’t support anything bigger than rats or bugs. And as you know, the last documented case of alligators or other large animals caught in the tunnels was in 1935.”

“Then you won’t mind if I ask to see for myself.”

“Not at all.” Dixon shook his head to give his words emphasis. “I’ll look into arranging a guide for you, although it will take a week or so before I can shift someone off their regular schedule. Like many departments, we’re short-handed right now.”

“I understand.” Urich stood up and held out a hand; Dixon stood and reached across the desk to shake it. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Dixon.”

“You’re welcome. Someone from this office will be in touch with you shortly.”


One day before Chicago:

In a private conference room of the Triskelion, General Nicholas Fury glanced up as Gerald Dixon entered. “Miranda Evans has gone to Chicago,” Fury said, without preamble.

Dixon scowled in disapproval. “She was told that the option of contacting Thor had not been approved.”

“I’m approving it now,” Fury told him. “Unofficially, for the time being.”

“Evans has no authority—”

“She does in this instance.” Fury watched the other man calmly. “Sit down, Gerry.” Dixon sat. “I heard your report. I’ve also read hers. She was asked to contact him specifically.”

Dixon grimaced. “General, you know how uneasy I am about her... interaction with them.”

Fury nodded. “I know. And I understand. Psi Division has been scanning her regularly and they’ve reported no signs of tampering. Besides, there are other things to consider. You know we’ve been trying to recruit Thor for the superhuman team I’ve assembled?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s refused. Several times, as a matter of fact. After bailing us out during the Hulk incident last month, he won’t return my calls or e-mails. Ms. Evans has taken five days of her own vacation time, and has paid for the entire trip out of her own pocket. I haven’t given her the go-ahead on this; all she knows is that I’ve received her report. She can honestly claim that she’s not working on our behalf. I’m letting her go, not because I want to undermine your authority, but because I want to see if she has any luck getting him to accept this job.”

“He doesn’t have the security clearance,” Dixon warned.

“I know. If he refuses, we’re not out anything. If he accepts...” Fury drummed his fingers on the table, “...we’ll deal with it.” He glanced at the computer screen beside his right elbow and tapped a key. “What’s the story with Mr. Urich?”

“All he seems to have are rumors. We’ve made certain the reports of any sightings of anything ‘monster’- or mutant-related have been, shall we say, misfiled. I’ve offered him a tour of the area in question, next week if I can find anyone. I can probably stall until the week after.”

“One way or another, the whole thing should be over long before then.”

“Exactly. We’ll walk him around, answer some questions, and send him on his way.”

Fury nodded. “Good. The continued lack of evidence might not dampen his enthusiasm, but it should keep him from publishing anything.”

“Did Miranda engineer that contact, too?”

“No. Apparently she just happened to be in the right place at the right time to rescue that poor kid during the Sentinel attack, and after Urich mentioned his interest in sewer monsters, it seemed like a good way to keep an eye on him. We’ve got other arrangements like this in place. Every so often information comes along that should be leaked to the press, and sometimes reporters ask for information we can provide legally. They don’t know their contacts are S.H.I.E.L.D. employees, we get to do some public service that doesn’t compromise anything. It’s a win-win situation.”

Dixon nodded. “Let’s hope this business with Thor turns out the same way.”


Two days later:

Peter Parker dumped his backpack on the floor at his computer station in the Daily Bugle newsroom. The activity level in the room was slow but purposeful; the next deadline was over two hours away, and many of the staff members were sipping coffee as they worked. Peter could smell fresh popcorn as two photographers sauntered by, tossing the bag back and forth to cool it before they opened it.

A few cubicles way, Managing Editor Joe Robertson glanced away from reporter Ben Urich to offer Peter an acknowledging nod. Gesturing at Urich to continue talking, Robertson picked up a handful of papers and passed them to Peter. Most of them seemed to be classified ads, along with a couple of obituaries.

Peter logged onto the computer as Robertson turned back to Urich. “I received a phone call from a man named Trent Archer,” Urich was saying. “He works for the Water and Sewer Department, and tomorrow he’s taking me down into the tunnels to where the maintenance people say they’ve seen the monsters, or whatever they are,” Urich was saying.

“That was fast.” Robertson leaned on the corner of someone’s cubicle.

“Yeah, I didn’t expect anything until next week.”

“You’re meeting him where?”

“Pump Station Number Eight, off Kelter Avenue. It’s supposedly the closest place to the sightings.”

Peter glanced around to see if anyone was watching, then called up the Internet and found a map site. Two minutes later he jotted down a set of directions to the station, logged off the ‘Net, and called up the newspaper’s webpage. I can be there tomorrow, he decided. I’ve been down there. I’ve seen some of the things that run around down there. One particularly memorable encounter had been a battle with a man-sized lizard, the result of a rejuvenation experiment by Dr. Curt Connors. Peter knew what had happened to Connors — the researcher, back in human form, was currently working at Empire State University — but there had been something else down there during the encounter, something oddly hunched and mysterious that had melted away into the darkness by the time the fight had been over. Whatever the strange creature had been, there was a chance it was still moving around the sewers, and the Kelter Avenue station wasn’t far from where Peter had seen it. I’m hoping Ben Urich spends tomorrow afternoon wandering around in the tunnels talking to some Water and Sewer employee, but just in case, I think Spider-man should go on a field trip.

He glanced over his shoulder at Joe Robertson, who was shaking his head. “Okay, go do your inspection tour tomorrow. But if you don’t turn anything up, this is the last I want to hear about this.” Robertson stabbed a forefinger at Urich. “And Ben, I swear, if you come back and tell me that this is a case of the U.S. government covering up a colony of space aliens, I will personally haul you off to a shrink.”

Peter chuckled and turned back to his work.

The following afternoon:

Ben Urich followed his guide down the narrow sidewalk beside the channel of water. Each man carried a flashlight; Trent Archer also carried a map. Archer had turned out to be a lean, hard-faced man with unruly dark hair. He had introduced himself, and had then led the way through the pump station down into the sewer tunnels below.

“Through the first part of the trip, the tunnels are high enough to walk upright,” he’d said as they stepped onto the concrete walkway and closed the staircase’s door. “Lots of pipe and equipment that needs regular checking. Further out, where it’s just water flowing, the tunnel ceilings get lower, the lights get further apart, and it’s harder to get around. We’re gonna hafta go to one of the less-used parts of the tunnels to see what you’re looking for.”

Now the two men moved along a much narrower walkway; to their left ran a shallow trough of water (“ ‘Bout chest deep here,” Archer had said). The surface of the water was only a hand’s span lower than the walkway. The lights were indeed further apart, and both men had their flashlights on.

“Okay, right down there was the sighting,” Archer said, pointing to a spot several yards down the tunnel.

Urich moved ahead and swept the flashlight beam back and forth over the area, which looked no different than any other part of the tunnels he seen that afternoon. “Which sighting?”


“Which sighting?” Urich asked over his shoulder. “There were three.”

“Oh, yeah. This’s the first one.”

“Okay. Where exactly does this tunnel lead?”

“The ocean.”

“Uh, huh. And in the other direction?”

“Sewage treatment plant.”

“Which one? There are eleven in the system.” Urich fumbled in a pocket for his reading glasses.

“The closest one.”

Urich stopped, glasses in hand, and peered at him thoughtfully. “Oh-kay.” He gestured down the tunnel with the flashlight. “Do any other tunnels intercept—”

Something hissed softly in the darkness. Urich paused. “Did you hear that?” He pointed the flashlight beam ahead along the water channel.

“Probably just a steam pipe,” Archer remarked.

“ ‘Probably’?” Urich repeated, turning the beam on his guide. “You don’t—” He broke off at the sight of the knife in Archer’s hand. A smile spread crept across Archer’s face.

“Yeah, probably. But it ain’t gonna matter pretty soon, pal.”

Urich took a step back, eyes still on the knife. “I — I don’t understand....”

“Well, it’s pretty simple.” Archer advanced a step. The pipe hissed again. “This is one of the simplest jobs I’ve ever had. I mean, you walk right down here for me, nice and polite, no one around to see what happens, so I don’t hafta worry about witnesses.”

The hissing sounded again, closer this time. Urich took another step back, his breath coming in gasps. Archer was between him and the exit, along the only stretch of tunnel that was even remotely familiar. Behind him was the dark unknown.

“So you just disappear,” Archer was saying, advancing slowly with the knife. “And—”

Something screeched, the cry echoing off the walls of the tunnel. A small dark shape burst out of the water behind Archer and leaped onto the walkway, charging between Archer’s legs and over Urich’s shoes. Both the reporter and his assailant shouted. Urich jumped back and slammed against the tunnel wall; the jolt knocked his glasses from his hand and into the water. Archer staggered back a step, his flashlight clattered to the floor.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Urich bolted forward into the darkness.

The hissing came again, directly behind Archer. Urich risked a glance over his shoulder. Archer sprang forward to snatch up his flashlight. A sinuous form the size of a grown man reared up out of the water behind him. The hiss became a roar. Urich caught a glimpse of pointed teeth in a long muzzle as clawed feet propelled the thing onto the walkway.

He could hear the staccato slaps of Archer’s boots behind him and the scrabble of claws on concrete. Suddenly Archer grunted and the boot steps became irregular. Urich heard him gasping; there were no further sounds of a running man now. The reporter half-turned, sidestepping down the tunnel, peering back into the dimness for Archer’s form.

Archer stood at bay, the reptilian thing weaving back and forth before him. He slashed at the creature’s head with the knife. The monster jerked back, then flowed forward, jaws open, striking at Archer as his swipe left him vulnerable. A glint of metal spun to one side and into the water. Archer staggered backward in Urich’s direction, flashlight beam playing wildly against the far wall.

The thing charged forward. Urich fled. Behind him he could hear the clatter of Archer’s boots against the concrete floor. Archer gasped; the reporter could hear the scrape of claws on stone over the other’s panting. A moment later Archer shouted, then suddenly began screaming. Something heavy hit the concrete with a wet slap. The creature snarled in the sudden darkness behind Urich. Archer’s screams cut off abruptly.

Urich ran, the rumbling of the monster fading behind him. There were no sounds of further pursuit.


Exhaustion and a cramp in his side brought Urich to a halt an indefinite amount of time later. He collapsed to his knees on the walkway, gasping, free hand clutching at the wall. Other than his breathing, the only sound was the flow and dripping of water. Behind him stretched the tunnel. Ahead — he flashed the beam of light forward — stretched more tunnel.

“Terrific,” Urich muttered, resting his forehead against the wall. “There has got to be a ladder or exit along here somewhere—”

Something croaked behind him. Urich jumped, stumbling half to his feet and sweeping the flashlight beam back the way he had come. A black lump about the size of a large housecat crouched on the walkway. As the beam passed over it, the lump suddenly squawked and heaved upward. A pair of clawed hands shot upward to shield what were probably the thing’s eyes. The creature wheeled away and scuttled down the walkway, seeking the darkness outside the flashlight beam.

That’s either the world’s biggest mutant rat, or the smallest monster on Earth, Urich thought, staring after it. For a moment he debated following it; then he remembered the much larger thing that had pounced on Archer and thought the better of it. No. Not without a few security guards. Or better yet, the National Guard. Find a ladder or exit first. Then convince the police or someone to come back down here and look for those things.

Urich pulled himself to his feet and began to walk down the tunnel. Got to be a way out— On impulse, he swung around. The flashlight beam caught the smaller creature again in the middle of the walkway. It hissed and scuttled back again, but this time the hiss was answered by something in the water. At the edge of the light, a second small dark shape scrambled out of the water and crouched on the walkway. Urich swallowed suddenly. My God. How many of these things are there? He turned and moved away at a trot, the two creatures hissing and croaking behind him.

Fifteen minutes later, the only thing keeping Urich from running was the thought that what lay ahead might be worse than what seemed to be following him. The last time he had flashed the light over the walkway behind him, there had been three of the black things padding along behind him. Worse, there were disquieting sounds coming from the tunnel ahead of him. Something seemed to be humming. If the humming had been that of machinery, it would have been a comforting sound. But the humming had been an intermittent noise, and in the last couple of minutes it had been punctuated with a sort of trilling.

Sweat ran down Urich’s face and neck. He kept moving forward only because nothing solid had appeared in the tunnel ahead of him, and it still seemed a better option than turning back.

He had seen no ladders, doors, or any indications of exits from the tunnel. The smell of the air had changed as well — considerably less like sewage and more like some sort of chemicals. Maybe I’m finally getting near a treatment facility.

Any hope of a way out shattered as something dark loomed at the edge of the flashlight’s beam in front of him. Urich uttered a small gasp of fear and froze. A dim, man-sized shape stood on the walkway, and a second materialized out of the darkness beside it. Swinging the flashlight beam behind him, Urich realized he was surrounded — looming behind the small creatures that had been following him, there were now two of the larger things behind them. He backed up against the wall. The water was ahead of him. Swimming wasn’t the best option, but right now it appeared to be the only option.

A dark shape broke the surface of the water, gliding towards him. The water option had just vanished.

The creatures on the walkway stopped. The figure in the water reached the edge of the canal and placed both hands on the edge of the concrete, pulling itself out of the water. It moved slowly forward into the light, walking upright on its hind legs.

Urich clutched the flashlight and his breathing quickened. If a moray eel had grown arms and legs and learned to walk, it might have resembled the creature before him. A short, spiny fin began at the crest of the head and appeared to run the length of the creature’s back. The eyes, set more in the side of the head than the front, were completely black and unblinking. The teeth, thin and needle-sharp, sprouted from both its upper and lower jaws, making it impossible for the creature to completely close its mouth. Its fingers and toes all sported claws, and a tail trailed behind it. Its skin was smooth and dark.

As the creature straightened, it rose to a height slightly taller than Urich himself. The rest of its companions formed a loose semi-circle around it, just outside the halo of the flashlight beam.

A second of the larger creatures moved forward. As it drew abreast of the first one, the first raised its left hand to chest level and slowly stretched its arm out toward Urich. The only sound in the tunnel was the flow of water, Urich’s ragged breathing, and the soft slithering hiss the creatures made, which sounded like a small rockslide. The creature turned its fist over and opened its hand. Clawed fingers parted.

In the hollow of its palm lay Urich’s neatly folded reading glasses.

For a moment, no one moved. Urich stared at the sight of his glasses nestled in a monster’s hand.

The second creature turned slightly toward its companion. It pointed to the glasses, then formed a circle with the thumb and forefinger of its right hand, mirroring the motion with its left hand. It held the circles to its eyes as though looking through binoculars. Then it dropped the right hand and pointed to Urich with its left.

The human stood frozen. The creature repeated the gestures and waited.

Finally Urich stretched a trembling hand out and gingerly lifted his glasses out of the first creature’s hand. The momentary touch of its palm was damp and smooth.

“Thank you,” Urich told it, his voice little more than a whisper.

The creature that had held the glasses responded by touching the tips of its fingers to its mouth, then pushing them away, almost as though it was blowing a kiss. Then it turned its gaze to the second creature and waited.

The leader placed its left palm against its chest, where a human heart would be. Its right hand came up with the palm turned toward its companion, its thumb tucked into the palm. The creature tapped the side of its right hand against the back of its left, twice.

Urich’s mouth fell open. Like many people, he was familiar with at least a few of the finger spellings of American Sign Language. The creature’s right hand appeared to be making the letter “B”. The creature repeated the gesture, tapping the sign for “B” against its chest.

“Sign Language,” Urich said suddenly. “You speak in Sign Language?”

The creature nodded twice, slowly and deliberately.

“Do you understand English?” Urich asked. Again the creature nodded.

This can’t be happening. Urich sank back against the wall. This is unbelievable....

The trilling sound began again to his left. Urich shone the flashlight in the direction from which he’d come. By now there were half a dozen of the large creatures; four of them had picked the smaller creatures up and stood with their foreheads pressed against the smaller ones’ faces. The large creatures began humming. The smaller creatures had fallen silent.

“Babies,” Urich said aloud. The creature in front of him cocked its head and nodded. “Those are your children.” He suddenly tucked the flashlight under his arm and began patting his pockets, searching for his notebook and pen. “There’s a whole colony of you down here?”

The creature nodded. Then it made a gesture with its hand, as though it were working a hand puppet. Its fingers formed a “beak”, and made a signal that obviously meant “talk”. “You want to talk to me?” Urich asked.

The creature pointed to its forehead, then made the “talk” sign again, and then pointed to Urich’s forehead. The reporter’s eyes darted to the four creatures communing with the smaller ones. “Talk with your mind?” Damn, I know there’s a word for that.... Peter would have known it, or Carstairs, the guy who wrote the science articles. “Yeah, I, uh, I don’t remember what it’s called.” He stopped. The idea of having one of these things actually rummaging around in his thoughts.... He shuddered. “Uh, look, uh, humans don’t talk that way, okay? I, uh, need to get out of here and come back with a translator — someone who speaks Sign Language, okay?”

This time the creature distinctly shook its head. “Does—does that mean ‘no, I can’t leave’, or ‘no, I can’t have a translator’, or what?”

The creature shook its head again, and then repeated its mind/talk/mind gesture.

“Don’t any of you speak English?” The idea of having these... things in his head wasn’t terribly appealing.

The creature shook its head again, tapped its teeth with one finger, then gestured with its hands. The gesture was probably a word or phrase, but Urich had pretty much exhausted his knowledge of sign language. On the other hand, they hadn’t attacked him yet, so perhaps.... He stepped to one side, away from the creature. “Look, I’d really feel more comfortable with a translator. Humans don’t talk with our minds.” Well, except for some of the mutants, of course, but that’s not the case here. “Believe me, I’ll be back as soon as I find someone—”

The creature reached out with one hand and caught Urich’s shoulder, claws digging into the fabric of his jacket. Two of the other creatures moved forward to block Urich’s retreat, although neither of them touched him. Their meaning was clear; Urich wasn’t leaving.

“Let me explain this. I absolutely want to talk to you,” Urich said, trying another tactic. “An interview like this is — is a once in a career opportunity. No journalist would turn it down, believe me. But you can’t speak to me, and I can’t, can’t — whatever the word is for talking mind to mind. I need someone who speaks sign language.”

This time the creature made a show of shaking its head slowly and deliberately. It pointed to Urich, then held its hand up and pushed it toward him, palm first. Its meaning was clear: You stay. Then it repeated the mind/talk/mind gesture. Getting no response from Urich, it folded its arms in a surprisingly human gesture and waited.

The reporter glanced around at the rest of the creatures, who watched him, unblinking. I guess if I want the interview, I’ll have to do it this way. He eyed the first creature warily. “I, uh, i-is this going to hurt?”

The creature shook its head.

“This—you aren’t going to end up taking over my mind, are you?” Urich pressed back against the wall again.

The creature shook its head again and waited.

Urich closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. “O-okay. Just...okay. Go, uh, go ahead.”

The creature stepped forward cautiously, lowering its head to peer into Urich’s eyes. Then it moved in closer, its needle-like teeth brushing the reporter’s temple as it pressed the side of its face against his. Urich’s body jerked once at the contact, his eyes closed, and everything was swallowed up in a burst of white static.
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Spider-man crouched on the roof of the Kelter Avenue station and watched Ben Urich and Trent Archer enter the building. The security system at the station seemed state of the art, and, while he hadn’t seen anyone around, he wasn’t about to chance being discovered as he tried to break in. So, on to Plan B.

He swung away across the rooftops, coming to rest on a fire escape overlooking an out of the way manhole cover. He’d chosen the location earlier because it had been the closest to the pump station on a street that seemed pretty much deserted. Last thing I need for my image is to have someone see me entering the sewer. And it was a cinch that Archer wasn’t gonna let me in through the front door.

He slid his fingers into the indentations in the sides of the manhole cover and lifted — or rather, tried to lift. The cover didn’t budge. What the— He pulled again, harder this time. The cover wouldn’t move. He stared at it. C’mon, it can’t be that heavy! Glancing around the street, he clamped his fingers in place, braced his feet, and began pulling back on the cover, gradually increasing the upward pressure. The metal disk shuddered and finally jerked upward, showing a tiny crack between it and the rim of the manhole. After several seconds of pulling and straining, Peter pried the cover open, but it was like pulling a piece of metal away from a strong magnet. It took several minutes to figure out how to brace himself against the manhole rim so he could hold the cover open with just his arms and swing his legs down into the hole. Once he was inside, the cover nearly broke a couple of his fingers as it slammed shut again. Geez, how the heck do normal people get that thing open? Peter grumbled mentally as he climbed down the ladder. Midway down, he struck out across the tunnel wall in the direction of the pump station. I hope those schematics I found have been updated recently. At least this beat wading through whatever was down at the bottom. Funny, I thought the smell would be a lot worse.

Five minutes later he scrambled up to the ceiling of the tunnel. Voices echoed off the walls. “— broke the seal on number 12,” a man was saying. Lights appeared in the distance.

“Somebody must be trying to put in some overtime,” a woman answered.

“Our personnel are all out of here,” the man said. He was wearing a long dark coat and speaking to the woman, who was walking a few steps behind him. “These tunnels should be deserted. Besides, it would take superhuman strength to get that cover off — we’ve activated the magnetic shielding.

“As far as we know, our resident superhuman is busy elsewhere,” the woman said. Peter peered into the darkness. That voice sounds familiar—

Someone screamed in the distance. The man and woman and their two companions were close enough for Peter to see the guns in the hand of the men at the front and rear of the party. At the sound of the scream, all four turned abruptly. Peter could see the three men’s faces, but the woman was hidden from sight behind the man in the middle.

“Is that...?” the man asked.

“It’s human,” the woman answered. All four of them took off at a run; the lights disappeared around a corner further down the tunnel. Spider-man gathered himself and leaped down the tunnel after them, bounding from wall to wall until he reached the corner. The lights were receding in the distance; dim lights along the sides of the walkways were starting to glow. Continuing his wall-to-wall jumps, Spider-man turned the corner and bounded after the retreating forms.

Several yards behind him, a reptilian head broke the surface of the water and watched him go.


Spider-man crouched midway down the tunnel wall, just outside the halo of the party’s flashlights. The four had found a body — or rather, what was left of a body. Please tell me that’s not Ben Urich, Peter thought, peering at the knot of people further up the walkway. One of the security guards and the man in the long coat were bending over the corpse; the woman was looking up the tunnel the other way, and the other security guard was visually scanning the area. Can’t get too close yet. Peter tilted his head to pick up the conversation.

“ID is for Lawrence Steadman,” the man in the coat was saying. “Water and Sewer employee.”

“Okay,” said the woman, and pulled a personal hand computer out of a pocket. She began keying in the information. “Here we go. Lawrence Steadman, age 34, Water and Sewer Department employee for five and a half years. General maintenance and repair. Unmarried, no dependents listed.”

“See if you can pull up his duty schedule.”

The woman tapped the stylus against the keys. After a minute, she answered, “Assigned to third shift, Tunnels B-21 to B-30.”

“Which means he shouldn’t have been down here at this point. Or anywhere near this area,” the man added.

“Is he one of ours?”

“I don’t recognize him. And that makes this even more puzzling.”

“Well, let’s see if Farswimmer can tell us anything,” the woman suggested. She bent over the water and gestured, as if asking something beneath the surface to come up.

A moment later not one, but three objects broke the surface; two remained bobbing in the water, but the third sprang from the water onto the walkway, landing between the man in the coat and the woman. The four flashlight beams suddenly swung away from the creature as all four of the humans jumped back, but Peter caught a glimpse of smooth black skin, too many extremely pointed teeth, and the glint of something metal in the creature’s hand. If that’s a scuba diver, he’s gotta have the worst dental problem on the planet. The creature suddenly shoved the woman behind it and turned, snarling, to point directly to Spider-man’s location on the wall.

Three of the flashlight beams stabbed the darkness around Spider-man, who was already leaping forward to the opposite wall.

“What the—” a male voice shouted, and Spider-man could hear guns being cocked. There was also a slithering hissing sound, not only from the creature on the walkway, but also from the two in the water, and from the tunnel behind where Spider-man had been crouching.

“Identify yourself!” the man in the coat barked. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the tunnel ceiling. “This is government property, and you are trespassing!”

“Don’t point those things at me,” Spider-man called, scuttling across the ceiling to avoid the flashlight beams and to present a moving target. “I’m not the one who’s stealing your computer expert!”

The lights on the walkway were slowly brightening; Spider-man could see the monster that had leaped onto the concrete had grabbed the woman by the shoulders and pushed her against the wall, crouching in front of her. The two creatures still in the water were closing in. And beyond them, something very large and long broke the surface of the water, churning up waves of water as it sped toward them.

“What the—” Spider-man began.

“Go!” shouted the man in the coat. “Everyone go! This way!”

The dark-skinned creature grabbed the woman by the arm and forced her down the corridor. Both security guards swung in behind the man and began backing rapidly up the tunnel, guns ready. The two creatures in the water ducked back under the surface; Spider-man lost track of them.

The thing that charged up onto the walkway was a snake-like creature with jaws that gaped open as it snarled. Its clawed feet resembled an alligator’s, as did the knobby hide along its back. Unlike an alligator, however, its legs connected to the underside of its body, instead of to its flank, giving it more speed as it bore down on its victims.

The man was cursing; he had drawn a gun out of a pocket. Both security guards took aim, still moving backwards.

“Cover your eyes!” the woman called out.

“We can’t—” the man began.

“Do it!”

Why— Spider-man thought as he took aim with both webshooters at the alligator-beast.

A brilliant flash of light filled the tunnel. Spider-man gasped and shut his eyes reflexively, arms coming up to protect his face. The large monster shrieked. Momentarily blinded, Spider-man couldn’t tell which of the people below him was shouting, but he had suddenly recognized the woman’s voice. No way! It can’t be!

Blinking in the semi-darkness that followed the flash, Spider-man focused, not on the people below him, but on the largest of the monsters. The jaws abruptly snapped shut and the beast half turned, clawed feet scrabbling on the concrete as it fought to flee the man who had its tail clamped firmly in two powerful hands. The man leaned back and began reeling the monster’s tail in as though it were a rope. The creature’s claws scraped along the concrete as it fought to move forward.

Wait. I think I know that guy, Peter thought suddenly. Where have I seen him...?

The snake-like thing suddenly all but bent double and snapped at the man behind it. Planting its forepaws on the walkway next to its hind feet, it flowed in a complete circle and sprang at its tormenter, jaws gaping. The man let go and leaped back; the monster rushed him. He grabbed a jaw in each hand and bent his knees to absorb the blow. The monster’s charge shoved him back down the walkway and almost to the edge of the concrete. The thing shook its head violently, trying to dislodge him. The man twisted the animal’s head sideways, and both plunged into the water.

Spider-man scrambled across the ceiling to the spot where they had vanished. A moment later they both resurfaced in a thrashing tangle, the man’s arms locked around the animal’s jaws, holding them shut. He threw one leg over the creature’s shoulders. The monster dove, carrying him under.

“Some light would really, really help here!” Spider-man called. Two flashlight beams converged on him, and he flinched in the sudden brightness. “Not on me! Down there!” He pointed to the water below.

The man and the monster broke the surface again; by now the man had slid completely over the creature’s body and managed to put his feet down, dragging the animal’s head down against its chest. One arm held its head and jaws immobile, the other circled its ribs, holding it back against him and partially pinning its forelegs.

The monster thrashed, throwing itself from side to side. Both the motion and the slippery wet hide forced the man to continuously fight for a handhold. Spider-man “stood” on the ceiling and took aim at the monster’s head. “Let go of the jaws!”

The man below him tightened his grip, glancing up to find the voice from the ceiling. “What?”

“Let go of the jaws! I’ll get them!”

The woman suddenly crouched at the edge of the walkway, the black creature just behind her. “Thor! He’s Spider-man! He’ll bind the jaws, but you need to let go!”

The man threw her a look, then bunched his shoulders and released the jaws, his freed arm hugging the monster’s neck. Spider-man fired both webshooters and two strands of webbing engulfed the monster’s jaws. The timbre of its roaring suddenly changed as its head jerked back and forth in confusion.

By now nearly half a dozen dark shapes were bobbing the water around the combatants. The creature on the walkway plunged into the middle of the battle, and the rest of its folk converged on the snake-like thing held fast in Thor’s arms. All of the black creatures placed their hands on the monster. It suddenly convulsed once, then went limp, head flopping backwards over its captor’s shoulder. There was a collective gasp from the humans on the walkway, and the creatures in the water trilled softly.

Thor lowered the monster carefully into the water, and three of the black creatures towed it to the walkway, where they all floated beside it. The security guards turned their weapons away from the water battle and pointed them at the figure on the ceiling. Spider-man tensed.

“Don’t shoot him,” said Miranda Evans from her position at the edge of the walkway. She adjusted what looked like a large pair of yellow safety glasses on her face. “The entire point of this mission is to avoid killing anyone.”

“Hold your fire,” the man in the coat told them. The guards slowly lowered their weapons. The man stood gazing up at the ceiling. “Spider-man, is it? Perhaps we’d all be more comfortable if we were standing on the same level?”

Spider-man cautiously picked his way down the wall. In the meantime, Thor had come to the edge of the walkway and pulled himself out of the water to sit on the concrete. Evans knelt an arm’s length away. “Are you all right?”

“Sore, but that will pass. That one was the largest so far.”

“I know. I’d hate to meet that thing’s big brother.”

The man in the coat was bending over the dark forms bobbing beside the monster’s body, as did Evans. One of the forms raised its hands above the surface of the water and made a series of gestures. Peter’s eyes widened behind his mask. He didn’t know many of the hand signs of the language for the deaf, but he did recognize what the creature was doing. That thing knows Sign Language? What are these guys?

“Yes, thank you,” the man in the coat was saying to them. He turned to Evans. “How many are left?”


“You’re sure?”

Evans indicated the creatures in the water with a dip of her head. “They are.”

The man raised his eyebrows and nodded. “All right. They seem to be calling the shots on this venture,” he remarked sourly. He turned back to the creature in the water. “We’ll wait for you here.” The creatures took hold of the monster’s limp form and began guiding it down the tunnel. One creature remained behind, clambering up onto the walkway to crouch beside Evans, who rose. The creature straightened as well.

“Well, some introductions are in order while we wait,” she said. “Spider-man, this,” she indicated the man in the coat, “is Gerald Dixon, who is an assistant manager with the Water and Sewer Department.” Dixon hesitated a moment, then held out a hand for Peter to shake. By now he was close enough to see the goggles that Dixon and the two security guards were wearing. Like the oversized glasses Evans wore, the goggles’ lenses were yellow.

“Thor,” continued Evans, indicating the man who now sat cross-legged on the walkway, hands resting on his knees. “Spider-man is one of our local, ah, independent crime fighters.”

“Uh, hi,” Peter said. Thor leaned toward him and offered him a hand that swallowed Peter’s completely.

“Spider-man. Thank you for your assistance just now.”

“Oh, ah, you’re welcome. Any time.” Great. I meet a real celebrity, and I’m stuttering. Yeah, terrific first impression there, Peter.

“This is Mr. Dunston,” Evans said, indicating the male security guard, “and Ms. Jennings,” the female security guard. Finally Evans gestured toward the creature that stood at her shoulder. “And this imposing individual is Farswimmer.”

Peter stared at the protruding teeth and unblinking black eyes. Jeez, this guy looks like Wes Craven meets Neil Gaiman.... “Uh, hello,” he managed, not certain whether to offer his hand or not. Evans turned to Farswimmer.

“This is Spider-man,” she told it, making a sign for a letter and tapping it against her temple twice. The creature glanced from her to Peter and back. She repeated the gesture. Farswimmer’s gaze came back to Peter and it stepped forward, lowering its head to Peter’s eye level.


“Just stand still,” Evans told him. “He wants to memorize your scent.”

“Oh. Uh, right.” It was all Peter could do not to back away. The creature had a rather unpleasant scent. Yeah, well, I guess if I lived down here all the time, I’d probably smell kinda funny too.

Farswimmer inhaled several times, then nodded. His clawed fingers made the same sign Evans’ had and he tapped his hand against his temple as well.

“Well,” said Dixon. “Now that the pleasantries have been exchanged, perhaps Spider-man could tell us why he’s down here.”

“I’m looking for someone.”

Dixon gave him a look. “This is a pretty strange place to find a date, Spider-man.”

The male security guard chuckled. Farswimmer cocked his head.

“It’s no joke,” Peter broke in. “I’m looking for Ben Urich. He’s a reporter from the Daily Bugle—

“I know who Ben Urich is,” Dixon said. “But he won’t be down here for at least another week.”

“Wrong. He’s here now. I thought that poor guy might have been him,” Peter pointed down the tunnel to where the corpse lay, “but you said that was somebody named Steadman, so Ben Urich and his guide are still missing.”

“No one from my department should be down here today. They certainly shouldn’t be escorting a member of the press.”

“Yeah? Well, tell it to that guy!” Peter snapped, gesturing down the tunnel. “I saw Ben Urich and your man Trent Archer come in through the Kelter Avenue pump station. According to your schematics, that’s just a few blocks away from here. So they’ve got to be in these tunnels someplace. On top of that you’ve got that, that thing Thor was wrestling—”

“Dragon,” Thor corrected him.

Peter paused. “What?”

“It is a dragon.”

Peter looked from Dixon to Thor, and then to Evans, who smiled and tilted her head in a “just-go-with-it” gesture. “Yeah, okay, dragon. And you said there were more of them?”

“Two,” Evans told him.

“Right. So, if no one minds, I’m gonna move along and see if I can find Ben Urich before the dragons do. ‘Bye.”

Farswimmer hissed softly and touched Evans on the shoulder. The woman turned her head to watch his hands. “He says Ben Urich is indeed down here. His people have found him further down this tunnel, not far outside their designated territory.”

“What?” said Peter.

“Terrific,” Dixon muttered, rolling his eyes. “Could this be any more of a fiasco?”

“I don’t know,” Peter replied. He asked Farswimmer, “Is Mr. Urich all right?” Farswimmer nodded.

“Have your people found any other humans down here?” Dixon asked. Farswimmer shook his head.

“So we still have a missing man,” Evans remarked. “Do you know anyone named Trent Archer?”

“No, but that doesn’t prove anything. There are several hundred employees in the Water and Sewer Department,” Dixon replied. “Okay. Call up the Kelter Station video cams.” Evans began tapping keys on her handheld computer. Peter eyed it in admiration.

“Can you get cable on that thing?”

“Almost,” Evans replied, smiling, “except that the monthly rates are deadly. I can, however, access the ‘Net, satellite feeds, cell phones, police frequencies, various audio frequencies, and a number of other resources, all while playing Vivaldi in the background.”

“You didn’t get that at Circuit City, by any chance?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“Water and Sewer must have a seriously huge budget.”

“We wish,” Dixon muttered.

Evans merely smiled. “All right, here we are.” She turned so that Dixon and Spider-man could both watch over her shoulder. “This is thirty-eight minutes ago.” The screen showed a room that reminded Peter of the shop and technology room at school. A variety of tools and equipment were stored in bins and on tables. Two men entered through a door at the far end of the room and walked toward the camera, disappearing beneath it. One man was Ben Urich. “Trent Archer should be the guy with Ben Urich,” Peter supplied.

“Well, that man’s not named Archer,” Dixon said, indicating the screen. He held up a plastic badge with a picture on it. “That’s Lawrence Steadman.” The same face gazed back at them from the badge.

“The same guy back there?”


“I don’t get it,” Peter said. “Why would he lie about his name?”

“Why indeed?” Dixon muttered. He and Evans exchanged glances. “All right, let’s regroup. Farswimmer, ask your people to bring Ben Urich and meet us at our base of operations.” The creature nodded and tilted its head to one side, apparently studying the far wall.

Telepath, Peter thought suddenly. He’s telepathic! Is he a mutant? He peered down the tunnel thoughtfully. The close physical similarities among this many individuals make them more like a race, though — most of the mutants I see on the news look different from each other. He broke off abruptly. Dixon was staring at him thoughtfully.

“Spider-man, perhaps you’d better come with us. Now that we’ve found your friend, you’ll probably want to make certain he’s all right.” Past Dixon, Peter caught a glimpse of Thor watching Dixon with narrowed eyes. Something’s up. No spider-sense, so I’m not in any physical danger, but....

Farswimmer turned away from his contemplation of the wall and reached out to tap Peter on the shoulder. Peter managed not to jump at the contact. The creature made a “come with me” gesture.

“Come along, Spider-man,” said Evans cheerfully. “We’ll introduce you to the rest of the family. I guarantee you’ll find them fascinating.” She stopped in front of Thor. “Would you care to join us, or would you rather sit pool-side for a while?”

“I wouldn’t miss the rest of this for anything,” he replied dryly. “It would be faster if we teleported.”

Evans hesitated. “Yes, but I didn’t want to ask.”

“It’s no trouble.” Thor came smoothly to his feet. “We’re all close enough…. Cover your eyes, Farswimmer. Everyone ready?”

“Uh—” Peter began, and the tunnel vanished in a blinding explosion of white light.
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Peter blinked. They were definitely not in the same tunnel. The lights along the walkway were spaced closer together. In the distance he could hear the voices of several people, and the slithering hiss of Farswimmer’s people. Peter caught a glimpse of Gerry Dixon’s arms windmilling — he had been right at the water’s edge when they had “landed”. Thor reached forward smoothly and snagged the back of Dixon’s coat, saving him from an unplanned swim.

“Thank you,” Dixon muttered tersely, and strode forward.

“You’re welcome,” Thor replied, tone and expression completely deadpan. Evans frowned at his back, but when she passed, all she said was, “Thank you.”

Steadman’s body had been transported along with the rest of them. Dixon moved down the tunnel into an open area that held a small crowd and stopped to talk to someone in a paramedic’s uniform. The woman and another man who appeared to be her partner passed the rest of Evans’ party as they followed Dixon into the open space. The two paramedics were unfolding what Peter guessed was a body bag.

About half a dozen of Farswimmer’s people stood in the meeting area; two of the large creatures held smaller creatures in their arms. Both of the youngsters were eating something that smelled strongly of fish.

“We call them the Echthroi,” Evans explained, pronouncing it Eck-thwa. At the sound of the name, most of the creatures glanced at her; several made gestures of greetings. She waved as she took Spider-man by the elbow and guided him around Thor to give him a better view of the creatures. “That’s not what they call themselves, of course. Well, to be honest they don’t call themselves anything, but you can’t put that down on the paperwork....”

“They don’t have a word for themselves?” Peter asked.

“They’re telepaths,” Evans replied gently. “They don’t have words for anything. They don’t need them.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess I should have thought of that.”

“At any rate, they picked the name ‘Echthroi’ out of someone’s mind a couple of decades ago, and it’s become their official name in our records. ‘Echthroi’ is a term from a Madeline L’Engle novel entitled A Wind in the Door. Her Echthroi were actually an evil race that destroyed things by ‘unnaming’ them. Our Echthroi seem to find the disparity rather amusing; maybe that’s why they pick such unusual names for themselves.

“They can’t speak English, given their rather formidable dental structure,” she continued, “so they’ve learned sign language as a way to talk to us. They’ve been living down here for nearly 70 years — they came to our planet back in the late 1930s, originally as a group of refugees. Their homeworld had been destroyed by a race known as the Chitauri.”

All the Echthroi suddenly snarled. Peter flinched, then relaxed when he realized the Echthroi were reacting to Evans’ words and not to anything he had done. “I won’t get into the details of that, except to say that the Echthroi evolved on a world with an extremely toxic environment. Humans wouldn’t last long there without special protective suiting. The only place we could re-create their environment safely was here in the sewers. The chemicals are pumped into the waterways in a section of the sewers that are closed off from the tunnels used by the city. Most of the time, the Echthroi are sealed away from the rest of New York’s denizens.”

“You shouldn’t be telling him this,” Dixon warned over his shoulder. He had been speaking with a couple of the other humans in the gathering. Before Evans could respond, Farswimmer (at least Peter thought it was Farswimmer — the Echthroi all looked pretty much alike in the dim light) touched Dixon on the arm and held out a hand. On the creature’s palm rested a knife.

Dixon pulled a handkerchief out of a pocket and accepted the knife, resting it in his hand while Evans, Peter, Thor, and a couple of the other humans present peered at it.

“Farswimmer says he found this in the water near Steadman’s body,” Dixon told them.

“Carrying it for protection?” someone suggested.

Farswimmer shook his head. His hands moved. One pulled knife on — here he made Spider-man’s letter sign, then added, friend.

“What does that mean?” Peter asked.

“The word ‘one’ is how they identify someone they don’t have a name for,” Dixon explained. “In this case, I think he means Steadman pulled the knife on your friend Mr. Urich.”

“I don’t get it,” Peter said. “Why would he think Ben Urich is a threat?”

“Steadman wasn’t one of our operatives,” Dixon replied, “so it can’t be because he was protecting the Echthroi. He shouldn’t have even known they exist.” He looked around the circle of faces surrounding him. “Ben Urich was coming down here in a couple of weeks to look at the places where some rumored ‘monster-sightings’ took place.”

“Unless Mr. Urich was going to publish an article about something Steadman didn’t want exposed?” Peter suggested.

“Why don’t I run Mr. Steadman-slash-Archer through the NYPD’s database?” Evans suggested.

Dixon shook his head. “I’d rather you sit down and rest for a while. You’ve been mind-linking with the Echthroi a lot in the last couple of days.”

“I can do both at the same time,” Evans protested.

Dixon frowned. “Over there, where the paramedics can look at you once they’re done with Steadman’s remains.” He pointed to a small area containing medical equipment.

“I think that would be an excellent idea,” Thor added. Both Evans and Dixon stared at him.

“Since when?” Evans grumbled.

“Since now. You haven’t eaten since yesterday, and now that you’re standing in halfway decent lighting, your color is wrong.” Thor touched her lightly on the elbow and gently but firmly steered her toward a chair, leaving a puzzled Dixon behind them. “Come. Sit.” Evans sat and began tapping her computer keys with the stylus; Thor knelt on the floor beside her. After a minute, she said, “Hm. Looks like Mr. Archer has been a busy fellow.”

“You’ve found police records?” Thor asked.


“Good.” He took the computer out of her hands and passed it to Peter. “Do you know how to work one of these?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so.”

“He can’t use that—it contains classified information,” Evans protested, reaching for the computer. Thor gripped her arm and settled her back into the chair.

“I’m certain he will resist the temptation and keep only to the files you’ve opened.” Thor carefully rolled up Evans’ sleeve. “Does your watch have a second hand?”


“Time me fifteen seconds.” He folded two fingers over Evans’ wrist.

“This is seriously annoying, Thor,” Evans grumbled.

“The sooner you time this, the sooner I’ll be finished.”

Evans grimaced, extended her other arm to expose her watch, and paused. “All right. Begin.”

Peter grinned. Can’t blame her—I sure wouldn’t argue with a guy who could break my arm with a flick of the wrist. He looked down at the computer screen. “Trent Archer” was one of several aliases listed in the file. This guy really was busy! The list of alleged crimes, most of them “charges dropped”, continued for several lines.

“What do we have?” Dixon asked, coming up behind Peter.

“Um, a whole list of accusations, almost no convictions,” Peter said. “’Known associates’....” He stopped abruptly. The third name on the list was Wilson Fisk. “The Kingpin. That explains a lot!”

“Revenge killing?” Evans suggested. She glanced at her watch. “Oh, time!”

“Was that fifteen seconds?” Thor asked.

Evans looked sheepish. “More like twenty-two.”

“Do it again, please.”

Evans growled and looked back at her watch. “Start....”

Dixon was nodding thoughtfully. “Steadman had this pretty well planned. He knew when the tunnels would be empty, and he knew that Urich had asked for a escort.” His expression turned grim. “I wonder how many other people have just ‘disappeared’ in the sewers in the last, what was it, five years?”

“Five and a half,” Evans corrected him. “Time,” she said sideways to Thor.

“I don’t like your pulse,” he said, releasing her wrist.

“Well, I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I’ve got,” Evans remarked.

“It’s too fast for a resting heart rate. And you need to eat.”

Evans rolled her eyes and rested her head against the back of the seat. “You sound like my mother.”

“Good luck getting her to listen to you,” Dixon said. “I’ve been trying for almost four years now. She argues with everyone.”

“I do not,” Evans retorted.

The side of Dixon’s mouth twitched. “I rest my case.”

The security guard Jennings appeared at the entrance of the medical area. “The other Echthroi party is here,” she said. “And we’ve got two people ready to take the body up.” Dixon nodded his thanks and followed her out. Evans rose. “My computer, please,” she said to Peter, who reluctantly handed it over. “You can always ask Santa for one for Christmas,” she suggested.

“I’ve never gotten anything like that in my stocking,” Peter mock-grumbled. Evans chuckled and led the way out of the medical area.

Dixon, Jennings, Farswimmer and two of the other Echthroi were facing a new group of the dark-skinned creatures. Evans walked forward to meet the new arrivals.

The creatures watched as Evans moved closer. As she halted just beyond arm’s length from them, the foremost Echthroi suddenly hunched down slightly, hissing, and flung its arms out to reveal the wickedly clawed hands. Its mouth gaped open and its upper lip pulled back, displaying more of the needle-like teeth. It bobbed up and down, snarling.

Peter’s arm shot out, finger on the trigger of his webshooter. A large hand closed over his shoulder. “Don’t,” Thor’s voice sounded in his ear. “It’s a greeting. She did the same thing when I met them — I think she just enjoys scaring people.”

Evans too had crouched and hissed back at the Echthroi, her own hands curving to show her “claws”. The Echthroi and the human circled each other, sidling closer, until the Echthroi caught Evans’ hands in its own. It tilted its head and its teeth closed on Evans’ throat, gently enough that they left no marks. Then it released her and each took a step back, Evans smiling.

She turned and indicated Peter. “Blackheart, this is Spider-man.” The Echthroi eyed Peter and took a step forward.

“Just stand still, Peter. She won’t hurt you.”

She? That’s a female? How can you tell? Peter froze as the creature’s face came within a finger’s length of his own. He wondered belatedly which “she” Thor had been referring to earlier. The Echthroi inhaled several times, the unblinking black eyes studying his face. Then she stepped back and raised her clawed hand to imitate the sign Evans had shown Farswimmer earlier.

“And this is Blackheart, the Echthroi’s primary human liaison.”

“Uh, hi,” Peter said.

Blackheart nodded to him. Then she turned slightly and her hand moved in a sign Peter assumed was a greeting. She made the sign for the letter “T” and moved her hand in a circular motion over the center of her chest, where a human heart would have been.

“Hello, Blackheart,” Thor greeted her, and the Echthroi hissed at him softly. As Blackheart greeted Dixon, another of her party moved up to stand beside her. Peter’s breath caught in his throat. The second Echthroi was carrying Ben Urich, one arm under the reporter’s shoulders and the other under his knees.

Evans reached up to touch Urich’s throat, feeling for a pulse. “Blackheart, what did you do?”

We stimulated the portion of the brain that produced natural relaxants, Blackheart signed.

“I think you went a little overboard,” Evans remarked.

It was necessary. He was very frightened.

“I can’t imagine why,” Evans drawled. “Having your teeth within a few inches of my jugular vein scares me, and I know you.” The Echthroi uttered a sort of a short bark, which Peter took as laughter. “Well, Mr. Urich has a nice, steady heartbeat.” She glanced over her shoulder at Thor and quipped, “Maybe you’ll like his pulse better.”

The Echthroi carrying Urich relinquished his burden to the paramedics, who settled the reporter on a portable stretcher they had set up near an exit. The woman on the team began placing a blood pressure cuff on his arm.

The Echthroi in both parties froze as though listening to something only they could hear. A few minutes later, Blackheart’s hands moved in sign. Scouts sighted one of the dragons.

“All right,” Dixon said. “Your party’s on patrol this time, Blackheart?” She nodded. Thor leaned down to lift the hammer he had propped up against the wall of the medical area. Farswimmer and several of his party’s members accepted the young Echthroi Blackheart’s group had found.

“D’you want me to go with you?” Spider-man asked.

“No,” replied Dixon. “You’ve seen enough down here already.”

Spider-man folded his arms. “Well, you know, I really wasn’t asking you.” He pointed to Blackheart. “Isn’t she kind of the one in charge?”

Thor chuckled. Blackheart turned to him, her hands moving. What do you think?

“I think Spider-man’s presence would be helpful,” Thor said. “The sooner we subdue the last two dragons, the more quickly this mission will be over.”

“He doesn’t have the proper clearance,” Dixon argued.

“Neither do I.”

Blackheart cocked her head to one side, as though thinking. The other Echthroi stood motionless as well. Finally Blackheart raised her hands again, and Evans translated for Spider-man. We all want this over. We agree. Blackheart made Spider-man’s sign with her right hand. Will you come with us? We welcome your help.

“Sure,” Spider-man said. “I mean, I got into this whole thing to help people. I guess it doesn’t matter whether those people are humans or aliens.” He sprang forward and crawled up the wall, pausing halfway to the ceiling. Blackheart turned to Dixon. We share your concern. We promise to speak with him when this is over. Dixon glanced at Evans, who nodded.

“All right, Blackheart. I’ll agree,” Dixon said.

Blackheart signed a Thank you.

“I’ll find an extra pair of goggles,” Evans said.

“How far is it to the place where the scouts found the dragon, Blackheart?” Thor asked. Blackheart moved to stand in front of him, stretching up on her toes as Thor bent forward to let her cheek made contact with his. A moment later they drew apart. Thor nodded. “We’ll teleport, then.” Almost as one, the Echthroi in Blackheart’s group turned and plunged into the water, crowding close together. Evans reappeared, goggles in hand.

“These should making seeing easier, even with this dim lighting,” she said, holding them up to Spider-man.

The goggles didn’t begin to cover the lenses in the front of his mask. “Uh, excuse me.” He crawled up and along the wall into the shadows, then, turning his back on everyone, quickly removed the mask, slid the goggles in place, and pulled the mask back on. The mask’s lenses tapped against the goggles’ frame, but they remained in place. Everything took on a yellow cast, but his sight had improved and he could pick out details in the lighted areas he hadn’t seen before. Huh. Wonder if they’d let me keep these.... Realizing everyone was waiting, he crawled back down the wall into the light and nodded.

Thor grasped Mjolnir in his right hand and rose smoothly into the air. “Cover your eyes, everyone.”

Peter squeezed his eyes closed, and in a flash of light, the hunting party vanished.
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Dixon opened his eyes and scowled. “Does anyone else feel as though this is all careening out of control?”

“No,” Evans answered.

The security guards exchanged glances, mutually decided it was a rhetorical question, and remained silent.

“C’mon, Gerry, we’ve got four dragons in the bag out of a possible six. Only minor injuries so far. The Echthroi are happy because their kids are coming home safely. Thor may actually decide S.H.I.E.L.D.’s not the Evil Empire he’s been making us out to be. The mutant colony down here won’t have to worry about being anything’s meal any more. The dragons get a new home.” Evans leaned against a wall and watched Dixon through half-closed eyes. “What’s not to love about all this?”

Dixon began ticking the answers off on his fingers. “We have a dead Water and Sewer Department employee who apparently worked for the mob in his spare time. We have Spider-man running around loose down here in the middle of a S.H.I.E.L.D. operation that he doesn’t have clearance for. We have a reporter who is known for his interest in sewer monsters actually meeting said sewer monsters.”

“The Echthroi have taken care of that, Gerry. He’s going to wake up in the hospital with a muddled set of memories.”

Dixon suddenly looked thoughtful. “Which are the result of several unusual chemicals in his bloodstream, which could be explained.... by the fact that his would-be assailant slipped him something before taking him down into the tunnel.” Dixon paced up and down the open space for a few moments. “So any odd memories can be chalked up to illegal drugs. Urich managed to elude his attacker, a couple of department personnel found him, and Archer disappeared to avoid reprisals.” He nodded. “This could work.”

“That’s the spirit,” Evans told him. She glanced at the opening to the medical area. “And while we’re waiting for our resident heroes to come back with their quarry, I’m going to go get a glass of orange juice and some crackers, then sit down before I fall down, since I’m going to have to get back in the link at least twice more before this is over.”

Dixon shook his head. “I still wish we had insisted on another S.H.I.E.L.D. contact person for the Echthroi for this.”

“It’s all right, Gerry. The idea was to have as few people down here as possible, remember? I’ll be fine as long as I rest.” She jerked her head slightly. “I’ll go keep Ben Urich company while we’re waiting.”

“So he can see you, too?”

“This is all going to be a dream for him. Or, if I’m in it, more like a nightmare.” Evans gave him a wan smile and walked toward the back of the base camp in search of her juice and crackers. A few minutes later, still chewing, she carried her glass into the medical area, pulled a chair up next to Urich’s bed, and sipped at her orange juice. At last she rested her head against the back of the chair and closed her eyes.

“I found them.”

Evans opened her eyes; Urich was watching her. “Found what?” she asked.

“The monsters.”

“Really? Sounds scary.”

“No, there’s nothing to be scared of. They’re nice monsters,” Urich assured her. His words were noticeably slurred, and he didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see her sitting there.

Evans took another sip of her orange juice. “Doesn’t the paper have some kind of rule against drinking while you’re on the clock, Mr. Urich?”

Urich lay back and chuckled. “Haven’t touched a drop since last weekend,” he said. “The monsters are here. I bet,” he said, speaking slowly and pronouncing his words carefully, “that if we turn out the light, you’ll see them.”

“Hiding under the bed?” Evans asked dryly.

“Maybe. Maybe on the other side of those curtains. Want to find out?”

Evans gazed at the curtains across the “room” from them, a smile spreading across her face. “Okay. Let’s find out.” She glanced at Urich, a conspiratorial look on her face, and reached up to snap off the light.

For a few moments, they waited. Urich shifted position to prop himself up on one elbow. There was a soft pattering sound, and a small dark shape appeared in the doorway, quickly followed by a second. “Look,” Urich whispered. “There they are.”

“Well, well, what do you know,” Evans murmured. “You were right after all.”

“Yeah.” He paused. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not scared? You don’t have to be scared of them, they won’t hurt you.”

“No, I’m not scared. They don’t seem particularly scary.”

“Do you think we could get them to come closer?”

“I think that could be arranged.” At that moment, one of the adults appeared in the doorway behind the youngsters. Undoubtedly the sudden disappearance of light in an area inhabited by humans had aroused its curiosity. The little Echthroi both padded forward; with the lights off, this had become a new place to explore.

“The big ones won’t hurt you either,” Urich said.

Evans smiled. “I’ll take your word for it.”

The two smaller Echthroi sniffed around the medical stretcher and the legs of Evans’ trousers; one of them began climbing the stretcher’s frame, finally belly-flopping gracelessly onto the mattress beside Urich. The second youngster pulled itself up into Evan’s lap and peered into her cup. “No, no, baby monsters shouldn’t be drinking that,” Evans told it, setting the cup on a nearby instrument tray. “That’s good stuff for humans, but bad stuff for monsters. Your folks will have all sorts of goodies for you to eat when they take you home.”

The other Echthroi had discovered the front flaps on Urich’s jacket; when the reporter shrugged out of his jacket and held it out to the youngster, both little Echthroi froze for a moment. Finally Urich leaned forward and held the jacket over the youngster’s head, then draped the garment around its shoulders. The second youngster scrambled out of Evans’ lap and onto the bed, and both children examined the sleeves, pockets, and buttons. “Don’t let ‘em get your cell phone,” Evans warned.

“Should’ve emptied the pockets—” Urich began, but was cut off by several squealing cries and a round of gunfire.

Evans stumbled to her feet. The two small Echthroi dropped the jacket and crouched on the bed, hissing. The adult Echthroi sprang protectively between the children and entrance to the medical area.

In the open space outside the barriers, a lean, snake-like form erupted from the water and charged, shrieking, into the open. Jennings was shouting, “Aim for the eyes!” as the monstrous jaws opened and snapped. Teeth, claws and tail slashed in different directions.

The handful of Echthroi left in the area snatched up youngsters and bolted, scattering but ultimately trapped. The water lay behind the creature; the only other escape was up the exit stairway, into a light that would blind the aliens.

Dixon, Jennings, and Dunston were crouched against the walls on either side of the monster, firing at the face and eyes. The reptilian head suddenly ducked under the creature’s body, and the tail lashed out, slamming Dunston into the wall and leaving him in a heap on the floor. Jennings scrambled along the wall toward the medical area, still firing. The tail lashed again, this time a near miss. Dixon barked, “Stop shooting! It can hear—” The creature’s neck twisted, bringing the head and jaws back into play. Teeth snapped at Dixon. Jennings fired again and the creature jerked back, protecting its eyes. Dixon made a slashing motion across his throat, and Jennings stopped shooting. The dragon rounded on him.

One of the Echthroi suddenly charged into the center of the floor, challenging the dragon and leaving its youngster unprotected. The dragon swatted the adult toward the front of the area, almost into the medical barriers. It ignored the youngster completely.

Evans glanced around the barrier. She could hear Urich moving behind her. “Mr. Urich, stay back away from—”

“I recognize that guy,” Urich said, voice firmer. He sounded more aware. “That thing came out of the water earlier.”

“Yes, and it’s a rather nasty creature, so you might want to—” She caught a glimpse of Urich out of the corner of her eye as he brought one arm up, holding his cell phone.

“If it’ll just hold still....”

Evans grabbed for his arm as the flash went off. The dragon, Echthroi, and humans all uttered a collective chorus of shouts and shrieks at the sudden, blinding light. Dixon was cursing.

“Preyseeker!” Evans barked, and the adult Echthroi shook his head violently, then stepped forward to slap a hand against Urich’s neck. The reporter jerked once and collapsed back into the Echthroi’s arms.

“C’mon,” Evans ordered, and dashed out of the medical area, Preyseeker towing Urich along by the shoulders. “Here. Give him to them.” She indicated the paramedics. “Get him upstairs and out of here. Tell the troops on standby we have a situation and need backup!”

“But—” one of them began.

“Go! You’re not armed, and you can’t help here! Get backup!” The male paramedic slung Urich over his shoulder; his partner flung the door open so both could dash up the stairs.

In the open area, Dixon and Jennings were on opposite sides of the room. The Echthroi adults were against the two side walls. The monster held the lower end of the area, blinking rapidly, head swaying back and forth, watching for movement. This one was almost four times the size of largest dragon yet caught.

“It responds to sound and movement,” Dixon murmured.

Jennings pressed against the wall. “Right. It’s between everyone and the water, too.”

“Yeah. Pretty damned smart for an animal. Attacked right when we’re vulnerable.”

“Do you think—”

The dragon sprang forward. Its tail swept along the left wall, while its head and neck angled toward the right wall. Two of the remaining Echthroi adults pounced on the tail, biting and clawing. Suddenly all of the adults abandoned the youngsters to rush the monster. The young Echthroi hissed and snarled.

Evans turned to Preyseeker. “Go! Get the youngsters into the water! Now!” The Echthroi caught up both youngsters and plunged through the barrier opening, sprinting for the water.

In the center of the open area, the dragon was snapping and snarling at the Echthroi that clung to its hide. Jennings opened fire again; three shots later her ammunition was gone. Dixon dashed into the medical area, shouting for Jennings to follow.

“Quick, help me get this out there,” he told Jennings, kicking the barrier wall down and grabbing the gurney. “Aim for the mouth!” She grasped the opposite side. Evans drew her own handgun and aimed for the dragon. She squeezed the trigger twice. The dragon bellowed, head jerking up and away from the attacking Echthroi.

“Now!” Dixon and Jennings sprinted forward. The gurney slammed into the dragon’s face and the sinuous body recoiled backwards. Evans ran the length of one wall, urging the young Echthroi toward the open water.

The dragon reared up, roaring. Its forepaw smashed the gurney into a twisted heap on the floor. Snapping the metal frame up in its mouth, the monster tossed it against the wall and turned, snarling, on Dixon.
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Peter found himself detached from the wall; he instinctively reached out with hands and feet and touched solid concrete a finger’s length away. Wow. That’s precision teleporting! Thor hovered nearby, watching until Peter nodded to show that he was ready. The Echthroi below spread out as much as the tunnel’s width would allow. The light was again dim, and Peter took a moment to get his bearings. “Um, no offense, but I don’t see any dragons.”

“No. I brought us in at a distance so everyone had time to adjust to the move without alerting the dragon to our presence.”

“Oh.” Okay, that was smart.

Thor was watching the Echthroi spread out below them. He glanced up at Spider-man. “Whatever happens, try to stay out of the water as much as possible. The chemicals the Echthroi need to simulate their natural environment are diluted out here, but they’re still strong enough to make a human sick with prolonged exposure.”

“You don’t happen to know what chemicals those are, by any chance?” Peter asked. Seeing Thor’s raised eyebrows, he added, “That stuff interests me. I mean, what kind of environment did the Echthroi evolve in? The idea of life coming from an environment that no human could tolerate is just fascinating. Is the liquid acidic, basic, or—” He peered down at the Echthroi, who were all staring back up at him, floating patiently. “Sorry. Every once in a while I kind of geek out.”

Thor smiled slightly.

“So, uh, is there a game plan?” Spider-man asked.

“Yes. A simple one. I’m going to keep the dragon focused on me. You bind its mouth and any other part of its body you can. Once it’s immobile, the Echthroi should be able to mind-stun it, and I’ll transport us all back to the staging area.”

“Is that what they did with the other one they caught? When they put their hands on it?”

“Yes. It reduces the possibility of injury for everyone. Before the dragon wakes up, I’ll have transported it to a place where it can live out its life without hurting anyone else.”

“Um, where?”

Thor blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Where exactly are you going to release these things? I mean, they eat people, right? Are you going to just drop it in the middle of Yellowstone National Park and hope for the best?”

Thor chuckled. “No, nothing like that. I know a place where it won’t have any possibility of contact with humans. Don’t worry.” With that, he drifted downward toward the water.

Me, worried? Do I look worried? Naaaah.... Peter thought dryly. Why is it that every time we think we have everything under control, it turns around and bites us in the aaaa—

The Echthroi below suddenly uttered a group cry, a high-pitched shriek. A massive rush of water scattered them in all directions as a gaping pair of jaws erupted from the surface. The dragon surged upward to swallow Thor.

Holeeee— Spider-man sprang forward in a leap across the tunnel to the opposite wall. Where did that thing come from?

The dragon crashed back into the water, the waves rolling the aliens still further away. The monster began to thrash back and forth in the water, keeping the Echthroi at bay as they struggled against the swells. Its neck jerking, jaws tightly closed around Thor’s waist, the dragon snarled.

Thor had one hand braced against each of the dragon’s jaws, trying to pry them apart. The hammer Mjolnir hovered just over his shoulder as Thor strained, trying to get a better grip on the monster’s jaws while the dragon whipped him back and forth.

That’s enough, Peter muttered inwardly. Hold still, you.... Webbing shot from his wrists and cemented a hind leg to the edge of walkway.

The dragon’s tail slammed into the wall beside him. Spider-man sprang forward, dodging the tail a second time. As he landed again, the dragon leaped upward, slashing at him with its claws. The walkway concrete crumbled, freeing the dragon, and it all but ran up the wall at him.

Peter dropped straight down, pushed off the bottom of the wall, and vaulted over the water toward the far side of the tunnel. Something shot past him and slammed into the side of the dragon’s head with a metallic clang. A moment later the dragon staggered and slid back into the water, dazed. Thor shoved downward with both hands, forcing dragon’s mouth open and freeing his legs. Mjolnir flew to his right hand and a moment later he was hovering in the air.

The dragon suddenly rolled headfirst under the water. Peter braced his feet against the tunnel wall and snared the monster’s tail in a single stand of webbing before it could disappear. Not gonna be the one that got away.

The Echthroi suddenly sent up a wailing cry; several of them were swimming after the retreating dragon, but others were merely bobbing in the water. Thor flew forward after the dragon. Below him on the walkway, Peter could see one of the Echthroi (impossible to tell which one in the dim lighting) leap onto the concrete and sprint forward after them.

The webbing snapped taut and Peter clung to the strand with both hands, toes curled around a concrete outcropping. The jolt strained his arms and shoulders. The lone Echthroi sprinter caught up with Thor; gathering itself, it leaped upward to wrap its arms around the man’s waist.

Startled, Thor instinctively grabbed for the Echthroi as it pressed its face against his bare arm. He faltered in midair, body jerking at the mental contact. For a moment Peter thought they were both going to end up in the water.

The dragon had jerked to a halt. It turned, jaws open. The Echthroi wriggled free of Thor’s grasp and dropped downward. The dragon snapped at it. The Echthroi landed in the dragon’s mouth, claws on fingers and toes extended, and sank its teeth into the dragon’s tongue for good measure. The dragon squealed and began frantically trying to spit the Echthroi out.

Thor shook his head. Shifting Mjolnir to both hands, he drew the hammer back and slammed the side of it into the dragon’s temple. The monster grunted; Thor hit it a second time with a backhand swing and it rolled over in the water, stunned. The Echthroi in its mouth slithered free.

“Spider-man! The other dragon has attacked the base camp!” Thor was shouting over his shoulder. “We need to get there now!”

The Echthroi in the tunnel below him regrouped and plunged toward the dragon and their injured colleague. Peter dropped the webbing and anchored a second strand to the ceiling for a swing down the tunnel, settling onto the wall. “Cover your eyes!”

A flash of light later, the tunnel was empty except for the water lapping against the walkway.


Evans snapped off two more shots at the dragon’s eyes, the only good target she could see in the dim light. The dragon shrieked. Its forepaw swiped at Dixon; then it flowed in almost a complete circle and charged at the woman.

Jennings snatched at a piece of the gurney, twisting the metal off into a club — a poor weapon against a large animal, but the best she could find.

Suddenly the Echthroi collectively uttered a single note and flung their hands over their eyes. In a flash of light another huge shape appeared — and the second dragon dropped out of the air on top of the first, roaring. Both tangled in enclosed space, thrashing. One of the Echthroi bounded off the floor to shove Dixon out of the way of a flailing tail; adults grabbed for youngsters. Jennings threw herself backwards toward the exit door. Evans sprinted for the walkway in the side tunnel behind her.

“As much netting as you can make!” Thor called to Spider-man, and strands of webbing began to glue the two dragons to the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling. In a second flash of light, Thor vanished, returning a few moments later over the water in the tunnel. The Echthroi he had left behind on the first teleport splashed into the water and quickly swarmed into the base camp, joined by most of the remaining adult Echthroi. Thor landed next to the head of the uppermost dragon, which growled at him. He raised Mjolnir, and the dragon, hissing, lowered its head in submission. It uttered three staccato roars, and the second dragon stopped thrashing. It too hissed angrily, but quit struggling.

Gerald Dixon picked himself up off the floor and limped to where Thor was standing. The Echthroi cautiously approached the two bound dragons, which snarled at them. The dragon Thor had teleported watched him warily.

“They understand that’s a weapon, don’t they?” Dixon remarked, indicating Mjolnir.


“That double attack was too finely coordinated for mere animals,” Dixon continued. “And did it sound to you as though one of them communicated with the other?”

“Yes, it did.” Thor lowered the hammer to his waist.

“You think they’re intelligent?” Peter asked, lowering himself headfirst to Dixon’s eye level.

“The Echthroi suspected that might become the case,” Dixon admitted. “It looks like they might be right. One of the reasons we were trying to capture the dragons without killing them.”

Peter slowly rolled himself over until his feet touched the floor. “Did the dragons come with the Echthroi from their homeworld?” he asked.

“No,” came Evans’ voice. She still had the gun in her hand, although it was now pointed at the floor. “We think the dragons are actually native to this area, predating the arrival of the European explorers to this continent. If you look at Native American legends and mythology, you’ll find stories of river and lake monsters that sound an awful lot like the conventional description of dragons, or at least really large snakes. It’s possible that these are among the last survivors of one or more races of dragon-like creatures that once lived here. How they got into the water and sewer tunnels under New York City and how long they’ve been here is anyone’s guess.”

“Only now, they’re more like nuisance wildlife,” Dixon broke in. “They’re threatening the Echthroi offspring, and obviously these two are big enough to be a danger to the adults as well. There’s a possibility that they could move out of the sewers and into our local rivers, or even into other parts of the New York underground.”

“So that comes back to a question I asked earlier,” Peter said. “Where are you going to put them?”

All eyes turned to Thor, who smiled. “Somewhere else, where they won’t harm any other intelligent life. That’s one reason the Echthroi asked for me.” He glanced around at the Echthroi who had gathered. “I’m going to take the adults dragons now. I’ll come back for the youngsters in a few minutes.”

We will have them ready, one of the Echthroi signed.

“Thank you, Blackheart.” Gripping Mjolnir, Thor rose straight upward. The dragons watched him, still hissing softly, coiling up in the webbing as much as possible. The Echthroi ducked their heads and covered their eyes. Thor and the two adult dragons vanished.

Spider-man turned to Evans. "So where is he taking them?"

She shook her head. "I haven't the faintest idea. Your guess is as good as mine."

Beside Spider-man, Dixon sighed wearily. “I can’t wait to do the paperwork on this one,” he muttered. He turned to Jennings. “Let’s call the paramedics back down,” he told her. She nodded.

“I’ll give headquarters the ‘all clear’ and call off the troops,” Evans said.

“No. I’ll do that. You and Spider-man and the Echthroi need to talk.” Dixon gave her a significant glance and turned away.

“That sounded ominous,” Peter remarked. Evans smiled tiredly.

“Not really. How curious about the Echthroi are you, Mr. Parker?”

Peter jumped. “You — you....! Does everyone in New York know my identity?”

She grinned. “No. A handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel above a certain clearance level, and that’s it. I know because our paths cross every so often. But if I were you, I’d make sure Spider-man doesn’t give Ben Urich any in-depth personal interviews. He might recognize your voice.”

Gah.... Hadn’t thought of that, Peter groaned inwardly.

“The Echthroi want to talk to you. The same way they’ve been talking to me.”

Spider-man eyed her warily. “Are they going to scramble my memories?”

Evans glanced from him to Blackheart and back. “Well, I guess that will depend on you.”

“I could just swing out of there.”

“You could. But then you wouldn’t have your questions answered. And how do you plan to find your way out of here?”

Peter wavered. If I had any brains at all, I would be out of here so fast.... “Will I come out of this remembering who I am?” he asked suspiciously.

Evans smiled and nodded. “I guarantee it.”

“Okay. Let’s talk.”

Evans, Spider-man, Blackheart, and the two remaining adult Echthroi set the screens back up around what had been the medical area, completely enclosing an area large enough to house everyone. Evans settled into a chair, offered Spider-man another, and waited. Blackheart took up a position to Peter’s left. “This will require skin to skin contact,” Evans said.

After a moment’s hesitation, Peter pulled off his mask and the goggles underneath.
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“Peter, this is Preyseeker,” Evans said, indicating the Echthroi on her right, “and Memorykin. They’re going to put us in contact with the rest of the Echthroi so we can all talk. It may be a little disorienting at first, but I think you’ll find it interesting.”

He glanced sideways at Blackheart. “Okay.” The Echthroi leaned down and pressed her cheek against his. He saw white static that gradually faded to a mostly blue background.

**I/We/They greet you, one-known-as-Peter-Sees-With-The-Mind.** A host of voices spoke to him. Although he couldn’t see his own body, Peter could see the soft blue “background” that rippled around him. As the voices spoke, lights in the blue pulsed to the rhythm of their speech.

**What the—this is like talking to the Borg.**

**Question/Borg?** the voices asked.

A scene from one of the
Star Trek episodes dealing with the cybernetic Borg suddenly appeared before Peter’s “eyes”. **They’re fictional characters that consist of biological beings enhanced by mechanical appendages,** explained a voice belonging to Miranda Evans. The voice had no gender indicators at all, but Peter knew it was hers. The scene vanished, replaced by blue, watery surroundings with the lights gliding through it. A persistent chorus of whispers played in the background. **Peter? Are you all right in here?**

**Uh, yeah.** He wasn’t sure if he answered with his voice, or his mind, or both, but he could see a white ripple spread out into the blue from his position.

**Good. This is what it looks like in a collective Echthroi mind-link. Or at least, this is the way the human mind tends to interpret it. Please don’t ask why — I don’t know. The current theory is that it has something to do with our biology and perception.**

**Is that why you sound like that?** Peter asked.

He could feel her amusement. **Yes. Do you know how, when you read something, there’s a voice in your head that kind of speaks the words aloud? It doesn’t sound like you, but it’s still your voice, isn’t it?**

**Yeah, I think I know what you mean.**

**That’s what’s going on here. This is one reason it’s easier on a human to have another human in the link the first few times in. I can explain things in terms you’ll understand, and provide points of reference. I act as a cross between an anchor and a template, so to speak.**

**Those lights—** he began.

**Those represent the individual Echthroi in the link,** Evans explained. **Some are physically present around us, but many are back in the Echthroi’s territory, in the region where we can’t go because of their environment. The Echthroi are naturally telepathic among themselves, but they need physical contact with a human to speak to us mentally. Their bodies produce chemicals that allow this to happen. It’s very convenient when you need to communicate, but the drawback is that the chemicals are toxic if they build up beyond a certain level in the human body. So we don’t have much time. I’ve built up something of a tolerance over the past few years, but I’ve been pushing it lately, and you’re just doing this for the first time. There are things we need to show and tell you, but our time is limited, all right?**


A moment later his mind recoiled from the half a dozen images that bombarded him; in the blink of an eye, the images swept past and only one image passed before him. Or perhaps it was a series of images taken from several individuals and strung together, he wasn’t sure. He experienced the sounds, sights, smells and sensations of the Echthroi as refugees. Crowded together in a hold filled with the liquid of the world on which they had lived, as many of them as the room could safely hold, other ships traveling nearby, piloted by other races of beings as the ships scattered to avoid detection by the Enemy, minds crying as—

A jump forward in time. Peter’s mind “flinched” in surprise; the sights and other sensations faded back to the blue. **What happened?**

**Most of their people were killed when their planet was destroyed,** Evans’ “voice” explained. **Trust me, you don’t want to experience the full sensation of that. We’ve had a couple of contact people driven to attempt suicide, it’s that powerful.**

Peter “shuddered”. **Okay. I’ll take your word for it. I’m sorry,** he told the Echthroi. **I know what it’s like to lose people you love.**

A sensation of bewilderment swept through him. **Many humans have said this,** Blackheart said. **The dead are not lost. They are—**

The sensation/concept that flowed from the Echthroi was a meaningless jumble in Peter’s thoughts. **I didn’t—**

**I know. It doesn’t translate well,** Evans told him. **We think the Echthroi may have contact with the dead members of their race. Some of the lights we are seeing may belong to the deceased.**

**Whoa! That’s—that’s—**

**Yes. Unfortunately we don’t have time to explore it. I’m starting to feel unwell, and if you don’t, I suspect you will soon. Please, let’s keep moving.**

The “explanation” of the Echthroi’s arrival on Earth continued. The ships landed—

**Skip that, please,** Evans directed. **Irrelevant. Show him why you use these exterior tunnels.**

The Echthroi had adapted to a new environment and formed new habits, but old traditions still had their place, too. A picture of the adults, swimming in groups in the tunnels of their habitat that led to the outside world....

**Three genders?** Peter asked excitedly.

**Yes.** There was an amused note in Evans’ “voice”. **We call them “male”, “female”, and “other”. Original, huh?**

Peter laughed with a ripple of white light.

**Twice during the year, the Echthroi venture outside their territory. During the autumn, the adults use the water tunnels for mating purposes, and during the spring, now, the young Echthroi swim up the tunnels and return to the places where they were spawned. The adults come out to collect them,** Evans explained.

**We believe our young must be strengthened by adversity,** Blackheart’s “voice” took up the narrative, ** so the eggs are allowed to travel throughout the tunnels, where they hatch and the young have to survive the following year. The little ones you’ve seen today are over a year old. At this point they’ve developed to the stage where they can actually leave the water. Unfortunately, they are rather—** she paused, and the Echthroi lights seemed to quiver as the aliens searched for the right word **— animalistic, and it is dangerous for humans to be down here until the young have made contact with us. So all humans remove themselves from the tunnels for the two weeks of the Gathering. We need to form a telepathic link with the young in order to awaken their sentient minds; afterwards, the young become very much like human children — they’re curious about everything, and begin learning our behaviorisms and culture. **

Peter “jumped” as an image of a young dragon swam toward him; the blue faded to black. Evans explained, **The Echthroi say they’ve always been aware of the presence of the dragons, but this year there were suddenly more of them, and they were becoming aggressive, attacking not only the Echthroi young and their usual prey of rats and fish, but people as well—Echthroi adults and even the colony of mutants living down here.**

**Mutants live down here?**

**A lot of unusual life forms live down here.** Evans’ mental voice had a wry tone. **Intelligent and otherwise.**

**Yeah, about that.** Peter called up his hazy memory of the large, shadowy thing he had seen when he had encountered Curt Conners in his reptilian form. The Echthroi minds hovered around it; their mental “voices” whispered in the back of his consciousness.

**I/We/They don’t recognize it,** the aliens admitted finally. **Human perception is limited. I/We/They—** here the pictures and “voices” conveyed concepts that Peter didn’t understand.

**The Echthroi have senses humans don’t — even the telepaths don’t understand everything the Echthroi show us,** Evans explained.

**Are you telepathic?** Peter asked.

**Not under normal circumstances, no,** Evans replied.

**How come you’re in the mind-link instead of a telepath, then?**

Evans paused. **The Echthroi specifically asked that our telepathic contacts not be used. I’m not sure why. I think there are mental barriers that natural telepaths have that non-telepaths don’t. And I’m sorry, but we really need to wrap this up. Peter, I need to be able to go back and tell General Fury that your memories have either been erased, or bound,** Evans told him. **Otherwise there’s the possibility of an information leak of epic proportions. We keep the Echthroi a secret for a number of good reasons—you’ve seen the reaction to the existence of mutants, you can guess what would happen if people discovered the existence of extraterrestrials.**

**What do you mean by “bound”?** Peter asked.

**I/We/They can use the chemistry/electricity of your mind to prevent you from revealing this knowledge to anyone, through voice-talk or picture-talk or mind-talk,** the Echthroi answered him. **You will remember all we have shared with you, but will be unable to pass this to anyone. I/We/They will use Miranda-Who-Sees-With-The-Mind as a stimulus—you will be able to exchange this with her, but with no one else.**

Peter struggled with the unfamiliar speech patterns. **So Ms. Evans will be like a memory trigger—when I see her, we’ll be able to discuss this, but if she’s not around, I’ll remember but not be able to tell anyone?**

The blue rippled around him. Finally the light that represented Blackheart flickered and her “voice” said, **Yes. There will come a time when I/we/they will release you from this, but it is the safest to do this for now.**

**You can even keep people from reading this in my mind?** Peter asked.

**Yes. This will be—** the collective voice hesitated over the words **—
transparent to anyone who speaks-with-mind.**

**Wow.** At least this way, he’d still have the memories, even if he couldn’t share them. **Yeah, okay, I’ll agree,** Peter said. The lights closed in around him, and passed through him. The memories he had of the Echthroi, their biology, their history ran through his mind; the lights picked the memories up and did a whirling “dance” with them.
Dance? thought Peter. That’s not right. But it was the only word that he could find that even remotely described the sight and sensation. At last the memories “settled” into his mind, and the Echthroi minds circled them closely, forming a “sphere” around them. The memories were still there, and he could “feel” them in his mind, but there was a barrier that he had to push through to play them back.

The lights circled around him and passed through him again. Something else in his mind changed. **What—** he began.

**We have given you a gift, Peter-Who-Sees-With-The-Mind,** Blackheart told him. **We have caused your other self to be transparent to any who can touch your mind.**

**My other self?**

For a moment a vision of himself in his Spider-man costume rippled in the blueness before him. **This will be your secret, shared only by those in the link,** Blackheart explained. **You can tell others, but no one will be able to this from your mind.**

**That’s handy,** Peter thought. **Thank you, Blackheart, and everyone.**

**The time is ending, Peter,** Blackheart told him, the “Sees-With-The-Mind” part of his name only an echo in her thoughts. **You must go, before you and Miranda absorb too much of our chemistry and become ill. Swim strongly. Thank you for what you have done for me/us/them.**

**You’re welcome,** Peter replied. The blue faded to black, leaving only the lights swirling before him; at last they faded away as well.

Blackheart drew her face away from his. Peter blinked, disoriented by the change from surreal blue and talking lights to the darkness of the tunnels. Evans opened her eyes and drew away from Memorykin, then leaned forward to lower her head below knee-level.

“You going to be all right?” Peter asked.

“Well, I suspect I’m going to spend time on sick leave,” Evans replied weakly, sitting back up. “But yes, once the chemicals work their way out of my system, I’ll be fine.” She picked up her hand-held computer and began tapping keys. “I’ll have the security system let you out. Take the door across there—” she nodded at the far wall “—and go up the stairs. They’ll let you out at an elevator. Just press the button and take the lift to the top floor. It’s actually part of the legitimate city-run portion of the sewer systems, but you can’t get down here from the surface. The elevator only comes this far down if you call it down from the station on the floor above us. There should be someone up there who can tell you which hospital they’ve taken Ben Urich to.”

“Thanks.” Peter paused for a moment. “You told Ben Urich you were a librarian.”

“Mr. Parker, do I look particularly stupid to you?”

“Uh, no, ma’am.”

“Then why would I tell a reporter that I work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? Kind of just begging for trouble, wouldn’t you say?”

Peter winced. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Evans smiled. “I really am a librarian. I have the Master’s Degree to prove it. I organize, store, retrieve and provide information for patrons, just like everyone else in my field.” She nodded at the aliens around them. “It just so happens that some of my patrons come from other planets, and the rest of them work in espionage.” Peter grinned. “Thanks for your help, Spider-man.” The Echthroi around her nodded in the human manner.

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Thanks for letting me keep... everything.”

“Might be worth giving a thought to a career with us,” Evans suggested.

“Uh, yeah. I’ll keep it in mind.”

“See you at the paper, Mr. Parker.”

Peter pulled on his mask, nodded good-bye to the group, and left the medical area. A minute later, Gerry Dixon peered around the barrier. “It’s done?” he asked.

Evans nodded. “Everything’s safe.”

Memories bound, Blackheart added.
“Good.” Dixon dropped into the vacant chair and leaned back wearily. “One more. I hope.”

“Thor will come back, Gerry. He promised the Echthroi in the first contact meeting. They believe him.”

“Let’s hope they’re right.”

We explained. He agreed, Memorykin signed.

Dixon grimaced. “People lie, Memorykin.”

We know, Memorykin replied. Seeing Dixon’s scowl, he added, We had contact with other species. Chitauri-Enemy lied. So did others.

“I’m not going to ask if present company is excepted. Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.” The Echthroi around him made a puzzled-sounding hrrrrrr? noise. Dixon smiled wryly and turned back to Evans. “How’re you doing?”

“As well as can be expected under the circumstances.”

“I should call for one of the other contacts to come down and get into the link.”

“No. I can do this. I’m not sure he’ll agree to anyone else in there after this.”

Dixon scowled. “I bet that he’d agree you shouldn’t go in again.”

“Gerry, I will be fine. I can do this. I’ll just keep it short.” Seeing the look on Dixon’s face, she added, “Really, really short. And afterward I promise I will actually let the medical people do their magic and not argue with any of them.”

“Even you would be hard-pressed to argue with someone if you’re dead.”

“You worry too much.”

“It comes of having teenaged daughters.”

Evans chuckled weakly. “Give me five minutes, and I’m out of there.”

Dixon’s gaze shifted. “Blackheart?”

The Echthroi’s hands signed, We will make sure she leaves the link before she gets too sick.

“Okay,” Dixon said grimly. “I’m taking you at your word on this, Blackheart.”

Echthroi do not lie, Blackheart replied. Miranda belongs to us. We don’t want her hurt.

Light flashed outside the barrier; the Echthroi reflexively covered their eyes. A moment later Thor leaned into the medical area from the outside. “I believe I have an appointment,” he said quietly.

“I seem to remember putting you on the schedule,” Evans remarked, unfolding her arms and sitting up straighter in the chair. Dixon rose to give Thor the extra chair, and left without a word.
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Thor stooped to lay Mjolnir on the floor, then sat down beside it and looked up at her. “I can do this without you in the link if you’re not feeling well.”

“Oh, no, I insist. I’m just such the eternal busybody, have to know what’s going on at every moment,” Evans drawled. “Besides, this is one of the perks of my job — alien mind-linking. Just think how jealous all the sci-fi fans on the planet would be if they knew.”

Thor gazed at her for a moment, then smiled. “All right.” Blackheart crouched beside him; Memorykin leaned over Evans and pressed his cheek against hers.

**If nothing else, I owe you for the ride back to New York,** Evans remarked as the blue field and background whispering settled around them.

**It was the fastest way back here. I did it more for the Echthroi’s benefit.**

**I really, really hate flying, so despite the bruising of my ego there, I still feel I owe you a favor. Anything short of providing classified information or sex.**

She could feel the bewilderment through the link. **Classified information I can understand, but....**

**Trust me, Thor, you don’t want to go there. Just keep the offer in mind. We can’t stay long in the link. The Echthroi already explained the need for binding these memories.**

**Because they sense the Chitauri on Earth and need to keep this colony a secret, yes.**

**You might want to ask them to completely block the memories temporarily instead.**


Evans replied,**If I can tell General Fury that you don’t remember any of this, that the Echthroi have blocked your memories, he can’t use this as leverage to make you sign with the Ultimates.**

**I’ve already given Fury my answer on that.**

**Thor, listen to me.** Evans’ mental “voice” was weary. **I haven’t worked directly with Fury more than handful of times, but the impression I get is that he sees people in one of three groups — neutral, controllable, and threats. People who have no impact on S.H.I.E.L.D. or its mandates are neutral, and therefore ignorable. People who work for S.H.I.E.L.D. or one of its sister agencies are controllable. Anyone powerful enough to have an impact on S.H.I.E.L.D. or its policies, but isn’t controllable, is a threat.

**As someone who easily fits the definition of ‘superhuman’, you’re out of the neutral category automatically. You’re not under S.H.I.E.L.D. control, so that makes you a threat. If you don’t sign with us, Fury is going to try to either blackmail you into joining or eliminate you.**

**I’m not afraid of Fury, Miss Evans.**

There was a pause. **Maybe you should be, Mr. Golman.** A ripple of color ran through the blue surrounding them as both Thor and the Echthroi reacted to her words. **Don’t be so surprised. I’m one of the people who compiled your dossier for S.H.I.E.L.D.**

**Why are you telling me this?**

**As weird as this sounds, these people are my friends, and my responsibility. Their safety is important to me. You came here to help them out without expecting any sort of compensation. I don’t think you deserve to be manipulated like this.**

**You told me you had no authorization to contact me.**

**And that’s the honest truth. But I’ve been with S.H.I.E.L.D. for almost 10 years. I know how things work. If Fury hadn’t wanted me to contact you, I would have been stopped before I got to the airport. This was very convenient bait to get you involved with a S.H.I.E.L.D. project. Don’t get me wrong—this was a legitimate situation. We needed you here. And S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t the Evil Empire. But I can understand why you might see it that way. So the memory block is the best way out I can think of right now.**

**We can set a—** Blackheart paused, searching for a word, ** —trigger to release the memories. An event, a word, will remove the block and allow the memories to return. The Chitauri-Enemy grows in strength. A battle looms. We must not be found yet.**

**How many people know about the Chitauri?** Thor asked.

**Only a handful,** Evans replied. **Agents with very high-level classification and a direct need-to-know status.**

**So no one’s likely to mention them casually.**

**Not at all.**

**That can be the trigger, then. The word “Chitauri”. It’s only likely to come up if I’m in a S.H.I.E.L.D. operation involving them.**

The whispering grew in tone in the background.

**That seems likely,** Evans replied.

**We can do this,** Blackheart responded.

**When you’re done, give him a destination to go to, Blackheart,** Evans suggested. **If he doesn’t remember any of this, there’s really no point in him staying here. And it would be a lot simpler if he didn’t have to deal with Gerry or any of the rest of us.**

**He can choose a place before we block the memories,** Blackheart said.

**When you get your memories back, drop into my office anytime,** Evans told Thor. **I still owe you. Memorykin, I need to leave.** A moment later, Evans’ light disappeared from the blue.

Memorykin grasped her arm as Evans rose unsteadily to her feet and stumbled toward the barrier opening. Evans paused, leaned down and laid a hand on Thor’s shoulder. Bringing her mouth close to his ear, she murmured, “Thank you,” and moved on.


Ben Urich sat in a hospital bed, a couple of pillows behind him to prop him upright. “I had this really weird... I don’t know, dream, trip, whatever you want to call it.”

“And it had monsters in it?” Joe Robertson prompted dryly.

“Yes. They were coming out of the walls and the floor.” Urich frowned. “Sort of. In about three different sizes. One of them tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand what it was saying. And then Miranda Evans showed up—”

“The librarian who brings you the paperwork?”

“Yeah — showed up and tried to explain everything.” Urich paused. “Or I was trying to explain it to her, I can’t remember which. Peter was there, too.”


“Yeah. At least his voice was. I couldn’t actually see him.

“You remember anything else?”

“A lot of running,” Urich replied. “And it was dark most of the time. When it wasn’t dark, I think I was wishing it were. Then I woke up here.”

Robertson shook his head. “I think your subconscious was been working overtime. The doctors can’t identify what they found in your bloodstream. It might be some kind of new street drug....”


Gerald Dixon fell into step beside Nicholas Fury in the Triskelion’s sixth floor hallway. “We’ve got the autopsy report on Steadman. Turns out he was a shapeshifter. That explains how he got a S.H.I.E.L.D. ID badge with access to our secured tunnels in the sewer.”


“No. Mutant human.”

Fury grimaced. “Bad enough. How much of a leak was it?”

“We’re not sure yet. Not much, I suspect. Most of the year we have minimal staff down there anyway.” The two men paused at the elevator. “The Echthroi are good about staying in their own environment, except for twice a year.” Dixon paused while Fury pressed the summons button. “Our people spend most of their time doing routine water and sewer work, unless ordered otherwise. We just need a handful of our own people for the tunnels. I think that’s one reason Archer or whatever his name was took Steadman’s identity.” Dixon shook his head. “I wonder how many people have disappeared in those tunnels in the last few years.”

“Find out. And find out who Archer was working for, besides us. I want a cap on this leak.” Fury stepped into the elevator.

“Yes, sir.” Dixon held the elevator door open. “Miranda is awake.”

“I know. I’m on my way to talk to her right now.”

Dixon’s hand remained on the door. “The doctors say she’s been having strange dreams this time. I don’t like the sounds of that.”

Fury nodded. “Neither do I. We’ll have Psi take a look at her again.” He gave Dixon a grim look as he pressed the button for the hospital floor and the elevator door closed. A few moments later he passed the nurses’ station and entered a room.

Miranda Evans glanced up from her issue of Smithsonian, then closed it and laid it aside. “General? What can I do for you?”

“You can give me a verbal account of what happened Down Below, if you’re up to it,” Nicholas Fury replied, pausing next to the visitor’s chair.

Evans pulled herself up into a sitting position in the hospital bed. “I can do that.” Fury settled himself into the chair as she launched into her narrative. He nodded after she’d finished. “That matches Dixon’s report, and what the paramedics and security personnel said they saw of things. Spider-man’s memories are gone?”

“Bonded. He won’t be revealing anything to anyone.”

“Wiped would have been better.”

Evans grimaced. “I suppose—”

Holding up a hand, Fury added, “You couldn’t do much about it, I know. I don’t like the fact that the Echthroi won’t use human telepaths.”

“Apparently the mental barriers—”

“Yeah, I know the theory. And I’ve read the account of the early attempts, too. But the first contacts with non-telepaths didn’t go well, either, and yet here you and four others are linking with them with no outward sign of trauma.”

“They’ve obviously learned how to work with us without causing damage,” Evans remarked.

“So it appears,” Fury said. “Okay, what about Thor?”

“That’s something else you’re not going to like, General....”


Below the New York City streets, in a large chamber that contained a toxic, alien environment, a group of refugees and their descendents waited. Above them they sensed the Chitauri feeding, infiltrating, multiplying, their life signs clustering in large numbers in two distinct locations, and in smaller numbers throughout the city. The humans would be able to find the Chitauri lairs once the liaisons passed the information along.

The upper world was closed to the refugees; the light was too strong and the humans who had given them sanctuary had forbidden them to go there, even at night. Despite their handicaps, the aliens had found ways of watching the Enemy. Five human minds now fed them sights, sounds and sensations through links built over many months of subtle biochemical manipulation undetectable by human telepaths — or the Chitauri who consumed them. The human “spies” lacked the ability to sense the Enemy as the aliens did, but picked up information, as well as behavioral and pheromonal clues, that could be analyzed by the collective mind below them.

None of the five knew yet that they were subconsciously linked to the aliens with whom they had been working as liaisons.

Like the humans who had given them sanctuary, the aliens had learned to keep secrets.

The time of confrontation was coming.


“...the Earth is currently home to eleven alien species at the moment, and those are just the ones our clean-up crews are aware of.....”

Nicholas Fury,
Ultimates Issue 8.
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Author’s Note: Because the Echthroi in my story are not actually deaf, merely unable to communicate verbally with humans, I’ve adapted some of the rules for American Sign Language, most notably the conventions used in assigning a person a sign name in the Deaf community. Anyone interested in the conventions of naming should look for The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language, by Samuel J. Supalla, which explains the concepts and uses of names among the Deaf. Miranda Evans deliberately chose the two signs for characters (she uses a name sign for herself, but we don’t see that here). Note that Peter’s sign is made against the forehead, and Thor’s over the heart. Since Evans assigned them the names, this is indicative of the way she sees each of them; she associates Peter with intellect, and Thor with emotion. I’m not sure whether this was a conscious decision on her part or not. I don’t always know what’s going on in the minds of my characters.

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book of Norse myths really does exist, as does Madeline L’Engle’s novel, which won the Newbery Award for excellence in Children’s literature. Copies of L’Engle’s book in particular should be available in almost every library and bookstore in the United States (I can’t make promises about any countries outside the US).

My knowledge of the people and events in the regular Marvel comic titles is spotty at best. I’ve read a number of the books as young girl and teen, but haven’t followed any titles lately outside the Ultimate line. I’ve seen some of the television cartoons, watched some of the movies, and read some of the novels, but I’ll freely admit there are gaps in my knowledge. As I understand it, a “Blackheart” exists in 616 Marvel, and he’s some sort of demon prince. However, at the moment he doesn’t exist in the Ultimate Universe, so the name is available.

The group of mutants living in the tunnels under NYC are the Morlocks. Up to this point I don’t believe they’ve been Ultimized.

The portion of the story dealing with Dr. Connors and the strange creature Peter remembers are taken from an issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Ups. A little of it is recounted in the Ultimate Venom arc of Ultimate Spider-man.

The alligator capture that is mentioned early in this story did actually take place. There is an article on it here for anyone interested., and for a listing of other related articles.

As Miranda Evans mentions in the story, Native American legends in many parts of the continent contain snake-like or even dragon-like monsters. Several lakes in the United States are said to contain “river monsters” like the famous Loch Ness Monster of Scotland. (See The Field Guide to North American Monsters, by Haden W. Blackman, or the following accounts of The Utah Lake Monsters, Florida's Sea Serpents and River Monsters, The Lake Erie Monster, and various others.)

Thanks for reading!
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It's finally up!

*reads first chapter*

I'll reserve this spot for my final review.
Thank you, Project X2. You might want to take a shot of caffeine or a couple of "No-Doze" tablets before you read, however, as this story finally clocked out at about 34 typed pages when I finally finished it. Another not so good sign: Cad beta-read it for me and hasn't spoken to me since. (I hope he's not too traumatized by the whole thing.... :wink: )

For anyone who's actually going to follow this story, I'm expecting to post a new five-page segment twice a week, on Tuesdays and either Fridays or Saturdays, depending on when I have access to a computer. The whole thing should be up by the end of October; the final installment should be on the Monday of Halloween. Editing a section doesn't bump the story to the top of the list the way adding a post does, so this thread probably won't see a lot of action unless people post comments. However, the updates will be added on a regular basis between now and the end of the month.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy!
Seldes Katne said:
Another not so good sign: Cad beta-read it for me and hasn't spoken to me since. (I hope he's not too traumatized by the whole thing.... :wink: )
I died of brilliance.
I have to make the time to read it all.
Jeez, I didn't know this was here. Usually I'm pretty skeptical about fanfiction, but you accomplished what 99% of fanfiction .net fails at, writing good fanfiction! Seriously this was awesome, I really like Miranda Evans (very good characterization), and I'll read the other stories when its not 3:40 am. By the way is Miranda a little bit of a self insertion?:wink:

Keep up the excellent work!
Thanks for the comments, Iceshadow and Jesus Shuttleworth. (And wecome to Ultimate Central, Jesus! :D ) Like most authors, I appreciate hearing from readers about my work. Especially when it's complimentary. :wink:

Iceshadow said:
Jeez, I didn't know this was here. Usually I'm pretty skeptical about fanfiction, but you accomplished what 99% of fanfiction .net fails at, writing good fanfiction!
Well, of course the problem at FFN is that there are very few standards for the stories being posted there, so the quality is all over the place. And I really try to avoid writing the same plots and characters that we see over and over again in the comics. (I mean, if that's what I'm writing, I would think people would rather read the comics. If nothing else, they have much nicer pictures. :lol: )

Seriously this was awesome, I really like Miranda Evans (very good characterization), and I'll read the other stories when its not 3:40 am. By the way is Miranda a little bit of a self insertion? :wink:

Keep up the excellent work!
Iceshadow, if you managed to slog through this story, the rest of them will be no challenge to read at all. They're all very short.

Yes, Miranda Evans is something of a self-insert. I'm trying to write her so that she doesn't turn into a "Mary Sue", because I wanted the superhero types to take center stage and do their thing instead. (Let's face it, most readers want to read about their favorite characters, not an original character I made up.) It occurred to me after I'd written this that it sounded like a chapter from Ultimate Marvel Team-Ups. :oops: Not quite what I was shooting for....

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it. You might want to look through the fanfiction index and see what other stories are here. We're also discussion specific stories this summer, and you're welcome to join the conversation in the Discussion Thread.

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