Troubling news from a strange source.
The Skull in the Shield
Setting: Abandoned Factory, Just Inside New Jersey, Saturday, A Little Before Midnight
Dramatis Personae: Aegis, Emerald, Delta V, Ravdna, Specter
With the Connors family safely tucked away in Specter's castle, the heroes depart for the meeting place, arriving early in order to recon the area.
The factory, once involved in the vulcanization of rubber before driven out of business by competition and unsound investments, is a decaying hulk in the middle of several smaller office buildings, all situated on an enormous lot overgrown with weeds. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a lone man could hide for hours in the factory. Even several people could evade detection.
Still, the heroes are not normal searchers. Aegis and Specter scout from the air while Emerald makes an empathic sweep. Ravdna and Delta V move cautiously, keen eyes examining the shadows. Bit by bit, the group moves towards the floor of the factory proper, where the meeting is to take place. As those who enter with Delta V do so (while others perhaps look and listen from somewhere outside), a tall figure steps lightly into view between twin pieces of machinery.
He is powerfully built, but still athletic, like a gymnast or a pentathelete. Strapped to his left arm is a circular shield, between two and three feet in diameter, painted black with a white skull. He wears a black costume, with a white skull on the chest, with black leather gloves and boots. He face is half-masked by the skull cap.
"I figured you'd show up early, Connors," he says, his firm voice echoing slightly in the cavernous factory. "I also figured you wouldn't come alone." He nods appreciatively. "Good looking arm you got there, Connors. Hmm. Sorry. I know your name, but you don't know mine. You can call me the...Punisher." He clears his throat. "Did you bring your research?"
Aegis studies the man in black carefully, respectful of the threat he might become. This is Delta V's show at the moment, and she remains silent and watchful.
Ravdna mirrors Aegis' position to Delta V's right. Gugnir gripped in both hands at a diagonal across her chest. The Valkyrie's eyes focused tightly on the dark form of the Avengers' potential opponent. "Stand thy ground and be most prepare'd friends" she thinks across the telepathic link. "Connors..." she directs to Delta V to motivate him to respond...
From his position outside the main factory floor Rick ties his mask into place, vowing to get a real costume before anything else happens. He listens as the man behind the mask starts to speak, and he waits for the others to make their move, if any. He extends his empathic sense to the man, trying to learn more about him.
The Punisher is a conflicted man. Emerald senses a combination of fear, discipline, guilt, and determination. It's a wonder that he appears as calm as he does given the potent mix of emotions hiding under the surface.
Doctor Victor Dumas stood by in full Specter garb with his arms crossed being silent. He was located to Aegis's left and peered at the man in the skull costume while he was phased to the world.
Dr. Curtis Connors, wearing his lab coat, not his costume, stands in front of the man calling himself the Punisher Aegis, Ravdna, and Specter are close at hand, while Emerald outside watches through a window. Connors says, "I have my research notes, but you should know the experiment couldn't be duplicated. What could you possibly want these notes for?"
The Punisher shifts a bit, blue eyes sizing up those with Connors, neither his demeanor nor his voice betraying even a hint of nervousness or concern.
"The experiment couldn't be duplicated by you. In your labs. With your funding and resources. If the experiment were a fluke, DePalo wouldn't be after it, and neither would I." He pauses, a for a moment his facade of calm cracks, letting a trace of worry slip through. "As for my reasons, all of you have a right to know. In fact, the whole world has a right to know."
His right hand disappears behind his shield, immediately jacking the tension level to a new high, but when it reappears, he holds a thick 8 1/2 by 11 envelope. He tosses it to Connors.
"The information isn't complete," the Punisher says. "But I'm working on that. I don't claim I understand all the science behind the data, but I've seen the proof first hand. All I need know is proof that the bastards responsible for this knew beforehand what it was they were doing to our boys in Viet Nam."
Cautiously, Connors opens the envelope. Inside is a neatly bound stack of papers, many of them originals, some of the mimeographs, including maps and photographs. It doesn't Connors long to get the gist of the data, and though he too cannot be sure of the science without a more thorough examination, Connors knows enough about biochemistry to tell that none of the data is the least bit improbable.
"For a year now," the Punishers explains. "The US military has been using herbicides, especially in three corps area, to defoliate the jungle in order to facilitate target acquisition. The chemicals involved are largely dioxins. Mostly dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid." Dumas also recognizes the chemicals as powerful herbicides. "Several US companies were involved in the contracting for development of the herbicides and military delivery systems." The Punishers looks at Aegis. "Stark Industries, Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Roxxon, Hercules Inc., Uniroyal Inc., T-H Agricultural & Nutrition Company, and Thompson Chemicals Corporation. According to official US military press release, the chemicals are harmful only to plants and some insects. That data suggests very strongly that the press release is gravely mistaken. Those chemicals are killers. Carcinogens and mutagens. Our soldiers are being exposed to them in massive doses, and I need your research to help develop cures for the damage that they will suffer long after this war is over."
The Punisher voice is hard, his jaw tight. There is a faint quiver to his voice.
"And, on top of it all, I have reason to believe that the military, members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and the contractorsall or in partknew well in advance that their Agent Orange program would result in US casualties."
He pauses, letting the weight of his words sink in.
"And that, people, is just plain evil, and I'm going to help make sure those responsible suffer for it."
As chooser of the slain Ravdna has seen much death and frankly she thought mankind had reached new heights in its callousness toward itself in WW1 with the advent of anthrax. Her disgust at the cold distance implied by such warfare is joined by righteous anger that a nation would damn it's own soldiers to such a dishonorable and slow death can easily be heard in her roar across the rapport, "IS THIS TRUE?"
Rick listens as the man goes on about justice, and starts to move a little closer. He doubts that a fight will break out now, unless something else goes disastrously wrong.
Dumas stepped forward and then encircled the man halfway in an non threatening manner and then came back to where he was. His hand rubbed on his chin. "Who are you young man?" He asked. "You seem rather upset about the American government's actions in Vietnam. Are you perhaps a former soldier who has himself been mutated? If so I am a scientist myself and I may be able to aid you." He coyly offers.
The Punisher shakes his head. "I'm not opposed to American intervention in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese government is a vicious totalitarian system that must be opposed," he states plainly. "But wars cannot be fought and won at any cost. The end doesn't justify the means. So, this isn't about what America may or may not have done to me. It's about justice."
Aegis shifts slightly at his mention of Stark Industries, but does not otherwise react outwardly. Thinks fleetingly of her father's stories about the war. She suspects she knows to whom they are speaking, now, in which case deceit seems unlikely, but... there is still, always, the possibility. Wincing at the intensity of Ravdna's reaction, she suggests calm to their Asgardian companion. *Perhaps Emerald can tell if he's lying?* And if what he says is true... time for that later. If this is really happening, if people at SI really knew about it -- she would rather not think that of Tony, at least, but for two years now she's schooled herself to expect nothing from people. Later.
Emerald, picking up the cue through Ravdna telepathic switchboard, refocuses his empathic powers on the Punisher. What ever the truth of his accusations may be, Emerald is certain that at least the Punisher himself is thoroughly convinced of the veracity of his tale.
"You imply that you have considerable resources of your own to apply to duplicating Dr. Connors' work," Aegis says to the Punisher. "I am less concerned with your personal identity than the question of which interests -- aside from the soldiers you wish to help -- may benefit from this research."
Curt Connors listens to this man's impassioned speech. "I agree that, if this information is true, it is horrible. I have seen the horror of war myself. But I also must agree with my companions. What proof have we, other than your word, that my research will be used only in a beneficial manner?"
The Punisher snaps an accusatory gaze at Connors. "What proof did you have that goons like DePalo weren't going to misuse your research? Did you think government grants were really free of strings?" There is a hard edge to his voice. His gaze slides away from Connors to the group in general. "I can't give you any such guarantees. At least not yet. I've made something of a deal with the devil to get my hands on that data. I don't want to get burned by that deal, but the devil can't be trusted."
He pauses, sighs, his shoulders slumping. Suddenly, the Punisher seems very tired.
"A French journalist named Nataly Richelieu leaked that information to me in Saigon," he says. "I'm certain she's not really a journalist. She might not even be French. What she probably is is a Communist sympathizer, if not actually a Communist agent. By now, she's gotten the rest of the research data which will prove, or disprove, that people had foreknowledge of the dangers associated with the Agent Orange program. In exchange for that data, I've agreed to go public, to expose the whole ugly mess to the light of day. For my cooperation, in return, I've been promised a sizable annual endowment to be used to privately fund research into a cure for soldiers poisoned by the herbicides. I have a frienda doctorwho's agreed to take on the project, but I can't reveal is identity, not yet at least. In two days, by noon Monday, this will be all over with, one way or the other."
He looks to Connors again, and this time his demeanor is haunted, even anguished, but still, somehow, noble.
"I'll leave your family alone for now on, Doctor," the Punisher promises. "I hate that I ever even had to go this route to get people's attention. But now this: If this works out, and I get that money, I will have that research. One way or the other. I'll die before I see one of my boys waste away because Uncle Sam put poisons into his body."
Dumas looked at the Punisher. "Faith is a great thing to ask for. Especially from a man adorned with skulls. But your words ring true to my ears. I will assist you in any manner that I am able." Victor was by far the smartest man in the world. He was sure he had this puzzle already solved.
The Punisher nods approvingly. But then Aegis sounds her concerns...
"What makes you think these Communists won't simply take whatever results you get for themselves?" Aegis inquires, still dubious. The decision must be Connors', in the end -- and she's most interested in the Punisher's words about dePaolo, whom she has not yet been inclined to trust -- but she hopes he will consider carefully.
"That may very well be part of their agenda," he admits. "But I'm not asking Connors to turn over the only copy of his research, or even to turn it over blindly to me. I can arrange thatonce I've gone public and verified that the monies have been transferredConnors can turn over the research to my associate, with as much monitoring or security as you care to provide."
"That sounds reasonable to me. If we run into any foul play, as a team we are more than able to deal with it." Dumas added.
"And what, exactly, do you think will happen on Monday?" she adds in an edged voice. Could this, somehow, be connected to the suspected attack? Assuming the press treated the information seriously, it would be a strong denunciation of the same companies represented at the UN meeting. That could raise suspicion against the US, perhaps give the Soviet agents a chance to spread false information as well, even disguise their attack as justified retaliation.
"That's going to be a bit painful for a lot of people," the Punisher answers. "I'm the central piece of evidence, along with that documentation --" He indicates the parcel about the Agent Orange program. "-- to be presented to the General Assembly Monday morning. I will likely be arrested by DePalo and his boys once I leave the UN. Treason, threat to national security, and all that, which I suppose is true. But by then, it'll be too late. The truth will be out. The Kennedy administration will have to take positive steps to correct this injustice. What happens to me then...." The Punisher shrugs.
Dumas stands over near the Punisher's side and looks at Aegis. "I certainly trust him more than I do DePalo. Besides this man is risking so much to save the servicemen of this nation." Victor looks over at Delta V. "I think the least we can do is provide assistance to him. At the very least he'll have the Specter on his side, if not the entirety of the Avengers, or whatever we're going to call ourselves."
The Punisher nods. "Thank you," he says simply.
_"Painful." Now that's an understatement,_ she thinks, frowning even more deeply as she considers the stranger's words.
"Punisher, either dePalo has been leading us down the garden path, and he's considered you the real threat all along, or there are others with plans for that meeting. Our first concern has to be for the safety of the delegates, and I'll ask you to take that into account in whatever plans *you* have. I'm sure you don't intend harm to anyone, but your temporary allies may have fewer scruples, and they may not have told you everything." She pauses to emphasize the warning, "If there is any trouble, we *are* going to stop it, whatever the source." _Assuming that we can, of course,_ she adds to herself.
"I'd thought of that," he admits. "I'm not an assassin. If my associates have violence in mind, they'll have more than just you to deal with." Briefly, the assembled heroes are reminded of how easily the Punisher has twice defeated DePalo's agents.
"As far as anything that might happen after the meeting, if all goes well...." She gives a minute shrug. "Unless you've made plans to defect, yes, he'll almost certainly arrest you. I'm not sure I'd blame him. You're too dangerous, from where he stands."
He shakes his head. "I'm not going to defect. I love this country. Always have. That's why I'm doing this, trying to expose this whole mess in a way that it can't be ignored. I expect this kind of Machiavellian evil from the regimes like the Soviet Union or the North Vietnamese. But this is America. We're supposed to be better. Tocqueville said it best. 'America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.'"
Rick can easily detect Victor's pride swell just listening to the words of the Punisher. "You are so very correct sir." Dumas says to the Punisher. "I only hope that someday my homeland can achieve a measure of the greatness that this nation has."
Over Ravdna's link Aegis adds briefly to Specter, *I'm sure you are aware that overtly aiding him, Doctor, would render void whatever protection you are currently enjoying in this country.* This whole event is shaping up to be messy enough without that.
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