Friday, September 07, 2007


Ultimates proposal

And the hits keep coming, third in an ongoing series of dead proposals.

The pitch that resulted in my X-Men novel wasn't the first Marvel superhero project I proposed to Pocket. That dubious honor falls to my pitch for an Ultimates novel. This is one that history has overtaken, as the Marvel comics set in the Ultimate Universe have ended up using some of these concepts in different ways than I'd intended. But what the hell? As near as I can tell they've done the Silver Surfer in two completely different ways in the last two years alone, so maybe they're large enough to contain multitudes. Either way, I imagine that wasn't the reason the pitch didn't stick, but instead that Pocket had already lined up the very talented Alex Irvine to do a book with the Ultimates, which has just been released.

Really, though, all I wanted to do was write a Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD story, which is readily apparent to anyone who reads the pitch. This is a spy story in superhero drag, and the bad-ass "Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury" is the pivot around which the plot turns.

An Ultimates novel proposal
by Chris Roberson

Prologue: A few years before Nick Fury takes over as Director of SHIELD, when he is just a field agent, he has a run in with a mysterious figure who known only as Scorpio. Fury prevents Scorpio from doing whatever he was doing, but Scorpio gets away clean, and SHIELD never learns his identity or what he was ultimately after.

The story picks up a few years later, shortly after the Ultimates successfully repel the Chitauri invasion (placing this story after the events of Ultimates Vol. 1, but before the opening of Ultimates 2). The core team of Ultimates—Captain America, Iron Man, Wasp, Black Widow, and Hawkeye—are called into a briefing in the Triskelion by Director Fury. There has been a raid on a SHIELD installation in Queensland, Australia, and the Ultimates are being mobilized to respond.

Fury then relates the events leading up to the Queensland raid, as best as SHIELD intelligence has been able to determine.

A few weeks before, a SHIELD recovery team had been in Micronesia, doing a clean sweep to make sure that all proscribed technology (both SHIELD and Chitauri) was retrieved and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. A massive tsunami hit the region, and the SHIELD team was tasked to do disaster relief and humanitarian aid until the situation was stabilized.

Off the coast of Micronesia, the tsunami had uncovered a millennia old temple complex. The SHIELD team radioed it in, and got the order from higher up to secure the area. Intelligence didn’t indicate that the Chitauri had any sort of underwater installations in the region, but until all doubt was removed no civilians were to enter the area. News copters overhead had caught sight of the temple, and footage of the ruins had made it to the media before SHIELD had been able to clamp down. The area had been classified as a no-fly zone, and orbital satellites retasked so that only SHIELD-authorized satellites had a clear view of the region. The public was aware that the temple ruins existed, but no further news would leak about the area until Director Fury himself gave the say-so.

The first sweep of the ruins removed all doubt that the Chitauri had used it as an underwater base. The temple had been submerged for at least three thousand years, possibly longer, and aside from fish, crabs, and a few squid, no one had been down there in all that time. The investigation of the temple site, though, raised more questions than it answers. The experts with which the team was in communication had no idea what culture produced the temple ruins, but it was clear that the temple builders were from a fairly advanced society. The technology evident in the construction and design of the ruins suggested a culture on a technological level with the late nineteenth century United States. Most of the ruins had been badly damaged by their millennia beneath the waves, but a tall pillar covered in engravings, a stele of some unknown metallic alloy, looked freshly minted and new.

The SHIELD team was ordered to secure the area, and relocate the stele to the nearest SHIELD base for further examination. The team loaded the stele into a helicarrier, and transported it to the SHIELD installation in Queensland, Australia.

Only days after the stele reached the Queensland installation, when the SHIELD scientists had only been able to perform the most rudimentary of tests, a highly-trained, well-armed assault team stormed the installation, inflicting significant casualties on the base personnel. The assault team made off with the stele, destroying the computers and records of the scientists who were studying it, before brutally executing the scientists themselves. An EMP-generating device is used to wipe the installations mainframe, and the assault team vanishes as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived.

Fury finishes recounting the events leading up to the Queensland assault. He tells the assembled Ultimates that aside from the intel on the stele sent back to the Triskelion during the initial investigation of the temple ruins, all data on the stele has been lost in the raid.

During the clean up of the Queensland installation, sensitives from SHIELD’s Psi-Division were sent in to sweep the facility, to use psychometry to dredge up any intel on the attackers that they can find, but all the team is able to produce is a single word: Zodiac.

Black Widow says that she has heard rumblings of some sort of criminal cartel by the name of Zodiac, through back channels with old contacts in the Russia Mafia. Tony Stark mentions that he was once approached to join some sort of secret fraternity, and while he was never told any details, the name “Zodiac” had been dropped a few times. Finally, Steve Rogers says that during WWII he had been in a raid on a Nazi installation that was part of a project code-named Zodiac.

Fury says that SHIELD doesn’t know what Zodiac might mean, and are willing to follow any and all leads that might lead to the recovery of the stele, and the apprehension and elimination of those responsible for the raid.

The team is split up into smaller groups. Black Widow and Hawkeye travel to Russia, to lean on her contacts in the Russian Mafia to see what they can find out. Captain America and the Wasp travel to Germany, to hunt down the secret project he remembers from a half-century before. Iron Man, traveling as Tony Stark, goes to South America to track down the old acquaintance who had once invited him to join the secret organization.

Investigating a half-dozen leads on several continents, the Ultimates slowly begin to discover that all of these different Zodiac are in fact part of the same organization. What they had initially seen as either a small criminal cartel or an exclusive club or a secret scientific research project, they now begin to recognize as a highly organized and efficient international cabal of extremely powerful individuals and groups.

Tony Stark’s acquaintance is a member of this organization, and had been feeling him out as a possible recruit, years before (before the Iron Man project was made public, and before Stark was a member of the Ultimates). With the help of Shadow Team operatives Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Stark orchestrates the abduction of his former acquaintance, and he is brought back to the Triskelion for interrogation.

What SHIELD learns is that this “Zodiac” organization has a farther reach than they had suspected. The Zodiac are the real shadow cabinet, the actual powers behind the scenes. Their members, always twelve in number, are among the most power individuals on the planet. Their existence is almost completely hidden, and even power brokers like the Bilderburgs and the Illuminati are only dimly aware of their existence. In addition, the identity of each of the members of the Zodiac is known to only a handful of other members, the rest knowing them only by their secret call sign. When a member dies, a new replacement is selected by the members who immediately precede and immediately follow their signs in the precession of the constellations across the heavens, and for the most part, the identity of each member is known only by those who selected them for membership. What is more alarming, Zodiac controls entire countries and corporations. Even within the United States there are many governors, congressmen, senators, and judges who are at the Zodiac’s beck and call.

Before they can learn more from their captive, though, Stark’s associate manages to self-induce a brain hemorrhage using some sort of hypnotic trigger, and even Psi-Division can’t unlock any secrets left in his ruined mind.

So SHIELD now knows that Zodiac exists, though they don’t know where their base of operations can be found. But why would an international power cabal like Zodiac run the risk of exposing themselves with daylight assaults on SHIELD installations, only to steal millennia old relics from a forgotten temple?

The answer lies in the origins of the organization itself. Captain America and the Wasp are continuing their operation in Germany, and stumble upon a research facility that was thought abandoned in the last days of World War II. Instead, they find it full staffed and operational. Captain America manages to make fairly short work of the machine-gun armed guards, while Wasp infiltrates the interior and investigates, but even the Super Soldier himself is brought up short when he comes face to face with a man in a powered suit of armor, similar to Iron Man’s own, but constructed with a kind of crab motif with two crushing pincers on either arm. Captain America manages to survive and escape, but only just, sustaining severe injuries in the process. The Wasp recovers encrypted data from the Zodiac computers, and she and Captain America return to the Triskelion.

At the same time, Hawkeye and Black Widow and drawing on their black ops experience to trace connections from the Russia Mafia to Zodiac, discover and penetrate a highly secured stronghold, filled not only with weapons-grade plutonium, missiles, firearms, and ammunition, but with centuries-old statues and objet d’art, illuminated manuscripts dating back to the middle ages, Renaissance paintings and ancient tapestries. Throughout the books, paintings, tapestries, and sculptures is repeated again and again the same images: the twelve signs of the Zodiac, surrounding a twelve-sided figure. Hawkeye and Black Widow photograph and scan as much of the material as they can, transmitting it back to the Triskelion, and then exit the stronghold in a hail of arrows and gunfire.

While Tony Stark, armed with the identities of two of the ruling members of the Zodiac, tries to infiltrate the organization at its highest levels, SHIELDs technical experts work on decoding the information sent back by Hawkeye and Black Widow, and to decrypt the data recovered by the Wasp in Germany.

SHIELD, using all of the information at their disposal, discovers that Zodiac is far older than they could have guessed. The Zodiac has its roots in a medieval secret society, in the vein of the Knights Templar. This ancient organization, Ordus Clavis Zodiacum, or Order of the Zodiac Key, was dedicated the finding the mythical artifact which was said to be more powerful than the philosopher’s stone, or even the Holy Grail itself. With the Zodiac Key, it was said that man could unlock the secrets of creation itself, and rewrite reality to his whim.

Even those who thought that the Zodiac Key was anything but a legend, though, admitted that it had not been discovered in millennia, and that no man living knew where it could be found.

In the secret writings of the Order of the Zodiac Key, though, were mentions of an ancient civilization on the far side of the world, who once found the Key, and in using it destroyed their world. Their homes and temples were swallowed beneath the waves, never to be seen again.

The ruined temple found in Micronesia, Fury realizes, was the same civilization referred to by the Zodiac manuscripts. When the image of the ruins uncovered by the tsunami were broadcast worldwide, someone in the Zodiac had understood their importance. That meant that the stele stolen from the Queensland installation might contain some indication as to where the Zodiac Key might be found.

Captain America dismisses this as superstitious nonsense. Fury points out that the SHIELD techs who analyzed the stele found in the ruined temple were unable to identify the metal alloy used in its construction, and that nothing they had at their disposal could even make a dent in it. If everything else in the story checks out, they have to operate under the assumption that the “doomsday device” is real, too.

It is a race, then. The Ultimates have to locate and contain the members of the Zodiac before the Zodiac Key is located.

Tony Stark infiltrates the Zodiac ruling council, after Fury manages to stage a particularly convincing public drama in which it appears that Stark has been expelled from the Ultimates for stealing and selling state secrets. Stark, brought before the Zodiac council, is secretly transmitting back everything he sees and hears. There, in a position of leadership among the Zodiac council, is Scorpio, the man who Fury faced years ago, the one who got away.

Scorpio and the rest of the Zodiac council mobilize their full forces, having discerned the location of the Zodiac Key. Several of the members of the ruling council are mutants, with powers corresponding to their sigil, while others (like Cancer) have technological weapons or suits of armor at their disposal. They have operated in the shadows for long centuries, but with their end game in sight, they are coming out into the light.

Acting on the intel provided by Stark, Fury orders the Ultimates and a full tactical team of SHIELD field operatives to move out. The Ultimates arrive too late, and Scorpio already has the Zodiac Key in hand. A twelve-sided dodecahedron, with strange sigils carved into each of its twelve faces, it is about the size of a man’s head and seems to glow with an eerie light from within. There is a stand-off between the forces of the Zodiac and the assembled might of SHIELD and the Ultimates, when everyone present “hears” a voice from the Zodiac Key, speaking in their thoughts.

It is revealed Zodiac Key is an alien artifact of an ancient world, dead billennia ago, that grants one the ability to rewrite reality at the quantum level. It was last found by man eleven thousand years ago, and its brief use by a member of an advanced island culture in the Pacific ocean lead to the destruction of the most advanced civilization at that time, catastrophic climatic changes, and very nearly an end to the human species.

The Ultimates gear up. Now they have even more reason to see Scorpio and the rest of the Zodiac get taken down. A tremendous battle followed, with the powered members of the Zodiac ruling council on one side, and the Ultimates on the other. The Ultimates win, but at considerable cost. In the end, the Zodiac Key falls into the hands of SHIELD, who secret it beneath the Triskelion. The Ultimates, amongst themselves, are unsure whether they are comfortable with that much power being in the hands of men, whether SHIELD or anybody. Fury has the last word, and his word is that if anyone has to have their trigger on doomsday, he wants it to be him.

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