Stark Transcendent

Marvel / Iron Man

This is an edited version of a Quest I am running over on Spacebattles. It is intentionally written in second person, as if the reader is the protagonist, and on the forums people can vote for actions after each segment is put online, in an approximation of a choose-your-own-adventure book with more flexibility.

Compiled here are some of the finished segments of the story, with the choices stripped out (you can see them on the original topic) so that it's a fairly coherent narrative. Note that each part is written quite quickly and without the extensive editing that other stories might receive, so it's possible that errors and contradictions slip in on occasion; pointing them out is appreciated as always.

Being originally an SB quest, expect in this story a Tony Stark who is rather different from canon, with a definite SF-slant to the whole affair of superheroing and living in the Marvel universe, with some transhumanist under- or overtones. If you wish to join in, go find the original topic on SB - I can't post links in here.


Prologue : Funeral Pyre (1 - 5)

Everybody knew your name, your reputation. They'd known since you first stepped out of your father's shadow, a bright star even compared to his brilliance. You were the child of a genius, and a genius in your own right, and that came with certain - expectations. But even through your misgivings, you took to the capriciousness of that fame, used it and molded it for your benefit.

You were Anthony 'Tony' Stark, billionaire arms-dealer and CEO of Stark Industries; the brain behind one of the largest high-tech companies in the world and a visionary by almost anyone's definition. People around you saw what they expected from such a person - an utterly confident, unwavering smart-ass that didn't back down from anything. You even convinced yourself of all that.

The media said that power corrupted, but if that were the case, corruption wasn't such a bad deal. The world lay at your fingertips, hung on your every word, and you felt utterly invincible.

You really should have waited for the other shoe to drop. This latest trip to Afghanistan was supposed to involve a routine demonstration of your wares, and a little visit to the troops. Mostly, you'd just joked with Rhodey and spent some quality time with the flight attendants - life was good.

Too good, as it turned out.

It was funny that only while you lay dying on the desert sand, surrounded by the burning carcasses of Jeeps and soldiers alike, you finally realized how empty your death would be out here, how very few your mourners. You were an arms dealer, a merchant of death, and you'd been killed by your own weapons. It was a demonstration of irony so banal that you should have seen it coming by a mile.

It was then, delirious and bleeding out, that something flashed in front of your eyes - or behind them, perhaps, something more. A vision of wire and flesh, of potential unrealized, the shiver of machine code against the pulse of a heart. The momentary clarity spoke of possible futures, potential destinies that unfolded and refolded before you could take them all in. Were these your last minute regrets, then, your life flashing before your eyes? You almost rolled your eyes at how cliché that thought was.

Before you could grasp the meaning of the sensation, though, the world faded to white, and only a single image stayed with you. In your moment of dying, something appeared before your eyes.

You wanted to look away, aghast at the image that seared itself into your mind, but it was the only thing that was clear in all the chaos. You knew you were being pushed underwater, but that felt distant, irrelevant. Someone held you under, forced you to breathe and suffer. But all the while, the image refused to waver.

There was an eerie figure, its cloak darker than black should be, and it ran a delicate finger across your throat, across a neck that had no pulse, no breath. Your corpse's eyes were open and stared blankly into nothingness, but a smile was frozen on your face. The image was terrifying, ominous, because you knew what it meant.

The thing that held you was all too recognizable, the symbolism clear. It was Death. Death had found you, caught you in its chilled grip. But you recognized the expression on the corpse's face, on that mirror of your own, and a spark of hope alighted. Because in dying, you had succeeded at something, completed some great work. Even as you sailed across the river Styx, you had felt victorious.

Death's face resolved into something more recognizable in that instant, a pale woman's visage with a small smile curling around her mouth as she shook her head fondly. Fondly.

She looked up and met your stare.

"Gah!" You stumbled back on your cot, the glare of the tiny light above you was torturous in the enveloping darkness of the room. The last vestiges of your dream turned to startling wakefulness, and you took a long moment to reorient yourself and catch your breath.

Cold darkness had wrapped itself around you in the night, and the ratty excuse for a blanket you'd been given scarcely helped against the shivering as you imagined an icy finger crossing your neck. You focused on the present, and around you lay familiar piles of refuse, bits of metal, circuit boards and disassembled weapons came into view. Everything had the vague stench of dried blood, your blood, and you shuddered. Wonderful.

You remembered where you were, now. The cave. You were still in that fucking cave. Not dead, as you'd half expected, and not some hackneyed afterlife with harps or pitchforks or whatever. No - Death paid a visit, and then some bastard insurgents saved your life, locked you up in a hole in the ground, and made you build fucking missiles for them. This was hell of a different kind, perhaps.

"Well, shit." You breathed out slowly. "It wasn't a nightmare."

You had not closed an eye since the roadside incident without your mind rerunning the whole affair, repeating in excruciating detail the moment that a grenade had gone off right next to you, and the eerie feeling that had overtaken you. You'd been hit with enough shrapnel to gut a horse, and though your body armor had taken the brunt of the damage, even something like that was not strong enough to block Stark grenades fully.

"Ah, Mr. Stark. You're up," a voice spoke from a little ways away.

"Yep. Just listen for the angsty scream, and that's me," you replied dully, shaking your head to get rid of some of the cobwebs - quite literal ones, as the cave was riddled with creepy crawlies that hid from the sweltering outside air.

Ho Yinsen rubbed his hands together to warm his fingers as his tired eyes surveyed the room. Unlike yourself, your companion had been in custody for a few weeks already, forced to tend to the wounds of his captors. The man still had his own blanket hanging around his shoulders, but it was even smaller than your own. Yinsen's kind expression was marred by pain from the previous day, and the cold wasn't doing him any favors, either. Who knew it would get that bloody chilly in the desert?

"The next patrol is due within the hour, I think," Yinsen noted.

"Yay. 'Cos I can't get enough of those," you replied as you considered the little camera that hung above the only door out of this prison. You turned away from it, preventing any lip-reading, even if the crappy the resolution on those CCTV knockoffs would probably be enough to dissuade anyone who tried. "I bet they'll knock us around again. At least they left us alone last night, I suppose."

"True." Yinsen hesitated. "This was the second night they avoided waking us. They must have realized that even prisoners require some rest." He grimaced, looking away. "There are worse conclusions to draw, of course."

You snorted. "Right. Somehow, I don't think our captors are humanitarians. They probably know we're running on empty, and they just might kill us if they overdo it."

You touched your aching chest gingerly as you stretched, getting some feeling back in your limbs. An electromagnet was embedded in your sternum, a machine melded into your skin courtesy of Yinsen's battlefield medicine - the only way he knew to prevent shards of shrapnel from digging into your heart. The small car battery that kept the device charged sat on the ground besides you, looking entirely too primitive for comfort.

"Look, these guys are assholes, but they're not idiots. They've got to keep us at least somewhat sensible to do work, and I'm worth more to them alive than dead."

"Perhaps you are - but I am not," Yinsen responded with a pained smile. "If I become too weak, they will surely…"

"Stop that," you snapped irritably, and he paused. "No self-pitying, remember? You spent a day talking me out of my funk, so I'm returning the favor." You smiled with difficulty. "You'll get back to your family, and I'll get back to… my own people. We can continue mining all this old crap for some materials; that's not hard work. Taking things apart is easier than building them, anyway."

The old man frowned. "I suppose you know best about such things. What about - your plan to get out?"

"Yeah, yeah. I'm working on something," you said quickly, realizing just how little idea you had of what you were going to do about this mess. "Just… let's think about that later, okay? These yokels need me to build something, and I won't move a muscle without having you around. Until I figure something else out, we'll just have to stick to that arrangement. Easy."

Yinsen looked skeptical. "Hm. Easy."

"Hey, look on the bright side - we're left to our own devices. I've had worse employers," you joked, trying to relieve some tension, though it didn't really work. "I doubt these trolls know which way to unscrew, much less how missiles work, so at least we won't have too much interference or executive meddling. That's just trouble, let me tell you..."

Yinsen didn't respond, but you didn't miss the man's momentary grin.

Lugging along your battery, you went to inspect the results of the previous night's work, and it was not hard to fall back into old rhythms. You'd worked with fewer supplies than you had now, back when you were younger. Everything you made here would be a kludge, of course, without the appropriate tools - but at least you had some. Building a Jericho was completely out of the question, since you didn't even have half the requirements for one of those bad boys, and the thought of handing it over to these jackasses didn't appeal. But you had options.

According to Yinsen, this was your sixth day in captivity - the first and second you'd been knocked out, scarcely aware of what went on except brief flashes of pain and awareness, and that eerie image of your own death. The third day, when you'd finally woken up, you'd very nearly yanked out your glorified pacemaker right then and there, and then they had come to mess up the rest of your day.

Basically, you were in deep shit. But you weren't actually dead yet, so that was a plus.

"They will be expecting progress," Yinsen noted gently, his sad eyes meeting your own with an unidentifiable expression, seemingly reading your thoughts. "If we do not have something to show at the end of this week, I can't say what they'll do."

"Yeah, yeah. I know. And I don't know if help is coming, either." You grimaced at that thought, and while you made a show of messing around with your tools, your thoughts were not on building a Jericho, but on more practical matters.

There was something soothing about wielding a hammer, and prodding the sizzling fire as heated metal poured into a desired shape. You forged circles of hair-thin metal that seemed utterly fragile, but they did not break. You were working in a rhythm that you'd gotten used to with years of practice, that you'd perfected, and it helped calm your nerves. You were an inventor first, perhaps, but a mechanic second. This was in your blood.

You knew all too well that your best work, the most impressive creations that you laid claim to, had been born from necessity, under pressure. JARVIS was one of them - an autonomous AI with startlingly human qualities, already far more complicated and convoluted than any one man could understand. Such were the benefit and drawback of evolutionary algorithms, of course. You'd built him on a dare, betting a rather substantial amount of money over an idea you had. It was only when dear old dad threatened to squeeze closed the money faucet, that you'd kept fiddling with it for half a year before you even dared flip the switch, just in case it was a dead end street. And yet, it had worked.

You'd have to be a lot less careful this time around.

As you labored on your newest project, working off half-faded memories of your father's work, you glanced at Yinsen. The man did not betray much in the way of emotions, only rarely showing his disdain for your captors, but you knew something simmered below the surface. He was a good man, after all - and those were the worst to anger.

"You've been here awhile, haven't you?" you muttered offhandedly, startling the man from his musings. "Tell me - what is the deal with these people? I've been trying to figure out what they're hoping to accomplish. These don't exactly look like luxury lodgings, so I doubt they've got much in the way of capital. I doubt they're used to doing this sort of thing." You sniffed exaggeratedly. "The place stinks, too. You'd think they'd have the cash for flowery perfume or something."

Yinsen smiled thinly, his eyes meeting yours for but a moment. "I had considered the matter. Our captors call themselves the 'Ten Rings', and they have been present in this region for some time. I cannot say why they have changed strategies." He sighed. "I had heard only a few mentions of them before my capture. I had assumed them a dormant cell."

"Not anymore, clearly." You shook your head with a frown. "If they've only gotten active recently, I'm guessing these Ten Rings guys radicalized only weeks ago. It's no wonder I haven't heard of them, if that's the case." You shook your head. "Let me guess, it's our fault? Americans? Seems like that's the theme lately."

"I assume so." The gaunt man agreed, looking away. "Though, I'm sure such people as these would have found an excuse sooner or later. Money, more than likely." He paused. "Let me ask you something in return, Stark. I know why I was in the region, of course - this is my home. You do not have such an excuse."

"Isn't it obvious?" You slammed your hammer down more strongly than you'd intended, startling even yourself. "Look, we've met before, you know what I do. I make guns, and bombs, and other nasty stuff, and people want to buy all that, especially out here." You grimaced at that. "These last few days haven't been good on my conscience, needless to say."

Yinsen smiled. "Ah. Then perhaps this gauntlet - is not entirely for nothing. The great Tony Stark, brought low with his own designs..."

You rolled your eyes in exasperation. "Yeah, yeah. We'll have to get out of this place first. I can decide what to do about all of this... afterwards." You soldered together the Palladium rings you'd made with a cobbled-together power outlet, aligning them as best as possible. It would be a glorious mess without robotic assistance, but you had no real choice. "Peacenik hippie crap will need some practice, you understand."

"Hm. There is nothing wrong with peace."

You rolled your eyes. "Right. Let's discuss that when we're sipping Martinis on the beach, not locked up in the dungeons, shall we?" you argued mildly. "Which brings me to our escape. You have been here long enough to notice things, and if you've got enough energy to take potshots at me, I'm sure you've thought of something. Any ideas?"

Yinsen hesitated. "There are… some things I have seen." He paced, frowning. "I know that we cannot wait out a rescue. Our captors' patience runs thin already, and we are eating their food, drinking their water. It is likely that they already consider prisoners an unnecessary risk, and only greed is staying their hand." He rubbed his forehead tiredly. "Even if we had weapons to fight back with, though , I don't see how we could hope to defeat dozens. We would die in minutes."

"Dozens, huh," you said slowly. "Well, one step at a time, we can save the blaze of glory thing for better occasions. If we can't charge through them, and we can't wait it out, then what's left? Sneakiness, maybe?" You picked up the soldering iron again, gesturing towards the door with it. "Maybe, with a proper diversion and a good helping of luck, it might be possible to sneak out. I'm not one for stealth, obviously, but I can manage."

Yinsen shook his head. "Very dangerous. The instant they'd spot our faces, they would kill us."

"I am well aware of that," you admitted shortly. "What other options do we have, exactly? We're in a glorified scrap yard, not a gun store..."

Yinsen nodded. "There is an unsavory possibility, but one that at least has a chance," he said reluctantly. "We could - negotiate," he said carefully, frowning darkly. "You are being held for ransom, correct? You are more than rich enough to pay their demands, so you might be able to buy your own freedom…"

"And fund this place?" You looked around. "Granted, I could probably come right back and bomb this place to smithereens… Besides, given where my tech's been going anyway, I suppose I wouldn't make things much worse," you conceded. You paused for a long moment as your gaze lingered on one of the cameras. "I don't much like the idea, though."

Your eyes lingered on the crappy laptops that were among the supplies piled up in the corners. "...There is another possibility. We've got computers here, right? And something's bound to be hooked up to all those glorified webcams." You glance to the camera that is turned away from you. "Do you reckon these people have an internet connection?"

"Stark?" Yinsen inquired. "What -"

You raised a hand. "Hold on, I'm having a brainwave here," you muttered. "I'm thinking - I could build IEDs from all this crap around us; half of our supplies are already bombs, it's child's play. But they'd be essentially useless without knowing where exactly to plant them, or when to set them off. If we could see where everyone was, though... I could probably get us out of the caves. We'd still need a big diversion to break free. With the internet, that'd be easy."

The gaunt doctor raised an eyebrow. "Is it wise to rely on such things?"

"Maybe. I don't know yet." You raised the small device you'd been assembling, pushing the last connectors into place. With a hum the spherical device activated, lighting up with an unearthly white glow. "I'm done. I'll need your help with putting it where it needs to be. This beauty - this is an arc reactor on a tiny scale. It's old-school stuff, modernized. This'll work."

"...You intend to use that for something?"

"Well, there's one or two other ideas I'd like to pitch to you…"

From the moment you'd been taken, there was only one way this was all going to end, you knew that. Negotiation was not going to work with people who had nothing to lose, and there wasn't time for anything intricate or grand. You had to tackle this quickly and brutally if you wanted to have any decent odds of making it through alive. That was the only way you saw forward - and through.

You were never a chemist by trade, but you knew enough to be dangerous. More than enough, actually. For more than twenty years now, you'd dedicated yourself entirely to engineering, to the development of cars, missiles and guns. Before that, though, in the distant teen years that you sometimes tried to forget, you had experimented.

Back when your father was still alive, when you were the promising but unproven offspring, you had searched for approval, something you would never truly get. In an effort to impress, you wandered far outside your areas of expertise - and among those new roads was chemistry, helped along by a friend of the family, Obi. Among your first hand-designed concoction was Solution 4 - named after the problem it was meant to solve in the notebook you'd kept, and also a cheap chemistry pun. It had your name written all over it.

You were looking for knockout gas that worked swiftly, unerringly, and left no long-term issues. It was supposed to be custom-made for a gas grenade that could flatten a room before anyone had time to flee. It was a good idea, a nonlethal asset. You were confident in your understanding, and your formula - enough that you asked Obi to come watch. Only a single test run was ever run, animal only, late in the evening. You'd set everything up carefully, and your precautions worked as intended.

Obi helped the research disappear, forging the ledgers and destroying the small stockpile of Solution you'd built up. He never even read the unfinished paper. Solution 4 was intended to be a forgotten mistake, a nightmare silenced in the crib. You'd called it Pyre, for the burn-like blisters that it caused - but perhaps also because you'd touched the stove with that experiment, and were shown the dangers of assumptions.

And yet, there was a way in which Solution 4 might be revived, and one reason you would even dare to. Only you had kept the formula stored in your memories, and knew about the rather simple ingredients that could be used to cook it, given the right circumstances.

You'd just made enough to kill a hundred men.

"I'm not kidding here, Yinsen. We need to cover all our exposed skin," you warned sharply as you strapped a long strip of insulating material around your leg, wrapping it tight. "Put some metal plates underneath, since we won't be running anyway with these gas masks. They're heavy and restrictive - but they're also tough. And they have to stay on. Have to. If you have to choose between skin or even a whiff in your lungs, for God's sake, you should take the skin."

Yinsen's face was pale, his hands shaking slightly as he dragged the little wheeled contraption that you'd built towards the door. Constructed inside the casing of one of the missiles, it was a technologically simplistic device, designed only to vaporize and spread the contents of a centrally placed high-pressure tank filled with toxic gas. It would not take much to fill a room - and it would spread like wildfire through every crack and crevice, saturating the air as it went. Dragging the contraption along would be a pain, but it was the only surefire way you knew to make sure that the whole cave system was affected.

Solution 4 was the only way you knew to guarantee that nobody was left standing in the end. The perfect storm. A shiver ran down your back at the thought. No wonder Death looked at you so fondly...

"This - I did not think..." Yinsen said softly. "Chemical weapons, Stark?"

"Necessary evils. But it is the best solution. Is it any more cruel than shooting people? It is certainly less painful," you argued, uncomfortably aware of the contents of the vat, and how the technical truth didn't really describe what you'd made. "Any decent plan we have involves killing our way out before we got murdered ourselves - and these people are guilty of far worse than just simple murder. Is the method really the hang-up now?"

Yinsen sighed, looking away.

However much Yinsen clearly disliked the whole affair, he went along with preparations anyway, insulating himself as well in the partial darkness, well outside the reach of the cameras due to his small stature. Your helmets came last - bulky and tight around the temples, with only two tiny eye-slits covered in plastic to give a view of the outside, and a large, makeshift filter attached to the bottom which was covered in leftover wires from the heavy-duty air filtration system it'd been salvaged from. The moment you slipped your own mask on, you knew the clock was running.

"We have about half an hour before these filters clog up," you warned, your breath rattling through the confined space. With a simple flick of a switch and a soft hiss, Solution 4 began leaking into the room; it was odorless and close enough to transparent that you could only detect the slightest of ripples in the air as it billowed outwards to fill the room. It didn't seem like Yinsen had even noticed. "Here we go."

You did not wait for a response, pacing to the door and giving it a good kick - once, twice. You could hear the stumbling on the other side, as someone messed with the lock and shouted something in Arabic, cursing in languages that you hardly even recognized. There was a click, a creak, and the barrel of a gun was the first thing to appear through the crack.

There was barely any sound, but you knew exactly what to listen for. The briefest of inhalations, more likely the second breath than the first. Then the guard's lungs refused to obey, seized up. You had noticed that reaction in rats, rabbits, a few monkeys - never in humans, of course - but you recognized it instantly. Solution 4 was a Mammal-Killer, after all - and people were mammals.

The first victim fell, not even trying to catch himself as his skull cracked against the ground. Not that he could react by now, as the Pyre had reached his brain stem, shutting down his somatic nervous system. Soon after, the brain itself would die, frozen in mid-thought. It was a quick, painless death - too fast to react to. Solution 4 was instant knock-out gas alright - of the most permanent kind.

The door slipped open, creaking on its hinge as it revealed the hallway beyond. The first to fall looked to be barely thirty years old, his face contorted with anger, his hands still clasped around his gun. A few stray drops of blood were leaking out of his ears, but there was no other sign of injury at all, despite being slumped back on the ground.

The silence of a tomb surrounded you as you stepped out. The first signs of Solution 4's efficiency became clear quickly - more than a dozen bodies were spread out on the ground in the direction of the outside, a few drops of blood visible at their eyes and ears. They had never had time to close their eyes, or to turn around - they'd dropped where they stood. None of them had even been able to yell out.

"My God…" Yinsen whispered in an odd tone, slowly following you, pausing momentarily at every body. "Stark -"

"If you're going to tell me this is a war crime or something - I know." You grimaced as you tried to ignore your shivers. "Pyre is not on any banned list, of course, but it very well should be. But it's too late to rethink things now - we have to finish what we started. You can curse me later; the beast is loose."

It was nearly five minutes after the gas had been released, and the base was still deathly silent. There was not a single sound except the scraping of your boots, the squeaky wheels of the vaporizer you were dragging along, and your breath. The rest was just silence - the silence of the grave.

"None of them have masks on," Yinsen observed morbidly, shuddering as he passed the people that were draped through the corridors.

"There was no time - not nearly." You shook your head. "Leave the Solution here," you instructed. "We're far enough through the caves that saturation is inevitable - and what remains of the stuff will degrade on its own within a few hours. It's nasty - but it's not particularly stable."

Yinsen nodded to you, almost eager in abandoning the device.

"In any case, the gas will not persist for very long outside," you said after a long moment, looking down the winding corridor and hoping for signs of daylight. "At least, they might have had enough warning to put on a mask - so we'll need to tackle this differently."

Yinsen took a deep rattling breath in his mask. "How? Do you have yet more monstrosities up your sleeves, Stark? More horrors?"

You grimaced. "Unfortunately - always."

You could tell from the way he glanced at you, eyes barely visible behind the slits in his mask, that Yinsen was not very pleased. Honestly, you weren't terribly happy with the lengths you'd taken to end the mess you were in - but you had to stick with your plan. This was certainly not the first time you were responsible for people dying; not by a long shot, given the kinds of things you built for a living. You had to suck it up, and deal with it.

It was the silence that was the creepiest of all, even now - it reminded you that the Pyre spread through these caves without encountering any resistance, flowing through cracks and holes to reach its targets, killing without warning. Most of the extremists would have been sleeping, as it was late - they would not even have had the instant of recognition between the freezing of the muscles and their collapse. They were just - gone.

You could see why Yinsen was revolted, even though he acted to assist you. He was smart enough to know that there was no going back. It was doubtful that your would-be-friend would ever trust you again, though.

"The cave has been saturated," you said shortly. "If anyone were still alive - I think we would have noticed by now. They might have gas masks stashed away somewhere, but I doubt any of our 'friends' swaddled themselves in thick cloth. The lesions -" You shook your head. "
"Trust me, they wouldn't last very long."

Yinsen took a shuddering breath, though it might just be the rattling of the filter that made it sound that way. "What comes next?"

You gestured down the hallway. "It's evening - we have the cover of darkness, even if we'll be heard coming from a mile away in these suits. It shouldn't matter, even if there's anyone still alive out there - they won't dare come close to the entrance if they know something bad was in the air. Odds are, though, that any survivors have hightailed it out."


"We take shelter. There's Pyre everywhere - we have to find somewhere it hasn't reached yet. Outside, needless to say." You turned around, taking a few steps back to the vaporizer that still lay abandoned in the middle of the corridor. With a quick twist, you pulled a handle to the side, and you felt it warm up under your touch. "We have five minutes to find a spot."

Yinsen twitched, and did not protest as you pulled him along. You took long paces towards the cave's mouth, focusing on reaching it above everything else, ignoring even the bodies that you had to step over, some of which had a fearful expression frozen on their face. These men, then, had seen death coming - had seen it take their allies moments before the Solution reached them.

There was an ominous click from right besides you.

A bullet ricocheted off your helmet, burying itself in the cave wall, and you threw up your hands just in time for two more bullets to bury themselves into your forearm, just barely nicking the sheet metal you'd shoved in between your skin and the thick insulation that kept you safe.

"Look out!" Yinsen cried, bringing forward a gun that he had to have taken from one of the dead, firing a burst into the dark corridor that split off from yours. There was no shooter in sight - but it was not hard to pinpoint where the shots had originated. Someone from inside had survived, had gotten his hands on a weapon and come hunting.

An eerie prickling sensation started under your protective layers, right where the bullets had penetrated. You cursed softly as you tried to find a weapon.

"STARK!" a voice cried, but it was not Yinsen's. There was fury in that cry, hatred. You recognized it - you'd heard it before. He was the man who had interrogated you, who was there when you'd been pushed underwater time and again, pushing you to the edge of drowning. "YOU! YOU DID THIS!"

You didn't answer as you dove for the nearest corpse and ripped a Kalashnikov from his rigid fingers, slapping yourself for your reliance on the Solution. Two more bullets buried themselves into your excuse for armor - one slammed harmlessly into metal, but the other did not. You felt it rip through your side with a flash of pain - and through the wound was very shallow, that didn't matter.

There was no time to rethink things; you knew what you had to do. Ignoring the bastard ringleader that was hiding out somewhere in the dark, you dragged Yinsen along towards the exit, as the latter kept firing. There was a glimpse of a gas mask as you turned the last corner and you left the rocky protection of the tunnels. You barely glanced outside before barreling into moonlight; you had no choice.

Time was running out.

Your mind was beginning to fog up - you could feel your movements slowing. It was the Pyre. You hadn't breathed it in, or you'd have been a corpse already - but you'd been exposed. Unless you got out fast, there wouldn't be any escaping at all. Transfer through the skin was much slower than through the lungs, especially in tiny doses, but in the long run it could be just as lethal. You looked around desperately for a safe place, and though your eyes had difficulty focusing, you saw something you recognized.

A few dozen feet from the cave mouth, a familiar metal shipping crate had been parked, still mounted atop the stolen truck that had been transporting it inland. The doors were closed, but the truck's tires didn't seem particularly stressed - it had to be empty. It was massive, probably meant to transport high-value goods, and above all it was untainted.

"Cover my ass!" you instructed Yinsen as you ran over to it, cursing your leg as it almost gave out. The door was not locked, thankfully, though the latch was tight. It took a few moments to tear it loose, and to drag yourself bodily into the space behind it. Yinsen followed you, still holding his gun as he glanced between you and the dark.

"He's still out there!" Yinsen said sharply "He'll find us!"

There was a distant rumble, a creaking of metal. As bullets landed at your feet in the ground, and bounced off the heavy metal door of the container, you acted, dragging Yinsen in as you kicked at the latch. The container's door slammed closed, locking you into perfect darkness. The rumble outside grew louder, and it turned to a screech - then a roar.

"It doesn't matter anymore," you said faintly, as sparks seemed to ignite behind your eyes, the signs of Pyre messing with your neurons or your retina. You grimaced as your fingers twitched in protest. "It's over. Everything is dead, now."

That's when the fireball arrived, to prove your words. Your container was hit by a wave of force so powerful that you could hear the truck's tires popping, its frame groaning as the whole thing was shoved against the mountainside. Then the real shock wave arrived, and for a few long moments, you had no idea which way was up, or down. You were fairly sure you'd flown for a bit, there. The landing was harsh, but you'd been able to hold onto the irregular grooves on the side walls, and rode out the destruction.

This was the most dangerous aspect of Pyre - something you'd discovered but never disclosed, even to Obi. Far from being inert, your Solution was an extremely reactive substance, given the right catalyst. The activation energy for a reaction was high, and it would take a hell of a temperature to get it going - but when it did, it was monstrous. And you'd put twenty-seven butane torches under a canister filled with the stuff.

You knew exactly what happened next; you'd seen the simulations a thousand times.

The flames weren't yellow or red; instead, a blue-white inferno burst forth from the cave system that could not contain its exothermic fury, and the narrow corridors served as the barrel of the world's biggest cannon, filled with explosives and fuel. The titanic explosion rippled out from the cave's entrance, blasting a crater into the side of the mountain as it tore its way to freedom, covering a square mile with burning gaseous death. The same square mile which happened to be dominated by huge piles of Stark ammunition and stolen missiles.

If a small nuclear weapon had gone off, you were pretty sure it could not have made a much bigger boom. Even with a helmet on that dampened your hearing, your ears were ringing and your teeth chattering. Missiles blew up as their jury-rigged triggers gave in, and a chain reaction billowed outwards that finished what the Pyre started. A huge plume of fire rose up into the sky, brighter than the moon, and it scorched the night like a flare that even neighboring countries would be hard-pressed to miss.

Your shipping container wasn't safe from the onslaught - it was made of thick metal, built to last, but you could hear it buckle under the stress of the shock waves. You could feel the sweltering air as it rushed in through minuscule gaps and crevices. You had already backed away as far as you could, towards the back end which was laying against the rocks, and Yinsen had followed without comment - and it was still nearly too much.

If anyone else in the base had survived your toxic cocktail before, it didn't matter much now. Because there was no base.

It took a long time for silence to fall.

"...And now we wait," you said, slumping against the side of the container. You pulled off your helmet, taking a long, deep breath, much to Yinsen's shock. You smiled tiredly. "Don't worry. I can't feel the prickling anymore - the gas didn't get to spread here much. The fire burned off the rest, I'm sure." You sighed, dropping the heavy metal helmet as you grimaced. "Right - that's what hurts... I think I've been shot. Ow."

It took the army almost three hours to pinpoint the site of the explosion - but what they found were the remains of a terrorist camp that had been utterly decimated by the weapons they'd stolen, and nothing more. There was no cave system anymore, nor any chemical samples, as they were certainly hopelessly degraded by heat and a thousand explosive residues from weapons both ancient and new.

Rhodey was the one that heard the banging on the shipping container's walls. If he noticed the piles of insulation material and makeshift helmets that were piled up in the corner, he did not comment on them. Yinsen had even hugged the man, which was disturbing for everyone involved.

You did not admit what you'd done - not even to your best friend. Yinsen would certainly not blab about it, at the very least to protect his own skin, but he did thank you for saving your life. Whatever goodwill you might have had, however, would take much longer to recover. The army, of course, would realize that you'd set off a hell of an explosion - but as long as that was all, they would not hound you too much. You hadn't exactly taken out toddlers here.

As you flew back across the ocean, though, side swaddled in bandages and fingers still occasionally twitching as your nerves got over the shock they'd had, you finally had time to reflect a little, to think about the consequences of your choices. For one day, Solution 4 had been in use again - and you were not sure if anyone would forgive you for its use, if they ever found out. You were not entirely sure you could forgive yourself.

The image of Death loomed again in your memories, and you shuddered.

You were alive, and that meant you could change. Whatever it was that you wanted to be now, you were not the arms merchant from before. Whatever illusions about your trade you'd had were gone, and you saw all too well how terrible your creations could be in the wrong hands, or perhaps, even in the right ones. Perhaps you'd learned something.

Wherever you went from here, and with it Stark Industries, it would have to be somewhere new. Somewhere better. After the burning of the funeral pyre, you could use some fresh air.

Interlude - Deadpool

Well, how about that.

An arrow.

There was an arrow in your head.

Thinking was not so good. Nor moving. You have the definite sensation that the arrow has something to do with it. Who used arrows, anyway? It was the twenty-fifth century - twenty-third? Something like that. The Laser-age was around the corner, and so was shooting people with beams and stuff. Bullets were good, too. You liked bullets.

The brain problem was annoying. Your father smells like elderberries! Right, so was that.

"You don't die from anything, do you?" a voice said from somewhere close. It came from a burly guy with a beer gut, a meat cleaver clasped in his hand, and his expression betraying his intent to carve. "How the hell am I supposed to…?"

You managed to catch your breath, and declared with as much authority as you could manage:"Macaroni and cheese puffs!"

Okay, maybe the brain thing was more than just annoying.

You knew Wolvie had his brain messed before - and it had never come back quite right. You were probably bleeding into your cerebellum, and even your ridiculous healing might just not be able to keep up, if you did anything more drastic. Brain damage - that shit was dangerous.

Eh - not like you were using your head much. Fuck it.

You yanked at the shaft of the arrow, still lodged in your temple, and pulled with as much strength as you could manage. There was a horrifying slicing sound, the gurgling of blood - maybe some brain matter came out, alongside a few more IQ points.

For a glorious moment, the colors smelled like awesome, the air tasted like yellow and scantily clad Jean Grey, and the meat cleaver that approached your face looked like cinnamon and chimichangas.

Then your head cleared a bit, though your brain still merrily chirped away. 'In Mortal Danger. Behind You, a Psychopath. Cut his Brains Out.' Okay, was that a fucking haiku?

You managed to stumble out of reach of the burly dude with his overcompensating weapon - and that had no implications about yourself, thank you - and frowned. "That… kinda tickled," you declared, holding one hand to the dripping hole in your head as you grasped for your gun - any of them, really - but you found nothing below the waist.

No wonder it was so cold down there. Your belt had been sliced off at some point, and it was lying a few dozen feet away, along with all its fancy pouches - and your pants.

Your star-emblazoned boxers were on proud display.

Looking - actually, good is an overstatement.

"This was supposed to be easy! God damn it, die already!" The crazy butcher guy exclaimed, and his cleaver headed right for you again - no style, just strength. You idly noted that you'd never actually seen this dude before; he was certainly not the asshole that had put an extra face hole in you.

"I would make a cutting comeback, but I think the part of my brain responsible hasn't grown back yet. Would you do with shitty puns or ripping off other people?" Still a little loopy from the hit, you barely remembered that meat cleavers were bad news - but there was plenty of time left to counter the next slash.

The cleaver carved deeply into your completely unprotected shoulder; you knew that it would heal up in no-time, anyway. That was kind of like a counter, right?

Enough was enough - fun was over. You shoved four feet of razor-sharp sword through the guy's face in retaliation, and sighed as he slumped to the ground. It wasn't the cleanest kill you'd ever made - not by a long shot. But you were still standing, and the glorified butcher was leaking all over the floor.

That was kind of like victory, right?

Right. Dead guy on the floor, pants on the floor - everybody walk the dinosaur. It was a bit confusing and annoying - not your usual afternoon. Not two hours earlier you'd been slumming in your pajamas, watching Jerry Springer reruns as you stuffed your face.

Then - you'd been shot in the face from out of nowhere! And now your brain had, for some reason, started talking to itself in second person, and you were confusing yourself with every you that didn't seem to fit. Arrows to the head were definitely bad news - you better keep a note, Wade.

The butcher didn't have anything on him that suggested he was a hitman, nor an explanation for why he'd dropped you off in the middle of the fucking desert. In fact, after rifling through his pants and socks, you didn't even come across more than a few hundred bucks. This was just some dead schmuck who had been hired to make a body dump - and nobody had told him about the healing thing.

You were in costume, and you still had your sword with you. Who the fuck was this stupid?

The only thing worth stealing was a shitty cell phone - a Nokia from a year you tried desperately not to remember; you'd spent most of it trying to get drunk, and failing. There was only a single saved message on the thing, a code. You recognized it - you'd used it yourself on more than one occasion. Mercenary shorthand, of the most lethal kind.

They were instructions for a hit - a big-time, high-grade one. Some rich businessman type with three-hundred security agents, probably. Should be fun.

The phone didn't belong to the guy you'd just killed, obviously; it had to have been slipped into the dumper's clothes. Probably by that damned arrow-guy.

With that, your brain finally caught up with the plot.

"Oh, fucking hell. It was Bullseye," you cursed. "Fuck everything with a two-by-four."

This was so not a good way to get hired.

Author's Note : As this is a quest, the updates will come in blocks...