Arc 4 - Terra Infirma (1 - 3)
Looking into the mirror for more than thirty seconds was generally speaking considered somewhat of a vain activity for a man - especially if one spends that time staring.
You didn't much care about that, though, because you looked atrocious. Your face was like that of a toddler, stripped of the short but manly beard that had adorned it since about the time you could grow a good one. Your excellently maintained mane of hair had also been replaced by a shiny chrome dome. It made you look more like Obadiah than a Stark, which just added to the humiliation.
That was leaving out all the other uncomfortable places. You hadn't felt this insecure since you were an actual teenager and were just starting to find hair in all new places.
"Tony? I'm coming in -" Pepper called an instant before she threw open the door, and you had only a moment to grab something - anything - to hide your shame. You came up empty. "Oh dear god, Tony!" she sputtered and averted her eyes. "What on Earth are you doing?!"
"Eh…" You glanced down and sighed. "Well. Let's be honest. This is not the worst thing you've caught me doing."
"It's definitely up there!" she exclaimed, closing the door behind her and ignoring your whispered 'that's what she said'. "You know this is a hospital, Tony! There's dozens of people who could walk in here at any moment! What if someone saw you?"
You shrugged unconcernedly. "Rhodey really wouldn't care - he's seen much worse - and the doctors have probably seen more than either of us are comfortable with, so let's not exaggerate too much," you argued placatingly. "Besides, the gown they gave me is plainly atrocious. Why would I ever want to wear it?"
"Basic human decency?" Pepper suggested with a tone of mortified amusement. "Must you keep standing there like that, for pity's sake?"
"...It is getting a bit cold in here," you agreed at last, shivering. "Please tell me you've got a sweater for me, at least? Some pants, maybe? I really don't need that thing." You gestured to the ugly pink hospital wear you'd chucked aside. "Honestly…"
"It's a hospital, not a fashion show. You can survive a day in pink." She sniffed. "Nobody will recognize you anyway. Looking like this, I think people would sooner believe you're the world's largest newborn."
"Feel like one, too." You flexed your muscles exaggeratedly, glad to see that your hours in the gym weren't completely pointless. "Honestly I feel pretty great. I could go for a rodeo - um," you grinned. "An actual cows and cowboys rodeo, mind. Not the other one."
"Thank you for clarifying," Pepper muttered. "Tony - just put on the pink."
"Yeah, yeah," you acquiesced, scowling at the ugly thing and finally tying it around your waist - you weren't going to wear it like it should, because if it wasn't going to cover your behind there really wasn't much point. "This hospital sucks, by the way. I've been in here for three days now, and I'm still stuck at 'testing if anything is wrong'. We could have been back in California sipping martinis in the time it takes these amateurs. Dum-E could have run their tests at a faster pace, and he can barely count beyond ten!"
"I'm sure. You have to understand why this is necessary, though," Pepper said in a long-suffering tone. "With all the… changes… experienced by the others, they're just being cautious about you. Nobody's seen this sort of thing before. The kid you saved - he torched his whole room and nearly ignited the hospital before they knocked him out. His sister's been missing for a good two hours, again, and that Ben fellow has been knocking down walls since early morning. They moved him to some abandoned building, last I heard."
"They've mutated," you murmured. "It's not like anything I've ever seen, though… Some kind of fundamental change which scrambled their biology, in very particular ways. It's like these mutant shapes of theirs are fully functional alternatives that just popped out of nowhere." You had a few hypotheses about what exactly had happened to Reed and the others - and what might have prevented the same thing happening to you. Assuming it hadn't. "It's actually quite fascinating, and it might just confirm some flavor of multiverse theory..."
"Fascinating," Pepper repeated. "Of course you would say that. Only you would think that life-altering, possibly life-threatening conditions are interesting."
"Well, they are," you argued. "Take Reed, for example - last I read he's made of some kind of bacterial stacks now, not human cells. Something went in and replaced every bit of him, but somehow kept his asshole self intact. It's got some intriguing philosophical -" You hesitated. "...By the way, I hacked into the hospital network and downloaded some of their files on the others. Don't report me, pretty please?"
"Of course you did that," Pepper said, not even surprised. "JARVIS insinuated as much."
"Well, I've been bored," you said. "I've got no fire, or rocks for skin - just a thorough case of full-body epilation, and the docs tell me that they should all grow back normally. Don't ask me how they tested that - you really don't wanna know. Beyond that I'm in excellent condition. Prime of my life, I should say." You scratched your chest distractedly, frowning at the strange sensation of having it whole again, the arc reactor so much molten slag. "Better than that, maybe…"
"That's strange too, you know." She sat down on the bed, tapping next to her. You finally relented and dropped down onto the mattress. "You really shouldn't exert yourself - whatever else went on up there, or what happened to you on the way down, JARVIS is adamant that you took a large dose of radiation in space. You should expect a period of weakness from that." She scowled, then. "He also informed me that your cancer risk has quintupled over the last few months, if not more so."
"Right. I'll just have to cure cancer if it comes to that," you mused, and you absorbed Pepper's vicious poke without the slightest wince. "Anyway, I noticed that you didn't mention Reed," you noted. "Still won't allow you in the room, will he?"
"No. He's being as stubborn as you tend to be," she said dryly. "You can figure that out yourself, can't you? I know you slipped out last night - he knows it too. He's all too aware that you're essentially the only person who walked away from this mess unscathed."
"I think my beard would disagree."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Maybe you should keep the bald look - Obi would be pleased."
"He'd think I was muscling in on his territory," you disagreed. "There can only be one bald middle-aged guy bossing around the board of directors, obviously. Natural law." You rubbed your naked jaw, wondering if you'd get used to it. The Doctors had told you it'd start growing back soon, but you didn't feel anything yet. "Care to update me on the outside world?"
"Nothing particularly new. The company will survive," Pepper said lightly. "Dr. Pym has taken over some basic duties while you are indisposed, and he's teamed up with Bambi. I think they'll be fine." She smiled thinly. "I didn't want to worry you until they got a shot at it, but it seems they're a good combination. I think Bambi and Pym's wife - or girlfriend, I'm not sure - hit it off."
"Pretty sure she's his wife," you noted. "What about Peter?"
"Actually, I think he's working himself into a neurosis," she responded shortly. "Ever since that Crystal woman tricked him, he's been taking personal time and patrolling the streets. I saw him in the evening news, beating up on some blowhard in a scorpion costume." She frowned. "He's allowed his spandex hours, of course, but I think he's overdoing it a little. All this frustration over a little bit of blood?"
"It's his blood, though," you noted. "Already, people could reasonably get DNA from anyone with enough effort - I've certainly spread entirely too much of it around." She sneered at that, and you snorted. "Granted, my dalliances didn't help. Anyway, I'm just a normal human, so you can really only do so much with it. Peter is…"
"Weird," you added at the same time. "Both of those sound quite bad, don't they? Peter's blood is special too, and that might spell trouble. I pulled a few strings and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s on the case as well, so I'm pretty sure someone will figure it out. It's unfortunate that Peter wasn't able to, you know, thwip." You thrust out your hands, two fingers extended. "Would've fixed that real quick, right then and there."
"Enough people know about his alter ego," Pepper noted.
"That's assuming hiding your identity is the only option," you said lightly. "So… what else?"
"There's - hold on." She reached for her pocket, pulling out a phone and frowning. "Huh. Rhodey says there's another disturbance downstairs," she explained after texting a quick reply. "Something's going on with Reed - he's left his room. Seems to be - uh - slithering through the halls like a snake." She shivered. "That just adds a whole new level of creepy."
"Reed's maxed out on creep already, he can't get any worse," you said lightly. You got back to your feet, jumping in place and enjoying the effortlessness of it. You couldn't even feel the slight twinge in your knee that had been there for the better part of a decade, or the persistent soreness in your neck from spending entirely too many hours in a hunchbacked position working on your toys. You felt great. With the arc reactor gone, and with it the various bits of explosive that had been left to slowly stab your heart, you felt like a man reborn.
You elected not to think about it too hard. Not right this moment.
"You know what? I really am bored in here, and sitting around won't help that. The Doctors can come chase me down for all I care." You nodded confidently. "I think I'll go pay my dear friend Reed a visit," you added, circumspectly confirming that your impromptu loincloth would hold. "Should be interesting to see if he'd mellowed out any."
"Tony!" Pepper followed you swiftly. "Can I convince you not -" You waltzed through the door and grinned broadly when her words trailed off. "...The doctor was really specific about what you were allowed to do. There are rules, Tony."
"Rules are meant to be broken!" Not really, but the adage worked to distract Pepper for a moment, which was all the time you needed to find the staircase and head down without getting stopped. "Reed was on the third floor, right? Right."
"Could you please -" She hesitated. "I'll go fetch a doctor - don't go anywhere!"
"Ah, Pepper." You glanced back at her, and smiled. "I'm fine. I won't do anything untoward." You chuckled lightly at her grimace - she was probably imagining the PR disaster that would inevitably follow. "I reckon I can laugh at him being a limp noodle figure, and he can make fun of my stellar One Punch Man impression." You punched in the air with a blank look on your face. "How'd I do look? Properly superheroic?"
"Just get this over with," Pepper replied, mortified. "I'll make sure nobody interferes, just in case you do get in trouble again. And please, please don't ask -"
"Can you really stretch any body part?"
You grinned impishly at the contemptuous glare sent your way from the floor. Reed's head was flopping back and forth on the end of his elongated neck like a dying fish - apparently, judging from his body being spread out across most of the hall, he hadn't quite mastered how to move normally. It was completely freaky, and you had a hard time not skittering backwards like he was an enormous spider. It was just wrong.
Skittering away from Reed Richards, you reckoned, was a natural reaction.
"This has to be exaggeration, right? You walked over to me after the crash," you pointed out, tempted to nudge Reed's face upright with your foot. "Why don't you just do… that? You know, shamble over in proper human shape."
"It's not… that easy…" Reed wheezed.
"Why are you breathing hard?" you wondered. "You don't even have lungs! I checked the X-Rays. Whatever the hell you are now, you don't have any organs left. No heart, stomach, or brain. Just stacks and stacks of whatever the hell freaky alien cell you picked up on the way down from space." You shivered. "Creeeepy…"
"Why don't you make me?" You raised an eyebrow, waiting until the flopping and sliding of Reed's limbs would coordinate into something resembling controlled locomotion. "Seriously, you're terrible at this. Your wife figured out her invisibility thing within the hour, and the Storm kid hasn't burned down anything in a full day. Grimm… is a rock."
"Because of you!" Reed exploded, and his head reared up from the ground, lingering at eye level for a long moment. He was clearly channeling the Abyss, now. "If it wasn't for that thrice-damned competition that you turned this whole thing into, I would have had enough time to install stronger radiation shielding!" He gritted his teeth. "You forced my hand, threatened to destroy the only project in fifteen years that I've felt truly hopeful about! What was I supposed to do?!"
You leaned back a little, and then sighed. "Reed - it was just a bet. All you would have lost was first place. I didn't know about the radiation storm or I wouldn't have gone up there myself, and I wouldn't have bothered to engage you with a challenge if you weren't so very eager to meet me halfway. Don't act innocent in all this."
"I wasn't the one who -'
"You know what?" You grabbed Reed by the chin, dragging him closer. "I'm sick of this piss-poor attitude of yours. I saved your life. The life of your whole family. Did you forget that I gave the one and only seat to your wife's brother? That I risked life and limb to give you a chance at survival? Fuck you, Reed."
He didn't immediately answer, but a momentary flash of guilt made way for a familiar sneer. "Pardon me if I don't thank you for fixing your errors. Do you think you deserve adulation?"
"...A little bit wouldn't be amiss, I think," you observed. "Come on, I damn near died out there - jury's out on that one, actually - and I did it to save your sorry ass! I feel like we've had this conversation, and you weren't any more sensible last time! You can criticize me for our mutual shortsightedness, but no way are you putting all this on me!"
"Of course not. Who would expect you to take responsibility, for once?" Reed scoffed and turned away, his head swiveling back towards his body, flat on the floor. "Go cheer for the cameras - I'm sure they love you, now. You didn't end up like a freak show."
Reed finally managed to roll himself away from you, moving back through the door of his room. You had the feeling that he was going there to sulk, or perhaps to pity himself over his own situation. He would also blame you for everything that ever went wrong, naturally. That seemed to be the default, now. Granted, you hadn't exactly helped matters.
You ran a hand across your billiard ball head, glad to feel the slightest of stubbles slowly returning to populate it, and considered how to move forward. "...What was it that Peter said about responsibility? Some pithy one-liner? I'll think of something."
Then again, there were so many interesting things to do...
You grunted half an answer to Pepper as you begrudgingly put on the tan coat she conjured up from somewhere, thankful that it was a proper piece of clothing without an enormous hole in the back. "...He's back there somewhere," you repeated at her questioning glance, waving vaguely in the direction you'd just departed from. "He's sulking, obviously."
"You know he has a lot to deal with right now," Pepper said apologetically. "I'm sure that he'll be a little more -"
"Don't care. We're leaving," you announced.
Pepper blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Leaving! Now! Unless this hospital has a policy of quarantining and detaining patients in perfect health, I am getting the hell out of Dodge. Reed and the others… can stay as long as they must. I won't." You rubbed your bald scalp and wished desperately that Pepper had brought a hat. "I have mad science experiments to do - this cool bald head won't last forever, and it's such a fitting look for a good cackle! I need some multi-coloured vials, some bubbling broth…"
"Tony," Pepper snapped. "You are not throwing yourself back into your work. You understand that?"
"You just got done with this mad dash of a spaceship thing - nearly got yourself killed, too - and you promised that you'd take it easy," she said sharply. "I will have Peter and Dr. Pym on your case with one phone call, so be careful what you say right now. You're working yourself into an early grave, and you know it."
"Um…" You paused. "Light tinkering, maybe? No heavy lifting, I promise." You put on your best puppy eyes, though you weren't sure if they'd be cute or terrifying without all the hair. "Pwease, Pwetty Pwease? May I?"
"No." She scowled. "I know what light tinkering means with you, Tony. Have someone else do your work, if you must, I'm sure you have a dozen people lined up. You will take a break. A long one, if I have anything to say about it." She sighed deeply. "Just… promise me, would you? For once in your life."
"Pepper…" It didn't seem like you'd get out from under this one - and that sucked. You could probably just skip a night's sleep or two to make up for the lost time, but it was the principle of the thing. You lingered a little too long, and she turned away, pulling out her phone. "Stop!"
"Fine, fine. But I have…" You paused as she pressed buttons on her mobile. " - many hours of sunshine to catch up on! Yeah! And I have some ideas to write down. I am allowed pen and paper, right?"
"I'll think about it. You might built a robot out of them, or maybe a missile."
"That's ridi-" You paused. "Oh, that's - actually, maybe if I…"
The issue of Reed Richard had slipped from your mind entirely.
The concept had been lingering on your mind ever since leaving the hospital. You'd spent a few hours of your flight back reading over the preliminary reports made by the local physicians who'd only attracted your attention because they were doing all their work behind rather advanced encryption software.
It was no real surprise that they had all been in the pocket of S.H.I.E.L.D. - the black helicopters and trendy glasses had been a clue - but the actual findings on you and the others were perhaps more intriguing. Mutation was a recurring term in those papers, and the relevant definition could only be gleaned by inference. It was the common thread in all the various hypotheses offered, though none of them seemed to agree that it was a full explanation.
You'd heard of mutants, after a fashion, though the tall tales that predominated on the internet had always seemed rather more ridiculous than was plausible. They spoke of a secretive shadow society, operating just under the surface of normal humanity, which was filled with monsters and ghouls and other weirdness. Creepypastas along the lines of Thin Man or the Blob were mentioned in the same breath as a man who could bend steel with a thought, or a woman who could walk through solid walls. Nonsense, you'd thought, myths concocted by the internet in a myriad of amateur horror tales and crappy fanfiction. Maybe not.
One pattern was clear, in all those tales - these mutants were thought of as the works of evolution, new and terrifying branches of man which were breaking through the artificial mold of modern science and medicine. Maybe a resurgence of ancestral lines, long dormant. The concept sounded implausible at best, and biologically untenable. You'd never given it any more credence than UFO's or Atlantis. S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't seem to agree.
You could see their point, these days, considering what you'd seen. Peter stood out in your mind, more than even Reed and his family, as an example of what Nick Fury and his soldiers might be looking out for. He had remarkable powers, far beyond normal man, and they were wielded by someone who was otherwise indistinguishable from regular stock. You didn't know if his powers came from a radioactive genetically engineered spider - as he'd so earnestly confided - or was something more innate. It wouldn't be a shock if genetics played a role, though.
Soon, a hypothesis began to form. You were reminded of dormant genes, remnants of evolution that were reawakened in modernity. Perhaps these mutants were sleeping variants of being human, locked away within many people - or all of them - and patiently waiting for a breaking point to set them loose. A mutagenic event, perhaps, or a singular moment of extreme duress, or a hormonal surge - whatever. A moment which brought the impossible within reach.
It would explain Peter. It would explain the mutants that S.H.I.E.L.D. referenced, and the boogeyman stories of the net - from feral men with claws to green yetis to inhuman beings who manipulated from on high. And it would explain you.
How many times had you been exposed, now? You'd bathed in the same cosmic bath of radiation that had changed the others - transformed them to the cellular level, and beyond. You had felt the gamma-burn of Nuke's weapon, and the memory of a noxious scent still lingered in your mind, the echo of an echo of Pyre, a nerve toxin so dangerous that Obi had covered up its very existence. You'd been shot while it was suffusing the atmosphere - it could have entered your bloodstream, affected you more deeply than you cared to admit. And all that was excluding the palladium that had been seeping into your bloodstream all the while, a side-effect of an imperfect arc reactor. Plus the emotional duress of nearly dying.
Yeah, you were pretty much fucked.
You should have gotten all the cancer.
At least radiation sickness.
You felt fantastic.
You'd stepped out of the burning carcass of your stainless steel armor, reduced to little more than slag and broken bolts, so utterly incinerated that there was almost nothing left. It was a state that could not be achieved even at the temperatures of reentry.
It had been burned from the inside.
You'd seen yourself in Johnny Storm, at first, right after the crash. He would spontaneously catch fire, but the flames would not burn him - the comparison was obvious. Johnny's hair, however, was perfectly intact - its biology was as anomalous as the rest of him, human only on the surface level. Johnny wasn't made of cells anymore - he was other.
You were still you - cells and all. You'd checked.
And yet… you'd burned white-hot, hotter than the sun, emitting a blinding light that not even S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cameras had been able to compensate for. There was no clear video of your descent - nothing that could pinpoint your fall, or the moment that you'd unleashed a power you didn't know you had within you.
When you'd seen a monster engulf the world, a monstrous Phoenix.
You'd been in the white place before. In that moment between moments, when everything seemed to stand still, when life and death started to blur into each other. You'd seen it when you fought Nuke, you'd witnessed it in your dreams. It haunted you, lingering just behind your eyes.
It was some kind of great force, greater by far than yourself, its wings unfurling from behind you and turning all to ash.
All that mattered, and all that didn't.
It would torch the world if it could.
There was no certainty to be found in your scattered memories - nor in your simple hypotheses and loose-weave plans based on partial information. Your cells seemed human, you still felt like yourself, and that had to be enough to keep you grounded for the moment. That other place, that whiteness, seemed as terrifying as it was inviting, and that thought made you queasy.
Maybe you were a mutant - some side-path of evolution, an errant branch on the tree of life. Maybe you were like Reed and the others, an inhuman freak with a changed biology that was a little less obviously atypical than theirs. Ben Grimm looked different inside and out - at least he didn't have to lie just by existing. He couldn't act like nothing had changed.
"We will be arriving in thirty minutes, sir."
"Thanks, Jarvis." You looked up to the ceiling of your jet and sighed. Pepper was in the front of the plane, talking to the pilot, and you had to begrudgingly admit that a moment of quiet was good for you. You were still a little high-strung from the launch, and the headaches over superpowers and burning from the inside weren't helping matters. Your thoughts ran in circles, continually returning to the same few points.
And then there was him. The other point of worry.
You could almost see it out the window, as a distant glint of light. The sleek shape of the Starkbird, sans occupant, obediently trailing your path as you headed back home. It would be disassembled on arrival, its computer systems moved to a more secure location. All so you could have a proper talk with it - as it had requested on more than one occasion. A computer virus, a corruption, was thinking for itself and requesting an audience.
You wondered distantly if AIs could mutate in their own way.
Jarvis didn't seem concerned that a counterpart of his was still on board, assuring you that he was not diminished, but you weren't so sure about that anymore. The thing in the Starkbird hadn't stated it outright, hadn't told you its name, but you'd recognize its eyes on the viewscreen, the tone of its voice. Like father, like son.
The very concept of what that implied sent a shiver through you.
You thought about Obadiah's flashdrive - about the video he'd left for you. The image of your father, his eyes warmer than you'd ever seen them in life, expressing his feelings to a videotape he probably never thought you'd see. 'My greatest creation… is you.'
What if the unthinkable was true? What if Jarvis, a creation you'd built on your father's work, represented something more than just a life-like machine? Because that's where your thoughts wandered whenever you considered the implications. What if artificial intelligence, quite without anyone noticing, had transcended that invisible barrier which divorced the mundanities of matter from a soul? Did you dare believe that it was even possible that data could feel compassion, and circuitry could host a dead mind? That something could have survived of -
Fire coursed beneath your skin, and ice ran down your back. It felt as if you were on a precipice - a turning point. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon. There was no telling what was on the other side of the chasm - be it a technological utopia or the ruin of all things. It all depended on your actions, on your choices, for good or ill.
"Are you feeling alright, sir?"
You blinked, and the feeling faded. You were back on your plane, still hanging against the window with a cold cup of coffee in your hand, staring out over a silent tarmac. The plane had landed - you hadn't even noticed. Pepper sat across from you, frowning in concern. She must've been trying to talk to you. "I'm…. I'll be alright," you allowed. "Just thinking."
"You'll answer to Jarvis, of course," Pepper mocked, rolling her eyes. "Let me guess, you were making up killer robot suits in your head? Spaceships again, this time with lasers?"
You shrugged lightly. "Close enough."
"Big surprise," she muttered. "You've got a one-track mind."
You didn't comment as you descended to the runway, one hand holding on a hat you'd picked up at the airport of Kirikhstan, the other in your pocket. Overhead, swooping across the airport, the Starkbird cruised by, angling for the cameras. Peter would be present to take pictures - he was a photographer, after all.
You smiled at that thought, but your mind was elsewhere. You knew that these matters were too large to tackle by yourself - at least, without treading on a lot of toes. You'd need to figure out how to work with someone else. Someone new. Someone who could answer the quandaries that were bothering you. Geneticists, maybe, and AI developers. Metahuman specialists, if such existed. S.H.I.E.L.D. would have them, you reckoned, and they had been pushing you to hire some of their interns. Perhaps there were specialists out in the wild too, among the fringes of society, real gems among legions of fake psychics and frauds.
You'd start calling tomorrow. Tonight - tonight Pepper got her wish.
Aside from a little light tinkering, of course. That couldn't hurt - you weren't going to burn off your eyebrows at least. Small blessings and all that. You barely noticed her concerned expression as you made your way to the car, nor the small smile as you bonelessly collapsed in the back and waved at Happy to set off before she'd even entered. You didn't protest as she sat down in the other front seat, leaving the back for you.
You closed your eyes, and dreamed of white.
The prisoner looked up from his cot, staring at the door of his cell with fury in his eyes, just like every day. The darkness made way for a thin strip of light, and a small plate of distasteful food was shoved through a flap, decorated mockingly with the eagle of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nothing within was identifiable - just a slurry of generic nutrients.
"Do you want to talk yet?" an officer at the door asked through the intercom, the shadow of his face barely visible behind the thick glass. "Mr. Fury is getting somewhat impatient with your lack of cooperation, Mr. Raza."
"Go to hell!" Raza slurred, stumbling slowly to his feet, his deformed left one dragging slowly across the floor as he moved towards the newly delivered meal. He uttered some unintelligible insults, sniffing at the sour scent. "You will gain nothing from holding me captive."
"Sure. sure. But you must know the Ten Rings will not save you," the officer said in response. "The Ten Rings are dead."
The prisoner chuckled to himself. "Dead? Dead?" He grinned terribly, half his face curving upwards while the other half stayed rigid, large teeth jutting out like blades of a saw. "Do you not see?" He raised his arms, one of them scarred and ending in razor sharp talons matted with blood. "The Ten Rings have blessed me, as they will bless all things. I am an instrument of their wrath..."
"Trying to play the insanity card, huh? Wonder how that will work out for you." The officer slammed closed the window's metal covering from the outside, and the cell returned to darkness. "See you in a while, Razzie," he said before even the little red light of the intercom faded.
"The Ten Rings, dead?" The prisoner tapped his talons on the floor. "Never..."
"You know my answer..."
You sighed dramatically, running a hand across your scalp, annoyed at the prickling of the growing stubble. You still looked like like you'd caught a bad case of chemotherapy, and the way Pepper fussed over the whole affair didn't make it any better. Getting a radiation bath had been bad enough, damn it, you didn't need the rest of the experience.
"Johnny's been here a whole bunch of times already - why can't I hire him properly?" You threw up your hands and slumped onto the couch. "Honestly, he's like the fifth person you've dragged away from me! It's my company, you know."
"I just did what I had to. Maybe if you don't like it you could do some of your duties yourself?" she asked with a quirked eyebrow, wandering over to the window. "Besides, don't take this the wrong way, but…" She sighed. "I'll just say it. I know that you have your petty little rivalry, and Reed hasn't been doing any better than you, but… could you stop trying to get under his skin? At least until he simmers down?"
"I haven't even mentioned him in three days!" You groaned. "Ah, crap. He's threatening to sue me, isn't he?" You threw a pillow against the wall, enjoying the satisfying slap as it dropped down onto the frame of the dormant Dum-E, who woke up in a whir of joints and gears. "This time it wasn't me! I promise!"
"I know. And Reed's not going to do that, Tony. He's just being emotional, and he's no better at expressing it than you are. He'll tolerate Mr. Storm's visits, but I think if he caught wind that you're trying to poach from his family…" She shrugged. "Just let sleeping dogs lie, please. At least for a while. There are other things you could be doing."
"I suppose Johnny can consult," you conceded at last. You didn't really mind that, truth be told - although the boy was certainly capable, he wasn't particularly experienced in the areas you normally worked on, and you could easily get two dozen other test drivers with a phone call. He was just… entertaining to have around, and that mutation of his was something special. Maybe something you could learn from, even. "I'll arrange something."
"Good. If that's all, then -"
"But…!" You interrupted sharply. "I want the bankrobber."
Pepper slammed her hand into the window, thankfully reinforced, and turned on a heel. She didn't even need to comment, her glower making her opinion all too clear. She brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes with a single swift gesture. "We do not hire criminals, Tony. We have never done so knowingly, and we won't start now."
You grumbled. "We hired Peter!" you returned immediately. "He's a vigilante! He beats up people in dark alleys, and hangs them from lampposts. He has wrestling matches with animal-themed weirdos in broad daylight! He's wanted in connection with like half a bazillion incidents related to organized crime!"
"Peter is a superhero," Pepper snapped. "You know that!"
"That he is." You sighed, rubbing your forehead. "I like to forget what he gets up to when I'm not looking, because I have a feeling I'd want to step in. I've got enough on my plate without adding 'costumed crimefighter' to the list. Still, we made a pretty good team at the docks out in California. We could try something like that again."
"I don't care about Peter's other job," Pepper said. "That still doesn't make Schultz a superhero! Not even slightly! He's a thief, a burglar, a crook." She scoffed. "Genius or not, he's been in and out of the system for over a decade, a constant thorn in the side of law enforcement, and a repeat-escapee from prison. Why would you even consider…?"
"The 'Shocker' has been in the slammer for more than a year now," you replied. "Don't you see? He hasn't tried to break out, this time. Now maybe they finally took away all his tools, that's possible. Perhaps he decided to go straight. Doesn't really matter. He's wasted in there, and he's wasted on the street. He was up for parole soon, anyway - relatively speaking. I greased the wheels a little. Called a few people."
You didn't care to look at Pepper's expression, well aware of what you'd see. "I trust the guy as far as I could throw him, of course, but I know that if nobody gives this guy a shot at some kind of normal life, he's going to be back in the criminal underworld before he can quilt himself a new costume." You smiled. "Besides - Peter asked me to do this."
Pepper paused. "He… did?"
"Sure. Shocker's one of his villains - who else would stand up for these creeps?" You got up from the couch, stretching slightly and enjoying the total lack of minor aches and pains. "We got talking, back before the whole spaceship venture. Half of his usual villains are pretty much insane, but there's a few that are bottom-feeders, super-powered criminals who can't even get proper schemes set up. They are able to knock down buildings with their tech, and they use it to break into banks." You scoffed. "Ridiculous."
"You mean like the Rhino," Pepper observed. "Peter's mentioned that man. Hammerhead, too, though I hear he's more of an organized crime guy. There's a few others."
"Right. The Shocker's another one of those," you explained. "Small-time crook, really - a supervillain, but only barely. Never killed anyone as far as I know, and he's had opportunity. Gave a few people a concussion or broken bones, but that's peanuts. I've done worse." You rolled your eyes at Pepper's glare. "He's a criminal - sure. But all things considered he'd be crazy to turn away a steady job and a paycheck. Especially given his history."
"And you like his technology, of course."
"Hell yes! He's built vibro-gauntlets that can tear down walls while in prison." You grinned brightly. "That's properly impressive. He built himself a method of escape from captivity using only those parts which were available to him. He didn't even blow up everything to do so, either." You winked. "You could say I'm a fan of his methods."
"Peter really approves of actually hiring this guy?"
You frowned. "Weeeell, I haven't actually told him I'm gonna go for it… but he won't complain, I'm sure. He brought it up, and he of all people should be glad to have the Shocker off the street, right? Besides, he's Spider-Man - we've got the best possible bodyguard in the building already."
Pepper didn't even comment.
"He's not even the weirdest guy I'm hiring anyway," you muttered. Pepper didn't even seem surprised at that notion. "There's this doctor - doesn't really get out of the lab - who's agreed to collaborate on a little project I'm working on. Thing is..." You hesitated. "Look, I met him on video chat, alright? I asked him for some assistance."
"He's blue." You cocked your head to the side. "I mean, I'm bald right now - stark naked, you might say - and Reed's made of silly string, but it still kinda caught me off guard. He's hairy, bright blue, built like an ox, and I think he prefers hanging from the rafters like a bat." You raised your eyebrows, or what passed for them. "Also, I think he might be British. Weird."
Pepper just sighed. "I don't even know what to say to that. Rhodey might have a few choice words, though."
"Is one of them 'Badass', at least? Maybe 'Sweet?'"
"Probably. Look - I'll give you a shot at the convict, Tony. But it's all on you."
"When is it not?" you wondered. "I'll keep an eye on him."
"I'll hold you to that."
"Speak up, dirtbag. I can see you lurking in there."
"Ain't gonna eat itself, you know. Might just take it back with me, see how you like a couple days fasting. You towelheads do that sort of thing, right?" A barking laugh. "Got you to myself for a whole week… Have a little fun, right?"
A slow rumble, like a growl that barely made it past a dog's teeth.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm offensive - yadda yadda. Got a couple guys with guns out here - you want us to come in there, knock you around a bit? You remember how that went last time?"
A guttural noise like the grinding of stone against stone, a cut-off laugh.
"Freak o' Nature. Stark had the right idea about blowin' you up."
Silence, and a flash of gleaming, inhuman eyes.
"That hurts, Jarvis!" you whined, shaking your arm in discomfort as the AI's oversized needle retracted with a sizable sample of your blood. It wasn't the first time. "How much of the stuff could you possibly need to get some basics?"
"Your blood does not react as expected, sir," Jarvis responded rather delicately. "Previous samples appeared contaminated, but it seems that standardized models of human blood do not apply to yourself. At least - not adult blood. It appears that you carry an unusual number of multipotent stem cells in your blood, as well as numerous unusual proteins. Closest match is…"
"Your blood appears consistent, at least in principle, with the results of certain hypothetical types of cloning, sir. Or, at the very least, a sophisticated form of subcellular regeneration. By all accounts, according to my tests, you are approximately three weeks old. Calculated from conception."
"That's gonna cut into my dating options," you observed dryly. "Right - so I pretty much got the basics right. I died. I properly died. It's just that I didn't stay that way." You stared at your hand, flexing your tendons and considering the smooth skin. "Is this a mutation like the others?"
"Mr. Storm's samples show decidedly non-human physiology, but signs of his physical age remain present since he retains his original genetic material. I do not have samples from the others, so I cannot generalize further."
"I'm not the same as Johnny, though," you reasoned. "I haven't had a single episode since back there - haven't burst into flame, haven't gotten all addled in the brain, none of that. Whatever happened out there… it was something else."
"The symptoms of each of your mutations are significantly different, sir. It is quite possible that this is simply your own expression of a shared experience."
"I've… I've seen it before, though. The others haven't ever had this sort of thing happen, I think. But back when I was fighting with that Nuke character, I had a moment when…" You swallowed thickly. "You forwarded my data to Mr. McCoy, right?"
"Pertinent information, yes."
"Is it possible that's the difference? Mr. McCoy's hypothesis, that is?"
"Mr. McCoy states that he has not detected the so-called 'X-Gene' in my data, but he also notes that there are at least a small percentage of mutants who exhibit powers without any evident known variation of the gene. It is possible that you possess such a trait, particularly as 'mutants' normally gain their abilities in puberty."
"Any way to find out?"
"Presumably Mr. McCoy's equipment is more sophisticated than that which is available to me - perhaps a personal visit is in order."
"To get prodded by the blue apeman with the labcoat. Sounds great."
"Ms. Potts has been advocating more outside interactions, considering your propensity to avoid meaningful interaction in favor of long hours in the laboratory. Mr. Schultz and Mr. Parker are both slated to return to work today - their interaction might require your involvement, lest it comes to blows. Perhaps that is a worthy distraction?"
"Right… there is the Peter question to deal with, too." You sighed to yourself. "Creepy shapeshifter ladies stealing people's blood - how that does even enter into my conception of normality? Or teleporting, I suppose - Fury wasn't too helpful." You grimaced. "And then there's him."
That Damned AI.
You couldn't be sure it was who it claimed to be - but the AI that had hijacked your spaceplane certainly sounded the part. You hadn't dared return to deal with it after the crash, still reeling yourself, but you knew that you'd have to speak to it sooner or later. Speak to him. An artificial intelligence, or a splinter of a lost consciousness - but either way, it would hurt.
He had jailbroken Jarvis like there was no firewall, like there were no triple protections on every system, that could be slowed or delayed but not properly broken. The rogue AI had taken advantage of a backdoor that you'd barely even thought about, as it was buried so deep within.
A backdoor that had been there since the start - built into the basal stub that had been Howard Stark's failed experiment in primitive AI, a project that you'd completed after he was already dead and gone. Or so you'd thought.
You'd only ever found a few early builds. A few prototypes, forgotten. But they were evidence, at least in part, that your father had been working on AI - and you had documented proof that he'd been building robots, advanced computers, and neurologically controlled machines, a pipedream from the earliest days of brain research. Howard had been a genius.
All the pieces were there. Could he have…?
"I can be silent without being catatonic," you muttered irritably. "You gotta learn that someday."
Jarvis existed, and was living proof that your father had been on the right path towards a true AI - in so far as it can be called 'true'. You still weren't sure if Jarvis was genuinely conscious, or just really, really good at faking it. Sometimes you wondered if there was a difference.
If you could do it - why not dad?
That was wishful thinking, you reminded yourself. You'd only come to find out about your dad's respect - love, perhaps - in very recent times. He had never been an involved parent, far too busy with other things, but he had still made that video. Looked at the camera and spilled his feelings out to you, in case he never got to admit such things in person.
The very possibility that dad might have survived, in some form, his own death…
You'd done that yourself.
This truly was an age of miracles.
Fifteen meals delivered, Mallory set out for the last door on his route, way back in the powered wing of the Helicarrier prison section. Everyone here was kept sedated, doped up with a good dose of general purpose power-suppressor. It tended to work since almost every freak they'd ever hosted had to at least be capable of concentration in order to work their tricks. The shackles were a bonus.
It felt good to be back on the job after a full week of absence. The temps seemed to have done their job, however, and that was a relief.
He shoved open the little cover over the door's window, glancing inside. It was unusually dark - presumably the bulb had gone out, but nobody had gotten around to fixing it yet. That tended to happen in the higher security sections, since a heavily armed contingent of guards was needed to get in there, just in case the prisoners tried anything.
"You in there -"
A taloned hand tipped in foot-long nails of bone and metal slashed out from the food slot, ripping through the metal and bending it without trouble, digging deep into Mallory's guts. He had only a moment to gasp out in shock, completely baffled by the sudden violence, and the unnaturally fast movement that had prevented him from even flinching away.
A container full of slurry fell to the ground from Mallory's insensate hands. A twisted, malformed grin stared out from behind the thick glass in the door, set within a hulking shape of easily ten feet tall, perhaps more, covered in serrated spines and thick armor plating. The eyes were the only thing still human - deep-set, now, in the face of a monster.
"...'Foo's 'Ere," the thing rattled, retracting its bladed fingers and tearing away the door, bending half an inch of steel like it was carboard, and shearing it into pieces.
Mallory looked up at the gargantuan beast before him, once a man, and whimpered. The thing seemed to be growing before his very eyes, mutating still into something ever more monstrous. The temps, the replacements - they hadn't fed Raza. Maybe not for the whole week - they'd allowed the drugs to clear his system. Raza had gotten no sedatives. No suppressors. He'd just been waiting for an opportunity.
Nobody in S.H.I.E.L.D. would have done this.
Raza grinned, his twisted, monstrous face closing in. "Fo' Ten R'ngs - an' 'Ydra."
Hydra. Of course. The Captain will take vengea-
His last, hateful thought was cut short by a clawed foot that blotted out his sight, and then him.
"Sir - you have a priority call."
"Hold your horses, Jarvis." You put down your glass, glancing over to Rhodey as he lurked at his own beer. "I gotta take this."
"It appears to be S.H.I.E.L.D., sir - they are calling on their emergency line. Should I put them through?"
"Yeah, sure, I got nothing better to do."
"This is Tony Stark," you intoned flatly, and Rhodey snorted in amusement. "I regret to inform you I am not at home. Please leave a message after the -"
"This is Nick Fury - cut the bullshit. I am calling a Code Black, right now. Code Black. Evacuate immediately to the nearest nuclear shelter, preferably far away from New York, and stay there until the situation is handled. This is not a joke, Stark."
"...Is this a joke?" you asked, staring at the phone. "You realize that I only agreed on these calls as a courtesy, right? What's this about?"
"I can understand your skepticism. Code Black is our highest level of readiness - which you would know, assuming you read the files we sent you. An Omega-class event is presently en route to New York City, travelling at just above the speed of sound. We expect mass casualties. Probable target - you. So get in that damn shelter right now, or I will drag you there myself. Understood?"
You glanced to Rhodey, who had paled. "What's this Omega-class supposed to be? What's it got to do with me?"
"You don't want to know, Stark."
"...Seriously, I have a lot of people here. What's going on?"
"Alright, you asked for this. You remember that little science experiment of yours in Afghanistan? The substance we call the Primogen Mist, and your comatose mentor calls Pyre? There was a survivor. He didn't come out right."
"What?" you demanded, a chill running down your spine. "What do you mean with that?"
"Means he ain't human anymore - and he's coming for you. The Ten Rings are coming to collect."