Benjamin Stark awoke to the sound of an alarm, and for a moment thought that was entirely normal—until he realized that it was still dark outside, and it wasn't that kind of alarm.
Sitting up in bed, he blinked into the darkness for a moment, then said, "Friday? What's going on?"
"Perimeter incursion, Mr. Stark," the voice of his faithful administrative AI replied.
Stark swung his legs out of bed and sat on the edge, rubbing his face. "Show me."
The 8-by-4.5-foot holopanel on the far wall of his bedroom flicked on, providing a view of the street in front of the building. It didn't take Stark, a veteran war correspondent, long to recognize the distinctive outline of a pitched battle being fought down there. The whole block in front of the tower was cordoned off and the concrete plaza immediately in front of the entrance was littered with Mega Tokyo Advanced Police armored trucks. From this angle, Stark couldn't tell how many ADP troopers were engaged, but there had to be at least a hundred of them. And as for what they were fighting...
"Two 55s... and that brown one's a military boomer," said Stark. "Not a security model, a full-on combat unit. What the hell?" He winced as one of the ADP trucks exploded. "Those guys are getting clobbered. Where the hell are their heavies?"
MegaZone's face appeared in a corner of the display, a caption at the bottom indicating that he was speaking from the JARVIS console down in the Armory. "JARVIS and I are in the ADP's comms," he reported. "Sixth AD Mobile is engaged with another military boomer in Tinsel City. Both of the on-duty K-11s are dealing with that one. ADP Central's scrambling another from Headquarters, but it'll take a while to get here."
Stark watched the fight unfolding for a few more seconds, then got to his feet and made for the elevator in the corner.
"They don't have that kind of time," he said.
Zoner nodded. "JARVIS, warm up the Mark III."
"Right away, sir."
"Friday, see if you can get me Sylia," Stark added as he entered the elevator and thumbprinted the button for the Armory.
"Stingray," another voice said tersely on the elevator car's overhead a moment later.
"It's Stark," he said, changing out of his nightclothes and into a black datasuit as he spoke. "You've got an undesirable moving into the neighborhood."
"I know." A faint trace of dry amusement crept into Sylia's voice as she added, "He's hard to miss."
"There's another one tearing up the block in front of my place," Stark told her. "Now, I'm not a paranoid man, but if I were I'd maybe suspect there was a connection."
"We won't be able to help you," Sylia told him. Her disembodied voice followed Stark as he left the elevator and walked out into the white concrete cavern of the Armory, its brilliant overhead lights powering up as he entered. "Just getting into the field will be problematic with the ADP so close to the building."
"I figured as much," Stark said. "I'll take care of this one myself."
"You too, Dr. Stingray."
Zoner looked down from the JARVIS console platform as Stark stepped into the yellow circle painted on the center of the Armor Assembly Gantry. "You sure about this?" he asked. "We're still not 100% on some of the systems integration."
"We're a lot closer than we were last time," Stark replied with a wry grin. "Suit me up."
Zoner sat down and swiveled to the console. "Beginning assembly sequence."
The AA Gantry's six robotic arms took 23 seconds to build the Mark III Iron Man armor around its maker—fully 17 seconds fewer than the Mark II had required, thanks to refinements in both the software and hardware. The operating system began booting up as soon as the chestplate was fastened and linked, further streamlining the process, so that almost as soon as the suit was fully assembled, all systems were online and ready to rock. Time from sequence commencement to full battle-readiness: 29 seconds.
"Not bad!" said Stark, smiling with satisfaction within the helmet as the holo-environment erased the metal enclosure from his vision. "JARVIS, what are we looking at out there?"
"The attacking unit appears to be a Bu-12B military assault boomer," JARVIS replied. "That model is equipped with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a 4.6mm hypervelocity machine gun, as well as advanced combat logic and heavy armor plating. My database gives it threat classification orange. The other two are 55-series security units, a type with which you are already well acquainted," the AI added dryly. A moment later he went on, "The AD Police have managed to disable one of the 55s, sir."
"Good to know."
"Where are you going?" Zoner asked. "Don't you want to use one of the covert launch points?"
"Nope," Iron Man replied. "Got my spiffy new paint job; got my conference starting tomorrow... it's time to go public."
Zoner shook his head. "Pepper's going to have your hide."
"Sixteen, 37, fall back, fall back!" the ADP sergeant yelled into his radio. "Central, where the hell are those K-suits? We're getting slaughtered out here!"
"We're prepping them as fast as we can, Mobile 4," Central replied. "Just hold on."
"Hold on?! This thing is an assault unit! We've killed one of its escorts, but we don't have the firepower to deal with—... what the hell?"
The sergeant's puzzled interjection was caused by the sudden retraction of the armored shutters that had closed over the glass frontage of the Stark International building when the battle began—not all of them, just those covering the front doors. Behind the smoked glass, he could see movement, like that of a figure walking toward the doors from within. What was going on? Was some fool coming out to see what all the noise was?
A moment later, a lone individual thrust open both doors and emerged without breaking stride, barging out as though he owned the place, and the sergeant stared in astonishment. For a moment, with its bright colors and sleek, streamlined armor, he thought the figure that had just appeared from within the building was one of the Knight Sabers; to be sure, it was no K-11 nor anything like. But no, upon closer inspection, it wasn't a Knight Saber either. Though much smaller than a K-suit, it was still larger than any of the armored vigilantes, and shaped like a man, not a woman.
This remarkable figure marched out to the edge of the tower plaza's top step, a dozen yards or so from the front doors, and stood for a moment as if sizing up the situation. The plaza lights glinted from the angles of its (his?) shining scarlet and gold armor; his eyes (or the slots where they should've been) and a circular fitting in the center of his chest glowed with a clean white light. It took only a second or so for the rogue boomer to notice him, and it seemed briefly taken aback, unable to identify the new threat. Behind him, the shutters closed over the tower's front doors again.
"This is private property," the red-and-gold figure announced in an amplified, slightly distorted voice. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you all to leave."
The 12-series boomer raised its bazooka arm and fired; the armored man, if that's what he was, stepped aside, letting the round impact showily but harmlessly against the shutters.
"OK," he said, and then launched himself down the stairs.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bubblegum Crisis: The Iron Age
Mega Tokyo 2032
Issue #4: What Goes Around...
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
with Philip J. Moyer
The Iron Age devised by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2016 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Six hours later, Benjamin Stark sat at the JARVIS console in the Armory, reviewing the sensor logs from his fight with the two boomers and dictating notes on the outing to JARVIS.
"The pyroclastic lamination worked perfectly," he said, "but I think we can do better on the recharge time for the knuckle bombers." His eyes still on the holographic playback, he reached for his coffee, but didn't find it. Instead, his hand alighted on what felt like a datapad. Blinking, he turned his head and regarded it.
It was indeed a datapad, and right now it was displaying the front page of Knight Sabers OK!, one of the many fansites dedicated to the city's mysterious armored mercenaries. The front-page story today, though, wasn't about them. Instead, the page was dominated by a brightly colored image of the Mark III Iron Man suit slugging it out with last night's 55-series, streetlights glittering from both combatants' armor plating, and the shouting headline, "WHO IS IRON MAN??"
"What is this?" Virginia "Pepper" Potts demanded.
"Where is my coffee?" Stark inquired.
Pepper put her hands on her slim, business-skirted hips. "What is this," she repeated, pointing a finger at the headline.
"My coffee was right there," Stark observed in a faint tone of bewilderment, then looked up at her scowling face and said mildly, "That is totally rude."
"Rude? You want to talk about rude?" Pepper paced away from him, gesturing to the slightly battered Mark III armor, which stood in a test stand by the main shop's work table. "You went public. People saw you. In front of the building."
Stark swiveled to face her. "In my defense, evil robots were trying to blow it up."
Still on a bit of a roll, Pepper went on, "We agreed that you wouldn't associate Iron Man with Stark International until Legal finished researching the position."
Stark raised an interjectory finger. "Unless evil robots tried to blow up the building in the meantime. I was very specific about that." Pepper glared at him. "In my head," he added. Seeing that she wasn't going to be put off that easily, he got to his feet and walked toward her, hands spread in mild entreaty. "Come on, Pep, it had to be done. Danger to the building aside, those ADP guys were getting mullered out there."
"You should have called me," she persisted.
"At two in the morning? C'mon." Stark walked past her and behind the suit, then leaned around it with his hand on one of its shoulders and went on, "Odds are he's getting unveiled at IC² anyway. Also," he added with a faintly puzzled look, "how did you get down here?"
"JARVIS let me in."
"JARVIS, you're fired."
"Very good, sir," said JARVIS unflappably.
"I'd forgotten how exasperating you can be," said Pepper, smiling slightly in spite of herself.
Stark crossed to the garage entrance. "Well, that'll teach you not to reorganize the whole company and move the corporate headquarters into my house," he said offhandedly.
Pepper couldn't contain a chuckle at that remark. "True," she conceded.
"Have you had breakfast?" Stark asked, twirling his car keys around his index finger. "'Cause I haven't. JARVIS, I'll have to take you back on as a consultant at twice your old salary."
"I don't get paid, sir."
Stark nodded. "Perfect. That's settled, then. We'll finish this up later—right now, get the suit detailed. I want new car smell for the big show."
"Right away, sir."
Pepper stood regarding the suit, noting the scuffs and scorches on some of its plates, and then glanced at the floor. "Why is there water here?" she asked; then, eyeing Stark, she went on, "Did you crash in the harbor again after your dramatic exit?"
"No," Stark replied; as she kept her skeptical eyes on him, he frowned and said, "Water landings are part of the standard flight test protocol. In my head."
"It's just a small glitch in the air-ground interface stability loop," he insisted as he led the way out to the garage. "Nene'll get it sorted soon."
"The crossing guard is doing your software engineering?"
"Did I say that last part out loud? Um, you're not... cleared for that..."
MegaZone arrived promptly at seven-thirty that evening, carrying a locked security case and looking even more like a razorman-for-hire than usual, by way of the secure entrance off the west alley, to find the establishment's proprietor, her brother, and Priss Asagiri waiting for him.
"Good evening, Doctor," said Sylia, inclining her head cordially. "You're alone tonight?"
Zoner nodded. "Ben wanted to come, but he's hip-deep in final prep for IC²..."
"... and Potts isn't letting him out of her sight after the stunt he pulled last night," Priss finished for him, smirking slightly.
"Something like that," Zoner admitted with a grin.
"We're gonna have to bring her into the loop sooner or later," Priss said as the four headed down the hallway to the hardsuit development shop. "She runs the company, not him. She could screw up our whole deal if she gets wind of it some other way."
Sylia nodded. "I know," she said, but when she failed to elaborate, Priss shrugged and let it drop for the moment. She knew Sylia well enough by now to be confident that, if the detail was on her radar, it wasn't going to drop off.
They entered the workshop, where a nearly-complete hardsuit stood on an assembly/test rack, its armor plating partly dismantled. It had the general lines of the close combat model Priss and Linna wore, with the solid breastplate and heavy-duty suspension, but the gaps in the armor showed where new, heavier actuators had been installed in all the major mobility points, and where the master power cell should've been, high on the back, there was instead a circular fitting surrounded by chromed tubing and dark circuit traces. Instead of Priss's usual royal blue main color scheme, this one's armor was painted flat black, albeit with her customary red stripes.
"This is only a test model," Mackie said, as if by way of apologizing for the suit's unfinished look.
"It's a Mark IV chassis," Sylia said, "fitted with the second revision of the SRS actuator array. It could sustain full combat effectiveness for no more than 75 seconds with a normal seventh-generation hardsuit E-pack." She turned to Zoner with a faint smile. "I trust we can do better."
Zoner grinned, put his security case down on a nearby workbench, plied the locks, and opened the lid, revealing the lambent glow of an activated but idling arc reactor.
"RT Unit No. 3," he said. "Just completed this morning." Putting on a pair of white cotton gloves, he removed it from its foam nest, turned, and ceremoniously presented it to Sylia. She took it with a nod of thanks, stepped to the prototype suit, and fitted it into the socket on the back. When it clicked home, its glow stepped up and spread into the circuit traces around its mount, down into the inner workings of the suit. A moment later, the socket mechanism drew the mounted reactor inward and closed an armor plate over the whole fitting, concealing it from view.
Mackie looked over a few readings on a computer display coupled to the suit's onboard computer, then turned to Sylia and nodded. "Looks like it's live. All connections green."
Priss cracked her knuckles and headed for the changing room. "Sounds like my cue."
Ninety minutes of fairly conservative maneuverability, agility, and strength-aug tests in the training room later, Priss offered her carefully considered pilot's critique of the RT hardsuit prototype:
"This is bad, ass. When do I get one that can fly?"
"One step at a time, Priss," Sylia told her.
"Well, can I get some weapons at least?"
"That's the next step," Mackie said. "We should be ready to start full-function combat testing by the weekend."
"Outstanding." Priss pivoted and threw a couple of phantom punches, causing audible thumps of air displacement, then pushed open her visor and grinned—actually grinned—up at the control booth windows. "Oi, Zoner! Tell Stark to come catch my show Friday night at the Tunnel Rat. I want to show him what I think of my new toy."
Zoner smirked slightly and said, "I'll pass the message along. This weekend's the conference, though. He might be pretty busy Friday night."
Priss shrugged and closed her visor. "His loss..."
The big, stately, ballroom-like auditorium on the third floor of Stark Tower was packed and buzzing as Ben Stark peeked around the edge of the curtain.
"Looks like everybody's here," he observed, adjusting the cuffs of his tuxedo shirt.
Pepper straightened his bow tie slightly. "Good," she said. "Don't run away while I'm introducing you."
"Would I do a thing like that to you?" Stark asked.
Pepper pretended to be considering the question uncertainly, then patted his shoulder, turned, and walked out onto the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said. "Welcome to Anthony Stark Tower. I'm Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark International, and on behalf of all of us here at SI World Headquarters, I want to thank you all for coming to the first International Cybernetics and Invention Conference. With this gathering, we're hoping to inaugurate something a little different than the usual sort of high-tech trade show." She smiled, that same winning smile she used to such good effect when confronting Congressional subcommittees and foreign trade regulatory boards, let the message sink in for a moment, and then went on, "Here to tell you more is the man whose vision brought you all here: Stark International's principal, Mr. Benjamin Stark."
The applause was polite, but not resounding, as Pepper stepped away from the podium and Ben Stark, with a spring in his step and a grin on his face, took her place. The grin didn't falter, despite the slightly tepid response. He simply waited until the clapping died down, which didn't take long. When it did, he stood for a moment and just smiled, his eyes twinkling.
"I know that kind of applause," he said mischievously. "That's the applause that asks, 'What's that guy doing here?' And I suppose it's a fair question. I'm known, by most of those who know me at all, as a reporter. People don't think of me as a technologist. I'm definitely not an engineer; I don't have the academic background or the credentials for it.
"But I am a technology fan," Stark went on. "I'm a gadget guy. I'm a tinkerer. Lately I might even go so far as to call myself an inventor." He gestured to the painting of the building's namesake that hung on the wall behind him, just below a large clock. "Like my friend, benefactor, and mentor—the late Anthony Stark—I love technology."
He dropped his bantering air then, becoming serious, and put his hands on the lectern, leaning slightly forward to engage his mildly startled audience.
"More than that... I believe in technology."
Stark paused, letting that sink in, and then stood straighter and said in a more conversational tone, "A hundred years ago, the general view in the developed world was that progress was good, it had made the present better than it would otherwise have been, and it was going to make the future better still—and this was in an age of widespread economic depression, polio, and Jim Crow, when they'd just had one devastating world war and were looking right down the barrel of another one. The 1930s were a decade that arguably didn’t have a lot to be optimistic about, and yet you had massively forward-looking things being done, like the Hoover Dam and the 1939 New York World’s Fair."
Walking away from the lectern, he went on, "Contrast that with today, when a young person can take a college class on futurism and find himself bombarded for fifteen weeks by views of the present and future with titles like Consumerism: The Downward Spiral and Why Tomorrow Won't Need Us. Message: Progress is cruel and exploitative, the present isn’t that great and should feel guilty about most of what it has, and the future ranges from bleak to apocalyptic."
Stark stopped walking about midway to one side of the stage, turned to face his audience fully, shook his head, and said flatly, "This is not acceptable! It's not acceptable and we don't have to accept it. Because I'll tell you something. I believe—and I have reason to think a lot of you believe—that we're living in the best time this old world has yet produced." Reaching the lectern again, he thumped it with the flat of one hand for emphasis. "Right now we know more about the way the world, the human body, the human mind, and the universe itself work than at any time before in history. What we have to get a handle on is the human spirit. We have to remember what it was like to be proud of knowing stuff, to be eager to put that knowledge to work, and to be willing to share the fruits of that work with the rest of the world!"
Speaking with firm but calm intensity, the smile coming back to his face—less mischievous now, but warmer—he went on, "Like the great inventors, industrialists, visionaries, and engineers of the 19th and 20th centuries, we should expect and demand an ever-increasing standard of living—not just for ourselves, but for everybody—and we should be the ones taking point to make it happen."
He gestured to the hall, which was ringed with displays of various products and experiments provided by his own company and brought by some of the conference participants. "We've got all this cool stuff. We'll be seeing a lot of it this week. Between us we could make the whole world, measurably better, not just within our lifetimes but within the decade. So why don't we?
"That's what IC² is about. That's the question I brought you all here to ask you. Why don't we? Why don't we put our heads together and get some great stuff done? Why don't we look beyond market share, patent rights, status—why don't we try to make sure the great ideas don't die on the vine because they're crowded out by the ones that are only good?"
Stark paused as if reining himself in—toward the end he'd started to talk a little too fast, so warm to the topic did he find himself becoming—and then said, back at his original calm pace again, "I know some of you are feeling skeptical about what I just said. You're thinking, 'Hold on, Ben, that open cooperation stuff is all well and good for scientists, but we're engineers. We've gotta get paid over here. Some of us have got shareholders to think about.' I recognize that. It's a legitimate concern.
"You may have seen where someone at our Giant Competition called this whole shindig 'a transparent platform for corporate espionage' while making it plain that they wouldn't be coming. And that makes total sense. Truth to tell, I didn't expect anything else. When you've had everything your way for as long as those guys, the last thing you're going to want is to listen to some wild-eyed idealist talk about working together to improve the whole world's lot in life. Where's the payoff in that? That's hippie talk."
That got a mild, not entirely disagreeing laugh; smiling, Stark indulged it, then raised a hand and said, "But think about this for a second. Back around the turn of the century, the author and futurist William Gibson famously remarked, 'The future's already here—it's just not evenly distributed.' That's still true—if anything it's more true now than when he said it. Now do you really believe that, if we can make that happen—if we make a sincere effort at evenly distributing the future as we continue making it—if we genuinely bring the whole world the techno-social revolution that's already begun in places like this great city..."
Stark trailed off, his eyes darting around the room, making sure that everyone was watching and waiting for the end of the sentence. Then he grinned boyishly again, the twinkle back in his eyes, and said,
"If we can do all that, do you seriously think we won't do all right? 'Cause I think we will. So what do you say? C'mon.
"Let's revolutionize the world."
For a second or two, a person could have heard the Standard Small Object drop in Stark Tower's main auditorium.
Then, near the front, a stout, bald-headed man with a huge and luxuriant black mustache began applauding, slowly and heavily, driving his big, meaty hands together in a firm and decisive cadence that echoed around the room like marching feet. A moment later the dark-suited, slim young man and the smartly dressed redheaded woman who flanked him joined in. The wave spread from there, and within a few seconds the whole room was applauding—considerably more enthusiastically than it had when he arrived.
Beaming, he turned and looked offstage, where Pepper stood giving him a thumbs-up.
After the keynote address, the only thing on the IC² agenda for Thursday evening was a reception—an opportunity for the people attending the conference to network a bit and get things rolling. Ben Stark took the opportunity to circulate, saying hello to the attendees he knew and introducing himself to the ones he hadn't met before. Presently he found himself standing before the bald man with the outstanding mustache, who extended a hand and addressed him in a booming, Slavic-accented voice that went well with the rest of the picture:
"A remarkable address, my young friend. I am—"
Stark grinned and shook the offered hand with both of his own. "Please, Professor—Anton Vanko needs no introduction around here. I'm so glad you were able to attend."
Vanko smiled, his black eyes twinkling. "When I received the invitation, my instincts told me it would be the sort of occasion I would regret missing. After thirty years in the service of Soviet science, I have learned to trust my instincts." With only the faintest trace of irony, he went on, "Speaking of which, let me introduce you to my lovely 'assistant' Natasha..."
The redheaded woman next to him put out her hand before either man could speak, looked Stark in the eye, and said firmly, "Natalia Radenko. A pleasure to meet you at last."
Stark hesitated for the barest fraction of a second, then shook her hand and said, "Charmed. Welcome to Stark Tower."
"I must echo Professor Vanko's sentiments, Mr. Stark," said Natasha. Unlike Vanko's, and despite the name she'd given, her accent was pure Muscovite—not a hint of the Ukraine to be heard in it. "Your remarks were most interesting. Can it be that you find yourself... drifting away from journalism?"
A gala evening at the Thunderdome, Hanoi's hottest nightclub; or so Tony had claimed when he dragged Ben Hutchins out of the Stark Industries compound just outside the city and into the maelstrom that always was a Friday night on the town—any town—with Tony Stark.
In practice, about all the Thunderdome had going for it in Ben's opinion was its eccentricity. It actually was a dome, a geodesic structure made of aluminum tubes and some kind of plastic sheeting. If he had to guess, and he did, Ben would've said that it had originally been erected as a greenhouse or some such thing, though it had to be admitted that it was in an odd part of town for that kind of thing. Then, at some later point, a semi-outlaw DJ outfit and (as far as he could tell) entirely outlaw cash bar had moved in, installed tables and garish lighting, and set about annoying everyone within a mile or so who might've been trying to get some sleep.
It so happened that nightclubs—even less half-assed ones than the Thunderdome—weren't really Ben's cup of tea. As the evening progressed, he found himself mainly sitting at a table crammed into a corner, organizing some of his notes from the week and doing his best to tune out the shatteringly loud twenty-year-old house dub that seemed to be the only tunes the DJ felt like spinning. Every now and then Tony would swing by, put another drink on the table, cajole him cheerfully for being no fun, and then disappear back into the heaving throng of servicemen, go-go girls, agents provocateurs and who the hell knew what else that filled the dance floor between their table and the bar.
Truthfully, he wasn't having a bad time. The music wasn't great and the strobey, multicolored lighting was worse, but the beer was (somehow) imported and (somehow) cold, and nobody was giving him a hard time. The noise level alone prevented it from being the kind of place where a certain class of social worker, of either or indeterminate sex, would suddenly appear on the seat next to him and demand, "Hey, GI, you buy me one drink," like an extra in a movie about the last Vietnam war. Tony could work such a situation so that he was being bought drinks by the end of an half-hour or so, but Ben just found it annoying.
On his last couple of orbits, Tony had had a peculiarly well-dressed blonde woman with him, which was the sort of concretion that the glamorous billionaire tended to gather while circulating in environments such as this. The next time he appeared, though, there were two women with him, the young blonde and an even younger redhead dressed more appropriately for the environment in ratty Red Army-surplus jungle boots and fatigue pants, an Aeroflot T-shirt, a many-pocketed photographer's vest not unlike Ben's own, and the biggest damn wristwatch he had ever seen.
"Hey, WorldWatch," said Tony, grinning. "Look alive, I found you a colleague."
"What?" Ben asked.
Tony indicated the redhead. "This is Natasha, she's one of you press people. So now you have someone to talk to! You're welcome."
Ben hesitated for a moment as Tony and his blonde companion made to disappear into the crowd again, then turned to Natasha and said, "Would you excuse me for a second? Thanks."
Then, bolting up from the table, he managed to catch Tony before he could follow the blonde out of sight, leaned next to the billionaire, and half-shouted in his ear, "Tony, what...?"
Still grinning, Tony slapped his friend on the shoulder and replied, "Hey, someone has to be your wingman!"
"Aren't you supposed to demo the new Mark IV updates to General Rosario in the morning?"
"Yeah, but that's in, what—" Tony glanced at his Rolex. "—nine hours."
Ben suppressed the urge to facepalm. "Tell me you're not carrying the specs around with you."
"Don't be stupid!" Tony replied. Angling his head back toward the bar, where Ben could just make out the blonde getting a couple of drinks, he added, "Oksana works in the Soviet embassy! She's almost certainly KGB!" Then, tucking a data tab into one of the upper pockets of Ben's vest, he smirked, slapped Ben's shoulder again, and said, "You have the specs. See you at 0830!"
By the time Ben replied, "I hate you so much," he was speaking only to the space where Tony had been. Then, sighing, he turned and went back to his table. The redhead in the Aeroflot T-shirt was sitting in the seat next to the one he'd vacated, sipping from a bottle of Zhigulevskoye beer and smiling enigmatically.
"So. Uh, sorry about that," he said, resuming his seat. "Tony takes a little managing sometimes."
"I do not doubt it," said Natasha dryly.
"Anyway, hi. Ben Hutchins, WorldWatch," he said, feeling like he ought to be offering her his card.
She kept smiling and nodded cordially, flicking a finger against the laminated press badge clipped to her vest. "Natalia Volkovskaya—TASS." As they clinked the necks of their beer bottles together, she added, "You can call me Natasha."
"I have to say, if you wanted an interview with Tony, you shouldn't have let your blonde friend see him first," Ben said wryly.
"Ah, the story of my life," said Natasha philosophically. Then, surprising him, she suddenly seized his wrist and, rising, declared, "Let's dance."
Ben could count the number of times he'd been in a nightclub such as this on both hands, with a little concentration, but the number of times he'd actually danced in one was a much simpler figure to remember: none. As it turned out, though, it wasn't that difficult, or maybe Natasha's standards just weren't that exacting, because she seemed to be having a good time. More than good. Her energy was infectious, her bright eyes and ready smile engrossing, and even dressed in ratty combat pants and a T-shirt with the logo of an airline on it, she easily managed to be the sexiest woman in the room.
It occurred to him briefly to wonder what on Earth kind of guidance system malfunction had brought her to him, of all people, but by then he had decided he shouldn't be so cosmically ungrateful and just get on with... whatever the hell was happening. From speakers overdriven to the edge of the envelope, a club track from a byegone decade blared; Ben let the beat take over, doing his best to keep up with Natasha's moves, and she seemed to think his best was good enough.
Some part of him wondered as to the secret behind the enduring popularity of Taio Cruz's second album in this part of the world. He supposed, supply matters being what they were in Hanoi at the moment, it might be all the DJ had.
Ben Hutchins did not believe in omens, so he gave the lyrics no particular thought as he danced with the young Russian. They stayed out for half a dozen more tracks, each much like the one before. When, at the end of the seventh, she leaned close to him—her body heat tangible on his face, like standing near a fire—and suggested that they adjourn to someplace quieter, he didn't need to be asked twice.
Since the Stark Industries compound, where he'd been given guest quarters since he started covering Tony, was an area under semi-military security, they didn't go there. He and Tony generally didn't go back there when they'd been out on the town anyway, since getting past the security was a serious pain if you'd had a few. Instead, it was their habit after gala evenings to retire to adjoining balcony rooms on the top floor of the Pha Qing Palace Hotel, which, as luck would have it, was only a couple of blocks from the Thunderdome. The Pha Qing had horrifying coffee, but it was clean and secure, and the perfect place to sleep off one of Tony's patented search-and-destroy evenings before slinking, chastened by the remorseless glare of the accursed daystar, back to the farm.
Of course, tonight was a little different from the usual cataclysmic crash at the end of an expedition with Tony, in that Ben was hitting the Pha Qing a) without his wingman, b) with a woman and c) completely sober. He was particularly pleased about that last part; he was reasonably sure by this point that he was going to need all his faculties for what was happening next.
Natasha very considerately let him take a moment to himself in the bathroom when they arrived in his room, but the moment he emerged she had him up against the wall next to the door and they were off to the races. She kissed, he discovered, the same way she danced: with every resource available. A line from an old song—not one that they'd play at the Thunderdome—ran through his head as she clawed at the buttons of his shirt with the hand that wasn't locked on the back of his head.
Get me out of my mind; get you out of those clothes...
Her aggression didn't put him off. Score one for being a very modern sort of boy. Under the circumstances, it wasn't even so much a case of letting himself be seduced as of making no effort to avoid an airstrike, but it was all good as far as he was concerned.
Morning, and Tony Stark was barging into the room, fresh and chipper as if he'd just come from a good night's sleep, to yank the drapes open and declare,
"C'mon, sport, we've gotta be back on the farm and ready for General R in 30."
Ben stirred, turned over, and sat up, blinking. The room looked like a bomb had gone off in the night, if bombs scattered articles of clothing instead of shrapnel. His pants were inside-out and hanging by one leg from the (nonfunctional) ceiling fan; one boot was on top of the fridge and the other couldn't be seen from where he was sitting; his shirt was draped over the TV set. Only his clothes were in evidence, though. Of Natasha's—and of their owner—there was no sign, apart from a faint depression in the temperfoam mattress and a couple of red hairs on the pillow.
"Hnnh," he said, then got up (dragging the sheet with him), collected his trousers from the ceiling fan, and went into the bathroom. When he emerged, wet-haired and enpantsed, Tony was standing by the minibar, holding Ben's vest in one hand and a small piece of paper in the other.
"What's that?" Ben asked. Without a word, Tony handed it over. It was a sheet from the Pha Qing notepad by the phone, and it read,
If it's any consolation, I did have a wonderful time. N.
next to a red lipstick kiss.
"She got the tab," Tony observed matter-of-factly, looking into the empty top vest pocket.
"Of course she did," Ben replied, unconcerned. He spent a few moments hunting for his other boot, found it under the foot of the bed, and sat down to put them both on, then collected his shirt and shrugged into it. "And I hope she enjoys it very much." He smiled. "Not to be too indiscreet about these things, but she earned it."
"Well," said Tony philosophically as he handed over the vest, "one-night stand with Soviet agent... check. Off your bucket list. I told you hanging with me would take you to new places," he added wryly. "At least the Russians aren't helping the Chinese these days, so we probably won't see countermeasures turning up at the front in this war, anyway..."
Ben turned to go, then held his left hand up above his shoulder, a small object jutting from between thumb and forefinger. "Particularly not based on this data," he said.
Tony snatched the tab from his hand, turned it over, and checked the holographic serial number. "Wha—how did—"
"I'm a reporter, Tony," said Ben as he left the room with his amazed friend in tow. "I handle a lot of stuff from confidential sources. Stuff that I might get stopped and searched for. The old datatab switch is the first thing you learn." He glanced back over his shoulder with a faint grin. "And the second is how to spot people who aren't really from TASS."
Then, hands in pockets, he strolled whistling down to the elevator, leaving Tony to look from him to the tab and back before trotting to catch up.
In a more utilitarian hotel room across town, Natasha (whose last name was not really Volkovskaya) sat reviewing the data her icebreaker had just liberated from her newly purloined tab.
It was interesting, and unlike anything she could remember having seen before, but she doubted her superiors would really be that interested in a complete archive of puppet-based British children's television programs from the 1960s... and she was certainly not going to share with them the text message attached to the index file, hastily thumbed in the "scratchpad" app of a portable phone:
PLS INFORM YR SUPS THE PRESS ID SER#S THIS SECTOR START W/ 4438... EVEN THE FAKE ONES. LOTS OF LOVE, BH
She smiled, ejected the tab from her portable, and wiped the icebreaker's logs. Better to report this contact as Simple Unproductive and move on to the next assignment...
... but she wouldn't mind encountering this American again one day.
Benjamin Stark smiled knowingly. "Well, it's a funny thing, Ms. Radenko. In this day and age, when you meet a journalist, there's just no telling what else might be going on."
Natasha nodded, meeting the smile with a faint smirk of her own. "That is very true," she agreed soberly.
Vanko gave a booming laugh at the byplay, clapped Stark on the shoulder, and said, "I would introduce you to my other 'assistant', Boris, but he seems to have wandered off and, besides, I doubt you would find him as interesting." With a wink, the Soviet engineer added, "His technical background is somewhat lacking."
Stark chuckled. "Well," he said, "I know we're all looking forward to what you've got to show us, Professor. Thanks again for coming." After shaking Vanko's hand again, he turned to Natasha and added cordially, "Ms. Radenko."
"Mr. Stark," she replied coolly; and they shared a tiny, sardonic, entirely private smile before he moved off to continue working the room.
«You two fooled no one, you know,» Vanko observed cheerfully. Natasha just gave him that same sardonic little smile, then looked away, scanning the room for any more potential trouble.
Pepper Potts was mildly surprised that she didn't have more to do. After all, she was the CEO of a corporation that had very recently gone from international to multinational, and might (depending on how you defined these things) be on the verge of becoming transnational. She had just overseen the hugely complicated process of creating a new "master" company, Stark International, and then juggling the original American Stark Industries, its overseas branches, and various subsidiaries into position under that umbrella, while moving the whole assemblage's executive center of gravity into brand-new offices on the other side of the world.
And now that she'd done all that, she could sit in her corner office on the 36th floor of the Anthony Stark Tower a little after lunch on a Friday, look out at Shinjuku, and consider knocking off early to go downstairs and prowl the conference floor. She wasn't really a technical girl—the business side of the shop was her domain—but based on the program notes and what she'd seen during the kickoff gala, there was a lot of exciting stuff happening down there.
She was just about to get up from her desk and head for the elevator when her intercom beeped and Mrs. Arbogast's voice announced, "Ms. Potts, there's a young lady to see you. She doesn't have an appointment, but she passes the psycho test."
Pepper chuckled. Bambina Arbogast had been her executive assistant since the crazy days when Tony Stark had plucked Pepper from Accounts Receivable and made her his exec VP; before that, she'd been Tony's own EA, a job in which, she'd once assured Pepper, a person learned true patience. They had a well-established process in place for handling unannounced visitors. Mrs. A was one of the sharpest judges of character Pepper had ever seen, and she kept her own counsel as to who was fit to enter the executive presence. Her standards were hard to define, but exactingly applied.
"By all means, send her in," said Pepper, then settled back in her seat to see what fate had brought her way.
Her visitor was a well-turned-out young Japanese woman, dressed as if for a job interview or a day in court, carrying one of those slimline briefcases that was almost but not quite an oversized purse. Her body language as she entered was confident but not brash, and just based on that, Pepper had already decided she was probably going to like her.
"Ms. Potts, thank you for seeing me," she said, bowing. "My name is Linna Yamazaki. I'm an... acquaintance of Mr. Stark's." Pepper couldn't quite stop herself from arching an eyebrow; at the sight of it, Linna reddened slightly and added, "Ah, not in that way."
Pepper smiled, wondering behind it whether Mrs. A's crazy detector had finally let her down. Well, no reason to be rude yet, she thought; let's hear what she has to say.
"Of course," she said, nodding. "Take a seat, Ms. Yamazaki. What can I do for you?"
"Well," said Linna as she sat down in one of the chairs facing Pepper's desk and propped her briefcase on her knee, "actually, it's more a question of me doing something for you. You see, I'm a student at the Mega Tokyo University School of Law," she explained, "and I've just turned in my JD thesis to my advisor for its second reading. Here's a copy." She drew a bound document from the case and placed it on Pepper's desk. "Based on a couple of conversations I've had with Mr. Stark, I thought you might find it interesting."
Pepper blinked, truly puzzled now. "I'm... not a lawyer, Ms. Yamazaki," she said. Then, cracking a slight smile, she added, "I have people for that."
Linna nodded. "Of course, and I know they're much more experienced than I am—it's just that this is an area I've been particularly concentrating on in my advanced studies, and as I said, it's one which Mr. Stark has given me to understand you're interested in. As a company, I mean."
Intrigued, Pepper reached and picked up the document. The title page, visible through the transparent cover, was in English—she'd been a little concerned about that, since her conversational Japanese was passable but she still could make neither head nor tail of the written language—and what it said was,
AN ABSTRACT OF THE CURRENT STATE
OF JAPANESE COMMERCIAL AND CRIMINAL LAW
REGARDING NON-GOVERNMENTAL (PRIVATE)
ARMED TACTICAL RESPONSE FORCES
Pepper raised both eyebrows. "Well, Ms. Yamazaki," she said, "I... have to say you made the right call here. This happens to be a topic in which we're very interested around here just now." She opened the report and saw the business card and datatab clipped to the second page. "With your permission, I will certainly forward this to my legal department for review."
Linna nodded with an engaging smile. "Please, be my guest. That's why I brought it here—I thought it might give your legal team a place to start. Japan can be a funny place to do business sometimes, Mega Tokyo doubly so." Her smile became a little wry. "It's often best to have a native guide."
Pepper returned the smile, got to her feet, and shook her visitor's hand. "Thank you very much, Ms. Yamazaki. I'm sure this will be of great help to us. Let me walk you out—I was just heading down to see how our conference is getting on."
They paused in the outer office, where Pepper notified Mrs. Arbogast of her plans for the afternoon and asked her to forward Linna's report to the security team in Legal for their immediate review, and then walked together down the thickly carpeted hall to the elevator.
"Are you interested in technology at all?" Pepper asked. "We're hosting a conference on cybernetics and invention this week—speakers from all over the world, demonstrations, that kind of thing. If you're interested, I can get you a pass. Kind of a preliminary thank-you for your help," she added with a smile.
"Oh, I didn't do it with any expectation of pay," Linna said quickly, "but thank you, I would like to see the conference. You don't grow up in the '20s in this town without developing at least a passing interest in the state of the art," she added wryly.
She didn't add that Ben Stark had already put her, and her three colleagues, on the conference's guest list—it would have seemed an ungracious response to Pepper's offer.
They chatted on the elevator ride down to the ground floor, swapping a couple of tales of educational background and technical expertise or lack thereof, and then parted after the security checkpoint as Pepper went to work the floor a bit and Linna found her attention drawn to the exhibit from the Yinsen Center for Biodynamic Research.
She watched a short film about the Center's work on bionic integration of replacement organs—something to do with using gene sequences harvested from algae to shorten recovery times—and then drifted to the corner of the room, where it was quieter, to make a phone call.
"It's me," she said. "I've made contact. She seems really interested. Mm-hmm. Yes. My personal assessment? Well... I mean, I only talked to her for a few minutes, but I like her. She seems... human. You know what I mean. Yeah. No, I'm going to look around the conference a little. OK. Bye."
Linna put her phone away, looked around the sprawling main conference room for a few moments to get her bearings, and then headed for the U.S. Robotics exhibit. She'd never seen an American robot in person before.
For the next three days, the conference went ahead at full tilt, the participants fired up by their host's opening address. Ben Stark wasn't naïve enough to believe that was their only motivation; some, he figured, were driven by ego, others by the prospect of profit, still others by national pride. A distinct air of rivalry, for the most part cordial, sprang up almost immediately between any exhibitors whose fields of investigation overlapped. And always, as the show rolled on, the proprietor seemed to be omnipresent, attending talks, pitching into workshops, and generally making everyone there forget that he wasn't supposed to be a technologist himself.
There were demonstrations and lectures, even a couple of outright product launches. As the conference went on, the presentations grew more dynamic, and the atmosphere became more charged, coverage in the world's technical press—at first puzzled, then curious, then perhaps faintly indulgent as the launch date drew near—became broader, deeper, and more excited. By midday on Saturday, such initially skeptical outlets as the TechPulse International feedsite were describing IC² with words like "triumphant" and "unique".
Sylia Stingray had just finished reviewing the last of the data from the latest round of tests on the Mark IV-RT hardsuit when her office doorbell chimed.
"Come in," she said, and the door opened to admit MegaZone, looking pleased about something. "Good evening, Doctor."
"Good evening, Doctor," Zoner replied with a smile. "I hope the RT is performing to specifications?"
"If anything, it's exceeded them," Sylia told him, swiveling her holopanel so he could see the graph she'd just created from the new test data. "Its output curve is smoothing as we test."
"Well, any machine works better if you give it some time to run in," Zoner said. "Listen, are you free Monday afternoon, say about 4:30?"
"My shop is open from ten to six on Mondays, but Mackie can cover it if I need to be away. Why?"
"Ben's doing a special presentation to close the conference," Zoner said. "He's planning to unveil the miniaturized arc reactor—and Iron Man."
Sylia raised an eyebrow. "Do you think that's wise?" she asked.
"He's got a better sense for timing these things than I do," Zoner admitted, "but I think it makes sense. With Stark International making such a splash—moving into direct competition with GENOM—people are going to wonder how we intend to counteract their company muscle. A symbol like Iron Man makes a statement... particularly after what he did to their little boomer scouting party the other night."
"I suppose so. I've grown so accustomed to the overriding need to keep my own activities in that line clandestine that I find it hard to envision being so overt about it."
"Well, he doesn't plan to tell them he is Iron Man," Zoner said; then he frowned thoughtfully and added, "At least I don't think he does."
"Let's hope not," Sylia said dryly. She rose from her desk. "At any rate, it sounds like a presentation that shouldn't be missed. In the meantime, Mackie should be finished fitting the last of the weapons," she added. "Would you care to observe a combat simulation test?"
When they arrived in the control booth for the combat simulation room (which Nene had immediately, and for reasons that eluded her teammates, dubbed the Danger Room upon first seeing it), Mackie was already there, at the controls operating the room's environmental simulation systems. He swiveled as they entered and said with a smile, "Hey, Sis. Doc. You're just in time. We've finished basic function tests on the Widow—stuff's about to get interesting."
Zoner raised an eyebrow. "'The Widow'?" he asked.
"Mackie and Priss seem to have named the 4RT test suit," she said dryly. "They call it the Black Widow."
Mackie went a little red and gestured through the windows at the suit. Zoner saw that it was much more complete than the last time he'd seen it, with all its armor plates installed. There was something faintly sinister about its matte black finish, which the red racing stripes of Priss's standard deco did nothing to dispel.
"Well," Mackie said, "it's black, red, and dangerous. What would you call it? Besides," he added, knowing that this detail would appeal to Zoner's sensibilities, "its internal systems identifier is P61."
Zoner grinned. He'd had a slightly hard time getting started with Mackie—he'd intimidated the young man a bit when they first met, and had to work to get around that—but one of the things that they'd first discovered they were able to geek out about together was military aviation, modern and historic. He understood exactly what Mackie meant by that remark, and now he said to Sylia,
"He's right, you know. Under the circumstances, 'Black Widow' is the only name for it."
Sylia regarded them both as if it required a considerable percentage of her personal reserves to indulge them so, then said to Mackie, "Carry on with the test, please."
Mackie nodded. "Right." Pressing the intercom key, he said, "Priss? Sorry for the delay, Sylia and Dr. MegaZone just arrived. We were about to start testing the weapons, right? Let's start with a chaingun feed test..."
"Hell with it, I'm sick of all this fooling around," Priss replied. "Load me up a full-dress combat sim. Let's see what this thing can really do."
"OK. We'll start with the standard armaments package. KBs at marker intensity, no sense blowing stuff up before we have to." Mackie finished configuring the board, then said, "Simulation starts in three. Two. One."
The simulated opponent sent against her was not, but very closely resembled in both appearance and combat capabilities, a 55-series boomer. It wasn't a real boomer, wasn't an automaton at all—just an animatronic dummy controlled by the Danger Room computer—but it was still a powerful and dangerous opponent. A boomer of the type it represented had pretty comprehensively kicked Priss's ass in a Mark III hardsuit a few months before, which had been the occasion on which Benjamin Stark had met her (if not, quite, the other way around).
In the Mark IV-RT, she completely owned the very same engagement. She was both faster and stronger than the boomer, and she could sustain weapons fire on target longer than she had in the Mark III. Part of that was her own increased experience, but a lot, and she didn't hesitate to acknowledge it, came from the suit.
"Hm," she remarked after delivering a punch that dented the target's armor but did no real damage. "Was that a kill?"
"Would've been with full-power KBs," Mackie confirmed. "Keep going."
"Mm," Priss acknowledged. In the next few engagements, she scored a few hits with both her chaingun and heavy right-arm cannon. The former did little, as indeed the light antipersonnel guns never had against heavy-armor types like the 55, and the latter cratered armor, but she never quite got that magic shot you needed with that weapon to close the deal—not with the way this fight was moving around.
After a minute or two of this, she observed, "Still need a more powerful gun."
Sylia smiled. She'd been waiting for Priss to say that.
She pressed a key on the test control computer that activated a new option on Priss's armaments menu. "Try your plasma beam weapon," she said. "There's only a 1.4 percent chance it'll blow your arm off."
Priss could never be sure if Sylia was serious when she said things like that, but either way, she decided that for a chance to use something called a plasma beam weapon, she'd take those odds. Besides, Cyberdoc Zoner was right there. He could surely hook her up with some kind of badass bionic hand if it went wrong, right? Confirming her target lock on the boomer as it charged at her across the simulated battlefield, she raised her left arm and energized the weapon. A hair-raising high-pitched hum flooded the hardsuit's exoskeleton, sounding more in her skull than her ears.
A beam of brilliant scarlet light streamed from the port at the front of her left vambrace, above the back of her hand. Instinctively, she tracked it across the front of the charging simulant with a smooth motion of her forearm. It slashed the oncoming mechanoid in half like a chainsaw going through a sheetrock wall, traveled the entire length of the Danger Room, and carved a glowing, smoking slot in the reinforced alloy far wall.
After two seconds' sustained fire, the beam flicked off, leaving the boomer completely wrecked, the far wall holed, and a cherry-red, half-molten line of bedrock visible beyond the failed plating. Priss drew back her arm, shoved up her visor, and regarded the vambrace with an expression not too far from awe. With a cheerful metallic ping! the beam weapon's spent capacitor/collimator unit popped out of a port on top of the vambrace.
"... I guess that works," she said, impressed.
Ben Stark put the finishing touches on a lengthy summary of Day Three, tagged it for publication, and got up from his desk, intending to head back downstairs and see what sort of unscheduled workshops people might've put together this evening. He'd made it plain at the outset that the workshop rooms would be left open at all hours, in case anyone wanted to just get together and knock some ideas together, and so far several groups had done just that—in at least one case to very promising effect, as the guys from the Yinsen Center and a couple of people from the Ministry of the Interior seemed to have cracked the problem of desalination in the Sea of Japan the previous night.
That was just the kind of thing he'd been hoping for, and he was very well-pleased with the conference as he rode down in the elevator. The feeling grew as he looked into Conference Room 1 and found the team from Solarsoft heads-down with a couple of the Microtopia engineers, intently discussing who knew what advances in gaming visualization (with probable knock-on benefits for the visually handicapped). Room 2 was vacant, but in number 3, one of the "heavy industrial" rooms, he found Anton Vanko putting a few finishing touches on OKB-393's main exhibit.
The Model 1240 exoskeletal load lifter—the famed "Tireless Worker"— was as ubiquitous in the Soviet bloc as boomers were on the Pacific Rim. A heavy powered exoskeleton operated by a pilot, it was generally thought of in the West as the Russian answer to the K series of powered suits, and for all that it was officially called a load lifter, the 1240 had as many armed and armored variants for police and military uses as did the K-suit. This one was environmentally sealed, its operator fully enclosed, but not armed—though Stark's practiced eye had little trouble spotting the hardpoints.
"Ah, Mr. Stark," said Vanko, wiping his hands on a rag. "How are you this evening?"
"Not bad, Professor Vanko, not bad at all," Stark replied. "Very pleased with the way the conference is going."
"As am I," Vanko concurred. "It has been most stimulating. I wish more of my team could have experienced it, but..." He shrugged meaningfully.
Stark nodded. "What can you do, right?" he asked philosophically, then stood and looked up at the 1240. "They always seem bigger in person," he mused.
"Ah, of course, you'll have seen them before," Vanko said; then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, "I seem to recall the Ministry was quite annoyed to find that you'd purchased one through a shell company in Transbelvia."
"Well, lest they assume espionage was our only motive," said Stark with a grin, "you can tell them we're still using it for its originally intended purpose at the Flushing plant. Nothing tops it for moving around the big castings in our industrial turbine production line."
Vanko laughed his big, booming laugh. "Perhaps you should take out a larger order!" he declared. "Come, step aboard this one and I will show you how we've improved the user interface since yours was made."
Stark glanced sidelong at him, then said, "Sure, why not," and climbed onto the 1240's operator gantry. Vanko showed him where to put his feet and hands, then cabled up a portacomp to the external maintenance port, powered up the suit, and buttoned it up. Stark feigned nervousness as the helmet came down on its armored gorget and locked into place, sealing him off from the outside world; he wasn't, after all, supposed to be very familiar with this kind of environment.
He was impressed when the helmet's holoarray powered up; he'd been expecting direct-observation instruments and maybe some simple vector holos, as the model his company owned presented its data to the operator, but instead it was very similar to the environment inside Iron Man—although, he noticed with faint satisfaction, somewhat lower-resolution. The color transmission was a bit off, too; everything in the world outside the helmet seemed to have a slight tilt toward orange, as though the room were lit with sodium lamps.
"There we are," Vanko declared. The audio reproduction wasn't crystal-clear either, Stark noticed, but it would do. Certainly better than the Mark I Iron Man suit's. "Are you comfortable, Mr. Stark?"
"It's not too bad," Stark replied. "I see what you mean about the improved UI."
"Indeed. Let me run some of the demonstrations I usually give to officials back home," said Vanko, sounding thrilled to have the opportunity.
Then, to Stark's mild surprise, a line of glowing amber text appeared in his field of view, right around where the current rev of StarkOS put the time-and-temperature readout.
PLEASE DO NOT BE ALARMED. THIS CONVERSATION MUST REMAIN PRIVATE.
ACTIVATE THE PRESSURE SWITCH AT YOUR RIGHT INDEX FINGER IF YOU AGREE OR LEFT IF YOU DO NOT.
Stark looked down the slope of the 1240's chest armor and saw Vanko typing away at his portacomp as if nothing odd were going on. He was nattering away with what sounded like a well-polished spiel about the Tireless Worker's specifications, while all around the text message in his HUD, Stark saw various simulated readouts come and go. Shrugging internally, he pressed the right-hand switch. A moment later the message vanished and another replaced it, surrounded by the scrolling numerals of a simulated actuator stress test:
I WISH TO DEFECT TO THE WEST. CAN/WILL YOU HELP ME?
Ho, ly, crap, Stark thought, and then pressed the right switch again.
Again Vanko didn't seem to react. He kept up his patter, explaining what the various diagnostics and simulations Stark was seeing meant and extolling the virtues of the new actuator control system his team had just finished developing. After a few more seconds, a third message scrolled across the calendar reminder field:
L2 EAST MEN'S ROOM, 2130. WILL ARRANGE 5 MINUTES.
Stark clicked the right switch a third time; with evident satisfaction, Vanko wound up his spiel, wiped the 1240's onboard logs and the portacomp's, opened up the suit, and helped Stark to disembark. They were standing in front of the operator gantry talking about the pros and cons of feedback controls for such machinery when Natasha entered. Stark noticed her first—Vanko's back was to her—and smiled as if it were only the second time he'd ever seen her and he was pleased the opportunity had arrived.
"Ms. Radenko," he said cheerfully. "I haven't seen you around much this weekend. I trust you've enjoyed the conference."
Natasha eyed the two men warily. "It's been... interesting," she said. "Are you ready to leave, Professor? We're expected at the embassy by six-thirty."
Vanko sighed heavily. "You see what I have to work with, Mr. Stark?" he inquired rhetorically, his eyes twinkling again. "By day I am the genius of the Soviet power slave industry; by night I am a dancing bear. Does this happen to you?"
Stark shook his head with a rueful smile. "I think the American ambassador to Japan is happier on any day when he doesn't see me," he said. "When he does, it's usually because some local company is demanding an apology for something."
"Which you then decline to offer," said Natasha archly.
Stark nodded. "Very generally, yes."
Vanko boomed out another laugh and clapped Stark on the shoulder, nearly bowling him over. "You know, Mr. Stark, I believe my lovely assistant likes your style," he observed, then turned and said, "Yes, very well, Natasha, let's go entertain Ambassador Biryuzov."
In an effort to make his trip to the john as inconspicuous as possible, Benjamin Stark had made a point of making the rounds through that evening's after-hours reception on the main expo floor with a glass of something alcoholic in his hand. About ¾ of them had ended up discreetly poured into plants or sink drains as he'd gotten opportunities, but he'd drunk enough to make it quite plausible that he found himself in need of the facilities when he made polite excuses to a group of attendees he'd been chatting with at just past 9:20.
Slipping back to the Stark Tower lobby, he skipped the elevator in favor of the east stairwell, which put him right next to the restrooms when he reached the second floor.
He'd waited a moment at the mouth of the stairwell to confirm no one was passing through the hallway, then slipped through the door and across the hall, deeply bemused at the way he was sneaking around his own building.
He'd just finished washing his hands when the muffled sound of voices could be heard outside, becoming a bit clearer as the door was opened.
«—appreciate your diligence, Boris Aleksandrovich, but I am quite capable of using the toilet by myself, thank you.»
Stark slipped into the nearest toilet stall, then stepped up onto the toilet to keep his feet from being visible, while crouching just enough to keep his head from peeking over the walls.
A single set of footfalls came inside as the door shut, and a moment later, the sound of running water as the taps at each of the sinks were opened.
"So," Vanko's voice was soft, just loud enough for someone nearby to hear him, but it would be incredibly difficult for anyone trying to use a listening device to make his words out over the water's white noise. "Mr. Stark? Are you here?"
"I am, Professor." Stepping down to the floor and leaving the stall, Ben kept his voice low as well, offering his hand as Vanko's shoulders relaxed with visible relief.
"Good. I didn't doubt your sincerity, my young friend, but...this is difficult for me. And I have been expecting it to all go wrong, somehow. A man in my position hears many stories—few of which end well."
"I can appreciate that," Stark agreed. "And I know you don't have much time. So, please, tell me how I can help."
Vanko nodded, running a finger along his impressive moustache before he began to speak. "Obviously I must request asylum, but my biggest concern is my... assistants. You are familiar with Natalia—and Boris is quite similar." His mouth quirked a sardonic grin. "Of course, they are not really here to guard me, yes?"
Stark chuckled darkly as he leaned against the faux-marble countertop. "I had gotten that impression." Now it was his turn to get thoughtful as he considered the situation. "Stark Industries would be proud to sponsor you for asylum, Professor—and to offer you a job, for that matter. That ought to help grease the political wheels in Japan and the U.S." Straightening up, he found himself scanning the bathroom around them, perhaps out of a reflexive paranoia. He knew for a fact there were no bugs in here, but something about Vanko's behavior was rubbing off on him.
"For obvious reasons, I can't use Stark International's security assets to help get you away from your 'friends'—but I do believe I can get you in touch with some...let's say 'deniable contractors' who would be happy to help for the right price."
Vanko grimaced. "I would be happy to speak to them, but it will be difficult to pay them with my bank accounts seized."
"Oh," Stark replied breezily, "I think I might be able to float you a loan..."
Just over a minute late, Anton Vanko left the restroom, straightened his tie, and gave a sarcastically sunny smile to Boris, who responded with an impatient grunt.
"Yes, yes. The car is waiting," Vanko replied, heading for the elevator as the younger man fell into step behind him. "I wouldn't dream of making you miss Sovietskii Sport."
A few moments after the elevator had carried them away, Ben Stark came out of the bathroom, checked his hair in the stairwell window, and then made his way back to the party, whistling a jaunty little tune as he went.
At the front of Stark Tower, a black Zil Cortege limousine with diplomatic plates had pulled up to the front entrance turnaround, and a uniformed driver popped out to open the passenger door.
Half a block away, Nene Romanova observed this on KITT's main multifunction monitor, sipping on a bubble tea as they waited for their targets to emerge. She was still pretty crap at the spy thing, but it helped having a partner with many years of experience.
"I believe that's Professor Vanko coming out now, Nene," KITT observed as the burly man in a dark suit came out of Stark Tower's front doors, a younger, hard-looking man trailing him by just a few steps. "I'm locking my sensors onto his limousine. We'll be able to track and confirm his route as long as we stay within 500 meters."
Nene took one last pull on her drink, then set it into the cup holder, nodding. "That shouldn't be too hard... there won't be that much traffic this time of night. But don't get too close—they'll probably be watching for a tail."
KITT's voice didn't really change tone, but she got the distinct sense that her artificially-intelligent friend was amused by that. "I assure you, I'll be discreet."
True to his word, despite the sporty black car's distinctive appearance, KITT kept the Cortege in his sensor range without tipping off the driver to their presence. Even better, he actually slipped ahead of them before the limo arrived back at the housing block adjacent to the Soviet Embassy downtown, and using KITT's teleoptic scanner, get a closer look at the arrangements as Vanko was lead out of the car.
"Two guards at the doors," Nene noted, "plus the guy we saw earlier."
"Confirmed—and my X-ray scans are showing another pair of armed guards inside the lobby entrance."
She was about to ask KITT if he could detect any other guards nearby, but as Vanko strode to the doors, another figure exiting the car arrested her attention.
Slim and red-haired, she moved with a distinctive air of confidence that set her apart from the run-of-the-mill security personnel. When she turned to return a greeting from the hotel doorman, Nene caught a flash of chin and profile—and her heart stopped.
It can't be...
She felt as if ice water had flooded her brain, and it took her a moment to realize that KITT was trying to get her attention.
"Nene? I asked if you wanted me to perform a millimeter wave scan of the building to determine the Professor's room—there's a small chance it could be detected."
Nene blinked, then shook her head to clear it. "Oh. No... no, I don't think we need to do that. Ben just asked us to follow him and confirm where he was staying. We've done that. Wait for the limo to head back to the embassy garage, and then you can take us back to the Armory."
"Very well. If I may ask—are you all right?"
Nene slumped into her seat, taking a deep breath and puffing it out in a sigh before she replied. "I don't...I don't know. I'd swear I saw someone. But there's no such thing as ghosts, right?"
She felt KITT slip into gear and enter the traffic pattern before he replied, his voice thoughtful. "I believe the most appropriate remark I can offer to that is: 'There are more things on Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our Philosophy,' Nene."
Sitting up a bit, Nene felt the passive laser restraint system engage once KITT hit highway speed, then took another sip of her tea as she looked out the window, not really watching the city go by. "Yeah... I suppose you're right."
By the afternoon of Monday, the conference's last day, all eyes were on the closing presentation, which appeared on the schedule simply as:
Main Stage (Ballroom): 1630-1730
Some Thoughts on Energy Generation
and Personal Security
With Benjamin Stark
Ben had to admit he was even more pleased with the results of IC² than he'd expected to be by this point. Saturday and Sunday had been given over to small group interactions, breakout sessions, and workshops. Many had lead to collaborations that had never been considered before, and a few looked like they might go all the way to bringing a product or service to market with a little help.
Even GENOM's constant corporate glowering, enhanced by a few ominously worded press releases about "protecting the integrity of their IP" and similar themes hadn't done much to take the shine off things, and there was a real buzz going into their big finish.
For his part, the preparations mostly involved rehearsing and timing out the pitch he'd been working up since he'd made the decision to take the Arc Reactor technology public, while keeping an ear open to where JARVIS, Nene, and Zoner were working in the Iron Man suit's assembly area.
Nene was dressed in her Knight Sabers datasuit, augmented by a headset that was projecting a small holographic HUD for her at eye level, while Zoner knelt next to the Mark III, inspecting one of the elbow joints.
"OK, I think that's got it," MegaZone noted, standing and taking a careful step back. "Try raising your left hand."
Nene did as instructed, bringing her hand up and out, palm open, and the Mark III copied her gesture, lagging just slightly behind her movements as she made a fist, flexed the hand out, formed the fist again, and then tested the arm's full range of motion.
"I believe I can smooth out that delay," JARVIS observed. "The transmission algorithm may require some optimization."
Nene nodded, and Stark couldn't help but smile a bit as the suit mimiced that as well. "How's the neurobalance channel reading?"
"Quite well, Miss. Your neuroprocessor and the headset instrumentation are performing 17% above minimum required signal."
"I bet we can get more out of that, too, once we have the logs from today to help us with optimizing the code."
"A likely possibility, yes."
"All right, then," said Stark. "I'll leave you to it and go warm up the crowd. This is going to be great."
The keynote stage was empty, and the auditorium before it packed and murmuring with a mixture of anticipation and mild puzzlement, when Benjamin Stark strolled out onto it, carrying a metal attaché case and looking pleased with himself. As he reached the podium, a wave of applause began somewhere at the back and made its way forward; looking faintly bemused, he put the case down on top of the podium and waited out the applause, then grinned.
"Hold your horses, I haven't done anything yet," he said, drawing a mild laugh. "Now, before we get started, I imagine some of you are a little confused by my choice of topics today. Energy generation and personal security? What do those two things have to do with each other? Well, by the time I'm done here, hopefully you'll see the connection, but it's going to take a little bit of setting up.
"Let's start with energy generation. This is obviously an area where we in the technical field have made big strides in the last few decades already. When I was a kid, western society was still majority fossil-fueled; nowadays, between fusion, more efficient solar collection, fifth-generation fission power, and the hydrogen fuel cell, we've pretty much left all that behind except for certain hobbyist uses."
He paused, letting that sink in for a moment, then went on, "I think you'll all agree, though, that there's still room for improvement. Fusion plants are huge, expensive, unwieldy things. Solar power was never the panacea it was hyped to be. Fifth-generation fission is still fission. And so on. For a lot of applications, particularly on a physically small but energetically large scale, there's still a very big niche to be filled."
Placing a hand on top of the case in front of him, Stark continued, "Inside this case—I think—is the device that will fill it."
So saying, he thumbed the locks on the case open, raised its lid, and then removed from inside it a small object that glowed from within with a clean white light. With that done, he closed the case and placed the glowing object on top, its irregular shape tilting it so the circular top could be seen by the audience. Those at the very front could just make out concentric and radial structures inside it, their shadowed shapes mere hints within the obscuring glow of what lay deeper within.
"This is the bench prototype," said Stark. "Example number one. It's a miniaturized platform of my own design, operating on a principle first discovered, but not developed, by the late Howard Stark over forty years ago. Weight, about four pounds; electrical output, three megawatts. Because of certain principles of its internal operation, which will all be detailed in the patent documents, I call it a repulsion tesseract arc reactor—RT for short." Holding up the device, he went on, "What I've invented here, he said modestly, is a compact, safe, highly efficient, and completely clean source of uninterrupted high-density energy, which works at room temperature and without emitting dangerous radiation byproducts."
An excited-but-audibly-skeptical buzz rose from the crowd for a few moments before an incisive voice cut through it, declaring flatly:
"Fleischmann and Pons, 1989."
Grinning, Stark snapped his fingers and pointed to the speaker, a senior designer from Yoyodyne Propulsion whose nametag read VALUK. "I knew someone was going to bring that up! But no, this is not a nuclear fusion device. It is, rather, a straight-up matter-energy converter."
"That's even more preposterous," Dr. Valuk replied, unperturbed.
"I know!" Stark agreed. "Which is why after I did the math, I was fairly sure I hadn't really invented it, until contrary to all expectations, the prototype went ahead and worked anyway."
Leaving that remark (and the laugh it got) to stand for a moment, he continued, "Now, I want to make it clear that right now these things are in no way economical. There are only four in the world at the moment and I've built them all by hand. But the principle... the principle is sound. The rest is just a question of refinement.
"What's it good for? Glad you asked. Some of you work with powered exoskeleton systems, right? Justin, what's the average energy cell endurance on one of your Hammer-oids?"
The youthful-looking, vaguely shark-faced man he had addressed, standing near the front, went slightly red and replied, "They're called Mandroids, and that's classified—"
"Nine hundred and six seconds, if I remember correctly," Stark rolled on, drawing a faint ripple of amusement from the rest of the room. "Well, let me show you what I've been doing with RT Prototype Number Two."
There was a soft hiss as a ring of smoke projectors set into the stage floor began to emit a small cloud, and a moment later, concealed from the audience, a platform rose up from the level below with the Iron Man suit standing foursquare in the middle.
From the Armory floor, Nene held her pose, arms out, hands set in fists, as she watched the suit rise through the hidden door they'd set up through Iron Man's "eyes".
As the platform came to a halt, she felt a slight jerk from the suit's neural feedback, but simply shifted her weight slightly to keep upright. As planned, she flicked through the HUD options displayed on the headset's holographic viewscreen until she found the Uni-beam, set it for visual light spectrum (SPOTLIGHT), and engaged it.
Some in the audience had been wondering what the shape concealed by the smoke might be, but pretty much the entire hall was taken aback by the sudden glow, highlighting a humanoid figure, and a collective gasp rose as the tall, red and gold powersuit took two confident strides forward before coming to attention a few feet behind Stark.
A wave of gasps and murmured whispers rose as some of the attendees recognized the suit from footage and pictures of the battle that had occurred at Stark Tower the previous week, and Ben let them go for just a moment, timing his next remarks carefully.
"Since the debut of military battlemovers in the Third Vietnam War, and the rise of combat and security Boomers in the last decade, there's a been a race to develop better and more versatile personal exoskeleton systems—not only for defense," Stark gave a nod to where Vanko was sitting, "but also for industrial and construction purposes. No matter what could be developed, though, the limitation has always been power."
Behind him, Nene moved carefully, turning in place and sweeping Iron Man's gaze over the crowd. She'd heard most of the speech before, but it was nice to catch some of the crowd's reactions—ranging from quietly fuming (the suit's IFF tagged that guy as "HAMMER", she noticed), to absolutely fascinated.
"Flat-pack batteries and dry energy cells can do a lot," Stark continued, "But they will get exhausted, and a petrochemical engine has its own problems. Fuel cells are too bulky to be practical in applications this small." He grinned. "And of course some people are oddly hesitant to strap unlicensed nuclear accelerators to their backs."
That got another chuckle out of the crowd, interest beginning to overtake surprise as he worked the room. "RT technology gives us a safer, stable alternative that can provide enough power to run this system for over 3,500 days before the core elements will need to be replaced."
He let that sink in a moment, then continued, highlighting features of the suit. "Because we don't have to design around the restrictions of massive power storage, we get equipment that's lighter, more form fitting, and able to give the suit's operator an experience closer to moving and working unaugmented than has ever been possible before."
Nene continued to scan the audience as she went through a few more poses, feeling a bit like a bodybuilder as she showed off some of the suit's articulation, but as Ben walked around to the other side of the stage, she saw Vanko, flanked by the big guy from before, and that same redheaded woman.
As she felt her heart clenching, Nene sent a cybernetic command to the suit, zooming in and getting a better look.
"О боже," she breathed, too quietly for the suit to pick up, shocked into her native language, "это она."
At the age of six, Nene Romanova wasn't really concerned with much beyond candy, toys, and her burgeoning love of computer code... but she already knew that when the Black Suits came to visit, she needed to hide.
She held her breath as she peeked through a gap in the living room closet door, trying to understand what was going on. Papa was scowling, his face like a thundercloud as he spoke to the two men in identical black suits and overcoats.
"Absolutely not. The State has already taken one of my daughters, comrade chekist—I will not allow you to have both."
"Please, Alian Petrovich," one of the black suited men said, his voice a mocking imitation of friendly cheer, "You should be honored that both your children are so gifted. Natalia's scores broke records that had stood for almost thirty years! And now, little Nenya shows so much promise..."
"I don't care about her 'potential'. She's a good girl—a gentle girl! Like her sister was, before you people got your hands on her. I shouldn't have let Natasha go with you, either, but I didn't know what you really wanted with her. I won't make the same mistake twice—and you can tell your director exactly that."
"So," the Black Suit said, his eyes going cold. "I will tell him, comrade academician... but I strongly suggest you reconsider, or you will not enjoy his reply."
They swept out of the apartment after that, and for a few minutes it was frighteningly quiet—even the sound of her own breathing seemed muffled as Nene sat, tears in her eyes. She didn't know what was going on, but Papa was angry and it was something to do with her...?
She yelped in fright when the door opened suddenly, but to her relief it wasn't a Black Suit to take her away—just Mama, picking her up and gently drying her tears before hugging her close.
"Shhh, zaichik, shhh...don't worry. It will be all right."
Zooming back out, she made sure her mic was set to not transmit to the suit, then flicked her eyes back to the rest of the crowd. Swallowing hard to try to clear her suddenly dry throat, she "JARVIS—we may have a problem. I need to talk to Ben as soon as we're done."
Unaware of the painful trip down Memory Lane that was happening below his feet, Ben Stark had continued his explanations of what the Iron Man suit could do—could be—and had returned to the center of the stage, standing next to the suit as Nene brought it back to a neutral posture, facing the audience.
"Now, I'll be the first person to tell you this isn't what we expect the RT technology to be used for on a daily basis—but it's a fantastic way to show people how much potential it has. How much we can do, once we find ways to make Arc Reactors easier to manufacture and affordable for public use."
He took a moment as some light applause came from that statement, then continued, his mouth tugging upwards in a smile. "So, this guy is what we like to think of as a symbol for the future that we want to create—and a mascot for Stark International as a whole, all wrapped up in a state-of-the-art security platform."
He raised a hand, gesturing to the suit. "We call him Iron Man."
There was a wave of applause and bursts of camera flashes that washed over them, and just as the crowd began to settle, a soft rumble before the suit suddenly lifted off on its boot jets, hovering a few inches above the stage.
"Oh," Stark said as a new wave of astonishment raced through the theater, "And did I mention that he can fly?"
Ben Stark had expected to be swarmed by the press after he came down off the stage, and he was not disappointed. With Pepper alongside to answer questions from a Stark International perspective, they provided a mix of direct answers, gentle deflections, and careful evasions on certain subjects for the better part of the next hour, while Nene and JARVIS took care of getting the Mk III back down to the Armory and prepping it for being put on display at IC²'s wrap-up gala later that evening.
Stark was pleased that even though Iron Man had clearly stolen the show, he was still getting some great questions about the arc reactors and what the plans for the future of the technology were. He made a point of answering those with interest and enthusiasm, while questions about who was operating the Iron Man suit were generally deflected to Pepper, who explained that "Mr. Stark has historically employed bodyguards in the course of his work, but we do not divulge their identities due to the sensitive nature of the position."
It took almost an hour and the promise of a formal press conference later that week to finally clear out the throng, and Stark wasn't surprised to see Sylia and Zoner waiting for them as they left the ballroom.
"Dr. Stingray! I'm so glad you were able to attend." Stark turned, his hand coming up in the classing 'making introductions' gesture. "I don't think you two have met. Virgina Potts, one of the smartest people I know. Pep, this is Sylia Stingray—Katsuhito Stingray's daughter. She and Tony used to correspond a bit."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Stingray," Pepper responded, shaking hands with the slightly shorter woman. "You must be one of the local friends Ben mentioned earlier."
"And you, Ms. Potts," Sylia replied. "Yes, I made Mr. Stark's acquaintance not long after he arrived in Mega Tokyo. It's been a very interesting experience."
That got a short but sincere laugh from Pepper. "Oh, yes, 'interesting' is a very good word for hanging around him."
Ben winced, putting on an air of wounded dignity. "All I tried to do was move to Japan and dig into some leads. You decided to chase after me with half the company's infrastructure."
Pepper snorted. "Says the man who built himself a multi-story office building because he got tired of the hotel bills."
"Ok, yeah, you make a point. I guess it was let you move in or deal with charging rent." Grinning, Stark turned back to where Sylia and Zoner were both giving him amused looks. "So, that went pretty well! If you guys are in the mood, I'm going to pop upstairs to change and then grab some yakitori before we have to head over to the Imperial for the grand finale."
"I appreciate the offer," Sylia demurred, "But I need to stop back at my shop before the event—and I do believe Dr. MegaZone and I have some dinner plans."
Somehow, Zoner managed to look smug and terrified as he gave Stark and Pepper a parting wave.
The redheaded businesswoman watched them go for a long moment, then looked back at Stark. "Oh, you have got to tell me more about those two."
Stark gave that careful thought as they reached the elevator and he called for a car up to his apartment. "Well..."
When the elevator doors opened onto the 39th floor, Pepper was looking quite impressed. "... I'm not sure if I'm more surprised that Zoner decided to make a move there, or that he's apparently her type."
Ben shrugged, sliding out of his suit jacket as he walked across his living room. "Well, I mean, it's Zoner. If it seems completely crazy, it's pretty much business as usual..."
Pepper chuckled as she followed him at a slightly more sedate pace. "Point." Settling onto one of the sofas, she raised her voice to carry a bit more as Stark walked into his bedroom. "Still, I probably should see if she can meet me for lunch soon."
Stark coughed as he stepped into his bedroom's walk-in closet, trying not to seem too nervous about that idea. "I really doubt she's going to seduce Zoner away to work at a lingerie shop, Pep."
Pepper gave that a dismissive roll of her eyes. "I'm not thinking she's a security risk—I just want to hear a little about this from her."
"Wanting to get both sides of the story, Ms. Potts? You're starting to sound like a reporter."
"Oh, don't you wish. Just a little girl talk, thank you—I'm perfectly happy where I am."
Before Stark could respond, JARVIS cleared his synthetic throat over the penthouse speakers. "Excuse me, sir. Loath as I am to interrupt, we need your assistance downstairs."
Pepper raised an eyebrow. "Zoner went out to dinner. Who exactly is we, Ben?"
Stark, his suit exchanged for a tuxedo shirt and slacks, grinned as he stepped back out of the closet. "Are you sure about not being a reporter, Ms. Potts?" Ducking a pillow she flung at him from the couch, he stood back up. "Like I said, I've had a couple of people helping with the Mark III development—they're pulling RT #2 and installing a dummy before we take the portable assembly gantry and the rest of the suit over to the Imperial for the Stark International display. Nothing to worry about."
"Uh-huh." Pepper clearly wasn't buying it. "I think we need to have a little discussion about this later. Like tomorrow. Morning."
Stark gave her a look for a moment, then smiled. "OK, I promise—tomorrow morning, coffee, danish, I'll explain. Good enough?"
Potts stood, smoothing her skirt automatically as she did so. "Good enough. You take care of—well, whatever. I'll see you over at the Imperial. And please... don't fly over in the suit?"
Stark put on his best air of piety. "I have no idea why you'd even think I was considering that."
"On a point of order, Ms. Potts," JARVIS put in, "while the Mark III can fly, all available test data indicates that Mr. Stark, as yet, cannot."
"Thank you, JARVIS, that'll be all," said Stark with exaggerated dignity as he entered the elevator, and Pepper was still giggling as the doors closed.
When Stark arrived in the Armory, he couldn't really figure out why JARVIS had asked him to come downstairs.
At one end, near one of the rolling doors that led to the hidden access to the parking garage, Tezuo Nishimura was carefully inspecting the mobile gantry that the Mark III had been locked into. Behind him, a large Stark Industries box truck waited to receive the cargo once he'd deemed it ready to go.
Stark had expected Nene to be back in street clothes and helping Nishimura. Instead, still dressed in the modified datasuit she'd used for the unveiling (though she'd removed the control headset), she was sitting in a rolling chair by the large aquarium near the JARVIS console. She didn't react to the arrival of the elevator; instead, she was gazing into the side of the tank, not really looking at the gaily patterned purple and beige sea star within, as one of her hands listlessly dropped food pellets into the top. Her gloomy expression struck him as poignantly at odds with the sign affixed to the front of the tank, which she had lettered herself and which read, DO NOT TAUNT STARRO THE CONQUEROR!
He considered a few different approaches, but settled on just pulling up one of the other chairs and sitting down, waiting until she seemed to come back to herself before speaking.
Nene blinked and looked away from Starro's repast, and he realized she was clearing tears out of her eyes as she did so. She seemed to shake herself slightly, then managed a wan smile. "Hey. How'd I do? Was I flashy enough for the show?"
Stark smiled. "You delivered the exact level of flash I was hoping for—but I get the impression that's not what's on your mind."
"No... not exactly, anyway." Nene glanced to the loading dock. Nishimura was finishing up with the final preparations to move the suit, securing the gantry into place in the truck and tying the suit's arms and legs down carefully with heavy-duty straps. She waited until he'd locked everything down and driven away before asking Stark a question.
"When you were digging up dirt on the Knight Sabers, you said that you knew I'd run away from home. How much did you look into my parents?"
Stark wasn't sure what he'd expected her to say, but that really came out of left field. His brows knit slightly, but he didn't hesitate with his answer. "Not too much, honestly. Once I figured out the hacks you'd made to get into the ADP, and that you weren't living at home, I didn't feel I needed to." He paused, then looked over. "Well. OK, I didn't research them directly, but when I saw your father's name was Alian Romanov, I realized I'd heard of him before, at least vaguely. He's a fairly well-known physicist. I couldn't remember exactly when he'd defected with his family, but since your Japanese primary school records didn't start until 2022, it wasn't too hard to work out that it was when you were probably... what, six? Seven?"
"Six," Nene confirmed. "I didn't really understand a lot of it, back then. I remember my Mom bundling me up tight one day when we were going to the park, and telling me we were going to meet some special friends. They took us for a ride in a truck—I was excited because we got to ride in the back—but Mama said I had to be very quiet."
As she told her story, she had that far away look again, and her hand unconsciously found his, gradually tightening her hold as she went on. "We stayed at a dacha... somewhere far from our house. Papa met us there. We waited there for a few days before we took a train to Baku, and we all got new passports before we flew to Japan." Even though the memories were clearly uncomfortable for her, she smiled a bit. "I was scared... but I'd never gotten to fly on a plane before. I was really excited about that."
Nene took a deep breath. "The reason we waited... was my father was trying desperately to find my older sister. She was the reason we were leaving. Well, part of it."
Stark frowned. "I'm not sure I understand, Nene."
"Sorry," Nene apologized, her eyes filling again with unshed tears. "I don't... I don't talk about this a lot, and there's a lot of things I didn't know were going on back then. But, I had... I have... an older sister. She was twelve when she was taken for what they said was a 'special education'. I was four. We were pretty close before that, but I hardly ever saw her after that. She came home a few times—when it seemed like she was just going to a normal school—then less and less. I think the last time I saw her was about a month before we left. Until today."
Stark felt his mouth go dry, and his stomach sink. He had a bad feeling what she was about to say next.
"When I was running Iron Man for you, I was scanning the crowd the whole time. When I looked at Professor Vanko... Natalia was sitting next to him." Nene paused, blinked, and the tears began to flow in tracks down her face.
"My parents wouldn't talk about her, after we got to Japan. They acted like she'd died, back in Moscow. Or like I was the only daughter they'd ever had. But I remembered my sister. I always hoped... I wanted... I wanted her to come find us. I wanted her to come home."
She swallowed hard, and words started to tumble out faster and faster, as if she'd lost control of them. "That was part of why I ran away. I mean, I wanted to join the ADP and do something... but I got so angry that they acted like she'd never existed. That they tried to forget her. I swore that I wouldn't. When I got to the ADP, not too long after I joined the Knight Sabers... I decided to try finding her. It was one of the hardest hacks I'd ever done back then...and what I found..."
She broke off, but before she could go on, Stark squeezed her hand gently and finished the thread. "You found out she'd become an officer of the KGB."
Nene blinked. "You knew that already?"
Stark nodded, a chagrined look on his face. "I didn't know she was your sister... but it's not the first time I've met her. We've crossed paths a few times over the last several years. She tried to steal some data off of Tony back when we were in Hanoi, not long before he died. And she did manage to keep me from being able to meet a couple of sources I'd been trying to work with in Havana a couple of years later, when I was working a story for InfoFlash on some-less than-ethical Cuban cybermedical research practices."
"Oh." Nene had to process that a moment, the unexpected news shifting her worldview just a bit. "Huh. But...yeah. When she was taken from my parents...it was basically to train her, bit by bit, into one of their operatives. From what I found... she was good. Really good. And she was doing things... that weren't very nice."
She suddenly felt embarassed—she was literally telling him something he already knew. She could feel the heat of a blush rising on her face, but Stark didn't needle her the way Priss might have. Instead, he just squeezed her hand again, his eyes full of compassion.
"That can't have been a very easy thing for you to deal with."
Nene sniffled, nodding. "Not really. I started to understand... why my parents had acted the way they did. It's hard to think about someone you love... becoming someone like that."
Stark nodded. "And now she's here."
Nene straightened up, taking a deep breath. "Yeah. Now she's here—and if she's assigned to mind Professor Vanko, she could be a big problem. She's.... she's dangerous. Really, really dangerous. Even if I was in my hardsuit, I'd be nervous about facing her in a straight up fight."
Stark took that on board, then smiled just a little. "Well, good thing we aren't planning to do that. With any luck, she'll be caught off-guard and you guys can get Vanko out before she figures out what's really happening."
Nene still looked concerned, biting the edge of her lip. "Yeah... but what if she does?"
Stark stood, and offered her a hand up, his smile getting a bit more sly. "Then we'll improvise. Don't worry—I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet."
With the help of some of Stark International's facilities crews, the staff of the Imperial Palace had pulled out all the stops for the gala finale to close out IC².
The partitions which normally separated the hotel's two largest ballrooms had been removed, creating a single massive space, and at carefully spaced intervals, small display areas had been created to allow each of the companies who had participated in the conference to show off the technology or products they'd unveiled as part of the show.
Some, like Stark International's presentation of the Iron Man suit or OKB-393's Tireless Worker, had been placed on raised and roped off platforms that allowed the attendees to get a closer look (and in some cases, pose for pictures), while some of the more consumer friendly displays allowed for a hands-on experience. It was at one of these where Ben Stark was chatting with Dr. Valuk from Yoyodyne, while checking out one of their new compact stator turbine engines.
"But seriously, as interested as I am in your idea, Mr. Stark, how do you possibly think we can get away with trying to bring something like that to market? Especially since we are technically competitors."
Stark shook his head, a mild look of frustration crossing his face. "C'mon, Dr. Valuk. How many times have you seen every tech outfit in this room, including your own, each come up with a new, competing, mutually incompatible standard for something, then all try to take them to market against the Giant Competition at the same time? I can think of five such occasions in the last six years, and that's just off the top of my head. And what happens every single time? We all lose."
A few of the bystanders nodded as Stark continued, "Now imagine all that wasted effort being channeled in the same direction instead of 15 different ones. Imagine everyone getting a fair share of the result. Even with market forces and shareholders in play, it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. If we start with the common first principle of the RT and concentrate on diversified applications instead, we can all win."
"The Giant Competition's people have been known to say that the 21st century is the age of the mega-conglomerate." Stark shook his head. "I respectfully disagree. I think that's a model that's reached its limit. It's got strength but no agility. Power but no endurance. I say the future really belongs to the consortium. It's going to be about achieving scale through cooperation, not conglomeration—competition, not conquest. The 21st century is horizontal, not vertical. International, not transnational. Integrative, not divisive."
From behind him, Stark heard a deep voiced chuckle, and turned to see Vanko, turned out in a slightly old-fashioned-looking tuxedo, while Natasha stood by him in what he had to admit was a impressively stunning dark red gown.
"You should be careful, my young friend. Such ideas could get you accused of being a Communist."
Stark grinned, offering Vanko a warm handshake. "I'm afraid I'm probably considered too much of an old-fashioned capitalist running dog by a lot of people for that label to stick."
That got a booming laugh from Vanko, but Natasha looked more skeptical. "Be that as it may, Mr. Stark—do you really expect to compete with GENOM by giving away your technology?"
Stark's smile turned more thoughtful. "Well, it worked for Tesla—but like them, I'm not giving it away so much as we're showing the potential and making our patents freely accessible for anyone who wants to use them for publicly available products—like the compact emergency generators that I was discussing with Dr. Valuk. As I said, rather than fight over the base technology, we can all get to work on different applications, and that's how we'll compete with the big boys. Think of what that could do to support hospitals, data centers, facilities like fire or police stations. Not just safer and more reliable than grid power or leased generators from You Know Who, but cheaper and virtually self-sustaining."
"They've still got a stranglehold on most of the market—particularly in this country," Natasha pointed out, "And you'll be asking quite a lot of people to invest in something that even you have admitted has only worked four times, so far."
Stark gave her a respectful nod, acknowledging the point. "I hadn't expected you to be so versed in the commercial power systems market, Ms. Radenko, but you're right. It's a gamble, but we have the advantage by being able to maneuver into smaller applications and niche products that they've either ignored as a market that doesn't have enough profit for them, or simply beneath their notice."
Aware that they'd gathered a small audience, Stark raised his voice slightly, gesturing to where Iron Man stood above the heads and shoulders of everyone a few yards away. "As to the risks of investing in a partnership with us... the great thing about RT technology is that I've proven it works and that it's reproducible, and I'm not afraid to give the hard numbers out to back that up. Now it's just a matter of scale and refinement—and anyone who helps us out with that gets to prove to their own satisfaction that it works, too."
Then, he looked back, locking eyes to Natasha with a conspiratorial grin. "Once that happens and we really get our feet under us, every company who supports us puts more and more weight behind RT power. The market will grow, and our monolithic friends will find that iron-fisted grip of theirs loosening as they start finding less and less people are interested in putting their money into a dying paradigm."
She seemed about to respond to that when there was an incredibly loud popping sound, coming from somewhere below them, and a moment later the entire ballroom floor plunged into darkness. The only point of illumination came, ironically, from the faux Arc reactor placed in Iron Man's chest, lighting just enough of the area that Ben could make out the ropes around the display, but not much else.
"Also," he quipped without missing a beat, "things like this will stop happening."
A few people nearby gave a nervous laugh at the remark, but it didn't take long for a frisson of dismay, to spread through the darkened room. Emergency lights clicked on near the exits, but the bulk of the space was still in blackness, and Stark knew enough about crowd dynamics to know that it wouldn't take long for that dismay to thicken into incipient panic, Feeling his way through the dark to reach the raised platform he'd been standing near, he climbed up, then raised his voice.
"If I can get everyone's attention, please!"
That seemed to quiet things a little; now that his eyes were adjusting to the dark, he could see a decent amount of the people near him turning and looking up, giving him some hope of keeping the room from descending into a panic. To his right, he could more sense than see Zoner moving automatically into position, making himself ready for whatever happened next.
"I'm not exactly sure what's going on, but I'm sure that the folks from the Imperial Palace will be getting it taken care of shortly, so the best thing we can do right now is—"
Whatever Stark was about to suggest was cut off by a much louder crack, as the wall nearest to the hotel's exterior suddenly burst inward. Four powersuited, obviously female shapes stood for a moment in the jagged opening, silhouetted by the emergency lighting outside, before entering the ballroom.
Ah, Sylia, always with the flair for the dramatic, thought Stark, thankful that the darkness and distraction would keep anyone from noticing his inappropriate little smile.
Anyone who had been near the Knight Sabers' dramatic entrance had been knocked to the ground by the concussive blast that allowed them in. The rest of the crowd drew back, the tide of panic that Stark had begun to offset now rising uncontrollably as the mercenaries fanned out in a precise formation, darting from point to point within the room with small blasts of their boost jets.
Mindful of appearances, Stark tried to get to where the Iron Man suit still stood, unmanned and unable to respond to this unexpected threat; but the press of bodies was too much for him to break through, and he found himself carried in the opposite direction as MegaZone did his best to keep them both from being trampled.
That became even more difficult a moment later when one of the hardsuited women, her armor painted a distinctive red, illuminated the dark, immobile shape of the Tireless Worker unit with some kind of laser—upon which the powered suit suddenly activated, its work lights casting a harsh cone of yellow-white light into the gloom.
From inside her hardsuit, Nene double-checked the readouts from her instruments. All she had really accomplished with the laser was to determine the precise range, to one ten-thousandth of a meter, to the Tireless Worker, but that really wasn't what mattered. It was about making this look good—not about what her suit could actually do. Activating her comm, she dialed in the low power radio frequency she'd been given.
"Professor Vanko? This is Saber Four. Can you hear me?"
The response was scratchy, but audible enough. "Vanko to Saber Four—I hear you. I have activated the unit."
"Good. Remember—as far as anyone knows I'm operating your suit remotely. We don't want to harm anyone, but try to move... um... clumsy."
She thought she heard Vanko chuckle, but she wasn't quite sure as he replied, "Understood, Saber Four. I'll try to make it convincing."
As the Tireless Worker moved off of its display in slow, jerky stomps, the crowd broke away from it like a parting sea, scattering as if the beams of its work lights were death rays.
The red-suited Knight Saber walked slowly behind the lumbering power loader, hands raised as if operating a puppet, while two of the others formed a rearguard, and the last was keeping watch on their exit. It almost seemed like the theft was going to go unchallenged when the situation suddenly changed.
Linna felt the impact behind her before she even realized the big guy who had been protecting Vanko was charging down at her. Her suit kept the wind from being driven out of her, but she stumbled forward half a step, grunting with surprise, as his arm looped around her neck.
"Does this guy think he's going to strangle me... in a hardsuit?" she wondered rhetorically to the Sabers' encrypted tactical band. Turning the stumble into momentum, she threw herself forward, tossing him off and sending him to the floor with a crash. With the immediate threat dispatched, she turned to face the others and was able to comment further when she realized his partner was on the move.
Natalia had managed to get behind Priss, who had been distracted by the attack on Linna, and produced a black object from her handbag, throwing it with a flick of her wrist. It struck the Tireless Worker in the back, sending arcs of blue electricity across its surface and sending the suit crashing to the ground, one leg stuck in mid-stride like a figure in a Greek frieze.
Nene whirled as the Tireless Worker fell, blood draining from her face. "Saber Four to Vanko, can you hear me?"
The reply cut in and out, the scratchy static now much worse. "—ko here! Systems are off—possibly a discharg—trapped inside!"
Swallowing hard, Nene changed to the Knight Sabers tactical frequency as she moved between Vanko and her sister. "Saber One! One of the bodyguards has disabled the package!"
"I see it," Sylia's voice was tense, but cool as she and Priss moved to support Nene. "Contingency Red, ladies. Mackie—get the Mobile Pit in position to make pickup."
OK, Nene, don't panic, thought Nene rapidly as, entirely unxpectedly, she found herself facing off against her long-lost elder sister. From this close, even after all these years, even in the red monochrome of her hardsuit's IR night vision mode, Natalia's face was unmistakable. She looked faintly annoyed, no more agitated than that, as she regarded the opaque helmet of the armored mercenary before her, and Nene had to remind herself sternly that her own face could not, under any circumstances, be seen.
Her eyes narrowing slightly, Natalia slipped a hand into her bag for who knew what—a gun? Another one of those EMP devices? Without really thinking about it, Nene snapped up her right arm, the fingers of her power gauntlet swinging open to clear the muzzle of her minicannon, and painted her sister's forehead with its targeting laser.
CAUTION, her onboard computer warned her at the center of her HUD. INVALID TARGET. LETHAL FORCE NOT AUTHORIZED.
She doesn't know that, Nene thought to the computer, and backed slowly, cautiously toward the exit, keeping the weapon trained at all times. Natalia remained motionless, only her increasingly furious eyes betraying anything other than pure glacial calm, and Nene found herself rapidly blinking tears out of her own as she struggled to keep her body language similarly composed.
"I've got Vanko," Priss reported. "Ready for evac." Then, her voice betraying the effort of carrying the much larger Soviet load lifter only slightly, she added wryly, "We really need an air transport for this kind of job."
"Duly noted, best speed to the MP," Sylia replied, her voice clipped. "How are your power systems holding up?"
"RT is stable. I could do this all night," Priss replied. "Nene, you coming or what?"
Nene hesitated, half-in and half-out of the hole they'd entered from, feeling as though her sister's angry gaze would melt the faceplate clean off her helmet.
Then, nodding, she said, "Yeah. Let's go," and hit her boosters to get clear of the ballroom, turning away as she disappeared into the Mega Tokyo night.
Power was restored to the Imperial Hotel's ballroom very shortly thereafter, and order had more or less returned by the time officers of the Mega Tokyo Advanced Police arrived to secure the scene and start asking questions. It didn't take Anton Vanko's two KGB minders long to realize that the professor was unaccounted for, nor for them to reach a logical conclusion as to where he must have gone, but with the former fact readily evident to everyone in the room, there was little they could do about it.
Benjamin Stark had just finished assuring the Imperial's manager that Stark International in no way held the hotel responsible for the incident, and that it would not be allowed to affect the company's relationship therewith, when he felt eyes on his back. Turning, he was unsurprised to find Natalia Romanova, as he now knew her to be, regarding him in a calmly hostile sort of way.
"You had something to do with this," she said flatly.
"Of course I did," Stark replied without hesitation. "I organized the whole thing."
Natasha couldn't quite stop herself from blinking at him in surprise, startled that it had been that easy to goad him into an admission; until he looked around at the shambles of the ballroom and went ruefully on,
"In hindsight, though, I should probably have had the wrap-up at Stark Tower. It's a smaller room, but the walls are thicker."
"Ah," said Natasha, folding her arms and scowling. "I had forgotten how witty you consider yourself."
Stark gave her an oddly warm little smile and said, "You should know by now that you always bring out the best in me, Natasha."
Even as coldly furious as she was, the Soviet operative couldn't keep a matching smile from crossing her face at that remark; then, tamping the reaction down, she fixed him with a cool glare and promised, "This is not the end of the matter. You will hear from me again once I know what part you played in it..." Leaning closer, she pitched her voice so that no one else could overhear it and hissed, "... because I know you played one."
"Well, you're free to believe whatever you like for as long as you remain in a free country, Ms. Romanova," said Stark breezily. While she was taking that minor shock on board, he added, "In the meantime, I believe Inspector McNichol has some questions for me, and unlike you, I don't even have spurious diplomatic immunity to invoke, so if you'll excuse me."
"Are you sure that was a good idea, dropping her real last name like that?" MegaZone wondered as he crossed the room with Stark toward the ADP officers.
"She was starting to forget I'm a reporter," Stark replied. "I figured the time was right to remind her."
"Sometimes, these last few days, I've wondered whether you were starting to forget it," Zoner said.
"Sometimes, these last few days... so have I," Stark admitted; and then he turned on his gladhanding-MC face again and said, "Inspector McNichol, we meet again. Thanks for responding so quickly..."
It was after midnight before Natasha was finally able to reach the fallback position, a suite at one of the middling executive hotels in Nihonbashi. These rooms, rented through a shell company, were in place specifically in the event that KGB operatives in Mega Tokyo were forced by circumstance to switch from activities that could be absorbed by diplomatic cover (in which case they operated overtly from the Soviet Embassy) to those that could not.
In this case the protocol was perfectly clear: with Vanko gone, either abducted or—more likely—defected, the activities which his "bodyguards" would be obliged to undertake mostly fell very firmly in the second category. It was time for Natalia Radenko, officer of the Diplomatic Security Service, to disappear, and one of a dozen carefully prepared "black" identities to take her place.
The woman who lived inside all of them was in a mood to match as she arrived in the suite.
«Boris,» she called from the common room. «Are you awake?»
«Of course I am awake, Natalia Alianovna,» Boris replied from the second bedroom. He appeared in the doorway, jacket off, bow tie undone, looking weary and put-upon. «Who can sleep at a time like this? The cipher systems are in place. I have new orders for us from Moscow.»
«Good,» said Natasha. Turning, she keyed open one of the secure cabinets and started rummaging through the equipment secreted within. «Supply Section had better have outfitted this place completely this time,» she went on, annoyed. «I had to abandon all the equipment I had left before those louts from the AD Police discovered it. I know that bastard Stark had something to do with this, and I am going to need everything to find out what. He won't outmaneuver me this time.»
Behind her, Boris stepped fully into the room, replying, «Yes, it's all here.» His voice was perfectly calm and ordinary, even as his hands, quick and sure despite their great size, silently screwed a suppressor onto his GSh-18 pistol.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bubblegum Crisis: The Iron Age
Mega Tokyo 2032
Issue #4: What Goes Around...
in order of appearance
Benjamin H. Stark
AD Police Sergeant
Priss S. Asagiri
Dr. John Valuk
A KGB Officer
The IC² attendees
AD Police Mobile Division 4
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
with Philip J. Moyer
The Iron Age devised by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
series logo designed by
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on Bubblegum Crisis (Toshiba-EMI)
Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 (JVC/AIC)
Hopelessly Lost (EPU)
Tales of Suspense (Marvel Comics)
Knight Rider (Glen A. Larson)
Sylia Stingray, Mackie Stingray, Linna Yamazaki,
Leon McNichol, and the Knight Sabers' hardsuits
designed by Kenichi Sonoda
Priscilla S. Asagiri and Nene Romanova
designed by Masaki Yamada
Tony Stark and Iron Man
created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber,
Don Heck, and Jack Kirby
created by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck
created by Stan Lee and Don Heck
you may be starting to perceive a pattern here
Iron Man Mark III (TIA Type)
designed by Philip Jeremy Moyer
E P U (colour) 2016