The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal) – 2/3 – startabby

Title: The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal)
Author: startabby
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Dystopian
Relationship(s): Tony Stark & James Rhodes (friends), Tony Stark & Loki Odinson (mentor)
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Kidnapping, Violence-Canon-level
Author Notes: Continuing the tragic adventures of Tony Stark: Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist, Prisoner…
Beta/Cheerleader: Rae
Word Count: 62,000
Summary: Anthony Edward Stark has survived the crucible of Afghanistan only to find that the Ten Rings was merely the tip of the iceberg. A cabal plot to see him removed from the playing field, brought under control by whatever means possible. But Tony Stark is nothing if not resourceful. Even from the depths of the Oubliette, he discovers that he possesses the will to survive, as well as a surprising new ally in his struggle.
While Tony fights for his freedom, his best friend James Rhodes has his own battles to wage. Taking the place that in another universe belonged to the younger man; he is swept up into the world of aliens and grand battles as the Iron Soldier. Unaware of the truth, he becomes a tool of the same cabal who holds his friend prisoner. But secrets cannot last forever, and a time of reckoning is coming…
Artist: taibhrigh


 

 


Chapter 11: In Custody

When Tony awoke, he was no longer in the conference room where he had been rendered unconscious – gassed?

Instead, he was lying on a thin mat that lay on one side of a rather small room. The room’s walls, including ceiling and floor, were covered in hexagonal tiles that – Tony though – probably acted as a sound absorbent. There was a solid door set into one wall, its sides sunk far enough into the doorframe such that there were no gaps between them.

Sitting up, Tony noticed that it wasn’t just his location that had changed. During his bout of unconsciousness, he had also been stripped of his suit and all accessories. Instead, he was now dressed in loose-fitting casual wear. A t-shirt and elastic waist pants – both in navy blue – as well as socks and underwear, were all that he’d been given.

The room was warm enough that he didn’t need any further layers, but still, the fact that he’d been changed was concerning. Who knows what kinds of things they might have done to him while he was under sedation.

Taking a careful assessment of his physical condition, Tony didn’t notice any new sources of pain beyond the still healing injuries from his recent flight. In fact, his bruises actually ached less, and the bandages on his ribs and other scrapes were professionally done.

Looks like this time my captors want me healthy. Tony thought, choking back the hysterical laughter that he could feel bubbling up in the back of his throat. But why? Why take me as a prisoner? I thought that Fury believed that I was innocent.

Tony’s mind raced as he tried to find an explanation.

Pierce. There has to be something about that name. Still, whatever it was, it wasn’t something that can be legally prosecuted. Otherwise, they would have had me arrested, not gassed.

After a few minutes, Tony’s musings were interrupted by the arrival of a visitor.

“Ah, you’re awake. Good, that will make this easier.”

The person who opened the door was yet another figure in a suit, this one with the same military haircut and bearing as the driver from earlier. Like with the driver, Tony caught a glimpse of a gun holster on the side of his belt when he moved. Since he was still feeling a bit dizzy from whatever they used to dose him, Tony didn’t bother to stand. Instead, he leaned back against the cell wall and crossed his arms over his chest with a frown. The position was not only his way to show his displeasure with the situation, but it also allowed him to cover his vulnerability – the reactor – at least partially.

Shutting the door behind him, Tony’s visitor continued speaking in a diffident tone, as if uncaring of his audience.

“Based on recent events, it was decided that you would be safer remaining in SHIELD custody instead of returning to the dubious security of your own home. For your own protection, your exact location – and indeed the fact that you’re in SHIELD’s hands – will be considered top secret. Instead, your identity for the duration of your stay with us will be as a John Doe.”

Tony couldn’t help but scoff at the idea that he could be mistaken for an anonymous figure. He was a public figure, after all, one whose face was known worldwide.

Correctly interpreting Tony’s scoff, the Agent continued. “In order to maintain this ruse, you will be hooded any time that you are moved between secure locations. The number of personnel aware of your true identity will be limited to a small handful of guards, those few like me who you will interact with directly. To the rest of the Agency, you will be yet another faceless prisoner, a warm body.”

“But…” Tony began to speak.

“Don’t bother to protest. Your fate has already been set at the highest levels. As far as anyone outside the Agency is aware, you suffered a nervous breakdown – a delayed response to your recent captivity – and have been checked into a private treatment facility. Control over your affairs has been placed into the hands of your mentor, Obadiah Stane, who has already stepped up to re-take the position of CEO.”

At that, Tony’s captor gave a sneer.

“All of your actions since your return have already been reversed, especially the shutdown of Stark Industries’ weapons division. In his press conference, Stane claimed that since your decision-making ability has proven to be compromised, he will be assessing all decisions that have been made and only allowing those which act in the company’s best interests to continue.”

The Agent turned to leave the room, and then glanced back at Tony. “You’d best make yourself comfortable, Stark, as this is your reality now.”

With that ‘cheery’ thought, he left the room, making sure that the door shut tightly behind him.


Over the next several hours, Tony could do little more than sit and fume. After everything that he’d done to escape from the Ten Rings – even beginning the process of becoming a better man – all of that had been wiped away. He was once again trapped, this time behind a façade of protection.

With nothing else to do, Tony’s mind searched for an explanation for his latest captivity. The SHIELD bureaucrat’s answer was too pat. There had to be something more than just ‘protection’ driving them.

Gulmira’s aftermath was one possibility. Perhaps someone in the US military was particularly offended by his actions in deploying the Mark II?

Or it could be the shutdown SI’s weapons division. Certainly, Rhodey had gotten plenty of flack about that issue and had passed it along to his friend.

Or maybe it was Obie or someone else from the Stark Industries’ Board? After all, the company did take a fairly substantial series of hits during recent events.

Tony didn’t like to think that Obie was capable of that, but his old mentor had been glaring at him behind his back a lot lately.

What about the Wakandans? Sure Mercy/Nakia had become a friend, and King Shaka-laka had been impressive, but the country was notorious about keeping its secrets. Had he managed to push the wrong button there?

The possibilities were endless.

Eventually, the vibration that Tony had felt through his cell’s floor began to change. Wherever his cell was, it was on a vehicle of some kind. Now, that vehicle was in the process of changing its trajectory. Given the direction of the force that Tony could feel on his back and legs – and everywhere else – he would bet that he was inside of a plane. The motion was too smooth and three-dimensional for anything else.

Thud.

And… there was the jolt that came from an abrupt course change. The plane had come in for a landing.


After a few minutes, the remaining vibration ceased.

Engine shutoff, Tony thought distantly. Looks like we are going to be here for a time. Wonder if that means I’m getting out of this cell?

Despite his captor’s words, Tony couldn’t help but hope that the move out of his current accommodations would provide an opportunity for escape – or at least information.

Tony Stark was a genius – one who had escaped from Afghani terrorists. Surely a secret government agency couldn’t be any harder?

Of course, the obvious dome of a camera in the ceiling of the cell made any physical attempt futile at this time. Still, preparation was key. Tony sharpened his focus and waited.


Sure enough, the door to the cell opened once again a short time after the engines had been turned off. Tony’s smirking guard had returned, along with an even larger and more muscular sidekick. Given the odds, Tony knew that it was futile to try and fight at this time. Instead, he submitted, allowing the larger guard to cuff his hands behind his back without a fuss. The next item, though, made Tony protest.

“Wha… No…” he tried to back away, but the second guard was behind him, holding him in place. Before Tony could say anything more, a gag was shoved into his mouth.

“It’s just a precaution,” Tony’s original guard said with a sneer. “It would be a waste if we hid your pretty face only for someone to recognize your voice.”

Then a fabric bag was placed over Tony’s head, covering everything down to his shoulders. The mouth of the bag was large enough that the excess fabric draped over his chest, acting as additional camouflage to hide the arc reactor. Despite everything, Tony was grateful that SHIELD was at least keeping his new prosthetic in place and under wraps. If they had let their scientists extract it during his recent bout of unconsciousness, he would have died.

Of course, Tony was certain that the spy agency had performed a full medical examination in that window between his being gassed and waking up on the plane. It was what he would have done in their shoes. That was; if he was someone who made a habit of taking innocents into custody ‘for their protection’.

Anyways… Dropping that particular thread, Tony focused on the here and now.

He was led out of the cell and into the hallway beyond. With his feet now covered only by socks and soft slippers, he could feel the solid metal surface beneath them. He was led by the arm down a corridor; then a flight of stairs; then through a larger, more echo-y space, and then finally out into a dry, hot outdoor space.

The feel of the weather reminded Tony a bit of Afghanistan. However, the scents that he could pick up beyond the overwhelming stench of hot metal and gas, the normal aroma of a recently landed plane, were similar to the US military bases that Tony had visited.

Despite the muffling effect of the bag over his head, he could hear the general tenor of the conversations occurring around him. There were the usual calls of the ground crew, refueling and performing routine maintenance for the plane.

There was the harsh, strident sound of a drill sergeant combined with the repetitive thump of marching feet, familiar to Tony from his on-site visits to Rhodey. He even caught a few calls of greeting for his guards.

“Prisoner transport duty, huh?” was one such yell. “Sucks to be you, Brad.”

“Tell me about it. The most boring job there is.” This was Tony’s tormenter, not the silent guard who had his hand on Tony’s arm.

“Special circumstances?” The other man asked, presumably about the hood.

“Above your pay grade.”

“Sure, sure, whatever, man. Stop showing off your promotion, would you.”

“But Nate, how else would you recognize how superior I am?”

Tony longed to interrupt, but the gag stuffed in his mouth kept him silent and the hand on his arm kept him stationary.


After a far too long interlude of inane conversation, Tony and company continued their trek across the – apparent – tarmac. Then they crossed a metal threshold. Transitioning into the indoors didn’t do much to the noise level, as it seemed that they were passing through a large lobby area. Still, it was a break from the dry heat and wind of the outside.

The hand on his arm led him across an expanse of concrete, and then onto an elevator, which began to descend shortly after they entered it.

As they descended, the elevator made a number of stops, with people getting on and off at each one. From the snatches of conversation that Tony heard, it seemed that he was at one of SHIELD’s main bases, a place called ‘the Sandbox’.

The name made sense given the desert environment that Tony had noticed outside. He wondered where on Earth it was located. Given the length of time that he’d been locked in his plane cell, plus whatever time had passed before he’d awakened, the location was somewhere overseas – the Middle East, perhaps. Idle speculation, but it kept him focused on the present…


Finally, the elevator stopped at Tony and company’s designated floor.

He was shoved forward through the crush of people in front of him, before coming to an abrupt stop before some kind of desk.

“Checking in?”

The voice in front of them sounded bored.

“Yes. Prisoner transfer to the isolation ward.”

“Roger that. Just sign in, here and I’ll buzz you through.”

Tony’s guard did so. Then, driving him along, they walked through the heavy gate and down a series of corridors.

As Tony followed his guard’s forceful guidance, he did his best to count turns and distances in his head, just in case he managed to escape his eventual cell and needed to make his way back on his own.


When they finally removed his hood, Tony once again found himself in a cell. This time, however, it was not the high-tech room from before. Instead, the cell was a simple construction of steel and concrete, the door solid steel with a viewing window at head height and a slot below for deliveries. Looking around, Tony was careful to not dwell on anything in particular for too long. He didn’t want his guards to realize how much the room’s furnishings gave him to work with.

Tony’s new home’s furniture included a folding bed anchored to the wall, a desk and chair, and an aluminum sink and toilet combination. Illumination came from an exposed fixture installed in the ceiling, accessible if he stood on the chair.

That’s promising. Tony thought with an internal grin.

“Welcome to SHIELD’s detention center in the heart of the Sandbox.”

To Tony’s surprise, it wasn’t the first, snide Agent who spoke this time. Instead, the words came from the other guard, the one who had remained silent until now. “Because of secrecy of your situation, you are being held in our isolation ward. As such, you will not be allowed to mingle with the general population. Instead, your meals will be delivered three times a day, through the slot on the door.”

“Like the rest of our isolation prisoners, you will be given individual time slots for breaks. These will include yard time lasting for an hour every other day, shower time twice a week, and a library visit once a week. At all other times, you will remain in your cell.”

This guard’s tone was professional and polite, in direct contrast to the other man. “As the staff member assigned to your case, I will be your escort for all excursions outside of this cell. Besides me, all other contacts will be done through the cell door. Further, you are not permitted to talk to any of the other guards that you may glimpse passing through the halls.”

Gesturing towards the window, he added. “You’ll notice that the window on your door is opaque. This is so that no one besides myself or other approved guards may see your face.”

Having removed the cuffs and gag from Tony, he tucked them into his pockets. Then, reaching under the bed, he pulled out a plastic crate. “Like all of our other guests, your accommodations include basic supplies such as a blanket, toiletries, a change of clothes, even paper and pens. If you would like to request additional items – or replacements – you may ask when I visit. Or, you may leave a note with your meal tray. Of course, there is no guarantee that any request will be granted, but I am permitted to provide additional resources – within reason.”

“Better than you deserve,” the abusive guard muttered under his breath from where he stood leaning against the cell door. The reminder that the bully existed had Tony glaring in response. He knew that the Agents were likely playing roles – good cop/bad cop – but he couldn’t help how the ‘bad’ cop put his back up. The man was really pissing him off.

“Now then, I’ll leave you to settle in. The next meal – which is dinner – should be arriving in a few hours.”

With that, the two guards left, closing and locking the door behind them with a clang.

Collapsing onto his new bed with a sigh, Tony dropped his face into his hands. He still found it hard to believe that this was indeed happening to him… again.

Chapter 12: Grief

Climbing into the driver’s seat of the rental car, James Rhodes stared out the front windshield with unseeing eyes. In his mind, the dreary cemetery before him became a view of Gin as he’d seen her last.


The sound of heels on tile disturbed James’ contemplation of his beer. Glancing up, he smiled at the red-headed woman who stood before him. Dressed in a sharp business suit and the Louboutin heels – doubtless one of the pairs that Tony had bought her as apology presents – at first glance, the younger woman looked much the same as she ever did.

 But when James took a second look, he realized that his first impression was incorrect.

Though well hidden under careful makeup, Gin’s eyes were bloodshot and there were signs of dark circles underneath. Her suit might be sharp, but it also fits her poorly, a sign that she had lost significant weight, and not in a healthy way.

Besides her purse, Gin clutched a leather portfolio to her chest. Clearly, it contained something very important.

“Gin,” he said with a nod. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

“Jim.”

In response to Tony’s ridiculous nicknames, Rhodey and Pepper, the pair had long developed the habit of calling each other by the nicknames that their mutual friend had dismissed as ‘too common’.

It felt oddly appropriate that their old nicknames were so similar – Gin and Jim – and referenced types of hard liquor.

“I don’t mean to be rude, Gin, but this isn’t exactly your usual type of place,” James said, gesturing around him.

A loud yell sounded from the bar, as the bank of televisions above it displayed a professional football game. Glancing at it, James saw that the offense had just scored a touchdown. An instant replay was already running, showing the moment on repeat.

“I know. It’s just…” she hesitated, and then went on. “It’s just… something about Tony’s breakdown… it doesn’t feel… right. I didn’t know who else to talk to, but Tony’s your friend and I thought… I thought that you might be willing to help.”

Holding out the portfolio, she offered it to him. James set it down on the bar table, flipping it open to see the hard copy of an internal Stark Industries memo.

“Mister Stane took control over things far too quickly. Tony hadn’t been gone more than a day before he had already dismissed all of the changes we’d made. If it weren’t for the fact that the contracts with Usapho had already been filed with the lawyers, I’m certain that Mister Stane would have eliminated that work as well.”

James hummed, scanning the documents, as Gin claimed the other chair at his small table.

“Then there’s the house. He had the Malibu mansion mothballed and the utilities shut off within a week of Tony’s absence. We didn’t even power things down after three months last time.”

She sniffed. “Happy and I both got termination letters this morning. Stane is using his status as temporary Guardian to get rid of all of Tony’s allies.”

Pulling a tissue out of her purse, Gin dabbed at the sides of her eyes. “Did you know that they won’t even tell me where Tony was placed? I wanted to send him a care package, you know, some things to remind him of happier times. When I asked her, Stane’s secretary informed me that I wasn’t allowed to know. Me!”

Reaching out, James wrapped an arm around her, and she leaned into him with a sob. Waving the waitress over, he asked for a glass of water. Then he ordered a fresh drink for himself and one for his companion.

“It’s tough, I know, Gin. We just got him back, and now he’s gone again. But that’s no reason to assume foul play.”

“But…”

“Look. I love Tony, but he wasn’t himself after he got back from Afghanistan. Isolating himself in the house; making foolhardy decisions about the company; even running out of the Gala to…” James stopped himself. Gin didn’t have the clearance to know about the Gulmira incident.

“This really is for the best. Tony can focus on getting better.”

He frowned for a moment, waiting as the waitress dropped off their drinks, before continuing. “Now, I was given a postal address where I can send things for Tony. I’m not sure why you weren’t given the address, maybe the secretary was confused, but in any case, I’m happy to share it with you.”

“Okay Jim,” Gin’s smile was watery but present.

“As far as the job thing, you know that I’d be happy to write a reference for both you and Happy if you need. I have been the SI Air Force liaison for as long as you’ve been there, you know.”

Her smile grew stronger and she nodded.

“Besides, you are massively overqualified to stay as a personal assistant forever. Use this as a chance to try something new.”

“Thanks,” she said and sniffed wetly.

“And don’t let your brain run away with you,” James said as he shut the portfolio. “It will do more harm than good.”

He ignored the frown on her face as she reclaimed it, tucking it away in her purse. He didn’t want to get into another argument. Instead, he turned the discussion to more pleasant things.

They had ended up spending an hour or so visiting before James had to leave for another meeting.


James had hoped that his words had been enough to dissuade Gin from continuing her foolish investigation. Indeed, the next few days seemed to indicate that was the case.

He had gotten a call from Tony’s former driver, Harold ‘Happy’ Hogan, confirming the offer of a reference the following morning. During the call, the other man had thanked him for talking ‘Ms. Potts’ down. Hogan had commented that he thought Stane had rushed things a bit, behaving insensitively, but that such actions were not inconsistent for the older man. Stane did have a reputation for putting business before all else.

“I’d already been putting a few feelers out before we got the letters,” he admitted to James. “After all, there’s no reason for a man in an institution to have a driver. But thanks, again, for the reference offer. It should help ease the transition.”


But then, a few days later, another call came in.

“Colonel Rhodes?”

“Who is this?”

The voice on the other end of the line was female and clearly upset. From the sound of her voice, it seemed that she was barely holding back tears.

“It’s Evelyn, Ginny’s mother. You are James Rhodes, right, Mister Stark’s friend?”

“Ginny?  Oh, Gin – Ms. Potts. Yes, this is James Rhodes. What can I do for you, Mrs. Potts?”

“There’s been…” Evelyn Potts choked back a sob and then continued. “There’s been an accident. Up in the Hills. Happy, you know, Harold Hogan, Mister Stark’s old driver… Well, he was driving Ginny home last night and…” she faltered and sobbed again.

“I got the call this morning. A passing motorist noticed the damaged railing this morning and called it in. They… they found the car down in a ravine, and…” Her voice went high as she sobbed. “… she’s dead. My baby’s dead. They’re both dead.”

What?!

“The cops said that they’re still investigating, but it looks like it was just a stupid accident.”

Between the pounding in his ears and her sobs, James could barely understand what Mrs. Potts said next.

Dead? That couldn’t be.

Almost absently he thanked Mrs. Potts for letting him know while offering his sympathies for their shared loss. He asked to be kept in the loop about any funeral arrangements before ending the call.

Seconds later, he was placing calls of his own, wanting, no, needing answers.

In the end, it was just as Mrs. Potts had said. Hogan had been driving the pair home on one of the winding roads that led through the Los Angeles Hills. The car had suffered a blow-out, sending it careening through the guard-rail and down into the ravine.  Despite clear evidence of Hogan’s attempts to regain control, the car had hit a boulder on its way down, flipping it over and sending it tumbling end over end until it finally came to a stop at the bottom. The vehicle’s mad tumble was enough to render both driver and passenger unconscious and pin them down inside the wreckage. There was some indication that Hogan managed to regain consciousness, trying and failing to extract himself or call for help before succumbing due to blood loss. Gin, on the other hand, appeared to have landed badly during the fall and died without ever reawakening.

As Hogan lacked any close relatives, James had made his funeral arrangements. He was able to convince SI’s HR department to pay for Hogan’s costs despite the recent dismissal. He then had Hogan interred at a local Los Angeles cemetery.

Meanwhile, Gin’s body had been claimed by her grieving parents, who had brought it home to the Northeast. It was there, in a suburb outside Boston, that James currently sat. He had flown out for his friend’s funeral, standing in for an absent Tony Stark.


James had been unsure about informing Tony about Gin and Hogan’s deaths, and in the end, he had decided to leave it up to Tony’s doctors. So, he wrote two letters, placing one inside of the other. The outer letter, which was addressed to the institution, outlined what had happened. James explained that he wasn’t sure if knowledge of the tragic accident would cause a setback, and asked to be informed which option the doctors advised.

‘If you feel that it would be alright for Tony to know,’ the letter read, ‘please deliver the second letter to him.’

This second, inner letter addressed to Tony was James’ best attempt at writing something that would comfort as it informed his friend of the horrible news. Even after numerous drafts, James was still unsatisfied with the final product. Still, it was the best that he could do given the situation.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter.  James received a response to his request a few days later. The institution had decided to keep Tony in the dark – at least until he was in a better place mentally.

‘Your letter will be placed in Mister Stark’s file for delivery when the doctors feel that he is ready to read it. We will, of course, let you know when such an event occurs.’

While James was sad that he couldn’t see his friend, and visit him in person, the correspondence reassured him that Tony was being well cared for wherever he was staying.


The honk of a horn shook James out of his thoughts. It seemed that the owners of the vehicle that had parked behind him couldn’t move forward until he did. Wiping away the tears that he hadn’t even noticed falling, James drove forward. He followed the narrow road out of the cemetery and back into the Massachusetts streets.


Two days later, James found himself again lost in memory as he followed the driveway towards Tony’s Malibu home. He would be heading back to base shortly. But, he had felt the need to visit the Stark mansion. He hoped that the visit would help him get final closure.

Despite the fact that the house was closed, the grounds looked as well kept as ever. James assumed that was because Stane’s people had arranged for Tony’s gardeners to continue their work despite the lack of a resident. Still, even in the bright California sun, the house felt oddly eerie.

It made James shiver as he climbed out of his car and walked toward the front door.

It just doesn’t feel right, James thought as he pulled out his wallet to retrieve the house key that Tony had given him right after the edifice was built. Having to use an actual, physical key to get inside. With JARVIS online, doors just… open when needed.

The main floor of the house had been properly closed down, with dust covers over all of the furniture and all of the detritus of Tony’s normal lifestyle cleared away. With the power down, the only light present was the natural illumination that came through the tinted glass windows. This gloom, combined with recent events, made the entire space feel haunted. James hurriedly made his way towards the staircase to the lab.

Despite the near pitch blackness, James had taken those stairs often enough that he managed to make it down without falling. He reached the glass wall that separated the lab from the rest of the house and peered through the dim interior. A bit of sunlight made it down in the lab thanks to the recessed skylights that Tony had included in the house’s design. In that dim light, James could see no sign of life. Even the lights of the lab server racks – including JARVIS’ tower – were out.

There should have been enough power stored in the computers’ batteries for JARVIS to do a controlled shut-down for the system when the power was shut off, James thought. I cannot imagine him doing otherwise.

In one corner of the lab, James caught a glimpse of the bots – DUM-E, U, and Butterfingers – in their charging docks, presumably having also run their batteries out. The sight of the trio made James smile on reflex.

At least Tony will still have his children waiting for him if he ever gets better and comes home. I’m sure that JARVIS will be there as well; ready to serve his Master once more.

James’ smile was rueful and tinged with sorrow, but it was present as he turned on his heel and returned to the main floor. Going to the bar, he poured himself a slug of gin – the one which Gin preferred – and raised his glass in a salute to his lost friend.

“Don’t worry, Gin, I’ll be there for him even if you can’t be anymore.” Throwing back the slug with a single swallow, James set the used glass back down on the bar and turned to walk out of the ghostly mansion.

As he did so, his phone rang.

“Colonel Rhodes.”

“…”

“Yes, Sir, I’m on my way back now.”

“…”

“Understood, Sir, I’ll head over there immediately.”

“…”

“Don’t worry, Sir, I won’t let my history with Mister Stark get in the way. I’m sure that I can continue in the liaison position despite the change of leadership.”

As James left, locking the front door behind him, a single red light blinked in the hall, a sign that the house’s surveillance system was still actively recording despite the lack of power drawn from the municipal system.

Chapter 13: A Prison Liaison

Strolling down the dim corridor between two guards, Tony considered the past few months. He’d been held at the Sandbox for the duration, spending all of his time in the same ward of their ‘lock-up’. Now, however, he was finally being moved.

The move came in the aftermath of his second escape attempt; one which had gotten decently far, he thought. His first attempt – a few days after his arrival – had been much less successful.

To be fair, it had been more of a probe than anything; an assessment of the prison’s capabilities. Tony had managed to modify the wiring from the light in his ceiling, using the electrical current running through it as an impromptu Taser and knocking the visiting guard unconscious. The guard, who had arrived to escort Tony on his second shower visit, had been on his own. This fact gave Tony his opportunity, one which he eagerly grabbed. With the guard out of commission, Tony snagged his gear, locking the other man inside of the cell as he headed out.

On that occasion, Tony hadn’t managed to make it past the end of the isolation ward. Unfortunately for Tony, the ward’s exterior door required a passcode to open. Tony had been in the middle of hacking the control pad when another guard showed up on the opposite side of the door on his way into the ward.  Despite Tony’s best efforts, he was recognized as a prisoner immediately and taken back into custody, being returned to another cell on the same block.

The only impact of this first escape attempt was the assignment of a second guard whenever Tony was allowed to leave the cell. It seemed that Tony’s actions were typical, as SHIELD’s common practice was to assign a single guard initially to evaluate prisoner abilities. Or so one of the guards told Tony gleefully the next time he was escorted to the library.

“You won me a fair bit in the pot,” he said with a grin. “I was certain that you’d manage to find a way to overpower Dave with tech. Some of the others thought you were harmless, but the chatter that I’ve heard says otherwise.”

“Glad I could help,” Tony said wryly. He was unsurprised by the betting. “Any other pools that I should be aware of?”

“Not now, but I’ll let you know if something comes up.” The guard replied. “Inside information is always useful.”

“Thanks.”


This friendly guard, Jack, was the one who ended up giving Tony his second chance at an escape. One day, when Jack stood guard over Tony in the bathroom, the genius overheard him grumbling about his phone’s recent difficulties.

“And I’m stuck on the base right now. It’ll be months before I have a chance to get a new one,” Jack said with a groan.

“You know, I might be able to help with that,” Tony said as he stepped out of the shower. “I am an engineer, you know.”

“Really?”

Jack was skeptical, especially given that the detention block was sealed. “No transmissions in or out,” Jack commented. “Part of the security system here.”

“Sure. Genius, remember, I don’t need a Wi-Fi connection to debug anything,” Tony assured the other man. “Besides, that security means that there’s no risk in my trying, right?”

“Okay. But no one else can know.”

Tony nodded, hiding his exultant cry behind his teeth.

“I’ll bring it on your next library day. I’ve already been assigned for that rotation.”


As promised, Jack delivered the cell to Tony two days later. With a little bit of finagling, Tony convinced the guard that he’d need some time – and the privacy of his cell – to work. Jack agreed reluctantly and helped Tony to smuggle the device back to the cell.

“Just remember. No funny business,” he’d told Tony in a hissed whisper as he left the cell behind his partner for the day.

Tony held up his hand. “Scout’s honor,” he replied, even as he struggled to keep a straight face. Anthony Stark was not and had never been, a Boy Scout.

“Right.”

With that, the cell door had slammed shut, locking both Tony and the tech inside.

Working swiftly and carefully, Tony had embedded a virus inside of the phone’s operating system, a virus designed to open a path between the cell and the detention center exit. The virus would automatically be uploaded into the Sandbox’s Wi-Fi the next time that the phone was taken out of the detention center’s zone of influence and was set to activate the next time that the facility had a major incident. Tony would be alerted five minutes before the doors were unlocked by a specific sequence of disruptions to his cell lights’ power.

As a back-up, in case things went wrong, Tony also input a second prong. If Tony failed to send a kill command within 24 hours of the escape attempt, the virus would attempt to send a message to the outside world, or more specifically, to JARVIS. Given Tony’s uncertainty as to the identity of the people who had betrayed him, JARVIS was the only guaranteed choice.  He was fairly certain that Pep and Rhodey could be trusted, but he didn’t want to risk someone having access to their accounts.

Yes, J was best, Tony had thought as he put final touches to the code. Jack and his comrade would be arriving shortly to take Tony for his shower and Tony could use his dirty clothes to do the phone exchange.

 I hope this works.


It took two days of a nerve-wracking wait before the cell lights finally flickered in the set pattern.  It was nearly time for lights out, maybe an hour after dinner was delivered, and Tony had been doodling ideas when he caught the flicker. Shoving his chair back, Tony almost frantically pulled on his slip-on shoes and started to pace the extent of the cell. When he heard the click of the lock disengaging five minutes later, Tony nearly tripped in his lunge for the door.

Using Jack’s stories as a guide, Tony made his way to the guards’ break-room without incident, though he did catch the sound of someone yelling from a ways away at a couple of points during his walk. Once there, Tony snagged a spare uniform that hung near the door and pulled it on over his prison scrubs. Due to the lack of spare boots anywhere, Tony was forced to stick to the slip-on shoes, a fact which he hoped that no one would notice.

He then strolled down the hall towards the exit, crossing his fingers inside of his pockets as he walked.

It wasn’t like he was superstitious or anything, Tony thought wryly as he walked, just an old habit from childhood.


As he approached the main entrance, Tony had his first encounter with other people. The uniformed staff moved efficiently, focused on whatever had stirred them up. As they passed, Tony did his best not to tense up. He knew that any deviation in his body language would be an obvious tell. He had managed a half-dozen or so contacts and had reached the entry room when things fell apart.

“Hey,” a voice from behind Tony had called. “You forgot to sign out.”

Doing his best to act nonchalant, Tony turned and gestured ‘me?’ hoping that the game wasn’t up.

“Yes, you,” the desk worker said with a sigh. “Doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten called to another duty station, you still have to sign out like normal.”

“Sorry, forgot,” Tony said, walking over to the desk.

“New?”

“That obvious?”

“Not too bad. You’ve got the walk almost right.”

The non-sequitur threw Tony for a moment. Before he could reply, a voice spoke from right behind him. “Yes. SHIELD training causes its people to carry themselves in a very specific manner. It’s only noticeable if you’ve served as a trainer, but it is there.”

Tony spun around. He found himself face-to-face with the guard who had originally brought him into the detention center.

“Shit…”

The man raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. Now, then, let’s get you back to where you belong, shall we.”

Knowing that there was no point in trying to protest, Tony sighed and nodded. As they walked down the halls, the guard commented. “I’m impressed, Mister Stark. Very few of our prisoners have ever managed to make it that far.”

Instead of taking him directly back to his cell, the guard captain – for that was who the man was – brought Tony to his office. Once inside, Tony was ordered to take a seat on a chair in one corner while the captain placed a call.

From what Tony could hear, the call was all about him. It sounded like he was about to be transferred out of his current residence.

But would the new place be better… or worse?


After maybe ten minutes of Tony sitting in the corner, while the guard captain worked on paperwork at his desk, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” the captain called.

Two men walked in, larger and beefier than his usual guards. One held a pair of cuffs, while the other had something that made Tony groan.

“Not again.”

“I’m afraid so, Mister Stark. Now, do we need to gag you to keep you quiet, or will you follow directions.”

“I can be good, I promise,” Tony said with an insincere smile.

His host looked skeptical, but he nodded. “We’ll see. Now stand, and turn around. Place your hands behind your back.”

With a few efficient motions, the new guards cuffed Tony and then placed the now customary bag over his head.

“I wish that I could say I’m sorry to see you go… but I’d be lying. Goodbye Stark.”  Tony’s – former – warden spoke with a dry voice, and despite the muffling caused by the bag over his head, Tony could tell that he’d already been dismissed from the man’s mind.

Reluctantly, he accepted the hand around his upper arm as it guided him out of the office. From what he could tell, they had headed back the way that he’d come during his previous stroll. They were returning to the main entrance of the detention center.

Where am I going? Tony thought. Wherever it is, please let it be inside this base. Otherwise, J’s message will not be enough of a guide.


Tony’s two new guards led him to the elevator out of the detention section, and they rode it down, down, down… He lost count of how many times it stopped and started – changing passengers – as it continued in its drop.  Despite the hood’s muffling effect, Tony could hear snatches of conversation, as the agents discussed current affairs – the latest in America’s ‘War on Terrorism’,  global economic tensions, etc. – and recent missions. Much of the conversation was less useful, typical office politics about dating couples, hook-ups, the latest media events. Still, Tony drank it all in, thrilled at the exposure to new information.

Eventually, however, Tony and his escorts were the only ones left inside the elevator car. They made one final drop, and then he was finally guided forward. This time, there wasn’t a receptionist present like in the detention center. Instead, Tony was led down rough concrete floors, passing over a few metal thresholds as he followed the non-verbal commands of his captors.

When Tony’s guide stopped abruptly, the change in velocity almost knocked him over. With brusque movement, the guard removed the cuffs and pulled off the hood with a single, smooth motion. Then a hard shove between his shoulder blades forced Tony forward. The force of the push made him stumble a bit as he moved across another threshold. Then, he caught himself.

At first glance, the room in which he had been shoved reminded Tony of the cave in Afghanistan. Its walls and ceiling were made of unfinished stone with a similar color and texture, while the floor was flat poured concrete. The only furnishings in the room were an aluminum toilet and sink, similar in style to the ones that Tony had used when he’d been thrown into drunk tanks during his misspent youth, and a ‘bed’ made of a solid concrete shelf with a pallet laid over top.

When Tony turned around, though, the illusion was broken. The fourth wall of the cell was constructed of clear acrylic, with small circles cut into its surface for air circulation. It reminded Tony of the scene from The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice visited serial killer Hannibal Lector. He found it odd to think of himself in the same terms as that villain, but here he was. It seemed that the entire wall acted as a door, dropping down from a recess in the ceiling. His ‘escorts’ were already lowering said door when he turned, the two goons in black with a SHIELD patch on their arms.

Their glares dared him to try and dart back under the descending wall. Tony resisted the impulse. He knew that this wasn’t the time to make an attempt, not when they were on alert. Instead, he would have to wait, for a while anyway, until his guards grew complacent. It had nearly worked once after all, in his previous residence. Maybe it would work again.

So, Tony took a seat on his new ‘bed’, hiding a wince when he realized how thin the mattress was. It wouldn’t make for a comfortable sleeping surface, that was for sure.

Looking over at the goons through the now mostly closed door, he snarked, “thank you for your escort, gentlemen. It was most appreciated. I hope that I haven’t been too much of an inconvenience to your daily routine – threatening people seems like such tiring work.”

The glares deepened.

“Still, I do wonder where the agency finds such obvious stereotypes – Henchmen-R-Us? You’d think a ‘Super Secret Agency’ wouldn’t be so blatant.” He tapped his finger on his lips. “Ah, but perhaps that is why you’re stuck working here. You’re too obvious for the good jobs.”

Tony leaned back, placing his hands behind his head as he stretched leisurely. After all, faking confidence was old hat to him.

One of the goons snarled, but his partner placed a hand on his arm.

“Just ignore him, Jerry, he’s reaching.” The smarter goon gave his own smirk. “After all, he’s the one in the cage.”

Turning on their heels, the two men strode back down the corridor, leaving Tony to stare out the now fully closed door.

Through the thick acrylic he could see the corridor, apparently lined on both sides with cells like his own. From what he could see, the walls between the cells were quite thick and made from solid stone. Of course, from his position, Tony’s range of view was limited to the cell directly across from him and small bits of the cells on either side of it. He walked forward as far as he could go, but that didn’t change much. Instead, he just caught sight of the edges of few more of the cells along the row.

To Tony’s disappointment, this time there were no lights in his cell for him to fiddle with.

They must have learned their lesson from the last two times.

Instead, the only light in the area came from the exterior corridor. There, in the ceiling, a bank of fluorescent lights ran along the center of the passageway. Interspersed with the lights were a set of vents, presumably the only source of air control in the desolate space. It seemed that this set of cells had been designed for prisoners who were adept at utilizing any resources in an escape attempt – in other words, people like Tony himself.

Another unusual aspect of his ‘cell block’ was the lack of technology present. As far as Tony could tell, and he could tell a lot, there was no sign of surveillance equipment in the area. He could find no evidence of video or audio recorders or indeed any complex electronics at all. The lights were simple, old-fashioned electronics, and the cell doors appeared much the same. From watching them work, Tony thought that they likely functioned off similarly simple mechanical/electronic circuits that wouldn’t be out of place in the early 1900s.

“Huh,” he said. “This is an odd place.”

As if his words were a trigger, Tony spotted movement in the cell across from his. He had assumed that the lump on the bed-shelf thing there was just a crumpled mattress, but it seemed he had a neighbor.


The voice that emerged from the lump was male, well-spoken with a posh British accent that reminded Tony of Aunt Peg.

“If you would not mind, some of us are trying to get some sleep here.”

Tony realized that he’d been narrating his observations about his prison aloud, an old habit from years of working with JARVIS. No wonder the other person had commented.

“Sorry,” he called. “Didn’t realize that there was anyone else here.”

“Well, now you know.”

Tony tried to keep quiet, but now that he knew that he had a companion, he simply couldn’t be patient. He needed answers.

“Sorry, again, but since I’ve already woken you up would you mind answering some questions?”

The other man groaned and then sighed before pulling off the thick blanket he lay under and sitting up. Despite the shadows from the odd lighting, Tony could make out a few details of his fellow prisoner. He appeared to be male; tall and slender, with dark hair and pale skin. Like Tony, he was dressed in simple clothes, a long-sleeved shirt and drawstring pants in a muted khaki color.  SHIELD’s standard prisoner gear.

Unlike Tony, however, he also wore an odd set of jewelry. A collar of what looked superficially like hammered gold inscribed with Norse runes sat around his neck, visible above his shirt. When he reached up to stretch his arms, Tony caught a glimpse of similar cuffs around his wrists when the sleeves of his shirt drooped.

The man climbed to his feet and walked – or rather stalked – to the front of his cell. When he reached it, he leaned one shoulder against the stone wall beside the transparent front and gave Tony a smirk. An equal opportunity admirer, Tony admitted to himself that despite the unfortunate environment his companion was incredibly attractive. Despite his male voice, his companion was nearly androgynous in his appearance, with an ethereal beauty that stunned the viewer.

“Well, hello there, gorgeous,” Tony purred, pulling out all the stops. “I’m Tony. And you are…?”

The other man’s smirk deepened, and he met Tony’s flirting head-on. “Hello, yourself. And you can call me… Silver… Yes, that will do nicely.”

“Okay, then… Silver. Any chance you know where we are? My companions were fairly close-mouthed. I mean, I caught a few glimpses of a fairly technologically advanced facility on the way down here, but this,” Tony indicated their surroundings with a gesture, “is oddly tech-free, despite these pretty walls.” He gave a tap to the acrylic with that last comment.

“Ah, well, there I am afraid I cannot help. I am not familiar enough with your realm of Midgard to recognize the location when I was first brought here. However, my – our – jailors have mentioned that this facility is known as the Sandbox, and our delightful accommodations are known to the staff as ‘the Oubliette’.”

The name caused Tony to wince. “I knew we were in the Sandbox. But as for the other, well, that’s unfortunate.”

“Why?”

“Do you know what an Oubliette is?”

A shake of the head was the only response from Silver.

“It’s a type of prison that used to be used in the Middle Ages in Europe. Basically, it’s a deep hole in the ground where you put prisoners who you want to forget about and have no intention of retrieving.”

Tony’s explanation only got an unsurprised nod as a response. “The idea corresponds with my experience here. I was only moved to this prison after my captors failed to extract any useful information out of me in their facilities upstairs. Rather, my sheer presence was causing disturbances to their primitive technology, hence the lack of such things in this space.”

“Really?” Tony asked, curious.  Silver’s words made little sense, that is, unless there was something more to it. Perhaps the other man was like him, skilled at turning technology to his advantage.

“Indeed. Despite the suppression bands, the mere existence of my seidr was enough to do damage.” The man held up his arms, showing off the odd bracelets, as he spoke.

“Seidr?”

“What do you call it here on Midgard…? Ah, yes, magic.”

That word made Tony scoff. He was a materialist, and magic belonged to the world of mystics and charlatans. In his experience magic was just another word for trickery.

His companion smiled thinly as if he understood the response. “Don’t be so closed minded my new friend. There are many things which your realm has yet to discover. Just because you don’t know something, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”

That made Tony huff, though he had to admit that Silver had a point. But… Magic… It was all so… wishy-washy…

As if he could hear Tony’s thoughts, Silver laughed. “You Midgardians, so certain that you know all that there is to know, when in fact you know almost nothing…”

Midgardians. That sounds vaguely familiar.

Tony wracked his brain, trying to figure out where he’d heard that word before… Oh, yes, that Swedish supermodel that he slept with for a hot minute back in the nineties.

Spectacular tits, that one, and all natural too.

She had a bit of a kink for Norse mythology, liked to role play in bed. If he remembered correctly, Midgard was what the so-called gods and demons in the tales referred to Earth by. Tony supposed that his new companion had a similar obsession. It sounded like the man thought he was some kind of Norse god, or at least not human…

“So, Midgardians…” Tony commented mildly. “Does that mean that you’re not from Earth?”

Silver smirked. “Well, you are much cleverer than these other mortals, are you not? It took them far longer to figure that out.”

He gave a well-practiced, mockingly formal bow.

“I am Loki Odinson, the second prince of Asgard, often called Silvertongue. I was stranded on this realm through the machinations of another being from beyond your realm. Our captors, the agents of the organization known as SHIELD, found me shortly after my arrival. They then took advantage of my weakened state to take me hostage.”

Amused, Tony decided to play along. He gave his own exaggerated bow in response. “And I am Anthony Edward Stark, CEO of Stark Industries, commonly referred to as the Merchant of Death.” He hesitated a moment and then added. “Placed here due to the machinations of my former allies, including, I believe, my former mentor, Obadiah Stane. SHIELD, the mysterious agency that my father happened to have helped to found, seems to have become corrupt. Its Director, instead of being another ally, has imprisoned me ‘for my own protection’ and is treating me as a threat.”

The pair exchanged matching thin smiles before the sound of a heavy lock disengaging echoed down the corridor. Apparently, they were about to have visitors.

Tony and Silver – Loki – had the same response. They turned and headed back to their respective ‘beds’, adopting similar poses of nonchalance.

Neither man was willing to grant their mutual captors a single millimeter of leeway that the guards did not already possess.

Chapter 14: The Debut

From his place backstage, James waited in anticipation for his cue.

In the aftermath of last year’s mess – Tony’s kidnapping, return, and then mental break – Stark Industries had been in desperate need of a publicity coup. Thus, at the advice of his PR department, CEO Obadiah Stane had decided to hold an Expo. A throw-back to the era of the World’s Fairs, the SI Expo was being held on the grounds of the original Stark Expo. Just as in the old days, the Expo not only featured semi-permanent exhibits for visitors to see but also a series of presentations by tech companies from around the world.

Naturally, as the host, SI got two prime slots, opening and closing the Expo. For the opening, SI had teased SI’s non-military work, including their growing alternative energy department. According to Stane, it was the only thing that Tony had done well during the throes of his breakdown. The idea of diversifying the SI brand was one that Stane had embraced whole-heartedly, and the work that the department was doing with the Arc Reactor was a part of that.

Indeed, the grand announcement on that front was the reveal of the plan to build a new prototype. SI’s New York offices were getting an upgrade, a brand new building powered by an arc reactor in its basement.

Of course, James knew that this upgraded arc reactor was based upon the work that Tony had done during his imprisonment in Afghanistan. Stane had somehow managed to convince Tony, despite his condition, to provide SI’s R&D department with the basics of how he miniaturized the reactor. From there, the engineers had managed to build a working model that – while at a similar scale to Tony’s creation – produced a fraction of the power that James knew Tony’s original device was capable of outputting.

Still, it was impressive; James had to admit.

The Arc Reactor formed the core of SI’s second big announcement. This announcement was the reason that he was standing backstage, wearing a less-than-comfortable costume, and waiting for Stane to call him forward.

“Stark Industries has long been a leader in weapons development, beginning from the work that Howard Stark did back in World War II. In recent years, our focus has been on long-range weaponry, missiles that can be fired from a distance. But, as our beloved former CEO’s recent kidnapping showed, sometimes it becomes necessary for our troops to do battle directly.” Stane’s words washed over James as he was reminded of the chaos of the Ten Rings’ attack on the convoy.

“Thus, SI has begun a line of personal protection devices for our troops, starting from advanced kinetic armor…”

From their place beside James, a line of soldiers began to move. They strode out onto the stage behind Stane.

“… which can be worn over or under uniforms and provides a broader range of protection than traditional Kevlar.”

Behind Stane and the troops, James caught a glimpse of the video being shown to the audience. In it, carefully spliced test footage showed the capabilities of the armor.

“Then there are the drones.”

A series of humanoid robots tramped onto the stage. They had previously been stationed on James’ other side. “Each of these bots is synced to an operator backstage, which can control their movement through wireless communication.”

On the screen, James knew that a live feed of the drone control room was being shown. “Placed in the hands of our troops, the drones provide a way for our troops to infiltrate hostile environments without risking their own lives.”


“And finally.” Stane’s voice rose. “The crown jewel of our latest collection. The armored suit.”

That was his cue. Engaging the servos that allowed him to move, James marched forward, dressed in a full suit of armor. “Much like the knights of old, our suits are intended for only the most talented individuals. With the ability to move…”

James strode down the center line of the auditorium.

“… fight…”

With a sub-vocalized command, the turrets on the armor’s shoulders rose, showing off a machine gun and missile launch tube.

“… and even fly.”

Having reached the cleared area in front of the stage, James activated the suit’s repulsors, lifting off from the ground. James’ suit had been re-designed from a combination of data scavenged from the suit that Tony had used to escape from Afghanistan, recordings collected by the US Air Force from the tragic incident over Gulmira, and insights from the entire R&D department at Stark Industries. When James had first delivered the Air Force records, he had asked the team why Tony hadn’t been at least consulted for his actual designs.

“Mister Stane informed us that we cannot speak directly to Mister Stark,” the design lead had explained. “Apparently the doctors feel that any reminders of his experiences in Afghanistan would be detrimental to his health. Unfortunately, whatever designs Mister Stark made after his return were locked behind his private server’s robust firewalls. All attempts to gain access to those files without Mister Stark’s aid have failed.”

“Do you have the access here?” James had asked. “Let me see if my code will give you access.”


However, it had turned out that when Stane’s people had shut down power to the Malibu house, they had also locked access to Tony’s private server. Without JARVIS online, James was unable to even reach the login prompt.

So, the suit design team had been forced to work without those resources, and it showed. Despite his extensive hours in the suit, James still struggled with anything more complicated than simple movements. Realistically, the armor needed an AI co-pilot, but James knew that without Tony’s genius development of such an AI had slowed to a crawl. AI really was Tony’s specialty, an area where no one else in the world could truly compete.

Just look at DUM-E or the other bots, James mused, they were groundbreaking back in the 90s, and are ahead of the curve even now. Then there’s JARVIS. As far as I know, no one else has even come close to a true AI quite like him.

So, James was stuck with a suit that had significant limits. At this stage, there were only so many things that he could do simultaneously. He could fly, sure, but it required his full focus to do so. Thus, when he flew, his ability to fire weapons was practically non-existent.

But, James thought, shaking himself out of this spiral, that’s not the point of today’s demonstration. Today is all about showing potential.

Coming to a landing on the stage behind Stane, James allowed the face plate of the armor to flip up, showing his stoic visage to the audience. As he did so, the crowd cheered their approval.

“…All piloted by America’s best and brightest. Airmen like our pilot here, Air Force Colonel James Rhodes.”

There was a second cheer, which increased in volume when James raised his hand to wave at them.

“With this new launch, Stark Industries once again is proud to demonstrate their continuing loyalty to our great nation. God Bless America.”

The stage lights dropped, and James and the other men walked off stage to the sounds of the still screaming audience.


When he reached the ‘changing room’ set aside for the suit, James was surprised to be greeted by the man himself. Obadiah Stane slapped his hand against the armor’s shoulder as he brushed past James to collect a bottle of water from the table.

Gulping down a long swig, the older man turned to James with a proud grin.

“Excellent work, Colonel Rhodes. Excellent work indeed. I must admit that when Ted recommended keeping you on as liaison after last year’s mess I was a bit skeptical. After all, your loyalty appeared to be to Tony as an individual above all else. But, you’ve proven your commitment to obeying orders, as well as your skill as a test pilot far above expectations. I know that if Tony were capable of it, he would be proud of what you’ve done.”

As always, Stane’s avuncular tone was a bit disturbing for James to hear. Still, the man had done his part in caring for both Tony and his company, so James bit back his discomfort. Instead, he nodded acceptance of Stane’s words. Then, he began the tedious process of extracting himself from the armor.

Patting him on the shoulder, Stane left the room. He was doubtlessly off to schmooze with the VIPs who had attended the presentation.


James had one gauntlet off and was working on the other when the crackle of the suit’s radio distracted him.

“Attention, all personnel,” the voice spoke calmly but with clear tension. “We have an unauthorized demonstration in progress on the main stage. There are a number of humanoid drones bearing Hammer Tech logos that have crashed through, scaring the remaining audience members.”

The voice paused for a moment and then continued. “Preliminary estimates indicate that Expo security will be insufficient to disable the interlopers. Colonel Rhodes, you and your people have been asked to intervene.”

“Acknowledged,” James said absently. Anticipating the request, he had already begun the process of re-initializing the armor. “It’ll take me a minute to get over there. Captain Fordham, I want you and your men to work with the Expo Security in evacuating the civilians. Be prepared to provide cover if needed. Major Lawrence, have your techs deploy the drones around Hammer’s interlopers, driving them off stage as quickly as you can.”

“Yes, Sir,” two voices sounded. As James continued working, he could hear snatches of chatter over the communications line.

“Come on, gentlemen.”

“It’s not safe here ma’am.”

“Major! The Hammer drones…”

“I see them. Shield positions boys.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They’re firing on the civilians!”

Screams came through the coms, presumably from the evacuating audience.

“Please remain calm, sir, and exit in an orderly fashion.”

“I’m hit!”

“Ramirez is down!”

“Man, those things pack a punch.”

“Medic!”

The calls overlapped, as the soldiers did their best to follow James’ orders.

Then, just as James finished his re-arming and headed for the door, there was one final call.

“There’s someone in the middle of the drones!”


Stepping out onto the stage, the auditorium looked drastically different from the sight just a few minutes before. James could see burn scars – presumably from some kind of laser-based weapon – cutting across the walls of the auditorium, as well as the tracks of what looked like machine gun fire. The last of the civilians were just disappearing out the rear doors of the auditorium, with the exception of a few clusters scattered around the back section. Each cluster included both soldiers and the black-garbed Expo security. James assumed that those were early casualties.

At the front of the stage, a collection of androids, each possessing a boxy chassis and articulated limbs in a similar style to the SI drones, stood in a ring. The Hammer drones were armed with machine guns or what James assumed were those laser weapons. In a larger ring around them stood the SI drones, with numerous gaps where a drone had been taken out by weapons fire.

From James’ perspective at the stage rear, he could just barely spot the figure at the center of the Hammer drones. The man had his head exposed, but looked to be wearing some kind of strength-enhancing armor on his body.

As James stepped forward, out of the shadows, the man pushed aside one of the Hammer drones to meet him.

“Ah, Co-lo-nel Rhodes. Hero of the American people. Friend to Anthony Edward Stark.”

A pair of thick cables dangled from the sides of the man’s arms, extending three or four times their length. They reminded James a bit of the bullwhip that Indiana Jones used in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he tensed. Since his one-and-only planned task for the day was a demonstration, his weapons systems were loaded with blanks. Thus, his only choice was a direct confrontation.

“Do I know you?”

The man grinned, showing off a mouth of teeth that were stained or covered in metal caps. In combination with his scraggly, greasy hair and the tattoos that peaked up above his shirt collar, he looked like a gang-banger. Besides that, he spoke English with an Eastern European – maybe Russian? – accent, its existence providing James with a clue about his identity.

“I doubt it, Comrade. Your beloved Howard Stark doubtless hid any evidence of my father and his family long ago. Too bad about the Starks; father dead, son crazy. It’s almost poetic justice.”

James cocked his head, visually telegraphing his confusion. Beyond the man, he could see his troops evacuating casualties with impressive efficiency.

“Keep him talking,” a sultry female voice spoke in James’ ear. “We’re tracking the control signal for the Hammer drones now, and we’ve got troops inbound with proper gear. If you can just keep him busy for a few minutes, we can avoid further casualties.”

“Who is this?”

“Never mind that, focus on him.”

James turned his attention back to the armored man in time to hear him give his name.

“Vanko, huh. Doesn’t sound familiar.”

“Searching now,” another voice, this one male spoke into his earpiece.

“My father was Howard Stark’s partner, the true designer of the Arc Reactor – that bauble that you have powering your suit. Stark betrayed him; stole his designs.”

“Got it,” the voice spoke again. “Vanko’s father was a Russian expat who apparently defected to America during the Cold War. When he was caught spying, he was sent back to the U.S.S.R., where he was exiled to Siberia for the rest of his days. Vanko the younger, meanwhile has been in and out of prison since he was young.”

“… and now, I shall get my revenge, taking down this symbol of Stark’s power.” The man waved his arms, indicating the Expo as a whole.

“Well, I can’t let you do that,” James said seriously. “I take my duties to protect the people of this country seriously.”

“We shall see. Tell me, Comrade Rhodes, what special armament does your little toy possess?” As he spoke, he flicked the cables – whips – sending power down them until they crackled with electricity. “Are they any match to my beauties?”

One of the whips cracked out, nearly ensnaring James’ arm. He managed to pull it in, but not before the whip glanced across the armor plating. The shock made the nerves in his arm tingle.

Crap.

The SI drone nearest to James swung between him and Vanko, blocking the second strike from hitting him. Instead, the drone’s arm was ripped off by Vanko’s weapon.

At that moment, James was thankful for his armor’s faceplate, as it kept him from showing nerves. Spooling up the machine gun, he let out a burst of weapons fire aimed directly at Vanko’s head.

The man flinched, ducking behind one of the Hammer drones for protection. Vanko’s hesitation only lasted a moment, as the villain quickly realized that James was firing blanks.

“Naughty, Naughty, Colonel, trying to trick me like that. It seems that you’re just like your country, all show.”

Stepping forward, he sent both whips out in tandem, ripping the drone that had been protecting James apart.

“Now then, let’s dance.”

“There’s no one left in the auditorium, sir. Get out of there.” Major Lawrence’s voice was enough to get James moving. Activating his suit’s repulsors, he launched himself straight up and out of range of Vanko’s whips.

Sadly, this proved to be less than effective as a strategy. Both Vanko and his drone allies were also flight capable.

The battle became an aerial game of tag, as Vanko and the Hammer drones pursued James, while the SI drones ran interference. The SI contingent’s lack of offensive armament made the battle uneven, as more and more of James’ allies fell.

But then, suddenly, just as James was losing hope, the Hammer drone right on his tail dropped as its power died. Looking around, James realized that it wasn’t just that drone. All of the Hammer drones had dropped. It seemed that his mysterious female contact had managed to shut down their connection to their controllers. Unfortunately, James’ moment of inattention was enough for Vanko to get one of his whips around James’ ankle. Electricity coursed through the suit, giving James a severe shock and knocking out power to the boot’s repulsor. The combination sent James flying through the air, tumbling end-over-end with Vanko in hot pursuit.

James could hear screams and thuds – the Hammer drones hitting the ground – as he fought to regain control of his suit’s motion. He had just managed a semi-stable hover when Vanko dropped down right in front of him.

Shit. Well, I guess that this is it.

“You’ve got me, Vanko.” James’ words were projected out through the suit’s speakers. “Now what?”

“Now, Co-lo-nel Rhodes…” Vanko’s right arm swung back, “… you die.”

But before he could swing again, a burst of machine-gun fire boomed out from James’ left. Vanko’s body shook and flailed, before beginning to fall; even as James stared in shock. Despite the muffling effect of his suit, James caught the sound of an engine in the close vicinity. He could feel the buffeting of the wind, its gusts caused by the displacement of a large object nearby. However, he still couldn’t see anything. The night sky around him appeared empty.

Then, right in front of him, a rectangle of light appeared. James swallowed a shout as the rectangle grew to reveal the rear compartment of a small cargo plane.

Invisible jets. What is the world coming to? James though rhetorically.

He knew that there was no way that he could land the suit in its current condition, so he was stuck, hovering, as a pair of figures muffled in flight suits, harnesses, and protective gear walked towards him. Throwing out tow cables for him to catch, they helped slowly pull the suit into the safety of the plane.

The moment that he felt the change in his repulsors’ that indicated contact with the plane’s floor, James initiated a gradual shut down sequence. It was his hope that using a more gradual transition would help in landing safely. Sure enough, within two minutes, James and his suit were landed – with only a brief dip in the plane’s position when the repulsors finished disengaging – and the cargo door was closed.

James’ erstwhile rescuers rushed over to his side, helping him to roll over and open his faceplate. As he took large gasping breaths, all that he could say was –

“Thank You.”

Chapter 15: Finding Your Center

“Breathe in.”

Tony inhaled slowly, filling his lungs with as much air as they could manage given their compromised condition.

“Hold it. One.”

Shutting his mouth, Tony held his chest as still as he could.

“Two.”

Relaxing his muscles, he settled further into the tailor’s seat that he held.

“Three.”

Despite the pillow between them, Tony could still feel the chill of the stone below emanating up into his legs and butt.

“And release.”

As he allowed his mouth to open, releasing the extra air in his lungs, Tony relaxed further, dropping his back slightly.

“Good. Now, what did you feel?”

Opening his eyes, Tony stared through two sets of thick acrylic walls to meet the green gaze of his teacher.

He sighed. “Nothing.”

The other man raised a single eyebrow as he repeated Tony’s word.

“Nothing?”

“Yes, nothing. Nada, zilch, zip. Whatever mystical powers you claim that I possess, clearly you’re mistaken.”

“Nonsense. Even in my compromised condition, I can see the aura of magic that surrounds you. You have the potential for great things, Anthony Stark of Midgard.”

Tony sighed. “Maybe… maybe not… but potential doesn’t mean squat down here, Loki-Doki.” Dropping out of his tailor’s seat, Tony stretched his legs out to either side and leaned forward. One good thing about being locked up with nothing else to do; he was now in better physical condition than he’d been in years.

Some of that was thanks to his companion, the alien sorcerer named Loki. As a part of the training that the self-proclaimed Norse god had offered, the pair followed a regimen of daily meditation and structured movement that reminded Tony of Yoga. As a result, not only had Tony gained greater mental control, but his physical strength and flexibility had increased to a standard well above his previous experience.

While he was grateful for the training and companionship, Tony still wasn’t convinced that this magic stuff was anything more than his friend’s delusions. But there was no harm in playing along.

“Perhaps,” Loki agreed. “Still, it does no harm for you to try again?”

“Fine.”

Returning his legs to their crossed position, Tony closed his eyes. Following the green-eyed man’s directions, he focused his attention inwards, listening to the sound of his own breathing and heartbeat. Then, in one instant, as the two came into perfect sync, Tony caught a glimpse of something else. It was a warm glow that seemed to emanate from the center of his body, a light that flickered even as he watched it. Surrounding that luminescent core was a shell, colored a familiar shade of blue.

Drawing his focus onto the shell, Tony felt like he was zooming in towards its surface. As he got close, he realized that it was not a solid shell. Instead, the blue was composed of a complex lattice structure.

Vibranium! Tony thought, astonished. The lattice is like the crystalline structure of solid Vibranium.

This recognition was enough to pull Tony out of the moment. His vision spun away from the light display, and he found himself once more aware of his physical body. Tony’s still closed eyes shot open, and he stared across at his tutor.

“What the hell was that?”

From his seat in the opposite cell, Tony’s mentor in the mystic arts merely raised an eyebrow.

“That… that… light show!”

“I am afraid that whatever you saw was private, Anthony. You will have to be more specific.”

“I saw a glow, surrounded by a net of blue.”

“Ah, your magical core.” Loki flashed Tony a teasing smile. “Excellent. Now, let us see if you can find it again.”

It took a few more hours, but by the time that the dinner delivery interrupted their practice, Tony could find – and touch – his core with little effort.


After the guards had delivered their meals and left, the pair of SHIELD prisoners resumed the discussion that had been interrupted.

“So, this core thing. What does it do, exactly?” Tony asked. That afternoon’s experiences had broken through his doubts, and now he was convinced. Magic – or at least, what Loki called magic – was real.

“Your magical core is a form of… what does your science call it? Oh, yes, potential energy. All things in the universe possess magical potential; it is merely a question of how much. Users of magic, or seidr, are those who have learned to tap into this potential, and channel it into a more active path.”

Holding up one arm with an elegant flourish, the alien noble allowed that sleeve to fall, exposing one of his ever-present bracelets. “My shackles prevent me from accessing my own seidr, or the stores found in other objects, but they cannot remove it from my body. Even now, the seidr in my core is at full capacity. Indeed, were I to permit it, another seidrmadr – Sorcerer, I believe you called them – could tap into my extensive stores to act as a battery of sorts.”

Even if he didn’t entirely understand the mechanism, the concept was all too clear. The mere notion of existence as nothing more than a battery caused Tony to shudder. It reminded him far too much of Afghanistan, and the Ten Rings’ attempt to make him their personal mechanic and weapons inventor.

The other man flashed a wry grin at Tony’s expression and then nodded. “You understand, then. The one who placed these shackles upon me hoped that I would be sufficiently weakened by the lock on my seidr to make me vulnerable. Fortunately, my Mother and other tutors over centuries of training ensured that my seidr was under my sole control, even under the direst of conditions.”

The pair shared a smirk.

“He was most disappointed when his scheme failed,” Loki said. “However, Svadilfari’s power was sufficient to keep me prisoner for a time, before he cast me out from Yggdrasil.” Loki’s visage grew pale as he stared at nothing. “I fell for an eternity, with only my own mind for company, before I passed through a hidden portal and crash landed on Midgard…”

“Where SHIELD picked you up.” Tony finished.

“Indeed. My mind and body were in such terrible condition that it took some time before I realized SHIELD’s true intentions. Thankfully, my training in diplomacy and subterfuge were sufficient to keep me from revealing secrets in my weakened state. All of their vaunted skill; and SHIELD’s knowledge of the Realms – Asgard especially – is virtually nonexistent. As far as they are aware, I am either an alien of some kind, or one of this Realm’s enhanced, or perhaps a member of Midgard’s magical community.”

The pale, surprisingly young-looking man sighed and then added. “And that is all that they will ever know, even if I never manage to escape from this place.”

“Don’t worry, ET, together we are the ultimate team. We will escape one day. And when we do, I’ll help you phone home.”

Chapter 16: Monsters

“Coffee?”

The offer distracted James from his melancholy thoughts. Looking up from his desk, where he had been apparently staring at a random file, he saw the familiar red curls of Natalie Rushman. The beautiful woman – officially Stane’s girlfriend – was actually the CEO’s liaison with SHIELD and occasional bodyguard when needed.

Natalie – or rather Natasha – had officially introduced herself to James in the aftermath of the Vanko affair. Since then, the two had formed a good working relationship. With James officially stationed at Stark Industries full time these days, it was common for the pair of government liaisons to meet and grab coffee or lunch.


While Vanko’s demise had simplified some aspects of the Expo mess, the repercussions were still being felt over six months later.

Justin Hammer, who had recruited Vanko as an engineer and thus given the Russian criminal access to the resources that he needed to conduct his attack, had found himself in extremely hot water. Stane, as CEO of Stark Industries, had used his legal department to act as the primary in a massive lawsuit against Hammer and his company, suing for damages.

The other tech company had already been forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down, and Hammer himself had only managed to avoid prison time by the narrowest of margins. Justin Hammer had been fortunate in that there had been no evidence that he was aware of Vanko’s plans. Instead, he merely looked incompetent and naïve.

In the letter that James had sent to Tony after the trial, he had described Hammer’s antics extensively for his old friend’s amusement. After all, the pair had hated each other since their boarding school days. James had thought that the story might give Tony a bit of a laugh.

It was a bit frustrating that he never letters back from his old friend, just a few brief notes and incomplete blueprints.

At least the doctors were willing to keep him somewhat informed as to Tony’s condition. According to that correspondence, Tony would have periods of lucidity – though he often woke believing that he was in the past – before succumbing to a manic state that made him dangerous to both himself and others. The manic state could be triggered by anything that reminded him of past traumas, including the most innocuous things. Thus, it simply wasn’t safe for James to see his friend face-to-face.


Realizing that he had kept Nat waiting because of his scattered thoughts, James pasted on a smile. “Sounds great. Just give me a second to get this done.”

Turning back to file he was working on, James filled out the last couple of boxes. Then he dated and signed it with a flourish before placing it in a folder and filing it into his outbox.

“Ready.”

Climbing to his feet, James headed for his office door. As he rose, he gestured for Nat to lead the way.

“So,” he asked, faux-casually, as they walked down the hall, “where did you have in mind?”

“That place across the street makes pretty good mochas. I have lunch with Obie later, so I don’t want to fill up too much.”

“Sounds good.”

The pair made their way through the maze of cubicles and offices of Stark Industries’ headquarters.

SI, as Stane had pushed for the company to be called, had grown in recent months. The new branding was Stane’s idea, a way to divorce the company from its namesake and his struggles. James had been saddened by the move, though he did understand the motivation. The name ‘Stark’ just didn’t have the positive meaning that it had once held.


Reaching the elevator, they headed down to the main floor, and the building’s exit.

As always, Nat was dressed to impress, in a slinky gray sheath dress that managed to look somewhat professional while drawing all eyes towards her as she passed. James barely managed to roll his eyes at the amount of drool – both real and metaphorical – he spotted on the faces of his colleagues. He had been fortunate in that extended exposure to Nat and her true abilities as a fighter had helped to break his own tendency towards the same thing.

Reaching the café, James and Nat ordered their usual drinks and then found an out of the way spot to sit and talk. From their position, they could see the main entrance to both the café and the SI building across the way, an excellent vantage point.

“So…” James said, dragging out the single word. “Is this just a social call, or does our dear Director have something to pass along?”

“Can’t it be both,” Nat said with a flirty smile.

“Nat…”

“James…”

“Fine.” James let out a sigh. “How are you this lovely morning, Nat?”

“I am simply splendid, thank you for asking. Things are busy at work, though.”

“Oh?”

The two professionals paused, waiting, as a server brought their drinks over to the table.

“Indeed. Certain… events have had the geeks all stirred up. Something about threats from… above.” Nat’s eyes shot upwards, a hint that she meant more than simply high ranked individuals.

“Okay. But what does that have to do with me?”

“The Director would like for you, for the Iron Soldier, to be on-call in case of an incident.” Withdrawing a file from her purse, Nat slid it over to James. When he opened it up, the term ‘Avengers Initiative’ stood out in bold type. “I’ll leave this for you to peruse later.”

She paused, taking a sip of her mocha. “Excellent, as always,” Nat said with a small smile. “Sometimes it’s the little things that are the most important.”

Setting her cup down on the saucer, Nat dabbed at her lipstick before continuing. “Besides what’s in that,” she said, gesturing to the now-closed folder, “there’s one other thing.”

“Oh?” James asked as he took a drink from his own coffee. “And what is that?”

“I know that you are aware of General Thaddeus Ross?”

James nodded, recalling their past dealings.

“As well as his dangerous obsession?”

Another nod. With his time in Afghanistan with the General, he had been well-educated regarding the entire Hulk SNAFU. He’d also heard the rumors of the price that the General had paid for allowing the mess to occur at all.

“Well, we’ve heard rumblings that he’s gearing up for another go at capturing Big and Green. We’ve also heard that he may reach out to Stane to recruit the Iron Soldier to help with the mission.”

James frowned. While he could appreciate the compliment to his skills, he knew that Stane’s suit was of limited use against such a target. Given the rumors about the green beast’s capabilities, he was fairly sure that the creature would tear the suit – and the man inside it – apart if he was foolish enough to engage him directly.

He didn’t think that his mentor would be foolish enough to use him in such a manner, but he also knew that obsession could make fools out of the wisest men.

“Are you certain?”

Nat smiled. “Not absolutely, of course, that is the nature of rumors, as you are well aware. Still, we thought it best that you were not taken off guard.”

“Thanks for the warning,” James nodded.

He would have to phone the General’s office, see if he could get an update under the pretense of catching up with friends. It was better to be prepared.


Sure enough, a few days later, James was called in. The Iron Soldier was assigned to General Ross, for support in the capture of Dr. Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk.

For better or worse, James’ task was air support, which meant that he managed to avoid a direct confrontation with the beast. Instead, he got to watch as Dr. Banner’s alternate personality escaped from Culver University, with his old girlfriend in his hands, after the General’s ill-conceived assault on the monster.

As he eyed the sonic tanks and smirked a bit at their lack of success, James wished he could bury his head in his hands.

Instead, he was forced to obey as his mentor allowed his obsession to blind him to the disturbing behavior of James’ fellow asset, the soldier named Emil Blonsky. The General was so focused on Banner – and his daughter Betty – that he only noticed Blonsky’s willingness to take any advantage to confront the Hulk and not the man’s growing focus on building up the strength needed to defeat the green beast in a hand-to-hand battle.

By the time that James found himself again in the Iron Soldier suit, this time hovering near the campus of Empire State University, he had a very bad feeling about the whole situation.

He stood on-watch as the General took custody of the currently human-appearing Banner and his girlfriend/Ross’ daughter Betty, loading them into an Army chopper.

“Orders, sir?” James asked through his suit, noticing that the General had donned a headset.

“Rhodes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep watch. Be ready in case Banner attempts to jump.”

“Yes, sir.”

Before the General could say anything further, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of screams through the open channel.

“What was that?”

“Report.”

James’ question and his superior’s order overlapped, as a soldier on the other end of the line started screaming about a Hulk attack.

Hulk? James’ suit vision quickly zoomed in on the open door of the chopper. But Banner is right there.

Using the suit’s repulsors, he shot straight up, hoping to get a better view. Sure enough, he could see a monster rampaging on the roof of a nearby building. But this creature… wasn’t green.

Before James could get a closer look, a flurry of motion in his peripheral vision caused him to turn around just long enough to spot Banner drop out of the hovering chopper.

“Orders sir?” He said, not wanting to act without all the information.

“Let him go,” Ross’ voice was furious. “It seems Mister Blonsky has decided that the serum we gave him wasn’t good enough.”

If he could have, James would have slapped his hand over his face. When he’d met the other officer prior to the Culver incident, he had been disturbed by the soldier’s determination to ‘defeat the beast’. Seeing the man’s injuries later that day, he’d been unsurprised that the clearly vicious fighter had attempted a direct confrontation – and ended up permanently wounded because of it.

Then, when Blonsky had been up and ready to go only a few days later, James knew that there was something suspicious. Someone had taken advantage of Blonsky’s obsession with Banner to use him as a guinea pig for some variation on the serum that had created the Hulk. Still, it was impressive to see a man who should still be confined to a hospital bed up and ready to work.

“Sir?”

“Damn fool injected himself with the cocktail that that idiot Sterns cooked up,” James heard the General mutter, obviously uncaring of who was on the other end of the radio.

As the sound of screams, combined with the thuds and crashes of two enhanced individuals doing battle, grew, James spoke once again.

“Sir? Should I…?”

“What? Oh, Rhodes. Forgot about you for a second.”

The speakers hissed white noise for a moment, and then the General continued. “Right. I want you to be my eyes in the sky. You are to position yourself such that you can see both combatants. If you find yourself in a position to take Blonsky out without civilian casualties, you are to do so immediately. If, on the other hand, the Hulk prevails, I want you to attempt to track him until he reverts to Banner. Clearly, I need him if I want the serum to work properly.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

In obedience to his commander’s orders, James began to move, flying up and forward until he reached the roof of a nearby high rise. Since his suit’s targeting abilities were much improved when he was stationary, James landed there and took up a perch in full view of the street below. There, two massive beasts were duking it out like some kind of bizarre MMA fight.

Only, they weren’t limiting themselves to hand-to-hand. First the new Abomination, and then the Hulk began making use of the wreckage left by their fight as weapons.

Just as it seemed that the Hulk had been defeated – and as James armed his missiles – the General’s helicopter flew into view, the machine gun mounted to its side firing straight at Blonsky’s roaring alter-ego.

James cursed. The chopper had positioned itself in the direct line of sight between him and the creatures, which meant that he was useless.

“Sir, you’re blocking my targeting system,” he called down the mic. “… sir?”

Before he could say or do anything further, the chopper began to move again. This time, however, it was clear that the pilot wasn’t the one doing it. Instead, Blonsky’s abomination had grabbed ahold of one of the chopper’s landing struts and was trying to pull it out of the sky!

Shit! James thought, I’m going to have to get in there, aren’t I.

Resuming an upright position, he prepared to launch himself off of the roof. Before he could do so, the chopper lurched yet again. James realized that the Hulk had grabbed onto the Abomination’s leg, and was attempting to pull him off of the chopper.

Maybe…

With the monster stretched out, between the chopper – whose pilot was actively trying to shake his hold – and the Hulk, he might be able to take a shot.

He could feel the recoil as the missile launched from his shoulder, targeted toward the Abomination’s wide-open torso. Given that his original mandate was to capture the Hulk, he had been armed with the missile equivalent of the shotgun bean-bags used by riot squads.

With a loud thud, the low-velocity missile slammed right into the transformed Blonsky’s sternum, making contact with his armored skin. The impact was enough to loosen the monster’s grip, sending the Army chopper flying down the street in the opposite direction to the other two combatants. James shot the chopper a quick glance, just long enough to see it go skidding into a crash landing on the streets of Harlem.

Then he turned his attention back to the fight.

During James’ moment of distraction, the Hulk had managed to use the momentum from his shot and the recoil from the helicopter’s release to slam his companion down hard onto the street. As Blonsky’s Abomination shook his head, clearly concussed, the Hulk grabbed a nearby street light that had been downed by the fight.

James watched in awe as – with a grunt of effort – the Hulk wrapped the metal pole around the Abomination, tying him up as if with a rope. The Hulk grunted once more, and then, with a nod at James and a longing glance down the street towards the downed chopper, leaped off.


In accordance with his earlier orders, James did his best to follow the Hulk as he headed in a north-west direction, into the woods and mountains of Upstate New York.

Of course, even with the Iron Soldier suit’s best efforts, James once again lost sight of the green beast once the Hulk reached the forested mountains. If he was honest with himself, James didn’t try that hard to follow. As far as he could tell – both from his own work and from discussions with Fury and SHIELD – Banner was pretty harmless when left alone. All of the incidents that he’d heard about came from when the General or one of the others hunting for him had attacked the scientist.

“God speed, Doc, and may you find a safe place to land,” James murmured under his breath. Then, taking a wide arc, he turned the suit back toward Harlem and General Ross.

He could only hope that the older man wouldn’t be too disappointed.

Chapter 17: Cosmic History

“So,” Tony said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the floor. “Let me make sure that I’ve got this straight. Asgard and Earth – Midgard – are two of the nine Realms along Yggdrasil, a wormhole junction that your people have managed to gain control over using a complex system known as the Bifrost.”

From his seat on the floor of his cell, Tony’s impromptu tutor nodded. In response, Tony continued his summary.

“Right. Now, this Bifrost thing – which uses a combination of your magic, seidr, whatever, and advanced technology to work – has allowed your people to gain power over the other Realms. Of course, these so-called Realms are actually scattered planets, many of which have their own native inhabitants. Besides Earth and Asgard, we have Niflheim – a massive gas giant whose gravity acts as an anchor for one end of the wormhole. Muspelheim – a planet whose extensive tectonic activity makes it a mass of volcanoes and lava flows, the home of the infamous fire demon Surtur. Vanaheim – your mom Frigga’s homeworld – a nice planet full of people who specialize in the study of seidr. Alfheim – the land of the light elves – a paradise planet whose elegant species live in peace thanks to Asgard’s protection. Helheim – a lifeless planetoid that has been used by your leaders as a prison for particularly dangerous individuals. Svartalfheim – a mountainous planet formerly inhabited by so-called dark elves – now a lifeless husk thanks to the actions of their former leader. And last, but not least, Jotunheim – an ice planet – home of the Jotunns, a species commonly known as Frost Giants.”

“Indeed, Anthony, your summary thus far has been correct.”

“Great. But what about the rest of space? Are the planets on your little wormhole thing the only places where life exists?”

Loki scoffed. “Of course not.” He said with a smirk. “A man of your knowledge should know better than that.”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Chuckles,” Tony replied, waving one hand. “I mean, come on, it’s not like my people have even managed to leave our solar system yet. As far as most people are concerned, we have yet to find absolute proof of the existence of other races.”

“Fair enough,” his friend agreed.  “Midgard has been under the protection of my Realm for centuries, and besides, the Nova Corps has designated the planet as an interdiction zone. Any contact would have to have come from criminals or the desperate.”

“Nova Corps?” Tony perked up at the new term. “Some kind of interstellar military?”

Once again, the alien prince nodded. “There is indeed a multitude of other inhabitable planets beyond the Nine Realms, and the Nova Corps – headquartered on Xandar – are the primary overseers of your region of the Galaxy. As a part of Asgard’s arrangement with them, they keep interlopers away from all of the Nine Realms, not just Midgard.”

“I… see,” Tony said. “So – not part of the wormhole system – that means… spaceships!?”

“Correct. Many of the races present in the galaxies make use of space-going vessels to travel.”

“Awesome!”

Tony’s mind was already whirling at a mile-a-minute, trying to imagine what technologies interstellar spaceships might hold. Oh, to have access to just one.

“I fear that the details of the mechanisms which are used by such craft are outside of my range of knowledge. However, if you ask specific questions, I will do my best to answer.”


At that moment, Tony and his companion were unexpectedly interrupted. For the first time in months – if not a year, Tony had honestly lost count of the days – the corridor entry opened at a time outside of the normal routine.

After a shared glance, both prisoners deliberately re-located themselves from their obviously conversational positions. Tony claimed a seat at his desk, absently resuming work on a blueprint that he’d been laying out earlier. The designs that he drew were one way that Tony did his best to  irritate his captors. He had no doubt that all of his scribbles – which were collected on a weekly basis – were being studied by SHIELD scientists. So, he deliberately created useless things – designs that appeared viable but were either missing important elements or required impossible materials to work. Describing what would happen if someone tried to follow his designs was a common source of amusement for both Tony and Loki.

Perhaps they’re finally tired of my little game? Tony thought with a hidden grin.

Glancing across the hall, he saw that the taller man had taken a tailor’s seat on his bed and was apparently meditating. Since it was Loki’s common practice at meal times, this would not be out of character from the guards’ perspective.

“Hello, Mister Silvertongue… or should I say, Loki.”

The harsh tone of the voice; American accent and a forcefulness that Tony associated with career military, had him shivering. Growing up with a father who worked in the weapons industry, he’d been surrounded by such voices his entire life. As a child, Tony had found that words spoken that way were common precursors to one of Howard Stark’s drunken rages. While he’d managed to push past that involuntary response as an adult, the combination of Afghanistan and his stay with SHIELD had brought it back.

Once he had his involuntary reaction under control, Tony glanced over at the ‘door’ of his cell. There were four figures standing in the hall between the cells facing his friend. One of the men, the only one even glancing in his direction, was a normal guard. The other three were a rare sight in this place: two beefy younger men in black bracketing an older man whose short haircut and posture gave away his extensive time in the military. He was the one who had spoken.

“Herr Mister Garrett.” Loki’s voice was low with menace. If he had to bet, Tony was guessing that this was one of Loki’s former interrogators. “What a surprise to see you again… I had thought that after our last visit you were never going to return. Wasn’t that what you said?”

From the sound of his next words, Garrett’s face now showed a sneer. “I did indeed. But circumstances are prone to change. Now… what can you tell me about this?” Tony caught the sound of paper against glass before he heard Loki shift in his seat.

“That?” It was only thanks to his friendship and extensive time in close quarters with Loki that Tony could tell the other man recognized whatever he had been shown. “It looks like some kind of odd lamp. Other than that, I have no idea.”

“So you say, so you say…” Garrett’s voice was calm, almost dismissive, “and what if I were to tell you that our best scientific minds disagree. They report that this object has an extra-terrestrial origin. In addition, it gives off radiation whose spectrum is a match to data recorded recently in the skies over the Sonoran desert in New Mexico.”

“Then, I would say that your people clearly have no idea what they’re doing.” Despite being unable to see his friend, Tony could hear a hint of a smirk in Loki’s voice. “After all, if this radiation signal matches something here on Earth, it couldn’t possibly be extra-terrestrial, now could it?”

Tony smothered a chuckle of his own. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

Glancing over at his regular guard, he saw the other man do the same.Interesting. I guess he isn’t a fan of Mister Marine either. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

“Of course it is extra-terrestrial,” Garrett snapped peevishly. “You know that; I know you do.”

“If you say so,” Loki’s voice took on a sing-song quality, even more obviously mocking. Clearly, riling this man up was an entertaining hobby.

Garrett snarled, “Fine, if you want to be that way about it.” Turning to the Oubliette’s guard, he snapped an order. “I want him on starvation rations, one meal a day until he agrees to talk.” Then he turned and stomped off down the corridor, followed by his unspeaking minions.

“Sorry,” the friendly guard mouthed before turning to follow the trio.

Looking over at his companion, Tony raised an eyebrow.

Loki waited until they heard the sound of the corridor door close before he responded. “It was a long time that I was alone down here with just the guards for company. I had to entertain myself somehow.”

“Fair enough,” Tony said in reply. “So… what was in the picture?”

The Liesmith’s face turned grim. “Something that your people are not meant to mess with, something far beyond their ability to handle.” He paused and then added, “Something which the All-Father hid on Midgard many centuries ago. It’s called… the Tesseract.”


Garrett’s first threat proved fairly harmless. It turned out that even without his magic an alien Loki possessed a level of physical stamina miles above the average Earth human. Even water deprivation, followed by severe beatings, weren’t enough to get Loki talking. Despite being escorted from the Oubliette corridor several times by Garrett’s two stooges, and then returning hours later a mass of cuts and bruises, Loki remained visibly unaffected.

Still, with his new magic senses, Tony could tell that Garrett’s torture was taking a toll on his friend and mentor. He only wished that he could do something, but even after a year of tutoring in the mystic arts, the most that he could do was… see.

Ultimately, the thing that finally broke Loki was when Garrett added temperature to his torture repertoire.


One day, Tony was pacing his cell when Loki was dragged back, as usual, by Garrett’s goons. At first, it appeared to be just another day of fun, but then Tony noticed a difference. This time, instead of sniping at the goons, Loki looked defeated.

“Agent Garrett thanks you for your cooperation,” goon number one said with a sneer as he tossed Loki on his bed with a thump. On the other side of the transparent wall, Tony winced. He could see growing dark spots appearing on Loki’s clothes. It seemed that the sharp movement was enough to open multiple wounds.

“Perhaps we will return soon,” Goon number two added as his partner gave a bark of laughter.

“Then again, if you’re lucky, perhaps we won’t.”

As soon as the corridor door clanged shut, Tony hurried over to the front of his cell.

“Loki!” he hissed frantically. “Loki!”

After a moment, the lump on the bed began to move. Tony could hear the sound of popping joints. Then, a surprisingly limber form sat up and stretched without any sign of difficulty.

Tony blinked.

“Are… are you… blue?”

The figure on the bed leaned forward, showing off red eyes and a host of what looked like tribal markings of some kind.

“Why yes,” the figure’s smile was sharp as the transformed Loki pulled himself onto his feet. From what Tony could tell, the already tall man appeared to have added several inches to his height in addition to the other changes. “… yes, I am.”

As he cracked his neck with upraised hands, Tony noticed that the various cuts and bruises – remnants from previous encounters with Garrett – had all but disappeared.

“I apologize for startling you, Anthony, but your responses were necessary to sell the deception. I knew that Garrett would never believe it was I to break immediately. Instead, I manipulated him into using the one form of torture that would help – not injure – me. Only then did I ‘break’, giving him just enough information to hang himself with.”

“So…” Tony asked, is the blue thing some kind of sorcerer trick, or can all of your people – what did you call them, Aesir – do that?”

If it were possible, Tony would have said that the red-eyed man’s grin grew even sharper at that question.

“Indeed not, my Anthony. Nay, this form,” Loki waved a hand down his body, “comes from my birth parents, not my adopted ones.”

Tony blinked, puzzled by his friend and mentor’s words.

“Did not I mention it? You see, the All-Father is not the father of my birth, nor did my beloved mother Frigga carry me. Instead, I was a war prize, an infant taken by a victorious Odin at the end of the war between Asgard and Jotunheim.”

Loki’s smile thinned. “If the All-father had had his way, I would yet be in the dark about my true nature. However, my tutor, whose wisdom far exceeds the King’s – though neither of them would ever admit it – recognized that leaving me ignorant could have severe repercussions in the future. Once I came of age, he revealed to me the truth, a tale which was later confirmed by my mother. I am a full-blood Jotunn seidrmadr, one whose skill at shape-changing was unparalleled, even as an infant. Thus…”

Here Loki once again gestured towards his exposed skin. “… the blue, as you said.”

“Wait, but you said…” Tony’s voice trailed off as he realized what that meant. “Oh, brilliant! I take it that you are recovered from your ordeal then?”

Loki smiled and resumed his more human form. Dropping into a customary tailor’s seat, he simply said, “Take a look.”

And, doing the same, Tony did.

Chapter 18: Avengers Assemble

“How are you doing?” James asked as he held the heavy duty punching bag still for his companion. “Adjusting okay?”

Mister Steven Grant Rogers, the recently resurrected Captain America, shrugged. It had been several weeks since he’d been recovered from the Arctic ice and brought back to SHIELD’s New York facilities. Since then, he’d struggled to deal with the fact that everyone he knew was either extremely old or dead and the war was long over.

Thanks to a recommendation from Nat, James had been brought in as a mentor to help the suffering quasi-nonagenarian adjust to the modern world.


After throwing another punch into the bag, Steve shrugged again. “I suppose. It’s tough, though, the war’s been my life since before I changed, and now… Now it ended without me even bein’ there to see it.”

Shaking out his fists, Steve bounced a bit on his heels, adjusting his stance as James watched. “Bein’ here, with SHIELD I mean, helps a bit. Knowin’ that this place was Peg and Howie’s legacy, you know.”

Steve’s words made James smirk.

“What?” The other man asked.

“Still can’t get over you calling Mister Stark by that name… Howie, I mean.” James’ smile grew nostalgic. “He was always such a serious man, even in Tony’s stories.”

“Right, you are a friend of Howie’s son, the one who’s sick?”

James’ smile faded. “That’s right. Met in college. Tony was younger than everyone there, smarter too, but innocent about certain things. I kinda took him under my wing, and we’ve been close ever since.”

Glancing over at the other man, James saw Steve’s smile. “Sounds a bit like Howie. Genius, but he gave the worst advice about women. Peg almost shot me because of him once.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. He had me down showing off prototypes of the shield, when one of his secretaries, pretty girl that she was, decided to give me a kiss. I found out later that it had been Howie who had suggested it to her. Anyways, Peg walked in just as she laid it on me, and boy was she mad. That dame had quite the temper on her and wasn’t afraid ta show it. Nothing doing, but that she pull out her revolver and test the shield by firing right at me.”

James snorted. “Sounds like something Tony would do. He was always getting me drunk, especially when I’d go to extract him from an engineering binge. Used to call me all kinds of nicknames, but his favorite was the very first.”

“What was that?”

“The first time we met, despite being drastically underage he’d somehow managed to get into a frat party on campus and had gotten plastered. I’d been dragged to the party by my roommate of the time, though we’d arrived much later than Tony. I had just grabbed my first beer and walked into the lounge, when what do I see? Some little kid passed out on the couch, blackout drunk.” James snorted. “Being the good big brother that I am, I snag a bottle of water off the counter and head over there. With a little bit of luck and a lot of coaxing, I manage to get the kid’s name and address off him, and then end up escorting him home.”

Lost in the memory, James went on.

“Given how drunk he was I didn’t feel comfortable just leaving him there, so I made myself comfortable on his couch and kept watch. The next morning, when he emerged from his room, he was so confused to find me there. It took a bit of prompting, but he did manage to remember meeting me. Still, his previous drunken state meant that he had forgotten my name. Instead, he called me that Roadie guy, a play on my last name of Rhodes. Even when I reintroduced myself, he insisted that I ‘wasn’t a Jim’. So, I became Rhodey.”

“Do you prefer that name, then, Colonel Rhodes?” Steve asked, quietly. “Only, you introduced yourself as James…”

James shrugged. “Ever since Tony was committed, I haven’t been able to use that name. It just… doesn’t feel right.”

“Okay,” Steve nodded. “Then we’ll stick with James.”

Stretching out his hand, he offered it up for a shake.

“It’s nice to meet you again, James,” he said with a wry smile.

“You as well, Steve.”


The moment was broken by the sound of a single set of hands clapping. Turning toward the noise, James was surprised to see that they had been interrupted by none other than SHIELD Director Nicholas J. Fury.

“Good to see you getting along, gentlemen,” he said as he walked forward. “But unfortunately, I’m going to have to interrupt your little workout session.”

From under the crook of one arm, he pulled out a pair of folders and offered them to James and Steve. “I’m afraid that we have need of the Avengers.”

Despite Fury’s impassive expression, James could practically feel the tension radiating off of him.

“What’s the situation?” He asked before Steve – Rogers – could. James was pretty sure that the other man had yet to be briefed about the Avengers Initiative, or SHIELD’s work in general. However, it seemed that whatever was going on right now, Fury felt that it was big enough to require Captain America. If it was Avengers business, though, then James would be taking the lead. After all, he was the most experienced soldier on Fury’s little roster. He had already been named as leader before Rogers’ discovery and refused to be dislodged from that spot.

Fury apparently recognized James’ intentions, as he turned towards the Air Force officer before he spoke.

“We have a situation. Less than twelve hours ago, our facility in New Mexico was attacked by a mysterious figure. This figure arrived through a portal – a wormhole of some kind according to my scientists – and then proceeded to abscond with a valuable artifact. At the same time, she used some kind of mind control on a number of my people – including Agent Barton – bringing them with her as she demolished the facility.”

“So… search and rescue?” James asked, beginning to flip through the packet. He knew that Barton was one of the candidates for the Avengers Initiative; hence Fury’s calling him out in particular.

Beside him, James could see Rogers doing the same. “And the Avengers because…?”

“Because she’s not human, and because she’s more powerful than my regulars can handle.”

“Fair enough. Are you calling in the rest of the potentials?”

Fury nodded. “Agent Romanoff has gone to fetch the Big Guy. We think that Doctor Banner may be able to help with the tracking side of things, besides the potential of his alter-ego. In addition, we’ve got another surprise member. One of the scientists taken by our visitor; when he found out her father has demanded that he be allowed to help with the recovery. As he is a skilled scientist and has a history with SHIELD, I have agreed to let him work with Doctor Banner on the search side. He is on his way to the carrier as we speak, and I would like both of you to join us there.”

“Yes, sir,” both James and Rogers responded like the trained soldiers that they were.


Hours later, James was shaking his head as he extracted himself from the Iron Soldier suit. The situation was utterly ridiculous, even for him.

Initially, Fury’s call out had proved fairly mundane. James’ main task was to serve as an interface between the scientific geniuses – Doctor Banner and Doctor Pym – and the rest of the group while they worked on isolating the radiation signal from SHIELD’s missing artifact. Pym especially had proven to be a challenge to work with, given his intense hatred of Howard Stark. He and Rogers had even managed to get into a shouting match, one which James had to navigate before their mysterious alien visitor had shown up on SHIELD surveillance.

Her location: Stuttgart, Germany.


Despite the rapid travel time made possible by SHIELD’s advanced technology, there were still multiple casualties on the ground before James arrived in Germany. He had traveled in one of SHIELD’s Quinjets, along with Nat, Rogers, and a SHIELD team for back-up, which had flown rapidly across the Atlantic.

From what James could tell, the woman – whose name was apparently Nebula, based upon some of the comments that she had made – was a cyborg whose body was mostly composed of robotic components. As such, even Rogers had difficulty in keeping up with her in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, she was in the process of –well – kicking his ass when James and Nat managed to lock her in their combined sights.

Loading her onto the Quinjet went smoothly, as Nebula accepted the restriction of the SHIELD-issue cuffs with little more than a hoarse snarl. James was just glad that he wasn’t responsible for dealing with the clean-up. He had little doubt that negotiations with the German authorities would not be pretty. Instead, he and the rest of the team headed back to the Helicarrier, moving at high speed to shorten flight time.


Despite their high velocity, the Quinjet only made it as far as Greenland before it was intercepted. This was when things took a turn for the bizarre.

Instead of belonging to another nation or Earthly organization, the intercepting plane was, in fact, a space-ship. Not only that, but its crew was composed almost entirely of aliens, ones who looked dramatically different from the average human.

It turned out that their captive, Nebula, was apparently the sister of one of the crew – a fierce warrior woman named Gamora whose green skin reminded James of the Orions from Star Trek. Of course, this woman was nothing like an Orion in personality, but the physical resemblance was there.

Then there was the nominal captain of the ship – a half-human man named Peter – as well as another roughly humanoid man whose grey skin and extensive red tattoos made it clear that he was not the same species as the people of Earth.

Those were the easy ones to handle. More difficult were the last two members of this crew. One – their engineer and weapons-master – looked like nothing more than a large raccoon that was dressed in clothes and walked on its hind feet. The other was a tiny walking tree whose only contribution to any conversation was the statement ‘I am Groot’.

After forcing the Quinjet to land on the snowy ground, the odd-looking crew had initially attempted to steal Nebula from James and his team. Fortunately, after a bit of a scuffle James had managed to convince them to desist.

It helped when Nebula told her sister that she was trying to “claim this land for Father.” That news put Gamora’s back up, and she agreed to help SHIELD in recovering their stolen artifact.

“I would not want our Father laying waste to your home planet,” she said to her captain, and the rest of the crew had concurred. From there, Gamora and the Raccoon – Rocket, apparently – had remained on the Quinjet to help guard Nebula. Meanwhile, Steve and one of the SHIELD crew had boarded the alien ship in exchange. James was a bit jealous of the opportunity to see an alien space-ship in real life, but duty took priority. So, he remained at his post.


Gamora spent the entire flight back seated across from her ‘sister’, focused intently on the other woman.

Rocket, on the other hand, was much more engaging. At first, he merely wandered around the cargo compartment, poking his snout into things and muttering under his breath. Soon, however, his examination grew more physical, and James felt the need to interrupt.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Would you mind not messing with that?”

In response, Rocket glanced over to where James stood in the suit. One of the negatives of the SI design was the fact that the armor was too bulky for James to be able to sit on the narrow benches that lined the cargo bay. Instead, James was stuck standing for the duration of the flight. That is unless he wanted to sit on the floor, which he didn’t.

Rocket took his paw off the panel that he had touched before moving over to another part of the compartment and repeating his earlier action.

“I said. Please don’t touch that.” This time, James allowed his tone to be a bit more forceful.

“Rocket,” Gamora snapped.

Despite the fur and animal features, James recognized the look on Rocket’s face. It was just like Tony’s when he found a new button to press. The bipedal raccoon sauntered over to where James stood, letting his eyes sweep up and down the suit.

“Well now, that’s a fine piece of work you’ve got there. Are you stuck in there, or just choosing not to come out?” Rocket asked.

Muffling his sigh, James popped the faceplate of his suit open. “I can remove myself, but I prefer to do so once we’re in a secure location.”

Gamora, who had glanced over when James had moved, merely nodded and then turned back to her sister.

Rocket, on the other hand, looked delighted.

“So you are just another Terran, then? I have to say, that makes this suit of yours even more interesting. Did you build it yourself, or are ya just the pilot?”

“Bit of both,” James admitted with a smile, allowing Rocket to take a closer look at one of his gauntlets. “The initial design was not mine, but I have a bit of engineering training, enough to handle some of the maintenance and repairs if needed.”

“Careful,” he added when Rocket’s hands got too close to the repulsor port. “My repulsors have a bit of a kick and I wouldn’t want you to injure yourself.”

Rocket’s eyes gleamed as he nodded an acknowledgment.

“Thanks, Terran. You’re alright, for an ape-descendent.”

Before long, the pair had been drawn into an engineering discussion, talking power sources and armor.

It turned out that there were certain alloys not yet developed on Earth that might help with the Iron Soldier’s over-heating problems. Rocket had sketched out the formula and tempering process for James on one of the SHIELD tablets that were sitting around right before the jet landed.

Once they were anchored to the Helicarrier, the group had split apart – Nat escorting the sisters down to the detention block, where Nebula could be locked away. Rocket went off with one of the SHIELD agents, who had been charged to bring him to the main conference area. Finally, James took himself to the locker rooms, where he could remove and secure the Iron Soldier suit.

It really is a whole new world out there, James mused as he stripped away the gauntlets. Here he was, an ordinary soldier, removing a mechanized suit, standing on an invisible, flying aircraft carrier that belonged to an espionage agency, and preparing for a strategy session with a team of aliens, spies, scientists, and super soldiers.

If Tony were still himself, he would be in the middle of this, I just know it.

Chapter 19: Wormhole Calling

Bong

Tony was sound asleep on his ‘bed’ when the feeling hit. It was like he was standing right in the middle of a massive, ringing bell. Aural vibrations pummeled him on all sides. But it wasn’t a true sound, not something he could hear with his ears. Instead, the feeling came from the same new sense that Loki had been training him to use.

“Wha…?” Tony said unintelligibly. He was still groggy from the unexpected wake-up call.

Unsurprisingly, when he glanced across the corridor, he saw that not only was Loki awake, but he appeared to have been in that condition for quite some time.

“I wondered if that would awaken you,” the other man commented mildly. “You did feel the last pulse, but that was when you were conscious.”

Loki’s comment helped to clear some of the cobwebs from Tony’s brain.

“Wormhole?” he asked with a grimace. The backlash from the unstable closure the last time had given him a headache.

“Indeed. It seems that whoever opened the portal has decided to give us a repeat performance,” the experienced seidrmadr said with a nod. “I do wonder who it might be…”


As they recovered from the effects of the first wormhole’s abrupt closure, the pair of prisoners had discussed possible culprits.  According to Loki – the ‘Walker in the Sky’ – the portal did not match any that he’d encountered in the past. Instead, he thought that it may have been the creation of a reckless Midgardian sorcerer or perhaps… perhaps SHIELD had done it.

“The Tesseract is legendary for its ability to manipulate space,” Loki had said. “It is possible that their experimentation inadvertently opened a portal.”

“Well, if they did I doubt they liked what happened next.” Tony had said with a wry grin. “From the feel of that backlash I’d say that the wormhole made a bit of a mess when it closed.”

“I would agree, my dear Anthony. Still, it is troublesome. I would hate for us to lose our lives because of SHIELD’s foolish experiments. And the Tesseract is most certainly capable of such destruction.”


Now, the likely Tesseract-generated wormhole had once again been opened.

“It does feel like the same type of wormhole as before…” Tony said absently as he processed the information that was flooding into his body, “…but at the same time, not.”

“List the differences you notice,” Loki said. He was clearly in instructor mode.

“Well… Um… the ‘sound’ is louder – stronger in some way – and its… holding still… stable?”

As Tony answered his mentor’s questions, the resonance that he was assessing changed. It began to pulse, manifesting irregular fluctuations. Tony thought that these were like a second, smaller knocker impacting the resonant ‘bell’.

“… and now there’s… instabilities… but they aren’t affecting the background sound.” Tony paused, and gulped. “whoop… that was a big one…”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “You’re hypothesis?” He asked.

“Well, the fact that it’s stronger means that the wormhole is bigger. The consistency of the underlying sound would imply stability, I guess? So it shouldn’t… collapse… the way the last one did?” Tony said, before muttering under his breath. “At least I hope it doesn’t anyways.”

There was a bit of a twitch in the rosebud lips, but the older man otherwise ignored Tony’s muttered comment.  “And the instabilities?”

“Transit,” Tony’s second response was instantaneous.

“I agree.” Loki’s response came with a sharp nod before the experienced sorcerer shut his eyes in a precursor to entering a meditative state.

With a groan, Tony copied him. “Please don’t backlash while we’re like this…” he murmured as he drifted off.


In the end, the portal – wormhole – remained open for several additional hours. During that time, the irregular fluctuations that indicated transit continued and even multiplied in frequency. Tony had lost count fairly quickly, a consequence of his lack of experience with his new senses. Loki, on the other hand, managed to get a decent count. By his reckoning, over five hundred of the smaller objects and at least a dozen of the larger ones had passed through the portal.

Then, suddenly, a different kind of fluctuation occurred. The change in ‘tone’ likely indicated travel in the reverse direction from the previous transits. First one small object, and then a second larger one, passed through the portal in that direction.

“Who on Earth would dare…?” Tony said, absently, expressing his surprise, but before he could say more, the underlying Bong of the portal began to fade.

Unlike the last time, this portal’s closure was more gradual. Thus, it didn’t leave Tony with a backlash headache. Instead, just as the last remnants of the portal vanished Tony caught the edge of a shockwave – something on the other side of the wormhole had exploded.


It wasn’t until several days later that their questions were answered – at least in part. The least despised of their regular guards – the one who had been so sympathetic when Garrett and his goons had been torturing Loki – had been assigned elsewhere for an extended period. Now, though, he was back. On his first meal delivery after his return, the SHIELD Agent asked Tony a question.

“You know Colonel James Rhodes, right?”

Tony was startled by the question, and a bit concerned. Had something happened to Rhodey? Warily, he nodded.

“Wicked…. The man’s a legend.”

The guard went on to explain that Rhodey – or Colonel Rhodes as he called him – was currently serving as the pilot of the Iron Soldier, an armored suit designed and built by SI.

Based upon the scraps from the Mark I, I guess. Tony thought when the guard described the suit. Obie must have scavenged them from the desert. Bastard. At least there’s no way that they’ll get ahold of the Mark II, not with JARVIS on task.

According to the guard, the Iron Soldier was the leader of the Avengers; a SHIELD-organized response team. Other members of the team included SHIELD specialists and – the guard gushed – the miraculously resurrected Captain America.

Huh, guess dad’s great white whale wasn’t as impossible as I always thought, Tony mused.

The portal that they’d sensed was the work of some alien chick. She’d unexpectedly appeared at a SHIELD facility some days earlier – the first portal?  Then, after attacking SHIELD’s flying headquarters, she had opened up a massive wormhole in the skies over Manhattan.

Powered by Mr. Freeze’s Tesseract? Tony’s respect for Loki didn’t protect the older man from his jokes, even if he usually kept them in his head.


According to Tony’s gossipy guard, several waves of an alien armada had made it through the wormhole. Once across, they had laid waste to New York City and many of its suburbs. Despite their best efforts, the Avengers and their new allies – some other aliens who had arrived on a space ship with general support from both SHIELD and the US Military – were constantly on the defensive. But then, finally, someone managed to figure out how to shut down the portal.

“Luckily, the alien dudes managed to keep our esteemed leadership from nuking the whole area in the midst of the chaos,” the guard added in a confidential tone. “One of my buddies on the carrier said that the Council had ordered a nuclear strike right before the portal closed. The half-alien dude, what did he call himself…? Oh, yeah, Starduke or something like that…. He redirected the nuke through the wormhole thing right before it was closed. That weird team of his followed him through on their space ship. Now that thing was a beauty.” The guard sighed.

“They even took the evil alien chick with them when they left,” he said. “Kind of left us holding the bag, you know?”

Glancing over at Tony, who was clearly engaged in his tale, the man gave a wry smile. “I’m just lucky that I was merely on assignment for the emergency. I feel bad for the poor schmucks who’re going to be stuck on clean-up duty. Even with the alien soldiers all suiciding after the wormhole closed, it’s still a giant mess. Dunno if the City will ever be the same.”

“You from there?” Tony asked, curious.

“Kind of,” the other man replied. “Wasn’t born there, but I did spend a fair bit of time around NYC in the past. It grows on you, ya know.”

Tony’s smile was nostalgic as he nodded in agreement.

“Well, this is fascinating,” Loki’s voice said drolly, interrupting, “but I am still awaiting my meal here.”

Both of the men shook their heads, and Tony shot a confused look at Loki.

Why would Elsa interrupt the man when he was giving us prime information? Then his brain caught up. Of course, wouldn’t want to draw too much attention – show our hand, so to speak.

After nodding his understanding of Loki’s gambit, Tony followed the other man’s lead. Reaching out, he snagged the delivered tray from its usual slot and moved it over to his desk. Then, he snatched up his water glass and took a sip.

It only took a moment before the guard completed his task. Then, he headed off down the corridor, whistling as he went. And with that, Tony and Loki were alone once more.


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startabby

Prolific lifetime reader in my 30s with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy, I fell down the rabbit hole of fan fiction a few years back. More recently, this has led me to write fiction of my own. This is my first attempt at a Big Bang, though I have participated in Rough Trade a few times in the past.

2 Comments:

  1. Damn. Rhodey is breaking my heart. Pep and Happy in an “accident”. Tony in a hole and learning cool stuff from Loki. Nice Guardians cameo. This is crazy pants. I can’t wait to read what’s next.

  2. This story is so good. I am so nervous about what will happen to Tony when he gets out. I don’t think they will believe him. Not unless SHIELD is shown to be Hydra. Also, I’m so sad by Rhodey working for SHIELD, who holds Tony captivate. Probably killed Pepper and Happy. I love the plot, even as it breaks my heart. Thank you!

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