The map projected high above Tony Stark's head shows the continental United States spread wide in neon green on black. Somewhere in New Jersey, not too far below where he is sitting now, a small red dot starts to flash.
Tony doesn't pay it much heed; it's a standard alert, some sort of low-level superpowered incident. He continues with what he's doing: an intricate series of operations on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s software infrastructure that he can only do while he's still Director of the organisation. This office -- this Helicarrier -- isn't the same one that he made these contingency plans in, but it's an exact reproduction, so there's no real difference. Indeed, Tony's fairly sure that's what Norman Osborn's counting on, for all his gloating about the "failures" of Stark Tech.
Two minutes and three dozen lines of code later (everything's so slow, now, without the Extremis; he'd forgotten), the red dot's still flashing, and flashing brighter -- that's not right. Nobody's responded: none of the nearby Initiative teams, no S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives, not even local law enforcement. And the increased intensity of the dot means that the automated monitoring systems have just stepped up the incident in progress through several threat levels. Right now, the best scenario is that some unregistered hero is dealing with the situation, and that's what's been detected.
Tony's status will be significantly worse than "unregistered" very soon, but he can't worry about that right now.
Life is complicated; Tony's life has been complicated for a long time. But sometimes, in the middle of it all, there's something gloriously simple. Not the false simplicity he once found in the bottom of the bottle, or the purely physical pleasure he still finds in the bedrooms of beautiful women. Sometimes, the simplicity is pure, noble, right. The sort of thing of which Cap would certainly approve.
Right now, there are people in danger, and Iron Man can help. No: Iron Man seems to be the only person who can help.
Quickly, he obfuscates what he's been doing and puts up as many layers of security as he can between the main systems and anyone else who wants to get into them. Satisfied that he won't be gone as long as it would take even Franklin Richards to find a chink in its armour, he gets up and heads out of the office, just finding time for a quick glance at the details showing up on the map above him.
As he emerges from the door, Kowalski sidles up to him. Kowalski's from some branch of the US government, though he's vague about exactly which -- he's a handler who's been slapped on Tony to "ensure a smooth and orderly transition at this difficult time", and who Tony's only just managed to keep out of his private office.
"Mr Stark, where are you going?" Kowalski says, his "Mr Stark" dripping with barely concealed contempt.
Tony strides right past him, and Kowalski begins jogging backwards to keep up. "I'm doing my job," Tony says.
"Right now, sir, your only function as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., an organisation which I don't need to remind you will only continue--"
Tony stops for a moment. "Iron Man's job is to protect people." He carries on walking. "There's a rapidly escalating incident in Monmouth County, and no one seems to be responding."
"We can send a team to the disturbance--"
"If there were any teams active there'd be one there already," Tony tells him. "But there aren't. Because there are no teams right now, Mr Kowalski, just a bunch of people who need to decide whether they're going to show up to work for a madman tomorrow morning."
"You do know Osborn's a madman, right? As in, clinically insane?" He's in the hangar by now, and the suit's assembling itself around him.
"Director Stark," Kowalski says, "I must insist that you cease and desist immediately."
"Or what?" he says, and the helmet's on now, so it's Iron Man's voice that says it. The helmet filters out any overtone of wry amusement that might have crept in, substituting instead the implicit threat of the most advanced personal weapons system ever assembled.
Kowalski looks at him, and Tony knows that he's seeing his own face reflected in the burnished bronze of his face plate. Kowalski's wearing a look that Tony's seen hundreds of times before on his opponents, superpowered and corporate alike. It's that half-defeated half-smug-in-the-knowledge-of-eventual-triumph "you may have won this battle" look. The trouble is, Kowalski's got more justification that most to be using it. Tony's always understood the importance of redundancy, but at this precise moment, all his intricate contingency planning seems to be narrowing down to one final, desperate throw of the dice.
Tony jumps away from the Helicarrier, freefalling for a moment before the armour's flight mode kicks in and starts to bring him directly towards the site of the incident. He's still a klick above ground level when the suit finishes scanning the environs of the incident, identifying one group of civilians in immediate danger and three more who are under some sort of cover but cut off from any escape.
It's going down in a municipal park. Lone assailant terrorising the people coming home from the movies, out walking their dogs, or whatever else it is people do in a municipal park late at night. Probably the bad guy's some kid who's only just figuring all this stuff out. He gets a sinking feeling that it could be a mutant -- it would explain the fluctuating power levels the monitors picked up. But whatever the backstory is, it should be a simple operation. Contain the threat, evacuate the civilians, and then deal with the snot-nosed little punk. Probably that just means handing him over to the cops; he's picked up chatter on the police band -- officers are en route, but apparently that's been the case for ten minutes already.
He lands, delivering a full force blast with both palm repulsors that sends the bad guy flying flat on his back. He turns to a group of civilians hiding ineffectually behind a hedge and tells them to "Run", the armour's amplification turning it into an undoubted imperative. For a second, they just stare, but then they begin to flee.
But then, whoever it is is back up on his feet. "Oh, good," he says, and it's exactly the whiny teenage male voice Tony was expecting. "The forces of Law and Order have arrived."
And then he attacks, some sort of energy bolt flying from one hand while the other waves around in a circle. Is this kid trying to combine whatever this thing he can do is with some sort of half-remembered martial arts lessons from his youth?
Then the bolt hits, and Tony's heads up display lights up with a Christmas tree with a whole bunch of contradictory analyses of the blast. Raw power doesn't tell him much -- it was almost strong enough to hurt the suit, but not quite -- but the secondary readouts are all going haywire. Quantum flux signatures compatible with external dimensions, decoherent particles yet waveforms perfectly in phase, extremes of temperature coexisting in flagrant contravention of thermodynamic principles ...
"I hate magic," Tony says, out loud, so the kid can hear, as he gives him another full blast from his repulsors.
But this time, nothing happens -- the obscene amounts of energy that Tony's just diverted from the suit's on-board generators spill straight past, like the flow of a river diverting around a rock.
The kid laughs. "Well, that's good, 'cuz I'm fairly sure magic hates you. No, no, I know that my magic despises everything you stand for."
Tony's glad for once of the gloating, because it gives the suit time to run face recognition unobscured by any high energy interference. He's a known non-registrant in the S.H.I.E.L.D. database. Andrew Sanderson, calls himself "Necrophant". Minor magical abilities: a scrolling list of stuff Tony doesn't understand ticks by in the corner of his vision. But what the kid just did was a long way from any of that gobbledygook -- he's clearly gotten himself an upgrade. Probably done a deal with some eldritch power from another dimension without realising what he's getting into, that's usually the way.
The kid's waving his arms around now, and Tony realises that it wasn't martial arts earlier, but some sort of magical gesture. This time, though, there's no energy blast heading Tony's way; instead, a weird purple tentacle begins to extrude from the ground beside them. It flicks through the air, making little whiplash noises as it heads down the street. A frighteningly short time later, it had returned, coiled around the three people who had escaped when Tony had landed. They're held tight by smaller tentacles branching off the main one, coiled around them like boa constrictors.
"Do you really think pulling a stunt like this is going to help your case, Andy?" Tony says, emphasising the kid's name.
"Don't call me that," the kid yells. "I'm Necrophant now!"
These kids' psychology is so predictable, they're so easy to rile up. No different to the likes of Osborn, not really.
"Don't make him angry!" pleads one of the civilians, a middle aged woman wrapped who's almost being squeezed out of her big brown coat by the tentacle wrapped around her.
"Yeah, whatcha gonna do, Stark? Get him pissed just like you did the Skrulls?" the man next to her -- husband, Tony guesses -- interjects. "Look how well that worked out. It's OK for you, Iron Man, all protected there in your shiny armour. It's us average Joes who have to take the brunt of it."
This is what's changed, Tony thinks. The seeds have always been there -- just look at the Bugle's crusade against Spider-Man, whoever the hell he is -- but recently it's all gotten so much worse. The civilian population -- "average Joes" -- feeling so put upon by powers of one description or another that they just wish it would all go away. They don't see the heroes as a thin multi-coloured line against dangerous forces any more, they just see them as another part of the problem. That's what the Act was all about, in the end.
And in that split second of inattention, Tony's on his back, knocked flat by a concussive blast, and he suddenly realised that the kid wasn't just deflecting his attack earlier, he was absorbing it, ready to spit it back.
"Listen to them, Stark," Sanderson -- Tony refuses to think of him by any other name -- says. "They don't want you. They don't want the order you pretend to bring to the world."
"But they do want what you're selling?" Tony challenges him, as he gets back to his feet. "What is it that you think you've got to offer us all, anyway, Andy?"
"Chaos," the kid says, as he unleashes another attack -- but this time Tony's boosted the suit's rigidity and it bounces off him. "I have accessed the deepest secrets of chaos magic. And you, with your pathetic attempts to impose order on some tiny part of the world even as everything else falls apart all the more, you know nothing of the true power of chaos."
And that's when Tony laughs. He hears how the sound comes out, filtered through the suit -- harsh, metallic, and exactly as mocking as he meant it to be.
Because Tony Stark knows that chaos, really, is all about complex systems, and Tony understands complex systems. It's as natural to him as breathing; hell, every beat of his heart relies upon it. He controls the Iron Man suit, probably the single most technologically advanced human artefact ever created, with ease. He runs Stark Industries, a multinational corporation with untold numbers of subsidiaries, steering it in the directions he wants it to go even against the whims of shareholders and board members. He is -- still, just -- the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., an organisation almost as large as his company and with an even wider global reach, simultaneously interfacing with and running black operations behind the backs of the UN, the governments of superpowers and local beat cops like the ones who really should be here by now. Tony Stark knows about self-organising criticality. He walks on the tightrope of creativity and progress between sterile predictable banality and utter catastrophic collapse on a daily basis. And this kid thinks to lecture him about chaos.
And then Tony's on his back again; once more, the suit feeds him data on the nature of the attack he's just experienced. It was worse, this time; whatever demonic entity's riding Sanderson -- and he's fairly sure that's what's going on here, even if Sanderson himself doesn't know it -- seems to be adapting to Tony's strengths and weaknesses.
Tony knows self-indulgence, and he knows -- through hard, bitter experience -- when he really can't afford it. This kid has him on the ropes, and it's not because he's better than Tony, and it's not even because of the @!#?ing magic. It's because Tony's not concentrating on the fight, not present in the here and now.
He lifts off, heading for an altitude that he hopes will pose at least some difficulties for his opponent. Can't get too far away, though, or the kid might just be smart enough to turn his attention back to the civilians instead of the fight. It's not common, but it does happen.
No, he's following. And fast, too -- but he's not flying so much as levitating himself at speed with a series of bizarre arm gestures, almost as though he's swimming through the air. But Tony's edge in speed gives him a precious few seconds to strategise. What should he do in this situation? Not too long ago, the answer would be simple: make a call to Doc Strange. (And hadn't he once heard Stephen say that chaos magic didn't exist? What was this kid on, anyway?) Even more recently, the answer would be even simpler in some ways: call in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mystical division. Sure, this kid's got power, but power's not enough against a squad of elite combat wizards equally well trained in thaumaturgy and hand-to-hand combat.
The kid's caught up. "You're slowing down," he says with a grin. Tony surmises that he's created some sort of bubble of air around himself, lifting everything he needs to support himself with him from ground level. If the barrier's completely non-porous, he'll run out of oxygen eventually, but not soon enough.
"Meant to," Tony tells him, and kicks backwards, giving him a full blast of the backwash from his boots as he does so. He circles back around, barrelling into Sanderson while he's still reeling.
The kid begins to flail his arms around, and it's almost too late when Tony realises that he's trying more magic. He grabs hold of both wrists and holds them behind his back.
"You think that's my only source of power?" the kid says. "That's the problem with you people, you have such a cool hammer that you think everything's just a nail that needs to be hit a little bit harder. But you've never fought a true chaos magician before."
The kid's talking about the suit, but Tony wonders if there's a grain of truth to his words. When he made the choices he did during the registration crisis, had he been overextending his perspective on complexity to the point where he saw the entire human race as merely another system to be manipulated? Certainly, that's how Reed's equations had made it seem. Release a robotic butterfly there, and the hurricane sweeps harmlessly out to sea; maybe a few fishermen don't make it home, but that's better than watching a city drown. Support an awful law, and by doing so turn it into something merely bad, and the social whirlwind of the superpower backlash doesn't destroy the whole of human civilisation. Maybe a few powers get caught on the wrong side. Maybe a few heroes die, their reputations tarnished. Maybe a few friendships are broken. It's a price worth paying. Isn't it?
"You've really got to stop talking like you know me," Tony tells Sanderson as he plots a trajectory that will bring them back to the park. "In fact, I think just stop talking." And he squeezes the kid's arms a little tighter for emphasis.
Tony scans the landing zone: the magically constructed tentacle (and that, right there, the fact that you have to be able to frame thoughts like "magically constructed tentacle" in the first place, is why he hates magic so much), has dissolved, as Tony had hoped it would when he distracted Sanderson's attention, and the civilians have all done the sensible thing and fled. And the police have turned up, finally. In fact, they almost look as though they're about to go. Tony increases to maximum speed, to make sure he doesn't miss them. He's pleased when the kid yelps slightly at the acceleration.
Tony lands, and hands the kid over to the cops with strict instructions about keeping him cuffed at all times. One of them thanks him, but it doesn't sound too sincere, and his partner just glares.
He heads back up into the stratosphere without saying anything more, but he doesn't head straight for the Helicarrier. The cops' attitudes, along with those of the civilians, even the nonsense Sanderson had been spouting, have got to him, and he needs a clear head for what he still needs to do when he returns.
Everything's gotten so complicated now. If it was almost anyone other than Norman Osborn, he'd be glad to be handing over the job of dealing with the aftermath of the Skrulls' infiltration. But is he right to think that the Registration Act was when everything started to go wrong? Or was it just another stepping stone along the way, given extra significance for him by the personal cost?
He knows that the Act would have come sooner or later -- he's been telling himself that ever since the first fateful decisions that set him down the path that's led him here. Registration of some form or another (and the Act was much better than some of the alternatives they'd glimpsed the outlines of in Reed's equations) was a strange attractor in the psychohistorical parameter space; avoid Stamford and some other event would have triggered the landslide. It had been the right choice, he remained sure of that. But maybe, just maybe, the other possible paths wouldn't have had such a high personal cost. Maybe Steve would still be alive, still be his friend.
That encounter with Uatu at the cemetery -- and if he hated magic, he couldn't stand aloof cosmic entities who pretended not to understand your petty human motivations while manipulating them like a master puppeteer -- still unsettled him. The Watcher had confirmed Tony's belief that things could have been much worse, but he'd also shown him ways it could have been better. Simple ways. Ways that relied on concepts like trust and honour, the sort of thing he'd always admired Steve's commitment to, even as he told himself that the real world was painted in a palette with less emphasis on primary colours. Had he got carried away with his own genius, convinced that there was no way at all he could explain things to Steve? When had Steve not been willing to listen to what Tony said?
It's all just chaos theory in action, wildly different results from even the tiniest changes in the initial conditions. Maybe he could have managed those changes better in the past, but there's still the future to be dealt with, and time is rapidly running out to do so. He plots a vector back to the Helicarrier, filled with grim determination.
Norman Osborn thinks he's won. He thinks that tomorrow morning he'll walk into Tony's office and open up the SHRA database, and use the information there to revenge himself on everyone who's ever humiliated him over decades of mediocre criminality. He thinks that the person with their hands on the biggest lever is the one who's in control.
But Tony knows that it's the person who can make the right tiny change at the precise moment in time that it needs to be made who really controls how events unfold. That's what Tony's good at. That's what he's been doing all his life. Taking the last desperate roll of the dice, but only after he's made sure that whatever numbers come up, there's a way that it can work for him. That's how it all started, back when he made the very first suit.
So maybe Norman Osborn does think he's won. But Norman Osborn's never fought a true chaos magician before.