It's late at night when Tony gets the text. It's marked urgent.
FLYNN-2: I cracked it.
"Sir?" JARVIS directs his attention to the blinking notification. Tony is annoyed for a moment, flicking off the feeds and pulling up the message. Then he stops cold. Hurriedly, he wipes his hands on a rag and grabs for his keyboard. He quickly types a reply.
ME: You're shitting me.
The reply is swift.
FLYNN-2: Not at all bro.
Tony licks his lips and drums his fingers on the desk. He punches the icon next to Sam's name, and a dial tone echoes through his workshop. The phone rings.
There's a click, then Sam's voice, breathier than usual, comes through. "Hey, I think I got it this time."
"How? What changed?" Tony will have even more profound respect for the younger man if this idea he had pans out.
"I did. Well, my way of thinking did." Sam laughs, a deep, scraping laugh that kind of reminds Tony of Flynn Senior. God knows he tends to turn to Kevin Flynn when he can't get his thoughts straight; Flynn's books were a staple on his bookshelves. Kevin Flynn was a huge driving factor in him learning how to code - if it weren't for him, JARVIS wouldn't exist.
"You gonna...?" Tony isn't sure it's safe to discuss over the phone, even if he's positive that the line is secure, SHIELD doesn't have him bugged anymore, et cetera. The idea that Sam had proposed two years ago, after taking control of ENCOM once more, was ludicrous. Insane. Impossible.
"No. Not tonight. There's a big thing going on for the press." Tony can practically hear Sam's eyeroll. "Alan's handling it."
"Good. Good man." Tony's already flicking through his calendar, even if it seems a little preemptive.
"Yeah. I'm waiting until tomorrow night. The place'll be empty. I figure things are going to be a bit dicey and I don't want to be disturbed."
"You want backup?" Tony offers. The possibilities are endless. He wants to be there if it works.
ENCOM has been a good partner to Stark Industries for years. Sam took the company right around the time Tony shut down the weapons manufacturing, and ENCOM's OS - renamed FLYNN, of course - was now at the heart of nearly every StarkTech device. Plus, Sam and Tony were old friends. Tony had once lectured at CalTech while Sam was attending. They'd gotten shitfaced together, two obscenely smart dudes with daddy issues. It had been nice, having someone around who was on his level, didn't require stuff to be dumbed down. As much as he loves Pepper and Happy and Rhodey, once he starts talking shop, their eyes tend to glaze over. Sam gets him.
"I was just gonna say," Sam drawls, and Tony can totally hear the smirk the younger Flynn definitely has plastered all over his face. "Jet's in, too. You up for some foraying into the future?"
"How can I say no?" Tony rubs his hands together, almost gleefully. "That is my kind of Saturday night."
Jet Bradley is in the lobby playing the old Space Paranoids game on display, trying to beat T.S.'s high score, when his father catches him.
"Wait, wait, wait for it." He brushes Alan off and refocuses all of his attention on the screen, immaculately cared for and in pristine condition thanks to Alan and Roy's devotion to Sam's dad.
"Sometimes I wonder if you're not secretly related to Kevin. My god."
"Shhh!" Jet rounds a virtual corner in the virtual tank and bam, there's a Recognizer. He shoots-- he scores--
Direct hit! Three more to go.
His father crosses his arms but refrains from tapping a foot as his son completely blocks out the rest of the world, knocking down two more Recognizers in less than five shots. A third one nearly catches him from behind, but...
"Boom!" he yells, throwing his fists in the air. "New record. Beat that, Tony! Whoo!"
Alan smiles indulgently. "You done?"
"Ohhhh, no. Gonna beat that record so Stark can't one-up me. Wassup, Dad?"
"Just wondering why you didn't take the department head position that you were offered." Alan's eyebrow goes up, and Jet winces.
"Dad, no. We've had this talk a million times. I don't do management." Jet turns away from the console and grabs the jacket he tossed on the ground next to it.
"Jet, come on. Our family has a history with ENCOM. And Sam would probably appreciate your help running it."
Jet shakes his head. "No. A thousand times no. I'm better off a lackey." It wasn't even a low blow, really, bringing Sam into it. The two of them were practically brothers. Sam didn't give a damn whether or not Jet was living up to the Bradley name. In fact, Sam was rather sympathetic.
Alan sighs. "Well, at least think about it the next time someone offers you a position. Please?"
"Tony, you cannot cancel on me again."
Some days, Pepper swears she's going to catch sight of her face in a mirror and see that she's gone completely gray between arriving at Tony's Malibu house and glancing at a glass. Tony is not an easy guy to work for.
"Yeah, yeah, sorry. The normal excuses. Sam Flynn called me up last night. Got something big. Wants to share it with me before all that other stuff." Tony's being vague, not looking her in the eye, and grabbing the keys to his own car - the Audi. He's trying to be low-key.
Pepper doesn't need this. Not now. "Tony, that reservation has been in place for three months. Do you know how hard it is to get--"
"Pepper." Tony finally fixes her with a dead-on stare. There is silence for a minute, and she waits as he definitely searches for the right way to word whatever he's about to say next. He finally settles on a small smile and a shrug. "What can I say that you haven't already thought out?"
Pepper raises an eyebrow. "Tony. What have you gotten yourself into?"
"Nothing big. Just a program that Sam's been messing with for a few years."
Pepper can feel her understanding slipping already. "Spare me. I'll reschedule."
"Go in my stead!" Tony suggests, grinning. "I know you like the food. Go ahead. Treat yourself."
She shouldn't, but Pepper can't help the smile that steals over her face. "You're such a charmer."
"I aim to please." Tony tosses on his leather jacket and disappears down into the garage.
She hears the car start, and then a squeal of tires.
"Whatever it is, it's gotta be big," she remarks out loud.
JARVIS answers her: "Indeed, Miss."
Sam can't sit still. He's about to start bouncing off the walls.
He runs another diagnostic, just to be safe. While that's going, he checks the lab again. And again. ENCOM's had too many security breaches for him to even think about these checks being too much.
Sam personally thinks it's Dillinger's kid who is the source. That guy has been nothing but a pain in his ass since he took over the company. Ed complies. He does so with a thin-lipped grimace and cold eyes. He mutters about how businesses are supposed to be run. He raises objections whenever someone lets him. He questions every decision Sam and Roy and Alan make. Roy doesn't like Edward Dillinger Jr. Sam is too polite to say he agrees.
The diagnostic finishes. Nothing, he thinks with a sigh of relief. He checks the coding again. And again. He wants it to be perfect, he wants it to be safe. He'd use his dad's old setup in the arcade, but he isn't sure of the system's stability. After... after what happened on The Grid, Sam can't be sure of anything.
His hand unconciously brushes against the disk on the chain around his neck. Dad.
Well, even if his father wasn't around to see it, the Digital Frontier was going to be realized. No matter what.
Tony gets a text on the way to ENCOM's headquarters.
JET: Beat your high score on SP today.
Tony makes a face. "JARVIS, compose reply."
"Right away, sir."
Tony waits until the bing that signals "ready to record". "You bastard," he dictates, and the program in the car converts it to a text format. "I'll give you a rematch."
The message sends, and a few seconds later Jet's already replied.
JET: In your dreams Stark. You're losing your edge. :)
Tony makes a growling noise. "JARVIS, another reply."
"I'll take you up on that, Jethro," Tony can't help but smirk. "After we see what sort of shenanigans Sam got himself into."
Another few seconds pass, then:
JET: You're on.
Tony smirks even wider and pulls the Audi into the parking deck. He checks to make sure all is clear, then grabs his briefcase armor. Just in case.
You never knew when a crazy villain would decide to cause trouble.
Jet is waiting for him in the lobby, next to the Space Paranoids console.
He and Tony exchange the bro-hug, and Jet can't help but eye the briefcase. He totally knows what it is. "Whoa, how do you manage that thing? Isn't it, like, four hundred pounds extra?"
"Hah, that's just the full suit." Tony hefts the briefcase up a bit and waggles it under Jet's nose. "This baby is designed for on-the-go situations."
"Smart. Sexy." Jet waggles his eyebrows in return.
Tony snorts at him, then toggles the control on the Space Paranoids game. "You have got to be kidding me," he said flatly, reading the scores. "J.B. took the top three places... dude, do you not work during the daytime hours, when you're on the clock?" He jabs a finger at Jet's nose. Jet does't flinch. "If you were working at StarkTech, I'd have fired your ass by now."
Jet snickers. "Oh, you wouldn't. You like me too much."
"I pity Sam. And your father." Tony flicks his pointer finger in Jet's direction before turning on his heel and surveying the darkened lobby. "So which lab are we in?"
Jet starts to lead the way. "The old digitizing bay." Jet nudges him, and Tony falls into step behind him.
"I still can't believe he did it." Tony shakes his head in numb disbelief, and Jet makes a small noise. Tony stares at him, and Jet shrugs.
"Y'know, I don't know if I believe it. I mean, I think he might have had a breakthrough, but there hasn't been any digitizing work done at all, much less involving that project, since '82." Jet punches the button for the elevator. The doors ding open and Jet swipes his ID card on the inside panel to get the car moving.
Tony is bouncing on the balls of his feet. "But what if he did manage it?"
Jet makes a face. "I dunno. What was it Kevin always said? Cure disease, end war, unite religions, all that jazz?"
Tony considers it. "Well," he decides after they descended for a moment in complete silence. "I guess that wouldn't be such a bad thing, eh?"
Jet looks at Tony's t-shirt, where the glow of the arc reactor shines through. "No. Not at all."
Tony is taken aback when they run into Cora. He usually is. The girl's wide blue eyes are always huge, always glassy, and slightly unnerving to look at. She talks with a breathiness that he usually associates with teenagers, yet Cora is clearly much older than that. She's dressed in her usual black riding gear, that perfectly smooth bob like a shiny, skull-fitted helmet with a fringe. She smiles at them when the elevator doors open, and it's the open, innocent smile of a child. "Jet! It's so nice to see you again!"
"You saw me yesterday, Cora." Jet still grins back at her. "You remember Tony, right? Sam's friend?"
"Anthony Stark!" Cora bounds over to him and sticks out her hand. Tony takes it warily, but she pumps it with all the eagerness of an overexcited puppy. "I saw you on the news today! Your armor is even more impressive than the last model."
Tony flashes his easy, ladykiller smile at her. "Why, thank you."
"You're welcome. Sam is waiting for you in the bay." Cora turns on her heel and walks off without another word, and Jet and Tony scramble to follow her.
Sometimes, Tony swears she's not human.
Diagnostic complete. No threats found.
Sam breathes slowly, but that traitorous little voice in the back of his head won't shut up. Anything can be compromised, it whispers, and you never know when someone smarter will hack you.
Sam hates to admit that that little voice is right. He considers running another diagnostic, but that's when Quorra skips into the bay and puts her arms around Sam's shoulders. "Jet and Tony are here," she informs him, grinning.
Sam smiles back at her. "Awesome. I know you're probably not going to agree--"
Quorra's face falls.
"--sorry, sweetie, but I don't know if you should be around for this. This Grid isn't the Grid you were made on. For all I know, it could be really hostile. And..." he brushes her cheek with a finger. "I can't lose you."
Quorra's face is perfectly emotionless for a minute, and then she sighs heavily. "I understand, Sam." She kisses him on the forehead. "I'll go home and take care of Marv, then."
"He'll like that," Sam squeezes her arms for a second before she unfolds and turns away, her boot heels clack-clacking on the clean tile floor.
"If you need me, you know how to find me." Quorra promises.
Sam looks over his shoulder at her and nods. "I know."
She waves goodbye as Tony and Jet brush past her into the bay.
"Okay, dude, how did you figure this out?" Tony's fingers fly over the keyboard as he pulls up the code, just to look it over. "Oh, wow, this is insane. If you manage to pull this off, this will be the biggest thing since..." he fumbles for an appropriate comparison.
"Since the Avengers assembled?" Jet asks dryly, and Tony elbows him in the side.
"Not cool, man. We saved the whole freaking planet, remember?"
"Yeah, pretty awesome," Sam agreed, keeping a smile to himself. "And as for your first question, I just thought back to what my dad used to do. And I got some help from the old man's notes, too."
Tony and Jet's faces turn sympathetic, and Sam keeps his face schooled in a calm, serene expression. The expression of someone who had come to terms with a loss. And he had, hadn't he?
"Well, I'm going to start up the protocols." Sam leans over the keyboard and starts typing. Code flashes in front of his eyes. Numbers, random letters... all of it blends together after a bit. He may not be his father, but he knows his code.
He hits Enter and the process starts.
"Wow," Tony breathes, and Jet makes a strangled noise. Sam is obscenely proud of himself for a second before a whirring noise causes them to all snap their heads in the direction of the ceiling, where the laser was repositioned over twenty years before. Sam flicks his gaze over the orange he set up on the table in the bay.
"It's just the laser," Sam mumbles. "No biggie."
"Aren't we in the sweet spot?" Jet points out. "We don't even have gear on."
"There's gear down in the lockers. I grabbed some earlier. All clean, no bugs or anything, and all of it is relatively new." Sam's eyes flick back over the dialogue box open on the screen. Then, something catches his eye.
Run program Master_Control.exe
"Whoa, whoa, hey!" Sam suddenly shouts, and fury is boiling in his stomach. Dillinger! I knew it! He hacked my system!
A robotic female voice rings out in the empty lab. "Laser activity in T-minus sixty seconds."
Tony's eyes widen and he looks around. "Guys. We need to get out of here."
"Hold on. I can stop it." Sam begins to type furiously, racing the clock. Racing the laser. Oh god oh god oh god the override isn't working!
System controls overridden by Admin program MASTER CONTROL.
Hello, Sam Flynn. I see you and your father share the same meddlesome nature.
Sam's stomach goes cold. "Oh god," he breathes in horror. "Oh god. Dillinger reinstalled the MCP."
"WHAT?!" Jet freaks out.
"Laser activity in T-minus thirty seconds. All staff is advised to put on safetly goggles."
"Guys, we really need to get out of here." Tony is getting that prickly feeling, that feeling he got when he was facing Vanko on the racetrack. It's not a nice feeling. He actually activates the armor, just to be safe.
Jet's eyes widen as the armor slides into place and syncs up with the arc reactor. "That's really cool and all, but it's not gonna do anything. We have to get out of this bay, now."
"Agreed, man." Tony flips the faceplate up, and grabs Sam's chair.
There's a whirring overhead as the laser repositions itself.
"Sam, get up."
"No, I can't-- the MCP--"
No, Sam Flynn. You really cannot. And I suppose your little friends cannot, either.
"What?" Sam's brain literally goes blank for a second, then the laser makes a noise that sounds remarkably like Tony's repulsors charging.
"Laser activity in five... four... three... two--"
"We have to get out of here now!" Tony grabs Sam's arm, drags him out of the chair, but--
Everything goes black.
Sam opens his eyes and groans. Then he jerks in surprise. Everything is glowing.
"Oh god oh god oh god, this isn't happening--" he hears Jet babble to his side.
Tony makes a small, scared noise. "What the hell?"
"Oh, shit," Sam swears. "Not again."