Slender fingers paused for a moment on wide, half-moon handles before their owner squared her shoulders and let herself into Ms. Stark’s office. Letting the door close softly behind her, Pepper moved quietly across the room, navy carpeting muffling her footsteps.
Everything was exactly as it had been the last time she’d been there five weeks ago: the building’s air filters preventing a buildup of dust despite being a no-go zone for the cleaning staff, and even the text support teams only interacted with Antonia Stark’s office remotely. According to the digital log, she was the first person to enter the room since Toni disappeared. Some days it hit her with fresh impact, like she’d just been informed about it for the first time. Some days it felt like a lifetime, like she’d been running the company in Toni’s absence for years.
God, she hoped it didn’t come to that. She was already frayed at the edges.
This little trip to her boss’ office wasn’t strictly necessary, so she figured she might as well admit the fact. She took the scenic route to the desk, lingering over the photographs, trophies, books, and occasional knick-knacks that occupied the space. Toni had flat-out told her that she didn’t mind Pepper examining or re-arranging her things, so the assistant took the opportunity to fiddle. Her life had been so fast-paced for the last eight years that she hadn’t had time to just play around for ages. Everything had to be efficient.
Some of the stuff was familiar to her. Pepper knew the stories behind many of the trophies, not just the reasons for the awards but also the things Toni did on the nights she received them. If Toni ever pissed her off too much, Pepper reflected, she could always make a killing with a tell-all book.
Some of the objects were still mysteries to her. The little stone cup on Toni’s desk, for instance. She’d pulled it out of a storage box one day, gotten a bittersweet look on her face, put it on the polished black tabletop, and said nothing about it.
Moving to the little scented oil diffuser, Pepper smiled even as her eyes began to sting.
“What I’m saying, Toni, is that the CEO of Honda was upset that you insulted his cologne. Surely an unpleasant smell is something you can put up with in the name of better robotics?”
“Their robotics are crap, and so was his cologne.” Antonia Stark was furiously beautiful, not delicate at all in spite of the three-inch heels and the five-figure dress, and the sharp brown tan of her skin went so well with the ebony black of her hair that someone who knew her slightly would have guessed they were both natural. They weren’t - the tan had taken two months under full-spectrum light to establish and the hair was half a dozen shades darker than even the thick brown that would have been its natural color if it hadn’t spent those same two months being sun-bleached to something damn close to blonde.
Antonia Stark enjoyed blondes, as she’d made vocally clear any number of times, but she had no intention of ever being seen in public as one.
Some days later the “aromatherapy” piece, with a wide array of scent options, had arrived on Toni’s desk. The attached note read: ‘In case of smart yet stinky business partners.’
Pepper had known when Toni opened it because of the laughter pealing out through closed doors.
Toni never apologized for the snarky remark about the cologne, but she never made another one, either; that was how it was with Toni - once something was fixed, it didn’t need to be mentioned again. On to the next thing.
Putting the diffuser back on the desk, Pepper went to the table, poured herself a Scotch, and went back to the shelves. Brushing her free hand over a silvery photo frame, a frown drew her brows down in pained memory. It was a shot of Toni smiling and shaking the hand of a muddy relief worker in hardhat and combat boots, both standing in front of the debris of a New Orleans neighborhood.
“Ms. Stark,” Pepper said in the tone she used when Toni was being particularly unreasonable, “I know getting the water filters out to the hurricane victims is great PR, but we’re not even halfway through testing yet. There’s too much we don’t know. If something goes wrong it could turn into a PR disaster, not to mention a humanitarian one.”
“They need fresh water, we’ve got the tools. Nothing is going to go wrong.” Toni peeled off her hardhat and tossed underhand it to one of the work crew - tough woman, big, broad in the shoulders - with a flirty wink that got her a tired grin in reply. Good story to tell later - ‘I was on the site when Stark came by, sweetheart, and she gave me the come-hither. I coulda hit that.’ That was the kind of thing Toni liked, her way of giving the people around her a lift. Plus a great way to have to settle a fuck-ton of harassment lawsuits, but that was a whole other thing. A staffer beat Toni to the car door and pulled it open, and she vaulted the right seat of the Rover. By the time Pepper got around and in the left, the smartphone was already out and Toni’s eyes had the look she got with a fresh set of specs in front of her. “Done deal. What’s next?”
Frowning, Pepper clicked her seatbelt into place and fixed her boss with a hard look. “No, not done. Thousands of people could get sick or killed if the tech’s got the wrong kind of bug in it. It’s an unacceptable risk.”
Toni looked up, eyes brown and wide and full of steel, and she dropped her voice to a murmur that couldn’t be heard in the front of the Jeep - that was just for Pepper’s ears, and was as hard as the polyceramic plating she’d designed for the upgrade of the M-1 tank. “Maybe you didn’t get the memo, so let me lay it out for you. One - thousands of people could get sick or killed if the tech’s bugged, which it isn’t, but tens of thousands of people will get sick or die if they don’t have clean water in this city and nobody else’s stuff is as good as ours. Two - I am the CEO of Stark Industries, last I checked I was also your boss, so when I say ‘what’s next’ what I mean is that I am ready to move on to the next god-damned problem because I’ve made my decision and am done spending brain cycles so I am asking you, Miss Potts, what’s next? ”
Pepper sat back in her seat just a little, what in anyone else would be a full recoil. Tiny, quick movements of her face drew emotions whose expressions were small and tight enough to fit in the space of a breath.
Turning to the bag she’d had custom-made to fit all of Ms. Stark’s phones and other devices, Pepper took out the PDA and opened the calendar. She cleared her throat once, almost silently, before speaking.
“Three-fifteen flight to Maryland to meet with the DOD about the drone prototypes.”
“Got it.” Toni’s fingers worked her smartphone. “Push my dinner with the Congressman off - if he smarms at me today, I’m gonna rip his face off. Find me a party with the right kind of girls instead. No, wait, boys. No... scratch that, both. I’m definitely going to need both.”
Pepper nodded and went back to work.
Seven days later, her parents got tickets to Tahiti in the mail. She found out when they called her, bubbling over the news. Toni never mentioned it.
The filters worked fine.
Setting the photo back on the shelf, she shook her head and let another sip of liquor burn her throat. That was Toni through and through--acerbic, calculating, and still human enough to give people lavish apology presents or morale-boosting lechery.
The tabloids and Stark-groupies had certainly had boosted morale after that particular party.
“What the hell,” Pepper muttered to herself. Throwing back the rest of her drink, she thumped the glass down on the desk and dropped into the leather chair. She’d once heard Toni talk about the inherent unhealthyness of chairs, citing all sorts of health problems that people in low-chair-use cultures avoided. In response, Pepper had replaced all her own work chairs with Pilates balls and immediately experienced improved circulation, reduced joint pain, and a childish glee in bouncing all day long that she would admit to no one.
Toni, when Pepper had ‘casually’ mentioned it, had simply smirked at her, leaned back in her chair, and taken a long drink from her tumbler.
Health concerns had never stopped Toni from doing what she wanted, and in all fairness she seemed to be impervious to pedestrian things like biological problems.
Clicking past the hot-rod screen saver, Pepper logged on to her own user profile. She could access it anywhere in the building--in truth, anywhere with a wireless connection--and so the location was purely sentimental.
Fuck it. She was allowed to be a little sentimental after more than a month with no news of Toni. Last week, she’d had to summon the lawyers to make sure the petition to declare death, filed by one of the shareholders, stayed tied up in the courts for as long as humanly possible. Nobody was going to carve up Toni’s company on Pepper’s watch, that was for damn sure.
StarkWatch 3.0 booted smoothly, the low-resource app pulling every agenda, progress report and productivity analysis from all four-hundred and seventy-five Stark facilities world-wide and condensing them into spreadsheets and visual expressions built for maximum ease of use. Five people had access to the program - Antonia Stark (CEO), Obadiah Stane (Chair of the Board of Directors, acting CEO), John Ross (CFO), Patricia Rollins (Director of Operations) and Pepper Potts - and only two had administrative access: Antonia Stark and Pepper Potts. It would run on anything - laptop, desktop, smartphone, tablet (the three Stark prototypes and the commercial ones once Apple got off its ass) - and made work for those five people orders of magnitude more efficient.
Pepper had been working for Ms. Stark for all of a week and a half when the software glut had made her snap.
“Okay, no,” she announced as she swept into Toni’s office. The CEO was in the middle of an impromptu massage on the chaise lounge, nubile young masseuse taking the interruption in stride. Toni didn’t even look up.
“Thirty programs is too many. Really inefficient, not to mention maddening. Trying to keep track of all the data with all these different interfaces is making my brain unravel, or at least feel like it. Isn’t there software that can collect all the relevant data and keep it accessible through one interface? Not even the tech people who’ve been here for years can explain everything about this god-forsaken mess!”
“No, nothing like that.” Toni’s eyes were closed, her skin pale and slightly red under the masseuse's fingers, and she looked like she didn’t have a care in the world. Then her face went completely still, almost blank, and her eyes snapped open to stare at some undefined point about twenty inches in front of her face. “But there really ought to be.”
She sat up, careless of the fact she was wearing nothing but a towel around her waist, and stuck out a hand in the general direction of her desk. Waved it there for a moment, then glared at it when a suitable interface failed to appear. Kept glaring at the desktop the whole way to her chair, face still a little slack at the edges, and then her fingers started to dance over the keyboard.
“Parameters?” she asked nobody in particular.
Pepper pulled out a report, eyes darting around at the most vital information. “Data feed from all the Stark facilities: output numbers, costs, number of current projects, alerts for finished prototypes, shortages, bug problems, things like that. Give a spreadsheet to each facility, each category, make them all searchable and get graphics for the most-used information. A system to either send selected data to relevant people or give them limited access to the program. We should be able to compile reports based on any two or more data points that we want--output versus time or number of prototypes versus MIT graduates, whatever. One interface, all the information, basically everything customizable. That’s what we want. I don’t know how you made it this long without being able to see your whole company at the same time.”
“I can see it. It’s everyone else who can’t. Plus, y’know, I yell a lot.” Toni’s eyes flicked over the screen, but they were just error-checking - the speed of her typing and the odd, syncopated pauses made it obvious that whatever construction was getting done was happening inside her head long before her fingers hit the keys. “Be nice to be able to clear the storage space, though. Offboard it. Lots I could do with the room.”
Pepper blinked. “You can do that? Selectively forget?”
“Sure. Yeah. Well, kinda. Over-write, anyway. Only factual stuff. Emotional memory’s got its own mechanism. I’m working on that.”
There were any number of wry things that, a year or even several months later, Pepper would have the confidence in their work relationship to say. Now, however, she was mostly just really happy that her boss had liked her idea enough to do something about it.
It took Toni three days to get the software working. Five days later, all the other interfaces were burned off her hard drives.
A month later, Toni couldn’t remember the name of the facility in Hong Kong and Pepper couldn’t help but smile when she pulled it off her phone.
With a few taps of her fingers, Pepper flicked past the initial interface window and found herself looking at the summary of Toni’s last session. Date, time, data accessed, length of use. It was just a list, the same kind of list she’d looked at every day for years.
Just a stupid list, but it had been the same for weeks, and it was beginning to feel like an artifact, like something dry and crumbling dug up from an ancient desert somewhere. She should really stop checking Toni’s usage history.
She didn’t think she would, though. Not for a while. Not while she believed that Antonia Stark was still alive. Something in her wouldn’t allow her to stop.
Any phone, any phone line, any wired computer anywhere in the world could tap the network, after all. If you were clever, if you knew the encryption inside and out, if you’d built it yourself from the first line of code up. You could tap it, you could message from it, you could leave a note that said ‘here I am, come get me’ if you were good enough.
If you were Antonia Stark.