But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nov 2, 1945, remarking on the reasons for creating the atomic bomb.
After the process, he hears voices he doesn't know how to hear. He has none of the mental groundwork laid to understand that he's being spoken to. The information passes through and around him and he can't sort it. Its organization isn't linear. It's two days later when in his mind's eye the page he's trying to read becomes cubic, and he follows it. He moves with it. He hears it.
It's a repeated transmission from a SHIELD orbiting satellite. It's been on a loop for days. It says, in mathematics, in spatial information, "Tony, can you hear us? Wake up."
In an hour, he's figured out how to reply. They'll tell him later that it was received as an email sent from their own IP address saying only, I AM AWAKE.
The human brain has a processing capacity of 0.1 quadrillion instructions per every second. The fastest supercomputer in the world has a processing capacity of 1.026 quadrillion instructions per second. Before the change, his brain had the usual 100 billion or so neurons. Now, it has about 130 billion and exponentially more synapses, all of them firing faster, more efficiently, all of them enhanced. Still, it's Tony who must learn to communicate with extremis, and never the other way around. It is not an AI, and it will never learn English. It will never feel his fatigue or hunger, it will not respond to his emotional cues, it will never get his jokes, or read his thoughts; it is an alien living alongside his own consciousness. He must translate his thoughts into its language, to formulate sentences and commands, and to decipher. Tony's good with languages, but the complete shift in the way he processes information takes up all his time. He is alive and working, for seven days and nights, to become something entirely new.
His first words in a week are meaningless, choked out of a dry throat. Gobbledygook. A language that was never meant to be spoken, and can't. Guttural sounds like a colicking horse. They call in the Director.
What Tony had been looking for, initially, was speed. Over the Sea of Japan, he realized that he was holding the suit back with his human reaction times. A South Korean fishing boat manned by a posse of ardent university students was circling nearer and nearer a disputed crag of rock shearing up out of the water where five young Japanese nationalists were camped out, living on canned beans and packaged sweets, holding the territory by force of stubbornness. Both governments silently allowed the groups to operate, but both were nervous of actual confrontation. It was a softball assignment that SHIELD had sent him, and he'd only taken it to avoid a meeting with the head of human relations. He'd seen no reason why he needed to have anything to do with human relations.
The campers and the inexpert sailors, who had started by just shouting back and forth insults and accusations, began to hurl stones at each other, and whatever else was on hand. A harpoon skewered one of the two precariously pitched tents and dragged it into the sea. A rock glanced off the shoulder of one of the Korean men, and he shoved the rudder so that they were hitting waves side-on. On the island, a woman was hanging on to the strings of the tent, caught in it, being dragged over the craggy edge, yelling for help her comrades couldn't give with fatigued and slippery hands. On the boat, the whole crew panicked, and waves off the island rocked them to tipping. A man fell into the frigid water. He went under.
It happened fast, and all at once, and Tony couldn't prioritize straight. He went instinctively for the woman, and got there just as the others got a good hold on her, and only then he saw she was tethered to the island, they all were. By the time he'd turned around and got to the boat, it was righted, but the remaining sailors were screaming in agony. He didn't know how to swim, Jarvis translated. His life vest floated nearby, but he was gone deep under, where Iron Man couldn't follow.
The next day, Japan and the ROK both had armed ships patrolling the area, and the region was on a hair trigger. SHIELD ordered him to stay well away.
The suit was useless if he couldn't crunch the numbers fast enough, couldn't see everything, couldn't follow through fast enough. When he heard about the extremis process, he didn't volunteer. He bought it outright.
Director Fury stands just outside the door and looks in through a barred window. The team of doctors, researchers, technicians, and theoretical biologists buzz around him, updating him, explaining away what they don't know. The Director allows them their conjecture only because he's busy making his own assessment. Tony can hear them clearly, but it's begun to take him longer to interpret human speech than machine language. He does know his hearing is sharper than it was. The door to his recovery room is three inches thick and heavy steel.
"-bleeding was profuse and worrying-"
"-formed a sort of thick crust-"
"-still no idea how he was getting oxygen or fluids-"
"-tried to cut it off, for his own safety, to abort, but-"
"-every single car alarm in the parking structure. Exact same time-"
"-fire alarm, sprinkler system-"
"-cellular phone alarm clocks-"
The Director took the lead physician by the elbow. Tony heard the crumple of fabric.
"When the shell broke off, what did you do with it?" Less a question than an accusation.
"We, ah, it's in cold storage. Every fragment we could collect. We had to vacuum a lot up because it just, it fractured, and crumbled. We're theorizing that it was actually something like a placental sac, because initially it was damp to the touch, but in the end, it was just. Dust. The arc reactor, its housing, and sixteen separate slivers of shrapnel came out with it. We think they were…extruded."
Tony read an article about a year ago in the Sunday NYT Magazine, a profile on Dr. Jean Grey who had just come out of the closet as a mutant. The interviewer cast her in a sympathetic light, the Times letting its colors show, but Tony came away from it disquieted at the idea of what this woman could do. He thought of the systems and munitions he'd made years ago, and how easy it would be for her or someone like her to just take them, just do whatever she wanted. If there had been exactly one person like that among Raza's men, he'd be dead. A freezing, hard, uncomfortable death, and he thought of the feeling of someone probing around in his mind at the end, watching him watch himself die.
It was clear that the world had caught a break with Jean Grey; an honest woman, intelligent, well-off and attractive enough that she couldn't bear too much of a grudge against society. But the randomness of mutancy made him squirm. And, God help him, he was glad he'd designed the specs to weaponize the cure. He didn't regret it for a moment.
At one point in the article, Dr. Grey was asked to describe the sensation of hearing others' thoughts.
"It was terrifying, at first," she said. "I was so young, still a teenager, and I didn't understand what was happening to me. I heard the thoughts of adults, and of other kids, of babies. It was very hard just to be normal. I had changed, on a fundamental level, and it took me a long time to remember how to relate to other people. How to live a human life, knowing that I wasn't like other humans." At that point the interviewer detailed how she was dressed, how she sat, that she seemed to make a conscious decision to go on. "To be honest, it took years for me build a new sense of humility. Because I have this power, this extraordinary, and sometimes frightening power. I know so much more than most people will ever know. About the world, about the human mind, about change and how to effect it. But I was born just a girl like any other. I had to learn to remember that. That I'm no better than any other person. I don't deserve this power, I'm just its steward. I think for any mutant, anyone with power, that's a dangerous thing to forget. I'm not better than you."
His experience of his own body is muted. As if, after years of changing channels manually, he's gotten a remote control. It's faster, it's easier, but there's a distance he'll never recover. He's afraid to open his eyes. Afraid he'll see the world through a head-up display, or through a pane of glass, and there would be no going back. But when he does look at the ceiling, over at the monitors, through the window of the door, beside him at the pillow, down to his toes under the thin sheet, his vision is clear. Clearer than it's ever been, in fact. The slight imperfection he'd never bothered to correct with glasses or contacts has been erased. Extremis has rebuilt his eyes, his visual receptors. If he looks hard enough, he can break the world down into pixels.
Tony raises his right arm. He doesn't feel tired, not like a man who's been in a coma for days, he doesn't feel hungry, and his joints are supple.
He asks extremis clumsily, and an exact hexagonal hole blossoms open at his wrist. A dark tunnel down into his bone where the suit's undersheath has been built and stored. He asks again and it begins to stream out, just a trickle, leaves of gold against his skin that feel like nothing at all.
It's a feature he requested, an adjustment in the process, but still the sight of it is obscene. He holds his arm up to his eye and there's almost no seam between him and it. He draws it back in. It rushes like a rewound film.
There's someone outside the door receiving an update on his vitals. The monitors at his bedside are transmitting one-way to a couple devices in the building. He can hear his own heartbeat through them, distantly. Looking down, he can see his chest. Clean, uninterrupted. He reaches back up to finger the absence, and tells the monitors to clam up. He won't be coddled. He's cured.
When someone comes to check on him a few minutes later, Tony's nowhere, the bed's neatly made, the heart monitor is spelling out THANKS DOC in an endless stream. One floor down and two doors over, the suit is gone.
Flying is never the same twice, but now it's completely foreign. He is the suit. He's a rocket, an airplane, every move is immediate-- the way a hawk will adjust the angle of a single feather to fly true. He doesn't need to call up a display to know where he is, he can feel his position because GPS is just another sensory input. He feels the wind like it's on his skin.
He's half a mile up over the unending snow-dusted hills of Wyoming. The I-90 snakes along below him. Tony can hear the radios playing in every car on the road. He can tune them out to find the passive signal of a Bluetooth device in a driver's ear. Dimly, he can feel the tugging of power steering in a newer Ford. The few crude circuits of the apparatus speak to each other like primitives, barely understandable.
If he wanted to, he could flip every radio to NPR. If he wanted to, Tony could steer that truck into the median.
Far away, the chatter tells him that someone is looking for him, someone is looking at him right now. Tony goes quiet in every way he can, and just drops down through the sky, falling cold until he's below radar. All his outgoing attention off, the noise floods him, a wind at his ears. Television signals, radio static, cell phone towers and the pings of satellites, the twitter of On Star systems, every laptop and desktop and PDA in a twenty mile radius, every keystroke, every text message, a woman in Gillette refreshing a web page every fifteen seconds, looking for news of new casualties in Iraq. He can't hear. He can't see.
He's twenty-five feet above the ground when he remembers where he is and fires his boots and spins up, up against the air to safety. He thinks of home, and before he finishes the thought, he's on his way.
"I'm not better than you," she said. "And just because I can do something, it doesn't mean I should."
As Tony gets close, over Santa Clara, twitches in his mood become twitches in his software. The power grid below him flickers, pulses to his pulse for three beats before he reels it in. He can feel the thrum of the Samuel Sawyer off the coast, broadcasting its presence with an ostentatious array of communications, engines, and every little volt that runs through that behemoth. Fury is there, and Tony knows he can see him now. But it's a forgone conclusion anyway. There's nowhere else he could have gone.
He tells Pepper where to meet him via a private message on Facebook. As far as he can tell, it's the only account of hers that nobody's watching. It's just some bench on some sidewalk in Redondo Beach because SHIELD is still too shy to make a scene. He stashes the suit under a dumpster and meets her in his stolen scrubs, barefoot. Escaped mental patient chic.
She asks what he needs her to do, and he tells her, "Come on, I'm not on the lam. Nothing that melodramatic. I just needed to test things out without their paws all over me." His eyes flicker from the stoplights on either side of the block, to her tips of her toes in red peeptoe heels, a weekend thing, to the tops of the heads of the people walking by across the street. On her Blackberry, in her purse, there's an appointment scheduled an hour and a half from now just called "Larry's." He doesn't know who Larry is.
"And how's it going?" she says. And he has to say what and she says, "Your testing. Do you feel," she folds her right ankle over her left. "Do you feel different?"
He has to listen very hard to what she's saying because everyone walking by has a cell phone, and most of them have something or other hooked up to the internet, some are emailing, texting, calling, some of their phones are pinging to check the time. There are ATMs in a half a dozen buildings on the block, shouting PIN numbers into the thin air. Half the cars driving by have an onboard nav system, all of them have power steering. Cafes and bars have PCs and TVs and stereos, every one turned up a little too loud. There are two cell towers nearby, a couple radio towers, and miles and miles away someone is shifting the alignment of the Very Large Array.
Tony squints and looks right at her to remind himself to focus on sight, on her right next to him, both their hands side by side between them, fingers splayed against the wooden slats. He looks hard at the ruffled hem of her sleeve against her bicep, and he turns on the mp3 player in her purse pocket without meaning to. Turns it back off before she can notice. She's looking at his eyes, shifting; she's looking at his chest where there's nothing at all.
"Everything within parameters so far," he says.
As he's leaving, the undersheath slips out and he doesn't think he asked for it, but she feels it on his wrist and he finally looks up into her eyes gone wide. He can see that it feels odd. Like the scales of a fish, or the soft belly of a lizard. She runs the pads of two fingers along the edge of it and his skin.
"We didn't know if you'd wake up," she says. "They didn't let me see you. Even Jim couldn't tell me much. Well, so he said."
The tips of her fingers are so warm on him, and the gold leaves just start streaming further, all the way to his knuckles before he can stop it. When she pulls away there are two spaces left where it's just his skin surrounded by the undersheath, in the shape of her fingerprints.
He looks over his shoulder and says "This was something I needed to do."
When he looks back at her she seems so unhappy, and he knows she's going to tell him that it really wasn't. But she just nods once, half a nod, her chin going down, and steps back from him.
Tony tries to go home, but half a mile away he knows he can't yet filter well enough to step through door. The hum of the electronic gates, the hundred processes JARVIS is running, inbound and outbound, every other object in the workshop vying for attention. All talking to extremis faster than he can interpret, making him a stranger. Standing alone in the corner at a cocktail party while his mother holds court with the entire room.
He arcs out over the beach, over the ocean instead.
He's breathing heavily enough that he notices the sound of it against the faceplate. The silent actions the suit takes to filter his air in and out are a sub-process so deep that it's in the lizard brain of its programming. But he can hear it now. The flexing of microvents to cycle oxygen is just as loud to him as the yaw/pitch/roll adjustments that are keeping him level, which take up just as much attention as the every-five-second pings from the SHIELD satellite that's tracking him, which is equally as distracting as the sonar readings from a fishing trawler fifty more miles out to sea. He turns, he goes up.
Over a video conference link, behind a wide, bare desk at Oscorp, institutional portrait of Norman himself over her shoulder on the wall: Dr. Maya Hansen.
"I won't exaggerate. I'm telling you what I have," she said. "It's initial phases now, simulations and rodents. But it's sound."
"Strong words for a woman having the rug pulled out from under her."
"We're in the solid middle of rodent testing. Funding's being withdrawn because of a lack of vision. What this process accomplishes can't be fully realized in a rat. The obvious is there. Strength, durability, the physiological rebuilding, that's what's measurable right now, but super soldier serums are a dime a dozen these days."
"I'm not looking for a super soldier."
"Well what are you looking for, Mr. Stark? Because whatever it is, whatever you're looking for, extremis can be it."
This is something he needed to do. The process is an end. Every second he wasted, life or minute lost to inefficiency, the process will take them back.
"Extremis can do whatever you need to do to a human body. To the human brain."
"Dr. Hansen, the rats are dying, are they not?"
"They go through the change, and they...they just don't know what to do with it."
"In droves." She leaned forward, her whole body. "I know this thing like I know myself. Given a human subject, extremis will prove itself."
"So what's killing the rodents?"
Maya grinned briefly, brilliantly.
"Weakness of character."
After the injection, the change begins immediately. Tony is certain that he's dying. The distinct sensation of something heavy hitting him from the side, and he falls off the bed. Three attendants to hold him down while he keeps falling, on the floor but still falling. He tastes pennies at the back of his throat.
Then the blood comes up. Out of his mouth, pouring from he doesn't know where. Coating his teeth, running down his jaw, his cheeks, soaking his hospital gown and the floor and the men around him. It's slick; he slips. His eyes sting and he blinks-- opens them to see through a pink film of blood. He can't lose all this blood and not die.
Tony sees his hands on the tile floor and goes back to a day, to half a week he spent so far down the bottom of a bottle that all his memory of it is a series of panicked, sweaty wakings up on the floors of different rooms. Each one slow and nauseated, dressed or half dressed. Even the time he woke on the floor of the upstairs shower, presumably dumped there by whoever stopped by. A couple times there was vomit nearby, once he woke up in the act of vomiting. When that happened, the second day in, he was on his back and he woke drowning in it, putrid. Flipped on his side only from the force of his guts clenching. Eyes caked shut with old saline. When there was nothing left to bring up, he just shook. He was absolutely certain that he was dying.
But he can see his mother, he always sees her. Drowned as a fish but never that weak. He’s never even seen her hands shake. And he sees his father, through the curtain of blood over his eyes. Feels Howard holding him by the scruff of his neck, dragging him step by step, he's 14 years old and too out of it to walk himself up the stairs. It's okay though, because his father's arm is an irresistible force. He's lifted nearly free of the ground. He sees Yinsen watching him from across their room. Yinsen watching him shudder from more than the cold, more than the shock, more than the surgery. The electromagnet, the thing cut through his chest, it shudders out of synch with his body. It knocks against his ribs. It’s cold. A cube of ice held against the flesh of his heart. He sees Stane chuckling.
During the process, on the floor, soaked in blood, Hansen watching through a window and her eyes so bright. A ringing starts in his ears. His limbs stiffen, and he goes to sleep so tired, so exhausted, and so relieved he'll never have to wake up.
This is his body made his own, a reconciling. The process will keep every promise.
About two weeks after the cure was released, Jean Grey was held as a suspect in the terrorist bombing of a distribution center in downtown Baltimore. At first Tony didn't want to be in the building, and then he didn't want to be in the room with her, but he went in, and he sat down, because there was nowhere far enough away. He could stand on the surface of the moon, and she could sit on her couch in her underpants and still rifle through his mind. Rummage around in every thought he'd ever had. And so there she was across the table from him, this woman. Some nobody who could do and know anything she wanted.
He sat and crossed his legs, he leaned back and measured his breathing. He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and rolled up his sleeves. He'd left the suit at home, didn't want her anywhere near it. She was quiet, hands folded in front of her. A lawyer en route, and six men watching behind the mirror.
Tony felt the familiar urge to cross his arms over his chest, then the sense memory of sharp edges digging into his forearms, and he steepled his fingers together over his lap instead.
"Waste of everyone’s time to ask you questions, isn't it Dr. Grey," he said. "Why don't you just tell me what I want to know."
She wasn't demure; she met his stare with her own.
"I don't make a habit of invading others' privacy," she said, and he mimed a stifled laugh. "I suppose that's a concept you have a hard time grappling with."
"We're not here to talk about me. Tell me about the bomb, Jean." A smile slipped from her mouth.
"I've never planted a bomb in my life, Tony."
He sighed, he checked his watch, he pursed his lips at her and narrowed his eyes in an avuncular gesture.
"It's a pity. You seem like such an intelligent woman, yet you can't see that we're on the same side. You want to protect your people. I understand that. They're American citizens, a lot of them are confused kids. I want to protect them too." She didn't say anything. Her hands clasped each other and tightened. "I've read about you, you know. And your students. How hard it is to live with your mutation. Hard to connect to humanity. That's something I know a little bit about."
Up above the ocean, he goes up, up out of the noise of the world. Too high. Extremis bubbles below him, it reaches above him to see where they're going. It strains across miles to find points of contact. He's just the body of a man, but extremis makes him impossibly wide, it stretches him across the sky.
He can't feel his fingertips, his toes, he can't tell if he's gone blind or if the sky's gone dark. He's so high up now, he's stopped trying to rise, but still is buoyed up by something, so either he's broken out of the range of gravity, or else extremis has its own urge for self preservation that he has no control over.
Tony knows he should give himself to it. Extremis knows where it is. It's talking to something, it's talking to him, but he's too keyed up to translate. He knows he can't look down.
Because everything down there is so small. Ocean liners, oil rigs, the backs of whales, and the deck of the Helicarrier. Nick Fury and Pepper and even Dr. Hansen. And here he is, he's the whole sky. His shadow falling on them all.
"And I'm no biologist," he said to Dr. Grey. "I'd never claim to be an expert. But I do know that mutations manifest during adolescence, sometimes even later, just like a lot of late-onset genetic diseases. Like breast cancer. Like schizophrenia. You know, years past, people with those afflictions would be condemned to live with them, to watch their humanity slip away. But we're building a new world here, Jean." He uncrossed his legs and leaned towards her; something burned behind her eyes. "We can give you your humanity back."
She saw him. She lent him the uncanny sensation of seeing himself. His belief, the desperate strain in his voice, the nights he stayed awake, the statistics he read, the stories on the news. The mother who turned her baby boy to ash because he just wouldn't stop crying. Himself, standing in that empty apartment after she was apprehended, leaning over the side of the crib and knowing it was on his shoulders. There was no-one else.
And then she showed him a friend of hers arriving home to their campus for mutant children. The crow's feet at the edges of his young eyes, the tightness in his shoulders. He didn't bother to park the car anywhere in particular, just left it in the middle of the driveway and pulled himself out. Standing, he unbuttoned his jacket, dragged it off his shoulders weirdly, doubled over like a hunchback, pained. He straightened and worked the huge buckles that crossed his chest three times over, and then the smaller straps across his collarbones. He shed the whole leather contraption, and it hit the ground hard. Then, slow from strain and tenderness, he rolled his shoulders and spread his wings.
Easily fifteen feet in span, probably more. At their lowest, they dipped down past his knees. Dusty white and clearly muscular. He arched his back and spread them wide as they'd go, stretching like a cat waking from a long sleep, wingtips vibrating from the pleasure of it. Finally, he saw her there at the doorstep, her/Tony watching him, and waved.
"Thank God it's Friday, huh Jeanie?"
He grinned and looked straight up, turning his back to her, sunlight catching on his teeth, his eyelashes, the softest down across the length of his shoulder blades and painting a delicate line down his spine. He crouched and beat his wings once, twice, three times. Dust kicked up around him and his feet left the ground.
Above the rush of air, Tony heard him hoot a laugh into the wind. The sound of a young boy leaping off a dock into the water of a lake. A dog running through a field, fast as it can. Of Tony finally catching up to himself and building as fast as he could dream. He felt her heart go with him, pumping with the rhythm of his wingbeats. It was hard work; it was what he was built for. He caught a thermal of warm air rising quickly, and he was gone, a shadow high above, circling, breathing deep.
Abruptly, Tony felt the fake woodgrain table beneath his fingertips, his feet on the concrete floor, fluorescent light in his eyes, and he saw Jean Grey sitting across from him.
"You have nothing to give me, Mr. Stark."
It's easy, up above the ocean. It's immediate. Easy enough that he barely needs to formulate a question before he and extremis have the answer. It so happens that all the dilemmas that have plagued him are as subject to logic as the simplest equation.
He tells extremis that it's never been enough, that he doesn't know where to begin, and so it brings online the orbiting defense grid.
He tells extremis that, in the worst moments, he wishes Obie was around. Extremis has nothing to say to that, for which he's grateful.
He tells extremis that he isn't sure what he's doing, he's never sure what he's doing, so it synchs with his nervous system.
They find a valley in northern China where a madman has used unknown tech to subjugate the local populace. They find caches of unregistered Stark weapons in Montana, in rural Saskatchewan, on an unnamed Pacific atoll, in a personal storage locker in Queens, in a series of tunnels along the Afghan/Pakistani border. They find slums, terror, starvation, territorial disputes. They find forests killed by an invasive species of beetle. They find schools underfunded or non-existent, they find empty wells, they find illegal aliens, they find drivers running red lights, orphans, earthquakes, they find overdue library books and a lack of public parks in mid-size American cities. They find a machine plugged into a man and monitoring every living mutant on the planet.
They know precisely what to do.