kludge (plural kludges)
- (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
- (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
- (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.
kludge (third-person singular simple present kludges, present participle kludging, simple past and past participle kludged)
- To build or use a kludge.
Stark has pulled out the arc reactor.
This has to count among the most disturbing sights Steve Rogers has witnessed, and he's seen some pretty horrific things in his life.
The moment seems to stretch on and on, giving Steve more than enough time to marvel at the empty metallic cavity in Stark’s chest. He had no idea of the depth of it. Hell, it's big enough that someone smaller than Steve could probably fit their entire hand in there!
Steve has read Stark's file, of course, even though it's longer than anyone else's on the team – as Howard Stark's son and every bit as intelligent, inventive and irresponsible as his father, he'd been a person of interest to SHIELD long before he became Iron Man. But although most of his file is detailed and seems uncensored (like Agent Romanoff's not too flattering Avengers recruitment report), the paragraph about the arc reactor is brief. The reactor has to do with his heart, is critically important to his survival, and should it ever happen that he's unconscious and there's reason to suspect that it's damaged, they need to contact Pepper Potts or JARVIS the AI right away.
Fortunately, Stark isn't unconscious, because it very much seems like the arc reactor is damaged, and they have no means to contact anyone. Most likely no one’s even figured out anything is wrong, yet.
Stark is studying the device, turning it this way and that, uncharacteristically quiet, his face scrunched up in intense concentration, or pain, or both. The electric blue glow, as bright as ever, casts odd shadows in the otherwise dim light under the orange canopy. Seawater is dripping from Stark's soaking wet hair and the sleeves of his undersuit. Every now and then, a droplet spatters to the floor of their life raft with a soft plop.
Steve gazes out through the doorway. Although the sky is clearing up, the thick mist and the dark clouds mostly dispersed, the view is depressing. Nothing but sea, gently rolling waves, and even more sea, all the way to the horizon, with the odd piece of wreckage floating here and there. Not a sign of anything living, aside from a solitary sea bird circling so high above that someone with ordinary eyesight might not even notice it. The air smells of salt and ozone.
They're very much on their own out here, in the vast expanse of the Atlantic.
It wasn’t an official call to Assemble, but a simple text message from Stark, telegraph-like in its brevity:
Tower, asap. Potential Goldilocks sighting, need to investigate.
That was enough for Steve to decide less than halfway through his jog that he’d just skip the rest of it and head to the Avengers Tower, taking the quickest route he could think of.
They’d been waiting to hear from Thor ever since the thunder-god had departed to his own realm. Everyone would sleep easier once they knew for certain that Loki was behind lock and key in Asgard, and Thor would be a welcome addition to the team if he really was back. Not only in the battlefield, either – at least to Steve, it just felt like the Avengers weren’t quite the same without the jovial warrior.
Stark’s next text was closer to his usual style.
PS Boy Scout, if you pass by that hot dog stand at the corner, bring me one.
Steve didn’t honor that with a reply, but he did stop by at the stand, right at the foot of the Avengers’ headquarters. He definitely didn’t want anyone, least of all Stark, to start thinking he was turning into one of the man’s lackeys. On the other hand, Stark had probably stayed up all night tinkering with who knew what, and had replaced breakfast with coffee, or in the best case with one of those weird smoothies. If they had a mission ahead of them, a couple of extra calories wouldn’t go amiss.
Unlike he was expecting, when Steve stepped out of the elevator at Stark’s workspace, there was no one there but the engineer himself, staring at a dark blue-green image with a hazy purple smudge in the middle. He didn’t even turn to look as Steve entered, but just made a vague gesture at the desk next to him.
“Just drop it there.”
Right, this ridiculous issue Stark had with being handed things. Steve moved closer swiftly, and stuffed the hot dog into Stark’s hand before he could do anything about it. That gained Steve a murderous glare, and no word of thanks – not that he had been expecting any – but at least it caught Stark’s attention.
“So, what have we got?” Steve asked, cutting to the chase.
Stark ignored that, took a bite of the hot dog, and made an approving face. “Still surprisingly good. Also, being served a hot dog by Captain America: breakfast doesn't get much more American than that! And what we’ve got is this,” he waved at the screen in front of them with his snack before attacking it again.
From closer up, Steve thought he could make out white ripples in the image. Waves, maybe? A satellite image of a large body of water? It still didn’t explain the purple smear in the middle.
“A modern painting?” Steve offered.
“Wouldn’t look out of place in my collection, but I think Pepper could tell the difference,” Stark replied between mouthfuls. He finished the food quickly, licked his fingers, wiped them on a napkin he’d produced from somewhere, and used a gesture to zoom out the image. A land mass appeared on the left side of it, easily recognizable as the shoreline of the East Coast.
“So. What we’ve got is a very unusual electrical storm some 500 miles off the coast, which puts it in international waters. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get any proper readings on it, but what I can tell is that it’s pretty close to some of the data SHIELD have on our hammer-happy friend.”
“If it’s Thor, what’s he doing in the middle of the Atlantic?”
“He's a demigod and I'm a mere mortal, who am I to tell? A conference with Poseidon? An orgy with mermaids - oh, there’s a thought! There might well be a ship or an aircraft in there, but it’s impossible to tell with all the interference.”
“Is the storm moving?”
“Not at the moment. Its very localized, and its size has remained stable, a couple of miles in diameter. Whatever it is, it doesn’t pose an immediate threat to civilians, since all traffic, air and sea, has been directed to safe routes around it. Still, we’d better go and check it out.”
“Just you and me? Where’s everyone else?”
“Widow and Birdling are off on some secret SHIELD mission, didn’t bother to hack the details this time. Banner is off the grid, haven’t heard from him since Tuesday. I can appreciate he sometimes needs quality time on his own, what with all those anger management problems. I’m sure the two of us can handle this just fine.”
“Fair enough. I’ll call SHIELD and ask for a ride, and…”
“Nah, no need to involve Fury and his fan club. I already told them we’d take care of this on our own. They’d probably just grab Thor and bring him in for questioning as soon as they set eyes on him, I’d rather avoid that.”
“How am I going to get there, then? Last I checked, their technicians are still working on the Quinjet we wrecked on the previous mission, and you haven’t even finished the plans for our customized one.”
“Well, no, I’m still working on that, but as it happens, and you may have noticed, I’ve got this suit that can fly, and can easily carry even the considerable bulk of a Super Soldier. If you think riding a Harley is good, let me tell you, that's nothing compared to this!"
Stark slams the arc reactor back into its housing quite forcefully, and they both start, Stark probably with actual pain, Steve with surprise and sympathy.
“Nothing visibly wrong with it. That’s no guarantee, though. I’d need to be able to run some proper diagnostics to be certain,” Stark says, winces, and strikes the reactor a couple of times with the heel of his hand. “At least I’m convinced it’s not a power output issue, there would be some giveaway flickering to go with that. I assume your supreme senses aren’t picking up any unusual fluctuations that a regular baseline human can’t catch?”
“No, it looks entirely normal to me, too,” Steve replies honestly, because he can’t see anything out of the ordinary aside from Stark’s obvious discomfort. Not that it’s unexpected that Stark’s not feeling too hot, he did take a few major hits during the battle. “This is probably a dumb question, but how do you know for sure that there’s a problem?”
“I can feel it well enough,” Stark replies curtly. He rests his right hand on top of the reactor and the fingers of his left on the pulse point at his neck, and grimaces. “You're welcome to check if you want to. Don’t need a medical degree to tell that’s not a healthy rhythm."
"I'll take your word for it." That’s all the confirmation Steve needs. Stark’s been living with the heart issues and the arc reactor for years, he probably knows what he’s talking about.
Steve purses his lips. He hates that he’s not able to do anything to help, but he’s utterly out of his depth. He doesn’t know a whole lot about medicine, aside from basic battlefield first aid, and he knows even less about modern technology, let alone something as advanced and unusual as Stark’s inventions. The only thing he has to offer is his company.
“Assuming it’s not a problem with the device itself, what else could it be?” he prompts, to keep Stark focused on possible solutions.
“If the reactor’s output is all right, as it seems to be, then, trying to use small words here, either the power isn’t getting to where it’s supposed to go, or something’s wrong with where it goes – that would be the casing, and all the stuff that actually keeps me going. I do hope that's not where the damage is, because working on the casing out here would be, I don’t like to say impossible, but, as close as. Of course, the third alternative is even less appealing.”
“What’s that, then?”
“That it’s not a technical problem but a medical one, and unless you’re hiding unexpected talents in experimental heart surgery, our chances of fixing it equal zero, zilch and nada.”