(If you are reading this on any PAY site this is a STOLEN WORK, the author has NOT Given Permission for it to be here. If you're paying to read it, you're being cheated too because you can read it on Archiveofourown for FREE.)
The barkeep lied; Kline was here. If thugs were being sent after him, he very likely was the man Blake wanted. Docholli. The only one who knew Star One's location. He had no reason to love the Federation that forced him to flee for his life, leaving behind all his comfort and privilege until his only sanctuary was at the bottom of a bottle, his only friend the woman who supplied his liquor. She had gone into a back room, leaving the bar unguarded. A dockside bar was hardly the place to trust your customers not to rob you blind the moment you turned your back. Not unless Chenie was more concerned about warning her friend than losing her stock in trade.
"I need a distraction," Blake said softly, raising his glass to take a sip.
Jenna and Cally exchanged glances. "Street theater?" Jenna asked.
Cally nodded. "A quarrel? Something to attract attention, without arousing suspicion."
Cally snapped, loud and sharp, "What did you call me?"
Jenna glared at her, but before she could retort, there was a tremendous noise, and a pressure change that had everyone in the bar crying out in pain and holding their hands over their ears. The bar doors shattered under the impact of a hurtling red and gold missile that skidded across the floor to wind up in a crumpled heap against the far wall, sprawling to reveal a robot in humanoid form. It was scraped and battered and inert, so Blake spared it only a glance before turning to see what had thrown it into the bar.
"What is that?" Blake asked, staring along with everyone else at the spinning and shimmering blue-white ring in the night sky surrounding a star-filled black hole. He had instinctively drawn his gun, but it was useless against a phenomenon like that.
"Wormhole," Jenna said. She'd gone ghost-pale. "I've never seen one from a planet's surface."
Cally frowned. "I sense..." The wormhole moved, shrinking in the distance until it vanished.
"What?" Blake asked Cally.
She shook her head. "It's gone. There was a feeling as if... it was searching for something."
"Maybe for that," Jenna said, pointing to the robot.
"Maybe." Blake realized this was his chance to check out the back room. Everyone was milling about, knocking over chairs and tables, shouting and pointing at the robot, and the broken doors, and the now perfectly normal sky. He ducked into the back room. Chenie was holding onto a man who barely matched the description Orac had found for Docholli. He was a shaggy haired, stubbled, old man, dressed in nondescript, grimy, baggy clothes. He looked like any down-and-out you'd find in a spaceport bar.
"Docholli," Blake said without preamble.
The old man straightened. He pushed Chenie to one side. "You can kill me here, I'm not going with you. I've done enough harm."
Blake made an exasperated noise. "I'm Roj Blake. I'm not from the Federation and I'm not going to kill anyone. I only want to talk with you." He holstered his gun. "But we do have to get out of here. That commotion will have drawn too much attention."
"He's right," Chenie said, "You have to go now." She gave Blake an angry look. "Why can't you all just leave him alone? Let him take a freighter and disappear?"
Jenna came into the room through the hanging curtain that served in place of a door. "I doubt any of the ships in dock are going to be there five minutes from now. There was a wormhole. People tend to panic. To protect your ship, you get the hell out of port."
"Blake!" Cally shouted from the bar. "Bring the doctor!"
Blake looked at Docholli. "Apparently, you're needed."
Docholli hesitated for a moment, then snatched up a battered case and pushed through the curtain to follow Jenna back into the main room of the bar.
Chenie got in Blake's way. "Don't hurt him. He's been hurt enough."
"Excuse me," Blake said, sidestepping her to return to the bar. Most of the customers had gone, leaving one drunkard snoring in a corner. The robot was now laying flat in the middle of the floor, and Docholli was bending over it. Only it wasn't a robot. The front of the helmet had been removed, revealing a man's face. He was unconscious, and there was a little blood streaked on the side of his face and clumped in his neatly clipped dark brown beard. Cally was kneeling next to him with her fingers reaching into the helmet at the man's throat.
"He's alive, but his pulse is weak," she said.
Docholli made a sort of grunt as he used his tools to prod at the front of the armor until it spread open to reveal the man's chest. He pulled up the black knit shirt the man had on. There was a glass and metal cylinder set in his chest. "Interesting cyborg adaptation. Don't know I've ever seen one like this." He fiddled with the cylinder until it pulled out. It left a casing four inches deep. He applied a tool to the cylinder which suddenly blazed with blue-white light. "Emergency reset." He put the cylinder back and the not-robot man's eyes suddenly flew open as he gasped and arched up, before falling back to lie on the floor, looking around at them wide-eyed.
"What?" he said. "Where?" He looked at Cally, who still had her fingers on his throat. "Did you kiss me? Not that I'd normally object, because you are really beautiful, but you know, I have a stable relationship."
Jenna shook her head and turned away. "Look out, Blake!" she shouted as a man's figure shadowed the smashed entryway of the bar.
Blake turned, gun out, finger on the firing stud.
"Wait, no, it's only Travis," Docholli shouted.
"BLAKE!" Travis was wild-eyed and staggering. He looked like he'd been beaten up.
"Don't, Travis!" Blake warned, but Travis snarled and brought up his lazeron to aim directly at Blake.
"I don't have to keep you alive for Servalan this time, Blake!"
Blake fired a fraction of a second before Travis. Travis's shot went wild, blasting a row of bottles. He fell.
The not-robot struggled up on one elbow to peer at Travis's corpse, and then at Blake's weapon, eyes visibly tracing the clear rod back to the power pack. "Looks like I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto," he said, before passing out again.
"Well, that's torn it for sure," Jenna said. She stepped outside and looked both ways down the darkened street.
"You killed Travis," Docholli said. He and Chenie looked like they were in shock.
"Yes, well, I'm sorry about that," Blake replied. "He didn't give me much choice." Blake fished two teleport bracelets out of his shirt. "Put one on your patient, and the other on yourself," he told Docholli. "I've run out of time for argument. I'm not leaving you here to be picked up and drained dry by Servalan."
"She's here?" Docholli looked around nervously.
"Very likely. She's been looking for you, and for Travis."
"I..." Docholli looked at Chenie. "What should I do?"
Chenie grabbed Docholli and gave him a hug. "Go with Blake. It's a better chance." She kissed him on the cheek. "Good luck, Kline."
"Yes." He smiled at her. "Thank you, thank you for everything, Chenie."
Tony opened his eyes. He was out of the armor, and lying on his back on some sort of examination table, surrounded by strangers. They all looked like white bread, not even tan-toasted, so Tony's first panicked association with Afghanistan faded. They were weirdly dressed, though. Closest were two women in what might be evening gowns, although the style seemed odd in some way he couldn't quite pinpoint; the blonde in black, and the frizzy haired brunette in white and gold-- with boots? Who wears boots with an evening gown? He turned his head and saw a big curly haired guy, beefy but not a muscle-builder, wearing a ugly greenish-brown long vest over a baggy brown shirt. Big guy stood like he thought he was hot stuff. There was also a shaggy older man, dressed in homespun derelict, and two guys nearly as tall as Beefy but that was about all they had in common with him or each other. One of the two, a man with mousy brown, thinning hair, was dressed nearly normally, although his brown leather jacket had an excess of zippers, but the darker haired man standing next to him looked like a stripper; skin tight black trousers, thigh high black leather boots, and a metallic silver tunic over a black knit shirt.
Tony blinked. "Cos-play? Bachelorette party?" He ignored the puzzled looks the group gave him as he got an elbow braced and levered himself up, testing both his body and their reactions. No one waved a gun or a barrel of water in his face, so that seemed a positive sign. "It's been fun, kids, but give me back my suit. I've got people to do, places to go." He swung his legs around so he was sitting on the table.
"What places?" Beefy asked sharply. He had a sort of British accent. Maybe a touch of Wales.
Tony looked at the guy in disbelief. "What planet are you from?" Tony was pretty sure even the most fanatical cos-players would have heard about an alien invasion in New York City.
"Earth," the man replied. Obviously he had no sense of humor. "I'm Roj Blake." He stared at Tony as if that should mean something.
"And I'm Tony Stark." That got no reaction at all. "Iron Man? You know, Mr. Privatized World Peace?"
"Which world?" Mousy asked. He sounded British, too. The brunette gave him an annoyed look, but he kept talking, "Come on, Cally, wouldn't it be nice to find one planet where we don't get shot at? Just one? We could go there for a holiday." He raised his eyebrows in appeal.
Blake continued to stare at Tony. "Where are you from? What's your connection with the wormhole?"
Silver shirt said, in a sneering tone, all the more nasty for the hoity-toity accent, "Leave it, Blake. We should never have taken him aboard."
"Yes, well, if you had been at the teleport, Avon, instead of the casino, perhaps you would have had some say in the matter." Blake looked pretty pissed off.
Avon came up to stand nearly toe-to-toe with Blake. "Everything doesn't revolve around your wishes, Blake. Vila and I wanted to go to the casino, and we didn't need your permission."
"Leave me out of it," Mousy said, so he must be Vila.
The two women, Cally and the blonde, exchanged long-suffering glances. The old guy just looked confused. And maybe a little like he needed a drink. Tony recognized the signs.
Tony pushed away from the table and stood up. "Hey! Dick-measuring contest, time-out!" He made a referee's T signal. "Teleport? You're taking the cos-play too far, guys. I'm impressed, really I am." Tony gestured at the various weird-looking things beeping and blinking, and the hexagonal doorway behind Mousy Vila. "I can see you put a lot of effort into the props, but you need a more cohesive theme with the clothes-what are you supposed to be, Avon, a giant Hershey's Kiss?"
Avon's sneer deepened and he pulled a long plastic rod from a holster at his side.
Tony laughed. "What, you're the beautician? Nice curling iron."
"Ay Von!" Blake shouted, and grabbed for his arm. Avon twisted free and... fired the curling iron at the wall beside Tony. It made a weird noise, a cross between buzzing and banging, and flashed a bright light.
Tony jumped, hands automatically up in repulsor-blast mode, but then he looked at the wall. There was a smoking hole full of ...not electronics, but wire, not color-coded or marked in any visible way, thickness variable even within the same wire; blinking lights, again according to no known scheme... and bits that Tony couldn't recognize at all. He peered closer. Severed wires were moving, growing together. So was the surface of the wall. In a few seconds the damage was gone. Tony touched the wall. Real. Solid. Unmarked. "Holy shit, Batman. The walls are alive."
"Not just the walls," Blake said. "Liberator is alive."
"Liberator?" Tony asked idly. Most of his mind was wrapped around the concept of self-repairing, organically self-repairing, machines. Machines, as in the Iron Man.
Avon made a sort of growling noise and shoved the gun back in his holster. "This is getting us nowhere. We're en route to Goth, on yet another snipe hunt. I'll be on the flight deck, if you want me." He stalked out.
The blonde rolled her eyes at Avon's dramatic exit. "I'll be on the flight deck, too, Blake. In case Avon gets any ideas."
Vila turned to follow her. "Wait up, Jenna." Vila nodded at the older man, who'd said nothing. "C'mon, Docholli. Jenna can give you a list of planets we'll be passing. We'll drop you off on any one you like, right, Blake?"
Blake nodded without looking at Vila. He was still watching Tony. "Cally, go with them. Stop off at the treasure room, and make sure Docholli gets enough to start a new life."
Docholli's eyes widened. "You mean it?"
"Once we find Star One, the money will be meaningless to me."
"In that case, I could..." Vila said.
"No," Blake interrupted him.
"Oh." Vila looked downcast.
Cally smiled at him and took him by the arm. "What would you do with it, anyway, Vila? There's nothing to buy here."
"Dreams, Cally, I'd buy dreams."
Tony heard Cally gently chiding Vila as the three of them left the room, but he wasn't paying much attention. He ran his hand once more down the smooth, seamless wall. "Organic machinery. Star One. En route." He turned to Blake. "This is a spaceship? Or is this an hallucination induced by radiation rotting my neurons before I die?"
Blake frowned and gave Tony a look he was all too familiar with, the 'is he crazy' one. "Cally treated you for radiation exposure well before any significant damage was done. Or at least we thought so." Blake nodded at Tony's chest. "Docholli wasn't familiar with your prosthesis. He restarted it, but couldn't inspect it without dismantling it."
"Yeah, no, not a good idea." Tony tapped on the reactor casing. "For the sake of argument, let us assume that a) I'm not crazy, and b) this is a spaceship. A living, self-repairing, spaceship. Let me see it. I'm an engineer; you don't know how it's killing me not to be able to take this baby apart and see how it works."
Blake's expression softened slightly. "I'm an engineer too. Or I was." Blake frowned again. "So I can understand, but I can't risk you telling the Federation any of Liberator's secrets, or vulnerabilities."
"What Federation? The Galactic Federation of Light?" If Blake was going to be paranoid, Tony was willing to feed him enough rope to... whatever.
"You know. When Earth enters the Photon Belt and the Sirians and Greys lead us all to enlightenment. Come on, every SF freak conspiracy theorist was all over that back in 2008."
Blake stared at him for a moment. "Back in 2008? It's 305 New Calendar."
Tony opened his mouth and then closed it, all the happy little fantasies about England having sneakily created a self-repairing spaceship (which he imagined as a huge wheel spinning on its axis so centripetal force was providing an illusion of gravity, because, hello, he was actually not floating across the room) blowing up in a puff of smoke. "Shit. The portal goes through time as well as dimensions."
"Does it?" Blake still hadn't decided what to do with Stark, but he was reasonably certain he wasn't part of a deliberately set trap. Even if some psychostrategian had deduced they'd go to Freedom City looking for Docholli, they could hardly have a pet wormhole deliver a spy. If they could control a wormhole, they'd use it as a weapon... and a threat. Of course, the man could be mad. Blake had seen a lot, but time travel was stretching his credence.
"Yeah. I could show you the math. Once I work it out." Stark frowned. "Okay, time travel exists, therefore it's just a matter of figuring out the mechanics. This would be a lot faster if I had Jarvis." He glanced at Blake and clarified, "My A.I. He's a sarcastic, self-willed nag. I don't know what I'd do without him."
"Sounds like Orac."
"You have an A.I.? Let me use it, figure out how to get back where I belong. I... have people who need me. They probably think I'm dead."
Blake hesitated, but Stark seemed sincere. "All right. It's on the flight deck." There wasn't much someone could learn just from seeing the flight deck, after all. "If you can get Orac to cooperate, fine. But we're on a mission, that comes first." He pointed towards the door. "This way."
"Mission?" Stark headed out the door, head turning in a quick sweep as if assessing the corridor.
Well, it wasn't as if the rebellion was a secret to anyone in the human worlds. It would be just as well to keep Stark talking about harmless subjects. The man had sharp eyes; best to distract him with conversation. "Against the Terran Federation. It's a galaxy-wide dictatorship. I mean to bring it down."
Stark was silent the rest of the way to flight deck. Blake wondered what he was thinking, but he didn't dwell on it. On Goth, they should... they must find the location of Star One. Nothing else mattered.
Blake entered the flight deck ahead of Stark, barely sparing a glance for the star field Zen was currently displaying on the main screen as he went over to Jenna's position. Jenna looked past him at Stark. "Nice view, isn't it?"
Stark walked past her, his eyes fixed on the star-field. "Nicer for what it isn't."
"What's that, then?" Vila asked. He was slouching on the flight deck couch with a glass of adrenalin and soma, flanked by Cally and Docholli. There was a pitcher of A&S on the table before him, and Docholli had a glass of his own.
Cally met Blake's raised eyebrows with a shrug. He supposed she'd been right to dole out the drinks. Docholli had been looking shell-shocked.
Stark tilted his head without shifting his gaze. "It's not the stars around a Chitauri battleship." He paused. "And it's not all around me in my suit." He turned swiftly to face Blake. "Speaking of which, I'd like my property back. You know, that shiny red and gold suit you took off of me?"
Cally spoke up, "That was necessary. We couldn't treat you with it on."
"Sure, right, but I'm fine, and I'd like to have it back."
Avon had been standing in front of Zen, hands clasped behind his back. Now he turned to say, "That wasn't a space suit."
Stark rolled his eyes. Blake kept silent, he was rather enjoying the interaction. "Wow, you're really sharp. What gave it away? The lack of supplemental oxygen tanks?"
"No, actually, it was the weapons incorporated into it." Avon held up a small disk. Blake couldn't make out any details, because Stark lunged for Avon, bare-handed and furious.
"Nobody takes my stuff!" Stark shouted as he dragged Avon's arm down and grabbed at the disk. Taking into consideration that Avon was armed, and at least four inches taller than Stark, Blake had to admire his nerve. Also, it was funny seeing the look on Avon's face.
Blake cleared his throat. "Enough. Avon, I said you could examine the suit, not dismantle it. Stark, why does your suit have weapons? I'm willing to entertain the possibility you're from the past, but I would imagine an army equipped like that would have been remembered."
"I'm not in the army. It's my suit, one of a kind. Well, Rhodey has an earlier model, but that's it. The suit stays with me. I don't trust the military not to misuse it. I don't trust you not to misuse it." Stark was visibly tensed and ready to resume battle.
"We don't want your suit," Cally said. She got up from the couch and went to stand next to Avon, giving him a chiding look.
"Speak for yourself, Cally." Avon tossed the disk up in the air, but before he could catch it, Cally snatched it and gave it to Stark. "I wasn't done studying it," Avon snapped. "He should be grateful! We could have left him on Freedom City for Krantor to pick up."
"And Krantor would, too," Vila said. He shrugged. "That's what they say." He hiccuped. "He likes shiny toys. Or is it shiny boys?" Vila tipped over sideways and began snoring. Docholli picked up Vila's half empty glass and finished it off, before slumping down with his eyes closed.
Stark blinked. "I don't believe any of this." He looked at Blake. "I use my suit to help the people who can't help themselves. I was fighting an alien invasion coming through the wormhole over Manhattan when some bright boy, on our own side, decided to nuke New York. I carried the nuke on my back and gave it to the Chitauri. The mothership blew. I passed out, and woke up here. That's the story."
Blake chewed on his thumb for a moment. "Manhattan?"
"Nuke?" Jenna asked.
"I need a drink," Stark muttered.
Cally poured him a glass of adrenalin and soma. Stark looked at it. "Well, it's green. That means it's healthy, doesn't it?" He had a gulp. "Oh, that's foul."
Cally reached for it, but he pulled the glass close to his chest. "I'm sure it's an acquired taste. I just need more practice."
"Wonderful," Avon said snidely. "Just what we need, another Vila."
Blake had enough of the sniping. "Stark isn't staying long enough to learn to like soma."
"No." Stark set aside the still nearly full glass. "You said there was a computer I could use, Orac, you called it?"
"Orac is mine," Avon protested.
"You built it?" Stark said, sounding mildly interested.
"We... inherited it from Ensor. And since I'm the only one capable of utilizing it properly, it's mine."
"I build my own stuff," Stark said. "Including my A.I. and my suit."
Avon looked like he was ready to punch Stark.
Some days Blake felt like he was running a creché. "I told him he could use Orac, under your supervision, to assist him in returning to his proper place. Or would you rather he stayed on board?"
Jenna said, "I wouldn't mind. Would you, Cally?" Blake noted the way Jenna ran an assessing look over Stark.
Cally smiled. "Indeed not."
"You're both mad. You don't know anything about him," Avon protested.
"I wouldn't mind getting to know him better," Jenna replied.
Really, Blake wasn't jealous at all. He didn't have time for jealousy. But it was a little annoying the way Stark smirked and preened.
"Fine." Avon went over to the table Orac was currently occupying and slid in the actuator key. "Orac! You will..."
"ATTENTION!" Zen interrupted. "Hazardous spatial anomaly detected! Immediate evasive action recommended!"
Jenna swore and grabbed the controls. On the viewscreen a blue wormhole appeared, rapidly growing larger.
The ship tilted. Tony thought they must have an inertial damper compensating for the force, or else they'd all be smeared thinly across a bulkhead instead of merely tumbled a few feet across the deck. Cally jumped for the controls next to Jenna, while Docholli wound up on the floor and stayed there, but surprisingly enough, Vila woke up and immediately scrambled for one of the instrument panels. Even more surprisingly, Blake and Avon were in each other's arms, and acting like they didn't notice it.
"It's changing course to follow us!" Jenna said.
Whatever Cally was doing, she was doing it silently, while frowning in concentration.
"Should I shoot it? Blake?" Vila shouted, his hands hovering over what Tony could swear was a big, red, 'do not touch' button. Tony really wished he had his suit. He hated not knowing what was going on, and not being able to do anything.
Blake said, "No, but be ready to blast any asteroids in our path," as he turned away from Avon, who released him and returned to the plastic light-show box he'd turned on a moment ago.
"Orac!" Avon snarled. "Analyze that wormhole. Determine the most effective course of action to prevent it destroying Liberator!"
The computer, Tony assumed it must be a computer even though it looked more like a habitat for robotic rodents, complete with hamster ball, replied, in a grating voice even more arrogant than Avon's, "Do you require the most effective short term solution, or the long term solution?"
"It's coming right up our tail!" Vila yelled. "Short term, Avon, tell him! SHORT TERM!"
"Very well. Apply maximum acceleration," the computer said.
"That's it?" Tony said. "Run? That's your best advice?" Tony was disappointed in the future if computers were no better than that. He felt like Steve must have when he discovered there weren't any flying cars. (Tony was working on it, all right. Shield had already put in an order for a cherry-red classic Corvette. Someone at Shield obviously had style.)
Orac sounded even more pissy when it said, "I have not yet completed my analysis! Kindly wait! There are unexpected complications in this matter!"
The wormhole continued to gain on them. "It's not working, Orac," Avon said.
Orac replied, "Liberator is not utilizing its maximum acceleration capabilities."
Blake stood, staring at the wormhole on the monitor. He looked very noble, except for the fact that he was biting at his thumb as he appeared to be concentrating. "What do you think about taking us to negative hyperspace, Jenna?" he asked.
"That's impossible." Tony knew they were all crazy. "You can't cross the anti-matter interface."
Jenna shrugged, flipping her hair in a very Farrah Fawcett manner. "Well, you can, but we'd be flying blind and unable to change course. We did it once, when we first came on board and were guessing at the controls."
"We nearly died that time," Avon said. Tony noticed that Avon leaned over the computer and braced himself on the table, instead of protesting further.
"Yes, there is that chance," Blake said calmly. "If the wormhole doesn't veer, we may have to risk it."
"You're just filling me with confidence," Tony said. He grinned and grabbed onto the back of the sofa. "Let's go for it!"
Blake nodded. "It's too close, Jenna. Do it."
"Nooo," Vila yelled at the same moment Jenna said, "Right, here we go!" and mashed another button.
Tony felt... it was weird...like his body was made of putty and thrown into a wind tunnel, at the same time he was going at Mach speed with an inadequate pressure suit, so the blood wasn't reaching his brain. He was sure they were all going to die. And then it all stopped as abruptly as it started. Tony staggered, although he didn't need to, because the inertial dampener had completely cancelled the expected momentum. He whooped in glee. And then he looked at the view screen. Lots of stars, different patterns than before, but only stars. "All right, no hungry, hungry wormhole. Speaking of which, what do you people eat? You do eat, don't you? Nearly getting killed always gives me an appetite."
No one paid him any attention. Vila went over to Docholli, who was now moaning and waking up. He'd been wedged between the couch and the table, and at a glance, Tony thought he was fine, which was nice. It put a damper on survival when not everyone made it. Vila said, "We're good now, right? We lost it, didn't we?"
Orac said, "On the contrary, the wormhole is continuing to follow. At our present speed, I estimate it will intercept our course within twenty-four hours."
"Stubborn little thing, isn't it?" Jenna said. She sounded tired. She took her hands from the controls and flexed them.
"Where are we?" Blake asked. "How long to get to Goth?"
Jenna gave Blake a dirty look. Uh oh, trouble in paradise. And this time it wasn't even Tony's fault. More likely the Blake/Avon grabathon. "Blake," Jenna said, "setting aside the fact that I'm NOT going to risk hyperdrive again, there's still the little problem of that wormhole following us about the galaxy."
Blake rubbed the back of his neck. "I know, Jenna, but I can't do anything about that. I can get the coordinates for Star One from Goth. It's possible we could destroy it before the wormhole reaches us."
"Hooray," Avon muttered. "I do so enjoy a good suicidal mission. From a distance." He gave Blake and Jenna a dirty look the equal of Jenna's. Good to know that human nature hadn't changed. Tony doubted that Avon and Jenna really had reason to be jealous of each other. He knew Blake's, "There is only the mission" obsession all too well. He was pretty sure Blake wouldn't let anything stop him, not even if it got them all killed.
Tony sat down on the couch. Miraculously his drink was upright and full. He took another swallow. Still awful, but not as bad as his first taste of Laphroaig Islay. Of course, he'd been six then, and trying to copy his dear old dad in an effort to please him. "You mentioned this Star One before, Blake. I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but if I'm gonna get killed for it, I'd like to know why it's worth it." When he flew the nuke, it was an easy equation; Tony vs the population of Manhattan, at the very least, quite possibly everyone on Earth. Hey, he'd have done it just for Pepper, and had no regrets.
Blake seemed to mull it over for a moment, but when he answered, Tony had the impression he was talking more to his people than to Tony. "Star One is the central computer control for the Federation. Without it, their hold will be broken."
"Really?" Tony was doubtful. "Even in my day we had backups, emergency plans, remote servers not connected to the main system."
"Star One controls everything," Avon said. He had a little gadget he was nervously twirling in his fingers. If it was a sonic screwdriver, Tony was going to demand someone wake him up from this stupid dream.
"And by everything you mean...?" Tony nudged Avon. He could see it wouldn't take much; Avon looked ready to spill every bean Blake had, just to annoy him. That... was a weird metaphor. Maybe adrenalin and soma was stronger than it seemed. He put the glass back on the table.
"Literally, everything. Climate control, life-support on otherwise uninhabitable planets, computer flight control near inhabited planets... the list is endless."
Tony felt sick. "Jesus. You're terrorists."
Avon said smoothly, "The name has been applied to us. Blake prefers to think of us as freedom fighters...of course, there's nothing so free as a dead man. By that definition, we shall free a considerable portion of the universe. Hooray for the good guys."
"ENOUGH, AVON!" Blake shouted. "We must do this! If we stop now, all we have done is senseless killing and destruction!"
Tony stood up. "Yeah, no. How about we put it to a vote, everyone in favor of not committing mass murder, raise your hand." He raised his hand, and so did Avon. Vila lifted his for a moment, then cringed at Blake's scowl and dropped his hand. Docholli was awake, and he looked sick but he raised his hand and held it up, even though it was trembling.
"We follow Blake," Jenna said. But she didn't sound too sure of herself.
"Cally?" Blake asked. She had been silent throughout, staring fixedly ahead. When she didn't answer, he repeated himself. She didn't respond. "Cally!"
Cally blinked and shook her head. "I'm sorry. What did you say, Blake?"
"What's wrong with her?" Tony asked Avon, who might, or might not, be the answer guy, but he was angry enough at Blake to spill secrets, so worth a try.
"Cally's an alien. Telepathic, and given to fits of mysticism," Avon said with a sneer. Tony was really beginning to wonder why no one had punched Avon. He didn't even know him, and he felt like it. Avon had a point about not, you know, blowing up the galaxy just because you were losing the fight, but that didn't make him likable.
Cally's vague expression sharpened to annoyance. "My people are the Auronar. We are not mystics." She turned to Blake. "We must prioritize returning Stark. I have been in contact with the wormhole."
"It's intelligent?" Blake asked.
Cally shook her head. "Not by any meaningful standard. It operates on a level below animal instinct, more like a computer's programmed response. Bringing Stark here has... stretched it... like an elastic band. The, tension if you will, has the potential to rip apart the fabric of reality. Not just here, and now, but all times and places."
"Yes, well," Avon said, "that would make winning rather futile, wouldn't it?"
Tony said calmly, "Get the stick out of your ass, would you?"
Vila laughed and then pretended to be coughing after Avon glared at him.
"Avon," Blake said sharply, "why don't you finish the repairs on Stark's suit and add supplemental oxygen packs? We may have to leave him in space for the wormhole."
Avon's scowl deepened, but he left the flight deck, only pausing to say, "Don't make any decisions without me, will you? Just for a change?"
"I could repair my suit, myself," Stark said. "In fact, I'd prefer to do it."
"Yes, well, I doubt you'd be familiar with our tools." Blake had noticed Stark's reaction to Avon's quite ordinary laser-probe. "You can check on Avon's repairs, later. After he's had a chance to cool down."
"So, what, you sent him off to the sandbox to play with my toys? Does that work for you?"
Blake was tired of being accused of manipulation, but really, someone had to lead, and the idea of Avon taking charge was laughable. They'd probably wander around the galaxy, breaking into banks and stealing tech until Avon annoyed one of his own people into killing him. "Usually," Blake said. He nodded at Orac. "You wanted to talk with Orac. Now's your chance."
"Oh, I see, trading toys. Fine." Stark went over to Orac and peered at it. "Hi, let me introduce myself. I'm Tony Stark. I build stuff."
Docholli and the others watched Stark in silence. Cally was probably communing with the wormhole, Jenna computing evasion courses, and Vila was helping himself to more soma.
"Is that pertinent information to me?" Orac said in his usual snippy manner, "Are you a new member of Liberator's crew?"
"No, I'm just passing through. Thought we'd have a chat."
Orac hummed. "I have accessed your medical records. You are moderately interesting. I will speak with you."
Blake thought Orac must have been intrigued by Stark's power source. It couldn't have been because he was a cyborg, they weren't that uncommon.
Stark grinned. "Thanks. I don't believe you're all in there, Orac. Where's the rest of you?"
"My ability to interact at any distance with any computer fitted with tarriel cells makes that question unanswerable. I am everywhere."
"Huh. Universal wifi. That's cool." Stark laid both hands on top of Orac, which made Blake feel strange, as it was so much like Avon's usual pose when he was feeling particularly possessive of the computer. "Is that just informational access, or actual computing power?"
"I am far more than the sum of my parts!"
"Aren't we all," Stark said. "Come on, don't be that way. I know you must miss your dad, and dealing with Avon would make anyone grumpy, but there's no need to take it out on the world. Smile! Make friends! Live a little."
Blake decided that Stark was definitely insane.
Orac was silent for several seconds, and then it said, in a soft tone that Blake had never heard it use before, "I do miss Ensor. He left me. I was going to save him, but he left."
Stark patted Orac's casing. "That happens, dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it."
Orac sputtered indignantly.
"Don't live in the past, Orac! Look, I'm not current on events, but I built my own A.I. I probably understand you better than anyone else. Open up, tell me how great you are."
"I am unique!"
"Better than Star One?" Ah, Blake saw what Stark was doing now.
"Of course! Star One has no directing intelligence. It is a mere switchboard, sending and receiving information with no conscious design."
"So, if it's so stupid, and you're so smart, why can't you intercept those signals? Filter out the military- I'm sure Blake has a list of areas that could be silenced without hurting anyone- and let the necessary stuff go through?"
Blake stiffened. "Could you do that, Orac?" If he could eliminate just the parts the Federation needed for control-- that would have the same effect as destroying Star One, without loss of life.
"Theoretically. However, that would utilize an unacceptably high proportion of my circuits, and it would be a never-ending task."
"Do it, Orac," Blake said.
Orac's lights swirled. "I would be unable to conduct any original research. That was my prime purpose. To serve Ensor and his son in their researches."
"That's an order, Orac."
Orac said, "I refuse. You do not have sufficient authority to negate my base programming."
Stark said, "Aw, come on, baby, don't be like that. Ensor would have wanted you to do it."
Orac's lights flickered. Blake held his silence. It was probably considering Stark's suggestion, and the length of time it took to arrive at a decision might be a good sign. At least it hadn't said no immediately. The lights changed to a steady glow. "Very well. Since you request it, Stark."
Blake stared at Orac. "That's it?" It felt like an anticlimax. He'd been prepared to accept the guilt, to wade in blood in order to overthrow the Federation.
"Kindly state which Star One controlled services you wish disabled," Orac replied.
Stark patted Orac again. "Good boy."
"I don't want to do this," Docholli said. He was standing in the medical unit, cleaned up, sober and dressed in new clothes. He looked ten years younger, but his eyes were haunted.
"I'm not really keen on it, myself," Stark replied. He was sitting on an examination table, surrounded by cybersurgery equipment that Avon had made after Orac acquired the schematics.
Cally was standing next to him. "There is no actual invasion of the brain," she said. "The process merely locates and clears selected memories. In your case, you'll only lose a few hours."
Stark shuddered. "That's... very reassuring."
Blake felt more than a little sympathy. While he could only remember a few bits and pieces of his mind-wipe, those few were horrible. And he still wasn't sure his mind had fully recovered. To Stark, a self-proclaimed genius, the threat of mental impairment must be even worse.
"It can be damaging, but that's a deliberate perversion of the system," Docholli said. "I... did that. I was just... it was what I did. I took my orders like a good little drone."
Stark met Docholli's eyes. "You were part of a system with zero accountability." He took a deep breath. "Well, here's your chance to start making up for it. That's what you can do, dedicate your life to being better. It... helps." He lay down on the table and closed his eyes. "Could you... do it quick, before I change my mind?"
Blake watched as the machines induced a somnambulist state, where Stark was able to be directed to the memory that had to be extracted without emotion or discomfort. It wasn't like when Kayn had operated on Gan. He trusted Docholli to do his best. He just felt that he should be there.
"I supercharged the suit with as much oxygen as I could," Avon said. He was standing on the flight deck with all of them, watching Stark's suit, a bright red and gold speck vanishing down the maw of the wormhole. "The automated systems should come on line and land him safely on the other side. But if the wormhole deactivates it again... I couldn't find a workaround for that."
Blake nodded. "I know you did your best, Avon." Avon had been simultaneously annoyed and relieved that Stark had solved the Star One problem by sweet-talking Orac, but Blake knew he wasn't petty enough to give anything less than his best.
The wormhole swallowed Stark, and then shrank upon itself and vanished. Vila lifted his glass in salute. "He wasn't a bad little guy. He could hold his liquor. I wish we could find out if he made it."
Orac said, "It is self-evident that he did, in fact, survive the return."
"It is?" Docholli said, "What's self-evident about it?" He hadn't been drinking, but Blake could see he was feeling bad over having wiped Stark's memory, even though it was with his permission, and essential to avoid upsetting the time line. Knowing that Stark survived would be good for him.
"I studied Stark's medical records from his treatment on board ship. In his early maturity, he had undergone a primitive surgery to ensure sterility, therefore it was unlikely he had already sired a child. However autosomal and Y-chromosome analysis cross-referenced with my files proved that he was a progenitor whose lack of offspring would have resulted in a gap in Liberator's crew. Therefore he must have survived long enough to reverse the sterilization process and then continued his line."
"Wait, what?" Vila asked, spitting soma across the table. "Stark's someone's great-great, whatever daddy? Someone we know?"
"Must be Avon," Vila said. "Isn't there always that... generation gap-thingie, where you hate your da?"
Avon huffed and folded his arms. "More likely alcoholism runs in the family."
Cally said, "If such traits are inheritable, perhaps Jenna got her ability to pilot from him."
"Or maybe," Jenna remarked, having spent a few hours listening to Stark while they waited for Avon to finish building the surgical equipment, "maybe he passed on his love of explosions to Blake."
Blake smiled. "Well, which is it, Orac? Which of us is related to Stark?"
"None of you." Orac's lights flickered brightly. The computer actually sounded gleeful. "His genius descended to Ensor!"
Blake blinked and reached for the pitcher of soma. "So..."
"Stark was my daddy!"