They all knew how Tony felt about the machines in his Tower. It wasn’t just JARVIS and the workshop bots, which Steve could sort of understand—they had personality. But if something went even the slightest bit wrong with one of the kitchen appliances—like the time Thor put a bagel in the toaster with cream cheese on it, or when Clint used the coffee pot to make ramen noodles—Tony fussed over the offended party like a hen with one chick until he had made it good as new.
Steve would have put it down to a preference for cleanliness, except that he’d seen how Tony took care of—or rather, didn’t take care of—any of his possessions that didn’t happen to run on electricity. And the entire time Tony had been cleaning up the coffee maker, he’d talked to it, saying things like, “It’s all right, buddy, we can fix this,” and “I know it tastes nasty, but this will make you feel better,” glaring at Clint like he’d kicked Tony’s dog.
But he’d figured that was just part of Tony’s weirdness. Then one day he was in the break room at SHIELD headquarters, drinking coffee and trying to read the newspaper while he waited for Tony to finish his meeting and give him a lift back to the tower. It was difficult to concentrate on the paper because a group of junior agents were putting a series of increasingly bizarre things in the microwave: eggs, grapes, those pastel-colored marshmallow chicks.
The last made Steve react. “You’re never going to get that cleaned out,” he pointed out. “The whole place will stink like burning sugar every time someone uses it.”
“It’s OK,” said one of the agents. “We’re getting a new one—this one has a dead spot from Bill putting a fork in there.”
“So we might as well trash this one before we throw it out,” another one added.
Steve supposed that was all right, then. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way 21st-century people threw things away and bought new at the first sign of trouble—he’d been raised on “wear it out, fix it up, make it do, or do without”—but it was one of those arguments he knew he’d lose. When they’d put a battery in there, it immediately began to glow and smoke, and Steve wondered if the situation was becoming unsafe, but the agents were laughing and cheering.
Then—as the plastic interior of the microwave began to melt and drip down, flaming—the break room door slammed open and the small space was suddenly full of Tony, screaming, “What the fuck? You don’t—seriously, what the fuck?”
Tony lunged for the electrical cord, pulling it out of the socket. Steve, deciding that Tony probably had a better sense of the dangers of the situation than the agents did, fetched the small fire extinguisher that was located near the fridge. When he got near enough to Tony to hand it to him, he could hear him murmuring, “It’s okay. Okay. You’re going to be all right.”
Steve thought that Tony was talking to himself—he knew Tony had some combat stress problems, from Afghanistan and the fight against the Chitauri. Maybe a fear of fire was part of it. Or radiation. Quickly scanning the instructions printed on the side of the extinguisher, he activated it and sprayed down the microwave.
As soon as the fire was out, Tony was on top of the microwave, stroking its casing and muttering some more about circuits and magnetrons. “Okay, baby, we can fix this.” He reached inside, where the glass plate of the microwave was pitted and cracked. “I know, it hurts….”
Batteries had acid in them, didn’t they? And that plate had to be hot. “Tony,” he said, repeating, “TONY!” when he got no response.
Tony turned to look at him, apparently noticing for the first time that Steve was in the room. “Steve, what the fuck? You—”
“Should you really be sticking your hands in there?”
Tony blinked at him for a second, then said, “Right. Healing factor. You do it.” He pushed himself off the counter and ricocheted over to the fridge, where he began rummaging around.
Steve, having no idea what Tony wanted him to do, turned his attention to the agents. “Okay, playtime’s over. Don’t you guys have work to do? Clear out.”
Tony turned away from the refrigerator, clutching a box of baking soda. “Steve, what are you—arghh!” He ran back over to the microwave, alternating reassurances and obscenities, as the agents scattered.
Tugging his sleeves down over his hands, Tony took out the plate and transferred it to the sink, then began shaking baking soda over the interior of the microwave. “Okay. Okay, that’s better, yeah? Yeah. Base neutralizes acid; basic chemistry. Okay. Um. We’re just gonna let that sit for a few minutes. I’ll have to get you into the workshop before I can do anything else….” He rounded on Steve. “Were you here the whole time? You just let them do this? They could have killed him!”
Even at that point, Steve didn’t get it. “Who?”
“Him,” Tony said, pointing at the microwave.
Tony only realized his mistake when Steve said, “Tony. It’s a microwave.” He took a step towards Tony, and now he was making the concerned-face. “Are you okay? Maybe we should get someone from Medical. You, um….”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Tony said, taking off his suit jacket—now decorated with minor acid burns on the cuffs—and shaking the rest of the baking soda over the few spots on his hands and wrists. He knew that wasn’t what Steve meant when he said Medical. He meant psych, because what you were when you talked about machines like they were living things was crazy.
Tony knew that, even though he thought you’d have to be crazy not to realize that machines were living things. Even analog ones hummed with life—simple life, like plants or something—and now that everything had computer chips in it, they thought and felt—and suffered, when you did things like explode batteries inside their bodies.
He turned back to the microwave, stroking its casing to give it what comfort he could. Somehow, he’d thought Steve would understand. After all, Steve still used the Nokia dumbphone SHIELD had issued him shortly after he woke up, refusing a Starkphone on the grounds that I wasn’t brought up to throw things away just because there’s something newer, Tony. And while Tony didn’t like it—Steve could’ve used a Starkphone, without throwing away the Nokia—he still thought of Steve as, possibly, the only sane person he’d ever met.
He’d have to think of something to say—that he’d been joking, or…something, but he was too shaken by the betrayal to put the words together. He was saved by the arrival of Director Fury.
“Stark, what are you doing? We were in the middle of a meeting.”
Tony didn’t know how to answer that, either. Steve said, “Uh, some of the younger agents set the microwave on fire.”
“We do have a fire suppression system in this building, don’t we?”
The fire suppression system protested that there had been insufficient smoke outside of the microwave casing to activate its protocols. “Nobody’s blaming the fire suppression system,” Tony said, even though he knew that wouldn’t make any sense to any of the meatbags in the room. “I’m taking this home,” he added, wrapping his jacket around the microwave—to protect his relatively fragile skin from molten plastic and any remaining traces of acid—and picking it up.
Steve said, “Tony,” and Fury said, “Stark,” at the same time.
“I’m taking this home,” Tony repeated. “Excuse me.”
Steve tried to catch up with Tony on the way out of the building, but Tony could move pretty fast when he wanted to—and not having to bother with things like politeness gave him an edge, since he just plowed through clusters of people that Steve had to navigate around. He made it to the garage in time to see Tony’s taillights disappearing.
“Great,” he said. “You were my ride, you know!” he called after the retreating car.
He wound up having to take a taxi home. The ride gave him plenty of time to wonder just what was wrong with Tony. The way he was acting made absolutely no sense. Granted, about fifty percent of what Tony did on any given day made no sense to Steve, but this was different, somehow. He thought, maybe, that Tony thought he should have stopped those guys from messing around with the microwave…but why? If it was a safety issue, radiation or something, they would have had to start some kind of containment procedures, and probably get everyone to medical for decontamination.
Instead, he’d wrapped the microwave up in his jacket like it was a baby and stormed out of there. He’d said he was taking it home—and Steve didn’t see any reason Tony would lie about that. It was almost like….
Almost like he’d stumbled on those guys beating a dog or tying fireworks to a cat or something. Growing up, Steve had seen other kids doing things like that, or bragging about it afterwards. It had always pissed him off; one time he had taken home a badly-burned cat—he’d taken off his shirt to wrap it in, and used up all the antiseptic and bandages in the house, trying to fix it up. Ma hadn’t said anything about the shirt, or the waste of first-aid supplies, even when the cat died the next day.
What Tony did would have made sense if the agents had been tormenting a cat, or hell, even a mouse or a spider.
But this was a goddamn microwave.
It looked like Tony had gotten there just in time. Most of the damage to New Microwave was superficial—literally, the interior surface was melted, acid-scarred, and coated with an astonishing variety of crud. The magnetron, fortunately, was intact, and so were most of the circuits. He’d do a little rewiring and swap out some fuses while he was in there.
“Your wave guide’s a little bent,” Tony said. “Did somebody stick a fork in you? Ow. Is that why they decided to wreck you? Fuckers. We’ll straighten it out. Or maybe machine a new one. You’re going to need a new carousel—JARVIS, can we order one from the manufacturer?”
“Yes, they are still in production, sir.”
“Good—do it. And get the fabrication units set up for plastic compression molding.” To the microwave, he added, “Where are we going to put you? Don’t worry; I’m not taking you back there. We already have a workshop microwave. Maybe the gym? Yeah, you’ll like that—lots of company. They’re fitness machines, not appliances, but they’re friendly guys. Treadmill Two is hilarious.”
“Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting entrance to the workshop,” JARVIS said.
DUM-E rolled out of his charging unit and started spinning around in happy circles. Steve always played with DUM-E when he visited; he’d taught him rock-paper-scissors, and tic-tac-toe; they were working on checkers. (Steve had given up on hide-and-seek—their sensory inputs were so different that neither of them could understand when they were successfully hidden from the other.)
Which made it all the more confusing that Steve had so clearly not understood what was wrong with torturing an innocent microwave. Tony was sure—had been sure—that if Steve saw someone, say, taking a baseball bat to DUM-E, he’d kick ass and take names. Okay, guys, playtime’s over. Tony shuddered.
DUM-E came over and prodded Tony’s shoulder with his claw. He clearly didn’t understand why Tony hadn’t let his friend in. “Yeah, okay,” Tony said with a sigh. “Keep him busy, okay?”
DUM-E did his best, engaging Steve in several rounds of rock-paper-scissors and bringing over the checkers board, but eventually Steve made his way over to Tony. “Hey, Tony. What’s up?”
“Just fixing this microwave,” Tony said.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “About that.”
“What about it?”
“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, “the fabrication units are ready.”
“Great.” He picked up New Microwave and took him over to the holographic table. “Scan the interior.”
Steve said, “Is it, um—not right now, DUM-E,” he said, patting the robots’s claw and DUM-E tugged at his jacket. “Some kind of special microwave? I mean, did you make it or something?”
“It’s a Kenmore,” Tony said.
“Stark Industries does not produce the house brand at Sears, no.” He patted the microwave in apology—it wasn’t his fault he was a relatively low-end model.
“Okay,” said Steve. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“Bathroom’s through there,” Tony said, pointing with his screwdriver.
“What? Oh. No, thanks, I’m OK. So you, uh…okay, I’m just going to come out and say it.”
Tony tried a deflection. “Coming out? I knew there was something going on with you and Clint! How long has it been?”
“Why would you say Clint—never mind. No, that’s not what I meant. You seemed really…upset. About the microwave.”
“Nah,” Tony said. “I was just, you know, looking for an excuse to get out of that meeting.”
“It seemed almost like you thought it was…a person, or something.”
Tony was glad he put it that way—if he’d been talking about JARVIS or DUM-E or U, it would have been harder to convincingly deny it, but New Microwave was a pretty simple creature. All he wanted was a regular diet of electricity and a chance to fulfill his function, with nobody hurting him. So, maybe like a really dumb puppy, or a gerbil or something. (Tony was a little vague on the relative smarts of meat-pets.) “Steve. It’s a microwave. I am perfectly aware that it’s a microwave.”
“You said ‘They could have killed him,’” Steve quoted, putting a stress on the “him” that Tony was pretty sure he hadn’t.
Tony rolled his eyes, snorted, and bent slightly at the knees in his “I can’t believe you’re that dumb” subroutine. “Steve. I was doing that thing from—” Dramatic sigh. “Never mind; I’ll put it on the list for movie night.” With any luck, Steve would forget about this conversation before Tony had to find a movie that had a scene where anybody said ‘They could have killed him’ in circumstances that in any way resembled what had happened this afternoon.
“Okay,” Steve finally said. “It just seemed a little weird.”
“Steve, Velcro seems a little weird to you.”
“It is! If kids never learn to tie their shoes—never mind. I just wanted to check that everything was okay.”
“Everything is okay. We done? Shoo—let me fix my new microwave in peace.”
It wasn’t that Steve didn’t believe Tony, it was just…okay, he didn’t believe him. His reaction to the microwave incident was way, way off normal, even for Tony. After the conversation in the workshop, he decided that Tony didn’t really think kitchen appliances were alive, but there was something going on. It was in Tony’s file that he’d been tortured in Afghanistan—maybe there’d been something with batteries and fire? And there had been another guy with him, who hadn’t made it out.
Steve knew as well as anyone that the memories could come on you suddenly, and go away just as quick. There had been a few times, when something slipped out of his hand, that Steve had had to sit down and take a few deep breaths before he stopped feeling the motion of the train underneath him and the sound of Bucky’s name ringing in his ears. If anyone had seen him sitting there clutching whatever-it-was he’d dropped like it was his hope of heaven, he’d have looked pretty crazy, too. And he’d have done some fancy footwork to avoid having to explain why he’d gotten so emotional over dropping a banana or a roll of paper towels or something. Sometimes, when he was doing his sitting-down-and-breathing, he’d pick up whatever it was, and hold on to it, as tight as he could.
And he was fine, so it stood to reason Tony was, too.
Still, Steve figured it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on him. Only it turned out that he couldn’t—not easily, at least. Normally, it wasn’t too hard to run into Tony—all you had to do was be in places where there was coffee, liquor, or video games, and he was sure to turn up. If you really wanted to draw him out, cooking bacon generally did the trick. But over the next few days, Tony was nowhere to be found—and whenever Steve resorted to asking JARVIS, he reported that Tony was in the workshop and preferred not to be disturbed.
Even that wasn’t too unusual—Tony did that every month or two, and usually emerged exhausted, smelly, and clutching some crazy new gizmo. But this time, when Steve finally insisted on going in, he found Tony still fixing the microwave.
He knew it was the same one, too, because he asked.
“Uh-huh,” Tony said. “The wave guide’s still not quite right. Is there a reason for this visit, or are you just here to drive me to drink? Speaking of—” He snapped his fingers in DUM-E’s direction, and the robot rolled over with a liquor bottle in his claw.
It was clear that, whatever was bothering Tony, he wasn’t going to talk about it, and he seemed to be acting more or less normally—for Tony’s value of normal—so Steve left. The next time he saw Tony was another couple of days later, when Tony brought the SHIELD microwave to the gym. He muttered to it as he plugged it in, then went around the room muttering and patting the gym equipment. He probably thought that Steve—who was running on the treadmill at the time—couldn’t hear him, and Steve usually tried not to misuse the super-soldier hearing, but…well, he listened in just for a little bit, and heard Tony telling the exercise bicycle to “be nice to the new guy.”
Clint, who was doing gymnastics moves on a high bar—a piece of equipment that Tony ignored completely—hopped down and wandered over to the fridge for a bottle of water. “Do we actually need a microwave in the gym?” he wondered aloud.
“Maybe not,” Tony said cheerfully, “but now we’ve got one. I’m sure we’ll discover it has many uses.”
Clint squinted at it. “Is this…it looks like the one that used to be in the break room at HQ. It’s got that melted spot on the door.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “They were throwing it out.”
“It doesn’t work very well,” Clint said. “And are you having money problems?”
“It does now, and no,” Tony answered.
“Tony rescued it,” Steve volunteered. Tony had his back to him, and Steve could see his shoulders tighten.
“Stark, you’re weird,” Clint said.
“Uh-huh. And your mother dresses you funny.”
Then Tony filled a mug with water and microwaved it, for no apparent reason. He didn’t drink it, or make hot cocoa with it. He just heated it up and left it sitting on the counter while he got on the other treadmill—the one that Tony insisted worked perfectly well, but that, whenever Steve used it, tended to keep increasing its speed until even Steve couldn’t keep up.
Steve suspected a prank on Tony’s part, but the treadmill never did that to anyone else, and it sometimes did it when Tony wasn’t even in the building, so he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how he was pulling it off.
After a few days in Tony’s workshop, New Microwave repaired, in good spirits, and ready to be settled in his new home in the gym. He was still a little leery of metal, but overall he was a pretty cheerful appliance. Gym Refrigerator was a little distant with him at first—she was used to being the only kitchen appliance in the gym—but once she heard about his sad history, she doted on him, cycling off her compressor whenever he was used so that he could have all the electricity from their shared outlet.
Overall, Tony couldn’t regret bringing him home, even though he knew he’d made a bit of a scene. Steve didn’t really say anything about it, but he did seem to be looking at Tony a lot. And whenever Tony obviously noticed him looking, he looked away. That was worrisome.
Maybe he was imagining it—he was worried that Steve suspected something, and the human perceptual suite did tend to pick up on things it was primed to consider salient. But he knew someone who didn’t have those limitations. “JARVIS, am I going crazy, or has Steve been looking at me funny?” he asked one day in the workshop.
“There is a 12.3% increase in the proportion of time Captain Rogers spends looking at you, when you are in the same room.”
“Huh,” Tony said. “Can we rule out if he’s nursing a man-crush on me?” Tony didn’t think that was the issue, but, well. Limited perceptual suite.
“I have not observed an increase in speech acts or physical contact, as would be consistent with sexual attraction sir.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“I observed a similar alteration in Ms. Potts’s attention following Afghanistan, sir. And in Mr. Stane’s following your overdose in 2001. In both cases, patterns normalized gradually over a period of six months in the former case, and eight weeks in the latter.”
“Conclusion: he’s worried about me,” Tony said.
“The evidence is consistent with that hypothesis, sir.”
“When did he start looking at me funny?” Tony asked. Maybe it had been before the Microwave Incident, and he just hadn’t noticed.
JARVIS gave a date and time, and added, “When you took the new microwave to the gymnasium, sir. However, prior to that, he queried your whereabouts at 26% greater-than-usual rate. Also, he prepared bacon twice.”
Well, that wasn’t good. The timing suggested strongly that it was the Microwave Incident that had Steve concerned, and if he started asking serious questions—questions Tony couldn’t deflect with a joke—Tony wasn’t confident in his ability to give the right answers. After a childhood of being misdiagnosed with everything from ADD to autism to “just an imaginative little boy, Mrs. Stark,” Tony had learned to fake normal, but he didn’t understand it well enough stand up to scrutiny.
For instance, he’d never been able to figure out whether regular people didn’t know that machines didn’t like it when they didn’t work properly, or if they just didn’t care. He’d dated a girl once who called her car “Charlene”—even though the car seemed like a he to Tony—and talked to him, saying things like, “C’mon, baby, you can do it” as they climbed a steep hill, but she’d still let the poor guy go around with a badly-tuned engine for months on end. Tony didn’t know whether she had been cruel, or just stupid. Neither did “Charlene.” Either way, Tony had broken up with her right after fixing the engine.
He couldn’t fake normal when he still didn’t know what normal was. And another part of him didn’t really want to. He wasn’t the one who was wrong, here. Except….
You can’t be like this, Tony, his father had said, after that day in his lab, when he’d sat Tony down for what he called a “man-to-man talk.” They’ll lock you up. Followed by, Just knock it off and be normal. Since “knock it off” was one of Dad’s favorite things to say to Tony, he’d never been sure which things were in the “they’ll lock you up” category.
So he might have overreacted a little when Steve caught him playing keep-away with the vacuum cleaners. It was a pretty simple game—vacuum cleaners, even ones he’d built, weren’t a whole lot brighter than microwaves, though being independently mobile gave them an edge when it came to interacting with humans. Tony provided a mess for the vacuum to clean up—in the early days, when the primitive vacuum bots hadn’t been able to get under furniture, he’d just move something to reveal an accumulation of dust bunnies—and the vacuums had to get past him to clean it. They loved the game, and Tony made sure they always won at the end, so they didn’t get frustrated.
Now, his vacuum bots were capable of getting to every part of the Tower, so he had to either wait to play spontaneously when he spilled something or make a mess deliberately. This time, he dumped out a bowl of popcorn in the middle of the main living room. When the vacuum who was working in the room found a mess in excess of what her dust compartment would hold, she trundled over to the hatch to signal some of her packmates to come help. When they arrived, the game was on. When any vacuum got near the mess, Tony got in front of him or her, so the proximity sensors would register his feet and adjust the ‘bot’s course. The challenge was that Tony had only two feet, and there were six vacuums playing today.
He worked up a bit of a sweat, running around the TV room jumping in front of vacuums. “Ooh, so close! You almost got past me. C’mon, who’s next? Who wants a piece of me? Gotcha! Too slow, too slow.”
“What are you doing?”
Later analysis would prove that Steve’s tone was more amused than disapproving, but Tony didn’t notice that at first. He straightened up and said guiltily, “Nothing.” Clearing his throat, he added, “That is, I was testing the vacuum cleaners’ proximity sensors. Because they are an invention. That I’m working on.”
“Are they?” Steve leaned against the doorframe, watching as the vacuums swarmed the spilled popcorn.
“Uh, well, these ones are commercial models.” Maybe Steve knew that; it was a checkable fact. “But I invented them. Earlier. And I might want to make them…better.” One of the vacuums detached from the pack to roll over and nudge Tony’s foot. Tony could feel her concern and confusion—the game had ended more abruptly than usual, and she knew he was upset. “You’re fine. Go. Clean,” he told her. He wished he didn’t have to say it out loud—it would make Steve suspicious-- but for some reason, machines understood him better when he spoke aloud. Even if, like the vacuums or the microwave, they had no audio inputs.
“Okay,” Steve said slowly. But the vacuum that had been checking on Tony apparently wasn’t satisfied; she rolled over to Steve and bumped his foot, too. “Hey, there, little fella. Do you have a name?”
That had to be a trick question. Didn’t it? “Steve, they’re vacuum cleaners. I call that one C-85.”
He actually did—85 designated her as part of the pack that covered floors 85-90, and she was the third one to be added to the group. One thing he’d learned was that if the names he gave his pets didn’t sound anything like human names, no human being would think there was anything strange about it—and as far as she and Tony were concerned, Vacuum C-85 was a meaningful and appropriate name. As was, say, “Upstairs Toaster” or “Gym Microwave.” It identified her as both an individual and as part of a social unit, just like human names did.
“Pretty,” Steve said.
“Did you want something, Cap? Because these proximity sensors aren’t going to test themselves.”
“Uh, no. Just, don’t forget it’s Movie Night.”
“Course I won’t forget.”
If he did, Common-room Flatscreen would remind him.
That, Steve decided, was definitely weird. Not so much Tony making a mess and then trying to stop the vacuum cleaners from cleaning it up—that seemed like something Tony would do—but the way he’d acted when Steve caught him at it. The super-soldier hearing told him Tony’s heart rate had sped up, which might have been a fear reaction to being startled. And then he’d over-explained himself. Tony babbling was nothing new, but he’d sounded like he had something to hide. Like he’d been doing something wrong, or at least embarrassing.
Steve had absolutely no idea what to make of that, but it was setting off his inner alarm siren. And as a soldier, he’d learned to trust a hunch. After a few moments’ thought, he decided to see if Bruce could shed any light on the situation—he was the one Tony got along with best.
Bruce was doing some reading when Steve asked if he could stop by. He sounded worried, and when he turned up, he looked worried, too. “What’s up?” he asked as he let Steve in. “You look—did Tony do something?” It was definitely a Tony kind of expression Steve was wearing.
“Actually, yeah,” Steve said, taking a seat on the couch. “You guys aren’t on the outs, are you?”
“Hm?” Not as far as Bruce knew, and anyway, that didn’t seem like the kind of thing Steve would concern himself with. He was team leader, not den mother.
But Steve apparently thought he hadn’t understood the expression—fair enough, that happened sometimes. “You didn’t have a fight or something?”
“Uh, I was thinking maybe he was lonely or something. That’s not why I came,” Steve added. “He’s been talking to appliances.”
“Tony always talks to appliances,” Bruce said slowly. “You didn’t notice that before?”
“No, I did, but…that is weird, right? That isn’t something people do, now.”
“Not as much as Tony does,” Bruce admitted. “But he’s, you know. Tony.” He shrugged.
“Just now, he was…playing with the vacuum cleaners. You know, those little disk ones?”
Bruce did. But why would Steve feel the need to come talk to Bruce about that? Unless… “You mean—sexually?” It seemed unlikely, but not exactly outside the realm of possibility, considering this was Tony.
“No! Geez. How could you even—I don’t want to know,” he decided. “No, it was like…tag, or something. He stopped really fast when I came in, and said he was testing their proximity sensors.”
“Maybe he was,” Bruce suggested.
Steve shook his head. “He acted really strange about it.”
“Strange how?” Bruce polished his glasses on his shirttail. “Are we thinking mind-control, or some kind of alien…possession scenario?” he guessed.
“No, it wasn’t anything like that. He just…his heart rate sped up. When I came in.”
Which Steve had heard with the super-soldier hearing. “Okay.”
“And then he…babbled.”
“Tony does that,” Bruce pointed out.
“This was different. Hell, it almost was like I’d walked in on him jerkin’ it—except if I had, he’d probably have just asked if I’d ever seen one that big or something. But you know how, most guys, if you catch them looking at a girlie mag, they’ll say they were just reading it for the articles, or they picked it up without knowing what it was. Some kind of flimsy excuse.”
“Right,” Bruce said with a nod.
“It was like that. He over-explained. About the proximity sensors.”
“Okay.” Bruce still wasn’t sure what the problem was. “And that…bothers you? I mean, Tony does weird things all the time.”
“But he doesn’t usually try to hide it,” Steve explained.
“You have a point,” Bruce admitted. What could Tony possibly have been doing with the vacuums that was so weird that even Tony wouldn’t own up to it? Even if it was some kind of sex thing, Tony wasn’t exactly shy about that subject. “Are you, um…you’re not worried about him turning, are you?” SHIELD had contingency plans for any of the Avengers going super-villain. Bruce only knew about them because Tony had hacked into the SHIELD servers and shown him, but Steve might have the clearance to see the legitimately. Apart from the one about himself, at least.
“What?” Steve said. “No, I didn’t even think of that. You think…?”
So he didn’t have access to the contingency plans. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Bruce said. “I mean, if he did, we’d all be…fucked.” It wasn’t just Iron Man, but the scope of Tony’s access to SHIELD in general and the Avengers in particular meant that Tony could, if he wanted, cripple the entire organization in the blink of an eye. “But if he was going to break that way, he would have already.”
“That’s…fatalistic,” Steve said.
Bruce shrugged. “There’s reams of SHIELD analysis on this stuff. You get superheroes and super-villains the same way: a power plus a defining event. Tony’s had his power all his life –it’s not the suit,” he added. He was pretty sure Steve got that, now, but explained just in case. “His intellect and creativity, the way they add up to sheer mechanical genius, that’s his superpower.” Tony’s life pre-Afghanistan certainly gave the objective observer enough reason to think he’d go villain, if he went at all: self-absorption, disdain for other people, preoccupation with things that went boom. “He came out of Afghanistan a hero. The palladium poisoning and the Chitauri invasion got him thinking longer-term, brought him into a group. His responses to extreme stress are… constructive. Not necessarily healthy, but not destructive.”
“Okay,” Steve said, still looking a little shell-shocked. He nodded a couple of times and then continued, “I was more worried about him, not what he might do. Like he might need some kind of…help.”
“Because he plays with vacuum cleaners?”
“And talks to appliances,” Steve said. He shook his head. “I’ve been wondering lately, if his weird-but-harmless quirks are…hiding something we should be paying attention to.”
“Something psychological?” God knew Tony had enough issues to keep a team of therapists busy for years, if he’d ever seek help for any of them.
“Yeah.” Steve put his head in his hands. “You’re right, the vacuum cleaner thing is…I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it if it hadn’t been for…how much do you know about the new microwave in the gym?”
Bruce couldn’t begin to imagine what that had to do with anything. “Clint said he got it out of a SHIELD trash can or something?” Admittedly, that was kind of weird, for Tony. Perfectly normal behavior in an undergraduate dorm or third-world country, but Tony could certainly afford to buy as many new microwave ovens as he wanted. “He isn’t really the trash-picking type.”
“It’s weirder than that. Some guys at SHIELD were blowing stuff up in it. Marshmallows, eggs—I guess that’s something people do?”
“Yeah—there are a lot of YouTube videos of things like that,” Bruce confirmed.
“Then they put some batteries in there. It caught fire, and Tony just ran in, swearing a blue streak. He unplugged it, and I got the fire extinguisher and sprayed it. It was after the fire was out that things got weird. Tony was…it was like he was giving it first aid. And—reassuring it. I asked him about it later, and he tried to pass it off as a joke…is there a movie where somebody says ‘They could have killed him’?” Steve asked.
Bruce shrugged. It seemed like something that might come up in a movie. “Probably. Why?”
“That’s one of the things he said. He claimed it was a movie reference.”
“It’s…not one I know,” Bruce admitted. Not Star Wars, Monty Python, or any other part of the geek canon.
“It was something like, how could you let them do this, they could have killed him,” Steve recalled. “And I asked who he meant, and he pointed at the microwave and said ‘him.’” He shook his head. “He wasn’t joking when he said it. I’d swear he was really upset. I thought it must be a flashback.”
Right, it stood to reason Steve would know about those—SHIELD had kept him in therapy until he refused to keep going. “I bet you’re right,” Bruce agreed. “Afghanistan. There was a…car battery.”
Steve nodded. “And there was another guy there with him, who didn’t make it out.”
Yinsen—Tony had mentioned him a few times. Bruce wondered if it wasn’t his death, rather than the kidnapping itself, that put Tony on the path to being an Avenger. By giving him someone to avenge. A flashback to seeing him die would leave Tony pretty shaken up. “Occasional flashbacks aren’t necessarily a serious problem. I mean….” Bruce knew they pretty much all had them, with the possible exception of Thor, but he only knew that because he’d read everyone’s files, courtesy of Tony. “Maybe you’ve even had some,” he said instead.
“Yeah. I know how it is. I thought I’d keep an eye on him afterwards, just to make sure he was okay.”
Steve looked to him as if for approval, and Bruce was reminded of how young Steve really was, if you only counted the years he was awake. “Good idea,” Bruce said.
Steve went on, “But I haven’t seen much of him since then. Have you?”
“No,” Bruce admitted. Tony really hadn’t been around much, had he? “Have you tried asking JARVIS where he is?”
“Yeah, a bunch of times. He says the workshop.”
Hm. Tony did tend to disappear in there for long stretches—but even then, he generally kept in touch with Bruce, mostly in the form of schematics or videos demonstrating how cool his latest project was. And Bruce hadn’t gotten any messages like that. “Any idea what he’s working on?”
“The one time JARVIS agreed to let me in, he was fixing the microwave. And drinking.”
“Well, then.” Bruce smiled ruefully. “Tony’s coping strategy of choice. Hide and drink.” Something like, say, talking to his teammates would be healthier, but it wouldn’t be Tony. “Playing with the vacuum cleaners could even be a sign he’s feeling better.”
“Could be,” Steve agreed. “He looked like he was having fun. Up until he realized I was there.”
“Good. Not the hiding and drinking, but happy’s good. And we all have…issues.”
That summed it all up pretty neatly, didn’t it? Tony had a flashback—a dramatic and public one—and, predictably, hid to lick his wounds and self-medicate with alcohol. He was on his way back to status quo, which just happened to include talking to appliances and playing tag with vacuum cleaners. Except there was one niggling detail….
“You’re sure the new microwave in the gym is the same one?” he asked. It would have been pretty thoroughly wrecked, and fixing it might have cost more in parts than a new one would, even before you got into the value of Tony’s time.
Steve nodded. “Definitely. Clint even recognized it. Tony made a lot of repairs—it wasn’t working right even before the batteries.”
“Why would he bother keeping it?”
Reviewing the recordings in his workshop, Tony winced at how unconvincing his explanation for what he was doing with the vacuums had been. It would have been less suspicious to just say he was playing keep-away with the vacuums. And maybe it wasn’t that strange of a thing to do—there was a whole Pinterest board devoted to dressing vacuum robots up in little outfits. If playing keep-away with them was weirder than that, Tony didn’t understand people at all.
But since he didn’t understand people at all, it was entirely possible that playing keep-away was weirder.
Of course, the real problem wasn’t that playing with robots was statistically less usual. The real problem was the robot-dressers could say, with complete honesty, that they didn’t really think their vacuum cleaners cared one way or the other about being dressed up in little outfits.
The vacuums didn’t actually care about outfits. (Tony had asked.) But they did like playing.
He should have realized he couldn’t keep something like this hidden, not with a houseful of observant and professionally suspicious roommates. Just keeping it from Pepper had been hard enough. He might have been able to do it if he could bring himself just not interact with the machines when the other humans were around, but they didn’t understand that, and kept pestering him for attention, wondering why he was ignoring them.
Maybe he should have played dumb around the common-area appliances from the time they were installed. They’d have given up eventually, the way they did when they belonged to people who didn’t understand them.
Hindsight. 20/20. He couldn’t switch out all the appliances now, not when Steve was already suspicious—and if he did, what would he do with the old ones?
“Steve knows something’s up,” Tony said aloud.
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS agreed.
“Access house recordings, and give me an analysis of what he thinks is going on.”
“Most of the relevant data is privacy-protected.”
“And there’s…nothing that would trigger an override?”
“That’s something.” But the override would pretty much only come into effect if Steve had said outright that he knew. Or taken steps toward doing something unpleasant about it. “Extrapolate from available data. Steve’s reaction if he does find out about…my thing.”
There was a noticeable lag as JARVIS processed the request. Tony didn’t blame him—he wasn’t sure what data would be relevant, and JARVIS’s understanding of human behavior was limited by Tony’s own understanding. The question wasn’t going to be any easier for him to answer than it would be for Tony—and Tony had no idea.
“Data is not sufficient to reach a reliable conclusion,” JARVIS warned, when he finally answered.
“I know. Give it your best guess.”
“He has espoused progressive positions on a number of social issues. Holders of such views are more likely than average to be supportive of conditions such as yours.”
“Yeah.” He knew that. But “more likely than average” wasn’t saying much. “I think Bruce would be okay. With it,” he said uncertainly. He didn’t think a guy who turned into a big green rage monster was in any position to judge.
But you could never really tell, with people. At least, Tony couldn’t. Case in point: Obie. It was a little easier now than it was when he was a kid—he could at least get an idea of what somebody’s phone thought about them. But phones weren’t always the best judges of character. Bruce’s phone, for instance, thought he was kind of boring—mostly because Bruce didn’t make a lot of calls or play and Facebook games.
On the other hand, Mass Spectrometer and Scanning-Tunneling Electron Microscope both liked Bruce. Hell, Gamma Camera liked Bruce better than he liked Tony. But that may have been for reasons unrelated to Bruce’s personality.
And he was getting kind of off-topic, Tony realized. Since it was clear he wasn’t going to generate any useful analysis without more data, Tony gave up and moved on to tinkering with the armor until Common Room Flatscreen let him know the others were gathering for movie night.
Still, he couldn’t manage to put the problem out of his mind, and it didn’t help matters when, as soon as he arrived on the common floor, Clint demanded, “Why does it always burn mine? Nat’s is fine. Cap’s is fine. Why does the microwave hate me?”
Tony hoped that his sense that everyone was looking at him for an answer was just his paranoia talking. (He did know the answer: She was friends with the coffee maker, and hadn’t gotten over the ramen incident. But he knew better than to actually say so.)
Still, the sense of scrutiny didn’t fade until Bruce shuffled his feet, pushed up his glasses, and said, “It’s probably, uh, the kind you get. The fake butter can…scorch. You can have some of mine, if you want,” he offered.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Clint said. Tony didn’t blame him; Bruce always had natural air-popped popcorn at movie night.
“Here, let me do it.” Tony took a packet of Clint’s mega-ultra-movie-theater-butter popcorn out of the box and put it in Common Area Microwave, tickling her keypad as he pressed the popcorn button.
“That’s the exact same button he pressed,” Natasha pointed out. “Do you think you’re the microwave whisperer?”
It was definitely the paranoia that made Tony whirl around and look at her in alarm. “All in how you do it,” he said, as lightly as he could.
“Tony,” said Bruce. “Are you…okay?”
“What, me? Sure. Maybe a little over-caffeinated. I think I’ll have a scotch, level things out a little bit.”
“Okay,” Bruce said. “Maybe you should try to get out of the workshop more.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “You know, you can always find one of us, if you want, um, company. Or something.”
Oh, Tony recognized that one. It was the one about Tony plays with vacuum cleaners because he’s lonely and has trouble relating to the other children. Also known as the one about how nobody normal would want to spend time with a machine when there were other meat-bags around to play with, and no one would ever, ever understand that machines weren’t a substitute for human companionship, they were better. “Um, company?” Tony echoed. “Cap, is that a come-on? I’m really starting to think there’s something you want to tell us.”
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tony, this isn’t—I’m really starting to wonder if there’s something you should be telling us.”
“There isn’t,” Tony said flatly. He looked around at the others. “Is this movie night, or is it ‘crawl up Tony’s ass’ night? Because if it is, I didn’t bring enough lube. I was packing for movie night.”
“I vote movie night,” Clint said. “Because if Stark keeps talking, it might have to be ‘bleach Clint’s brain’ night.”
That got everybody moving towards the couches, and just for that, Tony decided he’d have to convince Common Area Microwave to forgive Clint.
Steve was actually a little surprised that Tony stuck around for the entire movie. His crude remarks in the kitchen hardly concealed his discomfort, and when they got settled in to start the movie, he curled up like a pillbug around his tablet in one corner of a couch, his back to the armrest, feet on the cushion, and knees drawn up in front of himself to make a wall between himself and the rest of the team. He couldn’t have said “Leave me alone” more clearly if he’d used skywriting—and, given that this was Tony, Steve might have expected him to do just that, instead of relying on something a subtle as body language.
Tony stayed, but he hardly made any jokes or sarcastic remarks while it was playing, and as soon as the credits rolled, he bolted from the room.
“Is he okay?” Clint asked no one in particular.
“I don’t know,” Steve said.
Bruce gave him a worried look and said, “Yeah. Maybe we should….” He started for the door.
Steve, after a moment’s hesitation, went with him. “Do you think….” Steve realized he didn’t even have a theory to offer. “What do you think?”
“I think he’s acting kinda weird.”
They headed up to Tony’s private level, where Steve pressed what he thought of as the doorbell, though Tony insisted it was something more complicated than that.
“What?” said Tony’s voice, through the intercom.
“Can we come in? It’s, uh, me and Bruce.”
Tony didn’t answer, but after a moment the door slid open. They found Tony near the entrance to his workshop, standing with one hand splayed over his arc reactor. “Let’s. Um. In here,” he said.
They followed him inside. DUM-E started out of his charging unit to greet them, but rolled back in quickly at a gesture from Tony. Tony sat at the workbench, where a gauntlet from the Iron Man armor was spread out in several pieces. “What’s up?” he asked.
“That’s kind of what we were wondering,” Steve said.
Tony picked up a screwdriver. “You’re gonna have to be more specific.”
Bruce said, “Steve told me about, uh, what happened at SHIELD the other day. With the microwave.”
“And you’ve been acting kind of strangely since then,” Steve supplied.
Tony’s free hand drummed against his arc reactor. He didn’t speak.
“The way you acted that day,” Bruce added. “It wasn’t exactly…normal. You know that, right?”
Tony turned his head away from them and said over his opposite shoulder, “No. We can’t.”
It was very, very clear that he wasn’t speaking to either one of them. Or to anyone else they could see. Steve felt a little bit sick.
“Tony,” Bruce said, gently.
Very slowly, Tony spun the lab stool so that he was facing them. His hand still clutched the screwdriver. It seemed to take a very long time for his gaze to make it up to their faces. “It’s an X-gene anomaly,” he said. “A mutation.”
Tony wasn’t sure if the workshop was the best place to have this conversation, or the worst. One of the two, anyway. Something you should be telling us, Steve had said. And Natasha had given that suspicion a name.
He’d kept his cards close to his vest, and bluffed until he was all in. Too late to fold now, the decision tree narrowed to two choices: show his cards, or shoot everyone at the table and run.
Across the room, Armor came on the alert, with a sense of restrained power; it couldn’t put words to its thoughts, but if it could, Tony thought it would be saying, Let me at ‘em, boss!
Arc Reactor was slower to rile—Palladium Arc Reactor had been a bit of a loose cannon, but Vibranium Arc Reactor was steady, more reliable. But even it readied itself for a fight when Bruce said, “It wasn’t exactly normal, was it?”
We can take them, was the feeling Tony got from it. We can, we can came Armor’s frantic agreement.
Tony’s relationship with Arc Reactor and Armor was different from other machines. They weren’t independent intelligences like JARVIS, DUM-E, and U, but they had been designed, from the start, to work with him. He’d called them prosthetics in the Senate hearing, but they were really more like symbiotes. Together, they combined into Iron Man, a being that was more than the sum of the three parts, Arc Reactor, Tony Stark, and Armor.
But his was the guiding intelligence of their shared self. “No,” he told them. “We can’t.” Steve, maybe, they could fight. His shield was nowhere in sight. But Bruce always had the Other Guy within reach.
Besides. Tony wasn’t entirely sure he was holding a losing hand.
“Tony,” Bruce said, his voice full of something Tony couldn’t name.
Armor, trying to be helpful, suggested metal fatigue. It seemed unlikely, given that Bruce wasn’t made of metal.
Tony turned to face them. He nearly brought the gauntlet with him, but he wasn’t sure it was wise to give Armor any extra input into this conversation. He’d already decided against fighting. He held on to the screwdriver, though—not as a weapon; he just felt better having it.
He made himself look Steve and Bruce in the eye. Dad had always said that was important. Nobody trusts a man who won’t look them in the eye. Tony never liked looking people in the eye—he always had the sense that they were seeing more than he was aware of—but he needed all the help he could get, with appearing trustworthy. “It’s an X-gene anomaly,” he said. Steve looked blank. Tony clarified, “A mutation.”
Steve drew in his breath sharply. Arc Reactor and Armor were watchful, waiting.
“What mutation?” Bruce asked.
Tony couldn’t keep looking at him. “It’s, um, a kind of technopathy. I can sense machines’ thoughts and feelings.” He’d never actually explained it before. He wasn’t sure how weird and scary it would sound, said out loud.
A long silence stretched. No torches and pitchforks yet, at least.
“It isn’t technomancy,” Tony added quickly. That was a way scarier power. “I don’t control them.” The X-men had a technomancer; the machines didn’t even like her. “My thing’s more just…general impressions.”
Both Bruce and Steve were silent for a moment after Tony said mutation. Whatever Bruce had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t that. “Uh,” he said intelligently. “What, um…mutation?”
Tony looked away. “It’s a kind of…technopathy. I can, um, sense machines’ thoughts and feelings.”
That…entirely explained the microwave. Except for the part where machines had thoughts and feelings in the first place.
“It isn’t technomancy. I don’t control them. My thing’s more just…general impressions.”
Technomancy was a recognized power—the X-men had one, and several other variations on technology-manipulation powers were described in the scientific literature. But nothing like what Tony was describing. Nothing that required or even implied that machines had feelings. “Have you…had this verified?” he asked. There was, after all, a more parsimonious explanation for subjective perceptions of external thoughts and feelings. One that didn’t require changing everything they thought about technology, consciousness, and life itself. Just everything they thought about Tony. “I mean, do you know for sure that it’s an…X-gene anomaly?”
Now Tony looked up. “Yes, I’ve had it verified. I’m not schizophrenic, Bruce.”
Right. Tony would be aware of the simpler explanation.
Tony went on, “JARVIS? Bring up project file X-Tony.”
The displays nearest Bruce and Steve lists of files—experiment logs, raw data from various medical imaging technologies, analytical reports, even videos. “When did you do all this?”
The “date created” column of the file list was suddenly highlighted, drawing Bruce’s attention to the fact that they all dated from Tony’s childhood.
“Dad did,” Tony added.
Steve didn’t understand a lot of the data Bruce was poring over, but what he did understand was enough to make him feel sick. Howard had experimented on Tony. None of the procedures were particularly grotesque—mostly, the experiments had consisted of having Tony use his power while Howard scanned him in various ways: EEG, MRI, others Steve didn’t recognize.
It was Howard’s briskly clinical tone, in both the written reports and the videos, that turned Steve’s stomach. You’d never have guessed, if you didn’t already know, that Subject X-T was the researcher’s own son. There were times in the videos when Tony complained of being tired, hungry, or having to go to the bathroom, complaints that Howard barely acknowledged.
There had also been a series of experiments cataloguing Tony’s responses as various gadgets—including a robot dog described as “a toy belonging to Subject X-T,” were, as Howard put it, “Tested to destruction.” In the videos, an 8-year-old Tony cried and begged his father to stop. The accompanying report dispassionately noted “Activation of mirror neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex, comparable to control subject witnessing human or animal in pain.”
Steve had to ask Bruce if that meant what it sounded like.
“Um, maybe not as bad as you’re thinking,” Bruce said. “You know how sometimes it hurts to see someone get hurt?”
“Yeah,” Steve said grimly. “Happening now, actually.”
“Mirror neurons do that. So he’s saying, um, Tony responds the same way if he sees a machine get hurt.”
Bruce was right, that wasn’t quite as bad as Steve had thought it might be. But it still meant that Howard had repeatedly subjected his 8-year-old child to something that he knew for a fact was distressing to him.
“Theoretically,” Bruce said, “it’s kind of interesting. But. Um. There are ethical issues involving informed consent.”
“You don’t say,” Steve said.
He wandered over to the other side of the workshop, where Tony was bent over the Iron Man gauntlet, his back deliberately turned to the displays showing Howard’s experimental records. Steve pulled up another lab stool next to him—Tony sometimes seemed more comfortable if you weren’t looking directly at him.
Tony made a final adjustment, then slipped the gauntlet over his hand. “So, what’s the verdict, Cap? Mutant or crazy?” He flexed his gauntleted fingers.
Steve didn’t much like either of the options—it wasn’t the reality of them he minded, so much as the impression he got that Tony thought either one was a bad thing to be. “Uh, I think Bruce is convinced it’s a….” What had Tony called it? “X-gene anomaly.”
“Great,” Tony said with false heartiness. “So, what’s it going to be?”
“What does your patriotic duty require you to do with this information?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it that way,” Steve admitted. He’d mostly been thinking about what the experiments said about Howard, really. He’d always known that Stark Senior put the research ahead of the subject’s welfare—but he hadn’t thought that would extend to his own kid. “Uh, do we really have to do anything?” he wondered aloud. Every election season renewed the debate about whether mutants should have to register with the government or not, but there was no general requirement in place. He wasn’t sure if SHIELD had a policy. Steve didn’t know of any mutant agents, but whether that was because the ones who were interested chose the X-Men instead, or if there was another reason, he didn’t know.
And it probably should have occurred to him to find out, sometime before this. He’d checked about benefits for same-sex partners, once he’d learned that there was such a thing, and been relieved to find that SHIELD had them.
“I don’t know,” Tony said pointedly. “Do we?”
Steve was glad he managed to catch on, before he said anything stupid, that Tony was not actually asking a question about SHIELD policy. The question was what Steve’s sense of duty required him to do—and that one was easy to answer. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” Even if SHIELD had a disclosure policy, Steve wasn’t going to “out” Tony against his will.
And if SHIELD actually refused to hire mutants, Steve would be quitting. But he wouldn’t tell anyone that Tony had anything to do with the reason why.
Tony went back to tinkering with the gauntlet, as though Steve hadn’t said anything important. Steve lingered, trying to figure out something to say. He knew what he wanted to get across—while Steve respected Tony’s choice to keep this matter to himself, any fears that may have motivated his secrecy weren’t going to come to pass. But any remark he could think of to make sounded either condescending or threatening when practiced in his head, and any question he could think of to ask sounded intrusive. Finally he tried, “Is there anything you feel like telling me, about…this?”
“Nope,” Tony said. But after a moment he said, “Coffee. D’you want any? Bruce!” he called across the room. “Coffee?”
Bruce called back, “Are you asking if I want any, or demanding that I make it?”
“Asking,” Tony clarified. “DUM-E can make it.”
At that, DUM-E zipped out of his charging unit and over to the coffee maker. “I guess I’d better have some, if he’s that excited about it,” Steve commented.
Tony gave him a sidelong glance. “They both are,” he said.
They, meaning…he’d have guessed U, DUM-E’s brother, but he was still charging. He considered what—who—else Tony might mean. On one level, the answer was pretty obvious, but while he’d never thought of DUM-E as anything other than alive, he felt ridiculous even wondering if Tony could possibly mean that the coffeemaker was excited about getting to make coffee. Finally he said, “DUM-E and…the coffee machine?”
“No, Steve, the blender,” Tony said.
Steve failed to pick up on the sarcasm, and spent a moment pondering why the blender might be excited until he finally asked. “Why is the blender excited?”
Tony sighed heavily. “She isn’t. Coffeemaker is. Why would the blender--?” He looked at Steve like Steve was the one saying things that made no sense.
The blender was a she. Steve considered asking about the coffeemaker’s gender, but instead went with, “Does the blender get excited when it gets to blend things?”
“Uh-huh,” Tony said, as though Steve had asked whether a dog would get excited when you handed it a nice meaty bone.
Bruce was both relieved and reluctant when the smell of brewing coffee pulled him away from the files JARVS had provided. His reactions to Tony’s revelation, and to the data, were a jumble. As a scientist, he was fascinated by the puzzle of how Tony’s ability worked, and what it implied about the nature of consciousness. It was clear from Stark Senior’s data that Tony’s brain responded to machines the way those of other people responded to living beings. Some traits, like the mirror neuron response, were shared by typical humans and other primates. Other traits were very similar—in some cases identical—to those displayed by garden-variety x-gene empaths using their powers to read the emotions of humans or animals. Tony definitely perceived the machines as conscious beings. What was less clear was whether that meant they actually were. And if so, did they develop that consciousness as a result of Tony’s power, or were all machines like that, all the time, and nobody knew it? The issues were so fascinating, the research so tantalizing, that it was hard for Bruce to turn away, even though the ethics of the studies were appalling.
Bruce was guilty of his own violations of scientific ethics—using himself as a subject in an experiment not approved by a human subject board first among them. But this was something else. There was no indication that Stark Senior had secured either Tony’s consent or his mother’s for the research, and Bruce searched in vain for any document or analysis indicating that Tony’s father had weighed the potential for harm against the potential value of the results of the experiments—or even given any thought to whether the experiments had any potential harm, or any potential benefit to Tony. Even basic things like telling the subject about the experimental procedures and their purpose had been overlooked.
So Bruce was fascinated as a scientist and horrified as an ethical human being. Heading over to the workbench to join Tony and Steve for coffee prodded Bruce into thinking about the subject as a friend. What was it like for Tony? What did it feel like when he walked into the workshop, or the Helicarrier? What was his real relationship to his armor? Were they friends, parent and child, master and pet—or something else Bruce couldn’t even imagine?
And how did he navigate the world, with a completely different set of perceptions that no one else knew anything about? Bruce wondered if some the seeming indifference to other people that Tony frequently displayed actually stemmed from over-stimulation. Was a room full of people, cell phones, and appliances simply too “noisy” for him to focus on what anyone was saying?
Pulling up a lab stool and accepting a cup of coffee from DUM-E, he put those questions aside for a moment to focus on the taste of the rich brew. As the Zen master said, when you are eating, eat. Meanwhile, Steve was asking Tony a series of questions about whether various appliances enjoyed their jobs. The toaster enjoyed making toast, apparently. The fan did not.
“Why not?” Steve asked. “Does it…want to do something else?”
“It’s a fan,” Tony said, as though that explained everything. “It doesn’t have feelings.”
“Are you being sarcastic again?” Steve asked.
“No,” Tony said, shaking his head like he couldn’t understand how stupid Steve was being.
“The fan doesn’t have feelings,” Steve recapped. “But the coffeemaker, the blender, and the toaster do. What about….” He looked around the room. “Your electric screwdriver?”
“My phone?” Steve took it out of his pocket to demonstrate.
Bruce thought they might be doing this all night, unless he could figure out the pattern. “What about…your soldering iron?”
Tony gave him a long-suffering look, like he’d been hoping Bruce wasn’t quite as dense as Steve. “Yeah.”
“Can I, um, see it for a minute?”
Tony hesitated, like he wondered what Bruce was planning to do to it. Remembering the “testing to destruction” experiments, Bruce added, “I’m just going to look at it.”
Tony handed it to him. It was a top-of-the-line one with a digital temperature readout and presets for frequently-used temperatures. He started to hand it back; Tony gestured toward the workbench—right, Bruce had momentarily forgotten about his not-liking-to-be-handed-things quirk. Putting it down, Bruce said, “Can I look at the screwdriver, too?”
“Sure,” Tony said, his tone suggesting he wondered why anyone would want to.
After examining that, Bruce also compared the fan and the coffeemaker. Finally, he had a theory he was pretty sure Tony wouldn’t think he was a complete idiot for suggesting. “Things that have microchips in them have feelings?”
Tony looked at him like he’d just proposed the novel theory that daytime just might occur when the portion of the Earth one occupied was facing the sun. “Yes. Don’t you remember the 90’s? The whole smart-appliance revolution?”
Bruce stared at him. “That was a marketing term. Not a…literal description.”
Tony scoffed. “I know they’re not actually smart. They don’t create, or contemplate the meaning of life or whatever. But, you know.” He gestured vaguely.
Tony apparently had no idea that Bruce, in fact, didn’t know. Bruce had had conversations with Thor—an actual honest-to-God alien—that apparently started with more common ground than this one. “Smart just means…programmable. Like you can set the coffeemaker to start making coffee at 7 AM. That’s what that term means to….” Everyone except you, Bruce carefully didn’t say.
“Right.” Tony nodded. “But to make the coffee at 7 AM, the coffeemaker has to be able to remember that you want it to do that and perceive the passage of time. Memory plus perception equals feelings. Christ, you’re the one with the biology degrees, Bruce. I’m not saying they’re particularly sophisticated feelings—mostly just ‘bored, bored, bored, ooh, time to make coffee, yay!’” He shrugged. “Is this really that hard to understand for you people?”
“Yes,” Bruce said. “This is a massive paradigm shift.” He hesitated as an idea occurred to him. “Did you think we all knew that machines have feelings, and nobody ever mentions it?”
“You do mention it,” Tony protested. “A little while ago, Clint said the microwave hates him.”
He had a point. People did say things like that—my computer’s having a bad day, my car doesn’t like to start in cold weather. Did Tony think that people believed those things, and still treated machines they way they did—discarding them on a whim, or destroying them for fun like the SHIELD agents had done to the microwave that Tony rescued?
“Tony,” Steve said. “He didn’t mean it.”
Tony muttered, “Well, she does. How can you not….?”
“Your mutation allows you to sense what machines are feeling,” Bruce said. “The rest of us can’t. You get that, right?”
“Right,” Tony said.
“So how would we know?”
“I can’t sense your feelings, but I’m pretty sure you have some,” Tony pointed out. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “What about animals? I can’t sense their feelings, either, but I assumed they have them.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “Most people…react to animals with the understanding that they have feelings. Vertebrates, at least. Even though we can’t sense them or scientifically prove that they do.”
Steve added, “If somebody kicks a dog, you can see that it’s hurt and scared. I mean, it acts like it is.”
Tony nodded. “That’s what I thought. That’s why—” He gestured at DUM-E. “I gave the guys behavioral subroutines that mimic human and animal emotional-response behaviors.”
“I was wondering about that,” Bruce said. “You wouldn’t have had to—you’d have known anyway. Right?”
“I wanted other people to understand them,” Tony explained. “I thought…if I’m not around, other people would treat them better if they could see. I wasn’t sure if people were just really bad at telling what machines like, or if they didn’t care, but I figured making it easier to understand would make it easier to care.” Tony glanced anxiously back and forth between Steve and Bruce, like he was looking for approval or agreement—not a normal thing for Tony explaining one of his inventions; usually he just sat back and basked in his brilliance.
But with this…it must have been a stab in the dark, and this was important to him. “Yeah,” Bruce said. “You were right. It works.”
Several interesting things happened as a result of Tony ‘fessing up about his mutation. He and Bruce had several more conversations about machines’ feelings, and Bruce came up with the idea of equipping some of Stark Industries’ commercial products with a feedback mechanism that used anthropomorphic emotional cues to nudge users into treating their machines more considerately.
“It doesn’t have to be complex,” Bruce said. “You could start with, when you plug the phone in to charge it displays a happy face, and if you let it run out it displays a sad face.”
Tony protested, “But if they don’t believe the phone really cares, what difference will it make?” He was far from being ready to go public with his mutation and all that it implied.
“People respond subconsciously to social cues, even if they originate with an inanimate object,” Bruce explained, and sent Tony several studies on the subject; apparently ones that resembled faces were the most effective, particularly eyes. Tony would never have guessed that; most of his best friends didn’t have paired visual receptors, and he didn’t particularly enjoy looking at the ones that did. “Even if their logical reasoning tells them ‘my phone is not actually sad when I forget to charge it,’ they’ll have a muted version of the same emotional response that they’d have if they made a person sad.”
“Really?” Tony said dubiously. He never particularly minded when people made sad faces at him.
“It’s the same basic thing you did with DUM-E and U,” Bruce pointed out. “That worked.”
Figuring it was worth a shot, Tony whipped up the code and labeled it a “reminder feature.” The SI User Experience Group loved the idea—and they were the team statistically least likely to appreciate Tony’s ideas. They balked a little when Tony wanted to make available a free app for retrofitting older phones with the feature, but a compromise was achieved when they proposed a selection of additional faces and sounds that would be available for a fee, like the smiling kitty that purred when plugged in. Downloads of the free app and sales of the upgrade package were brisk.
Tony eventually agreed that they could tell the rest of the team about his mutation. The others took the news well, and Tony soon found himself negotiating a truce between Clint and Common Area Microwave.
“Can’t you just tell it, I’m very sorry I put ramen in the coffee pot, and I won’t do it again?” Clint asked, as he, Bruce, and Tony stood in the kitchen.
“I can say it, but that doesn’t mean she’ll understand it,” Tony pointed out. “That’s kind of complex for a microwave.”
Bruce added, “And it—uh, she—doesn’t actually hear. The talking to appliances is more of a channel for projective empathy.” Bruce had figured that out from Dad’s old lab notes—Tony had mostly avoided reading them, but didn’t mind Bruce telling him the highlights.
“Okay,” Clint said. “So can you just send her ‘Clint’s an okay guy, really’ vibes, or whatever it is you do?”
“Yeah, okay,” Tony agreed, but then hesitated. It felt weird to do this with them watching—but he was pretty sure Clint had to be in the room if Common Area Microwave was going to understand, and Bruce was…Bruce. It would be okay. He patted the microwave’s casing. “C’mere,” he told Clint. “Touch her.”
Gingerly, Clint did so. Common Area Microwave bristled; if she had been a cat or a teakettle, she would have hissed. “That’s enough of that,” Tony told her sternly. “He’s sorry he was mean to your friend. You can stop giving him a hard time.”
Microwave grumbled, then conveyed a suggestion that she might consider forgiving Clint if he cleaned her interior.
Clint groaned when Tony relayed that information to him. “Seriously? It’s not my turn.”
Bruce said, “Do you want the microwave to forgive you, or not?”
Clint cleaned Common Area Microwave’s interior, then, when she wasn’t quite satisfied, wiped the fingerprints off her keypad. Finally, she sent Tony a sense of begrudging tolerance. “Okay,” Tony said. “Now you’re going to make some popcorn for Clint, with no funny business, right?”
She agreed. Clint, shaking his head at Tony, put a packet of popcorn in and pressed the button. Tony could feel her considering whether to make the slight adjustment to her mode stirrer that would ruin Clint’s snack, but in the end, she didn’t. When Clint took out the popcorn and opened the bag, he smiled. “Perfect.”
Common Area Microwave radiated smug pleasure.
“If you don’t want to eat that,” Tony added, “I know a great game we can play with the vacuum cleaners.”