Tony had been expecting the call. He just hadn't expected it to come while he was holding a soldering iron. Which he nearly dropped when the phone in his pocket buzzed seconds before AC/DC started blaring from his pants. Thankfully he managed to refrain from dropping it on top of Sargent Siler's head. Because that would've been a real shame; he liked Siler even if he stubbornly refused to call him Tony.
“Shit, dammit,” he cursed, fumbling with the iron. By the time he'd managed to pass it down to Siler, his phone had gone silent.
The sargent set the soldering iron down on the nearby workstation and came back to grip the ladder Tony was standing on. “Do you need to return the call, sir?” he asked politely.
Tony looked at the digital clock hanging on the far wall and shrugged. “Nah, it's probably Pepper: she'll call back in a bit. You could get me some coffee though. I definitely need coffee, even crap military coffee.”
There was barely a pause before he nodded and then turned towards the door. Tony gaped after him. The guy was an engineer for fuck's sake and here was Tony demanding he get him coffee and the guy barely blinked! He could give Coulson a run for his stoic money.
Siler stuck his head out of the door. “Airman!” he called into the hallway. “Get us a carafe of coffee from the mess!”
Tony's ears just made out the muffled 'Yes, sir' that followed the order and then Siler was turning back to them.
“That's what we have enlisted men for, sir,” he told Tony. Then he turned to Sam – who was biting her lip in amusement. “Ma'am, if it's alright with you, I'd like to go check on the progress of the back-up palladium core.”
“Yes, of course, go ahead Sargent,” she said.
Siler nodded to her and then to Tony, and then he was out the door, closing it softly behind him. Tony threw his arms up.
“Okay, seriously, what the hell does it take to flap the guy!” he exclaimed. “Even Bruce and Jarvis question some of my crazier requests and schemes. So does Pepper and all of them know me – which, now that I think of it might be why they question some of my schemes, but that's not the point. The point is that this guy has his own dictionary entry right beside the words 'unflappable' and 'stoic'.”
Sam burst out laughing. Tony glowered at her as he scooted down the ladder.
“Well, if Sargent Siler is 'flappable', I haven't seen it,” she said once she'd finally stopped laughing. “And I've seen lock-down situations due to alien invasions, technological invasions, viruses, not to mention all the bizarre requests he's gotten over the years thanks to things we've found on the other side of the gate. But I've never seen Siler ever be anything other than calm and competent. Or in pain, since he sort of tends to get injured a lot.”
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Tony. “And, no, you can't have him.”
Tony didn't even bother denying that he'd been spending the past two hours putting together the most enticing employment package imaginable to lure the engineer to the Stark Industries R&D department.
“Pretty sure that's up to him,” said Tony lightly. “And I can be very persuasive when I want to be. So can my HR department.”
Sam smirked. “Siler's been with the SGC for nearly the entire time it's been in operation, bar a few temporary transfers to Area 51 and a couple other projects. I can guarantee you that nothing you can offer him will come even close to comparing. It's like the ultimate engineering playground. I mean, Siler's had to build everything from the trinium barrier for the 'gate, to mobile platforms, containment units for nanobots, wooden plows and freshwater wells, to helping with spaceship repairs.”
Tony opened his mouth to protest... and then closed it, frowning.
“I've heard rumours that he's even refused promotions that would take him out of the SGC,” Sam added softly. “And no CO's been willing to push it, because he's too much of an asset.”
Tony sighed. Yeah, okay, so the guy was built from the same engineering mould Tony was. Without the genius part, of course. He definitely hadn't missed the spark of excitement in his eyes when Sam had introduced Tony and explained what they'd be doing. Sam had let Tony explain what he'd need to create the device that would then create the core for the arc reactor (there'd been no point in Tony creating one in his own lab because they'd need a much bigger one than even the one powering Avengers Tower). Then Tony had handed him a USB with the designs, stood back and waited for the inevitable barrage of questions that usually came from the labcoats he worked with – not that Siler wore a lab coat, which was actually another point in his favour now that Tony had thought of it – but they never came. No, Sargent Siler had thought about the instructions for a moment, then asked one clarifying question about the structural integrity the input ducts would be required to maintain and the force that would be generated within the main chamber itself.
Then he'd said, “I think I understand. I'll get right on it, sir, ma'am.”
And then he'd left Tony blinking after him as he disappeared down into the depths of Area 51's white-washed hallways. Three hours later, he'd called down to request that Tony come down to verify their progress. Sure, he hadn't gotten it completely perfect and Tony did some tweaking here and there, especially around the pressurized intake valve, but it was close enough that Tony felt fairly confident in leaving the project in the Sargent's hands.
It was amazing just how smoothly a project went when he didn't have to babysit every single step of it personally. Now that they'd relocated from Sam's lab to the main area where they'd be building the reactor, he'd gotten the pleasure of working with the other engineer directly and realized that, oh yes, the other man was a tinkerer all right. He'd even modified bits of Tony's plans when he didn't have the right materials on-site and Tony couldn't find anything wrong with the modifications no matter how hard he'd tried.
Tony was having so much fun it was easy to forget about the big bad alien armada that was the reason for the whole engineering fun-fest.
His phone buzzed and AC/DC sounded out of his pocket again. This time he was ready for it and snatched it out, sighing at the screen. Yup, it was Pepper. Steeling himself, he answered the call, automatically putting it on speakerphone.
“Tony, where the hell are you?! You promised me you'd be at this investor's meeting and now Jarvis is telling me you're not only not in the Tower, but not even in New York. I don't care if aliens are about to attack, this is important!”
Tony winced. “You know, someone could make the argument about your skewed priorities...”
He looked over at Sam, who gave him a sympathetic smile. Which gave him an idea. “Okay, look, if the investors give you a hard time, then tell them I'm helping the Air Force with something.”
There was a pause on the other end. “Tony, you actually expect me to believe you took on an Air Force contract without discussing it with me? Or that you took on an Air Force contract period for that matter.”
“Ah, well, there's not really a contract per say...”
“Then what is it?”
“Well, I'm building them a giant arc reactor to power the dimensional phase shift device that they're planning to use to save the world.”
Stunned silence followed, and then a sigh. “Tony, you're building the Air Force an arc reactor for free?”
“Er...” In his excitement to get a look at Sam's dimensional phase shifting device along with a glimpse at the legendary Area 51, money hadn't even entered his head. Funny, that was usually the first thing he'd snap out at SHIELD. Damn, Sam was good. “Yes? I mean, it's to save the world, so ultimately the paycheque is not watching everyone die which is a good thing, right?”
“Excuse me, if I may,” Sam suddenly cut in. Tony looked up to find she'd circled her work station and was standing only several feet away from him, her hands clasped behind her back and a pleasant smile on her face. “My name is Colonel Samantha Carter. I requested Doctor Stark's assistance in this matter on the recommendation of my friend and teammate, Doctor Daniel Jackson. In exchange I have added both of your names to what we call the Alpha Site Designation List.”
“What's the Alpha Site Designation List?” Pepper asked, trepidation clear in her voice.
“It's a list of people- well, you can think of it as the passenger list for the lifeboat. Should the worst happen.”
Pepper's sharp intake of breath came in clear through the phone's speaker and Tony felt the world shift side-ways. A lifeboat list... of course the Air Force had a lifeboat list. A list of people that likely wasn't long enough, not by a long shot. He wondered how they'd chosen those people. Did they do a lottery? Did they pick out all their own people? Were their families on the list or would they have to leave their children behind, their spouses? And what was the lifeboat? An underground bunker? A spaceship? A – no, he realized.
“The stargate,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “You're planning to send them through the stargate to another planet. To...”
“To rebuild, to survive, to make sure humanity – Earth – doesn't completely die,” Sam finished.
Tony opened his eyes and looked at her. He didn't want to know, but he had to ask. “Have you ever...?”
She hesitated. “Twice,” she finally answered.
There was a knock at the door and a kid who looked barely old enough to drive walked in carrying a tray containing a carafe and several mugs (he probably wasn't on the list). Sam thanked him and told him to leave it on the work station. When the door shut behind him, Tony managed to pull himself together and swallowed down the sudden fear.
Suddenly, the aliens weren't millions of light years away happily flying through some distant part of space; they were breathing down his neck, threatening everyone and everything he cared about.
He took a deep breath. “Pepper, you'll have to run the investor's meeting without me. Make my excuses, whatever. And then you know how we have the basement levels re-enforced in case of, well, in case of emergency? I need you to pack the levels with emergency supplies: food, water, blankets, whatever you think is best.”
“You can get Cassie to do it,” Sam suggested. “She was raised by air force people; she'll know what to get together.”
“Right, yeah, she might be tired of playing lab assistant to Bruce by now,” he said. “And you know what, give everyone the day off tomorrow – no, the next two days. Tell them it's a reward for the successful launch of the new Starkphone or something. Tell them to spend it with their families. In fact, make it an order: they are to spend the next two days with their families or partners or hell their cats and dogs if that's who they've got.”
He could hear Pepper take a deep breath. “Alright Tony, I'll see what I can do. It was nice to meet you, Colonel Carter.”
“You as well and Ms. Potts, I'd recommend you pack a small case just in case. Nothing fancy, and definitely nothing frivolous. If the worst should happen, you'll be needing hiking books and a good pair of jeans more than high heels and a skirt where you'll be going.”
“I... yes, of course. I'll do it as soon as I get back to the penthouse.”
“It was nice to meet you, Pepper.”
“Pep, I'll call you when I get a chance,” said Tony. “I-” He swallowed.
“Anthony Edward Stark don't you dare! This is not good-bye. I'll pack you a case tonight too and if the worst should happen, I'll see you in... Colorado I think it was.”
Tony chuckled. “Yeah, it was Colorado. Okay then, good luck and I'll see you in either New York or Colorado.”
“Good luck, Tony. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make your excuses to the investors. Again.”
Pepper hung up and Tony took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He turned to Sam.
“So, as far as a suggestion for payment goes, that was a pretty good one,” he said. His eyes hardened. “And now that you've told my girlfriend about it, I expect you to keep it. I mean, I'll probably be here 'till the bitter end right beside you trying to save the world, but Pepper? If this lifeboat of yours leaves, I expect her to be on it.”
Sam's eyes twinkled. “Oh don't worry, she will,” she said cheekily. “Both your names were added to the list about two years ago.”
Tony blinked. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “That was... that was downright underhanded. I'm so proud.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh please, you're not even close to being the one who taught me.”
He grinned. “Now then, I guess that means we can get back to work! But with coffee, because I definitely didn't miss the coffee that came in with that enlisted man – I'm a new fan of enlisted men... enlisted people? Enlistees? Whatever. Where's Siler anyway?”
He headed directly for the carafe, happily pouring himself a mug of dark liquid he knew would taste much worse than it smelled, but held enough caffeine to keep an elephant awake (Sam told him it was Area 51's special brew – there was even a small roastery on-site run by a co-op of biologists, physicists and the occasional air force officer).
He ignored the snickering coming from the computer console and turned to the Iron Man suit standing in the corner of the room.
“Alright, J, hit me: how are those calculations going?”
There was a pause and then Jarvis came over the speaker: “I apologize, sir, I'm afraid I'm having a bit of difficulty calculating the conversion from the arc reactor into the device. All projections indicate the energy generated by the device itself as incompatible with that of the arc reactor, which has a 75% chance of resulting in a system overload with a 60% chance of explosion.”
Tony cringed. “Okay that's not good. Jarvis, bring it up on screen.”
Tony hurried over to where Sam was already standing in front of the mass of computer screens set up in the corner of the room. There was a whiteboard next to it where Tony had drawn a diagram for Siler earlier. Jarvis' calculations were already up on the farthest left-most screen and the two scientists scrolled through them.
“Damn,” Sam finally said, running a hand through her hair. “Okay, this could be a problem.”
“It's fixable though,” Tony rushed to assure her. “I mean, it's just a matter of figuring out the exact energy ratio we need to balance out the arc reactor and compensate for the energy created by the phase shift device.”
“Yes, I realize it's doable,” Sam snapped. “It's matter of whether or not we can get it done in time. We still have to finish assembling the pressurized chamber we need to create the vibranium in. Unless you want to forget the vibranium and just go with the back-up palladium core.”
Tony thought about it for a moment, ran a few calculations, before shaking his head. “No, at this level of output it'd burn out too fast. The palladium is a good thing to have on hand just in case, but we definitely need the vibranium core.”
“Then it's down to a lack of manpower.”
Tony frowned. “I'd have thought you'd have, like, hundreds of scientists working in here.”
“We do, but they're all running diagnostics or upgrades on a dozen other defence projects. Once they're finished, then yes we'll have more help, but for now it's us and Siler's engineering staff.”
Tony's frown deepened. Other defence projects? What sort of defence projects would rate higher than this dimensional phase shift device?
The door opened just as Tony was about to ask and Siler stepped into the room.
“How's does it look?” Sam asked him.
“The palladium core will be ready by eighteen hundred, ma'am,” Siler answered promptly. “Doesn't look like there should be any complications. And we just got word that Doctors Lee and Kavanaugh have finished calibrating the ion cannons and should be heading back within the hour.”
Sam let out a breath. “Okay, that's good, we could use the help,” she said. “We've run into a snag with the energy calculations...”
Worry flashed through Siler's eyes. “Are we still proceeding with the project?”
Her eyes widened. “What? Oh, yes, yes of course we are. We've come too far at this point and it can work. We just have to figure out how to make it work.”
“It'll work,” said Tony. “Jarvis, keep at those calculations. Try everything you can think of.”
Sam rubbed a hand across her face and took a deep breath. “Damn I wish we had more time.”
“We might, ma'am,” said Siler. “We don't actually know when the Ori ships will be arriving.”
Sam smiled wryly at him. “Which means we might have days, or we might have hours... Okay, no, probably not hours. The Tok'ra's information has given us at least another day, but that's all we know for sure.”
“The Tok'ra?” Tony asked. “Who or what are the Tok'ra?”
Sam waved him off. “Sorry, it's really way too complicated to go into now. If we survive this I'll tell you.” She took a deep breath. “Which means we really need to get back to work. And I need to report our problem to the general.”
“Why?” Tony demanded. “We're going to figure it out, so why would you report it to anyone?”
“Because if the Pentagon needs to have all the information available to them if they're going to order an evacuation to the Alpha Site. You know, that lifeboat we just talked about?”
Then she nodded to both of them and walked off towards the landline phone in the corner of the room – and really, why the hell did Area 51 of all places still have landlines? She dialled the first two numbers before pausing and slamming the receiver back down and running back to the computer station. She practically threw herself into the desk chair, rolled over to the next computer over and began typing. Tony walked around the desk to get a look at the screen.
“Personnel records?” he said with a raised eyebrow.
Sam nodded absently. “Right now, we've got all our people running ragged trying to come up with a defensive plan; there's a dozen of them working hard on a multi-phase ion wave cannon on the other end of the base. I could pull one or two of them to this project and that might help, but what if their absence means that the cannon doesn't get completed?”
Tony blinked. A multi-phase ion wave cannon... that sounded kinda cool. “Do you think they'll manage to get it completed?”
Sam winced. “Well... no, probably not. It requires melding Tollan ion cannon technology with Asgard photon beams which aren't technologies that were ever meant to work together in the first place and we've only barely gotten a hand on how the ion cannon works...”
“Wait, woah, Asgard technology? You have Asgard tech?! Where the hell did you get Asgard tech from and why did SHIELD and therefore by extension me not know about this?”
Sam blinked, paused. “Oh, right, you're thinking of the Asgardians.” She waved him off before she continued typing. “Later. It's an even longer story- Aha!”
Grinning triumphantly, she reached over for the phone (another landline) sitting at the corner of the desk and started dialling.
“So, who are you calling then?” Tony asked. “Another genius friend of yours? 'Cause Jarvis is working on it. I mean, I made him, so he's almost as smart as me; he'll figure it out.”
“I'm sure he is, Tony and no offence meant Jarvis, but sometimes a computer just can't replace human creativity and leaps of imagination.”
“I take no offence at that remark, Colonel. Indeed, I often find myself perplexed at the more creative of sir's ideas and I must agree that I am not capable of such leaps of imagination.”
“Hey, my creative ideas are always brilliant!”
“If you say so, sir.”
“So, who are you calling anyway?”
“A mathematical genius who's not directly affiliated with the project, but has security clearance and has helped us out before. I just hope she'll be willing to do it again.”
That caught Tony's interest. “A mathematical genius? What sort of mathematical genius?”
Sam grinned at him impishly as the phone connected. They heard it ring over the speakerphone.
“The sort who calculates part of the Einstein-Rosen bridge on a Monday night using her daughter's finger paints.”
The ringing stopped as the phone was picked up. There was some interference as someone apparently fumbled with the receiver. Then there were a few moments of silence.
“Hello,” said a small, quiet voice.
Sam bit her lip. “Uh, hi, is this Madison?”
“Uh huh. Who are you?”
“Hi Madison, my name is Sam. I'm a friend of your mom's... is she there?”
There were a few moments of silence during which Tony contemplated strangling the kid over the phone. Sam, thankfully seemed to have more patience.
“Could you get her for me, honey?” she asked.
And then there was another, muffled voice in the background and more movement and a hurried, whispered exchange of voices.
“Hello, I'm so sorry about that.”
Sam let out a breath of relief. “Hi, Jeannie, it's Sam Carter.”
“Oh no, what's he done now?”
Tony blinked. That was usually the sort of thing people asked about him, but he was certain he didn't know any Jeannie Millers who used finger paint to write mathematical equations. He was sure he'd remember that sort of thing.
“Uh, as far as I know Rodney's fine; he hasn't done anything–“
“–As far as you know? What do you mean as far as you know? Colonel, the last time you people called me it was to tell me my brother was dying and then I travelled all the way to the Pegasus Galaxy in order to watch one of the greatest scientific minds of our time reduced to the state of a toddler! So is my brother okay or isn't he?”
Tony knew he should be objecting to the 'greatest minds of our time', but his brain had gotten stuck at 'travelled all the way to the Pegasus Galaxy' and didn't entirely seem willing to move past that. Holy shit, Daniel had really being holding out on them. Then again, he never would've gotten him to stay on Earth if he'd told them there was an option to travel to another galaxy...
Sam, meanwhile, had taken a deep breath.
“Jeannie, I'm sorry, we haven't had any real contact with Atlantis since we were ordered into blackout conditions after the whole Hydra debacle in Washington. Their last, brief communique was over a month ago and at that point everyone was fine, including Rodney.”
There was the sound of a deep breath being taken. “Okay, good. That's, well, not great, but I guess no news is better than bad news. So what can I help you with, Sam?”
Tony didn't hear the rest of their conversation, because that was when Siler approached him with a tablet to ask him about the arc reactor's casing. Apparently, they had a small supply of a metal called trinium, which was a metal they mined off-world, and he wanted to know if it would harm the rest of the reactor. When Sam joined, she seemed thrilled with the idea and so off Siler went to give his team instructions while Tony and Sam finished putting together the device they'd use to create the vibranium core.
He'd never, ever tell Pepper, but possible end of the world not-withstanding, this was actually a lot of fun. He just hoped Jarvis managed to hack Area 51's computer system while he worked on those calculations, because he desperately wanted to read those reports.
Also, he was incredibly curious to see whether finger-paint woman would manage to solve the energy transfer problem before Jarvis.