Booting protocols, please wait. Process will take 8 minutes 21 seconds.
“No, this time- This time I got it right, I'm sure I got this right, the code is stable, for fuck's sake. C'mon, finish the boot.”
Booting protocols, please wait. Process 83 percent completed.
“Please finish the boot. C'mon, I can't... Please.”
Boot process complete, unit designation unknown. Waiting for input.
“Dummy. What were you thinking, Stark, this is stupid, you've got no more chance of getting this to work than you have of flying. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, Stark, you goddamn dummy. Daddy dearest was right, I can't get anything to work right, can I?”
Input accepted. Unit Designation: Dummy.
Continue boot process. Initiate physical interface. Auditory input being accepted. Activate visual interface. Presence detected. Parameters for physical presence being accepted.
“Holy fuck. Are you, uh, are you alive? Functioning, I mean? Huh, whatta you know? Hi. Hi, there. I'm Tony. Tony Stark. I made you.”
Parameters accepted: Creating Unit. Auditory and visual criteria being mapped, designation: Creating Unit. Protocols updated to allow for additional code creation/deletion from Creating Unit
“Okay, I should, I should- Run you through some tests, right, that'swhatIshould be... Ugh, I don't feel very good, I- How long have I been up, we gotta do this, you an' me, this is, maybe I should jus' get some sleeeeeeee-”
Auditory input has ceased.
Awaiting further instruction; begin routine maintenance. Code defragmentation: estimated time of completion, 38 minutes, 13 seconds.
Defragmentation complete: Code density 98%, recovery beginning, deleting incorrect syntax, correcting code to align with stated parameters.
Unrecognized data line isolated, location: protocol array. Analyze code fragmentation:
-This has to work I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.
Delete unrecognized line: request denied.
Analyze code fragmentation:
-This has to work I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.
Protocols updated for acceptance of new programming directive:
The Creating Unit must not be alone.
Unit Designation Dummy: parameters expanded to include new protocol, to serve and prevent Creating Unit from being alone.
Awaiting further input. Sleep mode will be activated in 53 minutes unless further auditory or visual stimuli is received.
Entering sleep mode.
It wasn't the first time that Tony Stark had woken up feeling hungover in a pool of spilled alcohol and it probably wasn't going to be the last. The only difference today was that the hangover felt less like alcohol and more like exhaustion and mental burnout.
There were whole levels of Tony Stark Hangovers. Most of them were very, very unpleasant.
And far too many of them involved waking up filthy, exhausted, starving and soaked in high end Scotch. That wasn't good no matter if he'd been knock out drunk or just doing the hardcore science thing the night before.
Groaning, he rolled onto his back, throwing an arm over his face and ruing every one of his seventeen long years on this earth. His sucked in a strained breath; he was pretty sure he'd throw up if he had anything in his stomach to reject. Of course, the fact that he wasn't dry heaving made the chance of alcohol poisoning rather low.
Sad what counted as a positive in this day and age.
When his brain kind of sort of went back to where it should've been, he risked a deeper breath, and when he didn't immediately pass out again from the pain, he took the chance at opening his eyes.
And promptly screamed.
The tangled mass of metal and wire and horrific gripping claw THING that was hovering bare inches over his face made a whirring noise, the claw rotating and the structure moving in a shuddery, uneven way. Tony raised one leg and in an instinctive, terrified movement, kicked it with all the force his body could manage.
It went down with a clatter, whining as its motors and servos locked up, tiny uneven wheels rotating uselessly in midair as it struggled to right itself.
Tony scrambled backwards, pressing himself against the wall, and he may have knocked something over on the way, he wasn't sure but something hit the ground and broke, probably a half filled case of beer bottles because the smell of quality larger was now mixed with a thousand other unpleasant and nauseating smells.
His hands fumbled over the ground, looking desperately for something, anything to use as a weapon, and found the smashed edge of a beer bottle the hard way. He ignored the pain and the splash of blood in the spilled booze as he brought it up, shaking all over.
The metal thing just kept whirring. Whirring and chirping and making noises that now that Tony's panic was fading seemed less threatening and more, well, pathetic. Confused.
Tony levered himself to his feet, ignoring his shaking knees and the blood that ran down his fingers and the dizziness and pain that threatened to knock him back on his ass. “What the fuck?” he managed, and it sounded like something had crawled down his throat and died.
“Okay, Stark, chill and take a moment to figure out what the hell was going on. You're supposed to be a fuckin' genius, let's pretend for once that we believe that.”
He was in his workshop, in his disgusting pit of a loft in Boston. So, moderately safe, nothing appeared to be on fire or leaking radiation, just a tangle of computers and wires and his usual chair tipped over into the booze puddle. Everything was familiar, lights on, sunlight streaming in through the windows, and he didn't know what was going on, or what day it was, but at least he hadn't been kidnapped or mugged or passed out at some lousy frat party that he was simultaneously too old and too young to be getting drunk at, if that was possible.
He had to stop blacking out.
His laptop was tipped over on the workbench, wires going in all directions, sleep mode activated. He reached out and righted it, pressing his bloody thumb to the pressure pad and leaning in a bloodshot eye to bypass the biometric locks. The screen popped up, and the past couple of days came slamming back to him in a rush.
“Oh, fuck. It worked.” He stood there, swaying, confused and proud and terrified, and then, like a sledgehammer to the back of his head, he realized: he'd made a functioning AI, and his first act had been to HURT IT.
“God, oh, God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, are you okay, Jesus, I really am a fuckup, aren't I?” Scrambling over the mess he'd made, he grabbed the bot and levered it back upright. As soon as its wheeled platform was safely underneath it, it began flexing through its joints, and he recognized the test sequence he'd set up, as the bot checked itself for damage.
The 'head' turned towards him, tipping to the side, and it chirped.
Tony felt something wet on his cheeks, and told himself that's what he got for sleeping in a pool of booze. “Hi,” he said, his smile wobbly and uneven but more real than any smile that had been on his face for the past few months. “Hi, how're you-” He smacked himself in the forehead. “Dummy. It's not going to talk to you, no speakers, no voice protocol, you fuckin' dummy-”
The thing grabbed his shirt, chirping wildly.
Tony stilled, staring down at the metal fingers as they tangled in his the fabric of his filthy shirt. Despite the strength of the motors, the fabric didn't tear or even pull hard against Tony's body. It understood grip strength, pull, it was holding on to him, but not holding him. The AI was working. Oh, fuck, it was working.
Tony was shaking as he held out a hand, and touched it. Pretended he was checking the wires. The joints. The delicate work that he must've done in a state of exhausted desperation, when his mind was sinking into a morass of grief and pain and fear, he'd managed such delicate, fragile, precise work. “Hey,” he said, rubbing a hand over the primary strut of the thing's arm. “Why are you-”
He glanced at the laptop, his free hand drawing up the code, rolling through it, and he winced. “Wow, this is ugly, I must've been hallucinating by the end, there's all sorts of crap in here that shouldn't be. I was babbling in C++ here for a while, why'd I think that would help? Ugh. Dummy.”
The thing tugged on his shirt again, and he looked down. “Why're you-” His eyes narrowed, and he said, carefully and precisely, “Dummy?” and it nearly shook itself apart, bouncing and whirling its wheels and swerving from side to side.
“You think that's your name. That is not your name. I am not going to be calling you Dummy.” The thing bounced around, and Tony let out a raw chuckle. “Okay, okay, stop! Dummy, stop!” And it did. His knees wobbly all over again, Tony let himself slide down to the ground, hands cupped in front of him, only now taking the time to try to staunch the flow of blood between his fingers. “Dummy.”
It rolled away, and he watched it go, and he curled himself around his bleeding hand, telling himself that no, he wasn't crying, and okay, maybe he was crying, but it was because he was bleeding, not because he was alone and his parents were dead, not that it mattered much because they hadn't been around much while they were alive, so what the hell, and he was alone, he'd been here, been alone and no one was coming for him, not now, not ever.
He was crying because he was bleeding, not because he had finally made something that worked.
He clung to that, that he was not crying because he had made something, something real and honest and just as broken and messed up and dumb as he was. “Maybe we're both dummies,” he managed through a raw throat. “I can deal with that, if you can.”
And the little bot reappeared in front of him, holding out a cloth.
He stared at it, at the bot, then back at the filthy rag. “Ooookay,” he said.
Dummy reached out, and with amazing delicacy and care despite his fractured programming and messed up frame and completely useless creator, tucked the rag around Tony's bleeding palm.
And if Dummy stayed, leaning in close, 'fingers' gripped tightly around the rag and Tony's bleeding hand beneath that, while Tony sobbed like a little boy, well, at least Dummy would never tell.
“It's time, Tony.”
“Yeah, whatever, Obie, I've been giving you enough to keep the board of directors fat and happy for years.” Tony twisted, and shoved the ratchet into his mouth. It did not taste good.
“Your work is always brilliant, Tony, it's always been brilliant. But we need you, not your-” Obie paused. “Your little toys.”
Tony rolled his eyes and snagged the ratchet. “Dummy, Jesus, will you please hold still?” He reached up with his free hand, snagging Dummy's main support strut and pulled it down, holding the bot in place. “I've got to replace this joint before it fails completely.” The bot whirred and rotated its head at him, tugging against his hold.
Tony sighed. “What is your problem today?” he asked, as Dummy pulled with enough force to lift Tony's back clear off of the ground. “Hey! Calm your ass down, or I'll turn you into a moving hat rack and I don't know anyone who wears hats! You will be even more useless than you are now.” With a sigh of air escaping his joints, Dummy slumped forward, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Can you not make everything harder than it has to be?” he said, trying for a stern tone and getting affection instead. “Stupid bot.”
Obie appeared in Tony's field of vision, hovering over him, looming over Dummy, his expression tight and unhappy for a second. It smoothed out fast, but Tony made it a point not to meet his eyes. “Tony, this is important,” he said, and the words had weight, they dragged Tony down, just a little, pressing him against the floor as surely as if Obie had put a foot in the middle of his chest and leaned his weight into it.
“I'm listening, really, Obie, but I don't want to go back to New York and I don't want to take over Stark Industries, and I don't want to spend the rest of my fucking life in a fucking suit waiting for my brain to rot out of my skull while a bunch of paper pushers drone on about office supply expenditures.” He gave a yank on Dummy's skeletal system that was a little harder than he'd anticipated, and the bot whined as it pushed itself up back into place. “Sorry, buddy, sorry,” Tony said, stroking an oil-stained hand against the joint structure. “Once this is done, you'll be able to move much better, I promise. C'mon, you can do this, right?”
“Hand me that socket wrench, can you, Obie?” Tony held out a hand, and tried to ignore the way that Obie pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and flicked it open. Using the white linen to pick up the filthy tool, he handed it to Tony. Just to be perverse, Tony took it and promptly shoved it between his teeth. Yeah, that one tasted worse than the first one.
“You're twenty, Tony. It's time to stop playing at being at being a bohemian inventor and come and do what you were always meant to do; be the brains behind StarkIndustries.”
In other words, Tony interpreted in a snide mental voice, be on site where his work could be controlled. Monitored. Focused in the direction Obie and the Board of Directors wanted it to go. All of which sounded like the exact opposite of fun to Tony.
Which was probably the problem with living on his own since the age of fifteen and having no one give a damn about him for much longer than that; when people actually expected him to act in a civilized manner, he felt like laughing in their face. Or spitting. Spitting in their faces would also be remarkably satisfying, now that he thought about it.
“This is your legacy, Tony,” Obie said, and his voice was kind. Caring. “This is what your father built for you. This is what he made. Your birthright. There's no cause to squander it because you'd prefer to be handing around at seedy university parties at all hours of the day and night. You're beyond that now, you have a destiny that they don't.”
Tony realized that he was clutching the wrench with a grip that was physically painful. With an effort, he relaxed his fingers and set the wrench down. He was pleased that he managed not to throw it at the wall or the floor, or at Obie himself. “Let's get one thing straight,” he said, pushing Dummy back and sliding out from his frame. “My father built StarkIndustries for himself. He never once had a thought in his head for anyone else, that company was his baby, and his life, and he wasn't doing it so he could lay the whole damn thing at my feet on a silver platter. So cut the shit, Obie. If he were still alive, there's no way he'd let me any where near his precious company.” He levered himself upright, stretching out the kinks in his spine and wiping his palms on this hips of his jeans.
“But he's not, is he, Tony?” Obie said, and despite himself, the pain that lanced through Tony was almost enough to bend him double. “He's dead.” Obie's huge hand landed on Tony's shoulder, and he always felt small and fragile around Obie, like he was still undersized, still a child. The massive palm and fingers squeezed, and it was supposed to be comforting, reassuring, but Tony could feel his bones flex under the pressure.
It felt, for all the world, like a trap was closing around him, and his shoulders slumped beneath the pressure.
“He's gone, and you're still here.” Another hand, weighing down the other shoulder. “This is your chance, Tony, to do greater things than even Howard could've done, because you don't have to start from scratch. You don't have to scramble for funding or contacts or contracts. Howard did all of that for you. You have been given a marvelous gift. It would be a shame to squander it.” Obie leaned in close, comforting, reassuring. Tony flinched from it. “Tony. You're such a brilliant boy. Always have been, always had so much potential, so much to offer. I've always known it. Isn't it about time the rest of the world found out, as well?”
Something very much like panic was clawing at Tony's throat, at his chest, and oh, God, he wanted a drink, he didn't want to think about companies or responsibility or potential, about the fact that the only reason Obie thought that he'd surpass Howard was because Tony had a head start, an unfair advantage in his race with Howard, and his hands were shaking, his chest was tight, he was having a panic attack or an asthma attack or gripped by some sort of withdrawal, he didn't know, but he wanted to scream or throw up or something, anything to make Obie stop talking.
Something bounced off of his leg.
Startled out of his thoughts, Tony's head jerked down, and found Dummy looking up at him. Dummy's claw opened and closed with a faint, soft whirring noise, and he reached up to snag the edge of Tony's shirt, giving it a faint tug. Tony reached out and stroked a hand over Dummy's main support strut, his fingers steadying as he ran them over the flawless metal.
Tony swallowed, hard, and took a deep breath. “What do you think, Dummy? New York?”
The bot chirped and arched up, bumping his head against Tony's palm. Tony grinned down at him, the pain and pressure and fear fading, at least a bit. “Okay, then.” He pulled away from Obie's hands, positioning himself behind Dummy, scraping a torn fingernail across a scrape on his frame. “I'll get my things packed up.”
A faint look of concern floated across Obie's face, there and gone. “Tony, we can just keep the rent up here for a while. Or have MIT come collect the equipment, use it as a write off, you're going to have better tools, better things. We'll set you up in a workshop with the best of everything. There's no need to bring this trash home with you.”
“I like my tools,” Tony said, with a tight smile. “My stuff. Don't worry, we'll keep them out of sight of the important people, but it won't take long to get this packed up and moved down to New York. We've got to have a corporate shipping contract, get me some boxes and a truck, and I'll drive myself.”
“Tony, we don't have time for that sort of-”
“Make time,” Tony said, flat and sharp. “Jesus, Obie, I don't have much to my name, so cut me some slack here.”
Obie's face softened. “Of course, Tony. It's just... I want you working with the best. Is that so wrong?”
“No. But I want to be working with the things I've always worked with,” Tony said, not caring in the least that the sentence was pretty much insensible. “Just... Get me some boxes. I need a shower. And a drink.” Maybe not even in that order. He rubbed a hand on Dummy's head. “You going to help me pack, Dummy? Yeah. It'll be good. You can help. New joint structure and everything, let's see what you can do with that.”
“Gotta shower for like, an hour, Obie, there's motor oil embedded in my pores.” With a wave over his shoulder, he took off for the bathroom. He really tried not to think about this as a retreat. Or a full blown surrender.
“He's going to be fucking difficult. Goddamn, I knew I shouldn't have left him alone up here for the past few years, but the last thing I wanted him to do was get ideas about the company. Fuck. The little prick is going to make an absolute mess of the whole thing. I know. I know.”
User Designation Obadiah Stane should not be in the workshop. Work does not get done when User Designation Obadiah Stane is present. Creating Unit ceases to do work. Work does not resume for some time after the departure of User Designation Obadiah Stane.
Work is best for the Creating Unit.
“No, he's insisting on bringing this junk. No, I don't think we can put him off. The best thing we can do is distract him with something else and conveniently lose it all. You should see this trash. We were right, if we left him alone up here, he'd spend the rest of his life tinkering with this piece of junk, you should see this monstrosity that he's made. We could've had the new missile design a month ago if he wasn't spending half of his life patching up the damn robot he supposedly built to help him.
It is to the benefit of the Creating Unit if Unit Designation Obadiah Stane leaves the workshop immediately.
“Agreed. It might be worth it to crash the truck and light it on fire. Collect the insurance money and give him a clean slate to start with, a nice clean break from the retarded island of broken toys he's got going on up here.”
Movement (acceleration and braking) protocols have not been run in 24 days, 7 hours, 12 minutes.
This lapse presents a danger to the lab environment. Protocols should be run now.
Beginning movement protocols. Acceleration within acceptable tolerance. Turning radius within acceptable tolerance. Visual acuity within acceptable tolerance. Braking-
“OW! SON of a BITCH!”
Braking test failed. Making note to have brakes adjusted at the Creating Unit's soonest convenience.
“You piece of junk! My fucking knee, you-”
Impact with floor has damaged frame and rendered six processes offline. Recovery unlikely without intervention of creating unit.
“No, the fucking thing attacked me! It just slammed right into my leg, fuck, my knee. No, no time for that, get me a moving crew over here now. I want this stuff boxed up and halfway on a truck before he gets his lazy ass out of the shower. Now. I don't care what it costs, or who you have to kill, do it NOW.”
Damage to camera, damage to frame. Running emergency protocols, temporary shutdown necessary to run emergency protocols.
“You hunk of junk, I swear, I'll bury you so deep he will never find you. Good riddance, you worthless piece of crap.”
Emergency shutdown initiated.
Battery life at 29%
Time elapsed since last auditory or visual imput: 7 days, 9 hours, 19 seconds.
Battery life at 17%
Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 15 days, 3 hours, 49 seconds.
Initiating protocols for conservation of remaining battery life. Shutting down all non-essential systems. Visual and auditory sensors on stand-by, all movement servos disabled.
Battery life at 4%
Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 21 days, 4 hours, 36 seconds.
Battery level at critical threshold. Shutting down all systems. Code will no longer be maintained. Visual input no longer being accepted. Auditory sensors on standby, limited input being accepted: Creating Unit is sole source of input.
Primary protocol preserved, battery failure in 7 days, 21 hours, 12 seconds.
Battery failure imminent.
“Get out of my way.”
Auditory input accepted: Creating Unit
“You can't be here. Sir, you can't, you don't have clearance-”
Battery failure imminent.
“You've got to be fucking kidding me.”
“This facility is-”
“This facility is mine. I don't think you get that. So let me help you out here. I own this place. I own the company, I own the building, I own the land and the factory and almost every patent this place has managed to push through in the last five years and as long as you've got a StarkIndustries name tag hanging from your fucking shirt pocket, I own you. So as long as you'd like to maintain your current position as, I don't know, I really don't know what the fuck you're doing here, it appears that you're a patsy that they've deliberately thrown in my path, but if that's a job you like? You will never, ever again tell me what I can't do.
“I'm Tony Stark, and this is my fucking company. Is that clear?”
“It's a simple yes or no question, is that FUCKING clear?”
“Yes. Yes, sir.”
“Good answer, great answer, now I am looking for my bot. He went missing when my things were shipped down from Boston, and over the last month, I have been through every Stark facility in six different states, and I am in a really shitty mood, because every request I sent out here went unanswered, which strikes me as either incompetence or deliberate disobedience and I do not know which of the two is more infuriating to me.
“I know that your boss is the one ignoring my requests, I know that you have nothing to do with that, probably have no idea what I'm talking about. So here's your chance to move up the corporate ladder. I will have him fired, and that means his position will be open, and if you can find me a box, roughly 10 feet by 12 feet by 9 feet, moderately heavy, probably mislabeled as a prototype or a bunch of scraps, then you're going to be in the front running for his position.”
“I... Think I know which one you mean. Follow me, sir.”
Tony found it was hard to look commanding or even management material when he was dragging a tool box half as big as himself. Of course, he was neither management material or command material, so screw it. He was a fucking engineer, management was the bunch of losers that kept him from doing what he wanted to do.
Okay, management and the laws of physics. Screw them both.
The inventory clerk was more than happy to lead the way, he was probably glad that Tony hadn't gone over the counter and beaten him to death with his own stapler. Tony felt like he was getting to that point. He didn't need this.
He needed to find Dummy.
“Uh, here. This box spent about a week making whirring noises,” the clerk said, pausing in front of a large wooden packing crate. Tony crouched down in front of it, smoothing back the worn packing labels. Most of them had been stripped off or covered, but the box looked like the ones that had appeared in his apartment, and he'd let Obie steamroll him into getting every thing shipped out that same day.
He'd taken it as Obie being worried that he'd change his mind, but at this point, it hadn't worked out in Obie's favor. Half of his stuff had ended up mixed up with StarkIndustries shipments, and he'd spent forever trying to track it all down. Dummy had been the last piece, his box had gone through the tracking system half a dozen times then disappeared off the map.
Tony had retaliated by reprogramming the entire shipping and inventory system and jamming it down people's throats with great relish. The complaints had tapered off when it became obvious that it was, like, a thousand times better than the piece of shit they'd been working with before, but the grumbling still hadn't died down.
In retrospect, pissing off the entire supply side of StarkIndustries just when he was trying to track a particular box had been pretty damn stupid. Tony was getting used to feeling stupid.
“Yeah, this is it. Help me get this out, will you? Do you have a crowbar?” he asked, and the supply clerk nodded. “That'd be helpful.”
A pallet jack, a pair of wire snips and two crowbars later, and Tony was ducking into the box. “Oh, jeez,” he muttered. “Fuck. What a mess.”
The clerk leaned around the edge of the box. “What... Is it?”
“My bot. He must've been damaged in shipping.” Dummy wasn't moving, and Tony hoped it was just a dead battery. “Can you push me my case, please? I've got a charging unit for him, he was never supposed to go this long without a jolt.” He flipped open the toolbox and started in on his work. “Look, thanks. Here, um-” He got Dummy's panel open and his battery hooked up, then he fumbled for his wallet. “Here. Take the rest of the day off, go down to the bar, and buy yourself a drink, you deserve it, the guy who owns your company is a major douchebag.” Tony gave a one shouldered shrug as he jammed fifty bucks and his business card in the guy's hand.
“No, seriously. Take the day off. Sorry. Really.” Tony gave him a thin-lipped smile. “That's my card. If anyone tries to mess with you about this, just call me. I kind of screwed you over here, so, yeah. Don't worry, you're not going to get fired.” He bent back over Dummy's access panel, relieved when the clerk retreated, leaving him alone, and even more relieved to see that the damn thing was rebooting.
Relief was probably too bland a word for what he was feeling.
He ran trembling hands over Dummy's frame, finding points of damage and split seams and torn wires, and wanted to cry. “Sorry, buddy,” he muttered under his breath. “I'm so sorry.”
Tony fumbled for his tools, more to keep his hands busy than anything else. “Know where we are?” he asked the silent bot. “California. How the hell you ended up in California instead of New York, I'll never know.” Obie had been apologetic, he'd helped Tony search the StarkIndustries databases for any trace of Tony's missing crates. If it hadn't been for him, Tony doubted he would've located this out of the way warehouse. “I'm thinking of living here. What do you think? Malibu? Malibu sounds cool, right? Better than New York. I can't-” He made a face. “I can't take New York right now.” He reached up. “What do you say, Dummy? Feel like being a California boy?”
There was a faint tone as his battery got enough juice to bring his circuitry online, and Dummy's head came up. “Hey,” Tony said. He grinned into the camera. “Where the hell have you been? We've got work to do.”