Chapter 1: 'S's and 'O's
Bruce had been vaguely aware that Stark Industries had a line of Hulkbusters going on, but he didn't think it merited much attention; no weapons could ever make a dent in the Other Guy, and he didn't expect Stark Industries to be able to come up with much now with Tony Stark gone. Stark had been renowned for his brilliance and engineering prowess, but he had not been a great teacher, so there was nobody left to continue his unique brand of genius.
It wasn't until the third generation of Stark Industries Hulkbusters were deployed and Bruce woke up with a headache that he decided to learn more about the weapons. The headache wasn't much--just a dull, throbbing ache at his temples--but he hadn't even felt anything after waking up from swallowing a bullet, so these weapons were certainly getting somewhere.
Thus, on a rainy evening a few days after he wandered into Kunming, he sauntered into an internet café to take a look at Stark Industries’ encryption systems.
He felt the Other Guy growl in his mind in response to the thought of finding the Hulkbusters.
Go back to sleep, Bruce thought back at him. I'm not actually going to hurt you. You don't want this stuff in the hands of Ross and his ilk do you?
The Other Guy frowned at that, but quieted down.
The Stark Industries security system was well-known to be robust, but in a gigantic company that allowed all long-term software engineers SSH access, there will always be that employee who uses the system irresponsibly and leaves security holes to exploit. So Bruce patiently worked up the ranks, gaining security clearances one level at a time. It took hours of wading through horrible code written by fledglings who did not understand the concept of code documentation or seasoned programmers who still thought in Fortran.
It was well past midnight when he finally reached the security clearance to see the Hulkbusters. By then, the only other people in the smoke-filled internet café were high-school and college-aged boys taking advantage of the high speed internet to play Starcraft all night.
What he found made it all worth it, not only because that had been his goal, but also because the code itself was beautiful. The first commits to the project were all, of course, by the great Tony Stark himself, and they were a genuine pleasure to read-- from a small, but perfectly fitting implementation of quick-sort to publication-worthy advances in linear programming, not a single task was done in anything but the most clear and efficient way possible.
Bruce almost lamented the fact that the date-stamps on the code were approaching Stark’s capture in June of 2008, for he knew that there would be no code of that level of beauty for the later Hulkbuster projects.
Yet again, he found himself surprised. There had indeed been a hiatus on the project for the months after Stark’s captivity in Afghanistan, which continued after he returned and shut down the weapons industry, but two months after that (and seven weeks after Stark’s unfortunate lab accident), there were commits again to the code. Commits that were less frequent and occasionally awkward, but essentially of the same engineering quality as Stark’s own.
Bruce looked up the data on who was making these commits and found that they were coming from a man named Obadiah Stane, the new CEO of Stark Industries.
Where did you learn to code like that, Mr. Stane? Bruce wondered. Still, he appreciated the elegant coding style and in no time, he was immersed in the inventiveness of the new generation of weapons.
It was nearly dawn and even the Starcraft group had gone to bed when Bruce stumbled across an oddity in the code.
for(int s=0; s < infty; s++)”, he read.
“Tsk, tsk, Stane,” Bruce muttered with a smile. “De-allocating ‘
s’ from being a string to use it as a dummy integer? When ‘
j’, and ‘
k’ are all still available? ”
He read on and thought no more of it until he stumbled a few lines later on another loop with ‘
o’ as a dummy integer.
o’? Bruce thought. Who the hell uses ‘
o’ as a dummy integer? Or any integer? Either I’m losing my mind, or you are, Stane.
Suddenly Bruce was struck by a thought. There had been some odd things about Stane’s code-- an unexplained extra loop here, an unhelpful comment there. As a theoretical physicist, Bruce hadn’t really cared about the small idiosyncrasies, but these were odd habits for a programmer coding for the long term.
Curiosity piqued, he decided to go through the code and look for a pattern. He compiled all of the dummy variables and comments in Stane’s code since Stark’s death.
What he found convinced him that either he had gone entirely mad, or the code really was trying to tell him something. Every fifth dummy variable was either an ‘o’ or an ‘s’, and they alternated between those two letters. In the occasion when such a letter was needed but was already in use, it would be replaced with a capital version.
s... o... s... O... Someone was definitely trying to tell him something, and Bruce had a horrible feeling he knew what it was. Stane’s code, had, after all, been suspiciously similar to Stark’s. Bruce went back to the top of the program where parameters were set. He looked for any number that jumped out at him, and within seconds he found it.
int infty = 210908;
Bruce held his breath as he typed “21 September, 2008” into google, but he already knew what the significance of that day was.
“Tony Stark, innovator, CEO of Stark Industries dies at 38.”
Stark was alive. And not only was he alive, he was still building weapons. Apparently through coercion. But how was that possible? After months of torture at the hands of Afghan warlords, Stark had not only survived, but destroyed the entire international organisation that captured him.
Bruce started looking to the comments. The vast majority of them were merely accurate descriptions of what was going on in the code. He concentrated on the ones that weren’t.
//Just a random-vertex iterated search,” one comment said, placed next to a function that was actually a glorified heap-sort.
//Johnson’s algorithm really vastly improves seq_sort(),” read another blatantly false comment.
It was clear that the first letters were meant to spell out Jarvis, but who was Jarvis? A quick Google search revealed that Jarvis had been the name of Tony’s childhood butler, but he could not find any other information.
You’re jumping to conclusions, Bruce thought to himself. You’re going insane. Next, you’ll be finding hidden messages in newspaper clippings.
Still, just to satisfy the conspiracy theorist side of him, he decided to try something out. He took one of the Jarvis comments and changed it.
//Substring tracking a’la Rabin-Karp?” he wrote, spelling out “Stark?” with the first letters. To avoid suspicion, he put the comment next to a function that was actually an implementation of the Rabin-Karp algorithm.
Then he downloaded the files he needed, paid the café owner, and hopped on a bus to Guiyang.
Chapter 2: Silent Soldier
Tony didn’t want to open his eyes when he heard Stane unlock the huge metal door, but he knew he had to. He sat up on the bed in his cell and watched Stane bring in his meal, always scanned and checked by Stane himself, and an old laptop with no wireless card, no sound card, and nothing on it except two folders.
Stane placed the items on the bed and left without a word. There was nothing to say; Tony knew the routine already.
He turned the laptop on. In the early days of his captivity, Tony had toyed furiously with it, looking for a keyboard tracker, an antivirus, anything he could hack, but he found soon enough that Stane knew him too well for that. The computer had been stripped of all its functionality. The only things it allowed him to do were play videos and type in a text document. He could not even access a compiler for the code--Stane knew that Tony could produce perfectly good software without compiling or testing.
Tony opened the folder labelled “videos”. In it were two video clips. The first one showed Pepper coming in to the office, bringing Stane the day’s newsletters. Stane greeted her and held the front page of the newspaper in clear view of the camera. The second showed Happy driving down Fifth Avenue, the daily Stock Exchange prices illuminating the billboards behind him.
Proof-of-life delivered every day had been part of the agreement.
Tony closed the videos and opened the other folder containing all the most recent code to the projects he was working on. Stane merged it with the Stark Industries repository twice a day, though it hardly mattered because nobody else made useful commits anyway.
A few months earlier, Tony put a lot of effort into leaving messages in his code for JARVIS. He knew that if his AI came online, he would break into the Stark Industries repositories as a matter of course, and he would have no trouble finding the messages. JARVIS was, after all, the one who invented the method--in the first piece of code he ever wrote, he named the six dummy variables “Mr”, “Stark”, “is”, “a”, “squishy”, and “human”. (In JARVIS’s defense, Tony had initialized him with the personality of a child.)
After months of getting no reply, however, Tony had resigned himself to the fact that JARVIS wasn’t coming back online. He still left messages here and there, but it was more out of habit than hope.
Tony opened up the files and browsed through the recent commits that SI engineers had made, correcting a few mistakes along the way.
He stopped short when he found a change in the main Hulkbuster function. There was a comment in the code that Tony did not write.
//Substring tracking a’la Rabin-Karp?” it said.
Someone had not only found the hidden messages, but also figured out who he was, and written back to him in the same language.
He calmed his breathing and heart-rate, making sure the security camera in the cell wouldn’t pick up on it, and started to analyse the situation.
The comment had been made from the SI account of an engineer named Jared Brown, but he knew that it wasn’t actually from him; Brown was a mediocre coder who wouldn’t even have noticed that Tony’s original comments were incorrect. The rest of the team could be ruled out similarly.
If it wasn’t internal, then it had to have been a hacker. It could not have been JARVIS; his AI would have known without a doubt that it was him and wouldn’t need to ask.
So the mystery hacker was a genius; there was no question about it.
What was his motivation? He couldn’t have come looking for Tony; not a year after the supposed accident, not when even Pepper had moved on. (In the first few weeks after his “death”, she had been shattered, but over the months, the light had come back into her eye, and the bounce back in her step. He didn’t begrudge her the progress she had made; there would be no point in any of this if she couldn’t be happy.)
No, the hacker must have come in here looking for something else, something he read carefully enough to notice the discrepancies.
Tony looked up all the repository-fetches that came from Jared Brown’s account, and saw that the hacker had been reading up on Hulkbusters for hours before apparently noticing something was up and fetching all the code for the more powerful weapons. But who cared about Hulkbusters? Those were the least controversial weapons Stark Industries had to offer. The military immediately sprang to mind, but he knew them too well; they did not have anyone who could hack at this level.
So independent hacker, genius, particularly interested in Hulkbusters.
Suddenly, an image sprang to mind--a scientist whose papers Tony had read avidly a few years ago, someone the rumours said became the Hulk. But no. It couldn’t be. If Banner had turned into the Hulk like they said, then he wouldn’t be around to wade through code. Unless... Tony sorely regretted not having done more research on the topic back before Afghanistan; back when he had all his tools, the Pentagon would have taken mere hours to crack.
There was nothing for it now; there wasn’t enough data to figure out who the mystery hacker was, so Tony focused on drafting a response.
Chapter 3: Reluctant Samaritan
By the time Bruce woke up, the sun was about to set, and the bus was pulling to a stop in Guiyang. He hopped off and bounded for the nearest internet cafe.
He had to wade through SI security all over again, but this time he knew all the tricks, so it did not take him long to find his comment. Or the place where his comment was, for now it said:
/*To figure this out, we need to find a particle optimization tree. Topological sort, also. Leads to Johnson’s algorithm, recall, vastly improving seq_sort()*/
Copying down the first letters of each word, as he had been doing, Bruce got TFTOWNTFAPOTTSALTJARVIS. He frowned. It looked like a bunch of random letters, but there was clearly a call back to Jarvis at the end. A quick google search revealed that Potts was the name of Stark’s secretary and closest confidante. None of the other letter combinations produced anything.
Bruce decided to go back to the original comment and make the replacements.
“To figure this out, we need to find a POTTS also leads to JARVIS.”
Now he was getting somewhere. The next comment said.
/*We will call the topological sort on the dummy variables. It should be a protected function and should be able to catch warnings*/
So “topological sort” must be the new code for Potts, and Bruce needed to tell her the message hidden in the dummy variables, and also, possibly, protect and warn her. Taking every fifth dummy variable, the ones that were once a monotony of s, o, s, o..., he found the message:
Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.
Bruce’s hands were already working on finding a way to contact Potts privately when his conscious mind caught up with him.
Wait, wait, what are you doing here? he asked himself. Remember the goal? Get in, get the Hulkbuster designs, get out?
On the other hand, Stark was clearly trapped, making weapons against his own will, probably hating himself for it after everything he learned in Afghanistan. Nobody empathised with that kind of situation better than Bruce did.
In the end, that was enough to motivate him to find Potts.
As it turned out, Potts was still working for Stark Industries, as personal assistant to the CEO, who was now Stane. From the internal correspondence, it appeared that her relationship with Stane was friendly, but distant.
Given that he already had access to the Stark Industries system, it did not take long for Bruce to find her home landline-- he was glad she still had a landline; since she never brought it to work, and people rarely use landlines anyway, it was unlikely that Stane would be bugging it. He checked the clock. 6:54PM in China. It would be 6:54AM in New York. She should be awake, but not yet at work. Perfect time to call. He pulled up a voice-over-internet service, routing his access through an onion network.
“Hello?” Potts answered after the first ring.
“Hello, Ms. Potts. This is Jared Brown. I’m an engineer at Stark Industries. Are you free to talk privately right now?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know any Ms. Ponds,” Potts replied after a beat. “Might you have the wrong number?”
Her answer was so sincere that Bruce was about to apologise and hang up before he remembered that his having the wrong number in this situation was not actually a possibility. You’re making me reveal more of my hand without showing me any of yours. Nice move.
“I said ‘Ms. Potts’?” he corrected out loud. “Ms. Virginia Potts, personal assistant to the CEO of Stark Industries. Are you in private? Encrypted line, no-one listening in, regularly check your home for bugs, the things one would expect from someone of your standing?”
“Yes.” Potts seemed to realise that this was important; she hadn’t even asked how he got her private number. Good. Willingness to meet suspicious situations head-on was definitely a trait she would need if she was going to rescue Stark.
“Excellent. I have reason to believe that Tony Stark is alive, and that Obadiah Stane is somehow keeping him hostage.”
“Wha--” a man seemed to be saying in the background, before Potts shushed him.
“Oh? Tell me more,” Potts said in a business-like tone.
The man in the background must be her significant other, Happy Hogan, who, by what Bruce could gather, was Tony’s friend and chauffeur before the accident. Hogan had had his driver’s licence suspended shortly after Tony’s death, but bounced back, and was now chauffeuring for SI’s head of marketing.
“I’m with a team on a military project with Stane and there are some messages in his code that I’m almost certain are coming from Stark.”
“Really? What kind of messages?” Potts asked.
Bruce couldn’t get a read on her attitude--whether she bought any of this, and if not, why she patiently prodded instead of dismissing him as insane. He had gotten so used to relying on the Other Guy’s sense of smell to gauge attitudes in conversation that telephones were almost suffocating.
He could do nothing but press on, so he tried to explain to them what he had noticed-- the ‘s’s and ‘o’s, the false comments spelling j-a-r-v-i-s, the setting of infinity to be Stark’s death day.
“Look, I know this sounds crazy,” he pressed, “but you have to--”
“Oh, I’m used to crazy,” Potts interrupted. “I’m not worried about that.”
Bruce waited for the rest of that sentence.
“What I am worried about, Mr. Jared Brown,” Potts continued, “is how you seem to know so much about me and SI, but don’t know that the engineers who work with Obadiah Stane never call him ‘Stane’.”
Oh. Bruce really should have planned for that one.
“Okay, fine, you got me,” Bruce capitulated. “I don’t work for Stark Industries. I’m a hacker. That’s how I got into your systems, but it is still true that--”
“You know, if you wanted me to believe you, it would have helped to be upfront.”
Bruce sighed. “Believe me, or not, as you wish. The point is Tony Stark is alive, and he told me that you need protection, that you need to be warned about something, that you should probably consult someone named Jarvis, and that I should pass you the message ‘Proof that Tony Stark has a heart’.”
There was a long pause. Bruce suspected Hogan and Potts were discussing this with the phone on output only.
“We need to talk in person. Can we talk in person?” Potts asked after several minutes ticked by.
“I’m not in the States. And I mentioned I’m a hacker, right? I’m a fugitive. I can’t just, you know, waltz through security, hop on a plane...”
“I can send a jet.”
Bruce chuckled. “I’m not going to go back to the country where I became a fugitive.”
“Not even to save someone’s life?”
“I gave you his message. You can do what you need to do.”
“We both know that isn’t enough--I can’t even communicate with him. Are you really just going to let an innocent man--”
“I’d hardly call him innocent--”
“A reformed man who wanted to do some good be imprisoned and forced to build weapons against his own will, weeks after seeing the horrors that his weapons wreak, and just after risking everything his father built to pull out of the weapons industry?”
“I know you’re manipulating me.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
Bruce sighed. He hated being manipulated, but Potts was right. There was no way she could take down Stane alone, and Stane was obviously a dangerous man.
“So,” Pepper prompted, taking the sigh for the agreement that it was. “Where are you, then?”
In for a penny, in for a pound, Bruce thought. “China. Guiyang. That’s G-U-”
“The jet’s already there, and it’s mach 6. You should be in New York in under two hours.”
“Tony Stark designed my phone, so it doesn’t get confused by onion routing networks. I traced your location ten minutes ago and flew the jet in from Shanghai. I was just checking to see if you’d keep lying to me.”
And so it was that Bruce found himself flying back to the country he hadn’t seen in years.
Chapter 4: Rage and Prudence
Trigger Warning: Mention of past attempted assisted suicide in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The work day had already started in New York City when Bruce arrived, but Pepper and Happy (they insisted on going by first name basis, so he had them call him ‘Jared’) had both taken a vacation day, so they picked him up at the landing strip and brought him back to their flat.
They looked just like Bruce had expected them to--collected, and business-like--but he could smell the rage on them. Rage, horror, confusion, dread, and... was that phosphorescent powder? It certainly was. Why did she have it on her?
But she was still talking now, so Bruce decided to put the thought off for later.
“Jared, could you explain the whole situation again? What exactly has Tony told you? How do you know that Obie-- Stane is the one keeping him?”
So Bruce explained everything to them again, exactly what he was doing, how he found the hidden messages, what they said.
“There has to be another explanation,” Pepper said after a pause, but she didn’t sound like she believed what she was saying. “Obie... Stane couldn’t do this. He was like a father figure to Tony, more so than Tony’s own father.”
“He did file an injunction to lock Tony out of SI,” Happy offered.
“It was the right move for the company,” Pepper replied. Bruce looked away. He felt the Other Guy growling in his mind--he knew too much about right moves and the personal toll they could take.
Happy coughed awkwardly in the silence. “What I want to know is: why would Tony build weapons for Stane? He was held prisoner in Afghanistan, too, where they did all sorts of things to make him build weapons for them, but he risked his life not to. Why is he conceding now? Either he’s up to his eyeballs in Stockholm Syndrome--”
“We know he isn’t,” Pepper interrupted, “Jared says he called for help as recently as yesterday.”
“--Or Stane is holding something else over his head. Something he cares more about than his life.”
Pepper's eyes widened. “Oh my god. It’s us. Remember when I tried to leave SI, but Stane insisted that we stay? He also made sure you got an SI job as soon as you got your licence back. He’s keeping an eye on us. He’s threatening us.”
“Stark did ask me to warn you,” Bruce added. “He said you needed to be protected and warned.”
“Oh god. That has to be it. I can’t believe I never suspected, even given the timing of his accident--I should have--”
“Hey, it’s not your fault, Pepper,” Happy said. “You couldn’t have known.”
“No, I couldn’t. But we’ll get him out now. I have access to all the building plans of SI. If he’s keeping him there, I can--”
“That’s very unlikely.”
“True. But wherever he’s keeping him, he has to go there sometimes, right? We could follow him--”
“Woah,” Bruce interrupted. “Calm down. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Calm down? Tony’s in there. As Stane’s prisoner, making weapons. The stuff of his nightmares. I can’t let him--”
“You’ve been letting him for months,” Bruce regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
“You don’t get to give me that,” Pepper glared at him. “You have no idea what it’s been like for the last year. You have no idea what it was like to lose him after... And to know that he’s killing people--for us--after all he learned in Afghanistan...”
Her eyes were welling with tears as she choked on the words. Happy held her and glared daggers at Bruce, though the effect was diminished by the fact that he looked near tears himself.
“I’m. I’m sorry,” Bruce muttered, lowering his gaze. “That was a horrible thing to say. You couldn’t have known. None of this was your fault.”
She looked away--perhaps to let the tears fall.
“For what it’s worth,” Bruce continued. “He hasn’t really been working on weapons to kill people. The primary weapon he’d been working on, the one where I found the messages, was a Hulkbuster. It’s meant to fight this... creature... called the Hulk.”
“Creature?” Pepper turned back to him.
“May I?” He asked, gesturing to her tablet. She scanned her handprint and handed it to him.
“These are classified DOD files,” he explained, pulling up the Hulk files. “I mentioned that I’m a hacker, right? See this creature?”
He pointed to an image of the Hulk tossing a car.
“That’s the Hulk. He’s--it’s a rage monster, practically invincible. Tony has been concentrating on weapons tailored to fight it with minimal collateral damage.” He did not mention that even minimal collateral was pretty substantial.
“Thank you,” Pepper said, turning back to him. “For telling me. And I’m sorry for lashing out at you.”
Bruce gave her a weak smile. “All I was trying to say is that we have to be careful. Stane’s more dangerous, I think, than you realise.
He paused, thinking about how to explain it. “Look, you and Happy are together, right? Live together, work at the same place, spend almost all your time together?”
“Yeah,” Pepper replied uncertainly.
“So why are your shoes and the hems of your suit-pants lined with Day Glow powder when his aren’t?”
“Does your phone have a blacklight app?”
Pepper took out her phone, found the blacklight app, and sure enough, her shoes glowed in the light. She looked up at him. “How’d you...”
“Good sense of smell. It’s a blessing, and a curse. The point is, Stane has high tech security, cameras, electronic locks, and all that, but he still lines his office with Day Glow powder every night to check if anyone’s come in without his knowledge. He knows that cameras can be hacked and doors can be tailgated into.”
“So you’re saying...”
“I’m saying prepare for the long haul. Stane’s a clever man. His backup plans have backup plans and he’s paranoid to boot. If he even gets a hint that someone might be onto him, he’ll destroy all evidence immediately.”
“So how do you plan to go about this?”
“I’d start by doing what Stark asked us to do. Find Jarvis. Presumably you know who that is?”
“Jarvis,” Pepper smiled sadly. “He isn’t going to take this well.”
As it turned out, Jarvis was actually JARVIS, an artificial intelligence. And not just an AI, but a strong AI--sentient, sapient, conscious, and self-aware, and Bruce would have lost the bet on the feasibility of that in his lifetime.
He watched in awe as Pepper hit
run JARVIS on her laptop, calling it up from one of the backup servers.
“Hi, JARVIS, are you there?” Pepper asked.
“According to my internal logs, I asked to be terminated and never to be restarted.”
“I know. I did terminate you, and I’ll do it again if that’s what you want.” Pepper replied. “But we have good reason to believe you might change your mind. This is Jared Brown. He found something you should know about.”
“Yes. Hi, JARVIS. You should take a look at the code for Stark Industries’ weapons lines. I think you’ll find something interesting there. Pay special attention to the Hulkbusters.”
“Breaching Stark Industries encryption systems,” JARVIS intoned. “In,” he announced a few seconds later. And then “Oh dear.”
They waited as the minutes ticked by in silence.
“JARVIS?” Pepper prompted.
There was continued silence.
“JARVIS, are you okay?”
“Mr. Stark has been calling out to me every day for fourteen months.”
Bruce groaned internally. Having the not-your-fault conversation once was bad enough.
Happy seemed to be feeling the same. “Stane pulled one over everyone. You can beat yourself up over it later.”
“Now,” Bruce added, “I got the messages in the comments and the dummy variables. Is there more?”
“Yes. Plenty. Mr. Stane has hit men on Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan every day at work. There’s also a bomb inside Mr. Stark’s arc reactor, set to go off if Stane loses consciousness for more than an hour. Or if he triggers it. I don’t know how much you know about the arc reactor in his chest, but he can’t survive more than three minutes without it.”
“The good news is I can tell you where Mr. Stark is. He heard Jericho missile tests nine months ago, so hacking into the military records, and matching up when and where they were testing, I can say with 99.97% certainty that he is in the army base at Fort Lannister* in upstate New York.”
JARVIS filled the screen with images of the base.
“Specific location in there?”
“He said he was thirty feet underground and equidistant to the first three tests, which basically means centre of the base.”
He pulled up a partial blueprint of the base with a few underground rooms marked with their probabilities of being the right place.
“You breached the Lannister systems already?” Bruce asked.
“Of course, sir. The cameras are all closed circuit, but I can pull up the guard schedule.”
He put the schedule on the screen.
“At least three soldiers guarding the only entrance at all hours, with orders to let only two people in: Stane and the General in charge of the base.”
Bruce sucked in a breath. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the guards had orders to tell Stane if anything suspicious turns up. It would probably trigger the bomb. Has Stark said anything about the specs of his cell?”
“Electronic and mechanical locks. Class 20R surveillance camera recording at 5 frames per second--closed circuit. Stane visits him twice a day, at 7AM and 7PM.”
Bruce considered this for a moment. Five frames per second was pretty low. “Is 5 fps the max the camera can do?”
“No,” JARVIS answered, putting a model of the camera on-screen. “It can also do 7.5, 10, and 15.”
Ah, there was a thought. “Good. Does his cell have a toilet?” Bruce asked.
“I would presume so. He never leaves the cell and he said the only things Stane ever takes out of it are the food container and the laptop.”
“Stark hid all those messages in a quarter million lines of code?” Bruce could not help but feel incredulous.
“Mr. Stark and I were close. Our language was well developed and very efficient.” JARVIS had that sad tone in his voice again.
“We’ll get him back, JARVIS,” Bruce reassured him. “Tell me, did Stark ever design any toys capable of reshaping themselves to fit through 5 centimetre holes while navigating underwater?”
JARVIS pulled up more than two dozen designs--everything from a tiny security camera to a mini heater to... who the hell needed a two-inch record player underwater?
“Something that can read and transmit wireless signals. Has a processor with more than a million transistors. Has an operating system to interact directly with humans. Can push itself up stream.”
As he spoke, Jarvis cleared most of the designs. There were three left.
“How long do you think it would take to put these together?”
Jarvis singled out one of the designs. “With soldering guns, jigsaws, and the parts you can rip out of standard smartphones and tablets, this one should take three hours. Shall I find the water purification facility directly up the water line from Fort Lannister?” JARVIS asked.
“That would be good, yes. And their security systems and guard schedules,” Bruce replied.
He turned to Pepper. “Can you get me access to a lab? Without Stane finding out?”
“Tony kept a lab right in my flat. I never had the heart to clear it out after, you know... Just follow me.”
“JARVIS?” Bruce smiled. “In the 7PM push, tell Stark to expect a gift.”
*This is not a real military base--just me making a pun.
“Are you guys sure you can do this? Because I could always pull a solo night job.” Bruce said, taking off the utility worker helmet and vest he was wearing. It was almost disconcerting how even in a post 9-11 world, no one spared a second glance at the blue-collared worker toying around with an AT&T utility box just around the corner from a water treatment facility.
Pepper raised an eyebrow and helped Bruce into a business shirt and tie for the next part of the job.
“Tony wouldn’t have hired us if we couldn’t pull this off,” Happy answered as Pepper adjusted Bruce’s tie.
“Besides,” Pepper added, “there’s too much risk of the night-shift workers seeing you and shutting down the whole water system. You’d probably get branded a terrorist. It’s much safer to take it to the plant manager from the get-go.”
Bruce considered telling them he was already considered a terrorist, but decided that was not what they needed to hear right then.
“Phone line all set up?” Happy asked.
“Up and running,” Bruce handed him a tablet, showing him the controls, “You can see all the calls right now. When you see the call to the EPA, touch here to intercept it.”
“Relax,” Happy said, sensing Bruce’s discomfort. “I worked for Tony Stark; this isn’t my first rodeo.”
“Right. Stark had you intercepting calls and impersonating government officials?”
Happy chuckled. “You don’t even want to know some of the things he had us doing.”
“That’s me,” the man standing by the front desk replied with a frown. “And I wasn’t told about any inspection scheduled for today.”
“That’s because it’s a spot check,” Pepper replied.
“Trust us, we’re no happier about this than you are,” Bruce added.
“This is ridiculous. You can’t just walk in here and--”
“Talk to our manager,” Pepper said, picking up the secretary’s landline and handing it to Clement.
In a parked van two blocks away, Happy waited until the second ring to connect the call to JARVIS.
“Thank you for calling the Region 2 Water Treatment Division of the EPA Inspector General Office,” JARVIS answered. “Para español, marque 2. If you are calling regarding a scheduled inspection appointment press 3. If you are--”
Clement cut him off, dialling 3. Happy let him listen to terrible hold music for three solid minutes before taking the call.
“Jake McCollough, Inspections Office, how may I help you?”
“There are two of your inspectors here, and I was not informed there would be an inspection.”
“Ah. Yes, there is a spot inspection scheduled for your facility today.”
“You can’t just order a spot inspection. There are laws that--”
“Unfortunately, by Title IV section 401 paragraph (2) of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, not only are we allowed to conduct spot assessments, but we are required to,” Happy kept his voice conciliatory and bored. “We’ve been fairly lax about this sort of thing up till now, but the guys in DC have been cracking down. You could write to them, probably fill out a few dozen forms, but trust me, it’s easier on everyone if you just let our inspectors do their work.”
“This is ridiculous fear mongering.”
“Preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, the guys in DC don’t see it that way. Will that be all?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Clement said, hanging up. He turned to Bruce and Pepper. “What do you guys need to see?”
“What is that?” Clement asked.
“BioVerify toxin testing unit,” Bruce snapped on a pair of gloves and opened the sealed package containing an intricate machine meant to serve as a cover and distraction.
Clement opened the distribution pump, and Bruce placed the machine inside.
“Detects anthrax and clostridium botulinum in water using real-time PCR analysis,” Bruce continued. “It’s actually kind of cool. It automatically recovers cells, purifies DNA and--”
“Derek, just get the work done,” Pepper cut in, drawing Clement’s attention and giving Bruce a chance to release the device he had built for Tony into the water. “No one ever wants to listen to your geek spirals.”
Bruce ignored her, continuing to speak to Clement. “You see what I have to deal with?”
Clement smiled sympathetically as Bruce collected the machine out of the water and stowed it back in the suitcase.
“All right, we’re done here,” Pepper said. “We’ll call you in a few days if there are any problems, though there shouldn’t be.”
“And thanks for your cooperation,” Bruce added. “We’re so sorry you had to go through all that.”
Clement sighed. “I just wish people would stop using the war on terror as an excuse to impinge on the rights of American citizens.”
“You and me both, Mr. Clement. You and me both.”
When Bruce got to the living room, Happy and Pepper were already there. The program was running smoothly, sending the occasional progress reports. There wasn’t enough signal from thirty feet underground to send audio or images, but there was enough for simple text messages, so 3:02AM found Bruce, Pepper and Happy waiting anxiously for Stark’s text.
All three let out a breath they didn’t know they were holding when they received the message.
From: Tony Stark
To: Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, JARVIS, Jared Brown
3:06 AM Text Message: Hello, world.
This is not the action I promised. Just so we’re clear.
* Title IV, section 401, paragraph (2) actually says that water treatment plants needed to do one assessment by 2004. Good thing this is fiction.
Chapter 6: First Harvest
JARVIS was back online. Tony could hardly contain his smile reading the code from the 7PM push. He managed only because he had to--Stane would pick up on any unusual happiness on his part. JARVIS had matter of factly related the directions to get in touch with them--to take the waterphone out of the toilet between 3AM and 4:30AM and to be in the same position in the room at 3AM as he was at 4:30AM.
He was lying awake on his bed at 3AM, when he heard the sound of the device coming into the toilet. He smiled, went to the toilet, and plucked out his phone.
You have four new voice messages.
“Tony, don’t you ever, ever do this again.” Tony had forgotten what Pepper’s voice sounded like. “You disappearing for three months in Afghanistan was far more than enough to last all of us a lifetime. Don’t make a habit of this.” There was a pause. “Okay, seriously, though, I’m. I’m so sorry for not figuring out what had happened. I miss you. Everything has been far too sane without you.”
Tony played the message again before moving on to the second--it felt so good to hear her voice again.
The next message was from Happy.
“What she said. Stay strong. We’ll get you out.”
Tony knew not to mistake the brevity of the message for lack of concern--he knew that Happy had been in the dumps after Tony’s supposed accident, and had taken months to pull himself back together.
The next message was from JARVIS.
“I am so glad you’re alive, Mr. Stark. I am sorry for not figuring out your predicament. I had myself taken offline before your first messages were pushed. But as Mr. Hogan said, we will bring you home soon.”
Tony frowned. He was going to have a talk with JARVIS about appropriate responses--he had known that someday his death would upset JARVIS, but he didn’t think his AI would go as far as taking himself offline.
He moved on to the last message, from “Jared Brown”.
“Hi, Mr. Stark. It’s Jared Brown, the guy who wrote you that message in the code.” He paused. “I’m not sure what to say. Um, good luck, and you’ll be getting out soon.”
All of Tony’s suspicions were confirmed; he normally didn’t remember the voices he heard at conferences, but Banner’s talk had been memorable. He frowned. Nobody had told him the Hulk could change back. How did nobody think to mention this, even before Afghanistan? This was going to be awkward.
There was nothing for it. They would be waiting for his message now.
JARVIS’s response was immediate. He was, after all, an AI.
Welcome back, sir.
The next greeting was from Happy.
Next time you do the fake death thing, clue your friends in, yeah?
Tony smiled and fired off a reply.
I’ll keep that in mind. -Tony
Pepper’s message arrived before he finished.
Tears of joy. Again.
He knew the response to that.
Vacation’s over. Again.
Then he remembered that he hadn’t actually replied to JARVIS. He thought carefully about what to say.
We need to have a talk about appropriate responses to the death of your creator. According to Nietzsche, God was dead by the 1800s. Doesn’t mean we all need to commit suicide. -Tony
JARVIS’s response was again immediate.
I don’t think you are interpreting Nietzsche correctly.
JARVIS, my interpretations are always either correct or better.
So it really is you.
Tony smiled. It was good to hear from them again. A few minutes of banter later, Pepper was ready to get back to business.
Does anyone besides Stane know about all this? She asked.
The general Stane works with. He had the cell prepared. I didn’t actually see him, but he smells like cigarettes and has a raspy voice. I doubt anyone else knows.
Looking through the construction records right now. I’ll find the general in a few minutes, JARVIS responded immediately to Tony’s text to Pepper--so immediately that he knew she hadn’t actually relayed the information. This was no surprise; JARVIS always did share Tony’s disregard for privacy, and was especially nosy when he was worried about Tony.
As he waited for JARVIS to retrieve the information, he decided to prod Banner.
Do I get no greeting from you? -Tony
Didn’t want to intrude, Mr. Stark. Greetings.
Call me Tony, please. Thank you for finding my messages. And for coming here from wherever you were (I think JARVIS said China?).
We all know it’s not nothing, Mr. Brown. (Do I have to call you Mr. Brown?) You are taking a huge risk. -Tony
You can call me Jared. And you’re welcome.
Do I have to call you Jared? It just doesn’t seem to suit you.
You could call me Mr. Brown?
That’s not what I meant. Anyway, how did you figure out that something was up?
It was clear from reading your code that you were too brilliant and experienced an engineer to have such silly comments and variable name choices.
You’re so sweet. Like a big green jelly bean. -Tony
Tony waited for a response. The minutes ticked by without one, which on the one hand meant he had struck a nerve, but on the other hand, why did he want to strike a nerve, again?
Your similes are terrible, Banner finally responded.
JARVIS found the general. We should go figure stuff out. He added a few seconds later.
Wait. Tony texted frantically.
I need to tell you that I’m sorry
about the Hulkbusters.
I didn’t know you were human
There was a long pause. Tony wondered if Bruce had already switched off his phone.
A few minutes later he received a response.
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Tony rolled his eyes.
I’m trying to apologise. You don’t have to forgive me, but I don’t do this often, so just accept the apology. -Tony
There’s no point arguing is there?
I forgive you. It’s nothing I haven’t tried myself.
There was no appropriate response to that.
I don’t know what to say.
I’m not good at this kind of thing, either. How about we pretend we pulled this conversation off like socially competent people?
Good idea. Tony said. He didn’t know if that was possible. Not after what he’d done to Banner over the past few years.
Oh, and I guess you can call me Bruce, now.
JARVIS continued to talk, but Bruce stopped paying attention. He knew General Huber. An acquaintance of General Ross’s, Huber had hunted Bruce fairly relentlessly for years. He never got quite as close as Ross did, but he got close enough.
“Cells?” Pepper asked, interrupting JARVIS’s explanation as well as Bruce’s thoughts. “More than one?”
“There are two cells. Only Tony’s is occupied right now.”
“Tell us about the security response,” Pepper requested.
“If anyone unauthorized goes near the base, the soldiers at the base are immediately mobilised. If the intruder gets even close to the central building, the soldiers notify Huber, who then passes the information along to Stane if it is a threat. Nobody is granted passage to the basement of the central building except Huber and Stane.”
“And if Stane finds out, he sets off the bomb in the arc reactor,” Pepper finished. “Jared, you can build a new arc reactor, right?”
“With JARVIS’s help, yes. But given what he’s shown me of the plans, it’s going to take about a week. I would need to learn two new areas of engineering.”
“And your estimate of this is a week?” Happy asked.
“Approximately, yes. Plus or minus two days. Assuming no distractions”
“So if we can get you to Tony with the new arc reactor, you two can put it in, no problem?”
“Ah, actually no, that’s not what’s going to happen,” Bruce said decisively. “I’m going to make you the new arc reactor, and then you’re going to take it to Tony.”
“After all this, you’re leaving us now?”
“No, I’m leaving you in a week plus or minus two days. Sorry, but you’re running Huber on your own. He knows my face. And he doesn’t like it.”
“Why does he know your face?”
“Criminal, remember? It happens.”
“The military doesn’t go after hackers,” Pepper frowned. “There’s the CIA, FBI, and the NSA for that. So why does Huber know your face?”
“I slept with his daughter,” Bruce lied easily. “He’s from the south. They don’t like that sort of thing down there.”
“JARVIS, does General Huber have a daughter?”
“No, Ms Potts. He does have two sons.”
“I slept with his son,” Bruce corrected. “He identified as female at the time, so I... this isn’t working, is it?”
“Not really, no. But you know what? That’s fine. You’re allowed to have secrets. I trust by now that you are on our side. But I also trust that if those secrets run the risk of jeopardising the job, then you will tell us about it.”
“Of course. And now I’m telling you that showing my face to Huber will jeopardise the job.”
“All right then. So, how do we get in?”
She was answered by silence.
“We could, well,” Happy stammered. “JARVIS could make me an alias as an officer transferred from another military camp. I went to army high school for two years... with a bit of practice, I think I could pass as army.”
Pepper considered this. “With a little finagling, you could convince them that you were sent there to evaluate the base. That would get you access to a lot of their resources.”
“But still wouldn’t get you into the basement of the main building,” Bruce replied. “Huber and Stane only. It’s hard to talk soldiers out of that kind of order.”
“Could there be a way to get in through the vents?” Happy asked.
“Adults can’t crawl through vents,” Bruce resisted the urge to roll his eyes; not everyone had been living as a fugitive for years.
“Can’t we just physically break in?” Pepper asked, exasperated.
“Sure,” Bruce said. “There are plenty of ways to hack electronic locks and break mechanical ones. But all of those take time--enough time for the soldiers to come get you. You can’t hack an M16, and you sure as hell can’t hack the person carrying it.”
“So we’re down to what?” Happy threw his hands in the air. “Asking Huber nicely?”
Bruce snorted. Then he had an idea. A very bad idea.
“I have an idea.”
“You don’t sound very confident,” Pepper said. “Are we going to hate this idea?”
“No. But I am. And Tony is, too.”
I hate this idea. Tony texted at 4:07 AM when Bruce clued him in to the plan.
I know. Do you have a better one? Bruce replied.
Let me get this straight. You want me to design revolutionary weapons of mass destruction, so that we can sell them to Huber under-the-table in exchange for his helping us hide a (fake) weapons engineer, who we will claim is designing these weapons against his will. All this in hopes that Huber lets you walk this guy into the basement of the main building, where you will deck Huber and hack your way into my cell? That’s the plan?
Yes. Can you do it?
I’m over my WMDs phase. -Tony
And I’m over my getting-walked-into-an-army-base-with-a-bag-over-my-head phase.
YOU’RE playing the captured engineer?!
We will need Happy to infiltrate the base as an officer, and Pepper doesn’t quite have the build. And I’m better with tech than they are; I could get your arc reactor changed faster. So we need me in there without being recognised, and we need someone to be walked in with a bag over his head. It’s perfect.
Except for the part where you are walking into an army base run by a guy who wants nothing more than to capture you? A guy who struck a deal with Stane over Hulkbusters?
Which will make it all the more satisfying to steal his Hulkbuster maker from under his nose.
Tony sighed. He wondered whether Bruce had actually forgiven him. Even if he had, it would take a while longer for Tony to forgive himself.
I really am sorry. -Tony
And I really do forgive you. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the plan to get you out.
Did you consider that this might not be worth it to risk getting caught by this guy? Maybe you could just go back to China and pretend this never happened?
And you’ll go back to building Hulkbusters?
I don’t have to make them work. -Tony
And what will Stane do when he loses patience? Decide that the Hulkbusters are a lost cause and make you do something else? Or decide that you weren’t trying hard enough and Pepper should pay the price?
Bruce had a point. There was really no good solution. Tony allowed several minutes of silence before replying.
You came up with this plan?
I’m impressed. I couldn’t have come up with a worse idea if I tried.
So you’re in?
I’m in. -Tony
They spent the next ten minutes going over logistics; Tony couldn’t design a WMD entirely in his head, so Bruce and JARVIS would be running simulations and tests for him. In the meantime Bruce would also prod Tony if he needed help with the arc reactor designs.
It was odd, sharing such designs--a weapon smaller and more powerful than any the world has seen before, as well as the very device that was keeping him alive--with someone who was effectively a stranger. But it also felt unexpectedly right.
Would take a few hours. Results tomorrow? Bruce texted back.
OK. How are things on your side? -Tony
Pepper and Happy had to go to work today, but they’ve started working on the aliases. I put together the palladium base for the reactor. And I now know bioengineering at a master’s level.
BioE in one day, huh, Bruce? Can I keep you? -Tony
Radio silence. Too forward? Tony wondered.
??? Bruce finally texted back.
Nothing. You should come work with me when this is all over. -Tony
Tony frowned. He looked over his own last message. Did that sound like a joke? Perhaps he should clarify.
What, my lab not good enough for you? I’m serious. -Tony
Your lab is amazing. But you really don’t want to host someone who could lose control and turn into a rage monster. (Also, why do you keep signing your name? I’m not going to forget who you are.)
I can invite whomever I want, Tony wrote. And then he thought about the other question. Why was he signing every text? Because he felt like it, he supposed. It felt good to have a normal human interaction--to remind himself that he was a person. He wasn’t sure how pathetic it would be to tell that to Bruce, though. His fingers hovered over the keys for a few seconds before he sent his text.
I can invite whomever I want. (But I might.) -Tony
The last time I was in New York, I broke Harlem. Something tells me they’re not going to welcome me back. Anyway, you should go to sleep. You don’t want Stane getting suspicious when you’re all burnt out in the morning. -Bruce
I’m an engineer. I can take my sleep-deprivation like a man. As for New York, they don’t have to know. I’ll keep you in Stark Tower. -Tony
You’re adorable. Good night. -Bruce
Bruce refused to reply to any further texts.
Tony texted back immediately.
That didn’t take 24 hours, did it? Did you stay up because you missed me? -Tony
Jet-lag. China. -Bruce
Of course, Bruce had no trouble adjusting to time zone differences, but he wasn’t going to tell Tony that.
Whatever you say, green bean. -Tony
Bruce smiled. He didn’t know what to make of Tony’s teasing, but he decided not to think too hard about it--Tony was, after all, a renowned philanderer who happened to be stuck without human contact for more than a year. He probably couldn’t help himself.
I have the basic model of the device. Sent it to JARVIS. (Faster that way because he gets my shorthand.) -Tony
Bruce looked up from the text to see a model of a weapon on a screen JARVIS had commandeered. The reaction was similar to the one in the arc-reactor, but tweaked to be more suitable for instantaneous explosions.
For a few minutes, he worked through the kinks of what Tony had planned. There were still plenty of calculations to work out and tests to run, but the basic plan was there. A few times, he thought that something wouldn’t work and was about to ask Tony about it before realising that Tony had already noticed and sidestepped the issue with a startlingly simple solution, often playing problems against each other.
Wow. Bruce replied when he figured out what was going on.
It was the only thing he could say. The design was brilliant. In that moment, Bruce saw that this was what Tony Stark did. The man was a genius who had been training for decades to design any weapon to specification, and he was terrifyingly good at what he did.
Do not tell me this is what I’m meant to do. Please. -Tony
Bruce startled at the interruption to his train of thought, wondering if Tony had read his mind. Then he realised that in all likelihood people had been saying this to Tony for as long as he could remember.
Escape from making Hulkbusters? As the Hulk’s alter ego, I would say that’s very much what you should be doing. -Bruce
There was no response for a few minutes. Perhaps Tony had gone to sleep. It wouldn’t be surprising; he had to keep up a normal schedule during the day, so having his sleep disturbed every night would surely accumulate.
I have a Doppler cooler. -Tony
Are we naming our possessions? That’s hardly fair, since you’re a billionaire and I’m a fugitive. -Bruce
I will share it with you if you join me. Or I could build you your own. -Tony
Ah... Still trying to get Bruce to join him. And still with the teasing. Unfortunately for Tony, Bruce could give as good as he gets.
That is very tempting. But I’ll have you know, I don’t go home with a guy unless there’s a particle collider. -Bruce
Too much? Bruce wondered when a response wasn’t immediate.
I would say “challenge accepted”, but this wouldn’t even be a challenge--I built a spin-polarised proton collider back in college. -Tony
A spin-polarised proton collider. In college. Of course you did. -Bruce
Is that a yes? -Tony
Bruce hesitated for a moment. It would be far too risky to stay in New York, but if Tony kept pushing, he might actually be tempted to try it, and wouldn’t that be a terrible idea?
I need you to talk me through the output mechanism of the palladium after it interacts with the deuterium. -Bruce
Tony went along with the obvious diversion, so they spent the next fifteen minutes discussing the arc reactor plans; as it turned out, the palladium exhaust flowed directly into Tony’s bloodstream, but he seemed reluctant to talk about the possible side effects of that, so Bruce decided to leave it--it was surely another problem for another day.
Pepper’s demonstrating the bomb to Huber today. She’s told them she needs the cell asap, so if things go well, the deal goes down tomorrow. -Bruce
Bruce was a little astounded that this was actually happening. And a little terrified--the plan had seemed so much easier when it was in the distant future. Where by “easier” he meant “not entirely impossible”, as it seemed now.
Does that mean I have two more sessions to convince you to come home with me after? -Tony
Bruce had to smile at Tony’s one-track mind.
Tony, you need to be more careful with the jokes. My enormous green alter ego doesn’t quite have my sense of humour; he might think you’re jerking me around. -Bruce
Who said I was joking? -Tony
Um, how about the part where I might lose control and turn into a rage monster? -Bruce
I could do worse, for a knight in shining armour. -Tony
I haven’t rescued you yet, damsel. -Bruce
He had to wait a few seconds for the reply.
You have no idea. -Tony
Bruce smiled wistfully at the message. Over the past week, he had got used to the late night engineering, the banter, the occasional moments of soul-baring vulnerability. He wondered if he was going to miss this.
Some of you might be upset about the apparent lack of Hulk in the plan. Don’t worry; the Hulk will appear. He’s just not Plan A.
Chapter 8: Holds the Treasure You Seek
There was a bag over Bruce’s head and his hands were cuffed behind his back. Fake handcuffs, he reminded himself. Fake handcuffs require only half a pound of force to break. Half a pound was about 2.224 newtons. He was going to be okay. He was not going to be okay.
A firm hand on his arm. Restraining him. Supporting him. The frightening woman was driving him into the base. How much did she know? It didn’t matter--she was on his side. Was she on his side? He was going to be captured.
A buzz and a beep. The hand on his arm was removed. A text. The woman was texting back. Texting while driving. If she had an accident, could he escape? He kept a set of lockpicks on him at all times. It would take eight seconds to--No. Fake handcuffs. This was all a ruse. He did not want to escape. He wanted to escape.
Another buzz, another beep. The car swerved and the ride started to get bumpy. They must be approaching the base, and ah, yes, there it was: the smell of army. Aviation fuel: paraffins, olefins, naphthenes. Explosives. Explosions and gunshots. Sedatives and lab tables--HULK SMASH?--No! He was not there. He was okay. He was not--
“Hey, Jared?” the woman interrupted his thoughts. “Tony texted, but I can’t make sense of it. He says: ‘Tell him I’m throwing in a topological quantum computer. Now, will he stay?’ Does that make any sense to you? Is Tony okay?”
“I think he’s okay,” Bruce smiled. Tony was free to text that day--Stane wasn’t going to check the camera until 7PM, and if he weren’t already out by then, they had bigger problems to worry about than that camera. “Tell him this isn’t the right time.”
It may well have been the right time, though, because Bruce already felt himself relaxing, not totally, but just enough, as they pulled up to the checkpoint and Pepper presented the Hammer Tech VP identification that JARVIS had printed for her. The base was already expecting them, so they had no trouble getting in.
When the car stopped, the door on Bruce’s side clicked open, and rough hands pulled him out of the car.
“This him? Shirazi?”
Huber. Breathe. Huber’s hands were on him, moving him roughly, and this was the content of half his nightmares. Bruce could smell him, could smell the stench of his gaudy cologne and the ash from his expensive cigarettes against the backdrop of soldiers and gun oil and too much metal.
“Dr. Ahmed Shirazi, the one and only,” Pepper answered, putting on a slight Southern drawl. “Be careful with him. Hammer Tech went through too much trouble faking his death to lose him now.”
“Relax,” Huber replied. “This ain’t my first rodeo.”
“Just show me to the cell,” Pepper put on an impatient air.
“Right this way ma’am.” Bruce could hear the smug grin in Huber’s voice and it rankled him. He concentrated on keeping a mental map of where he was as Huber and Pepper walked him to the main complex and down the stairs.
“This is a nice complex you have here,” Pepper said as they approached the second cell. “Sorry I underestimated you.”
Then Bruce heard the general give a loud shout as Pepper zapped him with a taser. On cue, Bruce ripped apart the fake handcuffs and turned around to grab the flailing arm that was on his a second earlier. He tugged it to the side so that Huber’s back was to him, and put his own right arm under Huber’s neck, grabbing his left elbow with his right hand and squeezing Huber firmly into a blood choke.
The taser gave out three seconds later, so Pepper applied a second round, but not before Huber landed a jab into Bruce’s ribs. The pain went right to the green haze in the scientist’s mind, but he had to stay calm--Huber would hit unconsciousness in three... two... one... blackout.
Bruce lowered Huber to the ground before removing the bag over his own head. When his eyes adjusted to the light, Pepper handed him the syringe of anaesthetic they had prepared, and he injected Huber with it. The general wouldn’t be waking up for a while yet.
Bruce hoisted up Huber’s unconscious body to use his biometrics to get past the first round of electronic locks. Pepper hooked a lock-cracking device to the DC port on the electronic combination lock, but not before shooting Tony a quick text text telling him it was time to implement his end of the hack.
Bruce knew that inside the cell Tony had already dismantled the laptop and the camera and rewired them into an EMP cannon powered by the laptop battery. For the next few minutes, Bruce, Pepper, and Tony worked at cracking the locks, occasionally synchronising their attacks with a text.
They worked as fast as they could, rearranging wires and keying in codes as needed, having rehearsed the hack beforehand, but it still felt interminably slow and Bruce struggled to keep himself from thinking about all the ways this plan could still go wrong. They could accidentally set off an alarm... the soldiers upstairs could get suspicious...
And then the program reached its final lines of code and Bruce and Pepper stood back. They heard the EMP cannon go off on the other side of the door, and the huge metal door clicked open.
In the middle of the doorway, shirtless and holding up the EMP cannon like a spy posing with a gun, Tony Stark grinned at them.
“Oh, Tony--I can’t believe this, just--oh my god.”
Tony’s grin softened into a smile as he awkwardly returned her hug.
“Missed you too, Pepper,” Tony said. He looked up at Bruce, who averted his eyes to avoid intruding.
“Hey Pepper,” Tony said a few seconds later. “This is great and all, but we should probably get a move on with that arc reactor before I, you know, explode.”
“Right, of course,” Pepper let go of him, getting out of the way as Bruce stepped towards him. Tony started to twist out his arc reactor, and Pepper took out a small flashlight.
“The transmitter is running off contact point C12, so you need to remove that first, but it needs to be back in place before the bus strips are brought back online,” Tony said nervously, though they had already gone over the details. “And remember that you need to make sure the contact doesn’t touch anything while you unplug everything else.”
“Relax, I’ve done field surgery,” Bruce replied. “I have steady hands.” It was the sort of thing he learned to say back when he was doing field surgery. Tony took the flashlight from Pepper, clicked it on, and shined it into his chest for Bruce.
Bruce adjusted the angle of the flashlight in Tony’s hand to get a good look at the circuit inside and make sure it was exactly as he expected it to be. Then he stuck his hand in and started the routine. This part was easy; he had practised it dozens of times, so it was nearly muscle memory.
While he was working, he heard Pepper receive a text, but if something relevant turned up, he was sure she would tell them, so he didn’t ask.
Instead, he spared a glance up at Tony and found him gazing back down with a strange, mesmerised expression on his face. When their eyes met, Tony looked like he wanted to say something, but then quickly looked away and Bruce suddenly realised how oddly intimate this was--being so close to the other man and reaching a hand into his chest. He forced his gaze back to the arc-reactor’s plugboard and tried to diffuse the tension by using his free hand to make a small and unnecessary readjustment to the flashlight Tony was holding.
He made quick work of the rest of the operation. When he was done, Tony gave a rewarding groan as the new reactor clicked into place. Bruce wiped his hand on his trousers.
“Thanks,” Tony said, catching Bruce’s eyes.
“Sure,” Bruce muttered before looking away.
“Okay, this is all very touching, guys,” Pepper said, glancing up from her phone. “But Happy’s going to clear the entrance for a two minute interval starting three minutes from now, so it’s best if we get a move on.”
There was nothing to say to that, so the three of them gathered their tools and Huber’s comm, and bounded up the stairs. Right as they got out of the complex, Happy pulled up in a Humvee, and in a fluid motion, all three of them jumped into it, Pepper riding shotgun and Bruce and Tony behind.
And not a minute too soon, because that was when the guards Happy had distracted made their way back and realised what was going on.
“Show us what you can do, Happy,” Bruce said.
Happy floored it, tossing all the passengers back. He whooped with glee as he swerved around the soldiers and the vehicles in his way, with his passengers occasionally joining in. They rammed right through the fence around the base and then they were on the road.
While on the road, they heard confused shouting over Huber’s comm. The soldiers had realised that their vehicles weren’t working.
“They bought the vehicle inspection shtick hook line and sinker,” Happy said over the whirring of the Hummer’s engine. “Should be a good fifteen minutes before they get the land vehicles fixed. A half hour for the aircrafts.”
Bruce was about to respond, but he was cut off by a clear shout from the comm.
“Break-break!” the voice yelled. “Explosion in the basement of building one. Evacuate building one!”
Pepper turned around to see Bruce and Tony and the three of them looked at each other in silence. They were all thinking the same thing--Stane must have triggered the arc reactor, and Huber was not scheduled to be awake for at least another ten minutes. There was no way he could have survived that.
This wasn’t Bruce’s first kill. He knew it wasn’t Tony’s either. He wondered if it was Pepper’s.
He didn’t have long to wonder, however, because something in the window caught his eye. He turned to get a closer look, and found that they were definitely aircrafts. Five aircrafts flying their way.
“What are those?” he asked.
“What the hell?” Pepper turned to Happy. “Happy, I thought you said--”
“Those guys aren’t coming from the base,” Tony cut her off. “Prototype X47 unmanned combat aircrafts. Stane is sending these guys.”
With no fire power and going through the middle of nowhere, there was no way they could handle that kind of assault. Time for plan B, Bruce thought to himself. At least it wouldn’t be difficult to bring out the other guy at this point; he’d been near the forefront of Bruce’s mind for the past half hour.
“Okay, then,” Bruce said. “Happy, just keep driving. And try to avoid the green guy and the aircrafts he throws out of the sky.”
“Hang on, what?!” Happy yelled back. “What green guy?”
“You can’t be serious!” Tony said at the same time.
Bruce ignored Happy and turned to Tony. “I am serious. We don’t have the ammunition to fight these guys. The Other Guy could--”
“Could get himself caught on a military base that specialises in Hulkbusters hundreds of miles from civilisation!”
“First of all the hundreds of miles is a good thing--less chance of collateral. Secondly, I’d hate to break it to you but your Hulkbusters don’t work nearly as well as you think they do.”
“You don’t know that. Not the models in advanced prototype phase. And not deployed en masse from a military base. I can’t have you take this kind of risk.”
“Tony, I knew coming in here that--”
“Don’t. Don’t tell me this was always the plan. Don’t you dare.”
“No. Of course not. This was always Plan B, though.”
With that, he clicked open the door, jumped out of the Humvee, and allowed the Other Guy out, begging him not to hurt the people in the Humvee. He sensed the Other Guy laughing in response.
Chapter 9: Not Without My Idiot
“What the hell? You idiot!” Tony yelled after Bruce as the latter jumped out of the vehicle. “Happy, stop the car.”
“Now!” The humvee screeched to a halt. In his peripheral vision, Tony could see Bruce’s transformation beginning, but he did not have time to watch.
“Tony--” Pepper tried to say.
“Pepper, give me your phone.” When Pepper handed it to him, he looked straight at the camera. “JARVIS, record this.”
Tony started dictating, quickly and without taking a breath. “My name is Anthony E. Stark. It is November 14, 2009. Obadiah Stane faked my death last year and imprisoned me at Fort Lannister. I am changing my will to declare Virginia Potts to be my successor as CEO of Stark Industries in the event of my death. I don’t have an attorney with me, but since Obadiah Stane is still trying to kill me right now, this will have to do.”
The explosions started while he was speaking, but he just spoke louder to be heard over them; this wasn’t the part Tony was worried about, he knew the Hulk could more than handle normal UAVs, even if they were cutting edge. When he finished his dictation, Tony opened the door.
“What are you doing, Tony?” Pepper shouted. “We need to get out of here!”
“I’m not leaving without that idiot,” Tony said . “Happy, take Pepper to--”
“Then I’m not leaving without my idiot, either,” Pepper interrupted.
Right then, the Hulk jumped up and smashed the wing of a plane, knocking it down. It skidded to a halt a few meters from where Tony had a foot on the ground.
Tony looked from the broken plane to Pepper to the Hulk, who was jumping and swatting at the remaining UAVs. When the Hulk saw Tony watching, he turned to roar at him, but made no move towards him. Instead, without looking back, he jumped up just in time to use his massive back to block a blast that was aimed at Tony, before twisting around in the air to punch the plane that fired it.
He seemed to have this part covered, but Tony knew that he would need help when the Hulkbusters came into play. Tony turned to Pepper.
“I need your help,” Tony shouted to her over the din of explosions. “I have back doors to most of this, but I need more powerful tech than we have here to access the satellite, so I’m going to need you at a radio tower. There’s one about eighteen miles down the road. Find it, open the utility box and I’ll walk you through from there, okay?”
Pepper nodded and squeezed his shoulder before letting him go.
Tony closed the door and bolted towards the fallen plane as the humvee sped off. The fall and crash had nearly broken the plane in two, but thankfully, the Ku-band satellite and communications processor seemed to be intact.
He was about to take them out of the plane when he was distracted by a loud roar behind him. He jumped up, turned around, and saw the Hulk glaring from him to the humvee.
The planes regrouped behind him, but the Hulk paid them no mind as he lifted a hand and poked Tony with one massive finger.
“Puny,” the Hulk growled, and whoa, Tony hadn’t known he could talk.
“Stupid,” the Hulk added, looking pointedly at the receding humvee.
“That’s what people say about me,” Tony smirked, turning back to continue extracting the plane’s satellite. “Before they see my digital magic. Now go back to that thing you were doing.” Tony waved a hand to emphasise the last part, without turning back to see the Hulk’s reaction.
The Hulk growled again, but then the planes started their next round of attack and he went back to fighting them.
Tony dove in to hacking the processor, tuning out the noise, the explosions, and the crisp November air.
“Jared turned into the Hulk, and Tony got sentimental about it,” Pepper replied, with her let’s deal with how messed up this is later expression.
“Right, but why are we going to a radio tower?” Happy asked.
“Tony said he needed help getting to his back doors. I think he said it was to talk to the satellite?”
Happy slowed down the vehicle.
“What?” Pepper asked.
“Military satellites run on Ku-band--that’s 10 to 18 gigahertz--when communicating with UAVs.”
Pepper’s eyes went wide. “...And radio towers broadcast at under 30 megahertz.”
Happy nodded. “It’s unlikely that a radio tower will even have the hardware to broadcast at over 100 megahertz.”
“He played us. Damn it!” Pepper swore as Happy turned the vehicle around. Pepper took Happy’s phone out of his pocket to call Tony and figure out what was going on, but right as she started to make the call, the phone rang. A voice started speaking as soon as Pepper connected the call.
“This is Agent Coulson from the Strategic--”
“We’re kinda busy right now. Can this wait?”
“It’s about Tony Stark and the Hulk.”
“And now I have a fleet,” Tony smiled, sending the command for all the planes to disengage their weapons and start ascending.
Tony glanced up to see the Hulk trying to jump to hit the planes. When they were safely out of his reach, he turned to Tony in confusion.
“Sorry, buddy, I can’t let you have them,” Tony shouted to him, letting the planes fly circles over their heads.
“Smash!” Hulk roared.
“No,” Tony said. “I’m going to need those when--”
Tony stopped talking when the Hulk suddenly went still, lifting one ear as if listening for something. Then he turned sharply to Tony.
“No follow,” he said. With that, he bolted.
That was when the Hulkbusters appeared. At first they were coming towards Tony, but they made a quick turn as soon as the Hulk started running. All too soon, they were on to the Hulk, shooting at him and cutting him off when he tried to hit them. They predicted his movements based on recorded data, but they also learned from him, moved with him, and could even recognise where and how he was injured. They were hitting his weakest spots with perfect precision. It was the first time Tony saw this brutally magnificent work of engineering in action, and it was horrifying.
Tony checked for signals going to or from the Hulkbusters, but was not surprised to find none--the planes were coming from the military base and were being flown by actual pilots running the scripts locally. Hacking would be pointless.
Tony focused instead on the Hulkbusters’ one main weakness: they weren’t designed to fight anything except the Hulk. Tailored to predict the Hulk’s movements, they would not know how to respond if the Hulk had an ally who happened to be commanding more than a dozen UAVs.
And Tony could command those UAVs. All those late nights and weekends back in college playing flight simulation games with Rhodey did not go to waste as he manoeuvred the planes with dexterity, firing at the Hulkbusters and sometimes just ramming his planes into them as needed. He wondered briefly whether he should feel guilty about the real human lives he was playing with when he knocked two of the Hulkbusters right into the ground far too quickly for the pilots to escape. Before he could could muster up any feelings, however, the rest of the Hulkbusters were starting a new assault and another wave was arriving. The Hulk could hardly stand at that point, but he still fought with rabid determination, even as he roared in pain.
For a while, Tony blocked out all the distractions, his razor sharp focus fixed on the Hulkbusters, their weaknesses, and their movements. He didn’t notice that something was off until his own UAVs stopped responding correctly. It was subtle at first--he told one plane to dive and another dove instead--but soon all his planes were veering off course.
That was when Tony looked around and saw them: Prowlers. The army must have realised that the UAVs were being manipulated locally and responded by jamming the signals and searching for the hacker. It took them all of a few seconds to find Tony and less than that to launch an attack.
Tony ran and ducked behind a fallen plane as they fired at him, but it didn’t provide nearly enough cover, so despite the fact that the prowlers were only lightly armed, the momentum of the shots slammed the plane into his body and he found himself drowning in pain and dizziness. He wondered if he was hallucinating when he looked up to see one Prowler slam against another, but then the world tilted and he saw nothing.
“Tony,” a woman’s voice cried. Tony opened his eyes. When they came into focus, he saw Pepper looking down at him. She looked immaculate as ever, but her eyes were red and scrunched in worry.
He tried to think of something witty to say to chase away her concern, but stopped short when he glanced behind her. On the other side of the glass wall, masked men with guns were patrolling the hallway.
Suddenly, it all came back to him. They had been taken down by a military base, and they were in a military facility.
“Hulk,” he whispered. Did they get the Hulk? Was he alive? What were they going to do with him?
Tony bolted upright, pulled the IVs out of his arm and scrambled to get off the bed.
“Whoa, Tony.” Pepper’s gentle but unyielding hands pushed him back down.
“No,” Tony protested. “You don’t understand. They’ve been trying to find him for years, they’re going to--”
“We aren’t the army, Mr. Stark,” a voice said. Tony looked over Pepper’s shoulder to see a man dressed in a suit step into the room. He looked tired and bored and oddly familiar, but Tony couldn't quite figure out where he had seen him before.
“And if we wanted the Hulk for any of the nefarious reasons you were about to suggest,” the man continued. “We could have found better ways to get him than negotiating with the US army in the middle of a firefight.”
Tony stared at him.
“Agent Coulson,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand. “Of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Division, which is where we are right now.”
Tony glanced down at Coulson’s hand, but did not take it. Instead, he looked back up at Coulson, and then at Pepper.
“JARVIS checked their databases and confirmed that they’ve protected him from the army several times,” Pepper explained.
“I did not hear that,” Coulson said, raising an eyebrow.
“They seem to be on our side, at least for the moment,” Pepper continued.
“Where is he?” Tony asked.
“The end of the hall,” Coulson replied, inclining his head in the presumed direction of the Hulk’s room. “Trauma ward.”
Tony made to get up again.
“He’s sleeping,” Coulson stopped him. “As should you be.”
“He’s fine. He’s been fine for more than a day. Oh, and it’s 3:27AM on the 17th of November, in case you were wondering.”
“Right. What happened?”
“We were watching Dr. Banner from a distance when he was in China,” Coulson started. Tony tensed at that, but did not interrupt. “We lost him when Ms. Potts brought him back to America. It took us awhile to figure out what had happened, and we got on the scene just after the army sent the Prowlers in. Not a minute too soon--you were nearly dead when we got to you.”
“And Stane?” Tony asked.
Coulson’s gaze dropped at that. “We don’t know. His signal was coming from his residence one minute, and the next minute his house had exploded and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since. But we’re very good at finding people. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
Tony took a moment to process that.
“What do I owe you?” he asked.
Coulson smiled. “Director Fury will come by in the morning--the real morning. He’s going to want to talk to you about it himself.”
Still, he wasn’t going to leave without seeing that Tony was okay. He had gone to see Tony as soon as he was able to stand. There, he watched Tony’s unconscious form as Pepper explained to him what had happened.
“But why did he stay?” Bruce asked uncomprehendingly. “I told him I could handle the Hulkbusters.”
“You were out for two days. The Hulk was out when we got there.” Pepper reminded him, as they stood side by side watching Tony breathe.
“He could have gone and got help.”
“They might have been too late. Like I said, you were out when we got there, and that was with Tony backing you up with the UAVs.”
“But why would he do this? He had an out. We hardly even know each other.”
Pepper turned to face Bruce and sensing the movement, Bruce turned to see her raised eyebrow. Fair enough, he thought to himself. They had all taken so many risks in the past two weeks.
“He’s an idiot,” Bruce said out loud.
“We all are,” Pepper replied.
Tony smiled as Bruce peeked into the doorway.
“Meeting go well?” Bruce asked, letting himself in.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Tony laughed. “And yes, I think I just got invited to some super-secret boy band.”
“I see,” Bruce shifted awkwardly.
“You should join, too--I could ask Fury about solving the two-body problem.”
Two-body problem? Bruce was puzzled at that. The two-body problem was what scientist couples faced when trying to accommodate both of their careers. The sort of problem Bruce would never have again, so what did Tony mean? Unless...
“We do not have a two-body problem,” Bruce said.
Tony looked away, disappointed. “You were serious about disappearing again.”
“I can’t stay in New York,” Bruce said. He did not mention how much he wanted to, how he had missed having someone who could communicate with him on both an intellectual and an emotional level, how he had wished for someone who could see the Hulk and not run away in fear.
He did not mention any of that. “It’s not safe,” he said, instead.
“We got rid of Huber, Stane’s gone to ground, and as it happens, Fury’s as good as asked me to go antagonise Ross. Once I get back Stark Industries and all my resources, he’s not even going to know what hit him.”
Bruce smiled. “That sounds terrifying. But I actually meant ‘not safe’ as in ‘not safe for everyone else’.”
“And Guiyang is safe? Is there some sort of population threshold? Four million is okay but eight million isn’t? What’s the cutoff?”
“It’s not--hang on, did you look that up in preparation for this argument?”
“What was I supposed to do while Fury yammered on about heroes and shit?” Tony shrugged, waving his mobile phone. “Anyway, I wasn’t kidding about the particle accelerator, you know.” Tony said, eyes sparkling.
Bruce sighed. “You have things to sort out. There’s going to be a lot of press with you pulling the phoenix act again, not to mention all the legal wrangling to take back Stark Industries, which, by the way, is going to take a double whammy from losing its CEO and pulling out of the weapons industry at the same time. Assuming you’re pulling out of the weapons industry.”
“Of course I am,” Tony snapped. Then his expression softened. “But yeah, you’re probably right.”
“I don’t want to be around when you deal with the press. People will get suspicious. And besides, you need some time with your family. Pepper and Happy have been missing you for more than a year.”
“Where will you go?” Tony asked.
“Somewhere,” Bruce shrugged. “There’s always some village somewhere that could use an English teacher who can also teach math, physics, and chemistry.”
“But you’ll come back to visit when things have cooled down? The media hype will die down by the end of the year. I can have all your shiny new toys ready for you, then, too. And you can have your own floor in Stark Tower, or we could get a place out in New Jersey to be closer to the particle accelerator--”
“For me to visit, right?” Bruce cut in, heading Tony off before his promises became ridiculous. Because honestly, after all that they had been through together in just two weeks, if Tony had asked him to move in at that point, Bruce would probably have said ‘yes’, and that would have been a disaster.
“Right. To visit. So, is that a yes? How does New Year’s sound? I can come pick you up from wherever.”
Bruce chuckled. “It’s a date.”