“What the fuck am I looking at here?” Tony Stark asks as he stands in front of the hologram that’s showing – well.
“They appear to be mutation strings, sir.”
“Yes, but what the fuck am I looking at here?”
Mutation strings, just like JARVIS told him, but there’s almost an entire wall of them, just continuously altering codes and then realtering codes, some of them even trying to take over his controls.
On another screen, JARVIS shows him a list of viruses that can be potentially released (along with a small army of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s finest IT personnel and possibly a helicopter full of agents) if he ever made a misstep, and he hasn’t, because he’s Tony Stark, but what he’s focusing on is the fact that this type of security is not S.H.I.E.L.D’s usual style. They find hackers and chase the little upstarts out of their system and into a holding cell.
This wall of mutation strings isn’t even the first wall Tony’s encountered.
He runs a hand over his face and mutters ‘hell’ under his breath. Whatever S.H.I.E.L.D is trying to hide, they’re going all out in trying to hide it. Steve is right to be suspicious of the little fuckers.
“How many landmines are you going to step on until you get chased out of there again?” he asks.
JARVIS pulls up another screen and displays a list of malwares, some serious enough to incapacitate Stark Tower’s functions for a few hours. This is S.H.I.E.L.D they are talking about after all, and Tony’s handpicked some of the programmers they have, clever little insomniacs who deserved a lot more than sitting in decrepit college dorms crying into their coffee cups. He knew it was going to bite him in the ass, he just didn’t think it was going to be this soon.
“Take a break, JARVIS,” he says instead, waving a hand for the holograms to flicker out of existence. JARVIS says, “Very good, sir,” and Tony barely notices it as he heads out to get some alcohol. He can feel a headache coming on.
He can always manually deal with the strings, like a normal person does, but Tony Stark finds it insulting to be roped in with the rest of the masses and besides, JARVIS is faster. Also besides, when JARVIS gets rid of one string, three more take its place, and it’s not only a cracking game, it’s a race to see whether the wall can build faster or if the strings can be destroyed first.
He almost gets a bottle of tequila before settling for the sixpack in the fridge. He picks the entire thing up and returns to the lab, cracking open a can and drinking it without pausing to breathe. He grabs a tablet and goes through what JARVIS has found so far.
Missing person reports, personal records, lists of social media accounts, dubious traffic cam footage – he’s got a lot to sift through. JARVIS has pointed out things to him, but it never hurts to be just a bit thorough, especially now that he’s seen what S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to sink to, to protect their precious files. Mutation strings he can understand, redirections he can understand, trackers he can understand, but malware? And an unholy amount of popup ads? Plus videos found in the mucks of Youtube?
Definitely not S.H.I.E.L.D.’s usual MO. Possible, but not commonplace, so either they got one of Tony’s recruits to do the security on these files or they’re that desperate to hide it. Or, they knew exactly who was going to try and hack into these files.
“JARVIS, look for other files that are encrypted the same way as The Great Wall of Mutation Strings,” he says. JARVIS tells him his assent and gets to work.
Kids, Steve had told him. Mutant kids, but still kids. Christ, what is S.H.I.E.L.D. thinking, that a couple of missing children is worth smoothing out paranoia? This is apparently why the Safehouse, which is run mostly by mutant kids, doesn’t want S.H.I.E.L.D. within a fifty meter radius of them. Tony can understand. Hell, Tony’s a little pissed. Defend the Earth, his ass.
He cracks open another beer can and downs that like he did the other.
There are about thirty-two missing kids he’s known about so far. He doesn’t know if there are others, but there most likely are, and there’s probably another five or so missing at this moment, newly abducted, and that’s just in New York. S.H.I.E.L.D. operates in other parts of the world as well.
There’s a pattern though. Most of the kids he’s read up on have publicly displayed their powers. Not maliciously, of course, as others have just displayed their powers by accident while some have just shown off to their friends. A few, like two of the thirty-two Tony’s got intel on, have visible mutations they can’t really help. They’re all kids with homes and parents, so he’s got records out of them. Steve had said that homeless kids were being taken too.
He checks the traffic cam footage JARVIS has given him. There’s nothing suspicious in the footage, and that’s exactly it. The streets are mostly empty, or dark, and the video is just being looped, obviously to cover up whatever is actually happening. There’s no reason for the government to investigate this, of course, especially not if S.H.I.E.L.D. is behind this, but just in case, they’d looped the feeds.
Social media accounts are all filled with worried messages from the missing kids’ friends. Personal records are useful in identifying who is who, but that’s about it. Aside from distraught parents and anxious loved ones, there’s nothing else for Tony to go on, and if he goes around asking questions, word will spread, because he’s Tony Stark and he’s hardly inconspicuous, and then he’s going to be answering to Nick Fury. This would, of course, confirm the theory that S.H.I.E.L.D. is responsible for the mutant disappearances.
Confirm. Funny. It hasn’t crossed his mind that it could have been someone other than S.H.I.E.L.D.
Worst comes to worst, he can sift through internet forums.
This is why he’s an engineer and not a detective. Detective work is for people in huge coats and fedoras, smoking pipes and running around with magnifying glasses, hiding behind monochrome television screens, dialogue supplemented with jazz music in the background.
He blinks. He hasn’t noticed JARVIS has been speaking to him for a while now. He opens another can of beer. He’s too sober for this shit.
“I’ve found three files surrounded by the same type of security as The Great Wall of Mutation Strings.”
“Pull ‘em up.”
JARVIS lets three different holograms flicker in view, all of them displaying scripts generating faster than the human eye can make sense of. The text just looks like excitable little worms, wriggling around.
“No weak links?”
“As far as I can tell, sir.”
Tony absolutely does not huff like a petulant child.
“However, I’ve found a report that’s linked to one of the files, sir.”
Tony leans forward, listening.
“It’s been deleted – ”
“ – but not as thoroughly as they’d like. I’ve managed to recover it.”
Tony forgets he has a beer can in hand and claps his hands together, resulting in him nearly crushing the can and sloshing beer all over himself. Better to make it look like he’d meant for that to happen. So he says, “Let’s see it, then.”
JARVIS’ sigh sounds like static. Tony ignores it in favor of a bigger screen coming to view while the three feeds of the mutation scripts are minimized. Tony reads silently before he leans back in his seat and raises an eyebrow.
“This is from a while back.”
September 2011, the file is dated.
“Yes, it is, sir.”
Ignoring his A.I.’s cheekiness is par for the course. “S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been at this for more than a year, then. What’s the nearest big event this can be tied to – Thor? After Thor, right? New Mexico and the Hammer of Truth? Unless finding Cap counts. I don’t think it counts. He was just found.”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS says, then, after a while, “It seems there’s another file sir, similarly deleted, but still recoverable.”
“Connected to this one?”
“It appears so.”
JARVIS shrinks the file’s window down so that another one can be placed beside it. Tony reads it, and decides one eyebrow isn’t enough for this revelation. “This one is reported four months and thirteen days after that one. Anything else?”
JARVIS takes a few more minutes, and in that time, Tony finishes his half-crushed beer car and opens another. Two more windows open. The first report is dated almost two months after the last report, and the second is a month after.
“This one isn’t deleted, but encrypted. Not in the same way as the mutation strings, of course, but encrypted still.”
It reads like a summary of the last four reports, ending of course, with Amora and the Chitauri attack.
September 2011, January 2012, March 2012, April 2012, May 2012.
“No wonder S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been in a blind panic,” Tony mutters.
Eight months before the Chiaturi attack, the report reads, an odd reading was gathered by S.H.I.E.L.D. This is further supported by Thor’s astrophysicist friends. The energy spike wasn’t like Thor’s arrival via bifrost, or whatever it was called, but it was something closer to what Tony had read during the whole ordeal with the missing ghostbusters merchandise (which has thankfully now resumed production, although the missing merch never was recovered).
Tony suddenly has an idea.
“JARVIS, see if you can find anything about energy readings during the missile disappearances.”
The report continues that four months and thirteen days after the first energy spike – February 2012 – there was another. It was also dissimilar to the first energy spike, but there was a noticeable effect on the planet’s atmosphere, and scientists all over the world (Tony bets that S.H.I.E.L.D. is pissed they don’t have a monopoly over information and research) confirmed it and were quite baffled by it. Two months after, more or less, there’s another spike, this one similar to the atmosphere-cleansing one. A month after that, another.
A month after that, Amora arrived.
The gap was getting shorter, Tony noted, and it ended with Amora arriving, so no wonder S.H.I.E.L.D. is quite paranoid. It’s possible that whatever had caused those spikes had been on Amora’s side, or even heralded her invasion. Maybe the whole Chitauri thing had been a distraction, and the first four not-quite-invasions were the real thing. Sleeper agents, maybe.
Tony suddenly feels sick, images of flying up to the tesseract portal, missile along with him, flashing across his mind. That huge ship – god, he never wanted to see that again.
What if that is the case? That the attack was just a distraction and the real threats were right under their noses. Is this why S.H.I.E.L.D. is grabbing blindly at whatever they can? Taking mutants off the streets to see if they were the threat that had arrived?
“I’ve found nothing on the disappearing missiles, sir.”
Damn. Tony is sure if there had been reads on it, it would have been similar to the ghostbusters incident. Why was that? They should have been able –
He pauses, frowns. Exactly why had they been able to pinpoint the ghostbusters incidents when mutants were running around New York all the time, using their powers? If the missing missiles were created by a mutant, and if Tony thought that the ghostbusters thing was caused by the same mutant who made the missiles disappear, then it would stand to reason that the readings of the ghostbusters incident should have been replicated and caught during the missing missiles incident.
And if it was a mutant, then why read on this particular mutant when there were countless others on the street? In the city? All over the globe? Why read on just this mutant and not the others?
Unless, of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. knew what to look for and adjusted the equipment to find that particular energy spike.
Maybe the mutant abductions are an attempt to find whoever did the ghostbusters thing, and connect that to the possibility that S.H.I.E.L.D. was looking for that particular reading…how did they even get the idea? A tip?
“JARVIS, this sounds stupid so don’t sass me, but find out everything you can about the ghostbusters mission.”
JARVIS is silent.
When there’s a starting pulse of static, Tony says, “Don’t.”
There’s a titter that sounds like a rapid scale of 8-bit keys. Tony can’t believe his A.I. has the audacity to laugh at him.
“Sir, there are similar energy readings to the ones reported in the encrypted September to May file.”
“Let’s see it then.”
There’s multiple files this time. Three of them report of energy spikes that are closer in gap than the previous ones, two of them are even weeks close. Another is a little spaced farther from them. There’s one more, and JARVIS tells him this was almost discarded because the energy spike was so small, but the gamma readings were similar, so it was kept.
The invasion, or whatever it is, is still continuing, and nobody knows what it is or where it is, it’s just. It’s happening.
“JARVIS, are the readings for the tesseract portal similar to these?”
Tony blinks. Twice.
He notices that the beer is warm in his hand and drinks it. Maybe he didn’t hear that right. Maybe he’s drunker than he realizes.
“What?” he says, all eloquence gone.
“No, sir,” JARVIS repeats.
“Are you sure?”
Tony finishes the can and carefully places it on the table, resisting the urge to slam it down. He runs through the condensed report – the first spike was different from the rest but similar to the ghostbusters incident, the next three were similar to each other but different to the first, and the last – Amora’s – was different from the rest. The other spikes were similar to the three in between the first and Amora’s.
“Then why the fuck did that report hypothesize those readings had anything to do with Amora?”
“Because lesser-minded humans, sir, in a panic, tend to grasp at straws.”
Tony snorts, opens another can (he does not want to be sober right now) and raises it in a toast to his A.I. JARVIS plays a ‘clink’ sound over the speakers. Tony laughs.
Still, he can’t discard the possibility that all of this might be involved with Amora somehow. It’s the safety of the Earth at stake here. Maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to cover all bases.
He also can’t discard the possibility that S.H.I.E.L.D. is, in fact, grasping at straws and trying to take as many mutants off the street as they can in an attempt at the method of elimination. As in, if everyone they take is innocent, whoever’s left is the culprit.
And then there’s the continuing energy spikes. He can’t discard that either.
A cold draft tickles the back of Tony’s neck, and he shivers. Then he realizes it’s not a cold draft at all, because that cold feeling runs down his spine and makes a home in the small of his back.
He shudders violently, and begins to reach behind him to swat at whatever’s there –
In the reflection of a silver beer can he’s placed on the table, there’s something standing behind him, colored dark green.
It moves too fast, and the last thing Tony remembers is the sound of laughter.
And even then, that doesn’t last.
The Great Wall of Mutation Strings is mocking him.
He’s back at it again, playing minesweeper together with JARVIS at it, careful not to make a mistake in case S.H.I.E.L.D. tracks it back to him, or it sends him a malware that will decimate his systems for a few hours (and for a lesser computer, to spark out and weep).
That’s all he can do for now, because he doesn’t remember the last few hours, and neither does JARVIS, which is alarming, because between him and JARVIS, they remember everything. The camera footage is clean, JARVIS’ history is clean, and all Tony has to go on is a couple of empty beer cans, a beer-soaked shirt and a note written in dark green ink. It says Sorry, followed by an exclamation point and a smiley face which is clearly in another handwriting.
This disturbs him for more reasons than one.
First, at least two people got inside his building without alerting security.
Second, these intruders appear to have wiped Tony’s memory, and fuck if that doesn’t piss him off.
Third, these intruders have also wiped and fooled JARVIS.
Fourth, they were confident enough that Tony wasn’t a threat to leave him a note. Like this was all an errand they had to do and, sorry, nothing personal, we’re just going to mess with your head and make you feel like everything you’ve ever done with the tower and your AI is null! Have a smiley face!
JARVIS still hasn’t recovered anything, so might as well focus on what Tony does know he can focus on: The Great Wall of Mutation Strings.
Redirecting is easy, and with JARVIS helping him, ‘manual’ doesn’t even take on its usual meaning, and he just sits back and watches, and occasionally offers his input, sending S.H.I.E.L.D. the occasional barrage of popups. Taste of their own medicine and everything.
He gets a screenful of porn ads when he makes a mistake.
Tony puts – no, slaps – both hands to his face and makes a pathetic whining noise. He’s really lucky no one else is in the tower but him.
Eventually, he calls it a day, and lets JARVIS put all the effort into trying to recover Tony’s missing hours. He cleans up the beer cans instead of letting Dum-E do it so that he can take his mind off of the disaster of the day. He gets a shower and calls for pizza. When Pepper gets back, he smiles at her, and pretends nothing is wrong even though she can see he’s a little peeved by today’s events. It’s not that urgent though, and it shows on his face, so Pep doesn’t press.
The next morning, JARVIS still hasn’t gotten anything on what happened between a sober Tony and a drunk Tony, and they both go back to tackling The Great Wall of Mutation Strings. Hours past lunch, he still gets nowhere.
And then the goddamn radio starts talking to him.
Tony doesn’t even own a radio.
He’s got JARVIS to connect to everything he’d want to listen to, he’s got his Starkphones and Stark TVs, and he doesn’t need a stupid radio.
There’s one. Right inside his laboratory, perched on one of the cabinets, an attention-catching purple against the white and silver of the lab.
Tony feels his eye twitch whenever he looks at it.
It’s been there for a week and a half now, and he’s tried throwing it out every time he sees it, but it always finds its way back to the lab, like it’s been untouched. He’s thrown it off the rooftop last Wednesday and watched it fall until it was just a speck headed towards the ground, but that’s all it ever was. A speck headed towards the ground. It never touched it.
Tony had run back to the lab and found it on its usual place, and it had the gall to say, “Well, that was very rude.”
He will never, under pain of death, admit to screaming incoherently at it.
For the last day or two, he’s tried the cold shoulder tactic, but it’s really hard because the voice on the radio can just command him to look and he would, despite himself, turn and look. It’s infuriating.
Thankfully, it hasn’t forced him to do that now, instead just leaving him alone as he and JARVIS go back to their task of trying to get past ridiculous encryptions. They’re doing a little better this time, and Tony’s brought redbulls to the fight.
He feels rather than sees the moment the radio turns on, the little display lighting up in violet.
“You’re going about it wrong,” says the radio. Tony resists the urge to put on the Iron Man suit and blast at it.
“Oh yeah?” he says instead, “Like a little outdated piece of junk knows how to hack?”
“Sir, I don’t think it’s healthy to talk to inanimate objects, no matter how provoking they can be,” JARVIS says.
“Again, rude,” the radio says. Then it sniffs. Sniffs. Tony will take this little upstart to the bottom of the ocean if he has to strap it to a Mark V.
Tony turns back to the screen showing his current mortal enemy.
“Have you tried checking the cameras?”
“Of course I have,” Tony says, “I’m not an idiot.”
“Be reminded I didn’t imply anything as to the quality of your intelligence. The feeds of the cameras are not looped either.”
Tony has to stop for a bit at the sudden swerve in topic. He has no problem catching up, of course, he’s a genius, but normal people don’t really take a hard right at topics.
He reminds himself this is a radio.
“And I’m sure you know that mutation strings are very possible to get rid of, except you’re encountering wall after wall after wall of it.”
“Your point being?”
“My point being, your AI can easily take down walls of encryption faster than a sleep-deprived employee can put them up. And that redirection, as you know, is fairly easy.”
It clicks. Tony yells, “Son of a bitch.”
JARVIS holds a poignant pause, and Tony can imagine his AI giving the radio an impressed look, as both of them wait for the only human in the building to start and finish his outburst.
“A generating program, what the hell – ”
Another AI, maybe not as advanced as JARVIS to be able to learn and form the ghost of a personality, but a program designed to throw as many distractions and walls up at him at least as fast as JARVIS. Of course, Tony had designed S.H.I.E.L.D.’s equipment. Why should he have expected any less?
And redirection is easy. So what, maybe two, three programs, passing him around, covering their tracks? Three mini-JARVISes against one? Tony’s almost proud.
They’re hidden in the server, Tony’s positive. And while hitting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s server is possible, it can also incapacitate them, and therefore raise a few heads, which is why Tony’s only opted for staying hidden himself, skirting around codes, but if he’s fighting a program – a very fast program that possible jumps from one processor to another, he needs to hit the root. He needs to paralyze it. As long as Tony’s careful...
“Hit the server, JARV,” Tony says, “We are winning this game.”
They do, and JARVIS almost does it, except they lose the connection by a freak glitch that sends pink sparks all over Tony’s lab lights. He flinches, instinctively moving to duck under the table, but the sparks stop almost immediately.
“What the hell?” he whispers.
“Ah,” the radio says, sounding curious. “Your technology isn’t the problem here then, like I suspected.”
“Like you what?”
“I have a talent for uncovering secrets, Mr. Stark – ” Tony stiffens. It knows his name. He’s popular enough for sentient radios to know his name. “ – you could say I easily see them. And this is a secret indeed.”
A pause. Tony has nothing to say. The radio fills the silence for him. “I can help you, if you like,” it says.
Tony frowns. “At what cost?”
“Nothing at all,” the radio says.
Tony snorts. They always want something. Always. And if S.H.I.E.L.D’s nabbing mutants off the streets, and if there’s encrypted files all over their servers, and if there’s suddenly appearing radios in Tony’s lab then the prerogative is to not trust anyone. Especially not if what preceded the radio was Tony suddenly forgetting a few hours of his life and a sticky note he’s still keeping in one of his drawers. He needs to run them for fingerprints soon.
He tells JARVIS to hit the server again.