Iron Man #1
Iron Man: I Am My Own Man Part One
A pair of twin horse oil paintings on the peach colored wall behind Mr. Sloan stared at Tony. By the ornate frames holding them and the carefully mounted light fixtures above them shining a soft low watt bulb, one would assume these two were quite precious; or that the subjects were precious. The two thoroughbred polo horses stared out into the bland office with deep black pools of eyes edged with color. But the artist had extended the neck of the one far longer than the breed was genetically capable of developing. The eyes on the other were a deep topaz, an impossible feat for not only the breed but also horses entirely. The hair was growing from just flush the jaw line on each. The background of a supposed polo field was paint marked to that of a cricket field. The cast shadows mismatched the source light. Stippling was elementary, palette childish. The careful mounting and display of these two impossible horses suggested these were paintings of importance, but anyone who knew a damn could see that they were no better than any two dollar paintings one would find at a supposed fine-art flee market street vendor in Harlem. They were, when all was said, trash.
And Tony had said all of this to Mr. Sloan before even shaking his hand.
“Excuse me?” Sloan bristled and stood in mid-stand with his hand extended to Tony; not an easy feat for someone of his rotund size.
“The paintings. They’re terrible. Why did you go to so much trouble?”
Tony ignored the hand and took a seat. Sloan’s mouth formed an “O” and he remained stunned for a long breath before finally taking his hand back and returning his large posterior to his high backed leather chair. He cleared his throat and started over.
“Um… Right… Uh… As I said, it’s an honor to finally meet you, Mr. Stark. You are somewhat of an idol of mine, even if you were many years behind me. We’re fellow alumni – Harvard ‘97, myself.” He held out his fist to show off his golden ring. Sloan grinned.
Tony looked right past the ring and sneered at the paintings a moment longer before realizing Sloan had spoken to him. “Harvard?” he asked.
“Physics. I graduated ‘97.” Sloan beamed proudly and glanced to his framed diploma on the mantle to Tony’s left. “Harvard, right,” Tony understood the statement, but corrected, “I didn’t graduate. I left after my second lecture and received my honorary degree in ‘08 after a disproved Wallace’s entire program. He was fired after that – or rather, asked to retire, though I would have sent him to prison for what he did.”
“P-prison? After he did…?” Sloan repeated in surprise.
Tony scoffed and rolled his eyes. He leaned back in his chair and gestured wide circles with his hands. “Teaching those inaccuracies for nearly five decades? Every one of his graduates should be forced to turn in their diplomas and start over from freshman 101.”
Sloan sat in silence again. Tony casually looked around the room from his seat. He glanced from the fireplace mantle to the bookshelf. He caught the titles “Art of War”, “The Verge – A Model of Technology and Business Today”, and “Moby Dick” as his eyes swept to the desk. He leaned forward and snatched up a small handful of M&M’s from the crystal dish next to the photo of a fat seven-year-old girl in equestrian attire standing with a black pony. This brought his eyes back up to the paintings, and as he popped two reds and two yellows, he curled his lips at the one horse that was staring directly out at him.
“You are not what I imagined,” Sloan muttered. Words that echoed through Tony’s entire life.
Tony sighed at the words and closed his eyes for an instant. There was no counting how many times he had heard a variation of those damned words. Preconceived notions had haunted him since he was a child. Everyone seemed to think they knew who Tony Stark was. As a child, he was imagined to be like any normal kid of a wealthy family – seen, not heard, but Tony was not the quiet type. He spoke up – talked back. A friend of his mother would comment on how sweet he looked in some tailored suit he was forced into, and he would shake his head and say, “No, ma’am. I look like what my mom thinks a good little boy should look like. I’d rather be in my Green Ranger shirt and jeans shorts, but she says those will embarrass her. Are you wearing that dress because it’s what was on the cover of Vanity Fair too?”
As an adult, it only became more of a problem. Everyone seemed to know more about Tony than Tony knew about himself. He would avoid the public eye, but photographers would find him – annoying paparazzi using their large telephoto lenses like snipers to snap shots of the elusive rich boy walking to class through the quad past a pretty girl in a skirt, and some website would use that image to create fiction about illicit affairs. By avoiding the scene his classmates were found in – parties and bars – it made him more of a target for gossip in tabloids and supposed news sites. His reclusive nature caused lies about addiction or legal problems to spread rapidly, and people created an idea of who Tony Stark was.
People liked to assume they knew everything about him, but they knew nothing. He was not the clever rich boy with the wild party lifestyle. He was not the man his father had tried to mold. Not now. Not ever.
And his father was more disappointed by this fact than anyone. Howard Stark had wanted an heir, and he got a rival. Tony had never wanted to be Howard Stark Jr. He wanted to be better.
Howard had done things that no one should be proud of. Behind closed doors, he had manipulated systems. He had used his position in a government organization to achieve the power he now held. The world over, he was known, and he was known in popular circles as a humanitarian – as a savior. Howard Stark was the man who brought water to the desert. He was the man who had allowed commercial space travel. He was a celebrity entrepreneur whose wild schemes always brought joy to the masses. Yes, in popular circles, Howard was the smiling, hand shaking Santa Claus.
In less popular circles – in less noble places, the name Howard Stark was feared. The vicious power hungry madman who had crushed his opponents with deceit and shadow games. Howard was a liar and a cheat. He was corrupt. He was cold and calculating. A public persona of Good Samaritan, and his name on the lips of liars and thieves was like that of the devil.
And Tony would never be this man. When he had seen the man behind the curtain – when Tony had removed his rose-colored glasses and seen what his father truly was, Tony had fled – fled his name and family and fortune.
The fortune. If he had kept a fraction of it, life would not be so hard. He would not be sitting in this office attempting to be hired for a job he was wildly overqualified for. He would not be doing the freelancing and advising work he survived off of. If he had kept the money, life would not be so hard. But if he had kept even a penny, it would have ruined him. The money was dishonest, and Tony knew in his heart that he would rather have his name be associated with truth and honor than the bloody history of the Stark family.
It is better to fail with honor than to win by deceit.
So, Tony spoke the truth to a fault. He rarely held his tongue, if at all. It was his nature to say exactly what he felt and thought. It is what made him both instantly charming and incredibly difficult.
The moment passed, and he opened his eyes. And as though reading Tony’s mind, Sloan uttered a phrase that haunted Tony more than some idea of what he’s like in private. Tony’s muscles flexed as Sloan grumbled, “I thought you’d be more like your father.”
A single twitch of the eye, and Tony’s bored demeanor and relaxed posture vanished as he rose out of his chair. He looked down at Sloan who had gone slightly pale at the sight of Tony’s sudden cold expression. “You want Howard Stark, then you can call him for this job. I’m sure he would laugh in your face. This project is below him. It is below me as a matter of fact, but I see the potential of your institution, so I am willing to swallow my pride and come to your level. I am not Howard Stark, and I will never be Howard Stark. I came here today to take this washed-out mistake of a development facility and allow you the honor of my genius. I came here to turn Sloan into a true competitor of Stark Industries, but seeing how poorly you run this place – more poorly than I had imagined – I have decided that I will continue to freelance, and as soon as funding comes to me to complete my own alternative energy plant, I will put you out of business faster than you can swallow those breath mints you feign as anxiety medication.”
Sloan gaped as Tony turned and walked to the door.
“And take down those ridiculous paintings, or start apologizing to everyone who has to sit across from them and be visually assaulted.”
A moment later, Tony was out of Sloan’s office and soon after, the building.
* * *
“Oh, Tony,” Pepper said and exhaled in exasperation.
“Why does everyone always say that?”
Pepper Potts lived across the hall from Tony in the twelve story low-income housing complex just outside the Battery Park Area, Manhattan. She was an elementary school art teacher taking night classes working toward passing her Certified Public Accountants Exam, and she was one of Tony’s only friends. She sat on his couch shaking her head and watching Tony fiddle with the skeletal remains of an old laptop computer on his kitchen table. Pepper wore a blue cotton shirt covered in various finger paints and “SWEDEN” across the front in yellow. Her jean shorts were frayed and the pockets stuck out the edges of the legs. She was dressed for a lazy day around the apartment, but she was quite pretty, not that Tony ever noticed that sort of thing. Pepper was always pretty. “That’s the seventh interview you’ve ruined, Tony,” Pepper said.
“Ruined? I didn’t ruin anything. That bloated ass was trying to puff his chest and make himself feel far more important than he is. He practically asked me for an autograph and picture of me to show off to his poker pals.”
“Tony,” Pepper said, “You’ve got to keep your mouth shut for five minutes, just once, to get a full-time job, then you can start insulting the boss.”
“I could’ve turned that place into a gold mine in five minutes.” Tony twisted a circuit board off the base of the computer and tossed it aside.
“You’ll never know now. He’ll probably put you on yet another black list. How many other places are left for you to interview at anyway? James is going to run out of favors. He keeps wasting them on you.”
“Rhodey will have plenty of favors to cash in. You should see how everyone falls over themselves for him at the base. You’d think he’s Captain America the way everyone loves him.
“You should take notes. Being likable can get you pretty far.”
“Being likable is a waste of brain power.”
Pepper kicked her feet up on the coffee table and put her hands behind her head stretching out. “It’s not brain power, Tony. It’s personality.” There was a buzz from the door intercom. Pepper glanced at Tony. He seemed to not even hear it as he continued to tear apart the computer.
“Don’t get up. I’ve got it,” Pepper said and got off the couch. She hopped to the intercom and pressed it, “Dr. Frankenstein’s. How can I help you?”
“Victor Frankenstein was a medical doctor. I’m an engineer and physicist, thank you very much,” Tony said without looking up.
“Hey, Pepper, it’s me,” James Rhodes’ voice crackled out of the intercom.
“Come on up,” Pepper replied and pressed the door. She skipped back to the couch and flopped down. “How are you gonna break it to him? Subtly? Gently?”
“About the interview? I’ll just tell him,” Tony said.
“Ah,” she rolled her eyebrows, “The Tony Stark method, blunt and tactless.”
“Why aren’t you at school? Aren’t there paper plate pigs that need making?”
“It’s Saturday, Tony. One of the many reasons it was such a big deal that your dear friend Rhodey was able to arrange your failed playdate this afternoon, remember?”
Tony ignored her and lifted a milk crate of wires off the floor and dropped it heavily on the kitchen table/work bench.
A moment later, the front door swung open and James Rhodes entered.
Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes had known Tony for nearly all their lives. Rhodey’s father had been Howard’s personal bodyguard when both Tony and James were children. The two boys would play for hours in and around the Stark estate. They built forts and acted out their favorite episodes of the A-team. They scraped knees and elbows speeding down hills in Tony’s well designed though poorly constructed soapbox cars. They watched movies and shared the chicken pox with one another. They were simply boys together. James was the only person who ever treated Tony like just any normal kid, and even if he would never admit it, Tony cherished that about their friendship.
As young men, they remained friends, even after James’ father passed away suddenly and the Rhodes family was no longer needed in the Stark home. Tony left. James pursued a career in the Air Force, and quickly climbed the ranks. For the past few years, after he had gotten some pull and some friends in high places in the military, he began looking for ways to help his childhood friend.
“All right, how’d it go?” Rhodey tossed his coat onto the armchair and placed a firm hand on the back of it, his other hand on his hip. Tony started humming the theme to Live and Let Die and continued putzing with his electronics. Rhodey’s lips tightened and he looked at Pepper, who smiled with her teeth. “He blew it again, didn’t he?” He asked her.
Pepper shrugged exaggeratedly and kept smiling.
“You blew it again, didn’t you?” Rhodey walked over to Tony. “Tell me you didn’t talk about his weight. Felix is a friend, and I asked you pretty damn nicely not to say anything about his weight.”
“Can you hand me that?” Tony said pointing at the mini soldering gun at the edge of the table near his friend.
Rhodey threw his hands up and turned away. “Christ, just tell me what happened.”
“We had a disagreement about my personality,” Tony said.
Rhodey rubbed his face. “Pepper?”
Pepper laughed into her hands. “Hey, give him credit for not just rolling his eyes and telling you it’s not a big deal. That’s major improvement, you ask me.”
Rhodey said, “Oh, Tony.” Pepper laughed again and Tony blew through his lips. “Why do I bother?” Rhodey walked to the refrigerator and yanked it open.
“I couldn’t have worked there, anyway. The decor was nightmarish. The painting in that place!” Tony said.
“Only guy in the world who walks away from a six-figure job because he hates – what was it this time, watercolors?”
“Don’t be childish,” Tony snorted and began trimming wires. He added under his breath, “Terrible Horses.”
“Ha!” Rhodey laughed without humor and walked across the small apartment to the window popping open a Pepsi and drinking it in gulps.
“We have an opening for a gym teacher at Washington,” Pepper chimed in. Rhodey swallowed with a short cough and laugh. Pepper smirked. “I’ll let you know if it’s ever a science teacher position, Tony. I’d love to see you explain the Scientific Method to ten-year-olds. Or levers and pulleys. I can see it now,” she did her best Tony impression by sitting up and lowering her chin to her chest. She spoke roughly and gestured with her hands, “How hard is this to understand? Cavemen figured it out a million years ago.” Rhodey and Pepper laughed. Tony shook his head. Pepper slid over on the couch and let Rhodey sit next to her. They watched Tony for a moment, but he continued with his mess of wire and mechanics.
Rhodey set his Pepsi down and sighed tiredly. “How’s life with the kids?”
“Not nearly as exciting as life with our big kid,” Pepper said and twitched an eyebrow in Tony’s direction. Rhodey appreciated the good humor and seemed to relax.
“Any plans tonight? I rarely get a weekend. Don’t make me waste it with this ball of fun.”
Pepper bit her lip and stole a glance at Tony. “There’s a meteor shower tonight. We could go up on the roof and grill.”
“A bunch of falling rocks from space? Sounds thrilling,” Rhodey yawned.
“I could invite Rashida,” said Pepper.
“Well, it doesn’t sound that terrible,” Rhodey quickly balked.
Pepper looked to the kitchen hopefully. “Tony?”
“The city lights won’t let us see anything. It would be a wasted night,” he said and continued to work.
Pepper frowned and exhaled slowly. Then, she leaned forward and clapped her hands. “Come on, let’s all go to Torches then. Happy’s closing. We can get in easy. It’ll be fun. And I’ll still call up Rashida.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice. He’s your challenge,” Rhodey said, meaning Tony.
Tony slid a pair of black sunglasses on. There was a soft whir as he connected a power source to the array of metal and plastic on the table. He lifted a round plate of something that looked like a hubcap with six tiny arms attached evenly from the center to the edges. He pressed a switch and there was a high whine. Six beams of light shot out, landed on the walls and bookshelf and began to glow brighter and brighter. The light caused Rhodey and Pepper to cover their eyes. Tony continued to watch the beams passively. Then, they blinked out.
“Damn, Tony. What the hell was that?” Rhodey said.
“Well, if it works, which I don’t see any reason it wouldn’t, it’ll recycle the light in the room and create and bubble of – and I’ll dumb it down for you…”
“A sentiment I always appreciate, buddy.”
“Sound like a force field,” Pepper said.
“Sounds exciting,” Rhodey said without meaning it. “Come on, let’s hit Torches.” He got up and grabbed his coat off the armchair. Pepper got up too and put her hands on her hips looking at Tony. She looked like she was about to say something, but only shook her head. She walked over to Rhodey and slapped his shoulder. “I’m going to change. Give me ten.”
“Ten minutes? That’s why I love you, Pep. You defy clichés.” They walked out of the apartment, and Tony hardly noticed.
* * *
“…When I began Stark Industries, it was for one purpose: the protection of America and the security of our way of life. And now, the name Stark means hope. That’s a phrase at least one of you here owes me a thanks for.
“In my years working for this fine country’s National Security, I was witness to threats beyond belief or explanation. And though I cannot share those incidents with you now, I can tell you that they were the things of nightmares. We have seen great changes in this world in the past decades. We exist now, side-by-side, with Titans. We are in the era of the Monster and Magic. And I do not mean the forever altered people of Chernobyl or Hiroshima or the cheap parlor tricks that utilize smoke and mirrors, but godly men and powers, if left unchecked, could tear our way of life to pieces and leave America a forgotten memory. We live under the ignorant belief that we are safe and free in our lands, when we are the furthest from such things. We are under imminent attack from other beings – beings from lands we cannot comprehend, but I am here now to tell you that we do not need to wait in fear of the future. We can prepare.
“Gentlemen, ladies, it has never been more imperative that we create failsafes and defenses for the safety of our country. When forces of nature threatened early man, he picked up a stick and made it into a spear. He fought back for survival, and he did just that. What I am offering you today is more than Stark Industries has offered in the past. I offer more than our vehicles and firearms. I offer more than our state of the art computerized weapons systems. Gentlemen, ladies, what I offer you here is the newest spear to use against these forces of nature… And hold for applause.” Howard Stark stood at the podium looking out at the large dining hall lined with finely decorated tables; the candles were unlit; the silverware still places on the freshly laundered cloth napkins; the chairs, empty, save for one seat in the center of the hall where a young woman in a green blouse and black skirt and hair pulled into a tight bun clapped politely. “Thank you,” Howard nodded to the invisible audience and stepped off the daius.
He walked down the steps at the side of the stage and met the woman there. “Eva, I need to rework the fourth page. The anecdote for the conservatives is getting buried by the second half. I won’t be shaking enough hands if I come off like I am mocking them.”
“Of course, Mr. Stark,” Eva said and began typing into her palm computer. She remained at Howard’s heels as he strode swiftly down the center aisle. “The invitations have all been returned with confirmation, except one. You’ll have a full house, Mr. Stark.”
“Good,” he said.
They exited the hall and continued into the hotel.
Eva said, “The President will truly appreciate your jabs. Very light. Very pleasant.”
“I’d whistle Dixie if it means his approval. This contract will be the culmination of many lifelong efforts, Eva. And what do you mean ‘all but one’?”
She cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses.
“Don’t waste my time, Eva. Just answer the question.” They walked past the elevators and entered the stairwell. Howard took them two at a time, Eva just behind him.
“You son did not R.S.V.P.”
Howard scowled, his typical expression, deep in thought. He had creases in his forehead and the edges of his mouth from this constant expression. But his appearance meant little to him. It was his mind that he kept in optimal condition. His mind, his greatest and most treasured asset, and the one thing – the only thing he had been able to pass to his son.
“I did not actually believe Tony would come, but I wanted to give him the opportunity. He is not going to be pleased with this, but that means nothing to me.”
Eva nodded, though she glanced quickly at Howard searching for truth.
Howard noticed the glance. “Do you think I’m lying, Eva? Do you think I am some sentimental old fool who wishes his baby boy would just return to him? I am not. I know Tony is going to seek action for all of this, and having him here would save me at least a month of trouble, but I am not disappointed that my fool son will not be here to throw a fantastic tantrum for the world to see.”
They stepped onto the eighth floor landing and turned through the door to the hall.
Howard had given up hope that he would have an heir in Tony.
He continued, “The boy is idealistic, reckless, naive. Tony, like many out there, is under the impression that the world would be a better place without war.
“Ha!” he barked coldly. “War is life. War is passion. War, my dear Ms. Nguyen, is Humanity’s only means of survival. We have people like Charles Xavier who welcome the super human when they should be feared! I am not the optimist that Xavier is, I’m the realist. I know that the only way – the only we survive is the fight. Tony, and all who believe we can coexist as a planet will learn this one day, but I will not be there to hold my son’s hand. I will be on Olympus watching him fall under the heels of the Titans.”
Eva stood there with her palm computer in hand waiting. Howard clenched his jaw and then nodded curtly. He turned into the Governor’s suite and slammed the door. Eva powered the small computer down and slipped it into her breast pocket. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully and she marched down the hall.
* * *
Around one in the morning, Tony realized that he had not eaten all day. He left the apartment and walked four blocks to an IHOP. Sitting there, he filled fourteen pages in his notebook and ignored every attempt by his waitress to flirt. He left her a twenty-dollar tip, but not intentionally. He did not stop writing in his notebook and did not pay attention as he dropped his money for the bill.
It was night, of course, but it was not dark. The problem with living so deep in the city is that one cannot be a stargazer. Tony stood looking past the streetlights, neon signs for the motel and the McDonald’s and imagined he could see the meteor shower. He wondered what it would take to cancel out all this… human noise. An idea struck him and he flipped to a fresh page and began jotting down in sharp shorthand scratches. He could develop an ocular system that is the reverse of night vision displays. He had been considering an addition to his helmet for some time now, and this could be the optimal starting point. If he’d remember to, he’d have to thank Pepper for once again inspiring him. Though, now that he was thinking about it, he realized he had forgotten to thank her the last time she had done so. He forgot about Pepper a lot, yet somehow, she was always there – in his apartment… in his thoughts…. distracting him from–
“Hey, skinny, nice pack.”
Tony stopped short. He had been walking and writing with his head down so deep in thought he had not noticed wandering onto the cracked and unkempt blacktopped public basketball court. Trash lined the rusted chain link fence, and the bent basketball hoop rim creaked as it dangled from the backboard. Standing in front of Tony were three young men who looked less than friendly.
“You like that bag, donchu, Rez?”
“Hell yeah. Y’know I like me nice bags.”
“Whatchu say we get that nice bag for Rez, Vee?”
“I say that’s a damn good thought.”
The three hoods stepped around Tony flexing their arms and puffing their chests like territorial predators, but little more than jackals about to pounce on an easy victim. They growled and showed teeth, white and gold. And they jeered.
“You gonna give us Rez’s new bag, mister?”
“Or we gonna take it from you?”
Tony studied them. Rez, directly in front of him, was six foot even. He was favoring his right side from some old injury a poor lower-class health care system had not properly repaired. A direct blow to his right hip would topple him instantly. The one to the right of Rez – Vee, he’d been called – was the largest, but also the slowest. Tony could manage the two others before Vee could even realize he should attack. And the third, who had not been named, had a knife. He hadn’t removed it yet, but the chrome butt-end poked from the front of his jeans.
After a moment of consideration, Tony shrugged. He slid his pack off his shoulder, bent with it, and set it on the asphalt. Unzipping it he looked up at the three fools. “This is actually a fun little toy. I’m honestly glad to have an opportunity to show it off.” He reached within and began moving the belts about. The three looked on perplexed.
“Whatchu doin, bro?” Vee demanded.
The third cursed and whipped out the blade. He pointed it right at Tony and said, “Get up.”
Tony ignored them and finished strapping the restraints. He continued speaking as he stood. “I was able to manipulate a combination of both light and sound waves to create a non-lethal, highly effective offensive unit that is, as you can see, hand-held.”
Tony held his arms before him lazily like someone looking at a fresh manicure, but his hands were covered with thick gloves with wires and cords that came from the lower knuckles, extended down the arm, and ended at the forearm and base of the gloves. Tony turned them around and looked at the palms. He gestured and showed them to the three. “These centerpieces are the real gems. I took an ionized glass and metal composite to make the lenses, and mounting them here? Not easy. I don’t expect you to understand, but I want you to know how difficult it was.”
“The hell is this?” Rez barked and moved forward to attack, but Tony was quicker – quick enough to know before Rez even knew that he’d launch with his right.
Left hand sparking from the wrist component, a blast of light, and a sharp SNAP, and Rez was launched off of this feet and in an instant was slamming into the chain link fence like a bag of garbage. He flopped down unconscious, a threat no more.
Vee roared and swung at Tony. He was faster than Tony had anticipated, and his right palm wasn’t quick enough to center on the thug. The beam of light and SNAP lanced off of Vee’ shoulder and the basketball hoop and backboard tore free from the blacktop smashing to the ground. Tony received a fist to his left shoulder. He fell backwards fast and smashed into the third man. There was a moment of sharp pain, but Tony had an instant of control to aim both hands and SNAP! send Vee soaring across the court. He rolled like a tumbleweed and ended up next to Rez just as unconscious. Still falling backwards, Tony pivoted and grabbed the third man’s shirt with both hands. They fell together now, eyes locked on the other’s. Tony was entirely calm, the other was wide-eyed and terrified.
They landed hard. Tony was able to ball his fist and bring it down sharply on the side of the other’s face. The hood grunted angrily, lashed around until he rolled free, scrambled to his feet, and sprinted away.
Tony lay laughing. He checked his palm blasters. The left one had shorted out and was sparking, but the right was intact. He grinned and nodded in satisfaction. As he sat up, there was a pain in his stomach. He winced and looked down.
His shirt was wet and red. The knife had done its job twice. There was a hole on his stomach and a gash above his hip. Tony’s smile faded. “Hm,” was all he said as the streetlights began to fade. For an instant, he thought he could see stars…
to be continued
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