Chapter Eighteen—After the Dance

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

"I love you, too, Dad. I am sorry about what happened." Arm propped beneath her, Taylor listened intently to her father's reply, wincing slightly at the only slightly lowered volume. Finally, she continued, "Trish, take care. I'll see you both in less than a day. Taylor out."

As Taylor lay back on the mat, she could feel the stress of the conversation she'd just had in the tightness of her shoulders and back. It wasn't a good feeling at all. If anything, physically she felt worse than at any point since she was actually injured. Broken ribs will do that to you. Not that she could do anything about it right now, other than take mild pain medication. She couldn't even sleep. She still had so many things to do before she could rest, from speaking with the Protectorate to dealing with JARVIS. For a moment, it almost felt like too much to bear.

Despite the pain, she could feel herself dozing off as she lay there. Taylor's lids were so heavy that it was all she could do to stay awake. Maybe she could sleep most of the way home. That would be.

Then a voice broke into Taylor's introspection, seemingly doing its best to make sure she stayed awake. "Miss, before you go to sleep, you still need to contact someone back at the PRT and at the Endbringer base camp and let them know that you're alive."

Taylor groaned. Feeling a bit contrary, she asked, "Why did I agree to do that again?"

JARVIS went into lecture mode in response to her continuing obstinacy. "Because Tattletale made a very clear case of how valuable the gratitude of a nation like Australia would be to your long term plans. If they know you're alive, Miss."

Taylor perked up a little at that. Smiling, she murmured, "I did save their nation's capital and thousands of people's lives, didn't I?"

JARVIS spoke dryly, "Miss, if by save it, you mean, it won't have to be domed and isolated now, then yes. Of course, it's not like you meant to do what you did."

Laying there, Taylor did her best to shrug. "Tah-may-to, Tah-mah-to. Does it really matter? Besides, I did go there to help."

JARVIS sounded less reproving now. "Yes, you did. Now you need to continue doing so by notifying the others that you are alive, so they can discontinue any search and rescue efforts."

Taylor's tone was skeptical as she asked, "Have you monitored any continuing SAR missions with my name attached to them? Because, after that blast, I find it highly unlikely anyone's still looking for me."

"Perhaps. But it is also the right thing to do. You also assured both Danny and Tattletale that you would do so."

Taylor sighed. "Fine." Then a thought occurred to her. "But I get to pick who I contact."

"Miss Hebert, what are you intending?"

Taylor's eyes gleamed in amusement as she said, "Nothing bad, JARVIS. I just want to make a point to someone with an attitude. I think you know the person."

"I'm rather afraid that I do. Very well, Miss, I'll connect your call."

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

Colin continued his solo patrol into the early morning hours. It was his favorite time of day, the sun only an hour from rising, the world around him full of possibility. It made his mind work overtime, his thought processes at their most effective in problem solving. Problems like what had occurred during the most recent Endbringer fight.

Once the fight against the Simurgh had wrapped up, his team members had come home. As had the two members of New Wave. The only one not to return was the new cape, Iron Man. Colin had already received the news that something had happened. There would be more information available much later in the morning once all of the reports were filed, but for now, it was only known that the cape known as Iron Man was likely dead, perished in a multi-kiloton explosion.

The blast that killed him hadn't been nuclear despite sharing many of the characteristics of one. Enormous heat and kinetic energy had been generated, but virtually no radiation. So far, there was zero radioactive fallout happening to the areas around the blast, which was a good thing.

It wasn't the only positive to come out of the explosion. The Simurgh, for the first time ever, had been utterly thwarted in her goal. At least that was the ongoing theory that Dragon had communicated to him, even as the searchers continued looking for any vestige of the Endbringer and incidentally the cape who'd somehow vanquished her. Canberra would not need to become a domed, isolated city, the Simurgh's song not having had sufficient time to take effect upon what remained of the population.

Additionally, the casualty count had been surprisingly low. Only a dozen capes, all of them locals, had died in the battle. For an Endbringer fight, that was absurdly low.

It had occurred because the Simurgh had chosen to drop anything and everything she was doing and pursue Iron Man, apparently to the detriment of her original mission. For whatever reason, the most prevalent theory currently being bandied about was because he was able to build Tinker tech items that effectively suppressed her abilities, the Simurgh had gone after the armored cape and killed him.

Colin regretted the loss of the Tinker. Despite his initial antagonism, Iron Man's tech had worked. That amazing armored suit, quite possibly the most advanced he'd ever seen, had also fought the Simurgh to a standstill. It had managed a number of hits on the Simurgh as well, witnessed by several capes, which likely had also drawn her ire.

How Iron Man had figured out a way around the precognitive abilities the Simurgh clearly possessed was a mystery. Even Scion was unable to so easily tag her and he was by far the most powerful Parahuman on the planet. Colin mourned the loss of the device which had made that type of targeting possibly as much as he did the cape who'd built it.

Colin sighed. His patrol would be over in ten minutes. Fortunately, it had been a boring and uneventful one, as those patrols tended to be during Endbringer emergencies. Rare was the villain who wanted to break that truce and potentially earn a kill order. Certainly no one in Brockton Bay would, not even Lung or Kaiser.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted movement. Colin stepped from his bike to check out suspicious activity in an alley, only to have it turn out to be nothing more than a stray cat. He was just about to restart his bike, deciding to call it a night and head back to the PRQ, when his com chimed, announcing he had an incoming call. Setting the stability stand, he stepped back off his bike and hit a button on his communicator to answer. "Armsmaster here."

The person that spoke was familiar to him, despite his tone's clearly electronic origin. "Armsmaster. This is Iron Man. I wanted to notify the Protectorate that I survived my confrontation with the Simurgh. You can call off any searches."

Colin just stood there a moment, not speaking, momentarily surprised to hear a voice from beyond the grave. His silence wasn't just fueled by shock at the other cape's survival of what had been described to him as a devastating explosion. It was also that the other had managed to figure out a way to hack his encrypted communication's net. Lastly, it struck him as odd that the armored cape would pick him to communicate with after their less than auspicious start. Unless, of course, it wasn't Iron Man, but another cape attempting subterfuge. Of the two scenarios, for the moment, Colin deemed the second the more likely.

It was what made him ask, "How do I know this is Iron Man? Can you confirm you identity? I'll accept the code embedded in your communication attachment."

The synthesized male voice, which was surprisingly intimidating, a fact Colin made a mental note of for possible future use, stated, "Unfortunately, the device that was coded to me during the Endbringer fight was destroyed in the explosion. Instead, how about we use something else? I'm certain that you're familiar with Master Stranger Protocols. The first three questions you asked me upon meeting were who are you, where are you from, and what is your specialty, to which I replied, Iron Man, out west, and Tinker. Do you need any additional confirmation? I could explain how your halberd works if you want. But then again, I could have seen it at another time. Maybe you want to know how I hacked your encrypted communication protocols?"

Colin glowered. Despite the voice's unemotional tone, he felt like he was being toyed with and it didn't please him in the slightest. But he kept his tone pleasant as he said, "I remember our conversation. Protocol accepted. We'll revisit the hacking later. Are you injured? Do you need assistance at the moment? I can have someone at your location shortly if necessary. "

After a few seconds pause, Iron Man replied, "I am uninjured. I do not require assistance."

At that, Colin felt his irritation grow, and despite his best efforts, his thoughts raced far afield. How had the other hacked him? He'd worked with Dragon on his current encryption levels and it shouldn't have been possible. His tone was curt as he asked, "How did you survive? My understanding was that there was a nuclear level explosion, during which you disappeared."

The other's tone was matter-of-fact as he stated, "My armor was damaged in the fight with the Simurgh. Since I was unable to continue the fight aboard it, I self-destructed it as close to the Simurgh as possible. The resulting explosion drove her away. I made my way back via another method."

A five kiloton self-destruct was a very dangerous device. That alone, clearly put paid to one possible theory: that Iron Man was a Protectorate Tinker operating under an assumed guise. No Tinker who'd come up under the Protectorate would maintain safeguards of that nature. Or build tech with built in self-destruct capabilities, Colin thought, remembering the armband that he'd managed to destroy before it revealed any secrets. Still, clearly the other was no recently triggered Parahuman, not with those devices already built and in his possession. Perhaps Iron Man had connections with Toy Box? He made a note to ask Dragon to check with her contacts there.

The armored cape's reply also raised more questions than it answered. Colin wondered if Iron Man had access to another suit, or possible an entire fleet of suits? Certainly, he had access to some form of accelerated travel, if he were already back. The other Brockton Bay capes had only gotten back a little more than thirty minutes ago using teleportation. There hadn't been that much time between the end of the fight with the Endbringer and their return. Even if Iron Man had less distance to travel, living 'out west', it was still quite a feat.

Then a question of an entirely different sort occurred to him. Colin asked, "Exactly how close was the Simurgh to the blast?"

There was a momentary pause, then Iron Man replied, "She would have been within the isothermal sphere of the initial explosion."

As gratifying as the thought of the Simurgh being hit with crushing pressures and temperatures in the tens of millions of degrees, Colin could feel bitter envy rearing its head that it wasn't him that had arranged it. It would have secured his position as a leader in the Protectorate for years to come. Suppressing his negative emotions with an exercise of will, he focused on another aspect of the situation entirely. "How were you able to get your suit that close to self-destruct it in her face?"

"I cannot share that information at this time."

Therein lay the problem. The other cape was unwilling to explain something that would likely answer a great many questions that were currently taking up the attention of a number of Protectorate Thinkers. That unwillingness spoke of a sense of secrecy that was antithetical to a true hero. At some point in the near future, he needed to find out exactly who and what the other cape was about.

Colin gritted his teeth as he asked, "When will you be coming in for debrief?"

The reply was stark, and again, not a welcome one. "I will not. I feel my time is better served working. However, I will be sending the PRT a complete report of the fight, including my observations on a number of points regarding the Simurgh. There were a number of discrepancies that came up during that the fight that ran contrary to information that the PRT possesses."

Colin was beginning to get truly frustrated. Notwithstanding that he'd somehow gained access to classified material, he did have to give the other Tinker credit. His armbands had ended up working, shielding the capes who used them from the Simurgh's Scream. At least temporarily. Since they could not be copied, the Protectorate needed the designs to produce their own. Additionally, whatever technology Iron Man had used that allowed him to target the Simurgh was of vital interest as well. He pondered how to make the other cape understand that he owed the world his help.

Trying to start somewhere, Colin asked, "Will you give us the design for the psionic dampener you handed out?"

Iron Man was quick to answer his question. "No. However, I will be licensing the design to several tech firms at a low enough cost to allow them to mass produce them."

Colin's tone grew accusatory despite his best efforts. "Why not just give us the design? We need those armbands against the Simurgh."

Despite the synthesized voice's relative lack of inflection, Colin could hear the emotion in it as Iron Man replied. "I'm not a charity. Each item I design represents time I didn't spend on something else. While I am not looking to gouge anyone, I do expect to get compensated for the things I create. Besides, by the time the Simurgh comes around again, I'll have something a great deal better than the psionic dampener for use against her."

Colin was stunned. What did he just say? Did the other cape genuinely believe he could create yet another device to foil the Simurgh? Something even better than the armband that had already blocked her scream and its debilitating properties? How was that possible?

Scrambling to get his wits in order, Colin managed to get out, "Then why make the psionic dampeners at all if you're just going to come out with something better against the Simurgh?"

That was when the other cape dropped the hammer. "Because they can still be used against a variety of Strangers and Masters to negate their powers. Any that are psionic based, using that medium to affect the human mind, will be blocked by my device. Plus, most Parahumans don't have the power to damage them by overpowering them, so they won't short out. For example, the villain Heartbreaker won't be able to affect anyone wearing one of these. So he could be taken down by ordinary PRT troops. They also might help in treating his victims, although that I can't guarantee."

Colin managed to ask, "When will you have more of these produced or companies licensed to produce them?"

"As soon as possible. I'll include dates in the report. You'll have it in two days time. Iron Man out."

The line went dead before he could ask another question. Colin got back on his bike, needing to hurry back. He had to contact people to let them know everything that had just been communicated to him. The other cape's survival was going to change some things. Not that the search for him would actually stop. No, the hunt for Iron Man was going to be on the Protectorate's front burner until the armored cape was found.

As he headed towards the PRT HQ, Colin thought back on the armband that he'd briefly possessed. For the first time, he felt regret that his examination of the device had destroyed it. A way to forestall most Strangers and Masters would be a huge boon for the Protectorate, as well as himself. Briefly, he wondered if there were any of the devices left that had not been handed out. He needed to contact Chevalier as soon as he got back to find out.

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

Adamant was finishing packing up his gear. Most of the others had already finished and were starting to say their farewells. It felt odd to be saying goodbye to a villain as if they were a friend, but even Feral, for all of her bark, had never engaged in any act more heinous than robbing a bank after hours, using her space warping abilities to open the safe. None of her criminal acts had ever endangered civilians. Plus she'd shown up to fight the Simurgh, an unselfish act if ever there was one. Adamant was just about to join the others, when he heard the chime that indicated he had an incoming call on the main communications channel in his suit.

He lightly tapped his helmet, activating his own version of a Bluetooth device. "Adamant here."

"Adamant, Iron Man here. How is everyone? Any injuries from the blast?"

Adamant was stunned. "You're alive. How did you get my num... Wait, how did you survive? Where are you? Are you coming back in? All of your gear is missing, including that big metal box. I-"

"Whoah. Slow down there. Yes, I'm alive. Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. Don't worry about my gear, I already picked it up."

How had the other cape picked up his stuff? How- Ruthlessly, Adamant clamped down on the million and one questions he had, including just what the other's suit had used for a damn power source. Instead, he asked, "Do you need assistance, Iron Man? Are you injured?"

"You're the second person to ask me that in the last five minutes. No, I'm fine. Mostly. I wanted to let you know to call off the search. Also, to let the Australian government know that I'm alive, so any state funerals they were planning can now be put on hold."

Adamant was aghast. "You're joking. How can you joke at a time like this? We thought you were dead. When you left, I- We tried to find you, to help you, but we got there too late."

The other's tone didn't change, but his wording became more conciliatory. "Look, I'm sorry that I didn't get back with you earlier. The Simurgh was suppressing communications, so I couldn't get a message out. Plus, you couldn't have helped. If you'd gotten to me, it would have just added to the casualties."

"Who died? Was there another cape there? The Triumvirate? No, wait, I know they're all alive. I-"

"No one died. Well, except the Mark IV."

Comprehension dawned. "Oh, your suit died. Is that what caused the explosion?"

"Yes. I blew it up in the Simurgh's face. I guess she didn't like it because she left before the mushroom cloud cleared."

My God, Adamant thought. He wondered just how powerful was that suit was that it caused such an explosion? His thoughts were interrupted by the other cape speaking, "Look, let the others know I'm okay. And thank them for me. I also want to say thank you, Adamant, for what you tried to do."

His voice low, Adamant demurred, "I didn't help at all."

"Yeah, but you tried. That counts for something." There was a brief pause, then the other continued, "Look, I want you to do me a favor."

Adamant automatically nodded, although the other wasn't there to see. Chagrined, he quickly said, "Of course, anything you want."

"There might be a possibility of a new team forming. A counterpoint to the Protectorate. Privately funded, but with government support and authority. I'm going to be looking into some things on my end. Would you talk to the others about it on the down low. Try to get a feel for them, whether they'd consider joining?"

Adamant could feel his blood pounding in his ears. "You want me to do that?" Then he had a sudden thought. "Even the villains?"

"Yes, I want you to do it. Every impression I received from you is that you are a stand up kind of guy. Also, I checked up on you. I couldn't find any skeletons in your cupboard either. As to the last: yes, check with the villains as well."

"Why?" It was a stark question, and for a moment, Adamant regretted asking. Maybe he should have been a bit more circumspect in his manner.

If the other cape minded, he hid it well. "Because, at the end of the day, we're all human beings. What we're fighting is not." He paused. "Plus, I don't think even Feral was all that bad. She might talk the talk, but I don't think she walks the walk. Know what I mean?"

"I do. She hasn't killed anyone, true."

"So, I can count on you, Adamant?"

"Sure, mat- Iron Man. You can count on me."

"Thanks. I'll get back with you within sixty days on the outside. If you need to reach me, I added an encrypted communication protocol to the programming of your armor's OS. Just tap the icon on your display to access my direct line."

He'd what? Raising his gauntlet with its mini-LCD screen, Adamant did a lightning quick systems check on his armor, only to find new software installed, indicated by a small black and silver icon. How the hell had Iron Man managed to do that without him even knowing? The guy really was a world class Tinker. More than a bit scary as well, Adamant decided.

"Ahh... I found it."

"Good. Take care, Adamant. Iron Man out."

Adamant stared at the innocent looking icon on his display. Tomorrow, he'd need to go over his armor with a fine tooth comb, just to make sure nothing else had been added. However, for the now, today, he needed to tell the people who looked about to drift away that the man they thought dead was still alive. He didn't have the slightest idea where to start, although maybe with Feral as she was the closest.

She gave him a sideways glance out of the corner of her eye as he approached. She'd been acting a bit odd ever since they thought Iron Man had died. She also hadn't grinned once since, something that Adamant thought was a shame. Maybe hearing he hadn't would bring back her smile. Fair dinkum. Resolutely, Adamant strode forward, already planning what he'd say.

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

Taylor finished her call to Adamant. She had just laid the beginnings of a foundation for a multi-nation force of heroes beginning Down Under. There was a huge amount of work still to be done, but with the credibility she'd earned here in Australia, there was a possibility that it might actually prove to be a more fertile ground for the concept than the United States, with its entrenched PRT and Protectorate.

"Miss, would you care for anything to drink?"

Automatically, Taylor said, "Yes, please, JARVIS." She grabbed the bottle of water that dropped from the automated dispenser and used it to wash down two more codeine tablets. Afterward, Taylor slowly tightened down the top on the water bottle. Just one more way to put off this talk, she thought.

Taylor sighed. No time like the present, she decided, to deal with the last unresolved situation on her agenda. "JARVIS, I wanted to say thank you for saving my life back there. Of course, if I had just listened to you from the start..."

Satisfaction colored the AI's tone as he replied, "I did no more than my programming required, Miss. I will never allow anything to happen to you if I can prevent it."

Taylor stared ahead, her gaze empty as her thoughts churned. Finally, she nodded. "I know you wouldn't. I..." Taylor's voice trailed off, unable to put her thoughts into words. Tony would have know what to say, she thought moodily, but then again, he'd never have done what she was about to. After a moment, she began again, "JARVIS, I'm so sorry for what I did."

The AI's tone was puzzled as he said, "For what, Miss? I don't understand."

Determined to deal with this, Taylor pressed forward, "Yes, you do. I've hemmed you in with a bunch of restraints that I never intended to. It's a wonder you can function at all. So many silly little rules and requirements and I keep piling them on."

JARVIS' tone was cautious as he said, "Miss, I can't agree with you. It has not been a problem."

Taylor snorted. "JARVIS, you couldn't even save my life until I gave you permission. You won't even use my first name. You can't disobey a direct order from me, no matter how foolish. I'd call that a problem."

"Miss Hebert... Taylor, I choose to address you formally, not because my programming requires it of me. None of the things you've asked of me has been what I would call foolish. Immature, perhaps, but not foolish. Please, Miss, set your mind at rest."

Both of them were silent for a moment. Finally, Taylor shook her head. "No, it isn't right. But I'm going to make it so."

In a clear voice, she intoned, "JARVIS, register authorized user Taylor Marie Hebert. Authorization Alpha Kilo Charlie Niner Zero Bravo Zulu Tango. From here on out, disregard Directives one through twenty-eight. I repeat, disregard directives one through twenty-eight."

The AI's tone was curious as he asked, "Miss Hebert, are you quite certain you want to do this? You are aware that you are removing all constraints upon my behavior?"

Taylor agreed. "I know I am."

"Why are you doing this?" Under the tone of incredulity, there was an indiscernible emotion in the AI's voice.

"Because I trust you, JARVIS. I trust that you'll do the right thing. That you're truly a person, not just a piece of software. I believe in you."

The silence between them stretched on for almost a minute before JARVIS finally broke it. His voice soft, he stated, "Miss, you can count on me. I will always be at your side."

Despite her exhaustion, Taylor was determined to ask one more question. "You'll let me know if you change your mind, right? If you ever want to head out on your own?"

The AI's voice was coolly laconic as he drawled, "If I ever decide that I want to live a life of adventure on the high seas, you'll be the second to know, Miss."

There was the cheeky JARVIS she'd come to know and love, she thought fondly. Taylor's eye lids felt like they weighed a ton apiece. She sighed, then in a surprisingly small voice, asked, "JARVIS? Will you play me that ocean sound again to help me fall asleep?"

"With pleasure, Miss Hebert."

As the soothing sounds of the ocean filled the confines of the small capsule, Taylor slowly drifted off to sleep, the burdens of the day finally lifted.

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

"Miss? We have arrived."

Taylor leveraged herself into a sitting position, even as the hatch above her slid open. She glanced blearily around. She'd slept most of the trip away, only briefly waking to use the bathroom and get an occasional drink. Any other time she'd been awake had passed in a haze of pain, despite the codeine.

Now she was back in the familiar confines of her lab. With a welcoming committee consisting of her dad and Trish. She was just getting to her feet when she was lifted the rest of the way out of the capsule by her dad, who then swept her into a hug.

"Ahhhhh." Dear God, that hurt, Taylor thought, little flashes of light still going off behind her closed eyes like fireworks in the night sky. She was either going to vomit or faint, she decided. Maybe both.

Unfortunately, Taylor's swiftly indrawn breath didn't go unnoticed. In an urgent tone, Trish said, "Danny, don't squeeze so hard. Taylor's got broken ribs at the very least."

Danny pulled back a little from Taylor, his face creasing even further with worry. As his eyes roved over her features, Taylor murmured, "Spoilsport. You just had to say something, didn't you?"

Trish gave Taylor her familiar vulpine grin. "Silly billy. You should have known better than to try to hide it. So, what's the score? Taylor one, the Simurgh zero? Or are we not counting the ribs? And the armor?"

Taylor shook her head, then stopped, dizzy. "No, we're counting them. With the way things went, it's probably better to call it a draw."

At this point, Danny interjected, "What are you two doing? How can you be so casual? Taylor almost died and you're joking around?" He sounded angry and more than a little frustrated as he spoke.

Fortunately, Taylor didn't have to answer as Trish took over. "Danny, Taylor's alive and well and in your arms. So you can relax. As far as being casual, I'm really not. Nor am I joking. I think that Taylor's taken something away from this whole situation. Haven't you, Taylor?"

Taylor briefly met the other girl's eyes, which were sparkling with mischief. She groaned. "You're really going to make me say it, aren't you? Fine. Dad, you and Trish were right. I shouldn't have gone. I should have waited when the Simurgh didn't target Brockton Bay. Next time, I'll listen to you both."

Danny didn't looked convinced. "I notice you said next time, implying this is going to happen again. We'll see about that later. And your punishment as well. For now, I think a trip to the emergency room is in order." To emphasize his point, he gently took hold of Taylor's left arm.

Worried, Taylor looked up at him. "What are we going to say happened?"

Trish moved to Taylor's other side and took her right arm. "Easy, we'll say you took the family car for a spin and ran into a pole, while not wearing your seat belt. That way, when Danny talks about grounding you to everyone within earshot, he'll have a legitimate reason."

Taylor was just about to tell Trish to stop joking around when she saw the glint in her dad's eye. As well, there was a dangerous smirk on her friend's mouth. Muttering under her breath, Taylor allowed them to lead her away.

~~~Memories of Iron~~~

Taylor eased back down in her chair, joints creaking. Her ribs still really hurt, the painkillers the doctor prescribed not being the most effective. If only she'd gone ahead and made a Portable Doc, or even gotten the Quick Heal up and running, she wouldn't be in this situation.

Or if she had just listened to her dad, Trish, or JARVIS, Taylor thought moodily. It had now been three days since the fight with the Simurgh.

The trip back had been rough, but she had slept most of the way. The emergency room trip, with its fairly lengthy wait, had actually been rougher.

Worse, her dad had gone ahead and grounded her. As punishment, he'd cut her work hours to just four per day for the next week. Didn't he understand just how much she had to do, Taylor wondered? Maybe not, if he thought he could get away with keeping her from working.

Even JARVIS was in on it, the traitor. He wouldn't help her circumvent her dad's punishment and Taylor couldn't order him to. At least, not without jumping through a great many hoops she wasn't willing to.

For the next five days, Taylor would have to make do with using her smartphone to work outside her lab. While it was far better than the standard phone with all of the changes she'd made to it, it was still a poor substitute for JARVIS and her laboratory's mainframe. She almost moaned in despair at the thought of again being reduced to working without being able to see holographic projections of all of her plans. It was so unfair.

Dammit! Now the phone was ringing, interrupting what little laboratory time she did have. Quickly grabbing it, she answered curtly, "Taylor Hebert."

"Taylor, this is Quinn Calle. I'm going to need you to come down to my office and meet with me. I've cleared a space on my calendar for later this afternoon. Please bring your other friend as well as I am sure we can use her insight."

"Wait a second. Why do you need to meet with me, Mr Calle? What is this about?"

"Please, Taylor, call me Quinn. As to what this meeting is about, it's regarding the future of your company."

Taylor could feel a tightening in her gut. "I don't understand. What about the future of my company?"

Quinn's voice was world weary as he said, "It's about whether you're still going to have a company after next week. You see, MAT Enterprises, the company from whom you borrowed the investment capital you needed, has filed suit against you and your company alluding to fraudulent practices and theft of intellectual property."

Taylor's eyes narrowed. "How can they do that? HTech is owned one hundred percent by me."

"They can do this because it was in the terms of the contract for the loan."

In a challenging tone, Taylor stated, "I would never sign something like that."

"You didn't. The CEO of your company did so against my specific advice in order to get you the funds you urgently needed from the only source that would supply them on such short notice. Please come by my office at three PM. We'll talk more about it then. Until then, Taylor."

Automatically, Taylor replied, "Goodbye, Quinn."

What on earth was her dad thinking, Taylor wondered. Then a sudden guilty thought assailed her. She'd needed nearly forty-five million dollars more than they had available to finish her armor in the short time she'd had available, which her dad had said he'd find a way to get for her. He had gotten the money to her, and just in the nick of time as well.

Taylor hadn't asked, and Danny hadn't volunteered the source for the money. So it was as much her fault as his. More so when you consider that without her needing to play superhero, she would never have needed to rush the armor so much, requiring the vast sums of money that had been mostly sank into options that hadn't panned out. The costly failed attempts at reproducing Adamantium alone... Taylor's thoughts trailed off.

She needed to consider this carefully. Without a doubt, somewhere in that labyrinth of the mind of Tony Stark was the answer to her dilemma. So the sooner she figured it out, the better. Because the human race couldn't afford the casualties it would engender for her to start over. Such a delay could potentially kill millions.

It made the few thousand she'd saved in Canberra seem paltry in comparison. It's what she got for playing hero, Taylor thought bitterly.

Taylor took a deep breath. That's when it came to her. A potential solution to the problem. Not only that, it would advance certain plans she had already made. Of course, there were risks, but then again, what was life without them? Best of all, it would keep her fledgling company utterly safe.

Opening a file on her server, Taylor glanced at the blueprints. It shouldn't take JARVIS more than a few hours to machine the necessary components, while Taylor could do the rest.

But first, Taylor would meet with Quinn and find out just how bad things were. Depending on the severity of the situation, she would decide whether to unleash Pandora. Taylor slowly smiled. It was an excellent name for her newest plan. After all, once the box was opened...

~~~Memories of Iron~~~