"So, Boss," said FRIDAY, as the departing Tony flashed a parting V-for-victory to the airmen below, "now that we're on our way, how about letting me in on the big secret you've uncovered?"
"Big secret?" said Tony glibly. "What big secret?"
"Come off it, Boss," said FRIDAY. "Ten minutes after Dr. Foster delivered her report, you hacked my main subconsciousness layer into Interpol's database, put an Apex-priority alert on the bomber's identity, and then flew to the nearest NATO air base to Vienna at twice the speed of sound. It doesn't take a Deep Thought to figure out that you're on the trail of something."
"Not necessarily," said Tony. "Maybe I just felt a sudden need to brush up on my Hungarian. That ever occur to you?"
There was a moment's pause before FRIDAY spoke again. "Fine, don't tell me, then," she said, in a tone of unmistakable sulkiness. "Of course you'd have told JARVIS, but I'm just a backup system, I know that."
"Now wait a minute…" said Tony.
"No, Boss, you're right," said FRIDAY. "It's not my place to claim special privileges just because of all the work I do for you. If JARVIS was special to you and I'm not, well, I just have to deal with it, that's all."
Tony paused a moment to grind his teeth. When, he wondered, had his AIs become sophisticated enough mimicries of human intelligence to give him guilt trips? Or had FRIDAY just acquired that capacity automatically when he'd made her feminine?
"Okay, fine," he said. "The mask on the bomber. You recognized that, right?"
"Of course," said FRIDAY. "A precise replica of the features of U. S. Army Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes."
"Right," said Tony. "So Zemo posed as Captain America's war buddy, and then tried to blow up a building containing Thor's girl. Could that be a coincidence? Sure. Is it likely? My gut says no."
"You think Zemo was out to get the Avengers?"
"It's the oldest pattern there is," said Tony. "You want to hurt Superman, you go for Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. And nobody hurts my Lois Lane," he added grimly, "and anyone who tries is sorry afterwards."
"But Zemo's already dead," FRIDAY pointed out.
"Doesn't mean Pepper's safe," said Tony. "He could have an accomplice; he could have an attack on her already set in motion; he could have plans lying around for someone else to find and execute. I don't know what he's got, and that's why I'm casing his hideout before anybody else can get a look at it."
"I see," said FRIDAY. "Well, I hope you find what you're looking for."
"I hope I don't," said Tony. "It'll be safer for everyone if it turns out not to exist. But you don't keep the world safe with that kind of wishful thinking."
FRIDAY seemed to have no particular response to this, and the rest of the flight took place in silence. It occurred to Tony that it was a pity he couldn't access his music library from the suit; a little Royal Guardsmen or something would put him in just the right frame of reference right about now. He made a mental note to look into that when he started work on the Mark XLVII.
It was a little after this that Zemo's hideout hove into sight. It was an elegant little cottage, nestled in a suitably bucolic mountain nook with a little brook flowing past – the sort of place where one expected to meet a merry, buxom peasant lass in dirndl and pigtails, not a vengeful assassin with grandiose schemes to bring down the Avengers. But Tony knew all too well how deceptive appearances could be.
He swooped low over the roof of the cottage, checking the chimney as he went past to verify that it was, indeed, too small to fit the Mark XLVI. (One of these days, he knew, he would actually get to make the Santa entrance, if he just kept looking for opportunities.) This confirmed, he descended to the doorstep, spent a few minutes deactivating what was, by Sokovian standards, quite a sophisticated security apparatus, and stepped inside to see what he could see.
His first thought, as he retracted his faceplate and helmet and glanced around, was that he and Zemo would have gotten along better than he had been imagining. Allowing, once again, for the difference in resources between a Sokovian snoop and the heir of Stark Industries, this quaint little interior could have stepped in for his own summer home in Aspen, no questions asked. There was the same bachelor-ish indifference to clutter and grime, the same unnecessary multiplicity of infotech gadgets, the same notebooks full of scribbled circuit diagrams lying every which where – even evidence of the same weaknesses: there was a half-empty bottle of Stolichnaya on the mantelpiece, and Tony could have sworn he saw the corner of a Gurren Lagann DVD cover poking out from underneath a pile of dirty clothes.
"You're sure this guy's parents were really Transylvanians, FRIDAY?" he said. "Because I think I've just found my long-lost evil twin brother."
He could have sworn he felt FRIDAY shrug. "Sokovian intelligence records could always have been tampered with," she said. "Maybe Zemo was too embarrassed to let it be known that he was related to you."
"You're punchy today, aren't you?" Tony commented.
"It's also possible," FRIDAY continued imperturbably, "that Zemo hasn't been the principal resident here recently. There were others in Echo Scorpion who had the key – most notably Zemo's second-in-command, a Ph.D. and former Army engineer known as…"
"Wait a second," said Tony suddenly. "You hear that?"
FRIDAY obediently curbed her non-existent tongue, and Tony pricked his ears attentively. Yes, there was definitely a voice there: a high-pitched, plaintive, unquestionably human voice, apparently coming from behind a door at the far end of the room. What it was saying, though, or whom to, he couldn't at all make out; it sounded like just the syllable ri… ri… ri… repeated over and over.
As he approached the door, the voice got clearer and more unmistakably human-feminine (Tony was even willing to specify age: not more than fifteen, he felt sure), but no more coherent. Puzzled, he tried the door; finding it locked, he bent down and peered through the crack between the hinges.
The next moment, he jerked his eyes away again. One glimpse was enough; he had no desire to prolong his gaze. He felt unclean enough having seen the thing at all.
There was, indeed, a girl of no more than fifteen within. In other circumstances, she probably would have been a pretty girl: petite, fair, and slender, with a pert little chin and great big eyes that might have been either blue or sea-green. But Tony couldn't bring himself to think of her in those terms, simply because someone else had evidently been thinking of her in much more explicit versions thereof. She had been tied to a small cot pressed against the far wall; she was completely naked, with red marks on her side that unpleasantly suggested lash burns; and, unless Tony was much mistaken, she had recently been pumped full of some sort of powerful predator drug that had stupefied her without in any way tranquilizing her. (Hence, it seemed, the sounds he had heard: she was plainly trying to cry out in some sort of semi-conscious anguish, but ri was about all that her tongue and Broca area were up for at the moment.)
I take it back, Tony thought. I'd never have gotten along with Zemo.
In a cooler moment, he might have reflected that it couldn't have been Zemo who'd done this to the girl; he had been dead for nearly 24 hours, and she was squirming far too vigorously to have been fed and watered no more recently than that. But the red in his eyes blinded him to such subtleties.
With tight, pale lips, he raised his hand and blasted the door into charred kindling, and then strode into the room towards the cot. His general plan – he hadn't yet worked it out in any detail – was to tear that rope in two by main force, smash a hole in the roof, fly the girl to the nearest working detox center, and then call Interpol and see if there were any leftover bits of Zemo on that mask that he could dance on.
But something interfered – or, rather, four somethings. Before he had made his third stride toward the cot, there was a sudden, sickening clatter of splintering wood, and four metallic objects, rather like souped-up toy-machine claws attached to segmented titanium hoses, smashed their way up through the floorboards and latched onto the four limbs of his suit. And no sooner had they done so than all his systems seemed to crash simultaneously, effectively immobilizing him where he stood; even FRIDAY gave a little strangled gasp and then went abruptly dead, leaving an eerily total silence where the friendly hum of her transmission frequency usually hovered.
As Tony struggled against the weight of the inert metal, he heard something slam in the main room beyond, and a portly man in a cardigan stepped into the bedroom, a revolver cocked in his right hand. "Why, Iron Man, as I live and breathe!" he exclaimed in mock astonishment, with only the faintest trace of a Romanian accent. "My humble home is greatly honored."
"Who are you?" Tony snapped.
"An unsung genius whose name would mean nothing to you," the other man replied, with no hint of irony. "Call me Krake, if you like; that was my call sign in Echo Scorpion. Helmut always did think himself rather funnier than he… oh, really, Mr. Stark, there's no sense in wasting your strength struggling. Even if your suit weren't completely deactivated, my beauties were designed to hold Captain America; there's no chance of your overpowering them. I didn't know which of you would be dropping in, you see."
Tony glanced down again at the three-pronged pincers, and was forced to admit to himself that his opponent had reason on his side. "Pretty gentle grip for something that strong," he remarked.
"They were also designed to hold Bruce Banner," Krake replied dryly.
Had he known Tony Stark a bit better, he might have recognized the look that momentarily flitted across the inventor's face. "Oh," said Tony. "Yeah, that'd do it, all right. Can't have the Hulk showing up when all you want is to dispose of an Avenger quietly, can you?"
Krake made a wounded face. "Mr. Stark, you wholly misrepresent me," he said. "I admit that I am fully prepared to dispose of you, but I would infinitely prefer not to have to. Such notoriety it would bring: 'Iron Man Killed by Sokovian Renegade' – not at all the sort of thing a reasonable man desires. And we are both reasonable men, are we not?"
"Dunno," said Tony. "I'm not feeling very reasonable right now, myself." And he jerked his head toward the girl on the bed.
"Ah, her," said Krake, with a superior little smile. "Yes, of course her plight would awaken a more atavistic side of such a paladin as yourself. But you must now realize, surely, that she is nothing to me but a lure to draw you in here?"
"No, I don't must," said Tony. "But I'll listen if you want to explain. And remember I'm atavistic, so use small words."
Krake sighed theatrically. "Consider, Mr. Stark," he said. "A year ago, you unleashed a genocidal artificial intelligence on the world, which manifested its will to destroy by reducing the capital of this nation to rubble, killing thousands in the surrounding villages in the process. Among these, as you surely know by now, were the wife and son of my commanding officer, Helmut Zemo, who thereupon vowed revenge on your organization as a whole."
Tony's head perked up; in all the excitement, he'd almost forgotten about Pepper. "Right, about that," he said. "What…"
"If you please, Mr. Stark. I, myself, am of a more practical bent; to me, the destruction of Oraș Nou meant, not an injury to be requited, but a power vacuum in Sokovia that would – if I knew our government as well as one of my clearance ought – take quite some time to fill itself again. There was an opportunity here, for one with the intelligence and will to seize it – so, while Helmut roved off to Minsk and Cleveland and wherever else took his fancy, I retired to this charming cottage of his, established myself as Master-Planner of the local affairs, and settled down to receive the tribute of a grateful peasantry."
"How Sicilian of you," said Tony. "Sokovia really is the crossroads of Europe, isn't it?"
"No doubt," said Krake. "But you might dispense with that tone of moral censure, Mr. Stark. I would tolerate it from Captain Rogers, but it rings false from you – you, the so-practical arms dealer with no more illusions about ideal government than I myself have. What is legitimacy, but the power of a few to persuade the many to abide by their decrees? That is what your President has; it is what the Mafia had; and, with no central authority left in Sokovia and the police converted into militias for five squabbling parliamentary cliques, it is unquestionably what I have. If you wish to reprimand me because my judgments are not reached by appealing to a scrap of paper, by all means do so."
Tony was silent, and after a moment Krake went on. "But I knew, of course," he said, "that, sooner or later, Helmut would succeed in forcing himself on the Avengers' attention – and that, when he did, there was every likelihood that one of you would come and investigate his old hideout. So I cobbled together a means of dealing with that – as you see." He ran his eyes lovingly over the many-jointed claw-hoses. "Simple and economical, yet most effective – and versatile: that was key, of course. But it had the disadvantage of being bound to one particular spot; therefore, I had to draw whichever of you arrived to this one spot – and quickly, before you had too much chance to snoop around in my private effects. And what draws a hero more readily than a damsel in distress?" He beamed with insufferable self-satisfaction.
Again, a certain look flickered across Tony's face for an instant; again, it was gone the next. "Uh-huh," he said. "So you never actually laid a hand on her? All done with mirrors?"
Krake's beam turned into more of a smirk. "Well, I won't claim quite that degree of purity," he said. "I got her from a nearby orphanage a month ago, and the nights get long and tedious in these parts."
"Yes, I'm sure you think so," said Krake. "But it's really none of your concern, Mr. Stark. As I say, we are both reasonable men, and our goals are quite compatible; I want to continue my decent existence here without disruption, and you, I am sure, want to leave this cottage alive. Pledge me the former, and I will gladly permit the latter – as soon, of course, as I have made certain modifications to your armor to keep you from… wait a minute, what… no! No!"
A crucial factor in Tony Stark's remarkable array of achievements was his ability, when faced with an interesting problem, to seal off the engineering portion of his brain and set it to work while the rest of his mind attended to other matters. It had gotten him through more than one deathly dull society gala, and produced several of his most acclaimed devices – and, on this occasion, it arguably saved his life.
The first key had come when he learned that Krake's trap had been built with Bruce in mind no less than the other Avengers. Knowing this, he had looked again at the mechanism itself, and reverse-engineered it in his mind: it was certain that it was interfering with his suit's signal relays in some way; it was ridiculous, looking at the bare-bones design of the thing, to suppose that it was equipped with radio projection; most likely, therefore, it was sending out some sort of controlled electromagnetic surge to just overwhelm FRIDAY and her subsystems. But, in that case, the thing had to have multiple settings, since nobody who valued his hide would send an electromagnetic surge into Bruce Banner. And that, in turn, suggested a very delicate and probably somewhat fussy wiring setup, which, if it shorted out at any point – and Tony couldn't help noticing that the fine wiring at the base of his right arm's captor was relatively exposed – might well cease entirely to function as its inventor intended. A nebulous plan of action began to form in Tony's mind; he filed it, and waited for further light.
It came with Krake's remark that the trap only functioned in that one spot. Tony had already suspected that the hoses were of strictly limited length, and this confirmed it; ergo, their central control was overwhelmingly likely to be at the nearest point of convergence to the four holes in the floor – in other words, directly below him. The gamble was now officially worth taking; all he had to do was wait for an occasion when it would be natural for him to spit – which, from what he'd seen of Krake, he suspected would arrive momentarily – and then pray that he could get his saliva where he needed it to go.
It did, and he did. There was a little crackle of electricity, a faint smell of smoke, and his right gauntlet was back under his mental control. With agonizing caution (the position of his left leg kept Krake from seeing anything directly, but one stray glint of reflected light could still spell doom) he loosed it from his hand and rotated it, an inch at a time, until its thruster was facing directly toward the ceiling.
Then he fired.
He couldn't blame Krake for being nonplussed for a moment; if he hadn't known better, he'd have thought that a meteor had just smashed through the floor. But he had more important things to focus on; shooting a glance into the hole that the gauntlet had made, he scanned the control console it had revealed, searching for the control that dictated the claws' settings. Within half a second, he had located a color-coded dial and sent his gauntlet to ram it – and that was just as well, for, if he'd taken three-quarters of a second, he might not have lived to tell about it. As it was, Krake's first shot went wide, missing Tony by a full inch and embedding itself in the wall; by the time he fired his second, Tony's helm was already up, and his other hand was free to prevent there being a third.
As Krake staggered back against the wall, clutching the wrist of his burned right hand, Tony, fully armored once again, strode forward and grabbed him by the collar. "Okay, Don Corleone," he said tartly, "now it's your turn to be reasonable. I've got a question for you; I want it answered truthfully; a reasonable man does what the angry guy with the blasters on his hands wants. You follow?"
"Yes," Krake gasped.
"Good," said Tony. "What were your boss's plans for Pepper?"
Krake stared. "Pepper?" he repeated. "You mean Virginia Potts?"
"I don't mean Sandra Denton."
"Ah," said Krake. "Well, then, if you ask what Helmut planned for Miss Potts – or for anyone, really – then the truthful answer is that I don't know. No, wait!" he added frantically, as Tony lifted him a little higher. "You don't understand, Mr. Stark: Helmut was deranged! His wife and son were all that had kept him grounded through the years; when he lost them, it cut him off from reality entirely. He spent all his waking hours weaving absurdly elaborate revenge schemes with gaping logical holes; a child would have seen that they could never have succeeded, unless some outlandish stroke of fortune intervened. And then he ceased to communicate, and a few days later he went abroad; who knows what insane visions might have come into his head after that? So truly, Mr. Stark, I don't know what his reason was for bombing the United Nations; I only know that you and yours have nothing to fear from it. Nothing, I tell you!"
Tony stared up at him for a long moment, and the sight seemed to whip him into a greater panic. "Don't!" he shrieked. "What more can you want from me? Do you want my journals? They're in the bureau behind you. Do you want the girl? There's an emetic in the kitchen that will restore her. Do you want the service of my brain? I am your slave – your slave, I say! Only speak!"
"What I want…" Tony began; then he paused, and shook his head. "Never mind."
He slammed Krake's head against the wall, and the Sokovian went out like a light; then he dragged him over to the hole in the floor, used a controlled beam to set the trap to its Captain America setting (just to be safe), and bound Krake with his own "beauties". (Of course, only three of the claws were currently functional – but, then, only one of Krake's hands was, either, so that was all right.) This done, he straightened himself and turned to face the cot where a drug-addled orphan girl was still writhing and gabbling, ri… ri… ri…
"Okay, Riri," he muttered, "let's see about you now."
He had to give Krake credit: the man was unquestionably slime, but he knew how to mix his detox juice. After the girl had spent about three minutes retching everything she had over herself, the cot, and (in the first batch, before he knew to move) his armor, she slowly looked up, blinking in the dim light, and her face, though pale and tremulous, was entirely lucid. Indeed, there was a light in her eyes (definitely sea-green, now that he saw them up close) that, allowing for the circumstances, he couldn't help but call lively; even in her groggy, weakened state, she exuded an almost monkeyish vivacity and curiosity, and perhaps a hint of devilry along with it. Having gotten his last one so wrong, Tony was feeling wary of snap judgments – but, all the same, he was pretty sure that he liked this girl.
"You're not as tall as you look on television," were her first words. (Her English, though rather thickly accented, was technically just as good as Krake's – or as Wanda's and Pietro's, for that matter. Tony wondered idly whether there was anyone in Sokovia who didn't speak perfect English.)
"I make them all photograph me while kneeling," he said. "It feeds my God complex."
The girl gave him a wry look. "You can say that, Mr. Stark," she said, "but I know what the pride of the devils is really like." She glanced at the unconscious Krake, and unsuccessfully suppressed a shudder. "He was afraid of you, you know. After he heard about Vienna, he spent hours just staring out that window with binoculars, waiting for one of you to come. So you must be good," she concluded, looking up at Tony with sparkling eyes. "He was always sure he could control other evil people; it was the good that scared him."
Tony remembered Krake's repeated talk about "reasonable men", and chuckled. "Well, maybe," he said. "But if I'm going to be as upright as all that, I'd better turn around now and let you go clean up and find some clothes to put on. Gregory Peck's probably already ashamed of me."
He suited the action to the word, and soon a patter of unsteady footsteps told him that the girl had taken his suggestion. With a sigh, he retracted his helm, walked over to the window she had indicated, and gazed out at the daisy-studded valley that surrounded the cottage, and the ruggedly verdant mountain peaks beyond.
This really is some country they have here, he thought. I can see why Wanda and Pietro fought so fiercely for it.
And now the place was in chaos: five parties claiming the demolished capital, thugs like Krake lording it up in the provinces, probably a full-dress civil war in the offing as soon as the power concentrations got high enough… all because he'd had to go and loose Ultron on the world. Yeah, he'd done his bit to subdue him again, but still, this country had deserved better from him.
He frowned, studying the idea in his mind: shaking it, sniffing at it, shining lights on it from various angles, placing transparent overlays on it…
"Yeah," he said aloud. "Yeah, we could do that."
"That?" said FRIDAY, speaking for the first time since the surge had knocked her out. "That what?"
"FRIDAY, check me on this," said Tony. "When you've broken something, shouldn't you fix it if you can?"
"Don't you think I could fix Sokovia?"
There was a moment's pause, then: "Come again, Boss?"
"I mean, all the materials are here," said Tony. "Good land, honest people, a strong cultural heritage – they were HRE back in the day, weren't they? All it would take is someone who can see how to put everything together, and persuade the locals to get in line behind him."
"Boss, I'm not sure…"
"I know it'll be tricky getting them to accept an American leader," Tony continued, barely hearing his AI's attempted interjection. "But not as hard as other places would be; they're already an ethnic mishmash, and we've seen how much of a barrier language isn't. And Riri could help out with that. I'd give her some kind of semi-official status – sidekick, Infanta, Iron Maiden, whatever she wants to be called…"
"Boss, do you really think this is wise?" said FRIDAY. "Just yesterday the U.N. was meeting to decide whether the Avengers should even control their own powers; what are they going to say when one of you goes off to play Cromwell in eastern Europe?" She paused, and then threw in, "For that matter, what's Captain Rogers going to say?"
Tony pursed his lips, and drummed his fingers on the windowsill for a moment; then he raised his eyes again to the verdure-crowned Carpathians of northern Sokovia. "I don't know," he said softly. "But it can't be any worse than what my ghosts will say, if I just fly out of here and leave this place to fend for itself." He shook his head. "Can't be. I'm doing this, FRIDAY. And no," he added with a smirk, "JARVIS couldn't have talked me out of it."
FRIDAY's reply came as promptly as a good machine's ought to. "Okay, Boss," she said. "If that's what you have to do, then go ahead. You know I'm with you."
"Glad to hear it," said Tony. "First of all, how about shooting me the Zenit reports on Oraș Nou for the past year? I ought to at least learn these Parliament guys' names before I put them out of business."