Tony Stark awoke to pain, delirium wiping out the memory. How had he come here? He remembered there was fire, he remembered there was darkness.
An old man was standing over him. "Rest."
"How long?" Stark gritted out.
Yinsen nodded. "Ten weeks for me. Five days for you."
Stark looked. The man standing over him had bruises around each wrist. "Where am I?"
"A camp. I don't know where exactly, somewhere in Afghanistan. I am Ho Yinsen."
Tony recognized the name. He was a scientist, who specialized in combat medicine. "Tony Stark."
"Yes I know. They know who you are. They know who I am too. That's why we're still alive." He gave a bitter mile. "Yinsen, the medical man, and Tony Stark, the Weapon-eer."
Tony groaned. His chest hurt like he was having a continuous heart attack. His fingers clutched at his torso, and touched metal. He ripped his shirt open. A round metal plate had been cut into his skin, just above his heart. "Where did this come from?"
"I built it." Yinsen told him.
"You were wounded. There is a piece of shrapnel in your chest, very close to your heart. I could not remove it without killing you."
Stark tapped the chest-plate. "So what does this do?"
"The chest-plate holds a magnetic charge, which is fed by this magnetic generator." He gestured at a piece of humming equipment at the corner of the room. It looked like a car battery with metal strips wrapped around the contacts. "As long as you stay in range of the generator, the charge will hold, and the shrapnel will keep out of your heart."
"Magnetically?" The scientist in Stark was quick to assert itself in wonder. "That's brilliant!" He said, looking closer. "How did you come up with that?"
Yinsen shrugged. "Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention."
Stark didn't understand.
"I've seen a lot of wounds like that." Yinsen explained.
Understanding flooded Stark. "Of course. Afghanistan's full of mines, pipe bombs, grenades, and equally full of people willing to use them. Especially the newer types. Rocket Propelled Shrapnel Grenades."
Yinsen had gone still. "They do a lot of damage."
"I know, I..." he caught himself just in time to not say the end of the sentence. 'I ship them by the caseload.'
Stark suddenly lost energy and fell back against the cot. Five days.
Five days. He thought. The first two hours are the most urgent in a combat abduction. If they haven't found me by now, then they've stopped looking.
This is my last act? This is my swansong? This is my last act in the world? This is the end of the great Tony Stark? God, they must be going nuts back home.
That thought stopped him cold. Who? Who would be getting worried back home?
The board? The stockholders? His date to that movie premiere last month? What was her name? Tammy? Candy? Crystal?
Pepper would worry. Rhodey?
Stark was stunned to realize that he could only think of two people he considered friends.It was his last thought before sleeping again.
He was making a presentation to some combat troops. He was standing before his newest design, and various uniforms collected around him. He smiled lightly at the memory. He always was spectacular at selling his own greatness.
"Is it better to be feared, or respected?" he had put the question to them. "And I say, 'is it too much to ask for both'? With that in mind, I humbly present the crown jewel of Stark Industries' freedom line. It's the first missile system to incorporate our proprietary repulser technology. 'They' say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon that you only have to fire once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it," That line had gotten a cheer from the troops. "And it's worked out pretty well so far."
The missile test had gone fantastically. More than half the mountainside was gone.
He had toasted his creation with the officers. He wasn't about to drink the stuff that the army supplied. He brought his own, something better than what those people had. "To Peace."
He had an escort to bring him back to the airstrip. One of the soldiers wanted a picture. The camera-phone was sold by Stark Industries.Then…
Tony woke up.
The word filtered its way into his delirious mind. The convoy had been hit. Roadside bomb. Then the attack came in full. The soldiers had covered him as they ran.
They had failed. An RPG had taken the car he was hiding behind.
He should be dead. It almost would have been preferable. "Water." He croaked. He could not hear his own voice.
He did not need to. Yinsen was well experienced in this kind of trauma. The old man came closer, and gave him some water. Perrier only. Stark reflected instinctively, before he gulped down the tepid gritty muck he was provided with relish. The old man held the cup firmly and only gave him enough to cool his throat. As Tony breathed, Yinsen checked his chest-plate, and made a small adjustment. "Sleep. If you stay awake too long, I will have to tell them you are awake."
"And try not to move. Every move you make works against your heart. Let your body get used to the chest-piece before you try to do anything."
Tony obeyed. "Who are these people?"
"What does it matter? Guerillas, insurgents, terrorists, call them what you will. Their leader is a man called Raza."
"My people will not negotiate." Tony whispered hoarsely.
"Raza does not want a ransom."
"How do you know?"
"Because he never asked for one, for you or me. I was treating some refugees south of Kabul. They knew who I was and brought me here."
"To treat their men."
"My people won't stop looking for me." Tony said.
"They already have." Yinsen said matter-of-factly.
Tony closed his eyes.
I should be dead.
And nobody would have missed me would they? Tony considered. A drop in the stock prices. A bidding frenzy over the company. That would be it. The board would find some kid they could control and declare victory. Obadiah would try to keep a lid on it, but Tony had kept his right hand man on the outside too.
There had been an article about him once in Time Magazine. Tony Stark, On Top of the World.
The fall of the Stark Empire.
And with that he fell asleep.
Tony Stark dreamed. In his dream he was clean, he was cool, and he was relaxed. He had a supermodel in his left hand and a cold martini in his right. He was surrounded by money, by power, by fame and he owned them all.
Stark turned and took quick stock of the woman behind that voice. Young, blonde, preppy, attractive. Worth his notice.
"Tony Stark! Christine Everheart, Vanity Fair magazine."
A reporter. He glanced over at Obadiah, who nodded briefly. He had time.
Tony walked back to meet her. "Hi, yeah okay, go."
Christine took a second to collect herself at being face to face with him "You've been called the Da Vinci of our time; what do you say to that?"
"That's absolutely ridiculous, I don't paint." Tony was quick with the modesty.
"And what do you say to your other nickname, the 'Merchant of Death'?"
Tony grinned lightly. She had spunk. "That's not bad."
Stark awoke to pain. His chest was spiking fiercely, clouding his mind. He fought to clear his eyes but it was useless. Someone had put a bag over his head.
As his mind cleared, he felt movement. Someone was leading him. He felt the light past his mask change. He felt them shove him into a hard chair. The bag was pulled away. He was looking down a camera lens.
My personal stylist must be present at all interviews. Tony thought dully of an old negotiation with the networks, just after the first TIME article.
The man in charge was making a speech to the camera. Tony had missed most of it.
"Well your weapons are ours now. Your experts are ours now. And we will use them. This is not a warning, this is not a threat. This is a simple announcement of fact. You have taught us well." He made a throat-cut gesture, and his man switched off the camera.
With that, the man who spoke turned and loomed over Stark, who blinked blearily up at him. "I am Raza. You are Stark, the death-dealer."
"Catchy." Stark answered. Better than Merchant of death.
Raza snapped his fingers, and someone pulled Stark upright. Raza led the way through the caves. Tony glanced around. It seemed that a larger shaft from the surface split off into various passageways. Walls had been put up to make rooms.
As they moved, Raza spoke. "The missile weapon you were demonstrating to the Americans. I want one similar. My people have been battling with a neighboring warlord eighteen miles east of here. I have two choices, I could send my troops to battle his, killing who knows how many of my brothers in arms in the process, or two: I could use your weapons. One missile could take his entire base."
"I refuse to build it for you." Stark said coldly.
Raza put out a hand and Stark's guards made him stop walking. Raza came around to look him in the eye. "Let's not claim innocence Stark. There's blood on your hands already. Everything you build is made to destroy."
"To destroy people like you." Stark said defiantly, and earned himself a punch across the face for it. Agony lanced through his chest.
"You think my enemies are so much purer than I?" They started walking again. "Men like you design weapons to prevent death. Scholars from your country, they say that using the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually saved lives by forcing a Japanese surrender. A weapon so powerful, that you only have to fire it once and the violence stops." Raza looked Stark in the eye again. "Build me this missile, and you will actually prevent deaths."
They stopped walking, and Raza opened the door. Stark saw his cot, saw Yinsen inside.
"Starting with your own." Raza finished coldly, and shoved him in the door.
A weapon you only have to fire once. Hearing those words echoed at him made Stark wince.
Raza gestured at the old man. "Yinsen says that you need another day to be of any use. Tomorrow you get to work."
And he slammed the door. The old man came over. "Are you okay? Let me check your wound."
"I'm not building these people a weapon." Stark swore to Yinsen as he fought to get to his bed.
"You built them all their weapons." The man countered. "Where do you think those rifles came from?"
Stark's face filled with confused dread. "What?"
Yinsen smiled sadly. "You think that only your customers can get these weapons? Where do you think any of these tools came from?"
Rising horror filled Stark.
Yinsen had said he'd seen a lot of wounds like mine. Tony thought. Now I know where.
"What do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"
Tony shut his eyes. What have I done?
They came for him the next morning. Raza had pulled him down the passage, and shoved him into a chamber, lit by hurricane lamps, and filled with metal parts, some were immediately identifiable, others mere scraps.
The tools he could identify. Metallurgy, pneumatics, hand-tools, power tools, Welding equipment, gloves…
Tony forced himself through the pain, made himself sit upright, looked back at Raza, and his guard.
Yinsen was right. Stark recognized the scope on the Ak-47. It was a modification he had designed and sold to the private US Contractors shipping out to the Middle East.
Cold fury filled Stark's belly. No. He told himself firmly. I may have the blood of all Yinsen's patients on my hands, I may not be mourned, I may never be found, I may not live out the night, but I swear, the bullet that kills me will not have a Stark logo on it.
"You have one day to build my missile." Raza said. "Get to work."
And he slammed the door.
"You've been called the Da Vinci of our time; what do you say to that?"
Stark grinned slightly. Everheart was tossing around hyperbole, but the truth was, Stark knew Da Vinci's work by heart. The man was not a painter, he was an engineer. Da Vinci was revolutionary. He had designed the first airplane, submarine, helicopter. Creations that his world was not ready for.
Stark rubbed his wrists and looked around the scrap pile, the various tools that had been left him. What would The Maestro make of me? He wondered idly.
Leonardo had created the Vitruvian Man. Da Vinci had understood. He had created the divine proportions. The exact height and length of every man given perfect form. A perfect form, something greater, nobler and ultimately better than normal men.
Tony rose to his feet, went to the workbench, where sketchpads, pens, were provided for him and rubbed his chestplate in pain. The Vitruvian Man would not be in pain. TheVitruvian Man would be able to get out of here.
And with that, came the idea.
He drew a quick sketch and slid it into his sleeve.
The idea was insane, unheard of, and by all accounts laughable. The Maestro would be proud.
Stark got to work.
That night, he was returned to his room.
Yinsen looked up at him in horror. His face was drawn and pale, he was sweating profusely. "You push yourself too hard."
"Deadlines have a way of doing that." Stark ground out. He glanced back to make sure the door was shut, and pulled something out from his waistband.
It was slightly curved, which was how he had hidden it in his trouser leg. It looked like a mask from an Arthurian Knight's armor. It was made of dully polished iron. "I need the sunglasses I was carrying when I was brought here. Did they survive?"
Yinsen gestured at the clothes piled in the corner, and Stark dragged himself over to them. He pulled out his sunglasses case.
"You have a case to protect sunglasses?"
"To protect eight hundred dollar Armani sunglasses." Stark said and started prying the lenses out of them.
Yinsen came closer. "What's that? That doesn't look like a missile."
"It's not, my friend."
Yinsen's eyebrows rose significantly. Stark was now calling him 'Friend'?
Stark didn't have to turn to see the look. "You saved my life brother, and you did it with a car battery. I'm going to return the favor. I'm getting out of here, and I'm going to take you with me."
"How?" Yinsen laughed. "Even if we could get out of the workshop we'd never get out of the caves with the guards, and even if we could, we'd never get out of the camp!"
"Superior firepower is everything. Superior numbers used to matter, now not so much." Stark was breathing hard.
"They have superior firepower. Numbers too."
Stark was sliding the lenses into the mask. "But we've got something better!"
Yinsen was now paying attention. "Tell me."
"Do you know the story of Prometheus?"
"A Greek legend. He saw the Zeus was keeping humans bound in what they could do, and tried to give humans power and knowledge."
"Legend has it, that Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, brought and made a gift of it to man. We've spent centuries turning that gift, refining it, taming it, making it burn hotter and cleaner." He slid the page out of his sleeve and passed it over. "Now we've finally reached the point where we don't need gods to grant us favors any more."
He looked at it, gave Stark a look. "Gort! Klatuu Barada Nikto!"
Stark laughed. Where had the old man picked that up?
Yinsen grinned. "Stark, there's something you should remember."
"When the gods found out what Prometheus had done, they were… displeased."
Tony picked up his jacket again and waved it at Yinsen. "Don't let the suit I was wearing fool you. I'm one of the most brilliant engineers alive. Once upon a time I was inventing things so fast that I had to keep a lot of them hidden in my basement. The patent office couldn't keep up with them all."
"Weapons. Tools of death."
"Production capital." Stark corrected. "Arms sales were how I made the money, not what I spent it on. You're like one of those people who trade plastic surgeons as vultures preying on insecurity. The vain and the shallow pay for the techniques, the training, the practice to make it possible for the important stuff, accident victims, soldiers wounded in the line of duty, birth defects. None of it would be correctable is there wasn't so much money on hand already."
"You think you do more good then bad?"
"War is the ultimate in legal capitalism. It's what let me build my lab, build my empire, build my skills and hire the experts..."
"And look where it got you." Yinsen said coldly.
Stark didn't have an answer to that. He rubbed his chest uncomfortably.
"Stark, if you're thinking of building a weapon to get us out of here, bear in mind that not only would you have to keep it hidden from the guards, you'd have to do it with this junk heap they gave us. You can't do both. Not in this place."
"Of course we can." Stark gestured at his chest plate. "You already have! I should be dead, but you saved my life with a car battery and tinfoil. Everything we need is right here."
"And when they kill you, as they will since you're outnumbered twenty to one, your weapon will be theirs."
"Thought of that. They won't get this one away from me."
That last comment made a somewhat unsettled Yinsen look closer. "What are you building Stark?"
Stark had a savage grin. "It's going to be big." He lifted the mask to look it in the face. "Prometheus Lives!"
The next morning they brought him before Raza as he ate. Stark hadn't eaten in five days.
Raza did not look up from his plate. "What are you building Stark?"
Stark didn't let his face change at all. "A weapon. Just as you ordered me."
"But not a missile. Not what I told you to build." Raza finally looked at him. "Something to help you escape perhaps?
"What weapon could I possibly create that would do any good, with you outnumbering us by so many?"
"So it is a weapon. I thought perhaps a radio of some kind."
Stark still didn't blink. But inwardly he seethed.
Raza stood. "I gave you a simple order. Build me a missile to strike at my enemies. I made it a simple order so that there would be no chance of you confusing it, misunderstanding it, or improvising around it. You are improvising. I don't like my prisoners being inventive Stark."
Stark said nothing.
Raza shouted something in Arabic. The door opened, and in came Yinsen, shoved forward by two guards. The old man looked at Stark. He didn't seem worried. He never did.
Raza walked slowly around the table. "Stark, now I have a problem. I cannot trust you. I also cannot kill you, because then you would not be able to build my missile."
Tony felt a knife of fear bolt through him. "No!" he shouted.
Too late. Raza had drawn a 9mm and shot Yinsen through the throat.
Tony darted forward to catch his friend as he fell. Yinsen gasped and died.
Raza gestured, and the guards pulled him to his feet. "Get back to work Stark. Whatever time you have wasted, it doesn't change your deadline." He nodded to the guards. "Take him back to he lab, let the memory of his friend argue with him for a while."
Prometheus Rises. Stark told himself fiercely. Now.
Tony was thrown back into his workshop.
Tony looked over the pieces. It was not built for comfort, it was built for protection. A weapon built defensively.
"You've been called the Da Vinci of our time;" Everheart had said. "What do you say to that?"
Out loud, he answered her. "I say, that Da Vinci lived in the time of the Knights, and they were the great and noble warriors, in a time when battle was done with dignity and honor, not with pipe bombs and landmines. I say, that Leonardo Da Vinci saw the age of reason, and dreamed of what the new Knights of the Atomic Age would be. I say, that another genius, a man named Yinsen, saved my life, and did it without firepower. I say, that Da Vinci never built weapons."
Stark picked up the magnetic power generator, the device Yinsen had built to save his life, and he fit it onto the second piece. "I say, that the weapons I build will be made to save lives now."
He pulled the next piece over and fit the tanks from the welding equipment to it. "Starting with my own."He picked it up, then put it around his shoulders
"Prometheus conquers!" Stark's voice yelled from behind the door.
The guards looked at each other. Neither of them spoke English. Neither of them understood. Their prisoner had been quiet up till then. Raza was correct. The thought of his friend's death was getting to him.
Then there was movement.
It was a heavy metallic thud. Such was not an unusual sound. The American was getting back to work.
A second thud. Closer to the door.
The guards glanced at each other.
Something hit the door hard enough to actually bend the plate metal out.
A second hit, the door frame was starting to break.
Surprise wore off, terror took over. Both guards started screaming for backup and leveled their rifles.
The plate steel was ripped down, and framed in the doorway…
And out came a monster.
It was not a man. It was machine.
For a frozen beat, everyone in the tunnel just stared at it. Had Stark built a robot?
Gears whirred, pneumatics hissed, and a huge metal arm came up, and slugged the nearest guard, very nearly folding him in half.
The sight of one of their own being knocked down hard, spurred the others into action. Six AK-47's lifted, pointed at him, and fired.
It took the sound of gunfire, the flares of the muzzle-flashes to even make the Iron Man aware he was under attack.
Three steps, and another guard was knocked halfway through the stone wall. Another two steps; slow but balanced.
The guards were still firing, backing away much faster then he could chase them.
On foot at least. Iron Man lifted his hands and pointed them forward.
Huge bursts of flame blossomed through the tunnel from his hands.
The sound of battle had filled the camp. Raza, in his chamber was quickly moving into the hallway, when flame filled the doorway, making him dive back fast.
The flames burnt themselves out instantly. Raza got up and made his way to the central hallway.
There was a man standing in the passage, casting bursts of flame from it's hands down side passages. It was a huge figure, built like a linebacker, seemingly carved out of grey metal. It was humanoid, its head seemed strangely small on its shoulders but it had an unmistakable form. Two eyes, mouth, invisible inside, completely inscrutable. Intermittent gunfire rang out, sparks bouncing off the metal hide. And then the face turned and looked directly at Raza. As if it knew him.
As if it was looking for him specifically.
Raza smirked with grim respect. "Clever bastard." He muttered in his native language, and ran back down the passage toward daylight, as a burst of hellfire chased after his heels.
Iron Man gave chase.
The eighth guard, who had taken cover in one of the rooms came back to the hallway, and got in real close, too close to reach with the Iron fists.
The Iron Man took a step back to get room and swung. Nothing. He jerked hard, and nothing happened. He had to turn half his upper body to see. His arm was caught in one of the passageways. The tunnel was far too narrow.
The attacker saw his opening, drew his handgun, and pointed it pointblank at the metal head.
The gun went off, and ricochet, straight back at the shooter, cutting him down.
Stark hadn't felt so charged in years. The suit worked perfectly. Even as he moved he felt the old instincts coming back! Engrained responses that made him a millionaire, dulled with time and inactivity were quickly given new life in this perfect merge of intellect given form.
Reaction times too slow. Stark noted. Plating is strong, but heavy. Visual range far too small.
Even as he lifted his arm to fire another blast, he was already redesigning the suit, making modifications, drawing blueprints.
A great burst of flame flew from his outstretched hand, consuming one of the rooms.
Stark blinked furiously behind the mask at the flare. Lenses. He thought. I need better eyepieces, or I'm blind in this thing.
Daylight was in front of him. Iron Man marched forward.
The last of the soldiers were surrounding the entrance in a semi-circle, hiding behind solid cover. They all opened fire at him.
Iron man returned fire. Literally. He targeted the fuel drums, conveniently placed next to vehicles. He targeted the sandbags, with the ammo feeds leading into the machinegun emplacements.
Until finally, there was nothing left attacking him.
"DEATH-DEALER!" Roared a familiar voice.
Iron Man turned, and there was Raza. He was standing on top of a surviving jeep, with a rear-mounted RPG-Launcher.
Raza fired before Iron Man could react. The grenade slammed into his stomach and drove him back, toppling him over. Iron man fought to roll and struggled his way to his feet. The armor was heavily dented…. But not breached.
Raza stared in awe.
Inside the suit of armor, Stark was more than a little awed himself. I should be dead. I should be dead. I should be dead.
Aloud, Iron Man yelled. "Throw down your weapon."
"Throw down yours." Raza laughed defiantly, and pulled the trigger again.
Stark Model RPG Launcher. Twin shot instead of single shot. Stark realized.
The grenade screamed toward him, and Iron Man fired a blast of flame and threw himself to the left.
Inside, Stark reflected ruefully. 'Threw' is not the correct term.
But it was enough. The grenade flew past his head and into the tunnel, where it collapsed the entrance totally.
Raza looked shocked and screamed as the jeep he was standing on erupted from the flamethrower blast.
And Iron Man stood alone and triumphant.
Yinsen would be proud. He had done it. He had defeated this evil. He had conquered. One man, alone, against an army. Yinsen wouldn't have believed it possible.
Yinsen laughed at him. And what has changed Stark? Look around.
The Iron Man turned, drinking in his own destruction. No survivors. The terrorists were still clutching their useless toy-weapons like talismans against the titan he had become.
There was nothing moving but the tendrils of rising smoke and ash.
So why was he still hearing their voices?
"I've seen a lot of wounds like that."
"What do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"
"You are Stark, the death-dealer."
Oh my God. Stark thought, finally lucid again.
The only thing you ever built to save life was to save your own. And you killed twenty people doing it.
Not again. Stark told himself. Done now. No more shrapnel into hearts, no more Prometheus fire consuming people, no more Merchant of Death.
"I've seen a lot of wounds like that." Yinsen had said.
Wounds I inflicted. Stark thought. Wounds I created weapons to inflict. Blood that I made a fortune spilling.
Blood money Stark! Blood money and you drank it down.
Iron Man moved through the smoke and fire, searching caves and buildings till he found the weapons stores.
Stark industries had logos printed on every crate.
You did not sell them these weapons. They were stolen, they were sold, black market, the movements of evil men doing evil things with no thought for the consequences. Men who believed that profit justified them.Stark thought. Men like you.
Iron Man lifted his flamethrowers.
The fire was quick to catch and a massive explosion annihilated it all.
Stark embraced the flames from within his armor, almost hoping it would end him. Justice had a funny sense of humor that way. "To Peace!" he toasted.
Time passed, the fire cooled.
And within his walking tank, Stark lived, untouched.
The only thing you ever built to save life was to save your own. And you killed twenty people doing it.
Stark breathed the smoke in deep. He should have been coughing. But he wasn't.
He walked without a destination in mind. He caught light glinting off a barrel that was somehow still standing. There was water inside.
Stark took the helmet off. Gasping with relief in the cool air, he grabbed a cup to drink.
He looked at his reflection in the water. His face was more alive than he had seen it in twenty years. The fire had consumed the dust and grease from his cave workshop. Every inch of his new skin gleamed.
He turned to the sky. Past the battle the sky was clear and blue, unnaturally beautiful within such death.
This is my fault. These weapons were my creation.
"What do you say to your other nickname," Everheart had said, "The Merchant of Death?"
Calmer now, Stark answered her. "I say, that those sales made my fortune. Those sales made capital. I say, that those sales were necessary once, and now, they are not. I say, that the money served its purpose, and selling these weapons, brought me here."
I know what I have to do now.
The thought was so comforting he said it out loud.
"I know what I have to do now."
He looked down at his armored suit.
"I have a lot of work to do."