Disclaimer: Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, and all the other characters you see here are not mine. They, the familiar plotlines, etc. belong to Marvel, Universal Studios, Paramount Studios, and all the others who own Iron Man and Terminator.
This piece is a response to The Fireplace Writing Challenge #5: Credible Crossovers. A knowledge of Terminator is not required for the enjoyment of this piece. That said, this is also:
The Pepperony 100 Challenge Theme #60—Dream
4th place in The Fireplace Writing Challenge #5: Create a Credible Crossover
I couldn't decide what, out of this picture, was worst: it was two o'clock in the morning, I was staring down the barrel of a sawed-off held by a woman who looked like she meant business, and the kid who'd asked all the impressive questions out of his school group yesterday waggled his fingers at me solemnly from behind the woman. In that moment, as we all gawked at each other, I could only wonder…why the hell did I always have to listen to Pepper?
Wait, an inner voice said as my eyes met the kid's. Let's go back a step. How'd we get here?
How, indeed, I retorted sullenly.
With the kid—John Connor, that was the name he gave you—here, it's gotta have something to do with the arc reactor.
The arc reactor. Everything went back to the arc reactor these days. With yours truly spearheading the project, various Stark Industries teams had spent the better part of two years researching, engineering, and testing an arc reactor meant to power the whole city of Los Angeles. It was an accomplishment, to say the very least. Once the reactor went fully online, it would be run by an equally groundbreaking artificial intelligence system of my own design. ARO, or Arc Reactor Observer, would keep a close watch on the arc reactor and monitor the flow of power into every home in Los Angeles. From there, it would learn how to better conserve the reactor's power supply and be able to point out any problems or suggest improvements to the small ARO team.
In short, ARO and the arc reactor were the new unofficial pride of Stark Industries, and they hadn't even been brought into complete operation. The world was so desperate for more efficient power that it had followed the development of the arc reactor from its earliest days; ARO was of interest by mere association, and lately it'd been getting wider attention.
As a matter of fact, public awareness was so intense that the Public Relations department had been getting no end of requests for tours. Computer clubs. Science classes. Environmental groups. The list just went on and on and on, something on which Pepper (my ever-so-lovely assistant) attempted to keep me up to speed. Poor kid, she tried pretty hard. To be honest, though, I never really listened to her short, informative briefs on ARO and the arc reactor's exposure until the words, "You're giving a Physics class from Palo Alto High a tour of the reactor facility tomorrow morning at ten," popped out of her mouth two days ago.
Pain ensued, courtesy of my hot rod's open hood. Rubbing my head with a wince, I let loose a curse that (no doubt) earned me one of Pepper's infamous looks.
To hell with behaving. She knew not to spring news like that on me when I was working on a car, especially if my head was under the hood.
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" sighed Pepper, who sounded as if she was hiding a hopeful tone, out of habit.
"No," I growled, gritting my teeth and turning to her, "that won't be all. I don't remember signing off on that."
Pepper pulled a smooth verbal side-step, something I silently wondered if she'd learned and honed from my example. "It's a chance to let outsiders take a look at the reactor and confirm that the company still does worthwhile work."
"I don't care if the whole damn federal government thinks we're about to take over, I really—" I staggered to my feet. "—don't remember signing off on that." I gave her a hard glare. Ever since I'd taken up the Iron Man thing and the media had found out, Pepper'd been acting a bit off…like she was trying to pay me back for the stress. Fight fire with fire.
And damn her, she knew how I didn't really have the patience for teenagers.
"I did," she said, clutching her clipboard to her chest, "and you're not getting out of it."
The sound of the safety being clicked off on the commando woman's gun brought me back to the present: my darkened bedroom at two o'clock in the morning. Where're the alarms? I wondered. Maybe Jarvis tripped the silent ones.
"Get up, Stark," the woman ordered gruffly, directing me out of bed with the muzzle of her gun.
Alright. So she was the worst thing out of this picture.
Not bothering to throw back the covers, I raised my hands above my head and slipped out of bed, standing up slowly. C'mon, Jarvis, I thought. Was my A.I. system even operational?
"Lights," I called out nervously, shaking away fuzzy, pain-infused memories of capture in the Middle East as my fingers interlocked behind my head.
The kid, John, gave me my only answer. "Not tonight."
So he disabled Jarvis. Should have known. I swallowed a lump in my throat as the woman's eyes roved over the small arc reactor in my chest that was keeping me alive. This picture just kept getting bleaker and bleaker by the minute.
"What's going on here?" I asked, trying to summon at least an ounce of the commando woman's gravelly bark. My voice, however, cracked. Damn.
"ARO has to go," said the woman in a powerful whisper, the whisper of someone who'd seen too much death and destruction to ever smile a real smile again. Every word that passed her lips sent shivers up my arms, drove chills down my spine.
I swallowed another lump. Though something told me I shouldn't be making any of my usual quirky remarks in the face of this danger, I did it anyway with a mental shrug that lacked any trace of instinctual self-preservation. Old habits died hard. "That right?"
She pumped the sawed-off to take a shot. The shot. I closed my eyes. This is it. I survive extended capture at the hands of terrorists, I nearly get killed by my right-hand man, and I end up getting a bullet in my head by some hot chick named…I squinted. She had on an identification badge of some variety or other. Sarah.
Guess it was bound to happen one of these days.
I opened an eye. Mom? I thought absently. The kid leapt forward and shoved the gun downward. That's his mom?
In either anger or surprise (it was hard to tell which with this woman), Sarah squeezed the trigger. The slug ended up lodged in the wall behind me, making a nice little hole…which was definitely better than it blowing a not-so-nice little hole in my head.
John looked his mother in the eye, struggling to make sure that the gun remained aimed toward the ground. "If we don't tell him and you kill him, it'll be a lot harder to stop ARO." The whole statement breezed out of the kid's mouth on one breath. His mother attempted to pull out of his grip (and I braced again for the shot that would scatter my brain all over the room), but he bravely tightened his hands around the sawed-off. "A lot, Mom," he breathed, his chest rising and falling more rapidly than before. I imagined that stopping and keeping Sarah…whoever she was from shooting somebody wasn't the easiest task in the world.
Her eyes darted back and forth from his to mine, and I could see a train of thought wheeling out of the station behind her eyes. It was picking up speed exponentially, chugging toward her decision on my fate and weighing the options: kill me for whatever it was I'd done—which was apparently related to the creation of ARO—or try and talk me out of…and this was only a wild guess…giving ARO control of the arc reactor.
Let it be that last one, let it be that last one, I'll do whatever the hell you want me to do, Sarah, but please let it be that last one.
She gave a stiff nod, looking away from her son. He let the sawed-off's barrel go, and I held my breath. Please, please, please, please don't kill me. Please. There was no light in the room except that from the moonlight dancing on the murky Pacific, but even so, I strained my eyes scrutinizing every inch of Sarah's dimly visible skin for a sudden tensing of muscles. I waited for her to whirl around in those heavy boots that made clunking noises whenever she moved, bringing her gun to bear on me in the same sweeping motion.
John and I let our breaths go at once, and we stared each other in the eye for a long moment. I was too afraid to speak for fear of bringing down my already imminent doom upon myself. The kid didn't seem too keen on speech, himself, but he took a breath anyway. "What would you say if I told you computers were going to take over the world?"
"Computers?" I spluttered. The idea of computers taking over the world wasn't exactly part of the everyday thoughts that passed through the brilliant mind of one Tony Stark, but I couldn't say that I'd never given the idea some thought. I myself had created—at least, on a certain level—thinking computers. Those computers had a strong set of rules and were programmed to follow them to a fault, sure…but they did think.
"A computer, I should say."
Yes, I thought, because that definitely lessens the severity of the notion.
His mother shuffled her feet restlessly, and I jumped at the sudden clunk, clunk that would've been too soft to cause worry in any other situation. John cleared his throat, nodding as if the sound were his cue to go on. "A computer takes over the world and eliminates most of mankind in a nuclear assault. The same computer creates multiple killing robots, cybernetic organisms, for one purpose: getting rid of any humans who survived. A small band of survivors forms a resistance and fights the computer, its agents. What would you say?"
"I'd…say you've been watching way—" I laughed breathlessly. "—too much science fiction, kid."
He flashed a smile devoid of any shared amusement and half-turned toward the door. "You can come in now," he called out, not raising his voice.
There's someone else with them? My eyes widened. Who else could they have brought?
A girl who couldn't have been older than twenty-two strode into the bedroom, an AK-47 in her grip. John met her at the door and flipped on the lights; Sarah threw a detached, disinterested look over her shoulder. The girl looked perfectly normal at first glance…and yet, there was something about the way she held herself. Stiff. Her walk belonged to a staunch, middle-aged four star general, not a twenty-two year old young woman with a slightly admirable figure.
"Show him," said John, nodding his head at me. The girl's eyes drifted toward me, and she bent her head at an angle that probably wouldn't have been comfortable to maintain for more than a few seconds. Then, neck straight, she caught my gaze.
Her eyes flashed from brown to glowing blue.
"Holy shit!" I yelled, stumbling backward in pure surprise. That's not human. A few seconds passed before I realized that Sarah, from her place at the window, had her eyes trained on me. I returned my hands to my head.
"The computer I mentioned? ARO. It created her," said John.
"She's a robot?" The words were falling out of my mouth before I could stop them, now. This was all too much. ARO? Nuclear genocide? Cyborgs? Freaky gorgeous chicks with flashing blue eyes?
He nodded. "For some reason, ARO—as hooked into the worldwide web and government security systems as it became by itself—got angry and decided to eradicate the human race. It created her…and others like her."
"So why hasn't she killed—"
The phone on my bedside table rang. Sarah stalked over to it, and I winced. Who could be calling me at two o'clock in the morning?
"Stark Industries," she said. I turned halfway toward her, and she pointed to the phone with her gun. "Answer it."
My heart racing, I walked the few steps to the phone and, hand shaking, picked up the receiver. I almost dropped it. "Hello?"
"Mr. Stark! It's ARO, he's gone crazy, he's—"
I didn't hear most of the technician's fervid exclamations. A bright streak soared through the sky and exploded. Several more followed, and the look in John Connor's eyes was one of utter, knowing horror. I blinked, pressing my eyes shut for a moment. What the hell? Those streaks were missiles; I knew that from my years as an arms manufacturer. They were missiles, and they were coming from company headquarters.
"It's too late," John murmured. "We're too late."
When I opened my eyes, I was lying in my bed with a very confounded Pepper standing over me. Panting, I sat up straight, not going to the trouble of pulling up the sheets to cover my bared chest. I looked around quickly. The sun was shining, the world wasn't in ruins, and no crazy commando women with guns were standing around my bedroom.
It, the sudden judgment day, had been a dream.
"Tony, are you okay?"
I rubbed my eyes. Sure was one hell of a dream.
"Tony." I felt Pepper's hand on my shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Okay? My computer wasn't launching an attack to vaporize the human race. The world was safe. Yes, this had to meet Pepper's definition of "okay." I nodded slowly.
She heaved a heavy sigh of relief. "Good. You've got a meeting with the team leaders that've been assigned to help develop a working arc reactor at ten. You were going to tell them about your idea for the computer, too, weren't you?" Pepper nonchalantly glanced over her clipboard, pushing a renegade strand of red hair behind her ear. "ARO?"
The name made my heart crash through the floor. ARO. I gave Pepper a fearful look and fell back onto my bed. "No," I murmured quietly, Sarah and John Connor's faces burning in my mind as brightly as if they'd been real. "No, I wasn't."
Huh. Hope you enjoyed that. I'm glad that, in lieu of ideas for the final chapter of Irreplaceable, Tony cooperated.
Reviews are appreciated.--MJSkywalker