Coda: Heart of Darkness

"Master, Dr. Sterns wishes to speak to you," a well-dressed man said hesitantly in but a whisper, not wishing to disturb his master and employer. As it was, the room's blinds had been drawn, the only light emanating from candles that lined the large stone desk that sat off center in the room. It usually signified that the occupant of the room was meditating, and he could be most harsh with those that dared to interrupt. But, this was quite urgent. Urgent enough to interrupt with impunity, at least the servant hoped so.

The man behind the desk turned around slowly in his grand leather chair, facing the two men that now stood in his office. He opened almond-shaped eyes, piercing blue-black coming to rest on the two interlopers of his inner sanctum. He was not pleased with the progress of the bio-scientist, although even he had to admit that Sterns had his uses. Useful enough to keep around even given the less than acceptable progress. "Leave us, Chu."

The servant bowed sharply, and left without looking back, infinitely glad to not face the wrath of his master.

"I am displeased, Sterns," the man at the desk said, stroking his immaculately kept beard. Looking intently at the doctor he frowned dispassionately. The man turned monster never ceased to turn his stomach. Not simply because of his frightful appearance, but because of his character. Though not of his own intention, the thing that Sterns now was horrific.

The gamma exposure that had turned Sterns into the brilliant, yet demented, scientist had twisted his body as well. His skin was green, and what hair he had had on his hair had fallen out. More grotesquely, the doctor's cranium had expanded immensely, and instead of a smooth head, it now showed bulbous curls and ridges as if his brain had pushed past his skull.

"There was nothing that I could do," Dr. Sterns retorted, meeting the man's gaze with glowing green eyes. He was not afraid of his employer as the lackeys might; he knew that he was too valuable to simply toss aside. "It is not my fault that you could not keep better security. That Tony Stark and Dr. Banner managed to find the base you established is your own doing, not mine."

"They would never have been looking if you had not insisted on letting your…abominations out," the man responded, frowning deeper. The impudence of the doctor was annoying as well.

Dr. Sterns smirked. "You were the one that wanted field tests. What better test than against the original? Besides, it provided me with valuable data on which to enhance the next generation that I am developing."

The man at the desk did not show his contempt. The doctor was, after all, the preeminent researcher in the field of gamma radiation and its enhancing effects upon life. "I expect that these setbacks will not further delay your work?"

The doctor shook his ponderous head. "Of course not. The results have been quite…illuminating. Project M.O.D.O.K. will be completed on schedule. You have my assurances."

With a wave of a ringed hand, the man at the desk dismissed his chief scientist, turning around once again. After the doctor had left, he pressed a button on the console that was embedded in a chair arm, the candles turning themselves off. With the press of another button, the blinds pulled up, showing him the bright city view before him. He had seen it many times before, and had seen it change and expand over decades. Still, it was only in the last few years that it had changed so rapidly.

Zhang Tong stood up and strode to the window, hands clasped behind his back, his five thousand dollar suit hanging exquisitely. It had been little more than a year since Hong Kong had been handed over to its rightful owners, though he had yet to see any major differences. He had mixed feelings about that, having no love for either the British or the Communist Chinese.

As it was, the business of Mandarin Enterprises was still done in English, and while there were additional regulations, things were still very British in their way. But, that would change. Soon.


The large workshop was lit brightly from above with fluorescent lights, thick metal walls protecting it from the outside world, as well as preventing the outside world from intruding. The buzzing of the fixtures blended with the humming of large computers and whirring of ventilation fans that kept the room as cool and clean as possible. Despite all that, the sole man in the room was sweating despite the tank top that he wore.

Grunting, he dropped the soldering iron that he was using back into the cradle, twisting around and tapping a few buttons on a keyboard. A screen flashed, running through a systems check to ensure that the part that he had just connected was routed to the control mechanism. The lights flash green, only eliciting a grunt of approval from the muscular African-American man that had sat hunched over long enough to develop a cramp in his back.

"Lieutenant Colonel," a voice said from across the room, the door sliding shut with a loud thud.

The man that was currently sitting at his workbench turned around, looking at the person that had just interrupted his work. "Sir."

Director Fury could tell a lot from that one word. There was respect, mixed with resentment, some anger, as well as disappointment. It was nothing new. "Rhodey, what's the word?"

The man stood, stretching his back and feeling it crack. He had been working most of the day without a break and was starting to feel it. "I just finished connecting the last of the repulsors to the frame. Once I get it attached to the rest of the armor, we can start on the avionics software and the control systems. The rest should just be a matter of welding."

It had taken quite a bit of time simply to get the parts necessary to complete the armor. And even more just to make it useable, not even to the level of making it a force to be reckoned with such as Tony's armor, but just so that it could be made to walk. The bulk of the design had come from Stane's stolen documents, the parts that they had recovered from his knock-off suit, and what they knew of Tony's armor from his time working with SHIELD. Unbeknownst to Tony, Nick had managed to divert most of the wreckage and had even managed to appropriate the mini-arc reactor from Stane's suit, which now sat squarely in the heart of Project: War Machine.

The repulsors had been significantly harder to acquire. Marine and special forces combat teams had combed the Middle East for advanced Stark-designed weaponry, most of it having been destroyed or used, but a few of the remaining Jericho missiles had been captured intact. They had been shipped back to the States and stripped down to their base components. With Star Industries keeping tight control over the proprietary technology, it was the only source for repulsors left.

Still, the completed armor would have a number of improvements over the one that "Iron Man" was using. Instead of the gold titanium alloy of the Mark III, the new completely government-controlled armor would be plated with a carbondanium titanium alloy that, while much heavier, would provide much more protection against weapons fire.

"How are the weapons systems going to affect the flight profile?" Fury asked, looking over at the completed sections of the suit. It had taken most of the year to get this far, and he was glad that Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes had proven to be such an adept engineer. He had expected it though, given that the Air Force officer had earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering from the same university that Tony Stark had.

Rhodey frowned a little, walking over to a couple of wooden crates that rested next to the main workbench. Stamped on the containers was the logo of Hammer Industries, the government's main supplier of advanced weaponry now that Stark was out of the game. "We managed to get a couple of prototypes that should work, and some other stuff. 7.62mm depleted uranium caseless Gatling gun, and a six pack mini-missile launcher with programmable warheads. The arms are going to be equipped with a machine gun, 5.56mm armor-piercing, and a 12 gauge shotgun. Not to mention some defensive weapons that the techs managed to whip up. All that weight, the armor's going to weigh a ton. Not to mention that with the less than aerodynamic shape it's going to be slow as hell, and turn like a Mack truck."

The suit wouldn't be capable of using the repulsors as offensive weapons either. The damage that had been done to the arc reactor had drastically decreased its efficiency and power generating capabilities, limiting it to powering the suits flight and command and control systems. And with Tony certainly not going to be willing to supply a new unit to the secret project, it had necessitated the need for more self-powered weaponry.

"Which is why we loaded up on armor," Fury mentioned, taking a look at the armor plating that rested on a few other tables. They were inches thick, and expensive as hell. The six million dollar man this was not. More like the sixty million dollar man.

"Yeah." Rhodes turned to look at the rest of the suit, resting upon a stand. It was grey and black in color, a mix of paint and the underlying metal shell. The armor plating hadn't even been added on top of it yet. It would be much bulkier than the Mark III, though it followed the red and gold suit's same general form. The face mask of the helmet seemed to frown at him knowingly, its unlighted eye sensors seeming to stare at him in accusation. "I don't like it, sir."

Nick didn't respond. It was a complaint that Rhodes had voiced a number of times before. Not without merit though. "I know."

"He's going to find out," Rhodes said again, leaning against the table. He wiped some sweat from his brown.

Nick just shook his head. "He'll get over it. We have our orders."

"I don't know," Rhodes said, frowning himself. They all had their orders. He wanted his shot at a suit, and this was the only way. But, he had doubts. "I just don't know."


Xander watched the television screen flicker and glow. He couldn't understand what the newscaster was saying, but he got the idea that it was about something violent and nasty. The garish graphic that they were using indicated that it was related to gang activity in and around Charming, and that there had been a few deaths. He frowned at that.

"What's wrong?" Buffy asked, noticing that Xander was engrossed by the television in the window of the electronics store.

Xander didn't say anything for a moment, but turned when the news item was over. "Nothing, probably. My uncle lives in Charming."

"Oh," Scott said, not really knowing what relatives Xander had. They hadn't really talked, even if he was officially part of the group. He knew now that Xander had superpowers too like Buffy did, even though he wasn't quite sure what that entailed. Xander tended to keep to the people that he had brought with him, though he did hang out with Willow and Buffy. That both girls now had boyfriends meant that Xander wasn't always around in the off-hours. "I'm sure he's okay."

"Yeah," Xander said, glancing away. A part of his mind tickled at him, remembering the tough customers that he had seen his uncle hang out with. But, that was a long time ago.

"Anyway, I hear that that Wesley guy is going to be coming back," Buffy went on, talking to Scott as they stood on the sidewalk. A few people passed by, none taking a second look, though Buffy kept her voice quiet. "He's going to be co-Watcher with Giles. Supposed to help keep things organized."

The Slayer's face made it clear what her opinion on the subject was. Then again, it could have been worse. The Council could have called for Giles' replacement. But, that idea hadn't occurred to the young woman, at least not seriously.

Xander ignored the pair, watching a pretty redheaded woman walk down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. It was probably nothing, but when he had glanced over he could have sworn that she had been watching them. She turned the corner though, and was soon gone from sight.

Shrugging it off, Xander turned back around, noticing that Willow had rejoined the group from the store that she had ducked into to use the restroom.


Cruising down the side of the road, the teenage Korean–American boy hummed along to the song that was playing in his headphones. He was pretty happy after all. It was the first day of school and things were going well. The classes were all pretty boring, a testament to how smart he was, but it was okay. He had a few friends that made things interesting, and though life could be pretty sedate in suburban Utah, there wasn't much to be unhappy about.

He had even placed first in Excello Soap Company's "Brain Fight" Internet game show. He had scored higher than anyone ever had, by a significant margin. The reward money would be pretty useful too. He had a lot of ideas bouncing around in his head that cried out for funding.

Slowing his scooter down as he reached his house, he stepped off of it just as the two-story home exploded into chunks of wood and fire. He was thrown to the ground by the overpressure, scraping himself on the asphalt. Groaning, he got up as quickly as he could, looking at the pile of debris and smoke that used to be his home. Tears flowed down his face as he scanned it, glowing equations and calculations appearing in his view as he saw temperatures and joules and newtons.

There was no way that anybody could have survived it.

His mind moved into overdrive, replaying what had just happened, knowing that it had been no accident. The way that the explosion had occurred was no gas build-up, and did not display the signature of any accidental detonation. The blast had been meant for him. Either it had been meant to kill him, or had been done to knock him off balance enough to capture him. Whoever had been responsible, they had no problems with killing innocent people to get to him. And his parents and little sister were gone as a result.

Hearing helicopters and sirens, the boy pulled his dinged Vespa scooter up and started the motor, thankfully hearing it rumble into life. Taking one last look behind, the boy wiped his eyes. There was nothing left for him here. The sounds of the authorities, or worse, grew louder as Amadeus Cho rode as fast as he could away from his life.


Author's Note: In an informal poll, what would be a good balance between existing Buffy characters and throwing in Marvel/other universe characters? A quick look at the cast chart I made seems to indicate that there are more non-Buffy characters than Buffy characters, although that's slightly misleading since they don't necessarily have huge roles. Speaking of which, I'm going to have to update that before too long. That said, SAMCRO will play a larger role in the next story as alluded to in the previous chapter.

Anyway, any thoughts and reviews would be appreciated. Thanks.