Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Yeah, okay. There really isn't an explanation for this one. Let's just say that chatting with Cincoflex produces some interesting ideas. She came up with some of the best lines in this story. And graciously gave permission for their use.
Please do not call me on the science. I know the seams show, but the two universes don't fit exactly. Many thanks to Amonitrate for mentioning the Disney/Marvel Mash-Up Meme, Jamaillith for hosting it, Wabbitseason for having the same weird idea, and Sairobi for the last line!
It hadn't been a missile this time, he'd even been on his feet. But the exploding...power plant? factory? he hadn't been able to find out--unleashed a crackling storm of energy that moved too fast to dodge.
It hit him like a kick from a mule--and that wasn't an analogy, he'd taken one once, but that was a long and sordid college story--and he felt himself flying back. But he blacked out before he landed.
Waking was, as usual, a pain in the ass. And the head, and the ribs. Something's not right--
Tony opened his eyes with a gasp, realizing that his armor was gone. He'd been hit that hard once before, so hard that Jarvis had steered him home before he'd managed to wake, but while whatever he was lying on was reasonably soft, it sure as hell wasn't his bed.
Tony lifted his head, blinking blearily. Definitely not my bed. And no Pepper, either, hovering nearby.
In fact, he didn't recognize his surroundings at all. He lay in a small depression in a sea of cloudy, dirty white that climbed a yard or two to a gray horizon.
A faint chilly breeze ruffled his hair, and Tony realized he was outside.
Groaning, he started to roll over, and nearly jumped out of his skin at the crackles and pops the movement generated. The sound was, unexpectedly, familiar.
It's bubble wrap?
The thought was incredulous, but he peered at the yielding surface beneath him and realized it was true.
I'm lying on a mountain of bubble wrap.
Dirty, dusty bubble wrap, at that. Tony sat up slowly and waited out the obligatory headrush before taking stock. Nothing felt seriously damaged, and he was still wearing his neoprene suit liner, at least. But there was no sign of his armor, or his enemies, or for that matter anything familiar. Except bubble wrap.
Tony opened his mouth to shout, then snapped it shut again. Could be anyone out there.
Or no one, and that was almost more frightening.
He had a zillion questions--most notably, where the hell was he and how did they, whoever they were, get him out of the armor--but there were no answers immediately to hand. Tony stretched cautiously and took another look around, but nothing had changed. Bubble wrap, gray sky. That was it.
He grimaced, and started crawling. The resultant snap, crackle and pop scuttled any hope of stealth, but no one came charging over the plastic crest, so Tony kept going. The dirt at least gave him a little traction, though the surface beneath him had an alarming tendency to dip.
He didn't so much as achieve the lip of his little valley as bring it down to him, and the view beyond was dishearteningly more of the same, but Tony spotted a depression of sorts that seemed to lead down and away. It was as good as a path.
He slithered and slid, popping all the way, too busy watching his speed and balance to look up or far ahead. So when the mountain came to an end and his feet found semi-solid purchase on some kind of multicolored gravel, the view that greeted Tony when he raised his head was a blow.
Armageddon was his first thought, given the sheer desolation of the landscape. All he could see were hills, similar to the one behind him, building-sized heaps of objects under that cloudy sky. No movement, no signs of life at all.
Tony blinked, started to rub his eyes, and then stopped when he noticed the grime coating his fingers. He took another, longer look.
Okay, not so much with the end of the world. More like the world's biggest dump. The mounds surrounding him seemed to be made out of trash. Some of it was sorted by type--the heap just to the left of the bubble-wrap hill was made of tomato paste cans--while others were jumbles of miscellaneous junk.
But, Tony realized, there was no reek of rot, no flies, no gulls sailing the sky. The fitful breeze smelled of metal and old plastic, rust and dust.
He shuddered, chilled more by the realization than the wind. The dump was...old.
Tony scanned his surroundings more carefully. The organization of some of the mounds spoke of intelligence at work at some point, and his eyes narrowed as he considered. Whoever did the sorting can't have been gone too long, or the piles would have started to collapse.In fact, the heaps were separated by narrow lanes clear of all but the gravel.
He dropped to one knee, wincing at the usual bruises, and scooped up a handful. It wasn't actually rock, he realized as he peered at it; it was miniscule pieces of plastic and metal, ground down to nearly anonymous size. The pieces weren't uniform, and their edges were mostly smooth. Old, Tony confirmed. Not machined; this is the result of erosion.
Whether the erosion was caused by weather or by something else, Tony didn't know. He dropped the handful and grunted upright again, automatically wiping his hands on his thighs. If this place is abandoned, it hasn't been for long.
It remained to be seen whether the dump's sorters were a threat. Tony grimaced; without his armor he was both weaponless and nearly defenseless. Time to change that.
He picked his way gingerly out onto the wider path between rows of heaps; the neoprene covering his feet offered a little protection against the trash on the ground, but he didn't want to slice it open on something sharp, and he added shoes to the mental list he was automatically compiling, right after water and food. Weapons was still at the top of it, though.
Tony paced slowly along the lane, straining every sense. There was still no sound besides the intermittant breeze and the scrunch of his feet on the gravel, and the occasional rustle and clink from the piles he passed as something slipped or settled. It was deeply unnerving, and his muscles were pulled so taut they ached.
He left the cans and the bubble wrap behind, and checked each heap as he passed, looking for something that would make a half-decent club. One pile of assorted junk held several lengths of wood, but when he tugged gingerly on one the entire heap rustled, and Tony backed hurriedly away, afraid of bringing the mountain down onto his head.
Two heaps down, however, he found both a sturdy pipe and a length of chain; the latter even had a rusty weight on one end, that might once have been a padlock. Tony swung them experimentally, and grinned coldly. They'll do until I can find something better.
Already his mind was turning over the possibilities presented by the trash. He'd seen several electronic devices already, and those meant wire; and with wire and his chest piece, he had power. It remained to be seen what he could do with that power, but it was better than nothing.
And thinking about what he could do kept him distracted from what had already happened. Tony loved the inexplicable, as a general rule; it meant a challenge, at least until he figured out how to explain it. But waking up in an environment he'd never heard of, with his armor gone, was a puzzle that would have to keep for the moment. He had an uneasy feeling that the answer wasn't going to be something he'd like.
The breeze picked up, gusting more strongly, and it began to smell like moisture. Tony glanced warily up at the sky, but the clouds overhead seemed full only of water; there was no flicker of lightning, and no grumble of thunder. Within moments, a thin rain began to fall.
Tony turned his face up into it, enjoying the coolness against his battle-sweated skin, but then yelped and leapt for the nearest heap of miscellaneous junk. Water, dumbass!
It took frantic minutes of scrambling to locate something to hold liquid, and he had to discard the first two finds due to some disgusting residues on the bottoms, but the third was a prize--an ancient plastic container, yellow with sun and age but whole enough. Tony set it the strengthening drizzle, looking hopefully up at the sky and blinking droplets from his lashes.
It wasn't raining hard enough to make opening his mouth worthwhile, but he kept licking his lips to collect what moisture he could as he hunted for another container. Fortunately, the rain was only chilly, and his liner kept him warm enough if not comfortable. He found two more before the rain slackened, but they had barely collected any water by the time it ceased.
He drank off what he had. Without a lid, he'd lose it to evaporation or contamination, and anyway he needed the free hand at the moment. But he made a mental note to look for a bottle of some kind.
Tony managed to find a plastic bag that wasn't worn to shreds for his makeshift bowls, and kept walking. At one point, the piles ceased, becoming a tangled sea of junk, but the path persisted, so he followed it. Unfortunately, it didn't stick to a straight line; between its twists and the occasional crossroad, he was lost fairly quickly.
It didn't matter, he told himself. Whatever had snatched him from that burning factory and dumped him here was clearly not located in the bubblewrap cushion he'd left behind. He did his best to ignore the superstitious desire to stay near it. The key to survival was finding resources, for starters.
He still couldn't see the sun behind the clouds, but the light was beginning to fade. Time to hole up for the night. This was no place to wander about in the dark.
It was hard to see very far ahead, but a new shape had appeared on what little horizon there was--something blocky and regular that looked, to Tony, like office buildings or some other kind of highrise. He decided that it would be better to approach it in the morning.
It took a bit of hunting to find a place that felt secure enough to settle in--secure being a very fluid term at the moment, Tony thought grimly, but despite the fact that he'd seen no signs of life at all he wanted to at least put his back against something solid. In the end he settled for what looked like the mutated remains of a grocery cart, metal mesh dull with dirt but still strong. It was already on its side; Tony poked around and found enough larger bits of plastic and metal to pile around it that nothing bigger than a rat could sneak up on him from behind. More decaying plastic softened the makeshift floor slightly, and he pulled himself into it, facing outward into the gathering dark and fighting creeping panic.
It didn't matter that he'd found nothing threatening. There could be, almost literally, anything out there, and he had no more defense than a metal stick and a length of chain he couldn't even swing in such close quarters. They seemed laughable against whatever might be out there in the--
--Dark. Tony looked down at his chest piece, whose glow was becoming more noticeable as the night strengthened. It was comforting, in its own way, the light an ancient defiance against the dark, but it also made him way too visible. Sighing, he fumbled with the plastic bag until it blocked the radiance away.
And then he braced himself in his little cave, pipe across his lap and his hand on its end, and waited for the boogeyman, or morning.
Thirst woke Tony--that, and the insistence of his bladder. He flinched as consciousness returned, gasping involuntarily, but no threat met his eyes when he looked wildly around--just the same trash-laden vista of the night before, now gilded slightly by early sun.
Fuck. I was hoping it was a dream.
He was stiff with chill and bruises when he pushed himself out of his den, but the neoprene had kept him warm enough. Tony found a corner of a pile to relieve himself, and then gathered up his treasures and went forth to find out if there was any more water.
The sun was a welcome change, at least for the moment; it made the world look a little brighter, though it barely pierced the cloud cover. Tony hoped that it wasn't going to get hot, though; in his undersuit he was a walking solar collector. And I already smell pretty funky as it is.
He poked through a few of the closer heaps without finding anything drinkable. Underneath his search was the running refrain of wondering, still, just what had happened to him, and how worried Pepper and Rhodey had to be by then. Jarvis would have reported me missing--I think--
Though given the mystery of how he'd appeared where he had, Tony wasn't entirely sure that Jarvis was even capable of figuring out what had happened.
I wish I had him here. The wave of longing was mostly practical--if nothing else, the AI made a great sounding board for brainstorming--but it was also a bit wistful. Even Jarvis' voice would be good to hear, there where the only sound was the wind and his own footsteps.
Gradually Tony made his way down the winding path towards the building-type objects. They had the sun behind them, so they were hard to make out, but when the path opened up suddenly into a huge cleared space Tony stopped and peered across it.
And felt his augmented heart sink in disappointment.
They weren't buildings. At least, they weren't any kind of building he'd ever seen. There were no doors or windows; they were monoliths, built of big multicolored blocks, looking at this distance--about two football fields' worth, he estimated--like they were covered in mosaic.
Sighing, Tony stepped out into the open space, which was floored with the same artificial gravel as the paths. And started violently as something squealed.
Tony spun to his left, raising his bar in quick defense. Staring back at him was what he immediately recognized as a robot, though not one he'd ever seen before--half his height, boxy, with binocular sensors and cabled grippers. Tony braced himself for--anything--but the robot squeaked in what sounded like dismay, dropped its stalked sensors down to its body, and scooted away from him as fast as its treads could carry it.
Astonished, Tony watched it go, absently noting the efficiency of its locomotion. The robot was giving every evidence of a fear reaction, but whoever had programmed it hadn't given it the instincts to go with, because it was zipping straight out into the open space rather than taking to the heaps where it had a chance of losing pursuit.
The thing slowed as it got about fifty yards away, circling around to look back at him. It looked completely unthreatening, and Tony felt himself grinning--it was so much like a high-speed version of Dummy when the 'bot had screwed something up that he felt his wariness slip away. "Hey," he called over the intervening space. "Hey, I won't hurt you."
The robot's sensors rose on their stalk again, and Tony could all but feel the weight of its scan. Sticking the bar under one arm, he held up both hands in a gesture of benevolence. "See? I'm one of the good guys."
The robot chirped uncertainly, and Tony started walking slowly towards it, talking more to keep the flow of words going than because he thought the thing understood. "Definitely one of the good guys, I'm a superhero, you know...it says so on the ID card. Which of course I don't have, left it in my armor, but you know, what can I do to you when you can move that fast..."
The robot watched him approach, burbling in a low mechanical tone, and it started to back up when he got within ten yards, so Tony halted. "No, no, it's okay. Really."
He felt like he was coaxing a stray dog. The robot rolled back and forth, the picture of indecision, and Tony didn't move. Gradually it started to edge forward, and Tony lowered his hands and let it approach, taking note of its chassis as it came. It was slightly rusty and very dirty, although the sensors it carried above its body were clean; it wasn't a design he was familiar with. The front seemed to have a hatch of some kind, though what it was for he didn't know; the arms terminated in clever grippers, and Tony was willing to bet that the appendages could be swapped out for something else if necessary.
Finally the robot halted in front of him. Tony held still, not wanting to scare it off; it looked him up and down and back up, and then reached out with one arm and--
--Poked him. Right on the knee.
The action was so utterly juvenile that Tony was startled into a laugh. The robot squealed again, this time on a softer note, and snatched its arm back; but then gradually extended it and poked him again.
Tony laughed once more, and the robot seemed to brighten. It began poking him faster, clearly trying to evoke more laughter, but the jabs were starting to hurt, so Tony bent down and grabbed the arm gently. "Okay, that's enough."
The robot clucked, and raised itself on its treads to bring its sensors a little higher. Tony noted with fascination that the treads themselves were capable of altering shape. I wonder how it does that? Could be a lot of use--
He shook the arm gently-- "Hi, I'm Tony--" and let it go cautiously, but the poking did not resume. Instead the robot backed away a few feet, turned to face one side of the open space, and trilled at a volume loud enough to make Tony wince.
"What--" he started, but a return chorus of trills interrupted, and Tony turned himself to see dozens of copies of the little robot pouring out from between the trash heaps and motoring in their direction. They looked like nothing so much as a bunch of kindergartners let out for recess, and Tony shook his head.
"Why am I suddenly reminded of Ewoks? Yes, hello," he added as the first wave reached him. None of them jabbed him, but Tony suffered himself to be patted, stroked, tugged, and lightly prodded. The absence of malice was palpable.
Eventually the frenzy died down somewhat. Tony regarded the mob; the little robots were never still, and they seemed to be communicating to a degree with one another, chirping and squeaking. It was terribly inefficient, he thought. Why the hell aren't they using radio, at the very least?
The ebb of adrenaline brought back the consciousness of his dry throat. "It was nice to meet you all," he told them, "but I need a drink like you wouldn't believe, and weirdly enough--like this isn't weird already--I'd settle for water."
Tony regarded the robots, only about a third of which seemed to be paying attention to him any more. "Somebody had to create you," he muttered, then raised his voice. "Take me to your leader?"
None of them responded to his question, and Tony sighed, not surprised. He estimated their intelligence as substantially lower than that of his own 'bots, charming as these were; they obviously had audio sensors of some kind, but he didn't think they were capable of understanding him.
"It's been fun," he told them, picked a direction more or less at random, and started walking.
The mob trilled, eddied, and dissolved, with most of the robots scooting off towards the junk heaps, but Tony found himself with an interested escort of five, rolling along with him like a very short entourage.
"I wonder what Pepper would make of you," he said, and then bit his cheek against a sudden rush of loneliness.
As Tony neared the heaps, he saw several of the robots moving around its base, and paid more attention. He was surprised to see each one's hatch open to reveal a cavity; the robot would scoop junk into itself, close back up, and a moment later disgorge a block of compressed trash. It then picked the block up and zipped away to the pseudo-buildings. It wasn't hard to discern that the big objects were made of the bricks.
Rolling trash compactors. Huh. That seemed inefficient as well, and he wondered how they handled larger objects, but the questions were less urgent than finding something to drink.
It took him hours. There were no signposts in the junkyard, and the ground was flat; Tony was reduced to just walking and looking, conscious of his empty stomach under the now-tearing thirst, and as the sun climbed higher he begrudged every drop of sweat that rose out of his skin. He was seriously considering looking for unbroken bottles in the trash heaps on the very slight chance that the contents might somehow still be drinkable when he felt a faint coolness seeping through the neoprene covering his left foot.
Looking down, he saw a darker streak through the gravel, edging out from under the nearest junk heap. Galvanized, Tony dropped to his knees and started flinging trash out of his way, trying to find the source and praying it wasn't under the center of the enormous pile.
His escort had dropped to two over the course of the morning, but they joined in enthusiastically, chirping eagerly as they flanked him and helped. Junk flew everywhere, rattling and clanging and thwapping, and within minutes the three of them had uncovered a damp depression in the ground, a proto-puddle.
Tony stared desperately at it. He hadn't been so thirsty since escaping from the cave in Afghanistan, and that wasn't a memory he liked to revisit; but the spring, if that was what it was, was so shallow that he was going to be forced to lick the ground to obtain any moisture. And he wasn't quite that thirsty...yet.
Slowly the thought came clear. Springs...wells... You have to dig.
He jammed both hands into the muddy ground. There was no gravel here, just hard-packed earth, but the water had softened it a little. It was going to take a while, Tony realized, but then four clawed arms reached past him, and he found himself crowded backwards.
The little robots were amazing diggers. It took them less than two minutes to clear a hole the size of just one of them; and when he edged forward to peer down into it, water was already pooling at the bottom. Tony had to grin.
"Good boys," he said, and patted them both; his hands left muddy prints, but they were both so dirty that it was hardly noticeable. They purred at him, and Tony stood up and began looking for supplies to build a crude filter.
After fifteen more minutes, he had his filter rigged and the first water trickling into an old Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems mug. It was still not very clear, but Tony couldn't bring himself to care. No way to check for contaminants, but it can't be helped.
It was not only one of the most delicious things he'd ever tasted, it was even cold.
By sunset he'd found a cache of packets labeled "nu-ostrich jerky" in one of the heaps; he had no idea what a nu-ostrich was, but it seemed to be unspoiled and surprisingly edible. The Twinkies he turned up, however, were comfortingly familiar, and mostly undamaged. Tony sat on an overturned cooler and munched his finds peacefully. Sponge cake, cream filling...I always knew these things could survive anything.
His faithful escorts were still with him, but as the light faded they boxed themselves up, pulling in sensors and appendages until they looked like little Borg cubes--albeit Borg cubes that had gone through some really losing battles. Tony regarded them thoughtfully, curiosity stirring. Who programmed them? Where are they?
He looked up at the endless junkyard. How far does this go? And why isn't there any organic life?
None of the answers he could think of were appealing, but they were at least a distraction from the bigger question of what the fuck had happened to him and how he was supposed to reverse it.
If he could.
Sighing, Tony decided to leave the questions for tomorrow. Scavenging had brought him a tattered blanket and even an old jacket; the latter had probably belonged to a woman originally, judging by the pattern of paramecia all over it, but it was warm and it didn't even smell too bad.
Not that you're a rose yourself at the moment. He was used to going without a shower when he got involved in a project, but that didn't mean he enjoyed the smell when he came back to himself. But there wasn't much he could do at the moment, and anyway he was tired.
He pillowed his head on a sack of old plastic bags and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, but kept his weapons to hand just in case.
Tony dreamed of laptops. He woke stiff and aching but not cold, which was a material improvement over the previous morning; and he woke alone. Sitting up slowly, he looked around; it was early, but past dawn, and his little escorts were gone. But as he concentrated, he could hear faint sounds in the heaps around him, whirrs and squeaks and rustles. Guess they had to go to work, he thought, amused.
He breakfasted on more of last night's dinner and went back to his spring. It was a genuine pool by now, filled up and trickling over down the channel he'd cut more out of hope than anything else. Tony knelt by it and dipped up a drink; with time to settle, the water was much clearer, and while it had a metallic taste it was still good.
He contemplated it for a few minutes, thinking wistfully of a bath. I have power, if I had a tub, I could heat the water...hey, I wonder where the robots get their power? Not from any battery he was familiar with, that was for sure; did they go somewhere to plug in and recharge?
Diverted, he rose and went in search of them. This time, there was no alarm; he was greeted with enthusiastic chirps, and soon collected a small mob again. Examining them was hard, though; either his chosen robot wouldn't hold still, or it wanted to investigate him at the same time.
Finally one of them consented to be looked at, though it offered a running commentary. Tony did too, more out of fellow feeling than because it could understand him. "Yeah, raise your arms for me...they're way flexible, nice, are those ball joints?...Where do you keep your power source anyway?"
He couldn't find a battery, but he did find solar panels, and some kind of button control array on the top of the box, though Tony didn't push any. Yet.
Underneath the dirt and grit on the robot's front was some kind of logo; Tony brushed away the worst of it and squinted at the revealed image. "Wall E. Is that your name? Did they actually give you all some kind of designation?"
He reached for another robot, doing the same. "Maybe you're Wall F. Nope--guess not. Brand name, I suppose."
Tony sat back on his heels and regarded his interested circle of locals. "Maybe you all have serial numbers somewhere, but whatever. You--" He pointed. "Garbage in, garbage out--you're Gigo."
Soon there was Bit, Buffer, Pinout, ASCII, Peek, Poke, and Random, and various others. Tony wasn't sure he was going to be able to tell which one was which later, but since they didn't seem to know what a name was anyway, it didn't really matter. It's better than calling them all Hey You.
When he stood, they backed up slightly, regarding him in a fashion he could only call hopeful. Tony put his hands on his hips. "You can all go back to work now," he pointed out, with absolutely no effect. Shrugging, he looked over their heads. Today was vaguely sunny too, making him squint, and the garbage heaps seemed to go on forever.
He weighed the possibilities of exploration with the risk of getting lost; he could take water with him, but if he couldn't find his way back to its source he'd be in trouble. This place has to end somewhere...but it could be pretty big. He wished briefly for his suit, and an aerial view--
And gave himself a mental smack. Dumbass. Height! The huge blocks built from compressed trash were just a few heaps away; and unless the robots were climbers, which didn't seem at all likely, there had to a way up them.
And there was. When he got close enough, Tony saw the ramps winding neatly up around each structure. He eyed them, then shook his head. "Not without shoes." The blocks were even enough, but they weren't smooth; the neoprene covering his soles was already getting tattered.
Flip-flops ended up being easiest to find, though the pair didn't actually match; Tony cut away the neoprene around his ankles and wiggled his toes in the freedom before slipping on the footwear. Climbing the ramp on his chosen structure wasn't hard; the slope was reasonably shallow, and the path was wide enough for two robots to pass each other, as he discovered early on. His little group milled uncertainly when he started up, burbling to one another, but before he made it to the first turn at least six had caught up with him, a couple even passing him with mechanical ease. Three of them were carrying blocks.
Tony took it easy climbing; the ramp was wide, yes, but there wasn't even a lip on the open edge, and it was a long way up, even with the next ramp below. And flip-flops didn't provide the most secure footing. But he braced one hand carefully on the wall that rose next to him and kept going, watching the robots zip past and then down again, some of them business-intent and others clearly just along for the tour. At one point he glanced back to find four following him as though they were all in a parade, and he had to laugh.
Coming out on the top was a bit queasy-making; the structure had seemed stable enough while going up, but the roughness of the top and the way the edges simply dropped off wasn't something Tony was used to. But the view was worth the climb, and Tony turned around to look in every direction, carefully staying at least a couple of yards away from the edges. Wow. Has to be at least twenty stories. No wonder my legs ache.
His elation faded somewhat at the vistas spread out to the horizon. In every direction was nothing more than what he'd just climbed up from--heaps of trash, interrupted on occasion by other groups of structures. The land was flat, and Tony estimated that he could see for at least a couple of miles, but there was no sign of anything else.
It was depressing.
He sighed, and sat down to let his legs rest a little. The robots that had brought up bricks had placed them neatly in the center of the "roof", as if ready to build another layer, and scooted away; the others milled around a little uncertainly. One, slightly more battered than the others--Peek, he thought--opened up its solar panels and basked.
Finally Tony stood, stretching out various kinks, and whistled. "Ready to go?"
All the robots still with him gathered around, except for Peek. Tony headed for the ramp...and stopped. "Whoa."
It hadn't occurred to him, climbing, just how different it was going to be going back down, when the view included the very-far-below ground. The ramp seemed a whole lot narrower than it had when he'd gone up, and for a moment he had to fight back dizziness.
"Suck it up," he muttered to himself. "There's only one way down."
It was actually a longer journey down than up, and nerve-wracking. Tony found himself reaching for finger grips in the wall as he descended, carefully keeping his eyes from the view and scolding himself for the attack of acrophobia. You fly way higher than this on a regular basis. Don't be such a damned wimp.
But his suit kept him in the air, at least usually. Nothing was holding him up here but the building itself, which seemed a lot less stable than it had when he was climbing. Sure, if he fell off the edge, he'd hit the next ramp down, but it was still a drop of at least twenty feet--forty if he missed and hit the next one instead.
The robots shared no such fears, and went zipping past without any visible qualms, detouring easily around his slower self. They would disappear around a corner and then come back, chirping happily, and Tony watched them instead of the view to keep himself distracted. Occasionally one would come by with another block, heading up to build the structure higher, and it was one of those that hit the bad spot.
He just happened to be looking in the right direction at the time. Tony saw the robot jerk sideways, heard its whistle of alarm; before he could so much as draw in a breath, it tumbled out of sight over the edge, where the block it had been crossing had crumbled under its weight.
Tony found himself plastered up against the wall, back pressed to the uneven surface, panting. None of the other robots even paused at the descending shriek, or the succession of crunches from below.
It took him a long while to make himself go on, and he kept testing the stability of the floor he'd so blithely climbed before, wishing for a pole of some kind.
The feel of solid ground underfoot was a blessing. Tony walked back around the building until he found the fallen robot--hardly more than a dented can of parts. He crouched by it, poking gingerly at the pitiful little heap, but whatever power it might still hold was contained, and nothing zapped him. The rest of his escort surrounded him, looking on curiously, but they were watching him, not the destroyed robot.
He couldn't feel resentful. Whoever had programmed them had, quite rightly in Tony's mind, left out grief for a fallen comrade. In an environment as dangerous as the huge junkyard, destruction was pretty much inevitable.
Still, it gave him a pang. The robots were charming in their own clumsy way, and they were the only intelligence he'd found so far. Tony had to admit, in the privacy of his thoughts, that the place would be a lot more desolate without them.
He picked over the carcass for a while. The robot had a laser between its visual sensors, which he hadn't seen before; Tony detached it and looked it over, wondering how powerful it was and marveling at the size of it. If this isn't damaged...
Its chips were vaguely familiar, but most of the gearwork inside was too damaged for him to figure out. Tony gathered up the parts he wanted and stood with a certain reluctance. It seemed sad to leave the thing where it lay.
"Oh please," he scoffed to himself. "It wasn't even alive."
But to someone who had built sentient robots himself, and who was still surrounded by a handful of cheerful companions, the words rang hollow.
He trudged off towards his spring, consciously focusing on how he might get the laser to work.
One thing the trash had in plenty was wire, of all gauges. There wasn't much wood, oddly enough, but he did find one heap that was nothing but extremely scarred bookcases that looked like they'd come from a reform school library, and those made a nice blaze when he ran wires from his implant and generated a spark, using paper for tinder. An old metal drum served as a pot, and soon he had enough hot water for a sponge bath.
Soap was harder; in the end Tony had to settle for ancient dish soap, which didn't generate much foam but at least cut the grease. It was a bit weird to be watched during his bath, but he decided it was more because Dummy and Butterfingers didn't have any eyes, as it were. He had to laugh a little, wondering what his audience was making of the whole process. They didn't retreat when he splashed water at them, which pretty much confirmed his hypothesis that they were waterproof.
Tony washed his coverall too, and hung it up on a makeshift rack next to his fire, wrapping the blanket around his waist until it was dry enough to put back on, and sat on his cooler to think.
As he saw it, he had three choices. Try to figure out how he'd gotten where he was, and how to get back home again--clearly an impossible task; scavenge what supplies he could and try to walk out of the junkyard in hopes of something better beyond; or settle down where he was and make the best of things.
I always did like the impossible.
He picked up a shard of plastic, swept a span of ground clear of gravel, and started sketching in the dirt.
The laser proved quite useful, once he got it wired up; that took most of an afternoon. It was much more powerful than Tony had expected, and he wondered why Gigo hadn't used it on him when they'd first run into each other, but it seemed that aggression wasn't in the robots' programming. The laser did answer the question of how they dealt with larger objects, though; it was fascinating, and slightly scary, to watch one of them slice a rusty tractor into pieces.
Tony spent hours scavenging through the junk heaps, looking for circuit boards, switches, and various other things on his shopping list. He found a battered toy wagon to hold the stuff as he moved slowly along, though he had to chase the robots off a couple of times when they started plucking his finds out and examining them. Sometimes one would wander off and start working, but it was usually replaced by another soon enough, and he wondered whether it was their programming breaking down, or just that he was a variable never thought of. Not my problem.
When he stopped for a break and a drink of water, his current escort spread out a little, picking up things from the heaps and then discarding them, sometimes with awkward throws. They were imitating him, Tony realized; absorbing his search pattern. The notion amused him, until he saw ASCII--who had a distinctive pattern of scratches on its hatch cover--pulling back its arm to toss what looked to be a decent-sized CPU fan. "Hey, wait!"
His words didn't have an effect, but leaping up and waving did; ASCII turned to him with an interrogative burble. Tony strode over and took the fan from the robot's claw. "Yeah, this is just what I need! Are there any more?"
He scanned the heap, but didn't see any others. ASCII reached out and gently touched the fan in his hand, looking from the heap to Tony and back again, and Tony blinked. "You know...you could be a lot of help."
It took a few minutes to get the idea across, but pretty soon ASCII was digging happily through the trash, bringing items back to Tony to examine. Tony let him do it, accepting each one and discarding most of them as soon as ASCII had turned away, but every so often the robot found something useful.
The next day, the other robots started to notice. Tony waved at them. "You can join in too, you know."
This may not have been one of my better ideas, he thought a few hours later.
He was surrounded by discards. An endless stream of robots was coming up to him with an object and presenting it for acceptance or rejection, and while he was occasionally getting what he needed, the signal-to-noise ratio was pretty poor. But there was no time to do his own hunting in between supplicants.
And they were so appealing that he didn't really have the heart to turn them down. Fortunately they didn't take offense when he tossed their offerings over his shoulder. The running commentary was more to keep himself amused. "That's a stapler...that's a can of hair spray...a t-shirt...I don't know what that is and I don't want to know...I think that was an iPod...book...cable...tomato can...lighter, hey, where'd I put that hairspray, lemme show you a trick--"
Fire didn't go over well. When they'd calmed down and edged back, the parade resumed. "Lawn gnome...Lego...lunchbox, are we going in alphabetical order? That's a gym sock, ew...Frisbee, yes, it flies...circuit board, yes! I need more of these, why can't you figure it out! What are you running, Linux?...That's a bike pedal...that's--that's something your mother will tell you about when you grow up. It's nasty, go wash your claws...ooh, is that a TV?"
It took days. Tony had to keep reminding himself that he had nothing but time, though there was an uneasy consciousness in the back of his mind that man could not survive indefinitely on nu-ostrich jerky and Twinkies alone. Nor did he know if it was going to get colder. If this place is in high summer now, you're gonna be in trouble eventually.
But the makeshift computer he was cobbling together was more important. Not all of the equipment the robots brought him was familiar; Tony found himself very curious about several of the pieces, and they gave some credence to his theory that he might have been displaced in time. But quantum physics wasn't his strong point, which was why he was building the computer. I don't really care where or when or whatever--I just want to go home.
He wanted a steak dinner, and a big plate of fresh pineapple. He wanted a very long, very hot shower, and clean towels, and a razor. He wanted his own bed, not the makeshift cot he'd created out of a couple of battered mattresses. He wanted someone to talk to who would answer him in actual words.
Sometimes, lying awake and watching the moon pass behind the clouds overhead--at least he thought it was the moon, the clouds never really cleared--he would be overcome with the most intense longing for things he'd never have admitted to himself. The sound of Rhodey laughing at a really rude joke. Drinking a beer with Happy at the end of a long night, watching the sun come up over the hills. Jarvis telling him something was a bad idea. The smell of Pepper's perfume, and the little smile she'd get when he teased her about her shoes.
I have to get back.
Tony had cause to bless Yinsen yet again when his monstrosity finally wheezed to life, because trying to build a power source as well would have made things that much harder. "I dub thee Frankenstein," he muttered, watching the TV screen closely and adjusting the wires that ran from his chest to the main body of the CPU, if something built into an old refrigerator could be called such.
But it worked. Tony whooped when the command prompt came up, settled the keyboard gingerly in his lap--not all the keys were originals--and started work.
His current escort, the usual four robots, commented among themselves when Frankenstein first started up, but they seemed to lose interest fairly quickly, rolling off after a while to go back to trash compacting. Tony barely noticed. It had taken him half a day to get them to stop bringing him things, and he'd had the distinct sensation that he'd hurt their feelings, but even afterwards there were still often a few around.
It took him a long time to set Frankenstein up to do what he wanted, and he wasn't even sure that the questions he posed were answerable, but finally he had to just let the monster think. Standing, he stretched and went out of the little hut he'd built to have a look around, carefully paying out more wire.
It had rained twice more since he'd been stranded, so Tony had made sure that Frankenstein would be sheltered in case it rained again, tucked away under a corrugated iron roof red with rust and banked by Plexiglas panels so scratched that one couldn't see through them. He didn't mind getting wet himself--his increasingly worn neoprene kept him warm enough--but there was room in the hut for him too if the wind picked up.
Looks like it might. It had stormed once, early on, and Tony had found a new appreciation for the power of weather when he'd realized that there was really nothing protecting him from the lightning that shot across the sky. It had even struck ground a couple of miles away; the fire it had started had put up smoke for a full day, and Tony understood why the robots didn't care for flame.
Now the ever-present clouds were roiling darker and lower, and a fitful wind was starting to blow. Tony grimaced and went back in to check on the code.
Frankenstein was still pondering. On impulse, Tony pulled over the secondary monitor--an old vacuum-tube job that looked like it predated Microsoft--and hooked up one of the chips he'd taken from the remains of the fallen robot.
The language used to program the chip was unfamiliar, of course, but Tony had been writing his own programming languages before he'd hit adolescence. Breaking it down was a good way to spend a couple hours of waiting time.
He didn't explore every nuance of the program, but he got a general gist; it wasn't as though the robots were all that complicated. They were built to compact trash and stack it out of the way, and that was what they did. The interesting bits were their repair routines, and the flexibilities built in; and gradually Tony realized that the robots were, to use Rhodey's jargon, "fire and forget"--they had been created, instructed, and turned loose. They didn't seem to have anyone looking after them because there was no one looking after them.
Good thing I didn't try to walk out and find someone else, Tony thought as he examined code. He was getting the feeling that the nearest human being was quite a bit further away than he'd first assumed.
They're more than just compactors now. He didn't know if sentience had been programmed in, or had developed independently, but the robots were clearly capable of learning and even of independent thought. It intrigued him. Sentience was a great deal harder to achieve than most people thought, and it had taken Tony years to bring Jarvis "alive", never mind developing him to his present powers.
Idly, Tony began playing with the code. Could be a little more efficient here. And if I just tweak that subroutine--
The wind whipping into the hut broke him out of his concentration, and Tony grunted as stiff muscles protested. He'd been working for at least a few hours, to judge by the aches, and the lack of light coming in from outside either meant it was sundown, or the storm was coming in.
It was the storm. Tony stood at the door to the hut and watched the lightning playing several miles away; the thunder that reached him was a low grumble. "Well, at least I don't have to watch the power," Tony muttered, scratching his overgrown chin; he was the power source. He'd set up a few lightning rods in the area to help protect his hut, but since it was lower than most of the trash heaps he wasn't very concerned.
The robots were still moving around, working away; rain didn't seem to slow them any. Tony figured that the only threat they really had to worry about was fire, though a hard enough downpour could in theory cause mud deep enough to trap one. Hell, it can probably dig itself out in a couple of minutes anyway.
He stood for a little while longer, watching the storm roll in, enjoying the feel of the wind on his face. Thunderstorms were something he didn't see often any more at home, and while he'd managed to fly through a couple it was something he tried to avoid--massive charges of electricity and metal suits just didn't mix well. But when he felt the first drops of rain, Tony retreated into his hut, pulling the door panel into place.
Frankenstein still wasn't done. Tony sighed and sat on his cooler, idly counting the seconds between a lightning flash and its answering thunder. None of them were closer than three miles, so the sudden feeling of all his hair standing on end took Tony by surprise. The kick was an elephant's this time, and he went flying backwards--
"Tony. Tony, can you hear me? Please respond." The voice was calm, but Tony had the feeling it had been repeating itself for a while now. He swallowed thickly.
"Yes, sir. I am relieved to hear your voice," the AI said. Tony blinked groggily, seeing little besides lights on a gray background, but slowly his eyes focused and the blur came clear as his HUD, and ocean rushing past below.
Everything hurt, but not unbearably. Tony wanted to rub his head, but it would have to wait. His thoughts spun dizzily. What the hell--
He wanted to think it was a dream, but he could smell himself in the confines of the helmet, ozone and sweat and the faint reek that no al fresco sponge bath could eradicate. And--he flexed his cramping toes--he was still wearing the flip-flops, crammed into his boots.
"What happened?" he managed, blinking. "Jarvis--"
"Uncertain at this time," the AI replied.
"Report," Tony snapped, his wits coalescing. Am I going nuts? I may be--
"Sir, I am uncertain how to phrase this," Jarvis began, with a diffidence Tony had never heard from him before. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.
"Just spit it out. And where the hell are we?"
"We are approximately three-hundred-seventy-nine miles south-east of Malibu, on course for home. Sir, the data I have does not match any known parameters, and yet--"
"You disappeared, sir. For precisely six-point-two-eight-eight milliseconds, you ceased to exist."
"Is that all?" Tony mumbled, mostly to himself, feeling a weird rush of relief. Not crazy. At least, not that kind of crazy. "What kind of reading did you get?"
"None. No radiation or other discernable fluctuation. However, on reappearance your vital signs were considerably changed."
"I'll just bet." His thoughts were steadying down, and Tony took a deep breath, immeasurably relieved to be home. As it were.
"You remained unconscious for thirty-four minutes. I began recall protocols as soon as you returned and alerted Ms. Potts to possible injuries."
Tony couldn't help groaning. There is no fucking way I will be able to explain this. Even with Jarvis to back him up--and what did Jarvis have, anyway--any attempt at explanation was just going to have his friends consider institutionalizing him. "Tell her to stand down. I'm fine."
"Your body weight and electrolyte balance--"
"I'm fine. Put a cork in it, Jarvis."
"Very well." The AI fell silent, and they flew on for a few minutes, Jarvis somehow managing to project an air of offended dignity despite the obvious impossibilities. But just as Tony's house showed up on the horizon he spoke again. "Sir--what did happen?"
Tony opened his mouth, then sighed. "I'll...tell you later." In private, into a locked file, in the dead of night with the hush filters on, probably.
Pepper was waiting for him, first aid kit to hand, her forehead creased with worry as he dropped into the waiting embrace of Jarvis' mechanical arms. And Tony realized with a surge of helplessness that he was probably going to have to lie to her.
"Tony--" she said as soon as the helmet lifted away. "Are you all right? Jarvis said you were unconscious..." Her words trailed off at the sight of his heavy beard.
He didn't answer, letting Jarvis peel the armor away, and she took a step forward. "Tony?"
"I'm fine," he muttered. Pepper's frown grew as the torn, stained neoprene came into view, and her mouth dropped open when he stepped free of the boots and the flip-flops slapped against the platform. Tony held up one finger.
"Don't ask," he gritted out. "Just...don't ask."
Tony stalked past her, and heard her make a tiny choking sound, presumably at the smell rolling off him. He didn't turn. The shower was calling his name.
The rain put out the fire pretty quickly. There wasn't much left, but a few pieces looked familiar, and the robot briefly known as Gigo poked through the remains.
The plug fit neatly into its output socket, and a moment later the old monitor was flashing with the last few weeks' memory. The robot watched the images curiously, remembering, before pulling the cord free once more.
"To-neeee," it said softly, and rolled out to get back to work.