Anthony Edward Stark had been called many things: prodigy, genius, innovator, and playboy. He had been labeled both a hero and a villain, and had decided both were too constricting. He had been an Avenger, a Director, a Chief Executive and a Secretary of Defense, but in the end he had decided only one mattered: Iron Man.
But now he holds a new title in a new place, and he doesn't know what to make of it.
Elseworlder. It's got a ring to it, I'll give it that, and while not technically correct—I'm from a different time, thank you much—it gets the point across for the layman.
I am from somewhere else, and I don't belong here. That I'm standing in a Stark Tower overlooking the industrialized landscape of Mars is proof enough of that. It's hard to fit in here, in this far future, but if there is one place for me, it's here.
Mars is the home world of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the resident techie nerds of the Imperium of Man. They form a priesthood that worships machines and they tend to graft cybernetics to their bodies to get closer to the 'Machine God'.
So they're a little off in the head, but that's okay. They love technology, so we have that in common. I swear the moment I flashed my extremis to them they nearly had a communal seizure. Besides, compared to some of the other people I've met, these guys are perfectly sane.
I'm celebrating my sixth new year in this universe alone with a bottle of non alcoholic scotch and an old Wings album. I synthesized the scotch, and the album came out of my suit's memory banks. Sometimes I wonder just why I stocked it with so much useless crap.
Alone. That's what I am now. I built a Jarvis AI a few years back, and though he's a great friend, the fact that I can call him such is sad. No matter how you slice it, building a computer program to sound and think as close to your old pal as possible is pathetic, and it doesn't fix the true problem.
I'm the only Elseworlder. The thought is sad enough to make me want to cry into my fake drink. But I've never subscribed to self pity, and I'm not about to start now.
I turn from the window. "Suit."
The extremis coating spreads across my body and the armor forms over it, both literally growing out of my own biology. The suit solidifies and seals itself. My repulsor sword pulls out of its mount by the fireplace and soars across the room, landing in the palm of my hand. The uplink between its hilt and my projector glows and the blade hums to life.
A voice enters my head. "Going somewhere, sir?"
"Yeah. Load yourself into the Starhopper, Jarvis. We've got work to do."
Chapter One: Stark Mechanicus
I once said the job is its own reward. I now find myself protecting the largest area a hero has ever protected. The Imperium spans the entire galactic plane, and has been developing it for ten millennia. Its population is incalculable. The threats that face it are colossal, like, make Galactus piss himself colossal.
Being a super hero here is harder than I've ever had it. The Imperium's higher-ups, thanks to their own closed minds, want to kill me for being an Elseworlder. The only thing truly keeping me from their wrath is the Mechanicus.
And even with all that, the job is still its own reward. As much as I miss my old life and hate being the one cape in the universe, I kind of pity my old comrades for never knowing the high of saving planets on a daily basis, or the unconditional love I've been shown.
I speak again of the Mechanicus. The techpriests love me to the point where my name has been changed. I'm now Magos Superior Anthony Stark, the Iron Knight. At first I thought it was a bit silly, what with the fancy title and the parades and near-religious worship and such, but it's grown on me. I mean, Iron Knight? Why didn't I think of that?
So before I break atmosphere and get to work, I take a moment to do a flyby of the Complex Primaris. The city is beautiful this time of year, when the axel tilt gives shadow to the surface from the orbital factory ring. Below me I can see people, servitors and techpriests alike, looking up. They salute when they see me, hands to their chests in the cog symbol of the cult. I return it with repulsor fire into the sky. It backlights the smog clouds with a brilliant array of colors, and cheers rise from the factory spires.
God help me, but I love these people.
Getting to the bad guys isn't a problem anymore, even when the distance to them is measured in parsecs. The Starhopper add-on gives me an infinite range and faster movement than anything else in existence. It's an orbital carriage that I attach my armor to, built solely to get me where I need to go, when I need to get there.
Its FTL drive surpasses anything the Imperium can produce, but I can't claim the idea. Reed did the real work, the real theorizing. I just had the resources. I wish he could see it working.
The Starhopper is holding position above Mars when I find it. It de-cloaks as I draw near its burst signature, and when I touch it, it powers up. I lock myself into its harness. Ablative plates fall into place around my armored body and secure me to the device. All that's left is a small slit of reinforced glass so that I can see out, something I'm going to be immensely thankful for in three, two, one…
The Starhopper engages its primary drive core and I'm off, skipping beyond Sol's extended gravity well in .003 seconds, heading into the fight. God, what would I do without Reed Richards?
I'm assuming, of course, that there will be a fight involved. An explorator station in the eastern fringe sent out a black ball message a week ago, the contents of which amounted to a cry for help. Explorators are techpriests that probe the pockets of deep space overlooked by the Imperium, searching for arcane technologies. They're used to running into trouble and are outfitted with Skitarii escorts, the military arm of the Mechanicus. For one to issue a distress signal is an indicator of a grave threat, so my expecting a fight is not unreasonable.
This particular explorator station is a space fort in the Prasius system. Called the Tarantula, it has a record of strip mining asteroids for resources and has done so for the past three thousand years. It's quite a streak, but it might not last much longer.
I drop into terrestrial speeds six hours later. In that time, I've made it halfway across the galaxy and managed to read every bit of known data on the Prasius system. When I get there, the system is little like the reading. My info indicated a lush six planet locale, with three of the worlds verdant and filled with life. Instead, I find three dead worlds, stripped of all greenery.
This isn't uncommon in the slightest. There are easily a hundred or more things that could be responsible, and none of them are my problem. The deaths of the most likely alien inhabitants of these planets are someone else's concern. I'm here for the explorators.
The Tarantula's distinctive engine signature is faint, but enough to get a fix on its position near the second planet. I move Starhopper in closer, the suit's scanners set for wide dispersal. In orbit it becomes apparent that the Tarantula isn't near the planet; it is on the planet.
With this information, I disengage from the Starhopper and descend into the atmosphere.
Falling toward a planet's surface. The feeling of my stomach lurching, the uncontrolled acceleration, the needles of fear pricking my skin. These are familiar sensations, and they hold a special place inside me, and will forever be a reminder of how I got here, how I arrived in this time.
I fell through stars, clouds, blue sky. The timeslide disrupted my suit, shut it completely down. I scrambled to reboot it before touchdown.
I failed, and landed on my damn head.
When I finally rebooted enough systems to see and move, I was being dragged through the muck of some backwater swamplands by an ork. I broke free and blew a hole the size of my fist through its skull. It died, but its two buddies jumped me. Thanks to my weakened armor, unfamiliarity with the foe, and the concussed state of my brain, it quickly became the hardest fight of my life.
A team of Adeptus Mechanicus adepts found me before the orks could tear my head off. They saved me without hesitation. For that alone, I owe them my life.
They took me back to their nearby explorator base and helped me back to health. I spent the next month upgrading my systems, and together we beat the orks back into orbit.
They were explorators, brave men and women like the crew of the Tarantula. So when I see the remains of the space fort sprawled across the desert with its many asteroid-gripping limbs broken and scattered across a mountain range, I can't help but get angry.
I check the wreck for survivors. There are none, but the search isn't completely useless. The damage to the fort's hull isn't consistent with a freefall landing. In truth, there should be little left to examine after a full force fall from orbit, but aside from some low velocity collision scratches—and the total severing of its grappler arms—there is little wrong with the Tarantula. It is as if someone or something pulled it from orbit…
Alarms scream in my ears and I am yanked through the air, across the desert. I fire my repulsors to stop. They don't respond, and I slam into a mountain with the equivalent force of a Mach 3 impact.
"What the f—"
I'm yanked again, this time ten thousand feet in the air, where I'm promptly left hanging. I run a check through the suit's systems, but there is no electronic contamination. All systems are running fine; I just can't use any of them.
"Seriously, what the hell?"
"Anthony Edward Stark. Out of all the possibilities, I never believed I would be meeting you here."
That voice is familiar. It's the voice of a madman. It's the voice of someone more dangerous than any threat I've faced since my slide, and if it's who I think it is, then this galaxy just got a whole lot more dangerous.
I am turned around, and suddenly everything makes sense: the lack of life in this system, the Tarantula's intact state, and why the very steel in my suit has betrayed me.
He smiles. Why of all the smug, bastard-faced, annoying damn things he could do…he smiles.
"Well, if that's how it's going to be, I should call you Iron Man."
"That is how it's going to be," I say. "You don't get to use my name, Lensherr."
He snaps his fingers and I'm thrown face-first into the desert floor. As I lay there, head spinning from the impact, my thoughts drift to everything I know about Magneto, looking for a way to beat him.
He controls magnetism. My suit is made of metal. End of brainstorming.
"You know, Iron Man…wait, is it still Iron Man? I could have sworn you changed your name."
I struggle to my feet. "Iron Knight."
"Ah yes, Iron Knight. We're really getting unabashed with the chivalrous metaphors, aren't we?" There it is again: that smug smile. A repulsor in the face would wipe that right off. "Anyway, you now work for the Adeptus Mechanicus, or so I hear. Is this correct?"
"What's it to you? We aren't accepting new members right now, though I'll make you a mortal enemy if you ask nice."
He pulls me closer, to the point where his face is right in my visor. At this distance, I can really pick out his features. The thick neck and super-square jaw are nice touches and just as surprising as the lack of wrinkles.
"My dear boy, I have no interest in joining your cult. Nor do I wish to continue the fight from six years ago."
"You have a funny way of showing that, what with the holding me in thrall thing."
He frowns. "If I didn't, you would attack me."
"Okay, Magneto, you've got me there." He does. I've already figured out the precise trajectory to tear his head off with my sword. "But can you blame me? You pulled down a Mechanicus vessel and killed its entire crew."
"Dear boy, I've killed no one."
A plate of metal floats over a dune and sets down next to us. It's about a mile across, holding all 1,500 crewmembers of the Tarantula.
"Okay, so maybe you haven't. But you still crashed that ship."
"Merely to get your attention," he says. "I knew bringing it down would attract the Iron Knight, and it worked. Do I now have your attention?"
"Fully and completely."
"Good. I'm going to trust you now."
He lets me go and I activate my armor shield. The energy field pops into place around my body. Aside from the rendering me invulnerable to all conventional attacks, it interferes with the magnetic properties of my armor, preventing the steel's magnetic signature from extending beyond its perimeter. He could beat it down, but in that time, I would lop his head off.
We look at each other for a moment, waiting for the other to make a move. I don't and he doesn't, so we relax.
I pop my visor. "Okay, Magneto. You've got five minutes."
"You don't seem to be aware of this, so I'll tell you it for free: you and I aren't the only ones who timeslid at Genosha."
Genosha. The thought of it brings back a flood of memories.
Satellites had tracked Genosha's development for years. SHIELD had six orbitals trained on the island at all times. That's how big a threat Magneto was: he needed that much attention from the world's most advanced espionage agency.
I was director back then, so when the flow of visitors to Magneto's little paradise increased, I was the first to know. Not that this was uncommon. Lensherr had always been pretty popular with the mutant crowd. Xavier always had the young crowd with his school, and even some of the more morally right adults. But for the disaffected, the disillusioned, and the delirious, there was no real place to go aside from Magneto's.
But the guys heading there in this case weren't all mutants. Thugs, terrorists, even Hydra and AIM were on site. The fact that those two were working together was distressing enough, and convinced me of just how bad the situation was. Whatever was going down was going to be huge, and with Magneto at the helm, it was serious business.
So we got a team together. Avengers, New Avengers, registered and unregistered heroes, the X-men; everybody. The plan was simple: beat Magneto's army into eighteen different kinds of hurt and bounce out before the place blew from a failsafe.
The op went off without a hitch until someone popped a timeslide portal open in the middle of the island. I was closest, so I got sucked in first. I was fighting with Magneto at the time, hand-to-hand, on top of a tower, so it's no surprise that he got taken as well.
But others? It never occurred to me that was possible. Call me self-centered, but that sounds just—
"Stupid. That doesn't make sense."
"No," he says, "Your cape doesn't make sense."
"This was a gift from the Fabricator General. It goes with the shoulder pads. And I don't have to take that from a guy wearing that helmet."
He doesn't reply. That makes me smile. I don't have as much pompous superiority as him, but every now and then I have my moments.
"Well," he concedes, "It goes with the knight motif."
"Thank you. Now then, you were saying?"
He paces around me, but I keep facing him, my unibeam targeter locked onto his head.
"Others did slip through the portal and yet survive," he says. "I know, because I can feel them."
"I take it that 'feeling' ability has something to do with your unexplained buffness."
He smiles, but this time it's less smug. "Indeed. Since my treatment, my capabilities have increased a hundredfold. Before I was limited by my frail human from. Damned by my own age, if you will. With that no longer a factor, I am nigh unstoppable."
I want to know exactly what treatment that was, but there are more pressing issues. "Have you found anyone?"
He shakes his head. "Only you, but then, you weren't hard to pinpoint. You've never been very good at keeping quiet."
"Yeah, it's my real Achilles heel," I reply. "But I make up for it with brains. And right now, my brains are telling me you want a team-up."
He turns to look at me. "You aren't lying about those brains, boy."
"The answer's no. I'll look for them on my own."
"You won't find them. Without my abilities, you won't be able to pinpoint their locations. In this galaxy, it would be impossible."
He's right. I hate it with every ounce of my being, but he's right. The Imperium itself is huge, not to mention the non-imperial areas. Even with all the resources the Mechanicus can guarantee me, I would be looking for lifetimes.
"And you get—?"
"The capability, my boy," he says. "The speed at which most vessels move is much too slow to find someone. By the time I get there, they've moved on. And whenever they are in the Warp, they disappear from my sight. I know you have a faster way."
He's talking about the Starhopper. The son of a bitch wants to use my Starhopper.
"Answer me this, Magneto: what will we do when we find them?"
He brushes the question aside. "Whatever you please, Iron Knight. I'm only looking for one."
I see the sadness in his eyes, and now I get it. Lensherr has always been unstable. It's one of the things that makes him such a pain. One day he's an X-man, the next he's the evil ruler of a country. But the one thing that's always present in whatever psychosis he's having that month is the love for his daughter.
"Fine. I'll help you find her."
He looks up at me. "My thanks, Anthony Stark."