It didn't matter how many times he had come close to dying. It was never familiar, it never got old, and it never got easier. He had heard the phrase "going down in a blaze of glory," and this would be the literal fulfillment. A few minutes ago, he had been cart-wheeling the propeller of the massive warship to keep the monolithic thing in the sky. The engine had choked, but roared to life, and the ship at last soared. Stark remembered that savage, empty release as he had relinquished his grip from the metal and almost gently surrendered the ship to the sky. It was almost jarring to see that ship float as languidly as a leaf on water. Through the earpiece in his helmet, he could hear the crew's applause, prayers to God and bewildered rejoicing that they would live. Stark allowed himself a smirk.
That was a few minutes ago-exactly two minutes, thirty seconds. And then, all hell broke loose. He heard the static whine over his ear piece, and tapped it irritably. The thing suddenly hummed to life like an enraged hornet as Nick Fury-ostentatiously living up to his last name, was tearing a new one into somebody.
Something's got him really, really pissed now.
Curiously, Stark ventured, "Nick, what's wrong?"
Stark frowned at the strange silence, from Nick's end, and then the even quieter answer.
"Those assholes just launched a missile strike on Manhattan."
Even before the words had been spoken, Stark knew. He had helped design those hellish weapons with his own hands once upon a time. His sensors were already flaring in warning. Across the edge of the horizon, he saw the underbelly of heaven literally torn open as the missile clawed its way through the dark sky.
Below, the city writhed in its light, the masses oblivious to any hint of danger. Numbly, Stark pondered what sort of mercies they could possibly have in their final moments….searing heat, blinding light, skin melting to bone, burning alive, vaporization, ashes….and those would be the lucky ones.
It didn't take too long for him to calculate the odds, the bare cold equations, and the sterile numbers. One missile, fired over a civilian population containing a few million. It equaled death for too many of them. If he had the time, he could calculate the whole, brutal thing. But now, the ratio was distance until impact, how many miles lay between the streak of fire and the helpless city below him.
His one life, verses all of those people losing theirs.
A damn, brutal, simple calculation after all.
"I'm on it." Stark announced quietly. He heard Fury's puzzled silence explode with the realization.
"What do you mean, on it?"
"You know damn well what it means, Nick." Stark would have winced at how rude his final words sounded, had he the time and decorum. It was better this way…better to be remembered for that cocky indifference than pleading. It was better than saying goodbye.
Nick's resigned sigh was like wind scraping over a grave stone, it was so heavy.
"Come on, Nick. My blaze of glory. Literally."
Far below on the earth, Stark could imagine Fury putting a palm over his good eye, clutching the speaker and looking at it like he wanted to kill it. He could imagine the well-hidden tremble, the sick helplessness, before Nick finally answered back, with sorrow.
"Don't ask me to appreciate the fireworks, Stark. These ain't the heroics that I ever wanted."
Stark chuckled in brittle agreement. "Same here."
He flicked the intercom off, breathed and allowed himself to wince at what was coming. Never mind the aftermath; he wouldn't be around here to deal with it. The strange, savage peace in the finality was oddly comforting as it was out of place.
The missile he had to stop. The city he was now hovering over.
Splaying his palms, he shot upward in a high arc, locking paths with the metallic thing and deliberately flew in front of it.
Stark coiled into a wide circle, and was gratified to see the missile spiral after him, mimicking his flight path perfectly. He shot forward, and upward, curving into a nearly vertical loop that lead the missile further away from the city and over the gloaming water of the Harbor.
He watched as the missile shuddered in confusion at having its mission altered and its target changed so abruptly. Almost reluctantly, the missile seemed to hesitate in indecision, before arcing away from the city and spiraling in a white heated path upward.
Stark couldn't stop the involuntary flinch as the point of the missile gleamed in cold, searing clarity. Then, the thing bucked, lurched high, and pivoted, following the plumes of smoke left by his thrusters.
Better, but not good enough.
He shot higher, soared faster, broke through the sky itself as the familiar blue faded and fire danced across his helm when he scraped through the friction of the thinning atmosphere.
It would have been a pathetic ending if he wound up being burnt to a crisp like a metal marshmallow, but that was only one of the colorful possibilities that could kill him up here.
"Sir." Stark could sense the bewilderment of Jarvis. No doubt, the poor program had run through every possible explanation and could not come up with any sane reason for Stark to flying into outer space.
"Sir, I must warn you that the suit will not be able to withstand a return trip on this endeavor."
Jarvis's delicate tact would have been hilarious if he wasn't talking about Stark's exit. It was almost cute.
"I know, Jarvis."
"Sir!" Jarvis's sudden, dismayed blurting was as loud as gunfire.
"This is a one-way trip, sir."
The gentle finality in Jarvis's voice was unmistakable. Tony glanced upward at the abyss of heaven before him, the familiar blue rapidly disintegrating to a gaping maw of black.
Here goes everything I have. He thought numbly.
"Jarvis, I get it."
"Shall I get Miss Potts on the line, sir?"
Stark couldn't answer. Not yet, when the weird sense of anguished love and loss suddenly curled in his gut and made the strange wet flood his eyes for a moment.
Her picture popped up, as the signal line crawled into connecting. Stark slowed as much as he dared, knowing that the higher he flew, the weaker the signal would become. The cell phone hummed somewhere on the earth, ignored or discarded, but unanswered. Pepper's polite greeting through the voice mail answered, and seared his very soul at the sound of the beep.
"Pepper…." He breathed out, not sure what to say, or how to say it. Pepper. Answer, Damn it! Answer so I can say my good-byes and sorries and that I love you.
The signal grew fainter, and her beloved image faded as the connection finally fizzled out and dropped. He sighed inwardly. She deserved more closure, more finality, something far better.
Apologetically, Jarvis spoke. "I am sorry, sir. We are now too far to reconnect with Miss Potts."
"I figured that, Jarvis."
"Is there anything that you wish to communicate to Miss Potts, sir, in the event that you can't re-"
"There's no point in pissing around it, Jarvis. We both know how this ends."
"I am so sorry, sir."
So this was really it, then. He thought numbly as the atmosphere thinned out and the ice crystals splintered over his helm. The earth rolled beneath him, and the missile tore through her veils, rising like a leviathan from the depths.
The hell with it, he didn't have the time.
The stars in their indifferent brilliance. Worlds unnumbered, and unnoticed in the eternal swell of the emptiness. If this was the last thing he saw, it wasn't so bad. The thrusters spluttered in protest as Stark directed the last of his fuel to keep his flight. The missile's roar was strangely numbed by the vast abyss.
And now, here he was, clawing for altitude as the Earth soared lower. Strange how he had never appreciated the beauty of his little, effed up world until he was literally leaving it.
To be continued…