Don’t Eat the Worm: The Fumes of Bad Decisions
October 19, 2016
“Friday, are we there yet?”
“When will we get there?”
“At the same time as when you asked me five minutes ago.”
Tony paused, gauging when enough seconds had passed to lull his AI into a false sense of security. “Friday, are we-“
“I do not see the point of this exercise, Boss.”
“So, you feel annoyed already?”
“You specifically programmed me not to become exasperated, frustrated, or otherwise irritated by repeated requests, regardless of the importance of said request. I am simply not certain how your imitation of a child in an effort to elicit an emotional response from me will demonstrate your capacity, or lack thereof, to parent.”
“You are annoyed.” Tony couldn’t decide if he was delighted that he had managed to get under Friday’s skin, so to speak, or disappointed in the results. He adjusted his sunglasses and smoothed the crease in his slacks with an air of authority. There was no one to see the mannerism but Friday, but it was important that she knew who was in charge. “It is a simple enough experiment, dear girl. I made you, therefore, you represent the best, most idealistic version of myself. If that version of me can’t handle the attitude of a four-year old, then there is no way that I ever could. Ergo, I would be a bad parent.” Tony thumbed across the thick manuscript in his lap. He had read it, the whole thing. It was on paper. Real paper. With ink, and notes scrawled in the margins. There were coffee stains. God knew how many people had touched it. But he had read it. Four times. Then pulled it apart and read some sections over again. He might never get the feeling of cheap copy paper off of his hands.
“The best version of you is a woman?”
“Check your misogyny at the door, I don’t allow that kind of thing at Stark Industries.”
“You no longer work at Stark Industries.”
“Exactly. But seriously, Friday, how long until we get there?”
“We are fifteen minutes out, and it appears that the weather will be on the cool side this evening. I recommend you bring your jacket.”
“Tell me again why it is that Foster chooses to live in Satan’s left boot? And why this Lewis person followed her here?”
“I have not met Dr. Foster, Boss, but Ms. Lewis seems quite dedicated to her friends. It is a most admirable quality.”
“Oh. My. Stars and Garters. You like her.” Tony stared wide eyed at the helicopter console.
“Boss, I do not believe-” Friday began in a tone that was no doubt meant to quash his enthusiasm. It failed.
“You do! You made a little friend. That is so cute! Do U and DUM-E know? They’ll be jealous. Do you two stay up all night talking about boys when she’s in Malibu?”
“No.” There was a long pause. “We braid each other’s hair.”
Tony caught his breath and then laughed so hard he slapped his knee. “Priceless. I think I might love you more than Jarvis. As long as you keep that sass under your hat when we’re in mixed company. Can’t have you ruining my image.” The helicopter began to descend, and Tony took in the sight of a town either in the middle of rebuilding, or halfway through demolishing, almost every structure. It was a tough call which way would be easier. They circled, coming down just south of a mid-century modern car dealership. An ancient van, sporting satellite and monitoring equipment Tony would have been embarrassed to have seen in his dumpster, was parked outside. As the rotors slowed down, he became aware of some extremely loud music coming from the building.
“No one appears to be inside, Boss, but there are two heat signatures on the roof. Waiting for a few minutes-“
“No can do, Friday. Thanks. People to bribe, legislation to tear up. I wait for no man.” He grabbed the manuscript and opened the door. There were no stairs, but a metal ladder was bolted to the side of the building. He guessed it wasn’t intended for regular use, as it ended five feet off the ground. A small step stool had been positioned underneath to reduce the gap. An unholy, but strangely harmonious, pairing that sounded like Santana and the horn section of the New York Symphony grew loud enough to bother even his ears as he crested the top. A huge satellite dish, scattered equipment and parts, and an old cooler created a maze he had to weave through. He aimed for a faded canvas beach umbrella, useless since the sun had set already. The whole place had an air of impoverished chic that did nothing for Tony but distract him with ideas for how he could improve the equipment.
He found the stereo first. An actual stereo. With a cassette deck. He turned it off with a decisive, disgusted flick and was promptly surprised with a scream and a heavy object to the head. It knocked him back into the satellite dish, which was fortunate as he needed the extra stability for a moment. The blow to the head was followed by a giant hammer swinging through the air inches from his face. The breeze from its passing actually knocked his sunglasses askew.
“Tony!” The hammer disappeared. Tony managed to verify that his pulse was still in working order – far higher than his cardiologist recommended, but working. His face didn’t feel great. He was pretty sure his mouth was bleeding. “It is good to see you, my friend! What brings you to the Newer Mexico?”
There were a few things that Tony needed to process with that greeting. He was not ashamed to admit that his IQ was not quite high enough to manage all of them without taking a beat to organize his thoughts. He had, after all, most likely been concussed.
Thor was completely naked for starters. Tony had never been particularly bothered by his own size, he was only a couple of inches shorter than average and money, looks, and charm made up the difference. Thor didn’t seem at all self-conscious either. Without clothes he looked even bigger than normal. Arms the size of some trees in New York and a chest diameter that any bear would be proud of. Tony was tempted, for the sake of science, to take some field measurements – purely for research purposes – but he managed to hold himself back thinking about how proud Pepper would be of his restraint. And also how he might accidentally be knocked unconscious if Thor began swinging that thing around.
“Thor,” he managed in his serious voice.
“What the hell!” The broken shout was uttered by a small woman who dashed out from behind Thor. Her plaid shirt was at least four sizes too big and buttoned wrong. He recognized Jane Foster from her SHIELD file and the cover of IEEE Spectrum. Electrical engineers had a real hard on for her portal technology. “Goddammit, Stark! You broke my telescope!”
“I feel that I should point out that it broke my face, so we’re probably even. It may even owe me, my face is worth quite a bit.” He eyed the angry scientist, noting that her eyes were extremely dark and her skin had an eerie glow, reddish, as if she was flushed with a fever. Or a plague. Tony took a casual step to the side, slipping his hand into his suit pocket for his mobile phase glove, and placing more of Thor between him and the doctor. “Have you considered putting a warning note on it? Something like, ‘beware the telescope, it pummels’? Personally, I wouldn’t put up with that kind of attitude in my technology. Sass, yes. Independent thought, of course. Overzealous use of flame retardant, occasionally. But violent tendencies? I mean, in a toaster, maybe, but never in optical equipment.”
“Jane,” Thor spoke softly, as softly as he ever did, and spread his hands, placating. “It was an accident. Tony is not seriously injured. And I can attest that he has a very hard head.”
“It…” She looked up and the light from the Christmas strands on the underside of the umbrella caught her face. Her eyes were solid black. A dark red wash of blood moved under the flesh of her face, ebbing and flowing randomly. Tony took a careful breath.
“Jane.” Thor’s huge hands covered her shoulders and most of her upper arms. She sagged under the touch, as if the pressure had been let out of her. With a ragged inhale she closed her eyes. When they reopened, they were normal.
“What do you want, Stark?” She asked calmly. “Other than to buy me a new telescope.”
“Not interested in you, Space Ace.” He pulled his hand from his pocket and scrubbed it through his hair as though he hadn’t been prepared to blast her straight off the roof. “Looking for your minion.” He waved the manuscript around. “Glasses. Built like a centerfold. Probably eating my stolen cheesecake.” Thor frowned at the centerfold comment, either because he didn’t get it or because he did get it. Jane’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed. For some reason, he found it almost as unsettling as the night-eye psychotic break she had just experienced.
“Why do you seek Lady Darcy?” Thor asked.
At the same time Jane stated, “She’s not my minion. She’s a part-time assistant. And I’m not telling you jack until I know why you’re here.”
“Hell-Oh.” Stark waved the manuscript again. “Obviously.”
“You tend to blow up shit, Stark. And people I love tend to have to help you clean it up,” she nodded at Thor. As if it was necessary. “I don’t like that. So you will explain what you want with Darcy or I will make certain you never get to speak to her.”
Tony debated his options for about three seconds, wondering what the over-under was for him surviving the wrath of Foster until he could get the suit, which was back in the helicopter. He gave himself pretty good odds unless Thor got in the mix. Weighing his determination to see this through against his ingrained, at the genetic level, need to be a dick, Tony opened his mouth.
“Hey, my dudes! So I smell not the heavenly aroma of breakfast for dinner – or as the cool kids say, Brekinner. Which is sacrilege of the highest order, since I was specifically told that there would be sausages and fluffy buttermilk carbs. And I brought home all the most calorific pancake toppings. I got like, all the syrup Roberto had. Well, syrup flavored stuff. And two – okay, I ate one of them – one can of fake cool whip. So let’s get this party star-” Darcy Lewis, graduate student, part-time assistant, and friend of the terrifyingly capable Pepper Potts, jumped into view doing an uncoordinated shoulder jiggle and carrying a plastic bag and a spray can of a dairy product that Tony was highly certain did not actually contain any milk. Her blue eyes went wide behind her glasses.
“-ted. Ahem. So. Are we having company? Should I dig out the good china?”
“Lady Darcy,” Thor began, apparently unconcerned with her unorthodox entrance or the situation as a whole. “I would like to present my friend, To-”
“Tony Stark, yeah. I got that. Thanks. Um. I think the real question here, one we are all probably asking ourselves, is: Why. In the name. Of all that is good and right. In this world. Is Jane not wearing pants?”
Tony Stark did not glance over his shoulder. He desperately, desperately wanted to, but the image of a disproving Pepper and a magical hammer crushing his balls kept his gaze firmly on Lewis. There was a sound of embarrassment, and Thor quietly suggested that he would take ‘lovely Jane’ down to their room to find clothes. It was an act of supreme self-control that he did not turn around.
“Tony Stark,” he said instead, nodding and smiling as if lots of his business meetings went this way. It didn’t happen a lot, a lot. But more than probably Pichai or Buffett had to deal with. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep her from touching him or trying to hand him any of her clearly not-actually-food items. “I’m here to talk about your thesis on the Sokovian Accords.”
“Darcy Lewis.” She made a gesture with the spray can vaguely reminiscent of a curtsy. “I did not steal your cheesecake. Pepper gave it to me.”
“Oh. Well then. Do you have any left?”