Chapter 1: Whisper / Scream
Day 103 of the Alien-Human War
His hands felt out the floor, looking for clues, a free path or an obstacle.
Labored breaths filled his surroundings, blocking out all other sounds. Each inhale and exhale was too loud. He needed to be able to listen, but he needed to breathe, too – just not so loudly. It took a lot of effort to slow down, to tell his lungs he could breathe calmly; that he was okay, and was going to continue to be okay even if he breathed less heavily.
The suffocating darkness remained after his breaths calmed; the air was too damp and too hot. The heat was coming from his body, most likely, but the dripping sound and the wetness on the floor suggested cracked pipes. Not enough to flood the room, but enough to leave his pants soaked where he was crawling on all fours.
A familiar voice called to him from a distance.
His blood began to rush in his ears, continuing where his loud breaths had stopped – blocking out parts of the words directed at him and making his breaths stutter once more at a pace that mimicked panic. He couldn’t afford to lose the thread of control; there was no one out there, and if he lost the voice, he would be crawling in circles until the building came down on top of him.
“Sir.” Louder and firmer, J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice pierced the haze of terror that kept wrapping tighter and tighter around his chest. “Keep going forward. There is a table a little to your left.”
The speakers crackled, and he imagined water dripping down the walls, short-circuiting electronics. If the speakers broke, he would be left alone in the darkness, wandering around.
“There is an earpiece on the table, in a smooth, rectangular box approximately two by four inches long.”
He bumped into the table and felt his way up along one leg, all the way to the smooth top that wasn’t wet. Lifting his body, he felt around, encountering objects that weren’t rectangular or smooth. He dismissed them, moving on, not stopping to debate what they might be, or if they could be of use: J.A.R.V.I.S. wanted him to find the earpiece, which was logical: if the electronics in the room failed, the AI would still be able to communicate with him.
If he found the box, got it open, didn’t drop the earpiece and got it into his ear the right way…
His fingers searched the table, encountered something that could be a box, but it was the wrong size. J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn’t giving him any more orders, which meant he was either close, or the connection to the room had been lost.
In the distance, something exploded, and shivers traveled down the structures of the facility.
He dropped the box he was holding, deciding it wasn’t the right one, and kept looking. Papers slipped beneath his fingertips, a few pens, something that could be a tablet – useless – and finally he encountered what had to be the right box. His fingers wrapped around it securely to drag it over. He made sure not to drop it, to keep it shut, and once the box was in his hands, he traced the seam, found the locking mechanism, and slowly pried the small case open.
His fingers shook as he searched the insides, finding a familiar shape in an indentation formed by the box’s two halves. He pulled the item loose, rotated it between his fingers, then placed it in his ear without thinking, praying that he would get it right – and he did.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice acknowledged his success directly inside his ear. “Shall we move on?”
“Where are we going?” he asked, pretending his voice didn’t shake as the building did. “Where is everyone?”
“The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. and military personnel are engaged in a battle on the premises. The lab is secure for the time being. My last scans show you are not injured.” A pause. “The helmet is nearby. The implants are operational.”
He dropped the small box in order to slide his fingers across his scalp – no hair, recently shaved. Stitches… fresh, still covered with gauze. He could feel, faintly, the new bumps in his skull where the implants had been placed.
“Twenty feet ahead at ten o’clock,” J.A.R.V.I.S. instructed.
Dropping his hands, he scooted forward. He wasn’t sure if he could – or should – walk so soon after the operation, so he remained in a crawling position.
A waft of disinfectant rose from somewhere, like a cloud, as he followed the AI’s directions. He tried to recall what he knew of the shape of the room – the layout, the objects he had touched when coming in – but it all blurred together into a damp mess beneath his hands.
“There is broken glass on the floor,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him. “Please be careful.” The pleading tone was unlike the AI, signaling concern. Whether it was directed at the situation in the lab or the battle outside, he didn’t know.
He slowed down, feeling the floor with more caution. Seconds trickled by. He could feel no shards of broken glass, which made him wonder whether he was going in the wrong direction. J.A.R.V.I.S. had to be observing the room in some way, to tell him if he was going the wrong way…
“Careful,” the AI said again, voice so very soft in his ear.
He felt the first cool shard on the floor and touched it carefully; he didn’t want to cut his hand.
“Eight more feet,” J.A.R.V.I.S. stated. “Dead ahead.” Whether it was an encouragement or a mere observation, it was hard to tell. Through all this, the AI hadn’t truly differentiated between the two, for which he was glad: he didn’t need yet another person telling him he couldn’t do this anymore, or saying it would get easier.
What he could do was get to the helmet, stick his head in it and pray that the calculations had been correct. He could do that much, crawling on his hands and knees in the never-ending darkness, and once he accomplished that goal, all bets would be off.
His hands pressed down on a layer of glass lying on the floor. He made sure not to drag his legs or his hands, lifting them up and pressing them down in even motions that probably looked moronic, but one inch at a time he was narrowing that eight feet down to zero, and finally J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke again: “Right next to your right hand, sir.”
He stilled and knelt then reached out, searching for a moment due to the new position. Finally his hand encountered smooth metal, fingers curling round it. The weight of it was lighter than what he had expected, the shape a little different – a stripped down version of Iron Man’s helmet. He heard pieces unlock, the material shifting under his grip, and knew the helmet was opening to make space for his head.
A cocoon that had once been a place of tranquility and freedom…
It would be, again – especially if this worked.
Tony’s fingers pressed hard at the sides of the helmet as he lifted it and with blind faith placed it over his head.
Day 42 of the Alien-Human War
Tony stood in front of the sweeping wall of glass, looking at the ocean. The sun was sinking into the horizon, painting the water, clouds scattered across the sky. It was a perfect evening, and nothing whatsoever suggested that for over a month, the population of Earth had been fighting against an invading alien force – and was on the constant verge of losing.
Today was day forty-two, and Tony’s body ached remembering each and every one of the hours spent fighting, running, re-grouping and fighting again.
He heard a faint, clattering sound and turned around to look at Pepper. “Are you almost done?” he asked, seeing her pull something out of a hallway closet.
“We’re not in a rush,” she told him, voice tighter than her words alone implied.
“The aliens are invading,” Tony needlessly reminded his girlfriend.
“I thought Fury reported their main force was currently amassing somewhere along the border between China and Russia?” she noted, turning the item she had picked from the closet over in her hands, then looked at Tony. “Don’t you want to take anything?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s all… material. I have all I need,” he explained. “You, the bots, my suits, the team.”
Pepper gave him a soft smile. “I never thought I would hear you add ‘the team’ to that list.”
“They come in handy when you’re fighting a few thousand high-tech-wielding aliens,” Tony dodged the bullet.
Pepper didn’t say anything for a while, and Tony looked at the ocean again. The sun was even lower, and the water had taken on a sickeningly orange tint. He knew it wasn’t just the sun but the poison the aliens had been pumping into Earth’s waters since their arrival. Most scientists theorized it was to drive the indigenous population – including humanity – further into disarray and to weaken their defense. Whatever the reason, it was fairly effective, and one had to watch where to drink from these days – or what to eat, because if an animal survived in the poisonous water long enough to be caught, it would certainly infect anyone who took a bite out of it. Plants, for the time being, had been kept mostly safe, crops carefully watered from untainted sources, but it was only a matter of time before the aliens stepped up their game…
Tony looked at the sky, half-expecting an enemy armada to float into his line of sight, but he knew the odds of that were slim to none: the aliens had no interest in small, individual groups or dwellings. Even where Tony had re-built his house in Malibu, after the unfortunate run-in with AIM left his home at the bottom of the ocean, it was remote enough not to attract their enemy’s attention.
That was why Tony had brought Pepper here now: to get the things she had missed over the last month-and-a-half, seeing as there were no guarantees as to when the aliens might change tactics and begin to target anything showing signs of human life.
Pepper moved from the closet to the kitchen, placing several items on one of the counters, then continued on to another part of the house. Tony wandered over to the counter, taking a look at the collection that had grown over the last hour: various spices – which weren’t as stupid a choice as one might have thought, when food supplies became somewhat limited – a few books, a small photo album, and the necklace Tony had given to her in Hong Kong, after he had the arc reactor removed.
Necessities, mementos and something to pass the time – all of which Tony understood, on some level.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up, voice smooth in the new sound-system. Tony was going to miss that, because none of the labs had been built with his AI in mind and this house was, if possible, better equipped for their interaction than the first.
It didn’t mean Tony wasn’t coming back here. He hadn’t given up on this war, unlike some people, and since he was going to be out on the frontlines fighting it…
“The latest calculations have finished,” the AI went on as Tony’s thoughts drifted to the recent past.
“Which ones?” Tony frowned.
“The ones you compiled of the water toxicity with regard to the new water filtering prototype,” J.A.R.V.I.S. reminded him. “I have also received the first readings from the alien corpse Agent Coulson’s team encountered.”
“Lucky bastards,” Tony muttered. “We’ve been trying to kill those things for weeks, and Coulson just trips over one!”
It wasn’t that they hadn’t killed any aliens – far from it, considering how busy Thor and the Hulk had been. The aliens, however, were encased in protective armor that made even Tony a little jealous – especially after a bruising battle – and even though the creature inside perished, the armor either kept fighting or self-destructed, not leaving anything but charred parts for Tony, Bruce and other scientists to poke at afterwards.
That was until a few days ago when Phil Coulson and his team more or less literally stumbled upon an alien corpse and delivered it to the nearest necessarily-equipped facility for tests.
“Copy the data to my cloud server,” Tony ordered.
“Already in progress, sir.” Tony had been moving everything of value to various remote locations since the end of the world was nearing and one had a hard time predicting when the very tangible shit would hit the proverbial fan.
Tony moved away from the kitchen counter and activated a screen on a wall near it, giving the data from the alien body a cursory glance. There were many as yet unidentified elements listed, and it seemed Elizabeth Ross’ pet theory that the aliens weren’t actually carbon-based life forms might actually be true. Tony made a mental note to tell Bruce to pass on his congratulations to her, the next time they spoke – and then demand the most effective way to kill these things en masse.
“Maybe it’s not about us needing the water, but them not liking it,” he mused out loud, looking at the read-outs from a few tissue samples.
“That would seem a viable option, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agreed.
“Maybe I should go and buy a Super Soaker, just in case.” J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t give him lip about how useless such a weapon would be, which was saying something. Tony browsed through the rest of the data with a few sweeps of his hand, then closed the window and watched a small progress bar indicate how far they were in transferring all local files to their back-up destinations.
Seeing as there was still time and Pepper was in the middle of her packing, Tony went back to taking a better look at the new information, running a few virtual tests on the samples. Even the preliminary results showed him that the aliens weren’t allergic to water, but clearly they didn’t need it to survive – at least not in the form it existed on planet Earth.
“I’m sure someone’s already going through all this…” Tony started.
“They are, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agreed. “However, given the limited time, feel free to complete your thought.”
Tony huffed. “Give Dr. Ross a heads up of my random ramblings,” he ordered, knowing J.A.R.V.I.S. would know what to do. “Seeing as our survival depends on a reliable water source, it’s smart to start with why they’re going to so much trouble to pollute it…”
“Other than to destroy life on Earth?”
“Yeah. While it’s a very good plan, I’m not going to assume that’s all there is to it until I’m sure.”
“Of course, sir. Leaving a note in Dr. Ross’ inbox as we speak. She is currently in a meeting, but will no doubt look at your message once she returns to her work.”
“The world’s ending and they’re holding meetings?” Tony grumbled.
“If you cared to sit down for any of the meetings Director Fury, Captain Rogers and Miss Potts attempt to throw your way, you might understand the importance –”
“Not you, too, J,” Tony cut the AI off. “I’m trying to keep my company afloat – the company that is designing and manufacturing most of the weapons currently used in this goddamn war,” he snapped.
“Everyone knows how you loathe to be building weapons again, sir. They appreciate your sacrifice.”
“They had better,” he muttered. “When I’m not designing better ways to blow these alien a-holes back to the dimension they came from, I’m out there, fighting the good fight – and they still expect me to sit through meetings!”
“It sounds very inconsiderate.”
“I’m glad we’re in agreement – and why am I even talking to you about this?” he asked. “You should be on my side.”
“I am, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied, as if he had never disagreed with Tony in the first place. “Sir,” the AI went on unexpectedly, sounding urgent all of a sudden. “An alien aircraft is approaching the Los Angeles County area.”
“Just one?” Tony confirmed.
“One Category 3: Strike Team.” Which meant a fast, small aircraft with a crew of two or more, armed to the teeth.
So far, the alien force had been divided into six different categories by the military scientists after compiling encounters from around the globe.
Category 1 was called ‘Drones’ – a cluster of ships able to merge and divide, cleaning up and controlling seized areas. They were armed but not accompanied by or transporting actual aliens, far as they had seen. Considering that Tony had conducted a post-mortem on a few of the Drones, he was pretty sure they had that category well documented.
Category 2 was ‘Maintenance’, including robots and aliens that never took part in battle and instead focused on keeping the alien ships, battle armor and the aliens themselves in fighting condition. They didn’t appear to be armed or fit for combat, but were often followed by either Drones or a Strike Team – or just random alien troops to ensure their ability to work and then retreat from the battleground.
Category 4 had been dubbed ‘Troop Transfer’ – big, clumsy but sufficiently armed and well-protected ships, transferring alien troops from one place to the next.
Category 5 stood for ‘War Ship’, of which there had been blessedly few: those aircrafts were large, highly weaponized, and able to bring total destruction to a small city in a matter of hours. Tony had never been inside one of them, but he had almost been pulverized by one of their main cannons and even the Hulk had a full day’s workout ahead of him whenever they went up against a War Ship.
Category 6 was a ‘Flag Ship’ – a single ship only seen orbiting the Earth. No one knew if a Flag Ship was battle-ready, or if it was fit to enter the atmosphere, but they were fairly certain that was where the highest chain of command resided. There had been several attempts to destroy the Flag Ship, but so far all those attempts had failed. Tony, among many, had been tasked with finding a way to get past the ship’s defenses, and Tony was aware of the pressure put on him specifically.
None of that knowledge of their enemy was enough to lull him into calmness now that a Category 3 was sighted nearby. It was a known fact that the aliens had only attacked major targets so far, from big cities to strategic military locations, but Tony had fought too many an enemy to dismiss a possible threat when it was approaching.
“Track their flight pattern,” Tony ordered, and J.A.R.V.I.S. brought it up on a screen.
“Still approaching,” the AI noted needlessly.
“Prepare for Blackout Protocol.”
“Shall I warn Miss Potts?”
Tony’s eyes followed the ship’s flight pattern on the screen. It was likely that it was flying past them to join the war effort in Eurasia. The human opposition had made a good stand there, from what Tony had heard, and the Avengers were going to be deployed within 36 hours if the fighting continued. Meaning: the Avengers would join the fight if the human resistance was able to hold off the alien invaders for that long. Right now it seemed likely Tony was going to suit up and fly there with the rest of his team, which was a good sign. There had been way too many losses lately, and any victory was welcome.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. just told me there’s an alien ship in the area,” Pepper’s voice intruded on his thoughts as she walked over, stopping beside him. Tony offered no explanation, knowing she would be able to see it for herself on the screen. “It’s going to pass us by,” she decided finally. “Its trajectory is taking it further north.”
“I can see that,” Tony agreed.
“You’re not in the fight; not today,” Pepper added gently, touching his arm – luring Tony to look away from the screen, at her. “Go to the workshop, take a few things with you,” she encouraged.
“I have plenty of tools at hand wherever I go –”
“Then prepare the bots for the trip,” she insisted. “Do something other than stand here, staring at that screen!” Pepper looked flustered and tired all of a sudden. “You’ll be heading out there in a matter of hours and I need you here with me, while I can still have that.”
He gave Pepper an apologetic smile, sliding his hands to her waist. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I know you’re right, and I should –”
“Flight trajectory changing,” J.A.R.V.I.S. alerted. “Adjusting calculations of possible destinations.”
“Let it be, J,” Tony ordered. “Let me know if something truly alarming happens.” He looked at Pepper, who smiled at him. “Maybe we should make the most of being at home, seeing as it might be the last time…”
“I’m fairly certain we don’t have time for that,” Pepper teased but leaned in to kiss him anyway.
“Category 3 enemy aircraft is slowing down. Current flight pattern will cross over Malibu.”
Pepper drew back from the kiss, looking a bit more hesitant.
Tony’s hands tightened on her waist as he turned his head to look at the screen again.
“Aircraft’s altitude and speed dropping.”
“That’s way lower than the usual flight speed,” Tony noted. “Prepare for Blackout.”
“Starting to power down,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged.
A non-powered building shouldn’t attract any kind of attention from the aliens; the lights dimmed slowly around them, as well as all the equipment that wasn’t required to keep track of the enemy ship’s movements.
Tony’s eyes remained vigilantly on the screen, following the dot on the map and the readings next to it, indicating steady yet lower-than-average speed, not to mention the low altitude. As he watched, the dot began moving closer and closer to the area where they were located, and although the probability was ridiculously small, Tony wasn’t about to be caught with his pants down. “Prep the armor,” he murmured to J.A.R.V.I.S.
“Tony, no,” Pepper told him, voice lower than was necessary, as if the hush of the house wouldn’t care for loud noises. “If you go out there guns blazing, the aliens might retaliate. Just let them fly by.”
She was right, of course. He was just being overly cautious when it wasn’t necessary or called-for. The aliens didn’t make surprise visits to private establishments; their minds were set towards bigger goals, and while Tony would have loved to show them how wrong they were, he knew that in this instance, it was better to bide his time and actually come up with a plan.
The dot closed on Malibu, not showing any signs of speeding up – but not giving any cause for alarm, either. The aliens could simply be checking out the Edwards Air Force Base or some other military area before taking off towards the real battle. Usually Drones took care of such things, but seeing a Category 3 scouting wasn’t totally out of place, either.
As they waited in silence, the dot adjusted its course once more. “Is it just me, or are they making a beeline to the house?” Tony asked out loud.
“Just wait,” Pepper begged, nails digging into the skin of his arms through his shirt.
The dot got closer and closer, moving right at them – then over them and past them. They could hear the rumble of engines, the windows rattling a little. The sound passed, slowly, and Tony arched his neck to see the shadow of the aircraft pass over the house and drift towards the ocean.
Pepper let out a sigh of relief, no matter her conviction that the aliens weren’t interested in them. They never were – until the Category 3 ship turned around above the water, coming to a standstill. It was a creepily similar moment to when Tony’s house was last blown into pieces, and he couldn’t help his heart beating a little faster.
The aircraft began to approach, slowly.
“Pepper, get in the suit,” Tony ordered, letting go of her.
“Don’t argue with me!” he snapped. “Get in the suit, right now.” He looked out through the wide windows and felt like someone was staring right back at him, across the distance, from the alien aircraft. “J.A.R.V.I.S., get the bots into the exit tunnel. Seal the workshop.”
In the corner of the room, by the door, an Iron Man armor came to life, stepping forward. It opened up like a cocoon, waiting to admit Pepper inside.
“Go,” Tony urged her.
“They have no reason to pay attention to us,” Pepper argued, but her eyes flew to the windows. The house vibrated with the proximity of the ship, and it must have been close because Pepper started to move towards the suit, regardless of her initial refusal to enter the armor. “What about you?” she asked. “You only have the one armor with you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Tony promised. His skin was heating up with the looming possibility of a battle. It was too late to get Pepper downstairs and into the tunnel with the bots, which meant he had to get her into the suit, out of the way, and perhaps have J.A.R.V.I.S. fly another one over if things got tricky. Chances were, even now, that the aliens were just intimidating them, although that wasn’t like them.
Tony turned to look out the window again, but the ship was gone, all of a sudden, making him start. “J.A.R.V.I.S., where the hell –”
The wall behind him blew wide open, sending glass, concrete and numerous other objects flying through the air. The impact sent both him and Pepper crashing to the floor, the suit equally unprepared for the assault.
“Sir!” the AI exclaimed before the audio screeched and went silent.
Another explosion immediately followed, larger than the first. Tony briefly envisioned the house collapsing into the ocean, again, despite his newer designs making that less of a possibility.
When that didn’t happen, he scrambled to his knees, ears ringing, dust filling his eyes and clogging up his lungs. He felt small, rhythmic vibrations, then managed to discern the familiar footfalls of alien battle armors. His heart felt like it had jumped into his throat, and knowing what danger loomed just feet from him, the Extremis came ablaze.
Tony’s vision cleared and his lungs could draw in air again. From the midst of the floating dust and smoke, he could make out three of the alien armors – and then Pepper’s form on the floor, just five feet from the nearest alien, lying still.
He didn’t care about the danger, or the chance that he might have gone unnoticed if he stayed still and quiet. Tony got to his feet and rushed towards her, dismissing the small puddles of blood on the broken floor around her and the way her ribs didn’t expand with even a shallow breath. The only thought in his head was that if he got to her, she would be okay.
The nearest alien whirled towards him, taking half a step, then fired a weapon at him. Tony’s feet skidded on the floor, managing to move him to the side just in time to avoid a bleeding crater in his side.
Another alien moved forward, communicating something to the first, and Tony’s irrational hope turned into blind rage as one metal foot landed on Pepper’s arm and she didn’t react in any way.
For a few seconds Tony saw nothing, felt nothing; he comprehended nothing but the potential loss and the burning guilt of being right there and still unable to save Pepper, again. Last time she had survived, but it had been her request that Tony remove the Extremis from her – which had been her route to salvation – to life.
Part of Tony knew she was dead before one of the aliens struck him hard, throwing him to the floor. No sooner was he down than the aliens crowded him, two of them holding him down – not that it would have taken even one; in a suit, Tony could have put up a fight… The suit. Where the hell was the armor?! It had been standing right there when the aliens blasted their way in.
Extremis burned beneath his skin, yet for all its destructive power when Tony truly unleashed it, it wasn’t enough to burn through the alien armor.
The third alien leaned over him, settling one large, armored hand on his head, keeping it pinned to the floor. Instead of staring at his opponents, Tony glanced over at the unmoving form of the love of his life. The fight drained out of him, momentarily. No more responsibilities; no longer carrying the weight of the world, protecting it from one unimaginable threat after another; no more end of the world and fighting for his life.
He could rest…
Something liquid dripped down to his face, into his eyes, and Tony’s head reared against the alien’s hold, a scream breaking loose from his lips. He kicked and struggled, trying to bring up his hands, to wipe away the burn that felt like acid, burrowing down and down until Extremis met it half-way but even that didn’t take away the burn, the pain – and the darkness that followed.
to be continued…