Amaurosis • Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Brimstone / Fire
Day 183 of the Alien-Human War
The ground vibrated with each heavy step of the alien exo-suit. That alone was not enough to tell Tony how far away it was, or if it was coming closer to him.
He hated being defenseless and at the mercy of his enemy’s whims. There was nowhere for him to run as long as he could not see his surroundings, and staying put was just as dangerous as moving away.
The comm had gone silent while he was still trapped in the suit. With the damage he had sustained in the fight, Tony was willing to believe the connection had simply been broken instead of accepting a more gruesome possibility: that there was no one left to listen to the comm even if his had been operational.
Another footfall landed, clearly coming closer to him, and Tony moved to back away, feet shuffling, trying to predict the obstacles around him. His arms were spread out, feeling nothing but air, but it made him feel like he was doing all he could to map out his surroundings and prevent himself from running into anything.
“Come on,” he muttered, his heart weary of beating so fast, the adrenaline spike already stretched out to what felt like maximum capacity. “Make your move,” he taunted the alien. He feared what would happen next, but waiting for it was worse. Like a slow, torturous death instead of a clean, precise cut…
His head shot up, neck aching. He knew the voice, but had no idea where exactly it was coming from.
“Duck!” came the next order, sharp and not to be mistaken for a request; Tony followed the command, throwing himself down, and instantly heard the gun mounted to the shoulder of Rhodey’s suit go off, bullet after bullet hitting a target, bouncing off and grinding into alien metal in turns. Tony tried to listen, to track Rhodey’s progress, but the sounds made his ears ring.
Suddenly, Rhodey stopped shooting. There were three viable options: either he was out of ammo, the weapon had become jammed, or the target was finally neutralized.
Tony raised his head, trying to figure out which of the three it was, then jerked as something closed around his shoulder, trying to yank him up.
“Are you hurt?” Rhodey asked, and the grip instantly became more recognizable in Tony’s brain; armored fingers, human sized.
“Not too badly,” Tony said, knowing that Rhodey could see him bleeding. “The suit’s bust.”
“Okay,” his friend acknowledged, hastily pulling him to his feet, doing more harm than good as Tony attempted to find his footing and keep his balance. “You need to run,” Rhodey added, words quick as if he were in a hurry. “Where’s your helmet?”
“Broken,” Tony explained succinctly.
“Fuck,” Rhodey swore and spoke even faster: “The others are too far away, and I can’t –”
There was a whine of metal and Rhodey’s grip on him tightened and pulled. Tony let out a sharp yell as he was yanked to the side – only to be released an instant later, War Machine’s touch vanishing and painfully sending him down to his knees.
Something scraped against the ground in front of him, the sound suggesting mechanical force, followed by the sound of grinding metal and something that was vaguely like a punch.
“Rhodey?!” Tony called out, not knowing what was happening.
“Run!” Rhodey shouted, voice strained. A repulsor fired, again and again, and Tony struggled back to his feet, his body starting to shake. He could tell Rhodey was fighting hard, but not in the air. The only explanation was that the alien armor wasn’t done fighting, and Rhodey could not properly fight back while Tony was still there.
Tony tried to steady his breathing and calm down. He tried to recall the area, but in between flying, landing, shooting and flying again, then tangling with exo-suits… Honestly, he had no idea where he was, what was around him or where he might be able to find shelter. Rhodey was telling him to run, which was a reasonable request because Tony could easily get killed or knocked out standing next to two mechanical suits going at each other.
Slowly, he started to make his way away from what he hoped was the direction of the battle. His mind kept track of the weapons Rhodey was using, and the sounds of stress from his armor. He hadn’t gone a dozen feet before he realized that Rhodey hadn’t taken the battle to the next level because of his proximity, but because he could not: his armor was damaged, and Tony didn’t need to see diagnostic reports to be able to guess how extensive some of it was.
He turned, facing towards the battle again, desperation coiling within him once more. If he ran, it would not make a difference. Rhodey would fight, and he might win – or he might lose, only because he had come to save Tony’s sorry ass. Tony knew his friend and the commitment between them, and Rhodey was doing exactly what Tony would do, too, if their places were reversed: no matter the condition of his armor, he would step in to protect his teammate – his best friend.
Just like Rhodey, Tony would have told an unarmed man to run away from the fight, to save himself, but would Rhodey have run?
Of course, Rhodey was not blind, and he could actually do something, while Tony’s only contribution was to stand there and wring his hands, trying to wish away the damage from his eyes so that he could help in some small way.
A sudden, heavy thud made him start and take a hesitant step back; he tried to envision the alien battle armor falling down, but for some reason it sounded like the weight hitting the ground had been lighter and smaller – human-sized. His hearing strained to detect any sound from Rhodey, but as always, separating one thing from another in the midst of a battle was nigh on impossible without a visual aid.
It was like being frozen in place: no matter what happened, he could not stop it. He would stand there as his best friend died in front of him, just as he had stood there the day Pepper died, too slow to react, foolishly believing in their odds at not being noticed, trusting in the pattern their enemies had followed up until then.
The aliens had broken the pattern by attacking him, and there was nothing Tony would have liked more than to break the pattern himself, to shake himself free from the darkness and avenge what he had lost.
A grinding sound, metal complaining, straining to keep its shape against an unyielding pressure. That was a familiar concept, a sound he had heard a thousand times since first crafting his armor: something strong trying to make the metal alloy yield in order to destroy the pilot inside.
Then, Rhodey’s voice: “Tony…” It was broken and breathless, cracked even during the two syllables it took to utter his name – as if it physically hurt him to speak.
“Rhodey,” Tony replied, stepping forward.
“Don’t,” Rhodey warned, and Tony could almost hear an unnatural wetness in his breaths.
If I can hear him breathe, the armor must be…
His body shook as a new wave of adrenaline rushed through him. The knowledge that Rhodey’s suit had to be broken filled him with sickening dread. Rhodey wasn’t moving towards him, so he had to be caught inside it still, and somewhere in the vicinity the alien loomed, ready to finish them both.
Before, Tony had been somewhat willing to give up, but that was when only his own life had been on the line. Rhodey was out there, almost within his reach, and Tony had to find a way to protect him.
He had to find a way to fight.
A screech met his defiance, coming from the alien. Tony heard it step forward – heard Rhodey shouting at him to get away.
His heart was hammering in his chest, his senses screaming at him to run, but at the same time he felt frozen to the spot, unable to see or to run – unable to do anything but curl into himself like a frightened animal, hoping that the odds would be in his favor and he would go unnoticed.
He felt the air stir before something hard slammed into him, pummeling his upper body and slamming him down to the ground. Everything hurt for a moment, his tongue bleeding into his mouth, his skull aching, every heartbeat throbbing through him. Thudding steps came towards him, prompting him to roll and crawl away, bleeding hands trying to find something to grab onto.
Tony sensed the battle armor above him, like a shadow looming at his back. He envisioned a foot rising for a final attack, a kick or a stomp, to finish what they had started so long ago.
“Tony!” Rhodey roared, and something swished through the air, instantly followed by an explosion. Metal groaned and the raised foot landed so close to him that Tony could feel the air stir against his face.
The battle armor turned away from him, back towards Rhodey. Tony waited for another explosion or a blast from a repulsor, but there was nothing but the sounds of the exo-suit and his own breaths.
“No,” he murmured, fingers curling into tight fists. The small wounds on his hands stung, reminding him of his struggle out of the mangled armor. He should have stayed in it and died with some dignity – should not have stumbled out and forced Rhodey to come save him, only to get killed in his stead.
Stubborn, loyal Rhodey, who had stuck with him through thick and thin, always somehow believing in him, no matter how many times Tony made his life impossible with his actions.
Rhodey, who held him on those first nights of terror after he let the team help him, reminding him that he wasn’t alone in the darkness that was not just a nightmare.
If Rhodey died, there was no one who could ever replace him in Tony’s life.
Nails digging into the skin of his palms, Tony felt his breaths catch in his throat, desperation thrown into a higher gear and constricting his insides in a painful grip.
Somewhere within that grip, a spark ignited, burning in his chest before it raced through his entire nervous system. It felt like an adrenaline rush on super-soldier steroids, wracking his entire being before seating itself at his very core, burning brighter, burning stronger, burning…
Tony grew aware of his skin heating up as the fever emanated from the center of his chest. A pressure not unlike the lingering ghost sensation of the arc reactor increased, tendrils of it reaching up his spine and into his skull, changing the throbbing into a tingling, prickling pins and needles.
A red cloth was seemingly placed over his eyes, and as Tony fought to breathe through it, not to lose consciousness, he almost failed to notice the significance of that; the darkness he was so accustomed to living in when the implants were offline was no longer black but bleeding through with bloody red, and as the prickling sensation grew into a rather searing pain behind his eyeballs, the red began to win over and his brain realized he was seeing shapes.
Day 176 of the Alien-Human War
The Hulk had landed on a Category 5, fists a hail of fury as they had pulled apart entire sections of the War Ship’s roof before he had moved on to his next target: a Drone that had flown up to meet the attack and got punched into pieces as a roar of rage traveled the crater’s walls.
Thor had shown no more mercy as he had brought down the lightning and the impressive might of his weapon, Mjolnir painting its name with the blood of their enemies.
When Tony and Rhodey descended from the sky, they focused on the ships that looked like they were trying to take off. A little over twenty square miles made it a challenge, but they had clearly caught the aliens with their pants down and the Hulk seemed to understand, without explanation, that letting their enemies become airborne was bad for the battle.
“Focus on long-range targeting,” Tony told J.A.R.V.I.S. “Choose targets by urgency.”
“Mark 54 has mapped the battlefield. Would you like to see the recent updates?” the AI asked.
“Where is Hades?” Tony asked as he motioned to see the detailed layout of the caldera and the positions of the team in relation to the aliens. He could see Cap leading Clint and Natasha down the side of the caldera, no doubt to make themselves useful.
“Above us, outside the range of the battle. The disturbances caused by Mjolnir are forcing it to keep its distance.”
“Don’t let it get caught in the fight,” Tony ordered and delivered another missile to a Category 4 that was trying to start moving away from the Hulk’s current location. “How’s it looking so far?” he asked J.A.R.V.I.S., because the AI would be able to read the battle as it took place a lot more efficiently than anyone else.
“We are going to run out of ammunition before we seize victory,” the AI reported.
“Then let’s try and save some,” Tony decided, knowing that being this heavily outnumbered didn’t bode well for them. He arched lower and emptied one set of lasers on a nearby War Ship, gaining its attention as the weapon cut through the hull at the last minute. One of the huge cannons mounted on the War Ship’s side began to trace his movements, and Tony weaved down as if to escape.
“The enemy has locked onto us,” J.A.R.V.I.S. notified him.
“Good,” Tony ground out as he prepared to turn sharply. The HUD warned him that the War Ship’s weapon was still following, preparing to fire, and he weaved again, making a show of evading the targeting system.
The HUD flared up with a warning as the War Ship finally fired, and Tony made a final sharp turn, then turned off the thrusters, deployed the flaps, and twisted his body so that the armor began to fall rapidly. The War Ship’s weapon was unable to react so fast –and hit another War Ship parked behind Tony, blasting an impressive, smoking hole in the side of the second ship.
Tony restarted the thrusters, switching the fall into a controlled glide and turned up sharply, taking to the skies again, on the lookout for the next target he could trick into shooting one of their own.
“Nice one,” Rhodey congratulated him over the comm. “Tag team the Troop Transfer at my twelve?”
“Would if I could,” Tony responded. “We can’t engage for too long because we can’t let any of these other suckers escape and rain down hell on us.”
Rhodey grunted his assent. “It’s hard to dismiss an opening, especially when that’s what we’ve been doing for almost half a year,” he complained.
“Just remember the big picture,” Tony encouraged. “This is a new game plan and we need to stick to it.”
“We can’t hold them on the ground/ground them forever. You know that, right?” Rhodey said back and sent a missile of his own towards another War Ship that was trying to gain altitude.
Tony knew that. They needed to do enough damage to remove their enemy’s ability to extend the battlefield into the air, but that required attack power. The Hulk was doing a good job at creating chaos on the ground alongside Thor, but eventually that wouldn’t be enough – especially not when the alien ships began to aim their weapons towards the bottom of the caldera, shooting at the Hulk even at the risk of hitting each other, trying to pin him down.
Thor escaped the worst of it, attempting to draw some of the fire, but the aliens had clearly decided on their target.
“The Hulk can’t take that for much longer,” Steve observed over the comm.
“Either that or they’ll make him really mad,” Tony countered, biting his lip. He had seen Hulk get hurt, and he had seen him get mad. Whether he had a limit at either end of the spectrum, no one knew.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly, “there is an increasing destabilization occurring beneath the caldera.”
Tony brought forward the new readings, both from his armor and Hades. “Is it going to collapse?” he asked, trying to figure out the changes and what they meant.
“Yes and no: the alien weapons seem to be causing an unexpected reaction, and I believe it is gearing up towards an explosion.”
“Eruption?” Tony frowned.
“Not in the literal sense, but I would suggest vacating the area.”
“Keep an eye on it,” Tony ordered and switched back to the outgoing channel. “Cap, it may be best you take Hawk and Widow and retreat.”
“Why?” Steve asked, a little out of breath; the trio was fending off a swarm of Drones and a couple aliens in battle armors which had most likely been sentries near the rim.
“Things may be about to blow up – big time,” Tony explained.
There was no response and Tony wondered if Steve had heard him.
“I thought it was dormant,” the super-soldier came back on a moment later.
“The way they’re trying to shoot Hulk and peppering the bottom of the caldera, any magma left down there is starting to act up.”
Silence followed again and Tony busied himself with the shepherding duties he and Rhodey had been saddled with.
“How big an explosion?” Steve asked when he spoke up next.
“Don’t know,” Tony said, knowing it was unhelpful. “Might be safest not to be at the center of it when things start to go boom.”
“But will it be enough to do damage to the aliens?”
Tony could definitely see the logic behind that question. “Probably, if we manage to keep them pinned down,” he guessed.
“Then keep them where they are,” Steve ordered. “We’ll…”
“Just get out of dodge,” Tony told him. “We might not have time to come pick you up when things start heating up.”
“We’ll manage,” was all Steve said. Tony knew that he was a stubborn son of a bitch, and Clint and Natasha would most likely agree with him if they thought it was for the best.
Tony sighed and relayed the notice of impending doom to Rhodey, who was skeptical of the magnitude of the explosion.
“Won’t the aliens notice if the crater is about to blow in their faces?”
“Let’s keep them too busy for anything else,” Tony decided and flew towards where he had last seen Thor. He switched on the external speakers, seeing as Thor’s comm rarely lasted through the first bout of lightning and thunder. “Hey, Caped Crusader! I need you to stay up here with Rhodey, bringing down all you’ve got to make sure the aliens ships stay pinned as close to the bottom of the crater as possible.”
Thor nodded his head, indicating that he had heard. Tony could spot a few tears in his cape, but other than that it was impossible to tell if he was injured. Not injured enough to keep him from lifting his hammer and summoning down the thunder storm of the century, apparently, and Tony steered his suit further down than before, into the midst of the enemy fire.
“What are you doing, Tone?” Rhodey asked, worry coloring his words.
“Giving the big guy a hand and making sure that the enemy fire keeps going in the right direction,” Tony replied, voice already tighter as he tried to avoid getting hit; the armor would not hold against too many shots from a Category 5’s main cannons, as he had learned in the past. It increased his respect for the Hulk’s power anew, seeing the green beast raging on as shot after shot took him down – only to be met with an angry retort. Chunks of rock went flying past Tony and towards the attacking ships, most of them being pulverized before they met their target but getting the message across loud and clear: the Hulk didn’t like being shot at, and he wasn’t going to stay down.
“Hey, Jade Jaws!” Tony called out after he almost got his own face plastered with volcanic rock. “Friendly fire coming through,” he quipped and flew past him, then angled the chest RT towards the nearest War Ship and let it rip, the vibrations shivering through the suit. It wasn’t enough to bring the War Ship down, but it did do some damage.
Tony glanced at the readings from beneath the caldera and flew westwards, attracting a larger portion of the enemy fire to follow him than he had expected. One of the shots grazed his foot, sending him into an uncontrollable spiral and a painful roll on the crater floor, but no one commented on it so it must have gone unnoticed by his team.
He grimaced when the rolling stopped. “That’s gonna bruise,” he grunted at the pain blooming at random points around his body. His brain felt like someone had stuck it in a metal bucket and beat it a few times too many. When the pain didn’t fade, though, and the wooziness increased, he wondered if he’d got a concussion.
“Dodge!” J.A.R.V.I.S. warned an instant before the suit moved itself, jettisoning him roughly to the side – just in time to avoid being blasted by the enemy.
The impact of the weapon sent up a wave of pressure that tossed him further back like an autumn leaf. The HUD blinked and shivered, giving him readouts of a blast that could have turned a small city into a crater of its own, and which certainly would have cooked his suit inside out.
It had missed him – but it most certainly hit something else, deep beneath the ground: Tony felt the floor of the caldera shiver and then arch upwards like leavening dough.
“Explosion imminent,” his AI warned.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, trying to react. “Where are the others?”
“The Hulk is still fighting. Lieutenant Rhodes and Mr. Odinson are still above the enemy force – and Captain Rogers is leading Agents Barton and Romanoff towards the rim but they will never make it in time.”
“Rhodes,” Tony called out, “take Thor and get Cap and the others out of here. I’ll grab the Hulk.”
“How do you ‘grab’ the Hulk?” Rhodey asked. “What’s happening down there?”
“Things are about to blow. No time to argue. Go!” Tony ordered. At this speed, they wouldn’t need to distract the enemy before whatever was left of the magma blew in their faces. Tony knew better than to hang around and struggled to his feet.
“Sir, your brain activity is indicating we are fast approaching the time limit of the implants,” J.A.R.V.I.S. warned.
That explained the wooziness. “Not yet,” Tony said and tried to focus. “Up,” he said, knowing the vocal command made miracles in a pinch, and the suit responded by shooting him into the air. Aiming back towards where he had last seen the Hulk, Tony wondered how hard it was to find one green rage monster in the middle of an erupting volcano? Steam was rising from the cracks in the earth and the whole bottom of the caldera was lifting up. It was possible it was mostly pressure that was trying to escape, but if there was enough gas in there to ignite…
He switched to tracking gamma radiation and soon caught sight of the Hulk, tilting a suit to shoot towards him. Either the Hulk was too far gone to realize what was happening beneath his feet or he did not care, because he was still fighting, smashing at a small army of alien battle armors that were pouring out of a fallen Troop Transfer.
“Hulk!” Tony called out as he got close enough. “We need to split, now!”
All he got in return was a roar and an exo-suit tossed in his general direction. He dodged the projectile and kept approaching. He wasn’t sure which was going to hit critical first, the caldera or the implants, but either way, he needed to get his point across.
“We need to go!” he shouted again, knowing the armor could boost his voice without him needing to yell, but the situation called for releasing a little steam of his own.
The Hulk glanced towards him. There was no knowing if it was his tone or the words that caught his attention – or the slow, limping approach of yet another War Ship which had clearly followed Tony – but while he had it, Tony knew he had to keep the attention on him, too.
“Enough smashing. I’ll give you a lift,” Tony promised.
Beneath the Hulk’s feet, the ground reached its breaking point and split in two. Steam gushed out, along with a cloud of dust and gas long compressed beneath the caldera’s floor. Some of the particles were not what Tony would have expected but then, volcanoes and alien weaponry were an odd mix that clearly didn’t go together.
“Jump!” Tony shouted, and the Hulk did, landing on the edge of the fallen Category 4 and then leaped again, high into the air.
Tony almost forgot to follow as the gas ignited and the earth burst open beneath him. J.A.R.V.I.S. was not so enraptured by it, though, thrusting him up past the enemy ships and out of the cloud of destruction – only to intercept the Hulk mid-air.
The Hulk grabbed onto his left leg, and for a moment it felt like the weight would drag them both down – not to mention dislocate something – but the suit held fast and got an extra boost from the cloud rising from below, the wind suddenly changing direction.
Had Tony been relying on human vision, he might have been blinded, but he navigated the cloud easily, deciding this was not the time to worry about the Hulk’s lung capacity. They cleared the cloud although the extra weight was slowing him down, forcing him to fly lower and lower – but not too low to crash into the caldera’s wall.
“Where are the others?” Tony asked. He prayed they had cleared the scene in time – especially when something literally blew up behind them and fire and rocks shot high into the air, arching up before starting to rain down. “Crap,” Tony swore, knowing he could not dodge them all.
J.A.R.V.I.S. pinpointed the rest of the team, safely inside the Quinjet that was flying towards them, no doubt to meet him and the Hulk half-way.
“Tell those idiots to retreat from the blast range,” Tony grumbled. “No need for all of us to get blown out of the sky.”
“Can it and fly faster,” Clint deadpanned over the comm.
“Have you tried flying with a Hulk dangling from your leg?” Tony snapped back but increased the thrusters’ output as much as he dared.
A boulder the size of a golf cart hit him in the shoulder a moment later, dropping them several dozen feet in the air before Tony could pull them back up. The Hulk grunted but hung on, smacking away another falling piece of rock, upsetting Tony’s balance just about as much as being hit by the rock, albeit a bit less painful.
The Quinjet reached them an uncomfortably long forty seconds later, aligning in the air before the hatch opened to receive them. Tony knew there was no time for fine-tuned acrobatics and increased the thrust power enough to swing Hulk onto the ramp, then followed himself, blasting a rock that was about to hit the aircraft as he went.
“Fly us out of here, Barton!” he called out.
“Then tell your bots to stop backseat driving!” the archer yelled back.
Tony took in the scene: the bots had crammed their arms into the cockpit and were clearly trying to help Clint steer. “Dummy, You, get out of there,” he ordered sharply.
“Don’t be mad at them,” Steve surprised him. “We would have never made it back to the Quinjet if those two hadn’t flown it closer to the rim.”
Tony, obviously, looked confused even while still encased in the armor. “What?” he asked.
“The bots assisted with flying,” J.A.R.V.I.S. explained. “Some of the functions required a physical touch and I could not remotely operate the Quinjet in order to intercept you and the rest of the team.”
The Hulk muttered something about not being fast enough, but as Tony looked over his shoulder, he could see the caldera still spitting out fire and rock – and simultaneously swallowing the alien camp.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up again, “may I remind you that the implants are dangerously close to overloading your brain as we speak.”
Tony had grown so used to the throbbing on the flight from the caldera that he had almost forgotten. He took one last look at their field of victory, then sighed and reached up to undo the armor’s helmet. “Disconnect the implants,” he told his AI – knowing that J.A.R.V.I.S. would soon do it without being told to.
“Yes, sir,” the AI complied through the earpiece and Tony’s brain instantly felt like someone had turned on the cooler as his world went dark.
“That went better than expected.” Natasha mused while Tony got out of the armor. Rhodey came to help him with it, silent in his exhaustion and relief that they were all still alive. Tony agreed with Natasha’s statement although he didn’t feel like saying much, either.
“Today, we were mighty,” Thor agreed. He sounded weary, and Tony wondered how much juice playing the god of thunder sucked out of him.
“Guys,” Clint called back to them over the sound of the wind; with Bruce still big and green, there was limited space at the back of the Quinjet, and the ramp wasn’t fully closed. “I hope you’re not done being all mighty and shit: there are several Category 3’s coming after us for seconds.”
to be continued…