Tony sat, stunned and disappointed, catching his breath. There was no appointed time he had to make the drop, nor any stated deadline. Presumably, that meant he could do it any time he wanted. However, it was likely he was being watched. He didn’t try to hide when he flew over to SI to pick up the thumb drive. They knew when he got the message and if he didn’t act soon, there would undoubtedly be consequences.
Hammer didn’t even promise to give Pepper back if he gave them the Mark V. It sounded like this was just first on the list of things Hammer wanted from him. Do this and maybe I’ll let her live. My friends want this first before we can move on to settling the score.
Where the hell was Rhodey? He’d had plenty of time to get here, even without the X-99. If Tony was going to give these crackpots the Mark V, he really needed to have the Mark VI ready. He faced a second of indecision over whether to call his wayward sidekick that instant or wait until he heard what else JARVIS had gleaned from analysis. The scales tipped slightly to give Rhodey the benefit of doubt for the moment.
His voice calm and determined, he ordered, “Lay it on me, JARVIS.”
“Sir, there is some footage of Miss Potts that was edited out, but it appears it was not erased in the literal sense. Mr. Hammer’s second speech was recorded over it using a program which left vestiges and digital ghosts. I have enhanced the trace to approximately 75% of the original.”
“Play it!” Tony didn’t even feel the need to chide the AI over the 25% that was lost.
The holographic screen lit up and the picture was back to the zoomed-in shot of Pepper, still blindfolded and helpless on the floor, with Hammer squeezing her cheeks together with one hand. If 100% was a Blu-Ray, then 75% was more like Dad’s old 16mm film reels played on a projector. Not perfect, but close enough. Less than one second elapsed before Pepper jerked her face out of Hammer’s grip and caught his finger in her teeth.
Hammer yelped in pain and pulled away. Tony thought he saw blood, but it could have been a shadow. Pepper looked frustrated that she didn’t get a better bite and Hammer whimpered like a baby. It was no wonder he would edit this out, the big wuss. Tony’s lips curled into a grin.
Then, while Hammer was nursing his wound, Pepper spoke in a rush of words, “I quit, Mr. Stark. Do you hear me? I’m not your CEO anymore. You’re not responsible for me. Don’t give this slimy little creep anything!”
Hammer immediately punished her with a forceful kick to her gut. She doubled up in pain, drawing her knees up to her chest, and writhed on the floor, crying piteously.
All the blood left Tony’s face and his insides twisted in knots. He whispered to her holographic projection, “Don’t cry, honey.” He couldn’t stand to hear her cry.
“Cut it, Mac,” Hammer barked from outside the frame, and the clip ended.
“Give me another second,” Tony said softly.
He couldn’t take in anything else right now. Pepper’s piteous cries played over and over in his mind, overlapped with ‘I quit, Mr. Stark’ which was so obviously code for ‘I love you’ that it should have been in the Princess Bride. He reached into his pocket and curled his fingers around the pregnancy test stick, squeezing it tight as if his grip could embrace the unborn child he knew had perished in that horrible moment. He let himself absorb the pain, mourning the child he had only known about for a day.
So why did Hammer cut this out? Was it, as Tony originally thought, personal embarrassment over his wimpy reaction to being bitten? Did he know about the pregnancy? Or was it because he’d hurt Pepper so seriously? Surely that heartless kick proved Hammer’s resolve better than the slap or the forced pucker. Why wouldn’t he want Tony to see what a badass woman-abuser he was?
Again, he worried Pepper was already dead. If that kick had killed her, it would be good reason to hide it. Yet, much as the thought haunted him, it didn’t ring true. He knew his unborn child died in that second. Knew it, not suspected. He felt it in his spirit somehow. But he didn’t feel that way about her. The kick had hurt her and he felt great empathy for that hurt, but it didn’t feel like a mortal blow. He couldn’t write her off. Not yet.
He drew a few deep breaths. “Okay, JARVIS, what else have you got?”
“The padded envelope which held the jump drive had high levels of sodium chloride on the outside surface.”
Thank goodness he’d done all those chemical scans before touching it. “Salt, J? Like tears or sweat?”
“The chemical composition is very close to tears, sir, but it also had traces of pollutants comparable with seawater.”
Hammer had said something about sending him to the bottom of the Atlantic, which could have been a throwaway remark like ‘sleeping with the fishes’, but perhaps it was more. “Okay, so maybe whoever mailed it took a ferry or drove close to the beach. There’s a lot of beach in New York. What else?”
“I ran echo-analysis algorithms on all the sound caught on the recordings.” The Mark V projected a graphic representation of the sound waves by strength and direction, as well as their reflections. The waves disappeared, but each point of reflection remained visible and as time went on, the bounce-points solidified into surfaces. JARVIS sped up the simulation and soon displayed a three-dimensional rendering of the room and its objects, including a fuzzy depiction of Hammer himself, presumably because he had moved while recording. As Tony had guessed, he sat at a laptop computer and the receiver of all the sound was right where a webcam would be mounted.
“There is less data for the room where Miss Potts was held,” JARVIS said in an apologetic tone. The AI did not bother to repeat a simulation of how the echo analysis was done, but only showed the final outline. Thankfully, Pepper was obscured because of all her movement. Tony couldn’t see anything clearly enough to affect him. Likewise, Hammer and the heretofore unseen phone-cam guy, Mac, moved quite a bit, but as their movement was more linear, their figures were more recognizable, like a blurry time-lapse.
“Show both rooms, JARVIS. Remove furniture and people.”
The blurry figures in Pepper’s room and what looked like a mattress in the corner all vanished. In the room where Hammer’s laptop had been, the table, chair, and various other stationary objects disappeared.
The neon blue room outlines slowly rotated, so Tony could see the shapes from all sides, just as he would rotate a design for anything he was inventing. Pepper’s room was half-cylindrical, like a can that had been cut in half from top to bottom, with the door on the flat side represented by the cut. The walls curved seamlessly into the ceiling, but the floor had been flattened a bit. Hammer’s computer room was triple the size, fully cylindrical, with the walls fully curved, flat on the two round ends and a flattened floor that was narrower than the widest point.
“What does that look like to you?” Tony asked, more to think out loud than to get JARVIS’s opinion.
But the AI didn’t realize the question was rhetorical and started flashing pictures which had varying degrees of matching elements to the rendered rooms—everything from airplane fuselages to quonset huts to submarines, with the latter showing the best matches.
“Did Hammer Industries ever build submarines for the Navy?” Tony asked.
“No, sir. But the best match is not a military submarine. It is a private model manufactured by U.S. Submarines.” The holographic screen reported 99.3% match with their Phoenix 2000 class of luxury sub, listed at 140 million dollars. JARVIS continued without pause, “While their records are not public, Mr. Deshpande’s computer records indicate he recently found an invoice from U.S. Submarines showing Ashley Hammer purchased a Phoenix 2000 class submarine from them in 2009. It was dubbed The Villa. Current whereabouts unknown.”
“Ashley Hammer? A relative?”
“Apparently an older sister to Justin, but a death certificate shows she was deceased before his birth.”
“JARVIS, ring up Jim Cameron. Time to call in a favor.”
“A Canadian filmmaker with 11 Oscars owes you a favor, sir?”
“Back from that Dances-with-Smurfs flick.”
“You funded Avatar and didn’t get your name in the credits?” The A.I’s incredulous tone played well here. Tony didn’t pass up many chances to soak up limelight. And actually, it did seem rather unbelievable. Cameron was one of the few people whose wealth and ego rivaled Tony’s. The man once declared himself “king of the world” during the Academy Awards.
“Not funding. He had plenty of cash from Titanic Tearjerker.” Pepper loved—no, she loves—that movie. He tried to hurry past the thought before a lump formed in his throat. “He needed more computer power for blue aliens than he did to hit a boat with a giant ice cube. I helped him out a little.” It really wasn’t much. After all, Cameron cut his teeth on Terminator and Aliens. It wasn’t like the guy had no experience in CGI. Still, Tony thought he’d made an amiable connection, one he could impose upon to ask a small favor.
“Sir, you realize he donated the Deepsea Challenger to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.” JARVIS had switched to a more sympathetic tone once he figured out where Tony was going with his reasoning.
But no, Tony didn’t realize the man had donated his record-breaking submersible to someone else. Pepper would have said that was just desserts after Tonydonated the modern art collection to the Boy Scouts. “No matter. That was just a one-seater anyway. I need something bigger and more maneuverable, but doesn’t have to go quite that deep. He’ll hook me up.” He really hoped whatever he got wasn’t that nasty lime green Cameron used. Probably looked fantastic in a National Geographic documentary, but it wasn’t really a good look for Iron Man. Too bad he didn’t have time to order up his own Phoenix 2000 and paint it red and gold.
In another fifteen minutes, Tony had a seat on a private sub from one of Cameron’s friends. It was moored in a cozy little berth off Newport. From what he was told, this loaner was about a third the size of a Phoenix, but rated just as deep. Moreover, it had state-of-the-art sonar and all the latest underwater gadgets. Even if Hammer’s offhand remark could be taken literally, the Atlantic Ocean was pretty damned big and Tony still had no idea where in the Atlantic the Villa might be.