Lt. Col. James Rhodes glanced at the chronometer in the HUD of the War Machine armor as he passed from Quebec time to Romeo, the local time for New York. He’d slept over the Med and most of the Atlantic, thankful Tony had given his suit the technology that allowed it. It was a long way from Bagram, and he’d been crazy-busy both before and after his friend’s second call.
He didn’t tell his superiors Stark had handed over a set of armor to anyone connected to Ten Rings because he didn’t want his best friend accused of treason. Tony could probably win any case against him, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t giving away military secrets in order to make a profit, like that scum Stane did. Tony was parting with a prosthesis—a part of himself—because someone else’s life depended on it. Rhodey had laughed when Tony used that definition in Congress, but now that he’d used the armor himself, he understood just how apt a description it was.
Furthermore, there was no doubt Tony was in love with Pepper. Tony might not know it yet, but anyone who knew him before, knew what a playboy he’d been, could see he wasn’t like that anymore. There was no reason he had to change that aspect of his life just because he became Iron Man or switched his company’s focus from weapons to energy. Tony Stark didn’t do a damned thing he didn’t want to do. He stopped chasing women because he’d found the perfect one for him and no other hot body could hold a candle to that.
Therefore, Rhodey couldn’t blame Tony any more than he could blame any other rich guy for ransoming a daughter or a wife. However, most men who paid ransom just kissed it goodbye and prayed the kidnappers would make good on their promises. Tony was way too smart and way too cunning to depend on wishes. Not to mention, he was way too egotistical to let anyone else even appear to be Iron Man. It was Tony’s identity, his alter-ego. Giving up his armor was more than payment. It was a tactic.
And because Rhodey could point to Stark’s genius reputation, the general had to allow War Machine to tag along in Stark’s tactic, whatever it might be. Stark had more reason to hate these Ten Rings guys than anybody and he had resources and, most importantly, a lead, which was more than military intel had. All Rhodey had to do was convince the general they would accomplish more by helping Stark than sending War Machine on more wild goose chases.
So here he was, twenty minutes from New York, well-rested, and ready to kick some major terrorist butt. He had the HUD dial up Tony’s cell. It rang three times and went to voicemail. All right. I deserve that. You asked for my help and I didn’t push my superiors hard enough until after I wasted a bunch of time. I get it. He cut off the connection, waited five minutes, and called again. Voicemail. He hung up again. Okay, Tony, you’ve made your point. I’m in the doghouse. At least GPS me and notice I’m here now. I’m trying to make it right.
“Third time’s the charm,” he whispered to himself. Tony could be juvenile, but he usually came around, mostly so he could gloat about it. When the third attempt also went to voicemail, Rhodey decided to leave a message this time. “Look, Tony, I said I was sorry. I’m flying into New York right now. Are you going to talk to me?” He paused, not sure what else to say.
“Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes voiceprint recognized. I am afraid Mr. Stark is unable to take your call.” It was JARVIS, Tony’s disembodied butler-bot thing.
“Is he with you or are you in enemy hands now?”
“Neither statement is true, Colonel. The Mark V is currently in the possession of those who kidnapped Miss Potts. I have very limited functionality at that location, but I am programmed to monitor what is spoken near the suitcase in order to thwart any attempts to open or operate the armor. Sudden loss of communication and hearsay indicate Mr. Stark was accosted at the ransom drop and is now a prisoner with Miss Potts in a different compartment of Mr. Hammer’s submarine. However, those who made such implications are not considered reliable and their statements could have been staged.”
“Where was the drop?”
“Central Park. I am relaying coordinates to you.” A map with a blinking dot popped up on his HUD.
“I’ll check it out. Do you have coordinates for the Mark V?” And Tony and Pepper.
“Coordinates were relayed directly to Mr. Stark’s mobile tracking application integrated on his phone until the homing device was transported out of range. Coordinates were not broadcast to any other location or kept in my memory banks for security reasons.”
“What’s the range of the homing device?”
“Within the Earth’s atmosphere, the range is unlimited. There is no data available for the vacuum of space or underwater. However, Mr. Stark estimates the underwater range to be no more than 300 feet. The Phoenix 2000 has a published depth capacity of 1200 feet.”
“So let me get this straight. If Tony miraculously doesn’t have his phone with him, and I can find it, we can get coordinates of wherever the suit went until it dropped below 300 feet.”
“But who knows how much further they traveled after going that deep.”
“The Phoenix-class submarine is incapable of speeds exceeding 20 knots while submerged. Furthermore, that speed would deplete the diesel within six hours.”
Rhodey grinned. “So they have to go slow to conserve fuel because there are no gas stations out there and coming into shore makes them vulnerable. Thanks, JARVIS.”
“You are welcome, sir. You should also be aware I am still fully functional in Mr. Stark’s Malibu residence and in the Mark VI armor, which is currently en route to New York with Mr. Hogan, aboard the Stark Jet.”
A pang of guilt hit him. Happy had to fly all the way to California and back to get the suit Tony had asked him to bring. Maybe if Tony had had his suit before the drop, he wouldn’t have been taken prisoner. This whole mission would have been a lot less messy with one less hostage and one more rescuer. Bad though he felt, the Air Force officer couldn’t change the past. He had to move forward from here.
“Can I reach you through Tony’s number again?”
“Yes, Colonel. I can also transfer nearly full capability into the War Machine, if you require.”
Of course. JARVIS had been part of the original Mark II. Hammer removed it to put in “upgraded” software that turned out to be an open door for Vanko to hijack it. Tony had put some software back when he did repairs, but Rhodey knew he didn’t have the same level of sophistication as Tony’s newer suits. War Machine didn’t have the ever-present British voice, but he wasn’t sure whether Tony did that as a favor or a penalty. “Great. I’ll keep that in mind. Rhodes out.”
He flew to the target in Central Park. The closer he got, the map became more detailed, just like zooming in on Google maps. The blinking dot became two marked locations, one of them labeled ‘designated drop area’ and the other ‘last communication with A.E. Stark’. Rhodey landed by a hot dog stand and tromped over to the drop spot.
A trashcan stood in a pile of leaves, but the leaves were all oak, right underneath a maple tree, and there were no oak trees in the vicinity. What kind of idiot didn’t use local leaves to attempt camouflage? He grabbed the trashcan and used it as a crude tool to brush away the oak leaves. Upon raising it, however, he found the can’s bottom missing. The manhole lid underneath showed signs of recent disturbance. Not hard to figure out what happened to the Mark V.
He did a cursory scan of the area, but, not surprisingly, found nothing. Undeterred, he consulted the map and proceeded to the second blinking light. He had to navigate around some trees, but it was obvious Tony had picked this spot as a vantage point to watch the drop. Either he didn’t know about the hollow bottom, or he felt the need to hide while he watched his tracking readout. He was well off the beaten path here, but wild grasses covered the ground, so it didn’t look good for getting a footprint or using any kind of conventional tracking.
However, two pieces of metal were immediately detected by his scans and their outlines blinked neon in the HUD display. The first was a pair of compact binoculars—compact, but heavy. These were no cheap opera glasses someone ditched after a bad off-Broadway play. Sure enough, the Stark Industries logo was engraved into the metal.
The other blinking outline was the jackpot: Tony’s phone. Well, it looked like a phone, anyway. It had one of those expensive “gorilla” covers that guaranteed the hardware against every possible hazard including scratches, water, and impact. Tony, however, was never satisfied to just have the latest tech from Apple. As in everything else, his hardware was at least two steps ahead of anything available to the masses.
Rhodey grinned and picked it up, but he didn’t try to operate the touch screen with armor-covered fingers. He decided to confer with Happy as soon as he landed. Maybe he could help him get out of the suit. He took off and headed to the airport.
War Machine tapped into air traffic control’s computers to discover the Stark Jet would land in another thirty minutes. Rhodey landed and started walking through the terminal. Curious stares met him along the way, but at least these folks remembered the Expo. War Machine wasn’t nearly as popular as Iron Man, but he was more of a hero here than in California. He didn’t attempt to pass the security check-point as TSA would most likely have a full-blown hissy fit just seeing him coming.
A little boy tapped on his metal shin and offered him a can of root beer. Rhodey removed his helmet to say thanks, placing Tony’s phone inside the upturned sphere. He shook the kid’s hand as gently as he could before he accepted the can. He’d been flying for hours with nothing to eat or drink the whole time, so it was actually quite welcome. Now if only he could figure out how to open the thing with bulky metal fingers. He stared at the can after the kid retreated. Tony would have some cool way to handle this, but at the moment, Rhodey could think of nothing except ripping the entire top off with his titanium gloves.
The child’s mother stepped forward. “May I?” She reached for the can and popped the tab for him.
He grinned sheepishly. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She gave him a sexy smile, waggled her brows once, and winked before dropping a calling card into his helmet. “Call me, Stud Machine.” Then she grabbed her son’s hand and walked off.
Who ever said New Yorkers weren’t friendly?
He didn’t trust any chair to support him with all the metal and ammo he was wearing, but he found a concrete bench where he could sit and enjoy his root beer. He waved a lot and posed for pictures. He remembered Tony’s return from Afghan captivity and how the first thing he wanted was an American cheeseburger. Besides thinking that sounded really good right now, the memory carried an unexpected twinge. The same guys had Tony again. Would they let him live to eat another cheeseburger?
Finally, Happy emerged, pushing what looked like a casket on a gurney. It startled Rhodey for a second, but then he realized it had to be the Mark VI. No wonder Tony invented the suitcase model.
Rhodey stood and walked over to meet Happy. The clanking of his steps made sure he wasn’t missed.
The chauffeur looked up from the gurney. “Welcome back from Afghanistan, Colonel.”
“Thanks. Did JARVIS tell you what’s going on?”
“Yeah. He said you were going to check it out.”
Rhodey reached into his helmet and pulled out Tony’s phone. “This should have some information on it. I was afraid to touch it with these on though.” He turned the phone over to emphasize his armor-covered hand.
Happy looked around the public terminal. “We shouldn’t do anything here. It’s not secure.”
“I don’t suppose Tony has a gantry anywhere closeby so I can get out of this?”
“I hear they’re building one into the balcony of Stark Tower, but it’s not ready. You could always go use the one in Flushing Meadows.”
“The Tent of Tomorrow?” He suppressed a shudder. The Expo grounds did not hold good memories after the Vanko incident. “No good place to stash the armor there and no casket for me to carry it around either. I guess I wear it.”
“I’m going back to my apartment on Park Avenue. Meet me there and we’ll huddle.”
Huddle? Rhodey hadn’t heard football jargon in ages. It was so weird to work with Tony’s chauffeur and not Tony himself. “Same building as Pepper’s in, right?” He’d been there once, as a side trip out of Washington, while Tony was visiting and the three of them did DVDs and pizza at Pepper’s place.
“Yep. I’m in 16-D.”
“How’s the elevator? Will I crash it if I step in wearing this?”
Happy shrugged. “I’m taking this one in it with me. I gotta weigh more than you.”
“You need help getting that loaded in the car?” He canted his head at the gurney.
Happy looked insulted. “No, I’m good. It sits up.”
Rhodey nodded. “I’m gonna get something to eat and I’ll meet you at your apartment.” After thinking about cheeseburgers, his stomach had not stopped growling.
Not knowing where in New York to find a good burger, Rhodey settled for the first deli he came upon. After a quick look at the menu on the wall, he made up his mind, but then he realized he had no way to get to his wallet. He turned to go.
“We have nothing you like?” the short guy behind the counter asked.
“No, I just remembered I don’t have any money with me.”
“War Machine credit good here. Please, you eat. Pay later.” The eager look on his face suggested he didn’t care if he never got paid. He just didn’t want the reputation of his deli being rejected by War Machine.
“You got a deal. Give me a Reuben and a big dill pickle.”
“Yes. Good. We have most delicious Reuben.” The delighted little guy scurried around, fixing him a lunch plate.
Rhodey had never tried to eat while in the armor before, but it was actually easier than opening a soda can. He was careful though. What would Tony say if he found mustard in the repulsor housing?
In another forty-five minutes, he’d eaten and flown over to Happy’s apartment, where Happy helped him get out of the armor. It only took a wrench and a couple of screwdrivers, but it was nearly impossible to reach everything by himself. At Edwards or Bagram, he could always recruit a couple of airmen to help him.
In camo fatigues now, he sat in Happy’s living room, staring at the two suits he and Happy had propped up side-by-side on the couch. The Mark VI still sported battle scars from its encounter with Whiplash while War Machine looked practically brand new. It was uncanny how human both suits looked. Rhodey had to keep reminding himself Tony wasn’t in there.
JARVIS, however, was there, which was good, because doing anything on the miniaturized supercomputer disguised as Tony’s phone was proving a little more challenging than Rhodey could handle, even with the use of his unfettered fingers.
Eventually, they had the coordinates where the Mark V had stopped transmitting. Happy paled when he saw the tracking light disappear in the middle of the sea. Evidently, Tony had neglected to tell Happy that Hammer had a submarine.
“How am I supposed to get that deep—while carrying an extra suit—even if I can figure out which way they went after this?” Rhodey grumped. He didn’t actually direct it to Happy, as it was no more the chauffeur’s fault than his. They were both commiserating to vent frustration.
JARVIS overheard. “If I may, Colonel: Mr. Stark has already made arrangements with the owner of another private submarine in Newport, Connecticut. The number should be listed under Bob Keckle.”
Leave it to Tony to have all the kinks worked out and pre-plan his own rescue before he even knew he needed it. “Outstanding,” Rhodey said. “Let’s call him up and then get this show on the road.”