Tony’s face still hurt just about everywhere, and laughing hurt worse, but he couldn’t help it. JARVIS was broadcasting a live comedy show from the Mark V. Tony had programmed it, of course, but he had never dreamed of stooges who would accommodate his punch lines so well.
The biggest downside was that the ear bud wasn’t loud enough for Pepper to hear, and even when he had time to explain what was happening, it lost a lot without the impersonation of the HAL 9000 that only JARVIS could pull off, and the broken English of the Ten Rings schmucks who fell for all the gags. Rhodey, however, was in on the broadcast, and also shared the party line JARVIS had secured for them to use, safe from the detection of anyone aboard the Villa.
“Ooo. That had to hurt,” Rhodey exclaimed after the armor crashed to the floor.
“Sir, the operator inside the Mark V is currently unconscious, as the cranial protection systems were disabled as programmed,” JARVIS informed him.
“Is he going to live?” Not that Tony cared much about his captors. He just didn’t want to be blamed for first blood if he could avoid it.
“What?” Pepper asked in alarm. “Is who going to live?”
“Just one of the bad guys,” Tony said calmly. “JARVIS knocked him out because he was stupid enough to get in the suit.” It was difficult for him keep track of who he was talking to, since he couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, even Pepper. JARVIS, however, had a much greater sensitivity for sound, and didn’t try to talk over her, as Rhodey did a couple of times.
JARVIS answered after he finished: “I believe so, sir. His vitals are consistent with a concussion. He should revive spontaneously within an hour.”
“Good. Leave him in there for now. Hammer told them to contact Deshpande. If he sends a helicopter, War Machine can take care of that, can’t you, buddy?”
Rhodey said something that wasn’t picked up by his receiver, then, “Bob’s a little worried about aerial torpedoes. Can we get a lock on incoming aircraft, so I can attack before they have a chance to sink us?”
“War Machine’s radar should be able to detect anything flying in under the clouds, but a helicopter will never be able to find a sub unless Hammer uses his sonar and tells the pilot your coordinates.”
“Which he probably won’t, because it was your idea. Nice reverse psychology, Tony.”
“Thanks. I try.”
Just then, a pulse of sound rang out. Tony heard it in his ear bud, but not in the room. “JARVIS, what was that?”
“It appears Mr. Hammer took your advice, sir. The ping originated from the Villa.”
“What’s what?” Pepper asked.
“Hammer’s sonar,” Tony said quickly to Pepper. “Whaddya know, he listened to me.”
“So he knows where we are now?” Rhodey asked.
“Yes, Colonel,” JARVIS replied. “He will most certainly know about all the other targets in range of his sonar as well.”
“Other targets?” Tony asked, masking his alarm from Pepper.
“I may have been late to the party,” Rhodey said, “but I brought along some gifts to make up for it.” He had that ‘I know something you don’t know’ tone in his voice.
“Gifts?” Tony prompted.
“I happen to have a friend or two in the Navy. Admirals, in fact. They sent us a little backup.”
JARVIS changed frequencies so they could listen in on the radio call now coming in. “Attention civilian submarine, this is the U.S.S. Virginia...”
Tony grinned wide and then whispered to Pepper, “Honey, they sent a nuclear submarine named after you.”
“They?” she asked.
“Rhodey brought the Navy with him. Hammer’s toast.”
She muttered something that didn’t sound very optimistic, but the radio conversation picked up, and Tony wanted to hear it, so he gave it his attention.
“Virginia, this is the diesel electric submersible Villa.” It didn’t sound like Hammer’s voice. He must have hired a pilot, which was a good thing. At least he wasn’t stupid enough to ignore the United States Navy. “We weren’t aware of your presence until the ping. If we are operating in restricted waters, please advise and we will change course immediately.”
“Your current heading is acceptable, Villa. It is your cargo we have a quarrel with. You are holding two American citizens against their will and you have stolen classified technology from Stark Industries which is deemed critical to American national security. You will place the hostages and the stolen technology in your mini-sub and release them from your docking clamps.”
Tony had forgotten the mini-sub was an option on the Phoenix class. He seemed to remember it being touted as a sightseeing bonus that was more maneuverable and had better fuel economy. And now he thought about it, how else did Hammer deliver a jumpdrive and get him here after the ransom drop? A docking mini-sub also meant they could bring back food and possibly even fuel and air. All his calculations about when they would run out of supplies had been based on a bad assumption. He was lucky Rhodey had his back.
“Navy SEALs are already in the water to verify your compliance, Villa,” the Virginia’s commander said.
“SEALs?” Tony whispered with a touch of awe, trusting JARVIS would only have his transmitter connected to Rhodey’s frequency and not the conversation between the two submarines.
“Hey, you’re not the only one who can throw a party, you know,” Rhodey countered. “There’s an Ohio-class and a SEAL Delivery Vehicle down here too. When you said Hammer was trapped, you weren’t kidding.”
“Nice of you to inform me of the plan,” Tony snarked, barely able to hide how pleased he was at the turn of events.
“It was need-to-know.”
“Could have told me before I gave up the password.”
Rhodey chuckled. “And miss the Stooges? No way.”
“So Hammer has a mini-sub?” Tony asked conversationally. He already knew the answer.
“Yeah, but we couldn’t destroy it because that would have put the Villa at risk. We want the docking hatch intact.”
“So what are the odds Hammer is just going to do what they ordered him to?”
“Captain Mason of the Virginia thinks he’ll give up the hostages, but keep the suitcase. Commander Bridges of the Florida has staked a claim on flat-out defiance.”
“Wait, you’ve started a betting pool?” Wish I’d thought of that.
“You want in?” Rhodey didn’t seem to think this was crass.
“Where’s your money, buddy?”
“Bob and I are staying out of the way for now, but if I have to get wet, then the pot’s all mine.”
Tony pursed his lips, considering. “Sounds fair. I should surcharge if there’s salt water damage to the armor.”
“Me getting to play is the long shot. Navy doesn’t want to get shown up by the Air Force underwater.”
Tony laughed. “That would look rather bad, wouldn’t it?”
“You’re crazy,” Pepper cried. Clearly, she was missing out by not being in on all their banter.
“It’s all good,” Tony assured her. “We’re going to be fine. You don’t have to do anything. Oh, except bite Hammer. I think he needs another bite.”
She emitted a frustrated snort of derision. “He tastes terrible.”
The hatch burst open and at least three people entered. Hammer shouted, “Damn you, Stark! How the hell did you get a couple of nuclear submarines on my tail?” The lackeys who had accompanied him started untying Tony and Pepper’s ankles.
“Told you. The Mark V had a tracking device and Colonel Rhodes was on the case. I can only assume he called the Navy in. Not like the Air Force has any submarines.”
Someone shoved a dark hood over his head and pulled him up from the chair. His wrists were still bound and he teetered, trying to gain balance.
“This is your fault. Remember that,” Hammer growled cryptically.
The thugs shoved him along, but he stumbled in the darkness forced by the hood. Muscular hands clamped on his biceps and kept him from falling on his face. Disorientation closed in. He couldn’t tell what else was happening. “Pepper?” His voice probably betrayed more concern than he wanted it to.
“She’s coming with me as insurance. You’re staying here to go down with the ship.”
“No, please,” Pepper whimpered. “Bring Tony with us, too.”
“Why, so they have more reason to torpedo my beautiful Villa? Like hell I will. This is the last thing I have left in the world. If it goes, so does Stark.”
“What about the suit, Hammer? It’s just a lead weight without me. You can’t even get it back into suitcase form, can you? You should leave it here.”
“What do you take me for? No, I’m not leaving it with you. You’re going to the bilge and I’m taking the suit if I have to drag it like a corpse.”
Tony was very glad there was a hood over his head because it would have been hard to suppress the grin that formed at that little gem of information. He didn’t speak because he was sure his voice would reveal his glee. Finally, Hammer was putting Pepper in the same place as the Mark V.