Pepper didn’t like this at all. Navy submarines had laser-guided torpedoes and tough-ass captains who’d been trained to launch nuclear cruise missiles capable of annihilating millions of people. They weren’t going to care if Tony was stuck on Hammer’s submarine. She hoped Tony could contact them through that ear thingy and tell them the suit was going to be with Hammer. Then maybe they wouldn’t sink the Villa and he would be okay. The only problem with that was she was going to be with Hammer and the suit, so if the Navy guys were inclined to sink anything to protect the suit, then she was the one in serious danger. Again. She really hated this damsel in distress crap.
Hammer’s dinner charm had been feigned. She’d known it at the time and it was all the more obvious now. His two minions had stayed with Tony, so she was alone with him in the narrow corridor. Her hands were bound behind her and the slimeball didn’t make any allowances for how hard it was to run with someone shoving you along and knocking you off-balance every step of the way.
Hammer stopped at a door, banged on it once, and then barged in, dragging her by her upper arm. Inside were three men who looked middle-eastern, two of them kneeling over the third, who appeared to be unconscious. The Mark V was neatly contained in the suitcase, sitting at the unconscious man’s feet.
“I see you got it off,” Hammer observed.
Hadn’t Tony said, not thirty seconds ago, that the suit would never go back to case form without him? Didn’t Hammer find it odd the suit was suddenly cooperating?
“We no do it,” one of the kneeling men said. He gestured wildly. Pepper concluded it had spontaneously reverted to the case, but JARVIS was never spontaneous without a reason. It was patently obvious to her Tony had ordered it. But why make it easy for Hammer?
Hammer scoffed. “So much for Anthony Stark being the hotshot genius.”
Now she wanted to bite him again. Tony was communicating with his brilliant invention while tied up on another part of the submarine and Hammer didn’t see how genius that was? He was patting these clueless idiots on the back for having somehow thwarted Tony? She opened her mouth to put Hammer in his place, but changed her mind before the words came out. If Tony had wanted him to know, he’d have made it a parting shot, or he would get JARVIS to announce it. Tony was playing with Hammer and using his cocky stupidity against him.
Pepper clamped her mouth shut. Tony wanted the Mark V to go with them and she trusted Tony. Hammer grabbed the suitcase and ran out. He didn’t tell the men in the room he was jumping ship and leaving them stuck here with Navy subs surrounding them just outside the portholes. Pepper had half a mind to tell them herself, but they looked capable of killing someone just for bearing bad news, and by the time she’d thought it over, she was back in the narrow corridor, Hammer shoving her along again. At least he only had one hand to shove with now.
Although she wasn’t completely sure which way was fore or aft, her guess was they were headed to the rear of the sub. One of the guys who had taken Tony came up a ladder from below to meet them. He was what Pepper would call scraggly.
“Not trying to take our prize, are you, Hammer?” Scraggly said in a menacing voice. He had an accent, but it wasn’t as thick as the guys’ who had been in the room with the suit.
“Not taking. Delivering. Amar is supposed to be sending a helicopter to meet us.”
“Yes, but it is not for you.” Scraggly was giving Hammer a look that could ignite an oil field.
“You don’t know the password. I do.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. Hammer actually thought that “Larry, Moe, and Curly” thing was important? Maybe he was bluffing. She couldn’t decide whether she was on his side or on the side of the terrorist who didn’t like Hammer any more than she did. She only knew they all thought of her and Tony as expendable.
They both pushed her up a ladder, but it was hard to navigate with her hands tied behind her back. She stumbled over the top, into the mini-sub. Light poured in, and it didn’t look like sunshine. She made it to her feet with difficulty and looked out the panoramic windows. Huge beams, like headlights on freight trains, hit her from every direction. SEALs. Tony had said there were SEALs here. They were good guys, but unfortunately, they only looked like they were close enough to help. That thin layer of acrylic and metal was all that separated her and Hammer and Scraggly from immediate drowning and probably crushing pressure too.
Hammer shoved her into a seat by the window, and then pulled a gun out of his pocket. He set it against her temple so the SEALs with the headlights could see it. Scraggly and another guy came up the ladder. The new man looked more Anglo and he also looked like he didn’t want to be there.
“Get us out of here,” Hammer ordered the Anglo guy. He must be the pilot.
Anglo sat in the driver’s seat and started doing things with the controls. The hatch where they’d all entered hissed closed and sealed with a bang of metal. A mechanical ratcheting sounded. The mini-sub unlatched from the Villa and swayed in the current before shooting off under its own power.
Pepper’s heart pounded wildly. Her arms were stiff in their bonds, her eyes were blinded by the headlights from hell, and Hammer had a gun pointed at her head. However, he was busy watching the pilot and the SEALs, and while the gun was still pointed at her, it was no longer in contact with her skin. Pepper allowed herself a deep breath and a tiny movement of her head, to look around.
Scraggly sat facing the opposite window. She couldn’t see if he had a gun. Anglo didn’t look armed and he was in no position to harm her if she tried to break free. In fact, she had the distinct feeling he wanted out of this whole thing as much as she did.
Another deep breath. The Navy hadn’t torpedoed them yet. That was good, wasn’t it? Maybe they were going to follow them to the surface and try to make their move then. It wouldn’t be any better position for Pepper, but it was probably a better position to recover the suit rather than destroy it or lose it to the depths of the sea.
Wait. The suit. Where was it?
Carefully, she looked down to the floor, moving only her eyes. Hammer had left the case by his feet. He was too busy waving his gun around and showing off for the SEALs to pay attention to what he’d left at his feet.
Tony had specifically arranged for it to be here. Slowly, and mostly by feel alone, she inched her foot toward the case. If she could just reach it, maybe she could use it as a shield when the bullets started, or maybe...
Her toe touched the red metal.
A familiar British voice said, “Miss Potts?” a little too loudly for comfort.
“Shhh, JARVIS!” she hissed, but it was too late.
Hammer snapped his attention back to the floor. “What was that?”
Scraggly turned from the window.
But before she could form a response, she felt the suit enclose the toe that had touched it, like a cozy metallic sock. It enveloped her faster than she’d seen it form on Tony, or perhaps it was just so much of a surprise that time stood still. Before she could object or question it, one leg was covered and metal plates just kept coming. When the metal reached her lower back, something severed the zip-tie holding her wrists together. Shiny red scales morphed over her chest and down her now-free arms. Hammer didn’t feel like he was going to let go of her bicep, but the armor formed right between his hand and her arm.
He retracted his hand and shook his head. “No, no, stop!” In the next moment, he remembered he had a gun in the other hand, but by the time he pulled his wits together, the helmet had formed and the faceplate slammed shut.
“You okay?” Tony’s voice asked inside the helmet.
“I am now. I think Hammer might need a heart specialist.”
“JARVIS, please tell me you got video.”
“Of course, sir.”
A loud argument broke out between Scraggly and Hammer, but everything happening outside her safe metal cocoon felt distant and irrelevant now. Even the gun was more threatening to them than to her. If a ricochet on Villa could have been fatal, there was no question it would be fatal here.
“JARVIS, put me on external speakers,” Tony said. He didn’t wait for any confirmation before he continued, “Hammer, put the gun down or the SEALs will blow the sub out of the water.” His voice sounded louder and from the way it startled Scraggly and Hammer, they must have heard.
“Stark? What? How?” Hammer blubbered.
“Oh, please,” Tony said with that exasperated annoyance tone of his. “You’re the idiot who put Pepper and the armor in close proximity. I told you to leave it here.”
Hammer’s eyes grew big as saucers beneath his round spectacles. He appeared to be talking to the dark circle where Tony’s arc reactor usually shone through. Evidently, the suit had some backup power source it was currently using. Hammer must have thought Tony had a camera or a mic there. “You promised to let me live. You said if I didn’t let the men touch her, you wouldn’t kill me.”
Pepper had had enough of this whiny bastard. She knocked the gun out of his hand with one fell swoop of her armored fist and then grabbed Hammer by the throat. “I didn’t make any promises,” she growled. Her metal glove held him firm without squeezing. She fervently hoped he was wetting his Iron Man Underoos.
“Gun is dropped,” Hammer whimpered, acting like he’d done it willingly. “Call her off.”
Tony laughed. “I’m tied up in the bilge of your sub with a bag over my head and you’re asking me for help?”
Pepper pressed her metal-covered face to within a centimeter of Hammer’s nose. “I don’t work for Stark Industries anymore, remember? I quit. This ‘bitch’ has no master. Tony can’t help you even if he wanted to.”
“Point taken,” Hammer gasped.
For a few seconds, Pepper just stared him down, letting him wonder what she might do, letting him know what it felt like to fear for his life. “Get on the radio and order your people to let him go,” she growled, still holding his neck and keeping her face in his. She waited until he nodded vigorously to let go.
When he pushed away and headed toward the pilot’s seat, she noticed Scraggly had picked up the gun and now had it trained on her. She couldn’t decide whether to tell Tony first, or try explaining to Scraggly how stupid it would be to try to shoot. It also occurred to her that suicide bombers were usually terrorists too. The argument of his own safety would not cut it if he was ready to die for his cause. Slowly, she raised her hand to try to calm him with a gentle halting gesture. But she forgot the palm of the suit had a repulsor in it and by raising her hand, she was taking a threatening stance.
She heard the gun fire at the same time as she felt the bullet ping harmlessly off the suit’s chest piece. A split second later, the ricochet hit something else, but she couldn’t tell where. The interior lights went out and the mini-sub lurched. And then she heard water, like when a pipe has a leak and it spurts out forcefully.
“You moron!” Hammer yelled. “You just killed us all!”