“Pepper?” Tony couldn’t help the anxiety that crept into his voice. He’d had enough of hearing all the action through the ear bud. He needed to be out there, where he could see the big picture and do more than just listen. It sounded like something had exploded. He was worried about the suitcase armor without the arc reactor.
The Mark V had backup power, but it hadn’t been recharged for days now. JARVIS had needed power for Operation Hal 9000, and Tony wasn’t sure how much power was left. JARVIS knew, of course, but the middle of an explosion was not the time to make such an inquiry. When Tony made modifications to the Mark V, he had programmed it to form around Pepper if she ever made physical contact, but he didn’t have time to customize it beyond making sure it would fit her body.
He had to be very careful what he asked of the AI right now, because the core programming had always been designed to give his voice commands priority. His request for a battery reading would override anything she might need JARVIS to help her with. Since she was inexperienced, she would probably need more help than he or Rhodey ever did.
Pepper responded, her voice excited, but not as panicked as Tony would have thought. “One of Hammer’s goons fired a gun in here. We’re taking on water.”
“Are you all right?”
There was lots of background noise filtering in, including a major shouting match between Hammer and other male voices, but Tony couldn’t make out what they were saying beyond the name-calling. Pepper’s voice was loud and clear, “You mean other than being stuck in a sinking sardine can? Yeah, I’m great.”
“You’re not stuck. Point yourself at a window and you can rocket straight out. The suit is waterproof; you won’t drown.”
“How hard is it to swim in this thing? I’m not a good swimmer.”
“The thrusters work in water just like in air. You won’t have to swim at all.”
“What about the others?”
Leave it to Pepper to care about scum who only moments earlier would have killed her. Tony scoffed. “Hammer and his goons? Let ’em drown.”
“The pilot didn’t act like a terrorist. He didn’t have a gun. I can’t just leave him to die. I’m going to take him with me.” There was a short pause during which Tony heard Mark V footsteps. “JARVIS, make sure this guy can hear me.”
“External speakers on, miss.”
Pepper spoke again, but her tone was intimate, like she only wanted one person to hear. “I’m leaving. You wanna come?”
The reply was more distinct than the previous yelling had been, but not as clear as Pepper’s voice. “Out there? I’ll drown!”
“How deep are we?”
Tony had wondered the same thing, but if SEALs were out there in SCUBA gear, they couldn’t be at a crushing depth.
“We were at 250 feet before we lost power.”
“JARVIS, how fast can we get to the surface?”
“At maximum thrust, approximately twenty-five seconds, miss.”
“Can you hold your breath for twenty-five seconds?” Pepper asked.
“As opposed to forever? You bet!”
“Then hold on.” The next sound was a muffled crash, not unlike when the groom steps on a napkin-wrapped glass at a Jewish wedding. If Hammer or anyone else screamed, Tony didn’t hear it.
“Rhodey, does the Navy have a surface vessel up there?” Tony asked into the ear bud party line.
“Nope. It’s just us. Bob brought us topside so I could attack if a helicopter shows up on radar. Nothing so far.”
“Pepper is bringing you a present.”
“I heard. We got room, but it’s getting crowded. You and I gonna have to fly home.”
“Yeah, well, I’m still tied up down here and not with the most hospitable hosts.” Hint, hint. Get your shiny silver butt down here and get me out.
“Not my fault you didn’t put a docking collar on War Machine, otherwise I’d already have got you.”
“You just wanna win the betting pool.”
“And get my picture on the front page of the Times.”
“Hey, I told them to run the shot of both of us after the Expo. Pentagon shot it down.”
Their friendly battle of wits was interrupted by JARVIS. “Critical power warning in the Mark V.”
He didn’t qualify it with a ‘miss’ or a ‘sir’, but the AI made the whole party line possible, so perhaps it was to everyone. Rhodey said he brought along the Mark VI, so losing JARVIS or communications wasn’t a danger. Much worse was the prospect of Pepper’s suit becoming dead weight and dragging her down. Air wouldn’t last much longer without power either. Tony remembered the panic when he first tried to break the altitude record and iced everything up. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat. At least that had been his own stupid choice. JARVIS had warned him. This wasn’t anything Pepper had done wrong.
“Drop the pilot,” Tony said in a grave voice, not substantially different from the tone he used to employ when she was his personal assistant.
“No. He’s been holding his breath all this time. He’ll never make it.”
“I got ‘em,” Rhodey said. “JARVIS, can you give me coordinates?”
“Sending to your display now, Colonel.”
War Machine’s splash was the only answer, so Tony assumed he got it. His frustration with being tied up and out of the action was mounting. It wasn’t that he didn’t think Rhodey could handle diving in to get Pepper and the pilot. She was probably no more than 75 feet down now. The critical warning gave her a few more seconds of power and she’d have plenty of air left to get to the surface with someone else providing thrust. She would be all right. The Mark V was out of terrorist hands, so he could let go of the guilt over that issue as well.
But dammit, he was missing all the fun. If the SEALs rescued Hammer, he might figure out some way to escape with Rhodey now distracted. Plus, there were still Ten Rings terrorists all over the stinking place. Who was making sure they all got caught? But most of all, he wanted to stand and see and walk with his arms swinging at his sides. And if he got right down to it, he really wanted someone to dunk his throbbing face in a vat of Novocaine too. He was damned uncomfortable and no one was doing anything about it.
But just when he thought his self-absorbed pity party could get no worse, he heard shouting from what sounded like the ladder shaft that led from the upper decks. It was the same language he’d heard in Afghanistan, although he still wasn’t sure if it was Arabic or Pashto. Crap. Those are not SEALs. Flashbacks of Raza jolted his consciousness and all of a sudden, his throbbing face was the least of his worries.
“Uh, guys? I could use a little help down here. The Ten Rings goons are coming to get me and I don’t think it’s for a potty break.”
Footfalls on the metal deck grew louder and the hatch squeaked loudly on its hinges when it swung open.
“JARVIS,” Tony whispered quickly, “mute all audio until I tell you. I don’t want them to find my earpiece.”
As always, JARVIS muted immediately. Not a moment too soon either. Rough hands grabbed him and yanked him up from the floor. Someone pulled the hood off. It wasn’t terribly bright like the last time he’d had to make a ransom recording, but seeing more Ten Rings fanatics glaring at him with unadulterated hatred gave him some serious déjà vu. Damn. I really hate these guys.
“You. Stark. You tell frogmen go away. Tell them we kill you if they no leave us alone. Come. You talk.”