Pepper held tight to the sub pilot. He wasn’t heavy, but his body was not hydrodynamic and that made him hard to hold onto as they wooshed through the water at ten feet per second. Of course, Pepper had no idea whether the suit had been designed to be hydrodynamic by itself. Tony had never mentioned taking it underwater before. Pepper always assumed water would get inside the thrusters and make them sputter out. Airplanes didn’t work in water. Why should a flying suit of armor? Because Tony Stark was a genius, that’s why.
The power alert had startled her a bit, but she saw Rhodey coming on the HUD; he hadn’t been that far away. The Mark V thrusters cut out a little before War Machine arrived, but she had not lost momentum completely when he swooped in and picked them up from behind.
She was just thinking how Tony would be jealous right now when he broadcast that panicked call for help. Most people would not call that panic. Tony Stark didn’t panic. But Pepper knew he wasn’t the heartless ice king portrayed in the media. She heard that note of vulnerability in his voice and it wrenched her to the core. She wanted to talk to him, to reassure him they would do something, even if she had no idea what anyone could do. Most of all, she wanted to be there for him, to remind him this wasn’t like Afghanistan—he wasn’t alone. But he muted his receiver to protect his ear thing from being discovered, so there was no point in trying to talk to him.
At least she and Rhodey could still hear everything Tony said, and most of what others said in his presence, if they were close enough and didn’t have to compete with other noise. The big question was, where were those SEALs and what was taking them so long?
War Machine broke the surface and the pilot gulped in a huge breath of air. He panted heavily, but he wasn’t coughing. He seemed okay.
Rhodey flew them over to a submarine that was bobbing along on the surface. It was at least twice as big as the mini-sub that Scraggly just destroyed, but probably less than a third the size of the Villa, or at least what she had seen of the Villa. It wasn’t like they ever gave her a tour.
“Thank you,” the pilot sputtered between big gulps of air.
“No problem,” Pepper said as she let go of him.
He scrambled into the top hatch.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Mike, I’m Pepper.” Rhodey let go of her and she shot a look back at him. Was she being too chummy with a terrorist? The armored face was, of course, unreadable, and he didn’t say anything. She followed the pilot, still trying to determine if he was going to turn on them all and steal this sub to go rescue Hammer. “Hey, Mike, may I ask, what was your relationship to Justin Hammer?”
“I didn’t know him. I thought this gig would be easy money. Pilot a big luxury sub for a few weeks and make some serious dough. I swear he never told me he was going to kidnap anyone or beat people up. By the time I found out what was going on, I was trapped. I told him the guns were stupid too. Obviously, he didn’t listen to me.”
She scanned the ocean in every direction just before her head cleared the hatch. “Well, it doesn’t look like he made it to the surface. The SEALs might have him down below, but he might have drowned.”
“I won’t be shedding any tears. Why did you save me? You didn’t know I wasn’t one of them.”
The ladder was a little difficult to navigate with armor on, but not nearly as hard as it had been to ascend with her wrists tied, and not so hard she couldn’t talk at the same time. “I used to be the personal assistant for the man people called the Merchant of Death. I know what it’s like to be judged guilty by association. You were the only person in that mini-sub who didn’t point a gun at me. If you did anything illegal, I’m not going to help you escape arrest, but I’m not leaving anyone to drown just for...” she chose her words with complete confidence JARVIS never ignored a mute command from Tony, “working for an asshole.”
Rhodey laughed, but it didn’t look like Mike heard. Pepper heard it over the link through the helmet.
“Well, thanks. I won’t make any trouble.”
Inside the sub, another man extended his hand. “Bob Keckle, Miss Potts. Welcome aboard.”
“Um, JARVIS, can you take this off me now?” she asked.
“Yes, miss.” The armor deformed almost as fast as it had formed, and settled into a compact suitcase again. Why couldn’t her regular luggage ever behave that well? She still loved watching the transformation, but she tore her eyes away to look at Bob, still waiting with his extended hand.
“Pepper, please,” she said as she took his hand and shook.
Rhodey took his helmet off, but stayed in his armor. His would be a lot harder to take off than hers, and besides, he might still need to use it.
The sub interior was small, but not as cramped as the sub they’d just blown up. Mike stood dripping and shivering. Bob turned to him. “There’s a towel in the head. I’ll see if I can find some dry clothes for you.” Mike nodded and followed Bob’s pointed finger to the only door in sight.
“Attention divers in the water outside of Villa,” Tony’s voice said loudly, with a tone that suggested he was being prompted. Pepper tracked the sound simultaneously to the suitcase, Rhodey’s helmet, and the Mark VI armor that was strapped down in one of the passenger seats. JARVIS was patching communications to every available outlet. Even Mike stopped his trek to the bathroom to listen.
“This is Anthony Stark. I am being held captive inside the Villa with a knife at my throat.” His speech-giving voice changed to something unrehearsed and under his breath. “Ow, you didn’t have to do that. There’s no video for them to see the blood. Jeeze, people, it’s radio.”
Pepper winced at the mention of blood.
His voice returned to formality. “I can vouch that these people are dead serious. Remove the vehicle at the docking hatch now or they will kill me.”
Pepper had a flashback to that hideous video clip she’d found in Obadiah’s secret files. She could never forget how vulnerable and frightened Tony looked then. He said these were the same people as had been responsible for that, Ten Rings.
Rhodey put his helmet back on. “JARVIS, did the Navy hear that?”
“Mr. Stark used the same frequency as the one used earlier by the U.S.S. Virginia.”
“Are they backing off?”
“I was never authorized to break into secure military channels, so I do not know their orders, Colonel.”
“Villa, this is Captain Mason of the Virginia,” came a new voice from all the suits. “We are removing divers from the water as you requested. We would like to negotiate for the release of the hostage.”
“Ow,” Tony grunted under his breath, then louder, “They don’t have anyone who speaks very good English, Captain, so I’m it. They’re watching the SEALs through the windows and next they want the Virginia and the Florida to leave the area. They’re going to ping you with their Nemo 1200...” He stressed the name of the sonar instrument, like he was trying to emphasize how closely they were watching. “...every five minutes to make sure you’re leaving.”
His voice changed to somber and sentimental. “If I don’t make it, please tell my friends Jim and Bob they’re welcome to make themselves at home in Malibu, just use the back door.”
“Subtle, Tony, subtle,” Rhodey said with a chuckle in his voice. He let the metal faceplate retract so they could see his face again, but he left the helmet on.
Pepper knew Tony would never call Rhodey ‘Jim’. That had to be some kind of clue. She also knew Malibu didn’t have a back door, but she didn’t catch what could be so funny. She had a hard enough time when Tony was straightforward. She had no chance at all if he combined genius with subtle. “Huh?”
“Nemo 1200!” Bob and Mike chorused, the two of them laughing heartily.
Mike explained, “I caught the big Navy subs on Villa’s EdgeTech navigational sonar. You didn’t show up. No one down there knows about this little sub.”
“Tony does; he has an ear bud,” Rhodey admitted. “We were out of range when you pinged, but can’t they see us now?”
Bob and Mike shook their heads, grinning like they were in on some colossal joke.
“Not with a Nemo 1200,” Mike explained with restrained laughter tinging his voice. “It’s a fish-finder! It’s hokey compared to the EdgeTech. The display shows standard silhouette representations, not real sonographs. He can simply tag you as biologic. With Hammer and me both gone, there’s no one down there who knows enough about sonar to figure out what he’s doing. As long as you stay out of sight of the windows, they’ll never see you coming.”
“JARVIS, patch me in to Captain Mason and make sure it’s encrypted,” Rhodey said.
“Connecting you now, Colonel.”
“Captain Mason, this is Lt. Colonel Rhodes. The Iron Man armor is secure. Did you understand Stark’s coded message?”
“Yes, we did. The pool is now taking bets for what Mr. Stark will label you as, with the odds-on favorite being the...” he couldn’t finish the sentence without laughing, “sperm whale.”
Pepper smiled, but she tried to hide it behind a faked cough.
“Wait. I already won the pool. I got wet.”
“Not game for more fun, eh, Colonel? You Air Force guys are so uptight.”
Rhodey uttered a sigh of defeat, but his lips curled upwards. “He knows we have to dock. Put me down for ‘humpback’.”
Gales of laughter broke out on the other end. “I take it back, Rhodes, you’re killing us. Do you want us to leave?”
“At least get out of range of his Nemo sonar. By the way, what happened to Hammer?”
“SEAL Delivery Vehicle isn’t back yet. They saved one of the mini-sub’s passengers, just not sure who it is.”
“We have the only pilot Hammer hired. He’s cooperating. But that means no one on the Villa has any idea what to do if there’s an emergency.”
“Sounds like you have this well in hand, Colonel. Let us know once you have the Villa secured.”
“We will. Rhodes out.”
Pepper didn’t notice when Mike resumed his trek for the bathroom, but he poked his head out the door when Rhodey ended the call with Mason. “Anyone got some pants for me? Shorts? Anything?”
Bob tossed what looked like sweat pants. “Sorry, Mike. We forgot all about you.” He looked at War Machine next. “Prepare to dive?”
“Colonel Rhodes, we have a problem,” JARVIS said in what Pepper recognized as his alarm tone.
“I am tracking multiple targets on radar, coming in fast and low, heading this way.”
Mike chimed in, “Hammer told them about the Navy being here. They were going to bring anti-sub torpedoes. We’re dead.”
Rhodey’s faceplate slid into place. “No, we’re not. I’ll go deal with him.” He looked at Bob. “Get the sub to a safe depth. This shouldn’t take long.” He tromped the last few steps to the hatch, aimed his repulsors at the floor, and took off.
“Miss Potts, if you’ll take a seat,” Bob said.
“I got the hatch,” Mike said.
Pepper sat and buckled in while Mike secured the hatch. Bob looked busy, checking indicator dials and flipping switches, but Pepper had no idea what he was actually doing.
“Down she goes,” Bob said.
Pepper felt the buoyancy of the vessel shift as they took on ballast. They slipped beneath the rocking swells and into the silent deep.