Pepper listened to the JARVIS party line through the Mark V case and the Mark VI suit which was strapped into a seat next to her on Bob’s small submarine. Tony had somehow convinced his captors he was qualified to pilot the Villa. He was definitely a genius, but Pepper was pretty sure he didn’t have any experience with submarines.
As far as she knew, Stark Industries had only supplied the Navy with deck guns and weapons that could be fired from aircraft. Probably, at some point, Tony would need to turn his sound back on so Mike or Bob could help him.
However, from the background voices carrying on in Arabic, it was apparent they weren’t leaving him alone. “Um, guys?” Tony said in a stealthy, under-his-breath tone, “I don’t like the way my hosts are pointing at me and arguing amongst themselves. I think someone just remembered I have an arc reactor and they’re deciding when I’ll be expendable enough to gank it.” He paused, faked a cough, and continued a little softer. “JARVIS, give me audio at 25%. Rhodey, talk to me, buddy.”
“Looks like they wanted more than the Mark V. They sent enough Mi-24s to transport all their people and then some.” Rhodey had to talk over the sound of multiple bullets ricocheting off his armor. At least Pepper could understand his jargon. She hadn’t spent all those years at SI when they were a weapons developer without picking up plenty of background knowledge in the business. Mi-24s were Russian attack helicopters. Rhodey’s voice wasn’t panicked, but it was stressful enough for Pepper to realize it was not going to be a ‘this-shouldn’t-take-long’ thing like he first thought.
Decision time. Pepper adopted her best CEO take-charge voice. “Bob, how much do you want for your submarine?”
“It’s not for sale. Why?”
“Stark Industries needs it. Now.”
“Pepper,” Tony whispered. “Don’t even think about it.” It had to be hard for him to whisper when he probably wanted to yell.
“I’m still CEO and I will protect our assets. There is no Clean Energy Program, no Stark Industries at all, without you.” Not to mention, she couldn’t handle it if anything happened to him. There was no way she could stand by and wait if he was in immediate danger of having his reactor yanked.
Bob swiveled in his seat and gave her a huge grin. “Miss Potts, my sub is at your disposal. Tell me where you want it.”
“The plan was to dock with the Villa, right? Do it now.”
“You got it,” Bob said, directing the bow planes into diving position. The sub angled down.
“The plan was,” Tony hissed through his teeth, “for War Machine to come through that hatch. These guys have machine guns.”
Pepper ignored Tony. “JARVIS, if we can get the suitcase armor to Mr. Stark, it will be fully functional, right?”
“As long as Mr. Stark retains the arc reactor in his chest to provide power, you are correct, Miss Potts.”
“Traitor,” Tony griped at his AI, but only halfheartedly. “It’s still too danger—Mute!”
“Who you talk to?” a heavily accented voice interrupted. Pepper didn’t like how close he sounded to Tony’s ear.
“No one. Myself.” Tony’s voice was normal volume again. “See? Radio’s off. Not talking to anyone.”
Just then, a loud explosion sounded over the open JARVIS channel. Pepper jumped. Bob and Mike both flashed horrified looks.
“One down,” Rhodey said. “But there’s still two more. Go on without me.”
Pepper didn’t mention she had already started to, whether he liked it or not.
“What is that?” the terrorist asked. For one horrible second, Pepper worried that the ear bud hadn’t been muted and he’d heard the explosion. Even at 25%, it would have been loud.
“That? Oh, it’s a killer whale,” Tony said nonchalantly. “You’ve heard of Shamu, right?”
Mike broke the tension with a chuckle. “Looks like sperm whale and humpbacks both lost the bet. He must have labeled us as an orca.”
“Drat,” Rhodey muttered, but it was unclear whether it was a response to losing the bet or something else he was dealing with. By the sound of things, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
But Pepper had to assume he could take care of himself and the Mi-24s. She directed her attention back to Bob and Mike, who continued the whale discussion as if they hadn’t heard Rhodey.
“Sperms and humpbacks are both too big,” Bob remarked. “We could only pass as juveniles. Orca is much closer to the right size. Stark’s a genius.”
“He is that,” Pepper admitted. She turned to the Mark VI armor. “JARVIS, will this suit fit any of us?”
“Mr. Keckle’s dimensions are not compatible with current specifications. The rescued pilot meets specifications, but as he was part of the group who kidnapped you, my programming would not allow him to put on the armor without Mr. Stark’s express consent.”
Which she couldn’t ask for right now, and which Tony was unlikely to give even if they could ask. She couldn’t blame him for that. Hammer had hired Mike and even if he seemed trustworthy after talking to him for five minutes, there was no telling what he might do if Hammer’s coveted prize was just handed to him.
There was one more option, and she was glad Tony couldn’t hear what she was about to suggest, or he would very likely veto it. She drew a deep breath. “What about me, JARVIS? Can I wear it long enough to get through the hatch and give Tony the case suit?”
“It may be a tight fit in a few spots, miss, as it was designed for a male anatomy, but yes, you are an authorized user. Backup power can provide assisted hydraulics for movement and the same level of communications as I am currently providing, but you will not have tactical display or repulsors.”
“I don’t need weapons. I just want to be bullet-proof when I make the hand-off.”
“You will need assistance assembling the armor without a gantry, miss. The Mark VI does not form automatically like the Mark V.”
“Bob? Mike? I could use a little help.”
Bob didn’t look up from the controls. “Sorry, Miss Potts, but we don’t have an auto-pilot, so one of us has to drive this ‘orca’.”
“I’d be happy to help,” Mike said as he released his seat belt. “Assuming the armor won’t electrocute me or anything.” He managed a nervous half-smile at the empty suit.
JARVIS responded with, “As long as you make no threatening moves, it is perfectly safe.”
Pepper wondered what dastardly pitfalls Tony might have programmed JARVIS to execute under such circumstances. Surely, nothing worse than the concussion given to the man who tried to wear the other suit, but she really wasn’t concerned. Mike was just going to turn some wrenches.
She released her own seat belt and then unbuckled the belt holding the armor in the spare passenger seat. As they were still angled for descent, the armor leaned forward. Pepper caught it and shoved it into the aisle. It landed on the floor.
“Okay, JARVIS, tell us what to do. I need to be ready by the time Bob gets us docked.”
Bob told them where Rhodey left the tools he had brought for his own armor. Pepper was glad even the great War Machine needed help if he wasn’t using one of Tony’s fancy on-and-off doohickeys. She was a little nervous about this, but after surviving the shot that sunk the mini-sub, a significant part of her was secretly looking forward to it. The suits were Tony’s thing and she had no intention of stealing his thunder, but he started it. All she did was touch the suitcase with a toe and bam! It was all over her without even asking her permission.
She knew that had been for her protection and she was grateful, but this time was a little different. She had a choice. They could wait for Rhodey to finish up his helicopter battle and hope he got down here in time. The delay might only be ten minutes and might not matter at all. But Pepper wasn’t willing to take that chance. She was getting inside this suit and she was going back into Hammer’s submarine before anyone yanked the reactor out of Tony’s chest, and woe be to any terrorist who stood in her way.
Tony would be pissed she took any risks on his behalf, but that was just too damned bad. He was the king of risk-taking. She’d had to learn to deal with it, so it was with a sense of irony and empowerment that she would turn the tables and let him deal for once.
With JARVIS’s helpful instructions and Mike’s deft turn of a wrench here and there, she had the whole suit on, except the faceplate was retracted. JARVIS said she’d be able to see out through the eye slits, but without the head’s up display, it would be like looking through a Halloween mask. She wasn’t going to limit her vision like that until she had to.
Too nervous to sit, she stood by the exit hatch, holding the suitcase in one hand and one of the ladder rungs in the other. This suit was heavier than the other one and if she lost balance and fell on her face, she’d never hear the end of it. Even if Mike and Bob were sworn to secrecy, JARVIS would have the whole thing recorded in IMAX 3D so Tony could watch, rewind, and replay it in slo-mo, over and over.
JARVIS didn’t pause in broadcasting Rhodey’s frustrated grunts and little squees of delight at the hits he made, along with so many ricochets and gunshots, it sounded like a war movie. The pickup mic in Tony’s ear was getting increasingly noisy as well, but it was all in Arabic and without Tony adding in any English, she couldn’t tell if it was anything threatening or not.
“JARVIS, once we dock, I need you to mute Colonel Rhodes unless he addresses Tony or me directly.”
“Of course, miss. Would you like me to mute the terrorists as well?”
“Yes, unless they speak English.”
“Very well. Might I offer some calming music, perhaps?”
“Music? What, did Tony install woofers in here?”
“Mr. Stark often requests AC/DC or Black Sabbath when he is approaching an unknown or potentially hazardous situation, but anything in his home collection is available through the same speakers you are currently listening through.”
She was quite familiar with his collection, because she used to program the mansion’s intercom music when she had to work there, or when Tony had guests, but not live music. “Night on Bald Mountain; Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. But don’t start until the hatch is open.”
“Okay, Miss Potts,” Bob said, “I’m just a foot away. Do you want me to dock, or wait for a sign from Mr. Stark?”
“What that killer whale doing?” the terrorist voice said. “You lie, Stark. That no whale.”
“Me? That’s what the sonar says. It probably thinks we’re its momma. It may try to nurse, but when it can’t find a nipple, it’ll leave.”
“That’s the sign,” Pepper said. “Dock us.”