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By Michael Jan Friedman
Pocket StarCopyright © 2006 Michael Jan Friedman
All right reserved.
Tomorrow, Tony Stark echoed inwardly. He turned over beneath his bedcovers, unable to find a comfortable position. See you tomorrow, Tony.
The words were etched into his brain, as inescapable as one of those inane commercial jingles that always lingered with him for days, imposing on him its too-happy hype for a pine-scented air freshener. Or a frozen dinner. Or a new kind of bunion remover.
I shouldn't talk, Stark mused. My companies make all those things. But then, there was precious little in the world his companies didn't make.
See you tomorrow, Tony . . .
He had heard that somewhere. Recently, he decided. But where? And from whom?
Then it came to him. He slid his hand along the silken surface of his sheet toward the other side of his bed. Unfortunately, there was no one there.
Annoyed, Stark swore beneath his breath. He could forgive himself for a lot of things, but being a bad host wasn't one of them.
Especially when his guest had been Terri Topasandra. Most men would have donated akidney to get near the sexy, platinum-haired co-host of America's favorite morning talk show.
Her producer had arranged an interview with Stark, who was serving as corporate spokesman for Special Olympics, to talk about the upcoming games. The plan was for the two of them to meet for drinks so they could flesh out what they were going to say.
One thing led to another, which led to Stark's midtown penthouse, which led to his five-thousand-square-foot bedroom with its ornately carved Italian-marble columns and its staggering, one-way-glass view of New York City, which led to --
Nothing, apparently. Or at least nothing Stark could remember. Shame on me.
Unavoidably awake, the billionaire decided that he might as well open his eyes. But when he did, he found the pouting, bespectacled, slightly paunchy figure of his butler standing beside the bed.
"Wakey-wakey," said Jarvis, a note of sarcasm in his voice that was no less cutting for its familiarity. Using the remote control in his hand, he turned up the lights.
"You hate me," Stark groaned, "don't you?"
"As nature hates a vacuum," said his butler. "Which reminds me -- I need to refill your Scotch decanter. Someone left it as empty as the void between here and Mars."
"That would be me," Stark admitted.
"Do tell. I had a feeling it wasn't the young woman who accompanied you to Driscoll's on the Park last night. She didn't seem ample enough to drain a decanter all by herself."
Stark looked at him. "You wouldn't, by any chance, know what time Terri left?"
"I would say it was between two and two-fifteen," said Jarvis. "Fortunately, I was up watching reruns of The Iron Chef, so I was available to call her a cab."
Stark smiled ruefully. "Sorry about the inconvenience."
"If I may say so, sir, it is not me to whom you should be apologizing. The young lady looked rather disappointed when she left."
See you tomorrow, Tony . . .
"Do me a favor," said Stark. "Send her a bouquet of flowers. A big one."
"Of course," said Jarvis, with a roll of his eyes. "That will take care of everything."
Stark looked at him. "Meaning?"
"Meaning you have been drinking a great deal of late -- even for you. To this point, your liver has made a heroic effort to keep you from poisoning yourself, but I doubt it will be inclined to do so indefinitely."
Stark closed his eyes again and managed a wistful smile. "No need to be worried about 'indefinitely,' Jarvis."
"Ah, yes," said the butler. "The tumor in your head. As if it were possible I had forgotten."
It was the tumor, untreatable and inoperable, that made Tony Stark work so hard -- not only at business, but at life. And for him, drinking had become part of both endeavors. A vicious circle if ever there was one.
Funny, though -- his head didn't hurt the way it used to when he got drunk. A little compensation for the stranger in my skull? he wondered, not for the first time. Or have I finally killed too many nerve cells to know when I'm in pain?
"By the way," said Jarvis, "you have another full slate of appointments today. Breakfast with the governor . . ."
"Of which state?" Stark asked.
"This one," said Jarvis. "Followed by the interview with Miss Topasandra, assuming she is still disposed to speak with you after the way you treated her. After that, a videoconference with General Fury and your engineering staff, golf at Shinnecock with Mister Rodriguez, and . . ."
"Roll that back for me," said Stark.
"Golf?" asked Jarvis.
"No. The Fury thing."
"Apparently, he wishes to discuss the improvements you are implementing in your armor. As you will recall, he requested that he be kept abreast of such developments."
Stark sighed. The armor. Some days he couldn't wait to get into it. Other days he couldn't wait to get out of it.
Today is one of the get-into days.
"Call Hogan," he said, "and tell him to get the new unit ready. I feel like taking her for a test drive."
Jarvis made a sound of disapproval. "Last time you did that, you missed breakfast entirely. Mister Gates was most perturbed, if his unfriendly takeover bid was any indication."
"Gates got over it," said Stark, pulling aside his bedclothes and swinging his legs out of bed. "And if it comes to that, the governor will too. Especially if he wants that Stark Dynamics plant to break ground in Schenectady next month."
"I'll phone the governor," said Jarvis, "and inform him that you'll be delayed. Also, that you recommend the eggs benedict for elected officials who have been stood up by rude, unthinking industrialists."
"Hey," said Stark, as he got up and padded across the tawny, lavishly grained wood of the floor to take a shower, "whose side are you on?"
"The side of Good, of course," said the butler.
The water in Stark's shower, which was as cold as he could make it, stung him into high alert. By the time he emerged from his spacious, white-tiled bathroom, toweled and dry, Jarvis had laid out a set of silk boxers, a lightweight tan suit, a contrasting dark blue shirt, and a pair of soft, imported loafers.
"By the way," said the butler, "it's been some time since you gave Happy Hogan a raise. You asked me to remind you about it. Also, it's been some time since you gave me a raise."
"I asked you to remind me about that as well?" Stark wondered as he dressed himself. "Or did you come up with that on your own?"
"On my own," Jarvis conceded readily enough. "Still, I would say it's worth the most careful consideration."
Stark chuckled. "You're lucky I don't turn you in for tax evasion, you old fraud. Or are you going to tell me you've been claiming those bonuses I give you every -- "
Before he could finish his sentence, a brassy chime -- like the banging of a distant gong -- filled the room. All too aware of what it meant, the billionaire said, "Stark here," just loudly enough for his comm system to pick up.
"Mister Stark," said the Brooklyn-accented voice of Happy Hogan, "we've got trouble here in River City."
River City being Hogan's nickname for the Triskelion, the breathtaking, three-pronged facility built on a boomerang-shaped island in the upper bay of New York harbor. Stark had developed it to house his latest flier, a joint venture with the federal government.
The venture had already paid a whopping big dividend -- if one could call the rescue of the human species from an extraterrestrial horde a dividend.
"Anyone else there?" asked Stark.
"For now," said Hogan, "just us chickens."
In other words, no "persons of mass destruction," as the government preferred to describe them. Too bad, Stark thought. He had discovered the value of having superpowered colleagues to make up for his suit's inconsistencies.
And his own.
Still, he said, "I'm on my way, Hap. And don't forget the olives."
"I'll cancel the governor," said Jarvis, making his way to the phone.
"Thanks," said the billionaire, leaving his street clothes on the bed and heading for one of the room's smaller closets -- an intimate one containing a single suit, and not at all the kind Jarvis had laid out for him.
At a word, the zebrawood closet door slid into a pocket in the wall beside it, revealing a golden set of molded, metal-alloy body armor with a few apple-red highlights. And yet, with its immense capacity to store and direct electromagnetic energy, it was so much more than mere body armor.
It was, effectively, Iron Man. Or at least an earlier version of Iron Man, rendered obsolete months earlier by the development of more advanced models.
But in a pinch, it would do.
With Jarvis's help, Stark slid into the armor piece by piece: first the plastron, then the leg units, then the gauntlets, and last of all the headgear. It took him a moment to get used to breathing the suit's air supply, but no more than that.
After all, he was an accomplished scuba diver. Having to depend on a portable oxygen supply was nothing new to him.
Once Stark was certain everything was locked into place, he released the thick green lubricant that cushioned him from impacts and kept the suit's hard parts from rubbing against him. Then he moved to the set of transparent doors that led to his balcony, emerged from them into a windy blue Manhattan sky, and took a running jump.
As he cleared the balcony, he activated his propulsion system and shot through the air -- all in one fluid motion. But then, he thought, I've had a fair amount of practice at it.
Dipping his left shoulder, he veered past the steel-and-glass skyscraper directly in front of him. Normally, he took a moment to wave to the secretaries inside it. Perhaps more than a moment, he allowed.
But not this time. I'll give them two shows tomorrow, Stark promised himself silently.
Suddenly, he hit a headwind and bounced up and down. Reaching for his palm controls with his middle finger, he slowed himself a little. Then he angled off on an ascent vector, finding an altitude where the wind wasn't quite so strong and oppositional.
Of course, the latest version of his armor would have sliced through headwinds twice as strong. But that suit was hanging in the Triskelion, where he had left it.
Funny, Stark thought. Six months ago, this armor was cutting-edge. I felt as secure in it as I would in a Stark International corporate jet. Now I feel like a Ping-Pong ball in a wind tunnel.
Not that he was averse to a little risk now and then. It's not like I'm going to live forever.
Steve Rogers shook his head slowly from side to side, and said, "I don't think I can do this."
"Sure you can," said Janet Pym, the willowy brunette sitting across the round, imitation-marble table from him. "You're Captain America. You can do anything."
He looked up at her. "Not this."
"Oh, come on," she said sweetly. "For me?"
Rogers looked down at his plate again and scowled at the offending item. "I don't think so."
Jan covered his hand with hers. It was slender but strong, like the rest of her, and cool to the touch. "Look," she said, "we've been through this before. Have I ever led you astray? Even once?"
"No," he conceded.
Though the newspapers would say otherwise, Rogers couldn't help thinking. They had called Jan an adulteress for being with him. But that was a separate subject, even more distasteful to him than the one at hand.
"When we went to Taste of Japan," Jan reminded him, "you thought you were going to barf. But by the end of the night, you were scarfing down sushi like there was no tomorrow."
"That was different," he said.
"Raw fish? What could be more daunting than raw fish?"
"I ate raw fish back in the service," he admitted. "It was part of survival training."
She looked surprised. "You never told me."
"It didn't seem like a good time to bring up the war."
In fact, it had been their first night out, when they weren't sure yet what they might mean to each other. Looking into the dark mysteries of her eyes, the war in Europe was the last thing he had wanted to think about.
Jan nodded. "Gotcha. But you're still not off the hook." With her free hand, she moved his plate a little closer to him. "One bite. That's all I'm asking."
Rogers forced himself to consider what she had ordered for him. "But for the love of God," he whispered, so the other diners in the restaurant wouldn't hear him, "pineapple on pizza?"
She smiled. "There's a first time for everything."
And in the last couple of weeks, she had introduced him to any number of firsts. The first time I took a picture of someone with a telephone. The first time I hit a ball with an aluminum bat. The first time I made love to a married woman.
He was still getting used to that last one. But it wasn't as if he had planned to get involved with Jan. Fate threw us together, he thought, echoing a line from a black-and-white movie whose name he couldn't remember.
One thing Rogers didn't feel was sympathy for Jan's estranged husband. Hank Pym was a louse. Any man who brutalized a woman didn't deserve her. Period.
People called him old-fashioned all the time, but standards of civilized behavior weren't supposed to change with the decade -- or even the century. To his mind they still applied, though he had been asleep in an ice floe for sixty years.
"You're stalling until it gets cold," Jan said, mistaking Rogers's reverie for a tactic. "But it's not going to work. There's plenty more pineapple pizza where that came from."
He sighed. "I'm sure there is."
She wasn't going to relent until he gave it a shot. So before he could gag at what he was putting in his mouth, he picked up the slice and took a bite.
"There," said Jan, looking ever so pleased with herself. "Not so bad, right?"
Rogers didn't answer. He was too busy crunching pineapple chunks in his mouth and trying not to think about the other ingredients that came with them.
Suddenly, he felt a buzzing against his thigh. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the small, cell phone-like device Tony Stark had given him.
"What do they want?" asked Jan, who was no doubt feeling the buzzing as well.
Since the two of them had become an item, they had received a summons from the Triskelion maybe half a dozen times. Initially, Jan had reached for her comm device the same way Rogers had, only to have him beat her to the draw.
But then, his reflexes were considerably faster than those of a normal human being. Part of the super-soldier package, he reflected.
Holding the device to his ear, he said, "Rogers."
"It's Hogan," came the response. "We need you at the Triskelion on the double. Jan too," he added without a hint of irony, "if you happen to know where she is."
"I do," said Rogers, smiling wryly to himself. He gave Hogan the address of the building they were in. "Send Gottschalk. He's better at this than Valentino."
"Will do," Hogan said, and terminated the link.
Jan hadn't waited for the end of the exchange to put her sunglasses away and close up her bag. When Rogers got up from the table, she was right beside him.
Fortunately, they had paid for their food already. That was a habit they had gotten into after the first time they were precipitously called away.
Emerging from the restaurant, they came around the building and entered the alley beside it. Then Jan handed Rogers her bag and disappeared out of her clothes -- or seemed to. In actuality, she had shrunk to the size of an insect, in which form she would ascend through the upper reaches of the alley until she reached the roofline.
Rogers had his own way of getting up there. Slinging Jan's bag over his shoulder, he leaped onto one of the alley's walls. Then, using a crack in one of the bricks for purchase, he propelled himself to a higher spot on the wall opposite.
By repeating the process over and over again, he made it to the roof seven stories above him in less than thirty seconds. A flight of stairs would have made the job easier, but it hadn't been an option.
Besides, anything was better than eating pineapple on his pizza.
A moment after Rogers swung himself onto the roof, Jan showed up full-sized as well, in a special expandable-and-contractible bodysuit Stark had designed for her. And a moment after that, they heard the distant but unmistakable hiss of helicopter blades.
Rogers looked back over his shoulder, in the direction of the harbor and the Triskelion. A small, sleek black-and-gray copter was heading for their rooftop, looming larger as it came. And unless his eyesight was going, it was Gottschalk at the controls.
Rogers was grateful. He didn't mind risking his life if that was what the situation called for, but he didn't want to lose it because he had drawn the wrong pilot.
Making his way east between rows of upward-thrusting office buildings, airborne Tony Stark caught sight of the East River. It glistened restlessly in the morning sunlight, a slice of green wedged between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island.
Away from the skyscrapers, he thought, I'll make better time. And if the urgency in Hogan's voice had been any indication, time was very much of the essence.
Rocketing past edifice after edifice, the street below him little more than a blur, Stark finally broke free of the skyline. This time he veered right and tracked the river, his optical filters darkening to compensate for the direct sunlight, the wind howling at the speed of his passage.
Up ahead, the elegant antique span of the Brooklyn Bridge stood guard over the lower reaches of the river. In a matter of seconds, Stark was sailing between its towers, watching the Upper Bay of New York Harbor spread out before him like a dream of emeralds.
Lower Manhattan vanished on his right, to be replaced by the more distant shore of New Jersey. On his left, Brooklyn fell away to reveal the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island.
The chunks of rock called Ellis and Liberty loomed in front of him, Lady Liberty raising her torch with quiet confidence from the confines of the latter. And just beyond those historic pieces of public property, taking up every inch of a man-made island, lay the imposing, ultramodern structure known as the Triskelion.
Built by Stark Industries, thought the billionaire, at a cost to the taxpayer of virtually nothing. But then, it wasn't the first time he had treated Uncle Sam to a free lunch.
It was all part of the Stark legacy. When he was gone, he wanted people to say nice things about him. That Tony Stark, what a guy. Too bad he had that time bomb in his head.
And so on.
Aiming for the truncated cylinder in the Triskelion's center, he curled around it to approach the round asphalt disc of the helicopter pad. Cutting thrust at the last possible moment, he landed on both feet. Then, without breaking stride, he headed for the gray steel security door.
Happy Hogan was waiting for him alongside it. A strapping fellow with a head for details and the hands of a heavyweight boxer, Hogan was the supervisor of every important operation Stark Enterprises had ever undertaken. That made him the man in charge of not only the Triskelion, but also the Iron Man project.
"Good to see you," said Hogan, the wind snatching half his words.
"What's going on?" Stark asked.
He had forgotten how awkward it was to walk in this version of his armor. Like wearing ski boots, he thought. Strictly heel to toe, no give in the instep.
"We've got intruders," said Hogan, using a palm-sized remote control device to open the door.
Stark eyed his colleague through the optical filters of his mask. "You're kidding, right?"
"Wish I was," Hogan told him, and led the way inside.
Copyright © 2006 by Marvel Characters, Inc.
Excerpted from Tomorrow Men by Michael Jan Friedman Copyright © 2006 by Michael Jan Friedman. Excerpted by permission.
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