Stark Really #20: Redemption
March 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
[The following is the final installment of a science-fiction serial I started writing at Matterport, where I worked from May to December of 2015. Someday I will get the rights to publish the entire story, but for now, enjoy this little vignette.]
Stark Realty #20: Redemption
“He didn’t kill your mother, Tanya.” panted the newly-arrived Jane Hathaway. “I did.”
Tanya Bain stared at the petite, matronly woman in shocked disbelief. Tony Stark, his hands nailed to the concrete wall with Q-carbon spikes, screamed “Jane, no!”
The demolecularizing grenade Tanya had placed over her father’s arc reactor-powered heart dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers. With a supreme effort, Tony levered himself against the spikes and drop-kicked the grenade against the far wall, where it harmlessly vaporized a quarter-inch of foamed concrete.
“Tanya,” he gasped. “Please. Don’t believe her. It was all my fault.”
His estranged daughter stared at him blankly, sinking slowly to the ground. She, with help from the anonymous cyber-dwarf Rumplestilskin, had put herself through hell to destroy Iron Man for killing her mother. Had her whole life been based on a lie?
“Men!” exhaled Jane in mock exasperation. Tanya had worked for her at Stark Realty, part of Rumplestilskin’s elaborate plan for infiltrating Stark Tower in order to steal tech that could destroy Iron Man. “Always trying to shield us from reality. They never want to admit it is we who need to protect them from making fools of themselves.”
Jane leaned against a wall, breathing heavily from her long run. “I’m sorry, Tanya. For everything. I wanted to tell you sooner, but he” she paused, rolling her eyes at the world’s richest man, “insisted it was too dangerous.”
“Jane,” interrupted Tony. “Please, you don’t have to do this.”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Jane fondly, walking towards them. “Of course I do. She’s old enough to know the truth. It’s the only way she’ll ever be free.”
Jane knelt down beside the benumbed Tanya. “You mother was a remarkable woman,” she said gently, looking directly into the girl’s haunted eyes. “I came to Baintronics early that morning looking for a job. My husband had died three years ago, and his life insurance wasn’t enough to send three girls to college. I hadn’t worked since I got married, and your mother’s startup was the only place in San Diego a woman like me could hope to get rich.”
Jane stared upwards, her eyes focusing on a scene from the distant past. “I was so naive, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why the front door was open and unlocked. I wandered around until I heard voices from one of the labs. Imagine my surprise when I peeked inside and saw Iron Man, pinned like a butterfly to an enormous magnet!”
She paused, looking upwards at the crucified billionaire, and sighed. “Like mother, like daughter, I suppose. Tanya, give me a hand, please,” she said matter-of-factly, standing up and reaching out to her.
Without thinking, Tanya automatically obeyed the soothing voice. She took the offered hand and rose, helping the older woman free the stunned hero, who for perhaps the first time in his life was at a complete loss for words. They bandaged his ruined hands, wrapped him in a blanket, and sat him on the bed with a cup of chamomile tea.
When they were finished, Jane drew Tanya to sit facing her on a nearby couch. “Your father had snuck into Baintronics on the trail of the mysterious Madame Menace, who had been stealing technology from firms across the country. Little did he realize that behind the mask was his rival and former lover, Sunset Bain, and that the whole setup was an elaborate trap. ”
At this point Jane knelt down on the floor before Tanya and took her hand. “Tanya, your mother wasn’t a bad woman. When I came in, she was describing a lifetime of rage, abuse, and humiliation to Tony; much of it due, at least indirectly, to the insensitivity of the Stark family. He, fool that he was back then,” — with an motherly eyeroll in his direction — “tried to argue with her, which of course only made things worse.”
Jane gazed up uno Tanya’s eyes. “If any of the three of us had been just a little bit wiser, your mother might still be alive today. As it was, they had worked each other up to into a homicidal rage. I can see it like was yesterday…” she said, eyes defocused as she gazed into the past.
“You insufferable fool,” screamed Sunset Bain. “Always squirming out of trouble using your money, your brains, or your good lucks. You’ve never had to worry about meeting next month’s payroll, or trying to heal a broken heart. The world has had enough of cold-hearted Starks play-acting as heroes. This ends now!”
Jane watched horrified as Sunset pulled a crude grenade from a pouch on her belt. “Recognize this, Tony? Built from the very demoleculerazation technology I stole from you last month. It’s not much, but it is just enough to burn past the defenses on your arc reactor heart. If if you escape and run for help, you’ll inevitably die a slow agonizing death in a matter of minutes. Just the way my father died in your factory, and I’ve been dying ever since.” She looked up, and Sunset’s eyes were filled with sadness instead of a rage. And a deep, implacable madness.
Searching around frantically, Jane saw a heavy, fist-sized glass beaker on a nearby table. Without pausing to think, her years of playing college softball came back to her, and she threw it with all her might as Sunset pulled the pin on the grenade. The shot was true, knocking the grenade to the ground. “No!”, screamed Sunset, instinctively jumping down after it. “Sunset, don’t, it’s…” screamed a suddenly alarmed Tony Stark, his voice cut off by a blinding flash and a muffled boom as the grenade exploded under her.
“The… good news,” explained Jane gently to the benumbed Tanya, “was that the shock kept your mother from feeling any pain. The bad news… well, the damage was too extensive for… I’m sorry.” Jane bent down, tears filling her eyes. “I do want you to know, though: her last thought was of you. She said, ‘Please don’t tell my daughter how I died, it would break her heart.’ ”
“Forgive me, Tanya. I promised both Tony and your mother I would never say anything. That’s why we kept her death a secret all these years, even though you guessed something very close to the truth. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry,” said a much-subdued Tony Stark, who had walked over unbeknownst to them while they were talking. “I was an idiot and a fool many times over, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve replayed that whole evening — and my entire relationship with your mother — identifying countless ways I could have saved her.”
“There you go again,” smiled Jane through her years. “Always going to such lengths to take the blame upon yourself. I still think it was a ridiculous to let her get involved with Rumplestilskin. She could easily have killed herself, not to mention you.”
“You… you know, Rumplestilskin?” blurted out Tanya, surprise finally breaking the shock that had held her in a trance.
“Of course, dear,” Jane replied, a ghost of her former grin coming back. “How else could I have known you would be here tonight, or about to make your attempt on Stark Tower? He’s the one who even got me the job at Stark Realty — under protest — so I could meet you face to face.”
“But you.. after you saved Tony’s life, I’d have though he’d be grateful, reward you even. Did he betray you as well? Is that why you’re working with a man who’s trying to kill him?” a trace of the old fire crept back into her voice.
“An excellent question,” said Jane archly. “Why don’t you tell her, Rumplestilskin?” she said coldly, though with a glint of wicked humor.
Tanya gazed around the room wildly, expecting to see him stroll through an open doorway. When that yielded nothing, she tossed on her helmet, but could find no sign of other life forms. Puzzled, she slowly removed the helmet. Only to see Jane Hathway staring with a saucy grin at…
“You!” cried Tanya, staring at her father. “You were Rumplestilksin all along! But you said…”
“That I have more reasons to hate Tony Stark than you could possible imagine. And now you know that’s true. I’ve done a lot of terrible things in my life, but none of them compares to the shame of leaving you an orphan twice over.”
“But, but… you could have just told me!” cried Tanya.
“And would you have believed me?” countered Tony. “I knew your mother had raised you to hate me and everything I stand for. You have no idea how much I longed to come claim you, to let you and the world know that I was your father and that you were my daughter.”
He lowered himself painfully to the ground beside Jane and looked up into his daughter’s eyes. “But it would never have worked. Either I’d have to admit my complicity in your mother’s death, which would make you hate me, or lie about, which would eventually make your suspect me.”
He paused, eyes to the floor. “Either way, I would lose you. And I suddenly realized that the most importantly thing to me in the whole wide world, the only thing I couldn’t buy with my billions or solve with technology, was earning the trust of a little girl.”
He glanced back up, and she could see the echo of Rumplestilskin’s computer-generated grin on his face. “And I realized that the only way to do that was to give you exactly what you wanted: revenge. You’re not the only one who knows what it feels like to grow up with an absent father and manipulative mother, secretly hating a man the rest of the world considers a hero.”
He stood up, suddenly serious, and held out his hand. “You’re an engineer. You should realized that pain is like heat. It can never be removed, only dissipated into another body. If I was ever to have any chance of a real relationship with you, I had to let you dump all of your pain on me. It was terrifying and excruciating for both of us, and I wept over everything I had to put you through. But it was worth everything if, if…”
He gazed directly into her pain-filled eyes that so mirrored his own.
“Tanya, my daughter, I am so sorry. For everything. Please. Will you forgive me?”
“Oh Daddy,” she cried, falling into his arms.
To Matterport, with Love.
Sincerely, Ernie Prabhakar
Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016