A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER

 

A Tale of Iron Mike and Guardian

By Doc Nebula

Guardian stood glumly by while his partner, Iron Mike, adjusted the throttle on the antigrav sled he'd recently thrown together.

"C'mon," Guardian said, tapping his emerald armored fingers impatiently on the work bench he was leaning against. "New York awaits us! HYDRA agents requiring sound beatings! Daredevil and Spider-Man villains by the sackful to be vigorously trounced! J. Jonah Jameson is slavering at the bit to vilify us! Geez, Mike!"

Iron Mike glared over his shoulder at his impatient partner - or so, at least, Guardian interpreted the furious strobe like effect of Mike's crystalline eye-equivalents as he looked at him. "Transcending basic laws of physics isn't something one does casually, or at the snap of one's fingers," he intoned solemnly. "Even in the Marvel Universe."

"Yeah yeah yeah," Guardian retorted. "Unless you're Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Charles Xavier, or Peter Parker. THEY get it all done in a three panel montage sequence. C'mon, c'mon, c'MON."

Mike reached under the main directional control bar to make one more valence adjustment to the embedded molar filaments there, dialing the inertial impedance down just a bit further with his deceptively clumsy looking living metal hands. The cobbled together platform he was sitting on, which looked something like a cast iron park bench mated with a late 20th Century CAT scan, all done in shades of green, seemed to shift slightly underneath him, coming at last to an entirely even keel exactly parallel with the floor. "That's got it," he said with some satisfaction.

"Can we GO now, Dad? Can we? Huh? Can we? Huh?" Guardian was actually shifting from foot to foot in his heavily modified, bright green Kree battle armor. "Even as we speak, the Vulture could be terrorizing a busload of nuns, or something!"

"Nuns be damned," Iron Mike replied, otherwise ignoring his partner for another few seconds as he carefully checked over the various pieces of equipment strapped onto the flying vehicle. Bag o' Weapons... check. Bag o' Toys... check. Bag o' Various Useful Goodies... check. Bag o' Swag... He glanced up at Guardian. "Where's the Bag o' Swag?" SAM had cybernetically pouted for days after they had forced him to materialize some raw gold ingots and various large, nicely faceted gems for them, saying they had depleted a significant percentage of his heavy metal reservoirs in their transmutation. The two of them had stood fast, though; they were going to need some capital to establish a base of operations in New York City, and while they could have fairly easily robbed any of the local banks, they certainly didn't want to start their super adventuring careers in the Marvel Universe as bad guys.

"Although," Mike had pointed out, after thinking about it, "the Avengers do seem to have a historical tradition of taking in reformed villains."

"After beating the crap out of them and putting them in jail for a while," his partner had responded dolefully. "NO thanks."

So, transmuted gold and gems it had been. But now, where was the stuff...?

"Oops," Guardian said. With a muted roar, his belt jets kicked on and he flew down the hall and around the corner with a deftness imparted by weeks of practice. A few seconds later, he vroomed back around the corner again, holding a heavy, dark green sack made of a sturdy, canvaslike material, also materialized by SAM. "Left it in the regen chamber," he said, landing. "Sorry about that. You had so much stuff you wanted to bring..."

Mike took the sack with a mental sigh and wedged it under the same straps holding the Bag o' Goodies to the sled, carefully making sure the straps were still tight afterward. Then he said, "All right, I think we're ready. SAM, open the door to the exit shaft."

Above the two of them, a ten foot square opened in the ceiling, leading into a slanted shaft of slightly larger proportions cutting through the solid rock of the Catskill Mountains to a cave mouth a hundred feet or so overhead.

"Waaaa HOO!" Guardian yelled, igniting his jets again with a massive roar of turbines and blasting up through the shaft on a column of flame.

Behind him, Iron Mike calmly moved the control column on the gravity sled, which responded by more sedately and smoothly following the emerald armored figure up the vertical shaft. He'd never have admitted it, but he actually considered, for a moment, ways to rig up a similarly noisy, flaming special effect trailing from the underside of his own vehicle. Why should his exuberant partner have ALL the fun? But he sighed inwardly... they were already settling into their disparate roles; Guardian as the brash, headstrong, aggressive, go to hell hero type, in direct contrast to Iron Mike, the calmer, more intellectual and logical partner who would forever be relegated to wandering around behind and cleaning up the messes.

Still, Mike mused to himself as the grav-sled flew smoothly out into the night sky of Upstate New York, following the blazing contrail of his partner's belt jets, there was really no reason to bitch. He was in the Marvel Universe, in a super strong, nearly indestructible, probably immortal body, with a computerized intellect that allowed him to create things like... well, like the flying vehicle currently carrying him at high speed through the evening air, and, in fact, the very armor that his partner, hurtling so enthusiastically heavenward just above him, derived all his superhuman capacities from. Not to mention his very own body, of which he was, justifiably, proudest of all. After that inexplicable accident with the power crystal had destroyed his original physical form and left his mind residing in the base's central processing unit, he could have simply remained a strange sort of living computer forever. The inspiration to combine the metallurgical properties of a cast off nega-band with his own genetic material had been pure genius, as had been his completely innovative manipulation of the metabolic regeneration technologies in the Kree complex to grow such a body for himself. Guardian's armor, the various weapons and tools he had devised that were currently packed on the sled, the sled itself, and his own, strong, indestructible, living metal form... these were mute testaments to his new, superhumanly powerful intelligence, an attribute he had always admired above all others in his favorite comic book heroes. If he'd had to give up every other transhuman capacity he possessed, he'd still have been well satisfied if he could have somehow retained the computer-enhanced brain.

He and Guardian were both lucky, lucky men. How many comics fans ever got a chance to actually be super powered adventurers in their favorite fictional universe, after all?

Even the guilt and misery he felt over his dimensional separation from his wife and sons was something he took a secret delight in. Everyone knew the classic Silver Age Marvel heroes all had to have some sort of essential flaw or insoluble problem driving them. His compulsion to keep striving to find a way to re-cross the dimensional boundaries and return to his family was a classic example of such, and with it, he actually felt somewhat smugly superior to his partner, who bore no such onus. Guardian, in fact, had no essential problem at all... no guilt over not preventing the death of his Uncle Ben, no dangerously weakened heart, no lame human secret identity, no weakened constitution and mental instability from constant use of experimental size change formulas, no moping about as a man irreversibly out of his era... he reveled in his life here. Since Mike had installed the teleportation circuits in Guardian's armor, allowing Guardian to apport the armor on and off him merely by saying a preprogrammed code word, he had a virtually problem free superhero identity. Deep inside, Iron Mike was certain his own emotional turmoil made him a much better character than Guardian.

With a whoop and a roar of jet engines, Guardian barrel rolled in the air, soared through a loop, and came up alongside his gleaming, silvery partner. "C'mon, slowpoke! Can't you make that thing go any faster?"

Iron Mike smiled and pushed the control bar further forward, pressing down on the vectored momentum magnifier as well with his featureless, gleaming foot. "Race you!" he said, as the sled suddenly and silently hurled itself forward through the sky, momentarily leaving his startled partner hovering, apparently motionless in the air behind him.

"Goddam living metal cheater," Guardian muttered, before dialing up his belt jet's power intake and roaring after Mike with a joyous bellow.

An hour and hundreds of miles later:

There was a maniac in medieval knight's armor flying over Manhattan in slow, lazy circles on a winged horse, spraying some sort of pink gas out over the gleaming glass and metal skyline.

"Damn," Guardian said, as he and his partner approached through the bright morning air, still a good ten miles away, both of them examining the nut on the winged horse through separate vision enhancing technologies. "Now THERE's something you don't see every day."

"Avengers #6," Iron Mike breathed reverently from the sled beside his flying partner. He didn't even need computer enhanced recall to instantly know the correct citation. "He's spraying..."

"Adhesive X," Guardian said. "Yeah, I remember it. You look for the rest of the Bastards of Evil, they should be somewhere reasonably close by. I'll get Sir Dickhead." An abrupt, intense blast of sharp edged heat and a dopplering whine of miniature engines; suddenly, Guardian, blue flames flickering from either side of his waist, was miles away and accelerating as he closed on the strangely garbed and even more strangely mounted figure.

To Guardian, on this, his first ever real life fight of any kind since 8th grade, everything took on an entirely surreal edge. He was flying through the air, accelerating to speeds of hundreds of miles an hour, closing on an honest to God Marvel supervillain, in the middle of the plot of an early Marvel AVENGERS comic... it was enough to make him hyperventilate, if he thought about it too much. So he didn't think about it. As the Black Knight and his winged horse loomed up through Guardian's vision slits, Guardian noted every detail in wonder... the metal studded harness and tack on the horse, the differently sized, wonderfully countershaded black, dark grey, and midnight blue feathers on the bizarrely functional, flapping wings (that thing has to fly through autokinesis, Guardian though to himself even as he pointed one fisted gauntlet at the Knight), the widening eyes of the villainous medieval enthusiast showing visible whites behind the slits in the black bucket-helmet, the loose, flopping black tabard covering the plate armor underneath... the long lance-cannon in the Black Knight's hands, slowly and ponderously wheeling around to point at him...

Guardian fired, his fist pulsing slightly as a mid strength emerald particle beam hurtled at the speed of light towards the bad guy. Guardian had practiced for days hitting both stationery and moving targets while in fast flight by them; his competently aimed beam hit the black-clad Master of Evil squarely in the chest and blew him right out of his saddle. Whipping into a loop, Guardian yanked his upper torso around in the air and fired another emerald beam at the villain's plummeting form, this one from an open hand. The beam struck the Black Knight and encompassed him in a greenish glow. Guardian closed his hand and yanked, and the seemingly solid bolt of green glowing energy yanked upward responsively, halting the Black Knight's fall, pulling him up to a point ten feet below Guardian, where he hovered, thrashing feebly.

Neither Guardian nor Iron Mike really understood how he managed to manipulate the energy of his armor's power crystal like this, as it wasn't anything programmed into the circuits of the armor itself... it was just something he did. He could envelope nearly any object in a power beam and manipulate it, lifting it, moving it through the air, even propelling it away from him at high velocity with an effort of will. He had to concentrate on it all the time, which got really irritating and tiring, but he'd assiduously practiced that, too, over the last few weeks, and was getting better at it. He'd also recently discovered that he could, with an effort of will, shape the greenish energy into basic, seemingly solid, geometrical shapes and objects, although his concentration was only strong enough to hold such products of his will in coherent form for a minute or so at most. Still, it was an extraordinary ability... a mind boggling one, if you thought about it too much, which, again, Guardian preferred not to.

Both he and Iron Mike had , of course, noted the similarities between this power and that of DC Comics' Green Lantern character, but since they were currently in the Silver Age Marvel Universe, neither expected any little blue guys to show up and start yelling about violation of copyright.

"Who... who the fuck are you...?" Guardian heard the Knight mutter, as he struggled to turn his fouled helmet back around so he could see out.

"The name's Guardian," New York's newest superhero replied, turning to fly back towards where he'd left his partner, levitating the defeated Master of Evil beneath and ahead of him as he flew. The name was one he'd thought long and hard about, finally deciding that it embodied a subtle tribute to both Iron Man, as a reference to the yet unconceived Guardsman armor, and Green Lantern, whose basic powers he seemed to have somehow lucked into possession of. "Now shut up and don't disrupt my concentration, unless you want to find out first hand how well the sheep in Scotland fly." That last was an obscure Monty Python reference he was pretty sure the Black Knight wouldn't get, not least of which because, he didn't think the British comedy troupe existed yet.

Whether he got it or not, the Black Knight subsided into silence.

Miles behind him, Iron Mike was cruising in slow circles above the Manhattan skyline as he quickly assembled a device from various components he had taken from the Bag o' Weapons. Snapping a last piece into place, he then cradled what looked to be a gigantic harpoon gun in his massive metal arms as he began scanning the cityscape below him with his crystalline visual receptors. Yes... there it was... intense and unhealthy levels of primary, secondary, and tertiary radiation, as if a reactor core were loose and walking down the street. Grasping the odd cannon firmly, the living metal hero moved his feet deftly on the control surfaces of the craft he had built, sending it into a steep, curving dive through a narrow alleyway towards the brilliant, sheeting glow of unstable particles he could clearly see at ground level on the next street over. Emerging in an entirely silent swoop thirty feet above pavement level, his optic crystals took in a mind boggling sight below him.

On the street twenty yards to his right, a burly humanoid figure could barely be made out through the poisonous, shimmering green glare of hard radiation that surrounded him like a toxic cloud. Ten yards away, across the street, a massively muscled man with long blond hair flowing out from underneath a winged silvery helmet, clad in an astonishing outfit of bright blue furs and chained together metal disks, with a long flowing red cloak, was grabbing a huge, stone headed hammer out of the air, a look of outrage on his handsome features. Behind him, a twelve foot tall, lithely proportioned giant in garish red and blue crouched like a backstop, eyes scanning the scene, ready to lunge forward. Another figure, in a striking star spangled red white and blue uniform, held a slightly curved, yard wide disc of red and white metal in one crimson gloved hand, his eyes seeming to take in everything at once, muscles seemingly both coiled and relaxed at the same time, ready to bounce in any direction. Off to one side, ten feet above the sidewalk, a shimmering column of jet exhaust thrusting from red metal boots held a scarlet and gold armored figure aloft.

As Iron Mike hurtled out of the alley, he tromped deftly down on both momentum and inertial control bars, bringing his sky-sled to an instant halt, thirty feet up. Leveling the massive harpoon gun, he shouted in a cybernetically augmented voice, "MELTER AT THREE O'CLOCK!"... and as that very supervillain came lurching out of another alleyway to Iron Man's right, Iron Mike fired his weapon directly at the Radioactive Man, who was only then starting to glance in his direction.

The cadmium harpoon, prepared against exactly this contingency (the Radioactive Man had had an annoying tendency to pop up a lot in the early Marvel Silver Age, doubtless a relic of the era's fear of atomic energy) hit exactly where Iron Mike's computerized aim had directed it, driving through the rogue Chinese villain's upper chest to the left of and well above his heart. The point of the cadmium rod punched out a few inches left of the glowing Master of Evil's spine, who gasped and went to his knees, his rampant radioactive aura instantly starting to dim and flicker. "Szo chu wen!" he gasped, feeling his power draining away as the runaway nuclear reaction in his mutated cells began to have its energy drained off into the dense metal of the rod jammed through his chest.

Iron Man, hearing the warning, had immediately rolled to his right, gyroscopically balanced atop his column of compressed air. As the Melter lurched towards him, trying to position himself so his heavy chest piece would point up at the Golden Avenger, Iron Man extended one palm and blasted the villain with a powerful beam of focused, polarized, high energy particles. The repulsor ray blew the Melter off his feet and sent him skidding and spinning twenty feet along the sidewalk until he came to a stop with a ringing clatter against a corner lamp post.

Captain America bounded over to the lamp post like a tiger and slammed the Melter hard up against it with his shield, demolishing the delicate circuitry of the villain's chest mounted melting-beam... or demolishing it further, anyway, since it hadn't fared particularly well from Iron Man's direct repulsor ray hit, either. "You know, I.M.," Giant Man said, walking forward and picking the Melter up by the scruff of his costume, "I really can't see how this guy ever manages to bug you much."

Iron Man had landed next to the feebly writhing Radioactive Man, who was gasping and clawing ineffectively at the shaft protruding from his now seemingly normal, pallid, chest. "He's sneaky," Iron Man opined in a voice somewhat distorted with radio crackle. "Damping rod harpoons! Suh LICK!" The Golden Avenger whistled appreciatively as he dropped to one knee, opened a panel in his glove, and appeared to be staring at some sort of dials inside. "You've got the atomic reaction almost completely damped out," he said after a few seconds. "Damn good work."

Giant Man strolled over with the Melter held slung under one arm like a sack of laundry. From somewhere to the left of Iron Man, a thin, buzzing voice could barely be heard. "Yuck," the Wasp piped. "Blood. I mean, disgusting."

Captain America turned and fixed the hovering sky vehicle, and its somewhat uncanny driver, with a clear, blue eyed gaze. "Well, apparently you're on our side," Cap said, his voice warmly cordial. "What's your name, friend?"

Normally, Mike would have liked nothing better than to land and have an extended conversation with the people below... the Silver Age Avengers! Christ! Iron Man, Captain America, Hank Pym! Damn! But he was well aware this plot wasn't over yet. He stayed on his grav-sled, eyes scanning the sky. "You guys keep an eye out," he said. "Baron Zemo's helicopter should be on its way here right now."

With a roar of jets, Guardian's green armored form came into view, flying between two tall buildings, an obviously unresisting Black Knight suspended in a green, glowing energy aura just below him. He landed underneath Iron Mike's hovering vehicle and let the medieval supervillain fall to the pavement with a clatter. "Doofus Delivery. Someone order a big jerk with a bucket on his head?" Guardian glanced around. "Nobody's pasted to the street... that's cool," he noted, by which he meant 'no Avengers'; for blocks surrounding this particular battleground, hundreds or thousands of people were struggling like bugs on flypaper, irresistibly affixed to the ground by the Masters of Evil's freely sprayed Adhesive X. In the original story presented in AVENGERS #6, Giant Man and Captain America had also wound up glued to the asphalt by a stray shot from the Radioactive Man's Adhesive X gun; apparently, Mike had shut him down before things had gotten to that point. So they were that far ahead of the curve, anyway.

He glanced around again, and it really sank in who he was sharing a street with.

"Pasted to the... Zemo?" Cap said... sputtered, really... staring around at the various defeated villains. Thor had already gathered up the writhing, rather grayish Radioactive Man in his arms. Now the entire team of Avengers gathered around Guardian and Iron Mike, who still hovered on his grav-sled thirty feet above. "All right, mister," Cap rapped grimly to the green garbed stranger. "Seems like you've got a good idea what's going on here. Fill us in!"

Guardian stared around mutely for a moment. "Uh..." he said. Captain America! Iron Man! Thor! Hank fricking PYM! And that little thing buzzing around Iron Man... that must be the Wasp! Jesus CHRIST! Strangely, translated into living, breathing, walking, talking, very solid real life, the goofy costumes didn't look goofy at all. They looked... real. DAMN! "Uh... um..."

Amazingly, Giant Man smiled. He stooped down on one knee and tapped Guardian gently on his chest plate, making it chime musically. "Relax there, fella," he said in a pleasant, booming baritone. "Nobody's going to eat you. Just take a breath."

Iron Mike's grav-sled came silently down to the ground next to his fellow comics fan. "Please pardon my partner's stuttering," he said, in his even, emotionless artificial voice. "We... you people are childhood heroes for both of us. We never expected..."

"What are your names?" the Wasp buzzed, barely audible even from a bare yard away.

Guardian took a deep breath. He and Mike had rehearsed this particular moment, anyway, over and over again, although neither of them had pictured their initial introduction being to the Mighty friggin AVENGERS, for Chrissake... he'd been envisioning reporters, maybe... "Guardian," he near-squeaked, then cleared his voice and tried again. "I'm Guardian. He's... Iron Mike." Then, because he couldn't help it, he added "But we can wear name-tags if you want; people are always getting us mixed up."

Captain America stared in puzzlement at that statement, glancing back and forth from one to the other. The Wasp buzzed near his ear and piped "Joke, Cap... that was a joke."

The Star Spangled Avenger frowned. "This is hardly a time for..."

There was a distant whirring sound that resolved itself within a second into the clopping of helicopter rotors. Iron Mike and Guardian glanced up, both at the same time. "That's Zemo," Iron Mike said calmly. "He's not going to land now, though, since we've cleaned up his gang."

Captain America was clearly getting agitated, turning to stare frantically up at the odd, egg shaped helicopter just coming into view as it banked around a 30 story office building. "Zemo?" he gasped. "Still alive? HERE? But..." He visibly mastered his emotions. "Thor! Iron Man! Can we force that airship to land?"

"We should be doing something to help all these trapped people, too!" the Wasp shrilled as she zipped around insectlike. "Hank, sweetie, can't you shrink them all down or something...?"

Thor was swinging his huge hammer around his head in vast whooming circles, forcing everyone to dodge back and sending every stray gum wrapper and old piece of newspaper on the street whickering madly off in all directions. "I shall bring yon chariot of evil down!" he roared over the blast of the wind he was whipping up. "Aye, verily, in a thousand shiv'ring shards, I shall bring it down!"

"No, Thor!" Cap bellowed, bracing himself behind his shield against the gale. "There may be innocent people on board!"

"We got this," Guardian yelled. "C'mon, Iron Man, let's go knock the rotors off the damn thing." With a redoubled roar of boot and belt jets, the two armored heroes rocketed into the sky, arcing like guided missiles towards the strange helicopter, which was now clearly attempting to turn away and regain altitude. Two pulses of energy, one brilliant blue, the other vivid green, apparently did something non-beneficial to the aircraft, as it abruptly staggered in the air, then started to fall. Iron Mike, watching from below, was glad to see his partner had had enough sense not to actually blow the rotors off the craft, as god knows how much damage a whirling helicopter rotor would have done if it had fallen into streets full of glued down innocent bystanders.

A green beam of energy snapped out of Guardian's distant form, striking the plummeting craft and arresting its fall. Suspended at the end of the energy beam, the helicopter was drawn down by Guardian and brought to rest on the street where the rest of the Avengers were gathered, while Iron Man, who had already yanked the door off its hinges, blasted the cabin with wide-angle repulsor rays, and then gone inside, emerged with a limp form under each arm. He dumped them unceremoniously on the ground.

Captain America gasped. "Zemo!" He stepped over, stooped, turned both unconscious figures over. "I don't know this other one," Cap admitted, grimly, after a moment. "But this..." He looked as if he were barely restraining himself from kicking the unresisting figure of the hooded man lying on the street at his feet. "Worthless... murdering Nazi scum... he killed Bucky...!"

Giant-Man rested a huge hand on Captain America's heaving, chainmail garbed shoulder. "Easy there, big fella," he said. "Come on. Jan's right. This part of the job is done. Now we need to worry about all the folks these pricks trapped before they got shut down by our friends here."

From somewhere behind the two of them, the Wasp's piping voice came: "I remember hearing about an adhesives expert named Paste Pot Pete who was arrested a few months ago after a battle with the Human Torch. Maybe he could come up with something..."

More time passed. Eventually:

The Avengers sat around the big mahogany table in their main meeting chamber, in characteristic poses: The Wasp with her arms wrapped around both drawn up, tights clad legs like a little girl, chin resting between her knees, eyes moving back and forth brightly; Giant Man, still ten feet tall to save himself the wear and tear of unnecessary size change, sprawled in his oversized chair, one leg up, looking pensive; Captain America sitting up straight, elbows off the table; Iron Man sitting stiffly, like a mannequin; Thor hunkered down, both elbows on the table, one big hand rubbing the back of his neck under his long golden hair, helmet off, looking sullen.

"...still believe a sound storm would have washed the evil goo away," the Thunder God was repeating.

Giant Man waved a hand the size of a folding tray irritably. "The solvent that Pete came up with worked fine, Thor. Let's drop the subject."

"I agree," Iron Man crackled from inside his helmet. "We're here to discuss another matter, anyway. Our two new friends, namely... Iron Mike and Guardian."

Cap slowly stripped his red gauntlets off, then eased his hood back off his sweat matted hair with a sigh of relief. "I like them both," he said calmly. "They seem like good men to me. Guardian seems to be a bit of a weisenheimer, but they certainly both proved themselves resourceful in combat."

Iron Man laboriously shook his head from side to side, his helmet rasping metallically against his neck collar. "That damping rod/harpoon... that was brilliant," he said. "I'd have probably wrapped the Radioactive Man in lead foil, or some such... but shooting him with a damping rod... what an amazing idea!"

"Ick," the Wasp said. "I mean, sure, it worked, I guess... I'll take your word for it... but I hope we're not going to start a fad of shooting spears through our bad guys. I mean, yuck!"

"Bah," Thor said. "Our battles have been pallid, bloodless affairs heretofore, and I, for one, am weary of it! More than weary! These villains would shed our blood ruthlessly enough, I say, let us be as ruthless in return! The sight of gore hardens the heart of a warrior true!"

"Thank you for that excursion into utter lunacy, Attila the Hun," Giant-Man said mildly. "While I'm not at all in favor of the use of deadly force except in the most extreme circumstances, I have to admit, the Radioactive Man is an extreme public health risk. He would be just walking around on the public streets, even if he weren't actively engaged in violent criminal activity. I'd have to say, I tend to agree with Iron Man... the tactic was intelligent, well executed, and effective."

Thor frowned. "Who be this Attila the Hun?"

"A famous historical figure who conquered much of the known world," Cap said dryly. As Thor beamed, he went on, "Both seem extremely resourceful. Which is really my only worry..."

Outside, just down the hall, Guardian and Iron Mike sat in a quietly luxurious drawing room. Iron Mike had reduced his relative density so his sheer weight would not crush any of the fine walnut and dark leather furniture. Jarvis had quietly brought in a platter of sliced cheese, fruit, crackers, and deli meats, along with a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses, fifteen minutes before, and just as quietly left the two guests alone with the food. Now, having gone through half the snack platter like a one man locust plague, Guardian paused for a moment and looked over at his partner. "You don't eat at all any more, huh? That's gotta suck."

"I miss pizza," Mike replied. "But not being able to starve to death is a fair trade off, I suspect, and never having to take a shit again is definitely worth it."

Guardian thought about that for a minute... then reached for another cracker and started piling cheese and pepperoni on it. "Nah," he said. "I like to eat." He crunched his way through the tidbit, then wiped his fingers off on a napkin. "You know what they're doing in there, right?"

"Of course," Mike replied immediately. "Considering us for membership... well... you, at least. I don't think Cap was particularly thrilled when I harpooned the Radioactive Man, and Jan nearly threw up."

"Oh fucking please," Guardian replied. "Iron Man almost popped a boner, and Hank thought it was the cat's ass, too. They need you, dude. You're the SMART one. If they don't want anyone, it'll be me. What do they need another guy in armor for, anyway? Plus, I was a smart ass in front of Cap! But you're in like Flint." He popped a grape in his mouth to chase the cheese, meat, and cracker. "Mmmm. Seedless."

Mike ponderously shook his gleaming metal head from side to side. "I don't think so. Iron Man doesn't have the same capacity to manipulate objects your green beams give you, and they'll certainly have seen that. And this group of Avengers isn't exactly short on super-smarts, nor do they exactly need more super strength. That, in combination with the rather brutal battle tactics they saw me employ..."

Guardian chuckled nastily. "Brutal? Dude, I was gonna blow Zemo out of the sky if I got a chance. Save everybody a whole lotta trouble. I mean, he's gonna die anyway, and if he died today, the Enchantress would probably never start up the Masters of Evil again." Guardian shuddered. "HER I'm not looking forward to messing with."

"Yes," Iron Mike said, "but you didn't, and the Avengers don't know you planned to... and anyway, you might not have. They saw me fire a harpoon through a person, though."

"A very bad person," Guardian said. "Anyway, you're computerized. You couldn't miss if you wanted to. You shot to incapacitate, you saved lives, and only the bad guy got hurt." Looking over, he could see his partner was honestly troubled. "Look, Orto, don't sweat it... or whatever you do to radiate excess heat now. We're a team. If they don't want you, I'm not joining either. Which I say in the full knowledge that I won't have to live up to it, because if they want anyone, it will be you."

Iron Mike sat motionless for a moment. "Well... thank you. I think that would be foolish of you... but you're right, we're a team. If it should turn out they don't want you, I won't join, either."

Guardian grinned. "There's always the FF," he said. "Reed, after all, had been trying to find some way to give the others more spending money lately..."

Iron Mike snorted. "You would look truly stupid in blue spandex."

Guardian picked up another cracker. "YOU should talk."

After a minute of amiable silence, Iron Mike declared quietly, in a mock British accent: "The Black Knight is invincible!"

Guardian, taken by surprise, coughed laughter and cracker crumbs all over the rug. After a few spluttering seconds, he managed to return, "'is arm's off..."

Iron Mike smiled. " 'e's 'ad worse," he said.

The door to the study opened, and Jarvis stepped inside. "The Avengers will see Master... ah... Guardian, now," he announced. The very proper butler then stood there, staring pointedly at the half chewed cracker crumbs spewed across the carpet in front of Guardian's chair.

Guardian and Iron Mike both got to their feet. "WHO jumps out?" Guardian murmured.

"If we build a giant wooden badger..." Iron Mike replied.

They both turned to Jarvis. "Now, here's the thing, Jarv," Guardian began...

When Jarvis opened the door down the hall a few moments later, both Iron Mike and Guardian walked into the central meeting room. "They insisted, sirs, madam," Jarvis said, his tone conveying faint disapproval. "I do not smell of elderberries," he muttered in a low voice to himself as he closed the door again.

"We're a team," Guardian said firmly. He was carrying his helmet under his arm, his long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that wouldn't be stylish in New York City for another fifteen years.

"Yes," Iron Mike agreed. "No separate interrogations." He looked around the elegantly appointed room wistfully. Nice place. Well, maybe he and Guardian could found the Champions, or the Defenders, or something...

The Wasp looked puzzled. "Separate interrogations?"

Cap leaned over and stage whispered. "It's a joke, Jan." She shot him a dirty look.

Giant-Man gestured to a pair of empty chairs, pushed back from the table. "If that's how you want it," he said. "Take a load off, boys."

The two new heroes sat. Iron Man swiveled his chair to face them. "Guardian, since you've chosen to remove your helmet, we assume you don't have any privacy or secret identity issues. Iron Mike... we're not sure you could have a secret identity, unless you can alter your form somehow..."

"Neither of us are worried much about that," Guardian replied, after glancing at his partner. "We have no families to worry about here. Or friends, other than each other."

"Well, you've got friends now," Captain America said levelly. "After your help today, no matter how this discussion comes out, rest assured of that."

"It is our wish to discuss the possibility of your joining our mighty companionship," Thor intoned. "However, the noble Captain America has raised certain matters that must be discussed aforehand. Although for my own part, I believe that both of you have comported yourselves with a valor, and displayed such power as would be a credit to Avengers." Here he gave a brief glare at Cap. "Captain?"

"It's not just on Cap," Iron Man said, his voice hissing and popping tinnily through his speakers. "I've got some questions too. For starters, absolutely, we really appreciate the timely help today. But you seemed to have an awful lot of inside information about what was going on. Such as the fact that Baron Zemo, whom none of us knew was even alive, was behind that whole mess today. How did you know that?"

Iron Mike leaned forward in his chair. "We talked about this before we decided to come to New York City," he started, speaking slowly and carefully. He remembered that he and Guardian had discussed this very subject quite extensively. As comics fans, especially Silver Age Marvel Comics fans, suddenly thrust into the actual Marvel Comics Silver Age, they found themselves in a peculiar position. To put it bluntly, they knew way too much for their own good... not just secret identities (although they knew everybody's secret identity) but, in their memories of the Silver Age comics they'd read and loved and reread as kids and adults, they had knowledge of the future, too. They had thought about it, and talked about it, for a long time, before they'd decided to leave their underground complex and come to New York to be super powered adventurers.

Suppose they were captured, and tortured? Suppose someone read their minds? And even if that didn't happen, what would they do when they ran into, say, Spider-Man, and had to decide whether or not to warn him about the Green Goblin killing Gwen Stacy in five or six years? Or they encountered Mar Vell, and had a chance to tell him to stay away from Nitro and nerve gas? Should they warn Captain America about the Secret Empire and who its leader was going to be?

In the end, they'd decided they had to keep it all to themselves, but, if the opportunity presented itself, they could try to prevent such tragedies as fell within their sphere of influence. It was a lousy compromise and didn't satisfy either of them fully, but... it was workable. Their alternatives were to either confine themselves to their underground complex forever, or spill the beans to the first superhero they came across... in which case, they'd either be ignored as crazy, or locked up in a vault somewhere as too valuable and dangerous to be allowed to wander around loose.

It was an entirely selfish decision, but it was the decision they'd made. They were there, in the Silver Age Marvel Universe. They'd stumbled into superhuman abilities. There was no way they were going to let that opportunity pass by.

"We finally reached a decision," Iron Mike went on, all these thoughts flashing through his computerized mind in a fraction of a second. "As I mentioned to you before, you people are heroes to us. The last thing we want to do is start off lying to you. So we aren't going to lie."

Guardian spoke up then. "So what we can tell you is this: Mike and I are native to another dimension… an alternate timeline to this one, if you want to look at it that way. And in that timeline… from its internal perspective…"

Iron Mike took up the slack. "This continuum is fictional. You people are fictional characters. We’ve read about many of your adventures… as fiction… and therefore… well… in the case of today’s events, we’d read that story, and so we knew what was going on."

All the Avengers were frankly goggling at the two adventurers.

"I TOLD you we should have made up some bullshit story,"Guardian said ruefully. "Look at ‘em. They’re totally freaked."

"Fictional… characters…?" Cap said, slowly.

"Our personal favorites," Guardian said, helpfully. "We like you guys even better than Spider-Man and the FF."

"Never mind," Iron Mike said. "We were only kidding. Actually, we… er… we…"

Guardian remembered a rationalization a truly lousy roleplayer he had once known had liked to use, to justify using information his character would have no way of knowing. "We get visions," he said.

"Visions,"the Wasp repeated, disbelievingly.

"Visions," Iron Mike replied firmly.

Thor scowled. "Evil wizardries have no place..."

Cap cleared his voice. "Thor, please. They're... being facetious." He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Visions," he repeated. He looked at Iron Mike, then at Guardian. "Or, on the other hand… a world in which we, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four are fictional characters…" He shook his head briskly. "And... if we don't like?"

Guardian visibly shrugged. Iron Mike just sat there, still as the metal sculpture he sometimes resembled. "I guess we'd have to go get a hotel room," Guardian said, after a few seconds.

Cap glanced around the table. He and his partners had discussed this. Had the two of them actually offered a glib explanation, they would have initiated an in depth investigation of any possible connection between them and the Masters of Evil... but this...

"We’ll… we’d have to investigate," Cap said, slowly. "Look into your backgrounds… check for links to Zemo, or any of the other Masters of Evil…"

Guardian grinned and shrugged and in a few quick, practiced gestures, took his gauntlets off and held his bare fingers up. "Ink me up," he said.

Iron Mike held up his own metallic hands, looked at them, and then said, "Of course we expect you to investigate. We’ll supply you with any personal details of our backgrounds you want. However, we don’t exist in this particular world… or didn’t until a month or so ago…"

Iron Man had been holding very very still for several minutes. Now, decisively, he sat forward. "Well," he rapped, in his hollow, somewhat static-shot voice, "as long as you cooperate… I’d say, if we can’t turn up any indications of you in official records… that would go a long way to support your story."

"Which one," Hank said, looking bemused. "The visions, or the otherdimensional thing with us being fictional?"

"Let’s just go with the visions thing," Cap said, waving one hand dismissively. "It’s… easier. And it’s not like there aren’t other Avengers who guard their privacy… it’s in our charter that members are allowed to keep secrets, as long as those secrets don’t endanger the public welfare, or that of the team."

"Oh, sure," Hank agreed. "As long as they check out…" He glanced around the table. "So… probationary membership while we investigate… say, for 90 days… and then a final vote…?"

"Works for me," Cap said, nodding.

"I can go along with that," Iron Man rasped.

The Wasp leaned forward, looking intently from Iron Mike to Guardian. Then she giggled and said, "Okay with me." She leaned over and stage whispered, "Hank, you should think about growing a beard. Guardian’s looks really sexy."

Hank growled, "Don’t instigate, young lady."

Cap turned to the Norse God of Thunder. "Well, Thor? You’re the last party left unheard from…"

Thor glared back at him. "What? I be the one who wants to see more of our foes impaled on spears! Aye, induct them! By Freya's teats, man!"

Anyone else, Cap reflected to himself, would be being sarcastic when they said that. He turned to Guardian and Iron Mike.

"Well?" he said, gently, smiling.

Guardian turned and stared at Mike. Mike was staring back at him. "Hold on a sec," Guardian said. "I think I missed something. They just told us we were full of crap, crazy as hell, they could never trust us, and we’re not worthy to be Avengers in a million years, right?"

"You’d think so," Mike said, in awed tones. "But… actually… I think they just offered us provisional membership."

Guardian blinked at his partner. "In… you know… the Avengers," he said, after a long couple of seconds, sounding stunned.

For another long moment, the two stared at each other. Then Guardian abruptly held his hand out, palm up, to Iron Mike. "DUDE!" he screamed. "YES!!!!" Iron Mike bellowed back, slamming his own palm down with a resounding clang across Guardian's green gauntlet. "WE RULE!!!" both of them shouted, bafflingly, in unison, leaping to their feet and pumping their fists in the air.

After a few seconds, they both turned to face the staring Avengers. Cap looked... patient. Giant Man and the Wasp were both trying hard not to crack up. Something suspiciously like chortling sounds were coming from Iron Man's armor. Thor looked... puzzled. Puzzled and bored.

"Um..." Guardian stammered. "Uh... yeah. I mean, yes SIR. That... that would be totally cool." He clasped his hands together behind his back. "Sorry," he said, meekly.

Iron Mike rose as well. "Yes," he said, simply. "I accept." He also clasped his hands behind his back and looked penitent.

"Good!" Thor said, beaming hugely. "Then thy first act as Avenger can be to make for me a weapon such as the one you used on the Radioactive Man! But much, much larger..."

Down the hall, Jarvis shook his head as he heard a resounding chorus of shouted "NO!" s come through the meeting room door. What a relief. His father had definitely not been a window dresser...