An Untold Tale Of Iron Mike and Guardian

as pieced together from personal logs and internal monitor recordings by Doc Nebula

Deep within the Secret Citadel, time had ceased to exist.

As Michael Norton, better known to the world of his exile as Iron Mike, famous superpowered adventurer and occasional Avenger, bent over the incomprehensibly advanced piece of equipment in his ridiculously well outfitted private lab (even part time Avengers know few budget restrictions, provided they agree to upload the results of their researches regularly into the Stark mainframe) all distractions provided by exterior reality had vanished.

There was only the tiny fragment of glowing green crystal, suspended in a tensor field in front of him, and the constantly changing stream of figures running in an endless three dimensional scroll projected on the very air just to the left of it.

Iron Mike's fingers danced without self-conscious control across the ten-thousand point touchboard built into his lab console, changing the frequencies, wavelengths, and angstroms of the array of focused energies probing and bombarding the green crystal in front of him. Although comprised of an improbably dense organic ceramo-metal most would have mistakenly thought slow and clumsy, his hands moved deftly and precisely, not unlike a surgeon's or a master composer's. Up four full angstroms... across the spectrum into the hyper-violet... focus to ten tera-joules... balance that off against exactly 17.9 pulses per second of ionized repulsor energy... and...

The tiny chip of green crystal shimmered for a moment, and then abruptly its lambent aura darkened, from a bright emerald into a deep, ominous purple. It pulsed and winked there, a darkling star brought down to earth, for a long moment. The scrolling column of figures projected in the air vanished, as did the lights on the modified Richards 4000 console in front of Iron Mike. The Kree glowhaze suspended in the Citadel's very atmosphere began to visibly dim.

The cradle of interacting energy permeating the gem-fragment dissipated as its projectors powered down. Immediately, the bright green glow returned. The column of figures winked back into existence as the lab's ambient light level brightened again. With a grunt of deep inner satisfaction, Iron Mike tapped a point on his console, terminating the experiment.

So. That was very interesting indeed. He'd known for a lengthy period... since shortly after his first arrival here on this world along with his partner, Guardian... that the emerald crystals they'd found scattered around the various long-abandoned science labs were power sources of an unbelievable magnitude. A fragment no larger than a child's thumbnail had been at the heart of the complex's advanced power generation systems. Another one, the size of a large six sided die, resided in the belt buckle of his partner's specially adapted Kree battle armor, making him one of the most powerful members of the Avengers... perhaps one of the most powerful superhuman entities on Earth.

The crystals were a source of apparently near-limitless energy, and over the past two years, Mike had managed to determine that in fact, they apparently drained this energy in tiny increments from a perhaps-infinite array of layered multi-dimensions. Like the classic computer fraud in which an enterprising hacker removes one cent from every bank account in the world, making himself wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice... these crystals were actually portable interdimensional shunts which, when activated, were capable of supplying an endless and seemingly perpetual stream of raw power. Power that could, to a certain extent... perhaps to a far more infinite extent than either he or Guardian had ever realized... be shaped entirely by the will of the wielder.

But now Iron Mike had finally proven a long suspected hypothesis -- that the crystals, when properly stimulated, could effectively reverse their polarity. Instead of producing energy, they would absorb it... and absorb it with the mindless, voracious appetite of a black hole. If he hadn't programmed a safety cut out before performing the experiment, the shunt might well have sucked every erg of power in the complex into its infinite maw before finally shutting down.

The practical applications were frankly frightening. He should call Guardian immediately; now that he'd established the parameters for reversing the shunt, safeguards should be built into the power circuitry of his brash friend's battlesuit. If the polarity of Guardian's power crystal should ever be reversed in the middle of combat... or simply in the middle of an urban power grid... Iron Mike visibly shuddered.

Of course, it had been his very first experiments with a larger chunk of the stuff that had resulted in his own transformation from human being into a hulking mass of gleaming humanoid ceramosteel. The unexpected blast of raw power that had burned his own biological body into a blackened heap of char had somehow at the moment that should have been his death allowed him to project his sentience into the complex's central computer banks... from which, his newly expanded intellect had found it to be relative child's play to eventually use the powers of the crystal to create for himself an artificial body composed of a genetically designed composite which had interwoven the DNA structure of his own former organic shell with the immaculate crystalline matrix of a discarded Nega band. In virtually every way his new body was vastly superior to the original form he had once inhabited; completely flexible and articulate, and although it was far more intrinsically massive than his human body had been, the nega-metal itself responded to his thoughts admirably, letting him control his own density to a degree that allowed flight, the capacity to slowly merge with compatible ferric materials (which virtually everyone but his partner Guardian thought of as limited intangibility), and even the ability to change his form to a certain limited extent... he was no Plastic Man, but he could, if necessary, expand or compact his size by as much as 300%, or even become a coherent mass of liquid metal for very brief periods if he really needed to. He knew that Guardian felt a carefully muted sympathy for the loss of what most would regard as much of Iron Mike's humanity... not just the capacity to eat, drink or sleep, but most normal tactile sensation and, of course, any thing remotely approaching sexual function... but Iron Mike regarded this as being a small price to pay for immortality and near indestructibility. Not to mention the vastly more efficient intellect he'd carried with him into this body, enhanced by at least an order of magnitude during his brief period of residence in the Kree mainframe.

He'd sometimes wondered if he'd have been happier if he had just continued to reside in the computer itself. His life would have been less adventurous, but his thinking speed there had been almost infinitely faster than that he was currently capable of. Nontheless, it would have relegated him forever to playing essentially a supporting role in his friend Guardian's ongoing adventures... Mike, the faithful sentient computer, doing esoteric research and keeping the home fires burning while Our Hero thwarted villains and romanced beautiful women across the world. He'd never have been able to settle for such a retiring role. Research was fine, but it was occasionally fun... vastly enjoyable, in fact... to get out into the field and perform some hands on adjustment to the ongoing experiment of reality, as it were. Besides, there was a very real question as to how long his mind would have been able to continue inhabiting a completely non-organic shell. The quantum energies binding his sentience to this particular earthly plane seemed fundamentally compatible with some kind of carbon-based, biologically active casing...

But his mind was wandering; a sloppy habit that nontheless told him that no matter how improved his new body was, he was still basically human. A slight smile... so slight that probably only Guardian himself would have perceived it on what most took to be an eternally emotionless visage... flickered across his face, as he turned his contemplation back to what he'd just discovered.

Or tried to. Abruptly, there was an odd ::WHUMP:: from across the large well-lit chamber. Glancing up with an apparent laziness that hid how fast he could actually move his massive body if he really felt the need, Iron Mike saw with some interest that the formerly empty teleport tube against the far wall was now full. His partner, Guardian, had for some reason activated the convenient mechanism built into his battlesuit and sent the cumbersome stuff back to its normal holding area, where it stayed whenever he wasn't wearing it. He remembered the childlike delight Guardian had displayed when Mike had first rigged up the teleport device... all he had to do was assume the appropriate posture and speak a code phrase and, like magic, the armor appeared instantly upon him, wherever he was. The teleporter technology itself was ancient Kree, and highly suspect; what few data caches Mike had been able to access and translate seemed to strongly hint that the techniques had been mostly developed for shipment of raw materials. He'd found reference to the teleporter being occasionally used for the transport of prisoners, but as far as he could tell, the Kree themselves had stayed well clear of the thing... so he'd carefully programmed the TP circuits in Guardian's armor to never, under any circumstances, teleport any living organic object. Immediately afterward, of course, he'd programmed an emergency override to that limitation; after all, this was the Marvel Universe (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) that they were living in, and a last ditch teleportation option couldn't be a bad thing.

However, Guardian himself had a deep loathing for the concept of personal teleportation, and Mike was fairly certain that the universe itself would have to be in peril of imminent implosion before Guardian would ever use that emergency override. And he could see from here that that was, indeed, merely Guardian's armor sitting there in its normal resting place. So, his partner must have gotten lucky with some attractive female again. Mike merely hoped that whoever she was wasn't romantically entangled with some other superhero (or worse, villain) at the moment; Guardian's peccadilloes in the past had very nearly broken up the Avengers on two separate occasions. The Sharon Carter thing had been bad enough... Cap was still somewhat cheesed off about that, and it had been almost two years ago. The brief affair with Jan when she and Hank had separated for a while, though, had wound up leveling one wing of the mansion before it all got settled again. Everyone was trying so hard to be adult about it these days, but there was still a lot of tension there under the surface, and it was doubtful that Yellowjacket or the Wasp would be back on the active roster any time soon. It was things like that that made Iron Mike glad he'd limited his membership to a part time basis... and not particularly sorry about the perceived limitations of his new form. The sex lives of superheroes had never been part of the Marvel Universe he'd grown up with, and he was much more comfortable staying well out of those particular depths.

"Uh... Boss?" It was the voice of SAM (Stupid Asshole Machine, an acronym supplied by Guardian early on in their residency here) their psuedo-sentient caretaker program. SAM's personality matrix had originally gelled around fragmentary recordings of Mike's own attitudes and behaviors left behind after his brief possession of the central processors, but it had quickly evolved its own mannerisms. It normally interacted socially far more with Guardian than Mike, since Mike was by nature far less garrulous than his somewhat more highly strung partner. "I think we miiiiiiiggggggggght have a leetle problem here."

Mike sighed. Guardian's speech patterns didn't bother him coming from Guardian himself, but computers should sound more dignified, dammit. He'd have to find the time to reprogram SAM at some point in the near future... "What kind of problem?"

SAM seemed to hesitate (which was ridiculous; the machine thought several orders of magnitude faster than any human being, even Mike, possibly could) and then said, "Weeeellllllll... we kinda got this Avengers priority message a little while ago..."

The crystalline visual receptors Mike used for eyes sparkled somewhat, which was, for him, a violent start. "WHAT? Why the hell didn't I hear the alarm go off? I'm on call tonight!"

"Er. Um. Well. About that." SAM paused. "See, I knew you didn't want to be interrupted unless it was really important, so I kind of monitored the message myself and decided not to bother you with it."

Mike closed his eyes and shook his head slightly from side to side. "You... what gave you the impression I didn't want to be bothered for an Avengers priority... no. I don't care. Play back message now."

There was a brief pulse of silence, and a voice Iron Mike immediately recognized as Clint Barton's seemed to fill the room. "This is an Avengers priority message. Drop your... er, books... and grab your socks, kiddies. Stark's satellite array is going nuts; apparently, good ol' Victor Von is manipulating temporo-spatial zap rays on a primal quantum level or some goddam thing, and with the FF out of the Universe for the next three weeks, we're taking their calls. The quinjet is leaving in fifteen, so be here or be square. All receiving this transmission acknowledge with two beeps if you're coming. If you're not coming, signify so by returning your ID cards to Jarvis in the morning. Heh."

Iron Mike sighed again, this time more loudly and with obvious exasperation. "You thought I wanted to ignore THAT?" He got up and started for the door.

His own voice interrupted him, playing back from what he recognized as a conversation he and Guardian had had in the kitchen three days ago over a quickly thrown together dinner. "...I swear to you, Darren, between that damned Accuser that showed up to evict us from the complex last week and helping Reed and Bruce get ready for the Rann wedding in the Microverse, I've had no time to figure out anything else about the power crystals. But I'm going in the lab tomorrow and short of the End Of The World As We Know It, I'm staying in there until I get some basic stuff sorted out."

Guardian's voice replied, obviously muffled by a mouthful of food, "Yeah. Half the Avengers are pissed off at me..." a sound of an audible swallow, followed by his voice becoming much clearer... "because no one on the team got invited to go along to the ceremony; I think Banner is worried I'll sleep with Jarella or some damn thing. I mean, like he should care. He's married to the bleach blonde, for Godssake."

"Right," Iron Mike's voice had responded dryly. "If he thought about it, he'd be more worried about leaving you here on the same planet with his wife..."

SAM spoke up. "The End Of The World As We Know It was not implicit in that priority alert. Soooooooo..."

By now, Mike's headlong flight had taken him down two hundred yards of corridor and into their relatively small aircraft hangar. Currently, it housed only the obsolete model quinjet he'd bought for salvage rates from Tony Stark, whose rocket engine seemed to be in a perpetual state of disassembly as he intermittently toyed with various adaptations of Kree technology to the design, and several one-use orbital pods built of antigrav ceramic that could be quickly programmed for any destination on Earth. Guardian's armor gave him flight capacity nearly matching the pods, and Iron Mike had never been in enough of a hurry before to use any of them, but now he had to get to Latveria ASAP. If Guardian had been in Avengers Mansion when the Doom alert came in, then he'd be in Latveria right now. And if he'd sent the armor back here... that had to be major trouble.

"Download all tonight's log entries from the Avengers mainframe," Iron Mike ordered tersely as he began prepping an orbital pod for Latveria. Doom's defenses would blast the pod out of the sky a few seconds after it re-entered the atmosphere, but that wouldn't matter; he'd already be on the right approach ballistic and his own powers of flight would be adequate to correct any new vectors the pod's traumatic deconstruction tried to impart. Even Doom's defenses wouldn't have time to track him and fire again before he was over Latveria, especially if he used his flight powers to accelerate his approach rather than decelerate. He'd make a bigger hole in the Carpathians that way, but...

In a quarter of a second, SAM pulse-transmitted the appropriate log-on protocols and passwords upward to the Avengers communications satellite, and downloaded the computer's response. The Scarlet Witch's cool, professional tones began reciting the date, along with a time six hours earlier.

Iron Mike interrupted. "Play any log entries made while in flight to Latveria."

An artificial voice said "Log entry 42347 from Avengers quinjet Retaliation 0527 April 18 1997", then was immediately supplanted by Steve Rogers' rich baritone. "Crossing the Latverian border at high altitude. Stark's new stealth package seems to be working well. Hawkeye is piloting. Avengers present -- Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Guardian, Ms. Marvel, Black Panther, Wonder Man, team leader Captain America reporting."

Mike whistled softly; that particular team should have given even Victor Von Doom cause for trepidation. But Guardian's armor appearing like that five minutes ago... that had to be a very bad sign.

"Uh... Boss..." SAM sounded very worried now.

"What?" Iron Mike… not quite snapped, he didn’t snap anymore, but certainly, there was a discernible edge of impatience in his tone.

"Well..." SAM seemed to hesitate, which was ridiculous, given the rate ‘his’ digital brain processed data at. "…the reason I bothered you in the first place is that our own scanning array is picking up something on a sub-orbital approach vector. Coming here. ETA... um... about 9 minutes from now."

Mike rubbed his forehead wearily. Definitely have to reprogram SAM. "Point of origin?"

"Latveria. Castle Doom, to be precise... one of the castle towers is apparently a disguised launch silo. Figuring back, the launch would have taken place about 45 seconds after Darren's armor showed up in the transit tube."

Could Doom have traced the hyperspace energy trail of the armor's teleportation back to here? It was the only thing that made sense... if the Avengers had needed to leave the castle that quickly, they wouldn't be on their way here... which meant that was most likely Doom himself on an incoming vector... Mike was surprised to feel a wave of awe and... anticipation..? move through him.

No, no, no, he told himself firmly. Victor Von Doom dropping by for a visit is NOT in any way, shape or form a good thing. The last thing we need is to be on his Christmas card list.

There was only one conceivable thing Doom could be coming here for... the armor. He wanted the power crystals.

God help the world if he got them.

Hi. Guardian here. In case you were wondering, at this point in the narrative, I was thousands of miles away, in a basement in Dr. Doom's castle in lovely scenic Latveria, cowering behind some machinery while a bunch of particularly humorless Doom robots hunted me through a computerized labyrinth. See, what was happening... well, let me start a little farther back.

We got here, landed the quinjet, jumped out, and immediately ran into the usual Latverian reception committee... a bunch of stupid animated tin soldiers that looked like they'd been designed by Herbe Trimpe, firing your various standard missiles and death rays and talking shit in two different voices, one speaking in Latverian, the other standard English... the usual "The enemies of Victor Von Doom must be destroyed" crap. We went through them like a wet wind (I'd have taken them all out myself, but the rest of the team gets testy with me when I do stuff like that, so I let Clint get rid of a few blast arrows and Simon kick a couple over the horizon before I crushed the rest of them in a shrinking green energy globe) and headed for the castle. A few more waves of mechanical lemmings rolled out and got crushed into scrap and then Carol beat down the front door -- she's SO macho sometimes -- and we all charged in. I asked my armor where the temporal leakage was originating, and it was nice enough to point me towards a secret panel leading to a freight elevator going straight down, and when we came out in Doom's big lab...

He kinda gestured and a very familiar looking greenish beam came out of his hand and picked up everyone but me and tossed them through this mirror-wall thingie, which he's since told me is a stasis globe. The good news is the team can stay in there forever and not notice it. The bad news is, the team can stay in there forever...

I should have figured out what was going on then, but Orto is the brains in the team, not me. I decided to throw a No Magic No Energy coccoon around him -- you know, the kind Mike helped me work out to use on the Enchantress -- but the green energy just got sucked into his armor. Then he kind of gestured and there was another green flash and, okay, okay, I admit it. I konked out. Sue me.

I woke up on your typical supervillain imprisoning slab with the usual Kirby metal manacles at my hands and feet and big Kirby machines surrounding me and Doom clucking contendedly. He went into this long soliloquy which I won't bother to reproduce verbatim, but which you've probably already figured out if you've ever read a Green Lantern comic book. He'd been studying me and my powers for a while, and built a machine to absorb the energy from my green power crystals. Then he'd made a big fuss with his time machine (I guess he was just basically revving it up over and over again to get our attention) to lure me in. I'd passed out enough energy battling his minions to let him sweep the Avengers into his stasis sphere and knock me out, and now that I was helpless, he'd find my power source and have it all for himself.

"That would be BAD," I said to him in my best Harold Ramis voice. Then I told the armor to go home.

I'm not really much of a hero... mostly I just play at being an Avenger because it's fun and the armor makes me really powerful and almost impossible to kill, so why not hang around with all the cool people I used to read about in comic books? So I suppose it was just karma that I finally got put in this position... where I had to get rid of the armor and make myself helpless in front of an amazingly -- I mean, just grotesquely -- powerful nutcase in order to keep him from doing the usual cliche stuff like conquering the world. But it was the only thing to do, and anyway, it's an old comic book tactic. The manacles, of course, were sized to hold me in my armor, so when it vanished, I slipped right out and hit the ground running.

I have no idea why Doom didn't fry me right then and there... maybe he thought he'd need to get me back to make me tell him where the armor went... or maybe he figured I had a way to recall it, which would have been very intelligent of him. Anyway, since Mike figured out how to reset most of the Kree medical technology in the Citadel for human parameters, I've been revitalized so I'm in pretty good basic shape. I've let Cap and Clint toss me around a little in the hand to hand ring at the mansion without my armor a few times (although since the Sharon thing, Cap enjoys whacking on me a little too much for my comfort) so I'm not the potato I once was. I scrambled for cover pretty damn quick for a Star Trek geek if I do say so myself.

Which isn't to say Doom couldn't have converted my molecules into fourteen different kinds of noxious goo at any six different points in my mad dash for the closest exit, but anyway, he didn't.

A few seconds later, the ground shook a little bit and I heard a muted roar like one of our own orbital pods taking off. I more or less figured that had to be Doom heading on out to track the armor. I threw a quick, fervent wish up into the apathetic ether... that Mike wasn't too busy to pay attention to the scanners... and then continued to beat my feet, as I could hear the crackling radio signals of approaching Doombots.

All I had to do was call my armor back and the Doombots were paste... but I had no way of knowing that Doom had really left. It was possible he was just hanging around waiting for me to stupidly bring my power crystal back to where he could easily snatch it. If I'd known for certain at that time that he was, indeed, currently leaving the atmosphere on a high parabolic orbit whose ballistic vector ended at the Secret Citadel, I'd have called the armor back and laughed my ass off at the idiot. Although, on the other hand, he might very well have just sent a robot off to get the armor... you see how I was fixed. I longed to call the armor back to me like Linus longs for his security blanket (and for much the same reasons) but I didn't dare.

One very nasty thought that occurred to me was that now that I'd teleported the armor in front of Doom (in fact, while he was scanning it) his machines might very well be capable of intercepting any future teleports. In other words, I might call my armor back... and instead of it showing up on my oh so priceless bod, it might appear in Doom's lab.

Important safety tip from Egon: don't call the armor back until you can blow up Doom's lab first.

Okay. Let's get back to Iron Mike.

...who was sitting in a reinforced chair made of unornamented tungsten tubing any other human being would have found ridiculously uncomfortable and watching as Victor Von Doom stalked down the hallway running around the rectangular perimeter of the no-longer-quite-so- Secret Citadel. Doom's cape flowed out behind him melodramatically as his steel-shod feet crunched on the occasional shard of the half dozen or so LMDs he had just casually destroyed. About half the sensors feeding the monitor-panel Mike was watching had been trashed during the brief battle, as well... although the phrase 'battle' was doubtless a misnomer. The LMDs, manufactured in the likenesses of Iron Mike and his absent partner Guardian, had tumbled out of their storage tubes and attacked Doom with enthusiasm; Doom had merely waved his hand negligently in front of him and continued to move forward without so much as breaking stride.

Iron Mike's monitors had registered tight-beam ultrasonics, polarized particle beams, coherent photon discharges, bolts of ionized plasma flux, as well as the disturbingly authentic death screams, hisses, pops, and sizzles of LMDs melting, corroding, burning, exploding, and just generally falling into a disfunctional state due to rapid absorption of unacceptable levels of physical trauma. It had been a deeply impressive display of high tech firepower. Worst of all was the fact that according to Mike's most sophisticated sensor packages, Doom's power reserves were barely depleted.

Iron Mike had never for a moment entertained the hope that the LMDs might actually defeat Doom, but he had wanted to at least bother the Latverian a little... to start fraying his legendary Balkan temper. Mike had a vague glimmer of a plan simmering in the back of his mind, but for it to have a chance of working, he was going to have to get Doom seriously pissed off. Which doubtless precluded asking him for an autograph... Mike sighed. It also doubtless necessitated making a move rather riskier than sitting on his big ferric ass in a heavily fortified laboratory watching the action on a monitor panel...

He glanced at the obviously improvised device he had been hastily assembling since returning to the lab. If it came down to the point where he actually had to try using it, he'd know he was desperate indeed. But he had a few other tricks to pull first.

"SAM," he said, quietly, "are the door and lock panel installed yet? I'd guess we have about thirty seconds before the good Doctor turns that corner."

"Affirmative," the recently re-programmed SAM said sedately. "All functions test at nominal." Then, lapsing slightly back into his previous personality, SAM went on plaintively, "But, geez, Boss, I thought this guy was supposed to be a genius. You think he's actually going to fall for something like..."

Mike waved his hand, and SAM immediately fell silent. "It's a mechanism," Iron Mike said quietly. "He'll try the door first, then he'll go for the lock as the weak link. He'll have to figure it's something someone else designed, which means it's something he can beat."

I hope, Mike thought fervently to himself. If this works, I probably win. That was probably wishful thinking; even if Doom did walk into it, chances were he'd have something Mike couldn't anticipate up his armored sleeve.

Still, at the very least, it would seriously piss him off... assuming SAM had built it right, of course. Mike had been too busy assembling his own forlorn hope to do more than explain the concept to the semi-sentient computer. Still, basic engineering was something a computer should be good at.

Doom continued to stalk down the hall, apparently all but oblivious to his surroundings, not even conscious of the ringing, authoritative stamping sounds his boots were making against the Kree-manufactured flooring. He had been in several complexes like this one before; he was, in fact, one of the few Terran homo sapiens in the universe who could have discoursed articulately on the way the straightforward geometrical architecture imposed by the Kree on the more aesthetically motivated radiating spiral designs of the Skrulls betrayed the former's less imaginative and more pragmatically militaristic racial psychology. He knew that this one perimeter hallway would connect all the base's vital areas, and that chances were good the power crystals he sought would be in one of those areas -- a laboratory, perhaps, although Kree culture made it just as likely that they'd be in an armory or an engineering shop... assuming, of course, that they hadn't combined all three in one facility, which would be even more Kree-like.

Of course, he understood that the place was effectively... how would the Human Torch or Spiderman put it... under new management, yes. And that might mean that various furnishings and instruments and installations could have been modified or shifted to suit the current occupants. Still, chances were, somewhere off this rectangular perimeter corridor, his radiation scanners would register the particular energy signature he was seeking.

Doom barely glanced through each open portal to his right or left as he passed them, but his armor's probe-beams mapped the chambers beyond to an exacting level of detail in microseconds, storing the information in his local databanks for later upload to his own satellite relays. This complex itself was heavily shielded against such transmissions. Doom was certain the inhabitants had a communications array of their own, but until he gained access to it, he was effectively cut off from outside support. Which was as it should be; Victor Von Doom sometimes took allies, but from convenience, never necessity. In the end, Doom stood alone.

Doom reached the corridor's northwest corner. Here it bent at a stolid 90 degree angle to run east. Doom strode boldly around the corner -- caution was for lesser men, and anyway, his force-field impregnated and mystically warded armor could have withstood a full scale assault from all four of the original Defenders -- for a few minutes, anyway. Long enough. And although a good scientist kept an open mind, he was nonetheless highly skeptical that there was anything lurking in this long-buried alien complex that was anywhere near as formidable as the combined offensive capacities of Stephen Strange, Namor, the Hulk, and the detestable Norrin Radd.

Halfway down the corridor, past several more normal doorways in the south side of the hall, he saw a larger, obviously more heavily built portal in the center of the north wall. Unlike all the other entrances he had seen to date, this one was filled by a heavy looking, utterly featureless sheet of dull grey metal. To the right of the portal, he could see a sophisticated looking device... doubtless some sort of locking mechanism. And if it was, then it was a modern modification to the complex, since the Kree never bothered with locks. Their only enemy of note was a race of the most accomplished shapeshifters in the known universe; locks would have been pointless. Instead they believed in strong perimeter defenses. That idiot Guardian and his equally foolish ally had failed to reactivate most of the original perimeter defenses, probably out of some absurd concern for the safety of the unwitting local inhabitants. Doom smiled beneath his armored visage. Such concern was touching; as his current presence in their complex demonstrated, it was also an unacceptable weakness.

He stopped in front of the sheet of metal and focused his probes on it... then made an irritated tsking sound. No returns at all... the metal apparently absorbed most forms of energy, including the various beams that were the basis of his active sensor arrays. A vibranium alloy of some sort, no doubt... it was all the rage these days; everyone was coming up with their own metallurgical formulas using vibranium or adamantium. The fact that both metals had so far proved completely incompatible to any known alloying process was something that often annoyed him, but that he was glad for on this occasion. Such an alloy would, of course, be the next thing to completely indestructible; should everyone start sealing their security portals with it, life could become difficult for the true Man of Will. Just as well that such an alloy remained a hookah-dream for the scientifically untutored.

As it was, he could probably blast this particular door out of its frame if he had to, but it would be tedious, require a great deal of power -- and, of course, while he was so engaged, whoever had sent those poorly engineered robots at him could attempt some other strategem. That any such strategy would fail went without saying. Nontheless, the residents of this complex were both Avengers, and while the Avengers' active roster was currently no problem to him, there were at least a dozen more teammates that might respond to a distress call... or, for that matter, they might be calling some other paranormal crusaders for reinforcements. Richards' team was currently unavailable, but Doom had no great desire to bang helmets with any of the other apparently limitless superhuman busybodies that the modern world seemed to have spawned. Best to get in as quickly as possible and get back off American soil again with what he'd come for.

With that in mind, Doom placed an armored palm firmly on what was obviously meant to be a scanning plate in the mechanism mounted to the right of the door. Obviously, the lock would not respond to his gauntlet, but he had recently pirated a copy of Stark Enterprise's latest computerized password-hacking program from what the ever-idiotic Avengers doubtless still thought was a secure satellite-uplink. From the center of his gauntlet, a monofilament fiber optic cable slid out, drilled neatly into the center of the palm plate, and after a short wait, made a connection inside the machinery. Doom's internal processors began to hum, searching for the lock's data receptors, preparing to overload them with enough raw data to give the lock a nervous breakdown and trigger the unlatching mechanism.

A few picoseconds after Doom's fiber optics cable made its firm connection, the mechanism -- which was by no means a lock, just as the sheet of vibranium alloy was by no means a door -- responded to its own programming by generating a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation. Focused through and carried by the physical access port Doom himself had provided, the EMP blasted through his armor at the speed of light. Doom's oscillating defensive phased-fields were specifically designed to protect from exterior EMP attack, but they were no use at all against the booby trap mechanism that he had unwittingly connected himself to. Half a second after making the connection, every electronic circuit in his armor was blown out, all of his active software was crashed, and one of the most sophisticated technological battlesuits on Earth had become little more than what it looked like -- a suit of cumbersome, riveted steel.

Of course Doom had hardened back up systems encased in the flanges of his gauntlets which could reboot his central processors and restore his combat programming within 20 seconds; similarly, his armor contained a molecular conversion re-packager that could reconfigure his basic confrontation circuitry within a minute or so...

-- but

-- right

-- NOW

Iron Mike stepped out of the wall immediately to Doom's right, shifted his weight, and kicked Doom in the side with every ounce of strength he had. Doom had seen the movement out of the corner of his eye and instinctively tried to turn towards it; the ingrained response of a man not merely courageous, but accustomed to being able to face down virtually any threat without difficulty.

It was a mistake. Iron Mike's ceramosteel foot struck him with the force of an accelerating Titan booster just to right of center on his chestplate as he turned. The impact slammed Doom backwards through fifty feet of empty air and into the wall where the corridor bent to turn south; he hit with a sound like a blacksmith's shop dropping ten stories onto concrete and slid down the wall in a clattering heap.

Had Doom's armor been merely riveted metal -- any metal -- the impact of Iron Mike's kick would have pulped any biological organism inside regardless of whether the armor itself remained intact or not. Iron Mike had thought about that before he launched his attack, and it was the reason he'd kicked Doom with every particle of force he possessed; he felt if one was going to risk making a lifelong enemy of Dr. Doom, one should at least be sensible enough to try his best to kill the asshole and avoid the complications. Heroism be damned, this was real life, here.

The only reason Doom survived the impact at all, much less the shock of hitting the wall that immediately followed, was that the armor was interwoven with supernatural charms of protection that the EMP had not affected. As it was, Doom was stunned and winded by the two punishing blows... yet still, through a haze of pain that would have paralyzed any lesser man, his insurmountable will drove him to press with his left hand a button mounted inside his right gauntlet, and point his right fist at Iron Mike, who was rapidly moving towards him, obviously intent on finishing him while he was down.

From the back of Doom's fist a hatchway folded open on entirely mechanical hinges. Two small missiles roughly the size of pencils were spat towards Iron Mike by compressed air charges; as the ends of the cylinders rushed out of their housings in Doom's armor, the chemically fueled rockets there ignited, driving the missiles towards Mike on columns of bright orange flame.

The missiles were unguided other than by Doom's manual aim, but Iron Mike was a big target. Although he could move much faster than most people would have expected a being of his bulk to be capable of, he didn't brake or corner well once in motion. Fifteen feet away from Doom, both missiles struck Iron Mike in the torso and behaved according to their design -- which is to say, they detonated with a force roughly equal to half a kiloton of TNT each.

The force of the blast was not enough to rupture the reinforced structure of the corridor they were in, therefore, it was channeled by the hallway on an east-west vector. Doom's cape and robe, already blackened and charred away from the armor beneath by the backwash from the missile's rocket exhaust, vaporized away from him as he was hammered back into the wall again by the shockwave. He turned his face away and threw up his arm; the elemental wards protecting him against Fire (the heat of the blast) and Air (the compressed atmosphere in the shockwave approached the density of steel) glowing brightly on his chestplate.

The same shockwave, of sufficient force to level a four apartment duplex, blew Iron Mike backwards down fifty yards of corridor and slammed him into the far wall with a force like a head-on train wreck. Had he not been among the most indestructible mortal beings known to exist, he would have been vaporized; as it was, the the initial explosion of the missiles actually hurt. His ceramosteel body hit the wall so hard he actually put a radiating pattern of cracks in it, and those walls were tough. And that hurt, too. It had been a long time since he'd felt anything approximating physical pain, and he found he hadn't missed the sensation much, either.

He struggled to get back to his feet, and was stunned and chagrined to find that he couldn't. Not only had Doom caused him pain, he'd also, apparently, managed to do some actual damage to him. A fast self-diagnostic revealed that although the indestructible ceramosteel fibers entwined on a molecular level through his biological tissues had protected him from serious harm, nontheless, all his metabolic processes had been severely jarred by the hellacious punishment he'd just taken. Emergency nannites were already working to repair the trauma, but the trauma itself had been severe... it was going to take a few minutes, at the very least. Doom's armor would almost certainly have been rebooted by then. And while he'd take any wager at any odds that Doom was completely enraged at the moment, that wasn't going to do him any good unless he could get back to his lab.

With a sigh, Iron Mike relaxed and let his body meld with the ceramoferric filaments permeating the complex's corridors. A second later, he sank into the floor.

I'd had a certain advantage back in the computerized maze; the Doombots were programmed not to risk damaging the delicate circuitry imbedded in the passage walls, while I had no such inhibitions. They were also programmed, apparently, to capture the enemy alive and reasonably intact, and, well, see above.

I'd have had no hope against them at all, of course, except that someone -- who would doubtless move to the top of the To Be Immediately Vaporized List when Doom got back -- had made the mistake of sending some of Doom's human storm troopers into the computerized warren after me, probably to close off some exits and flush me out faster. They had the typical blaster-rifles and cool looking Sal Buscema goonsuits, which apparently have little to no groin protection at all, as I demonstrated to the first one stupid enough to let me walk up to him with my hands in the air while pleading "Don't shoot, please don't shoot". It would seem that whoever designs these outfits relies on the inherent chivalry of the average Marvel super-hero, and I suppose that usually works well for them. I guess I'm just one of those new wave superheroes with a surly attitude, probably being written by Peter David.

So, anyway, I just happened to find this blaster rifle and a lot of extra charge cartridges. I didn't know how well it would work on Doombots, but as it turns out, one shot blasts the little fuckers into a pile of blackened circuit boards. I'd find that overly convenient if not for the fact that it makes perfect sense -- in a Machiavellian sort of way, of course -- for Doom to make sure that his two main enforcement branches are perfectly capable of destroying each other, should one or the other start to run amok.

Anyway, with a blaster rifle in my hands and nothing much to lose, I became a really bad wandering encounter for those Doombots to roll up. I managed to retrace my footsteps and find the lab I'd originally been imprisoned in again, blew up the three Doombots standing guard in there over the stasis sphere (the necessity for guarding a stasis sphere escapes me at the moment, unless they were intelligent enough to figure I'd probably try to get back there), and then started blasting the holy shit out of every piece of equipment I could draw a bead on. I still really missed my armor but I've got to admit, there's something deeply satisfying about using an ion howitzer to totally fuck up about a bazillion dollars worth of Kirby machines being used for nefarious purposes by the nastiest bad guy in the known universe. I suppose it's not the sort of thing one should get addicted to, though.

After I blew up one particularly impressive looking frammistat (although this one looked more Gil Kane-ish than Kirby-oid) the silvery stasis bubble vanished. My buddies all reappeared, in exactly the same positions they'd been in when Doom had used my power to sweep them into the sphere in the first place, which pretty much meant they were all being flung headlong at the metal wall behind where the sphere had been.

With the reflexes of a former Air Force jock, Carol stopped her own headlong motion, then darted right and left, snatching Wanda and Clint out of the air before they could hit -- and probably break against -- the far wall.

Cap, T'Challa, and Simon all hit the wall. Cap and the Panther rolled up like steel springs before they hit and then bounced back off like little rubber balls. Simon slammed into it head first and fell with a heavy thud onto the equally hard floor... then picked himself up, apparently none the worse for wear, except his sunglasses were broken and one of the epaulets on his bright red safari jacket had popped a button and was standing straight up off his shoulder like a raised thumb.

Once I saw they were okay, I changed charge cartridges -- it was my next to last one -- and continued turning million dollar mad scientist stuff into modern art. Naturally, Cap had to know exactly what I was doing and why.

"Guardian," he said, "what are you doing? And why?"

I gestured with my head towards the door leading into the computerized maze I'd originally run into. "Can't talk," I said, "Destroying advanced technology. But there's lots of Doombots and heavily armed thugs in there if you're bored."

"BLAST it, Madigan," Cap started.

"Good idea," I said, blasting it. "I'll do that immediately, sir." There was only one machine in the room left more or less intact, so I fixed that.

Then I dropped the ion howitzer on the ground with a sigh of relief.

"You know," T'Challa said calmly, "some of this machinery might have controlled unstable quantum forces. It might have been more sensible to wait until you freed someone with a more scientific background before you began to simply destroy everything in sight. I mean, you could have unleashed explosive energies... perhaps destroyed this entire complex."

"Oh, that only happens in comic books," I replied. "Anyway, ONE of these machines might have been set to snatch my armor if I teleported it again, and I'd really hate that." I spread my feet slightly, held my arms away from my sides, and raised my chin a half inch or so. "Shazam," I said dramatically.

My armor reappeared in a suitably impressive shimmer of energy. "Ah," I said, flexing my arms to feel the comforting weight of it. "That's SO much better."

Wanda had been tapping her foot impatiently while she looked around. Now she spoke up. "Where's Doom?"

As always when Wanda says something, I thought of a great smart ass response… and stifled it. She has no sense of humor at all and the sort of power even I'm not stupid enough to want to antagonize.

"He wanted my armor," I told everybody. "He rigged this whole thing up to get me here so he could take it and study it. I sent it away, so he went after it. Then I found a blaster-cannon and blew up some Doombots and freed you guys and skragged all his machines so I could call my armor back without it going somewhere else where I'd never find it."

I stopped and thought and for the first time realized what all that meant.

After a seeming eternity, Doom's armor rebooted; holographic data displays floated up once more inside his viewslits and his personal force-field quickly cycled up to 80% of full capacity. The molecular reconstructer worked a bit more slowly; the force field had been its first priority, now it worked to rebuild the molecular circuits that would let Doom harness the energies of the universe and use them to completely eradicate the upstart Avenger who had dared to actually lay hands -- well, feet -- on the monarch of Latveria.

His gyroscopic stabilizers restored to full functioning, Doom rose lithely erect. The EMP generator disguised as a locking mechanism had been crafty; it wouldn't pay to continue to underestimate his opponent. From now on, Doom would make no attempt to find the clever solution. His only intention was to find his foe and instantly annihilate him. Even operating on his reserve energy banks, he had more than enough raw power at hand to wipe out an entire modern army. He would find this Iron Mike Norton, and he would blast him into free floating atoms, and then he would take what he had come here for and leave.

As Doom started away from the wall where he had been flung by Iron Mike's kick, Iron Mike stepped out of the middle of the vibranium panel and stood in front of him, less than fifty feet away. In his hands he held a device that Doom could immediately recognize as some crude form of energy rifle... and Doom's newly reconfigured sensors shrieked to him that buried somewhere within that homemade weapon was one of the power crystals he sought. Power beyond meaningful measure, pointed at his heart...

It was, then, simply a matter of kill or be killed... and like all the so called heroes, Norton had hesitated for a fatal fraction of a second. So be it. With an impulse as fast as thought, Doom focused every available erg of energy at his command and threw it out in one ravening coherent bolt that nothing in existence could hope to withstand.

Iron Mike pushed a button on the side of the 'weapon' and tossed it underhand into the hellstorm of raw power rushing at him.

Inside the hastily cobbled-together device, a particular array of energies sprang up. The verdant green power crystal at the heart of those energies immediately pulsed a deep, ominous sapphire...

...and Doom's irresistable attack was sucked into the mechanism like a cloud of floating flour being yanked into a powerful vacuum cleaner.

The holographic data displays inside his face mask flicked off and Doom felt more than heard a sickening vibration-whine as the rebuilt circuits in his armor poured more and more energy into the voracious quantum maw that had somehow opened thirty five feet in front of him. He willed his attack circuits to discontinue -- and nothing happened. The power from his backup cells continued to spurt out of his armor like heart's blood from a severed artery. In less than seconds, there would be nothing left -- even the mystic energies in his wards were draining away.

He'd been suckered.


With a snarl, he spoke an unspeakable Name and slammed his fists together in a way that would have been difficult to do by accident. Mystical forces combined with a mechanism Iron Mike would have recognized had he had the chance to study it; with a flash and a shriek of imploding air, Doom vanished.

Iron Mike touched a control at his belt and ten feet away, the device he'd built so painstakingly exploded into rubble. The power crystal, green once more, flew down the hallway and bounced to a stop against a distant door sill.

Abruptly, SAM's voice spoke up. "Incoming call," it said. "Putting it on speakers."

"Hey, Mike," came the digitally reproduced tones of a distant Guardian. "I hope you're listening to this. Your childhood role model may be on his way to pay the Secret Citadel a visit..."

Mike sat down on the floor, suddenly weak at the knees. His voice was completely steady when he answered though. "He just left," Mike replied.

Guardian's voice, somewhat worried: "Um... did he get what he came for? Er... you're okay, right?"

"I'm fine," Mike said, looking around at the hall that had so recently been the site of what had probably been the most dangerous confrontation of his entire life. "And no, he left without the power crystals."

Puzzled, now, the response came: "I'm glad to hear it... but how'd you get rid of him? I mean... he's kinda tough..."

Mike shrugged. "Once I realized what he wanted, I offered it to him. Hell, I practically threw it at him. He decided he didn't want it after all, and he just left."

Guardian was silent for a long beat, and then he spluttered, "Decided he didn't WANT it? Are you CRAZY? Do you have any idea how much trouble he went to to GET it?"

Mike smiled, although he knew his partner couldn't see it. "Yeah, well, I guess he realized the same thing about your power crystals that I did a long time ago." He waited, knowing that Guardian couldn't help but walk right into it... although he'd have to explain it to him later.

"What? He realized WHAT about my power crystals?" Guardian sounded suspicious, as if he knew full well he was about to be mocked.

"Well..." It was really too cruel, but he couldn't pass it up. "Basically... they suck."

...neither Guardian nor any of the other Avengers listening could understand the long, nearly hysterical burst of laughter that followed that statement...