Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Five

These were the moments he lived for.

The building was silent. A few security guards paced up and down the hallways, the soles of their shoes clicking against the hard tile, echoing through the empty corridors. The real security, of course, had nothing to do with a few dozing rent-a-cops. The headquarters of Stark Enterprises was one of the most well-defended buildings in the western hemisphere -- or so, at least, were the many basements and sub-basements that represented the core of the company's technological achievements. The complex had been constructed in such a way that even if the building itself were to be totally demolished, the laboratories and warehouses beneath would remain unharmed and impenetrable. It wasn't merely paranoia, it was a dire necessity. There were many men and organizations that would gladly have sacrificed the lives of thousands to possess the contents of those basements.

Deep in the bowels of Stark Headquarters, Tony Stark was hard at work. Ensconced deep within the cavernous depths of his foundry, he retreated from the world, turning off all communications, without so much as a radio playing in the background. This was what fulfilled him.

Playing a super hero was fun -- more than fun. It was a thrill, a rush like nothing else. He played the part of playboy to the hilt, and it wasn't hard -- he really did enjoy the fast cars and loose women. But there wasn't a car built that could compare with the thrill of soaring through the clouds as Iron Man, or the sheer joy of victory in the face of certain defeat. Being Iron Man was serious business, sure, but he didn't consider it a vocation. He knew that there would come a time when he would be able to retire with relatively little regret. It was a demanding lifestyle.

Being Iron Man didn't define who he was -- it was the act of creation itself. That was something that no one else could understand. None of his friends in the Avengers, not even Reed Richards, could feel the same kind of thrill. He was an engineer. He didn't have the mind for theoretical abstracts that Richards did (nor, he imagined, did anyone else), but when it came to the practical business of designing and implementing technology, he felt with some justification that he was in a class by himself. And the Iron Man armor was more than just another invention, it had become over the years the focal point for his energies, the medium through which he could channel his immense creativity.

He had lost count of just how many lucrative patents had been plucked from technologies developed for the Iron Man armor. Stark Enterprises remained solvent partly through a constant stream of innovations that originated in this laboratory. But the bulk of the armor remained a proprietary secret. No one, not S.H.I.E.L.D., not the Avengers, not the federal government, knew the precise schematics for creating the simplest prototype Iron Man armor. Even the Guardsman armor had been licensed to the government through what was essentially an open-ended lease, with all ownership ultimately reverting back to Stark. Of course, sometimes it didn't work out that way. Then he had to take matters into his own hands.

Which was another thing that no one understood. He personally didn't really understand the notions of duty and responsibility that motivated his peers to be heroes. His responsibilities, while no less critical, lay in a different field: he protected his armor, and the secrets thereof. There had been times when he had been forced to take personal responsibility for his technology, taking a proactive stance against thieves and pirates who had put his proprietary technology to misuse. No one else understood that. He had to remain in control of his inventions, because the potential for disaster was too great.

He was already wealthy, rich beyond even his parents' wildest dreams. But with the technology of the Iron Man armor he could have been the wealthiest man on earth. Iron Man could have remade the planet a thousand times over. But Stark knew that the Iron Man armor, and all the advanced technologies that composed it, were not merely tools for piece. In the wrong hands they could become the most disastrous weapons of mass destruction ever created.

It was hard, sometimes, to keep that in context. He had been asked, more than once, why Iron Man couldn't potentially provide ways of managing intensely debilitating conditions like paraplegia or Parkinson's disease. Not too long ago he'd been confined to a wheelchair himself. It was a tempting thought -- use the Iron Man technology to enable those who could not walk to walk again, those with debilitating tremors to move with precision, those who worked in dangerous fields such as mining and refining to work without danger. But the moment he allowed that technology free, he was opening up Pandora's Box for anyone to construct their own Iron Man. In his nightmares he imagined an army of Iron Men marching under the flag of Red China, or Osama Bin Laden attacking New York City wrapped in armor...

And that is why the Iron Man armor could never be released. It was his technology, his responsibility. He did as much good as he could as Iron Man, but the potential hazards of releasing the technology into wider use was simply too great.

This was one of the things he liked about Peter -- Peter understood responsibility. He always said "with great power comes great responsibility" -- but Stark knew that both men interpreted such an axiom in diametrically different ways. Peter was racked by the responsibility to do everything in his power to prevent injustice -- noble, but futile. A juvenile idealism forged by trauma. Stark, on the other hand, knew full well that it was a tough world. People got hurt, people got killed. Stark had power -- proactive power to stop a limited degree of suffering, yes, but more importantly he had to keep his power under check for fear of unleashing powerful forces the world could not hope to control. That was his responsibility, his burden. He was the only person he could trust, it was as simple as that.

Sometimes, he reflected, circumstances had made him brittle and harsh. The hardest part of AA had been the second step -- he could never bring himself to believe in a greater power. He always tried to sidestep it in meetings. He didn't believe in God. He believed in himself, in the power of the free market, in individual responsibility, but not God. He didn't understand why anyone would possibly object to such a simple idea as government registration -- didn't they believe in being responsible, in standing behind their own abilities, in working together to ensure that power was always exercised wisely and with judicious restraint? The alternative was chaos. He had to prevent that. Sometimes it felt like he was the only person who could actually see the big picture.

But even if he sometimes didn't understand other people, he was comforted by his work. That was why these long, quiet nights of research and discovery sustained him. It's funny -- whenever he was left to his own devices for any length of time he always wanted a drink, but never when he was working. Stepping into his lab, he forgot about all the problems and the stresses, and simply allowed himself to enjoy the moment.

And then there were the damn villains. He sat for nights on end, hammering and soldering long past the break of dawn, developing the perfect armor for an imperfect world. And always -- without fail! -- some asshole with a melting gun would come along and try to melt him. Every single time. He was sick of tossing multi-million dollar servo mechanisms in the slagheap because they got melted by some high-school dropout who bought a molten ray from an AIM yard sale. Why did he always get the melting guys? Why couldn't the Melter ever go after someone who wasn't wearing fifty million dollars worth of the most technologically advanced weaponry on earth?

Everyone's a critic.

But the moment of creation makes it all worth while. It's sitting her, in the quiet of the night, that he is allowed to feel some sense of fulfillment, some kind of artistic satisfaction, however transient. It felt good to be able to create something where previously there had been nothing. What were all the villains in the world -- all the damn critics who didn't understand who he was or why he did what he did -- what were they compared to the singular joys of creation? Not a whole hell of a lot.

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