Spacer The Skull in the Shield 60
  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | What If | The Skull in the Shield |



The meeting ends. Sunday morning.



    Replying with the mind link. 'Aegis, you underestimate my value to the United States. This would not be the first time that I've angered the government. They want my inventions and they want me inventing things for them instead of the communists. If they turn against Doctor Victor Dumas, they release their own Doom.' He raised his left eyebrow underneath the mask and continues in his own voice as if to add emphasis to his thoughts. "The Specter fights for the good of mankind."
    With no hint of treachery on the man's part Rick moves foreward to join the others. He is also interested to hear whether or not Colonel DePaulo is connected to all of this. From what he's seen of the man he wouldn't be entirely surprised. Again the young man's apprehension shows through his mask.
    A faint grin appears on the Punisher's face. "I figured you'd be around here somewhere," he comments to Emerald.
    Wondering just how much the other man knows about him Rick edges slightly away from the others. "It all comes down to what happens tomorrow morning," he comments. First Russian supers, now this Punisher character, Rick thinks. After another moment staring off into the darkness the young man turns his attention to the others once more.
    Victor looked at his team mates. "The Punisher will get his moment in the spotlight, I can at least promise that. Safeguarding the delegates from the Soviet Super Soldiers will be accomplished but so will getting this information out and into the public."
    "There is sure to be a great deal of confusion at the scene. One can never tell what might happen," she adds ambiguously.
    Dumas looked around and then focussed on Conners. "Well then, Conners, what do you say?"
    Delta V looks from person to person, weighing his options. Finally, he hands the Agent Orange folder back the Punisher. "I say we wait and see. If things happen like you say they will, I think I can see my way to helping you out. But you need to know this, Punisher: Double-cross me, or put my family in harm's again, and being arrested for treason will be the least of your concerns."
    The Punisher nods. "It won't come to that," he says, but it is obvious Delta V has his doubts. "Well, it's late, and I've got another meeting to attend. So, if you'll excuse me...."
    And with that, the Punisher turns and races across the floor of the warehouse to vault over a row of heavy machinery at least eight feet high. In motion, he is full of grace and power, a combination gymnast and racer.
    Rick briefly considers going after the haunted soldier, then reconsiders. Anyone with that much fighting skill could probably clean his clock, super powers or not. With a smile in the direction of the others Rick starts to rise off the ground. "I'll be here bright and early Monday morning, or we can meet someplace else if one of you prefers," he waits a moment to listen to anyone that wants to answer him, then he flies quickly away.
    "I suggest we meet at Stark and go to the UN building from there." Dumas offers looking at the others.
    Once away from the warehouse Rick rose to a safe altitude and made a beeline for his apartment. Once safely inside he takes a long hot shower and falls into the cot he's using for a bed.

    Aegis returned home, tired and worried both. The meeting with the Punisher may have answered a few questions, but it seems to have not resolved any of the issues. If anything, the situation is all the more complicated. Even still, however, slowly, the heroine managed to fall asleep... be awoken about seven A.M. by the phone's insistent ringing.
    "What?" Bethany grumbled into the receiver.
    "Miss Cabe," a familiar British voice spoke. "I apologize for the early hour, but Master Anthony is in a bit of a fix."
    Suddenly awake, Bethany listens to Jarvis explain about how Tony Stark missed a small private dinner at the mansion the night before, a get-together Bethany was not even aware of. Calls to his offices failed to turn him up. Then, only a half hour ago, Jarvis was contacted by the police. Stark had indeed skipped the party, going instead to a dive on the Lower East Side where he drank himself into an unwisely bold stupor before starting a fight with two of the patrons. Stark was beaten, but suffered no serious injuries, and is still sleeping in a holding cell at the precinct.
    "He needs to be bailed out," Jarvis finishes the tale. "And you seemed the most sensible person to call."
    _So much for making it to Mass this morning._ Bethany closes her eyes and counts to ten. On eight she hears, "Miss Cabe?"
    "I'm here. Thank you for calling me, Jarvis. I'll handle it," she promises calmly. Ten minutes later, minimally presentable, she's on her way out the door. She is also blindingly furious, and has little inclination to analyze the emotion just now.
    She does her transmission no favors on the way to the office, where she picks up the bag she knows Tony keeps there to prepare for the all-too-frequent late nights that turn into all-nights. By the time she gets to the station she's calmed down somewhat -- enough to acknowledge that it's not her place to chew out her employer, no matter how much she longs to administer a verbal thrashing that would have done any of her ex-military fighting instructors proud.
    _It wouldn't do any good anyway._ Which just makes her angrier. In fact she believes that she knows almost exactly how this is going to go.... For a moment an observer might have thought she was in pain. She stiffens her resolve and gets out of the car, closes the door gently just to prove to herself that she can.
    She knows a couple of the guys on duty. They seem vaguely embarrassed on her behalf, and don't need to be reminded that discretion is a virtue. Her own demeanor remains pleasant with an effort, but there's more than a hint of ice lurking near the surface. When they finally produce Tony after the paperwork is taken care of, she gives him a sharp-eyed once-over. He looks about as she'd expected, and she's glad of her foresight as she hands the bag over. _The gossip pages would just *love* this picture...._
    "Good morning," she says in a briskly neutral voice. "Everything's taken care of. I'll wait."
    Stony silence prevails for most of the drive; Bethany finds that she has to consciously unclench her jaw every once in a while. Eventually, unable to quite keep the angry edge from her voice, she says, "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me why I just had to do that." Then wonders why she bothered asking, when the response is guaranteed to be either rude or a lie, and when there's no reason at all why she should be concerned with the answer. _Idiot. None of your business, anyway._
    Stark immediately changes the subject. "How did the meeting go with this guy who's been harrassing Dr. Connors?"
    Bethany pauses, unsure how to answer and suspicious of how Stark knew about the meeting to begin with. Did DePalo tell him? And, if so, what exactly had Stark been told? She casts a sideways glance at her boss, wondering how to reply. Before she speak, Stark is talking again, distractedly, obviously hung over, but also preoccupied.
    "It's about the defoliants, isn't it?" he asks. "God, I need a drink."
    "Like a hole in the head," she replies tartly, her irritation getting the best of her for a moment. "Which you're lucky you didn't end up with last night. You want to tell me what you know about the meeting, and how you found out? And what's all this about defoliants? Did dePalo talk to you?"
    _And which side am I going to have to end up on, come Monday?_ she wonders to herself, but doesn't ask aloud.
    "Connors is wired," Stark answered. "Has been for sometime, I assume. DePalo's got the whole meeting on tape. Damn it. I knew this would come to light eventually." He catches another sharp look from Bethany. "I know what you're thinking, and the answer is, 'No, I didn't know about the health effects.' At least until later. I've known for months now. Contracts. It was all contracts. The military wanted a way to defoliate the jungle to better site NVA targets. Stark Industries developed the delivery system for use in military aircraft. Roxxon and Sallis developed the chemicals. Justin Hammer—that reptile—was mixed in with the project somehow from day one, alone with DePalo."
    Stark falls silent for some time. Another quick glance away from the road and Bethany can see he is crying.
    "Damn it, Beth," he continues. "I didn't know about the side effects until after the program was in operation. And then what could I do? Go public with top secret info? That'd destroy Stark Industries. The families. Hundreds of families would have lost their incomes. I...I just sat on it, like DePalo told me to, and hoped that the problem would just go away."
    _Tough call; bad decision. And he knows it; no need to twist the knife to make the point._ She's not entirely unsympathetic; he had everything to lose. But she's still angry.
    "Problems don't go away when you ignore them, Tony," she tells him in a gentler tone than she's used yet today. "They just get worse. If you'd gone public at the start, yeah, SI would have taken a nasty hit, maybe even gone under. Instead, since you know all about the meeting, you know that tomorrow morning the Reds are going to try to crucify the lot of you in front of the international community." _And look who's going to be banging the nails in, too. What a mess._
    Which probably answers her initial question. She's somewhat disgusted with herself for not anticipating that move of dePalo's -- speaking of reptiles. She still can't figure the assassination angle. _They've got us exactly where they want us, they've got right on their side, more's the pity -- why try to kill anybody?_
    It occurs to her that they have only dePalo's word that there are any Soviet "super soldiers" in the country at all.
    "So how are you planning to handle this?" she asks eventually, doubting that he's given it much thought between last night and now.
    Stark sighs and shrugs. "I don't know. Attend the assembly. If it hits the fan --" He pauses, lost in thought. "-- I duck and cover the best I can. It'll be too late to deny involvement, but I might be able to minimize damage to the company by making the others involved look even more guilty than me. That's going to be a real crappy thing to do, but --" He falls silent with another sigh and shrug.
    Bethany takes an angry breath, clenches her jaw before any words can escape. There is a moment of tense silence. Finally she says, "I agreed to work for you in the first place because I respect you. Don't make me change my mind tomorrow. There's more at stake than just your damn company."
    She pulls into the manicured driveway at last.
    Starks "hmphs" through his nose. "I am thinking about more than my company. I'm thinking about the hundreds—no, thousands of people who will lose their incomes if Stark Industries takes a major hit. If we take more than a major hit, the number of people who will be affected financially will climb into the tens of thousands on three different continents."
    The car rolls to a halt in front of the mansion.
    "This was never about protecting my ass," Stark says emphatically. "It was about protecting the jobs of everyone who works for me and with me. I didn't get to be a millionaire by playing with the kid's gloves on. Push comes to shove, I fight dirty, I fight to win. And there's a whole hell of a lot more riding on tomorrow than whether or not you'll respect me in the morning." He turns to face Bethany, and though his eyes are bleary and red, there is a deadly seriousness in his look and demeanor. "I like you, Beth. You're a damned fine woman, and you do your job better than any man ever could. But if I have to sacrifice your respect in order to protect the families of my employees and business associates, I will."
    _Next time you can rot in the drunk tank,_ Beth thinks. She didn't get where *she* is by backing down easily, and her eyes are chips of green ice. "I know you're not doing any of this just for yourself. I'm not pretending this is anything but a matter of the lesser evil. And I know you care about your people, Tony, but if you think that's where responsibility ends, you're wrong. You think none of them have kids over there and just might disagree with you about what a job is worth? What the hell gave you the right to make that decision?"
    The car rolls to a halt in front of the mansion. Stark sits for several long, silent minutes, looking out the window. Then, he turns towards Aegis. There is no hint of anger or resentment in his voice. "Right or wrong, I just have that right, Beth. No one gave it to me. It's just there. If I had known in advance about the long-term effects of the Agent Orange program, I'd have never backed it. I'd have done my best to kill it. But it's too late for that. War...." He trails off, the thought left unspoken.
    She shakes her head, suddenly tired, surprised with herself for even bothering. "You do what you think is right. Try to make Roxxon and the rest of them look worse, I'm sure they're going to do the same for you." _Everybody loses. Fantastic._ "Looks like we'll have less help than we'd originally hoped for -- some of the folk who first showed up seem to have dropped out of sight -- but we'll be keeping an eye on things. I should be in comlink range of the convoy if anything happens on the way."
    "Good," he replies. "I knew I could count on you. I've never doubted that for minute." And with that said, Stark exits the car and walks slowly, heavily, up the stairs and into the mansion.
    Beth sits in the car alone for a moment, then slams her palm against the steering wheel in a contained moment of violence that doesn't make her feel much better. _Idiot. Were you expecting something else?_
    She'd like to go for a long drive, maybe unload a hundred rounds into a nice defenseless rock quarry, but it seems better to stay where she can be reached, just in case. So, it's back to Manhattan, where she stalks up the front steps, sees the office door is open and glances inside.
    "You're out early," Ling observes from her desk, surprised. "Or was it late? And what happened to the petty cash?"
    "Both, and I had to bail out my boss. I'm pretty sure he's good for it, though."
    "I see." Her eyebrows arch, but she guesses this is a poor time for questions.
    There's a punching bag hung from a rafter in the third-story "attic" for these occasions. Having beaten it thoroughly into submission, she tries to take a nap and can't sleep; the night and morning go round and round in her head. What *is* the right thing to do? _Maybe I'm just being overwhelmingly naive. Gotta take a stand somewhere, though._ She thinks about the Punisher's words some more, the vortex of forces converging on that room, the things other people are putting on the line. _Hell with it. I'll call tomorrow a good day if no one gets killed._
    The only thing she's sure of right now is that whatever happens, it's not going to go the way *any* of the participants have planned.

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