Who: Tony Stark What: a televised Senate hearing with a heart-pounding ending. When: the afternoon of Thursday, February 20th (1 PM). Notes: narrative!
That afternoon, the Senate hearing for the eScape fiasco started, chaired by the subcommittee for the Department of Homeland Security. It was being broadcast live on several TV channels and the internet. Naturally, it looked like the scene from a courtroom drama. Front and center, Tony was dressed in a nice suit and his hair was on point. He thought it might help to look pretty during his closeups, right before an angry Senator tried to throw him in white-collar prison for contempt of this circus court.
If they could even do that? He wasn't sure. Whatever. Stark Industries had the best legal team in the Law biz. If there was one thing he learned from Howard, it was to always keep your butt covered from every possible angle. And this wasn't his first rodeo, which took some of the edge off. Even if it didn't take it all off, entirely.
If there was any bright side to the discomfort, this might take some weight off Pepper and could make things better for Darcy. With the press release being issued that morning, any distraction would keep any focus away from the mystery heir. Not only that, but asking questions of his own might give Rhodey and Fury some leads to follow. All he had to do was be himself, but not turn it into a total shit show. At least, not on purpose. Fury's instructions were clear. Tiny focused shits in a designated area? Definitely. Big shit bombs dropping and leaving a stinky mess everywhere? No bueno.
Among the stone-faced politicians that were reading notes on their handhelds, was a sour-faced Senator from Tennessee, named Gerald Rollins. A staunch supporter of the dwindling coal industry, the older man looked like half his grey hair had been pulled out years ago, and he spoke in a slow and sarcastic drawl like it was freshly tapped out of a tar-sand pipeline. From the way that the old guy immediately grabbed the gavel, Tony imagined there might be a wooden cross waiting for him, and the Senator's pockets were full of rusty nails and a sledgehammer.
"Mr. Stark," Rollins began, "you've been brought before this committee to answer questions related to the eScape technology. Technology that, once again, should be immediately turned over to the US Government to ensure the safety of the people of the United States."
Time to put on a show. Tony leaned forward toward the ridiculous mic they left on the desk. He drew in a slow breath just to make them wait and blurted out, "Respectfully, I disagree. I know my safety record isn't perfect. No one's is. Even with my slip-ups, I want to try making the world a safer place and keep technology moving forward. When evil Grape Apes and Squidwards show up from outer space? I'm going to suit up a-sap to send 'em packing."
Senator Smith, a third-term Senator from New York, seemed to be more patient than Rollins but no less exasperated. "Care to explain how developing tech like the eScape isn't a threat to everyone's safety and welfare? It was marketed as a game. Yet it was hacked into by -"
"Objection! No one says hacking anymore," Tony interjected.
Smith tried to compensate, "A security breach then. If you thought it was safe -"
"Stopping you there," Tony said, holding up one finger asking for an uno momento rather than an F You. "We had no reason to think it wasn't safe. We later discovered that issues with eScape were the result of an internal compromise. From a former employee that is now a wanted criminal. We've handed over all information to the authorities. Because of what happened, I created the world's most secure firewall in under three days. It's running on all Stark servers. Five-star rating after rigorous outside security testing. You guys and gals even sent me a bid on a security contract."
Now interrupted twice, Smith tried to get his point across more quickly, "Regardless, vulnerabilities were exploited by an unknown outside entity. I realize technology can cause issues outside of total control, but this resulted in fifty people being used as puppets to start riots. Riots where several buildings and test project samples were destroyed."
"No one says destroyed anymore," Tony said, slouching down in his chair a little. He looked directly at a camera and stated, "The PC term is structurally impacted."
Senator Smith let out a silent sigh. "Two buildings and several vehicles were gutted after being set on fire. I'd say that's a significant structural impact. How can you prevent this from happening again?"
Tony knew the talking points already, "The C.E.O. of Stark Industries issued a public statement immediately, and we've paid for all associated medical bills and damages. We've heightened security and triple checked for any dormant codes. We've implemented more rigorous quality assurance and control measures. We've also organized clean up and donated further test funding and equipment to impacted institutions."
When it didn't seem like Smith had anything more to add in response, Senator Rollins butted back in. This time he sounded like he was dealing with a slow but unruly child, "Why, that's mighty generous! But unless we're able to determine dangers for ourselves by testing it on our end? We won't be able to decide if similar developmental tech shouldn't be banned outright, the next time we have a legislative vote."
Not only did he roll his eyes, but Tony sat up more and spoke up like he was talking to someone hearing impaired. "The eScape was modeled off the B.A.R.F. tech, and yes, I know that name needed some work. That means it is patented intellectual property, from research and development at Stark Industries. Meaning, I can sue your ass off and I'll win. You've seen what it can do, and there's the potential you might want to use it for something way worse than a game. I'm saying no can do, not handing it over. In fact? I can't hand it over."
"There's a big difference between can't and won't," Rollins shot back.
Tony couldn't help but agree with that. "Sure is. I literally can't. Because I destroyed all of the schematics I had. Then I revamped eScape two-point-oh from the ground up, as a non-invasive virtual reality game. Wiped one-point-oh out of existence. Since there was a limited number released, I tracked down and destroyed all of those gaming consoles. Used 'em for target practice over an ocean somewhere. Huh. Can't remember which ocean...but the drones cleaned up afterward...."
Despite that revelation, Senator Rollins didn't look like he was going to be swayed from his line of thinking. "But you still know how to make it. You think it's a good thing, trying and foulin' up over and over again? Tell me how this isn't somewhat similar to Ultron, after you set that loose on everyone. Someone want to show Mister Stark a video, to refresh his memory?"
A holo screen popped up showing images of what happened in Sokovia. Tony's expression hardened and he could feel his heart start pounding harder inside his ribs, but he didn't look away either. He knew better than to do that while being filmed, and it wasn't like he didn't expect to have that thrown in his face every time he did something wrong.
"I'm not saying I'm perfect," Tony said, as though setting the public record straight. "Never said that, never will. People make mistakes. Even when trying to make the world a safer place. I made a mistake. To help, I started a victim's fund and covered funeral costs. We've chaired several fundraisers to rebuild housing for displaced Sokovians."
"Sure you have," Rollins said, with a smarmy smile that could rival any used car salesman. "But you and your business reps, like your wife, seem to think it's all fixed just by throwing money at problems you cause."
"Never said that either," Tony said, trying not to glare. "Money doesn't bring anyone that died back to life. I know that for a fact. I'm trying to say that I've done whatever I can to make amends, and I accept responsibility for what I did wrong. That includes what happened with eScape. Throwing money is your words, not mine. All I want to do is make things better somehow, instead of worse."
"That so? Then how do you explain this big ol' mess?" The senator smugly asked, gesturing so the video changed to security footage of mind-controlled rioters wearing virtual reality Iron Man masks. Clearly, someone planned their presentation.
Tony nearly winced and immediately compensated, taking out his phone and tapping on it as he spoke. "Okay, we're going into the big mess zone. No one's perfect, but let's talk about a real big ol' mess. Gonna commandeer your screens again."
Everyone at the hearing looked either alarmed or interested. It took Tony less than twenty seconds as a harried senate assistant tried (and failed) to override the code Tony started running. They weren't able to shut down the holo screen either. Not only had he seized control of the video feed, but he cut off any local access to the electricity powering it. "And...here we go."
Now displayed were snippets of YouTube vids and security cam footage. It was all of the sixty-foot rage monsters as the Avengers brought them down.
"Ya know," Tony said, plopping an elbow on the desk and squinting like he was trying to figure something out. "It's super funky that these showed up like they did. Or why the Avengers didn't get a call first. That's literally what we're here for. If we're called in first, then the good men and women of local law enforcement and the military aren't losing their lives trying to stop stuff like this. You know what? It's not even the government's first time with a mistake that could've wiped out millions of people. Including me. Project Insight, right? That was a hell of a file dump."
All thanks to Natasha. As he made a mental note to ply her with dim sum for the rest of their lives, Tony watched the Senators. Now none of them would look him in the eye, and a first-time senator from Nebraska rubbed a hand down over his face. It almost seemed like he didn't want to be associated with this at all anymore.
"I mean, where did these things come from?" Tony pushed it a little further, looking into the cameras like he was individually addressing the viewers out there. "Think about it. They couldn't be too far away, right? If they did, then there'd be a ton more damage. A lot more sightings too, before these things ever showed up and tried to crap all over New York's doorstep."
"We're the ones asking questions here, Mister Stark," Senator Smith was a voice of reason trying to interject some calm, but Tony didn't seem to be having that.
"I think the American people deserve answers. Sixty feet tall is obviously a way bigger threat." Tony turned around in his chair to look back at everyone who was sitting behind him. There were a few nods and more than a fair share of people shaking their heads. A handful of those head shakers were from those in uniform. "Don't you think? Well, I think so. Because I fessed up for my messes, and we've issued a ton of public apologies. But this?"
He gestured toward the video of a giant pissed-off wolf, as Captain Marvel power punched it to death.
"Wow. Still waiting for anyone to take responsibility for Lake Placid, Pricky the Pissed Off Porcupine, and When Werewolves Attack. As one of the founders of the Department of Damage Control, I help organize cleanup ops. Especially if the Avengers are involved. But all's quiet on the monster front? That's weird."
Senator Rollins didn't seem like he wanted to push ahead any further today. It looked like his head was about to blow like a volcano. He banged the gavel a few more times to stop all of the murmuring from the court spectators. "We're calling a recess and we'll pick up tomorrow."
"Yay! I love recess," Tony joked, feeling jacked up and ready to tackle anyone on any front. "You talk amongst yourselves about how long you wanna keep this hot mess going. I'll go hit up the news crews on the front steps since I still have freedom of speech. Right? We still have that in this country, as far as I know. Use it or lose it."
Rollins looked like his rage meter was shifting from a shade of red into a deep purple, and it sounded like the old guy dropped an F-bomb under his breath. Hopefully that got bleeped. "This hearing isn't about spreading your half-crocked conspiracy theories, Stark."
"Are they theories, though?" Tony countered, sounding cutesy about it. "Me thinketh the senator protests too much."
"Unsubstantiated, just like Pizza Gate," Rollins shot back, banging the gavel one more time like he wanted to bludgeon Tony's skull with it.
"Hold up!" Tony rejected letting Rollins get the last word in. "Pizza Gate was straight up unfiltered stupid. But since I love pizza as much as recess, I'm gonna let that slide."
"This hearing is dismissed!" Rollins bellowed, throwing the gavel down.
As everyone started to leave, Tony got more than his fair share of glares. He was used to being glared at. He smirked as he stood up, ready to strut out while flashing peace signs just to show off.
He never made it a single step. His heart flip flopped as a shooting pain bolted through his chest and shot down one arm, involuntarily clenching the fingers of that hand. Tony stood stock still, looking confused, and quickly pressed his other hand against his aching chest. Almost immediately, the room started to swim, and he slumped back down into the chair, trying to wheeze a breath into a chest that felt tightly constricted.
Panic attack? Maybe a massive one, and at the worst time possible. If he could just get the suit on, Friday could run a diagnostic and...and...why did he feel too weak to manage that, all of a sudden?
One of the Air Force Generals - a superior of Rhodey's that was so old he was on the verge of retirement - moved to Tony's side immediately. He took one look at the clammy face and owlishly wide eyes and knew what was going on. He had a previous episode of his own a couple of years ago.
The general looked over to his military assistant and barked out an order, "Call an ambulance!"