Thursday, March 4, 2010

Earth-349: Iron Maiden

Disclaimer #1:  This story is inspired by a story in Superman #349, but
is not limited by that story or any other.
Disclaimer #2: This story makes use of copyrighted characters owned by
DC Comics, Inc., Marvel Comics, King Features Syndicate, and other
publishers. It is written for amusement only and is not intended to
infringe or disparage those copyrights.
Disclaimer #3: This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the
easily offended, especially those who are uncomfortable with themes such
as transvestism and transgender.

The contrast between the two men on the platform was sharp. One was
tall and powerfully built, with a body that seemed to have been carved
from a single block of lustrous bronze. Bareheaded, his brown hair
fitted to his head like a skullcap. His lightweight tan suit showed off
his flawlessly developed muscles, with only a black sweater vest as a
concession to the cold.
The other man was tall, but looked puny next to his companion. Bundled
in a black greatcoat, the lower half of his face obscured by a red wool
muffler, broad-brimmed hat pulled low, only his intense, deepset eyes
and prominent nose were visible.
Wordlessly, the two men faced each other. The larger man smiled. The
other might have, but it seemed unlikely. They placed their hands on a
pair of old-fashioned knife switches and, after a brief pause, threw
them both.
The cameras captured the gray concrete wall behind them, as a section
wide as a boulevard suddenly leapt into the air in a cloud. A moment
later, microphones transmitted the thunder of the explosion.
The explosion was still echoing, the cloud still rising, when the
Republikswehr pioneers advanced to clear away the rubble. With shovels,
crowbars, wheelbarrows and small bulldozers, they cleared the remains
of the demolished wall within minutes. They took care not to move
further inward than they needed to to remove the rubble blocking the road.
The cameras moved closer, showing that the road did indeed continue beyond
the wall. But with no maintenance for two decades, the road beyond the
wall was little better than rubble itself.
Now the two men stood outside the opening in the wall. But neither of
them would be the first to walk on that road. They waited for a small
young man with snow-white hair, who led a little black-haired girl by the
hand. The men, the pioneers and the large crowd watching behind the
cameras were reverently silent as the pair passed through the wall and
into the newly opened city.
Only after Richard Heinrich Benz, Chancellor of Germany, had officially
escorted little Anna Berlin into the city, were they joined by Kenneth
Robeson, President of the United States, and Maxim Griantov, Premier of
the Soviet Union.
The announcer, "the" newsreader to American audiences, had restrained
himself while the wall was being broken. Now he began speaking softly.
"The breaking of the Berlin Wall marks a great transition indeed. Not
only is the city at Europe's heart returning to life, but the whole
world seems to be breathing easier. With the nuclear disarmament accord,
the partition of Indochina, and the withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet forces
from Europe, most agree that it is safe to say the Cold War is over. The
threat which hung over the heads of us all for nearly two decades has been
removed, and . . . ."
Tony's view of the TV set blurred, and he knew he was crying. It had
been so long since he'd been able to cry. It felt good. It didn't hurt.
The knot in his chest was untying, it didn't --"
The Mandarin held out his right hand, palm up, middle finger extended.
Tony knew that the gesture was not obscene in Chinese culture. But in
this case, the effect certainly was.
A beam of red heat shot from the villain's hand, not seeming to
originate from the ring on his extended finger, but from some aura
surrounding him. Tony didn't really understand how the alien
rings worked. He supposed the Mandarin didn't, either.
Although he dressed in the fashion of an old-time mandarin, even daring
to affect the coral button on his cap that rightly belonged only to one
confirmed in office by the Emperor, Tony knew that his old foe was really
just another of the bandits who harassed the local people in the lawless
region around China's southern border. Or had been, before he stumbled
across the alien power rings, and learned to use them.
Inside the armor of Iron Maiden, Anthony Stark writhed in agony and waited
for the end. Sooner or later, the Mandarin's heat ray would destroy the
pacemaker in his breastplate, and the remains of his heart would stop
beating, and the pain would go away at last. Either that, or his pain
would only have begun.
I went searching in my memory for a happy time, trying to hide from the
pain. Apparently, the happiest moment of my recent life was watching
news on TV. What does that say about my life?
The heat ray stopped. The Mandarin looked down at the charred armor and
turned his hand over, extending the index and middle fingers together.
The ray was golden and shimmering, quite beautiful. Tony wondered if
the Mandarin had chosen its appearance. The excruciating pain of
second-degree burns lessened, faded to an itch, vanished. His brain
was slapped out of an advanced state of shock, allowed no rest. The
alternate burning and healing had been going on for hours now, and
Tony's mind was suffering the effects of pain greater than the human
body could normally endure. But he knew that worse was coming.
The Mandarin stood over the blackened, pitted shell of the Iron Maiden
armor.Tony wondered how much of the breastplate was left, when the
Mandarin would begin to notice how the breasts were being eaten away,
how much skin was showing through the holes. Sooner or later, the
Mandarin would realize that the body inside the armor wasn't really
that of a tall, muscular woman with prominent breasts. What he would
do to his prisoner then would make the current abuse seem kindly.
Tony Stark had always taken comfort in escaping from his life as an
industrialist and social aristocrat into the guise of an elegantly
dressed lady.
When shrapnel had lacerated his heart and made him dependent on a metal
breastplate for survival, he had not been able to resist the temptation
of giving it breasts, of building a suit of powered armor that was an
extension of his secret store of gowns and makeup, a red and gold outfit
that was, he thought, his finest design ever. Now, his imposture was
about to be revealed to his deadliest enemy, and the pain of the burning
rays was almost welcome, since it blotted out the shame he felt as he
cowered in the remnants of his disguise.
He only had one chance of escaping the full wrath of the Mandarin: goad
him into using too much heat, trick him into killing him quickly.
Tony raised a blackened arm. The strength-boosting motors were dead,
making it an effort to lift the arm. He extended a finger, seeing
charred metal flaking off of perfect pink skin. He pointed to the
studded circle on the breast of the Mandarin's robe.
"If you're a Nationalist, why aren't you on Taiwan with your precious
Tony knew what the symbol really meant, but he hoped to goad the
Mandarin into attacking.
The gaunt Chinese villain did not fire again, but merely curled his lip
in disdain.
"This sacred sign does not belong to those Kuomintang cowards. It is
the symbol of a far older and worthier movement, in support of the true
leaders of China, a cause the so-called Nationalists once supported but
have now forsaken."
He thumped his chest, striking the center of the stylized chrysanthemum.
"I serve the cause of every true Chinese patriot: the restoration of the
divinely-appointed dynasty of the Ming!"
Tony forced a laugh. He noticed that the electronic voice filter was
still working, giving Iron Maiden a feminine contralto voice.
"You're a little late, aren't you? That was a couple of dynasties ago.
There aren't any Ming left."
The villain smiled.
"Oh, wench, but you are wrong. There is a prince of the house of Ming
still living."
He gestured towards the ceiling.
"He is out there, among the stars, ruler of a mighty realm. But one day
he will return to us, and when he does, he will be generous with his loyal
subjects. And to traitors and foreign pigs, he will be . . . merciless!"
Tony wanted to laugh at this belief, but his heart wasn't in it. After
all, the Mandarin's own rings had come from space. Some people said
Superwoman herself was an alien. But he would try to put some feeling
into his mockery.
Pathetic as he was, held down by his ruined armor, he had to find some
way to make the Mandarin lose his temper. Some way to bring on a quick
death rather than the torments and mutilations the outlaw would inflict
upon him once he knew he'd been cheated of the opportunity to make Iron
Maiden his concubine.
He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a thunderclap
from outside, followed moments later by an immense crash that spoke
of splintered timber and pulverized concrete. A wall fell open like
a drawn curtain, and sunlight entered the room. The Mandarin fled for
the door, firing rays of a dozen colors at the huge body that stood
framed in the sunlight, and the flying figure that joined it, adding
its own light to the room.
Thunderstrike lumbered after the Mandarin, but the Human Torch snuffed
her flame and bent over Tony. In a moment the Atom was appearing from
tiny obscurity, using her more-than-normal-sized strength to pry away
the ruins of Iron Maiden's armor.
Foolishly, Tony tried to cross his arms over his chest, to protect
his secret for a moment longer, but that only sped up the crumbling of
the charred shell. As the Torch helped him to a sitting position, the
last of the breastplate fell away, and Tony realized that it had to have
been wrecked long since. How many minutes, perhaps hours, had his heart
been beating on its own? The Mandarin's healing rays must have worked
even better than either man had suspected.
As the Torch brushed away crumbs of char and examined Tony's body, he
wondered at his comrades' calm in the face of his unmasking. His fellow
Avengers were showing no sign of the shock they must feel at finding a man,
a notorious womanizer, under their teammate's armor.
The Torch and the Atom wrapped Tony in a throw taken from a couch. They
were carrying him towards the hole in the wall when Thunderstrike returned,
jamming her hammer into her belt.
"The base villain did flee, abandoning his stronghold," she boomed.
"And I would suggest we make a more seemly retreat, for the forces of the
Chinese Communists do approach in haste. Though it was we ourselves who did
rout the rogue, and apprise his enemies of this fortress's whereabouts, I
fear we will not be much welcome amongst them."
As Thunderstrike easily scooped Tony's body into her arms, he exchanged
glances with the other Avengers. Their concern mirrored his own. At first,
Donna had only used that pseudo-Elizabethan dialect when there were
reporters around, but lately she'd been acting more and more like she
really believed the mysterious object she carried was Thor's own Mjolnir,
as though she thought she was some figure from bastardized myth. Every
time Donna St. James transformed herself, Thunderstrike seemed to be less
like Donna.
Tony feared they were heading to a confrontation over this obsession of hers.
Thunderstrike carried Tony to the waiting chariot, her Clydesdale-sized
goats already prancing impatiently. The Torch, as usual, was humming "I
Got Plenty of Nothin'". Jostling in Thunderstrike's arms, Tony marveled
at how good he really did feel, now that the accumulated shocks of burning
and healing were fading. He moved his fingers, flexed his legs. But
something wasn't quite right. It felt as though a flap of torn muscle
were lying on his chest. He reached up, fingers probing delicately.
His hand froze as it closed on something that could not, could not, be
finally there, after all those years of wishing.
Unless, perhaps, the Mandarin's healing rays could heal better than
anyone had ever suspected....

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