#7 - The Death of Cybermancer
The Mandarin's castle
“How … could you … do that … Slade?” Tony Stark struggles to speak, still trapped inside his useless suit of armor, a prisoner of the Mandarin's spell and a captive of Moonraker's apparent treachery. The strange energy flowing from Slade Truman's hands are still engulfing Iron Man, causing an increasing pain in his neuro-system. *
(* a quick recap of what went on in the closing scene of IRON MAN # 8, Part 1 of the MANDARIN LIES cross-over, Alex)
But no answer comes from the apparently enthralled face of his former ally. It doesn't take a telepath to understand that Moonraker is under the influence of a very powerful suggestion. One strong enough to have him endanger Iron Man, which is not odd per se, for Slade Truman enjoys a complete distrust of the man, but also to openly betray Suzi Endo and, especially, Marianne Rodgers, which is definitely out of Slade's character.
Fighting the pain and the blackness trying to overpower his conscious thoughts, Tony Stark does the only thing left to him at the moment: he gauges his situation and the, sadly low, chances of survival he has.
-The Mandarin is likely to show up soon, with his predictable repertoire of gloating and boasting about his superiority. He will also threaten to extinguish my life at once, but we both know he won't be able to resist the urge to punish me by making me the witness of his triumph. So for that part I should still be able to enjoy a few more hours of life … and the hope that somehow Suzi will be able to come up with a plan to save my hide.-
Suddenly a shot of pain courses his body, halting his thoughts and making him aware of another more pressing threat to his safety: -Damn! It seems that my body is not taking all this punishment very well. It could even turn out that my health will shorten what little life the Mandarin will be willing to give to me.-
“Slade! Slade … please … I know … you hate me … but … ARGH!” Tony's words are interrupted for Moonraker adds his own powers to the mystical energies he's wielding, no doubt through the meddling of the Mandarin, multiplying Stark's torment of a tenfold.
“We both know you're a charmer, my old enemy”, the Mandarin says, finally entering the wide hall, wrapped in his elaborate robe, “but your charm is usually more effective on women, so Mr. Truman is hardly in danger to fall for any display of rhetoric on your part!”
The Mandarin slides closer to Stark, not touching the ground, actually propelled by the very mystical forces he's molding to reshape China as the Empire of his dreams. “I know what you're thinking, old enemy”, he says, “you are sure I will be vanquished somehow, like I always was in the past. It'd be of little use for me to reassure you that this time there isn't any unknown quantity around to jeopardize my plans”.
-Does he know about the rogue Iron Man armor Suzi spotted in Hong Kong? Was that a ruse to lure me into his trap? Or is that an 'unknown quantity', indeed? I better keep that knowledge to myself-, Stark thinks.
“Now, Moonraker, reports to me. Why did you have to activate your hidden conditioning? Why weren't the Avatars strong enough to capture him in his useless armor?” the Mandarin asks, smiling, savoring the control he has over both men in front of him.
Like an automaton, Moonraker starts talking, recounting the recent events, while Tony Stark concentrates every single iota of his willpower to resist the urge to faint.
“This has gone terribly wrong”, Suzi says, finally managing to disengage her lifeless armor. Marianne and the Juggernaut are helping her. “Not only we are still in the dark about the fake Iron Man armor, but the world has gone upside down and we don't have a single clue as to what has happened to Iron Man and … Slade”.
Suzi looks at Marianne, worried about the effect that Moonraker's apparent betrayal will cause on the fragile psyche of the blond telepath.
“Well, Shellhead did tell us that the Mandarin is behind all this … and we still have his underlings there in our grasp …” Cain Marko says, but he stops after a second. In fact, as if in mockery of his last words, the Avatars suddenly disappear, retrieved by the Mandarin's powerful magic.
“It wasn't Slade”, Marianne finally speaks. “I'm sure of it. His thoughts changed, his mind was … utterly different. It was evil, completely evil. He was being used …”.
“I know Mari, I'm sure Slade would have never betrayed us, not consciously, even if he clearly hates Iron Man”, Suzi says. “But we can't track them down now. We can do only one thing: we must warn the Avengers. This is too big and the three of us can't possibly confront the Mandarin, his Avatars, the fake Iron Man and whatever other force he has at his command!”
“But what can we do? Technology is scrambled, useless! We can't communicate with the Avengers … and my telepathy is not strong enough to cross the Pacific Ocean to reach their West Coast base …”, Marianne asks.
“Actually I have an idea … if I can convince Mr. Marko here to cooperate”, a strange light can be seen in Suzi's eyes. A light that is one very charming aspect of her genial mind, her most offensive weapon.
“Care to explain …?”
Above, in the sky
-The talisman is working perfectly-, the woman calling herself Deathmancer thinks, -And the Mandarin's plan is clearly a success. Now if only those two imbeciles I brought with me will do their own part … We're at a critical juncture in my plans, we must support the Mandarin till the spell is stabilized, but we must strike at him before he achieves the godly powers he so greatly desires.-
“Suzi, can you read me?” the voice of Jim Rhodes reaches her cybernetic helmet.
“Of course I can. Why are you wasting your energies in this way? We can't risk the Mandarin spotting you before it's too late. Have you disposed of that silly Potts woman …?”
“It's done! Don't worry, boss-lady. And I'm already flying to the Mandarin's castle. Tony wants to know when you will meet with us.” the alternate Rhodey answers.
“Soon after I have solved a little personal matter. But you must prepare for our move as planned, you don't even need my presence for the plan to work. YOU are the secret weapons to bring forth the Mandarin's downfall!” Deathmancer says in a cold tone.
“Of course we are … try to remember that after this is all over”, the man's voice answers with a clear note of sarcasm, before cutting down the communication.
“Oh, I will surely remember to blow a hole both in your head and in Tony's, after you have served your purpose. In the new age dawning there is no room for too many seats of power, so I'll make sure there will be only one: mine!” with Death in her thoughts she resumes her previous flight course.
“It won't ever fit. My head is twice as big as yours!” Cain Marko protests, shaking his head.
“That's why I'm removing all the excess equipment! Don't be silly, Cain! This is our only option, so it's worth a try. Or do you have any other suggestion that might work?” Suzi asks, impatiently, but checking her tone for she knows the Juggernaut is not an easy person to handle.
“But I will have to remove my helmet, which leaves me open to psionic attacks, and that is what I want to avoid at all costs!” the hulking man protests, unconvinced.
“That's my part of the plan, Cain. I will shield you for all the time the helmet will be off. My psionic powers are quite strong, you know. I bet I could even protect you from a direct hit from your foster brother!” Marianne says.
“I doubt that … but …”
“No 'buts', Cain!” Suzi finally snaps, “I'm tired of your childish behavior. You're just afraid, like many other men, of technology! You fear this helmet will somehow control and enslave you, but it's the other way around! It will allow you to broadcast a high frequency distress signal, consuming whatever reserve has been left in my suit, possibly reaching someone … anyone … Big Hero 6, the West Coast Avengers … I'd even settle for the Muppets at the moment!”
“Afraid? I'm not afraid, girlie!” Cain snatches the helmet from Suzi's hands, while removing at the same time the magical blocks holding his own helmet in place. “But I'm sure it won't work. It's too simple … it can't be that the Mandarin would overlook such an easy way of circumventing his spell …”.
“Wow, Cain! Circumventing …? We're really having a good influence on you!” Suzi smiles, to soften up the man's frown. “You have an in-built resistance to magic, that is for sure. Your own magical resistance should negate the Mandarin's spell once the helmet is set on your head. So you will be able to fully operate it, with my help. This is the drawback of using magic … it doesn't work in a logical, rational way. That helmet is just useless electronic junk on my head, but it's an operational cyberlink on yours. Magic doesn't know it shouldn't be like this!”
“I still can't believe that my magic resistance will be enough to make it work and to cast the signal … Hey! It's true! I see the monitor lighting up … it's like a cool videogame! Now where is Lara Croft?” Cain exclaims.
“It really worked!” Marianne almost shouts.
“Now let's not waste any time! We don't know for how long we can bypass the spell or even if the broadcast won't die out as soon as it leaves the Juggernaut's own magic resistance field.” Suzi says, “Cain, do you see the main menu?”
“The pink writings on the left side? Yeah!”
“Choose the 'Link' option. It should open a sub-menu … then select 'Worldwide' and in the box that will open type mentally 'Starcore Priority'! Then …”
“Whoa, lady! Slow down, I'm still at the first step …”, Cain says.
“Sure, right … sorry. I got carried away. Now, choose the sub-menu …” Suzi mentally sighs, hoping it won't take too long.
After a while
“I did it! It's been sent! I gave it full power … dunno what that means, but the display said that the 'armor reserves are completely depleted' and then it went blank!” the Juggernaut says, “But I'm sure it has worked! I saw the whole net and I chose all the destination points you told me!”
“Good job, Cain. Now we can only pray it really worked. Put back on your own helmet …”
“NOT SO FAST!” A voice shouts, so similar to Suzi's and yet so different in malice, “I dunno why he removed the helmet, but it's been your last mistake!”
The next attack is so devastating and powerful that Suzi would be proud of herself and of the potentiality of the armor she has designed, were it not that she and her friends are on the receiving end of a powerful neuro-attack. Devised to strike at the only weakness of the unstoppable Juggernaut and to saturate Marianne's own shields.
With a sense of dread Suzi sees both her allies slump to the floor, unconscious. She doesn't even ask herself why the attack has caused to her the least amount of damage. She just leaps forth to avoid the following and more conventional laser pulses.
“You're powerless, armorless and your only hope just went down with those two. It's no use resisting your fate. There is no place for the two of us in the same world, and guess who's going to be removed?” Deathmancer moves closer, launching another attack.
“At least I still die a woman!” Suzi replies angrily, finding cover beside a wall that is immediately pulverized by the suit's weapons array. “Which is more than what can be said of you! And you know it!”
“Pfah! I am superior to you! My cyber-enhancements are not a limitation, but an improvement, fleshling!”
“Say it one thousand times more and you might even start believing it, until next time you look at yourself in a mirror!” Suzi replies, panting for the constant exertion of trying to avoid most of the blasts aimed at her, but sensing that her hastily made-up strategy is paying off.
“I will see a sight a thousand times better than yours, once I'm finished with you! Away with bolts and blasts. I'm going to smash your beautiful face to a pulp with my own hands!” Deathmancer lands, grabbing Suzi and lifting her off the ground, ready to slap her.
“I knew you'd do it! You … I have always been very … sensitive about comments on my looks!” Suzi smiles, and for the first time Deathmancer sees in her face a reflection of her own cunning and evil … or even more …
The Mandarin's castle
“Manipulating Truman's hate for you and his own self-delusion has been child's play, Iron Man! Add to that the subliminal blame he puts on you for the way you discarded his beloved Marianne from your life … Oh, I sense you're surprised, but even her inclusion in the setting has been preordained!” The Mandarin says, his eyes glinting with pure satisfaction.
“I … I can't believe … he's completely lost!” Tony Stark's own reserves are reaching a dreaded limit. He knows he's slipping into unconsciousness and he doesn't know if it'll be for the last time.
“Of course he is. Look at him … I could order him to blast his own head away and he would do it! Do you need a demonstration?” The Mandarin is so amused with himself that he turns toward Moonraker and orders: “Blast yourself. Cut off your left ear, dog!”
Much to Iron Man's horror, Slade's left hand raises at his ear's level, with a slow but steady motion. The man is so enthralled by the Mandarin's spell that he would maim himself without a moment's notice.
-I can't let this happen … there must be a way to break this spell. I'm sure there is! Slade has always shown a very independent mind … but even mentioning Marianne's name hasn't helped … unless … of course! I need to find the only emotional link that dates prior the Mandarin's corruption!-
Then Tony Stark summons all the air in his lungs to shout a single sentence: “JULIA! She's in danger! Save her, Moonraker!”
“JULIA!” is the same word, escaping Moonraker's lips, as she suddenly jerks his hand, blasting the Mandarin square in the chest!
“What …?” Deathmancer can't understand why Suzi would smile when she's just preparing to slap her head off her neck with a single blow.
“Because I needed to get this close to let my voice, which is exactly as yours, interact with your microphone!! Emergency Code: Amaterasu! Directive Omega-7-CM! Engage external override! Disable mainframe, start secondary programming, self-destruct sequence activated and locked. 180 seconds to internal overburn!” Suzi speaks fast, using the security code built into her own suit, in the desperate gamble that it's the same her counterpart included in the equipment.
“You? It can't be … It won't work! I deleted that secondary programming in my seventh upgrade of the armor!” Deathmancer's tone, though, is not so sure.
“Then why are you frozen in place, dear Suzi?” 'our' Suzi asks, finally slipping off her opponent's grasp. “You're immobile! I know you're from an alternate future, but a future nonetheless and I was careful to add that security code after our first meeting in Force Works! I was also very careful to make that directive a necessary component of the core element of the armor's CPU. You can't erase it. It would seem it is removed, but at the next boot up it would be re-uploaded in the mainframe! It's my Trojan Horse to prevent the armor from falling in the wrong hands. I did it … YOU did it in your world!”
“NOOO! It can't be. I couldn't have designed the suit with this bug!”
“It's not a bug, but a failsafe to grant you total mastery of the armor. And we both know that total mastery is our main goal, albeit with different flavors. We are the same person, Suzi! How many seconds do you have?”
“Good! Now I can help you not to get fried like a roasted chicken if you give me the password to control the primary program … and the suit and the talisman which makes it functional inside the Mandarin's spell! You'll lose your dreams of world-conquest but you'll live … So?”
“You wouldn't …”
“I already did! Without the password I can't disengage the armor and have it off your body to avoid your sweet frame to become a smoldering carcass!”
“I curse you! You're worse than me … you're …”
“The password! You should have no more than 20 seconds left!”
“How vulgar of you …!”
“NO! It's the password! Save me!”
“Typical! I'm almost ashamed you're me, after all! Well, then, 'fuck you', disengage, detour, disassemble!”
“AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!” with a terrible scream, even though the suit falls from her body, Deathmancer's head bursts into flames and explodes!
“But … but I had disengaged the armor! She couldn't be fried …” Suzi is shocked, for she had hoped she wouldn't have to resort to this extreme option and she's sure she hasn't …
“Think again, babe! Look here!” Cain's voice makes her turn and then she sees and understands. She stares into Marianne's cold eyes, the cold stare of a psionic with the power to deflagrate a human brain. The stare of an insane mind who has already killed in the past to save Tony Stark and that would do so again and again, when the need arises.
With a sigh Suzi crouches on the concrete, trying to avoid looking at Deathmancer's corpse and she picks up the pieces of the armor.
“Let's get this suit going, so I can check if our distress call has been heard, then we must find Iron Man, Slade … and the Mandarin!” she says.
“And then? What will we do after everything's settled?” Cain asks, while Marianne keeps her silent stance.
“Let's get this mess sorted out and then we'll wonder about it. As they say, everything must change …”.
Next: Sadly there is none! This is the end of Suzi's own series, the very first one of the Avengers 2000 project. But don't worry, for you can still check Suzi's appearance in AVENGERS WEST COAST #4, Part 3 of the "Mandarin Lies" crossover. And it is highly possible that that series will be Cybermancer's future residence for a while more!
A big thank goes here to BARRY REESE, who has chronicled Suzi's life thus far and to our EiC GARY DRESLINSKI, who asked me to step in as guest-writer for this story!