Las Vegas. Two days ago.
Images danced across a huge screen, black-and-white and grainy: bombs falling from the sky, Japanese fighter planes diving and twisting, machine-gun bullets tracking across the hulls of burning, sinking battleships. The attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded as Franklin Delano Roosevelt made an impassioned speech in the background.
At a podium in front of the screen, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes spoke, his voice boosted by a microphone. "December 7, 1941: the day the world changed forever. President Roosevelt declares the United States will build fifty thousand planes to fight the armies of Hirohito and Hitler."
As Rhodey spoke, the images on the screen flowed into a montage. Goose-stepping Nazi SS officers. An American airplane hangar with a sign that read stark industries. A slim young man shaking hands with FDR: Howard Stark. A sunset sky thick with long-range Stark bombers.
"Although no such capacity to build existed, Howard Stark, founder of the fledgling Stark Industries, answers his call to duty and builds not fifty, but a hundred thousand planes. Later, Stark's work on the Manhattan Project makes the end of the war possible. Stark Industries would go on to contribute to every major weapons system through the Cold War."
The screen shifted from images of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines to Howard Stark holding a tiny baby.
"But Howard Stark's greatest achievement would come in 1973. From early on, it was clear that young Tony Stark had a unique gift."
The screen flashed to Tony at age four, then at twelve, then in his late teens.
"At seventeen he graduated summa cum laude from MIT. Four years later, tragedy would pass the Stark mantle from father to son."
The image behind Rhodey cut to an elaborate funeral, with hundreds of mourners in attendance. Tony Stark stood near his father's coffin, gray-faced and hollow-eyed, flanked by George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton.
"It was the loss of a titan. But Tony did not let personal grief distract him from his duty. At twenty-one, he became the youngest-ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And with it came a new mandate. Smarter weapons, fewer casualties. A dedication to preserving life."
The presentation ramped up toward its climax, as a slickly produced display of American military might flashed across the screen: foot soldiers marching in formation, tanks crashing across a battlefield, planes launching into the sky.
"Today Tony Stark's ingenuity continues to protect freedom and American interests around the globe."
The screen image faded into an American flag waving dramatically in the wind, superimposed with a skillfully rendered photographic portrait of Tony Stark today: polished. Confident. Strikingly handsome and fiercely intelligent.
Thunderous applause swelled as that last image faded to black, and continued as a single spotlight sprang up and illuminated Rhodey standing at a podium, bold and dashing in a pin-striped suit.
"As Program Manager and Liaison to Stark Industries, I've had the honor of serving with a real patriot, a man whose life has been dedicated to protecting our troops on the front lines. He's a friend. And a great mentor. A man who has always been there for his friends and his country. Ladies and gentlemen, this year's Apogee Award winner—Mr. Tony Stark."
Deafening applause filled the room as, perfectly on cue, a second spotlight came on and shone down . . . on an empty chair.
The applause quickly petered out, and after a few seconds the house lights came on. Tony Stark's empty chair sat at the best table in the Grand Ballroom of the Las Vegas Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino, surrounded by roughly a thousand people in black-tie, evening-gown chic.
It was an impressive crowd, if you knew who and what to look for. Military brass, politicians, lobbyists—movers and shakers. Power brokers. All of them there to see one man.
Murmurs and whispers began to move across the floor, heads swiveling. "Where's Tony?" "Was he delayed?" "He's not blowing this off, is he?"
At a table adjacent to the one where Tony Stark was supposed to be sitting, Obadiah Stane quickly took the measure of the crowd and got to his feet.
Obadiah presented a striking figure, with his shaved-smooth scalp and silver goatee, but the way he moved and spoke gave off a very humble, earthy, aw-shucks kind of vibe. He was like everybody's favorite uncle—and that presence had served him well as Chief Financial Officer of Stark Industries over the years.
Obadiah nodded a little awkwardly to several members of the military as he made his way up to the podium. Rhodey gladly gave Obadiah space at the microphone, looking as if he had a few words he'd like to say himself. Obadiah shot Rhodey a sympathetic look before he addressed the gathered crowd.
"Thank you . . . I, uh, I'm not Tony Stark, but if I were, I'd tell you how honored I am and . . . what a joy it is to receive this award." Obadiah hesitated, trying not to freeze under all the impatient stares. "The best thing about Tony is also the worst thing: He's always working."