God Switch • Chapters 1-2
Title: God Switch
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandoms: Iron Man & Captain America & The Avengers (MCU) / The Matrix
Genre: Action, sci-fi, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Loki, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff, Betty Ross, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Guest appearances: The Architect, Emil Blonsky, Phil Coulson, JARVIS, The Merovingian, The Oracle, Persephone, Thaddeus Ross, Sati, Erik Selvig, Seraph, Samuel Sterns, Glenn Talbot.
Pairings: Betty/Bruce, Clint/Darcy/Natasha, Jane/Thor, implied Merovingian/Persephone
Summary: The Truce between men and Machines is threatened by a radical group called ‘the Cleansers’. Steve Rogers, the captain of a hovercraft named ‘The Avenger’, takes his crew to find the ultimate weapon the Cleansers are looking for, and reunites with an old friend whom he’d thought long dead. How is Tony Stark connected to their mission, and does a weapon exist that could destroy the Machines?
Complete. Sequel to “Creator”.
Written for: Science Fiction & Fantasy Big Bang’s Round 5.
Also fills the “free space” square on my card in Trope Bingo’s Round 2 (used trope: “au: fusion”).
Artist: raktajinos (AO3/LJ) – see banner HERE.
Warnings: Language, canonical violence.
Disclaimer: Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers & Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Joss Whedon, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The Matrix franchise belongs to siblings Wachowski, Warner Bros. Pictures and all other involved parties. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Feedback: Very welcome indeed, seeing as I’m only playing with The Matrix for the second time.
About God Switch: This is a fusion story, far as I understand the term.
To clear things up: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers come with their original backgrounds, being Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. (At this point I urge you to read my other fic, “Creator”, because that explains some things concerning the backstory.) The other Avengers don’t “exist” in this verse – however, they shall be implanted and integrated into the story in other ways (without powers).
Chapters and statuses: Below you see the writing process of the story’s chapters. If there is no text after the chapter’s title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Chapter 1: The Past and Present of Steve Rogers
Chapter 2: The Avenger
Chapter 3: The Cleansing
Chapter 4: The Oracle
Chapter 5: What Is or Isn’t in Malibu
Chapter 6: The Map to Machine City
Chapter 7: Plan of Attack
Chapter 8: Family Reunions
Chapter 9: The Merovingian
Chapter 10: The Weapon
Chapter 11: Negotiations
Chapter 12: Dreaming the Morrow
Chapter 1: The Past and Present of Steve Rogers
Steve couldn’t remember the exact time period in which Man had mastered the creation of fire. Back when they’d still lived in caves, probably, and perhaps that’s why he remembered it now, looking at the tiny flickering flame casting large shadows on the walls of his hideout that was little more than a cave. It had been a while since he’d been able to find something to burn, to banish the darkness, and it hurt his eyes a little, but at the same time it sparked that old glimmer of hope in his chest.
The flickering flame would give him strength to go on until he found something edible. After all, the light always reminded him of the old days, and he could spend hours upon hours reminiscing, sinking deeper into what had been before the world fell into darkness. More often than not he thought about the time before the ice; not because it was clearer in his mind, but because it was easier.
Steve Rogers had lived three lifetimes.
The first lifetime was before and during World War II, when he had first become a hero. A soldier. He had been transformed from a weakling into a super-soldier; he’d fought Nazis, HYDRA, and eventually gave his life to protect the world from Red Skull’s master plan.
He had ended up in the ice for almost seven decades, after which he awoke to his second lifetime in the twenty-first century. Steve was still Captain America, but unlike in wartime when he had been a solider among others, in the new century he became a full-fledged superhero; he had continued to fight the good fight to protect humanity and defend the weak and hunt down the wicked.
He hadn’t been alone in that fight: Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, had fought alongside him, wearing his high-tech armor and trying to make the world a better place. They had clashed, due to personal differences, but eventually became friends – for which Steve was glad as the years rolled by and the people he had come to know after the ice passed away, one after another.
Tony, however, had inserted into himself a nanotechnology called Extremis, which enabled him to do something people called ‘technopathy’. Steve hadn’t been sure what it meant, even then, but Tony had always felt connected to machines and technology, and the Extremis enabled him to communicate with them. It had also given him regenerative powers, and one perk among many was that Tony no longer aged.
As the world moved on, Tony and Steve stayed the same, standing side by side; Captain America and Iron Man…
Steve huffed, looking at the small flame. He could remember Tony’s laugh if he tried hard enough; he recalled the smile on his face, the quirk of his brow, the lines on his skin that marked the hardships he had gone through. He held onto the memories for a while, taking himself back in time, into the sunny space of Tony’s home where they had often sat, reminiscing about the past and people they had met – and lost – trying to look ahead.
To convince themselves that they had been fighting the good fight.
It had been in those days that the AI was created, to brighten humanity’s future and aid their endeavors. They had been little more than robots in Steve’s eyes; smarter, perhaps, than the robots that had already existed, but Steve had had the privilege to interact with Tony’s personal AI, JARVIS, and he knew the new Artificial Intelligence was far from JARVIS’ abilities. Of course, if he had broached the subject with Tony, he would have either gotten an extensive lecture on how the new AI was still evolving – or troubled silence because Steve had known, even then, that Tony never told anyone what he really thought of the new AI, and his own involvement in its creation.
That had been the beginning of his third lifetime.
The Machine War had loomed on the horizon.
Steve had lived through the things that preceded it: the fight for Machine rights, the rise of their own city, the tilt in infrastructure and the bombing of Machine City.
Before the bombs had been dropped, Steve had carefully watched Tony for reactions, knowing the man had insights that their world leaders could only hope for. While no one had asked for Tony’s input or opinion, it had been clear he opposed the direction humanity was taking against the Machines, and Steve had steered clear of the approaching battle.
Then Tony had gone to visit Zero One just before the nuclear attack vaporized Machine City, and was never to be seen again. JARVIS had gone silent in the aftermath, and Steve had been forced to admit defeat: his best friend was gone.
The war that followed had been brutal: the Machines had withstood the attack on their city and replied in kind. The humans had torched the skies in desperation, but the tide had inexorably been turned against them. Billions had died. Thousands had been taken by the Machines, experimented on. Steve had been one of the few survivors who hid and sometimes rebelled, but with dwindling resources many of them had been hunted down and efficiently destroyed.
Steve knew he could have made a stand. He could have rallied up the troops behind him, because Captain America still meant something to the people. He hadn’t; before the war, he had told anyone who listened that the right course of action did not lead to another war. They had not listened. Instead he had tried to protect those few who remained with him, but one by one they fell, from malnutrition, injuries and maladies.
Steve had pushed on.
He had seen the power plants rise; fields of humans used as a new power source for the Machines.
Eventually, he had found survivors, and the city far beneath the Earth’s surface: Zion. That had been when he first heard of the Matrix. Those who had escaped it had a hard time describing it, other than as a lie thrown across their eyes that was almost perfectly believable. A dream.
At the time Steve had wished, like so many others, to save those who remained locked within the Matrix, and to lead them to the real world. However, seeing as he was missing the headjack – a component all the people released from the Matrix had inserted into the backs of their heads – he couldn’t do that.
So instead Steve had helped the best he could, and at one point it had seemed like humanity was winning when the One was discovered – a man with a deeper connection to the Matrix, tilting the balance in their favor. They had dreamt of saving humanity back in those days, and of overthrowing the Machines.
Not much later, the Machines had come and destroyed Zion and its population.
The One was lost.
Steve had escaped with his life and very few others. The group split up due to differences, and eventually Steve had once again been the lone survivor of his own group and wandered the wasteland for a time before heading back to see whether anyone else had made it and deemed it safe to return to where Zion had once stood.
There had been people there, and the rebuilding of Zion had already begun. Steve had gladly joined them.
Then more escapees from the Matrix had arrived, and Steve felt a strange sense of déjà-vu: it was the same as before, all over again; as if their past struggles to free people had been for naught, as no one could remember it. Zion had been growing and strengthening, however, so Steve had let it go and enjoyed the life he had.
His suspicions had grown exponentially when another One was discovered – a man who once again led the people in a struggle against the Machines. And just like before, Zion had eventually come under a direct attack from the Machines.
Steve had almost died that time.
He’d also lost his shield, which he had managed to cling to until then.
When he’d crawled into the darkness of long-abandoned tunnels that couldn’t fit the Sentinels, he had considered his options. When he’d grown stronger, he had wandered on his own, but eventually his weakness had grown and he returned to Zion – finding it once again rebuilt and inhabited.
Steve had found the ones in power and told them that he’d already seen this happen twice before. However, his words had not been met with kindness, and as the years rolled by, Steve had felt the impending sensation of doom. Then the One had been discovered once more, and he had left; Steve had refused to see Zion destroyed for a third time.
Whenever Steve had given into the weakness and returned, he found the cycle repeating itself. Some people he spoke to believed him, but not those who mattered. Perhaps it was human nature, wanting to believe they had a choice in the matter; that their lives weren’t part of a pattern. That once they escaped the Matrix, they were free.
Five times, he counted.
He hadn’t been there for all of them, not at the crucial moment, but he could do the math. It was like a horrible game for the Machines, yet each time Steve hoped it would end differently. That mankind would triumph in the final battle.
They never did. Thousands were killed and life was rebooted to start all over again.
As much as the isolation hurt him, Steve guessed exile was better, because how could he live with himself when he failed over and over again to convince the leaders of Zion that their lives were meaningless unless they changed the pattern?
He was once again nearing the time when he itched for company; when he would break down and make his way down to Zion, one agonizing mile at a time, knowing that he would find a place there if he told no one of the life he had lived. After all, if he told them he remembered the time before the Machines, they would not believe whatever he said next.
Steve told himself he would be stronger this time. He didn’t need to see Zion destroyed or another senseless war taking place. He didn’t want to get to know people he couldn’t protect, couldn’t save. Sure, he entertained the idea that he could gather a close circle of friends and lead them away from the city when the time grew near to Zion’s destruction. To build a place of their own. After all, he had traveled far and wide in his time, and while the skies were still black, the Machines did not move far from the new city they had built on top of the ruins of the old one. If they went far enough, perhaps they could establish a community that wasn’t part of the system the Machines had clearly created with Zion.
The small flame flickered and went out, startling him. He felt a draft against the skin of his ankle, and somewhere far beneath him, something crashed. The floor shook. Steve knew he wasn’t close enough for usual Machine activity, which meant the possibility of a lost vessel, or something out of the ordinary.
He picked up his pack, worn but still able to carry his meager belongings, then left the shelter which may have once been the sub-basement of a building. Steve picked a path through the darkness, his eyes used to it, hands and feet moving with agile grace along the nooks and crannies in the walls of the sewers that provided pathways to follow. He didn’t want to count the number of years he had spent walking around while his body struggled to survive without proper nourishment, and he wished to see the sun more than anything. For years he had traveled paths like this, and he knew how to navigate them silently and make sure he had several exists in case he was faced by Machines.
Ending up at a wider tunnel, he looked around. Far away in the darkness, beyond a curve, he saw something blue-ish sparkle. He made his way towards it, looking for a weapon as he went. The air was not as clear as above, almost as if unwilling to fill his lungs, but his body adapted as he moved forward, silent and unnoticed.
As he moved around the curve, he could see the somewhat familiar shape of a hovercraft. He had traveled in one numerous times, and they had changed very little over time. Another reminder that the cycle repeated, over and over…
He saw movement and pressed himself against the wall immediately. Something… someone moved near the ship, not very silently, which meant they knew they were far enough away from Machine territory to feel free to make such a ruckus. “Goddammit,” a male voice swore, then there was a slight beep. “We lost the pads on one side. All of them. I told them we wouldn’t be able to make that turn!”
“There’s no point arguing about it now. Can we fix enough of them to limp back home?” a female voice asked through something that might be a radio, the voice echoing off the walls.
“Did you hear me when I said we ‘lost’ the pads?” the man outside snarled into the communicator device. “Where’s the technician?”
“Dead,” the woman replied.
“Seriously?” The man paused. “Any other casualties?”
“I haven’t done a full round, but it would seem… it’s pretty ugly in here. I’m sure you see the dent in the hull? Caused an explosion in the rear.”
“You and me… and Bruce. That’s about it. Bruce dragged Jasper out of the wreckage that’s now the engine room, but he bled out a few minutes ago.”
“Fuck,” the man outside the ship swore and Steve saw him lean against the hull – then whirl angrily and kick at the nearest object, which was probably a piece from the ship. “Fucking hell!”
Steve pulled away from the wall and slowly approached. When the other man didn’t notice him, stating into the darkness, Steve made a point of shoving a piece of metal with his foot. The other man whirled around and raised something – a gun – towards him, as well as a flashlight.
“Hi,” Steve said slowly. “I’m not a threat. I… heard you crash.”
The weapon didn’t move, but the light did, pointing at his face. Steve stopped and waited. He didn’t want to get shot, on top of everything. From the side he heard something – shuffling steps – and then another person appeared in the flickering lights from the working pads of the hovercraft. It was a man with a blood-stained face and curly brown hair. He looked at Steve and then seemed to realize Steve shouldn’t be there and jumped a little. “Who’s he?”
“No idea,” the man with the gun growled. “Who are you?”
“My name is Steve,” Steve said. Surnames had stopped existing a long time ago. “I heard you crash,” he repeated. “I came to see if I could help.”
“Heard us crash?” the second man asked, stepping towards him. Steve could make out a frown on his face. He guessed this was Bruce. “Is there another ship?”
“No, just me,” Steve told them. “Would you put that down?” he asked the man with the gun. “Unless you would rather not, since I’m the intruder here.”
“If there’s no other ship then where the hell did you come from?” the first man asked him, shifting the gun to better point at Steve’s chest.
“The surface,” Steve shrugged.
“There’s nothing on the surface,” Bruce argued.
“There’s not much here, either,” Steve pointed out and looked at them both – then registered the sound of someone else exiting the damaged hovercraft; the woman he had heard on the communicator, no doubt.
“Who’s he?” she asked.
“No idea,” the man with the gun replied.
“I’m Steve,” Steve offered again.
“Where did he come from?” the woman repeated the big question.
“Surface, he says,” Bruce mused, still frowning.
“Are you from Zion?” Steve asked in return, wanting to bring something familiar into the discussion – something familiar to these people. Not that he expected them to be from anywhere else, and he briefly wondered at which point during the history-repeating-itself cycle they were living in.
“Yeah,” the man with the gun admitted, lowering the weapon slightly, but not enough to not be able to shoot Steve if he felt the need. “Where else?”
“Good point,” Steve agreed.
“Are you not from Zion?” Bruce asked. Clearly, he wasn’t stupid, and the way he kept studying Steve’s face felt like he was being dissected and reassembled.
“Sort of,” Steve answered. “It’s… complicated. I can lead you to the nearest access-point to more frequently used tunnels if your communications are down.”
“What’s in it for you?” the man holding the gun asked and lifted the weapon slightly once more.
“Well, if you have any extra provisions, those would be welcome. Like you said, there’s nothing on the surface. Any food you have, I’m happy to take, but if not, I’ll still lead you to a place where you can hopefully contact your people.”
“Our people?” the woman repeated. “I’m not sure I trust you. Easier to have Clint here put a bullet in you and go off on our own. We know which way to go.”
“I know shortcuts,” Steve offered.
“I vote for the bullet,” the man, Clint, stated.
“You know of Zion, but I haven’t seen you there,” Bruce mused. “Not that I know everyone there, but… Why would you rather stay out here? There’s… nothing out here,” he motioned at the dark tunnel.
“Like I said, it’s complicated.”
“Then un-complicate it,” Clint suggested.
“Or you’ll shoot me?” Steve confirmed. He didn’t sound as scared as he should, and the woman immediately picked up on that fact.
“He’s holding a gun at you and you’re not afraid. Why? Do you have friends waiting, ready to pillage the ship?”
“I’m alone,” Steve stated as genuinely as he could, and allowed himself a sad little laugh. “I’ve been alone for so long it’s probably not healthy for a human being, because isolation is… not a condition we handle very well.”
“But it’s better than living in Zion?” Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“For a time.”
“And when the time’s up?”
“I usually migrate back to Zion and make myself useful there.”
Clint still didn’t buy it, or the woman, but Bruce held up a hand at them. “Okay, Steve,” he said. “If we can’t get the ship fixed, or the communications, we’ll take you up on your offer to show us to the nearest tunnel that the other ships may be using. Maybe we can even cook up a transmission device and send for help. You’re welcome to the resources we have after we’ve taken what we need for our journey back.”
“Why are you offering him anything?” Clint asked. “We don’t know him.”
“He’s a human being. Besides, I get a good vibe from him,” Bruce shrugged and turned. In the weak light, Steve could see the familiar black dots on his skin, the most prominent ones half-hidden by his hair at the base of his skull.
Clint lowered his gun and scowled at him, then shrugged. “Whatever. If you try to murder us in our sleep, I’ll have Natasha here give you the most memorable goodbye of your life – or what’s left of it, at that point.”
Steve nodded. “Fair enough.”
They all returned to the ship, and Steve looked around. Memories flooded his mind, but he locked them away, taking a good look at his new friends instead. All of them carried the familiar marks of the pods on them. “You’re all Redpills,” he noted as they moved around, gathering items and checking on the ship’s systems. A burnt smell hung in the air, and there might have been fires burning still, further inside the vessel.
“What do you know about that?” Clint asked as he tugged a panel off the wall and peered inside at the wires and flashing lights.
“I know what the Matrix is, although I’ve never been there, obviously,” Steve noted. He looked up as Bruce came by, dragging along a dead body; one of their crewmembers, no doubt. He moved to give him a hand.
“You make it sound like you’d like to visit the Matrix,” Bruce noted as they set the body down in a separate room. “You’re also not squeamish about a dead body,” he added, as if that was more important.
“I’ve… fought in a war. I’ve seen plenty of bodies,” Steve admitted. “Eventually, you just stop paying attention to how they make you feel.” He looked at the other man. “Yes, I’m curious about the Matrix. After all this time… I mean, it’s like this place everyone else has been to, but not you, and you never get the inside jokes.”
Bruce gave him a half-hearted smile. “You make it sound like a vacation.”
“I’ve met people who wanted to go back,” Steve noted as they moved back to the hallway and approached the mess. There were items all over the floor, just like elsewhere on the ship, from the crash landing. Bruce reached up to a cabinet and discovered a mug on a shelf, then placed it under a dispenser and squirted some rather disgusting looking pale substance in it. He found a spoon on the floor and offered both to Steve, who took them without hesitation. He recalled what the food on board the hovercrafts had been like when he was last living in Zion, and he was too hungry to care about its appalling appearance.
“It would seem you’ve done a lot of things,” Bruce mused.
Steve gave him a nod and continued to shovel in the food. With no next meal in sight, his starving body embraced every drop; half the time he was amazed he hadn’t simply fallen into a coma in between intakes of sustenance, but the super-soldier serum kept him going even though it didn’t remove the bottomless pit of hunger.
“Would you like to come back to Zion with us?” the other man asked at length, after Steve had polished off the mug. Bruce reached out his hand and Steve handed the mug over with some regret – only to have it returned to him full of the same gelatinous substance.
He gave Bruce a smile and dug in. “Maybe,” he said between spoonfuls. “It’s been a while since I saw another person. Guess I’m a little starved for both food and company.”
“You know it’s really suspicious that you’re out here on your own,” Bruce pointed out.
“You don’t know why I’m here,” Steve noted, then met the serious eyes and guessed he might as well ask: “Have they discovered the One yet?”
Bruce blinked, and for a moment Steve guessed they hadn’t. He had lost count of the days and years, and the last time he had visited Zion, there had only been prophesies of the coming of the One.
“You mean Neo?” Bruce replied suddenly, startling Steve out of his musings. “That was… a long time ago. You know there’s a truce, right? Between humans and Machines?”
Steve would have dropped the mug, but his body craved the food so much he didn’t think he could let go of the half-full dish even if he wanted to. “A truce?”
Bruce nodded. “Neo went to Machine City, when the Machines attacked Zion. He brokered for a truce. There’s been peace ever since.”
“You mean Zion wasn’t destroyed?”
Bruce’s frown returned. “Well, I know a lot of people thought that would happen, but… no. I’m not saying there’s absolute peace, but we don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us, and whoever wants to leave the Matrix is allowed to do so.”
Steve’s head reeled. The circle had been broken. This… Neo… had done what the others could not: instead of leading Zion to destruction despite the promises and prophesies, he had managed to save Zion.
“Yes,” Steve finally managed. “I would like to come to Zion with you.” Perhaps after all this time, he could find a little peace of his own.
Steve finished his dinner, and Bruce filled his mug for a third time, then led them out of the mess. Clint and Natasha had taken apart half the cockpit, it seemed. The pads were all turned off, leaving the tunnel in full darkness, while inside the lights were on low.
“I think we managed to construct a beacon to send a message back to Zion,” Clint announced. “We’ll give it time to work, and then hike back if it doesn’t.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Bruce admitted.
Natasha looked at the two of them and stared at Steve eating his third portion. “I’ve never seen anyone enjoy that sludge as much as you are.”
“Try going without food for a few months,” Steve countered; he was in too good of a mood to censor himself.
All three gave him weird looks, then unanimously seemed to decide he was joking. Bruce tugged on Steve’s sleeve. “Unless you can help them, let’s go pack up my lab.”
“Yeah,” Bruce rubbed the back of his neck. “I was a scientist in the Matrix and I guess that carried over.” They entered a room situated behind and to the left of the cockpit, which looked just as messy as everywhere else, but at least there were no bodies or signs of explosions. There were, however, gadgets and tools that took Steve’s mind back to Tony Stark’s lab for a moment, and he just stared. “It’s the best collection of tools I’ve been able to collect, and I won’t be leaving all of it behind if we have to go on foot,” Bruce said resolutely. He sat at a computer terminal and switched on the screen, then started tapping commands.
“What’s your field?” Steve asked, proud of himself that he selected such an appropriate word after all these years.
“In the Matrix, radiation. Here… well, I’ve done this and that. I especially like to study the connection between the human body and the Matrix – you know, after you’ve been redpilled,” he replied. “You can’t just hook up your body to a machine and think that your mind is the only thing that is affected. Just like if you die out there, you die here, and… you probably don’t want to hear about that,” he added, looking at Steve. “I know most natural-born aren’t into it, although they work with Redpills all the time. They like knowing how to make things click, but that’s it.”
Steve slid a hand over one of the tables. “Theoretically speaking, could you install a headjack into a person who doesn’t have one?”
“Theoretically… Well, the Machines did that, so, yes,” Bruce replied.
“So, then… you could maybe give me one?” Steve went on.
Bruce turned his chair around to look at him and Steve met his eyes. “Was that really a rhetorical question?”
“I’ve always wanted to see it. The Matrix.” Steve wished to live in a world he had been forced to leave behind, instead of the barren wasteland and the dark skies.
“It’s not worth it,” Bruce noted.
“We could have a debate over that. You’ve been there. You’ve… had that life.”
“And I’m glad I’m away from that life. It’s a lie, Steve.”
“I like to think of it as a memory,” he shrugged. “It’s…”
“Complicated?” Bruce frowned. “Is that why you’re staying away from Zion? Said the wrong things to the wrong people?”
“No,” Steve shook his head. “You’re the first person I’ve ever posed that question to – because you’re the only person who’s clearly spent time studying the subject.” He nodded at all the drawings and schematics on the walls, detailing the headjack and its connection to the human brain.
“The Matrix… Even if it were possible, physically, no one could survive the procedure. I’m pretty sure even the Machines have to build them into the fetuses…”
“They experimented, in the beginning,” Steve corrected him. “On humans of all ages, from babies to adults; tweaked and tried to find the perfect balance as they mapped the humans’ response to stimuli. That was before the pods, and the fields.”
“You know you sound insane, right?”
“But you sound like you want to believe me.” Steve met his eyes. “I met you, for the first time, less than an hour ago. You’re already having an internal debate over whether you’ll be able to convince me to lie down on a table and go through with it.”
“No,” Bruce shook his head and jerked back against the table behind him, but he didn’t spring up from his chair and escape the room.
“Yes,” Steve insisted. “And I will, if you know what you’re doing.” He looked at the drawings on the walls again. “I want to see it. I want to live the lie, even for a moment, to survive another couple centuries here. I… want to pretend the life I remember is still there, for a few seconds.”
“The life you remember…”
“I was born on the fourth of July, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. I fought in World War II – which I’m not sure the Matrix told you about – and then spent almost seventy years asleep in the ice before I was rediscovered. I saw the creation of the Artificial Intelligence that later took over the world and made humanity into its own personal fuel cell. I’ve seen… I’ve been to Zion, lived in Zion, for longer than you’ve been alive.”
The other man stared at him in absolute silence. Steve didn’t interrupt whatever thought process was taking place in Bruce’s brain. “You know that’s… impossible, right?” the scientist finally spoke up, sounding a little choked.
“I’ve never met a person who knows what year it actually is,” Steve countered. “Not that I know, either. The days sort of blur into months, and months into years, when you have no calendar to hold onto, or a sun to look at.” He glanced towards the ceiling. “I miss the sun. I wonder if the one in the Matrix is similar to the real thing. The people who have described it never understood what I was really looking for when I asked them about the Matrix.”
Bruce blinked and leaned forward in his chair, elbows propped on his knees and fingers curling together under his chin. “I’ve seen some messed up people who didn’t exit properly. Brain damage. False memories. Sometimes the Matrix glitched, and… None of them sound like you. I mean, they believe it, but you… are different.”
“I would ask if you believe in superheroes, but I already know the Matrix was pretty strict about that part of the history.”
“Yeah. People with… special abilities.”
“Like the One?”
“A bit. Just, different, depending on the person. Not that there were many of us,” he noted.
“Us?” Bruce repeated. “You think you’re a superhero?”
“Do I look like someone who hasn’t been eating properly for decades?” Steve pointed at his body. Sure, he wasn’t in peak condition, but none of the people on this ship were a match to his physique.
“I’m starting to think you’re a talented liar,” Bruce countered and leaned back in his chair, giving him a speculative look.
“Or a madman,” Steve offered. “After all, I have blind faith that my story is a true one. Those are the ones you should be really worried about.”
“But they don’t usually realize their condition, since their version of the truth is the one they live in,” Bruce met his challenge.
“Thus, I must be the real deal,” Steve noted dryly. “Not that I think you’ll believe me, but…”
“It doesn’t matter whether I believe you or not,” Bruce countered. “How about this: if we get back to Zion and you come with us – instead of slaughtering us all before the rescue gets here – we’ll see about that very controversial operation to give you a data port. Which will probably kill you, but since you’re already insane, I’m not sure if letting you live this horrible fantasy is more merciful than ending it.”
“Deal,” Steve smiled tightly, and they shook on it. And Bruce was right: Steve had seen enough. If the experiment failed, he could finally enjoy the dreamless sleep of death. If it was a success… he would get to glimpse the world the Machine had built, and if it resembled anything like his past, Steve would be happy to stay there for a while.
to be continued…
Chapter 2: The Avenger
Steve kept his eyes closed. He could almost envision it… how it had once been. From below, he could hear the sounds of New York City buzzing with life; car horns, traffic, people. His fingers tightened against the edge of his shield, the vibranium firm beneath his grip, and his uniform hugged his body like a comforting cocoon. It wasn’t the one he had worn before, but it carried some of the old colors – red, white and blue – and some less obvious symbols.
Steve gave up the illusion and opened his eyes. The city skyline was much the same, yet different. A lot like when he had awoken from the ice instead of the world he remembered just before the Machine War started.
The Matrix was so much like what he had hoped it would be, bringing to life memories that were buried deep in his mind. Of course he knew it was only an illusion; a myriad of programs and hallucinations. For whatever reason, it reminded him of Tony’s workshops, especially the ones post-Extremis.
He turned and looked at Clint standing at ease behind him. His clothing was dark, hugging his form, leaving his arms bare. He had a quiver strapped to his back and a bow in his hand – not a wooden bow, a highly mechanized one. Steve had never seen anyone use a bow the way Clint did, and the specially programmed trick arrows accomplished more than simple weapons could dream of. Anyone who had ever dared to laugh at Clint’s choice of a weapon had come to regret it in short order.
The archer’s sharp eyes regarded Steve, waiting for his response. In the time they had known each other, since that day their ship crashed in the tunnels in the real world, Steve had learned that Clint’s senses were almost as sharp as his own in the Matrix, and he saw things no one else could.
However, it seemed Clint never assumed to see everything that Steve did.
“Time to go?” Steve asked, adjusting his grip on the shield. It was still painted in the old, bright colors, with the star in the middle. He had no idea how that was possible because the shield hadn’t been ‘coded’ to him or his gear, not once, but it was always there, waiting for him, when he entered the Matrix. None of the others had been able to explain it – or how it was every bit as strong as the real vibranium had been.
“Soon,” Clint confirmed with a sharp, minimal nod, then looked out past him – at the spot Steve tended to stare at more than most.
The spot where Stark Tower used to reside, but didn’t exist in the Matrix.
Steve heard a sound from the other side of the roof they were standing on, and Natasha came into view, her red hair longer here, reaching half-way down her back. Sometimes it was curly, but today it was straight and flaming under the sun’s rays. She wore a catsuit, the black clinging to her body, belts at her waist and weapons strapped to every part of her body. Here, she was covert and lethal, her light body filled with agility that sometimes surpassed Steve’s own.
Natasha gave Steve one, brief look, nodded in greeting and then settled to stand beside Clint. They looked good together, Steve noted – not for the first time – and he knew that it was an ongoing joke that their Operator gave them the best toys and tricks. Considering that the two of them were in a relationship with said Operator, Steve didn’t doubt the truth behind the joke.
Behind Clint and Natasha, two more people joined them, moving with less agility and stealth than the rest of them. Bruce looked around, squinting in the sunlight; he and Jane had been working indoors for most of their trip, establishing some kind of transmitter that would speed up their connection to the Matrix.
The two of them formed the ‘scientific team’ of Steve’s crew. Most of the time he couldn’t understand a thing they were saying, but he liked to listen anyway; it reminded him of the life that he used to have, and some brilliant people he’d had the privilege to work with.
Jane shook her head, brown hair swaying softly at the motion, and looked at Steve with a half-smile while murmuring to Bruce, “How does he pull that off, seriously? That outfit would look ridiculous on anyone else.”
“You should have seen the one I used to wear,” Steve cracked. “This one is a more toned down version than what I… wore in the beginning.” The USO shows… Sometimes, if Steve forgot to pinch himself, it felt like that life was a dream; most things about his past had lost the grittiness and sharpness that separated actual memories from dreams and trips to the Matrix. “Let’s head back to an exit point,” Steve decided.
Clint was the first to move back towards the stairs, Natasha right behind him. Jane followed them while Bruce remained standing, hands in his pockets, looking out over the city.
“Is something wrong?” Steve asked.
Bruce’s brown eyes glanced at him, up and down, lingering on the shield before aiming at his face again. “You know those religious texts some cults worship? The way they… describe the moment you are faced with something greater than yourself – something supernatural, almost.”
“Yeah,” Steve replied. He had never believed in any of it, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant of them.
“I had a bit of that, the day we met. I couldn’t dissect it then, and I’m not sure I want to do it now, either. Mostly I thought you were the craziest son of a bitch I’d ever met, to let me strap you down, drill a hole into your skull and try to implant a data port into your brain. When you sat up a few days later and stretched like after a particularly long sleep, I wasn’t sure which of us was the crazy person. And then I saw you enter the Matrix for the first time,” he added.
“I thought that went pretty well,” Steve frowned, remembering. He had gone through some orientation Constructs, but he had still felt the difference between those and the real deal.
“Oh, it went better than the first trip of anyone I’ve seen,” Bruce snorted. “And then that shield was there, and the uniform, and I felt like I was looking at something I’m not devout enough to understand. That feeling hasn’t passed, and it makes me a little bit uneasy.”
Steve moved to lay a hand on the other man’s shoulder, squeezing. “Just don’t go building an altar outside my quarters; that might be a bit uncomfortable for everyone else.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” Bruce smiled wryly.
Steve left it at that, because what else was there? He knew he was the only person alive who had been implanted with the means to enter the Matrix; he hadn’t been birthed by the Machines. Well, he was also the only person alive who had seen the time before the Machines, but that was a less commonly known fact. People tended to get uneasy and give him that ‘you’re insane’ look if he let it slip.
“Have I told you of Frankenstein’s monster?” Steve mused as he and Bruce followed the others down into the building and back to a room that had a land line.
“They have that in the Matrix,” Bruce told him. It seemed the Machines had kept a lot of things the same, censoring only here and there to accomplish some intricate goal. “Are you referring to me as Frankenstein, and you the monster?”
“I guess I just like to think that we did a lot better than Frankenstein,” Steve observed. He knew the procedure could have gone wrong in dozens of ways. Almost all of them would have left him dead, brain-dead or possibly given Steve a personality disorder so severe he might have not known himself anymore. But even with all odds against them, Bruce had given Steve the means to see what lay on the ‘other side’, and he was glad they had both taken the risk.
As they reached their Exit location, the others were already gathered around a table with a black rotary dial telephone sitting on top of it. It always amused Steve how the Redpills needed to depend on old-fashioned technology to get their consciousnesses back home. So much for the future and wireless information.
Knowing that they had been here long enough, Steve raised a hand to his left ear, with an earpiece firmly in place. “Operator, call us in.”
“Roger that, Captain Rogers,” their Operator’s cheerful voice replied. Steve did not roll his eyes like he used to in the beginning: Darcy insisted on making that joke almost every time, if things had gone according to plan. When there was trouble, though, the young woman pulled herself together and that was why Steve had chosen her as his Operator. Well, she had also chosen him, seeing as not many people lined up to hang around Steve.
That only meant his crew was all the more special for the fact that they stuck around.
The phone began to ring. Jane picked it up first, as was their mutual agreement. She vanished a moment later, and Steve caught the handset as it began to fall down, carefully placing it back on top of the phone. It began ringing again just seconds later, and Bruce was the next to pick it up, vanishing as well. At the third round, Clint and Natasha exchanged looks.
“Ladies first,” Clint insisted.
Natasha gave the room a wary look, as if expecting danger the moment she picked up the handset. “I’ll see you on the other side,” she said then and leaned in to give Clint a quick kiss before picking up the phone and disappearing.
Clint caught the handset this time, set it down and squared his shoulders. He briefly looked at Steve, just as the phone began ringing again. Steve gave him a nod, and Clint repeated the familiar maneuver.
As Steve stood alone, he debated on not picking up the phone. However, such a childish desire to hide in this fake world was unnecessary when he could come visit it again, soon, and he had a duty to the people waiting on the other side. So, he lifted the handset to his ear, heard a strange, mechanical sound and opened his eyes to the bleak gray interior of the ship a moment later. A worn, faded paper taped to the ceiling greeted his eyes, with stick figures drawn onto a setting that could be described as an attempt to depict an island paradise.
“All aboard,” Darcy grinned from her chair, brown hair just as unruly as always. “Welcome back, Cap.”
Steve gave her half a smile as someone pulled the data probe from his head. The sensation was strangely cold and hot at the same time, but not really painful. He turned his head while getting used to his real body once more – not that different from the one in the Matrix, whereas the others seemed to go over a greater transformation.
To his left, Jane was already in the embrace of a large man with a blond mane of hair, her mouth moving a mile a minute as she described the success of their mission. It was clear the man did not understand most of it, but he worshipped all of Jane, including her brilliant mind. Thor was one of their natural-born crew members, and he was sworn to protect his fellow crewmembers when they were connected to the Matrix. The one thing you needed to know about Thor was that he took his promises seriously, and not just because the woman he was in love with happened to be a Redpill and went on regular visits to the neural-interactive virtual reality called the Matrix.
Steve sat up and got to his feet. He looked down at his arm, feeling the emptiness where the shield had been just moments ago. He wondered whether his shield would be waiting for him in the Matrix if he hadn’t lost it in the real world, but that was a question for another time, and he did not wish to ruin a good thing by over-analyzing it.
“We got a transmission from Zion,” another woman joined them. She was tall and dark-haired, and gave Bruce a quick, fond look before moving towards Steve with a piece of paper. “They asked us to head back, for those repairs we couldn’t do last time, and to give a report on the progress we’ve made.” Betty was their medic, something they had sorely needed before she joined the crew. Steve knew he had Bruce to thank for her being here, in some indirect way.
Steve nodded and gave her a smile of thanks. “Let’s go home, then.”
Clint and Thor moved towards the hovercrafts controls, and as the engines hummed into life, Steve laid a hand on the wall of The Avenger. Not the best ship in the world, but it allowed him the freedom to move around and feel useful once more.
“Are you feeling any nausea?” Betty asked from the side. “Light-headedness? Headaches?”
“No,” Steve replied. There had been headaches at first, but they had dissipated – probably the super-soldier serum adapting to the new object in his brain. “I’m feeling fine.”
She nodded briefly and disappeared. Bruce hung around for a moment before following her, perhaps to see if any of the equipment in their small med bay needed repairs – and to find an excuse to be around her.
Frankly, Steve wished his crew would stop acting as if they weren’t allowed to form connections. Steve knew, from personal experience, what waiting for too long felt like. You could lose everything in a heartbeat, and waiting for a ‘better time’ was an endless road. The way he saw it these days, after much time to polish that little nugget of wisdom, was to embrace the moment and the people in that moment.
He looked over at the Operator console where Natasha was standing behind Darcy. She was leaning in close, looking at the endless floating symbols falling across the screens in front of them; the Matrix, in all of its digital code glory. If Steve wanted to give himself a headache, he would try to decipher those codes – and fail – but at the same time it was incredible that those simple symbols created the world he had just stepped out of.
He spied Natasha’s hand resting on Darcy’s neck, fingers curling, thumb moving up along her jaw-line in a small caress. It felt strange, knowing how cold Natasha could be when something needed to be done, no matter how brutal, dangerous or gory. She wasn’t that different in real life, although she lacked the preternatural strength her avatar self had in the Matrix.
Deciding he could leave them to it for now, Steve headed down to the mess hall, got himself some of that rather disgusting goo that served as their only form of food, and sat down to enjoy it to the best of his ability. It was sustenance, and he shouldn’t think twice about it. At least he had something to eat.
One by one, the crewmembers joined him, for food or just sitting around in silence that was occasionally interrupted by murmured voices. It wasn’t like their usual dinners went, most of them loud and full of obnoxious statements, which meant they were gearing towards another pastime that united their little family.
“Tell us about it,” Jane started, her face earnest. The others waited, gathered around, as if Steve were their campfire.
Steve looked at his hands, thoughts rolling through his head. “The blue skies? The real sunshine filtered through a window of glass? The soft, clean sheets?”
Darcy moaned obscenely, closing her eyes, picturing it. She had never been to the Matrix, having been born here in the real world, and she had no idea what he was talking about, yet her imagination was better than most people’s he had met.
“Tell us about the first AI,” Clint’s voice joined them through the comm; he was piloting them towards Zion, but obviously he had been listening in.
“The predecessor of the Machines?” Steve quirked an eyebrow. “Or JARVIS, the first AI?”
“JARVIS,” Bruce decided. “Tell us about Tony.”
“Iron Man,” Darcy grinned. “It sounds so… silly.”
“It was silly until you met him,” Steve said, looking at all of them, then got lost in the memories. He was thankful to his crew, sometimes, for making him talk about the past, because that way he would not forget.
He had nightmares about forgetting.
“I met him soon after they thawed me from the ice. I was angry and sad. Depressed. I had lost everything and the world I saw around me was futuristic and almost hostile. It was not how I had imagined it, either. It wasn’t advanced enough.”
A couple people chuckled around him, but didn’t interrupt. As Steve looked around, he could see them leaning on each other or any available surface, relaxed, trying to picture what he was seeing. Jane had rolled herself up in Thor’s wide chest, and Darcy was playing with Natasha’s shoulder-length hair. Bruce and Betty were almost brushing against each other.
“Then I saw Iron Man, and it felt like that was the first thing that matched my ideas of what the future would be like: advanced technology, flashy moves, someone doing things no one else could match. He was also a superhero, in every sense of the word. When I met Tony, however – when the armor came off – we were constantly at each other’s throats.”
Clint’s voice chuckled through the speakers.
“I couldn’t stand this prideful, full-of-himself guy, who had no regard for anyone else’s feelings, and who was all about style. But he was the most brilliant person I had ever met, which was even more intimidating, and it took us a long time to get past the hostilities between us. It helped, though, that we had to save the world, repeatedly.
“I met JARVIS… well, you can’t really meet him. He’s everywhere, and he’s nowhere; in Tony’s suit, in his homes, his workshops, even his cars and phones. At first I thought maybe it was another person, and I felt deceived when I realized it was just a program. When I told Tony that, he wouldn’t speak to me for two weeks. Apparently I had insulted both his brilliance and JARVIS’ feelings, although JARVIS did assure me that he had not taken offense.
“So, I revised my attitude, bit by bit. JARVIS was more human than most people I ever met because he had the capability to weigh every opinion he had. He could calculate outcomes and likelihoods, and if given the chance, he could have a discussion of morality with you that left you a bit breathless from the depths to which such a discussion could go.”
Steve thought of those long, dark nights when their latest mission was still too fresh in his mind and he needed a distraction. Tony had his lab, his bots, his work, but Steve could only work out his already sore body in hopes of hitting the hay – until he was too worn out to move.
Instead, he had sat down on the floor and talked to JARVIS.
“When they created the AI, I imagined a world filled with others like JARVIS – but they were nothing like him. They were dumb, lacked emotional depth, and while they later constructed a concept of their own right to exist, it never felt the same. Maybe it would have taken a little more time – or a little more love.”
“Tony loved his AI?” Darcy asked. “That sounds… kinky.”
“Oh, I’m sure they had much love between them,” Steve smiled. “Tony gave JARVIS the ability to grow, to advance, to learn. No matter how heated their banter got, I always knew JARVIS would remain loyal to his creator, and Tony, for his part, would never have a better friend.” His lips twitched at that, his mind jumping ahead. “I kept hoping, when I heard that Tony had gone to Zero One, that the war could be averted. I had already lived through one war, and I had no desire to see another. I thought that Tony could show the AI that humanity had more to give them than violence and discrimination – but then the bombs dropped.”
He looked at the tabletop, feeling his eyes mist a little. “I think it was better that he died that day. He didn’t have to see the war, didn’t have to feel torn to choose a side.”
“Which side would he have chosen?” Betty asked.
Steve looked up at her. “It’s not for me to judge, but I think, in the end, he felt he had more in common with the AI than the human race that had betrayed him, time and time again, to serve its own ends.”
Betty pursed her lips. She didn’t come up with objections anymore, and sat down with the rest of them, but in the beginning she had not believed anything Steve said. Maybe she thought his stories were as good as any others, or she wanted to be there because Bruce never missed these little gatherings.
“The Extremis,” Bruce spoke up when no one else did. “It enabled Tony to communicate with the machines?”
“Yes,” Steve nodded. “His connection to the suit was his main concern, but I know it went beyond that. When you can see through satellites…”
“So, you could say he became a machine at heart?” Betty ventured.
Bruce gave her a quick, warning look.
Steve, however, had had that discussion in his head a hundred times now, wondering what it would have been like should Tony have survived. “A heart is a complex thing. I think Tony just chose what was a natural extension of himself. What he was destined to become. After all…” He didn’t finish – didn’t point at himself – but he knew many people had once believed Steve Rogers had been destined to become Captain America.
A fat lot of good that had done the world, in the end…
“We should get some sleep,” Natasha finally decided. “I’ll join Clint at the controls. Thor, will you relieve us in about five hours?”
“I shall,” Thor nodded and rose, pulling Jane along with him.
“Good night,” Jane called out to them before they disappeared.
“I have a few calculations,” Bruce started.
“You need to rest,” Betty argued. “You can run the numbers later.”
It was always a toss-up whether Bruce would do as he was told; he had a vicious temper when he got pissed, like an angry beast inside him was just waiting to be unleashed. Being told what to do, when he didn’t want to do those things, was one way to bring out the uglier side of his personality. But perhaps the numbers weren’t that important, or Betty’s imploring eyes melted his defenses, because he nodded and got up, telling Steve good night and taking his leave, Betty waiting a few seconds before doing the same.
Natasha and Darcy got up next, heading in the direction of the cockpit, leaving Steve alone with his thoughts and memories. At times it felt unacceptable that his life had been whittled down to stories around a campfire, but all that time was behind him now and it didn’t really matter whether it was real or not. Well, it mattered to him, and in a way he felt like it mattered to his crew as well.
The Avenger continued to fly towards the last city of mankind, and Steve guessed he should try to get some shut-eye before they got there.
to be continued…