God Switch • Chapter 7 (page 1)
Chapter 7: Plan of Attack
Boots scraped against hard stone. Above, the skies flashed and a bolt of lightning crashed down, reaching towards the barren earth.
Tony kept his eyes fixed on the terrain ahead of them because if he lost his concentration, he would stop and look back at the Machine City. Watching would lead to the overwhelming tidal wave of emotions, and he would subconsciously reach out for some resemblance of comfort – which would lead the Machines right to them.
They had managed to get out of the City undetected; no one called it a miracle, although Steve’s companions looked relieved and suspicious both, depending on how far ahead they had thought. Tony kept his mouth shut, to the best of his ability, not giving them any more to go on.
The single reason why they had gotten this far was that Tony had the advantage of knowing the Machines’ every move. As they searched for him through the city, aware that he had been taken, Tony kept track of every burst of data and made sure they wouldn’t run across a search party. It was giving him a headache and he felt a little weak, but he supposed that would pass.
He’d had a long time to learn that most things would pass if given enough time.
The lightning roared above them in the unnatural sky. Tony raised his eyes, just a little, feeling a shudder run through him. This was the gift humanity had bestowed upon itself. He felt like doubling over and laughing at the idiotic solution, but luckily the feeling of regret was sharper and kept his mood at bay.
His foot slipped a little on the bare rock and he lowered his gaze, focusing. He wasn’t wearing actual shoes – something his companions must have missed when they dragged him out. His feet, legs and upper body were draped in a material that reminded him of the undersuit, blocking away the cold but not doing much to keep the sharp edges from digging into the soles of his feet. His bare arms absorbed the cold wind that whipped past them, but he didn’t feel the actual cold; the Extremis was still working to full effect.
“We should be getting close,” the large blond called Thor stated. The rumble of his voice was cut off by thunder near the end.
“Maybe we should backtrack, to make sure we’re not being followed,” the untrusting red-head, Natasha, suggested.
“We don’t have the time,” Steve decided. “We’re tired and there has been no sign of a single Machine for days.”
“Convenient,” Natasha huffed, her eyes flying to Tony for the briefest moment.
Tony felt like telling her that she had no idea what she was talking about, but he chose not to react. He had gotten this far, and he wasn’t going to compromise his freedom just because people kept hitting too close to home. Besides, Steve didn’t seem concerned for the time being, and as long as he was the man in charge, Tony would be protected.
Not that he needed protection.
It was these people who needed to be protected from him, and what he would bring amongst them…
The itch to look back at the city he had once known as Zero One was almost unbearable, and Tony had poor impulse control to begin with, so before he knew it, he had looked over his shoulder, and even though they were further away and the terrain blocked most of the view, he could still see the jagged edges, the towers, the raw power rattling and climbing over building surfaces before being sucked inside like air into lungs. That was only the visual side of things, of course, and Tony’s mind automatically tuned in to feel the endless chains of data passing, and in a heartbeat the AI – or what used to be the AI and was now so much more – moved to establish a connection.
Tony started, forcing himself out of reach and blocking the incoming request.
“Tony?” Steve asked, concern in his voice. He was looking at him, eyes begging for Tony to do something his lips could not ask for. What that was, exactly, Tony wasn’t sure. However, Steve knew him – had known him – and perhaps in some dark corner of his mind he couldn’t deny an assumption that Tony had played his part in the Machine War. How close he guessed, Tony didn’t know, but they had to talk about it, as soon as possible. Especially when Steve’s crewmembers weren’t gullible fools or stupid grunts who simply followed orders.
“We need to keep moving,” Tony replied, his mind comfortably shielded from the AI. The Machines would know he had left the City, and they needed to be gone when they widened their search.
No one argued, but it didn’t mean they liked it.
Another few hours of walking and one torrent of horrible tasting rain delivered them to a ship of some kind. It was hidden between two rock formations, its gray hull hiding it from prying eyes. To Tony, however, it was a flashing neon sign, even when mostly powered down.
A ramp opened, letting out two people – a tall, dark-haired woman and a man he had encountered in the Matrix. “Robin Hood,” Tony inclined his head.
The man almost dropped his weapon and perfectly copied Natasha’s trademark stare of suspicion. “Is he –?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said tersely. “Cap refused to leave him.”
“You found him in the Machine City?” the tall woman asked, taking a step forward.
“A prisoner of war,” Bruce offered, giving Tony a sideways glance. Whether he was covering up for him with the comfortable version of the truth or trying to see whether Tony agreed or argued, it was hard to tell.
“Did they experiment on you?” the woman asked.
“You could call it that,” Tony offered a bit uneasily. He would rather not think about it.
“We should take him to the medical bay, run some scans,” the woman proceeded, professionally. “Bruce, will you join me?”
“Sure, Betty,” Bruce agreed and motioned for Tony to follow. “If you don’t mind, Captain,” he added.
Steve hesitated, but Tony gave him a quick, easy smile. “It’s fine, Rogers.”
Before them, the ship suddenly came to life. Several round panels fixed to its hull crackled with blue energy and Tony’s eyes shot out to figure out the tech. It didn’t take him very long to decipher why these things were called ‘hovercrafts’.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” Bruce asked.
“No,” Tony replied.
“Don’t worry, they’re quite reliable,” the scientist reassured him, and Tony met his eyes before looking back at the ship. He wondered if Bruce would have difficulty comprehending that the technology that enabled the hovercraft to fly around had Stark Industries written all over it. Of course, that name wouldn’t mean anything to anyone anymore, but it made him a little nostalgic.
“Get inside!” another woman shouted from the interior. This one had been in the Matrix, too, and Thor marched over to her swiftly, engulfing her in an embrace she willingly met. They kissed heatedly, desperately, and Tony’s stomach ached at the longing for physical closeness with another person.
It amazed him that he still remembered it at all; that every touch hadn’t been digitalized or replaced by metallic extensions of the Machines that had taken care of him.
He blinked out of it and followed Bruce up the ramp and into the ship. They were barely inside when the entire thing shifted, the sound of engines increasing, and Tony knew they were heading off towards the tunnels that used to be the sewers of great human cities.
“This way,” Bruce motioned and Tony followed him into a hallway, briefly looking over his shoulder at the anxious, guarded face of Steve Rogers before the man headed another way, leaving Tony alone with Bruce and Betty.
- - -
Thor took the controls from Clint after they were safely inside the sewers once more. Natasha collected her two lovers to recount their adventure to and from the Machine City; while most of the mission had been uneventful, the suspense that had hung over them all was slow to dissipate.
Thor, too, found himself tense and in need of a way to wind down. Jane sat with him for a time before heading to check on their gear, to make sure nothing had broken during their escape from the City. Clint, Darcy and Natasha had vanished somewhere, probably into their shared quarters. Thor smiled, thinking of their naked bodies entwined, knowing they needed a moment to come down from the high of success.
Well, perhaps not success: while they had found their captain’s long-lost friend, there had been no sign of the Weapon. Had they been sent on a false errand? Would Tony be able to help them discover the Weapon – or confirm it as only a rumor? Then again, the Oracle had told Steve that the Weapon was real, and that he must find it before anyone else; Thor supposed that meant this was the path they had to walk.
Steve came by the bridge a while later, appearing restless. His eyes searched the dark tunnel, tension making his posture rigid. It didn’t make Thor feel any less tense, and eventually he looked at his captain, acknowledging his presence. “Your friend… he seems well.”
“Considering that he’s been held captive since the Machine War began? Yes,” Steve agreed,
“What did the Machines want with him?” Thor asked next. He remembered the stories, of the first AI created by Tony Stark; of Iron Man the superhero; of Extremis.
“Only Tony knows the answer to that,” Steve sighed heavily.
“Does that frighten you?”
“Not as much as it should,” a rueful smile met his question. “You must understand, I am not gambling with the safety of my crew. You are my family, my responsibility, and if I thought Tony to be a threat, I would have never brought him on board The Avenger. You must believe this.”
Thor nodded. “It eases my mind to know this. He’s a stranger to me, a name from your past, and now that he’s here… it makes one wonder.”
“We will have answers, soon. I will speak to him, and then we will all know the truth.”
Thor didn’t think his captain a liar, but he wondered whether the truth Steve expected to hear would be the one he heard from Tony’s lips. He had to have faith, though, and he nodded. “Go see him. I’m certain our doctor has already satisfied her own curiosity.”
Steve nodded and left, his footsteps betraying the tension still firmly wedged inside him. Thor heard him speaking to someone, further down the passage – Jane, possibly – before the sounds disappeared altogether.
Focusing on piloting the ship, Thor kept a vigilant eye out for any sign of trouble. Depending on what the Machines had wanted with Tony Stark, they were not yet out of danger’s reach.
A light flashed on the console, indicating an incoming call. Thor frowned at it but flipped the channel open. “This is The Avenger,” he replied.
“Brother,” a voice replied instantly. “It’s fortunate you answered.”
“Loki?” Thor frowned and took a look around the empty cockpit. “I have not heard from –”
“Listen,” Loki interrupted him. He was speaking in a low voice, clearly leaning close to the microphone. “I need your help – and it may just be you need mine. You are still in Rogers’ crew, right?”
“I am,” Thor replied. “Are you in trouble?” Loki, his adopted brother, had been the type to get himself entangled in difficult situations. Often enough Thor’s bulk had been enough to solve those problems, but they had not seen each other in a long time and he wasn’t certain with whom Loki was flying these days.
“When I decided to call you, I landed myself in a shitload of trouble. Listen, and listen well; I don’t have a lot of time. I know you know of the Cleansers, and the Weapon. I know that your captain met with the Oracle, and got directions to find the Weapon.”
Thor tensed. “How do you know this?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Loki snapped. “I’m all for vanquishing the Machines, but I’m not certain whether the Weapon actually exists, or that we’re running after some shadow in the dark. I want out. I need to get out. I’m…” He hesitated, and Thor feared for a moment someone had caught him. “I don’t have the balls for the things these men are planning,” Loki finally admitted, which wasn’t like him.
Which meant something horrible was brewing.
“Where are you?” Thor asked. “I will come and get you.” He hesitated, minutely, uncertain whether his captain would agree. Family was important, however, and he knew Steve would respect that.
“I will give you coordinates. I don’t have much time and they might come looking for me…”
“Hide and wait. I will come for you,” Thor promised vehemently.
“You had better,” Loki snapped, but there was no real venom in his words. The younger man was afraid, and there was no power in the world that would keep Thor from trying to protect him.
The coordinates arrived, and he memorized them, then emptied the log. It would take them off-course, but as long as he sat at the controls, no one would notice. And, if they were fortunate, Loki would shed light on the Cleansers and their plans – and how they had found out about Steve’s meeting with the Oracle.
- - -
Steve headed down to the med bay after briefly talking to Thor and Jane. Clint, Darcy and Natasha were still behind closed doors, and Steve allowed them their brief moment of privacy. That left Betty and Bruce, who were both standing next to an examination table when Steve reached the med bay.
Tony had been stripped of the clothes he had been wearing when they found him. The replacement pair of loose, gray pants barely clung to his hips, ill-fitting. His upper body was bare, and Betty was running a small hand-held scanner over his chest area. Tony, clearly, didn’t like that, but he was distracting himself by bombarding Bruce with questions:
“So, you’re the smart guy,” Tony launched into what had to be another wave of quick-witted remarks.
“I guess,” Bruce answered slowly, as if he were unwilling, although he was clearly intrigued by Tony. Since the day they met, Steve hadn’t for a second thought of Bruce as an idiot, and thusly meeting someone of Tony’s obvious intellect was something else for him.
“What did you do, in the Matrix?” Tony asked next. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t beat around the bush; anyone could spy the headjack and umbilical ports on a person’s skin if they cared to look for details – and Steve knew Tony would spot such visible signs.
“I studied radiation,” Bruce replied. “I was… considered one of the best in my field. Not that it matters much,” he added with bitterness in his voice.
“It matters,” Tony told him. “You lived that life, in your mind. Your brain has stored all those details – and that’s where the most important parts of our life take place. Just because it wasn’t entirely real doesn’t make it meaningless.”
“Is that how the Machines think about it?” Bruce asked, a dangerous edge in his voice.
“They stopped thinking about it altogether, years ago,” Tony shot back. “The Machines are efficient. They don’t know… sentiment.” He hesitated at that point with a brief, thoughtful look on his face. Steve guessed that small slip of the tongue was somehow connected to why Tony was still alive. “When the War ended and the power plants were built, the Machines had mostly focused on how to use a human body’s bio-energy to their advantage. The problem was, for the body to bear fruit, the brain needed to be stimulated. Happy brain, more power. Thus, the Matrix was born.”
Both Bruce and Betty stood in a somewhat shocked silence, then Bruce noticed Steve in the doorway and jumped a little. “Do you need something, Captain?” he asked.
“A word with Tony,” Steve offered, stepping inside the rest of the way.
“More than a word, I reckon,” Tony teased.
Steve gave him a look. “It’s good to see you haven’t changed a bit in all these years.”
Tony just shrugged, then looked at Betty. “You got all you need, honey?”
She clearly didn’t like the endearment, but put away her tools. “The scans didn’t show any abnormalities,” she told Steve. “That is surprising, considering that I could find yours easily enough.” She cast another quick look at Tony. “He shouldn’t be alive,” she noted and then left, leaving Bruce to follow her out.
When they were gone, Steve closed the door firmly and took a look at Tony. “Nothing out of the ordinary, huh?” he challenged.
Tony gave him an innocent look, then dropped the act two seconds later. “Her fancy machines told her exactly what I wanted them to.”
“You haven’t changed on that front, either; still happy to manipulate everyone else’s toys.”
“Do you think they could handle the truth?” Tony asked him in return, and Steve could admit, at least to himself, that he had hoped Tony would find a way to fool the ship’s equipment, at least for now. “We need to talk, now,” Tony blurted after a bit, shifting his legs slightly on the table.
“Was it you, in the Matrix?” Steve threw out before Tony could go on, and met the brown set of eyes.
“Yes,” Tony replied. “Didn’t I tell you that?”
“But you weren’t jacked in,” Steve reminded him. “My crew is not compiled of idiots. When they accept it wasn’t a program modeled after you, I’ll look less like a freak for a second, for surviving the installation of the headjack into a healthy brain.”
For whatever reason, Tony looked incredibly guilty at that. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” Tony mused. “You always had such a… beautiful brain.” Steve was fairly certain it was supposed to be a joke, but Tony couldn’t bring his voice to the correct level to make it into one.
“I wouldn’t have found you if I hadn’t done it,” Steve reminded him. “Or, had Bruce do it.”
“Not smart enough to see the big picture, yet.” Tony hesitated for a second, then went on: “How much have you told them? About me and the Extremis?”
“I don’t think they believed half the stuff I said until we visited Malibu – and found you.” Steve still couldn’t believe it half the time. All these years, Tony had been there, and he had just… “Most of my ramblings were either speculation or war-stories. I don’t think they comprehend what the Extremis can do because I couldn’t, even on the best of days.”
Tony nodded slowly. “I assume you want all of it. The truth, I mean?”
“Can you make it short?” Steve asked. “We don’t have a whole lot of time to get our bearings before I have to tell them something.”
“Or the Machines find our trail.”
Steve tensed. “They’ll come?”
“They won’t stop,” Tony confirmed. “I… They’ll want me back. It’s not that they need me, don’t get me wrong, but…”
“They kept you alive this long.”
Tony let out a harsh, mirthless laugh. “It’s not like that. Steve, they saved me. The day I flew to Zero One, the AI told me in no uncertain terms that I had to survive. That I would. As much as they have no use for sentiment, they showed plenty of it with me. I helped give them life. They knew that. They never forgot – not even when the world went to hell.”
Steve nodded. It didn’t surprise him, and right now he was glad for it, because it meant he finally had Tony at his side, alive and well. “So they kept you alive when they destroyed the human race and put the rest of them in the pods. I understand you must feel incredibly guilty about it –”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Tony interrupted him. “What we just did was me escaping, for real. I couldn’t just walk out. They wouldn’t let me leave. Maybe if I had rebelled, I could have… but it was never worth it. Through their eyes, I saw my world being destroyed, and the only thing I could do, in the end, was to help them come up with a way that would save at least a small fraction of the people.” He stared at the opposite wall with an empty look in his eyes. “The Matrix… it wasn’t an accident. It was designed. Didn’t work at first, and thousands died; when the mind cannot live, the body won’t either. So I made it better. When things didn’t work, they asked for my counsel, and I gave it to them. I helped enslave humanity.”
It was clear this wasn’t the first time Tony had faced his demons. Only, this was probably the first time he did so with another person in the room. When was the last time he had seen another living being – the last time he had talked to someone with whom he couldn’t communicate with his Extremis-enhanced mind? After all, once upon a time, after Tony learned to control the Extremis, he had said it was both blissful and frustrating how he couldn’t touch a human mind with his, the way he touched JARVIS or one of his computers.
“What else could you have done?” Steve asked – not because he could accept all the things Tony had contributed to, but because he saw that there had been no better alternative. “The Machines… did they really need the humans as an energy source?”
“Do you want to know the answer?”
“No,” Tony confessed. “Not in the long run. As soon as the skies went dark, there were dozens of options to choose from. For the time being, harvesting energy from human bodies was the best, most viable option, but if they hadn’t perfected it, the symbiosis could have been severed.”
“Yet they didn’t sever it.”
“No,” Tony whispered. “They didn’t. I like to think, sometimes, that it was out of compassion to me, and the race I represented, but I’m not sure if they saw me as a human being to begin with. It was simply more convenient, even with all the issues.”
“The one percent of the human population that rejected the stable version of the Matrix; the people who had to be terminated, or let go, if they got too troublesome. That was why the One was created.” A sad smile appeared on his lips. “One of my better ideas, although I wished the cycle didn’t have to end in the decimation of Zion every time. There was no way around it, though, for the Machines, so…”
Steve blinked at him in horror. “You knew? About the genocide in Zion?”
Tony looked at him. His eyes were haunted, deep down, but it was an old wound that Tony had forced to heal, over and over. His mind had probably found a way to rationalize it. “Couldn’t actually escape my notice, cooped up as I was in the heart of things.”
“What about the Weapon?” Steve asked the burning question. “Is that just another ploy?”
“The ultimate Weapon to defeat the Machines,” Tony hummed, craning his neck, looking at the ceiling. He twisted his head from side to side, his neck cracking, and then slid off the table and turned to face Steve. “It exists,” he said. “The ‘God Switch’. Only…” he halted, raising a hand when Steve opened his mouth, “it’s a double-edged sword and you’re going to slit your own throat with it.”
“But if it’s used the right way,” Steve insisted, pulse picking up.
“There is no ‘right’ way, Steven,” Tony said sadly. “I don’t know who started the rumor about it – although I have a few ideas; that source needs to be quieted and destroyed. Anyway,” he added, before Steve could protest, “the thing is, you’ve been told only a limited version of the truth. The Weapon will indeed finish the war between man and Machine, but not in a way you and everyone else in Zion hope.” Tony’s eyes held Steve’s for a long moment, as if to make sure he was really paying attention. “I am the Weapon,” he said simply. “If you destroy me, the Machines will kill every last man, woman and child, and there will be no one left to rebuild Zion. Anyone who rejects the Matrix will doubtlessly be killed before the Machines come up with a more efficient power supply, and after that… the human race will become extinct. The War will be over.”
Steve blinked, his heart slowing down to a painful rhythm after the moment of excitement. “Are you sure?”
“I’m very sure,” Tony told him. His eyes were wide, honest, and not just a little bit afraid. Not afraid of Steve, obviously, but of the repercussions of someone else finding out. “I’m not going to say I’m the last thread of hope for the human race,” he added bitterly. “I’m not saying those things would happen. But I know there would be a backlash. After all, they call me ‘Creator’. Do you know what that means?”
“It means someone wants you to die, for their own ends,” Steve said. “Someone who’s willing to gamble on the existence of the human race. Someone who doesn’t care if we all burn.” He considered it. “Someone who’s not human.”
“Which shouldn’t be possible, but sons have been known to kill their fathers before, and the Machines possess a lot of bedtime stories from the dark ages,” Tony nodded along. “I need to find out who’s been plotting my death.”
“Couldn’t you do that from the Machine City?” Steve asked. He didn’t regret finding Tony, not for a second, but he had to ask the obvious questions before someone else came up with them.
“From my fancy golden cage? Maybe,” the other man responded and started pacing across the room. His bare feet made a constant scuffing sound on the metallic surface. “The thing is, I don’t know how high up it goes. For a fact I can say it isn’t the Source, because I have a rather… fond relationship with the AI itself. There is no reason for the Source to eliminate me. That wouldn’t advance its being, and it feels attachment to the fact that I helped birth the AI and allow it to grow into what it is now.”
“We’ll find whoever is responsible,” Steve vowed. “After all, this lie about the Weapon is a risk to all humans, and Zion must learn of the truth before the false version gets out of hand.”
Tony nodded. “What are you going to tell your crew?”
“The truth,” Steve decided. “I just hope they can handle it.”
“And if not?”
“Then it’s you and me, together.”
“Just like the old days,” Tony grinned.
- - -