God Switch • Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Family Reunions
They were all set to go: The Avenger was safely at broadcasting depth, there had been no Machine activity, and Darcy had laid out the entry point for them. Loki had first tried to stay out of the way, in the shadows, but eventually he had migrated over to the Operator’s console.
Loki wasn’t an idiot; not when he had realized that the goal of the Cleansers was perhaps a tad too radical for him, nor when he contacted his brother, risking his own life in doing so. Their family had been big believers in faith, and Loki supposed that finding himself and Thor on opposite sides was some kind of omen.
He had refused that omen by seeking refuge here, on The Avenger, under the command of Captain Rogers who, strangely enough, seemed to fit every unbelievable rumor ever spoken of him. Anyone would have a hard time accepting the things they had heard, about the beginning of the Machine War – not to mention Tony’s involvement in it all – but Loki had witnessed the Sentinels being destroyed and at that moment it felt like a religious revelation had hit him square in the face.
These two men, who now stood on the bridge gazing into the dark tunnel before them, looked every bit like the heroes they had perhaps once been a hundred years ago; the only things missing were a suit of armor and a shield. All of this didn’t appear to sway them much, and they remained unafraid of the dangers that lay before them.
“I haven’t seen Cap this amped up before,” Darcy whispered to him, almost like a conspirator. “Well, almost like this, but not quite.” She seemed to consider this for a moment. “What do you think it all means? I mean, someone’s obviously trying to restart the war and possibly destroy Zion for good. There are not many who would benefit from that.”
“Especially if killing humans spreads further than Zion,” Loki agreed. Tony had implied that the killing might not stop at the last city of mankind. “The list of suspects has got to be short,” he added.
“You think Tony knows who’s responsible?” Darcy looked at him, eager to hear more.
“Possibly,” Loki mused. “Why he isn’t telling us, however…”
“He’s playing his cards close to his chest ,” another female voice joined them and Natasha appeared out of nowhere. Darcy gave her a radiant smile, as if she was used to it, whereas Loki felt himself grow tense. “I don’t trust him, but we have to trust Steve.”
“I don’t think Steve would fuck us over, even for his old friend,” Darcy pondered, her eyes narrowing in thought. She was either a very transparent person, or liked to pretend that she was.
“So, how are you adjusting?” Natasha asked Loki in turn. It was clear he was being evaluated.
“I would prefer not sharing such a confined space with my step-brother,” Loki noted.
“Don’t you like Thor?” Darcy frowned. “He loves you, I can tell. He took a risk bringing you in, considering whom you were flying with before.”
“That’s another thing,” Loki admitted. “I like not being surrounded by psychopaths.” Both Darcy and Natasha gave him inquiring looks at that. Loki shrugged. “I liked the basic idea that was promised to me: emancipate the humans from the oppression and slavery of Machines. Give us back our world and freedom. However, when human life started to become an acceptable loss…”
“Are they planning to kill us?” Natasha asked, her voice calm, not betraying any concern or fear she might feel.
“I don’t know, but they knew your captain was meeting with the Oracle, and that he was the only one who could access the Weapon. After that, all bets were off.”
“I keep wondering who would know all that stuff,” Tony Stark’s voice burst their little bubble. He moved over, eyes sharp, and Steve followed close by, an attentive look on his face; he looked like a man who didn’t miss much. “You say they gained most of their information during their visits to the Matrix?”
“All of it, as far as I could tell. Whether it was delivered to them by a Redpill, a program, or something else, I don’t know,” Loki replied. “However, the last time they met face to face with someone, so I think there has to be a person of some kind involved, instead of a message left for retrieval.”
Tony nodded. “Well, that confirms it: we need to go into the Matrix for answers.”
“Isn’t that what we were planning on doing, anyway?” Darcy noted.
“Yes, but in case that was unclear to anyone,” Tony finished and turned around again. “Are you ready to go?”
“How does this work for you, exactly?” Darcy asked. “You don’t have a data port, but you’re going with the others.”
“I close my eyes and I’m there,” Tony replied nonchalantly, then flashed them a brilliant grin. “Magic, baby.”
“Extremis,” Bruce corrected as he entered the bridge. “I look forward to seeing that. Especially the things you can do.”
Tony’s expression shifted slightly at that. “You figured it out just now?”
“I had my suspicions,” Bruce gave him a small, hollow smile. “In here, Machines are… well, at a disadvantage against you. I’ve seen you manipulate our ship, and considering that you can just enter the Matrix at will… The Matrix is one large myriad of programs, and you control programs with your mind.”
“Bingo,” Tony snapped his fingers. “I knew you were the smart one around here. You’ll see, in due time, if necessary; I’ll try not to show off, because I leave a different pattern in the Matrix, and the Machines can track me down, eventually, by following the cookie crumbs. I can go undetected by Bluepills, most Redpills, and even the majority of programs. Exiles are a bit trickier, and the more powerful programs. They keep… sensing I’m there. Rest of the time, though, I’m a ghost in the machine, if you like that reference.”
Bruce nodded, as if he understood.
Loki, on the other hand, wasn’t sure he wanted to understand: the things Tony could do were unnatural. There was no doubt that he was the Weapon, and could bring about the extinction of the human race – if he wanted to. What Tony wanted was hard to grasp, seeing as he seemed to be in a constant struggle with his own views and alliances.
“We’re ready,” Thor declared as he walked over. Briefly, his blue eyes searched out Loki’s, and a warm, happy smile appeared on his lips; he was enjoying it that they were so close, on the same ship, sharing a mission. Loki supposed worse things could have happened, and it may have been a further incentive to come here, knowing that Thor would be on The Avenger if they were attacked.
Despite all their past disagreements, they were family.
“I doubt we need the whole team on this,” Steve started.
“We’re not missing out on this,” Clint declared as he came in.
“You heard the man,” Jane agreed, half a step behind him. Thor gave her a mildly worried look, but she could not be swayed. “Do we have a plan?”
Steve looked at Tony, as if expecting an answer, but none came.
“Guess we’ll figure it out as we go,” Natasha said, sounding a little unhappy.
“Tony likes to improvise,” Steve noted, a bit sheepishly, as if it were his fault.
“You’re one to talk, Captain,” Tony teased right back at him. “I’ve seen you pull stunts like no one else.”
Steve gave him an awkward shrug and then turned towards the semi-circle of chairs. “Let’s get this show on the road, people. Everyone who’s coming, get in the chairs. Darcy, prep our entry.”
“Yes, sir,” Darcy gave him a mock salute and every Redpill in the crew moved to the chairs while Thor moved from one to the next, connecting the data probes. Loki turned to follow Darcy’s proceedings, her movements familiar, and the coded appearance of the Matrix calmed him a little.
On the other side of the room, Tony selected a vacant chair, stretching his neck before settling down and closing his eyes.
One by one, the crewmembers entered the Matrix. Loki could see their avatars embed themselves into the code and waited for something to happen when Tony joined them. There was nothing. “Kind of disappointing,” he mused.
Darcy, clearly knowing what he was waiting for, nodded.
“You kids play nice,” Tony’s voice suddenly reached their ears. His eyes were open, and he gave them both a wink before taking a deep breath and closing his eyes again. Almost immediately the entire code on the screen seemed to ripple, once, before settling down again, no trace left that there had ever been a disturbance.
Thor moved around Tony’s chair and gently poked him in the arm, getting no response.
“Huh,” Darcy hummed.
“Now what?” Thor mused.
“We wait,” Loki replied, settling down to do just that beside Darcy, who didn’t seem to mind the company. Together, they watched their team move and waited for any requests – or a call to get them out.
- - -
His entire team was around him, save for Tony. Steve looked around, alarmed, expecting him to appear at any second, unexpectedly, missing one moment and then there the next.
“Did something go wrong?” Clint asked, looking around as well. He had his bow in hand, fingers twitching restlessly.
And then, with a whisper of wind inside the warehouse they had chosen as their arrival spot, Tony was suddenly there, the air around him positively shimmering as if it were trying to adjust to his sudden presence. It was beautiful, but brief, and Tony squared his shoulders and looked around. He was clothed differently from the real world, as could be expected. It was familiar to Steve – something Tony had often worn around his workshop: worn jeans, t-shirt on top of a long sleeved shirt, the sleeves rolled up and showing his strong, tanned forearms. His facial hair was just as immaculate as ever, and his eyes shone sharply.
Tony’s eyes moved down to Steve’s arm and the shield he was holding. A small smile played on his lips. “Captain,” he inclined his head and then turned towards a door that stood on the far side of the open space, starting towards it. Steve and the others followed him into the bright afternoon sun, rounding the building to get to a slightly more crowded street. They were on the quieter side of New York City, though, and went mostly undetected by strangers.
“So, any ideas on where we’ll start our search?” Clint asked after a bit. He was keeping an eye out, as usual. It was clear he was feeling tense, though, and they all knew why: they had crossed a line in releasing Tony. It was entirely possible Agents were out looking for them.
“I have a feeling something will turn up if we just wait long enough,” Tony mused.
Steve pursed his lips. “That’s your plan?”
“It’s a good plan, Steve. Trust me,” Tony attempted to reassure him, unsuccessfully.
“You’re still the captain, Steve,” Natasha piped up, her patience wearing thin. “You call the shots.”
Steve knew that, but at the same time, Tony always had resources that no one else possessed, even in the past. Now, it was all increased exponentially, and Steve wondered if Tony actually had a plan but thought it better to not include the others in it. Why that was – and why Steve was kept in the dark along with everyone else – he had yet to figure out.
They continued on less busy streets, not keeping out of sight but clearly avoiding crowds. Steve had strapped his shield to his back, where it would probably draw less attention than on his arm. Clint and Natasha kept an eye out, out of habit, sometimes conversing in low voices; clearly they distrusted Tony, but as long as Steve was following his friend, his crew would tag along.
Their search for clues seemed aimless until they walked by an old, abandoned playground. A lone girl was swinging in a creaking, rusty swing, and Steve thought it strange that she would be all alone in this kind of neighborhood. As they went by, she looked up and touched her feet to the ground, halting the swinging motion. As the swing stopped, she got to her feet and started running over to them.
Tony stopped, as did the rest of them.
“Bluepill?” Clint asked, walking back to them.
“No,” Tony said. “A program. An Exile.” He cocked his head and the girl stopped in front of them. A twisted, rusty iron fence stood between them, and she leaned against it casually, looking at all of them. She looked like she was ten years old or less, of Indian descent, and the dark brown eyes revealed very little.
“Hello,” Jane offered. “Can we help you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I can help you,” she said instead. Her eyes fell on Steve. “The Oracle wishes to meet you. I will take you to her.”
Steve blinked at her in shock, then looked at Tony. It was hard to tell what he was thinking – whether this was something he had been expecting, and whether it was good or bad.
“You should bring your friends this time,” the girl added, then started walking to the left. Soon she came to a gate that led out of the playground, hanging half off its hinges, and she continued down the sidewalk they were standing on.
“What do you think?” Steve asked Tony.
“It’s the Oracle,” Tony noted, raising one eyebrow at him. “It would be impolite to say no. Besides, she wouldn’t bother to invite you if she already knew you would say ‘no’.”
“He has a point,” Bruce agreed.
Steve nodded and set off after the little girl, who was walking slowly enough for them to follow. “What is your name?” Steve asked once they caught up with her.
“Sati,” she chirped. “I know you are Captain America.”
“Not anymore,” Steve replied with a sad smile.
“Some things cease to exist, while others do not. The Oracle says you will always be Captain America.” Tony snorted at Steve’s side, and Sati looked at him. “Is she wrong?”
“Is the Oracle ever wrong?” Tony challenged her.
“Not that I know of,” she shrugged her small shoulders.
“There you have it,” Tony mused, but it was clear he wasn’t speaking his mind. Not that he often did; he talked a lot, but Steve had learned that the things he didn’t say were often of most value.
They entered a run-down suburban area, with several blocks filled with apartment buildings that looked half-abandoned by time and people. Broken windows could be found at random in the walls; curtains tightly shut, faded by the sun; not a single person could be seen anywhere, but it was clear people were still living there.
“Should we leave someone to guard outside?” Clint asked, looking up and down the small yard they were crossing, surrounded by three buildings.
“She told Steve to bring his friends; she didn’t exclude anyone,” Bruce mused.
“We’ll be safe,” Tony spoke up. “Lead the way, little lady,” he told Sati, who opened one door with its paint flaking off, leading them into a dim hallway. None of the lamps were on, some of them missing entirely, and the stairwell smelled a little musty. Still, there were items here and there, bicycles and children’s toys, that suggested the building wasn’t abandoned. “Charming,” Tony decided, until they climbed to the fifth floor and Sati knocked on a door.
It was opened by a man they already knew, Seraph. He had the familiar round sunglasses on his face, and he bowed his head slightly and let them enter without a word. Clint and Natasha brought up the rear, trusting Steve to deflect any danger that might come at them from the front.
The inside of the apartment was tastefully decorated, with little knick-knacks all over the place. The smell of freshly baked cookies hung in the air, much like last time, and Steve allowed his shoulders to relax a little. Tony walked deeper into the apartment, touching things, picking them up for observation at random before moving on.
“Captain,” a familiar voice called out, and the Oracle appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, an apron around her waist. “You came just in time for milk and cookies. Sati, please be a darling and set the table.”
The girl smiled and rushed past her into the kitchen. Soon the sound of plates clinking could be heard, then glasses.
Behind Steve, his team was looking around the hallway they stood in. Just like how Steve hadn’t known what to expect the first time they met, his team had to take in the little details and believe this was what the Oracle liked to surround herself with. “You wanted to meet us,” Steve started, feeling like he should move this thing along; it was possible they were short on time.
The Oracle nodded her head. “I set you down a treacherous path, but you have triumphed. Just as I believed you would.”
“But the Weapon…” Steve started.
“A metaphor,” she smiled. “Yet, a Weapon of a most terrible nature, as you must have come to know.” And just like that, she turned around, to look at Tony who had settled in what looked like the living room, staring out the window. The Oracle’s expression changed, from motherly to something somber and incredibly sad. At the same time, it was as if she were being reunited with some long-lost friend.
Steve watched as the Oracle walked into the living room then laid a hand on Tony’s left shoulder. As if awakened from a reverie, Tony looked at her, and in that moment Steve was certain the two of them had met before.
“You have a new shell,” Tony commented. “Couldn’t find a younger one?”
“I am fond of this form, and you know it,” the Oracle replied patiently, then leaned up and placed a lingering kiss on Tony’s cheek. “It is good to see you freed from your prison.”
“Not a prison,” Tony started.
“Call it what you will,” the Oracle said a bit bitingly. “We all know why you weren’t supposed to leave Malibu.”
“And yet you sent these people after me,” Tony mused, a quirky smile on his lips. The Oracle’s hand was still on his shoulder.
“It was your plan,” the Oracle noted. “I merely played my part in it.
“You could have just told Steve the truth,” Tony argued.
“He needed to understand the severity of the situation. I am not certain he comprehends even now.”
“He doesn’t need to,” Tony lowered his voice, looking out the window again. “He’s a hero. Was a hero, before you were ever created; he sees danger and he’ll fight to protect those who need protecting.”
“And if you are the threat?” she asked.
“Then we might have a problem, because I’m not planning on going down easily,” Tony noted ruefully and turned towards her, resting his hands on her hips. “I need to know what’s going to happen.”
The Oracle looked sad, suddenly. “You know I cannot see your path – nor can I see the path of those entwined around you,” she added, giving Steve a meaningful look. “Your power moves beyond mine, Creator,” she noted then, looking back at Tony. Her hands rose up, to frame his face. “That is how it has always been.”
“Then tell me this,” Tony went on. “Who’s stirring up trouble? Someone let slip my existence – someone who knew Steve would be set down the path to find me, if he ever entered the Matrix. That he could find me – and would come after me.”
The Oracle pursed her lips. “No one benefits from what you think will come next.”
“No,” Tony agreed and stepped back from her, pacing a little. “Zion would be crushed, if my life were to be threatened. No one can force my hand against the Machines, either.”
“Oracle! The table’s ready!” Sati called from the kitchen.
All at once, the old woman’s face lit up, a heavy contrast to the seriousness it had adopted as she spoke with Tony. “Very good. Let us all go and sit down. One can think much better with a treat in their hand.”
The Oracle led the way to the kitchen. Someone had crammed eight chairs around the table that would usually hold four. The Oracle and Sati sat down, and Steve motioned for his team to follow their example. Tony followed them in, still appearing restless, but the Oracle patted a chair next to hers and he finally sat down, scowling at the cookies.
“Eat,” the Oracle ordered.
“You know it does nothing for me; I can see the coding embedded in the cookies,” Tony complained, but still took one from the tray and examined it.
“You can see the code in everything that constructs the Matrix,” the Oracle said in a way that sounded like a reminder. “You learned not to look, for the sake of your sanity, but now you’ve opened your eyes again.”
“I need to find whoever dealt information to the Cleansers,” Tony mused, still holding the cookie in front of his face. “They fed lies to the humans, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in on the truth; even if their desire is to cause an inconvenience instead of an all-out war… I need to find them.” His eyes narrowed at the chocolate-chip cookie, as if he were arguing with it somehow.
The others had picked up a cookie each, and although Sati was already eating hers, everyone else seemed to hesitate. Steve finally took a bite out of his, to show the others there was no harm in it, regardless of Tony’s complaints. It tasted just as good as last time, although it made him wonder how easily his brain was fooled while Tony could see the very essence of everything around them. Did he even see the room they were in, the little items on the shelves and walls? Was that why he had taken such a shine to going through it all, engrossed with the details?
“Do you think it could be him?” Tony asked after a bit. Whom he meant was beyond Steve, so he continued to listen as he ate his cookie and then reached out for his glass of milk. Around him, his crew was listening just as intently. Natasha still hadn’t touched her cookie.
“The Architect?” the Oracle frowned. “No. We all may have our differences, but he would never threaten your safety so openly.”
Tony nodded his head, sharply, then took a small bite of his cookie, his brow creasing. Clearly it wasn’t what he had expected, so he sat it down on his plate and leaned back on his chair. “If not him…”
“Whoever it is, they have come this far,” the Oracle mused. “They will show themselves to you. Or –”
“I’m not going back to the Source,” Tony cut her off, looking at her. For a moment it seemed almost as if the room shivered around them, the plates vibrating on the table. Bruce gave the table a curious look, while Clint and Natasha inched their hands towards their weapons.
“If that is your choice, it should be honored,” the Oracle stated diplomatically.
“Bullshit,” Tony snapped. “The first chance they get, they’ll drag me back there. We’ll have a long, unpleasant discussion about why I escaped, and they’ll hook me back up to run maintenance.”
“Can’t you escape again?” Sati asked from across the table.
Tony looked at her, eyes sharp. “If I wanted it bad enough? Maybe. Or, maybe they would snatch that desire from my brain and lock me so deep within my own body that I could never crawl out again.”
“I thought you had power over the Machines,” Clint noted. “They not your best friends after all?”
“Power is deceptive,” Tony told him, and as if to demonstrate, he raised his hand, palm up, over the table. An instant later, the plates, glasses and the tray of cookies began to hover off the table and into the air, while the napkins and table cloth remained in place. “In the Matrix, I am God. There’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it.” Outside, the skies began to darken, as if someone had switched off the light.
“Out there,” Tony made a motion with his other hand as he continued, “the Extremis grants me something normal humans can’t even dream of. No aging. Healing. Technopathy. However, against the Machines’ AI? I haven’t gone toe to toe with it because there is a chance that the advanced form of programming I originally helped to create could fry my brain beyond repair.” He closed his fist, and the plates, glasses and tray landed softly back on the table. Outside, the light returned. “Luckily, it hasn’t been in the AI’s interest to kill me, or suck me dry of the data I possess. Instead, they kept me alive, sitting my ass on a shrine and treating me like a God of Creation. But, if they’ve learned one thing from humanity… gods can be butchered and replaced. Or, in some instances, we become our own gods.”
“So, you’re not invulnerable, and you don’t like how that feels,” Bruce summed up.
“Pretty much,” Tony huffed and leaned back in his chair. For a moment he reminded Steve of a pouty child – the way he used to be, before all this.
“We will find whoever is responsible, and then we’ll find a way to keep the Machines from coming after you,” Steve stated. That was his plan; he just needed to find a way to his goal.
Tony gave him a rather fond look. “You make it sound so simple.”
“Nothing’s ever simple in our lives,” Steve told him.
“True,” Tony said, then picked up the cookie from his plate and shoved it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Beside him, the Oracle smiled at him fondly, and Steve thought the look in her eyes was love.
“Oracle,” Seraph suddenly appeared in the doorway, voice filled with concern. “There is someone approaching.”
“About time,” Tony mumbled around the last bits of his cookie and rose from his chair. He looked down at the old woman who smiled up at him. It was odd to think that in some twisted way, Tony was her father. “We’ll meet again,” he promised her.
“I look forward to it,” the Oracle replied, and briefly took Tony’s hand in hers. “You deserve to be free. I hope they see it, before the end.”
“You and me both,” Tony said and kissed her forehead briefly before striding out past Seraph.
Chairs scraped against the floor as Steve and his team hastened to go after him. The Oracle gave them a good-natured smile and watched them leave. Tony was already at the stairs when Steve caught up with him. “Who’s coming?” he asked.
“An old friend,” Tony replied. “Things might get a little… heated. The old bugger drives me up the wall sometimes.”
“Who are we talking about?” Clint asked a few steps above them as he hurried to catch up. “Hopefully not more Agents, unless you’re prepared to do your party trick with them.”
“The next time we see Agents, I suggest we run first and offer ourselves up for a chat if that proves unfruitful,” Tony noted. “However, this isn’t an Agent.”
Unwillingly, Steve thought back to their little meeting in Malibu – and Agent Phil Coulson standing in front of them. He wondered how badly Tony had pissed off the Agents when he ordered them to back off and let Steve and his people escape.
They reached the ground floor and stepped out into the sunlight that had become somewhat weakened because of the clouds that now covered the sky. Out in the yard, in the middle of the half-dead patch of grass, stood an old man with white hair and an immaculately trimmed beard in a light gray suit. There was no one else to be seen, and Tony purposefully strode over to the man, tension clearly coiling inside his body. Mid-step, Tony’s form began to ripple, and when his foot landed on the brown grass, his clothes had been replaced by a perfectly cut suit.
Beside Steve, Bruce jumped a little, taking a second look at the smooth transformation between clothing.
“Creator,” the old man greeted.
“Architect,” Tony inclined his head, smoothing down the sleeves of his suit. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Something like a small sneer twisted the old man’s face. “You should be at home.”
“That pretty little cage you built for me?” Tony sneered right back at him.
“It was a familiar setting your mind immediately accepted. There is no purpose for you to enter the rest of the Matrix anymore.”
“You just don’t like it when I play with your toys,” Tony cracked.
The Architect did not respond to his taunt. Neither did he mention if he knew Tony’s physical body was no longer in the Machine City, which struck Steve as odd. Perhaps he did not care. After all, programs were often too focused on their own purpose to see anything else.
“Let me ask you something,” Tony went on. “Have you been sharing some sensitive personal information about me lately? To some Redpills, perhaps?”
The Architect snorted. “I do not traffic in gossip. Besides, compromising your safety would be likely to affect the stable existence of the Matrix, and starting from scratch is not in my interest.”
“You like being king of the hill,” Tony said. “If something happens to me, the Matrix might become obsolete. Then you would face deletion – and without the Matrix, where would you run and hide?”
Another sneer made its way to the Architect’s face. “As I said: I do not traffic in gossip. Perhaps you should find someone who does.”
That message must have contained something that caught Tony’s attention; Steve saw Tony’s stance change, a positive tell that he suddenly had an idea.
“Will you return to Malibu now?” the Architect asked next.
“No,” Tony refused. “This needs to be finished first. After that…”
“Your safety will be guaranteed upon your return to Malibu,” the Architect argued. “The humans you surround yourself with are a frail defense.”
“Clearly you haven’t met Captain America before,” Tony retorted. Steve squared his shoulders and reached up to release his shield from his back.
“Your resistance is illogical. You will return to Malibu, to restore the balance,” the Architect demanded. “Do not resist,” he added, then turned his back to Tony and walked away.
“Should we follow him?” Clint asked, bow at the ready although Steve had a feeling shooting the Architect would do them more harm than good.
“No,” Tony shook his head and looked from side to side. “We need to leave. Agents are coming.”
“How do you know?” Natasha asked, although her eyes were already seeking the spaces between buildings.
“The old goat wants me to return to Malibu, and because I keep refusing, he’ll do the logical thing: send my old babysitter to drag me back there.”
“Coulson,” Steve realized. In real life, Agent Coulson had made sure more than once that Tony’s house arrest remained in effect, for one reason or another. Not that it always had, but the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had known when to let things slide with Tony in order to achieve the goal they all were going for.
Tony nodded and looked a little troubled. “Call it in; make your Operator establish an Exit. We need to get out of here.”
“How about you start showing off some of your godly powers instead,” Clint suggested.
“Don’t underestimate the Agents’ willingness to take me back into custody,” Tony shot back. “Besides, if they catch one of you, they might be able to track your ship’s location, and then we’re well and truly screwed at both ends.”
“Point taken,” Bruce decided, and they all headed off towards the nearest road while Steve contacted Darcy.
“We need an Exit,” he said.
“Is something wrong? I saw some rather spectacular coded lightshows around you,” she replied.
“That was Tony, and some heavy-hitting programs,” Steve explained hurriedly. “We have Agents incoming, and we need to get out.”
“I think I… Loki sees them, advancing fast. They’re not kidding around this time. There has to be at least twenty of them!”
“Just get us an Exit and we’ll get there.”
“Roger that,” she said and disappeared.
“We need to move faster,” Steve informed his team.
“Any idea which direction we should pick?” Clint asked.
“We need to know where they’re coming from,” Natasha added.
“Everywhere,” Tony replied, and he started running. Once again, mid-step, his clothes changed, back to what they had been before. “Come on.” He veered to the side and led them towards a cluster of buildings; a residential area with apartment buildings roughly ten floors high. “We need to keep away from them long enough for Darcy to take you guys back,” he noted as he slipped into an alley between buildings, the rest of them following.
“Or maybe you could just go back and they’d lose interest in us,” Jane suggested. “They’re after you, right?”
“Yes, but they know you’re with me, and like I said, they can follow your signal back to the ship. Worst case scenario, they establish contact, kill you here and then attack the ship.”
“But you told the Machines to stop coming after you, when you destroyed the Sentinels,” Bruce noted, a little out of breath. “Doesn’t that mean anything to them?”
“Firstly, reasoning with one Machine is easier than reasoning with the entire AI,” Tony said. “Secondly, now that they’re fully aware of the danger I’m in, sort of… I don’t know what they’re planning on doing.”
“Taking you to a safe-house would be one logical option,” Steve guessed.
“Yes, but these are Machines, and the next logical step is to remove the threat in order to maintain acceptable safety levels. Which means killing a bunch of humans because they’re trying to use me as a weapon – or kill me, depending on what the Cleansers believe is the most fruitful path to what they want.”
“Couldn’t you just try and explain all this to the Agents?” Jane asked, panting a little as they raced up a flight of stairs that led them to another small street.
“They’re bad at listening mid-mission. Tunnel-vision, straightforward thinking and tight mission perimeters. Gotta love those.”
“Much like some of your autonomous armors before you reverted back to J.A.R.V.I.S. controlling them,” Steve flashed a small, dry smile.
“Yeah, pretty much. But they were effective,” Tony sighed and then stopped, looking up and down the street they were on. “Okay, why is it taking your Operator this long to establish an Exit? We’re surrounded by land lines.” How Tony knew that, Steve wasn’t sure, but he suspected the other man could detect land lines within the Matrix’s system.
“Maybe there’s trouble,” Jane said a bit fearfully.
“Where are the Agents?” Clint asked. “We need higher ground.”
“Not a bad idea,” Tony agreed and moved over to one of the houses. The front door was locked, so Steve pushed Tony to the side and smashed the lock with his shield. Tony grinned as Clint rushed in past them. “Just like old times.”
“I think that’s about to change soon,” Steve noted dryly, motioning for the others to follow Clint.
“Oh, I don’t know… Sure, we didn’t fight men in tacky suits, but they pack a punch like most of the villains we fought.”
That did bring a smile to Steve’s lips, and he followed Tony into the building and up the stairs. By the time they reached the top, Natasha and Clint had already worked open the access door to the roof and proceeded to lead the others through it. Steve’s hand itched to resume connection with The Avenger, but he decided to wait a bit longer before contacting Darcy.
Tony shut the access door behind them and jammed it shut with a metal pipe he found lying on the roof.
“Eyes on target,” Clint called out from the edge of the roof, which meant he had just spotted Agents.
Bruce and Jane shifted uneasily, reaching for the guns strapped discretely to their hips. Natasha was already preparing hers. All of them knew they wouldn’t stand a chance against an Agent.
Steve gripped his shield tighter and then raised his free hand to his ear, activating the comm. “Operator, we need that Exit.”
At first, silence met his words. Dread began to pile up in his mind. Was the ship under an attack? Would his crew start dropping, soon, their bodies dying – and their minds with them?
Darcy’s voice made him jerk in surprise: “Running into a few speed-bumps. There’s interference, but I’ve got your location and Loki’s helping me establish a connection.” Steve looked at Tony, wondering if he was unconsciously setting off interference, or if it was the Agents trying to block their escape. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!” Darcy promised, voice tight with tension.
“Rogers out,” Steve responded and moved to the edge of the roof. He looked down, and for a while saw nothing. Then, a man in a dark suit appeared from around a corner, sunglass-covered eyes glancing up at them.
“They know we’re here,” Clint muttered, bow in an easy position to start firing as soon as it became necessary. “What’s the game plan, Cap?”
“We have to wait until Darcy gives us an Exit. Then we get to it and get ourselves out of here.” It sounded simple, in theory. Those were the necessary steps. They could go on running around the neighborhood in an attempt to evade the Agents, but that might take them further away from the Exit. It was a risk they might have to take, but Steve would only go for it if there were no other option. He looked at Tony instead, who had stayed near the access door. “Can you hold them off?”
“The Agents? You and me should be able to deal with them, for a time. Coulson?” An uneasy look crossed his features. “He’s strong. He has… he can manipulate the Matrix, and knows how to take my footing. I would rather not go nose to nose with him, but I will, to give you guys time to get out.”
“Can he hurt you?” Jane asked, fingers tight around her gun that would do her little good against an enemy who moved faster than bullets.
“If he wants to,” Tony nodded. “I don’t think he does, because their first priority is to get me back to Malibu, unharmed – and possibly locate my body in the real world. I have a few aces up my sleeve, though…”
“Let’s save those for as long as we can,” Steve decided. He wasn’t sure what those were, but he knew that when Tony got desperate, the stakes rose higher – as well as his destructive power. That’s how it had always been, and there was no reason to assume it had changed. If Tony could control the Matrix… he could end up killing countless lives in the pods if he unleashed his true power.
The access door was banged into, suddenly, shifting upwards a little, but the pipe held it shut for the time being. Bruce and Jane stepped further away from it. The banging continued, tireless, and Tony took a firm stance while Steve tried to decide between watching the pipe and trying to keep track of what was happening on the ground.
With a particularly powerful strike from below, one of the hinges of the access door snapped in half. The banging continued, and finally a hand curled around the side of the door, trying to wrench it open or force the metal to bend. It wasn’t something a normal human would have opted to do, but the Agents were programs and possessed different physical limitations.
“Tony…” Steve said, wishing he knew what the other man was going to do.
“Can you jump?” Tony asked, glancing towards the next rooftop.
“Possibly,” Bruce replied, looking towards it as well, measuring the distance. “We need to start moving now if we want to get across.”
“Go,” Tony ordered tersely, and Steve watched his team start moving. In real life, he could have jumped the distance, but none of the others would have gotten across it alive. In the Matrix, the rules were different, and the 30 feet jump was doable. It took concentration, which meant Bruce and Jane took a moment to believe they could do it. Clint and Natasha did this kind of thing regularly, and maintained watch of the proceedings on street level while the scientists braced themselves and then took off, running across the rooftop before jumping into the air and landing on the next one. Steve didn’t want to think he had been worried, but there were always risks.
“You go next,” he ordered Clint and Natasha, who nodded and backed up for momentum. Their landings were graceful rolls, and they immediately resumed watch on the edge of the roof.
In front of them, the access door finally lost its second hinge and slammed to the side, allowing half a dozen Agents to pour onto the roof. Their eyes seemed glued on Tony, their poses passive-aggressive now that the obstacle had been removed from between them and their goal.
“You will come with us, Mr. Stark,” one of them said.
“We shall escort you back to your home in Malibu,” another stated.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Tony replied. “Back off, Men in Black. I have business to attend to in town, and you’re cramping my style.”
Six heads cocked to the side, as if new information were coming in from their earpieces.
In the same second, Steve heard a ping in his own, and raised his hand. “Talk to me, Operator.”
“I have an Exit for you. Number 15, second floor. Room 24. Hurry; the place is crawling with Agents!”
“I’m aware,” Steve stated and walked over to the edge of the roof, trying to pinpoint their location. They needed to move a few houses to the left, but they were on the right track. “Be ready,” he told Darcy and disconnected the call for the time being.
“This behavior is unacceptable,” one of the Agents was saying, taking a step towards Tony. “You must return.”
“You should know, I have a problem with authority,” Tony replied. Steve knew he couldn’t talk himself out of this one, so he was probably engaging the Agents to give the rest of them time to get going. After all, Tony didn’t need to get to an Exit to leave the Matrix, far as Steve understood. “Get going, Cap,” Tony told him, glancing over his shoulder. “I’m right behind you.”
Steve wasn’t sure whether Tony had been able to listen in on his call with Darcy. It didn’t matter. Steve nodded tersely, then sprang out towards the roof the others were currently on and jumped the distance with ease he didn’t feel in the real world. In the Matrix, sometimes, it almost felt like he could fly. “Number 15, second floor, room 24,” he told the others when he landed and pointed them in the right direction.
They didn’t hesitate: the group picked a direction and made a jump to the next roof. Bruce almost didn’t make it, but Steve was right next to him, grabbing his arm when he started to lose his balance on the edge. Bruce had time for a thankful look before the access door of the next building opened and Agents swarmed through it.
“Shall we go around?” Clint asked.
“Go down; I’ll fight them off at street level. You make it to the Exit,” Steve ordered.
“What about you?” Jane asked, worried.
“I can hold them off. I have no doubt Tony’s holding back, and we can take them until Darcy finds me another Exit in case this one gets compromised.” He saw Clint and Natasha nod grimly, Jane still appeared concerned – and Bruce was staring in a completely different direction, back towards their starting point.
Steve turned to look, and almost as if on cue, a gust of air hit his face: something that looked like a transparent tornado whirled around Tony, keeping the Agents from approaching. It was like energy so concentrated that it had to move and shove everything out of its way as it expanded, yet in the eye of it, Tony seemed completely untouched.
“Wow,” Jane murmured behind them.
The air itself was rippling and the tornado was picking off everything that rested on the roof, from garbage to pebbles of stone. Then, with a shove of his arms, Tony sent it forward and it slammed into the Agents, sending them hurtling back, a few flying over the edge of the roof.
Tony didn’t stay to wonder. The tornado disappeared, a powerful gust of wind following its dispersion. Small stones flew in every direction, a few landing on the roof they were standing on. Tony began to catch up with them, and the first jump he took to reach them seemed as effortless as taking a long stride. Gravity seemed to change around him and he landed softly, rolling onto his feet and then continued on, running across the expanse of the second roof to jump again to reach them.
“What’s the hold-up?” Tony asked, frowning, then looked up to see the Agents gathered on top of the next building.
“We’re going down,” Steve said. “Unless you want to blow those guys away as well?”
Tony smirked. “Did you like that? I have to be careful, unless I want to tear the entire neighborhood apart. I prefer not to meddle with the laws of physics that much, but I wasn’t going to get into a fist-fight with all of them, as fond as they are towards the old-fashioned way of doing things.” He took a step forward. “I’ll delay these guys. Get your people to safety.”
Steve nodded. “If it’s too much, you follow us, or run.”
“Gotcha,” Tony agreed.
“Stark!” a voice bellowed before Steve could reach the stairwell or Tony could engage the Agents on the next rooftop. They both turned to look towards the demolished building that Tony had severely damaged with his little display of power. Agent Coulson stood there, looking rather calm despite the ticked off tone in his voice. “It’s time we put a stop to this.”
“Whatever you want, sweet cheeks,” Tony replied, but it was clear he was getting nervous. He set off towards the other man, but when he reached the edge of the roof, he didn’t jump. Instead, he continued walking, and Steve jerked towards him with a cry forming on his lips.
Instead of falling, Tony kept walking, as if the roof continued beneath him when it didn’t.
Further away, Agent Coulson’s brow furrowed. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said.
“What? Jealous that you can’t walk on thin air?” Tony asked, stopping in the middle of the empty space at the corner of two buildings. “Come and get me, tiger. If you can.”
The challenge was accepted almost instantly; the Agent braced himself and then launched himself through the air in a jump that made even Steve catch his breath. He hit Tony mid-air, the impact carrying them both back down to the nearest roof. They both rolled over, to their feet, and Tony went in for a punch. The Agent blocked it, almost effortlessly, and swiped with his foot. Tony lost his balance and went down, but just like that, he rolled back over his shoulder and to his feet. The Agent went to strike him in return, but Tony raised his palm between them and the Agent struck an invisible wall between them, which made the air ripple and a sound almost like thunder followed soon after.
“Cap!” Clint called from inside the stairwell, and Steve weighed his options. He had to believe Tony could handle himself. Right now, his team needed him, because Tony could no longer distract the other Agents. Fingers tightening around the strap of his shield, Steve set off down the stairs quickly, catching up with the others.
“I told you to go,” he snapped at them, finding them waiting.
“Not without you,” Natasha informed him, but continued down now that he was there.
They were making good progress until Agents suddenly appeared in the stairwell on the third floor. Natasha veered away from them immediately, entering the hallway on the other side of a door leading away from the stairs, and they followed her. From somewhere outside, the familiar thunder-like sound echoed, making the entire building tremble.
“Is that –?” Bruce started to ask.
“Yeah,” Steve responded.
“Shit,” Natasha swore up ahead; they had gotten to another flight of stairs, but it, too, was already covered by the Agents.
“Window,” Clint pointed to the end of the hallway.
“This is going to hurt,” Bruce decided, but it wasn’t a refusal to follow the newly formed plan.
Steve took his place at the head of the group, racing towards the window. He raised his shield in front of him and smashed through it, rolling, waiting for impact. He landed on his feet, three stories down, and soon enough Natasha followed him, then Jane and Bruce, Clint coming last; all them landed with the unreal agility provided by the Matrix, although the impact was bone-jarring. “Keep moving,” Steve ordered, glancing around, locating the number of the nearest building. He raised his hand to his ear again, opening the comm line. “Which way?” he asked.
“Go left, then turn right. It’s the second building,” Loki’s voice replied instead of Darcy’s. Steve didn’t waste time questioning it. He took off, repeating the directions for the others, just as the Agents reached the broken window and the first one jumped through.
As they turned the corner and kept running, something that looked like half the ceiling sailed through the air and fell in the middle of a nearby yard. Concrete crumbled with a cloud of dust rising from it, and Steve dared to look up – just in time to see Tony running off a roof and free-falling towards the ground. A sickening fear took him over for a moment as he forgot where they were, but a second later Tony landed on the ground, the asphalt rippling beneath him before he stood up and started running towards them.
Up on the roof, Coulson appeared on the edge. It was hard to tell whether he was injured, but his suit, at least, seemed a little rumpled.
“Stop gawking and run!” Tony shouted at him.
Steve turned to look where he was going, saw the building number 15 ahead of them and then rushed the door, feeling it break beneath the weight of his body. His shoulder didn’t even ache.
The climb to the second floor seemed to take forever, and locating the room 24 at the end of the hallway cost them precious seconds; each one that ticked by had Steve thinking for sure the Agents would get to them, rush them and take them down…
“There,” Clint pointed and Steve kicked the door in, the familiar sound of a ringing phone reaching his ears – and then he saw four Agents standing there, hovering by the phone, clearly waiting for them.
He heard the others coming to a harsh stop behind him. Steve wavered, but knew he couldn’t count on Tony being able to follow them in. Perhaps the other man had already left the Matrix to return to the safety of the real world.
“Get ready,” Steve muttered, then charged. He jumped across the table the phone was sitting on, his shield connecting with one of the Agents, his body with the rest. They went down in a heap, and he heard Natasha bark an order for Jane to get to the phone. The ringing stopped, and for one horrified second Steve thought something had happened, but when he took a moment to look back, Jane had vanished and Natasha lunged for the phone, settling the handset back in its cradle.
The ringing resumed.
A hand connected hard with Steve’s face. He felt bone shatter. Blindly, he brought up his shield, and heard the satisfying sound of vibranium hitting a body, sending it back. At least some things still worked like they used to.
He climbed back to his feet, immediately taking a punch in the side from one of the other Agents. The two he had already struck down were slowly getting to their feet, but seemed disoriented. One of them had lost his glasses.
Steve allowed his mind to go blank. The ringing stopped again behind them, then resumed. Two more, and his crew would be safe. His body moved into the fight, keeping it contained in one corner of the room. All he needed to do was keep taking hits, and give some in return, to not give the Agents a chance to advance on the others.
The ringing ended again.
A kick in the chest sent him back and he saw Clint standing alone in the room. Clint left the handset dangling in favor of drawing and releasing two arrows, the explosions sending two advancing Agents back against the far wall. Steve got on his knees, blocking the next strike. Blood flowed down the side of his face, but he heard the phone ringing again, then stop, and he knew Clint was safely on the other side.
With one final desperate wrench of his arms, he sent one of the Agents flying with the edge of his shield, then whirled around, kicking another before delivering a blow with his shield. The handset was dangling in the air and he lunged for it, grabbing it, ready to slam it down on top of the phone and be on his way back –
Hot pain shot through his hand and one half of the handset exploded in his grip as a bullet passed through flesh and machinery. Steve let out a frustrated yell, getting to his feet, driving the pain from his mind. The Agent with a gun looked pleased with himself, even with a gash that had opened half his face.
Steve tried to straighten his stance. The serum worked here as well, but it was too slow right now. Many of his ribs were broken, possibly shattered, his hand was bleeding all over the place, making it painful to tighten into a fist. His jaw was fractured, and he felt blood trickling down his throat.
The Agents started advancing, all four of them still standing. Just four, he told himself, but he knew there were more outside.
He brought his bleeding hand up, trying to call Darcy for another Exit, but silence met his ears. His fingers pressed something that felt broken. “Damn it,” he swore and dug his fingers in to drag broken, bloody pieces of the earpiece from his ear. “Tony, if you’re out there…”
The back wall exploded, sending the Agents forward with the impact. Steve felt his body being flung back against the wall behind him, knocking the air out of his lungs.
“Steve!” a familiar voice echoed in his ears. “Get up, Cap. Move for me, soldier.” A hand gripped his shoulder and Steve followed it, forcing his feet under him. Blood and sweat trickled into his eyes and his attempts to clear his vision failed miserably with his still-bleeding hand smearing another wet line across them.
“One floor up. Darcy has an Exit for you. Move!”
Steve felt like someone had put his head inside a vibranium bucket and banged on the side. His ears were ringing, his legs barely cooperating, but he felt Tony’s firm grip and followed it.
“End of the line,” someone said, and Steve blinked to see several Agents standing before them, blocking the hallway. Coulson appeared in the midst of them, shoving the others to the side. One lens of his glasses was broken, but he seemed otherwise unharmed, save for the dust, dirt and tears in his suit.
Tony was breathing hard. Steve wasn’t certain whether he was exhausted or his mind was mimicking what his body would have felt during a battle. It was hard to make a distinction between the two, especially when an adrenaline rush kicked in and began to blur the lines.
A hard shove sent Steve to the right, through another doorway. Tony pushed him forward, then tugged on his shield. “Let go,” he ordered, and Steve did. Through his bloodied vision he saw Tony bracing himself, the shield positioned above him like an umbrella. In the next moment he jumped up, smashing through the ceiling above them, sending pieces of wood and concrete raining down. “Come on, Steve!” he shouted, leaning down through the hole, hand extended.
Steve jumped, almost missing Tony’s hand, but at the last moment he felt Tony’s fingers curl around his wrist in an unnaturally strong grip and he was hauled up, his shoulder hitting the edge of the hole painfully. A faint ringing met his ears. “Take it,” Tony said, urgently. Steve was still gripping him, uncertain what was happening, but then he felt something smack the side of his face and his fingers curled around the object…
His consciousness jumped back into the real world. A painful gasp left him and he coughed up blood as soon as Thor removed the data probe. His vision was clear once more, and most of the pain was left behind, only a ghost of his injuries remaining.
Jerking his head around, Steve looked towards where Tony sat. The man’s eyes were still closed and dread gripped him tight. “Tony, come on,” he started – only to jump as Tony’s eyes flew open and he sucked in air, sitting up as if from a nightmare, eyes wild for a moment.
“Good times,” Tony finally managed, slumping back against the chair with a winded look.
“Did you… find answers?” Betty asked from her place at the foot of the chairs. She had a med kit at the ready.
“I’m not sure,” Steve managed.
“Yeah, we did,” Tony groused, looking over at him.
“The Architect,” he was reminded. “He told me what I needed to know.”
“I don’t understand,” Bruce frowned.
“We need to go back in,” Tony said, sitting up a little, wincing.
“To do what?” Clint asked, already on his feet.
“We need to go see the Frenchman,” Tony answered.
to be continued…