God Switch • Chapter 10
Chapter 10: The Weapon
Sparks spat out from damaged machinery. Tony could hear the heavy, large-caliber ammo hitting the hull and tearing through it; weapons designed to tear apart Sentinels, but working quite well against another hovercraft.
He raced down a hallway, ducked beneath a pipe that had collapsed to block half the path, and kept moving. Most of the ship’s sensors were already down, giving him limited access t¬o damage reports. The Avenger had already crashed to the bottom of the tunnel by the time he returned from the Matrix to check on the situation and find a way to bring Steve back. They were sitting ducks and although they were returning fire, the element of surprise had worked in Thanos’ favor.
Tony passed the med bay, finding Clint holding down Darcy, whose right leg was covered in blood. Her screams were barely audible over the noises of the battle, and Betty proceeded to inject something into her neck – to either knock her out or help with the pain. Tony didn’t stop to help, knowing they had to even out the playing field in case anyone on this ship wanted to get out alive.
Before he could get to the EMP device, he found that the last flight of stairs had been twisted out of its place in the wall, so Tony calculated the fall before jumping over the staircase, hitting the lower deck hard. The ache was brief, though, before Extremis dulled it and allowed his mind to zero in on the problem at hand: the power-up system of the EMP was damaged, unable to provide the device with a necessary charge to activate the electromagnetic pulse.
“Fuck,” Tony muttered and looked around. He needed to build a spare, something to kick the EMP into action. Whirling around, he tore off the paneling on the opposite wall. Seeing as this ship wasn’t going to have enough working components to be repaired, he could use whatever was handy.
He pulled wires and other mechanical parts from the wall, sparks flying at him, briefly burning exposed skin. In a cabinet next to the exposed section of the hovercraft’s wall he found tools, then raided a few other machines for parts. It was going to be messy, but all he needed was something to kick-start the EMP once he powered down the rest of the ship.
Tony had always been good at working under pressure – not a deadline, but actual pressure that threatened lives and his own safety. The ship shook with each new hit, the lights flickering from time to time. Fewer and fewer shots were fired back from their direction, and Tony hoped half the crew wasn’t dead by the time he finished.
“Come on, you piece of crap,” he swore at the crude power-source he had constructed. He hit the battery that was meant for the panels on the outside of the hovercraft; it refused to slide into the slot he had built for it, but with a few more strikes it clicked into place and Tony hoisted the whole thing up, took it over to the EMP and started to open the panel on the side of the device, to hook up the power source. His fingers worked unhesitatingly, not stopping to think or doubt or second-guess. Too much precious time had already been wasted.
Once done, Tony looked to one side, focused his mind and connected to the ship’s mainframe. With an audible click, the power to the rest of the ship turned off, leaving everything in eerie silence.
“And the crowd goes wild,” Tony murmured and flipped the switch.
The power-source almost exploded in his lap, but the EMP hummed to life and then activated. Tony could sense the pulse spreading out, and for a moment it felt like his brain went completely offline. His ears were ringing when he came to, a moment later, still in the darkness. However, the sounds of battle had ceased, which meant Thanos had been within range.
With a grunt, Tony forced himself up to his hands and knees. “Good times,” he muttered to the emptiness – then jerked his head up as he heard someone running on the level above him and near the broken stairwell.
“Tony?” a voice called out. It was Bruce, and Tony took a large gulp of air, forcing himself to his feet.
“Alive,” he informed the other man as he made his way back to the stairs.
Bruce had a flashlight in his hand and he smiled tightly, then offered Tony a hand to help him climb up; the stairs were barely hanging on, and crashed down immediately as soon as Tony had set his foot on the upper level deck after he climbed back up. “Did we manage to bring Steve back?” Bruce asked once they started walking back.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “He’ll be fine,” he added, in case the blond was still bleeding from every orifice when they got back. “A rough landing, left him a little battered.”
Bruce gave him a suspicious look but didn’t ask for more information.
They passed the med bay, which was now empty, then continued on towards the bridge. Everyone was gathered nearby when they got there: Darcy was whimpering, her leg heavily bandaged and bloody. Steve was sitting up against a wall, smears of blood visible on his face even in the weak light. It appeared everyone was covered in scratches and burns, and Clint had taken a shot of errant shrapnel in the shoulder by the look of it.
Steve looked up when they arrived, face tense. It seemed his brain was finally starting to function, and Tony dreaded the next time someone scanned it. Hopefully by that time most of the damage would be gone, but there was no telling what kind of scarring would remain. “We need to leave, right now,” Steve ordered. “Grab whatever provisions you can carry, as well as weapons.”
“Darcy can’t walk,” Natasha said.
“Then we’ll carry her,” Steve said simply.
“Who’s going to carry you, old man?” Tony teased, crouching down beside him.
“I’m fine,” the blond replied at once, sitting up a bit more.
Tony laid a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back. “Rest as long as you can,” he ordered. “Someone clean up his face,” he added. “You look like a kid gone crazy with their Halloween paint.”
Steve offered him a tired smile and soon enough Jane appeared with a damp cloth in her hand. Steve tried protesting, saying he could do it himself, but Jane said she would do it quicker, so Steve sat back in defeat, eyes closed, breathing in at a slow, deep, measured pace.
It was still quiet outside the ship, but Tony wasn’t foolish enough to hope this was it. “How did they find us so quickly?” he asked.
“No idea, but they knew exactly where we were,” Loki mused. He looked around and his expression turned defensive. “I didn’t call them. I’m not an idiot.”
“Maybe you thought they would reward you for delivering them to the Weapon,” Clint suggested darkly.
“I jumped ship. They won’t forget that,” Loki noted. “I didn’t do it.”
Tony looked around the faces he had yet to learn to trust, wondering if the Merovingian had gotten a message across. He couldn’t have pinpointed The Avenger’s exact location, though.
“My brother wouldn’t have betrayed us,” Thor claimed.
“Your brother hung out with the people who just peppered our ship with their guns!” Natasha responded heatedly. She was sitting beside Darcy, holding one of her hands.
“He left those people when his conscience could no longer bear their actions.” Thor refused to believe Loki was the culprit, and it seemed, for once, that the brothers were in agreement about something.
“It doesn’t matter,” Bruce stated from the other side of their little gathering. “We need to take what we can and leave, as quickly as we can.”
“We’re days away from Zion, and on foot it would take us weeks to reach even the outer perimeters,” Clint pointed out darkly. “Where are we going to go?”
“We’ll think of something,” Steve replied. “As long as we’re alive and together…”
“We could just hand over Tony,” Betty spoke up. “That’s all they want! Their first shots were a warning, but when Thor refused to let them board us and opened fire on them, they responded.”
Tony glanced at the big blond. “Thanks for that,” he nodded his head.
Thor nodded back grimly. “There was no time to contact you, in the middle of your mission to take down the Merovingian, and there was no knowing what they would have done once aboard the ship.”
“You made the right choice,” Steve agreed, then looked at Betty. “Is there something you would like to confess?”
The dark-haired woman blinked, then looked at the others as if asking for support. Finally she locked eyes with Bruce. “I had to do it,” she whispered. “All of you, you’ve started to believe this myriad of lies! I cannot be a part of this… cult; you believe whatever he tells you,” she said, glancing at Steve, “regardless of how crazy it sounds. Even if the Weapon isn’t what we think it is, Tony’s displayed abilities that are beyond our wildest dreams. I want the War to end, and he’s what we need to overthrow the Machines, once and for all.”
Bruce looked at her with such a saddened expression that Tony wondered if he had been listening to what she’d just said. “Betty,” Bruce said, voice low, “I’m… I’m so sorry. I should have made you stay in Zion, the last time we were there. I knew your place wasn’t here. I knew you didn’t believe, like we did.”
“That’s because it’s all lies and deception, and we’ve been led around like cattle to slaughter!” Betty told him hotly. “The Machines have conspired against us, but we’ll turn their own game back at them. We have their Weapon.”
“There is no Weapon,” Natasha argued. “Haven’t you been listening?”
“Do you think he would tell us if he could end the War?” Betty asked, pointing a finger at Tony. “You’ve all seen and heard where his affections lie. We are entertainment to him, before he returns to the Machine City and resumes whatever twisted plans he’s laid in motion. He wasn’t a prisoner. Why do you think he spared that one Sentinel? Why didn’t he destroy it as well?”
“Because it wasn’t necessary,” Steve spoke up before Tony could. “You don’t kill the messenger.”
“And what message did he send back to the Machines?” Betty questioned.
“A message that has, thus far, saved your life,” Tony snapped. “If you want to stay here, fine. I know your old man is on that other ship, and I see where your allegiances lie.”
Betty glared poison at him, then looked at Bruce. “Come with me. There’s still time, and you’re one of the smartest people I know. You can see he’s been stringing you all along.”
Bruce shook his head, gently, sadly. “Betty, I’ve seen what he can do, inside the Matrix and out here. I trust Steve with my life. I believe Captain America and Iron Man are real – were real before the War began. You cannot sway me from that belief. And you can’t have Tony; he’s a human being, not a piece of tech to be handed over to whoever says they can do the most good with it.”
Tony considered kissing the man, but supposed the timing was a little off.
“You can’t all think this is worth risking your lives,” Betty pleaded, looking at the darkened faces of her crew.
“We weren’t in danger before you called the Cleansers,” Darcy snapped, voice laced with pain. “How could you, Betty? I thought you were our friend. I thought you were one of us!”
Betty bowed her face, hiding it in the shadows.
“Enough,” Steve said, voice strained. “We don’t have time for this. Gather the supplies, and get a stretcher for Darcy. I want us out of this ship in fifteen minutes, ten if you can make it.”
Resolute faces nodded and disappeared. Clint remained with Darcy this time and his eyes didn’t miss a single chance to glare at Betty.
“How bad is it?” Tony asked Clint, to distract him a little.
“Bad,” he snapped. “She might lose the leg.”
Darcy had no comeback for that, which meant she was afraid.
Betty looked even guiltier; certainly this hadn’t been part of her plan.
“We all make bad choices because of circumstance,” Steve spoke up from his spot by the wall. “What we can do, afterwards, is to choose our next step.”
Betty raised her head, looking at Steve. Clearly she respected the man enough to listen to him, but if she doubted him at the same time, Tony wasn’t certain how far that respect would take them down the road to forgiveness. “Those are great words, coming from someone who’s in the majority.”
“This isn’t a vote,” Steve stated.
“No, it never was, was it? You’ve gotten them so wrapped up in this –”
“It’s pretty real, Betty,” Clint noted. “You’ve seen the same shit as us. You’ve been here, with us, listening to Cap’s tales. You saw what Tony did to the Sentinels, saw what kind of mark he made on the Matrix – saw him enter it without being jacked in. I thought you were one of the smart ones, so how in hell was it a good choice to call the Cleansers on us?”
“This needs to end,” Betty whispered.
“It will,” Tony promised her. “Just don’t get yourself caught in the crossfire; choose a side, and stick with it.” It was harsh, but depending on what the men on the other ship believed, they would be coming after him, intent on starting a war which they wanted to end, and Tony was coming to the end of his patience. “I’m not planning on dying today. I’m not going to be captured by some idiots who think they’ve got some kind of understanding when all they’ve really seen is a peek at the truth.”
“Tony,” Steve interrupted, voice still a bit strained with effort but his usual stubbornness was returning to it. “If things get… If this goes bad, I want you to go without us. You’ll move faster on your own.”
It was surprising, that Steve didn’t offer to come with him, but Tony guessed he felt like he needed to keep his crew safe, first and foremost. These people were no superheroes. They hadn’t asked to be led into the middle of this, shot at by their own people. “Where would I go?” Tony asked, attempting to sound nonchalant. “I’m not leaving you behind. I owe you one, big time, for getting my ass out of the Machine City, and I’m not abandoning you just because things are looking a bit grim.” He looked at Darcy. “Hang in there. We’ll deal with those guys on the outside, and then hail another ship to pick us up and take you to Zion for medical care.”
Darcy gave him a weak smile. Clint didn’t smile, but he didn’t argue either.
“You feeling better?” Tony asked Steve next.
“Yeah,” the other man responded. “Feels like someone stuck my head in a meat grinder, though.”
Tony chuckled, to ease the tension in his chest. The silence was getting to him, the lack of connectivity. It was easy to remember that for the last several decades, he had never once been alone – without an extension to his mind.
Thor returned at that moment. The large blond was carrying a stretcher, which he laid down on the floor. “Help me move her,” he said to Clint, who nodded, and together they moved Darcy onto it, as carefully as possible. She whimpered from the pain, but bit her lip and tried to stay silent like a true champ. Betty moved from her spot, to assist, but Clint glared at her instantly.
“I think you’ve done enough,” Clint said, voice cold.
Betty stepped back as if burned, and Thor and Clint picked up the stretcher and started maneuvering it outside. Tony watched them go, then waited for Betty to follow them at a distance. She looked lost, but she had made her choice and had to pay the price – even if it meant all her crew turning their backs on her.
“Ready?” Tony turned to look at Steve and offered the man his hand, because they couldn’t wait. Even if Steve was still feeling weak and disoriented, the super-soldier wouldn’t let that hold him back: he would get up and follow them, fight the good fight and triumph. After all, he hadn’t become Captain America by quitting before the race was over.
Steve didn’t reply, but he took Tony’s offered hand and hoisted himself up. He took less of his own weight than usual, but Tony supported him until he found his balance, not making any comments. This was a time for silence, for determination, and iron will. Nothing less was going to get them through this when part of the crew was injured and unable to fight.
“Good?” Tony asked, implying they should start moving.
“Better,” Steve replied, and Tony huffed a small laugh before starting towards the doorway. Steve followed right behind him, his movements stiff but getting him where he wanted to go; it was time to move out, and no one was going to carry Steve if there was one moving limb left in his body. As it happened, he had four, but Tony could tell his head was still getting back into the game.
Tony walked down the stairs a bit slower than usual, due to the darkness and to keep Steve from falling flat on his face. Up ahead, he could hear the voices of others, gathered around the exit ramp. When they arrived, they found Clint and Bruce crouched by the wall, working on something. Most likely the ramp was jammed shut without power, and they needed to override the hydraulics in order to get out.
“Need a hand?” Tony asked.
“We’re almost done,” Bruce replied.
Standing against the near wall, Natasha was checking a large weapon she held in her arms. Thor and Loki also carried similar weapons, and two more were leaning against the opposite wall at Jane’s feet. There were bags all over the floor, no doubt filled with food, travel supplies and ammo.
“You feeling okay, Captain?” Darcy asked from where she lay on the stretcher on the floor.
“I’ll be fine,” Steve promised her. “You just make sure to stay awake and make it back to Zion with us.”
The Operator nodded her head a little. Her expression was calm, which meant she was probably doped up.
“Here we go,” Clint said from the wall and a mechanical bang echoed in the darkness. He and Bruce rose and moved to the ramp, to manually release it.
“What do you think will happen next?” Thor asked. “Thanos and her crew are still out there.”
“They won’t sit idle for long,” Loki agreed from Thor’s side. “Most likely they’ve already found a vantage point outside, to take us out when we leave the ship.”
“Which means we need a distraction,” Steve decided and his hand settled on Tony’s shoulder. “We got them into this mess, we get them out.”
“Agreed,” Tony replied, because there was nothing else to say. “What are you thinking?”
“We take two weapons, use one of the maintenance shafts to get to the outside of the ship and check the surroundings. If the Cleansers are already in position, we take them out or draw their fire to let the others escape.”
“I can go in your stead, Cap,” Natasha offered.
“No,” he declined.
“But you’re not –”
“Save it, sister,” Tony chuckled. “Once he gets the whiff of battle, he’ll be fine.”
Natasha didn’t look convinced, but she was also drawn to staying with Clint and Darcy, and that desire must have won in her mind. “Get them weapons,” she snapped an order to the others. “Fully charged. Extra clips, too, if you can find them.”
Tony accepted the weapon that was thrust into his hands. He took an academic look at it, figuring it out easily enough – the design was familiar, after all, even though this felt like a long step backwards from the weapons he had designed.
“Let’s go,” Steve told him. “Get that ramp open but make sure it’s safe to move out before you do. Head out towards the nearest regularly used tunnel and don’t stop to wait for us: we’ll find you.”
“Are you certain you don’t want back-up?” Bruce asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Steve told him, then turned and didn’t wait for Tony to follow, knowing he would. “How’s your aim?” he asked Tony once they were out of earshot.
“Shittier than yours, and you know it,” Tony retorted.
“Did you figure out the weapon?”
“Then you’ll be fine.”
“You’re not planning on trying to talk this out with the Cleansers?” Tony asked, because it wasn’t like Cap to not negotiate with an enemy who could possibly be veered from their cause.
“Oh, I’ll talk to them, but I’m not betting too much on them putting down their weapons and believing the truth.” Steve was quiet for a moment as they stopped in front of a smallish shaft that led to the belly of the hovercraft. “I’m not sure what the truth is,” he admitted, leaning against the wall for a second, which wasn’t like him, but maybe his head was still giving him trouble. His eyes were sharp in the dim light, though, and Tony could feel their weight anyway. “I know the Merovingian twisted the truth, but you would be the humanity’s best bet to win this thing. Just… not the way everyone’s thinking.”
“That would demand trust from people who would rather see me as a Machine sympathizer,” Tony pointed out. “And, to a degree…”
“You don’t want to do it.” Steve’s tone was flat. Final.
“It’s not that simple,” Tony hedged, feeling a little cornered. “I have nightmares about billions of lives being butchered and not being able to stop it. Sometimes I accept that I could have stopped it, at the very beginning, but I was too arrogant and proud not to.”
“You all were,” Steve told him quietly. “But it wasn’t meant to be like this. The humans refused to give the Machines their rights, or to become the second most powerful economical power after their own creations…”
“They got afraid and lashed out,” Tony agreed, leaning against the wall as well. The weapon was heavy in his hands, but the armor used to weight more. He wished he had it now. “How different are we now?”
“We’re fighting to save those people back there,” Steve nodded his head towards the way they had come.
“One of which betrayed us.” Tony understood why Betty had done what she did. He had seen a thousand minds too afraid to leave the Matrix even if they knew what lay on the other side. A fear could become paralyzing, overpowering, and that would trigger a response that was hard to foresee or control.
Betty had done what seemed like the only ‘out’ at the moment, in this situation and the War, and he could hardly blame her. She was repeating the same mistakes her ancestors had, when they laid waste to Zero One.
“Let’s do this,” Tony decided and moved to open the hatch. He climbed down awkwardly, the weapon dangling from its strap wound around his forearm. Steve followed him, quiet and agile, which was either his battle instincts kicking in or something natural that a little brain bleed couldn’t erase.
Tony found the second hatch, opened it and then carefully dropped down. The way The Avenger had collided with the bottom of the tunnel, he could walk a few feet and then had to crawl out the rest of the way, between jagged edges of metal, rock and some form of concrete from the tunnel wall. Steve followed him, the comforting sound of shuffling weight in the darkness reaching his ears, until Tony finally reached open space, carefully pulling himself out and leaning against the hull of the ship, to hide himself from prying eyes. There was no gunfire, though, so they hadn’t been spotted.
Steve settled beside him, crouched like a large cat before the leap leading to an attack. “We have to move around,” he said.
“We might lose high ground,” Tony noted. He knew enough basics by now, and he didn’t have his armor…
“That’s a risk we’ll have to take,” Steve replied briskly and moved past him, leaving Tony to follow or stay put and abandon the other man. With a small shake of his head, Tony picked a path through the tunnel floor, trying to stay quiet, ears picking up every small sound.
In the back of his mind, Tony could feel a distant stream of data, but it was far off and not comforting at all. Restlessness took over him, and he thumbed the safety off the weapon, then decided against it and switched it back on; he didn’t want to accidentally brush against the trigger and take off his own foot, or worse, shoot Steve.
It felt like an eternity to round the ship and find themselves facing an even larger space. In the distance, sparks rained down from where Thanos had crashed. Otherwise the ship was dead; a fried piece of junk, ripe for the picking. Tony had a feeling it wasn’t going to be easy pickings, though, and that Loki was probably right and the ship would be empty by now.
He breathed in and out carefully, telling himself to relax, then looked around, trying to spot hostiles. His eyes and mind both failed at locating the Cleansers, and he looked at the shadow that was Steve, waiting for his decision. If they stayed hidden, it wasn’t much of a distraction. Tony guessed the ramp was still shut tight and the others were waiting for sounds of battle before they began emerging from the relative safety of the ship.
Steve knew the odds and his mind had probably thought several steps ahead in all alternatives. Tony may have been a certified genius in his time, but Steve’s ability to piece things together on the battlefield had often left him speechless – and happy to follow the man’s lead. After all, Tony Stark or Iron Man didn’t take orders from just anyone.
“What’s the plan?” Tony finally asked, because the sound of his own voice was better than the silence around them.
“Can you sense them?” Steve asked, which may have meant he hadn’t spotted their adversaries either.
“They’re not Machines,” Tony pointed out, but Steve made a motion like he was nodding, which meant he got the drift.
“We need to draw their attention, and their fire.”
“If any of their weapons survived the EMP,” Tony reminded him.
“Some of them would have.”
“So…” Tony considered, then decided a flashy entrance was always better than being ignored, and raised his weapon, slid the safety off and fired one blast towards the ceiling. In the brief flash of blue light, Steve looked startled – yet not surprised. It was just like Tony to execute the most daring option if he thought it would yield results, and sure enough, the darkness filled with similar flashes, all of which were aimed at them. Only Steve’s quick reflexes kept Tony from being hit by dozens of small pieces of rock when the jagged formations exploded beside them.
“Now we know where they are,” Tony offered when they crawled away, trying to pinpoint the whereabouts of their enemy in the limited light.
“So much for talking things out,” Steve groused.
“You didn’t even think they were going to listen, so, it’s not a huge loss,” Tony reminded him.
The firing stopped and Steve suddenly grabbed his ankle, signaling Tony to halt. Silence descended over the area once more, but both their senses were heightened and they could make out the telltale footsteps. “They’re moving closer,” Steve stated rather pointlessly.
“So, do you want to shoot at them, or try and talk to them?” Tony asked. He was fine with either, but he was fairly convinced there would be more shooting happening, whether Steve opened his mouth or not.
They fell silent, listening to the approaching footsteps. Tony could almost hear Steve thinking, weighing the options. This wasn’t like the way things used to be with villains. The rules had changed, and these people were, essentially, misguided and a little confused. They might listen to reason, if given time, but they didn’t exactly have infinite amounts of time at their disposal.
Steve must have reached some kind of resolution because he knelt on the ground, looking up, trying to see their advancing opponents. “Captain Ross!” he finally called out, loudly. Tony cringed, but not from the sound. His fingers tightened reflexively on the weapon, although he was telling himself to relax and breathe.
For long seconds, there was no response. No shots were fired towards the sound of Steve’s voice, either, so that had to be a good sign.
“Captain Rogers,” came an answering call after Tony was almost ready to start tossing rocks to pass the time. “I regret things have come to this.”
“There’s still time to right the wrongs,” Steve promised, and knowing him, he meant it, too, in order to guarantee his crew’s safety.
“Indeed,” Ross agreed, his voice echoing on the high walls. “Give me the Weapon and we are done here.”
Steve sighed audibly. “There is no Weapon! The Merovingian tricked you!”
There was no immediate reply.
Steve bowed his head towards Tony. “Could it be they don’t know whom they were dealing with, in the Matrix?” he asked.
“Possible,” Tony agreed. “The Merovingian wanted to keep his hands clean of this mess in case it blew up in his face.”
“Like it did during our visit?” Steve asked with a small smile on his face, its softness hidden in the shadows, leaving only a shark’s expression.
“Pretty much,” Tony grinned in return.
“I know you have him,” Ross bellowed once more, breaking their moment. “Hand him over, and you and your crew will walk away from this unharmed.”
“It’s a little late for that, Captain,” Steve snapped. Clearly his thoughts went back to Darcy, and any other injuries his crew had sustained, most of them hidden away until there was time to treat them.
“I’m sorry for any losses you may have suffered. However, you opened fire upon us –”
“After you demanded to board us and fired a warning shot,” Steve countered, then rose to his feet. “Let’s talk this out; man to man, face to face.”
Tony blinked at the blond. “They won’t do it.”
“He might,” Steve whispered back to him.
Tony raised himself to his feet, looking out into the darkness. There was no motion he could see, but as he kept looking, his mind registered something; small and far away, reaching out with something akin to desperate willingness… A smile curled his lips. “We’re about to get back-up,” he told Steve.
“Another ship?” the blond glanced at him, voice hopeful.
“Not exactly,” Tony replied. “But, it’s… You’ll see,” he promised. At the same time, he opened his defenses just a little and felt a connection establish itself. Even that small thing comforted him, and he felt far more confident, suddenly, that they would walk out of this alive.
“Ross?” Steve called out again. “We’re willing to talk this out!”
“You’re not the one in control,” a voice replied, and sudden beams of light shone in their faces, making Tony’s eyes burn with pain from the sudden shift from the darkness. Hurried steps moved towards them, fanning out, and by the time he managed to blink and see something past watery blinking, four men were spread out around them, all holding weapons. The oldest of them had to be Ross, while the others – two Redpills, one natural-born – were nameless goons in Tony’s eyes.
“Where is he?” Ross demanded, staring at Steve, clearly knowing who he was talking to. “Where is the Weapon?”
It was obvious that the Merovingian hadn’t been handing out pamphlets with Tony’s mug-shot on them. Steve seemed confused as well, for an instant, before he came to the conclusion that these men had no idea who they were looking for; they thought Tony was one of Steve’s crew.
“You promise to let my crew leave this area and I might tell you,” Steve offered. Either he was playing for time, confident that he and Tony could take these men – which they probably could – or he had put his faith in Tony’s promised back-up.
Tony reached out with his mind, trying to get some kind of ETA.
“Weapons on the ground,” one of the men urged. Half of his face was a scarred mess, and his manner suggested he had little patience for defiance. The man on his left held his gun in a more relaxed pose, his face betraying little; clearly he was the pro of the group. The last one, the natural-born, looked a little uncomfortable in this kind of confrontation, so he was probably the Operator. Or, had been, before Tony fried their ship.
“Guns on the ground!” the scarred man shouted.
“Take it easy, wax-face,” Tony replied and started lowering his weapon slowly towards his feet.
His insult received a growl, and the man beside Scarface gave his crewmember a warning look. “Don’t let him get to you, Sterns.” He then looked at Tony, square in the eye. “Put the gun down. Don’t tempt him to shoot you; he will.”
“Make sure it counts,” Tony told Sterns, “because it will be the last thing you ever do on this Earth.”
“Yeah?” Sterns asked, lifting his weapon, pointing at Tony’s face with it. “Got anything to back up that threat?”
“First of all, him,” Tony said, pointing at Steve. “Secondly, that,” he added, and pointed upwards.
All men looked up, finding a Sentinel drifting into view, its multiple eyes shining in the darkness.
“Shoot it down!” Ross ordered, a hint of panic entering his previous bravado.
Tony cringed, seeing the Sentinel try and dodge but it was off its game and multiple shots were fired at once, hitting it and sending it crashing down in a twisting mass of tentacles. As it fell, something parted from its body, crashing close by. In the light of the flashlights the men from Thanos were carrying, Tony could make out a shape roughly like a trash can lid, bouncing off the floor of the tunnel and rolling around.
Steve followed its movement, captivated. Tony wished he could have recorded the expression on his face when the lights caught the symbol of a star painted on top of the round surface. “My shield,” he exclaimed.
“You’re welcome, Captain,” Tony said, and Steve turned to look at him with confused wonder on his face. Tony shrugged. “Discovered within the smoking ruins of Zion in… I can’t even remember the year. I got my hands on it, stashed it away. That’s when I knew you were still out there.”
Steve’s face turned away again, looking out towards the shield. His shoulders were tensing, preparing for action. All of his mind was focused on how to get to the shield, past their opposition and across the distance. “What was the other thing that fell?” he asked, suddenly.
Tony smiled. “A little something that got stashed away, too, a long time ago. JARVIS,” he called out, closing his eyes, “fire it up, please.”
“Very well, sir. Initiating the start-up and assembly protocols of Mark 53.” The men around him started, because the AI’s voice was both in the privacy of Tony’s mind and echoing from the second item the Sentinel had dropped before crashing. From the midst of rocks and debris, a whirring sound could be heard, and lights began to appear as the suit of armor put itself together. Tony winced at how it looked and sounded, but he supposed that between next-to-no maintenance and years of inactivity, the armor was going to be a bit clunky.
“Power reserves at 34 percent, sir,” JARVIS informed him, this time only in his head. Tony could feel data coming in from the suit.
“It will be enough,” Tony decided, out loud, then looked at Ross. “There are two ways this is going to end: you accept that there is no Weapon to magically end the Machine War and that you’ve been played for a fool and led along like an obedient dog waiting for a treat,” Tony started.
“Or?” Ross asked.
“Or we wipe the floor with you, your men, your dignity, and possibly your lives, depending on how much of a fight you put up,” Tony finished. His brow furrowed, and the suit moved, taking seven steps forward before bowing down at the waist and picking up the shield.
“You’re him,” Ross finally put the pieces together. “You’re the Wea–”
“Enough with the goddamn Weapon!” Tony snapped. “Unless you want me to summon the whole Machine army to this location and rain hell on you and your crew, you’ll shut up and listen. I can’t end the War for you, even if I wanted to. The only thing we’ll accomplish here is that you try to kill me, and perhaps succeed, which will lead to the imminent destruction of Zion, and possibly the power plants as well.”
“He’s bluffing,” the Operator murmured.
“You want to call my bluff?” Tony challenged. “Why do you think a Sentinel was making a personal delivery for me?”
“Shoot him,” Sterns suggested from the other side. “Kill him and the Machines are done.”
“If you believe that, then you’re a danger to every living being left on this planet,” Steve joined the discussion. “Tony’s the only reason why the Truce hasn’t already come crashing down because of what you have tried to achieve. He’ll help us maintain the Truce once this mess is over. Put down your guns or we won’t guarantee any of you walk away from this.” He looked at Ross. “Your daughter has served under me, faithfully until today. For her sake, stop this madness and let us explain this all from the beginning.”
“You’re so full of lies and fairytales that you wouldn’t know the truth if it stared you in the face,” Ross replied. “The War will end tonight, one way or another.”
“If it’s your way, then it means the end for all humanity,” Tony pointed out. The armor was ready to throw Steve his shield and to engage in battle. It had more than enough power to deal with this.
“You believe him?” Ross asked. “You brought him from the Machine City. Did it occur to you even once that this is just another Machine plot to bring us down?”
“Do you think they would have allowed us to walk out with a weapon that could threaten their existence?” Steve asked back.
“The God Switch exists, in him,” Ross ground out, pointed a gun at Tony’s chest – and was blasted backwards. Tony jumped slightly and turned to swiftly look at the armor and its raised hand, the repulsor still glowing. He hadn’t commanded it to fire, but he supposed that in the back of his mind, he had reacted to the threat.
“Kill him!” the man Tony had pegged as the smart one shouted, and Tony jumped back, knowing just how vulnerable he was. Steve, on the other hand, didn’t move; he raised his weapon and reached out with his free hand, just in time to catch the shield the armor threw at him.
A hot blast traveled past Tony’s shoulder as he dived down into the rocks. He heard another bounce off the vibranium shield, then a grunt as that very shield hit someone square in the chest. Tony closed his eyes and focused his mind to move the suit, aiming for their enemies’ weapons; unarmed, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Ross’ men did their damnedest to finish their mission, but between Steve, his shield, and the low-powered armor, their weapons were soon dealt with and all of them lay on the ground in various states of consciousness and broken bones after having managed to piss Steve off bad enough. Through the armor’s eyes, Tony saw Ross trying to climb back to his feet, groaning. He was swaying and cursing, though, and didn’t make it past his knees.
Steve lowered his gun and slid the shield onto his arm. “Had enough?” he asked his fellow captain, getting little else than a dark glare in return.
Tony rolled over to sit on the cold ground, hands firmly set against hard surface. It grounded him, just as his mind soared a little from the connection with his armor. The helmet turned to look at him, and although there were no actual eyes staring at him, Tony felt a little closer to something he’d thought he had lost.
“Your vital signs suggest no injuries,” JARVIS stated in his head.
‘I’m fine, J,’ Tony replied wordlessly. ‘Relieved and fine.’
He could sense something akin to relief drifting back from his AI, whom he hadn’t truly connected with in between leaving Machine City and now, save for the visit to the Merovingian’s establishment. Tony had felt the absence of their connection but hadn’t found the right time to bring it to the surface.
A loud clang made Tony look to the far left; the ramp was down, lights were pointing this way and that, and Steve’s crew was coming out. It didn’t look like they were running for their lives, but rather that they were coming over to see what was happening. So much for those orders.
Steve looked at them as well, a small purse of disappointment on his lips. It was as if he didn’t know what kind of loyalty he inspired in lesser beings.
Tony got to his feet and summoned the armor over, running his hand across the red and gold paint that needed a proper cleaning and possibly another coating. All in good time. For the time being, they needed to get themselves a ride to Zion, make sure the Cleansers were well and truly finished, and then ensure this little adventure hadn’t upset the Truce.
It was clear to Tony which part he looked forward to the least.
- - -
Waiting for a sign – any sign – that it would be safe to open the ramp and escape The Avenger was getting on all their nerves. Each small sound could be interpreted as muffled shots, or possibly the death cries of one of their own.
Clint was a practical man and he knew this had been the best plan of action. He knew their captain carried guilt over his decisions and where they had taken them. However, he had not led them blindly at any point, and each man and woman waiting in the semi-darkness – save for Betty, perhaps – didn’t feel like they had been cheated or betrayed.
All of them would have gone outside with Steve, should he have asked.
Clint was also realistic enough to not entertain the whispered fears of the others; he had seen what Steve was capable of, in the Matrix and especially in the real world. It would take more than one lucky shot to bring him down. However, he had been at Death’s door when Tony brought him back from the Matrix in the middle of the shoot-out with the other hovercraft, and it was easy to believe he wasn’t at his best in this moment.
Then there was Tony, who was a big fat question mark. He had powers, but he used them irregularly and not always in ways that were obvious. If the stories were true, though, he was more than a good match for Cap to take on the Cleansers.
The waiting was the worst; Clint ached to act, to move – to do something, whether it was getting Darcy and the others to safety or assisting his captain.
He glanced around the corridor in the limited light.
Natasha was beside Darcy, and she had allowed Betty to come closer and treat her. Clint knew Darcy’s injury was serious, but at least she was alive. Anything else they could deal with, together.
Bruce was hovering near the women. It was hard to tell whether Betty’s betrayal had affected their personal relationship. Bruce’s loyalties were still with the crew, that much was clear, and Clint had never really doubted that: since they first met Steve Rogers in the tunnels, he and Bruce had shared a rapport. It had merely culminated in Steve waking up after the operation to install a data port into his brain.
Jane was beside Thor, pressed close to his side for protection and comfort while she could still have it. She was not a fighter, but bravely prepared to face whatever lay outside. Thor had remained near his adopted brother Loki through most of the battle and its aftermath. This couldn’t be easy for Loki, to fight the crew he had flown with just days ago, but he had stepped up as an Operator when an explosion damaged the bridge and injured Darcy. Clearly Loki had picked a side, and Clint would continue to give him the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong.
Outside, a sudden noise could be heard. It was quick, but there was no mistaking it for what it was: the shot from a lightning rifle.
Everyone’s head shot up, and the silence inside the corridor turned thick and expectant. A long moment passed like that, with restless shifting, then eventually more shots followed. Clint could tell several types of weapons apart by sound alone, but it was hard to tell how far away they were with the ship’s hull between them and the echoes in the large tunnel.
“Should we go?” Natasha asked, voice low as if they needed to whisper.
“Not yet,” Thor shook his head.
“This might be the only chance we get,” Loki argued.
“Maybe we should open the ramp a little, to take a peek at what’s happening,” Jane mused.
“We can’t take the risk of the ramp getting jammed; that’s the only way we’re getting Darcy out,” Clint refused the idea. “It’s all the way open or not at all.”
Silence followed. They didn’t even put it to a vote. No one wanted to make that one, fatal call, in case they ran into the middle of a battlefield. At the same time, Steve had told them to start moving once they heard shots, but how far was the fight from the ramp?
“Maybe someone should go back to the bridge, to see what’s happening?” Loki suggested another approach to their problem.
“You gonna volunteer?” Natasha asked.
“I’ll go,” Clint offered. “Stay put, unless you’re certain it’s a good time to go.” Which they wouldn’t be any more certain about than they had been so far; that’s why they were sending a lookout back to the bridge, where the windows would hopefully provide a vantage point for the on-going battle.
“Be careful,” Natasha murmured, and Clint nodded stiffly, then turned around and chose the quickest way back to the bridge. In the darkness, it was hard to see all the damages, and he kept stumbling into things that weren’t usually there. In the dim light of his lamp, the shadows were thick and wide, leaving much of his surroundings to his imagination.
He reached the bridge, eventually, and checked one window after another. One of them, half-cracked, provided him with an unobstructed view of what was happening: the shooting had ceased, and Steve and Tony were confronting the Cleansers – or that’s who he thought they were. They appeared to be talking, and Clint wondered how well that was going, but they were too far away for him to hear even if he managed to break the window.
Tony made a gesture which Clint barely caught in the weak light – and suddenly his eyes spotted movement in the air: a Sentinel.
The Cleansers aimed their weapons upwards, focusing on the Machine with the intensity of an in-bred fear response every man, woman and child in Zion had. Clint expected Steve and Tony to use the moment to their advantage in some way, but they remained as they were, watching the Sentinel fall; it was clear, even from a distance, that they weren’t having much luck convincing the Cleansers of the truth, so why they hadn’t used the distraction provided by the Sentinel’s arrival was beyond Clint. Maybe they had a plan.
With the imminent threat of the Machine gone, the Cleansers’ attention was drawn back to their opponents. Tony had dropped his weapon at some point, while Steve still held onto his. With four weapons aimed at them, the situation wasn’t in their favor. Clint itched to return to the others, tell anyone who could fight to get a weapon and even the odds. Steve could scold him afterwards, when they were all alive and on their way back to Zion.
He was just turning to return to the others when movement caught his eye. Clint returned his gaze to the group of men, then further off. His breath caught as he saw several pieces of metal assemble on the tunnel floor. Ever since their trip to defeat the Merovingian, he’d had a name for it: Iron Man.
At first he feared it was an illusion, because from a distance it looked a lot like the armor he’d witnessed in the Matrix. An illusion wouldn’t do much. However, when one of the Cleansers pointed a gun at Tony, the armor raised its hand and blasted the man squarely in the chest, his body slammed back with force that might break bones.
The armor was very real, and Clint turned and dashed down the stairs and corridors as quickly as his feet would carry him safely back to the ramp. When he arrived, the others were on their feet, expectant looks on their faces.
“Well?” Natasha asked at once.
“Open the ramp,” Clint told Bruce.
“Why? What’s happening?” the scientist blinked but moved towards the release controls.
“There’s an Iron Man outside. There was a Sentinel, it must have brought it,” Clint realized as he said it out loud. That’s why Tony had let the one Sentinel leave before, unharmed, while he had destroyed the others.
“An Iron Man?” Jane frowned.
“Like at Le Vrai?” Natasha asked, knowing what Clint was talking about; they hadn’t had time to tell the others about what Tony had done during their fight against the Merovingian.
“Just open the ramp,” Clint urged. “I think the battle is over by now, and if not, we’ll help wrap it up.” He threw a quick look at Betty, to check her expression, but she was keeping it carefully neutral.
Bruce decided to agree with his plan and used a wrench to force the ramp to open. It fell with an uncontrolled speed, making a loud crashing sound as it hit the solid surface beneath the ship and rocked the entire hovercraft a little. Darcy whimpered at the movement. Clint moved down the ramp at once, Thor following close by. They didn’t have a perfect view of the action from here, but as soon as Clint’s feet hit the ground, he was already turning right, the gun heavy and solid in his grip.
Indeed, the battle was over: Steve stood over the fallen men with what looked like his Matrix shield in hand. The Iron Man armor was still there, as was Tony, and they both looked unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for the Cleansers who had burns, scrapes and other possible injuries all over them.
Clint and Thor were the first to get to them, but the others followed, one by one, save for Betty, Loki and Natasha, who must have stayed behind with Darcy.
“I’m confused,” Jane frowned at their captain. “Is that the shield from the Matrix?”
“No,” Steve shook his head, a gentle smile on his face. His free hand caressed the smooth surface with a faded painted star in the middle of it. “This is the real deal the Matrix shield is based on.”
“I thought you lost it,” Jane’s frown deepened slightly.
“Tony returned it. Apparently the Machines found it from the… well, where I lost it, originally.” It was clear he was holding back. No doubt it was one of those things he tried not to talk about, even to them. Mostly because he had once told someone and it hadn’t ended well.
“And that?” Thor asked, pointing at the armor.
“Meet Iron Man,” Steve grinned. “Or, rather, the armor. Tony’s Iron Man.”
“Even when he isn’t in the suit?” Clint raised an eyebrow, looking at the man and machine standing side by side.
“Even then,” Tony nodded.
“Cool,” Jane decided.
“What are we doing with them?” Bruce asked, looking towards the defeated Cleansers.
“We take them back to Zion with us,” Steve said, and it was clear he had already made a decision on that. “Tony and Bruce, find a way to hail one of the other ships, have them pick us up.”
“Yes, sir,” Tony saluted mockingly and turned back towards The Avenger. “Let’s see if we can’t use the ship’s systems to amplify our call.”
Bruce nodded and the two of them started walking off. After a brief debate, Jane rushed after them, deciding she might be able to be of assistance.
“You’re making a grave mistake,” one of the defeated Cleansers said. He was older than the others, and Clint made a vague guess this was the captain and leader of the group – and Betty’s father. “The Weapon is within our grasp and you’ll let him escape –”
“He doesn’t appear to be escaping anywhere,” Clint offered his point of view. “We saved him from Machine City, and he’s enjoying his freedom. Besides, the only thing he’s been interested in shooting has been you,” he added. “Leave it alone before we all suffer for your delusions. Humanity might not be entirely free, but the Truce is a thousand-fold times better than the War.”
“We have the means to end the War!” Ross argued.
“Yeah? Did you ever stop to wonder if it was too good to be true? That the Machines would actually keep around a Weapon capable of destroying themselves? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that only humans are stupid enough to keep such a thing around; the Machines are way too logical for that.”
It was clear Ross was miles from accepting the truth, but he shut up for the time being and Clint nodded at Steve, then moved over to secure their prisoners in case they got it into their heads to try and resume their attack. It shouldn’t take long for Bruce and Tony to find a way to call them a ride, but until then he preferred to know that this troublesome group wasn’t going anywhere, to cause them more grief.
However, it remained to be seen how much damage they had already caused.
Clint looked back out towards The Avenger and wondered if Tony knew what was coming next.
to be continued…