God Switch • Chapters 11-12
Chapter 11: Negotiations
Steve felt adrift, which wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
They had managed to contact another ship, which had arrived to pick them up and take them to Zion. That had been the plan. It was a good, solid plan, but it reached only so far and Steve couldn’t help but feel tension spiking in his system; he didn’t know what lay ahead. He ached to talk to Tony about it, behind closed doors. With the armor and his shield, he felt more like himself – which forced Steve to remind himself, firmly, that this wasn’t the past.
Here, Tony could be the Weapon, or a messiah; the people of Zion could side with the Cleansers, or they could seize the opportunity to maintain peace with the Machines.
Steve didn’t know which way things would go, and he doubted Tony did either. Yet the other man appeared rather serene, sitting on the floor, pretending not to feel the gazes of everyone who passed them. The Iron Man armor stood beside him, unmoving yet active. Why Tony hadn’t put it on, Steve didn’t know, but that didn’t trouble him nearly as much as not knowing the reception that awaited them would go.
The captain of the helpful ship had been curious about what had happened, but he also knew when to mind his own business. “The Council will be ready to see you when we arrive in Zion,” he had told Steve, which meant the Council had been made aware of the scuffle between the two ships. While there had been an order to find the Cleansers and stop them from threatening the Truce, things had escalated a lot since they last visited Zion.
“What will you tell them?” Steve asked Tony.
“Enough,” Tony replied, a distant look on his face. When Steve kept staring at him, willing him to say more, Tony turned his eyes towards him. “They’re not ready for the whole truth.”
“Agreed,” Steve nodded, but still kept looking at Tony. “Have you told me the whole truth?”
A quizzical smile played on Tony’s lips. “Maybe. Maybe not.” He looked to the side at a minimal change in the sound of the hovercraft’s engines, then returned his attention to Steve. “There’s a lot to tell and process. There are things I still need to accept and comprehend; things that used to make sense, logically, but now… not so much.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Steve promised him. “Worst case scenario, we take off.”
“That’s not a life,” Tony told him. “You’ve been out there before, Steve, and you barely made it.”
Steve’s jaw tightened. “It’s better than some options. It’s better than if they decide to take their chances with the Weapon.”
Tony remained silent but he didn’t appear sold on the idea of leaving. Steve didn’t blame him.
Bruce walked down the hallway, joining them. “We’re almost in Zion.” He looked from one man to another. “How much we going to tell them?”
“Enough,” Tony repeated.
Bruce nodded slowly, hesitantly. “There’s no chance they’ll rally behind the Cleansers, is there?” he asked next, a note of dread in his voice. He was smart and knew that the idea of destroying the Machines, however small, was compelling to many.
“There were many who wanted to believe in a tomorrow without the Machines, but I’m sure the truth will convince most of them to abandon such ideas,” Steve replied.
“It’s a nice dream,” Bruce murmured. His eyes moved to Tony next, and his expression turned conflicted. “Not to you, I suppose.”
“I dream of things far more complex,” Tony answered cryptically, then stood up and turned towards the armor. “Let’s get you cleaned up a bit. I have a feeling we’ll have an audience, soon.” He walked off down the hallway and the armor followed with big, clunking steps.
Steve glanced down at the shield leaning against the wall. He had forced himself to put it down, to believe it wasn’t going to vanish. It needed to be cleaned as well, perhaps re-painted, but that could wait.
“It’s all getting so real,” Bruce mused, leaning against the wall opposite from him. He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to appear relaxed when he clearly wasn’t. “All your stories suddenly have a face.”
Steve gave him a sad smile. “That’s the problem with memories: sometimes they come back to haunt you.”
“But not always in a bad way?”
“Not always,” Steve agreed and listened to the engines as they flew towards the last city of men.
- - -
Tony was cleaning up the armor’s exterior when he felt the emptiness of the tunnels being replaced by Zion’s security systems. His mind expanded as his hands continued to scrub away years of dust. The suit needed to be recharged, and he hoped the arc reactor wasn’t damaged; he didn’t have the time or the tools to take a closer look at it, but for the time being JARVIS indicated that the situation was under control.
“Enough for an impromptu exit, sir,” was how the AI had put it, knowing the situation in Zion might heat up and demand that Tony leave on short notice. He knew Steve planned on coming with him, and Tony was eager to agree, but a fact remained clear in his mind: one of them had a place to go to outside Zion, while the other did not.
“One step at a time,” he murmured to himself, as his mind continued to follow their progress through the gates and finally an area marked everywhere as the Dock. He could sense other hovercrafts, the defense systems – and deep beneath it all, machinery. A small smile curled his lips. “J, you handle the suit while I’m in the meeting. The Mechanical Level should be sufficient for recharging the suit.”
“Of course, sir,” the AI responded, voice low in Tony’s mind. “Are we expecting trouble?”
“God, I hope not,” Tony sighed. He had no desire to fight his way out of Zion.
JARVIS didn’t add anything, although they had an established connection through the Extremis; if Tony was in danger, the AI would know.
Footsteps approached as Tony finished wiping down the chest plate. The new arrival stopped, hesitated, and Tony utilized the armor’s sensors to see who it was instead of turning: Loki. “Nervous?” Tony asked.
“We’ll be docking momentarily,” the tall man responded, voice tight.
“I wasn’t asking about that,” Tony noted, threw the rag to the side and turned around to look at the other man.
“I know I did the right thing,” Loki told him, although his green eyes were wary. “Much as I would like to see the Machines rusting away, killing other humans wasn’t the way to do it.”
“Yet Betty was willing to give it a shot,” Tony challenged.
“She got caught up in a moment of fear. It happens,” Loki shrugged. “I’m not one to point fingers. Besides, family makes matters… complicated.”
“So, did you warn us because it was the right thing to do, or because your brother was in Steve’s crew?” Tony didn’t really need to know, but it felt like Loki needed to hash this out with someone, and who better to do it with than the man he had, essentially, tried to capture and kill – before he turned redcoat. Tony knew from experience that some reformed villains made great heroes.
Loki scoffed. “Thor was easier to convince to save my ass than anyone else would have been. It was convenient he was on The Avenger.”
It sounded like Loki wasn’t admitting the real truth to himself, but it didn’t matter; Tony himself was a king of denial when it was necessary to maintain his sanity.
“We’re here,” he perked as he felt them dock. Outside the hovercraft, people were amassing; clearly the news had preceded their arrival. However, it had more to do with the capture of the Cleansers than Tony’s person, and he felt a lot better about that. As he began walking towards the main entrance, the armor followed him, and a moment later Loki did as well. It was somewhat amusing how the man kept eyeing up the armor, not quite with the same fear as the Machines, but not far from it.
“He won’t bite,” Tony told him.
“Tell that to the Cleansers,” Loki retorted.
Tony laughed, feeling some of the tension disappear from his system for a few entirely-too-brief seconds.
When they got to the ramp leading outside, Ross and his crew were just being taken out. Tony halted immediately, out of sight, not wanting to stir the pot while in such a public location. He watched them move across the Dock and then out of sight towards holding facilities.
“Tony!” Steve called out as he walked up. “Ready to go? I believe the Council is waiting to meet us.”
“Us?” Tony asked carefully.
Steve nodded. “I don’t know how much they’ve heard, but they asked me to bring you.”
That meant someone had opened the can of worms; it would remain to be seen how wide.
“Okay,” Tony nodded and followed Steve down the ramp. The armor trailed a step behind him, drawing gazes from the people gathered around. Steve looked back over his shoulder and frowned slightly. “I’m not leaving it on the ship,” Tony stated before the super-soldier could suggest it. He did, however, motion with his hand, and the armor broke away from them, heading to the elevator that would take it to the Mechanical Level. The crowd parted to let it pass, eyes following the sleek form until it disappeared.
“Where did you send it off to?” Steve asked, a note of concern in his voice.
“Out of harm’s way,” Tony reassured him. “Come on, we shouldn’t keep the Council waiting. Right?” He had some rough knowledge of the Zion society, but the Machines’ interest in it had been limited. They had studied it to a point, but mostly from the viewpoint of managing the human population – and decimating it.
Steve led the way to the Council chamber where people had already gathered on the rising seats of the auditorium, and a group of twelve men and women was seated at a long table opposite from the raised seats. Tony took it all in as he followed Steve to their places. Most of Steve’s crew already sat together in one section; Clint and Darcy were missing, and Betty looked like she wished she weren’t there, but she remained beside Bruce nonetheless.
Tony took his seat with them, attention drifting for a moment, tracking the armor’s movements. The sharp rap of a gavel brought his attention to the front; clearly they were about to start.
“We have received word that the group known as Cleansers has been found and apprehended,” one of the Councilmen started and his eyes fell pointedly on Steve – who stood and stepped forward.
“Yes, Councilman; the crew of Thanos was found responsible for actions against the safety of Zion. They have been brought back for questioning and your judgment.”
“What of the Weapon?” another Councilman asked.
“There is no Weapon,” Steve told them simply. “It was a plot devised by a program within the Matrix, to bring discord between Zion and Machines, and ultimately rekindle the War, potentially threatening Zion with ultimate destruction.” He stood at attention, voice level, and Tony had seen him give speeches like this many times in the past.
A murmur broke out all around them, and it was clear not everyone was willing to believe this outcome.
“You are certain of this?” a woman from the Council demanded sharply.
“We confronted the program in the Matrix – just before Thanos attacked us and nearly caused the deaths of my crew,” Steve responded.
“We are glad for your safe return,” the first Councilman nodded his head. “We also hear you have brought a stranger with you,” he added, eyes looking past Steve at Tony.
Guessing this was his cue, Tony got to his feet and stepped forward, halting beside Steve. He felt dozens of gazes mapping him out, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“He is not of Zion,” another Councilman stated, “and he does not appear to have been released from the Matrix, either. Where did you find him?”
“The Machine City, sir,” Tony spoke up, using the title although he usually would have skipped it.
Another wave of murmurs cascaded around the room, more intense than last time.
“Machine City?” the Councilor leaned forward, narrowing his eyes as if that would help him see clearer.
“Yes,” Steve agreed, throwing a quick look at Tony. “He was held by the Machines for a… long time. We released him while looking for the Weapon.”
“What would the Machines want with a single human?” another question was tossed at them. “Experimentation, perhaps?”
“You could say that. However, the truth is much more complex, and not everyone here may be able to accept it,” Tony stated. “I would speak of this to the Council alone, please.”
“We do not keep secrets –”
“In this instance, it might be best if you hear the truth first,” Steve cut a Councilman off, as gently as possible. “The world, as you know it, will change forever after you hear Tony’s story.”
The twelve Councilors spoke amongst themselves, then one of them rose and gestured at the auditorium. “Leave us.”
Tony took a deep breath and nodded at Steve. “You, too. I’ll take it from here.”
Steve gave him a hesitant look, but at the firm nod he received from one of the Councilmen, he turned and took his leave with the others.
- - -
Steve went to his rooms to change and wash then briefly visited Darcy in the medical wing before returning to stand vigil outside the Council chamber. It was over three hours later when Tony finally emerged, face unreadable. Steve opened his mouth to ask how it had gone, but Tony breezed past him without a word.
Stunned, Steve followed him, all the way to the elevators. Tony got in purposefully, as if he knew where he was going, and Steve slipped inside the car before it started a long journey down, past the Living Levels. He tried to catch Tony’s eyes, to gauge his mood, but Tony kept avoiding his stare and eventually stepped out of the elevator when it halted on the Mechanical Level.
Again, Steve followed Tony as the other man made his way past machines that worked tirelessly to keep Zion and its people alive. Eventually they found the armor, which was hooked up to several cables, standing still. Tony looked it over, then seemed satisfied and looked around them instead, at the large machinery.
“Tony,” Steve finally broke the silence. “What did they say?”
“Not much,” was the short, absent reply he got.
“What did you tell them?” Steve pressed.
“Most of it,” Tony replied and turned around. He found a room full of tools, dragged a few out and then went to a nearby machine, opening up a panel in its side. Not knowing any better, it looked like he was going to run maintenance on it.
Steve digested the limited information. He supposed it was good if the Councilors hadn’t come up with an immediate reply. It was lot to take in. Most of them believed in a false past, not knowing how many Zions had stood here before this one. How many circles there had been… The fact that Tony had helped create the Machines was, at times, so mind-blowing that Steve had to sit down in order to fully take it in – which he did not, because there was nothing for him to do about it.
Tony kept going through the large machine, meticulous and thorough. It was a lot like the old days in Tony’s workshop, Tony tinkering on whatever and Steve just hanging around, occasionally watching him in between workouts, drawing or reading.
“You like it down here,” Steve finally said.
“Yeah,” Tony admitted, shrugging one shoulder as he was arm-deep in another machine. “They don’t judge, and I… understand them, inside and out. Down here, I have the control, although these are all very simple machines with simple purposes. Nothing like what you have upstairs,” he noted, dropping a hint that he was already inside Zion’s systems and could control some or all of them if he had to.
If the people turned hostile…
“We can leave, right now, if you want,” Steve offered.
Tony shook his head. “It’s… too early. I think there’s still something that needs to be done,” he added.
“It’s only a guess. A vague, careful guess.” Tony clearly didn’t want to tell him.
“You know you can trust me, right? I’m long past judging you, or anyone, and we’ve been through too much to start lying to each other now,” Steve tried to reach him, to talk him out of this mood.
Tony looked at him and finally sat down. He shifted the tool he was holding, playing with it almost restlessly. “Even if the Council takes all this in stride and refuses to even sniff at the Cleansers’ ideals, there are still the Machines to consider.”
“I thought that was under control,” Steve frowned.
Tony huffed. “I’m kind of glad they didn’t crash the little party we had in the tunnel with the Cleansers.” He looked up towards the high ceiling, then returned his gaze to Steve’s face. “They’ll come. I feel it. They know where I am. Maybe they don’t know I’m already here, but for them, Zion is the only destination I’m going to take.”
“Then we should leave,” Steve insisted, jumping to his feet.
“Steal a ship and run?” Tony arched an eyebrow. “You’re turning into such a pirate, Rogers. Sit down,” he added, and Steve reluctantly did as he was told. “I need to make a stand,” Tony told him. “I didn’t mention any of this to the Council, because they might be a little less warm towards me – and there wasn’t a whole lot of warmth to begin with. However, they are serving the people of Zion, their interests, so kicking my ass out of here might not be in their best interest. They sense I’m a bargaining tool. They just have no idea how much.”
Steve felt a tight agitation twist inside his chest. “Tony, just tell me what the Machines want and we’ll deal with it.”
“I’m not sure what they want, at this point,” Tony told him. “I’m afraid to look too deep. They’re too far, and I’m… I’m uncertain of my own limits right now. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have any, and in the next moment I’m frail and back in that coffin in Zero One.” A deep shadow grew on his face and he looked down at the tool his fingers were gripping tightly. “I could do much good here. I just know that’s not going to happen.”
“It might,” Steve said hopefully.
“It won’t,” Tony shook his head and his eyes were so incredibly sad as he looked back at Steve. “That’s never been an option, not really.”
“We have time to figure it out,” Steve decided. He hated how pessimistic Tony was being – and how much he wasn’t telling Steve, despite pretending that he had just given a big chunk of information to him. The truth was, Tony probably knew how this thing was going to play out, but he was unwilling to share the knowledge. Whether it was to save Steve from some pain Tony didn’t think he could handle, or to keep all the threads of control in his own hands, he didn’t know.
Steve wondered if there was a way to make Tony trust him, but then, Tony had always pulled stunts like this and it had little to do with trust. After all, the person Tony mistrusted most was himself, which made the whole equation of his decision-making imbalanced and hard to anticipate.
He was debating his next move when Tony’s head jerked up, rather violently. Steve could narrow down the causes because he hadn’t heard anything – and what he didn’t hear or sense was Extremis-related. And what was Extremis-related could either be a threat from the humans – or the Machines.
“We need to go,” Tony said, getting up to his feet.
Steve followed his example, uncertain of what was happening but fearless to find out. It wasn’t exactly a clue when Tony released the Iron Man armor from the cables and had it follow them back to the elevator; any kind of disturbance would have left Tony feeling like he wanted back up, and who better to provide it than an armor he had designed, built, and which was controlled by both his mind and his trusty AI?
“What is it?” Steve finally asked as they were moving upwards, towards the Dock.
Tony merely shifted, his attention somewhere else; Steve was being a distraction, asking questions, and Steve’s fingers tightened against the worn straps of his shield. Whatever it was, it had to be trouble. Something Tony feared he couldn’t control if his attention slipped even for a second.
The elevator stopped at Dock level and Steve shoved the door out of the way, prepared for anything. He wasn’t certain he had expected to see people running around, APU units striding hastily amongst them. He blinked, looking at the barely controlled chaos. Tony and the armor followed him out of the elevator, then started making their way towards the middle of the Docks. Steve followed, not knowing what else to do.
“Tony, talk to me,” Steve ordered after a while. “What’s going on?”
“They’re coming,” Tony murmured.
“Who are coming?” Steve asked, exasperated, then stopped to consider: the humans were already here, ergo, something was coming from outside Zion, which meant Machines. He told himself he shouldn’t have been surprised that it hadn’t taken the Machines longer than this to track Tony down. Or, perhaps the lone Sentinel Tony had sent to retrieve his armor and Steve’s shield had given them a head’s up. Whether that was in an attempt to protect Tony in the midst of the fight or to bring him ‘home’, Steve wouldn’t guess, and it didn’t matter in terms of the outcome.
A young man dashed past them, then skidded to a halt and gaped at Iron Man for a good five seconds before snapping out of it. “Machines are coming!” he declared, a hint of panic in his voice.
Steve didn’t think there was cause for such concern, because even during the War, it had taken the Machines days, weeks – even months – to reach Zion. “How far away are they?” he asked, trying to convey calmness in his voice.
“You don’t understand,” the young man hastened to explain. “The Mainframe is not responding and the Sentinels are flying through our defense system as we speak!”
That gave Steve a start. If they couldn’t use their vast defense system, the Machines could come knocking any time now. He glanced at Tony, to ask him to figure out what was wrong – until he realized there was nothing wrong that Tony wasn’t already aware of. “What are you doing?” he asked in a quick whisper when the young man ran off again, probably to tell the news to anyone who would listen and not put a gun in his hand.
Tony’s eyes met his, but it was clear half his mind was tasked somewhere else. “They’ll keep pushing until the defenses give. I’m sparing ammo and damages.”
“By doing what?”
“Letting them in.”
Steve felt like shaking him. “Tony, you can’t. If they get past that gate,” he pointed at the giant metal construction, “they may as well kill everyone on this side.”
“They won’t,” Tony told him.
“How do you know that?” Steve demanded. “You know I trust you, but you need to tell me. The people won’t stand for this –”
Something banged against the metal gate, and most of the motion stopped in the Dock area. Eyes turned towards the doors, as if they would suddenly give under the onslaught – as they would, eventually. Steve tore his eyes away from it, returning his attention to his friend. “Tony, please. Make me understand.”
“Fighting won’t help,” Tony murmured, starting to walk again. “It will inflame the wound and we want to heal it, not tear it open. Repair and maintain…”
Tony was starting to lose himself in the moment, Steve realized, his mind cut in a dozen pieces as he spread it thin across the Zion systems and the Machines. Another bang came from the Dock gate, insistent and powerful. The APUs were put into position, forming a line of defense, and the Dock was being emptied of everything that could be protected. The hovercrafts still sat in their docks, but each of them had an EMP that could be launched and used to deflect the attack.
“We should find some cover,” Steve said out loud. It was the smart thing to do, but also his way of trying to provoke a response from Tony. They were in the middle of the open space of the Dock, and if the Machines got through the gate they were currently lurking behind…
Tony tilted his head. “No, I… Okay,” he breathed. A sigh like one of relief followed – or he’d just reached some kind of decision or goal. Tony’s hands moved together, fingers snapping in an uneven rhythm, but he didn’t look like he was going to move anywhere. The Iron Man armor appeared as calm as ever.
To their right, the huge gate creaked, and then the locking mechanism started slowly moving; the doors were opening. Steve froze, knowing there was no way anyone could think that was a smart decision – other than Tony. On the walls, turrets turned to face the gate, along with each APU aiming their weapons at the widening gap.
Steve watched, waiting with dread, unable to prevent a small jump when hundreds of Sentinels began to swarm inside like insects, filling the air, rounding the tall tower in the middle of the Docks like a black cloud. On the walls, the turrets lowered their barrels like flowers hiding on a cloudy day, and while a few APUs managed to fire, they seemed to be running into some kind of technical difficulties if the frantic gestures of their pilots were anything to go by. None of the tower’s weapons were working either, pointed lifelessly at the swarm of enemies.
That left only the men and women armed with manual weapons, but in the shock of it all they had yet to start firing.
The Sentinels kept swirling, none of them attacking the humans below.
Tony squared his shoulders and motioned with his hand, as if to command a dog to heel. Immediately the Sentinels halted, but instead of changing direction, they all turned towards them – towards Tony – and Steve couldn’t help the feeling of being watched by a thousand eyes. Many of the Sentinels began to drift closer, lower, and they soon began another circle above Tony.
It reminded Steve of what Tony had done in the Matrix, the last time they faced off against Agents.
“Who speaks for the AI?” Tony asked, voice loud and certain. All the hesitation was gone from him, and emotions were replaced by determination on his face. After all, the Machines had no use for sentiment.
The Sentinels kept spinning until from the midst of them a single Machine appeared, although it looked nothing like any Machine Steve had ever seen, being the shape of a smooth, round sphere; it halted in the air before appearing to unfold. The new shape it assumed resembled nothing but a strange, mechanical mass in Steve’s mind. “I speak for the Source,” the Machine declared in a voice that wasn’t entirely human.
“For the AI,” Tony corrected.
The Machine let out a sound much like disapproval, but did not correct him. “We wish to communicate with you.” The Machine extended some kind of appendage, but Tony batted it away with a hand.
“We will speak, and the others will listen,” he said. “Here and now, we will negotiate.”
“There is no negotiation. The humans have violated the terms of the Truce –”
“Bullshit,” Tony snapped. “The humans wish to continue the Truce, despite the acts of a few. Those few will be punished, by human laws.”
Another dissatisfied noise left the Machine, and its shape changed again, slightly, as if it couldn’t decide what to do. “You will return to the Source at once,” it demanded.
“All in due time,” Tony replied, and Steve opened his mouth. Something brushed against his arm, though, and he looked to the side, finding the Iron Man armor gently grabbing his forearm. There was no expression to be read on the faceplate, but Steve felt like he was being asked to wait.
“Your resistance is not logical,” the Machine said. “The humans seek your destruction. It cannot be allowed to happen. At the Source, you will be protected.”
Tony’s expression was almost fond for a second before hardening again. “Here are my terms, so broadcast them back to Zero One: the Truce will remain in effect, as was agreed by Neo and the Source. I will go to the surface and work to clear the skies. After that, the earth will heal itself and in time become habitable again. The Machines will no longer need humans to energize themselves, and the power plants will cease to exist. Only natural-born humans will remain, and they will be able to return to the surface, to resume their old way of life. Machine and Man will continue to exist separately, in peace.”
The Machine considered this while Steve tried to comprehend Tony’s plan. It sounded unbelievable, and he doubted it would be that easy when the control had been in the hands of the Machines for so long.
“If we allow this,” the Machine started, “will you return to the Source?”
“After all’s ready and done, yes,” Tony acquiesced.
“No,” Steve snapped, despite the armor still holding him back. “You can’t promise that! They’ll hold you in captivity for the rest of your life.”
Tony gave him a brief glance. “This isn’t a haggle, Steve, but a negotiation.” Before Steve could retort, Tony had already turned back to the Machine. “To ensure the continuity of the Truce, I will return to the Source.” He eyed up the Machine. “Does the AI accept these terms?”
The Machine remained silent, its surface shifting, and slowly it reverted back to its original sphere form. Steve watched with dread; the Machines had no reason to bow down to Tony’s demands. They could just snatch him, right here, take him back to the Machine City and raze Zion to the ground.
“Yes,” the Machine finally spoke. “We accept these terms.”
And just like that, the Sentinels began flying out of the Dock, disappearing into the tunnel outside in an orderly fashion. Steve watched them go, then caught a glimpse of the armor, watching as well.
Tony let out a breath of air and turned to look at him. “I know what you’re about to say –”
“You shouldn’t need to return there,” Steve launched into it anyway. “They don’t… need you anymore. Not like that. They could let you be free, as they used to.”
“That was before the War,” Tony shrugged. “It’s… hard to explain, but there, I can make a difference. After I’ve made a difference out there,” he nodded upwards, meaning the sky.
People had gathered around them, a mix of suspicious and wondrous looks on their faces. The young man from before pushed to the front, looking at Tony. “What you said about the skies… can you really do it?” he asked.
Tony scoffed. “I know this doesn’t mean anything to you, kid, but I’m Tony Stark.”
A confused frown met his words.
Steve chuckled, despite the situation. “It means that with enough time and resources… yeah, he can do it.” He looked at Tony again, pushing the sadness away for a moment. “It shouldn’t end like this, after all you’ve been through.” He knew all about sacrifice, but he felt like they had both done enough, in their first lifetime, and they should get to enjoy the fruits of their labor once Tony finally cleared the scorched skies. After all, Steve had absolute faith that Tony, of all people, could do it.
“Oh, this isn’t the end,” Tony told him, a strained smile on his face. “I’ll always have my place in Malibu, when things are fixed upstairs.”
Steve didn’t bother pointing out how many times Tony had called that place a ‘prison’ during their brief time together. He knew Tony remembered, but preferred not to think about it right now: there was work to be done, a feat no one else had dreamt of accomplishing in this lifetime or the next, and Tony would tackle that with both hands.
At least it wouldn’t happen overnight, and they would have all that time to figure out what came next…
to be continued…
Chapter 12: Dreaming the Morrow
The ocean was calm, the sky blue and sunny. It was several hours after sunrise, but still early enough that the world hadn’t truly awakened. The hour was such that Tony wasn’t yet functioning properly, instead slightly pressed against Steve’s side as they stood together on the balcony, leaning on the railing, enjoying the slight breeze on their skins.
It was a perfect moment in the midst of the creative chaos that was Tony’s life; there was no need to rush, speak, or move.
Steve turned his head to look at the other man; the unruly dark locks held back by remnants of gel, the immaculate facial hair. No bags under his eyes, but a slight weariness in them nonetheless.
“Sir,” JARVIS called from the inside, signaling that the moment had passed, “the last batch of calculations is complete.”
“Thanks, J,” Tony murmured, then straightened and stretched. His neck cracked as he tilted his head from side to side. “Almost time,” he mused and turned to go back inside, leaving Steve alone on the balcony, above the ocean, in the sunlight.
With a small sigh, Steve looked up at the blue sky one more time, then pulled back from the railing and followed Tony indoors. There was no one in the living room so he took the winding stairs downstairs to the workshop.
The room was lit by dozens of holograph screens working at full capacity. Steve could stare at them for hours, reading every line in order to figure out what they were about – and in most cases he would still remain clueless – whereas Tony’s mind was pushing each screen around, scrolling past data, dismissing and discarding, editing and moving forward. Here, his body was at rest and his mind could wander around, never aimlessly but with such purpose it almost took Steve’s breath away.
Part of him knew he would always want to be here, watching Tony work from one problem to the next, from one option here to another solution there; he would want to be here for Tony’s failures and moments of rage when he would kick his chair across the room when nothing worked as he wanted it to.
He didn’t want to leave Tony here alone, nor did he really want to go out into the world without him, either.
Steve knew that question could still wait, though.
“Almost there,” Tony murmured, swirling his chair around and across the floor. He stilled, turned around again, closed his eyes and then clapped his hands, all screens and files disappearing. “Done,” he declared, opening his eyes. “All in a day’s work,” he grinned. “Time to get going, Cap,” he added and rose from the chair, leaving it there in the middle of the room.
Steve blinked himself out of his light reverie and nodded, turning to follow Tony up the stairs to the main floor. Every sound was muted, leaving them in a hushed silence. The balcony doors were closed, a barrier between them and the ocean, the sun and the wind.
“Ready?” Tony asked. His eyes were bright, mind primed for the next thing, and Steve nodded his acceptance.
“Captain,” JARVIS spoke up, “please close your eyes.”
‘I’ll see you on the other side,’ Tony’s voice whispered in his mind, and the next time Steve opened his eyes, he felt the brief, cold drag inside his skull as a small Machine pulled the data probe from his brain. Steve allowed his body to settle for a second before sitting up; the surface beneath him was shifting, from a flat bed to a chair. It was probably supposed to be comfortable, but he never remained conscious long enough to find out.
He got to his feet as soon as he was certain the dizziness had passed, walking down the dimly lit corridor. It widened after a while, and he took a turn to the right, coming to a wider room. On both sides the walls were divided into sections, and in each section stood a slightly different Iron Man armor, their metal surfaces gleaming as he passed. In the middle of the room was a table, and on top of it lay his shield – exactly where he had placed it before entering the Matrix.
Steve grabbed the shield as he went by and continued towards a door on the other side of the long room. The door slid open without a sound and a cool breeze brushed against his skin. An open space spread out before him, without ceiling or walls. He could feel the slight vibration of the hull as he walked out, trying not to think of how high up they were.
When he came far enough away from the door, he spotted Tony already standing further off, right by the edge, unafraid of the heights. Steve joined him and took a look at the ugly black clouds spreading endlessly beneath them, crackling with electric charge. Up here, it wasn’t as noticeable, and the thin air made his head spin a little. On the horizon, however, the sun was climbing higher, shining brightly, almost blindingly, and Tony stared at it, taking it all in.
Steve didn’t know how much closer to an answer Tony had gotten tonight while his body rested and his mind took full advantage of the Matrix’ connection to the Source. He had already learned this was Tony’s favorite way of working; the real world felt slow to him, for some reason. Tony was less in control of his environment here.
“It’s beautiful,” Steve noted, like he did most mornings – and evenings, when the sun set and left them in darkness that reminded him of the tunnels and the barren earth below the clouds. However, up here they could see the stars, which was another kind of comfort entirely. As things used to be…
Tony nodded. “One day, we’ll stand down there and see this. One day, it will all be better.”
Steve knew it wouldn’t be the same, but very few things in their lives were. Close enough, he decided.