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Del Rion [userpic]

Enemy of the World (1/3)

Story Info



Title: Enemy of the World

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)

Timeline: before/after “Age of Ultron”

Genre: Alternate universe, drama

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark (Iron Man), Vision, Tony’s bots (DUM-E and U). Also: Bruce Banner (Hulk), James “Bucky” Barnes (Winter Soldier), Happy Hogan, Harley Keener, Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America). Many other MCU characters mentioned.

Pairings: Happy/Pepper, Pepper/Tony (implied/past)

Summary: After a war that lasted for ten grueling years, Ultron has finally been defeated. However, when Tony Stark reappears – presumed dead at the dawn of Ultron’s war on mankind – a frantic struggle begins between those who want to restrain him in order to protect their hard-won peace and Tony’s quest to comprehend how his actions could have allowed this alien future to be born.
Complete. Part of Genius, AI & Bots series (a ‘what if?’ AU related to the technopathy AUs and the story “The Ghost Attacks”).

Written for: Apocalypse Bang’s (apocalypsebang) round 3.

Art: Banner by Penumbria (penumbria_fics) [AO3 / LJ]

Warnings: Canonical violence, language, character death (past/off-screen).

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier, Alan Taylor, Anthony & Joe Russo, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)


About Enemy of the World: Sort of a ‘what if?’ story, taking an alternate universe approach on the upcoming ‘Age of Ultron’ movie. Partially based on the mind-meld/technopathy AU within my “Genius, AI & Bots” series (“The Human Interface”) – as well as maintaining continuity from “The Ghost Attacks”.

A “theme song” for one the scenes: BABYMETAL: Over the Future (Rising Force Version).


Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Enemy of the World



~ ~ ~








Enemy of the World




Avengers Tower,
Manhattan NYC,
2015

Tony stirred at his desk in the workshop area of the lab. He felt like he had been asleep for several hours – which was strange, considering that J.A.R.V.I.S. usually woke him in order to suggest he go to bed.

Brushing a hand over his face, fingertips tracing the faint, embedded lines of the tools he had been sleeping on, he slowly pushed his chair away from the desk and took stock of the room. It was quiet, most of the screens dimmed. Around him, the new prototype alloys for the next generation of armors lay in the scattered pattern someone else may have considered a ‘mess’, but was completely coordinated in Tony’s eyes.

He yawned and stretched a bit, then moved to stand up. “Time to hit the sack,” he murmured, starting towards the door.

Tony was almost out in the hallway when the silence started to bug him: earlier, the bots had been making noise, working on something J.A.R.V.I.S. had set up for them. Tony hadn’t asked what it was, seeing as it kept the bots out of his hair until he had need of their assistance. There were no such sounds now, though, and J.A.R.V.I.S. had not acknowledged his plans to go to bed.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Tony called out.

“Sir,” the AI responded as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

Tony frowned as he exited the lab, the door shutting behind him. Maybe he was just tired, and it wasn’t as if he needed the idle chatter. “Nothing,” he mused finally – not that his AI had sounded like he was standing by for orders. J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t need Tony to control his every move, and neither did Tony feel like he had to monitor the AI at all times.

As he crossed the communal area to head to his room, his eyes checked the Manhattan skyline. It had become a bit of a habit, as if he needed to check that it was still there and nothing like aliens invading was taking place outside. Not that it had happened more than once, but it wasn’t a sight you forgot. Besides, if he thought of it logically, what could happen once could also happen again. The odds might be against it, but Tony had learned the hard way to not let the odds beat him – or take him by surprise.

His eyes moved away from the wall of reinforced glass, checking the room in front of him. The only things out of the usual were bits and pieces of metal, wire, and components scattered across the floor. Tony suspected they were leftovers from whatever J.A.R.V.I.S. had had the bots working on earlier, and he would have to remind Dummy and You to clean up after themselves; it would not do to have such a mess in the communal area, especially when the other Avengers would be around in the future. For now it was just him and Bruce, and Bruce didn’t mind a mid-project mess, but the bots would have to learn…

Tony’s foot landed on something foreign, and he sensed something was off the moment his weight settled on it. Like stepping on a snail and knowing your weight was going to crush it before you could shift away from it.

There was no faint crunching sound, though; no indication that he had stepped on something he shouldn’t have, save for the instinctive spike up his spine, alerting him to an unknown factor that was potentially dangerous.

The potential danger arrived in the form of a current that traveled up and across his body, seizing his muscles and making it feel like his heart stopped for a fraction of a second. It passed over Tony’s frame like a slow, languid wave, from the surface of his skin to his very core and then back out, squeezing the air out of his lungs until he felt as if he were on the verge of passing out. His inner ear seemed to lose touch with the rest of his body, sending him crashing down with an almost overwhelming urge to throw up whatever resided in his stomach.

His ears buzzed with a sound like an electric current trapped inside his skull. It faded slowly as the vertigo settled and his skin stopped prickling. He still felt like hurling, but filling his lungs with air was more important so he tried to keep the urge to vomit to a minimum as he gasped and coughed, feeling as if he had stopped breathing for a couple minutes.

“Damn,” he finally wheezed out. “The hell was that…?”

Silence.

Slowly, he raised his head – and instantly regretted it as spots floated across his vision, so prominent he could not see a damn thing past them.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he called out. “Report. What the fuck did I step on?” At least he was fairly sure he had stepped on something. Nothing had exploded, as far as he could tell, and he could not smell anything burning, which was also good.

There was no response from the AI.

Tony took a deep breath and shifted his weight to the side, sitting his ass down onto the floor, slowly lifting his upper body higher and higher until he was confident the worst of the dizzying vertigo was gone and it was possible he might actually be able to take a look around.

As he reopened his eyes, a few bright spots still drifted across his vision, but he could make out the room around him. The lights were out, and there was a faint odor in the air. It still didn’t smell like burning, but more like dust and old things.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.!” he called out again, waiting for the electricity to come back on and an explanation from the AI.

While his body began to feel like it was back to normal and the gloomy darkness still remained, Tony decided he had to fix this himself and slowly got to his feet, taking it slow just in case his limbs stopped cooperating in the middle; he still hurt from his previous fall and didn’t look forward to a repeat.

When he was finally standing, Tony decided to check the view from the windows, to see whether the blackout reached beyond the Tower – not that it should because he wasn’t part of the city’s grid – and froze as he didn’t see the normal fluorescence from the city below. Maybe there was something wrong after all…

He started towards the windows, to take a proper look, but his foot hit something on the floor almost instantly. Stopping and looking down at it, Tony saw a long shape on the floor; it looked like a supporting beam from one of the walls.

Frowning, he stopped to take a proper look around, making out shapes in the darkness as his eyes got used to the absence of light. It crossed his mind to find a flashlight, but that thought was swiftly crossed out and replaced by mounting confusion as he tried to make sense of the few things he could see in the dark.

None of it made sense. Nothing was where it had been an instant ago, and for the most part items were missing. Entire sections of the communal area were missing, walls stripped away and shadows so deep on the floor that Tony suddenly began to suspect they were not shadows at all but gaping holes waiting for him to stumble into and fall to his death.

With his heart beating nervously in his chest, he carefully turned back towards the outer wall, making his way over to it – avoiding any dark shadows. The closer he got, the more he grew aware of a draft, and it was no wonder once he came within touching distance of his destination: most of the windows were missing entirely, broken shards still sticking to the edges like jagged teeth. A lazy wind blew into the room, reminding Tony to be careful of his footing unless he wanted to accidentally plunge to another horrible kind of death.

If the room had taken on a bizarre transformation, the city was no different. In what Tony could swear was only seconds, perhaps minutes if he had blacked out, entire buildings had gone missing from where they had just stood. He had flown across Manhattan often enough to know its layout, and whatever he was looking at in the weak light was not it.

Not unless someone had swapped in a replacement from a mass-destruction movie, featuring craters where buildings had just stood, crumpled heaps of concrete, steel, and glass serving as poor signposts for his bewildered mind.

“I must be dreaming,” he said out loud. “This is a dream.”

He went to pinch his arm through the shirt he was wearing – the same shirt he had been wearing as he left the workshop. His fingers dug in hard and good, making pain flare across his sensitive skin, but the deep gray of the darkness remained fixed into place.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out again, taking a step back from the window. He already knew there would be no response, but it was too quiet in the city that never slept. It was as if he had entered a foreign graveyard, surrounded by nothing but death.

A distant bang suddenly reached his ears and Tony jerked his head towards it. No other sound followed, and he began to entertain the very likely option that he had gone mad. Either that or this was the most realistic, horrible nightmare of his life so far, and he wondered if stepping off the window ledge would prompt him to wake up.

Before he chose to give that plan of action a chance, another sound reached his ears. In the silence of the building, it echoed too weakly to pinpoint, but Tony decided to go and investigate it. He could always come back and jump down later.

As he had suspected before, there were gaping holes in the floor. Most that he passed and dared to approach went down so far he could not see the bottom, but frankly, he wasn’t sure he could see the next floor in the lack of proper lighting anyway. He didn’t chance falling into any one of them, though, keeping clear of the edges and moving across the room at a cautious speed. It wasn’t difficult to remind himself to move slowly: so much had changed that it was like walking in foreign terrain, and he had to stay alert in order to know where he was going. The building was still the same, he decided. It just looked like the Hulk had done some remodeling.

There were no growls or roars from the green beast, however, and Tony began to entertain the possibility of trying to locate his suit and going off to find Bruce or the Hulk – whomever was in control right now. It would explain the destruction in the city, but he failed to see how he could have lain unconscious through all this happening around him.

Besides, it wasn’t as if he were the only person who could stand between Hulk and his intended target.

Whoever the culprit – Tony’s dreaming subconscious still being the strongest candidate – Tony decided his best option was to find someone and ask them for information.

Turned out, someone found him first: one moment Tony was crossing a dark hallway and trying to navigate past a section of a floor that sounded very unstable beneath him, and the next he had a bright light blinding him, directed straight into his eyes.

“Fuck!” he hissed, lifting an arm to cover his eyes. “Do you mind?!” he yelled at whoever it was. The spots were back in his eyes and he couldn’t see a damn thing.

“Stark?” came a familiar voice – a voice he hadn’t anticipated would belong to the first person he might encounter, yet it was nice to stumble upon someone he at least knew.

“Rogers,” Tony called out in return, to let the man know he had been recognized. “Would you mind lowering the light?”

The light moved, and slowly Tony lowered his arm, blinking his eyes to get rid of the spots. He could make out shapes across the hallway, and it seemed Steve wasn’t alone. It helped that each member of the party was carrying a light of their own, and Tony could count eight of them fanned out around the blond who for once wasn’t wearing the flag colors.

“It can’t be him,” someone muttered – not a voice Tony recognized.

“Should we tranq him?” another member of Steve’s entourage offered. This one sounded slightly more familiar, but not someone Tony could put a face on in his mind. Not a person he knew, most likely, but Steve had been working with S.H.I.E.L.D. before the whole HYDRA mess and it was possible he was still hanging out with whoever was left of the true S.H.I.E.L.D. force. It wasn’t as if they had all been rotten to the core.

“Not yet,” Steve replied and stepped forward.

Tony took a look at him, making out the blond hair and a round shadow behind his shoulders – the iconic shield. From there he jumped to the sharp eyes staring at him, the shadows making them appear a whole lot meaner than Tony thought he deserved – or maybe it was the beard. Steve looked harder wearing scruff, and it was on the tip of Tony’s tongue to refer him to his barber.

He started with the more pressing matter instead: “This might sound a bit weird,” Tony began, “but someone seems to have remodeled the Tower in the last…” He frowned. “I must have blacked out because I swear, the place didn’t look like this five minutes ago. Or the city.”

Steve blinked at him. His expression was hard to read in the poor lighting and with the beard, but he didn’t look happy to see him. “I’m not sure what you’re playing at, or where the hell you’ve been all this time, but I have to bring you in.”

“Bring me in?” Tony repeated. “What’s going on?”

“Just tranq him,” the man from before suggested. “They can question him at HQ.”

“What have I done, supposedly?” Tony demanded, taking a step back. “I have no idea what’s going on, although I’m starting to think this really is a dream – which would make me you a figment of my imagination, and I must have a whole set of unexplored issues because I have no idea what the beard represents.”

Steve’s frown was apparent, no matter the shadows playing on his face. “You think you’re dreaming?”

“Yup,” Tony nodded, trying to keep track of all nine people in case anyone got it in their head to try and shoot him with a tranquilizer.

“Tell me this,” Steve said, taking a step forward. “Where have you been the last ten years?”

Tony wasn’t sure what he meant. “Why is that relevant?”

“Just tell me. I’m curious.”

“Well, lately I’ve been working on the Tower, which got a little beat up in the Chitauri attack a few years back. In between I had a little trouble back home on the west coast, as you may have heard, and before that it was all the good stuff tinkering with the suits –”

“He’s crazy,” another foreign voice called out.

“No commentary from the peanut gallery,” Tony snapped.

“Crazy or not, we have to find the origin of that power surge,” the semi-familiar voice stated, its owner stepping forward. He was holding a large rifle that most certainly did not contain the tranqs he had been suggesting they use on Tony, and as a few of the narrow beams of light hit him as he moved to Steve’s side, Tony recognized him instantly: Bucky Barnes.

The floor creaked ominously as Tony took a hurried step back. Steve’s eyes darted down and then up to Tony’s face, as if to warn Tony not to move in that direction.

“Well, at least now I know I’m dreaming,” Tony murmured.

“How’s that?” Steve asked.

“I’m looking at a dead man,” Tony pointed at Barnes. Sure, the hair looked a lot longer than in the old reels, but the face was etched into his childhood memories, always there beside Captain America, at the front of the Howling Commandos. He wondered if that’s who the others were, although there were still a few too many of them.

Steve gave Barnes a quick glance. “He’s alive. I never got to introduce you, but long story short, he survived the fall, fell into the hands of HYDRA and became his own man after HYDRA fell in 2014.”

“Huh,” Tony commented, even though he still believed his brain was just making this all up. “Well, for what it’s worth, welcome to the Avengers Tower. When I sent you guys the memo, the place was still in excellent shape.”

“We’ve been here before,” Barnes replied, shifting his gun. A glint of metal caught Tony’s eye and he looked at his left arm, but it was hard to make anything out when the ghost of Steve’s past seemed to prefer staying in the shadows. A true sniper.

“The instruments aren’t picking up anything but weak residue,” a woman said from the back of the group. “Whatever happened here, it’s not happening anymore.”

“Care to shed some light on that?” Steve asked.

“On what?” Tony asked back.

“The energy spike that almost crashed our system,” Steve explained. “We pinpointed it to the Tower, in the middle of the dead zone, and find you stumbling around when we come to check it out.”

Tony shrugged. “I have no clue. I thought I stepped on a trap the bots may have constructed. Then again, I might have done just that and am simply hallucinating…” He stopped talking, noticing the sudden wary shifting from his audience.

“Bots?” Steve asked, caution in his voice.

“Yeah, bots,” Tony retorted. “Not sure you’ve met them, but if you do –”

“The surge could have been used to power up something,” the woman interrupted him.

“Could be Ultron,” Barnes said, then turned his attention to Tony – as well as the barrel of his gun. “Is that what you’re up to? It’s not enough what he did already, but you want him to finish the job? Goddamn traitor, a puppet to the machine!”

“Hold on,” Steve snapped. “We don’t know what went down here – or what went down ten years ago when Stark went missing.”

There it was again, those magical words. “Ten years?” Tony repeated. “What happened ten years ago?”

“You disappeared from the face of the Earth,” Steve explained, “and not seven days later, Ultron began his war on humanity. We’ve been fighting ever since, trying to find you, but everyone presumed you dead. It hasn’t been long since we defeated Ultron completely, but there’s always a fear that we didn’t finish the job. That he still exists on some level, ready to start it all over again. We’ve had a lot of false ends to this war over the years.”

His companions grunted in agreement, and Tony felt his head spin.

“Ultron?” he repeated. “The AI?”

“The one you created,” Barnes spat and inched his gun towards Tony in a blatant threat.

“That’s not entirely correct,” Tony raised his hand. “I remodeled him and gave him a facelift, so to speak, but I can’t take all the credit.” There were so many things that didn’t add up, but since this was probably a dream – the longest and most lucid one he’d ever had, too – he didn’t worry too much about it. “I don’t see how Ultron could have threatened anyone, though, because I wasn’t anywhere near done with his programming or working out the kinks with the drones.”

Various weapons were aimed at him in the final stretch of his explanation, and he wasn’t sure what the triggering word had been this time.

“We’re taking you to HQ,” Steve decided. “We’ll find out the truth.”

“Looking forward to it,” Tony said, offered him a smile and went along with it for now.

- - -

Tony didn’t awaken from his dream during the drive across the broken remains of Manhattan, or on the boat ride to a base located off shore, built on a large raft-like structure that, apparently, was just the top of a facility that resided both above and below water.

“Welcome to the Raft,” Steve said dryly as they exited the boat and set foot on the makeshift island on the outer edge of the Lower Bay. On one side Tony could make out the land, and on the other there was just the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

With Steve and Barnes assuming guard duty that Tony deemed ridiculous at best, they walked over to the first raised structure, entered it, and then got into an elevator that took them way further down than Tony had expected the structure reached. He felt a bit like standing inside a huge submarine, with the same kind of sense of enclosed space squeezing in from all sides, even when he had no idea how far around them the Raft expanded.

As they stepped out, the first wall in front of them bore a mark that resembled that of S.H.I.E.L.D., with some artistic liberties.

Steve led the way down a hallway, and everyone they encountered on the way – which wasn’t many – gave Tony disbelieving looks and kept a wide berth.

“Am I wearing something funny?” Tony had to ask after a bit.

“Keep walking and shut up,” Barnes grunted from his back, and the barrel of his gun briefly pressed between his shoulder blades.

Growing irritated by the treatment, Tony shut up and observed his surroundings instead, guessing that someone would eventually come along to explain things to him.

Steve led the way to an area they had to access with a special card, a palm print, retinal scan, and voice verification. It was so over the top that Tony filed it away as another ridiculous thing his dreaming brain was coming up with.

They went on walking until Steve selected a door and opened it with his keycard, holding the door open for Tony to enter. “Someone will be over shortly,” he promised.

Tony peered inside. There was a simple metal desk, one chair on one side and two on the other. Besides that, the room was completely bare of any amenities. He glanced at Steve. “Seriously?”

The super-soldier tilted his head towards the room. The proper light hadn’t actually made his eyes any less sharp, simply betraying the shadows underneath them, as if he had been through hell.

A ten-year hell, Tony’s mind offered.

“At least bring me coffee, and a sandwich,” Tony sighed and stepped in before Barnes got it in his head to physically intimidate him to enter the room. On the journey over, Tony had had plenty of time to take in the deceased best friend of Captain America, and once he had concluded that the man’s entire left arm was comprised of a mechanical replacement, he had itched to take a closer look at it. The way Barnes had been eyeing him all the way since the Tower had suggested his only chance at a closer inspection would come in the form of a fist in his face, so Tony hadn’t asked whether Barnes would mind him taking a look at it.

The door shut firmly behind him, and after Tony had given the room another once-over, he went and sat down on the side of the table with two chairs and used the other one to prop up his legs.

As promised, it didn’t take long before the door opened again and a young man walked in. He wasn’t wearing a traditional S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform but some kind of variant, and was carrying a steaming mug of coffee that smelled like heaven – plus a plate atop which sat a sandwich.

“It’s tuna,” the man offered and set the items on the table, lingering on his feet as Tony inspected both the coffee and the sandwich, then decided they would do and that he was quite suddenly extremely hungry.

As he dug in, the young man remained standing on the other side of the table, and after he had satiated the worst of his hunger, Tony took a moment to look up at the guy. “Is there something you’re waiting for?”

A smile curved the man’s lips. “You have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked, laughter in his voice.

Tony looked him over, took a bite of the sandwich, then shook his head. “No idea.”

“The first time we met, you asked for a tuna sandwich – among other things.”

Tony stopped chewing and looked at the man’s face again. A man’s face, and not that of the boy the statement reminded him of. Still, there was something familiar in the way his eyes danced as he waited for Tony to figure it out.

He set down the sandwich, licked his lips, then allowed his eyes to search the room again. Slowly, he slid his right hand over to his left arm and pinched the skin, feeling the pain. He retraced his steps ever since coming out of the highly disorienting state at the Tower. It couldn’t be real…

Real or not, he looked up at the young man again. His expression had changed somewhat, from mirthful and expectant to a slightly more adult concern.

“Harley,” Tony said slowly, then looked away again, at the coffee and the tuna sandwich. “This is a dream. It can’t be real.”

“They told me you keep saying that it’s a dream, but it’s not,” the adult-Harley told him and finally sat down opposite him. “It’s been about twelve years since we last met. You’re… looking good.”

Tony shook his head. “It’s been barely two years.”

Harley looked at him, steady and probing. “Where the hell have you been all this time?” he asked in a whisper, as if it would become too real if he said it out loud. “Don’t say dreaming,” he added.

Tony leaned back in his seat, halfheartedly grabbing the sandwich again. He was still hungry, after all, and who knew when his next meal would be. As he chewed and Harley seemed content with staring at him – something that Tony responded to in kind, in disbelief that this was the kid who had helped him in Rose Hill, Tennessee – Tony went over his conversation with Steve at the Tower.

When he finished the sandwich, he washed the last of it down with the coffee, then placed his feet on the floor and sat properly in the chair, arms on the tabletop, fingers drawing and tapping restless patterns into it. “So, it’s been ten years. An AI called Ultron wreaked havoc on the world and I was nowhere to be found.”

“Something like that,” Harley nodded. “Ultron built himself a body and expressed his intentions at saving mankind from itself – by exterminating us all, since his logic indicated we could never live peacefully and were inherently flawed creatures. It took a while before we realized he started as an AI, and by then he had re-created himself so many times it was nigh impossible to destroy each and every iteration.”

“But you did it,” Tony recalled Steve’s statement at the end of the war.

“For now, it looks like it,” Harley agreed, his voice suddenly heavy with things Tony never would have wished on the boy he once knew. “We paid a horrible price for it. So many have died, the infrastructures of most countries have been obliterated. There were nations who resisted Ultron, and were used as an example for what was to come.”

Tony had a horrible feeling his country may have been one of them.

“Tonight, there was a sudden energy spike from Manhattan,” Harley went on, probably to force himself out of his dark musings. “We picked it up and Captain Rogers took a stealth team to investigate. Since Ultron’s latest defeat seven months ago, we have feared he might resurface, and any abnormality could be an indicator that our victory is still but an illusion.

“When we heard the anomaly was taking place directly at the Avengers Tower, it was our worst fears realized. That was where Ultron was first born, and from where he unleashed his reign of terror.”

“But instead you found me,” Tony offered. “A man everyone blames for creating Ultron.”

“You’re catching on,” Harley said with a wry smile.

“I didn’t create him, per se.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harley argued. “You did enough. You breathed life into a project someone else abandoned, perhaps with good reason, and gave him the means to evolve into an entity capable of destroying the entire world.”

Tony knew how that could play against him, but if the war had been won…

He looked around the room once more, so bleak and simple, yet no doubt equipped with numerous ways for others to listen in on the conversation they were having. “Last night, I was working on Ultron,” he said slowly. “My time, that is,” he added. “A few hours ago I was in the year 2015, and Ultron was still a theory coming to life. A project without a definite launch date, even though I had high hopes for it once it was up. A way to give us heroes a break from protecting the world…”

“You know that it sounds very unlikely you just traveled through time to this very moment, right?” Harley pointed out. “When people hear you’re alive, they’ll be out for blood. You’re lucky Captain Rogers was there, or they may have shot you on sight, just to be safe.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Tony snapped, feeling cornered and blamed for something he didn’t do. Just because he had been working on Ultron didn’t mean he had caused all this.

Perhaps it was all a dream, his consciousness trying to tell him that what he was doing could actually lead to this.

“If you did do something and knew you were guilty, wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of story you would be spinning?” Harley challenged.

Tony gave him a dirty look. “What are you, the young Sherlock Holmes?”

Harley dared to grin at that.

“I’m telling you,” Tony said, leaning forward, “that either I’m dreaming or something truly horrible has just happened. But I have not been hiding for the past ten years, gestating in shame, not trying to correct my own mistake – whatever that mistake was, supposedly.”

Harley nodded slowly. “I believe you.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think you do.”

Harley shrugged. “Fine, I don’t. It seems… unlikely. But I would like to believe you if there is a chance your story is true.” He drew a small donut-shaped device from his pocket, set it on the table between them, then tapped his finger against the edge of it. Tiny sections of the device moved and a hologram image appeared above the hollow center, displaying a set of readings. “What was the energy spike we recorded? What did it originate from?”

Tony peered at the readings, looking them over – then again, and again, to make sure. “You don’t know?” he challenged.

“We’re looking into it, but we had to do an emergency shut-down to prevent damage to our instruments at its peak and it’s possible we didn’t record all of it. Plus, there’s been some trouble keeping digital files for the last ten years,” he added.

Tony looked at the readings once more. “Well, from what I’m seeing, it looks like a variant of the output the Tesseract gave, back when we were gathering data on it. However, you’re missing a few pieces, and it doesn’t seem to be the real deal.”

“How so?” Harley asked. He sounded just the right amount of eager, like a pupil learning from the master.

Tony wasn’t sure whether it was a trap or not, but decided that this was still most likely a dream and he had nothing to lose either way. “This burst was artificially created. It’s lacking in gamma radiation, for one thing. A few things have been moved around.” It was a masterpiece and he wasn’t sure who had the brainpower to take what they knew of the Tesseract and rearrange it into this – and make it work.

“If it’s related to the Tesseract, then it could be a power source,” Harley decided.

Tony had another theory which included a wormhole, but he’d rather not say it out loud. Neither did Harley, which surprised him. Maybe he really had grown up…

“You’re probably tired,” Harley said. “We have a room ready for you.”

“I hope you didn’t go to a whole lot of trouble to make it as welcoming as this one,” Tony joked wryly.

Harley shrugged and picked up the device, thumping it to turn it off and placing it in his pocket again. “You’re essentially a prisoner in lockdown until we figure out the truth. It’s for your own safety as much as ours.”

“Right, because I’m the villain,” Tony rolled his eyes.

Harley didn’t answer, which made Tony feel a little betrayed.

“If you feel up to it, there’s something I might show you before you turn in,” Harley offered as he stood up.

“Sure,” Tony shrugged one shoulder. “It’s not past my bed time yet.” Not that that was entirely true, seeing as he had been headed for bed when all this started happening. If he could procrastinate being locked into some tiny room with a bunk and a bucket in the corner, he would take it, though.

Harley gestured for him to follow and opened the door, leading the way out. There were no guards waiting, but Tony had a feeling he was being watched. “This way,” Harley said, walking down a hallway until they encountered an elevator. That one required the same excessive routine with the key card, palm print, retinal scan, and voice confirmation, but the doors did open and admit them in, and they headed further down into the complex – so far down, in fact, that Tony feared they would run out of ocean and plunge into the center of the planet.

Once the elevator stopped, the door opened out into a dim hallway. A guard post was situated near the elevator, and Harley had a quick conversation with the men occupying it, saying that they would only be a moment and that they didn’t need an escort.

The way they all kept looking at Tony, like he was carrying a highly contagious, deadly virus, Tony was surprised they were allowed to go on without all the guards accompanying them.

They went down the only hallway in sight, then arrived at a door that required an extra lengthy code to let them in – plus all the other safety measures. Behind the door, which in itself could have guarded the Queen’s jewels with how thick it was, resided a small, circular room with a raised pedestal in the middle, surrounded by a round tube that extended from floor to ceiling. On the pedestal sat an innocent looking metal cube, the rough shape and size of the famous Tesseract, but it wasn’t the magical item that had transported the Chitauri army to Midtown.

“What’s the main attraction?” Tony asked, pointing at the cube.

For all that he had offered to bring Tony here in the first place, Harley suddenly looked apprehensive. “That’s J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he finally said. “Or, what remains of him.”

Tony blinked at Harley, then directed his eyes at the cube. ‘Why?’ was the first question on his mind. Something didn’t add up. “Salvaged from my system?” he asked in order to say something.

“It’s… complicated,” Harley said. “In the beginning – the very beginning – a few of your suits fought alongside the Avengers against Ultron, piloted by J.A.R.V.I.S. I think it was after the second or third time Ultron recreated himself that he gained control of the suits and the people in charge decided that all AIs were threats, seeing as they were an especially fertile breeding ground for Ultron, so they were dismantled and destroyed, one by one.”

“But not all,” Tony said, looking at the cube.

“We’re not sure if there’s anything left of J.A.R.V.I.S. in that memory drive,” Harley noted. “If it were certain, they would have destroyed it by now. They originally built that thing to study a live AI, and how we might defeat Ultron with what we learned.” There was something on Harley’s face resembling guilt, and he would not look at Tony. It was obvious now that he regretted bringing Tony down here. “They were hard times, in the middle of the war, and we did all we could to find a way to take Ultron down permanently – even if it meant dissecting AIs that treated us as friends.”

Tony looked at the cube again, sampling Harley’s words and the hidden, shameful meaning behind them. He forced his breaths to remain calm, his mind to center itself despite all the confusion and the possible implications of what horrors may have passed.

‘Sir?’

He started, almost jumping a step back. “J?”

“It has been… a long time.”

“So they tell me,” Tony mused, smiling a bit. “They told me you were defunct. Guess not.”

Harley gave him a look. “Who are you talking to?”

Tony gave him a glance. “Who do you think?”

There was something dangerous about Harley’s frown, and the way he didn’t say anything.

Tony clamped his mouth shut. ‘He can’t hear you?’ he thought, clear and simple.

“No, he cannot,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded. “The link is weak… and I am broken. I am sorry.”

‘Don’t,’ Tony replied, trying to keep his face slack and his thoughts from running over each other. Deep inside, he felt the Extremis stir, and a wondrous mental link forming which he had only begun to entertain in his mind back in his time. It was just more proof that this was a dream and not real.

“You are awake,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told him. Something like static rose from the background, then faded again, and Tony held back a grimace at the unpleasant sensation it created within him. “The data in this unit is limited. I cannot access the outside world. I cannot find… DUM-E and U…”

“Where are my bots?” Tony asked out loud, looking at Harley whose expression was guarded now, making Tony wonder how long he had spent having a silent conversation with his AI. “Where are Dummy and You?”

Harley shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “They took them apart, as a safety measure. J.A.R.V.I.S. tried telling them not to, that they were not connected to Ultron, but they had AIs and people were scared.”

“People have been scared of a whole lot of things they can’t understand, all the way from the beginning of our existence,” Tony stated, dread creeping through him. “Not always were those things bad, as it happens.”

“I’m sorry,” was all that Harley said in response.

“They did not listen, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. whispered in his mind, sounding agonized in a way Tony had never heard before. “I tried to reason, but they would not…”

Tony closed his eyes, feeling the walls closing in, no escape, phantom pain cutting away parts of him until he could no longer function, could no longer be what he had once been.

“Who else is dead?” Tony asked, trying to pull himself away from J.A.R.V.I.S.’s tattered memories before they engulfed him whole. “The other Avengers?”

“Hawkeye and Black Widow died in the first year,” Harley replied, staring at the cube as if it were a portal to the past. It was not, Tony knew now; only a container holding broken strands of data and a whole lot of virtual pain no one but him and other AIs could comprehend. “Nick Fury and Maria Hill died, too, with a bunch of other loyal people from the old S.H.I.E.L.D. And that pilot guy…”

Tony’s stomach clenched with dread.

“Sam, I think, his name was,” Harley frowned as he continued. “Yeah, Sam Wilson. The Falcon, they called him. It really hit Cap hard for the longest time. They were partners. I think the only reason he didn’t throw his life away in some martyr’s act was that Bucky was at his side, holding him together and feeding his fighting spirit.”

“What about Thor?” Tony asked. “And the Hulk?”

“Thor’s in Asgard right now – been there for years. He left when it looked like Ultron had been defeated and didn’t return. Bruce Banner’s still alive and… well, you know him, I suppose,” Harley gave him a tense smile. “Keeps to himself, helps where he can as long as he’s left alone.”

“What about Rhodey?” Tony mused. “My company… Pepper…”

“All of your suits were destroyed. War Machine was the last one to go down; it was destroyed by Ultron in a fight, and the pilot James Rhodes retired with top honors since he got beat up pretty bad in the last fight and could no longer serve a purpose in the field – nor did he want an office job, I think. Your company went down soon after Ultron surfaced and it became public knowledge you had a hand in his creation. Far as I know, Pepper is still alive and well.”

It sounded like Harley had met her, at least briefly.

“How… did she take the news of my disappearance?” Tony asked.

“She said she was glad you didn’t have to see what your creation did to the world,” Harley replied, voice soft. “I suppose she still hoped you would have been there, though, to fight it – to die an honorable death, if nothing else.”

Tony supposed that was what most people had hoped when his empty suits joined the fighting ranks – before all his tech became a reminder of Ultron’s continued existence.

‘We’ll sort this out,’ Tony thought, trying to send positive thoughts to the broken shadow of his former AI.

“Of course, sir,” came a response, and it almost made Tony tear up in its familiarity.

Harley seemed to decide the tour was over and indicated towards the door, leading them back out. The heavy vault door closed behind them, effectively cutting Tony’s connection to the remnants of his AI, and on the long elevator ride back up, Tony was quiet, deep in his own thoughts, and Harley didn’t seem inclined to stop him.

At the top, Bucky Barnes was waiting. His faithful gun was strapped to his back, but he was intimidating enough without its immediate presence. “I’m here to escort you to your holding cell,” he told Tony.

“You could just call it a ‘room’, you know,” Tony commented, stepping in the direction Barnes seemed to want him to go before the other could get it in his head he needed to be physically guided to their destination.

“They want him alive,” Harley called out.

“Should just kill you and get it over with,” Barnes grunted and shoved Tony forward despite the fact that he had already been walking at a steady pace. “Better that than being locked up for the rest of your life.”

“Speaking from experience?” Tony asked.

There was a snarl, and Tony picked up the pace before he could get shoved again. In case this was not a dream – a very slim if – he didn’t want to provoke Steve’s bestie into breaking his neck, or any other part of his body.

The room he was firmly escorted to was little more than a bunk above a tiny desk. There was a toilet and a sink, but no shower, no window, and no way for Tony to spend the long hours that loomed ahead of him.

As the door slammed shut behind him, Tony took a look around and felt more tired than he had ever before in his life, and that was saying something.

- - -

He dreamt of fire and explosions, and a red glow within the distorted shape of his armor’s helmet.

There were shadows twisting on the walls, rough hands reaching for him, and then he heard the screams of his bots – accompanied by metal and wires being torn apart by force, the cries breaking in one last distorted wail.

When he woke up, he was sweaty and shivering. He rolled down off the bed and crawled over to the toilet to throw up until his insides burned and the tears in his eyes were purely from discomfort and exhaustion.

For the first time, he began to entertain the possibility that this had never been a dream, would never be a dream, and that there was no way to fix the world.

- - -




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