Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandoms: Iron Man & Captain America & The Avengers (MCU) / The Matrix
Genre: Action, sci-fi, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Loki, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff, Betty Ross, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Guest appearances: The Architect, Emil Blonsky, Phil Coulson, JARVIS, The Merovingian, The Oracle, Persephone, Thaddeus Ross, Sati, Erik Selvig, Seraph, Samuel Sterns, Glenn Talbot.
Pairings: Betty/Bruce, Clint/Darcy/Natasha, Jane/Thor, implied Merovingian/Persephone
Summary: The Truce between men and Machines is threatened by a radical group called ‘the Cleansers’. Steve Rogers, the captain of a hovercraft named ‘The Avenger’, takes his crew to find the ultimate weapon the Cleansers are looking for, and reunites with an old friend whom he’d thought long dead. How is Tony Stark connected to their mission, and does a weapon exist that could destroy the Machines?
Complete. Sequel to “Creator”.
Written for: Science Fiction & Fantasy Big Bang’s Round 5.
Also fills the “free space” square on my card in Trope Bingo’s Round 2 (used trope: “au: fusion”).
Artist: raktajinos (AO3/LJ) – see banner HERE.
Warnings: Language, canonical violence.
Safely back on The Avenger, Steve recounted their trip to Malibu for those who had not been present – and also explained what had happened inside the house.
Silence followed his account. Steve knew that each member of his crew was trying to make sense of the events, to figure out how to unlock the map Tony had supposedly given him. Steve, for his part, had a hard time forgetting the familiarity which had taken over him upon entering the house, hearing Tony’s AI and seeing his old friend. He wished he knew the purpose of that program, and why it resembled Tony so much. Perhaps when they found the Weapon, it would make sense. After all, both the Oracle and Tony had seemed to imply that Steve was the key to a lot of decisions that would take place.
“Okay, let’s focus on the map,” Darcy decided after a bit. “White space. Is that a reference to something from your past?”
“I can’t think of anything,” Steve confessed. “Perhaps I’m supposed to fall unconscious.”
“That’s more like darkness than white,” Clint grunted unhappily, sitting sideways on the backrest of a chair, one leg drawn up while the other foot rested firmly on the arm rest, Thor’s bulk keeping the chair from tipping over backwards.
“White space…” Bruce murmured, drumming his fingers against the table. “Blank slate. Could it mean that?”
“If this Tony-program somehow installed something into Steve’s brain while he was in the Matrix,” Darcy started, dread in her voice, “I don’t think we should do anything to endanger that information. Including knocking him unconscious.” She shifted nervously, fidgeting, and while that happened sometimes when she had nothing to do, this was different.
“Is something the matter?” Betty asked, alarmed by it.
Darcy shifted her chair back and forth before turning towards one of the screens and typing a few commands on the keyboard. “When Steve entered the building, I lost him, completely. He didn’t flatline, but I could no longer see him in the Matrix. That’s impossible, unless he’s dead. Now, let’s ignore that, because he’s fine, obviously. If this program inserted something into him, while in that uncharted space, we have no idea whether it followed him back out. There are a few readings that are different, but nothing major.”
“You can’t tell whether I came out with extra baggage or not,” Steve clarified.
“Exactly. I don’t like that. I’ve been trying to look into it, time and time again…” Her words were coming faster, motions rigid.
“Perhaps we should all sleep on it,” Steve suggested. “Everyone’s been on edge since we left Zion.”
Jane snapped her fingers at his words, excitement on her face. “Sleep! Perhaps all you need to do is sleep, and the map will appear to you in a dream.”
Steve guessed that was a rather good idea. His subconscious mind might be holding the map inside it. “Two people on guard duty at all times. Keep the rotations short: there may be someone after us,” Steve said. Everyone nodded and began to plan who was going to take which shift. No one asked whether Steve was going to volunteer; he would be in his bunk, hopefully solving the riddle of the Weapon.
He headed down to his simple little cabin, undressed and then slid beneath the coarse sheet. Nervousness twisted his stomach and kept him tossing and turning for a while, but eventually he managed to drift off, full of expectation… and stirred after roughly six hours, none the wiser. For a moment Steve lay in bed, frowning at the ceiling. There had been no white space. There had been no dreams at all. Just blank sleep and now he was awake, ready for another day of beating his head against a wall to find the answer.
When he walked up to the mess, he debated going back to the Matrix, to Malibu, and finding Tony again to wrangle more information out of the program. He had a feeling, however, that the house would remain inaccessible to him, and he was quiet as he got himself some breakfast and sat down.
Bruce and Natasha were up, both looking like they could have used a few more hours of sleep. “Anything?” Bruce asked excitedly.
“Nothing,” Steve replied, voice rough, mood low. From the corner of his eyes, he saw the two exchanging looks.
“Maybe it takes a few tries,” Natasha suggested.
“I can ask Betty for some sedatives. Perhaps we need to drug you in order to –”
“No,” Steve decided. “I think we’re on the wrong track.”
“Are you sure?” Natasha asked carefully.
“Gut feeling,” Steve explained. “Trust me, it’s… My gut has rarely been wrong in all these years. Never, actually.” Just like he’d had a bad feeling about the whole bombing of the Machine City, and that was before he realized Tony had been there… “There has to be something else,” he said and stared at the disgusting puddle of food in front of him. Usually he just shoveled it down, still remembering how he had starved for months without anything to eat, but this morning he had no appetite. After all, he had hoped his dreams would guide them forward, instead of leaving them hanging.
“You’ll come up with something,” Bruce said, full of quiet confidence. “You always do.”
Steve kept staring at his food for a while longer – until Bruce and Natasha left. Afterwards he downed the portion because he wasn’t about to throw the food away, then shuffled up to the bridge once he was done. By then, all of the crew were up, gathered in the cockpit. Low voices vanished altogether when Steve arrived, and wary eyes followed his progression across the bridge. Steve wasn’t upset often, but no one seemed brave enough to test his current mood.
Not knowing what else to do, and needing to find inspiration, Steve settled down in his chair, leaning back. He could ask Darcy to put him back into the Matrix. It might be risky, seeing as they had attracted Agents already, and he was still of the opinion that there was nothing for him to find in Malibu.
His eyes found one of Darcy’s screens. Unlike the others, it was blank, turned off for some reason. Maybe it was broken, or just not in use at the moment. Perhaps she would turn it on when the team was jacked into Matrix, or while using a Construct to –
Steve sat up straight, eyes glued to the screen.
“What is it?” Clint asked, already on his feet, alarmed.
“Of course,” Steve said, unable to believe how simple it was. “Darcy, upload me to a Construct. The blank one. Don’t…”
“White space,” the young woman stirred and grinned madly for a moment. “Of course, that’s brilliant. Coming right up. Someone hook him up!”
Bruce moved over to position the data probe. Their eyes met just a few second before Steve felt it slide inside, and he closed his eyes, hoping that they’d gotten it right.
A moment later he found himself in the vast, dimensionless space; white all around, no shadows, no nothing. Steve was wearing basic gym clothes and he felt desperation kick in as nothing happened. Another false alarm. He had been so certain this time that they had the answer, and the urge to go back to Malibu and kick Tony’s ass was now almost overwhelming.
“Damn it,” he muttered, turned – and then felt something like gravity pull his stomach to the side.
The white Construct started darkening in places, intricate lines appearing, complex and puzzling. Steve feared for a moment that the data had been damaged somehow, but then the pieces began to fit together, as if an encryption program were working on something. Images began to float all around him, and Steve realized he was looking at menus and options. He pressed on one, and a map began expanding before him. It took him a while to understand what it was: the sewer tunnels.
He flicked his wrist, much like he had observed Tony doing for years before he got the Extremis, and even after that because old habits died hard. He selected another menu, which offered him images of what looked like schematics of… something mechanical.
Then he discovered another map, this one different from the sewers, and his eyes followed the long and winding pattern, finding dozens of notes scribbled around one end. His eyes widened as he realized what it was – where the map was leading them.
The Machine City.
He guessed that if one wanted to hide a weapon of mass-destruction, they would keep it close to the chest – especially when no one had ever entered, or left, the Machine City alive. But, as he looked at the map and the various notes, then returned to the images of what had to be the City’s defense system, he realized that the map showed them a way in.
If it worked. If the information was good. If it wasn’t a trap.
Steve looked at it, over and over again, then finally signaled that he was done. He hoped the data wouldn’t be corrupt once he exited the Construct, but as he came to with a small start, everyone was gathered around Darcy’s screens, save for Betty who had come to release him. The woman seemed extremely tense, and Steve couldn’t blame her.
Slowly Steve sat up and rose from the chair, joining the others at the Operator console. All the data he had been looking at was laid out there, in front of them, whole and intact.
“What does this mean?” Thor asked slowly. It seemed he knew, but hoped for a confirmation.
“It means the Weapon is in Machine City, and we have just been handed the keys to the gate,” Bruce declared, then turned to look at Steve. “Is that it?”
“I think so,” Steve responded hesitantly, because he couldn’t be sure. The Oracle had guided them to Malibu, where Tony – a program – had given him the map. “This might be a trap. We have no reason to trust this intel.”
“It looks really promising,” Natasha murmured, eyes sweeping over it. “Unless it’s all bogus.”
“If, however, the Weapon exists, and this is the way to it…” Steve hesitated again. “I can’t force any of you to come with me. You know the odds. It could be a one-way trip.”
Silence followed his words. Steve knew each member of his crew was smart, and none of them had a death wish big enough to follow him blindly. Steve would take them back to Zion, and then think of a way to get to Machine City – on foot, if he had to.
“You can’t fly the ship on your own,” Clint stated.
“And you need back up,” Natasha echoed.
“The plan won’t allow The Avenger to slip by their defenses, so someone has to stay at the ship after you’ve gone inside,” Darcy added.
“But you will need fighters, just in case,” Thor noted.
“And brains,” Jane piped up.
The big blond looked at her in alarm. “Jane, you cannot join us. I would never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
“Oh, like I’m going to let you go to Machine City on your own?” Jane rose to the challenge.
“Okay,” Bruce cut them off. “Anyone who’s not willing to join this madness, speak up now and there won’t be any questions asked. Right?” he turned to looked at Steve, who nodded solemnly. He could already tell Bruce was planning on joining him, so that left Betty as the only person who hadn’t voiced an opinion.
The tall, dark-haired woman hesitated, clearly feeling the weight of everyone else’s choices. “I shall remain on the ship with those who won’t go into the city itself,” she finally decided. “You’ll need someone here to patch you up, if you come back.” She didn’t say it, but Steve felt like she was on the verge of saying ‘no’ and wanting the others to agree with her.
“Okay,” Clint clapped his hands together. “We have our heading. Let’s just pray the Machines aren’t patrolling the tunnels as vigilantly during the Truce as they used to, in the old days. Otherwise we’ll get torn apart before we even get close.”
“I’ll transfer the data from the Construct to the navigation,” Darcy jumped into action. “Let’s hope it’s valid.”
“I’m sure we’ll find out, soon enough,” Thor noted grimly, but then smiled at Steve. “We shall follow you, regardless of the madness of this mission. After all, if the Weapon does exist, we must find it.” He didn’t say whether he wanted to use it, but Steve supposed that destroying the Machines was in the interest of everyone. But then, wasn’t that what the Cleansers wanted to do as well? Steve felt like they were already forgetting their true objective and instead starting to believe in a world without Machines.
They navigated through the sewer tunnels for days, going slow and searching for less used pathways, making their way towards the Machine City. Everyone was a little on edge, preparing their gear, munitions and weapons; when the time came to step outside the ship and continue on foot, they would be vulnerable and moving slower still.
Thor and Jane hadn’t yet agreed on whether Jane should stay on the ship or not. Eventually Bruce solved the quarrel for them, in a painful but realistic manner: “We need someone to stay here who has technical knowledge of the ship. Since I’m going to go to Machine City, you should stay,” he told Jane.
While Jane raised an argument about Bruce going and her staying, it was more or less settled after that.
For their part, Clint, Darcy and Natasha seemed to have a clear idea of who was going and who was to be left behind. “Someone needs to guard the ship – and fly it away if something goes wrong,” Natasha had told Clint. “Someone needs to stay and protect Darcy.” That seemed to be the last straw, and Clint was even quieter than usual while piloting them onwards, no doubt feeling like he was being left behind.
They were all choices Steve could have made for them, but he was glad they had sorted it out on their own. Another option was that Steve would go alone, which he had suggested, once, but it had been met with flat-out refusal. It was amazing how these people didn’t owe him anything – quite the opposite – but still they were willing to act as if they did. Back in the old days, many had followed Steve – or Captain America. He guessed he needed to do his best to live up to the expectations of his crew, and to bring them back alive if at all possible.
When Clint finally took The Avenger towards the surface, it was clear no one was looking forward to the moment they came out of the sewers. Of them all, only Steve had ever been to the surface, and that was in remote areas where the Machines weren’t breathing down his neck. It was entirely possible they would be discovered the moment they popped out of the sewers, fired upon, and there would be no place to hide.
Steve considered praying, but it was too late: the tunnel ended abruptly. Clint guided them around the last bend, and the sky was suddenly there, filled with dark clouds and thunder as the barren earth spread out in all directions around them. There were ghosts of old buildings, only their foundations visible. The roads were long gone, and everywhere there were gigantic pipes that led mostly in one direction – the direction they were going.
The silence inside the ship didn’t end, but it changed slightly; they were still alive, there were no Sentinels or other Machines in sight, and in all its haunting glory, the world around them was starkly different from what they were used to.
“That way,” Thor pointed.
“I know,” Clint murmured, guiding the ship to the left to follow the large pipes. More and more pipelines joined the others as they flew onwards. A few times they flew lower to investigate, and the pipes gave them some shelter from the few Machines they saw. They were not detected, but they took no risks and remained in place until they were absolutely certain there were no more Sentinels flying by.
On the horizon, they could see something growing, higher and higher, more massive as the miles went by. Steve had never been to Zero One, and the current Machine City seemed a dozen times larger and more ominous than what he had seen in the images and reports before the Machine War started. He knew that this was where the bombs had dropped; the AI had rebuilt their city while decimating the human race. This new version wasn’t beautiful in any sense of the word, and Steve wondered if Tony would have seen it differently, regardless of its apparent ugliness; Tony would have seen beneath its surface, to its heart.
They set the ship down as close to the city border as they dared. Several safe spots had been marked on the map they had received from the program in Malibu, and they chose one of them. Clint and Thor shut down the engines, and a new kind of hush filled The Avenger. Everyone waited to see whether that change triggered a response from the Machines, but it seemed they had gone undetected for the time being.
“It can’t be this easy,” Natasha noted.
“Maybe the intel is really, really good,” Darcy suggested. She looked on as Natasha prepared her gear. “Please, be careful. All of you.”
Natasha gave her a soft smile and moved over, pulling Darcy into a loose embrace that eventually tightened. Murmured words passed between them, until Natasha returned to her gear and Darcy shuffled off to join Clint at the ship’s controls.
Steve chose that moment to pull away to his cabin, to get his own gear. His crew would say their farewells, make promises of a safe return, and prepare for the long walk they had ahead of them. If the map was to be believed, they were going to the very heart of the Machine City. Steve had no idea whether the map would be any good from this point forward, but they had gotten this far undetected, and it gave him hope. However, it could be a calculated move on the Machine’s part, and just because that program had worn Tony’s face… Steve shouldn’t trust it blindly.
Taking one last look around his cabin, Steve walked out, carrying his bag and jacket. It would be cold out there, and he wasn’t looking forward to spending time in the unforgiving surface conditions again, but his own comfort had rarely been the measure of what he was willing to do. Finding out the truth about the Weapon was his first priority. If it was a ruse to create circumstances for the breaking of the Truce, he would have to stop anyone else from trying to get to it. If it was real…
“Ready to go, Cap?” Bruce asked and Steve looked up, finding himself at the door of the cockpit. Everyone else looked as ready as they were going to be, and he nodded his head.
“If someone wants to stay behind, say it now. There may be no coming back from where we’re going,” he informed his crew.
No one really looked him in the eye, but none of them backed down, either. They were either incredibly brave, or insanely stupid. Steve guessed they would see which it was, soon enough.
“Let’s go,” he announced and turned, walking slowly to let the others make their final farewells. By the time he reached the ramp and lowered it, three members of his crew had joined him, grim-faced but determined. They walked down together, but Steve was the first to set foot on the dark stone of the surface. Thunder flashed above them from the dark, angry clouds.
Bruce looked up, searching the sky. “You say you remember the blue sky? The sun? Fluffy white clouds?”
“I do,” Steve confirmed. “But every day it gets… harder to replace this reality with those memories. I dream of the blue sky, though, more than not.”
“Lucky you,” Natasha stated and started walking. Clearly she wasn’t going to look back and risk regretting that she had chosen to join their group. Thor took after her, blond hair tied at the nape of his neck. They both carried heavy guns which would do little to protect them in the enemy territory, but which gave him some semblance of safety either way.
Steve and Bruce took off after them, and behind them the ramp slowly pulled up, as if it were a door slamming shut and locking to prevent them from going back even if they wanted to.
They walked for two days. The Machine City wasn’t that far, but they kept stopping and hiding, afraid of being caught. Every sound and movement made them jerk and point their weapons, holding their breaths when nothing else happened. Sleep was hard to come by, they had little appetite, and the constant crackle of electricity and flashes of thunder in the clouds made the darkness seem alive and ominous.
The City itself was like a mountain with its jagged edges. There were no streets as there would have been in a human city, and everywhere were mechanical critters that they mostly managed to avoid, or who dismissed them. The map had given them an exact path to follow, and the further they went, the more Steve began to trust the information because it seemed to be correct.
Only, he wasn’t foolish enough to trust in it blindly, so they kept stopping and observing the situation. They were all afraid for their very lives, aware that one wrong move would alert the Machines to their presence and they would never make it back alive. Outside the City, the rest of their crew would wait as long as they could, but eventually they would head back to the sewers – or try, before their retreat was spotted and they were destroyed.
All those thoughts were grim and not particularly helpful, but they couldn’t be avoided. The Machine City had nothing human about it, nor had it been designed with humans in mind, and so Steve and his crew felt like pests, crawling around, hiding in the shadows. It was funny how things changed.
Nevertheless, they made their way deeper into the city, slowly but surely. They ended up following the map, which led them crawling through what had to be a network of maintenance shafts and abandoned levels. There were times when it was easy to forget where they were, but they grew alarmed at every sound, swiftly brought back to reality; every sparkle of light in the darkness could herald their deaths, and every sound they made threatened their secret mission.
One of Steve’s biggest fears was that they had come all this way for nothing. That these men and women had laid out their lives for nothing. Rationally, he knew they all were aware of the risks and chances – that they all had made a conscious choice to brave the unknown. Steve was still their leader, though, whether they were headed for certain death or the liberation of mankind.
“I think we’re close,” Natasha observed from her spot behind Steve.
“Where do you think we’re going?” Bruce mused. While the map was detailed enough to have guided them past danger, it was unclear where their destination was situated. They had to be deep into the city by now, and all of them turned to look up, well aware that when they left these empty shafts, their true difficulties would begin.
Natasha poked at the small device with the map installed in it. “There should be an access point ahead.”
True enough, a couple hundred yards ahead of them opened a small upwards shaft. It was so tiny Steve and Thor would have to squeeze their shoulders to get through it – and there was no ladder.
“How far up do you think that leads?” Bruce asked. Of all of them, he was in the weakest physical condition, although no weakling by any means. It looked like a feat for anyone, and Steve squared his shoulders, motioning at Thor. “Help me up. I’ll go and see where it leads.”
“The map suggests we go up 150 feet,” Natasha noted.
Bruce let out a weary sigh.
“Wait here, gather your strength. I’ll report back.” With a small boost from Thor, he made it easily into the small shaft and started shifting himself up. His backpack hung from the belt on his waist because if he was lucky, there would be something up there to tie a rope to, which would help the others climb.
Climbing a single foot felt like an eternity. Steve’s muscles didn’t cramp, but he started to feel the tired pull and wasn’t certain whether he was getting any closer. He had to be, because he hadn’t stopped moving. A fear began to gnaw at his mind; that the map was wrong for the first time, or that they had gone wrong somewhere. His fingers scraped against the walls, searching for any small indentation to cling to. He was wary of breathing too loudly, in case he was nearing Machine activity. Sweat dripped down his skin from the effort to hold himself pinned in the small space, to struggle up another few inches, and he had no idea how the others could follow him; none of them were super-soldiers. He supposed he would have to help each of them up, because he wasn’t leaving anyone behind.
Finally, he came face-to-face with a grill. A draft caressed his face and he climbed as close to it as he could, then listened carefully. Nothing moved above him, but he had no idea what lay beyond the grill. This was the first access point he had come across during his climb, however, so he had no other option than to remove the cover and take a look.
Pressing his hip and legs against the shaft, he raised his hands and tested the grill. It was fixed into place, and his arms hurt as he started to push against it to force it to open. His legs slipped once, painfully, making him fall several feet before his body got stuck and he climbed back up to the grill, breathing hard.
Once again he resumed forcing the grill open, and finally the metal gave, letting out a small cry of defeat before the entire grill went flying, crashing against the floor. Steve froze, the sound echoing around him, and he expected a Sentinel to come floating over the shaft, ready to rip his face off or shoot him and let his body fall down on top of his team.
Nothing happened. Steve steadied his breathing, willed his heart to slow down, and pulled himself up and dared for the Machines to spot him now.
The space around him was wide, and in the lack of light it was hard to determine whether it was a room of some kind, or a really wide hallway. He couldn’t see the sky, though, or the sparkling, electric lights constantly playing within and without the Machine City’s structures, so he supposed they were still indoors.
He got to his feet and walked around hesitantly. There was a need to explore, to establish the perimeter, but he also knew their time might be limited and if he wanted to get his team up here, he needed to get on it now. After making sure there were no Machines lurking in the vicinity, he took the sturdy rope from his bag and started sliding it back down the shaft. He hoped it was long enough, and when he finally felt someone tug on the other end, he was almost kneeling over the shaft. Steve hastily wrapped the rope around his forearm and tugged a couple times, to signal that he was ready.
An extra weight appeared on the rope and he braced his body, holding still as much as possible as the tugging motion continued. The minutes were long before Natasha appeared, panting hard. She could barely stand when Steve helped her out of the shaft, but she soon assumed guard duty, to make sure they weren’t caught unawares.
“Bruce is coming up next. Maybe you should give him a hand,” Natasha noted, taking a sip of her water container and cocked her gun to signal she was ready.
Steve nodded and waited for the telltale tug on the other end. It came eventually, and Bruce’s weight was heavier than Natasha’s slight frame. Also, it was easy to tell he had a harder time climbing up, and Steve started to pull him up, muscles protesting but not giving up on him.
Finally the scientist emerged, red-faced and sweaty. “I had no idea 150 feet straight up would be that painful,” he noted, giving Steve a thankful look. “Do you think you can hold Thor’s weight? He was concerned, since he’s coming up last and he’s not a lightweight with all that muscle. It was a tight squeeze even for me.”
“Let’s just say that if I drop him, he might not fall all the way back down,” Steve noted wryly as he lowered the rope once more.
“Speaking from experience?” Bruce raised an eyebrow.
Steve didn’t reply, bracing himself above the shaft instead. He knew Thor would have to jump high in order to make it to the shaft on his own, and true enough, when he felt the man’s weight yank on the rope, it almost made him fall flat on his face. Thor was strong, however, and he pulled himself up faster than Steve was helping him along. His wide bulk gave them trouble a few times, but eventually the mop of blond hair appeared and Bruce gave the man a hand, pulling him free.
“That was somewhat unpleasant,” Thor noted and stood up, clasping Steve’s shoulder in a somewhat shaky grip. “If I ever previously doubted the tales, Captain, of your superior strength, I am now a believer.”
Steve chuckled and took a drink of his own water, then coiled the rope once more and fetched the grill, fitting it back in place. He didn’t want to leave any tracks if he could help it. “Which way?” he then asked Natasha, and the woman pointed to their left. Clearly they were still on the right track.
A passage left the room they had entered. There were no doors, which was a relief, but there was more life on this upper level: a few insect-like robots would move across the floor or the walls, eyeing them with their red, burning eyes, but none of them attacked. They didn’t disturb the mechanical bugs because any commotion had the danger of exposing them to something more lethal.
“Alright,” Natasha whispered after a bit, “we’re here.”
“Where?” Bruce asked.
Natasha looked around, then pointed at something that might be a door. “I think it’s that one. It looks… different on the map.”
“Here goes nothing,” Steve murmured and he and Thor approached the door.
Bruce joined them, taking a look at it. “There’s a locking mechanism. Pry open that panel and I’ll take a look.” He glanced at Natasha. “I assume we weren’t given access codes?”
“I don’t think we have the proper tools for those access codes,” Thor mused grimly, but went to force loose the panel Bruce had pointed at, and true enough, it exposed a myriad of wires and other technical parts.
“I think I can disable the programming, but we’ll have to pry the door open with brute force and pray there isn’t a secondary alarm system,” Bruce said at length.
“You’re sure?” Steve questioned. “There’s little room for error.”
“This is Machine tech,” Bruce noted, looking up at him. “Far as I can tell, this isn’t just a door with a padlock hanging on it: what lies on the other side might be of importance.”
“You don’t think it’s the Weapon?” Thor asked, flexing his fingers in anticipation.
“I doubt it, unless they hid it in their basement with no guards,” Steve made a guess, but who knew. Perhaps the logical place to put the Weapon was the place where no one would care to look. After all, Machines were highly logical…
Bruce set to work, then eventually gave them the go-ahead and stepped aside. There was no hiding the nervous look on his face, which didn’t inspire confidence in Steve, but he and Thor proceeded to pry open the door with all the strength they had left. After struggling for a while, Natasha procured a thin piece of scrap metal, and they managed to jab it between what they hoped were two parts of a door. With some leverage, they got back to work.
Finally, with a groan of protest, the door opened slightly, allowing them to get their fingers between the two halves and keep pulling. That there were no Machines investigating the break-in was a good sign, and Bruce looked a little more confident as the door moved further and further apart.
“I think I can squeeze through,” Natasha said after a bit.
“I don’t want you to go in alone,” Steve argued at once.
“If no one’s come to see what is happening by now, I don’t think they’ll care whether I go in or not,” she said vehemently. “Keep working on it. I’ll investigate.”
By the time Steve had geared himself up for another protest, she was already moving to the gap and forcing her body through it. Had she been wearing the catsuit her avatar had in the Matrix, it would have not been a problem at all, but now it took some wriggling before she disappeared to the other side.
With new gusto, Steve and Thor set back to work while Bruce guarded the hallway. Under the force of shaky arms and legs, the door finally opened several more inches – enough to let the rest of them slip inside.
The room beyond the door looked complex, with wires and pipes. There were many hidden corners, but Natasha reported that they were alone. “It’s not a storage room, but it’s clear someone’s been in and out of here recently,” she stated.
They lit up their lamps to take a better look. Thor remained closer to the door, to keep watch, gun tightly held in his hands. They went around the room systematically, so focused on the walls and small crevices that Bruce almost fell into the hole in the middle of the floor.
“Shit,” the scientist swore, and Steve moved the beam of his lamp down towards his feet, finding a rectangle-shaped hole in the floor. Bruce stepped back from it and shined his light into the hole, then started visibly. He remained still, moving his light back and forth slightly, and in the limited light it was hard to tell what kind of expression was on his face.
Steve moved over to him, joining his own light to Bruce’s, and his chest seized painfully in shock. The hole wasn’t very deep, about four feet. It was almost the shape and size of a coffin, and at the bottom of it lay a man.
“It can’t be him, can it?” Bruce asked, voice jumping a little.
“Who?” Natasha asked.
Near the door, Thor shifted, probably interested in their findings as well.
Steve knelt down at the edge of the hole, handing his lamp wordlessly to Bruce. Beneath him, Tony’s body lay unmoving, as if he were in a deep sleep. Automatically, Steve’s mind jumped back to their recent trip to Malibu in the Matrix; the house and the man inside…
The man he had presumed to be a program mimicking his friend.
The man he had thought long gone.
He reached out, still unable to believe this was real. His fingers touched warm skin, pliant and alive. Steve’s breath caught as he traced Tony’s forehead and cheek, and there was a tremble in his digits that had nothing to do with his earlier physical exertion.
“Tony,” he whispered and caressed his face again. In response to the touch, a few muscles jumped, as if the other man were waking up. And then, just as suddenly, the dark eyes flew open, Tony’s entire body jumping slightly as if Steve had alarmed him. He seemed out of it, staring up, and Steve wished there was some way for him to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“Tony…” he said again, as if that would provide an answer, to make sense of all this. Horrible thoughts filled his mind. How long had it been since the bombs dropped? How many years since he last talked to Tony, saw him in person? The man staring up at him hadn’t aged a day, but then, after the Extremis, Tony hadn’t really aged at all, so that could explain it.
Over a hundred years…
He stared at Tony just as the other man stared up at him, almost unbelieving. Afraid. Maybe he, too, thought he was dreaming. Perhaps he had been living in the Matrix, hidden away for some reason, locked away from the rest of the world, and when Steve and the others arrived there, he saw a way out.
“I need you to do me a personal favor.”
Tony’s words haunted his mind. Back in the Matrix, he had thought it a trick of some kind, or a code. Now, it made horrible sense. Perhaps the map hadn’t been meant to lead them to the Weapon, but to Tony – in order to save him.
Steve found that he didn’t care about the Weapon at this moment. He had found something of much more value – at least to him, personally. Everything else could wait – and if someone disagreed, they could go to Hell for all he cared.
The confused look remained on Tony’s face and Steve wondered how long he had been asleep. Maybe he wasn’t even sure whether this was real or not. “Tony,” he called out again, carefully, trying to focus his friend’s mind. To get a response out of him.
“Steve,” came a hesitant reply, but once the word left Tony’s lips, he seemed to realize something – perhaps remembering that he had given Steve the map; that the dream and this were connected.
Just in case Tony didn’t know which was which, Steve smiled at him, unable to help himself. “Welcome to the real world,” he said, unreasonably happy.
Tony blinked, purposefully, as if to rid cobwebs from his mind. “The real…” he repeated, slowly, and swallowed, his eyes searching the ceiling, then settled on Steve’s face again. “It’s time to leave,” he finally decided.
Steve nodded and shifted, then started as Tony began to sit up. “Wait, I’ll have to –” His hand had moved to the back of Tony’s head, to remove the data probe, but his fingers grasped at nothing at all as Tony sat up the rest of the way, like a corpse rising from the grave.
Beside him, Natasha and Bruce shifted. For a moment Steve had forgotten about them – and Thor, who had moved away from his post at the door in favor of seeing what was happening.
“I’m confused,” Bruce confessed. “Was it him in the Matrix?”
Tony looked up at the three people around Steve. “You look like the smart guy; why don’t you tell me,” he teased Bruce.
If Steve had had any doubts whether this was Tony or not, he had his confirmation now.
“He isn’t jacked in,” Natasha pointed out.
“Maybe they moved him,” Bruce guessed.
“Why is he here, and not at the power plant?” she pressed.
Tony’s face darkened a fraction, and Steve didn’t want them to get into an argument. Whatever the reasons that Tony was still alive, he didn’t care. He had just gotten his friend back, and uncomfortable, invasive questions could wait.
“We have to get out of here,” he spoke up, glancing at Natasha. “Was there anything else on the map?”
“This was the final destination. X marks the spot, and all that.” She looked unhappy and untrusting. “Are you sure it’s him?”
“I know it’s him,” Steve said, full of confidence.
“Captain…” Thor started. “If this is the same Tony Stark you have told us about…”
“He looks amazingly well-preserved,” Bruce finished for him.
Tony huffed. “You hang out with Mr. Wrinkle-Free and get upset over my youthful mug?” Empty stares met his words. “A merry bunch you’ve got here,” Tony pointed out to Steve, who shrugged.
“The best crew I could hope for. They came this far with me.”
Tony gave him a somewhat sad smile, and his good cheer seemed to sink back into the depths of his eyes. “You always did inspire loyalty.” He looked around the dark room. “We need to leave. Now.”
“Is he coming with us?” Natasha asked, cocking her gun a little in an obvious threat.
“I’m not leaving without him,” Steve stated, and that cut the argument short.
“I don’t understand,” Thor murmured as Steve helped Tony out of the hole and to his feet. “How can he be alive?”
“Steve did tell us he was special,” Bruce murmured back.
“We can save this lovely chat for later,” Tony snapped, pulling himself to his full height, which wasn’t much, but it showed Steve his body hadn’t lost its strength. It was a relief, because carrying Tony would have slowed them down. Not that it would have stopped Steve from taking him with them. “We need to move,” Tony repeated, taking a step towards the doorway, then froze. Steve saw his breathing change, caught the wide spread of his eyes, and registered the half-step he took backwards. “Not yet…” he muttered – just before a shadow moved outside the gaping door and a few mechanical tentacles emerged through it.
“A Sentinel,” Natasha gasped. She and Thor raised their weapons.
The Sentinel seemed to consider the door, its body too large to squeeze through. Bruce had clearly broken the controls so that the door wasn’t budging in either direction. That left the Machine on the other side, floating up and down until one of its glowing red eyes could catch a glimpse inside.
“It’s spotted us,” Thor said unnecessarily.
Steve took a look at Tony, who still looked incredibly tense. “We need to get out of here,” he stated. “If one of them spotted us, more will be on their way.”
“There’s no other way out,” Natasha replied. “We’ve checked the room.”
Their only exit was blocked by the Sentinel, which meant they needed to get rid of the Machine and then run for their lives, literally.
“Thor,” Steve commanded, tone sharp, “take it out. The second that thing drops, we’re running back to the shaft. That is too narrow for them to fit.”
“Not narrow enough for them to not shoot, or drop a bomb on us,” Bruce murmured, but he didn’t disagree.
“Does everyone remember the way we came?” Steve checked as Thor adjusted the hold on his weapon. They would have only one shot at this, because if the Sentinel wasn’t dropped immediately, it would move out of the line of fire.
Everyone nodded, grim, determined looks on their faces. Steve looked at Tony next, touching his arm to draw his attention. “Do you know the way out?” Just because Tony had given them the map within the Matrix didn’t mean he knew it by heart – or knew it at all.
The brown eyes shot up to his face and a terse nod followed. “Yeah.”
“Good,” Steve breathed, then shifted his hand to curl his fingers around Tony’s forearm. “I’m not leaving you behind,” he promised.
Tony’s arm moved, but instead of breaking the contact, he twisted his forearm around and curled his own fingers around Steve’s wrist. “I’m not planning on falling behind,” he replied, but there was something grateful about his voice.
Steve looked ahead, at the Sentinel still trying to find a way past the door, then nodded at Thor. “Drop it.”
Thor fired. The blue light was painful and static electricity licked the air, but the blast hit the Sentinel square in the face, sending it back and crashing to the floor. Natasha and Bruce were moving in that instant, Thor following. The Sentinel didn’t move save for a few twitches of its limbs, and Steve pulled Tony to the doorway and out through the narrow gap, dashing down the passage after the others. His crew was fanning out, securing their path to the best of their ability, and Thor hurried over to the grill when they finally made their way to their entry-point, tossing it aside and peering down the shaft.
“The rope,” he gestured at Steve when he and Tony caught up with the others, and Steve turned, allowing the other man to reach into his bag for the rope. “Natasha, I shall help you down,” he said. She nodded and slipped down fast, knowing they needed to secure their exit in case the Machines were now breathing down their necks. There was no reason to assume an alarm hadn’t been raised.
“Thor, go next; help Natasha keep watch,” Steve ordered. The big blond nodded and Steve took the rope in his hands again. The rope was more painful in his grip this time, but Thor relied on gravity and his body slowing down his fall in the confined space, so he was an easy one. Once the path was clear, Steve looked at Tony. “You go next.” Tony stepped over and peered into the shaft. “Just hold onto the rope,” Steve told him. “Bruce will come down after you.”
Tony nodded, still looking down, and lowered himself into the shaft. After the first few adjustments he slid down without relying on the rope much at all, and Steve sent Bruce down as soon as he thought it was safe. The quiet around them worried him, and he felt in his gut that their presence in the City had been exposed.
Once he felt a solid tug on the rope, he knew the others were safely down. He dropped the rope, then slid into the shaft, reaching out for the grill at the last moment to pull it back to its place. It might slow down the Machines fractionally.
Steve let his body slide down perhaps a bit faster than he should have, and he fell the last dozen feet without any control, hitting the floor hard. His bones ached as he struggled to remain on his feet. Thor’s firm grip grounded him and kept him from keeling over.
“Can you run?” Natasha asked.
“Yeah,” Steve nodded resolutely. He looked around, for a brief second panicked that Tony was nowhere to be seen, but the man stood off to the side, as if not knowing whether it was safe for him to be too close to the others.
They started moving again, fast as they dared. Steve realized, painfully, how far there was to go before they would be back on The Avenger. How many days had they been gone? Would the others have left, thinking them dead? What if the Machines found the hovercraft and destroyed it before they got to it?
He decided not to worry. Taking one step and the next was enough to focus on for all of them, their senses on high alert in case of Machines.
“This way,” Tony spoke up after nearly an hour had passed, stopping.
The entire group halted around him. “We didn’t come that way,” Natasha argued at once. It was obvious she had reservations about Tony’s presence.
“I know,” Tony snapped, voice tight, “but if we keep going this way, we’ll have Sentinels crawling over your cold, dead bodies in a matter of hours; don’t think they don’t know which way we went. They might not use these levels, but the Machines have unlimited memory and know every inch of this place because they built it.”
“So where does that path lead?” Thor asked, looking the way Tony had pointed. It looked like a crack in the wall – not something Steve would have blindly followed into darkness.
“Out,” Tony replied simply. “Look, I know there are a lot of unanswered questions –”
“You bet there are,” Natasha agreed darkly.
“Is there something you want to say to me?” Tony rose to the challenge.
“Steve always told us how you created the first AI, and how you would have stood on the side of the Machines when the War started. I’ve been wondering how you being alive fits the big picture.”
Steve grimaced. He opened his mouth to intervene, to stop this, but Tony cocked his head. “You figure I’m leading you into a trap?”
“Something like that may have crossed my mind,” Natasha said flatly.
“Yeah, maybe I just enjoy running around, faking my own escape,” Tony offered, sarcasm flooding his tone. “Do you know how much time and effort it took me to subtly find a way into the City? To get the intel to you? To blindly hope that one day, Steve would do the impossible and show up at my doorstep? I’m getting out of here, and I’m fine with leaving you to die, missy,” he promised.
“No one’s getting left behind,” Steve jumped in. “Does that route lead us to safety?”
Tony snorted. “Cap, we’re under the Zero One 2.0. There are no safe ways out. There were no safe ways in, but I got you this far. Trust me a little further.”
“I do,” Steve answered. He knew his team didn’t agree, but they trusted him, so they would follow.
Tony led the way into the crack-in-the-wall tunnel. For Thor and Steve, it was another struggle to fit, but the path grew wider after a while and began to rise. They ended up at another tunnel which was damp and dark, and Tony led the way in the direction they had been headed before re-routing. Theirs were the only sounds, echoing off the walls, and as long as that remained the case, all was well.
Sadly, there were no shortcuts back to the sewers. They walked for hours before settling to rest. Steve offered Tony some of his food, but the man shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said.
“When was the last time you ate?” Steve asked.
“Actual food?” Tony arched an eyebrow. “The morning I left Malibu, to visit Zero One.”
Steve got a feeling he would be asking many more questions once they were safely back on board his ship – and he wouldn’t like all the answers he got.
No one slept for more than a few minutes, and soon they were up again, walking onwards, ears picking apart every sound they heard. Tony took them down several more tunnels that appeared unused and abandoned. Steve worried they would get lost, but Tony never wavered or hesitated. While that suggested Tony knew where they were going, Steve wasn’t certain he liked it.
Then, finally, they got out: it was the edge of the City, the mountain of structures rising behind them. Everyone let out a sigh of relief – save for Tony who froze to stare at the jagged structures, flashes of electricity and the angry black clouds above. At that moment Steve recalled Tony hadn’t seen the skies turn black – nor had he possibly ever gazed upon Machine City, even when he seemed to know it had been rebuilt.
“Quite a sight, huh?” Steve mused.
Tony blinked slowly, eyes unreadable, and then turned away from it, picking a path that hopefully led back to The Avenger.
Steve chose to bury, for the time being, all his concerns at the mental state of his friend and instead embrace the fact that he had gotten back someone from his own time, to share this future world with. And who knew, perhaps Tony would help them find the Weapon, and end the rule of the Machines.
His gut told him, however, that things weren’t that simple.
to be continued…
fan art by wonderful merichuel