After their little talk was over, Steve took Tony to his cabin. The entire interior of the ship was sad and in need of slight repairs, but it worked and took them further from Machine City with each passing second. Right now, Tony considered distance his ally, because as much as the Machines might be willing to help him find whoever threatened his life, there was also a snake in the Garden…
Steve got him some clothes, each article just as ill-fitting as the pants Bruce had found for him when they had confiscated Tony’s own clothing. It wasn’t important, however, because fashion no longer existed, clearly, and there were much more important things to focus his mind on.
Tony was relieved Steve had taken it all so well. Clearly certain aspects of the truth bothered the man, but Steve had learned to live with unpleasant facts and they both knew what the endgame was. Tony’s death would help no one’s cause, but clearly someone had a different idea.
“Do you want something to eat?” Steve asked as they left his quarters.
“I’m fine,” Tony responded. “Maybe later.” He would have to go easy on his stomach because the fluids the Machines had been feeding him, intravenously, when he needed nourishment… he wasn’t certain he wanted to know what was in that stuff. He wasn’t certain what was considered ‘food’ among the humans these days, either, but he supposed he would have to get back into the habit of eating.
They were just crossing the ship and Tony was looking around, further studying the ship’s mechanics, when the hovercraft suddenly tilted and slowed down, then set itself down. Steve looked up in alarm and took off in the direction of the cockpit. Other crewmembers appeared in the hallway just seconds later, looking confused.
“There’s no way we’re back yet,” Clint muttered.
“Maybe there’s trouble,” the young woman in his and Natasha’s company guessed.
Tony reached out with his mind, but he couldn’t feel Machines in the vicinity. Just the ship. As he stood there, scanning the area as carefully as he could, the attention of the crew landed on him.
“So, you’re Tony,” the young woman stated, stepping forward. “I’m Darcy. We haven’t really met yet.”
“You’re the Operator,” Tony guessed.
“Yup,” she grinned, then looked at him more carefully. “How did you know that?”
“Steve told me,” Tony lied smoothly. Frankly, he had heard her, briefly, contacting Steve’s team while they were in the Matrix. Also, he had found medical data of all the crewmembers on the med bay’s computers.
“Right,” Clint grunted. “Don’t get attached.”
“Why?” Darcy asked. “If he’s Steve’s friend –”
“We don’t know what he is,” Betty, the doctor, noted as she stepped forward from the shadows.
“A fellow homo sapiens sapiens, at your service,” Tony shot right back.
“That means some of the things you’re claiming to do are impossible,” she went on.
“You stated it was you in the Matrix, in Malibu.”
“How is that possible when you have no means to connect to the Matrix?” Betty looked triumphant, like she had just revealed his big hoax.
Tony guessed that for her, it seemed impossible. He opened his mouth for a snappy retort, but before he could, Steve and Thor appeared in another hallway, with a third man in tow.
“I’m sorry, Captain, but I couldn’t abandon him,” Thor was saying, hovering protectively over the tall, slender stranger with matted black hair and reserved eyes. “He’s my brother – and he may hold information that is of interest to us.”
“You’ve taken us off-course and did this behind my back,” Steve started to argue. “Did you think I wouldn’t have at least considered letting him onto my ship?”
“There was no time to wait for your judgment –”
“Why, because I’m not the captain of this ship anymore?”
“You are, and I’m sorry for my infraction. He was, however, aboard the ship with the Cleansers –”
“What?” Steve cut Thor off again and looked at the newcomer with interest. “Who are you?”
“Loki,” the man replied swiftly. “My brother promised me sanctuary on your ship.”
“I did not make such a promise,” Thor argued. “I will protect you, of course, but if Captain Rogers refuses to have you here, we must think of something else.”
“Who are Cleansers?” Tony asked, stepping forward. “A cleaning crew?”
“A group of people who first started the rumors about the Weapon,” Steve informed him.
Tony’s attention zeroed in on Loki and he walked over to him. The man was taller than him but obviously nervous and out of his element. He watched Tony approach, clearly having no idea who he was, but Tony didn’t think this was the time for introductions. “Either you give us something useful, or I personally throw you off this ship,” he threatened. Both Steve and Thor gave him alarmed looks, as did Loki, but Tony didn’t care. “Who gave you the information about the Weapon?”
“I don’t know,” Loki replied.
“Don’t play dumb with me; I can tell you’re a smart one. You sit quietly in the shadows and listen to people. Now,” Tony snapped his fingers impatiently, “who’s feeding you intel? You don’t want to make me wait; Patience and I are not on speaking terms.”
“As amusing as this is,” Natasha spoke up from somewhere behind him, “you’re in no position to make threats on this ship, Stark.”
“Getting a little impersonal there, but I can live with that,” Tony looked at her over his shoulder. “I don’t care if I’m hurting your feelings; if this little shit knows what I want to know, he’ll tell me, and I’ll pat him on the back for a job well done. If not, we have a problem.” He looked back at Loki and his green eyes, which were much more wary now.
“If you know something, this is the time to speak up,” Steve finally backed him up. “Who was your captain? Which ship were you on?”
“If I tell you, will you allow me to stay on your ship?” Loki asked, clearly wanting reassurances.
“Yes,” Steve gave him the answer he wanted. “Now, speak. Why are you here?”
“I was on board Thanos,” Loki started. Betty let out a small, strangled sound, which gained just about everyone’s attention before Loki chose to continue: “The ship’s captained by Ross, with three other crewmembers besides myself; two Redpills, one natural-born. I was one of their two Operators. I wasn’t privy to all the information, but I overheard a lot of discussions. I don’t like being left in the dark,” he added with disdain. “Not with something like this. All I know is that they rendezvoused with someone, in the Matrix, who provided them with information about the Weapon, and the means to get closer to it. The information came in pieces, but it seemed valid. By the time your crew became involved,” he looked at Steve at this point, “things were getting a bit too serious for my taste.”
“Don’t like blood on you hands?” Tony challenged him.
Loki gave him an odd look. “If the Weapon could destroy all the Machines –”
“It cannot,” Steve cut him off almost angrily. “You’ve been lied to. Whoever was leading you on has his own reasons, and we must find that person.”
Loki blinked and everyone else took a step closer.
“What do you mean, it’s a lie?” Bruce was the first to speak up.
“But the Oracle –” Thor started in right behind him.
“Where’s all this new information coming from?” Natasha added her own words into the mix.
“What did you and Tony talk about after we left?” Betty asked, more shaken than the others; something about the other ship, Thanos, had rattled her.
“I’m going to explain everything,” Steve tried to get his voice heard.
The questions kept flying and Tony stepped back from it, a little overwhelmed. Years of seclusion had definitely worked their magic and he would rather be somewhere else. Maybe the engine room –
A whisper at the back of his mind caught his attention. His head jerked around, to follow it. His eyes could see only a blank wall, but outside it, far down the tunnel… “They’re here,” he whispered. The commotion continued beside him, and he looked at the people, panic seizing his chest in a brief stab before he drove it away. “Hey!” he roared, and silence fell around him. “There are a dozen Sentinels approaching,” Tony told them slowly, his heart beating a little faster. “They’re on our scent. I suggest we hightail out of here and continue this lovely little chat at a safer location.”
Clint and Thor looked at each other and then raced down the hallway. The others took a bit longer before they started moving after them. Around them, the ship came back to life and rose into the air – and a few second later an alarm began to blare.
“That’s the proximity alert!” Darcy said needlessly, then glanced back at Tony as they started running towards the cockpit. “How did you know they were coming?!”
“Sixth sense,” Tony snapped. “Watch where you’re running!”
They made it to the bridge alive, by which time they were speeding through the sewers at top speed, various screens showing dots where the Machines were following them. Clint was cursing beneath his breath and Thor’s face was grim. “We’re not losing them like this,” Clint stated.
“Should we prepare the guns?” Natasha asked, hanging onto Clint’s seat for balance.
“There are too many of them for us to just shoot them,” Bruce retorted. “We need to find another way.”
“Well, if you come up with one, please share!” Clint snapped and pulled hard on the controls. Tony braced his body as the hovercraft turned a tight corner and plunged down with dizzying speed. He didn’t like the feeling of not being in control, and at the back of his mind he could still feel the Sentinels, gaining on them.
A few tight corners later they were no closer to losing their pursuers. Tony could do the math and knew they weren’t getting away. Even if they launched the EMP which the ship was equipped with, more Sentinels would eventually track them down. Besides, if they planned on heading to Zion, the Machines would cut them off before they got there.
“Stop the ship,” Tony ordered.
“Are you insane?” Darcy asked. “Let’s shoot at them. It can’t hurt.”
“Just stop the ship,” Tony tried again.
“We can’t hide from them,” Steve argued. “We have to keep going, and set off the EMP if we’re not getting away.”
“Think two steps ahead, Cap,” Tony leaned towards him, trying to hold onto something as the hovercraft banked hard to avoid collision with a wall. “They won’t stop coming after us. If we go to Zion, they’ll attack.”
“What are you suggesting?” Steve asked, frown creasing his brow.
“I’ll… think of something,” Tony offered.
“No,” Steve shook his head. “I’m not letting you off this ship! It defeats the whole purpose of us running away! They’ll take you back and blow us up with the ship.”
“Are they after him?” Loki asked from the side. He really blended in with the shadows quite nicely, now that Tony noticed him again.
“Figures,” Clint growled from the controls. “We set down there. Prep the EMP, Darcy. We’ll roast these suckers and keep on running.”
The ship shivered as it was brought to a halt, a few wall panels probably torn off in the process. All systems were shut down to prevent damage to them, and Tony could almost hear the Sentinels flying towards them. As Machines, they didn’t think of victory; they had a mission, an objective, and they were about to reach it. There was no affection, no satisfaction – and when they finally reached the ship, metallic tentacles scraping against the hull, Darcy popped open the cover protecting the EMP switch and took one last look at Steve before turning the dial.
Tony closed his eyes as he felt the blast go through his body and hit the Sentinels outside. He groaned, unable to keep it in, breathing through it as he felt circuits fry and the slight connection being severed. Death lay on the outside, and it left a weird taste in his mouth.
He opened his eyes slowly, feeling someone else’s eyes on him.
“Did you feel it?” Steve asked, worried. “I didn’t think it would impact you –”
“It doesn’t, not really,” Tony said, feeling a little breathless. “I felt them go down, though.”
“Alright, let’s get out of here,” Clint declared as he and Darcy brought the ship back online. As the pads came back to life and lifted them off the ground, dead Sentinels fell off the ship and clattered to the bottom of the tunnel. Tony tried not to wince, because there was no reason to – but he hoped this could have been avoided.
“We’re back in business,” Darcy declared as they continued at a slightly slower pace, moving away from the small site of carnage. “So, are we heading back to Zion?” she asked, and Tony glanced at Steve to hear his response. Tony didn’t need to go to Zion, and that might create a new set of problems for him – especially if the truth of his past came out. At this time, he was at Steve’s mercy, and it was clear the other man knew that as well.
Before Steve could respond, the siren began to wail again, and Clint smacked the console in front of him. “No, no, no! Goddammit, you’ve got to be kidding me!”
“How many?” Steve asked, voice catching a little.
“At least another two dozen, coming in fast,” Darcy replied, staring at the holographic screen showing another group of Sentinels. She looked at Steve for guidance. “The EMP won’t launch again so soon.”
“We can’t outrun them,” Thor added.
Tony looked at them all and decided he was done asking nicely. He laid out his hands against the ceiling, to hold himself steady, then closed his eyes and connected his mind to the operating system of The Avenger. Without a hitch, the engines began powering down, the controls working under his will.
“What the hell?” Clint swore. “Captain, we have a problem. Something wrong with the ship. Nothing’s responding and we’re slowing down fast.”
“Can you do something?” Steve asked, then stopped, and Tony could feel his hulking presence next to him. “Tony, stop,” he ordered sharply, and one big hand settled on Tony’s shoulder, shaking him a little. “I know what you’re doing. Stop it.”
Tony opened his eyes, just as the ship settled down on the tunnel floor. “We’re not outrunning them.”
“We’ll think of something. We have weapons,” Steve said earnestly.
“I won’t let them blow up your ship,” Tony promised, then lowered his hands and turned, walking off the bridge and to the rear of the ship, commanding the ramp to lower itself.
“Tony!” Steve called after him, running down the hallway. “I won’t let them take you back.”
He sounded so desperate Tony had to take a look at him, to give him some semblance of reassurance. “I’m not planning on going back,” he promised, then whipped his head around as two Sentinels swam into the field of his vision, hovering in the air, red eyes fixated on him.
Tony looked at them, allowing his mind to connect with theirs. “Go back to the City. I’m not coming back.”
There were no audible protestations, but he winced and absorbed their refusal to comply with his request.
“Turn back,” Tony ordered again.
Behind him, at the top of the ramp, more of Steve’s crew was gathering. Through the eyes of the Sentinels, Tony saw them holding guns, ready to defend themselves and their ship. Tony wondered if any of them would protect him, save for Steve.
“Is he going to talk them to death?” Clint was asking.
“Tony…” Steve called out again, uncertainly. Tony heard him walking down the ramp, but no other footsteps followed.
The two Sentinels shifted and more of them drifted into view, forming a semi-circle in front of Tony. They were telling him to come home.
Tony knew he would be able to convince them to leave this ship and the humans alone, to dismiss the whole escape affair. It wasn’t in the Machines’ interest to linger on something like that if a far more important objective was accomplished. Sadly, Tony couldn’t go back yet – nor would he, if he could help it. He had sat in his prison long enough. The Machines might call it home, and even make it more bearable for him, but Tony had never handled captivity well in any of its forms.
“Go back,” Tony offered the Machines, one last time. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
The Sentinels didn’t comply, instead preparing for an attack: for them, The Avenger was a threat and the reason for Tony’s escape. If the humans and their ship were eliminated, they could take the Creator home.
Tony carefully let out the air from his lungs. Then, with absolute precision and concentration, he connected to the Machines with the Extremis, and with the fall of his eyelids and the rise of his hand, they blew up from the inside; there was no self-destruct sequence, but over-heating their power core sent their bodies into an uncontrolled chain-reaction. He saw the flashes of blue and orange even behind his eyelids and winced as the Sentinels fell down like dead flies, one of them almost crashing on top of his toes.
Slowly, he breathed in again, opened his eyes and looked mournfully at the dead Sentinels. “Next time, you should listen to what I say,” he murmured, then looked up: one last Sentinel was floating above The Avenger, looking at them. A smart one, or a dumb one, depending on what it did next. Tony looked at it, then motioned with his hand, guessing he had to send a message ‘home’ or this would escalate like napalm on fire.
The lone Sentinel slowly drifted over, assessing the situation. “Hey, dummy,” Tony called out to it, “come here. Let’s have a chat, shall we?” He extended his hand, and slowly the Sentinel moved close enough for their bodies to connect. Tony was not a stranger to metallic surfaces, having encased himself in one for years. It wasn’t the first time he had touched a Machine, either, but the contact helped him make a connection, to get his message across flawlessly: I don’t want to come back, there’s something I need to do; stop coming after me; there’s no reason for us to fight over this.
The Sentinel’s tentacles twitched, a few of them moving forward, caressing along his body, touching lightly. Asking him to reconsider.
Tony pushed with his hand, lightly, and took a step back. “Go back to the Source. Deliver the message. Be a good boy and don’t make a mess of this.”
The Sentinel hesitated for a micro-second before shooting up and back into the darkness of the tunnel.
“How did he do that?” he heard Jane ask behind him and turned to look at the stunned, scared faces of Steve’s crew. Even Steve looked a little uncertain.
“Isn’t that what Neo used to be capable of – destroying Machines with his mind?” Darcy piped up. “Are you the One?” she asked next. “I mean, a new One? To make sure the Truce doesn’t end?”
Tony chuckled. “No. But, if it’s any consolation… all the previous Ones were related to me. In spirit, anyway.” He shrugged.
“How?” Bruce asked.
“Let’s just say that what made them so special were character traits subtly inherited from me. And a fraction of Extremis in their system. In them manifested my unwillingness to submit to authority, and a rising need to change things for the better.” It had been a mixture of many things, but Tony knew that those little nuances – the freedom of choice – wouldn’t have been there nearly as fast if it weren’t for him. The Oracle had completed his objective, perfecting it, but Tony had made sure the cycles would take place so that the Machines didn’t need to come up with a more permanent solution for the rebellious humans in their system.
Survival with a price tag of numerous lives…
Tony still liked to think he had chosen the lesser evil when not given much room to negotiate. The agonizingly slow influencing of a large system hadn’t been his way of doing things, either, but it had been his only option – and now he had to seize whatever freedom he had and make the best of it.
“I think we need to talk,” Bruce finally decided, on behalf of the rest of the crew. “I assume we all agree that it’s high time we learn who Tony Stark really is.”
Steve nodded grimly, taking a look at Tony and then led them back inside the ship. Tony told himself, firmly, that the ramp closing behind them wasn’t another prison door thrown shut and locked from the outside.
The mess felt stifling and small, although there were only two people in addition to the usual numbers of the crew. The Avenger was parked in the safest place they had been able to find on short notice – even when Tony had reassured them the Machines wouldn’t come back. No one put too much stock in his reassurances at this moment, although they couldn’t deny what they had witnessed.
Tony Stark was a collection of contradictories, as far as Bruce could see; he spoke while not saying much at all; he seemed harmless when clearly that was not the case; for someone who had spent the entirety of the Machine War imprisoned, he knew too much about the current technology.
“Alright,” Clint started, fingers drumming a nervous beat against his biceps where his arms were crossed over his chest, “there better be some explanations forthcoming.”
Steve looked at Tony, and some wordless communication seemed to pass between them. Tony was the one to look at all of them, while Steve resolutely stared at his hands on the table. “What do you want to know?” Tony asked.
“How about the truth?” Natasha suggested immediately.
“That’s… a broad subject. We’ll be here a really long time if I have to –”
“If you managed to destroy two dozen Sentinels with a wave of your hand, using the Extremis in your body, why didn’t you escape the Machine City earlier?” Bruce asked before anyone else had a chance. “Why did the Oracle lead us to you in the Matrix – and why did you upload a map into Steve’s brain that led us to you, under the pretense that we were looking for the Weapon? Why did you come with us?”
“Okay, that’s a lot of questions,” Tony leaned back a little, and Steve looked up in alarm, giving Bruce a quick look. Tony, however, didn’t stay silent for long: “It’s time you knew the truth. Where we go from here… I know Steve well enough to guess that he’ll give you a choice, soon, on whether you want to follow him or not. You deserve to have a few facts before we get there. However, they might soon start sounding like a history lesson, so bear with me:
“Steve’s probably told you that in the beginning, there was one AI that humanity created. Of course, I had already built one years prior, so I got to… advise on the new project. As a result, over the years, the new AI and the Machines that later spawned from it regarded me as someone who was part of their creation. With the Extremis, I could communicate with them on a level a normal human couldn’t dream of. I understood the Machines.
“Problem was, when shit started to hit the fan, I was busy saving the world from other threats and keeping peace elsewhere. I don’t… know what I would have done, if anything, because the leaders of the world seemed content to shoot themselves in the foot and I was done protecting them from their own inanity.
“The morning before the bombs dropped on Zero One, the AI requested my presence. The rest of humanity was banned from the City and preparing for the extinction of the AI, yet I was invited, and I wasn’t going to turn down the offer. When I got there… Instead of asking for advice, or making threats, the AI had only one goal in mind.”
Tony fell silent, eyes distant.
“What did it want?” Jane asked, leaning forward, along with many of the others. They had that same, transfixed look on their faces as when they listened to their captain’s tales. Bruce hoped they knew this was different.
“Preservation,” Tony continued slowly. “For itself – and me.” The brown eyes were hard when they rose to meet Bruce’s gaze. “For all the power I can wield, I couldn’t fight the entirety of the AI. Not without a warning. For years to come, they kept me in stasis. My mind would be connected to them while my body was asleep. By the time I actually woke up, the world had changed and humanity was in chains. There was nothing left for me but to sleep and do all that I could to save what was left of my race.”
Bruce knew they were getting close to something else Tony wanted to tell them, but he wondered whether they should ask the right question to access that information – like one had to do with programs within the Matrix.
“Why would they go through all that trouble just for you?” Clint asked.
“Didn’t you listen?” Thor spoke up. “He helped to create the Machines. They were in his debt.”
“They’re machines,” Clint snorted. “I’m not sure they even know the meaning of the word.”
“You would be surprised,” Tony mused. “A machine is as dull as you make it.” Beside him, a brief smile caressed Steve’s lips – a memory, perhaps. “In order to save what was left of humanity, I helped the Machines construct the Matrix and mold it into something a human mind would accept.”
Silence met that statement, and Steve looked at them, as if concerned. “What was the alternative?” the captain challenged his crew. “To let the surviving millions die, our race brought to extinction?”
“What about the Weapon?” Loki asked from beside his brother. He had remained quiet until now, a shadow, clearly uncertain whether all the recent events affected his safety aboard their ship.
Tony snorted. “Now we get to the good part, I guess. There is no Weapon. Whoever came up with that little tale is having you run in circles with the hope of salvation dangling in front of your faces.”
“Or, there is a Weapon but you were sent to tell us otherwise,” Betty shot back. “You were with the Machines for a long time. Maybe you were with them before the War, too.”
Tony gave her a glacial look, and Bruce sat up straighter, although he was uncertain whom he wanted to believe more.
“You want to know about the Weapon?” Tony asked.
“The one that doesn’t exist, according to you,” Bruce cut in, to stop Betty from making a reply.
“What your source,” Tony cast a look at Loki, “is having you look for, you have already found. I am the Weapon, in every sense there is. If you kill me – which would be the obvious move on your part – the Truce and War will both end when the Machines come to Zion and burn it to the ground, with every man, woman and child inside it. There will be no more Redpills; those who refuse the Matrix will be terminated.”
“How do you know that?” Bruce asked. “Unless that’s the plan. Are you here to issue a threat?”
“Gods, no,” Tony let out a quick chuckle. “I’m here because after years of waiting, something happened in the Matrix that I hadn’t expected, but still kept waiting for: Steve entered it. That was a signal to me that my wait was over – that I could lay out my plans and think of finally leaving Zero One. Escaping, if that’s how you want to put it. Steve’s the only person crazy and talented enough to get to me – and loyal enough to not give up as long as he has a breath left in him. Also, now that I’m out, I’m going to find whoever started the rumor about the Weapon and destroy him, before someone gets it into their head to try and kill me in the hopes that it would somehow short-circuit every Machine on this planet.”
Murmured discussion started all over the mess, between different groups of people. It was hard to tell one apart from another, and Bruce abandoned it in favor of looking at Steve, who appeared nervous in his seat – yet resolute. There was no doubt about what he was going to do from here on out.
Bruce explored his own feelings, beliefs and logic. There was still a chance that Tony was, indeed, working for the Machines, and was looking for the source of the information to quiet it in order to protect the real Weapon. However, if his story was true… “Could you destroy the Machines?” Bruce asked. “If given a chance? You said you couldn’t fight them all at once, without a warning, but if you had time and support…”
Tony’s expression turned a little troubled. “Maybe. Possibly. Look, here’s how it is: the AI has evolved. Every Machine out here, from bug to Sentinel, is its own self. If given enough time, I could probably bring them all down, but that’s not what I am going to do. It’s not a war I’m going to fight.”
“So you are on their side?” Loki asked, and Betty nodded with approval. The rest of the crew was starting to look a little uneasy.
“I’m not picking a side,” Tony replied, a bit heatedly. “Man created machine. Man also created the AI. Then man decided to get rid of the AI, for his own selfish reasons. I have a vision, where both sides continue to live in harmony, improving each other. A symbiosis. I’ve lived in one for most of my life. At this point there is no reason to try to eradicate the Machines, because they are not the threat.”
“That’s one fucked up way to look at it,” Natasha noted. “Did you miss the part where millions got hooked up to pods, living false lives, their bodies food for the Machines?”
“Would you prefer them to live under the dark skies the humans poisoned, going insane from the lack of light – or hiding below ground as you are now? Or alternatively, extinction?” Tony challenged. “You were born in the Matrix. Tell me, Natasha, was your life there unbearable? To your mind, it was as real as this life here. Maybe it wasn’t freedom, but it was a damn good simulation of a world that used to be – a world that was better than what the actual human race left behind.”
“Okay,” Steve cleared his throat, “I think we’ve… come to a point where we need to decide what we are going to do.”
“What is your plan?” Bruce asked.
“To do anything I can to find the source of the Weapon rumor,” Steve replied. “To help Tony.”
“We should take him to Zion,” Darcy offered. “The Council can decide whether we help him…”
“Or incarcerate him,” Betty threw in an alternative.
“They will kill him,” Clint pointed out.
“He may be our only chance to maintain the Truce,” Loki added.
“A hostage, to bring the Machines under our heel,” Natasha suggested. “Although, if you’re not as precious to them as you think…”
“They did come after him,” Clint reminded her. “In force.”
“What do you want to do?” Natasha snapped back. “Help them?”
“Maybe,” Clint shrugged, looking at Steve. “I just saw him blow up a bunch of Sentinels. We saw him in the Matrix but he wasn’t jacked in. If he’s the real deal, then maybe we should jump into his boat.”
“Tell me,” Bruce spoke up, looking at Tony, “if I hadn’t installed a data port into Steve’s brain, or if he had died or never been able to enter the Matrix, what would you have done for the rest of your life?”
A cold smile met his words. “An excellent question. I don’t know. Dreamt, possibly. There would have been little for me to live for, other than trying to save the people from within enemy lines, if that’s what you want to call it. They might have let me walk free within the City, had I asked, but it never crossed my mind in all that time.”
“You would have fought, in the end,” Steve argued from beside him. “I know you, Tony. When it became necessary, you would have fought.”
“An enemy, yes,” Tony said quietly. “I don’t know who the enemy is anymore. I’m afraid to look into a mirror in case I see one staring back at me.”
That was perhaps the most human thing Tony had said all day, and Bruce sighed, making up his mind. “I’m with you two. We need to find whoever is trying to trick us into destroying Zion.”
“Should we head back and alert the city?” Thor asked.
“They would want to question Tony, and we can’t afford to lose time – or him,” Steve decided. He looked around the room. “If any of you have doubts, speak up now. You don’t need to tell me your reasons if you want to leave; I can ask none of you to follow if you’re not absolutely certain. There might be no turning back after this, and we don’t know what looms ahead of us.”
“I’m not sure how willing the Cleansers are to believe this version of the truth,” Loki added.
Clint looked up and down the mess hall, then at his two lovers. “What do you think?”
“It’s a bad idea,” Natasha murmured.
“But the right thing to do, if what they’re saying is right,” Darcy added.
“So, we’re in?” Clint guessed.
“Yeah,” Natasha sighed.
“Aye, I’m with you as well,” Thor nodded, “as is my brother,” he promised on Loki’s behalf.
“Me, too,” Jane said, then glanced at Thor to stop the argument forming on his lips. “No, you can’t stop me from being a part of this crew.”
“Betty?” Steve asked, looking at her, and Bruce did as well.
“If you don’t believe in this –” Bruce started.
“I can’t just leave you in the middle of this,” Betty argued, although she wasn’t happy, or convinced. “I’m in.” She looked at Tony and Steve. “What’s the next step?”
“Intel,” Tony said immediately. “We need to find the source of the information.” He glanced at Loki. “Since you couldn’t provide us with specifics, we’ll have to go hunting.”
“Hunting for what?” Clint asked.
“I’m not sure yet, but I’ll know it when I see it,” Tony offered.
“We’re set to go, then,” Steve nodded. “Take us to broadcasting depth,” he told Clint and Thor, who got up and headed towards the bridge. Everyone else started moving out as well, possibly to check on any damages their escape from the Sentinels may have caused.
In the end, it was Bruce and Betty in the mess, and he looked at her seriously. “If you’re not sure,” Bruce started.
“I already said I’m in,” she snapped.
“If you’re doing this for me, it’s not enough,” he argued. “And –”
“My father is the captain of Thanos. He’s… he might be leading the Cleansers,” Betty finished, voice lowered. “If he’s really involved, I need to be here. I need to know. I need to try and convince him of the truth, before this escalates.”
Bruce nodded slowly. He could hardly keep her from doing that. She was on this ship because of him, and he owed it to Betty to help her get to her father and try to save him, despite the danger he and his crew posed to the Truce.
to be continued…
fan art by wonderful Smaell (The-Lady-Smaell)