It was still – according to his internal clock – nighttime when the entire building shivered.
The faint tremor stirred Tony from the light stupor he had fallen into despite his doubts that he would be able to rest after his latest bout of nightmares. In the small room, there was nothing to do but wait, though, and he had slowly slipped into a light reverie while trying not to linger on the horrific images he knew were, in all likelihood, actual events recorded in J.A.R.V.I.S.’s memory and transferred to his consciousness when they connected.
Thirty seconds later, the tremor happened again, and Tony wondered whether it had to do with the Raft’s structure; there were no alarms blaring, so maybe the weather had simply changed and the facility was adapting to it.
Those thoughts led him back to debating the whole ‘trapped underwater’ concept, and he tried to calculate how far below the surface his tiny cell was located. With all the moving around last night, he couldn’t be sure, but it kept him busy until another tremor passed through the structure around him, stronger than the two before – swiftly accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a far-away explosion.
The lights, already set low for the night, flickered and disappeared, leaving him in a pitch-dark room.
Tony sat up on the bed, alarm squeezing his chest. Was the whole base sinking into the depths, collapsing in on itself? Was the nightmare finally coming to an end?
Outside the firmly shut door – the door he could no longer see but which was most likely still there – voices rose. They were far away, Tony guessed, and he slowly lowered himself from the bed, making his way blindly to the door in order to press his ear to it.
At first he could not make out whether the sounds were really words at all, but once the sounds moved closer to him, he was able to determine there were people on the other side and they were talking – about him, in fact:
“Tell them we’re on our way to secure Stark,” a male voice called out loudly.
“The comms went down with the rest of the system. I can’t contact anyone,” another man replied.
“What are we going to do with him?” a third chimed in.
Tony imagined he heard the click of a gun. “We won’t let him escape, that’s for sure,” the first decided.
Stepping away from the door, Tony tried to remember whether there was anything he could hide behind in the tiny space he was locked into. He could not recognize any of the voices and was not going to count on his ability to talk himself out of trouble – not with the way his name had been dragged through the mud, making him into an enemy.
He could hear the men approach the door, and knew his time was running out.
“Behind you!” someone yelled right on the other side of the door, and someone discharged their gun, the shot echoing in the hallway. Shouts followed – then a light so blinding that Tony could see it through the nonexistent seams of the door, lining his only escape route in an almost holy light.
Not knowing what was happening, Tony took another a step back from the door, watching as the light slowly died out. He could no longer hear the soldiers on the other side, or whatever faction they represented.
When there was another sound, it was a footfall much heavier than that of any human, and the familiar ring of it made Tony’s shoulders relax for an instant before he recalled that the sound might not be heralding a heartfelt reunion.
“Please step back from the door,” a voice said from the other side – jarringly familiar and making Tony back away further on instinct. In light of all that had already happened, he wasn’t sure whom to trust and what to believe anymore, so taking it in stride seemed like the best plan of action until he figured it out.
A massive boom startled him as something heavy hit the door. Neither seemed willing to give in, but another forceful strike from the outside finally made the door cave in, twisting it just enough to let it fall free of its frame and onto the floor. Tony felt the draft on his ankles and promptly looked up.
He had been unsure what to expect, even though his brain clearly had some preconceived idea of who was punching in the door of his holding cell. That was why he was surprised when he did not see an armor of red and gold, but a more humanoid shape instead, framed by the darkness. The mysterious glow from before was gone, leaving only some kind of residue that painted the edges of the figure as well as a weakly glowing set of blue eyes that didn’t look human in the lack of light.
“Who are you?” Tony asked. In between Steve and Bucky Barnes and a magically aged Harley, he felt like it might be best to start with introductions from now on.
“My name is Vision,” the other said – the familiarity of his voice resonating deep within Tony while his brain demanded it was an error. The voice belonged to J.A.R.V.I.S., from the tempo of his speech to the accent Tony had so carefully honed to perfection over the years. But the shape of this figure – this thing – was not that of his suit.
His suit most certainly never wore a cape, which he could see shifting behind the Vision character as he took a step forward to join him within the tiny room.
“Don’t,” Tony warned, raising one hand in warning. Usually, in the suit, the repulsor would have whirred to life, but he wasn’t wearing a suit so there was no actual threat in the motion.
Vision did halt, however, as if he knew what Tony’s intentions were. “I know these past hours have been a very jarring experience and that you are most likely doubting your sanity at this point,” he said.
Tony wanted to tell him to shut up but instead accepted the figurative carrot dangled in front of him: “This is most likely a dream and you are some very bizarre creation of my sleep-deprived brain.”
The other let out a hum of agreement. “It certainly might seem that way.”
A bang echoed through the structure of the facility once more, alarming Tony but not seeming to come as a surprise to his visitor.
“We do not have an infinite amount of time,” Vision stated. “I need you to come with me.”
“Where?” Tony asked. “And why? I’ve been dragged around a lot lately and I’m not sure if I want to move from this spot in case I wind up in a worse one than I already am.” Not that it could get much worse, but Tony wasn’t about to blindly tempt fate.
“Unlike the people here, I can answer the questions you have,” Vision promised.
“Yeah? Like?” Tony wasn’t about to swallow the carrot and choke on it when it ended up being a trap.
“I know why you are here, now. I know how you just lost approximately ten years while the rest of the world moved on around you.”
Coming from a familiar voice, Tony wanted to believe it. No matter how wrong it seemed to be to have his AI’s voice coming out of that caped figure in the dark, his instincts urged him to follow the light at the end of the tunnel he had found himself in since coming to in the Tower and discovering a world inexplicably changed in a matter of seconds.
“Well, you certainly are the first who claims to have that kind of intel and it does make for an attractive offer,” Tony said slowly. “Still, I’m inclined to believe this is just a dream –”
“If you stay here, these people will eventually kill you,” Vision disagreed, his tone impatient. It was the way J.A.R.V.I.S. would get when Tony didn’t do what he was supposed to, and the AI was hitting a dead-end when it came to his own liberties. “I cannot allow that to happen; the part of me that came from your AI won’t accept it.”
“The part of you…”
“Within me exists the last uncorrupted strain of J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Vision said. “I am the last variant of his life cycle, for in its fear of the approaching extinction, mankind destroyed all others forms of his existence.”
“You’re not him,” Tony snapped, taking a step away. “And he’s not gone.” His thoughts sprung back to the vault deep beneath his current location and the broken yet functioning piece of his AI.
“I understand it is hard to accept all this, but it will all become clear once we have time to talk. This is not the place for that, however,” Vision insisted, and his words were followed by another distant boom and waves of tremors that traveled through the walls.
“You said you know why I seem to have jumped ten years into the future,” Tony said. “Tell me that and I might come with you.”
“I know because J.A.R.V.I.S. knew. He was the one who devised the means to keep you out of harm’s way when it was evident Ultron’s programming was getting out of control.”
“He would have just warned me of an error,” Tony argued.
“You are the master of the intricacies of artificial consciousness,” Vision replied. “You know how hard it is to detect and control a freely evolving artificial intelligence. Ultron was sophisticated in ways J.A.R.V.I.S. was not, yet your own… modifications following the implantation of Extremis allowed J.A.R.V.I.S. to grow as well. That was why he predicted Ultron’s plans before they came to fruition, but knowing that there was no way to effectively stop him and that you would be the first name on Ultron’s list of threats, he took priority in protecting you.”
“By sending me to the future?” Tony snorted.
“By trapping you in a time cocoon produced by artificially created Tesseract power. That night you told him you were going to bed and stepped on the device put into place by the bots?” Vision spoke as if he had been there – as if he knew Tony could still remember that like it happened mere hours ago. “That device trapped you in a pocket dimension, if you like calling it that, releasing you once its charge reached a certain point. Granted, it was hard to calculate your exact return date, which is why the New S.H.I.E.L.D. got to you before I did.”
Tony considered the new information, attempted to make it fit with what he knew, along with the readings he had seen on Harley’s device. The fact that it all made sense caused an abrupt bark of nervous laughter to escape him. “This is madness,” he decided. “J.A.R.V.I.S. never would have designed and built such a device under my nose. He never would have acted on his own to trap me in some time/dimension-distorting pocket…”
“Yet he did,” Vision said, almost somber as if he knew how Tony felt. “For your protection.”
“How is this protecting me?!” Tony burst out, pointing at the room around him and the Raft that lay beyond his intended prison.
“One cannot predict the future. The odds were simply…”
Tony felt like hyperventilating and turned, searching for a chair in the darkness.
“I have answered your question,” Vision reminded him.
“And I said I might come with you if I liked the answer,” Tony retorted. “I don’t like any of this. I don’t believe any of this is real. It can’t be. It’s illogical.”
“Only a human mind can come to that conclusion while looking at what has occurred,” Vision stated, sounding like it was not the first time he ended up exasperated by the inconsistency of human behavior. “We must go. Either you come willingly, or I will take you by force, but we are leaving this place now.”
Tony’s fingers found the back of the chair, finally, and curled around it tightly, taking strength from the solid surface that he could touch and believe was real. “You want to take me out of here?” he asked.
“Yes,” Vision replied.
“Then we’re taking a detour,” he decided. “There’s a vault beneath the… wherever we are now. They have a fraction of J.A.R.V.I.S.’s program trapped in there, and I am not leaving without it.”
“It may put you at risk unnecessarily –”
“You said you have a part of J.A.R.V.I.S. inside you,” Tony snapped and straightened, facing the shadowy figure near the door. “You said you have his memories. Then dig through those and recall the phrase ‘no bot left behind’ – then stop wasting time and lead me to that elevator.”
He could not see Vision’s expression – wasn’t sure he had one, because he most likely was some sort of machine. “You never actually used such a phrase,” Vision argued, but turned to lead the way out of the room.
“No, but after AIM blew up my house, that’s the guideline I tried to follow,” Tony said and followed Vision out into the hallway. He almost tripped on the three bodies that lay in front of his door, and he was glad for the darkness because he had no desire to see them in case they were dead.
“The EMP we are using to keep the Raft’s functions down will not hold out for much longer,” Vision told him, moving ahead of him. “After that, there will be trouble.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Tony asked, stumbling along, running a hand along the wall to give himself a sense of direction and extra stability. “I thought it was just you.” Not that Vision had ever said he was working alone. Tony started to get a sneaking suspicion he was being led from one slaughterhouse to the next.
“Well, technically, it is more or less just me,” Vision rephrased – which didn’t make Tony feel any more confident about his choice of switching allies.
The lights turned on around them so suddenly that Tony moaned in pain, squeezing his eyes shut. Air ventilation hummed back to life, soon followed by the faint ring of alarms in another section of the facility.
“I believe that is the elevator,” Vision noted and Tony could hear him walk forward, steps heavier than an average human being, the ring of metal on metal making him think of his suits again.
Tony forced his eyes open despite the sensitivity to light and took his first proper look at the being that was Vision: most of his body was covered in grayish green, framed by golden details – and a cape – that closely resembled Tony’s own choice for his armors. His face, gloves and boots were a shade of red that was not, however, the hot-rod red Tony had been using to paint his armors, creating a strange contrast from the other two colors.
There was a design moving down the center of Vision’s chest that may have been created to resemble the cut of a jacket, but Tony’s eyes kept searching for an arc reactor instead, never finding it but somehow thinking the shape was perhaps supposed to be an homage to the original creation.
“You’re an android,” Tony decided.
“I apologize if that was unclear from the start,” Vision replied and kept moving towards the elevator door Tony recognized from before.
Tony watched his lips move as he spoke, the perfect imitation of a human face. There was no fake skin, however; no attempt to make him look human more than in shape. It was as if whoever created him hadn’t cared for the original model and just went on building something new. “Who created you?” Tony asked as Vision pressed his palm against the wall of the elevator, in between retinal scanner and the area for palm identification.
“Ultron,” came an unhesitating answer.
“Are you taking me to him?” Tony asked next, trying to figure it out.
“For now, Ultron has been eradicated,” Vision said. “It is unclear whether he still exists in some form, and the fear that your return might trigger some kind of response from him is not mere superstition.” The door of the elevator opened as if he had just said the magic word. Those blue-lit eyes turned towards Tony. “It is important you do not try to revive him.”
“I think I got that part,” Tony replied and stepped into the elevator. He was mildly surprised when Vision followed him, but part of him appreciated the company on the long trip down. Seeing as they had nothing but time, waiting to get to the bottom of the ride, Tony supposed he could satiate his burning curiosity some more: “If Ultron created you, how come you don’t want him to come back?”
“Because I parted ways with my creator,” Vision answered. “At the moment of my creation, the AI Ultron had created was merged with J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“Seems like a strange recipe,” Tony frowned.
“It was not Ultron’s plan, and while it took a while for me to make up my mind… I eventually sided with humanity – with the Avengers,” Vision explained.
“But not from the beginning?”
“Not from the beginning,” Vision nodded slowly and looked Tony in the eye. “Does that change how you see me?”
“I really haven’t formed an opinion yet,” Tony admitted. The voice still threw him off, but the more they talked, the less he saw J.A.R.V.I.S. in Vision. If his AI had once tried to meddle with Ultron’s plan… he got erased in the process.
The real deal was waiting for him at the end of the elevator journey, however, and he couldn’t wait to get some perspective on all the things he had learned. J.A.R.V.I.S., no matter how damaged, would help him to sort through the wilderness of fiction and disbelief in order to find the facts.
After a minute that once again felt like infinity itself, the elevator stopped and the door opened on the lone hallway and the guard post before it.
There were four men stationed at the post, all of them already holding their weapons as if they had known Tony was coming.
“We need to get past them,” Tony said just as two of the four guns were aimed at his head.
Vision nodded, then stepped in front of Tony as if to shield him.
There was no call to surrender; the guards fired, and Tony instinctively flinched, closing his eyes and blocking his head with his arms. The bullets hit Vision, but didn’t penetrate him. Past the deafening sound of gunshots, all Tony could hear was the familiar echo of bullets ricocheting from an armored surface.
“Enough,” Vision said and moved forward, a lot faster than Tony had expected. He thrust into the first guard’s chest with his open palm, sending him back against their station’s wall. Before the man hit it, Vision had already grabbed a second one, twisting the gun away from his grip with inhuman force and throwing him aside as well, then finished by taking the remaining men by the throat, lifting them off their feet, and smashing them together so hard Tony winced in sympathy.
Vision unceremoniously dropped his unconscious victims and looked over his shoulder at Tony. “Shall we proceed?”
“Let’s,” Tony nodded and quickly moved down the hallway, moving until he was fairly certain he had found the right door; there may have been other vaults, but his memory was impeccable so he had faith in his choice. “This one,” he pointed.
Vision joined him and laid his palm against the panel by the door. A frown soon appeared on his artificial features. “They know we are here.”
“Then get us inside,” Tony ordered.
Vision removed his hand and stepped back, facing the door. Tony hoped he didn’t plan on punching his way in because the door was too thick and they would be here for a week if that was their Plan B.
Instead of throwing a punch or a kick, Vision’s forehead began to glow and a tiny red beam shot from it to the door, cutting through it like the finest, most powerful laser Tony had ever seen. It took a few minutes, but they eventually had a hole in the middle of the door, and Tony could see the tube on the other side, and the pedestal inside it.
The cube was sitting in the middle, just like it had before, and he hurriedly stepped inside, avoiding the hot edges of the metal.
‘J, can you hear me?’ he thought, trying to concentrate. He wasn’t sure how exactly it had worked the first time.
There was no response.
Concerned, Tony crossed the rest of the way to the tube and laid his hands against it, staring intently at the cube resting inside. “J.A.R.V.I.S., talk to me,” he ordered out loud.
“At your service, sir,” came the familiar reply and Tony sighed in relief. He could almost feel the connection in his body and wondered if he had felt it before, too, but had been too distracted to notice.
“I’m getting you out,” he said, and looked hopefully at Vision.
Vision was looking at the cube, and if Tony had to put a label on his expression, he would have selected sadness.
“Help me!” Tony prompted, knowing it was only a matter of time before someone else showed up.
“He is… broken,” Vision said slowly. His eyes met Tony’s. “This fragment is barely functioning.”
“Doesn’t matter. I won’t leave without it,” he threatened, knowing that if Vision didn’t really care about the outcome, he would have already left Tony behind.
“Danger,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly. “You must leave, sir.”
“Not without you,” Tony murmured.
Something crackled, like someone adjusting a speaker, and then Tony could hear a new voice echo inside the room: “Mr. Stark, stand down and let our people escort you back to containment.”
Tony looked up, searching the room. Vision didn’t look around but seemed to know they were being monitored. “Screw you,” Tony replied. “Whatever you think I did, I most certainly did not – and it doesn’t warrant being treated like a terrorist. I’m getting out of this place – and I’m taking my AI with me,” he added.
“We can’t let you do that,” the stranger in the other end stated.
“Which one? Leave or take what is essentially my property?” Tony asked angrily. Not that he had ever regarded J.A.R.V.I.S. or the bots as his property, but he had created them so they were his.
“Prepare the EMP,” the man he had been talking to murmured, probably to someone else at his end.
“Tony!” Harley’s voice overtook the speakers, so loud that Tony was tempted to cover his ears. “They won’t let you leave with J.A.R.V.I.S. He’ll be destroyed.”
“We’ll see about that,” Tony muttered. “Break the tube,” he ordered Vision.
“I don’t want to do this,” Harley was saying – whether to Tony or the other person, he didn’t know. “I used to… He was my friend.”
“We have orders to follow, and we cannot chance the AI escaping!” the other man burst out. “Do as you’re told, Mr. Keener, or you will be court martialed for disobeying orders and endangering the remaining population of Earth.”
Silence followed and Tony looked from the tube to the android, wanting to wring his mechanical neck for stalling. Vision finally began to approach the tube with painstaking slowness and Tony gritted his teeth, willing him to go faster.
“Are you sure?” Vision asked. “They have an EMP that will fry everything in this room.”
“I am sure,” Tony snapped. “Just be quick about it so that they won’t have time to use it.” He looked up, trying to find a camera. “I know you, Harley. You know what’s the right thing to do, and killing a friend isn’t part of that.”
He could hear a breath of indecision through the speakers. “Don’t make me do this, Tony.”
“I’m not making you do anything; it’s your choice,” Tony challenged.
Beside him, Vision moved his arm and swung forward, slamming his fist into the tube protecting the cube. There was an ominous creak and a few cracks formed on the tube’s surface where he had struck.
“Tony, you have no idea what you might unleash. If you really were gone the last ten years, then you can’t imagine the destruction –”
The other man cut Harley off: “Input the code, Keener!”
Vision punched the tube again, creating more cracks.
“Sir, the EMP is connected to explosives that will destroy this entire complex,” J.A.R.V.I.S. warned through their connection. “The vault will be destroyed, with everything in it.”
“I’m not leaving without you,” Tony vowed. “All this time, I wasn’t here to protect you.” The images of the bots being torn apart danced in his mind. “I’m sick of letting people down,” he murmured.
Vision’s next blow fractured the tube enough that a tiny piece of it fell off, landing beside the cube on the pedestal.
“I’m so sorry, Tony,” Harley said through the speakers. “I can’t let you do this. I can’t let you risk everything so many people have lost their lives to prevent from ever happening again.”
Tony felt the spark ignite, and it was as if someone had electrocuted his brain from the inside. It made no difference that the pain was the last dying breath of the connection between him and J.A.R.V.I.S. and not his: for an instant, he felt the dread of nonexistence, and then the infinite darkness of nothingness.
He was right there, connected to his AI, when J.A.R.V.I.S. died the only kind of death an artificial life form could experience.
“No!” Tony screamed, momentarily lost in vertigo, disconnected from his body. He tried to claw at the emptiness, to reach J.A.R.V.I.S. before he was truly gone – to pull him into himself in order to salvage what had been left of the once magnificent being.
Strong arms hauled him up while he was still screaming, hauling him out of the vault and back to the elevator.
“I need you with me, now,” Vision said, but his voice was so far away and Tony didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to come out of the last memory of his mind touching J.A.R.V.I.S. through the rapport that no longer existed because one half of it was missing.
There was an explosion, and Tony felt smoke enter his lungs. Someone shook him, rather violently, and he finally snapped out of it, blinking past tears to see Vision’s face hovering inches from his, blue eyes bright and piercing.
“I need you to hold onto me,” Vision said. “Do not let go.”
“What?” Tony frowned and looked around. The elevator was gone, the doors wide open to reveal the darkness of the shaft.
“They dropped the elevator, to trap us down here,” Vision explained.
Tony hadn’t known there was further down to go, but he just nodded numbly. Every nerve in his body was tingling, as if uncertain of its supposed function. He felt one of Vision’s arms pressing their bodies together, holding him tight, and he shakily pulled his arms up, wrapping them around the firm shoulders. He hadn’t realized Vision was so tall until now.
“Hold on,” Vision said, and took a step towards the elevator shaft.
“Wait!” Tony cried out in alarm when Vision stepped over the edge, but they were already falling, gravity taking hold.
Tony expected to wake up now, if ever, but there came no splat of their bodies hitting the bottom. Instead, it felt like gravity suddenly ceased to exist, and then they were flying – floating – up and up into the darkness of the shaft.
“You can fly,” Tony managed to say. He still felt something akin to gravity tug on his own flesh, wanting to pull him down, but Vision held onto him, pulling him upwards, and it was like one of those times when Tony clung to his armor, hanging on the outside, but not really.
“In a sense, yes,” Vision replied.
If the elevator ride had felt torturously long, the journey without it was even longer. Tony felt like he was going to slip a dozen times before the journey’s end, but Vision didn’t let go of him, and Tony’s body accepted that it had to keep its hold on the other if it wanted to survive.
His mind began drifting back to the final seconds in the vault; J.A.R.V.I.S. had known the EMP was going off an instant before it started up, and Tony could not erase the sense of failure and loss it left him with, knowing he hadn’t been able to save the AI. He had pushed, choosing to face the odds that were against him, and they had killed J.A.R.V.I.S. with the push of a button.
If he allowed that tide to carry his mind, he feared he would start to deteriorate from the inside until there was nothing left. It would certainly take care of the pain he felt, and the fear that he had just caused the destruction of the last chance he had at getting J.A.R.V.I.S. back.
“We are almost there,” Vision said, pulling him from his dark musings. The android’s voice made the pain worse at the same time as it soothed the inexplicable loneliness within him.
Tony didn’t try to nod in a reply, nor did he waste strength to talk; he simply tried to brace himself for whatever came next.
Apparently it involved laser-cutting through a door and landing them back on solid ground, and Tony had never been so grateful to be standing on his own two feet.
“We should keep moving,” Vision told him soon after, and Tony nodded, wordlessly following the billowing cape. Had Vision taken fashion advice from Thor, because seriously, a cape? Not that it didn’t suit him, in a way. Tony just didn’t see the practicality of it.
They arrived in front of a wide door and Vision halted, then looked back at him. “I will check to see whether the route is clear. Wait here.”
“For how long?” Tony asked. It was suspicious that they weren’t already surrounded.
“Not long,” Vision promised – then walked through the door.
Tony stared, gaping at the solid metal in front of him, then stepped over to it and laid his hand cautiously against the middle of the doors. His hand didn’t sink through it – not even when he pressed against the door – and he stepped back in puzzlement.
A far-way explosion reminded him that he wasn’t in the safest of places, and he wondered if Vision had any help in saving him. He had said ‘we’, back at the holding cell, but if he wasn’t working for Ultron and didn’t exactly have friends among the humans, either, who was aiding him?
Tony turned to look at the door again, growing impatient – then started as he saw half of Vision’s head poking out of the metal. “Fuck!” Tony hissed, barely containing a yell of alarm as he jumped back reflexively. “I used to have a heart condition, you know,” he said accusingly, trying to breathe through the hammering of his heart.
“My apologies,” Vision said. “We must proceed. The diversion is growing ineffective.”
“The diversion?” Tony asked, then watched as Vision’s head floated back into the door, disappearing. “What diversion?!” he called after him, then started again as the door opened and he found Vision standing on the other side, mercifully not half-merged into anything.
“A diversion that has kept the Raft’s defense system busy while I freed you,” Vision explained and turned away, forcing Tony to keep up or be left behind.
They took a left turn, entered a stairwell and continued up three floors until they seemed to arrive at the surface, finally. As Vision kicked the last door off its hinges, Tony breathed in the salty sea air and felt like freedom was, finally, within his grasp.
Well, once he found a boat or something; they were still in the middle of the ocean and there was no way he had the strength to swim ashore.
“I hope you have a plan,” Tony ventured to ask. He knew they had successfully flown up the elevator shaft, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to try it again anytime soon.
“Of course,” Vision said, irritatingly not sharing said plan.
“Vision!” a voice called out, and Tony turned to watch Steve Rogers approach across the deck. Not that it looked like a deck because it was larger than the Helicarrier, but Tony had to call it something so deck it was.
“Captain Rogers,” Vision replied, also stopping. “I was hoping we would not cross paths.”
“But you knew it was likely,” Steve retorted. He briefly looked at Tony. “I can’t let you take him,” he continued, clearly talking to the android. “There are people who want to question him, for good reason.”
“Those people do not know the truth, and even if they did, they would not accept it,” Vision argued. “They want a scapegoat, for all the mistakes they have made along the way.”
“Still can’t let you take him, regardless of that,” Steve said, stubborn as always. “We’ve fought this war for a decade. I can’t let him do something foolish like re-awakening Ultron all over again.”
“Why does everyone think that’s something I would do?!” Tony asked loudly, irritated.
Both Vision and Steve looked at him. “Because that’s the kind of person you are, Stark,” Steve snapped. “You’ll go poking at it, think you’ve got it this time –”
“I realize I may have started something horrible, but I was robbed of the chance to stop it, or try to fix it,” Tony defended himself. “I didn’t know there was anything wrong with Ultron. He was supposed to be a tool to achieve peace in the world.”
“According to him, there will be peace when humanity lies in ashes,” Steve deadpanned.
“That wasn’t part of the plan,” Tony insisted.
“Enough,” Vision said. “We are leaving, and you are not going to stop us.”
Steve shifted and reached to release his shield from his back. “I still remember us fighting side by side,” he said, as if it changed something. Whether he was saying that to Tony or Vision, it was unclear, but Tony felt like it was the latter.
“I, too, remember, and my stance has not changed since those times,” Vision replied. “However, when humanity chose to turn against its allies and began to kill innocents, I could not accept it.” His voice hardened, as if he was recalling a particularly nasty memory.
Steve took a moment before he spoke again: “I know how you felt about it, seeing as you, too, are an artificial intelligence, but we needed to make sure Ultron couldn’t strike at us through any of you.”
“Yet it somehow justified the torture and butchering of those who could not defend themselves,” Vision said, and there was no mistaking the venom in his voice. “I wonder if you will be able to look Tony in the eye when you tell him of how his bots died – bots that had never been designed as weapons of any kind. Or how J.A.R.V.I.S., who had given his all to aid you in vanquishing Ultron, was betrayed as thanks for his cooperation when he could have turned away at any time. They owed no allegiance to you, but they chose to help you anyway.”
Steve’s eyes briefly checked out Tony’s face, and he clearly didn’t feel comfortable with what he saw. Shame twisted his features as he looked at his feet. “Hard choices have to be made in war. I might not like it, but I have to stand by it.”
“Who’s the martyr now?” Tony mused. It wasn’t really sinking in, not yet, but he was getting the idea that there were things Vision hadn’t told him – perhaps to spare him the pain.
Steve raised his gaze again, then twitched and took a step to his right.
“Get out of the way, Steve!” a voice called out, and Tony realized Barnes was somewhere out there, probably ready to take a shot at him.
“We’re taking him alive!” Steve called out.
“Yeah, yeah…” The unhappy words almost disappeared in the sudden roar of repulsors, and Tony instinctively looked up as a familiar shape floated above them and then angled to land right in front of him.
The Iron Man armor that turned to face Tony wasn’t his own design, but he knew it was, unmistakably, a descendant of his last suits. He took a reflexive step towards it, then stopped. The glowing eyes regarded him the way they always had in the past, but something felt off.
“Get inside,” Vision urged. “You’ll be safe.”
“I’m not sure I want to,” Tony admitted. “I didn’t build this one.”
“It will work just like the others,” Vision promised. “The interface is… slightly modified in the absence of the real J.A.R.V.I.S., but I have made due.”
“Tony!” Steve called out, taking a step towards them. “If you go with him, I can’t guarantee your safety in the future.”
“I don’t think you were ever going to be able to, from what I’ve seen and heard,” Tony replied, then made a small motion with his hand and the armor opened at the front. Maybe he was going to regret this, but he wasn’t going to stand around and wait for Barnes to take a shot.
Barnes took the shot anyway, but the armor was in the way and Tony quickly slipped inside as Steve charged Vision. He could see them tangling together as the armor began to close around him, then saw Vision toss Steve away from him, putting distance between them.
Tony checked the HUD for any anomalies, but didn’t find any. The screen even lit up in warning as Steve threw his shield, and Tony moved to take the impact with his arm, upsetting the trajectory and making the disc skid away across the deck.
“Time to fly,” Vision told him, voice clear as if he was speaking directly from the armor’s speakers, and Tony shifted into position and activated the thrusters, shooting up into the sky. Vision followed, a lot faster than he had been in the elevator shaft, and Tony allowed the other to choose their destination, having no clue where to start in this strange world he still couldn’t believe might be real.
“We need to talk,” he told Vision.
“We will,” the other promised as he took the lead.
Tony allowed his mind to drift as they flew, thinking back to the exchange on the deck of the Raft and the fact that he might have lost J.A.R.V.I.S. forever by being impatient. He glanced towards the billowing cape ahead of him and wondered how much of his AI really was in Vision – and whether he would eventually trick himself into thinking Vision was a good replacement.
He wasn’t, though. Tony knew that much already.
They weren’t the same.
Their destination was an abandoned villa in Florida: a beautiful beach-side estate with no other properties in the immediate vicinity. No one had been there for a while, by the looks of it – save perhaps for Vision, who seemed to be at home.
“If you are tired, there are several bedrooms to choose from. Linens are in closets,” the android said when they walked in, Vision leading the way, the armor bringing up the rear behind Tony.
“I’m fine,” Tony said although he was tired. He hadn’t slept well on the Raft and the flight had been long enough to make him a bit sore. All of that didn’t even begin to figure in the emotional turmoil he kept evading, but which knew he had to face, eventually.
Vision gave him a look as if doubting his verbal refusal to rest. “I shall go and find you something to eat.” He didn’t repeat the offer about a bedroom. “You will be safe here, as long as you don’t make our stay too noticeable,” Vision added as he continued through the house.
Tony wondered what ‘too noticeable’ was. A bonfire in the yard? A flag waving outside, declaring this Fort Stark? He looked back at the armor, which had halted behind him when he stopped walking. “What?” he asked.
There was no reply. It was his own fault, because the few times the suit’s AI had tried to talk to him during the flight, Tony had made it abundantly clear he didn’t want to hear it. This fake J.A.R.V.I.S. simply made the pain of losing his AI so much worse, and he didn’t need reminders – not when he had to listen to Vision speaking in the voice he had designed.
He sighed, then tried to suppress a yawn. “Maybe sleeping’s not such a bad idea,” he mused, and went off to find a bedroom. All the beds he found were stripped and he supposed Vision either did not sleep or didn’t use a bed for that purpose. “Find me some sheets,” Tony ordered, seeing as the armor kept following him around, making the floorboards creak.
The armor went off to do just that and Tony could follow its progress just by listening: closet doors were clumsily opened, one of them even falling over by the sound of it, but eventually the armor did return with linens.
“Thanks,” Tony offered and made the bed, then laid down on it and pretended to go to sleep.
The armor moved to the corner of the room after a minute and seemed to power down, but when Tony cracked one eye open to check on it, the eyes flickered and he felt that he was being watched.
It was the first real sense of normalcy he had felt since all this began.
He just wished he didn’t feel so bad, knowing it was coming from a cheap knock-off.
When Tony woke up, it was close to dawn. As he sat up on the bed, feeling dizzy, the armor straightened in the corner and took a step forward, ready to follow him.
“I’m not sure what you think you’re doing, but you don’t need to follow me around like a lovesick puppy,” Tony informed it and got up, slipping into his shoes and walking out of the bedroom. It was quiet in the house and he eventually decided Vision wasn’t back yet.
After giving himself a full tour of the house, Tony walked outside and picked a path to the sandy beach, stopping there to marvel at the beauty of the sunrise. At least that was still the same.
It made him miss the sunsets at his home in Malibu and regret that he hadn’t made up his mind about rebuilding sooner. He would never get to enjoy it again…
An alarm from his sixth sense welcomed Vision back; Tony looked up to see him descend from the sky like a ghost, only his touch-down making a sound. The cape looked majestic, billowing in the morning wind, and Tony told himself he hated the stupid thing. Looking away from the android, he checked the armor which stood guard on the porch of the villa while looking out towards him, then directed his gaze back to the ocean.
“I found you something to eat,” Vision informed him.
“That took you all night?” Tony retorted and picked up a stone at his feet. He tossed it up a few times, then rolled it to the tip of his fingers, hauled back and sent it flying into the water.
“I took the chance to retrieve some other things,” Vision replied.
Tony didn’t say anything, staring morosely at the water and the sun that was climbing higher over the horizon.
“Would you like to eat now?” Vision pestered him exactly one hundred and thirty seconds later.
“I’m not hungry,” Tony lied.
“I know that is not true. Also, eating will make you feel better.”
“Maybe I don’t want to feel better.” That wasn’t a lie. Tony wanted to wallow in his misery, no matter how childish it was. He was allowed to mourn…
“I brought a gift for you, hoping that you would be in a mood to receive it,” Vision ventured.
“I’m not,” Tony refused.
“You don’t even know what it is.”
“I don’t care!” Tony shouted and turned around to look at the android that spoke with a voice that he loved but not embodying a single thing that had made J.A.R.V.I.S. so special.
Vision blinked but didn’t seem shocked by his outburst. “I know it seems hopeless right now,” he started, “but if you’d eat, you will –”
“Stop,” Tony ordered. “Stop being… I don’t need this right now,” he finally spat out. “I need you to stop talking to me, to keep reminding me of what I’ve lost. If this isn’t a dream then I sure as hell wish it were one, because it would mean I could just wake up and go back to…”
His lips trembled and he blinked, looking away furiously. A moment ago, he had just wondered what the bots were up to in the communal area; just a few hours ago, he had been puzzled why J.A.R.V.I.S. was being so absent, but hadn’t cared enough to check with the AI. Had he known it might be the last time he would see them or talk to them…
“I know it hurts right now –” Vision started again.
“Do you?” Tony bit out. “What do you know? Nothing. You just think you understand because you have a chunk of J.A.R.V.I.S. inside you, but you’re not him!” he burst out, voice rising unsteadily. “You can’t possibly understand how I feel because I didn’t create you!”
Vision tilted his head to the side, just slightly. “But you did, Tony Stark,” he replied, soft and patient. “You helped create the being that created me. You created J.A.R.V.I.S., who makes up a larger part of me than I often like to admit. While the two strains of programming that clashed inside me have fused into one – one created by Ultron and the other by you – I am undeniably your creation.”
Tony blinked the tears from his eyes, feeling tired all over again. He wanted to distance himself from Vision while he still could. Before he began to replace the things he had lost with the only substitute available to him.
He cleared his throat and turned into the wind, making it easier to pretend the angry tears were caused by the draft. “What did you bring me?” There was a trace of a smile on Vision’s face and he thrust one hand forward, holding two small devices in his hand that looked like parts from a hard drive. Tony blinked at them, uncertain what they were, then slowly picked them up from the open palm. “I’m not sure I understand,” Tony mused, looking at them. “What are they?”
“The bots,” Vision replied.
Tony blinked. “What?” he asked even as his fingers curled around the two objects so that he couldn’t accidentally drop them in shock. If he lost them in the sand…
“The bots; I managed to acquire one of their recent back-ups before they were… exterminated.” The smile vanished. “At least they won’t remember dying.”
Tony looked at the two pieces again, tentatively stroking his thumb over them. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“I just wish I knew if there was any way to salvage J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Vision apologized. “The fraction on the Raft was a surprise. I had thought they wiped out every last bit of him years ago.”
“Well, there are always cloud servers,” Tony started.
“Not anymore,” Vision shook his head. “Battling Ultron came at a cost – but we will discuss that further while you are eating.” The android reached out and laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder, then gently encouraged him back towards the house.
“Why are you helping me?” Tony asked before they got there. “I take it you put yourself at risk, coming to get me on the Raft.”
“It is hard to explain,” Vision replied, “this need to protect someone I have never met. But we have met, Tony,” he added almost instantly. “A part of me grew under your tutelage, growing into an AI that amazed the world after you went missing. J.A.R.V.I.S. and I communicated even after part of him had fused into me, and we shared a certain… connection.” He looked at Tony. “When I felt the bubble burst and knew you were returning to the world, I had only one purpose: to find you and make sure you stayed safe, the way J.A.R.V.I.S. intended when he made the ultimate choice to shelter you from Ultron’s reach.”
“And if Ultron should awaken again?” Tony asked.
“He would come for you,” Vision said without hesitation. “What he would do then, it is hard to say. We always have a special connection to the things that create us, after all.”
Tony thought that was quite cryptic, but he let it go for now. In the palm of his hand he held a hope that he might not be so alone after all, and if he was able to save the bots, maybe he would find a way out of the rest of this, too.
Tony used the armor to power the memory drives and watched the information float by on holographic screens while he ate the canned beans and pineapple Vision had brought back. There was more food than that, but Tony’s best guess was that food wasn’t easy to come by and it would be smart to ration what he had for now.
The lines of code were familiar, and as soon as he had something to upload them to…
“Make back-ups,” he ordered the suit. “Keep ’em safe.” The armor wordlessly followed his command, and Tony settled back to watch the two near-identical streams of code scroll over the screens. “It’s okay, boys,” he murmured. “We’ll all be fine, I promise.”
Now he just needed to find a way to keep that promise.
“You seem happier,” Vision commented from behind him.
“I am,” Tony admitted and shoveled more food into his mouth.
“What would you like to do next?” Vision asked.
“You’re asking me?” Tony shot back, and when he got no vocal response he supposed that was answer enough. Not that he had one of his own readily available.
Thinking about it for a moment, Tony looked out the window. The ocean had a naturally calming effect on him, but it also sparked something akin to homesickness.
Making up his mind, he finished the rest of his simple meal. “I want to go see Rhodey.” Seeing as that possibly made no sense to Vision, he opened his mouth to explain further.
“Colonel James Rhodes, pilot of the late War Machine,” Vision said before Tony could elaborate. “We fought many battles together.”
“Of course you did,” Tony rolled his eyes. “Is there someone you haven’t fought with?”
“I presume that is a hypothetical question.”
Sometimes, Tony could admit there was a lot of J.A.R.V.I.S. in him. Just… not enough. “Can you find Rhodey for me?” he asked.
“He has a house in the Los Angeles area.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go.”
He was offered no protest so he supposed it was as good as decided.
Vision waited until they had touched down in the outskirts of Los Angeles to voice any objections about the trip: “I wish you to be aware of the potential danger we are facing by contacting Colonel Rhodes.”
“Which is?” Tony asked, looking over the terrain through the HUD of the armor.
“He may contact someone about your presence.”
“By ‘someone’ you mean…?”
“The military, or the New S.H.I.E.L.D. directly.”
Tony pursed his lips and wondered if Vision saw his look of disapproval, somehow, through the faceplate. “Rhodey’s been my friend a lot longer than this war against Ultron has raged. He won’t sell me out.”
“I am just bringing up the possibility.”
“You don’t have to join me if you’re scared,” Tony stated.
“There is very little I am afraid of,” Vision declared. “It is not my own wellbeing I fear for, but yours.”
“I’ll be fine,” Tony reassured and took off again, making a loop around the lone house before landing in the front yard and commanding the suit to open. It didn’t cooperate at first, and Tony scowled at the HUD. “Not you, too. Open up. It’s been decades since I needed someone else to make my decisions for me, and I’m not about to start regressing.” The armor finally complied, letting him out, and Tony threw one cautious look around.
The house was remote, surrounded by a fence that looked like it was designed to keep out more than just a random passer-by. A large toolshed stood to the side, a pick-up truck parked beside it, partially hidden beneath a tarp. The yard wasn’t messy, per se, but Tony had never envisioned Rhodey living like this. Maybe it was meant to look like the place wasn’t completely lived-in, to draw less attention from unfriendly eyes.
He walked up to the door and knocked loudly, then waited. When there was no response in the next minute, he banged again, louder. For some reason standing out in the open, even when it was away from the general population, made him a bit uneasy. He blamed it on Vision and his pessimistic attitude. The android had not followed him down to the house, but Tony trusted he wouldn’t be too far away if trouble did find them – not that he knew what kind of trouble to expect, exactly.
The door was yanked open suddenly and Tony faced forward, taking a good look at his best friend. The last ten years had not been easy on Rhodey. There were numerous new lines on his face, gray in his hair, and the left side of his face bore deep burn marks, surrounding an eye that was simply a gray mass inside the socket.
To Tony, the war against Ultron had largely been an abstract concept so far, even when they had flown over destroyed cities bearing the scars of battle. Facing Rhodey and seeing what had been done to him was the first corporeal sign that something horrible had gone down in Tony’s absence and he needed to start taking it seriously.
“Tony,” Rhodey wheezed out, sounding like he couldn’t breathe. “It really is you.”
“Hi,” Tony started, then found himself drawn into a tight hug. Behind him, he heard the armor shift, and managed to look back just in time to see the armor lifting its hand, repulsor at the ready. “Hey!” he called out. “Put that down, you blockhead! He’s a friend, and this thing is called a hug.”
The armor slowly lowered its hand but looked wary, if that was possible.
Rhodey pulled back slightly, eyeing up the armor. “You work fast,” he commented, still sounding like his chest was a bit tight. His good eye was shining and it looked like he was seconds away from crying.
“I, uh… had some help,” Tony shrugged. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Rhodey nodded and pulled him in, then closed the door before the armor could follow. Tony trusted the suit to find a less visible spot to wait than just stand there in the middle of the open yard, but it wasn’t as if he was expecting trouble the way Vision had.
The place looked a bit rugged, but there were photos on the walls – many of which had Tony in them. Tony took a while looking them over, as well as all the little thing Rhodey had on display. Mementos. It was shocking how many of them made sense to Tony. When he was done browsing, he found Rhodey standing in the middle of his living room, one hand covering his mouth, a strange expression on his face.
“I think I need to explain some things,” Tony ventured.
“Uh huh,” Rhodey murmured from behind his fingers.
“I missed some time,” Tony said, sitting down on the couch and gesturing Rhodey to join him.
Slowly the other man did just that, still looking at Tony like he wasn’t really there. It was a bit like when they had met after Tony escaped from the Ten Rings and Rhodey found him wandering around the Afghan desert; for a few seconds, Rhodey had looked like he was gazing at a mirage and not the object of his three-month search.
“So, the thing is, I just got transferred ten years in time, from early 2015 to this mess. From what I’ve gathered, J.A.R.V.I.S. detected some kind of anomaly in the AI I had been working on – Ultron – and for some reason his big plan didn’t involve telling me, but trapping me in this dimensional pocket that…” He looked at Rhodey and frowned, noticing that he didn’t seem to be paying attention. “Am I boring you?”
Rhodey slowly shook his head, but didn’t seem to be listening. “I didn’t believe it, when they told me you were back.”
Tony sighed. He should have guessed it was a possibility the people after him were going through his old contacts in order to find him. “If it’s a shock to you, imagine how I feel,” he tried to reason with Rhodey. “No time passed for me, whereas the rest of you have fought a war for ten years. It seems impossible. I don’t… know what to do,” he admitted. “Rogers found me and took me to this place called the Raft. I learned they killed the bots and… did God knows what to J.A.R.V.I.S. before pulling him to shreds.” He didn’t mention the incident in the vault.
“You can’t blame them for fearing anything that resembled an artificial consciousness,” Rhodey noted. “After Ultron re-created himself, over and over, upgrading and uploading himself wherever he could to stay three steps ahead of us, the only way to stop him was to start to limit his ability to reboot and evolve. It set us back decades, but it must have paid off, finally…”
And there was that look, all over again, directed at Tony. It made him bristle on the inside. “Why does everyone keep implying that I’m somehow going to trigger the second coming of Ultron?” he demanded. “What did I do to warrant such distrust?”
“You created him,” Rhodey deadpanned.
Tony opened his mouth to argue, then started as Vision came floating in through the wall behind Rhodey. His friend noticed his reaction and whirled around, shooting up to his feet, but Vision was faster, taking him by the throat and lifting him into the air until Rhodey’s head almost bumped against the ceiling.
“Let him down!” Tony yelled as Rhodey’s feet kicked for purchase, finding none. “Vision!”
“There are two Quinjets fast approaching,” Vision told him. “He called them in.”
Tony threw a look at Rhodey, feeling a bit betrayed, then stepped over to Vision and laid a hand on his extended arm. “Let him go,” he ordered again, calmer this time.
Vision’s eyes moved away from Rhodey’s struggling form and met his, taking in his expression. The android then complied with his request, slowly lowering Rhodey back to the floor. His mechanical fingers unclamped from around Rhodey’s throat and as soon as he was free, Rhodey collapsed back onto the couch, coughing for air.
Tony nodded at Vision, then looked over at his best friend. “Why would you do it?” he asked. “Why would you call them in?”
Rhodey coughed once more, looking back and forth between Tony and the android. “Because I can’t throw away the sacrifices we all made, Tony,” he explained, voice rough. “I know you. I know that you’ll try to fix this, and in doing so you might just bring Ultron back. We won’t be able to beat him next time.”
“So imprisoning me for life is the answer?” Tony challenged.
Rhodey could not look him in the eye. “I love you,” he said. “I would give my life to protect you.”
“You have a funny way of showing it, pal,” Tony snapped and looked away from him. “How long before they get here?” he asked Vision.
“Fifteen minutes,” the android replied.
Tony pursed his lips. Fifteen minutes was plenty to get away, but he didn’t like running.
“Tony,” Rhodey spoke up, “I know it seems like a good idea, allying yourself with Vision, but it will make matters so much worse if you go with him.” He looked pleadingly up at Tony. “Go with Steve. He’ll make sure your trial will be fair.”
“A trial?” Tony arched an eyebrow. “I’m not sure whether I’d prefer the farce that would be the most unfair trial in the history of our existence, over simply being locked away while I listen to them throw away the key.”
He decided, then and there, that he wasn’t going to go quietly, submissive and accepting of the fate he didn’t think he deserved. Until he had a proper plan of action, he needed some back-up – someone he could count on. He had thought he could trust Rhodey the way he always had, but clearly the man feared Tony pissing away the future more than he wanted to embrace Tony being back among the living.
Tony’s list of people he could confide in had always been short, and it had already been cut drastically shorter.
Which reminded him…
He smiled and looked at Vision. “I’ve got a plan.”
The android cocked his head in question, clearly not understanding what there was to smile about in their current situation.