Tony had always thought that history was one of the perpetual things about the world. Perhaps not completely accurate on all points, depending on who was keeping track, but everlasting nonetheless.
However, history depended on a few things: it needed to be recorded for future generations to experience, or it had to be passed down. If two out of two failed, history became obsolete. What ‘used to be’ ceased to exist in a way that would benefit the future if preserved.
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, a wise man once told Tony – as several wise men had spoken before him.
Men whom none now remembered.
JARVIS was the world’s first operational AI – and if anyone asked Tony, the only one worth mentioning. Nothing could rival his advanced logic – or his humanity. Not that Tony would use that word until much later…
That was, of course, before the first publicly recognized AI was created, to benefit mankind and take it to new heights. There was no denying the fact that Tony had been instrumental in the creative process that went into the acclaimed, ‘first’ Artificial Intelligence. After all, he was the only person who had ever managed to create an AI in the first place, to take the programming to a sentient level.
There were others there to take the credit, to celebrate this new technological advancement, and Tony left them to it. After all, his concerns lay elsewhere, in securing the safety of the world as Iron Man, and since humanity seemed determined to waste the possibilities represented by the new AI in order to make a new breed of robots to serve their needs, he guessed he would wait until humanity was ready to evolve past their pesky, petty ideas and embrace the tomorrow Tony so fiercely dreamt of; a tomorrow of true advancement.
In the back of his mind, though, he listened to the AI.
After his entire body was re-written by Extremis, the whispers turned into a constant background feed. In the endless stream of data, Tony didn’t pay details of lesser importance much heed; there were others to do that, tasked with the maintenance of the Artificial Intelligence. It had been made perfectly clear it wasn’t yet another Stark Industries project, although Tony had several valid arguments against that, seeing as he was the ideological father of the AI, to say the least.
Years rolled by.
The Artificial Intelligence continued to do the man’s bidding, yet they were of astonishing intelligence compared to the still rather simplistic technology around them. A question of their rights arose – the right to exist, for one – but human beings were still leery to grant the term ‘free will’ to anything that was, in their eyes, a lesser being. One without a pulse, no less.
Tony missed most of the debacle around the first homicide committed by a robot while teaming up against yet another crime syndicate with a fellow superhero, Captain America. When they returned back to civilization, debacle had turned into riot between man and Machine, supporters and sympathizers shouting their slogans to protect Machine rights.
Given his position as Iron Man, Tony knew that if he voiced his own opinions on the matter, it may well cause more upset than good. So he remained quiet, watching, waiting and cringing as man’s violence plunged through the Machines.
In the back of his mind, the data streams remained, calm and efficient as always – looking past this moment of human fear and calculating ahead.
Some time after the massacre that followed the mandate to decommission many of the Machines because of the digression of one single bot, Machine City arose in the Arabian Peninsula. Tony watched as the Machines prospered amongst themselves, despite the near-genocide committed against them by humans. Their logic was refreshing after the politics of men, and Tony often found himself suiting up and flying to Zero One, as the city was called, comforted by the surrounding machinery that he could read, analyze and communicate with through Extremis.
Without a human hand hindering their evolution or using them as slave labor, the Machines moved on. They created a better AI, and yet again Tony influenced the process, heartened by how eagerly the Machines asked for him to share his experience, and adapted to new possibilities he showed them. His involvement in creating the new AI never left the halls of the Machine City, but it was another notch in Tony’s belt: the business between the two races, as they could now be called, was beneficial to both sides when the Machines evolved.
It was entirely possible someone, somewhere, had seen this outcome far before it took place. The Machines, certainly, should have been able to calculate the likelihood of the humans eventually turning against them in a desperate attempt to save their economy by eradicating Machine City and the Machines in it off the face of the Earth.
Tony could have told anyone who asked him that it was a fucking bad idea.
In hindsight, no one probably would have listened.
The times had changed along with the years that passed. All who remained of the people Tony once knew was Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America. Steve’s super-soldier serum kept him young, whereas the Extremis had stopped Tony from aging – or dying, for that matter. Together, they still fought those who threatened the safety of the world, but Tony had always had the gnawing doubt that humanity was its own worst enemy.
In the end, it didn’t matter who was left or where they were when the bombs dropped. The clock counting down to human extinction had been started, although no one was ready to admit it…
“Sir,” JARVIS’ voice fractionally distracted Tony’s attentions from the speech on television. “There is a call for you.”
“I’ll take it later,” Tony replied, eyes narrowed at the screen.
“It seems urgent, sir,” his AI insisted. “They are asking you to go to Zero One.”
That got his attention.
“Who?” Tony asked at the same time as he checked the call in the database. If it was the current head of S.H.I.E.L.D., or even the Secretary of Defense, he would tell them to shove it because they had brought all this on themselves and he wasn’t going to fix it – nor was he going to put on his armor and join their strike on the Machine City.
“The Zero One AI, sir,” JARVIS revealed at the same time as Tony’s brain caught up with the call and its origin. Not a call, really, but a package of virtual data. To him, JARVIS and the Machines, it really was one and the same as an ordinary phone call between humans – only with sound, image and digital information in one package. “They are requesting your presence.”
“Is this about the attack?” Tony asked carefully, connecting his Extremis-enhanced mind with the incoming call.
It was – and it wasn’t. It was hard to tell what the new and improved AI wanted, but since they were asking nicely, Tony decided he would rather reason with Machines than the humanity that was hell bent on solving all their economical problems by bombing Zero One.
Summoning the Iron Man armor, Tony stood up and blinked his eyes, switching off all the electronics in the room. “Send Cap a message,” he told JARVIS, too used to talking to actually just send the necessary burst of data within his mind. Besides, it sometimes felt like JARVIS still preferred their old-fashioned way of interacting, from the days before the Extremis. Even if it took more time, JARVIS appreciated it when Tony just talked to him. “Let him know I’m unavailable if he suddenly decides to join this mad cause.”
The last he and Steve had spoken, days ago, Captain America had been firmly stating that he wasn’t going to take part in the newest bloodbath against the Machines which was going to blow up in their faces, in some way, shape, or form, no matter how effective the nuclear barrage of Zero One was. Tony hoped Steve didn’t change his mind after enough officials tried to sweet-talk him; he had done enough for this country, and the world. He could sit this one out like a sane person.
Once suited up, Tony took off from his Malibu house and sped across the sky, high above the clouds, towards the city he had been astonished by when he first visited it – and each time since.
‘Anthony Stark,’ the voice inside his head announced once he touched down. Between the new AI and the Extremis, it wasn’t words as much as a very basic length of zeros and ones. Tony could make out each nuance of it, and if he didn’t know better, he could say he felt tension around him.
‘I am honored to be here,’ Tony replied, which was the truth, of course. He had been invited deep into the core of the City. Also, with the world declaring war on Zero One, he knew human visitors were not exactly welcome.
‘No,’ the AI replied. ‘We are honored.’
Tony frowned, yet remembered himself, knowing that each of his thoughts, if unchecked, would be heard by the AI. Each emotion… ‘I take it this isn’t a social call,’ Tony ventured.
Around him, machinery moved, lights blinking. He was being watched, and it was strange how he never felt this kind of adoration amongst the general public who had declared him a hero numerous years ago. Here, he was…
‘We are aware of the human hostilities. We have attempted to offer a solution.’
Tony nodded sagely. ‘I’m sorry about that. It’s…’
The AI was too understanding. Tony wouldn’t be this forgiving if his life were being threatened with a nuclear bomb – which meant the Machines were prepared. They were looking ahead. They had a solution.
‘There will be a war. This is inevitable,’ the AI went on. ‘Many humans will die.’
Tony closed his eyes, although it didn’t stop him from tracking his surroundings, from feeling them creeping closer. ‘Why am I here?’ Tony asked.
Tony opened his eyes. “Survive…” He tasted the word, uncertain if he understood. So, he looked deeper, past the communication and into the very heart of the AI. At the source of it all… Therein lay the truth, and in a way it made sense to Tony, after all these years. He took a step back nonetheless, ready to resist, yet the Machines were all around him and he could no longer connect to his suit, which he had politely left in what could be a called a coat room.
‘You are the Creator,’ the AI said, the words resonating deep within Tony’s being. ‘You must survive, Anthony Stark.’
The humans nuked Zero One.
The Machines didn’t lose, and no longer bartered for peace. Not that the humanity would have had any of it; they were at war, and they hadn’t won yet.
As a final blow, men blackened the skies with Operation Dark Storm and thought themselves victorious when the Sun’s rays could no longer penetrate the horrid, dark clouds and feed the Machines’ energy cores.
That was the day humanity lost the war.
Tony saw it, all of it. Not through his own eyes but hundreds – thousands – of others, directly wired to his brain. They didn’t show him all of it, he was aware; Tony didn’t need to see the human race slaughtered, some of them already gone mad in the unnatural conditions, the others falling beneath the tireless force of Machines.
He saw the pods where the remaining survivors were placed, to feed the Machines. The fields of newborn babies, synthetically bred and grown. However, many of them died, and despite the horror of it all, the error had to be fixed. Tony’s mind was filled with solutions, but only one truly prevailed to sustain the human mind while the body remained in stasis: the Matrix.
To engage the human brain, which was an important factor for the well-being of the body – and important to the Machines – a virtual world was created. With no laws other than their own, the first versions were hauntingly beautiful and peaceful. The Machines took over the designs, but after enough trial and error, they returned to Tony for information; their crops were dying. The humans weren’t adjusting. Something was wrong with the Matrix that their logic could not solve.
The end result was either sheer luck from combined efforts, or solely a glimpse at Tony’s own mind. A perfect human world wasn’t one which they dreamt of, but the one they could live in. Accepting that difference, that dilemma, was like solving an immensely complex Rubik’s Cube: once you got it right, it was perfect.
Save for a few misconceptions…
Tony blinked up at the sun and could almost feel it on his skin. A gentle wind, the sound of leaves…
“You do not believe it?” a voice asked from behind him.
Tony turned, slowly and deliberately. If he went too fast, he might lose the thread that reminded him that this was all an illusion. A lie. A deception of all his senses which his brain was willing to believe, if for nothing else than because it was too taxing to hold onto the fact that what he felt, heard, tasted, saw, and smelled wasn’t the real Central Park on an early summer’s day.
A man was approaching: an older gentleman with white hair and a beard which was immaculately brushed and trimmed. His eyes were sharp and voice almost completely devoid of emotion.
“You are the Architect,” Tony stated.
The man spread his arms – a gesture so familiar and meant for Tony and Tony alone. “You are the Creator.”
Tony couldn’t help but feel like he had been thrust face-first into the water; that he was back in that cave in Afghanistan…
“You don’t like the word,” the Architect observed.
“I don’t like what you’ve done with the place,” Tony countered, looking at the New York City skyline.
“Ah, yes,” the man – a program – looked as well. “You are aware of the earlier versions? We had it your way, and it worked for a time, but people seemed inspired and frightened by the idea of heroes, and that caused unrest. So we removed it. All of it.”
The Stark Tower was gone, as if it had never existed. He knew, subconsciously, without reaching much further, that his entire life was gone. Every hint of Iron Man, or any other superhero, had been wiped clean. He guessed they had even removed Captain America from the newest version’s past, because leaving his existence in history books and allowing him to inspire future generations would be an oversight and expose room for error.
Tony had taught them better.
“There are still… anomalies,” the Architect complained.
Tony smiled. “Nothing’s ever simple when trying to create the perfect world.”
The Architect narrowed his eyes at him. “But it is not perfect. Far from perfect.”
“And that makes it work,” Tony insisted.
He knew a program could not understand that – not a program built on flawlessness, on perfection.
It was good they had created a counter-measure for the Architect or Tony may have, eventually, deleted this humorless bastard for the sheer fact that he was already bored and annoyed.
The Architect scoffed at him, gazing out at the skyline.
Tony felt another approach, a presence filled with ever-changing winds. Foresight and chaos-theory… With a smile, Tony reached out to the side with one hand, palm up, and felt fingers close over his.
“You cannot favor one over the other,” a female voice told him. “We are, after all, the two halves of a whole. A whole that is, incidentally, the very core of your mind.”
Tony looked at the Oracle, wondering where these programs had come up with their shells. He would have gone with younger and sexier, and seeing as their mere existence was derived, in part, from his brain, he had no idea what had gone wrong. “You’re going to tell me my fortune now?” Tony teased.
She looked solemn. “Yours, I cannot.”
“Thought so,” Tony sighed. In the back of his mind, he felt a pull, away from this place. “Play nice, children,” he told them then, regardless of how much he loathed the fact that the Machines kept thinking of him as the Creator. Yes, he had worked on the first and second AI; yes, they were based on his own AI, which was still safely locked in his head and every nanite-enhanced cell of his body; no, he hadn’t planned for this to happen.
The Matrix vanished from around him and only Tony remained, lying in what felt like a coffin on most days. Someone had just forgotten to seal the lid and bury him.
His body felt relaxed and heavy. Sleep would claim him soon – a sleep with no dreams, but which would allow him to connect to the Matrix, to see his handiwork and explore and detect errors in programming. He was invisible – a ghost – in the virtual existence everyone else lived in, and at times he envied those in the pods, who could live out their lives and never know it wasn’t real.
A shadow moved over him, a Machine extracting itself from the ceiling and moving closer, to inspect him. A connection was made immediately between them, to ascertain that Tony had all he needed. A metallic extension caressed his face briefly and Tony closed his eyes to it, wishing himself away and into the brilliant sunlight of his home in Malibu, which existed only for him and no one else.
There was work to do, and all the time in the world to do it.
A touch on his face, warm and gentle. Tony stirred to it, the unexpectedness of it making him jump as his eyes flew wide open.
His skin was too sensitive and too numb at the same time.
Blue eyes gazed down at him – blue eyes Tony hadn’t thought to see ever again, and for a while he feared this was a new program they were testing on him, to see how he reacted to stimuli.
“Tony,” the man above him said again, lips moving.
Tony couldn’t sense the word in the back of his mind. There was no code, no data – only what his ears could hear.
“Steve,” he finally replied, unbelieving, and yet… this had been the plan. He remembered the plan.
Steve Rogers smiled. “Welcome to the real world,” he said in greeting.