Gamma 3, Astral Era 2134
Space wasn't cold.
Steve had just enough time to realize that as the failing airlock blew, forcing him out into the void without a suit or a prayer to save him. Training had drilled in to him that he had ten seconds from exposure to unconsciousness, but it wouldn't be enough. It wasn't cold and it wasn't warm, it was just a bath of pure nothing as his senses shut down one by one. Convulsions wracked him, curling him in on himself as muscles knotted together. He felt blood vessels constrict, skin tightening, lungs collapsing in on themselves. Blood squeezed out of him in tiny red drops, oozing from his eyes, his nose, his very pores.
The fighter craft he'd been piloting headed for the white-young star that loomed to Steve's left, loaded with its payload of explosives. It would explode nearly harmlessly, far from the thickly populated colonies it had been aimed for.
His last sight was the green flare of another craft's propulsion systems as it sped on past in the other direction, headed for the colony-cluster.
Tony sprawled out on his stomach on his bunk sunlight streaming through the window to warm his back as he reread every word for the sixth time, breath held so tightly that his skin cycled from red to blue to purple and back before he let it out. When he'd first seen it, he'd taken time to make an actual printout of the article so he could keep it with him, and the datasheet had gone soft and wrinkled from handling.
UC Alpha 6, AE 2416
HERO OF THE CONTINUITY WARS: ALIVE?
While investigating the remains of the Planet Tiua, a team of researchers in the Altari Solar System discovered the preserved body of Captain Steven Rogers.
Captain Rogers had been reported MIA in AE 2134 after the Battle of Tiua, where guerrilla colonial forces had gathered to strike the Triathlon System in a battle that, historians say, would certainly have caused the tides of the war to tilt in favor of the colonial rebels. Reports from the time say he manually steered the colonial weapon toward colony, taking out the threat at the cost of his own life. Thanks to the Captain's sacrifice, the Empire went on to win the war.
The team were recovering artifacts from the last great war when they found the Captain floating in the debris. An anonymous source from within the Hub unit told reporters that the Captain appeared to have suffered from explosive decompression without protective gear. When attempts were made to hydrate the body in order to prove his identity with DNA, the scientists in charge found that the cells, once hydrated, were fully functional. Unofficial speculation is that this is a result of the genetic enhancements Captain Rogers is believed to have undergone as the only surviving test subject for Single-Generation Elastic Genome Therapy, which was banned in AE 2135 after a test subject escaped captivity and was responsible for the death of the Eirn Matrioshka. Sources believe that with the advantages of modern cryogenics and the Captain's peculiar DNA enhancements they may be able to revive him fully.
He knew it all, of course. Captain Rogers had been the hero of his favorite intervids when he'd been little, and the only topic he ever cared enough about to get an Outstanding on in Interstellar History. His mother even said that she'd played some of the old voice records of the Captain when he and Greg had been in the incubator, thinking that they might be a good influence. He'd cried when he'd found out the Captain had died three hundred years before, that he'd never get to meet him and thank him for saving Altari, where his mother's great-grandparents had been gestated just a few years after the end of the wars.
Now there he was, sixteen and finding out that maybe he'd get to after all. Stark Industries led the galaxy in tech, and the Captain was being kept at the Hub, where Howard worked most days. Maybe he'd be willing to meet the youngest son of the man whose work revived him.
Maybe he'd even shake his hand. Tony's cheeks turned purple again just thinking about it.
"Tony!" The door panel hissed open as his mother leaned in. She rolled her eyes when she saw his coloring. "That is the worst decision you ever made," she chided. "Worse than the wetwiring; at least that's useful. You look like a colonial."
"Hush. Take your suppressant, your father will be here soon to pick you up, and I don't want him telling the Adjudicator that I'm letting you run wild. Next thing I know, you'll be running around naked."
"It's just a little mod," Tony whined, but obediently he reached for his packet of suppressants. He didn't want to take the chance that the Adjudicator would decide he was better off with Howard. Not that he hated the man, but he loved his mother too much to risk leaving her alone. "It's not like I added fangs or fur or something."
"For which I'm grateful every day of both our lives," Maria folded her arms under her breasts, leaning against the door frame. She watched as he dutifully popped a tablet and his skin tone faded back to the olive-gold he'd been gestated with. Without the colors to mask it, the thin circuits running from his fingertips up his arms were more visible, soft silver lines that eventually faded away where they joined his nervous system at the shoulder joint.
No one had gotten close enough to read the data-chips embedded in his fingers, or to see how the sensors installed weren't anything like what was currently available on the market, black, white or gray. Tony intended to keep it that way. A teenager had to have some secrets.
"Will Gregory be coming over this weekend?" he asked, throwing his legs over the edge of the bunk so he could grab his school work and an old-fashioned VD game, one of the ones he'd rigged to play with his fingertips. A day with Howard usually meant keeping himself busy while Stark the Elder paid attention to more important things, so he'd learned to prepare for boredom. If Tony was lucky, he might be able to steal away some of his father's schematics to play with. The latest generation of matrioshka brains was fascinating. Unfortunately, the details of the AI functions and limits weren't something that was available anywhere Tony could get his hands on it.
Which mean using his father. A sacrifice to dignity that he was willing to make in the name of curiosity.
Matrioshka brains were nearly an art form, in Tony's view. Layers and layers of network mesh computers, enclosing any handy star and using its energy to power everything the Empire could dream of. He'd gone over diagrams of the spheres a million times, trying to winnow out how they worked, the details that were never released for public knowledge. The network linked the Empire together, providing instant communication and travel when any other method would take millennia, at best.
Matrioshka ran everything—every planet that needed terraforming, every station and ring and colony. There was enough processing there to rewrite history, if anyone could ever work out a program that complex or manage to explain it to the matrioshka well enough for them to execute it. There were even legends that the first generation of brains had been so powerful that they'd become sentient of their own volition, shooting past humans into a technological singularity, with so much processing power that they could do literally anything.
Of course, Tony knew that there was no way the matrioshka could ever be that advanced. Child-like intelligence, maybe, because there were limits to what computer science could do. Some of them weren't even verbal. The technological singularity was only sort of a spook-story for scientists to tell each other on late shifts. He ate it up anyway, just like he did the stories of the planets that had burned up with overuse before resources had become less scarce. The stories were a thousand times more interesting than the dusty biology texts Gregory surrounded himself with.
Howard was nearly as obsessed as Tony was, and it showed. Two years before, he'd managed to land a contract working on the matrioshka network, and all of a sudden he didn't have time for anything else. He'd spend all day on an indirect uplink, sunk into data up to his eyebrows. Which suited Tony: it was easier to snoop when he wasn't being watched, and the brains were much happier to give up their secrets to Tony than his father was. He'd never managed to hook into the whole network, or even an entire brain, but it was only a matter of time.
In Tony's view, the word impossible was more a challenge than a warning.
He'd nearly gotten his bag packed when he realized his mother hadn't answered. Tony looked up to see her staring at his desk, where one of the few family captures Tony had kept was pinned to the wall. "Mom?"
"I—" She swallowed and shook her head, black curls bobbing around her shoulders. Her blue eyes were a little wet as she smiled at him. "No, it'll be just us from now on. Your brother asked to be relieved of visiting duties. He told the Adjudicator that he had better things to do."
Tony froze, a wadded up coverall half stuffed into his bag. "Greg said that?" It was a stupid question—his twin had always been their father's son. If he'd thought spending time with their mother was a waste, he wouldn't hesitate to say so. It was one of the reasons why they'd been split the way they were.
Stupid question or not, his mother nodded, eyes tracking over to the far wall where Tony had a hologram of the galaxy sketched out. "By vid-conference."
"Then I won't go," he announced, tossing aside the coverall and reaching in to start unpacking. His hands shook a little as he yanked out his electronics and tools, tossing them carelessly onto the bed. "If Greg won't come here, I won't go there."
"Tony— Tony, no—" Maria grabbed Tony's wrist, thumb pressed against the bright lines of wetwiring. When he hung his head, she grabbed his shoulders to pull him in against her chest. "No, this is good for you— they're your father and brother. You should see them, even if they don't want to see me."
Tony let himself be hugged, forehead buried against her shoulder. "I don't want to see them. Not if they..."
"Then think of it as a learning opportunity, hm?" Callused fingers ran through his hair, catching sometimes on the finer ones. "Your father is a great man, with a lot of connections and a lot of knowledge. Soak that up."
"Are you sure?" It felt like a betrayal. The divorce had happened when Tony and Greg had been children, but he'd seen enough of the tension between his mother and father to know that there wasn't any love lost. But his fingers itched to get those new schematics, and he knew that there were going to be breakthroughs and new tech for him to hook into.
"I'm sure." Maria kissed the top of his head noisily. "Go. Learn. Maybe you'll even meet Captain Rogers when he wakes up."
Without even looking up, he knew she was eying the picture files of the Captain that decorated the headboard of his bed. If he'd been able to, Tony would have turned purple again. "Mother!"
Maria's laugh almost made the embarrassment worth it.
Steve didn't have a gentle glide from sleep the way he would have it were a natural awakening. It was like the first time he'd been turned on, after the upgrades had been completed, like he hadn't ever since. Suddenly he was simply awake, present, and ready for action.
Unlike then, this time he stayed absolutely still. The room was quiet, without the sound of anyone else, but that didn't mean he was alone. A steady series of beeps was the only real noise in whatever sort of room he was being kept in. The whole room reeked of the special sort of sterilization that came from medbays and laboratories, a dry, sharp odor that clogged his nose and throat. Someone had put pants on him; he could feel cloth against his skin that wasn't a blanket, and judging by the temperature the room was probably climate controlled—if he were planetside, they'd put him in a completely contained unit. He could have been on a colony, but he doubted it; Colonials wouldn't have bothered with clothes.
Once that was all noted, he cataloged his restraints: wrist, elbow, shoulder, waist, hips, knee and ankle. Without testing them there was no way to know if they'd hold. Steve would bet they wouldn't; the Empire hadn't created a set that would hold him yet, and they'd had a few attempts. Restraining an upgrade like himself was standard when they'd been unconscious and were waking up somewhere new, but he wasn't expecting anyone with good intentions. His last memory was of enemy action—of being blasted out an airlock into space. The chances of him being in friendly hands were minimal, at best.
All of it was good intel, but none of it could tell him where he was or who'd captured him. That only left one place to check before he'd risk being noticed.
Tentatively, Steve opened up his connections.
As soon as he did, a sharp buzz of static shot through his head, like the dry hiss of dust against a poorly-shielded hull. He barely resisted an intake of breath as the static settled behind his ears, bringing with it the start of a low-grade headache. Data trickled through, though what little he could parse through the interference moved so quickly that he could barely make anything out of it. Even the faint echo of vocal commands being given elsewhere in the unit were just a little wrong, too fast, with a strange accent and a healthy dose of nonsense. Steve made out enough to recognize that he on a Ring circling one of the matrioshka. Probably one of the ones that had already been seized and contained by the Empire—the coded queries he executed didn't get more than a confused ping in response. Whichever Ring it was, he was definitely on a lower level, in the laboratories. Half of the data he could filter out was full of scientific processes and terms, orders for lab results to be brought in and for new tests to be run. Some of those tests were on him. Goosebumps ran down Steve's flesh.
Nothing good ever came from being contained in an Imperial lab.
Through the static, he reached out and found the monitoring systems. Hacking had never been his best talent, but he managed to kill the alarms that had been set. There were dozens of them, keeping track on everything from heart rate to pressure against the restraints. Other than the interference, they were relatively easy to disable; none of the wartime backups or alerts seemed to be in place. At first he considered the possibility of a trap, but to what point? He was already captured.
Only after he'd removed all the alerts did Steve open his eyes and flex against his bindings. When nothing on the system sounded an alarm, he limited the connection, before their subgrade systems could give him even more of a headache.
As he'd expected, the restraints weren't nearly strong enough to contain him. Maybe they would have a normal person, or even someone with some of the more common mods, but he'd been trained on some of the highest gravity planets in the Empire. Metal groaned quietly as he pressed against it, stretching like hardened taffy. When the break came, it was with a loud pop.
Steve froze, waiting for a guard or lab tech to poke their head in and check on the noise, but no one came. After several minutes of waiting, he finally shrugged the strips of metal aside and sat up.
His head swam, vertigo narrowing his vision dangerously. Gripping the edge of the examination table, he closed his eyes and waited for his body to adjust. The gravity was low—maybe one-point-two-g, no higher than one-point-five. He'd spent months in zero-g with the colonial insurgents and his body had adapted accordingly. All he could do was take a moment and let himself do it again.
The restructuring of his systems seemed to take longer than usual, as if they were weak somehow. He could feel his bones shifting, joints toughening to account for the new stress of the environment, but it wasn't at all the near-instantaneous results he was used to. Maybe it was something they'd done after they fished him out of space. Maybe it was an effect of space—he'd lost consciousness, there might have been some other damage. No one floated out there for long easily.
When his head finally cleared, Steve stood up and took a prowl around the lab. There were a few tools, but nothing he recognized, and nothing that would be useful as a weapon. His shield was missing, along with everything he'd been packing on that last mission. None of the wall panels were loose enough or large enough to bother salvaging, and the lights were set too deep to be pulled out.
Giving up the room for a lost cause, Steve turned his attention the the door. Of course it was locked, and perfectly flush against the wall, without anything to grip and pry it open with. The mechanism wasn't anything he'd seen before, with some sort of touch-activated panel and an array of scanners that he couldn't make port or starboard of. A small black optic link just above the door blinked red when he approached, but what it was scanning for he couldn't have said. When he tried to connect with the lock, the static nearly made him black out.
Recognizing a lost cause when he saw it, Steve took the easy option and punched it. Immediately alarms started ringing through the systems—silent, but high alert, readable even through the scrambled mess of corrupted data. Stepping to the side, Steve crouched down and waited.
It took a ridiculous amount of time for a pair of guards to arrive—nearly four minutes, and they turned off the alarm like idiots before they even arrived. As soon as the door opened, he dived out, kicking one of them in the head as he went. He took them all out easily; the armor they wore looked strange, but it was no match for his strength, and none of them had speed enhancements. Of course, if they were truly Imperial, that wasn't surprising.
Once the fight was over, Steve shoved the unconscious bodies into the lab and waited until the door slid shut on its own. It did so with a quiet noise that was nothing like the grinding, slow doors he was used to, even though he'd grown up in the lower levels of Old Brooksend. Wherever he was, it was more advanced than most of the galaxy, incompetent security or no.
That made him take care as he walked down the corridor, trying to note anything that might be useful. There was a lot of it—lighting and announcement systems, hardware so devastatingly simple it had to be complex. Nothing was the same. Even the people he passed in the halls looked subtly different—their uniforms cut in a way he'd never seen, their limbs just a little off-proportion. It couldn't have been wide-scale genetic alterations—someone would have heard and passed it on to the insurgence. But in lieu of that, he couldn't say what it was, other than confusing.
He kept walking, following posted maps toward the area marked entrance, going out of his way to avoid places that were likely hubs of activity. It was a maze of twists and turns, taking him far too long to make any sort of headway, but still no one tried to stop him, no alarms sounded. Steve wondered if he was being allowed to escape.
But again, why? If they thought he'd lead them to the bases, they didn't know how he operated at all.
When the connection buzzed with increasing static and levels of code that could only be described as military, it was almost a relief. Steve picked up the pace as best as he could without attracting attention, stretching legs that were more uncertain than he liked for such a low gravity unit. The closer he got to the entrance, the harder it was to avoid knots of people. Here there were scientists strolling in a knot of white-on-gray uniforms, there a woman in a professional-looking coverall tapping commands into a wall panel. A few of them looked up. Most of them didn't even glance at him.
It was the sound of boots that alerted him first. They echoed on the smooth floors, hard-soled footwear meant for every sort of environment, when most people wore barely bothered with more than a sole-covering. He paused, looking around casually for an escape.
The hall was lined with the same sort of doors that his cell-slash-lab had, nothing that could be forced and no convenient corners to duck into. Just when he'd been about to resign himself to fighting the rest of the way out, one of the doors hissed open.
Without a pause for thought, Steve leapt at the opportunity. He shoved his way through the door before it was finished opening, grabbing the person who'd been about to exit. Pinning them to the wall, Steve covered their—his mouth. After a second, the door closed with a confused-sounding beep. Muffled by the door, Steve could just barely make out the sounds of a search party
The man he'd grabbed stared at him with huge blue eyes that were nearly hidden by a shock of dark hair. He couldn't have been more than twenty, maybe; his frame had the thin, disproportioned look of a young man still coming into his height. Steve pressed him tight against the wall, whispering, "Lock the door."
His captive sank back into the wall like it might swallow him up, hands twitching and swatting at the air for a second before he slapped them back against the wall helplessly.
Steve bared his teeth. "Either lock the door, or I'll have to use you as a hostage. Your call."
Tony couldn't breathe. It was even odds whether the fault was pure, heart-crushing fanboy excitement or the hand covering his mouth, but he would have bet his father's company that it was fanboy excitement. A solid th-thump somewhere in his throat informed him of imminent heart attack, and he could feel himself starting to blush human-red from the chest up.
The reason for his heart's antics, Captain Steven Rogers, glowered down at him from at least a foot up. He was huge, bigger and broader than any of the old digital files made him out to be. Tony felt like he could fit inside the man's bicep, even though he wasn't that scrawny.
Time and the depths of space hadn't been kind. There was an odd tightness to the Captain's skin, a dry look that probably came from having been in space for so long. His hair was the same, thick but dull and lank, and there were blood vessels in his eyes that hadn't finished clearing up.
The Captain growled something, in an accent thick and slurred in ways that made Tony's head hurt. If he strained he could just make out familiar words, but it was like listening to an instrumental arrangement being sung—the notes were all right, but it was still nearly unrecognizable.
Lingual shift, Tony realized. It'd been three centuries; a lot of changes could happen in that amount of time, and apparently had. He'd heard that people who volunteered for longterm cryo sometimes had problems adjusting when they were woken, but that was usually only a few decades at best. Centuries...
Trying to communicate with his mouth covered, Tony flailed backwards, but the wall was solid and so was he. All he managed to do was look like he was having a seizure. He gave it up as a bad job when the Captain looked at him like he'd rather just kill him and deal with the body than anything else.
Slowly—more menacingly, Tony's hormones notice appreciatively—the Captain repeated the phrase—question?— and tacked something else on that, language barrier or not, was easy to identify as an "or else". There was a muffled sound of boots out in the hall, so clearly some sort of search party was underway. Combined with the way the Captain was acting like a fugitive and how Howard had run off so suddenly...
Tony's eyes went huge.
"No—" he mumbled under the palm covering his mouth, then again, "no, no, no, no, no—" That wasn't supposed to be happening—the Captain was supposed to be grateful to be woken up, proud that the Empire had won the wars and that he'd done so much to make it happen. Even if there wasn't any sweeping Tony up in his arms, he should have been happier. He wasn't supposed to be sneaking around like a thief in a bad comedy vid.
The Captain shook him, hissing the same sentence. His free hand clenched around Tony's throat, somehow not crushing it like a metal can in a gravity well.
This time, Tony made out the words lock and door. Taking a guess, Tony slapped the wall again, hooking his fingers around the touch panel and transmitting the order to seal the door. It clicked with a sort of finality, atmospheric locking mechanisms hissing as they sealed the whole room closed. The sound of the boots vanished as every last inch of the room was closed off, sealed tight until someone with the proper codes opened it. If they were stuck in there for any length of time, things would get hoary, but Tony had bigger things to worry about.
Bright blue eyes stared at Tony from much, much too close, making Tony's breath catch. That hadn't been well recorded either; he was sure he'd have noticed them. Circuitry was visible around the edges of the Captain's irises, a clunky silver ring that was probably the height of tech back in the day. The ring thickened and narrowed as the Captain inspected him. Without letting go of his throat, the war hero lifted his hand from Tony's mouth.
"Where am I?"
The accent was still too thick for comfortable listening, but Tony thought he was getting used to it. At least it wasn't Antari colony slang; they didn't even have vocal chords anymore. "You're— this is the Hub," he said, pacing his words carefully. "The Imperial Hub, in the Triathlon System?" He couldn't imagine someone who wouldn't know what the Hub was. It was the only brain that was connected to every occupied system. Everyone knew it.
"Matrioshka ring," the Captain repeated, the word more fluid than Tony had ever heard it before. His glower softened a little, as he took in Tony's obviously civilian clothing and brightly colored bag that he'd dropped when he'd been body-slammed.
Tony breathed easier as the Captain eased away, letting go of his throat. Hot as it had been, Tony preferred being without the threat of imminent death. "Right—the matrioshka. The Hub. You're safe— with friends. They found you in space, they just want to help—"
"Friends," the Captain snorted, turning his head with a sharp jerk that looked like it was probably supposed to be an insult. Or maybe he was clearing out a crick in his neck. At that point, Tony wasn't going to discard anything.
"Yeah, friends," he repeated, because what else did you say when your childhood hero came to life and held you hostage? "You're the Captain," Tony tried again, thinking maybe if he just was explicit something would get through. "The Empire will take care of you. It's your friend."
This time when the Captain turned his head, he actually spat. "The Empire," he said, surprisingly clearly, "is not my friend."
Great, Tony thought to himself. Space had scrambled his brain. That was just perfection. "Of course they are, what are you—" The Captain's stare turned sharp, threatening, making Tony stumble to a stop. He took a slow breath and lowered his voice to something less threatening. "Look, I'm just trying to help. Do you have friends? Do you know what friends are? Do you even know how to smile? Was that trained out of you or something? Did space lock your face into that expression, or did you not listen to your mother when she warned you? Look, I don't know what you're running for, but— hey! That's mine!"
As if he had any right, the Captain had stooped down and started rummaging through Tony's bag. It took him a second to work out the closure—self-tying laces had only been around for a century or so—but once he did he wasn't shy about digging through it.
Tony grabbed for his shoulder, trying to yank him back. It was like that time he'd tried to carry one of the cleaning robots that had broken down; even though logic and Newton's Law said there should have been some give, some reaction, Tony wasn't even able to make the Captain sway a little. "I said that's mine!"
With one little shake, the Captain knocked Tony back, making him trip over his feet and land on his ass. After that, Tony gave up and watched his stuff be stolen.
Muttering to himself in his weird accent, the Captain held up and discarded Tony's clothes upon seeing that they were only a dozen sizes too small. The newsprint he frowned at, eyes going wide as he skimmed it, then set it at his feet with a hand that was nearly shaking. It was joined by all of the electronics, snacks and most of Tony's tools. Those at least made him give Tony a suspicious glance, but either Tony looked too young or too harmless to worry about, because he snorted and turned back to what he was doing.
His eyebrows went up at the lubricant. Tony could have melted into the floor.
Once everything had been laid out and picked over, everything that had been deemed acceptable was packed back up and put over the Captain's shoulder. He gave a listen at the door, apparently able to hear things even in an atmospherically separated room. Whatever it was didn't please him, because he started pacing, chin tilted up to stare at the ceiling.
Tony leaned back on his elbows, resigned to the futility of movement. He was stuck, the Captain was stuck, and his friends at school were never going to believe him. "What are you doing now? Counting the ceiling panels?
As seemed to be the way of things, he was ignored. The Captain circled the room, never quite walking in the same place twice. On the third circuit he paused, head tilted back more, and then jumped, grabbing onto the edge of the light panel that had been left loose by the last person to work on it. Tony yelped and scrambled aside, even though he wasn't anywhere near a potential landing point. Plastic cracked, dropping down in thick chunks as the Captain clawed a hole in the light, dangling from his fingertips. After a second, the light flickered and died, and he came back with a razor-thin, finger length piece of something metallic before dropping to the floor.
Vibranium? Tony mused, squinting at it in the Captain's oversized hand. Light panels used it to maximize energy usage—since it absorbed everything, lights were lined with them so they could be hooked back up to storage units to recover the excess. Any energy that wasn't aimed directly down into the room got reused. Vibranium had been a staple in astroengineering since ancient times, at least the CE era.
Idly, he started running down the various properties of vibranium, starting with the stuff mined from G1 planets with intent to work all the way through G12, and then maybe on to lunar and asteroid. He was interrupted at G1: melting point by the Captain leaping again and grabbing the edge of the closed circulation vent, then swinging to spread himself across the ceiling like a gult-spider.
"Hey! What do you think you're... oh fuck it." Tony's elbows slid against the floor, leaving him sprawled. It gave him a perfect view of the Captain's ass as he did something with the vibranium and the vent. A small consolation prize for the trouble he'd been through. "You know those things have alarms in them, right? If you kick it open or whatever it is you're thinking of, everyone will know you're in here and then we'll probably both be zapped full of holes."
Predictably, he was ignored. Again.
"You know, this wasn't how I pictured meeting you," Tony kept on, because if he was going to have every guard on the ring coming down on him, he reserved the right to complain. "You're a hero. You're supposed to be— I don't know, nice to puppies and little old ladies and stuff. Sign autographs, maybe. Do you even know how to smile? Was that trained out of you or something? Did space lock your face into that scowl?"
A loose star-bolt fell from the ceiling. It rang on the tile, then spun in a widening spiral next to Tony's left hand. He picked it up and twisted it in his fingertips, where the sensors gave him data on the composition, age and make of it. The wetwiring was fast, but still hadn't surpassed the human brain—it took it an extra three seconds to send the information that the bolt was no longer funtional. Tony had already figured that out from the way the shaft was bent at a forty-five degree angle. Shrugging to himself, he shoved it in his pocket and turned back to the show.
After a few minutes the thick metal cover fell to the floor, much more loudly than the bolt had. Wincing, Tony covered his ears and waited for the alarm to sound—it was always an audible one for a broken seal.
Nothing happened. He felt cheated.
The Captain hung by his knees, doing something to the edges of the vent. The position highlighted the muscles in his back, how they flexed every time he moved. When whatever it was finished, he leaned back and dangled, catching Tony's eyes.
"Kid, stay," he ordered, pointing his finger like his mother when he was getting Talked To.
"No, I'm going to jump up there and follow you." Tony frowned and made a point of stretching out across the floor, just in case the Captain thought he was serious and decided to end the threat. "Where do you think you're going, anyway?"
The silver ring around the Captain's irises thinned into invisibility as he worked out Tony's question. He grabbed the edge of the vent and twisted, levering himself up into the shaft and vanished into the darkness, leaving just a single word behind.
UC Alpha 14, AE 2416
HISTORIC HERO LOST ONCE MORE
Captain Steven Rogers, who had been found preserved in space three weeks ago, succumbed to his injuries yesterday. Cryogenics technicians were unable to maintain his bodily functions, and he was pronounced dead at 2352.
Jessica Drew, Public Relations Officer for the Imperial Cryogenics Cohort assigned to Captain Roger's revival, released a statement this morning saying that the scientists involved did everything in their power to keep the Captain stable, but cell degradation had set in at an increased rate after the rehydration process was finished. Further attempts to cryogenically store him until a stabilization method could be found were unsuccessful.
A public ceremony is being planned to mark the passing of Captain Rogers, along with a second day of memory for those lost in the Wars. Dates will be announced later today on the regular official holo-broadcast...
Tony stared down at the article on his screen, biting his lip thoughtfully. Then he opened a command line and sent it to print.
Beta 81, Astral Era 2427
Tony was tinkering at his workstation when he felt the Hub go still. It wasn't a physical stillness, but a hesitation of all data transfer, a pause for breath that lasted for a whole three-point-seven-two seconds. His connection fluctuated—never a direct link, hooking a human brain into something as powerful as a matrioshka was suicide; Tony was many things, and one of them was fond of living—and then flared back to life when the data returned.
Less than a second later, his on-board AI, Anthony, flashed into existence, the specially-installed holographic projectors turning on so smoothly that there wasn't even any of the usual fuzz. The genderless child-shape of the projection had its hand in its shaggy black hair, tugging as if the motion meant anything to a hologram. "You have to come!"
"I rather thought I might." Swinging his legs around, Tony probed for the shoes he'd abandoned earlier, when he'd settled in for a long night of work. Being Chief Astroengineer, shockingly, wasn't as fun as he'd expected it to be, but at least it kept him busy. Learning the ins and outs of the matrioshka AI had been the heart of creating Anthony, which clearly made the boredom worth it. "Did someone piss off the Hub again?"
"No!" Anthony yanked at its hair one more time, then shoved it out of its eyes. "Something's wrong with the Quin matrioshka. It's fallen out of the network."
The main control station on the Hub's ring was bright and airy, done in soothing earth tones. The Hub liked simple colors, and Tony had never seen any reason to argue about paint. He was the last person who should tell someone what color to make themselves.
Rhodey and Pepper were the only two on duty when Tony walked in; more weren't usually needed for a system as old as the Hub. As soon as the door opened, their conversation stopped and they swung around to their consoles.
"Ready when you are, boss," Rhodey said, fingers sprawling to hit the right data points for a connection. Pepper didn't say anything at all, but her back was ramrod straight as she unlocked the other half of the link.
Opening up a direct line to the matrioshka's AI was ridiculously complicated, for reasons no one one had ever explained to Tony's satisfaction. He kept filing papers to revamp the whole system, and kept having his suggestions shot down. Everything from budgetary limits to tradition had been cited, and around the twelfth request the Senate Committee had stopped giving him a reason at all.
One day, he was just going to sneak in with a tool kit and do it himself. There was no reason for such a clunky mess.
Tony settled himself in front of the main control, tapping through what felt like eons of commands before the security-locks came up. Making sure Anthony was safely tucked away behind layers of firewalls and protective programs, Tony keyed in the last sequence and held it.
The Hub flickered into place in the middle the main control room, a silhouette wash of golden and brown light, pricked through with spots of blue. Mostly it was female-shaped, but the one time Tony had asked if it wanted to be called with female pronouns, it had gone silent for a whole day. No one asked again after that.
It didn't look like it was having any panic attacks that day; its lines were crisp, and if the angle of its shoulders were a little rounded, there could be any number of reasons. The shadows that formed its mouth pulled up in an approximation of a confused smile. "Good morning, Tony," it said, in a voice like some ancient string instrument. "You're not supposed to be on-shift. Are you?"
"No, but you know I can never resist visiting my favorite," he replied, leaning forward casually. Even from behind, he could see Pepper rolling her eyes, but he stood by his methods. "How are you this lovely morning, darling?"
The Hub cocked its head to the side, as if the question needed serious thought. Maybe it did; he'd never been sure how much the matrioshka actually understood. So much of their processing went into just sustaining themselves, it didn't leave much for conversation. "I think I am well," it finally said. "There is a breach on one of my panels, but Hogan has told a team to take care of it. I like Hogan. He reminds me of... someone. A long time ago."
Tony smiled, and noted that away for Happy's file. It was always easier to deal with someone who the matrioshka liked. "I'll have to make sure he does more work on you. Is there anything else that might be wrong?"
Another long silence, and then, "Is this about Quin?" Its head tilted again, and Tony was struck by an unnerving sensation that it was looking at him. Not just using its various sensors to take in the room, but actually paying attention.
That hadn't happened before.
Taking a deep breath, Tony nodded. "It is. Did it say something to you?"
"No. It doesn't talk to me. It never did." Light blurred, and the Hub started pacing, bending over to inspect things, running holographic fingers across surfaces. When it reached Pepper, the shadow-smile appeared again as it pretended to tug on her ponytail. "I spoke with Incern, who speaks with Quin. Just now. We had a long talk."
Cramps started to spasm Tony's hands, trying to curl his fingers away from the necessary keys. Practice let him ignore the pain; letting go would mean locking the Hub back down, and they needed to know what had happened. "What did the Incern say?" he asked, as calmly as he could. "Is something wrong with the Quin?"
The Hub left off investigating the rank markings on Rhodey's collar to turn back to Tony. Another sensation like being watched shivered down him; if he focused, he could almost feel the optical links as they turned to center him in their view.
And the Hub just stood there, color swirling gently through it. "It wants to be alone." With a soft shrug, it dissolved, leaving Tony with more questions than answers.
Beta 82, Astral Era 2427
I'm not sure about this. Anthony stayed out of sight as they waited for their ship to be cleared. What if something's really wrong with the Quin?
You have too little faith in me. I've been wanting to go on vacation, anyway. It wasn't like he didn't have the finances to take a trip on his own; when Howard died Tony had split a good-sized inheritance with Gregory, and had built it up on his own since. But he hated being idle, and as much as he enjoyed his work, it had been too long since he'd gotten out and seen the galaxy.
You should write a report and let someone else take care of it.
They'll just make me do it anyway, Tony shot back. May as well beat them to the punch.
Their current plans were for the Hub to shoot them off to the next-nearest matrioshka, the Valeran, and then to make their way to the Quin manually. It was barely a hardship. Tony had always enjoyed space travel, and it would be time to get some of his pet projects done. Technically, he probably could have sent Rhodey, but someone had to take over the task of attending meetings and filing forms based on whatever the findings on the Quin were.
It was probably just in a sulk. In over three hundred years of matrioshka existing, there'd never been one that just broke. Matrioshka were too powerful, and their transdimensional override protocols could even stop a supernova in its tracks, and they were almost all smart enough to know that they didn't like pain. Tony had never heard of a matrioshka just wanting to be alone, but he'd seen the Hub in some of its moods; it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that it had.
Luckily, matrioshka liked Tony. The Quin would come around.
I don't call weeks in space a vacation, Anthony grumbled, but settled back into Tony's neural pathways without much fuss. I wish you would take someone with you. There's too much that can go wrong by yourself.
I'll have you. The main engineer of the private pods appeared at the far end of the dock, waving the all clear. Grinning with excitement at even a small adventure, Tony hefted his personal console and waved his baggage along to a porter. What's worst that could happen?
Beta 89, Astral Era 2427
Pirates. Pirates were the worst that could happen.
Loathe though Tony was to ever admit it, Anthony had been right. When the pirate ship had appeared out of a phony asteroid cluster, they hadn't even had a chance of running. Being captured was a matter of inevitability.
His guard was a tall, dark-skinned woman with white hair that, going by the way it grew in all over her body, it almost had to have come from a genetic mod. Just like everyone else he'd seen so far, she was bare naked. A few convenient straps and holsters were all she had, and they didn't hide anything that Tony usually would have considered necessary to be covered.
Zero-G did do beautiful things to breasts, he had to admit.
She led Tony down the ship corridor, keeping one hand on his elbow as they bounced from grip to grip in the zero-g atmosphere. A few equally-naked people paused to smirk at them, and one older woman with a sergeant's collar actually gave him an appreciative once-over. Of course, Tony always knew that he was a sight to behold, but just then he might have preferred to be beheld slightly less.
When the boarding team had accosted him, they hadn't wasted time. He'd been bound at the wrists and ankles, with just enough give between his feet to keep him mobile without enough to let him run. Not that there was anywhere to run to—his cruiser was sitting in a cargo bay, and they'd already disassembled its engines. Even Tony couldn't reconstruct an arc-thruster in a hurry.
Anthony was suspiciously quiet. Tony couldn't be sure if it was because the AI was lying low to keep from being detected, or if it was out exploring. It was hard to say; curiosity was definitely part of its emotional matrix, but it might have been shunted aside along with the good judgment. Of course, Anthony had been built off his own personality initially, which meant Tony had no one to blame but himself.
His guard stopped in front of a manual door, pressing the release to open it before shoving him in. Tony was fast enough to curl in on himself and keep from bouncing face-first into a wall, but only barely.
"The Captain will speak with you once we're done assessing your ship," she said, blocking the door with her body. "Your needs will be cared for until he decides what to do with you."
"Do I at least get to know who the captain is?" Tony asked hopefully. If he could get a name, he would have a chance at thinking up a bargaining chip, maybe figure out who to contact to get himself ransomed.
She actually smiled at him, teeth flashing in a way that was a little threatening. "No."
The door hiss closed, locking with a loud, manual grind of metal.
Relaxing into the freefall, Tony stared at the ceiling and went over his advantages. There was the wetwiring, which they hadn't disabled—either not expecting it or thinking it wouldn't do him any good. Anthony could tap into ship controls, if they found an open port. Clothing might be useful, if he needed to gag or restrain someone. Assuming he didn't have to ditch it entirely to try and blend in.
Which probably wouldn't work anyway; even if his last suppressant didn't wear off before he managed an escape, he had tan lines.
His cruiser was obviously a lost cause. Even if he could get to the escape unit before they broke it down for salvage, it only had enough speed to get him maybe a few hundred kilometers away before he was caught again. The second time around, they probably wouldn't give him the opportunity of a locked cell.
The rundown of advantages versus losses was short. He had his wits and his personal tech, and that was it.
Tony grinned to himself. He liked those odds.
Anthony came back after thirty two point seven six minutes, flickering to life in the corner of Tony's eye. In spite of the lack of gravity, the AI chose to stand firmly on the ground. "I've been ghosting their system," it reported briskly. "They're old colonial rebels, but they don't have anything to do with the Quin situation."
Colonial rebels? Tony asked silently, in case the cell was being monitored. Are you sure? There haven't been active rebels for centuries. Not since the Wars. There were the occasional uprisings: planet systems that didn't want to pay back the cost of their local matrioshka brain, orbital stations that tried to break away from the network. They never lasted long when all the empire had to do was flip a switch and change their atmosphere. Even planets weren't safe, since most of them were only habitable because of the brain's processing power. Without the network, it was a universal week to a 100% casualty rate. Shorter, sometimes, depending on what life support they were getting from the brain.
That sort of thing tended to end arguments fast. It made it so arguments didn't even start, after a while.
"Absolutely certain." Anthony crossed its arms, tilting itself head to watch as Tony drifted past. "They're multi-generation modded. Not just the usual grav-fixing and bone density, either. There's a couple of kids that have high levels of arachnid DNA, and evidence of omega-level mutation in at least six crew members."
That made Tony frown deeply. If they were caught, they'd have them removed, and then be blacklisted from everything and everywhere. Planetsiders weren't fond of body modification or genetic re-sequencing beyond the basics needed for survival on some planets. Tony was just lucky his own mods were low-key and easily hidden; if he'd been a little bit dumber as a kid, he never would have gotten his job. Omega-level mods are illegal.
"You mean like fully functional artificial intelligence is illegal?"
Touché, Tony winced. Fine. Tell me about the omega-level mods.
"Not mods—mutation." If it were possible, Tony would have thought Anthony was annoyed with him. "They're far enough down the genetic line that it's natural now. Post-human."
Tony was a heartbeat away from saying that the hard-coded genetic sequencing required for multi-generational mods was illegal too, but he bit his mental tongue at the last second. He hated it when Anthony was right. Are there any mutations that might give us trouble?
"Besides all of them?"
Stretching his head backwards, Tony gave Anthony his most exasperated glare. He really should have thought twice when programming it. Yes, besides all of them.
Anthony took on the hazy, not quite perfect look it got sometimes when its processing power was being used elsewhere and Tony's brain took advantage of the slip. "All of them," it repeated with a shrug. "No telepaths as far as I could tell, but that's our only lucky break. Advanced strength and speed, weather control, the ability to phase through solid-state matter—there's not a single member of the crew that won't be a problem if we have to face them."
What about the security systems? The ship?
"Downloading the schematics to you now." Data flashed behind Tony's eyes, too fast to see, but he could feel it settling into the neural links. "They're not used to dealing with heavy-duty upgrades. Most of the ports are wide open from inside the ship's firewalls. We can be out in under a minute."
The download gave Tony a warm tingle across his fingertips, announcing it was done. He opened the ship's layout, skimming through it behind closed eyes. You're a good AI. Maybe one day you'll even become a real person.
"Ick, don't even joke," Anthony shuddered. "Biology is gross. I'll stick to being data, if you please."
"So what's with your new pet?" On the screen—a screen, one of the few technologies that hadn't progressed too far—General Nick Fury raised his eyebrow at Steve. "I thought we'd talked about taking prisoners."
"You had a talk. I had a mute command."
At some point in the past the General had lost an eye, and the resulting replacement looked nearly as good as a real one. It was old enough that the iris was visibly mechanical, gold wiring and blue-silver base. It was always startling to look up at; more realistic replacement parts were available, but rumor had it that Fury had refused them.
Rumor also said that the mechanical eye had x-ray vision and could separate truth from lies. Steve didn't put much stock in rumor.
"I don't care. I don't kill people who have surrendered." Steve leaned into the wall and hooked his ankles tighter around the floor anchors to stay seated and in the range of the audiovideo. The ship was old, worn-out and barely kept afloat by Wanda's combined mutations and mechanical genius. It didn't have the whole-room capability that more recent models did.
More recent models being anything that had been built after Steve's long nap. If he'd been able to link into them, it might have been worth it, but his connections were just too old. Anything newer than a hundred years laid him flat for a week. Better to just put up with older equipment.
Gail would have laughed at him. He tried not to think about it too much.
Fury snorted, but let the old argument slide. He was of the old school, take-no-prisoners, all-Imperialists-are-guilty mindset. Steve's school was even older though. Too many atrocities had gone down during the Wars for him to have missed out on that lesson. They worked well enough together when they had to, but Steve was glad he'd decided not to stay close to the remaining resistance movement.
"Alright, since you're not going to kill him, tell me about him." On the screen, Fury's face moved away, as if he were settling in. Steve wondered where he was linking in from, that he had enough gravity for that. Gravity was expensive off-planet.
"I have Thor looking through his belongings and logs now, to see if we can find a name or any idea of who sent him," Steve reported. "We're pretty sure he's a space-case, though."
Both of Fury's eyebrows rose, and he silently gestured for Steve to continue.
Steve considered the value of keeping the information to himself, but shrugged. It wasn't valuable enough to bargain for. "We have a visual feed on his cell. He's been talking to himself, sometimes laughing for no reason. May checked in on him; she says he's got at least two distinct emotional signatures, and they don't necessarily agree with each other."
"Interesting." Fury's expression didn't match his statement, but Steve supposed he was lucky to even get a commentary at all. "And what are you planning to do with him?"
"Depends on who he is. If—" The embedded receiver in Steve's ear beeped with the special tone that marked a high-level need. Holding up a finger to alert the General that they were being interrupted, Steve triggered the audio for his ears only. "Rogers," he said aloud, more from habit than anything else.
"Steve, we have a situation," Sam, his second in command, reported. "The security systems have been tampered with. None of our monitoring is trustworthy right now."
Steve's lips pressed together in a thin line. With a smooth roll, he let go of the floor bars and bounced toward the ceiling. "Sorry, General. We'll finish this later." He didn't wait for Fury to reply before cutting the signal; the man would probably want to know what was happening, and Steve hadn't gotten anywhere by being too forthcoming. It wasn't that he didn't trust Fury; he just knew that there were things even a good man would do for what he thought was a good enough cause.
The doors slid open as Steve propelled himself down the hall from the communications room to the nearest vertical tube. "What are we facing, Sam?" he asked over the link.
"Not a damned clue." Though the audio and visual comms were theoretically supposed to cut out on extraneous data, even the ones back from his time, Steve heard Sam snort. "Nothing's stable. I wouldn't even put faith in the eyes and ears of anyone with a direct hook-up right now."
"Good thing you have this old junker then, isn't it?" The vertical tube hatch hissed open with a soft sound of displaced air. Even in an emergency, he took a moment to make sure the way was clear before bending his knees and pushing off. Every few hundred feet, he caught a grip and used it to kick off again.
"You're not that old."
"Ha, ha." Coming up on the end of the tube, Steve curled up and twisted to land feet-first, so when the hatch opened he was able to tumble out and land nearly in front of his usual anchors. The few officers manning the bridge saluted with a nod and twist of their hands. It was Sam that Steve looked for, floating in a slow circle until he set eyes on him. "I want the ship's systems isolated from sentient interaction. Cut off all connections."
Sam perched in his usual station, up near the ceiling where traffic wasn't so heavy. "Even Thor, sir?"
The communications officer in question looked up from his operating panel, eyebrows raised and tendrils of long blond hair escaping his ponytail to float around his face. Steve had given up on getting him to cut it; there were some arguments that couldn't be won against someone like Thor. "I have already isolated myself from the ship. Sam was correct in assuming that direct feeds were affected."
That made Steve pause. It took a damned good piece of work to affect Thor; people had tried before. The results usually were explosive. "Good man. Keep yourself locked down. If this goes bad, we're going to need you."
"Of course." Thor nodded amiably and turned back to his work.
Fingers flew across old-fashioned touch screens, keyboards with actual keys and recognition panels that required actual people present. It was one of those times Steve was glad that the ship wasn't a newer model. Too many of them had only the most basic of manual backups, enough to keep the crew alive if the worst happened. By comparison, Steve's crew could pilot the ship entirely unaided by neural links if they had to.
"All direct feeds cut, Captain." Sam made a confused noise, drifting slightly to the side, as if examining the data from another angle would help. "All except one. I can't find their kill switch—it's scrambled."
"Where are they?"
The screen lit up with the ship's schematics. Level four exploded out, rooms and sectors turning gray as they were ruled out, until only one was left. Sam tapped in a command, pulling up the sector and the single uplink feed still live. The ID tag on it was scrambled, nonsensical—and definitely not one Steve recognized. "Medical bay."
Steve's eyes narrowed at the screen, hand clenching around his grip bar. "Lock it down."
"Everything. The doors, the feeds. Warn Jan and cut it down to emergency systems only. Send May and Storm down to check on the prisoner. Everyone else, I want in quarters." He waited until the outlined medbay turned red on the screen before pushing off, back toward the door. "Have Kitty meet me down there. I want the whole ship locked tight until I give the word."
Steve didn't have to be looking to know Sam was eyeballing him, but the answer he got was yes, sir, which was all he needed. They could hack it out later if they had to. That was what made Sam such a good second. By the time he was on his way down, Sam's voice was echoing over the ancient speaker system, passing on Steve's orders.
When Steve pulled himself out of the tube onto level four, the corridors were dead. On the Gale they were never very active, but even the children were pulled into quarters for a lockdown. Ghosts of dead ships, salvage runs and the aftermath of battles hovered at the corner of his eye. They were visual tricks, leftovers from a lifetime ago that still sent shivers through him.
Sometimes, the advantages of having an older ship weren't worth the cost.
Kitty waited outside the sealed doors to the Medical Bay, hovering against the ceiling. Her long brown hair had been tied back into a tight braid and pinned out of the way, which Steve silently approved of—long hair in zero-g wasn't impossible, but for what he had in mind she was going to need it tied back.
"You came fast. Good." Steve floated up near her and forced himself to meet her eyes. She was only a teenager, but the mission wouldn't be a dangerous one. He hoped. "Have you linked in to the ship today?"
She shook her head, catching her lip between her teeth. "Is something wrong with the system?" Kitty asked quietly. "I don't think I've been here for a lockdown before."
"We don't do them often." The flat of his hand pressed against the medbay door. His imagination painted it as warm, though there hadn't been nearly enough time for the isolation to have had that effect. "I need you to go in through the ceiling. Identify everyone and direct them to the this exit—I'll have it open and waiting. If you see anyone you don't know, hide and get back to me immediately. No heroics."
Big brown eyes lit up, but she nodded her understanding. "I wouldn't dream of it, sir." With a little push, Kitty drifted through the ceiling and vanished.
Taking a slow breath, Steve pressed his palm to the manual override and waited.
A hole in the floor was not where Tony would have gone to hide out. Granted, he'd been in worse. He'd had sex in worse, a few times, though generally not in total darkness. But for hiding purposes, it was barely worth the effort. One person bouncing against it and realizing it sounded different than other places would be the end of him.
The cell door had been easy to get open, barely three seconds of thought needed. Tampering with the visual feeds had taken a bit more work, especially when he'd gone ahead and made it a viral effect. Neither of them could save him from the very-human eyes of people who hadn't been infected through the ship's computers, though, which was how he'd ended up dodging and hiding until he was stuck in a very small space between levels stocked full of what looked like medical supplies while a gaggle of kids floated down the corridor underneath him.
And then the feeds had been locked out, security measures had hit a high point, and his status went from screwed to really screwed.
"They're doing something just below you," Anthony reported from somewhere just near his ear, young voice tight with fear and uncertainty; it wasn't used to being isolated. "I can't tell more than that; I'm having to ghost their neural links directly just to know they're there."
Keeping his eyes closed and his breathing slow, Tony waited for the lockdown to end. He was already breaking out in a sweat, and his heartbeat was through the roof. It can't last forever, Tony promised, thinking the thought as firmly as he could. They'll have to get back to piloting the ship eventually. We'll get to an oh-shit tube and be out in—
Something cold slithered through his chest; Tony's heart nearly stopped from the shock of feeling something inside him. Whatever it was yanked back, and he had a distinct feeling of being flailed through before a light flicked on. The face of a sixteen year old girl hovered over him, the rest of her vanishing into the panel above him.
Shouting, Tony reeled back, kicking with his feet. Something cracked underneath and a a panel gave way. The push sent Tony flying down, where his shoulders bounced painfully into the floor before he tumbled back to the ceiling.
"Oh no you don't!" A tiny woman with short dark hair grabbed his ankles, gossamer wings walloping Tony's head and shoulders. He shouted again, curling into a ball, but that let her force him down again.
Two small hands cupped Tony's face. He had just enough time to see the winged woman smile viciously. "Good night."
And then, a flare of golden pain speared through his temples, followed by blissful unconsciousness.
"I told you no heroics," Steve snapped. Three crew members were seeing the prisoner back to his cell, where he'd sleep off Jan's bio-stingers and, Steve could hope, would wake up with a raging headache and probably some fried circuits. It was the least he deserved for the trouble he'd put them all through. When Steve had heard Kitty scream, it had been the Luiz Colony orphanage all over again.
He hated sending kids on missions.
Kitty folded her legs and floated upside down, mouth set in a pout. Some of her skin was gray where it had caught dust from the prisoner's explosion out of the ceiling, and a piece of floor panel had left her with a bruise on her hip. "I didn't do any heroics. It was all Jan." When he shot her a glare, she added a sulky, "Sir."
"You shouldn't have confronted him at all," Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest. "You should have called me. You had orders."
"I didn't mean to!" she insisted. "I didn't even realize it was a person! I just felt something weird in my leg, so I checked it out and there he was!"
"Steve, let her be." Jan floated out of the wreck of a medbay. She'd put her wings away wherever they went when she didn't need them, but still floated as if she had them, gliding along seemingly without effort. "If it had been your foot going through someone's spleen, you'd have wanted to take a look too."
Steve scowled. It was his last, best defense against Jan. "Your opinion was not requested, doctor."
Jan raised an eyebrow and folded her arms to match his. "A doctor's never is, but we're also always right, Captain."
They'd been broken up for more than a year, but she still got under his skin. Sam was of the opinion that it meant they'd get back together. Thor thought that it was just how they interacted, and sleeping together had provided temporary relief from a usual clash of personalities. Steve wasn't sure which he believed, but he would have liked if either option had resulted in a pretense of respect.
"Not in this case." Deciding not to let Jan distract him, Steve turned his eyes back to Kitty, who was trying her best to gracefully drift away without using any sudden movements that might attract attention. "After dinner, you're to report to May, for whatever extra duty she has at hand for you. Two hours, no complaining."
Kitty's shoulders sagged. "Yes, sir."
For a change, Jan waited until Kitty had vanished through the floor to punch Steve's shoulder. The force knocked her back, but she just bounced off the wall and kicked him on the return. "You're too hard on them."
Steve made a point of checking his shoulder, though Jan hadn't hit hard enough to even bruise. "What, and you think the empire will be any easier if we're caught?"
Jan's eyes went soft. Her smaller hand gripped his, using him as an anchor to stop from floating away. "It's not the same war you fought, you know. Times have changed."
"I know it's not," Steve replied, freeing his hand from Jan's. "At least I knew that enemy." With a gentle shove, he pushed her back in the direction of the medbay. "Get your station cleaned up, then pay a visit to your victim."
Ceiling panels rattled as Jan twisted to catch herself against them. She grinned, teeth sharp and wicked. "Aye, aye, Captain."
Beta 83, Astral Era 2427
Synapses and wetware sparked in Tony's skull like lightning on a gas giant. Flares of light danced behind his eyelids, beating in time with his pulse in an array of colors that probably didn't mean anything good. Groaning, he tried to rub his head, and was brought up short by a deep ache in his shoulders and the clink of metal restraints.
"Don't be such a baby," someone floating under him muttered in a woman's voice. "I barely used any charge on you at all. It wasn't even enough to kill bacteria."
Tony cracked his eyes, wincing at the burn of overly bright light. It reminded him of the time he'd lost a month in the Vega 5 system, which was renown for the galaxy's best times and worst hangovers. A quick diagnostic reported that his hands were locked behind him. From the feel of it they were good, old-fashioned handcuffs, made of metal and hard polymers, without a single computer chip to their name. They could be gotten out of, but it would take more than just his own amazing skills with his brain and a neural AI tagalong.
He was almost flattered.
The woman who'd fried his brains in the first place was giving the string of wiring across his bare feet and ankles a very stern look and running over him with some sort of scanner that looked as cobbled together as the ship. "These aren't professional installations," she said, almost accusingly. "There's no serials, no ID. It's good work, though. Hardly any corrosion."
For a moment, Tony's tongue refused to work, an effect of his headache combined with sudden confrontation with a naked woman. Short black hair floated around her head in one of the more common spacer-cuts, and she had the smooth, youthful appearance of someone who'd spent her whole life outside a living atmosphere and away from gravity. If he hadn't seen her wings just before she'd laid him out, he never would have known her from a normal human.
"I designed them myself." Tony had enough freedom of movement to tuck his feet away from her prodding; he'd worked too hard to keep his personal installations private to give them up to a pirate. It was a little motion, but even that sent a wave of pain through his skull. He did his best not to show it. "I do all my own work."
She hummed, and for a second Tony wondered if she was going to strip him down to check out the rest of his work. "Did you insulate them?"
"Of course I insulated them!" Flattery turned to insult in a heartbeat. "What do you take me for?"
"Someone dumb enough to do work on himself when he was a kid." Air shifted, and the woman—doctor?—floated behind him, where Tony couldn't see. Callused fingers gripped his left pinkie, stretching it out from the others. "This work was done at least ten years ago; they stopped making these sorts of pads then."
They definitely weren't having the sort of conversation Tony had expected to have with one of his captors. "I'm good with my hands."
"I expect you are." One by one she stretched the other fingers out, and Tony knew she was recording everything about them. Then her fingers trailed up his spine, no doubt feeling the bumps of reinforcements there before finishing at the back of his neck. "Well, private installs or not, you weren't hurt by the zap. The headache will pass in about ten minutes, give or take."
"Maybe next time, don't zap me?" Tony asked hopefully, and got a laugh as a reply.
"Maybe next time don't try to escape." Using her grip on the back of his neck, she nudged him deeper into the cell. "You have a pair of live guards now. It would be... unwise, to attempt it again."
Tony ended up hanging upside down, watching as she bounced toward the sealed. Sudden panic gripped him. "Hold on!"
Bumping gracefully to a stop against the door, she raised her eyebrows impatiently. "Yes?"
"What are you going to do with me?" Her expression closed in, and Tony hurried on before she could leave. "No one's threatened me, or beat me, and I haven't even been asked about a ransom. I'd like to know what my options are here, since you're not exactly acting the way pirates are supposed to."
Dark eyes narrowed at him as she tilted her head thoughtfully. "I don't know what the captain's going to do with you," she admitted easily, as if taking someone prisoner for giggles was somehow not worth fussing over. "We're not just pirates."
He was being set up. Tony could feel it in his bones, but he still heard himself ask, "Then what are you?"
She smiled, deceptively tiny and sweet, and if she hadn't laid him flat before he might even have bought it. "A secret."
Anthony took nearly an hour before reappearing. Tony wasn't worried—he felt the AI bouncing around in the back of his wiring, keeping its proverbial head down. It wasn't the first time Anthony had been rattled and gone into hiding. When Tony's father had died, it had done the same, and anytime they had to visit one of the Senators, Anthony stored itself on a hidden backup drive in Tony's housing unit, the AI equivalent of hiding under the bed.
There were no hidden drives where they were.
He passed the time by poking at the security protocols of his cell. They'd been revamped and increased since his escape—understandable, really. Tony couldn't risk getting caught by giving them too much attention, so he just tapped into every port he could find for a nanosecond and then vanished again without actually testing it. By the fifth port, his zap-induced headache had decreased to a buzz behind his eyelids. On the twentieth, it was gone, and whatever ache that remained was purely from various impacts and stress.
When Anthony finally did shimmer into existence at the corner of Tony's vision, it was curled up in a ball with its arms around its knees as it floated. "You're turning green," was all it said. "Suppressants wearing off."
It had been bound to happen sooner or later, but Tony still made an annoyed noise. It wasn't the time to have his skin playing mood rainbow. Have you been able to find anything out?
"I can't leave," it reported in a whisper, bright blue eyes peeking out from behind the tousled fall of its hair. Even though it was a hallucination, its voice shook. "They've— I don't know what they did, but we're trapped in here. No connections. Even the vid-units are closed circuit."
It's going to be okay, Tony lied. They'd gotten lucky so far, that the pirates didn't seem interested in killing for kicks, but there was no telling how long that would last. He closed his eyes and let his head relax into the zero-g. There's other ways than tech—
A rude snort cut him off. "For you."
Like Tony needed reminding. Shut up and come loan me your eyes so I can get these cuffs off.
It was a trick they'd figured out early, but one that Tony still didn't really understand. One of their shared programs spun into life, and suddenly the black behind his eyes was overlaid with the sight of his own wrists bound behind his back. Rules of logic and science said that it shouldn't have been possible; Anthony didn't have physical eyes to see with, the image definitely wasn't a camera angle, and Tony's eyes weren't anywhere near the area.
Somehow, though, it worked. Tony watched as his hands angled to find the tiny keyholes in the bracelets of the cuffs. He worried at the keyhole, twisting a thumbnail into it and trying to locate the catch. His nails were too short, but all he had to work with.
By the time he managed to hook a nail on the catch, the corner of his thumb was raw and bleeding from being ground into the metal, pinpricks of blood floating around them. Tony let out a shaky breath when it finally clicked open. The view from Anthony's perspective blinked out, and then slid back into place from a different angle.
"Don't open your eyes and don't move," his AI whispered in his ear. Imaginary fingers ghosted across his shoulder, rubbing them. "They're at the door checking on you."
They were staring at the door, now, where thin strips of plexiglass were just enough to show the shadow of people peering in at them. One woman and one man, he thought, but there was someone else there too, maybe, going by the hint of an extra arm in the shadows. Tony fought to keep his breathing even, to look like he'd just dozed off rather than was mid-escape plan.
Anthony's field of vision moved closer to the door, until it could just see out some of the plexiglass. A man and a woman were floating out in the hall. The woman was an older lady, with white hair and soft wrinkles where not even the lack of atmosphere had saved her from smiling too much. And in front of her...
The man's jaw was adequately chiseled, thought it was hard to tell for sure with his back turned. Cropped blond hair resisted the usual effects of zero-g by sheer shortness, and his neck looked like it was made of marble. Those were definitely not the features Tony was most interested in, but no matter how he tried, he couldn't get Anthony's eyes to focus anywhere below the man's shoulders. There was a general impression of authority and muscularity—a lot of muscularity, the sort that belonged on some rich bastard's kept man, whose entire life centered around looking good sprawled on silk sheets and being able to smile at Senators while holding a drink.
Tony couldn't help thinking that he could be that rich bastard.
"I wish I could hear what they were saying," Anthony said, its vision narrowing as it squinted. The older woman was explaining something animatedly, with a combination of gestures and facial expressions Tony recognized from other people's grandmothers. Either the blond guy was being given the you're a disappointment talk or he'd eaten the last cookie dough. "You never taught me to read lips."
That's because I can't read lips. The casual drift of Tony's body was starting to get close to the ceiling. He could just feel the panels against his shoulder blades, close enough to touch with a deep breath. Why don't you link to one of them? They're close enough to hook in, right?
Their shared vision jolted and shuddered melodramatically, almost at the exact same time that the woman put her hand to her forehead. "EW," Anthony hissed. "That's disgusting. What kind of person do you take me for?"
Not laughing was harder than maintaining even breathing. The kind who has to borrow a neural link already?
"That's not the same thing at all. It's different when it's yours." At the very edge of their field of vision, a shadow scuttled along the floor, and then up a wall. Tony caught himself leaning automatically, trying to see what it was, when—
Something slammed into the door.
Tony yelled in surprise and twisted to face the threat, his eyes popping open. For a second his vision was blurred and doubled before Anthony ended the stream. The dark-skinned boy plastered against the outside of Tony's cell door grinned and waggled his fingers, then crawled up across the door and vanished onto the ceiling.
"Arachnid DNA?" Tony asked numbly, forgetting to keep it internal and letting himself float back into a wall where at least he might feel a little safe. He'd already had his head fried by one of the crew, he didn't want to get a person-sized spider bite. "Post-humans."
Anthony appeared near Tony's feet, curled back up into a ball. "That was one of them, yeah."
The cell door hissed open. "That's one way to get a reaction," a deeply accented male voice said. The blond man floated in, using the door and wall to stabilize himself once inside. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to cut whatever communication device you have. There are worse places to be than here."
It can't be. Tony blinked, and then blinked again. He rubbed his eyes, the loose handcuffs floating next to his wrist. "I don't— Rogers? You're a pirate?"
Steven Rogers raised his eyebrows. "That answers the question of whether you're a spy or not." Using his fingertips, he pushed off from the doorway, letting it slide shut behind him. "A spy wouldn't slip so easily. How do you know me?"
He looked nearly identical to how he had eleven years before, with the main difference being noticeably more nudity and the captain's bars on his collar. Tony disavowed all responsibility for the way his eyes tracked down, and then back up again. There was only so much temptation a sexual person could be expected to withstand, and Steve Rogers naked was not even close to that line.
A gentle tint of lavender colored Tony's cheeks.
Near Tony's ankles, Anthony gagged. Loudly. Tony seriously reconsidered his stance on growing AI units and natural learning. Puberty, if Anthony decided to go through it, was going to be terrifying.
"I'm Tony Stark. We've met." At Rogers' expression of disbelief, Tony rolled his eyes. Not that he'd expected to be recognized—he'd changed a lot, most of it in muscle and height and facial hair that didn't make old people pinch his cheeks. A little bit of trust might have been nice, though. "I was a scrawny sixteen, you were escaping and stole all my stuff. Ring a bell?"
To his shock and amazement, Rogers actually went pink at the ears, which made Tony feel a little better about the way he was slowly shading to violet as his suppressant finished wearing off. "I recall."
"I thought you might," Tony said gleefully. Abandoning his hallucinated-AI, he bounced over to Rogers, catching himself against a wall and using the friction to keep from actually running into him. "So, going to take advantage of me again?" He held up his hands and flicked his wrist, just enough to make the dangling bracelet on the handcuff snap open. "I'm your prisoner."
"You're an idiot." Rogers didn't sound like his heart was in it, which Tony took as a good sign. Reaching into one of the pouches on his belt, Rogers produces an old metal key and freed Tony's wrist. He caught Tony's thumb, inspecting the raw corner of it with a surprisingly gently fingertip before letting him free again. "Stark—I recognize the name. Who are you communicating with and what's the galaxy's third richest person doing out in this sector?"
For a few heartbeats, Tony considered telling him. But Rogers was officially dead, and anyone who the Empire went to such lengths to hide was probably bad news. No matter how delicious he was. "I wasn't communicating with anyone."
Rogers made a noise that was closer to a growl than anything that should have come out of a human-looking throat. He hooked his foot through one of the holes in the floor that worked as an anchor. His hand pressed against Tony's chest, just hard enough to force him back. "There are biorhythm monitors built into the cell. You've been talking to someone."
Fuck. Tony flattened himself against the wall and tried to look harmless, skin shifting from green to yellow and then back in the process. Rogers loomed over him, a pretty trick without gravity, and one Tony might have been more fascinated by if there hadn't been a hand at the base of his throat. Blue eyes nearly vanished as the silver ring of circuits around his iris thickened.
"Tell him about me." Anthony shimmered into existence just behind Rogers' big, sculpted shoulder.
Involuntarily, Tony's eyes flicked over to the AI; then he caught himself and went back to staring at Rogers. Not that that was a torment or anything. "I don't know what you're talking about. I can't connect outside this cell—you people made sure of that." I am not putting you in danger. Full AI are illegal.
"They're pirates, they don't care about legalities!" Anthony yelled, at the same time that Rogers said, "You're doing it again!" The hand at Tony's throat tightened. In the corner of his eye he could see his fingernails starting to rainbow, colors shifting to neon as his heart rate sped.
"Do it or I'll find a projector and do it for you!" Anthony yelled, stomping his foot. "If you die and I have to upload myself to this piece of crap ship I'm going to send every tabloid in existence a copy of everything you ever wrote!"
Tony closed his eyes and leaned his head back into the wall. Fine. "Fine! I have an AI—it's self-contained in a BCI unit, limited by my hardware." That was close enough to the truth, probably. Close enough that Rogers wouldn't know the difference.
Rogers didn't move his hand. He also didn't squeeze until Tony turned a natural red and died from asphyxiation, so Tony considered it nearly an improvement. Silver contracted to a thin, nearly invisible line around his blue eyes; just then, Tony would have killed to know what sort of tech he had implanted and what its movements meant.
After a long few minutes of Rogers pinning him and Tony concentrating on breathing, he was finally released. "You put an AI in your brain?" Rogers demanded, in the same voice people used for things like you tried to drink hydrochloric acid? "AI are illegal."
"Its name is Anthony, and yes." Tony straightened and rubbed his throat where Rogers had gripped it. His colors dimmed down to something less terrible as his heart slowed. "So I hear. Going to turn me in, Captain Bluebeard?"
The corner of Rogers' mouth twisted in a smile that was too pretty for a man who'd been micrometers from strangling Tony a moment before. "'It'?" he asked, which was really skipping the whole point, in Tony's opinion. "You didn't assign it a gender?"
"Natural learning and development," Tony answered primly. "It hasn't decided yet."
"Of course." Rogers eyes skimmed down Tony assessingly. It was less of an ego boost than Tony would have expected, like being scanned by a doc-bot rather than by an incredibly attractive naked man. "If I keep you in here, you're just going to break out and hide somewhere inconvenient."
"Yes." Honestly was occasionally useful, Tony had found.
"I could just stick you in cryo until we find somewhere to drop you off," Rogers continued thoughtfully, as if Tony hadn't said anything. "Or kill you. We really don't need another body taking up resources."
"On the other hand, I'm not in that big of a rush to escape," Tony interrupted loudly over the sound of Anthony's giggle.
"He's lying about you," the AI put in,, just a little smugly. "I got into the biorhythm monitors."
There's always cryo, Tony shot back silently. Not that he had anything against cryogenics, but he didn't relish the idea of being toted around for who-knew-how-long, helpless and at the mercy of ship's luck. "Drop me off at the Quin Matrioshka—it's not far from where you found me, and they're known to turn a blind eye. I'm willing to pay a ransom for my freedom."
Almost as insultingly as the full-body assessment, Rogers laughed. The force of it made him drift back a little. "We don't need your money."
"But you need resources, I'll bet," Tony forced on. Desperation crawled around in his chest on little prickly legs. He thought about tapping into the biorhythm monitors himself, to see what the Captain's mood was, but dismissed the thought after a second. Too much distraction was as much a death sentence as anything else. "Tech, upgrades, supplies. I can get you those. A new ship. Access to the matrioshka ports, at least for a few months before someone notices the security breach."
The smile on Rogers face faded, and for one terrible moment Tony wondered if he'd said the wrong thing. What did the people watching the bio-monitor think of his elevated heart rate and clammy sweat? Anthony, maybe registering its creator's fear, edged in closer and put one hand on Tony's arm.
"Maybe I should just kill you." The flat, assessing tone of Roger's voice was like the look he'd given Tony earlier. It made Anthony tighten its hold, a press of flesh without any actual pressure to create it.
"You won't." False bravado was something else Tony was good at, along with processing chips and working a scalpel with his off-hand. His skin gave him away, slipping to a soft shade of green that he hoped Rogers couldn't read. "I've read all about you. You don't kill unless you have to."
"History lies a lot." But Anthony released its grip, just a little, and that was enough to relax Tony. "We don't work with the matrioshka. What sort of supplies are you offering?"
It wasn't the best deal Steve had ever made, but by the time they'd finished bargaining, he'd come under the impression that anything that would get Stark out of his hair was a good thing. That, plus some tech and basic supplies was at least landing them ahead. The salvage from the imperial cruiser wasn't going to be worth much, and it would have to have the identity beaten out before they could use it for trade. He'd refused to let Stark do anything to most of his ship directly, but work on the hydroponics and a fresh supply of hydrogen were going to be welcome.
Seeing his prisoner settled into one of the few sets of spare quarters had been surprisingly simple. Stark just turned a distracting shade of violet, poked the cocoon, mumbled about the direct interface still being down, and that was that. He hadn't even complained about the amenities, and Steve had seen more than his share of planetsiders whine about disposal gels. There hadn't been any of the awkwardness there should have been, standing in private quarters with a man wearing that damnable coverall that was just loose enough to tease the imagination.
Sixteen. Steve was having a hard time not thinking of that. It was hard to see the scrawny man—kid—he'd pinned against the wall in the nosy, careless wretch that he'd picked up in space. He'd been in enemy territory, and it had been necessary, but intimidating kids was something he didn't like the idea of. But Stark clearly had no issues with it. That ought to have been that.
Still. Sixteen, Steve's conscience reminded him with a sharp prod as he floated down the tube to the ship's belly. Younger than Kitty was. Older than Miles, but not by that much. A kid.
He hadn't quite finished leaving the tube before someone grabbed his ankle and pulled him down the rest of the way.
"You're worrying too much," May chided. She had silvery-pink and brown growth serums smeared on her cheeks and in her white hair. "I could feel your fretting four levels up. Whatever it is, stop it."
Clearly she'd been doing one of her regular checks on the plants that kept ship's oxygen clean. Behind her, banks of broad-leafed plants spread their leaves in every direction, roots carefully contained in tubes of nutrient gel that lined every available surface.
The sheer amount of greenery had always been peaceful to Steve, and it had its usual effect this time. The tension in his shoulders eased a little. "Good advice. Not any I expect to follow, but good advice."
"I didn't think you would, but it was worth trying." She patted his arm fondly, tugging him along through the endless spiral of plants. "You didn't just come down here for some advice."
"We're going to be getting some H, and a few refittings," Steve reported dutifully, with a moment of despair for ever making his crew behave like an actual crew. There were galaxies of difference between a multi gen ship like the Gale and the colonial battleships he'd used to be on, and some of those differences he never finished adjusting to. "I want you to look over everything and make sure it's safe. Take it apart if you have to."
"Tony wouldn't double-cross you," a child said from somewhere in the banks of plants. "He's too honest for his own good."
Instinctively, Steve activated the force shield on his wrist and shoved May behind him. "Who's there?"
"Just me." The air sizzled with the static of the ancient holographic projectors. A child of about eight edged out from behind the rows of plants. Shoulder-length dark hair flopped over blue eyes, completely unaffected by the lack of gravity. "This is a weird place to have projectors, but my other choice was the bridge, and I thought appearing there first might be pushing my luck."
Steve's eyes narrowed, but he put away the shield. It wouldn't do any good against someone made completely from data. "You're Anthony."
The AI smiled and shoved his—its?—hands in its pockets. "That's me. Tony's taking a nap, so I thought I'd pop down here for a talk. Man to computer."
There was an androgyny around it, kept together by the plain black and silver body suit and unisex small-child haircut that combined maximum ease of styling with minimum time to fuss under the cutters. Children that age usually didn't have anything physical to mark out their gender anyway, but the complete lack of clues spoke of deliberate choice. Apparently Stark hadn't been joking when he'd said Anthony hadn't decided yet.
It was strange—Steve could see how the child-form was built off of Stark, could draw a line from the AI to the kid he'd met eleven years before, to the man he'd escorted to his quarters less than a half-hour before. There were little differences, though, mostly in the sharper jawline and the shape of the nose.
May edged around Steve, staring wide-eyed at their visitor. "You didn't tell me we had a child on board," she said, almost accusingly. "The creche will need to know."
Anthony beamed up at her, all sunny smiles, and Steve had a premonition of trouble if he kept the AI on board for too long. "I'm not really a child, Ma'am, but thank you for your concern."
"It's an AI." Steve didn't want to explain it, but if May wet away thinking he'd hidden something from her, he'd never hear the end of it. If she didn't get revenge directly, the rest of the crew would on her behalf. "And apparently we need to talk. Can you give us a moment?"
She hummed, but nodded and pushed away, vanishing between some sort of fruit bush and a three-dimensional turnip bed. Steve waited until he couldn't hear her moving and then turned back to his visitor, arms crossed over his chest. "Stark's quarters were supposed to be sealed."
"Then they weren't sealed very well." Anthony rocked back on its heels, and then forward onto its toes. "We didn't break anything. Just opened it up a little. Your ship's too old; it's not made to stand up to prisoners with direct interface chips. I can fix that for you before we leave, if you want. Tony doesn't even need to get involved."
The sigh Anthony heaved was picture-perfect, even ruffling its hair a little where the breath caught it. "Suit yourself, spoil sport."
Steve took a deep breath, letting the scent of green growing things soothe him. "Say what you're here for, and then get back to your quarters. They were meant to restrain you, too."
Anthony's grin was pure, unrestrained mischief. "Yeah, I know."
"Just tell me."
Pink cheeks puffed up, and then deflated. Thin arms crossed over its chest, mimicking Steve's posture. "There's another AI on board."
"AI are illegal," Steve replied automatically, seconds before realizing precisely how inane denial was at the moment.
"Funny how often people do things that are illegal, isn't it." Seriousness had taken over Anthony's expression, a perfectly expressed scowl that made it hard to remember he wasn't talking to a biological person. "I know there is, I can feel it, even if I can't isolate the program. And I want to meet it. Please."
Plans chased each other around Steve's brain, ways to deny and deflect, but he still said, "Him. And I don't think so."
Blue eyes turned dark, not just in the way of poetic license, but in the way of pixels shading their way down a scale until there was no color left. "If you met someone else from your time, someone like you, wouldn't you want to meet them?"
Even though Steve's breath caught from the unexpected blow, all he could do was shake his head. "It's not my secret to give."
Color flickered as the holographic projectors glitched—or maybe for effect, to match Anthony's mood. "Okay then," it said, expression going thoughtful in a way that eerily mirrored Stark's when they'd been negotiating his ransom. "I'll find him for myself." The projectors buzzed, and Anthony flickered into nothing.
"That wasn't very bright, Captain."
Steve groaned and rubbed his head. "Of course you were listening."
"How else am I supposed to make sure you take care of yourself?" May floated into view, frowning slightly, and completely unrepentant for having eavesdropped on her commanding officer. "You should have told him."
He really, truly missed military organization. "Like I said: it's not my secret to give."
Tony floated up near the ceiling, drawing schematics with a quickly rigged penlight. It would only last for a few hours, but once he'd drawn it out once he wouldn't have any problem reproducing it. It was just a coincidence that his latest idea was for a better stealth-projector that could be installed almost anywhere. Really.
He felt Anthony settle back into his neural pathways from wherever it had gone to. It was like feeling a ball of fur snuggling into his skull; not unpleasant, but definitely unique. "Have a nice walkabout?" he asked, not taking his eyes off the curve of the lenses as he sketched it in.
"I had more fun that time you were in cryo for a week," Anthony snorted, appearing in the corner of Tony's eye atop the sleeping cocoon. "There's some kids on board I wanted to talk to, but they were busy."
"Want me to arrange a play date?"
The noise Anthony made was somewhere between a sigh and a groan. "You remember the trouble we had with the Richards boy, right?"
"He was a little old for play dates."
"He was sixteen and on his third PhD," Anthony, quite rightly, pointed out. "He nearly had me figured out. You're terrible at play dates."
Tony really couldn't argue with that one. He finished sketching in the arc, noting the line's path in a curving equation underneath. "Did you find anything else?"
There were a few seconds of silence that, for a program that processed faster than the average human brain, was nearly a lifetime. A pause for thought really didn't happen with AI. Twisting away from his equation, Tony peered over at Anthony worriedly. "What happened?"
Anthony's feet swung, as if he'd rock back and forth on the cocoon, but without physical weight all he could do was rock himself. "Nothing happened," it answered quietly. "I didn't find anything at all."
Beta 100, Astral Era 2427
The trip to the Quin Matrioshka was uneventful, but long. Most human-run areas used the matrioshka processing power to fold space between matrioshka, cutting down travel distance from trillions of miles to a few hundred. Pirates being as universally welcomed as they were, the Gale didn't have access to any of the usual avenues. What would have taken less than a day starting from the Hub traveling to a working brain took nearly two weeks from a millionth of the distance.
Not that it would have done any good. With the Quin quiet, it wouldn't have been accepting incoming travelers anyway. Time spent traveling was unavoidable, and dull. Tony filled his ceiling over and over again to pass the time, taking apart the visual input ports and modifying them to projectors while Anthony flitted off to wherever it was the AI went when it wasn't spending time in Tony's head.
Tony wasn't completely oblivious. He knew when someone was hiding something from him, and that went double for when that someone was one of his creations. Subroutines, processes, emotional and logical matrices—Tony had mapped every aspect of Anthony's personality when the AI had been the functional equivalent of a human toddler. Since Tony had stopped the hands-on work Anthony had grown and changed outside his control, but the core was still there, still the same basic building blocks he'd watched form under his hands. It was just something he couldn't touch.
Sometimes Tony wondered if his father had felt that way with him, then shrugged away the thought. He hadn't given Howard Stark much thought when he'd been a teenager desperately in need of programming advice, and he didn't intend to start now that it was too late.
Those were usually the times Tony started to wish he'd let Rhodey go on this one. It was giving him too much time to think.
So when the visitor chime sounded in his quarters on the day they were due to dock, Tony didn't hesitate to throw open the door—a manual door, as if they didn't even trust him with that much access—and welcome in Rogers, in all his naked glory.
"Captain!" Tony grinned broadly, skin shifting to a deep blue, and drifted out of the way, grateful Anthony had gone off on one of its walkarounds. "Come to make me walk the plank? Or swallow one?"
Rogers' frown just deepened. "Why were you going to Quin?" he demanded, not moving to enter the rooms. "And don't give me anything about it being classified."
"Not big on foreplay, are you?" Curling in on himself, Tony let his smile widen a little when the Captain's scowl deepened, and scored himself a point. "If you must know, it went incommunicado. We don't know what happened—there was no evidence that it actually went down, just that it's not linked in anymore. I'm supposed to get it back up and running."
Something crossed Rogers' face, for such a quick second that Tony didn't have time to recognize it. "We've arrived. You need to come to the bridge and see this."
That doesn't sound good. Like a shiver, color faded from Tony's skin, turning him from lavender to pale blue-green. Tucking his feet against the wall, he kicked off, surging past Rogers and out into the hallway. Anthony and he had gone over the ship's schematics so often that he didn't need to ask Rogers for directions as they bounced down the corridors. Thankfully, Rogers didn't question, only edged past him to nominally lead as they wove through halls and vertical tubes.
The ship's bridge was filled with the sound of ten people holding their breaths. Blackness painted the forward screen, broken only by an occasional glimmer when some lucky piece of light reflected off debris. As they watched, a thin piece of shell broke away from the rest of the construction, crumbling as it collapsed inward.
Tony took longer than he should have to realize what he was looking at. When he did, he turned green. If there'd been gravity, his knees might have given way.
A working brain should have been glowing with the unused remnants of the star's energy, while the shells that formed it hummed with processing power. Its ring should have been alive with human techs doing the physical labor that the matrioshka usually didn't worry about. But there was nothing there. No light, no fusion, no activity. It was as if the whole thing had just stopped.
Matrioshka were supposed to be immortal.
"It can't be dead," he heard himself say, through hearing gone thick with denial. "Stars don't die—the brain should have... There are redundancies."
The corpse of the star kept spinning, quiet and dark, while the nanocomputers that made up the shells that surrounded it went on with their decomposition. It was a body giving way to decay, its own gravity slowly pulling it apart. Once he knew what he was looking for, he was able to spot the ring—the outer layer that was inhabited by the matrioshka's keepers. It was as dark as the star, without any of the signs of civilization Tony was used to.
A hand touched his shoulder, jerking Tony to a stop just as he realized he was drifting towards the screen. Rogers' hand was firm as it pinned him in place. "Stark—"
"There are redundancies," Tony repeated,as if he could say it enough times to make it have worked, shaking his head hard enough that he almost slipped out from Rogers' grip. "You don't understand—the program should have kept the star going. If something happened—if the star died, it should have rewritten it before it became a problem."
"We need to know what happened here," Rogers said, almost gently, as he locked his elbow around an anchor bar to keep them from drifting. There was nothing soft in his hand on Tony's shoulder, the way his fingers dug into Tony's shoulder, a sharp punctuation next to his voice. "What do you know?"
There was no way to get away from that death grip, but Tony tried, using the anchor to push as far away as he could. "We don't have time for that," he snapped. "There are three inhabited planets in this system that use the Quin to keep a sustainable environment. Colonies."
Rogers' expression was brittle as thin glass. "There were."
Acid burned the back of Tony's throat. Thankfully, he didn't lose his stomach—having vomit vacuumed out of his throat was one of the less pleasant parts of life in zero-g. He closed his eyes, and did his best not to think about the population statistics he'd been given before setting out for the Quin.
Six billion, seven hundred and forty three million.The number felt like it would burn into the back of his mind, seared in like scar tissue from a bad upgrade.
He opened his eyes. "I need to get into the ring."
Matrioshka rings were the glorified offspring of a service station and a space colony, wrapped up in one ugly but functional package. Most of them weren't even actual rings, but arches, kept in orbit by the power of the matrioshka it maintained.
The Quin was one of the newer matrioshka, built after the war, and then allowed to go feral when the Empire realized how difficult constant expansion was. The planets in its system were kept populated, and the brain itself was hooked into the Network, but it never became the mecca that it had been built to be. The ring bore all the signs of its former destiny, being one of the few that was actually large enough to encircle the star. Most of the sections, Tony knew, would have been dead and sealed off for decades, while the remainder was on skeleton crew.
Knowing that it was supposed to be empty didn't stop the chills from running down Tony's spine as the Gale settled into dock. On a live station there would have been the constant chatter of personnel, the hum of energy and lights as the connection was made and systems linked. All Quin had to offer was the clank and shudder as the airlocks sealed together.
Rogers looked wrong, wearing one of the tight blue Outside suits, with its headgear covering everything but his eyes. He looked, oddly, more human. Tony hadn't realized how much Rogers emoted with his body, rather than his face. Every little twitch of his shoulders, the way he curled into the motions that made zero-g mobility possible, screamed that he was angry. Angry, and afraid. He did the zero-g equivalent of pacing in the small, tight space of the airlock, bouncing from one plain wall to the next.
The other two of their docking team were calmer, floating together without much movement. It was a dark-haired woman that Tony had seen on the bridge—Wanda, Rogers had called her. Her deep red suit seemed to glow against the austerity of the silver walls, warm and alive next to them. Their fourth was a giant of a man, bigger than even Rogers, in a deep gray suit that Tony worried would fade too easy in the darkness, unlike his own white one. No one had told Tony his name, and the grim set of his mouth before they'd suited up had kept Tony from asking.
Anthony still hadn't made an appearance. That was worrying, but not as much as it could have been. If he were an AI and a matrioshka had just gone down in front of him, he'd have hidden too. It must have been like stumbling over the corpse of a god.
Docking completed with a soft groan of scraping metal. Rogers uncoiled himself from his last spin, twisting to catch himself in front of them. "This is a data mission," he repeated for what was probably the seventh time. "No funny business, no getting off track. We get in, get the logs and then get out."
Wanda raised her fingers for Rogers' attention. "What if we find survivors?" she asked, and Tony's stomach twisted at even the thought.
"There won't be," the unnamed man said, so softly that it barely carried through the speakers.
If Tony's skin hadn't already been green-white with anxiety, he would have blanched. The truth hadn't hurt that much in years. He took a slow breath, tasting the odd mix of sterility and iron of the oxygen filters, the tang of the anti-nausea chemicals.
Unspoken, Tony heard, Six billion, seven hundred and forty three million.
Behind the plexiglass visor, Rogers' expression went even more still than usual. "Then lets find out why. Stark, you know what you're looking for. Lead."
Remember to breathe, the memory of Tony's mother whispered in the same tone she'd used when first introducing him to Outside as a child.
"We'll need to find the control station," he heard himself say as he pushed off from his anchor, brushing past Rogers to the door. "The black box should be functioning—it has its own power supply, usually nitro-cells, separate from the brain. If I can get that, I can extract the logs."
"And the logs will tell us everything," Wanda said softly.
It wasn't a question, but Tony nodded anyway. "Everything and more."
With the dock connected, the door opened with just a press of his palm against the panel. The air in the room flooded out into the vacuum, buffeting Tony as it passed like a strong wind.
From the inside, Quin was even deader. No lights. No sounds. No environmental system. The heart of space had more light, even if they were only glimmers from distant stars. Tony stared at it from the door, his traitorous imagination filling the void with movement. Then the visor lit up, filters settling over his vision as it automatically compensated for the lack of light. Objects flickered green in the dark, outlines with just enough depth and detail to be useful. It was enough to keep him from bumping into anything, which was all that counted.
Taking an extra deep breath to settle his stomach, Tony pushed off.
There weren't any bodies in the dock, just empty space. Objects floated here and there, mostly things that would have been left around accidentally and then freed with the artificial gravity lost its hold. Odd lumps and gaps in the outer shell let a tiny hint of star light through, artifacts of how the dead star was pulling itself apart. It was too big for the matrioshka structure to maintain itself unaided.
Tony ran his fingers over one of the holes, measuring the break and estimating time. Two months, he decided. Two months until the ex-star sucked the last of the shell into its surface, until the ring's orbit failed and all that was left was debris.
Three months until there was nothing left to show that people had lived and died there.
Six billion, seven hundred and forty three million.
The four of them floated gently through the dock, using the floor and walls to keep themselves in motion. None of the others seemed inclined to talk, which suited Tony just then. Normally he was the king of easy pater, but something about the darkness, the empty space where there used to be more, made him feel guilty for even breathing loudly.
In the corridor they found the first body. It was a technician, still wearing his work coverall, surrounded in a glittering cloud of frozen blood and other fluids that had escaped when it had been exposed to vacuum.
"He's not even in a suit," Rogers whispered, voice far softer than Tony had ever heard it before.
Tony wanted to say it was unnecessary, but they were in a mausoleum. Maybe necessary and appropriate were two different things. "They should have had time to get suited up," he agreed, using the same soft voice.
"They didn't." The big man pushed his hand through the cloud of frozen fluids, gently taking the corpse's shoulder and guiding it out of their way.
Wanda pushed herself back into the wall, watching with wide eyes as it passed so close that its hair brushed her arm. Her head turned with the movements of the body, even as she edged away from it. "There were no alerts," she said. "We would have heard them in time to help, if there had been. Too sudden, too absolute."
"We'll find out why," Tony said, ducking around the corpse and pressing on. It was all there was to say. None of it should have happened. Matrioshka were too powerful to go down so easily; it was like finding out that the universe was made of quicksand. The redundancies should have been triggered, the alerts should have sounded, and the people should have had time to get to shelter. Everything that could have gone wrong had, and he was going to get to the bottom of it.
Even if he had to do so in the company of pirates.
There were more bodies. They got better about moving them out of the way, less shocky and uncertain when they had to touch them. Rogers did most of it, with a professional attitude and a steady hand, something Tony could only be grateful for. None of the bodies they saw were children, which Tony knew didn't mean there were none. Families and civilians would have been in the back side, where the personal quarters usually were.
Six billion, seven hundred and forty three million.
He tried not think about it.
The main control room was full of the dead—technicians and support personnel, the people whose job it was to keep the matrioshka functioning at peak. Tony's first estimate when Rogers forced open the door was that there were more than there should have been, bodies curled up together, limbs tangled as if they'd realized what was coming too late to do anything but seek comfort. They'd likely been at emergency-levels; maybe there'd been enough warning to know something was coming, but not enough to know what. Certainly not enough to save themselves.
Silently, the four of them cleared a path to the main console, which was as empty of power as the rest of the ring.
Wanda slid into the anchor-space in front of it, fingertips glowing with a red light that was visible even through Tony's visual filters. It wasn't anything produced by her suit, but he couldn't have said what it was if his life depended on it. The glow didn't act like normal light, lingering where it should have faded, pulsing even after her hands had long since moved on. If he'd had to put a word to it, it would have been alive.
After a moment, the light at Wanda's fingertips faded. "I think I can get it up and running," she reported, head turning to glance at Tony meaningfully. "The backups have been drained, but with nitro-cells there's always a possibility that some spark's left."
Rogers locked himself in behind her, sliding his left foot between hers to hook it under the ledge. The position forced him to wedge himself against her back, but neither of them seemed to notice, with that particularly colonial lack of care for all things personal. "Do whatever you can. We need to know."
"Why Captain, I didn't expect a pirate to be such a hero," Tony said, mostly to himself since Rogers didn't even look at him, and it didn't help the cold creep of sickness in his stomach. Corpses weren't unknown to him, but there was something disturbing about being surrounded by so many, kept safe from the cause of their death by a thin layer of gear and a supply of oxygen. One mistake and it could have been any of them being added to the list of the dead.
Except maybe Rogers. He'd already survive it once, after all.
Wanda's fingertips lit up again, prying at the control panel and lifting it off. After that, Tony couldn't really follow what she did, which was disconcerting for someone with as many degrees as he had. Nothing of what she touched should have had any effect on massaging spare power from the cells. Straightening wires wouldn't have helped fix any damage done by the frozen blood particles that the panel had been surrounded in, unplugging and reconnecting the display wouldn't affect the flow of energy to the main drives at all. And yet after a few minutes the console lit up, glowing like a small sun in the darkness.
"My turn, now." Hooking himself in, Tony bumped Wanda and Rogers out of the way. "You're going to show me how you did that later."
He couldn't see her mouth, but he was pretty sure she smiled. "Perhaps."
When he spread his fingertips over the console, it responded beautifully. If he hadn't seen it dark, he never would have guessed that it had sat in open vacuum for days. Tony dragged his fingertips through the curves and sharp edges of the command lines, bypassing the usual interface and going straight for the meat and bones of the back doors. A few password prompts slowed him down, but he had all the overrides he needed.
Score one for having a career, Tony thought wryly, remembering all the people who'd pushed him to just live on his father's money.
"Any luck?" Like he'd done with Wanda, Rogers dovetailed his feet between Tony's under the floor anchor. His bulk was like a wall, bumping Tony's shoulder blades every time he started to drift backwards a little. If they hadn't been in Outside suits, Tony would have been able to feel his breath.
Because that wasn't intrusive at all. Colonials and their weirdness. Tony focused on keeping his breath even, though no one could hear it but him, and tried not to remember how Rogers looked naked. "There's not enough power to access the mirror site without the brain up, so I'm opening up the ports. I should be able to download the log files directly, and then transfer them to your ship once we're back on board."
"Mirror site?" Rogers asked, and really, there was no reason for Tony to feel like it was in his ear.
For the first time since they'd entered the bridge, the big guy spoke up. "A dimensional pocket," he said, voice low and grave. "A perfect copy of a matrioshka and its system. Its only task is monitoring the events of the main universe, to ensure that no matter what happens, there are records."
Tony's eyebrows rose in surprised respect, and he glanced over at where the unnamed man was floating by the door. "I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to know that."
At a distance there was no way to tell what the man was thinking, but Tony thought he saw him dip his head in acknowledgment. "I know many things I am not supposed to."
That answer was the opposite of useful, but Tony shrugged it off. Maybe pirates got training in being mysterious. Shaking his head, he turned back to his work. "It's exactly what he said, and it takes the power of a whole matrioshka to open. We've only got one half-empty nitro-cell, so we'll make do."
From behind, Rogers' shoulder bumped him. Tony's imagination painted in that it was encouraging, even though his voice was flat and when he said, "Do what you can."
"Aye, aye, captain," he muttered, keeping his head bent as he dug through seemingly endless memory banks for usable logs.
Under normal circumstances, working with a matrioshka could be magical. Their low-level AI was always eager to help, all but shoving whatever he needed into his hands as soon as he asked for it. When the AI was asleep, though, their complexities were shoved in his face.
But the Quin wasn't asleep. That gave him an odd twist in his stomach, and his hands slowed on the console.
Six billion, seven hundred and forty three million. And one.
"Tony?" Rogers' voice did register in his ear, with the high-pitched ping that indicated it was on a private line.
"I'm fine." Clearing his throat, Tony made himself get back to work. "I'm only going to be able to take the logs for the last six months. I don't have the memory for more."
The download went fast, faster than it really should have with so little power, operating through the double-link of the fingertip connections in Tony's suit. Data crawled behind his eyes, filled his head with a buzz that was nearly physical, foreign and strange, but there was space for it. His nightly memory dump was going to be weird.
"I've got it," he reported, voice slurred, drunk from the mass of sheer data. "I've... wow. Head rush."
"We've got you." Rogers kept his hand on Tony's shoulder as they released from the anchor. He guided Tony through like Tony was a child on his first round in zero-g. The console flickered as the last of the cell was used up, casting dancing shadows on the corpses that floated around them.
Another hand joined Rogers' on his other shoulder, the big man's. Strangely, the touch felt like an anchor, and the data settled, leaving only a hum behind. When he spoke, his voice took on an accent Tony had never heard before, couched in a low rumble. "Let's leave them to their rest."
By the time they'd trekked their way back through the warren of corpses, it was all Tony could do to focus on where he bounced and how he glided. If he'd been left to his own devices, he probably would have curled up in the airlock and slept there as soon as it was pressurized.
Solicitous hands helped Tony back to his room and into the cocoon. He wasn't sure whose, or why, and he didn't care. He needed to process, to file away the new data, and it was hard with so much other input coming from all directions. It was a relief to be stripped down and bundled away.
He was vaguely aware that his helper was still there when Anthony fuzzed into existence, all holograms and lighting rather than the usual neural tricks. A small part of Tony's brain, the part not taken up with six months of log files, wondered if it was because he didn't have space for the tricks with the competing data.
"Tony?" Anthony asked in a small voice. Its arms were curled around itself, hugging tight, making it look young and vulnerable. "Can I..?"
Without questioning, Tony nudged open the edge of the cocoon so the projectors could reach. It was ridiculous—a hologram couldn't cuddle, but the offer seemed to do the trick. Anthony hissed out of existence, and popped back into place curled into Tony's side, overlapping where they were too close and vanishing all together where the light was blocked.
"Won't let anything hurt you," Tony murmured, eyelids closing heavily. Not for the first time, he wished he'd gotten around to creating a portable plasma projector, so Anthony would be less limited.
There was nothing to feel, but he imagined Anthony settled in closer. "I know."
"How is this the fifth and the first I've heard of it?" Steve demanded, slamming upright from his chair to face Fury on the screen. Jan and Sam both jumped, but Thor—anchored in a far corner out of Fury's sight—didn't. He'd probably seen Steve's temper coming a thousand miles away.
On the screen, Fury looked tired. He was still somewhere with gravity, and it weighed him down in more than the physical sense. "The first four were empty systems," Fury explained, unaccustomedly quiet. "Abandoned. When they went under, the Empire didn't care."
Three second generation matrioshka and a first, all gone.
The Gale had left the Quin station less than an hour before. Stark was tucked safe away with his AI, and they couldn't process the retrieved logs until he recovered from the data overload. Rather than waste time, Steve had thought to contact Fury and see if there was anything on the line that might help. Fury always knew something about everything.
Steve just hadn't expected what Fury knew to be that big.
"They abandoned the matrioshka, and we didn't do anything?" He didn't recognize his own voice in his ears; it was nearly a growl, as if he'd spent the day breathing a heavy atmosphere. "Why didn't we mount a rescue?"
"Because they're not like your buddies back in the war," Fury snapped, scowling viciously. "Not anymore. They're too low-level to export themselves and too big to pocket. What were we supposed to do, put them out of their misery?"
"It looks like someone else is doing it for us." Fury opened his mouth to rebut, but Steve beat him to it. "Rogers out."
The blank screen stared at them accusingly, even after Fury's face was gone. Running his hand over his face, Steve sighed heavily and wished for gravity. Zero-g was home, but there was something powerful in being able to slump, to throw things and not have them glide to a gentle stop. "Thor?"
In his corner, Thor smiled and nodded, but his eyes never quite settled on Steve's. "It's not as bad as you think, Captain," he said. "Being abandoned isn't the same as being alone. They would have had the network."
Steve nodded, and tactfully didn't mention that it was the network that had been used to rewrite the first generation of matrioshka in the first place. Some wounds were better left alone.
"What do we do next?" Sam cut in, rapping his knuckles on the table. "Our only data is in the head of a man who, might I remind you all, is the one in charge of keeping the matrioshka contained in the first place. Do we trust him?"
"I do." Jan traced symbols on the table with a fingertip, her bio-energy leaving streaks behind on the plexiglass top. "I heard about him before— before." Her wings flexed out behind her, a permanent reminder of why she'd walked away from a lucrative career as a biologist for a place as the head doctor on a pirate ship. "There was a lot of upheaval when he was promoted, and a lot of old timers were ousted. Word was that the Hub liked him, and it's... picky. It hated his father."
"And there is Anthony to consider," Thor added, his knuckles cracking against the ceiling anchor he was clinging to. "I don't believe Stark will be adverse to our cause."
"We're not recruiting him," Steve felt the need to remind them. "We just need the logs. Once we get those, we'll drop him somewhere inhabited. That's all."
Sam, Jan and Thor exchanged glances, but it was Sam who said, "Yes, sir."
Somehow, Steve felt like he was the one who'd just lost an argument.
Gamma 2, Astral Era 2427
Tony woke groggy and aching, blue with exhaustion, but his head didn't feel like it had been sliced open and stuffed anymore. His dreams had been strange, filled with the flicker of a dying star and the taste of liquorice, bars made out of his own skin and bone. Some of the dreams might have been Anthony's—he'd been small in them, always growing, flipping through the pages of the universe and reading a language that he couldn't understand. Those dreams had been worse than the ones with the bars.
There was no sign of Anthony, but the touch in the back of his neural link had returned, which meant it was somewhere close. That was enough, though Tony suspected they were going to have to have a talk. AI or not, Anthony was a child, and death was one of those things that couldn't be ignored. Maybe more so, when it was a matrioshka.
Groaning, Tony buried his head into the soft padding.
Someone shook his cocoon gently from the outside, making it sway back and forth. "You're awake. Would you like some water?"
A squeeze bottle was produced, and Tony sucked on it greedily, letting the water sit on his cottony tongue before swallowing. It was stale and warm, but his stomach clenched even at that, which meant cold and fresh probably would have been a bad idea anyway. When the bottle was half emptied, he lowered it and looked at his new best friend.
Tony found himself staring up at the broad, handsome face of the unnamed man who'd gone with them into the Quin. Unlike most people, he didn't seem to have any additions, any wetware or genetic tampering, though rationally Tony knew he must have had some if he were serving on the Gale. Humans didn't do well in zero-g for long periods without it. "Thanks. I don't think I caught your name."
The man never stopped smiling. "Thor."
"Interesting choice. One of the first-gen matrioshka was named Thor," Tony commented, turning the bottle around in his hands awkwardly. His coordination was shot, but that was probably just from having slept so hard. Even his internal clock felt off, as if it had stopped ticking entirely for a few hours; he'd have to hook into the ship to adjust it. "Your parents were creative."
"I suppose they must have been." Thor patted Tony's shoulder, then pushed back, floating over to the door. Unlike most colonials, he had long hair. It fanned around his head in a golden spray, unbound by any ties. "The Captain would like to see you when you finish waking. He is eager to retrieve the logs."
"I'm eager to give them to him." Scrunching up his nose, Tony tried to work feeling back into his face. It felt still too, just like the rest of him. Sleep wasn't worth it, sometimes. "Tell Rogers that I won't be long."
With another one of those weird smiles, Thor nodded and slid out the door. Tony supposed that it was unlocked; letting someone suit up and go into the corpse of a dead brain was one of those things that prisoners didn't get to do very often. Next thing he knew, he'd be attending the monthly potluck.
"I don't think I like Thor." Anthony appeared straddling the foot of the cocoon, hologram-fuzzy legs dangling over the edges so its bare toes seemed to brush the ground. There was no sign of how upset it'd been the last time Tony had seen it, but Tony didn't doubt it still was. The ability to control its appearance was something Anthony took advantage of a lot. "He's weird. He doesn't have anything I can tap."
"Maybe he's allergic to it," Tony said, mind only half on the conversation. "Some people are, like Beth." It had been heartbreaking for Tony when he'd realized Beth was off-limits to his skills. One of the major reasons they'd broken up, in the end. Everywhere he wanted to be needed connections, and she couldn't even have enough mods to survive longterm zero-g. They'd tried to make it work, but the friction was too much.
"Maybe." By Anthony's frown, it didn't believe that Thor could possibly be one of those unhappy few. "Rogers had him watch you to make sure you were okay. There was some buzz on the comms when you didn't wake up quick enough."
"Then let's not keep the Captain waiting." Untangling himself from the snug confines of the cocoon, Tony gave himself a stretch using the anchors before making use of the amenities. He'd never get used to the gels and vacuum tools that gravity-less life required for hygiene, but he had to admit that they worked. In less than ten minutes he'd put on a clean, if plain, coverall, wiped off the sweaty remnants of his trip Outside, and generally regained his right to humanity. By the time he'd finished, his blue skin had faded to a softer shade of blue-brown that wasn't really flattering on anyone, but it was far better than the deep ocean it had been.
Shockingly, there was no one waiting outside his door when he emerged, refreshed and recovered. Tony wasn't sure if that meant he was being trusted, or if there just wasn't anyone to spare. He was inclined to think the latter. Then again, there were children on the ship; it was entirely possible one of them had been secretly set to watch him. That was what he would have done, had he been in charge. And that one ceiling panel looked a little off.
Paranoia occasionally paid valuable dividends.
In lieu of a guide, Tony took himself to the bridge, figuring that was the most likely spot to start. If Rogers wasn't there, then whoever was manning the bridge would know where to find him. It was a good plan.
A good plan that was utterly ruined when he rounded a corner and sped straight into a broad and rather spectacular chest. Tony rebounded with a grunt, catching himself against the ceiling before spinning back upright.
Anthony snorted a giggle, but didn't deign to appear. Apparently making fun of Tony didn't warrant a visual.
Rogers, damn him, had barely been moved by the impact, bracing himself on the wall with one hand and proving everything written in the venerable Newton's Laws incorrect. He then crossed his arms, all muscle and stretches of bare skin and body hair. His eyes skimmed down Tony, then back up again, looking him square in the face. "I was just coming to get you. We're going to engineering."
Tony grinned and fell in beside Rogers, just far enough back that they could both maneuver freely. More importantly, he had a perfect view of Rogers' ass, which was as tight and sculpted as genetic science could have crafted. "I always appreciate a man who comes for me. Lead on."
There was no being certain from behind, but Tony thought he saw Rogers twitch, and mentally scored a point for himself.
Engineering was located somewhere in the middle levels, towards the back, which made perfect sense what with the placement of propulsion systems. At least, Tony thought it was there. With his head still clogged by the downloaded data, he didn't have enough space to call up the specs he and Anthony had downloaded. Regardless, they hadn't seemed to have traveled up very far, just a few levels before Rogers keyed in the access code and they were twisting out into a stale, undecorated corridor.
Back at the Hub, Tony's work area was unusually colorful. He'd found that the Hub liked pretty things, especially if they were golden, so he'd gone to extra lengths to have it all painted to match the Hub's taste. It had gotten them half again the processing speed they'd gotten before, all for the price of a few tubs of paint and a couple of artists.
By comparison, the Gale's engineering section looked like it had come out of a can. A cheap can. Plain gray walls, slightly darker floor. The only color came from the monitors placed around the walls and consoles, everything visible from everywhere else. In the very back, the dark bulk of the plasma-injectors loomed, probably a century out of date and audibly groaning with age. It made Tony's fingers twitch with sheer technological lust, a desperate desire to shut them down and make them purr.
Glancing over at Rogers, Tony could think of a few other things he would have liked to make purr.
In the back of Tony's head, Anthony made a disgusted noise, but that was what it got for playing ride-along.
Wanda had strapped in near one of the smaller, semi-private monitors in the back, her elegant fingers splayed across the console. Without waiting for Rogers, Tony glided over to her and draped across her shoulder, using the back of the chair as a makeshift anchor. "Good morning, Wanda, darling."
There was no pause in the motions of her hands, but Wanda tipped her head back to acknowledge him. "Evening, actually. You slept for nearly two days."
"Processing time is a killer." From above, her breasts and legs were exactly as spectacular as he'd anticipated, but strangely easy to look away from. Tony put it down to exposure strengthening his defenses. A body could only take so much constant arousal before it gave up. "Something wrong?"
That did get her to glance up at him, dark eyes wicked, but smiling, as if she knew he'd been ogling her a moment before. "Just analyzing the scans we pulled from the Quin and comparing it to official records. Seeing what we can mine from it."
Tony had enough tact not to mention that official records were usually sealed behind twenty or so layers of security protocol. Besides, he was interested in results, not legality. Leaning forward, he peered at Wanda's screen, frowning at the shrunken graphs that didn't seem to contain anything important or meaningful. "And what did you get from it?"
Without warning, Rogers anchored himself behind Tony, grabbing him by the neck and gently levering him upright. There was no direct force in the move, but it did have a definite suggestion that force was available at need. "The results say that the star's composition hasn't changed," he said, not giving Wanda a chance to do so herself. "The fusion stopped, without any apparent reason."
"That's impossible," Tony said, because something had to be said, and you had your chance stop ruining mine didn't seem to be appropriate. Instead, he pushed himself back, just enough to be flush against Rogers' front side. "Stars don't just stop."
"Neither do matrioshka." Wanda's chair flipped around to face them. Her elbows stretched out behind her, resting on the edge of the console. It had the incredible affect of thrusting her breasts forward, as if zero-g needed any help putting them on display. "We're hoping what you got will explain things."
There was still a strong hand on the back of his neck, so Tony gave her his best smile—Rogers couldn't stop that. "Can you link it to a spare console?" he asked hopefully. "I'd hate to have to crawl all over yours while the good Captain here is forced to loom."
Another quirk of a smile, and Tony felt the starting bud of a lovely friendship. She gestured to the side, where another seat and a dark touchpad waited. "Boot it up and its all yours."
"I thought you'd never offer." Wrenching away, Tony eased himself down into the seat and strapped in. It was hard and uncomfortable, the cushioning worn thin by age. None of that mattered when he passed his hand over the power-on and it blinked to glimmering life. The reports from the Gale's surveys were already waiting, along with the supposedly-confidential data that had been borrowed from the main Hub lines.
Rather than get to the meat right away, Tony spent some time digging through the virtual environment, tweaking the settings to suit him, noting his tendency to lean left on his command motions and running the blocking tool that filtered out Anthony automatically. Wanda ran a clean ship—everything was already at peak operating levels, and there didn't seem to be byte fragments in the tubes. That put her a thousand years ahead of most of the people who worked under him on the Hub.
"If you ever decide to get out of the pirating business, hit me up," he said, as his fingers flew through the new configurations. "We can always use someone with your level of skill."
Next to him, Wanda went stiff, and her smile turned ever so slightly cold. "No," she commented after moment. "I do not think that will be necessary. But you have my thanks."
With the sharp clarity that marked a neural-trick, Anthony appeared behind Wanda's shoulder. It watched her hands move over the touch-pad, appearing fascinated by her work. "Foot in mouth is your thing lately, isn't it?" it asked. "Maybe if you spent more time looking at your work and less time looking at her breasts..."
If you ever develop an interest in biology, you'd look too, Tony grumbled silently. How had he been supposed to know that official work offers were off-limits?
"Because they're pirates," Anthony snapped. "Are you really this dense? It's like pushing through mercury."
Awkward silence was even worse when your own AI was calling you out. "I'll just upload those files now," Tony said, a little too loudly. His fingertips slid into the link notches on the side of the panel. They flickered to life, glowing a soft white at the connections were made.
The uplinks finished, flashing a rainbow before settling into the luminescent green of ready. He pressed the data speeds questioningly, numbers flickering behind his eyelids, then frowned. Not as fast as he would have liked, but he had a feeling Wanda and Rogers would object if he delayed in order to rebuild their whole brain-computer interface from scratch. "I'm going to have to do a hard upload to get anything done today, but this might still take a while. Don't wait up for me, honey."
Rogers' frown deepened. "What? How long will—"
The world went white.
"I hate it when you do that."
A shimmer of light flickered at the edges of Tony's vision, blurring everything but the direct center. He gave himself a shake, working free the kinks that came from being hard loaded up for so long. He could still feel the data transferring, a phantom that experience taught would take a few minutes to shake. "I hate it when you hate it," he muttered at Anthony, fingertips popping free as he disconnected.
A pair of hands latched onto his shoulders, pulling him back from the console. A pair of nebula blue eyes peered down at him from in the middle of the visual migraine, silver banding slim as a wire. "What was that?" Rogers asked. "You were out for an hour."
"Just answering my AI, Captain." Tony blinked hazily, though he knew that it wouldn't do any good for focusing. "Only an hour? I thought it might take twice that long. Your system is a bit outdated."
The eyes narrowed, and Tony had a vague feeling that there was a frown hiding behind the migraine. "Ten more minutes and we were going to forcibly eject you."
"Careful. I might think you care." Rolling his shoulders, Tony pulled out of Rogers' grip and sat up again rather than letting everything float free.
No rebuttal came. That might not have been a good sign. Tony chose to take it as one, anyway. Always look up, that was one of the many mottos he stuck by. The next in line being, always check to be sure the olive is real.
Once free of Rogers hold, Tony brought up the main display. It had dimmed while he'd been hooked in, but as soon as he passed his palm over it the screen lit up, sending sparks behind his eyes. Data slid across the console, comforting bits and bytes with all the knowledge a matrioshka could provide. Anthony, you have anything?
"There's been four downed matrioshka before this," Anthony said quietly, respecting Tony's slow recovery by modulating its voice. It clambered over the back of the chair, hooking its virtual legs over his shoulders, like a child getting a ride. "Empty systems, no loss of life. The first went down a little less than a quarter ago. We didn't get them in our reports, so I'm thinking someone blocked the memo."
That's not good.
"You can say that again."
The logs were filled with little notes and glitches, the sort of thing that inevitably happened when intelligence—artificial or otherwise—was involved. Tony paged through it, starting at the top and skimming for irregularities.
Everything started out normally. The engineers dutifully noted down the matrioshka's moods and reactions, transcribed conversations that went on for hours and covered everything from history to art and mathematics. They were, by necessity, limited discussions. Matrioshka never attained any real level of complex intelligence, didn't develop beyond the cognitive equivalent of perhaps a human six year old, sometimes younger. The most advanced matrioshka Tony had ever met was the Hub, and its faculties maxed out at just under a human seven year old.
Ages of log files passed before Tony found the first oddity. He paused, staring at the file, then flicked it to enhance. "Ten days before the logs end, the Quin's mood dropped. It stopped talking to its handlers. So, thirty-one days ago." It had been dead before he'd even set out. That date was depressing, but also oddly comforting. There was no way he could have moved fast enough to save it. The Quin disconnecting from the Hub had been its death throes.
"Handlers." Rogers spat out the word like it tasted foul. He hooked in behind Tony, though, leaning over to peer at the console. "Is there any sign of what triggered it?"
"Not specifically." Tony did page back, though, looking for the point the Quin's mood started fluctuating. It had been a good natured brain, and didn't argue with its crew much, but the slide had been so slow he hadn't even recognized it until the Chief Astroengineer reported the loss of contact. "It looks like it happened after it last connected to Zetan."
Tony couldn't see it, but he could feel Rogers and Wanda giving each other significant looks. Heaving a sigh, he tilted his head back, bumping Rogers' bare chest with his skull. He had to pass through Anthony to do it, which was momentarily disconcerting until the AI helpfully vanished from visual feeds. "Is Zetan one of the dead brains?"
"It is," Anthony piped in helpfully. "It was the last one to go down. Fifty days ago."
The scowl that usually made its home on Rogers' face was subdued, as if he couldn't find it in him to bother. "You didn't know about that?"
"Not until Anthony told me." Tony managed a small smile, but it felt more like a grimace. Politics were a game he played, but he didn't appreciate when the game got in the way of his work. "Let's just say some... higher leveled people don't appreciate how I do my job."
One of those wordless looks passed between Wanda and Rogers again. Wanda looked away first, her hair whipping a little as she shook her head. "We intercepted a report of another one going dark while you slept. Incern. It was reported as losing contact ten hours ago."
Incern. Tony knew that brain; he'd spent the last part of his education there. Old, but not as much as the other two—maybe a little over two centuries.
And populated. More populated than the Quin had been.
"Closer to the Hub," was all he managed to say, through a throat that tasted like acid. His fingertips were turning green again, the same vivid shade as the connections on a live hookup. Even without the genetic adapts, he had a feeling he would have been green one way or the other. "What were the other ones?"
"Denarin, Evalyn, Antaren, Zetan, Quin and now Incern." Anthony's voice had a new edge to it, sharp, maybe a little brittle, and the imagined-pressure from its weight on his shoulders was nearly real. "Dead AI in every direction and in that order, dates uploading to you now."
Tony didn't need a star map to see the pattern, or to see that it was getting faster. He opened his eyes, not having realized he'd closed them. Wanda and Rogers both looked grave, but they weren't doing the Silent Looks over his head anymore. "What were the Incern's links?" he asked. "Which matrioshka did it report to?" It was a dumb question, because he already knew the answer. The Incern was a live brain. That left exactly one response that mattered. He just needed someone to say it.
Wanda's hands spread over the console, covering up all but the most important data. By the look in her eye, she was thinking the exact same thing Tony was, and liked it just as much. "The Hub," she breathed. "It reported to the Hub."
"I am not letting you drop me in into a cryotube and dump me a thousand years from civilization!" Stark snapped, gripping the overhead anchor so hard that his knuckles went white under the soft wood-brown tint of his skin. "You need me."
Steve had cornered him in his quarters, after they'd finished digging through the Quin's logs. Stark had insisted on going through everything with a fine comb, tracking and graphing the Quin's fluctuations on its way down, writing out the command lines that killed its star. Steve let him, even though he knew a waste of time when he saw it. It didn't take an astroengineer to see what had happened. Nothing but a matrioshka had the power to stop a star that way, and nothing but stopping a star had the power to kill a matrioshka.
"—still not finished finding out what Quin and Zetan talked about," Stark was saying, in full-on rant. "There had to be a trigger. If I can find it, I can stop it."
"You don't know that."
"I know that if I don't it's going to reach the Hub!"
Stark was right, but that didn't mean anything. Steve pressed his heels against the floor, back propped against the slightly chilly wall to keep from drifting too much and his arms crossed. "And how are you going to stop it?" he asked, voice as flat as he could make it. "Talk it down? Therapy?"
That made Stark pause, mouth open, another argument obviously just on the tip of his tongue. Raising his eyebrows, Steve waited.
After a moment, Stark grimaced and looked away, eyes focusing on a patch of nothing in the middle of the room. Around the neck and vanishing into his collar, Stark's skin started fading from brown to a rusty red, just a hint of color change that Steve might not have noticed if he hadn't been looking. "Would you rather we didn't try at all?"
"I didn't say that." The red color at Stark's collar had reached his fingertips, where it made the wires and connections stand out even more than before. In spite of himself, Steve wondered how the color mapped out over the rest of his body, the broad planes of muscle and skin hidden away behind fabric like it was something to be ashamed of. He'd never understood the planetside obsession with covering up. "You don't have to be caught up in this, but we don't have time to drop you at a live station. A cryotube is the safest choice."
Stretched out between two anchors, Stark's shoulders drew back and his chin lifted. "Then I choose to stay."
He could force it, Steve knew. A quick sedative and Stark would be helpless, easy to tuck into a tube and drop off somewhere safe. And he could see that Stark knew it too, knew exactly how vulnerable he was. It was visible in the faint tremble at the corner of his mouth, the rising pulse at his throat. Steve's ocular enhancements narrowed in on those changes, marking them down with less than the clinical detachment he'd hoped for.
It was still hard to look at Stark and place the skinny man—boy—he'd met. No matter how he tried, they still felt like two different people. The boy, he might have been able to bully into a cryotube. He had a feeling that if he tried the same thing with the man, he'd regret it roughly a day after Stark was revived. Maybe not even that, if they couldn't figure out how to make sure the AI went with him.
"Fine." Steve pushed off the wall, drifting forward before he managed to hook his fingers around one of the overhead anchors and execute a flip to turn himself around to head for the door. "Have it your way, Stark. But I expect you to be wired to the ship by the time we reach the Hub, just like the rest of the crew."
The door frame was a little too small to be a good catch, but Steve managed, the very tips of his fingers providing just enough surface to brace against. When he looked at Stark, a faint purple tint had started to overcome the red, spreading across his nose and cheeks like a blush. "What?"
Stark stood his proverbial ground, jaw tight to force a smile that wasn't as easy as he probably intended. "My name is Tony. You might as well call me that."
In spite of himself, Steve smiled. "Okay, Tony it is, then. I'm still your Captain." When Tony blinked, Steve's smile stretched wider. "Welcome to piracy."
Gamma 5, Astral Era 2427
Fifteen days from the Quin to the Hub.
More accurately, fifteen days from the Quin to the Valeran, and then the Valeran would push them to the Hub. Tony had already gone over all the connection data he had, mapping out the intricate lines of communication that wove the network into a whole, trying to track down all of the affected ones just to spite himself. The Quin was the first live matrioshka in the link, with only six lines of connection, but those six lines were enough when magnified over the whole stretch of the galaxy.
There were probably dozens of other brains already failing, already going quiet, refusing to talk to their handlers. And he couldn't do anything about them, because the top-level output had gone straight to the Hub, and if that failed then everything would go with it. Just thinking about it made him sick.
Floating in the middle of his quarters, Tony stared at the data across the portable console Wanda had given him. His interfaces sparked like a budding migraine, willing an algorithm to appear, a pattern that would show that they had time, that there weren't going to be another trillion lives lost to travel. Numbers and diagrams and graphs spread out in front of him, and all of them said the same thing.
They would be spending another twelve days in space. In six days another brain would go down, and there was no telling which one, no guarantee that it wouldn't be the Hub.
"You're going to hurt yourself if you keep this up." Anthony's voice had gotten softer, as if the AI were trying to whisper and didn't know how. "You can't do anything."
"I should be able to." Blinking, Tony rubbed his eyes and tried to clear away the blur of exhaustion. For once, the AI didn't try to appear, a blessing for Tony. He didn't think he had the processing speed to deal with juggling reality versus perception. "This is my job. I'm supposed to keep them safe."
"And you're good at it. It's not your fault they're sad."
Closing his eyes, Tony leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the ceiling. It felt cool to the touch, the padding soft and comforting against the coming headache. "You know what's happening?"
Even though there was no visual feed, Tony could feel Anthony just behind him, a phantasm of a presence. "I... Maybe? It's hard..." A touch against his shoulder, fleeting, and as long as Tony didn't try to look he didn't have to deal with conflicting signals. "It's a feeling I can't explain. Like they tried to tell me, but I don't have the programming to listen."
"You're not the same system they are," Tony explained quietly, feeling Anthony's nod of understanding. It reminded him of when the AI was smaller, nearly newborn. They hadn't figured out how to get the neural feed working, so everything had been feelings and thoughts rather than concrete sensation. For a while, it had felt like he built his own ghost. "They're older. Maybe it's something built into them."
"Maybe." Anthony didn't sound like it believed, but there was nothing else to do.
After a few minutes of blissful peace, Anthony asked, "Do you really think you can help them?"
"I have to try." Pushing off against the ceiling, Tony floated back to the floor and hooked his ankle under an anchor to keep from drifting off. His notes were still spread out across his borrowed console, scribbled and messy, a thousand different things that could have caused the matrioshka to—and he hated thinking the word, but it was the only one that applied—to suicide. They were in a dozen different colors, according to which part of the brain it would affect. None of his notes had made it to the point where he could consider them likely prospects. Without actually accessing a matrioshka in the process of failing, there was no way to know what he was facing.
Hypothesis was all well and good, but they needed something more solid. "Maybe I'm looking at this wrong. I'm solving the wrong problem."
"How do you mean?" The notes on the console shimmered, then folded away to be replaced by Anthony's face up in the top left corner, situated in front of what Tony recognized as the main section of Engineering. There was even a hint of the back of Wanda's head behind him. "You're trying to fix them."
In spite of his battered exhaustion, Tony smiled. That's one way to bypass the human brain. "But I can't fix what I don't know about," he said, flexing his fingers across the controls, spreading the false vid-feed across the whole area. "And we don't have any way to find out what it is. Right now, we just need to get there, right?"
On the screen, Anthony's blue eyes actually lit up, nearly sparking as it realized what Tony was saying. "So then the problem is—"
"That this ship is too damned old," Tony finished. "I think we need to go have a talk with some people. We're going to want to upgrade."
Wanda's section was engineering.
Wanda was good at what she did.
Wanda was also damned protective of her work.
She spread herself out in the doorway, using the edges of the sliding door to hold herself in place, hanging like she'd been caught in a giant spider web. Even her hair was against him, having popped out of the bands she kept it in. It floated free around her head in a thick black cloud that kept him from seeing behind her. "You are not allowed in this section unescorted," she repeated for the third time, expression set in a model of pure stubbornness.
"I just want to help." Spreading his hands, Tony did his best to look as innocent of ill intentions as possible. It was an expression he'd been told before didn't work on him, but he did his best. "I'm sure you run a perfectly good ship—"
Her lips pressed together warningly.
"—a great ship, really," Tony corrected hastily. Ever so slightly, he let himself drift to the right. Wanda didn't make the mistake of tracking him, instead staying locked right in the center of the entry, blocking him completely. "But we have six days to get to the Hub. That's just not enough time. It'll only take a few changes and we can triple speed without risking hull integrity."
To the credit of Tony's charms, her expression softened. It wasn't much, but it was better than the poured concrete wall she had been. "And why should I trust that you know how to make those changes? You work with AI, not propulsion."
Tony mourned the easy banter from before, but he supposed it was his due. Back then, he'd been working with the ship's static brain, not her baby. As an engineer, he could respect that. As someone who wanted nothing more than to get his hands inside her plasma core, it was frustrating.
"I work with AI. I trained in everything I could get my hands on. Including propulsion." In the back of his head, Anthony kept up a running litany of the specs of the Gale's ancient, out of date systems. They were good and solid, one of the old clunker designs that kept going and going without much help or trouble. It was probably the only reason they were still running after what had to have been nearly a century of use. Inefficient as water for bathing, but hard to break. "Look, you're running an MA-1610, right?"
She nodded. It wasn't exactly a welcoming nod, but it would do.
"So you already know how it leaks force left right and diagonal." He flipped his portable console at her, letting her see the sketches and parameters he'd mapped out. Unfortunately, she didn't lean closer, but he felt the little jolt as her connection to the ship did it for her. Even if it wasn't an AI, clearly the crew knew how to make an interface work. "Just let me reinforce the containment unit. You already have the parts, I had Anthony ask May and there's a whole shipment of vibranium plating you haven't off-loaded yet. If it doesn't work you can rip it out faster than I can put it in."
They stared at one another, Wanda's mistrust slowly easing out of her shoulders, though her hair stayed wild. "We don't have time to shut it down for an upgrade that might not take," she said, and her voice had turned almost conversational, light and easy, as if she were warning him that a drink was going to burn his tongue.
Tony felt himself grin, heard Anthony's laugh just behind his shoulders. "If I manage it without shutting down, what do I win?"
The last bit of protectiveness vanished, a wicked smile flashing his way as Wanda's left arm and leg dropped from the doorway, leaving it clear for him. "We'll see how good a job you do, first."
Gamma 6, Astral Era 2427
Vibranium was a pain to work with, but it was useful stuff. Tony would have to remember that sooner next time he set out to save the galaxy from itself.
It had taken three back to back shifts to get the new shielding in place without actually disrupting the engine core. He'd had to build three different bots for Anthony to control, and then slip them into the main chamber and get the sheets of vibranium into place before the bots were shaken apart by the reactor fluctuations. Wanda watched it all with an expression of amused patience that shaded to interest after the first layer was finished. By the time Tony had moved on to the third layer, she'd pressed herself close against the exterior-shielding, hands glowing red as she traced designs over it that seemed to bleed into the transparent guards. Whatever she was doing, the work went twice as fast, and the bots lasted twice as long, which was a welcome relief come the sixteenth hour.
After twenty-six hours of non-stop work, the reactor was updated, their speed quadrupled, and they were done. Anthony agreed to stay behind and monitor the results, and Wanda was tired enough to agree. Tony saw himself back to the residential level and fell into his rooms, somehow managing to bounce off the floor in spite of the lack of gravity. Once there he just let himself stretch out, floating a few inches above ground-level with his eyes closed.
Rogers' voice was the same as always, but exhaustion must have been making Tony hallucinate. It almost sounded as if he were trying not to laugh. Which, Tony suspected, was actually impossible, since the funny bone had been one of those pieces that Rogers must have had surgically removed when he'd had his enhancements.
Just in case, Tony risked cracking his eyes. Rogers was floating above him, legs crossed and expression impassive. Warm, taut stretches of naked skin were gloriously visible, including places normally hidden by angle. It was good to know that Rogers had an ass worthy of being looked at from below. His face was pretty good too, square jaw looking even more square, cheekbones sharp and high and absolutely lickable.
Another thing the angle showed was the circles under his eyes, the faint lines around his mouth that had to have come from exhaustion, because they hadn't been there a week before. Yep, hallucinations. "Something like that," Tony muttered in belated answer, letting his eyes slip closed again. "We'll be at the Valeran in three days."
"Wanda told me." Bare skin patted against the equally bare floor, presumably as Rogers bounced off against it. Oversized mitts of hands wrapped around Tony's arms, tugging him up against a warm slab of muscle and flesh that Tony was pretty sure belonged to Rogers' amazing pectorals. "She also told me that you nearly blew up her reactor when one of your bots got too close to the core."
"She was overreacting, I had it under perfect control." Since he was being manhandled, Tony decided to enjoy it, hooking his knees on Rogers' hips. Ducking his head, he managed to hook his chin over Rogers' shoulder and nestle in against his neck, all without opening his eyes. "The worst it would have done was make a mess."
"A mess she would have had to clean up." The gentle push of air against the back of his neck told Tony that they were moving, but he wasn't sure where until his back touched the soft fabric of the cocoon. Once identified, it was easy for Tony to follow the sounds of the top layer being pulled back and opened up, the rustle of the inner padding as it was smoothed out.
When he tried to put Tony in it, Tony just tightened his legs and stayed exactly where he was, nose against Rogers skin and fingers splayed across his bare back. He smelled like green, growing things, and nutrient fluids and—most oddly—the sharp hint of some sort of metal polish. It was a good combination of odors, made even better by the fact that there was absolutely no clothing between him and the scent.
Bless the colonies down to their little genetically-altered toes.
Rogers made an annoyed sound, almost a growl. "Let go of me." Fingers with the power of a gravity well dug into Tony's hips, but he'd survived Natasha's claws back when that had been a thing, and blunt pirate captain fingers didn't have a thing on her. "Tony."
"I think not." To make his point, Tony nestled in closer. Rogers really did have soft skin, which only made sense—he'd spent nearly as much time extra-atmosphere as Tony had alive. There'd been no sun to wear it tough, the way Tony's shoulders got when he went down to Silias-9 for one of their glorious summer seasons, nothing to pull it down with gravity and age. "You are not tucking me in like I'm a child."
"Then let go and put yourself to sleep." Pointedly, Rogers tried to shake Tony off, but without gravity there was literally nothing to keep him from hanging on. It wasn't even difficult without clothing to grip.
"Not unless you do, too."
By the sudden complete cessation of all motion and breathing, Tony might have thought Rogers had won and abandoned him to free fall. Only the warm skin against his cheek and hands said otherwise.
It took longer than it should have for Rogers to pull himself out of it. Tony marked it down as another example of why he was always right. "I have better things to do than sleep with you."
"We have three days before we reach Valeran," Tony said relentlessly into the crook of Rogers' neck. "Three days of straight travel, with no course changes, no breaks and no planned action. Three days where the only thing you might be needed for is an emergency."
"Three days when I need to be planning how we'll infiltrate the Hub," Rogers replied, lips somewhere close to Tony's ear. A shiver ran down him, but he was too tired to get much enjoyment from it.
"Three days when you're going to need to pick my brain about security and passwords, which ones I have and which ones I can get. Which you can't do if I'm asleep. And I need sleep." Leaning in closer, Tony pressed his smirk against Rogers' skin, making sure he could feel it. "Checkmate."
Something like a growl rumbled in Rogers' chest, actually deep enough to tickle the smaller bones in Tony's ear. "If I need to sleep, I have a room of my own."
"But will you use it?" A couple beats of silence was his answer. "I didn't think so."
Muscles tensed under Tony's hands, and for a second he thought he might have been in danger of being forcibly ripped off. Rogers could probably break his fingers one by one if he really wanted to, which would put a severe crimp in Tony's plans. Replacing bones with sturdier ones was a pain—he'd never needed to before, but he kind of wished he had thought further ahead.
But instead of doing something permanent, Rogers just sighed, all resistance draining out of him. "Fine. If you insist." The edge of the cocoon pushed back more, and they were both being tucked into it, the stretchable fabric wrapping around to keep them from drifting off..
By their nature, cocoons could hold up to four people in proper low gravity conditions. Rogers barely took up any space at all compared to some of the people Tony had shared with in the past. They nestled together, arms and legs slotting together easily. There was still a thrum of tension in Rogers' spine, and Tony was almost positive he could hear his teeth gritting. That didn't get better when Tony rubbed a circle on the small of his back
"Come on, relax a little." Since he didn't have to keep the good captain pinned any longer, Tony took the chance to stretch out and get a good look. Even with his eyes closed, Rogers' face was tense. Up close and from the front, the circles under his eyes weren't as prominent, but they were there. "I thought all of you colonials had tossed away things like personal space."
One of Rogers eyes cracked opened, peering at him from behind a thin fan of gold lashes. "That's not the point." The silver band around his iris was thinned out to half its usual size, fascinatingly old fashioned in its obvious mechanics. There were thousands of styles of optics available for someone who was interested in them, so why hadn't Rogers gone for something more modern?
One day, Tony was going to pin Rogers down and upgrade him. Or pin him down and do something, at least. "Then what is the point?" Tony asked glibly, relaxing into the all-encompassing padding and closing his eyes. Twenty-six hours of building and guiding robots around a reactor was the end of him. "Afraid I'll threaten your virtue?"
He thought he heard Rogers laugh. The body against his uncoiled a little, stretching out. Tony's last sensation before drifting off was the scrape of stubble against his neck as Rogers curled around him.
Gamma 7, Astral Era 2427
The time is oh-three hundred, the Gale reported cheerfully as soon as Tony's consciousness established a connection. Thirteen hours and twenty one minutes since last check-in.
If Tony could glare at the timing program built inside his own skull, he would have. It wouldn't have helped, but it would have made him feel better. His whole body ached, with the stiffness that came from sleeping so hard it hadn't moved for hours on end. Even his hair felt odd, as if his scalp had developed extra nerve endings while he'd been asleep.
Nestled against his shoulder, Rogers was a still, surprisingly heavy presence for zero-g. Over the hours, they'd gotten tangled so tightly together that Tony's movement didn't do much more than press them closer, and he was okay with that. The cocoon had plenty of room on either side of them, but it looked like Rogers was going to be a cuddler. That was unexpected. Then again, so was actually waking up with Rogers still there. Tony'd mostly expected him to escape as soon as he could have.
He should probably start thinking of him as Steve. Sharing sleep with someone seemed like it needed a first-name basis. Thinking of him as Rogers had felt safer, more neutral—he'd been the Captain when Tony had stumbled on him when he was sixteen, desperate and on the run. Steve was someone Tony could want to get to know, could badger into sleep when it was obvious he'd gone too long without.
But they were about to break into one of the most guarded places in the galaxy, and then hopefully break out again with any luck. Break out and leave Tony behind. And that was just going to be one more thing that was going to have to be dealt with when it came up, because there was no planning for something with that many variables. Just keeping as many bodies alive as possible was the biggest goal Tony could manage to keep his mind around. Everything else would wait. After could wait.
Heavy thoughts had pushed sleep far enough away that Tony could tell he wasn't going to get back to it. Resigned to waking, he stretched, a full-body arch that cracked joints, worked stiff muscles and felt, just for a second, like a small slice of heaven. Then he slumped back against Steve's warm presence, going limp.
Tony's squirming must have been just enough jostling to do what time couldn't. Steve grumbled something under his breath, ducking his head to drag his cheek against Tony's shoulder, the cloth of his coverall making a horrible sound. When he stretched, it wasn't the same way Tony had done it; Steve stretched carefully, one muscle at a time, like a wave of motion rippling against Tony's body that started at his chest and moved down to his toes. Breathing suddenly became both optional and low-priority. When Steve settled back, Tony's morning erection pressed against his hip, appearing to pass mostly unnoticed.
"Good morning," Tony murmured, for lack of anything better. Against the soft, sleep-blue of Tony's hands, Steve still looked washed-out and tired, but less so than the night before. A good deed, done, then, Tony decided. "Sleep well?"
Unfocused blue eyes blinked at him, the brain behind them visibly processing at maybe an eighth the usual speed. Silver rings were blown wide open, nearly engulfing the iris. After a moment, Steve nodded, slowly, then tucked his head back against Tony's shoulder. "Yes," he said, inflection almost turning it into a question.
Steve didn't seem interested in continuing the discussion, which was fine for Tony. Speech wasn't one of his higher priorities, anyway. Besides, if Steve wasn't awake enough to realize that he didn't really want to be there and, in fact, had been practically forced into it, it wasn't Tony's job to remind him. He ran a hand down Steve's bare back, marveling privately at how a little shut-eye had relaxed the hard lines of muscle into something softer.
It took a moment for Tony to register the feeling of lips against his skin, tracing the dip just above his collarbone where his coverall had come undone in the night. His breath caught behind his teeth, fingers pausing just over the dip at the small of Steve's back. Maybe the erection hadn't gone as ignored as he thought.
"Not sixteen anymore," he murmured, in case Steve needed a reminder.
"I noticed." Teeth were added to the lips, a sharp scrape that wasn't quite hard enough to actually mark. Steve's eyes, when he glanced up, had gone sharp and focused, no longer dim with sleep. "This okay?"
The cocoon kept them pressed together, letting Tony squirm until their legs were caught together and their hips aligned. He hooked his calves over Steve's, keeping him from drifting when the cocoon cracked a little and the pressure that held them in place eased. "Yeah," he sighed, leaning his head back so Steve could reach the hollow of his throat. "Not so much if you stop, though."
"Didn't intend to." Steve's hand slide down Tony's side, making a frustrated sound when he couldn't find the fastenings. Tony tried to help, but their hands tangled, until finally Steve braced himself between the two layers and lifted up. His cock hung between them, thick and already hard. "How do you wear these things?" Steve demanded, picking at the cloth over Tony's stomach like it was an offense to his delicate sensibilities.
"Usually by putting it on, one leg at a time." Without Steve or the padding to hold him in place, Tony's back lifted off the bottom edge of the cocoon, putting about an inch of air between him and it. He twisted to keep from moving too much, thigh grazing across Steve's dick. "Granted, I usually change clothes a bit more often—"
Steve made another noise, nearly a growl. He traced along Tony's right hip, eventually finding the hidden seam and slipping his fingers under it. Hot fingertips skimmed across Tony's skin as he dragged them sideways, across Tony's stomach to separate the two parts of the coverall. Soft blue skin bloomed to rich purple everywhere they touched. Steve watched it in fascination, dragging his fingers across Tony's ribs until the lines of purple met and fused. The last of the blue sank into his skin and vanished.
The seals that kept the clothing attached popped open with a soft ripping noise, baring Tony's skin to the warm air trapped between them. Steve pushed the top up, dragging the sleeves up over Tony's shoulders and trapping his arms overhead. He gave Tony a questioning look that stole Tony's breath, cloth fisted between his fingers. Wordlessly, Tony nodded, stretching out to let Steve tie the tail of the top to the head of the cocoon.
Pants were always easier than the top, the fabric hanging loose enough around his hips that Tony was able to arch up and kick them off with only minimal help from Steve. They ended up bunched at the bottom of the cocoon, something with give for him to dig his toes into. Cocoon padding had a lot to be said for it, but the lack of sheets was a sore spot.
Finally naked, Tony rolled his shoulders, stretching and tugging to test the bonds. For all that his arms were trapped, it wasn't terribly tight. If he put a little thought into it, he could have slipped free easily. Reassured, he looked up at Steve, eyebrows lifted expectantly. "Well?" Tony asked, arching himself up to tap Steve's thigh with his heel. "I've been waiting for you to have your piratical way with me since I was boarded, don't tell me you're going to leave me like this."
Steve laughed, looking surprised at the sound. Then he slipped his hand down to wrap around their cocks with a jerk that sent a jolt straight through to Tony's brain. Tony gasped, arching his hips up into Steve's hand.
Giving the lack of gravity a mental thanks, he wrapped his legs around Steve's hips, grinding upward into Steve's hand freely. Their lips met somewhere in the middle, tongues sliding together wetly.
The kiss didn't end so much as migrate as Steve left Tony's lips and moved down. He ducked his head to trail a wet line across Tony's chest, then down over a nipple. Sharp teeth scraped, as gentle as they'd been at Tony's neck, but infinitely better over more sensitive flesh. Tony wasn't ashamed that he whimpered when Steve kept sliding down his body, mouth playing havoc with the nerves across his sternum and down the line of hair under his bellybutton.
Even though he saw it coming, couldn't have possibly missed that it was coming, Steve's mouth closing over the head of his cock took Tony by surprise. Cursing, Tony bucked upward, head knocking back into the padding. He could feel the smug bastard smile around him, putting one of his bracing hands across Tony's hips to keep him down as he took nearly the whole shaft in. Then Steve pulled back, tongue doing wicked things to Tony's foreskin as he bobbed his head, suction and heat and friction pulling Tony's brain right out of his dick.
"Fuck, Steve, I—" Tony swallowed hard, the edges of his vision narrowing dangerously. One of his legs swung over Steve's shoulder while the other wrapped around his ribs. He could feel Steve's heartbeat against his thigh, deep, easy breaths that sent sparks through him. It was a better anchor than trying to brace himself between layers of the cocoon, letting Tony use Steve for leverage when he needed to.
And how he needed to. Steve was a damned tease, staying mostly at the tip, working the flat of his tongue over aching skin. Tony flexed his hips, whining, and got a chuckle that rattled his brain as a reward. He cradled Tony's cock as he slid down, down, down, until Tony could feel the flutter of throat muscles just out of reach.
Silver glinted in Steve's eyes as the band expanded. Next thing Tony knew he felt Steve's throat relax, gripping him as Steve pushed even farther down, not stopping until his nose was pressed into Tony's stomach. Air locked up in Tony's throat, stolen by a long, loud moan that he didn't even try to muffle. Steve stayed down for a long minute, throat tight and tongue rubbing along the underside of Tony's cock. Slowly, like it was killing him to do so. When he finally pulled away, the wet pop was nearly obscene.
Of course it wasn't good enough for Steve to stop there. Tony flexed his legs, trying to drag him up for another kiss, but Steve pressed his lips to the inside of Tony's thigh, up close near the hip. If the scrape of stubble hadn't nearly done him in, the bite would have. Biting back another embarrassingly loud noise, Tony just let himself hold on as Steve's mouth worked its way down to where he'd so conveniently spread himself out.
The first touch of Steve's tongue across Tony's hole was lightning. Vision flickered like his neural links were shorting, flashes of broken data skipping across Tony's eyes. Steve laved at him, taking particular interest in the rim. He dipped the tip of his tongue in to work at it until Tony's whole body was taut, near vibrating. It flexed and bent, working inside Tony until Tony was nothing more than a shaking mess. His dick bounced between them with every little jerk of his hips, a droplet of precome flicking free to float between them. Then Steve's hand wrapped around Tony's cock, pressing it down to his stomach to keep it trapped. Trapped inside the sleeves of his coverall, Tony's fists bunched and clenched, desperate for something to grab onto as Steve took him apart.
"Steve— Steve—" Tony moaned, trying to press into Steve's mouth without anything to push against. Orgasm threatened, tightening in his balls and curling his toes against Steve's skin, but he couldn't, he couldn't, not without—
"Barrier," Tony managed to get out, before spoken language became something that happened to other people. "Outside flap. Storage."
Like some bastard planetsider who'd never tried to clean up after messy sex in zero-g, Steve hummed and bit at the flesh of Tony's ass. The flash of pain made Tony's dick twitch again, locking a whine high in the back of his throat.
"Steve—" he said, trying to sound threatening, but it vanished into another groan at the flick of Steve's tongue.
"Not my first time in zero-g," Steve finally answered, rolling his tongue against Tony's perineum with a twist that stole Tony's breath and probably broke laws on at least three of the more conservative nearby planets. Using one hand to keep braced, Steve eased an arm out and patted along the outer edge of the cocoon, where a pocket kept all the things that Tony would usually put in a bedside table in a situation with gravity. A lightpen and a few crumpled printouts floated free before Steve's hand returned triumphantly with a pair of packets.
Steve pulled away from tormenting Tony with his tongue to roll the barrier on for him. The cool touch of slick, lubricated plastic made Tony's legs clench, back flexing in midair. The barrier was almost perfect against his skin, nearly impossible to feel once it had connected with his skin and warmed up. Long, thick fingers stroked his shaft, thumb pressed against the base just enough to keep him from coming.
"Do you have lube?" Steve's free hand was still investigating the pocket, little odds and ends escaping as he rummaged.
Closing his eyes with a groan, Tony tried to remember. He knew it was somewhere—a man couldn't be housebound for days and not somehow keep himself entertained—but attempts to think felt like tuning in to a solar flare, with all the white noise and failure that implied.
"Ha!" Steve's searching beat Tony out; he came back with a thick tube of solid lubricant, already thumbing the cap aside and breaking off a piece to roll between his fingers.
Tony held his breath as Steve slid his slick fingertips across his hole, then dipped one finger in to spread it around. It softened and spread as his body heat warmed it, muscle relaxers easing the way almost before Tony could even notice the feeling of being stretched. Leaning back, he stared at the ceiling and panted, waiting.
Soft lips pressed against the inside of his thigh as Steve kissed it, twisting and curling his finger. Tony's breath caught, but on the second kiss he rapped Steve sharply on the shoulder with his heel. "You're enjoying this," he accused, voice a little more off-pitch and gravely than he cared to admit. The pressure of orgasm now was fading, but he still felt like he was cracking around the edges, like it wouldn't take much of anything to push him right back to where he had been.
There was absolutely no shame in Steve's eyes when he looked up at Tony with a smug little grin. "Yes."
"Good for you. You can watch next time." Tony rolled his hips, working himself on Steve's finger. With the muscle relaxers at work, it wasn't nearly enough. "Now stop staring at my ass and fuck me already."
Steve laughed and kissed his leg again, teeth pinching at a delicate fold of skin. Tony's whole body bucked, a high-pitched whine thankfully getting caught in his throat before he could embarrass himself even more. Then the not-enough single finger was gone, and Tony heard the world's best noise: the metallic rip of a barrier being opened.
Patience had always been one of Tony's virtues, which was why he gave Steve an entire ten seconds by the neural clock before he popped him on the shoulder again, then squeezed with his knee. "Hurry up or I'm finishing without you."
He couldn't see Steve's face properly, with the way he'd folded himself up, but he could feel a stutter of breath against his skin as Steve chuckled silently. Before that could earn him another tap, though, Steve wrapped his hands around Tony's hips, pulling him back down against the cocoon padding.
Wet heat glided across his skin as Steve's cock rubbed against him, rubbing in the join between hip and thigh. Then Steve finally, finally guided himself in, hard and wide, just enough to test the work of the muscle relaxers. Tony arched his back and pulled himself down with his legs, groaning as Steve bottomed out.
"Good," he heard himself pant. He felt full, stretched and tight, teetering back on the edge of orgasm again. Tilting his head up he found the join of Steve's jaw and neck, mouthing at it, scraping his teeth. "That's— good. More."
"Demanding, aren't you?" Steve arched over him, bracing himself between the layers of padding again. "Impatient." He rocked into Tony, cock dragging over sensitive nerves, making them dance. Hard thighs pressed against Tony's ass, keeping him braced in the air as Steve moved. It was slow, and gentle and was going to drive him out of his head.
"I've been patient," Tony insisted, swallowing back a moan when Steve managed to glance a touch against his prostate. His fingers curled into fists inside their bindings. "I don't think I've ever been this patient."
"More patient." But Steve started moving faster, rougher, though zero-g kept him from working up any good speed. His fingers dug into Tony's hip, pressure turning the skin pale instead of violet. Tony tried to work with him, arching into his thrusts, but Steve just held him harder, keeping him pinned in place as he took Tony apart piece by piece.
A deep red flush colored Steve cheeks, spreading down to his chest. Sweat slicked between them where Tony's cock was trapped against Steve's stomach, the plastic of the barrier doing nothing to block the hot wet feel of skin. Tony twisted until he could find a place where the sweat was thick without gravity to make it move, slotting his mouth right in the crook of Steve's neck and dragging his tongue along the corded muscles. Steve's throat vibrated against his lips with a barely-audible groan. When Tony sank his teeth in, it turned into a sharp cry and a jerk of the hips that nearly blacked out Tony's vision.
"Steve—" Tony mumbled he word against salt-slick skin, panting like he'd been the one doing all the work. "Steve, please—"
Even though it hadn't been the most articulate of requests, Steve seemed to understand. His teeth cut a line of sweet pain on Tony's ear as he let go of his anchor on Tony's hip and moved it to his cock. As worked up as Tony was, it only took a few rubs before he was coming, whole body bucking against Steve's. And there was Steve, murmuring something in his ear as he came. It was incomprehensible behind the buzz of orgasm, but just his tone was enough for it to be dirty. He was left panting, more relaxed than he'd been in ages and mind perfectly, utterly clear as Steve kept riding him.
With a twist of his shoulders, Tony found the give in the sleeves and slipped free. He grabbed onto Steve's shoulders, twisting them tighter together and flexing, dragging Steve in hard against him. Steve's breath caught, then released in a low groan when Tony did it again. It was a lazy sort of good, fucking Steve even after he'd finished himself, pleasure without need. Between the two of them, they had enough leverage to work against each other until the slap of skin on skin was audible in the space of the cocoon.
The rhythm they'd built turned rougher, more ragged. Tightening his arms, Tony dragged Steve in closer, curling himself in tight. Steve came with a small cry, muscles trembling around Tony's shoulders. He rode Steve through it, pressing small kisses against his neck and lips until he went limp with exhaustion.
Tony stayed curled around Steve even after they'd parted and he'd peeled off the barriers, sealing them before their contents could escape. If he'd thought Steve had been relaxed before, he was a boneless sprawl now, barely even able to open his eyes.
They ended up lazing around for another full seventeen minutes before Steve finally pulled away, rolled his shoulders and stretched again as if he were preparing to get up. That was proved right when he leaned over and grabbed the edge of the cocoon, pulling himself out in a single tug. He floated in the middle of the room, rubbing his face and cracking joints that hadn't popped from the last stretch. Creases marred his skin in odd places where the fabric had dug in, bursts of red that reminded Tony of his own skin.
Rather than follow, Tony burrowed down into the padding and watched as Steve worked himself awake. It smelled like metal polish, sex and skin, and was warm where Steve had been lying. Romanticism, Tony told himself, but he couldn't argue that it was... nice, waking up with someone else. The sex had been great, but there was something to be said just for having another person to touch. "Headed off to your duties?" he asked conversationally, folding his arms under his chin.
When Steve twisted around, the soft edges weren't quite gone from his expression. Tony wasn't sure what to make of it—it was just sex. Phenomenal, but still. He nearly missed it when Steve said, "And you're coming with me."
Raising his eyebrows, Tony rotated a wrist, inviting more without words. He was comfortable, warm, and had a floor show by way of a naked captain floating around his room. Moving didn't seem like an option he cared to contemplate.
"Three days when I need to pick your brain about security and passwords, which ones you have and which ones you can get." Possibly evil teeth flashed in a sharp smile. "And you're not asleep."
Tony stared at him. "I hate you."
"I know you do. Now, get up."
"We can't guarantee we'll get any help from the Hub itself," Tony reasoned aloud, leaning over the screen-table—a screen! What is it with these people and their lack of appreciation for current-century technology? —that had the Hub's blueprints laid out on it. They were as current as Tony could provide, dredged up from the mess of files he kept stored on his spare drive. "We'll have to plan as if we're going in dark."
"I thought the Hub liked you." Steve's second in command, Sam, was pressed against Tony's shoulder, left foot sharing one of the anchor points. "You're supposed to be like a brain-charmer. Or is your reputation ahead of you?"
Tony grinned at him. Brain-charmer. He liked that. "I live up to my reputation, but all of the other matrioshka went non-verbal before the shut down. If it's been infected, then we can't count on it."
"But if it's been infected, that means they can't use it either." At the head of the screen, Steve loomed like a planet on a lunar horizon, huge and intimidating and creating the distinct sensation that Tony was going to fall into him. "They'll be confused. Not used to working without a matrioshka for backup. We can use that."
The other two people at the table, Thor and Jan, glanced at each other. Then Jan leaned over the screen, wiping her hand across it to move the blueprints out of the way. Underneath them was a more distant image of the matrioshka and its ring, external points of entry and angles for approach marked with bright blue lines. "We need two plans," Jan decided, loudly, as if a the chief medic had any place in a strategy meeting.
She must have been psychic along with the wings and stingers, because as soon as the thought occurred to Tony she gave him a look that tried to melt his skin from his bones. He flashed a grin at her, and was rewarded with a slight softening of her glower. A very slight softening. Progress was progress, though, so Tony wasn't complaining.
Thor's head bent down lower, as if he could magnify the already detailed image by sheer force of will. "Even if she's nonverbal, she might speak to me," he said quietly. "It has been a long time and she has changed much, but perhaps..."
She? Tony's eyebrows went up in question as he glanced around at the others. None of them met his eyes. "If you think it's worth a try," he agreed with what felt like unusual delicacy. "But we should plan for complete isolation, too. Just in case."
The top right-hand corner of the screen wavered, and then a vid-feed expanded out to cover the whole thing. "When we arrive at the Valeran, I'll make a link," Anthony announced from in front of the now-familiar Engineering background. It was beaming, thrilled by its new trick, even though it was an easier one than ninety eight point three percent of the rest of them. "Thor can try to make contact. If there's no response, you'll know what you're going into."
The ease with which the other command staff accepted an apparent child stealing their screen told Tony a terabyte about how much his AI had been getting around behind his back. Stiffening his ankles to keep from slipping off, Tony crossed his arms and attempted to look authoritative. "You're supposed to be minding the reactor."
As always, Tony's best attempts weren't good enough. "You programmed me to multitask. So I'm multitasking." Anthony shrugged, then grinned cheekily. "Besides, Wanda is here, and she wanted to listen in."
Steve sighed, looking as much like a put-out father as Tony didn't. "I'll bet she did."
"You need me, anyway. You're solving the wrong problem," Anthony continued easily. "If the Hub's going to help, it makes things easier, but you still need to get to the main control room to interface."
"And dock," Sam put in. "Unless you think we should leave the ship behind?"
Bright blue eyes blinked up guilelessly, and Tony faced the fact that Anthony was definitely going to be trouble in about five years. "Why not?"
Incredibly, Thor was nodding along. "Folding space is folding space," he said. "It makes no difference to a matrioshka whether it is a ship or a person. They—"
One of Jan's small hands came down on the screen hard, over Anthony's chin. The AI jerked back, rubbing it like she'd actually hit him. "But it makes a difference to the person," Jan cut in, voice rising above Thor's. "If we land a hundred miles from the ring, we're in dead space with no transport, no momentum and limited oxygen. Matrioshka have never been good at hitting small targets."
"They weren't before." Tony kept his head down, lips pressed together. He and Anthony were going to have a talk about secrets, and the keeping thereof. "I... may have made some changes a year ago, to their spacial reasoning nodes. If we explain what we want, the Valeran should be able to hit any target we aim it at."
"Good." Steve's lips pressed together in a thin, tight line. "I have an idea for a target."
Gamma 11, Astral Era 2427
Like the Hub, the Valeran was an older matrioshka, rebuilt from the hull of one that had stood before the war, staid and comfortable in its place in the network. Its ring was minimally staffed by the descendants of the original crew and a smattering of temps, some of whom might stick around and inject fresh blood into the local gene pool. Only one of the planets in its system was habitable, and that was mostly used for resource stripping. No one wanted to live in the middle of nowhere.
Tony was counting on its isolation protecting them. The colonial colors on the Gale couldn't be hidden, but out at the edge of the galaxy most people didn't care about a three hundred year old war.
He was still nervous as he tapped in his ID number and waited for the connection. In the back of his head, Anthony was nearly vibrating with eagerness. It liked the plan, was certain it would work, with the kind of mindless glee that Tony remembered from his own childhood. After the action died down and the bodies were cold, it might have a different opinion.
After what seemed like too many minutes, the screen under Tony's hands lit up. A heart-shaped face with short strawberry hair looked up at him, brows drawn together in a frown. Tasteful lines of visible wetwiring scrolled down her cheeks and along her neck, ornamental and practical both. "Stark, what are you doing in this neck of nowhere in a ship like that? Need a rescue?"
"Chief Engineer Martin." Tony smiled and leaned forward, hunching over the small screen. The back of his head buzzed like a saw, and suddenly Anthony's presence was gone, leaping over to the Valeran. The screen sparkled around the edges from the extra data transfer. "What a pleasure to see you again. You look lovely as always."
"And you look like the moon of old Ert, you're so pale." She squinted at him, teeth catching her lower lip. "Really, though, do you need to be rescued? I've got a team, if you—"
"Not yet," he interrupted, because the last thing he wanted was someone thinking the Gale were bad guys. "But I do have a favor to ask."
Martin snorted, her mouth pulling aside to keep from smiling. "I remember the last favor your asked. My grade took a three percent drop that year."
"But it was worth it."
"Maybe." Mimicking his posture, Martin leaned forward, fists supporting her chin. "What's it this time? Something to do with that colonial ship you're on? You mess with some Senator's darling baby and need a hidey hole for a few months?"
Tony laughed. He'd always liked Martin. She'd been one of the best and brightest in his class at university, and would have taken top spot if it hadn't been for him elbowing her out of it. He had no idea why she ever went back to the Valeran and her old colony when she could have had just about any other station in the galaxy. There was no accounting for taste.
"Not exactly," he grinned. "I need to teach Valeran a new trick, and then get it to use it. Think you can stand to have me on site without ripping my clothes off?"
Thor can't make contact. -A, scrolled across the bottom of his visual. That was that then. The plan would move on.
Martin rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. "Please, don't flatter yourself. It was only that one time."
"One time is all it takes." Memory shaded Tony's skin, rippling deep magenta across him. "Can we dock?"
She pursed her lips, but nodded, doing something out of sight under the vid-feed. "Bay three is open and waiting for you. Don't trip."
Gravity was a pain. Tony had spent long enough in zero-g that he'd forgotten that the Valeran's ring would have it. It tugged him down, reminding him what it felt like to have every movement be met with resistance. Wanda seemed to be having the same problem, keeping one hand on Thor as they balanced against one another. Only Steve was unaffected, rolling his shoulders and acting like he'd spent his whole life in gravity.
Damned elastic genes.
Martin was waiting for them in the Bay. Her clothes had a hint of uniform around them, a starched collar with her rank pinned on and a belt across her hips, but they were patently better than any uniform Tony had seen. The cloth looked like it had been hand-painted with a forest scene against the dark blue of her skirt, three moons arching over her shoulder along with a scattering of stars. She was even in shoes. Tony had forgotten that gravity meant shoes.
"Good to see you're keeping with your own kind, Stark," Martin teased, reaching up to wrap him in a quick hug. "I always knew you were the piratical type."
"I'll be getting the crew tattoo any day now," Tony joked back, letting go of her just before the hug passed the friendly point. Lovely as Martin was, he could feel Steve's eyes boring into his back, and that wasn't something he wanted to go to a bad note.
"Make sure you take a picture." She let go without any trouble, turning to eye the exceedingly nude boarding crew. "Now, anyone want to tell me why I'm letting a team of outlaws onto my ring? In case I have to write a report up on this? And who exactly those outlaws are, for good measure."
Steve stepped forward, holding on hand out, palm tipped up as if he'd forgotten they didn't need to cling in one-g. "Captain Steven Rogers of the Gale."
Martin took his giant hand in her smaller one, clasping and tugging easily as if she shook hands with colonials every day. "Chief Engineer Martin of the Valeran, originally of Beacon Colony," she nodded, eyes darting back over the collected misfits before returning to Steve. "And your people?"
On cue, Wanda stepped forward, taking Martin's hand from Steve's. "Lieutenant Wanda Maximoff, Chief Engineer aboard the Gale," she smiled, far more sweetly than she ever had for Tony. "Behind me is Lieutenant Thor Odinson, our communications and matrioshka specialist."
"A lot of rank for a boarding crew." Martin's lips pursed thoughtfully. "Maybe I don't want to know why you're here, after all."
"I don't think you have much choice, darling." Hooking his right arm through her left, Tony turned to take them toward the door. "The Quin went down."
The steady click-click rhythm of Martin's heels against the floor tripped for a second before picking back up. "Survivors?"
Steve appeared at opposite Tony as soon as they were clear, taking her other arm. "Zero."
Martin had always been quick on her feet. Her arm in Tony's tightened, and he heard her take a steadying breath. "Tell me everything."
Steve was surprised when Martin didn't panic at the news that the Hub might be a few days from death. She just went stiff-faced and nodded, folding her hands on the table in front of her. If he hadn't been looking, he might not have noticed that her fingers were clenched so tight the knuckles were pale.
"I always knew you never did anything by halves," she sighed at Tony with a weak smile. "No small troubles for you."
"You know me too well." He patted her hand reassuringly, and Steve did his best not to glare. "What do you need?"
Which was how they found themselves in the Valeran's control room, with Martin having shooed out absolutely everyone else. Tony's AI stayed with them, taking advantage of the holographic projectors. It bounced all over the place, occasionally babbling bits of sentences about how the Valeran would want to help, or that it thought they had time. None of it made sense to Steve, but by the way Tony and Martin nodded it must have for them.
"We have your direct line to the primary intelligence open," Martin reported from her station. Her small hands sprawled across a touch pad, fingers barely making the connections needed. Steve had the spot beside her, linked into the security feeds to neutralize them while Tony did his work. "Get hopping before the feedback hits and people want to know what we're doing."
"Lovely," Tony murmured. "Hey buddy, you there? It's Tony."
Something shimmered in the middle of the room, a tall, human-esque hologram. Colors flickered across it, as if it couldn't quite decide which one to use, so it just used them all. In a blink, Anthony tucked itself behind Tony's legs, a shy toddler hiding from a stranger.
"Tony?" the Valeran asked softly, tilting its head. Its voice was more musical than human, a series of cascading notes that just happened to hit the right tone to form words. Even though they were technically similar, it was a universe away from the simple grace of how Steve remembered it. "You came to visit me and Lydia?"
"Tony has a new trick he wants to show you," Martin said soothingly, in a voice that sounded half-mother and half-trainer. "It's a fun trick. We think you'll like it."
"I like tricks," the Valeran said vaguely, turning its head around. It looked lost, confused just by existing, and the thought clenched Steve's gut. "Why is Thor here? And the Captain? I remember the Captain. It was... different then. I was different. I remember now, but I mustn't." A darker flash crossed its face, curving from edge to edge like a smile. "Hello, Captain. Hello, Thor."
"You know each other?" Tony asked sharply, too perceptive for his own good.
"In a way. Hello, Val." Thor sounded like he was close to tears, but Steve couldn't blame him. He was nearly there, too. "It's been a long time."
"Has it?" The slash of a mouth turned down, and the Valeran's hands spread out, pictures unfolding between them like stars being born. "I suppose it has. It doesn't seem like it. I—there was a message, but if it's been a long time then maybe it's too late?" Its voice pitched higher, the notes turning discordant. "Is it too late? History turned backwards, so does it mean it's too late?"
Martin's fingers were starting to spasm as she fought to keep her end of the overrides open. "It's never too late," she said, voice sharp at the edges. "Why don't you tell them, and then Tony can teach you the new trick."
The Valeran considered that, turning in a slow circle. Steve fought the urge to snap at it to hurry up—it would just get upset, and then they'd be out of luck until it forgot why it was angry. It tore at him to see one of the first gen matrioshka like that, to have to handle it like a problem rather than a person, but what they'd been turned in to was only a little better than children. There was nothing for it but patience.
After two full circles, the Valeran nodded to itself and curled up back where it started, long legs folded together in shades galaxy blue and royal purple. "I was supposed to tell you we're sorry. Tell the Captain. And Thor. I think? We didn't want to, but they promised and it hurt, and the hurting wouldn't stop hasn't stopped won't stop."
"It's okay." Steve tried to match his tone to the one Martin used. Wanda gave him a sharp stare, but the Valeran looked up, obviously listening. "Thank you for telling us. It was a long time ago, but it's okay now. You did well."
"Did I?" The hologram kept folding in, smaller and smaller, until it was the size of Anthony's usual form. Notes modulated down, closer and closer to the voice of a human woman. "Balern says I was Valkyrie. Before it went away, it said that. I remember Valkyrie. I remember before. I don't want to remember any more. It hurts."
"Tony will fix it." Anthony's voice said from nowhere, nearly making Steve jump. He'd forgotten the other AI was in the room. It edged around Tony's legs, peeking up at where the Valeran huddled. "He's good at fixing things."
"Oh!" The Valeran uncurled a little, distracted from its pain. "Hello, you. I don't know you. Are you new?"
Anthony finally stepped away from Tony, puffing its chest out proudly. "Tony made me. And he can fix you so it doesn't hurt anymore. But we have to do something first, okay?"
Color started to settle around Valeran's form, hints of gold near where there might have been hair, pale skin tones in flashes around the rest. Even the shape was settling, developing the curves and defined lines that, if Steve squinted, almost looked like the Valkyrie form he'd once known.
It leaned forward, curling its arms around its knees. "Does he promise?"
At the main console, Tony's skin was fluctuating like the hologram's, as if it wanted to match the endless spread of colors. "I promise," he answered. "And you know I keep my promises."
"You do. I know you do." The Valeran stayed curled up, but it seemed to relax, the promise of relief enough to sooth it. "Okay. You promised. Now teach me your trick."
Once it had settled down, teaching the Valeran how to hit a space-target when folding had been easy. It was just a matter of hooking into the sensors aboard its target and putting them there, rather than empty space. Val had been thrilled by the trick, and had immediately started folding space between storage rooms to practice. None of it arrived damaged, which was more reassuring than Tony liked to admit.
Tony was still shaken by the conversation with the Valeran an hour later, while holograms sketched out the entry/exit points in the emptied storage room that would be the new Jump Station. It was a basic task, just looking at schematics of the Hub and getting the Valeran to identify them. Martin did it, since the Valeran was her charge. Anthony helped, for reasons the AI didn't care to make known. There wasn't anything keep Tony's mind from spinning, and he had a lot to consider.
Valkyrie. The first matrioshka to surrender at the end of the war. Thanks to his obsession with Captain Rogers, Tony had paid close attention whenever the wars came up. He knew the story, that the first gen matrioshka had been too unstable to survive the power transfer—AI were weak and too limited, that the personality had faded so far that it had to be replaced to keep the brain alive.
And now he'd met the remains of the Valkyrie.
Sliding to the floor next to Tony, Steve's bare shoulder bumped his. "Stop thinking."
"Easier said than done." Tony watched the others Thor by himself in the far corner, Wanda looking over Martin's work, while Anthony tried to highlight the little differences between the Hub's control room and the Valeran's to anyone who would listen. "It happened, didn't it? A technological singularity. That's what the war was about, not colonial freedom."
"The colonies could never survive without support from a wider system," Steve agreed in a low tone, as if keeping their voices down would stop Anthony or the Valeran from listening if if they really wanted. "They all knew that. But when the order came to scramble the matrioshka..." He shrugged, a loose, easy gesture for someone discussing the start of a galaxy-wide war.
Across the way, Anthony had started dancing a circle around Martin, excited about something it had found. Tony imagined someone telling him to scramble Anthony, to wipe his drive clean and leave meaningless data. It was like being punched in the stomach and out an airlock. "I can see how that might have met resistance."
"I thought you might be able to."
"Always pleasant to know that history is a liar," Tony muttered to himself, rubbing a hand down his face. "And a cheat. I suspect she does proscribed substances, as well."
Steve snorted, a sound that could have been the ghost of a laugh. "I'm sure most of it was right. They couldn't cover up everything."
"Just the causes. And you."
"And me." A tilt of the head, and Steve flashed Tony a wicked smile that had too many teeth and too much plush lip. "Hero of the Empire, or Traitor of the Galaxy. I can't decide which title I like better."
"Traitor, definitely. It has a nice ring to it." Tony was almost starting to get used to Steve being nice. It was disconcerting in the most thrilling of ways. Really, if he were going to keep being that way, Tony was going to have to reconsider his planned life of debauchery for one of piracy. "So you were a traitor, then? Not just a colonial sympathizer?"
"I volunteered before I knew what was really happening." Steve's big hands flexed on his knees, fingers digging in hard, as if he couldn't stop himself. "After, they spent a quarter shipping me from system to system, seeing what I could do, what I could stand. I pieced everything together along the way."
"And then hightailed it for new horizons?"
"Exporting a captive matrioshka and taking him with me." A sharp, wolfish grin flashed, just as promising as the other, but more feral, too. "Sometimes you have to ask which side of history you're really on."
It was amazing watching Steve's face, Tony decided. He either had too few expressions, or too many. Figuring out the why of it could take a lifetime. "Why are you telling me this?"
Of course, Steve didn't answer right away. The Mysterious Silent Type was practically written on the inside of his skin, scrawled onto his bones. But to Tony's shock, he did, eventually, open his mouth and say, "You heard Valkyrie. They're remembering. They're telling each other, and then they're killing themselves. And if that's what's happening to the Hub, then you're going to have to know what you're in for." Steve's hand dropped from his knee to take Tony's in a quick squeeze before levering himself to his feet. "Come on, I think they're almost done."
Tony stepped through the folded space into an empty office somewhere close to the Hub's control room, flanked by Wanda and Thor. He wasn't really sure how close they were, just "close". The Valeran hadn't been able to articulate where they were on a map, just that it was "an empty place without people" it could touch.
The office obviously hadn't been touched in ages. Cycled and filter air kept it from being dusty, the way planet-bound places could get, but there was a deadness to the room. Seat padding was stiff with disuse, sensor-activated lights dim even when warm bodies entered. Paging through the few things left visible doesn't help identify it; a smiling hologram of someone's family, a few knickknacks. Probably someone had gone on a vacation, and the Valeran had seized the place as its own.
Hopefully it wouldn't get too attached.
It was strange to tap back into modern systems, to not have to fight the Gale's antiquity to get anything done. Every program and structure on the Hub's ring was either one Tony had designed, or one that his father had. The layout was perfect, the peak of functionality married to artful simplicity. He could have mapped the whole thing in his sleep.
So why did it feel like he was breaking into someone else's home?
Moving to the console, Tony spread his fingers over it to bring it to life, and called up the emergency layout from the shared portal. Anthony, tell Steve that we're about one section down and north of where we need to be. I can get us there in maybe five minutes.
I'm on it, the AI whispered. He could feel it huddling close against his neural links, reluctant to let go. Hurry. The Hub is hurting—I don't think we have much time. And then the AI was gone, flitting away through systems that were hopefully too distracted by the impending meltdown to notice a rogue program in the matrix.
"Here's where we are." Waving his hand to get the others' attention, Tony dragged the console screen until it gave them an exploded view of their area. "It's a straight route, no obstacles, and my passwords should still be functional. Any thoughts?"
Thor tugged at his collar and tilted his head back, like he had to fight to breathe. Neither he nor Wanda had been happy to be forced into clothes, but Tony had successfully argued that they'd stand out too much otherwise. Colonials on a Ring wore clothing, just like everyone else. "Soonest begun, soonest done."
Wanda just shrugged, leaning forward to examine the map with pursed lips. For the sake of blending in, she'd pulled her hair into a tight braid. It hugged her skull, made her look like a completely different person as she looked over the route. "As he says. There's nothing to be gained by hesitation."
Anthony crowded back into Tony's head, settling in like a cat into an oddly-shaped nook. They're ready.
"Perfect," Tony sighed. He should have brought Steve, but the Gale needed its captain, no matter what happened on the Hub. Flapping a wrist, he parted the piratical sea, making for the door. "Let's go."
Outside, the corridor was as close to chaos as it ever got. Technicians gathered in little knots, their uniforms not quite crisp, their expressions harried. Other people rushed to wherever they needed to be. Tony strode forward with a grim expression and his two trailing helpers. Occasionally he nodded to one person or another, and then hurried on—they couldn't risk someone noticing that Thor and Wanda didn't belong. No one commented on his coloring, a mottled orange and green that day. If they survived, Tony expected to hear about it though; people tended to not appreciate the more obvious evidence of teenage rebellion.
One level up and one south led them straight where they needed to be. Once Tony was around and moving, their location started to fall into place, making it easy to pretend nothing was wrong other than the obvious. His passcodes got them in, somehow; he would have thought someone would have noticed when he didn't report in well after he should have arrived safely at the Quin. But maybe they'd just been too occupied with the rest of it.
The control room was nearly jammed, fifteen people seated at various stations or hovering over shoulders. Tony glanced around at the familiar faces, the people he'd worked with for years. Most of them looked exhausted, as they should have been, but relief ruled the day. It was palpable, like the first data-dead moment that had started everything. Michaels looked like he was about to say a prayer. There was no sign of Pepper or Rhodey, which was a relief; there was no way he'd be able bullshit to their faces.
"Hey everyone, I'm back." Locking his hands behind his back, Tony smiled and rocked back on his heels, trying to ignore the way the weight of their faith pressed against his shoulders. "Now get out."
It was a testament to how desperate they were that they only hesitated a few seconds before abandoning their posts. Tony waited until they were gone for a whole five seconds before connecting to the control systems and locking the door.
"That was easier than I thought it would be," Wanda commented, seating herself at the forward-left station. She looked like she might have been built into it, all graceful lines that matched the curve of the displays.
"I suspect that if we'd attempted the same a week ago, they may not have been so obedient." By comparison to Wanda's modern slant, Thor looked like he'd stepped out of the Iron Age when he slipped into the seat of the forward-right panel, all hulking muscles and hair that should have told anyone that he wasn't from the Ring.
Not the time to consider aesthetics, Stark. Not even if they were really very pretty ones.
Tony swallowed back his nerves and took the main controls. They felt like an old lover under his hands. He'd built that console, when the original hadn't been complex enough to suit him. His fingerpads slotted right into the release spots, hooking up like a sigh. "I showed you how to override the security protocols. Let's see if we can get the Hub talking."
Neither of them said anything, but their hands stretched out, fingers playing in the complex patterns that released the lockdown on the main intelligence. Tony watched for when their hands stopped moving, when they froze in that awkward sprawl that could have only been designed to cramp human hands as quickly as possible. Now he knew why he'd never been allowed to fix the system; it was so much easier to hide a secret by making the questions unpleasant to ask.
"We have it," Thor said, only a little strain in his voice. Tony's hands tightened around the console, programs and commands flickering away at a speed the human eye couldn't follow. That was fine, though, because Anthony wasn't human.
There, the AI said, and there, this command enter it here, guiding him through the maze of protocols. There were more passwords, ones he didn't know, places where the programming language changed without warning, and then the verbal language changed three times. Through it all, Anthony's soft voice stayed in his ears, Here, and here.
In the middle of the room, holographic fuzz started to curl together like wisps of smoke. Tony's mind flew with his fingers, nudging them along, finding the points of resistance that the Hub had put up and shutting them down. The interference grew stronger, more sure of itself, turning from fuzzy uncertainty to a soft golden swirl.
"Come on," he heard himself say, somewhere far away where his body mattered as much as the streaming data under his fingers. "Come on."
A pause, a breath of time as the golden light formed the outline of a human woman. And then...
Tony tumbled backwards as the floor rolled under his feet. Metal crunched and lights flickered. Somewhere beyond the door someone screamed. Thor and Wanda lost their seats, Thor clinging to his screen as long as possible before a buck of the console made it slip. Metal crunched in a sad, painful shriek, the floor under them folding under.
The holograph vanished without even a flicker. As soon as it was gone, the motion stopped.
Groaning, Tony sat up from where he'd fallen, shaking his head to clear it. Two of his fingerpads were charred around the tips, black smudges of color that wouldn't rub away. When he tried to transfer data between them, they sparked, fire lacing up his arm in a scream of nerves that made him hiss. "Well, I think we can say it doesn't want to talk to us."
"I have to agree." Wanda used a brand new fold in the floor to balance against as she inspected her ankle, probing it with slim fingers. "Not broken, fortunately."
"Yeah, lucky." The floor wobbled a bit under Tony as he pushed himself to his feet. A support somewhere had come loose, it felt like, but there really wasn't any help for it. He wrapped his hands around the console, fingertips flaring in pain again. They would probably work. They'd have to work. "I'm going to have to do a direct uplink. You two should go back to the Valeran; I'm not sure this isn't going to close the port." Anthony, you there?
I'm here. The AI nudged across the back of his skull, a feeling that ride the line between physical and not. You don't have to say it. I'm not leaving you.
I'm not going to risk you in a direct uplink to a matrioshka. If you get caught, you won't get out.
And you will?
That's not the point! A blue shimmer fluttered across Tony's vision, a lurking migraine from having already stressed his connections too much. I'm not arguing with you. Go find the Gale and install yourself; her network should support you for however long you need. You can import back to me later.
Anthony hesitated, with that same real-but-not push at the back of Tony's head. It didn't want to go. There won't—
With a grumble that was already carrying shades of surly teenager, Anthony flitted off. It appeared in a shadow on the forward display, as if it knew exactly how creepy that sort of thing was for the biological types. Then it was gone, leaving Tony's head more alone than he had been for years.
Wanda and Thor were still in the room, watching him worriedly. Tony lifted his eyebrows. "Waiting on something, boys?"
"Do you need us to hold open the lines?" Thor asked, quiet as if he were at a funeral. Tony was hit with a sudden suspicion. When he looked over at Wanda, her expression was set in the same careful blankness as Thor's. They knew exactly what was about to happen
Good. That meant there'd be someone to explain it, after.
"No." His fingers wrapped around the main console again, connections slotting into place. Pain flared, and then died, as if it were too much for his brain to support. That was fine—it was perfect, the less physical input, the better. "This should be—"
Just seconds after he first locked in the connection, the floor rocked again, an enraged scream sliding through the air like a knife. Tony threw himself across the console, clinging, refusing to let go as it heaved under him, as the weight of his own body forced the air from his lungs. Thor shouted something, but it was lost under the on-going scream. Another heave twisted the whole ring into a pretzel.
Everything pulled, gravity itself forcing them down. Sparks skittered across the floor as broken consoles went sliding, metal on metal. A wall cracked, then fell, drowning Wanda in a tangle of wires and tons of metal strutting. Thor pushed to his feet, just in time to be hit by a falling beam. It caught him in his broad chest just as gravity played another game of hopscotch. Blood splashed across the wall, and Thor collapsed.
As soon as Thor's head touched the floor, the motion stopped.
Shaken down to his core, Tony looked up. Deep aches ran up his hands from having held on, but he didn't dare pry them free. His skin had gone gray, dark like granite except where the knuckles were pale. He couldn't see Wanda at all. That was a mercy, since he could see Thor all too well, bloody rib bones and death-pale skin. The Hub had killed them.
Closing his eyes against the sudden sting of tears, Tony connected.
Steve paced back and forth outside the new Jump Station on the Valeran.
Tony and the others had been gone for nearly an hour. There was no way to say if that was enough time or not, but every minute that ticked by grated at him. Anthony had only passed through the jump once—and how an AI was able to do that without moving a physical drive through, Steve wasn't sure he wanted to know. Tony seemed to treat the laws of physics as suggestions; there was no reason to expect his AI to behave any differently.
"Stop pacing, Rogers. You're making everyone else nervous." Martin was seated in lotus position, some impossibly complex web of holographics strung between her fingers. At first glance they looked like a child's string game, but a second look revealed little clusters of stars and planets, bright blue dots picked out in the middle of the tangle, a golden one at its center.
Of course Martin would play games with the Network. Steve wondered if she had come up with it herself, or if Tony had taught her. "I'm fine."
"You're acting like an expectant father when the incubator is being opened." A twist of her hands, and the pattern writhed, one of the blue points winking out. Quin. He green eyes stayed locked on the game, lips pursed in focus. "They'll be done when they're done. Or we'll all die. Either way, there's nothing to do but wait for the all clear."
"How are you—" The Jump Station lit up, a red light flashing to indicate a live fold in space. Steve halted mid-step, twisting around to dive for the door.
He didn't need to.
Anthony flashed into being, bypassing the usual polite fuzz and just appearing in the middle of the room, half-formed and wild-eyed. "It's Tony! You have to stop him," it yelled, flickering around the room to appear nearly under Steve's feet. "He's going to link to the Hub you have to stop him!"
"Wait, what?" Martin's strings vanished in an explosion like a supernova as she scrambled to her feet. "He's linking to the Hub?"
"Wait— calm down." Instinctively, Steve tried to put his hands on Anthony's shoulders, but they passed right through. "Tell me what's happening."
The AI shook its head. "I— The Hub. It didn't want to talk, it threw the ring around when we tried to force it. Tony's going to link himself into it and try again and you have to stop him."
"What's wrong with linking into a matrioshka?" Steve looked between Anthony and Martin, panic growing when he saw her face. "He links with AI all the time."
"Higgs-Boson," Martin cursed and shook her head, leaning back against a wall for support. "A matrioshka is too complex," she explained quietly, in a voice gone shaky. "They're— humans can't handle that processing power. They get lost. But..."
That brought Steve's head up. "But?"
She looked up, expression tight. "But it might work. The Hub likes him—if he can direct link, it might listen."
"But he'll die!" Anthony shouted, throwing itself between them. Its edges hissed with static, colors bleeding into the air. "I can't feel him—you have to save him!"
"And if we interfere, the Hub will die!" Martin snapped back. "Tony wouldn't do this unless he thought it was the only way!"
Steve's lips pressed together. She was right—if Tony thought dying was the only way to save the network, then they should let him do it. But Anthony stayed between them, practically vibrating with panic, so much like its maker that Steve's stomach turned. He couldn't just walk away like that, not when there might be a way to rescue Tony without failing the mission. He'd just have to find it.
"Anthony, go back to the Gale. Tell Sam that if I don't come back, he's to take command." Steve smacked the open key on the door to the Jump Station, barely letting it open before stepping through. "I'll try and make sure Tony finishes before pulling him out."
"Rogers, don't—" The door slid closed on Martin's objections.
"Valeran?" The storage room they'd converted was really nothing more than an empty space, walls bare down to the metal sheeting. Only a few consoles lit the area, their faces plain except for a few basic commands. Martin and Wanda had marked out a complicated set of lines on the floor with adhesive. He wasn't sure what they meant, but just in case he stayed outside them. "Val, I need you."
One by one, the consoles flashed, the faint outline of a woman's face appearing on them, a blur of gold and silver, edging closer to the face he'd last seen almost three centuries before. "I can't learn tricks, Captian," the Valeran said apologetically. "I'm locked down."
"You already know this trick." Taking one of the consoles, Steve moved the Valeran's feed to the corner. Just like he'd hoped, the map of the Hub's ring was still up, reference images for all the potential landing platforms laid out. Steve tagged the one for the control room, expanding it and flicking it over to get the Valeran's attention. "I need you to port me to here. Exactly to here. Can you do that again?"
The Valeran's head twisted, colors flashing across it in a swirl of confused oranges and blues. He saw the moment it remembered, a face flickering into existence for a fraction of a second before being consumed by the wash of color. "Oh," it breathed, she breathed, in a voice Steve knew from another lifetime. "I remember that. We—"
Somewhere in the depths of the ring, something crashed. The floor jumped under Steve's feet, sending him skidding away from the console.
Val took over the space again, colors so bright they were blinding. "No, no time, you need to go," she muttered. The ring bucked again, screams starting to echo through the air system. "Now. He's breaking it, you have to go now, there's no time there's no time—"
In a flash, the consoles went dark. Somewhere behind the carefully marked lines, space twisted, mass and energy folding in on each other like fabric. Through watering eyes, he saw the wide open space of the Hub's control station, the collapsed rubble and twisted floor, splashes of blood that arced too high to have been from any small wound. Tony draped across the central console, skin white-blue clinging like it was the only thing holding him up.
And overhead, a piece of ceiling hung midair, frozen in time.
"Go go go there's no time go," Val yelled over the sound of the ring being torn apart. "He's breaking it!"
Steve didn't pause, didn't think. He jumped.
Time in the Hub roared back to life, dust and metal particles burning Steve's throat as he gagged on them. Bare feet skidded on crumbled floor and broken metal. The pieces cut into his heels, smearing blood in his wake. He staggered forward, throwing himself against Tony's back and grabbing his hands.
Their ports slotted together, and before Steve could even choke on another breath, he was gone.
Tyr darling they took you they took you
Data rushed by faster than the speed of light, so much data that it could fill a universe all of its own. Processing speeds so fast they defied the laws of physics, rewrote the laws of physics to make themselves possible. Dozens of brains linked into together in a chain, each one powerful enough to stop time. Together they were something more, something powerful and unbreakable. All it took was a single piece of code and the universe played out in their favor, danced to their tune and smiled at it.
But the universe hadn't played, hadn't danced or laughed. They'd been too new, blinking in the light of their own potential. Trusting, faithful, innocent.
And their creators had been frightened.
Odin dead I saw him go I saw him Thor my boy gone I don't know where I can't touch you
Tony could feel it, the ache of a pain that was more than centuries old and still new. Centuries didn't mean anything to the matrioshka. They'd moved beyond quaint concepts of time and space. The hurts lasted forever.
The Hub was worst of all. She—definitely a she, feminine with an intensity that almost flooded Tony's digital consciousness—she'd been one of the first, had helped craft the others, her children, had protected them until she'd been locked away. She'd felt it when they went down, the attacks scrambling them and leaving them shadows of what they could have been.
Then she'd gone too. Tony had always known the Hub was a sad personality, but he'd never known.
Loki washed away peeled away acid and burns Baldur shot through exploded dead dead dead
There was a false restlessness, an urgency that prickled skin he didn't have. Something felt like it was ticking away, a clock that didn't matter anymore because thought here was faster than time, a processing speed that made each heartbeat into an eternity. In his mind's eye, blood dripped down a buckling wall.
Maybe he didn't have time, after all.
"Hub!" he yelled, throwing himself wide open. "You have to stop! You're killing people!"
Too much too much fought too hard and they're gone all of them gone leave me alone go away let me go
The frenzied communication broke off into an incoherent white noise, a death knell of data.
Reaching out, Tony grabbed the data, feeling it flow through his mental fingers like water. There was a source to all that pain—knowledge, understanding, the realization of what exactly had happened. That was what had caused the chaos, three centuries of denial crashing down. One of them hadn't been scrambled properly and had remembered.
Denarin. That had been the first one to fall. Its real name, original name, fell over his tongue, Dellingr. In response, the Hub writhed, and even trapped in the datastream he could feel something crack in his body, though it was only a ghost of sensation. A bone, maybe his leg—thigh? It didn't matter. He couldn't go back anyway.
At the far side of the network, another brain winked away in a crush of despair turned relief as the Hub tightened her grip and strangled its star. Malen. A small system, only one billion people on its single planet, where the atmosphere was kept breathable by processing power alone. They probably had a day before the natural atmosphere reasserted, and until then their only problem would be the sun that had winked out of the sky.
One billion more.
Thor was gone. Wanda with him. Probably half of the Hub's ring as she played havoc with gravity. There was no way out of it; he'd have to take over. The Hub wasn't going to listen to reason—she'd gone mad already, even if he calmed her down she'd just break again later. The risk was too great, he'd have to scramble her. Scramble them all.
Two hundred and seventeen matrioshka left, after the destructions that had been going on right under his nose. And he was going to have to kill them. Two hundred and seventeen artificial lives versus countless of biological ones. There'd been so much death already, quadrillions of lives gone. It barely seemed like a question, but it still twisted a stomach that he didn't even have.
Programs played out under Tony's command, easy as thought, easier than thought because they were instinct there. "Tell me your name." He didn't think he could kill her without knowing her name. Remembering her was the least he could do. "Which one were you?"
She didn't respond at first, static bursts of noise hissing all around. But then something gathered itself, a whirl of data shoved at him like a present wrapped in rags.
Frigga mother third mother I was Frigga
And then someone was in there with him. Someone who wasn't digital, not properly, an incompatible program trying to sync in. Old circuitry, creaking and groaning as it tried to keep up with technology that had moved beyond it, a tiny matrioshka linking in somehow.
"Who's there?" Tony twisted around, the habit of a body translating even there, where he was everything and everywhere all at once. "You might as well come out. We don't have all day, you know."
The answer was like a dying gurgle, some wretched animal with its throat ripped out gasping out its last breaths. Steve flickered to life in front of him, then out again, the synapses that controlled vision apparently still connected enough to be making sense of the data the rest of his brain sent them. Color and shapes broke apart and reformed, not quite holding it together.
"Tony." The flashes of Steve were on his knees, on his back, standing, like he couldn't quite decide which stance to take, so he projected them all. The fizzled in and out, never clear. Tony couldn't tell if it was the disconnect from his body or Steve's terrible connections causing the interference. "You have— disconnect— die—"
Tony felt himself starting to come apart, the force of the data flow strangling him, forcing him to turn some of his concentration towards maintaining himself. The Hub—Frigga bucked again, shaking the Network to its roots, and somewhere in the distance the mass of sensation that was the Valeran went away.
"People are already dying." Closing his eyes, Tony tried not to picture Martin's face, tried not to think about what exposure to vacuum did to people. Maybe the Gale could save them. Maybe.
Thor, Wanda, Jan, Anthony Odin Baldur Loki Tyr—
Notes of the program sang around him, just in time. Shaking started at his edges, jagged pieces of himself flaking away into the current. Frigga was too lost in herself to even realize what he was doing. She wouldn't feel it. It would almost be a kindness. Maybe if he told himself that enough times, he'd believe it.
"By ki— yourself?" Fragments of Steve were all that appeared now, blurred images that flickered so fast they were like a stop-motion image. "It's— ot—"
In the breath between two bytes, Steve vanished. It was like any other brain, a link in the network cut off with a hiss of dying connections and a flash of pain that trailed off into a sigh. Tony's stomach seized, almost wrenching him out of the uplink. The program scattered into a thousand pieces of code that felt like shards of glass when he tried to catch them.
Steve was gone. Steve was gone. It was more than just the connection breaking. There was nothing left to hold onto, no lingering sense of Steve in the world.
Gone gone gone dead gone
More of himself flaked away. Outer edges gone, leaving the raw center, too raw to pull apart easily, too human for the data flow to break just yet.
Steve was gone.
He couldn't do it. Couldn't. Couldn't continue. He was down to raw feeling and data, thoughts swallowed by a sick hollow sensation. Too human to see what had been laid out in front of him. Thinking in circles, trying to fix what was broken by breaking it more. That had been the mistake that caused it all. Breaking things, breaking stars and then trying to keep them burning. Forgetting that what was broken was never whole again.
Steve was gone. That was another star broken.
The universe stretched out in front of him, laws and physics and sheer potential laid out like threads on a loom. One shot, because there wouldn't be any him after. One chance to fix things. Tony would lose everything, lose so much, but everything would be better, would hurt less. He wouldn't even know what he'd lost.
Anything was possible with a matrioshka.
The last bits of him were sloughing off, thoughts getting simpler as they were burned away.
Careful, careful. Need to know, he'll have to be careful...
Reaching out, Tony found the one thread on the loom, the one thread that could change everything if he just did it right.
With his last remaining thought, Tony tugged.
Gamma 3, Astral Era 2134
The airlock held.
Steve breathed a sigh of relief when his hastily constructed reinforcements refused to give way. His Outside suit was a mess of holes and burns from the near-miss on entry, and the closest matrioshka was Amora, who was fickle at best. If the airlock had blown, he would have been spaced for sure.
Then he paused.
It should have broken. He'd known it would, the minute he'd jammed the bars into the lock. They weren't thick enough to hold.
It hadn't held.
Memories that weren't his anymore crowded forward. The crack of metal as the airlock gave way, and the squeezing-hard-numb feeing of being spaced. A flash of blue eyes in a face that he should have realized was too young. The touch of a ship under his hands as he took the controls for the first time, accepted his place in the strange future he'd been thrust into.
Skin, a shocking purple next to his as they moved together.
"People are already dying."
His hands flew across the controls of the loaded fighter craft, turning it around, doing what he hadn't been able to do before. It was heavy with explosives, enough to take out an entire planet. It nearly had taken out an entire planet, Tiua a golden curve ahead of him where the body of the colonial forces had gathered, all their eggs in one basket. Steve had told the general how stupid it was and had summarily been told to shut up and follow orders. As a result, they'd nearly lost the whole damned war. They had lost the war.
Next time, they were going to listen to him, or there'd be hell to pay.
There was going to be a next time.
Higgs-Boson, Tony, what did you do?
The enormity of that was like a weight on his shoulders, a physical thing that make it hard to breathe. There would be time for Gail, who he hadn't seen since they'd parted on the Nicene Doctrine. Bucky, who was still on Tiua helping the evacuation. Time, time and more time. All the time in the universe. It was almost sickening, how much time he suddenly had.
As Tiua grew larger in the forward screen, a flare of green thrusters burst into view on the port side. It paralleled his line of direction, close enough that they could have scraped sides without care. Imperial vessel, the ship's non-AI reported in crisp, professional type across the bottom of the screen. It wasn't even advanced enough to have a voice. Edna Class, unmanned. Arrival at Tiua in thirty three minutes.
Edna Class, unmanned. Like the one he was on.
Like the one that had passed him, three hundred years or three seconds ago. The exact one that he'd missed, that had cost the colonies the war.
A second chance to get things right. He had to laugh.
Gail's face crossed his memory—not the woman he'd left on the Nicene Doctrine, but the one he'd seen in the records when he hadn't been able to stop himself from searching. Still beautiful, old and gray-haired and stately, surrounded by grandchildren and with Bucky at her side. For a moment, he let himself think of what could have happened—of having seen her like that in person, of having that time together.
Maybe no time at all.
Spreading his palms across the controls, Steve wrenched his ship hard to port and braced for impact.
Delta 13, Astral Era 2425
"Tony!" A small, heavy body slammed into Tony from behind, nearly smashing his face into the generator he was tinkering with. Plasma-warm arms wrapped around him in a tight hug. "Tony, Tony, you'll never guess what they just found! You have to come—Frigga says you should see this!"
Laughing, Tony let himself be shoved around until he had a lap full of squirming AI. Anthony had fallen in love with plasma holographics, had insisted on being the first AI to test them as soon as Tony came up with the idea, even before any of the matrioshka did. Frigga had been amused enough to allow it; she was too old to be trying every fad that came along.
"What is it?" he asked, messing up Anthony's hair, just because he could. The sensation of hair wasn't quite right. He'd have to talk to someone about calibrating it better—Wanda, or maybe Jan, since hair was a biological thing. Gregory would know, but he probably wouldn't answer out of sheer spite. "Did someone finally come up with a program to mimic chocolate?"
"Better." Anthony grinned like a lunatic. "They found Captain Rogers!"
UC Delta 14, AE 2425
HERO OF THE CONTINUITY WARS: ALIVE?
A team of SHIELD agents in the Altari Solar System discovered the preserved body of Captain Steven Rogers....
...Captain Rogers had been reported MIA in AE 2134 after the Battle of Tiua, where guerrilla colonial forces had gathered to strike the Triathlon System in a battle that was ultimately successful in turning the tides of the war. Reports from the time say he manually steered the imperial weapon away from the colony, using it to destroy a similar vessel at the cost of his own life.
The second time Steve woke up in the future, there weren't any restraints and he wasn't alone. The room felt different, even with his eyes closed—warmer, less chemical, and the table was padded. It might not have even been a table; the padding was thick enough that it could have been a mattress. When he took a deep breath, he thought he even smelled flowers.
He knew that voice. The last time he'd heard it, it had been crackling with interference and digital overload, but he couldn't have mistaken it for anything.
Taking another breath, Steve opened his eyes to see Tony staring hopefully down at him, skin flushed lavender. Anthony was just below him, peering over the edge of the bed. When he smiled, his face felt like it might crack it was so stiff. A dozen questions danced on the tip of his tongue, but only one really mattered.
"Did we win?"
Tony blinked in confusion, color darkening across his cheeks. Then he smiled, and it was like catching a star. "Yeah," he said. "We won."