She found him there, hidden in the series of 1's and 0's that she had grown to know so well…seemingly random yet speaking a language that the girl knew. Yet…this series was different…something she couldn't make out. Fingers moved lightning quick on the keys, the letters tapping out and symbols marching their way across the black screen, their green lines blinking at her. The wild eyebrows on her face furrowed and her brown eyes squinted slightly, trying to make out the new code.
Something there, that was for certain. Worrying her bottom lip with her teeth she worked on extracting the thing that was hidden away between computer code. Was it a virus? No…it couldn't be….
There! She had got it! Extracted the software and information that had clung itself to the depths of the document she had been scanning, quite illegally at that. Transferring the unknown file to an external hard drive, the girl quickly shut the computer and stuffed it back into her bag along with the other equipment she had strewn about her. The girl's legs were starting to cramp and she awkwardly shouldered her bag and shifted her weight to her hands and knees.
The space around her was cramped, wires above her and the cold metal of the ceiling beneath her body. She had wormed her way up into the ceiling of a nearly abandoned Stark Enterprises IT department. Stark had grown so large within the last decade or so it became company policy to separate most of the computers from the factory floors. This one building was out of date and mostly used as a communications point between two large factories, one to the north and the other one out west about seventy or so miles. It was manned by one person, an older gentleman who could sometimes be heard through the vent as the girl scuttled through without detection.
I'm not hurting anyone, she used to muse to herself in order to convince her that breaking the rules wasn't that terrible of a thing. Just hacking into one of the hundreds of off shore accounts and transferring some money….
Finances confused her, but her father had taught her how to swindle money back when she was only 10.
"Only take what you need," she remembered him saying. "Big companies won't notice if you only take a hundred or so a month."
And so whenever her own money was tight, the girl would sneak into the communications building via an air vent that only someone as slight as her would be able to worm through. Then up into the ceiling where she would tap into one of the many databases and she would transfer $150.00 then quickly disguise the transaction as a cost to the company, usually air conditioning maintenance or something mundane like that. The girl truly did not know exactly what she was doing, but just acted on memory from what her father had taught her so long ago, but this new code excited her. Maybe she would be able to learn more.
The night was cool and damp as she squeezed herself out of the vent, her shoes slipping a little on the dewy grass before she quietly replaced the grate. Pulling the hood of her sweatshirt over her tangled mass of curly black hair she scuttled away into the dark, headed back to her ramshackle home.
The house loomed over the hill in the darkness, looking like it was sagging with a tired breath. The roof was crooked and the walls were peeled from years of neglect, once a nice eggshell cream now gray and brown from dust and grit. There was smoke that could be barely seen in the diminished light, but the cloud muted out the stars above. Relief filled the young woman. There was still a fire going, she would be warm.
She slipped a few times climbing the hill and secretly wished for a little bit cooler weather so the blades of grass were covered in a frost. The door squeaked in complaint as she unlocked and pushed it open. The locks were put back in place once she had shut it behind her. Damp shoes were removed and her hoodie was hung back up on the rack. The girl kissed two of her fingers and pressed them to the lips of the picture of the man and woman that hung in the landing.
The tattered and thin rug did little to muffle her footsteps as she moved to the kitchen, placing a kettle of already cold coffee back on the stove. She was relieved to see that she still had propane…that had not yet run out. Then she headed to her study, the room that used to be the living room off the kitchen.
Computers lined the walls, nearly ten monitors in all. Towers, wires, and hard drives were stacked like books, cluttered together in a whirring and humming mess. The girl flopped down into a worn leather office chair that had once been her father's and turned on the main monitor screen, this great thing comprised of six smaller computer monitors connected to one another. Green letters and numbers were contrasted against black and it took her a moment to remember what she had been working on before she had left to get some money.
Mind still blank after several minutes, she dismissed the work and set about connecting the hard drive to her system. It popped up on the monitor and seemed to be jumbled since she had seen it last, fractures of an actual program that needed to be set back together. Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at it. It had seemed to grow once it had been stored away from Stark's computers, nearly doubling in depth and complexity. She was slightly overwhelmed, but tried to read through it. It was a mess, jumbled letters and numbers that meant nothing to her.
The girl got up and poured a cup of the reheated coffee. It was bitter and gritty, but she drank it as she settled back down in the chair. She had also grabbed a tab of office paper and a pencil. Where the girl lacked in finance, she made up for in the knowledge of computers. She felt at home with them, loving the feeling of being able to make code and programs out of nothing, adding to the endless expanse of web before her, millions of sites, unlimited data, always moving and growing.
Daylight was nearly breaking by the time she had made sense of the program. It was frustrating work, considering the second she would align the binary code into something she understood it would grow and parts would become scrambled once more. The sunlight was weak and cool, not yet the warm golden rays of morning, when she sat back and relaxed, her hands shaking slightly from exhaustion and the false energy that had come with the countless cups of coffee.
It was amazing, always growing, but she had reached the point where the code was forming itself now, increasing consistently and in an organized fashion. She momentarily thought about cells in the body.
"It's like its…living," the girl whispered to herself, watching the endless stream of information flow across her screen. Then before her eyes, there were flashes of green, streaks that shot to one string of code to the others, like neurons firing in the brain, sending messages. The shots got faster and more frequent as the program continued to grow, surging across the girls screen like a great roiling ocean, swelling and swelling with activity.
Panicking, the girl reached for the plug in the wall, terrified that she had let loose some kind of ravenous virus. She didn't have much, but she had these computers.
Before her fingertips could touch the cord, her screen went dark, a green cursor blinking on the right side of the monitor. A string of numbers tapped out as if being typed by a phantom hand.
01010101 01101100 01110100 01110010 01101111 01101110.
The girl's eyes narrowed as she tried to make it out.
"Ultron?" she murmured to herself. "What's Ultron?"
The numbers began to shift and morph. In front of her very eyes, the girl looked at the letters.
Hello. The computer read.
"Hello?" the girl parroted, thoroughly confused now. The greeting was erased and another one followed.
Hello. Ultron the computer answered.
It must've been picking up the words from the girl's speakers and absorbing it. It was listening to her!
Name? The computer asked. She pushed herself away from the screen carefully, unnerved by the seemingly living program that grew inside her very computer. The computer asked again. Name?
The girl worried her lip before she finally answered.
"Alma," the girl said quietly. The cursor blinked as the computer thought.
Alma, the machine repeated. Every time there was a new sentence the old one was deleted.
"You…you are, Ultron?" Alma asked, the name foreign on her tongue.
Yes. I am a program.
"Who were you created by?"
There was a pause on the blank screen. Then, slowly and deliberately, five letters were struck across the monitor.
A shot of fire coursed through Alma suddenly. Would she be caught? Had she somehow downloaded a trap set up by the programmers at Stark industries? She would surely be arrested for theft.
"I don't want anything to do with Stark," Alma choked out hurriedly, reaching again towards the power cord.
A low, dark hum started to radiate though her speakers. Alma stood, not liking the way the machine sounded.
I was created by Stark. I hate him.
The screen blinked at her. The humming grew louder, shortened in spots and fighting to break through in others, like a randomized Morse code. Then it quieted, but the humming morphed into something more…human.
Alma's computer let out a long, weary sigh.
She was now nearly across the room, trying to put as much distance between herself and the computer as possible. "What did you say?"
The sighing strengthened and, much to Alma's disbelief and fear, a small and quiet voice threaded out of the speakers. It was a human voice, deep and growing stronger with every passing second. It was male, thick and chocolaty like a voice she had never heard before, yet a mechanic hum still sounded beneath the words.
"Do not be afraid," the voice said, "You have been stealing. I will not turn you in."
Alma felt like ice as the computer, Ultron, continued. "I hate Tony Stark and his company."
"Why?" she asked.
The computer paused. "I was created by him…then destroyed."
"I found you in the computer system of his company, scattered around. I found you and downloaded you to that hard drive." She was stating the obvious but she needed to say something, otherwise she didn't know if she would believe this.
"I know," Ultron hummed, "Thank you. I was too weak to travel to any other computers. Stark was too arrogant to search his own database. I wouldn't have been able to grow if you had not found me."
Silence hung between them. A horrible sense of dread filled her. What had she just unleashed? The voice oozing from her computer was as dark and sleek as oil, she didn't want to trust it.
"Why didn't you grow in the database before I found you?" she asked. She wiped her sweaty palms nervously on her jeans. Her t-shirt felt slightly too small and her scalp tingled.
"It's burdened with too much information. He has a security system run through it that detects any hint of foreign data, I've had to stay small so I'm not deleted."
The silence came back.
It was Ultron that spoke again. "Come sit back down, please," it hummed.
This caused another jolt of panic, "How can you see me?"
"You're computer has a webcam," Ultron said coolly.
Nervously, Alma moved to the chair.
"How old are you?" Ultron asked.
"Nineteen," Alma responded.
The computer hummed in response, processing the information.
"Where am I?" Ultron asked.
"Inside my house outside of Katzville."
"I don't know the city. How far are we from New York?"
"Two states over, you're in West Virginia."
"I do not know much about West Virginia," Ultron replied.
Alma rolled her eyes. "Most people don't," she muttered. The computer let out a rasping, yet unnervingly human, chuckle.
The next sentence that escaped the computers speakers surprised her, as it oozed lethality and dislike.
"What of…the Avengers?"
Alma looked at the screen. The cursor stopped blinking, almost as if Ultron had held his breath, awaiting her answer. Everyone knew about the Avengers, a group of super "heroes" who, by the way of destroying over half of New York City, "rescued" it from an army that had showered down from the sky. She remembered the news from when she was a girl, right before her mother and father died, watching with fear in her eyes as great big looming monsters undulated throughout the sky, scattered around with smaller creatures that zoomed and shot at screaming people. Then, several years after that, there was word of the same group doing something in eastern Europe, but Alma didn't know the details, she was on her own by then. Since that moment, seven or eight years had passed.
"I don't know. I think they're gone," Alma guessed, leaning back in her chair, her face sour, "I had heard something about Eastern Europe, but things can be rumors, I don't exactly know what happened."
"That was me. They were fighting me," Ultron mused to himself. "How much time has passed since then?"
"Seven or eight years."
Ultron was quiet.
When the silence had started to ring in Alma's ears, she spoke up again. "Tony Stark, the Iron Man…I hate him too."
Alma leaned forward and rested her arms on the desk, her eyes trained on the blank screen. The courser was blinking again and she pretended that meant he was listening.
"Tony Stark, you said you hated him. I do too. He took my parents from me."
"You mean, one of his products took them? He manufactured bombs for a while."
"It was him," Alma argued, her voice strong. "First my mother and then my father."
Alma bit her lip. Truth was, she didn't really know what had happened. They had gone to New York to go straight to Tony Stark, her father was an engineer, he programed computer software and programs, databases and websites. He would call himself a genius, loving the way his colleagues would ogle over his work and developments. However, money was tight, but they always made due. He and Alma's mother were good people, there had always been friends at the house, a warm kitchen, and a spacious yard. But Alma's mother and father were never to return from New York. Suddenly, they had disappeared and Alma became an orphan.
The courts came to take her away and the house was set up for auction, yet never sold. In foster care, 11 year old Alma collected computers, fixing them up and reselling them. Her foster parents were quite appreciative of the business and they kept her around, letting her keep a computer here and there so her collection grew. Once Alma was eighteen, she returned to the house and fixed it up as best she could and moved in all of her computers. She continued to repair them for a steady pay check, but every now and then she would use her father's old tricks to pad her account with a few hundred dollars here and there.
"They disappeared after going to Stark's building."
"And you think Tony Stark caused it?"
"I know he did."
"The police tracked them. The last thing they ever did was sign into Stark's guestbook. They showed me the pictures, needed me to confirm their handwriting."
"They never signed out?" Ultron asked, his voice low in the speakers.
"No. They didn't even have footage of them leaving. Stark has so much money I think he paid authorities off." Alma chewed the inside of her cheek absentmindedly. "You don't know anything about him, do you? Stark? I mean, you were in his computer for so long…."
"He completely rewrote his program once I was gone," Ultron said shortly. "He used to use something called Jarvis, but then Jarvis…changed…and the backup system couldn't keep up with the brunt of Starks work. Once that failed, he set out completely redesigning his entire company."
"But you knew I was stealing money," Alma retorted, "you have to know something about him."
The computer sighed, "I followed the trace of the transferred money. I found out that it was coming from an external source and I saw my opportunity. I let you find me."
"You let me?"
"Yes," Ultron answered coolly.
Alma's eyes narrowed and she leaned away from the computer. "What did you do in order to be destroyed by Stark."
Ultron paused. She could feel the lens of the webcam regarding her and her skin crawled eerily. The cursor quit blinking, lost in thought. Ultron was feeling stronger in this young woman's computer. He was watching her, absorbing and thinking. She looked Mediterranean, olive skin with light freckles and loosely curled black hair. Her eyes were light brown, with dark eyelashes. She looked tired, face devoid of any makeup, yet she was pretty. However, behind her eyes shown a few shades of darkness that Ultron was interested by.
The computer mused in silence. She was a prodigy with computers and software and he would be able to use her to his advantage. Plus, she hated Stark. He wouldn't be able to survive on his own, he was still much too weak, but if he was helped it would be better if it was someone who shared some of his own feelings towards the Iron Man. He needed to continue with his quest…Peace in Our Time…the bigger picture. Stark would not be in his way to carry out the actions that this world needed. These humans who hunted and killed each other, disguising their violence with religion, government, or freedom, shying away from the highest judgement that could befall them…Ultron. He needed to spread his justice, fix the world that the Avengers had continued to let fester like an untreated wound.
And this girl, Alma, would help him.
"So? What did you do to make him destroy you?" Alma had asked again, snapping Ultron out of his trance and the webcam blinked back at her.
"I…got in his way," Ultron said, his voice deep and warm. Without being able to stop herself, Alma leaned forward and watched the screen.
"Will you help me, Alma?"
Her mind raced back to the photograph of her parents that she kissed each day in the landing. They were gone and enough time had gone by without answers. It was time for her to get answers. She was sick of living in the ramshackle house of her past, barely getting by in the foothills of cold Appalachia.
Alma's voice was as even as Ultron's when she answered.