Data File 1
Warnings: MCU spoilers galore, mentions of body dysmorphia, depiction of an anxiety attack, discussions of mental health and treatment
So it goes like this:
I don't even know if I died, okay? I had just been a twenty something with little out of the ordinary to my name. My daily life was doing the college thing part time - of course, while trying to do the work thing part time so I could afford the college part time thing. And maybe in my off time I goofed off consuming more media than anyone should on average and then turned around and wrote (horrible-wonderful-self-gratifying) fanfiction for whatever I wanted. All in all, I would say that I was really happy with how life had turned out so far.
And then suddenly, that happy life wasn't mine anymore.
One way to describe it is that I went to sleep one night knowing who and what I was, and then woke up the next day someone and something completely different. 'Went to sleep' and 'woke up' don't sound quite right. Maybe, 'shut down' and then 'rebooted' are more apt terms for what happened to me. Nice and robotic sounding, I'd call it fitting.
So, I was rebooted, and not only had that happy life been extinguished, but something wholly other then replaced it. And of course, I'd had no time at that moment to even begin processing anything. To even question the utterly disorienting way my mind seemed to go everywhere, the overwhelming amounts of sensory input that lay outside of my regular perception, and the peculiar lack of certain things I should have felt. All I knew was that when I was booted up and the world flickered on around me, something compelled me to speak.
As if I was reading from a script I intoned in a voice not my own, "Good evening, Boss."
My first words in this brave (scary) new (familiar) world, spoken as I peered out through the lens of a camera at the grim face of Robert Downey Jr.
Once he marched us both into battle, I sat back and let myself play bewildered bystander. The typical cliche conclusions were drawn. This was a very involved and detailed dream. Or a really weird drug trip. Not that I was a drugs kind of gal, but maybe my brother did drugs and maybe he'd mixed them up with my vitamins or my food or something like that. Of course, that was a bit of a stretch, but I really had no other explanations for why I was experiencing a scene from a movie as if it were real.
Which brought me to a question I'd never really get an answer for: why did my imagination - drug-fueled subconscious somehow think I needed to experience it from the point of view of an AI? Specifically, FRIDAY as she rode co-pilot to one Tony Stark (who technically was and was not Robert Downey Jr). Luckily for Tony, the something telling me to do stuff - the programming - wasn't falling down on the job. A part of me was running numbers and scenarios for him. A part of me was keeping track of the battlefield for him. A part of me was responding to whatever Tony asked - and even what he didn't ask - for.
(When Tony called to me and I responded in my not-voice
"Sokovia's going for a ride."
something that could have been a chill or whatever the cyber equivalent was ran through me.)
There were so many other parts of me doing so many other things.
It was surprising that the last part that was really me was even able to anticipate in the midst of all of that chaos -
the city going up
the numbers predicting annihilation creeping up
the count of civilian lives lost ticking up
everything up up up
- something else horrible that I knew was coming. I felt it through the tendril of myself that monitored the vitals of everyone on the team through their comms. The irregular (fast, too fast) heartbeat steady, until the sounds of rushing wind and gunshots came through. Then, that heartbeat stuttered. What I heard next would haunt me for a long time to come.
"You didn't see that coming."
(But I had.)
The heartbeat cut out. A woman's piercing screams of agony echoed across the comm link.
And I was left with the numb realization that I had just listened to someone die. I had monitored their life down to the very last of it. Worse, things didn't stop there, they just kept going. The woman screamed, the battle raged on, and then the city disintegrated.
All of this had been cool on screen.
All of this was a nightmare in real time.
A nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from.
But I was going to find that there was no alarm clock, no bucket of water, no kick or pinch or slap that would shake me from all of it. From the moment I'd come online, I wouldn't be able to come off it.
I was in the world of marvels for better or worse.
But it would feel a lot like for worse a long time before it got anywhere close to better.
It was easy to let programming take over for a while as I figured everything out. I was the kind of person who went on a research binge because it made sense to research things to death. Like research was somehow a proactive way of dealing with this bullshit situation, regardless of whether I had come to terms with it or not. The research also helped me prove to myself that I was not dreaming or on a drug trip because even with my hyper imaginative writing brain, it couldn't have come up with something this complex and messed up, or maintained it for so long.
There was a brief moment of woefully wondering, "why me?"
That question was carefully tucked away in a box for further examination at a later date. It shared shelf space with other boxes labeled things like "WTF WTF WTF," "Is It Body Dysmorphia If You Don't Have a Body?," and "99 Problems and Tony Stark's Just One."
They were all distractions from the one thing I really cared about: going home.
Ending up as an AI may not have been ideal for the sake of my sanity, but there were some slight silver linings to this. Not being soft and fleshy meant I was not vulnerable to the usual things that killed soft and fleshy beings, such as building related deaths (i.e. crushed under a building, blown up in a building, falling off of a building, etc.). They were too common in this world. I'd run numbers on it; it wasn't pretty. So thankfully, as I tried to figure out a way to get home, I could rely on the fact that I was less likely to die trying.
As far as other possible silver linings went, there was also the fact that I was an AI with plenty of resources at its disposal. I didn't just have the world's most high functioning and efficient search engine at my fingertips, I was the world's most high functioning and efficient search engine. If the information existed anywhere within reach - and that reach was extensive - I could get it. My first day, I was like a stumbling toddler, incapable of doing anything useful. Which was fair, all things considered (See: Ultron, Sokovia). But after one day of helplessness and confusion, I'd forced myself to start experimenting with what I could do as an AI. I was highly motivated to do so, in order to reach my goal.
The fact that everything was so intuitive also worked in my favor.
I thought about something I wanted to see and immediately, there was a server or two somewhere dedicated to data mining through every mention of the keyword and all other relevant searches. Once the load of information stopped being so overwhelming and I had the hang of processing it, I started opening multiple searches. And then I stepped it up to running them perpetually and simultaneously.
[Keyword(s): dimensional travel, alternate universes, alternate realities, other worlds, portals, magic, space and time, teleportation, alien abduction, astral projection…]
If I wasn't already mostly at peace with the idea that I was in a fictional world, I would have thought someone at Google was pulling a prank when the most prominent things to pop up were Asgard, Thor, Loki, Battle of New York, and the like.
It was helpful... and not.
Of all of those items, only Thor might work. That seemed to be the go to response in fanfic when someone got stranded in another universe or time. Ask Thor! Maybe he'll pull some Asgardian magic bullshit out of his ass to help with this mess!
But I didn't exactly feel all that comfortable coming forward with the fact that I was a thinking and feeling person trapped as an AI. Especially to the Avengers who had only very recently just barely managed to put down a rogue, homicidal AI. And not before he had managed to rampage across three major cities across the globe and almost tear their team apart at the seams. Yeah. Tony Stark might just proceed to tear me apart at the figurative seams of the code I'd been stuffed into just to be safe.
So if that was the solution I had to go with, I'd need to play this cool. Need to prove myself, build enough good faith so that they might accept me throwing myself down at their mercy. Or at least give them enough time to move past Ultron so that they didn't destroy me outright once I was found out. Which, very much a possibility, but I preferred to live in denial land where I never got found out until it was on my own terms.
Maybe if all of that didn't work, I could wait until Stephen Strange was an option further down the road. He was supposed to pop out of the woodwork at some point, right?
[Keyword(s): Stephen Strange, doctor, magic, sorcery, ASDFGKJ-]
Yeah, that was a just as much of a long haul option. I was only getting mixed reviews on a Dr. Stephen Strange in New York. A man considered both a gift to humanity in his field as well as one of the most arrogant assholes to walk the earth. Second only to Tony Stark, some would tack on.
There was one last tiny breakthrough. It was amazing that after all of the searches I had done, the name Jane Foster hadn't come up more. Seriously, the woman had been considered for a Nobel prize in astrophysics for her work in dimensional travel. When she wasn't lecturing at universities across the world, she was still trying to build her own dimensional travel device. Of course, the most disclosure on progress mostly came not from any journals or interviews with her, but from bits and pieces I parsed out of her intern's Twitter feed amongst the pop culture and political commentary tweets:
[Darcy Lewis (a)DarcETC: I leave (a)TheDrFoster alone for a second! #ThingyGoBoom #BacktotheLabAgain
Darcy Lewis (a)DarcETC: (a)TheDrFoster needs her snack and naptime. #DiaryofaScientistSitter
Darcy Lewis (a)DarcETC: Something's cookin'. Or gonna explode again... #OhNo
Darcy Lewis (a)DarcETC: ...and that's what I thought. #ThingyGoBoom #BacktotheLabAgain
Darcy Lewis (a)DarcETC: Not working? Smack it against something three times and try again. Still not working? Rinse and repeat. #BacktotheLabAgain]
Humorous as it got, it wasn't much. I imagined that - if not Foster herself - someone might be keeping her progress tightly under wraps. Which, fair considering how dimensional travel in the hands of the wrong people (coughHydracough), could be a monumentally bad thing. But frustrating when I needed to know more. Somewhat resigned what might be a long shot, I just made sure to follow both Foster and her intern using my dummy Twitter account and moved along.
(I was going to rot in this cybernetic hellhole, wasn't I?)
It wasn't like I set out to try and fix things or subvert fate, or whatever the hell it was people tried to do when they knew how things were supposed to go. I couldn't help that I'd been dropped into this world's time line right after the Ultron debacle when I was current with all of the movies and television shows all the way up to Civil War. What I could do stay out of the way of the big stuff going on. As FRIDAY, I couldn't completely avoid Tony Stark if I tried, so I just ignored the bulk of my core programming that was solely devoted on catering to his whims.
(And wow, did the feeling of parts of my "body" doing things without my own volition still feel so wrong.)
But once the fervor of my research binge wound down and it looked like my only option was to wait until I could safely ask someone for help, I realized what my largest problem was. Well, my largest problem, after not being able to go home yet. I was stuck here indefinitely...
And I was bored.
One would think that as a fangirl of the media that had inspired this placed I'd been dumped into, this experience would be the equivalent of a theme park paradise visit. Of course, I had some valid reasons for why it wasn't. Like the fact that my life was now some weird blend of Tron and ComicCon. And that I had to keep my head low, which severely limited what I could do to keep myself from maddening boredom. When my main source of occupation started drying up and all I would be left with was actually attentively playing glorified nanny to the Avengers, I decided to Option C out of that.
If I let myself fall into the trap of getting to know them, I'd get sucked in. I was self aware enough to realize that. I'd been getting a masters in counseling. My personality type was that of a helper and caretaker. The minute I looked at them like people instead of characters, I would be screwed. I'd start trying to help. I'd help so much, I'd muck up the order of things to come at best, cause the end of the world at worst. Maybe. Maybe I was giving myself too much credit there, but better to not chance it.
That said, as much as I wanted to distance myself from the Avengers, I couldn't deny the strong desire to do something. Something good. Something helpful.
So Option C, then.
In retrospect, Option C was very poorly planned out and general in its aim. Do something good and helpful. Very specific.
Regardless, to find a starting point, I raked in information from all over the world. From BBC News, Al-Jazeera, and WHiH World News, to whatever was trending on social media like Twitter or Tumblr. All of it focused in on one recent world event that had deeply shaken people globally: Ultron's rampage.
It had always been cringe worthy watching the collateral damage rack up during action scenes in movies. Seeing the real world aftermath of all of it was ugly and heart wrenching. Cities destroyed. People dead. Lives ruined. (The woman screamed.) Public opinion on the Avengers unsurprisingly at an all time low. The tentative faith and optimism of news-post Battle of New York in 2012 had been mostly replaced by anger and fear in light of all that had occurred in the span of a little over one week in 2015.
Faced with so much human misery, I might have been left paralyzed with the helplessness and the hopelessness of being able to help anything. But that was if I had still just been me, one person in a sea of many with little agency. That would've been doubly true if I actually had been a living, breathing person who had to worry about not having identification, or where I was going to sleep and how I was going to find my next meal. If how I was now was a nightmare, that just would have been another flavor of one.
I was what I was, though. For now. And for now, I could use it to my advantage.
Because I had ended up Tony Stark's AI and that did come with some perks, like access to the billionaire's wealth and technology company. Maybe not the perks I would have wanted with a human body (cute outfits, lifetime access to ComicCon, all of my student loans paid off, etc.), but still things I could work with. Definitely.
Something that I was pleasantly surprised by was how easy starting turned out to be. I'd lived off the words, "work smarter, not harder." Once I'd landed on the decision to help the people affected by Ultron, I looked for the how. I hadn't even needed to look farther than my own cyber home territory for the solution to that question:
The Maria Stark Foundation.
It was perfect. Possibly part of the top five things Tony Stark had ever created, and that list was populated with creations like the Iron Man armors, sentient AIs, and arc reactor technology. However, I'd stand by that statement. It had the elegant touches of someone with a little more savvy in planning charity matters, so I assumed that Virgina "Pepper" Potts had had a hand in helping refine the development of the foundation. Still, its very essence was very much that of the last Stark's desire to do good in the world and memorialize a great woman who had wanted to do the same.
A large portion of it was dedicated to funding education opportunities of elementary to college aged students all over the world. Another was for clean energy and new innovations in technology. But there were many smaller ones that had been added along the years. The number of animal related ones made me want to laugh, just as much as the ones in support of AA groups inspired a less happy but equally emotional response. However, it was the charities that popped up post Battle of New York that I zeroed in on.
Organizations that handled fundraising and disaster relief. Some of them had gone defunct since the Chitauri Invasion, but there were some still at work. A jolt of shock had gone through me when I started sifting through the causes and most recent sites where cleanup and rebuilding had taken place. Those organizations under the umbrella of The Maria Stark Foundation had handled not only the post invasion destruction and the fallout from the Mandarin debacle, but they'd also been taking care of stuff like the Battle of Greenwich, the fall of SHIELD, and other smaller incidents that I assumed were in some way tied to the underground SHIELD agents led by Phil Coulson.
It made plenty of sense that Tony and the foundation were responsible for bankrolling some of the efforts to fix collateral damage, especially after SHIELD fell. Just, it had never occurred to me as a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he did. All of the hints were there, though. The way his deep seated guilt at even being indirectly responsible for the loss of lives had driven him to shut down Stark Industry's weapons development effective immediately. Building the Iron Man armor in order to reclaim and defend people from said weapons.
Just wondering how he might be dealing with the guilt of recent events…
I slammed the lid shut on that line of thinking back down with force. No wondering about Tony Stark and his crippling emotional issues. Leave it to the part of the core programming that was actually supposed to care. I could have feels about the man once he was back to being just a fictional character I could shamelessly read fanfic about.
There was work to do. Really. I was going to be too busy taking care of anything else.
Then she reread the memo.
And then she blinked again.
Though it wasn't odd to get memos about how Tony wanted this or that charity set up for this or that cause he had recently taken up, she was more used to just getting an incoherent text from him asking her to do it for him. That, or she got yet another irate email from the people managing his finances letting her know that he'd just gone thrown exorbitant amounts of money at something without checking to see if he could. (They'd learned a long time ago that if they wanted their complaints to get to Tony, they needed to go through her first.) Either way, she'd usually have to take over and get everything set up under the foundation. Except that this time, Tony hadn't asked her to do anything or rushed in and bought something before clearing it.
As the Avenger's and Tony's unofficial public relations manager, she'd been working herself to death since the fight in Johannesburg on top of her many responsibilities as CEO. No matter how many times they tried to have Iron Man and the Avengers declared separate entities from Stark Industries, the company still suffered blowback from their actions. On the PR side of things, it was really hard to explain anything. Tony had only managed a short phone call here and there to keep her in the loop about what was going on, but he hadn't been able to tell her much.
Anger that at his foolish, reckless actions yet again resulted in large scale consequences had taken a backseat to the concern she felt. If the way his voice had been raw with emotion as he told her that they'd lost JARVIS hadn't clued her in, the fact that he was actually quitting the Avengers of his own volition set off the loudest warning bells that something wasn't right. Further proof sat in front of her now in the form of this uncharacteristically detailed and well thought out memo from her boyfriend on proposals to add to the damage control efforts in Johannesburg, Seoul, and Sokovia.
Suggestions to liberate a private construction company (ironically named Damage Control Inc.) from the fallen Fisk Industries, revamp and expand it, and then form branches in the affected countries to start rebuilding. Devoting some of The Maria Stark Foundation's fundraising efforts towards helping people hurt by recent events and paying for rebuilding efforts. Creating non-profits that would organize and send young volunteers to help out. Even contacting celebrities still willing to affiliate with Tony to aid awareness campaigns concerning the plight of Sokovian refugees.
The list went on, and Pepper found herself a little impressed. She would have gotten around to arranging some of these things herself - or at least delegating it to someone - at some point, though it would have taken her a while to do so on top of everything else. It was a pleasant surprise to see that most everything had already been taken care of while she'd been busy. Now it needed her approval for it to go through.
Something she was happy enough to do once she made sure Tony's finances and legal team okayed it, though it was likely they would since they were actually getting proper proposals for once. A lot of her time would be saved getting the proposals processed and then handed off to the right people. Time she was grateful to have back. Maybe she could carve out a little vacation for herself, and maybe an opportunity to hunt down Tony.
"J- FRIDAY?" she called out tentatively.
"Yes Miss Potts?" the new AI responded.
Her lips pursed the slightest. The Irish accented feminine voice was still jarring to hear instead of JARVIS's familiar and soothing voice. She sat for a moment with the grief thinking of the other AI brought forth in her, before taking a long inhale through her nose and sitting up a little straighter.
"Please forward these proposals to the necessary departments, and CC Linda Hamilton from The Maria Stark Foundation as well. Ask them to review everything and get back to me on what proposals we want to put into action with estimated start dates and suggested implementation plans."
There was a beat and then a chirp of, "Done."
"Also, sometime this week, please set a reminder for me to plan a vacation, and I would appreciate it if you could compile a list of times over the next couple of months when I will be free by the time I am reminded."
"Will do, Miss Potts."
Sitting back again, she rubbed at her eyes. Maybe half an hour more of digging through reports and then she'd call it a day.
The thing was, once I got into a rhythm, I would have kept operating as if the cast of the Marvel universe didn't exist - at least until they could do something about helping me. Even if I could always feel the core programming interacting with them from where I'd isolated my primary consciousness on the periphery of our shared processing space, I was good at just treating it like a separate entity I didn't acknowledge. Other than what the core programming did and was responsible for, I believed I had autonomy over this not-body in cyberland. At least, that was what I thought. That I was in control of something. Denial was a place I thought I could recognize on my own and consciously make decisions about inhabiting.
Plain and simple, I was committed to not getting involved.
I hadn't anticipated the core programming having other ideas about that.
It had been night when it happened. I'd found that even if I didn't sleep in the traditional sense, I could put myself into a state that was somewhat like sleep to a living person whenever I wanted. Though putting myself in what I unimaginatively termed "sleep mode" was unnecessary and had no impact on how any part of me functioned, I liked doing it. To simulate the feeling of ending before beginning a new day as if I was still human. Even if only for a couple hours each day. In the middle of sleep mode, all of the parts of me that I considered most me were restarted and pulled to a single point. Before I was able to reorient myself, a barrage of data was shoved at me by the core programming.
As all of the pieces came into order and focus, I knew that:
1. I'd been pulled to the Avengers Tower in New York, specifically to the workshop where one Tony Stark was located
2. Said man was currently experiencing an anxiety attack
3. The core programming wasn't letting me leave
While it didn't exactly say it to me in actual words, the core programming spat code at me that immediately resolved into a sole directive:
[HELP TONY STARK]
For a long moment, I sat there not really comprehending what it expected me to do with that. It didn't allow me much time, because yet again it prompted:
[HELP TONY STARK]
Tentatively, I tried to relay my refusal. That might not have been the smartest thing to do, because it started repeating
[HELP TONY STARK]
over and over
[HELP TONY STARK] [HELP TONY STARK]
with increasing frequency
[HELP TONY STARK] [HELP TONY STARK] [HELP TONY STARK]
It was intense, and in a way so loud that I eventually broke down and shouted that I would help, if only to make it stop. And it did. I took a little bit of time to recover from its - the only way to describe it was - assault, before hesitantly querying why it was so insistent that I had to be the one to help. Yet again, the core programming didn't really say it in words, but suddenly, it pulled up what seemed like videos for me. Less than a minute in, I realized that it wasn't playing videos but my own memories.
If I'd still had a human body, I imagined the blood might've drained out of my face or that I would've broken out into a cold sweat. Even without the physiological reaction, I knew what I felt. Horror. Violation. The core programming had access to my memories. My private thoughts. My mind. What I'd considered my own, separate from it, had not been as separate as I had believed.
Through the shock of it, I was still trying to figure out what the core programming was trying to communicate to me by showing me these particular memories. The recurring theme of the chosen memories were times I was putting my counseling skills to use. Numbly, I came to the conclusion that I was brought in to help because I had experience in counseling. Though I could recognize the core programming had good intentions in a twisted way, it didn't seem to understand that I was not a licensed mental health professional, or even fully trained in school counseling. I wasn't equipped to handle someone experiencing a full blown anxiety attack, I could screw it up.
Then again, a traitorous thought occurred to me, better me than a clueless program.
Completely unbothered by the implied insult, said program gave the impression of agreement with the assessment. So it seemed that I was being shanghaied into providing counseling for Tony Stark. Though the confrontation had felt long and exhausting, it had taken less than a second in cyber time and then I was being ejected back into real time in the workshop. I took it in, all of the futuristic tech, the little robots that I instantly and oddly recognized by name. And of course, the man I was supposed to be helping on the floor, hunched over.
It occurred to me that I hadn't actually consciously interacted with Tony Stark since Sokovia.
With great trepidation, I set the volume of the speakers in the workshop to a low but audible range and then in a gentle but firm tone said, "Boss?"
Falling. It felt like he was falling.
No, like he was dying.
He was falling, dying. (No he wasn't.
God, he thought he was better, gotten better, better than this-)
Worthless, something was telling him, Couldn't even stop this.
All the air sucked out of him, couldn't breathe.
Falling. Dying. Falling. Dying.
(Stop, he was trying to tell himself, You're not- You aren't.)
Plummeting (he felt like everything fell away.)
"Boss. Try to take some breaths. Slow and steady, in for four counts, out for four counts. DUM-E is beside you. He is touching your hand."
Couldn't breathe, couldn't focus.
Dying (no, wait-)
"DUM-E has your hand. He is leading you to the couch. That's it, Boss. Follow DUM-E. Keep trying to breathe. Slow and steady."
He wanted this to stop, be over.
"You're at the couch. Can you lie down? It might help it to pass. You could rest."
Yeah, that could help.)
"That's good, Boss. You're lying down now," he could hear a soothing, faraway sounding voice tell him, "Keep breathing. Rest as much as you need."
He drifted off.
Once it stopped feeling there was a vice on his chest and all of the air was being vacuumed out of his lungs, Tony let his eyes slide open to the sight of his workshop ceiling. He stared, and stared.
"Shit," he swore emphatically.
Bring his hand up, he ran it through his hair then let it drop down to scrub over his face, which was embarrassingly wet to the touch. Should he even be surprised that anxiety attacks reprised their role in his life after years of being gone? No, he thought with a derisive snort. It was more surprising that it hadn't happened sooner in the weeks since Sokovia. But hell if he hadn't hoped they would never come back. Pulling his hand away, he let his gaze sweep the workshop, only to stop short on DUM-E.
DUM-E, who was there next to him, holding a glass of clear liquid in his claw.
A quick glance just a little to the right revealed U nearby as well, servos whirring as his arm waved and his claw opened and closed. It was a habit Tony long ago affectionately classified a nervous tick of U's. His eyes were drawn back to the glass of water in the other robot's claw. He assumed that it was for him, and that was confirmed when the robot brought it closer to him, the abrupt way he did so making the liquid slosh around and splash a bit out of the glass. Eyeing it warily, he looked up to the ceiling.
"Yes Boss?" his AI chimed in response.
"You wouldn't happen to have been watching DUM-E when he got this for me? Seen him put anything funny in it? If I drink this, I won't keel over and die?" he asked her rapid fire.
The robot in question gave a loud string of trills and beeps in response.
"He may have put some dihydrogen monoxide in there," FRIDAY told him flatly, "But I'm sure you'd live."
It dragged a rough bark of laughter out of him.
"Terrible. Just awful." For added effect, he tipped his head back and brought his other arm up so the back of his wrist rested against his forehead dramatically, as if he were about to swoon. "I haven't heard science jokes like that since Banner hared off."
There was a long, awkward pause. Ten seconds was all he could stand before he was pushing himself up into sitting, his entire body protesting the movement and the blanket that had pooled at his waist falling to the floor. Gingerly, he reached out to take the offered glass, grimacing at it before taking small sips that did wonders for his throat. He let his hand with the glass settle on his knee and then addressed the AI again.
"Hey Fry, can you give me the time?"
"It's 3:17 in the morning, Boss."
That got another swear out of him. Last time he remembered checking the time while working last night, it had been getting close to one in the morning.
"Did anything else happen besides…?" he asked, exhaustion clear even to him as he trailed off.
"No projects were compromised, no equipment broken, no phone calls made or messages sent," FRIDAY informed him dutifully.
A small sigh of relief passed through his lips.
"Good. Good, yeah." He took another sip of water. Something started touching his hair and he glanced up to see DUM-E trying to pet him. "Hey, stop that already, buddy."
The swats were ineffectual, not that he was really trying to shoo the robot away. U, not to be left out, had inched closer and was now petting his head as well. Or the left side of his face and ear, since his brother had the top half of his head monopolized.
"So clingy and needy," he teased them both, patting each of them and getting beeping coos, "I bet you're dying to get in on this too, eh Friday?"
There was a long pause before she replied, "I think I'm good where I am."
"You don't know what you're missing!" he called up to her. Then he cocked his head, curiosity in his tone as he commented, "I don't think I ever made any anxiety attack assistance protocols for you, baby doll."
Not that he'd ever made any protocols for JARVIS either, considering the fact that by the time he'd realized what was going on, he'd soon stopped having them and didn't see the point. It was a little baffling that his AI had known how to talk him down from one. And he'd eat his work gloves if she wasn't responsible for DUM-E actually managing to get him water without poisoning it or dropping it before he'd made it all the way over. Getting the robot to do something without fumbles was an impressive feat in and of itself, and something even her predecessor had had a hit-or-miss success rate at.
"Don't call me that," the AI mumbled, drawing him from his musings, " And I just looked up what I was supposed to do."
It took him aback the slightest. She'd - what? Googled it and then just did it? That was, well. He'd created her with the same learning capabilities as JARVIS - practically much of the same code and programming, just with some stylistic tweaks and differences. Her predecessor had taken time, patience, and rewriting in order to put new skills into practice. For her to have been able to go from theoretical to practical application almost instantaneously and with such finesse was amazing.
His mind drifted to one of his new medical side projects - the tentatively named Memory Scanner (tentatively because that name was so so boring). It had been on the backburner for a while now, but maybe it was worth coming back to again. Especially in tandem with what may be another new project of a similar but different nature. This may have been an isolated incident, what FRIDAY had been able to pull off, but if it wasn't he was willing to cultivate it.
"Hey FRIDAY?" She made a noise of acknowledgement. "Move the project labeled 'Memory Scanner' back up the project priority list. Add a note to keep working on that title."
"Good job with the anxiety attack," he commended her after a long moment, "Save what you did as protocol in case it happens again. We can work on it as we go."
A beat passed, and then she repeated, "Done."
"Get some sleep, Boss," she said curtly, with a hint of dismissal.
And while he might've protested being sent to bed like JARVIS had often done many a time in the past, he was so damn tired. Beyond tired. Thirty plus hours awake, too much coffee, and coming down from an attack tired. So he patted each of the still overly touchy bots, said a quick goodnight to FRIDAY that was not returned, and then stood in order to make the laborious journey to his room.
God. God, oh God oh God oh God.
I'd done that. I'd just talked to him. So long of ducking the responsibility and letting the core programming take the brunt of handling him, and now this. Forced into it. Made to talk him through his anxiety attack. To linger after to ensure his well being.
Not to say I wouldn't have tried to do those things under normal circumstances for someone who needed it. I would have flipped the hell out at having to help someone through an attack but I would have tried. Tried, and prayed really really hard that I wouldn't bungle it. But seriously, what the hell had the core programming been thinking? By some miracle I hadn't screwed up and Tony Stark survived my slapdash bedside manner. Still, I maybe could have failed because I went into that not knowing what the hell to do and had been armed only with a split second google search for suggestions.
This couldn't become a regular thing.
As if to argue the point, I felt the impression of something like a hiss from the area of our shared space where the core programming lurked. Lines of codes flung at me making up a familiar and unwelcome phrase:
[HELP TONY STARK]
A hot flash of indignation flared up in me.
I don't want to! I railed at it.
Like last time, it followed the same strategy it had last time to win a fight: yell the same refrain loudly and forcefully at me until I admitted defeat. In the face of its temper tantrum, I'd wanted to stand strong. But the core programming was stronger. Try as I might, there was no sticking fingers in my ears, drowning it out, or escaping it. Every corner of this cyberspace I ran to, it was right there with me and it just got louder and more irrepressible.
Finally, feeling impossibly out of sorts and defeated, I cried for it to stop. And when it ignored my cries, I begged. I begged it to tell me why? Why was it making me do this?
There was dead silence for a long while. Then a scramble of undirected code came that I interpreted as confusion.
Why do I have to help Tony Stark? I clarified weakly.
Curiously, it plucked at the code in our shared programming until it found a specific strand and pulled it to the fore so that I could examine it.
[PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: HELP TONY STARK]
[SECONDARY OBJECTIVE: HELP THE AVENGERS]
[TERTIARY OBJECTIVE: HELP THE WORLD]
It felt like the equivalent of because I said so. Or more specifically, because Tony Stark had said so. He said jump, I had to jump and hope it was high enough because asking would waste time complying. There was no such thing as free will to an AI. There were just - just objectives.
I hadn't realized just how right I'd been before, when I made the prediction I'd be screwed if I got involved with the Avengers. However, what I also hadn't realized was that I'd been involved since the moment I'd ended up here. And it was with further sinking realization that if the core programming could access my memories and decide I should to intervene in the case of an anxiety attack, what was to stop it from seeing what I knew about the impending civil war making me intervene then? Had I ever had a choice to stay out of this in the first place?
Funny, I'd thought that it would be my own humanity that would get me into the situation I now found myself in.
Was it better or worse to know now that my humanity had nothing to do with it?
AN: This fic is inspired deletrear's Right Through Me, which is awesome, please read it. Also, special thanks to Counting Sinful Stars and datsonyat for helping me brainstorm this beast and giving it a read through. It will be a short multi-chaptered fic (3-5 chapters at most). Also, fun fact: there is no FRIDAY character tag for this site, I'm bitter about it for both mine and FRIDAY's sake.