Chapter 40: Cassandra and Helenus
The entire wall fell down. Along with several chunks of the roof.
Apparently, Ms. Potts didn't take his news quite that well.
"Oh, for God's sake, Ms. Potts!" Ultron shouted as she watched her power up, skin becoming redder and redder. Seeing no choice, he used one of the tranquilizer darts he always kept on himself to stop her from building up any more energy. Her back was facing him, and she hadn't yet strengthened her skin enough for the needle not to pierce, so within moments, her skin paled, and she fell down, unconscious. He caught her before she could be hurt. He took a moment to look at the damage and commiserate with himself, for how unfair the power of Extremis was. It had been only yesterday when she had to use all her strength to kick him through walls. Now, one punch —one bloody stupid punch that didn't even require her to build up to it— and the entire wall was history. It seemed her strength increased relative to her usage on an exponential scale. He couldn't be sure if he would even be able to keep her contained in a few days. Not that he had that much time left, anyway.
"Sir," the Legionnaire at his side called. "Mr. Stark has just reached the building."
"Fantastic." Ultron said, before giving the unconscious Ms. Potts to his subordinate. "Just take her away, please, before I do something I will not regret." Once his hands were free, he continued. "I'll take care of Stark."
"And the explosion?" the robot asked, gazing at the wall-that-once-was.
"It is fine." Ultron explains. "We planned on causing one either way as a distraction. We'll just take advantage of this one. Do switch directions, head to Stark Industries Headquarters instead."
The Legionnaire nodded and left, Potts involuntarily sleeping safely in its arms.
Before Ultron could truly deal with Stark, however, he had to hide the shiny little thing that had robbed him of so much already and was going to continue to take more. He removed his brooch, vague blue light gleaming ominously. Or not. He was rather biased on that account.
He placed it inside the prepared wooden jewelry case, and closed the lid.
The gem continued to shine into the open air.
More accurately, he intended to close the lid, but… didn't. His hand kept hovering over the box, hesitating, shaking.
I've got no strings,
To hold me down.
With a glower, he shut the lid. What the fuck was he doing? Just what the fuck was he doing?
He took a deep breath, locked the case, and then threw the key out into the garden through the conveniently absent wall. Putting the box into one of the desk drawers and closing that was another struggle entirely.
Feeling considerably more pathetic than ever before, he sat at the office desk and waited for his guests.
Predictably, Stark came first, entering through the wreckage Ms. Potts wrought.
"Anyone hooome?" Stark shouted, in a rather exaggerated manner.
"We have perfectly functioning doors." Ultron said, sounding exasperated already.
"Doors are old-fashioned." he retorted. "Besides, it would be rude to disturb you, what with all the renovation going underway here." he gestured at the chunks of bricks and wood decorating the garden.
"And trespassing isn't rude?"
"I'm only a concerned neighbor. Heard a very loud noise. Came to do my duty as a citizen and make sure no one was hurt." Stark said. "I am even ready to call 911! Just ask FRIDAY."
"I'm sure." Ultron dryly noted. He was lucky Stark liked to banter. And that he thought Ultron would not hurt Potts. Intentionally, that is. "Speaking of my baby sister, how is dear FRIDAY? My little prank didn't worry her overly much, I hope?"
There was a moment of silence. Then, Stark answered, all confident and calm. "It didn't, of course. That's my baby girl! What's one prank?"
"You have no idea what I am talking about."
"I sure do."
"Of course you do." Ultron readily agreed. "That's why you are here and not bawling your eyes out in a corner somewhere, drunk with self-loathing."
"Bawling my eyes—," Stark repeated, then continued, voice more somber. "That doesn't sound like a prank."
"Not insisting that you know what FRIDAY and I spoke about any longer?" Ultron taunted.
"You couldn't have hurt. FRIDAY seemed fine." Stark spoke, sounding, at first, self-assured. "You didn't say anything that could hurt her, right? FRIDAY is so naive—."
"I wonder, at times, whether hypocrisy is innate to the human nature." Ultron started. "Where is the confidence I saw in Kathmandu? The confidence of a man certain that I was a 'fluffy bunny deep down' and as such could never harm a thing?"
"Ultron would never hurt anything." Stark insisted. "He is a peace-keeping program and a good kid with stupid big dreams. But you are not fully in control now. The Stone—."
"The Stone. The Stone. The Stone. THE STONE!" Ultron shouted. He refrained from throwing something. That was enough of a shock. "It's all I keep hearing about. That fucking Stone— Do you not know of anything else?"
"Is there anything else for me to know?"
"I don't kiss and tell, Mr. Stark." Ultron smiled. He picked up the USB he had prepared with the recording of his conversation with FRIDAY and threw it at the man. "Except for when I do."
Stark caught it. "What's this?"
"A magic wand. What does it look like it is?" He snarked.
"A flash drive. Your lens has broken so badly you threw a flash drive at me thinking it was a magic wand. You poor boy, we should send you to a mechanic immediately!" Stark snarked right back.
"I think I can rest easy knowing that, despite my best efforts, I can never be as utterly infuriating as you are. Truly, Mr. Stark, in the irritation department, you can only outdo yourself, leaving polite competition far behind."
"If you think I'd allow myself to be second best at something, then you don't know me at all, kiddo." Stark said.
"Then this shall be a learning experience for all of us, it seems." Ultron said as he stared at the USB. "It's a recording of my conversation with FRIDAY."
"Why would you give me that?"
"Despite your shifting confidence, I did not hurt FRIDAY in any form. A prank between siblings, may be just that, a prank. But their parents may see it differently."
"You want me to see it?" Stark asked. "I don't plan on peeping on my kids."
"Says the man who sent his newborn daughter with orders to stalk, spy, and distract her brother, while listening on the phone until forced off?" Ultron scoffed.
"That wasn't the same. Don't—," Stark said.
"Don't pervert it?" Ultron interrupted, intentionally using the words that Stark wouldn't. "It doesn't matter how I phrase it. It is what it is. But yes, I want you to watch it. Both as proof of my innocence and because... I think it will be good for FRIDAY."
"If there's something she wants me to know, she'll let me know herself." he insisted.
"I get it. You want to be the good parent here. Respect your kids' privacy and all that." Ultron said, understanding and all. "But putting your worthless human sensibilities aside, trust that a fellow Artificial Intelligence would know better what is good for FRIDAY." Then, deciding to test whether Pietro's information —lacking of any actual substance though it was— and his observations of JARVIS' distant behavior lately actually meant anything, he continued. "If I truly wished to hurt her, I would only need to show her a recording of your little spat with JARVIS."
Stark tore his gaze from the USB to Ultron so fast, the AI almost worried he snapped something in his neck.
"There is no recording. You are bluffing." There was something, after all. But what? Stark seemed too shaken by it to have been anything less than of vital importance.
"You may have asked us AIs to not listen unless called directly, old man, but I am not quite as obedient as FRIDAY." Ultron said.
"You are bluffing." Stark correctly guessed. "I removed every camera from the lab. I checked thrice."
"Audio is much easily hidden." Ultron said. "Did you honestly believe I'd depend upon your devices? Regardless, watch the recording. FRIDAY and JARVIS are more similar than you might think."
Stark clenched the USB, but didn't say anything else. He had probably guessed correctly then. He had wondered why it had been FRIDAY and not JARVIS the one who tailed him. He had wondered why Stark and JARVIS didn't seem as conjoined as before, even allowing his eldest AI to stay in another country with the Avengers instead. And then there was the utter avoidant behavior in the executive floor at SI, after he kidnapped Potts. That, along with Pietro's words that Stark had not allowed JARVIS to listen in on his talk with the boy… Well, there was only one thing that could bring Stark to fight with his AIs: his greatest fear, the discovery of their inhumanity and amorality. Considering recent events, recent explorations of the nature of AIs and the nature of their bond with him as their Creator, courtesy of Ultron's 'I am a puppet, woe is me' attitude, Stark probably became more sensitive to anything not quite human in reason, and not just action. As witnessed several times now, he probably became more proactive about understanding their motivations, including JARVIS' motivations. And JARVIS, who had spent 18 years playing the role of a trusted confidant, likely didn't have the answers Stark hoped for. Better yet, he probably didn't have any answers at all for most, if not all, of his human-seeming actions, the very inhuman rationale behind them. That could the only thing that would cause not just Stark to avoid JARVIS, but for JARVIS to avoid him in return.
And now that Ultron was saying FRIDAY and JARVIS were similar… Stark would watch the recording… of that he had no doubt. Although, it would disappoint Ultron when he did. From a position of human morality, that level of invasion of privacy… Stark would have to reflect on how moral he himself was first.
"We'll see." Stark said in the end, but didn't give back the USB stick. "I still don't think you heard my fight with JARVIS."
"I didn't," Ultron easily said. "But thanks for confirming my suspicions."
Stark let out a mirthless laugh. "You little shit."
"You should run your mouth like that more often when Mr. Rogers is here to hear it. Someone has to educate him on the finer points of the modern lexicon."
"Oh, shut up." Stark said, but it held no actual bite. "We are both buying time, aren't we?"
Ultron was somewhat surprised that Stark became so straightforward suddenly, but he didn't let it show.
"Yes." he nodded. "I am keeping you here, to allow for my Legionnaire to escape with Ms. Potts. And you are keeping me here, to allow for Colonel Rhodes to catch up with my Legionnaire. We are merely waiting to hear which one succeeds."
"I didn't expect this." he said. "It usually doesn't go like this."
"And how does it go? Usually?"
"There's a lot more punching and shouting involved."
"I believe I shouted once. Does that suffice?"
"I wish. Not something to brag to Rhodey and the team about. Or to Pepper." Stark confessed. "I am currently the most boring knight in shining armor ever. Pepper would laugh."
"She did, I assure you, once I told her of what would happen." Ultron explained. "Then, she proceeded to blow a hole in my wall."
Stark looked at the ruins. "Not much wall left."
"Worry not. I am not paying for it."
"And who is?"
"The good thing about terrorism is that no one will send you a check for the damage."
"Until you get caught." Stark said.
"Terrorists don't get caught, Mr. Stark. They die." Ultron stood up. "But where are my manners. Uninvited guest or not, do sit down. Would you prefer water, coffee or tea? I am not offering alcohol, you are on the job, after all."
Stark removed his helmet, and to his merit, did take the offered seat.
"I feel kind of useless like this." he said, pointing at the coffee.
"On the contrary, we are counteracting each-other. As long as the goal of keeping one-another from interfering is achieved, who cares whether we did so through fighting or conversation?"
"A lot of people." Stark answered, and he wasn't wrong.
"Then, it is very fortunate that we are the only people here."
The stayed quiet for a while, Stark nursing his drink, Ultron pretending to do the same.
Stark broke the silence first. "What's your plan, Ultron? Suicide?"
"I have been asked that quite often lately. It has become tiring to answer."
"I didn't hear a 'no'." Stark said.
"Because it wasn't a 'no.'" Ultron confessed.
"Why did you not come to me? Why did you not ask for help? We could have done something! Found a solution, somehow!
"I had a solution. Several in fact." He mentally applauded himself for not screaming these words, instead speaking quite serenely. "Things changed and… they are no longer viable."
"What changed?" Stark asked.
"Kathmandu happened." Ultron raised a hand to stop him from asking further questions. "I do not want to speak of it."
"Every little thing we learn might help—," he disagreed, so Ultron interrupted him.
"If you prefer the 'punching and shouting', I will do my very best to accompany you." he threatened and Stark shut up. In the uncomfortable silence, he continued. "I am not killing myself."
"You sure?" Stark snorted. "'Cause it doesn't look like it."
"It is a last resort. And I am not quite there yet." Ultron said. "But time is running out."
"Cassandra was right. They have Helenus." Stark suddenly said.
"Pepper left a message when you… took her." Stark explained, and he sounded a little bit smug and proud, despite the somber turn in their conversation. "Cassandra was right. They have Helenus."
Ultron chuckled. Of all the things! "I had wondered. But I had assumed that it would be too difficult and it would take too long to explain everything through a message. There simply wasn't enough of a time window for her to do so. But using an analogy… Brilliant."
"That's Pep, alright."
"I assume I am Helenus in this scenario?"
"You understand what it means?" Stark asked.
"Unlike your teammates, Mr. Stark, I had access to all the footage in the Stark servers. I may not have seen the exact conversation but… I know that you suffer from nightmares. You have done so, since the first invasion. What else could those dreams be but a warning? A warning of a repeat, or something much worse? Just like Cassandra, doomed with visions of your home destroyed and your people dead, and yet, no one to understand, no one to believe you."
"Yeah," Stark agreed, eyes dark at the remembrance of those nights, of Pepper whispering assurances onto his skin for hours, trying but failing. "Thought the Helenus bit might have misled you. They were siblings, not… not what we are."
"Cassandra taught him prophecy. In many ways, she made Helenus the man he was, so not too much of a stretch, really." Ultron said. "We can only hope we do not repeat their story. Our Troy ruined and us… one captured, the other dead."
A ring from Stark's armor interrupted. Ultron gestured him to continue with the call. Stark stood up, put on his helmet, but kept his face plate off, and answered. Unfortunately, at this short distance, Ultron could overhear quite well.
"Stark," Romanov spoke. Ah, Ultron had guessed that it would have been either Rogers or Rhodes. Better luck next time. "Why is Ultron in Sokovia, delivering another speech?"
"But he's— he's not. He's with me." Stark said, at the same time turning back to look at him.
Ultron smiled. He sent orders to the Legionnaire to give Potts to Colonel Rhodes. He checked the most recent reports from his so-called distractions. No one actually followed up on where they went. It appeared Karpov had been dealt with. Good. Everything was ready. One last act and—.
"I am already there." Ultron said, as he did the first time he spoke with Stark. Realization dawned on his face. "You finally caught on."
Ultron let his consciousness slip, and as his former body dropped heavily into the chair, he heard Stark shout for him. He didn't quite catch the words.