Story Info

Title: God Switch

Author: Del Rion

Fandoms: Iron Man & Captain America & The Avengers (MCU) / The Matrix

Genre: Action, sci-fi, drama

Rating: M / FRM

Characters: Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Loki, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff, Betty Ross, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Guest appearances: The Architect, Emil Blonsky, Phil Coulson, JARVIS, The Merovingian, The Oracle, Persephone, Thaddeus Ross, Sati, Erik Selvig, Seraph, Samuel Sterns, Glenn Talbot.

Pairings: Betty/Bruce, Clint/Darcy/Natasha, Jane/Thor, implied Merovingian/Persephone

Summary: The Truce between men and Machines is threatened by a radical group called 'the Cleansers'. Steve Rogers, the captain of a hovercraft named 'The Avenger', takes his crew to find the ultimate weapon the Cleansers are looking for, and reunites with an old friend whom he'd thought long dead. How is Tony Stark connected to their mission, and does a weapon exist that could destroy the Machines?
Complete. Sequel to "Creator".

Written for: Science Fiction & Fantasy Big Bang's Round 5.
Also fills the "free space" square on my card in Trope Bingo's Round 2 (used trope: "au: fusion").

Artist: raktajinos (AO3/LJ) – see banner: archiveofourown . 0rg / works/934693

Warnings: Language, canonical violence.

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers & Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Joss Whedon, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The Matrix franchise belongs to siblings Wachowski, Warner Bros. Pictures and all other involved parties. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra

Feedback: Very welcome indeed, seeing as I'm only playing with The Matrix for the second time.


About God Switch: This is a fusion story, far as I understand the term.

To clear things up: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers come with their original backgrounds, being Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. (At this point I urge you to read my other fic, "Creator", because that explains some things concerning the backstory.) The other Avengers don't "exist" in this verse – however, they shall be implanted and integrated into the story in other ways (without powers).


Chapters and statuses: Below you see the writing process of the story's chapters. If there is no text after the chapter's title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Chapter 1: The Past and Present of Steve Rogers
Chapter 2: The Avenger
Chapter 3: The Cleansing
Chapter 4: The Oracle
Chapter 5: What Is or Isn't in Malibu
Chapter 6: The Map to Machine City
Chapter 7: Plan of Attack
Chapter 8: Family Reunions
Chapter 9: The Merovingian
Chapter 10: The Weapon
Chapter 11: Negotiations
Chapter 12: Dreaming the Morrow


. . .


Chapter 1: The Past and Present of Steve Rogers


Steve couldn't remember the exact time period in which Man had mastered the creation of fire. Back when they'd still lived in caves, probably, and perhaps that's why he remembered it now, looking at the tiny flickering flame casting large shadows on the walls of his hideout that was little more than a cave. It had been a while since he'd been able to find something to burn, to banish the darkness, and it hurt his eyes a little, but at the same time it sparked that old glimmer of hope in his chest.

The flickering flame would give him strength to go on until he found something edible. After all, the light always reminded him of the old days, and he could spend hours upon hours reminiscing, sinking deeper into what had been before the world fell into darkness. More often than not he thought about the time before the ice; not because it was clearer in his mind, but because it was easier.

Steve Rogers had lived three lifetimes.

The first lifetime was before and during World War II, when he had first become a hero. A soldier. He had been transformed from a weakling into a super-soldier; he'd fought Nazis, HYDRA, and eventually gave his life to protect the world from Red Skull's master plan.

He had ended up in the ice for almost seven decades, after which he awoke to his second lifetime in the twenty-first century. Steve was still Captain America, but unlike in wartime when he had been a solider among others, in the new century he became a full-fledged superhero; he had continued to fight the good fight to protect humanity and defend the weak and hunt down the wicked.

He hadn't been alone in that fight: Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, had fought alongside him, wearing his high-tech armor and trying to make the world a better place. They had clashed, due to personal differences, but eventually became friends – for which Steve was glad as the years rolled by and the people he had come to know after the ice passed away, one after another.

Tony, however, had inserted into himself a nanotechnology called Extremis, which enabled him to do something people called 'technopathy'. Steve hadn't been sure what it meant, even then, but Tony had always felt connected to machines and technology, and the Extremis enabled him to communicate with them. It had also given him regenerative powers, and one perk among many was that Tony no longer aged.

As the world moved on, Tony and Steve stayed the same, standing side by side; Captain America and Iron Man…

Steve huffed, looking at the small flame. He could remember Tony's laugh if he tried hard enough; he recalled the smile on his face, the quirk of his brow, the lines on his skin that marked the hardships he had gone through. He held onto the memories for a while, taking himself back in time, into the sunny space of Tony's home where they had often sat, reminiscing about the past and people they had met – and lost – trying to look ahead.

To convince themselves that they had been fighting the good fight.

It had been in those days that the AI was created, to brighten humanity's future and aid their endeavors. They had been little more than robots in Steve's eyes; smarter, perhaps, than the robots that had already existed, but Steve had had the privilege to interact with Tony's personal AI, JARVIS, and he knew the new Artificial Intelligence was far from JARVIS' abilities. Of course, if he had broached the subject with Tony, he would have either gotten an extensive lecture on how the new AI was still evolving – or troubled silence because Steve had known, even then, that Tony never told anyone what he really thought of the new AI, and his own involvement in its creation.

That had been the beginning of his third lifetime.

The Machine War had loomed on the horizon.

Steve had lived through the things that preceded it: the fight for Machine rights, the rise of their own city, the tilt in infrastructure and the bombing of Machine City.

Before the bombs had been dropped, Steve had carefully watched Tony for reactions, knowing the man had insights that their world leaders could only hope for. While no one had asked for Tony's input or opinion, it had been clear he opposed the direction humanity was taking against the Machines, and Steve had steered clear of the approaching battle.

Then Tony had gone to visit Zero One just before the nuclear attack vaporized Machine City, and was never to be seen again. JARVIS had gone silent in the aftermath, and Steve had been forced to admit defeat: his best friend was gone.

The war that followed had been brutal: the Machines had withstood the attack on their city and replied in kind. The humans had torched the skies in desperation, but the tide had inexorably been turned against them. Billions had died. Thousands had been taken by the Machines, experimented on. Steve had been one of the few survivors who hid and sometimes rebelled, but with dwindling resources many of them had been hunted down and efficiently destroyed.

Steve knew he could have made a stand. He could have rallied up the troops behind him, because Captain America still meant something to the people. He hadn't; before the war, he had told anyone who listened that the right course of action did not lead to another war. They had not listened. Instead he had tried to protect those few who remained with him, but one by one they fell, from malnutrition, injuries and maladies.

Steve had pushed on.

He had seen the power plants rise; fields of humans used as a new power source for the Machines.

Eventually, he had found survivors, and the city far beneath the Earth's surface: Zion. That had been when he first heard of the Matrix. Those who had escaped it had a hard time describing it, other than as a lie thrown across their eyes that was almost perfectly believable. A dream.

At the time Steve had wished, like so many others, to save those who remained locked within the Matrix, and to lead them to the real world. However, seeing as he was missing the headjack – a component all the people released from the Matrix had inserted into the backs of their heads – he couldn't do that.

So instead Steve had helped the best he could, and at one point it had seemed like humanity was winning when the One was discovered – a man with a deeper connection to the Matrix, tilting the balance in their favor. They had dreamt of saving humanity back in those days, and of overthrowing the Machines.

Not much later, the Machines had come and destroyed Zion and its population.

The One was lost.

Steve had escaped with his life and very few others. The group split up due to differences, and eventually Steve had once again been the lone survivor of his own group and wandered the wasteland for a time before heading back to see whether anyone else had made it and deemed it safe to return to where Zion had once stood.

There had been people there, and the rebuilding of Zion had already begun. Steve had gladly joined them.

Then more escapees from the Matrix had arrived, and Steve felt a strange sense of déjà-vu: it was the same as before, all over again; as if their past struggles to free people had been for naught, as no one could remember it. Zion had been growing and strengthening, however, so Steve had let it go and enjoyed the life he had.

His suspicions had grown exponentially when another One was discovered – a man who once again led the people in a struggle against the Machines. And just like before, Zion had eventually come under a direct attack from the Machines.

Steve had almost died that time.

He'd also lost his shield, which he had managed to cling to until then.

When he'd crawled into the darkness of long-abandoned tunnels that couldn't fit the Sentinels, he had considered his options. When he'd grown stronger, he had wandered on his own, but eventually his weakness had grown and he returned to Zion – finding it once again rebuilt and inhabited.

Steve had found the ones in power and told them that he'd already seen this happen twice before. However, his words had not been met with kindness, and as the years rolled by, Steve had felt the impending sensation of doom. Then the One had been discovered once more, and he had left; Steve had refused to see Zion destroyed for a third time.

Whenever Steve had given into the weakness and returned, he found the cycle repeating itself. Some people he spoke to believed him, but not those who mattered. Perhaps it was human nature, wanting to believe they had a choice in the matter; that their lives weren't part of a pattern. That once they escaped the Matrix, they were free.

Five times, he counted.

He hadn't been there for all of them, not at the crucial moment, but he could do the math. It was like a horrible game for the Machines, yet each time Steve hoped it would end differently. That mankind would triumph in the final battle.

They never did. Thousands were killed and life was rebooted to start all over again.

As much as the isolation hurt him, Steve guessed exile was better, because how could he live with himself when he failed over and over again to convince the leaders of Zion that their lives were meaningless unless they changed the pattern?

He was once again nearing the time when he itched for company; when he would break down and make his way down to Zion, one agonizing mile at a time, knowing that he would find a place there if he told no one of the life he had lived. After all, if he told them he remembered the time before the Machines, they would not believe whatever he said next.

Steve told himself he would be stronger this time. He didn't need to see Zion destroyed or another senseless war taking place. He didn't want to get to know people he couldn't protect, couldn't save. Sure, he entertained the idea that he could gather a close circle of friends and lead them away from the city when the time grew near to Zion's destruction. To build a place of their own. After all, he had traveled far and wide in his time, and while the skies were still black, the Machines did not move far from the new city they had built on top of the ruins of the old one. If they went far enough, perhaps they could establish a community that wasn't part of the system the Machines had clearly created with Zion.

The small flame flickered and went out, startling him. He felt a draft against the skin of his ankle, and somewhere far beneath him, something crashed. The floor shook. Steve knew he wasn't close enough for usual Machine activity, which meant the possibility of a lost vessel, or something out of the ordinary.

He picked up his pack, worn but still able to carry his meager belongings, then left the shelter which may have once been the sub-basement of a building. Steve picked a path through the darkness, his eyes used to it, hands and feet moving with agile grace along the nooks and crannies in the walls of the sewers that provided pathways to follow. He didn't want to count the number of years he had spent walking around while his body struggled to survive without proper nourishment, and he wished to see the sun more than anything. For years he had traveled paths like this, and he knew how to navigate them silently and make sure he had several exists in case he was faced by Machines.

Ending up at a wider tunnel, he looked around. Far away in the darkness, beyond a curve, he saw something blue-ish sparkle. He made his way towards it, looking for a weapon as he went. The air was not as clear as above, almost as if unwilling to fill his lungs, but his body adapted as he moved forward, silent and unnoticed.

As he moved around the curve, he could see the somewhat familiar shape of a hovercraft. He had traveled in one numerous times, and they had changed very little over time. Another reminder that the cycle repeated, over and over…

He saw movement and pressed himself against the wall immediately. Something… someone moved near the ship, not very silently, which meant they knew they were far enough away from Machine territory to feel free to make such a ruckus. "Goddammit," a male voice swore, then there was a slight beep. "We lost the pads on one side. All of them. I told them we wouldn't be able to make that turn!"

"There's no point arguing about it now. Can we fix enough of them to limp back home?" a female voice asked through something that might be a radio, the voice echoing off the walls.

"Did you hear me when I said we 'lost' the pads?" the man outside snarled into the communicator device. "Where's the technician?"

"Dead," the woman replied.

"Seriously?" The man paused. "Any other casualties?"

"I haven't done a full round, but it would seem… it's pretty ugly in here. I'm sure you see the dent in the hull? Caused an explosion in the rear."

"Who's left?"

"You and me… and Bruce. That's about it. Bruce dragged Jasper out of the wreckage that's now the engine room, but he bled out a few minutes ago."

"Fuck," the man outside the ship swore and Steve saw him lean against the hull – then whirl angrily and kick at the nearest object, which was probably a piece from the ship. "Fucking hell!"

Steve pulled away from the wall and slowly approached. When the other man didn't notice him, stating into the darkness, Steve made a point of shoving a piece of metal with his foot. The other man whirled around and raised something – a gun – towards him, as well as a flashlight.

"Who's there?"

"Hi," Steve said slowly. "I'm not a threat. I… heard you crash."

The weapon didn't move, but the light did, pointing at his face. Steve stopped and waited. He didn't want to get shot, on top of everything. From the side he heard something – shuffling steps – and then another person appeared in the flickering lights from the working pads of the hovercraft. It was a man with a blood-stained face and curly brown hair. He looked at Steve and then seemed to realize Steve shouldn't be there and jumped a little. "Who's he?"

"No idea," the man with the gun growled. "Who are you?"

"My name is Steve," Steve said. Surnames had stopped existing a long time ago. "I heard you crash," he repeated. "I came to see if I could help."

"Heard us crash?" the second man asked, stepping towards him. Steve could make out a frown on his face. He guessed this was Bruce. "Is there another ship?"

"No, just me," Steve told them. "Would you put that down?" he asked the man with the gun. "Unless you would rather not, since I'm the intruder here."

"If there's no other ship then where the hell did you come from?" the first man asked him, shifting the gun to better point at Steve's chest.

"The surface," Steve shrugged.

"There's nothing on the surface," Bruce argued.

"There's not much here, either," Steve pointed out and looked at them both – then registered the sound of someone else exiting the damaged hovercraft; the woman he had heard on the communicator, no doubt.

"Who's he?" she asked.

"No idea," the man with the gun replied.

"I'm Steve," Steve offered again.

"Where did he come from?" the woman repeated the big question.

"Surface, he says," Bruce mused, still frowning.

"Are you from Zion?" Steve asked in return, wanting to bring something familiar into the discussion – something familiar to these people. Not that he expected them to be from anywhere else, and he briefly wondered at which point during the history-repeating-itself cycle they were living in.

"Yeah," the man with the gun admitted, lowering the weapon slightly, but not enough to not be able to shoot Steve if he felt the need. "Where else?"

"Good point," Steve agreed.

"Are you not from Zion?" Bruce asked. Clearly, he wasn't stupid, and the way he kept studying Steve's face felt like he was being dissected and reassembled.

"Sort of," Steve answered. "It's… complicated. I can lead you to the nearest access-point to more frequently used tunnels if your communications are down."

"What's in it for you?" the man holding the gun asked and lifted the weapon slightly once more.

"Well, if you have any extra provisions, those would be welcome. Like you said, there's nothing on the surface. Any food you have, I'm happy to take, but if not, I'll still lead you to a place where you can hopefully contact your people."

"Our people?" the woman repeated. "I'm not sure I trust you. Easier to have Clint here put a bullet in you and go off on our own. We know which way to go."

"I know shortcuts," Steve offered.

"I vote for the bullet," the man, Clint, stated.

"You know of Zion, but I haven't seen you there," Bruce mused. "Not that I know everyone there, but… Why would you rather stay out here? There's… nothing out here," he motioned at the dark tunnel.

"Like I said, it's complicated."

"Then un-complicate it," Clint suggested.

"Or you'll shoot me?" Steve confirmed. He didn't sound as scared as he should, and the woman immediately picked up on that fact.

"He's holding a gun at you and you're not afraid. Why? Do you have friends waiting, ready to pillage the ship?"

"I'm alone," Steve stated as genuinely as he could, and allowed himself a sad little laugh. "I've been alone for so long it's probably not healthy for a human being, because isolation is… not a condition we handle very well."

"But it's better than living in Zion?" Bruce raised an eyebrow.

"For a time."

"And when the time's up?"

"I usually migrate back to Zion and make myself useful there."

Clint still didn't buy it, or the woman, but Bruce held up a hand at them. "Okay, Steve," he said. "If we can't get the ship fixed, or the communications, we'll take you up on your offer to show us to the nearest tunnel that the other ships may be using. Maybe we can even cook up a transmission device and send for help. You're welcome to the resources we have after we've taken what we need for our journey back."

"Why are you offering him anything?" Clint asked. "We don't know him."

"He's a human being. Besides, I get a good vibe from him," Bruce shrugged and turned. In the weak light, Steve could see the familiar black dots on his skin, the most prominent ones half-hidden by his hair at the base of his skull.

Clint lowered his gun and scowled at him, then shrugged. "Whatever. If you try to murder us in our sleep, I'll have Natasha here give you the most memorable goodbye of your life – or what's left of it, at that point."

Steve nodded. "Fair enough."

They all returned to the ship, and Steve looked around. Memories flooded his mind, but he locked them away, taking a good look at his new friends instead. All of them carried the familiar marks of the pods on them. "You're all Redpills," he noted as they moved around, gathering items and checking on the ship's systems. A burnt smell hung in the air, and there might have been fires burning still, further inside the vessel.

"What do you know about that?" Clint asked as he tugged a panel off the wall and peered inside at the wires and flashing lights.

"I know what the Matrix is, although I've never been there, obviously," Steve noted. He looked up as Bruce came by, dragging along a dead body; one of their crewmembers, no doubt. He moved to give him a hand.

"You make it sound like you'd like to visit the Matrix," Bruce noted as they set the body down in a separate room. "You're also not squeamish about a dead body," he added, as if that was more important.

"I've… fought in a war. I've seen plenty of bodies," Steve admitted. "Eventually, you just stop paying attention to how they make you feel." He looked at the other man. "Yes, I'm curious about the Matrix. After all this time… I mean, it's like this place everyone else has been to, but not you, and you never get the inside jokes."

Bruce gave him a half-hearted smile. "You make it sound like a vacation."

"I've met people who wanted to go back," Steve noted as they moved back to the hallway and approached the mess. There were items all over the floor, just like elsewhere on the ship, from the crash landing. Bruce reached up to a cabinet and discovered a mug on a shelf, then placed it under a dispenser and squirted some rather disgusting looking pale substance in it. He found a spoon on the floor and offered both to Steve, who took them without hesitation. He recalled what the food on board the hovercrafts had been like when he was last living in Zion, and he was too hungry to care about its appalling appearance.

"It would seem you've done a lot of things," Bruce mused.

Steve gave him a nod and continued to shovel in the food. With no next meal in sight, his starving body embraced every drop; half the time he was amazed he hadn't simply fallen into a coma in between intakes of sustenance, but the super-soldier serum kept him going even though it didn't remove the bottomless pit of hunger.

"Would you like to come back to Zion with us?" the other man asked at length, after Steve had polished off the mug. Bruce reached out his hand and Steve handed the mug over with some regret – only to have it returned to him full of the same gelatinous substance.

He gave Bruce a smile and dug in. "Maybe," he said between spoonfuls. "It's been a while since I saw another person. Guess I'm a little starved for both food and company."

"You know it's really suspicious that you're out here on your own," Bruce pointed out.

"You don't know why I'm here," Steve noted, then met the serious eyes and guessed he might as well ask: "Have they discovered the One yet?"

Bruce blinked, and for a moment Steve guessed they hadn't. He had lost count of the days and years, and the last time he had visited Zion, there had only been prophesies of the coming of the One.

"You mean Neo?" Bruce replied suddenly, startling Steve out of his musings. "That was… a long time ago. You know there's a truce, right? Between humans and Machines?"

Steve would have dropped the mug, but his body craved the food so much he didn't think he could let go of the half-full dish even if he wanted to. "A truce?"

Bruce nodded. "Neo went to Machine City, when the Machines attacked Zion. He brokered for a truce. There's been peace ever since."

"You mean Zion wasn't destroyed?"

Bruce's frown returned. "Well, I know a lot of people thought that would happen, but… no. I'm not saying there's absolute peace, but we don't bother them, and they don't bother us, and whoever wants to leave the Matrix is allowed to do so."

Steve's head reeled. The circle had been broken. This… Neo… had done what the others could not: instead of leading Zion to destruction despite the promises and prophesies, he had managed to save Zion.

"Yes," Steve finally managed. "I would like to come to Zion with you." Perhaps after all this time, he could find a little peace of his own.

Steve finished his dinner, and Bruce filled his mug for a third time, then led them out of the mess. Clint and Natasha had taken apart half the cockpit, it seemed. The pads were all turned off, leaving the tunnel in full darkness, while inside the lights were on low.

"I think we managed to construct a beacon to send a message back to Zion," Clint announced. "We'll give it time to work, and then hike back if it doesn't."

"Sounds like a plan," Bruce admitted.

Natasha looked at the two of them and stared at Steve eating his third portion. "I've never seen anyone enjoy that sludge as much as you are."

"Try going without food for a few months," Steve countered; he was in too good of a mood to censor himself.

All three gave him weird looks, then unanimously seemed to decide he was joking. Bruce tugged on Steve's sleeve. "Unless you can help them, let's go pack up my lab."

"Your lab?"

"Yeah," Bruce rubbed the back of his neck. "I was a scientist in the Matrix and I guess that carried over." They entered a room situated behind and to the left of the cockpit, which looked just as messy as everywhere else, but at least there were no bodies or signs of explosions. There were, however, gadgets and tools that took Steve's mind back to Tony Stark's lab for a moment, and he just stared. "It's the best collection of tools I've been able to collect, and I won't be leaving all of it behind if we have to go on foot," Bruce said resolutely. He sat at a computer terminal and switched on the screen, then started tapping commands.

"What's your field?" Steve asked, proud of himself that he selected such an appropriate word after all these years.

"In the Matrix, radiation. Here… well, I've done this and that. I especially like to study the connection between the human body and the Matrix – you know, after you've been redpilled," he replied. "You can't just hook up your body to a machine and think that your mind is the only thing that is affected. Just like if you die out there, you die here, and… you probably don't want to hear about that," he added, looking at Steve. "I know most natural-born aren't into it, although they work with Redpills all the time. They like knowing how to make things click, but that's it."

Steve slid a hand over one of the tables. "Theoretically speaking, could you install a headjack into a person who doesn't have one?"

"Theoretically… Well, the Machines did that, so, yes," Bruce replied.

"So, then… you could maybe give me one?" Steve went on.

Bruce turned his chair around to look at him and Steve met his eyes. "Was that really a rhetorical question?"

"I've always wanted to see it. The Matrix." Steve wished to live in a world he had been forced to leave behind, instead of the barren wasteland and the dark skies.

"It's not worth it," Bruce noted.

"We could have a debate over that. You've been there. You've… had that life."

"And I'm glad I'm away from that life. It's a lie, Steve."

"I like to think of it as a memory," he shrugged. "It's…"

"Complicated?" Bruce frowned. "Is that why you're staying away from Zion? Said the wrong things to the wrong people?"

"No," Steve shook his head. "You're the first person I've ever posed that question to – because you're the only person who's clearly spent time studying the subject." He nodded at all the drawings and schematics on the walls, detailing the headjack and its connection to the human brain.

"The Matrix… Even if it were possible, physically, no one could survive the procedure. I'm pretty sure even the Machines have to build them into the fetuses…"

"They experimented, in the beginning," Steve corrected him. "On humans of all ages, from babies to adults; tweaked and tried to find the perfect balance as they mapped the humans' response to stimuli. That was before the pods, and the fields."

"You know you sound insane, right?"

"But you sound like you want to believe me." Steve met his eyes. "I met you, for the first time, less than an hour ago. You're already having an internal debate over whether you'll be able to convince me to lie down on a table and go through with it."

"No," Bruce shook his head and jerked back against the table behind him, but he didn't spring up from his chair and escape the room.

"Yes," Steve insisted. "And I will, if you know what you're doing." He looked at the drawings on the walls again. "I want to see it. I want to live the lie, even for a moment, to survive another couple centuries here. I… want to pretend the life I remember is still there, for a few seconds."

"The life you remember…"

"I was born on the fourth of July, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. I fought in World War II – which I'm not sure the Matrix told you about – and then spent almost seventy years asleep in the ice before I was rediscovered. I saw the creation of the Artificial Intelligence that later took over the world and made humanity into its own personal fuel cell. I've seen… I've been to Zion, lived in Zion, for longer than you've been alive."

The other man stared at him in absolute silence. Steve didn't interrupt whatever thought process was taking place in Bruce's brain. "You know that's… impossible, right?" the scientist finally spoke up, sounding a little choked.

"I've never met a person who knows what year it actually is," Steve countered. "Not that I know, either. The days sort of blur into months, and months into years, when you have no calendar to hold onto, or a sun to look at." He glanced towards the ceiling. "I miss the sun. I wonder if the one in the Matrix is similar to the real thing. The people who have described it never understood what I was really looking for when I asked them about the Matrix."

Bruce blinked and leaned forward in his chair, elbows propped on his knees and fingers curling together under his chin. "I've seen some messed up people who didn't exit properly. Brain damage. False memories. Sometimes the Matrix glitched, and… None of them sound like you. I mean, they believe it, but you… are different."

"I would ask if you believe in superheroes, but I already know the Matrix was pretty strict about that part of the history."

"Superheroes?"

"Yeah. People with… special abilities."

"Like the One?"

"A bit. Just, different, depending on the person. Not that there were many of us," he noted.

"Us?" Bruce repeated. "You think you're a superhero?"

"Do I look like someone who hasn't been eating properly for decades?" Steve pointed at his body. Sure, he wasn't in peak condition, but none of the people on this ship were a match to his physique.

"I'm starting to think you're a talented liar," Bruce countered and leaned back in his chair, giving him a speculative look.

"Or a madman," Steve offered. "After all, I have blind faith that my story is a true one. Those are the ones you should be really worried about."

"But they don't usually realize their condition, since their version of the truth is the one they live in," Bruce met his challenge.

"Thus, I must be the real deal," Steve noted dryly. "Not that I think you'll believe me, but…"

"It doesn't matter whether I believe you or not," Bruce countered. "How about this: if we get back to Zion and you come with us – instead of slaughtering us all before the rescue gets here – we'll see about that very controversial operation to give you a data port. Which will probably kill you, but since you're already insane, I'm not sure if letting you live this horrible fantasy is more merciful than ending it."

"Deal," Steve smiled tightly, and they shook on it. And Bruce was right: Steve had seen enough. If the experiment failed, he could finally enjoy the dreamless sleep of death. If it was a success… he would get to glimpse the world the Machine had built, and if it resembled anything like his past, Steve would be happy to stay there for a while.

to be continued…