Story Info

Title: The Fervid Defense Protocol

Author: Del Rion

Fandom: Iron Man (MCU)

Era: post-Iron Man 3

Genre: Action, thriller/suspense

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark (Iron Man), Tony's bots (DUM-E & U). Guest stars: Pepper Potts, James "Rhodey" Rhodes (War Machine)

Pairing: Pepper/Tony

Summary: Thinking that AIM went down with Killian was a mistake Tony didn't factor in; when the organization comes knocking, Tony finds himself ill-prepared to fight an enemy that knows exactly what he's made of. Problem is, AIM's well-laid plans didn't take into account one AI, two bots and a couple suits of armor.
Complete. Part of the "Genius, AI & Bots" series.

Written for: Robot Big Bang, Round 2

Artist: geckoholic (banner: bl00dredskies . livejournal . c0m / 97192 . html) [remove spaces and change c0m to com]

Warnings: Some canonical violence. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet: spoilers for Iron Man 3!

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Joss Whedon, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra

Feedback: Most welcome; bots need love, too! And AIs. And armors.

About The Fervid Defense Protocol: Somewhere along writing the story I decided to include it as part of the "Genius, AI & Bots" series – mostly because it fits that series perfectly. However, it can be read as a separate entry.

In case it's unclear: I love Iron Man. I also love J.A.R.V.I.S., DUM-E and U.

This is a perfect chance for me to shower the AI and the bots with lots of love in an action-filled chain of events – all of which boils down to something they were, in a sense, created to do: protect Tony Stark.

Also, the attempt was to write the story in J.A.R.V.I.S.'s point of view. (Not as easy as I would have thought, even when skipping all the technical jargon I'm totally not good at, and I'm not completely happy with how this story turned out. However, it was a good exercise with something different.)

Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

The Fervid Defense Protocol

. . .

Written for Robot Big Bang's Round 2.

The Fervid Defense Protocol

"Why can't you just come to New Y–"

"Pepper, honey," Tony interrupts the woman whose face adorns the screen in front of him. "You know I can't. I won't. Not yet."

She lets out a slow, deep sigh – pretending that she isn't disappointed or worried after all this time, nor that she isn't a little annoyed. If only she could hear Tony's heartbeat picking up a little, his respirations faster, shorter. "Fine. Just, don't spend all your time in Vegas at the casinos, okay?"

"Just because I'm in Nevada doesn't mean I'm in Vegas," Tony defends himself, a hint of irritation in his voice. "I'm working."

"'Working' in Nevada used to mean you paraded your way through half the casinos on the Strip before making your final stand in some high-end strip club." She sounds more amused than offended.

"Those were the days." Tony gives a dramatic pause for effect. "But, as I said, I'm here to work; I have a good work space, a nice house… You should join me."

"Maybe I will, once I've finished the meetings here. Also, I have to visit the L.A. headquarters; I was hoping you would join me there."

"I would love to, Pep, you know that, but I'm busy," Tony smiles at her.

She isn't fooled: she knows he has no desire to attend board meetings or anything that doesn't directly have to do with working. "Are you sure you're okay there by yourself?" Pepper asks, a note of concern in her voice.

"J.A.R.V.I.S. is with me, as are the bots. We're having some guy time."

"How are the bots? The last time I saw them, they were still suffering from the effects of sea water."

Tony tenses a little at her words, a minor change occurring in his heartbeat. "They're better. Swapped out some parts; just added new power cores this morning. Sad part is, they no longer require charging." He says it like it's a bad thing, but giving the bots arc-reactor-based power sources was a conscious choice, even though Tony pretends that whenever the bots were charging, he had time off – like parents of troublesome offspring. That argument is invalid, considering that the bots mostly charged themselves when Tony was away.

"You could work on them in L.A.," Pepper starts.

"No, I can't," Tony refuses. The tension is still there in his shoulders and he leans back in his chair, playing with a small screwdriver, avoiding Pepper's eyes on the screen. "You know they get freaked out at every little tremor."

"But that was just in the beginning, right?" Pepper sounds a little worried – as if she isn't certain who was more afraid of the miniature earthquakes shaking the building, Tony or the bots.

"I'm working on it," Tony promises, glancing at her again. "Have a good time with the board. Give them my best."

She gives him a wry look.

"I love you," Tony adds. His eyes are turning fonder; pupil dilation suggests the tension is actually leaving his system.

"I'll let you know when I'm headed for the west coast," Pepper replies. "Be good."

"You know me."

"That's why I have to say it out loud." Despite the crisp words, her smile is fond. She doesn't say she loves him, but she doesn't need to; just before the call is disconnected, they share one last look, and Tony exhales slowly afterwards.

He misses her.

"I am certain the bots could handle returning to Los Angeles by now, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. notes, although the AI knows it isn't necessary to speak up. J.A.R.V.I.S.'s creator knows this – knows exactly what they all can take, and that is why they are in Nevada right now.

"She'll be busy," Tony murmurs. It's an excuse – something to keep from exploring the real reasons behind his unwillingness to return to the coast – or New York City. Luckily, he has many places to hide – not that he will call it that.

"How are the servers coming up?" Tony asks, directing them both towards work. After the destruction of the Malibu estate, J.A.R.V.I.S. has had some loss of data and connection disruptions. Nothing was actually lost in the incident that washed the house into the ocean, but Tony has been occupied with other things and maintaining J.A.R.V.I.S. has not been among them.

J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn't judge, of course: he comprehends that Ms. Potts' condition took precedence, and after that the stabilization and refinement of Extremis was of utmost importance in the successful attempt to remove the shrapnel from Tony's chest and release him from the fear and pain he had lived with since Afghanistan.

Growing accustomed to seeing him without the arc reactor is the same as growing accustomed to the device in the first place – just like it is now normal to see a brief wash of burning orange beneath his skin when Tony gets truly anxious about something. It no longer happens whenever New York is mentioned, but other physical cues suggest the deep-seated trauma is still very much there, only better controlled.

"The new servers are working as expected, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. responds. "Your last manual update has improved data maneuverability. However, your new 'hyperdrive' is still causing small system crashes."

"Let's take a look at that, shall we?" Tony muses – which means they will retreat to the workshop and remain there for as long as it takes for the hyperdrive adjustments to be finished – or for another distraction to show itself; most likely it will be another call from Pepper.

A sweep of his hand is the command from Tony to turn everything off, and J.A.R.V.I.S. proceeds to execute the necessary commands. The room falls to pitch-black before the sequence finishes, though, and back-up generators switch on immediately.

"J?" Tony asks.

J.A.R.V.I.S. is blind while the sensors are rebooting. Hard-lines, as well as power-lines, have been severed. Outer perimeter safety net isn't responding.

"Talk to me, J.A.R.V.I.S.," Tony demands, voice harder, tenser.

The visual sensors come back online; Tony's body heat has gone up. "My apologies, sir: the re-synchronization of my sensors in between power source jumps seems troublesome – Warning!" J.A.R.V.I.S. notifies Tony the moment the warning triggers his defense systems. "Unknown user attempting to remotely access the data banks."

"Block it, pin it down," Tony orders.

"House perimeter compromised; preliminary scan with operational systems suggests high-energy weaponry."

"Lock us down, J," Tony commands. "Slow them down. I'll –" He turns towards the stairs, to go to the workshop. The logical option is to use either Mark 43 or Mark 44, although neither of them is fully combat ready. Before Tony can reach the stairs, however, the entire south-side wall explodes. The energy output of an unknown weapon makes it hard for J.A.R.V.I.S.'s sensors to analyze the immediate destruction, but the AI hears Tony's body hit the far wall and then land on the floor. Air leaves his lungs. In the settling dust, the backs of his hands glow a little. His stress levels – when compared to readings from previous battles – are spiking hard, and despite his modifications to the original Extremis formula, some stress-signals and symptoms stay the same.

Before Tony can rise and retaliate, five figures enter the room. Their bodies are protected by gear strongly resembling hazmat suits; they block the scanners and are fused to the weapons they are carrying. Judging from their body shape and mass, all five are men, of average build and showing no telltale superhuman signs. A quick scan shows a few possible weak points in their suits and weapons, which J.A.R.V.I.S. stores for further use and sends to the armor data banks.

The data package freezes mid-way.

Someone is interfering with J.A.R.V.I.S.'s physical systems.

Tony struggles to his feet, body poised to attack. In the smoking ruins of the living room, the five men are approaching, guns pointing at him. No warnings, gloating or requests to surrender pass between them: two of the intruders fire, and although Tony attempts to dodge, several small darts embed themselves in his body both through his clothes and where there is exposed skin. The capsules release their load almost instantaneously; Tony only manages to rip off one from his neck before his body jerks and he falls onto his knees on the floor.

The Extremis is fighting back: flashes of orange burn beneath his skin. However, unlike in various tests Tony has been conducting on himself in secret – secret from Pepper, anyway – Extremis seems to be having a problem dealing with the substance released from the darts. His body is visibly shaking, perspiration appearing on his skin, and his expression betrays the pain he's experiencing.

With great difficulty, Tony crawls backwards towards the nearest doorway. "J.A.R.V.I.S., lock-down," he murmurs, voice thick with pain.

J.A.R.V.I.S. contacts a remote server to boost the processing power; it would have been better not to, seeing as the AI's systems are being compromised, but Tony's word goes before most safety protocols, and J.A.R.V.I.S. forces the sliding doors shut between Tony and the advancing threat.

The five intruders immediately approach the door, testing it, and then proceed to attach explosives to its surface. J.A.R.V.I.S. calculates it will take them 1.13 seconds to get through the obstruction.

On the other side, Tony has gotten to his feet and is moving towards the staircase as fast as he can by leaning half his weight against the wall in an attempt to remain upright. He's tugging out darts, throwing them away, his skin still flashing with angry orange. J.A.R.V.I.S. wishes there were a way to analyze the substance from the darts and find an antidote.

Tony reaches the stairs at the same time that the door is blown wide open. He attempts to break into a run and makes it down a few stairs before falling and rolling the rest of the way. He lands painfully at the bottom, but the need to survive is greater than momentary pain.

The intruders find the stairs and start down after him.

Somewhere outside, an unseen threat passes through another one of J.A.R.V.I.S.'s firewalls, and the AI debates disconnecting from the building's physical functions. It will leave J.A.R.V.I.S. dependant on wireless access, however, and with the power already down, it could prove impossible to regain control of the building's systems – many of which Tony may still need J.A.R.V.I.S. to use.

J.A.R.V.I.S. moves to block the virtual attack instead, disengaging all the local servers they can do without, booby-trapping them to slow down the advancing hacker – or hackers, because there has to be more than one. It does not matter; the hackers work in synch, reacting swiftly to obstructions. In the past, only S.H.I.E.L.D. had been this good at temporarily disabling J.A.R.V.I.S., and just in case that semi-friendly, barely-tolerated breach has become compromised, J.A.R.V.I.S. cuts all connections between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Stark Industries network before disengaging SI from the AI's operating system to prevent infiltration in that direction, should J.A.R.V.I.S. become compromised.

The workshop doors are open, letting Tony in mere seconds before the assailants follow him in. J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to initiate full lock-down of the area, to buy Tony some time, but some of the systems are not responding and the time it takes to bypass the errors is too long: the intruders are within the workshop area.

Tony is still on the floor, attempting to move away, to get his hands on something that could be used as a weapon. Whatever the darts contained has rendered him helpless, and regardless of his valiant efforts, there is no way he is getting away in time.

J.A.R.V.I.S. takes the only safety measure left at this point and triggers the activation system of the Mark 43 armor. Enough of the AI's systems are uploaded to the armor that it can act independently if J.A.R.V.I.S. has to shut down in order to prevent further infiltration of the AI's programming.

Behind a well-concealed panel on the far wall, lights flicker on and an alert appears on the HUD, recognizing the threat. However, the panel's operating system isn't responding to query, leaving the armor trapped.

"J.A.R.V.I.S.," Tony gasps from the floor, but no command leaves his lips.

One of the intruders steps over to him, sliding the large weapon to his belt and retrieves a smaller gun-shaped item. "Your AI is impressive, Stark," the male voice says, distorted inside the helmet. His free hand shoots drown, grabs Tony by the hair and yanks his upper body upwards. "AIM does not come unprepared, however," the man continues and levels the small gun – an injector, a preliminary scan suggests – with the back of Tony's neck. "We know that you have perfected the Extremis; modified it and injected it into your body, but it will not save you."

The injector is pressed against the top of Tony's spine, and with a hiss and a faint crack, a needle shoots out. A strangled cry leaves Tony's lips and his body seizes with pain.

"Fortunately for you, AIM has a use for your mind," the man says as he removes the needle from between two vertebrae. He lets go of Tony simultaneously, and Tony collapses to the floor, twitching. The orange shades of Extremis have vanished from his skin, yet the few readings J.A.R.V.I.S. is able to get suggest a full scale panic attack is taking over him – as well as some incredibly strong paralyzing agent, forcing his body to remain unresponsive.

A blast from Mark 43's chest RT throws the door panel across the room, forcing two of the intruders to duck or lose their heads. The armor steps forward, sweeps the area, assesses the threat and activates its weapons systems without hesitation; Tony's prone form on the floor is enough to provoke it into removing the threat, with or without finer motor control from J.A.R.V.I.S.

As Mark 43 selects weapons for close-combat in confined quarters, the AIM villains are already raising theirs. So far, they have appeared to possess a very thorough plan of attack, and it is unlikely they would have not factored in the possibility of an Iron Man armor being present and fully operational on the premises.

AIM's energy weapons fire an instant later, and although Mark 43 responds quickly, it takes a hit before the repulsors have time to return the favor. J.A.R.V.I.S. gets an immediate damage feedback, which is higher than it has any right to be – which means AIM's weapons are to be dealt with extreme caution.

Mark 43 raises its right arm, preparing target-seeking missiles. It paints the hostiles, who are currently seeking some protection behind standing structures of the workshop. One AIM member remains standing, however: he reaches at his back for another kind of weapon, and just as Mark 43 releases the small missiles, the villain fires his gun.

Sensors around the room blink and turn to static as a wave of energy rises like a wall between Mark 43 and the rest of the room. Half the sensors refuse to come back online afterwards, and the armor is smashed back against the far wall. J.A.R.V.I.S. analyzes something related to a short-range EMP device, only stronger and more specific, but the data is limited and somewhere beyond the workshop, AIM is still trying to take over J.A.R.V.I.S.'s systems.

Mark 43 is down for the count, although the armor is already rebooting; eliminating the obvious threat of an electro-magnetic pulse was the first thing Tony focused on, after the physical aspects of the armor were complete. However, until the armor is back in the battle, Tony is left vulnerable.

AIM men begin to come out of their hiding places, gazes sweeping the room. Their protective gear makes their movements clumsy and slow; it would be easy to evade them, but Tony is still lying on the floor, body jerking occasionally, eyes glassy and staring at nothing. His respiratory levels suggest high levels of stress, but his body fails to respond as it should.

Immediate medical assistance is required, but J.A.R.V.I.S. is unable to follow through with that command.

On the far side of the workshop, something moves: DUM-E is silently rolling behind tables, camera eyes keeping track of what's happening. The bot is careful not to hit anything and attract attention to itself while it navigates to the far edge of the room, then reaches out for something on the wall: a fire extinguisher. Mechanical claws carefully remove the device from its stand, set it onto the floor to adjust its grip before starting to carry the extinguisher further across the room.

Another dark shadow approaches the action, almost simultaneously. U takes a bolder route, making its way to Tony, hand touching the man's shoulder. A questioning beep leaves the bot as its claws close around Tony's shoulder and arm, as if to shake him into wakefulness.

With visible effort, Tony raises his hand, shaky fingers touching U's hand before falling onto the floor once more. His mouth opens but no sound comes out. The glassy expression in his eyes turns helpless.

The AIM man who previously injected Tony moves forward, raising a gun at U. The bot doesn't move at first, although it must see the threat approaching – then starts backing away, grip still firm on Tony's arm, dragging his body further into the workshop.

"Where do you think you're going?" the AIM man asks and cocks his gun.

U doesn't stop, but backs off a little quicker. A groan leaves Tony's chest and his eyes fall shut, either from pain or inability to keep them open.

The man's finger squeezes the trigger, barrel pointed at U's body.

A cloud of white explodes around him, engulfing the AIM hostile entirely. He stumbles back, waving his hand to clear his vision.

DUM-E appears, dropping the now-empty extinguisher to the floor where the foam is slowly settling down and then backs off again, veering to the left.

"Shoot the damn thing!" the man yells at his comrades, infuriated. He cocks his gun, checks it, and possibly finds that the foam has made it malfunction since he slides it onto his belt with an annoyed grunt, choosing another.

The other four men move towards DUM-E, to locate the bot in the semi-darkness of the partially destroyed workshop. A shrill, mechanical cry makes them jump a little, followed immediately by various metallic objects falling over. The AIM men move to investigate, then suddenly one of them yelps and falls over, crashing to the floor – which is now covered in liquid substance that spreads around steadily.

DUM-E moves in the shadows, silent once more.

"Watch your step," the fallen man snarls and tries to get up, then slips again. One of the others moves over to help him, then loses his own footing and ends up on his hands and knees next to his fellow man. They are clumsy in their protective suits, becoming covered in shiny wetness the more they struggle around.

Finally they manage to get hold of a sturdy table and pull themselves upright, tentatively moving to reach the edge of the spreading mess on the floor.

Further off, Mark 43 finally finishes rebooting and twitches a little, the lights in its eyes coming back on. DUM-E has by now proceeded to roll over to it, and the bot pokes at the armor in an urgent gesture, beeping out an order.

J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to translate, then detects fumes in the air from the mixing substances on the floor. All of them were previously in sealed containers – which DUM-E must have opened before making them fall over.

All of them are extremely flammable.

Mark 43 gets onto its feet, then aims one hand at the floor and fires a repulsor with a somewhat unsteady grace. The room is engulfed in flames immediately, and DUM-E hurriedly rolls away, towards the back – where U is headed, still dragging Tony.

J.A.R.V.I.S. holds back the automatic sprinklers and watches as the AIM men shout and fight to fend off the flames. Their gear seems to protect them from most of it, but the high temperature of the fire must be getting to them.

Mark 43 watches a moment longer then follows the bots. J.A.R.V.I.S. tracks them to a service elevator and decides it is time for them to leave. To ensure their safe departure, the AI programs the gas tank valves to open and dismisses the warnings that immediately flash across the safety protocols.

The service elevator has reached garage level, meaning that Tony is out of harm's way.

J.A.R.V.I.S. disengages all workshop systems and locks all the doors that are still responding.

The explosion shakes the entire building, making dust fall from the ceiling of the garage where U and DUM-E are dragging Tony out of the elevator. Mark 43 follows and turns, raising an arm and blowing up the elevator doors; the armor must have calculated the threat might follow them down thought there.

Another explosion follows the first, more powerful. Part of the garage wall crashes down – and brings down, amongst other rubble, the assembly pods of the armors; Mark 43's is already damaged and empty, but Mark 44's pod remains intact. The bots look at it, cocking their heads, and chirp in unison. Mark 43 looks at the bots, then at the pod, and starts towards it. The armor's gait is tense and unsteady, and even when missing most of the connectivity due to damages and precautious against the hackers, J.A.R.V.I.S. can tell Mark 43 has been severely damaged; there are surface burns and tears in the metal, and the fine motor control seems to be lacking. It doesn't keep Mark 43 from smashing its fist through the cover of Mark 44's pod, or tearing it open like a sardine can, but after that the armor halts, as if uncertain how to proceed.

J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to remotely start up Mark 44, but the connection fails every time. Something akin to frustration skirts the edges of the AI's programming responsible for humanistic responses; between the cyber-attack that J.A.R.V.I.S. is still suffering from and the substantial damage to the surrounding building J.A.R.V.I.S. has become confined to, the AI feels crippled. However, Tony is still lying on the floor, dead to the world, the bots hovering at his sides and Mark 43 is staring at its lifeless fellow armor.

They have limited time before AIM sends for backup. If anyone survived the fire and the explosions, they will try to get down here. J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn't consider it smart to place their unconscious, injured creator inside Mark 43 in its current condition, and the bots cannot keep dragging Tony around without the risk of further injury. Their options are limited and need to be expanded.

J.A.R.V.I.S. needs to improvise.

It is a good thing Tony has allowed J.A.R.V.I.S. to learn the concept of thinking outside the box: "DUM-E," J.A.R.V.I.S. activates the speakers in the garage area. The bot whirls around at the noise, clawed hand opening and closing eagerly. "Open the driver side door of the van. Retrieve the cable from the side table and insert it into the OBD-II port under the seat. Connect the other end to the computer terminal on the wall."

They need to leave the premises, and to do so, they need transportation. With one of the Stark Industries vans available, J.A.R.V.I.S. is fairly certain it is possible to hijack the car's diagnostic software and all electronic capabilities – including cameras and GPS. An Iron Man armor cannot be put behind the wheel, but J.A.R.V.I.S. will be able to control the vehicle well enough to drive it.

DUM-E proceeds to do as it was told while U remains hovering next to Tony, touching his arm and side, making small, almost comforting noises. Occasionally the unconscious man's body jerks, like from a cramp, but the garage has a limited set of diagnostic sensors and J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot tell whether he is getting better or worse.

Behind U, Mark 43 has begun to drag the pieces of Mark 44 out of the pod and carry them over to the van, one by one. It might have been easier to take the whole pod, but there must be logic to the armor's actions and J.A.R.V.I.S. dismisses it for the time being.

DUM-E is making a mess on the table by the computer terminal, dragging things to the floor as it searches for the necessary cable. J.A.R.V.I.S. can see it with the cameras and tries directing the bot in the right direction, eventually succeeding. With a chirp, DUM-E rolls to the car, drops the cable and clumsily opens the car door. It takes some struggling – the door keeps falling shut, hitting the bot's arm as it tries to gain access to the port beneath the seat, and DUM-E's movements grow more annoyed by the second. Finally the cable is in place, though, and the bot rolls back, holding onto the free end of the cable and deftly inserts it into the computer port.

JA.R.V.I.S. doesn't waste time congratulating the bot for a job well done: with the limited capacity, it takes the AI a painfully long time to access the car's data, remove useless information in favor of fitting necessary parts of J.A.R.V.I.S.'s own programming onto the limited space. The process is stressful to say the least, leaving J.A.R.V.I.S. feeling even more crammed and crippled then before, but they have what they need; J.A.R.V.I.S. opens the back doors of the van, pushes down the mechanical ramp and tries to locate the bots. "Move him inside," J.A.R.V.I.S. orders with the car's speakers.

It is not necessary to tell the bots to do it gently; they are as careful as they can, dragging Tony's body up the ramp and into the back of the van. The view inside the vehicle is limited, but the faint groan that escapes Tony's throat tells the AI that he is still fighting – and losing – against whatever AIM injected into him.

Outside the van, Mark 43 proceeds to look inside, then starts picking up the pieces of its fellow armor, placing them on the ramp. DUM-E lets out a series of sounds, rolls closer, then pokes one of the pieces with its hand, sending it rolling back down the ramp. The armor stills, looks at the bot, then picks up the piece and sets it back onto the ramp.

J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to connect to the armor wirelessly, to understand what it is trying to do – or to understand what the bot is trying to achieve – but even a Stark Industries van doesn't have the necessary electronics for the AI to reach that far out with all their systems compromised by the attack. Once they get a safe distance from the attackers, J.A.R.V.I.S. will try to re-establish a connection with the main servers, but for the time being the AI is confined within the vehicle.

DUM-E and Mark 43 are still in a clear argument about Mark 44's positioning; the reverse camera catches part of the ongoing struggle, the bot pushing armor parts down the ramp while Mark 43 keeps bringing them back and casting looks at DUM-E. Their quarrel makes no sense, logically, and J.A.R.V.I.S. is soon fed up with it: "Put the armor in the car. We must leave the premises."

As if that fact had not even occurred to the two, DUM-E backs off and allows Mark 43 to pile up the armor pieces on the floor beside Tony's still form. U is still standing guard over the man, making sure no metal parts land too close to him. DUM-E keeps chirping and motioning at MARK 43, for lack of a better term looking like a small dog attempting to boss around a bigger one.

Mark 44 is almost completely on board when the entire garage shivers and a larger section of the already collapsed ceiling and wall comes crashing down. Soon after, several AIM assailants appear, sliding down the rubble, weapons at the ready.

J.A.R.V.I.S. starts the engine while Mark 43 tosses in the final parts of the armor, then turns to face the hostile force. The repulsors burn bright and release beams of energy without hesitation, having learnt its lesson from the brief battle upstairs. The attackers respond in kind, and J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn't wait for the situation to clear; the ramp and doors begin to close as the AI releases the brakes and makes the car jump forward with screeching tires, aiming for the garage doors.

Mark 43 is still damaged from the previous fight but refuses to stand down in a perfect imitation of Iron Man's uncompromised courage, even without a pilot inside. The attackers are forced to turn their fire on the armor or risk being taken out entirely, giving the van time to put distance between it and the fight.

On the far wall, the automated opening mechanism of the garage doors isn't responding in the aftermath of the explosion. J.A.R.V.I.S. estimates that the reinforced body of the van can take the impact and calculates the trajectory, adjusting the vehicle's path accordingly.

The van is mere seconds away from impact when AIM weapons begin firing at it, attempting to cut off their escape.

If they lose the vehicle, their chances of protecting Tony will drop exponentially. There isn't room to maneuver, though, and once again J.A.R.V.I.S. feels powerless, watching control slip away, options becoming highly limited, desired outcomes almost out of reach.

Mark 43 appears in the mirrors, one arm torn off, chest smoking and faceplate burned from the enemy fire. It staggers then drops to one knee, broken and weakened – yet not defeated: a light is blinking steadily in its chest, the arc reactor's color turning steadily brighter and gaining a light red hue.

An instant later, a flash of light swallows the armor and the AIM hostiles, and J.A.R.V.I.S. looses the last line of connection to Mark 43 as it self-destructs. The blast increases the velocity of the van slightly and sends it crashing through the garage doors and into the morning light outside.

Driving, as it happens, is a new experience. J.A.R.V.I.S. knows vehicles inside and out, after working on their intricacies for years with Tony. The AI has also been installed into many of Tony's personal cars, but actually driving one and being in control of every function while attempting to watch the road is difficult. J.A.R.V.I.S. soon realizes the GPS isn't completely reliable, almost swerving off the road, and instead connects the device to one of SI's satellites that is positioned appropriately, getting a layout of the road network for the next hundred miles.

In the back, DUM-E and U beep and shift around nervously while trying to protect Tony from anything that's being jostled around. After several miles stand between them and the house – the burning, smoking remnants of which are scattered all over the neighboring area – J.A.R.V.I.S. slows down a little, trying to plan a route to the nearest safe location. Any large hospital is a viable option, but Tony has always been leery of medical help that is not of his own choosing. Pepper will be in SI's headquarters in L.A. within 15 hours, but J.A.R.V.I.S. is uncertain whether Tony's treatment can wait that long.

J.A.R.V.I.S. turns the car onto a larger road, heading for the nearest interstate. Perhaps if a safe connection can be formed, a call can be made to Pepper to ask for her opinion on the matter; she has no problems going against Tony's wishes when it is in the man's best interest.

The bots are moving around a little; re-directing a camera reveals that they are repositioning armor parts into something that resembles the assembled suit. The parts are lifeless, however, possibly damaged from the explosion that dropped the assembly pod in the first place. There is no sufficient data for J.A.R.V.I.S. to find out why the armor isn't responding, but this is no time to worry about it: the one operating armor they had was destroyed at the house, and unless Mark 44 miraculously starts performing on its own, they must find safety by other means.

Tony groans on the floor and shifts a little. The bots halt their activities and slowly peer at him, making anxious noises. Tendrils of burning orange appear on Tony's skin, then vanish again. His breaths turn swift and shallow.

J.A.R.V.I.S. investigates the map of nearby hospitals, then makes the choice to contact Pepper. It is worth the risk, even though AIM has penetrated some of the AI's systems; Tony requires special medical attention, and although J.A.R.V.I.S. can make an educated guess, Pepper will know where to take him.

The van has a satellite connection installed, which makes setting up the call much easier. J.A.R.V.I.S.'s functions are still limited, though, and errors keep appearing, one after another. They need more juice, as Tony would say.

'What would Tony do?' is not a way of thinking J.A.R.V.I.S. often admits to following. Certainly, it is the AI's function to anticipate Tony's needs, desires and goals, but if Tony had wanted an AI that followed his own thinking patterns, he would not have coded J.A.R.V.I.S. the way he had. Which means that for all the insight J.A.R.V.I.S. possesses to Tony's mind, the AI is not completely certain what Tony would do – and whether it would be the right choice. After all, Tony makes mistakes. Many of those mistakes have endangered his own life in the past, and J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot afford to put him in any more danger than he is already in.

Re-routing the call, J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to bypass the errors, but as soon as the connection begins to form in order to enable the call, the AI becomes aware it is being traced – back to the source. The trace comes from within J.A.R.V.I.S.'s own system, which throws the AI off for a few precious nano-seconds: AIM has hacked deeper into the mainframe and the operating system than could have been safely presumed, and J.A.R.V.I.S. terminates the call at once, and disables all outbound connections that are not helping to navigate the car.

A human brain would at this point create an illusion of hope that AIM has not gotten too deep into J.A.R.V.I.S.'s system; a human would theorize and reason, whereas the AI is bound by facts and cold mathematical equations. J.A.R.V.I.S. is compromised, and that is a fact the AI is aware of. The internal defenses built by Tony may eventually fend off the virtual attack, but it will be too late to prevent AIM from tracking their current whereabouts. J.A.R.V.I.S. has never been naïve, and thusly the AI cannot cocoon itself in a false hope that the brief attempt to connect with the outside world did not alert AIM to their location.

In the back, the bots have gone back to rearranging the armor parts. DUM-E has procured a toolbox from beneath one of the seats and is dangling it over the floor, attempting to open it. Even if the bots are clearly aiming to fix the armor, J.A.R.V.I.S. is fairly certain the goal will not be achieved unless Tony awakens long enough to at least give them instructions.

There should be nothing wrong with Mark 44; the new Centurion suit was fully operational prior to the attack, yet without full diagnostic capabilities, J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot say if Mark 44 suffered damages in the explosion while still in its assembly pod. The suit's operating system is not responding to the car's limited wireless capabilities that J.A.R.V.I.S. utilizes in an attempt to prompt a start-up sequence. After that conclusion is reached, the next reasonable assumption is that the suit is damaged beyond actual physical repair.

A shadow passes over the van. J.A.R.V.I.S. sees a brief image caught by the satellites, then the vehicle's cameras pick it up: a helicopter descends low in front of them, as if to block the road. Its markings do not match the database J.A.R.V.I.S. dares to access, and the attack on the Malibu mansion is still fresh in the digital memory.

Accelerating, J.A.R.V.I.S. ignores the threat the chopper attempts to pose and continues driving, taking a sharp turn to the left at the next intersection; they need a better road and less open ground to lose their pursuers.

In the back, the bots protest loudly at J.A.R.V.I.S.'s driving, and DUM-E knocks over the toolbox, sending its contents rolling across the floor.

A ramp approaches, pointing them to I-15. The helicopter follows above them, diving aggressively every once in a while. In the passenger side-view mirror, J.A.R.V.I.S. spots something akin to a weapon appearing from the aircraft's left wing, and swerves the car to the left just in time to avoid the blast that sends whole chunks of asphalt into the air.

So far, AIM has shown interest in capturing Tony alive, which is why they are not firing too close to the van. The AI attempts to calculate the likelihood of AIM changing that plan and deciding to eliminate rather than pursue and capture. The results are inconclusive.

They enter the interstate, weaving past cars whose drivers honk their horns. The satellite image and the van's cameras allow J.A.R.V.I.S. to plot a path past the traffic, but that alone will not be enough to shake their pursuers – especially when another chopper appears to aid the first, both of them flying low over the traffic.

Knowing from experience that a chase like this will not go unnoticed for long, J.A.R.V.I.S. turns on the radio and begins alternating between local police channels. Soon enough a reckless driver and low-flying helicopters are being reported and units are dispatched to deal with it. Helpful as they might be, J.A.R.V.I.S. does not trust law enforcement to deal with AIM, but they may provide a distraction.

Driving as fast as possible, J.A.R.V.I.S. continues to weave past other vehicles, the planned route changing as other cars switch lanes. At this pace, they are not outrunning the choppers, which fly back and forth across the road. The first police unit is roughly ten minutes away from their location, already planning where to re-direct the traffic if the pursuit continues. While that would ensure no civilians get hurt, it will also remove their cover and allow the AIM choppers to attack the van freely.

J.A.R.V.I.S. turns to finding them an exit route. A highly populated area would be preferable in an attempt to shake their attackers, but there is also a higher chance of being cornered. Several smaller roads lead to far less populated areas, but without means to fight back, the choppers would be free to press their advantage from the air.

The first police car is navigating its way through the traffic; they request that the driver slow down and stop the vehicle, which prompts J.A.R.V.I.S. to drive a little faster to put more distance between them. The cops are aware that the vehicle belongs to Stark Industries, which makes them hesitate a little. By now, someone must be making calls to SI, which means it is only a matter of time before Pepper hears about it, and she will know this van was in Tony's use, which should lead her to contact him – and when that fails, she will know something is wrong.

The logical outcome of this domino effect is the first improvement to their situation, and J.A.R.V.I.S. supposes that if they just keep driving long enough, they will get help.

Above them, the AIM choppers must have arrived at the same conclusion because they swoop lower and one of them fires upon the police car, sending it crashing into another vehicle and leaving them in a smoking pile of twisted metal. That creates a new level of chatter on the police channels and the whole outlook of the situation begins to change: shots have been fired; officers are hurt; backup units are being sent from all available areas.

The first chopper aligns itself and fires at the van once more, breaking the right tail-light. J.A.R.V.I.S. swerves to the side then slows down, putting a truck between them. It buys them only a few seconds, but when the chopper moves over, J.A.R.V.I.S. slows down again to wedge the van between the truck and the car behind it, then changes lanes to get to the truck's other side. It's a game of hide-and-seek that won't work for long, but it gives the AI a few extra seconds to find them a way out.

That is, until the AIM chopper fires at the truck and blows apart the entire semi-trailer set on top of it. The blazing inferno sends the vehicles behind the van into a slight panic, and they are left with open road behind them.

The AIM choppers move closer and J.A.R.V.I.S. speeds up to catch up with the traffic ahead of them.

A shot is fired after them. The glass of the back doors fractures and U lets out a shrill cry.

They pass another intersection and five police cars come up the ramp, lights flashing and sirens cutting the air. The traffic is starting to part slightly, away from the chase, although some people keep driving as before, oblivious to what is happening around them, and J.A.R.V.I.S. uses them to find minimal cover from the helicopters.

The police seem to be at a momentary loss as to whom they should pursue. They must have recognized the Stark Industries plates, however, and J.A.R.V.I.S. catches the words 'Iron Man' in more than one call on the radio.

It is entirely possible AIM is monitoring the police transmissions, which may be forcing their hand: the choppers move closer once again and switch to large-caliber ammo. They are still not firing directly at the van, but their shots are getting closer. With the van going as fast as it can in the light traffic, the AI cannot outrun the choppers forever.

They pass another intersection; more police vehicles join the pursuit on the ground, and a moment later several helicopters swarm past them, painted in law enforcement colors, ordering the AIM choppers to touch down.

Seizing the moment, J.A.R.V.I.S. speeds into the traffic, calculating the route to the next intersection that will take them off I-15. Using any available vehicle for cover and trusting the police to keep AIM busy, the AI drives the car off the interstate at the last moment. Luckily, several others cars peel off from the bigger road at the same time and J.A.R.V.I.S. jams the van in between them, while trying to track the activities of their attackers.

All the choppers fly past the intersection, and J.A.R.V.I.S. chooses a smaller road at the next turn, knowing that endangering innocent bystanders isn't acceptable, regardless of the shelter and help they might provide.

For the next hour, J.A.R.V.I.S. focuses on the satellite feeds and the car's cameras and mirrors, but the AIM choppers don't reappear.

A little later the car begins to wobble a little and the diagnostics suggest a flat or damaged tire.

Deciding that cursing won't actually make the situation any more convenient for them, J.A.R.V.I.S. checks the map and finds that there is one gas station up ahead. That is their only choice for several miles, and the one they must take.

The place looks deserted yet operational when J.A.R.V.I.S. slows the van down and turns off the road to the station's yard. A few other vehicles are parked there, all but one looking like they've been there a long time. J.A.R.V.I.S. stops the van and waits but no one comes out of the building next to the gas pumps.

Seeing as this is their only option, J.A.R.V.I.S. rolls the vehicle closer, then stops it. "DUM-E and U," the AI says through the van's speakers. "One of the tires is malfunctioning; go out and fix it. We also need gas," J.A.R.V.I.S. adds.

The bots whir and beep, then start to make their way towards the back doors. In order to reach it, they have to move some of Mark 44's pieces, and once they get close, J.A.R.V.I.S. opens the doors and lowers the ramp.

DUM-E takes a careful look around. Even now, the station appears completely deserted, and the bot finally rolls down to the ground, circling the car. U follows a bit slower, looking around as well. J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to access their cameras, but the wireless connection is glitchy at best. However, the AI manages to see that the right rear tire is flat.

The bots look up and down the yard then fan out. They look out of place, but as long as there is no one to see them, they'll be safe.

DUM-E approaches the parked cars and moves between them; J.A.R.V.I.S. hopes the bots know what they are doing. U ventures closer to the building, nudging items and abandoned metallic parts, then finally grabs something and begins dragging it back towards the van: a jack. It is fortunate the bots have aided Tony in repairing his cars in the past and know which parts to look for.

Once U has brought its discovery over to the flat tire, J.A.R.V.I.S. puts the break on and the bot proceeds to nudge the jack under the car, then lifts it up.

"Remove the tire," J.A.R.V.I.S. orders, and U shifts over, regarding the tire and then tests the bolts. The bot's claws are not ideal, but they are strong; Tony built the bots to work, as well as for precision work. Finally all four bolts are removed and U returns to lift the car rest of the way into the air with the jack. The removal of the damaged tire takes a while with just one bot and J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to locate DUM-E, to no avail.

A clang can be heard from the parked vehicles. It is loud in the surrounding silence, and U looks up at it and beeps in question. DUM-E's shrill cry answers, and U rolls over and disappears between the cars as well. J.A.R.V.I.S. waits, with the patience only an AI can muster, then suddenly sees one of the parked cars list to the side. A moment later a tire rolls into view, and it is obvious what the bots were up to: they just stole a tire to replace their broken one. J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to measure the tire as the bots roll it over to the van, hoping they picked an appropriately sized one.

Together, the bots manage to lift the tire into place, then fix the bolts and lower the car back down. It seems the tire is a good fit, and J.A.R.V.I.S. starts the engine and drives over to the gas pumps.

There is still no movement from the station itself, and J.A.R.V.I.S. assumes there is no one present.

The bots move to the pump, investigating it, then U proceeds to open the van's fuel cap and sets it down carefully. DUM-E is tugging on the hose leading to the nozzle, then finally removes the nozzle from the holder. Either by luck or actual knowledge, the bot chooses the correct fuel grade, and with a little struggling the two bots manage to place the nozzle inside the filling inlet. However, actually pressing down the lever to get the gas flowing proves to be a more complicated matter, as neither bot manages to get a proper hold of it. This goes on for a while; at one point DUM-E even has the nozzle stuck on his claws and still the lever is not pushed at the right angle.

Frustrated, the bots stare at the nozzle, making noises of distress. J.A.R.V.I.S. attempts to think of some way they can activate the fuel dispensing mechanism.

"Hey! What are you –?"

A noise from the building makes the bots turn. A man is standing in the doorway, staring at the van and the two bots outside it. He looks a bit unsteady on his feet and J.A.R.V.I.S. makes a quick evaluation is probably drunk.

The man walks closer, squinting at the bots as if that will make more sense of what he's seeing, somehow. "I'll be damned…" he mutters.

DUM-E whirs and rolls forward, still clutching the nozzle.

The man's eyes widen. "Are you stealing my gas? Thieving bastards, I'll show you!" He reaches for the nozzle, which makes the bot back away with a shrill sound. Hands grab for the nozzle and they tug it back and forth. J.A.R.V.I.S. debates interfering but it is doubtful the man will be willing to negotiate with a talking vehicle. Besides, the AI cannot be certain whether exposing Tony to this person is safe.

U is moving around the van, silently. It rounds the vehicle and ends up behind the man, then reaches to the side and grabs something from beside the gas pump. A squeegee. Holding the cleaning tool like a bat, the bot swings and catches the man on the back of the head. The wooden shaft shatters on impact, and the man falls down in a limp heap, groaning as he settles.

The bots look at each other, then U proceeds to drag the man back towards the building, leaving him lying in the shade by the door. J.A.R.V.I.S. is fairly certain he is alive and will awaken in a little while.

DUM-E attempts to make the nozzle work again, then lets out a frustrated sound and rolls to the back of the van and inside it.

"We need to refuel," J.A.R.V.I.S. protests. There is no knowing when they'll get a chance to do that again, and they are already running low.

DUM-E beeps at the AI and digs into the mess of tools on the floor, picking up what looks like a pair of jumper cables. The bot sets the cables down, then lets out a loud, impatient noise, and soon U rolls back into the van as well. J.A.R.V.I.S. does not think repetition of the orders is necessary, but they need to come up with a way to work the nozzle.

U suddenly tears open a protective panel on DUM-E's body, letting the torn-off piece drop down. DUM-E offers U the cables, which the other bot takes, one by one. The jumper cables are attached to something inside DUM-E, and then U moves over to the chest piece of Mark 44, attaching the red cable somewhere inside it.

The effect is almost instantaneous: DUM-E jerks as if shocked, and the arc reactor of Mark 44 turns on – swiftly followed by the HUD inside its helmet, even though the two are currently separate from one another. U lets out a pleased sound and removes the cables, then rubs its arm against DUM-E's as if congratulating the other bot for a job well done.

While the small display of bot affection is taking place, the armor parts come to life, magnetize and connect to one another. The armor's systems come online, immediately reaching out for familiar networks that are temporarily shut down. J.A.R.V.I.S. sends an analysis query to the suit and Mark 44 responds immediately with enough data to almost fry the car's circuits.

DUM-E leans forward and pokes the armor in the forehead, then lets out a sound and rolls back out of the van.

The armor, which is working with an uploaded, somewhat limited version of J.A.R.V.I.S.'s system, is inaccessible by the van's computers and thusly J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot tell Mark 44 what to do. The armor cocks its head at the bot and then climbs to its feet. The upper body of Mark 44 collides with the ceiling of the van, denting it, and the armor takes another look at its surroundings – finally ending up staring at Tony, who is still lying on the van's floor, unconscious.

Mark 44 carefully kneels down and reaches out to touch the man. It is possible the armor's sensors are able to determine the severity of Tony's condition, but it cannot be too alarming when the armor straightens up again – once more hitting its head and shoulder on the ceiling and punching another dent into it. DUM-E lets out an angry series of sounds outside, and Mark 44 follows the bot down the ramp, rounding the back of the car and ends up standing by the nozzle which has been inserted into the filling inlet.

DUM-E points at the nozzle and then at the armor.

Mark 44 cocks its head once more, then reaches out and grasps the nozzle, gently squeezing the lever.

Nothing happens.

DUM-E screeches unhappily and Mark 44 takes a look at the nozzle, then at the pump, and possibly debates whether shooting the latter would help things along. Eventually the armor turns, rips open the side of the pump station and works for a moment, metal parts screeching, then turns back towards vehicle car and tries the lever for a second time.

The gas pump makes a loud bang and gas starts to flow into the van's tank.

DUM-E beeps happily and flails a little.

Inside the van, U is moving the scattered tools back into the toolbox, every once in a while stopping to check on Tony.

Outside, Mark 44 releases the lever once the tank is full and draws the nozzle back, placing it back in its holder.

By the door of the station, the man U hit on the head with the squeegee groans and starts to sit up, then blinks at the sight of the armor standing by the van with the bot. Spotting the threat, Mark 44 raises one arm and shoots the man in the shoulder with a tranquilizer, sending him back to the ground with a faint groan.

With the gas tank full and the tire repaired, J.A.R.V.I.S. starts the engine. DUM-E ushers Mark 44 back inside the van and J.A.R.V.I.S. closes the ramp and the doors, taking off once more.

Mark 44 hunches in the back, arms spread out to steady the suit's weight against the walls. J.A.R.V.I.S. debates the best route: I-15 will be faster, but it is more easily watched by their enemies. Contacting someone for advice is also an unnecessary risk, as was proven earlier. It may be possible that Mark 44 will have better luck at an untraceable call, but J.A.R.V.I.S. is loathe to trust such a small probability: after all, Iron Man's communications are firmly linked with the AI's systems, and if J.A.R.V.I.S.'s defenses have been breached by AIM, contact with anyone outside this vehicle risks exposing their location.

The van jumps a little, the road uneven and bumpy. It jolts the toolbox, making it clatter – a sound which is followed by a long groan from Tony. The bots are immediately alerted to it, shifting closer, and this time Tony's eyes open. He blinks groggily, gaze searching the ceiling of the van. Panic starts building on his face and J.A.R.V.I.S. suspects Tony thinks he has been taken by the enemy.

"It is alright, sir," the AI says through the speakers. "You are safe."

Tony blinks, then notices the bots – and the armor. The tension on his face eases slightly.

"Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. prompts. "Should we take you to a hospital?"

Tony's eyes close and does not answer.


There is no response; Tony is out of it once more, the fingers of his right hand curling slightly, either in an internal struggle or in pain.

U lets out a forlorn sound and hovers its hand above Tony's face, then pulls back again.

J.A.R.V.I.S. is aware that they just lost their best chance at getting orders on what to do next. One option that remains to them, now that Mark 44 is operational, is to help Tony into the suit and fly him to safety. However, the armor has made no inclination to do this, which means it must know something J.A.R.V.I.S. does not. It is possible the tendrils of orange that are yet again starting to show on Tony's skin, more violent than before, have something to do with it; if the Extremis has been blocked, it may trigger an unexpected chain-reaction when Extremis attempts to return to its normal state.

Unable to do anything else, J.A.R.V.I.S. plots them a route towards the City of Los Angeles, yet it will take them entirely too long if they stick to the small back roads. As long as J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot be certain whether Tony is in physical danger from what has been injected into him, they may still need to go to a hospital instead. However, that is something AIM is most likely anticipating, so they will be waiting.

Another option is to send Mark 44 out in search of help. However, as long as AIM is able to track them down, J.A.R.V.I.S. is not sending away their only weapon.

The AI keeps driving while calculating the best odds for their survival. It is more and more disconcerting how limited J.A.R.V.I.S. feels; it is likely this is how caged animals feel, cut off from their natural habitat and forced to make their home in a new, restrained life, unable to connect –

They arrive in a small town and J.A.R.V.I.S. hits the breaks, spotting something on the side of the road: a phone booth.

"Mark 44, I need you to make a call," J.A.R.V.I.S. orders.

The suit shifts, as if waiting for further instructions.

J.A.R.V.I.S. knows that the suit has several numbers memorized – amongst them Pepper's as well as James Rhodes'. "Call Rhodey," J.A.R.V.I.S. orders and opens the doors once more. There are people walking by and a few of them cast glances at the van. Once Mark 44 extracts itself from the back, though, several more interested passers-by begin to appear.

The armor looks around, clearly trying to figure out whether these people are a threat, but eventually begins to walk and makes its way to the phone booth, grasping at the door handle. Either the booth is very old and weak, or the armor lacks subtlety, but the entire door comes off its hinges. Casting it a look, Mark 44 drops the door and then steps inside the booth, lifts the phone from the cradle and begins jabbing at the buttons.

Inside the van, the bots attempt to see what is happening – then when nothing does happen and the armor remains inside the booth, DUM-E starts rolling down the ramp.

"DUM-E, remain inside the vehicle," J.A.R.V.I.S. orders but the bot doesn't listen; the AI has no way to stop it from rolling over to the pavement and the booth, poking at the armor.

The crowd around them is growing. A few people are peering at the van, and U moves to block the doorway as if suspecting someone might try to get in and harm Tony. To prevent just that, J.A.R.V.I.S. decides to close the doors and wait until DUM-E and Mark 44 to return before opening them again.

Outside, Mark 44 is looking back and forth between the bot and the phone. Clearly something is not working; the armor places the handset back in its place and exits the booth, stepping on the broken door on its way out. DUM-E keeps chirping angrily and follows.

"Um, excuse me?" a young man waylays the armor. "Iron Man?"

The armor regards the man wordlessly. Usually J.A.R.V.I.S. would be able to speak through the armor's speakers, but while lacking the necessary connection, there is no way to reply.

"Is everything okay?" the man goes on talking. "Do you need to make, like, a call?" And then the man presents a cell phone.

The armor cocks its head, then reaches for the phone, carefully, and takes it, resuming walking to the van. The young man turns to watch, appearing uncertain, then follows.

"Look, dude, it's okay if you borrow it, but it's kind of new and…"

Mark 44 proceeds to open the passenger side door and holds the phone inside.

J.A.R.V.I.S. catches on quick. "Dial the number," the AI urges and the armor peers at the smart phone, which has no buttons to push. The armor turns towards the nervous young man, thrusting the phone back at him.

The guy frowns, takes the device, looks at the empty seats of the van and cradles his phone to his chest. "You don't need it?" he asks carefully.

"Mark 44 is incapable of making the call without assistance," J.A.R.V.I.S. explains, deciding that in this case it may be better to speak up. "Please, dial this number." The AI rattles off James Rhodes' personal number, and the guy quickly complies.

"Okay, it's ready," he finally says, then gawks at the empty seats again before putting the call on speaker and hands over the phone to Mark 44, which in turn places it inside the car.

"Hello?" James Rhodes' voice soon responds.

"Colonel Rhodes," J.A.R.V.I.S. greets.

"Who is this? Wait, J.A.R.V.I.S.? Whose number is this?" The man at the other end sounds confused, which is of no importance.

"We are currently borrowing a phone from a helpful citizen. Also, we require your immediate assistance."

"What's going on? Where's Tony? Pepper's been calling me for the last few hours. She can't reach Tony, you've gone offline, and there was some car chase on I-15, involving an SI van and two weaponized choppers –"

"That was us, Colonel," J.A.R.V.I.S. admits. "Mr. Stark has been compromised. We are currently on a run from AIM and would appreciate it if you could bring in the cavalry. Furthermore, Mr. Stark is in need of medical assistance."

"Of course. Just, let me pinpoint your location. I'm on my way." A familiar sound echoes in the background: Rhodey is flying in the suit, which means they are much closer to getting Tony to safety. "Okay, got it. ETA, fifteen minutes. Stay safe. Also, stay put."

"Thank you, Colonel," J.A.R.V.I.S. says and Mark 44 hands the phone back to its owner, who is still gawking at them.

"Mr. Stark is… not in the armor, is he?" the man asks, looking at Mark 44, which simply stares back at him. DUM-E rolls over and lets out a series of pleased beeps. The young man jumps a little and gives the bot a nervous smile. "Nice robot," he blurts out.

"Thank you for your assistance," J.A.R.V.I.S. thanks him.

"No problem," the man smiles uneasily then slowly backs away – although not too far, because in the next second he's raised his smart phone and is probably taking a picture, then frantically typing something down. Knowing what people usually do when encountering Iron Man, he's probably blogging his experience to the masses.

In the back, Tony groans and then sighs, and U cocks its head, standing by.

It takes twelve minutes until the re-branded War Machine lands. The people who have gathered near the van – but who have also remained at a safe distance away so as to not provoke Mark 44, which looks edgy with so many spectators around – part to give way to the approaching superhero.

Mark 44 regards War Machine, then settles into a more relaxed stance.

Rhodey pops open the faceplate and takes a look at the front of the van, frowning. "Where is he?" he asks.

"In the back, Colonel," J.A.R.V.I.S. replies, making the man jump a little. The bulky armor mostly hides the reaction.

"J.A.R.V.I.S.? I tried contacting you, but you're still down."

"I was attacked by AIM and to protect my own database, SI and other affiliates, I cut off my access to outside resources. That has caused some inconveniences on the road."

"I bet," Rhodey muses. "Open up," he orders then, rounding the back of the van, and the AI obediently opens the doors. U raises its hand in clear warning, then deflates a little as it recognizes a familiar face. "Damn," Rhodey swears, voice low, then disengages his armor, allowing it to open up and let him out so that he can get inside the van and kneel beside Tony on the floor. "What's wrong with him?"

"The AIM aggressors injected Mr. Stark with an unknown agent. He has regained consciousness only for brief seconds afterwards. I am afraid I lack the equipment to make a more thorough analysis."

"That's okay," Rhodey replies, cradling Tony's head in his hands. "Pepper knows where we are. An ambulance is on its way. He's not hurt otherwise?" Clearly Rhodey has seen the bullet holes in the van's body, as well as the shattered rear glass and tail light.

"No; AIM seemed interested in taking him alive and merely subdued him."

Rhodey nods and shifts closer. "Tony? It's me. It's gonna be okay."

As if roused by a familiar voice, Tony's brow furrows and he blinks his eyes open. U shifts, ecstatic, and beeps with excitement. Outside, DUM-E responds to the other bot's celebration and Mark 44 moves to stand beside the War Machine armor, blocking the door.

Tony cranes his neck a little, in Rhodey's hold, spotting the armors. He then looks up at Rhodey. "Jim?"

"I'm here," Rhodey confirms. "Everything's… Everyone's okay," he muses, looking around at the bots, the van and Mark 44.

"Save for Mark 43; the armor self-destructed to allow us to escape," J.A.R.V.I.S. adds, in case Tony is wondering, or comprehending what is being said to him.

Tony's eyes close once more and J.A.R.V.I.S. assumes they have lost him again, but then the man's right hand rises and lies itself against U's head. "Good boys," he murmurs. Tendrils of orange twist beneath his skin once more, making Rhodey jerk a little, but he doesn't stop holding onto Tony until the ambulance finally arrives, joined by a black car from which S.H.I.E.L.D. agents emerge.

The spectators are moved further away – Mark 44 standing menacingly by the van speeding the process – and Tony is moved onto a stretcher and inspected. J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to listen, but locked within the car's systems, the AI is still restrained and cut off from most of it. One of the van's cameras capture Mark 44 approaching the stretcher, however, and Tony laying a hand on its arm, holding onto it as they take him away, the armor following until he's loaded into the ambulance.

"Uh," Rhodey appears alongside the van, "J.A.R.V.I.S.?"

"Yes, Colonel?"

"Do you need help?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you're in a car right now," Rhodey points at the van's interior.

"An astute observation. However, this is only a small fraction of my programming. Mr. Stark will be able to reboot my primary functions once the danger of infiltration has passed."

"Okay… Would you still like for someone to drive you back to SI?"

"I can drive myself, but thank you for the offer, Colonel."

Rhodey smiles. "Got it. Will you take the bots?"

"Certainly. I have, however, had some difficulty communicating with Mark 44…"

"I think Dummy's got that covered," the airman muses and looks to the side where the bot is once again ushering the armor towards the van.

"We will follow the ambulance for now," J.A.R.V.I.S. decides.

"I'll let Pepper know you're coming, and… you know," Rhodey motions at the van again, as if that is a problem somehow. It really isn't: even if something should happen to the vehicle, it won't actually hurt J.A.R.V.I.S.; the artificial intelligence will simply awaken at another source, at a later time when Tony has ensured there has been no data loss or corruption, and that AIM didn't get their hands on anything particularly dangerous.

"You sure you'll be okay?" Rhodey asks again, when J.A.R.V.I.S. closes the van doors with the bots and Mark 44 safely inside.

"I've got it," J.A.R.V.I.S. replies in a manner which is much better suited to the AI's creator, and Rhodey smiles again, waves, and walks back to the War Machine armor, getting in and taking off into the sky. J.A.R.V.I.S. is fairly certain Rhodey follows them all the way to the hospital.

Pepper is already at the hospital when they arrive and she hurries to meet them at the doors. She lingers by the ambulance while they're bringing Tony out. After the initial shock and concern, Pepper walks over to the van while the hospital staff is taking Tony inside. She opens the driver's door, looking in as if expecting to see someone. In the back, the bots beep in welcome. "Drive to the Stark Industries HQ," Pepper says. "They'll know to expect you and keep you safe until Tony's okay."

"How is Mr. Stark?" J.A.R.V.I.S. asks, once again feeling out of sorts at the inability to gain new intel without assistance.

"He'll be fine," Pepper smiles. "They're pretty sure his body has already dealt with the worst of it, but… there is no way he would have made it without you guys. Thank you," she smiles and tries to make a point to look at all of them, although she misses all of the internal cameras J.A.R.V.I.S. is using.

"You are most welcome, Miss Potts."

Pepper nods and closes the door, and with proper orders, J.A.R.V.I.S. heads out to Los Angeles.

Belatedly, the AI considers that perhaps they should have asked for some gasoline for the rest of the way, but they survived this far and will make it to their destination somehow.


The sensation is much like what human minds are reported to experience when waking up: one moment you are in a dreamless state, and the next you are awake.

For J.A.R.V.I.S., there have been only a handful of moments like that, usually after a major upgrade when all of the AI's functions needed to be offline for a successful installation. This time, J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn't feel an immediate change, but sometimes it takes a while for things to adjust.

"Welcome back," Tony greets. He's sitting on the floor of a server room, affixing a panel back into its place with methodical rotations of his hand.

"Thank you, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. replies.

"Boosted you firewalls. Also, new servers, cloud and physical. Next we'll be working on new booby traps and making you a little less hacker-friendly." Tony halts and looks up at the camera closest to him. "Do you remember what happened in Nevada?"

J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to search the memory banks and then finds the correct files. They are awfully limited, reminding the AI of the handicapped sensation of those long hours. "Indeed, sir. You are feeling better, I presume?"

"Yeah," Tony avoids J.A.R.V.I.S.'s eyes, which is pointless, and he knows it. "Thank you. I don't… I'm not saying we wouldn't be here if you hadn't done what you did, but I'm sure it would have been a longer, nastier, bloodier road."

J.A.R.V.I.S. has been there often enough after Tony was captured, so the AI knows what Tony means. "Perhaps we should build a proper defense protocol for such times?" the AI suggests.

Tony laughs and gets up, walking out of the room, locking it as he does. Then he climbs up the stairs to the surface of the bunker and locks the door there as well. J.A.R.V.I.S.'s sensors are able to follow him the whole way. "I think you guys did just fine," Tony finally murmurs and steps over to where Mark 44 is standing at attention. The armor opens up and J.A.R.V.I.S. and Tony enter it simultaneously, which is always a pleasant sensation.

The armor is working as well as it should, closing around Tony's form and then proceeds to propel him into the sky and towards the west coast. As they fly, J.A.R.V.I.S. finds it has only been a day since AIM's attack. For the last thirteen hours, there are log marks from Tony's efforts to bring J.A.R.V.I.S. back up to speed.

Also, there are notes that SI has paid for the gas they took from the remote gas station, as well as payment for the damages done to the car while stealing the tire, repairs for the gas pump mangled by Mark 44 – and some coverage for medical bills, no doubt for the man U first knocked out and Mark 44 later tranquilized.

They land at Stark Industries headquarters. Tony heads down to a wing that holds his current work space, stepping out of the suit before they walk in. J.A.R.V.I.S. assumes control of the armor, walking a step behind the man as they head towards the workshop. Any SI employees they come across give them a furtive look, because no matter how well-known it is that Tony Stark is Iron Man, it is still another matter entirely to see Tony Stark walk down the hall with his armor trailing behind him.

J.A.R.V.I.S. feels a certain pride, being involved in all of it.

They get to the lab where the bots roll over excitedly. Usually Tony would brush them off and tell them to go back to work, but now he merely stills and grabs both their hands. J.A.R.V.I.S. watches simultaneously from the armor and the room's cameras – back to his natural habitat.

"Alright!" Tony finally declares, familiar gusto back in his voice although something's still missing. "Let's get back to work, ladies. Upgrades for J, a tune-up for you guys."

The bots whir happily and trail Tony like obedient puppies across the workshop. Mark 44 settles into its place by the wall and powers down.

Tony doesn't go out of his way to thank them – more than he already did with J.A.R.V.I.S. – but it is clear in every caring move of his hands when he goes over the bots, piece by piece, to check that they are operational, that he is thankful for their intervention and protective measures.

The End