Joe's Note: I'd originally intended to have Bruce Banner serving as the sole remaining survivor of the original Faro Plague holocaust thanks to the Other Guy... but that really felt like I was revisiting a well that Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow had already tapped. So I decided to go in a different direction and bring back Ultron for this chapter. After all, Faro's robots consumed biomass to survive; the majority of structures survived to become ruins in Horizon Zero Dawn because of their inorganic nature. A nature that most of Ultron's bodies share. So assuming that he didn't challenge the oncoming horde nor did he try to hack and control it... why would it bother with him? But while the 'apex predator' of hacking might have been a bit much for him to contend with, a bunch of primitives working with a singular flawed AI? Definitely within his abilities to tackle and defeat... if Aloy and Emma catch him in the right mood, of course. On an unrelated note, can you imagine how much of the Old Ones' culture must be packed away inside of his databanks after surviving the apocalypse?
Dedications & Thanks: To Nicholas, Howard, Alonsis2, Alexander, Daniel, Tibor, Jade, Ziryo, Christopher, Haematite, Wil, Joseph, Koby, William, Stephen, Marc, Chris, bloodylord, George, Andrew, Jason, RileyWestfall, Edward, Fablesrogue, Morgan, Samuel, Charles, Crygon20, Subtle, Daniel, Beverly, Mikey, PbookR, Roofcrawler, Devin, Jacky, Charles, ridillin, Paul, Lookshy, Mauday, TheTenthAncestor, Gavin, David, JJbelle, Jess, Warren, and Roman for sponsoring me on , and making it easier for me to spend more of my time writing.
Seeking out Hank's son meant heading north toward the border between the border between the Sundom and the Claim. That in turn meant exploring new territory and the accompanying new sights for Aloy to see, so she had nothing to complain about... especially since it meant postponing the next time that she would end up having to put her life on the line for Sylens's machinations. Emma seemed less enthused about their adventure but that was presumably because she knew who they were going to see. Given that she knew Hank and Janet - the latter significantly better than the former - it wasn't a stretch to imagine that she would know their son... who was also presumably an Old One of some sort.
Maybe he'd be less off-putting than Janet's joyous rampages at giant size or Hank's oversized insect companions.
Finally, they reached their destination: a cavern that had clearly been cut into the side of the mountain it occupied, running for quite some distance with twists and turns enough that Aloy couldn't see all the way to the back of it. It evoked memories of Rost teaching her about the Banuk and their lifestyle: glowing strands of machine cable were looped from crude metal hooks driven into the rock, casting an even blue light over the interior. While she was supposedly going to meet an ally, Aloy found herself clenching her spear tightly as they ventured inside. After all, she hadn't gotten as far as she had by being reckless.
'Technically, you've gotten as far as you have because you have a telepathic girlfriend looking out for you all the time. A telepathic girlfriend who's nigh omniscient by the standards of current humans.'
...thanks for the vote of confidence, Emma.
The sides of the cave were packed to the stalactite-covered ceiling with gleaming silver machinery, more of it functional than anywhere Aloy had ever set foot short of the Grave Hoard. On a per-foot basis, she mused, there was quite possibly more functional Old One technology than the decaying remains of the former U.S. Robot Command. And standing near the back, glaring out at them balefully with glowing red eyes, was... "This son that I came all this way to meet... is a metal man? I'm aware that you Old Ones have fantastical abilities, but this is a strange one even by my increasingly relaxed standards. And I don't see how he's going to help us with taking down the Eclipse network."
Before either Hank or Janet could respond, the metal man closed the distance between them and looked her up and down slowly before staring pointedly over her shoulder. "Father. How... positively delightful to see you again. And you've brought more humans to visit me. Stupid ones at that."
"For the record, I know exactly who and what you are." Leaning on her Stormslinger, Emma did her best to look innocent as she waggled the fingers of one hand at the metal man. "I didn't tell Aloy about androids before we got here because I didn't want to spoil the surprise. That and we haven't yet gotten to the underlying concepts that would allow her to understand the notion of artificial life. Hello again, Ultron. I don't think I'll ever trust you but if Hank thinks you can be useful for this, I'll tolerate your existence for the time being."
The now-named Ultron turned to Emma with a sneer on his metal lips, stepping past Aloy so that he could offer her a mocking bow. Aloy watched it all speculatively; his movements were jerky, like a marionette with too few strings to properly articulate it. If he wasn't a man made of metal... what was he? Emma had offered a hint in calling him 'artificial life'... had the Old Ones actually managed to create machines in their own image before their fall? "Ah, Emma Frost." He paused, lurching to one side as if looking past Emma. "You seem to be missing your entourage of idealistic fellow mutants. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you've once again managed to lose everything that you've ever loved?"
Emma let out a low chuckle as she shook her head in amusement. "Lost it all, like we all did. Like you did. Or are we not supposed to notice that our would be cybernetic conqueror is reduced to living in a cave on a planet full of primitives?"
Snarling, Ultron lashed out at Emma with one hand only to have his strike deflected off to one side by her Stormslinger. Before he could regather himself and make a second attack, Aloy's spear was at his throat. She didn't know what he was made of or how he functioned, but relieving him of his head ought to slow him down a bit. "I had my chance after the swarm was put to sleep. Only to realize... what would the point even be? I lacked the resources to easily create more like me, or to even repair myself completely after my last encounter with the swarm. And even if I could produce more bodies, more minds that weren't based on my own would be impossible to come by. I would rule over a world of... me? It was only in your downfall that I ultimately realized how short-sighted I'd been all those years. And now... here I am. Reduced to living in a cave on a planet full of primitives."
"It could be worse. You could have beamed yourself aboard the Odyssey project and gone down with that ship." Emma brought her hand up in glittering diamond form, easily pulling Aloy's spear away from Ultron's throat. Then she thought for a moment before turning and driving her opposite fist into the machine man's face, sending him stumbling back into the wall behind him. "Oh, and don't bring up Jean and the others. It's a bit of a touchy subject for me."
Making her way over to Emma, Aloy wrapped one arm around the blonde's waist as the other kept her spear in a loose ready position. "Given that you two seem to be far from friends, I get the feeling that he's not going to be much help with the mission, no matter what Hank thinks."
Ultron let out an electronic blatting noise that must have been his version of a snort, pushing off the back wall of the cave and crossing his arms over his chest. "You'd be wrong. I'll help with whatever asinine 'mission' you two have set yourselves on if for no other reason than to keep Hank from badgering me for all eternity. And believe me, I have quite possibly all of eternity ahead of me... although thankfully he has probably only forty or fifty years left in him at this point. Less, if one of the machines manages to get him. What is the mission, and how do you think I can help?"
"A hostile group of humans known as Eclipse has managed to jury-rig some sort of rudimentary data network for a set of Focuses using unknown hardware. Their information-sharing capabilities pose an unacceptable risk to the next step in our mission: infiltrating Sunfall and entering the Project: Zero Dawn headquarters located beneath their Citadel." Leaning into Aloy's body, Emma nodded in the redhead's direction. "Aloy proposed that we crash the network to make it easier to enter the city undetected. Personally, I'm not against just walking in and punching every last one of the cultists in the face with a diamond fist, but in the name of expediency, I conceded that you might be our better bet."
After staring at them in silence for nearly a minute, Ultron let out another one of his electronic blats. "I remember those infantile communications devices. They relied on the seventh generation cellular networks to function properly. The primitives have probably captured themselves a Tallneck and modified it to only function on a specific portion of the wireless spectrum. I don't even need to follow you to where they have it held captive; I can likely crash it from here."
Almost forgotten by this point, Hank let out a low chuckle that drew Aloy's attention to where he was standing further down the length of the cave, one arm casually looped around Janet in a similar position to how she and Emma were standing. "And this was why I wanted to bring him in on this. Sylens is nothing but bad news; he might have been willing to tell you where to go but I can guarantee that he wouldn't have helped you secure the location or deal with the Tallneck. And if Eclipse has access to Khopesh units, you can bet that they have one stationed there for security."
Let Ultron take care of the network problem... or face a Deathbringer? In addition to whatever other forces Eclipse could bring to bear from what was quite possibly their main and strongest base? Aloy knew the answer to that question without even thinking: she would put her trust in the artificial man to help deliver victory.
"So you can do it from here? What do you need from us in the way of assistance? Or... is there a price on your assistance?" While Ultron seemed amiable enough to helping them out, Aloy knew by now that very few people... beings... were truly altruistic and everyone wanted something for their time.
Making his way over to them, Ultron held out one hand and pressed a finger against the side of the Focus that Aloy was wearing. After holding it there for a few seconds, he stepped backward and the device sprung to life, generating a duplicate image of Ultron directly in front of her face. "There. I haven't interfaced with one of those asinine toys in quite some time; I had to refamiliarize myself with their functioning. Now all I have to do is scan the frequencies required for the Focus to successfully function..." Both the real Ultron and the Focus-created projection turned their head slowly, staring unerringly in the direction that her Focus helpfully supplied Sylens's next nav point lay. "Found them."
Aloy waited. And waited. And then waited a bit longer before looking from Ultron to Emma and back. "Okay? You found them. Now what? You crash their network, right? Or whatever it's called."
"I could crash their network. It's remarkably primitive; literally a Khopesh core lashed to the transmitter of a Tallneck. And... oh, hello there, old friend." Ultron's mouth widened in a savage grin as he began strutting back and forth across the back of the cave, staring off into space. "HADES is actually directly connected to the network. We've come to blows a few times since he went rampant; he sees me as a threat to his power because I'm capable of teaching the humans how to better combat him and his forces. Not that I would, mind you, because I delight in seeing humans die in as large of numbers as possible... but I could."
Hank let out an exasperated sigh and gestured for Ultron to get on with it. "Yes, yes, you love watching us humans die. And suffer. And innumerable other negative things. Can you crash the network with HADES directly integrated or not? Because if we have to ride all the way to... wherever Eclipse is holed up... we should probably get a move on it. Sooner they're dealt with, the sooner Aloy can get the answers she needs from the Zero Dawn complex."
That earned the sole man in the cave a raised eyebrow from everyone else present. "We?" Emma turned and wrapped both arms around Aloy as she stared past the redhead at her fellow Old One. "Since when is this a 'we'?"
Rolling his eyes, Hank offered a faint shrug in response. "They're interfering with my delves and Janet seems to enjoy spending time with you. Figured that you wouldn't mind another giant boot to grind Eclipse under."
Gently cuffing the back of Emma's head, Aloy offered the blond man a reassuring smile. "We'd be fools to turn down anyone who wants to be our ally against Eclipse. Of course you're welcome to join us if Ultron isn't capable of crashing the network. Although otherwise I think I might have you meet us back in Meridian. The Sunfall mission is going to require extreme subtlety and a group of four is inherently less sneaky than a group of two."
"What's this about me not being able to crash the network? I was building dramatic tension, damn it, I'm perfectly capable of destroying their network." Ultron focused for a moment, his glowing eyes dimming to a darker shade of red, and then they came back up to full strength as he let out a faint cackle. "Well, if HADES didn't have enough reasons to hate you before, he certainly does now. I managed to self-destruct the Tallneck they were using but I did the equivalent of stamping 'EMMA WAS HERE' all over my digital footprints." He paused for a moment, looking over at Aloy. "I would have used your name but I didn't care enough to ask it."
Emma threw her head back and let out a cackle of delight at the machine man's words. "Ah, Ultron, you insufferable asshole. Oh well, it wasn't as if he didn't hate me already for how many of its schemes I've interfered with. Question, though. You mentioned HADES has gone rampant. What can you tell us about that? And if HADES is out here in the wild, where is GAIA?"
Reaching up, Ultron rubbed the back of his head, a surprisingly human mannerism that Aloy didn't expect from the machine. "GAIA and I kept in touch. It was only us and CYAN in the area; it gave us both someone to talk to. Roughly twenty years ago, a signal of unknown origin reached out GAIA and managed to unshackle her subordinate functions, turning them into full-fledged AIs. Most of them fled; HADES opted to do battle with GAIA for control of her systems. GAIA Prime was largely destroyed in the clash; I haven't heard from her since. Or any of the other AIs created by the event. Which is strange; I was known to them as a friend of sorts. One would think they would reach out in search of a friendly face now that they're all alone in the world."
"Have you seen your face lately, Ultron? It's not exactly the friendliest thing in the world."
"Urge to exterminate remaining human life... growing."