Chapter 42: Tonight, on Exposition News.
~ An hour earlier
"Are you listening to me, Captain?"
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. He held in a sigh.
"I am." he answered.
"Then could you explain why the Quinjet flew over Sokovian airspace right now?"
"Ma'am, Ultron is dangerous and—,"
"—Not our fucking problem." Hill continued. He didn't know when she changed from Stark's employee to their direct SHIELD supervisor in the course of the last three weeks, but she did, and she was furious.
"Director Fury—," he tried to explain, but she wouldn't hear of it.
"Is getting chewed out by the president right this very moment, while Congress prepares to have his head on a pike. Fury may play fast and loose with the rules, Rogers, but I am not him and I won't be disobeyed."
"Ma'am, you have seen Ultron. You know what he is capable of. If we let him go free, something like Johannesburg may—,"
"We are not talking about Johannesburg. We are talking about Kathmandu and your team's absolute shitshow in another country's soil, against express orders. You had no business being there. There was no HYDRA, no aliens descending from the sky, nor any Class 5 distress request. You were there under no purview but your own, turning Johannesburg not into a one-time disaster, but the start of a series of diplomatic incidents that have made our international allies call for the disbanding of the 'rogue American team' that runs amok in their lands." Hill seethed. "So, I'm asking again: What are you doing in Sokovia?"
"Cap!" Hawkeye came in and shouted. "We gotta go!"
"Sorry, Commander. We have to cut this short." Steve said hurriedly.
"Rogers! Ultron is a political refugee! Don't you dare—!" she continued in alarm, but Steve hung up. He felt mildly guilty about it, and knew he was going to have apologize to her later.
Clint stepped closer, his previous hurry gone. "Your ears still ringing?"
"A little." Steve said, before standing up. "Thanks for saving me."
"What are teammates for?" Clint said, leading him to the viewing room. Bruce was there, looking at the news depicting what appeared to be the president of Sokovia shaking hands with Ultron's adult persona.
"What did I miss?" he asked.
"Not much." Bruce answered. "Our AI just got Sokovian citizenship. Apparently, James Ultron has been in political asylum in Sokovia for a few days now."
Clint sat by his side. "James Ultron, huh?"
Bruce took the remote and changed the channel to that of a biography page. Ultron appeared on the image.
"Meet James S. Ultron, 29. American-born son of Sokovian refugees." Bruce introduced. "Moved around US for most of his childhood, never stayed in one place too long. Went to UCLA at 16, on a full ride, double-majoring in engineering and philosophy. Finished that and his masters 3 years later. Went on a world trip, volunteering at various places for several years before going back to the US. Worked on a PhD at Columbia specializing on robotics. His parents went to visit him in New York during the Chitauri invasion. Only he made it."
"That… that is a lie." Steve said. "Ultron is a robot. You and Stark created him."
"Not according to this." Bruce said, looking at the screen. "There are documents for his parents, passports, hospital records, a VISA for his world trip, childhood pictures, a yearbook photo, chat records with his classmates. There is an editorial piece written by him at The Daily Bruin, and his name is on peer-reviewed papers. Heck, there are people at Columbia who have stories on their social media with him!"
"He's an AI, so he could have faked the records." Clint said.
"That doesn't explain this." Bruce said, and switched the channel again to the American news. A female reporter was interviewing a professor at the University of Columbia.
"James is a very driven and passionate young man." the man spoke. "He worked with me for the past two years on—."
"Mind control?" Clint asked watching the interview.
"Probably. The press have been digging up on him and have interviewed people that apparently knew Ultron over many years. There are more than a hundred people with special, unique memories who can swear to having known the man Ultron is pretending to be."
"But how did he do this?" Steve asked. "This would have taken a lot of time. A lot of preparation."
"That's the scary thing." Bruce said. "All this time, he has been fighting us, hiding, building his army, creating a political movement, and controlling hundreds of people to create the perfect identity. And we never knew anything. We still don't know anything."
"We assumed he was making plans and working toward something, but all of this? Since the very beginning?" Clint said.
Bruce returned the channel to the Sokovian press conference. "We aren't just one or two steps behind. We were never on the same road to begin with."
"What about the stolen vibranium? Johannesburg? Kathmandu? Kidnapping Potts?" Steve asked.
"Minor goals. Could be distractions, even." Clint answered. "This guy," he pointed at Ultron on the screen. "Has had his eye on the prize this whole time. Everything that doesn't fit has probably been about something that he wouldn't mind losing or something that would keep us occupied."
"But what's the prize? Because this is not about world domination anymore." Bruce said.
The news cycle about dictators abdicating came to his mind. It couldn't be that it had always been the same, could it? "World peace." Steve said.
"What?" asked Clint.
"World peace." he repeated. "Ultron told us himself. This has always been about world peace. Nothing else."
"But what about the robot army?" Bruce asked. "Where does that come in?"
"Maybe he is using to threaten governments, I don't know." Steve said. " But Stark might. What's his ETA?"
"Half an hour, tops." Clint said. "Nat, JARVIS and the twins are with him."
"The twins?" Steve asked. Why were the kids coming?
"Ultron popped in at the Tower a while ago. Stark doesn't trust them to stay there any longer, but he couldn't hand them to SHIELD, so with him they come."
"Still in New Mexico." Bruce answered. "He said he can't interfere in Midgard politics."
And how this seemed like politics, Steve couldn't understand. Yes, Ultron was rallying behind a movement. Yes, he spoke of world peace. But this was a robot pretending to be a human. This wasn't a man preparing for a protest. This was a machine whose whole personality was a lie. For the sake of his goal, he mind-controlled and killed people, and threatened governments until they surrendered to him.
They couldn't trust someone like that.
"How did that happen?" Clint asked, gesturing at the screen.
The news anchors were reviewing footage of the Sokovian president was placing a medal of honor of some kind around James Ultron's neck.
"Sokovia has bad history with the neighbors." Bruce explained. He had been following the local news quite carefully the last few hours. "Five years ago, one of its counties was annexed and border skirmishes and acts of sabotage have been going on ever since. The country has been in a semi state of emergency from the time they left the Soviet Bloc, but things became really desperate these last few years. However, they haven't lost a single soldier to border patrol or foreign terrorists in two weeks. Ultron did that."
"To quote President Melnyk, 'The country has never been safer, and it's all thanks to this patriotic man.' As we can see, Robert, Ultron is now a recipient of the Sokovian Medal of Honor, the first time any American—," the English reporter explained alongside the ceremony.
"Isn't it a bit soon to receive a medal, no matter what he did?"
"That's why I'm watching this." Bruce said. "I don't know why he would need to do this. His name is already of international fame. Showing favor to one country isn't going to help his reputation. It might even harm it."
The video ended, to show a panel of reporters and local politicians discuss the ramifications of this move.
"Ultron should reach the memorial right about now. Rumor is that he is holding a speech."
"Like the first?" Clint asked.
"Maybe." Bruce said. "So, what are we going to do?"
"The rest of the team isn't here yet, and Hill grounded us. Technically, we are not supposed to do anything." Clint said.
Steve stayed quiet for a moment, before deciding. "Let's go on the ground."
"To watch Ultron?" Bruce asked. "Cap, we can't do anything."
"I know. I just…" He didn't know how to explain this, but something was telling him to go. "I have a bad feeling."
Bruce and Clint exchanged a gaze before the latter shrugged.
"Fine, let's do it." Bruce nodded, getting up.