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Fall Of The Dragon Rise Of The Machine

Part One: Dragon's End

Lord Esteban de Ablo glared at the SHIELD agents as they led him from the wreckage of Sky Castle Dracula. He imagined throwing a vial of acid on the Middle Kingdom agent, watching her face melt as she screamed. He imagined the African agent twitching on the ground, beetles eating him from the inside out. He imagined the Son of Coul staring at his body in horror as it turned to stone. Diablo could only imagine these things, for they had placed manacles upon him that covered his arms from elbow to fingertip. "You will regret this, all of you," he hissed, glaring at the one called May. "My Dragon-Men yet fly across the earth. I will rain nightmares upon you--"

"Your days of spawning terrors are done, de Ablo," a woman's rich voice pronounced, and Diablo recoiled, "but your own terror has just begun."

"I take it all back!" Diablo wailed. "I yield to your justice, without resistance or complaint!"

The Son of Coul smiled in a way not unlike de Ablo himself did, just before condemning a despised irritant. "Too late, Esteban," the agent said, his voice as maddeningly even and detached as ever. "You're one of the magic types. SHIELD protocol is, we turn you over to them."

Diablo stared at the stone-faced man in disbelief. "She is Margali Szardos, man! Red Queen of the Winding Way! Have you any idea what the Winding do to--"

"Nothing you do not deserve, alchemist," Szardos retorted, grabbing the villain by the collar. "Strange was merciful to you last time. Because of your schemes, Strange is gone. I would leave you to his successor, but she has duties enough for ten, and you are beneath her. Instead, you will face our justice." Before Diablo could make another plea, both vanished without a trace.

"I like her," agent May noted, grinning at the empty space.

The Leader glared at the SHIELD agents as he was led through the spot the mages had vacated. "Bah," Dr. Sterns spat, manacled as Diablo had been. "Superstitious ends for a superstitionist fool. You cannot contain my genius with steel and circuitry. You would do better to lock a soldier in an armory."

Coulson looked him over expertly. "We'll take our chances," he said, and nodded toward the Bus. Agent Triplett gave the Leader a nudge, and the bright green mastermind trudged as he was directed. Four agents followed with dollies, both holding more fully-imprisoned figures. Emil Blonsky and Llyra -- Ravager and Sin -- were in what amounted to full body casts, suppressing their powers and keeping them immobile.

"Fool!" Leader snarled. "I could have ushered in a new Golden Age! I still can -- and will!" He glared at Adamant. "The rest of these neanderthals may be incapable of understanding the future, but not you, Adamant." The Leader's gaze went from fiery stare to icy analysis. "You might play the brute for the cameras, but I recognize the scientific mind within. Those of us who understand the cosmic forces our lessers cannot are shackled by this crippled society," he insisted, shaking his metal-shod hands for emphasis, "when we could build a technological paradise! Think of what we could accomplish, free of the masses' fear and stupidity!"

Adamant met his gaze, ice for ice. "And if you had any concept of scientific ethics, you might have a point. Instead, I expect you to rant about the irrelevance of ethics, and make my point for me." She waved Triplett on, and he pushed Sterns forward.

"Not a bad haul," May observed, watching their agents wheel Ravager and Sin after the Leader. "Think the crazy might take some time off after this?"

Coulson blinked at his partner. "You just jinxed it."

At that, May let out a rare laugh. "It doesn't work that way, Phil."


Part Two: Machine's Awakening

"No," Dr. Pym insisted.

Tony Stark laughed. "I love it when you play hard to get." He patted the console with zeal. "Come on, Hank, Tron wants to get out and drive."

"Oh, for -- Ul-tron is still an emergent virtual intelligence, no more self-aware than your JARVIS," Pym said, shoving Stark's hand off the computer.

Stark tapped the air, haptic interface coming to life around his fingers. He favored Hank with an impish grin. "JARVIS, you want to talk to Hank about how self-aware you are?"

"Sir, while I am a highly versatile interface system," JARVIS noted, "I lack what humans would call 'free will.'"

"Thank you, JARVIS," Hank replied, then turned to watch Tony coolly. "Ultron is in a delicate stage of development. I want to make sure he develops into a responsible sentient." Pym crossed his arms. "He's not one of your Iron Legion drones, to be deployed when you're feeling vulnerable."

Tony's smile vanished. "In case you hadn't noticed, the whole world's feeling vulnerable. We were almost conquered by Dracula. Dracula! That makes Fin Fang Foom look less ridiculous, somehow." Stark shook his head. "Giant alien dragon wearing purple pants, and somehow that wasn't the weirdest thing we fought this week. Look, you've got those creepy ant-headed robots, put Ultron in one of those, or ten of them. Whatever."

"I intend to, when Ultron is fully developed, but the synthezoid bodies aren't like your metal soldiers," Hank insisted. "They're designed to aid the rehabilitation of the so-called super-villains."

"Scared straight, huh? Works for me." Tony shrugged.

Dr. Pym slowly facepalmed. "Stark...why don't you just use JARVIS?"

"JARVIS already has a job," Stark replied. "He's already got too much on his plate. Really, he ought to take some vacation time."

"So noted, sir," JARVIS quipped.

Stark rolled his eyes, then gestured at scrolling lines of code. "Ultron's designed to manage an army of super-crooks simultaneously. His ability to co-locate in multiple humanoid shells is unparalleled. He's perfect."

"Maybe he will be, when I'm done modeling the best minds," Pym retorted, turning off the monitor in question. "Right now, he's running off a copy of my engrams, and that's a non-optimal prototype. Besides, all my work is copyright G.G. Robotix."

"No, it was copyright, until you brought Ultron into the Avengers database," Stark corrected cheerfully. "Check the Avengers Initiative protocols." Tony patted Hank on the shoulder, the latter biting back several curses. "Relax, ant boy. Your brain's...decent. Almost brilliant, on a good day."

"I will call Dr. Thompson in on this if I have to, protocols or no protocols," Pym warned, glaring at Stark. "I'm not talking about intellect. I've had -- instability, in the past."

Tony grinned again. "Give me five minutes with the code." The smile vanished when Hank grew several inches and punched his desk, leaving it dented. "All right, all right! We'll work on it together, okay? We'll leave him in the server until you've got him up to Captain America code, or whatever. Just leave a 'break firewall in case of emergency' password in there."

Pym watched Stark warily for a few seconds, then exhaled and relented with a nod. "Okay. That's fair." He shrugged. "What kind of emergency would justify unlocking an untested pre-AI operating system, anyway?"

"Ask me again next week," Tony quipped, leading Pym out of the lab.

Iron Legionnaire #5 briefly flickered to life, its eyes glowing a toxic green. "So these are the Champion's allies," it said, scanning the room. "It seems they have better toys than he does. Perfect..."