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This, You Protect

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Coded chapter 1/1, but I can't promise that I won't update if I think of more jokes.

Oh Grumpy Bucky, I love you.

 

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The mission has been complicated. It should have been a standard kill job, but the target had been slippery and surprisingly well trained, with obnoxious backup. Really obnoxious, flying backup. Who has that?

Not to mention the distractions. The mission was clear: kill. But the Asset had watched instead, and the target’s voice made weird echoes inside the head that caused the Asset to pull punches, to fire off the mid-line.

To falter. To speak. To fight the objective, even if the objective (kill) momentarily took the form of the target’s stupid face.

The mission resets abruptly. Objective kill: override. New mission: protect.

There have been mission overrides before. There is a protocol for it. The passcode is given at each brief. The passcode for this mission is not:

-          You are my friend

-          James Buchanan Barnes

-          end of the line

Nonetheless, the mission resets. Unlike other resets, this is not the smooth slotting of a cog into a new process. The reset is painful: one more landmark on the map of hurts.

In the space of the reset, the mission falls.

The Asset watches the mission recede among debris and fire. It gives the Asset vertigo – that sliding-sideways feeling that results from too long since cryo, when the mind creates non-mission-related distractions that cause increased heart rate and respiration, migraine.

The vertigo lasts long enough for the formerly-kill mission to fall almost out of sight. The Asset cannot protect from outside visual range. Mission failure: unacceptable.

Чорт, the Asset says, and dives.

The protect-mission has unfortunately dislocated the Asset’s flesh shoulder, which makes diving/catching/swimming tricky. Given the weapon arm and its buttress of metal along the shoulder and spine, the Asset is not buoyant. Luckily, the Asset has tactical flexibility woven into its tendons, far below the messy, unreliable level of thought and brain.

The mission is now protect. Each brief contains the phrase ‘do what is needed to complete the objective.’ So the Asset hooks the formerly-kill mission in a leg hold about the waist and swims steadily to shore using the metal arm. Like the Asset, the now-protect mission’s enhanced physiology makes drowning unlikely … except that the Asset had already put a bullet in his gut. And beat his face to jelly.

Пиздец.

The Asset drags the objective out of the Potomac and watches, ready to administer CPR despite dislocation and water streaming from the metal arm that has a 73.4% likelihood of interfering with fine-motor skills until dried, conferring mission-significant risk of causing injury to sternum/ribs/lungs. The Asset leans over, stares. The possibility of mission failure has caused the Asset’s baseline respiration to increase by 15%. The metal arm clenches and unclenches.

But the target breathes, coughs out water. Medical attention is needed beyond the Asset’s basic first aid capability: gunshot wound to the shoulder, possibly through-and-through; gunshot wound to the abdomen, bullet in situ; possible head trauma; significant facial fracturing – all bathed in water poisoned by fuel, coolant, burned plastic, and who knows what else by the collapsing vehicles. Polluted water also currently inhabiting the man’s lungs. Likelihood of infection and pneumonia without immediate medical intervention: 96%. The mission override is a klaxon blaring behind the Asset’s eyes. High likelihood of pneumonia. Critical: must avoid.

Useless bystanders line the riverbank, filming the vehicles’ wreck. The Asset peels a phone from a weedy-looking kid in a stupid hoodie.

“What the fu-“ the kid gets out before his eyes focus on the Asset. The Asset’s face arranges itself into a configuration of bared teeth and narrowed eyes. The kid shuts his damn mouth.

The Asset knows 911. It has worked as a useful diversion on occasion. The Asset is less than confident that the civilian on the line understands latitude and longitude, but there is no other way to say “Captain Steven Grant Rogers with a gut wound on the riverbank” and be assured that they will find the correct location. Civilians are terrible at navigation.

“Hurry,” the Asset says.

Mission imperative pounds in the Asset’s chest, takes the form of increased pulse rate and respiration, a tightening of the throat. Backup is required to protect the objective’s lungs.

“It’s Captain goddamn America. Hurry.”

The Asset doubles back to ensure that the ambulance arrives quickly. Alternate plan: the metal arm is 20% dry. The target can be carried to a hospital if necessary. Exposure is secondary to protection.

The phone makes a sound like a banjo – a sound that makes the Asset wish to rip its own ears off and throw them as far away as possible. The phone’s screen now reads, ‘hey man, give Tyler back his phone.’ There is a siren nearby. Response: low priority.

The large, out-of-shape EMT drops his backboard at the sight of their patient on the riverbank. The small woman accompanying him smacks him in the arm, and they curse at one another. This delay causes the Asset to rock back and forth from right foot to left. The Asset can see the target’s chest rise and fall, and it stills itself. The EMTs roll the man gently onto the backboard and heave him – the larger with grunts and the smaller with sheer grumpy stubbornness – into the ambulance at a speed approximately half what the Asset would consider adequate.

Once the ambulance has gone, the Asset sets the flesh shoulder against a tree and pops it back into place: one flash of the sort of agony that makes pictures in the brain (needles, bright light, the flavor of rubber) followed by easing and improved movement. Less than twelve hours to full healing.

Regroup:

-          clothing

-          cash

-          relocate the target

The safe house on Avenue G is in shambles. The bank, with its chair and its deep freeze, is not an option. The Asset cannot protect the mission from cryo.

For basics, the Asset can trust the ridiculous wastefulness of Americans: food and clothing are everywhere for the taking. The Asset keeps its boots but finds pants/shirt/jacket/hat in less than thirty minutes. Guns and tactical gear are hidden high in a tree in the park near the river; knives will suffice among civilians. The phone makes its banjo sound three more times with admonishments to return it to Tyler. The Asset texts back: ‘bite it, asshole.’

The Asset is not consciously aware what the phrase means. The response, ‘bro that is harsh,’ satisfies. The Asset feels the head nod and lips press together. It is harsh. Message conveyed successfully.

The Asset walks in the direction the ambulance took. Given the general state of falling-apart in the area, other sirens soon help guide the Asset to George Washington University Hospital. Blood on the face and the flesh hand give the Asset cover – that he is mobile puts him low on the priority list.

The flying man sits on the second floor in an alcove with a dark-haired woman. A troublesome redhead arrives soon after. The Asset sits in a blue plastic chair outside the alcove. The Asset stares hard at the redhead from under ballcap and hair. He knows she is danger without knowing how he knows it. He angles the chair out of her line of sight. He practices looking asleep-not-dead for a long time.

Eventually a doctor approaches them. Her words make the little group sag and cover their eyes in a way the Asset recognizes as ‘danger passed.’ The Asset’s body feels as if it is falling, though he sits in the same chair. The Asset’s lungs get rid of all their air. The Asset presses his abdomen: these could be signs of internal bleeding. The tissue feels pliable. Monitor, he tells himself. Bleeding out from the inside would interfere with the mission.

The doctor passes by him. He pulls out the phone. There are now seventeen texts from ‘Dale’ about returning the phone to Tyler. The Asset makes note to calculate the feasibility of a side mission to return the phone to Tyler and make him eat it, preferably in one piece.

The Asset uses the phone’s search function to look up Dr. Chitra Ghambire. Board-certified surgeon with fifteen years of experience. No open complains or malpractice suits. Top ten in her class at Johns Hopkins. Excellent reviews on ratemydoctor.com. Acceptable. Surgery lasted four hours. Anesthesia should last 1.5, maybe two more hours before Steven Grant Rogers, Captain, US Army, will be moved to the main ward.

The Asset roams the hospital’s hallways to obtain supplies: unguent, bandages, a foil-topped cup that proclaims itself ‘chocolate pudding.’ On the geriatric ward, in the room of Mildred Greene, he cleans his face and wraps the small cuts on his right hand and arm. The old woman snores in her bed. The Asset eats the ‘chocolate pudding’ and feels his brain flip over sideways. He throws the cup against the wall. Note: avoid ‘pudding.’ It distracts from the mission.

The Asset makes his way to the hospital’s roof and tucks himself into a dark corner as far as possible from the helipad. The phone (six new texts and five missed calls) reports local time as 0032.

“Set sleep: two hours,” the Asset tells himself.

At 0243, Asset emerges from a stairwell into the still-busy ER. His shoulder no longer aches, and his eyes blink without dragging like sandpaper. In the hallways of the hospital 36.9% of personnel have beverage containers, most of which are white with brown banding.

A tall, dark-skinned woman sets her container down to flip through a chart. Asset grabs the cup as he passes by her. He does not expect the hot liquid to burn his tongue. It makes his left hand clench with a soft whirr. Then sweet-fat-rich registers in his mouth; his eyes cross a little, and he staggers. No wonder civilians are so distracted, with their pudding and their hot drinks.

“I will choke the shit out of anyone who tries to take this from me,” he thinks.

To avoid any examination of pronouns, he peers at the cup. The label reads ‘Starbucks’ and depicts a woman smiling while being devoured by a cephalopod. He clutches the cup close and walks.

He doesn’t even have to break into anything: he climbs to the second floor, drinking his beverage (according to the cipher on the cup, a three-shot two WM EW), when he overhears one nurse say to another,

“I saw him in recovery, before they took him up to the fourth floor. It’s definitely him. No one else would be that cute after major surgery.”

He glares at the young man’s excessive breach of security protocols, then takes the stairs up. He’s faster than the elevator.

No one has thought to post guards outside Captain Steven Rogers’s door. Asset grits his teeth. It’s clear why the mission rewrote. No one else seems to give a rat’s twitching ass about protecting this guy.

He slips inside the room. The numbers on the monitors are within acceptable limits for pulse, BP and O2 saturation. The oxygen tank is sufficiently full for overnight use.

His body is reacting strangely to the beverage (‘don’t care will have more,’ he thinks) – he breathes high in his chest and has to consciously move his eyes to look at the man in the bed. But of course he must examine his objective: it’s a mission imperative.

Rogers’s color is good, and his feet are adequately covered by the blanket. Though a second would be better. Asset increases the angle of the bed by 11 degrees to better protect against pneumonia.

Rogers shifts in the bed, and his nasal cannula pops out.

“Are you even kidding me,” Asset whispers.

He tucks the cannula gently back into Rogers’s ridiculously large nose in the middle of his stupidly big head, then curls the tube back in place over Steve’s acceptably sized ear. Steve frowns in his sleep and turns his head toward Asset’s hand.

Apparently ‘avoid frowning’ falls under the purview of protection, because Asset’s imperative throbs along with his heartbeat.

He presses his right thumb against the wrinkle in Steve’s brow. Rogers exhales in his sleep and settles back into the pillow, frown smoothing away.

Voices approach in the hallway: one unfamiliar, one the flying man. Asset ghosts out the window and down to street level.

There is a cephalopod-eating-lady sign a block away. It is open, even at 0413. Asset hangs toward the back, fingering the pilfered cash in his pocket, until he deciphers their bastardized Italian code. He orders with confidence.

“Size?”

“Big.”

The resulting beverage, according to the board, contains sufficient calories for a two-hour burst of combat, six hours’ hard travel, or ten hours sitting in the building across from the hospital watching Rogers sleep. The cup is very large, and his face curls at the sight of it. The worker’s face curls too, and Asset thinks ‘smile.’

“Hey, you enjoy that, man,” the girl says to him.

“Yes ma’am.”

They are words his mouth knows but not his brain. But it’s an easy order to follow, to sit in a warm room at a small table with a view of all exits and a drink that, deciphered, means three-shot two-pump white chocolate mocha with extra whip.

The sound emerging from his curled face is suspiciously akin to a giggle. It makes his heart rate increase. After the second ‘venti,’ Asset’s eyes are quivering in their sockets and he is struck by the urge to order a third and walk very quickly around the hospital to check the perimeter.

Point eight miles around the outer sweep zone, the phone’s ringing becomes so insistent that he answers it. Unlike the banjo texting sound, the ring sound is something that the Asset thinks is either music, a young man being castrated, or a distressed cat.

“Who is this?”

“Who is this? It’s Tyler, man, you have my fucking phone. Who are you?”

“Asset.”

Tyler laughs. Asset thinks fondly of Tyler eating a phone sandwich with a nut-shot chaser.

“Ass…hat? That’s an appropriate name, brah, because you are totally an asshat for not giving me my phone back.”

Asset considers the news that his name could inspire derision. Probability of mission distraction: 62%.

“Come on, dude. All my Coachella pictures are on there. Please, man. I don’t want to call the police.”

Asset hangs up. He goes into the photo folder on the phone to find 126 snaps of the same group of young people wearing poorly made Sioux war bonnets or, barring that, wearing what appear to be feathers from domestic turkey or various pet bird species in their hair. None of the young people are wearing adequate sun protection, and all are suffering from extreme dehydration and heat stroke, if he correctly interprets the reason for their tongues hanging out.

They look like morons, and if they were smart they’d pay him to dump the phone into the Potomac or the hospital’s medical waste incinerator.

Still. He knows the difference between Asset and asshat, but the homonym isn’t unreasonable. He needs a cover ID for the mission.

‘Steve Rogers’ is the name his brain latches onto given half a second to itself, but this is no double-and-cover mission. ‘Tyler’ and ‘Dale’ are sackwipe names possessed by pure examples of the sackwipe type.

Captain Rogers called him ‘Bucky.’ Asshat potential: 58%. But one of the non-passcodes was a name. It means nothing to him, but ‘Barnes’ sounds like a civilian name that will pass. He hopes.

Perimeter check complete, the … Barnes swipes a new hat from a street vendor and reenters the hospital. Rogers finally has guards outside his door. He walks smoothly down the hallway, frowning at door numbers as if lost. Soft music plays over the sound of monitors beeping in Rogers’s room. Around the corner, he looks up the badge numbers of the two officers at Rogers’s door: one long-term decorated department veteran and one rookie, honorably discharged from the Marines after two tours in Afghanistan. Acceptable. For the moment.

He loiters in the hallway. It’s still busy enough for him to be overlooked. He waves his cup and nods at the few people who bother to meet his eye. At 0819, the flying man emerges, speaking softly on his phone, which probably does not sound like a banjo when he has a text.

“Yeah, still out of it,” the man says. “I’m gonna go home, grab a shower, and come back around lunchtime. Doc said he ought to wake up this afternoon.”

Time, then. When the flying man leaves, the officers smile at him, nod, then resume their unfocused stares at the hallway. A nurse enters Rogers’s room, then leaves after 11.6 minutes.

As- Barnes. Barnes enters a room down the hall, exits the window, and scuttles like a crab across the side of the building. Crab is an odd choice, he thinks, fitting fingers into crevices in the concrete. Trusting that civilians will never look up.

Windows are goddamn inconvenient these days. So few of them open. People putting themselves in tanks like fish. The … Barnes can actively remember yesterday and the day before, but nothing to suggest why he has a strong opinion about windows. Rogers’s room is in an older wing of the hospital, regardless, and Barnes’s right arm forces the elderly lock.

Rogers looks better in the morning light, closer to his usual rosy self for the moment. Barnes narrows his eyes at the idea that Rogers should be so pink, but the mission briefing he does not remember that results in mission objective: protect gives him the information that pink is the usual color unless Rogers is angry, laughing, or embarrassed, in which case the color is red.

So pink will do. The monitors still show acceptable numbers, and the nasal cannula is gone. Barnes checks the IV stand: saline, Percocet, antibiotics.

The bed has been lowered again, and Rogers has kicked the blanket off his feet. Barnes sighs. He raises the bed, retucks the blanket.

Steve shifts and kicks the blanket loose.

The mission override comes with the strong sense that protecting this man is one long pain in the ass.