A man is only whole when he takes into account his shadow.
The DC sky burned, smoke and ash drifting across downtown, vehicles skidding to the roadside as drivers stuck their heads out their windows, eyes fixed on the collapsing giant.
The Soldier walked into the first large department store he crossed. He walked through the racks grabbing an armful of clothing – t-shirts, sweaters, a coat, jeans, jackets, a hat, gloves, and two backpacks. The salesladies and customers cowered in corners or ran into the streets, small hand held computers pointed at the mass collapsing into the river. Even from inside the building he could hear the screech of twisting metal and the crack of broken rock.
Stage one of the plan was Supplies.
He needed to get everything in one fell swoop because once he’d gone to ground he couldn’t resurface; not without drawing the combined focus of Hydra and Shield. He had to be quick, decisive, discrete.The other looters, the typical rabble that cropped during in local disasters, provided an excellent cover for the stolen items.
He waited until he was clear of the crowd to stop and strip the waterlogged sour leather and Kevlar. The clothes made a soggy, black mass in the corner. The Soldier pulled on the blue hoodie with the soft inside. Truthfully, the green with the water protection or the black and grey that faded into urban shadows would have been a better tactical choice but the blue was soft against his skin. He kept the other two in reserve.
He undid the zipper with his teeth and carefully maneuvered his bone hand into the sleeve.
His waterlogged guns needed a good cleaning to keep from rusting and his ammunition was limited. He could, theoretically, return to the maintenance bank or raid one of the numerous safe houses peppered throughout DC, but the agents equipped with trigger words made the risk unfavorable. He didn’t want to risk surveillance.
The Soldier pulled a cap low over his eyes and walked to a nearby Walmart. He filled his shopping cart with ball bearings, a long sheet of clear tarp, a box of water bottles, food stuff including a gigantic box of salt, and thirty glass mason jars with screw on lids. At Home Depot he filled it with rubber piping, nails, pipe cement, firecrackers, fishing line, card paper, bells like the kind store owners put on their door, three gallons of resin, and toy rockets.
He got makeup, bells, several dozen spools of hardy thread, and Halloween prosthetics from the local dollar store. The Soldier moved from one item to the next like a laser locked missile, only redirecting to avoid bumping elbows with other people in the store. He stood in line, a specter of a man, until a flash of happy color caught his eye.
There was a small packet of gummy bears hanging about chest high. If he'd been a child-sized weapon, it would be directly at his eye line. The Soldier stared at the small packet as the line moved forward. They served no mission purpose. He needed to travel as light as he could. They were a distraction: person items, not weapon-approved. But he liked the colorful reds, greens and blues. The Soldier quibbled over it so long the woman at the register took compassion on him.
“Here,” she said, stuffing it into his bag without scanning it. Her eyes lingered on the bruises under his eyes and the stiff metal fingers hidden by his glove. “I got it covered, Hun. Just be safe when you’re driving, ok?”
Lastly he went to a gun store and bought four boxes of Russian sniper rounds and an AM-FM radio with a telescope antenna.
Stage two was Location.
By now his trail cut clear and wide deeper into DC where his handlers would deduce the Winter Solider was alive, active, and pursuing the mission. It satisfied his programming enough to allow him boost a car and leave the city. He put on the fake skin and used the makeup to define his cheeks and soften his eyes. The flesh colored putty widened his chin and lowered the brow of his nose, while the fake Halloween teeth changed the shape of his mouth. It would not pass close inspection but it would fool the roadside cameras.
The US-29 was packed with civilians scrambling to escape the devastation on the river. In the confusion and panic, Captain Rogers' attack had been labeled a terrorist threat. Newscasters pleaded with people to stay indoors while police and the military were beginning to set up blockades. It had only been four hours since Roger’s attack began and information at this point was chaotic and incomplete. The Soldier slipped through easily.
The Soldier kept to the back roads and avoided tolls or areas with camera monitoring. It added hours to his trip, but the sleep deprivation and endurance training held. He could stay awake for eighty-one hours without sacrificing minimum capability and concentration. He only needed forty-five.
He kept his left hand the seat beside him so the passing cameras wouldn’t catch the glint of his wrist exposed between the edge of his sleeve and the glove. Small towns turned into long fields of brown earth and sprouting new stocks of corn or rows of green alfalfa. In the distance the jagged peaks of the Tetons rose from the earth. When he was a hundred miles from his target destination he pulled into the woods and set up temporary camp.
The Soldier pulled out the resin and ball bearings. He mixed the two together in one of the gallon buckets until the bearings were evenly mixed in, and poured the mixture into all but one of the glass mason jars until it was an inch thick on the bottom.
While it hardened, Barnes cut even swatches of thick thread, each one about four feet long. He dipped them into the pipe cement and rolled them in gunpowder. The Soldier cannibalized parts of the car motor to make a spinning table. He carefully set one of the mason jars in the middle of the table and poured in another amount of resin.
The centrifugal force pressed the resin evenly against the walls of the glass. The Soldier let it spin until it hardened. He did the same with the other glass jars. When it was done the resin had hardened on the sides leaving an even open tube to the first layer of resin. He placed the jars back into the crates they came in, carefully wrapped in shirts and sweaters.
The Soldier pulled apart the rockets until he had twenty-five fire starters lined up on the tailgate. He cracked open the fireworks and poured the gunpowder into several white envelopes and set it aside. He put the fire starters in his backpack along with the envelopes of gunpowder.
Next, he ripped open the box of water bottles and stuck them into the backpacks, along with the fishing line and spools of thread. He opened the boxes of sniper rounds and poured the bullets into the smaller pockets and into the tiny spaces between items.
He placed the fuses into the long tarp and rolled it up tight like a sleeping bag before strapping it into the top of the backpack with the rubber tubing.
He filled the second backpack with the nails, bells and the radio. He put the heavier backpack on the front and slung his riffle and box of gasoline across his back. The lighter backpack went on top of that.
It had been forty hours since the attack on the Helicarriers.
The Soldier pulled out a 300ml white pill and bit it in half, carefully licking up the crumbled powder before storing it in a pocket. The bitter taste flooded his mouth and he grimaced.
It bought him 16 hours.
The Soldier left the car in a ravine covered by leaves and dirt and set off on foot.
Wyoming was miles from DC, miles from New York. Filled with wide-open spaces covered by desert, trees, tall grass, and tall looming mountains there was plenty of game and the people were accustomed to living miles away from each other. No one would look for the Soldier here.
He’d come up with the plan in his spare time though he never actually believed he’d put it into practice. Hydra’s reach seemed too complete – too powerful – to truthfully consider running.
But he thought about it.
Sometimes before missions he examined the routes to Wyoming as closely as he examined security and sightlines to his target. If he did run, hypothetically, he knew it had to be as carefully calculated as a 2000 yard sniper hit. Just as he’d calculate humidity, wind speed, gravity, and clarity the second before he pulled the trigger he had to consider food, weapons, shelter, and counter-surveillance the moment he went dark.
Technology improved in leaps and bounds between Sleeps. He had to incorporate those improvements into his plan every time he woke up; this decade he had to think about satellites, cell phones, tracking chips, and cameras.
Few people carried cash anymore and credit cards were traced so pick pocketing was a lot of risk for little reward. Cities were regulated more than ever – tax payments, phones bills, parking tickets; paper trails everywhere. You couldn’t buy a bagel without leaving an outline of your existence. Eventually, he decided he had to get as far away from the cities as he could.
New York was long and narrow, but his handlers always paid special attention to him for New York missions. They expected something from him and therefore he could never go there. The same applied to Chicago, Texas, and more recently California.
Wyoming was a blank space in his mental canvas.
There were a few missions – hits against witnesses in marshal protection, a few blown up safe houses near Kalispell, but they were minor assignments meant to shake off the rust and help the Soldier adapt to a new era.
Yes, he decided. If he ever did run it would be to Wyoming.
Not that he would, of course.
It was, the Soldier acknowledged as he bent over maps and eyed the topographic maps of the mountains and valleys of the Teton Mountains, his handlers droning on in the background, an impossible fantasy but it kept him entertained.
Then the Man happened. The man who stopped fighting; who said the Soldier knew him. He didn’t but he felt something surge up within anyway. Some deep, primal instinct that this man was Important. Vital.
Hydra in chaos because of Project Insight and the handlers scrambling to regroup, he realized that Hydra’s reach was, for the moment, crippled. It was protocol for the Soldier to go dark after such a huge disaster so he would not be missed until 1400h on Tuesday at which time he was meant to rendezvous with Strike Team Delta.
And the man had stopped fighting.
He said he knew him.
And the Soldier felt…felt…
He knew what he felt was important.
It took longer than he thought to reach the mountains.
The Soldier searched for an outcropping with a decent amount of rock over the gap and a nice cover of trees outside. The outcropping had to be deep enough to hide from satellite imaging, but not so deep it was attractive to unknown beasts such as bears or cougars. It had to be several miles away from man made trails and any hunting stands or camping sites, and it had to be close to fresh, running water. The closer to the mountains the better as the cliffs and jutting rock distorted radio signals and made it difficult for the satellites to pick up his tracking chip.
It was a long list of requirements, but the Soldier had accumulated a lot of time to study topographical maps over the last few decades.
He discovered the prefect cave seven miles up the mountain near where a river, flooded and fed by thawing ice and snow, turned into a waterfall. The cave was small, only six feet at the deepest point, and four feet high at the tallest. Its opening was less of an arch than a slash in the rock. He didn’t find any fresh animal tracks or scat.
He was running out of time.
The Soldier quickly stripped out of the heavy bags. He carefully set the box of mason jars at the back of the cave where water and rain wouldn’t reach them. He made a quick bed from the jeans, sweaters, shirts and socks. On top of it he unfurled the tarp. He placed his gun and the bullets on the opposite side of the cave . The rest he threw haphazardly in a corner.
He took a moment to check his hands. They were weaker, but the trembling had yet to set in. The Soldier pulled out the rest of the pill and bit it into a fourth. He licked the crumbs and dust from the cracks of his hand. Six hours.
The Soldier pulled out the water bottles and lined them up next to the makeshift bed. He walked through the wood and gathered as many stray pieces of timber as he could carry in one haul.
The summer sun had yet to breach the chill of mountain air, and there were still pockets of snow on the ground. The river was crusted with ice on the upper banks. Most of the wood was rotten and fragile but it would work in the short run. The Soldier dug out the nails and pushed them through the wood until each branch was lined with metal spikes.
Five hours, fifteen minutes.
He placed the traps through the natural growth of the trees. It wouldn’t stop someone, but hopefully they’d make enough sound to let him get away. It would puncture any tires, at least.
Hours five, four, and three were spent scouting out edible plants. He found an elderberry bush by its white flowers and marked the spot for later.
The river was too wild for cattails but he found a patch of wild onions beginning to sprout near the clearing. Dandelions were beginning to sprout in the grass and though their bright orange heads had yet to peek out of the thick groundcover he was able to spot the distinctive spiky leaves. The Soldier pulled as many as he could find, roots and all. He culled the wild onions, leaving a few to seed and ate them raw.
He gathered pine needles and chewed on them while he foraged, the bitter taste soothing away the bite of the meds.
At this point he hadn’t eaten in over four days.
In the end he risked the icy chill of the river and gathered the green moss, lichen and weeds that grew on the edges, knowing every the little bit he ate would help him survive stage three.
Eventually, the shakes in his hands and legs forced him turn back to the cave. By the time he reached the opening, he was down to hour one.
Stage three of the plan wasn’t so much a part of the plan as an inevitability.
Detoxification started with the shakes and spread into pins and needles shooting up from the base of his spine. The Soldier shivered and curled into a little ball in his nest of shirts. His skin prickled and hairs rose on the back of his neck as the sensation swelled and grew like a wave rising over the deep. His lungs seized within the cage of his ribs and his breath echoed in the cave as he sucked in ragged and uneven gasps.
It never got easier.
The Soldier stretched out to relieve the pressure against his lungs. The pins and needles crested and broke like static electricity across his bones. His muscles seized and shook but the Soldier twisted his hands into his hair held on until the seizure passed. He had a few moments to breathe before the tingles returned. When his fingers opened, he noticed a clump of brown strands caught in the joints of his left hand. The Soldier groaned and rolled onto his side.
He was exhausted.
The shakes moved up into his brain until it rattled against his skull like a marble in a glass jar. It felt like something was driving a steel spike through his temple inch at a time. The pin and needles built and crested, crashing through his body like a wave on the rocks. His body shook and jolted, muscles cramping and shaking with spasms until they pulled his body taught. Even after the tingling passed his muscles quivered from exhaustion.
The Soldier pulled deep breaths, slow and steady as he waited for the next wave to start. He coughed. His chest hurt. He coughed again and looked down at the red smear across his palm. Fluid was already beginning to gather in his lungs.
It was happening faster than last time.
The Soldier closed his eyes as its nose began to tingle and a lump, imaginary, grew in its throat. It’s eyes prickled in an involuntary emotional response. His breath wheezed against muscles that locked down tight.
He knew he was supposed to swallow back the lump and force back the tears, but his body hurt and his stomach ached. Every few moments his body shivered and wracked his bones. The Soldier let the tears build and fall and pool into the crevice of his nose until it spilled over to his cheek and finally to the floor.
Once the flood doors opened it poured over him. The Soldier buried his face into his soft blue hoodie and wept. The water against his oversensitive, overheated skin scrapped like sandpaper but the emotional cave yawning into his chest surged hungrily. Wrung out by the last few days the Winter Soldier lapsed into troubled unconsciousness.
When he woke he couldn’t open his eyes because they were so sensitive. His fever began to climb. In two hours it would reach dangerous levels but without a spotter the Soldier couldn’t risk looking for a cool stream. He might slip and be unable to drag himself out, and drown in water less than two feet deep.
His hand clenched against the shadow sensation of fine hair beneath his hand, of skinny bones and a cotton shirt. “What are you doing Soldier?” The Soldier flinched but didn’t look around. Stage three: his fever reached sufficient height to provoke auditory and sensory illusions. “Get up and report!”
The voice changed, echoing as if from far away. “The rotators have settled nicely into the clavicle and scapula. We have to insert a brace into the thorax, and replace the floating ribs.” The voice was matter-of-fact, a little detached. The Soldier flinched away from fingers on its shoulder and suddenly he could see.
Cave walls melted into a brightly lit lab. Sterile counters held a few dozen trays filled with scalpels, drill bits of various sizes, and clamps. The doctor looking down at him from behind a sterile white mask. “Subject is awake and responding to stimulus, but that shouldn’t damage the shoulder. Body is accepting the replacement metal better than the aluminum and steel compound. Recommend covering the bones and…”
“Soldier! Look at me!” The Soldier jerked as General Lukin grabbed his chin and jerked it up. “Why did you fail your mission, Soldier! Answer me.”
The Soldier swiped through him until he faded into the darkness of the cave. “Not real,” the Soldier muttered hands still swiping through the air. “It’s not real, not real, not real.” He sucked in a deep breath and coughed out blood. One hand threaded into his long hair and yanked at the strands. “Not real.”
“Bucky,” whispered a low tenor into his ear. “How long have I been out? Is ma okay?” The Soldier clamped his hands over his ears but the voice was inside his head. It continued uninterrupted. “Why do you look like that? What happened? Where’s ma?” The voice rose in pitch and fervor. “Bucky? Bucky! Bucky, no. No! She can’t die not when I’m not in the room. You were supposed to wake me. You were supposed to wake me, you bast—“
“She’s gone, Stevie,” the Soldier whispered, his hands curling next to his cheek. He felt worn cotton under his fingers. A bony shoulder against his chest and a rattling ribcage in the circle of his arms. “She’s gone.”
After that the voices left him alone for a while. His head was still foggy from the fever but he crawled over to his emergency supplies and broke the seal on a bottle of water. His throat hurt when he swallowed but he knew this was just the beginning. Stage four was coming soon and he needed all the fluids he could get.
He never made it past stage four on his own before. Hydra always managed to find him before then and bring him back when the shakes made him too weak to fight them. The Soldier clamped his teeth around his right forefinger and bit while he still could. The pain focused him until he could reach into his bag and pull out the bright gummy bears.
He opened the package of gummy bears and lined them up in front of him by color. It was a small package. Seven green bears, six reds, four blue, one purple, and one yellow. He pointed at the yellow bear.
“You’re the captain. Captain Bear. And these,” he lined up the seven green bears in front of the yellow bear. “Are your men. Your mission is to stand guard over the…” His head hurt. “Over me.” He picked up the purple bear and set it in the middle of the green. “You guard me, okay? The blue are civilians. They’re really important, okay? You always protect civilians.” He lined up the reds and swished one of them. “Red. Red’s the bad guy, okay? Don’t let them get me.” His finger traced the captain. “Can I trust you, Captain?” he cocked his head as if listening. “You’ll protect me with your life? Sir, yes sir.”
The pain hit.
It started in his spine and spread like lava or fire. It ached and then tore, throbbed like a bruise and spiked like a muscle cramp. The Soldier rolled away from his bed and threw up. His bowls didn’t have enough in them to eject. His flesh ached and shivered and he felt skin tear next to the coupling of his left arm. His skin was thin from dehydration and a breakdown in cellular function and the muscle spasms were strong enough to create lesions in areas of tension.
In a few hours his hair would start to fall out. Then his teeth would come loose. His gums were already bleeding, so he had to be careful not to rip into his cheek or lips and tear them out. Eventually the serum would regrow the roots but for now his jaw ached.
“Bucky! Mom said you had to help me in the kitchen but I’ve been working for hours and you haven’t lifted a finger. Bucky! If you don’t get in here right. Now. I’m telling mom!”
“Shut up, Becca,” the Soldier groused, forehead pressed into the dirt. “Can’t ya see I’m busy here?”
“I don’t care! You need to help me with the dishes. Mom said!” Then, high voice hesitant. “Hey, Buck, you don’t look so good. Are you… crying? Buck. You know ma and pa are gonna be okay, right, Bucky? We’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah squirt. We’re gonna be just fine.” Another shiver, another split in the skin under his armpit and across his ribs. “Dad will get work come summer and it’ll all be better. You’ll see.”
And then, low. Anguished. “Please don’t make me do this.” It was the same low tenor from before. Again, fainter. “People are gonna die, Buck. I can’t let that happen. Please don’t make me do this.”
Bucky fell asleep wracked by seizures and coughs, his nose and mouth caked in dirt and blood, the clothes soiled by sweat, blood and tears. He woke slowly. He had no way of knowing how many days it’d been.
His head didn’t hurt and his skin didn’t feel like stretched canvas. The Soldier scrubbed away the tried blood under his mouth and nose and carefully inspected the damage. His wounds were already healing, the skin around the left arm a little slower than the matches of tears under his arms and on his back and legs.
He kicked fresh dirt over the piss, vomit, blood on the ground before ducking outside to figure out how many days had passed. There was rain water on the ground but it was already beginning to dry so it happened at least a day ago. He found some wolf tracks outside his cave – three days old.
The grass outside his base was beginning to straighten from being trampled. A week. He’d been lost in the fever and aches at least a week.
It felt like more.
It felt like less.
He slept for a few more hours. When he woke the world felt shaky but color bled into the objects. Where before he had recognized his sweatshirt as blue in a factual sense, his brain now catalogued a range of data from like to dislike, contrast, and shadow and depth.
His stomach growled and gurgled.
Muscles strained and ached as he forced himself onto his feet. His legs still shook in the aftershocks, but most of his weakness was hunger and dehydration. He’d maintained enough lucidity to drain half his water bottles during detoxification. He drank one more to fill his hollow stomach. The water sloshed and caused his stomach to cramp, but after a few minutes he was able to straighten.
The first order of business was food.
The Soldier retraced his steps to the dandelion field. Now able to harvest and gather what he wished, he chewed on the bitter leaves and the few yellow heads that had popped up. The roots he put in a backpack for later along with a bounty of pine needles.
After a long and careful search, he identified and marked out some blackberry and mulberry bushes, as yet unripe. A mile from the cave, he struck gold. There was a field of clover just coming up from the winter thaw, and around the edges was a patch of chickweed.
He used the strength from the food to tie a net from one of the spools of thread, which he placed in the water near the waterfall. He tied his knife onto a large, sturdy branch and created a makeshift spear.
After he’d eaten his fill, the Soldier turned to securing base camp.
The Soldier pulled out the glass mason jars he’d prepared before. In all but five he placed the fire starters from the rockets and pulled the wires up through the top. He twisted on the lid, carefully counting the turns until it was tight. Then he unscrewed it, poked two small holes into the top and threaded the wire through. He packed the rest of the tube with gunpowder from the firecrackers.
He’d twisted the wires before threading it into the lid so they were straight when it was screwed on all the way. He carefully cut pieces of card paper and slid it between the ends of the of the wire.
The rest of the glass jars he filled with a long fuse and gunpowder, keeping one fuse in reserve.
Once he was satisfied, the Soldier took the bombs, two at a time, and set them up throughout the woods. He stayed away from animal trails and major feeding grounds to keep them from going off accidentally.
The five bombs left over were set nearby where he could light the fuses and run.
Lastly, the Soldier took the bells and hammered them into the walls of the cave in a straight line from the mouth to the back. He tied one end of his spool of thread to a bell and set off into the wild. He bent the nails into a U-shape and hammered it over the string, leaving enough room for the thread to move easily. The Soldier carefully threaded the woods, each bell monitoring one section of the woods.
He did this with all twenty-five bells.
When he was done he picked his way back to base camp and stood observing it with a keen eye. . The Soldier looked around, a mental checklist already forming in his brain. He needed to set up a collector for fresh water, create a tanning rack for animal hides, check his nets and scout the land. Later today he’d go hunting and use the pelt for bowstring, or maybe a new bed.
It felt like a lot.
It felt like too little.
It felt human.
In the asset's brain, a little seed began to unfurl.