He is solid; immovable, iron-willed. He showed me one day his killing bottle. I'm imprisoned in it. Fluttering against the glass. Because I can see through it I still think I can escape. I have hope. But it's all an illusion.
A thick round wall of glass.
—John Fowles, The Collector
Part I: The Killing Jar
snow dead air
white flurry white
He sensed the pain before he felt it, a heavy pressure above his right temple. Then he tried to blink, but his eyelids were gummy with sleep. He didn’t feel like he’d been sleeping, though. He felt as though someone had knocked him out cold and he was just now rejoining the world of the living. Still fuzzy, he raised his hand to his forehead to check for damage.
There was a rattle of metal. He could tell it was the clink of a chain, even with his head stuffed with cotton, and that snapped him awake. He scrambled up, eyes open, and nearly fell onto a concrete floor. For a second he thought he was in—
—an orange room, until he noticed it was only a sweeping light somewhere in the ceiling, splashing the walls like the beacon of a lighthouse.
Then he saw it.
He hadn’t noticed it at first, hadn’t even felt it, but that was no surprise; his whole body felt numb. But now he was wide awake, hot needle jabbing away at his head and all, and there was this… thing hanging from his left sleeve, encasing his arm. He touched the metal with two fingertips, tentative, as though it might bite if he nudged it awake. It looked and felt like a metal cover, and other than the joints it was moulded so tightly to his arm it could have been painted on. The light sweeping the room turned the metal from steel-grey to red and back again.
He ran his fingers down the metal, almost to where his left hand was balled into a tight fist, then up, looking for some kind of latch. The metal cover went up into the sleeve, and he tugged at the gown’s collar, trying to find the spot where the cover ended.
Where the skin of his shoulder had been, there was now a seam of flesh and steel, puckered and angry. He had to twist his head down and sideways to see it fully, and this close the ridges of scar tissue—pink and white and purple—looked like an alien landscape. He was sure he could smell them too, that hospital stink of bleach and sickness and carbolic soap, and—
Cold sweat pooling under leather straps. Whirr of saw on bone, smoke, that smell, Jesus, that fucking smell.
He bolted to his feet, his cuffed right wrist trailing the chain behind him. Get a hold of yourself, Barnes.
He ran his right hand over his face, as though that would help with the headache, which by now felt like someone had decked him with a crowbar, or with the clutch of nausea in his stomach. Still, he could hear himself think again, which was good, because that was some dynamite advice he’d just given himself, and they weren’t going to get out of here if he started flapping about like a headless chicken.
They. Him and—which of the others? He paced the room as much as the chain allowed, studying what could be seen under the sweeps of red-orange light. He knew the drill. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038. You just had to repeat it to yourself until there wasn’t any room to say anything else, no matter what they did—
—to you. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038. The room was twelve by twelve feet, maybe ten feet high, the floor and walls bare. With his right hand, he tried to move the cot, but it was bolted to the floor, and there was a metal grille on the ceiling, probably to stop him from punching the light out.
There had to be a door too, somewhere. If they’d just wanted to kill him, a bullet to the head was much quicker and cheaper. When you wanted to keep prisoners alive, you had to water and feed them once in a while, which meant someone was going to drop by sooner or later. In the meantime, he just had to keep his head screwed on straight. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038. The chain wasn’t long enough for him to reach two of the corners, but he could still look for some kind of hidden hinge or panel in the parts of the walls he could touch. He kneeled, joints groaning a little—he must look a real picture in this johnny gown they’d put him in—and felt the concrete with his good hand. There was no give anywhere, but he hadn’t been expecting it anyway, considering this cell was…
He knew, somehow, that he was underground, but the last thing he remembered was huddling around a map with the rest of the Commandos. A map of—was it Switzerland? No, Hydra didn’t care for neutrality, but that hadn’t been it. Austria? Bavaria? His headache turned into an iron band around his temples. Behind his eyelids the black lines of borders and blue ink rivers and little flags jumbled together. He stood up, the chain growing taut behind him with a clink of metal, and rubbed his forehead.
There was now. There was then, before the map, before (the things after) Azzano, before he’d been shot at for the first time, before he shot back, before the war. Between the two sets of things there was a hole, as though someone had cut out a chunk of time with a pair of scissors. Pressing at the hole’s edges just made his head fuzzier and his headache sharper.
It didn’t matter. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038. That was what was supposed to happen, a shell would blow up underneath you at midnight and all you remembered later was having woken up that morning, like when that very thing had happened to—
He spun around so fast the chain pinning his wrist rattled. For a split second he was sure he saw a shape crouching in the shadows left by the spinning light. But no, his cell was empty.
‘Sergeant Barnes.’ The voice was a little louder now, but not more insistent. It was tinny, so it had to be coming from some kind of speaker, even though Bucky hadn’t noticed one in his sweep of the cell.
‘To your left, Sergeant Barnes,’ the voice said, with a note of amusement.
Cold darted inside Bucky’s chest. The voice could see him. His voice.
Of course it was his voice. Had he ever expected things to turn out differently, really? What kind of POW camp stuck you in a hospital gown? His body moved towards the left corner of the cell, as far as the chain would let him.
‘Come a little closer, Sergeant. Things will be, ah’—a brief pause—‘tiresome if we cannot hear each other.’
In between the pain hammering away at his head and the red-orange light, Bucky’s eyesight was starting to turn black at the edges, but after a few moments he found the speaker. No wonder he hadn’t seen it the first time around: it was tucked away in a corner, too far away for him to reach properly with the chain leashing him, so low he would have to kneel or crouch to speak into it. He got as far as the chain would let him, his right arm stretched behind him, and went down on one knee.
‘Fuck off right to hell, Zola,’ he said. He’d managed to make his voice not shake, not even a little. ‘You manage to catch that? I can say it again louder, if you’d like.’
A metallic chuckle. Bucky could hear the faintest hiss of static behind it. ‘Very amusing. I’m glad we did no damage to your sense of humour, Sergeant.’
We. No news there, of course, it wasn’t as though the bastard would have been working all by his lonesome. Still, it must mean this was another Hydra base, as Bucky had suspected. Not good news, but not bad news, either; he just had to remember that the last time he’d been chained up in one of these, it had all ended with the place going up in smoke. Just don’t say another goddamn word.
For a few seconds, there was only the hum of static, then a little cough. ‘I am sorry, Sergeant Barnes. A pity we did not first meet under better circumstances. But I think you will be able to put all that behind you soon.’
‘Christ.’ The word slipped out almost without him noticing it. He felt a tug in his left shoulder. When he looked down he saw, despite his headache and the poor light, that the hand had unclenched, and the palm was dotted with rivets. They had to have been bolted straight through flesh and bone.
He jumped to his feet. There was a whirr from deep in the metal thing they had welded to his arm, but he barely heard it. Everything narrowed down to the chain, the walls boxing him in, the red-tinged air filling up his lungs. He pulled on the cuff until it gouged a white crescent in the flesh of his wrist. Get a grip. Get a grip. Get a grip.
Behind him, Zola spoke again. ‘Did he ever notice it, your Captain?’
‘What?’ His heart still hammered his ribcage.
The voice from the speaker made a little annoyed tsk. Bucky’s memories of that other room were the colour of fog, which was good, because he didn’t think about it if he could help it. There was something sharp, though: in the middle of everything, of chemicals and injections and wires, after handling him like a slab of dead meat some assistant had deposited on his operating table, Zola had addressed him directly for the first time, and told him he was Swiss. Not German. Biel, to be precise. Very interesting history. He had been cleaning his glasses as he spoke.
Even with the speaker’s distortion, Zola sounded like that again. As though they were two acquaintances discussing the weather, or what to order at a diner. ‘Come now, Sergeant Barnes. I think we both know what I mean, no? After you left me so abruptly, didn’t you find yourself a—a changed man?’ He let out a brief laugh at that, as though he’d just made a terribly witty joke and wanted to mark the occasion. ‘Did you manage to keep it a secret?’ Zola went on. ‘Not very observant, these friends of yours.’
Bucky didn’t answer. Instead he padded back to the cot and sat down on the mattress. ‘Just do whatever you came here to do and shut up,’ he said, after the light had swept the room a few more times. It was starting to fill his eyesight with sunspots, big splotches of red and black.
‘I’m not going to do anything to you, Sergeant.’ With the speaker hidden in the shadows, the voice seemed to drip from the walls. ‘Not without your… cooperation.’
Yeah, good luck with that.
‘I know it must be hard to accept that it will happen, Sergeant Barnes. Do you know what day it is?’
Don’t you have a secretary for that, Zola? He managed to stop the words from spilling out. February—no, March, it had to be March. He was pressing at the edges of the hole again, and it was like having someone’s name on the tip of your tongue. All his thoughts felt rusty.
March, though. Definitely March. April at the latest. He couldn’t have been out for very long. No more than a day or so. Longer than that and you weren’t out, you were in a coma.
‘Today is the fourteenth of June 1947.’
Bucky ignored him. Maybe the guy believed what he was saying, maybe he didn’t, but it had been obvious since Zola had turned the speaker on and opened his mouth that Bucky wasn’t just dealing with bad guys, he was dealing with crazy, and there wasn’t much you could rely on when you were dealing with crazy. Zola might decide to rearrange his organs, or do nothing, or just leave him in here and forget all about him. There was just one thing you could do, and that was get away.
Bucky looked at the ceiling, where the metal grille shielded the spinning light. He might not have found a door, but maybe he didn’t have to. If he pried the grille out, maybe there would be a vent, or maybe he could short-circuit something important enough for them to open the cell and send in someone to repair it. At the very least he could break that goddamned light. He rubbed his temple again, almost without—
in real trouble here
‘I apologise for the headache.’ Zola’s voice again, crackling through the speaker. ‘It is a side-effect of cryostasis. Hopefully we will perfect the process with time. You understand, I hope. We have very much been moving by trial and errors, since as it happens only someone with your… unique characteristics can survive the procedure without substantial damage. So we don’t have many test subjects, as you can imagine!’
Damage. That word again. God, what if the hole in his memories—
He stilled, his bones suddenly as brittle and cold as spun glass. We don’t have many test subjects. Not we only have one test subject.
What if Steve was also here?
Some part of him wanted to think that was impossible, but Bucky knew that was nonsense. Just because Steve’s body had finally caught up with what was inside, that didn’t make him invincible. And he would be the one Zola really wanted. So while the good doctor was here chatting with his consolation prize and Bucky had been mooning over himself as though the cell were made out of mirrors, maybe Steve was strapped to a table, surrounded by white-coated monsters with scalpels and saws and pincers.
‘Oh, but I should explain it…’ Zola droned on. Bucky had to bite his tongue to stop himself from yelling, from running to the speaker and demanding to know where Steve was. Stupid, Barnes. That would be stupid. That would get him nothing, and would probably just make them hurt Steve more. He had to keep his trap shut for once. He caught the thread of Zola’s words again. ‘… from the Greek cryo, which means cold. You have been on ice, Sergeant, to put it crudely. Of course, the technology is far more advanced than that which allows us to freeze and thaw, say, a beefsteak. No expense has been spared, but then you are infinitely more valuable than something the housewife picks from an icebox for dinner. Incidentally, how do you like your new arm, Sergeant?’
Bucky’s gaze dropped to the metal sleeve on his left arm. That’s all it was, wasn’t it? Even though the arm still felt numb, much, much number than the rest of his body, the only sensation a faint buzz of pins and needles.
‘No? Well, you will grow greatly used to it in time, I am sure. You will find it very useful for all the things we will do together.’
‘You’re crazy,’ Bucky said. It was only a whisper—his mouth was dry—but still Zola heard it. Bucky pictured a shoal of microphones hidden in the shadows, hanging from the ceiling like bats.
‘It is all right, Sergeant Barnes,’ Zola said, not unkindly. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand right from the start. But you will complete the procedure very soon. Become what you are supposed to be. You will ask us to do it, even.’
When Bucky spoke, it was nearly a shout. ‘Go to hell.’
‘Oh, it does not matter what I do. Only what you do, Sergeant. You have to sleep sometime, after all.’
Silence. Then a click, and Bucky realised that he was no longer picking up on the soft hiss of static. The speaker had been turned off. He sat in the quiet, not moving, the only sounds his breath and, almost too faint for even him to hear, his heartbeat.
The light went out.