Life, thought Steve, is gonna be the death of me.
Truth be told, death was creeping in from the edges. Had been for a long time. Steve could taste it in the grit-laden wind and smell it in the smoke-filled air. He could see it in the way he had to wipe the dirt off the table every time he wanted to sit down for a meal. The doors stayed closed, the windows too, but the dirt always found a way in. It trickled in, as insidious and relentless as time itself. It was telling them all that the great burial had begun.
Steve still brushed it off the table before he sat down to eat, and swept it off his porch with a broom every day. Rituals like these were what kept him alive. He sometimes wondered where he was finding the strength to go on. The year was 2097, and he had been alone for a long time.
The answer, he regularly concluded, lay in the force of habit. He’d gotten… used to living. Or maybe he’d fought too hard and too often when he was young; maybe he’d broken the gauge of his survival instinct. Maybe he’d pushed it too far and it had remained stuck into the red, cranked up to max, even though he should have died decades ago.
The serum would end up killing Steve, precisely because it was keeping him alive. Steve hadn’t been able to get wounded enough on the battlefield, hadn’t been able to die of natural causes, and hadn’t even been able to age. He was one hundred and seventy-seven years old—or a less impressive one hundred and seven, if you took away the seventy years he’d spent under the ice—and he still looked like he’d looked on the day of Erskine’s death. The only thread that bound him to this world was the serum; hence the serum would be the cause of his death when it finally took mercy on him and decided to let him go.
Which was soon. It had to be.
The air smelled of iron.
Steve was a stranger on this dying earth. The name of Captain America didn’t mean anything to anyone anymore. It was his own choice, and the most reasonable option, too. The history books were now telling people the moon landing had never happened; so, heroes? Heroes were out of the question. If Steve had stayed who he was, if he’d remained a living piece of Earth’s own history, he would’ve been terminated one way or the other. He’d chosen silence; he’d chosen retreat.
I know, I know, Captain America never backs off. But that was exactly the point: he wasn’t him anymore.
It was somewhat baffling, how quickly people had forgotten him, when he used to feel like he could never shake off his star spangled persona, not in a million years. But to tell the truth, he simply did not have any friends left. They were all gone, and he’d let Captain America tag along, so at least one little part of him could die, at least one little part of him could stay behind, with them.
Tony had been the first to die—of a goddamn heart attack, of all things. Bruce had disappeared soon afterwards, giving in to his instincts to run now that he wasn’t constantly being pestered into giving himself a break. Steve sometimes wondered if Tony would’ve been able to curb the Earth’s slow decay. He could never know, but he could see that only a few years after the death of the last of the Starks, the Earth had begun to push humanity towards the exit, slowly but firmly, with all the sluggish stubbornness of a glacier.
The atmosphere was filling with nitrogen. Steve’s crops were dying.
He was a farmer, like ninety percent of humanity now. It was still not enough. The food was lacking. The wheat had been the first to go, struck down by plagues that spread like wildfire; the corn would follow suit in a few years, undoubtedly. Steve strove to keep his fields alive, so people could eat, so people could fight on for a bit longer.
Steve strove to keep his fields alive, because this was Clint’s farm.
Clint had been the second one to go. He had died heroically, like the idiot he was, blown up by his own explosive arrows in the engine of a plane—they were still fighting at the time; the era of heroes had not yet ended. He’d died saving them all, which they’d never quite forgiven him for. But after Steve’s demotion, he’d gone back to the farm where they had spent one summer together—during the Ultron debacle; nothing lasts forever, Natasha was whispering back then already—and he decided that if really he was to tend crops till the day he died, he could do it here.
The first few months were tough, but after a while, even the memories learned to leave him alone.
Steve had stayed friends with Sam, and Sharon and even Nick and even Maria—all of them, till the day they died. But he hadn’t married. He hadn’t had any kids. It was selfish, he supposed, and cowardly, but he couldn’t have borne the thought of outliving them. He couldn’t have borne to watch them grow up and then grow old.
Now that he was alone, he had stopped counting the seconds ticking away from his friends’ lives. The years were blurring. The days all looked the same. It made it easier. Steve did not want to be near people, and did not want people to be near him. He was supposed to be dead and waited it out, patiently, like an Inuit whose sun would simply not set.
One day it would; and on that day would come eternal night. Rest, maybe.
In the meantime, Steve sat on his front porch with synthetic beer and looked at his fields of dying corn that stretched out to the horizon. The messed up atmosphere made for some goddamn gorgeous sunsets. So much red.
Natasha had died of natural causes, at the age of eighty-one years old, which she hadn’t seen coming at any point in her life. Steve was almost glad—she deserved it more than anyone else, after a long hard life of being shaped into someone else by everyone she’d met. At least her death had been her own. She had aged gracefully, and kissed Steve on the cheek before she passed. She’d left two words for him in her will: keep going.
Looking back, the age of heroes had been somewhat frantic, somewhat spasmodic, when back then it had looked like it would be forever. It had started with Steve himself, the First Avenger, and then it had snowballed. So many different powers, so many mutations, so many accidents, like a powder keg blowing up for three decades—until suddenly it all died out, put out by its own shockwave. The mutant plague had been the first sign, and Steve remained convinced to this day that it was his greatest failure—that he could have stopped it, that he could have seen it coming, that the plague had been engineered, weaponized, turning the X-gene into a time bomb that rotted the blood of its carriers. The mutants had died, one by one, and with them the last hope of a humanity which hadn’t evolved along with their planet. Earth was changing when humans had refused to change, and they were now paying the price.
Bruce hadn’t been the fourth, not really, but Steve had started to really worry about him after Natasha’s passing. Until then, they’d assumed Bruce did not want to be found; but when he failed to attend Natasha’s funeral just like he’d failed to attend Clint’s—just as the age of heroes was beginning to end—Steve realized something might be seriously wrong. He looked for him, turned every stone and discovered ugly things writhing beneath in the process; but Bruce never showed up. Neither did the Hulk. Eventually, Steve ran out of trails to follow.
It pained him, not knowing, because the absence of closure allowed that particular loss to gnaw at him and burrow into an already septic wound. Had he failed him? Should he have looked earlier? They’d never been close, the two of them. Bruce had only ever really been friends with Tony, and yet the guilt Steve felt stemmed from a sense of betrayal.
But the clear sign of the end had been the destruction of Asgard—later the same year, only fifty years after Thor had crash-landed in New Mexico for the first time. No one had seen it coming—no one could have; even now, it was not clear exactly what had destroyed it. Heimdall had sent them a last message, saying only: Ragnarök. Then there had been nothing but the silence of empty stars.
Thor had refused to believe it for several weeks, desperately seeking an explanation, a way back, a way out. He had stood strong in the face of his mother’s passing, of his brother’s betrayals and death; but this loss was simply too huge. He could not comprehend it. I should have been there, he kept saying. I should have been there.
Steve helped him, the best he could. He knew a little about what it felt like, after all, losing an entire world. But even as he carried Thor through those dark, dark months, he wondered how much more they could endure and when they would reach their breaking point. The rest of mankind did not welcome the news, either. Suddenly, humanity was back where it was before that famous day, when Loki had come and opened a portal up in the sky. Back to being alone in an indifferent universe—on a planet which, no less, was no longer their home.
When it became obvious that even the old enemies were moving on—HYDRA disbanded, AIM bankrupted—Steve told Thor he could stop fighting. He told him their time had come and gone. They were anomalies, now. Outliers. They should just retreat in the shade and live the normal life they’d been refused all that time. Thor protested, at first, told him they were brothers in arms. But Steve insisted. Told Thor he wasn’t an Avenger anymore. Told Thor he wasn’t even an Asgardian anymore. It was time to let go. It was time for him to—how had Steve put it? Time to be gentle with yourself.
Thor ended up taking his advice; he embraced Steve, and thanked him effusively, gravely, and told him they would meet again.
They never did. He went back to Jane, who was eighty-nine at the time, and settled with her for good; and, far as Steve could tell, he loved her like no one had ever been loved before. Then, a short four months later—the year was then 2070—she died in her sleep, and Thor killed himself.
Steve knew this, because he’d been the one called in New Mexico to identify the bodies. He’d seen the smile, so peaceful on Thor’s bloodless face. I told him to stop fighting. The police had found Steve’s name and address in the family computer; Thor and Jane had been planning to visit him for years and had never actually done it. Thor had left something of a note, which they gave to Steve since his name was on it.
do not go gentle into that good night.
Steve wasn’t sure what it meant. He stayed for the funeral, and wondered if the hollowness he was feeling was grief, or if he’d finally lost the ability to feel at all.
The next day at the crack of dawn, Steve had come back to Clint’s farm and considered the razor blade in the pharmacy. He’d picked it up, weighing it in his palm, cold and sharp.
Not today, something said in his mind.
He didn’t ask himself, why not? What the hell am I waiting for? because he’d been asking himself that same question for so long. He was staying alive like this was purgatory, dragging his beating heart like a ball and chain, chasing the death his own hands would not grant him. Not today, as if there was still something to hold out for, when in truth death was already written all over the brown dried-up earth.
But he couldn’t kill himself. It would’ve been an insult to all the ones who’d died before their time—all the ones he hadn’t been able to save.
Steve wished he could have been the sixth to go, but he knew he wouldn’t be. He knew the sixths would be the billion people that remained on Earth, buried under the grit, choking on nitrogen, starved to death. Steve’s only hope was that he could go with them. Be the last and close the door behind.
Surely—surely he’d earned that by now.
Steve did not sleep much anymore—did not eat much either, selling almost the entirety of his production to the nearby town. Sometimes, he wondered whether this wasn’t an insidious way of ending himself. He was slowly starving, he knew it; he looked gaunter every day, and his hunger was a constant, twisting ache in the pit of his stomach. But he still fed himself, regularly if not plentifully. He could still get by.
The sleepless nights, though, were piling up.
He was not surprised to wake up in the middle of the night yet again; what surprised him was that something had actually woken him up this time. A dull, thumping noise, like something falling down onto the hardwood floor. He listened, but there was nothing more.
Burglars? he wondered hazily, but it was a stupid thought. He had nothing of value save for the corn growing out front. Who even said burglars anymore, Jesus.
He got up, rubbing his eyes. Outside, the sky was gray and orange. The asthmatic wind had already wheezed a thin layer of dirt over the furniture, and Steve’s shuffling feet left sweeping footprints across the floor when he walked to the stairs. He climbed up slowly, dragging up his weight to the memorabilia room. He hadn’t been there in a while.
The shelves were full of books, of action figures, of replicas, of autographs, of proof that Steve’s life had not been entirely imaginary. A few of Hawkeye’s arrows had been respectfully laid down on the wooden planks; the only other real item in the room—Steve’s shield had been sold years ago, along with every remaining piece of Tony Stark’s armor—was Thor’s hammer. He had left it there before going to Jane, as to show that he had indeed stopped fighting.
Except it wasn’t there anymore. It had fallen down from the shelf.
Steve stared at it.
Then he slowly, slowly knelt down in the dust, wrapped his hand around the handle, and pulled. The hammer did not move. It had no reason left to be wielded by Steve, or anyone else, for that matter. Asgard was gone. There were no battles to be fought. And Steve, well, Steve hadn’t been able to save Thor and hadn’t been able to find Bruce and hadn’t been able to stop the X-genocide. The hammer did not move.
“C’mon,” murmured Steve, throat tight and voice hoarse with disuse. “Don’t stay on the floor, buddy, please.” He pulled again, but the hammer wouldn’t budge.
Steve dusted his hands on his pajama pants and was about to straighten up when he saw it. Numbers and letters, drawn in the dust, as if by an invisible finger, right next to the handle.
He wished they were not making any sense, but his training had burrowed into his bones and he saw them for what they were.
Steve swallowed, then looked up, looked around. He wanted to call out, maybe Thor’s name, but it was stupid. Thor was not here. Thor had sliced up his wrists and held the wounds open with clothespins so he could bleed out. The room was dark and silent again.
There was no one here. Steve was alone. He’d been alone for almost thirty years.
He looked at the numbers again.
He had to drive all night long, but all things considered, it was not very far. The night sky was obscured by clouds of dust whistling through the air like banshees on the hunt. Steve drove through, hands trembling a little on the wheel. For the first time in years, he could feel his own heart beating.
Then the storm suddenly swelled and raged and Steve had to park on the side of the road. There was sand in the air now, pelting his windshield in a pouring staccato. Steve hoped the glass would hold; it was a very old truck. Maybe he should go back. This was never the plan—nothing more was supposed to happen before the end.
The radio turned on by itself. There was no music and no announcers; just a cool, smooth voice Steve thought he’d heard somewhere.
“Do not go gentle,” it said, “into that good night.”
Steve’s heart stopped before stumbling into a regular pounding again. He carefully reached out and cranked up the volume. There was only static in the midst of the storm.
“Who is this?” he asked in a shaky voice.
It suddenly occurred to him that he might simply be going crazy. But it felt unlikely. Why now? Why not twenty-three years earlier, coming back from Thor’s and Jane’s funeral and staring at himself in the mirror before turning it against the wall?
The voice was going on. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Then there was just a scratch of static and the radio died out.
Steve looked out the window, heart pounding; the sandstorm was still flaring at times, vivid and angry, but the words were echoing in Steve’s ears.
He clenched his jaw, swerved the wheel and got back on the road.
He drove for another hour, through swirling dirt and howling wind; it was his stubbornness against the storm’s, and eventually it all began to die out, hiccupping blood-red bursts of sand at him before finally deflating and calming down. The skies themselves had cleared; Steve could see a few stars twinkling in the darkness. He drove straight through the calmer night, until he came across a huge dark shape that made him skid to a halt.
What he’d reached was a ten-feet-tall barbed wire fence, and a flat building outlined against the blackness of the night.
Steve stopped the truck and got out, slamming the door shut. The air tasted of iron as always. Gravel crunched under his feet when he walked towards the fence; it was tall and solid, but the mere thought that this could be enough to stop him was laughable. He gathered his strength, leaped up and caught the netting; he climbed it forcefully, pulled himself up with sheer muscle strength, threw a leg over the barbed wire at the top and jumped over the whole thing. He landed on his tip toes, stayed into a crouch for a few moments, then got up without stumbling. Erskine had done a really good goddamn job with him.
For a second, nothing moved; then a violent light exploded in his face.
Steve didn’t put up any resistance. He didn’t even know who or what he was dealing with; and these people hadn’t even put handcuffs on him, or threatened him with anything more dangerous than a flashlight. His curiosity was enough for him to follow them quietly into the building, past a dim-lit hallway full of pictures of people he didn’t recognize, and into a small room where they sat him down and told him to wait.
After a while, the door opened and a young woman walked into the room—which Steve suspected more and more was a hastily cleaned-up broom closet. She was wearing a golden turtleneck and black jeans; her blond hair was shaved on the side, leaving the remaining half to trickle down her face in some kind of floppy Mohawk.
“Carol Danvers,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Steve. You’re the first stranger I’ve talked to in twenty-three years. “I’m Steve.”
His handshake was steady but he still felt like he was trembling. He spoke to a lot of people when it came to sell his corn, but it wasn’t the same. This was too intimate, too unusual, too real. It demanded a focus he simply didn’t have anymore. He was already beginning to feel overwhelmed; Danvers’ hand in his had felt too hot, and left his palm tingling.
But he remember the hammer falling down, remembered the cool smooth voice in the radio, and he took a deep breath.
“So, Steve,” she said, kindly enough but with a hint of steel in her tone Steve didn’t miss. “How did you find us?”
“There’s been a sandstorm,” said Steve. “I was trying to find my way back, and…”
He stopped when he saw Danvers’ smile. It reminded him of Natasha, with the same exact goddamn smile, a twinkle in her clear eyes. You’re a terrible liar, Steve.
He hadn’t thought about Natasha in too long. He blinked several times, swallowed, then said, “Alright, no lies. But I’m warning you, ma’am, the truth sounds worse.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Danvers, politely.
“Someone… something… wrote the coordinates in the dirt. In my own house. I know how it sounds—but—I also heard…” He closed his eyes for a second. He felt like his skin was buzzing, felt restless and antsy. People were not good for him. They made him feel alive, too alive, and woke up the grief he carried in his bones. “Something about not going gentle into that good night.”
When he looked up, Danvers was looking at him very oddly.
“Something the matter?” asked Steve cautiously.
“Steve,” she said. She opened her mouth, looked like she was changing her mind, then changing it again. “Steve, do you know where you are?”
Steve just shook his head.
“This is SHIELD,” she said cautiously, as if testing the waters.
Steve blinked at her. He hadn’t heard this name in… Jesus, he didn’t want to count. “SHIELD?” he repeated incredulously. “Strategic Homeland Intervention…?”
Danvers’ pupils were dilating and her lips parting a little, as if she was seeing something beautiful. Something incredible. But all she was staring at was Steve. “Steve,” she repeated. “Steve, who the hell are you?”
Steve didn’t answer. His gut was clenching even though he couldn’t yet tell why, his body readying itself for action. “Is this a test?” he asked.
“I think you should come with me,” said Danvers abruptly, and stood up before he could answer.
Steve slowly got up and followed her out of the small room. Danvers walked with brisk, confident strides, and now that Steve saw her move in a proper light, he could tell for sure that she must have been military at some point in her life—maybe still was; she was young. It was not quite enough for him to fully accept what she’d said. Why would have SHIELD outlived the heroes they were investigating? Hell, they had been taken down ages ago—sometime around the year 2014, when HYDRA had resurfaced. It all seemed so ancient and futile, almost childish, now that the wind was blowing grit and the corn was crumbling into ash.
Then Danvers pushed a door open and Steve found himself on a catwalk overlooking a huge, bright-lit room, full of people in lab coats bustling about what looked like…
“…A rocketship?” murmured Steve.
It was huge, silver and sleek, and pointed at the night sky. Steve had been around his share of aircrafts working with SHIELD, but this wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen. It looked more imposing, somehow, grave and reflexive and purposeful like an abstract representation of Buddha. Danvers was about to answer him when a loud noise of shattering glass made the whole room freeze.
The scientists stopped running around the spacecraft, and everyone turned to the one man who’d dropped what he was holding to stare up at the catwalk in petrified shock.
When Steve saw who it was, he didn’t think.
“Wait,” exclaimed Danvers when he grabbed the railing, “take the st—”
Steve heard her say this before he realized he was jumping over the handrail and letting himself freefall all the way down. The landing was a bit rougher than when he’d leaped over the fence, but he could still shrug it off like a goddamn mosquito bite. He would have shrugged off anything right now. He got up, stumbled forward—and for a split second he hesitated, because they’d never been that close; but when Bruce opened his arms, Steve stopped thinking and they fell into a tight, intense embrace.
“I thought—” Steve stammered when he pulled back. “Jesus, Bruce. I thought… I thought you were dead.”
“I,” said Bruce hoarsely, eyes wet with emotion. “I thought you were dead too.”
He was still gripping Steve’s sleeves with trembling fingers. Steve felt like something had exploded inside his head, shattering his already shaken numbness and sending shards into his brain, scrambling his thoughts in a way that was both familiar and painfully new—he hadn’t truly felt something in so long. Now the emotion was back, and he could barely breathe with it.
“What happened to you?” said Steve feverishly. “Bruce, what happened? I—we… we looked for you. Thor and I. After a while, I started thinking you didn’t… didn’t want to be found. I—”
Steve realized he was beginning to hyperventilate and took a few deep breaths to calm down. This was too sudden and too huge. Bruce was here, real and warm and alive, and Steve felt terribly, painfully drawn to him—wanted to press his face into the crook of his neck and breathe him in. His skin itched for contact, desperate for the touch of someone who knew him for who he was. Someone who hadn’t forgotten. Someone who’d been there.
“I thought it was just me now,” he said, throat tight.
Bruce’s features quivered. He was still gripping Steve’s arms, as if to know for sure that he was real, too. He hadn’t aged a day. Jesus Christ, he hadn’t aged a day, and it made Steve want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Bruce appeared to think the same thing; his mouth twisted into a wry line, and his crinkled eyes spoke of thirty years of solitude. Relics, the both of them, relics from an ancient time. There were no more heroes, only humans dying alone without anyone left to protect them. And a few anomalies like them. Goddamn dinosaurs waiting for a meteor rain.
“It’s not,” murmured Bruce at long last.
He ducked his head, then exhaled and stepped back as if to stop himself from hugging Steve again. Steve could almost feel under Bruce’s skin the same itch that lived inside him, painful and too sharp, the craving for contact; it made him want to step back, too, because it was like being exposed to a fire after years in the ice. Too much, too bright, too sudden. It almost made him miss the numbness of absence.
“I have—so much to tell you,” said Bruce, fumbling a little with his words. “My God, Steve.” He looked at him as if he was suddenly seeing him in a whole new light—the way Danvers had looked at him a few minutes ago. “Everything will be different now.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, professor,” said another voice, half-amused and half-irritated.
Steve turned to face Carol Danvers, who’d taken the time to come down from the catwalk in a more conventional way. He found himself more puzzled than angry at her little knowing smile. “Will someone explain to me what is going on here?” he said.
“Of course, Captain.”
Danvers was already turning away. “Follow me.”
“Professor?” whispered Steve to Bruce as they followed Danvers up the dim-lit corridor Steve had been marched through less than an hour ago.
Bruce gave him an embarrassed smile. “I’ve had both titles for a while now. Call me anything you want.”
“What about…” Steve swallowed. “Bruce. What about the Hulk?”
“It’s a long story,” said Bruce wearily. “And Colonel Danvers’ takes precedence.”
So she was military. Steve felt a nasty taste at the back of his throat. “Is she holding you here?”
Bruce blinked at Steve; then he smiled fondly, and Steve felt again that desperate need for contact, for comfort, for a friend’s touch.
“You haven’t changed,” said Bruce warmly. “No, Steve, thank you. Those days are… well—you don’t need me to tell you that they’re gone. I’ve outlived pretty much everyone who knew about the Hulk.”
“Does Danvers know?”
“My father was a historian, Captain Rogers,” said Danvers out loud. “I know a lot more about you than our world remembers.”
“Obviously,” said Steve, a little piqued.
Danvers turned to smile at him, then stopped in front of the first picture hung in the long corridor and brushed her fingers against the glass in a small, intimate gesture.
Then she moved on to the next, but not before Steve could glance at the photograph—it was a young man with a bright smile, in a red space suit. Peter Quill, said the caption.
“We’re not the Strategic Homeland anymore,” said Danvers. “SHIELD now stands for Space Habitability, Interstellar Exploration and Lightyear Discovery.”
Steve couldn’t help snorting a little. “I’m impressed. It almost means something.”
“To be fair,” said Bruce with a smile in his voice, “the first version didn’t make much sense either. The SHIELD part was all that mattered to Peggy Carter.”
It had been so long, and Steve had lost so many people, that the name of Peggy did not really hurt him anymore. It just reminded him that he was weary down to his bones, and that the novelty of this inexplicable day might soon turn back into ashen monotony.
“Alright, fine,” he said. “So… what, Colonel? What is SHIELD’s endgame this time?”
“The same it’s always been,” said Danvers evenly. “The survival of the human race.”
She looked at the row of pictures hanging on the wall. “We’ve known for a long time that we were no longer welcome here. After Asgard’s destruction, it became obvious that we couldn’t count on anyone else but ourselves to leave. Mankind was born on Earth, but,” she smiled, “it was never meant to die here.”
“Last I heard,” said Steve, “hyper speed travel was still against the law of physics.”
Tony had been dead for a long, long time, but Steve still remembered the frustrated wince he’d turned into a grin upon seeing Steve in his workshop. He’d sent his holographic schematics twirling with a wave of hand. “It’s no use, Cap, physics just don’t allow travel at the speed of light. Our physics, anyway.”
“You’d abandon the Earth?” said Bruce curiously.
Steve shrugged. “Figure we owe her a break.”
Danvers turned to him. “We’ve got a way out, Cap,” she said. “Asgard had cracked the problem; they had the Bifrost. It looked like it was shooting people across the Universe, but really it was folding it—twisting it around the Asgardians. Creating a wormhole through a fifth dimension.”
“And a wormhole,” said Bruce, “appeared near Saturn eight years ago.”
Steve felt dizzy.
“What?” he breathed.
He looked between them both. They just looked back at him.
“But the Bifrost’s gone. Asgard—Asgard’s gone.”
He was thinking of Thor’s hammer. Of Thor’s words. Do not go gentle into that good night. The voice on the radio hadn’t sounded like him—or maybe a little? Only more solemn, more wistful?
“Maybe it’s not Asgard,” murmured Bruce in his weary voice. “We just don’t know. But it’s out there.”
“We have no idea. We’ve sent probes through it. It leads to another galaxy.” Danvers turned to Steve. “With twelve potentially habitable planets. Whoever it is, they’re looking out for us.”
“Twelve planets?” repeated Steve. “Did you—did you send someone through the breach already?”
“We did,” was all Danvers said.
Steve followed her gaze looked at the row of pictures again. Twelve astronauts, all so young and smiling in their red space suits. Peter Quill. America Chavez. David Alleyne. Kate Bishop. Daken Akihiro. Verity Willis. Amadeus Cho. Sooraya Qadir. Abigail Boleyn. Eli Bradley. Ichiki Hisako. Jeanne Foucault.
“Three of them sent back positive results,” said Danvers. “Quill, Chavez and Daken.”
“What about the others?” asked Steve.
“Each of them knew going in that they might never see another human being again.”
Steve said nothing.
“The spaceship you saw,” said Bruce, “is called the Endurance. Well—to be exact, it’s a Ranger; it’s designed to dock the space station called the Endurance which is currently orbiting Earth at our vertical. We’re sending it through the breach to colonize whichever planet will turn out to be the best one. We’ve got frozen embryos, growth serums, artificial wombs.” He sounded weary.
“The professor was an immense help,” said Danvers in a respectful tone.
Steve looked at him. “Bruce?” he said. “What about the people here?”
“Recolonization is plan B,” intervened Danvers. “There is a plan A and we’d like to prioritize it.”
Bruce bit his lip. “I—” he stopped himself. “I worked with Tony. And with—with Jane Foster. They taught me… well, they’re the reason I was able to help out the new SHIELD. They taught me what they knew. Which was a lot. And I’m getting old—I had time to teach myself some more.”
He looked at the row of pictures. “But not enough to crack the gravity equation. If we—if I,” he corrected himself wistfully, “if I could solve it, we could get any ship of any size airborne without worrying about fuel. We could keep them up in space for hundreds of years on end. We could build space stations and save everyone.”
“But you can’t solve it,” said Steve.
Bruce looked at him. “I can,” he said, softly. “But not from here.”
Something in his tone sent a chill up Steve’s spine.
“Bruce, what do you mean?”
Danvers answered instead. “Quill’s, Chavez’ and Daken’s planets orbit around a black hole called Gargantua,” she said. “Do you know what a black hole is, Captain Rogers?”
“No, you don’t,” she cut off. “No one does. That’s the problem. At the center of a black hole is a gravitational singularity. It has no volume and an infinite density.”
“That… sounds impossible.”
“It is,” said Bruce, quietly. “If we could observe it—if we could understand how it works, we could understand the secret of gravity. We could solve the equation. The problem is that nothing that crosses the horizon event of a black hole ever comes back.”
“Bruce,” said Steve again, a little alarmed, “what do you mean?”
“Endurance has three missions,” answered Bruce with a small, fatalistic smile. “Rescue those of the twelve who can be rescued; repopulate our new Earth—that’s plan B; and dump me into Gargantua. That’s plan A.”
Steve felt himself pale and saw Bruce raise his hands to prevent his response. “I can probably survive it. In fact, I might be the only one out there who can hope to survive it, thanks to Hulk. And by some kind of amazing twist of fate, I’m also able to understand what I’ll find inside.” He shrugged, as unassuming and quiet as Steve remembered. “It’s the logical thing to do, really.”
“And then what?” exclaimed Steve. “What will happen to you? Did you even think of—”
“Captain, this isn’t your call!” roared Danvers.
Steve startled. She was livid. “Professor Banner and I,” she went on in a tense, strung-up tone, “have been planning this for a very long time. Trust me when I say we have considered every possibility.”
Steve felt himself flush with shame. Of course, Bruce didn’t need anyone to tell him this. Hell, he’d spent his whole damn life surrounded by people trying to find a way to end him; and now, by some sort of cruel irony, he was the one actively working towards his own doom. He didn’t need Steve yelling at him—blaming him for a sacrifice he didn’t even know about an hour ago.
And indeed, what could Steve say anyway? It’s not fair? None of it was fair. None of it should have happened in the first place.
There was a long silence.
“What are you waiting for?” said Steve. “My approval? ‘Cause you sure as hell don’t need it.”
“Bruce won’t be going alone,” said Danvers, and Steve felt slightly, slightly comforted when he heard her use his first name, when he got that tiny proof that Bruce hadn’t spent the last three decades planning his own suicide alone in the heartless system of the military. “Endurance can hold up to fifteen passengers, but we don’t have that many volunteers.”
Steve looked up. “How many?”
“Three,” she said evenly. “Bruce, Chekov, and you.” She tilted her head to the side. “If you’ll join us.”
“You—” he said after a stunned second. “You want me to join?”
“Yes,” she said simply.
Bruce said nothing.
“Why would you need me?” Steve hesitated. “I just came out of nowhere. I don’t have the training. I don’t know anything about outer space, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a pilot.”
“Chekov is,” said Danvers firmly. “And Bruce is a scientist four times over. But we need courage. We need dedication. And we need goddamn superpowers.”
Her voice had turned steely. “From what I understand, back in the day you couldn’t trip over your own feet without acquiring some kind of superhuman ability. But now, the mutants are gone, and no one catches super strength like the flu anymore. You’re a relic, Steve,” his name sounded frank and clear in her mouth, “but a precious one. So is Bruce. So is Chekov. And you found us, somehow.”
She faced him squarely. “I’ll take every sign I can get. We’re scraping together everything we have left, here. We’re shooting for the stars one last time. So are you in or not?”
Steve was given the rest of the night to think about it. They assigned him to an empty bed in an empty room—obviously, the building could have welcomed a lot more people if only they’d been there. There were two bunk beds; he lay down on the bottom mattress closest to him, stared at the empty bunk above him for two minutes, then got up again.
He found his way to the roof without too much trouble. There was no wind, for once, and almost no clouds. A silver lining was hovering at the edge of the horizon, hinting at dawn; but the stars were still visible above his head.
“I was thinking you might come here,” said a soft voice.
Steve walked to Bruce without a word and leaned against the railing next to him, shoulders pressing together. Bruce didn’t inch away, and even pushed back a little against him. Steve looked at the mist hovering over the corn fields.
“It’s stupid, really,” murmured Bruce in a voice that carefully did not shake, “but I’m going to miss it here.”
Steve felt the terrible urge to hold him again—to comfort him; but he had no comfort to bring. It was almost unbearable, to have found him again so miraculously, only to learn that he was about to be ripped away from this world.
Bruce glanced at him—nothing but a brief, unassuming flicker.
“You don’t have to come. I understand.” He sounded like Steve felt—stretched thin. “God knows I’ve watched enough of my friends die over the years.”
“Of course I’m coming,” said Steve, because he might as well save everyone some time and admit it to himself right now. “How could I not?”
“I knew you’d say that,” smiled Bruce. He shook his head with a small, derisive huff. “I’m sorry you found us.”
“I’m not.” Steve felt more alive than he’d felt in years. Not happy, not even particularly hopeful, but alive—knowing that there was still a battle to be fought. Knowing he could still try to make a difference. “I’m not letting you go alone. And I’m not leaving anyone to die if I can help it.”
Bruce smiled at him, wry and weary. “I knew you’d say that, too.”
“So, what now?” said Steve as they went down the stairs side by side. “I’ve been a farmer for the past three decades. I can’t just suit up and go into space like that.”
“You’ve had basic space training back in the thirties, right?”
Steve opened his mouth to say something about the Sputnik being launched in ‘57, then realized Bruce meant the 21st century’s thirties and nodded. It was true—he’d climbed up to the edge of the exosphere once. But that was more than sixty years ago, and he didn’t recall much of it.
He didn’t have memory problems, not exactly, but the years were starting to blur together. Most of it felt unreal.
“Chekov will help you brush up on your training,” said Bruce.
“He’s the pilot, right?”
“Yes. The Endurance is scheduled to leave in a month. I guess we can afford a small delay if you’re not ready by then, but—”
“I’ll be ready.”
Bruce smiled at him as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I have to get back to work,” he said. “Report to the main room. Danvers will probably meet you there, she was so certain you’d accept. She’ll send Chekov your way.”
He hesitated, then suddenly said in a rushed, shameful voice, “I said I wished you hadn’t found us. But—I’m—I’m glad you did.”
He fled before Steve could answer.
Steve watched him go, trying to ignore the tugging in his chest; but when he looked around, the first thing he saw were the pictures of the twelve lined up on the wall. Steve looked at the three astronauts who’d sent back positive results. Quill, blond and bright and joyful. Chavez, with dark burning eyes and a smirk curling up her mouth. Daken, his lips a thin hard line, his eyes grave and serious.
All of them, gone to the stars. And Steve soon to follow.
He stared in enthrallment for a minute or so. And then he realized something was written on the wall in front of which they’d posed, in golden letters sunk into the stone. When he realized what it was, his eyes widened.
Do not go gentle into that good night
“Hey,” said someone behind him, startling him badly. “You Rogers?”
Steve turned round, instinctively answering, “Yeah,” before they were even face-to-face.
The man was brown-haired, with long dirty hair and sunken eyes, in a SHIELD t-shirt and black pants. Scraped dog tags hung off his neck and read, SGT. J. CHEKOV.
He had a toneless voice, a pale blue gaze, and a prosthetic left arm.