At the simultaneous ages of twenty-nine and ninety-six, Steve Rogers would not have believed anything could surprise him anymore. He'd fought Nazis, gods, aliens, and supermen. He'd looked into a hole in space itself and then gone out for lunch after. He'd seen friends die and be resurrected, men become monsters, and machines become men. Steve knew better than to think he'd seen everything there was to see, but he did feel pretty jaded when it came to bizarre events. Things could anger him, disappoint him, sadden him – but nothing could really shock him.
Or so he thought, until he found his own corpse floating face-down in Tampa Bay.
The worst part was, he didn't even realize it at the time. He was driving across the Courtney Campbell Causeway when he happened to glance to the right and notice a suspiciously humanoid shape in the shallows. Most people would probably have assumed it was an illusion – it was the same colour as the white sand – but Steve pulled over onto the grassy median and scrambled down the rocks for a better look. There was the naked body of a young man or a boy, his skin chalk-white and his shaggy blond hair drifting like seaweed on the gently lapping waves. Steve's first instinct was to wade out and try to rescue the man, but he quickly realized that this person was beyond help. He swallowed his heroics, and called the police instead.
By the time they arrived, Steve was already long gone. He needed to stay under the public radar until he'd rooted out the last remnants of HYDRA, and anyway, Sam was waiting for him in Tampa. They had leads to follow, sources to meet, fugitives to track. The body in the bay was worth reporting, but Steve had no reason to believe it was anything but the result of a random accident or crime.
At eight forty the next morning, Steve and Sam were eating breakfast in the Waffle House across the parking lot from their motel. They had an important day ahead – a source who called himself RedWolff06 had promised to meet them at the Pier in St. Petersburg, on the other side of the bay, in order to offer details on a cargo of HYDRA weapons that would be leaving for Argentina on a ship called the Albatross. Whoever he was, the man had been maddeningly vague, and it was only a feeling that he knew far more than he was saying that had persuaded Steve and Sam to come meet him at all.
The fact that RedWolff06 himself had now been out of communication with them for four days wasn't helping. Steve checked his email yet again, as Sam stepped away to grab a copy of the day's Tampa Bay Times, but there was nothing. Steve was beginning to wonder if the whole thing were the work of a crank who just wanted attention.
He looked up from his phone as Sam dropped the paper on the table and sat back down across from him. “They've got a picture of that kid you found in the bay yesterday,” Sam said, pointing at the paper with one hand while grabbing his orange juice with the other. “Looks like they haven't identified him yet.”
“Yeah? Let's see.” Steve unfolded the paper and pulled out the 'local' section for a look.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware of Sam's surprised exclamation and felt hot liquid soaking into his right sleeve from his spilled coffee mug, but these things seemed distant and immaterial. Instead, time stopped as Steve stared at the identikit drawing the police had released of the victim, well and truly shocked for the first time in ages. It was a man in his early twenties with a thin, pale face, who looked like he didn't eat enough and probably didn't get full benefit out of what he did eat. There was blond hair, a little long. Blue eyes, slightly unfocused. A long nose, narrow jaw, and full lower lip. It was a face Steve hadn't seen in years no matter how he measured the passage of time, but it was one he was intimately familiar with.
His face. His thin, anemic face from before the serum.
While Sam grabbed a handful of napkins to mop up the coffee, Steve scanned the article that accompanied the sketch. An anonymous collar had alerted police to the body washed up on the causeway. No identification had been found on the corpse, and the closest thing it had to clothing was one contact lens in the left eye. The young man's fingerprints and DNA were not on file. The body had sustained extensive injuries, some of them postmortem, but the exact cause of death was not yet determined. Tampa Bay police were eager for any leads the public could offer.
“Hey, are you all right?” asked Sam, wadding up the coffee-soaked napkins to throw away.
Steve blinked as he suddenly remembered the outside world. He raised his head, and held up the paper next to his own face so that Sam could compare the portrait. “What do you think?”
Sam hadn't noticed the resemblance before – now he did. “A relative?” he guessed.
“I don't have any,” Steve replied. “I was an only child. My aunt was a spinster, and Mom's family were all in Ireland except for one guy who settled in Australia.” Maybe somebody from his mother's side had immigrated since. Or maybe this man, like thousands of others every year, had been in Florida for a vacation. Maybe the resemblance was entirely coincidental... but Steve didn't trust coincidences. What he did trust was his gut, and it was telling him that this needed investigating.
“I'm gonna go check it out,” he decided.
“You think it's connected with your friend?” asked Sam. “I mean, do you think he went after this guy because...”
Because he looked like you? The unfinished question hung silently in the air, along with its only possible answer. As far as Steve knew, there was only one person on earth who would set out looking for Captain America and end up killing a five foot four inch kid with bad eyesight.
Steve wasn't willing to say that out loud, however, so he chewed and swallowed a bite of his omelet and then said, “you okay to go to St. Petersburg by yourself?”
“Unless our guy shows up with an army, I ought to be fine,” said Sam. “Where do we want to meet afterward?”
“How about the university?” Steve asked. “Easy to get to, lots of people around.”
“Right.” Sam nodded. “Watch your six.”
“I always do,” promised Steve. Especially if there were somebody out there killing young men who looked like him.
Since Sam had the longer drive to make, he took their rental car, while Steve got the number seven bus to the Tampa Police Department building by the airport. He used the transit time to come up with a false name and a story about his possible relationship to the dead man – Steve was much better at lying when he'd had time to prepare – but he never got to use it. When he walked up to the front desk to introduce himself, the young man behind it did an impressive double-take and then scrambled to his feet, eyes wide.
“Oh my god!” the young officer exclaimed. “You're Captain America!”
The room fell silent and every head, whether it belonged to a police officer or a member of the public, turned towards him. Steve hunched a little, but it was too late to hide his face or deny his identity, not after an outburst like that. “Um, yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Oh, my god,” the kid repeated. “Can I have your autograph? Wait here, let me go to my locker!” He ran off without waiting for a reply, in such a hurry that he left his office chair gently spinning behind him. Steve stood facing the glass barrier, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the people who were whispering excitedly behind him. His appearance here would be all over the internet in a few minutes' time, and anybody he'd been managing to hide from would know exactly where he was.
Because he didn't look back, he barely saw when a female officer led a man in glasses through a door into the interior of the building, and for the moment at least, he did not register either individual's face.
A minute or so later, the young officer – his name badge said Gonzales and his open mouth and large eyes made him look like a small, excitable dog – returned with a blue-gray t-shirt and a sharpie pen. “Here!” he said, eagerly pushing them through the slot in the glass. “Sign on the logo part, okay?”
Steve unfolded the shirt and found it had the bulls-eye of his shield on the front. He wondered if anybody held a copyright on the image, but decided it didn't matter – he just had to do what he came to do and get out of here. He wrote Steve Rogers on it in his tall, looping handwriting, and after a moment of thought, added Captain America in smaller letters beneath it.
“How's that?” he asked, passing it back to Officer Gonzales.
Gonzales held the shirt up and grinned. “That's perfect! Thanks so much! Hey, can I get a picture, too?” he added, pulling his phone out of his shirt pocket. “My brother will never believe me if I tell him Captain America came to see me at work today!”
“Sure,” Steve said. He might a well – it certainly wouldn't be the first or last picture taken of him today. “Before you do, though, I need to ask you about the body they found by the Causeway yesterday.” He wasn't going to mention that he was the one who'd called it in. That would just lead the police to ask questions instead of answering them. “Is there any way I could get a closer look at the guy?”
“I can ask,” said Gonzales. “Do you know who he...” he paused, and his already large eyes got even wider as he, too, noticed the resemblance in retrospect. “Is he a relative or something?”
“He might be,” said Steve. “Has anyone identified him yet?”
“I'll ask.” Gonzales got up and stuck his head through a doorway behind his desk. “Hey, Lewis! We got a name for John Doe?”
“Yes, actually!” a woman called back in reply. “There's a man in there right now, says it's his stepbrother!”
“Really?” asked Steve. If it weren't for the glass partition, he would have leaned over the desk to try and see the speaker.
“Sounds like it,” Gonzales said. “Hey, Lewis!” he repeated into the back. “What's the guy's name?”
“The stiff or the stepbrother?” the woman asked.
“Who wants to know?”
There was a brief pause, and then the previously invisible Officer Lewis, a middle-aged black woman with her pewter-gray hair in a tight bun, appeared in the doorway behind Gonzales. She frowned as she looked Steve over. “Is the dead man a relative?” she asked.
“I... I don't think so. I don't know,” said Steve. “How did he die?”
“We don't know yet,” said Officer Lewis. “The medical examiner hasn't submitted a report. Even if we did, we might not be able to tell you.” She gave Gonzales a pointed look, clearly unimpressed with his willingness to offer details to a stranger, Captain America or no. “In a homicide, there is always information that is held back. It's a way of checking the veracity of tips and leads.”
That was inconvenient, but Steve could see how it made sense. “Is there anything else you can tell me?” he asked.
“Anything we can release will be in the news later,” said Lewis. “Can we be of any further assistance, Captain?”
“No,” said Steve. “Thanks anyway.” He turned to leave.
“Wait!” Gonzales stood up again. “Can I get that picture before you go?”
Gonzales pulled the newly autographed t-shirt on over his uniform, and Steve stood up straight and smiled awkwardly while the young officer got a member of the public to take several pictures of him with his hero. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Officer Lewis showing somebody out of the building – a dark-haired man in a brown varsity-style jacket with patches on the elbows. Was that the stepbrother? Maybe he could tell Steve something about the dead man: where he'd been, who he'd spoken to, and whether he'd been stalked by a man with a metal arm.
“Do you have twitter?” Gonzales asked.
“No, but I'll look into it,” Steve lied. “Thanks for your help.” He shook Gonzales' hand, and hurried outside, hoping to catch the stepbrother before he drove away.
There was a red and white cab parked among the police cars in the lot outside – the man in the varsity jacket was unlocking the driver's side door. Steve lengthened his stride. “Hey!” he called out. “Can I talk to you?” For a moment he wondered what he would do if this man's face also turned out to be a version of Steve's own, but that wasn't likely – Officer Lewis had mentioned a step brother, not a blood relation.
The man looked up, and Steve got his second heart-stopping surprise of the morning.
Another doppelganger... well, that would have been weird, but Steve had half-expected it. A lookalike of Tony Stark – a younger lookalike, clean-shaved and wearing big black-rimmed glasses that would probably help disguise the resemblance at a casual glance, but a lookalike nonetheless – that was a bit of a shock.
The sight of Steve seemed to shock the young man in return. After a few moments speechless staring, he wrenched the car door open and climbed in, plainly ready to flee.
“Wait!” Steve protested. He wasn't sure he could – or should – believe what he was seeing. Maybe he was hallucinating. Maybe he had sunstroke. Maybe he'd nodded off at the breakfast table and in a moment Sam would wake him up to remind him they were supposed to be meeting RedWolff06 in St. Petersburg. But it certainly felt real enough as he dashed over to put an arm through the car door before the man could close it. “What's going on?” he asked.
“I'm on a schedule!” the man protested, putting his key in the ignition. The car began to ding a warning at him. “I have to get back to work!”
“Great, because I need a taxi!” said Steve. “I'm going to the University of Tampa. And I need to talk to you.”
The man in the glasses shook his head. “You really don't want to get involved in this,” he said.
“I'm already involved,” Steve said. “Your stepbrother died because he looked like me, didn't he? I want to know what I'm involved in!”
There was a long pause while the car engine idled and the man in the glasses chewed on his lip. Steve's eyes flicked up to the cab driver's license displayed on one of the sun shades: Strong, Tobias Anthony. Maybe he was being paranoid, but somehow it didn't sound like a real name.
At last, Strong sighed loudly and thumped on the steering while with the heels of both hands. “Okay, get in,” he said, reaching to unlock the passenger door.
“Thanks.” Steve obeyed, having to hunch up to fit into the front seat before finding the lever and pushing it into a more comfortable position. Whoever had sat there last had been far shorter than he, and he couldn't help wondering if it had been the dead man.
Strong locked the doors and rolled up the windows before he pulled out of the lot and turned right onto West Tampa Bay Boulevard, heading for Route 92. Steve expected him to say something, but the first few minutes of the drive went by in leaden silence. The interior of the car was stuffy, smelling of upholstery cleaner and the wet, slightly musty scent of the air conditioning. Strong did not look at his passenger. Instead, he sat up ramrod straight with his eyes not on the road, but on the vehicles around them, taking note of faces and license plates. Steve knew scared when he saw it, and whoever he was, this man was clearly scared sick.
“Was he really your stepbrother?” asked Steve, when it became clear that Strong would not be the first to speak.
Strong snorted. “What do you think?”
Steve had thought as much. “So what's going on?”
“Pretty much exactly what it looks like,” said Strong.
“What's it supposed to look like? All I see is somebody's apparently murdering my clones!”
This was sarcasm. Somebody's apparently murdering my clones was the shortest summary of the situation Steve could think of off the top of his head. It was also an exaggeration: after all, there was only one dead doppelganger. But Strong nodded and said, “got it in one. That's why they pay you the big bucks.” The voice was Stark's, but Stark would have smiled as he said that. Strong was fighting not to collapse.
It took Steve a second to process the meaning of the quip. “What, actual clones?” he asked. “Like... like on TV?”
“Something like that,” Strong agreed.
There was another silence. Chain-link fence and dense tropical foliage rolled by outside the car, and Steve let it blur into a haze of green as he tried to digest the implications. Clones... was that why the lookalike was small and sickly, because he'd inherited Steve's genetic weaknesses and not the serum's cure for them? He wanted to ask who had decided to clone him, but he had a dismal feeling he already knew the answer: SHIELD had turned out to have no particular qualms about ending human lives, so why should they think twice about creating them? I asked for an army, Phillips had said, and all I got was you. Maybe somebody had believed they could have their army after all, only to be bitterly disappointed by the results.
“Listen,” said Strong, licking his lips. “If you want to raise hell about this, you go ahead, but leave me out of it. Leave all of us out of it. After I drop you off, I'm going straight back to Orlando to pack. I don't want to find out I'm next on the hit list.”
“So why show up and identify the body?” asked Steve.
“Because that's what a normal person would do when he hears that his room-mate is dead,” said Strong. “If I do that, maybe they'll think I don't suspect anything, and I can get a head start. Besides,” he added, “it'll get the thing out of the headlines. The quicker people think it's solved and forget about it, the less likely anyone will compare notes and realize that four guys with the same face have turned up dead in the last few months.”
Something cold dropped into the pit of Steve's stomach. “Four?” How many were there?
Strong nodded. “There was Scott Orchard over in Oregon. I never got the name of the one in Texas. I knew Oregon was Scott because they mentioned his appendectomy scar, but the one in Texas didn't have anything like that. Lucinda identified Dave Rodman in Ohio. And now Stan. I haven't heard from Rog for months, either, so maybe they got him, too, and it's just that nobody's heard about it yet.” He sighed heavily. “It's not like anybody reports it when one of us goes missing.”
At least four dead clones, possibly five. More live ones must exist – and clearly not all of them were based on Steve himself. “You're not 'one of them', though,” he said to Strong. “You're not...” there was no graceful way to phrase it. “You're not me. You're Stark.”
“I'm a clone,” Strong said. “I know it and I'm fine. I'm one and more are on the way.” These last two sentences were delivered in a singsong that suggested they were a reference to something Steve was not familiar with. The words more are on the way sounded oddly threatening. Strong continued: “I don't know for sure that they're only after yours. It could just be that those are the ones I've heard about. There were more of them to begin with, anyway.”
“How did they die?” asked Steve.
“I don't know,” said Strong.
“Who's killing them?” Steve tried. “Do you think it's HYDRA?”
“I think HYDRA's got better things to do,” said Strong. “Stan wasn't a danger to anybody, HYDRA least of all. He couldn't climb a flight of stairs without stopping for a breather. You know, he wouldn't even let me kill a fly? He used to catch them in a glass and put them outside.” Strong paused, and Steve glanced over to find him shiny-eyed, his adam's apple bobbing in his throat. “Stan literally would not hurt a fly. He had nothing anybody wanted. We were just trying to get by.”
“Secrets?” suggested Steve. The newspaper article had suggested 'Stan' might have been tortured before he was killed.
Strong shrugged. “Maybe there's something one of us has, or knows, and whoever this is, they're going down the list picking us all off just to make sure. Maybe we're proprietary technology that somebody doesn't want in the wrong hands. I just don't know.” It was weird, watching and listening to him. The voice was Stark's, but the words and expressions were all wrong. Tony Stark would never have let Steve see him on the verge of tears, or hear that helplessly frustrated and frightened note in his voice.
“You haven't tried to find out?” asked Steve.
“I told you: I don't want to find out by dying,” said Strong.
From the police station to the University of Tampa was only twelve or fifteen minutes. Strong pulled over on University Drive, outside the fantastically ugly old building that housed the Henry B. Plant Museum, and unlocked the cab doors.
“University of Tampa,” he said. “This is your stop.”
His meaning was clear: he'd taken Steve where he'd said he would, and now he wanted him to leave. Steve didn't want to go. He had more questions – but Strong didn't seem to know very many of the answers Steve needed, and if this man's life were already in danger, Steve didn't want to make it worse by hanging around him. Anybody who was hunting down and killing clones of superheroes probably wouldn't take kindly to any who showed up in the original flesh.
“How much do I owe?” asked Steve.
Strong hadn't had his taxi meter running on the trip from the police station, so he had to estimate. They settled on ten dollars, which Steve paid in cash.
“Where are you planning on going?” he asked, handing Strong two fives. “Have you thought about New York? Stark might...”
So far, Strong had seemed in no mood for humour, but now he cut Steve off with a short, sharp bark of laughter, very unlike the way Stark laughed. “Yeah,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Because that won't attract attention at all, will it?”
“It might be the safest place,” Steve told him. Stark was an asshole, but he was an asshole who looked after anyone and anything he perceived as his own. Steve had to give the guy that.
“Not for me,” said Strong. “Stark's personal tech is all biologically keyed. Retina, fingerprints, voice. I know because I've worked on it. The only thing he'll see in me is a massive security breach.”
He was probably right, in which case Steve had no other ideas. “Good luck,” he offered.
Strong scowled as if this were an insult. “Thanks,” he snarled. “You, too.” And he closed the cab door with a slam.
It was only as the vehicle pulled away again that Steve realized he'd never found out how many clones were still alive, or confirmed who made them. All he had were suspicions and assumptions. He hadn't asked if there were any more like Strong, or any clones of Banner, or Barton, or the others, or why Strong had been working with Stark's gear, or how he'd wound up driving a taxi in Orlando. All he had were a few facts that made no sense, a frightened cab driver he would probably never see again, and an instinct that told him he'd stumbled onto something big and ominous – maybe as big and ominous as Project Insight had been.
This was no good. Steve couldn't afford to get sidetracked now. He and Sam already had a long list of things to investigate, and every lead they chased down seemed to offer up two more. HYDRA had tendrils everywhere, creeping into the fabric of society and government like a fungus. At the same time, though, this clone thing was not something Steve felt he could ignore. This was... this was personal. Somebody had made duplicates of him and those duplicates were being murdered, and Steve himself had not been consulted at any point in this process. He felt responsible, and he felt used. Steve didn't take kindly to being used, even only by proxy.
He sat down on a bench facing the Plant Park pond to wait for Sam – and while he did, he got out his smartphone and did some research. The internet really was a fantastic invention, he reflected: in 1944, if Steve had wanted to look through reports of unidentified bodies in four different states, it would have taken days or weeks of travel and endless hours of shuffling through newspapers and police records. Now, he found the information he needed in under ten minutes.
John Doe, found under a bridge on the McKenzie River, just north of Eugene, Oregon. Five foot five, blond hair, blue eyes, appendectomy scar. Cause of death loss of blood from an injury to the throat. Officially unidentified.
John Doe, found in a swamp outside Texas City with his throat cut. Five foot four, blond hair, blue eyes. The death had been lumped in with a string of unsolved murders in the area, but if so it was the first male victim of what had so far been assumed to be a sexually-motivated serial killer. Body unidentified.
John Doe, at the bottom of a cliff overlooking Lake Erie in an expensive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Five foot four, blond hair, blue eyes. Cause of death an unspecified neck injury. Identified by his ex-girlfriend as David Rodman, a tech support worker. The girlfriend was wanted for questioning, but nobody had seen her in months. The case was considered open.
And of course, John Doe, face-down in the surf off the Courtney Campbell Causeway between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida. Five foot four, blond hair, blue eyes. Identified by his stepbrother a Stanley Reeves, shipping clerk for a local company that sold film stock. Cause of death as yet undetermined.
A second search had just told Steve that there were six people named 'Tobias Strong' living in the United States, when he looked up and saw Sam approaching. The other man smiled and raised a hand in greeting, but paused when he saw the look on Steve's face.
“You okay, man?” Sam asked, sitting down on the bench beside him. “I know this is a cliché, but you look like you've seen a ghost.”
If anybody would know what Steve looked like upon seeing a ghost, he supposed that person was Sam Wilson. “I'm fine,” he said. “Just... I'll tell you what, you go first. Did you meet RedWolff06?”
Sam shook his head. “He stood me up. Didn't even text.”
Steve was almost relieved. “Okay. Forget him. Here's what I've been doing.” He described what had happened that morning, and watched Sam's expression change from surprise, to horror, and finally to skepticism.
“Do you believe all that?” Sam asked. “With the clones and the... how do you know this guy's not just some nut? There are Iron Man lookalikes. Heck, there're Captain America lookalikes. Some of them make their living at it.”
“You didn't see him,” Steve said. “He was scared to death. And the unsolved murders he told me about are all real. There's something here. I gotta find out what it is.”
Sam didn't look entirely convinced. “Are we dropping the Albatross?” he asked.
“I don't know,” Steve said. “If he's not gonna show, then he's not gonna show, but... yeah.” He leaned back and stared into the bottomless Florida sky for a few moments, trying to figure out their next step. Assuming it was SHIELD who'd been trying to clone superheroes, who might be able to tell them about it? They couldn't ask Fury – he was in Europe somewhere, and nobody found Nick Fury unless Nick Fury wanted to be found. Hill had enough on her plate, dealing with Stark, the government, and former agents in need of jobs and favours. The masses of information Natasha had uploaded in the fall of SHIELD hadn't all been decrypted or cataloged yet – gigs and gigs of it were still sitting around on various servers, waiting for somebody brave enough to tackle it.
Luckily, Steve knew one more person familiar with SHIELD's secrets, and he'd spoken to her only days earlier.
“I'm gonna go check out Ybor Channel,” Sam decided. That was where the Albatross was in dry dock for a paint job, and RedWolff06 had said some things that made it sound as if he worked there.
“Okay,” Steve said. “I'm going to call Natasha.” If he were seeing ghosts, then what he needed was an expert.