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Flames We Never Lit

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It was called Project Briar Rose.

 

An American experiment in prolonged cryogenic stasis, for use in long-distance space travel. They still thought extraterrestrial colonization might be the answer to the world’s problems in those days.

 

And because it would be colonization, with all that the term implied, they were particularly interested in the effects of stasis on women of child-bearing age. Fortunately, the end of the war had yielded a bumper crop of young, fit, spirited candidates, most of whom were persuaded to go through the screening process with the addition of a relatively small incentive.

 

Thousands of women were interviewed, hundreds screened, and twenty of the finest specimens were selected to undergo the full procedure.

 

Subject number thirteen was Margaret Carter.

 

*

 

“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Howard demanded.

 

Feigning supreme indifference, Peggy took a last long drag of her cigarette before tapping it out in the ashtray. “Perhaps that’s a question best directed to the head of the Special Operations Executive.”

 

Howard automatically retrieved a gold-plated cigarette case from some interior pocket of his white dinner jacket. He flipped the case open and offered it to her, but she waved him away. He was already paying for her drinks, and she didn’t like to feel too indebted.

 

It was a typical Saturday night at the Stork Club. Howard had taken her twice since she’d arrived in New York, although the first time had been (understandably) a fairly dismal affair. This time, she was determined to make a proper go of it, and had even bought a new dress for the occasion. Her companion obviously approved.

 

“No one’s pink-slipped you yet,” he pointed out.

 

“It’s only a matter of time.” Peggy’s style never failed to get things done, but it also didn’t win her any admirers. She also had reason to suspect that at least one of her superiors at SOE was a Soviet sympathizer. “I don’t fancy being a typist or working in a shop.” She’d done both before the war, before shedding her old life like it was a dress she’d outgrown.

 

He made a derisive noise. “You want a job? Hell, I’ll give you that. Come with me to California. I’ll give you more work than you can handle.” And, in case she missed the undertone of the offer, he raised a single, shameless eyebrow.

 

Peggy had been to bed with Howard twice already: once, because she’d been grieving, and he’d been comforting; and again, simply because he’d offered and she’d felt like it. She didn’t regret it, but neither did she intend to make it a pattern. Neither of them were the marrying type.

 

“I’d rather not,” she demurred.

 

“This is because of him, isn’t it?”

 

It was, and it wasn’t. The loss of Steve Rogers had been a blow, but the way she’d reacted in the wake of it was, she felt, symptomatic of something larger. She felt as though she’d been born in the war, born of the war—as though she’d been pushed out of it, covered in blood and gasping for air, never having known anything else. She wasn’t prepared to face this brave new world at peace. It terrified her.

 

However, experience had taught her that if she was frightened of something, the best way to conquer that fear was to embrace it, and take out the change in bad dreams if you had to. The future was the only undiscovered country left, and she was determined to meet it head-on.

 

“It’s because of me,” she corrected. In the periphery of her vision, couples were dancing. Celebrating. Falling in love. It made her feel tired. Perhaps, she thought wryly, the long sleep would do her good.

 

“Fifty years,” he mused, his tone laced with regret. “I’ll be an old man the next time we see each other.”

 

“And still a preening peacock, no doubt.”

 

“Still chasing unavailable girls, no doubt.”

 

“Howard.”

 

“I mean it. Come with me.” He leaned forward, reaching out to clasp her hand between both of his.

 

“You know I can’t.”

 

“I think I’m in love with you.”

 

“Ridiculous. Get your elbows off the table,” she said sternly.

 

He pulled back, lit a cigarette without offering one to her, and smoked angrily for some moments, hunched forward as though someone were about to fight him for it. Peggy could feel her patience for his theatrics wearing thin.

 

She didn’t want to leave things like this. Not after everything they’d been through together. But soft promises and longing looks had never been her style.

 

“Well?” she said briskly.

 

He folded his arms and gave her a dour look. “Well what?”

 

“Shall we have another dance, or are you going to sulk for the rest of the evening?”

 

“I need a restorative first. Your mood swings are giving me whiplash.” Quick as a cat, Howard reached out and snagged a passing waiter by the sleeve. “Scotch on the rocks,” he said, “and a Dubonnet and gin for the lady.”

 

Peggy nodded her approval. Howard Stark was mercurial at the best of times, but at least he always remembered what one liked to drink.

 

*

 

The evening before her procedure, Peggy went to Coney Island.

 

She’d never been, but it was a place that Steve had spoken of with wistful fondness. She’d long since taken her leave of Captain America, at one of the numerous, hastily-erected monuments to Brooklyn’s favourite son; it felt more honest here, where where she knew he’d been happy, to say goodbye to Steve Rogers.

 

It had been a bright, blue-sky day, and even at dusk the beach was still littered with sunbathers. One young couple lay sprawled on a picnic blanket with the man’s head resting on the girl’s stomach. He was blond and broad-shouldered, his stomach and knees dusted with powdery sand, and as the girl’s hand tangled in his hair, Peggy looked away, embarrassed.

 

The amusement park wasn’t what it had been before the war—but then again, she reflected, few things were. Fire and neglect had conquered many of the landmarks Steve had mentioned, making it feel as though the edge of the war had somehow blossomed outwards and grazed this tiny patch of New York. But the Wonder Wheel was still there, as was the Parachute Jump, and the Cyclone. And—most relevant to Peggy’s interests—there was a shooting gallery.

 

She paid the exhorbitant price of twenty-five cents for the privilege of firing rounds of modified .22 caliber shot at several rotating rows of tin ducks. They made a very satisfying thunk! as they keeled over, one by one. The exercise put her in mind of an odd expression Steve had sometimes used: like shooting fish in a barrel.

 

The spotty teenage boy working the booth whistled admiringly, his shirt coming untucked at the back as he climbed up to fetch her prize. He was tall and raw-boned, long slender wrists poking out of gnawed cuffs. The slope of his thin shoulders reminded her of Steve, before the procedure. She couldn’t help looking at him appraisingly, wondering what infirmity or defect was keeping him out of the army—then she remembered, with a start, that the war was over.

 

“Fine shooting, for a dame,” said the boy, holding out a Captain America doll. She must have given him a strange look, because he asked cheekily, “You know who that is, yer majesty?”

 

“I’m from London,” she said archly, snatching the toy from his hand. “Not Mars.” Not yet, anyhow.

 

“Well, la-di-da,” said the impudent rascal, and tipped his hat mockingly. The grin and the sass put her in mind of some of the American soldiers she’d known—except, of course, that she would never have let an enlisted man speak to her like that.

 

She waited until she was some distance from the booth before sitting down on a bench to examine the doll. She turned it over in her hands several times, tracing the coarse stitching with a single finger. It was poorly-made and slightly overstuffed, the seams already threatening to pop. The details of its attire appeared to have been taken from Steve’s gaudy U.S.O. tour costume, rather than the sleek body armour he’d been issued for combat. She doubted that Steve’s estate would see any royalties—which was probably just as well, as he would have been uncomfortable with this use of his image for profit.

 

A dense weight seemed to settle on her chest, hot tears prickling behind her eyes. She was tempted to pitch the toy into the Atlantic where it could join its namesake, but it felt wasteful, to say nothing of disrespectful. He had done what any good soldier ought—what she herself had trained him for. It was despicably selfish to be so angry at him for leaving her.

 

She wondered, not for the first time, how he had met his end. Would it have been instant, his extraordinary body shattered by the violent impact? Or slow and painful, icy water like a knife lodged in his windpipe? Did he cry out? Say a prayer? Curse his maker? Call for his mother, as dying boys often did? Peggy had seen enough soldiers die to be able to picture the scene in gruesome detail, a thousand different ways.

 

In the end, she did for the Captain America doll what she could never do for the real Steve Rogers: she held it close to her heart, and she carried it safely home.

 

*

 

She lay in an egg-shaped cradle, naked but for a sheet. She thought of the way the steel pod had clamped shut on Steve like a giant metal hand—or like a coffin, she’d been unable to stop herself from thinking at the time, claustrophobic on his behalf even before the screams had started.

 

She wondered whether there was anyone in the gallery watching her with anything other than clinical disinterest. She hoped Howard hadn’t come; she’d asked him not to, but it would be just like the man to ignore what might very well be her last wishes.

 

They gave her a series of injections, then had her count aloud, backwards from one hundred. She made it to fifty before her eyes unfocused, as though she were wearing thick spectacles.

 

“Keep going,” the nurse encouraged, her features hazy and indistinct.

 

But Peggy had only the vaguest notion of what she’d been doing, what she’d been talking about. “I’ll try not to scream,” she said reassuringly.

 

The nurse nodded. “That’s very kind of you, dear. How do you feel?”

 

“Tired.”

 

“Why don’t you go to sleep?”

 

The overhead lights were very hot and bright, and their haloes made Peggy’s eyes water. So she closed her eyes. Just for a moment.