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Prisoner's Dilemma

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The plane hit ice with a squeal of metal and shattering glass. Seawater rushed in, so cold it was hot. Steve gasped in a breath before the seawater covered his head, angling his body for the broken windshield.  If he could get out, he might have half a chance.

Above him, the lights flickered and died and the metal screeched as the airplane settled, sank, with him still in it. Desperately, Steve tried to orient himself, find up from down, but it was so cold he couldn’t feel… and he needed air…

… and then…

Steve woke with a pleasantly heavy feeling in limbs, like he’d been down for awhile and finally gotten a good rest. For one moment -- one long, comfortable moment -- he thought he was in his pup-tent with the commandos. It was time to get up and drink a cup of joe with Bucky and the boys.

No. Bucky was dead. Red Skull was gone--taken up and vanished literally into thin air -- and Steve was ... in a jail cell?

He blinked and looked around.

It was a large cell, by his estimates. Maybe eight by twenty-two. Not that Steve had ever been a jailbird, but he’d seen the tiny cages the 107th had been kept in.

He was laying on a single metal plate that served as a bed, bolted down to the wall with a simple sheet thrown over it. The floor was gray concrete, and the front of the cell was a wall of interlocking bars with a reinforced steel door.

An older man stood on the other side of those bars, in the hallway beyond. He was balding, had a pounchy gut and a fancy dark blue suit of a cut Steve had never seen before. He stared at Steve with interest, chewing the end of an unlit cigar.

Steve sat up and a wave of weakness stole over him, making him brace an arm against the nearby wall to catch himself. That’s when he saw his right arm had a green tracing of raised veins from his wrist all the way up to the crook of his elbow.

“Whoa there son,” the older man said genially. “You may want to take it easy for a few minutes. I’ve been told palladium poisoning packs a punch.”

“Philladum?” Steve tried the word and found it unfamiliar.

The man smiled. “Among other things. We had to pump in a veritable cocktail to keep you down for transport. Don’t worry, you body will clear it out soon. That’s… really the point.”

So this man knew what his serem-enhanced body was capable of. Steve straightened, dropping his arm.

“Am I a prisoner of war?” he asked. The man’s gravelly voice sounded American, with no other accent he could place, but Steve had encountered Nazi defectors before.

The man spread his hands, looking charmed. “You’re a guest of my facility.”

“Guests usually aren’t behind bars,” he noted.

“Point. But nevertheless you, Captain, are going to help me save the world.”

He didn’t like where this was going. Centering himself, he stood. The concrete was cold under his bare feet, but his legs held him and the dizziness was rapidly fading. His body was taking care of whatever had kept him asleep. “You and I both know I can do my part better on the front lines, sir.”

The man smiled again and Steve got the uncomfortable impression he’d just performed some trick, like a dancing bear at a circus, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“You’re really something special,” the man said. “But I’m less interested in your fighting ability than what’s in your blood.”

He was after the serem, then. Steve wasn’t surprised -- he always had a feeling it would come to this one day. He stood at parade rest and let his gaze drift over the bars of the cell again. The places were they sunk into the concrete and around the door would be the weakest links. “And why would I help you with that?” he asked, more to keep the man talking than anything else.

The man took a step forward. Steve could almost reach between the bars and grab him. If he had a key on him…

“Because your metabolism runs much higher than the average person’s, and you need to eat. Three meals a day in exchange for an occasional collection of blood. That’s all I ask, Captain.” The man replaced the cigar in his mouth. “Think about it. We’ll talk later.”

He made to leave, and Steve blurted, “Wait, where am--”

“Oh, and if you want my advice?” The man turned back and gestured to the bars. “These are adamantium -- indestructible, and expensive, by the way. They also pack one hell of a punch. I wouldn’t get too close.”

Then he walked away.




Turns out ‘one hell of a punch’ meant that the bars were electrified. Steve heard the hum as he got close. When he tapped one with the back of his hand, searing fire raced up his arm. He jerked back, ringing his hand. His fingers were numb for a moment or two, before returning to normal.

Okay, so he wasn’t getting out by way of the bars then.

He couldn’t see down the hall to any other cells, if there were any,  so he spent the next several hours going over every inch of his enclosure. Apart from the bed, toilet,  and sink, there was no other fixtures. The back and side walls were made of cinderblock, though short of punching his way through -- and that would cause a racket which would send the guards -- he had no way to break through. No windows to give him an edge. The only hint of decay was a quarter-sized mouse hole on the back wall by his bed.

Steve’s uniform was gone. He was dressed in a simple white shirt and loose white pants with an odd, stretchy waistband. The shirt had ‘StaneTech’ stitched in the front where a pocket would be. (The stitching was of fine machine quality -- apparently everything about this place was expensive.)  Steve had worried he’d been captured by another offshoot of HYDRA -- they’d done human testing before -- but this seemed more and more like a private venture.

There had to be a way to use that to his advantage. Maybe the guards would be less disciplined. Steve might be able to chat one of them up, befriend him. Get a message out to Peggy or Colonel Phillips.

His next visit came several hours later; two guards and a woman in tow. The men wore non-descript dark uniforms with button-up shirts, the waistband riding low on the hips. The woman had a knee-length skirt, blouse and a white lab coat.  

Steve was sitting on his bed, but straightened at their approach, his feet flat on the floor. Balance centered.

“Good morning Captain Rogers,” the woman said, opening a vertical slat in the steel door and loading a tray of food. She wasn’t shocked by the electricity, which was interesting because if Steve concentrated he could still hear the persistent hum of a current.

“Ma’am,” he said, nodding faintly. The other two guards loomed behind her, obviously her protection. As if Steve would ever hurt a woman.

She indicated a wide gap in the bars to the left of the door. “Please put your arm through here. You will receive your meal after we draw your blood.”

“I don’t think so,” Steve said amiably enough. But inside he was tense. Waiting.

The woman didn’t react. Not even a blink. Instead, she took out a clipboard from under her arm and made a notation on it.

“How many others do you have caged up like this?” Steve asked, watching closely for a reaction. Again, he was disappointed. “How did you find me after my plane crashed?” It had been something eating at him over the last few hours: How did these StaneTech people find him before Colonel Phillips’ men had?

The woman looked up from the clipboard. Her gaze was unwelcoming and wholly clinical. “Are you refusing your meal?”

Steve’s stomach pinched in with a pang of hunger. “I’m afraid so, ma’am. I won’t let you duplicate the serum.”

She nodded, took the tray back, and left.

He let out a long breath. Well, that was anti-climatic. But he still waited until the footsteps had receded down the hall to move to the side and remove the two long strips of fabric he’d torn from his sheet. It wasn’t much, but if they came in and tried to force him he might be able to use it as a garrotte.

He didn’t think these were the kind of people to allow obstinence.

He was right. When they returned a few hours later, and Steve refused, one of the men withdrew a pistol and shot at him. Steve jerked out of the way of the first bullet. The second one hit his shoulder with a sting -- no, it wasn’t a bullet at all. It was a dart.

Another dart hit his thigh and a wave of sudden weakness made him stumble. The door opened and the two guards rushed in. Steve got in a good punch to the first fellow, but his reactions were slow. It felt like he were moving in thick, clinging water. They knocked him down with a fight, but they still knocked him down.

It took five minutes for the serem to burn out whatever they’d put in him. It took only half that for them to remove a small vial’s worth of blood.

They left the tray of food and a small cup of water behind.



It’s the hunger that irritated him more than the boredom. It was ridiculous because Steve had been hungry plenty of times as a kid. Brooklyn winters could be bitter, medicine wasn’t cheap, and his mother had to work double shifts as a waitress while his father drank everything away. Sometimes he’d come home from school and the lights wouldn’t turn on for weeks on end. Or, more often, he’d be sick in bed, hungry and shivering under every blanket in the house because firewood was expensive and oil more so.

He’d been bored and hungry before. He could do it again.

Steve clenched his fingers into a fist. Assuming he was being fed three times a day (and his growling stomach protested otherwise) he’d been a ‘guest’ here close to a week. He’d endured three blood draws, and he was no closer to befriending the guards, or finding a single weak point to his cage. (He’d tried the bars at least once a day -- adamantium was strong and the electric shocks hurt every single time.)

In his moments not spent exercising or searching for a way out, he wondered what Peggy was doing now. Wondered what Colonel Phillips must think of him -- dead, most likely. Steve tried and failed not to imagine Peggy waiting alone at the Stork club. And Bucky… why, they must have buried him by now, or an empty casket in his name. There hadn’t been time to look for the body, or properly grieve before the last strike on HYDRA’s base.

Now Steve had nothing but time, and he didn’t want it. Bucky’s death was a hole in his heart, not even scabbed over. Maybe it never would.

Steve sighed and leaned his head back against the back wall, closing his eyes. Maybe if he got some sleep...

“...never work… what, is this crap written in base eight?...”

Steve’s eyes snapped open and he looked around. What is that? The guards aren’t prone to conversation within his hearing. Could it be a radio?

“...they’ll let anyone graduate these days… the power source should go here, not…”

Steve glanced down. The voice, barely rising above a murmur, was coming from the mouse-hole he’d noticed in the back wall wall near his bed.

Glancing to the cell door to make sure none of the guards are doing their sweep, he crouched down and called, “Hello?”

The monologue stopped mid-sentence, and Steve’s heart leapt. Not a radio. A real life person. He tried again. “Hi, can you hear me?”

Another moment of silence, then. “Please don’t tell me I’m hearing voices. Schizophrenia is not a good look on me.”

It wasn’t funny, but Steve felt a quick smile pull at his lips anyway. The first one since they brought him here. It felt like forever.

“No, I’m real. Are you another prisoner?” Steve asked.

“Are you?” the man -- because it’s definitely male -- shot back. His voice was much closer now and Steve imagined the other man might be crouched next to the mouse-hole on his side.

Steve glanced around his enclosure. “From the look of my cell, I’d say I was a prisoner. Yeah.”

The man snorted. “You want me to just take your word for it? For all I know you’re another one of Obie’s little tests. Get me to befriend you, spill all my deepest secrets.”

Or maybe you’re the mole, the uncharitable part of Steve thought. He shook his head. “Well, I don’t exactly have a way to prove anything to you.”

“Actually, strike that. I don’t care.” The man spoke quickly as if coming a snap decision. “At this point I’d talk to you if you were a voice inside my head. It’s so quiet, and I don’t do quiet well.”

Steve was starting to get that impression, which was fine. He needed intel. “How long have you been in here?”

“Don’t know. They didn’t exactly furnish my digs, and the computers they gave me make an Apple 2 look hot. I seriously have to boot up with a floppy. The big ones.”

“Um.” Steve understood maybe a word or two of that. His stomach focused on the important parts. “They give you apples?”

A pause. “I’m talking about before iPods--nevermind. You sound too young to remember, and even if I did have one, I don’t share my playlists with strangers.”

He decided to return to the part of the conversation that made sense. “I’ve been here a week, give or take.” He thought back. “It was December 11th, last I knew.”

“December? Huh. I’ve been here nine months, then. I thought it was more than that, but you know what they say about time flying when you’re having fun…”

“Yeah,” Steve muttered, looking around his bare cell. Lots of fun.

“Sooo, what did you do to piss Obie off?”

That was the second time the man mentioned that name. “Who?”

“Obadiah Stane,” he said impatiently. “Old guy. Loves cigars, kinda looks like The Dude’s evil capitalist pig twin brother -- Which would make a great sequel, by the way.”

Steve decided his new pal on the other side of the wall might have been alone a touch too long. “I don’t exactly know.” The oncoming lie felt like an itch at the back of his throat. The public knew his general story, but most of the details were classified and, well, there was no need to spill everything. Just in case. “I’m just a soldier. I was in a plane crash -- I didn’t think I’d get out of it, to be honest, but I woke up here.”

“Uh-huh.” Sure enough, the man didn’t sound like he believed him. Steve was a terrible liar. Always had been. “What branch?”

“Army, in the 107th,” he said. “What about you? Why are you here?”

“Me? Eh, I build them neat stuff. I try not to oblige Obie, but sometimes he makes his arguments...pretty compelling.”

Steve brightened. “So you’re an inventor.” He could use a big brain on his side. Howard Stark’s gadgets were invaluable in the war, and if this man was half as talented they might have a chance.

“I prefer futurist actually,” he said easily.  “My name’s Tony. So what do I call you, soldier?”

He hesitated. Keeping to first names was a little informal, and spoke loud and clear that Tony didn’t fully trust Steve. The feeling was mutual. Steve was in a strange, unfriendly place and it was difficult to put his faith in a man he couldn’t see.

“I’m Steve. Pleased to meet you, Tony.”