Chapter 1: I Saw You From Afar
They say cryosleep is the only safe, sane way to travel through the otherwise insurmountable distance of space. It’s almost like sleeping, being unaware of the passage of time while traversing star system after star system inside the quiet nothingness of a hermetically sealed, high density cryotube.
Physiologically, it’s nothing like sleeping; your heart slows, your vitals flatline, your metabolism all but stops. You don’t feel rested. You don’t dream. It’s more like passing through a door you can’t see, closing your eyes in one star system and opening them in another, only a brief blink between the two.
Still, when Steve wakes up, hyper aware of the bright lights around him, the grain of the sheets on his back, and the weight of every single one of his eyelashes, he knows a very, very long time has passed.
As his body insists on living, chest rising and falling to the beat of that inescapable drum, the horrors of his last living memories march into his consciousness. He counts each one, marked with the swelling in both lungs, air passing through opening him up to the reality that he survived.
One breath. Why did he accept a contract he didn’t need from a corporation he didn’t trust?
Two breaths. He tried telling Gabe not to touch that thing, but the veteran science officer was too curious to resist.
Three breaths. The sound of Dum Dum’s rib cage, splitting open.
Four. The thing in the shadows of the Hermes, tearing them all apart, one by one, always hunting, always hungry for more.
Five. Schmidt called it the Hydra, but it was actually the devil.
Six. Agent Carter, saving them all from Schmidt when she should have been saving herself.
Seven. Bucky’s arm, torn from the socket.
Eight, nine, ten. Bucky’s scream as he kicked and thrashed and sent the devil into the icy hell outside. Bucky’s blood, pumping from the wound in gory spurts as they repressurized the airlock. Bucky’s blood, everywhere.
“Bucky!” Steve screams, his eyes flying open as he launches from the bed he’d been trapped in for weeks. Then he screams and screams when he realizes Peggy is there but Bucky is not.
Steve stares numbly at the empty cryotube as the work continues around him. A representative from Weyland-Yutani — one of their agents named Coulson — walks him through the technical malfunctions that lead to his first officer’s death. Peggy Carter, a woman he never knew before his last mission, a woman he now knows he can’t live without, stands beside him and listens in silence, holding his hand. He doesn’t really feel her soft fingers or her sure grip, but he’s grateful.
Steve is actually relieved that he can’t seem to feel much of anything. That way he can't hear the details of how Bucky’s injury had registered with the ship’s life support system as a contamination. Can't hear how the cryotube had attempted to account for the missing arm, the blood loss, by depressurizing. Can't see the blackened blood, still smeared on the remaining shards of the high density plexi after it had ruptured.
Bucky’s remains had apparently desiccated in the reduced life support of the escape shuttle, drifted apart in the zero-G. No one would allow Steve to see whatever was left. Steve is privately grateful, coward that he is, but Peggy is made of stronger stuff and won’t hear of it.
“Explain it to me one more time, Agent Coulson,” she snaps, her voice bringing Steve up from wherever shadow he had been sinking slowly into, ever since he opened his eyes. “Sergeant Barnes had already been in cryosleep before Captain Rogers and I detached the escape shuttle from the ship. How is it that his wounds resulted in equipment failure after the fact?”
“Honestly, Agent Carter, we really don’t know,” Coulson says. The Strategic Scientific Reserve that Peggy had worked for was dissolved over forty years ago, so Steve can’t decide if calling her ‘Agent’ is patronizing or a courtesy. Agent Coulson strikes him as the sort of person that could been manipulating it either direction. “It’s an anomaly that yourself or Captain Rogers survived seventy-five years in cryo,” he explains. “It shouldn’t even be technically possible. Those old cryotubes weren’t even designed to last that long, let alone the umbilical system or the power supply on the shuttle. If the tube hadn’t malfunctioned, if Barnes hadn’t perished, then maybe all three pods would have failed. It could be that his death is the reason you survived.”
Agent Coulson’s words make something ugly twist in Steve’s chest, as if the monster was inside him, too. He places his free hand over his heart, worried about what might break out at any moment. All he feels under his fingertips is the stiff canvas of the Weyland-Yutani flight suit they issued him after he finally shook off hibernation sickness and could walk on his own two feet.
“It sounds like a load of utter tosh,” Peggy hisses, her accent cutting through Coulson’s soft reasoning like a hot knife. “And destroying his remains is unethical at best, illegal at worst. I don’t buy for a second it was due to the contamination sensors on a cryotube that was supposedly destroyed decades ago!”
Steve’s dull senses start to come back online, and his fingers curl into the rough fabric of his clothes. Suddenly, something about all this starts to settle in, to feel real, and he notices the blood, the broken plexi, Coulson’s sad words. Steve feels hot, like he just stepped into a furnace, and suddenly it’s hard to breathe. Peggy argues on, never letting up as Coulson explains the same thing in a new one, all over again. Steve can hear his own pulse in his ears, and for some reason his eyes focus on the soft pillow where Bucky last rested his head. “Peg…”
“I know you’ve been through an indescribable ordeal,” Coulson says, raising his hands in a poor attempt to soothe her fury. “An ordeal that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation inadvertently had a role in-”
“Inadvertently?” Peggy repeats, appalled. “Someone from Weyland should have told Schmidt that when he went out looking for the things!”
“Peg,” Steve tries again, but she won’t be stopped. Peggy is an incredible person, full of fire and justice, but he didn’t think she even cared that much for Bucky. Bucky is cocky, mouthy, flirty… or at least he was. She shut him down twice during the mission out to the last Frontier system, disinterested in anything other than acting as an advisor from the SSR to ensure their recently licensed survey ship fulfilled the criteria of collecting scientific data while making commercial runs for companies like Weyland-Yutani.
That’s Peggy though, always after the truth.
Agent Coulson keeps trying though, despite the fact that there’s no way he’ll ever win. “That’s why we’re willing to generously compensate you both, and offer you the support you need to start new lives after the full debrief. Weyland-Yutani is committed to not only uncovering the truth about Schmidt’s plans but to-”
“I don’t know who you think you’re kidding, but you people owe Captain Rogers a good deal more than compensation for ‘an ordeal’,” she continues, jabbing her finger into Coulson’s perfectly straight necktie. “The things Schmidt brought on board, the things we saw out there, those aren’t things you can just brush off with some corporate NDA-”
“Peg!” Steve finally speaks up, giving her hand a squeeze, and she abruptly turns to him, startled by the sound of his broken voice reminding her that he’s still there. “Stop. Just stop.”
Peggy opens her mouth to argue, but she catches something in his face, some message he’s not even sure how he’s telegraphing, about the depth of his resolve. After their experience on the Hermes, after the frantic flight and desperate fight, after everything they’ve been through, words aren’t needed and Peggy understands. Steve is finished. He can no longer fly or fight or go through any of that again.
Peggy releases his hand. He stares back down at the ruined cryotube for a long time after her footfalls on the wrecked escape shuttle’s metal grate flooring have long since faded.
The debrief takes weeks.
Steve learns very little about how the system has changed in the past seventy-five years, as the days and hours and minutes wind down on his sequester aboard Weyland-Yutani’s Crimea Station. All his clothes have the new Weyland-Yutani corporate stamp on them. All his food is the same, prepackaged supplements that the rest of the employees eat. He keeps to their schedule, answers their questions, about himself, about Schmidt, about the mission.
Surely, he should feel insulted by this. Surely he should use some of the small fortune Weyland-Yutani deposited into his account to simply purchase civilian attire, eat at the cantina, or at least tell Agent Coulson to shove his polite questions up his ass. He simply can't be bothered.
Peggy hardly speaks to him at all anymore, like she can’t even look at him, like he’s become one of them, but he isn’t bothered by that thought either. All Steve can really think about is that ruptured cryotube, heart dead in his chest, and eat the food that tastes like ash and stay silent, behind the symbol of his crew’s murderers.
If anything, he’s at least a little bothered by how little this all bothers him. Everyone he’s ever known is dead. His parents died of old age, after buying an empty casket back on Earth. Even Bucky’s sisters, their children, their children’s children, have passed away. Still, he feels no obligation to search beyond those tenuous connections, like Bucky would have, feels no fire for justice, like Peggy clearly does.
When Agent Coulson wraps up his very last interview, he asks if Steve himself has any questions. Steve frowns, surprised that he can’t think of any. Coulson taps his stylus a few times on the surface of his glossy tablet. The sound is like thunder in Steve’s ears, and it distracts him so badly he doesn’t say anything for several minutes.
Finally, Coulson makes a curious little hum in the back of his throat and puts the tablet away. “I was told not to divulge information that you didn’t ask for explicitly, but I think you’d be interested to know Schmidt’s rogue science division was shut down. As soon as it was discovered he was operating under us to conduct his xenomorphic experimentation, we-”
“xenomorphic?” Steve blurts out, as a small part of his brain that’s still wired the right way triggers, sparking abruptly to catch his attention.
Coulson hesitates, just long enough for Steve to realize he’s probably said this word plenty of times before without Steve’s reacting, then offers him a patient nod. “xenomorph is the officially recognized species classification. Unfortunately, the Hermes isn’t the only vessel that’s encountered them.”
This would have made Peggy furious. Not the first vessel? And yet they’ve seen the news. Word of their miraculously long cryosleep has spread far and wide, yet no one mentions the creatures that tore the Hermes — and apparently other vessels — apart. The Weyland-Yutani corporation demanded their silence in exchange for their rescue, and seeing as how the Weyland-Yutani corporation seems to control just about everything these days, both Steve and Peggy seemed to accept that contradicting them would be impossible.
Steve nods, runs his hands along the perfectly smooth wood of the desk where Coulson conducts his interviews, and wonders if it belongs to the man personally. The chair is upholstered in soft leather, the walls also paneled in expensive wood. Everything is like that on Crimea Station, made up in some homey facade as if it was back on some colony or planetoid or even Earth.
It’s all bullshit, always has been, but as Steve finds an imperfection in the wood with his thumbnail he suddenly hates it, and wishes he was back on a ship, away from these people and this debrief and all this pretend civilization.
“Schmidt called them hydras,” he says, staring into the woodgrain. “Cut off one head, two more shall take its place. The ultimate predator...”
“Like I said, Schmidt’s division was rogue. He believed in superstition, pseudoscience, and mysticism. Lovecraftian stuff.” Coulson stands up and pats Steve on the shoulder, gives him a patronizing smile. “These creatures must have seemed like something straight from the Abyss to a man like that.”
“Have you ever seen one, Agent Coulson?”
“A xenomorph?” Coulson asks, as if Steve could possibly mean anything else. “No.”
“Course not,” Steve agrees. “Otherwise you’d know they’re actually worse than anything humans could have thought up.” He stands, brushes down the front of his flight suit. Maybe he’ll buy some civilian clothes after all, now that he’s finally being released.
Agent Coulson shakes his head, sympathetic but disagreeing. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, Captain. But as a man of science I can’t really imagine that these are anything other than an alien lifeform we just don’t understand yet.”
“You think it’s an animal?” Steve barks out a dry laugh, and Coulson is the one he feels sorry for. “It’s the devil, Agent Coulson. You can’t understand the devil. You can only do your best to never cross his path, and hope you never give him a reason to cross yours.”
Agent Coulson, man of science, swallows thickly before he answers. “You’ve done better than most, the three of you surviving it.”
“The two of us,” Steve sharply reminds him. Coulson looks like he wants to correct him, to point out that technically Bucky did survive the xenomorph attack, but Steve stares him down, daring him to open his mouth.
Coulson coughs, awkwardly filling the silence, then shows him to the door. “It was an honor to meet you, Captain Rogers,” he says. “If there’s anything you need, you know how to reach us.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it. Peggy and I are probably going to head as far away from this place as possible.”
Coulson pauses, hand hovering over the button to open his office door. “Peggy Carter left the station on the morning troop transport.”
Steve blinks. “Ah,” he says. “Of course she did.”
Of course she did.
Official art for You Are My Lucky Star by Shaish!
Chapter 2: Two Lovely Eyes at Me They Were Gleaming
Steve yanks his greasy leather glove off with his teeth, holds it there by the empty thumb while he works the pressure crank with his bare hands. He needs to feel the feedback in the sensitive instrument, needs to know exactly when he should arrest the torque that will keep the console from blowing up in his fucking face.
“Easy, Cap,” Barton coos behind his ear, as an environmental conduit above their heads vents a plume of cold moisture, lighting up pink in the red in the flashing emergency lights. “Eeeeeasy.”
“I got it, I got it,” Steve mumbles around the glove, still clenched between his teeth, doing his best to reassure the nervous junior technician even as hot lines of sweat slither from his hairline down through his coveralls and alarms continue to wail around them. “Eeeeeasy as…” He feels the precise moment when the piston deep inside the mechanism catches, then gently releases the crank handle before he finishes, “pie.”
Green indicators light up around them like it’s Christmas and Barton gusts out a breath of relief. “Holy shit I thought we were dead!”
“Nah,” Steve gloats, disconnecting the pressure crank and replacing the console’s panel. “We had at least five minutes to correct it.” He hits each corner of the warped and dented metal with a closed fist, seating it squarely into the access hatch. “Ten tops. Plenty of time to evacuate the crew before the ship exploded.”
“No bullshit?” Barton’s voice goes high, and he takes a nervous step away from the panel.
“No bullshit,” Steve assures him, and gives the stricken tech a firm pat on the shoulder. “And cut out that ‘Cap’ business before Rumlow wakes up. I haven’t been a licensed ICC officer in a long time.”
“Technically, you hold the universal record for longest licensed ICC officer in history,” Barton points out with a grin, and adjusts the ballcap that proudly displays the ICC logo. He’s not an officer either, he stole it from ICC Navigator Rollins, who still hasn’t noticed after three missions (because Rollins is an idiot), and continues to wear it despite the risk of Captain Rumlow’s wrath (because Rumlow is an asshole.)
Steve shakes his head and politely ignores Barton’s gentle teasing. He appreciates the loyalty, really he does, but doesn’t need to be reminded of who he used to be. Not a veteran of the Unification War, not the long lost captain of the Hermes, not the miraculous survivor of a record-breaking cryosleep. He prefers Steve Rogers, a nobody, just a freelance engineer for M-class interstellar cruisers. A hitchhiker between systems, signing on with questionable crews, manning old ships in need of an engineer familiar with obsolete components.
Sometimes, he feels like the two years since his rescue has been enough time to recover, working small jobs on big ships with uncomplicated relationships like the one with Clint Barton. Not the life he expected but a life. Though, sometimes… Sometimes, he feels like he’s occupying another person’s place in the universe, nothing but an ancient, rotting parasite riding around inside the skin of a stranger’s thirty-year-old body.
The whiplash between the two can be disorienting, moments of complacency quickly shattered when he thinks he hears a familiar laugh, or catches sight of what might be that kitten smile in the reflection a HUD’s glossy surface. In those moments he’s reminded of what he’s lost, of how he too should have died back on the Hermes. It always helps to hide himself in the depths of an engineering project while the rest of his foster crew sleeps away the lightyears. It’s especially helpful — though terrifying — when there’s a catastrophic failure in one of the hyperspace stabilizers and he and Barton run themselves ragged to keep the guidance and control systems operational while the ship spins wildly off course.
“So what the hell did we hit?” Barton asks, leading the way down the corridor while Steve trails behind, tugging his work gloves back into place. “Or d’you think it’s the port stabilizers hitching again?”
“Nope. Another piece of space junk,” Steve declares, resetting the alarms along the corridor that failed to switch green after the danger had passed. He stops short after flipping a toggle back and forth several times, the red indicator stubbornly refusing to go green, then gives up and slams a fist against the panel. On old ships like the Lemurian Star, some things required a more ‘analogue’ approach, proof positive in the old green light that finally flickers to life.
“Anyway,” Steve says, after Barton snorts at his percussive maintenance technique. “This quadrant is full of derelict deep space orbital platforms. Seegson’s decommissioned scrap.”
“I’ll check the stabilizers anyway,” Barton says, when they reach the end of the corridor. Steve can hear the hint of a dare in junior tech’s voice, and waits patiently for Barton to activate the hatch that leads to port-side engineering. He hops down, taking the ladder three rungs at a time. “It’ll be a trip to the dry-dock to fix if their alignment is off again.”
“It’ll be fine,” Steve assures him, with all the confidence of a ninety year old engineer riding around in a 30 year old body. “I’m telling you: space junk.”
“Bet you ten cigs it’s the stabilizers,” Barton sing songs up at him, after his boots make contact on the metal deck below. Steve rolls his eyes, punches the hatch release for the upper access ladder and starts his own climb to the deck above.
“I’m going to check our vector,” he calls down, refusing to play along. “Make sure we’re not about to crash into a sun. Oh, and Barton,” he says, hanging back for a beat as he immediately changes his mind. “Raise you a pack for space junk.” He can just make out Barton’s affronted bawk as the lower hatch seals behind him. It's not like he smokes, but he’d be damned if he didn't wager his rationed allotment of tobacco every chance he got just to prove a point.
It takes about ten minutes for him to trot from the lower maintenance decks to the main service center of the old Lockmart CM-88B Bison, where crew quarters, stasis chamber, medical, and mess are located, then trot up the stairs leading to the bridge, opposite the Mother chamber.
The environmental controls are a little hinky on this part of the ship, so as soon as the main bridge hatch opens the air pressure equalizes in a gust of humidity. Steve coughs as clouds disperse around him, waving his hands through the fog, then freezes when the motion sensors finally activate the lights on the rarely-visited bridge.
Warning lights flash on all the consoles, just about every system screaming for attention. Even if the space junk hadn’t knocked them out of hyperspace, then one of a dozen other battered systems on this old boat definitely would have done the job.
Normally, the deflector array would be enough to avoid any debris littering the vast network of commercial shipping lanes throughout the Frontier, all the way out to the Rim. If a large enough piece of space junk — like an entire derelict deep space station — had drifted into their path, then the ship would automatically bring them out of hyperspace to give ops time to change course. If the stabilizers were misaligned (humoring Barton’s theory) then again, the ship would be brought out of hyperspace for maintenance and course correction.
From the looks of things, it was a combination of the two: they were brought out of hyperspace just in time for a piece of inorganic debris to strike the hull, damaging none other than the port side stabilizer. That destabilized the power distribution in the lower decks, which Steve had just finished fixing before it could blow the entire engine. Lucky for them, the Star has dual Saturn J-3000 engines, which struggle to keep up to speed. Anything with more kick would have triggered a cascade power fluctuation that would have blown them all to hell.
Steve silences the numerous alarms, starts full diagnostics on all the Star’s systems then throws himself into the ops station to figure out where in the universe they wound up.
“Cap, do you read?” Barton’s voice crackles over the bridge’s comms, and Steve grabs the headset nearest his terminal.
Shit, Steve thinks, adjusting the metal band over his head. Is Barton going to win this fucking bet? “Loud and clear,” Steve says into the mic, because he has some priorities. “Sitrep?”
“I got bad news and great news,” Barton leads, and Steve swears he hears an actual explosion in the background.
Steve continues to calculate their vector, since they have only a few minutes to start the ship tracking back on course before Mother automatically initiates the crew revival protocol and wakes everyone up. That’s exactly what freelance engineers like himself and Barton are there to prevent and it’d be just his luck that their last mission with the Star would go so badly. Instead of playing along while he works, he just fills in the blanks. “Uh. The bad news is the port side stabilizer is shot. The great news is that you think you win the bet?”
“Think nothing, Rogers!” Barton’s voice goes high enough to make the mic crack and Steve winces. “That stabilizer is fucking toast.”
“We hit a big fat fucking I-told-you-so derelict, Barton.”
“How are we still alive if we hit something in hyperspace?”
“We obviously dropped out of hyperspace first,” Steve snaps, and is about to tell Barton to stop distracting him before he realizes the tech has a point. If they didn’t hit the debris and damage the stabilizer until after they dropped to cruising speed, then why did the hyperspace drive spool down in first place? And what in the fresh hell is the new alarm for that just lit up the comms console? “Standby, Barton, I’ve got an incoming transmission.”
Steve cycles through the comms screen, and hums in surprise when he finds that the Star picked up a transmission from an automated distress beacon. “What the hell…” He checks the deflector sensors again and shakes his head.The derelict is just a mile off port so the beacon could be something that triggered autonomously when the ship struck whatever dangling piece of the structure hit their stabilizer. He’s pretty sure he never heard of stations using deployed beacons though, since they tend to drift. What’s even more strange is that the beacon is relaying a general SOS, with the full message apparently keyed to an individual who Steve still can’t—
“What the hell,” Steve hisses, when his own name appears on the screen. The distress beacon that they just happened to pick up when they just happened to drop into this quadrant of the Frontier from an unscheduled hyperspace failure… is for him? “Bullshit.”
He keys in his colonial ID number and sinks slowly back in his chair when Peggy’s pixelated face winks onto the screen. It’s gone again, just as fast, and now there’s a simple cursor flashing, awaiting an input on an empty line under the word, ‘PASSWORD.’
Steve types slowly, deliberately, letting himself work through the phrases that remind him of her, of their relatively brief time together.
And there she is, in full video playback, monochromatic but so alive Steve stops himself mid-air from touching the monitor. Peggy’s wearing a torn and dirty set of coveralls, sweating and catching her breath like she just ran a marathon. “This is Peggy Carter, in the science outpost Siberia. This message is intended only for Steven Grant Rogers, former Captain of the Hermes-”
Peggy interrupts herself, huge eyes darting to the side, like she’s nervously keeping her eye on something beyond the console she’s using to record. Her hair is longer than Steve remembers, dark, loose curls held up in a messy ponytail. “Steve if you’re out there. If you’re hearing this. I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. Much more than all that,” she adds, her voice shaking with stubborn confidence.
“I know this isn’t what you want. I know this isn’t your mission any longer, but believe me when I tell you there’s more for you than just being their dancing monkey again. I- I don’t think I’ll be making it out of this one, though. Afraid I’ve rather made a mess of things for myself here. Hope you don’t mind if I never make good on that rain check. This beacon should intercept the course of the Lemurian Star on its return trip from your last registered flightplan. As soon as this message is complete it will transmit our coordinates. Steve. Please don’t be too shocked by who you find here.” Peggy opens her mouth, but only a small sound of regret and exhaustion comes out before she leans forward and abruptly ends the recording.
Steve sits there for a long time, the consoles around him finally silent, too stunned to react. He hasn’t heard from Peggy for months. She sends him a transmission every once in awhile, manages to track him down to whatever barge he’s signed on with, keeping tabs on him as he travels the Frontier. Honestly, he feels like he hasn’t had much to say. He knows he’s a coward, knows he gave up sooner than she ever would when it came to seeking out something like justice for Bucky and his crew.
What does she mean? Shocked by who he would find there?
At least Steve knows what brought them out of hyperspace. ICC regulations require ships, regardless of mission or cargo, to stop for distress signals of any kind. The only reason the Star’s emergency systems didn’t automatically wake the crew is because the ship isn’t operating entirely autonomously with both himself and Barton on active duty. Steve downloads Peggy’s message directly onto a personal data card, then erases it from the beacon as the coordinates load onto the Star’s navigational station.
“Barton,” he says, flipping his headset back on. “I’m waking up the crew. We got a rescue mission.”
“Aye, aye Cap,” Barton confirms one last time, just to make a point of it.
Rumlow blinks slowly, yanking down on both ends of the towel draped over his shoulders like he wishes he could strangle it when he looks back at Rogers. He’s wearing half his flight suit, the empty sleeves wrapped around his waist, and the moisture from his shower has soaked through his white undershirt. Steve can see the dark imprint of his old Colonial Marines dog tags cutting a sharp edge against the material when he flexes every muscle in his thickly corded neck, looking up at the ceiling for temperance as he continues to white knuckle the cloth. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, Rogers.”
Steve nods, not regretting for an instant that he dragged the cranky captain to the bridge while the rest of the crew starts to slowly eat their way through breakfast. The man isn’t exactly the most by-the-book captain he’s flown under, but Rumlow’s not stupid or careless. “ICC regulations, sir,” Steve says, shaking his head, because he knows he doesn’t actually have to remind the captain of that. “If I ignored it, it would’ve been my ass.”
“Probably just from the damn derelict,” Rumlow mutters, clicking through the message. Steve waits for the captain to actually piece together the coordinates rather than tell him he’s wrong. Finally, Rumlow gives up with a grunt. “I see. The old science outpost.” Then he stands back and frowns in thought. “Hell of a coincidence. We picked up cargo there on our last run on this route.”
That takes Steve by surprise. “Really? What kind of cargo?”
“Classified cargo,” Rumlow stiffly answers. “We’ve been draggin’ it through the fuckin’ universe for a year. Picked it up right before you and Barton signed on. Siberia’s just like its namesake. Not much more than a single structure and a whole lotta rock. Didn’t think anyone was still there.” Rumlow groans, scrubbing his face with his rough palms, defeated. “I’ll check in with the ICC, see what Wey-Yu wants us to do. Could just be a malfunction we need to report. Scientists had pretty much cleared the place out before we did our pickup.”
Steve nods, but doesn’t say anything else. He’s still trying to figure out why he decided to keep Peggy’s message a secret. Captain Rumlow would complain about it, probably make some off-color remark about his contractor getting an interstellar booty call, but he’d eventually investigate it anyway. He’d probably be even more inclined to actually make the stop if he knew there was a living member of the colonies in distress.
Maybe Steve doesn’t want to answer all the questions — and there would be questions — that Peggy’s message would have raised. Like Barton, the rest of the crew knows who Steve is, but what Peggy is looking for, what she suggests he come find, is none of their business. He wishes there was a proper time stamp on the message. There had been a small 2300HRS marked in the corner of her recording, but it could have been any 2300 hours in the last year from what Rumlow said.
Rumlow pulls the recording from the console, jams it into his flight suit pocket and heads to the hatch that leads to the Mother chamber when the comms system crackles to life. “You on the bridge, Cap?”
Rumlow turns, his dark brows coming together in a divot when confusion crosses his face. Steve shrugs innocently, because how should he know why Barton magically guessed that Captain Rumlow was on the bridge? Rumlow hesitates only for another few seconds before he taps the intercom. “Rumlow here. What’s the story with our hyperspace drive status, Barton?”
The radio crackles in silence and Steve just barely stops himself from planting his face in his palm, since Barton is clearly trying to figure out how to tell the actual captain of the ship that he was looking for Steve. “Fine! Sir. Things are fine. Well, actually not fine? But we’re stable for now. Actually, I could use some support from Rogers, if he’s still around.”
Rumlow makes a sour face, like he smells what’s up, but just waves it off. “Get down there, Rogers.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve quickly confirms, and hustles below deck before Rumlow decides he wants to dedicate anymore brain cells to Barton’s nonsense.
Steve chews his lower lip the entire way down, three decks below the bridge, thinking about Peggy’s message. She had mentioned not making good on her rain check, but she had never offered him one, personally. She had said nothing the day she left Crimea Station, separating from Steve’s fucked up coping mechanisms for good. In fact, the only time she had ever mentioned rain checks was when Bucky, in his infinite efforts to self-destruct, dared to hit on her while they were on their last mission.
Bucky had been beautiful, and he knew it, all that devilish charm in such a tight little package, knocking his hips back and forth as bad music played over worse speakers of the one, battered stereo onboard the Hermes. He danced with Dum Dum, with Morita, shamelessly flirting with the whole crew, like he always did. Even Steve, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead, was pulled into a dip before Bucky bowed, holding out his hand to Agent Carter. In her own prim manner, Peggy’s flat refusal was elegant, but devastatingly succinct. The rest of the guys howled with laughter at Bucky’s utter failure, but she let him off the hook with a rain check.
Steve smiles, but his chest still aches at the memory. Bucky was a flirt, always had been, but never strayed far from Steve’s side when it mattered. It still hurts to think about him, hurts too much to stomach, and he stops mid-stride, hand over the sharp pain in his heart. It’s not fair that Bucky should have died seventy years ago, and yet the wound for Steve is so fresh. The lightyears of space travel haven’t done a goddamn thing to reduce the sting.
Steve shivers and glances up, realizing that he stopped under the shower of moisture raining down past the chains in the alignment bay. It’s dark in the ship’s tallest chamber, the glowing light above him and the gentle movement of the heavy chains feel somewhat like being outdoors. Steve takes a breath and tilts his head all the way back, letting the sterile water wash over his face and camouflage his damp eyes before he marches on.
“Barton?” Steve moves into the small service corridor in the port side engineering room, sidestepping the center console. It’s gone dark in this section, since the damage shorted out the non-emergency lighting, and humid enough to already make him break out in a sweat. “Barton, you here?” Steve walks deeper into the cramped space, ducking low between hatches as he hunts down his junior technician and grumbles, “I warned you to cut it out with that Cap shit when Rumlow woke up…”
The engineering decks were safe spaces for them to bitch about the ICC crew, since they were the only two suckers that came down this far into the ship’s guts, but Barton should know better when he’s reaching out over the ship’s comms system. Steve slows down when he realizes just how dark this part of the ship gets when the lights go out, and is about to turn back so he could dig a light out of the tool crib when he catches sight of a flashlight’s unmistakable beam, winking out from around the next corner. “Hey, Barton? Why didn’t you — ”
Steve freezes on the spot when he hears a section of grated flooring fall back into place with a clang, somewhere in the pitch darkness around him.
No one else is down here.
No one else is down here and the flashlight ahead must belong to Barton, it must.
Steve peers into the darkness of the open conduits beside him, the glossy tubing that feeds the mainline of the Star’s systems, the metric tonnes of water that process through the hyperspace drive, the lubricants and oils, the oxygen, nitrogen, the dozens of electrical and networking cables. Steve leans closer when he catches a flash of movement, holds his breath as his heart holds itself from beating. The conduit has a crawlspace behind it, a narrow, low channel meant for maintenance, but absolutely none of the ICC crew would drag themselves down here while the lights are out and the ship is listing and Steve is here, by himself, looking for his wayward junior tech.
It must be the darkness, the tepid water making it’s way down the back of his coveralls, the distant brush of chains against the alignment bay’s walls. Steve’s pulse bangs away inside his throat, making it impossible to swallow.
There, around the next bend of conduit, Steve catches movement against the darkness and he instinctively flinches back with a jolt.
It could have just been the pressure releasing from one of the many bundled hoses. A loose bracket could have left the entire network of fluid exchange tubes swaying with the natural motion of the ship, wet and glossy from the constant flow of moisture in the nearby alignment bay and the engineering section’s humidity. It could be any one of those things, but he knows exactly what might be hunting him, remembers all too well how easy it is for those things to hide in the small spaces and dark corners of an M-class spaceship. Steve should have a weapon. Why doesn’t he carry one?
Then the conduit’s crawl space is struck with the flashlight beam, and a flurry of motion rushes towards him. Steve screams, and a dog leaps three feet in the air with an ear-piercing yipe!
“Rogers! What the fuck!”
“Barton!” Steve cries out, clutching his chest as he tries to stand. “You son of a bitch bastard, why didn’t you say anything?”
The sudden shock already forgotten, Barton’s one-eyed golden lab starts to wag his tail and licks at Steve’s face from where he’s still trying to catch his breath, all plastered against the bulkhead. Lucky is the only other member of the crew that hangs out down here, and Steve is an idiot for not thinking of the dog when he was imagining monsters in the service conduits. It’s been years since the last xenomorph incident. Decades, in fact.
“Hang on,” Barton says, digs his pinkies into both ears. He blinks, opens his jaw to settle his hearing aids. “Sorry. Turned them off. I get shitty feedback with all the alarms down here. Oh,” he says, throwing the light of his headlamp around the corridor as he looks around. “They’ve stopped.”
After Steve picks himself (and his pride) off the floor, he follows Barton to the console he’d been working on in the dark, Lucky practically dancing at his side as the dog tries to apologize for scaring the shit out of the jumpy human.
“See what I mean?” Barton says waving at the readout on his digital micrometer. “Stress fracture. Less than a micron wide, but it’s enough to rip us apart if we try to jump again.”
“How long is it?”
“You sure?” Steve says, zeroing out the instrument, then sliding it across the exposed piston again. Lucky had settled down nearby, perceptive enough to know when the engineers were busy and Barton gives his obedient pal a distracted scratch behind one ear.
“At least,” he replies, sounding tired.
“Well, shit.” Steve clicks his tongue. “We’ve got to head down to that planetoid and back in the meantime. That’ll at least give the bonding agent time to cure. About ten hours, right?”
Barton nods and Steve has to at least admit to himself that if this kind of fracture had cracked the Hermes’ alignment piston it would have been a hell of a lot longer. Molecular bonding gel wouldn’t be invented for another fifty years.
Steve passes the micrometer back to Barton, straightens up and clicks the intercom. “Captain Rumlow, I have an update on the stabilizer.”
Steve releases the button and waits. A few seconds of silence follows, and Lucky manages to get more ear scratches before Rumlow answers. “Go ahead, Rogers.”
“We have a micro fracture in the primary piston,” Steve reports, then gives Barton a meaningful look. “It’ll take about twenty hours to fix.”
“Damn it, Rogers!” Rumlow spits back. “Make it fifteen!”
Barton looks sharply up at Steve, questioning the motive for his bald-faced lie, but Steve just answers him with an unapologetic shrug. “You heard the man,” he says. “Fifteen hours.”
“You’re the boss,” Barton says, giving Steve a two-finger salute, happy to be complicit.
Steve turns his attention back to getting the damn lights back on as Barton gets to work, meticulously applying the volatile gel. It gives Steve plenty to think about as he tracks down the shorts in their environmental controls. He feels the exact moment when the trajectory of the ship makes a sharp turn, after the helm adjusts course towards the planetoid and thinks about Peggy’s cryptic message, Rumlow’s quiet observation about their cargo, and the derelict station, drifting dark and cold in space.
It’s not that he has a bad feeling about this mission, not exactly. It’s that the bad feeling he’s had ever since he was the Captain of the Hermes, ever since he decided they’d pick up the drifting emergency escape shuttle from Hadley’s Hope, never left.
Chapter 3: Beaming I Was Star Struck
“Very thin atmosphere, toxic levels of nitrates, but perfect visibility and one-to-one gravity...” Navigator Rollins’s report comes clear over the comms, even strapped into their re-entry seats on the service deck as the ICC crew pilots the Lemurian Star towards the research outpost Siberia. “It’ll be five-by-five all the way down.”
The ship shakes, but no more than Steve expects since re-entry is always a bit choppy in old boats. He and Barton are strapped in, back to back in large chairs set up in the cryosleep chamber where a single pod is still plugged into the central stasis umbilical system. One last passenger is still on ice, but that one always remains frozen, even while the rest of the crew manages actual ship operations from port to port. The high density plexicarbonate lid is also frosted, unusual but not unheard of for what Barton likes to refer to as ‘tourists’ passengers that remain in stasis for a ship’s entire flight plan, privately sequestered in their private sleep.
Steve doesn’t know who it is, but doesn’t figure it’s anyone terribly important if they are willing to spend over a year on ice. Steve also knows Rumlow has a certain reputation for what he’s willing to carry through the Frontier. He takes another look at it, remembering what the captain mentioned about picking up cargo from this same outpost, a year ago, and for the first time since he signed onto this ship wonders who might be sleeping there. That kind of curiosity isn’t what Rumlow pays him for, though. A freelancer who doesn’t know how to be discrete isn’t very valuable in this new Frontier, it turns out.
Steve closes his eyes and waits for that gentle lift of hair on his arms, the slight dip in the bottom his stomach that tells him the Star’s through the pipe, artificial gravity adjusting to the conditions outside. It’s easy for him to feel the precise moment they enter the atmosphere, without instruments, easy to know without Rollins rattling off their entry velocity and descent stats, just from the way the ship groans in his ears and pulses beneath his fingers. His entire life has been spent on starships, even before his seventy-five year stint as a space-bound popsicle, and in certain ways it’s easier to understand the Star than other human beings.
“Touchdown,” Rollins says, and Steve opens his eyes. The ship goes from a rattling mess to utterly still within the span of a few heartbeats. Considering what it takes for a massive M-class space cruiser to make landfall on solid ground, the sudden silence always feels a bit rushed and unnatural in Steve’s ears. He slowly releases the breath he’s been hanging onto since they started their descent, feeling that old, claustrophobic weight creeping along the back of his neck whenever he finds himself trapped on some rock in outer space.
Sitwell had tried to raise the outpost on comms, opening all channels so widely that he started to pick up feedback from the derelict station without any signs of life from the silent surface outpost. Steve chewed on his bottom lip the entire time. Peggy might answer, grateful for someone finally coming across her call for help. Maybe the scientists themselves would respond, surprised to hear a distress beacon had been deployed at all, and could let them know Peggy had left months ago.
Somehow, Steve knew that neither of those would be the case, and ultimately expected the long silence and persistent cursing from the harried executive officer as he tried and failed to reach anyone at all. It’s the sort of gut feeling Steve has chosen to ignore before, and instead lies to himself that he doesn’t really know what really happened.
Steve unbuckles from his harness and finds Barton fast asleep in the chair behind him. “Typical,” Steve murmurs, but doesn’t wake up his junior technician or his snoozing dog. Instead, he gives Lucky’s ears a scratch, marveling at how the dog could possibly fall asleep strapped to Barton’s chest within the same safety harness, and leaves them to sleep alongside their anonymous tourist. He didn’t swing an extra five hours for the stabilizer repair for nothing.
Steve heads to the EVA bay alone, ready to face whatever waited for them at the bottom of that lift.
Steve was not ready for what waited for them at the bottom of the lift. He’s not exactly sure what he had expected — signs of a struggle, of a hasty retreat, damage to the facility itself, chemical burns or pulse rifle fire or some barricaded doors.
What they found was an outpost that was clearly abandoned with care. The life support systems had been set to auto-cycle. The storm shutters had been closed and secured. Some leftover packing crates designed for an old Caterpillar powerloader had been left in the hallway near the main airlock, neatly stacked and ready to go undisturbed for the rest of eternity. Even the red flashing standby lights are working properly after months of disuse, after the functioning motion sensors picked up their presence.
“Looks like the mechanic didn’t have to come after all,” Ward snipes over the comms, the warrant officer having remained on the Star with Sitwell and Rollins.
“He’s still gotta get the air on,” Rumlow murmurs, breath fogging the inside of his EVA helmet. It’s not quite a reprimand, Rumlow would never formally correct his officers just for his lowly contractor’s benefit, but Steve appreciates the gesture.
“Roger that,” Ward concedes. He continues to monitor their progress through Zola’s livelink as the team makes their way through the outpost, since the science officer is the most familiar with the layout, and Captain Rumlow leads on point. Steve eyes the old veteran’s sidearm where it’s holstered on the captain’s thigh, on the outside of his loose-fitting EVA suit, but doesn’t say anything, remembering that just earlier he had wished for a weapon himself. Still, he can’t help but wonder what the pistol could possibly do against a xenomorph. It’s a good way to get acid thrown in your face, as poor Morita discovered…
“Rogers,” Rumlow hisses again, pointing his very boxy jaw at the closed door barring their way. There’s a security brace in place, likely set there by the company as it cleared out, to prevent scavengers from making off with the valuable equipment. “Get with it.”
“Right,” Steve says, and shakes off the memory of his medical officer’s dying screams. His own EVA helmet is clunky, a clear box with a digital heads up display that lets him know the minimum viable atmosphere is still too thin to breathe. Instead of a weapon, like Rumlow, Steve has a toolbelt strapped on the outside of his suit, and it doesn’t take long for him to select the right tool for this job. He strikes the pad lock on the door’s security brace with his maintenance jack (even for equipment made in the future, analog maintenance is key) and unseals the bolt with a few hard cranks. The brace releases, and he yanks the heavy contraption away from the door. Rumlow waves his hand in front of the motion sensor, impatiently waiting for the door to open, and shoots a glare at Zola.
“You sure this is operations, doc?”
“Yes,” Zola answers and Rumlow responds by exhaling impatiently through his nostrils. The Swiss scientist isn’t exactly rude, but he always cuts his own responses short like that, leaving them suspiciously incomplete. Steve is pretty sure he means to punctuate his answers with, ‘you neanderthal,’ although that could just be Steve’s bias against the smug little science officer. When Barton first came aboard at Gateway Station, Steve overheard Zola snidely inform Ward that someone with disabled hearing has no business working on a starship, and Steve has hated him ever since.
Besides, the man wears a bowtie. Who the fuck wears a bowtie on an old, dirty, industrial spaceship?
Rumlow leads the way through the doorway, hand hovering over the grip of his pistol. The soldier in him doesn’t really allow for any casual exploration, and Steve himself feels that telltale itch on the back of his neck, warning him he’s about to step into combat. Peggy had released that distress beacon for a reason, and it certainly wasn’t because the outpost was just a step away from a tidy decommission.
Still, the ops station had clearly been shut down for the long haul, sheets of high density plastic over all the consoles, monitors dark and lights still red, in standby mode, so Steve stops worrying and gets to work.
When pressurized facilities like this are decommissioned, their life support systems will continue to recycle the thin, atmospheric chemicals outside into semi-breathable environment, so that the internal structure doesn’t get chewed up by the planetoid’s natural, hostile composition. The systems are much sturdier than the old shake ‘n bake colonies from Steve’s time, able to run almost indefinitely since they tap into the hot, interior cores of whatever rock the wind up attached to. Structures like this can remain habitable on standby mode for decades. All Steve has to do is find the right access console, work through the reboot protocol, throw a few switches and... voila.
There’s a loud clang, somewhere at the source of the ducts throughout the walls, motors kicking on and papers suddenly fluttering in the air around them. The red standby lighting switches to standard fluorescent, leaving the group to blink owlishly as white light fills the room, and the environmental controls get to work on the oxygen levels.
Zola says nothing, and instead blows dust off one of the consoles before gingerly striking a few keys. The monitor lights up, requests an ICC identification, and soon enough he’s checking the outpost’s logs. “They decommissioned the outpost as planned,” he reports, sounding unimpressed. “Nothing reported out of the ordinary, except for an error in the number of shipping containers that Weyland-Yutani sent to retrieve their equipment.”
“Great,” Rumlow snorts, and his posture finally relaxes. “So some paper pusher was having a fit over a waybill. Why not deploy a distress beacon and force some poor bastards out of hyperspace to pick up their extra junk?”
Steve winces. This is why it would have probably been a good idea to tell Rumlow about Peggy’s message.
“Hey doc,” Ward chimes in over the comms. “Do you have a full passenger manifest of their departing flight?”
“Of course,” Zola says, backing up through several menus to follow a different file path. “They left in several phases, but we have all the records.”
“You might want to cross check it with the full staff roster,” Ward suggests, and there goes that feeling again, crawling up Steve’s spine, that they were about to walk into the shit.
“You mind telling us why?” Rumlow says, checking the sights of his pistol anyway, as if he was disappointed it hadn’t come to that and wanted to make sure the weapon had a chance to breathe. Either that or maybe like Steve, the old soldier’s instincts started to kick up as well.
“It’s probably nothing, but I’m picking up several PDTs now that their system has come off standby.”
Steve swallows. Personal data transmitters are used by colonists and research outposts like this one. As far as Steve’s concerned, it only goes to show how dangerous Frontier life could be if the ICC felt the need to track every soul with a tag, like an endangered species they don’t want to lose to typical colonial hazards. Being that they are legal requirements, none of them should have been left behind if the outpost had been properly decommissioned, like the reports suggest.
“Where?” Rumlow grunts out.
“Several levels below you,” Ward reports. “We have the facility blueprints on the Star after our last visit but their ops station should have a direct connection. I’m getting weird readings up here so that’d be a safer bet to nail down an accurate location.”
Steve is already at the ops tabletop command station, tapping through the activation sequence to call up the digital blueprints, selecting filters to display PDTs over the other registered trackers within the building, like doors and operating subsystems. Sure enough, several red dots pulse on a floor well beneath the structure’s third sub-basement, which is as far as the map even goes.
Rumlow shares a frown with Steve before he asks over his shoulder, where Zola is still seated at his console, “Could there be a maintenance level that doesn’t appear on this map? Sewer runoff or something?”
“No,” Zola, confirms, without further explanation, as usual.
“Glitch, then?” Rumlow suggests, shoving his pistol back in the holster, but Steve doesn’t buy it.
“ICC schematics are all registered with Colonial Administration,” Steve says, thinking through his theory out loud. Really, he’s already channeling Peggy’s skeptical bullshit-detector, developed after years of discovering clever work arounds from every scavenger, every smuggler and every fraudster commits in order to fly their commercial boats through every loophole they could find. “Weyland-Yutani should have their own facility blueprints that were probably archived in the console’s source data packet. If I wanted to hide something from public record, I’d just make sure it didn’t wind up registered with the CA...”
Steve backs through the file pathways long enough to get to the root systems, lets himself mumble through the rest of his thought process as he finally runs a bypass with his security access tuner that he jams into the data port and, voila again.
The map reloads, two new levels appearing below sub-basement three, and Rumlow grunts in surprise. Even Zola finally turns around in his chair, but instead of looking the slightest bit impressed, he only frowns and shares a look with Captain Rumlow that Steve can’t quite read. It doesn’t really matter, since all four red dots continue pulsing on the furthest level down.
“Probably going to find nothing but bodies,” Rumlow sighs bitterly. “The water pipes have been frozen solid for a year.”
“They could have tapped into the atmo water systems,” Steve suggests. “There’d be extra runoff since the rest of the compound has been operating on standby this whole time.”
“Sure,” Rumlow says, annoyed. “Why not? Just four scientists decide to spend the rest of their lives on some desolate outpost, officially obsolete after Seegsan’s deep shit space station goes belly up, in shipping lanes where no ships actually bother to travel unless they are lucky enough to be fucking us.”
“Technically possible,” Zola says, unable to resist being a know-it-all even though he is clearly about as eager as Rumlow to actually find those PDTs.
“Well, Rogers,” Rumlow says, still suffering, like he just got out voted even though this is still technically his mission. “I guess you better find the stairs.”
“Captain,” Ward says, suddenly reminding them that he’s still in their ears, listening to the conversation progress. “If you lose communication, SOP says to return to the ship within an hour, or we come in after you. The Star doesn’t have access to whatever blueprints the mechanic pulled out of his ass, so I doubt I’ll be able to follow you all the way down.”
“Roger that,” Rumlow says, really rubbing it in that the Warrant Officer refuses to call Steve by his name. “Check-ins at regular intervals, starting now.”
Surprisingly, it takes a long time to find the entrance to the hidden levels, since it’s hidden itself. They wind up going to a higher floor, where a short flight of wide stairs lead to a sunken loading level where they find the single passageway down. It’s a ramp rather than another set of stairs, and they descend the length of several switchbacks into an area that must be on a separate power network, since the lights are still stuck in standby red.
“The hell is this, Rogers?” Rumlow says, hacking in the thin air before he puts his EVA helmet back on while Steve digs out his flashlight.
“Makes sense,” Steve explains, taking a quick look around and tapping through the display on his own mask. The air here is returning to normal, albeit slowly since it’s pulling in the right mixture from the upper levels rather than processing its own. “Must be awkward to report a power draw for two levels that shouldn’t technically exist. If they are on a different thread of the power network and operate their own environmental controls then the ICC would ever know.”
“Can you fix it?”
Fat chance. “Probably,” Steve says, with one hundred percent confidence. “If we can find any maintenance hatches. So far all I’m seeing is reinforced hull plating...”
They continue following the ramp through its gentle descent downward, with Rumlow checking in with Ward at regular intervals with a simple call sign. Apparently, Zola couldn’t be bothered to bring his own light, so he walks primly between Captain Rumlow and Steve as they cast the wide beams of their own along the way.
It takes a good few minutes before they reach a wider chamber where the ramp dead ends, and Steve estimates that they are a good thirty feet below the previous floor. Steve leaves Zola there, following Rumlow further inside, flashlights still scanning the bare walls. It’s odd that the level should be so much lower than the last, embedded deep in the planetoid’s bedrock, and Steve swallows, trying not to think of all that weight bearing down on top of them.
“Filthy,” Zola whispers, drawing their attention back around. The small man pulls his puffy little hand from the metal rail at the end of the ramp, face twisted in disgust when his fingers come away coated in thick dust.
Maybe he regrets coming so unprepared after all, Steve smugly thinks, before he drops his light down to the floor and realizes Zola’s on to something. “Hmm,” Steve says, revealing a few bald patches in the dust, spaced out in a regular stride and leading directly to the only door in the room. “Someone’s been here recently.”
Rumlow’s light beam quickly follows Steve’s own, and he kneels down for a better look. “Standard combat boots. Small size. A woman, maybe?”
Steve swallows, but doesn’t say Peggy’s name. Instead, he follows the obvious conclusion. “Many scientists you know wearing combat boots these days?”
As if on cue, they both turn to Zola, who is gingerly wiping his sweaty palm against the pants of his EVA suit, then both drop their eyes down to his polished brown oxfords, poking out from where the material bunches around his ankles.
“Nope,” Rumlow deadpans, shrugging one shoulder as they return their attention to the door.
This door also has a security brace, so Steve hooks his flashlight into the strap on his shoulder and once again breaks the padlock to access the main bolt, twists it open with his maintenance jack, and yanks the device from the doorway. A hot dry wind releases into the room from the sealed chamber as soon as the door opens, but then a single burst of motion gusts past Steve and he drops the heavy brace to the floor with a resounding clang!
“The fuck, Rogers?” Rumlow says, eyes huge and round, veins standing out from his neck and pistol in hand.
“Did you feel that!” Steve shouts, clapping his free hand to the back of his neck. It wasn’t at all like atmospheric pressure equalizing, like on the Star’s bridge, but like a fucking person running by him, so close that he could feel it brush against his sleeve.
“What? What was it?” Rumlow spins in place, looking back up the ramp, then down the hall of the newly opened door. The dust is still settling after the burst of stale air, and he coughs on instinct, searching for the danger. “Where?”
The pulsing red standby light makes visibility poor enough, and Steve’s dropped flashlight doesn’t make it any easier as the beam wobbles around. What’s worse, Steve himself isn’t exactly sure if he saw anything at all that could back up the ghost of a sensation that just scared him shitless. Is he just being jumpy after Peggy’s cryptic message?
Steve chases after his flashlight as it rolls an uneven trail in the spattered dust. “I don’t know,” he lamely admits, finally collecting himself. “I felt something. Just air pressure, I guess.”
Rumlow shakes his head, disappointed or annoyed or both, and Zola clicks his tongue before he walks past, kicking through the flashlight’s tracks, and follows the captain into the wide hallway. Steve tries to swallow his screaming instincts and follows the scientist, feeling like a fool.
“Rumlow to Ward, do you copy,” Rumlow says into his microphone, slow and deliberate, like the last dozen check ins, only this time the expected reply doesn’t come. Steve swallows hard, but Rumlow doesn’t seem all that worried, still making slow, steady progress down the hall. It’s wide and empty, lined with fairly innocuous doors. Despite the dead air and the dust, the whole area has a pervasive feeling of being overly-disinfected, and the floor reminds him of the hospital he woke up in, tiles of glossy linoleum that deaden the sound of their footfalls. “Ward, you there?”
Rumlow stops in his tracks when his flashlight beam falls away, and he peers down the yawn of another ramp. “Let’s double back. Clear these rooms before we go down,” Rumlow says. “Our sixty minute timer to return communication to the ship starts now.”
The rooms are all identical, and empty. Six by three foot cells, with the same, dusty linoleum floors as the hall. They are in worse shape than the rest of the facility so far, paint chipped off the metal reinforced walls where furniture must have once been pressed against the corners, deep scoring along the floor, a few big dents in more than a few of the doors.
Oddly enough, all the security key pads for each room have been removed, and they are able to easily slide the doors open with a little bit of a shove. That is, a shove from Rumlow or Steve, while Zola continues to watch in silence. Steve feels the same kind of discomfort as having a nosy stranger read over his shoulder.
When they reach the last door, closest to the door they entered through, the group is finally foiled by an actual lock. Steve’s hand hovers over the very modern keypad, while he clutches his old fashioned security access tuner in one of his tool belt’s many pockets. There’s no way he could crack this lock with that old tool, and breaking it with his maintenance jack would just jam the door for fucking ever. They’ll have to move on.
“Probably a weapons locker,” Rumlow suggests, dismissively macho about the whole thing, like there’s no big deal in finding one locked door amongst a dozen others, in a secret room in a secret floor in an old science outpost in the middle of nowhere. “The PDTs are all the next level down, anyway. Let’s go before Ward sends a search party.”
The next series of ramps go by quickly, switchbacks that lead deeper down, and all three of them start to pant in the thin air from their EVA rebreathers. Steve starts looking for a maintenance hatch for real, since it would be worth a shot to get the environmental circulation going again if it helped distribute the breathable air a bit better. Now that his eyes have adjusted to the red light, his flashlight’s white beam is starting to make him see spots.
“Alright,” Rumlow starts, quickly flicking his light across the undisturbed dust on this landing before stopping at yet another door closed off with a security brace. He carefully sweeps the beam over the floor again and shakes his head at the distinct lack of footprints. For some reason, Steve finds that even more unsettling than if there had been a matching set to the ones above. “Guess our lady friend didn’t make it this far.”
Steve grunts at Rumlow’s predictable euphemism and crosses the landing to the security brace, ready to take it apart like he has with the others. This time, he finds the padlock already open, so he slips it off, opens the brace’s access panel, and stops with his maintenance jack raised only partway to the bolt.
“Problem?” Rumlow says, and this time Steve’s shoulders slump when he admits it.
“Yes, sir. The bolt’s fused,” he explains, and drags his gloved fingers over the blistered metal. It was a sloppy job, ruining the brace entirely. He’d need to get a plasma cutter off the ship in order to get through it. Steve takes a step back, looking over the reinforced door, and amends that thought to include that he might even need the thermal lance. Why are there such heavy duty locks on empty rooms in an abandoned facility? “Damn it...”
“So, the PDTs are likely redundant units that were reactivated when the mechanic turned on the power,” Zola blithely explains. “Or they are attached to the withered husks of dead people, if they have been behind this door long enough for this room to collect this dust. Shall we go back to the ship now?”
Steve wants to argue, wants to shut the scientist down ten ways from Sunday, but there isn’t anything he can do to move forward. He may as well go along with it, and see what he can do when he’s back in the maintenance level of the ship. Barton might have a trick or two up his sleeve to access the high tech lock in the level above them as well.
Steve really should be used to giving up by now, considering he seemed to have no problem walking away from Peggy’s war against Weyland-Yutani after they woke up. Still, it rankles when they make their way silently back up the ramps, following behind the bouncing circles of light they cast along the way. Rumlow and Zola both seem to have no issue with coming all this way for nothing, no issue with the strange, hidden levels of this strange, abandoned outpost. Rumlow’s even been here before, seen this place teeming with life and whatever research went on in the labs above. If anything, he should be even more concerned about the bizarre, barricaded doors and mysterious distress beacon.
Maybe the captain is still shaking off his hibernation sickness, eager to get on the move, eager to get back to Gateway Station, restock and make some more money, like the rest of them. Maybe he’s just worried about how their passenger might report this, since he had to be pulled out cryo along with the crew, and that cranky Russian seems to disapprove of just about everything he lays his eyes on.
They reach the long corridor, the deactivated doors still shoved open how he and Rumlow left them. Steve is distracted, already thinking about the tools he’ll bring back down when he steps through the main doors, then stops dead in front of the room with the intact high security lock. It’s open now, too.
“Captain,” Steve starts, but Rumlow has already done his own double take.
“I see it,” he says, and raises his flashlight and sidearm simultaneously. Unlike the other rooms, this room has furniture, and Steve’s stomach drops when he recognizes it. It’s the room Peggy was in, the exact same layout, the computer console still resting in standby mode from when she canceled her transmission.
DISTRESS BEACON LAUNCHED is still blinking across the screen, white block letters on the pale green background, repeating over and over. Steve stares at it so that he doesn’t have to see the body slumped over in the chair.
The gravel of Rumlow’s voice tumbles into Steve and he flinches, watching the other man step carefully into the small space. “Guess we know who knocked on our door,” Rumlow says, lowering his weapon as he approaches the computer console (not the body. There is no body.) “Could this be our mysterious booted lady?”
Steve swallows, drops his gaze down to the floor and his eyes catch on the boots Rumlow is pointing to. Combat boots, old fashioned brown leather ones, with buckles on the side and laces done up tight. Really, they might not be hers, might just be a coincidence that some other woman in the universe would wear the same sort of boots as-
Just like that, Steve looks at the corpse.
She’s face down on the desktop, beautiful dark hair still gleaming in the red light, splayed out around her. She must have hit the desk with some force, judging by the size of the hole in the back of her head. There isn’t much left of her flesh, since her body desiccated in the thin, dry air, dirty coveralls hanging loosely over stiff, skeletal remains.
“Peggy,” Steve blurts out, gasping for the air that leaves him in a rush before dropping to his knees.
“Who?” Dr. Zola says, making a face, but Rumlow’s eyebrows shoot up.
“Peggy? Peggy Carter?” Rumlow shoots a look between the launch beacon confirmation and Steve, and back to Peggy’s slumped form. “Alright, Rogers,” he says, slamming his pistol back into the holster. “You have some fucking explaining to do.”
It takes a little while for Steve to manage standing up. Rumlow finally makes a successful check with Ward as Steve and Zola wait out the airlock’s sealing procedure. After a thumbs up and an all-clear, they pass through the main airlock, clamber over the broken asphalt of Siberia’s landing pad, and make it back onto the Lemurian Star before Steve finally thinks to question who opened that door.
Chapter 4: You're All My Lucky Charms
Steve hasn’t felt like this since he first woke up on the wrong side of the century, fresh from the universe’s longest cryosleep. The lights around him are too bright, the sounds just a jumble of discordant noise, even his sense of time is warped so badly that he has a moment of shock when he thinks he’s sat down right next to her, in the little hidden room on Siberia. How long has he been sitting down? How long has she been laying there in a blackened pool of dried blood, dead?
Seeing her like that, trapped in her airless tomb, mummified where she died — where she was executed — makes him feel that familiar disconnect, the small coward’s soul trapped inside a living host, a parasite that should abandon his shell that’s gone on living far past the expiration date.
Regardless, his shell stubbornly insists on living, even with him rattling around inside. Steve blinks hard, feeling every millimeter of his delicate eyelids glide over his damp eyes, and vaguely wonders where the tin cup in his hands came from. He puts it down on the mess hall table, and someone pushes it right back to grasp.
“Nuh-uh, Cap,” they softly insist. “Drink.”
Steve sips the terrible coffee, and stubbornly continues to exist. It’s not long before someone shouting his name finally reboots his brain, and he blinks again. “What?”
“The distress signal,” Ward repeats slowly, like he’s talking to a child. When did Ward come down from the bridge? Are they still parked on Siberia?
Steve shakes his head and tries to focus on the question. “Peggy sent it,” he lamely admits.
“Yeah, we got that part,” Ward says, and Steve glances around the room, finding the whole crew there, even the Russian passenger, glaring angrily over his own coffee cup. Ward angrily snaps his fingers in front of Steve’s line of sight, forcing him to pay attention. “Tell us what we missed. You triggered the emergency protocols that pulled us out of cryo for a reason. You knew it was your old pal down there, didn’t you?”
Barton leans forward on his knees, shoulders obscuring the angry finger pointing. It’s tactical, putting himself between Steve and the rest of the ICC officers, but Barton makes it look like a careless gesture. He’s far smarter than the others give him credit for. “Sir, I don’t think—”
“I’m sorry, but what exactly are you even doing up here? Do you think you’re people now, like your dog?” Rollins snaps, shoving his way into the conversation and Lucky raises his head from where he’s lying at Barton’s feet.
Barton leans back, now that Ward has moved on, and crosses his arms over his chest, unimpressed by the insult. “I’ve got another hour before I can layer on the next coat of molecular bonding gel,” he explains, all of his good nature vanishing in a heartbeat. Even Lucky sits up straighter now, more alert after the sudden switch in tone. “I’ll be staying with Rogers until he asks me to leave.”
Rollins clicks his tongue and Barton takes that as his queue to lift his ICC cap, run his fingers through his sloppy yellow hair, and plonk the cap back down again, giving the bill an extra little tug when he winks back at the man. All the navigator does is roll his eyes, because he’s still an idiot.
Steve smiles, almost even laughs, then the dam breaks. Tears rush into his eyes as his chest shudders with a broken sob and he drops his face into his hands as the grief takes hold. He can vaguely hear the rest of the crew start to argue again, someone shouts his name, and Barton rockets up from his chair to join in when someone grabs at Steve’s shoulder.
It shouldn’t even matter, Steve thinks, trying and failing to catch his breath. All their anger and all their noise, it’s directed at a person who doesn’t even exist anymore. This person he became is nothing but a passenger, and the real Steve Rogers just a sorry sack of skin and bones. He just needs to catch up with the rest of the Howling Commandos, with Bucky, and now Peggy.
“Steve!” Barton shouts, and Steve blinks, hearing his first name for the first time in, shit, who the hell knows how long. Then he finally hears the alarm, blaring out a warning.
“Hull breach?” Steve blurts out, quickly assessing the sound and combination of lights flashing around them, while the rest of the crew scrambles to their stations. Something that had started to drift apart — pieces of himself — snaps back together so quickly it forces him out of his chair. “Rollins,” he calls after the navigator, before he the man could vanish through the door from the mess hall. “You said this was a nitrate-toxic atmosphere, right?”
“Yeah, ten thousand parts per million,” Rollins shouts back, pushing his ego aside long enough to answer while Rumlow shouts orders at Ward and Sitwell to batten down the nonessential compartments. “I’ll release the on board rebreathers!”
“Barton,” Steve says, already three steps ahead. “Check the atmo filter gauges below, see if they’re overclocking. We could have brought a nitrate contamination on board with the EVA suits.”
“Roger dodger,” Barton says, flippancy long gone, replaced with know-how and efficiency as he and Lucky make a quick sprint to the hatch that leads below deck.
Steve’s eyes catch on their Russian passenger as he heads off himself, the man appearing surprisingly calm as everyone else mobilizes. Vasily Karpov should have slept through the entire ride back to Gateway Station with the other passenger remaining in cryo, even through the scheduled pit stops along the route that the Star’s crew was scheduled to awaken for.
Since Steve activated emergency protocols, Karpov had awakened with the rest of them, and has to remain out of cryosleep for a whole twenty-four hours or risk full blown hibernation sickness. So far the tourist hasn’t gotten in the way, despite looking like the model of an awkward bystander in his pristine white pajamas. Instead, he seems to have been far more interested in the crew’s sordid affairs, dull grey eyes staring at Steve long enough for him to feel overly scrutinized or researched, just like after he first woke up from his long drift through cryosleep.
Steve puts the man out of his mind, trying to forget that stone-chiseled frown, and quickly falls into action, sprinting towards the EVA bay to prove his theory. He takes a corner too fast and crashes into the wall near the bulkhead entryway, knocking a systems manual off its cable by the door, before he plunges into the small anteroom outside of the EVA bay.
The distraction is welcome, he realizes, diving head first into an engineering catastrophe. It’s more than just a way to avoid understanding the future he was dragged into, kicking and screaming. There’s something so simple and satisfying, understanding a mechanical failure and inventing the tactics to deal with it, on the spot, usually with nothing more than a maintenance jack and a security access tuner.
This feels right to him, and he realizes that this might actually be what he’s meant for. All he’s meant for. Not a dancing monkey, but not a ship’s captain or a war hero or anything special, either. Just a freelance engineer, keeping old girls like the Lemurian Star in service. Why had he even thought to chase Peggy’s message? All he needs to focus on is this, the ship, his job, the life he made for himself through sweat and lingering knowledge of now-vintage starships.
The thing about nitrates is that they react with the electrostatic scrubbers that are still used on M-class cruisers. Steve doesn’t even remember going through decompression after coming back on board the ship, let alone properly stripping his suit. All it would take would be one stupid clod of material from the environment outside bonding with the wrong particulates in the HVAC system and the whole environmental control array would start crying hull breach.
Steve stops in his tracks when he gets to the airlock door. Beyond it are the EVA suits, most hanging on their pegs, his own crumpled up on the floor. Rumlow had stripped it off him when they came aboard, he remembers now. Steve’s hand hovers over the switch that opens the bay, stopped short when he suddenly remembers the locked room, on the hidden floor, mysteriously opened up for them on their way back to the ship. Steve also remembers the boot prints, and thinks of Rumlow’s theory behind Peggy’s execution.
Steve pulls the security access tuner from his tool belt and quickly lines it up with the EVA bay lock. He doesn’t need the scanner to unlock it, since all the doors on the ship are open unless Rumlow triggers an emergency lockdown. Instead, he simply dials into the last time the door was triggered, nothing more.
“Hm,” he mumbles, drawing in a measured breath, before he backs away slowly, sense of urgency draining away. It takes a few minutes for him to hustle below decks, cross through the alignment hanger, and track down Barton at the environmental filter station. Lucky greets him immediately, laps at his hands, and sits patiently next to Barton, leaning into the back of his knee heavily enough for his deaf human to turn around.
Steve rolls his fingers, one over the other, in a barral motion towards his chest, then makes matching letter L’s with his pointer finger and thumb and flutters them down, signalling to Barton that he’s going to speak to him in sign.
Appreciate it, Barton signs back, taps his dark purple hearing aid and points to the flashing emergency lights.
Reset them, Steve tells him in sign language, and shakes his head at the pointless alarms. I found out what it is. A stowaway.
Barton snorts, and repeats Steve’s clumsy finger-spelling for the word ‘stowaway’, wiggling his pointer finger at the end like he’s scratching a spot in the air, just to make sure. It wouldn’t be easy for a stranger to make it aboard, but the ship doesn’t exactly have exterior locks given that it’s designed to spend ninety percent of its lifetime in outer space. Someone skilled enough to bypass Siberia’s security locks would have no problem accessing the Star’s outer airlock. Someone wearing petite combat boots. Someone clever enough to avoid them, and move undiscovered throughout the ship.
Barton’s eyes narrow and he nods, understanding. Did you tell the captain?
Not yet, Steve answers.
Keeping a lot of stuff to yourself lately, Barton signs, one eyebrow raised up so high it vanishes under the bill of Rollins’s cap.
Steve frowns with a small grunt, but he can take a hint. As alone as he feels sometimes, Barton is still his friend, and even if Steve decided to keep the message from Peggy a secret from the rest of the ICC crew, he could have (and should have) told the other engineer. Steve gives Barton what he hopes comes off as an apologetic smile and roughly signs, Get to work, before he heads to the bridge. This won’t be the sort of message he’d want to deliver to Captain Rumlow over the comms system, without being sure who might be listening.
There are so many places for a small, stealthy person to hide on a ship like the Lemurian Star, and now Steve is extra grateful that he learned sign language after all the time he and Barton spent together with no one else’s company save for the ever-needy starship and the dog. Steve glances up when the alarms drop off and the standard system lights are restored.
Barton works fast when he’s properly motivated. Hyperspace collisions, cracked stabilizer pistons, an intruder slipping on board from a desolate, abandoned science outpost. Coffee, sometimes, Steve has to fondly admit.
When Steve gets to the bridge, he’s almost stunned when Rumlow throws down his headset and bellows out, “And where the fuck have you been?”
“Nitrate contamination,” Steve spits out, and Rollins shoots up from his seat before he drops his head down, immediately exhausted by his sheer relief, and Steve continues. “Brought in from the surface. We’ll be fine after Barton cycles the HVAC and the electrostatic scrubbers a few times.”
Even Ward releases a long, steady breath, then reaches over and claps Sitwell on the shoulder, laughing when the smaller man swipes a nervous hand over his shiny, bald head.
Steve doesn’t know exactly how fucked they’d be if there had been an actual hull breach. It would likely land on the scale somewhere between ‘hopelessly’ and ‘hilariously’. At least they have a distress beacon they could repurpose. Rumlow is the only one who doesn’t seem to relax after getting the good news. Instead he only tightens his arms across his chest.
“If you’re ready to get back to work, then you’re ready to tell us what the fuck we just walked into,” he says, and the rest of the crew glance up from their consoles, hearing the ass chewing in the captain’s tone. “Did you know about Carter or not?”
Oh, right. That.
“I did,” Steve confesses, lifting his chin. “She included a coded message, linked to my Colonial Administration number. I erased it before I activated the emergency protocols and woke the crew. It’s how I knew the beacon wasn’t released from the derelict, before I even saw the coordinates.”
Rumlow’s eyes pinch into angry, narrow slits. There will likely be a cost for keeping that secret, but not right now. Instead, Rumlow growls out, “And what did she have to say about this place?”
“Nothing,” Steve answers honestly. “She had a personal message for me, but other than that…” Steve pauses, remembering the rain check, promised to someone else. “Nothing useful.”
Rumlow grunts, unimpressed with Steve’s answer but leaves it alone. “So the mystery of the beacon is solved. We wait for the stabilizer repair. I’ll check in with the ICC about those lost data transmitters and see if they want us to recover the— the body.”
Steve barely flinches at that, but there’s still a flinch. He appreciates the dip in Rumlow’s inflection, the captain’s brief effort to adjust the way he talked about Peggy with a quick glance in Steve’s direction, but it’s still weird to know that’s all she is now, ‘the body.’ A voice in Steve’s head reminds him that it should have been him, that he should be ‘a body’ by now, or just ‘remains’. For some reason he thinks of Dum Dum’s soft expression when he died, the little ‘o’ of surprise on his lips when that deadly spear on the tip of the xenomorph’s tail pierce his strong, solid body, a knife through wet paper bag.
Rumlow brushes past him, snapping him from the flashback, and Steve follows immediately after onto the gangway to the Mother chamber. “Captain, may I speak with you?”
“Damn it,” Rumlow snaps, rounding on him. “What the fuck is it, Rogers?”
Steve expected the break in the man’s patience but his brain scrambles to come up with an excuse to keep him moving. “It’s a private matter. About. The body,” he adds quickly, and lets some of his pain bubble to the surface to cover up his clumsy attempt to emotionally manipulate the rough ex-Space Marine. “Sir, I know I’m not allowed in the Mother chamber without being an officer but—” Steve takes a self conscious look over his shoulder, and Ward snorts at Steve’s sensitivity before he turns back to his console.
“Let’s walk and talk,” Rumlow grunts out, tossing his head back down towards the Mother chamber and Steve falls into step behind him. The MU/TH/UR 6000 artificial intelligence computer mainframe has been long since decommissioned, after modern, self-regulating systems gradually replaced the more temperamental ones on the Star. With deep space communication now possible after advancements in relay station technology, there wasn’t much reason to keep the outdated AI online, and contractors like he and Barton could take care of the rest.
The chamber itself was still used for ranking officers to send secure transmissions to the ICC, which meant it was the only sealed room on the ship where there was no chance of someone listening through an air vent or tapping into the comms microphones. It’s cramped, and Steve finds himself uncomfortably close to Rumlow’s personal space as the man plonks down into the chamber’s one, low stool, but it’s worth it.
“So what do you want to tell me about—”
“Sir, we have an intruder on board.”
Rumlow’s lips part in shock, and he takes a moment to recalculate before he switches gears. “S’that so?”
Steve nods once, with emphasis. “The room we found Peggy in was locked on the way down. I wouldn’t have been able to crack that lock, even if I had the right tools, but it was open on the way back up.” A muscle in Rumlow’s jaw visibly flexes, and he nods stiffly, giving Steve permission to continue. “Just before I had Barton reset the alarms, I checked the timestamp on the EVA chamber door. It had been opened shortly after our logged return time. Someone followed us on board. Passed through the airlock wearing a surface-to-ship suit, or something. Either way, they likely caused the nitrate contamination, since our suits were clean.”
Steve takes a breath, and swallows as he waits for Rumlow’s reaction. The man just stares up at him from where he’s seated, unblinking as Steve went through his explanation. Finally, he leans back in his seat. “Our small-booted lady friend?”
Steve nods. “That’s my guess. I haven’t seen any evidence, but-”
“You trust your gut,” Rumlow assumes, nodding in understanding and Steve tries not to look too shocked. The man was a soldier, after all. Rumlow leans back, puts a gnarled knuckle to his stubbled chin. “If this intruder is alone, they probably aren’t trying to steal the Star. Maybe just stowaway. They might have gotten trapped here trying to illegally scavenge the outpost. Or else it’s the person who put that hole in the back of your friend’s head.”
Steve hadn’t thought of that, but he quickly shakes it off. “Doubt it. Peggy’s… She’s been gone a long time, from the looks of her. I think this intruder got here when we did judging from the footprints.”
“Maybe there was a message in that beacon for them, too.”
Steve doesn’t rise to that bait, being reminded once again that he didn’t share with the rest of the class, and instead lifts his chin. “Any orders, sir?”
Rumlow smiles out of the side of his mouth, a look that he maybe think seems playful but tends to come off as slightly manic. “I’ll let you know what the ICC thinks. Wey-Yu might want some of their crap back, in the meantime. How much longer does Barton have with that stabilizer?”
Steve checks his watch, adds five hours to keep up with the padding he gave Barton earlier. “Seven hours.”
“Alright, get back down there and help him. Maybe we can cut it short,” he adds. Steve doesn’t let Rumlow know that isn’t how molecular bonding gel works, since that gives him and Barton some wiggle room if they need to get off this rock sooner.
In the meantime he hopes Dr. Zola will help him retrieve Peggy’s remains so that he can at least give her a proper burial. Back when they were going through their debrief at Crimea station, when he and Peggy were still together, they discovered she had one living relative, a distant niece named Sharon, out on the Mars colony. He never found out if Peggy ever connected with her, and now he supposes he never will.
Steve thinks about it anyway on the way back down, wondering if the ICC would still answer his calls, wondering if it would be ethical for him to find this Sharon person on his own. Someone should notify the next of kin, right?
Steve is still distracted by the time he reaches the alignment bay, heartsick with the weight of responsibility. He knows it’s all in his head, knows Sharon Carter likely has no clue about an old aunt from the defunct SSR, but Steve was in command when all this started. As her captain, he owes this to Peggy, last rites and a proper burial and for someone — anyone — to know her true story. It’s what Peggy would have wanted.
Lucky’s bark stops him short, crashing against the walls of the tall metal silo like the clap of a bell. The alignment bay is a circle, with several service corridors all meeting along its outer edge. The dog has planted himself in front of the door to the port side engineering room, where Clint should still be applying the molecular bonding gel, barking his head off.
“Thanks a lot, Buddy,” Steve laughs, heart still thumping from the surprise. Lucky isn’t much of a barker since he was raised by a deaf man, but even after he sees Steve he keeps going at it, front paws leaping up with the force of his deep, resonant woofs.
The dog’s attention points like a laser beam at the swaying chains above, hackles standing on end, and Steve’s gut twists into a hard knot. Steve spent the last year listening the shiver and clink from the ship’s constant movement, from the irregular tap-tap-tapping of distilled water, rattling down to the grate below. Only now the systems are all depowered or on standby, the Star sitting idle on a planetoid with no ambient movement. He hadn’t thought for a moment that the rattling sound above him was out of place.
Lucky snarls, backs up a step, and Steve’s heart leaps up into his throat. Something is above him, something alive and heavy, clinging to the chains and watching for the right moment to strike.
Steve dives forward with a shout of fear, just as whatever moving amongst the chains drops down, metal ringing out as they collide. He overbalances from his own clumsy bulk, smacks into the floor, then scrambles up and trips again before he manages to sprint forward. Lucky, the goddamn coward, turns tail and bolts back through the service corridor. Steve makes it all of three whole strides before something knocks into his ankles, and he goes down so hard it drives the wind out of him.
“No!” He shouts, and like a nightmare scrambles helplessly to get up, unable to find his balance, unable to gain any traction at all as he slips in the shallow pools of water, standing still around the bay.
“Fuck!” Steve shouts again, because he’s pissed at his own helplessness, because he can’t possibly believe how he’s survived so much, lasted so long, all for it to come to an end here, against a foe he can’t even see. Something clamps down around his ankles so he kicks out as hard as he can, only to strike nothing but air. There’s something there — like a ripple of heat or a hair caught on the lense of his eye — but Steve can’t make any sense of it as he desperately tries to drag himself to his feet.
The thing grabs Steve’s arms, gives them a painful twist around, and to his horror he finds that struggling somehow only makes it worse. Still able to see nothing at all, Steve only has a vague sense of whatever is painfully forcing his joints into a lock. The creature is bending the room around it, causing a visual vacuum that Steve can’t clearly discern from the shapes of the chamber, even as he thrashes against its hold.
“Cap!” Barton bellows out as he bursts through the door with Lucky leading the charge back to the alignment bay. The technician stops short and Steve sees the ripple raise what could be some kind of weapon.
“Barton! Run!” Steve screams, and bucks as hard as he can to throw off the creature’s aim.
Barton doesn’t run. Barton throws a wrench.
The tool launches across the alignment bay like a homing missile, striking the creature’s weapon, causing a shower of sparks and Steve flings an arm over his face to protect it from the spray. There’s a deep throated cry that sounds more like an engine revving inside a barrel than the xenomorph screech that he expects, and he takes the opportunity to escape. Steve scrambles back on his elbows as the ripple in front of him flickers, pixels coming apart and a crackle of energy, revealing the creature’s shape as the illusion falls away. It drops into a three point landing, sparks still bursting from whatever it has strapped to its wrist. Lidless eyes, narrow and glowing blue, stare unblinking from a glossy black face. Dark red hair, twisted into thick, banded locks, lay around its shoulders like a mantle of spikes.
Steve had expected a monster, but not this monster, and somehow he feels even more helpless, incapable of understanding this new threat.
“Fuck!” Barton screams, then blurts out an affronted, “It got scarier?”
“Be quiet,” the thing hisses out, voice still deeply distorted, grinding out of that featureless face. “You’ll bring the whole damn crew down here.” Lucky barks, snarls, and barks again, just bold enough to take a few cautious steps forward. The creature points at the dog with a very human finger. “That means you too, buddy.”
“What the fuck, what the fuck!” Barton sputters and Lucky snarls.
Steve doesn’t dare move, still propped up on his elbows as the thing keeps him trapped on his back. It slowly gets to its feet, weight coming off Steve’s knees, then lifts its hands to that strange, shiny face. The eyes wink out, dimming into clear glass orbs, and the mask is pulled away to reveal an actual human.
“Oh, fuck me!” Barton wheezes out and Steve feels his own adrenaline leave him in a whoosh as the woman raises her hands, palms out, in surrender. It’s ridiculous, he’s never seen someone so clearly dangerous in his life, and yet somehow, realizing that she’s one of them, that she’s human, is enough.
Is he really been this scared of running into another xenomorph? Will he really be this helpless, if he ever actually does?
“My name is Natasha Romanoff,” she says, her smoky voice no longer distorted by that strange mask. “I’ve been looking for this place for an awfully long time.”
It’s humid as ever in the service corridor, but Steve is too anxious to relax, arms folded tight across his chest and booted foot tapping against the metal floor. Barton pulled the bulkhead door shut behind them, just in case a member of the ICC crew got nose and decided to come down to the engineering deck for once.
Now they are trapped in here, with their very own stowaway.
“Why?” Steve dryly demands, the sweat along his brow already starting to cool. After being that terrified, so sure he was going to die only to have the rug pulled out from under him, Steve is only starting to feel the smolder of anger kindle now that they are finally starting to talk. The intruder — Natasha — is perfectly relaxed, but she backs up a step, giving him space to be more bold.
Steve finds all his questions come easy after that. “How did you open that door? How did you get on the Star? How did you know about Siberia? What’s behind that last security brace?”
Pointing to the mask hanging from her belt, Barton quickly adds, “And what the hell is that?”
There’s a stretch of silence, nothing but the light trickle of condensation running off the back wall, and Lucky’s gentle pant where he stays close to Barton’s side.
“I suppose that’s fair,” the intruder quietly mutters.
“Damn right,” Steve snaps back, then clenches his jaw when she appraises him with a quick flick of her green eyes and a surprised tilt of her chin. Her suit is some kind of hybrid EVA, the whole thing made from some kind of flexible, stretchy material that Steve’s never seen the like of before. Ultra high tech, woven over with some kind of mesh that looks like it adds strength to the stress points. The most remarkable part of it is the network of neon blue energy conduits, running the length of her limbs, from the compact rebreathing apparatus on her belt. Her wrists are mounted with long, narrow capsules which also glow blue, indicating that might be the power source as well as some kind of weapon that she can aim with her fists. On her left wrist is some kind of control console. Her hair is twisted and braided, full and long, and probably provides warmth in thin atmospheres like the one outside when she uses the mask to maintain her own personal environment. The light-bending that makes her all but invisible to the naked eye must be something else entirely.
“This is alien technology, stuff most folks don’t know exist,” she starts, taking in the rest of her suit as she motions to the mask. “Salvaged from encounters that, according to the ICC, never occurred.”
“Alien,” Steve flatly repeats.
“Yes, alien,” she insists, unimpressed with his skepticism. “This might be news to you, but your xenomorph isn’t the only alien life out there, beyond the edges of the Frontier. It’s my job to make sure these artifacts don’t fall into the wrong hands.”
“Your job?” Steve picks up, before Barton can blurt out any of the questions about aliens that Steve knows the man is dying to ask. “Who do you work for?”
Natasha’s eyebrow nudges upwards. “That’s a long, complicated story, Captain Rogers. I don’t really have the time to tell it. I need you to help me get that door open, the one that leads to their testing labs. I thought Agent Carter might have left some clue for you but when I opened the room all I found was, well,” Natasha’s mouth makes a thin line. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth.”
“Not much,” Steve tells her, because he’s in no mood to be generous. The seat of his coveralls is soaked through after squirming around on the alignment bay’s wet floor, his elbow scratched from where he hit metal grates, and his hip still aches from where he whanged it when he fell. He blames Natasha Romanoff for all of it. “Why the hell didn’t you just hail our comms system? Why did you break into our ship?”
Natasha glances over his shoulder at Barton before she answers Steve’s question, almost glaring at the junior technician. “You mean to tell me you actually trust these ICC guys?”
“Hey,” Barton grunts, affronted, and Lucky stands, sensing the mood shifting again. “It’s not even mine,” he argues, pointing to his hat.
“Alright, enough,” Steve says, and lifts his hands to stop them both, suddenly reminded of all the fights he had to put out between Dum Dum and Gabe about who made the best kind of soul food. Childish fights, the kind crews always have after serving for a little bit too long trapped together in the long stretches between cryosleep cycles. “What exactly does the ICC have to do with it?”
“Other than the fact that they are basically owned by Weyland-Yutani?” Natasha scoffs, immediately letting Steve know where she stands on that particular political debate. “Only that they spend nearly limitless resources to keep information about these encounters secret. It’s not just the Hermes, but the Nostromo, the Sulaco, the Torrens... Even entire stations like Sevastopol and settlements like Hadley’s Hope have been erased from the record books after xenomorph attacks.”
“Hadley’s Hope,” Steve quietly repeats through his teeth. “The Hermes picked up an evac pod from Hadley Hope. There was only one person on board. Dead. Carrying one of those things inside it.”
After that, it had taken less than seventy two hours for Steve, Bucky and Peggy to set the self-destruct on the Hermes and escape in their shuttlecraft. Bucky had been the one to kill the thing, after it took off his arm with whatever acid was running through its veins. Agent Coulson hadn’t even blinked at the name ‘Hadley’s Hope’ when Steve told him all about it in the debrief.
Natasha nods. “Everywhere these things go, people die. The ICC cleans it up. Weyland-Yutani hunts for more. We know they had something in Siberia. We know there’s something behind that door.”
Steve nods. “Because Peggy told you?”
Another nod. “I was wondering when you’d figure that out.”
“Figure what out?” Barton scowls and Steve pulls in a tired breath.
“Peggy wasn’t going to stop looking for the truth. It wasn’t in her to give up. I’m not surprised she found people like this,” Steve nods at the intruder, at the console on her wrist, at the knives strapped around her arms, and legs. “Whoever you are.”
“Natasha Romanoff,” she says again, angelic in her honesty. “And I’m on your side, believe it or not. I want these things destroyed just as much as you do.”
“Sure,” Steve says coolly. He glances down at that mask, at that alien technology, scavenged and used as a weapon. “Sure.”
“You don’t believe me,” Natasha says. “I’m disappointed in you, Rogers.”
“You broke onto my ship, dropped on my head, kicked my ass, and scared my dog,” Steve rattles off.
“Hey…” Barton grumbles, proudly patting Lucky’s head for himself.
“Sorry, scared my technician,” Steve amends and Barton nods in approval. “I don’t exactly give a shit about your endorsement.”
Natasha gives Barton the same appraising glance she gave to Steve earlier, the kind of look that dissected him on the spot and put him back together after careful judgement, and mumbles, “Should have known he wasn’t ICC...”
Barton and Lucky both snort at that. “Hey!”
“So why shouldn’t I turn you in to Captain Rumlow?” Steve continues, before Barton can pick another fight. Natasha Romanoff has already pulled out a small brace of pointed tools, and checks the connectors on the wrist console Barton struck with his perfectly aimed wrench.
“I think that if you wanted to do that, you would’ve told him about Peggy’s message in the first place,” she theorizes, putting a metal pick between her teeth before she continues. “I think if you wanted to do that, you wouldn’t have let me tell you what I know.”
“And what do you know?” Barton says. “Aside from all the stuff we already know.”
Natasha is momentarily baffled by the question before her eyebrow comes up again, distracted from her project, and Steve can almost see the lines of her appraisal shift, one more time. “Siberia was a top secret testing facility for something they called the Winter Soldier program. Agent Carter went undercover with the contractors hired to decommission the place. She checked in only once, after she arrived, and for some reason used her last communication beacon to send a message to you, Captain Rogers.”
One question answered with a hundred more questions. Steve suddenly feels very tired. “Winter Soldier program,” he repeats, when something in his memory stirs at the phrase. “That’s what they used to call war criminals.”
Natasha shrugs one shoulder, disregarding the connection, and snaps the little access hatch on her wrist console closed. “Johann Schmidt’s vision has always been to see his precious hydra turned into a soldier. It wasn’t a coincidence that your ship intercepted that escape shuttle when you were on his salvage mission, and it wasn’t a coincidence that Wey-Yu covered it up after.”
“You sound like Peggy,” Steve says, then frowns. He was trying to sound tough, challenging Natasha Romanoff’s paranoia, but instead it comes out wistful and precious. He misses Peggy, damn it.
“Good,” Natasha says, then the radio spits to life, interrupting whatever she was going to say next.
“Rogers,” Warrant Officer Ward snaps, always proud to be the one issuing orders. “Pack up whatever you need to crack open the piggy bank. You’re going back out.”
Steve’s hands drop to his sides. If the Winter Soldier program involved xenomorphs, then whatever is waiting for them on the other side of the sealed bulkhead in the secret floor of the abandoned outpost...
“Rogers, you down there?” Ward’s voice barely registers as that possibility starts to solidify into a genuine chance, the security brace having been fused shut to prevent anyone from unleashing the nightmarish swarm beyond.
Barton hops to the intercom and answers. “Rogers is up to his elbows in hydraulic fluid. Had to patch the starboard line where it ruptured after we lost the stabilizer. Was that an ICC order?”
“Captain’s orders,” Ward says, after a frustrated huff. “Zola wants to take a look.”
Barton snorts rudely, then releases the intercom button. “Hey, where’d she go?”
Steve finally blinks, and looks up from whatever dark pit his gaze wandered into. Natasha Romanoff is gone. Invisible again, or just left, he’s not entirely sure how long he’s been spacing out. Barton turns to Lucky who just looks happy that someone is paying attention to him again and wags his tail.
“Good job, buddy,” Barton sighs.
Incredible Predator Natasha by Shaish!!
Chapter 5: I'm Lucky in Your Arms
A thermal lance uses oxygen to superheat a rod of plasma-hardened polysteel alloy, burning at forty-five hundred degrees celsius for as long as it takes to cut through whatever gets in its way. In this case, the main struts of a pressurized security brace, which holds shut the bulkhead door leading to a secret sub-basement beneath Siberia’s decommissioned science outpost. The rod glows blue, crackling with energy as Steve eases it through the strut, holding it steady as the specialized tool breaks down the metal on the molecular level. Molten steel oozes out of the lance’s path, flaking off as it crusts over in the cooler air, then breaking away and dropping to the floor, red hot leaves falling from a metal tree.
Thermal lances are one of the future’s greatest inventions, Steve thinks, leaning his not inconsiderable weight against the tool’s handle to urge it along. It’s not entirely new, lances like this have been around for hundreds of years, but only in this high tech era have they done away with disposable, clunky rods and instead found a way to keep the polysteel charged with oxygen, lighting up the whole thing like a pure beam of light. Steve watches it through polarized lenses of his safety goggles, since the atmosphere has finally filled out the rest of the facility and the crew no longer have to deal with chunky EVA suits and helmets.
Security braces are precisely designed to withstand this sort of assault, so Steve has to be surgical in his precision to sever the two struts from the core of the lock. Once the lance clears the strut, he gently works the blade between the door and the mechanism, just enough to bisect the maglock without accidentally fusing it in place.
The whole procedure would be a lot easier if Zola, Rumlow, and the civilian passenger weren’t pacing impatiently behind him. What the fuck Vasily Karpov is doing here, Steve can’t imagine. At first Steve figured the man just got bored, stuck waiting on the Star without anyone to talk to aside from their weaselly medical officer. Since then, Steve’s noticed Karpov and Zola putting their heads together in hushed tones, trading research notes back and forth in a lab notebook that the team recovered from the research labs above them.
Maybe that book is the reason the chief medical officer wants this level open, maybe it’s just more classified research the scientists want to plunder from Wey-Yu’s officially non-existent laboratory. That would be just the kind of shady maneuver that a captain like Rumlow would be all in for. Still, after what Natasha said he’s been on guard, and all three of them together — Rumlow, Zola, Karpov — make Steve nervous as he works. Officer Sitwell is there too, probably to protect Wey-Yu’s classified interests, or even to figure out how much the rest will bribe him to keep it secret, but at least he’s minding his own business, sitting patiently on the ramp’s metal handrail as he reviews Siberia’s manifest records.
Finally, the brace gives way with a sucking pop, and hits the concrete with a dull thud, the dense metal striking the floor so hard it sticks there like a magnet as soon as it lands. “Alright,” Steve says, finally powering down the lance. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
It does occur to Steve that it could be a pack of hungry, angry xenomorphs — really, it does — it’s just that for some reason, Natasha’s words and Peggy’s invitation both ringing in his ears, Steve is just now starting to hope that there will be something like answers on the other side of this bulkhead. What he might do with them is something he hasn’t really sussed out yet.
Now that the brace is out of the way, Steve loads his security access tuner over the main lock, and zeroes in on the connection that triggers the huge, double doors. Only one side grinds open, the other jamming hopelessly in place, and Steve is the first one to see that they had all catastrophically miscalculated.
The air is dry, like the rest of the facility, but reeks of something sugary sweet. It’s a familiar scent, one that Steve knows instantly from the first time they opened the main airlock to the Hadley’s Hope escape shuttle, after the Hermes first recovered the drifting vessel.
Extruded resin, Falsworth called it, when they found the glistening chrysalis coating the back wall of the shuttle’s one, small deck. It was an exciting discovery back then, before they knew what it was for: cocoons for Schmidt’s hydra to bundle up its victims, to somehow keep them alive as hosts for more.
The memory strikes Steve so hard that he stumbles back, crying out, even before he sees the thing on the ground, and Rumlow lunges in front of him, weapon drawn.
“What is it?” He grunts out, and Sitwell follows closely behind, backing up the captain even without a weapon of his own. Steve has to tell them, they have to know what they are walking into, but just like before he freezes up, unable to speak, drowning in a wash of heat and fear for this waking nightmare.
When the captain stops just inside the door, Steve hears him whisper, “Holy fucking shit…”
Sitwell’s light drops, catching on a twisted hunk of the cement flooring, and there it is, glossy and black, coiled tight in a wreath of spines, an ancient nautilus nestled in cracked and broken silicate.
What is it, Rumlow asks? It’s the end. Pure and simple. There’s some relief in knowing, a strange sense of euphoria releasing along Steve’s spine as the truth settles in. Not exactly the truth he had expected, but there’s something beautiful in it, anyway.
“Shoot it!” Sitwell screams.
“Waitwaitwait!” Rumlow shushes, even though he doesn’t lower his pistol. “Doc! Karpov! C’mere!”
Is he joking? He has to be joking?
Steve tightens his fists, trying to regain the feeling in his hands as Dr. Zola and Vasily Karpov both push past him into the open doorway. The hilt of the thermal lance presses into his glove’s thick palm, the sharp edges of its trigger reminding him that it’s there. The superheated rod would be ideal against one of them — a sword that could cauterize the creature’s flesh instantly, before the acid could spray out in defense.
He’d have to move quickly, but Steve feels like he’s trying to shake off cement shoes as he forces himself forward, one step and then another, following the flashlight beams and excited voices.
“Unbelievable,” Dr. Zola whispers in the darkness of the room beyond. “I’ve never seen one this close before. And whole.”
“We have to get it up to the ship,” Karpov says.
“The hell you are!” Rumlow snaps.
“Special Order 937,” Sitwell says, sounding grim, and Rumlow just shuts down on the spot, even holstering his weapon. Apparently, those words are magic, deactivating even his old soldier’s instincts.
“Fucking company,” is all the protest he mutters, and Steve’s had enough.
The thermal lance re-ignites, cutting through the darkness, first at his side and then sweeping up, leaving an arched burnout of light in its path as Steve wields it. Karpov leaps aside, Sitwell drops his flashlight, now no one is in Steve’s way except Rumlow himself.
“Whoa, big guy,” Rumlow says, like he has any right at all to stop him, one hand raised defensively, gun aimed at the floor in the other. “Rogers I’mma give you one chance.”
“It’s going to kill you all,” Steve grinds out, not taking his eyes off that curve of perfect obsidian.
“Ain’t killin’ nobody,” Rumlow argues, his voice gentle despite the words sounding like utter madness. “Rogers, buddy, thing’s deader than shit.”
Steve freezes, actually stops to look at the thing that’s dogged his nightmares. The surface of its exoskeleton is heavily fissured, like a freshly baked dessert after a deep, penetrating rain. The long, curved crescent of its head is nestled into its knees, the deadly spear at the end of its tail completing a near-perfect circle where it rests in a nest of cracked and broken concrete. It’s not so much of a monster any longer, just the dried out husk of one, fossilized with the dust around it.
In other words, deader than shit.
The moment he finally realizes the xenomorph isn’t alive arrives with an underwhelming force. It’s simply no longer an inky black shadow, lurking in nightmares, reaching through some tear in space to tear away his loved ones in shrieks and blood. It’s nothing more than animal remains, brittle and hollow, curled up in a surprisingly humanlike fetal position where it died, in the middle of the floor.
It’s smaller than he remembers.
The glowing blue beam of the thermal lance cuts out, leaving tracers in the darkness behind while Steve blinks away the streaks in his eyes, and he takes a few steps back.
“It’s dead,” he says out loud, because that’s what it takes for him to imprint that fact on his brain. It’s strange that it laid to rest here, right in front of a door, rather than hiding itself away in some duct or shaft, but who knows how long it was trapped before it finally succumbed to the nearly non-existent atmosphere. “Okay. So it’s dead. It’s dead.” Maybe he has to repeat it a few more times. “Finally…”
“Why don’t you head back to the ship,” Sitwell says, snatching his flashlight from where it had rolled to a stop against a jagged chunk of concrete. “Go help that tech patch up our main drive shaft or whatever it is.”
“The port side stabilizer,” Steve automatically corrects, his mouth falling into the familiar language of starship maintenance even as he continues to stare down at the xenomorph’s carcass. “Stress fracture in the primary piston. Ten inches long.”
Rumlow finally holsters his pistol, slamming it back into place with an impatient huff. “Get to it,” he grunts. “That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve answers, doing as he’s told, no objection, no fuss. It’s about all he can manage for now, despite the sensation that he needs to object nagging at him from just beneath the simmering shock. Memories keep flashing through his mind, the feeling of cold horror on the Hermes, the devastating loss of each and every Howling Commando, men he served with in the war, the best men he ever knew.
Bucky, his first officer, soft and quiet when they were alone but among the others nothing but brash decisions and bold smiles. Steve was a leader, the strategist, the hard ass, while Bucky was everyone’s best friend, learning what made the crew tick, reigning Steve in when he pushed them too hard. Peggy and him practically bounced off each other like the same sides of a magnet, but by the end Steve thinks they were just as tight as the rest of them.
Steve makes it to the floor above, the one with the empty hall lined with small empty rooms, before he finally stops his feet from carrying him through Rumlow’s direct order on autopilot. He veers off, goes to what he now thinks of as Peggy’s room, and sees her there, another fossilized husk of someone who used to be so much more alive than himself.
Steve steps into the room and claustrophobia instantly sinks in, the weight of the rest of the facility above and the metric tonnes of planetoid’s nitrate-rich rock draping around his shoulders like a shroud in the tiny space just big enough for that one work station.
It takes a lot for him to take the next step, and the next, until he’s right beside her, hip close to the desktop’s hard edge. He gently touches the dried leather on the top of Peggy’s hand and the flesh instantly crumbles beneath his fingers, exposing the delicate, white bones beneath. They should take her body back, he thinks. Give her a proper burial where she belongs. It’s amazing, even with the horrible wound in the back of her skull, that her hair is gorgeous, rich auburn, spread out across the computer console where she last rested her head. Steve is glad he can’t see her face.
Steve frowns. Karpov had said they needed to get it up to the ship, and Sitwell quoted some ‘Special Order,’ like the Company had been anticipating this, or hoping for it. Peggy had warned him, ‘don’t be too shocked by who you find here,’ using the distress beacon she could have used to notify Natasha, and save herself.
None of this is adding up. If Peggy were here she wouldn’t be following Rumlow’s orders like a chump. If Peggy was here she would be hunting for the truth, never stopping until…
Steve steps closer to the slumped form. Peggy is here. Peggy died here, just to make sure he got this message. Peggy wouldn’t have done that unless she had been sure her discovery was worth it.
Steve pulls an awl from his tool belt, gently nudges open Peggy’s gapping coverall pockets. He works slowly, like an archaeologist hunting for hidden treasures amongst a shrine’s ruins, not daring to disturb the delicate bones as he searches. It’s not easy, and he nearly gives up until suddenly he remembers that Peggy’s hair was in a ponytail when she recorded her message.
Steve doesn’t know if that really means anything, but it gives him the idea to take the thin metal tool and gently lift the splay of brown curls from the console. He sucks in a breath when he uncovers the dark, sunken pits where Peggy’s beautiful brown eyes once were, and right in front of her noseless face is an old fashioned access card, the kind with a solid handle and crystalline data structure. It’s so close to her mouth that had she been alive, she would have been warming it with her breath.
Steve slides it off the desk, and it hits his palm with an old fashioned weight, the kind only old relics from his time seem to carry. The card is designed to slot into old consoles — much older than the one Peggy sent her distress signal from — like the kind used for long term data storage, something that an officer would have needed to access a MU/TH/UR console.
Steve turns it over in his hand, thinking of where else it may have come from, going down the checklist in his mind of when he came across these, either in the past or over the last two years. They aren’t entirely out of circulation, still used for some older telecomms systems, though not the kind of comms systems you’d find on a ship or a shake ‘n bake colonial structure like Siberia.
Steve takes in a quick breath when it hits him and he glances upwards, like he could see straight through the facility and the mile of rock lying on top of him, all the way up to the derelict Seegson station moored just out of the planetoid’s orbit. Those deep space stations are outfitted with emergency comms that use crystalline-based data cards to access, store, and transmit sensitive data within an internal line. Could that be where Peggy got it from? If she had, then he wouldn’t be able to access the message without using the system it was recorded on.
Steve’s heart jumps, but there’s no full body flinch of total surprise. Somehow he already expected Natasha Romanoff to be here, since he’s investigating the room that she so graciously opened for him. Now that he knows what to look for, he can just make out a hair thin distortion outlining what he thinks might be her. That cloaking technology is really something else.
“I don’t know,” he finally answers with a clueless shrug of his shoulders.
Natasha grunts. Through the strange mask the noise comes out like a badly out of tune harmonica, but he gets the point that she’s annoyed. “You’re a terrible liar, Rogers.”
“Because generally I’m not one,” Steve snaps, tucking the access card into his coveralls pocket. “I assume you heard what the others are planning to do? Bring that thing onto the ship? You going to do something about it?”
“Why?” Steve watches the distortion flicker in the red strobing lights, and picks up on the subtle shift in air pressure as she moves around him. It’s strange to be so close to someone you can look straight through, to a dead body on the other side. “Do you want me to do something about it?” Peggy’s hair gently floats back over her face, slowly enough for Steve to think it’s an uncommonly tender gesture for someone like Natasha.
“It’s your job, isn’t it?” Steve challenges, not letting the brief vulnerability stop him. “It’s what your people do, whoever they are.”
“The specimen is in remarkable condition,” Natasha says. “But it’s not what I was looking for.”
Sometimes, when Steve gets to use high tech tools like the thermal lance still slung on his belt, he thinks the future isn’t so bad. Other times, hearing things like this, from invisible spies wearing alien technology in a voice that sounds like a demon, he thinks the future and everyone in it can burn.
Steve ignores her, turns on his heel, and heads back upstairs. It doesn’t take long to climb back into his EVA suit, take the surface lift back up to the Lemurian Star’s airlock, and go through a proper decontamination in the EVA bay. Officer Ward tries to get in Steve’s way, using that smarmy smile of his as he spits bullshit about ‘dereliction of duty’ and ‘working as a team.’ Steve just picks up the smaller man and sets him aside, right up against the bulkhead, and continues on his way without hearing a word of it.
Lucky quickly lopes up to Steve when he arrives in the service corridor, gives him the snoof of approval, then rolls back into Barton’s legs to let the deaf technician know he has company. Barton is wearing his hearing aids, but the dog is well trained, going through the motions to ensure Barton knows when he has company.
Steve drops down to his knees and gives Lucky scratches like the good boy he is, and feels his own heart buoy up. It’s not with hope, that foolish notion is long gone, but something more fulfilling sets his shoulders straight and lifts his chin, like a well charted route through the stars.
“You up for a side-mission?” Steve asks after Clint turns around and hooks a finger into his ventilator to tug it off his sweaty face.
Barton pats the stabilizer piston, and leans against it. Extra time or no, applying the bonding gel was meticulous, hard work and Barton looks ready to drop. “Where to, Cap?”
“The derelict,” Steve says, and watches Barton’s eyes go round, like the life is breathing right back into him. “Captain Rumlow is bringing up a dead goddamn xenomorph onto the Star but it turns out you and I? Well, we need to salvage parts for the ‘stabilizer repair.’”
“You don’t say,” Barton mumbles, his hands lazily working through the sign language for the phrase as he parses that particular download. “Is there going to be an explanation this time?”
Steve’s fingers dig deep into Lucky’s golden fur. “Yup.” The dog laps at Steve’s face, and he narrowly dodges the slobbery tongue as he pulls out the access card from his coveralls pocket. Clint catches the easy toss, runs his rough fingers over the red handle. “Found this with Peggy. Just got a hunch.”
“A hunch, huh?” Barton asks, turning it over in his hands. “This an acrylic data structure?”
“Crystalline. Very old fashioned,” Steve adds.
Barton grins. “Just like the kind they used on those old Seegson space stations.”
“You don’t say?” Steve says, straightening up and offering Lucky a consolation pat as he moves away. “Well, that’s just one hell of a coincidence.”
A smokey voice tumbles out behind them, deep and familiar distortion bouncing around the enclosed space. “When do we go?”
Barton makes a noise like wind leaving a balloon through a pinprick, and Steve grinds his back teeth as Natasha Romanoff sidles up next to Lucky. She scratches the dog behind his floppy right ear as her suit flickers, materializing right before their eyes.
“Is there a mirror here?” Barton mumbles, his unhappy frown aimed right at where she pets his best friend. “I don’t recall saying your name three times.”
Natasha turns that strange, flat mask towards them, eyes still glowing blue, and Steve imagines them narrowing at Barton’s nasty remark. “We better make it fast,” she suggests, because apparently she’s in charge now. “The ICC crew is on their way back on board with the specimen.”
Steve checks on Barton, to make sure he’s not still trying to pick a fight, and Barton just shrugs. Apparently, he’s up for anything. They wind up following Natasha out of the maintenance tunnel, along with Lucky, dancing happily at her side.
They make it halfway through the alignment bay before Barton catches up to the dog. “Traitors stay put,” he tells him, scolding Lucky with a pointed finger and denies him any additional ear scratches. Lucky licks his finger anyway and stays put, watching them leave from the safety of the engineering deck.
Steve knows it’s stupid, but he wishes the dog could come with them. Derelict space stations are no place for dogs, even ones as smart as Lucky, but there’s something about leaving him behind that makes Steve more nervous. Barton seems fine with it, so maybe Steve’s just being paranoid.
Natasha vanishes as they climb to the Star’s main level, which Steve expects, but before he can head to the bridge and lie through his teeth, the blue indicator lights flash and an alarm sounds.
“Code blue?” Clint observes, wincing and covering his ears.
“Medical,” Steve says, and that earlier confidence he found is crushed when his heart plunges into his stomach, a parachute with the cords cut. “It’s the medical alarm.”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” Ward shouts, sprinting through the corridor with Rollins in tow.
“What happened?” Steve shouts at his back.
“Fucking bug got Sitwell!” Ward says as he vanishes around the bulkhead leading to the EVA bay.
It’s dead though, Steve thinks. He saw it for himself. Was there something they missed? He didn’t have a chance to look around the rest of the floor before Captain Rumlow ordered him away. Had the rest of the crew even bothered to look for the scientist’s PDTs that they picked up on the map? Were there eggs — not eggs, Agent Coulson called them ovomorphs — or living xenomorphs lying in wait, just out of sight, using their fallen comrade’s dead body as a distraction? That would be just like them to do, smart as they are.
“Rogers,” Barton harshly whispers when Steve finally turns and follows behind the rest of the crew. He looks stricken, worried that any moment their grade school teacher will appear down the hallway and discover them cutting class. “Where are you going?”
“I have to see,” Steve tells him, turning back around just in case Barton has to read his lips over the singing alarm. Steve picks up speed, and wonders if the clang of metal flooring under his boots is just his own, or joined by Natasha Romanoff’s. Steve rounds the corner of the corridor past the cryosleep chamber, and nearly collides head first with Vasily Karpov.
The man sputters out something in Russian and that lab notebook from Siberia skitters across the floor. “Idiot!” He shouts, snatches it up, and stumbles on.
Steve’s eye catches on the book, red and tattered, like it’s seen just as many light years as its owner, all leathery, with a delicate spine. It’s also embossed on the cover with a black star, like a throwback to the old Russian icons from Earth. Steve suddenly thinks it’s an odd detail, and even odder that he noticed, but he puts the civilian out of his mind and continues to the EVA bay.
There he comes across utter chaos.
The EVA bay is meant for the crew to climb in and out of their environmental suits — not suits designed for full on spacewalks, but for the much more common situations where they have to walk around on planetoids and other hostile but relatively stable atmospheres. Siberia is on a planetoid with poisonous air, but not in a vacuum, so zipping into and out of the suits is only a minor hassle to get safely from ship to settlement.
The chamber itself is still a full on airlock, however, and inside the cramped space Steve finds the rest of the crew. Sitwell is convulsing in Zola’s arms, and Rumlow is slumped against Ward’s shoulder as the Warrant Officer shouts the Captain’s name. Rollins is ready with the rebreathers, because none of them are wearing their EVA suits.
“Holy shit,” Steve blurts out, and then he sees it; a slippery cluster of knuckles, latched firmly around Sitwell’s face, long, knobby tail circling his throat and pulsing with hard muscle.
“Rollins!” Ward shouts. “Bring it here!”
The navigator unfreezes, and shoves the rebreather into Ward’s hands. Ward hauls up the captain’s heavy bulk and Steve catches sight of his face, scalded bright red, flesh splattering away like melted candle wax. Ward gets the straps of the oxygen mask over Rumlow’s head and fixes it over what’s left of his nose and mouth.
“Hey! Big guy!” Ward snaps, meaning Steve. “Grab his legs!”
Steve doesn’t hesitate. He steps over Sitwell’s thrashing form, hauls Rumlow up by the backs of his knees, and he and Ward walk the unconscious man out of the EVA bay and into medical, in a lockstep that any ex-infantryman would be familiar with.
“The fuck happened?” Steve asks, and catches sight of Barton, who jumped in to help Rollins hold down Sitwell with Dr. Zola. Ward finishes arranging Rumlow on one of the examination tables, and drags a med cart over. He’s not a doctor, but all the ICC officers have some level of training in field medicine. If this isn’t a wound sustained in battle, Steve doesn’t know what is.
Captain Rumlow is a fucking mess.
“Zola says there was one inside the fucking thing,” Ward spits out, flinging open one supply drawer after the other before he grabs a handful of single-use morphine hypodermics, another thing any ex-infantryman would be familiar with. “That bastard Karpov-”
“Fucking son of a bitch bastard!” Rumlow screams, and launches off the padded examination table with a gasp, then screams again, “Fucking get it off!” He claws at his ruined face, and tears the mask clean off.
Steve knows this kind of burn too well, knows how much pain the man must be in, and grabs Rumlow’s wrists before he could do more harm to himself. Ward is quick with the morphine, yanks the cap off with his teeth and plunges the needle directly into the captain’s straining neck.
“What was inside the dead one? Did he shoot it?” Steve asks, as Rumlow’s back arches off the mattress again, fighting against the spasm of agony that rips through him. The sterile pad beneath him is already streaked with blood and flesh, sloughing freely from his cheeks as he continues to struggle. Steve is pretty sure the man’s ears are already long gone.
“Fucking hope so,” Ward curses, missing the first half of Steve’s question as he scrambles to grab ahold of the captain’s ankles, just as Rollins and Barton haul Sitwell to the opposite examination table. Unlike Rumlow, Sitwell has gone completely still and Zola arrives quickly after, pale and sweating.
“Quick,” Zola orders, opening the long white hatch of the medical module selector, the tiny little bunk that Sitwell’s examination table slots into for deep scanning. “Get him flat. Arms in. Get the rest of his coveralls off. Boots first, you neanderthal! That’s right.” Zola throws a few switches on the overhead console, then leans into one large button. Barton and Rollins step clear of the examination table as it swings around on a mechanical arm, fitting into the module selector.
The tight chamber is made with reinforced polycarbonate lexan, bulletproof, and immediately lights up with augmented reality readouts for Officer Sitwell’s physiology and current condition. It should be enough to stop the xenomorph when it bursts through his chest.
Should be, but has anyone ever succeeded in trapping one of those things for long?
“Rogers!” Steve tears his attention away from Sitwell, from the thing latched onto the man’s face, long, bony fingers clasped tightly against his bald skull, and tries to focus on the captain. His struggles have grown a bit weak, but Ward still needs help holding him so that he can apply burn cream and bandages.
It winds up being a long time before either Steve or Barton can get away, and then they are tasked with cleaning up the EVA bay, sterilizing the airlock, resetting all the instruments that went haywire from all the atmospheric nitrate contaminants, and finally, after all that, realize that Karpov is no longer onboard the Lemurian Star.
Chapter 6: You've Opened Heaven's Portal
There’s nothing worse than reliving a nightmare, except to finally realize that it’s no nightmare at all, but real life, here and now. Steve considers this even as he stands over Zola’s shoulder, if maybe this has been his destiny all along, of how pointless it had been to think he could have had any life that didn’t involve this terror, while watching the quivering scientist examine Sitwell’s results.
The Lemurian Star might be an old girl in her bones, but the med lab is state of the art, outfitted with the latest in Wey-Yu’s tech to keep the crew alive and well. Despite that, and despite Dr. Zola’s best efforts, Executive Officer Jasper Sitwell is not alive and well.
“I’m telling you,” Steve growls, slamming his fist down on the console. “Sitwell’s as good as dead!”
“That’s simply not true,” Zola says, completely unbothered by Steve’s claim. After all this his smug attitude has finally returned, so Steve can almost hear the, ‘you neanderthal,’ after his argument. “He’s as healthy as he’s ever been. Once the parasite is removed, we can extract any contamination and-”
“Oh, come on!” Steve can’t believe it, that mankind could come so far, and still be just as dumb as they were seventy five years ago, or so arrogant, thinking that they could save these people. “He’s healthy now because it wants him to be healthy, to be a good host. There is no way to take that thing out, not on the Star!”
“You seem to know a lot about this medical condition,” Zola says, leveling his wire-rimmed glasses to better scrutinize Steve with his beady eyes. “For a mechanic.”
Steve presses his lips together, and thinks again of this familiar path he’s bumbling along. The rumors of xenomorphs have gotten out, with as many ships and crews and half-heard stories have slipped around Wey-Yu’s best efforts, but that’s all they’ve ever been as far as Steve could tell. Ghost stories from the Frontier, just like the ones of little green men, sentient nebulas, and mystical black holes that allow you to see God on the other side. The rest of the crew must suspect he’s had some kind of experience out there, since they know of Steve’s record-breaking cryosleep, but it’s not like he would tell them the truth, even if he could legally break his tenuous NDA with Wey-Yu. He already knows, from how well trod this path is, that they’d never believe him.
Steve only confided in Barton with drunken sign language, after he finally got a hang of finger-spelling the alphabet, and they celebrated with Barton’s private reserve. It had been cathartic at the time, despite how guilty he felt after, but he didn’t technically talk about it, so there. Barton never really brought it up since, and he hasn’t bothered to ask if the man even believed him. That hadn’t been the point of his confession, at the time.
Zola seems to take Steve’s silence as capitulation, so he goes back to staring at the readouts, tapping through them with his stubby fingers. Steve can practically see the wall go up, the same one that went up when he had debriefed with Agent Coulson. An immovable object planted directly in his path, the truth of what happened on the Hermes just on the other side of it, beyond his reach, no matter how loudly Bucky’s ghost screams in his ears.
Finally fed up with his company, Zola spins back around in his chair. “Shouldn’t you be in some filthy engine room, prepping the launch?”
So that they can be in space when that thing tears its way out of Sitwell’s chest? Sure. Sounds like a great strategy. They also seem to be short one civilian passenger but who the fuck is Steve to point that out to the chief medical officer.
Steve says none of this, and quickly heads back down below instead. Barton is re-sealing the access hatch to the repaired stabilizer piston, so Steve makes sure the pre-flight systems are all a-go and finishes packing up his tools to make sure they don’t wind up clinking around the deck before the artificial grav system corrects itself in high orbit. He adds that to his checklist of things to overhaul after they finally jump back into hyperspace, and the rest of the crew are safely tucked away in their cryotubes.
The high powered tools, like the thermal lance, are stored in a secure compartment just past the cryosleep chamber. Steve slows down, lance in hand, and does a double take when he notices all the cryotubes are empty. Vasily Karpov had been in one of them, but the other, separate from the rest of the crew pods with the frosted lid, had been sealed after the emergency crew activation. This pod hadn’t been open when he retrieved the tool, before he went back down to crack open the lower level security brace.
“Natasha…?” He considers out loud. It isn’t a totally unreasonable theory, considering her history of sneaking around and opening things up along the way. The fact that Vasily Karpov is also missing makes Steve think that’s probably not the case, but there’s not much he can do about that. Officer Ward, who took up command after Captain Rumlow and Executive Officer Sitwell wound up in the med lab, tasked Rollins with looking for the errant tourist, and there aren’t exactly a whole lot of places for the Russian to go. Despite the fact that the navigator is an idiot, even a broken clock is right at least twice day.
Steve is more worried about getting off this fucking planetoid, docking with the derelict, and figuring out what the hell Peggy found that was worth dying for. All before that xenomorph finishes off Sitwell and starts killing everyone. Easy stuff.
Steve sets the thermal lance in it’s charging dock and locks the tool crib before he clicks on the comms in the cryosleep chamber. “Officer Ward?” He gets a confirmation after a few seconds. “Who was the passenger in the last cryotube?”
There’s a depression of noise as he waits of Ward’s response, a crackle over the line, and then finally, “ICC classified info, Rogers.”
“Sure, sir,” Steve says. “You might want to know that your ICC classified info isn’t in cryo anymore.”
“Say again?” Comes the immediate response.
“Your classified passenger is up. The cryochamber is now oh-for-seven.” Steve is met with more silence before the line goes dead, because Officer Ward apparently doesn’t think to sign off comms like a decent human being.
“That supposed to be open?” Barton says, pointing at the open cryotube with one finger while holding onto a beaker from the med lab station, full of what Steve hopes is coffee. “Who woke the tourist?”
“Who did Peggy think I’d find? Where are those PDTs we went down there for? Who does Natasha Romanoff work for? Where did Karpov go?” Steve throws up his hands after the rapid fire questions. “How the fuck did I live after everyone I cared about died, while I wasn’t fucking looking?”
Clint blinks owlishly, and then his expression softens, but just as he’s opening his mouth to speak Lucky bumps into the back of his legs. Clint looks over his shoulder, and Steve follows his gaze, equally confused. There is no one else in the cryosleep chamber, or the mess hall beyond.
“N-Natasha?” Clint stutters out, finally finding the courage to summon her himself, and just like that she materializes. Clint makes a weak sound in the back of his throat and he cringes so hard that his shoulders nearly touch his ears.
Steve’s actually gotten pretty used to her by now, and Lucky’s tongue lolls out of his happy smile when he greets her with a boop of his wet nose into her armored kneepad. “Traitor,” she says, voice deep and distorted as ever, and gives the dog a thorough pet.
“Did you do this?” Steve says, as Clint glares daggers into the back of her head when she passes by them both to inspect the empty cryotube.
“No,” she says. “Karpov did. He’s at Siberia right now, with your- what did you call them? Tourists?”
Barton shrugs, like it should be obvious. “Hangs out being useless, doing nothing but getting dragged around the Frontier, along for the ride. Tourist.”
“More like cargo,” she says, offering a counterpoint in a strangely sad tone, and steps away from the tube. “There’s a xenomorph lose in there.”
Steve shivers. “Fuck. They didn’t tell me.”
“No,” she says. “They wouldn’t. There was a living ovomorph beneath the husk, but Dr. Zola was wrong. It wasn’t a dead xenomorph. It was just its exoskeleton. It shed it to survive when the atmosphere was depleted. Rumlow shot it, but it escaped. It’s likely trying to find its way out of the facility or onto the ship.”
“We’re square for takeoff,” Barton says. “We can go at any time. They won’t initiate without Karpov though.”
Steve immediately thinks of how he could use his security access tuner to override the Star’s systems and switch Karpov’s own PDT to transmit a signal to tell the crew he’s deceased, clearing the regs for them to leave him behind. Just another accident on a non-scheduled stop, a tragic event leading to some kind of quiet lawsuit payout. Steve’s horrified by how dark and selfish his thoughts can be, and keeps that idea to himself.
“Can you bring him back?” Steve asks, turning to Natasha.
“Are you giving me orders now, Captain Rogers?” She crosses her arms in a defensive stance but she sounds intrigued, like if she declines it might not mean she isn’t interested.
“I’m guessing the people you work for have ways of taking care of privileged Russians,” Steve says, playing into her game.
“SHIELD,” she says, and Barton glances at her in surprise, like that means something.
“Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. Those are the people I work for, Captain Rogers,” she rattles it off quickly, like she’s also breaking some complex non-disclosure agreement. “And he isn’t Russian, at least not anymore. Isn’t SHIELD either, but I’m pretty sure he works for the Colonial Marines.”
“Okay,” Steve says, with a nod, hoping he’s not giving himself away. He’s never heard of SHIELD and he has no idea if he should have. “Is SHIELD government?”
“A little,” she answers, unhelpfully.
“A little of that, too,” she says, and Steve’s surprised she admitted even that much.
“A paramilitary force run by a committee of government officials called the Frontier Security Council,” Barton explains, then throws back the rest of his coffee and sets the beaker in a tub by the sink. “Ex-spies and ex-terrorists and ex-pirates, given letters of marque to complete missions under immunity from ICC authority. That sound about right?”
Natasha is hard to read, the flat mask hiding any expression, the unblinking eyes ever glowing in that unnatural vibrant blue. Her silence stretches on, and Steve is just starting to feel uncomfortable when she laughs again, that small harmonica note playing through her mask’s distortion. “You’re a lot smarter than you look.”
The backhanded compliment is meant as just that, but the playful way she shakes her head, tossing those rich red plaits, takes the bite out of it. Clint puts the tub of coffee stained beakers in a drawer and shuts it with enough force that the glass clatters hard from inside it. “No idea what you mean,” he says, with no humor at all for her teasing.
This is a side of Clint Barton that Steve isn’t sure he’s seen before, and thinks they’ve actually managed to find someone that the junior technician genuinely doesn’t like. Steve signs the word ‘more later?’ but Barton only replies with a sharp sign for ‘nevermind,’ and that’s the end of it.
“I’m going back out,” Natasha says, turning away from the silent exchange. “I want to know what this Karpov guy is up to. Don’t head to the space station without me.”
With that she’s gone again, fading away right before their eyes, first turning into nothing but a thin outline of herself before she vanishes completely. Then Barton snorts rudely, and stomps towards the main corridor. “Like we’d be the ones to make that decision?”
“SHIELD, huh?” Steve says, and watches Barton’s shoulders tense up before he plucks Rollins’ ICC cap off his head, scrubs a hand through his hair again and drops it back down.
“There is not enough booze left on this creaking tub to tell that story, Cap.”
“Hey,” Steve says, patting the console nearest himself, a control panel for the cryosleep tubes. “Be nice to the old girl. She’s a senior citizen but she does alright. We’ll save it for a victory drink at Gateway Station, if we make it.”
“If?” Barton says with a fatalistic snicker and finally relaxes enough to turn around. He’s smiling again, and Lucky happily sits down at his feet. “Definitely. If.”
Right on cue, the radio snaps to life, and officer Ward’s voice comes crackling over the line. “Dr. Zola! Where are you? We need immediate medical support in the EVA bay! Do you copy?”
Steve shares a look of surprise with Barton before he leans over to the intercom. “The doc isn’t on the service deck, sir,” he tells him. “Last I saw him was in the med-bay, control deck.”
“Roger that,” Ward says. “Send him up immediately if you find him!” And the line goes dead again.
Barton’s face twists with the same confusion Steve feels in his gut, before he mutters out, “The hell…?”
Steve sprints down to the EVA bay, after Barton peeled off towards medical. It’s a long way, and Steve is flying down the corridor, not really considering what he might be rushing into. Karpov must have returned, maybe even with that mysterious second tourist, and one or both of them is injured, which means-
Steve gets to the intersection, where the main corridor leads to the EVA bay, and catches sight of Rollins and Ward. They are both looking ahead, towards the EVA bay doors which are out of sight around the corner, backing up slowly past the open doorway that leads to the service corridor where Steve is standing. Ward’s eyes are huge, staring straight ahead at whatever is coming from the EVA bay itself, and Rollins is shaking, barely able to force himself back with the other officer.
“Ward!” Steve shouts, and then skids to a stop when he sees it. A long, glossy black arm emerges first, inhuman fingers wrapping around the edge of the bulkhead as it steps into view. Steve’s throat slams shut, and he feels the vertigo of overwhelming fear tug him towards the ground. “No,” he whispers, because he can’t freeze up, not now, not when the thing is real and alive and here.
Thick black legs follow, but then the image of the xenomorph is undone when a man steps past the doorway. Not the long arched skull of the creature from Steve’s nightmares, but a human being, wearing his own EVA mask. It reminds Steve of Natasha’s, but it’s in two parts — a lower ventilator obscuring his face and dark goggles covering his eyes. His hair is dark and long, in a shaggy, careless cut that passing through the harsh environment outside did no favors for. He’s wearing all black, tactical equipment, armored for a mission.
Ward and Rollins continue backing away from him, and Karpov follows at his elbow. “What the fuck are you...” Steve hisses, because he wasn’t wrong when he saw that arm. It’s deeply ribbed and rigid, like the hard shell of a xenomorph exoskeleton, sharp edges from the shoulder glistening green in the ship’s white lights.
The figure stops there in the doorway, and turns its head towards Steve, just staring through those black goggles without saying a word, and Steve feels that gaze go right through him, like a lance. So that’s their tourist. A xenomorphic experiment.
“You complete idiot!” A nasty little voice cries out behind Steve, and he spins around to find Dr. Zola marching down the hall, with Captain Rumlow stomping right beside him. Steve is shocked to see the captain conscious at all, his face still wrapped with pink-stained bandages, looking like a hard son of a bitch. Dr. Zola shoves his way past Steve without a second glance on his way through the door. “How dare you!”
Vasily Karpov is holding that strange lab notebook, pointing with it at the angry medical officer. “What better opportunity to test him than to hunt a real live specimen!” He shouts, spittle flying out of his mouth along with his harsh accent. “What better way to prove to them that the Winter Soldier program was a success!”
“And look what it did!” Zola screams, slapping the book aside. “Killed the only living xenomorph we’ve encountered in twenty years! You military people are all the same, never thinking of the bigger picture!”
Captain Rumlow shoots a look down the hallway, glaring at Steve even through his bandages, then slams a fist on the switch to seal the bulkhead door, cutting off the rest of their conversation. Steve is having a hard time parsing Karpov and Zola’s argument, because that thing, that monster, had never stopped staring at him, even after Rumlow and Zola arrived. It looks so much like a man, so much like a living breathing human, and yet... that arm.
Steve takes a weak step backward, wishing he could just sit down, just take a good few minutes to think. His hand touches his coveralls pocket, right over his heart, where the rigid outline of Peggy’s data card remains.
That is still his priority. That is still what Peggy died for. He has to get to the derelict.
Steve clutches both the straps of his harness as the Lemurian Star rattles up through the planetoid’s thin atmosphere, leaving research outpost Siberia behind. This time, as he feels his weight shift through the artificial gravity adjustments, he stares at the cryotube, at the dark shape lying prone under the raised hood. There had been no other station for the xenomorphic experiment to lock into, and after Zola and Karpov finally came to a head in their argument, was simply ordered back into the cryotube, to remain there until the rest of the crew goes back under for the rest of the journey to Gateway Station.
Steve isn’t sure, but he thinks that it still might be staring at him as they make altitude and break orbit.
It hadn’t taken much for Barton and Steve to convince Rumlow they needed to visit the derelict. Steve even argued with Barton for effect, and eventually conceded that the junior technician was correct, and they need to recalibrate the port side stabilizer with an independent system in order to ensure it would safely operate in hyperspace. It’s total bullshit, but Rumlow takes their word for it.
Steve doesn’t even feel a little bit guilty for abusing the man’s trust. Not when they had that thing lying there the whole time, only three feet away from Steve’s chair, for the past year. He should have known there was something dangerous about the one cryotube with a frosted lexan lid, which kept the tourist hidden from view. Steve glares back at the dark goggles, just in case the thing is actually still staring at him.
It turns out that the hull of the station is still intact, along with the environmental systems, so it doesn’t take long for Steve to send a signal for the station to kickstart emergency access procedures. Apparently, it helps that the Lemurian Star has what turned out to indeed be a high ranking colonial marines officer as their ‘civilian tourist’ on board. All space faring vessels, even decommissioned space stations from Seegson, are required to aid vessels with high enough clearance passengers.
Whatever happens to the poor suckers caught with mechanical failures out in space without one, Steve would hate to know. Maybe they’d have to do an actual space walk, heavy space suits and properly sealed helmets, along some kind of tether, all the way to the emergency access hatch and just hope it opens for them.
According to the station’s manifest, it had originally been christened Asgard. Lofty ideals for a station that ultimately failed, and now counts as just another piece of space junk littering the Frontier. Steve can feel it when the ship begins to tilt, the gravity systems sluggish to correct as the Star matches Asgard’s rotation. Rollins apparently managed to guide it safely, because the whole ship suddenly judders and then evens out, holding fast to the main docking hatch.
“Docking complete,” the navigator’s voice announces over the PA. “Locked in and stable. Barton, Rogers, you’re up.”
Steve flings off his harness and gets out of the tourist’s line of sight as quickly as possible, still rankled by the sense of that dead gaze on the back of his neck. Barton yawns, stretches, and releases his own harness, pouring the furball out of his lap before he stands.
The two of them hurry to the EVA bay, passing by medical along the way, but Steve stops short when he glances through the quarantine window inside.
“What is it?” Barton asks, after Lucky circles around in front of him. He taps his own hearing aids, realizing he hadn’t heard Steve stop, and frowns when he tries to adjust.
“Sitwell,” is all Steve says, pointing through the clear observation window into the lab.
Officer Sitwell is still encased within in the module selector, but he’s weakly rubbing his hand over his sweaty face, slowly coming awake. Beside him is a crumpled knuckle of limbs, curled towards its center like a dead spider. Steve swallows thickly. It took forty-eight hours for the thing to fall off Dernier, when the attack happened on the Hermes. This thing was on Sitwell for less than five.
“I thought we had two days,” Barton whispers loudly, and presses his hand up against the glass. “Does this mean the thing will get out sooner, too? The hydra?”
“Fuck,” is the only answer Steve has for that question.
They still have to wait out Asgard’s environmental cycling, making sure it reports back with livable atmo before they can open the exterior hatch, so Steve winds up stuck, pacing while he waits outside of the med lab. Dr. Zola is in there now, along with Captain Rumlow, who’s still standing, despite looking fucking terrible. Sitwell is up, stiffly seated on the edge of the examination table, dark circles under his eyes and purple bruises around his throat the only indication that he had been lying prone in a coma only minutes beforehand.
“I’m telling you,” Sitwell insists, waving Zola’s gloved fingers away. “I feel fine. Just. I feel like I got gas, you know? Bloated or something, I don’t know.”
Steve is so tired, he drops his forehead to the glass with an audible thunk. The man has a goddamn alien life form growing in his chest and he thinks he has fucking heartburn. Steve glares at Zola, and tries to think if there’s anything he could possible do that would make a damn bit of difference.
“We need to ensure you aren’t carrying a contagion,” Zola insists. “I know it’s frustrating, but I need you to remain here, in quarantine, or you risk infecting the rest of the crew.”
You neanderthal, Steve fills in with a grin, grateful that at least some measures are being taken. Maybe Dr. Zola’s peevish superiority will actually come in handy for once. Steve finally looks away when he hears someone coming, and Barton hurries down the corridor when he catches sight of him.
“Should have known you were here,” he says, out of breath. “There’s something you need to see.”
Barton takes him on a roundabout trip below decks, finally forcing him into an access hatch for a narrow maintenance tube. They crawl on hands and knees before they get to a certain juncture when Barton comes to a stop. “I was resetting the futzing scrubbers again since we docked, and overheard our Russian friend,” he explains. “He was saying these words, in Russian, all in a row. Not like a sentence, but like a list.”
Steve doesn’t say anything as Barton explains along the way, just listens carefully, tracking their position through his memorized map of the Star’s architecture. They should be right under the stasis chamber, a dozen feet to starboard from where all the cryotubes are anchored in the central hub, by the time they finally come to a stop. Noise echoes down around them, Karpov’s Russian ringing clear as a bell.
“You overheard him talking to the experiment?” Steve says, glancing up at the bright light of one of the regulator indicators. It winks in and out as the fan rotates slowly above them, like a strobe. They can’t actually see inside the stasis chamber, but the acoustics in this particular shaft are flawless. Steve is about to ask why that’s such a big deal when he hears a second voice, much quieter, respond in Russian. It’s muffled and indistinct, but clearly very human.
“I overheard the experiment itself talking,” Barton says, pointing up and following Steve’s line of thought. “He’s following some kind of orders.”
“They called him the Winter Soldier,” Steve says. “Natasha thought that it was a xenomorph, turned into a weapon.”
Barton nods. “It’s actually a soldier, turned into a xenomorph.”
Poor bastard, Steve thinks. He’s no stranger to the military going to extreme lengths to get the most out of their human inventory, but this? This is far beyond what he thought they’d be capable of. Steve thinks again of the soldier’s arm, and wonders if it hurts to have an alien body part sprouting from a ruined human shoulder, fighting all the time with the basic physiology he was born with. He listens to that voice, only slightly distorted by the hum of the ship’s systems, the gentle chop of the fan above, and touches the data card again, suddenly reminded of his own beating heart. He thinks it sounds a little sad, the voice of this soldier.
Maybe for the first time ever, Steve has a moment where he thinks he has been lucky to have survived all that he has. The thought immediately makes him turn away, shame burning the back of his neck. “Let’s go,” he says. “I want to get suited up so that we can get to Asgard and read this damn data card.”
Before he makes it two steps, he hears Karpov make a frustrated sound. There’s a hard crack, like someone striking something stiff, and then the angry stomp of boots as the Russian leaves the cryosleep chamber. Barton frowns, and waves at Steve to come back.
A few minutes pass and just as Steve starts to wonder what they are still doing there, an all too familiar voice, deep and digitally distorted, speaks in Russian in the chamber above. It’s no surprise that someone named Romanoff could speak Russian, but Steve can’t help but think that’s more than a coincidence. Steve and Barton share a look when they hear the click and release of air from her mask being removed.
“Do you speak English?” She asks, her natural voice coming out smokey and rich, like before.
“Da,” the soldier says, then haltingly and clearly unused to it, “English. Yes.”
“I see,” she says, like that answered some other, hidden question. “I wanted you to know. There is a xenomorph contamination on board the Lemurian Star. Executive Officer Jasper Sitwell was attacked by a facehugger six hours ago. One hour ago, the facehugger released and died.”
“Ready to comply,” the soldier stiffly responds, and Steve can hear him moving, the creak of his armor as he climbs out of the cryotube.
“Medical lab, control deck,” she tells him, and her voice is sterile and sure, like she’s issuing orders of her own. Apparently, the Winter Soldier isn’t trained to only follow Karpov’s, though maybe Natasha has some sort of authority as a member of this SHIELD organization.
“Ready to comply,” the soldier recites again, like he has very few words in his English vocabulary and intends to say each one perfectly.
Steve and Barton both follow the sound of heavy boots, leaving the stasis chamber, before they head back the way they came.
“Damn it,” Barton hisses, keeping pace behind Steve as they make their way. “I knew we couldn’t trust her, I knew it!”
“You just didn’t trust her because your dog likes her better’n us,” Steve grunts, climbing out of the hatch and straightening up on the maintenance deck where they entered. “Don’t worry about Natasha Romanoff, let’s figure out what the hell this thing is going to do with Officer Sitwell.”
The two of them sprint to medical, only just as they hear angry shouting and a crash of metal. “What are you doing!” Zola screams. “Stop! Help!”
Steve rounds the corner, then doubles back and flings his arm wide, shielding Barton just as Zola comes flying out of the med lab’s open door. Zola strikes the wall, crumples to the ground, glasses askew on his face, one sleeve of his lab coat torn and bloody at the shoulder.
“Stay the fuck away from me!” Sitwell screams. Steve leaps over Zola and charges in, just in time to see Sitwell wearing just his sweats and an undershirt, open up a fire extinguisher at the Winter Soldier. The room immediately fills with an impenetrable plume of thick white haze, before Steve could reach him.
“Damn it, Sitwell!” Steve says, coughing as the extinguisher continues to aspirate sticky, fire-retardant clouds into the room. The bright red cannister suddenly zips through the fog, barely missing Steve’s head, and crashes into Zola’s office chair before both topple to the floor. Sitwell screams, then stumbles right past Steve.
“Run!” Sitwell screams, and bursts out of the medical lab.
“Shit, stop him!” Steve shouts, because like it or not, Sitwell has one of those things inside him, and the last place he needs to be is loose on the ship, adrenaline spiked and ready to defend himself. Then Steve’s heart forgets to beat when the dark shadow of the Winter Soldier passes right by him, so close the material on his jacket’s right side brushes Steve’s shoulder. He looks at Steve — or at least, Steve thinks he does — before he turns his attention back to following Sitwell’s path.
Did the soldier just hesitate? Steve can’t be sure. Instead Steve leaves Barton to look after Zola and follows Sitwell, easily passing the soldier who seems to only move at one, steady pace. It’s as cold as it is unsettling, but at least it allows Steve to sprint after the executive officer, following him to the opposite end of the service deck.
“Sitwell!” Steve shouts, finally spotting him outside of the starboard airlock doors. “The fuck are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” Sitwell cries out, and smashes the emergency weapons case stored there. He hauls out a pulse rifle, lightweight but powerful, and slaps off the safety before he hits the live feed button. The weapon powers up with a buzzing charge just as Steve reaches him. The enclave leading to the airlock is narrow, with a supply closet on either side, one with the full body space suits designed for prolonged exposure to a vacuum, and the other with the ship’s sole supply of officially licensed firearms.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Steve says, and instead of challenging Sitwell, turns to the intercom. “This is Rogers! Sitwell is at the starboard airlock doors, armed, ready to kill Karpov’s soldier.”
“That thing wants to kill me!” Sitwell spits, and shoulders his rifle, aiming it down the hall at whatever might come their way.
“You’re already dead,” Steve murmurs.
“What!” Sitwell whips around, now aiming his weapon right at Steve’s face, and Steve suddenly realizes how he’s miscalculated. It’s taken him a long time to think before he speaks, a long time to adjust to his lowly freelancer status, but this time it might actually cost him his life.
Steve’s so surprised, feels so foolish, that he barely registers it when a dark streak cuts in front of his face, slamming into the weapon aimed at him, and crushes it in half against the airlock door. Sitwell cries out in horror as the Winter Soldier shoves him into the wall, does his best to fight back when he’s lifted clear off his feet.
“Stop!” Steve cries out, grabbing onto that sickening, chitin surface of the soldier’s shoulder and yanks on the spines there. The soldier barely reacts, shrugging Steve off like he’s barely a nuisance, barely worth noticing, as he turns his attention back to the struggling officer.
Steve hears someone shout out in another language, and whips around to see Karpov, marching down the hall with Ward and Rollins in tow. They’re too late. Steve can only watch, forced against the bulkhead, when the soldier hits the airlock button and throws Sitwell inside. The man shakes when he scrambles back to his feet, trapped in the small pocket of atmosphere between the safety of the ship and the vacuum outside.
“You can’t be serious!” Sitwell screams, throwing himself against the door. Steve lunges for the button, desperate to save this man he knows is already doomed. “Rogers!” Sitwell pleads, banging on the small vestibule window. “Rogers help me!”
“You son of a bitch!” Steve throws a punch, and the soldier grabs his wrist, crushing it in his own vice like grip. He wraps Steve’s own arm around himself, quickly turning him into a pretzel. “Stop!”
There’s more Russian screaming, and Steve hears Sitwell scream his name one last time, and then—
There is a single indicator light that switches from green to red above the airlock door. One single light, that now indicates Sitwell is dead. There really isn’t even any other sound, since the vacuum snuffs it out as soon as the hatch pops open. Steve’s locked joint is suddenly released, and he scrambles away from from the soldier, fists up and ready for a fight.
“What the fuck!” Rollins screams, and the Winter Soldier does nothing, only standing to attention by the airlock’s controls.
“Contamination neutralized,” he answers simply, as if Rollins had asked a genuine question, and Steve backs up, until his shoulders strike the bulkhead behind him.
When the soldier had him there, held tight against his own body, Steve could actually feel his radiating warmth. It was strange to be so close to this almost-person and smell his sweat and his hair and feel how alive he must be, somewhere inside that ice cold visage. It’s no wonder they call them Winter Soldiers, Steve thinks, as the crew scrambles to restrain it, despite the fact that he himself doesn’t offer any resistance.
Steve only keeps himself plastered against the bulkhead as they drag it away, trying to catch his breath, trying to make sense of what just happened. He looks out of the airlock window, but Sitwell is already long gone. Blasted out into space, frozen, dead before the ticking time bomb growing in his chest could manifest. Steve had wanted Zola to kill him, had wanted the chief medical officer to feed him morphine until he just drifted off. This isn’t at all what the man deserved.
Steve zips into the loose fitting EVA suit, plonks the clear helmet over his head and quickly tests his oxygen levels. Atmo is apparently functioning on Asgard, but one can never be too careful on derelict stations. There’s no telling what kinds of bugs are in their environmental systems, and at least the EVA helmets would protect them for very, very short stints in a vacuum if it came down to it.
Steve thinks of Sitwell, screaming his name, simply because he was the last person there who could hear him before he was sucked out into space, and shivers. Maybe that’s really what makes Steve feel guilty, and not that the man died because Steve himself decided to allow an intruder to remain undetected onboard the ship. He hopes Natasha Romanoff leaves the Winter Soldier alone, now that it’s locked in the brig. That had been the compromise to keep Karpov happy, even after Zola raged about having it put down like a rabid animal. Steve is oddly sympathetic, knowing it wasn’t exactly the Winter Soldier’s fault.
Since they can’t use the exterior lifts outside of the EVA bay, they head straight back to the command deck, where the main docking hatch is located next to the Lemurian Star’s escape shuttle. It’s an easy few set of stairs, and Lucky trails dutifully along behind them, all the way up until they reach the hatch itself.
“Dog going too?” Ward asks, waiting for them at the top. He looks a tad more sober than his usual arrogant self, eyes tight with strain. Sitwell and Ward had been friends, Steve remembers. As much as he dislikes the guy, he knows how it feels to have crew members killed right in front of his face.
“Yes,” Barton says, at the same time Steve says, “No,” and all three of them share a look that is equal parts surprised and then confused.
“Uh,” Ward starts, before Steve steps up.
“Yes,” he says, correcting his earlier statement. “Barton’s had trouble with his aids since all the alarms went off. Besides, dog hears better than the both of us.”
Ward gives them both a look like they are either full of shit or crazy or both, but he’s too tired to argue. They are all starting to feel the strain after being up for fifteen hours, working through both a landing, a take off, and a goddamn murder.
“We ran a test connection through the airlock so we know atmo is good on the other side,” Ward explains, even though he knows Steve and Barton already had this debrief on the way up. “Just be careful. Get that calibration thing so we can get the fuck back home.”
“On it,” Barton says, shoving his ICC cap further into his front coverall pocket, like he’s worried that’s what will get away from him if anything goes wrong, then zips up his own EVA suit.
Ward opens the interior docking hatch, and Steve swallows down his fear and shoves aside the far-too-recent memory of Sitwell’s scream being silenced before he hops into the chamber. Lucky and Barton follow immediately after and Ward shuts the hatch. The gravity vanishes beneath their feet and they both detach, weightless within the docking umbilical that connects the Lemurian Star to Asgard.
Steve sets his feet against the Star’s hatch, pushes off with a deep thrust, and easily makes it to the opposite hatch, only ten feet above him (or in front of him, or below him, depending which way you look at things in zero-G.) He types in the access command, Asgard’s exterior docking hatch opens, and he slips inside its airlock. Steve turns, just in time to gather up Lucky as the dog paddles towards him, fur floating in a fluffy golden cloud around him, and Barton follows quickly after.
Barton seals the hatch behind all three of them, waits for the indicator light to tell them they have a solid seal, then activates the decompression. Steve feels his body weight return, slouches for a few seconds as the gravity settles around him. It’s always an odd sensation, since it never feels like it tugs on all of him at once, first starting on his thighs before it hits his guts and his chest and eventually the tips of his fingers. Lucky does a full body shake, resettling his fur, and they step out of the airlock into Seegson’s deep space station, Asgard.
There’s garbage everywhere at the reception gate, cases piled up haphazardly with discarded belongings, clothes, things that people leave behind when they move but can’t be bothered to pay the extra luggage fee. The gates along this side of the station are all equipped with floor-to-ceiling observation windows, and as Steve seals the hatch he looks over the Lemurian Star, tethered to the station with her umbilical. From this position, with gravity now anchoring them to Asgard’s floor, they are looking down on the Star’s head. The perspective makes it appear as if Officer Ward is glued to the wall from where Steve can still make him out when both small portholes on the airlock doors line up.
Steve offers the man a thumbs up before he turns away, meaningless because he could just use his comms, but something about the silent gesture felt important at that moment.
A vending machine at the end of the hall is on its side, a puddle of foaming soda gathering on the floor, just in front of a bulkhead door that’s blocked by two toppled (very dead) potted trees. It all must have been suspended in zero-G for a long time before the Lemurian Star’s emergency directive kicked the gravity back on, sending it crashing down in this heap. A long fluorescent light fixture is still gently swaying, arching occasionally with a small burst of sparks as its ragged wires connect briefly overhead.
Barton whistles, impressed by the devastation around them. “What. A. Shithole.”
“Barton, your comms are live,” Officer Ward reminds him.
“Roger that,” Steve says, while signing, ‘let it go’ to Barton as the technician raises an eyebrow over the obvious statement.
Steve kicks through some of the debris on the way to the main door, and he and Barton haul the brittle remains of the trees away from the sealed bulkhead hatch before they activate it. They have to travel through a few areas much like the receiving bay, littered with discarded furniture, bags of dried out food, and moving crates, all toppled into messy pyramids from where they had been quietly drifting before the Star intruded.
Beneath the grime and clutter are some signs of the station’s former grandeur. Ads for Seegson’s ‘world class’ services blink and stutter on backlit smartscreens placed on pillars dividing the walkways. They no longer play properly, but remain forever stuck between one or two frames of beautiful people enjoying level thirty’s beachfront, baked tan and smiling under an artificial sun. There’s scenes of Hyperdyne androids from level ten, serving a happy family, and directions to the luxury tropical spa, forty-two levels above that.
“Rich folks,” Barton mutters, glancing at one ad that showcased a man flashing an artificial smile full of teeth, with the words, ‘happy people need happy teeth,’ flickering above his plastic blue eyes. “Where the hell are my futzing teeth ever going to be where they need to be happy? Give em coffee, they’ll be happy enough...”
Eventually, they locate a freight elevator, and head straight down. Every ship, every station, every outpost has a maintenance deck, and that’s where both of them feel more at home. Even Lucky wags his tail when they get out, immediately comfortable around the humming machinery, blinking indicator lights, complicated panels of controls and system readouts. Right by the bulkhead, mounted to the wall, is a metal case with an old fashioned hand set, like a telephone, mounted securely to the wall with the words “EMERGENCY” stamped in bold letters on the top.
“Officer Ward, this is Barton. We found the stabilizer system,” Barton dutifully reports, as Steve approaches the long sought after data storage console. After a few minutes of silence, a concerned frown tugs at Barton’s mouth. “Officer Ward, come in?”
“Yes!” Ward shouts, like he’s desperately catching his breath. After a few pants he follows up in a rush, “Go for Ward.”
Concern flits across Barton’s face, but he lets it go after Steve shakes his head. “It looks like I can’t do a direct connection with their stabilizer calibration instruments,” Barton casually bullshits. “So I’ll have to do it remotely. It’ll disrupt comms but they should be back online as soon as it’s finished.”
“Roger that,” Ward says, surprising them by how quickly he swallows that line, then takes them completely off guard when he asks in a worried voice, “How long will you be radio silent?”
Barton turns to Steve and signs, ‘how long?’
Steve shrugs and signs in return, ‘no idea. I don’t know what’s on this.’
Barton winces, and his face twists in helpless confusion even though he speaks with utter confidence. “Once I start the process I can’t interrupt it, so I’ll give it thirty minutes max.”
“Roger that,” Ward says again. “Be advised, we... have a bit of a situation here.”
‘No shit,’ Barton signs, and Steve rolls his eyes.
The Lemurian Star is attached to a derelict space station after their executive officer was blown out of an airlock by a science experiment who was given orders by a spy. How could their day get any more complicated?
“Navigator Rollins is dead, killed about five minutes ago,” Ward quickly explains. “It’s- we think it’s an isolated incident, but Captain Rumlow says there might be an intruder.”
Barton immediately signs, ‘Natasha?’ and Steve shakes his head. So far she’s shown no indication that she’d murder any of the crew, other than Sitwell, who was implanted with a xenomorph embryo. Of course, what does he really know about Natasha Romanoff? Barton frowns at Steve’s answer, obviously unconvinced.
“We’ll try to make it quick, sir,” Barton says. “Barton out.”
Steve reaches to the main antenna on his helmet and simply flicks off the single switch, just as Barton does the same. “Alright,” Steve says. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
The console is in good shape, the hard, analogue buttons only slightly faded from use. Steve holds the access card by the handle, carefully inserts it into the slot, then gives it a firm shove to seat it in place. The console lights up, and Steve lets his fingers hover over the playback button for only an instant before punching it.
The low definition screen lights up, flickers as the data unscrambles, and Steve frowns when the the screen settles with one word followed by a winking cursor icon: PASSWORD_
“Fuck…” Steve clenches his fingers tightly, flexes them open and closed a few times.
“Any ideas?” Barton asks.
Steve gives a firm not, and with a steady hand punches in:
“Dancing monkey?” Barton asks, reading over his shoulder. “What’s that about?”
“Inside joke,” Steve halfway admits. “From back on the Hermes. I had a bad habit of feeling sorry for myself after the war, how people saw me, how I saw myself.” Steve stops himself from rambling with a frustrated sigh. He didn’t think she’d use the same password twice but it was good to eliminate it.
Steve huffs a sigh, and Lucky huffs a sigh right after, apparently bored with his lack of progress. The dog sits on Barton’s feet to stop the man from pacing, because he’s a good boy.
“Damn it,” Steve hisses.
“I’m kind of getting a sense that you don’t really have any ideas…”
“I know what I’m doing,” Steve argues, even as he slowly comes to realize that he, quite literally, has no idea what he’s doing, and whispers again, “Damn it.”
He hates this, hates that he doesn’t know Peggy well enough to guess what sort of clues she’d leave behind. Bucky was always better at these sorts of word puzzles, always playing with riddles and games. It’s what made him so fun and spontaneous, like he always knew what he was going to say before he said it and made it all seem so effortless. Steve could plan a military campaign, but get him in a witty conversation and he tended to rub people the wrong way. That’s what made them such a great pair, Bucky with all the charm to rescue Steve from a fist fight. Of course, he was just as good in a fist fight when it came down to it but that’s not the point.
Steve wishes so much that Bucky had made it, that Bucky could have met Clint Barton and Lucky, could have laughed with them in sign language behind the backs of this damn ICC crew without Peggy ever having to use her very last words to tell Steve-
“This is Peggy Carter,” Peggy says, and Barton holds his breath. Steve can see a wide open control room behind her, like she’s on the bridge of a ship. She’s wearing a blousy top, something feminine, and her full lips are dark with lipstick. She looks very different from when she had been serving on the Hermes, or recovering on the station.
“Captain Rogers, if you’re seeing this I guess I didn’t complete my mission. Sorry about that. I am recording this because I think, for once, I might be in over my head.” Peggy flips her long curls over her shoulder and she waves her finger at the camera. “But if you tell anyone that I swear I’ll deny it. This intel is just too important for me to send back to SHIELD. Hopefully, you’ll learn about them if you ever find this.” Peggy stops for a moment, adjusts her position and her face falls. “I’m sorry, that I couldn’t be there to tell you this in person. The thing is. Steve,” she swallows again, struggling with her words. Like her clothes and her hair and her makeup, it’s not like Peggy at all. She looks so... vulnerable.
“I’m sorry but Sergeant Barnes didn’t die in his cryotube.”
“What?” Steve blurts out, then closes his mouth so hard his teeth click shut, like he’s scared he’s interrupted her.
“I know that sounds — well, it’s dreadful, after everything you went through. I just knew it didn’t make sense, what Agent Coulson and all of them told us. But I knew it hurt too bad for you to look for more answers. I knew you needed to mourn him, in your own way. Steve, I found him. Here, on Siberia. Sergeant Barnes — Bucky — he’s alive. His injury made him a prime candidate for xenomorphic experimentation. Something about carrying xenomorph DNA in his wounds. The only thing is, his cryotube was actually damaged in flight. He has some injuries, memory loss and other things. I couldn’t get all the details before they found me, but Steve,” Peggy stops again, this time her swallow is even harder, throat clicking as she gulps down her emotions, and she blinks rapidly as she forces a smile. Steve leans heavily against the wall, because otherwise he’d drop straight to the floor.
“Steve,” she continues. “This means there’s hope. I know you need that to continue fighting, so here it is. Bucky is alive. He should be on the science outpost Siberia, just outside of orbit from an old Seegson deep space station named Asgard. Go find him, before SHIELD does.” Peggy stops, shakes her head and reaches up to end the recording. “Goodbye, my darling.”
Steve swallows, but his mouth is dry, so he swallows again and only then realizes he’s crying. “Goodbye,” he mumbles weakly, because he’s always been weak, hasn’t he. Because without Bucky it turns out that he was never anything, not the legendary Captain from the Unification Wars or the respected captain of the Hermes. Just a man who is incomplete alone, who finds no reason to fight, even for his friends, when his lover has left him behind.
“Rogers,” Barton says again, giving his shoulder another shake. “C’mon Cap.”
“It’s him,” Steve says, putting the pieces together in the only way that makes sense. “The Winter Soldier. It’s Bucky. It’s been Bucky all along. He’s been right there on the Star, next to me, asleep. All along. All year. What did they do? How could they- That thing- His arm!”
“Steve!” Barton takes both of Steve’s shoulders between his hands, patting them again, squeezing hard enough for him to feel it in his muscles. It feels like Barton is the only one here, keeping all the threads of Steve’s unraveling life from slipping apart, an anchor in a storm. “Steve, man, listen to me. This is bad, okay? No bullshit, this is the worst. But now we got the message and we gotta go. We can’t stay here anymore, okay? Now, I’m going to turn my comms back on. Can you handle that? We’re going to reconnect with the Star, and head for the airlock. Okay?”
Steve nods along, numb. It’s easy for Barton to take charge now, easy for the other man to lead the way back up the levels towards the stations docking array. “This is Barton, again,” he repeats, for the umpteenth time when they get out of the freight elevator. “Ward, do you copy?”
Nothing but silence comes back, and Barton curses. “It’s been less than fifteen minutes. Did everything go to shit in fifteen minutes?”
“We shouldn’t have taken our luck with us,” Steve mumbles, stroking Lucky as the dog trots beside them.
Barton spins around, making the top of the stairs that lead to the docking bays, shock painted across his face. “Holy shit, did you just make a dad-joke?”
Steve winces. Is that what he did? When he just found out Bucky is alive, when he found out the love of his life had been kidnapped, experimented on, after he found out the reason that Peggy Carter sacrificed her life to tell him that, he’s making fucking dad jokes? “What? No. I mean. Maybe I’m being sentimental, but—”
“Ah, Captain Steve Rogers, ninety year old grandpa finally comes out,” Barton flashes a grin at him. “I had a bet going on with Alfred. Pretty sure he owes me ten cigarettes now. Don’t judge me, the ship gets lonely.”
Steve snorts, then frowns. “Who the fuck is Alfred?”
“That little bird guy with ink in his butt,” Barton explains, as they follow the path they cut previously through the garbage on this level. “You know, the thing that tips back and forth as long as the grav is working right?”
“You named him Al-” Steve is cut off as the whole station jerks violently out from under his feet, sending them both crashing to the floor. The docking bay has floor-to-ceiling observation windows looking out on the Lemurian Star, so they see the explosion on her stern with their own eyes.
Fire blasts into space, gassing out immediately when it hits the vacuum, and the Star yanks at the docking array’s umbilical cord again when the goddamn thrusters fire while the ship is still connected.
“The fuck are they doing? They’re gonna tear themselves apart!” Barton scrambles back, but Steve knows that’s not their real problem right now.
“They’re gonna tear apart the fucking airlock!” Steve grabs both Barton and Lucky by the collar and heaves them, one after the other, from the messy reception gate into the wide corridor, before stumbling out behind them. There’s an earsplitting screech as the high density, molecularly bonded observation window starts to fail.
The emergency seal for the bulkhead has a bright red button, just outside the door, but when Steve slams his fist into it the door makes it about halfway before it grinds to a stop, hung up on its old, disused mechanism. Steve throws his whole weight into it, catching the sharp beveled edge of the heavy door’s trim as the entire gives one last shiver before the window separating the reception gate from space pops like a balloon.
Explosive decompression is not something that happens very often on starships. Even in Steve’s time, the technology had been far enough along after decades of hyperspace travel that redundancies and fail safes and well-placed bulkheads all but eliminated the fear of equipment failure leading to a cold death in outer space. After surviving one inter-galactic war and his first encounter with the xenomorph, Steve has had the privilege of experience exposure to vacuum on three separate occasions. It’s impossible to really train for, impossible to predict how fucking awful it really is until it happens, and it’s a nightmare, each and every time.
There is a sound, though not from the shattering gate window or the airlock hatch, blown off its hinges. It’s the blood, aerating immediately in their ears, as the oxygen in their body chases the wind that blows past them in a great tidal wave.
“Shit!” Steve cries out, or at least tries to, since hypoxia immediately sets in and his words clatter out of his throat like a chestnut through a frosted garden hose.
Barton rides the gusting air, flinging himself into the door and then tucking himself beneath Steve’s own grip, shoving at its edges. Lucky plasters himself against the floor, barking encouragement as they struggle. The relentless blast of wind continues, dragging on them, dragging on the door, as the massive station continues to build up atmosphere only to feed the decompression more.
“I can’t believe we’re gonna futzing die!” Barton grinds out, in a ragged, vengeful shout.
“Pretty sure you’ve had worse,” a familiar, distorted voice chides, falling heavily in the tumult around them. Natasha’s hair materializes first, dancing around her in great red spikes, before the rest of her winks into being, just on the other side of the doorway. The bright blue lines on her miraculous suit pulsate with effort as she pulls hard, helping them drag the door along its track. There’s no air to speak, no room to even question what Natasha could be doing there as the vacuum draws more and more of the station’s atmosphere into space. The only thing Steve knows is that this door has to be closed, or they were all going to die.
It budges, only a few millimeters at first, but then the wind starts to whistle in protest as the gap finally starts to shrink. The jam clears with a lurch, and the three of them collapse when it slams into place. Lucky is the first to recover, whining against Barton’s ears as he checks the technician over, fretting over his wheezing cough. Steve drops his forehead to the rough, stained carpet, hits it with a thunk of his EVA helmet’s visor, but figures it’s close enough. Even with the protective helmets, the frigid air and the suck of pressure bursting in their ears was enough to leave them shaken, and it’s a relief to see the dog is more worried about Barton than suffering himself.
It takes him a few long moments to realize his legs are tangled up in someone else’s, and he startles back from Natasha as soon as it occurs to him that they are hers. Uneven panting filters through her mask as she slowly gets to her feet, but she says nothing.
“Ward!” Barton coughs into his mic. “Captain Rumlow? Anyone aboard the Lemurian Star, do you copy?”
“What the hell happened!” Steve shouts, tossing formality aside. Bucky is on board that ship. Bucky, who Steve has finally found after all this time, is on board a ship that Steve just watched suffer a breach that could have ended it for the entire crew. Something strong stirs in Steve’s chest, something confident, and familiar. They wait for a beat, but he’s had enough, and if Ward wouldn’t give him answers then he knows someone who will. “What. The hell. Happened,” he demands, stomping purposefully towards Natasha.
“I don’t know,” Natasha cooly replies. “I’ve been with you the whole time.”
“Bullshit,” Steve says, matching her mask’s unblinking stare. She’s a lot shorter than he had somehow imagined her, now that he’s this close to her.
“I came with you through the airlock,” she argues back, then points her thumb at the dog before Steve can shout at her again. “Lucky dog paddles in zero-G. I’ve been on Asgard, shadowing you. I saw Peggy’s recording. She didn’t trust SHIELD, after all,” Natasha adds, and Steve could swear that scary voice went a little darker than usual. “Which explains why she used her rescue buoy to signal you instead of me. I still don’t know why though. I swear,” she reaffirms, shooting a look over Steve’s shoulder at Barton, who is throwing a very dirty look her direction. “I don’t. But I want to find out.”
After a brief silence Barton clicks his tongue, clearly frustrated that he believes her. Steve practically grinds his teeth, because so does he. He’s no less disgusted, no less furious about this situation, and shoves past Natasha out of the long, wide corridor to get to the area with all the tacky advertisements. He needs some air, and whatever the station’s environmental systems are generating it’s not enough to make it all the way down to the lower level reception section.
The mezzanine is wide open, with multiple levels that all open up onto a large common courtyard area, like a shopping mall, where Steve looks out the massive, multi-story windows. They come to a stop on a walkway that passes over what must have been a major thoroughfare, tarnished brass railings on either side. Steve’s grip strains against the metal as he leans towards the massive window. Even the planetoid is visible from here, Siberia still shut down in the cold, thin atmosphere, only one sad light winking in the distance. They wait what feels like a very long time before the Lemurian Star finally drifts into view, wound gaping in her side and clearly visible from this distance.
“Lights are still on,” Steve points out, not for anyone’s benefit but his own as he tries to find any evidence at all that the crew could have survived. “Looks like the communications dish is still intact. They still have their engines. Explosion must have been out of the EVA bay. The surface lift is gone, but the airlock looks like it held.”
The Star has even better redundancies to prevent ship-wide decompression than the old space station. Each bulkhead is fitted with a makeshift airlock door, capable of fully protecting each section of the ship with an air-tight seal that would hold fast, even in hyperspace. Ironically, they’d have to recalibrate the stabilizers to get her to fly straight but she’d still make it. There’s a good chance none of the crew were killed, depending on whatever caused the explosion in the first place.
“Think that port side stabilizer patch held?” Barton grumbles, apparently reading Steve’s mind as they watch the ship that they both work so hard to maintain, listing drunkenly away from them. Just then the small jets on the outer hull fire, correcting to match its last set rotation. Barton drops his chin down with a great sigh of relief. “Looks like guidance systems are still operational.”
“No one is answering comms,” Steve murmurs, still doing the mental math. “Could be the automated system kicking in.”
“There!” Barton points out, as the main thrusters fire, bringing the Star back around, a careful few bursts of energy here and there that could only be from manual operation. Not Rollins, Steve thinks. Rollins is dead already, but Steve coolly considers that a loss he can live with if it means the Winter Soldier is still alive. So far there’s still a chance. What would the point of all this be if Bucky is taken from him now?
“Rogers! Barton!” Rumlow’s ragged voice bursts over the comms in their ears, and Barton flinches, hands going up around his head before he realizes he can’t adjust his hearing aids inside his helmet. “You guys still alive over there?”
“Roger that,” Steve says, happy enough to confirm. “It was a bit of a close shave. We were in the docking array when we saw the fireworks. Everyone on the Star make it out okay?”
“We lost Zola and Ward,” Rumlow quickly says. “Not in the explosion. There’s one of those things on board. Must have gotten on somehow when Karpov went out to kill the nest. That weapon of his is one tough son of a bitch. Killed the fucking thing once we finally let him out of the brig. Stopped Karpov from letting it loose on the station, too. I’m bringing the Star around to the upper quad docking array. Think you and Barton can make it back?”
Nest? There had been a whole fucking nest of them on Siberia, and they didn’t think to mention that? Steve grinds his teeth before he answers. “We can make it.”
“Good. I gotta do this manually, so sit tight while I-”
Rumlow abruptly cuts off, and Steve squints out of the window, waiting exactly three beats before checking in. “Captain Rumlow, do you copy? Sir?”
Silence. Natasha shifts her weight and Lucky whines, while Barton continues to watch.
“Captain Rumlow, do you copy?”
“Sorry, Rogers. We got another one. Jesus the whole ship is infested,” Rumlow laughs bitterly, and Steve can already detect from his tired, but vengeful tone what Rumlow will say next. “I’m going to release the distress buoy. Someone will pick you up. Just. It won’t be me.”
“Rumlow!” Steve screams, slamming his fist down on the railing. “Don’t you fucking dare! Karpov and the Winter Soldier are still on board! Rumlow!”
Steve leans far over, watching the Lemurian Star come within spitting distance of the station before the thrusters fire and it slows, course visibly adjusting in the way the ship pivots and swings away from them. Steve fumbles at his toolbelt, yanks out his security access tuner, then rips off his helmet.
“Cap?” Barton says. “What are you-”
“Give me your helmet,” Steve coolly demands, ripping the comms out of his own. “I need to boost this signal.”
Barton wastes no time, pulls his helmet off and liberates his own comms system from inside, then hands it off to Steve as he works.
“Is- is that a bypass scanner?” Natasha asks, looking over his shoulder. “Those models are illegal.”
“Not in my day they weren't,” Steve says. “They make one hell of a skeleton key.”
Barton watches as the bypass scanner hooks into a familiar call sign, then looks back at the Star, slowly growing smaller from their vantage point. “You’re taking over the Star’s comms? From here?”
“He knows me, Barton,” Steve says. “I know he knows me. I could tell, even though I didn’t know it at the time.”
Natasha drops to her knees, releases the seal on her mask, and and flips it over in her gloved hands. Inside is an advanced augmented reality display, elegant in design, more sophisticated than anything Steve has ever seen before. “Use this,” she says, breaking open a tiny panel inside to reveal her own comms system.
Steve links the three together, and holds the rough contraption to his mouth, Natasha’s mask working like a bucket to hold all the components together. “Lemurian Star, this is Captain Steven Grant Rogers of the USS Hermes, do you copy?”
“Lemurian Star, this is Steve Rogers, Captain of the USS Hermes. Anyone read me?”
“Rogers?” Karpov’s voice comes over the line in his distinctive accent. “Your callsign,” he says, veering off topic. “What are you doing? Why are you using the name of your old ship?”
“Listen to me,” Steve says coolly. “Captain Rumlow said the Star is infested. He just initiated the auto-destruct sequence. You and the Winter Soldier need to abandon ship. Get in the escape shuttle and dock with Asgard.”
“The captain has sealed the control deck,” Karpov quickly explains. “How do I get to the shuttle?”
“There’s an access tunnel,” Steve explains, instantly recalling the blueprint in his mind. “To the right of the stairs is a ladder with white rungs, it goes through a narrow maintenance shaft. Follow that all the way up, don’t take any of the turns when it hits the junctures. Once you’re at the top you’ll take the starboard juncture, you can follow that all the way to the airlock for the shuttle.”
Steve had been so focused on relaying the escape route that he only then realizes that Karpov asked how he could get to the shuttle, not using the word ‘we’. “Karpov, please confirm you have the Winter Soldier with you.”
“If I find him, I’ll order him to stay behind,” Karpov snaps. “This experiment has failed spectacularly! Soldiers that can’t follow orders are useless.”
“Don’t you fucking dare leave him,” Steve hisses, but there’s no answer and Steve could crush the device in his hands for the frustration of knowing Bucky might just be standing there, waiting to die, because he’d been ordered to not save himself.
“He can hear you,” Natasha says, cutting through the red hot flames of Steve’s anger.
“The Winter Soldier. Bucky,” she corrects. “You took over the entire ship’s PA system, right? So he can hear you.”
Steve stares into the strange helmet in his hands, to the pile of radios precariously mashed together with the tuner on top of it all, flashing with the connection. Steve holds down the call button. “Bucky,” he says, then clears the tightness in his throat with a cough. “Bucky it’s me. Steve. They call you the Winter Soldier, but... Your name. It’s James Buchanan Barnes. You were a sergeant in the Army with me, back during the Unification War. You helped me stop Johann Schmidt from bringing that monster back from the Frontier. We worked together, with the Howling Commandos. Peggy was on board and you hated her, at first.”
Steve actually laughs, and this time his eyes burn with something more real than his earlier pain. It’s not quite the same as the familiar pain of loss, but somehow he finds himself just living quietly with the nostalgia of it all. “We all did, actually. She was there to make sure we kept everything up to code, even though everyone knew I ran a tight ship. When you flirted with her I thought that was the absolute end of us all.” Steve laughs again. “When she promised you that rain check I thought I’d never been more shocked in all my life. Or more jealous! Bucky...”
The silence stretches on. Steve doesn’t know all of what he just rambled out, his words already an incoherent jumble in his memory, and doesn’t know what else he can say. He already managed to use up the shallow reservoir he had been tenderly growing over the past two years, as if he expected that somehow he’d have the opportunity to tell Bucky all the things he never said before, when they were both alive and young and happy and together.
“Rain check?” comes a muffled voice, the word drawn out, the speaker confused as to its meaning.
Bucky. Alive. Speaking to him.
“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says, his voice quivering from the strain. “Peggy promised you a rain check. The way she winked at you. You were all sass back then but you turned red as a baboon’s ass. Honestly, I wasn’t sure who I was more jealous of, right then. Bucky, I-”
“Who the hell is Bucky?” The voice says, frustrated, even angry at having to ask that question.
Steve shakes his head. No, no, no, they don’t have time for this. “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. You served with me on the USS Hermes. We called ourselves the Howling Commandos in the war. With Morita and Dum Dum and Gabe and Dernier and-”
“Rogers!” Karpov’s voice snaps across the line and Steve realizes the man must be outside the main access hatch already, using the intercom there. “Don’t bother with another word! The Winter Soldier is no longer James Barnes. We made sure of that when we made him what he is. We made sure of that when Agent Carter got in our way! I’m taking this specimen, and I am salvaging my life’s work!”
“Shit,” Barton curses, as they watch the shuttle on the side of the Star light up, initiating its decoupling sequence.
“Bucky, you have to stop Karpov,” Steve shouts into the radio. “Do you hear me? He is in the escape shuttle! He has a xenomorph with him!”
There’s a visible release of atmosphere when the shuttle detaches from the Star, and the boosters fire, forcing the larger ship further away as it freely spins out into space. It all happens much faster than Steve would have thought.
“No, no, no,” Barton chants. “C’mon…”
“Bucky!” Steve shouts, and then the entire window, a dozen stories tall, goes white. Steve throws his arm in front of his eyes but it does no good. The flash is blinding, the Lemurian Star’s reactor breaching in a massive explosion. There’s no sound for a long time, not even any movement, until the energy suddenly catches up to them all at once. The entire station tosses like a ship at sea, cresting some giant wave, then the floor abruptly drops away.
Natasha grabs ahold of Steve before he goes hurtling over the railing, and Barton manages to grab onto Lucky with both arms, hooking into the walkway railing with his legs like an acrobat. The station roars in protest, fixtures shaking loose, entire sections suddenly giving way, cases and toys and clothes and soda cans thrown up into the air while it rides out the shock wave, before it all comes crashing back down to a sudden standstill.
Natasha is the first to recover, hauling Steve to his feet, before she checks on Barton. Steve somehow managed to lose his tuner and the complicated set of comms he rigged up. With all the debris around them, below them, even hanging off the walls, he wouldn’t even know where to start looking.
“Shit,” he says, leaning over to catch his breath. The light outside has finally started to dim, all traces of the ship vaporized. “Bucky…”
Steve feels his stomach go weightless first, and even though he already wants throw up from the raw fury burning through his veins, he recognizes what that signifies and quickly scrambles ahold of the rail. “Gravity!” He shouts, and both Natasha and Barton snatch onto the rail themselves just as their feet detach from the floor.
“Grav systems hit?” Natasha asks, twisting in mid-float to face Steve.
“Worse,” Steve grimly says, as the lights around them start to dim. “Much worse. The emergency link with the Star was severed when she was destroyed,” he explains and Barton groans, tugging Lucky closer to him by the dog’s collar as he paddles around in circles. “The environmental controls are shut down.”
“So do you guys always have this kind of luck?” Natasha sighs, and Lucky barks, lapping his tongue towards her like she said his name on purpose.
“Good news,” Barton says, hooking one knee back around the rail so that he could extend his freehand out, snatching something out of the air. Natasha’s mask, along with the security access tuner shoved inside. “Luck hasn’t run out just yet.”
“Great,” she says, as the mask drifts to her from Barton’s easy throw. “Now we can clearly communicate how it feels to slowly suffocate.”
There’s a heavy noise, a great big ca-THUNK, followed immediately by a hiss and a pop, familiar enough to Steve for him to know when a ship is docking. He looks to Barton, after fixing his makeshift comm into his pocket under his EVA suit. “Escape shuttle must’ve been damaged in the blast,” Steve says.
“Let’s kill him,” Natasha flatly suggests, kicks off from the railing and vanishes in mid-flight towards the upper level reception gates.
“Cap?” Barton says, looking to Steve.
“I’m not finished with Karpov yet,” Steve confesses, and kicks off the rail as well, roughly following Natasha’s trajectory. Who needs stairs when there is no longer any gravity? The trick is to use enough momentum to avoid getting stuck, weightlessly suspended in mid air with no inertia to move forward. Barton manages to slide his belt into the ring on Lucky’s collar, and trails the dog behind him like a fluffy balloon when he kicks off to follow Steve.
The upper level docking array is even fancier than the one the Star had connected with. The overhead lights have all gone dark, but the backlit ads now show off luxury goods. Intricate jewelry, restaurants with food imported from Earth, maid services — maid services, on a deep space station! — all available for residents on levels fifty and above. This level doesn’t have the same clutter of abandoned goods from folks who were forced to leave. Instead, velvet upholstered furniture floats elegantly above real, carpeted floors, bumping gently into damask wallpaper. Instead of vending machines, Steve spots an elegantly carved bar, made out of polished wood, glasses suspended above and sparkling in the light from the ads like weightless chandeliers.
Steve doesn’t know exactly what gate Karpov docked with, so he goes down the line, drifting from opening to opening, gazing into reception room after reception room. They are mostly dark, entirely abandoned, empty and quiet. The windows look out on empty space beyond, Siberia nothing but a speck in the distance. The explosion must have knocked Asgard out of its static orbit, and now the station itself is drifting through space, dangerously set on a course with absolutely no guidance or control systems to speak of.
Lucky suddenly tugs on his makeshift leash, spiraling his tail just enough to jerk Barton’s hand up. Both Steve and he freeze, stopping themselves with a gentle grip on the wall between reception gates, trusting Lucky enough to know when the dog’s instincts are telling them something.
Barton signs, ‘definitely in this one’ and Steve nods in agreement just as he hears the hatch on the other side of the bulkhead door burst open. There’s a voice, angry and desperate, cursing as it stumbles aboard.
So. Karpov made it. Which means Bucky is most likely dead. Steve might just go ahead and let Natasha kill him.
“Vasily Karpov! Lieutenant General, United Americas Allied Command, you piece of Seegson garbage!”
Steve hears a systems confirmation alert, and Karpov heaves out a satisfied huff.
‘Gravity’, Steve signs quickly, pulling himself closer to the floor as his stomach starts to dip. Barton manages to touch down elegantly, holding Lucky carefully enough that the dog doesn’t make a sound when he gets all four paws on the ground. The lights start flicker on again, the ads skipping a few more frames, stuttering out elegant instrumental music as they go through their endless loops.
“Map,” Karpov demands to the voice activated control panel. “Central communications network. Upper levels, of course.”
There’s a harsh blert of noise as the computer denies his request, and Karpov hisses. “Lower levels? The command center then. Operations control. Well, what the fuck does work on this piece of shit station? Sanitation control... Great.”
Just then Lucky whines, loud enough for Karpov to easily overhear him. Barton spins around, betrayed, but Lucky only backs up further, yanking on the belt. Barton tries to shush the anxious dog, but Lucky has none of it.
“Who's there!” Karpov shrieks, having long since lost his cool.
“Shit,” Steve hisses, and Karpov comes running.
“Mechanic!” Karpov spits out, like a curse, and Steve can hear a pulse rifle load its deadly charges. Just as Karpov emerges from around the corner, Steve dives back, shielding Barton as best he can. Then Karpov flails backward, gagging in shock like his own tongue is choking him.
Steve wastes no time, lunges forward and punches Karpov squarely in the bread box. The Russian goes down like a sack of bricks, and his rifle suddenly jerks out of his hand, floating up in mid air before Natasha materializes. She utters something nasty in Russian, and Karpov hacks in protest as he tries to catch his breath. Natasha aims the gun at him, and Steve understands a threatening countdown when he hears it. Karpov squirms as Natasha’s Russian numerals wind down, and Steve suddenly has to come to terms with the idea that he’s about to let a spy murder a senior member of the Colonial Marines military, right in front of him.
“SHIELD!” Karpov finally screams out, yielding with a flap of his long fingers. “I work for SHIELD.”
“Bullshit,” Natasha growls out, menacing in her deadly mask.
Karpov finishes vomiting up some stomach acid onto the plush red carpet, and laughs through his spittle, tears from Steve’s savage punch still leaking from the corners of his bloodshot eyes. “Idiots. Do you think Schmidt really failed after he died searching for the hydra? Do you think any of us ever fail? We are everywhere. Weyland-Yutani, Seegson, the Interstellar Commerce Commission, Colonial Administration-”
“Cut off one head,” Steve whispers, remembering Schmidt’s last words when Peggy herself finally killed the piece of shit. “Two others shall take its place.”
“We own SHIELD, Natasha Romanoff. We always have. We always will,” Karpov flops over, onto his back, and laughs again, wheezing, spitting up more, onto his own face. “Ah, you idiots have doomed us all, keeping the creature to yourselves.”
“No one keeps the creature,” Natasha says, and aims the rifle down, right between Karpov’s eyes. “No one.”
Steve thinks he should tell Natasha not to kill this man, to arrest him and hand him over to the authorities. Right at that moment, he glances up to her cool, unflinching gaze, and sees a bit of Peggy in her. This is the truth, what Karpov is saying. It’s all corrupt, as Peggy had believed, and it cost them all, everything. Steve looks away, trying to catch a glimpse of space through the docking bay’s observation windows. If she kills him or if they turn him over to the authorities, it will likely make no difference at all.
Steve’s whole body goes cold when he sees a shadow move from the doorway, slipping onto the station from the docked shuttle, creeping through the flickering lights of the reception gate, and his instincts blaze into the sudden urge to fight.
“Natasha!” He screams, just as the shadow rockets into their midst, and tackles her where she stands. Natasha wisely doesn’t fire the pulse rifle at this range, and instead tumbles with it, helpless to do anything to save herself. Steve doesn’t take the time to be scared, instead diving forward, grabbing hold of what he can. The tail cracks like a whip and flings him straight into a wall. Something crunches inside him and pain flares up his whole left side before Steve finally gets to his feet, shaking and dazed.
That’s how he finally sees it, no longer lurking in some conduit or tucked away in the humid warmth of a reactor runoff chamber. A xenomorph, shining black and glistening with moisture, stands ten feet tall in the main corridor, fighting with Natasha.
It screeches, frustrated as its mouth bounces off the hard shell protecting Natasha’s face. The way she moves, like a cat, like water, keeps her safe from the pinion on its tail as it darts out to impale her. Even though it has a hold of her it can barely do anything other than keep her there, pinned. Steve takes one step towards her and feels everything around him lurch as his stomach flops over, and he drops back down to his knees.
Lucky is the one that saves her. The dog leaps on the creature’s back, latching his strong jaws between the long, protruding knobs, extending from its back. The xenomorph rears up, letting loose a frustrated cry as its tail whips around, trying to find the dog, and Natasha is finally able to break free. She strikes with lightning quick jabs, right into the creature’s core. Electricity snaps through the air, and Steve smells ozone as he staggers towards his struggling companions. Another snap, and the xenomorph falls back, clamoring off of Natasha as she drives her fist into it one more time, the pellets on her wrist crackling with energy.
Lucky drops to his feet but spins back around with a savage snarl, just as the alien recovers and whips its tail out to strike. “No!” Barton screams, diving between them, and Lucky yipes in shock as he’s shoved clear.
Natasha unleashes a scream through her mask that makes Steve clamp his hands down over his ears, an angry shriek that even startles the xenomorph as it flings Barton’s body away. She leaps on its head, legs circling its neck, and drives both fists into the glossy carapace. Electricity drives it straight to the ground, snapping and popping as Natasha pummels it with her strange, elegant weapons. She leaps clear just as it hits the carpet, and skids to a halt while it flails back to its feet.
The xenomorph leaps away on all fours, staggers into one of the backlit ads, shattering the screen. It’s still recovering, disoriented and spitting mad. Steve levels the pulse rifle, slaps on the full-auto, and for the first time in a century, squeezes a trigger. His aim is perfect, but the xenomorph skitters away as soon as the shots ring out, leaving a trail of acid as it vanishes down the stairs at the end of the walkway. Steve sprints after it, skids to a stop to level the weapon, and fires again just as he sees the tail disappear around the next level.
“Romanoff!” Steve shouts, but all he hears in response is Lucky’s sad wail. He whips around, taking in the carnage he left behind. Karpov is dead, trampled by the xenomorph when it fought with Natasha, face ruined and pulpy from the thing’s savage talons. Just on the other side of his broken form is Clint Barton, sprawled awkwardly out on his back, like a starfish. For some reason, when Steve catches sight of Lucky laying down with his face planted between his paws, nose butting gently into Barton’s ear as he whines, is when he finally understands what just happened and his heart clenches.
Natasha is on her knees, holding her ribs with one hand and leaning heavily against Barton with the other. “Oh, shit,” Steve gasps, when he realizes Barton is still alive. “Shit, Barton,” he says, falling to his knees next to the junior technician.
Barton responds only by gargling up blood. His body is ruined, despite Natasha’s best efforts, but he grins when he sees Steve. “Hoped you made it,” Barton wheezes out, voice already rattling in his chest. “Gotta keep that record.”
“You are as dumb as you look,” Natasha hisses through her mask, then rips it off her face. Steve is shocked to see tears in her bright eyes. “Why? For your dog? Why?”
“Your dog now,” Barton says, with an easy shrug, because it’s just like him for something so goddamn sarcastic to be his very last words. One final cough and the air leaves him all in a rush, pupils going black as his muscles relax.
Steve feels the pain, but it’s someplace far away, trapped for now on the other side of his growing anger. Lucky nudges Barton’s ear with his nose again, like the dog doesn’t quite understand, like he thinks maybe there’s just something wrong with the hearing aids that are so precious to his best friend.
“Natasha,” Steve says, and her head snaps up suddenly, tears evaporating in the fire burning in her eyes. Steve nods, understanding, and she stands without another word. They make it to the top of the stairs before she stops short and looks back.
“Lucky,” she calls, and the dog’s head finally lifts off the floor. “Come on, boy.”
Lucky licks the side of Clint Barton’s face, and finally leaves his side for the last time, trotting to catch up with his tail hanging limp behind him.
It doesn’t take long for them to find it.
Xenomorphs like the heat, but hate fire. They hide in warm, wet places, like parasites and leeches, biding their time and licking their wounds. They prefer to hunt from the shadows, from places where very little light but a lot of warmth will pool in one, tight nest, where it can drag living human hosts and cocoon them in the sweet smelling resin from their dripping mandibles. It takes a few hours to clear the station’s warmest spots, and Steve’s experience combined with the thermal imaging in Natasha’s mask, they wind up with an upper hand that Steve never would have considered.
Lucky sticks close beside them, giving them an extra layer of security as they clear level after level, locking each one with Steve’s security access tuner once they leave.
The last place they check, which really should have been the first they considered, winds up being the tropical spa Steve remembers from the main corridor’s smartscreen ads. Level fifty four, ‘treat yourself to a jungle getaway’. Hot, humid, with water gushing out of a broken artificial water feature, surrounded by brittle dead plants and faded fake ones. It stinks of rot as soon as they open the wide glass doors, but the gush of sweet humid air is a dead giveaway.
Steve raises the rifle, taking point, knowing on instinct by now that Natasha is a step behind him despite her cloak. Lucky’s hackles immediately raise as they pass a polished bamboo reception desk, and crunch over the remains of what had once been some spectacular mirrors. Fake vines decorate the entryway before they reach the main spa floor, and Steve stops short, spotting movement in a corner above the trickling waterfall, near a ceiling made out of fake rock.
“Upper left,” he softly calls out. “In the rocks.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything, but he knows she’s sweeping out wide to flank the xenomorph’s position, as well as blocking the second spa entrance on the other side of the fake jungle wall. “Easy, Cap,” he gently chants to himself, channeling Barton’s gentle reassurance. “Eeeasy.”
The xenomorph slowly begins to uncoil, the long snake of its tail moving first, followed by the glistening head. Lucky barks, and it hisses in response, fully revealing itself all at once. Steve opens fire and the xenomorph plunges down into the fake pond, tearing through the dead hanging vines, then bolts for the opposite door that it mistakes for being wide open.
Natasha hits fast and hard, sending it crashing down with a well placed tripwire that Steve didn’t even know she carried. Steve holds his next shot, giving Natasha time to get out of range of the acid blowback. Lucky snarls, already knowing not to get any closer. Instead of retreating, Natasha leaps onto its shoulders and drives her fists into its back with a shout of anger.
“Natasha!” Steve hisses, but his words fall on deaf ears as she savagely beats it. Just as Steve suspects, it’s smarter this time, and manages to hook its tail beneath the furious woman. Its tail snaps taught, dislodging Natasha and sending her flying back into an overstuffed spa chair. She twists as she falls, and manages to roll onto her feet, but the thing turns and sprints away before Steve could get a shot off.
“Shit!” She cries out, and Steve sprints after it cursing himself for hesitating the first time. “Cap, wait! He’s still-”
Steve feels a punch to the chest, and suddenly he’s flat on his back, crushed under the xenomorph’s weight. The heat and moisture of the xenomorph’s alien body sinks into him, and the oozing gel from its mouth splatters over his face, oily and warm. Steve wasn’t dumb enough to think they’d really be able to survive this mess, but he isn’t so brave to stare into that sharp mouth before it kills him. Steve’s eyes slam shut, more of the slick drool pools into the gap of his EVA suit and his collarbone, and Steve grits his teeth, waiting for the end.
There’s a commotion, shouting or gunfire, or some other kind of distraction, making the xenomorph squirm and shout in anger above him. Then he hears his name, shouted distantly — his first name — like Bucky used to call him, and the weight is suddenly gone.
Steve scrambles back and gets to his feet, just as Natasha rushes past him and out of the spa, Lucky hot on her heels. Steve flings his rifle over his shoulder and follows, and skids to a stop in the deck’s main walkway, not believing his eyes.
The Winter Soldier — Bucky — tumbles with the xenomorph as Natasha holds her arm steady, poised to fire one of the many weapons mounted to her wrists. Bucky’s xenomorphic arm lashes out, strong, deadly, and the xenomorph itself howls in rage and confusion as he pummels its bony exterior, knocking it back with each strike. Bucky dives beneath it, faster than even Natasha, and drives a knife into the back of its knee. It goes down sideways, acid spitting from its broken exoskeleton, but aside from his smoking clothes, Bucky doesn’t seem to notice.
He’s immune, Steve realizes, watching the fight in the half-light of the ruined station. Which also means there’s no risk of hurting him by shooting the fucking thing. Steve raises his weapon and lets the rounds fly. Again, his aim is perfect, but this time the xenomorph is surrounded, almost nowhere to run where there isn’t a gun or electricity or a savage beating or snapping canine jaws. It’s roar is filled with rage, tail whipping furiously before finally picking a target and sprinting towards it.
It picked Natasha. It picked poorly.
Natasha vanishes and the creature blunders against the floor where she used to be, spins in surprise when Steve lands another round into the back of its long head, then arches in shock when electricity snaps across its exoskeleton.
“Clear!” Natasha shouts, this time pulling back after driving it to the ground, and Steve empties the rest of the clip into it.
Still, this demon, this hydra, continues to live, green pulp oozing from its broken shell, sinking halfway into the floor as the walkway tiles start to dissolve around it. The Winter Soldier brushes past Steve, walking at that same, measured pace, like he’s in no hurry at all, and kneels down in front of its head.
The hydra’s mouth opens, still spitting mad, and a second set of jaws shoot out, vengefully snapping at Bucky’s knees. Bucky grabs the long shaft of its interior mandible with his left arm, the arm that looks so much like the creature itself, then shoves a boot into its shoulder. He hauls with all his strength, leaning his full weight into it as he rips the appendage out so fiercely that half its head comes with it.
Steve throws his spent rifle to the ground. Natasha drops to her knees, exhausted, and Lucky rushes to her side, lapping at the side of her mask until she drags it off to finally catch her breath without it.
“Bucky,” Steve says, because what else can he say?
The Winter Soldier flinches at the sound, then quickly stands up straight, giving the gory mess in his hand one final look before he throws it down onto what’s left of the ruined xenomorph. The floor continues to dissolve around it, pitting and sinking further away from them, so the soldier takes a few cautious steps back.
“Bucky,” Steve repeats, waiting for him to turn around. “I can’t believe, after all this time. Peggy. She found you. I just- I can’t believe you’re here. They told me you were dead.”
The soldier finally turns around, grabs the goggles off his face and throws them to the floor. His long hair falls in front of his eyes when he tilts his chin down to better yank open his mask from behind, using one human hand and one xenomorphic. It’s then that Steve’s heart freezes, and doubt washes through him, dragging his eyes to some distant, safe space on the carpet where he focuses his vision.
What if he is wrong? What if this isn’t Bucky? There are more than just one Winter Soldier. This could be another one. This could be anyone.
“Steve,” the soldier says, and Steve finally dares to look at his face. The sparkling blue eyes, the bright little smile, a little older, a little rougher, and in bad need of a shave, but it’s him. It’s really him. Bucky, alive, shining like a star. “How about that rain check?”
That's it! I hope you've enjoyed my flailing attempt to write horror! Please let me know what you think!
Chapter 8: ART For You Are My Lucky Star
The fic is over, but I wanted to share a few more pieces of artwork with everyone!
I collaborated with Shaish on the design of Bucky's xenomorphic arm. I did a bunch of research into xenomorph physiology and HR Giger's stunning designs, and after several iterations landed on the one for the main title art for the fic. Here is a look at some of the iterations!
Also, Natasha was deeply inspired by Predator, having encountered more than one deadly alien species and survived to claim some trophies of her own. Again, I was able to collaborate with the incredible Shaish on what this might look like, and she created several beautiful pieces.
I hope you enjoyed some of these additional pieces of concept art for this fic! Thank you so much for reading!