The mercury in the Soldier's thermometer reads negative two degrees Celsius. Visibility is down forty percent; wind is blowing north-northwest at twenty-five kilometers an hour. He shifts the barrel of his rifle to the right to compensate. His metal arm chills, and the flesh it's attached to draws tight, throbs. It shouldn't impact his aim.
Through his rifle's scope, he watches his target leave the church. The target leans closer to a woman on his left—he isn't using her for cover, the Soldier realizes a moment later. He's speaking to her. The wind tangles in the woman's curls and blows them to the side, obscuring the target's mouth. When her hair falls back into place, the Soldier sees her mouth pressed to the target's. The target's hand curves around the back of her neck.
The Soldier's lips are dry, and cold. They must have been for some time. But it's at the forefront of his awareness now.
Bells chime from the church's tower: one peal for each hour. He counts twelve of them, then checks his watch. It also reads twelve. The target needs to be eliminated before one o'clock; his orders were precise. The Soldier shifts forward on the rooftop. Some of the snow drifts loose, but the target's attention isn't drawn by it. He and the woman have their arms wrapped around each other. They sway from side to side, gently, until the woman throws her head back and laughs. The Soldier compares the sound to the bells, and can't explain why.
The man's lips are moving, close to the woman's ear. If the Soldier focuses, filters out the soft hiss of snowfall and the rustle of wind, he can make out the words.
"If they asked me, I could write a book
About the way you walk and whisper and look—"
The target's voice is deep and faintly hoarse, and he sings each word, each note, with ease. The Soldier remembers his briefing on the target. There was no mention of the target's interest in music, or in his musical capabilities. It must not have been important. He taps his fingers on the rifle's barrel.
" I could write a preface on how we met," the target continues. The woman's laughter drowns out the last note, but the Soldier, somehow, still hears it: low and rich, the same sound as the two words preceding it. " So the world would never forget—"
The Soldier halts his fingers, but the impulse to move them is still there. There's a set rhythm his hand wants to follow. The wind's speed increases, and shifts direction two points west.
"Tom, stop," the woman in the target's arms says, but doesn't push him away. Instead, she grabs the lapels of his jacket and draws him closer. It's strange. It isn't important. The target keeps singing.
" And the simple secret of the plot
Is just to tell them that I love you a lot
And the world discovers as my book ends
How to make two lovers of friends."
A second voice joins the first. It's harsher, with a rasp. It isn't the woman's. It's the Soldier's. He closes his mouth. His throat is still warm from singing, even when the rest of him grows colder.
The target's position doesn't change. He must not have heard the Soldier. He and the woman are talking again, but the Soldier hears the song instead, an echo that should have faded by now. It reminds him of his shoulder in these weather conditions: an ache he can ignore, but not get rid of. He thinks of streetlamps, different from the ones lining the road below. Streetlamps and—something else. Something—laughter, but different from the woman's. The pieces don't fit together. Won't fit together.
The fine white mist of the Soldier's breath trickles away. His finger tightens on the trigger. Below, the target crumples to the ground. Blood stains the freshest layer of snow. The woman staggers backwards, and the Soldier shoots again before she steps out of his sights. She falls. She wasn't supposed to be a part of this mission. The wind's speed has dropped. The night is silent.
Silent, except for his handler's voice in his earpiece, asking him to report back and explain himself. He complies, silently, except when he catches himself humming the song under his breath.
The kick is aimed at his left side, beneath his ribcage. The Soldier pivots to the side to avoid it. He slams his knee into his opponent’s back, but she rolls with the blow; after a somersault, she’s returned to her feet. Her fist collides with his jaw. It leaves her right side exposed, for a fraction of a second, and he takes advantage of the opening with a solid strike to her armpit. She hisses, recoils. Her next kick is higher, targeting the seam on his shoulder between skin and metal. He raises his arm to block and knock her aside.
Her foot lands. The force of it rings through his arm. His next strike is unbalanced, too fast, too far to the left. She avoids it, and the one after it. And the one after that. His arm isn’t ringing now, but there’s a—hollow feeling. A margin of error in his strikes. The wrong pressure when he finally locks his elbow around her neck and squeezes. She grinds her heel into his instep and twists free; he drives his elbow into her midsection, but it doesn’t knock the breath out of her. It should. The Soldier stares at his glinting palm, flexes it.
He doesn’t see the blow that sends him to his knees. He throws out his arm to brace his fall. The plate attached to his shoulder wrenches, and pain flares next to his spine.
“You’re off your game,” his opponent says. “What happened?”
“My arm is wrong,” he says, because direct questions must be answered. But he can’t explain further, yet.
She looks up at the observation room, touches her ear. “I need two techs on the ground floor. Check his arm for damage.”
The Soldier checks his arm as well. There are no dents, no scratches. He has full range of motion in his wrist, his elbow, his shoulder. He can make a fist, and stretch his hand flat. He can't conduct further tests on his own, so he lets his arm drop to his side and waits.
The wrongness is more pronounced like this. The Soldier rolls his shoulders back and redistributes his weight on each foot, testing. When he stands at ease, he realizes, he lists to the right side. The curvature is slight: three degrees or less.
It doesn't make sense. His left arm is heavier. The heavier something is, the more it should pull on him. It's not a principle he's needed to put into words before now; he's known it every time he's strapped a gun to his back and compensated for its weight.
He raises his left arm again, and understands.
"It's the weight," he says, when the techs ask him to describe the problem. "My arm is too light."
The techs exchange glances. "We used a different alloy this time," one of them says. "It's more lightweight than the last one, to maximize range of motion and minimize muscle strain."
A different alloy. More lightweight than the last one. The Soldier blinks, looks at his arm again. It doesn't look different. He has no memory of any arm other than this one. Then why—
His left arm must have matched his right, once.
This time. How many times has it been?
A burst of pain, electric-hot, follows that thought. It sears his temples, makes his vision flicker at the edges. He's clutching his shoulder, his nails embedded in the knots of scar tissue. That feels wrong, too. Thicker. Rawness spreads down his back, like his skin has been flayed open. When was his skin flayed open? How does he know—
"Damn it," his opponent says, over his head—somewhere—"Initiate containment procedures, something's set him off, and once he's under that arm had better be recalibrated properly."
The plane will land in Gdansk in fifteen minutes. The Soldier has been assigned to a team for this mission; three of its members are traveling with him. They talk softly as the plane descends, check their gear and repack their bags. At one point, the three of them laugh. The Soldier missed its cause. He stays silent, and watches the layout of the city unfold beneath him.
At this height, he can't pinpoint the location of the target's current residence. The building is situated on the Long Market: primarily pedestrian traffic and densely populated, according to his briefing. The briefing made explicit that he's to avoid civilian casualties and eliminate only the target and his bodyguards. He scans the city again. The plane has dipped low enough now for him to identify several landmarks in outline.
He draws out the photographs of the city that he was given, studies them. They're all labeled, in Polish and in English, with brief explanations for context. Złota Brama, the Golden Gate, three stories tall, too exposed to foot traffic for effective reconnaissance. Reconstructed after the Second World War. The golden statues mounted on top symbolize qualities all citizens should possess. Bazylika Mariacka, St. Mary's Church, the largest brick church in the world. The tower can be scaled, but construction crews are still in its upper floors, repairing fire damage and replacing melted brick. Stare Miasto, the Old Town, former center of trade and commerce. Modern reconstruction has restored the area's proud Polish heritage. There's no description of how the area looked before the war, no photographs provided.
It must have been different.
The Soldier's hand tightens around the edge of the photograph. What it once looked like doesn't affect this mission. The plane is about to land, and there's nothing more to be learned from these photographs. But when the plane's wheels touch down, he's still outlining the Old Town's rooftops with his fingertip, again and again.
Hours later, he and another team member scout that street. They keep to the thin side alleys and shadows of overhangs to avoid notice. His teammate shoves his free hand into his jacket pocket and hunches against the wall, cracks his shoulders and neck. When his teammate looks away, the Soldier reaches into his own jacket, his hand on the photograph inside it. Its edge has creased and frayed. The Soldier unfolds it again, compares the street in the picture to the street in front of him. The light is different; the silhouettes of the buildings match. A crack runs down the middle of one storefront's sign. The crack isn't present in the photograph. Everything else is.
He checks again, and checks a third time. A young woman and a younger boy cross his field of vision, and the Soldier crouches lower, presses his back to the building behind him. They aren't running. He expected them to be. He expected—differences. Smoke, a layer of ash under his boots. Half of these buildings reduced to husks and rubble. And the rest of them shouldn't be shaped like this.
"Uh." His teammate clears his throat, draws in a breath. "You been to Gdansk before?"
The Soldier shakes his head.
"My dad grew up here, but he hasn't been back since they evacuated during the war. Says he doesn't want to. Says it's not the same place he grew up in. I don't know, I think it looks all right."
After a hesitation, the Soldier shakes his head again. He curls his toes in his boots. No heat is rising from the cobblestones. No civilians are shrieking when he runs past. No helicopter is waiting for him at the end of the street. Why would there be?
"It doesn't? That what you're saying?" His teammate eyes him. It's a look the Soldier's seen before, when someone is calculating the distance to the nearest escape point. "What's wrong with it?"
The Soldier points across the street, to the cracked sign. "The sign's in Polish."
His teammate shrugs. The tension doesn’t leave his shoulders. "We're in Poland."
"It's not in German."
"Nothing's in German here, anymore. Dad says they got rid of it all."
"But it used to be," the Soldier says.
"Maybe," his teammate says, and pulls out his radio again, mutters something in rapid Polish. He clears his throat when he finishes, and switches back to English. "Rest of the team's headed to the rendezvous. Let's move out."
The Soldier follows, but not before checking the photograph a final time.
He's never been to Gdansk. But Danzig—if he asked about Danzig—Danzig, and another mission, a long time ago, racing through the dark—
He shouldn't ask, but the question doesn't leave him.
"Now hold the arm parallel to the floor and rotate from the shoulder, to the right."
The Soldier complies. One of the techs clamps a device to his arm; he doesn't feel any pressure. "The torque's too high," the tech says. "We probably want to look at the shoulder joint again, make sure nothing's going on with the axis of rotation."
The tech who spoke first nods, and makes a note on her clipboard. There are two other techs in the room, both at his three-o-clock. They're leaning over, their backs to him, but in the gap between their bodies he catches a glimpse of a radio. It's similar to the one he's been supplied with.
And we're back, ladies and gentlemen! I don’t think it's a stretch to say that a lot of us were wondering if we'd be coming back at all, after the shocking disaster that unfolded on televisions across America ten days ago, but after extensive talks with public officials—
"Turn that off," the first tech snaps.
The shorter of the techs jumps upright, and nearly knocks the radio from the table. "Come on, it's the World Series!"
A loud cheer erupts from the radio's speakers. There's a strange tension at the corner of the Soldier's mouth.
"And that's an unsecured frequency," the first tech says.
"We're not transmitting over it, all right?"
"You can read about the game in the paper tomorrow. Turn that off."
The shorter tech snorts. "After what happened last game? Are you kidding?"
"Shut up, both of you." The tech working on the Soldier's arm unclips the device. "Do you know what the boss'll do to me if I mess up millions of dollars of equipment because you two couldn't stop arguing?"
"I'm not trying to argue," the shorter tech says, "I'm just saying, we're all stuck here doing overtime for the next couple of hours while we test this thing, right? It's not even the interesting stuff. We might as well have some fun."
The Soldier waits for further instructions. No one gives them. No one has turned off the radio, either. He filters out the arguments, focuses on the announcer's voice. There's a steady rhythm to it; the pitch rises and falls regularly, like a siren at a lower frequency.
And yes, that's a single, we didn't have to wait too long for that one—a clean hit for Lansford, and a missed opportunity for Garrelts—
The Soldier doesn't move from where he stands, but he turns his head towards the radio. The announcer's voice isn't the only sound being transmitted. There are faint strains of music, and the steady background noise of the crowd. The Soldier is convinced that there are others—if the radio were more powerful, he might hear them.
It's Canseco at bat. He's been 0-for-23 in the Series, just so disappointing when you look at his performance in the regular season—you know, some players flourish under the pressure of these games, and some psych themselves out before they've even gotten started, and you can't help but feel that's what's happening here.
"Lower your arm," one tech says, close to his ear. The Soldier stiffens, turns his head back to center, and does what he's told.
"Bend forty-five degrees at the elbow and rotate the forearm to the left."
"If you want to risk your job over a game—" the first tech begins.
The shorter tech interrupts her. "World Series, Brenda, doesn't that mean anything to you? Did you grow up on Mars or something?"
The shorter tech is right. It does mean something. The volume of the broadcast spikes as the announcer shouts, More sloppy pitching from Garrelts, looks like he's decided to play some chin music with Canseco!
"I have higher priorities than—chin music, or whatever that is," the first tech says.
"It's a pitch thrown near the batter's face," the Soldier says. "It scares the batter back from the plate. It's against regulations."
All of the techs stare at him. The Soldier closes his mouth, and feels his pulse rise. It—felt right. The answer felt right. Was it?
"He plays baseball?" the shorter tech whispers.
Does he? No. He has no reason to play that. To know about it. What regulations are chin music against? He doesn't know. Why did he say that?
"Of course not," says the tech closest to him. "It's a glitch. Nice going, you two. Now we have to report this to the boss, and he has to do an evaluation, and we'll be stuck here until midnight. Great. Just great."
"Wake up," someone says.
His eyes snap open. Light floods his vision; he doesn't flinch back in time to avoid it. His ears ring. Where is he? The light becomes shapes and the ringing breaks into other sounds, but there are too many to count, too many to track. People. Murmurs. Screens. Clicks. Walls. Footsteps. A whistle and a scream and nothing but white, somewhere far away—
He smashes his arm through the air, and doesn't see what it connects with. Something crumples under his fist. Voices explode in the air.
"Oh god what the hell's—"
"What happened, it just snapped—"
"Stop screaming, you're making it worse, it's post-stasis disorientation—"
He thrashes, tries to sit upright, but something is lashing his legs in place. He reaches down to free himself and something pricks the back of his neck, and a strange heaviness sinks into his bones. He falls back; the world goes dark.
"Wake up," he hears again. It's only one voice. When he opens his eyes, there's only one light source, bright and directly overhead. He breathes, slowly. His chest feels heavy.
There are three figures in the doorway. If he could move, he could reach them in three seconds. He can't move.
"He's conscious, Mr. Pierce," one figure says: the first voice he heard. "Sir, are you sure you don't—"
"He's confused, Doctor, that's all." The figure in the center steps forward. Pierce. He looks familiar. "We just need to have a little talk with him."
He tenses in the restraints, and waits for Pierce to speak. Pierce doesn't, at first. He circles the table, and the lights shine directly behind his head, casting his eyes into shadow. Finally, Pierce motions to the doctors. They approach the table slowly, not with the deliberate movements of someone trying not to draw attention but with exaggerated steps, sideways glances. One of them holds out her hands, palms facing out. The other one fastens thin metal bands around his forehead.
"You know my name," Pierce says.
He can't nod, so he says, "Yes."
"Good. What's yours?"
His throat locks. He stares up at Pierce, silent.
Pierce repeats himself: "What's your name?"
He's expected to answer. He tries. He moves his jaw. His temples throb. He can't think. The haloes around the lights make his eyes water.
Pierce straightens. More of his features are blotted out by the light. "Identify yourself, soldier."
Images flash. Fragments of sound. Sergeant. Arm of HYDRA. Hold still. Good. Very good.
"I don't know," he whispers.
Pierce's hand comes to rest by the side of his head. "Doctors, if you would?"
Every muscle of his body seizes, locks into place. Light burns around his temples and scorches him inside and he shoves his heels down, arches his back up, anything to get away—
It stops. Slowly, he sinks back to the bench. The restraints haven't slackened.
"You do know," a voice says, from above. Pierce's. "And doctors, give him a muscle relaxant, please, we don't want him to break anything. No, don't worry about the anesthetic."
A cuff is strapped to his foot. A needle slides into his arm. The backs of his eyes sting.
"Now. What's your name?"
He blinks. His eyelids are heavy; his pulse slows to a dull beat. How many seconds pass? He stares up at the cluster of lights above him. He's been like this before. He's been under lights like these, and someone said—a voice—
The current rips through him again, and pain explodes inside his jaw. He screams through his teeth and something warm trickles out of the corner of his mouth, something raw scrapes his throat.
It stops. Parts of his body still shake.
"You're thinking about it too much." Pierce's voice softens. "You don't need to think. You've already committed yourself to your mission. To us. To HYDRA."
He doesn't remember.
Pierce sighs. He realizes that he spoke the question out loud.
This time, the shocks don't stop. He tries to wrench his head back and beat it against the headrest. It would stop a target, it can't stop this. His vision shorts, blackens. His hands flex; nothing is nearby to grab, to attack. There are no voices, no fragments. The only sound he hears is himself—raw, hoarse, horrible—
He collapses. Exhausted. Unbalanced.
"If you spend all your time asking questions, you're just slowing yourself down. Delaying what needs to be done. It only hurts you," Pierce says. "Did that hurt?"
He lifts his head, nods.
"And it hurt because—?"
He has to cough to regain enough of his voice. "I—asked questions. Delayed my mission."
"And what's your mission?"
"To." He coughs again. "To destroy HYDRA's enemies."
"Because you are—?"
"The Winter Soldier." He breathes: slow, unsteady. "I'm the Winter Soldier."
Pierce chuckles. "Good. See how easy that was? Not everything needs to be complicated."
The Soldier nods again, before his head falls to the side. The doctors will fix him, and he'll be functional in time to complete his mission. He only needs to concern himself with that. Anything that has no bearing on his mission can be discarded.
He has a name. He won't forget it again.