Ticket To The Moon
This is a tale of two situations
Away from narrow preconception
Avoiding conflict hypertension
Non-phobic word aerobic
This was my domain
'Til someone stole my name
- Super Furry Animals, Juxtaposed With U
The soldier woke to the feeling of cold metal and chains. He was bound tightly to the wall in an unfamiliar concrete room. The lingering pain in his head and jaw told him that his handlers had administered correction recently. Presumably he had not performed a mission to the required standard, though he could not remember any details. He would do better this time.
The strange surroundings didn’t bother the soldier, and neither did the restraints. While he couldn’t recall an exact scenario that matched the one in which he found himself, a sense of familiarity hung in the air that only grew stronger when a stern-looking man approached him carefully.
The soldier didn’t recognise the man at first, but after a few seconds some of the fragments that made up his decayed mind slotted into place and told him that this was Herr Strucker, a handler - and that he was to be obeyed without question. Strucker watched the soldier from a safe distance, pacing back and forth out of arm’s reach despite the chains and cuffs. The soldier approved, though a part of him wished the man would stand a little closer.
‘Soldier, I have a mission for you.’ Strucker said in clipped German.
‘Ready to obey.’ The soldier replied in kind, his subconscious following protocol by rote.
‘Secure package and transport to this stronghold. Return within ten hours. Any resistance to be met with lethal force; no exceptions. No backup. No witnesses. More details when you are prepped.’
‘Understood.’ The soldier nodded, and two armed guards came forward at the handler’s signal to release the chains and drop him to the floor.
He remained limp and pliant as the guards circled him on the ground, swiftly releasing the cuffs until he could get carefully to his feet, half a dozen rifles pointed at his head. This was standard procedure, though he felt a pang of disappointment when he realised they all avoided touching him. He didn’t understand where this strange longing came from, so he crushed it swiftly under thoughts of the mission to come.
‘Get him ready.’
The guards motioned the soldier to follow and he obeyed with eyes downcast, walking along an underground corridor to a smaller room filled with lockers. Once there he was given permission to arm himself and get into full tac gear, the guards checking the fit of his mask and replacing the filters before they fed him and gave him his shots.
He sat patiently as they worked, using the time to flip through the file provided on the Hydra base he was to visit. The transfer was at first glance uncomplicated - small package, only 200 miles to cover - but the soldier knew his very presence meant trouble. The soldier was a killer, and would never be used for a routine transport mission; it wasn’t his function. Hydra obviously expected heavy resistance and casualties at some point in the next ten hours, though what precise form the threat would take was unclear. The soldier added three grenades and an extra knife to his belt and thought about how easy people were to kill.
The soldier clung to the underside of the speeding truck like an armoured insect as another burst of gunfire peppered through the steel by his feet. He made to shift to the side and a gout of flame came from above to block his way, forcing him to shuffle back into a central position just behind the cab, metal fingers gripping a support beam as he returned fire through the walls and floor with the submachine gun in his right hand. He heard faint screams over the din and grinned viciously, teeth gleaming white behind his mask. These people might have a lot of guns but they were still no match for him.
The soldier took a second to check that the case on his back was secure, then waited for a pause in the weapons fire before throwing himself violently to the right, hooking his hands onto the edge of the truck and propelling himself up and out, feet first. Heavy combat boots connected solidly with a dangling figure and the soldier twisted in midair, using momentum to lock his thighs around the unlucky man’s torso and wrenching the flamethrower from his grip, crushing it to shrapnel in his metal fist. He gripped the man’s neck, glaring into bulging terrified eyes for a fraction of a second, then with his other hand the soldier tore the man out of his harness and threw the body over the side of the mountain road like a ragdoll. He braced himself against the frame, pressed his fingers deeper into the side of the truck for purchase and began to climb.
Six hours to go, and there were three vehicles and a helicopter left in pursuit. The soldier wasn’t sure how this group had discovered the location of the package or the impending transfer, but it was obvious they had been briefed on his involvement and were waiting for him to leave the facility. He was dealing with them efficiently as instructed, but he had been somewhat limited by the instructions to protect the case he carried at all costs. The soldier was not used to being so careful.
The helicopter tailing him had so far refused to attack, not willing to risk their allies on the ground. Now in the wake of the huge number of deaths during the pursuit they must have had a change of heart, because the soldier caught sight of a muzzle flash from the open door of the helicopter and he flattened his body to the roof of the truck just as a fresh rain of gunfire flew towards him.
The truck took a tight corner and the soldier quickly jumped to his feet on the cab, shooting the driver in the head from above. He felt the vehicle start to veer off course, and before the helicopter could target him again he leapt across to the car pulling up in the lane alongside, not looking back as the truck smashed into the barrier behind him with a sickening crunch and screech of metal.
A crack, and a bullet from someone inside the car grazed the soldier’s jaw, damaging the mask and causing him to growl as his head snapped to the side. He crouched and fired through the side windows with the submachine gun, then switched to a pistol to put a few more bullets into the roof for good measure.
A few well placed shots at the pilot of the helicopter made it back off slightly, and the soldier got smoothly to his feet as the car below him began to drift, taking a grenade from his belt. He activated it and held on for a couple of seconds before pitching it as hard as he could at the engine of the helicopter, shielding his face from the resulting explosion as he leapt clear to the side of the road, landing hard. Red-hot shrapnel found its way into the meat of the soldier’s right arm and flank but he ignored it - the injuries weren’t deep enough to limit mobility and the case on his back was more important.
The final trailing vehicle didn’t stand a chance, unable to brake in time before colliding with the twisted remains of car and helicopter in a cloud of metal and fire. The soldier walked calmly back through the wreckage, shooting everyone he could find before checking the case for a final time and disappearing into the woods, walking in the direction of the Hydra stronghold. Six hours left. He would be there in three.
Don’t touch me!
The soldier snarled and his fist slammed through the wall inches from the face of a terrified man in a lab coat, his pale and trembling hands still frozen in the act of reaching out toward’s the soldier’s face.
The soldier was furious, his body flooded with adrenaline. He tried to focus, but he couldn’t remember even entering the room, or what exactly had caused him to disobey the instructions of his handlers and lash out. This bothered him, but before he could analyse the situation further, a cluster of stun batons caught him under the ribs and he fell to the ground, bodies piling on top of him to dig further shocks into the soft tissues of his neck and thighs as several guards tried to cuff him. His muscles spasmed painfully but he arched his back and jackknifed upwards, throwing most of the guards across the room where they lay groaning; no longer a threat.
His breathing came loud and harsh in his ears through the mask, eyes wide and taught as he scanned the room. More guards by the door trained batons and rifles in his direction but they radiated anxiety and the soldier knew they dared not come any closer, instead waiting for him to surrender or make the first move so they could retaliate. He backed into a corner underneath some shelves, growling; his fists clenching and unclenching in an irregular staccato rhythm.
The soldier wasn’t sure exactly where he was or what was happening. All he knew was the smoke in his mind and fire on his skin. He turned his head rapidly from side to side - searching for something he couldn’t name - and the guards opposite swallowed hard and pressed themselves against the walls, keeping their distance. Part of him made the logical observation that they mustn’t want to seriously hurt him or they would have done so already, but the rest of his thoughts were like broken glass and his body burned and he couldn’t breathe.
Just for an instant, he thought he saw a small man with messy blond hair at the edge of his field of vision, his expression sad and lost. The soldier blinked rapidly and shook his head, but while the man disappeared like the click of a switch, the confused jumble in his head only got louder and more insistent.
One of the armed guards opposite looked away for a fraction of a second - but that was all the opportunity the soldier needed. He charged with a roar, caving the man’s face in with a fist even as he dragged the now lifeless body around as a shield between himself and the other guards, bloody fingers snaking out to relieve a woman of her baton. He swung it in a brutal arc, cracking her across the jaw and doubling back in the same motion to punch it through the chest of someone trying to sneak up behind him.
His body moved in tandem with anger and adrenaline, fear and frustration. The guards kept coming but he tore through them like a nightmare born of rage, crushing throats and snapping limbs as he chased a feeling he didn’t understand. Iron and terror filled his nostrils and kissed the back of his throat. It was only by chance that he detected a slight hissing sound in his ears, and by he time he realised that it came from the mask locked around his mouth and nose it was too late, his limbs already growing sluggish and thoughts drowning in molasses.
Let me go!
The desperation clawing at his insides finally voiced its need just as his legs failed him and he staggered, collapsing onto the pile of broken bodies. He felt his mind slipping away into the smoke and he scrabbled frantically for the retreating shadows as his vision went dark.
What am I doing here? Who am I?
Natasha didn’t move from her crouch in the road amongst the smoking debris, but she heard the question and shook her head. Steve walked closer, leaning down beside her to peer inside the mangled remains of a truck cab. There were two bodies inside. It was impossible to tell who they might once have been - burned and blackened flesh pulled taught over their grinning skulls, and scraps of clothing bubbled and melted on their shrunken bodies. Even with the horrific level of tissue damage he could still make out the perfect bullet holes in the centre of their foreheads. He said a silent prayer of thanks that the burning tires and spilled fuel made it almost impossible to smell anything else, and made an effort not to cough as he checked around the sides of the cab.
‘This was professional and took some level of skill.’ Steve said, taking in the whole scene. ‘A large convoy including aircraft completely destroyed and scattered over a 40 mile stretch of highway. No witnesses.’
‘Execution-style killing of everyone we found so far.’ Natasha agreed, wrinkling her nose as a particularly large plume of toxic smoke drifted in their direction.
They both covered their faces and turned away from the stinging smoke as it was fanned by the wind. Steve straightened up and again tried to take in the destruction all around them. He didn’t know how SHIELD had found out about this incident in rural Austria, but they hadn’t even had time for a briefing before being summarily pushed onto a quinjet with a vague map of the area and instructions to preserve and contain all evidence left behind.
The only information they had so far was that a large number of vehicles had been damaged, and that the occupants had been transporting illegal weapons that were said to be very volatile.
That didn’t come close to explaining the extra bullet holes in all the bodies, or the trail of devastation through miles of beautiful forest. Also, if there were originally piles of weapons in the vehicles - where were they now?
Steve rubbed his forehead in frustration, eyes flicking across the scene again as he tried to make the jumbled pieces of evidence fit together. Nothing made sense. The fire had done a good job at destroying almost everything, and the condition of the bodies meant that they would be going the DNA route for identification at this rate.
Natasha broke him out of his thoughts by leaning in close and giving a little wave to get his attention, before gesturing to the side of the closest truck. Most of the signage and paint had been burned away, but there were deep indents all the way up the metal panel, as if something had struck it with a sledgehammer.
‘They used something to try to break into the truck?’ Steve asked, trying to see what had caught Natasha’s eye. Was it just his imagination, or did she look concerned?
‘Something with fingers.’ She said. ‘You can see the grip marks.’
When Steve got closer he could see she was right. The holes were literally handholds, a spread of fingers clearly pushed into the metal and working their way up towards the roof in a regular pattern.
‘They climbed up the side.’ Steve murmured. ‘That’s not possible. Who could do this?’
‘You could.’ Natasha said pointedly, turning back to the handprints before he could reply.
‘That’s strange,’ she continued without waiting for his response. ‘The marks on the left side are much deeper than the right. Some of them have torn all the way through.
Steve was going to complain that he wouldn’t punch holes in a truck in order to simply climb it, but he saw the slight tension lines in Natasha’s face and bit his tongue. Whatever happened here had rattled her, and he had learned over the past couple of years that not many things unnerved Natasha Romanov.
They had slowly become used to working with each other as a pair, and eventually with other units within SHIELD. While they still fit best with the Avengers - as best as a motley group of people with unusual abilities and circumstances could - they had developed somewhat of a regular routine just between themselves in New York and lately Washington DC; at least, when the whole world wasn’t in peril anyway.
Despite their bond Natasha always let Steve have his space, for which he was eternally grateful. He had made no move to form bonds or pair with anyone else, and though he was sure she was very aware of his total lack of a personal life she never once brought it up, even though Steve knew it was a common debate topic among the other Avengers. Tony made no secret of the fact that money was always changing hands on the subject, but of course without any scent markers to guide them they had to wait for Steve to tell them outright and put them out of their misery, and that was never going to happen.
Steve thought they might assume his reluctance to pair came from the fact that he still had to conceal his status in public, and that was certainly a big part of it - it was very difficult to meet people when most weren’t even allowed the full picture of who you are - but the truth was that Steve just hadn’t found anyone remotely compatible. Even after living in the 21st century for years it was like everything still didn’t fit quite right, and whereas in the 30’s and 40’s he had occasionally met those whose company he found pleasant and comforting, now everyone’s scents grated and the ‘otherness’ of the environment worked against him, preventing him from ever feeling like he could truly relax.
Part of him knew on some level that a lot of this was exacerbated by his own stubbornness, and that he wasn’t doing himself any favours staying alone - that if he made an effort to adapt to the scents and fashions of the 21st century he would surely find people he could pair and bond with - but he just couldn’t bring himself to take that step. It felt like a betrayal of all those he held dear, whose faces and scents and voices he held on to in his mind but faded into softness with each passing year. The only remains were a few photographs and his own memories, and Steve wasn’t ready to push those aside just yet.
‘Do you know who or what did this?’ Steve asked Natasha, as she held out a hand to brush gloved fingertips gently over the deep gouges in the metal.
‘A theory.’ She said shortly, again not meeting his eyes. ‘I’ll let you know if we find more evidence to confirm it.’
‘Understood.’ Steve said, dropping the subject.
He knew that if Natasha had any concrete information that would help them she would let him know, but she hated speculation and refused to take stock in anything without proof. After learning a little of her background at the hands of the KGB, Steve couldn’t blame her. It must be an awful thing to find that everything you ever knew was built on manipulations and twisting of the truth. Now if it made Natasha extra wary, well, Steve couldn’t complain. It often saved their lives.
‘Captain! Ms Romanov!’
The voice carried over from the far side of the wreckage, and both Steve and Natasha’s heads snapped around at the sudden interruption. A small group of agents at a bend in the road had stopped their evidence collecting and instead were clustered round some of the air team who had arrived with a cargo pallet. A young alpha woman waved them over, instructing the rest of the group to disperse as she paced back and forth on the asphalt with her arms tightly crossed, pent-up energy simmering just below the surface as she waited for them to reach her.
‘Sophia Delgado, leading STRIKE air support. We just got this from search area C.’ She said by way of an introduction, straightening the lines of her uniform in the classic fidget and trying and failing not to sniff too obviously when Steve and Natasha got close enough. Steve just gave her a bland stare, used to the confusion people sometimes displayed when they couldn’t scent him. Natasha however made no effort to hide her exasperation, rolling her eyes and tensing her body with a quiet warning growl. Sophia gulped, taking an involuntary step back before she checked herself and stopped, body wavering on the edge between fight and flight.
‘Erm, I - I mean, we thought you should see this as soon as possible. It’s the only intact evidence we have so far.’ She said, stammering and ducking her head as she registered the very real threat in Natasha’s posture and gave ground.
Steve took pity on Sophia and dismissed her with a nod of thanks before Natasha could respond further. She wisely retreated to a safe distance, keeping her gaze fixed on Natasha and rubbing her wrists and hands in an instinctive self-soothing motion. Natasha glared at her for a few seconds more but followed Steve’s lead and stalked onward to look at the objects laid out on a thick tarpaulin.
‘Was that really necessary?’ Steve asked her quietly when they were out of earshot.
‘That team has worked with us before.’ Natasha said with a huff. ‘She should know better by now. Amateurs.’
‘Don’t be too hard on her. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is strange; the way we are.’ Steve said. ‘Besides you and me I don’t know anyone who uses the same amount of masking and blockers all the time. Everyone’s on high alert, and we probably took her by surprise.’
‘You’re a regular saint, Rogers,’ Natasha said. ‘But I still think she was trying to figure us out, and I don’t like it. You know why we mask, and it’s certainly not for STRIKE’s benefit.’
‘You’ll always be a mystery, Natasha, don’t worry. Even to me.’ Steve said, teasing. He laid a gentle hand on her arm and she looked at him in surprise, eyes lighting up with pleasure. He rarely touched her beyond what what was necessary for a bond, and though she was never offended he knew she would have been happy with more.
‘Don’t tell me the great Captain America knows all my secrets?’ She smiled back, laying a hand over his own briefly as a thank you before pulling away again.
‘Apart from your irrational love of pineapple on pizza? Never.’ Steve said with a laugh. ‘Also I’m sure that if I did find out anything worthwhile you’d have to kill me.’
Without their scent markers they had limited ways to offer comfort, but these little moments of contact between them never meant anything less to Steve, and he didn’t think Natasha thought so either.
‘Of course.’ Natasha agreed, showing teeth in a grin. ‘Now let’s get this over with so I can put my back to these damned mountains and have a shower. Ideally in that order.’
They both turned to look at the pallet, hearts beating just a little faster when they saw what it was that had the agents so wound up. Several unburned chunks of metal lay in a loose circle, along with car seats, clothing and even a battered toolbox. The most obvious and exciting thing though was definitely the very dead but intact man in the centre of the tarpaulin, body just beginning to smell of decay and show signs of rigor mortis. He might have only been dead a few hours, and had obviously been overlooked in the otherwise total destruction of evidence. Apart from the relatively good condition of the corpse, there was something else unusual about it that both Steve and Natasha noticed straight away.
‘No bullet holes.’ Natasha said, impressed.
‘Nope, looks like he died when he fell off the mountainside. Look at all the fractures. Head injury too.’
‘How did he get down there? Where was he found?’ This last Natasha directed loudly to Sophia, who was flitting around the periphery of the area like a caged canary and dosing them with the bitter scent of fear like it was going out of style.
‘About a mile or so back.’ She called over, managing to keep her voice pretty steady and strong despite the increase in volume. Steve mentally gave her a few points to her credit for that. ‘We found a few scraps of metal scattered along that stretch of road and the body parallel to that about a hundred feet down the mountain.’
‘So he either fell from one of the vehicles, or…’ Steve began, thinking.
‘- Or someone pushed him over the side.’ Natasha said, pointing to discoloured skin around the man’s neck. ‘More finger marks, and I don’t think there was enough time for whoever did this to fully strangle him. They just threw him out of the way and made sure he wouldn’t be getting up again.’
Natasha began to turn the body clinically back and forth in her gloved hands, skittering over the livid purple fingermarks with a frown of concentration. Steve couldn’t figure out exactly what she was checking for, but he stayed quiet and let her work. After few moments she placed the body back down and took a deep breath, eyes slipping shut in a sigh. Steve could have sworn she went to press a hand to her left side briefly before changing her mind and getting quickly to her feet, but he knew better than to ask.
‘We need to call Fury. Now.’ She said, her eyes hard.
‘What is it?’
‘There’s something he’s not telling us. There’s no way this was a normal weapons transport.’
‘What do you mean?’ Stave asked.
‘You know Fury wouldn’t have sent us here if he thought it was simple terrorism, which means he already knows or suspects what is really going on; and if I’m right - and the Winter Soldier was sent to kill everyone involved - then it involves something much more dangerous than just weapons.’
‘The Winter Soldier? One person did all this?’ Steve said, incredulous.
‘He’s the world’s greatest assassin; a ghost story. Responsible for dozens of high-profile deaths in the last fifty years. No one has ever been able to confirm his identity, or even if he actually exists.’ Natasha paused, pursing her lips in a tight line. ‘I saw him once, a long time ago. He shot me. His left arm is metal; an advanced prosthetic.’
‘The marks on that truck. You think…?’ Steve said slowly, understanding. Natasha nodded, her expression grim.
‘And on our friend’s neck.’ She said, gesturing to the dead man. ‘I didn’t get a close look at the Soldier, no one has - he covers his face and there’s no way to tell his age or status - but he’s fast. Very fast, and strong. I would say he’s enhanced, except I don’t know how that could be possible.’
‘It couldn’t.’ Steve mused. ‘No one’s ever managed to come close to replicating Erskine’s serum besides Bruce, and the results aren’t exactly inconspicuous. I think we would have noticed by now if there was another Hulk running around.’
‘The Winter Soldier’s not like the Hulk.’ Natasha agreed. ‘He’s…detached. Cold. Didn’t say a word, though his aggression and size made me think he could be A.’
‘That doesn’t really prove anything, especially if you couldn’t scent him.’ Steve said, feeling an automatic twinge of annoyance in his chest at the familiar assumption that big automatically equaled alpha.
‘No it doesn’t.’ Natasha agreed, eyeing him knowingly. ‘It was just a feeling I got at the time, but I only saw him for a few seconds and I was busy getting shot at, so who’s to say I didn’t get a few details wrong?’
She almost winced again then before covering it with a tense smile, and if Steve hadn’t been standing so close to her he might have missed it. He realised that Natasha was afraid, despite her attempts at joking, and whatever she had seen in the Soldier had really disturbed her.
‘Why did he shoot you?’ He asked, trying to understand.
‘I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran, and he shot out my tires and sent us over a cliff. When I pulled us out of the wreck the Soldier was waiting. I stepped between him and my engineer, so he shot her - straight through me.’ Natasha’s hand went to her side again. ‘Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye bikinis.’ She smiled bitterly.
‘Yeah, I bet you look terrible in them now.’ Steve raised a sarcastic eyebrow until she managed a smile. ‘Come on, let’s get everything logged and sent back for analysis.’ He pressed his hand briefly on Natasha’s shoulder for reassurance as they turned away from the body and walked towards where they left the agents hanging around the quinjet.
‘Steve, I’m serious.’ She said as they walked. ‘If the Winter Soldier is involved, then it won’t end here. Fury’s hiding something, and it must involve the Avengers or SHIELD personally.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because how else could he know what was really inside these trucks?’
She pulled away and walked on to the jet. Steve followed slowly behind, rubbing the sudden gooseflesh from his arms despite the warm day.
It took every ounce of the soldier’s training to remain at attention, but his thoughts were constantly interrupted by strange images and voices that swirled out of the depths of his mind like silver fish in a sunless sea.
‘Where have you been?’
‘She’s gone, James.’
‘Get out of here!’
‘You know this tune?’
‘Steve, don’t make me say it.’
The discordant words made no sense, and the soldier was sure he had never travelled to the places that came to him out of the dark. His mission was in snow-capped mountains, dense forest and the Hydra stronghold, which was cold and bare and metal. He didn’t recognise the rich wood and colourful fabrics of the rooms in his mind. The light there was soft and warm, and figures obscured by shadows reached out to him with gentle hands. He felt the phantom sensation of flames tickling at the exposed skin of his neck and suppressed a full-body shiver.
The soldier had no way to ask, but he assumed that these anomalies were because it was too long since he had been conditioned. When his handlers briefed him they stated that the mission would last only a few days, but it had been more than a week and the soldier had been moved ceaselessly from one task to the next, unable to voice his uncertainty or the shaking apart of his insides.
The soldier knew that he was in many ways a defective thing - and that in order to perform to the best of his ability he needed to submit to regular maintenance and conditioning - but if his handlers needed him to remain in the laboratory in his current state then that is what he must do. There was no option to disobey.
It’s not like the soldier could warn them of the growing problem even if he wanted to. The standard filters in his mask should have been replaced ages ago, but there had been no-one available to see to his maintenance for days, and the soldier could feel the crusting of blood and saliva in his mouth where cruel metal scraped against the delicate flesh of cheeks and tongue.
It had been several hours since the soldier been ordered to stand guard in the lab, but he was used to spending a very long time immobile and ignored the growing cramps in his muscles without effort. He shoved everything away - discomfort, voices, and warmth alike - to focus his slippery consciousness on the activity around him.
Scientists and technicians recognisable by their white coats ran around carrying cables and boxes that they connected to the huge banks of machinery lining the room. All the machines whirred and hummed with activity, and the cables flickered with a strange blue light.
The same light came from the raised table in the middle of the room, which held two strange devices the soldier didn’t understand. One looked to be a sort of spear, but the handle was too short. It was made of a fragile-looking gold metal, and beneath the blade a blue stone glowed with an almost painful intensity. It hurt the soldier to look at it for too long even behind his goggles, so after a few seconds he let his eyes flick to the other object nearby. This was an ugly thing - a rough and jagged tangle of dull grey metals that caged a roiling, pulsating mass of blue at its core. While the light was similar in colour to that from the spear, it felt more sickly somehow - as if the pulsing was the last breaths of something dying, or the energy of something inherently unstable. The soldier didn’t like to look at that light either; it made him nauseous. He quickly turned his attention back to the room and checked on the other occupants.
Half a dozen people were gathered closely around the unsettling objects. They were deep in conversation with each other, ignoring all the frantic activity around them as more and more machines came to life and the light grew steadily brighter.
The soldier didn’t deliberately try to eavesdrop, but he had to remain alert in order to protect Hydra personnel, and his hearing was very good. Their conversation carried over the increasing crackle and hum of electricity, as the tiny hairs on the back of the soldier’s neck and right arm prickled with static.
‘ - truly a momentous day.’ Herr Strucker was saying, as he gestured grandly to the spear and cage device in front of him.
‘Indeed. If this experiment is successful, then the whole world can look forward to a new era of prosperity under Hydra. With this and the upcoming launch of Project Insight, our command of the world’s resources will be complete. There will be no fear, no neglect, no shortages ever again. This was something that could only be dreamed about a hundred years ago and we, ladies and gentlemen, are making it a reality.’
That was Alexander Pierce, the leader of Hydra. The soldier watched Pierce carefully for a moment, checking that he didn’t want to give the soldier further instructions, but Pierce wasn’t paying him any attention so the soldier allowed himself to relax a fraction, continuing his observations.
A young woman standing next to Pierce caught his eye. She was staring at the soldier, her facial expression jarred him like a language he couldn’t name. When she realised that the soldier was looking back at her she jumped as if caught at something, and clutched at the shoulder of the other man by her side. The soldier noted that neither of the pair looked military, though the very fact that they were allowed in the lab with Pierce meant they must serve Hydra in some capacity like himself. The man stared openly at the soldier too - his grey hair at odds with his youthful face - before they both started whispering furiously to each other in Sokovian as Pierce and Strucker, distracted, barked instructions at the assembled technicians and guards.
‘Don’t you do anything! Don’t say anything!’ The man hissed, gripping the woman’s forearm tightly and turning her away.
‘But he - his mind is - ‘ She began, risking another quick glance at the soldier.
‘No! You must be quiet!’ The man sounded afraid.
This feeling, the soldier understood. He knew that a lot of people in Hydra were afraid of his handlers. The soldier had his own distant and fractured memories of fear, but he had learned a long time ago to obey; to focus on his mission - It minimised the pain.
‘I can’t!’ The woman pleaded quietly, her long dark hair falling forward to hang in her face. ‘It hurts; so much screaming and violence pouring into my head!’
‘You have to! We’re not supposed to know about him, and if they find out we’ve been snooping then we’re both dead! Do you understand?’ The man insisted, tugging her arm harder until she finally nodded and he released her so she could pull away.
Just as they broke apart Pierce and Strucker turned back to continue their conversation, and the group was led across the room by their guards to some folding chairs, arranged as if for a performance.
‘Are you ready for this, Wanda?’ Pierce asked the woman as they sat. ‘By all accounts you have always been the closest to this energy. To witness it performing its true function must be fascinating for you.’
‘Yes, Mr Pierce.’ The woman - Wanda - replied. ‘It has grown so much, even in the past hour. I believe it is almost ready.’
‘That’s wonderful.’ Pierce said, smiling. ‘And you Pietro, how are you finding your time with Hydra?’
‘Well enough Sir.’ Pietro said flatly. ‘Though I would prefer to be out hunting Stark and the other Avengers.’
‘In time.’ Pierce said, looking briefly across to the soldier and then back to Pietro before lowering his voice conspiratorially. ‘I’m not really one for all this science stuff myself, but just between us I think your chance will come much sooner than you expect.’
Pietro nodded, and conversations trailed off into an uneasy silence as the technicians made a few final adjustments and withdrew to the edges of the room, looking over to Strucker who waved a hand for them to begin. Someone threw a lever on the wall, and the machine hum increased in pitch until the soldier could feel the vibrations through the soles of his boots and the roots of his back teeth.
An arc of blinding white-blue light struck the centre console and several people cried out in surprise. Thanks to the filter in his goggles the soldier could see the outlines of the crowd of people at the far end of the room thrown into sharp silhouette as they covered their eyes in pain.
‘Is it supposed to do that?’ Pierce was yelling at Strucker, who was in turn shouting across to the technicians in furious German, ordering them to change some settings on the machines.
Wanda and Pietro held each other close and turned their faces away from the glare as the air in the room thickened, and more sparks of power fell from cables and skittered across the floor. The arc light was showing no signs of dimming, and the soldier saw it was beginning to pulse in time with the sickness-glow inside the cage, the shadows rolling and shifting around the room in a horrifying wave.
‘Stop!’ Wanda yelled over the din. ‘Something’s wrong!’
‘Nonsense!’ Strucker snapped back. ‘We’re so close! Just another minute!’
‘She’s right!’ Pierce was shouting too, his aged voice almost hoarse already. ‘It’s dangerous for us to stay in here!’
‘Shut it down!’ Wanda begged. ‘Please, shut it down! I’m afraid.’
‘Do as she says!’ Pierce ordered, even as Pietro pulled Wanda quickly out of the way of Strucker, who moved as if he was going to hit her.
The soldier watched the argument with some trepidation. If it came down to a disagreement between Strucker and Pierce then his loyalties were clear, but he had no idea of the value of Wanda and Pietro in Hydra’s chain of command and so if the pair were at odds with Strucker he couldn’t be sure what actions were permitted. He stood frozen to the spot in the same position he had remained in for the past five hours as all the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling exploded and burning glass and powder fell in a scorching rain.
‘Turn it off! Now!’ Pierce repeated, stepping between Wanda and Strucker and shaking the other man violently. Strucker put a hand up to his chest in defence but he must have seen the wisdom in obeying orders because he didn’t protest further and the soldier saw his silhouette pick its way quickly across the room. It was only a few seconds before his voice once again carried to the soldier, this time edged with panic.
‘I can’t!’ Strucker called to Pierce. ’The controls have melted - I can’t cut the power!’
‘Then disconnect the artifacts!’ Pierce shouted back, voice cracking at the volume on the last syllable.
‘Soldier!’ Strucker called, and the soldier snapped himself around to attention in an instant, shards of glass falling from his hair. ‘Pull the sceptre from the console! Hurry!’
The soldier nodded to Strucker and turned smoothly into a sprint, glass and metal crunching under his boots as he ran. He could just about make out the outlines of the group of people huddled together amongst the chairs opposite, but the central light was still brightening by the second and the soldier was forced to squint as everything started to blur into an endless landscape of white. As he reached the middle of the room and dived for the spear - the sceptre - he saw Wanda’s wide bright eyes lock onto his face, and he only just had time to register her frantic shout:
‘No! Not him!’
Before his metal fingers closed around the shaft of the sceptre and everything exploded.
As his mind was crushed to a single point and his body drowned in blue fire, the soldier thought he heard a single clear voice whisper in his ear, but once again he didn’t understand the words.
‘I’m sorry.’ The voice said, sorrow and regret touched through with red.