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Through the Ice of the Beholder

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The Tessaract, definitely alive now and pulsing with its own beats, is the only anchor to reality. `Ironic,` Steve thinks, even as he hurtles through the outer space to God only knows where. The Tessaract – or the cosmic stone, or whatever – used to be as unreal to him as flying into the outer space. And now both are awefully, awesomely, frighteningly real. He could touch the outer space, maybe, if he reached out a hand. Or perhaps he could even touch one of the stars and planets that are passing by so fast all round him, bright amidst the background of inky black.

 

He could, but he wouldn’t.

 

Rambling, frantic prayers mix with imaginings of macabre scenes and scenarios in the twenty-two-year-old’s mind. Meanwhile, he clings fast to his shield with one hand, and one of the handles built into the contraption holding the pulsing blue stone with the other.

 

He was never one for adventures, although he was always one for family, duty and arts. Now he finds he is still not one for adventures, and he dearly wishes the damned Tessaract would bring him back to earth, literally. Or kill him, at least. Because while Peggy will be waiting for their dance back in London, Bucky will be waiting for him on the other side.

 

He had been prepared to join Bucky, in fact, before the Tessaract – or maybe God? Or damned overprotective Bucky? – had another thing in mind and spat him and itself through a portal to the outer space. And the journey is still on-going.

 

Now he just wishes to go back to Peggy, confess and apologise profusely to her for essentially trying to kill himself, and perhaps marry her if she would forgive him. So he prays, and prays, and prays, and dearly hopes he can be back with Peggy in the next minute.

 

Because, if the Tessaract could spit him to this literal middle of nowhere, surely it could get him back home?

 

He thinks hard on that thought, that concept, and wills the damned glowy stone to … `Please, please, please, bring me home, oh God please bring me home. Don’t put me anywhere that’s not home!`

 

And, as if in answer, slowly but surely, a pale blue dot far ahead gets closer and bigger, rounder. – `Is this the view of earth from the outer space?` he can’t help but think, wonder, marvel at the phenomenon. His hands itch to grab some colouring agent – any colouring agent – and a piece of paper to sketch this down.

 

But no, sadly no. – The closer he gets, the clearer the view is, and some details begin to emerge from the pale blue. And it shows that this planet is not earth.

 

At least, he doesn’t think that earth suddenly got covered fully in ice after he was ripped away from it, however long ago the moment was.

 

`Bring me back! Bring me back! Bring me back!` he howls frantically at the glowingly pulsing stone he’s latched onto. Meanwhile, he tries to steer its trajectory away, anywhere but that ice ball.

 

He shoots faster towards the said ice ball, instead, for all the effort.

 

Worse, the greater details that he can see now do not endear him any. The opposite, in fact.

 

Ice-layered wasteland stretches from horizon to horizon, punctuated by old ruins of what may be gigantic stone buildings and other infrastructures. Nothing grows there, nor moves, nor leads anywhere. The sun shines on it all, but it’s dim and sluggish and bluish white, unlike what earth has. The quality of the light only makes the ambience more eerie and uninviting, like a waking nightmare.

 

And then he breaks into the atmosphere, and it feels like drowning in icy water without any hope of escape. To think that he thought he would at least be free of being drowned in the frigid sea, when the Tessaract ripped him out of the crashing plane! Wind from his passage whistles furiously all round him. It’s a small mercy that he somehow doesn’t – or maybe just not yet – feel it stabbing into him, flaying him alive. He hasn’t forgotten yet how he shook and shivered during harsh winters in his childhood and teenhood, trapped in poverty and his sickly body.

 

He hasn’t forgotten yet, as well, how Bucky never failed to support him through all those hardships.

 

And Bucky is dead.

 

The bone-breaking impact that his body makes with rough snow is greatly appreciated, with how his thoughts are turning towards Bucky again. The oblivion that greets him eagerly right afterwards is simply sublime.

 

Unfortunately, though, the respite seems to last for only a moment. And even more unfortunately, on returning to consciousness, he feels like a discarded animated ice statue instead of a civilised human being – if spiffed up with a Supersoldier Serum. His body is stiff all over and chilled to the marrows. His right cheek digs painfully into a hard, icy, jabby surface. Icy wind whips his other cheek and deafens his exposed ear with its whistling on regular basis. His limbs are sprawled in a very, very uncomfortable position, with joints afire the moment he tries to rearrange them. His throat feels both dry and burnt, as well, and he can’t open his eyes with all the gunk sealing them shut.

 

To add more misery to his present experience, the desolate atmosphere all round him apparently feels just like what the view of it suggested from up high. Now, though, he knows how unclean it is, ripe with the mixture of violent deaths and other losses, still sharp and potant as if the violence had happened just yesterday. Moreover, something else seems to muddy the air and makes it feel heavy, slimy, filthy and charged. It settles like gutter grime and goo mixed with old cooking oil and wet-battery liquid on his skin, in his nostrils, in his mouth, in his throat, in his lungs and in his brain.

 

And underneath it all, the sense that he associates with the Tessaract sullies everything further.

 

He must get away, if only to free himself of this horrible, horrible stench and feeling.

 

Sheer tenacity powers him through, as he first moves his fingers and toes, then his limbs, then his neck, then his body. Pain racks him on each movement, but he cannot stop. He will not stop. This is pretty similar to the time when he had flu in winter at twelve, barely a decade ago, after having the snot literally beaten out of him at school. He survived that. He will survive this, too.

 

He proves that, by dragging himself into a seated position and cleaning himself as well as he can.

 

The landscape, when he can open his eyes and look round, is just as bleak as when he viewed it from above. But now that he is in it, now that the Tessaract lies dim and quiescent nearby, now that the unclean sensations drown him, and now that the jagged ruins tower and loom over him, it gets bleaker in his perception, not to mention quite daunting.

 

Because now he knows for certain that he cannot go home, that he will die in this alien place, that even the damned Tessaract has deserted him.

 

He will not be Steven Grant Rogers, though, if he doesn’t power through all the limitations set against him.

 

So he crawls to his shield, then to the Tessaract, then up to his feet. He feels drained, just doing that, but he is determined not to spend any more second here if he can help it.

 

He is determined not to touch anything in this place with bare skin, either, except – unfortunately – for the icy air he must breathe in. Because, even through the thin gloves of his Captain America costume, the snowy, ice-covered dirt that pressed against his palms just now as he crawled felt all the more unclean, and not because it’s dirt. It felt like burning, clinging, prickling gory slime that immediately made him think of acid mixed with tacky blood and other bodily fluids and melted organs, somehow.

 

If there’s a part of hell that’s freezing, then this would be it, just for the sheer wrongness of it.

 

He picks his careful way over the chunks of debris, which are often as high as his shins or more. He meanders in-between tumbled masonry and broken giant edifices, so he needn’t scale any of them. He lugs the damned Tessaract with him, so nobody will stumble on it and use it for evil purposes. He uses his shield as a prop when he has to climb up and down a hillock – sometimes a literal hillock – of debris, so he doesn’t have to touch any of the jagged chunks of stone with his hands.

 

And all the while, even as his throat burns with disgust of the air he breathes in, even as his stomach heaves with nausea of the overall foul atmosphere, thirst and hunger hound him relentlessly. Also, the more time he spends in this place, the more exhausted he feels, despite him parsing his energy carefully. It’s like the land is a giant leech that not so slowly saps him dry.

 

He persists, all the same. His only other choice, given the lack of materials to light an S.O.S. fire, is to lie still somewhere and wait for death, and it’s never an option for him even when he was a tiny, scrawny, sickly child.

 

Once, he unknowingly climbs up what looks like a stretch of black stones, piled rather neatly together. It turns out to be a giant, humanoid skeleton on closer look from the other side, which has been picked clean and roughened by – probably – the weather.

 

He avoids touching the black stones ever since.

 

It becomes harder to do the farther he walks, though, given the sheer number of the bones lying about. What he finds are not always full skeletons, either, although they are all similarly huge and black – or maybe blackened by age and weather – and retaining no flesh, nor other identification marks.

 

He is traversing a literal boneyard from probably some ancient battle between giants, alone, with neither recourse nor a definite direction towards probable salvation, with icy wind whistling in his numb ears every so often. It won’t be a stretch, nor a sign of cowardly hopelessness, he thinks, to expect that his own bones will join the throng sooner or later.

 

And still, he persists.

 

“Sooner” or “later,” after all, is not “now.”

 

His will begins to slacken, nonetheless, when he finds better preserved bodies among the bones. – Some clinging blackened flesh here; a swatch of purpled skin there; and he even finds a full body somewhere: at least fifteen feet long and maybe more, curled up tight into itself, with sharp, black fingers and toes and bluish purple skin with silvery black marks.

 

There are unfortunate sods who have been trapped here recently.

 

And he, Steven Grant Rogers, is just the most recent of them all.

 

`God, please don’t let me die here. I won’t even mind if you put me back in that plane; please! What did I do to deserve this hell? Oh, Mother Mary, please, please, please pray for me…. Get me out of here… – please.`

 

His knees wobble. His ankles weaken. His gait falters. His steps slow down. And still, he puts one foot in front of the other; again, again, again, again and again.

 

He is not going to rot in this hell, if he can help it, and he still can.

 

He tries not to pay attention on what surrounds him. But it is damn bloody hard to do, when, at the same time, he must pick his way carefully around or in-between the debris, the gaping holes, the bones, the gaping holes between the bones, patches of sleek ice of various colours, and even a few huge, broken metallic things that may have been advanced vehicles once. In that same reluctant manner, he finds that not all the bones seem to be of the same kindred as the poor sod that died recently back there. Here, many are smaller, so similar to his new built; white, weathered bones, lying on patches of brownish ice that may be dried blood long frozen over.

 

`I could end up here, as one of them, just a better preserved body, soon enough.`

 

His knees quake, even as they stubbornly swing forth in turns. Left, right, left, right, left, right….

 

`God, is there anything that’s beautiful and good and alive here? I want to go there! I want to die there! Not here, please.`

 

His neck prickles. Something – someone? – is watching him. But what? Or who? There is nothing alive here!

 

But then, if nothing is alive here and he is being watched anyway….

 

He breaks into a run.

 

The watching entity gets closer, fast, as if a dog on a trail.

 

A hungry dog on a trail.

 

`Oh, God, please!`

 

He stumbles.

 

Bright blue overwhelms his wavering, darkening vision.

 

Something almost tangible brushes against his back at the same time; slimy, prickly, looming, and definitely hungry. `Mine,` it hisses with the desire of a thinking predator. `Let me have you. Let me have your body. Be powerful. Be great.`

 

The Tessaract yanks him away before anything else happens.

 

He slams down on his back – on the same place that the thing touched – and feasts his eyes on the same pale, dim sky that greeted him once before.

 

But here, although his body only meets with ice that does not break his fall as much as the snow from before, it is at least clean. Just ice. No horrible sensations. No hungry nearly tangible predator.

 

He loses consciousness overwhelmed not only by pain, but also relief.

 

There is still something beautiful in this ice ball, after all.