It is not an antagonistic relationship, precisely, between the heads of Hydra on their respective sides of the pond; still, there is an air of old superiority in Europe, the original Hydra, the real Hydra, when news of the calamity in Washington, D.C. spreads overseas.
How foolish was Alexander Pierce; how ambitious, how arrogant in his overreach.
Those thoughts quickly gave way to panic and pandemonium, at the realization that Pierce’s recklessness has doomed them all. The Black Widow has laid all but the most buried of secrets bare, has sacrificed the integrity of SHIELD in the interests of routing out every last vestige of Hydra.
One of those buried secrets was utilized carelessly by Pierce, and rumor has it that the Winter Soldier is dead; just another piece of detritus littering the bottom of the Potomac amidst the wreckage of the helicarriers that would have finally brought an errant world to heel. A legacy, a nightmare, a story to frighten little children, rendered mortal in the end, vaporized by cannon fire or crushed by the collapsing structure or knocked unconscious in the fall and drowned in the river.
Vasily Karpov knows better. He was the Soldier’s handler for two decades and knows the limits of his mortality more intimately than anyone; saw the Soldier’s ruthless effectiveness too many times to waste his remaining life on flights of fancy and wishful thinking.
Still – it is some months after the initial purge that the rumor begins to spread among the survivors: their greatest asset is alive, and has found his way home.
Vasily Karpov knows better, and he sits quietly and he waits and everyday hears about yet more old comrades, who survived the purge of their vengeful governments, putting their pistols in their own mouths rather than face the retribution of the demon cutting a furious path across the continent. Karpov cannot blame them, but nor can he follow their example. To most, the Soldier is almost as much a legend as he was to the world at large. A threat – and not a toothless one – that Hydra deals with traitors just as effectively as it does its enemies.
Karpov, though, spent too much time watching a man scream while being burned away from the inside out to not wonder what finally emerged on the other side of the fire.
Lukin runs him through the procedure the first time. His first day in Siberia, and he’s not yet sure of his new assignment until he’s standing beside the aging man and staring through the distorted glass of the cryofreeze chamber.
He watches in horrid fascination as a limp, haggard man is electrocuted out of his own head, and realizes for the first time that some truths are more twistedly terrible than the nightmares.
Lukin orders the Soldier to kill one of the hapless guards facing the wall by the door, just because he can. Demonstrating the Soldier’s unquestioning obedience, his efficiency. The guard, to his credit, does not flinch at the order and has his neck snapped with a quiet Hail Hydra on his lips.
The Soldier goes back on ice barely ten minutes after waking.
It can be hard, Lukin warns him. Living in this frozen wasteland. Little company but one’s own thoughts, doing some of Hydra’s most vital work but often only sporadically; he’d gone nearly two years once without any orders from above.
Do not, Lukin warns him, wake the Soldier unnecessarily. He is a finely-crafted, deadly tool, only to be utilized when absolutely essential and put away carefully in the intervening times.
Karpov makes it four days before curiosity gets the better of him. The Soldier blinks up at him, seemingly oblivious that the source of today’s torture is any different from one before. Ready to comply, he says, and Karpov licks his dry, chapped lips nervously.
“Who are you?”
For a moment, he thinks the Soldier does not – cannot? – comprehend the question. “I am no one,” he says at last with another slow blink. “Ready to comply.”
Karpov orders him back into cryo and puts the book back in its resting spot quickly, carefully, as if to erase any evidence of his indiscretion.
A year passes after Hydra was thrown into disarray, and Karpov hears about the Avengers’ raid on Baron Strucker’s fortress in Sokovia. The next day, he returns to his rundown little apartment and finds a shadow sitting in the corner by the refrigerator, tucked underneath the window.
Hoodie and jeans, ball cap on his head… forearms resting on bent knees drawn up towards his chest, and gloves even hide the fact that one his hands is not flesh and blood. It is an incongruous image with the agent of death Karpov knows him to be, and more shockingly human that he ever imagined possible.
Who are you, he wants to ask; instead, settles for, “I’ve been expecting you.”
“Never believed that I was dead, did you?” he asks, voice gravelly, like he’s not had much occasion of late to use it.
“Alexander Pierce was a fool who never learned how to best exploit your skills; you should never have been brought into play.”
The Soldier – the man – chortles lowly, and switches to English. “Naw, he knew exactly what he was doin’. Just overplayed his hand; or overestimated the power of your brain-scrambling bullshit, either way.”
Karpov looks him over curiously. He is visibly worn, dark shadows under his eyes, but there is little hostility in his presence, his posture, his tone. “American?” he asks, shifting languages in tandem with the ghost across the room.
Dark brows furrow in amusement, and Karpov stares, fascinated, at each minute shift in expression. Like he’s burrowed through all the layers of a masterfully crafted but malfunctioning machine only to find, against all odds and all rational reasoning, that a man still exists underneath. “Yeah,” that man chokes out with a ragged laugh. “American.”
“What do they call you now?”
A trace of the Soldier rises in his eyes, but then they narrow menacingly; it is nowhere near as frightening as the eerie calm with which Karpov has seen him maim and kill, the stoic blankness with which he has accepted broken bones or blows to the face. “There is no they. No more words; no more chair. I did this. I did this for me.”
“It is coincidence then, that you find me here barely a day after the Avengers took on Strucker?”
He snorts softly. “Found ya a long time ago; had bigger problems to deal with.”
“Just a distraction I been waitin’ on.”
He doesn’t elaborate. “So if there is no they – what do you call yourself?”
Shadowed eyes flicker; his mouth opens once, twice, like he’s trying to decide on an answer and changes his mind. Ultimately, he gives none.
Karpov is at the bunker in Siberia for five months before the first mission comes down, and then several are ordered in quick succession. The Iron Curtain has fallen, an empire is collapsing – there is chaos to foster and unrest to exploit.
Months before that empire draws its last jagged breath, Karpov’s mission shifts. Five battle-hardened commandos are dropped on his doorstep. Teach them, his superiors say, show them the righteous cause the enlightened serve. After years of faithful service to the Kremlin, they would be rewarded with a swift execution, too dangerous to exist in a new era of supposed peace.
They will be better, his superiors say, than that caged animal who must be shocked into line with each new awakening. They have the skills already – earn their loyalty, and Hydra will become unstoppable. When the time is right, the Soldier will carry out his final mission, acquire the substance that will allow the commandos to transcend that barrier of immortality, and then train them until he falls in the process. The end of an era, a legacy for the new Soldiers to strive to match.
Something in Karpov rankles on behalf of that thing that sits and sleeps in the cold and blinks deadened eyes and asks for a mission in a toneless voice, yet carries out each and every order to exact specifications. The Soldier’s origins are shrouded in mystery, except perhaps for those at the very top, but being rendered so brutally into obsoleteness seems a poor repayment for his service.
His objections are not voiced – are little more than a murmur in the back of his own mind – but lend sway to his eventual argument that the commandos must be put on cryo and stay there. Perhaps a thing needs to be broken completely, rebuilt from its element parts and all the rest thrown out, to create something like the Soldier. Not something loyal, for Karpov has come to realize that the Soldier has no concept of cause, only the mission and how best to accomplish it.
Never once has he heard Hail Hydra whispered on those lips. The only thing aligning him with their cause is a little red book and the power it grants to whoever wields it.
The Soldier shuts the gate, traps the feral commandos inside with the scientists not fast enough to get out or not fortunate enough to be dead already. Thank you, Karpov tells him, clasps his hands behind his back to hide their shakiness, and watches the slaughter unfold.
The Soldier stares at him like he can’t parse the meaning of the words.
“You were the cruelest, you know that?”
The daylight has given way to dusk. The would-be Soldier has finally moved from the spot under the window and now sits in the single chair at the scavenged table. Karpov falters at the stove, where he stirs a bland mixture of rice and beans and idly wonders how a thing like the Soldier learned to subsist like a human again when he first broke free of the shackles in his mind.
He half-turns and watches as the man at the table flexes metal fingers, staring at them in a mixture of disgust and fascination. “Given what I know of Aleksander Lukin, I am skeptical of that assertion,” he murmurs, turning back to the pot. “Regardless, it was not my intent to render your existence any more terrible than was dictated by circumstance.”
“That right there,” he turns again and finds shockingly pale eyes staring at him from underneath a curtain of tangled hair, “that’s why. I don’t think I knew it at the time. Don’t think I could. But after existing so long like a thing… you kept trying to dredge some amount of humanity out of me. Like you were digging around in there for any hint of a personality, knowing you’d only have to zap it out of me the next time.” Karpov supposes that’s true, though he never really thought through it that way. “You take out a weapon, you fire the weapon, you put the weapon away; you don’t thank the weapon. You don’t ask the weapon what it was before it was forged.”
“You’re right, of course.”
“That why you didn’t keep running? Why you didn’t put a bullet in your own brain? Why you haven’t yet started murmuring sweet nothings into my ear until I’m ready to obey you again?”
“To what end?” Karpov shrugs. “There are no more missions; any surviving leaders of Hydra have gone so deep underground that most of us could never hope to find them – and I doubt there are many left. Strucker was one of the last holdouts.” He takes a moment to dish some food into two cracked and chipped bowls, digs two bent and rusted spoons out of a creaking drawer, and serves one of the dishes to his unlikely guest.
The guest blinks down at the food, bemused, and then looks up with a wry half-grin on his face. Karpov can think of any number of reasons he might refuse to eat, but then he takes the bowl in his metal hand and digs in.
“You’re right though,” Karpov leans against the counter and eats slowly, watching him. “I knew the Soldier; I’ve always been curious about the person inside. If there even still was one.”
“So whaddya think?” he asks around a mouthful of rice.
Karpov lifts one shoulder, noncommittal. “I think you’re American, and that surprises me.”
The metal arms whirs softly, but he is only setting the bowl back down. “You know,” he jabs the spoon between them, eyes narrowed thoughtfully, “Lukin knew. Pierce knew. I wonder why they never told you.”
“Told me what?”
They try again more than ten years later.
What would happen, his superiors wonder, if you raise the killer you want rather than wrench it forcefully out of a man that was? Could you create a machine with more autonomy, more innovation, that still performs with the same brutal efficiency as the Soldier who knows nothing but the specifications of his orders, his mission.
If you mold them young enough, they theorize, they will live and die for the cause to which they attribute their very existence, and not be seduced by their own power.
The Soldier will complete their training, they decide, the final test, and he’ll stamp out the last hints of vulnerability that even the most promising candidates still exhibit.
And so Karpov finds himself leaving Siberia for the first time since Aleksander Lukin greeted him and gave him a demonstration of the awful power he was to wield and quickly left the sleeping ghost behind in this haunted tundra where even the guards are not permitted to watch the horrors that go on around them.
And much as Lukin had done, he teaches the masters and matrons of the Red Room how to use the tool being loaned to them. But there is no cryo here, no book; only the words, and a chair.
The longest Karpov has known the Soldier to be awake is three days.
Can you teach a thing, he muses, how to sleep like a man when so long has it known only the absolute rest of the ice? Can you teach the hand of a killer to pull its punches, to stop just shy of breaking the thing it is to train, to perfect?
Can you explain the concept of mercy to a thing that is routinely stripped of its humanity?
The experiment ends early. Karpov is summoned back to the Red Room to collect his charge, finds him blank and docile, locked in a utilitarian room. The bed sits made, unrumpled; a cold meal uneaten on a steel table.
He recites the words, to no effect. “Come,” he orders, and for the first time is ignored by the thing that exists only to obey. “What have you done?” he asks the matrons.
His mind went rogue, they scoff, and took his body with it; he is not the weapon they were promised. Fell victim to the calculated charms of the best of the students and corrupted her in turn – a mutual seduction of two creatures assured to experience no such weakness. Perhaps too much was burned away, they fret insincerely, but a lesson needed to be taught to the girl – the lesson that love is for children, and anything you dare hold dear becomes a liability, and will one day be taken and reduced to ash.
Karpov cannot fathom it; studies the Soldier for the entire journey back to Siberia, and wonders where the man that once occupied this body buried that last cinder of humanity, to be found by a young spider and coaxed into a flame.
“The book wasn’t in D.C.” the gruff voice breaks in to Karpov’s thoughts as he finishes drying the pot in which he’d fixed their meager supper.
“No,” he admits after a beat. “We were never willing to divulge all our secrets with the Americans.”
There’s a heavy pause. “So… it’s still in Siberia?”
Karpov turns and sees an entirely new expression in those haunted eyes – hesitation, trepidation, and it occurs that the five specters who still sleep in their icy cocoons may be the only thing on earth he has reason to fear.
“There’s an empty space under one of the floorboards by the door,” he nods towards the one that opens out to the fire escape.
The expression in the other’s eyes abruptly shifts to something wry, vaguely surprised, and he pulls the small volume out of the pocket of his sweatshirt. “I appreciate your candor, Colonel.”
“Have you been simply toying with me while deciding what manner of painful death best suits?”
The man grins. “I’m not gonna kill you. I’ve got a mission for you, s’matter of fact.” He turns the book over in his hands, purses his lips, and slides it across the table; Karpov stops it from falling over the edge, but does not pick it up, not yet. “You leave, tomorrow. Get out of Europe. Take the book with you. Hide yourself well, and hide that even better.
Karpov blinks. “Why not destroy it?”
“Because I’ve spent the last year ensuring you’re the only person left in this world who knows its significance – and I might need it one day,” he answers with a grimace. “It’s best that until that day comes, we don’t exist in the same place.”
“You plan to sell your services? Or do you truly think you can unmake that which Hydra has created? Who would you trust to try?”
He hunches in on himself, mumbles his response. “Got someone followin’ me who’ll be awful keen to give it a shot, if I ever let myself be caught.”
And suddenly, the cryptic response about Strucker serving as a distraction makes sense. “Romanova,” Karpov murmurs, earning a sharp glance in response. “Rumor had it she was searching for you after her defection – to save you, or put you out of your misery, I cannot say.” There is a distinctly puzzled tilt to the man’s head. “The matrons were foolish to think her salvageable after your indiscretions.” But the air of incomprehension never clears, and Karpov huffs a surprised laugh. “Huh. Guess they did burn away too much in the Red Room.”
Karpov is confident that the rattled look on the other man’s face is far less of an act than his reaction to the mention of Siberia. But he does not press the issue. “You know my loyalty is still to Hydra?” he probes, curious.
“Yeah,” he gets a snort in return. “It makes you predictable. The good little soldier you always were, Karpov. If you had somewhere left to go, you’d be there. If you had some use for him, for your precious Soldat, you’d have summoned him. You’ll live out the rest of your life loyal to a dead cause, too loyal to sell out its last great secrets.”
He’s not wrong; and Vasily Karpov is left to wonder – is the man who emerged from the fire the same who first set foot in the flames? If you take a man and break him, unmake him, forge him into something new and terrible and burn away any last thing that might remind him of the person he once was – can the man that was be rebuilt from the ashes smoldering deep inside?
If all those things that kept a weapon chained are removed – is regaining the memories enough to claim the old identity once more?
“Who are you?” Vasily Karpov asks.
“I told you a long time ago,” the ghost stands and fades into the shadows, pulling on a black glove and preparing to drift away into the Bucharest night, “I am no one.”