Light from a Dead Star

January 15, 2017:

Cutscene. The Winter Soldier cannot run forever.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev

Mentions: Jane Foster, John Constantine, Steve Rogers, Zatanna Zatara

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It is night in Queens, and a woman and man argue over a table as another man, much older, stands in silence at a window.

"There was no way this was going to be anything but a long mission, and I told you I didn't think the best use case of the Winter Soldier was long missions," the woman says. She is aggressive, anxious, washing her hands frequently. Every five seconds, she looks at the turned back of the man at the window in a twitch of movement. "And deploying it on American soil? Did no one but me read the documentation before we decided to use it? It was sent to America in 1973. It started to de-condition much faster than usual, likely due to the familiar setting. We nearly lost it then. Now we HAVE lost it."

Her counterpart is quieter, precise as a scalpel in his careful movements and in his clean diction. "The control protocols had been vastly improved since 1973," he points out. "It had performed exceptionally ever since then, even with limited oversight. There was an extended period of time where it was used continuously as a bodyguard, in fact. Not in America, I grant. But it should have been able to operate here for another month before performance began to degrade. I cannot explain the sudden deterioration. I suspect outside interference—"

"Have either of you ever owned a dog?"

The question stops both of them dead. The man at the window is looking at them, his face showing all the lines of a man nearing eighty, his aged body supported by a cane, but his blue eyes still sharp and clear. They are paternal for the moment, but paternal in the way fathers look when their children are being unfathomable fools.

"If you had, you would not be in a position where I would need to inquire of you: why was it allowed to run so freely in the first place? Did you not compel it to check in at regular intervals? There is a particular way you must raise a dog, and you must be consistent over the course of its life. Crucially: you do not allow the dog to choose when it is fed."

Both of them hold their silence.

"There is no issue in controlling a dog when it is properly leashed and trained," says the man with the cane, turning back to the window. "So… leash it."

—-

They have settled into a routine over the days: the slow, leisurely routine of a man and woman temporarily isolated from the rest of the world, hidden away in an assassin's lonely bolthole. His work has him leaving mostly at night, while she sleeps; he returns in the dawn hours, when the restlessness of a mind not meant to idle for long wakes her fresh and early. He sits up with her a while, through the morning and past noon, up until he finally sleeps away the afternoon in the light catnap of a panther dozing before prime hunting hours.

His mind is not meant to idle long, either. More to the point— it does not want to. It spends months, years, decades asleep and dreaming. When it wakes, it strains to take in as much of the world as it can before sleep comes again.

The few hours they spend awake together, she shows him his own past on the glowing screen of her laptop. He forgets things from day to day— sometimes from minute to minute— but there is no limit to the patience she has to go over it again. She teaches him the sound of his own name when said off another tongue. She teaches him the look of his own face at five, at fifteen, at twenty-five. Twenty-five doesn't look much different from ninety-nine, except for the way seventy-one years of torture have hollowed and harrowed out the eyes. Ninety-nine is still a number he still cannot wrap his mind around, cannot comprehend even when he looks at his own face above the numbers '1917' and does the simple math.

He is timestamped light, thrown out from a star that died three-quarters of a century ago. The image of him is only just reaching people now, after crossing the breadth of a century.

Thoughts like that almost make him give up on re-discovery of his own past. She never lets him. Her fingers trace the words of the stories again and again, telling them to him as if to enact some reverse conditioning and replant his own real nature in the fallow soil of his mind. This is what you looked like, this is what you were named, this is what you loved. This is how you saved us. This is what you gave up so we could all be here, today.

The crack in his conditioning, formed by that feedback from touching the book, widens daily. The line between the Winter Soldier and James Buchanan Barnes starts to blur, the two personalities running together, neither able to understand or make sense of the other. Neither able to figure out where they end and the other begins.

He returns the favor of her teachings by offering some of his own, on the only topic he is qualified to teach. His sure hands show her how to handle the pistol he gave to her, showing her how to hold it— aim— fire.

Enough time passes that he grows cagey and restless. He moves their location after the first attempt to recapture him, returning them to Jane's apartment and calling John for a favor to set up some wards— wards that will permit entry by no one save him. He even thinks about running from the Eastern Seaboard entirely, taking her with him, quitting all this. It is only promises that hold him back from that, promises he made to help others avoid losing as he has lost. Promises he made to protect people he no longer clearly remembers. He cannot remember if they were promises he made eight days ago or eighty years ago. Maybe both. They feel equally urgent, either way.

He follows Steve Rogers sometimes, driven by that bone-deep urgency. He gets spotted once, but he runs. He is not ready. Their paths cross more than he wants them to, more than he can cope with, as if some invisible hand of fate guided both their steps to intersect, time and again. There are opportunities for them to speak, reconcile, reminisce. He runs from every single one.

Eventually Jane just tells him it's high time he stopped running, and just went to speak with Steve. He is reluctant, afraid of the man, ashamed to face an old friend who has soared so high while he himself has fallen so low, but one evening, he finally agrees. Not tonight. Tomorrow. The day after. Whenever Steve might want to see him.

If he still does.

It is the very next day when they finally find him. They always find him in the end, though he has been made to forget all the previous times he ran and was retrieved in the end. It takes ten agents, some of whom are sleepers who must break their cover, to bring him in. Ten agents, the element of surprise, and tranquilizer specifically mixed to overcome even his resilience. But they bring him in.

—-

Usually the procedure, under these circumstances, is a full wipe and a re-instillation of mission protocols. But this time different instructions have come down from above. This time, it is a reconfiguration and not a wipe. An intricate, completely-new pattern has been provided to be burnt into the neurons of the Winter Soldier's ravaged mind. A new personality built off old foundations.

The Soldier is promised the pain will be brief and endurable.

But the agony is still as searing and sharp as ever, as electricity burns new pathways into his brain. And this time, it lasts for hours.

Continued...

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