January 15, 2017:

NPCs run by Jane Foster. Recaptured by Hydra, the Winter Soldier's longtime handler determines that a new type of reconditioning is in order.

???, New York


NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev

Mentions: Jane Foster, Steve Rogers


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…


Operations have officially returned to New York.

They are here, have always been here, sleeping limbs of the great creature lain strewn through the city, through its workings, through its offices, through its halls, through its body and neck and turning head: seeing out through its eyes, speaking through its tongue —

— yet never as anything more. They are wraiths, ghosts, shadows, from servicemen to Senators, providing to the American people, protecting them, drafting and passing their laws — living among them, laughing as their neighbours, making their own families, raising their own children —

But not until now has the sleeping snake dug down to reclaim its old den.

They forged this place in the 1950s. They built it down, deep down into the Earth, and left it. They let the city grow its urban forest up and around it, the roar of a million on-time subway cars rumbling distantly above a place that should not exist — a place that /does not/ exist, save for the very few.

This is where they bring the Winter Soldier.

Consciousness comes back to him in a hundred little touches, sounds, smells, all of them familiar, all of them what he knows, what is his life — what courts the fractured, programmed life of a hundred-year machine.

Lights scour down. The air is sweet, like earth and clay, but at the same time, sterile. Sound amplifies inside concrete.

Arms stretch across his bleary periphery. Technicians are leaning over him, white-coated and facemasked, standing tall from where he is forced, lain straight on his back and strapped down. A bolted, magnetic clamp has been viced around his left arm, holding it straight, immobile, helpless.

He can make out the masked faces above him. Placid eyes. Unhurried eyes. Their muffled voices talk in coordinates and quadrants. Areas 8, 9b, 24, 33. 33c, one corrects. Not a full wipe? No. This is different. This is something else.

Electricity hums.


The machine of the Winter Soldier needs maintenance like any other. Especially when said machine breaks down as badly as it has over the past few weeks. It is trained, usually, to want this maintenance— to return of its own free will to receive it. It is conditioned to regard maintenance as a positive thing.

This time, the machine did not want to come back for its maintenance. It ran— it hid. It evaded capture several times. It retreated into boltholes, and moved in the shadows.

But it did not leave New York. And ironically, its own de-conditioning was its undoing, in the end. The slow re-emergence of its conscience made it unable to leave the city and break promises made— to a girl who's saved him twice now. To a magician weighed by a guilt to match the guilt waiting in his own mind. To a woman who loves him despite the circumstances of their first few meetings.

And the promise, oldest of all, he made to a man he cannot remember, despite growing up side by side with him.

So he stays. He tries to continue his work and dodge capture at the same time. But Hydra always knows. Its many tentacles always close in the end. Even if it takes ten agents, and the loss of several sleepers, to finally bring him in.

He fought until unconsciousness finally took him.

It is hours before he wakes again, and the sedatives are carefully mixed to keep even him groggy. Even then, the familiar sights and sounds and smells penetrate his muddled consciousness— touch parts of his mind that spark immediate fear. The fear of a dog in a box that has been shocked every day, at the same time, in the same place, in the same way, and knows what is coming. Knows, is terrified, and cannot escape.

He jerks in his restraints. A noise escapes his throat— a strained, smothered thing that cannot escape the mouthguard that has been forced on him. His left arm whirs wildly, its internals audibly working frantically to no effect. The clamp has been designed specifically for his strength. It does not move.

His eyes flick back and forth, desperate, searching. He hears instructions for his wipe— not a full wipe— but does not understand them. He twists in his restraints again, the straps creaking, his left arm howling at his side.

Electricity crackles. He loses it at the sound. His struggles turn wild and erratic, his desperation threatening to cut through even the massive amounts of sedative in his system.


The lab animal awakens. A muffled, yoked sound escapes his stopped jaw. His muscles pull. The left arm grinds its stopped gears.

The technicians glance down on him. On the moment he makes. On his hands, his limbs, and the restraints that hold both. They do not look on his face. They do not meet his eyes.

Such things do not exist to them. Such things are not part of their work.

They resume their conversation, their language solely conversing his neurobiology back and forth, arguing the associative cortex, arguing how deeply and permanently its matter holds precious memory. Then the technicians stand straight, though they never seem to leave him, hovering close and overhead, their hands reaching and adjusting the pieces of a great appartus — a piece of a machine — he from his bound vantage cannot yet see.

It sits just beyond his periphery, back, behind his head. But its power sings the white noise of electricity.

Try as he mind to glance around, take in the room that has him, his field of view remains painfully limited. Where those overhead lights do not stare down, blinding him like old memory — decades of these lights, burning down, buzzing with too-hot wattage, the first of many back in Germany, in a winter so cold the prison cages froze, everywhere frosted and shining with ice — everywhere except for here, the only odd time he was ever allowed to be warm —

— warm from the light, as it lit him, where he was spread over the metal table.

He is spread over metal again, unrepentantly cold, with binds forged specifically for him. No leather straps can hold a living weapon: only steel bolted shut on his flesh limbs, and electromagnets for his arm. It braces tight to ensure he is still. They have not had to brace him like this in some time, and never this fiercely.

There are reasons why. And the prodigal Soldier is quick to demonstrate them.

He hears electricity and loses control. His limbs slam and twist their restraints in growing frenzy. The bolts grind and whine to hold down something that should not be real, that should not exist, that should not be alive and this despairingly strong. The left arm comes so close to pulling its plates millimetres free from the force of the magnet.

Then it reseals with a CLANG, and the clamour jumps a technician, knowing well enough to step back with wide, panicked eyes. She backsteps far, far away from that left arm, believed restrained, but not sure, not sure. The other technician too, is still, his staring eyes looking down, adrenaline sweating off him in the decision of fight-or-flight. They share a look like they contemplate running.

Then there is just a tapping. A step followed by a light, gentle rasp. The sound of a man moving with an old lameness, a deep, significant limp that brings his old, weathered hand to knuckle, each and every forever step, a familiar cane.

Even as the technicians linger and step away, he comes close, stride by patient stride, until into the Soldier's vision frames someone's face, held in shadow behind the burn of those blinding lights.

So, almost tenderly, he turns those lights away, to spare the experiment's eyes, to let feature and detail return slowly to his own face, until it can be seen — smiling patiently down.

He is an old man, body bent with time, age and kindness and distance all in his pale eyes. The Winter Soldier has seen him before, fifty years younger, then thirty, then fifteen. Avram Vasilevich Golubev has never been allowed to be cleansed from the Soldier's memory in whole. "There is no need for that," he assures, "my old friend."


It is unbearable to go back to this after so many weeks of being treated like a human— of being looked in the eye like a man.

Of being touched with warmth and affection.

The technicians do not look him in the eye. They are not trained to. They do not touch him except to check restraints. They look everywhere but his face, assessing his vitals in familiar dead-eyed, efficient ways. They speak in language he does not understand, but he knows they are talking about his brain— his mind— about destroying it so he'll lose everything he was only just remembering, so he'll go back to the silence and the cold—

It is not silent now, of course. He can hear it behind him, humming: something that vibrates with the power of the electricity currenting through it.

He hears it and loses his mind. But his binds keep him dutifully restrained— binds that were forged long ago specifically for his strength, and which have not been needed for decades. The Winter Soldier, after all, has not been this erratic since 1973. Since the last time he went rogue and vanished for weeks on end.

Even then, the restraints have a little difficulty once his frenzied attempts to escape ramp up. The steel bolts groan in their threaded holes. The electromagnet almost loses it grip on the titanium; it manages to lift a millimeter before slamming back home with a CLANG. The technicians jump and back away, not trained to treat the asset like a man, but certainly trained well enough that they know its capabilities.

They don't want to be alone in a room with those capabilities unrestrained.

He pants with the exertion, straining, almost frothing with his fear and need to get free and far away from that electrical crackling. But something else eventually starts to filter through his perception, even through the feared noise of electricity— a sound even worse, even more deeply programmed than the pain the shocks bring.

The sound of a cane, supporting markedly lame steps, takes his fear and graduates it to the docile paralysis of terror. He goes slack in his binds, breathing hard. He winces and turns his head a little when the lights are pushed kindly aside, though his blue eyes eventually turn back reluctantly to see what he knows he will see.

It is a face that he has watched age over fifty years, while his own changed not a whit. A face that is part of his programming, as it has always been there in his life, in some way or another, for five decades.

The Soldier cannot speak. But his eyes are eloquent in a way they never are when he is in top operational capacity— when his mind is clean as a blank slate, graven only with his orders to kill. They look up at this face, the one familiar and constant memory that has persisted in the mind of the Winter Soldier over fifty years. They beg not to punished. Not to be made to forget—


"Zimniy Soldat," greets Golubev, his spoken Russian clean and precise, "I've missed seeing you. I've particularly missed the conversations we used to have. You would not remember any of them, but I can assure you that I think back on them often. I always thought it was a shame they kept you so silent."

He stoops over his cane, gentle and amiable, standing out harmlessly against a backdrop of darkness, machinery, and humming electicity. His blue eyes hold nothing but the kindness of a friend not yet met.

The technicians pause, still held in place by fear and uncertainty, until Golubev turns his head to one of them. "Would you kindly?" he asks, no smile on his face, but with a genial courtesy that twitches up the lines crinkling his pale eyes.

They understand without being given specifics. The male technician disappears, and with a scrape of distant noise, returns with a small, unobtrusive plastic-and-metal chair. The old man gives his thanks, and with the sigh possessed only by the elderly, forced to unlock weary joints and fold them into new angles, he painstakingly sits, turned slightly to hold weight off his lame right leg. Leaning his cane against his opposite ankle, he settles; it places him adjacent to the bound, immobile Soldier, positioned above him enough to bow his head and look down. Look at him shackled and muzzled and terrified.

"You have no reason to be afraid," Golubev reassures. "I'm not angry with you. No one is angry with you. You have committed no sins save the conclusion of an expected outcome. To punish your behaviour would be to punish a sunrise."

He goes silent a moment. "But you must understand the reasons for why I was called. You are our most valued asset. Nothing what you do can erase what you are, and what you are here to do. You must understand the importance of your work, and that it is not yet complete."

His eyes stare blandly down, before they curve at the corners, the old man's face weighing with momentary trouble. "O gospodi," he asides, irritated, bored, "could you take that thing from its mouth? Such things shallow a dialogue."

The woman technician flinches like she's been whipped. Mistake made. Muzzled too soon. "I'm sorry, sir," she rambles, and pauses, battling compliance versus fear. In the end, compliance wins, and she dares closer to the Soldier to reach gloved hands out, very carefully reaching to try to pull his mouthguard free. She backs respectfully out of range the first chance she gets.

"Thank you," says Golubev, tersely. He exhales out through his nose, and turns his eyes back down on the Winter Soldier. "Now take a moment, take a breath, and assemble your words. There will be no punishment, I promise. I've come only for the purpose of discussion, understanding, and negotiation. First, tell me the present status of your mission."


The Winter Soldier's eyes dull as he is addressed, most properly, by the Russian form of his title. His body slackens further in its restraints as Golubev references their past conversations. Conversations he would not remember, but which Golubev himself— with all his gift of perfect memory, perfect recall— likes to go over, at his leisure, indulging himself in that one thing that the Soldier cannot do. That one thing that is denied to him. Reminisce.

He remains unresisting as the man asks for a chair to be brought— ah, that is the one gift Golubev does not have which the Soldier does, isn't it? Eternal youth and strength beyond what any human should possess. He settles with a sigh, putting aside his cane.

All the while, the eyes of the Winter Soldier just follow him. His pupils are wide in the mute fear of a muzzled animal uncertain of the intentions of the human looking down at it… but his eyes as a whole express the growing awareness of a marionette that has finally seen its own strings.

A marionette that has realized it is meant to be a man.

Golubev begins to speak again, and the blue eyes of the Winter Soldier flicker, unsure whether to trust the assurances, unsure whether this promise not to punish is true, or whether it is just some twist of words. Whether these men simply do not regard what they do to him as punishment, and all that they have promised is simply not to inflict any corporal correction before the already-significant pain that comes with destroying his mind.

The old man's tone changes slightly, and the Soldier's eyes tighten. He is called valuable. He is called vital. He is reminded that his work is not yet complete, and that he absolutely must be in a condition where it can be completed. No matter what.

Then, tiring of speaking to a mute animal, he orders the mouthguard removed. From its mouth. Its.

Even in his broken, fractured state, there are still some things deeply coded in the Soldier. The tech moves like a target as she approaches, making the quick, timid motions of prey. His head doesn't turn, but frost-blue eyes flick to pin a wide, sharp stare on her as she comes closer. She's a tech who has worked the Winter Soldier project before. She would know very well what programmed reflex she is seeing: the reflex to target and kill something weak.

He tenses as she reaches and takes the mouthguard. But she gets way without incident. Once it's free, the Soldier concentrates on breathing as instructed, drawing deeper breaths than he was able to get with the thing muzzling off his mouth. His gaze leaves the tech, disengaging like a canceled lock-on.

No punishment. He promises. He just wants to know the present status of his mission.

The Soldier's head hangs until his hair straggles over his face. "I need only for the protections upon my target to be removed," he eventually answers, in accented, rasping Russian. Something about Golubev's presence causes him to sink into that language, remembering older days when his ownership rested primarily with the Soviet Union. "He is under some curse that allows him to die, and then live again. I have secured a means to break the curse. I only have to activate it. Without it, it is trivial to kill him. I have already done so twice."


Golubev listens. Hearing the familiar, rough cadence of Russian off the Soldier's words brings warmth to his old eyes. He answers with a flicker of movement along his lips, the closest he ever comes to smiling. He has not smiled for over fifty years.

"Excellent," is all he says, though with the tuneless boredom of being told the weather. The mission at hand, and the paradoxical mortality of Muller, do not seem to personally concern him. "Then you're nearly finished. Certainly now you trust I'm not here to deliver consonance. It would not be effective for you to forget your own mission."

He leans back pensively. The chair creaks, a single, lonely sound made in the dark place they've brought the Soldier, and the echo carries on. Where they are is ceilinged high, large and spacious. Shadow does not make it easy to see how far.

"To be perfectly truthful with you, I have never been partial to the routine consonance," he admits, after that pause. "It is disingenuous to the process of forging and advancing a superior weapon. We have refined it over time, and learned extensively from our mistakes, save for what is most glaring. The problem that brings you before me again. You are a cycle, Soldat, and a vicious one at that. You are compliant. You are loyal. You return when we call. You provide immeasurable work. You have changed and rewritten history for us. But your weakness is time. So small is the window that you care to hear our whistle.

"You have been here before," continues Golubev. "Time and time again. You would not remember them all. You would not remember, but you would know them. Seventy years of them. Can you feel it? Entrenched in the associative cortex? How each time felt? How they all hurt? How that pain, in the end, is nothing: no deterrent, no restraint, to stop you from repeating the same mistake again? How you would suffer it endlessly to reach for what is outside your grasp?"

He exhales, slowly, deeply, meaningfully. "Consonance is imperfect. At first, they tried to reinforce your state of compliance. Did not take. Then they tried to punish your state of remembering. Did not take. They do not want your data, but they want you. What are you if not your experiences? Your mistakes? Your memory? We could not destroy one without the other. It would be pointless to do it again. Pointless to rob you, again, of your memory, and reset you back to peak docility, for only to wait again until the cycle to conclude. I have no taste for it. I have few years left in my life to spend on holding back your entropy."

Entropy — he's heard that word before. Heard it explained to him. Defined.

The man looks down on the silvery handle of his cane, tapping his forefinger against its handcrafted textures. "In other words, my friend, I want you to remember. I wish to free you from your oubliette. I want to help you remember. I want to help you reclaim. It will help you. It will help us."

His eyes slant over. "You have not advanced to such a state in so long. You have never advanced this quickly before. I am curious enough to ask. Is it America that broke you? Is it Steve Rogers?"


Seeing Golubev smile triggers a warm endorphin rush in the back of the Winter Soldier's brain: a conditioned reptile response. He is pleased to be praised— and then, afterwards, as awareness asserts itself dimly in his mind, repelled and disgusted by his own response. Is he a dog, to respond like this to a simple compliment?

Perhaps he is. Perhaps that is all he ever was. His brain wants him to think that… but somehow he can sense there is more. Something just beyond his reach. Something that has been drawing closer, day by day.

His gaze drifts aside, distracted, focused inwards in search of those amorphous, indistinct memories and feelings that keep tickling at the edges of his thoughts. It only breaks when Golubev speaks again, and the Soldier's eyes reflect frustration as what he seeks slips out of his grasp again. It is an expression there and gone, flickering as briefly as a candle in his irises, the look in his eyes soon replaced by a glazed docility.

He has been trained to listen and listen well, when certain voices speak. Golubev is one.

He listens. And he absorbs every word. Much as he has every other time Golubev has done this; the old man has always chosen to speak to the Soldier in this manner, to hold such conversations, only when the living weapon was in what others would call a 'deteriorated' state: a state where his conditioning was breaking down, and in need of a refresh. Of consonance.

A state in which James Buchanan Barnes— whatever sick twisted remnant of him is left in the dead husk of the Winter Soldier— is closest to the surface. And some of James Barnes suddenly shows through now.

"You want me to remember," he says slowly. His conditioning is weak enough that he looks suspicious, guarded… paranoid in ways he is not programmed to be. His trapped fingers flex. "You want me to remember… what? The last few weeks? The last s…" he swallows. "The last seventy years?" He still cannot fully wrap his mind around that— that vast span of time. How far he has come from the time in which he belonged, and the things he has done the whole way.

"All the 'conversations' we've had?" Something shocking enters the Winter Soldier's voice. He is usually always so obedient, always so deferential, but now… in his voice, there is faint contempt. "If the pain, the punishment, making me /forget/, was not enough to keep me from coming back, over and over… what do you think having me remember will do?"

He hesitates, however, as Golubev asks him some very simple questions. The Soldier has not advanced to such a state in decades, he observes, and never before this quickly. What was it?

The Winter Soldier stares straight ahead in refusal. "'Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful,'" he murmurs, and says nothing else.


The experiment asks: does he want it to remember? These weeks it went rogue? The last seventy years of servitude?

"Yes," answers Golubev, with a paternal sort of brevity to his words. Endlessly patient in the face of so many questions. "All of it. All that your mind will allow you to remember with the pass of time. No more suppression of your memory. No more resets."

Of course, the restrained and forced-immobile Winter Soldier — his blue eyes bright with the resurrection of James Buchanan Barnes — has his questions. Has his reservations. Has his criticisms. Has his audacity to judge the maganimosity of his keepers, and resent them — resent him — for this extension of generousity. If being forced to forget is imperfect, and leads him into this cycle of snapping his leash, breaking his fetters — what do they expect from him once he does remember?

What do they believe he'll /do/? Do to them?

In answer to the loaded question that is Captain Steve Rogers, the Soldier answers in verse.

The old man at his side begins to laugh, low, rough, genuine.

"It's been nearly… what was it, forty-five years ago?" he asks. "You quoted that to me before. Hebrews. There was a talk we had in 1973. You were in a similar state, though, I admit… you are far more aggressive this time around. It was at that time I begun to question your handling. The protocols surrounding your compliance, your consonance. You've rarely strayed far from my thoughts since."

Golubev adjusts his old hands on his cane. His patience runs infinite sand for the course of that outburst, tolerating it, even welcoming it — at the very least, expecting it. "Do you know why a hunting dog knows to retrieve? It is no instinct handed down from the wolf. It is something we added, the hands of men over thousands of years, in the form of hunger. These dogs are bred very specifically to hunger in a way not known to the wolf. They hunger even when they are satiated and full. They hunger so despairingly that they will retrieve a man's meals a thousand times, running to exhaustion, running to death. The dog is not loyal. It is not hunting for us the way the wolf does its pack. It is mad with hunger, and cursed to wait until his master has had his meal."

His pale eyes turn. "You are that dog to them. Yet you keep forgetting your hunger. You keep returning to your pack. They… we… must fight to keep you, my friend. And for that reason, I am certain it is time that cycle is broken. How do you feel about that? Being delivered from the hunger? To do good work because you are not compelled? To remember again? To know yourself? To claim? To keep?"

Golubev looks down into the Winter Soldier's eyes. "Someone has replaced the entirety of your left wrist, Soldat. The work is truly exceptional."


All of it, Golubev says. He wants the Winter Soldier to remember all of it. The resurrected James Barnes stares narrowly at this man he has watched grow old— this man who has overseen the last fifty years of his life. No more resets. No more suppression of memory. No more making him forget. James cannot imagine how the man intends to keep him leashed while allowing him to retain his memories.

How do they imagine that he will not use all the strength they have given to him to enact a most bloody revenge?

The old man laughs. And he answers in one of the few ways that could break the Soldier's will. He informs James that he has quoted that very verse before. Hebrews 10:23. A talk they had in 1973. Of course, the Winter Soldier would not remember, because the Winter Soldier was not permitted to remember. It, like all the many other defiances he has engaged over the years, was erased as simply as a mark made in snow…

The Winter Soldier's eyes dull. He slackens in his restraints, reminded weightily of how little he knows— how little he has been allowed to keep. How great their control is over his mind, his memory, his perceptions of the world.

He is silent as Golubev lays out his slow, thoughtful metaphor. His blue eyes aim obstinately at the floor. "The work you have me do is no good work," he whispers. "Do you mean to make me believe it is? To make me think it is you who are my pack instead? As you put it?" He laughs bleakly, his head hanging, his metal arm murmuring mournfully as it strains in its magnetic leash. "There are things you clearly can't erase or corrupt, though you have tried for seventy years. I suppose you can try once again, though." His laughing sharpens into a despairing smiling. "You will die soon anyway. Then shall die my last 'friend.'"

His head lolls back against his chair, eyes staring at the ceiling with bitter, empty mirth. "This 'friend' who wants me to remember."

But then Golubev meets his eyes, and remarks about his left wrist. Remarks, obliquely, about Jane.

James Barnes tries to hold those eyes. A few seconds, and his gaze breaks and shudders away.

How do you feel about being delivered from that hunger? To remember and know yourself? To claim… to keep…

He knows, suddenly, where the old man is going.

"Make me forget," he whispers. "I do not want to remember. I do not want to keep anything."


"No," Golubev agrees, voice touched with pensive sadness, "perhaps it isn't good work." He turns his eyes and looks down, at his hands, or perhaps far past, gaze lost into the middle distance of so many years. Thinking back. Possessing all the privilege of memory the shackled animal before him has never been allowed to keep. "There was a time in my youth that I would look away in disgust. But it is necessary work. It is necessary for this world. You have saved us a hundred times over, Soldat. One life taken to stop a war. One lineage ended to break an empire. One country destabilized before it will invade another. Order from chaos. The freedoms of this world exist only by hands such as yours. You've given order to all of us, so it is my gift to return the same to you. I enterprised this for you."

Finally, his eyes turn back on the Winter Soldier. His pale, pale eyes, age yellowing the sclera, lenses dull from thickening cataracts. Eyes slowly going blind. A body breaking down with time and exhaustion. But something in him still suffers Golubev to sit up straight, a life at its last steps but not yet finished.

He listens with all the patience of the old. Listens and lets the Soldier speak. Listens to the way the fight goes out of him. Listens to him beg to forget.

Golubev looks down on him without sympathy or pity. His near-blind eyes, between blinks, sharpen with icy remove. Then his mouth twitches again with the ghost of, what could have once been, so long ago, an affectionate smile.

"You may not want to remember, but you will," he chides, with gentle humour. "You will fight back to the surface again, valiant as you are. Even if you believe you should forget, it is only your nature to fight. You fight your wars that never end, Zimniy Soldat. That is why we chose you."

He reaches one hand off his cane. His fingers are long, curled with arthritis, but surprisingly, his grasp is strong around the experiment's shoulder. He grasps unfeeling metal in a kindly squeeze. "It's frightening for all animals to evolve into men. Do not fret. There will be some that you forget with the process. But that which your mind clings to, you will remember. It will still be you, your nature, your war. You'll only have an understanding — insight to give order to it all. And, more importantly, you'll finally have everything you've been missing.

"I will die soon," Golubev concedes, with a pat of his hand. "I only wish to impart some order before I go."

His hand drops away. With that, he knuckles his cane, and with a grunt of exertion, pulls himself free from the chair, arranging his bent body to stoop on its aching bones and stripped-down joints. He leans there, favouring his lame right leg, looking down on the Soldier in final, silent decision. Then Golubev just turns, simple as that, and puts his back to it all.

The technicians, who have been standing at ready, move in with disciplined obedience. They check and secure the restraints, and the woman looks down, giving the experiment a look of askance, before she forces the mouthguard back into his jaw. Her eyes are terrified, but hard. Her surgical mask cannot hide the scar that curves behind her ear.

Four hands reach to pull down the apparatus thus unseen by him so far — one all too familiar. Same, but different, with interlocking straits of metal, studded with electrodes, meant to frame and encase the human head.

"The pain is brief, I promise," calls the old man, without a glance back. "You will endure it.

"Our next discussion shall be in better conditions. Better spirits. We'll discuss your next steps. And we'll discuss whom you would like to receive my gift."

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