Kill Zone

September 25, 2017:

Cutscene. Whither the Winter Soldier, after the plunge from Warrior Falls?

The jungles of Wakanda

Inhospitable as hell.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Black Panther, Jane Foster

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

He does not know where he is, or who, or even what. He is open on a dissection table, and he can see the mechanical insides of his left arm breathe out-of-sync with his lungs. He woke up to find himself this way, a bit of flesh caught in the heart of a machine, wearing a garland of electrodes and pierced by countless needles. A deathless, frost-rimed elemental, beseeched awake to destroy Russian enemies; a simple tool, a weapon, an object, taken casually from its storage case and wiped clean for use.

What year is it? he wants to know, because that is an easier question than the one that is actually important.

Instead of answering, they pour his mission into his veins. They write Vietnamese and Mandarin into his brain. They push a software update to his memories, and within hours he knows enough of this new world to get by, should he be asked too many hard questions.

It is the year for you to go to Vietnam, they finally say, once they finish, and he can feel what he is supposed to do there in his blood. They hardcoded it into his head. They wrote it into his bones, and the metal of his arm. Chaos, fire, and blood. Terror, panic, and death.

He drags away American officers in the dead of night, and leaves their drowned corpses for their men to find. He cuts off the heads of platoons, companies, battalions, leaves their disorganized bodies swarming like kicked ant mounds in the wet jungle dark. At first they think he is a tiger or a great snake, a malignant accident of nature somehow happening only to their best, up until they start finding their commanders cut apart in neat orderly ways no animal claws or coils could ever manage.

There is a human message in the bodies, in the clean cuts made through their throats: I am here, and you do not know where I am, or who, or what.

When he returns from Vietnam, they try to put him back to sleep and cannot. Maybe the heat did something to him, he who lived for years in a cold greater than any Russian winter; maybe the mosquito-fever scrambled his brain, even if it could not kill him. He certainly spent enough nights laying still in stagnant water, only his eyes showing, waiting. Whatever the case, they have to strap him down for the first time in decades, and he howls and bites his own restraints until he froths blood like an animal.

I am not the soldier, he repeats over and over, until the needles administer the electricity that will wipe his rebellion clean. Until his jaws spasm too taut from the voltage for him to make words.

About the same time his convulsions force him to bite through his own tongue, James Barnes wakes from uneasy sleep with a jolt. The Wakandan jungle chirps around him with the alien sounds of unfamiliar wildlife. Wiping the nightmare from his eyes with his one remaining hand, he slips down from the tree he was in, and moves on.

It's the jungle heat that has him having these nightmares in specific, he decides. The lethal, sweltering humidity of it: as inappropriate a place as could ever be imagined for the Winter Soldier to roam. This is no land for a wolf of Siberia — no land for a kid from Brooklyn.

Yet he adapts. When you are less than a man, you are an animal; when you are more than a man, you are also an animal, but a different kind — an apex predator capable of walking out of the softness of civilization to live in the wild with ease.

Without that strength, the Wakandan jungle would have killed him within the first day. Without his months in the thick of Vietnam, hunting prey for food and work alike, it would have killed him within a week. It is a little more difficult this time to get by, due to his missing left arm, but he is now also decades more experienced.

He is also driven by ten times as much urgent necessity.

The hunter is hunted. He has not seen the Black Panther since they both fell and the river separated them, but he knows the Wakandan king is not far behind. T'Challa is far more at home in this tangle than he is, but the experience of a man who has navigated, in complete stealth, all manner of terrain over the course of a long, long life is not to be discounted.

The Winter Soldier hid from the world for seven decades. To disappear is, for him, as simple as breathing.

Even then, T'Challa finds him towards the close of the second day. He simply exists out of the night, between heartbeats, a feline pounce lunging him out of his native jungle and onto the Soldier's back.

Their clash is brief and explosive. It ends only because a sudden torrential rainstorm blackens the jungle, blinding even their sharpened senses, sluicing them apart.

Nothing short of Wakanda itself could break up such a conflict.

The third day he spends walking, his wounds healing as he moves. There is no sleep, no rest, no luxury for either with the Black Panther on his trail — only walking.

Only leaving this place, where it seems as if the entire country has bent its will on his destruction.

He swims the river to drown out his scent, crossing to the other side. On the way, he passes a serpent as thick around as his thigh, winding its slow way down the river in the opposite direction.

Neither of them are hungry — not yet. They leave one another alone.

On the fourth day, as he walks along the bank of the river, he feels eyes on him that are not human eyes. He becomes aware that he is being stalked, and not by the Wakandan king — though the thing that follows him is similar enough. Yes, very similar.

He is so absorbed in listening for his hunter that he is almost surprised by the crocodile that bursts from the water to try to latch his right leg. He turns and punches his makeshift walking stick clean through its head, pinning it between the eyes to the silty riverbank.

He considers the carcass afterwards. He thinks he remembers old admonitions, from military survival training, to avoid the flesh of predators, but he's sure those kinds of warnings don't really apply to him anymore. He takes it raw; he cannot afford a fire, and its revealing smudge of smoke.

A thought occurs to him afterwards, and he paints himself with the blood. He is a semaphore now, and the message is this: come get me, you motherfucker.

Even leaving that chum trail, it is a few hours before he meets his pursuer, and he has to bait her out. He stoops to drink from the river, beneath an overhanging tree. Predators always hit drinking animals.

He has only to wait a moment to hear the air above him displace.

The panther is used to going unheard by all other things in the jungle, especially men, but she didn't account for the fact this crippled, one-armed creature is not really a man. Nor really crippled.

He rolls over at the last moment, and impales her on the jagged, razor-sharp edges of his broken left arm.

A little later, he catches an hour of sleep on her torn-off hide.

He drags the scraped skin with him as he makes his way through the jungle. It's not necessary — he could sleep on a rock if he needed, and he is resilient enough his bare skin is not begging to be covered — but he finds a sort of savage comfort in it, and he has a long way to go. He has a notion that if he is quick enough, stealthy enough, and silent enough, he could walk all the way out of here. Evade T'Challa that way.

It's a crazy notion. Maybe the heat is just getting to him. The heat, the filth, the bugs, and the caked blood left behind on his back, black and flaking, where his wounds have already healed.

He travels primarily by night — it's cooler, then, and his senses are not hampered by the dark — and though the canopy is typically too thick to see the stars, sometimes a little break in the vegetation lets them peek through. Tonight, he looks up at an opportune moment to catch a chance glimpse of Vega winking down at him between the trees.

The sight gives him brief pause, even exhausted and harried as he is. He pushes back dirt-caked hair, already mostly held out of his eyes by a strip torn from the hem of his pants, and looks up.

He has no doubt she is here somewhere, in the country. He has no doubt she took the meaning of his last message. He has no doubt she is working, somehow, towards his recovery. And he has no doubt she is furious.

He thinks, wryly, he had better get out of here before Birnin Zana becomes the singularity of a miniature black hole.

When he resumes walking again, it is with a new purpose. He is not walking out of this jungle away from T'Challa. He is walking out of it towards Jane.

The fifth day brings him, weary and filthy and bloody, within eyeshot of the edge of the jungle. The river runs out of it, over a low cliff and into a rushing whitewater rapid, and the thick tangling trees thin and part to tease the sweep of open savannah far beyond.

In the middle of that far-distant expanse sits a glimmer of light. Civilization.

Between him and this image stands the Black Panther.

The Winter Soldier, he goes down to meet him.

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