The Age of Marvels: Chapter One
I am Uatu, and your people know of me through legend as the Watcher. It is my task to observe the planet you call the Earth, and record its history through countless millennia. Using my vast powers, I can witness the future, the past, and the present, including all the possibilities and variations of what might have been, all in the blink of an eye. No lifeform or action escapes my unceasing gaze, and nothing remains hidden from me, for this is my single purpose, to observe, but never to interfere.
Long had I considered this a burden upon my life, placed unnecessarily on me by the whims of cosmic law...until I noticed an insignificant enigma, hitherto unknown on this world. This infinitesimal occurrence which sparked a new, fledgling kind of life, would eventually grow to become humanity, a race which immediately piqued my curiosity, never failing to command my interest as the eons labored on.
However, as the humans grew, so too did their virtues and vices. I became ever more mystified as I bore a sometimes unwilling witness to this young species who seemed capable of expressing such depths of pure love, even as they belabored to commit unparalleled atrocities upon one another. I would often ponder how such a primitive, ignorant, infantile race could harbor the capacity for such contradiction, possessing as they did the ability to explore upon and appreciate the highest peaks of light, and the bottomless chasms of darkness.
These things and more I pondered while the years turned to decades, and the decades turned to centuries, and mankind began to evolve, flourish, and expand upon the globe. I must admit that I began to develop a certain fondness for my charges, for despite my oath of non-interference, that is what I had begun to consider them, for I fear for their well-being even as I kept my silent vigil.
So it goes without saying that I have chronicled all the many ages of man, in all its manifestations, and all of the events thereof, but so far all have dimmed in comparison to what I have dubbed the Age of Marvels, a time where heroes of mythical might and boundless bravery and honor fought for the sake of those they loved. These heroes, through the decades which defined their age, succeeded in protecting their world from the horrors which threatened it, and in so doing, became as legendary and immortal as the values they swore to uphold.
Of all the ages it has been my duty to record, this has been the one that has finally convinced me of what the human race is composed of, that while some may be seduced into the vile quagmire of darkness, this darkness shall never extinguish the flame of hope which burns in the souls of all men.
And the dawn of this Age of Marvels began just before your people's second World War. But while my abilities grant me the power to write your history, my gifts do not extend to storytelling. Allow me to begin this fantastic tale at the door of an aging veteran, about to receive an unexpected visitor...
"Grampa wake up! Someone's at the door!"
Mr. Barnes awoke with a jolt and an unflattering snort. He'd been sleeping pretty soundly, and he had to take a look around before he remembered exactly where he was. It took a second to remind himself that he was living with his granddaughter's family now. He was in their living room, which was small, but very nicely furnished, where he had fallen asleep watching daytime television again, as he was in the habit of doing these days. He vaguely heard the door open down the hall, and slowly managed to turn his wheelchair so that he could face his new guest.
"Look Grampa, this is the nice man who came so far to see you," said his granddaughter, motioning towards the gentleman in the hallway.
Mr. Barnes had to crane his neck up uncomfortably high in order to get a good look at the visitor. He was obviously military, judging from his painstakingly clean uniform, muscular, taller than most, and had an air of command about him. He looked to be about middle aged, and was clearly experienced in the ways of the armed forces, as the cigarette in his mouth failed to draw attention away from the eyepatch on the left side of face that only partially hid the nasty scar which ran all the way vertically up through his hairline.
Unfortunately, Mr. Barnes' eyesight wasn't what it used to be, and he couldn't make out the soldier's name beneath the dozens of decorations on his chest, "Colonel Fury, United States Marines, reporting sir," ah there it was. "Pleasure to meet you," he said in a gruff voice.
"The pleasure's all mine," smiled Mr. Barnes. "Please have a seat on the couch here."
"Can I get you anything, Colonel Fury?" asked Mr. Barnes' granddaughter, politely.
"Please, just call me Nick, and no thanks," said the Colonel, sitting down heavily on the softly squeaky couch.
The sight of this young colonel made Mr. Barnes reflect on how he used to look, nothing like he looked now, that's for sure. While he'd never quite been as tall as Colonel Fury, in his prime he had been pretty handsome, muscular, and had even been something of a fox with the ladies. Of course now, at 90 years of age, he was extremely short and hunched over. His skin was spotty, his eyes and hearing were failing, his hair had all but deserted him, and he had hardly left his little wheelchair in years. Even his mind was beginning to call it quits, as lately he had spent most of his time sleeping in the living room between short intermissions of eating with his granddaughter's family.
"Well son, to what do I owe the honor?" Mr. Barnes asked with a genuine grin.
"Actually Mr. Barnes sir, I'm here about that interview we scheduled you for."
Mr. Barnes' eyes widened with recollection, "Over the telephone, yes, I remember."
Fury smiled as he set a small tape recorder on the table between them, "That's right. I'm here so you can tell me everything you remember about Steve Rogers."
Mr. Barnes closed his eyes and leaned back in his wheelchair, a slow smile spreading across his wrinkled face, "Boy, does that take me back. Well, let's see, I became pals with Steve back in the spring of '31. He was eight and I was ten..."
Brooklyn, New York City
Steve Rogers had always had one of those faces that nobody could ever quite recall. He was short, but not incredibly short. He had blonde hair, but not too blonde. His thick rimmed glasses did seem to eclipse his blue eyes and his face, but not to the point that it drew any more attention to him. And his somewhat shabby overalls would have seemed terribly out of place in the wrong settings, but in this neighborhood it only encouraged people to dismiss his presence all the more.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to know that Steve was something of an outcast where he grew up. His parents weren't around very often, so when school let out Steve could usually be found at the library, reading or drawing about what he'd just read. He would stay there as late as he could, evacuating only when the librarian closed up for the night, and then because he didn't have a library card, Steve would pack up whatever pencil and paper scraps he'd managed to 'borrow' and hit the twilit streets of the city.
But he wasn't going home. Steve made sure to volunteer every day at the local halfway house. (If that was what you could call it.) Back then, there were no proper halfway houses, they were more like shoddy shacks which housed meager soup kitchens. And while the soup never went half as far as the nuns who served it wished, Steve would always help them with whatever they had. He had even made some friends while spending time with some of the riffraff, as he helped the nuns teach the ones who were willing, to read.
Understand that while Steve didn't have much, less than most anyway, he tried never to let it get him down. Nope, every day his head was filled with ideas from his favorite library books. His favorite writer was Mark Twain, and his stories about freedom and liberty were the fuel that Steve relied on to get him through the day.
At a very young age, Steve had been led to believe that things most people took for granted, like freedom and liberty, had been denied him at birth. No one cared about the rights of a scrawny, dirt poor street urchin from Brooklyn, and consequently felt no remorse for taking his liberties away. Furthermore, with his life spent under the thumb of an irrational, drunk, often enraged father, Steve had no conception of freedom whatsoever.
That all changed the first day Steve sneaked off to school. (His father still didn't know his son even attended school, and thought it was a waste of time.) His teacher had begun teaching her small class basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, and so enthralled had Steve become that it wasn't long before he began spending as much time as he could in the library, curled up in a remote corner of the floor with nothing but scraps of drawing paper and pencil, under the guidance of his mentor, Mark Twain.
Twain had instilled in Steve's heart that regardless of the circumstances or obstacles of one's birth, fundamental truths like freedom and liberty were values that no man could be denied. These were not privileges to be awarded to those lucky enough to be born with money and influence, as Steve had thought, but were rights common to every human being, available to anyone who simply had the courage and bravery to strive to achieve them no matter what.
As such, it was Steve Roger's lifelong goal to achieve this freedom and liberty that he had read so much about. Absolutely swearing away depression and sadness, Steve resolved to one day leave behind his father's horrible lifestyle, and to eventually make something grand of himself, and show the rest of the world that it could do the same. He simply refused to stop until not only had he found his own personal freedom, but had helped others discover it for themselves. That's why it was not uncommon to see this small, painfully thin, clearly poverty stricken young boy marching through the more dingy streets of New York every day with a smile on his face and a sunny disposition, completely unaware of the fact that he should be lonely and miserable like everyone else in the neighborhood. After all, there was not a doubt in his mind that this was only a temporary setback that he would soon leave completely behind, never to be seen again.
Unfortunately for Steve, some days his goal appeared harder to achieve than others. Sometimes it seemed like when he wasn't being beaten by his father for some imagined slight, he was being beaten by the local gang, which was mostly comprised of kids (usually orphans) who were only a few years older than himself. Now while Steve never ran away from them, always preferring to stand up for himself, this seemed to encourage his assailants more often than not. Many of these kids lived on the streets day and night, rain or snow, in whatever filthy alley they could find, while some of the luckier ones belonged to families who were so desperately poor that as soon as their children could walk, they were sent out into the city to beg and steal whatever money or food they could pilfer.
One of the worst bands of brigands was known as the Yancy Street Gang, and when they weren't out committing petty theft, they were busy shaking down other kids for money, or sometimes assaulting them just because they were bored. When times got really tough, they were even known to attack adults, and they were feared throughout New York as one of the toughest gangs around. They were currently led by James 'Bucky' Barnes, and if there was one things James enjoyed, it was picking on Steve.
It was 7:30 in the morning in New York City. The sun's rays were just beginning to peek into the lower parts of the alleys when it found Steve Rogers walking to school that day. As usual, he was a bit hungry because he hadn't had breakfast, a luxury usually not afforded in his family, but after a few years, his stomach had gotten used to it. Luckily, his father was still passed out in the living room, so he had been able to snag an apple before he rushed out the door that day. He enjoyed it when he was able to eat a lunch, it seemed to make his whole day a little easier. So that morning, Steve was feeling optimistic as he made his way through the already noisy streets that day.
His smile instantly vanished when he heard the all too familiar sounds of the Yancy Street Gang approaching. There were about ten of them, and if Steve's appearance generally looked a little rough, the gang members looked downright filthy. They were kicking around a couple of soda bottles through the alley, clearly looking to score themselves a morning snack. They were centered around an older boy who, while not that much bigger than the rest of them, clearly boasted quite a bit more confidence. He had dark brown hair, brown eyes, and was not a little muscular. His ratty, stained clothing did little to hide his various small bruises and cuts, which he liked to keep on display as a sign of masculinity. Worst of all, the smirk which marked his face turned into a mischievous grin when he caught sight of Steve.
"Well well well, what have we here? Why, if it ain't Steve the Scabber!" jeered James. "How you doin', Scab?"
Steve preferred to keep his mouth shut, ignoring the gang as he kept walking straight ahead.
"What? You ain't got time to spend with yer old friends from Yancy Street?" James asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Boys, why don'tcha help make the Scabber over here a little more sociable?"
Steve found himself instantly surrounded by the other boys, all of whom were grinning in a decidedly unkindly manner. Some of them even found it necessary to flick open the short blades they carried. This 'subtle' threat was not lost on Steve, but he wasn't afraid. He encountered the Yancy Street Gang on an almost daily basis, and while they weren't anything to be taken lightly, he knew how to deal with them well enough to avoid any broken bones...usually.
"So Scab, whatcha got in the knapsack?" asked James, making his way into the circle around Steve.
"What's it to you?" Steve asked in veiled defiance. "And while you're at it, stop calling me Scab."
James feigned shock, "But that's what you are, little Stevie. Yer an annoying scab that we have to keep picking at day after day that just won't come off. Now do something useful for once and hand over whatever you got in the knapsack, Scab, and then get lost."
"Listen hotshot, I'm not giving you my knapsack, so you can just shove off," Steve said, bravely staring James right in his eyes.
"Hotshot? The name's Barnes, and don't you forget it," James growled, menacingly.
Steve grinned, "That right, pee-wee? Because that doesn't seem to really fit you. How 'bout shortstuff? Or Tiny? Smiley? Tiger? Sunshine? Bucky?"
James had heard enough, "Alright Gang, grab the knapsack!"
"You mean this knapsack?" asked Steve, calmly holding up the sack. "Good luck with that."
Before any of the kids could get their hands on him, Steve had thrown the knapsack as hard as he could across the busy street, and while the Yancy's eyes were still on the sack, he'd already pushed through their circle and bolted away. In the second it took them to figure out what he'd done, Steve had already gotten a significant head start on them, and while he was a little scrawny, that boy sure could run. It didn't take long for James and his gang to give up the chase and start looking for the knapsack, and Steve continued unmolested on his way to school.
Even though he'd had to give up his lunch, which meant that he'd have to go hungry until dinner, Steve smiled to himself as he rounded the last corner and caught sight of his schoolhouse. He hated the Yancies and everything they did, and that's why he'd promised himself that he'd stand up to them every chance he got, no matter the consequences. Yeah they scared Steve, but if a couple bruises was the cost of sticking it to them, he could pay that price. His self respect was too valuable a thing to lose it to punks like the Yancy Street Gang.
Unfortunately for Steve, he wasn't done dealing with the Yancies that day. After school he proceeded to the library as usual, where he lost himself in his drawings and his books, his imagination dwelling on the future, where things would surely be better than they were now. And after that, he helped again down at the halfway house, serving soup and sharing a meal with passers by. Steve found that while the homeless could be quite nasty to New York as a whole, once he had earned their trust, they came to think of him as one of their own. He'd shortly become something of the halfway house's son, and its regulars came to regard him as their own child, while Steve grew to love them like his own family.
It was as twilight was already descending upon the city that Steve's day became more eventful. He was walking home from the halfway house (the time of day that he hated the most because it meant he had to see his father), when he head angry voices coming from one of the darker alleys. Now, even Steve had learned that it was best to not interfere when things looked too dangerous, and he'd often heeded this advice by sometimes running several blocks to catch the nearest police officer in times like these; but the voices he heard came from a kid, and so he decided to investigate, since it was probably just the Yancy Street Gag roughing up another poor boy. Steve was only half right.
Peeking into the alley from behind a corner, Steve could distinctly make out four people in the dim evening light. Three of them were bigger, probably teenagers, and they were surrounding a smaller boy, and it was his voice that Steve had heard from the street. The biggest one, who was standing opposite the boy, was clearly the leader, and was brandishing a knife. The boy himself was terrified, quivering in fear, and appeared to be on the verge of tears.
"Where's our money, kid?" asked the teen with the knife, who was obviously not playing around.
"I-I-I-I ain't got it," whimpered the kid, his back to the hard brick wall.
"Well where is it?" asked the knife guy, in a quiet, more sinister tone.
"I-I dunno...sir," answered the kid, his voice a squeak of what it usually was.
"Well then, what are we gonna do about that?"
The kid was clearly about to break down, "I swear, if you just give me a...a week, I could have your money back to you!" pleaded the boy. "...Double your money, double!"
"I don't think so, junior," said the knife guy again. "You see, when you lose our money there are...penalties. And when something like this happens, we figure that we gotta send a message to all yer little friends out there, (he said, poking the knife suddenly at the boy, who yelped in fear) 'cause we can't afford fer little accidents like this to keep happening."
With that said, the three men began slowly advancing on the boy. Steve's eyes widened with horror. He'd always been afraid of something like this happening to him. The Yancies were nothing compared to these guys. As opposed to the bullies from Yancy Street, if you crossed or stiffed these real gangs, you were liable to wind up in a hospital...or worse. New York gangs had a real reputation for working people over, and Steve was about to find that out first hand.
"No, please...don't! No!" shouted the boy, panic and cold fear replacing his last shred of rational thought as the three teens began to strike him again and again.
Something in the kid's last protests triggered an alarm in Steve's mind. His voice sounded familiar, almost like...Steve's eyes widened in shock as he strained his eyes against the fading light to catch a better view of the boy, but even though he couldn't get a clear look at him through the teenagers, he now recognized his voice clearly. They wee beating none other than James Barnes, the leader of the Yancy Street Gang.
Steve Rogers would always remember the next moment as one of the strangest, and yet most defining, moments of his life. Rationally, he would recall thinking that James had always been nothing but trouble for him. James had insulted, bullied, demeaned, and stolen from Steve, often giving him cuts and bruises which hindered him for weeks on end. But for some reason, on the other hand, Steve just couldn't stand there and do nothing while someone that he knew, a boy just like him, was being heartlessly assaulted in front of him.
Fueled by forces he did not understand, feeling conflicting emotions of rage and fear, and uttering a primal shout in a voice he didn't even know he had, Steve flung himself into the alley headfirst. The world around him blurred as he connected solidly with the teenagers, catching them utterly by surprise and knocking them off their victim. Not stopping his attack even for an instant, Steve threw himself on the nearest teen, beating him ceaselessly in a flurry of blind anger.
"What the...!" exclaimed Knife, jumping to his feet again. "Who the heck are you?"
It was an awkward scene. James was still backed against the wall, breathing heavily, covered in large bruises and deep cuts, while two of the teenagers stood up, looking down on the ground in confusion and irritation more than anything else. Steve was still on top of the third unlucky thug, pummeling him repeatedly while the teen tried to get a grip on him. Regrettably, Steve was still unaware that his small fists were doing his opponent virtually no harm whatsoever, as the older boy's continued squirming was completely due to his efforts to capture the kid.
"Dave, cut the crap, just grab the brat and get up," barked Knife, rolling his eyes.
Steve was forced to stop fighting as he felt strong arms bind him. Despite his struggles, he was forced to stand up along with the teenager who had restrained him. But his straining soon stopped as fear gripped his heart again at the sight of what Knife had just pulled out from his jacket.
The teenager pointed his gun straight at James, who was still cowering against the wall, "Alright, I've had it with you," he said, cocking the gun. "Now I don't know who the heck this other one is (he said, nodding to Steve), but I've officially lost patience for you. Either cough up the money you owe us, or I'll make sure you never have the chance to steal from anyone else, ever again."
James was weeping openly now, his blatant terror rendering him almost incoherent, "I t-told you, I don't h-h-h-have it!" he pleaded, visibly shivering where he stood.
Knife replied in a chillingly soft tone, "Well then, I guess you should say yer prayers then, huh?"
If Steve's previous outburst was odd, then this one was downright surreal. Without even thinking about it, in one instantaneous moment of desperation, Steve broke free from his captor's grip, having taken him by surprise, and sped towards the gun. Time seemed to slow down for Steve as he leaped between James and the thug. He could see the punk pull the trigger of his gun, he could hear the blast as the bullet left the barrel, and he could even see the smoke pour from the firearm, but it was as if it was all happening to someone else, like it was a dream or something.
Despite all that, Steve never remembered being hit by the bullet...but James did. James never forgot how Steve's body shook with the impact of the projectile, or the guttural almost-grunt that came out of his throat, or the way that his eyes flashed open with a horrible combination of surprise and dismay while his broken body hit the pavement beneath him. He never forgot the almost inane amount of blood that began pouring from the young boy's chest, or the unsettling, unnatural stillness that gripped his body while he lay there.
But most of all, James never forgot how Steve's lifeless eyes stared listlessly up into the sky, but never seemed to see a thing. And as he fell to his knees, crying unceasingly over the stained and bleeding form of the one who protected him, he couldn't help but marvel at how the boy he'd wasted so much time persecuting, had spent his life to save James'.