First and foremost, my apologies for the rather lackluster last chapter – I really just wanted to finish it so that I could get on to the bigger and better things in this chapter. So, anywho. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor to present you with, Kapitel Zwölf. I promised last chapter that there were bigger things to come in the future, and today, I shall deliver. In this chapter, we'll get into some rather plucky stuff, along with more explanation from Johann as Mina's view of HYDRA begins to develop.
My dearest readers, you have my sincerest gratitude. To all of those who continually read and review this fic, that would have died long ago had it not been for you inspiring and motivating support. I cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am to you, to know that there are actually people out there who read my writing, and what's more, enjoy it.
Special thanks to Musicwolf7, for the very touching review – you've no idea how honored I feel (seriously, I'm not just being overly-dramatic here) that you think that I have good taste in music (which also means that you have STELLAR taste in music) and that you have enjoyed this fic. Thank you to Blackbird 71, for reviewing TWO chapters back-to-back! And thank you anyone else who might have left me your much-valued feedback. You guys are my rocks, my foundation. Without you, I'd be nowhere.
So, as a token of my gratitude, I give you, chapter 12.
Warmest Regards (and please do review),
HYDRA Base – The Alps
Johann Schmidt's Private Quarters
Thousands of tiny, fragile little snowflakes whirled about just beyond the majestic floor-to-ceiling window, dancing in the bitter-cold winds with their usual fairy-like etherealness.
Dazedly, Mina gazed into the morning sunlight, neglecting the other half of her head that was still done up in curlers. Johann had insisted that she look her best today – several Gestapo officers would be arriving at the base within mere hours and he wanted her to reflect favorably on his characteristic perfection.
Sighing, she yanked them out with painstaking tediousness. She glanced into the small mirror that hung on the wall beside the metal washbasin, giving her caramel-colored curls a once-over with a brush before pinning them back.
"There you are," Johann leaned against the doorframe, surveying her progress coolly. She turned to look at him, and he smiled approvingly.
"My beautiful girl. So grown up."
His eyes glinted with something – she couldn't tell if his strangely congenial manner was genuine or merely an act.
"Come here, please. Let me have a closer look at you."
Obediently, she stood before him. He waved his hand and she turned about in a circle, silently allowing him to inspect her for any discrepancies. As she came to look at him, he again smiled and drew her into his arms.
Cigarette smoke mingled with potent cologne on his jacket, stinging her nostrils. She attempted to free herself of his grasp, and heeding to her struggles, he dropped his arms to his sides.
With a gloved hand, he reached out, and with his thumb and forefinger, he lifted her chin so that she was forced to look into his eyes.
"Why are you so forlorn this morning, my dear?" His tone was concerned.
She lowered her eyes to the floor. "I thought you'd be mad at me."
His brows furrowed in question. "Whatever would I be mad at you for?"
"Because I failed you."
The words turned to ash in her mouth and the bitter sting of tears blinded her.
It had been roughly a week and a half since her late-night excursion on the base, and the days following it had been nothing short of exhausting.
Day in and day out, she was brought to the laboratory and strapped to a metal chair, the restraints pulled so tightly they had left nasty sores on her wrists and ankles.
Day in and day out, that thing called the Tesseract that she had grown to despise so horribly was brought before her.
And day in and day out, she was asked to imbue its depthless powers into herself, to become, if only for a mere few moments, a god-like entity.
She failed to do so. Every. Single. Time.
Perhaps it was the silence that hurt most. She'd never known how loud silence truly could be. Its weight heavy and eternal, pressing down onto her shoulder blades and seeping into her bones.
A flicker of electricity, a spark, sustained only for a moment, would leap off of her fingers –
And die. Extinguished in mid-air, like an invisible whisper blowing it out like a birthday candle.
Dr. Zola's triumphant smirk would vanish, his chin melting into his neck as his lips tugged downward in the most degrading frown.
The thin, pursed line that Johann's lips would create, the cold and lifeless stare that would grace his brilliant blue irises.
Not a sound in the room – save for whatever dreary music he had selected for the day. Yesterday's had been Chopin's Funeral March – his very favorite piano composition. How ironic that he had selected such a somber tone on the day that her hope would finally crack – shatter into a thousand worthless shards, leaving her broken and useless.
She'd spent the day confined to Johann's private quarters, lying on the cold metal floor and staring up into the gray, snowy abyss that stretched out before her. Tears had streaked her ashen cheeks and it wasn't until well into the night that she finally wept herself to sleep.
Never had she felt the bitter sting of defeat so strongly than in these past few days. She'd never felt its weight grow heavier and heavier, it's shrill cackling ringing in her ears, mocking her.
She'd only ever wanted to be a success in his eyes, to be as brilliant and perfect and flawless and precise as he was.
Everything – everything – he excelled at. Mathematics in all its forms was child's play to Johann; while she was tortured daily by the countless ugly algorithms she was assigned. Latin, Greek, Norwegian, Arabian, French – even Spanish rolled off his tongue as if he'd been speaking the language since infancy. She could barely count to ten in any of the languages, and yet he continually forced her to perform slow and painstaking recitations in each of them.
His fingers flew across the keys of a piano with the utmost grace; the Revolutionary Etúde was all too simple – he complained that he could never find a piece challenging enough, while her fingers twisted and tripped as she fumbled her way through Beethoven and Liszt.
Perhaps it was simply her fate; she was destined to be lesser, to be ordinary, unremarkable. There were worse things out there she supposed; she wasn't sick or dying. She wasn't impoverished or homeless.
Why did something so stupid, so trivial – why did it hurt so much?
"Why," she whispered, tears brimming in her eyes. Her throat felt choked, as if an invisible noose was being tightened around it. She looked up into Johann's ice-blue eyes. "Why – why can't – "
The words were cut off as the sobs she had held back overwhelmed her; tears blurred her vision and her chest heaved as she gasped for air.
She felt Johann's strong arms wrap around her, and she buried her head into his chest, weeping quietly. She felt his gloved fingers smooth her curls and felt the ghost of a kiss brush her head.
"Hush," he coaxed, "There is no reason for tears."
"Yes there is." She protested.
"Wilhelmina, you're being a child."
"I am a child."
She heard him sigh, then chuckle softly. "You'll achieve nothing if you continue to conduct yourself in such a nonsensical manner." From the tone of his voice, he was trying for seriousness, but there was a glimmer of lightheartedness in his words.
She looked up at him. "Why aren't you angry with me?" she asked again.
"What reason do I have to be angry?"
"I didn't draw the tesseract's essence into me. I'm not the god-like thing you expected me to be. I failed." Her voice was flat.
Johann sighed and released her from his grasp. He crossed the room to the crystal decanter and poured himself a glass of schnapps.
"You, my dear, are a hypothesis, for lack of a better term. An educated guess, a conjecture and nothing more." He paused take a sip. "I conjectured that you would be able to reproduce the – impressive performance you gave us that night. Obviously, there were several gaping flaws in my conjecture, flaws that I was simply too impatient to address."
He gazed listlessly into his glass, as if its contents were suddenly immensely fascinating.
"You are unhappy with someone." She murmured, almost inaudibly. She saw his eyes move about uncertainly.
"Not with you." He answered simply. "Given time, and perhaps some ingenuity on the part of Dr. Zola and myself, I believe you will have an adequate chance to progress. We still have several more ideas for you, my dear. As long as you are here, the least you can do in recompense for your – irresponsibility (his lip tugged upward in a half-grin as she flinched inwardly) – is try to make yourself useful."
He turned to look at her, his smile dripping with a saccharine sweetness. "Besides, is that not what you wanted? To be a part of my work?"
Meekly, she nodded.
"Excellent." He proceeded to the doorway. "I expect for the officers to be arriving in roughly an hour's time. Please do try to make yourself scarce while our meeting is taking place. I should like to keep the past few days' goings-on concealed for the time being, and I am not confident in your ability of keeping your mouth – however lovely it may be – shut."
"Why did you want me dressed up then?"
"Since you have been refusing to smile of late, I had hoped that perhaps if we bedecked you in your finery you might look a bit less dismal."
He smiled at her slightly. "Obviously, I was not successful."
He turned once again to look at her, sighing almost impatiently, as if she was keep him from something important.
"When will I be going back to Berlin?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What need is there for you to return to Berlin?"
"Well I – I have school and – "
"Ah, that." He waved a hand dismissively. "That is no longer necessary. I've disenrolled you – the school system hasn't achieved anything remarkable that would give me reason to keep you in attendance."
Her mouth dropped open, agape for a moment, but she quickly resumed her composure. "You've – you've disenrolled me? Why?"
Johann sighed impatiently. "Wilhelmina, is it truly necessary that I repeat myself? Your education has not improved drastically enough that I would consider keeping you in school. You will learn more here than you would there. And besides, you are already in excellent academic condition. If for some unimaginable reason I am unable to educate you in anything you have yet to learn, a tutor can be hired if necessary."
"But – but what about my things? My clothes and books and such?"
"I've already sent for them. They should be arriving later on this afternoon."
"Wilhelmina, I am quite busy. Anything you that you might need can be easily purchased and shipped. You are much too important to HYDRA's progress at present for you to simply give up and go home."
He crossed to her, cupping her face in his hands. "My dear, if Dr. Zola and I are to solve this quandary that we seem to be in, regarding your abilities, you could play an absolutely pivotal role in our mission." He looked into her eyes, the ice-blue of his irises boring into her own.
"This is what you wanted, Wilhelmina. You have always resented my reluctance to include you in the details of my work. You have gotten your wish now. However hard it might be for you to cope with the tests that shall be performed – and there shall be numerous tests – you must not give up. I have come too far in my mission to stop now."
He spoke gravely, his words soft and measured, but at the same time, utterly cold. She knew he couldn't well be gentle about it – he spoke the truth. How she fit into the equation of whatever it was HYDRA trying to achieve, she only had an inkling – and it was a very weak inkling.
"But I don't understand." She said softly.
"What is there to understand?" he answered flatly. "I have made myself clear, have I not?"
"You've made it clear that you need me for something; for what, you've been rather vague. You go on about how valuable I am, but for what, you neglect to say. What is HYDRA working for, what good am I to the Reich if every single test you've given me, I've failed? How can I possibly be useful if so far, I've done absolutely nothing?"
She waited for his reply, but none came. A deep silence seemed to weigh down upon her shoulders, and she watched as his eyes seemed to harden into a thick layer of ice.
"This is not about the Reich, Wilhelmina." His spoke slowly, carefully annunciating each word, as if it was stuck to his tongue.
"Then what is it about?" her voice was firm.
"HYDRA's connection to the Nazi Party – to Hitler – is hanging by a single thread." He answered coldly, the fluidity of his speech restored. He cast a sidelong glance at the portrait that hung over the hearth of the large great-room. "And, our leader wishes to sever that thread."
Mina glanced at the portrait, and shrank back as her eyes met the gruesome skull face. She'd been doing her best to avoid the painting since she had taken residence at the base. Johann smiled grimly.
"I thought that – that you were the leader." She murmured quietly, her tone questioning.
"No, of course not." He answered smoothly. He chuckled quietly as he turned to for the door. "I am just a scientist, my dear. I simply carry out the orders that I am given."
With that, he slipped into the laboratory, the metal door sliding shut behind him, leaving her alone with only the horrid painting and the heavy silence to keep her company.
Sighing inwardly, she crossed the great-room, plopping down into one of the large leather chairs. From where she sat, she could better examine the ugly portrait that loomed before her.
It wasn't really frightening, per say. Just… strange. The angular planes of the face stood out sharply against their crimson backdrop. The blood-red skin was pulled taut across the exaggerated skull-like face, lips pursed in a thin line, the severe under-bite of the jaw giving the face a menacing air.
Despite the rather unsightly condition of the face, its owner seemed very conceited in nature, as if he was very proud of his appearance – he held his chin high, the corner of his lips tugging downward as if suppressing a cruel smirk. Ice-blue eyes glistened beneath hooded eyelids, the severe looking brow-bones intensifying their defiant stare.
A small triangular nose – or what would have been a nose, she supposed – coupled with small, knot-like bumps that served as ears, completed the grotesque looking makeup.
Her eyes traveled downward as she examined the trunk of the figure depicted in the portrait. Broad shoulders and a thick, muscled torso, one arm tucked behind the back, the other outstretched, long gloved fingers splayed across the back of a leather chair.
Behind him, a long banner bedecked with the tentacled skull draped regally, broad rays of sunlight setting the crimson skull-face alight.
"So that's why you look like you do." She murmured, referencing the insignia. "You're supposed to look like him. Huh."
She stood up and walked to the painting, looking up at it in curiosity. "Not exactly a handsome thing, are you?"
Silently, she wondered how he had come to look like that – surely he hadn't been born that way. The blue eyes stared down at her, and she felt a chill run down her spine.
Too blue – clear as ice, yet deep and intense in their color.
Too much like Johann's.
Shaking her head, she brushed the thought away feverishly.
"Stop that." She hissed, chiding herself. She was hallucinating – too many days without sleep. She walked back to her seat, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling listlessly. A low growl resonated from the depths of her stomach.
She stood up. "That's what I'll do," she whispered, hoping that by focusing on something else she could keep her mind from wandering back to the portrait. "I'll go find some food."
"The Führer is not accustomed to being ignored Herr Schmidt."
Of course he isn't, he thought blandly, pity that he was never taught patience.
"He funds your research because you promised him weapons."
And I will deliver him weapons. They simply won't be used in the manner that he would like them to be.
The high-pitched voice of the shorter Gestapo man cut into to the monologue.
"You serve at his pleasure. He gave you this facility as a reward for your injuries."
Johann's eye twitched as the man babbled, a proverbial mosquito whining in his ear.
"Reward," he spat, the word like acid in his mouth, "Call it what it is: exile. I no longer reflect his image of Aryan perfection."
He heard the other man scoff, his words dripping with so much arrogance, Johann could practically feel the eye-rolling. "You think this is about appearances?" he snapped bitterly. "Your HYDRA division has failed to deliver so much as a rifle in over a year. And we had learned through local intelligence that you had mounted a full-scale incursion into Norway."
The high-pitched voice once again made its presence known, only this time, it was not quite so easy for Johann to bat away his words without a thought.
"The Führer feels – how does he put it? – the Red Skull has been indulged long enough."
That was a mistake. He stopped short, the blood boiling within his veins and he could feel his fingers trembling with rage within his gloves. Slowly, he turned to face them, his eyes like ice within their sockets, his entire body rigid with barely contained fury.
"Gentlemen," he looked each and every one of them in the eye, pausing to make a mental note to destroy the young one who was smirking first, meeting their expectant gazes with one of chilling coldness. "You have come to see the results of our work, hmm? Let me show you."
Her search for vitals was fruitless. Either Johann didn't eat – which, come to think of it, was possible – or any semblance of food had been carefully hidden away in a place she was too lazy to search for her. Briefly, she entertained the idea of searching for the soldiers' canteen, but her hunger vanished when the cultured, articulate voices of high-ranking Gestapo officers bounced off of the metal walls with a sharp crispness.
"The Führer is not accustomed to being ignored."
"Your HYDRA Division has failed."
"You serve at his pleasure."
"The Red Skull has been indulged long enough."
The last words hung in the air, dead and heavy as the cold silence overtook them. The Red Skull. HYDRA's leader.
Obviously, he didn't try for originality, she thought. Poised at the end of the corridor, she peaked around the corner.
Johann stood tall, head erect, jaw set rigidly. He was framed by three Gestapo officers, small and puny in his grand presence.
From the way his fists were clenched, she guessed that he longed to snap them in half like twigs.
"Gentlemen," his voice rang out clear and measured, as if he were holding back much stronger words. "You have come to see the results of our work."
She watched as the officers' heads cocked slightly, expectantly, as if they were daring to question his authority.
"Let me show you."
Silence followed, other than the hollow 'clop' of jackboots hitting the metal floors. For a moment, she contemplated her options, which there were only two that she could think of.
Either go back to where she had come from – which was rather redundant, considering the only place she was really allowed to wander about was Johann's private quarters – or to follow them to wherever it was they were going.
She pondered silently. Johann had said that the meeting would be held in his laboratory – and that she should make herself scarce.
Staying in his quarters counted as making herself scarce, didn't it?
She could easily view the meeting if she were to enter his quarters through the back entrance, which was less public than the through the laboratory.
Slipping back around the corner, she did her best to avoid the deep, penetrating stares of the HYDRA gunmen, poised in the alcoves in the walls of the corridors, imposing rifles slung across their chests.
Tapping the keypad lightly, the metal door leading in Johann's private quarters slid open, allowing her entrance. Already, she could hear the muffled voices of the officers, growing nearer to the laboratory. She crossed the room and pressed her ear against the wall adjacent to the laboratory. The voices were still very quiet – they had not entered yet.
Quickly, she entered the pass code for the entrance into the laboratory, the door slipping open silently. The laboratory doors were slightly ajar, two soldiers poised before them, preparing to let the men in. Their backs were turned to her, as well as the two scientists who were hunched over the work tables, engrossed in their work. Zola sat at the worktable closest to Johann's desk, pouring over a map, mercifully too absorbed in his work to detect her presence.
Her eyes darted about; at the back of the laboratory was a deep alcove that provided just enough shadow to conceal her. Looming before it was a huge, tarp-covered contraption. Dropping to her knees, she made her way to the back alcove, hunching down into the shadows.
Within several moments of tense silence, the soldiers pulled open the doors, allowing Johann and the three officers to enter. She pulled farther back into the shadows as his deep voice boomed throughout the laboratory.
"Hitler speaks of a thousand-year Reich, yet he cannot feed his armies for a month. His troops spill their blood across every field in Europe but still he is no closer to achieving his goals." With a flourish of his arm, he pulled the tarp away, revealing a hulking, machine-gun-like thing, its barrel pointed directly at the officers.
The tallest one seemed to be stifling a chuckle, the amusement written on his smirking face. "And I suppose you still aim to win this war through magic."
Johann's back was to her, but she could sense his loathing from the way he raised his head to look at the men from the bank of buttons and dials that controlled the weapon. He looked up at them slowly, deliberately, as if daring them to speak again.
"Science," he answered drily, "but I understand your confusion. Great power has always baffled primitive men." His gloved fingers flew across the dials as he spoke, his eyes flickering from the officers to the machine. "HYDRA is assembling an arsenal to destroy my enemies in one stroke. Wherever they are, regardless of how many forces they possess –" He raised his fist, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "All in a matter of hours."
The officers glanced at each other quizzically, as if the entire conversation was all a joke to them. It was obvious that they didn't believe a word he was saying.
"Your enemies?" one said at last.
Disregarding the question, Johann continued on. "My weapons contain enough destructive power to decimate every hostile capital on earth."
Mina felt her heart pounding in her chest. So this was what HYDRA was doing – building weapons. The notion sounded reasonable enough – this was wartime after all, but, the clipped way with which he spoke… and his enemies. What need did he have to have enemies if he was only a scientist? She glanced over at the third officer, who was hunched over the map that Zola had previously been looking at. Its surface was riddled with red pins, marking various locations.
"Quite simply gentlemen," Johann looked up at them, counting them with his gloved hand. "I have harnessed the power of the gods.
"Thank you, Schmidt." The other officer interrupted, jarring her from her gaze.
"For what?" Johann cast a cursory glance at him.
The officer seemed to be suppressing a smirk. "For proving how obviously mad you are –"
"Berlin is on this map!"
Mina looked up, the third officer rigid with fury, his eyes wide.
"So it is." Johann answered simply.
That wasn't right. Her breaths rattled in her chest, her fingers trembling. Berlin. Johann was a servant of Hitler. Why did he want to destroy Berlin?
His words echoed in the back of her mind. "Our leader wishes to sever that thread."
But for him to destroy Berlin – if he spoke the truth about his weapons – he wouldn't simply be destroying Hitler and his ilk – he'd be destroying everyone.
The people she had known, the school where she had gone, the home where she had lived. They all seemed like such trivial things to worry over but – total and utter destruction. The sincerity with which he spoke made it utterly clear. HYDRA was not merely one of the Third Reich's wind-up toys… it was much more.
Suddenly, everything was beginning to fall into place, and it made her stomach churn.
The rifle revved up, rising up on its platform and turning directly toward the officer.
"You will be punished for your insolence," he snapped angrily, his body trembling with rage. "You will be brought before the Führer himself!"
Time seemed to stop. She saw Johann's head move just slightly, his finger poised above the controller. He seemed to be calculating – how close to aim and when to fire. She knew the stance well; he had taught her to shoot a gun like that, always calculating, compensating for her mistakes.
A blinding blast of cobalt light shot into the air, and the officer's body exploded, shards of clothing bursting into the air and fading away to ash, incinerated by the heat of the rifle. She felt the bile rising in her throat. That light – the tesseract. That was what was powering it.
Images of the night she had first held the tesseract flashed through her mind. She had very nearly destroyed those soldiers – had she succeeded, their demise would have been identical to this man's. She clamped her hand over her mouth, holding back the scream that longed to burst from her lips. She wanted to shut her eyes tightly, but they remained wide open, drawn to the horrific scene before her. She could feel tears welling in them, but they didn't spill. She was paralyzed, unable to move. Unable to do anything but stare into that terrible light.
For a moment, the other two officers remained frozen, until finally their better judgment kicked in and they scattered, racing for the entrance.
With a sickening grating noise, the rifle turned and with a quick twist of the dial, fired again. He missed the officer narrowly, but his second shot didn't - shards of cloth or skin burst into the air, quickly incinerated by the heat. The last one ran to the door, yanking hopelessly at the wheel, but it wouldn't budge.
He whipped around, all color gone from his face. He pressed himself up against the door, pushing with all his might but to no avail. He opened his mouth, letting a bloodcurdling scream flood out, only to be cut off sharply by the explosion of the rifle, and within moments, he was gone.
The noise of the rifle died down slowly, as it lowered, back into its original position.
Her limbs shook uncontrollably, her hands clamped over her mouth, unable to breath.
Dr. Zola had pinned himself up against the wall, his eyes glassed over with a look of fear.
And Johann stood straight, perfectly calm, surveying his results with a look of mild boredom.
"My apologies, doctor," He replied to the silence. "But, we both knew that HYDRA could grow no further in Hitler's shadow."
He glanced at the HYDRA scientists who stood ramrod straight, their eyes riveting into the empty space.
"Hail HYDRA." He said simply, and the men echoed his words fiercely, their arms shooting into the air with a sort of robotic precision.
He cast a cursory glance at Zola, who now leaned against the metal wall, supporting his trembling form.
"H –" he swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "Hail HYDRA!"
Johann nodded, smirking slightly. As he proceeded toward the doors, he glanced back.
A scientist looked at him sharply. "Jawohl, mein Herr,"
"Please remove my niece from the premises." He answered quietly, and continued on.
Her heart froze, and her mouth somehow managed to finds its voice again.
"How in the hell –" her voice cracked, her tone shaky.
Within moments, two scientists had grabbed her trembling shoulders and dragged her up. One smiled at her sweetly and slipped a needle from his coat pocket. Her eyes widened and she kicked out her leg, but the other scientist caught her and gripped tightly as the other one jabbed the point into her arm.
A few moments of tingling pain, and the world seeped into blackness.
He stared listlessly into his teacup, swirling its contents about, as if hoping that the monotonous action would cause his brain to produce some brilliant idea, although none came. It seemed that nothing could stimulate his niece's newfound abilities – or they were simply trying too hard, but what else was there to do? He pulled the cigarette he had nursed down to the butt out of his mouth, watching the thin, grey-blue tendrils curl into the stale air.
"Sir," Zola's voice echoed in the back of his mind like a droning mosquito. "Sir,"
"Zola," he muttered darkly in confirmation.
"I suppose your niece now knows everything."
"Not hardly." He murmured. "I expected her to make an appearance this afternoon, and thus put on a show worthy of her curiosity." He stood up. "Perhaps I was being cruel by sedating her, but I suppose a chance to create a bit of drama was too tantalizing for me to be straightforward with her. And she is after all, so much more agreeable when she is asleep."
He chuckled softly to himself, turning to gaze out at the snowy abyss beyond his window. Behind him, Zola cleared his throat. "I see that the thread has been severed completely now." He murmured quietly. "She must know now that HYDRA was meant only to be remotely linked to the Nazis, nowhere close to a solid alliance."
"You make us sound rather trivial, doctor." Johann answered lightly, but there was an edge of venom to his voice that made Zola shrink back.
"Not at all, sir. I merely meant that, your goal was never to be equal to Hitler's Reich but… better. A separate entity, and one to be feared, might I add. "
Johann smiled. "Not my goal, Dr. Zola. The Red Skull's goal." His voice deepened, creating a mocking air of drama.
"The Re – but sir, you are the –"
"Shh," he pressed a gloved finger to his lips. "My little secret." He answered softly, the corner of his synthetic mouth tugging upward as if in a smile. "We mustn't divulge everything so quickly – it will be far too much for her innocent, little mind to absorb. Besides, with luck we won't have to divulge anything. She's proving to be quite crafty enough to do so on her own."
"Then how do you plan to explain to her your interest in her strange abilities? You've only succeeded in answering why the connection between the Nazis is now non-existent. But if you are to have no connection with the Nazis, what interest should you have in developing such a powerful weapon as she could potentially be?"
His superior simply chuckled. He seemed very nonchalant, relaxed. How he could feel that way, Zola hadn't a clue, as the man had single-handedly murdered three highly decorated officers only a few hours earlier. Although, death seemed to be something of an amusement to the man.
"That is an excellent question, my dear Arnim. One I plan to address momentarily." He glanced at his wrist. "She should be awake by now, I would think."
"It won't work." Zola answered flatly.
Johann turned to eye him, one fabricated eyebrow raised. "And how is that?"
"What you plan to tell her, Herr Schmidt, is that we are a terrorist organization and willingly condone complete and utter destruction. There is no other way to tell it. No matter how saccharinely you tailor it to sound; she will see it as any level-headed person would. She will see you as a mani –"
His voice was cold, toneless and dead.
"Well," Zola shifted. "Yes, that is exactly how she will see it."
Johann's eyes narrowed. "And how can you be sure of that?"
"Well because –"
"Because that is the way you see it?" he stepped down from the platform upon which his desk stood, and came to stand before the little scientist. "You see HYDRA as some haphazardly planned weapon factory? Or rather, were you referring to myself, and my utter insanity, hmm?"
Zola shrank back, folding in on himself in the broad shadow that Johann's towering form cast.
"Am I merely some lunatic with impossible fantasies of a perfected universe, untainted by this contagious human stupidity?"
He stared down at Zola, who clenched his fists and cleared his throat, as if preparing himself for a verbal beating.
"I do not doubt the genius of your plans, Herr Schmidt. I understand their more gruesome nature with perfect clarity, but I have always felt honored to be a part of their development. I am simply stating that you are trying to explain to a child an engineered apocalypse. Now, Fraulein Hofstadter is well beyond her years, but she is still very much a human being with human emotions –"
"I did not think you had any concern for my niece's emotions." Johann answered drily.
Zola sighed, as if resisting his irritation.
"You understand my meaning, sir. What a superior mind sees as genius, a young girl with fleeting passions will see as utter insanity. You plan to destroy the world in order to begin again, to fix what has been broken by years of unbridled destruction by our lesser counterparts. Because your niece has not been brought up to believe in a revolution on such a grand scale – it is only natural that she will not be able to wrap her head around it. HYDRA's goal is to bring about a new era of great minds. Blood will be shed and lives will be lost, as with every revolution. But, given the way in which your niece responded to our activities at Norway – she could not fathom why you would want to slaughter an entire village. Think of how she will respond to such a mass-genocide, such as the one HYDRA is organizing."
"I have considered all of which you have mentioned, Dr. Zola, in the past week in which my niece has been present here." Johann now gazed out into the snowy Alps, his cigarette holder grasped lightly between his gloved fingers. He exhaled sharply. "I am not so soulless as to not first think very closely about the repercussions of her involvement in my work."
He crossed to his desk, brushing his hand over the array of blueprints. "Although it pains me to take such drastic measures, I believe I may have developed a solution to the small issue that will undoubtedly present itself. It is inevitable that Wilhelmina will respond to my plans in exactly the way in which you described. It is simply in her nature to see destruction as a force of evil. But," he glanced up at Zola.
"I believe that if I can quell her emotions for a long enough time, she will be able to overlook the slightly darker side of my work."
"And how do you plan to do that?" Zola inquired softly.
"Quite simply. She already knows that she will not be returning to Berlin any time soon, therefore she should have no reason to think otherwise. I believe that the longer I keep her here, away from outside contact, she will have no choice but to accept her fate."
Zola looked up at him quizzically. "So you are forcing her against her will to 'take our side', as it were?"
Johann sighed. "'Forcing' is such a strong terminology, don't you think, Arnim?"
"But that is what you intend to do. You intend to isolate here her until you can carry out your plans, in which case she will have absolutely no choice but to live with what you are doing and accept it."
"In a manner."
Zola sighed. "I suppose it will work. But there is just one problem."
"And that would be?"
"What if she tries to escape? She managed to follow us to Norway and broke into your laboratory without any detection until it was already too late. If she is dissatisfied with her isolation here, no one will be able to keep her from attempting and possibly succeeding to escape. And from what I have seen, she doesn't seem to be the type to give up easily."
"Indeed not, but I believe I have a solution to that as well."
He paced behind his desk, stretching his legs languidly, his strides cat-like and graceful. "Wilhelmina's loyalty to me will compensate for her rebellious streak. I am the only thing she has left, now that both of her parents are dead, and she knows that. She will not test me. This is what she always wanted, Dr. Zola. To be part of HYDRA, to be a part of my work. She yearns for my praise, and will do most anything to get it. I have spent many years contemplating this moment, doctor. I have sheltered and protected her from the imperfections of this world; I have not allowed her the chance to develop petty relationships that would make her feel tied to it in anyway. She has absolutely nothing to lose; no close friends, no puppy-loves to weep over. She can argue against that fact as much as she pleases, but deep down she is aware that she is alone."
He glanced up at Zola, who had fell silent, eyes staring into his shoes.
"Except for me. I am the only individual left of value to her. Perhaps it is cruel that I use her affections in this way, but it is for the best. With time, as the finer details of my plan begin to fall into place, she will not have to be forced to accept it. She will do so on her own accord, and I expect her to be much happier with her decision."
He straightened his jacket, running his free hand through his fabricated dark hair, before gently probing at his jawbone, easing the synthetic material into place.
"Now if you'll excuse me, doctor. I have some business to attend to."
Without another word, he slipped past the scientist, head held high with a defiant and determined gaze.
As his superior slipped into his private quarters, Zola raised his head, sighing heavily.
"Poor thing." He murmured, and a slight twinge of guilt coursed through his veins. Perhaps if he had ignored her presence that night in Norway, that young girl would have escaped, gone back home and stayed well away from this mess. If she had been smart, she wouldn't have stopped at Berlin. Though he somewhat condoned what Schmidt was planning to do, he couldn't help but feel afraid. Zola recognized that his superior was indeed engineering an organized apocalypse, one that would decimate the earth, killing millions as easily as if they were flies being batted away.
He didn't mind the idea of taking over the entire world. He licked his lips. Power was something he'd so rarely had; he'd been stepped on for most of his life by Nazi higher-ups and the like. Schmidt had given him free reign over his scientists and his army; whatever weapon he could possibly dream up was given life. Schmidt had even agreed to fund the construction of Zola's robotic body, intrigued at the idea of eternal life, although the idea was in immense need of fine-tuning. Vengeance upon the idiotic men who had snubbed him was an opportunity far too precious to pass up.
But, he had been closely surveying his superior, and as the days past, he grew more and more weary of the way in which Johann carried himself.
He was arrogant, extraordinarily arrogant. But he always had been, since the day Zola had been introduced to him. But he was so sure of himself, so sure of success. There were easily a thousand ways in which his plan could fail miserably, and yet, he paid no attention to them. He knew that he would be victorious.
To the Nazi Regime, Johann Schmidt was a madman; they knew he could easily wreak havoc upon their perfectly organized system, and thus exiled him to his main base in the Alps. They figured that the longer they could keep him occupied with his machines, the easier it would be for them to keep him out of all military affairs. They simply didn't realize he wasn't at all mad.
He wasn't insane. The sanity of himself or his plans was of no consequence.
"Because he can do it." Zola whispered. "He will take over the world and crush every one of those fools single-handedly. He'll destroy everything without a single thought."
He glanced up at the picture of the young girl that sat on Schmidt's desk, her smiling, angelic face, the picture of irony in the middle of the dark, metallic laboratory.
"She must be the loneliest child in the world."
He sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching out to stroke her curls with a gloved hand. She lay curled up in a ball, his leather coat pulled up to her chin, her eyes closed.
"Uncle," she murmured sleepily.
"Are you awake now, my dear?"
Slowly she sat up, pulling the jacket closer around her.
"I had brought you blankets," he pointed out, glancing at the stack of linens resting on the bedside table.
"I like this." She replied. "Those were itchy."
Johann chuckled softly and drew her into his arms. He waited patiently as she burrowed into his chest, and he wrapped the coat and his arms around her.
"When you were a very little girl," he said softly, "When your mother was still alive, you would beg me whenever I visited to be allowed to wear this coat and to put on my cap. You would parade around pretending to be a little soldier. You could never salute correctly; the brim always fell over your eyes and you would inevitably trip over the hem." He smiled slightly, as if reminiscing.
"Yes." Mina said softly, and she pulled away from his grasp. "But that is not what you are here to talk about, is it?"
He sighed heavily. "No. It isn't."
"You are here to tell me why you killed three men. You are here to tell me why Berlin was on that map. You are here to tell me why I am here."
"Then please go on."
He sighed again, turning his gaze to the window, staring out into the brightening moon. "You are not going back to Berlin, Wilhelmina."
"Do you know why?"
"I think so. You want me here because that you think I have some otherworldly power, bestowed upon me by this tesseract thing. Your leader thinks that I could be a weapon for HYDRA. Or does your leader even know who I am?"
"Yes, and yes he is aware of your presence here."
"Then my question for you is, what need do you have for now, now that you have – how did you say it – severed the thread? You are no longer connected the Nazis, you no longer have to play by their rules or do what they say. What need do you have of me if not to support the war, and what do you plan to do now that HYDRA governs itself?"
"That part is perhaps a bit more difficult to explain."
"I'm sure you'll find a way." She answered drily, sitting back in the bed. "Please go on."
Johann folded his hands in his lap, his heart beating heavily in his chest. "Do you remember when you first came to me, after your mother died? You had immense difficulty sleeping, so I would tell you stories to distract you from your grief."
She nodded, her eyes hard and cold, much like his own. He didn't like the way they looked, on her soft face.
"Yes, I remember. You told me that you were going to change the world someday, and that all of the bad things would be erased – there would be no war or crime or disorder of any sort to ruin the world. Everything would be perfect and wonderful. You said that I would be your princess and that I could have anything I could ever want." She recited the synopsis of his fairytales robotically, the words rolling off her tongue as if he had put them there himself.
"Well, I did not realize you had remembered them so vividly." He answered.
"I thought you were making it up." She replied darkly. "Although from what I've seen since coming here, I suppose that anything is rational." She glanced back at the entrance to laboratory. "You plan to destroy the world, don't you?"
Johann opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off, her voice rising with anger. "Don't tell me otherwise – you said it yourself. Your weapons contain enough power to destroy anything and everything. Berlin was on that map, Uncle, and God knows what how many other cities. Is that what HYDRA is about? Unbridled destruction? Is that what your perfect world looks like, a burning trail of wreckage?"
Johann bit his lip, fighting back a harsher response. He could not afford to be cold to her, not now. He had to approach the subject as gently as possible, in order to hopefully win her over. He only had one ally, and that was his true identity. The longer she didn't know who he was – or rather, what he was – he cast a glance at the portrait – the better. If he could convince her that he was merely following orders, perhaps she would soften.
"Will you let me speak?" he said at last. He didn't allow her a chance to answer. "Wilhelmina, I understand that this is all very difficult for you, but you must have faith in HYDRA. And in me."
He edged closer to her, more or less pulling her into his arms. She resisted him for a few moments, but he was stronger and forced her into his grasp.
"Wilhelmina," he said softly, rubbing his gloved hand against the small of her back, urging her tensed spine to relax. "Please listen to me, my sweet."
She looked up at him, eyes surprisingly dry. "What?" she spat bitterly, permitting him to continue.
"My dear, the world is a terrible, filthy place, overridden with arrogant fools thinking that they are superior with only the finest weapons and resources and the most sophisticated of minds. Hitler is not of any semblance of sophistication. He kills off Jews as if they were rats, an infestation. Josef Stalin kills off whoever he pleases, paranoid that a lesser individual will attempt to overtake him and perhaps succeed. The Americans think that wildly waving their flag about and trampling into Europe's business will put an end to all wars and create an eternity of peace. Quite simply, man is of the superiority of apes. Mina, darling,"
He cupped her face into his hands, forcing her to look into his eyes. "It is HYDRA's goal to put an end to this nonsensical war, this hatred and greed and corruption, twisting in men's souls. We plan to create new race of superior men, men who are above such petty emotions, men who govern themselves scientifically and by fact, rather than their flailing passions. With that ideal in mind, we could create a world never to be ravaged by hunger or poverty or war. A true era of perfected peace. Now, is that such a terrible thing to ask for?"
His voice had lowered to the softest tone; at the start of his reverie, his voice had been deep and majestic, as if a preacher beginning a sermon. Now, he spoke softly and measuredly, his tone lilting and sweet, and for a moment, Mina felt as if she were slowly being rocked into a pleasant dream, wrapped in the beauty and majesty of Johann's intricately woven tales.
Amid the shroud of saccharine bliss though, was an image of darkness and bloodshed and death, cutting through the sweet haze like the Grim Reaper's scythe, slicing it in two. A perfected world, one of superior men; it sounded lovely on paper. But how was such a perfect world to be achieved? Fighting war with war; it only made sense. Less superior men, in Johann's mind at least, would rebel, fight back. They would not give in so easily to HYDRA's might.
"And you plan to achieve this perfect world by killing off thousands to prove your point." Her voice was soft, yet matter-of-fact. The blur of images that shot through her brain muddled her thoughts, and the energies devoted to simply deciphering the mess of aftermaths and wreckage drained her words of all emotion. Pieces began to fall into place as his words echoed in the back of her mind. "You plan to use me, if you can get the tesseract to work on me, as a weapon, don't you?"
Johann smiled at her sweetly, as if the whole notion was some fantastical surprise that he had been waiting for her to unravel. He stroked her cheek with the back of his gloved hand, and she flinched away.
"Don't you see, my dear? Once Dr. Zola and I have harnessed your powers, you could be absolutely pivotal to our success. That is why I cannot allow you to return to Berlin. But, is it not wondrous to know that you will be playing the starring role in our life-altering revolution? Don't you find it splendid, darling?"
As he spoke, his voice rose, his azure irises glittering with an almost childish delight. It made her stomach churn. She could feel the bile rising in her throat, her breaths turning to forced gasps.
"You – you want me to kill people." She said slowly, her voice cracking as she fought back the wave of nausea.
As if noticing her distress, he attempted to pull her closer but she pulled back a look of disgust on her face.
"That's what you want, for me to be your killing-machine, to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people?"
Again he smiled, his teeth brilliant white against the pale greyish-white hue of his face. "Mina, I've told you before. People die in wars; innocent lives will be lost and blood will be shed. But would you care so much if you knew that it was for the greater good? My dear, you will be creating a better world, a perfect world. Everything will be wonderful then; doesn't the good cancel out the bad, in this case? Think of all the power that you could have – all the things you could do or the places you could see. You will be fighting for a noble cause, my dear girl."
"A noble cause?" she snapped, rising from her seat on the bed. "You think you're fighting for a noble cause? You plan to destroy every country on earth, and with it more innocent people than can possibly be imagined, all to achieve some idyllic world, some utopia. Your fighting a revolution that cannot possible be won and shouldn't be fought in the first place. You want to help people? Go and donate your money to an orphanage, a shelter. Stop the Nazis from persecuting and torturing, stop Stalin from killing countless innocents. You don't win wars by creating new ones! You don't create life from death! I don't give a damn if some skull-faced lunatic thinks he can walk all over the world killing everyone and everything just so he can get his way! I'll not just sit here and allow you or your beloved Red Skull or whatever the hell his name is, to use me as your killing-machine!"
Her breaths came shallow and ragged, her entire body trembling with fury or fear, she didn't know which. Her eyes were pinned on Johann's, the azure blue of his eyes somehow more vivid and concentrated in the dim lamplight of the room. His shoulders were set rigidly, his teeth grating against each other. He rose from his seat, gloved fists clenched.
He spoke so quietly, so softly and tonelessly. Yet she could easily recognize the fury in his voice. His volume never escalated when he was angered, he never yelled and rarely lashed out. But now, there was a sort of feral and unconstrained animosity about him, as if he were only barely containing the rage that bubbled up within him.
Without a thought, she bolted away from him, her feet skittering across the slippery metal tiles as she scrambled for the entrance into the main hall. She was so close – if she could get away now, get out of the base entirely – perhaps there was a shred of hope.
His arm came across her chest like a steel rod, slamming into her ribcage and crushing the air from her lungs.
"Let me go!" she screamed, struggling against him, but his grip was of iron.
"You know that I cannot do that, Wilhelmina."
"I don't want any part of your plans, let me go!"
She lashed out at him with her fists, but he caught them expertly, grabbing her arms and forcing against the wall.
"Wilhelmina, it is useless. You cannot leave here – you are too valuable to us."
She continued to fight, kicking out with her feet, her teeth gnashing. With a solid push, he threw her back, blood streaming from her mouth as her teeth came down hard on her tongue.
"Give up, you stupid child!" his tone held a stinging venom to it, the fury bright and burning in his eyes, but it only provoked her more.
"I am not a child!" she hissed and delivered crushing kick to his abdomen, throwing him back. He reeled on her, his entire body trembling with fury. As he closed on, she whipped out with her fist, catching his jaw, his head snapping back.
Time seemed to stop, their movements dissolving into slow-motion. She watched in horror as he turned to face her, a gloved hand clutching at his cheek.
Just beneath his eye, it seemed as if the skin had tugged downward, leaving a vivid crimson color in the hollows of his eye.
Her first thought was blood, and she screamed. As he staggered forward, she raced from the room, the exit sliding open as she advanced.
Only to be met by two leather-clad soldiers, rifles slung menacingly across their chests. Like wild cats picking off their prey, they yanked her up, each holding an arm, and began to drag her off.
She tore her throat to shreds, screaming and screaming and screaming. And all the while, Johann, who had recovered and dusted himself off, stood grinning, his eyes glittering with a savage delight.
"It is for your own good, my dear." He murmured softly, so quietly she could barely hear him, but then again, she didn't want to. "You will learn to accept it in time."
Dr. Zola, who had entered from the laboratory, approached him silently, his face grim.
He came to stand beside his superior, and glanced up at him as the Mina's screeching grew fainter. He cleared his throat and Johann glanced down at him.
"I see she took it well." Zola replied to the silence curtly. His comment was rewarded with a blood-curdling glare.