The Last Campaign
By John Finck
(This is a work of fan fiction – the characters are owned by Marvel Comics. This story is of my own creation, written for the pleasure of writing. No profit is, or will be, derived from this work.)
Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Author's Notes –
First, I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my story. I based The Last Campaign on the comic book Cap, not the movie Cap, and there are a few differences between the two. My main goal was to be true to the SPIRIT of Captain America, but (like all writers) I have my own view of exactly what that is. Here is my take on Cap:
- Steve Rogers was never a 90-pound weakling. My Steve was weak, yes, because he was afflicted with Polio, but he was no easy mark for the neighborhood bullies. The whole 'wimp-to-hero' thing is boring and not at all realistic for Cap. My take is that Steve was a champion before he took the Super Soldier Serum, blessed with a sharp mind, a drive to excel, and a strong moral center. His INNER strength is what made him a hero, and the 'sad sack' who got beat up every day is simply a worn out cliché. I give Steve the dignity of being a real human being - he had girlfriends, he was NOT a virgin, and he was nobody's punching bag. There is no 'golly gee!' boy scout here, thank you very much. That's just how I see him.
- Peggy Carter was not the love of Steve's life. 'Sacrilege!' I can hear the fans of the movie shout…but the truth is that in the comic, Peggy was never a strong love interest. She was a paper-thin character, similar to Vicki Vale in Batman – a generic girlfriend with no real personality. Lois Lane was a real character; Peggy was not. Apparently, the writers of the movie agreed, because instead of the America Peggy of the comic books, they made their Peggy British. I think they did this to maker her more like the character of Jacqueline Falsworth. For me, Jacqueline IS Steve's true love. In the comics, Cap led a superhero team called the Invaders (sort of the WW II version of the Avengers), and Jackie was the hero called Spitfire. I always felt that Cap and Spitfire should have been a couple. Well, now they are. Frank Miller did the same thing with when he took over writing Daredevil back in the 80s. The first thing he did was ditch Daredevil's longtime 'girlfriend' Karen Page – who never had any spark to her. Fans never believed in the relationship. Instead, Miller introduced Electra, the REAL love of Matt Murdock/Daredevil's life. As a character, Electra was infinitely better for Matt. I think Jackie is the same for Steve. Again, the filmmakers thought the same, because they patterned Peggy on Jackie; tough, strong willed, sexy - everything Peggy wasn't. So give Jackie a chance; I think that you'll love her.
- In my story, the Red Skull has supernatural power, and vast strength. For fifty years, Marvel didn't really know how to handle the Skull. Johann Schmidt was just a guy in a mask - a very nasty guy, to be sure, a Nazi who did his best to kill Cap and destroy America - but still just a guy, with no super strength. Usually, one punch from Cap was all it took, and the fight was over. Marvel eventually figured out that this kind of sucked, and they came up with the idea of Schmidt also having taken the Super Soldier Serum (actually, Marvel borrowed this idea from the 1990 Cap film- which if you haven't seen it yet, is truly awful). The idea of both Cap and the Skull having taken the serum is a damned good one, finally allowing these two archenemies to engage in serious combat. Still, I never loved the idea. To me, the Skull has to be something more that just a good villain…he has to be the ULTIMATE villain. So I arraigned for Schmidt to come across an ancient occult talisman, the kind of thing which Hitler, in real life, had agents searching for (this is where they got the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark). When Johann unearths this item, it transforms him from an evil man into EVIL INCARNATE. He is one dangerous, terrifying villain…and it takes all that Cap can muster to even survive him, let alone defeat him. Now that's what I call a bad guy!
I hope this has whetted your appetite to read on. You will meet almost all of the Marvel Universe here; however, The Last Campaign is Cap's story. I try to portray him in a fresh, realistic manner…but at the core, he is still Captain America, the greatest hero of the Marvel Universe. I hope you enjoy.
(The past is)
December 31, 1938
Office of Research and Development, United States Army
All across the country Champagne corks were set to pop, streamers were ready to be thrown, and horns were laid out, all to welcome in the New Year…everywhere except in this office, Steve Rogers figured; here, time seemed to stand still. Einstein must have a theory to explain it, surely. A check of his wristwatch told Steve that he had only been sitting in this lobby for ten minutes. It felt closer to an hour. Across from him, an army secretary was busy at work filling the staid office with the steady clack of her typewriter. He considered reviewing his notes a final time, but then thought the better of it. There was such a thing as beating a dead horse. Steve was as ready for this meeting as he would ever be.
Outside, a light snow was falling against the blush of the setting sun. The city streets were mostly deserted for the holidays, which was a Godsend. This little dusting wouldn't raise an eyebrow back in Oregon, but this far south it might as well be a blizzard. Making it to Gail's place in Arlington was going to be an adventure. They had reservations at the Baldwin tonight, the Dorsey Orchestra (Jimmy, not Tommy, but still good). Steve reached into his breast pocket and felt for the ring he had been carrying around for the past week. This might not be the night for it after all, not with things so unsettled here at work. Being called in like this for an unscheduled meeting with the General seemed ominous. It had to be about Braxton. Steve could not seem to please the man, and lately he had stopped trying. Braxton just couldn't accept pesky things like facts interfering with his cherished notions. Steve shifted in his seat, casting another glance at his watch.
"I'm sure the General won't be much longer."
Steve looked up to see the secretary, a pretty brunet, smiling slyly as she pointed at her wristwatch. He suddenly became aware of his fidgeting.
"Oh, the General's a busy man, I realize."
"Yes, very busy. If there's one thing General Rhodes believes in, it's busy." She looked at the door to the General's office and began whispering to Steve as a conspirator. "Even at five thirty on New Year's eve…busy. I'm willing to bet this is the only office in the capitol with the lights still on."
Steve chuckled. "I think you'd win that bet. You know, this is my first meeting with the General. If you have any friendly advice?"
Just then, the intercom buzzed followed by a gruff voice calling for Steve Rogers. Steve smiled grimly and gathered his papers.
"Don't worry, you'll do fine," the woman said. "The Old Man's not as bad as his reputation makes out. And after all, you're a civilian. Legally, he's not allowed to have you shot."
"Thanks for the pep talk, corporal..?" Steve looked to read her ID badge.
"Carter," she answered. "Margaret Carter. My friends call me Peggy."
Steve smiled. "Thanks Peggy."
Steve stood, feeling conspicuous against the backdrop of these military surroundings. It wasn't so much his civilian attire, though he was obviously dressed for a night on the town. He was tall and very thin and younger looking than his twenty-two years, but that was not it either. In most every respect, he was an average looking, American man. He had blond hair, yellow as straw, blue eyes, and was handsome in the way of people are who are utterly unconcerned with their looks. None of this is what made him self-conscious. Rather, it was the almost imperceptible limp in his left leg. Even after all the years he had lived with it. Steve made his way to the Generals office where he was greeted before he could even close the door.
"Take a seat, Mister Rogers."
Behind a plain and rather small oak desk sat General Rhodes. He set aside his paperwork, offering no handshake. Steve sat, taking note of the near total absence of ornamentation in the office. Everything was basic and functional, unusual for a decorated two star general. Rhodes had a crop of iron-grey hair and a deeply lined face, yet Steve was surprised to find that, up close, the 'Old Man' didn't actually look all that old. Rhodes pressed the intercom button on his desk.
"Miss Carter, is the office staff gone for the day?"
"Yes sir, except for myself."
"Good, go ahead and finish up. And corporal? Happy New Year."
Snapping the intercom off, Rhodes leaned back in his chair. "The best man on my entire staff," he mused, "and she wears a skirt. If half of my officers had even half of her brains and competence, this would be the best unit in the army." There did not seem to be an invitation for comment, so Steve kept quiet.
"Well, I see that you're dressed for the occasion," Rhodes said, appraising his guests evening wear. "Perhaps you might help me test a little theory of mine. I believe that there are essentially two types of people in the world, Rogers. Those who make New Year's resolutions, and those who do not. I'm curious...which type are you?"
Steve thought of the ring in his pocket, and of Gail. "I guess the first type, General."
"Interesting," Rhodes said. A beat of silence passed. "Well. You must be wondering why I called you here."
"Is it Major Braxton, sir?"
Rhodes smiled, seemingly amused. "Now that you bring it up, the Major has expressed some concerns about your work. I'm curious how you plan to address those concerns."
"I'm afraid there's not much I can do, sir."
Rhodes narrowed his glance. "Perhaps you should explain that answer."
Steve paused. He was getting himself into hot water, he knew. He'd done it before. He would probably do it again. He had his mothers stubbornness.
"General, I'm sure there are many things I need to improve on, including my interactions with Major Braxton—and I'll work hard on doing so. But when it comes to research, there's only one way it can be done. Accurately, and free of bias. If I have to tailor my reports to reflect the Major's opinions, then I'm of no value to you at all."
Rhodes considered that comment. Then he reached into his desk drawer, producing a stack of paperwork. On top was a copy of Steve's most recent report, a plausibility study of armed conflict between the United States and Germany. Rhodes began to read, scanning many pages with barely a glance. Occasionally he would linger for a moment, writing notes next to certain passages. Twice he made a deep-throated 'hrum'—though whether this sound was an indication of approval or displeasure, Steve could not tell.
Coming to the last page, the General paused, reading the summation in detail. He snapped the file shut and looked up, as if weighing the words he had just read against the man who had written them. Steve had heard about Rhodes's formidable intellect. Now he was feeling it, bearing down like sunlight through a magnifying glass, to a pinpoint. It was less than pleasant.
"This latest report of yours seems to pick up right where the last one left off. In fact, isn't it true that Major Braxton finds your work in general to be highly flawed and full of alarmist conclusions?"
"No sir, not exactly. He says my work contains flawed conclusions based on an alarmist premise."
The General leaned forward with a look that could wither paint off a fence post. He locked eyes with Steve. "Are you being flip with me mister?"
"I think perhaps you are." Rhodes replied. He took a cigar from the humidor on his desk, lighting it as he went on. "The Major wants you off his staff, and, frankly, I'm inclined to agree with him. I don't believe you are a good fit for his team. How do you respond to this?"
"I think that that would be a mistake, General. Respectfully."
The General snorted in amusement. Clamping the cigar tightly in his teeth, he leaned back in his chair. Outside, the snow had settled into a deep, noiseless downfall, and the glow of the street lamps became a frosted haze. The quiet hum of the office furnace made a pleasant drone, filling the office, until Rhodes spoke. "You don't lack for confidence, do you? All right then, convince me. A mistake how?"
"General, right now, I might be the only man on your research staff giving you the whole, unvarnished truth. You have a lot of dedicated, smart people working for you, who are under a great deal of pressure to tell the Army what it wants to hear. I'm telling the Army what it needs to hear."
"Which is what, exactly? That war is coming?"
"Yes," Steve said. "I wish it weren't so, but I'm afraid that's the gist of it. The situation in Europe is unstable and it's getting worse by the day. We're facing some hard choices, General. The only question is whether we make those choices on our terms, or on the Nazi's. I know that that idea isn't politically popular, but it's the truth."
"Well that's a problem then, isn't it? This is Washington—everything here is politics. It's truth that's the rare commodity. You're a little young to remember the Great War, Rogers, but I promise you, the idea of another European conflict doesn't sit too well with the American people." The Generals face seemed to reflect an old memory, which soured his tone. "They had their fill of that in nineteen eighteen. Tell me, how do you square your opinion against the news from Berlin last month?"
"Hitler's peace agreement with Chamberlain? Not worth the paper it's written on." Steve answered.
"Is that so? Most of the world disagrees. It's being hailed as 'Peace in Our Times'. You're very certain in your opinions concerning Herr Hitler, aren't you? How do you account for your remarkable insight?"
Rogers features tightened at that. "Because I read his book, General."
Rhodes paused in thought. "Good answer," he said, releasing a thick cloud of smoke. "Give me your assessment of German military capacity."
"It's not good, sir. For over a decade the German high command has made great strides in weapons, materials, tactics, manpower…they've completely disregarded the treaty of Versailles. The exact figures are in my report, but they all point to the same thing: Adolph Hitler is building the greatest war machine in the history of mankind."
"Why has he done this, do you think?"
"The general consensus is he intends to use this power as a bargaining chip," Steve replied, "a way to achieve international prestige and influence."
Rhodes shook his head. "I asked why you think he has done it."
Steve straightened his posture, looking the General square in the eye. " I think Hitler intends to use his military for conquest, and to smash his enemies."
"And who would that be?"
"Everybody, sir. Everybody in the entire world. Hitler is a megalomaniac."
"Isn't that a bit dramatic?"
"General, three years ago, Ambassador Dodd filed a report describing the leaders of Nazi Germany as, and I quote: 'dangerous men, many of them psychopaths, who in another time and place would be under a doctor's care. Or incarcerated.' I'd say it is very dramatic. As a final point, I would warn about German science, which the Nazi's have militarized. Of particular concern are their advances in atomic power and bio genetics."
"Ah yes," Rhodes said. "The Major took special exception with you there. Tell me, if I were to ask for your assessment of Major Braxton, how would you respond?"
"I…I'm not sure how to answer sir. The Major is a good man, but—"
"But he is an idiot. Would that be a fair statement?"
Steve groped for a reply.
"All right," Rhodes continued, "I will answer my own question. The Major is an idiot. Braxton couldn't find his asshole if he had a map and a three day head start. Unfortunately, he is the nephew of Senator William Braxton, chairman of the military appropriations committee, and so I am stuck with him. He has his uses though. If the Major is completely opposed to an idea, I can usually be certain that that idea must have some merit. Your ideas, Steven, have a great deal of merit. May I call you Steven?"
Not waiting on a reply, General Rhodes produced another file and began reading.
"Steven Morgan Rogers, born nineteen seventeen, New York City…only child of Joseph and Sarah, both deceased. A top athlete and scholar as a boy, some petty scrapes with the law as a juvenile. Upon the death of your parents, you went to live with your uncle in Oregon. You studies improved, but, at age fifteen you contracted polio, leaving your body weak and ravaged." General Rhodes looked up from the file. "Am I accurate so far?"
"…Yes," Steve managed.
"Received a scholarship to Notre Dame, from which you graduated last year, a double major in world history and political science. First in your class..."
"Attempted to join the ROTC, but was rejected do to physical infirmity. You were pursing your master's degree when approached by my office. You accepted the position, seeing it as a chance to combat the threat of fascism. Fluent in French, Spanish and other romance languages, speak passable German…"
"With the death of your uncle, you have no immediate family. For the past eleven months, you've been romantically involved with a Miss Gail Anders of Arlington, Virginia…for whom you recently purchased a modest engagement ring."
Steve was jolted to action at that. "General, what's going on here? Have you been spying on me?"
"Yes. Yes I have."
The words shocked Steve into silence. Whatever was transpiring here, it was no longer a review of his job performance—if it ever had been. General Rhodes quietly got up from his desk and walked over to the window, looking out at the snowfall.
"Steven, the information I am about to share with you is classified, and I remind you of your oath of secrecy. I am extending an offer to you, one you are free to reject with no dishonor, to take part in a secret army experiment. Tell me, in your research work, have you heard anything concerning a project Super Solider?"
Steve's look betrayed him; he had heard something.
"Please," Rhodes said, "Tell me what you know. I'd like to see how top-secret our top-secret actually is."
"Well, I haven't heard much, just chatter. Of course, I only have a level 3 security clearance, but the speculation is that the army is developing some new wonder drug. Like penicillin, only better, for treating battlefield injuries. I guess that's not it?" Steve said, seeing the pleased look on General Rhodes face.
"No, it's not. It's good to know that some things work the way they are supposed to. We've spent months flooding the system with a lot of false information, some of it with tiny bits of truth, but all leading down various dry holes: Project Rebirth, Achilles, Grandstand, Reinstein, among others. The real thing is Super Solider—and even it has many covers and levels of protection. By the way, your security clearance is now level 2/AA. I'm afraid there's little more I can tell you unless you consent to participate."
"And if I don't?"
"Then you are free to go. As I said, the choice is yours. Your research position, however, is gone whatever you decide. I'm sorry, but its part of the cover we are preparing for you."
"And if I say yes? What then, General?"
"Then things get interesting." Rhodes said, a wry look in his eyes. "I don't want to snow you son, this will require a lot of sacrifice on your part. I'm afraid you will have to give up your personal life for at least the next four years. And there's no guarantee of success. The risk to life and limb is substantial. But if this project succeeds, you'll have done your country a great service."
"Serve my country, sacrifice my personal life. Quite a choice, General."
"You said it yourself. The time for hard choices has come."
The General stepped forward, a pleased look creasing his broad features. "I've thrown a lot at you this evening, but you haven't flinched once," he said. "That's good. I never trust a man who can't look me in the eye."
"I'm not as confident as I may seem, General," Steve replied.
"That's good too. I'd be worried if you weren't concerned."
"But…why me, sir? Of all people, why me?"
"Not just you. You'll be joining nine other men as part of the initial test. As for why I've chosen you…lets just say you meet certain criteria I'm looking for, starting with how you think. As it happens, I agree with you about the danger Hitler poses. Or rather, you agree with me. I've been warning about the Nazis for years now, not that the top brass has much cared to listen. They decided the best way to shut me up was to bury me here, overseeing research and intelligence programs."
Rhodes took an enormous draw on his cigar, his eye glinting with quiet pride. "Well, I've managed to stay busy. I want you on my team, Rogers. You'll enter service a commissioned officer, the rank of Captain. America needs you, son. Will you answer the call?"
In the years to come, those words would often echo in Steve Rogers' mind— 'Captain America…will you answer the call?' but that was in the years to come. Today, he was still a young man, full of uncertainty.
"I don't know what to say," Steve finally answered. "I am honored by your faith in me, sir…but you just read my medical history. I'm physically unfit for army service."
Rhodes smiled. "Trust me. If this experiment delivers even half of what it promises, that's not going to be a problem."