Chapter 6

The Eve of War

Avengers Mansion,

The morning passed quickly for Steve. After his second round of injections, he placed a call to Jackie, then spent an hour reviewing the information Fury had given him. There was nothing revealed in the interrogation of the Hydra agent, no clue to the Skull's plans. Steve then turned his attention to the matter of Oliver Holder's sudden death. After putting on his uniform, Cap placed a video call to the White House, and the operator put him through to the office of National Security, where the Deputy Director took the call. Cap was instantly put off by the direction of the conversation.

"The facts seem cut and dried," Timothy Varner said. "We're not making it public, of course, but Director Holder committed suicide."

"I'm not convinced," Cap said, bluntly. "Suicide wasn't in his nature. Why are you ruling out foul play?"

"Nothing is being ruled out, Captain. The investigation is on going. It is possible that this was murder disguised as suicide. He had enemies, certainly you would know that."

Cap smiled. "Am I a suspect now?"

"Of course not. I only mean that…"

"I find it unsettling that you've remained in your current post, Varner, being Holder's lieutenant. There's a question that always comes up in scandals like this one, so let me ask it of you now. What did you know, and when did you know it?"

"About Top Shelf? I knew nothing at all."

"That's difficult to believe."

Varner's tone remained easy. "Director Holder was very secretive, Captain, and Top Shelf predated my tenure at CIA. I knew nothing of it, I assure you."

"I don't find that reassuring. If you were in the dark about Top Shelf, what else don't you know? It seems Holder was running a shadow government at NSA."

Varner paused for a moment. When he spoke, his expression was the picture of thoughtfulness. "That is no longer happening, Captain. We're shining a light over this whole affair, and putting a stop to any unauthorized programs we find. Oliver Holder was a man I once respected. He was a talented, dedicated public servant…but he changed somehow. I don't know how to explain it."

"I do. It takes more than talent and dedication to run an organization like NSA. It takes judgment and principles, things Holder was severely lacking in. You might advise the President to consider that when he fills the post."

Varner nodded. "I will give the President your message, Captain."

"I'm not satisfied that this mater is being addressed properly. I intend to push for a full and public investigation. I'm going to see to it that the truth is exposed here."

"Of course. Whatever I can do to help, just ask. Oh, one last thing," Varner said. "The President has ordered all government agencies to cooperate with your people. He wants you to know that Director Holder's actions did not represent official United States policy. Your country stands ready to aid you."

"Tell the President I appreciate the offer. I respectfully decline. I'll stick with my own team."

"Captain…the President has issued an executive order—the operation begun by Holder has been dismantled. We're ready to help, with no ulterior motive."

Cap looked at the man on the monitor. He was certainly saying all the right things. He was very young to be holding a position of such responsibility, but he was earnest looking…

Perhaps too earnest?

"Thank you, mister Varner, but my decision stands."

Cap switched off the connection. A moment later, he had his attorney on the line, audio only, this time. His attorney had no use of video. He was sightless.

"Cap, how are you?" Matt Murdock said.

"Fine, Matt. Have you heard the news about Oliver Holder?"
"I have. Suicide, or so the early reports say."

"I'm suspicious. There were people who had reason to fear the idea of Holder taking the witness stand. I don't usually jump to conspiracy theories, but in this case…"

"I'm right there with you," Murdock said. "I have a few friends in Washington. Let me make some calls, see what the talk is."

"Good. While you're at it, I'd like you to dig up whatever info you can on Timothy Varner. He was Holders Deputy Director as NSA. I'm sure that most of the interesting information on him is classified."

Murdock smiled. "I'm pretty good at sniffing out secrets, Cap. I'll call you when I have something."

"That's great. I'll talk to you later, Matt."

As Cap hung up, there was a rap on the door. Jarvis came in, bringing with him a tray.

"Good morning, Cap. I notice you didn't have breakfast this morning. I thought you might be feeling peckish." Jarvis set out a spread of coffee, croissants, and fresh fruit, and Cap smiled.

"Jarvis, what would we do without you?"

"Well, you wouldn't eat regularly, that much is certain," Jarvis replied, pouring Cap a coffee. "The croissants are fresh from the oven, sir, very tasty if I do say so. Now, is there anything special you would like me to prepare for tonight's poker game?"

"No need to make a fuss. The usual chips and dip should do fine."

Jarvis stood still. "I…I should like to make it special, Cap."

"Honestly, there's no need…"

"There is a need. It…it is my way, sir. My way of showing…" Jarvis trailed off, and stayed silent for a moment. "Forgive me, sir. I don't imagine you need another person blubbering their feelings around you. I'll let you be, please excuse me."

Jarvis headed towards the door, but stopped. "I just want you to know that I care about you, sir."

"I know that, Jarvis. You're a good friend, and I appreciate everything you do."

Jarvis brightened. "Thank you, sir. Good day."

Cap called out. "Look, if you're sure it won't put you out too much, you might fix up some of those steak sandwiches."

"With spicy mustard?"

"And provolone. But only if it's not too much trouble."

"It will be no trouble at all, Cap," the middle-aged butler said, smiling broadly. He left the room.

Cap smiled, and dug into tray of food. He ate most of what was there, and drank nearly all the coffee, keeping an eye on the time. After he finished, he stood and headed to the door. Suddenly, a wave of nausea crashed over him. He tried to shake it but quickly realized it was beyond him. He made it to the bathroom, barely. Pain wracked his body with every heave, his stomach rejecting the recently delivered contents. His nerve endings were on fire, and his muscles locked in spasm. He slumped to the floor, spent. After several minutes passed, the sickness left him, but the weakness remained. He stood, his legs unsteady, and rinsed the bitter foulness from his mouth. The face looking back at him from the mirror was pale. Cap pealed his mask off and gazed into the mirror, refusing to blink at the weakness he saw reflected back at him. It had been a lifetime since he had felt this way, weak, unsure…afraid. He had almost forgotten how miserable it could be.

"Admit it, Rogers. You're afraid."

That confession burned in his mouth worse than the sickness had, but he would not look away from it. For nearly five minutes, Steve met his own gaze, mastering the weakness, the fear. Slowly, he put his mask back on, fastening it in place.

"Hold on, Rogers," Cap said to his reflection. "Just hold on."

He made his way to the door, willing his legs to be steady, and slipped out of the mansion unseen.

The White House,

Timothy Varner pressed the intercom. "Jennifer, hold my calls for the next half-hour."

"Yes, sir. I just want to remind you that your meeting with the President is at 12:45. Is there anything I can help you do to prepare?"

"No, but thank you for asking, Jennifer."

Varner smiled. Jennifer was a fine aide, and a fine looking woman, as well. She desired him. The signs were subtle, but they were there. Was it possible that he desired her, as well? That struck him odd; he was gay, wasn't he? At least he had been gay in another life, although he had concealed that fact utterly. Was he still gay? He supposed he was, but so many things were different now, perhaps that had also changed. Anything was possible in the new era about to dawn.

Such concerns would have to wait. He took his cell phone from his pocket, and placed the call. He did not use his government phone…but rather his personal phone. He hit the preset number, and the signal went out, routed through a series of satellite relays, which scrubbed it clean from prying eyes and ears. There were automated tracking programs that traced all phone calls coming from the White House, but it was easy enough to circumvent them, if you knew the system. Varner did. After a series of rings, the line picked up.

"Your scheduled call wasn't until this evening," said a voice on the other end.

"Something's come up," Varner replied. "I just spoke with the primary target. He suspects."

"We took that into consideration."

"He will make waves. I don't know if I can suppress it."

There was a moment of silence. "Suppress for as long as you are able. Vanguard is imminent."

Varner sat up straighter. "When is it?"

"At such time as he decides it will be, that is when. Go about your usual business, wait for the signal, and be prepared. Follow your programming."

The line went dead. Varner slipped his phone back into his pocket, the conversation all but forgotten. He would go about his usual business, he would wait for the signal, and he would be prepared. Smiling, the clone of Timothy Varner opened his planer and reviewed his notes for his meeting with the President.

Hydra Base Alpha-One,

The atmosphere at the Command and Control center was almost humming, so great was the activity taking place. The feeling was that of a bowstring, pulled to its maximum. There was a din of chatter, but nothing extraneous. All speech, all activity, all thought, was directed to one specific purpose, that of the coming offensive. From behind the observation window, the Skull watched it all. He remained as unmoving as a statue, even as Viper walked into the room. She came up to him.

"You sent for me?"

"Yes." The Skull turned to face her. "It begins. Have all our bases ready for video conference. I will speak to my troops in ten minutes. Afterwards, contact your confederates in Asia and inform them."

Viper took his hand and kissed it. "Hail Hydra."

The Skull watched her walk out the door, and he smiled; Judas too, betrayed with a kiss, but Judas did not have such beguiling charms to recommend him. A stray thought passed through his mind; perhaps it would be possible to spare Viper's life. He could not deny that he enjoyed her company. She would have to be chastised, broken of any future thoughts of treachery, if that was possible for a wild creature such as her…but there was no need to decide such trivialities now. The Skull walked over to the intercom, turning his mind to more important matters. He put his call through to the laboratory.

"Doctor Lerner, how is your work proceeding?"

The line remained silent for several seconds. "We are making progress," Lerner finally answered.

"So you will meet the deadline?"

"It will be close."

"Succeed, doctor. Close is of no use to me. Succeed."

The Skull shut off the intercom. Lerner had never failed him in the past, nor would he fail him now. It was his fate to rule this world. He placed a second call, this one taking longer to establish. Finally, a voice answered, hard to hear. There was a howling wind in the background.

"Construction team Wolf-One, Major Hoyle here."

"Major. What is your status?"

"We are finished, my lord," the voice intoned, with pride. "Hydra Base Alpha-Prime has been constructed, per your instructions. It awaits your arrival."

"Excellent. You will be rewarded for your promptness. Tell your crew that their master is most pleased."

"I will, Herr Skull, thank you. Hail Hydra!"

The Skull shut off the line. Everything was coming together, according to plans. Nothing could stop him this time. Satisfied of this fact, the Skull left the anteroom and walked to his personal quarters. He usually had his valet dress him, but not today. He stood before the mirror, stripped off his clothing, and gazed at his true form. He was a skeleton, naked but for the ruby ring on his right hand. A spirit burned within his bones, like frozen fire. He turned his vision in on himself. For one minute, then two, he stood motionless. Slowly, the scarlet hue of his bones deepened, dropping to a purple-red. The color was manifold; a hearts blood; a ram's blood, splashed upon stone; the blood of the dead; the blood of death yet to come…

He opened his eyes. Power coursed through him now. His strength was at it peak, and it gave a luster to his bones, like polished marble, stained red. He reached for his uniform and began to dress. Every element of his uniform was carefully designed to inspire dread and awe. His garments were black, with highlights of red and gold, the colors of Hydra. There was no armor, such precautions would be a sign of weakness, and precious little could harm him in any event. This was not a fighters uniform, it was the uniform of command, of rule. He slipped on the jacket, buttoning it along the side. Embroidered upon each shoulder, like epaulettes, was the insignia of Hydra. The embroidery was in gold, signifying his status as Supreme Commander. One last detail remained.

He opened the box on his dresser, and took out a pin, a small enameled swastika, black, on a circle of white. It was one of the few remaining artifacts of his previous life, for he held no maudlin attachments to the past. Nazism was a failure, and it was replete with idiotic ideas that held no meaning for him. Still, he once believed in it, and it still held a romance with a great many of his followers. He buttoned the pin to the collar of his jacket, and beheld his reflection anew, finding everything in order. He drew himself up to his full height, and headed out.

There were nearly a hundred people working in the Command and Control center. Cries of "Attention!" sounded out as the skull made his appearance. The cameras were in place, broadcasting to hundreds of thousands around the world. The silence was total. The Skull stood stock still, resting one hand on the railing of the balcony. He let the moment build, and when he deemed the time right, he spoke.

"As Supreme Commander of Hydra, I hereby order Phase One of Operation Vanguard be commenced."

A cheer erupted from those gathered in the room. From across the complex, the sounds of troopers crying out in excitement echoed. In bases around the world, such scenes were also playing out, and the Skull gave time for it to happen. He raised his hand slowly, quieting the enthusiasm.

"Let history record this moment. You are the first. Your ranks will grow…but you are the first. For years, you have struggled, giving your blood and toil, watching as your brothers and sisters fell, and through it all, you have remained steadfast, never shrinking from your duty. I have seen you, and I am pleased.

"While others fell into weakness and confusion, you dedicated yourselves to bring order to this world! We are a people of purpose, bound together by righteousness, sacrifice, and honor! Let all others fall…we will remain strong. A new order is about to dawn upon this world…and the glory belongs to you, the first among many!"

Again, the frantic sound of cheering arose. The Skull spoke above it now, not silencing the frenzy, but instigating it. His voice boomed like cannon fire.

"As you dedicate yourselves to me, so I, too, dedicate myself to you! A new day dawns! Let our flag fly triumphant…Hail Hydra!"

Cries of "Hail Hydra!" rang out. The Skull stood like a monument, fearsome and strong. The cheers went on and on, a raw display of pent up emotion. The Skull glanced down to his Chief of Communications, and he nodded subtly at the man. The man bent to his control panel, and keyed in the command. The gears of the Hydra war machine began to turn.