Chapter 28

The Eve of War

Avengers Mansion,

The morning passed quickly for Steve. After his second round of injections, he 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. "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 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?"

"Top Shelf predated my tenure at CIA. I knew nothing of it, I assure you." Varner paused for a moment, his expression the picture of thoughtfulness. "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 sorely lacking in. I hope the next person to hold this post understands that."

"I'll pass your concerns on to the President."

"Tell him I intend to push for a full public investigation." Cap leveled a stony gaze at Varner. "I'm going to see that the truth is exposed."

"That's what we all want. The President has ordered all government agencies to provide whatever aid you require. Director Holder's actions did not represent official United States policy. Your country stands ready to aid you."

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 appeared to be earnest. Perhaps too earnest?

"Thank the President for me, but tell him I intend to stay with my own team."

Cap switched off the connection. He placed another call and quickly had his attorney on the line, audio only, this time. His attorney had no use of video. He was sightless.

"Cap, I was just about to call you," Matt Murdock said. "I just heard about Holder. 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."

"See what you can find on Timothy Varner. He was Holders second-in-command. I'm sure that most of the interesting information on him is classified."

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

As Cap hung up, there was a rap on the door. Jarvis came in, holding a tray. "Good afternoon, Cap," he said, setting out a spread of coffee, croissants, and fresh fruit. Cap smiled.

"Jarvis, what would we do without you?"

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

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

"There is a need. It…it is 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. 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 dug in. He ate most of what was there, and drank all the coffee, keeping an eye on the time. As he stood and headed to the door, 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 in time, 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. He had almost forgotten how miserable it could be.

"Admit it. You're afraid."

That confession burned in his mouth worse than the sickness had, but he would not look away from it. Steve met his own gaze, trying to master the swirl of emotions churning inside him. He suddenly felt thirteen-years old again. Lying on his bed, listening through the closed door as the doctor whispered to uncle Mike and aunt Penny that he had contracted polio, and might never walk again. A feeling gripped his heart; the icy dread of helplessness. Again, he gazed in the mirror, looking himself in the eye.

"You can't punch your way out of this one, Rogers. You're sick, you're dying, and you're scared." Slowly, he put his mask back on, fastening it in place. "That leaves you with one of two options. Crawl back into bed, and pray for a miracle...or get back out there and go to work."

A few more minutes passed. Straightening up, Steve made his way to the door, willing his legs to be steady. He slipped out of the mansion unseen.

The White House,

Timothy Varner watched the screen go dark. He sat impassively, for a long pass of time, considering what Captain America had told him. Not the words, but the meaning behind them. He 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 noon. Is there anything I can do to help you 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 isn'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's making 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?"

"At such time as he decides, 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 Skull looked about him, taking pride at what he had built. Hydra was a reflection of himself; powerful, subtle, driven. The atmosphere in the Command 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 still and silent 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 leave. 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 the pleasure he took from her company. She would have to be chastised, of course, 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 and put a 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.

"You will meet the deadline?"

"It will be close."

"Close is of no use to me, doctor. 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. There was a howling wind in the background, making it hard to hear.

"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. Tell your crew I am most pleased."

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

The Skull shut off the line. His carefully laid plans were coming to frustration. 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 an alter; the blood of the dead; the blood of death yet to come…

He opened his eyes. Power coursed through him. His strength was at its peak, giving a luster to his bones, like polished marble, stained red. He reached for his uniform and began to dress. Every detail of his raiment had been carefully designed to inspire dread and awe. His garments were black, trimmed with green and gold, the colors of Hydra. He wore 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 tunic, fastening the buckles of gleaming brass. Embroidered upon each shoulder, like epaulets, 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, replete with idiotic ideas that held no meaning for him. Still, he once believed in it, and it held a certain romance with 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 mounted the steps to a platform high above the floor, festooned with the Hydra battle-flag. Resting one hand on the railing, he let the moment build. When he deemed the time right, he spoke, his voice low, and solemn.

"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. You have struggled, giving your blood and toil, watching as your brothers and sisters fell in service to our holy cause. Through it all, you have remained steadfast, never shrinking from your duty. I have seen you, and I am pleased."

The silence from his troops was total. They hung on his every word, enraptured.

"While others fell into weakness and confusion, you remained strong, a people of purpose, bound together by righteousness, sacrifice, and honor. 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 again and again, rising in orgasmic fury. The Skull stood like a monument, fearsome and strong. The cheers went on, a raw display of pent up emotion. The Skull glanced down at his Chief of Communications, and nodded. The man moved his hand to his control panel, and keyed in the command. The Skull smiled in cold satisfaction: the Hydra war machine, like the Leviathan of old, was surging forward. The world would soon be his.

End of Book III