1965-03-17 - Project Ursa: Polaris Beta
Summary: Hanging by a thread, the SHIELD agents led by Captain America are short on supplies, hope, and faith. Ringed in by their enemies - the 21st Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, Omega-Red, agents of the Red Room - they can't go back unless they want to end their lives in a Soviet gulag. Their only option is forward to reach their quarry and an exfil point. Once they enter the labyrinth of Closed City 53, will they ever return? Natasha and Bucky are coming home?
Related: Project: Ursa
Theme Song: None
rogue steve-rogers bucky 

Medveditsa. Closed City 53.
How much of the dreaded program overseen by Zola known outside certain walls, echoed down the chambers of power? It's never clear, not in the compartmentalized world of the Soviet Union. No doubt Nick Fury appreciates their siloing of information, so one side doesn't know what the other is, let alone does.

Vanguard holds the hammer and the sickle in his gloved hands, and the former may not compare to a maul or Mjolnir, but it still holds plenty of weaponized intent. In an odd way, he might resemble a pharaoh of old, albeit in the wrong colours, in the wrong landscape. %<171>You proved willing to cut down anything in your way to get here,%<187> he replies, almost sombre, tight with anger. In the CCCP, he is the hero, his brethren treated much in the same light as the Avengers - respected, honoured, upright. Truthful a reputation or not, he might be trying to live up to that. %<171>I can't let you in to a sanctuary city. I will stand against you with my last breath to keep them safe.%<187> A gesture to Steve. Does he know the shield's meaning? Do men breathe air? %<171>Who are your children, these supposed captives? No Americans here. They would never be permitted inside.%<187>

«Then someone's pulling the wool over your eyes.» Without looking away from Vangard, he nods towards Bucky and then sets himself further, shifting weight to the balls of his booted feet. «He doesn't lie. Give us back the young woman and the others, like him — or be moved.» By the glint in Steve's eyes, this is possibly the last warning. He can hazard a guess that Bucky isn't going to remain still for much longer.

By the clenching of those fists, metal and muscle, Steve is right. «You know I'm an American, Vanguard, just like Steve. But I've been a prisoner and a slave for nearly the past two decades, ever since Soviet forces found my body at the end of the war. I'd frozen to death, and they were able to revive me. Arnim Zola, the Nazi scientist, experimented on me. That's how I got this.» He lifts the metal hand - it flashes like a heliograph in the searchlight beam. «And they brainwashed me to make me the Winter Soldier. Now it turns out that Zola, in concert with Volga, who is some kind of ancient sorcerer, have produced…..clones of me. They were in AMerica, with me, but they were sickening, dying. We brought them back to find the cure….but Volga's taken them. And my girl. She's there, too.» She has to be - he can't admit the possibility of the alternative. «I've got no quarrel at all with the people here, sir. I just want my girl and my kids…..and to keep them from making me a slave and a murderer again.» His voice is cracking with the strain, but he's not launching himself at Vanguard, not yet. «There has to be one Russian who'll believe me.»

Youthful idealism in the Cold War, morality gone straight and true in the age of crooked intent. Vanguard is likely no older than thirty, and by a good measure, probably near to twenty-five. He wears resolution well, for all the dust and careworn effigies of two war heroes turns in his direction. Accusations tighten his mouth but he hasn't unleashed any of the charged energy contained behind his crossed arms, if it's there at all. The nearest untoward movement, however, is likely to rouse that protective streak a mile wide. Heroes to the CCCP, the Winter Guard learn their names and reputation on account of heroic deeds.

«I know who you are.» A simple enough admission there. His dark brown eyes move to Steve, to the shield more than anything. «And of you. It's enough that your presence is a problem.» His jaw slides side to side. «Couldn't use the normal channels? If true, they would have to act.» Is this benevolence? He sounds sincere enough, working it out, slowly. «We're here to serve our country, our people. You intend to hurt anyone here, I have to stand in your way. But if it's information, I can ask.»

«We just want answers.» Steve upholds an empty hand, transformed from the fist he held it in moments earlier. The shield is lowered, revealing more of the muddied suit, proof of multiple impacts and hard travel. «Answers and to see them.»

He doesn't say anything as to their state. That's a hope he keeps behind his teeth for now.

«I wish official channels could've worked,» There's wry laughter in Bucky's voice, breathless. «I'm not even a citizen, Vanguard. I'm a piece of equipment. Help us. This doesn't have to end in further violence.»

Calculations require a few moments, and the evidence of the fallen dogs, the guards gone in his wake. «I don't know where you came in from.» Vanguard taps the handle of the sickle, which he slowly and deliberately points away from them, the golden crook gesturing south. Not far off the path they blazed through the woods. «However, I can ask questions for you. Not while you stand here, though. You should not even be here without an incident, and you, comrade…» He looks long and hard at Bucky. «You being here in the open doesn't give me a good feeling. So I'd like you to go wait by the river road. Find the eightieth kilometer marker, wait there. If you wait there and cause no trouble, then you'll get the answers as I can find them. Ninety minutes would be nice, sixty my bare minimum. This is gonna wake people up.»

Steve is the one to relent first, recognizing an opportunity for possibly some breathing time and a chance to plan further in case of disaster. He needs his wingman as hale as possible. The decision tastes bitter in his moderate paranoia, somehow, even though it may afford them rest. The shield doesn't move back to its mooring, but he nods.

«As we said, we're looking for people, not for trouble. We can wait, but not for long. If we don't see you in ninety minutes, you'll see us again.» He looks to Bucky, pausing only to make sure that his friend is in agreement with the proposed cease-fire.

It's a risk. Time enough for their enemies to gather their forces, circle them. But….this is a fight they can avoid. Maybe. Just maybe. «Agreed,» he says, finally. It's going to be a trap, surely. But charging ahead has them facing off with a fresh, rested hero - one who might be something of an ally. «Don't relent until you've spoken to Volga or Zola, please. Make them show you. Your word carries weight.» Play on his honor - always worked on Steve, didn't it?

«I'm sure I will. One way or another, someone is going to comment on this.» Vanguard glances mournfully to the wrecked fence, the long stream of electrified netting and the fallen post something he needs to hammer back into the soil when they've gone. «Ninety minutes, then. Remember to head for the road.» He broadcasts little intent to hurl it at them, but neither is that an assured sign of peace. Waiting where he is, he gives them the benefit of marching off into the woods and presumably not dashing out again to blitz into town. No telling where the giant bear ended up, but probably back having a nice dirt nap somewhere.

If only life were so kind.

Since this Vanguard doesn't appear to be interested in flinging weaponry or engaging further, Steve moves back towards the woods. Somehow, he manages it without taking a step backwards, probably in bravado and silent communication that this is merely stalement, not a victory on anyone's part.

Once beneath the cover of the shadows of the trees again, he looks to Bucky and says quietly, "I don't like this. What was it again, kinetic energy?" He speaks to the abilities of the man with sickle and hammer.

"I think he's sincere," Buck says, looking no happier about any of it. "At worst, I think we've bought ourselves a breather. Most likely they're going to stonewall him or order him to go fight us. Not like we've got the element of surprise anymore, anyhow. Yeah. You can't just punch him, if I recall. He does something with the force - almost like your shield." He's also snagged a bit of wire from the fence. An improvised stranglewire is better than nothing, and even enormous creatures have to breathe.

The woodlands wrap around them in light curtains as before, staggered enough that a charge from a pile of soldiers emerging in their neat lines from the city would not get far. Nor can two men running through woods easily track, say, a bear without having coverage for it. A hard hike lies ahead of them to reach the road, much less make it to the waymarker on the highway through snow and ice. Vanguard apparently imagines they can trudge quickly. On the other hand, he was witnessed making an impressive jump off a roof.

Steve side-eyes the length of wiring, but says nothing. It's far better to be prepared for anything. The two of them became the ultimate Boy Scouts through the Army rather than tying off sailor's knots, though only one of them probably holds that title with relative ease and doesn't actively acknowledge it.

"I hope he abides by his word. I hate deal-breakers. It would be frustrating not to be able to punch him," the Captain mutters, and then, it's back to marching. On they go, through wood and dale, beneath the cold and stark shadows of the wild trees. It takes about seventy-five minutes in total to cross the distance between checkpoint and the agreed-upon roadmarker, but then, there they are, approaching it out of the gloom. Steve points silently towards it and makes a point of carefully scanning the area around them even as he slows from his near-jog.

Bucky is dragging, it's clear. Beyond weariness. That wound has healed itself, but that takes energy. He's sunken eyed, the gaunt scarecrow the Russians pulled from the cold waters. No whisper of surrender, but at what point does sheer burn-out take him down, leave him sprawled in the snow to be plucked up like a ruin again? "Yeah," he says. "I hope we did just find the one good guy in Russia."

The road marker stands alone, on a stretch of road barely without consequence in the wilderness of southern Russia. Only the flooding, nearly lapping at the southern side of the road, a fell black glitter, implies the presence of the river through deadly entanglements of marsh, trees, and quicksand mire. Not exactly the friendliest place, lovely for deer and birds, small creatures lying dormant in the cold night.

At the better point of twenty minutes past napping, catching rest on the fly, a disruption ripples from the road itself. A pair of headlights in the dark.

It falls to Steve to be the sentinel. The position comes easily enough to him, being the lesser-battered of the two of them (though my God, his shoulder does ache where he took the brunt of one of those spectacular collisions between shield and bear), and thus, it's he who first sees the incoming duality of small lights. No marsh-fires these, fell pockets of gas floating and luring the unwise from the path.

"Buck," he hisses, stepping backwards and placing himself between these lights and his friend. The shield comes out from its sheath, held before his torso.

He's up, knife in hand again, standing with Steve. The old posture, natural as breathing, with only the metal shoulder exposed. "I see," he says, softly.

Toot-toot! Soviet Russia loves its homegrown cars and, of all things, this particular beast is slowly creeping its way up the road at no particular speed thanks to the snow. Round headlights prove less anemic than the typical Lada, kindled to a certain brightness that make two men dozing by a sign or a tree hard to ignore.

The final insult of the fates: it's a Volga M23.

Not a huge fan of the way that the lights are pointed in their direction, Steve begins to walk at a diagonal, intending to step outside the general angling of the beams. Nothing like wrecked night-sight to ruin a soldier's evening. Plus, nothing like an overconfident driver possibly negotiating the edge of the road incorrectly and the slide of a tire into a muddy divot. That's a special little humility worth the side-stepping.

There's an aggrieved sigh from Bucky at that, but he also steps aside. No getting into a fight with a car, unless he has to. Still in position with dear old Steve.

The slow, careful application of brakes brings the saloon car to a rolling halt. Snow crusts the lower half so strongly it might be impossible to distinguish its actual colour. The door opens, and out steps someone in a furry hat and an overcoat. Hey, it's cold outside. He slides out from the driver's side, boots on the ground, shaking himself out. The keys in the car are essential to keep the engine running, given the cold. Vanguard blinks against the shift in the light, but he probably doesn't suffer so much. «So.» His Russian is crisp and clear over the distance. «I shook a few trees to see if the apples were ripe. A few fell. Two travel permits were issued in the last week that were odd, but medical reasons in Leningrad. I doubt your child is sixty-one with a bad habit of smoking.» He shakes his head. «I asked after the two names you gave. This Zola? He is outside my grade. He would not be here, we don't…» A careful assessment of what to say. «Medical sciences are a matter for the university elsewhere. The town has a different focus. They have to dispatch any serious health issues to a bigger city. Volgograd, mostly. Sometimes Moscow, sometimes Leningrad. Nizhny. This Volga is the only Volga I know anything about.» He pats his trusty car. «Or the river, of course. The intelligence officer wants me in folder hell for even asking, and he spat bullets even suggesting there were clones? From him to you, 'we're a town with one cinema and three level schools for young people, what do we look like?'»

The blond listens to what Vanguard has to say, his eyes never wavering from the man in his overcoat. After all, one wrong twitch is ground for retaliation. His gaze only breaks to glance over his shoulder at Bucky and still only with his peripheral vision, the shield never dropping from its readied state.

"«Then why are you here?» This he asks of Vanguard, turning his focus back again. «Why not Moscow? Does your government not want you within easy reach?»

This guy kept his word. Bucky's too tired to do much of a job of concealing his utter shock. Vanguard didn't fuck him over. He tried, even if he got stonewalled. «Nikolai Sergeievich,» he says, politely, almost gently, once he has enough composure. «Thank you for trying. I don't know much of your history. But….there is more under your city. I know you are a loyal citizen, a son of the Motherland. But think. You know you've seen things that don't belong. Why is your city a closed one, if something sensitive is not being done there? There is no factory. There is no sharashka where the scientists work behind the wire. Stepan is right - you're too much of a power to be kicking your heels in some little city. And I wouldn't be here if I hadn't found information near Voronezh. Volga…..do they not tell the old stories now? Or has workers' solidarity erased all the fairy tales? Volga Svyatoslavich, no one remembers him?»

Vanguard leans against the car for an anemic hint of warmth. He visibly staggers, almost, in a mental fault of names. Not many know one aspect from the other. His collar clings. «He was a good surgeon,» he says, apropos of nothing. Hey, it's a famous enough name in medical circles to cover things up. The urge to say something is bitten back. Whatever rattled nerves exist at the use of his name, well, that's that. «I'm here because we heard of a territorial issue, a threat. We expected someone would try to take advantage of the flooding to sow trouble. You? I did not expect to see you.» Ironic, they never do. Seeing is the whole problem, he's never visible. «I know you wish to know what's in the ZATO. You know too I can't tell you, yes? Not in front of the American. I'm sorry, Mr. Stepan, it's not even permitted on the street. Quiet places are quiet to keep the Cold War from being worse. Some crackpot would be likely to complain that university students are trying to make fans that produce electricity from the wind, and would somehow make that into 'bad Soviets press-ganged into weaponizing sunlight' or something awful.»

He pauses, then fishes out a piece of paper from his pocket, peering at it. It looks like stationery.

Vanguard pauses to check his piece of paper and Steve glances back at Bucky again. He turns in place, showing off the broad width of his shoulders at a three-quarter angle, and whispers very nearly into his friend's ear,

"If he won't talk in front of me, I'll make some space. Is it worth it?" He means the risk of them being separated by more than a dozen feet or so.

«Can you tell me, if Captain Rogers agrees to step out of hearing distance?» He doesn't hold out much hope, does Bucky. Worth asking - Vanguard's not attacking him. «And Zola's an excellent surgeon. He installed this on me,» A wave of the metal hand, ungloved. « But remember who he worked for, and what they did to the Motherland. Times are tense now, but the Captain and I fought as allies when it was needed. I was James Barnes, and he was Captain America on the Western Front. I don't imagine they mention us now, when the history of the Great War is told,» Buck sounds rueful.

What's a little space between friends and an enemy of the known world? Vanguard again hesitates, but the red star of a tool is a red star of the state. He nods very slowly. «So was Sergeievich. His advances on blood pressure and vascularity were fundamental.» So the young man has an education to go with his impressive hat, and probably the hammer easily at hand if he needs it. Very different indeed from other such. He glosses over that Zola fellow with a certain failure to comprehend the name. Not his bailiwick, obviously, the way saying 'Henry Ford' to a cargo cult in New Guinea goes down. Some things are at best merely names. «I know the man on the war. He did not help at Stalingrad but his cinema reels must have made people in the home country feel very safe?» It's not entirely meant as a dig of rudeness. Capitalists like movies, right?

If Steve goes, the answer enough out of the ZATO is simple: «They work on making vehicles. Actually improving engines to use a battery and not gas, you know? Mostly the cars, some small trucks. Sometimes the batteries make fires, so they have to stay away from bigger places. And you know, the Americans…» He shakes his head. «They don't like things like that. We are not welcome to practice our scientific breakthroughs, but you never hear them complain much about Latveria and what their leader does.»

The Captain won't deny that the flickering clicks of the black-and-white captures of his escapades were more than enough to satisfy a public earger to hear of successful exploits beyond the seas. He gives Vanguard one lingering look as he steps back his due distance, still beyond the angle of the lights, and stands at parade-rest.

For all his agreement to be not privy to what Russian words are exchanged, he still watches most attentively for any telling body motions.

Buck shakes his head. So close, and yet so far. «He did a lot more than prance around on film. Believe me, I was there. That stuff they didn't film.» He takes a breath, hesitates. «Forgive me, Nikolai Sergeievich, but did you say Svyatoslavich was a surgeon?» Has he been struggling against his real creator the entire time? «…..what sort of work did he do? And….no offense, but have you seen with your own eyes the work done beneath? Are you absolutely sure it's work done on electric vehicles?»

«No, Nikolai Sergeievich is a surgeon.» Vanguard scratches his head underneath the hat, wincing a little. «He died shortly after the Revolution. But he was a very good at medicine, you know? I think maybe the inspiration for my parents and names. But that's really neither important to anyone except I'm called Vanguard. Please.» It's really that simple, all in all, for him to work around the circle. «Svato… Svyatoslavich? That's someone from Kiev, maybe? I don't really recall from what. And yes, I've seen the batteries. They had a problem with lithium. Given the water, and the chance the river might get close to the factories, I'm good to at least help there. So, yes? You can report back to your people we are cooperating and I have matters from my people that we have it under control, will you, comrade?. The Marshal knows we are out here doing our best. We're authorized."

«Vanguard, then,» Bucky says, still gently. This kid isn't getting it - shiny new hero, not long out of the box. «You're the one person here who's actually tried to help me. But I'm sorry. I can't go until I've seen for myself. Department X has no mercy, and I've got this American here with me. I'll help you capture him, if you help me get in to the city.»

A blink there. «Capture the American?» No looking at Steve, Vanguard clenches his teeth. «No. I won't take him into custody in exchange for getting you down there. He is only in violation of tearing down a fence. Unwise but not undeserving. If I did… It's dishonourable to the Soviet Union.» His lips compress for just a moment. Grief blazes over his eyes, so fast.

"Soldat, sputnik." Two words crash into the abyss.

"Take him," English is very much slanted with a European flavour, German schooling maybe. He calls out to Steve while backing up. "I can give you not so long. Go. Take him and go!"

Whatever the other man has said, it apparently has the force to knock Bucky flat on his ass. Steve's mouth drops open as he watches one of the strongest people he knows drop like a marionette cut of its strings, out of the blue, with enough slack to truly point to unconsciousness.

It's not but a quick dash over to his friend and he doesn't immediately kneel. Instead, that shield comes up as he stands overtop the assassin, possessive as a dog over a bone and bearing teeth to boot.

"Whatever you did, undo it," he grates out, eyes blazing.

Bucky just collapses, eyes rolling up under his lids. His knees buckle and he topples forward, ending up face down in the snow. Well, at least that didn't happen in the middle of a fight.

The Soviet operative is on the ground in the snow, and the other man hasn't moved from where he stood next to the Volga this whole time. Vanguard — Nikolai — has a grim, viscerally miserable expression that he makes little effort to hide. Someone looks like he had to drown his favourite pet in advance of a siege.

"This man," Vanguard is pretty quick when it comes to translation for all the minor syntax errors. Don't try slang, he'll be toast. "He wanted for me to take you into Soviet jail, for my help. It is betrayal. I do not do those things. I give you this little time." He speaks fast, points made, keenly aware of seconds ticking. "I do not know it is able to be undone but it does not last. You take him and go. Any direction on the road or the river, not north. Go." Stress litters every syllable, his back rigid, posture straight. Not willing to back away, never to run, and certainly not to bite first. "For love of your people, do not ask me to hurt you. Take home, be a good man to your people. Please."

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