A bomb drops behind him. He ducks into a one-foot puddle with other soldiers, sucking mud like anyone. The force of the explosion lifts them, but he manages to huddle behind his shield as he’s thrown through the air, shrapnel everywhere. More good men, on both sides, die - farmers and boilermakers, fathers and sons back home, working class and country boys. The screaming is always there. The smell of burning flesh, shit, rats and fear.
So many of the men smoke simply because it masks the smell of death.
He makes it back to a captured German bunker, collapsing against its concrete wall next to an Allied soldier manning the machinegun.
“Air fire. Couldn’t break through,” he puffs. “Give me a few minutes, I’ll try again.”
The machinegun operator turns.
“Interesting,” he ponders. “You’re comfortable here. Feel safe in war, under fire.”
“Doc?” Captain America says.
“Yet, still one of the ground troupes. The common men.”
Dr Strange, still dressed in gunner’s gear, holds his hand out. Bullets stop, mid flight.
Black Bolt walks through the shallow concrete door.
“What’s he doing here?!” Captain America shouts. “What happened to the battle?”
“I was hoping Black Bolt might mediate.”
“Mediate what?” Captain America says, back to wall, glancing, cautiously out the bunker’s window, to look at the frozen battlefield. Everything, everybody, has frost and ice on it, even the flames.
“Mediate us, in dreams,” Strange says.
Captain America stands upright, examining the bullets frozen mid-shot between them.
“What are you doing in my mind, Doctor?” he asks.
“You know…” Captain America says, eyeing him, suspiciously.
“That you plan to… confront… me? It doesn’t matter.”
“You’re too powerful. This is proof.”
“I do not crave power. Can you not have faith in me, Captain?”
“Faith, like in God. The way you speak worries me. And the others.”
“I had faith in Jean Grey. I had faith in the Sentry. I had unshakeable faith in Wanda. I had faith in Pym working on his own, without the proper safety measures. In the Hulk. Too many had faith in Osborne.”
“Captain, I fight many good causes, in many dimensions. I cannot stop.”
“Live in one of them, then.”
“The Earth, this reality, is my centre. I cannot.”
“Then drop your Spheres of Protection.”
“Again, I cannot.”
“WHY?” Captain America shouts.
Black Bolt steps forward, putting a gentle hand on his chest.
“Captain…” Strange says. “I have enemies, many your mind could not even conceive. They crave my death, my power, revenge, glory, the Earth. They would attack through my imagination, sleep, friends, magics. Attach themselves like a virus to my spells, ride microscopic cold flames along the thinnest light beams, into my eye, into my mind. Assassinate me with a gun, try, simply, to overpower me in my distracted moments, like cavemen.”
“All that power to be stolen. That’s my point, not yours.”
“Preparation is the first building block of my trade. The spheres are unbreakable, all that keep me alive. Do not challenge them.”
“See!” Captain America throws his hands in the air. “A warning!”
Suddenly, Dr Strange steps back into a defensive magical stance, arms raised, one above his head, spells brimming on his fingertips.
Black Bold stands between them.
“If this is only a dream, what are you so scared of, Doctor?” Captain America says. “And why can’t Black Bolt speak? I would have thought he wouldn’t shut up in here.”
“Black Bold must have discipline, even in his imagination, Captain. To wish, to dream, might be to do. And I am defensive, yes, because this is your dream, not mine. Here…” he insists, pointing a tinny lamp above their heads, hanging from the narrow bunker ceiling, towards Rogers. “Take note of your allies.”
Captain America turns. Beside and behind him, backing him up, in shadows, glaring at Strange, are Namor, Wolverine, Thor, but also the Red Skull, Baron Blood, Madam Hydra and various other villains.
“Whatever will hurt me, Captain?” asks Strange.
“Whatever will win, Doctor. I have the world to think of. Maybe reality.”
“And you would use what scares you the most? Interesting. Very Hiroshima.” Strange says. “Dreams.”
“So you won’t go?”
“I cannot. Even if I wanted,” Strange says. His tone darkens. “You, Richards, Stark, your Avengers, you all amaze me. Lording over humanity, above it’s laws, yet so like what you despise. The mob that is scared of whatever they cannot control.”
“Any your Defenders are different, how?”
“They have… seen more.”
“Namor, Surfer, the Hulk? More death. Killed more. All of them.”
“Maybe that’s why they don’t judge.”
“So, it’s a fight?”
“A fight? Oh no, Captain,” Strange says, levitating, Black Bolt again putting his hand on Captain America’s chest. “I beg of you to let me be. My spheres have their own minds. And have pledged loyalty. If you provoke them, things will be quite out of my hands. Like war…”
Strange and Bolt are gone, leaving only Captain America in the bunker.
He turns. Something’s not right. He goes outside, startled to see Wolverine, 15ft tall. Suddenly, Captain America is Steve Rogers again, before the serum, frail, a child in comparison, nervously holding up his shield. He glances over his shoulder. There is a cliff behind him, on the edge of his heals, leading to oblivion.
Wolverine raises his claws.
Steve Rogers bolts upright in his bed, in the dark, sweating, eyes full of fear.
“Mhhw…?” mumbles the sleeping woman beside him.
“A dream,” he says, sitting, in the dark. He looks out the window, at the night.