The boy was much too young to make sense of politics, but parades? Parades he understood just fine. Today, Al-Doha held the largest parade that the boy had ever seen! The streets were lined from end to end with spectators, many of whom were waving flags as the Quraci national anthem played over unseen loudspeakers. A convoy of vehicles drove by: first the jeeps, then the humvees, next the tanks. (The boy liked the tanks the most.) Then, at last, came a simple truck; the crowd cheered the loudest as this last one approached. The boy had to balance on the tips of his toes to see the man standing in the back of the truck, his pristine white uniform reflecting the late morning sun as he waved to the crowd.
The boy's brother was positively shaking with excitement. "There he is! Do you see him?" Karim was a few years older and thus more aware of the day's significance. He could remember the disgraced President Marlo, a man who no one seemed to like and yet who won re-election after re-election all the same. He had heard the rumblings at school of a young reformer by the name of Kattuah who would restore Qurac's lost pride. Kattuah awakened something in the Quraci people: hope. And when the night of the election came, it had been Karim who stayed up with their parents to watch as the final votes were tallied. A victory for Kattuah; a victory for Qurac.
The boy knew nothing of this, but he certainly thought that President Kattuah looked impressive enough. With his shiny, white uniform; his thick, black hair; and his large, square mustache, he looked like every schoolboy's vision of a strongman, a conquering hero come home at last. Despite his ignorance of the day's importance, the boy found himself swept up in the contagious enthusiasm all the same. He tugged on Karim's arm and convinced his brother to raise him up on his shoulders to get a better view. No sooner had he climbed up than the President's motorcade passed by. Although Karim would later deny it, the boy swore that the President had smiled directly at him.
* * *
Before, the news had been something to avoid. Yet ever since President Kattuah's induction, the boy's parents had taken to leaving the television on during supper time. The reports made little sense to him, but the boy could tell that everyone was very excited about the direction of the country. Karim had tried to explain it once. "Kattuah is not a lapdog like that coward Marlo," he said, "He will stand for Qurac." The boy didn't know what 'standing for Qurac' meant, but it sounded very important and like a very good thing to do.
Tonight, the President stood at a podium and addressed the world at large. Flanked by his generals, he spoke of a "discovery" that would forever change Qurac. He said that Qurac was done being pushed around, and that from this day on, Qurac would put itself first. The boy didn't realize that Qurac hadn't been put first, so it made him glad to hear that the President was apparently handling it. His excitement paled in comparison to his parents', however; at the dinner table, they held each other and laughed... though the boy could not remember hearing a joke.
* * *
Karim had not unclenched his fists in hours. The boy stood by his brother on the street, the same street which only months ago hosted a grand parade. Now, the humvees driving down the road were not Quraci; they bore instead a different flag... one with stars and stripes, one that even the boy recognized. (For who in Qurac had never seen it before? Indeed, who in the world?) It was a different sort of parade, the boy realized with childlike acuity. Only now, the men with guns were not there for show. Indeed, the boy's parents had spoken of fighting in the nearby hills. In the quiet of night, the sounds of gunfire had echoed across the city.
"They have no right," Karim spat under his breath. The boy half worried that his brother might try to fight one of the foreign soldiers. He certainly had the look in his eyes. Instead, he only repeated, "They have no right."
To the boy, the answer seemed clear. "Then, why doesn't the President stop them?" he asked with naive sincerity.
"No one stops them," Karim answered through his bile. "They take what they want."
The boy thought on this. "Perhaps someone should take it back," he offered.
* * *
There was blood in the water, and the sharks came. Al-Doha had become a warzone. Every week, a new faction moved in, seeking what had already been taken; the factions fought, and there were bodies in the street. Before long, the boy's parents were among their number. They had no one but each other now. Karim kept them safe as well as he could, stealing food and finding shelter from the bombs and the fighting. Each night, the boy wept until sleep took him. What he didn't know was that Karim waited until he was asleep to cry, too.
One day, as they made their way across Al-Doha's streets, they saw a crowd gathered at the steps. Atop them, one of the many invaders held a dirty, beaten man by the scruff of the neck. It took the boy some time to realize that the man was none other than President Kattuah; his once-immaculate uniform now ran with spots of brown and black and red. The other man on the steps was shouting something, but it was hard to hear him over the cries of the assembled crowd. The boy didn't wish to watch any longer, but Karim was rooted in place.
With a wave of his hand, the man summoned forward one of his soldiers. The soldier presented a scimitar in an intricate scabbard, a golden tassel hanging from the end of its handle. When the man drew the weapon, its blade shimmered in the afternoon sun. The crowd grew louder, and the boy felt others pushing past him towards the steps. The man raised the sword and brought it down; the boy's view was blocked, but he heard a loud gasp followed by wails and crying. Karim was shaking.
The crowd advanced on the steps, and there was a smattering of gunfire. The boy realized that the armed men atop the steps were firing into the crowd at the advancing mob. Terror washed over him, and the boy had to tug with all his might to get Karim to move. They ran away from the massacre, neither stopping nor slowing, even when the gunfire stopped.
* * *
The boy (who was no longer much of a boy) had not seen Qurac in years. It was no longer safe, Karim had told him, and the boy had agreed. So, they fled. It was an easy enough thing; no one cared about the passage of two young boys in this part of the world. At first, it had been hard learning to live away from home, but the boy knew nothing remained for them in Qurac. Their parents were dead, the great reformer was dead. Qurac offered nothing but misery. Living abroad presented its own challenges, but at least they no longer feared for their lives. They found something approaching peace, if a bitter and angry peace.
They had even joined the army. Not their army, of course, but able-bodied men were welcome most anywhere in the world. The boy appreciated the structure in his life, and Karim... Karim sought vengeance. "The Americans swung that sword," he was fond of saying, "the minute they violated our sovereign borders." The boy did not disagree, but nothing had changed since they were children; no one was strong enough to stand up to the Americans.
Or so they thought.
Some time into their service, the brothers were approached by a man with no name. This man told them of a secret program designed to level the playing field for the rest of the world. He appealed to their thirst for revenge, promising that if they joined, they would never suffer another indignity at the hands of the foreign menace again. It had been an easy sell. Both brothers immediately accepted the recruitment and resigned their official posts.
* * *
The program was even more rigorous than the brothers could have imagined. Although they had once been part of a sizable cohort, the brothers had watched their numbers dwindle until only they two remained. The boy knew that before long, he would be alone. Even now, he could hear Karim's labored breathing, his pained moans in the bunk below his. Karim had once been the strongest man the boy had ever met; yet his body rejected the treatments, like so many others before. Soon, it would collapse in on itself, and the boy would truly be alone.
The boy was called forth for another treatment. So far, he had shown none of the symptoms of Karim nor the countless other failures. In some ways, the boy almost wished the treatment would kill him; it might spare him another round. As he was strapped into machine, the boy felt his pulse quicken in anticipation of what was to come. The assistant came and stuck the dowel rod in the boy's mouth. His teeth sunk effortlessly into the divots left there from all the sessions that had come before. A cold sweat broke out as the doctor approached, looking placid as ever.
"Remember, my son, change is only ever achieved through pain," the doctor spoke almost kindly.
The treatment began, and the boy's muffled screams filled the facility.
* * *
QUINJET"His name is Abdul al-Rahman,"
LOCAL TIME 1930 (CST)
Fury reported as he handed Captain Rogers the relevant file. He continued, "He's a Quraci national, been living the past fifteen years or so abroad. Bounced around a lot during his exile. Served everywhere from Iran to Bialya with his brother, Karim. That's how he ended up on our radar."
He paused a moment to let Rogers flip through al-Rahman's service record. "A few years back, they dropped off the grid. We thought they were dead. At least, until Abdul showed up again at the head of a small army.""Al-Muhararin,"
Rogers read as he landed on the relevant page. He looked up, translating, "The Liberators?"
The Director nodded. "They're a group of Quraci expats seeking to reclaim the homeland. See, Qurac's had a rough quarter-century. In that time, they've been occupied by no less than six hostile foreign groups; most recently, the Taliban,"
he explained."You counting us among that number?"
Rogers asked, a barb on his tongue.
Fury declined to answer. Instead, he said, "Now, we don't know what happened to the brother, but when Abdul re-emerged, he came back... changed."
That made Rogers look up from the dossier. "Changed?"
he repeated. "Changed how?""Changed like you changed,"
Fury told him. Seeing the incredulity in Cap's eyes, the Director said, "I know. I wouldn't have believed it myself, either; but we had a man on the inside, and he confirmed that al-Rahman is a Super-Soldier."
He sighed and sat back in his seat. "Somehow, somebody succeeded where countless others have failed. By all reports, he's every bit as fast and strong as you were in your prime.""But who?""We don't know,"
the Director admitted, a phrase he wasn't accustomed to saying. "Just as we don't know who's bankrolling this little operation. But believe me: we're going to find out."
He held out a hand to accept the file back from Captain Rogers. "First, we'll have to introduce you to your team."
Rogers raised an eyebrow. "My team?""Yeah,"
Fury answered. "What do you think, Cap? You still play well with others?"