Author's note: I've been trying to think about the whole brainwashing/programming process that turned Bucky Barnes into the Winter Soldier. I did a bit of research on the brainwashing aspect, and The Asset gave a start to that. The Next Stage sped things up, as the forced amnesia left the Asset in a state of complete loss of self, that they could then rebuild to their liking. But what about those words? How does that work? I thought hypnosis, but that seemed too easy. And easily broken. And, I really hate research. But then a re-watch of the Agent Carter TV series gave me an idea...
Audio copy: You can listen to this story on my podcast: There Are Three of Me. It is read in Ep64 S4E11. You can find There Are Three of Me on Spotify, Google Podcasts, and .
Marvel Cinematic Universe
His Greatest Achievement
by Gabrielle Lawson
"This will be your greatest work, Herr Doctor!" Zola assured him.
"It—It has been many years," Fennhoff stuttered. He still rubbed his face where the contraption had caused permanent bruises. "I haven't spoken in so long. And my illness. It—It may not work." Zola had managed to get him released on humanitarian grounds due to his diagnosis of brain cancer three months earlier. He was supposed to be quietly living out his final days at home in Russia. Not in a Hydra base in Siberia. Zola had promised him a peaceful death before his mind deteriorated and one last and lasting achievement on which to go out.
"We've made much progress already," Zola said as they walked through the facility. "Our Winter Soldier is strong and skilled. He has no idea of his real past. He doesn't even know he's American. I was able to speed this process by removing his memories so we could rebuild his mind in a way we preferred."
They stopped in front of a large, bulky chamber. The frosty window near the top showed the Asset as if he were sleeping. "No memories? My work requires memories. The subject needs to have a place of happiness to draw upon or a desire unfulfilled." He leaned forward to peer more closely at the man in the window. "If he is as you say, why do you need me?"
Zola sighed. "My initial treatments worked too well. He heals very quickly. His brain begins to heal the damage of the wiping process, and then he begins to remember, forcing us to wipe him clean yet again. And, at times, when he trains, he shows a distaste or distress in what we have him do. And after each wipe, we must train him again, at least abbreviated courses to unlock his muscle memory." Zola's hand on his arm steered Fennhoff away from the chamber. "To be the most effective, he needs to be totally under our control, with no memory, no remorse, no mercy. He must remember his training, focus only on the mission without distraction, and return, of course. We have made him an impressive soldier. We need you to program him to be the perfect soldier, the perfect assassin."
Fennhoff thought for a moment. Absent memories or goals, he would need to observe this soldier for a while to find his way in. "I'll need to spend time with him, to see what he has that I can work with. Where did you find him?"
"I had him once before, but my work was interrupted by Captain America. Then he fell right into our arms again. The rest of the world believes he died in that fall. He no longer exists."
Fennhoff stood back and watched as the soldier was brought in. Coming straight from cryostasis had left him temporarily weak. He couldn't even stand. Fennhoff watched him closely as he was strapped into the chair. He was a big man, broad chested and seemingly all muscle. Except, of course, for the bright titanium of his cybernetic left arm.
He took the mouthpiece without fuss, but Fennhoff could see a subtle change in the man's passive expression. A slight dipping of the eyebrows producing a vertical line dividing them just above his nose and a quickening of his breath. The machine apparently had made a lasting impression. He feared it.
The screams were loud and disturbing in that Fennhoff had lived a life of near silence in prison for the last few years. Still, his work was to cement the man into an unemotional fighting machine after this treatment. This treatment purged him of all that came before and any remnants that might have returned as his brain tried to heal the damage the treatment caused.
The expressions of fear were gone once the treatment finished. Instead, his face and body language held only confusion. And Fennhoff realized that confusion must go first. A confused assassin wouldn't frighten anyone.
The Asset was led to an open cell with three barred cages. Three prisoners, all well-built men, watched him enter and looked down toward a single weapon that waited just outside each one's grips. "They have been told a man will kill them if they don't kill him first," Zola whispered into Fennhoff's ear. They were standing just outside the big cell, behind iron bars that would keep them safe.
A Russian officer stood beside the Asset, as they called him. He whispered in the Asset's ear, probably telling him the same thing, that these men will kill him if he doesn't kill them first. The officer walked away, stepping behind another set of bars. The Asset looked back at him with the same confused expression.
The cage doors opened. Each prisoner knelt to pick up a weapon—knife, ax, and pipe. One of them—pipe—still seemed unsure as the Asset was still standing right where the officer had left him. The other two, however, were sufficiently motivated. They ran at the Asset, weapons raised. He easily dodged the ax and blocked the knife. For the next three minutes—with pipe joining in after it appeared his compatriots had the upper hand—the Asset was only using defensive moves.
Only after the pipe hit him on the titanium arm did he begin to offer offense, but it was still in a pattern of block then counter. Fennhoff got a taste of the man's power as he watched each counter-move push back an attacker at least two meters. After another minute of that, the Asset's training began to kick in as he was becoming frustrated at the continued attacks. The knife was deftly removed from one man, who was then sent flying into the now closed doors of the cages. He lay still while ax moved to attack and pipe again grew cautious.
Ax didn't even get one good lick in. He staggered back, dropping the ax from lax fingers as blood started spilling or spurting from five different wounds. He went down and didn't get back up. Pipe then had to face the reality of the situation as the knife embedded itself into his neck. The last man was beginning to rise from where he'd fallen against the doors of the cages. The Asset grabbed him by the throat with his left hand and lifted him at least a meter off the floor. The man's hands went instinctively to his throat, and his legs kicked spasmodically as his body was starved of oxygen. They stopped altogether just after an audible crunch of cartilage and bone. The Asset slammed the prisoner's lifeless body to the floor.
"You see the problem," Zola said. "We need him to be like this right from the beginning."
Fennhoff nodded. The Asset had the potential to outclass every warrior produced by Leviathan. All those girls, trained and indoctrinated to make them blend into their target society and yet be deadly in so many inventive ways, were impressive to behold. But they were susceptible to every human foible. They had to eat and sleep. They could miss their Russian homeland or fall in love with their target, any number of emotional issues.
This man, who no longer existed in the world, was stronger—as strong as Schmidt or Steve Rogers had been. He had no memories to make him nostalgic. If he could rid the man of all emotion but instill in him a drive, a need to fulfill his mission, he wouldn't be able to get in his own way, as those girls sometimes did. As Fennhoff himself had.
The plan was set. Fennhoff became the man's shadow. He ate beside him, slept in the same room, never left his side. He talked to the man and the man had no reason to distrust what he heard. He repeated one word often—out of context—as the man was put through tactical training and taught new forms of martial arts. His empty brain soaked up the knowledge like a sponge.
Two days later, he was wiped again. And he showed subtle signs of fear and screamed out his pain. "Focus," Fennhoff said. "Longing. Focus."
Again, the Asset was led to the large cell with three cages. Three prisoners waited, eyeing the weapons placed in front of their cages. Fennhoff now stood beside the Asset. Unlike the prisoners, the Asset was given no instruction. Fennhoff said only one word, "Longing," then walked to the open door that waited for him.
The cage doors were opened. And thirty seconds later, all three prisoners were dead on the floor. They were given no opportunity to land a single blow. The Asset's access to his training, even the newer forms, was apparent. The first step had been a success.
Over the next two weeks, Fennhoff revealed to the Asset the true mission of Hydra. To rid the world of chaos and strife, resulting ultimately in blessed freedom. The capitalists and democracy advocates had it wrong, but so did the communists and petty despots of the world. Only Hydra could bring that ultimate freedom the world craved.
That indoctrination had started even before his first electroconvulsive procedure. Fennhoff worked to cement it, to use the man's natural instinct to uphold liberty as Captain America's right-hand man as a means to instill loyalty to the enemy he'd fought against during the war. 'Rusted' became the key to unlocking that loyalty after a wipe.
'Seventeen' brought back language training. The Asset was very nearly fluent in Russian and of course, his native language was English. He was now trained in Romanian for the future mission that would be the ultimate test of Fennhoff's work.
'Daybreak' unlocked his knowledge and training of weapons. Even right after a wiping, Fennhoff was able to bring him to full proficiency with knives, pistols, submachine guns and other automatic weapons.
'Furnace.' The Asset, who had not even sat in a vehicle since 1944, was taught to drive jeeps, trucks, and motorcycles, and to fly helicopters and airplanes. The electroconvulsive treatment took those memories away. 'Furnace' brought them back.
The next four were harder. With each word, he hoped to erase more of the humanity from the Asset, to create in him the perfect soldier who would not fear an impending battle or overwhelming odds. Who would kill without distress or remorse. Who would only kill within the parameters of his mission, and who would have singular focus, a drive to complete that mission.
But the last word was the hardest. The nine proceeding words would unlock the memories needed, suppress emotions that were not, and enhance those that were crucial. But the tenth would bring all of that to a ready state, where the Soldier could do nothing but await his mission. The tenth would transform the human Asset into the machine of the perfect Soldat.
The Asset was returned to cryostasis for six months as the mission was planned from timing to drop zone and exfiltration. The target was chosen: a minor activist, someone who objected to communist rule in Romania and had a small following in a village on the outskirts of Bucharest.
Finally, the day arrived. The Asset was removed from cold storage and given the electroconvulsive treatment to ensure he was starting at a baseline. As the machine wound down, Fennhoff began speaking. "Longing. Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One." He looked to Zola, who nodded. "Freight car."
All confusion drained from the Soldat's face. He looked to his handler, a Russian officer. "Good morning, Soldat."
"Ready to comply."
Fennhoff smiled. It had worked. Of course, the test wasn't over. The target was still breathing after all. But his part, to program a human mind into a near-machine state of fully controllable violence, that was complete. Zola had been right; it was his crowning achievement. He could now die with a feeling of having reached greatness.
The Soldat was taken away to perform his mission. Only one handler would actually deploy with him, to observe and report. Fennhoff felt this would be just the first of many assassinations. Hydra could do what Leviathan could not.
He returned to his bed in the medical wing to rest and await the Soldat's return. He awoke when Zola came to invite him to dinner. The table before him was spread with many traditional Russian foods: borscht and blini, schchi and solyanka, beef stroganoff and pelmeni. Even Bird's Milk Cake for dessert. "This is a celebration!" Zola told him. "A celebration of your work. You have used it to relieve the human mind of the pain of the body, to cause pain or to control your enemies. Now, you relieve the human in the Asset of the humanness that keeps him from greatness!"
"We aren't assured of success yet," Fennhoff reminded him.
"We got word thirty minutes ago. The target is dead. The Soldat is on the way back."
"So soon?" Fennhoff tried to judge the time and travel distances.
"According to the observer, he was very efficient." Zola smiled and raised his glass of wine. "You may now leave this world having achieved mastery of not only his mind, but your own."
A weight seemed to lift from Fennhoff's chest. He would not wither away as his mind decayed, leaving him a sniveling dolt, needing someone else to change his diapers. No, he would go out on his own terms at the height of his accomplishments. "I am grateful for this opportunity, Doctor."
"Hydra is grateful, Herr Doctor. You have done us a great service."
When Fennhoff left the table, his stomach was so full he could barely walk. He'd never had such a meal before. He went to rest and digest but was roused from his sleep again by Zola. The Soldat had returned.
They walked to the cryostasis chamber. The Soldat and his handler were already there. "Mission report," the Russian officer ordered.
"Target eliminated. No witnesses." Simple, unemotional, and to the point. Perfect. Hadn't he then relieved the Soldat of pain and distress and left him free to be the assassin Hydra wanted?
"Well done, Soldat," the handler offered. "Enter the chamber." The Soldat stepped in and turned around. The chamber closed and the coolant system hissed on.
"Why continue to keep him on ice?" Fennhoff asked Zola as they walked back to the medical wing. "With him, you can decimate our enemies."
"By using him sparingly, he remains non-existent, a legend or myth, a ghost story," Zola explained. "Hydra is not yet ready to take over. For now, we bide our time, growing and manipulating world events to a point where they will welcome us a refuge from the chaos. That could take many years. By freezing him, we arrest the aging process, keeping him useful for decades. He will likely outlive us both, Herr Doctor."
Fennhoff nodded as he sat on his bed. "I am ready." He picked up the red notebook from his nightstand and handed it to Zola. "My voice is no longer needed. Just the words."
Zola took the notebook then motioned to one of the other doctors. That man pulled an IV stand next to the bed then rolled up Fennhoff's right sleeve. Fennholf turned and laid down.
"Rest well, my friend," Zola said.
Fennhoff felt a slight prick on the inside of his elbow. Then his eyelids grew heavy. He closed his eyes and let the drugs take him into oblivion.
©2021 Gabrielle Lawson