What the Army Needs
"I need YOU for the U.S. Army!" a man dressed up as Uncle Sam shouts at us.
I walk past to a peddler. There's a barrel of fruit. Mmm. I sneak behind him and grab an apple. I run away. The man won't catch me. Nobody can. Not even Mistress Elas. There's nobody to stop me from eating the apple in a few seconds. I'm that hungry. Ever since I left I've been hungry. It's only been a few weeks. You get used to it. Other kids are never hungry. Rich kids. Lucky ducks.
Thunder. That's just swell. I run to an alley. It has an unused doorstep. It doesn't really work, but it's better than nothing. I have to wait out the storm. Cripes, it's cold. I try to stay warm with a ripped towel. Eventually I fall asleep. When I wake up there's no rain, but my fingertips hurt. How strange. Maybe…maybe I have a disease. How will I see a doctor? Most are on the front lines. Those that are still here only tend to city slickers or families with really sick children. Not orphans.
At the orphanage they never told me anything about how I got there. They were too worried about Hitler. Everybody is, I suppose. I actually had to read a file about me. Sneaking in was easy. Sneaking it out was hard. The orphanage accepts many young boys and girls a month. I wasn't important enough for them to notice me. I'm not smart, or athletic, or talented in any way. The only thing I was in the groove with was causing trouble. Often times I would frolic into a room, trip over something, and crash to the floor. In fact that's how I left. The commotion was too much, so I threw a stool at Mistress Elas and ran away. The thing is, there were no stools in the room. That made them angry.
For about a month now I've been living on the streets. No hope of ever being adopted. All the men are away; all the women are at work. All the kids are worried about their parents. Looks like I'll raise myself, maybe join the army. At least that would be interesting. Better than listening to fake Uncle Sam's and attending sermons. If there is a God out there, please help me. I'm hardly what you could call religious, but there's nothing else to do. Just that and designing things. And even then there's still plenty of time spent watching passerby. The one thing I ask for, God, is to make myself make a difference. Anything at all, so long as I leave this world with my name still spoken of past the funeral. Please.
The benches are all wet. I find one in the sun and lay down. My fingers still hurt. Not to mention my mind is buzzing with things I shouldn't know. Like why that boy hit his friend. Creepy. My stomach is growling again. Where's the nearest bakery? Oh yes, it's on 25 Street. I run to Smith's Baked Goods and grab a loaf of bread. Nobody notices until I trip over a cat. It hisses, I make a run for it. To help me a sparkly red dog chases the worker away. While I run I accidently bump into someone. "Pardon me, sir," I say over my shoulder, out of breath. I turn to run again, but the man holds his arm out. I can't worm out. The worker catches up.
"Thief!" she shouts.
I'm about to kick my way out when the blue-eyed, blonde-haired gentleman I bumped into speaks. "It's alright. I'll pay for it. Here you go." He hands the woman a coin.
Fully satisfied, the worker walks back to the bakery. "Gee, thanks, mister. I thought I was a goner."
"Don't worry about it. What's your name, if I may?"
Hmm. Mistress Elas did warn us about strangers. "Nicolette."
He looks like he understands why I only revealed my first name. "That was quite a spectacle back there."
"You mean with the chase?"
"Indeed. That was particularly bold. Whatever happened to the dog?"
"I don't know. It came to help, then went away. What's your name?"
"Steve Rodgers." He holds out his hand for a shake.
Why does that name ring a bell? I shake his hand and run to the nearest cluster of garbage cans. I practically inhale the bread. Then I begin drawing in some dust. Where have I heard that name before? Funny how it escapes me now. Absentmindedly (learned that word from church) I draw the one man in this war that will always be remembered. Without the A you can't tell it's him. Still. Anything to pass the time.
The rest of the week I try to find a job. Something about that man makes me want to do something with my life. Not many places will accept an eight-year-old. Even being a shoeshine girl would be fine with me. As long as it's a job that earns me some lettuce. On Sunday after church I sit in the cemetery where it's quiet. Perfect for thinking. When I leave I walk right into someone. "Pardon me," I say. It feels natural. Creepy.
"Why, hello, Miss Nicolette! Fancy meeting you here!"
Why does he-ooh. He's the man I met last week. The one that showed interest in the red dog. "Fancy that," I say slowly. Is he following me?
"Don't worry, this is merely coincidence," he laughs. Can he read minds too?
"Actually, Miss Nicolette, I would like to speak with you about a job opportunity."
I sit on the bench he leads me to. "What kind of opportunity?"
"A military position."
"But-but why would the army want an eight girl?"
"Lately we've been putting out advertisements for gifted people. That display last week with the dog convinced me you're gaining abilities. We need all the help we can get."
The offer is tempting. Lately I've discovered I can faintly make out people's reasons behind their actions, and this man seems genuine. Nothing to hide. And I have nothing better to do. "Alright. I will," I finally say. What do I have to lose?
"Great! We can leave now, if that's what you wish."
"Sure." I let Rodgers lead me through the streets to the outskirts of Brooklyn. Now that I'm hopefully on my way to a better life, I notice just how bad off some of the children really are. Dressed in ripped clothing, so thin you can see their ribs. Is that how I look? Probably. I haven't looked in a mirror since I left Mistress Elas. Right when I begin to think we'll never get there, Rodgers leads me to a black automobile. This is the first one I've ever been in. It's kind of cozy. He climbs up front and tells the driver where to take us. This is Dillinger! If I had any friends to grandstand to I would. The same thought comes when we reach the place. It's an airport. Sometime later we board a plane bound for Italy. I fall asleep in my seat. Some of the other soldiers laugh. Whatever they say this is much nicer than cold steps.
I wake up to the plane landing. Italian countryside leads to a fence. It's an army base. Men walk around, talking and drinking probably coffee. When we go in more men train. One woman barks orders at them. Rodgers' eyes linger on her. Maybe they're a couple.
Tents filled with weapons are everywhere. A small airfield with a few airplanes is tucked away in a corner. In the center two men study a map. The dark-haired one I know from the newspapers. He's Howard Stark. The best weapons person here. The other looks familiar. I don't care. I'm probably the youngest person to ever step foot here! This is so neat! But how will I be of use? There's a reason why children, or girls for that matter, aren't allowed to sign up. Too much of a risk.
"Colonel Phillips, sir!"
I guess I was too busy staring to realize Rodgers grabbed my arm. Now we're in a tent with an older man. Looks harmless, able to kill you with a fork.
This "Colonel Phillips" looks up, scowling. "What do you want, Rodgers? Can't you tell I'm busy here?"
"Colonel, I found another possible agent. She shows signs of power and intelligence."
I snap to attention. Phillips inspects me. His face stays serious. "What's your name?"
Might as well reveal it. "Nicolette Storm."
He lets out a low whistle and focuses on Rodgers. "You know who this is. Remember the papers? Strange events occurring at Balan's Orphanage, all leading back to this girl. Not long after she runs away. The events stop. Everywhere this girl goes, events follow. I know I said we needed soldiers. But good soldiers, like Jim requested. Not crackpot kids from supernatural orphanages."
I don't think he knows I can hear him. Otherwise he wouldn't be talking like I'm not here. It would be rude to point that out though. He seems to be very high ranked.
Rodgers responds, "Of course I remember the papers. But we need people like her. You'll give her a chance, won't you?"
Phillips sighs, then stares at me. "One chance. That's all I'm giving you. First accident, you're out. Understand?"
"Yes sir!" I say with the most serious face I can muster.
"Alright, soldier. Get out of my sight before I change my mind."
I back up so quickly I almost knock over a pole. Luckily only Rodgers saw. "Sorry," I mouth. He grins. This guy seems nice enough. And down-to-earth, considering he's the world's only Super Soldier. Only a little fuddy-duddy. I walk outside into the bright sunshine. I squint. Now agents walk around toting guns. They must be preparing for battle. The only other man I recognize comes towards the tent. He pauses to stare at me. "What're you looking at?" I ask.
"Nothing. Just surprised to see a kid here, that's all. I'm Bucky Barnes, by the way."
"Nicolette Storm." When he hears my name an unusual look crosses his face. "Is there something wrong?"
"Not at all. You just look like someone I know."
"Oh." Maybe I imagined the look. So much is happening right now I wouldn't put it past me. At least I didn't trip over anything yet. Those guns look expensive. This leads to the whole operation. Especially all the talk about super-powered agents. They brought me in because of all the things caused by me. Those things might be risky. Backfiring at any moment. A huge risk indeed. Especially with my clumsiness. Any time now I might break something. And the minute I do, Phillips will make me leave. Maybe send me back to the orphanage. That can't happen! This is the first good thing in my life!
Another soldier interrupts my internal tantrum. "You there! Stop wandering and get where you need to go!" it's the woman I saw training people earlier. She has red hair cut in a bob and bright blue eyes.
"I'm sorry. I'm new and have yet to be told what to do."
"If that's the case, then come with me." On our way to a small stage she introduces herself. "My name is Agent Carter and I will be training you during your stay. And you are?"
For the third time in twenty minutes, I introduce myself. "Nicolette Storm." My voice sounds odd compared to her clipped British one. No Italian in it. I take a seat on one of the hundreds of folding chairs. Looks like there might have been a concert here. I wait and try not to break anything. After a while a man on crutches hobbles over. Another introduction. This time I start it. "Hello, my name is Nicolette. What are you doing here?"
"James, at your service. Agent Carter told me I should teach you until the leg heals up. Figured it might be interesting."
He speaks with a southern accent. The look of disapproval goes away. This brings me back to girls staying out of battle. "Alright."
"Let's get started, shall we? What do you know so far about the basics?"
"Well…uh…I can write my name." With the locket, I think, touching the heart shaped locket hanging from my neck. It's the only thing I have from Mama and Papa. The only thing in it is a tiny picture of a boy and a girl.
"My oh my. We have a lot of work to do. What to start with. How about writing your full name?"
In the dirt I scribble Nicolette Janice Storm. James squints at it. Okay, maybe my writing isn't the neatest. Next he has me spell. Then read. For the rest of the day James teaches me. At sundown they call us for supper. I sit in a corner, going back up often for more. Sometime later it's off to bed. The next few weeks James teaches me everything he knows. He also explains military things. Once his leg heals James leaves. My education doesn't end there. Agent Carter makes me learn hand-to-hand combat, how to use guns and other weapons, and the act of lying. Apparently a very useful tool. Eventually I go from getting knocked back by a pistol to firing a sharpshooter with ease. All the while Mr. Stark takes my measurements to make me a uniform. By the time it's done I'm able to fight without constantly getting beat down. Scary thing is, it's all natural. Agent Carter says that's good. I'm not sure.
Fighting gets easier as time goes on. On the one month anniversary of my arrival in Italy Mr. Stark orders me to go down to the main weapons cache. "I have a little surprise for you," he explains. "Your costume is finished. You haven't broken anything in a week either, which is a big accomplishment." He grins.
I blush. In the beginning they realized clumsy people shouldn't have guns. Every time I threw a punch or fired a bullet I broke something. Thank goodness Phillips never found out. Otherwise I would have left weeks ago. The whole time Phillips has been looking for an excuse to send me away. He hates me.
I grab the bundle of fabric and step into a deserted hallway to change. I leave my dress on the floor. It feels flexible. Much easier to run in than a dress. Easy to put on. Durable. Able to withstand battle and my failures. I step in and twirl. Stark holds up a mirror. Pouches go down the side for rations or ammunition. Holsters on the legs hold pistols, my best scores being for them. The suit itself is blue. White gloves and boots go up to my elbows and knees. They match the pouches. The bodysuit matches my eyes. A blue cowl covers my upper face. My red hair spills out. Very patriotic.
"You look like a flag," Stark says in his charming voice. Over my laughs, "It's made of carbon polymer fibers to protect you from bullets. Not like you're going to get hit, what with your powers and all. All vital body parts are extra protected. Those holsters will hold the average pistol. Not like you'll need them, either. The chest and head fibers are laced with adamantium, the closest thing we got to vibranium. Any questions?"
Really, I did not understand a word of what he just said. But instead, "No sir."
"Good. We'll meet again next mission."
With that, I leave. My yellow dress tucked under an arm, I head back to my bunker. They assigned me to the 107. Rodgers, I should probably now call him Steve, made sure I was placed here. He's overjoyed that someone like him (a human, not an android) made it past Phillips. Must be hard, being the world's only mutant test subject. Permanently alone. Well, there's always his sidekick, Bucky. Good thing he's gone. Lately Bucky has been treating me strangely. I have no explanation for it. He's off invading some HYDRA base. Better them than me. I'll probably be dead with the day. Only lasting because of my powers. Even then… Not a pretty picture.
Most of the beds in the bunker are empty, cold from lack of warm bodies. The past week or so many of the soldiers have left for battle. There's a small trickle, but not nearly enough to fill this place. I heard they even sent Namor the Sub-Mariner out. How in the world do they have contact with Namor? Certainly classified.
Click! The door opens. Clack! The door closes. Rodgers walks in. "Hello, Nikki," he greets me with his chosen nickname for me.
He gazes at me lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. "They're going to send us out tomorrow."
I switch from the ceiling to him. "Who is 'us?'"
"Bucky, you, and I. Jim might if he can."
"And we're going where?"
"A HYDRA outlet up north. Johan Schmidt is rumored to visit tomorrow. We'll be paying him a little visit."
"The Red Skull."
"Oh." Something to look forward to. Besides the abuse of aching muscles. Facing off against the Red Skull. Swell.
Rodgers adds in a whisper, "We'll be evaluating you to see if you're worthy to join the Invaders."
The Invaders? Oh my gosh! I practically worship the Invaders! They are the best superhero team the world will ever know. Members include Captain America, Bucky, the Human Torch, Namor, Spitfire, the Whizzer, and Miss America. Though Miss America died a while ago and the Whizzer is in no shape to fight. That leaves five. Namor doesn't always participate. That leaves four. Since I have these supernatural abilities, does that mean I'll join? Take the place and round out the numbers? Joining their ranks would guarantee a place in history books forever. But am I ready?
"Don't worry about it. Just do your best and try to stay away from the Red Skull. I would hate to see who would win."
I lie back down and stare at the ceiling. So many thoughts to sift through. Instead of dealing with them I go to sleep. Before I'm fully rested Rodgers wakes me and hands me a piece of toast. Then he orders me to get into costume. Maybe when we return I can add my own designs to it. It's too…formal. Not something a child would wear. Rodgers ushers me to a plane; Bucky and Jim are already in it. Mr. Stark and Agent Carter are up front. Phillips must be leading some other battle. Agent Carter briefs us as we fly north. It doesn't take long, so we spend most of the trip in silence. Snow floats down. Long after the briefing, a castle comes into view. Snowflakes turn into ice pellets. Wind makes them batter the plane.
Agent Carter hands me a parachute. I try to protest, but she counters with, "Until you're more confident with your abilities you will use things like parachutes and guns. We would rather you not die before your first mission."
That makes sense. If I were to be taken out today, they would lose one of their most powerful assets. One of their heavy-hitters. Not to mention Rodgers would only have Bucky. I follow the others to the hatch. Even Jim and Toro use parachutes, though they can fly. We float down. Ice stings my face. Some gets stuck in my hair. I land in a tree. Quickly I yank off the parachute and climb down. I accidently land on Toro. "Sorry," I whisper.
"It's okay," he whispers back.
Together we sneak past guards to make it inside. Since we are the youngest our jobs are simple: distract the guards and track Arnim Zola. The second one will probably take a while. Meanwhile the Captain, Bucky, and the Human Torch will search for the Red Skull. His reputation is fierce, so of course we can't go anywhere near him.
A guard shouts in recognition. Before he can call for assistance Toro sends a blast of fire at him. It burns his head in a way that makes him fall unconscious. "Nice work," I comment.
"Thank you," he jokes with a mock bow.
We keep moving forwards. Toro flies ahead on aerial recon. I can tell he's extremely eager to attack. I'm not entirely sure why. Some more guards run out, only to be met by bullets. Once they're down I sneak inside the building. More guards are there for me to shoot. All but one is taken down by my first wave. The one who dodged runs up and punches me in the face. Too late I throw up a shield. That's going to leave a mark. In retaliation I kick his knee, then his hip. He goes down. I move on. Guard tries to shoot me, I return the favor. By the time I meet up with Toro I'm sore and out of breath. This is much harder than the training exercises back home. Quoting Rodgers: "There's nothing better than first-hand experience."
Sounds of a rocket interrupt the quiet. I glance at Toro. This can't be good. We cautiously go in the direction Rodgers told us not to. The sounds of the rocket grow louder.
"Whatever could it be?" Toro asks.
"I have no idea." Before all the words leave my mouth Rodgers, Jim, and Bucky come running down the hall. "What's going on?" I shout to their backs.
"Run! The place's gonna blow!" responds Jim.
They're ahead before I can make a move. Toro gives me a push. That's enough to get me moving. I bolt out. Explosions rock the building. Fire creeps up on us. Already out of breath and slowing down, I completely stop when the smoke catches up. I have two options. Stop and die, or do the thing everyone tells me not to. I choose option two. What do I do? I use my abilities. To give my legs a break I sit on a floating chair. It carries me to the group.
Bucky looks back over his shoulder. "Nicolette?" He helps me off the ground. Then he jogs back to his place.
Hardly ten seconds after we leave the boundaries the whole place blows. Heat slaps out backs. The force makes me stumble. Toro does too. "Was that supposed to happen?" I ask hoarsely.
"No," Rodgers answers, glancing at us. "The Skull got away as well."
"At least the base was destroyed," Jim says in that robotic way of his.
"At least," inputs Bucky. His eyes keep flitting in my direction.
There's nothing left to do, so we call in transport. It gets here in minutes. On the way back Rodgers gives Agent Carter the situation. She tells us how everything connects. At least tonight will be a time of rest. Rodgers clears his throat while having an eye conversation with Agent Carter. He nods at her and directs his words at me.
"Nicolette, we have news for you."
This can only mean one thing!
"Your performance today indicates that from just a few weeks of instruction, you have learned much."
He's really going to do it!
"As of May 12, 1942, you, Nicolette Storm, are hereby a member of the Invaders."