Read The Avengers Assemble Online

Authors: Thomas Macri

Tags: #Marvel Junior Novel (eBook)

The Avengers Assemble (2 page)

Steve ran faster than any human being ever had. He spotted the man he was looking for jumping into a car. Steve ran through traffic, leaped over fences, and rode on the roofs of moving vehicles so he wouldn't lose his target. On the Brooklyn waterfront, he finally caught up with the man he was pursuing. The man jumped into what could only be—as improbable as it was—a submarine. The ship submerged and Steve jumped in after it. In his new body, Steve was a strong swimmer, and he was able to catch up to the ship and wrench its pilot from the cockpit.

When Steve got them both to the dock, the man warned Steve that he and his agency HYDRA could not be stopped. “Cut off one head and two more shall take its place,” the man said. “Hail HYDRA!” Then he bit down on a poison capsule and choked, taking his own life before Steve could question him any further.

When Steve regrouped with Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter, Phillips decided that it was best to keep Steve's new abilities a secret. Despite seeing Steve in action, he did not have faith in the idea that one man could turn the tide of the war. He had wanted an army of Super-Soldiers. One was not enough.

Steve was offered a different kind of military job —performing shows around the country as a character called Captain America. As “the Captain,” Steve wore a bright red, white, and blue costume with a star emblazoned on the chest. His cowl was marked with a bold white
A
, and his feet and hands were covered in swashbuckling boots and gloves, and the costume was made complete by a coat-of-arms-shaped shield adorned with stars and stripes.

No matter what Steve was tasked to do, he did his best, and his stint as Captain America would be no exception. His shows were a huge success. The character began to appear in movie shorts, comic books, and stage shows. And sales of war bonds skyrocketed in every city where Captain America performed. He was doing his part, but he still felt like he should be doing more—especially given his abilities. He finally did get to the European theater, but not the military theater he'd been hoping for.

At a USO performance in Europe, Steve discovered that his best friend, Bucky, was part of a battalion that appeared to have been lost in battle. Steve was not one to disobey orders, but he knew that if Bucky was still alive, Steve might be his only chance. With Agent Carter's and Howard Stark's help, Steve disobeyed orders, boarded one of Stark's jets, and headed for the coordinates where Bucky's division had last been seen.

As they neared enemy territory, blasts sounded around Stark's plane and the craft began to rock. Steve told Stark and Carter to fly to safety—he was going in. He opened the hatch and leaped from the plane, parachuting through enemy fire and finally arriving at a HYDRA munitions factory.

Steve sneaked into the HYDRA plant, winding his way through the labyrinth of tanks and tubes. He took out a HYDRA agent, then another and another, and continued to do so as he made his way through the complex, looking for the POWs from Bucky's division. When he finally found the prisoners, Steve used all his strength to set them free. When the pris-oners asked him his name, he told them he was Captain America.

Together with the freed prisoners, Steve battled his way through the compound. But as he was escaping, large areas of the building began to explode, and it wasn't the doing of any one of Steve's allies. Whoever was in charge must have been causing the building to self-destruct.

Still, Steve was not leaving until he found Bucky. He'd go down with the building if he needed to, but he would not give up. Blasts rocked the complex all around him. Fire and debris rained down as he darted through the corridors. He was sure he wouldn't survive this and was becoming even more certain that he wouldn't locate Bucky. But he was not going to stop trying.

While vaulting over a collapsing beam, Steve saw something through the smoke. It looked like the figure of a man laid out on a stretcher. Steve rushed over. It
was
a man, and as he struggled to help him, he realized the man was Bucky.

Steve helped Bucky to his feet. Bucky was woozy and confused, but able to walk.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve told his friend.

Bucky looked Steve up and down.

“I thought you were smaller,” Bucky responded.

The two quickly raced to escape the building before it was fully destroyed. They sprinted across burning corridors, through smoldering passageways, and over collapsing catwalks. Just when they caught sight of an exit only a few hundred yards away, a tall, imposing man blocked their path. As Steve met his eyes, he recognized him as Johann Schmidt, HYDRA's chief officer.

Schmidt threw a powerful punch at Steve. He hit so hard that his fist made an impression in Steve's shield. The two continued to battle, and when Steve landed a punch on Schmidt's face, the HYDRA officer's skin appeared to slide out of place. It was as though his top layer of skin was nothing more than a loose-fitting mask. Every time Steve landed a punch on Schmidt's face, the skin shifted more, and what looked like raw muscle became more and more visible from underneath his mask.

Schmidt finally tore the layer of false skin from his face and revealed himself as he truly was—a man with a gruesome red skull for a head. The Red Skull turned and walked calmly from the crumbling building. He had a plan for escape. But Bucky and Steve were trapped. A huge explosion separated the two men, but both refused to leave until they knew the other was safe. They managed to reach each other, then looked for others who might be trapped in the building. After a sweep where they managed to rescue all the soldiers who were being held at the compound, they made their way back to base.

When they arrived, Steve found himself in the unfamiliar position of being respected, trusted, and admired. Even Colonel Phillips, who up till this time had been tempering Steve's passion, was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He allowed Steve to assemble a squad to accompany him and set a goal of identifying and destroying all of HYDRA's bases.

In the months that followed, Steve became the man he always knew he could be—leading a troupe of Howling Commandos from theater to theater—Europe to the Pacific, and anywhere the enemy was hiding out in between. One by one, Captain America and his commandos eradicated every HYDRA base on the map. The army outfitted Steve with a unique suit—red, white, and blue, with utility and cargo pockets—and Howard Stark bestowed upon him an unbreakable vibranium shield, painted to match his uniform.

Then one day, on a particularly dangerous mission aboard a train running through the Alps, Steve lost his best friend. Bucky, struggling to hang on to the side of the train as it traveled over a gorge, fell from the side and plummeted into the abyss before Steve's eyes.

“Bucky!” Steve cried. But it was over.

Bucky's death caused Steve to press on even further, taking out HYDRA agents left and right. Steve believed HYDRA's motto was wrong, that there was one HYDRA head that, if cut off, would prove to be the death of the entire organization. He would not relent until he had the opportunity to combat it—the Red Skull.

Steve soon got his chance, when he cornered the Red Skull aboard a hulking HYDRA aircraft. The two men battled bitterly, and then Steve did something that turned the tide of the fight. He tossed his shield, which crashed into a lighted power supply in the center of the ship. The supply crackled with energy. Something was obviously very wrong.

“No! What have you done?” the Red Skull shouted. He picked up something that had fallen from the vessel—it was unlike anything Steve had ever seen. It was a glowing blue cube, and the Red Skull told Steve it contained unimaginable power. Steve wondered if this could be true—and if it were, could this be how the Red Skull was able to be so successful? Was he somehow harnessing the power of this cube?

The Red Skull lifted the cube, and the ship, the cube, and Schmidt himself began to pulse with power—too much power. A beam of blue light shot down from the heavens and absorbed Schmidt. The Red Skull and everything around him was vaporized. Everything but the cube itself, which burned all the way through the aircraft's thick metal and plummeted to the Earth below.

Steve rushed to gain control of the listing aircraft. He noticed on a monitor that the ship was loaded with explosives and locked on a target—New York City. It would be impossible to land, and even more difficult to deactivate the ships' weaponry. There was only one way to handle the situation. Steve radioed Agent Carter at base.

“Steve!” she shouted.

“This thing is moving too fast, and it's heading to New York. I've got to put her in the water. Right now I'm in the middle of nowhere; if I wait any longer, a lot of people are going to die. This is my choice.”

Captain America grabbed hold of the controls. He steeled himself for what he knew would be a rough, and final, landing. He braced himself, fired the thrusters on the Red Skull's aircraft, and plunged the ship—and himself with it—into the frozen recesses of the Arctic Circle.

Not long after Steve's final flight, victory was declared in Europe and shortly thereafter on the Pacific front. The battles were won, the war was over. And so was the age of the Super-Soldier, the age of the Super
Hero
.

Or so it seemed.

CHAPTER ONE

BRUCE BANNER
was about to change the world. For years he'd been studying the effects of gamma radiation. Even in his undergraduate studies, he'd persisted with a clear focus, surpassing many of his professors in their understanding of how the rays might be manipulated.

In his studies, he'd become more and more sure that the radiation, which had always been viewed in terms of their potential for weaponry, could benefit human cell defenses and combat the effects of harmful radioactive waves. In other words, he could use it to make humans immune to many devastating diseases.

Bruce was so sure of his work that he decided to use himself as a test subject. He sat in a specially designed chair that would help his physical body remain stable and still as he received his dose of gamma radiation. The room sat apart from the control area, which was set off by a radiation-resistant glass provided by Stark Industries.

Bruce braced himself in excitement. He smiled and nodded toward the control booth, where colleagues who had also become close friends, including Dr. Betty Ross, were stationed. Also stationed there was General Ross of the US military, who was funding a large portion of the project. Bruce smiled and nodded, indicating that they should begin.

A low hum filled the room, and a green target moved slowly from the far end, over to the chair, gliding over Bruce and finally landing on his forehead, which is where the radiation would first be administered.

A green ray of energy streamed out toward him, and immediately Bruce felt altered. He'd never felt so good, so energized. But this was just the beginning. The dose of radiation was slow and steady, so he had a considerable amount of time left before the process was complete.

As the experiment continued, Bruce's strength grew, but in a way he hadn't anticipated. He glanced over toward the monitor that was tracking his heart rate. It was escalating. At the same time, the power welling up inside of him was reaching a fever pitch. Something was wrong.

Bruce panicked. He began to struggle to release himself from the bonds that tied him to the chair. As his panic increased, he felt power—and anxiety and struggles—well up inside him and then flow straight to his head. His eyes popped open and everything looked clearer than he'd ever seen it before. His anxiety had subsided, but he felt an anger—a
rage
—taking hold. Something else was in control now—and it was inside of him.

His hands and arms began to pulse grotesquely as bone and muscle bubbled and morphed into something purely inhuman. Green waves undulated over his skin, and as his muscles swelled. The hue deepened, leaving his flesh a bright green. His body expanded to a point where his limbs could not be contained and popped right out of the restraints that were binding him.

He leaped up, now fully transformed into a green goliath. He stood over eight feet tall, and the width of his frame had more than doubled. He breathed heavily, hunched over, staring at the scientists and military personnel before him, no longer recognizing them as friends, colleagues, and supporters.

They looked on, too, paralyzed in sheer terror as they gazed at what Bruce had become—an incredible Hulk.

“My word…” General Ross uttered.

At that moment, the Hulk leaped through Stark's shatterproof glass window and crashed right through it. The gathered committee tried to flee, but nothing or no one was as quick as the Hulk, who tossed aside huge machines, tore through steel walls, and effortlessly swatted people aside.

The Hulk balled his fists and roared. He braced himself and aimed his head straight for a wall. Then he sprung up, held his forearm over his face, and crashed through metal, brick, and mortar to the outside world, where he could be free from these people who he could only identify as his captors.

CHAPTER TWO

PEACETIME WAS NOT
usually very profitable for Tony Stark. This wasn't something he stressed over. Truth be told, something he didn't even realize just how much of a dip shares of Stark Industries' stock took when things were going well in the world.

Tony's late father, Howard, had left him the multibillion dollar corporation in very healthy shape, so even in the worst of times, when the nations of the world were playing nicely, the company still did just fine.

Of course, Tony was a brilliant businessman, but his real love—other than partying—was technology. At age four he built his first circuit board, at six his first engine, and at seventeen he graduated suma cum laude from MIT. At age twenty one—a few years after Howard's passing—Tony became the CEO of Stark Industries.

Fortunately for shareholders, these were not the worst of times for Stark Industries. True, the global economy had been sputtering, but America was involved in multiple wars and other overseas military operations. These conflicts required armor, vehicles, and weaponry, and Stark Industries was the nation's top supplier of military equipment and technologies.

And that's exactly what brought Tony to Afghanistan's Kunar Province. He was scheduled to meet with military officials to present the Jericho—the crown jewel in Stark Industries line of missiles and the first to incorporate their proprietary repulsor technology. The repulsors would ensure accuracy and exponentially increase the weapons' power.

Tony looked out over the arid landscape, turned to the gathered crowds, and nodded. With the press of a button, the Jerichos launched and began arcing overhead. Upon impact, the missiles leveled a crest of uninhabited hills and literally blew off the hats of the officers observing the demonstration.

And that's all there was to it. Twenty four hours worth of travel from Malibu to Afghanistan for a demonstration that lasted less than five minutes. Now it was time for a cool drink, then back into the convoy for another quick stop before boarding a private jet and heading home.

Tony hopped into his unglamorous armored vehicle and sipped his drink, as the convoy rolled away. For almost ten years, the area had been a hotbed of military activity. But as the convoy drove on, kicking up storms of sandy dust, Tony had a difficult time imagining that this place was in any way war-torn. They'd traveled miles through the rocky barren desert and hadn't passed another vehicle. Out his dirty window he'd occasionally see a man or two traveling who-knows-where with a mule or a camel in tow. Other than that, there was nothing but scrubby bushes and dusty mountains extending in all directions. Even in Tony's military Hummer, it was a bumpy ride filled with potholes and stones. The army-green metal interior and purely functional doors and windows were nothing like what he was used to back in the States, where his ride was fully loaded.

Tony adjusted his cuff links and twirled the ice in his glass. He'd miraculously managed to keep his custom-tailored suit spotless in spite of the filth of this place. The three young, heavily-armed soldiers who were escorting him had not said a word since they hit this poor excuse for a road. The officer sitting next to him looked over at Tony and then looked quickly away. Tony, bored, hot, and nervous that his clean suit would not stay that way much longer, decided to have some fun.

“I feel like you're driving me to a court martial. This is crazy. What did I do? What? We're not allowed to talk?” Tony asked.

“We can talk, sir,” The soldier said.

“Oh, so then it's personal?” Tony said sarcastically.

“No, you intimidate them,” the driver responded.

Tony was taken aback by the driver's voice. “You're a woman! I honestly…I couldn't have called that. I mean, I'd apologize, but isn't that what we're going for here? I mean, I thought of you as a soldier first.”

“I'm an airman,” she responded.

“Well, you actually…You have excellent bone structure there. I'm kind of, I'm actually having a hard time
not
looking at you now,” Tony flirted. “Is that weird?”

The officers, including the driver, giggled.

“Ah, come on, it's okay. Laugh!” Tony said, smiling. “Anything else?”

The quiet soldier shifted uncomfortably.

“Um, is it cool if I take a picture with you?” he asked.

“Yes,” Tony replied. “It's very cool.”

The soldier shyly pulled out his camera and handed it to the officer in the driver's seat. He smiled and leaned in toward Tony, who flashed his camera-ready smile. The officer in the front seat fumbled with the camera, trying to figure out which button to press. The quiet soldier responded, “Come on! Just snap it, don't change any of the settings…”

At that very moment, just as the soldier was clicking the snapshot, the truck at the head of the convoy—the truck directly in front of Tony's Hummer—exploded into a fiery ball of white-hot flame.

The soldiers started to shout, and Tony, clearly shaken, asked what was happening.

“Just stay down!” the soldier sitting next to him shouted. Then he, the driver, and the third escort jumped from the vehicle and opened fire to protect Tony.

Tony squatted down under the backseat of the vehicle. So much for the clean suit. Rapid gunfire sounded outside, and he could tell that his escorts were fighting a losing battle. Tony looked up just as a barrage of bullets riddled the armored doors with holes. Tony heard the windshield shatter and felt glass falling all around him. He looked up and saw soldiers falling in front and behind his vehicle. He knew he wouldn't make it out alive if he stayed in the truck, so he threw open the door and jumped out.

Bullets, shrapnel, and fire rained down around him, and he lunged into the air dodging them, taking shelter behind a large rock. Sounds of warfare popped and echoed all around him as he grabbed for his cell phone. He frantically started to key in a phone number, trying to call someone, anyone—but before he could finish dialing a wailing rocket soared overhead, and landed just a few feet away from Tony. His eyes widened as he noticed the stenciling on the side of the beeping time bomb, which read:
STARK INDUSTRIES
.

A fraction of a second later, Tony was enveloped in white flame, blown off the ground, and thrown harder than he thought possible a hundred meters from the blast site. Tony was barely conscious. He struggled to tear open his shirt, and realized that his Stark Industries Kevlar vest had been compromised. He was losing blood quickly and finding it impossible to keep consciousness. Finally, his head hit the ground and then everything faded to white.

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