by CSyphrett and Starsky Hutch 76
Greg Sanders led the way to the private jet he kept on the ranch. He stowed his bag behind the pilot’s chair as he sat down and began warming up the plane.
“So where are we going?” asked Billie Gunn, sitting behind him. Danny Leong silently took the co-pilot’s chair.
“California,” said Greg. “A friend of mine is in trouble, and we’re gonna bail him out.”
“What kind of trouble?” asked Billie as she strapped in.
“Don’t know yet,” said Greg. “Something about seeing an image. Sylvester wasn’t really clear, or maybe I misheard. Sylvester Pemberton is the friend we’re bailing out,” he said to forestall the next question.
“The guy who runs Stellar Studios?” said Billie. “How do you know him? Or is that a secret?”
“We’re old friends,” said Greg. “Maybe he can put you in a movie after this is done.”
“That’ll be the day,” said Billie.
The plane coasted down the runway and thrust gracefully into the air. Greg pointed its nose west as he pulled the yoke back to climb to a cruise altitude.
Greg Sanders and Danny Leong took turns piloting. Greg took the time to brew a pot of coffee in the jet’s galley as he pondered the particular problem he had been informed of by Syl Pemberton and Pat Dugan. Those two had been partners forever and a day. It was no wonder this latest piece of business would be discovered by the two of them.
The man who was the Vigilante had also heard that Roy Harper was out there with them as part of Infinity Inc. He smiled to himself. Sylvester was the only one of them who had not hung up his spurs when they returned to the present. Now Lee Travis and Oliver Queen were both gone; old Billy Gunn, too. But Wing How was somehow still alive, and it was time he was brought home from wherever he was.
The three men stood upon the tarmac of the small private airfield as the plane quickly became more than just a small dot upon the horizon. From their body language, it was obvious all three of them felt uncomfortable.
Unlike survivors of disasters, such as an airplane crash or a tornado, the Seven Soldiers of Victory hadn’t been drawn closer together by their pitfall of time displacement — just the opposite, in fact. Upon finding themselves in a strange new world, they went off in separate directions in a mad scramble to regain their lives. Each one had guilty feelings about losing touch, and as the time stretched on, those feelings had intensified, making it even harder to do something as simple as pick up a phone.
The death of Lee Travis had made that even more difficult. Everyone at the funeral felt remorse at not having spoken to him before the end. Most of them hadn’t even known he was sick. There was some consolation about the fact that he had gone out on his own terms, though it was small comfort. Promises were made to do a better job of corresponding, but the circumstances that had separated them in the first place were still there. They all had their own lives to live.
Of course, things were different now and changing rapidly. Lee was dead; Oliver, too. And the one person they had come to accept as dead was alive — alive.
Their attention remained focused upon the sky as they waited for the plane carrying Greg Sanders to come in for a landing.
“Looks like the fellows are here to meet us, Danny,” said the Vigilante as he brought the plane in for a landing.
“They don’t look happy,” said Billie Gunn from a third seat behind the pilots. She had stood up to get a look and had quickly sat back down, the rushing landscape and the height having given her a touch of vertigo.
“We have clearance,” Danny said.
“Right; let’s start our list,” said Greg, referring to the necessary tasks for landing a plane that every pilot went through.
The metal bird smoothly touched down on the runway, gliding to a stop within a few yards of the waiting men. The door opened out into steps. Greg Sanders stepped out first, smiling slightly.
“Hello, fellows,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
The moment Syl Pemberton had been anticipating was here. Reuniting with Roy and Pat hadn’t been difficult when circumstances had pushed them back together. Roy had been a kid like him when they were with the team. And Pat was, well… Pat. Greg, though, was a seasoned veteran and couldn’t help but remind him of Lee. He looked over at Roy, then Pat, and saw they were waiting for him to make the first move.
“Too long,” he said, stepping forward to take Greg’s hand.
“The Star-Spangled Kid,” Greg said, grinning broadly as he clapped him on the shoulder. “Dang, it’s good to see you again.”
“Actually, it’s Patriot now,” Syl said, his aprehension melting away.
“So it is,” Greg said. “And a darn good name it is, too.” He pointed up to the aircraft as Daniel Leong stepped out. “Stuff’s changed his name, too…” A brief look of sadness came over his face. “Well, he’s not the same Stuff you remember. He’s his son. He eventually grew out of his old name and goes by Dragonmage now.” The man in question stepped down the stairwell and joined them, shaking hands with Pat, Roy, and Syl as Greg introduced him.
Followed by Daniel Leong was Billie Gunn. “This is Wilhelmina. She’s the great-granddaughter of my other old partner, Billy Gunn. One heck of a good shot, too,” Greg said with pride. “One of New York’s finest.”
Syl’s breath caught in his throat, because she was easily one of the most impressive-looking women he’d ever seen. She walked down the stairwell with an athletic grace he’d previously only seen in the Huntress. “Help you with your bag, there?” Syl offered, gesturing to the army duffel bag slung casually over her shoulder.
“No, that’s OK. I’ve got it,” she said coolly, looking at him as if she were sizing him up. He got the picture she wasn’t the type of girl who appreciated acts of chivalry. She and Kara would get along real well, he thought.
“Um, yeah…” Syl said, pointing to the stretch limousine idling nearby. “Well, guys, the ride’s over here, ready to take us back to the studio. We can rest up while we’re waiting for Sir Justin.”
Billie Gunn had winced when she was introduced as Wilhelmina. She had choked back the sudden urge to hit Sanders in the back of his cowboy-hat-wearing head.
Now she looked out the windows of the limo at the streets of Los Angeles, half-listening to the conversation going on around her. She was the outsider here, and she didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
Still, she took some comfort that they had allowed her along. Sanders wasn’t someone who budged, according to her gramps, and Danny looked as movable as a rock. She knew if the answer was no, it would remain no, despite any pleas.
She wondered when she would meet this Sir Justin.
The dungeon was cold, wet, and dank to the senses. Old moss seemed to cover the even older-looking stone walls. What appeared to be rats would crawl out of the holes within the stonework and skitter back inside. None of this, of course, was real: not this dungeon, nor the castle above it. It was all a product of the fractured mind of the Nebula-Man. Even the prisoner who dwelled within the dungeon, though not his creation, was subject to his whims.
Wing How sat sullenly within the dungeon of this castle, waiting for help that might never come. His yellow and red uniform hung in rags upon his now-large frame. Once he had been so scrawny that people often mistook him for a kid. Now he stood well over six feet tall, and his body fairly rippled with muscles. He was the Nebula-Man’s prisoner and a super-hero, so he had been made to look the part. Wing was also certain that the Nebula-Man couldn’t stand to think he had been beaten by a pipsqueak.
Countless times he had escaped from the dungeon. The end result was always the same: him in the dungeon, once more the Nebula-Man’s prisoner. Wing came to realize that it was a game to him. It was a game that could last literally forever in this realm outside of time and space. The thought was too much to bear, so he had summoned what remaining power he had left from the battle that had brought him there and used it to try to contact his friends. He hoped they would be able to find him, now that they knew he was alive.
“So… you were successful?” a voice suddenly boomed from above. The dungeon was suddenly swept with wind as the Nebula-Man spoke.
Wing was aghast. He knew?
“They shall be here with you, and the sport shall be even better…” the voice said. “They — your friends — wronged me somehow… I don’t remember how… what they did… you did something worse, I know… just not what it was… so hard to remember…” He trailed off, sounding confused, as if his mind had been fractured throughout time. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Universe: Times Past, 1943: The Space-Time Gambit, Book 3, Chapter 2: Birth of the Nebula-Man.]
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Wing called out.
“In any case, they will be here soon. And then they can join you in repaying your debt to me.” The dungeon grew silent and still once more, and Wing knew the Nebula-Man had turned his attention elsewhere.
A feeling of horror came over Wing. It had been another game — one of his sick, twisted, damn games. And he’d been so desperate for a glimmer of hope that he’d fallen for it and drawn in his friends. He knew, though, the alternative was far worse. Should the Nebula-Man grow bored with the games or, even worse, regain his memory and sanity, there was no telling how dangerous he would be.
The limousine pulled through the front gates of Stellar Studios and then headed for the biggest building on the lot. Pat Dugan, Roy Harper, and Syl Pemberton had soon discovered that, once reunited with Greg Sanders, it was just like old times, and the limo was filled with the sounds of laughter as they recounted their adventures together. The laughter, of course, followed them as they left the limo and went inside.
“What have we gotten ourselves into?” Billie Gunn said to Daniel Leong as they trailed behind the men. “Think it’ll be like this for the whole trip?”
“God, I hope so,” Daniel said.
“Really?” she said, squinting quizzically.
“Of course,” he responded. “Hearing them speak of their adventures as the Seven Soldiers of Victory makes me feel, at least for a little while, closer to my father.”
“Oh, yeah,” Billie said, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Daniel said.
“Your father was the first Stuff, right?” she asked.
“Right. He was killed by the Dummy, so Greg took me in and treated me as if I were his own son.”
“Yeah, I keep hearing what a great guy he is,” she said.
“Well, he is,” Daniel said.
“Life seems to be treating you pretty good, Syl,” Greg Sanders said, looking around as he, Pat, and Syl entered the spacious lobby.
“Yeah, the kid’s doing OK, all right,” Pat agreed.
“I’m lucky everything was still waiting for me,” Syl said.
“Same here,” Roy agreed. “Ollie was lucky that Queen Enterprises had kept going in his absence. I was such a fish out of water. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“Not all of us were so lucky,” Pat said. “Took me quite a while to get back on my feet.”
“I wish you’d called me,” Syl grimaced. “If I’d known…”
“Sylvester, don’t beat yourself up on my account,” Pat started.
“Wow! So this is where all those big classic movies were made,” Billie Gunn said, oblivious to the tense mood she’d cut short as she entered and sat down her duffel bag. She pointed to a movie poster on a wall. “Abbott and Costello meet the JSA! I’ve seen that!”
“Yeah, a lot of big names have come through here over the years,” Syl laughed. “Including one we all know.” He reached behind the information counter and pulled out an item he’d hidden for the occasion. It was a six-foot cardboard cutout of Greg Sanders in a quick-draw stance. He was dressed in a brown buck-skin jacket with fringe along the sleeves, a silk shirt with large lapels, opened to reveal most of his chest as well as a gold chain, bell-bottomed jeans, a rodeo-style belt buckle, and a brown suede cowboy hat. By his feet was the logo McCaliber, P.I. “I’m sure everyone remembers America’s favorite P.I. from 1973 to ’76,” Syl laughed.
“Where in tarnation did you find that?” Greg chuckled.
“Nice sideburns,” Billie laughed.
“Hey, even a cowboy’s gotta eat,” Greg laughed. “And there wasn’t much call for singing cowboys, anymore. They did let me sing every few episodes, though, if McCaliber happened to be in a club or was trying to expose a crooked record exec. I just had to get used to shootin’ at hippie drug dealers and mafia sidewinders instead’a the desperadoes I used to have showdowns with.”
“Hey, I loved the show,” Pat said. “I caught it every week. My kid’s even hooked on it now that it’s in syndication. I even picked Mike up a McCaliber doll at the flea-market.” He suddenly looked distracted. “Hey, did you guys just hear a horse… and wings?”
“Justin’s here!” everyone exclaimed at once.