by Vendikarr DeWuff and Starsky Hutch 76
Arn Munro stood outside the bar in Queens named Casey’s and remembered the first time he was here. Operation Liberty had a layover in New York before they shipped out to North Africa, and the team had followed Matches Malone out for a drink.
They had really torn the place apart that night. Arn was amazed it was still standing after all this time. Many neighborhoods like this one were still in ruins. But if Casey’s could survive Operation Liberty out on the town, there was no doubt a little thing like the Crisis on Infinite Earths could have taken it out.
Arn entered the bar and was surprised how little it had changed. A few different pictures were on the wall, but it was still a place that smelled of cheap liquor and looked like it was in a permanent haze due to cigarette smoke. He saw a man in an overcoat and hat in the corner and walked over when waved. It was Matches Malone.
Matches had insisted on the meeting anywhere but Belle Reve, having a real dislike of prisons. So Arn chose New York, mostly because of the Department of Extranormal Operations office there, but also because of Casey’s. He and Matches could unwind before the briefing. That was why he wasn’t surprised to find a message at the hotel telling him when Matches would meet him.
As Arn approached the table, the waitress walked away from it, having just left a beer. Arn smirked; Matches had ordered for him and had it coming just in time.
“I knew you would be punctual,” said Matches as Arn took a seat. “A guy can set a watch by you.”
“Some habits die hard,” replied Arn. “How long’s it been?”
“About five years, maybe six.”
“You don’t look a day older,” said Munro.
“Well, Mazursky’s work had its side-effects. With an active — what did he call it? — meta-gene, it let me age slower.”
“Matches, you’re not supposed to use that term. You know Mazursky’s research is highly classified.”
“Yeah, I know. Government’s afraid people will know six percent of us has the potential to become a meta or superhuman.” Matches took a sip of his beer. “Well, I have news for you — the news is out. Word in the community is that the Russians picked up a copy of his work somewhere and are working on making heroes of their own.”
“Where would they get his work? The only place those files are active is at Belle Reve, unless Mazursky had backups somewhere.”
“I don’t know where. And I really didn’t come to talk shop, just wanted to see my best friend before things start getting crazy,” said Matches.
“All right, Matches, but I will need to look into this a bit more.”
Before Arn could say another word, Matches started. “This is my last mission. I am retiring after this.”
“You know you can’t. Steel won’t let you.”
“He has no say over it. I only come when you need me. And I don’t want you to call for a mission again. I may not be aging, but I am almost eighty, and I think I did my time. I have spent a lifetime to this work, and I am done.”
“Now, don’t start. I mean it this time. And I want you to quit, too. You’re better than working for a slime like Steel. You deserve the recognition. And so do they.”
“Oh. You’ve been to the Rock. He’s a kid who died on our first mission after the Crisis. Nice kid. Inexperienced, but he had a good heart.”
“Don’t they all, even the criminal element you’ve always been saddled with?”
“Everyone has lived up to their duty, including you. I always thought you would give me the most trouble, but you were the one I could always count on.”
“Well we’re brothers — a bond forged in battle. I read that somewhere. It fits us.” Matches paused, then continued. “I hear they have a park dedicated to fallen heroes. I want the Rock moved there. They deserve it.”
“Matches, you know it’s not possible. The work we do isn’t for the American people to worry about. They don’t need to know.”
“Yes, they do. They need to know the good men and women who wore costumes and crept behind enemy lines for over forty years, doing what needed doing.”
“Maybe you’re right… about me and them. But I can’t leave, and I won’t go public until I can leave. Steel does what he has to for America, and if it were not for me, he may not always take the high road to get there. America needs me to stay just to keep him honest.”
“Weight of the world again? I know you’re strong, but even that’s a bit much for those shoulders of yours.”
“Ya know, it’s funny, because I just had a similar conversation with another Squad member, General Trevor. You know him, married to Wonder Woman. He thinks I should walk, too. But he understands why I can’t. He says he stays for the same reasons I do — Steel.”
“Steel is going to have to be dealt with someday.” He took another drink. “I see I’m not going to get anywhere with this, and I’d hate to waste a good night fighting. Tell me about your most recent missions.”
The rest of the evening was taken up with two old friends discussing the occurrences in their lives. They parted after several hours to get some rest before the big meeting the next day at DEO Headquarters.
“Your nine-thirty is here, Commander Steel,” the feminine voice at the other end of the intercom said.
“Thank you, Valerie,” the man with the steel-gray buzz-cut said. Wearing his usual basic black suit instead of the red, white, and blue costume of his youth, the steel in his code-name seemed to describe his personal appearance and demeanor rather than his former heroic identity. “Send her in.”
Commander Steel stood as the proud, beautiful African woman walked into his Spartan office with determination. “Somehow I never imagined there being many personal touches,” she said, looking around. True to her words, there were very few: a few medals from World War II, a picture of his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, and a group photo of the All-Star Squadron. It was the same copy that had once been presented to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Did you come to criticize my lack of decor, or was there a purpose to your visit, Vixen?” Commander Steel asked.
“Of course there is a purpose,” Vixen said icily. “You made a promise to us. We’ve gone beyond your original requirement. Why haven’t we been released?”
“Ah,” Steel nodded knowingly. “So you want your freedom now.”
“Yes!” Vixen said with loud indignation. “You said if we put in our time, you’d give us our freedom. You can’t keep your promise to Vibe, but I expect you to keep it to Gypsy and I.”
Commander Steel exhaled loudly through his nose, pulled a document out of his desk, lifted a pen, and pointed it at the document. “I can sign for your release, but Gypsy is still legally a minor. Don’t worry, though. I’ll make sure she’s well taken care of, as well as the members of Helix you’ve taken a shine to, such as Baby Boom.”
“Gypsy is almost eighteen!” Vixen said indignantly. “And Baby Boom isn’t a minor!”
“Try convincing anyone outside of this building of that,” Steel said with icy confidence. “Even with the correct paperwork to prove it in front of them, they’d write it off as a clerical error.”
“You son of a bitch,” Vixen growled.
“There must be an echo in these walls,” Commander Steel said. “I hear that a lot these days.”
“What the hell happened to you, Steel?” Vixen said coolly. “According to everyone here, you were a big-time hero in World War II.”
“Yes,” Steel said. “I fought for my country like other mystery-men of the time. I still do.”
“Only now you’ve added kidnapping, extortion, and blackmail to your repertoire,” Vixen said.
“When it comes to protecting my country — or my family — I’ll do whatever it takes,” Steel said with a bone-chilling stare that made Vixen turn her gaze away from him. “You people were a detriment to both. Now Earth-One can have a real JLA, of which my grandson is a part.”
“How do you know there’s still a JLA?” Vixen said. “How do you know it didn’t simply fall apart with the loss of most of its members?”
“The heroes of that world wouldn’t let that happen,” Steel said confidently. “The JLA is too important to let die. But more importantly, I know because I’ve had people working on the problem of the barriers. We haven’t successfully cracked them, but we have managed to receive some old transmissions, including news reports. The real JLA is back, just as I knew it would be. He pulled out a team photo and showed it to her. All the original surviving members were there, with the addition of Commander Steel’s grandson and a couple of others.
“If and when we’ve finally cracked the barrier problem, I’ll send you home. You have my word on that,” Commander Steel said. “I no longer have any reason to keep you here. In the meantime, I’d appreciate it if you continued on with the team.”
“All right,” Vixen said with resignation. It was the only chance she and Gypsy had.
“I won’t ask you and Gypsy to participate on this next mission. I figure you can use the break. But I will call on you in the future. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you,” Vixen said, turning and stepping out of the room.
Had she just thanked him? Her outrage was directed more at herself than at Commander Steel. He was a known manipulator, but she had always promised herself that she wouldn’t let him pull her strings. Now it looked as if she would be dancing to his tune a little while longer if she ever wanted for her and Gypsy to be able to go home again.
In a shadowy board room in an office building in Manhattan, a meeting took place. The tension around the table was so thick that not only could it not be cut with a knife, but one would be hard pressed to get through it with a chainsaw.
“I leave for a few years, and this is what I come back to?” the large man at the head of the table said.
“In all fairness,” the immaculately groomed man two seats down and to his right said, “you were gone for more than a few years.”
“I’m not in the mood for excuses!” the man shouted, slamming his hands down on the table. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to set this network up? Do you?!”
“W-well, I–” the man in the expensive suit stammered.
“Don’t even try,” the dark figure snarled. “You have no possible way of even fathoming it.” He rose from his chair and began pacing around the table. The men sweated nervously as he walked behind them. “Before I left, a politician couldn’t take office without my consent. A book couldn’t be published without the material being approved by me. Now I return to find out that my powerful organization has become little more than the equivalent of the Shriners — a mere gentleman’s club for portly businessmen and fat-cat politicians to chew the fat and exchange stock tips or political favors. Much has happened since I was gone. Apartheid has fallen. Quebec has become its own nation.” He grabbed the well-groomed man by the lapels of his overly expensive suit and lifted him off his feet, pinning him to the wall so he could glare into his eyes as he shouted, “All because someone wasn’t paying attention!”
“Mr. Savage, sir, w-we–” the man stammered.
“No more excuses, Trump!” Vandal Savage snarled. “The Illuminati will go back to business as usual, the way it was before I left. Or I will have the head of the man who gets in my way on a pike. And don’t think I haven’t done that before.”
“Good,” Savage said calmly, releasing his lapels and letting him slide to the floor. He took his seat at the head of the table once more. “Anything else I should be made aware of?” The men around the table all looked down at their hands nervously.
Commander Steel watched as Carcharo swam in the large holding tank that had been specially designed for him. Its sides were made of a transparent, laboratory-created crystal with the density of steel. From a hidden opening several live fish swam into the tank, and Carcharo quickly darted after them, wolfing them down.
Steel frowned with dissatisfaction at the brace on Carcharo’s leg. “How much longer is he going to need that?” he asked Dr. Togg.
“Dr. Trapp took quite a chunk out of him. You can hardly expect his recovery to be instantaneous.”
“I may need him for the upcoming mission.”
“If it’s an underwater operation, can’t you use Deep Blue?” Togg asked.
“You seriously expect me to send the daughter of a United States senator into a high-risk situation?” Commander Steel said. “I only keep her on the roster to make him happy. If the time should ever come that our security is compromised, we’ll put her in a skimpy-but-patriotic uniform and have her picture taken with Steve Trevor, Agent Liberty, Vixen, and a pig-tailed Baby Boom.” He thought for a minute. “And maybe Kritter, too. Kids would love him.”
“Glad to see you’re prepared for every contingency,” Dr. Togg chuckled. “But isn’t Senator Perkins helping you on this mission?”
“In dealing with Atlantis, yes. But if I’m not willing to send the daughter into danger, then I’m certainly not willing to send in the father,” Steel said, rolling his eyes. “Do whatever it takes to speed up Carcharo’s recovery. It’s time he started earning his fish.”
Commander Steel turned and walked out of the room. Togg watched Carcharo as he swam peacefully with the sharks they had put in the tank to keep him company. He sighed at the prospect of losing his best specimen.
In a darkened office, a man sweated nervously as he dialed. “Breckenridge? This is Hyatt. He’s back… I don’t know how! He’s probably been back since the Crisis!”
The man listened nervously, his eyes darting around the office. He had already checked the room for bugs, but he still felt as if eyes were on him. “Who knows?!” he told the person on the other end. “Who knows what these super-villain types are up to while the rest of us simply go to work each day? I know he’s had a whole year to complain, but he’s doing it now, and he’s doing it loudly. He’s probably been gathering stuff on us all! I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for this world-beater stuff. I’ve got a family and a business to think of. Something’s got to be done about this. All the strides we’ve made in his absence–!”
Hyatt jumped at the sound of pounding at his door. The door frame splintered, and the door flew open.
“No!” Hyatt screamed, dropping the phone as he threw up his arm defensively.
“Hyatt! What is it?” the voice of Breckenridge shouted from the other end of the phone.
From outside the building, Hyatt could be seen flying through his picture window. He screamed as he plummeted the full ten stories, falling through the roof of a convertible, his back snapping across the seats of the car.
The intruder lifted the phone from the floor and calmly said, “Mr. Hyatt is unavailable at the moment.”
“Who the hell is this?” Breckenridge shouted as the receiver was placed back in its cradle. The shadowy figure walked out of the office, casually shutting the door behind him.