by Starsky Hutch 76
Shortly after the pyramid broke the surface, U.S. Army troops moved in, prisoners were carted away, and the wounded were taken off to be treated. Commander Steel found himself alone in the large tomb where the final battle had taken place. As his gaze drifted across the room, the first cry of horror he had uttered throughout the entire battle escaped him.
“No! No! No!” he moaned, racing over to the block of amber-like substance that held Gloria Giles Riley. A spiderweb-like series of cracks had networked itself through the crystalline substance. Closer inspection just confirmed his worst fears that the cracks went through her as well. There was no blood, however, because of whatever process had taken place.
“Don’t worry,” a feminine voice said from behind him. “I didn’t feel any pain.”
Steel turned, seeing that Mekanique had materialized behind him. “What?”
“In fact, I had no idea I had been hurt until centuries later when I awoke to find myself in a new, mechanical body.”
“Are you… are you trying to tell me…?” Steel started to say in a pained voice.
“Yes. It’s me. I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “But this is better. So much better. When you disappeared all those years ago, it nearly killed me. (*) I prayed that you would come back to me some day. Even when I married Brad Farley, it was still you I dreamed of at night. Then I grew old, and I prayed that you wouldn’t return. You heroes just seem to stay young and beautiful and vital, and I couldn’t bear for you to see how I had changed.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Crisis Point,” All-Star Squadron #50 (October, 1985).]
“She was beautiful to me…” Steel said, placing his hand on the crystalline substance, “…always.” He closed his eyes and sighed, “I lost her on Earth-One, and now I’ve lost her here, too.”
“I’m standing right here,” Mekanique said in exasperation.
“I’m sure whatever process Savage’s scientist used to create you makes you think you’re Gloria, but she could never be… you.”
“Oh, yes, I was quite sweet before. And I was an even sweeter old lady. But that was before I enjoyed the new freedom this form offers. This body can do such amazing things, Hank. I could show you such pleasure. And when time finally catches up with you, and you grow old and feeble, I have a similar one for you to wear.”
“I don’t think so,” he said flatly.
She brought her hand up to the side of his face. “You’ll come around in time. I can wait — forever, if I have to.” With that, she shimmered and disappeared from view.
Who’s the little blonde hottie?” Karnage asked, admiring her from over his pool cue as he leaned down to take aim. The hottie in question was on the other side of the room, clad in denim cutoffs and a half-T-shirt as she leaned over a pinball machine.
“Baby Boom,” Matches Malone said.
Karnage’s arm jerked in surprise and sent the cue-ball flying. “Baby Boom?!” he exclaimed, spinning around to stare at the older man in shock. “Are you $%&@ing with me?!”
“Naw, that creature we fought made her older, but it’s still the kid. So I’d get any ideas out of yer head.”
“Hey, I don’t know if you heard, but she was a grown-up before she started growing up. She was just stuck in a kid’s body. So even if she looks like a teenager now, she’s all legal. So drop the overprotective grandpa bit.” He turned and looked back at her. His eyes dropped to her rear as she jerked back and forth, getting into the game. “Da-a-mn, she’s growing up nice. Glad she kept the pigtails.”
“The kid’s been through a lot. She’s still trying to learn to be an adult in an adult’s body. She don’t need you sniffin’ around trying to give her a crash course.”
“Why you so protective? You tryin’ to get some o’ that? Goin’ for that May/December thing, old man?”
“And here I thought you and me was gonna be pals,” Matches sneered, stepping forward until he was almost nose to nose with Karnage. “Let’s get one thing clear, Charlie Karnaj. Old just means more experienced in my case. I’ve known guys like you all my life. You may think you’re a real hard case, bit I’ve seen and done things that’d have you cryin’ home to momma.” He pulled out a wooden match and struck it with his thumbnail, holding the flame up by Karnage’s eye. “I am not a guy you wanna mess with.” The flame on the match suddenly formed into a skull and crossbones.
“Goddammit!” Karnage exclaimed angrily, throwing down his pool cue and stalking from the room. He slammed the door behind him.
Baby Boom looked up from the pinball machine and then turned toward Matches with an inquisitive look. Matches shrugged and said, “Some guys can’t handle losing. So, you play?”
“Rack ’em up,” Babe said, walking toward the pool table.
“Spellbinder missing and presumed dead, Vixen presumed dead, Carcharo wounded, and you powerless. Not the best we’ve looked after a mission,” Commander Steel sighed. “The only one who seems to have come out ahead was Baby Boom.”
“Speaking of which, have you told Baby Boom yet?” Steve Trevor asked as he and Commander Steel walked down the hallway toward the hospital wing.
“No. I felt that was Matches was right. I hope he’ll take care of that soon, though. So few of the Helix kids know who their real family is. All they’ve ever had is each other.”
“Getting soft in your old age, Hank?” Trevor said, smiling.
“If I was really the monster everyone thought I was, do you really think my first choice of candidates for this program would be a bunch of kids barely old enough to vote? Given their history, I figured this was where they belonged.”
“Malone, huh? When you first told me about the Dr. Mazurinski/Dr. Love connection, I figured TNT was somehow involved.”
“TNT got his powers from a ring,” Steel said. “Matches and Baby Boom are both pyrokinetics. They just use their powers differently.”
“So, are you still insisting on returning to retirement?” Steel asked.
“I’ve lost my powers!” Steve Trevor exclaimed.
“But you’ve retained your youth,” Steel said. “You accomplished plenty back in your day without powers.”
“I wasn’t a husband and father back then,” Steve said. “I have a baby son at home now who needs a father. Taking risks when you’re invulnerable and super-strong is one thing. When you’re plain old flesh and blood, it’s another. I gave my time to the military. It’s time to give it to my family.”
“With your knowledge and experience, there are plenty of other ways to serve that don’t involve carrying a gun or engaging the enemy directly,” Steel said.
“I see where this is going,” Steve Trevor said, smiling. “You want a friend in Washington.”
“You might be surprised to hear that I don’t have that many friends,” Commander Steel said with a straight face.
“Really? No way!” Steve Trevor chuckled.
“I’m bound to have a lot less when the government starts acting on what we found on the files we took from the Illuminati. The hammer’s about to come down hard, and a lot of folks aren’t going to like that, even if they aren’t directly connected. It’s still going to be inconvenient for them. These are people who would like to see Operation Liberty disappear. I’ll need someone to watch my back. In that respect, having you wear the uniform of General Trevor is a lot more useful than the uniform of Odysseus.”
“I see what you mean,” Trevor said thoughtfully. “Then I suppose retirement can wait.”
The two of them walked into the hospital room where one man clad in a trenchcoat stood over the unconscious form of another man who lay in bed. “Mr. Ambrose,” Steel said by way of greeting.
“Commander,” said the newest incarnation of Immortal Man, nodding back. He turned to Steve Trevor and extended his hand. “General Trevor, it’s an honor. I remember reading of your exploits in the war.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, smiling. “It’s nice to run into someone who remembers me as anything other than Mr. Wonder Woman.”
“Anyone who thinks that is simply too young or too stupid to know any better. Or perhaps both,” said Immortal Man. He looked down at Vandal Savage. “It’s so bizarre to see him this way.”
“I honestly can’t think of any other solution,” Steel said. “The man is too dangerous to simply lock up, and he can’t be killed. In his journals, he gave an account of what it was like to be burned for witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Even if we tried lobotomizing him, that would probably heal in a few years. Better to take this route and hope the next generation has enough brains to keep him doped up, too.”
“Sadly, if our experience in R’lyeh was any indication, they won’t,” said Steve Trevor.
“So this is but a temporary reprieve in my never-ending battle with Vandal Savage, then,” Immortal Man sighed.
“We’ll try to make it a long one for you this time,” Commander Steel said. “Your information proved invaluable. Otherwise, that beast would have been able to take over. How is it you managed to escape its influence? It nearly got me.”
“I really don’t know,” Immortal Man said. “I can only assume it is this amulet carved from a bit of the meteorite that brought Cthulhu here. It is what gives me my immortality instead of it lying in a human form as with Vandal Savage. Flesh is corruptible, and Savage has worn the same flesh throughout history. I have taken on new bodies, starting fresh each time, and hopefully casting aside any corruption that might have resulted through Cthulhu’s power.”
“I doubt that the future version of Savage will be coming back from this. He probably could’ve survived Carcharo’s gut-wound, but who knows where that pit led to?” Steel said. “I didn’t see a bottom. I don’t think there was one. At least not in this realm.” A shudder passed through all of them.
“For his sake, I hope his immortality finally runs out,” Steve Trevor said.
Commander Steel sat in his apartment alone, listening to the news. His mind wasn’t really registering what the news anchor was saying. Hank Heywood usually had no patience for the nightly news, because they had no idea what was really happening in the world. He usually just let the television run so that the apartment wouldn’t seem so quiet and empty.
There was a sudden knock at the door, and he rose from his chair. When he opened the door, he looked down and was alarmed to see a baby bundled up in pink blanket and laying in a basket. “What the–?”
He leaned down and lifted the baby out of the basket. When he picked her up, he was surprised to feel that there was something within the folds of her blanket. He reached in and pulled it out and was startled to see that it was the Harlequin glasses Marcie Cooper had worn as Spellbinder. He looked at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby as if she were an enigma.
Another search of the blanket turned up a series of photos. They showed Vandal Savage catching Spellbinder in the act of searching his office, then lifting some bizarre device from his desk and training it on Spellbinder. He flipped through the photos quickly and watched as she went through stages of being reduced to infancy.
Heywood was surprised to feel his eyes actually misting up as he carried her back into his apartment. “I don’t know who brought you here, and I don’t… well, I do care, and I’m probably gonna find a new apartment. But I’m still thankful to have you back just the same. Hopefully, Dr. Togg can find something in all those files we got that can change you back. In the meantime, let’s see if I have any milk in this place for you, kiddo.”
From a nearby doorway, a hidden Mekanique watched as Commander Steel carried the baby Marcie Cooper into his apartment and shut his door with his foot without looking backward. She gave a smile at the rare sight of a happy Hank Heywood, then shimmered once more and disappeared.