by Christine Nightstar and Doc Quantum
Only two individuals in the world were aware of the location of the bio-weapon designated VRX-64: Hank Heywood of Operation Liberty and Barton J. Reed of the Bureau of Special Projects. Or at least that was what they believed, until an event occurred to dispel them of that notion.
At 0130 hours Eastern Standard Time, the bio-weapon was removed from its containment location, and within moments of the heist, an automatic alarm had notified both individuals.
By 0430 hours, these two individuals had quickly arranged to meet at undisclosed location. Both wearing nondescript clothing, they walked up to each other in the dark of night once the location had been secured against eavesdropping, electronic or otherwise.
“Reed,” said Commander Steel.
“Oh!” said Barton J. Reed, startled at the voice. Although Reed carried a flashlight to see his way, Hank Heywood needed no flashlight to see in the darkness thanks to his cybernetic eyes. The light of the flashlight pointed at the ground was enough to see the outlines of the other man’s face. “Hello, Steel.”
Steel clenched his jaw. “I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have located and stolen the VRX-64 without inside knowledge.”
“I’ve always understood that the U.S. government kept this location a secret,” said Reed.
“To my knowledge, it was kept a secret, and no one has been to that site for over ten years, since the last of the containment protocols were installed.”
Reed frowned. “Hmm. And those that worked on those protocols?”
“Their minds were erased of the knowledge,” explained Steel. “We had a very able telepath do the job back then.”
“Then what of the telepath?”
“Reportedly KIA during a mission nine years ago. It was his last mission for the ‘Suicide Squad’ of that era.”
The two intelligence operatives looked at each other in silent agreement. VRX-64 had to be found, and found fast, before it could be sold to a foreign power. Steel already had some idea of where to start looking for it; Darius Helstrom was one of the few weapons dealers in the world who was brazen enough to try for such a daring prize. He’d want to get the highest price possible, but he also wouldn’t hold onto it for long.
All possible resources of both Operation Liberty and the Bureau of Special Projects were being marshaled as they spoke. Reed had just one request: he wanted to add his new super-agent to the task force for this mission. Reluctantly, Steel conceded to the request.
The Secret Service had been good to Barton J. Reed, even during the questionable days of the early Cold War between the United States and Russia in the ’50s. By the late 1960s, Reed had advanced to the rank of chief, supervising several projects meant to provide the United States government with its very own super-agents to covertly tackle threats to national security. Most of those problems had begun to slowly shift away from the Soviet Bloc toward unrest in the Middle East. The Soviet Union itself was in a state of decay, though much of it was kept hidden from the public, and this could lead to instability in the region when the whole system inevitably collapsed under its own weight.
Having been set up in 1967, the Bureau had been in decline since 1980, with few successes under its belt. It was a miracle, in fact, that it hadn’t been shut down years ago, since few believed it had much reason to exist any longer, with the resurgence of the Justice Society of America and its splinter groups, and more importantly with Commander Steel’s Suicide Squad in operation. Rather than keep the Bureau funded, it was argued, that funding could instead go to better-performing programs and agencies.
But the JSA was virtually impossible to control, and Hank Heywood treated Operation Liberty as his own personal fiefdom. While drug trafficking, slavery, and global terrorism had been on the rise over the last few years, none of these groups seemed very inclined to put a stop to those issues. Barton J. Reed considered that a tragedy.
That was why he was pleased that the Bureau of Special Projects had finally had its first real success story in a long while. Reed had even managed to convince Steel to let the Bureau’s new super-agent accompany the Suicide Squad on its next mission. That mission had now arrived.
Agent Liberty had assembled a few of the veteran members of the Suicide Squad in the recreation room for an impromptu meeting after receiving the barest of instructions from Commander Steel over the phone. General Steve Trevor, the Tigress, Karnage, Indigo, and a few others were talking among themselves, wondering what was going on.
Arn Munro understood that the Bureau of Special Projects would be involved, which meant that Barton J. Reed had some input in the mission as well. Arn had met and even worked with Reed before, but he wasn’t sure what the Bureau was up to these days, or just who Reed’s new super-agent was.
Depending on the mission requirements, the task force would be larger than usual this time. Steel hadn’t assembled a Suicide Squad task force for months, instead preferring to send specialists on smaller, individual assignments. This mission would require them to recruit a few new operatives, especially since all the former members of Helix were absent, having been temporarily loaned to the Department of Extranormal Operations by Mister Bones’ special request and wouldn’t be back until sometime after this mission was over, and Gypsy was currently on one of Steel’s special assignments.
“I see you all got Steel’s summons,” said Agent Liberty. “He wanted me to tell you that we’ll be working with an agent from the Bureau of Special Projects on an upcoming mission, so be on your best behavior.”
“Why do we have to work with anyone else on this?” asked Karnage. “This is our mess, ain’t it?”
“Because Steel said so,” said Agent Liberty. “And if you don’t like it, you can go back to your prison cell.”
“Any clues as to what mission we’ll be going on?” asked Indigo.
“Nothing except that Steel is keeping this one close to his chest,” said Munro. “So I’ll know when you do.”
“Just who are they sending to us?” asked the Tigress.
“I haven’t been told his name yet,” said Munro, “but I expect each and every one of you to treat him with kid gloves. In fact, Paula, you might be able to help me with that.”
“Me?!” cried Paula Crock, alias the Tigress, nearly spilling coffee over her lap.
“You’re the only one the prison population respects enough to listen to,” explained Munro. “If you tell them to back off, they will.”
Paula slumped into her seat and muttered under her breath, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”
“Don’t worry,” said Agent Liberty. “He’s most likely a special agent with skills most of those muggs can only dream of, so they’d be safer keeping away from him, anyway.”
Nothing ever seemed to go right for Stanley Beamish. When the young bellhop had been mistaken for someone else earlier this year, he was beaten to within an inch of his life by goons working for Vincenzo “Ape-Face” Dyke, son of the Gorilla Boss of Gotham City. (*) The only reason he was still alive, in fact, was due to the arrival of a handful of super-powered teenagers who claimed to come from the future. Of course, given that he fell in and out of consciousness for much of that time, Stan wasn’t exactly sure how much of what he remembered was a dream and how much was reality. The fact remained that he was rescued from almost certain death in that Las Vegas hotel bathroom, and he owed his life to Kid Terrific and her super-powered pals. (*)
Stanley spent several months hospitalized after that, and the doctors even told him there was only a slim chance that he’d ever walk again. And that was the end of all his hopes and dreams.
That was, until the miracle occurred.
A power pill had been created by the Bureau of Special Projects, and it turned out that only one person in all the world had the proper genetic makeup for the pill to work as intended without causing illness or death: Stanley Beamish himself.
For the second time in his life, Stanley was miraculously rescued, this time from his injuries as the power pill not only gave him super-strength, super-speed, and the ability to fly, but also enabled him to heal faster and more fully than he dreamed was possible. The government also fully paid all of his hospital bills for his months-long duration, and provided a cover story that downplayed his injuries so much that he wouldn’t be considered a marvel of medical science. He would thus be able to continue living his life as a private citizen instead of a nine-day wonder on the evening news.
Of course, as with all good things, there was a catch: Stan would forever owe his life to the United States government, and the government always came to collect.
So, just when Stanley had finally begun to get his life back in order, the day inevitably came that the Bureau of Special Projects had need of him. The former hotel bellhop still wasn’t sure why that so-called power pill only worked on him, and no one else. When that government spook Commander Steel showed up at the hospital and got him to ingest the pill without telling him what it was or what it would do to him, Stan should’ve just told him to take a hike and leave him be.
Of course, Stan couldn’t deny the appeal of being needed by his government, especially since it also meant becoming the super-hero he’d always wanted to be since he was a child. He had wanted to call himself Mister Terrific after his childhood hero, but since he didn’t want to be disrespectful of that late mystery-man’s legacy, he took the name of Mister Marvel instead. Due to his top secret status he would never make headlines like Red Robin or Power Girl, but he could still do his part to save the world.
There were, of course, strict limitations. The government was determined to keep him on a short leash, promising to dole out a single power pill at a time for special assignments. Each power pill, in turn, could only grant him super-powers for an hour at a time, theoretically leaving him with just enough powers to complete a small assignment and nothing more.
The letter had told him to meet with his new boss, Barton J. Reed, at a certain time and location in Washington. But now that the day of his scheduled meeting had come, Stan had already run off to the bathroom at least six times; his nerves were bothering him terribly, and his stomach always seemed to pay for it. He had a bad feeling about this meeting for some reason, though he had been relieved when he learned that Steel wouldn’t be there. That gray-haired, stocky old man positively terrified him. Reed, on the other hand, was cheerful and smiled often… but then again, so did a cobra eying its prey. Was he unwittingly walking into the lion’s den?
Nobody he knew had ever heard of the Bureau of Special Projects, and Chief Reed had a background that was as top secret as Steel’s. All he knew was that the Bureau of Special Projects was a little-known branch of the Department of Extranormal Operations. Stan wasn’t so sure about being a super-spy, but the fact that he had a debt to pay to the U.S. government left him little choice in the matter.
“Stanley Beamish to see Mr. Reed,” Stan said calmly, smiling at the young woman sitting at reception.
“He’s been expecting you,” she replied. “Go to the commissary. Just follow the signs.” She pointed the way, and Stanley began walking in that direction, trepidation evident in his every step.
“Beamish, good to see you again, my boy!” said Barton J. Reed as he left the commissary.
“Hello again, Mr. Reed,” said Stanley, wearing a flat smile. “I’m here at the, uh, Bureau as you requested.”
“The Bureau of Special Projects,” corrected Reed with a warm smile. “Not to be confused with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or any other agency.”
“So, is this some kind of spy organization?” chuckled Stan. “You know, ‘just call me Secret Agent Man,'” he added, making air quotes as he spoke, before awkwardly glancing down at his shoes.
“Go ahead and make your jokes and pithy quips, Mr. Beamish, but we at the Bureau do more good than anyone will ever know.”
“Why me?” asked Stan. “Aren’t there some other, more qualified people you could get? Some professional spies, like yourself?”
“You are to be a different breed of secret agent, Mr. Beamish,” explained Reed. “Something of an experiment, really. If you work out, we may take in others like yourself and recruit them as well.”
“I can’t imagine that would be a good idea,” Stan muttered under his breath. “So, what did I sign up for, anyway? Are there any perks to the job you’re asking of me, or will you have to erase all records of my existence and place me deep undercover?”
Reed chuckled. “Nothing so fanciful as that. After a few days and several weekends with us, in which the Bureau will fly you in and out at our expense, you’ll resume your normal life. Your friends and family know only that you’ve decided to take a brief sabbatical, in order to undergo special physical therapy each weekend to treat the back injuries you sustained in Las Vegas. Whenever we call on you, we’ll find ways to ensure that your missions do not unduly interfere with your life. And there are indeed perks. As long as you remain an active agent with us, you will earn a paycheck, as well as receive a pension when you reach retirement age, which will be kept in a special monitored account. As you become more capable, and we send you on more critical missions, you will be rewarded with other perks. But you must follow the rules.”
“Uh, which are…?”
“No killing any target without express orders or in the defense of your life or that of another,” said Reed. “Any and all seized properties are to be handed over to the Bureau. And you must always remain employed in a job of your choosing, since your cover must be maintained.”
“I’m… not too comfortable with the idea of killing anyone, even if you did give me permission,” said Stan. “Can’t I just bring a ‘target’ in alive?”
“That is always the preferable option,” Reed said, nodding his head. “The Bureau does prefer to cooperate with conventional law enforcement whenever possible. However, you will be going into situations in which the people you face are potentially themselves killers, slavers, and much, much worse, who will not hesitate to kill you even if you show mercy to them. If you can complete your objectives without killing anyone on a consistent basis, I will be very pleased… but also surprised.”
Stanley shook his head; he’d never even considered that he’d ever have to kill someone, even in the line of duty. “So can I come and go as I please? I mean, if I want to drive down to Gateway City some weekend to visit friends or family, would that be a problem?”
“Not at all, Mr. Beamish,” Reed said jovially. “You are free to come and go as you please. But you will find that, wherever you go, we may call upon you at a moment’s notice, even if you’re in the middle of a vacation in, say, Waikiki. Any more questions?”
“A big question, actually,” said Stan. “Do you mean to say that you’re going to plant some kind of tracking device on me? Do I have any say in this?”
“You are free to express your concerns, of course, but as long as you’re our agent, you will be fitted with a tracking device.”
Stan wasn’t happy about this — at all. “Can you answer me just one more thing? Why can’t I trust you, Mr. Reed?”
Barton J. Reed grinned like a cobra as he replied, “Because it’s always a good idea to be a little suspicious at all times, especially with the kind of people you’ll be working with.”
Stanley Beamish sighed. Would his first mission as Mister Marvel also be his last?