by Bejammin2000, Christine Nightstar, and Doc Quantum
Five days had passed at Belle Reve Prison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the most exciting thing Stanley Beamish had done was training exercises with Agent Liberty and some of the team. Mister Marvel had to admit that they did have some interesting members, even if most of them were super-villains. Tigress, better known as the original Huntress, was deadly with a crossbow and as fit and agile as ever, but not one for chit-chat. The tough-talking Karnage walked around like he owned the place — at least whenever Commander Steel wasn’t around. And the twin gunslingers he saw walking around were almost as new as Marvel was to the team, but nobody really knew much about them except that they were enthusiastic about firearms.
Because his true identity was to remain a secret, Stan wore thick goggles and his shiny tinfoil-like Mister Marvel outfit at all times. It turned out, however, that his trepidation over being surrounded by super-villains in a super-maximum prison was all for naught, since everyone just kept their distance from him. Even the hardened criminals, whom Stan had expected to give him a hard time, were polite but distant, as if they’d been warned ahead of time not to mess with him. He wasn’t sure what to think about it.
After being there a day, Stan had begun to realize that he was being shadowed wherever he went by the strange fellow called the Minstrel, who was dressed like a minstrel or court jester from Robin Hood or something. Whenever Stan tried to strike up a conversation with him, though, the Minstrel would simply cut him off and break into song, as if actively avoiding any attempt to socialize. It was very disconcerting.
After he’d been there for three days, Stan caught a glimpse of a gorgeous young woman with striking blue skin, who started making eyes at him in a coquettish way, but he kept his distance from her at first. Since he’d assumed she was a prisoner like most of the others, he was quite pleased when he learned that she was one of the few non-criminal agents in the organization, and he resolved to be somewhat friendlier when he saw her next.
“All right, I’ll bite. You know who the new meat is?”
“Not sure. Steel has been pretty quiet about it.”
The two who had spoken were Karnage and Tigress. They had wandered into the Suicide Squad commons room after seeing two nearly identical men — the newbies in question — enter first. One of the men was dressed in a fairly cheap suit (off the rack Hel-Mart, Paula Crock figured), while the other was all in black. The two seemed to be deeply involved in a nondescript magazine.
“Oh, baby,” the one in black said, with an accent straight out of a John Wayne movie, as he turned the magazine to allow the centerfold to — for lack of a better word — fold out, all three pages of it. “Whee-oooh!”
“Damn, Jake, that’s gotta be the hottest thing I’ve seen in a looo-ooong while,” said the other with a New Yorker accent, who was wearing an off-the-rack suit.
This more or less piqued Karnage’s interest. Upon approaching, asking for a glance, and getting one, Karnage had one thing to say to the new guys. “You two… are freaks.” It was a model that they were gawking at, but not the type that Karnage had wanted, at least. It was the newest model of Colt Carbines.
Charlie Karnaj was originally a two-bit gang member from Gotham City who’d been equipped by the Crimelord with a special arsenal of wrist-based weapons and had fought the second Huntress under the name Karnage, a few years before he was recruited into the Suicide Squad. (*) With him was the original Huntress, Paula Crock, who now called herself the Tigress after her mother’s nom du crime. She snickered as she also took a glance at the magazine.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Karnage Is the Name,” Wonder Woman #286 (December, 1981).]
“What?” said Jake in a characteristically loud tone of voice. “It’s next year’s model. Shore, five-point-five-six ain’t as good as the thirty-aught-six, but it can use all NATO-standard ammo. What’s not ta like?”
“I dunno,” said Mitch with a shrug. “I still like the Winchester Model 94. Something about a classic just stands out.”
“Forgive mah poor brother Mitch. That boy ain’t got no idea what he’s talkin’ ’bout,” added Jake.
“Hey, it was that Mare’s Leg that saved your hide last year.”
“‘Mare’s Leg’…?” Jake said, trying to remember exactly what Mitch was talking about.
“The one with the pumpkin ball… that lifted the SWAT captain up and off his feet?”
“Oh, yeah. I plumb fergot. That was a Model 94?” To that, Mitch just nodded.
“Like I said,” Karnage spoke again, shaking his head, “you two are freaks.”
The sounds of conversation died down as the criminals left the common room, until all was quiet once more.
Then another voice, in the form of a muffled whisper emanating from a supply closet, could be heard. “Are they gone yet?”
“Mmm… Who cares?” replied a seductive female voice from within the closet. “Just focus on me, Mister Marvel.”
“All right, Indigo…” Stanley Beamish replied, and he began making out with Indigo once more as he realized his losing streak might have finally come to an end.
A lot could be said about corporate security. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency had specialized in it for years on end. However, with a company as large as Helstrom Industries, which had company holdings in several inhospitable locations, mere rent-a-cops were not enough.
It had come to such a point in the 1960s that the company had begun to maintain its own security forces. And, since Helstrom put his name on everything he made, it wasn’t a surprise that it was called the HelCorps.
The HelCorps was created in the typical Helstrom fashion, which was to say it was overdone. It wasn’t just a few people at key installations. Well, it was that, but it was also much more.
Darius Helstrom essentially had under his command a mercenary army of five thousand. It was a very efficient one as well, as were their ranks.
The Black Hats were your basic, run-of-the-mill HelCorps member, on par with a SWAT team member. The Blue Hats were technicians and heavy weapons personnel, that sort of thing. The Red Hats were intelligence. The Green Hats were special forces. The Grey Hats were elite forces as well as Helstrom’s personal bodyguards. You could tell what a member of the HelCorps did by the color of his hat.
With all her powers of disguise, it still took Gypsy nearly a month to infiltrate and get past the security measures that guarded the truth behind the HelCorps. She wouldn’t even bother with anything else. The paranoia about corporate espionage and industrial sabotage she sensed from Helstrom whenever she saw him wised her up.
Soon enough, Commander Steel had on his desk a good idea of what the bad guys had for sure, and what they might have. It almost pleased him. In his eyes it was more of a challenge, and he was certain now more than ever that Helstrom had something to do with the theft of the VRX-64 bio-weapon.
Sitting at his desk, Hank Heywood received a coded message from the Bureau of Special Projects. Barton J. Reed had personally led an investigation team to the site of the bio-weapon theft.
But finding out who had the ability to steal the VRX-64 was not an easy task. The entire facility was located deep under a mountain, with only two access points. The codes were complicated enough at fifteen digits, which had to be entered in the correct sequence within a matter of seconds. The ventilation ports themselves were also protected by equally complex codes. The security system had a series of pressure plate sensors, laser detection grids, climate-controlled sensors, microphones, cameras, and every other state-of-the-art detection device available by the late 1970s. Robotic sentries by the thousands patrolled the facility armed with regular lasers, kryptonite lasers, and magical weapons of varying power. Commander Steel had said that he’d tried to ensure it was more secure than CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
After several attempts to recreate the crime, it had been decided that the security system had to be disarmed with the codes at each checkpoint simultaneously. The log-in codes used had been traced to several workers long since dead. Neither Reed nor Steel had known what the passwords were. They were at a dead end.
The Bureau investigation team had come to a resounding conclusion. Whoever had stolen the VRX-64 had gone there intentionally to do so and had done it expertly. There was no question in his mind that this was an inside job.
But what could that mean? Heywood and Reed were the only people in the world who knew about the location. The code used to enter the installation was both ancient and valid, and had been set by one of the people whose memories had been wiped by the now-dead telepath. The code had thus been beyond the knowledge of both men.
Steel’s instincts told him that Darius Helstrom still had something to do with this, but he couldn’t figure out the connection. Could Reed, or Heywood himself, have somehow betrayed their knowledge to Helstrom without knowing it? There was the very real possibility that another telepath may have wiped from their minds even the memory of their betrayal. There was only one way to confirm or deny his suspicions. His team had to infiltrate Helstrom Industries, and damn the consequences.
As he was pondering this mystery, another message came through. Although the security system in the facility had been disarmed, the surveillance system hadn’t been. They were finally able to have a look at the person who had stolen the VRX-64.
Unfortunately, the thief proved to not be human at all, but a massive and obviously advanced robotic form he could not recognize. What he did recognize was the make and model of a rather well-used semi-automatic rifle slung over the shoulder of one of his masked human accomplices who had remained on watch outside the facility. It was the H.I. Rapture.
“Gotcha,” said Steel, having found all the probable cause he needed.
Shortly after, a meeting of four men was held behind closed doors in Hank Heywood’s office, where Barton J. Reed was already waiting. Agent Liberty stood against one wall, allowing General Steve Trevor to take the seat.
“What’s this all about, Steel?” asked Arn Munro.
“This is about the theft of a top secret deadly weapon, one that can affect even a superhuman such as yourself,” said Reed.
“Believe me, gentlemen, when I say that the safety of the world hangs in the balance,” said Steel. “In 1964, a biological weapon was created by a group of scientists working toward world domination. They called their bio-weapon VRX-64, and it proved resistant to all antibiotics and medicines. It was, in fact, designed to kill no less than Superman himself, and all those less powerful. It can be spread in more ways than any other agent, and can burn out the immune system in a matter of hours. The more resistant the system, the harder it hits. Death is assured within a week. It was about to be used for the first time when Reed and I, along with another agent, broke in on the group. Each of us had been working for a different agency who’d received a warning.” He turned to glance at Reed for a moment before continuing. “In order to create an antidote, the other agent allowed himself to be infected with the VRX-64 after we captured it. And while they succeeded in creating that antidote, it wasn’t soon enough to save his life.”
“The antidote is equally deadly,” explained Reed. “It cannot be taken before exposure to the bio-weapon, because it fortifies the immune system so that outside agents necessary for survival can no longer be absorbed. Food and water simply pass through without digestion. To date, only fifty doses of the antidote exist.”
Steel tossed down a folder containing documents and photos, which Agent Liberty picked up. He began reviewing photos of the facility, including several of a team of masked men accompanied by a massive robot who had accomplished the theft.
“This was the vault that both VRX-64 and its antidote were stored,” said Steel. “Its location was known only to me and Reed.”
“While the main Suicide Squad task force creates a loud diversion at Helstrom Industries,” explained Reed, “a smaller espionage team will search for this weapon and capture and/or eliminate the thieves before it can be sold or used. Remember, gentlemen: the VRX-64 is top secret. The last thing we’d want is for word of its existence to spread through the grapevine to a crime boss on the level of the Ultra-Humanite or the Joker. Its very existence should only be shared on a need-to-know basis. As far as the Suicide Squad is concerned, Helstrom has been targeted because of its interference with the government of Juvara, and nothing more.”
Elsewhere, a figure in a wheelchair looked up as a tall, massively built figure walked forward, holding a canister. Although it walked on two legs, its massive chest and the unnatural angles of its body marked it as something inhuman.
“Thank you, my automaton,” said a gravelly voice. “I could not have started to exact my revenge on the men who put me in this chair without you.” The crimson eyes of the huge robot blinked twice in acknowledgement, then carried the canister of VRX-64 to its new containment area.
“For nearly a decade I’ve been in purgatory because of you, Steel, and although you once saved my life, you also ensured that I would not live long after you delegated me to hide the one item that could repay everyone for their interference in my plans.
“As for you, Reed, your interference stole my most valuable, formative years from me. Yet those years were nothing compared to the years it took me to build my faithful Arnax, who has given me some mobility again. Now the world will tremble at my name.”
Faint laughter that soon broke into a coughing fit followed as the robotic Arnax secured the canister containing the bio-weapon.