Vladimir Vostov was an Olympic gold medalist archer, and it was thanks to that fact, as well as his being a famous Soviet pop singer, that he had been selected to become the Huntsman, masked archer of the People’s Heroes. He had been assigned his first real test of his chosen role — chosen for him, of course, for such was the way of the people’s service. It was supposedly an honor and a way of pardoning him for his earlier crime of hunting on the game reserves and properties used by the people’s representatives to feed the poor and lower classes of people from the classless society of his native Georgia. The Huntsman was an agent of a ultra-secretive branch of the KGB, part of a special program called the Superpowers Project to create action-heroes for the Soviet Union. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Superpowers, Chapter 1: The Soviet Superpowers Project.]
As the Huntsman, he now sat in a Soviet jet plane heading to the nation of Mozambique on the southeast coast of Africa. It was done under the guise of an entertainment excursion for the benefit of Eastern European workers diligently representing their nation states in leading the once-oppressed people of this former colony into the glorious freedom of Marxist-Leninist Soviet-style rule. They, as well as the Cuban volunteers, were aiding the local military in rooting out the dogs of oppression and the mercenaries of the oppressor state, South Africa. And, of course, they made local visits to show the freedom-loving people of this African people’s state guidelines to bettering themselves.
In effect, Vladimir Vostov was here to tour and entertain, while his alter ego the Huntsman was there to help find out who was behind some recent operations that had greatly hurt the Soviet cause in this state, and indeed possibly all African operations that were so vital to the Soviet peoples. Oil rigs, mines, and military bases had all been hit by someone, and the Huntsman had to find out who was behind it and stop them.
In South Africa, on the other side of the border that nation shared with Mozambique, a small, elite group of men were meeting as they planned another incursion across the border to take out another target. This time, the strike force would would attack when the visiting Soviet entertainers were performing, capturing as many of them as they could. Hostages would always be useful.
To ensure success, they had a new ally. This was a tall, lithe woman in tight-fitting green and black material that covered her body, who was seemingly not at all burdened under the weight of numerous deadly blades and other weapons. This new ally of the strike force was the deadly mercenary known only as the Huntress.
Vladimir Vostov leaped out of a KGB Jeep and nearly collided with Captain Juan Morales of the Cuban volunteers in the 15th Infantry, whose men were in the process of searching through the remains of what had until yesterday been a thriving village.
“What is happening here, comrade?” Vostov asked, flashing his credentials at the tired-looking, gray-haired Cuban officer who was more concerned with lighting his cigar than examining the card of a longhaired Russian. With a deep sigh, the captain turned to the visitor and said, “Legitimate operation, comrade. Our scouts found a nest of vipers, and we exterminated them. Routine.”
“Routine, comrade Captain?” said Vostov. “Routine? You destroyed the whole village, and by the looks of things, killed everyone here!”
“Not everyone comrade, not everyone,” Morales said, indicating a small group of huddled, frightened females. “My men have been too long without companionship, and for a Cuban man to go too long without release is not a good thing. These females will serve our needs, and then we will release them, if… if they are not themselves anti-liberationist fighters, of course.” He stated this last part with a wicked grin. Vostov grimaced, started to turn away, then whirled back and landed a solid right fist into the jaw of the Cuban officer.
There was momentary silence, then Vostov heard the clicking of several weapons and noted he was surrounded by armed and angry Cuban soldiers.
That was the moment someone picked to fire an explosive arrow into the Jeep and blow it to hell.
Laying on the ground next to the Cuban officer, Vladimir Vostov was covered with dirt and blood, the blood of several soldiers who had been closer to the Jeep than he had been. Those soldiers would never live to kill or rape anyone again.
“Comrade, it appears we must put our differences behind us,” Captain Morales said, “for now.”
Vostov spotted his large duffelbag; amazingly, it had been blown free of the rubble of the smoldering remains of what had been his transportation to this forsaken place, and it was unharmed. He picked it up. Within it was his Huntsman costume and his weaponry, which had been patterned after that of the visiting Green Arrow of Earth-Two. Whatever this bag was made of, it was durable, no doubt about that.
“For now, comrade,” Vostov agreed. “For now.”
Robert “Red” Crandall was not a happy man. The fifty-something, red-haired, bearded American CIA agent looked at the reports on his desk and knew something strange was definitely going on in Mozambique, and he didn’t mean just the involvement of the Cubans.
Crandall prided himself on his professionalism in his chosen career, which included spending time in his younger years as a little-used backup member of the Fightin’ Five, a freedom-loving commando squad devoted to rooting out crime and communist aggression. And once, he and Tom-Tom of the Fightin’ Five even had encountered face-to-face — or face to non-face — someone who may have been the Question. (*) While he was no longer able to be in the field himself anymore since losing a leg to a Soviet spetznaz several years ago, he still could and did operate out of this office building in Pretoria, South Africa, supervising far too many operations with too few personnel and definitely nowhere near enough funds for the missions the home office wanted him to operate.
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Question: Times Past, 1968: A Dark Night, Chapter 2: Lost Souls and Parallel Worlds.]
He lit a cigarette, one of the harsh black ones so popular in this country. It made him cough, and for the millionth time he vowed he would quit soon. Then he turned his attention back to the report on his desk. According to John N’kruma, some creature was destroying villages without regard to political or tribal affiliation. The Soviets were concerned enough to send one of their new agents, a costumed archer called the Huntsman, while the counterrevolutionary pro-West band he and N’kruma helped support had brought in a specialist of their own called the Huntress. Given the similarity of their chosen names and specialties, Crandall couldn’t help but wonder if those two were connected somehow.
Now something else was causing him to begin swearing again. The latest report from Langley told him that a special agent was coming, and judging from the decoded message, this was another one of those costumed freaks, though he didn’t know who.
On the plus side, his old friend Vic Sage would soon be in-country to do a story on the improving race relations here, and that, he hoped, would give him a chance to relax and forget about the commotion northeast of here, at least for one night.
Vladimir Vostov spotted the native women moving quickly away from the scene of the violence, and he decided not to tell Captain Morales where they were heading. Instead, he watched as the Cuban soldiers who had not been killed or injured fanned out in the direction the explosive arrow had come from. He considered his next moves. Despite his orders, he had no desire to continue working with these men, whom he looked upon as scum.
Scum was exactly what Captain Juan Morales thought of the Russian attaché to his unit. But he was more concerned now with finding out who had attacked them. But when his men came back from the outer fringes of this former village, they had nothing to show for their hunt except a lone feather someone had planted in the ground, a feather dyed an odd shade of green. He was furious.
While the Cuban officer was chewing out his men, Vostov caught a glimpse of a bulky figure who seemed to be motioning to him. Quietly, he slipped away from the scene of carnage and destruction and into the forest, following the briefly glimpsed figure. This figure, who had tantalized him by showing up, briefly waving, and then disappearing, was a large black man in green fatigues unlike like what the Cubans wore. Vostov suspected it could be a trap, but his instincts kept him moving forward as he carried his duffelbag on his back. He wasn’t sure what it was made of, but seeing as how it had been thrown clear of the blast and wasn’t scorched, he figured it had to be some new miracle material, and he might yet need the costume and weapons contained within.
Finally done chewing out his men and admitting that they were up against a dangerous, sneaky foe, Captain Morales looked around, noticed the women were gone, and cursed. “All right, burial detail. I lost seven good men, but I still have fourteen of my muchachos, and that’s good.” Turning to his sergeant, he said, “I see that the Russian pansy has also left. Possibly the sight of blood and guts was too much for his delicate sensibilities, eh?”
Sergeant Gonzalez laughed, handed his captain a cigar, and put one into his own mouth. “There is much difference between shooting at targets and having someone shoot at you. Perhaps the longhaired one went with the women to exchange beauty tips, eh, comrade Captain?”
Both men laughed.
As the sergeant organized a burial detail, the captain swore once more. If this Russian dandy showed up again, the captain thought as he rubbed his jaw, chances were that the official report would tell of how he had been killed by enemy action. After all, no comrade of the glorious people’s revolutionary liberation forces would ever kill a comrade — not intentionally, anyway.
Following the fatigue-clad, large black man, Vladimir Vostov began to seriously wonder if he was doing the right thing. Suddenly, he heard an ear-splitting roar and felt the ground shake, and he lost his balance and toppled to the ground. As he fell, a body landed on top of him, and a hand went over his mouth. Then a voice spoke in English to him, “Don’t move. We’re safe here.”
The ground continued to shake and rumble for several minutes as trees fell and the roaring continued. There were several shouts and then silence; as quickly as it began, it all stopped, and within moments there was nothing but the usual insect and bird sounds of the African savanna. Whatever had created the ruckus had either vanished or moved on.
Vostov felt the body on top of him get up, and then large hands helped him to his feet, and he found himself looking into a round black face marked with tribal scars on his cheeks and wearing a big grin. “That devil big trouble — worse than the invaders.” A hand was stretched out. “I am Kwame. Welcome to my land.”
“You speak English very well, Kwame,” Vostov said, extending his hand and inwardly grateful that his education had included English as well as Spanish.
“So do you, my friend. I at first thought you were a Cuban, but when I saw you knock down that infidel leader, I wondered maybe you were not.”
“Soviet — Georgian, actually,” Vostov said with a shrug. “And that captain really rubs me the wrong way, as the Americans put it.”
“Rubs the wrong way, yes, yes, good phrase. Now, come. I show you something.” Kwame picked up Vostov’s duffelbag, weighed it, then tossed it to the longhaired white man. “Odd feel to it. Does not feel like there is a Kalashnikov in there.”
“No, no rifle,” Vostov said, deciding not to add more information.
They walked a short ways and came upon a section of land that had been devastated. “Is big devil. It comes, destroys, and goes, no one knows where,” Kwame said. “It’s a big lizard, possibly a dinosaur like I have seen in movies, but never have I heard of one that could appear and disappear like this one.”
Vostov looked around at the total carnage of plant life and several dead animals. He whistled. “I have never seen anything like this,” Vostov said, picking up the remains of a shattered spear. “Someone must have tried to stop it.”
“A spear? Someone tried to use a spear on it? Their body may be nearby. Perhaps explosive like you used on Jeep might work.”
“I didn’t do that, my friend.”
Kwame looked puzzled, then smiled. “Perhaps you have friends in hiding.”
Vostov shook his head. “Perhaps.”
Lieutenant Herve Marrano was glad that he and his men were soon to reunite with the strike force that Captain Morales had taken off with. Something about this area gave him the willies.
Now, Marrano did not lack for either bravery or machismo, and had, in fact, received spetznaz training. That made his chest inflate with pride daily, to have been selected as one of the rare Cubans to be chosen for that advanced training. However, this section of the savanna caused him and his men to draw closer together and be more wary, alert, and even nervous, and those feelings had nothing to do with reported insurgents allegedly led by a gringa with a nasty temperament.
There was just something not right about this sector, something he could not name, but something that caused him and many of his men to remember their Catholic ancestry and quietly make the sign of the cross and pray. These actions would have had them kicked out of the Communist Party in their homeland, as proper communist soldiers did not give in to such superstitions, but when they heard the screams and shots of their men ahead, all of them stopped and began to pray for courage to saints they had forgotten they knew about.
When they saw the true horror of what was coming at them, some of the men began firing, and others shouted, and Lieutenant Marrano surprised himself by emptying his bladder, even as he emptied his pistol.
In Pretoria, Red Crandall was having his lunch and watching television, which was still fairly new in this country, because for years the conservative Afrikaners in charge had felt that the device was an evil instrument of Satan, but the younger leaders had seen enough of the power of broadcasting in other countries to see it as a valuable tool, if strictly regulated. He was enjoying a syndicated wrestling program out of the good old United States of America.
“Shano to the top rope… wait, Sworde had moved, and Shano doesn’t see it — ooh! No one home as he lands elbow first on empty canvas!”
That was when his intercom buzzed. Crandall turned the sound down on the TV and answered with a surly, “What?”
“Sir, your special visitors are here.”
“OK, fine,” he grumbled. “Give me one minute, then send them in.” He turned off the TV just as Leatherneck Hans Sworde got the pin, and he cleared his lunch off of his desk.
Pretoria was a bustling, modern city, and Crandall’s office was located in the large business district. He had been expecting his special visitors and knew only that one of them would soon be heading northeast to meet with CIA contacts to see what could be done about the growing involvement of the Soviets and their allies in several nearby countries, in particular Mozambique.
Crandall, a red-haired man in his mid-fifties, straightened his tie and sat upright as he buzzed his visitors in. He was surprised when he saw who walked into his office.
The silver-white, blue and red costume of Captain Atom, arguably the greatest action-hero on the planet, was quite familiar to him. But the man with him only looked slightly familiar; he was dressed in a red and yellow costume with a stylized rising sun insignia on his chest, a red mask over the top half of his face, and a samurai-style blond topknot.
“Director Crandall, I am Captain Atom, and this…” The silver-haired man pointed to his masked associate. “…is Judomaster.”
“Judomaster, huh? I thought he was an Oriental.”
“That’s the second Judomaster, the grown-up sidekick of this man,” explained Captain Atom. “This, sir, is the original Judomaster, hero of World War II.”
“Welcome, gentlemen,” said Crandall as his mind struggled to recall something he’d read as a child in the wartime newspapers. “I have to admit I’m confused. I thought the original died back in ’44, or was at least presumed MIA.”
The red-and-yellow-costumed man smiled. “It was 1945, actually, and I didn’t exactly die,” said Judomaster. “I was… well, plucked from my own time during that Crisis a year and a half ago. I’ve been spending my time since then getting acquainted with modern times, and now, thanks to the Captain here, I am once more ready to serve my country — our country.”
Crandall nodded and reached for a folder on his desk. “Well, Judomaster, you picked one hell of a situation to become involved in.” He handed the folder to the martial artist. “I myself am glad I’m not going in-country.”
“How bad can it be?” Judomaster asked as he opened the folder. Scanning it, his eyes widened. “Some sort of monster ravaging the countryside? Surely this is some sort of joke!”
Red Crandall shook his head. “I wish it was.”