Sentinels of Justice: The Calm Before the Storm, Chapter 1: Captain Atom

by Doc Quantum and CSyphrett

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A man dressed in an unseasonal trenchcoat and hat paused in what looked like a casual stroll at dusk through a suburban neighborhood in Westchester, New York. He stopped to look across the street where a young blond woman opened the door for her husband. She was pregnant and seemed very happy. As she greeted her husband with a hug, she gazed into the distance, and a strange look passed over her face.

“Goodbye, Janet,” the man muttered quietly, then turned around, sure that he had been seen but determined not to be recognized. He needed to find a quiet place to collect his thoughts.

Turning around the corner, the man headed for a nearby school, where he found a utility shed. Although it was locked, he easily passed through the wall and inside threw off his trenchcoat and hat to reveal a shock of wavy white hair and the red, blue, and silver costume of Captain Atom. His face was blank as he thought about what he had seen, and he rested one hand on a work bench inside the shed.

A flash of recognition passed on his face as he brushed his hand against something on the bench. It was a screwdriver. He smiled as he picked it up. Nathaniel Christopher Adam had led an interesting double life, and all because of a screwdriver just like this one.

A U.S. Air Force career man, he had been a physics prodigy at the age of eight and was reputed to know more about rocketry, missiles, and the universe than any man alive. He was a specialist of the missile age, a trained and dedicated soldier, a chemist, a ballistics genius, and the frontrunning candidate for becoming the first man in space.

In a way, he did become the first man in space, but not as intended. It would later be John Glenn who would ultimately step into his role as the first American to orbit the Earth.

On that fateful day in January, 1960, Captain Nathaniel Adam was making a few last-minute adjustments in an Atlas missile with only three minutes remaining until blast-off, when he dropped his screwdriver.

Becoming entangled in the inner recesses of the rocket while desperately trying to retrieve the screwdriver, he was startled out of his single-mindedness by an announcement that only one minute was remaining. He knew it would take at least one full minute to get himself out of there, and he prepared himself as best he could for the ride.

The missile launched as planned, although an attempt was made at the last second to stop it. It was too late. His friends and fellow officers watched in horror as the Atlas missile rose into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, there to a certain death for Adam.

The heat generated within the missile as it rose higher and higher, and the tremendous G-forces had their effect on the Air Force officer. At three hundred miles above the Earth, the missile — outfitted with an atomic warhead — exploded.

The explosion generated was awesome. And at the center of it all was a former human figure now reduced to scattered particles at the instant of fission.

Back on Earth, his superior General Clinton Eining mourned his loss. His best friend, Sergeant Jeff “Gunner” Goslin, wept silently in his memory.

Then Gunner heard a voice, seemingly from within his own mind. It was Captain Adam! He was alive and at the launch-pad.

Ordering everyone away as instructed, General Eining and Sgt. Goslin cautiously approached the glowing figure of Captain Adam. Warning them away, he explained that he was now as radioactive as U-235. He had somehow been reintegrated after the missile’s explosion and wasn’t entirely human.

He outfitted himself with a specially constructed uniform of diulustel, a special lightweight metal developed to shield radiation, which converted the escaping radiation into another frequency in the light spectrum. Captain Adam then displayed his newfound power to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the President’s top military aide at Cape Canaveral. The following day, Captain Adam gave a private demonstation to the thirty-fourth President of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave him his code name of Captain Atom.

A reporter had learned of the explosion and Captain Adam’s supposed death, however, and from this point on, Nathaniel Adam’s survival was kept top-secret.

In those Cold War days, Captain Atom proved to be America’s greatest hero, secretly protecting America and the world itself against alien invasions and a multitude of unusual but powerful threats. He continued his close relationship with the White House when Eisenhower’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, was sworn into office.

Kennedy’s heart was for space travel, but the extraterrestrial invasions that Captain Atom had stopped threatened to put a halt to his space program. So Kennedy soon sent Captain Atom on a series of top secret deep space missions that took him away from Earth for many months at a time. It was during one of those missions that JFK was assassinated. Captain Atom had never forgiven himself for not being there to save him.

Captain Atom was not nearly as close with Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, as he had been with Kennedy and Eisenhower before him. But since Johnson was content to continue in Kennedy’s footsteps as far as he was concerned, Captain Atom continued his deep space missions for the next few years, a time in his life when he experienced his most bizarre adventures. He befriended a space princess whom he helped out several times. He met several other heroes like him, who had strange powers unlike the rest of their species. And he even met a man calling himself Ezekiel Adam who claimed to be his descendant from the far future, and he had the powers to prove it.

His deep space adventures continued until 1965, when he finally settled back on Earth for the time being. And in the following year the public finally learned of his existence and the important role he had played in America’s security.

But then fears about the radiation he generated began to worry the general public. It was questioned why he wore a mask, if he was a hero. This all came to a head when Captain Atom had to summon up all of his power to shut down a nuclear reactor gone wild while in a weakened state, leaving him utterly powerless. A renegade scientist named Professor Danton Koste, who had been the one to tamper with the reactor, had a henchman named Emil Forsa unmask Captain Atom on nationwide television. The action-hero’s powers eventually began to return, and he soon escaped his captor. (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See Captain Atom (Charlton) #83-84 and Secret Origins: The People Versus Major Force.]

Returning to Cape Canaveral, he allowed himself to be sprayed from head to toe with an experimental new liquid metal. This metal — which was rumored to have been retrieved from a fallen UFO — could be absorbed into his skin, changing him back into human form, and was absolutely radiation-proof. Upon triggering a reaction, the metal would become visible and display his new uniform, while completely containing the excessive radiation. He then tracked down Professor Koste and brought him to justice.

He continued to be active over the next couple of decades, gaining allies in heroes such as Nightshade, the third Blue Beetle, and the Question, among others. These heroes and others banded together occasionally as the Sentinels of Justice, most notably during the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Captain Atom was still the nation’s greatest hero. Some called him the world’s greatest. And as Colonel Nathaniel Adam, he had become one of the lead spokespersons for NASA.

Still, his relationship with the military had undergone a few bumps over the years. He had always had a friendly relationship with his superior, General Clinton Eining, who had been as much of a father to him as his own father had been. In 1968, General Eining spearheaded the Captain Atom Project, which was a secret branch of the USAF that oversaw Captain Atom’s missions, providing all necessary support, including intelligence and clean-up. In truth, it was merely a formalization of something that already existed, but it was a vastly improved support system.

Unlike the good Captain, however, Eining was a mortal man who had been middle-aged when Nathaniel Adam became the atomic action-hero. By the late 1970s, General Clinton Eining was pushing eighty years old and was forced into retirement, replaced as project head by the up-and-coming General Wade Wolfe.

Captain Atom had been on another long series of deep-space missions at the time, and he had returned to find that Wolfe had replaced Eining without the action-hero’s knowledge. He was not happy about this turn of events, especially since he could name at least a dozen USAF generals more worthy than Wolfe to head the project. But Eining’s pet project had become a very low priority in recent years, and only an unworthy general like Wolfe had been considered. Captain Atom warned the military brass that they had made a mistake, but he himself had less clout than ever before. His relationship with the White House had grown cold ever since Nixon took office. The then-current president was Jimmy Carter, who had a very different way of running things than Captain Atom was used to. All the action-hero’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and he was forced to grudgingly accept Wolfe as head of the Captain Atom Project and as his own immediate superior. General Wolfe had not helped matters much.

In 1980, Captain Atom had been forced to take drastic measures in order to save the life of his Soviet counterpart, Redstar. (*) Like Captain Atom, Redstar’s existence had been kept a state secret for several years. Although U.S. intelligence had heard varying rumors about the Soviet nuclear man’s existence, it was not until the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow that Redstar was finally revealed to the world. Captain Atom met Redstar soon afterward and recognized the man as a Soviet cosmonaut named Igor Kriss, whom he had once rescued twenty years earlier. Kriss was able to return the favor when the two fought off an invasion by the extraterrestrials known as the Space Prowlers, and Redstar saved Captain Atom’s life, endangering his own life in the process.

[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Origins: Times Past, 1965: Redstar Rising.]

Captain Atom recovered to find that Redstar had saved the world — not just the Soviet Union — from the Space Prowlers but had paid a terrible price in doing so. Like Captain Atom years earlier, Redstar’s radiation suit had punctured, leaving him drained and weakened at a crucial moment, and he had expended all his power to destroy the alien space fleet. He was also on the verge of death. Figuring out that the only way to save him was to make a sacrifice of his own, Captain Atom was able to transfer the liquid metal that contained his radiation onto the body of Igor Kriss.

The former Soviet cosmonaut recovered and left with deep gratitude and friendship between them, but General Wolfe saw Captain Atom’s actions as those of a traitor to the United States. Wolfe wanted to have Captain Atom court-martialed for saving Redstar’s life, but for some reason he changed his mind. The atomic action-hero would not learn why for almost two years. Meanwhile, Captain Atom had to wear his original diulustel costume until more of the experimental liquid metal could be made. Although Captain Atom didn’t know it at the time, General Wolfe personally saw to it that the liquid metal was kept beyond the action-hero’s reach.

In 1982, Captain Atom’s warnings about General Wade Wolfe were all given validity when the general proved himself to be a traitor to the human race. Two days before Nathaniel Adam’s scheduled wedding date with his then-fiancé, Wolfe sold out Captain Atom to a race of extraterrestrials in exchange for advanced technology. These Gamemasters of Ragnath pitted Captain Atom against a number of powerful opponents and even kidnapped his fiancé to manipulate the action-hero.

After defeating the extraterrestrials and returning to Earth with his fiancé, the furious Captain Atom quit the military. The lifelong USAF man had finally had enough of the military’s shenanigans in recent years and wanted nothing more to do with it. He even began to wonder if he was better off permanently living in deep space, where he had spent much of his time over the past decades.

It was then that his old friends General Clinton Eining and Jeff “Gunner” Goslin came to his rescue. They ensured that General Wade Wolfe was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the military for his traitorous actions. Then General Eining gained the ear of the current president, Ronald Reagan, and was reinstated as head of the Captain Atom Project, with Gunner as his assistant. Together, Eining and Gunner tracked down the action-hero and coaxed him back into the military.

Captain Atom’s former close relationship with the White House was also restored, and the action-hero was happy to find that President Reagan saw eye to eye with him on several things. Thanks to his ear at the White House, Captain Atom was provided with a supply of the experimental liquid metal and was able to replace his old diulustel costume with the new one once again, this time for good. It seemed that his glory days had returned.

Still, General Eining was already very old and growing older, and Captain Atom worried about who would finally replace him when Eining was simply too feeble to do his job any longer. If it were up to him, he’d put Gunner in the top spot, but since he was an enlisted man instead of an officer, his old friend lacked only the credentials and not the skills for the job. And so Captain Atom remained somewhat uneasy with his place in the military.

His personal relationships had also ebbed and flowed over the years. Eve Eden, also known as Nightshade, had once been his girlfriend and had remained a close friend. But they had grown apart in many ways over the last two decades and rarely saw each other except at infrequent Sentinels of Justice meetings.

A few years ago, Nathaniel Adam had found what he thought was love with a woman named Janet Rogers. He even proposed to her, and the two planned their wedding with great fervor. But it was not to be. Janet had turned out to have a number of fears about marrying him that she had never told him, and she chose to leave him at the altar on their planned wedding day in 1982. Many months later, during a chance encounter on a New York City street, Janet confessed that she feared she would grow old while Nathaniel would always look the same. She also feared that they would never be able to have children, or at least children who were normal in every way. The two had parted amicably and had not seen each other again.

Nathaniel later heard that Janet had married a normal man and was starting a family. She looked happy, and deep down he was happy for her. He was happier still that he had not prevented her from living a normal life.

But he had himself begun to fear that he was losing touch with his humanity. As of late, he found more enjoyment in searching out the mysteries of quantum physics than in being an action-hero. In short, his life had become stale, at least on the surface. Something needed to change in his life, and soon. Could another screwdriver drop and change his life in an instant? Only time would tell.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, Captain Atom phased through the utility shed and took off into the air, heading for his apartment in Washington, D.C., one of a few residences he kept. With his current sad state and a funeral of a fellow action-hero at Arlington to attend tomorrow, he yearned to see an old friend to help cheer him up.

Are you busy this evening, Eve? he thought to himself as he soared through the sky.

***

Hours later, Nathaniel Adam stared in puzzlement at the blonde who had suddenly appeared in the bed of his Washington, D.C., apartment. They were old friends, and she had always been able to cheer him up before. With the funeral tomorrow, though, it wouldn’t be a good time for either of them. Nevertheless, he had been trying to contact her for hours now, only to have her suddenly show up from out of nowhere.

He dialed a number on his telephone. “Sandra,” he said. “It’s Nate.” A pause. “Yes, I thought you of all people would probably already be aware of the situation by now. I’m taking her to the hospital as soon as I hang up.” Another pause. “Yes, that’s the one. I’ll meet you there.”

The man known as Captain Atom hung up the phone, and he gently picked up her comatose body. “Where in the world did you come from, Eve?” he whispered as he phased their bodies through the wall and carried her off into the night sky.

***

Dr. Tom Brent watched the costumed figure wait in the solarium in his hospital. He couldn’t believe it. He recognized him as the action-hero called Captain Atom, whom Dr. Brent had even briefly met once when he was a young intern in the early 1960s. In the news reports the premiere action-hero always looked so confident and poised, but now he looked completely shaken as he waited for news about his companion, Nightshade. Dr. Brent didn’t know what to tell him. For all intents and purposes, she was a vegetable. It was only out of respect for her privacy that Dr. Brent kept her identity a secret. But even he knew who Eve Eden was, and he shuddered to think what would happen if Senator Eden learned not only that his daughter was in a coma but was also the masked action-heroine known as Nightshade.

The red-haired doctor had begun heading down the corridor to tell Captain Atom the bad news when a masked woman wearing a revealing dark blue costume and a hooded purple cape walked into the room. The doctor paused to give the two a moment of privacy before he went in. After a few moments of waiting, Dr. Brent finally pushed on the door as if he had just arrived.

“What’s the prognosis, Doctor?” Captain Atom asked, turning to face the newcomer.

“Still the same,” Dr. Brent admitted. “Vegetative with no indication of cause.”

“I would like to see her,” said the masked woman with a sad tone in her voice. Before the doctor had a chance to ask for her name, she seemed to guess his question and said, “They call me Phantom Lady.”

“Ah, of course,” said Dr. Brent, now recognizing her as a mystery-woman from the 1940s. He frowned slightly as he realized she looked no older than thirty, but in reality she would have to have been in at least her mid-sixties by now. “You should know that she won’t be able to respond to you. She probably won’t even know you’re there.”

“We’ll see about that,” Phantom Lady said as she indicated for the doctor to lead the way.

After the two exchanged words, Captain Atom realized that magic was the only option left to them. He turned and quietly asked the mystery-woman who had become an expert in magic over the last twenty-five years, “Can you do anything for her?”

“We’ll see, Adam,” the sorceress repeated, softly this time. She knew how much the young woman meant to him. “We’ll see.”

Dr. Tom Brent stepped to one side to let Phantom Lady examine Nightshade. She had only been missing for a few hours, but during that time she had suffered — besides her obvious physical trauma — some kind of mental blow, according to Captain Atom. There was no telling what kind of effect that had on her.

Phantom Lady had been leaning over Nightshade when she suddenly vanished. Although he had never been a superstitious man, Dr. Brent silently wished her luck, wherever she was.

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