by Doc Quantum and CSyphrett
In central China, a man with a top-knot who wore clothing like peasants centuries ago walked into a village. On his shoulders was a wooden yoke with two buckets of water on either end. Reaching the village square, he placed the yoke on the ground and took a sip of the water with a small ladle. The villagers began to cautiously approach the stranger in the square, asking each other where this man could have walked from. The nearest town was ten miles through a heavy jungle. And why had he come here at all? This was the remotest of remote villages. Nobody came here.
The stranger smiled at the gathering villagers as he dipped into his buckets of water. As if he were a traveling entertainer, he tossed the water into the air, making a show of it and smiling as the droplets fell. As the water reached the ground, the villagers watched in awe as scaly green things began forming from the dirt. Their delight at this odd form of entertainment soon turned their smiles into frowns as the strange things began quickly growing in size, appearing almost humanlike. They soon backed away almost as fast as they had gathered around the man, fright finally overpowering their curiosity. But with so many crowded around, those in front had a hard time getting away, since those in the back who couldn’t see were still pushing forward.
“Why have I come here?” the stranger said. “I have come to give you liberty.” And his water demons began to attack the fleeing villagers.
Three days later, the report arrived at the Geneva headquarters of the Dome, the special agency of the United Nations that coordinated action-hero assistance for emergencies and unusual situations internationally. For some unknown reason, seven hundred people had left their homes in the Chinese jungle. Even the local officials that kept watch on the region had vanished without a trace. The Chinese Army had made no headway in their investigation, according to the reports from the security agency in charge. Ling Cho, the intelligence operative who acted as the Dome’s Chinese liaison, had requested superhuman assistance.
Sarge Steel, head of Checkmate, conferred by telephone with his Soviet counterpart Comrade Zastrow over the problem. After an initial argument that served only to remind both parties that the Cold War had not thawed in the least, Zastrow finally agreed to allow Steel to send a small U.S. superhuman force into China to assess the situation. Conferring with Captain Atom on options, Steel made a formal request for the ostensible help of the Sentinels of Justice, on one condition. With few heavy hitters available to the team at the moment, he requested that Captain Atom bring four powerful operatives with criminal backgrounds along with himself and Blue Beetle, the only other available member of the team. These four superhumans needed to be assessed, and although this was an unconventional way to do it, this mission would allow them to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Captain Atom reluctantly agreed to take on the case and requested the files on only three of those superhumans, since the other was already under his command, and he was all too familiar with him. He was also very aware that the Sentinels of Justice currently lacked the firepower it needed to handle dangerous assignments like this, especially when both Nightshade and the Son of Vulcan were busy with missions of their own.
Even the Question claimed to be unavailable, but Captain Atom wondered if Vic Sage merely disagreed with the whole concept of working with supposedly reformed criminals. As a devoted Objectivist and follower of Ayn Rand’s teachings, Sage believed that criminals were criminals just as A is A, and each man was responsible for his own actions. You either followed the law or were a lawbreaker. There was no middle ground. From his point of view, since these individuals had chosen to break the law — they had made conscious decisions to become criminals — they could never be genuine heroes, and he refused to associate with them.
Sage was never very agreeable at the best of times, but he had seemed less disagreeable with the idea of the team when the Sentinels of Justice had just four members — Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, and the Question — and met only occasionally, as they had before the Crisis. With only Blue Beetle able to join Captain Atom as the Sentinels contingent, the atomic avenger realized the team would have to go on a recruiting drive very soon if the team were to survive.
But Captain Atom was weary. For a man who was as physically close to being an immortal demigod as one could be, weariness of the body was never a problem for him, except on those rare occasions when he had expended too much energy and had not allowed himself time to recharge. Weariness of the soul, however — well, he was just as susceptible to that as anyone.
It had only been a week since the Challenger disaster, but it might as well have been a month. Captain Atom had lost friends and colleagues when the Space Shuttle Challenger suddenly broke apart and exploded little more than a minute into its flight that morning of January 28, 1986. Unlike the explosion that had transformed Captain Nathaniel Adam into the atomic avenger called Captain Atom, this very real disaster had taken the lives of seven good men and women. And Captain Atom had been nowhere around to stop it.
Ever since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Captain Atom had felt a sense of personal responsibility whenever he had similarly failed to prevent tragedy. He was very likely the most powerful man in the world, yet he felt more helpless now than he had ever been. It was his friends who had died this time — fellow astronauts. He should have been there at the Cape to monitor the takeoff, but instead he had been in the Southwest on a routine weapons testing mission for the government.
The Challenger disaster sent him into overdrive as he tried to keep himself too busy to think too much about the implications. As the world’s chief protector, he had been given a great burden, and he found himself buckling under from the pressure. Even an atomic man could not keep going for too long without something giving way. He knew he had been expending far too much energy in his quest to safeguard the world, leaving himself little left over to respond to disasters such as the Challenger explosion or anything new that came across his desk, such as this situation in China that Sarge Steel had presented him with. Still, he welcomed it as a diversion to his mind from the grief over the loss of his fellow astronauts. After all, if he was not in charge of this mission, who would be? There was no one else around capable of stepping up to the plate.
Now, at the Sentinel Building in New York City, Captain Atom sat alone at the round table the Sentinels of Justice used as its meeting table. He sighed as he scanned through a classified government file of three costumed individuals whom the media regarded as action-heroes; from his point of view their motivations remained murky at best. What little he personally knew about them hadn’t reassured him, either. Before they were action-heroes, they were criminals who worked for a local mobster with powerful connections. Since their debut, the hotheadedness of the team’s leader hadn’t earned them any friends in the action-hero community, either.
He reexamined each of the files while gathering his thoughts. Sometimes being the leader of an action-hero team was more than he had bargained for. He wondered silently why he had let Sarge Steel talk him into this in the first place. But he knew why. The Dragon Force was long overdue for assessment. And both the government and the Sentinels of Justice needed to know where they stood once and for all.
The coordinated attacks last month by genetically created supermen on the various headquarters of the Sentinels of Justice, Checkmate, the Peacemakers (Christopher Smith’s embryonic commando team), and the Dragon Force had brought up a few issues that needed to be dealt with. As far as the investigation itself, so far nothing new had come out of it, but Steel hadn’t given up hope. If they could pin down the identities of the men, he had explained during his post-mission discussion with Captain Atom, they could try to trace their movements before the attack and discover the ringleader. But for the time being, Steel wanted the Sentinels take a closer look at the Dragon Force, a trio of crooks turned crusaders.
The Dragon Force had been active in New York City for two and a half years now, but until the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the trio’s path had not crossed with that of the Sentinels of Justice. The two teams had worked against the same enemies during the Crisis, as had all the world’s action-heroes as well as a multitude of heroes from parallel universes. But that was war, and the Sentinels and the Dragon Force were both too busy to figure each other out. As for himself, Captain Atom only became aware of the full facts from Steel’s files. They told a very interesting story.
In the summer of 1983, a trio of acrobats known as the Flying Fiermonts were released from an eight-month stint in prison. The three had done time after they were caught during an assignment from the Syndicate, one of many the acrobatic trio had performed. The leader of the Flying Fiermonts was Robard Fiermont, a middle-aged athletic man with a mustache and reddish-blonde hair. Before turning to crime, he had been a circus performer and was a world-class athlete. Married at a young age to a woman named Donna Hinckley, they had two children, a son and a daughter who were young adults by 1983. Warren and Christine Fiermont both proved to be just as acrobatically gifted as their father, and the three became a much-sought-after circus act under the name of the Flying Fiermonts.
Unfortunately, by the early 1980s the circus business was not what it once was, and the Haley Circus that employed them had gone bankrupt. Robard soon found that he could not perform his acrobatic act at any other circus, either. Thanks in part too his hot temper, he had made too many enemies, and no circus or acrobatic act was willing to work with him any longer. And after Donna became seriously ill, Robard was desperate to find work — any work.
Finally, he was approached by a representative of crime boss Havoc Muggintore, who knew of his acrobatic skills and offered him and his son and daughter a small job. They were to break into a jewelers and steal a few priceless jewels kept in a vault. Since the security was tight, it required the thieves to be both very quick and very agile. All three of the Flying Fiermonts agreed to do the job for Muggintore, and after the job was completed, they were able to pay for not only Donna’s hospital bills but all their other bills as well. The Syndicate, pleased with their work, offered them other such similar jobs, and soon the Flying Fiermonts had fallen into a life of crime.
Still, until their arrest in 1982, Robard had managed to keep his criminal activities a complete secret from Donna. His wife was an honest woman, and Robard didn’t want her to know how far he and their children had fallen. It had worked, and even her health had begun to improve. Then the arrest changed everything. Donna learned about the secret criminal lives of her closest family members, and the knowledge was devastating. During the humiliating experience of the trial, she became ill once more. This time, however, her imprisoned family was not around to help her.
While they were in prison, Robard and his children learned that they had been set up. Muggintore had betrayed the trio by pinning the blame on them, although they never learned why. After their release, they confronted Muggintore’s henchmen and vowed never to work for the Syndicate again. This put them on the run, since they knew too much about the criminal organization. In an act of spite, Muggintore had Donna killed and topped it off by framing the Fiermonts not only for her murder but also for possession of cocaine. This made it personal, beginning a blood feud — a vendetta.
Arrested once more, the Fiermonts were brought to police headquarters. There, they momentarily broke free and managed to escape to the roof. And that was when things truly changed for them. By a strange twist of fate, an amazing flying ship called the Dragon had landed atop the roof only moments earlier in order to show off its capabilities to police officials, and the Fiermonts now managed to evade the police by running inside it. Within the strange ship they met a scientist named Dr. Franklin Henney, who obligingly explained what in the world this odd craft was and how it came to be.
A top secret scientific program called Project Dragon, headed by Dr. Franklin Henney, had used a very advanced and completely unknown kind of technology to create the strange flying craft known as the Dragon. The Dragon was a crescent-shaped white ship with a red fin equipped with four retractable tentacles capable of grappling anything. It looked like something out of a fantasist’s dream. But the most amazing thing about the ship was that its crew of three — when wearing special white full-body suits with birdlike helmets and red capes — were symbiotically connected with the Dragon. In fact, the crew essentially became the Dragon when they were so equipped.
Captain Atom noted in the margins of the file that, while Henney was a definite genius, he had never been known to create anything like this before, and he speculated that it might have extraterrestrial origins. He also made a note to find out Dr. Henney’s current role regarding the Dragon. Had he simply given up his supposed life’s work to three criminal acrobats? It didn’t seem very likely, and he wondered if there was more to the story than was explained in the files. From what he could tell, Henney seemed to have a personal grievance of his own against Muggintore, and he wondered if the crime boss had in some way acted against the scientist. But none of this information was in the files.
According to those files, Dr. Henney’s stated goal for the Dragon and its crew was to use it to fight crime. By another strange coincidence, he knew of Muggintore’s heavy investments in several scientific firms and had learned that the gangster wanted to use super-science to aid his criminal empire. The Dragon would thus be a tool to stop Muggintore and his plans, and the ship’s crew would essentially be three individuals who form a single unit called the Dragon Force. Donning the three crew uniforms, the Flying Fiermonts became the Dragon Force. Each of them took on the role of a different crew member.
Robard Fiermont donned one crew uniform and was immediately connected directly with the ship’s brain, which granted him vast intelligence, and he became Mindfire. Warren Fiermont donned another crew uniform, receiving extra energy impulses from the Dragon, and became the ship’s fighting fist, the mighty Battleclaw. Christine Fiermont donned the third crew uniform, which contained very powerful propulsion jets, and became the swift-moving Speedwing. All three were equipped with headpieces for communication between each other and with the ship, power blasters fed with pure energy, and propulsion jets for flying.
Thus equipped, the Dragon Force immediately attacked the midtown building that Havoc Muggintore used as his fortress and criminal headquarters. There, they fought a menace invented by a criminal scientist employed by Muggintore known only as the Formulator. This menace was a huge android called the Devil’s Organist because it contained an apparatus on its chest that looked like musical pipes from an organ, but which were created only for destruction. The monstrous android destroyed several police helicopters before it finally came head-to-head with the Dragon ship. The Devil’s Organist was unable to destroy the Dragon and vice versa. It was a stalemate, but not for long.
Using his ship-enhanced ability to rapidly calculate a battle strategy, Mindfire used the Dragon‘s grappling tentacles against the Devil’s Organist while he sent Speedwing and Battleclaw against the android. After a terrific battle, the Dragon Force managed to destroy that monstrous robotic weapon.
During the battle, however, both Muggintore and the Formulator escaped. Observed and assisted by Dr. Henney and Project Dragon, the Dragon Force spent the next several months battling the various menaces that Muggintore sent against them, and soon the trio had unwittingly gained a reputation with the public as action-heroes like the members of the Sentinels of Justice. They were even granted a pardon by the governor of New York, who was grateful for their help to protect the city. As for Muggintore himself, he died of a heart attack in early 1985, and the Formulator went into hiding. After two years of fighting, the Dragon Force was finally able to take a breather.
A few months passed, and then the Dragon Force was put back into action as the events of the Crisis on Infinite Earths began in the summer of 1985. While the Sentinels of Justice remained behind to protect the United States as best it could, the Dragon Force was tapped to protect the Far East. If the Crisis proved anything, it was that Earth-Four lacked enough heroes to give the world the protection it needed.
Since the Crisis, the Dragon Force had laid low. The Sentinels of Justice had taken on a more active role than it previously had to fill the gap, and new action-heroes seemed to be emerging all the time, such as the Paragons of Europe. Robard Fiermont had expressed an interest in finally retiring the Dragon Force altogether. But now Project Dragon had been approached by Sarge Steel of Checkmate with a proposal. Project Dragon was promised a government grant if the Dragon Force did one thing: work alongside the Sentinels of Justice. After some hesitation, Robard agreed on behalf of his family.
Now, Sarge Steel was using his resources at Checkmate to compile a database of available action-heroes and masked crime-fighters that could be summoned during an emergency. Neither Steel nor Captain Atom trusted the members of the Dragon Force, but they were a powerful if private trio, and their capabilities and loyalties needed to be assessed. If these criminals had truly reformed, they could prove to be important allies. However, if their reformation was all an act, the Sentinels had to expose their deception and restrain them. Captain Atom hoped that the former was true, but he had his doubts about the ability of criminals to really reform.
Speaking of criminals, Captain Atom’s old foe Major Force had recently been placed in the custody of the Captain Atom Project as an operative in emergencies. So far Major Force had been playing ball, but Atom had forestalled his use on the field so far. Besides the fact that the villain was slowly dying as a side effect of his super-powers, as Emil Forsa Major Force had been a career criminal and had worked as a henchman before Professor Danton Koste transformed him into a nuclear man similar to Captain Atom. The Project had yet to determine whether Major Force could be useful at all.
Still, Captain Atom agreed that both the Dragon Force and Major Force needed to be assessed. And the best way to do that, Steel maintained, was to place them alongside the Sentinels of Justice on a case. And according to Steel, this mysterious situation in China was just the case for them.
But there was no more time for reviewing files. It was time to go to Geneva, and he had to bring a special passenger along with him.