by CSyphrett and Doc Quantum
Emil Forsa had gained his powers after the rogue scientist Professor Danton Koste used him as a guinea pig in an experiment to duplicate Captain Atom’s powers. For fifteen years now, he used his powers as Major Force for personal gain and had battled not only the Captain himself but also the Sentinels of Justice on several occasions. Throughout his life, he hadn’t given one thought to anyone but himself, and although his career as a super-villain had been destructive and reckless, it had never been downright evil. He didn’t kill people unless he had no other choice, and he hadn’t taken a life yet.
That was why, when given the opportunity during the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths to join in with an army of super-villains from several parallel worlds to murder all of Earth-Four’s heroes and enslave the human race, he bowed out. He wanted no part in this scheme, which went far beyond robbing banks. There was no profit in this. Besides, not long after gaining his powers, he had learned he had a fatal disease. The very thing that had made him special was also going to take his life eventually. And so, when he was finally captured and sentenced this last time, he was actually pleased when he learned he was going to be placed into the custody of the Captain Atom Project. His old enemy wasn’t his favorite person, but at heart he knew he was a good man and would do everything he could to save even the life of one of his enemies. So Emil Forsa decided he would try doing the one thing he’d never attempted before — turn over a new leaf. But he still wasn’t sure if this reforming thing would take.
“I’m going to bring you to the training area so you can meet the team,” Captain Atom said. The two had arrived at the Dome minutes ago after a flight across the Atlantic, and they now walked through the hallways of the Geneva-based agency of the United Nations. The building was still relatively unused, since only the Paragons had begun using it as a base of operations, and although the Peacemaker had assessed the Paragons and vouched for them, that team wasn’t busy enough to use it much yet. (*) This visit would serve to assess the Dome’s suitability as a remote headquarters for the Sentinels of Justice if and when such a need ever arose. “I want to know that you can work with the veterans before we head out on our mission.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Paragons: Deus ex Astra, Book One: Visitations and The Paragons: Deus ex Astra, Book Two: World Tree.]
“Yessir, Cap’n,” said Major Force, mock-saluting him.
Captain Atom sighed. “Knock it off, Forsa.”
“But I thought this was a military unit, sir,” Major Force said, scornfully wearing a puzzled look on his face as he fell into a march. He knew he was taking advantage of the hero’s good graces, but he couldn’t help but make fun of this so-called paragon of virtue. “I’m just followin’ military protocol.”
“Enough,” said Captain Atom dismissively as he led the way toward the training rooms. “You might call yourself Major, Emil, but I’m the only one here with any rank in the military.”
“Aw, you’re just sore ’cause I pulled off your mask on TV,” said Forsa. “It’s been twenty years, Cap’n — get over it.” The two had been enemies for so long, it was hard for the super-villain-turned-government stooge to treat the hero with any respect. After all, he was the man who unmasked Captain Atom on national TV in 1966, and that was a few years before Emil Forsa gained his powers. (*) The two had a long history together that couldn’t easily be discarded.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “After the Fall, a New Beginning,” Captain Atom (Charlton) #84 (January, 1967).]
Captain Atom sighed again and wondered once more why he had he let Steel talk him into this.
It was a couple of hours later when Sarge Steel arrived at the Dome with the three members of the Dragon Force. He had traveled to Geneva in a private jet and had rendezvoused with the trio, who had been given clearance to fly there in the Dragon ship. Meeting the Fiermonts in the hangar facility at the Dome, he noted that the Blue Beetle’s Bug was already docked there.
Engaging in some terse small talk that quickly turned into uncomfortable silence, Steel led the three members of the Dragon Force on a tour through the hallways of the Dome, showing them the temporary quarters where they or any other international heroes could be stationed. Finally, after enquiring about the Sentinels members, the Dome staff directed him toward the gym facilities. Pausing momentarily at the thick door that led into the gym, he checked his watch, then opened the door with his hand print and motioned the three ex-acrobats to follow.
The gym was occupied by the two members of the Sentinels of Justice and the ward of the Captain Atom Project, who had apparently been spending the time waiting for them to arrive by engaging in a training exercise. Quickly taking in the scene, he guessed that today’s exercise was tag, and Major Force was it. He watched as Captain Atom and Blue Beetle tried to cut off the Major’s escapes with speed and dexterity, but Forsa blocked every move to touch him. Even Captain Atom had problems as Major Force moved fast enough at one point to leave a sparkly after-image.
“Listen up, everybody,” Steel called out. “Come meet your new allies, the Dragon Force.”
Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle turned and stared at Robard, Christine, and Warren Fiermont. Neither attempted a welcoming smile, since they both knew of the Flying Fiermonts’ past and could not bring themselves to muster any enthusiasm at working with them. Next to them, Major Force crossed his arms and began laughing as if at a private joke.
Robard Fiermont, also known as Mindfire, likewise studied the two heroes with cautious eyes. He could tell neither of them approved of the Dragon Force, which was reasonable given the criminal past he shared with his son and daughter. He wanted to learn as much as he could about this team of veterans, and the powers given to him by the Dragon ship made that task rather simple. Although he originally had only increased intelligence, it hadn’t taken much time for him to also develop limited telepathy and telekinesis as his symbiotic link with the Dragon deepened. The backgrounds of these individuals filed through his mind as he looked at each of them. He could see who they really were, even though he couldn’t actually read their thoughts, receiving more of a strong impression than anything, which his mind interpreted as images and words.
Blue Beetle’s mind was fairly standard for an action-hero, as far as Robard was concerned. He had a scientific and analytical mind, but he also had a developed sense of humor that often manifested itself in the midst of battle as a series of barbs and quips against his enemies. As a lawman, he obviously held distrust not only for Major Force but also for the Fiermonts.
The military-minded Captain Atom’s mind was a bit more disciplined than Beetle’s, seemingly assessing any potential weaknesses of each Fiermont, such as pressure points on the Dragon crew uniforms. He was obviously ready to take the Dragon Force down at a moment’s notice, if it proved necessary. He would not be easy to befriend.
Then Mindfire touched Major Force’s mind. Instantaneously, his head was filled with shouting and screaming, and great, unquenchable pain. He winced and broke contact quickly, smelling blood, hearing screams, and feeling agony all over his body. This was a man suffering inwardly from great physical and mental pain. Was he dying? Robard’s son Warren, alias Battleclaw, caught him in his arms as he staggered backward.
“Are you OK, dad?” Battleclaw asked him. The young dark-haired man had been wearing a permanent frown ever since they reached Geneva. It was no secret that he disliked the scrutiny that Sarge Steel wanted to put his family under. He had a heart for battle and presently found it difficult not to lash out against the hostility that was evident in the room. He incorrectly guessed it was that hostility that his father had sensed during this telepathic backlash, and he couldn’t wait until this entire ordeal was over.
“I’m fine, Warren,” said Mindfire. “I think I’m just a bit tired after that long flight.” As the pilot of the Dragon ship, Robard Fiermont often taxed his mind controlling the strange craft, especially when flying a long distance overseas.
“Right,” said Steel. “Go ahead and rest, if you must. You have one hour before you head out on your mission with the others.”
“All right. Thanks,” said the telepath, who nodded a reassuring glance at his daughter Christine. “Don’t worry, honey — I’m really OK,” he said in a telepathic message to the young woman and left the room for the temporary quarters Steel had shown them earlier.
Christine Fiermont, alias Speedwing, had held back and stood to one side, watching as Captain Atom, Major Force, and the Blue Beetle went back to their training, now joined by her brother. Instead of wearing the crew uniform of the Dragon like Mindfire and Battleclaw, she had arrived in a formal dress and jacket to this meeting, not anticipating that Sarge Steel would ask them to jump into battle so soon. She winced as her brother Warren was thrown halfway across the room by the powerful Major Force. Project Dragon had collected files on these people as part of a large crime-fighting database, but reading about them was not the same as actually seeing them in action. She excused herself and went to the temporary quarters that had been provided for her brief stay. There, she pulled out her case and opened it, quickly changing into the white and red Dragon crew uniform before returning to the gym.
Major Force turned and saw her as she stepped into the room. “Well, well, now here’s a real looker,” he said. “Stick close ta me, kid, and I’ll keep you safe ‘n’ warm.”
“Watch it, pal,” warned Battleclaw. “That’s my sister you’re talking to.”
“I can fight my own battles, Warren,” said Speedwing, smiling despite herself as she raced into the fray. Addressing Major Force, she asked him, “Does that pickup line ever work for you?”
“Naw, but there’s gotta be a first time for everything,” Major Force said, laughing in surprise as he ducked from her swift attack.
An hour passed as the five continued their training regimen. Then it was time to head for China to look into the problem. Captain Atom, Major Force, and Blue Beetle piled into the Beetle’s flying craft, the Bug, while Mindfire, Battleclaw, and Speedwing reentered the Dragon.
Several hours later, the two strangely shaped crafts — the Bug and the Dragon — descended vertically in a clearing in the Chinese jungle. Blue Beetle made sure the Bug was clear of the treetops before gently dropping the last few feet. “We’re he-ere…” the Beetle said as he shut the engines off, paraphrasing the famous line from Poltergeist.
“All right, let’s go, Emil,” said Captain Atom.
Major Force grabbed his helmet and adjusted it on his head before following Captain Atom out of the cockpit. The last thing he had ever wanted to do was serve under his old arch-enemy, but life had taken a funny turn for him lately, and he had to learn to roll with the punches. That was something he was familiar with and something he was ready to do. He wondered about the Dragon Force and why they were here at all, but he kept his questions to himself. If it was important enough, he’d find out whatever he needed to know about them later.
Ling Cho, the Chinese intelligence operative who acted as the liaison for the Dome, waited in a Jeep at the edge of the clearing. He nodded at them all in greeting as he approached Captain Atom and shook the American hero’s hand. Captain Atom nodded at the man’s greeting. This man had once been the closest thing Red China had to a hero, although from the West’s point of view he was an enemy spy. The Chinese called him Red Star, not knowing that a Soviet super-agent already existed at that time under the almost-identical name of Redstar. He was an agent of the Chinese spymaster known only as the Red Dragon in the 1960s, and in the two decades since that man’s death, Ling Cho had graduated from being the operative known as Red Star to become the new Red Dragon himself. Well, this is certainly the right country to bring Dragons, thought Captain Atom.
“How bad is the situation?” he asked the Red Dragon. “The report in Geneva was sketchy at best.”
“We don’t know,” admitted Cho in perfect English. “If you will follow me, I have a temporary headquarters set up in the nearby village. The forensics units are still going over the scene.”
“My allies and I would be honored, Red Dragon,” Captain Atom said. “Blue Beetle, here, will be staying with our flying craft as backup if anything should happen.”
“It’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it,” said the Beetle, shrugging.
The others returned to the Dragon, and Mindfire propelled the flying craft forward. Captain Atom and Major Force hovered beside the craft, then flew alongside it as Ling Cho pointed the direction of travel for the Americans.
After several minutes of flight, the small village came into view. Below, they could see Chinese army units wandering the area in a state of readiness. Field hospitals had been set up just outside the village proper for the bodies. Captain Atom landed beside the Dragon as it halted.
“Sir, we have another report,” said a soldier, running to meet the world-famous action-hero, in heavily accented English. “A village was just attacked and destroyed.”
“Where?” asked Captain Atom.
“Ten miles north of here,” said the soldier without asking permission to speak as he normally would for a ranking officer. He pointed in the direction of the village.
“Mindfire, bring the Dragon along,” said Captain Atom. “Let’s go, Major Force — and you, too, Battleclaw.” The American hero grabbed his charges and took to the air. The two raced after him, following the shimmering trail thrown off by the atomic ace.
“Is that it, Captain?” Battleclaw asked, pointing at a pillar of smoke rising in the air over the jungle.
“Distance looks to be right,” said Captain Atom. “Maybe we’re in time to put a stop to this.”
The three descended toward the dying fire hastily, and Major Force and Battleclaw dropped into the burning village while Captain Atom flew in a circular pattern in the sky above to find anyone or anything that might provide a clue as to what happened there. On the ground, Major Force and Battleclaw started their own search for survivors.
Finding a set of footprints leading into the jungle, Major Force followed them slowly, not wanting to be caught by surprise and mauled like those villagers were. Ever since he was changed into an atomic man, Emil Forsa was tough — really tough — but not invulnerable to everything, and being ripped limb to limb wasn’t on his to-do list for today.
Nearby, Battleclaw found a piece of cloth on a branch that pointed him north, and he motioned for Major Force to remain perfectly quiet as they paced along. Battleclaw then heard a sound like water sizzling up ahead and stopped to listen and look more closely. Seeing a small mist unravel among the bushes and trees in front of him, he peered through the mist only to see something move through the trees ahead. Following at a slow pace, he kept a look-out for snares and pitfalls as he tried to keep the other man in sight without alerting him. He hoped this could be the break they were looking for to find out what was going on.
Major Force raised his arm and took aim at the moving figure, preparing to fire an atomic blast at him if needed. He couldn’t quite see the whole man at the same time, and it bothered him that the figure was so slippery. Most people weren’t that gifted in using the terrain as a shield.
The two ex-cons walked forward slowly, senses alert to trouble as Battleclaw wondered why the target had not cleared the area faster than this. It must have taken an hour for the report to reach Ling Cho’s camp. Were the Chinese spotters that fast? He hadn’t seen a radio back at the village when Captain Atom had dropped them off. Suspicion made him uneasy. Something was wrong about this.