by CSyphrett and Doc Quantum
Captain Atom flew over the destroyed area. He also thought something was wrong with the situation in front of him. The report had come in too fast for the Chinese not to have known what was going on, but they had done nothing. They had waited on his team to land. What was wrong with that picture?
Now he had lost sight of both Major Force and Battleclaw on top of his other worries. He should have brought Blue Beetle along, too. The Bug would have been an asset in case they had to defoliate the jungle. Now he and his team were chasing an unknown in a hostile country with no backup. He needed to find Major Force and Battleclaw and then regroup with the others. It was time to bring their various talents together and solve this problem before any excuse could be used to halt what little progress had been made.
Captain Atom zoomed down to the last place he had seen Major Force and Battleclaw. He spotted what appeared to be a deliberately broken branch heading into the jungle and guessed the resourceful Warren Fiermont had left him a clue. He followed in that direction, hovering over the ground and speeding along, leaving a sparkling trail behind him as he avoided the undergrowth and trees.
He reduced his flying speed when he spotted Battleclaw standing behind a tree. He slowed, landing in a slow walk to alert the Dragon Force member to avoid startling him. Battleclaw gestured for silence after glancing at the noisy intrusion. Obviously the young man was watching someone farther down the trail.
After a few minutes, he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “I sent Major Force in to get a closer look at this guy,” Battleclaw whispered. “He’s the only survivor from the village. I don’t know if he can hear us, but he’s just been walking along for a while. Guess the Chinese Army isn’t that big of a deal to him.”
“Maybe they aren’t,” suggested Captain Atom. “Keep on him while I get the others. Something isn’t right here.”
“All right, Captain,” said Battleclaw. He slipped away from the tree to continue his pursuit.
Captain Atom flew south from the spot. He arrived moments later in the government camp and easily spotted the two remaining Dragon Force members. Speedwing stood nearby as Mindfire spoke to Ling Cho. The atomic crusader landed in a puff of wind.
“Mindfire, Speedwing,” Captain Atom said, holding out his hands. “We’re leaving.”
“Excuse me?” said Mindfire. “We just got here, and I’ve been trying to gather information while you’ve been out galavanting in the jungle.”
“Just follow me in the Dragon,” the Sentinels leader said. “Battleclaw and Major Force are on the trail of the person we believe responsible for these crimes.” Without a moment to waste, Captain Atom exploded straight up.
Mindfire shrugged. “Leave it to Warren to find the fight first,” he said. Robard entered the Dragon ship, followed by Christine, and the Dragon took to the air, following Captain Atom north toward where Battleclaw and Major Force were on watch. The Dragon dropped into the tree line and slowly landed on the ground, and Speedwing and Mindfire. The Dragon ship would be kept on hand nearby for an air assault if necessary.
“Battleclaw and Major Force went northwest,” said Speedwing, hand to the side of her helmet as she pointed.
“How do you know?” asked Captain Atom.
“My brother just told me and Dad,” said Speedwing, tapping her helmet to indicate the shared telepathic link the Dragon ship gave the trio. “They’re moving slowly toward some kind of valley.”
Not far away, Battleclaw waited as his sister and father and Captain Atom approached cautiously through the trees. Speedwing was quieter than he was, but Warren Fiermont thought Captain Atom could use a few lessons in discretion — he still glowed too brightly not to be noticed. He abandoned this line of thought as the two took cover where he waited. “He’s still going north as far as I can tell, Captain,” reported Battleclaw. “You’re in charge here. How do you want to handle this?” He let it be known from his tone that he wasn’t comfortable taking orders even from the Sentinels leader, even if he was the world’s greatest action-hero.
“I think Mindfire should approach him and place him under arrest,” said Captain Atom.
“Who should approach him?” said Mindfire, destroyed villages and army outposts flitting through his mind. “If you’re willing to listen, Captain, I can offer you a better strategy.”
“You’re able to pierce any language barrier using your telepathy,” said Captain Atom. “We’ll be right behind you as backup. I just want to see if we have the right man and that this isn’t a wild goose chase.”
Robard regarded the others. Christine and Warren both trusted him implicitly, and he could sense that Captain Atom had a willingness to trust him but was also cautious, believing he could easily fail to live up to expectations. The Sentinels of Justice leader was willing to give him a chance, despite the reservations he held privately. “Right. I’ll go down and talk to him,” said Mindfire, squaring his shoulders. “I’m depending on you, Warren, in case it is the right man.”
“One wrong move, and it’s lights out for him, Dad,” promised Battleclaw.
Mindfire nodded in reply and pushed out from behind his tree, jerkily heading down the jungle trail. He could feel his son’s concentration on protecting him like a solid thing as he hailed the other walker, and he could also sense Major Force nearby, ready to blast the enemy. Whatever happened, he knew the others would shield him from harm.
“Sir, are you from the village south of here?” Mindfire said, using his telepathic powers to clandestinely put the question into the man’s mind in his own language as he put on a face of bluff courtesy for the other man on the trail. Of course, given the fact that he was a white man in the middle of China and was dressed in a white and red costume, he didn’t exactly seem like a casual passerby. “I have some questions about that village, if you don’t mind.”
“I am not from any village south of here,” said the man, lowering the yoke on his shoulders to the ground. Buckets of water were tied to the ends of the yoke by colorful cords. “I do not think I can help you.”
“Have you seen anything strange in the last few hours?” Mindfire asked as he probed gently at the man’s mind, hiding his revulsion as pictures of horror drifted by his mind’s eye. “Anything that seemed out of place?”
“Only you,” said the peasant, straightening his plain cotton jacket. He touched the dipper in one of the buckets, grasping its wooden handle.
“Don’t do that,” Mindfire warned, tensing as he prepared for the confrontation that now seemed inevitable.
“I’m just getting some water to drink,” said the peasant, the long braid of his hair swaying when he moved. It was a hairstyle that had been gone ever since Chairman Mao started his rule.
“Don’t make me blast you,” said Mindfire, raising his arms. “I know you use the water to kill people. Stand up and let go of that spoon.”
“Surely, Mr. Fiermont,” said the man, straightening and holding up his hands. “Jundar always cooperates with the authorities.”
Taken aback at the man’s use of his name and wondering if this Jundar fellow had telepathy of his own, Mindfire stepped forward to move the bucket away from the man. He glanced down at the wooden yoke and buckets for a second as he looked for a place to grab the farm tool, and he was taken by surprise when Jundar kicked him in the face.
Nearby, Major Force winced as the two men started struggling against each other. He didn’t have a clear shot for his atomic blast unless he was willing to shoot through Mindfire to get the target, but he thought that might be frowned upon by Captain Atom and the others.
“Come on, Speedwing,” said Captain Atom, taking flight. “Let’s put a stop to this and take the man in. Keep watch, Battleclaw.” Speedwing moved, becoming a white blur as she shot forward.
Mindfire blocked another kick with his crossed arms. He was a trained circus acrobat and could outmaneuver almost anyone. But he rarely had a chance to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It was amazing what came back when someone was attempting to kill you with his bare hands.
Jundar brought the palm of his hand down on the back of Mindfire’s head, sending the leader of the Dragon Force sprawling to the ground, and he gave Mindfire a kick to the chest to send him rolling away. Spotting the two American heroes approaching, Jundar kicked one of the buckets over. Sparkling water poured out in a humanoid shape as Captain Atom and Speedwing halted their pursuit, looking on in horror as the water grew yards tall.
Stepping to kick the other bucket, Jundar brought his foot back, but before he could strike, the bucket shattered under an energy blast. He looked up, trying to see where the bullet had come from. Obviously, he was at a disadvantage while the sniper was undercover and undetected. It was time for a hostage.
Jundar grabbed Mindfire by the scruff of his neck, jerking him to his feet and applying a neck grip to hold the man in place in front of him. That would have to do against the sniper while he retreated from the scene. His water giant flailed with its arms at the flying Captain Atom and Speedwing. He made a fist gesture to indicate what it should do.
The water giant wrapped its hand around Captain Atom, squeezing against the atomic avenger, causing his vision to fuzz around the edges as the Sentinels leader tried to wrench himself free from its grip. Speedwing circled the battling duo, unable to do much for Captain Atom. She didn’t have the physical power to make a difference. The only thing she could think to do was confront the enemy and hope that her father wasn’t killed by her or the water wizard.
Jundar held Mindfire in front of him, half strangling him in his grip. He was wary of the sniper in the trees, but this woman dressed just like Mindfire didn’t look like much of a threat. “Stand back, woman,” Jundar demanded, “or I will kill your comrade and the American hero.”
“You have already killed hundreds,” said Speedwing, contracting her staff and placing it in its holster on her leg. “I can’t let you go, even if one of us gets hurt. You know that. Stand down, and at least you will get a trial.”
Captain Atom raised his hands against the water giant’s hand, energy surrounding his fingers. He released his nuclear blast into the liquid limb, and water boiled away under the violent assault, releasing him into the air. He ducked under the next blow easily as Jundar focused on Speedwing and Mindfire. He summoned up his force and blasted a hole in the center of the watery colossus. Jundar looked up at the damage, his grip tightening on Mindfire’s neck, choking him.
Speedwing steeled herself against the sight of her father being suffocated and said in a commanding voice, “Last chance — stand down or be killed!”
“Do you think that bluff is going to work?” Jundar said. “You will let me go, or I will break your daddy’s neck.”
From a distance, Battleclaw had been keeping watch as Captain Atom commanded, until he saw that his father was in actual danger of getting killed. “Screw this!” he muttered and took to the air, racing as fast as he could to join the battle.
Captain Atom’s attention was divided between the water giant and the standoff. He was ready to inflict more damage on the giant where it stood, wracked by the villain’s indecision.
Mindfire looked into the eyes of his daughter and knew she was bluffing, just trying to buy time until Captain Atom or Battleclaw could help her rescue him. He also knew that Jundar thought that he could break his neck and have the water giant slam both Captain Atom and Speedwing in one move. Then he could escape from the sniper in the confusion.
He decided his next move was to get out of the way. Bringing both of his hands up, he grabbed the man’s wrists and pulled them down, collapsing his knees. Jundar’s balance was thrown off by the move.
Jundar tried to drag Mindfire back into position, but instead he found himself looking at the man’s fist, now enveloped by a nimbus of energy and ready to blast him. Faster than seemed humanly possible, he thrust his hand out in an attempt to rip out Mindfire’s throat. Two powerful blasts of energy then ripped through him, one from Speedwing, which struck his shoulder, throwing him back. The other, from a few yards away, was shot by Major Force; this bolt of atomic energy blasted Jundar’s head apart like a watermelon, and his lifeless body dropped limply to the ground, followed a moment later by a splash of water as the water demon collapsed.
“$#!^. Did I do that?” Major Force muttered as he realized what he’d done.
Mindfire took a deep breath as Speedwing and Battleclaw helped him up, and he rubbed his raw neck. He looked over at Captain Atom, anger on his face. If this was the way the Sentinels of Justice did things, that team had more problems than a lack of members. He was sure the Dragon Force could have concluded this case without this level of bungling. He was sure of it.