by Doc Quantum, with CSyphrett
“And that’s how it happened,” said the Blue Beetle.
At Checkmate headquarters, Sarge Steel was videoconferencing with the Beetle, who was back home at the Sentinel Building. Steel had read the after-action report filed by Captain Atom, but so far he had not been able to contact Atom himself. It was left to the Blue Beetle to fill in the details. But so far, everything was straightforward and consistent with Atom’s report.
“Is that how it happened?” said Steel. “Ted, you and I go way back. I’ve known you and the other Sentinels since I was just a mid-level CIA agent. I’ve been the Sentinels’ government liaison since 1968, and I’ve retained that status even as I’ve risen through the ranks of the U.S. intelligence services. I’ve done so because I trust you and you trust me. Trust is hard to come by these days, and I didn’t think getting a lower-level agent — no matter how talented — to replace me as liaison would inspire the same level of trust in you as I do.”
Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle, did his best not to look too sheepish on the television monitor as he listened.
Steel continued. “Yet I’m finding it hard to understand why you — who admittedly was nowhere near the action when it occurred and didn’t witness anything firsthand — and not Captain Atom is speaking with me right now. Where is he, Ted? Where is Captain Atom?”
Blue Beetle looked away for a moment, sighed deeply, and said, “He’s gone.”
“Gone. Said he wanted to take a leave of absence from the team.”
“Isn’t he your leader?” said Steel. “How can he take a leave of absence?”
“Well, the Sentinels never had any formality about leadership,” said the Beetle. “We just followed Captain Atom’s direction, because, well — he was the leader. The Sentinels will survive, I can assure you, even without him.”
“Can it?” questioned Steel. “I don’t see any other active members behind you at your headquarters. Eve is on a mission in the Soviet Union for us, and the Question seems too busy fighting street-level crime in Crown City to even drop by the Sentinel Building for a short meeting. The others all took reserve status in the team because of an apparent fear of commitment. Ted, from where I’m standing, I can’t see any future for the Sentinels of Justice as it now stands.”
“Things will pick up,” Blue Beetle said, somewhat defensively. “We’re just at a low point right now.”
“How will they pick up, exactly?” asked Steel. “Are you planning a recruitment drive I don’t know about?”
“Maybe,” said Blue Beetle. “Anyway, it’s really none of your concern, Steel. Sentinels business is Sentinels business. Don’t forget that we coordinate with the government on a voluntary basis. It’s not like we’re under contract, here.”
Sarge Steel sighed and turned his back to the screen for a moment. Turning back, he stood with his right side facing the screen and said, “Let’s get back to the debriefing. What happened after Jundar was killed by Major Force?”
“Well, that was where I came in,” said Blue Beetle. “I was standing by the Bug, chatting with Ling Cho, when I received a priority one signal in my belt radio and excused myself. I climbed into the Bug and listened as Captain Atom told me to clear out and head for friendly skies immediately, no questions asked. But you know me — I had a few questions and tried to ask them, but Atom just closed the connection. I poked my head out from the Bug and waved at Ling, then fired ‘er up and took off into the sky.”
“Good God,” Steel muttered under his breath. “Could it get any worse?”
“Um… Well, I was in a beeline for Hong Kong when I spotted the Dragon behind me in the air. And behind the Dragon ship were a few Mig fighters.”
“Of course there were,” said Steel.
“It took a bit of maneuvering with the Bug, but we were able to escape them and rendezvous with an American aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. The Migs turned back, and we managed to avoid an international incident, or so I thought. I still had no idea what had happened, except that the Fiermonts were furious, and Captain Atom and Major Force were still on the mainland.
“Well, a few hours later, Atom arrived with Major Force in tow and explained the rest. Captain Atom stayed behind with Jundar’s body long enough for me and the Dragon Force to clear out, then brought the body back to our old pal, the Red Dragon. He wasn’t happy, not in the least, but he also didn’t want to be the one responsible for attempting to arrest Captain Atom or Major Force for the incident. Atom seemed shaken. Hell, even Major Force seemed shaken, and he’s a career criminal. I don’t think he’d ever killed anyone before, and he didn’t seem too happy about it.
“Captain Atom said he was willing to take full responsibility for the incident and submit himself to the Chinese authorities, but Ling Cho wouldn’t have any of it. He ordered Captain Atom and Major Force to leave before his hands were tied, and someone with more authority and less compassion took over.”
“Interesting,” said Steel. “Go on.”
“Well, Captain Atom escorted us — the Bug and the Dragon ship — across the Pacific back to the U.S. mainland, and there we parted ways. I don’t think the Dragon Force guys are too impressed with us right now. I know they’ve got a criminal background, but I’ve got to say that they handled things well in China. If not for Major Force, this could have turned out very differently.
“After bringing Major Force back to the Captain Atom Project, Atom came here to headquarters and told me he was taking a leave of absence from the team and from being an action-hero in general. Steel, I’ve known Captain Atom for over twenty years, and I’ve never seen him this shaken, not even when he was sold into slavery to the aliens by General Wolfe or when he was jilted at the altar not long after. I think he’s having a crisis of confidence. He certainly isn’t happy with the way he handled things.”
“There are a few things that don’t make sense to me,” said Steel. “For example, how was it that a so-called water demon was able to incapacitate Captain Atom during all this time? The Captain Atom I know should’ve been able to handle Jundar all by himself.”
“To be honest,” said Blue Beetle, “I don’t think Cap’s been himself lately. The Challenger disaster last month really bothered him, not to mention the destruction of all those cities last fall by the Subterranean Warlords. He’s been running himself ragged, not giving himself enough time to recharge. His power levels were lower than usual when we were tapped for the China mission.”
“And now he’s quit,” said Steel. “We’ve got a genuine international incident on our hands, and the Sentinels are down for the count.”
“Down, maybe, but not out.”
“I wish I had your confidence about that, Ted,” said Steel. “Truthfully, though, I’ve never seen things looking so dire for the team before. Should I start looking for another group to work with? I know the Dome is itching to start up a true international action-hero team. Perhaps the Paragons could take over for the Sentinels.”
“The Sentinels of Justice aren’t going anywhere,” said the Blue Beetle. “We’ll be back, and we’ll be better than ever. Just you wait. Beetle out.” At that, he cut off the transmission.
Sarge Steel sighed and shook his head slightly as he turned away from the communications screen. Things were more complicated than he had let on.
The Chinese government had filed a grievance against both the Sentinels of Justice and Captain Atom with the United Nations over Major Force’s action. According to the official story, China had wanted the man calling himself Jundar to be caught alive for their own reasons, ostensibly for punishment in his role in destroying the villages he had targeted. But Steel suspected the real reason they wanted him captured was so that he could become part of China’s own secret action-hero program, which had made some real headway in the months since the Crisis.
Captain Atom’s team had not found any reason for the attacks. The Chinese had no file on the dead man, no identification, and no way to check his movements across the jungle. Everything was at a full stop until something more came out of the investigation started by Ling Cho, the Red Dragon. Steel wasn’t about to hold his breath for any forthcoming information.
He had another theory, something he was unwilling to share unless he was able to support it with further proof. Steel thought that it was very possible that this entire mission had been a setup from the get-go. After all, Captain Atom’s team played right into the hands of the hardliners — on both sides of the Iron Curtain, he noted — who wanted the Cold War to heat up and who disapproved of any glad-handing between Communists and capitalists.
Thanks to the disastrous outcome of this mission, the Dome’s United Nations funding was in real peril. The Chinese and the Soviets alike had both strongly hinted that they were willing and able to put a complete halt to the dream of an international action-hero force. After all, with both the Soviets and now the Chinese getting into the action-hero game, cooperation with the West had become less of a priority than ever.
Whatever the real story was, the fifteen-year Détente with the Soviets was in greater danger than it had ever been before. With Captain Atom and the Sentinels of Justice down for the count, at least temporarily, America and her allies were in a vulnerable spot. Sarge Steel hoped his nation and his president would be strong enough to face up to whatever was coming next.
On the other side of the world, on a mountaintop in deepest China, a very long-lived man congratulated himself on his success. Jundar had performed exceedingly well, just as a pawn should. His death had caused strife between the Red Chinese and the Americans, and the hardliners on both sides were playing right into his hands. He had played this game longer than anyone else alive, and only one remarkable man called Yarko the Great — the so-called master of magic — had ever managed to thwart his plans, at least temporarily. That had been nearly fifty years ago now, and few were alive now to remember his actions at that time.
Since then, he had lain in wait, making his plans and cultivating his agents. Jundar had been one of many such individuals he had empowered with mystical abilities. The others were spread across Asia and the rest of the globe, awaiting his merest suggestion to strike against mankind.
The immortal known to some as Fu Chu would pit the East versus the West, and after the war devastated both sides, he would arise triumphant. After all, he had all the time in the world, did he not?