by Doc Quantum
The White House, April, 1986:
“Mr. President, the Red crisis is very real, which is why we must not allow ourselves to be lulled by the recent good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It has become obvious to myself and my colleagues in intelligence that the Soviet Union is currently arming themselves not only with more nuclear warheads but secretly also with superhuman operatives of varying degrees of power.”
The speaker was the man known as Sarge Steel, a silver-haired, strong-looking man with a prosthetic robotic hand made of steel. He stood as the representative of Checkmate — a special division of the intelligence agency CHESS — before a gathering of the President of the United States of America, his advisors, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Everyone in the room looked grim.
“Surely this is nothing new,” said the Chairman. “We’ve known for years that the Soviets have been attempting to create their own superhumans.”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” replied Steel, “but until now they’ve had only limited success — or so we thought. It has come to Checkmate’s attention recently that the Soviets have made several breakthroughs that will give them a superhuman army to rival that of our own so-called action-heroes in the Sentinels of Justice. We believe that several superhumans have already been created or recruited in secret over the last decade, though only a small handful of them have been made known to the rest of the world. Like the cosmonaut program, only their successes will be revealed to the public to fully utilize their propaganda purposes.
“And it is this man–” Steel turned and looked at the screen behind him, which showed a photograph of a severe-looking, bald elderly man in a trenchcoat, with smoked glasses over his eyes and a cigarette in his mouth. “–Zastrow of the KGB, who is responsible for the Superpowers Project. Zastrow has no known rank, and the details of his life have become obscured. I believe that it is important to realize who we are dealing with here, however, so if you’ll permit me, I will review what little we know of his career.”
“Mr. Steel,” said the President, “before you begin, I’d like to ask another question. You say you have information on the Soviet’s superhuman buildup, but you neglected to say how you came by that information.”
Sarge Steel smiled. “I think it’s best that this is kept to myself, Mr. President. Plausible deniability could be important if this turns out to come back and bite us in the ass.” He turned back to the screen, which began showing black and white photographs of a Russian family from shortly after the turn of the century. As he spoke and moved on, further photographs appeared.
“Upon reaching his current status as a so-called spymaster, the man I like to think of as my opposite number in Russia had his past virtually erased. Only recently have a few small bits of information about his past come to light. This is what we know, then: Zastrow’s full name is Anatoly Prokosha Zastrow. He was born to a middle-class working family in Petrograd — now known as Leningrad — in the summer of 1917, the year of the Russian Revolutions.
“Zastrow’s father, Nikol Drzhikhna Zastrow, had been a close aide of Leon Trotsky for several years, and he followed Trotsky when the latter settled his long-running quarrel with Lenin and joined the Bolsheviks. It appears that Nikol Zastrow was closely linked with Trotsky for the next few years. He had a talent for propaganda, and he began using this talent during Russia’s civil war during the two years following the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as afterward.
“During these formative years, Nikol Zastrow taught his young son his fierce love of both Mother Russia and Communism itself, and that in Russia’s service anything was permissible if it was for the good of the country. Nikol was one of the most idealistic members of the Communist Party, and he retained his idealism throughout Lenin’s reign. In 1924 Lenin died, however, and although Lenin had wanted Trotsky to succeed him, he had not let that be publically known, and Stalin stepped into the picture. Playing both sides, Stalin managed to remove his enemies one by one. First, he gained allies against Trotsky, and then removed his former allies with new allies, and so on. Stalin was soon the undisputed master of the Soviet Union, and Trotsky was first expelled from the Communist Party and then sent into exile. And Nikol Zastrow found himself in a very uncomfortable position.
“Nikol continued as best he could as a propagandist in Stalinist Russia, keeping a loyal exterior, but inwardly he began to have his doubts about the current regime. Still, he continued to raise his son to be fiercely loyal to Russia and Communism throughout. This would come back to bite him in the 1930s, when Stalin began his infamous purges of the Communist Party and removed all of his enemies, both real and potential. Trotsky was tried in absentia and given a death sentence. And Nikol Zastrow now began to talk openly about his dissatisfaction with Stalin at home, although he remained completely loyal outwardly to the Soviet leader.
“At this time, Anatoly Zastrow was in his teens, and he was shocked and disgusted at his father for what he saw as a betrayal against both Stalin and the Soviet Union itself. Anatoly turned his own father in to the authorities. Nikol Zastrow, a hero of the Revolution, was forced to confess to crimes he had not committed and was promptly executed for them. His wife, Anatoly’s mother, died shortly afterward, most likely of a broken heart. Anatoly Zastrow, meanwhile, eagerly became a ward of the state and — as soon as he was old enough to do so — took the opportunity to join the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.
“Zastrow’s life enters a cloud from this point on. His exact whereabouts are impossible to pinpoint, although it is known he was spotted in Mexico in 1940, the same place and year that the exiled Trotsky was killed with an ice-pick by an unknown Soviet agent. Zastrow’s first successful mission, perhaps? We’ll never know.
“During this time, the Steel Wolf Project had commenced, which created for Stalin Russia’s first superman. Ivan Illyich Gort, a peasant who was fanatically loyal to Stalin, was transformed into a superhuman called Stalnoivolk — Steel Wolf in English — by a secret process under the direction of the Stalinist Soviet government. The project had been tremendously successful, but Steel Wolf was too powerful. Stalin feared that any other superhumans could not be controlled as Steel Wolf was and could pose a threat to his power. Therefore, he had the formula destroyed and everyone in connection with the project killed. Gort was allowed to live, though he was used only sparingly during World War II. After the war, Stalin used him against his own populace, and Gort became known as the Butcher of Georgia. Upon Stalin’s death in 1953, Steel Wolf was discredited and exiled to Siberia. The Soviet superhuman projects were dead.
“Meanwhile, Zastrow had become involved in the fledgling KGB and had become one of its most successful agents. He showed a talent for survival that made him appear harmless to those who might feel threatened by him even as he became one of the most powerful men in the KGB. He had anticipated Stalin’s death in the early 1950s and by that time had made other powerful friends in the KGB. By the 1960s, he had singlehandedly resurrected the Soviet Superpowers Project and, in 1965, created the Soviet Union’s greatest and most successful superhuman agent — Redstar.
“The Soviet Union famously unveiled Redstar during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow as former cosmonaut Igor Kriss, born Igor Stefanovich Kriskovsky. We know Zastrow somehow discovered the events that led to the creation of our own Captain Atom — whose existence was still classified in the early 1960s — and managed to duplicate them in Kriss. What the Soviets never talk about is that Kriss was not the first test subject for the Superpowers Project. In fact, we have records that indicate as many as fifty test subjects were killed in various ways while trying to emulate the accident that created Captain Atom. Something about Kriss was different, however, and it enabled him to survive and become Redstar. What that was we don’t know, but we do know that Kriss was the only test subject known to have had direct contact with Captain Atom. In one of his earliest cases, Atom saved the cosmonaut from a sure death in space and returned him to the Soviets, who saw the consistently honest Kriss as an embarrassment and promptly locked him away in a Siberian labor camp. But I digress. Let’s get back to Comrade Zastrow.
“During the next twenty years, Zastrow’s name appears only in connection with Redstar, though it is known that he has been heavily involved in the Superpowers Project since then. Redstar’s powers seem to have been very difficult to recreate, judging by the large number of dead test subjects we know of both before and after Redstar’s creation, and Zastrow was forced to focus on other methods.
“Late last year, Checkmate witnessed the debut of another Soviet superhuman called Svarog. Named after the Slavic god of sun and fire who was the patron of blacksmiths — comparable to the Roman god Vulcan — the Soviet superhuman Svarog appears to be some kind of cybernetic human or cyborg, possibly modeled after the same bionic technology that turned Colonel Steve Austin of OSI into a cyborg. Only one man — robotics expert Dr. Vladislav Yomorov — could have pulled off such a feat. As our own experience has shown, creating a cybernetic organism is no simple feat, and we’ve only used that technology when lives were in danger, such as Austin, as well as Jaime Sommers and Barney Hiller, all American citizens.
“We assumed at first that the Soviets had used their own citizens to become cyborgs, and there is certainly evidence that several Soviet citizens had either died during this testing phase or had successfully become cyborgs but were otherwise useless. Svarog’s idiosyncrasies of speech, however, have given us reason to wonder whether he is Soviet at all. He has a penchant for communicating through American-type rock-and-roll lyrics.”
“Excuse me, Steel?” interrupted one of the Joint Chiefs. “Did you say… rock and roll?”
“That’s right, sir. Believe me, more than a few eyebrows have been raised in intel because of this. It could simply mean that the man Svarog was made from was a Soviet fan of American rock and roll, or it could mean that Svarog was made from the living remains of an American. The issue has not been raised as yet, but our peace envoy Christopher Smith is currently investigating the possibilities through diplomatic channels and otherwise. I don’t need to tell you that this could escalate into an international incident if the latter is found to be true in the case of Svarog.”
“Good God!” the President said. “Steel, if Svarog is an American citizen, one of our own fly boys, then action must be taken to bring our boy back home.”
“My suggestion is that we tread carefully, sir,” said Sarge Steel. “It may be possible that we’re walking into a Russian set-up, and–”
“Who?” demanded the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Which pilot are we talking about?”
“Well, we’re not sure, sir…”
“Damn it, man! Tell me who you think it might be, then!”
“Last August, one of our best reconnaissance pilots went missing over Soviet airspace, Mr. Chairman,” said Steel. “We have not officially acknowledged his presence there due to the delicate nature of the situation. All of us here should remember the Gary Powers incident.”
“You’re trying my patience, Mr. Steel,” drawled the President. “Who are we talking about?”
“Lt. Christopher Pike, sir,” said Sarge Steel.