In the changing room of the Monetsk Academy of Ballet, a young, pretty teenager brushed her long blonde hair out of her face and pressed her fingers against her brow. Pain filled her blue eyes for a moment as she saw once more the images from her nightmare. She saw the global ordeal known as the Crisis on Infinite Earths once more.
Even as she relived events that had never happened to her, she felt her attention drawn to the white cloud that was unlike anything she had ever before seen. It was not like the white of a snowy sky, nor was it white like the crest of the waves she recalled from the time her Uncle Mikhail took her to the sea shore. This shade of white was neither soothing nor something she wanted to look at. She closed her eyes even as the terrible white cloud seemed to close over her, and she heard those same shocked cries from those who both were and were not her parents.
“Oh, no! Liana! W-we love you, Liana. We love you!” they cried. The powerful man with the regal manner and the woman whose fierce pride and anger at the way her world was being destroyed, so evident in her every look and expression, were acting like they loved her and thought of her as their child. However, Serafina Arkadin knew better. Her parents were Alexander and Sophia Arkadin. They were loving and dutiful, but they certainly didn’t wear costumes out of the grand opera or fight battles to save entire worlds.
It’s like I’m seeing someone else’s memories or thoughts, she considered to herself.
Serafina knew this was not as fanciful as it sounded. The blonde teen possessed certain mental powers that allowed her to do things others could not. She could recall anything she ever looked at with total clarity. Studying was effortless for her, and her status as a gifted pupil came from both this gift of total recall and her keen mind. She also had tested very highly when her Uncle Mikhail had given her a test that was supposed to indicate levels of extrasensory perception. Those tests had been viewed as a childish amusement by her gifted uncle. But Serafina had secretly cherished the belief that she truly had the power to read minds. She did not call it telepathy. She felt it was merely an intuitive talent for reading other people. Still, she knew when someone was good or bad after one meeting. That was why she felt that her dreams might truly be more than night images of the mind.
She shook her head and stared at the posters that illustrated various basic ballet movements. She knew that the studio was one of the most impressive buildings in the northern part of the Ukraine. The development of the arts gave the people a pride that was all they had in many cases. Gold medalists from the recently created ballet competitions had come from the school, and Sera felt proud to be in its hallowed halls. However, she disliked Madame Grishoff. The woman was the head instructor and possessed a grace of movement that left the other dancers in awe. Still, the raven-haired woman was as cold as ice, and something about her gave Sera a bad feeling.
This feeling of distrust did not extend to the beautiful woman in a pink leotard who silently entered the room and started to speak as the girl turned to face the new teacher.
Yekaterina Yogudin was a beautiful, blonde, and flawlessly graceful woman no older than forty, but it was the warmth of her smile that made Serafina and her other pupils adore her, even though she had only been teaching at the Monetsk Academy for a brief time. The blonde ballerina smiled and said, “Serafina? What troubles you? I was going to inquire if you would like me to help you with your ciseaux.”
Serafina nodded with appreciation and said, “Miss Yogudin, thank you. I am not myself today.”
Yekaterina placed one slender hand on the girl’s back and said, “I would be more than your teacher. I wish to be your friend. What is wrong?”
Serafina glanced around the room and said, “I have been having nightmares. I’ve been seeing or hearing other people’s thoughts. I see myself, and yet I am not myself. I feel like a white cloud or wall is engulfing me. It brings to mind the red skies that happened last year. The other dreams involve some type of prison or lab. I feel as if I’m trapped and being experimented upon.”
Yekaterina frowned and closed the door with a swift movement of one arm. “Tell me more. You mentioned experiments. Are these experiments related to the sports clubs?” she asked. She referred to the many large recreational facilities sponsored by various state-owned industries. These centers allowed athletes to train and devote hours to such exercises within comfortable complexes without worrying about financial support. The state paid some master sportsmen to do nothing more than excel at their particular event. Ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and other sports were supported through such programs.
Serafina shook her head and said, “No. I see labs or hospitals but not gyms or ice rinks. I think they are just nightmares without reason or rhyme, and yet I also know that one factor remains consistent in all my nightmares — I see my Uncle Mikhail’s face.”
The older ballerina said, “Your uncle is a scientist who works at a nuclear facility nearby, correct? Surely do not fear him. I have seen your face brighten when his name has been mentioned by your sisters.”
Serafina said, “That is right. I love Uncle Mikhail. He would never harm me. It is where he works that makes me frightened. Chornobyl Nuclear Facility has something to do with my nightmares.”
Yekaterina frowned and said, “Yes, that is the Ukrainian name for the place. In Russia, we call it Chernobyl.” She looked into the girl’s eyes seriously and added, “Sera, keep these dreams to yourself. We will talk more about them later. I would not worry if I were you.”
As Serafina agreed readily, the new ballerina called Yekaterina silently made her own vow. I’m going to pay a visit to Chernobyl, only it won’t be as Yekaterina Yogudin. It will be as Nightshade.
Later, back in her own small room in one of the crowded apartment houses that dotted the bleak urban sprawl of the cities of the upper Ukraine, the woman known as Yekaterina stood before a mirror now dressed in a dark blue pleated miniskirt and boots. An orange mask covered her eyes, and dark black hair flowed down her back. She had, of course, already swept the room for listening devices.
She thought to herself, Little did anyone at OSI imagine that, for my most important mission ever, all those lessons I received in the martial arts when I first started training with Tiger as a teen and later with the CIA would be less important than the ballet skills I developed during my years as Eve Eden, bored party girl and socialite. Yet those skills are the ones that allowed me to find a position at the academy under the false name of Yekaterina Yogudin.
Adjusting her wig, she then checked her equipment, including some miniature items concealed within a bag that rested on her hip. The ebony bomb hand grenades developed twenty years ago by CIA lab technician McNider will allow me to blanket any area in darkness, and my own natural power will grant me the ability to use that shadowy area to alter myself to a semi-solid shadow form, she thought.
Nightshade was a highly skilled agent who had originally been trained as a special agent by the Central Intelligence Agency while still a young woman in the 1960s. She worked with the CIA until 1978, when she transferred to OSI, the Office of Special Investigations. But long before her intelligence career, as a teenage girl in Japan, she had been trained by none other than Tetsuro Tanaka himself. That great martial arts master was the hero known as Tiger, Japan’s first costumed crime-fighter in the 1950s, who in the 1960s became the second Judomaster, called such after the American mystery-man who had taken him on as a partner during World War II. Both Tanaka and the CIA had equipped her well, and she had found satisfaction in a life of service and heroic action. This motivation would have shocked those who only knew her as Eve Eden, since the blonde Washington heiress was infamous for her wild partying lifestyle and shallow ways. Yet there was far more to the sultry blonde than met the eye.
Her father was Senator Wayne Eden, a tough businessman and politician, but her late mother had been the princess of an otherdimensional realm known as the Land of the Nightshades. Eve shared her mother’s innate power to turn herself into something of a living and mobile shadow in the presence of darkness. She had always hoped to use those abilities and her martial arts prowess to return to that fabled realm one day for a far more personal mission. But she would have to have an edge in order to succeed. She had already attempted that mission once last year just after the Crisis, and the ordeal had nearly taken her life. (*) She vowed then that she would not return to her mother’s homeland alone but would bring her allies in the Sentinels of Justice with her, but that would have to wait. Her present duty to her country came first.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: The Calm Before the Storm, Chapter 2: Nightshade]
She now reviewed what she had learned. “I was summoned to CHESS headquarters on special assignment from OSI because of data that had come to the attention of several other agents. Sarge Steel, head of the Checkmate division, said he thinks a large number of Soviet athletes are being diverted from normal public or global competition into a covert duty to the state that involves the development of superhuman powers. While Soviet athletes made a fine showing in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, his agents learned that those medalists were not actually the finest the nation had to offer. If the Soviet Union has a better plan for the finest men and women it has to offer as far as physicality goes, then perhaps making them into superhuman agents is that very goal.
“I know Natashia Krensky had the complete backing of the Dinapropta Company, the biggest sports manufacturer in the Soviet Union, but the gifted gymnast dropped out of sight. And she wasn’t the only promising athlete to vanish. The same can be said for weightlifter Boris Bavinov and ballet master Ivan Usov. I figured that if I could go undercover at the Monetsky Academy of Ballet where Ivan once trained, I could learn if she and the others were in fact being recruited as possible superhuman agents. The communists want badly to compete with America’s numerous super-champions like the Sentinels of Justice, and this program could be their means of doing so. Now that Sera has revealed her odd visions of experiments at Chernobyl — and prisoners, no less — I have to check it out.”
She smiled ruefully as she headed for the door. “My only ride out of here is on Peacemaker’s U-X jet,” she said to herself. “With my black cloud technology cloaking it from detection, it should be safely hidden where he landed it, but I have no way of knowing how his part of the mission is going.”
Eve reached down to her black high-heeled boots and clipped two metal plates on the soles. Skates with booster engines sound like something from the old comics Larry used to love, but they should get me around fast enough, she thought.
She lowered her eyes as she recalled her long-missing older brother. “Larry, I haven’t forgotten you,” she said softly. “I will rescue you from the Land of the Nightshades. That’s a promise. All I’ve done for my country has been partly in order to meet the people with the resources I need to pull off your rescue.”
Nightshade, the darling of darkness, slipped into the chill of the Ukrainian night, hoping her mission would be a success. Little did she know that in spite of her talent and remarkable abilities, her cover had already been blown.
A pretty but severe woman with raven black hair watched her as she departed from the seedy apartment. “Nightshade is moving, and I anticipate her destination,” said Madame Grishoff, the head teacher of the Monetsky Academy. “She will be dealt with.”
In an elaborate laboratory housed in a large complex at the Puleski Institute in Siberia stood a grim old man who loved his work and had little use for distractions except for his beautiful young daughter.
Cassiopeia Orloff sighed as she watched her father Dr. Pytor Orloff at work. “Father, you have skipped your noon meal, and you did not come home last night. If you drive yourself this way, you’ll become ill!” said the brown-haired woman.
The wizened bald scientist barely looked up for a moment until something washed over him, and like a dreamer who shed his sleeping state in a sudden start, he jerked to attention and wiped his eyes. “Cassie, my child, when did you get here?” he said as he clasped her hands and received her kiss. “I have warned you about crossing the base at night. The soldiers are not men to be trusted. A pretty girl like you could meet with misfortune.”
Cassie said, “Father, it is nearly mid-afternoon. You never came home last night.”
Dr. Orloff frowned and turned to look at the clock. “It is so! How can this be? I am not well.”
“Father, since mother’s death, we have been all we have for one another. Now how can I see you work yourself to death like this? Come home with me. Tell the director that you are ill. Surely even that grim tyrant will feel for you.”
A black-haired man with unshaven cheeks and heavy eyebrows entered and said, “You think me heartless, Miss Orloff? I have been called worse by some far less attractive than you.”
Cassie scowled and said, “Director Demitriov, I meant no offense. I spoke out of concern for my father. Forgive me and excuse us. As you heard, he is ill.”
Director Demitriov said, “Personal sacrifice is the call of all patriots. For the good of the Motherland, all must give their all. I expect nothing less of those under me.”
“Sir, I fear I can do you no good in my current state,” said Dr. Orloff. “I am tired and weary from hunger. I will leave now.”
Before the old man and his daughter could pass by the stern director of the Puleski Institute, a woman stepped into their path. She was more than six feet tall, and her platinum-silver hair reached her hips. She smiled, and her eyes gleamed with a glow that matched the sheen of her unearthly hair.
“Comrade Orloff, you would not disappoint me by stopping now,” she purred, her voice almost musical in tone. “Surely you care for me more than that. I need you to run another series of tests. After all, the last experiments made me very, very sad. You ruined such beautiful men with your haste. Now try again for me, hmmm?”
Orloff’s eyes glazed over, and he said, “Oh, I will try again. Please don’t be angry. I will not fail you.”
Cassie gasped as she saw it all, and she demanded answers from the strikingly lovely if somewhat inhuman woman. “Who are you? What is your hold upon my father?” she cried.
The woman smiled coldly, and her eyes flashed as a slight twist of her lithe form left even Director Demitriov in a staring trance.
“I? I am merely one who serves the great Soviet nation, and that is all you need to know. Perhaps you could do as much for Mother Russia, too. Orloff, use Cassie, here. You will not fail when the test subject is your own flesh and blood.”
Orloff shuddered and said, “I cannot! Not Cassie!” The tall woman moved closer with a childish flounce. Her breath felt upon the old man’s face as she whispered to him. He nodded and said, “It shall be done.”
She laughed a musical laugh and clapped her hands together like a happy child with a toy. “Excellent! Do be swift, won’t you? I get bored so easily,” she said.
Cassie’s own cries were muffled as three equally entranced men entered and forced her into a series of wires and tubes in which she was bound like a fly in a web.
The Silver Lady from Venus smiled and nodded in approval. “All males serve me, and so shall all tiresome females — in their own way,” she said.