Meanwhile, Nightshade found herself outside the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility. She ran at the gates and flipped agilely through the air to land in a tightly rolled movement that allowed her to vanish into the shadows before any guard could spot her. I didn’t even have to use my ebony bombs. The darkness is my ally, she thought with a smile.
She crossed the compound with her usual stealth and slipped inside after deftly altering the security cameras with a gadget from her belt. They’ll reflect back an image of an empty space until someone gets suspicious at seeing the same image over and over, but by then I’ll be long gone.
The action-heroine ran forward and started to go down a flight of stairs. Something tells me to head deeper within the complex. If something secretive is going on here, it will be out of sight of normal day-to-day workers.
She descended three other flights before reaching a heavy door. That’s got hidden lab written all over it, she mused. She picked the lock and opened the heavy door as her keen vision and her night lens allowed her to see into the darkened laboratories.
Nightshade looked around and whistled softly. I know just enough about chemistry to guess that some of this stuff is designed to stimulate adrenaline. Super-vitamins, no less. Blue Beetle told me all about that kind of thing. His old mentor, the second Blue Beetle, knew all about that from the original Blue Beetle who was active during the war years, and who hasn’t aged a day since then. In fact, as Ted Kord told me, Dan Garret is still active as an intelligence agent for the Central Intelligence Bureau. I wonder how long it will take before Sarge Steel manages to coax him into working for Checkmate?
The heroine in the miniskirt whirled as she heard, “Vy ochen’ krasivy.” She saw a slim, handsome man with black curly hair. He wore a brown costume and stood beside another familiar figure.
“Welcome, Nightshade. As Bolshoi said, you are very beautiful,” said the raven-haired woman in a brown costume that matched the one worn by the man she called Bolshoi. “I admired your good looks when you were pretending to be Yekaterina as well. However, you never could hope to fool one with power like mine. You see, I can read your every thought. That enabled me to see through your skillful performance as the lovely ballerina.”
“Madame Grishoff!” cried Nightshade as she recognized the head of the Monetsky Academy.
“Indeed! I am both the mistress of the Academy as well as the recruiter of the gifted youth of the Soviet Union. I recruit them for participation in this project. We take the swift, the strong, and the agile and make them better. We give them super-powers, da?”
Bolshoi grinned and said, “You know me as well — I sense it. I was just becoming famous for my dancing skills when Madame Grishoff brought me here and made me more than I was before.”
Nightshade nodded. “Ivan Usov. You were a ballet master. I’m on to your little plan. You’re making super-powered beings out of the best Soviet athletes.”
“Da!” said the Madame Grishoff. “I prefer to be called Pravda when in costume. Ivan goes by the name Bolshoi. Don’t try to stall for time. I read your motives and movements before you may act upon them.”
“Allow me to finish her of,” said Bolshoi, bowing low even as Nightshade slipped into the shadows and turned into a semi-solid shadow. Bolshoi’s amazingly fast kick passed harmlessly through her as she spun around and connected with a punch of her own that knocked the lithe man flat.
“I can become solid when I want to,” she said with a teasing smile.
He growled in anger and leaped at her again, only to pass through her body and slam into the wall. He groaned and remained still.
Pravda smiled and said, “Bolshoi’s body is quicker than his mind, but even as a wraith your mind may be touched by my own.”
The sinister woman stepped closer as Nightshade drew back her fists. Before she could fight back, Nightshade saw herself again as a girl fleeing from the nightmare creatures of the Land of the Nightshades. She heard her mother cry out in her final moments, and she saw the terror on her brother Larry’s face as he was dragged into the looming shadows and weirdly tall flowers and toadstools of the magical realm. It was the worst moment of her childhood, and yet Eve Eden was living that nightmare once more. She felt the fear and saw the scene again before she clenched her teeth and spun around to deliver a stunning kick that knocked Pravda across the room.
That mind witch made me relive my worst fears. Luckily, I was able to fight through the fear and strike back.
She bent over the fallen Pravda and gasped as a tall handsome man with a blond crewcut and brown costume that barely concealed his rippling muscles entered the room. “Boris Bavinov the weightlifter! So you’re a super-being now, too,” she said.
“I am Hammer,” he said, raising a gleaming hammer as he moved closer in a menacing manner.
Nightshade said, “Those muscles of yours won’t do you any good against a living shadow.”
She started to shift form, when an explosion shook the room and left her stunned on the floor. As her vision faded, she saw the energy from the burst float into a humanoid form and become a fat man with small eyes and a thick black beard.
“Molotov! Why did you end my game?” demanded Hammer.
A powerfully built blonde woman rested one arm on the fat man’s shoulder and said, “Boris, my husband, I will give you all the amusement you crave, but this American heroine is not to be toyed with.”
Hammer grinned and said, “Very well, Tasha. Very well.”
Nightshade rested her head on the floor and felt the cool surface as she struggled to keep awake.
“Leave her alone!” cried a lithe blonde girl who stepped into view. She wore a bright red one-piece costume with a mask that covered her eyes but left her mouth and her hair revealed. The blonde girl stepped forward and cried, “I said leave her alone!”
Hammer glanced at the still forms of Pravda and Bolshoi and said, “Little one, you risk much coming here. Who are you? Your accent marks you as one of our nation’s youths. Will you defy our leaders by opposing us? We are the People’s Heroes in both name and deed.”
Behind the mask of her costume, Serafina Arkadin trembled for a moment and then defiantly shouted, “You serve those who oppress the people! That is not what Russia should stand for! You are no heroes to me.”
Sickle, the blonde woman who stood by the explosive Molotov, said, “Allow your Sickle to deal with this brat.” She raced forward but then hesitated for a moment. “Boris! What madness is this? Stop!” she cried as she saw her husband step before her and bring his fist down on her face.
In truth, all Sickle saw was a carefully manipulated image created by Serafina through her mental ability to scramble the senses of others. The young mutant girl could temporarily alter what others saw or heard.
The girl darted around her much-taller foe and grabbed Nightshade. “We must flee! I can’t fool them all for long. My powers are new to me and only only work well on individuals, not groups. They will soon see through it all.”
Nightshade nodded and pushed herself to her feet. Serafina! she thought as she recognized the masked girl. Nightshade struck Sickle with all her remaining strength and hurried in Sera’s wake.
As the three members of the People’s Heroes who were still awake tried to find their way past the confused images their eyes and ears registered, Nightshade and Serafina ran deeper into the complex where they found cages and imprisoned boys and girls.
The masked blonde was opening a cell in which a pretty girl sat on a bunk. Sera said, “I know that girl. It is her mind and memory that touched my own! I saw her parents as if they were my own. I saw her death when the white cloud enveloped her.”
The pretty girl had platinum blonde hair and wore a red-and-gold costume that left her legs bare except for sandals with laces that wrapped around her legs. “I felt your mind touch mine as well. I’ve been a prisoner here so very long. Please free me — free us all!” she said in a regal tone.
Nightshade said, “I can open the cell if you can hold off our enemies.” They worked swiftly, and soon Nightshade, Sera, and five other teens were racing out of the complex.
Molotov bellowed, “I can stop them! I will blow them all to bits!”
Hammer said, “No! We can’t risk it. Your power is too deadly when we can’t even trust our senses.”
Sera staggered as her mental powers waned and the People’s Heroes regained control of their senses. “We must hurry!” she cried.
“My ebony bomb will hide our escape,” said Nightshade. She hurled the small black projectile down, and a cloud of inky darkness filled the room.
A slender teen boy reached out and clutched the computer bank that lined one wall of the lab. He glowed brightly for a moment and then discharged absorbed electrical power at the blindly charging Hammer, Sickle, and Molotov.
“Ilya, do not strain yourself,” warned a lovely girl with curly brown hair.
Ilya grinned and said, “I must do my part, Mashenka! Your water power is as useless here as Liana’s plant control.”
Sickle darted forward, since the powerful blonde woman was a bit faster than her hulking husband. “You will not get away,” she said as he reached out and grabbed a boy who resembled the brown-haired Mashenka.
He laughed, and Sickle gasped as ice suddenly coated her entire body and left her entombed in a solid block as big as a small iceberg. “Witch on ice,” said the boy as he followed his big sister and the others.
The smallest child waved one arm, and a powerful whirlwind formed and swept the group of fleeing kids and Nightshade into the air and out of the entire complex. He commanded the whirlwind to gently return them all to the ground many miles away from the nuclear plant.
“Well done, Feodor. You truly emulate the mythical Vikhor,” cried Mashenka.
He nodded happily and said, “I cannot believe we are finally free!”
Serafina said, “You all have super-human powers! Were they given to you by those monsters?”
Mashenka said, “No. We were born with them. Only the older athletes and dancers who have reached maturity are being given powers via artificial means. They do not trust young people with such gifts. They merely tracked us down and imprisoned us because we are all mutants.”
Sera turned to Liana. “I felt your mind. I lived your memories. How can this be?” she said.
Liana said, “My will is extremely strong. Such is the nature of royalty. If you have mental powers, then perhaps it was merely my character and nobility that reached out to you.”
Ilya said, “Yes, Liana is a real princess, to hear her tell it.”
The girl frowned and said, “I am a princess! My family rules our Earth.”
Nightshade said, “You come from another Earth? Many heroes from other worlds met together during the Crisis. I think such events colored your own visions. I can’t say I recall a world with a royal super-heroine.”
“My subjects refer to me as Princess Fern,” insisted Liana. “You see, I have total control over plant life, as I am in touch with what I call the Green. I know this is not my world. This place is an Earth but not my Earth. I actually feel as if that place, my home, no longer exists. It was separation from it that left me in a near-comatose state for so long. When I finally revived, I was in that prison, and those terrible people were testing me. They wanted to duplicate my powers.”
Nightshade nodded and placed one hand on the troubled girl’s back. “Liana, you speak English with what I would judge to be a British accent; however, you are clearly fluent in Russian, too. We’ll be able to help you find some sense out of this in time. Just hold on. Think of what your subjects would expect.” Liana nodded and stood more resolutely as they hurried through the city.
The darling of darkness turned to the blonde girl and whispered, “Sera, I know you, and you saw through my disguise too, didn’t you? Your mental powers enabled you to read my thoughts, and you followed me.”
Sera said, “Yes. I have never been able to read Madame Grishoff’s mind. She apparently can’t read mine, either. She was that terrible woman called Pravda.”
Nightshade said, “I know. She had me trapped like a rat. Now the question is — how can I get you all to safety?”
Sera said, “I wore a mask and costume that mother made me for a festival. They do not know me. Perhaps we could hide at my home. My Uncle Mikhail works at Chernobyl. He would not be a part of such inhuman experiments. He could help us, too. He lives near here.”
Nightshade said, “Very well. Lead on, Sera.”
Sera said, “I would rather be called Firebird while in this costume.”
Mashenka said, “I like that costume. We could all adopt such disguises. I would call myself Rusalka, like the water nymph.”
Nightshade said, “It shocks me that they would keep children in cells like lab animals. You should come with me to America.”
Ilya said, “Never. We owe you our friendship for our freedom. We also hate the hardliners who used us, but we are loyal to Russia. We could stay here and fight for justice. We could use our powers to serve a higher cause than the Communist Party. There are many helpless people in need of such power.”
Sera gazed at him admiringly. “You speak with such passion. I like your idea,” she said.
They continued their whispered conversation as they drew closer to the home of Mikhail Arkadin.