“But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”
The words were penned by Bob Dylan and would have seemed strange coming from anyone within the Soviet Union. They sounded even stranger coming from the cyborg super-soldier known as Svarog. The muttered lyrics from the American rock and roll song Absolutely Sweet Marie caught the attention of the Peacemaker as he hid behind a rocky hill and peered down at the oddly altered being of metal and flesh.
The Peacemaker’s heightened auditory/visual sensors were artificial in nature. They allowed him to see and hear things that would normally have been beyond his range. His white helmet contained the devices along with heavy protective shielding and other miniature tools.
“The irony of those words should not be lost upon one who declares himself a warrior who fights for peace,” said a huge man in a heavy trench coat who crouched in the dirt with the American hero.
The Peacemaker smiled briefly and said, “Touché, Steel Wolf. I appreciate the poetic view of the world in a man who butchered so many helpless people.”
The perpetually angry Russian warrior scowled but then finally laughed in a harsh barking tone. “It is so. I have lived long and seen much, but I have no regrets. You will not find me as a man who holds up clean hands and mourns for lost innocence. I served my makers and went into exile when they fell from favor and were replaced with men whose idea of warfare consists of spy games from your popular fiction.”
The Peacemaker was no novice on the world stage. As peace envoy Christopher Smith as well as in his costumed Peacemaker identity, he had lived a world of global travel and constant action. Now he paused for what must have been the fifth time as he realized that the burly, bearded old man who stood before him like some barely tamed grizzly from the circus was the infamous Russian agent called Stalnoivolk.
“You have clearly placed yourself in a curious position,” the Peacemaker said. “You served Stalin with pleasure, then you were sent to freeze here in Siberia. When I was given your contact data, I only assumed you to be a pretender to the name Steel Wolf. I saw you as nothing more than an imitator of a formerly lethal being. Even now, I can’t quite believe that the agent who has brought me across half of Russia to find the object of my mission is indeed the real Steel Wolf turned against his government.”
Steel Wolf said, “And yet the fact that I have brought you here — at great risk to myself — proves that I am nothing if not what I claim to be. I am one who hates the current regime and wants nothing more than to gut it and leave it bleeding as my lupine namesake would leave a dead farm animal.”
The Peacemaker said, “Yeah, I believe you. You can’t fake your kind of intensity. My source is not the kind of man to be fooled easily, either.”
“You speak of Agent X of CHESS?” asked Steel Wolf. “He is a man I respect. He knows me for what I am. He vouches for me, yes?”
The Peacemaker nodded as he thought of the suave-if-deadly espionage agent whose skills had earned him the nom de guerre of Agent X. The word was enough, since the man who carried it embodied the term and all it represented in the Cold War era.
“Now you see Svarog — you see your Christopher Pike,” said Steel Wolf. “You hear his infernal gibberish. Bah! The lyrics of American rock and roll is all that is left of the man your Sarge Steel seeks.”
The Peacemaker said, “Could we get him out of here? My plane could carry us all to American soil. Perhaps I could reason with him still.”
Steel Wolf spat and said, “No. You will reason with him like you would talk to a battleship or a hand grenade. Comrade Zastrow and his Dr. Yomorov have made your Lt. Pike into a living machine without feelings or memories beyond the lyrics that once meant so much to him.”
Peacemaker said, “I’m not the kind of man to give up just yet.”
Steel Wolf said, “Very well, Peacemaker. Very well.”
Back at the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility, Zastrow scowled as he listened to an account of the escape of the mutant teens and Nightshade. He looked up at the much taller and more powerful Hammer and said nothing.
The blond strongman said, “We will hunt them down and bring them back. You may count on us.”
Zastrow looked past the big man and focused his gaze on Sickle as the blonde woman fairly strained in her effort to show support for her partner. Zastrow saw nothing more than an animalistic hunger on the bloated features of Molotov. The bearded fat man rested his hands across his stomach with a rather coarse passivity that was belied by his darting beady eyes and almost florid complexion. The haughty Pravda and the ever-agile Bolshoi remained behind the other three costumed figures. Clearly there was a pecking order amongst the People’s Heroes.
The elderly Soviet spymaster said, “It is a serious matter. The secrets that were hidden beneath the facility must not become public knowledge. I am about to take steps to prevent that issue from becoming a problem. As for the mutant children, they cannot return to their former homes, since their parents were eliminated long ago to prevent conflict. Thus they are homeless rabble loose on the streets. They will be found. Nightshade — the American heroine, the so-called darling of darkness — is your primary concern. I want her found.”
“We will find her — do not fear,” said Sickle. “Hammer and I will lead the People’s Heroes to victory.”
Zastrow shook his head and gazed at her with a sudden interest. “No. You will find her, but your team will be led — you will all be led — by one deemed more worthy for the role. I give you your new leader — Redstar.”
At that moment, Redstar entered the room and faced the others. There were muted protests from the others, but one glance at Zastrow’s cold features silenced them. Redstar, a thin-faced former cosmonaut whose real name was Igor Kriss, said, “I am pleased to accept this new position. Together we shall reclaim much greatness for Mother Russia and the Party.”
Hammer fumed silently and glared at the other with a look of pure malice. The People’s Heroes were united, but only in name. Clearly, the team would have many issues to settle before acceptance would be granted to Redstar.
Redstar commanded, “We will patrol the city until we find the American.” They followed him out as he exited without looking back. His leadership skills were evident, as was his confidence. However, he knew that as yet he did not possess their loyalty.
After they departed, Zastrow turned to one of his loyal aides. “The Americans have dared invade our soil. We will repay them. Execute Projects Tokamak and Star Theft,” he said. Smiling slightly, he instructed, “After my departure, order a routine test of how long the turbines will spin and supply power following a loss of main electrical power supplies.” The aide nodded obediently as Zastrow added, “Oh, and what is the date?”
The aide said, “It is now the 25th of April.”
Zastrow said, “Excellent. A day of history, indeed!”
At the Puleski Institute in Siberia, a weary Dr. Pytor Orloff watched as the Silver Lady looked at his test results.
“Well done, my friend! Your daughter is coming along nicely. She was the ideal test subject. While her predecessors emerged from the process as hulking but mindless freaks, she has retained both intellect and wit. Indeed, the lovely Cassiopeia has too much will. We must tame her spirit. Still, with her newfound powers and your cooperation, she will become an asset to us.”
Dr. Orloff nodded as he listened to the hypnotic voice of the alien woman. “Cassie now has superhuman reactions. She can move at speeds above the speed of sound. Her code name is Parketa — or the Rocket, if you will.”
The Silver Lady smiled and said, “Rocket? How appropriate.” She glanced out a window to see the pretty, brown-haired girl racing across the complex at blinding speed. She wore a solid red leotard, and her long brown hair flowed behind her in her wake. “Rocket. Very nice,” said the alien temptress.
Little did she realize that the super-speedster was doing far more than practicing in the use of her newfound power. Cassie Orloff, code-named Parketa, was searching the complex by racing even faster than her alien captor knew she could. She was leaving a blurred after-image in view, but in truth she was also moving far faster than the eye could see during every other circle of the complex.
I must free father, she thought. That is a given. How I can do so is beyond me. Still, even if every man on the base is under the spell of that horrible alien from Venus, I still might find a way to get us out by using some unwitting helpers.
She knew that the huge complex housed more secrets than merely the experiments conducted by her father at the command of the Silver Lady. Cassie knew certain high-tech weapons were also being created for the use of a mysterious man who wore no military uniform or lab coat. He seemed to be a man apart from the establishment, but he also acted as if he owned the place. He was tall, handsome, cocky, and oddly attractive to Cassie. Vladimir Vostov has the look of a hunter, like one of the legendary heroes of old Russia. I can’t trust him, but I could use him. I’ve seen the way he watches me, she thought.
Cassie hesitated and then returned to her racing. How can I trust him even as a pawn? If I fail, then my poor father may suffer. I can’t use humans. That would make me no better than the alien. Still, the lab holds more than super-advanced bows and arrows. That means I can still create the diversion I need unless it engulfs us all in its madness.
She resolved to raid the lab where odd matter had been probed and studied following the Crisis. Certain minute molecules had been gathered from one such scene of Crisis-based battle, and — along with the high-tech arrows that had been found and duplicated for use by Vostov or others — so had the strange matter been taken and tampered with in its own way. Cassie vowed to use that matter or die trying.
Nightshade and her young charges never reached the home of Mikhail Arkadin. Before they could go near the street on which the nuclear scientist’s modest home was located, a shadowy figure intercepted them. The action-heroine moved forward, since her special goggles had already enabled her to see the man.
“Miss Eden, do not be afraid — I am an ally,” he said in perfect English. “My awareness of your true name should be enough to comfort you. If it is not enough, then I will add that I still cherish my memory of your impromptu table dance at the Newport Yacht Club’s Silver Ball.”
Nightshade frowned and gazed at the elegantly dressed man. He had silvery white hair and a styled mustache. His suit was costly and fit him perfectly. “I don’t trust you yet, but you’ve caught my interest,” she said.
He winked at her and said, “I could say the same about your table dance, my dear.”
Small Feodor Sorin spoke as he glared up at the big man. “I do not like him. He reminds me of the men who took me away from my father.”
Pretty brunette Mashenka Medviedenko shushed him and said, “Nightshade freed us. We may trust her judgment, little one.”
Liana said, “I am not accustomed to deferring so passively to anyone except for my parents or other members of the Royal Family. Still, I am new to this place, and I also trust Nightshade.”
Nightshade said, “Thanks for the vote of confidence. I say we should go with him for now.”
They followed him as he led them to a narrow alley that adjoined a side street where a long dark car waited. “Get in. I assure you I am an ally known to your friend, Chris Smith,” said the tall and enigmatic man.
Ilya Trepilov flexed his hands nervously. Nightshade remembered how the young man had absorbed massive amounts of electrical power back at the facility, and she hoped he would keep his composure. She said, “Kids, let’s go with him. We need to hear him out. I think we can rely upon him.” The freed mutants agreed as they climbed in the car.
Minutes later, the car pulled up to a spacious old house where the driver ushered them inside. The boys and girls gazed around with a certain amount of awe. None of them had seen such splendor before.
The suave man said, “Young people, kindly take some food. I have a hot meal on the table in the rear.” The kids agreed readily and left their host with the darling of darkness. Their host said, “Nightshade, I am known by many names, but you may best call me Agent X,” he said.
She smiled and said, “When you mentioned my true name and then followed up by naming Smith, I figured you had to be the mysterious Agent X of CHESS.”
He nodded and said, “That is one of my roles. I am the man who gave Peacemaker his data. He is fine. I have placed him with a loyal friend from this nation. There are some in this country who look upon us with friendship.”
Nightshade said, “You are something of a legend among counterespionage circles. How is it you manage to live so well in an enemy nation?”
Agent X said, “Because, in addition to my current guise, I also employ one these children will know from their studies.”
He walked over to their table and touched his neck in a strange gesture. Moments later, to their astonishment, his face seemed to swell up as a gas issued out to briefly obscure his features. He turned to face them, and his entire demeanor had altered through use of some kind of sophisticated make-up and physiology alteration.
“Leonid Koloff — you look just like him!” cried Serafina.
He smiled and said, “Indeed, my child. That is because I have been that esteemed Communist Party leader for many years now. I used my talents for disguise to take his place after he suffered a — shall we say — extreme malady?”
Nightshade said, “Amazing! No wonder you were able to feed Peacemaker such accurate data and identify me as well. I can’t believe it! You actually live as one of the Communist Party’s most respected and feared members while secretly serving America.”
Agent X said, “That is why I decided to find you. When my sources alerted me about your remarkable triumph over the People’s Heroes, I decided to help you in two ways. I will offer your young friends a home and the benefit of my training. They cannot go home again, since their families are sadly no more.”
Nightshade glanced over to where the young men and women were eating and talking in an animated fashion. “You’re right. Sera is not known to the government, since she wore that mask when she helped me free the others, but the rest have no place to go.”
Agent X said, “I suspect they would wish to stay here and serve their nation, if not their government. I can help them do so.”
She nodded and said, “I believe you. Now I need to get to Peacemaker as well.”
Agent X said, “No, my dear. You need to get out of the country. Trust me that the best thing you could do now is to flee to fight another day. I will help Peacemaker. You have achieved much. You have liberated these children and nearly destroyed their Superpowers Project. It will no longer be viable now that it has been revealed to be a failure. Zastrow will not allow his projects to appear to be flawed. He will discontinue it first.”
Nightshade said, “OK, I can understand that. The facility I breached is no longer of use to them, anyway. The People’s Heroes certainly have much to live down.”
Agent X laughed and said, “Indeed they do. By the way, Miss Eden, I ask you to forgive me for my joking about your table dance. I know you aren’t the party girl you appeared to be in those earlier days.”
Nightshade blushed slightly and said, “Very true. However, as you know very well, playing a part can be useful at times. I still pretend to be that spoiled rich girl when it is of value to me to be perceived as such.”
Agent X said, “Touché! I agree. I fear that I have played roles for so long that little is left of my original persona.”
She gazed at him with understanding before he slowly looked away and said, “I have one other ally to introduce to you.”
Nightshade smiled as a black cat came into the room and jumped into her lap. She crossed her legs and stroked the cat as it looked up at her with gleaming eyes. “And what’s your name?” she cooed.
“You can call me Memakata,” said the cat.
Nightshade jumped to her feet, sending the cat to the carpet. “He talks? I mean, that’s not so weird considering the things I’ve seen in the Land of the Nightshades, but give a girl a bit of a warning next time.”
Agent X smiled and said, “Memakata keeps his secrets. I feel it is best for you to let him tell you his story if he chooses. Suffice it to say, he is remarkable and is the one who will help you escape from the Soviet Union.”
The cat rubbed against Nightshade’s leg and said, “I am versed in magic. If you will allow it, I will use my powers to teleport you to where you are needed.”
Nightshade said, “OK, but–”
Seconds later, she stood in her penthouse apartment in New York City. She blinked in amazement and said, “My word! I expected a bit of warning. I didn’t even get to question Agent X about the Peacemaker or say goodbye to the kids.”
The black cat said, “I wasn’t jesting when I said I would take you to where you were needed. Your old flame Captain Atom needs you immediately.”
Nightshade said, “How do you know that? Oh, never mind. If I’m going to start hanging out with a magical cat, then I’ll have to accept more things on faith.”
The cat said nothing as Eve picked up her phone and dialed a number she had not used in months. “Let me speak to Nathaniel Adam, please,” she said.