Colonel Nathaniel Christopher Adam — in his costumed form of the heroic Captain Atom — was engaged in a battle for his very life. He flew over Florida, and his tightly controlled energy emissions allowed him to move at an incredible speed. That speed was matched by a berserk woman from the parallel world of Earth-Six who had fought him for hours, a woman he’d once fought alongside during the battle against the Anti-Monitor on the moon of Qward. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Beyond the Silent Night,” Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (October, 1985).]
She seems tireless, he thought to himself. Perhaps her own metabolism channels energy at a rate that eliminates normal human weaknesses like fatigue. She certainly glows brightly enough.
He looked back at the brilliantly shining female form that crackled with orange-gold energy. Her costume consisted of a tight golden leotard, but like the woman herself, her outfit could not be described with such simple terms. The costume changed from an ordinary leotard of gold to an energy sheath of coruscating energy and crackling fire. Her body almost appeared to be a curvy collection of pure energy of the nuclear kind. Her hair was closely cut and of a platinum blonde coloration, and her features were lovely if so contorted by passion as to be almost savagely regal.
She raised her arms, and Captain Atom frowned. He knew what was coming. She’s getting ready to discharge more raw nuclear energy, he thought. I’ve been struggling to contain and safely disperse her other outbursts since I first spotted her overhead, apparently in distress. She’s been keeping me so busy that I’ve yet to even get her to talk or to jog her memory of meeting me during the Crisis. She doesn’t seem like the type for chatty action-hero banter, though.
He turned and used his own muscular form to take the brunt of the energy burst, and he shuddered for a moment. Captain Atom, the most powerful of heroes on his Earth, felt the force shake his body. I almost feel like she and I are evenly matched. Her concentration is so intense. She is like a force of nature gone mad. Considering what she lost during the Crisis, I almost don’t blame her for her anger.
Captain Atom was old-fashioned in some ways. True, he had been an advanced child prodigy with talents for all sciences — especially those involving rockets and space travel — but he had never quite grown out of a basically benign sense of the universe. He felt men and women were good, and even the likes of the Ghost or Doctor Spectro had not shaken this conviction. Thus this old-fashioned man of the future did not like the idea of striking a woman, especially one he knew to be a hero. He knew that if he had no choice, then he would not hesitate to take down the nuclear woman with full force, since he could not risk her rampage harming others. Before any other priority, Captain Atom placed protecting the helpless and the innocent. He was like many associated with the military who viewed their role as one of guardianship and not merely of aggression.
So Captain Atom decided to do something else. He would not strike this fiery fighting female. He would merely do something nearly as out of character for the rather taciturn man of science that he was.
He kissed her.
He pulled her close to his body, and as he tried to smother her energy nimbus with his own powers, he also pressed his lips to hers.
She opened her eyes wider and wider, and he felt her struggle for a moment before she suddenly stopped fighting, and he felt the light of reason come back to her. “Karak,” she whispered before despair clouded her eyes and she tore free of his embrace.
“Lady Quark? That is your name, right?” he said. “I know we met during the Crisis, although neither of us exactly took the time for small talk during that whole ordeal. I’m Captain Atom — we’re on the same side. You can trust me. Now, what in the world led you to risk harming so many folks like this?”
Lady Quark pressed one hand over her eyes for a moment and then she shook her head and looked at the hero. “I have been accustomed to exercising the highest degrees of personal self-control. Such has ever been my norm, due both to the power I possess and the role I play — played in our society. It is the duty of the Royal Family to ever serve as both guardians and inspirations to their subjects.”
Captain Atom said, “I recall you mentioned something about being a lady in title as well as in name. I mean — you really are royalty. I can’t say I’ve ever had much use for titles and the idea that some people are better than others due to an accident of birth. ”
Lady Quark’s eyes flashed for a moment, and then she continued. “On my Earth, which has been termed by some as Earth-Six, a dozen of us of noble birth or other right of status defended humanity. My husband, Lord Volt, and our daughter, the Princess Fern, stood at the front of such defenders, as was our right as monarchs of our world. I lost my family and my world in the Crisis. (*) I also lost my freedom. After the events of that cosmic war settled down, I traveled the world known as Earth-One at the side of Pariah and Harbinger for a couple of months before I went my own way. (*) Then, as I was exploring a canyon in the state of Arizona, I spied a portal leading to another world. Without much thought for my own safety, I flew through it. (*) I knew that my world was destroyed, along with my husband and daughter, but for a split second I’d hoped that by miracle I would end up on Earth-Six on the other side of that portal. Instead, I ended up here on your world of Earth-Four.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “And Thus Shall the World Die,” Crisis on Infinite Earths #4 (July, 1985), “The Challenge of the Volt Lord,” DC Comics Presents #94 (June, 1986), and John Constantine, Hellblazer: The War of Darkness and Light, Chapter 5: Contact.]
“Once here, I resumed my travels and went abroad to other lands, perhaps hoping that I might find others like myself. I failed, instead becoming a captive of your Soviet Union not long after my arrival here. I was treated like a common lab animal. I was caged, and I was chained. I was abused in ways I will not speak of. They tried to duplicate my powers, and they used their science to artificially simulate much that is mine by divine right. I finally broke free of their slavery, and I came here. I came here to stop them. Something within me went wrong, and I was lost to madness. I suppose it is possible that even one of noble blood may lose her head due to suffering and grief. This rampage was the result.”
Captain Atom looked at her with softened expressions as he said, “No harm done. I was able to contain your power. I’m sorry about that kiss. I guess I figured that might be the way to calm you down. I mean, it works for the Duke in the movies.”
Lady Quark said, “The Duke? Your planet has super-powered royalty as well?”
“Not exactly,” said Captain Atom, smiling. “Now you’re free, but what is it that brings you here? You said the commies want to use power like yours in their own soldiers? I could see NASA as being a likely target.”
Lady Quark said, “It is so. I came here to try to stop them. I would greatly like to avenge myself for their treatment of me during my captivity.”
Captain Atom said, “Well, I’d be happy to help you do that. Why don’t we find a more private place to talk?”
Lady Quark nodded regally and said, “Lead on, Captain.”
Elsewhere, the Blue Beetle and the Question waited in silence as the Bug hovered over the biggest warehouse on the Hub City docks. “It’s always a warehouse, isn’t it?” said Blue Beetle. “Funny, I could make a killing as a realtor for the underworld. Hideouts-R-Us.”
The Question knew his friend was trying a bit too hard to hide his inner turmoil. Ted Kord may have pretended to have little regard for his absent father, but Vic Sage’s journalistic instincts allowed him to read his pal’s inner feelings. Kord was hurting. Childhood memories and a broken relationship were bothering him, and he knew the Beetle’s glib demeanor was more or less an unthinking act. Beetle was on autopilot, and his smart mouth was just a defensive measure, much like the mask the Question hid behind.
“I’m impressed your Bug could home in on their craft,” said the Question. “I thought your old man would have altered the frequency the gear inside runs on. Then again, maybe he deliberately left it alone after your debut in the hopes that you’d eventually detect him and his new creations.”
“I don’t know,” replied Blue Beetle. “I’ve spoken to him so seldom over the years. I mean, I have had no reason to doubt that he figured out the Blue Beetle with his Bug was none other than his son Ted making use of one of his half-finished designs. But then again, who knows? If he’s a prisoner, then maybe the commies had kept him from the news. Our brief contact via phone could have been staged and he could not freely speak.”
They were prepared for action, but not for the explosive blast of raw energy that rocked the ship from below.
“They’re firing on us!” cried Blue Beetle as he yelled a command into the speaker, causing the ship to adjust itself accordingly.
He noticed the Question steadying himself with an agile grab for one of the hanging straps that dangled from the roof of the Bug. “I’d say they detected our detection of their craft, if you’ll excuse the expression,” said the faceless crime-fighter in the blue suit.
The Blue Beetle grinned and said, “You think?” He adjusted a series of controls and said, “Well, the least we can do is drop in on them — like so.” The Bug dropped down and smashed through the roof.
The Question saw the fleeing figures who had operated the energy beam that had struck the Bug roll aside as the heroes made their arrival known. “The beauty in blue and gold with the Tinkerbelle wings is Myxa, which means Fly or Insect or something like that, if my hasty glance at a Russian dictionary was right.”
Blue Beetle nodded and said, “And the black-and-gold-clad Xopek is indeed a Ferret in name, if not in nature.”
They exited the Bug and dived into battle. The Blue Beetle frowned as he recognized the style of the gear used by the pair. They had copied many of his father’s original designs, although they also clearly possessed things Beetle had never seen before in his father’s plans.
He rolled aside as the blonde and beautiful Myxa soared through the air and narrowed missed his body. Her wings can generate some type of razorlike force. She’s playing for keeps, he thought. Spinning himself around, he said, “Smile, baby!” and caught her directly with a tightly focused blast of air from his BB gun, then used the strobe beam in the gun to blind her.
She staggered backward as her weird, multifaceted eye pieces caught the blinding flash in spite of her slightly turned head.
The Beetle tackled her and tried to wrap a coil from his own belt around her wings, but she fought free and kicked him solidly in the chin. She packs a real punch. I’m going to have get tricky, he mused. He linked his legs around her hips as she flew higher.
The Question was already engaged in an all-out slugfest with the black-and-gold-costumed Xopek, and — to Blue Beetle’s relief — the Question seemed to have all the answers. He ducked the furious Russian’s blows and connected steadily and almost clinically with his own.
Good call. Vic is wearing out the big creep, thought the Blue Beetle.
Myxa then lashed out, and the Blue Beetle fell hard. He had allowed himself to become distracted for just a moment, and the communist criminal had taken full advantage of it.
He spun around and reached out to grab the end of a wall support. Man! I think I pulled my shoulder out of place, he thought as he scrambled to find a landing.
He twisted his body in a tortuous display of agility and landed in a crouched position even as the blonde swooped down and aimed her body at him like a human projectile.
The Blue Beetle tensed and waited as she drew ever closer. If I time this wrong, they’ll be scraping Kord off the walls for weeks, he thought.
He waited until Myxa was seconds away from impact, and then he shouted something in Russian before hurling himself aside. He heard her crash into the suddenly rising flying craft she had used to escape from Highland Tower.
The Beetle checked her prone form and sighed in relief. “She’s out cold. Lucky for me I was able to override the autopilot on her Bug, since it was so much like my own. She never expected me to take control of it and move it directly in her flight path at the last moment. Good thing my hunch was correct that Russian verbal commands on the right broadcast frequency would control her craft the way I control my own via spoken commands.”
The Blue Beetle jumped forward to distract the furiously shouting Xopek in order for the Question to deliver a stunning punch of his own.
As the black-costumed man collapsed, the Question said, “Now I guess we have confirmation that they were using variations of your gear.”
The Blue Beetle said, “I know. That means my father is either their captive or their willing partner.”
Back at the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility, a nightmare was in effect for the staff as they realized the horrible truth. The routine tests ordered by Zastrow had resulted in the worst possible scenario becoming a reality. The reactor was out of control, and dangerous amounts of radioactivity could be released at any second.
The staff conferred in a mixture of hushed tones and raised voices. While they argued and prayed and cursed, their leader Mikhail Arkadin was choosing to act. He gave a final thought to his wife, his daughters, his siblings and his niece Seafina before he drew closer to the danger spot and carefully sealed the chamber behind him.
“If I can’t stop the process before it progresses much more, then we will all die. That is a fact. I also know one other certainty. This test should not have happened, nor should the result have been what we now face. This was a form of deliberate sabotage, and in my mind that means anything that happens can be viewed as cold-blooded murder.”
The handsome blond scientist bravely began his task, only to gasp as a sudden wave of pain swept across him and he began to feel terrible heat. “This is madness! This is not what the normal exposure to even minute amounts of radiation would feel like. This is like some fever,” he said as he fell to the ground and his world became a red blur.
He slowly recovered his composure as he glanced down at his body. His garments had been burned away, and his skin now glowed a bright yellow. Flames formed a type of mane or hair, and his eyes were solid white.
“What has happened to me? Am I dead?” he said.
A voice seemed to echo from within his altered body as he heard or felt the answer. “You have not died. You have been reborn. You are now a fire elemental.”
He shook his head and frowned as he realized that his body was stronger than before. The fires no longer burned him. They refreshed him. “Nina,” he said as he thought of his wife.
Before he could do anything else, the scientist in him noticed the reactor and the indicators. “The process returned to normal. All excess radiation is gone. The air is clear. The danger is over. But what does it mean? How can I be alive in this odd form?”
He found the answer once more as if he communed with some living flame. “I absorbed the energy. That may have turned me into this thing. Or did that energy merely act as a catalyst to awaken some transforming force that was in me from the start?” he said. “I am no longer just Mikhail Arkadin. For better or worse, I am also Pozhar!”
Pozhar concentrated, and then his flaming body passed through the walls and flew over the city. He had left no indication of his passage. His body had altered its density until he had become a wraith. Now he flew over his home and struggled to find what to do.
“I cannot allow my family to see me like this. I have lost them as surely as if I had died in that accident. Perhaps I should have done so. I will find out why the facility was set up for disaster. I will avenge those who might have died. That will give me some peace.”
His burning form soared higher, and a new power was born, but would it be a force for justice or for retribution? At that moment, not even Mikhail Arkadin could truly say.
Elsewhere in the USSR, Comrade Zastrow received news that alarmed him, although his cold and calculating demeanor showed no change.
“This flaming man in the skies must be captured and examined. If he is a threat, then we must eliminate him. If he could be of use to us, then we must secure him,” he said. “Summon the People’s Heroes. They have failed to find the American action-heroine Nightshade, and this matter takes priority over their hunt.”
His aide nodded and hurried out, even as Zastrow scowled and wondered exactly what had aborted his attempt to destroy the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility. “This pattern of failure does not sit well with me. My operatives are either traitors or fools.”
A woman with a moving mane of flame red hair appeared before him and smiled seductively. “You must not rely upon the physical realm for your needs. Your strong spirit and powerful will to succeed called out to me even to the distant planes upon which I have dwelt so long. If you would but liberate me from the bonds that had left me shackled for so very long, then I would use my magical arts to serve your cause.”
Zastrow looked around and noticed to his dismay that no one else in the facility could see or hear the woman in purple. She smiled and faded from view, and the bald man rubbed at his eyes with a hurried gesture. Bah! I am working too hard, he thought. That is the reason for this phantasm.
He walked faster down the long hallway even as the faint whisper of female laughter seemed to echo within his ears.