by Vibe 41005 and Doc Quantum
Crestwood Mall in St. Louis was considered by most people to be one of the most modern and sophisticated shopping malls in the country. It was no surprise to anyone that the recruiting station in that mall would become even busier with the outbreak of war. Men and women flocked to recruiting stations all across the country, hoping to put a quick end to the war.
Today, the mall was holding a very special event. Flare, one of the heroes to arise out of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, would be arriving as the star feature of a recruitment and war bond rally. Because of her appearance at the event, security was much tighter. Only a handful of heroes remained after the Crisis, and the Freedom Fighters were still missing, so every super-hero still alive was a precious commodity to the United States government.
The government had first realized this when the original Freedom Fighters took off for Earth-One in 1976. With so few heroes left alive, and most of the survivors middle-aged or older, the government wanted to protect them as much as possible. Another death of a super-powered soldier could destroy morale in the United States.
Sgt. Gerry Smith chose the roof of the mall to be his command center for the security detail. There was no way Nazi agents or Bundists could sneak in there without advance warning. All entrances were being monitored by armed guards. Several of his men and women were scattered within the crowd, both in uniform and plain-clothed. Unnecessary railcars and traffic were being diverted from the mall area. He was rather proud of the security here — that was, until he looked up.
The sergeant’s mouth dropped open as he realized no one had been watching the sky. What he made out appeared to be two flaming men followed by a hovercraft of some kind. He started to bark orders at his men, when a trident suddenly impaled one of them. Two other guards were screaming in agony as they were burned by flame. The sergeant looked up again just in time to see a shield seconds before it rendered him unconscious.
The hovercraft landed on the roof at the same time the flaming men landed. As the four occupants got out, the blond female of the group spoke up. “You could have left Hans and me something to do,” she complained.
The red-white-and-blue-clad leader of the group turned to her with a grin. “Don’t you worry none, Speedy. I promise you both some good action inside.” He then turned to the whole group, raised his shield, and shouted, “For Amerika!”
The rest of the group raised their hands in a Nazi salute and repeated, “For Amerika!”
As Flare came onto the stage, the crowd went nuts. People were positively crammed into the huge stage area of Crestwood Mall just to get a look at one of their new super-heroes. Men especially liked her because of her skimpy outfit, which put even the Phantom Lady’s to shame.
Toward the back and looking upon the crowd stood two people who didn’t care at all about the events on stage. Karen Beecher and Ryan Choi from Team3 were scanning the crowd for their missing teammate, Jared Stevens, having guessed he might come here. Looking at Karen to see if she was having any luck spotting Jared, Ryan could tell by the expression on her face what the answer was, but he decided to ask anyway. “Any luck?”
“No, not yet,” she replied in disgust. “I figured for sure he would be here today. After all, this Flare might possibly know the location of the missing Freedom Fighters.”
Karen was startled out of her concentration by a loud exploding noise, and she looked up in time to see that a giant hole in the roof had been formed. People scattered as large pieces of broken concrete came crashing down. Several people were struck by debris from the ceiling, while many more were now being crushed by others trying to escape in the mad rush. The terrified screams were unbearable.
On stage, Flare pleaded with the crowd to calm down, but she stopped in mid-sentence when she spotted the likely source of the explosion — a group of people flying down though the hole, wearing strange costumes like those of super-heroes. Even the panicked crowd stopped and turned to watch as this strange super-hero team descended to the stage.
When they touched ground, one of them jumped forward, and Karen looked on in horror as she recognized the man on stage as their teammate, Jared.
“Is that him?” asked Ryan, not recognizing him at first.
Jared Stevens stood before the panicked crowd wearing a strange yellow and green costume with a red cape that had a high collar. He was also completely bald, having shaved off his mane of dark hair, and the entire look made him appear almost otherworldly.
The crowd became hushed as it looked at the group of colorfully dressed people who came to a rest on the stage next to the man. The strange figures, seven in all including Jared, were dressed in strangely familiar costumes that identified them as super-heroes like the Freedom Fighters. But Uncle Sam and the others would never endanger anyone’s life just to make a dramatic entrance. Just who were these costumed people? Flare was so stunned that she just looked on in disbelief from the edge of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Jared in a cheerful voice that belied the horrific situation, “may I introduce your conquerors to you — Amerika’s Crusaders.”
The man in red, white, and blue took the microphone from Jared. “Good afternoon, everyone. I’m the Americommando. The man who introduced us goes by the code-name of Fate.” He gestured his arm toward Jared. “The two hotheads of the group are Fireball and Sparky. The blue-skinned member of our group is the Barracuda. By my side is my protégé, Rusty, and our lovely female member is Speed Demon.”
He paused, smiling wickedly as he scanned over the frightened faces of the crowd, then concluded, “We shall be your executioners today.”
A few minutes earlier, in the parking lot outside the huge mall, Jason and Penny Grey were still driving around, trying to find a parking space that wasn’t a hundred miles away from the mall doors.
“We’re gonna be so late!” complained Penny. “I told you to just drop me off at the front doors and find a parking spot yourself!”
“What, and leave you at the mercy of all those door-crasher specials in there?” Jason said to his sister, whose only response was to continue pouting. “Besides,” he continued, “we’re a team — Spidergirl and the Raven. We go in together.”
“I never agreed to be part of no team,” muttered Penny. Jason shot her a look, and she said, “Sorry, Jase. But you know how much I hate being late.”
“There is such a thing as being fashionably late, sis,” said Jason, pulling into what seemed to be the last empty still in the huge parking lot.
“Whatever,” said Penny. “Just grab our gear, and let’s go in.”
“Not so fast,” said Jason. “I think we should figure out where to change into our costumes first. If people see us heading into the mall bathrooms, and two super-heroes walk out, they’re bound to see a connection.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding, bro,” said Penny. “With the mall as packed as it is now, there’s no way we’re gonna be noticed in the crowd. Besides, I’m pretty sure we won’t be the only ones in costume.”
“All right, but I still think we should be cautious,” continued Jason. “After all–”
A loud crashing noise in the distance caught his attention.
“What was that?” said Penny. “Sounded like a wall fell in.”
“Or the roof,” said Jason. “Hmm… On second thought, maybe we should just change into our costumes here. Spidergirl and the Raven might be needed sooner than we thought.”
Inside the mall, Ernie O’Brian was still in a state of shock like all the other people in the mall and was running with the crowd in a panic, when a thought popped into his head. Oh, yeah — completely forgot I can do this!
Ernie stretched his body long and thin as a snake, leaving his arms down so his outer clothing simply fell off, revealing beneath it the black and white costume he’d made for himself from the same fabric that his dad, Plastic Man, wore in his old costume.
“Have no fear!” he shouted jubilantly. “Offspring is here!”
Bouncing off the wall in the shape of a rubber ball, Offspring reached the stage before this so-called Amerika’s Crusaders group could start attacking. But he hadn’t realized that he was also stepping into the line of fire of another hero who was just about to fire.
“Get out of the way!” shouted Flare, who had regained her composure and was calling upon her Project Hero equipment and training to prepare for battle. Already her arms were flaming hot and ready to fire a heat-blast at these costumed super-villains.
“Whoa!” said Offspring, bending his torso in a U-shape to avoid the blast. “I didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, but this is ridiculous!”
“If you’re on my side, stop jabbering and help me stop these guys!” cried Flare, firing off another heat-blast.
“Your wish is my command!” said Offspring, temporarily changing into the shape of a genie coming out of a lamp before he turned into a huge white and black bowling ball that knocked Rusty and the Barracuda off their feet before they could react in time.
Fireball and Sparky began throwing fireballs of their own back at Flare, while the Americommando, having avoided being bowled over, launched into an attack just as Offspring was about to strike the fallen Crusaders with a giant, mallet-shaped fist.
“Ow!” cried Offspring when the Americommando’s shield struck the back of his head, immediately bouncing off. The son of Plastic Man turned his head dramatically and said, “Of course, you know… this means war.”
“Bastard!” cried the Americommando, lunging at the shape-shifting super-hero with everything he had, only to find himself being dodged at every turn.
“Not ‘Bastard,’ silly — Offspring!” said the new hero, who then gained the appearance of a black-and-white-costumed matador waving a torn-off red curtain at the lunging super-villain. “Toro! Toro!” he cried.
“Stand still, damn you!” yelled Americommando, leaping into the air for the hero once more, but Offspring dodged once again.
“Let’s see how you like it!” shouted Offspring, turning into the shape of a large bull before lunging toward the Americommando, his horns ready to gore the villain.
“Enough of that!” cried a female voice from behind him, and Offspring was stopped in his tracks by the speedster known as Speed Demon, who spun around him, causing him to be thrown up into the air by a miniature cyclone.
One fist from the risen blue-skinned man called Barracuda, and Offspring was sent flying into the air through the hole in the roof to parts unknown.
“Need a hand?” she said as she bent down to help Americommando up from where he’d nearly been trampled. Americommando knocked her hand away angrily and got himself up, then turned around, fury on his face.
Flare was still trying to singlehandedly fight off both Fireball and Sparky, but with Offspring gone, she was the team’s new target. “Aw, crap,” she muttered.
“Leave that young woman alone!” shouted a voice from across the now-empty mall corridor. Amerika’s Crusaders turned as one to see a young, plain-clothed Asian man walking toward them with a determined stride.
“Ryan?” said Jared Stevens, his face breaking into a sly grin. The man now calling himself Fate flew off the stage to greet him. “I should’ve known that you’d show up here. You and that other goody-two-shoes always did like to stick your neck out where you weren’t wanted.”
“Jared, you don’t have to do this,” said Ryan, pleading with his former friend, whose face now had emblazoned upon it a tattoo of a red ankh symbol. “The last thing this world needs is more bloodshed. Join us, and we can put a swift end to this war.”
“My own offer still stands, Ryan,” countered Jared. “And I believe my way will put an even swifter end to the war. Do you still believe that the Nazis aren’t the rightful rulers of this world?”
“They aren’t,” said Ryan. “They can’t be.”
“Then I have nothing more to say to you,” said Jared, “except… goodbye.”
At that, the man called Fate rose into the air once more and brought his hands before him as he prepared to do away with his former Team3 member. Ryan stood his ground, only turning his head slightly and wincing as a blast of pure force was fired at him.
When the smoke cleared, a huge hole in the floor had been created, while the nearby wall began to crumble into dust. But in the midst of it stood Ryan Choi in a transparent force-field bubble, completely unharmed.
“Whoa,” was all Ryan could say as he thumbed the controls of the force-field belt he wore, based on the designs left behind by a certain green-skinned young hero from Colu during one of his trips from the thirtieth century of Earth-162.
Fate narrowed his eyes as he looked at Ryan. “Your little toy might protect you now, but it won’t protect you forever when your power-charge runs out. Prepare to meet your maker underwater.” Fate shot a blast of energy that caused Ryan Choi, force-field belt and all, to vanish from that spot. “Moron,” he added before turning to rejoin his fellow Crusaders.