As the Crimson Spider swung across the concrete canyons of Westside, he mused about how much he loved being a superhero. Sure, it was dangerous at times. But, the adulation, the material rewards and, most of all, the women more than made up for the bumps and bruises he got along the way. Ever since he lucked into being offered membership to the Squadron Supreme, his stock in the hero community had skyrocketed. He was so preoccupied with how he could parlay this greater prestige into profit that he almost swung past a four-way brawl in the alleyway below.
Executing a mid-air somersault to rapidly change his direction, he released an arrowhead-tipped, high-tensile wire from the “web shooter” built into his right gauntlet. After the molybdenum barb embedded itself into the building behind the combatants, he pressed a small stud on the palm to retract the wire, propelling him towards the skirmish. Landing adroitly on the litter-strewn street, he quickly took stock of the situation – three muscular males wearing the colors of the Maniacs street gang were standing over an attractive, dark-haired woman in her early twenties, who had suffered multiple lacerations.
Hope she’s not too roughed up to show her appreciation, he thought, leering beneath his full face mask.
Seeing him, one of the Maniacs yelled in panic, “Wait! You got this all wrong!”
The Crimson Spider’s fist slammed into the thug’s face like a sledgehammer, fracturing his jaw in two places. The remaining two street toughs sprang on him as their leader fell unconscious to the street. Since the freak accident that gifted him with the speed, agility and proportional strength of a spider, he was constantly amazed at how easy things had become for him. He had made such quick work of the three goons now sprawled out at his feet that he had not even broken a sweat.
He heard the woman stir behind him. He walked towards her as she got unsteadily to her feet. He stopped in mid-step, gooseflesh breaking out all over his body. She lumbered towards him, her torn, blood-soaked clothing clinging to her flesh like a second skin.
Damn, they really messed her up!
“Take it easy, babe,” he began reassuringly, “Let me get you to the hospital.”
He stretched his arms out, certain that she was about to collapse from blood loss. The woman suddenly lunged at him, a feral snarl on her face. Her teeth sunk deeply into his neck, hot blood erupting from the severed carotid artery like lava.
He began to scream as the creature tore away a massive chunk of flesh with her bare teeth. His hand darted to the gaping wound to stanch the flow of blood but it was already too late. His vision blurring, he sank to his knees from hypovolemic shock as she started to tear away his mask. A weak, wet gurgle escaped his twitching mouth as the zombie sank its fingers into the orbit cradling his left eye and ripped it from his skull.
The last thing the Crimson Spider saw before blackness mercifully claimed him was the ghoul devouring the bloody mess that had been his eye.
Drenched in sweat and almost completely spent, the enigmatic creature called Marrion of the Mire and his patriotically-garbed acquaintances Lady Liberty, Major Victor and Maiden America teetered on their feet surrounded by the sundered remains of the zombies that had attacked them moments before. As the panting, gore-spattered heroes sat on their haunches to regain their strength, they each attempted to process what had just occurred.
Mere minutes after the star-spangled trio had reunited after being hurled not only from war-ravaged Berlin to Millennium City but also apparently forward in time, Marrion approached them in a dither, warning of monsters in the night. Seconds later, a horde of the undead was upon them. The heroes quickly discovered to their horror that blows that could easily incapacitate a human being were ineffectual against the unrelenting, blood-caked nightmares. At Marrion’s insistence, the heroes reluctantly began striking the heads of the oncoming horrors with bone-shattering force. Eventually deciding that the more they thought about the situation, the less sense it made, the quartet lead by Lady Liberty straightened up and picked their way around the carnage to a darkened spot on the museum grounds.
Major Victor was the first to speak. “Why was dem jokers so hell-bent on takin’ us out?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Lady Liberty replied flatly.
Her face a slack-jawed blank, Maiden America shrugged her shoulders, her left hand clutching her right forearm tightly.
Seeing this, Marrion began apologetically, “I mean not to look at you askew but did those fiends injure you?”
Maiden America winced in pain as she removed her hand, revealing a bleeding gash just below the elbow, “One of those… things bit me!”
Marrion moved towards the young woman and clasped her right hand. “Allow me to tend to your grievous wound before you fall into a mortal swoon.”
Maiden America looked deeply into his glowing, green eyes for a moment, uncertain whether to trust the odd creature. She then nodded silently. Marrion held her right hand tightly in his left while setting his right on the jagged wound. She shrieked in agony as the hand that had been resting gently on the bite suddenly burst into emerald flame.
“Dat monster’s hoitin her!” exclaimed Major Victor as he moved to separate the satyr from the wildly struggling heroine.
Holding back Major Victor as best she could, Lady Liberty grunted, “Simmer down! Let Marrion finish what he’s doing!”
“Bear the pain without complaint for I attempt to remove the taint,” Marrion said through gritted teeth at the writhing Maiden America.
In a few seconds, it was over. Weakened by the ordeal, Maiden America passed out. With speed and agility remarkable for a man his size, Major Victor had moved behind her, snatching her up in his sinewy arms before she had sunk to the ground. While Major Victor stood cradling Maiden America as gently as a sleeping child, Lady Liberty examined the unconscious woman and was surprised to see that the gouge in her forearm had completely disappeared, the blood drying on the torn sleeve of her costume the only evidence that it had ever been there.
Her blue eyes wide in astonishment, Lady Liberty turned to Marrion and said, “I’ve never seen anything like that before. What did you do?”
“I channeled The Mother’s power and grace to banish the foul blight without a trace.”
Lady Liberty glared at Marrion but held her anger in check. “Did that creature infect her with some kind of disease?”
“I wish not to bear tidings of gloom but a zombie bite will spell your doom.”
“Like in dat old Lugosi film,” began Major Victor slowly, endeavoring to remember the name of the horror film he had seen years before. Then, realizing the implication of the satyr’s words, his eyes narrowed, “you tellin’ us dose guys was zombies?”
“Aye,” Marrion nodded solemnly, “the dead have indeed begun to return. The manner and reason I have yet to learn.”
“That’d explain how a person missing an entire arm had enough get-up-and-go to try eating mine,” murmured Maiden America weakly.
Major Victor beamed down at her, “How ya feelin’, kid?”
“Better,” she smiled back at him, the color returning to her face.
There was an awkward silence.
“You can put me down now, tiger.”
The often bearish mountain of a man was thankful for the darkness because no one could see he was blushing under his mask. He set Maiden America down beside him.
“Look, I can’t explain how we got here or how Marrion healed Maiden America,” Lady Liberty scoffed, the scientist in her rebelling at the mumbo-jumbo she was hearing, “but there must be a rational explanation for…”
“Talk of the undead might make you chafe,” interrupted Marrion, his head shaking in disapproval “but your disbelief will not keep you safe.”
“Liberty,” said Major Victor nodding, “da squoit might be onta somethin’. I don’t have book-learnin’ but nothin’ human coulda kept comin’ at us after da punishment we dished out. Hell, if Marrion hadn’t told us ta hit ‘em in da head, we might still be fightin’ ‘em.”
Maiden America went as pale as a marble slate when the terrifying alternative dawned on her. “Or worse, we might’ve become like them.”
Lady Liberty pictured Eddie Chambers, her teenaged nephew and sidekick, surrounded by the ravenous ghouls the four of them had just barely fought off. She shuddered, the blood in her veins as cold as ice water.
“We’ve got to find the rest of our team!” she said, maintaining a cool facade despite the knots in her stomach. “If we’re here, chances are they’re here too!”
“What’s da plan, Liberty?”
“Fan out in a five-block radius.” Lady Liberty began tersely, “Stick to the shadows and rooftops whenever you can. We’ll rendezvous on the roof of the museum in one hour. Questions?”
They shook their heads.
Before assigning each of them a search vector and sending them off into the preternaturally bright night, she added reluctantly, “Do not attempt to rescue anyone unless the odds are in your favor.”
Watching Major Victor and Maiden America head out, Lady Liberty could not help but wonder whether she would ever see them again. She was about to set off herself when Marrion placed a paw-like hand on her shoulder. She turned to face the diminutive satyr, who was looking up earnestly at her.
“Your partner will return to you without scars as will the rest of your squadron of all-stars”
She fought back the tears welling up in her eyes and smiled at him. After reciprocating with a toothy grin of his own, Marrion disappeared in a puff of acrid, jade-hued smoke.
“How touching!” said a forceful voice from behind her.
Lady Liberty whirled to face whoever had managed to approach her without making the slightest sound to betray her presence. She was surprised to see a well-dressed, middle-aged, white-haired woman with piercing blue eyes standing calmly in front of her.
“You weren’t aware of me, my dear,” Angela Buckham said nonchalantly as she tore into Lady Liberty’s mind like a tempest, “because I didn’t allow it.”
Lady Liberty gritted her teeth as she attempted to fend off the woman’s psychic assault.
“Such a strong-willed woman,” Angela Buckham chuckled condescendingly. “Resistance will only make it hurt much more, Miss Lance.”
Screaming in agony, Lady Liberty fell to her knees.
“Get up, Miss Lance,” Buckham sneered, “You mustn’t be late for a reunion with your All-Stars.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Lady Liberty said vacantly.
The Black Terror had seen much since that fateful evening in 1941 when a laboratory accident gave him and his assistant Tim Roland superhuman powers. Yet, the horrors he had witnessed could not prepare him for the scene unfolding before him.
Just minutes after finding themselves on an eerily quiet, moonlit street far removed from war-torn Berlin, the Black Cat, Pyroman and he had been beset by droves of rabid creatures that had once been human. Taking to the sky, Pyroman had attempted to keep the approaching tide of horrors at bay with lightning bolts but the angry sea of snarling mouths had been implacable. Although the fiends could not pierce the Black Terror’s nearly impenetrable skin, the Black Cat was not as fortunate. Swarming over the flame-haired crimefighter, a half dozen of the ghouls sank their teeth into her flesh while Pyroman and the Black Terror could only look on in wide-eyed shock. She managed to let out a single, bloodcurdling scream before her throat was torn out.
“Bastards!” screamed Pyroman as he flew towards the furious maelstrom that had engulfed the Black Cat.
Hovering in mid-air a few meters above the lifeless figure, Pyroman erupted in a scintillating burst of electrical energy that seared the semblance of life from the feasting ghouls. After the Black Terror had dispatched the few rag-tag creatures who had survived Pyroman’s onslaught, he moved towards his fallen comrade-in-arms. His gorge rose at what he saw.
She had been almost completely disemboweled – the few parts of her digestive system that had not been devoured were strewn around her corpse like the macabre pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Her head was attached to the neck only by slim threads of muscle and her left arm had been stripped of flesh, the gore-slick bone glistening in the pale moonlight. The element of the tableaux that would haunt both men for the rest of their lives was the look of abject terror on her blood-splattered face.
“I didn’t even know her real name,” the Black Terror said slowly.
“Linda,” began Pyroman, his voice quavering in grief, “Her name was Linda Turner. We were… close.”
The actress! No wonder she looked so familiar.
A flurry of submachine gun fire and the sound of bodies dropping to the ground behind them stirred the sullen heroes from their thoughts. A hooded man wearing a loose-fitting, black outfit and armed with a Tommy Gun emerged from a nearby alleyway and walked silently toward them across the gore-stained street. The Black Terror and Pyroman approached the stranger, who leveled the weapon at the duo.
“Hold it right there,” he barked, “Who are you? What the hell’s going on?”
Raising his hands and moving slowly in front of Pyroman so as to shield him from gunfire, the Black Terror said calmly, “Easy, friend. We’re just as confused about what’s happening as you are.”
“He sounds American,” Pyroman whispered to the Black Terror, “but the Krauts are a sneaky bunch.”
“Krauts?” the hooded figure asked perplexed, “I was exchanging gunfire with Germans one minute and the next I was here, wherever the hell here is. What does my fighting the Kaiser’s goons have to do with those monstrosities you were fighting?”
Before the Black Terror or Pyroman could answer the hooded stranger, a crimson blur crashed into them, knocking the threesome to the ground like tenpins. As they were scrambling to their feet, whatever had collided with them began to streak around them counter-clockwise at such unbelievable speed that it forced the air away from the ground, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. Weakened from the lack of oxygen, the three sank to their knees. As unconsciousness was about to claim them, the scarlet whirlwind stopped as quickly as it had started. A lithe, African-American man in a red and silver costume stood looking down at them as they gasped for air, the Tommy Gun held firmly by the stock with the muzzle pointing down.
“I know most of the capes operatin’ in the US but I’ve never seen you before,” the scarlet-clad Champion code-named Kinetik began, “so I thought I’d better take the fight outta you and relieve you of the pea-shooter so no one gets hurt.”
“We’re Stateside,” asked Pyroman incredulously as he took in the futuristic skyline.
“Return my ‘pea-shooter’ before I lose my patience,” the hooded man said menacingly as he moved towards Kinetik.
“Look, you’re obviously not from around here and I don’t have time to give you the 4-1-1,” explained Kinetik urgently, “the streets aren’t safe and the longer I spend here, the fewer lives I can save. Next stop, Champions Headquarters.”
Before the three could react, Kinetik had whisked them to a C-shaped building in the heart of Millennium City.
Standing at the entrance-way of the massive citadel, the fastest man alive said “Kinetik plus three.”
A moment later, the reinforced doors parted with a soft, pneumatic swish.
“This way,” he said, beckoning them.
Astonished by the advanced technology all around them, the three followed Kinetik like awestruck children down corridor after corridor until they entered an imposing hall where giant statues of costumed men and women composed entirely of coherent light lined both walls. From there, they walked down a short corridor to a large room, which obviously served as a meeting room. In its center, there was an immense, donut-shaped conference table surrounded by six high-backed chairs, on the backs of which a symbol unique to each had been stamped into the brushed metal. In the hollow center of the conference table, there was an odd device with a flat, glowing top that stretched from the floor to about a foot above the surface of the table. The wall to their left was made up of display cases housing souvenirs of the Champions many adventures while the right wall was covered by a holographic map of Millennium City, its surface peppered with flashing emergency indicators. Oblivious to their presence, a lone figure was standing with his back to them at the far end of the room at what Pyroman could only assume was an enormous computer processing unit.
“Great Scott,” Pyroman exclaimed, “that machine puts ENIAC to shame!”
The figure at the computer turned to the newcomers, who were shocked to see a four-hundred pound gorilla wearing an expensive tweed suit and silk tie.
“What an odd comparison to make, my young friend,” said the great ape in a gravelly baritone as he lumbered towards the dumbfounded trio, “The ENIAC was state-of-the-art in 1946 – nearly three quarters of a century ago – long before you were born.”
“You can talk!” the three shocked men said in unison.
“Indeed,” began the simian, a wry smile on his face, “My fleet friend here is Kinetik and I am Doctor Silverback. Who might you three be?”
“I’m called the Black Terror and my friend goes by the moniker of Pyroman.”
Nodding, Dr. Silverback turned to the ebon-clad man. “What colorful sobriquet have you chosen for yourself?” he asked urbanely.
“Why would I use some ridiculous ‘code name’?” he responded sardonically, “The papers call me ‘the Nameless’. Gangsters call me ‘a bad penny’. I call myself ‘a necessary evil’. What difference does it make what name I go by as long as the streets are safe for respectable folks?”
“Indubitably,” said Dr. Silverback, nodding in agreement. Then, the super-intelligent simian caught sight of the weapon his comrade was holding. “What have we here, Kinetik?”
The speedster handed him the Tommy Gun he had been holding. “The intense one was packing this.”
“My word,” Dr. Silverback said admiringly, his right eyebrow raised in curiosity, “this is in pristine condition – as if it had just come off the assembly line.”
Kinetik nodded in agreement. “Never seen a machine gun like that before.”
“You haven’t because this particular model hasn’t been in production since the 1930s if memory serves,” Dr. Silverback said matter-of-factly.
“Stop this nonsense!” the Nameless blurted out, “It is the year of Our Lord, one thousand, nine-hundred and twenty-nine.”
“Before we ended up… wherever we are,” began Pyroman, still marveling at Dr. Silverback, “my friends and I had been sent on a mission behind enemy lines.”
“To extract Hitler from his bunker beneath Berlin. It was March, 1946,” the Black Terror added.
“You’re both either delusional or liars,” scoffed the Nameless.
“Where did you say you found these three gentlemen,” Dr. Silverback asked, ignoring the Nameless’ outburst.
“Near the Natural History Museum,” Kinetik began, “They’d been surrounded by dozens of zombies but managed to take ‘em all down.” The speedster paused a moment as he recalled what the ghouls had done to the hapless Black Cat, “There was a woman with ‘em but I didn’t get there fast enough to help her.”
“I understand,” Dr. Silverback said consolingly. “Were any of you injured during the fracas?”
The trio shook their heads.
“I looked ‘em over before bringin’ ‘em to HQ,” began Kinetik, “and there’s not a scratch on ‘em, Doc.”
The Nameless had been patient long enough. “I don’t know where I am, who any of you are or even what some of you are. I want answers and I want them now.”
“There is no need to lose one’s composure,” Dr. Silverback began diplomatically, “your answers are forthcoming. SOCRATES, begin your report – presentation mode, pause at key points.”
The device in the center of the conference table hummed to life and a holographic representation of a decidedly female shape shimmered into existence.
“There are no records of any registered metahumans in the UNTIL Superhuman Database matching the biometric parameters of the subjects self-designated ‘Black Terror, The’ and ‘Pyroman’ nor were there any instances found of metahumans matching the subjects in 12,357,934,641 historical records dating back to 1908.”
“This place, the technology,” whispered an astonished Pyroman to the Black Terror, “my God, Bob, it’s like we stepped into ‘The Wizard of Oz’.”
“We certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore, Dick,” nodded the equally amazed Black Terror.
“The manufacturing date of the weapon belonging to subject whose interim designation is ‘Nameless, The’ based on carbon dating of its wood furniture is approximately four and one half years ago. The specifications of the weapon conform to those of an M1921 Thomson submachine gun built by the Colt Manufacturing Company. Machining tool marks on the metallic parts of the weapon are consistent with those produced by manufacturing equipment in widespread use in the 1920s.”
“Pause report,” Dr. Silverback began, nodding gravely, “Gentleman, it would seem an incontrovertible fact that you were somehow brought here from the past.”
“I suspected as much,” Pyroman said.
“You are quite an astute young man,” Dr. Silverback remarked, “I have one further hypothesis that needs to be tested. Could you please tell me, Pyroman, your real name, place of birth and birth date?”
“Richard Martin. Chicago, Illinois. December 22, 1920.”
“SOCRATES, please search for a match to the information Pyroman has just provided. Resume previous mode when finished.”
“Search complete. Martin, Richard. Only child of Clarence Martin and Agatha Martin née Williams. Born: December 22, 1920. Died: January 13, 1996. Occupation at time of retirement: Head of electronics engineering, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Married…”
“Stop report,” Dr. Silverback said hastily, seeing the ashen pallor on the young man’s face. He turned to the Nameless, “Would you care to…”
“No, I would not.”
“I suppose I’ll give it a go,” the Black Terror said, “My real name’s Robert Benton. I was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 19, 1917.”
“Search complete. Benton, Robert. Captain, United States Army Rangers. Oldest son of Joshua Benton and Nancy Benton née Henderson. Born: January 17, 1917. Killed in action: June 11, 1944…”
“Wait a minute,” the Black Terror interrupted, shaking his head, “according to that stupid hunk of junk, I’ve been dead for more than two years!”
“According to army records,” SOCRATES continued, “Captain Robert Benton was killed in action on Omaha Beach in the first days of the military campaign code-named ‘Operation Overlord’, in which the Allies eventually seized control of Nazi-occupied Normandy.”
“Now I know your cockamamie contraption’s on the fritz, Silverback,” the Black Terror jeered, “The Coalition landed at Calais back in June of ‘44. I should know – my little brother Ted died there.”
“I assure you, SOCRATES has made no mistake,” Dr. Silverback began solemnly, “the beginning of the end of Hitler’s hold on Europe began in Normandy. The threat of an Allied assault on Calais was a ruse aimed at misleading the German High Command as to the time and place of the real invasion. At least, that is how history unfolded in this dimension.”
“What do you mean ‘this dimension’?” Pyroman asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? You have not only traveled forward in time but across dimensions.”
“Damn!” Kinetik exclaimed, scratching his head, “You guys are really not from around here.”
When her father died nearly four years ago, Arcana Arcanatis mourned his loss keenly. Despite her knowing that death was simply another step in the soul’s journey of self-actualization, his death weighed heavily on her for the better part of a year. Over time, though, she felt his absence in her life less and less until, one day, his memory had become a source of reminiscence rather than grief. Ten minutes ago, her father appeared at the door to her penthouse apartment alive and well.
After a tearful reunion, John Arcanatis had related to his daughter that he had been hurled through time to modern-day Millennium City by an unseen agency. After a chance meeting with her former teammate Ultraviolet Cherry, in which the young telepath had attempted to persuade him to accompany her to ‘meet some friends’, he learned that Arcana had once been her associate. After learning his daughter’s location from Cherry’s mind, Arcane had wiped her recollections of him and made his way to see his daughter.
Arcana regarded him with a bittersweet mixture of wariness and happiness as he sat opposite her casually sipping the Greek coffee she had made him as the pregnant moon bathed her living room in its pallid light.
“<Father,(*)>” she began, her hand reaching out to his. “<Even without the Diadem of Thoth, I would know it’s really you but I don’t understand how this could be. You died in my arms when…>”
Dr. Arcane shushed his daughter. “<You mustn’t say any more! I don’t know what brought me here but I do know that telling me what my future holds may change the timeline in ways neither of us can foresee.>”
She shook her head. “<Simply by stepping from the rift you described, you would’ve altered the timeline and I would’ve sensed such a radical change to the flow of history. You’re here because you were destined to be here.>”
John Arcanatis was taken aback at how wise and strong his daughter had grown since last he had seen her. She reminded him so much of his wife Grainne, lost to him somewhere in time perhaps forever, that his heart almost broke.
“<You still make the best coffee in the world, my little angel,>” he said as he put the fragile demitasse cup onto the black lacquer end table next to him.
Smiling, Arcana squeezed his hand. “<I have missed you so much.>”
“<From my point of view, I saw you just this morning. I kissed you and Tony goodbye before leaving for Boston to stop…>”
“The Witchfinder!” Arcana exclaimed, the memory of his early morning departure years before rushing into her head like a freight train.
Something in her voice sent a shiver down his spine. “That’s right.”
“Daddy, you didn’t come back home…”
Arcana was cut short by the sound of tinkling glass as the sliding door to the terrace behind her exploded inwards, showering the floor with shards of glass glinting in the moonlight like diamonds. Before she could react, a bullet whizzed past her right ear like an awful insect, finding its mark in her father’s chest just centimeters above his heart. A crimson stain blossomed around the entrance wound like some ghastly flower. The elder magician toppled to the floor, his hand pressing feebly down on the bleeding wound.
Arcana jumped to her feet. Turning towards the shattered door, she uttered a spell of protection. A shimmering shield of eldritch energy sprang from her outstretched hands.
“Show yourself, coward!”
As if in answer to her command, her unseen assailant lobbed a knobby, metal sphere about the size of an orange into the living room, making a dull thud as it landed less than a meter from her on the plush carpet. Thick, yellow smoke suddenly erupted from the tiny nozzles studding the sphere, filling the room with noxious fumes. To her shock, her shield dissipated as if nothing more than a mirage. With nothing protecting her from the gas, Arcana quickly blacked out.
The terrible silence following the brutal ambush was broken by the crunch of glass being ground to powder under thick-soled combat boots.
“Arrogant witch,” said the tall, wiry man dressed in camouflage fatigues emerging from the shadows of the terrace, his voice muffled by the balaclava covering most of his face, “basilisk venom can dissolve even the most powerful enchantments.”
The Witchfinder looked down on Arcana scornfully, hot fury welling up inside him like magma. He leveled the silver-plated 9mm Luger with which he had just shot her father at her head and pulled the trigger.
* Translated from the Greek