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August 1991…

It was no surprise that Vicki Vale found her way to Moscow before the failed coup collapsed. It was no surprise that her photos of Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank where on the front page of the Globe. Knox suspected that the next time there was a moon landing, Vicki would be there, too.

But the envelope he received from her by special courier three days after things were over was a surprise. Her note was simple: “Thought you would be interested in these. Have no idea who they are. Suggest you contact Herb Manners, King’s College.” The photos, in both black and white and color, showed a rather unusual fight. Involving a middle-aged man in good shape and a bad suit throwing a car at a flying man covered from head to toe in a suit of modern looking red and white armor. The meta-humans had come to Mother Russia.

Herb Manners was an expert on the Soviet Union, a professor these days but (according to a couple of foreign correspondents Knox was able to track down in San Francisco and Washington) formerly on the payroll of the State Department and probably also the CIA. And also, it seemed, a friend of Vale’s, since all Knox had to do was say “Vicki told me to call” and Manners quickly arranged to meet. Knox marveled at how easily Vicki managed to open doors.

Photos in hand, Knox drove into Metropolis, and met Manners at a diner near King’s College that looked like the one on that sitcom with Gary Steinfeld. Manners was about what Knox expected, balding, non-descript, thin, the sort of person who made a good spy. Over coffee, the professor studied the photos. He looked at the one close-up of the middle aged man several times, and seemed to have some idea about the flying man at one glance.

“Mister Knox, you should know that what I can tell you cannot be proved. There is no way you can publish anything about these men.”

“I’m okay with that. It’s just that I’m a superhero enthusiast. And if these men are superheroes, it bears watching in the long run.”

“Calling them superheroes is stretch. But yes, it does bear watching,” Manners said in the sort of tone Knox would expect from cops and soldiers. “The man in the suit first. Some of this is hearsay, but there were enough witnesses to his career that I’m sure at least some of the legend is true.

“His name is Stalnoivolk. Literally, ‘steel wolf,’ though it’s just as accurate to call him ‘Stalin’s Wolf’. He was active in the Red Army during World War II.”

“He looks maybe 50 at most.”

“Whatever they did to make him what he is must have slowed his ages.”

“And what did they make him?” Knox started to take notes.

“Some sort of super-soldier. Supposedly he was a symbol of Communist and Russian might, but he tended more to be a symbol of Stalin’s authority. The man was chosen to be made Stalnoivolk for his fanatical devotion to Joe. And as soon as the experiments were declared a success, Stalin had everyone else connected with the project killed so that there could never be anyone with that kind of power who would challenge him.

“Ow.”

“Yes. Very typical of how Stalin thought.”

“And they used this guy and no one ever heard of him?”

“No one in the West, certainly. Which prevented him from being a symbol but not a legend. Thousands of troops saw him at some point, and come home with wild tales of a Hercules in a private’s uniform who withstood Nazi machine gun fire and bombs and who tossed tanks into the Volga. Given how exaggerated the stories became, most people dismissed him as a battlefield rumor, which was how the Red Army, and the KGB and Stalin, wanted it.

“After the war, he faded from public view entirely, and apparently became a personal black bag man for Stalin. He was probably responsible for over 300 deaths of ‘enemies of the state’ and also helped to bring Stalinist order to the Warsaw Pact nations.”

“And the US and Britain knew all this?”

“As far as I can tell, the CIA played along with keeping him a secret. There was some concern that acknowledging the Reds had made a breakthrough of that magnitude would make life very difficult for the West. They were also counting on Stalin’s lack of imagination to prevent Stalnoivolk from being used more effectively.”

“Which is what happened?”

“Yes. And when Stalin died, when Khrushchev started to undo the damage in bits and pieces, Stalnoivolk was cashiered to the backwoods. He was still devoted to his mentor, hated the new regime, and could have backed any hardliners. Which is apparently what he decided to do now. But back then, he was loyal enough to accept his fate quietly.” Manners took a sip of water and shifted his attention back to the photos, waiting for questions.

“And he really behaved himself for 40 years?”

“As far as we know. I never got so much as a whiff of any rumor that the KGB used him, or that he wanted back into things. At heart, he was a peasant and might have been happy with a lifetime on full pension in a dacha.

“Till now.”

“Till now. Maybe the hardliners reached out to him. It would fit with the rest of their half-baked plans. Or maybe he just showed up in hopes of ending Perestroika.”

“And the other man?” Knox was interested by this old relic of WWII, but there was some piece missing. It didn’t seem relevant. Not without more background. Even an interview was likely to be useless. The man probably didn’t even speak English.

“The other man…everything I can tell you is hearsay. It’s all rumor. Maybe you could tell the world about Stalnoivolk and not look silly. But this man…not a chance.

“There are two pieces to this. The first is the armor. It looks like some designs I happened to see once for a project to create a flying armored battalion as a response to both the Reagan administration and Superman. The Rocket Red Brigade.

“They perfected certain elements. The armor is resistant to heavy arms fire, radiation, toxins. It had a high offensive capability. If the other problems could have been overcome, we would have seen the Brigade in Afghanistan and maybe Poland during the labor movement.”

“But things went wrong?”

“The armor was too heavy. It needed a series of motors to allow anyone to move around in it. Which only added to the weight. And to the amount of power needed to operate it. Never mind that the amount of propellant to allow a man to fly even a few feet would have tripled the weight.”

“But this guy is flying. And seems to be firing some kind of heat ray.”

“There was no breakthrough, Mister Knox. The problems remain beyond the grasp of both current Soviet science and the Soviet economy. They made a few prototype suits, mothballed the project, and buried the files.”

”So what are we looking at?”

“The really crazy part. More than crazy.” He paused, and leaned in closer. “This man is the lone survivor of the engineering staff at the Chernobyl nuclear plant..”

Knox gasped despite himself. “Wait…there’s some kind of 1950s B-movie freak in there?”

“There’s a man in there. A poor wretch who should have died with his colleagues, but instead lived and gained powers he didn’t ask for.

“The story goes that the KGB took him from the lead lined room he was left in, and put him in the armor. It was radiation-hardened, so it could keep things in as well as out. He didn’t need the motors because he’d gained extraordinary strength. They created vents in the suit that allow him to release bursts of heat and energy and let him fly on his own power. And they kept him under wraps, training him to use his powers in the service of the state while learning not to contaminate anyone or anything else.”

“Yeah, you are right. This is crazy. You sure that this isn’t a man inside a breakthrough battle suit?”

“There’s a man in Central City that runs at mach speed, and a man in this city who’s from another planet. And Vale told me that you know about things like this better than anyone.” Knox should have guessed she talked to Manners, just to smooth the way.

“But…a nuclear man? I guess anything is possible…” He jotted some more notes down, but knew that Manners was right and that this was beyond the realm of the printable. “And he’s defending the new government?”

“No way to be sure, but if you were a nuclear engineer whose entire life was turned upside down by the failure of the old regime to build and maintain a nuclear plant, if you were then shoved inside that absurd suit and made to serve, wouldn’t you do everything you could to make sure that the old regime never came back?”

“Probably. And did this nuclear man have a codename like Stalni?”

“Pozhar. Meaning ‘destructive fire’. An ironic name if he was trying to stop the coup. Did Vicki give you any sense of who won the battle?” Manners stopped looking at the photos.

“No. It looks like it last only a little while, and I think it was a draw. I don’t know how Vale found out about what was going on, but she has a knack for it.”

“Yes. It used to give some of my old colleagues a bit of a headache. But she never runs a story without having evidence.” Knox caught the tone of warning in the former spy’s voice.

“Hey, like I said, this is more for my personal edification. But if this is true, if there is a radioactive man serving the government in Russia, if there is a relic from World War II trying to turn back the clock…well, all I have to say is that I wish I were a reporter in Moscow. Because things like this have a way of getting bigger. And getting exposed.”

“Things haven’t changed that much yet there. But…well, I can only say that we live in interesting times.”

On the way home, Knox pondered if there was any chance he could take this further. He wasn’t likely to fly to Moscow. He wasn’t and never would be a foreign correspondent. He figured that Vicki wasn’t going to pursue it, either. She never stayed in one place long since her breakup with Wayne. Maybe he could pass the photos and the stories to Lois Lane, and let her use her overseas connections.

Or maybe he could just put it aside, and wait. Someone like this Pozhar, with that kind of power, was not likely to remain off the map forever.
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