“Bearing forty-seven,” the young submariner reported.
“Thank you, Mr. Ulus,” the captain responded. Captain Patrick was a veteran submarine commander, one of the most respected at the Pentagon. The submarine under his command was the U.S.S. Outrider, perhaps not the newest submarine in the American fleet but still a force to be reckoned with.
“Captain Patrick, sir,” the Captain’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Johns, said with a salute. “Permission to speak, sir.”
“Granted,” Patrick said. “What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?”
“Well, sir, some of the men seem tense, anxious,” Johns said. “I wonder if you might have a word with them, tell them to relax.”
“Relax,” Patrick repeated. “That’s what the men should do, you think?”
“Well, sir,” Johns said, unsure what the correct answer was, “isn’t this just a routine voyage? It’s not like we’re in combat, sir.”
Patrick sighed. Johns hadn’t been with him very long. “Lieutenant,” Patrick said, evenly, “we are carrying two nuclear warhead missiles, each one packing ten times the firepower of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps in this day and age, that is considered routine. But you’ll forgive an old man his idiosyncrasies if I prefer to treat it as something requiring the utmost standard of professionalism.”
“Yes, sir!” Johns said, crisply.
“Dismissed, Lieutenant,” Patrick said, and turned his attention back to the bridge.
Johns turned and walked away. He’d have to calm the men down himself, but without Patrick knowing he had. He left the bridge and entered the corridor to the mess hall.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” a seaman called as he entered the mess. Lieutenant Johns, a young commander fresh out of officers’ school, preferred this casual attitude among the men.
“Yes, Wilson?” Johns said.
“Settle an argument for us, will ya?” Wilson asked. “I say Jack Kirby was the best Silver Surfer artist of all time. Sawczuk here says it was Moebius! Who’s right, Lieutenant?”
“Gentlemen, I’m surprised at you both,” Johns said, shaking his head. “Anybody who knows anything about comic books, knows that John Buscema was the best Silver Surfer artist.”
“Buscema?” Sawczuk repeated. “Who’s that, Lieutenant?” Fortunately or unfortunately, Sawczuk was spared the Lieutenant’s reply to that question by the explosion that shook the submarine like a child’s toy.
“I’ve fought a lot of powerful enemies in my time,” Superman said. “Luthor, Brainiac, the Parasite — the list goes on. But there’s one powerful enemy that I need your help to defeat. I’m talking about muscular dystrophy, a mysterious disease that can cripple a person for life. There’s no cure yet, and doctors and scientists the world over need your help to find one. Ask your teacher about the MS Read-A-Thon, and you too can be a super-hero!”
“And… cut!” the young director called. “That’s perfect, Mr. Superman! Flawless! In one take, no less!”
“Well, you make it easy, Jack,” Superman said, smiling at the young man, who was probably less than a year out of film school. “You’re a great director.”
The young man blushed under his red baseball cap. “Wow! I’ve been complimented by Superman! Wait’ll I tell my mother!“
Superman grinned at the young man’s enthusiasm. Then his face changed to an expression of urgency. “Jack, I’m sorry to be so abrupt, but I’ve got to go. Nice working with you.”
“Oh! You too, Super–” But the costumed hero was already gone in a blur, streaking out the twelfth-floor studio window.
The Man of Steel’s super-hearing had picked up an ultrasonic distress call from the White House. In less than a minute, Superman flew across the Eastern Seaboard to Washington, D.C., and was entering the Oval Office through a conveniently open window. The President was waiting for him, along with a gray-haired man in the uniform of a Navy Admiral.
“Superman,” the President said, extending his hand in greeting. “Prompt as ever. Your country appreciates that.”
“Not at all, Mr. President,” Superman said, shaking the old man’s hand. “Anything I can do for my country.”
“Wonderful attitude, wonderful,” the President said. “Superman, let me introduce Admiral McKenzie of the Joint Chiefs. I’ll let him appraise you of the situation.”
“It’s a pleasure, Admiral,” Superman said, shaking the man’s hand.
“For me as well,” the Admiral returned. “I only wish it could be under more pleasant circumstances.”
“That’s the life of a super-hero, sir,” Superman said. “We hardly ever get called on for social matters. Only when the fate of the world is in jeopardy.”
“You’re not too far wrong this time,” Admiral McKenzie said gravely.
Sleek and silent, the powerful submarine glided through the murky waters. No lights shone from its hull, but on the view-screen inside the sub on the bridge, the ocean depths outside were revealed as brightly as day.
“This new sonar-scanner is amazing!” the blonde woman exclaimed, pointing at the screen. “Everything comes in so sharp and clear!”
“I know, Judy,” the handsome man seated next to her agreed. “Remember the old days, when we had to use lights? Scared away half the fish. But this way–” The man suddenly stiffened, went silent.
“Dane?” said Judy, noticing her husband’s sudden silence. “Dane, what is it? What’s wrong?“
“After all these years,” Dane Dorrance whispered.
“What?” said Judy Dorrance, nee Walton. “Dane, what are you talking about?”
“Nothing… I hope,” Dane said. His fingers rapidly played over the controls of the submarine, manipulating dials and switches faster than a concert pianist playing a fortissimo. “Perhaps the system is malfunctioning. I’ll do a recheck.” Judy waited silently as her husband studied the readouts. His face contorted into a grimace of rage. “Damn! No malfunction! It’s true, all right.”
“Dane, what is it? What’s true?”
“Judy,” Dane said, “get on the communications system. Get Biff and Nicky. Hurry!“
Judy knew the urgency in Dane’s voice, had heard it a hundred times before, and had learned to trust it. Without another word, she sped to comply.
“Biff’s By the Sea,” the gruff voice spoke into the telephone receiver. “Reservations encouraged. Judy!” The restaurant proprietor’s voice brightened. “Judy, old girl, I haven’t heard from you in — what? Dane? He said what? He wouldn’t say what it was about?” Biff Bailey’s voice went from pleasantly surprised to grim and foreboding. “Where are you now? Uh-huh. Well, you know where my restaurant is. Right, Pier 203. You can swing by here in about forty minutes, right? Thirty? Oh, new engines, huh? Yeah, they must be. OK, I’ll be ready.”
“Hello, Judy?” Nicky Walton said to his big sister through the phone. “What? Well, I’m sorry it took so long to respond. I was in the middle of my contemporary American history class when I got your page. What? Judy, you don’t know Professor Turgeson. What’s that? All right! Heck, sure, I’ll cut the rest of my classes! Sure, pick me up! I’ll see you there!” The young man hung up the phone, a wide grin splitting his face. “Yahoo!” he cried. “The Sea Devils ride again!”
“You lost a nuclear submarine?” Superman asked, his eyebrows raising in surprise.
“I would have phrased it with a lot more spin than that,” the President commented, “but that’s the nuts and bolts of it, yes.”
“The Outrider vanished from our instrument at seventeen-hundred, twenty-eight hours yesterday,” Admiral McKenzie said grimly. “We lost radio contact, sonar, radar, satellite, everything. It’s as though it just disappeared off the face of the Earth. Poof,” the Admiral emphasized, adding hand gestures to punctuate his point.
“In the circles I travel in,” Superman said, gripping his chin between thumb and index finger, “that’s not altogether impossible.”
“Exactly,” the President said. “And the Outrider carries a payload of two nuclear missiles.”
Superman found himself amused at the way the President pronounced the word nu-cu-lur, but quickly brought himself back around to the gravity of the situation. “Anyone who got their hands on those could easily start a nuclear war.”
“Our first thought, of course, was the Russians,” Admiral McKenzie said. “For all Gorbachev’s talk about disarmament and cooperation, we know deep down they’d still like nothing better than to conquer the world. But our instruments showed no other craft, Russian or otherwise, anywhere near the Outrider.”
“Is it possible that the Russians, or another nation, has means of cloaking their ships from your instruments?” Superman asked.
“Not unless Lex Luthor or another of your playmates is playing ball with them,” the Admiral said with a frown.
“That’s why I’ve asked you to lend a hand today, son,” the President said. “Afraid this one’s a little out of our league. And, like the young folks are saying today, who ya gonna call?”
Superman chose not to inform the President that young folks hadn’t said that in over three years. “Admiral, do you have the coordinates where the Outrider vanished?”
“Right here,” the Admiral said, handing a slip of paper to the Man of Steel. “You understand, discretion is essential to this operation? Why, if the liberal media got wind of the notion that the military lost track of a nuclear submarine with enough firepower to level Canada–!”
Superman struggled to keep the scorn out of his voice. “I’ll try to remember that, sir,” he said. With a quick nod to the President, the Man of Steel turned and flew out the window.
“Good man, that Superman,” the President beamed. “Must be a Republican. Yes, I’m sure of it.”
“I hope so, sir,” the Admiral replied. “Because we’ve just put the fate of the world in his hands.”
“It’s been there before,” the President said. “Probably used to it by now.”
“I want to thank you both for coming,” Dane said earnestly. “After all that’s gone between us, I had no right to ask.”
“Geez, Dane, you know better than that!” big Biff rumbled. “When a Sea Devil calls, a Sea Devil answers, right? No matter what!”
“Yeah, besides, I’ve been itching to get back into action!” Nicky declared. “We haven’t seen any excitement since Batman called us in to help out in that Atlantean thing. (*) College is fun, in its way, but when you’ve tangled with angry mermen and Mayan gods, well, midterms just aren’t that intimidating.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: Between Sea and Sky.]
“Well, Dane,” Judy said, “now will you tell us what all this is about?”
“Yeah,” Biff said. “Judy said you’ve been real secretive about it. Wouldn’t even tell her.”
“I guess I was still hoping I was wrong,” Dane said. “I’ve been rechecking the instruments every ten minutes. But it’s no mistake. A ghost from my — from our past has come back.” Dane paused briefly. “Captain X.”
“Captain X?” Nicky exclaimed. “No way! He’s dead!“
“Sure he is!” Biff said. “I saw his ship get caught in that underwater volcano eruption! There’s no way he could have survived!”
“That’s what I wanted to believe, too,” Dane said. “And yet, deep down, I suspected we were wrong. I’ve had special instruments in this new ship set to recognize the unique energy trail given off by Captain X’s ship. This morning, as Judy and I were on a routine classification expedition, the instruments picked up the trail.”
“And there’s no error?” Judy asked.
“None. Captain X is back, and it’s up to us to find him. Once and for all.”
“We’re with you, Dane!” Nicky cried excitedly.
“You bet, partner,” Biff echoed.
Judy kept silent. She had always felt that there was more about Captain X than Dane had told any of them, even her. She had never dared to voice her concerns, but now she could see the determination with which Dane reacted to the knowledge that Captain X was still out there.
“Judy, plot our course,” Dane said. “All possible speed.”
“Yes, Dane,” Judy said, feeding the coordinates Dane gave her into the sub’s computer.