(Politics warning, some violence, mildly suggestive content).
The man stood at 6’9” and bordered between athletic and muscular. Blond haired, blue eyes, and beautiful, and quite, quite naked, there was something else that set him apart from his breed, a certain presence, a je ne sais quoi. There was no kindness in those blue globes. His skin was hot, as if it would burst into flames at any time, and the power of those muscles was unfathomable.
“Ladies and gentlemen,“ a voice proclaimed. The room was a stereotype, men drenched in shadow and conspiracy. “Behold Project: Juggernaut. J-1. Behold -- the Thundrax-killer.”
“I’ll believe that when Carson’s in the ground,” one of the men in shadow said.
“You’ll forgive my skepticism, but we’ve heard this before,” another man said. "Many times."
“Carson’s formidable,” Invictus, the one known figure added. “If he weren’t he’d cease to have been an issue years ago. " Whatever David Sutherland's flaws, underestimating his enemies was not one of them.
J-1 smiled. The doctor cleared his throat, and he beamed J-1’s spec sheet to the room. “He’s able to military press 170% Thundrax’s strength, he’s able to reach Mach 5.5 in flight, We’ve rated him at 45% higher pain tolerance, he is resistant to lightning, has superior reflexes.”
“No combat experience versus 35 years of experience.” A man said.
“He’s had thousands of hours in the simulator.” the Doctor saifd. “He’s read what he’s read, role-played his life experiences. He’s been taught to think like him. He even has his sense of humor.”
“If Primus catches wind of this… and you know they have Adamant on their side…” a woman added, referring to one of Thundrax's most highly distinguished teammates, a good friend.
“2000 hours of combat simulation,” the doctor spoke up. “In the last 200 simulations, 196 dead Thundraxs. Ladies and gentlemen, J-1 is the ultimate superhuman fighting machine.”
“Gentlemen,” J-1 spoke for the first time. His voice was a baritone that was brimming with confidence, bristled with unchallenged strength. Even Invictus was jolted by its authority, its easy charisma. “My esteemed benefactors. If you want Craig Alexander Carson dead, I’m your man. Just make sure the rest of his team doesn’t show. I can kick around Sparrowhawk’s little nestlings another day.”
“I just need your permission,” the Doctor said. “And Operation: Dead Canadian can begin.” The Doctor said, smiling. J-1 was performing above his expectations, with the confidence he always knew the construct could have. He was evolving into something great and terrifying.
“Congress still likes Carson,” a woman in shadow noted. “He and the Protectors *did* save their lives two years ago.”
“The Protectors are untouchable as long as they have Captain Adamant,” another man said. “He’s far too well liked on both sides of the aisle. With the right PR push, he could be one of the most popular superhumans in the nation.”
“Forget Adamant.” Invictus sneered. “He’s a useless tin can with a star. Lassie is the brains of that pairing. The Protectors are nothing, especially the annoying child and the hot and cold werewolf. As for Congress, they’re equally irrelevant. I should know, I was a senator. My only regret about this operation is that I won’t be the one to soak his hands in Carson’s blood, but a solar powered hero is a suitable substitute. I’m calling it, ladies and gentlemen. Operation: Dead Canadian is a go.” Sutherland grinned, thinking of the blood that his surrogate would shed. “I’m lighting the torch, and Carson will burn.”
“Sir,” the woman said. “Subject J-1 is highly radioactive. Our estimates indicate a high probability that bystanders will contract cancer from exposure to this radiation if he remains in a populated area for a sustained time.”
“Acceptable losses,” a politician chortled. “But let’s try to direct him to areas of the city likely to vote for the other party’s candidate, shall we?”
“Ralph?” Craig Carson asked. “Don’t be so discouraged. That may not be Carter’s perfect score, but you did really well on the test. Chin up and be proud, m’friend.”
“I just wish I’d gone into space with the rest of the team.” Ralph said. “I could have fit aboard the Valravn.”
“I guess there wasn’t time.” Craig shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they’re in good hands with Faye and Sebastian. Nothing will happen to them. How are you doing?”
“A bit frustrated.” Atomac admitted. Craig nodded, listening while Ralph Mathieson bristled at his own admission. “There's some pretty big boots to fill on this team. I don't want to disappoint anyone. Especially Cap, he's been so good to me."
“Squarejaw is the best." Craig said, "A true pro in a business sorely lacking in professionalism." and then an alert sounded.
“Craig,” Kivioq called out. “Incident at Millennium City Hall. Supervillain.”
“You.” The AI answered, and the two men started. “Or a man in a Thundrax suit. And he’s calling you out, challenging you to a one-on-one duel.”
“The sensors they installed to monitor the aftereffects of the "rad rumble" incident indicate that he’s emitting toxic levels of radioactivity.” Kivioq added. “If he’s not contained soon, a lot of people will die.”
Craig sighed, hearing the call to arms, yet again. “Ralph, I’m giving you the important job – evacuate the area. I’m going to be entertaining Nuclear Man Thundrax while you’re doing that. He wants a fight with me, he gets a fight with me. Let’s go.”
“Right,” Ralph said, wondering how he was going to get the bureaucrats and businesses in the area to listen to him.
“Good luck,” Craig added, thinking about his opponent. “A Nuclear Man. God, Superman IV sucked so badly…”
J-1 waited in the appointed place, yelling his remarks at the press. He flexed for them and smiled. The MARS unit told him to stand down and periodically fired on him. He smiled, and slagged their weapons with a touch.
“Nice try,” he said. “Now bring me your boy Craig, if you please. I’m trying to be nice here, and not, say, burning Millennium or Memorial City in atomic fire.”
“Fall back! Fall back!”
“Fall front if you want.” J-1 smiled. “Your weapons can’t harm me, and I don’t particularly want to hurt you.”
Then there was thunder in a clear sky. Enter the hero, stage right.
“I’m here,” Craig Carson said as he arrived, flying above the fray. He could have blindsided the man, but the more out of control the fight started, the less likely it was that Thundrax could lure him away from the combat zone. The sooner he was out of here, the better. “So I hear you asked for me. What’s the issue?”
“Wow,” J-1 grinned. “After all this time, all this training. The Living Thunder itself.”
“True, but that really doesn’t answer my questions. Are you an evil me from another dimension? A fanboy?” Craig asked, subtly pulling up, gaining altitude, again trying to lure him to the skies. J-1 laughed and cracked his neck.
“I’m a genetic construct created by a secret cabal with one purpose, and one purpose only. The complete destruction of Craig Alexander Carson.” J-1 said, remarkably forthcoming.
Craig whistled. “ But Christmas was a few weeks ago! Someone made a playmate just for me? You know, fella, that’s kind of a shallow existence. And stupid too, after all I’m hardly the toughest superhuman on earth.”
J-1 laughed. “Ah, there it is, the attempt to disarm! Your phony attempts at modesty is your most annoying feature, Craig. If you’re that weak, you certainly punch above your weight class an awful lot.” Again, he cracked his neck, shaking his golden head. Craig felt the testosterone rush as he observed the man. Probably a deliberate effect, one of his powers. Pheromones. He was surprised that J wasn’t a monster, a brute. The man looked a lot like Craig himself, but a little bigger. Mutated from his DNA, perhaps? From Seger, his old rival who also possessed the Living Thunder? Or from Cord, his half-clone constructed son?
“Okay,” Craig said. ”Why did someone target me with a superior construct? What did I do to deserve this?”
“It’s simple, really. You didn’t stay in your own country. And you got too big.” Craig was almost astonished by his opponent’s forthrightness. Was he that confident? Or did he possess a Code of Honor? Well, he thought uncharitably, the honesty rules out the involvement of Donald Trump. “America needs American heroes. We don’t need American children worshiping people who wear foreign flags.”
“So by killing me, you make American heroes great again…” Craig said.
“Something like that, yes.” J-1 said. They were now five hundred feet above the dome of City Hall. J-1 grinned as he realized what Craig was doing. As he had done so many times in the simulation.
“They're already great. Awesome, in fact. The Protectors, Amazing Man, the All-American. They sure as hell don't take a back seat to me. And America is a nation of immigrants. To hate the other is a betrayal of its most sacred values.” Craig said, pointing out the great dome below them. Villains had attacked this place so many times, yet it still stood, and Old Glory yet waved above it. “Fifty states, fifty stars, all different, and yet, much as I may disagree on some of their policies, the states have a common ground on a common flag. And people flock to that flag from around the world.”
“You sound so much like a bad 70s comic book it’s not funny. “ J-1 mocked. “Written by such an earnest writer! Delivering yet another sermon from Reverend Thundrax! Well, this is your last, I’m afraid. Make it a good one. Your “I Have a Dream” speech, or something equally inspiring to naive simpletons. Something for people to remember you by."
“You call them simple, yet you were constructed with a single goal in mind.” Thundrax said. “Who’s the simple one, oh anti-Thundrax bomb?”
J-1 laughed. “Touché, Canadian. This was always the toughest part of the simulation for me. I could never quite match your wit or your righteousness. Though I’ve gotten a bit better over time.”
There was a pause as the two men studied each other. “You know, fella, you don’t have to do this.” Craig finally told him. “We can figure out a way to give you a long, normal life. Because do you know the real reason your creators hate me?”
“You’ve told me fifty times in the simulator. Shall we recite it together?” J-1 said, spiting Craig's would-be words back at him. “Because you believe in freedom and prosperity for every sapient entity on this world who is willing to agree to the common good, be it alien or extra-dimensional. You stand against the oligarchs and the enemies of democracy. Then the conversation devolves into an argument about the hypocrisy of you possessing a personal AI, as well as your assistants, and then I mention that the term “wage slave” exists for a reason, and soon after that, we start throwing punches.”
“You know, putting words in my mouth is kinda rude.” Craig did not hide his irritation.
“Just sparing us an unnecessary conversation, Craig.” J-1 said. “Isn’t that even ruder, dragging things out with words instead of deeds? Isn’t that a violation of your code?”
“Nope.” Craig said. “Fighting is a last resort. And I’m sorry you’re programmed only to fight. I pity you for that.”
“Oh Craig, I do love you,” J-1 smiled. The statement shook the hero as much as anything he had said. “That you cared. That you tried. I mean it sincerely, thank you.” The genetically engineered titan cracked his neck a third time and limbered his huge arms.
"Ew." Craig said.
"You don't like affection, Craig?" J-1 asked.
Craig shook his head. "It's not that. Guys hit on me all the time." You should what happens when he and Justiciar get together on Canada Day, when David let his hair down, he thought, smiling. "It's just loving someone you're programmed to kill is more than a little creepy."
J-1 laughed. "I'd take it up with those who made me, if you survive. But you won't. I'd ask you to surrender so I could simply break your neck and end this quickly, but we both know you spit on mercy for yourself. You're that rare man who'd rather die fighting. A champion through and through."
Craig nodded, though he hated acknowledging the truth of those words. He was, as noted many times, a man of peace and war. Part of him relished what was to come, and he hated that. "I'm a Protector," he finally said.
"A lone Protector. But I want the fight too, I need the fight. I'm burning inside. My entire existence has been leading to this moment. It’s inescapable for either of us.”
“There’s always an escape until the first punch is thrown.” Craig said.
“Indeed,” J-1 answered, and he threw the first punch, and Thundrax fell upward, into the sky. “Now we can stop yammering at each other and do what we were both born to do.”
“Fine,” Craig sighed, and the battle had begun.
They wrestled in mid-air, Craig trying to force his opponent skyward and take him away from Millennium. J-1 smiled and responded with short punches directed at Craig’s ribs, hard enough to make him wince. “By the way,” he said, throwing another body shot. “We haven’t been properly introduced. Call me J. Or Jaye.”
“Charmed,” Craig said, wincing as they wrestled. Shit, he was strong. Gotta push yourself.
“It stands for Juggernaut, but you know, copyright lawyers are a bitch.”
“They sure are,” Craig said. Their bodies were a blur as they writhed, still wrestling. After a few minutes, they had flown westward: they were fighting above Superior now. Time for a deep dive.
And the two men plummeted, hitting the lake at Mach 3. Craig briefly backed out from the shock, but Jaye just smiled and lifted him out of the water, planting him on the shore and slamming him. “Don’t give up on me now, Craig. My whole life has been a prelude to this moment. It deserves to be epic.”
“Overused word.” Craig gasped, regaining consciousness quickly, and he teleported away, shifting to lightning to keep away from the powerhouse while he was still recovering his bearings. But his opponent teleported almost immediately, and caught him from behind with a chokehold.
“Gak!” Craig said, struggling to dislodge the man’s arm around his throat.
“Nice trick,” Jaye laughed. “A lot of people don’t know about it. Fortunately, I’ve trained against it dozens of times.”
Craig smiled, teleported again behind Jaye, and tackled him to the ground. Then he drove his head into the dirt and flew with him, digging a trench with his face that was several miles long. Jaye struggled to dislodge himself. Craig pulled him to his feet and slammed him in the face with roundhouse punches; the thunder of his blows could be heard ten miles away.
Jaye smiled and returned them in kind, competing with Thundrax to shake the earth. They were in wilderness, just where Craig wanted him. There, they dug their feet into the soil and slammed each other with roundhouses for ten solid minutes. Neither man relented, though their bodies were a storm-surge of pain. Neither man fell.
“You’re a lot stronger than you were in the simulator,“ Jaye noted between punches. “Much stronger. And way tougher too. You're almost a match for me. Have you been working out?”
Craig said nothing, but wrestled him northward, continuing to shatter the wilderness about them. They dove into the earth and soared into the sky. Jaye’s face bore an insane grin all the way. Of course, their shirts tore. Their muscles shone like ice as they gleamed with sweat under the dim winter sun, swole and brutal.
“Oh well,” Jaye shrugged. “It wouldn’t be a Thundrax fight if our shirts didn’t rip off. Very macho. Very Doc Savage, Craig. Or Pat Ryan, or Flash Gordon. Conan, Tarzan, all those shirtless dead pulp heroes that people are embarrassed about these days.The ones that the new kids just don't get.”
Thundrax continued to ignore the jibes. The guy liked to talk. Was that part of the design, annoying patter to throw him off his game? Or was the genetic engineer just having fun? The truly frightening thing, Craig decided in one of the few moments when the fight didn’t cosume him, was that this guy was the Beginning. Engineer a Thundrax-killer, and soon you’d be able to genetically engineer a match for anyone on earth. Where would it end? In the annihilation of the human race?
After destroying more pine forest than a swarm of pine beetles and a meteor strike, the battle drifted skyward again. This time, Jaye grabbed his opponent and kept rising. Craig continued to punch away. They were eight miles high, just like the Byrds song. Still punching. Still soaring upward, trading fists, mountain-shattering blows. Neither man relented. They wrestled, ascending the sky like lovers. Two minutes later, they were eighty miles above the earth, their bodies smoking as they passed through the warmth of the earth’s radiation belt. Craig could no longer take breaths. Then, smiling as he felt refreshed by extra reserves of oxygen hidden in his lungs - his engineers were really proud of that trick -- Jaye finally began to fight in earnest, at his full strength, and he tore apart the mighty Canadian hero with flurries. Craig tried to fight back. A body shot left the hero gasping for air that he was not forthcoming, and Jaye had him. A symphony of violence, on the edge of space, followed. The earth beneath him wept its champion's fall.
Craig had endured gruesome beatings before, but this was one of the worst. Jaye's delighted blue eyes sparking, his grin broadened as he delivered brutal haymakers, time after time. Blow after blow landed, turning one of the most handsome faces on earth into a grotesque mess. After the tenth blow, he let Craig fall. The air screamed as the limp hero reentered the atmosphere. When he reached ten miles again, Jaye decided to end it. A dark god ascendant, the mighty foe grabbed the hero under the arm, and took him again to the exact place where the fight had begun, Millennium’s city hall. Craig, reinvigorated by the fall, tried to teleport his fist inside his foe. It was the most desperate of desperation moves. It would likely cost Craig the arm, but it would kill his opponent -- or so he hoped. Craig screamed as he felt it enter, then the nuclear man simply shifted his molecules to accommodate it, to trap it.
“Oh Craig, you shouldn’t have,” he purred, binding their nervous systems together. “Abandoning your lofty morals in a desperate attempt to kill me. But instead of murder..." he gasped and didn't complete the sentence. "You know, I can’t have sex – they considered that humanity’s biggest design flaw – so this is the next best thing. I feel so close to you. You’re such a giving man.” He mocked a sigh. "You never did this in the simulator. This is beautiful." Craig struggled to punch him with his free arm. Jaye headbutted him back. “Sorry.” He chuckled. “But this is what I was created for. This is my life. We are bound, you and I, in life and death.”
"It doesn't matter," Craig said, coughing lumps of blood as he spoke. "We evacuated the people in time," Craig hoped there were no stragglers. Superfights always attracted looky-loos. "It's never been about beating me. People beat me all the time. But what I stand for -- the values that made me -- those won't die so easily. Not to Trump, or to Trudeau, or to Destroyer, or to you. We'll always roar back. Go ahead, knock me down. We'll always pick ourselves up. If you were trying to beat me, great. If you were trying to beat the ideas I represent, my values, you ain't even close to powerful enough."
"I don't care about values. Just that you still have a heartbeat," Jaye said. "Well, time to end that." And then he proceeded to beat Craig again, and again, and again. until at last Craig Alexander Carson’s great heart finally did stop in its mighty chest, and he let Craig’s dead body slump to the ground. Jaye's victory roar could be heard as far away as Windsor and Westside.
Ralph Mathieson, arriving again on the scene, stared at the sight. Jaye looked down on Craig’s lifeless form, a tear in his eye as his life’s work was achieved… and a rock struck him in the back of the head.
“Huh?” Jaye wondered, and he turned around to see a boy of nine, gangly but determined, wearing an animish Thundrax shirt that wasn’t an especially good likeness of the now dead hero. Too lean.
“Leave him alone!” the kid shouted. Yep, right on cue, there he was, the straggler. There was always one And he had to be a kid! “He’s my hero!”
“He was your hero,” Jaye said. “His lifesigns have faded. I felt him die. His final breath.”
Atomac landed by Craig’s body, and he moved the kid behind him. Ralph had all the luck! Could he fight someone who capable of killing Craig and live? He had to! And he had to protect one angry, distraught child in the process.
“Do you know what you’ve done!” the kid shouted. “He saved the city! When I was little, these aliens invaded, and their leader had a nuke. He was going to blow it up and kill everyone, but Thundrax grabbed him and flew him to orbit and saved us! Millions! That’s who you killed, asshole!”
Atomac nodded, continuing to shield the boy, ready to lay down his life. Ready to pay the price for his team and his friend. “He saved us all! Time after time!” the kid ranted. “Probably even you!”
“Get behind me, son.” Ralph said, defiantly facing Jaye with his game face, growing six meters in an instant. "Back out of the area. If anything happens to you, I'd never hear the end of it." To Ralph's relief, the kid followed his orders, while Atomac kept his body interposed with the villain. He awaited his response, but there were none. Jaye just stared at the hero. He wasn’t programmed to kill the man, only Thundrax, with self-defense as his secondary priority. The mighty villain could have tried to kill Ralph and the kid right there and then, but he had no reason to do so. Finally, Jaye lowered his head and hurtled himself skyward at unimaginable speeds. Was that regret on his face?
Ralph sighed, his body sagging, and he lifted Craig’s corpse. He checked it for lifesigns, he couldn't believe he was actually dead until he checked it first hand. To his horror, Craig really was dead, really was a corpse. Ralph quickly took the fallen hero back to the Barlowe, though he wondered if this was the right thing. After all, technically he was tampering with a crime scene. What would Sparrowhawk say? And if Jaye changed his mind, he doubted it would provide protection.But he had to save him, somehow. Arriving at the Barlowe, Ralph looked through Craig's files, searching for any possible way to bring his mangled corpse back to life. According to the computer, Craig’s cells decayed at a substantially reduced rate – he could be dead for days, and then safely brought back. But how?
Think Ralph think. He was your friend. More importantly, he was Thundrax. The Thundrax. If anyone could come back from death, it's him. There's always a way. C'mon Ralph. you're not just a Protector, you're a problem-solver. There has to be something. An answer, somewhere.
And so Ralph Mathieson continued to read. He read, not ran, for Craig's life.
Until Ralph finally spotted the entry on Storm Island and stopped. What the hell? He read further, eyes widening.
Storm Island. Where the Protectors reunited Craig with his powers once before, after Mechanon had stripped them away. Could it restore his life? Was it worth a shot?
“Get a plane ready,” he instructed. Hoisting and moving Craig’s corpse was a chore, but – he ain’t heavy, he’s a Protector. Ralph continued to check the entry as the plane lifted off from Millennium. Storm Island, off the coast of Madagascar. Stormiest place on earth. Where the Living Thunder that fueled Craig was at its strongest.
The storm greeted the men, and Ralph had trouble, even with automated assistance essentially doing most of his flying. Landing, he draped Craig’s corpse over a stone, and he fashioned primitive lightning rods and set them about the body. Then, he waited, and he hoped. The lightning struck Craig once. And twice. And a third time. No movement. Not hiding dejection and grief, Ralph was ready to abandon the plan, when the sky opened and a barrage of lightning bolts struck Craig’s corpse. Thundrax gasped, seized up, and stared.
“Uh hi,” he gasped at Ralph through a shattered face. “Oh man, I feel like shit.” And Atomac embraced Craig with tears in his eyes, never happier to hear anyone swear in his life.
“Where’s Jaye?” he rasped.
“Somewhere,” Atomac said.
“He linked his nervous functions to mine,” Craig said. “He probably knows I’ve regained consciousness.” Craig said.
“You were dead.” Ralph said.
“I felt dead,” Craig replied. He winced, remembering hearing his own voice in the darkness, the hallucinations of a dying brain firing without blood. Connie had told him that he would die screaming -- is that what she meant, that voice? The final meeting in the center of the labyrinth of thought? No, Craig decided, no time to think about that when he had an enemy loose and a man to thank. “I guess I have you to express some gratitude. I owe you so much, Ralph."
"Nothing is owed," Atomac said. "But you're welcome."
"But what about the Protectors? Are they back yet?”
“Not when I last checked in…” Ralph replied.
“The Protectors are returning now,” Craig heard Kivioq say. He was relieved to hear the old annoying buzz in his ear, another reminder of being alive.
“That’s great.” Craig said.
“But I have some bad news.” Kivioq added in a somber tone. “It’s Faye…” He related the news, the worst possible news of a woman who had been his colleague since she was a child.
And then Craig screamed, and the world screamed with him.