Pendragon arrived almost thirty years ago, a bursting comet streaming headlong into destiny. The small vessel fell from the sky, the brightest star in a moonless night, and crashlanded in the outskirts of some small Nebraska town. Coming down as it did, at the height of the Cold War, the American government was well aware of his existence. Not once, however, did they reveal their knowledge or interfere with the way he was raised. When he grew up into a strong, strapping cornfed lad with solid American values, it was as Professor Hesse had planned.
He became America’s secret champion.
He crushed Spiral Dolphin, the renegade mutant, and the Stampede, the alien Dyson tree conqueror, with the same ease with which he obliterated Saddam’s tanks in the Gulf War and in the streets of Baghdad a decade later, the air above them rent by a piercing whistle only. When he found the deposed tyrant with his special vision it was him who flew the broken old man, a muffled trill across the desert, to the American prison. Hussein’s expression remained the same hours after he’d been incarcerated and the Nebraskan from the stars had flown away. He’d realized, only too late, the world already belonged to America.
And then Professor Hesse died.
* * *
A man of awesome intellect and groundbreaking vision, a man of mad and beautiful ideas, people often wondered at Professor Hesse’s somewhat eclectic tastes. This enigma of a man with the childlike face and the beard of an apostle. A key player in Heisenberg’s team which almost delivered the atom bomb to Hitler, he was also a good friend of Himmler’s with whom he shared several bizarre ideas. Together with Hermann Wirth, he founded the Ahnenerbe and helped the S.S. try to find both the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny, and sent archaeology expeditions to the North Pole to find the mythic entrance to the Hollow Earth. During the Cold War and now an American, the Pentagon believed his brilliant mind could give them an edge so he was allowed to pursue his many interests. (It is believed he was responsible for the Atlantis expedition funded by the O.S.S.) During the 60s he loved his Irwin Allen TV shows almost as much as his porn —it’s been said he’d been watching an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when he actually concocted his Pendragon Knight Project idea— his comic books as much as the cheesy B-movies his adopted country produced. He had assimilated American pop culture like no American native ever could. Like a hungry whirlpool, the vortex of his questing mind sucked it all in. It was the same culture, after all, which had canonized his old Nazi friends as the century’s ultimate villains.
If he’d been able to name the fantastic sequence of events which led to his resurrection it probably would’ve been They Kept His Brain Alive! or some such drivel.
The hydraulic pistons which powered his new body not only managed to mimic human movement, with a howl and a drone, but gave him the industrial strength of a large crane.
It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Professor Hesse went insane and wound up battling Pendragon outside the White House. Hesse himself would have approved of this story twist, even when the predictable outcome was his resurrected brain getting squashed on the Rose Garden.
Deep in the dark, quiet marshlands of Florida, the Swamp Intelligence weaved a smile on the bubbling mud, its noxious reverberations receding even unto the wet soil below, and all the alligators that night dreamed of hot, sweltering summer days.
* * *
In 1945, with Nazi Germany in ruins, the triumphant Allies jostled frantically with each other vying for the best scientific minds the vanquished nation had. Like vultures scavenging and picking the flesh off a dead carcass, they grabbed them all. Werner Von Braun had always hated the eccentric Hesse, he thought him a pervert, so the Americans kept them well apart. When political necessities turned the space race into the stuff of headlines, Von Braun and his team and his work became household names, while Hesse and his grandiose projects became buried in secrecy.
1960s America never heard of the Quicksilver Six —the Mercury Six’s black reflection— nor of their catastrophic deaths.
They didn’t learn about the Spider Core, or of Hesse’s deal with Spiral Dolphin.
In the 70s, not even the most obsessed conspiracy nut heard about Shrunken Dakota, or of Arthur One’s involvement with that bloody debacle.
Most people, however, were familiar with the Soviet disaster at Chernobyl, when the Congress of Trees was secretly born. It was Professor Völker’s greatest success. The only way he foresaw to stop Pendragon’s ascendancy. This new champion of America, about whom the former Nazi scientist, a key player in Heisenberg’s team which almost delivered the atom bomb to Hitler and a founding member of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, had kept copious reports.
Völker’s transformation into the Swamp Intelligence from the Florida Everglades happened later.
* * *
When Celia Nadine, Pendragon’s lover, died at the hands of a vampire, it changed everything.
A loud whistle crossed the world. The night crackled with electricity, the clouds into which he soared thundering like a marching army. Everyone paused on their tracks and frowned, as if the sky had darkened of a sudden. A general feeling of unrest; a profound sharpening of the senses as if a galvanic current had stirred unknown nerve-centers in them all. Everybody looked up…
And then, like a sudden thunderclap, the whistle sprang down upon them.
The bloody aftermath made Pendragon’s secret existence a virtual impossibility. The obliteration of half an African nation something that had to be explained somehow —and incredibly accurate “Patriot missiles” would not do it this time. (Its African neighbors, painfully aware of the existence of vampires, needed little explaining, of course).
America, and then the world, blamed it all on the Goon.
Intelligence departments and services throughout the world had known about the Goon ever since the fall of the Soviet empire turned him into a freelancer, this creature who inhabited the hinterland between myth and reality long before Pendragon did. They knew what he was capable of (he had come within inches of murdering a young Pendragon in Afghanistan and in Tehran years before).
They didn’t know the Goon had been killed almost five years ago by the Congress of Trees.
* * *
And then a second rocketship crashlanded in Nebraska.
* * *
The creature claimed he was “Pendragon’s” elder brother and called himself Loki. He told Pendragon where they both came from. He revealed the name of their home planet. He told him the reason Pendragon had been sent to Earth for, the reason why Loki and all the rest had been sent to other worlds.
Pendragon refused to believe him. He would hear none of it.
He thought it all some bizarre and elaborate new scheme of the Stampede, whose irrational alien logic had baffled him in the past more than once. The hail of annihilation that erupted around their fratricidal battle nearly devastated half of Nebraska and the surrounding states. It was a good thing this did not occur in the east coast. The U. S. government had plenty of time to spin a suitable story to explain the disaster away. Pendragon won.
But, as he hit his brother harder than he’d ever hit anything before, he knew. It was, in fact, why he was hitting so hard. As he slew his brother with his own hands, under a canopy of warm summer stars, he knew his sibling had said nothing but the truth.
He thought of Celia Nadine’s first articles about him, when the truth had started to leak out before being eventually contained. How she’d spoken of the “subtle alien menace”, so much more insidious than the Stampede and its ilk, since Pendragon disguised himself as an American.
He thought of Spiral Dolphin, his greatest enemy, whose sole reason to oppose him was his fear of what an all-powerful alien could do to a world where he didn’t belong.
Except he did belong. He believed in the values his parents had taught him as they raised him. He had saved the world time and again, without anyone the wiser. He was a hero.
Except he’d massacred more than ten thousand people in one hot, muggy afternoon under an unforgiving African sun.
Except his parents were not his parents.
Pendragon gritted his teeth, and swallowed hard as he tried to get rid of the bitter taste on his mouth as he pounded Loki’s skull to dust.
* * *
It was barely an hour past midnight in New York when dawn came.
The western world woke up hours before its time and that’s how they learned the Spider Core was active once more. (A whistle growing louder)
And it was all Spiral Dolphin’s doing. (An invisible whistle arriving)
Spiral had updated Professor Hesse’s technology. His ingenious computing machines, the size of tower buildings, had been replaced by Spiral’s crazy sprites. Tiny mechanical machines the size of an atom powered by magic. For the scientific genius of Spiral Dolphin had now turned to thaumaturgy, the only science he had yet to master. The desiccated corpses of the Quicksilver Six which he found on the dark side of the Moon, where they’d been tossed after their unsuccessful venture into E-Space, he casually resurrected by way of hexes and secret compacts with otherworldly creatures even more alien than the Stampede or the Congress of Trees.
Rising from the bottom of the ocean its hull was barnacled with crusted crimsons and mustard yellows, a coral architecture branching everywhere and camouflaging most of the original structure so it looked like a giant Feast of the Tabernacles.
When Pendragon breached the Spider Core, the twin fusion reactors were burning white-hot —the white heaving and raving. Pendragon’s long shadow was sharply outlined behind him like the picture of coupled atomic victims stamped black on some wall. They hummed almost musically, a chorale of atomic adagios, and it was as if Spiral Dolphin was playing a colossal organ, like some snickering Vaudeville madman.
And then, face to face, Spiral Dolphin told Pendragon about a man called Gunther Hesse.
* * *
He told him about the way Hesse had raised him. The way his schoolmates had been recruited. The unlikely scenarios, all bordering on the absurd, he’d had to unwittingly participate in as a teenager, all scripted by Hesse. Of a mongrel youth stitched together from a dozen different movies. Spiral told him about Lucy, the first girl a young Pendragon had ever loved and whom he’d never told anyone about, not even Mom. About Mandy, the girl he’d accidentally killed when she found out about his true powers. No one but Dad knew about that.
Spiral Dolphin told him about Hesse’s clandestine meetings with his parents every month.
Pendragon let out a mighty bellow to shut out Spiral Dolphin’s lies. He was still yelling as he tore out the Spider Core’s twin reactors. Spiral was telling him how Hesse had manufactured the “Stampede” out of spare parts he’d located in the Lost in Space studio lot, about Arthur One, the first “Pendragon”, the one Hesse built on his own, when Pendragon knocked his head off his shoulders.
It was merely a decoy. A robot.
Pendragon stared at the headless machine. It was hardly the first time, of course. Spiral Dolphin always came back. That, if nothing else, was a certain fact of life.
But what if somebody else was responsible for this Spiral Dolphin lookalike?
* * *
Pendragon left the Earth soon afterwards.
He’d fought Joshua Tree, the monster once known as the Goon, and convinced himself his adopted world no longer needed him. Spiral Dolphin was alive, somewhere. And so was this mysterious “Congress of Trees” the dying Joshua had spoken about.
But this was not his world.
He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t helping anyone by staying here. At best, he was a crutch the world had to leave behind. And yet all he could think about was of Nebraska in early spring, the loveliest time of the year. The corn harvest ripening gold, its long stalks swaying and rippling in the breeze like a sea of sunlight.
Of a bundle of clumsy and incomplete poems hidden in the drawer of a small farmhouse.
Rising all the way to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, he breathed the air deeply for the last time…
…and kept rising.