by Dan Swanson
Long ago, on a world far, far away, in a process that is common throughout the universe, life evolved. And eventually a species of warm-blooded bipeds arose to dominate that world. Other species had superior physical characteristics — there were other animals on this planet that were bigger, stronger, faster, more agile, and more adaptable to environmental extremes — but this species was able to dominate because of their superior intelligence. They called themselves Dyrons, which meant intelligent bipedal mammal in one of their own languages, and they eventually called their planet Kutti, which meant, simply, home.
The Dyrons multiplied, spread, and started a civilization that grew to girdle the planet. They were neither exceptionally peaceful nor exceptionally warlike, and though they had a number of wars, these wars never seriously impeded the growth of civilization and the advance of technology.
On the very eve of their long-anticipated space age, disaster from the sky laid low the proud Dyron civilization. A rogue white dwarf star wandered into Kutti’s solar system, and the gravitational effects on the system and especially Kutti itself were devastating. Kutti was wracked by earthquakes, violent volcanic eruptions, dangerous weather, and deadly climate changes as the sky filled with soot, smoke, and dust — driving the planet into nuclear winter. Billions of Dyrons died in the disasters and the plagues and famines that followed.
Then the rogue star swept on out of the system, and the worst of the disasters lessened, the earthquakes stopped, and the Dyrons began the long, painful process of recovery. By now most of the planet was uninhabited and largely uninhabitable. Still, due to some freak of geology, there was a small region in the middle of the largest continent that had been spared the worst of the devastation, and it was to this region that survivors came for refuge. Some were able to make it there on their own, though millions died in the trek, and others were gathered in by desperate search and rescue teams. It was the last hope of the proud Dyronian civilization.
The gathered refugees each provided what they could to the rebuilding, and their tremendous efforts paid off. A city grew where there had been nothing, and the wilds around were transformed into food-producing farms. The Dyrons soon began to rebuild their civilization as the chaos around them started to subside. They called the city Candor.
It was touch and go for many years, but after about a hundred years of unceasing labor by all the survivors and their descendants, society’s survival experts declared that a threshold of sorts had been passed. Life would not be easy for any Dyron for hundreds of years yet to come, but it now seemed likely that the race would survive. For most of that hundred years, Candor could have been wiped out by even a couple of minor disasters coming in sequence, such as a bad crop-growing season followed by an extra-harsh winter, but no longer. There was a short celebration, and then people returned to work; as a race, they no longer had the capacity to celebrate.
And then the other shoe dropped. The rogue white dwarf had not passed totally through the system — it had been captured by the gravity of their sun into a very long-period orbit and was now heading back into the system. Within no more than a few months, it would return, and this time it wouldn’t just disrupt Kutti, it would actually collide with the devastated planet. After the heroic effort to build Candor and save their lives and their civilization, they were all going to die anyway, no matter what they did.
The only escape was by space, but there wasn’t time or remaining technology to build a space ark large enough to carry all the residents away from Kutti. A team of scientists, led by a genius named Rayniac, came up with a solution.
By studying the gravity of the white dwarf, Rayniac was able to develop a shrinking ray, and one of his colleagues developed a flying saucer. Sacrificing himself for the future of his civilization, Rayniac flew the flying saucer over Candor, used his shrinking ray, and placed the shrunken city into a bottle with an attached life support system. He then fled into deep space before the final disaster. He wouldn’t live to see it, but his computer-controlled saucer would search until it found a planet that would support Candor and the Dyrons.
Meanwhile, in the bottle city itself, all was not well. People began to resent their fate, and some blamed the scientists. There were demonstrations that escalated into riots, which escalated into deadly civil war, and civilization fell.
All contact between Rayniac and the miniature city was lost during the war. It had now been about a hundred generations since the end of the war, and technology had recovered to about the level of the 1950s on Earth, but contact with Rayniac had never been restored. Eventually, the Candorians lost their history. All that remained were legends of a great disaster in the distant past, trapping them in some kind of gigantic prison.
“Well, John, what do you think?” Henrietta King asked as the history concluded. She had spent long hours developing the background of Candor, and she was proud of the ingenious details she had created.
John Garrick was much less impressed. “There are an awful lot of holes in it, Henrietta. What about time dilation? How did a scientist on a planet that never even achieved space travel invent an interstellar vessel? How–?”
She interrupted him, angry as he pointed out these holes. “Geez, John! It’s frigging fiction! Give me a break!” She paused, drew a deep breath, and composed herself. “There’s a differential time-field built into the bottle itself, OK? The scientist was the greatest genius his race ever produced — and he was working to save the race. He achieved something extraordinary, all right?”
John was impressed that she had realized the problem of time-dilation and already planned for it. But he wasn’t satisfied. “Well, I’m just wondering — it seems as if the Candorians would ask the same kind of questions. Why don’t they?”
“They are programmed to believe their legends, and the first generation is programmed to not be very curious.”
She looked troubled, though, as she continued. “Still, that won’t last. Their life experiences are already altering them, and they will quickly become more curious about their past. I planted clues that will allow them to figure out the history you’ve just seen — recovering their lost history, as it were, and any discrepancies will be attributed to the chaos following the civil war. I hope–”
“I’d say that this society is about to enter a period of crisis, then, yes?” he asked. She nodded, agreeing with him. “People who have been programmed to believe they had a complete life up to today are going to start realizing that they don’t like where they are or what they are doing. The personality of the librarian, for example, might be better suited as a politician, the stand-up comedian might realize he wants to be a medical researcher… that sort of thing. Right?”
She was slow to answer, afraid that he would become even more angry with her. But there was no way to avoid the truth. “Yes, that kind of scenario is likely. You’re right, there could be chaos! I’m sorry, John, I had no idea what I was doing!”
John shrugged. “I’ve figured that out. Since it’s too late to stop you, and we can’t simply destroy Candor, we need a plan to help these folks. Fortunately, you have a genius for a boyfriend…” He said this hesitatingly, but she didn’t contradict him. “And I’ve got a great plan! One thing, though — when we get out of here, I’m going to give the bottle to someone who’ll take good care of it.” This was not a polite request; it was a demand. And again, Henrietta didn’t contradict him.
“So, let me tell you my plan, and then let’s get started!”
They worked together for several hours, the two of them. These artificial bodies were not only incredibly strong (in their own milieu, at least) but also had fantastic stamina. Henrietta’s construction computer had equipped the top-of-the-sky aerie with every instrument, tool, or device her inventive mind could imagine, and the two young geniuses made effective use of most everything around them. While they were working, neither said a word about their relationship or their future, though each mind was filled with burning questions. Finally, all their preparations had been made, and it was almost time for them to return to their own bodies.
“You know, John, once we leave here, we can never come back,” she commented sadly. “These bodies will have developed their own unique personalities, and if we take them over again, we’ll not only disrupt their lives, but we might give away the big secret, too.”
John was overjoyed; he had come to that conclusion hours ago, but for him it was a morality issue, and he was uncertain that her morality would lead her to the same conclusion.
She continued, “The Candorians will eventually figure out their origin on their own, but I’d sort of like them to have a couple of generations of real life and real accomplishments behind them first. Stuff they can point to that proves that, regardless of their origin, they are real people.”
“We could animate some other bodies, couldn’t we?” he asked. He knew the answer but wondered what she would say.
“No — too many issues, and you know what they are!” He did. In particular, they would have to tamper with the memories of those new bodies, just as they were tampering with the memories of their current bodies. Even though he couldn’t see any alternatives, he was extremely uncomfortable doing that now. His parents had warned him about playing God, and he was learning more about the incredibly difficult responsibilities one took on when assuming that role.
“You don’t seem to have any such qualms about using your powers on other humans!” He hadn’t meant to say that, but suddenly it popped out. Well, it was an ugly fact, and it was bothering him, so it was best to get it out in the open now and deal with the consequences, even if it meant he would lose his girlfriend. He hoped he wouldn’t gain a nemesis in her place.
He had been sure that she would respond in anger. But she was thoughtful, instead. “I was thinking about that myself. It’s not totally true, you know. I have never used my powers on you or anyone else I care about. And I never will.” He nodded, doubtfully.
She continued. “I know it’s strange to you, but to me, most other people don’t matter. They are basically selfish, scheming nonentities who would take your last nickel and leave you for dead as soon as look at you. There is no such thing as an unselfish human being, John — take it from a telepath; I know!”
John realized he had know this about her all along, but his heart sank into his shoes when she actually stated it. He had hoped that her experience with him and with the Candorians might have changed her. Now it seemed that it hadn’t. But she wasn’t through.
“I guess,” she continued, disbelief creeping into her voice, “I’m feeling maternal about the beings in Candor! Birds and bees!” She used one of Dollface’s favorite exclamations. “Me, feeling maternal? It’s hard to believe!”
She laughed, but John didn’t join her. “Henrietta, before you got to know me, I was just another one of those selfish, scheming nonentities, wasn’t I? I don’t think you feel that way about me anymore. How can you be sure that everyone else wouldn’t turn out the same if you go to know them?”
In the middle of his sentence, an alarm went off. Henrietta jumped to a control panel in front of a bank of TV monitors while he was still speaking, and John was never sure if she had heard what he had to say. He suspected she had but hadn’t wanted to listen, so she’d used her powers to create a diversion.
“We need to return to our own bodies now! A wild monster has somehow made it into the city streets, and our alter-egos are needed!” She slapped a switch, and John’s awareness of the world snapped off like a light bulb that had just burned out.
When Whiz Kid recovered consciousness in Gotham City back in the real world, he was lying in large cylinder. The hinged upper half of the cylinder was made of transparent Plexiglas and was now swung open. Almost instantly, he heard a voice whisper in his ear. It was Henrietta’s voice through a speaker.
“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead! You won’t be able to move for a few minutes, but that’s just a side-effect of the transfer process. Join us as soon as you can; we’re in the TV room, watching a special broadcast from Candor. I think you’ll enjoy it!” She laughed. “Oh, and don’t try to capture any of us — you would get in more trouble than it’s worth, since we’re all legally free right now. Wouldn’t look good for the son of the leading Presidential candidate to get busted for false arrest, would it?”
A mixture of cheers and boos came over the same speaker. When they quieted down again, Henrietta continued. “I’ve adjusted the temporal differential grid embedded in the bottle to keep things from starting until you get here, but the rest of the crowd is getting impatient. And I can’t keep Stretch from your popcorn much longer!”
Not far away he could hear cheers from a group of young people who appeared to be watching a sporting event. He immediately blurred into super-speed and was relieved to find that he had his full powers back. Apparently the transfer paralysis had worn off faster than Savant had expected.
In the TV room, he found the people who had been cheering, now seemingly motionless due to his super-accelerated state. He saw Savant and her friends and criminal partners Dollface and Faust, as well as Stretch O’Brien and a young woman with a slight baby bump who must’ve been his wife. These members of the Junior Injustice Society were all in costume, seated in front of a giant TV screen with popcorn and soda, watching a monster movie.
Probably cheering for the monster, Whiz Kid thought with disdain. The monster looked familiar, so he looked closer; it was motionless. This must be a live feed from Candor! So that’s what Henrietta had meant about the temporal differential grid — she slowed downtime in the bottle when we left, so we can watch the first real adventure of the Candorian champions, Nightbird and Flamewing. Those were the names of the heroic alter egos that their Candorian bodies had when given their own set of false memories. It had been John’s suggestion that they become the city’s super-heroes, and surprisingly Henrietta had not objected with anything more than a smirk.
Growing up as the son of the Flash, John Garrick had learned a lot about Earth-One not only through his father but through his Uncle Barry, the Earth-One Flash, who had regaled him with heroic tales of the Justice League of America and their allies on that world. Knowing something about that world’s Superman, John had recalled the existence of the bottle city of Kandor and had inwardly marveled at the similarly named counterpart that Savant had created with little to no knowledge of that parallel world. John knew that Kandor had its own champions, Nightwing and Flamebird, and he had suggested names based on them. He decided to let Henrietta think that he came up with the names Nightbird and Flamewing himself; there was no sense making her feel like she’d been caught up in the parallelism that often occurred between Earth-Two and Earth-One. Meanwhile, Henrietta had supplied their alter egos’ civilian names: Jungar and Reeki.
The monster looked familiar, very much like something he’d seen many times — Godzilla. And it seemed to have similar powers to that famous movie monster. Right now, slowed to immobility on the screen by the temporal differential grid and his own accelerated senses, it was belching a cloud of something toxic at a group of fleeing bystanders. John was relieved to see that the battle was occurring on the outskirts of Candor rather than downtown. Apparently he and Henrietta had left in time for the two heroes to intercept the monster outside the city.
His plan was working, yet he had rather hoped that the tiny titans could have had some easy cases before they had to battle anything really dangerous like this monster. Henrietta had left them with memories of an heroic life, with cases based on her own life as well as John’s, but there was no substitute for real experience. Well, he and Henrietta had done their best, and even the best, most experienced heroes had been rookies at one time in their careers.
Kicking into an even higher speed, Whiz Kid zipped off to FBI Headquarters in less than a femtosecond and quickly checked out the most wanted list. And he saw, incredibly, that Dollface and Faust were both out on parole, Henrietta’s current sentence was suspended awaiting a legal appeal by her lawyer, and Stretch had some kind of probationary pardon from the government. They were all — right now, at least — legal.
So he decided he would join them, pretend they weren’t villains, and enjoy The Adventures of Nightbird and Flamewing. He decided not to let Henrietta know about his almost-instant recovery or that he had already checked up on their bona fides. He walked into the TV room at normal speed.
“Hey, sleepyhead! You’re just in time — the credits have just finished!” joked Savant. She swatted Stretch’s elongated fingers away from a bowl of buttered popcorn. “Maggie, can’t you keep him under control? Or do I have to blast him with my liquid nitrogen squirt-gun? Plastic gets really brittle when it’s cold, Stretch!” she warned. “You wouldn’t be nearly so unbreakable then!”
Whiz Kid looked at the five villains appraisingly, and they looked back at him, each side warily waiting for the other to make the first move. As he had expected, it was Dollface. However, he would never in a million years have guessed what she was about to do.
“Hey, blue and blurry! Better think twice before you touch us!” Dollface said indignantly. She jumped to her feet, then flipped over to her hands, then back to her feet again, faster than anybody but John could follow. “We’re all here legit!” She did a cartwheel, ending right in front of him, and handed him some papers. “Check it out before you start any rough stuff!”
She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “I could sorta go for the rough stuff later, if you know what I mean…” And she was back in front of the screen.
Whiz Kid was stunned. Had Dollface just hit on him? Henrietta was looking tolerantly amused, but there was a thundercloud literally floating over Faust’s head. Stretch and Maggie hadn’t even looked away from the screen.
“Good group!” Henrietta said approvingly. “C’mon, John, have a seat. Action’s about to start.” And as she patted the sofa beside her, John couldn’t help but to flinch at her use of his real name in mixed company, even though Whiz Kid was publicly known as John Garrick, just as his father Jay Garrick was known to be the Flash. Dolly turned her head, a big smile on her face. “On the screen, Dolly!” Henrietta practically shouted in exasperation.
In some sense, it was a case of déjà vu — John and Henrietta sitting down in front of a big TV screen, watching a drama together. Only this time, it wasn’t fiction. This time, lives were on the line.