“Die, you big lummox!” rang the voice of the Ray through Infinity Inc.’s Stellar Studios headquarters.
“Take that, you Reddy Kilowatt wannabe!” Nuklon shouted back in rage.
Fury heard the two friends screaming at one another and ran to investigate. The shouts came from the communications room.
“Ha! Get up from that, loser!” Nuklon cried out in triumph. Fury dashed into the room; the look of concern on her face turned to one of exasperation as she saw what had happened.
“Are you two at it again?” she asked. Nuklon and Ray had once again monopolized Infinity Inc.’s computer system to play their favorite video game, Phog. And, once again, Nuklon had soundly thrashed Ray.
“Why do you keep playing him, Ray?” Fury asked. “Do you enjoy losing?”
“Not particularly,” Ray said, taking the computer disc from its slot. “But then, I don’t have much to compare it to.” Fury watched Ray put the disc, with the colorful, stylized M symbol of Medulla Software, back into the disc case.
“You boys and your toys,” Fury sniffed. “You should try a more intellectual pursuit the next time you have free time.”
“What, like You Don’t Know Diddley?” Nuklon asked.
“Don’t knock it,” Fury said. “It finally came in handy knowing the name of the son of Agamemnon.”
“Weren’t all those guys your relatives or something?” Ray asked.
“Hey, gang,” Red Arrow said, sticking his head into the communications room. “Turn on CNN. There’s something pretty interesting going on.”
Nuklon clicked on the television monitor. The large screen sprang into vivid color as the voice of the news anchor filled the room.
“–going live to Washington, D.C., where Senator Dennis Barclay is about to give a press conference outlining his proposed Vigilante Registration Act.”
“What?” Ray gasped. “Vigilante registration? Does that mean what I think it means?”
“I’m afraid so,” Red Arrow said grimly.
Senator Barclay, a distinguished-looking man of about fifty with iron-gray hair and a close-cropped beard, stood before a lectern bristling with microphones like the antennae of some antediluvian sea beast. He addressed the crowd of journalists in an even, unemotional tone.
“For decades, our nation has been the home of masked vigilantes who take the law into their own hands. Super-heroes, many call them. And yet, what do we really know about them? How do we know their motives are what they say they are? May they not have some agenda we know nothing about? My proposed act calls for the registration of all so-called super-heroes operating within the United States and its possessions. I merely ask that they provide an appointed governmental regulatory agency with their true identities and background information. Such information would never be made public, nor could it be used against them. If they really do have only our best interests at heart, as they say they do, they cannot in good faith refuse.”
“Is he kidding?” Fury asked. “He expects the JSA to unmask for a bunch of bureaucrats? An FDA for super-heroes? He’s nuts!”
“Well, on the face of it, it does make sense,” Nuklon said reasonably. “After all, he has a point. We’ve grown up with super-heroes as our parents and guardians, but most people really don’t know what to expect of people like us.”
Fury gaped at her friend as though he had grown another head. “Al, do you hear yourself? You’re talking nonsense!”
“It’s not nonsense just because I don’t agree with you,” Nuklon snapped. Fury stared at him as though she had been slapped; then she stormed out of the room.
“Hell hath nothing like Fury,” Nuklon snorted.
All throughout Infinity Inc. headquarters, the argument raged. The second-generation super-team seemed evenly split on the idea.
“Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that you skipped over the 1950s,” Surge said to Red Arrow. “This whole idea of government regulation of super-heroes smacks of McCarthyism! Hell, it’s what caused the JSA to disband in ’51!”
“Don’t preach to me about individual freedoms,” Red Arrow snapped. “I was fighting Nazi saboteurs before you were even a twinkle in your father’s hourglass! Anyway, all he’s proposing is a measure to safeguard against–”
“Against what?” Surge demanded. “Villains masquerading as heroes, to gain the public trust before striking? If that isn’t the dumbest bit of fantasy I ever heard–”
“After what happened a few years ago, with the JSA and the whole Stream of Ruthlessness fiasco, you can’t blame people for wanting some security!”
And so the arguments went on. Stalwart friends, each of whom would gladly lay down their life for the other, nearly came to blows over the proposed federal registration of masked vigilantes.
The American people seemed not so evenly split. A CNN poll showed sixty-two percent in favor of the Vigilante Registration Act.
“I can’t believe those numbers,” Jade said in disbelief. “Sixty-two percent?”
“Well, there is a four percent margin for error,” Nuklon offered.
“Even so,” Midnight said, “it does seem to betray an underlying current of mistrust for us. It makes you wonder what people have really felt all along.”
“Hey, quiet!” Aquaman snapped. “Look at that!”
“We have just been handed a special report,” the anchorman said, expressionlessly. “We switch you now live to Vic Vale in Gotham City.”
The scene changed to a handsome young man with red hair, holding a microphone and looking directly into the camera.
“Tragedy has struck here in Gotham City. For decades, since the dark days before World War Two, Gotham has been the scene of countless battles between masked participants. Today, one of those battles has ended in death.”
“Oh, no!” Red Arrow gasped. “Red Robin is all right, isn’t he? H-he’s gotta be!” The unnaturally young Roy Harper was fretful. He and Red Robin, both former kid sidekicks of adult heroes, had been close in the All-Star Squadron, and they had teamed up with other young heroes of the day as the loosely knit Young All-Stars on several occasions. With so many of his former comrades dead, including his mentor Green Arrow, Roy feared to lose another one.
“Gotham’s heroes, including the legendary Batman, have always strived to uphold the law without unnecessary force. Today, however, a criminal has died, and a city wonders if it was necessary.”
The camera angle widened to show paramedics loading a body on a stretcher into an ambulance. The body was completely covered by a sheet, even the face.
“The man on that stretcher was Jonathan Crane, better known to the public as the Scarecrow,” Vale explained. “For decades, he battled Batman and Robin as the self-styled master of fear. Today, Red Robin brought his career to a conclusive end.”
“What?” Nuklon demanded. “He’s making out like Dick killed him! He never–”
“Sssh!” Jade hissed.
“Red Robin engaged the Scarecrow in combat atop this tall building, the Bilfinger Gallery of Fine Art,” Vale continued. “The Scarecrow was standing near the edge of the building unarmed, for Red Robin had snared his trademark pitchfork in a bat-rope and relieved him of it. The masked vigilante then hurled a batarang at the Scarecrow, which knocked him off the roof six stories to the street below.”
“Impossible!” Surge snapped.
“Red Robin’s statement to Lt. James Hainer of Gotham City Police was that the Scarecrow drew a gun on him, and this is what he was trying to knock aside with his batarang. However, no such weapon was found on Scarecrow’s body, on the roof, or anywhere nearby. Hainer has promised a full investigation of this incident. We–“
Ray reached out and snapped off the monitor. A stunned silence filled the room.
It was twelve hours after the stunned announcement of the Scarecrow’s death. The members of Infinity Inc. had not gone to bed. They sat around the communications room of their headquarters, waiting for word. Most of them had contacted their parents and mentors in the Justice Society of America, offering their support. Several had tried to speak to Red Robin but found him unavailable. Soon, the television news confirmed why.
“The costumed crime-fighter known as Red Robin surrendered himself to police custody at Gotham City Police Headquarters,” CNN news anchor Tawny Young said emotionlessly into the camera. “While unconfirmed, our sources tell us that Red Robin did so on direct request from Police Commissioner Clancy O’Hara, with whom he has been in constant communication since the incident. Red Robin has not been formally charged with any crime or negligence leading to Crane’s death, but has surrendered himself into protective custody following outbreaks of rioting in Gotham City.”
The television scene changed to a mob gathered in front of Gotham City Police Headquarters. They were shouting angrily, waving their fists. Some carried homemade signs, bearing slogans like Take Off the Masks and Vigilantes Go Home.
“This incident comes on the heels of Senator Barclay’s call for a repeal of the laws allowing masked vigilantes, or super-heroes, to operate legally without revealing their identities. Many feel that Jonathan Crane’s death came as a direct result of super-heroes operating without government restriction or guidance. Gotham City District Attorney Harold–“
The communications room was filled with the sound of shattering glass.
“Geez, Roy, do you think television sets grow on trees?” Patriot demanded.
“Take it out of my allowance,” Red Arrow grumbled.
“Take it easy, Sly,” Jade said. “We’re all upset about what’s happening to Dick.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Surge said. “But tell me, Roy, do you still agree with Senator Barclay’s proposition? Now that you see its result?”
“No. Yes. I — I don’t know!” Red Arrow snarled, swatting the air with his hand. “I’m just so confused! It’s weird. I mean, deep down, I know there’s a reason we guard our identities, and all that. And yet, something Barclay says makes a lot of sense to me! I just don’t understand it!”
“Well, a lot of people can be taken in by a slick public speaker,” Aquaman said. Fury nodded and started whistling Der Fuhrer’s Face, until a sharp look from Patriot cut her off.
“OK, I’ve got the alternate communications monitor screen plugged in to CNN,” Nuklon said. True to his words, the screen flickered to life, with Tawny Young’s expressionless face. The story about Red Robin and Senator Barclay, however, seemed to be over, at least for now.
“Coming up next, ReNee Keith, the twenty-six-year-old wunderkind behind Medulla Software,” Tawny announced. The screen changed to an image of a beautiful young woman with long red hair. “Via satellite, we’ll be speaking with Ms. Keith from her home in Seattle. We’ll hear firsthand how this rising young entrepreneur created her software kingdom from the ground up.”
“Ah, nuts,” Red Arrow said. “I’m tired of hearing about this, anyway. I’m going to get something to eat.” The unnaturally young archer stalked out of the room. Jesse Quick hesitated momentarily, then followed him.
Jesse Quick entered the kitchen as Red Arrow was making himself a sandwich. She came up behind him and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t make more of it than it is,” she said softly. “We’re all under a lot of pressure.”
“I know,” Red Arrow acknowledged. “I’ve never seen the team so — so divided, so split on what should be a basic issue! I swear, Rick and I almost came to blows back there!”
“I know,” Jesse said. “I think everybody’s confused right now. When I spoke to Uncle Jay in Civic City on the phone, even he sounded troubled, uncertain. And he’s usually the anchor of normalcy in times like this.”
“You don’t think they’ll actually charge Dick with negligent homicide, do you?” Red Arrow asked. “I mean, after all he and Commissioner O’Hara have been through together?”
Jesse shrugged. “I guess it’s really up to D.A. Sims. But someone in the JSA has his ear, I understand.”
Jesse had a sandwich with Roy, but they ate quietly, without much conversation. When they had finished, Roy left to go to the gym to work off some nervous energy. Jesse returned to the communications room. The only members still there were Nuklon and Ray. They, too, were working off nervous energy in their own way, playing Phog. But their hearts weren’t in it; there were none of their usual boisterous threats and shouting.
Suddenly, Jesse’s eyes caught something on the screen. “What the hell is that?” she shrieked.
“What?” Nuklon asked, startled. “What, you’ve seen this game before. I know, it gets a little bloody–”
“Didn’t you see that?” Jesse demanded. “Either of you?”
“See what?” Ray asked, confused.
Jesse shook her head. “Al, can you freeze the frame on this game?”
“Sure,” Nuklon said, hitting the pause button. The action of the fast-paced computer game froze to a halt.
“Now, can you back it up, one frame at a time?”
Al shrugged. “I think so. Let me see — is this what you want?”
Jesse watched as the action of the game played itself backward, slowly, one frame at a time. It was like watching the hands of a clock move.
“Here, let me,” she said, leaning in to the controls. Al caught the scent of her strawberry shampoo as she bent across his chair to quickly reverse the game action.
“There!” Jesse exclaimed triumphantly, stepping back from the console. “Take a look at that!”
The game was frozen in place, the figures halted in poses of action. In deep red letters a third as tall as the screen itself, the phrase “DON’T TRUST SUPER-HEROES” was plainly visible. Nuklon and Ray gaped at it for a moment. Nuklon advanced the game one frame forward; the message vanished. He tried one frame backward from where the message was; it was gone again. But it was there as plain as day, on that one frame that his eyes would see for a millisecond.
“I… think the others should see this,” Nuklon said after a moment.
“I don’t believe it!” Surge declared, incredulously. “Subliminal messages, embedded in a video game? If I saw that on Remington Steele, I’d never buy it!”
“Well, that’s what’s happened, all right,” Patriot said grimly, leaning over the console as Nuklon and Jesse Quick scanned the video game. “We found a hundred of those messages planted in this game! The action moves so fast, the messages would barely have time to register on the eye, but the subconscious mind would pick them up!”
“I noticed a few phrases that I’ve seen repeated identically on signs carried by anti-hero protestors,” Jade announced. “This is definitely the source of the current anti-hero movement!”
“You’re telling me all those protestors play Phog?” Aquaman said. “That doesn’t make sense!”
“Medulla Software makes all the great games, not just Phog,” Ray said. “They make You Don’t Know Diddley, Grave Robber, Radar the Porcupine, Alley Brawler… all of them!”
“More than that,” Fury said, flipping through a Medulla catalog. “This came with the software. They also make a full line of educational software for children ages three and up. And a complete line of business applications; accounting, word processing, spread sheets…”
“My God!” Midnight gasped. “It’s insidious! Someone is actually altering the public’s perception by attacking their subconscious mind through computer images!”
“It’s ingenious, all right,” Jesse Quick said. “The question I have is, who’s behind it?”
“My money is on the head of Medulla — what’s her name, Keegan?” Nuklon said. “If the subliminal messages are in all of their products — and they’d have to be, to get these kind of results — it couldn’t have been done without her knowledge. Unless she’s just a figurehead president, like that Stan Lee guy.”
“And what about Senator Barclay?” Aquaman asked. “Is he a partner to the scheme? A hired employee? Or did he just get brainwashed by the images like everyone else?”
“I think a visit to Ms. ReNee Keith is in order,” Patriot said, walking over to Nuklon. “Al, could you access our microfiche files of the L.A. Times? There was an article about her last month, I think, and I believe it said where she lives.”
Nuklon flipped through the files until he found the appropriate story. It was on the front page of the Sunday Business section and featured a photograph of the stunning redhead. Her name was underneath her picture.
“You guys — look at that!” Jade said, pointing. “Look at how she spells her name, with the capital N in the middle!”
“So what?” Surge asked. “That’s just fancy-shmansy spelling, like Cyndi Lauper.”
“No, no! Don’t you get it?” Jade asked. “Take only the two capitals in her first name, and her entire last name. R-N-K-E-I-T-H. That’s an anagram for Thinker!”
And all was silent in Infinity Inc. headquarters.