by Starsky Hutch 76
The air around Coral was stuffy and unbreathable. The heat and humidity were such that she could barely see through it. Her wet hair and sweat running into her face didn’t help matters. Her swimsuit-like uniform felt clammy and gross.
As her breathing became more difficult, she realized she would either have to get out of the room or die there. Her cracked lips were simply one of the signs that she was becoming dehydrated, and that had far more sinister consequences to her than a surface-dweller.
She brought up her arms, let out a yell, and charged for the heavy door, plowing into it with the force of an enraged rhinoceros. It gave a loud splintering sound, and its reinforced hinges exploded, as well as whatever had been holding it shut against her earlier efforts.
Coral collapsed in exhaustion and dehydration, passing out on top of the ruined roor. Two service robots came along, lifting the door, and were careful not to disturb the enormously strong girl from Atlantis.
Arrowette fired her last arrow and found herself facing what seemed like an unending horde of combat training androids completely unarmed. When she looked over at her friend Flare, she didn’t seem to be doing much better. She looked scratched and ragged, but determined. She made Arrowette think of the line from the poem Invictus that said, “…my head is bloody but unbowed.”
This same determination had led several robots to become so much debris. Arrowette noticed that many of the pieces were long, thin rods. Inspiration struck her, and she grabbed several and threw them back into her quiver. One by one, she pulled them out, lined them up in her bow, and sent them flying into approaching androids. Even as these exploded, many more came after her.
Where were these coming from? Surely they had destroyed every android in the building by now. How could there possibly be so many?
A frustrated cry sounded, and Arrowette looked to see Flare fall beneath the oncoming tide of robots. “Beth!” Arrowette called out.
One of the robots took advantage of the distraction and reached over, snapping her bow in two. When she saw what happened, she let out an angry shout and delivered a front snap kick, knocking it backward into two of its companions in a burst of electric fire.
Another jumped through the flames to quickly deliver a backhanded blow, knocking her out. Once she fell, it scooped her up and walked out the now-open doorway, followed by another who carried Flare. The remaining robots went about picking up the pieces of their fellow machines.
John “Whiz Kid” Garrick, the son of the Flash, was rounding the corner from the laboratory when he spotted the service androids dragging the still forms of his friends. One robot, entering from one hallway, had Coral. Another, entering from a different hallway, had Superboy. Two more entered carrying Arrowette and Flare. And then another two entered carrying Star Sapphire and a horribly emaciated Damage.
Whiz Kid sped toward the robots, determined to disassemble them before they could cause any more harm. One of the robots attempted to shoot him with some sort of ray. Stupid machine. It was simplicity itself to vibrate his molecules in such a way that it passed though him harmlessly.
Suddenly, two more robots struck him from either side, and he discovered he wasn’t moving forward any more. He couldn’t stop his molecules from vibrating, either. He was trapped in their rays like a wasp in amber. Whiz kid screamed inside. He was supposed to be the smart one. More robots appeared to carry his friends as the three androids who held him moved back toward the lab.
Gotham City was a madhouse. Initially, the distress call hadn’t sounded too serious. The Justice Society had expected to be able to deal with it and return in short order. They had even left the Junior JSA behind to continue their training uninterrupted, though Ma Hunkel had accompanied them. Being a JSA reservist as the Red Tornado, she felt an obligation. A few minor disasters didn’t seem to merit both groups.
Once upon the scene, though, the situation had steadily escalated. Now, every hero in Gotham was involved, including non-JSA heroes such as Flamebird, Paragon, Blackwing, Redbird, and Catwoman, who was visiting from Los Angeles.
Whenever one disaster, such as a subway derailing, would be dealt with, a building would suddenly go up in flames as its electrical system exploded. Then an elevator would plummet from the top floor. Then the spinning restaurant atop Gotham Towers would suddenly kick into warp drive. Then all four lights at an intersection would turn green at the same time, causing a major traffic accident. It was just one thing after another.
Ma Hunkel managed to glance over in time as a young man was launched out of his apartment window by his computerized treadmill. She quickly rocketed up and said, “Don’t worry there, fella. I got you.”
“Thanks, Mister!” the man exclaimed.
Ma Hunkel laughed inwardly. If only he knew it was a not-so-little old lady he’d just been rescued by, and she was almost as thankful for this occasion as he was. The days of young hunks falling into her arms were long past her. Not that they were ever the pin-up boys this one was.
Suddenly, a horrible feeling came over her. “My babies!” she gasped.
“Huh?” the young man she held said.
“I gotta drop you off, fella,” she said, returning him to the ground. “Something just came up.” She dropped him off and flew toward the JSA Brownstone.
Batwing, being the sole un-apprehended member of the Junior JSA, suddenly found himself hit with everything the Brownstone had to offer. Projectiles flew out of hidden cannons at him. Rays flashed by him so fast that he was barely able to avoid them. Nets fell from the ceiling which he quickly had to jump out from under. It pushed him to the limits of his training.
Then the androids came. Batwing found himself suddenly engaged in full out hand-to-hand combat with an army of metal combatants in the midst of a raging battlefield.
Batwing moved like lightning, displaying all the skill he had learned from his mentor. There were simply too many of them, though. He was being battered left and right as he attempted to dodge their blows. He quickly realized there was no way to win.
As one of the beams came close enough to singe one of his hair spikes, he slumped to the ground, feigning unconsciousness. The automated defenses suddenly came to a halt, and the two closest androids lifted him up, carrying him toward the lab.
When Ma Hunkel attempted to open the front door, she found it locked. Though she pulled with all her considerable might, she found it wouldn’t budge.
The same went for the windows. All were locked. And since they only looked like normal glass, they couldn’t be broken.
Ma Hunkel switched to the form of wind and attempted to sweep through whatever crack she could find. There were none. The place was sealed tighter than a drum.
She was determined to get in there if it was the last thing she did. No one was going to keep her away from her kids.
As the two androids dragged Batwing into the lab, he raised his head up and was confronted with a disturbing spectacle. Along the walls of the room, his teammates were held in various devices to keep them restrained according to their various abilities and weaknesses. Superboy was fed a steady stream of kryptonite radiation, Damage was kept too weak to do anything, Coral was kept dehydrated, Arrowette and Flare were sedated, Star Sapphire was kept too disoriented to use her stone, and Whiz Kid’s molecules continued to vibrate out of his control.
In the center of this spectacle stood a solitary figure. His body looked as if it were a silhouette cut out from a computer screen as binary code endlessly ran down its green surface: “10010011001100110011…”
When he turned back to look at him, his face had the eerie, not-quite-right look of a computer-generated image. It made Batwing think of the movie Tron. Its owner was still unmistakable, though. It was Clifford Devoe, the Thinker.
Batwing slammed his hands against the two robots on either side of him, attaching the explosive devices he’d palmed earlier. They went up in bursts of flame. She then threw a batarang toward the Thinker.
The Thinker briefly flickered as the batarang passed through him. His head fell back in a hearty laugh. “I’m afraid to disappoint you, young man, but I no longer have a physical body. I have my dear daughter to thank for that. But don’t feel sorry for me. It’s a situation I intend to remedy shortly.” Mechanical tendrils shot down and ensnared Batwing’s arms.
“Do you know what it’s like to lose a child?” the Thinker said. “No, I imagine you wouldn’t. From the moment you first hold them, you want to protect them from all the hurt the world has to offer. When they do suffer, and you realize you’ve failed at your goal, it’s the worst possible agony imaginable. This is a pain I mean to make the JSA share with me. It’s only fitting, since my rivalry with them played an enormous part in my Karla’s downfall.”
“That’s what this is about? Your daughter?” Batwing said, struggling against his bonds.
“If it seems unfair that I targeted your team instead of Infinity Inc., don’t worry,” the Thinker said, smiling malevolently. “I intend to kill them after I’m done with you.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Infinity Inc: A Question of Trust.]
Two more mechanical tentacles leaped out, ensnaring Batwing’s legs. His body was pulled so tight that for a second, he thought he was about to be drawn and quartered. “What are you doing?” he gasped.
“Just what I said,” the Thinker replied coolly. “Karla’s disapproval at her upbringing was so great that she sought to remove me from this world. The breakthroughs of Devoe Technologies kept me in it, though, without the benefit of a body. Now I mean to go one step further and step back into the physical realm. That’s where you come in.”
A device began to lower itself from the ceiling. The base of it began to part like the talons of a falcon opening to grasp its prey. Each of these talons ended in a needle, obviously intending to embed itself in his cranium.
“Obviously, one of your more powerful teammates would be a more appealing host for my consciousness,” the Thinker continued. “Unfortunately, the very nature of their abilities makes the transfer impossible. That left Arrowette, Flare, and yourself. And call me set in my ways, but the idea of becoming a female didn’t appeal to me. That left you.
“After the transfer is complete, I’ll finish off your teammates. The JSA will discover you as the ‘sole survivor’ of my attack. Too despondent to remain here with your memories, you’ll move to L.A. and join Infinity Inc., where I will infiltrate them from the inside. Once a member, I’ll finish them off at my leisure.”
“She tried to kill you! Why are you doing all this?” Batwing said, straining against his bonds.
“You’d have to be a father to understand,” the Thinker said as the device lowered the rest of the way, and the needles began to draw toward Batwing’s head.
Ma Hunkel continued to circle the JSA Brownstone in search of a way in. There was nothing, not so much as a crack in its defenses.
As she circled, she began to grow angrier and spun faster and faster. Eventually, she started to literally resemble her code name of Red Tornado, and the Brownstone was suddenly at the heart of the storm. The tornado grew taller and more powerful, and the Brownstone shook on its very foundations. “No one’s gonna keep me away from my kids!” Ma Hunkel bellowed.
Batwing closed his eyes and let out a scream of helpless frustration as the needles pressed into his skin. Memories of the Thinker’s life began to enter his head: the moment he first held his child; his determination to make her everything she could be; the pride in her accomplishments; the overwhelming guilt of realizing he’d failed her; the horror of watching her slowly go mad as the disease ravaged her body.
In the back of his mind, Batwing railed against what was happening to him. He fought to remember that the thoughts entering his head weren’t his own, even though he felt each emotion accompanying them as if they were. He knew, with overwhelming horror, that it was only a matter of time before they started overwriting his own memories.
Then, as suddenly as the process started, it stopped. The Brownstone began to shake, and sparks started to fly from the computer banks. The devices holding the Junior JSA suddenly sputtered to a stop, and they fell to the floor.
The holographic image of the Thinker also began to flicker. “What? No! This can’t be happening! I was so close! My plan was perfect! Perfect! Nooo-ooo!” Then, with a final flicker, he was gone.
The members of the Junior JSA raised up groggily, one by one. “Wh-what happened?” Coral said.
“It was the Thinker,” Batwing said. He nodded to the device that held his head. “Get me down from here!”
Though weakened from dehydration, she was still able to pull back the talons of the device. “Careful…” Batwing said, grimacing as she pulled out the needles.
The fall to the floor had given Damage some kinetic energy, but he still looked horribly emaciated. “What happened to you?” Superboy said. Damaged simply groaned in response.
“Smack him around a little,” Batwing said. “He’ll be OK.”