As the glowing sphere materialized on Earth-Three within the antimatter universe of Qward, each of its occupants had his or her own thoughts about their situation.
The Monster brooded as he glanced furtively at the gleaming Corona. He was uncomfortable with his attraction to the photographer-turned-heroine, but he also had certain plans in the back of his troubled mind. If there is an Alexandra DeWitt on this other Earth, then she might accept me as well, he thought. She can’t have a Justice Society to influence her. From what little we’ve learned from this Starheart, this universe is some kind of darker mirror version of our own. The darkness found in all humanity is closer to the surface here! It makes it my kind of place!
Nearby, Alchemy clutched her hands tightly together. In truth, she was scared and now regretted ever donning the costume she wore. I wanted to become a name in this business, she thought. I wanted to bring my father the infamy he deserved. I didn’t want him to be a forgotten villain. Now I feel guilty about leaving his memory to fade, but all I want is to be home again. No more costumes. No fancy names. Well, not that Zabora is exactly as common a name as Debbie, but my feelings are the same. I want to be a normal woman without any danger in my life!
Hazard frowned as she fingered a run in her hosiery. Now, isn’t that bad luck? she thought, with no trace of irony in her thoughts. Becky Sharpe didn’t realize it, but her powers were growing, and as probability itself was shaped according to her own whims, the redhead accepted remarkable events as if they were commonplace occurrences. Her Southern charm only enabled her to make the bizarre seem more down home and reasonable, and she liked it that way. When this is over, Artemis and I have to talk, she thought. I want to know what that girl was thinking when she turned on the Monocle. She surely won’t be welcome at the next super-criminal Christmas party!
Oleander sat rather demurely as she delicately preened her leafy hair and relished her own recovery. When I get home, Sumac and I can use my newfound potential and take the underworld by storm! she thought. If she was now more plantlike than before, no thought of Poison Ivy’s own grim fate darkened her avaricious thoughts. She merely envisioned revenge on old foes and newly acquired wealth in her future.
Corona was still submerged within the Starheart’s power. Her body was not her own, nor was her amazing willpower, but her mind was free, and she made good use of the enslavement she was experiencing. This Starheart is like a Qwardian version of the force that fuels G.L.’s own power ring, she thought. I could learn from it! Maybe I could become as proficient with my ring as Alan is with his own! I mean, these Qwardians made the ring I’ve been using! Maybe there’s a user’s manual!
Artemis said nothing. She wanted to end this adventure. Thrills and giggles were fine in the course of normal business, but Artemis Crock was not the kind of girl to welcome paranormal or extra-dimensional side trips that derailed her mercenary instincts. Paul Kirk Jr. sure messed up my life, she mused. He had the nerve to place me in a position where I actually had to take a stand. I don’t like that, and I may never recover from what briefly taking his cause has done to my standing in the underworld.
She bit her lip as she imagined her mother as she had been long before. A heroine? she thought. Mother was on the side of the good guys. Isn’t the glory they get almost as good as the money I earn? The thrills feel the same. Then again, what would Dad say? What am I going to do?
The Starheart spoke again, its words once more echoing in their minds. “This Earth is tainted in many ways. It was ever a fitting match for the Qwardians, although originally it occupied its own universe. One known as the Time Keeper sacrificed his nearly limitless power to thrust Earth-Three into Qward’s dimension, and in doing so retroactively altered its own history. However, I existed before such cosmic games began, and I recall the beginning time!”
Kima shook her head and said, “Nothing like this is in my father’s hidden books. He was a Master Thunderer. He knew things denied to all below his rank. To learn such wonders is what drove me to leave my world. A desire for knowledge above a passion for violence is what ever disgraced me among my kind!”
The globe dimmed slightly to reveal a shabby apartment, where a beautiful blonde woman worked over photography equipment.
“She really is another Corona! This is wild!” gasped Alchemy.
“Look at the pictures on her line!” said Oleander. “She must specialize in taking blackmail photos! She’s not a fancy artist like her goody-good double is!”
Artemis crouched in a feral position as she reached for her crossbow. “She’s not alone in there, either,” she whispered.
Indeed, a burly man in a dark suit slipped up behind the distracted Alexandra DeWitt and fired a gun at her back.
“You won’t get hush money outta Big Jim Gordon again!” vowed the fat man as he stood over her body. “Nobody messes with his gang, sister!”
The Monster roared as he dived forward and passed through the glowing sphere to tackle the mobster and choke him with brutal force. “You killed her!” he cried. “You filthy worm! She might have been the only woman I could have loved!”
The Starheart enveloped the fallen woman and left a dazed Corona behind.
“What in the world? Did I just witness my own death?” whispered Corona.
“My father, Professor Zodiac, said there were counterparts to almost every being on these multiversal worlds!” said Alchemy. “He figured he had one on the other Earth those Justice League heroes came from. His was called Doctor Alchemy. But it’s also possible that a man named Amos Fortune is his double. That just goes to show that some doubles aren’t exact counterparts.”
Hazard smiled broadly and said, “I declare! Nothing is what it seems to be here! I think she’s OK!”
The other Alexandra sat up, now glowing with the Starheart’s radiance. “Where am I?” she said softly.
Alchemy gently touched the Monster and urged him to leave the badly beaten thug for a moment. “Look! Something is happening! The Starheart healed her!”
The Monster’s eyes widened as he saw Alexandra DeWitt of Earth-Three standing healthy and unharmed. “How did you do that?” he said in an oddly gentle tone.
The other Alex spoke in a voice that was like that of the Starheart. “She was dying, but my life force merged with her own! She will live, and I will know something ever cherished by all, but unknown to me. I will know what it means to have humanity!”
The altered woman raised her hands above her head. “This will greatly diminish my own powers, but before they fade, I will thank you by returning you to your original place of entry.”
“Hold it!” said Artemis. “I think we need to make one more stop before you send us back! If this place really does have doubles for many people from back home, I know one I have to meet!”
Thus, thanks to the combined efforts of Corona and her counterpart, the Starheart-dominated Alexandra DeWitt of Earth-Three, a suddenly thoughtful Artemis crouched outside a small house in the Civic City of this alternate planet.
It looks nice. I might have mocked this kind of scene before, but maybe I’ve grown up some over the last few years, she mused as she peered through a window and then casually removed recently delivered mail from the box on the front porch of the small but pleasant house. She glanced down at the name on one letter.
Mr. Carl Crockowski, she thought. My dad never changed his name here. Of course, from what I’ve gathered via the power ring-based searches of various computers, the Carl Crockowski of this planet never became a crook. He works with disadvantaged kids and is a high school coach!
She sighed as she stealthily moved to the rear of the house and spotted a pretty woman with dark but graying hair working happily in a kitchen. Mother? That must be Paula Crock — Crockowski of Earth-Three! She’s just a housewife. Happy, fulfilled, but not a criminal! On a world where things are all backward, my folks are normal citizens living an honest, domestic life!
Artemis shook her head and ran one hand through her long platinum locks. I guess Mom and Dad were meant to be together. I mean she’s not with a Paul Kirk on this planet. No villainess separated her from Kirk. She just ended up with Dad. I mean, she married the version of Dad that lives here. Seeing this makes me more confused than before. It makes me realize that, had they made other choices, my parents could have had all this. They could have raised me and Kathie as regular kids. I’d always known that, but seeing a real, honest-to-goodness happy homemaker version of Mother drives the reality home!
She waved to a hovering Corona, who lifted her on a golden platform and flew off as Artemis glanced back at the rapidly shrinking house with something like regret in her crystal blue eyes.
“Was that what you wanted to see?” asked Corona.
Artemis nodded and said, “Yes. More to the point, it was what I needed to see.”
Corona frowned to herself. I’m only with this bunch because some of them or some of their foes kidnapped me, she thought. Since then, I’ve actually met my evil twin, and we’ve both been possessed by that cosmic force! My double is starting to regain some of her own faculties. She talks like me and not like an all-knowing energy being, but the whole ordeal has been too much to take in at once. That’s why I’m going along with these crooks instead of trying to take them in! There will be time for that when we get home, and the Star Sapphire is taken down!
The other Alexandra, now calling herself Starheart, didn’t fully understand what had happened to her, either. In truth, that journey of self-discovery would take its own course later on. She merely exulted in two seemingly contradictory sensations. She relished being full of new power beyond her widest dreams, and she savored being a flesh and blood woman. This duality came from the fact that the Starheart was slowly merging with the woman until the final entity was becoming both more and less than the sum of the parts.
The Monster watched her and made no effort to conceal his attraction to her. “I’m staying here!” he said. “I think on this strange new world I might be Steve Rogers instead of just a Monster!”
“I’m glad,” said Starheart. “I’d like to repay you for what you tried to do when I was shot.”
“I think we can go home now,” said Hazard. “I feel like we’re ready!”
Alchemy shrugged and said, “What do you mean? Your hunches aren’t like mine. Yours carry real weight, thanks to your powers!”
Hazard winked at her and said, “Sugar, the chances that two super-beings like Corona and Starheart would attract attention from someone else with their kind of power were pretty strong to begin with. I just helped nudge them along, so one particular cosmic gal would notice them!” She gestured to where a female figure was appearing on the horizon.
Artemis scowled as she peered into the distance. “Becky, I hope you know what you’re doing!” she whispered as she recognized the flying figure.