by CSyphrett and Libbylawrence
A handsome young man with blond hair paced restlessly within the confines of a large complex full of well-ordered displays. Small auto-computers with pop-up holo displays rested in neat rows along the walls. Glass cases containing curious costumes, weapons, photos, and vehicles filled the rest of this level.
The Museum of Space Adventures was silent except for the robotic hum of the janitor servobots. This was reasonable, since the popular facility had been closed for several hours. The single human occupant was there merely to complete his shift of solitary duty and to supervise the regular pre-programmed rounds of the robotic sentries and cleaning machines.
He passed by a holographic display of two space explorers, a blonde man and a dark-haired man standing in front of a starship called the Futura. The legend named the display, Discovery of the planet Jarga near the blue star Sirius by Rod Carter and Ben Damon. (*) Who knew what thoughts the young man had as his face was reflected in the glass enclosing the display? Would his life had been any different if his father and mother had remained on Jarga? Perhaps he would have been nothing more than a simple colonist working to tame a world full of savage creatures. Instead, his father Rod had died a hero of space exploration, while Michael Carter grew up to be a failure.
[(*) Editor’s note: Rod Carter and Ben Damon appeared only once, in “The Creatures of Jarga,” Space Adventures #5 (March, 1953).]
Michael turned away from the display, bored and restless. In truth, the athletic young man yearned for a job that could offer him more physical activity. He also wished in vain for something beyond the realm of any museum worker. In fact, he just wanted to hear the roar of the crowd again. This sensation came from his college days, when he was cheered with great regularity by crowds of moopsball fans.
“Skeets, did I ever tell you about the time I scored fifty points against the Galaxy Raiders?” he began. “It was during my freshman year, and–”
“Booster, I fear you have not only told me about that game, but in fact you have alluded to it in great detail on no less than five separate occasions dating back to the 23rd of September, 2985,” interrupted a slightly high-pitched mechanical voice.
A small golden metal sphere with a winged fin on its back swooped into view. This robotic unit was designed to control all others and thus had a highly advanced capacity for learning and adaptation to change. It was fully programmed for speech and independent action. Michael “Booster” Carter had named it Skeets after “Mosquito” Pratt. The small moopsballer had been known for his habit of moving rapidly around the bigger players like an annoying gnat or mosquito. Clearly, much of Carter’s focus was centered around his glory days as the sports hero of the HubCore Red Stars.
Carter had earned the name Booster during his days as a star athlete — and he still used it — but he also wished there was some way to make people forget certain associations that now clung to that nickname. “Sorry, Skeets. I guess I drone on a bit. It’s just that everything was going so great for me back then. I was a star, and I imagined myself in the big leagues. I was going to become famous and do holo ads and endorse equipment and marry an ultramodel.”
Skeets said, “But you lost that opportunity when you were expelled from college and banned from college sports for gambling.”
Booster said, “Rub it in, why don’t you? I mean I know your programmed capacity for factual accuracy is why you say things like that, but you could use one of those twelve-step sensitivity programs.”
Skeets replied, “I am sorry. That same feature allows me to also add that you only started gambling for the selfless purpose of financing health care for your mother.”
Carter grinned sheepishly and said, “Right. I started out on the side of the angels, so to speak, but even once mom’s health got better, I kept on gambling for the credits I gained. That’s what led to my exposure.”
He thought about how it all started to slide away from his grasp. He had begun to gamble on his ability to win games for the Red Stars. The bets grew bigger, and so did the losses, and he soon began to lose more than he won. Finally, one day he was called to the head office and summarily cut from the team. They had found out about his gambling, and they weren’t willing to stand for it. He lost his career in the span of a month, and it was a media sensation. “The end of an era,” said SportsNews. “The man with the golden arm amputated,” said Sports Illustrated. For Michael Carter, it was a humiliating time, as he lost everything he owned and cared about. He wound up in a bug-infested, one-room closet in the worst part of the city. He did any job he could find to survive and keep his head above water. Finally, Carter landed a job as a security guard at this museum.
Skeets said, “I am sorry, but I have a suggestion. Perhaps you should think less about the sins of your past and focus on making your future a success.”
Booster said, “Oh, yeah? Employee of the month at the Space Adventures Museum will look real good next to my old holos as Athlete of the Year.” He sighed and leaned on a glass display case that contained a colorful azure costume. Looking at it, he said, “Guys like the Blue Beetle had it made. They were able to use their physical gifts to become heroes and win the public over. I mean, they didn’t have to answer to anybody. Of course, none of them got paid, either.”
Skeets flew over the glass case that housed the costume. “The twentieth century was the era in which such action-heroes achieved their acclaim. They were men and women of selfless intent.”
Booster said, “Sure, sure, but they didn’t have to be that way. You could do good and also cash in on your public image. I mean, wouldn’t anyone of that era go nuts for say, Nightshade pantyhose or a Captain Atom sweatshirt with glow in the dark letters?”
Skeets said, “One could surmise that such memorabilia would have a market value.”
Carter shrugged and said, “Exactly. You know, I’ve looked at that time machine upstairs before, and I’ve wondered what it would be like to go back in time and change my past. Maybe I could tell my stupid college self not to gamble.”
Skeets said, “You could not exist within the same era as your younger self. That would create a time anomaly.”
Booster said, “I know — I watched the holos. I was just daydreaming. I guess I can’t change my own past, but what if I could make a future for myself by going to the past? That is, what if I become a hero back then? I could do it!”
Skeets said, “Booster, I do not doubt your courage or innate resourcefulness, but the time machine is the property of the museum. You could get into trouble for stealing.”
Carter said, “Hey, this machine belonged to a twentieth-century inventor named Hap Holliday, nicknamed the Time Skipper, who went missing sometime in the mid-twentieth century, as did this time-yacht. (*) It doesn’t really belong here in the thirtieth century. In a way, I’d just be returning it to his own era.”
[(*) Editor’s note: Hap Holliday and his time-traveling companions appeared in the Time Skipper stories from Space Adventures #1 (July, 1952) and #2 (September, 1952).]
Skeets said, “I do not follow your logic.”
Carter reached over and touched the little robotic device and caught it as it fell into his arms with dimmed lights. “Sorry, pal. I had to turn you off. I can’t risk your meddling. I’m going to find a time that I like and grab all the living I can fit in.”
He ran one hand across a keypad and opened several cases. He swiftly assembled a costume of blue and gold, along with a mask that covered his upper face while leaving his mouth and his hair uncovered.
“This is great! This old power-suit came from a guy who fought the third Captain Atom. It will seem like a real techno-wonder in the dark days of the twentieth century. I can add certain gimmicks from the twenty-first-century hero Silverfish and even toss in a flight ring.” He grabbed the ring and scooped up Skeets.
Racing upstairs, Michael Carter ran into the room that housed the time-yacht. It was large, round, and made of metal and glass. Booster opened the creaky doorway and stepped into the musty compartment inside, which housed controls and enough sitting room for several people. In a matter of moments, Skeets in hand, he activated the time-yacht and vanished into the distant past.
The Blue Beetle and the Question had tried to find answers to the mystery that plagued them, but neither Myxa or Xopek would reveal anything. They had remained sullen and helpless since the heroes had removed their costumes and left them bound in the middle of their warehouse.
“Exactly what are you doing?” asked the Question. “You’ve been poring over the Bug clone they used for hours now.”
The Blue Beetle looked up wearily. “I found something that you and I might as well call the flight log, for lack of a better name. The commie cuties over there made their way here from the Soviet Union as we expected, but they also made a stop before hitting the Highland Tower.”
“So where did they stop? Don’t tell me they had a craving for American fast food.”
Blue Beetle smiled slightly and said, “Not unless it was served up by Punch and Jewelee, and while we know the blonde crook to be a dish, she is not known for her cooking skills.”
“Are you saying these two are linked up to a pair of American thrillseeking crooks?” asked the Question.
“The Bug they used stopped at the Coney Isle hideout once used by Punch and Jewelee,” said Blue Beetle. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Feel like a hot dog?”
The Question nodded and said, “Sure. Let’s go to Coney Island.”
The Blue Beetle and the Question now stood in a large chamber located directly beneath the main funhouse on Coney Island. They looked around at an alarming array of machines.
“OK, I did a check with Detective Hanlon,” said the Question, “and Punch and Jewelee are most definitely still in jail. That means they aren’t the ones using this hideout.”
The Blue Beetle said, “And judging from the look of the place, it hasn’t been cleaned in months. I’d say our commie friends stopped here and did something, but they didn’t occupy the place for any longer than they had to. I don’t think they were expecting anyone to figure out that they’d made use of the place, either. Look at the footprints in the dust. Spike-heel boots like the ones worn by Myxa made tracks directly up to that machine in the corner. I even had a good idea what it does.”
They approached a huge console, where the Beetle made a swift study. “Nightshade told me all about this thing. Oh, this is not the original machine, of course. It was removed by Captain Atom after he and Nighty defeated Punch and Jewelee. This is a newer model of a device P and J used. It scans the minds of anyone placed within its coils. It kind of reads their brain waves and records all they know. I can even pull up the scans of the folks it’s been used on.”
The Question nodded and said, “It has been used twice, but not in recent years. First it was used on scientist John Davenport, who specializes in exo-skeletons. He works for the military. I’d say his mind unwillingly gave them the designs for their costumes. He died in ’83.”
Blue Beetle said, “Exactly, and look at this reading. The second use was on Kord — my father! They pulled the designs for their Bug from his mind. That means they forced him to help them. He isn’t a traitor after all.”
The Question said, “Look at the date on the scan. It goes back more than two decades. That means this machine hasn’t been used since before you last saw your father.”
The Beetle nodded. “And he sure never mentioned being here, either. I’d say they moved the machine here to store it when they arrived in America. But when did they use it on my father? I can tell you for sure that even though he and I didn’t exactly share our days in father-son bliss, he was not gone for any length of time during that period.”
“Captain Atom said the machine drains a person of their data, and then they suffer mild amnesia,” noted the Question. “I’d say your old man never remembered being abducted, and they may have just scanned his brain and released him none the wiser.”
“Imagine — the Soviets have been sitting on the data for my Bug long before I ever knew dad was working on such a thing. Perhaps it was my use of such a craft that eventually convinced them of its value.”
“Of course,” said the Question. “You’ve captured plenty of Soviet spies since you started wearing that costume.”
Blue Beetle said, “I’ll contact my father’s lawyer and see if he can locate him. I want to check in with him and make sure he’s OK.”
The Question shrugged. “I’d say he’s fine. They got what they wanted from him long before you first suited up back in 1966.”
“I guess they planned to open shop here, since they knew Punch and Jewelee were out of commission since they were recaptured during the Crisis,” reasoned Blue Beetle. “They planned to scan Highland’s mind and use his many connections in the world of high finance.”
The Question whistled. “You mean they planned to tap that old liberal’s brain and play the market? The commies wanted to get rich through good old, all-American capitalism.”
The Beetle grinned and said, “Sure looks like it. They won’t be buying any stocks now. Myxa and Xopek will be locked up under Sarge Steel’s care for a long, long time.” They quickly dismantled the machine and carried it on to the Bug.
Blue Beetle made a few calls and then turned to the Question. “Dad is in Denmark. He’s fine, if as abrupt as ever. I think we solved the case. They only took his data via that machine, and they did it long ago.” He added, “I want to thank you for seeing this through with me.”
The Question replied, “You’re welcome. I had nothing else cooking.”
They sat in companionable silence as the Bug flew away, but the Question’s restless and cynical mind still worked as he pondered the situation.
I won’t say anything to Ted, but I’m doubtful about his old man, he thought. We found the data that led us here with relative ease, and they knew we were coming to their other warehouse, because they detected Ted’s use of his own Bug to tap into their broadcast signals. If they knew enough to do that, then they could have expected him to learn how to read the scans their machine contained. Maybe Kord Senior set this up with the sacrifice of two Russian pawns so his son would not deduce that the old man is a traitor. Kord may have built the Bug they used willingly or for pay, and this whole mind scan thing was nothing more than a red herring to throw us off the trail and make Ted assume his father is OK.
The Question turned back. I’m going to snoop around on my own. I still have some questions to answer. I hate to keep the Beetle in the dark, but he doesn’t need to get involved until I’m certain.