Captain Atom raised his hands and released a barrage of energy-bolts with perfect accuracy. Each bolt struck a moving target as a clock ticked away the seconds. He dodged a series of projectiles and then brought his fist down on a control and stopped the clock.
“That’s your fastest time yet!” said a young man who stepped out of an observation booth in the Project X satellite headquarters of the Sentinels of Justice, smiling his own approval.
Captain Atom nodded as the young man drew closer. “I admit that I did pretty well, but beating the automated reflex-tester doesn’t help me solve my more pressing problems!” replied the greatest action-hero of them all.
His young opponent was a dark-haired young man in a blue and gray costume named Adam Thompson, and he was also known by his heroic name of Champion. (*) He looked up to Nathaniel Adam, since the older hero had become a real mentor to him. He wished he could say something to help his friend, but what words would suffice? Cap is crazy about Lady Quark, thought Champion. But I guess he just doesn’t know how to feel now that her husband has miraculously returned. He’s happy for the family, but he has to be feeling some conflicted emotions!
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Atomic Nightmare.]
Captain Atom was thinking the same thing. I don’t know if Lord Volt’s mysterious return is too good to be true or not, he thought. I’ve seen a lot of weird things in my time. The man seems authentic; Tashana and Liana certainly accept him as their loved one! Aloud he said, “C’mon, kid. Let’s run through the course one more time. I’d say you might just be able to beat your last score as well!”
Champion nodded and moved forward to test his own abilities, which all stemmed from the power to increase or decrease his density at will. If nothing else, maybe this will help Cap to occupy himself until he can figure out what to do, he thought.
Elsewhere in the satellite headquarters, Lord Volt was strolling through an observation deck with Princess Fern.
“Father, I’ve made so many friends here,” said the platinum-haired beauty. “My friends in Soyuz would impress even you. They choose to remain in an oppressive nation called Russia in order to make a difference!”
Lord Volt smiled at his daughter as he thought, Liana has grown into a fine young woman. She has done more than even I imagined she could do. She has survived and even thrived all this time while alone on this odd parallel world!
Princess Fern touched his arm and said, “I can hardly believe that you’ve returned to us. I only found mother a short while ago. We each believed the other to be dead.” She paused, then added, “Strangely, we were each captives of the Russians at different times, and my own captivity actually saved my life from the terrible white energy that almost swallowed me when we were last together during the red skies! I thought I had lost you!”
Lord Volt held her closer as she began to weep. “We are safe now, and we are together once more. I have no idea what brought me here. I was about to fall victim to the same deadly energy wall you spoke of when I found myself here on this world mere days ago. I tracked your mother down and found that not only had we ended up on another Earth and lost our own, but also that a considerable amount of time had passed since the Crisis! It may be that destiny itself restored our Royal Family out of a sense of the higher calling we always pursued. We were meant to survive as beings of a more purposeful destiny!”
As he walked on with his daughter, he kept his own misgivings to himself. Such was ever his way. And yet what of the others in the Twelve? he thought. I cannot truly claim to deserve life more than those noble men and women who ruled other domains on our lost Earth. The Star Tsar, Lady Americana, Count Thunder, Storm King, Justiciar… He shook his head, and his eyes crackled with energy as he recalled another from his lost home.
Regicide! His mixture of dark magic with super-science could achieve just such a goal, he thought as he clenched his fists and energy began to crackle around him. He could very well have done this to us for some nefarious purpose all his own!
Meanwhile, within her room, Lady Quark was feeling conflicted as well. By my crown! Where is my much celebrated composure? I feel as emotional as a callow schoolgirl! she thought. I exult in the return of my beloved, and then I tremble at the thought of losing him once again. I feel love for Karak, and then I feel regret about Nathaniel!
As she turned to gaze into an ornate, full-length mirror, she began to frown in consternation as her reflection changed into something very different. Before she could do more than begin the arduous effort to regain her composure, she saw the form of a woman with long black hair appear within the glass in her place. The woman wore a short pink dress and tall boots of a matching color. She smiled dismissively in a way that was an invitation for trouble when one considered the fact that Lady Quark was a supreme egotist.
“Am I not the fairest of them all? Is that not the proper line?” said the woman in the mirror.
Lady Quark frowned as she tried to make sense of the scene. “You and I first met back when I lost everything!” she gasped. “You’ve changed, but I still recognize you!”
“Oh, I’ve changed greatly,” said the woman in pink. “Still, I recognize power and potential, and you have both. I wish to enlist you in my grand cause! You may call me Layla.”
Lady Quark scowled as Layla raised one hand in a placating manner. “I warn you! I am not a plaything!” she said in a bold tone of voice.
Layla laughed and said, “And yet I so love to play games! In any event, I merely wish to offer you a chance to become my ally. Do not be alarmed. I have merely projected a holographic image into your royal glass! You see, I wish to talk with you, Milady.”
Lady Quark clenched her fists and glared at the woman with her customary defiance. “When last I saw you, you were a blonde, and you were far more serious, far more direct!” she said. “Your appearance here now after the return of Lord Volt can only mean you have some connection to his restoration!”
The sultry woman smiled and said, “I am indeed responsible for his return. An ally of mine enabled me to save him for you. I can also return him to the void at my slightest whim unless you do something for me.”
Noting Lady Quark’s hesitation, the sultry Layla added, “You may doubt what I claim to possess. Let me explain more fully. As you know, during the multiversal Crisis, two beings fought to achieve their diametrically opposed goals. The benign Monitor sought to preserve the cosmos, while the evil Anti-Monitor sought only to destroy all! The Monitor was aided by his blonde heir — an orphan girl named Lyla — whom he empowered with the ability to replicate herself into independently acting separate selves.
“One of those replicants or other selves was altered by the Anti-Monitor during that time of death and rebirth. (*) She developed a loathing for the original Lyla and vowed to separate herself in every way from her prime self. I am that being. I changed my name to Layla and altered my appearance, but more to the point, I vowed to serve myself and the cause of chaos in direct opposition to Lyla’s more benevolent desires. I came to this Earth and remained in hiding until after the Crisis had ended. I managed to duplicate enough of the Monitor’s equipment to enable me to recruit and equip various superhuman beings and enlist them in my cause. I am gathering an army of action-villains, and I will use them to destroy the action-heroes of this world. All I ask of you is that you help me by turning against the Sentinels!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Summoning,” Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (April, 1985).]
Lady Quark moved closer to the mocking image and cried, “You could not have the power to change time itself! Others like the Monarch have tried and failed. Surely the Lord Volt you claim to have preserve is, in truth, some delusional pawn of yours!”
“Yes — and no!” said Layla. “True, I cannot change time. Your Lord Volt died. However, there are alternate timelines in which he survived. I have an ally who has a mastery of time, and she enabled me to secure one such Lord Volt. I will leave him to you if you obey me! Do not rush your decision. Enjoy your reunion! I will come back to you when the time is right, and if you do as I ask, you will have your Lord Volt back for all time!”
“What is it you want from me?” asked Lady Quark.
“When I ask it of you, I want you to turn against your fellow Sentinels,” purred Layla. “I will tell you when the moment is nigh!”
The mirror image faded away to reveal Lady Quark’s troubled reflection and nothing more. She frowned as she thought, And Liana and I may restore our family completely if I do what Layla demanded, but can I betray my every value, even to bring back Lord Volt?
Though she was so consumed by her own worries that she could not hear them, heavy footsteps echoed outside her doorway, growing more distant as each moment passed.
Abby Ladd opened her eyes to find herself free from the containment pod that had held her since her abduction. She was wearing a one-piece gold swimsuit with matching boots and gloves. A golden choker was wrapped around her throat, and she swiftly realized that it was more than a mere piece of jewelry. When she touched the single stud in the center of the choker, the room seemed to move downward as her line of sight increased in elevation.
“The lab is so small now. It is like a doll’s house!” she whispered.
At that moment, the reporter noticed a rather diminutive Alistair Kord smiling up at her from below. The small figure was clearly not a doll or a tiny prop. She gasped as she realized the truth of her situation. “The room didn’t shrink — I grew! I’ve become a giantess!” she gasped.
Kord nodded approvingly as he said, “And what could be more fitting for my Titania? The collar stud temporarily blocks the genetic alteration I brought about on your body. It allows you to regain what once was your normal size until the press of the stud restores you to your new stature.”
Abby pressed the collar stud and almost fell as she returned to her original size. “I don’t understand. This is my normal size!” she cried. “What have you done to me?”
Kord shook his head. “No, my dear. Your normal size is now that of a towering titan. Your only means of briefly regaining your old human size is to obey me, and I will continue to allow the technology you wear about your neck to occasionally give you a respite from your… shall we say… larger worldview?”
Abby pressed the button again, and as she grew larger, she reached out with one enormous fist aimed at the mocking scientist. But she suddenly groaned as a wave of pain swept over her, and she fell backward across the vast laboratory.
Kord shook his head. “You can’t harm me. Any attempt to do so brings instant pain as punishment. Your fellow mutates have learned that lesson already. Let me introduce you to them!”
He gestured to where a small man with a rather meek manner stood before her. He wore a white and black jumpsuit, but otherwise appeared rather ordinary. “Titania, meet the Orb!” announced Kord.
The small man nodded slightly and said, “Pleased to meet you. Let me help you up!” As he leaned forward, a gleaming sphere materialized above his head, and invisible beams of force radiated out of the orb to gently pull Abby to her feet.
“He controls a type of telekinetic force,” explained Kord. “His limited imagination has chosen to manifest the power from what appears to be an extra eye or an orb. It may seem rather mundane, but the power should be impressive. He controls it, and I control him.”
A burly figure with the appearance of a humanoid lion stepped out of the shadows and roared. “Leonine, here, is a bit impatient,” said Kord. “I suppose it comes from his old profession of television wrestler. He is used to getting his own way.”
The lion-man crouched forward in a predatory manner as Abby tried to come to terms with the bizarre facts of her new life.
Kord gestured to a pale woman with white hair in a flowing white gown who seemed to hover above the ground. “Borea would speak in greeting, but she no longer has vocal chords — or any other organ,” said Kord. “Her entire being is now composed of air in the shape of a woman. She knows that, should I choose to do so, I may dissipate her at will!”
These poor people! thought Abby. As bad as my new condition is, they have it worse! I could have been turned into a monster like them!
“Menagerie can channel the power of any animal, but sadly, without my help, she also loses more of her humanity with her use of her power!” said Kord, indicating a beautiful black woman in a zebra-striped leotard.
“I’ve seen you on TV,” said Menagerie. “You’re Abby Ladd!”
Abby nodded and said, “Yes, I am, and I recognize you from the fashion world. You’re a model!”
Kord interrupted and said, “I encourage you to forget your former lives. Use my code-names and not your old names. It will make the transition easier.” Shrugging impatiently, he said dismissively, “You’ll meet the others later. I’m bored with the social amenities. Titania, here are your orders. You and the others will attack a target of my choice and do as much damage as you can!”
“But that will attract action-heroes like the Sentinels!” said Menagerie.
Kord nodded and said, “Exactly. You will engage them in combat, and you will prove the superiority of the Pseudo-Squad over them all!”
Leonine growled as he said, “I like a brawl — you know that — but what good does it do to trash some costumed punks?”
“An associate of mine wants them occupied,” replied Kord, “and as I said, I want you to prove your value to potential clients.”
The meek Orb stammered, “W-where do we attack? I d-don’t want to hurt anyone!”
“Don’t fear,” said Kord. “I don’t wage war on children. You’ll strike a new research facility that ironically enough bears my name! I want you to destroy the new Kord facility my son has opened!”