by Martin Maenza
For the rest of the week and into the weekend, the newcomers to Albany kept around the house as much as possible. The place was furnished, but the condition of the items was substandard at best. They made do with what they had or found a cheap way to get what they needed. A black and white portable television with tinfoil hanging from the rabbit ears was their primary source of information; they took turns monitoring it in hopes of hearing some leads about the whereabouts of the Silver Ghost. Finding him would help clear their name of the charges Pearson had brought up against them. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Freedom Fighters,” Freedom Fighters #1 (March-April, 1976) and “Rampage,” Freedom Fighters #2 (May-June, 1976).]
They would make occasional forays into the neighborhood in singles or pairs, such as when they needed to get food or items to make meals. They even rolled up their sleeves to spruce up the yard and the inside of the place they were staying. Since the Human Bomb couldn’t go out of the house, Doll Man spent a good amount of time working with him on theories and prototypes for a dampener to keep the Bomb’s explosive powers in check. However, even if they finished the complicated device, they would have to wait to test it. There was no point in blowing their cover by blowing the roof off their rented home.
Eventually, Monday morning rolled around.
Sandra Knight rose from bed first and had a shower as the school buses were making their way down the street to drop off the children. It was a bright, sunny morning, so Sandy decided to venture down to the corner market after getting dressed.
On her way back down the street, about two hours after she had awoke, Sandy Knight noticed a peculiar twinge in the fall air. She sniffed once and again as she walked before she realized what it was: smoke.
Glancing around, she realized where the blaze was coming from: the school. It was on fire.
Running up the front steps of their rented home, she burst open the front door and yelled to her teammates, “Sam, Happy, Tom, Roy, Darrel! Fire at the school!”
Without hesitation, and purely by reflex, the heroes donned their costumes and ran over to see if they could help.
The alarms on the wall sounded loudly.
Mr. Sweeney, the history teacher sighed and closed his book. “Fire drill, class,” the tall bearded man droned. They always had a few of these at the beginning of the school year. “Let’s keep this orderly!” The student rose from their desks, leaving their things behind, and started to head to the door. “Ryan, take the lead!” The blonde student nodded and opened the classroom door.
The sixth-grade history class was met with a hallway full of panic. Flames were dancing about the arch in the hallway that led to the main hall and front lobby. Their usual evacuation path was cut off by a very real and very deadly threat.
Mr. Sweeney snapped out of his midmorning daze. “Kids, to the left!” he called out, grabbing some of those nearest to him and ushering them in that direction. “Stay clear of the flames!” They moved down the hall toward the cafeteria and the back exit.
The chemicals in the second-floor science lab fed the blazing fire.
The students and Mr. Morris huddled in the back of the room, as far away from the flames as possible. In all his forty years of life, the black-haired and mustached educator had never seen fire just appear so quickly. It was unnatural.
A number of the beakers in the cabinet near the front of the room exploded with a pop of glass as the flames devoured the wooden structure. A number of the girls screamed, and a few of the boys did, too.
Tina, a smaller girl with straight brown hair, cowered in fear against her teacher’s shoulder. “Wi… will we be OK?” she asked, tears starting to form in her brown eyes.
Mr. Morris stroked her hair gently, trying to soothe the girl’s fears. If he had been alone in the room, he would have placed a white lab coat over his head and risked rushing through the flames. He knew that there was a fire extinguisher just down the hallway in the mounted cabinet. But with the second-period class having as many students as it did, he couldn’t risk leaving them unattended while he played the hero. “Help will come, Tina, I…”
The outside wall, between them and the flames, buckled and exploded outward.
Brick and stone flew out with the rush of air. The flames swelled with the increased amount of oxygen. Through the dust and the smoke, Mr. Morris and the students saw the outline of a figure. As it moved closer into the blazing room, they could make out the image more clearly.
“It’s a spaceman!” Robby exclaimed.
“No,” Mr. Morris said, recognizing the type of suit. It was similar to what scientists wore when dealing with intense radiation.
“Come on, kids!” the Human Bomb called to the captives. “We’ve got to get you out of here!” Removing the glove from his right hand again, he caused another explosive blast that made the opening in the wall wider. His goal was to allow the group to get out of the room without getting too close to the fire.
The children started to move just as Mr. Morris called out, “But we’re on the second floor! Is there a net or a ladder?”
“No,” the Human Bomb answered, “but my friend can help there!”
The students saw the dark-haired, well-built Black Condor waiting on the ledge. His blue cape furled out in the gentle breeze. “Ooh, an angel!” one of the young girls cooed.
“Did someone call for an airlift?” the Condor said with a smile, hoping to calm the fear and anxiety that the situation was bringing to the group. The kids all scampered forward, each asking to go next. It would take a number of trips for the Black Condor to get all the class to safety, but he knew his partner would buy him the time needed to do so. The Human Bomb helped them onto the ledge one by one, all the while keeping an eye on the fire.
Uncle Sam, dressed in his red, white and blue, stood near the main entrance of the building as students and teachers rushed out to safety. “Miss DeAngelo, is that…?” asked one of the boys as they hurried past.
“It certainly looks like it,” the blonde woman replied.
“You all get a safe distance,” the white-haired hero said. “Can’t be havin’ any of you young ‘uns gettin’ hurt now. You’re our bright future!”
Suddenly, one of the windows above shattered. Uncle Sam moved swiftly to pull a small black girl to safety before the shards could hit the concrete sidewalk. “Relax, child,” he said in a soothing voice as he put her down safely. “You’ll be fine now.”
Glancing up, though, Sam could see the fire raging out the opening, and a dark cloud of smoke belched into the air. Part of the masonry near the top of the building started to crumble. Sam’s eyes focused, his brow furrowed.
The old structure had seen better days, and the ravages of time had not been kind to it. Added to that this unnatural inferno, and the old school was about to give up the ghost.
Sam would not have that. Thrusting his arms up to the nearest wall, he planted his feet firmly to the ground and pushed against the sagging structure.
He was the spirit of America, the embodiment of a strong nation. Its people time and again had fought against hardships and incredible odds, and yet they survived to raise their flag of freedom every time. The flag was a symbol of her strength, and today Uncle Sam would draw upon that strength to ensure every man, woman, and child got out of this alive.
Word quickly spread about the arrival of the costumed heroes, the ones who were aiding in the evacuation while the firefighters were on their way. But not everyone was so pleased to hear this news.
Inside the gymnasium, a brown-haired man in gray sweatpants and a white shirt stood defiantly. “What is the meaning of this?” Billy Newbury demanded of the costumed men before him.
“Shut up, ‘coach’!” one of the Flamesplasher Twins said. Out from the nozzle above his wrist shot a high-pressured blast of water. It knocked the physical education teacher back against the divider wall, drenching him from head to toe. “Oopsy, got water on your precious floor.” The villain’s tone was mocking.
Newbury shook his head back and forth a few times, trying to get some of the water out of his hair. “Who the hell are you two lunatics?”
“We’re not lunatics!” the water-armed Flamesplasher said, dousing the downed teacher once more in the face. Newbury’s head slammed back against the wall, and his body slumped to the floor.
“Enough, brother!” the other twin ordered. “It seems old Billy’s memory is fading, no doubt due to too many beers at those post-football game parties. The dumb jocks did tend to drink too much!”
Newbury cleared the water from his eyes and gave the men a more detailed examination. “Do I know you?”
“Just like a tormentor!” spat the fire-armed Flamesplasher. “Victimizes people for years and then moves on!”
“‘Victimize’?” Newbury thought for a moment. Twins? Then it came to him. “You’re those two Newton brothers?”
“Ding-ding-ding!” Flamesplasher launched a flaming jet-blast at the man and hit just above his head. Newbury flinched and scrambled aside from the scorched mark on the wall. The villain smiled. He wanted to play with their victim first to prolong his agony.
“Wh-what do you want from me?”
“You tormented us for years!” Frank Newton said.
“Every day, from middle school through senior year graduation!” Stan Newton added. “Bullying us, degrading us!”
“Stealing our lunches and our homework!”
“Well, now the past comes back to haunt you! Now it’s payback time!” The villains took aim.
Newbury saw the look in their eyes. They were no longer the terrorized little schoolboys he had known; the tables had turned. “Why here? Why now?”
“You’re a big coach now,” said Stan, the fire-blaster. “You’re an enabler to a new generation of jerk-jocks! Left unchecked, you’d lead by example for others to pick on the weaker, defenseless kids!”
“And as for the location of our revenge,” added Frank, the water-splasher, “what’s more appropriate than killing you here where you began to ruin our lives — in a middle school?!” Aiming his water-cannon weapon, he opened fire at their intended target. Newbury wasn’t able to close his mouth fast enough; the high-pressured stream of water shot down his throat and started to drown him right then and there in the gym.
“Hey, creep, lay off!” a voice shouted from above. Both villains turned just as the diminutive Doll Man soared down from a ceiling vent. His body slammed into the first twin’s wrist, knocking the water cannon’s blast to the ground.
The pressure of the blast caught the Flamesplasher twin off-guard and sent him flying back across the floor. “What the hell is that?” he cursed. “Some kind of doll?”
The hero in blue and red sprang in the air and landed a solid punch to the villain’s jaw. “That’s Doll Man to you, punk!” The hero continued to pummel the fallen foe.
“Stan, help!” Frank called out between blows. But it was too late.
The gym door slammed as the other Flamesplasher twin took off. But not before he set the whole room ablaze to cover his trail. Newbury was gone, too, taken as a hostage.
“So much for your partner!” Doll Man said, landing a final punch. As Frank Newton faded to an unconscious state, he wondered why his brother had abandoned him.
The fiery Flamesplasher twin hurried down the hall as fast as he could, dragging the schoolteacher with a headlock. Periodically he let fly a blast from his weapon to cover his back with a fiery wall of protection.
“You won’t get away with this, Stan!”
“Shut up, Newbury!”
“I’ve seen that hero on TV. He’s got friends! I bet they’re all just crawling around here!
“I said, shut up!”
The teacher saw he was getting to his kidnapper and decided to push it further. “And, you! What kind of brother are you? You abandoned Frank back there! Just like that time on the playground! You went crying home to your mother!”
Flamesplasher’s face was as red as the fire symbol on his costume. “Aaa-aaah!” he growled, slamming the coach on the ground as they burst out the side doors of the school. “I should have killed you right away!” He aimed his weapon. “Die, scum!”
“Not so fast!” a female voice yelled out as a beam of black light nailed the villain squarely in the face. It created an opaque field about his eyes, causing his vision to be severely impaired; it was like being down in a basement with no windows when the power went out.
“Damn it!” Flamesplasher cursed, and fired his weapon anyway in the direction where Billy Newbury last was. He only heard the roar of the flames, but no screams of agony. The darkness field faded, and he was able to see a woman in yellow and green ushering his victim off to safety. “Curse you, woman!” He fired a blast of his flames at her.
Phantom Lady merely became immaterial, and the blast passed harmlessly through her. A number of the group had discovered additional abilities in their repertoire since they crossed over to this Earth. Right now, the heroine was glad she could live up to her costumed name.
“Hey, buddy!” a firm voice called from the air. “If you want a target, here I am!”
Flamesplasher whirled around to see the yellow-costumed Ray hovering above him in a taunting manner. “You want it,” the villain growled, “you got it!” He opened up his weapon to a higher setting and blasted the flying hero with fire. “Hope you can stand the heat, loudmouth!”
The Ray smiled as the flames danced around his form. “Heat? Oh, I think I can. Can you?” He thrust out his arms and blasted back. Prior to the crossover from Earth-X, the hero only had the ability to fly and project light energy. Since the journey, he found he could also generate a bit of heat himself with his blasts.
“Hey! That’s my gimmick!” Flamesplasher exclaimed.
Fire met fire in a blazing display. For a moment, the two forces seemed evenly matched. Phantom Lady watched the encounter for a moment without getting involved. “Ray, need a hand?” she asked.
“I can take him!” the flying hero replied.
The sound of the approaching fire engines and police vehicles filled the air. Sirens wailed, and red lights flashed. “Uh, better hurry, then,” the heroine said. “We’ve got company!”
“Got it covered!” the Ray said, doubled his efforts and firing a concentrated blast.
The flames bound back upon the Flamesplasher. “Aaa-aah!” he cried out as the fire danced around him. His costume would protect him, but for how long?
“Some threat you are!” the Ray said as he swooped in and smashed the villain in the jaw. Flamesplasher crumbled to the ground. “Just a bully who likes to play with fire, is all!”
“And here’s his partner in crime,” Doll Man announced, dragging the unconscious twin by the cape out of the building.
“We’ve done our duty,” Phantom Lady said, “and now it’s time to go!” The Ray grabbed her by the hand, and Doll Man leaped onto the flying hero’s back. The three flew off into the sky, only to take a roundabout way to meet up with the others later on.
The heroes managed to get back to their rented house down the street and kept inside until the commotion died down. From behind the curtained windows, they were able to catch glimpses of everything going on as the police hauled off the two costumed criminals and the firemen put out the blaze. “We’d best keep a low profile until things get back to normal,” Uncle Sam advised.
The others nodded in agreement, but they all felt good knowing that they’d accomplished something good this day.