Friday, December 31, 2010

Earth-349: The Last Story, Part 1

The car bounced over the rutted road, which had been carefully prepared
to give it the appearance of one that was seldom-travelled and had never been
of any great importance.

The driver of the car was rather similar to the road. She also went
out of her way to conceal herself beneath a very ordinary exterior. No-one,
sizing up the small, stocky woman with blotchy skin and her haircut as cheap as
it was short, would have given her a second glance. She was neither attractive
nor interesting nor alarming nor offensive. She drove up to what appeared
to be a very ordinary gate, held shut by a chain and padlock, and with a sign
on it warning any passersby that Broome Air Force Base was closed, but remained
Federal property, and warning of dire consequences for any trespassers. She
reached inside her jacket and pulled out what appeared to be a Middletown,
Pennsylvania, Police badge in a leather wallet. She pressed on the eagle’s
left wing and the gate swung open from what had appeared to be the hinge side,
leaving the locked chain undisturbed.

As the gate closed behind her, the driver began to change, her blotchy
dun-colored skin becoming a smooth poreless robin’s-egg blue, her hair becoming
glossy black with a dramatic white streak, her plump and squatty form becoming
tall and smoothly muscled, her drab brown suit becoming a form-fitting red
bodysuit with cobalt blue gloves, boots and trunks.

It would take a fellow Martian to really understand the powers of J’Onn
J’Onzz, let alone her mind. But at the headquarters of the Justice Association
of America, she did at least have a few friends who understood her at least a
little. The League’s formation had been a life-saver for the lonely exile.

The Martian Manhunter drove into a seemingly decrepit building and
parked her little blue Volkswagen next to a very elegant-looking Polish sports
car. There were no other cars in sight, but that was no indication of how many
would be at the meeting. Some members typically arrived under their own power,
after all, and some had vehicles that were too big to park in this building.
She went to an unmarked wooden door along the building’s east wall and fingered
her badge, which had morphed into an octagonal belt buckle. The door opened
outward soundlessly, revealing a set of elevator doors which after a moment
slid open to reveal an immaculate elevator car.

The elevator delivered her with quiet efficiency to an atrium that was
sufficiently large and well-lit that visitors did not feel oppressed by being
in a windowless space some four storeys underground. The Manhunter looked
around at the various members of the Justice Association who were already
present. She did not smile because it was not a Martian practice, but she
nodded pleasantly at those who smiled at her. Most did.

The Manhunter walked across the atrium, exchanging greetings with one
person or another. She hadn’t seen any of her particular friends, such as
Batwoman or the Atom, but she did spot Hawkman talking with three strangers who
appeared to have metallic skins. She joined the group, who seemed to be
discussing metallurgy or perhaps alchemy.

“When the statue is fully refurbished, the skin will be completely
replaced. Instead of ordinary copper, it will be sheathed in stainless
manganese bronze, and will never turn that ugly corroded green color again.”

“Nice,” the gray-colored woman said. “But will the torch still have
that red white and blue aviation beacon? I know it isn’t needed anymore,
thanks to radar, but-” She broke off and nodded towards the Manhunter.

Hawkman finally noticed the Martian. He greeted her and started to
make introductions, but the chirpy copper-colored one broke in with a loud
“Hi! I’m Penny, and these are Buffy and Buck!”

The pale silver gentleman smiled indulgently.

“What my obstreperous sister means is, we are Silver, Nickel and, er,

The Manhunter nodded. “I get it, you’re some of Wanda Magnus’s
kobolds. I understand Copper Penny and Silver Buck, but how does Nickel yield

“Hold out your hand,” the nickel woman said, with a warmer smile than
her “brother”. The Manhunter complied, and in a moment a small coin fell into
her palm. It was one of the new five-cent pieces, replacing the familiar
portrait of President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) with that of President
Joseph Black Diamond (1909-1917). It had the current date, 1966, but instead
of “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”, it was identified as a product of “MAGNUS
LABORATORIES”. She turned it over and finally remembered that the Mint had
also replaced the old three-honeybees design with a shaggy American bison –
popularly though inaccurately known as a “buffalo”. Beneath the animal,
instead of “FIVE CENTS”, it read, “PURE NICKEL”.

“Buffalo Nickel,” the Manhunter said, delighted, and held the coin out
to the metal creature.

“Keep it if you want,” Nickel said, “I’ve got plenty.”

She patted her rounded hip, her hand clanking against her flank.

J’Onzz felt a surprising wave of nausea but suppressed it and dropped
the coin into one of her suit’s many pockets.

J’Onzz was about to call out a greeting to Aquawoman when she heard a
commotion behind her, near the elevators. A lushly-upholstered blonde woman
dressed in diaphanous green draperies that were not well-suited to the weather
or to public occasions was standing among a knot of JAA members who were
variously puzzled, concerned and annoyed by the intruder. The woman held a
large white signboard on which she had clumsily written in grease-pencil, GUYS

“Young lady,” Mister Terrific began sternly, but the Star-Spangled Kid
touched his arm and leaned past him to look into the woman’s face.


The woman nodded, beginning to weep silently.

Johanna Tetzlaff had been a moderately successful professional wrestler
under the name Jonni Detroit when she saved a child from a kidnapping attempt
and was invited to a testimonial dinner for “lifesaving heroes” which included
police, military veterans and assorted ordinary citizens like herself. She was
seated next to the Buddhist evangelist and alleged mystic Peter Cannon, also
known as the Thunderbolt, when he suffered a massive myocardial infarction and
died in the middle of receiving the pepper from Jonni. Their eyes met just as
he died, and for some minutes after he slumped to the table, she didn’t realize
he was dead, since she could hear his voice in her head. Later than night,
Cannon’s spirit for the first time manifested itself in the form of a “living
thunderbolt” that resembled a humanoid shape formed from sizzling blue

Before long, Jonni had worked out a testy but functional relationship
with the Thunderbolt, and had begun a semi-professional career as what she
called a “sort-of superhero” under the name Jonni Thunder. After much
negotiation, the Thunderbolt agreed to use his powers to carry out any spoken
command she might give, although he tended to be lazy and would sometimes use
rather creative interpretations of her words to avoid extra work.

Jonni and her Thunderbolt had crashed the first JAA meeting and after
that she had become a kind of mascot, not exactly a member and never quite
taken seriously in spite of the Thunderbolt’s power, but always welcome.

Now, Jonni was in the midst of the assembled JAA, all of whom were more
or less distracted by her transformation from a short, muscular woman whose
face had always been more good-natured than handsome into a stereotypical
pneumatic pinup girl. That her usual slacks and plaid jacket had been replaced
with gauzy garments suited for displaying her new curves didn’t help them in
paying attention to the words she scrawled with increasing speed and sloppiness
on her whiteboard.

Pushing a curling lock of her newly-lengthened blonde hair out of her
eyes, Jonni explained that on a whim, she had asked the Thunderbolt to show her
what she might have been like if she’d been born a boy. The Thunderbolt had
conjured up a male “Johnny” Thunder, summoning him from a parallel world rather
than actually creating a person by magic, which would have taken more energy.

Alas, Jonni’s counterpart turned out to be enough like her to share the
potential for developing a link with the Thunderbolt, and enough unlike her to
be a rather ruthless sort of criminal. He had seized control of the
Thunderbolt, forcing him to agree to the same rules that had governed his
relationship with Jonni, and had neutralized Jonni by the simple expedient of
ordering the Thunderbolt to remove her voice. While he was engaged in
modifying Jonni, he’d also ordered the other modifications the JAA had noticed.

Jonni had finally escaped from her counterpart’s lair in the middle of the
previous night, and had made her way to JAA headquarters. The tale she told
them, first through her whiteboard and later through a teletype, was troubling:
the male Johnny had already had the Thunderbolt abduct the most powerful
members of the Justice Association and turned five members of his gang into
their male counterparts. Now, each of the heroines was being held prisoner by
her counterpart at various locations around the continent, for some purposed
which was unclear to Jonni but surely was not going to be good for them, or for
the rest of humanity.

“Sounds like a classic Type 2 case,” Wonder Warrior said with a confidence that
sounded all too obviously forced. “Split up into pairs and each group confront
one bad guy.”

“I doubt if pairs will do it,” Aquawoman observed grimly. “Not if we’re doing
this without Superwoman, or Green Lantern, or the Flash.”

“And not if we’re going up against bad guys who are the equivalents of all of
those, plus Batwoman and the Atom,” noted Captain America.

“And the Thunderbolt,” added Lamplighter.

“Yes, and the Thunderbolt,” Hawkman agreed.

“Well, then, let’s make it Plan 2B,” Wonder Warrior persisted. “B for Badguy.”

The barbarically-clad muscleman smacked his fist into his palm, warming to his
subject. “Each of our missing comrades has enemies who have power to rival
their own. Some of them are in prison, or we have some other sort of leverage
on them so we can get them to co-operate. Sometimes an enemy who understands
you is better than a friend.”

Some rolled their eyes at yet another of Wonder Warrior’s Myrmidon aphorisms,
but Hawkman nodded thoughtfully.

“It’s as good a plan as any, and clearly we do need to work fast. All right,
let’s get a couple of our lawyers on the phone to Federal and military prisons,
and get some Blackhawk planes on their way to the prisons right away. No sense
in waiting until we hear back first.”

Batgirl looked up from a teletype which was still spitting out a long scroll of
yellow paper.

“There’s Blockbuster and Poison Oak at Blackgate Prison, Luthor and Mother
Terra at Fort Superwoman . . . . Do we want to look at Arkham Asylum?”

“Only if we don’t have any choice,” Hawkman answered. “But out west there’s
Hector Hammond at the UCCC Medical School Hospital, he would probably be

“I was going to check the West separately, start with the places closer to

“Carry on. Okay, people, do we have any volunteers for the teams?”

Hands went up, and voices called out.

“Remember, people, these are supposed to be the counterparts, the equivalent,
of our most powerful members. Don’t volunteer for a mission just because
someone is your friend, and don’t go asking to join in after a team has been
formed. We all know what happens when too many go on one mission, especially
when there’s a lot of firepower involved. Now, I’ll be going after the Atom
myself –“

There came a catcall from the back at this revelation. Hawkman and the Atom
had been the closest friends among the founding members of the Association, and
nobody was surprised that he was ignoring his own admonishment against wanting
to help a personal friend.

“—and I’ll be recruiting Yellowjacket. It’s okay, Batgirl, I know where he
is. Who else wants in on this one?”

In short order the teams were formed, a few volunteers were turned away or
persuaded to go on another mission, and the others were busying themselves with
arranging transportation for the chosen teams, making sure that medical
supplies and other vital equipment would be available, or else checking to see
what else besides the rescue missions needed doing. It was something often not
understood by the general public that the biggest difference between the
Justice Association and a more conventional police or military organization lay
in the speed with which it could act – at least when it had someone in charge
who could get the group’s members to co-operate.

[To be continued]

No comments: