by Brian K. Asbury
“So, just how does this gizmo work?” Firestorm asked as Dr. Montague’s assistants got busy adjusting various pieces of equipment around the room.
“Dr. Montague needs to concentrate while he’s in the psi-com,” said the man who had been addressed as Peterson. “He can’t talk. But I can tell you that what it does is transmit his brainwaves across the dimensional barriers, hopefully making contact with the mind of someone in one of those other planes.”
“It sounds feasible,” Professor Martin Stein observed silently, “although it would depend on being able to find a mind on the other side which was receptive to the transmission.”
You don’t think it’ll work, then, Professor?
“It’s difficult to say. There’s going to be a tremendous element of luck involved, in my opinion. But we’ll wait and see.”
Long minutes passed. Montague lay quite still under the hood of his machine, while his staff — including the hapless Seeger, who seemed to have recovered from his asthma attack — busied themselves around him. And meanwhile, Firestorm shuffled on the spot with increasing impatience.
This reminds me of the time Cliff Carmichael tried to use a Rubik’s Cube, Professor, he silently thought. A total non-event!
“Now, now, Ronald,” the professor scolded. “We must have patience.”
Why must we? Ronnie asked. Like you said, whether this guy manages to contact anybody on another world is down to sheer dumb luck. And meantime, Doreen is waiting for me and probably getting pretty pissed off. My love life’s at stake here, Professor.
Suddenly, the hood of the psi-com slid back, and Montague sat up, shaking his head. “It’s no use,” he said. “I’m not getting anything. I’m sorry, Firestorm — I guess I was being a little over-optimistic.”
“What do you think’s wrong, Doctor?” asked Peterson.
Montague shrugged. “I’m not sure. It’s possible that, in order to contact another dimensional plane, the subject would need some sort of rapport with someone there. Perhaps we should try to find someone who actually met someone from another reality during the Crisis.”
“Hey, I’ve met lots of people from Earth-Two,” said Firestorm. “Not to mention from Earth-X and others.”
“Ronald!” said Professor Stein sharply. “Think what you’re saying! I don’t think volunteering for an untested project like this is wise.”
I wasn’t exactly volunteering, Professor, but it is an idea. And anyway, it didn’t harm Dr. Montague, did it?
Montague shook his head and smiled. “That’s very interesting, Firestorm, and good of you to suggest yourself. However, I don’t think you’d make a suitable subject.”
“Because we’ve already had one fire in here today. I don’t relish the prospect of your flaming hair setting fire to the psi-com’s helmet!”
“This? It’s just an illusion, really. It isn’t real,” said Firestorm, running his gloved hand through his flaming hair to demonstrate.
Dr. Montague still looked doubtful. “Even so… there are sensitive optical receptors in the helmet which would be disrupted by flickering flames, even illusory ones.”
“No problemo, Dr. Montague. I can turn it off if I want to.”
I can turn it off, can’t I, Professor? he said telepathically to the unseen presence sharing his consciousness. I don’t think I’ve really ever tried before.
“I suppose so,” Professor Stein said reluctantly. “Yes… yes, I think you probably can. After all, when you were transformed by the Hyena’s bite, your hair didn’t flame then.”
Good thing, Professor Stein. I was covered all over with the stuff, remember?
“Yes, I do. But Ronald, I urge caution here. I repeat — volunteering as a test subject for this rather dubious experiment may not be wise.”
Aw, c’mon, Professor. You were all for it a few minutes ago. When I wanted to split so I could make my date with Doreen, it was you who urged me to stay. Y’know? You were saying about everybody being so worried about how the JSA was?
The voice of Professor Stein fell silent. “Have you got a mirror?” Firestorm asked Dr. Montague.
“Er… there’s one in the bathroom. Luthor, show Firestorm where the bathroom is, will you, please?”
Burt Luthor led Firestorm out of the lab and through into a sumptuous lounge area. “Through here,” he said, moving along a short corridor and indicating a door.
Nice place, Firestorm thought.
“Yes,” Professor Stein observed. “But it does lead me to wonder who’s financing all this. Most scientific research does not take place in luxury penthouses.”
Aw, you’re being too suspicious, Professor. They seem on the level to me. Not all science projects are done on a shoestring, y’know.
He positioned himself before the bathroom mirror and concentrated on what he saw. Slowly, with some effort, the flames issuing from his headpiece started to die down, to be replaced by a shock of reddish-brown hair. Hmmm… doesn’t look bad. I might keep this look. What d’you think, Professor? Are flaming locks last year’s style?
There was a slightly sulky tone to Professor Stein’s thoughts. “Please take this seriously, Ronald. There could be some risk involved in an experiment of this kind.”
Maybe. But I want to get on with it, Professor. If it doesn’t work, OK, that’s it. If it does, it could be the breakthrough that Superman and others have been trying for since the Crisis.
“I suppose so. Whose mind do you intend to try to contact?”
Good question. You said it needed to be somebody with a receptive mindset. Somebody with psychic powers, then? How about the Spectre?
“I hardly think so, Ronald!”
Yeah. Bad choice, really — who knows what goes on in his mind? Ixnay on the dead guy, then. How about Doctor Fate?
“That’s probably a better suggestion. Of all of the Justice Society, it’s likely that he would be most alert to attempts by anyone from Earth-One to contact his world.”
Good. That’s settled, then. He walked back to the lab, to meet an approving glance from Dr. Montague. “OK? No flames.”
“So I see. Very well, then, Firestorm. If you’re ready, shall we commence?”
“Sure,” said Firestorm, sitting down on the psi-com. “Let’s get this show on the road!”
“Please lie down,” said Montague. Firestorm did so. Dr. Montague made some adjustments to the controls, and the helmet slid down over Firestorm’s head.
“Very well, we’ll begin,” Montague said. “I want you to concentrate on someone you know from one of those other worlds.”
“OK.” Ronnie closed his eyes and tried to picture Doctor Fate in his mind — a mysterious figure at the best of times, with his great golden helmet completely obscuring his face, and that bright yellow cloak billowing out behind him. The electronics built into the apparatus began to hum.
How long do you think this’ll probably take, Professor? he thought.
“Ronald, since you insist upon going through with this, at least try to do as Dr. Montague said, and concentrate.”
A curious warmth began to pervade his body, and he was suddenly light-headed. Something was starting to happen. Yes… He tried to concentrate harder. Doctor Fate… Doctor Fate… can you hear me?
Then a surge of intense pain overwhelmed him. He seemed to be on fire. “Ronald, what’s happening?” Professor Stein’s panic-stricken voice sounded in his head.
Don’t… know… AAARRGGHHH!
He could hear his own voice screaming now as the pain rose to a crescendo, pervading every cell in his body, every molecule, every atom. It was as if he was being torn apart.
“Ronald, fight it. You have to break free!” The professor’s voice was screaming, but it seemed faint, somehow, distant.
I… can’t… Professor. Can’t… move! Though it seemed impossible, the pain became even more intense, driving out every other sensation. And though he struggled to free himself from its source, it was impossible. He was totally paralyzed. And somewhere, close by, someone was laughing.
Professor… help… me!
Professor! What’s happening?
And then oblivion.
“Is it done?” asked Montague.
“Seems to be,” Burt Luthor said. “But, man, you should see these readings. The power levels are off the scale. Jeez, I hope the capacitors can handle this, or we’ll have a real fire on our hands!”
“With any luck, there won’t be time for that,” said Montague. The others cast him puzzled looks, not understanding what he meant. “Peterson — is Firestorm really out cold?”
Peterson went over to the machine and checked the supine form of the Nuclear Man over. “Yes. Well and truly. The sonics seem to have done the trick.”
“Of course,” smirked Montague. “Strictly speaking, it wasn’t necessary to render him unconscious, but you know me. Just on the small off-chance that the machine didn’t work, I felt it was a good idea to give us time to escape from what would probably have been a very angry super-hero.”
“Yeah, boss,” said Burt Luthor. “We sure know you, all right. Trust you to think of that.”
“I do have my reputation to think of. Kowalski,” he said to a short, bespectacled man who had not previously spoken, “what readings are you getting from Firestorm himself?”
Kowalski peered at his computer monitor. “Exactly what you predicted, boss.”
“In that case, remove him from the apparatus.” Two of his henchmen moved to obey. One of them pushed back the device’s helmet, and then they pulled the unconscious hero out.
“What d’you want we should do with him, boss?” one of them asked.
“Take him into the other room and dump him on the couch for now.” They did so. Montague, meanwhile, moved to a computer terminal and input several commands. “There. And now for the coup de grâce.”
He made to lie down in the machine and pulled the helmet down over his own head once more. “Boss?” said Peterson, alarm in his voice. “What are you doing? We weren’t supposed to–”
“Never mind what we were and weren’t supposed to do,” said Montague. “I’m calling the shots now. Activate the machine.”
The men reluctantly obeyed their leader, and the electronics crackled into life once more. The hum of the machine grew to a crescendo, and energy flared all around it. Montague’s body convulsed and jumped on the table.
“We’re killing him!” cried Seeger.
“No, we’re not!” yelled Peterson above the howling noise from the machinery. “Don’t interfere!”
Then, suddenly, it was over. The noise died, and the static discharges ceased. Montague’s body was still.
But light shone from under the helmet.
“It’s done,” came his voice — weak, but steady. He pushed back the helmet and slowly sat up.
And his men gasped at the flames apparently dancing around his hair and beard.
“It’s done,” he repeated. He made a fist, and energy crackled around it. “Firestorm’s incredible powers now belong to me!”
Montague’s men stared at him in astonishment as he levitated away from the machine, laughing.
“I… I didn’t know it could do that!” exclaimed Kowalski.
“It wasn’t designed to do it, you fool,” said Montague. “But to a man of my intellect, it was obvious that what the psi-phon could take away, it could pass on to someone else.”
“So… so you now have the energy we extracted from Firestorm? And all his powers?” said Burt Luthor. Montague nodded, laughing even louder. “Wow, boss. That’s awesome!”
Just then, there was the sound of a door opening elsewhere in the penthouse. “What the hell?” a female voice said. “Firestorm?”
Montague landed. “It looks as though Miss April is back,” he observed. As if on cue, the door burst open, and a strikingly beautiful young blonde woman rushed into the room.
“Monty?” she said, her eyes the size of dinner plates as she took in his new appearance. “Oh, my God! Monty, what have you done?”
“You’re late, my dear,” said Montague, approaching her and grabbing her by the shoulders. “We had to start without you.” He pushed his face close to hers. She flinched away from his apparently burning beard, but he pressed on anyway and planted a kiss on her lips. As he withdrew, she rubbed her mouth in disbelief, not comprehending why she hadn’t been burned.
“Peterson, wake our guest up while I deal with the lovely Amy,” he said. Peterson scurried past into the other room. “As you can see, my dear, the experiment has been a success. Not only is Firestorm now a normal man, but I have his abilities.”
“But… but… but… but that’s not what we were supposed to do,” Amy blustered. “And I was supposed to be here to help. We rehearsed it!”
“Bah!” Montague scoffed. “We observed Firestorm flying across the city. All was ready, so there seemed little point in waiting for you. Did you secure the lease on the premises in Metropolis?”
“Yes, here are the papers,” she said, handing them to him. “Although I still don’t know why you want to rent property there. And what about–?”
“If you’re worried about our erstwhile employer,” Montague said, “then don’t. I now have more than enough power to take care of him. And I can also do this…” He held out his hand. Energy flared, and a green, glowing rock appeared in his palm. “Kryptonite, Amy. With these powers I can easily subdue even Superman, and subject him to the psi-phon as I did Firestorm. With the Man of Steel’s powers added to what I already have, I will be invincible.”
“So that’s why… oh, my God! You were planning this all along!”
Montague smirked. “Of course I was. And Superman will just be the beginning. After him, I will seize and assimilate the Flash, Wonder Woman… even that Martian monster who has frustrated me in the past. And now,” he said, changing the kryptonite back to air and pushing past her, “let us see if our patsy is awake yet.”