by JSAGL and Starsky Hutch 76
The secret subbasement beneath Conglomerate Headquarters:
This was what Maxwell Lord referred to as his center of power. Using the most sophisticated equipment imaginable, Max had constructed a computer and monitoring station like none other. He could tap into just about any phone line, hack any computer, and keep surveillance on just about anyone he chose. Of course, Max didn’t actually build any of this — he just kind of stumbled across it.
Max toggled a switch on the control board. “Any news today?”
“I am the Construct! I am the living embodiment of man’s technological innovation! I was formed in the ether world and achieved sentience. I am the–“
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this speech a thousand times already. Just shut up and tell me what I need to know.”
Faster than thought, several messages appeared on the computer screen. Max was about to ask the Construct about one, when his secretary’s face appeared on the screen.
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Lord, but the Conglomerate is back, and they don’t seem to be very happy.”
“Thank you, Miss Wootenhoffer. Tell them I am on my way up. Sorry, Construct, old pal, but we’ll have to continue this another day.”
“I am the Construct. I am–“
“All right, I’m here,” said Max, reaching his office. “How did the battle with the Royal Flush Gang go?”
Fire walked up to Max and put her hand on his shoulder as she walked past him. “You should pour yourself a stiff drink, Max. You’re not going to like this. I’ll let the boys tell you. I’m going to take a nice hot shower.”
As Fire left the room, Max surveyed his team. Sargon the Sorcerer was his usual stoic self. Animal Man and Firestorm were chatting over in the corner, while the Beetle was standing between Guy Gardner and General Glory. Ice was doing her best to comfort an obviously distraught Guy.
“I’m sorry, General. Golly gee, I didn’t mean to make you so gosh-darn mad.”
The Beetle was barely able to hold the General back as he shouted at Gardner, “Yer lucky I promised Lord I’d behave myself, ’cause if I hadn’t, I’d be tearing that ring o’ yers off yer hand and shoving it up–”
Uranus — one step closer to Earth. Despero barely noticed this planet, either.
“He did what?”
“He wouldn’t let us even touch the Royal Flush Gang. He kept saying that violence wasn’t the answer and held us all back with his power ring. I thought the General was going to have a coronary,” said Animal Man — alias Buddy Baker — sitting in front of Max’s desk.
The General had been escorted back to his quarters, Sargon had left the room in disgust, Firestorm and the Beetle were chatting now, Ice had gone back to her room, and Guy was standing in the corner.
“And the four of them got away?”
Buddy looked at Max strangely for a moment. How did he know that there were only four in this Royal Flush Gang? “That’s right. The King took advantage of the situation and hurried away with the Queen, Jack, and Ten. Seemed strange that they didn’t have Ace with them.”
Max stood up from his desk. “All right, everyone’s entitled to an off-day. Guy, you are hereby suspended until further notice. We can’t have the bad guys getting away. In the meantime, I’ve got some important business to attend to.” With that, Max left the room.
The Beetle whispered into Firestorm’s ear. “Hey, Stormy, I’ve got an idea on how to get Guy back to normal. Wanna help?”
Space, near the orbit of Jupiter:
The spaceship lumbered through Jupiter’s orbit. To an Earthling, the ship itself would best be described as gaudy. It was colored chartreuse and was bigger than it really needed to be. This of course, matched the personality of its captain to a T.
Inside, a small, gold-colored robot was at the monitoring station. A voice could be heard in the distance.
“…and then I offered them something they could not refuse! Naturally, the Rimborians could not resist, and I walked away with an artifact of rare value, indeed.”
A klaxon suddenly sounded, cutting off the soliloquy abruptly. “What in the name of Kirby is going on here? L-Ron, report!”
The little gold robot appeared on the view-screen in front of the captain. “My Lord, there is an object on an intercept course with us. It is moving at extreme velocity and will impact in thirty-six seconds.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“I tried, sir, but you just kept on yakking. I finally remembered the klaxon was the only thing that can mercifully drown out your voice.”
The spaceship shuddered as Despero impacted with it, tearing the vessel in half. In space, no one could hear Lord Manga Khan scream.
Back in Happy Harbor, Sue Dibny and Black Canary were walking down the closest beach to the Secret Sanctuary.
“Sue, I just can’t believe you’re pregnant! I’m so happy for you and Ralph.”
Sue looked over at the Canary for a moment, brushing her hair away from her eyes. The wind was unusually brisk today, as it had been all week.
“I know what you mean, Dinah. I can hardly believe it, either. It wasn’t something we were planning, but we couldn’t be happier. What about you and Ollie? Isn’t it about time for the two of you to settle down?”
Dinah smiled at that. “Funny, Ollie and I were just discussing that the other day. He’s turning forty at the end of next year, and I guess he hears his biological clock ticking. He wants to move to Seattle and kind of start over.”
“And what about you? What do you want?”
“That’s just the thing, Sue. I’m not sure. I mean, I love Ollie with all my soul, but I don’t know about doing the mommy thing. My mom was notoriously bad at it during the brief time she had me as an infant, and then to top it all off, I thought I was my mom until recently. It’s a lot to sort out.”
“Wow. I never realized that. You seemed to just take it all in stride.”
The women walked in silence for a while, when Dinah spoke up again, “Sue, I was wondering… Maybe this is too personal, but I’ve always wanted to ask…”
Dinah’s face turned a little red as she asked, “Well, Ralph can stretch any part of his body, right?”
“Oh, my goodness!”
In her quarters, Beatriz daCosta was taking a shower. Steam filled the bathroom as she reflected on her weeks with the Conglomerate. She still hadn’t figured out what the mysterious hold that Max had over the General was all about, but Batman told her to keep at it. He was confident that it would only be a matter of time before Max slipped up and revealed himself.
Bea shut the water off and opened the shower door. With her eyes still closed, she reached for the towel on the towel rack, but her hand came up empty. Just about the same time, a voice made itself heard.
“Looking for this?”
In her bathroom were Ted Kord, Firestorm, and Guy Gardner. Ted was the one holding her towel.
“Oh, my word, I — I… ohhh,” Guy sputtered before fainting and hitting the ground.
“Get out, you — you–! Get out!”
Firestorm quickly created a large bath towel from the air around Bea as Ted joined Guy on the ground, doubled over in laughter. “Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Guy got it with both barrels! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha–“
A small tendril of green flame leaped from Fire’s mouth, setting Ted’s pants on fire. Ted jumped up as Firestorm put the flames out. “Ouch ouch ouch!”
“Out of my way, pervert,” Bea yelled as she slammed the door to the bathroom behind her, marching off to Tora’s room to change.
Ted was rubbing his behind, tears streaming from his face in a mixture of pain and laughter. “Well, I hope that was enough to shock Guy back into his old self.”
“Ted, you are a sick, sick man,” Firestorm said as he picked Guy up to carry him to his room.
Out in the hallway, Ted ran into Fire exiting Tora’s room. “I’m only going to say this once, Bug-Boy — you didn’t see a thing. If I hear one word about it, I will personally burn every hair off your body one at a time, am I understood?”
“Yes, ma’am, not one word,” he said. “But if I was to use a word, that word would be magnificent.”
In his quarters, Sargon the Sorcerer was reading quietly when he saw Ted Kord running by at top speed, laughing his ass off.
He then saw Fire run by, her fire-breath flaming as she shouted, “You better run, Bug-Boy, because I am going to squash you.”
Sargon the Sorcerer shook his head and returned to his book.
Despero was approaching Mars. It would not be long now.
The planet Rann:
It had been a week now since Sardath began draining the Zeta-Beam energy from Adam Strange, but so far to no avail. Returning home from yet another failed attempt to contact Hawkman, Adam was about to enter his home when the door did not open. In fact, Adam wasn’t even able to touch the door. He was going back to Earth — finally.
In orbit 22,300 miles above Adam Strange’s destination:
Hal Jordan, the original Green Lantern of Earth, looked around the meeting room and was pleased with what he saw. Each chair was in place, and the monitor board was alive with activity. The satellite was once again ready to be inhabited. His fellow Green Lantern Corps member Arisia had just left with warnings of an impending alien invasion. Although he wasn’t sure how much stock to put into this warning — thinking it might be another ploy for the teenager in a woman’s body to get his attention — he was about to warn the Justice League anyway, just in case. (*) He stopped when he spotted something in space. What was it?
[(*) Editor’s note: See Titans West: Where Were You During the Invasion? Chapter 1: Arisia’s Story.]
Outside, Hawkman and Hawkwoman were putting the finishing touches on the new communications array. Something caught Shayera’s attention. She looked over her shoulder to see a point of light approaching them.
Inside the satellite, the monitor board started flashing. Hal quickly called up an image of an object, which was man-sized and on a collision course with the satellite. Using his power ring, Hal phased through the observation window, but it was too late. The object connected with Hal, crashing back through the window and out the other side of the satellite, headed into Earth’s atmosphere.
“Katar,” Shayera asked over her helmet radio, “what in the name of Thanagar was that?”
“I only caught the briefest glimpse, but it looked a bit like Despero.”
Hawkman activated his JLA communicator.
Falling through Earth’s atmosphere, Green Lantern tried desperately to dislodge himself from Despero, but it was to no avail. It was all Hal Jordan could do to keep himself from burning up in the atmosphere. Yes, his ring would protect him from mortal harm, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be injured.
“Despero, you’ve got to stop this,” he said, wondering if Despero was the alien invasion that Arisia had warned him about. “You’ll kill us both.”
Staring into Hal’s eyes, Despero’s hatred burned brighter than their reentry. “Then die.”
Despero’s third eye opened and blasted Hal directly in the face. The pain was incredible as Green Lantern struggled to maintain consciousness. With the last bit of his will power, Hal formed a sturdy air bag below himself just as he and Despero collided with the Earth.
The Australian Outback:
Adam Strange materialized in the middle of the Australian desert, still wearing his spacesuit and backpack. Thank Sardath for small favors; this was the uniform he had been wearing the last time he caught the Zeta-Beam to Rann.
Powering up his jetpack, Adam headed at top speed over the skies of Australia toward Sydney and the JLA teleporter there. He prayed that he could reach the Justice League in time.
Conglomerate Headquarters, one hour after impact:
Buddy Baker was in the recreation room watching television. Something was definitely wrong with the Conglomerate. There were too many strange things that didn’t add up — the General, Max’s control over him, and the all-too-convenient villains that just happened to appear in time for the team to battle before the media.
Animal Man’s reverie was interrupted by a special news report. An earthquake had been reported in southern Georgia with the epicenter about ten miles south of Macon. Geologists were baffled, as there were no fault lines in that area. Scientists were speculating that an asteroid had impacted with the Earth, but no one could get close enough to the site to investigate.
Buddy ran into the Beetle’s room. “Ted, suit up. We’ve got a mission.”
“A mission? Where’s Max? Does he know about this?”
Buddy smiled a moment. “Yeah, he asked me to round up the troops. You get the women and Guy. I’ll gather Firestorm, Sargon, and the General.”
As Buddy raced down the hall to get Firestorm, he couldn’t help but think how upset Max would be when he found out that they left without his knowledge. That made him smile all the more.