Within a week, work had almost been completed on the large-scale weather wand. It was as big in diameter as a Cruise missle and was held at an angle, appropriately enough, by a modified missle launcher. Mark Mardon, the Weather Wizard, tried to find satisfaction where he could. It was nice, being able to direct a team of ragtag Soviet and Arab scientists and techs on how to put the thing together. It made him feel respected.
Then one of Col. Karshov's boys would smack him with a billy club or something similar, he would go down holding himself, and his notions of respect lay lower than his body.
Cripes, why wasn't the Flash here? Why couldn't the guy protect him? The old Flash, the really good one, would have had him out of here in a day. He was a hero any self-respecting super-villain could look up to.
Now, they just had the new Flash, the one who used to be Kid Flash. Well, he was a nice enough guy. But that was where it ended. Mardon had been in this freakin' Ahab-the-Arab state for a week, and no help had turned up from either the U.S. government or the new Flash.
But reality was reality. Dressed in a brown uniform and a hat that kept the sun reasonably out of his eyes, Mardon squinted through a pair of lent sunglasses at the Big Wand in the midst of the enclosure and at the human forms swarming around and over it. At least the damn thing should work.
Even in this hot climate, a chill could work its way down his spine. When he felt it, he knew his inner radar must have picked up the Boss's vibes. He tried to look casual when he turned. "Col. Karshov," he said.
Karshov was flanked by a couple of Russian soldiers. "The Wand must be ready by 1200 hours tomorrow, Mardon. No more delays can be tolerated. The demonstration will commence at that time. We will expect the proper results."
The Weather Wizard clasped his hands behind his back to keep them from trembling. "I think you'll be satisfied, Col. Karshov. Everything's going on schedule, and--"
Pain in his elbow where one of the guards had hit it with a stick. Mardon fell on his side, grabbing his hurt arm, gasping. Karshov loomed over him. "The response was incorrect. You ‘think' nothing, Mardon. You know. Do you know, Mardon?"
When he had enough breath to respond, Mardon said, "I...I know you'll be satisfied, Col. Karshov. That's certain. I know it!"
"Better," said Karshov. He turned away, his flunkies with him. "Remember: 1200 hours."
Somehow, Mardon got himself up on his feet again. The Arab guards near the wall hadn't wavered during the incident. Some of the tech boys had seen it, and were whispering fearfully among themselves. He guessed that he hadn't been the only one to feel Karshov's encouragement.
The Wizard stumbled over to the scientists around the Wand. "We're...going to have to...step things up, men," he mumbled. "Let me...let me see a run-through on the humidity control."
"As you wish, sir," said one of the techs.
Another of the scientists was brave enough to offer a shoulder for Mardon to lean on. That helped. He watched the operator manipulate the controls of the Big Wand and had to admit the thing was almost operational.
And when it was fully operational...
...well, he just hoped the Israelis had great weather insurance.
Wally West sat in his room and reviewed the facts.
Or he tried to, but he felt himself being drawn to memories of past cases, past successes. The most recent one, where he'd helped the Titans, the JLA, and the Outsiders save Markovia from a device created by Kobra. Other instances, where he'd fought Trigon and the Brotherhood of Evil and all the others with the New Titans, or Gorilla Grodd in company with Barry and Jay and Johnny Quick, or even the Weather Wizard with the Elongated Man, or those few assorted cases he'd taken on as an individual kid hero.
Yeah. Some hero. He hadn't even managed to get a recurring super-villain to call his own. Kid Flash was only useful when he was with somebody else. On his own, Kid Flash was...
The agent had told him, a few days ago, that the government would probably have to make a strike of some sort on the Arab state themselves. Construction of a large-scale weather-changing device was apparently underway, and they couldn't afford to let it be deployed. Wally had asked him what would become of Mark Mardon. The agent had only said, "You had your chance, Flash. I'm sorry."
Wally looked at the golden ring on his finger. It was almost identical to the one Barry Allen had worn, the one he had apparently taken to his grave. The duplicate of his costume was wadded down inside it, just waiting to be released by a secret spring.
Except that he couldn't see himself releasing it at any time in the future. Nope. Better to pick up the phone, dial up Titans Tower, and make that long-delayed call. If there was no use in being a Flash, there was no use in being a Titan, either.
The doorbell rang as he was reaching for it. If he'd been in high gear, he would have already dialed the phone. Wally wasn't sure he believed in omens, but, since Flash's death, he'd spent more time looking for them.
In an instant, he had opened the door. A girl, quite a bit shorter than himself, blonde-haired, pretty, and clad in a pink and black outfit, was standing there. After a second, he remembered his manners. "Frances," he said. "Come on in."
"Thanks, Wally," she said, smiling tentatively as she stepped inside his apartment. "I've heard you were kind of...well...is it okay to say ‘in the dumps' lately?"
He closed the door behind her, whipped off a stack of magazines from a chair at super-speed to give her a seat. "Who's been talking that way, Fran? Where'd you hear it?"
The girl with magnetic powers sat down. "Oh. Around. You know. All right, from the Titans. They got ahold of me."
"They got ahold of you."
"Yeah." She crossed her legs at the ankles, rested her hands on her knees, and looked at him. "They asked me to come talk to you. Really, if I'd have known, I'd have come before this."
"Well, that's all right, Fran," he said. "I'm just making some hard decisions. Guess you might as well know, I'm giving up be--"
Wally West did a fast head-spin. "What do you mean, ‘no'? What do you think I'm going to say?"
She had jumped up from the chair and was touching his arm. "They told me that you had something go wrong recently. That it'd really gotten you down. That's why they asked me to see about you. Wally, I knew you were going to say you were gonna stop being the Flash."
He felt like swearing, but did not. Not in front of a woman, and it was a habit he wanted to break, anyway. "Should have never told Nightwing about what happened. Only good thing about that conversation was me making him agree to keep the Titans out of it."
Frances clasped her hands about the sides of his head. "Nightwing said he got you to agree that, Wally. Because--"
"Me? Hey, it was him!"
"He let you think that. But he thought he should keep the group out of this one, because it's your first time out as the new Flash."
"First and last. I'm quitting, Frances. There, I said it. In front of you, God, and probably Barry's ghost. Did you hear that, Barry? I quit. I QUIT!"
"No, you don't, Wally!"
"Yes, I do, Frannie. I'm old enough to know what I can and can't do. Filling the Flash's boots is something I can't do. I'm not smart enough. That's it, end of story."
"What about the rest of the story, Wally? What was it you were supposed to do?"
"Oh, I--" He hesitated. "I was supposed to get somebody out of trouble, Frances, and I couldn't. I--wasn't good enough to."
She waited. He went on.
"I tried, but I just couldn't think of a way. They would have killed him if I hadn't let him go. I should have been better, but I just wasn't. That's it."
Quietly, she said, "And is this person out of danger, Wally?"
"Well, no, I--but I can't--"
"You only tried once, didn't you, Wally?"
"Yeah, but that was enough, Fran. It really was."
"Is once ever enough, Wally?"
He stared at her, not answering.
She continued, "Wouldn't Barry have kept on trying, doing everything he knew how, until he found the thing that would work? Especially if somebody was in trouble, Wally?"
Wally looked at the floor.
"I'm not going to leave until you answer me, Wally."
The speedster's head came up, very slowly. "Barry was the greatest. He never gave up about a thing. Even when his wife was supposed to be dead. Even when he was accused of murder. Even when he lost the case. He never gave up. He would never give up. Ever."
She looked at him, arms folded.
"But that's Barry," he said. "Not me. I mean, I'm..."
"Are you arguing to convince me, or to convince yourself?", said Frances. "Because I'm not convinced. And if you are, you're surely not the Flash I knew. Not even a Kid Flash."
After a long pause, Wally said, "Who was the Kid Flash you knew, Frances?"
She said, "One of the bravest men I ever met. The one who fought the Brotherhood of Evil, the Puppeteer, the Fearsome Five, and Trigon, and a bunch of super-crooks I couldn't even start to name. The Kid Flash who was someone the Titans could count on. But if he's gone, well, maybe I should go, too."
She was halfway to the door when she heard him say, "Frances."
Frances Kane turned.
Wally was already in his Flash uniform, all but the mask. He looked resolute. "Think I should give it another try?"
"Yes. And another. And another, until you find out what works."
He pulled the red cowl with the yellow Mercury-wing earpieces over his head. "Frances. Thank you very much. I think you'll have to excuse me. I have to find out if the world still needs a Flash."
Then he simply wasn't there.
Frances smiled. A few loose papers wafted their way down from the ceiling. She touched the door. It was warm where he'd opened and closed it, so fast she couldn't have seen him. Then she went to the phone and dialed it.
Kole was the one who answered. "Titans Tower," she said.
"Hi, this is Frances Kane," she said. "I just wanted to let you know that you've got a Flash again."
The Flash tended to remember the routes he took across the world. Wally was glad he had a decent sense of direction, even though he could have gone down a zillion alternate routes in a short time if he had gone astray. The right one would have shown up, inevitably.
Nice analogy, pal, he thought. Now, if it could only hold true for other things, as well.
He could have gone to the palace of the country's ruler, grabbed the guy, and threatened to do something bad to him if he didn't let Mardon go. But the Flash had a reputation for not doing bad things to people--the Reverse-Flash notwithstanding--and Wally meant to uphold it. Besides, he tended to take the direct approach.
Mardon wasn't in the prison anymore, but it didn't take too much super-speed criss-crossing of the country to find out where he was. A concrete-walled place not unlike a prison, in which the big economy-sized version of his Weather Wand was being held. The Flash vibrated through the walls of the enclosure. Almost noon in this country, but it shouldn't take too long to dismantle the wand and do what else he had to do.
The problem was that, before he could cross the space between him and the Wand, he was knocked off his feet by a moderately powerful explosion.
Wally vibrated to avoid being pierced by shrapnel, although there didn't seem to be anything of that sort. He was rocked by the shockwave, but the blast didn't seem to come from underneath his feet, as in the case of a mine. So what had happened?
When he picked himself up off the dirt of the ground he'd landed on, the Flash saw a line of five Russian types in similar uniforms facing him. Two were female, a blonde and a brunette. Of the three men, one was skinny and somewhat effeminate-looking, but appeared to be muscled like a ballet dancer. The second, who was carrying a big silver hammer, was a blonde, crewcut athlete who radiated attitude like plutonium does gamma rays. The third guy was a big, fat, bearded caricature of a Cossack in a black hat, but his hands were slightly smoking and Flash guessed that he had loosed the blast on him.
A voice came into his mind. <Turn and go now, the Flash, or we will destroy you. My name is Pravda, and there is truth in what I say.>
A telepath. Wally thought of the book he'd read once about Iron Curtain mind experiments. Obviously, part of it had been true.
<That's how you knew I was coming?> he thought, regaining his feet.
The brunette woman was looking at him intently, and he guessed she was the one sending to him. <Indeed. Your every move is known to me as you conceive it. We are the People's Heroes, and--and-->
The Flash leaped at her, avoiding the weapons and powers of the other four, and karate-chopped her in the side of the neck before she could loose a brain-blast at him. <Just knowing what I'm gonna do doesn't mean you'll be fast enough to stop me doing it,> he thought, as she crumpled unconsciously to the ground.
The blonde woman, who carried a sickle, and the athletic attitude-guy appeared to be working as a team. Wally slowed down long enough to give them an image of him passing towards them. The Hammer swung his mallet towards what appeared to be the Flash's chest, but it turned out to be only an image of where he had been a nanosecond before. Then he felt a hand tapping him on the shoulder.
The Russian knew who was behind him, but his turn was quite involuntary. The Flash hit him seventeen times within a second, and the Hammer went down, his weapon dropped beside him.
The big man, whose name was Molotov, tried loosing another explosive blast from his hands, but judged that Hammer was too close for him to risk it. Instead, Bolshoi, the athletic acrobat, struck out in whirligig fashion, figuring that somehow he had to make contact with their opponent's body if he covered every part of the nearby area with a fist or a flying kick.
The Flash slowed down long enough to let Bolshoi see him vibrating at the right frequency to make himself unsolid. He grinned. Then, after letting a series of punches and kicks go through his body, Wally pulled back a bit, stilled his vibration, resolidified, and grabbed Bolshoi's ankle. A second or two later, the Russian found himself buried up to his neck in mud.
Then there was a second blast, and the Flash knew that he'd been overconfident. Molotov's explosive power knocked him backwards again, staggering him. He went down on his back, fighting for his senses.
Mark Mardon, held back by the guns of several guards before him, looked on the conflict and swore nervously. "Flash, get up," he murmured. "Come on, Flash, come on!"
The blonde woman, Sickle, approached the prone Flash with her razor-sharp scythe in hand. She smiled, straddling him, and raised the scythe, preparing to bury it in his chest. "Karshov was right," she said in Russian. "This Flash is so much easier than the other one."
A yellow boot kicked her in the chest and she went spinning backwards, and didn't stop until she bashed into Molotov.
The Flash dragged himself to his feet. "I don't know any Russian," he said, "but I don't care for your tone of voice, lady."
Molotov tried to shove Sickle out of the way and loose another blast. This one would have the concussive power of a quarter ton of TNT, enough to atomize this pseudo-Flash and the ground he ran on. He was the last man standing, but he always knew that he would be enough.
Then his Cossack hat was yanked down over his eyes, his belt was undone, his arms were yanked behind him and tied at the wrists with his belt, and he found himself, for all his bulk, picked up, carried at great speed, and bonked head-first into the concrete wall.
That was the last thing the Cossack consciously experienced, excepting the white and black flashes in his eyes, before coming to some hours later.
The young Scarlet Speedster had already dropped his Russian foe and was streaking for the Wand and Mark Mardon. Karshov couldn't see him, but he was confident he had already stolen a march on him. When the fight began, he ordered the Weather Wand powered up and triggered. Ahead of schedule, certainly. But he trusted Mardon's expertise, and he also trusted that temperatures would swiftly be dropped around Israel and freezing rains would fall upon that accursed state in such quantity as to encase the Jews in a countrywide ice age.
Then, of course, they could threaten to do the same to ones brothers in Allah, until they saw the light of capitulation. By that time, the Russians would be keeping themselves amused by deploying their version of the Wand against the Americans, the Chinese, and--
Smoke came from the Weather Wand's fuselage. Was this supposed to happen? Karshov and the scientists looked on, dumbfounded.
The tip of the wand exploded, blowing out the crucial element, and almost everyone ducked for cover. All except Mark Mardon, who remained standing.
Karshov, on his hands and knees, cursed the American and fumbled in his pocket for the discipline machine's trigger. He got it in his hands, pressed the button.
Mardon's face twisted in agony. He went to his knees. Karshov smiled, turned the button to a higher setting. This one would burst his heart within seconds.
Then he saw Mardon's body begin to quiver. No--that was imprecise. To vibrate. And there was a distinctly different color about him. Transparent, but, for all that--quite red.
Karshov pressed, and pressed, and pressed the button of his device.
But Mardon became as transparent as the red figure about him.
And, a second later, both were gone.
After a decent pause, Karshov shot one of the Arab guards on principle. It produced a desirable quality of terrified silence. He trudged over to where a few techs were standing about the Weather Wand. They had opened one of the plates on the thing to check the inner circuitry, but had stopped dead when they heard the shot. He grabbed one of them by the collar.
"Well?" he grated. "What happened?"
"It is impossible to say precisely at this moment, honored Colonel, but--"
"In one sentence, comrade, what happened?"
"The circuitry seems to be fused, Colonel. We cannot understand what went wrong."
Karshov bashed his head into the side of the Wand and threw him down. The other scientists didn't dare go to his side. Not before Karshov had turned and stomped back towards his office.
This was a case, Koslov thought, regretfully, when a civilian knew much more than a scientist. He knew exactly what had gone wrong.
Reality, or a different version of it, firmed up about the Flash and Mark Mardon. It was still hot, still recognizably the state they had occupied, or one somewhat like it. But there was no prison enclosure, no Weather Wand, and none of the people who had held Mardon prisoner. The Wizard looked and saw a mosque and several neighboring buildings.
The pains in his chest had lessened when Flash had done his vibrational thing. Thank God for that, anyway.
"How are you feeling, Mardon?" asked the kid in crimson. "Better?"
The Weather Wizard sighed, then smiled and nodded. "A lot. You saved my life, kid."
"I'm going to have to leave you here for a minute, and go back to our Earth," said the Flash. "The Wand'll have to be dismantled."
"That thing?" Mardon laughed. "Get me out of this contraption, and I'll tell you. You saw it blow up, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," confirmed Wally West, who noted the strange gazes that passers-by were giving the two of them. "You sabotaged it?"
Mardon took a small wafer from his pocket. "Without this, it's useless. A tube of junk. I was waiting to see if you'd show up."
Wally looked at it. "And if I hadn't?"
"Don't ask, kid. I'm not sure what I'd say."
The Flash said, "Put that thing back in your pocket. I've got someplace to take you."
"Okay," said Mardon, replacing the wafer. "What is this world, anyway?"
"Folks in the know call it Earth-Two," said the Flash, picking up Mardon and preparing for a cross-oceanic run.
"That's the story," said Flash to the agent, some hours later. "I got Mardon into the hands of the Justice Society. They deactivated the bomb in the device he was wearing. After that, it was simple enough to break him free."
The government man tapped an eraser on his desk blotter. "We had expected you would bring him back here."
Smiling, the Flash shook his head. "Sorry. Some secrets are better off kept out of the hands of any governments."
After a pause, the agent said, "How do you know he won't turn into a crook again on this ‘Earth-Two' of yours?"
"One of their members, Dr. Fate, fitted him with something that's kind of an ankle-sensor and watchdog all in one," said the Flash. "Mardon's going to set up shop as an independent businessman, making the weather that world needs for a reasonable price. I don't know how he defines ‘reasonable', but I have a feeling he's going to get pretty wealthy making rain over some deserts soon. If he uses his powers for evil ends--the Society will know. But I think he's going to stay reformed." The Flash rubbed the back of his neck. "Anything else, sir?"
The agent said, "It's not entirely what we wished. But at least he's out of the hands of the Russians and their allies. And at least you destroyed that Wand after you came back." He paused, then said, "You performed satisfactorily, Flash. Good luck in your future endeavors." He stuck out his hand.
The Flash shook it. "Thank you, sir. I'd best be going."
Before the tactile sensation of the handshake had faded, there was no Flash in the room.
The agent smiled, then got to work on a report.
The first thing Wally West did after vibrating through his apartment walls was to dial up Frances Kane and let her know how everything had gone. She sounded almost as glad as he was. "See, Wally?" she said. "All it took was a little confidence."
"That, and a lot of you figuratively kicking me in the rear to get me going," he said. "Guess I should be saying, ‘Thanks, I needed that.' But y'know what, Fran?"
"I really did need it. So thank you."
"You're welcome. Think you'll go on from here with it?"
"Oh, it wouldn't hurt if you were there to give me a pep talk. Say, how's about doing one at 7 o'clock tomorrow down at Chili's?"
"Can't, sorry, studies. But Friday? That's a possibility."
"Sounds good. Must be your magnetic personality, Frances."
"It's just your flashy demeanor, Wally. Keep smiling."
"I will, and thanks, babe. From the heart. Bye, now."
He pressed the phone plunger and dialed another number. Gar Logan answered. "This is Titan's Tower. If you're a super-villain, press 1. If you're Trigon, press 2. If you're madly in love with Changeling and want to bear his child, please hold while we connect you."
"Cut it out, Gar," said Wally. "It's me."
"Hi, you," said the Changeling. "Everything go all right?"
"Nightwing'll be glad to hear that."
"Yeah," he said. "Just tell him to replace part of my nameplate at the table. You know. Take away the word ‘Kid' and just put ‘The' in its place. Think he can do that?"
"Hate to tell you this, Wally, but he already has."
"Oh. He was that confident in me, was he?"
"Everybody was that confident in you, Wally," said Logan. "Everybody but you. Until now, I guess."
"Thanks, Gar. Catch you later. I'll make a full report."
"We'll be looking for you, Flasher. And I didn't say ‘Kid', either. Adios."
Wally West hung up the phone, undressed in under .000028 of a minute, lay back on his bed, and wondered.
Had it been like this for Barry, when he first started out?
Nah. He'd only had the Turtle Man to deal with. On top of that, Wally had gone and lost one of the Rogue's Gallery to another Earth, and to reformation. Another one of the old gang gone.
But that still left a lot of others. Guys like Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, the Rainbow Raider, and all the rest. He'd be glad to have them around.
And he figured they'd be glad to have him around, as well.
...the world couldn't be long without a Flash.